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FRAGILITY

Colin Brzezicki


On a snowy morning in January, Graham Squires sat down to his usual breakfast of Colombian dark roast and toasted everything bagel, lightly buttered, unaware he had just turned fifty; it was only when he turned over the last page of his newspaper that he realized the date.


It amused him to think he might have gone through the entire day without acknowledging his half-century.


He gazed out at the snow falling in the still air. Another pillow fight in heaven, his mother would say when the thicker flakes tumbled out of the sky. Lake effect snow they called it now, and so unusual for January. This far into winter, Lake Ontario was normally too frigid to trigger lake effect snow, though no one could account for the weather any more.


It was Saturday, and no mail delivery meant that for the first time in as long as he could remember he would have no birthday card. He could have sent one to himself had he remembered. But who else would anymore? Divorce had long put an end to greetings from Sylvia, and they had no children. His parents were dead, and the few acquaintances he still had from university days were the kind of men who didn’t exchange birthday cards.


Last year he received a raunchy one from Monica—You’re only as old as the woman you feel—whom he still missed in a way that puzzled him, and several had come from his regular customers at Red Wheelbarrow Books. In the intervening months, however, he had withdrawn from his relationship with Monica and sold the bookstore, having determined that both made him less happy now than he supposed he could be without them.


Today, he didn’t feel much like what he imagined happy to be, birthday or no, though he wasn’t entirely unhappy about that. He’d grown accustomed to being on his own, reading his books, playing his mother’s baby grand, taking long walks, and occasionally dining out—as he would certainly do this evening—without having to accommodate the demands and idiosyncrasies of others.


A birthday in early January made him a Capricorn, an amusing irony, if astrology was to be credited at all. Fifty years ago on this day, his stars were supposed to have aligned to produce a go-getter and high-achiever. Confident, optimistic and uncompromising, Capricorns saw a task to be done and by God they did it.


Still—the thought surfaced by itself—if he were ever to try and live up to his birth sign instead of dismissing it, what better time than now? In the dead of winter, yes, but at the start of a new year and his brand new half-century—this one unlikely to be completed, but never mind— why not grab the zodiacal goat by the horns and make something happen? Cometh the hour, cometh the man. All that. He could use a little assertiveness in a life that had by all accounts stalled. But small steps to start, surely nothing reckless.


And so, after checking out winter vacations online for much of the morning, he reserved a week at the Montaña y Mar in Cuba, thereby securing two firsts at a stroke—acting on an impulse, and booking a resort. It was a promising start to his year of resolve.


It was only after he completed his online payment that he considered the possible benefits of such a vacation. It could initiate a kind of re-entry into the world that everyone else inhabited, a world from which he gradually withdrew after the Monica debacle and the sale of his store. He’d be on his own to start with, but time spent with other vacationers might lead to something. His recent drift towards a kind of cynical lassitude unnerved him a little, and he hoped there was still time to change course.


At the very least, a week in Cuba would offer a respite from the cold.


Winter had taken a grip on the city. Roads and sidewalks were hazardous. Grim-faced pedestrians wrapped themselves up like parcels and leaned into six more weeks of Arctic blasts. Cuba could be very hot, sure, but the rooms at Montaña y Mar were air-conditioned.


He would take contemplative walks along the sand and continue to expunge the fallout from his breakup. He would make an effort to be amenable with the other guests and maintain a positive outlook, while steering well clear of the group activities with their forced conviviality. In any case, he had a couple of weeks to get himself into a proper frame of mind.


*


His flight to Santiago departed on time.


He had left no contact numbers and brought only books for his entertainment. Having pre-paid his vacation he looked on it now as a kind of dividend, a perk rather than something he had actually spent money on.


Thrifty by nature, he had modest means. His mother had left him money, a respectable trust that he received on his twenty-first and then invested until he could put down a deposit on the bookstore. Her silver-framed photograph sat on top of the baby grand, between one of his impassive father, and a wedding portrait in which neither of them smiled.


His mother had given piano lessons at home, and played flawlessly herself, though it was her gentle voice reading to him before bed that he remembered best. He assumed that he owed his fondness for books to her, as well as music, while it was to his father that he owed an aversion to prodigality and the habit of saving for a rainy day.


Lately, the days had poured. His investments had taken a hit. Sylvia was now writing her books without an advance, and so her lawyer had re-opened discussions with Graham about increasing the support payments. As an independent bookstore owner he had no company benefits or pension. Still, he wouldn’t trade being single again, and the sale of Red Wheelbarrow Books had paid off his debts and given him a bit of a cushion.


His lease had come up for renewal at a substantial hike, at a time when the book trade had gone into free-fall. Many of his oldest customers confessed they were too busy to read much anymore. Others bought books online and downloaded them onto a device, saving money by circumventing the bookseller altogether.


Time for Graham Squires to read the writing on the wall.


A shuttle bus picked up the arrivals at Santiago airport and was soon caught up in a long crawl through the drab, congested city. Simple apartment blocks, unsigned shops and cramped dwellings lined the narrow, packed streets. Some buildings looked gutted, and the streets spilled over with vendors, carts, bicycles, horses and pedestrians.


Shoppers jostled their way through a jammed market square where he observed stalls piled with gaudy dresses, cheap sandals, sun hats, and produce—fruit, vegetables and meat— that looked to have passed its best before date.


The gas station on an adjacent corner resembled an old movie set with a lone pump on its dust-blown forecourt. A single pump would comfortably service the few motorcars that he saw: a couple of rattling Ladas from a defunct Soviet regime, a stretched-out Oldsmobile, a shark-finned Chevrolet, all somehow avoiding the wrecker’s yard.


The bus pushed its way out of Santiago’s clogged streets and accelerated onto the open highway, a glittering sea on the left and a dry, sepia landscape on the right.


The tarmac soon yielded to gravel and then further degenerated to a pitted surface with large potholes that caused the bus to lurch, pitch and slalom for the rest of the journey. Last year’s hurricanes had left their mark and, once, at a place where floods had taken out the bridge, the bus had to pick its way down a bank and crawl through a dried-out creek bed.


Suppressing the thought that his impulsive booking might have been a mistake, he gazed out at the scrubland between the foothills and the sea. The ramshackle huts with thatched and tin roofs had bright washing on the lines. Up ahead, pedestrians moved along the roadside, some with goats, while others rode on horses or mule-drawn carts. They passed an occasional truck on the highway but he saw no cars after they left the city. Once, they were overtaken by a charabanc packed with laborers who stared back at the bus through flapping canvas.


In the distance, on top of a dead tree, a dark vulture clung and twitched in the breeze like a snared garbage bag.


He turned to look out the window opposite at the bright seascape. A man in a small boat stood and flung out a net, his silhouette caught against the dazzle of a high sun on the glittering water.


In a clearing among the palms and some wooden shelters, a scattering of orange chickens pecked at the dirt. Two women with their children sat on steps or leaned against doorways. They waited, for nothing more than time to pass it seemed, and stared at the bus as a welcome diversion. He loved to see the children, their patient faces following the bus as it went by.


Not having a child of his own had installed in him an odd kind of sadness, a grieving for the loss of someone he never knew. He and Sylvia had put it off too long; her writing her mysteries and he making a go of his bookstore, but they hung on together, even after childlessness initiated a kind of pre-separation between them.


She suggested he take on a partner and open a second bookstore closer to home in Oakville to reduce his commute, but the idea didn’t appeal. Making a killing had never been his ambition, and he had got used to riding the brakes in and out of the city each day while listening to the classical station.


“I wish you were more assertive, Gray.”


That Capricorn thing again. He had nodded, and then wondered what else they were both missing out on.


In the end, it was Sylvia who took on a new partner—Lionel, her publicist—and excused herself from the marriage. Despite never meeting Lionel, Graham suspected him to be a man of parts with a high testosterone count, and attributed his own calm acceptance of his wife’s departure to the suppressive effect of a low one.


Thoughts of Sylvia and Lionel and their short-lived affair evaporated when the bus turned down a lush boulevard of palms and bougainvillea and pulled up at the resort entrance. Uniformed staff bearing aluminum salvers of champagne in plastic flutes stepped forward to greet them.


*


He settled into life at the resort and found it mostly to his liking, though he could have done without the morning salsa music that blared out from giant speakers on the poolside patio. Daily lessons on the mambo and cha-cha took place on an outdoor stage where sunburned enthusiasts in visible need of a workout shimmied and wobbled uncertainly to the music.


The less energetic sprawled on deck chairs under palm shelters and wide umbrellas whose miniature replicas embellished their bar drinks.


He chose the morning for his walk along the empty beach that stretched beyond the resort. He took nothing of value because he would be accosted by the young, shirtless men who stepped out from the palm trees asking for money. They were annoying too, though less so than incessant loudspeaker announcements about pool volleyball and exercise sessions, and the curt congeniality of guests laden with towels and sunblock, making their way to reserved spots around the pool or to the nearest bar for an eye-opener. And less annoying than the salsa music.


He enjoyed his solitary walks on the smooth brown sand. He felt the sun tighten the skin on his face and legs as he watched the sea draw breath and then slacken, the surf touching down on the shore. Casually, he’d pick up a bleached sea urchin, and here and there an auger cone or a ladder horn marooned by the receding tide.


Right on cue Mario would emerge from the trees. “Hola Señor Graham. Buenos dias. How are you amigo?” Mario shook his hand as if they were buddies. Squires regretted not asking the importunate panhandler to bugger off when he first encountered him. But he wasn’t assertive enough.


Dear Sylvia.


Instead, he let the young man accompany him and bemoan his condition. No work and a family to feed. Did Señor Graham want rum? Cigars? Lobster? A young girl?


He would decline and give the man a convertible peso to be rid of him and hopefully preclude further supplications from others. Mario seemed to have some clout amongst his fellows and would likely tell them that Señor Graham had already spent his peso for the day.


On his third morning, a tall young girl stepped out from the palms and as she walked alongside him, tried to engage him in erratic English. He fixed on gathering any little shells in his path so he didn’t have to respond to her chatter beyond a polite “Hola,” which he immediately regretted. Eyes flashing, she held out a tiny shell and bared her large uneven teeth. She turned to glance over her shoulder, and following her eyes, he spotted a young man, machete clenched in his mouth, clambering up a slanted palm to its cluster of coconuts.


As he feared she might, she slid a hand under his arm while they walked and rested her head on his shoulder. “You like fickey-fick?” she asked.


He faced her and removed her hand. “No, gracias. I no fickey-fick. Please go away. Vamos.”


She pouted, then mimed inserting something into her open mouth. “For you? Sin cargo,” she said, and nodded. He understood—no charge. She got down on her knees to scratch out a 20 in the sand, though she looked no more than sixteen. It didn’t matter.


He pointed in the direction they had come. “Adios. No sin cargo. No fickey-fick. No blowjob,” and regretted supplying her with the slang for fellatio that she would use in future solicitations of middle-aged men.


Before he could look away, she lifted her top, exposing small dark breasts. She flashed her eyes and her large teeth, and began to gyrate her narrow hips. A fifty-centime grope on the cards now, he thought, and felt a brief stirring, perhaps from the memory of slender arms upraised as much as the sight of small firm breasts. He turned and walked on.


She barked something at him, but he kept walking without looking back. He had thought to give her a peso for her unhappy life, but then remembered the man in the palm tree. What story she might tell the man, possibly a relative, as she flaunted her convertible peso, Squires could only imagine. Better to leave the machete to do its work on the coconuts.


At meals he sat by himself. Even the single women were accompanied by friends who ate together and then partied long into the night. Many of the guests were “repeaters” and so they knew everyone from last year, and years before. A caste system had evolved at the resort, headed by veteran couples that logged the most years at Montaña y Mar and claimed the shaded recliners around the pool. Below them were the hearty and the garrulous, the drinkers who could go the distance, the young and attractive couples, the parents with darling children, and the undistinguished pairings who came to get away.


And Squires.


He suspected people regarded him—those who noticed him at all—as an untouchable, the man who walked the sands on his own and ate by himself. They might wonder why he had come at all.

Some were affable enough and made an effort to engage him at the poolside bar.


Where you from? Toronto, eh? You came here on your own? Seriously?


Great place, the Montaña. We come every year.


We’re from North Bay.


What do you do?


“A bookstore! Really? You did?” This from a large-bellied man straddling a chair at an adjacent table. He and his loud companions were sucking at a communal margarita from a cocktail glass the size of a birdbath. One woman, between frequent pulls on her straw, sang along to “Build Me up Buttercup” coming through the speakers. The large-bellied man shook his head. “Haven’t read a book since I graduated high school,” he grinned at his friends. “Now I just read what I have to.”


He seemed proud of his resistance to books, as though not reading was the same as not smoking. He sucked resolutely at his margarita, perhaps to reward himself for his resistance to books. Squires nodded and returned to his novel.


At meals he traded smiles with the jaunty couples that passed his table on their way in or out of the dining room.


And each evening, the Kids, as the jaunty couples called them, stopped at his table to ask how his day had gone, perhaps feeling sorry for him because he’d come on holiday alone. They looked around seventeen, he a lanky loose-limbed boy with disheveled hair and a lazy smile, and she a perky, wired lass who walked with quick steps and her head thrust forward like a duck on a mission. They had the same moonstone eyes, though his were languid and acquiescent while hers were rapid and alert. Graham would smile and ask in return how their day was going. They would nod and stare at each other as if the question had stumped them.


“It’s all cool,” the boy would reply, nodding again.


“Cool,” she would say, and then take his hand so they could move on to their next port of call. Often he saw them with the older couples at a table or bar, tapping on their smartphones and exchanging pleasantries. He never saw the Kids before lunch, and someone said they were always among the last to leave the wee hours’ party scene on the patio. They were inseparable, joined at the hip. He thought of them up in their room, entwined in a sweet, post-coital slumber, oblivious to the morning sun.


*


Rosa moved quietly among the tables at mealtime. She poured his vino blanco at lunch and tinto at dinner. She smiled at the guests when she filled their glasses with wine or water. Her easy bearing soothed him as he watched her move among the tables. He learned from another server that Rosa had once lost a child. Yet watching her he felt composed. Was it her silent pietas that drew his gaze? A love of husband and children, the simplicity of family?


“Always alone?” she said to him one evening after the dining room had all but cleared. She tilted her head when he looked up at her, her pensive brown eyes gazing at him. “Is not good you are alone en el comedor.”


“No, everything’s fine, Rosa. I’m happy. Contento. Peace and quiet with comedor. Me gusta.”


“No. Not good.” She shook her head. “You want wine tonight? Tinto, yes?” She filled his glass and smiled. “You need lady friend, I think. Acompañante.”


He shrugged and smiled back. No, he did not need acompañante.


It wasn’t that he felt at all uncomfortable or insecure with women. Most of his regular customers at the bookstore had been women, many of them happy to engage him as they browsed the shelves. They remarked on how inviting he had made his store; it was like a library, they said, indicating the elegant table displays of new releases.


Some had commented on the miniature red wheelbarrow in his window. A framed copy of William Carlos Williams’ sixteen-word poem hung near the sales counter. A few would read it and nod thoughtfully as they paid for their books. Now and then one remarked on the sheer simplicity of the rain-glazed red wheelbarrow and the unsuspecting white chickens on which, wrote the poet, so much depends.


*


Monica suggested once that the little wheelbarrow in his window would make a nice planter, but he didn’t realize until he knew her better that she wasn’t joking.


They had coffee together, twice, then a lunch, and at last he invited her to dinner, because he found her lively and engaging, and she said she liked his company. She was slim, winsome, with spikey blond highlights that gave her a touch of mirth. She brought wine the first evening, and after sharing it, and then a bottle of his, she asked to stay over. Her request surprised and pleased him, because he would not have asked her himself, never on a first night, despite longing to share his bed with a woman again.


There was no awkwardness the next morning, except for some uncertainty over the omelets. He made mushroom omelets, and it was only after saying she would have created her own Spanish upgrade if he had the ingredients that she complimented his simple recipe. “Absolutely delicious,” she declared. “Just like you, darling man,” she added, sliding her hand inside his dressing gown and squeezing his bare thigh. He wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but supposed he wouldn’t do omelets again.


A month later, she complicated things by proposing a long weekend together at the comedy festival in Montreal. He liked Montreal—always a favourite stop on his annual search for rare first editions—but stand-up comedy wasn’t his thing. Moreover, he was uncertain about spending a long weekend away with someone he was still…uncertain about. He hesitated when she proposed this ‘romantic getaway on her air miles’, especially as it already seemed to her a done deal. Was she that sure about him, or just in a hurry?


He felt he should take stock before responding.


With all her free-spirited independence he felt she had begun to assume a proprietary role, and her generosity unsettled him. She bought him expensive shirts and jackets that were a tad more metro—her words—because he dressed too conservatively. “Darling man, lilac is absolutely your color. This’ll totally spruce up your entrance.”


He had always been comfortable with his entrance, just as it was, unspruced, and he never imagined himself in a lilac shirt. Now he had to wear the new attire so as not to appear ungrateful. He felt she was giving him a makeover he had been doing fine without. He wasn’t keen on darling man either—but how to tell her without making it an issue.


Her suggestions for their activities together became pre-emptive. Either she was unaware that he didn’t feel comfortable in crowded and noisy venues or she regarded it as a condition to be treated. “Graham, darling, I forbid you to go through life without learning to tango. You have the perfect build for it. Stop being such an old stick-in-the-mud.”


The remark annoyed him because it had no basis. He liked going out. He enjoyed the theatre and the symphony and intimate jazz clubs. He looked forward to walks along the esplanade and visits to funky galleries whose exhibits intrigued him. But when he sensed that she didn’t enjoy them as much as he did, he began to defer to her choices, and then wondered if she was looking for occasions to present herself with an eligible man in tow—and in lilac—at dinner parties, for example, that were louder and more elaborate than he liked.


Her dinner party friends were the indefatigably cheerful sort who chattered away about their acquisitions and projects—a car, a home theatre, a renovation, an investment portfolio, a dog. He didn’t share their enthusiasm for wellness literature, even though it had come to occupy a popular and therefore not-to-be-sneezed-at section of his store. They discussed the latest movies in a way that put him off seeing them, until Monica insisted he see them with her. They were indeed not to his liking, though at least he was able to tell her in all honesty that they hadn’t disappointed.


Her comment to their hosts during one dinner party, that she and Graham were “an item,” surprised him, but he couldn’t correct her right then without embarrassing her and their hosts. Later, as he lay in her bed and watched her step out of her dress before snuggling up beside him, he temporarily lost the will to “de-itemize” them as he had intended.


In the morning, he awakened to the same remorse. He had allowed her to re-adjust and re-align his life, along with his wardrobe, and now he missed waking up in his own bed with the whole day before him. He had allowed her—enabled her really—to complicate his life, even to pry it out of his grasp. The fault was his as much as hers, more perhaps, and maybe not hers at all. He felt confused, even a little desperate. He had to rethink the relationship, though he wondered if he’d been doing that from the start.


He declined the comedy festival weekend in Montreal. It would be a busy time at the bookstore, he told her; he had to get his accounts in order and prepare his year-end report. But when she proposed a Cats and Crazy for You doubleheader on Broadway the following month, he panicked, and confessed he needed time to process things.


She said nothing, and when she turned her head to look away he knew he had upset her, and he regretted his bluntness. He had broadsided her, but, embarrassed now himself, and thinking it best not to complicate things further, he said he would call her, and then let himself out the front door.


Two evenings later, while he was still ruing his unkind reaction, though he hadn’t yet called her, she came to his door. He invited her in, but she declined his offer of wine, her polite smile and stony eyes suggesting she had also been processing things.


She asked him to please say nothing until she was finished. Then she got into it. She had done so much for him, and believed they were good together. Yes, she was hurt, and embarrassed, though way more upset by how he had disappointed her. She had a reputation for correctly reading people. “But my God, Graham Squires, you had me fooled from the get go.”


With all that, she said, he should have been more grateful to her for being there for him. He hadn’t a clue, at his age for crying out loud, what he wanted in a relationship. Time was running out for them both. She knew exactly what she wanted, and believing he might be the one, she’d fallen hook, line and sinker, truth be told. Though now she only hoped for his sake that he could find a woman to satisfy his neediness, if indeed—she added with more than a hint of spleen—there existed a woman anywhere who could.


What did he have to say for himself?


Beneath the anger he sensed her fragility, her vulnerability under the brittleness, and so there wasn’t really anything he could say. He could never explain to her—without unfairly making her feel that the relationship had never happened, or that she was inadequate in some way—that he wanted to retrieve the part of his life he had allowed her to spirit away. It was too complicated to tell her what he most wanted her to know, and what he himself had now come to realize, that his need to do things for himself was maybe less selfish than her needing him to get into line as an affirmation of how they were to be. Was he wrong to suspect that surrendering his own wishes, and being grateful for the chance to do so, is what she actually meant by being there for him?


He could not now, nor ever, tell her of one particular occasion, an evening early in their relationship when she truly could have been there for him, an evening of intimate exchanges and personal disclosures over wine, during which he offered to play for her. An upbeat song or two from early Broadway played on his mother’s piano, to lighten the moment without losing the mood.


But she had other ideas. “I’m not big on Cole Porter, darling man,” was how she put it, and then began to unbutton his shirt. “How about we do something wicked instead?”


Sitting opposite her now, he could offer only the most lame, and, he hoped, least hurtful response. “I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out.”


Too late, he discovered both her fragility and his own assertiveness. He had hurt her, and he wanted to tell her how sorry he was, but it was too late for that as well.


So he had come away to the resort without an acompañante, and he assured Rosa he was content to dine alone.


When Rosa spoke to him her eyes were bright and she seemed to smile at him from a place where life was somehow good, despite her hardships. She had mentioned that her home was hours away in Santiago, and her husband and children were already asleep at the end of her long commute by bus on that dark and broken road. She did not mention that she had once lost a child, but he heard in her voice the sadness of something irretrievable.


One evening she asked him if he had family. He shook his head.


“No esposa?”


“No, Rosa.” If he still had a wife she’d be here with him. Same with a girlfriend. Acompañante. He imagined being here with Monica, wearing the spruced up vacation gear that she would have selected for his entrances, lunging at a volleyball in the pool, and handicapping her bid for top salsa dance couple of the week. He reprimanded himself for thinking that way because it was unkind, and he wanted no more of that.


Niños?”


“No Rosa. No niños.” He smiled at her, saddened once more by the thought of the child she had lost and the ones he and Sylvia never had.


She shook her head. “Es triste para mí. I think you be good father. Padre bueno.” She inclined her head to one side and gazed at him for a moment. Then she picked up his empty plate and moved away to another table.


At each meal he left a convertible peso on his table. One evening as he stood up to say goodnight she put her hands in his and kissed him on the cheek. He kissed hers in return.


Mañana” she said. Her dark eyes lingered a moment as though she wanted to say more. But she just nodded her head, like she was acknowledging something he didn’t need to say back to her, and then let go of his hands.


Buenas noches, Rosa,” he said.


She smiled. “Cómo te llamas?”


“Graham.”


Buenas noches, Señor Graham.”


The next day at lunch she showed him a cracked photograph of her husband and children. “Familia.


“You have beautiful children. Your boy looks like his papa.”


“And niña?”


“Your girls look just like you.” And they did. He smiled and held out the photograph for her to take back.


“No.” She shook her head. “Is for you,” and she gently pushed back his hand with the photo.


On his last evening he gave her two large tablets of chocolate and a dozen packets of powdered soup. Acquaintances had advised him to bring treats and non-perishables for the staff. “For your niños.”


Gracias,” she said. She knew he was with the group scheduled to depart the next day, and so this would be his last dinner. When he got up from the table she stepped forward and embraced him. “You go away, I am triste,” she murmured. She looked up at him, reading his face again, and nodding her head. “I know you before you come here, Señor Graham. In my heart I believe,” she searched for the words, “I know you all of my life.” Again, she kissed him on the cheek. “You come next year. You meet my familia. My marido. My husband.” She squeezed his hand and began to move away.


“Rosa.”


She turned.


“I know you too.” He smiled at her. “You are esposa, hermana y madre. Gracias.” He could speak only the words he knew, on which, suddenly, so much depended, and wished they were enough.


She laughed. Her face brightened again. “Te amo, Señor Graham.”


In the morning he took a final walk along the beach. On the sand, close to the breakers, he laid in a row the shells he had collected because he felt he shouldn’t remove them from the island.


Mario appeared and tried to sell him a large conch shell. The cheeky scoundrel ran a finger along the opening into the shell’s pink interior, and laughed as he held it out to him.


Squires shook his head, gave him his peso and said adios.


When he returned to the resort, he saw the departing guests stacking their luggage in the open lobby. The Kids came strolling through the entrance from the village road. They were grinning when they approached him.


“You were up early,” he said. “What have you been doing?”


The girl spoke. “We got up at seven, like most days. We had to go to the school. To say goodbye to the children.”


“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” said the boy.


“Awesome,” said the girl.


“You’ve been going to the school? Why?”


They looked at each other for a moment, like they were asking themselves the same question. The girl laughed. “We love those children, Mr. Squires, and this morning we went to say goodbye. The first time we went into their classroom they stood up for us, all of them in their uniforms. When the teacher called out their numbers they introduced themselves. They were so cute. We sat with them all that first morning. Not like our school back home, like, no way. So different.” She nodded encouragingly at her boyfriend.


“Yeah, it was awesome. Different.”


“Do you want to be teachers?”


They glanced at each other again.


“No way,” the boy said. “We just love those kids. We couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.” He shook his head. “Now we’ve gotta pack. See you on the bus, Mr. Squires.”


He left an envelope for Rosa at reception; it contained a note and twenty convertible pesos. The tip, what she would earn in a fortnight, was less than he paid for a paperback at home. A larger amount would be a betrayal, an insulting reimbursement for simple trust and kindness. He said in the note he would come back next year and bring shoes for her children. He would judge their sizes from the photograph she gave him.


As the bus jounced its way to the airport he looked out at the dry scrubland and purple jacarandas. Through the window opposite he could see the emerald ocean beyond the palms, its silent rollers making for the shore.


The tide at Montaña y Mar would wash over his shells and take them back.


He smiled at the thought of the Kids spending their last morning at the school, the gift they had given to the children. They sat at the front of the bus now, asleep, the girl resting her head on the boy’s shoulder.


Inside his passport wallet, he had inserted Rosa’s photograph.


He thought of what they had shared—a grain of sand growing pure inside its eternally damaged, grieving and inadequate casing.

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