by Marcy Sheiner
Martha is sitting on the beach, her pale legs bent at
the knees, her face only partly shielded by a sun
visor made of multicolored sequins that tend to
attract rather than deflect the brutal midday sun. She
looks out at the sea, studded with motorboats, water
taxis, and machines resembling motorcycles, hoping
that the shimmering blue water will somehow wash her
mind of worry. Martha is worried about money,
specifically, how to amass enough of it to leave her
boyfriend, whom she no longer loves, and his San
Francisco apartment on Russian Hill, where she lives
rent-free. It is never an easy task, this emptying of
the mind, and it is now made doubly difficult by the
constant interruptions of sand peddlers.
"Señora , some silver today?" sings a tall skinny man
with a mustache. "De plata?"
Martha shakes her head. "Lo siento." It is a phrase
she looked up in her Spanish dictionary after one hour
in Cabo San Lucas. Lo siento. I'm sorry.
Martha really is sorry. She is sorry that human beings
should have to wander up and down in this heat, their
movements dictated by the fluctuations of the sand,
their arms laden with heavy objects, cajoling the
gringos to part with their precious dollars. She is
sorry that the peso is worth less than a quarter. She
is sorry that she sleeps in a clean room with clean
sheets and running water -- though not so sorry that she
would consider sleeping in lesser accommodations. She
is sorry that she eats freshly caught shrimp on clean
linen tablecloths in a candlelit restaurant while the
sand peddlers eat -- what? where? Martha has heard that
the peddlers are Indian peasants, on the lowest rung
of the Mexican hierarchy; other than that she has no
idea where or how they live.
But Martha does know what it feels like to stare
through plate glass windows at well-dressed diners
popping delicate morsels into their mouths. Even now,
even here where she is unimaginably rich in the minds
of the peasants, Martha knows about the have-not side
The silver man ignores her protests and sinks onto one
bony knee in the universal posture of a man proposing
marriage. He snaps open his vinyl case and the light
bounces across an array of silver: necklaces of
varying lengths, bracelets studded with turquoise,
rings inlaid with green or orange stones.
Martha frowns and waves her hand back and forth. "No.
No. Lo siento. Hay no dinero." The man shakes his
head, shuts his case with a brisk snap, and walks on
through the coarse sand. He will cover this beach,
Playa Medano, until dark, or until the gringos retreat
into the bars and restaurants, whichever comes first.
A short squat woman wearing a braid as thick as
Martha's wrist stumbles by. A scarf tied round her
neck and waist holds a sleeping baby. Colorful
pottery -- dishes, jugs, platters -- hang from her arms
and her back.
"Lo siento," Martha says miserably when the woman
listlessly waves a jug in her direction. The woman
plods onward, then stops in front of two young couples
whose blanket is cluttered with t-shirts, bracelets
and wall hangings. They have been lolling on the beach
all afternoon, drinking beer from a cooler, bargaining
with the sand peddlers and buying everything in sight.
Earlier Martha heard one of the women say that Playa
Medano beat Bloomingdale's hands down for easy
Martha sighs and turns her attention back to the
water. A parasail, pulled around in circles by a
motorboat, bobs in the cerulean sky. Martha would like
to try parasailing, but she is afraid -- not of the sky
or the water, but of the men who drive the boat.
This trip is all wrong, was wrong from its inception.
She had told Jacob, after he'd canceled their Hawaii
trip for business reasons, that she was going
somewhere alone -- hoping he'd relent and come along,
that they'd be able to salvage whatever was left of
their relationship. But he had not relented, and
Martha's pride has forced her to follow through on her
dare, even though it has meant spending the last of
And she is all wrong for this resort. Martha's idea of
a vacation would be to repeat a week she once spent on
a fogged-in porch in Lubec, Maine, bundled up in
sweaters, drinking tea and reading the diaries of
Virginia Woolf, writing an occasional letter to a
friend. Her fantasy of Cabo had been of a warmer,
sunnier version of Lubec -- but it has turned out to be
an ethnic Fort Lauderdale where American kids and
young marrieds come to party. The drinking begins with
a breakfast of Bloody Marys, progresses to beer by
noon, salty Margaritas at happy hour and straight
tequila after sundown. The most popular ocean side
bar, located just a few yards from Martha's hotel
room, rollicks with drunken games of "Duck/Duck/Goose"
late into the night, while Martha sits on her veranda
trying to read Jane Austen by the light of a dim
Even her clothes are wrong: this ridiculous hat, for
instance. She'd impulsively bought it at a Castro
Street fair because she liked the colors, not because
San Francisco weather required a sun visor. She is
convinced that locals and tourists alike are laughing
at it; one peddler even pointed and said something in
Spanish she couldn't understand. Martha has in fact
decided to buy herself a new hat -- but, though
haberdashers are as numerous as silversmiths on Playa
Medano, not a single one has yet approached her.
Instead, she is presented with armloads of handmade
lace, or t-shirts embossed with tequila-swilling Daffy
Ducks. Lo siento are almost the only words, in Spanish
or English, she has uttered in two days.
The sun is on the descent, the beach not nearly so
hot, when Martha abandons her unfinished Margarita and
leaves the crowded bar. The forced drunken merriment
combined with a few sips of tequila has induced mild
heart palpitations, something that often occurs when
she feels claustrophobic. She hesitates on the dusty
slope, looking up to her hotel, then down toward the
beach. A nap or a walk: Martha is torn between these
possibilities. They seem to signify Good and Evil, the
nap representing the sin of sloth, the walk imbued
with virtue. Martha tends to inject a great deal of
moral significance into small decisions.
This time "good" wins out, and Martha sets off for a
sunset walk along the shore. The sky has turned a pale
gold streaked with shades of pink. The water sport
vehicles are mostly still, and only a few couples
stroll or sit along the beach. Martha heads toward the
large rocks with the much-touted arch pictured on
postcards sold in town, wondering how far she can go
and still get back before dark.
She passes a couple walking hand in hand, and briefly
imagines Jacob beside her. The pang of sadness that
pierces her is not for Jacob, she knows: were he here
he'd be in their hotel room watching television; Jacob
hates the feel of sand against his skin. No, the loss
that Martha feels is for something she sees and envies
in others, something she is convinced she has never
"Lo siento," she mumbles to the same pottery laden
woman who'd approached her earlier. The baby still
sleeps soundly in his flimsy papoose.
Martha decides that the goal of reaching the rocks is
unrealistic. Perhaps she'll get up very early tomorrow
and jog in that direction. Although Martha has never
jogged in her life, this thought cheers her: there is
still a chance she might choose the righteous path of
healthful living after all. Deep down, of course,
Martha knows that even if she does wake up early, she
will choose coffee and the newspaper over jogging.
"Un sombrero, Señora ?"
Martha looks up, startled. A boy of perhaps fourteen
stands before her, a pile of straw hats on top of his
head, many more on his arm. The hats are circled with
various bands: most say "Cabo San Lucas," but a few
bear artful flowers in brilliantly colored fabric.
"Pero..." says Martha, eyeing one of the flowered
hats. It is red and green, the colors of Christmas,
which Martha despises, and no match for her blue and
purple bathing suit.
The boy coughs without covering his mouth and the
sound resonates in his chest. "Esto sombrero," he
says, pointing to Martha's sun visor, "es malo." A
slow smile of regret for her bad taste creeps across
his perfectly round face.
"Si," Martha agrees, "es malo. Pero, quiero un
sombrero...." She rummages through her mind where
surely the colors of the rainbow are stored, and comes
up empty. "Habla inglés?" she asks.
The boy laughs, coughs, shakes his head all at once.
"Hablo español un pequito," says Martha, warming to
the task, "but we'll manage. Quiero," she says,
pointing to her bathing suit, "esto color."
The boy nods and kneels in the sand. He unties a cloth
sack and begins pulling out pieces of fabric. He holds
up one of navy blue and another of purplish pink.
"Si," Martha says, nodding vigorously. "Perfecto."
Then she remembers to ask, "Quando cuesto?"
"Thirty-five," says the boy, apparently knowing the
English words for numbers.
"Pesos or dollars?" asks Martha.
The boy laughs, again accompanied by the harsh cough
which is starting to worry Martha. She wonders if he
is trying to gain her sympathy, or if, conversely, he
has tuberculosis and she will catch it.
"Pesos," he replies.
Martha calculates; this is about $7.00. She could buy
a straw hat at home for five, and she knows she is
expected to haggle.
"Twenty-five," she says.
The boy snaps his head back and forth, offended. "No,
no señora. Thirty."
Martha nods, closing the deal. She kneels in the sand
and watches the boy separate strands of fabric from
the end of the purple band, then bunch them up in the
beginning stages of a flower shape. His slender brown
fingers work easily, without hesitation but also
"Como se llama?" Martha asks.
"Octavio," he replies, looking up briefly.
Martha, who has heard but two syllables, asks, "Qué?
"Octavio," she repeats. "Me llamo Marta." She is glad
she knows the Spanish version of her name. "Usted
trabaja mucho, Octavio."
"Si. Y mucho calor." He points to the sun, then to his
arm. "Negro," he says, with the same smile of regret
he'd shown for her hat.
Martha winces. "Es mucho caliente," she agrees,
Spanish suddenly flooding through her brain. "Pero mi
hija es negro también. El mismo qué usted." This is
true. Martha's daughter Suzanne, though born of
Caucasian parents, is dark enough to blend in with the
population of most Third World countries.
Octavio squints his eyes at Martha, no doubt thinking
it is her Spanish that is at fault. "Su hija es
Martha would like to explain that Suzanne is
ethnically white, but through some genetic accident
came into the world cosmetically dark; since she does
not know how to say this, she settles for a simple
"Es bonita?" he asks doubtfully.
Martha nods vigorously. "Si. Es muy bonita."
Again, Octavio squints his eyes at Martha; he knows
his numbers, so this cannot be a linguistic
"Tengo forty-eight años," she says with an apologetic
shrug, remembering the woman with the braid who looked
at least her own age but is no doubt much younger. "Y
"Fifteen. Su hija es cansada?"
"En Octobre mi hija cansara," says Martha, picturing
Suzanne walking down the aisle, her brown skin set off
by bridal white. At the same time, she is thinking
that this conversation with Octavio will forever be
remembered as the highlight of her Mexican vacation.
The straw hat is now encircled with two bands that
meet to form a frilly blue and purple flower. Octavio
presents it for Martha's inspection. She smiles. "Ah.
Si. Es muy bonito."
She removes her visor and places the new hat on top of
her head, reaches into her fanny pack and takes out
two twenty-peso notes. When Octavio begins counting
out change, Martha shakes her head. "No. Es okay. Todo
The next day, when the silver man shouts, "Hey big
spender," Martha realizes that Octavio has told all
the peddlers of her impulsive overpayment.
Martha stands in the hotel lobby alongside twenty or
so other sunburned, baggage-toting gringos, awaiting
the bus that will take them to the airport. She is
wearing Octavio's hat, having left her sun visor in
the room next to a generous tip for the maid. She
imagines, or hopes, that it will find its way to some
resourceful relative who will patiently remove the
sequins, then use them to create something new. But
just as the bus pulls up, the maid comes running
downstairs in her blue uniform, holding the glittering
sun visor toward Martha.
"No," Martha protests, waving her away, "no quiero.
The maid's heavily lipsticked mouth opens in a silent
laugh. She turns quickly on her heel and goes back
upstairs, shrugging to the other maids who have
gathered on the landing. Through their laughing
chatter Martha is almost certain she hears the phrase,
"El sombrero de la gringa loca."
As the bus wends its way along Cabo's coastline,
Martha gazes out the window at one construction site
after another, all hotels-in-progress. Further inland,
shabby huts cluster at intervals along the road.
Martha wonders if the people in the huts will get jobs
in the hotels, or end up selling their wares on the
At the airport there is a delay. Martha tries to read
or do crossword puzzles, but her mind is buzzing with
thoughts of Jacob, who is to meet her plane in San
Francisco. She pictures his bearded face, the chiseled
cheekbones, the good-natured smile, and her insides go
molten. Then she imagines his quick peck on her
lips -- Jacob never displays affection in public -- and
bristles. She closes her eyes and imagines them at
home later, in bed, his hands on her naked flesh.
Jacob's touch is so sure and steady that when he holds
her she feels rooted to the planet, a feeling Martha
has never previously experienced. Until Jacob, she
felt that she could simply float off into the
stratosphere and no one, least of all she, would
notice. But Jacob's hands hold her in a way that
forces her into the here-and-now. It is the
discrepancy between the implicit promise in Jacob's
touch and his daily interactions with her, which tend
to be distracted, that has generated so much confusion
and ambivalence for Martha.
All during the three-hour plane ride Martha's thoughts
wander back and forth, from sexual anticipation to
self-reassurance, as she tries to convince herself not
to leave Jacob. Everything is a trade-off, she tells
herself. And she has left so many imperfect lovers,
she is starting to believe that the problem lies with
her own lack of tolerance, an immature refusal to
compromise. Maybe if she went back into therapy...but
she has no money for therapy...maybe Jacob would pay
for it...but how can she ask him when he's already
footing most of the bills...maybe one of the jobs she
applied for will come through...of course, if this
happens, then she can afford to move out...she could
live independently again, which she misses....but
Martha is beginning to fear a lonely old age. Should
she go into therapy and try to make the relationship
work, or should she move out? It is a moot question,
since she lacks the resources to do either.
Round and round go Martha's thoughts, in this circular
cage she has been pacing for months; the trip to Cabo
has done nothing to free her. Despite everything, when
the plane hits the tarmac she feels a surge of
excitement, and almost runs down the ramp towards
In the car, Martha cannot help stealing repeated
glances at Jacob's profile: he is so very handsome. He
asks her about Cabo and she proceeds to describe the
hotel, the beach, the other tourists. Jacob is always
telling their friends that he loves listening to
Martha no matter what she's saying because her voice
is so sexy -- but as she talks she can feel his
attention wander, and not just to the traffic. Midway
through the story of the hat on her head, she hears
her voice thudding onto dead air. She stops.
It takes Jacob a minute or two to recognize the
silence. He glances over at her. "Why'd you stop
"Because I was finished."
When Jacob accepts her lie, Martha knows he has not
heard a word of her babbling. She sinks back against
the seat, staving off tears, pressing down the pain
that is crawling through her limbs and up her neck.
She takes a few deep breaths and asks Jacob what he's
been doing for the last four days.
"We had some excitement at work yesterday," he says,
and now Martha knows why he wasn't listening to her:
he was anxious to deliver his news. "We got that
contract for the big vodka campaign." Jacob's ad
agency specializes in placing voiceovers; he's even
done a few of them himself. "And," he says, turning to
Martha with his Dennis Quaid grin, "the president
himself requested that I do one of the voices."
If Jacob were not sitting down, he would be strutting:
as it is, his chest is puffed out, his shoulders
raised, his mouth open in a self-congratulatory grin.
Not for the first time Martha finds herself repulsed
by his self-love, so much greater than his love for
her. Immediately she feels guilty that she is not
glad, pure and simple, for his success.
"Oh, Jacob, that's wonderful," she manages to say.
"Yeah. The rep took me aside so no one else would hear
and told me that he and the president both think I'm
the best in the business. 'I've never heard a voice as
rich as yours' he told me, 'and I've never heard
anyone use their voice the way you do.' He said I was
better than any voice actor I've ever sent him. I
didn't tell anyone he said that, of course. But it was
cool." Jacob looks at Martha, awaiting her praise.
But Martha is silent. She feels, as she often does
when Jacob brags, that to fawn over his vocal prowess
would somehow compromise her integrity. And certainly
Jacob doesn't need any encouragement.
As they enter the city Martha asks if he wants to stop
and pick up something for dinner. Really she would
like Chinese food, but since Jacob is the one who will
pay for whatever they eat, she feels she has no right
to express this desire.
"Oh," he says, his eyes sliding warily towards her,
"I'm meeting Louis for dinner and a movie. Remember? I
told you, I'm sure I did."
Jacob often tells Martha his schedule, and she often
blocks it out because it hurts her to hear how much
time he is spending with other people, much more time
than he spends with her. Now she is stung to the bone:
Louis is a fairly recent and minor acquaintance of
Jacob's, and his choice to spend the evening of her
return with him baffles and pains her.
"Are you mad at me?" Jacob asks. It is almost a
challenge to her to launch into the ongoing campaign
she wages for his time and attention.
"No," she says wearily. "I'm not mad."
At home Martha eats pasta with bottled sauce and goes
through her mail. She has received three job
rejections. Her phone messages are from her daughter,
her mother, and a friend in New York: no employment
prospects. She gazes out the window at Victorian
houses, their rooftops sloping in gradations towards
the bay, and is gripped with terror. Though Martha has
been broke for most of her life, this is the first
time that she has absolutely no income. She will never
be able to leave Jacob. She will never be able to free
herself of the almost constant pain she experiences in
She looks around at the neat apartment with its
antique furnishings and photos of European monuments
on the walls. Things could be a lot worse, she reminds
herself. She could be selling hats on Playa Medano.
Nearly a month later Martha is no closer to finding
employment. She has sent out over forty resumes and
has been called for one interview, where she is told
that she is one of 550 applicants. To ease her guilt,
she is typing some of Jacob's paperwork at home.
The phone rings. It is Lena, Jacob's partner's wife.
"We just got back," Lena sings cheerily.
Vaguely Martha remembers that Lena and Brett went to
Cabo San Lucas, staying in the same hotel as Martha.
"And have I got stories for you!"
Martha pictures the statuesque Lena, her reddened lips
open wide, her head thrown back to reveal a long
"Can you guys come for dinner Saturday?" Lena asks.
Martha's spirits sink. Evenings with Brett and Lena
tend to be long, with Brett and Jacob talking shop in
the living room, and Lena confiding details of their
sex life in the kitchen, assuming an intimacy with
Martha that she doesn't share. In a flash she imagines
the romantic week Brett and Lena spent snorkeling in
the sea, making noisy love in their room, and dancing
in the bars in town. Martha knows she will hardly
recognize their version of Cabo San Lucas.
Nonetheless, she sees no way to decline; besides,
Jacob, who has always assumed that she and Lena are
close friends, will be delighted.
The smell of garlic fills Brett and Lena's apartment.
After the hugs and kisses and greetings, Martha goes
into the bedroom to deposit their coats. The chair in
the corner of the room is a mess of colorful clothing,
Mexican blankets, strands of silver jewelry. Something
glitters in the moonlight coming through the curtains;
as Martha gets closer she is stunned to see a sequined
sun visor on top of the pile. Tentatively she picks it
up and turns it around in her hand; it is unmistakably
the same one she left in Cabo.
The sequins twinkle, hiding a mystery. Martha deduces
that the maid must have simply left it, and that Lena
and Brett stayed by chance in the same room. Odd,
though, that in all these weeks no other guest had
taken the hat.
Martha turns as Lena enters the bedroom, closing the
door softly. "Oh, I am just dying to talk to you
alone," she whispers, tiptoeing across the room and
switching on a lamp.
"Where did you get this hat?" Martha asks.
Lena is mildly annoyed by this diversion from her own
agenda. "Oh, that thing. Isn't it hilarious? Like
something you'd find in the tackiest drag queen
"Where'd you get it?"
"From a Mexican kid on the beach. He was selling hats
like that one." Lena points her chin at the bureau, on
top of which is a replica of Martha's flowered straw
"Octavio," Martha whispers, so low that Lena doesn't
"He was wearing this visor on his head," Lena
continues, "and I was astounded. I got such a kick out
of seeing a gay boy's hat on a Mexican peasant, I
decided I had to have it. He was a hard sell, too -- I
paid fifty pesos for that silly thing."
Martha speculates about the chain of friends or
relatives that had somehow brought her hat to
Octavio's head. Was he wearing it in an attempt to
shield his brown skin from the sun? Did he think about
her when he put it on? She is glad he got so much
money for it.
"Why are you so fascinated by that hat?" Lena asks,
taking it from Martha and tossing it onto the bed.
"Look at the great stuff we bought." She rummages
through the pile on the chair and pulls out a bright
Mexican shawl. She wraps it around her long straight
back and sways from side to side, bending her knees as
she moves. "I wore this when we went dancing in town.
The most gorgeous man came on to me..."
Lena is off and running, telling how she danced with
the stranger, while Brett watched, and how it excited
him so much that he tore her clothes off when they got
back to the hotel. It is a familiar Lena-Brett
scenario, and Martha tunes it out. She is staring at
her sun visor. It is, she thinks, a messenger: Martha
often perceives messages in minor events. The message
she now perceives, or perhaps invents, is that letting
go can lead to strange and wondrous occurrences. When
you make a move, she thinks, you cannot foresee its
Lena, flushed from telling her story, leads Martha
into the dining room where the table has been set with
a new Mexican lace tablecloth and silver candlesticks.
The men are pouring wine into crystal glasses. Martha
looks at Jacob, who is so obviously comfortable as
part of a foursome. She pictures him alone in his
apartment after she leaves, eating bags of cookies and
bowls of cereal as he did before she entered his life.
Martha thinks of all the men she has left when they
failed to meet her expectations, the jobs she has
walked out on because she felt caged, the trail of
confused friends left behind whenever she moved on to
new people and places. She feels guilty about who she
is, and sorry for Jacob.
He raises his wine glass. "Salud!"
"Skoal!" say Lena and Brett in unison.
Without thinking, Martha clinks her glass against the
others and murmurs, "Lo siento."