The Girl in the Floppy Hat
By Frank Thomas Smith
My infrequent trips to the States, on family business or just business, were almost always uneventful. But the last two had been the most eventful journeys of my life. The first began with a four-hour bus ride from my home in a remote corner of Argentina to the city of Cordoba, where I entered a travel agency a few minutes after three in the afternoon and approached Luciano's desk. He stood up, smiled automatically and held out his hand. As I took it his smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared and he said, "You traveling today...or tomorrow?" and I knew something was wrong.
"Today, of course."
He looked at me, obviously puzzled, then shrugged. "Correct, no problem. For some reason I thought it was tomorrow." (The customer is always right, even when he isn't.)
Part of my work as a consultant to agricultural cooperatives is to analyze misunderstandings. Do you know what the problem is? People don't listen. Luciano sat down and clicked away at his computer. I sat across from him and glanced at the calendar on his desk: Friday, January 8. I was about to say, Hey, Luciano, you should keep your calendar up to date and you'd know when your clients were traveling, but instead I opened the newspaper I'd bought at a kiosko outside the agency just before entering and looked at the date: Friday, January 8. My face felt hot and I was glad that Luciano was busy changing my reservation and couldn't notice my embarrassment. I had left home a day early. It made no difference for what I had to do in Florida, except that I wanted to leave on Saturday and arrive on Sunday morning in order to rest one day and get busy on Monday. Now I'd have a Saturday on my hands. Still, it was the first time something like that had happened to me. I might misplace my glasses now and then, but a whole day!
"Wait here just a minute, don Frank. I'm going to the airline to change the ticket."
I went to a café on the next block and ordered a cafecito while I read the newspaper. It was mostly about the economic recession, unemployment and the political party infighting in Argentina and, naturally, the war in Kosovo. All depressing stuff, but more depressing, for me, was the reason for my trip to Florida – to transfer my mother from an Assisted Living Facility to a nursing home and get Medicaid to pay for it. I walked back to the travel agency and found Luciano at his desk listening to another passenger's woes. He handed me my ticket in a plastic envelope and I inspected it carefully.
"All in order, don Frank," Luciano assured me. "You still have plenty of time to get to the airport."
"Did you reserve a car for me?"
"Yes, of course, Interamericano. Have a good trip." He scuttled back to his client and peered into his monitor. "Hey, Julieta," he called to the girl at the next work-station, "what's the code for Santiago de Chile?"
"How should I know? Look it up."
"SCL," I said, smugly I fear, as I picked up my bag and strolled toward the door, and they all turned and looked at me.
The short flight to Buenos Aires was on time and uneventful. I passed an hour of the three hour wait for the connecting flight re-reading Carson McCuller's "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter". I had chosen it because it's small and light – not in content but in weight. I bought some pipe tobacco in the tax-free shop and walked around the transit lounge observing my fellow passengers boarding in Buenos Aires as they drifted in. The usual mix of nervous tourists already dressed for Disney World and business people looking like their next important meeting would be immediately after take-off. I saw the girl in the floppy hat shortly before the flight was called. Tall and very thin. Young, too young for the likes of me, unless you take Sean Connery movies seriously. Her hat covered the upper right side of her face. She wore an ankle-length blue skirt slit up to the back of her knees and a wrinkled cream linen jacket and heelless sandals. Bare feet aren't very sensible for air travel. I had to smile when I realized that I was worried about that. You often see underdressed tourists who think that because their destination is warm it will also be warm at thirty-thousand feet and arrive sneezing. But why should I be worried? Maybe because she looked so fragile. The idea of approaching her and suggesting that she put on socks was ridiculous. I'd long since learned that unasked for advice is almost always unwelcome. Besides, where would she get them? I couldn't very well offer mine. The flight was called forty minutes before departure time, the usual procedure for getting hundreds of passengers into a 747 and still depart on time.
I put the book into my carry-on and stood up as the they called for passengers holding seats in rows 32 through 43 to board. The girl, who had been standing the whole time, suddenly sat down and pulled a pair of gray woolen socks from her overnight bag. She took off the sandals and slipped on the socks. I smiled and nodded in her direction: Atta girl.
I had an aisle seat so I wouldn't have to climb over people to go to the john or roam the aisles. A window is preferable if there's anything to see, but we were leaving at eleven at night and arriving at 6.30 in the morning. When I got to row 33, there she was in the window seat. I don't believe in coincidences, which doesn't mean that every time you sit next to someone on a bus or airplane it's part of your karma, but this time I had already been watching her in the terminal and worrying about her feet being cold. I mean what are the odds?
I said Hola as I placed my carry-on under the seat. She smiled and nodded as she took off the hat, rolled it up and stuffed it into the seat-pocket in front of her. Jet black silky hair blended nicely with her green eyes. She turned and gazed out the window at the runway lights, which soon became starlights and I opened The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and read the same paragraph three times before giving it up.
"Pollo o pasta?" the flight attendant mumbled with a lack of enthusiasm fully shared by the passengers. My ears were still stopped up so I didn't hear the first word and said "Pasta o qué?" "Pollo," she repeated. "Pasta," I said with a shrug in my voice. My companion ordered the pollo and said to me, "It's chicken." I realized she thought I hadn't understood, being too obviously a gringo, so I said to her in Spanish, "Ah, you wanted to help me, but my ears were only stopped up." She blushed and nodded. I ordered red wine and water and she water only. We ate in silence until I decided it was time to put a deeper crack in the ice.
"This pasta has no taste at all," I said. "How's the chicken?"
"It tastes like pasta."
We laughed. "But the wine doesn't taste like water," I said. "Like a drop?"
She held out her plastic cup. "Well, just a drop." I leaned across the empty seat and poured her several.
"Are you from Buenos Aires?" I asked her.
"No, Santiago de Chile. Do you know it?"
"Yes, I've been there often. Chilean women are the most beautiful in the world, or so I've been told."
"You've been told," she said with a wide-open smile. "And have you no opinion?"
"Oh yes, I agree entirely."
"Thank you, in the name of Chilean women... and you're American."
"Is it so obvious?"
"I saw your passport," she admitted as she went at cutting the chicken with a plastic knife," when you were in the tax-free shop."
That was even before I noticed her. So she's interested. Fancy that.
"Do you live in Florida?" she asked me.
"No, in Córdoba, not so far from Chile really. Do you know it?"
"Only from the air. It's on the Pampas, isn't it?"
"Part of it is, but I live in the mountainous part.
"Oh, that must be nice..."
And so it went until they announced that the movie would be You've got Mail. "Do you have Internet?" I asked her.
She nodded. "I hear the movie is good, but I can barely keep my eyes open."
I leaned between my legs and fished in my overnight bag for a notebook and pen. "Let me take down your e-mail address and I'll give you mine." I moved into the middle seat, wrote my address on a page of the notebook, ripped it out and handed it to her, together with the notebook. "If we miss the movie, which seems likely, whoever sees it first can tell the other about it." Admittedly a weak excuse for moving closer to her and finding out her name. She read my name and e-mail address, hesitated a moment, then wrote her name and e-mail address in the notebook.
"You know, Mireya," I said, feeling pressed for time because her eyelids were already fluttering from the effort to stay open, "I might have the weekend free and go to the beach. Maybe you'd like to come with me."
She looked into my eyes as though asking who I was and what she should answer. I should have been surprised but wasn't when she said she'd like that. "I'm staying with friends in Ft. Lauderdale," she said so softly that I had to lean over to hear. She wrote a telephone number in the notebook. "Perhaps you can call me when you know."
"Yes, I will."
"What beach do you go to?" she asked. "I hope not Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm. I don't like them."
I laughed. "Good, I don't either. I prefer Singer Island. Do you know it?"
"I've heard of it, but have never been there."
"It's north of West Palm, and considerably cheaper."
She nodded and yawned as the movie flickered to life. We watched without sound for a while. Then, slowly, her head sank onto my shoulder and I could smell her faint perfume. I closed my eyes and slept.
The flight is only seven and a half hours, so what with reaching cruising altitude, eating and the bumps and grinds of the plane, it's impossible to get more than a few hours sleep. In my case even less, as I was careful not to disturb her head on my shoulder (remember the song?). In the morning she looked wan and seemed even thinner as we walked together through the finger gate and separated at the immigration desks. I promised to call her on Friday afternoon and kissed her on the right cheek. Her green eyes seemed very large in that pale face as I turned away and breezed through the US citizens line while she waited with the lesser mortals.
It was a hectic week, which didn't give me much time to face what I was doing until the last moment when I said goodbye to my mother – perhaps for the last time. She sat in a chair in the room she was to share with another nursing home resident. "Do you have to go already?" she asked. I didn't really, but I was exhausted from running from the Medicaid office to banks, my mother's Assisted Living Facility, real estate agents and nursing homes. And the fresh sea smell and the memory of Mireya's faint perfume were luring me away from the rancid odor of age and urine. I walked quickly, almost ran, through the wheelchair traffic to the elevator, waited impatiently for its slow-motion doors to close and, once on street level, burst into the sunshine and across the parking lot. I flipped on the Honda's air conditioning to full and pulled away. I phoned Mireya from my motel and offered to pick her up in Ft. Lauderdale the next morning, Saturday, but she insisted on meeting me halfway, said a friend would drive her. So I told her to go to Federal Highway and Glades Road in Boca Raton at nine o'clock, or earlier if she wanted. She said nine was fine. The rhyme woke me up to the fact that we were speaking English. She had about the same amount of accent in English as I have in Spanish. I had a quick supper in a Denny's, watched TV a while and went to bed early.
It was one of those beautiful sunny Florida mornings. I arrived at the corner in Boca Raton five minutes ahead of time and she was already there, standing alone dressed again in a long skirt, but of a lighter color and fabric than the one she wore on the plane. A plain blue polo shirt revealed that she was pretty flat-chested. And the same floppy hat. I had expected to see long tanned legs in shorts, which was what everyone else was wearing, including me. An overnight bag was at her feet though, which was definitely a good sign. My heart raced and I told it to slow down, that this was probably no more than a one-night stand with a kid half my age and I should know better.
I pulled up to the curb and leaned over to open the door. She got in, took off the hat and smiled her wide-open smile. Her teeth were large and white and her mouth sensuous – to me at least – and somehow innocent at the same time.
"Hi," she said in English.
"Hi, were you waiting long?"
"No, about five minutes. I was early, I think."
"Yes, so was I."
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I swear it burned. "That's for being early," she said, and looked front with her hands in her lap, smiling softly.
"It's true then," I said.
"That it pays to be punctual."
We got onto I 95 heading North. I was busy maneuvering us through the weekend traffic to our destination in one piece so we didn't say much. The radio was tuned to NPR, where they were on a Gershwin kick. Mireya moved her lips to the songs and hummed a little. She had a sweet voice. She asked me to put the air conditioning down although it was already low. I don't care for it myself, but in Florida it's necessary. I turned onto Blue Heron Drive, crossed the bridge to Singer Island and pulled into a Days Inn I know there. Once in our large Florida-sized room, I asked her if she'd like to go for a swim before it got too hot.
"You go," she said. "I'd like to just rest a little." Rest? It was only ten o'clock. I hadn't seen the ocean in months and wanted to now. Should I just change in front of her, or do it in the bathroom? She solved the problem by going in herself.
The water was pellucid and warm. I dove in, swam a few strokes and floated with my face in the sun. There's something strange about her, I thought. First of all, no young woman in her right mind would go off for the weekend these days with a total stranger who could turn into Juan the Ripper at the first glimpse of moonlight ...and the clothes...long skirt while travelling when everyone else her age wears jeans or slacks, and the same kind of skirt in shorts-crazy Florida...and the floppy hat.
I rode in on a minuscule wave and walked back over the hot sand to the hotel. The wave of anticipation I felt wasn't entirely sexual; it was more like the confusion of emotions usually associated with an adolescent's first love. I shook my head to myself in wonder. I had brought a key with me – a key-card rather – from habit, so I let myself into the room, which was in a motel-like location on the ground floor. The air conditioning had been turned off and only the blower was on, sucking filtered hot air into the room. She was lying on the bed naked with her legs spread and her eyes closed. Was I surprised, despite everything? You bet. She was even thinner than I had imagined, with nipples like brown buttons perched on petite breasts. Almost a boy's body; the muted feminine curves were there though. I closed and locked the door and crossed to the bathroom to shower trying, unsuccessfully, not to think while I did so. How old would she be? 25? Well, let's give her 27 in order not to be less than half as old as me. What kind of performance was she expecting from a weary stud in the autumn of his discontent? I wiped off the steam and looked at myself in the mirror. Well, no time like the present to find out.
I lay down beside her on the bed half expecting her to twist around and lock me in a passionate embrace, or at least turn her head and smile, waiting for me to initiate the overtures. But she didn't move and I realized from her breathing that she was fast asleep. What the hell do I do now? One of my greatest shortcomings is that when I don't know what to do I usually do nothing. In this case, however, it turned out to be right. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, which was easy after the sea swim and the sun.
I woke with dark curtains of hair draped on both sides of my face and clear green eyes looking into mine. "How beautifully you sleep," she whispered. She moved on top of me and I barely felt her weight. "You will be gentle, won't you?" she asked. "I know you are a gentle person." I nodded as well as one can with his head on a pillow. Somehow words wouldn't come, not even "yes". I lifted my arms to embrace her.
"Please," she said, urgently it seemed, "don't touch my back."
Why not? What would happen if I touched her back? It reminded me of the Chinese princess who always wore a ribbon around her neck. When the prince secretly removed it while she was sleeping her head fell off. I let my arms falls outward like a man on a cross. She started to reach for my penis.
"Mireya, er, don't you think we should use some kind of protection?"
It took a moment for her to understand what I meant, long enough for my erection to sink and, I thought in mild panic, perhaps never to rise again.
"Oh, I don't want that, do you...really?"
"Are you afraid of AIDS?"
I'm deathly afraid of AIDS, yes. "No, but..well..nowadays..." I felt worse than a coward, I felt like a traitor, an enemy of love.
"You don't have to worry," she said, smiling artlessly. "I haven't been with a man since my first boyfriend, and that was ten years ago." She put her face next to mine, relaxing. "The incubation period is less than that, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said, "but what about me? I mean you don't know me very well."
"I don't know you at all," she murmured in my ear. "Yet I know you perfectly, and for such a long time. I'm not afraid, really"
I didn't know what to say to that, so I just lay there in crucified mode.
"There is one thing though," Mireya said, lifting her head to look at me. "I cannot get pregnant."
"Of course not."
"So...so maybe you're right. I mean that would be..." she searched for a word... "unfair."
Unfair to whom? I thought, but said, "Don't worry." I was thinking that I'd pull out before ejaculation.
"Could you...could you not come?" she asked. That was quite different, but I confidently agreed. And, wondrously, my erection agreed as well. I was gentle, very gentle, moving slowly or not at all. She arched over me, reached for the ceiling and moaned, then fell down and the black curtains covered my face. Soon she rose again, reached this time for the stars and seemed to attain them for her moan was more like a soft scream. I knew I couldn't hold out much longer, so I eased her off and we lay pressed together for a long time. She slept for a few minutes and I felt pleasure at having given her such pleasure.
It was dark out when we got out of the bed. Neither of us had eaten anything since breakfast, and I didn't know if she had even had that. When we were washed and dressed we went to the hotel's restaurant, ordered swordfish and white wine and I prepared myself to ask her some questions, but it wasn't necessary. She started talking.
"Did you wonder why I didn't want you to touch my back, Frank?"
"As a matter of fact I did. I thought maybe it was some kind of reverse fetish."
She didn't laugh. "You see, I had an operation and there are some ugly scars on my back." Tears formed in her eyes, but she blinked several times rapidly and they were gone. Or maybe it was my imagination.
"What kind of operation?"
"I had lung cancer — or I still have it, I don't know."
That explained a lot, but I wasn't sure how. I took a healthy gulp of wine. "Tell me about it, Mireya."
"You can see them," she said quickly. "It's just that I didn't want you to today. Can you understand that — or is it too silly?"
"Yes, of course. Today's special."
She took my hand. "Yes, it is. Very special."
"It's all right, I don't need to see them," I said, and I honestly had no desire to.
She pushed back her hair. "I've had it for twelve years, not on the lungs, that started two years ago. It began on my leg. They cut it out and I took anthroposophical medicine. Do you know what that is?" I shook my head. "It's something like homeopathy, but better. I'm sure it's what has kept me alive so long."
"And is it cured now?" I asked. I wanted it to be cured.
"I don't know. That's why I came here. There's a wonderful surgeon here, a friend of my family's who operated on me the last time. I don't mean the leg," she added quickly, "I also had a lung operation." Then, barely pausing, she said, "I've really been very lucky. You have no idea how kind people have been to me." I wouldn't call having lung cancer exactly lucky, but I didn't say so.
"And other friends paid for my trip. You see, a few months ago they discovered -- that was in Chile, where I have a wonderful doctor but he's not a surgeon -- he discovered small nodules in each lung, just one in each."
"I see," I said. "And the last time, I mean the operation?"
"That was much worse. He took out almost half of both lungs." She frowned. "But sometimes even small things are serious."
"They haven't grown, but the doctor wanted to examine me anyway and take new x-rays and other tests."
"So that's what you were doing during the week?"
"Yes, that's what I was doing. And do you know what he said?" Suddenly she was like a happy child. "He said he didn't see the need for another operation, that they looked insignificant and if they don't grow I should be all right."
I squeezed her hand and blinked myself this time. "That's wonderful, Mireya."
"Now do you see how lucky I am? Then I met you, which was the greatest luck of all." Our table was lit only by candlelight, so she didn't see me blush, but I must have looked puzzled and embarrassed, for she said, "Don't you know why?"
I shook my head, it's all I could do.
"Because I love you..and you love me, I can feel it. Isn't it so?"
And then I cried, I actually cried real tears, silently, with my head down. It was the first time I had cried in many years. I'm not the emotional type. "Yes, Mireya, it's true that I love you, but I'm the lucky one for that, not you."
"Then we'll both be lucky," she said, smiling, and lifted my hand to her lips. "But you see now why I always wear these long skirts and that silly hat."
"I would love to wear shorts as they all do here and run along the sand and dive naked into the sea...but I can't. I have to keep out of the sun and almost any strenuous activity tires me. I'm sorry, darling, it must be such a bore for you."
"Not at all," I assured her, "I can show off my muscles better this way. You just sit and watch."
"I have and you have beautiful muscles."
"Ah-ha, at last I've caught you in a lie."
"It's not a lie, it's true," she giggled. "They're just not very big."
"Exactly." She giggled again. "I'm not supposed to drink wine, either." She sipped and looked over her glass at me like a wanton sinner. "And if I got pregnant I just don't know what I would do."
"Of course, I understand."
"You know, if I wasn't...ill...I'd never have come with you here." Her eyes glowed blue-green in the candlelight. "Time is against me though. Something has happened inside me that I can't contain, that I don't want to contain. Because I don't think I'll have the opportunity to feel something like this again."
She did tire easily. I had to almost carry her to our room, even help her undress. She was out like a light as soon as her head touched the pillow. I went down to the sea and looked at the stars a long time before joining her. The next morning she stayed in bed. She said she was fine, just wanted to rest luxuriously, that she was spoiled. In the afternoon we went to the beach and she sat in a rented beach-chair with an umbrella over it and watched me swim from under the rim of her floppy hat. During the drive back to Ft. Lauderdale we didn't say much. Her head was on my shoulder and we were just there, together.
From then on we communicated by e-mail. I have saved her side of the correspondence because it's so eloquent and moving. My side was...well...me. I went to Santiago a few times on business and stayed the weekends with Mireya. The last time she was in bed which what she called an attack of weakness. She had a small house in her parent's garden – a living room that doubled as bedroom, a kitchenette and bathroom, everything in miniature. I slept on the floor beside her narrow bed, a far cry from the room at the Hilton Carrera that my client was paying for, but infinitely more satisfying. She said she was going to her sister's place in the south of Chile for a few months and asked me to visit her there the week after Easter when her sister, Mónica, would be going to Santiago. But Mónica didn't want to leave her alone, so that would be our excuse for my being there. She described the mountainous area in glowing terms, adding that one day she wanted to live there forever. I said yes, of course I would go, that I couldn't wait. "Oh, that will be wonderful!" she cried and hugged me so hard that she began to cough and had to lay back again.
It was during that visit that she played a recording. A sweet voice singing lieder. "How do you like it?" she asked me with a mischievous smile. "She's very good," I said, and meant it. "She's not German though, is she?"
Mireya laughed. "No, I only memorized the words." My surprise was evident. "Yes, I studied singing at the conservatory and the teachers thought I had a brilliant career ahead of me. Naturally I can no longer sing." Her eyes were saying, Don't worry, I'm happy anyway.
Mireya had no access to Internet in the south of Chile, but I phoned her frequently. On the Monday after Easter Sunday, as I was about to leave for the airport, the "Wellness Director" at my mother's nursing home called from Florida to inform me that my mother had died in her sleep. It wasn't unexpected, in fact in a way I was glad because Mom had certainly had enough of being a child in an old woman's incontinent body. The conflict with my coming visit to Mireya was foremost in my mind. I hesitated, then said I would be in the nursing home early on...no, the following day was impossible...the day after, the third day after her death. I had just called Luciano to change my booking from Santiago to Miami and was about to call Mireya to tell her I'd be delayed when, on impulse, I decided to check my e-mail. There was one message waiting to be read. It was in Spanish from Santiago de Chile.
Mireya died today, Easter Sunday. She had a brain tumor that grew very fast and wasn't diagnosed. She was thirty years old. She will be cremated today in Santiago.
With deep regret,
I had selected an aisle seat as usual, but the flight was lightly booked so when I reached my row I sat in the middle seat, an old trick to avoid anyone sitting next to me, and closed my eyes. I had just lost the two people I loved most in the world and didn't want some boozy shoe salesman feeling sociable sitting next to me. As we were rolling toward the runway, I felt someone climb over my knees and into the window seat. I sighed and was about to move to the aisle seat when someone sat in it as well. So much for solitude. The aircraft shuddered as it strove for altitude and I glanced to my left. Mireya, with the floppy hat still on, smiled softly and rested her head on my shoulder and I could smell her faint perfume. My skin tightened and my head felt as though it were burning. My first thought was that the telegram had been a mistake or a sadistic joke. I knew that wasn't true, but it was all I could imagine. I tried to say something to her, I forget what, probably just her name, but my lips and throat were parched and nothing came out. So I just sat there, more or less in suspended animation, when the person on my right put her hand -- an old, liver-spotted hand -- on mine and patted it three times, then folded her hands in her lap and looked forward. My mother had never liked flying and preferred to be as far from the window as possible.
I closed my eyes again and thought how fortunate I was to be accompanied by the two women whose love I was entirely unworthy of, at least for the next seven and a half hours.