Jonathan wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. The breeze that blew in from the Caribbean tried to cool his skin, but mostly blew sand and dust against him. He looked up at the sky, which was the most amazing blue he'd ever seen. A few cotton-ball clouds wafted in from the sea, and the Colombian sun cooked everything and everyone. The sunlight sparkled on the waves that rolled in from who-knows-where, and then he saw her walking toward him.
The woman Jonathan had noticed paused for a moment, maybe twenty feet before reaching where he was sitting, waited for her friend to catch up to her, and held the hands of a couple little girls. A couple of the boys from the group behind the woman decided to stop and look at a trail of ants meandering across the sidewalk, each carrying a leaf that was bigger than the ants. The leaves stood straight up like sails on yachts out in the bay, and the boys flicked a few of the ants off the sidewalk and into the sand. They laughed as they watched the ants sail away and disappear into the gray sand.
When the second woman, Carolina, caught up to Alejandra, she said in her native Spanish, "Two weeks in Cartagena. I love visiting this city; the weather is always beautiful, with blue skies, the warm Caribbean, and those waves. Where do those waves come from?" The woman placed one hand on the head of a little girl who was teasing one of the boys, and her other hand on the shoulder of the boy she teased.
She hadn't expected an answer, but Alejandra said, "Well, I suppose they come from the Gulf of Mexico, or at least somewhere way out there." She pointed out into the distance. "Then they make their way?"
"Oh, you know I didn't want any kind of actual answer. Oh, check out that guy," she said as she looked at Jonathan. He was sitting on a bench alongside the sidewalk and in the little shade offered by a palm tree. One of the little girls took Alejandra's hand and tugged on it to try to get them moving faster.
"I like the look of him," Carolina commented softly to her friend as they looked at him while trying not to be too obvious.
As the two women slowed their pace, unintentionally, the children began to get impatient. One of the little girls said, "Hey! Let's go or we'll be late. Hurry up!"
Carolina patted the child on her head and continued talking to her friend. "He's a nice-looking man."
"Don't stare, girl, just give him a small glance."
"I hope you're telling yourself that too."
"Don't stare at what?" asked the little girl.
Alejandra smiled at her. "Other people, sweetie. It's not polite."
Jonathan had noticed the women looking at him. He smiled at the first woman. She smiled back at him. As they passed by him, he heard them speaking in Spanish and he didn't understand a word of it.
"I like the color of his hair, silver, and wavy. He looks fit, like he exercises. I like that."
"Alejandra, you like just about any man with a decent body and handsome face. I've been telling you for how long now? You need a boyfriend." One of the youngsters pushed another and he fell into the sand alongside the sidewalk.
Ignoring the last comment from her friend and helping the boy up out of the sand, Alejandra continued, "I wonder if he speaks Spanish? Or maybe English? Or some other language? My English is pretty good, but should I try using it?"
"Why not? I think it's better than you realize. You just don't use it much."
"Hmm, well?" She realized they had passed the man, gathered the children together, and moved them along the sidewalk. She turned and looked back. "I hope he's here tomorrow."
The women continued along the sidewalk with the children, and Jonathan lost sight of them in the crowd of people. The group of eight children laughed and teased each other as they followed her like a row of ducklings behind their mother. Carolina, wearing a similar dress, yet with distinct patterns in a rainbow of colors, walked with the group of children. She had her hands full trying to keep them in order.
The women were in Cartagena with a dance troupe. They had a full schedule of shows of traditional dances and dance classes for children of low-income families. It was a two-week working vacation they both loved doing every year.
The next day was another beautiful day in Cartagena, hot and a little on the humid side, but beautiful. Jonathan stayed cool in the shade of a palm tree and sipped a lemonade, squeezed from fresh lemons, right there along the sidewalk. Then he saw the same two women walking toward him again, with the same group of children. They are beautiful, and the one with the longer hair is stunning. The dresses they're wearing must be traditional. I wonder if she speaks English. Probably not. My Spanish isn't good enough for a conversation. I need to learn to speak Spanish. That won't help me now. Why didn't I pay more attention in Spanish class way back in high school? Because I did what all the other students were doing there-passing the time and getting a needed credit. Learning wasn't a part of it.
The women walked along the sidewalk with the group of children, all dressed in traditional outfits, on their way to a rehearsal before an exhibition later that evening.
"Look, there he is again!"
"Yeah, I noticed him too. Oh, he has nice legs. Maybe he's into cycling." Carolina giggled. "And they're very white." The two women laughed.
"Well, I think he probably exercises a lot. ¡Oh, Dios mío! What do I do? I wonder if he's married or has a girlfriend."
"I can't just go up to him and ask, 'Are you married?' Oh, I'm useless at this stuff. What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing is wrong with you. You're just out of practice."
"Well, we don't have any extra time today. Anyway, we have the rehearsal in a few minutes."
As the ladies walked past him, they both smiled, Carolina said, "Buenos días."
Jonathan, surprised by the woman greeting him, stood up and said only one word: "Hi."
Alejandra opened her mouth to say hi, but one of the little girls started teasing one of the boys, which forced her to step between them.
Another boy pulled the ponytail of one of the girls, she let out a little scream, then turned around and hit him.
"Stop, you two! Edwin, no more of that!"
Edwin smiled and stepped back from the girl who was scowling at him.
The entire entourage continued, uninterrupted by the little scuffle. Jonathan watched as the two women managed to keep control of the eight children walking and skipping along the sidewalk.
"And now you've missed your chance again? I told you we should have left earlier."
After they passed him and separated two more of the children, the women continued their conversation. "Why didn't you say anything? Even just hi would've been a good start."
"I know. I wanted to, but it didn't come out. His saying 'hi' caught me by surprise. Then the children? Now we don't have time to go back."
The woman grabbed the hands of one of the little girls so she wouldn't go running to the beach.
"You're just full of excuses, aren't you?"
On Jonathan's last day in Cartagena before he had to return to his real life in Tucson, he sat on a bench in the shade of a palm, drank a cup of lulo fruit juice, and ate a pan de queso, a bread roll made with cheese mixed into the dough.
As he watched people passing by along the sidewalk, he spotted the same two women, again with the group of children, again laughing, skipping, and teasing each other. They crossed the street, and then they turned and walked in his direction.
He started thinking about how to approach her. Yesterday I said hi and the other woman said 'Buenos días,' so I guess they don't speak English. I need to steel myself and just blurt it out, 'Hi, how are you?' But, should I use Spanish or English? If I use Spanish, it'll probably translate to something like 'Hi, taco chicken and a toilet,' and she'll look at me like I'm a lunatic. Should I stand and stick my hand out for a handshake as she comes close? No, that's just stupid. But, I should probably stand and give her my attention so she knows I'm interested. She probably speaks only Spanish and I won't understand any of it. But then again, if I use English, she probably won't understand me and she'll just smile and walk on by again.
She was dressed casually, with no brightly colored skirt this time. Instead, she wore shorts and a T-shirt with the phrase, "Just Say Yes" on the front. Jonathan struggled to look anywhere but at this one woman. Wow! She is hot. Yep, just as I thought, her legs look amazing. Nice legs—that's more important than the size of her breasts. Yeah, they both obviously exercise regularly. I wonder if she understands the English words on her shirt. He could see both the women had their hands full trying to control the group of excited children.
He stood up just as they approached. He felt energized and ready to do it. He decided to blurt out whatever words he could think of in Spanish, and hoped for the best. The women approached where he was standing and he was about to say, "Hola," several of the children started to run to the beach. The two women quickly corralled them back into some kind of order. By the time they were back on the sidewalk, the group of excited children had dragged both of the women further up the sidewalk and away from him.
Without thinking about it, Alejandra raised one arm and waved to Jonathan as the children pulled her away.
He stood there and helplessly watched them disappear up the sidewalk and into a crowd of people crossing the road.
Shit! You are pathetic, for sure. You're a grown man. Why is this such a problem for you? He sat back down on the bench, disheartened by the missed opportunity. I'm simply not ready to do this stuff. After all those years of marriage, I'm out of practice with meeting other women.
"Oh! Children!" Alejandra said as they charged along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the road. "Why are you going so fast?" Then she turned to Carolina and said, "He was going to say hi, I'm sure of it. I have my own accounting business and speak to people every day. Why am I so afraid to say hi to that man?"
"Well, today is our last day of exhibitions, and tomorrow we won't have the kids with us. If he's here tomorrow, we'll stop to talk to him. We'll have plenty of time," Carolina said as she grabbed two boys to stop them from running ahead of the group.
"Yes. Tomorrow, I'll talk to him." Alejandra turned and looked back at Jonathan, now sitting on the bench, again.
Jonathan mumbled to himself, Third time's the charm? Hmm, I don't think so.
Then another man sat down on the bench, and said, "Now they were women worth looking at." Jonathan guessed from his accent that he was probably from Texas.
Jonathan said, "Yeah, true, but are they real? How much of them is makeup and plastic?"
"I don't care. I'd do either of 'em in a minute," the man replied.
"Well, for me, it's what's inside that pretty head that's important," said Jonathan. He didn't like the way this stranger talked about women.
"Seriously? No way. If she gave you the chance, you'd be on top of her before you could say 'oh, not today, darling.'"
"Nope, not me. Yes, I like a beautiful woman, someone pleasant to look at-all men do-but I want a woman who is educated, strong, and independent. Supermodel beauty? Naw, not for me. Conversation, thoughtfulness, caring, independence. Those are what I put a priority on."
"You're not normal," the other man shot back, got up, and left.
Jonathan stayed there for a while longer. Too beautiful? All for show? She certainly was striking, for sure.
As the breeze cooled him in the shade of palms, he watched the people on the beach and imagined many stories about the people he watched. That couple, they're probably newlyweds on their honeymoon; those two are businessmen here for meetings; he's scanning the beach for women to pick up.
He roused himself out of his imaginations and wondered, Was she a dream? She might as well have been, as I'll never see her again. He got up off the bench and walked to a sidewalk vendor selling raspados, a shaved-ice drink, and ordered one flavored with tamarind juice. The strong, sweet flavor satisfied his thirst in a way no beer or sugary drink could. As he stood alongside the raspado vendor's cart, he thought about this country he had spent two weeks exploring and had learned so much about. He had never seen this Colombia on TV or in the news-this Colombia, the real Colombia, was much better.
He walked back to the hotel. It wasn't far, just across the street and a block up the road. Well, soon I'll be back to my typical routine: go to work, chat about life and catch up on the gossip with the other employees, return home for dinner, watch TV, and go to bed. The daily routine-lather, rinse, repeat. It's right there on the bottle. It's right there in my life, driving me day to day. Is it possible to get out of that never-ending circle of hell?
The next morning, Jonathan caught his flight home.
The women walked along the sidewalk, hoping to see that man again, when they realized they'd run out of benches. Alejandra said, "Oh, he's not here today. I wonder why. Maybe he has business to attend to, or maybe he's left Cartagena."
"Or maybe he was just a tourist, and he's gone home."
"No! Not that! I want to see him again, to start a conversation. I hope he hasn't left." Alejandra stopped, turned around, scanned the benches a second time, and then looked at the sidewalk across the street. There was no sign of the man she wanted to meet. She let out a long sigh, gave up looking for the man, looked at Carolina, and said, "Well, he's gone. At least the past two weeks have been fun! The dance troupe did great, and our classes were a great success. I'm glad we did those."
"Yes, it's been a lot of fun. But now it's time to go back home." Carolina tried to cheer up her friend. "You can go back to sitting on your patio and enjoying that view of the amazing Cocora Valley."
"You know what I like about the valley? I love it when it's shrouded in clouds, when I can hear the birds singing, and in the distance, the occasional noise of monkeys playing in the trees. Do you remember that?"
"Yeah, it's wonderful. I wish I could live there too."
"That would be great, wouldn't it? I love my home, even if it is far from the town."
Alejandra's mind was still pounding herself with the question, Why didn't I say hi to that man? Now I'll never know who he was and probably never see him again. I wish I had said hi. "Let's go to a couple of the hotels nearby and ask about the gringo." She couldn't get him out of her mind. There has to be something more going on here. I've seen or met many handsome men, but none have affected me the way he has.
"No, you need to find a man in Salento. I'm sure there are plenty of single men you can choose from."
"Seriously? Please, we have time to look around. Besides, I've had enough of local men. They cheat, they have secret wives, girlfriends, or children! No more of that for me!"
"Well, I just don't want to see you get so hung up on a man you'll never see again. Then you'll be depressed because you can't find him and you'll never look for any other man. Then you'll end up single for the rest of your life."
"Jeez, it isn't that bad, is it?"