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If anyone asked, I could say I was on the Granada-bound train for the ride, and for the smell of rain coming into the windowless car. I might mention the bright green banana leaves and peasants waving along the tracks, or the sellers of nacatamales and guayaba juice who boarded at every stop. I could add I was going to Granada to bathe in the sultry saltwater lake or to take a boat to one of the islands, to sleep in a thatched-roof hut and listen to the monkeys cry. Perhaps I could pretend I wanted to go back to the hospedaje where I first stayed, to sit in a rocking chair in the courtyard and listen to Doña Alicia gossip and complain.
The truth is that I was on the Granada-bound train to see Alfredo, only one week after I’d left him for the last time. I sat next to the open door and let the rain dampen my face, just as I had done the first time, when Alfredo took my face in his hands and said, “You look so beautiful.”
“You must see Granada,” the owner of my hotel said on my first day in this country. “And you must go there on the train.”
Granada, he explained, was a replica of its Spanish namesake, a jewel of a city set in a special spot between black volcanic hills and a vast blue-green lake that stretched further than the eye could contemplate. The water in the lake, he went on, was salty, the same as the sea, warm and filled with sharks. Throughout the lake were pristine islands, like emeralds spit into water. Parrots and palm trees, even monkeys, populated the islands, and local artists painted the landscape in colourful, minute detail, not missing a single chicken or banana tree or bright blue bird.
Moments after the train left the capital, I could see why I had been told to travel this way. The landscape we slowly moved through burst with color. The sky was dark, nearly purple in places, and the darkness helped saturate the land the richest shades. Banana and coffee leaves throbbed a vibrant green. After the rain stopped, the leaves shone. Purple and reddish-pink bougainvillea spilled over fences like bright tongues. Smoke rose in wide circles from the chimneys of small red-tile roofed houses. Even in the rain, people came out. Men with dark faces wearing wide straw hats smiled and waved as we went by.
In the damp air, I imagined Alfredo’s face as I saw it that first day, peeking out under a green rain poncho. His dark eyes. The curls stuck to his forehead from rain blowing in the open door.
“You are so beautiful,” he said.
Tiny beads of water clung to Alfredo’s black moustache. A few fragile crystals hung onto his eyebrows.
I smiled and turned away from him, not wanting to miss a minute of the breathtaking landscape rolling past.
When the train stopped to let on more passengers, Alfredo jogged away from my side. I thought he had gotten off and was a little disappointed but also relieved. While I was no longer surprised at how men here could suddenly become enamoured with me – a light-skinned, green-eyed blond – I hadn’t gotten used to this at all.
The next thing I heard was the jittery sound of metal scraping against metal that signaled the train’s departure. Then I felt fingers lightly tapping my shoulder.
“You are beautiful, like the bougainvillea,” Alfredo said, handing me a slender stem with purple petals glittering from the rain.
The car was crowded with men and women, kids and woven coffee sacks, colored straw baskets overflowing with folded shirts and crisp bread and orange-skinned mangoes. The only place left to breathe was next to the open door. How many times had I sat in this spot on my way to see Alfredo? How many times had I told myself the trip would be my last?
Alfredo was kind enough that first day to take me to Doña Alicia’s hospedaje, a two-block walk from the lake. He rented a royal blue motorboat and we sailed to one of the small islands, where we ate fresh-caught fish under a canopy of palm trees on a wooden porch. He told me that he traveled to the different islands to paint, sleeping in the simple huts, getting to know the peasants who lived there, and living off the fish and fruits and vegetables from the small plots of land they cultivated.
“I went all the way to Paris to study art,” Alfredo said. “Now, I have come back home to find that the peasants of these islands have more to teach me about art than all the world-renowned teachers in France.”
When I awoke with Alfredo in the small square room I had rented from Doña Alicia, sunlight sliding through the narrow bamboo window slats fell in lines across our skin. Alfredo traced the light on my legs, his fingers moving up to my neck, and then my forehead.
“What I love about this country is the light,” he said, kissing me and twisting his fingers in my hair. “The light is so thick and sad. It is impossible not to fall deeply in love here, because of the light.”
Riding the Granada-bound train, I couldn’t stop wondering how Alfredo would paint the passing scene. I felt sure he would want to capture all the details. The skinny dark-skinned boy wearing red shorts, with a scrawny gray and brown dog running behind him. White chickens pecking and scratching in a brown dirt yard. A woman wearing a bright green dress and pink apron, smiling and waving from the doorway of a turquoise stone house.
As the train moved along the tracks, I thought about that evening in the capital when I saw Alfredo’s paintings for the first time. It was raining and just getting dark, as I shook water from my umbrella and stepped inside. Glancing around the gallery, what struck me was the color. Small squares saturated with turquoise, red and a lush, lush green hung a careful distance apart on the clean white walls. People stood in their colorful clothes, talking and sipping wine in the center of the room. Others, alone in front of the canvases, leaned in close to see the tiny birds and curled bananas hanging from the wide-leafed trees.
I looked for Alfredo and when I found him, I quickly looked away. I felt his eyes on me as I turned and headed for the door, the quick thunderclap of my thin heels assaulting the floor beneath the steady hum of conversation.
On the porch, I stopped to open my umbrella. Raindrops landed with a smack on the thin curled metal roof.
“You are leaving before you have even seen the paintings,” Alfredo said, when he came up behind me, so close, I could hear him breathe. “I wanted to introduce you to some people. Why are you going?”
“I can’t see you with her,” I said, not turning around to face Alfredo, but continuing to watch the rain. “I’ll see the paintings another time.”
As I started to open my umbrella, Alfredo turned me around to face him.
“It is only a show,” he said. “What is real is what everyone does not see.”
“How can it be real if no one sees it? How can I know it’s real?”
“It cannot be controlled. Doesn’t that make it real?”
He reached his hand out from under the porch roof and cupped his palm.
“If I catch the rain in a barrel, it is no longer rain. Rain must fall. That is the essence of rain. What you think you saw tonight was not love. It is as much like love as water in the barrel is like rain. She is my wife, the mother of my children. You are the woman I love.”
The mist in front of my eyes now was brought on by the memories of Alfredo that rose up whenever I rode the Granada-bound train. The sound of the rain hitting the metal car and the fertile smell of the dark dirt reminded me of an afternoon when I was swimming in the warm salty lake with him and the rain started falling. We watched the rain hit the water from a dark protected spot close to a nearly deserted island. The only sound interrupting the steady beat of rain against the leaves was the song of one lone bird.
Alfredo kissed my wet lips and pulled my bathing suit off in the water and dropped it on the high bank. With the rain wetting my already damp hair, Alfredo made love to me, as both of us listened to the insistent song of that one invisible bird.
“Would you mind if I sit here?” the voice said, almost in a whisper.
I looked up to see a dark face. Perfect drops of rain were clinging to the beige hood of the man’s thin plastic poncho.
“No,” I said and turned back toward the open door.
“It is a beautiful ride,” the man said, after he was seated. “Even in the rain.”
“Yes. I think the rain makes everything more beautiful.”
“I think you are right,” the man said. “I never thought of it that way.”
We sat in silence, staring at the landscape, as the train moved slowly south. I felt a light tap on my arm and turned to see the man holding out a long loaf of bread.
“Would you like some?” he asked.
“No. Thank you for asking. I will be having lunch in Granada.”
“So, you are going to Granada.”
“Is this your first visit?”
“No, I have been there before.”
“Oh, that is good,” he said. “Granada is a very special place.”
“I think so,” I said. “But why do you think it is special?”
“It is a wild place. But it is also protected. The volcanoes are silent now, but we never know when they will burst with fire again. The lake is beautiful and warm but filled with sharks. They say that people have been lost on the islands in the lake, never to be heard from again.
“Once you have been to Granada, you must keep returning. I know. I have left dozens of times, yet I always find myself coming back.”
I sat in silence and thought about what this stranger had just said.
“It’s funny,” I said. “I thought it was just me. Even when I tell myself I am through with the place, I keep coming back. Now, you are saying it happens to others.”
“Oh, yes,” he said and laughed. “I have gone to many beautiful places in the world. I could practically live anywhere. But I keep coming back to Granada.”
I thought about the last time I was on the Granada-bound train, silently telling myself that the trip would be my last. As I walked away from the train to where Alfredo stood waiting near the tracks, I told myself to remember the feeling of Alfredo leaving in the night to go back home to his wife.
“I have missed you,” Alfredo said, holding me so close I could barely breathe. “I am glad you have come.”
That night I couldn’t eat, stirring the metal spoon slowly, around and around the thick red broth of my seafood soup.
“You are not eating. Do you feel all right?” Alfredo asked.
“No. I don’t feel all right.”
“What is the matter?”
“I can’t keep doing this, Alfredo. I can’t. This visit will be my last.”
Alfredo made love to me that night like a desperate man.
“It is so good with you,” Alfredo said, kissing me between his words. “Being with you is like painting to me. Something comes over me in your presence and I lose myself. This is what happens when I am with you. Don’t you see that we must be together?”
“If you feel that way, Alfredo, why can’t you leave your wife?”
“What you and I have is wild. Something free. If we tried to capture it, it would be the same as putting the lion in a cage. He looks the same but his spirit is out there somewhere, running free. If I left my wife and married you, my spirit would be out there, running free.”
The soft voice of the man in the beige poncho suddenly broke through my thoughts.
“Are you in love with someone in Granada?” he asked.
My face grew warm and red beneath the humid dampness.
“Oh, forgive me,” the man said. “It is not my business. Please excuse me.
“I always ask too much,” he went on. “It is impolite, I know. I have a curiosity, so I ask.”
“Yes, I am,” I said, after leaning my face out the door to let the wind and rain cool me.
“That is what I thought,” the man said, smiling. “Why else would a beautiful woman be on the Granada-bound train, alone, again and again? I wonder, though, why he doesn’t ask you to stay with him in Granada.”
I waited in silence for the man to take back his question.
“Oh, I am going too far again,” the man said, almost as if he were talking to himself. “I know that. It is not a lack of manners that makes me ask too much. My mother and father raised me well. It is a game in a way. Like a puzzle really. What else is there to do on a long train ride but put the pieces together?”
I turned to the man and took several quick breaths, trying to calm myself before speaking.
“So, you use people’s lives and emotions to amuse yourself. Is that it? And afterwards, what happens then? Do you sit with your friends drinking beer, telling them about the silly woman you met on the train, who goes to Granada again and again, to be with a man who will never leave his wife for her?”
“It is not like that all. You think I see this conversation as something trivial, something unimportant. That is not so. This conversation is everything. I could sit here in silence next to you, walk off the train and be hit by car. My life over, just like that! If I don’t live this moment, there is no point in going on. For this moment is all I have.”
“That’s a pretty morbid way of looking at things.”
“In one sense, yes. In another sense, no. Isn’t it sadder to think about living forever in silence? Isn’t it sadder to think I could ride all the way to Granada next to a beautiful woman and not know a thing about her? Isn’t it sadder to see all the pieces but never try to put them together?”
“You think about life in a way I never do,” I said. “I’m always planning for what’s going to happen next or brooding about the past. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole ride. It never occurred to me to ask you anything about yourself. I don’t even know your name.”
“Mario Pravia,” he said, holding out his right hand. “I am pleased to meet you.”
I shook his hand and looked at him, without telling him my name.
“Okay, then. Let me ask you a question. If you were in love with a married woman who said she was deeply in love with you and not in love with her husband but wouldn’t leave him to marry you, would you keep seeing her?”
“I am not one to ask such questions,” Mario said and laughed. “I have ideas. Big ideas. But I am the last man in the world who can take these ideas and put them into my life. No, I am not someone to ask for advice.”
“From what you said, the future is irrelevant. Why should we plan for the future if it might never come?”
“Yes, I suppose I did say that. I don’t know what any of this means when it comes to love. Love is like the volcano. Completely unpredictable.”
“Are you in love with someone, Mario?”
“I am always in love,” he said and smiled again. “For instance, right now, I am in love with you.”
I looked at Mario and when my face grew warm again, I turned away.
“This is what I am saying. I am not a good person to ask for advice about love. But you see how easy it is for two people to get all tangled up. Here, I have only known you a short time and look what has happened to us.”
Mario reached under his poncho into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, holding it out to me. I slid a cigarette from the pack, even though I hadn’t smoked for nearly seven years. With his thumb and first finger, Mario pinched a cigarette between his lips, struck a match and cupped it near my mouth, then moved it close to his.
Smoke swirled between us as we sat, inhaling and exhaling in silence. For the first time, I noticed the small straw bag set next to Mario, filled with books. I noticed the way his black hair was flecked with several strands of silver. I noticed the way his thick dark fingers curled around the slender cigarette, a breath from the filter.
“It is the same, you see,” he said.
“What is the same?”
“A man can make love to a woman with his body,” he said, twirling his cigarette in the air, making ever-smaller circles of smoke. “Or he can make love to a woman with his mind.”
I took a long, slow drag and let the heat of the cigarette burn the back of my throat.
“Look,” I said, pointing in the direction the train was headed. “We’re almost there. I know when we pass this farm, we only have a few minutes left.”
“Only a few minutes left?” Mario asked. “What can I say to you with only a few minutes left?”
“I don’t know,” I said, flicking the hair on top of my head with my fingers as I checked my reflection in a small mirror. “What is it that you want to say?”
“Only that I wish you were coming to Granada to see me.”
I gestured with my head as rain fell lightly on Mario’s poncho.
“There’s Alfredo,” I said. “I have enjoyed talking with you. I won’t forget what you said.”
As I turned away, Mario slid a small slip of white paper into my hand.
“Here is my address. I have no phone.”
Mario looked over to where Alfredo was standing, just inside the covered waiting area, out of the rain.
“If you decide not to visit Alfredo anymore but you want to come back to Granada, you will find me there.”
I stared at Mario while the rain soaked my hair and face. He smiled and with his free right hand wiped the water from his chin.
“I have so many pieces to put together now,” I said.
Mario glanced over again to where Alfredo was waiting, staying dry out of the rain.
“All I know is that this piece is beautiful,” he said, and I watched him as the rain poured down and he stepped away from the train.