Oh, Zama

Scanning the map of Isla Mujeres gave MeiMei the impression of a medial view of the human hand: long and narrow with fingers pointing north and the “thumb” creating a narrow inland lagoon. The thumb area was apparently called “Sac Bajo”, a typical local mixture of Spanish and Mayan. So here she was right here, at the first knuckle on that thumb, identified on the map by a little number “9”; a lovely spa/restaurant named Zama. But none of the other numbers referred to “Evil Artifact Thief’s Yacht/Lair”. Leaving her a bit stumped. She realized that the lagoon would be the location of any yacht swagers or whatever they called them: sheltered water like Lake Union back in Seattle. But that didn’t narrow it down and she couldn’t find anywhere to scope the lagoon out since it was ringed by thick mangroves. Inconvenient.

She’d found Dolphin Discovery and asked about “Curtsy”, partly courtesy to the helpful Puch and partly because it was the only name she knew on the island. At the desk of what was a startlingly large pleasure park for, apparently, human contact with penned dolphins, the receptionist had snickered when she asked and two male employees couldn’t keep their faces straight long enough to give her a straight answer. So she’d found this Zama place, a really nice beachfront retreat with freshwater pools, a killer view across the bay at the white underbelly of the Cancun hotel zone, a huge conical palapa over marble floors and hardwood tables, and so many breeze-stirred white gauze hangings it looked like Maxville Parrish’s washday. Especially since that breeze was starting to whip a little. Into a freshet or gust or whatever.

There was a long dock, which made her wonder if yachties hung out there sometimes, but at the moment it was empty except for a college couple who looked like they’d forgotten to go home after spring break, smooching graphically in one of the tiered pools. And this haughty black woman who showed up later in a bright red caftan, sort of cruising the place like a runway model before deciding it met her Iman-class standards and settling into sipping some see-through drink and intimidating the waiters. Oh, and the short, vaguely Asian guy who wandered up off the beach barefoot, sipping a margarita. She glanced at him: not many Asians around this area, but Isla Mujeres was apparently a worldwide destination. He looked kind of academic: exactly the kind of guy she got tired of as an undergrad.

She continued regarding the numbers on the map, looking for something that might provide a boatish clientele or observation tower. He startled her when he spoke from just behind her.

“Not fair, you’ve complicated the whole issue.”

It was the little Asian guy, of course, lurking just inside the shadow of her cream canvas umbrella. Or whatever he was. Definitely some sort of geek with no gift for icebreakers. Kind of appealing in itself. She said, “Well, I’m always in favor of simple issues.”

He pointed at her arm, eyes unseen behind the big glasses that gave him sort of a Ferdinand Marcos look. Oh, of course: Filipino. And yeah, some sort of academic because he came off like a gradschool lecturer with, “We residents learn to judge how long visitors have been here by their skin tone. You learn to practically read a travel itinerary off bronzed and peeling shoulders.”

Well, points for originality at least. Big fat zero in finesse. “So I’m cheating by being Asian? Or by this farmer tan?”

“Exactly. You don’t live here, but you’re not a tourist trying to flash melatonin back home.”

“Are you making a study?” Just saying that made the guy seem a little familiar. Wait a minute…

“Well, I’m a bit of a generalist.”

That’s it! Tuan DeTomaso! Wow! “A bit? Didn’t they call you ‘the last generalist’? What was it, Newsweek?”

“News and World, actually. And actually I did not utter the ‘beyond this point in time nobody can really know it all’ quote. That’s crazy. What would be the point of knowing everything? Do you really think even DaVinci really knew it all?”

“But if you’re not over-specialized, then you must be…”

“A generalist. Who was it they called the Generalisimo?”

“Now see, a true generalist would know that. Chiang Kai Shek. The Taiwanese dictator. My parents were Taiwanese. And also named Chiang.”

“So do you have a Taipei personality?”

She laughed. This guy was sure more fun than he looked. “No, I’m more a relaxed Type B. I wouldn’t even get uptight if you had a seat. Generally speaking.”

He sat and removed the glasses. Nice eyes: intelligent and gentle but not overly soft. He said, “My friends call me O.B.”

“So you didn’t generalize enough to get into GYN as well?”

He chuckled and waved his empty glass to an attentive waiter. “I live in San Diego. Actually a sort of anomaly called Ocean Beach.”

“They have an ocean right there at the beach? Convenient.”

“Lots of Filipinos reside in Sandy Eggo. So there was another Tuan in the department at UCSD. That was back when I was in physics. He lived in Pacific Beach, so he was P.B. Tuan. We were trying to recruit another Flipino physicist from Imperial Beach to complete the set.”

“I.B. Tuan?”

“No, I be Tuan. I thought we’d established that.”

“I be May. Nice to meet you. So you live here? Cool.”

“Not this time of year. But as long as there’s wind, it’s bearable.” He pointed down the lacy-edged coast, where a series of the long shallow-water docks picketed the shoreline and masts bobbed in the rising wind. That’s my place there, by the green hull.”

“Wow, very nice boat. Even from here, I can tell it’s classy.”

“Great lines. Formosa 40. Thirty years old, real teak. Hey, another Taiwan connection.”

“Must be nice being a boat person around here. Looks like there’s quite a community.”

“Ah, yes, we’re quite the yachtie set. Pilots of the Caribbean.”

As he spoke a sharp blast of wind blew the skirts of their umbrella up and strained its pole against the table with a loud creak. He quickly grabbed the pole until the gust passed. “Unusual getting wind this strong on the leeward side, instead of windward. Makes you question your whole vocabulary. Lot of these southerlies this year, maybe why the beaches are eroding. Oceanography’s not really my specialty.”

“I thought you didn’t have a specialty.”

“Not any more. I’ve been getting interested in why the beaches are getting eaten away, though. As one will when one has an expensive house on a beach. It might actually be water level rising. Global warming, perhaps? I lay the blame squarely on Al Gore.”

“Inconvenient, if true.”

Another gust made the umbrella dance again, rattling in its hole in the tabletop. Waiters were hurriedly collapsing umbrellas at other tables. The black model’s wide straw hat blew off and landed in one of the pools. She paid absolutely no attention.

MeiMei watched the wind toying heavy-handedly with all the white canvas and gauze, cocked her ear to the oddly nautical sounds it was whacking out of the woodwork. “The spars creaking and canvas flapping, it’s like being on a windjammer or something.”

“Any stronger and it’ll be like riding a helicopter.”

“I like it. Let’s grab the pole and when it blows it away we can get the Mary Poppins tour of paradise.”

“Or more prosaically, we can move out of the wind. Have you eaten? Tried Cuban food?”

“They have Cuban food here?”

“They certainly don’t have it in Cuba. What are the three biggest successes of the Cuban Revolution?” He stood, making a motion to the bartender that produced a nod, but no check.

“There must be some,” May mused as she grabbed her purse and sunglasses.

“Medicine, sports, and literacy.” He held her chair for her to rise, something that happened rarely in these egalitarian days. “What are the three biggest failures of the Cuban Revolution?”

“Aside from the obvious?”

“Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” He made a courtly gesture, escorting her towards the cabstand at the street. “But Cuban cuisine survives in exile.”

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