Lucky at Cards
by Emily Stone
Jim and I split up over twenty-five quetzales, roughly three dollars. We’d had larger sums in our lives. The first time we raised our voices at each other, I had asked him for advice on how to invest the money in my 401k, a casual interest of mine. “My fee is twenty thousand dollars,” he barked at me, and I just laughed at him. In another life, he had been a top-notch financier; he drove a Porsche to work, was photographed for magazines, and kept his own table at the 21 Club. Now he owned the finest restaurant in Guatemala. The food, of course, would never be as good as what he had had in New York, but he liked to be the patrón instead of just the boss, and the wines—which he purchased himself—were the best on the market.
By moving to Guatemala, he had reclaimed the terrain of cloud-soaked mountains and rusty pick-up trucks he had left behind as a child in Montana. He was a voracious reader and a sensualist. When I opened a bookstore in Antigua, Guatemala’s colonial capital, he started to send me bouquets of a flower that he propagated himself, called the “sensation rose.” After the failure of his second marriage (or possibly third), he took me to the desert islands of Cayos Cochinos in Honduras. I spent a week there, half-dressed, swimming naked, holding a glass of rum, and making pasta to accompany his lobster tail when friends came in their boats for dinner.
“We should keep doing this,” he said. And I agreed.
I allowed most of his transgressions. Though he didn’t sleep with his wife anymore, he kept up a relationship with Pilar, the manager of his restaurant. She was a Latin woman, also in a bad marriage, and they had their own kind of erotic codependency. On the drive back from Honduras, I found out he was lying about his age. He needed me to help get his dog (his wife’s dog) across the border. He wasn’t calculating enough to remember that a copy of his passport was in the stack of immigration documents he gave me. But I forgave him quickly. What difference would it have made to a girl like me if he were sixty, or sixty-five?
We all lived on the same street in Antigua. Jim slept above the restaurant, in a private suite with a claw-foot tub at the top of an ancient stone staircase with no railing. In a cul-de-sac set back from the cobble-stoned road, Pilar lived with her husband and two children. A few yards in the other direction was the former estate house of a coffee finca, now converted into apartments; the residents were Jim’s wife, another of his former lovers, a young Guatemalan banker who’d taken me out a few times, and an Israeli mystical healer. The land where the coffee once grew had been cleared to make way for a cluster of pastel-colored, Spanish-style houses, one of which (at least for that moment) belonged to me.
The tiny city had been convulsed by an earthquake in the eighteenth century and it was abandoned soon after. But we foreigners found a way back in, living among the extravagant ruins at the foot of a volcano. We’d all left a world behind somewhere else, and we chose this place for all of its lushness and instability. If we were going to survive, we had to be in it together. I asked Jim for only one consolation: not to bring Pilar to our poker game.
That night in late December, Jim loomed in the doorway of the poker room. He commanded a kind of reverence that Antigua’s soul-searchers were readily waiting to give.
I looked up at him.
“Hello, Beautiful.” He always said that to me, in his cowboy voice, in public if he was feeling demonstrative.
I had just performed as Tiny Tim in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol. I still wore my newsboy cap, but I’d let my long blond hair down, and I was drinking a glass of straight Zacapa rum. I lived as if I belonged in that smoky room in the back of an illegal bar. My primary goal was to keep the guys guessing about me. If I also succeeded in fooling them about my cards, I went home with some extra cash.
Jim took a small stuffed animal, a tiger, from his pocket and placed it in front of my chips before he sat down next to me; it was the kind of present somebody gets for his girl at the state fair. They’d had their Christmas party at the restaurant, he told me, and one of the staff had given it to him.
The maximum bet was twenty-five quetzales. I bet my hand and everyone folded, except Jim. I had him on the last card, my flush against his straight. I had the nuts. I could have nailed him to the floor. But, even for me, Jim was untouchable. In a country where even the gringos ate rice and beans for lunch, he always bought me foie gras and aquavit. I didn’t take him for another 25Q.
Pilar was not allowed at that table anymore. Jim and I had agreed and Ron, who ran the place, made sure of it. If she came into the bar while Jim was playing cards, she had to give a message to the bartender who ferried it to the poker room.
“Jim,” said Little Laila, the Norwegian who worked behind the bar, “Pilar’s here.”
He didn’t move.
I kept playing cards.
Pilar had driven over from the party, and she couldn’t wait anymore that night. Now she was lingering in the doorway. I could tell that she needed him more badly than I, and I needed him so badly that I had to get drunk every time he didn’t show up when I was waiting in my lingerie. She looked at me and my little stuffed tiger.
I looked at Jim.
“Pull up a chair,” he said.
Pilar was so drunk that she could hardly sit on her chair. She was so sad that she held the hand of the stranger sitting next to her.
“I am very angry,” she announced when it was her turn to bet, slurring her words and splashing the pot.
“Who are you angry with?” asked one of the new guys, a seat-fill who didn’t know Pilar, Jim, or me.
“I am very angry,” she said, “at fucking assholes!”
But that wasn’t how we were supposed to play the game. This was the room where we were supposed to keep a straight face, judge our odds, and take our wins and losses the same. Outside of the room was life, where we were supposed to tell the truth, act out, ask each other what we wanted, give each other what we needed. These people had it all wrong.
Pilar loped out of the room, but not before coming close enough to Jim to kiss him. She didn’t kiss him, though. Instead, she whispered in his ear, “How could you give my gift to someone else?”
And I hadn’t even bet into him.
I kept playing. I won most of the hands. I had great cards.
Jim took Pilar home.
I left the tiger in the poker room.
I won five hundred dollars that night. I got into another car and headed for the border again, this time crossing into Mexico, then Texas, driving straight for three nights.
Emily Stone is an MFA candidate and writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. Her travel pieces have appeared in Budget Travel and Travel + Leisure, as well as on the website World Hum. (6/2008)