When Barbara and I came out into the streets that morning, people were scurrying about gathering what stores of food and bottled water and candles they could from the shops. Whole families were jammed into tiny cars with their possessions crammed in around them. They passed us by without a glance in our direction. A Volkswagen bug with giant speakers on its roof circled endlessly through the town, blaring orders, "Do not panic. Be calm. Stay in your homes." I had tried frantically to get us out of there. But the airport was closed and, of course, there were no rental cars to be had. Taxis flew by us as if we weren't there. At last, I'd convinced Barbara we should go to the bus station and get tickets, to Merida, to anywhere at all, just so it was further inland.
We bought tickets but never used them: As we stood in line to board the bus, a man spoke to us in English. He asked where we were going. I said we were going to Merida, or anywhere in between, only to get away from here. He looked gravely at his the ground beneath his feet.
Finally he spoke: “Do not do that. It will be very bad to be on a bus out on the roads. You do not know the hurricane in this part of the Caribe. The Yucatan peninsula is flat and will be covered in water completely if this hurricane comes in here and now. This hurricane is now out in the Caribe, it bounces between Cozumel and Jamaica and Cuba, and the longer it stays over water the stronger it becomes. It is already called a monster storm."
“Then what should we do?”
“Stay here in Cancun. Go back to your hotel Get up as high as you can. I go to Vallodolid, because I have family there. But, even there, nothing is certain.”
I was furious that there was no escape from this monster, and filled with dread. Barbara seemed oblivious. So, we left the bus station and came to sit at the café across from our hotel, because it had a radio, and there were people there. Barbara chewed her food and I smoked one cigarette after another. Fear was a metallic taste in my mouth and a stone in my belly.
Then the news came over the radio that the cyclone gigante had gone away. They didn't say where, but it was gone, far away, and we could go to the Island.
So we came, at last, to my Isla. Even now, when I go there, and the ferry slides in alongside the dock, and the deck hands jump between ferry and dock to whip the hawsers tight around the posts to hold the ferry fast, and the engines are cut and the gangplank is laid down and I walk across it, I am trembling.
Then my feet touch the familiar, weathered planks of the dock, and I just stand there and let the Island take me. The wet, salty air, hot and sweet with the sun and the smells of the Island and her bright sea, wraps around me and clings to me, pressing against me until I feel I will fall to my knees. Now this feeling that comes over me is one of sweet returning, a lover's welcome when I've been away too long. But I know the heart of it, and it goes back to the day I came to Isla chastened by a storm.
Barbara and I left the ferry dock that day and walked the cobbled streets to find the small hotel where I had stayed almost three years before. Since the village that spans the narrow, north end of the island was quite small, we had no trouble finding it.
I don't remember the name of that hotel anymore, though I know it's still there, but in my mind I see it as we saw it then. A small, high-walled courtyard guarded by a low concrete-block fence. A three-storied, concrete-block building painted the color of an avocado. Flowers grew up the inner courtyard walls. A little dim room shuttered with jalousies, two sagging twin beds and up a high step a bano: toilet, sink and a shower that was no more than an ancient shower head and faucets behind a plastic shower curtain stretched across one half of the room. A sluggish drain in the floor behind the curtain struggled to keep the water from covering the bathroom floor when we showered.
But we were there. We spent the rest of that long afternoon lying in the sun on the beach. By the time we walked back to the hotel I was feeling calm, relaxed, indolent and sleek. The sun was dipping over the Yucatan peninsula, the village lights were coming on, and the Caribbean was beating sweetly against the far side of the island.
After showers and makeup and dressing, we descended the stairs and walked out into the streets. It was well after sundown. The air was cooling. The streets still held the last warmth of the day. It was August. The lights of the shops were dim and the streets were sweet with new-laid dust. Dogs and children sat in front of open doorways of the little houses that lined the streets. Inside the houses, candles were lit before statues of La Virgen and kitchen fires flared bright as the women finished cooking la cena. The smell of garlic simmering in oil was heavy and sweet on the night air. It is a tiny, delicious island. Barbara and I were feeling quite delicious ourselves.