Teresa stood on the hotel balcony overlooking Panama City and poured herself a glass of champagne and tried again to remember the last words her husband said to her before he died. Emerald-winged parrots flew around silver skyscrapers, making squawking noises as they traveled toward the open sea. Clouds, reflected in the windows of the tall buildings which encircled the hotel, mirrored the sky and looked tranquil, as if heaven might be beyond the glass walls. It was twilight, that space between day and night, when she most missed her husband, Cliff.
Her husband died here in Panama City, a year ago, when a taxi driver hit him as he crossed La Flores Street. The vendor selling fruit nearby said the taxi driver swerved to avoid a pot hole. Her husband had climbed Machu Pichu, floated down the Nile and trekked through Nepal, but was defeated by a pot hole.
What bothered her now, as it did often since Cliff’s death, was that Teresa could not remember the exact last words she and her husband had spoken to one another. Their last conversation had been hurried. Cliff, a respected landscape architect, had just started to explain the property he’d hoped to be hired to design when another call came in. She couldn’t recall how their conversation ended. Did he say I love you? Had she said I love you? Death had tainted her memory and made it unreliable.
She’d visited this spacious seventieth-floor balcony of the Hotel Bella Vista, with its steamy hot tub, lounge chairs, and stunning city view, each evening since checking in two days ago. It was the start of rainy season and the hotel was quiet. She’d been to this hotel before with Cliff, visiting old friends who retired here. They sat on this same balcony, drank red wine and once they had even made love in this hot tub, laughing when the maid had spied them through the glass windows that separated the balcony from the hallway. She felt as if she were remembering a scene from a movie rather than her own life. Already it felt very long ago that she could call herself a married woman. Now people called her widow. That title made her think of spiders, tombs, and darkness.
Humid air pressed against her like a second skin and frizzed her hair. She slipped off her jeweled sandals and dipped her feet into the bubbly hot tub as she sipped the icy champagne. All her senses felt heightened by the contrast of hot and cold.
To think a body could be reduced to nothing more than dust felt impossible right now. And, yet, on the table beside the hot tub was the urn containing Cliff’s cremains. On the urn was written in black lettering: Clifford James Dobson. That’s what they were called. Not ashes, said the mortuary. Cremains. She had not yet decided what to do with them.
Her daughter, Gaylia, said she should toss her father on the hiking trail near their home in Boulder, Colorado. “Daddy would have wanted that,” she said. If only she knew for certain what he wanted. She searched her mind again for his last words to her and again, nothing.
Earlier that day she had visited St. Xavier church near the hotel to have the priest bless the urn. The calm silence of the church had been a relief after the sticky air, the honks of cars and pungent scents of food being prepared by vendors on crowded sidewalks. By the time she reached the church, the urn cradled in her arm, she felt as if she had navigated an obstacle course. Gardenia bushes flanked the church and she wished Cliff was there to see their delicate beauty. He loved the lushness of Panama, with it’s tropical climate and jungles brimming with plant life. He told her that on the last phone call. Or had he? Did she just make it up? All she could remember was an image of him sprawled on a street with the life dripping out from him.
When she arrived at St. Xavier there was a baptismal, and she waited for the ceremony to end watching as a baby dressed in a frilly white gown was sprinkled with holy water. A young couple beamed even as the child shrieked in protest. Teresa held the urn and stared at the ornate decorative glass and stone ceiling.
She played the game she played with herself since Cliff’s death. What last words would she have wanted Cliff to say? Would he have told her he wished he had spent more time with her and their girls when they were small? Sometimes she imagined he said he how sorry he still for the affair. It had been so many years ago and yet she remembered.
When the baptism ended, she smiled at the young couple holding their squalling baby and for a moment she felt happy. The briefest of moments, like a tiny droplet of water on a flower petal, and then felt guilty at allowing herself to be separated from sadness.
With her limited Spanish she asked the priest dressed in scarlet and white, to say a prayer over the Cliff’s urn. He nodded, made the sign of the cross, and said a prayer in Spanish. She recognized the words amor, paz and santo.
“Gracias padre.” He smiled, and she noticed his two front teeth were gold capped. She wished she could tell Cliff this. All the things she wanted to tell him were piling up, like cement blocks that were slowly separating them until the wall would be so high there would be no climbing over.
As she had left the church, her thoughts were interrupted by a text from, Pedro, her newly-hired landscaper saying her plants had a bug infestation. Should he spray? He sent a photo of the bug, a crawly-looking black thing with wings. Teresa shuddered and wrote: Yes. Please spray. And then he asked if she wanted another rose bush planted near the front door to replace the one that had died in the winter. Cliff liked roses there. But each time a rose bush was planted there it died. Maybe this time it would live. She texted Yes. She never had to worry about the landscaping before. That was Cliff’s forte.
Then a moment later it was another text from one of the friends she was meeting for lunch that day. Would she prefer authentic Panamanian cuisine or something more American? She texted without thinking: Yes.
Her phone chimed again. Joe, her car mechanic, said “You need a new transmission, Teresa.” As he provided more mechanical details — of which she understood little — she noticed an elderly couple sitting side by side on a bench across the street holding hands. The grey-haired woman wore a yellow dress. He had a panama hat and matching white suit coat. They reminded her of a bouquet of daises. It struck her that Cliff and she would never become elderly together.
She had the urge to sketch them, capture what she and Cliff would miss. In college she had always carried a sketch pad with her. Marriage and children had left little time for art but now she felt the desire, one she had long ago put aside. She wondered if her art pencils were still in the basement, or perhaps Cliff had thrown them away. He had been doing a lot of organizing. They had planned to sell the house and downsize next year when he retired. If she could talk to him one more time would she have thanked him, told him much she appreciated how hard he worked for her and their two children.
“Yes. Please fix the car,” said Teresa cutting off Joe as he rambled on. Just the thought of starting over, shopping for a new car and the myriad of decisions that would entail made her tired.
At lunch that afternoon she dined with two long-time married couples, friends of her and Cliff’s. They’d encourage her and Cliff to retire in Panama. As they dined Teresa politely listened. Playing it safe, her friends had picked a corporate restaurant from America that served steaks. Teresa was a vegetarian, but she said nothing and ordered a fruit salad. Her friends made a point to avoid Cliff’s death, as if by not talking about death they would be immune. How naïve of them, thought Teresa sipping her sparkling water to avoid the conversation which centered around grandchildren, real estate investments, future travel plans and health ailments.
The couples were chatty, the two women especially, and Teresa’s mind wandered. She noticed white flowers skirted the covered outdoor patio where they sat. It began to drizzle, softly, and she had the desire to pluck one of the white flowers and tuck it into her hair.
“Teresa,” Lucy said. She looked up and saw her friends concerned expressions.
“I’m fine,” she said automatically.
“We were wondering if you wanted us to come with you to spread Cliff’s ashes. Did you decide where?” asked Lucy. “Do you need help?”
“Creamins not ashes,” said Teresa. Once the words came out she realized how snippy she sounded. She forced a smile. “I haven’t decided yet. I might toss them on the street where Cliff died,” said Teresa. She hadn’t planned to say this, but the words just came out.
Her friends looked taken aback. “But I thought you were going to….,” Lucy started and then Sam shot his wife a stern glance.
“Whatever you decide,” said Lucy.
“Cliff would have been able to tell me the names of these flowers,” said Teresa pointing to the row of pants near their table. “Now I will just be able to say they are pretty. I won’t know the right words.”
The table fell silent. Her friends shifted in their seats and looked uncomfortable.
“Well, honey, they are pretty,” said Lucy patting her hand.
The waiter interrupted with the check and there was a good-natured debate of who should pay that Teresa was too tired to join.
As they were leaving the restaurant she reached down and plucked one of the flowers and tucked it in her hair. Lucy hugged her and whispered, “You know we are here for you. We love you. You’re doing so well.”
“Yes, I guess I am,” said Teresa.
She was sinking into the taxi seat when she got a text from one of the women in her book club in Colorado. Teresa would you host the club next month? Teresa texted: Yes. She listened to a voice mail message from the yoga studio she managed. The studio owners wanted to do a special gong yoga class in honor of Cliff. Some guru from India would be in town. They needed her to call them back as soon as possible.
The taxi driver tailgated and honked at everything in his path, zigzagging through traffic like a crazy person. Teresa felt no fear. Instead she thought how ironic it would be if she would die inside a taxi. She couldn’t speak Spanish so there would be no last words to him. She had told her friends she loved them before they parted. She wanted no more doubt.
The taxi driver who hit Cliff had disappeared. The authorities said he likely went into hiding in the still-wild jungles of Panama. Sometimes she imagined tracking him down, going from village to village, until she found him. Then she would ask him if Cliff screamed out anything when he slammed his taxi into her husband’s body. Did he say her name?
Now in the hot tub, Teresa let the bubbles consume her. She drank more champagne and reached for the pack of cigarettes she had purchased for the first time in years. What did it matter anymore? Health. No health. There were no guarantees. She finished the cigarette and shut her eyes, floating far away as if she were in one big bubble. She sank deeper into the water.
Teresa opened her eyes to see who had popped her invisible bubble. A hotel maid stood smiling at her holding a towel. Her name tag said Lupita. Her long dark hair was swirled into a bun on top of her head. She had creamy brown skin and her lips were painted a bright pink to match her uniform.
“Much hot,” said the maid. She shook her head and her smile faded.
Teresa sighed and nodded.
The maid handed her a towel and her smile returned. A tiny glittery cross dangled around her neck.
“What a beautiful name. Lupita,” said Teresa.
The maid turned and tilted her head. “Gracias. You feel okay now?”
Teresa stared into the woman’s face, tired from making beds and cleaning floors and watching out for wealthy Americans who want to drown in hot tubs. “Gracias. Si.”
Lupita left to go scrub toilets and fold towels, and Teresa extinguished her cigarette and climbed out of the hot tub. She wrapped herself in Cliff’s bath robe. She hadn’t washed it since he died. For once she did not reach into the pockets hoping for a stray piece of paper with a message on how to proceed with her life. The robe still smelled of him. Of love. Of what had been.
Rain fell in tiny drops that decorated the pink flowers on the balcony. She tilted her face up toward the sky and exhaled. And then took another breath and then another, wordlessly moving on.
Susanne Brent was born in Chicago and moved to Denver where she earned a journalism degree from Metropolitan State University in Denver. She moved to the desert of Arizona to work as a small town newspaper reporter and then to Phoenix to study creative writing and work as a freelance writer. She is currently working on a novel and her blog is thatsnotmytable.wordpress.com