Thursday, January 23, 2014

Two decades later, a note of thanks to Ester

In 1994
After my first marriage ended in a police showdown in 1994, and the wounds from my cancer surgery healed, I flew to Mexico for a nine-day vacation in a remote stretch of Pacific Coast. I badly needed to get away. Down there I met a 19-year-old senorita, Ester, who spoke about seven words of English, about the same as my Spanish.
How we managed to date over the next five years, during my twice-yearly vacations in Mexico, is a mystery to me I’m still sorting through. There were staggering differences between us – of age, culture, and language, not to mention 3,500 miles. Our conversations were confined to basic sentences, often with the help of a Spanish-English dictionary. But sometimes words matter less than actions. My first marriage left me feeling as if I could never love, or be loved, again; my incurable cancer made me feel it didn’t matter. But Ester, from our very first date, showed me a kindness and courage that gradually convinced me otherwise.
I met her in the developing resort region of Huátulco, at a souvenir shop where she worked. I bought some pottery there and the next-store shopkeeper playfully urged me to ask her out. What the hell, I thought. I was attracted to her exotic looks – long black hair, dark features, slim figure. She moved with Latin grace. The shopkeeper translated for me; that evening I not only took out Ester but several cousins of hers and other relatives. We went to a local disco where I made a fool of myself on the dance floor. But a few nights later her family allowed me to see her alone, and I took her to dinner at a restaurant on a beach.
I’ll never forget that evening. The moon, our candlelight. As waves whispered darkly against the shore, the waiter set in front of me an eighteen-inch long Pacific Coast lobster, its shell black and hard as metal. I felt overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. Without my asking, Ester took my plate, plunged a steak knife into the hard shell, slit it down the back, and unsheathed the succulent meat for me. A few minutes later she returned my plate to me. Gracias, I said, staring at my lobster in the moonlight.
I wasn’t used to a woman so caring and direct. On some neglected level it felt right. I’d exited my first marriage thinking, in a misguided old-fashioned way, that the man should take care of the woman, moreso than she of him. Ester’s example reassured me of another possibility that felt closer to how things should be.
Over the next five years, I returned to Mexico at least twice a year to see Ester. When I wasn’t seeing her, I lived my busy life in New York — working long days at The Associated Press as a reporter, commuting by subway. And during that time, I went through a string of far briefer relationships with American women. At first I told Ester nothing about them. With each relationship I took mental notes, and none seemed as kind or genuine as Ester. Once, she asked me if I was dating in the United States, and I admitted to it. She asked me if I planned to marry her, saying her relatives asked her all the time. She said they thought I was stringing her along. They were right. I was selfish. I am sorry now; I was going through a certain stage of life back then and if it all happened again I’d probably do it all over. That Ester continued to accept me made me feel even more accepted, though in a guilty way.

As we walked along quiet beaches in this developing resort area a few hundred miles north of Guatemala, the simplicity of our relationship helped me heal. Because we shared so few words I could focus on the simple back-and-forth of two people getting to know each other on a basic level.
She taught me, too, that people with very little can be happy. Ester didn’t know she was poor; she slept on a mattress on the dirt floor of a one-room shack and supported her young son, from a previous boyfriend, on the equivalent of $15 a day salary. Meanwhile I stayed at the $200-a-night Sheraton hotel on the ritzy resort strip a few miles away. But there’s a different sort of poverty in less developed places. Ester made do on very little, with help from relatives, not the government. She carried herself with a smile and grace.
I plotted ways to bring us closer. As a reporter at AP I took Spanish lessons at Berlitz, ostensibly to expand my job skills, but also to deepen my conversation with Ester when I visited. I wrote AP travel stories during my vacations with her, in part to better understand her culture and way of life.
As I got to know Ester, I knew Mexico better too. Part of me felt as if I were descending deeper into a hidden world. I began to understand the beauty of southern Pacific Mexico’s dry season: cacti spiraling up between trees crisped by months of cloudless, cobalt blue skies. I grew to love the silences at night – together we watched the pescadoras, or fisherman, out on the water, blue lights glowing.
I talked with her about the possibility of moving closer to each other; those discussions never got very far. Truth is, I feared being with her more than once in a while. Our differences would overwhelm me. We had too much working against us. Not to mention I was Jewish; Ester was a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion that believes Jews are largely damned. Honestly, even if we spoke the same language, we wouldn’t have too much to talk about.
Though I fantasized about rearranging our lives to come together, I realized this was a fantasy. But it wasn’t until I met the woman who would become my second wife that I found the strength to break up with Ester.
Something about Ingrid, my second wife, bridged both gaps –a certain mix of caring, bluntness, honesty, and grace. She was a professional, closer to my intellect, and fluent in English.
You never know what draws two people together – and pulls them apart. One day I phoned Ester and told her I wouldn’t be seeing her again. I told her I’d met another woman and she mailed me an angry letter in Spanish, but I didn’t understand everything she wrote. Ingrid translated for me. Ester felt deeply betrayed. For totally good reason. I’d been stringing her along to get through what I needed to.
Eight years ago, Ingrid insisted we visit Ester so I could tell her I was sorry. The idea intrigued me, and I couldn’t believe Ingrid was suggesting it. I returned to Huátulco with Ingrid and my daughter Sophie, then five years old. I arranged to meet Ester at a restaurant on a beach, not far from where she’d once shelled my lobster. She was with her son, Uriel, who was now fifteen years old. Speaking in bad Spanish, referring to notes Ingrid had written in Spanish on a slip of paper, I apologized to Ester for cutting her off, stringing her along for so many years. I explained it wasn’t a reflection of who she was but rather of the hard times I was going through.
She nodded with acceptance; the five of us spent a lot of time together over the next week. Sophie chased crabs along the beach with Uriel, and they went swimming in a pool at the villa where we were staying. Ester and Ingrid chatted about kids, how life was in New York. Ester showed us new areas of Huátulco, a deserted beach where the waves were especially strong, another with good snorkling. Ester even suggested to Ingrid that we should explore Jehovah’s Witness as a religion.
We said goodbye with hugs, saying we’d keep in touch. My family hasn’t been back to see her, but I think of Ester sometimes, especially when I’m going through a rough patch – how she showed me a path I thought I’d abandoned. I am still grateful to her for that.
Gracias, Ester.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. Click here for info on his upcoming book tour.

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