A man, Ernesto, walked over to me and handed me a beer, the bottle warm from being held too tight. I carried it in my hand for two hours as he talked. I listened; he knew my grandfather and my uncles, too.
I left the café as the moon clipped the trees. The guy who had given me the beer, and knew most of my family, left with me. We walked toward the center of town.
Ernesto's face was long with fat black eyebrows that bristled over his dirt-gray eyes. He had a nervous tick when he spoke; his eyes squinted compulsively.
"Mr. Tom, my house is not far now," he said. Blink. "You will have another drink with me, yes?"
"I've had enough to drink."
"You like whiskey, yes?" Blink. His thick black hair was stiff in the breeze.
"I told you before, I like whiskey, but I've had enough to drink."
"You no my friend. You think Ernesto use drunk talk when he asks you to have a drink with him"
I could tell he was getting sore. His squinting accelerated as if his eyes were filling up with sand.
"Ernesto is not drunk," he declared and fell silent.
"I never said you were drunk. It's me, I can't hold my liquor. I get drunk very fast."
He turned and, with deliberate heavy steps, walked on ahead of me. I let him get some distance. But after a short while he stopped and rushed back. He planted his heavy feet in front of me. "It's because I am poor," he said and hit his chest with the palm of his hand, "that you will not drink with me . . .
As we approached Ernesto's house, he jerked at my elbow, pulling me toward the light in the window.
"Please, one more drink," he kept repeating, "You are hungry, yes? My wife will feed us. She is a very good cook. It is the reason I married her," he winked at me, again, slowly. I couldn't tell if it was intentional or just his nervous tick.
"Senhor Ernesto, it is late, and I don't think your wife will be pleased to see two men drunk at her door at this hour. I'm sure she's in bed," I told him, but he did not let up on the grip on my elbow. I didn't resist when he pulled me to the door and fumbled with his keys. He swore at his hands and handed me the keys.
"You will unlock the door for me, my friend."
I tried to give him back the keys, but he refused; reluctantly I unlocked the door and was pushed in.
"No, no Mr. Tom, you will sit, and we will drink some wine and eat." He drew a chair for me, then left and went to wake up his wife.
The kitchen was no bigger than some bathrooms I've seen back in the States. A small rectangle wooden table, covered by a red and white checkered table cloth, held a chipped white porcelain bowl with some overripe bananas and three sad looking oranges. The counter was covered with dark green linoleum that had peeled away around the edges of the sink, exposing black and water logged wood beneath it.
But the kitchen was clean.
When Ernesto reappeared, a small stout woman trailed behind him. Her eyes were red with sleep; her hair matted to the sides of her face. She stood beside her husband fussing with her hair and apologizing for her small kitchen. Ernesto told me that her name was Nuemia. She laughed when I mispronounced it as I rose to shake her plump, warm hand. She apologized again for the kitchen and for not having anything prepared.
I assured her that I was not hungry and she needn't go through any trouble. While I was talking to his wife, Ernesto disappeared several times and each time, he returned with a shy, sleepy child. They stood in a row, rubbing their eyes and greeting me with a quick peck on my cheek and a swift hand for me to shake. I protested each time he revealed another child, but he didn't stop until I met his entire family.
Suddenly, an overwhelming feeling of hollowness overcame me and I had to look away. I had no idea where this sudden emptiness had come from, but I was glad when the whiskey was offered again.
"Saude," Ernesto said, lifting his glass.
I told his wife not to bother, that I was full and got up from my chair and thanked them for their generous hospitality.
As I stood, Ernesto hugged me and kissed my cheek. I felt my face flush and turned toward the table, where two of his children remained. The two boys had their heads resting on their arms, which were folded on the table in front of them. Ernesto's wife stood behind her children with her arms across her round waist, pushing up her breasts.
She smiled when I said goodbye.
Ernesto followed me to the door and shook my hands and hugged me again.
"Now we are good friends," he said.
"Yes, good friends," I said and smiled, as I backed out the door.
As I began to walk away, I stopped to look back; the light was still on. I saw shadows move in and out of the light. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind swept up from the sea and shook the trees. I could smell the sea. The air was heavy with moisture and salt.
I walked on thinking about Ernesto's wife and his children, and I wondered: had I stayed on the island, would I have married someone like Nuemia? Would I have been a farmer with lots of cows, and would my children follow me into the pastures? And I thought, would I have been like Ernesto, working the fields during the day, then go to the café, and when it was late at night, walk back home to where my wife was sleeping and then I'd stand in the kitchen, listening to the sound of my children dreaming.
I tried to see myself lying quietly naked beside my wife, listening to the dark of the wind in the trees and my wife breathing, feeling the warmth of her breath on my body.
I walked back to the café. The lights were still on. It fell into the cobbled street and on the tree trunks. The night sky was littered with stars. Off in the distance, I could hear cow bells jingle in the dark, and the faint sound of ocean waves slamming large, black volcanic rocks, along the shore.
Inside, I ordered a glass of wine, went to a table by the window and sat down. The bartender returned to his corner by the noisy cooler, and spoke to the man leaning on the counter. It's funny how sometimes you just want to drink alone, with other people.
I paid the bartender and left. "Goodnight," they muttered and went back to their conversation.
As I headed down toward the town of Lagoa, the moon trailed behind me as if pulled by an invisible string tied around my wrist. Tree shadows filled the street, and played tag on the cobblestone until I reached the end of the road. I turned left and headed for my hotel. Several cars roared like dragons on the cobble and raced out of sight, disappearing in the distance where the street lights ended.
On the last leg to my hotel, it suddenly hit me. If I went back to the States at that moment, that instant, that precise point in time, I'd go back to my wife, and confess it was all my fault. The fighting, the drinking, the womanizing; it could all be blamed on me. Give us another chance, I'd say. I want to have a family. But I knew that in the morning when I would wake, I'd feel the same as I had before. Leaving my wife was the right thing. I'd blame this remorse on the whiskey, the island, Ernesto, anything but me.
I went up to my room, undressed in the dark, and stretched out on the bed, on the covers. I wasn't sleepy. I lay for a long time in the dark listening to the cockroaches scurry across the cold tile floor, and then stop, and then scurry again to another corner. Once, when I heard them racing across the floor, I jumped out of bed and turned the lights on, hoping to catch them, but they were too fast, or too small, or, I imagined, they knew where the shadows would fall when the lights were turned on. But most nights I left them alone. And sometimes, I'd fall asleep before I heard them at all.