When I step outside, ragged from a night of restless sleep and fragmented dreams, Sheila is already up. She’s smoking, her tanned legs stretched out, back resting against the cabana, eyes closed, face tilted towards the sun. Smoke trails out of her parted lips. She’s still wearing the long shirt she slept in last night. We were near strangers, until yesterday, young backpackers exchanging smiles and small talk whenever we passed each other on our way to our hostel’s kitchen or washroom. This is the Eighties. I graduated a few months ago and have been travelling since, first across Canada, next along the West Coast of the United States, and then all over Mexico. It has been great. Until yesterday.
“How are you doing?” Sheila asks.
“I’m okay.” The sound of my voice surprises me. It’s hoarse and quiet.
She stubs out her cigarette.
“I made you something.” She gets up and hands me a plate with slices of mango, guava, orange, and banana, the fruit skinned, cut in equal sizes, and laid out like flower petals around a heart-shaped pistil of nuts.
“This is so nice!”
“See you in a bit,” she says, and goes back inside.
I sit on the wooden bench in front of my cabana balancing the plate on my lap. The morning air is chilly. In the valley, the white and blue facade of the Santa Lucia Church rises up above the tiled roofs of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The hills are bathed in a golden light. A wisp of fog lingers in the folds between the mountains. The scenery feels distant and at the same time more intense. I’m alive, I repeat the words in my mind like a mantra, I’m alive.
I pick up a slice of mango and nibble off a piece. The flavor explodes against my palate. When I swallow, it hurts. I have no mirror and I wonder if there are bruises on my throat. My fingers search the swollen tenderness. My chest tightens. My heart races. I feel cornered, trapped by fear, shut off from the sunny morning. I take deep slow breaths. The fog in my mind thins and the world returns.
After a while, Sheila reappears in her doorway. She has changed into a tie-dye shirt and pair of jeans. She leans against the frame.
“Thanks so much for last night,” I say.
When I came home I’d knocked on her door.
Earlier that night I had knocked on another door, at the first house I came across after I escaped. A family of three lived there, a woman, a man, and a boy. The woman made me tea and they offered to drive me home, all three of them. Nobody wanted to stay behind. Walking to the car, the woman looked over her shoulder, scanning the black spaces between the trees along their driveway. The night had claws now.
Afterwards, alone in my cabana, the dark grew solid, entombing me.
“I’m glad you woke me.” Sheila tucks a strand of her chestnut hair behind her ear. “When you’re done we’ll go into town. There’s a place that has steam baths.”
I’m filthy and sore and there’s only cold water here, but it feels daunting to go into town. I feel skinned. Here, above the world, there’s a sense of safety.
“That’s nice of you,” I say, “but I’d rather just stay here.”
“They have private rooms. We don’t have to go into the public bath. You’ll feel so much better. Come on.”
“Okay. Give me a minute.”
I grab my wallet and a bottle of water and, together, we step out of the hostel and walk down the winding mountain road. As we arrive at the edge of town the streets get busier. The world is too bright, and too loud. Sun glares off the white houses. A car honks. A door clanks. Shutters slam open. A woman shouts. A dog barks. Birds chirp. When a man brushes against my arm, I shirk away and slide behind Sheila. I am like a small child shadowing her mother.
Sheila stops at a building.
“This is it.”
We walk in. At a counter, she talks to someone in rapid Spanish and obtains white towels, soap, and a key.
When we undress in the dressing room, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. A stranger stares back.
“Come,” Sheila says, and we enter a small room covered floor-to-ceiling with white tiles. We sit down on a bench along the wall. Sheila presses a button and steam rushes in from openings along the floor. It rises up and around, enveloping us. Heat clings onto my skin and penetrates my pores. I imagine it sweating out the dirt. I’ve never felt this soiled.
The fog thickens and my legs, buttocks, belly, and underarms disappear. A disembodied hand floats in front of my face. Without words, I take the white bar of soap it offers. I rub it over my body, again and again.
As our shapes re-emerge from the thinning steam, Sheila pushes the button and once more we disappear. She repeats this ritual in silence until my hands and the soles of my feet are wrinkled. I don’t want to leave this white hard shell. I want to stay here forever, tucked away from the world. Invisible. Safe.
I sense Sheila getting up. I don’t want to be alone and I follow her into the dressing room.
“We should go to the market,” Sheila says, “and buy you something beautiful, something that makes you feel precious.”
I’m not sure that would work, I feel anything but precious. But Sheila seems to know what I need right now, better than I do. Even though I dread the crowds at the market, I decide to trust her.
Walking through town is a bit more bearable this time. At the market, I follow Sheila as she passes by the stalls packed with tourists and locals buying tortillas, corn, fruit, blankets, white crocheted shirts, and wooden animals painted in bright colors. She leads me to the far end of the market where an indigenous woman is selling hand-woven shawls. I pick up several, tracing my fingers over the fine wool. Finally, I choose a grey one bordered with a strip of clear sky blue. It is simple yet elegant. I drape it around my shoulders. A soft armor.
After I pay, Sheila takes me to a small restaurant and I order lunch and coffee for us both.
Sheila slowly spoons sugar in her cup.
“I get it,” she says, “that you didn’t want to go to the police. It makes it worse, all their questions.”
“I didn’t think I could handle it, even if I wanted to. I’m shattered.”
Sheila looks down at her coffee.
“It happened to me too, you know. I scratched his face. He had scars after. I thought I was over it, but last night it all came back.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s been good, to look after you. It has helped me too.”
“I’m so grateful you took care of me.”
I smile at Sheila. Her kindness has glued my broken self back together. To those who know nothing, we must seem like two young women drinking coffee in the dimness of a restaurant, sheltered from the noise and blinding light, from the treacherous world outside. This is how we seem to me. I do not know yet that there is a trapdoor inside me. That it will open without warning and, each time, I will free fall into the past, into terror, into powerlessness and pain.
But not yet. For now, sanctuary.