Image by Erin Perfect.

The Centro Vasco is an old Basque restaurant on Reforma Boulevard that had its heyday in the sixties when everyone acknowledged that it was the best restaurant in all of Guatemala City. Now, in 2008, it is a place for viejos rucos—old codgers—who are still impressed by waiters in tight black jackets, white long-sleeve shirts with cuff links, string ties, black vests, and matching shiny pants. There are little ceramic oil and vinegar sets on the starched white tablecloths, and furniture that is meant to be Spanish but has actually been transported from a San Marcos province farmhouse. The salt and pepper shakers are Tyrolean, made of wood, and have cranks.

The paella is overcooked and salty, the cod tastes like clods of white flour, and the oily red peppers that the restaurant had once been famous for taste artificial, straight from a bottle.

It is actually an ideal place for them to meet for lunch because no one Maryam or Guillermo knows would eat there now, with so many new gourmet options in Guatemala. The paella is overcooked and salty, the cod tastes like clods of white flour, and the oily red peppers that the restaurant had once been famous for taste artificial, straight from a bottle. Maybe the restaurant has never been good and had only been a kind of novelty of Spanish cuisine back when going out to eat in Guatemala City meant hamburgers, steak, or an occasional Guatemalan meal.

* * *

Friday is a lugubrious day, with low clouds and a constant cold rain. Guillermo pulls into the parking lot of the restaurant and scans the entrance for valet service since he has forgotten to bring an umbrella. Instead he sees a handful of cars in the dirt lot. He is sure that one of them is Maryam’s since he is—at least according to plan—ten minutes late, and he expects her to be like her father, who is very punctual.

He parks his BMW next to a blue Hyundai Accent whose chassis is half underwater. There’s a man sitting in the car texting on his phone. When Guillermo opens his car door, their eyes meet momentarily.

As Guillermo steps out, his shoes sink into a puddle of mud, which rises over his soles. He walks to the entrance door on his heels, pulling up his pants legs, cursing the weather, the choice of restaurant, the lack of valet service… He hates not having everything under his control. Before pulling back the restaurant’s heavy door, he wipes his shoes clean on the towels piled high on the entrance mat.

To his surprise, Maryam is not there. He takes a four-top corner table and waits. The waiter comes up, asks how many people are eating. Guillermo raises two fingers into the air. Then he asks what kind of Scotch they have, and when he learns they only have the scandalously bad Vat 69, he orders a double highball. He downs his drink quickly, sucking on the ice cubes and then munching on the stale cashews and peanuts served on a chipped little plate.

The minutes crawl by like snails. The waiter who served him the drink comes by again and puts a dish of dried sausage on the table, and two salad bowls holding the obligatory iceberg lettuce chunks with spicy tomato dressing on top. Guillermo orders a second drink and texts Maryam a curt message: What’s up?

It is only one fifteen p.m., but Guillermo is about to fester. He texts a second message, ??!!??!!, less than five minutes later, but again receives no reply. The Scotch arrives and he takes it down gulp by gulp. He is thinking that as soon as Maryam shows up, he will have to give her a good dressing down and explain to her the rules of the game.

Guillermo asks the waiter if anyone has called the restaurant and left a message for him. The man simply raises his eyebrows as if he has just been spoken to in Tagalog or Mandarin. He does not seem to want to understand.

Guillermo is fulminating internally. He considers his options: order a third drink and get truly soused, or simply leave.

He looks around the restaurant with its framed posters of bullfighters, the erstwhile Picasso drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on horseback, Goya’s La maja desnuda, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, which after two drinks is possibly the worst painting he has ever seen in his life. He shakes his head at the half dozen wine botas with their absurd red rings and shrunken black penis spouts dangling from the walls. Dirty chandeliers with low-watt bulbs hang above each and every table—he is sure they were purchased from his father’s store fifty years earlier.

What the hell is he doing here waiting like a stupid old secretary for her boss? What is he waiting for?

This is the first time he has ever left her a voice message. It is a risk since she is married to an insurance agent who might know how to retrieve her messages.

He decides to call Sofia Muñoz. He leaves her a message on her cell phone to meet him at the Stofella at precisely six p.m. This is the first time he has ever left her a voice message. It is a risk since she is married to an insurance agent who might know how to retrieve her messages. Guillermo doesn’t care. He does not want the day to go totally to waste. And he will have to leave the Stofella at exactly seven thirty p.m. because he is meeting his children across the street at Tre Fratelli for dinner and then going to the nearby Oakland Mall to see the ten o’clock showing of Kung Fu Panda.

He puts a five hundred quetzales on the napkin dispenser and walks in a straight but lumbering line toward the front door. From the corner of his eyes he sees his waiter begin to approach him, then angle over to the table, probably to examine the bills.

As he starts to push on the door, someone pulls it open. It is Maryam.

“What the fuck,” he says as he crashes into her.

She keeps him from falling, but he is annoyed for having lost his balance. Before he can express further displeasure, however, she kisses him on the lips and whispers in his ear, “I’m sorry. I was running late. The rain, the traffic, my car stalled, I forgot my cell phone, please don’t be angry—”

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he says huffily, pulling away from her. Her lips taste of mango chapstick. His head is spinning.

“Yes, I know.” She tries to grab his hand, but he impulsively pulls back. “I’m not really that hungry,” she says to him. “Can we go somewhere else?”

She is wearing gray woolen leggings and a matching gray sweater top. A maroon skirt, more for show than comfort, hugs her hips. A knit scarf is tightly wound around her neck. She’s holding an umbrella and sporting yellow Hunter rain boots.

“Sure,” Guillermo says. She hooks her arm into his and they leave the restaurant. It is still raining, so he borrows her umbrella and goes to get his car—she’ll leave her Mercedes in the lot—while she waits for him under the overhang.

As they drive away, he notices the car beside his put on its lights. It is the blue Hyundai.

* * *

Her undressing has happened so fast that Guillermo doesn’t know if he is pleased or upset. This is not how he had planned things would play out.

At the Stofella Guillermo gets his key at the reception desk while Maryam waits by the elevator. As soon as they walk into room 314, she takes off her clothes and throws herself stark naked on the bed. She closes her eyes, letting out a childish little giggle. Her ample breasts flop to the sides of her chest.

“I’m waiting for you,” she says.

Her undressing has happened so fast that Guillermo doesn’t know if he is pleased or upset. This is not how he had planned things would play out. Instead, he struggles to take off his shoes (still stained with mud), his brown suit, his brown tie, his cuff-linked white shirt, his T-shirt—like a college sophomore.

Because Maryam is ten years younger and is married to a much older Lebanese Arab, Guillermo has imagined that Samir is the only man she has ever slept with. He assumes that though she has sensuous qualities, she will be shy in bed and terribly inexperienced. But already she has outflanked him.

He has imagined a more traditional encounter: some goofy and awkward talk, slap-dash touching, then a couple of deep kisses, a hand into her blouse or a detour under her skirt, Maryam’s feigned reticence—the lady doth protest too much—tearing off her clothes, exhorting her to relax, to enjoy the explorations… he would be the aggressor, but in time she would surrender to his entreaties.

Instead, Maryam watches him, amused as he struggles to take off his clothes. When he is nearly naked, she sits up on the bed on one elbow and looks at him mockingly. “Are you going to make love to me wearing your black socks?” And then she laughs.

Guillermo glances down at himself, black socks up to the ridges of his knees and his penis ascending through his baggy white jockeys toward his belly button. He feels ridiculous. If he could watch himself from a distance, he too would laugh, but he finds it impossible to see humor in his own absurd maneuverings. He is even ashamed of his penis flagpoling through his shorts.

“Off with them, off with them,” she commands, swinging a forefinger in the air as if signaling decapitation.

Guillermo sits on the edge of the bed and pulls off his socks. His head continues spinning because of the Scotch, and he wonders if Maryam’s friskiness is also the result of drinking.

He turns to her and starts kissing her deeply, as deeply as he can go. He is grateful that he can still taste the mango flavor of Maryam’s lips. She does not resist, begins exploring his mouth with her tongue. They are both enjoying the rise in passion. He pulls his underwear down to his ankles and perches over her. Sitting on her thighs he begins rubbing her nipples softly. She arches her back and purrs with pleasure. He flattens his body against hers and tries to place his penis into her, two or three times, but each time she closes her legs.

While he begins to lick her, she starts running her hands feverishly through her hair and pulling down on her earlobes.

“Is anything wrong?” he asks, feeling totally lost, adolescent, and out of his element. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t put on a rubber. He is nagged by the memory of catching herpes from Chichi and so he typically protects himself when screwing women for the first time. Once his trysts evolve he insists that his girls be checked for AIDS almost monthly and take the morning-after pill as soon as they are done making love. He does not let them go until they have taken a pill, or otherwise proved to him that they will not become pregnant. He doesn’t need any illegitimate children.

She points down to her sex and says, “Eat me first. I want you to imagine that you are eating the sweetest baklava you’ve ever tasted.”

He obeys, slides down to the foot of the bed, and places his mouth squarely above her pubis. She once more arches her back, this time in anticipation, so that her vulva rises up to meet his mouth. While he begins to lick her, she starts running her hands feverishly through her hair and pulling down on her earlobes. She is moving her hips from side to side and raising her legs, forming a small Arc de Triomphe.

Without warning, she grabs his head and pushes it deeper into her crotch, so that he feels the cartilage of his nose flattening against the top of her pubis, her clitoris. He can barely breathe.

She doesn’t let him stop licking, even though his tongue has lost feeling. She continues to press his mouth into her. She squeals a few times, she must be coming—that’s how he interprets her trembling—and when he feels that his tongue is about to fall off, she pulls him up, reaches down for his penis, and shoves it inside her.

* * *

Guillermo and Maryam make love all afternoon. In truth, she appears to be using him for her own needs as if he were a practical handmade tool, maybe a canvas dildo. He is more than grateful to oblige, but continues to feel a loss of control. She wants him to rub against her clitoris, to drive into her, to fill her up completely, to come into her from behind. Whenever he feels he’s about to come, she relaxes and induces him to push through layer after layer of curtains to reach the spot where she can finally let loose. And when she does, she trembles in his arms the way a willow shuffles in the crosswinds of a storm, with all its vines fluttering.

But even then, after the storm has passed, she will not let him stop.

“I need this,” she keeps repeating, and she won’t let him rest. He’s unsure if it is the drink or her passion that makes him stay hard.

She is directing him, telling him what to do and where to go; it’s as if she has been crossing a desert for years, and has finally found an oasis that might run out of water if she stops drinking from it. Whenever his strength seems to flag, she urges him forward, or goes back down on him and slurps his penis in her mouth, trying to get him ready for the next penetration.

At one point he climbs off her, exhausted, and wraps himself up in the sheets. She lays next to him, face-up and covered in sweat. He can smell her body odor, which is strong now, no longer mango, a bit fetid like a rotting guava. He likes the smell.

It is four thirty in the afternoon. Through the green curtains of the Stofella he can see a strip of sky and a range of thick clouds, like a rumpled gray sash, signaling the coming of more rain and darkness. Where has the afternoon gone?

“Maryam?” he asks, tightening the sheet around him like a papoose, afraid that she might want to begin again.

“Yes, Guillermo?”

“Shouldn’t we be going?”

“Where to, my love?” The words my love echo in his head. They say too much about their commitment and it makes him extremely nervous.

“Home. Your house. Your father’s.” He can’t bring himself to say her husband’s name.

“They can all wait. You don’t know how much I needed this. It’s been years. I’ve felt things I didn’t know existed. You have such a manly body.” Maryam grabs his hips and gives them a tug. “Thank you,” she says, staring at him without blinking her eyes.

He offers a fake smile and closes his eyes. Making love to Maryam is something special, not anything like what he expected. But still, he has a difficult time enjoying the moment.

He offers a fake smile and closes his eyes. Making love to Maryam is something special, not anything like what he expected. But still, he has a difficult time enjoying the moment. He is worried about what’s going on in the office while he has been philandering. This is the way his mind always works. And then he starts speculating if Maryam uses birth control, or if she has any communicable disease like herpes or chlamydia.

She seems to be in no rush to leave, covering herself with one of the big pillows.

“What about your husband? Surely he must be worried,” he says stupidly.

Maryam lets out a sprawling laugh. “Samir? Well, he is like an old, smelly goat. The kind that climbs up a dry mountain—all skin and bones, no muscles—looking for bits of grass to eat.” She rolls over and grabs Guillermo’s behind. Her eyes are almost on fire. “I like this,” she says, squeezing his cheeks. “Fleshy and hard.” A second of silence flits by and then she laughs heartily for a second time.

“What’s so funny?”

“I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

Guillermo braces. “Yes?” he asks, shifting in the bed. He is sure she’s going to tell him that she’s in love with him. Then he will have to tell her he’s not interested in breaking up his marriage—or hers, for that matter; that time has to pass before he can get together with her again.

“From the start, Samir refused to eat me. He thought it was unmanly.” She is moving her hand around under the sheets and he is certain that she’s touching herself.

“Many men feel that way. Especially in the Middle East, I would imagine,” he says, just to say something. He isn’t prepared to discuss these issues with a woman he barely knows. And he doesn’t want the image of Maryam’s husband going down on her to be central in his mind.

“I would imagine, Guillermo, that you don’t know what you are talking about,” she says smiling, almost laughing at him. “I assume you know nothing about the Middle East. Have you ever been there? I mean to Lebanon?”

“You are right, I haven’t been,” he replies, relieved. His eyes are closed and he would like nothing better now than to fall asleep. He hears Maryam shifting.

“Beirut is an international city, like Paris or London, but by the sea.” He opens his eyes to see her straddling a pillow. “Would you like me to tell you what’s wrong with Samir’s lovemaking?”

Guillermo doesn’t want to know anything. He wishes she would just be quiet, but without thinking, he says to her: “This is between the two of you.”

He sees her green eyes sparkling. She touches her chin and says, “I thought it might have something to do with the thickness of my pubic hair, which is normally dense as a hedge. I shaved it just for you.”

She pauses, waiting for Guillermo to say something. All he can think is that five hours ago he had no idea they would be sleeping together.

“So once I gave it a really good trim and I showed him my vagina. He looked at it as if it were the ugliest thing he had ever seen. He insisted that I cover myself up, that I lacked modesty. He swore that he was too old to try something new and that he had never seen anything so repulsive. He made me swear never to shave it again. But there, I’ve done it.”

“I guess you disobeyed him,” he says awkwardly.

She shakes her head, laughs, and says, “I knew you would like it. You have the face of a man who will do anything to satisfy a woman. You’ve been raised on Playboy magazine and Esquire.”

He laughs a fake complicit laugh and then says nervously, “And I thought you read the Economist.”

“I do! But I also like Playgirl. I have a stash of them in my closet!”

Guillermo is not amused. “Well, I should be going,” he says. He remembers that he had earlier called Sofia to meet him at this very same hotel, in this very same room, at six. He needs to find a way to call her.

Maryam sticks her hand under the sheets, grabs his dormant pecker, and begins to softly squeeze his testicles. “Can’t you stay a bit longer?”

“My kids will be waiting for me,” he says, moving away from her, very much aware that his penis, sore as it is, is growing hard again in her hand.

“I don’t know, my love, but it seems to me that you wouldn’t mind it if they waited a bit longer.” She is stroking him gently.

“We’re supposed to go for pizza at Tre Fratelli and see a movie at the Oakland Mall. They will be awfully disappointed if I’m late.”

“I don’t know anything about children. Are yours house-trained?” she asks, licking the tip of his penis.

“Very funny. Ilán is nineteen and Andrea is seventeen. They are both at the Colegio Americano.”

“Sweet,” she says. He is not sure if she is referring to the taste of his penis or his children’s education.

He tries to pull away from her, not out of displeasure, but fear. She refuses to let him go. “Maryam, this isn’t the time to tell you about them. I must go. Really.”

“I bet you’re afraid of your wife. That must be it.” As she says this, she pushes his penis away and recedes from him.

She continues looking up at him and licking as if hasn’t said anything. “I bet you’re afraid of your wife. That must be it.” As she says this, she pushes his penis away and recedes from him.

Maryam cannot possibly be jealous of his wife. “This is her bridge night, with les girls—her girlfriends—I swear. I am meeting my children.” He leans over and kisses her on her right ear—he notices again that it is flat—before getting out of bed.

It has begun raining again and the droplets are smacking the window in the room, slipping into the ledge from a crack in the glass. The hotel clerks can’t understand why he always selects the same ugly room without a view. “We do need to go, Maryam.”

She smiles at him like a vixen. “Well, if we are going, I need to shower, my handsome man. It’ll take me a minute.”

While Maryam is in the bathroom, Guillermo grabs his BlackBerry. He quickly texts Sofia to tell her that an emergency has come up and he cannot meet her tonight. Don’t come to the hotel. He wants her to text him back to confirm. Then he lies back down.

What is wrong with him? He realizes he’s still a bit drunk, spent. He feels that he and Maryam actually fit together, sexually and otherwise. There is a sense of compatibility which he never experienced—not with Chichi or Araceli. And it scares him because it reminds him of what he felt in New York with Meme.

He hears the water from the shower spraying full force. Maryam is singing loudly in what is probably Arabic. Guillermo feels untethered. His wife is becoming more impatient over his excuses for getting home late, for acting bored with her and disinterested in their kids. Maybe they should make a clean break of it. The only ones who might suffer would be the children, but Guillermo is convinced that since they have their own lives, their own group of friends and activities, they would hardly care. It’s not as if they are still six or eight years old. And he is sure they will do whatever their mother asks of them—

His phone chimes; Sofia has texted back.

Fine!!!! You are a prick!!! You’ve ruined my Friday night.

He will have to deal with her anger some other time, maybe give her an extra five hundred quetzales.

* * *

Before they leave the room, Maryam asks: “Guillermo, what are we getting ourselves into?”

He answers frankly, “I don’t know.”

She hugs him as if they have just seen each other following a ten-year absence. She does not want to let go. “I needed this, to feel this animal pleasure. I’ve been lonely for so long. But I also know that tonight I’m going to feel ashamed. I fear that what we’ve just done will ruin lives, our lives as well as others.” It comes out like a sudden uncontrollable confession. “But I don’t regret it, no matter what happens next.”

“Neither do I,” he responds, surprised to hear himself speaking honestly. He realizes he cannot undo what has just happened. It can’t be taken back.

Maryam pushes away from him and touches his nose. “And look at you. Who would’ve thought you could give me such pleasure?”

He smiles.

“Do you love me?”

“Maryam, we just—”

“I know that my legs could be longer, my tummy flatter.”

“You’re delicious,” he says, meaning it, remembering the taste of mango.

“You make me feel like a beautiful woman, you know, and all of a sudden I don’t really care about my defects. Toes that are too long, the big mole just above the small of my back. Making love with you this afternoon has made me forget any doubts I might have about myself…”

He is feeling grateful, but cornered at the same time. It has been an incredibly intense afternoon. And suddenly he is hungry. “We must go, Maryam,” he says tenderly.

“Samir never made me feel that I was more than a vessel.”

“You have to pull out or we’ll never get out of here.”

Guillermo feels the stirrings of another erection. Almost to shut her up, he begins kissing her again. They kiss for a few minutes before she pulls down her leggings. She is not wearing her underwear, and so pulls down his zipper and puts him inside of her. She is already so wet, there against the wall. She pulls his shoulders into her, and then grabs his butt. She is breathing heavily, panting, and then she moans and begins talking: “You know that my father is very fond of you, but if he knew—oh God—this were happening—no, no, no, no, no—he would be extremely, extremely—there, there, there, just like that, oh God, please put your finger in there—oh my God. No, no, Guillermo, there, there, there!!”

She throws her head back and Guillermo has to hold her body up, otherwise the two of them will collapse onto the floor.

Still inside her, he carries her back to the bed.

“You have to pull out or we’ll never get out of here.”

They both lay on the bed, on their backs, gasping, trying to relax their breath. Guillermo closes his eyes and feels that he is about to drift off to sleep.

In almost a whisper, Maryam says: “He’s a very stern and moral man.”

“Samir?” Guillermo asks in a trance.

“No, my father, silly!”

This surprises Guillermo. “Maryam, from the beginning your father has been scheming to bring us two together. He was the one who invited me to your house that first time, remember? And he is the one who always insists that we end our Wednesday meetings with lunch.”

Maryam touches the thinning black hair on Guillermo’s head. “Love, you can’t confuse his desire to have people like each other with actually setting up a scenario like this. He would be horrified to know I had la petite mort with you.”

“Is that what you just had?”

“Yes, my sweet man. I had about half a dozen in a row. This has been something more, like touching the sky with my hands.”

David Unger

Guatemalan-born novelist David Unger was awarded his country’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for 2014, despite writing exclusively in English. He is the author of the novels The Price of EscapeLife in the Damn Tropics: A NovelPara mi, eres divina and Ni chicha, Ni limonada (Cuentos). His short stories and essays have appeared in Words Without Borders, Guernica, KGBBarLit, and Playboy Mexico. He has translated fourteen books from Spanish into English. This chapter is an excerpt from The Mastermind, to be published by Akashic Books on April 6.

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