Fiction

from The Polo Affair

by Sean Hennessy

ONE

A feisty evening breeze blows off the Caribbean coast as David pulls up to Cancun International Airport, Terminal 2. Like all resort cities, it’s easy to pick out the arriving visitor from the departing—the white and pasty from the burnt and toasted. The airport always makes him glad he’s neither, rather a resident of the city for over two years with a well-seasoned tan. Unlike most Irish, the sun suits his skin, no thanks to his mother’s sallow complexion. Parking is easy to find tonight in front of the main building. He’s late, and hurries with athletic ease through the crowds to the arrivals area.

Few airports can afford to have an open-air arrivals lounge, but rain here
is scarce. Along the barricades, the tourist operators vie for attention. It’s
organised chaos, with suitcases being tugged and kids being dragged out
onto the warm Mexican ground for the first time. Most will know as little
about Mexico on their departure as they do now, as they head off to all inclusive resorts spread along the coastline. Tequila shots and sombreros
will be the highlight of the cultural exchange.

David has to check himself for being judgmental. It’s what keeps the town
running. The tourist dollar is the oil that runs the machine and in turn the real
estate market that feeds off it. That dollar pays his salary and has been a little
fickle recently, since real estate is no longer the fast mover it once was. He
made only one commission last month, still better than the zero some agents
are reporting.

With no sign of the Continental flight passengers, he walks up to a bar with a good vantage of the exodus and orders an ice-cold chilada, a beer with freshly squeezed lime juice. He will easily spot Stephen from here, an advantage of being tall, especially in Mexico. It will be good to see his ex-brother-in-law again. They used to joke that theirs was the only successful relationship in his six-month marriage to Stephen’s sister Michele. His ex-wife  is remarried now with two kids in as many years. He speaks rarely to her these days…no bitterness, just nothing really. The divorce took longer than the marriage, and as soon as it was finalized he left for Cancun and a new life.

And, what a new life it’s been. Two years in the resort city and he’s become
a polo junkie. Polo is not a sport, but an addiction that consumes every free
moment. It’s in his veins now—it’s as if he had grown up on a horse. He’s a
city boy who had not even sat on a horse for the first thirty-four years of his
life. Nothing had prepared him for the thrill of galloping down the grass field
and the perfect wooden smack of a mallet on the hard ball. The adrenaline of
speed, the ferocity of competition, and the strategic challenge of the game all
suited his alpha-male temperament. He enjoyed risk. Becoming a competent
rider was the only aspect that initially tested his abilities. The rest was innate.

Who would have imagined the ‘Sport of Kings’ could grip the least
aristocratic of them all? His friends laughed at his insolence. He did himself,
and he knew only too well why polo earned its title. A king’s ransom is what
you needed to afford to play. Only through the generosity of Don Fernando
Patron, the owner of the Royal Cancun Polo Club, was he out on the field
at all. Of course, like any good ‘drug’ dealer, Fernando freely dispensed the
first sample—after that the player is hooked. Fernando is not making money
with this particular junkie but he still sponsors his habit. Bad business, but
then Fernando is hooked more than anyone. In his glory days, he was
one of the Mexican greats and had played with the best of them. Even the
Argentineans respected him—and they own polo.

Fernando is now approaching seventy and still plays, though rarely in the
last few months. He’s a small agile man that normally looks younger than his
years. He looks tired lately, the pressures of keeping the club open, David
supposes, and the failed attempt to turn his hacienda into a polo resort. Less
than a year or two ago credit was as easy as the climate in Cancun, but then
came the economic meltdown. The hacienda is still a valuable asset, but not
a money maker.

Many businessmen now want to buy out Fernando and rezone the land, but
to date he’s turned them all down. It’s anybody’s guess as to how long he
can hold out, but David can see money is getting tighter. Paint peels off the
stone walls, broken fences are left untended, and the grandeur of the place is
wilting fast in the unforgiving tropical sunshine, as what was once charming
slowly becomes simply rundown. The Royal Cancun Polo Club is losing its
glitz as surely as if no royal had ever played there. While some of the new
hoteliers and foreign rich have joined the club in recent years, Fernando
watches in dismay as his older more trusted fraternity pass on.

David starts to see Continental baggage tags carried by arriving passengers
and keeps his eyes peeled for Stephen. He’ll probably be the last one off the
plane, having snagged the phone numbers of all the male flight attendants,
and he’ll relate some hilarious (invented) story of enduring a strip search
coming through customs. Stephen likes to play the gay stereotype for the
first five minutes with people, and then drops it as soon as he begins to feel
more comfortable. It’s a defence mechanism, a challenge to the uninitiated.

Downing the last of his beer, David is feeling good about the weeks of
companionship that lie ahead. He has been more isolated than usual—the
flat rejections of Isabel haven’t helped. Maria Isabel Castilla Patron, her full
title, is the most arrogant and beautiful woman he has had the misfortune to
meet. She is also the only niece of Fernando and his ward since childhood.

David had been reading the night before of a famous Indian polo player
from Mumbai who said his two greatest loves were women and polo, and
that when he died he hoped his skin could be turned into hide to be used on
a saddle that married the two. David is unsure he can match the passion of
the man, but is certain whose horse would get his saddle. Now, it’s doubtful
she would accept the gift.

Despite David’s vigilance, Stephen comes from behind and surprises him.
Isabel has definitely driven him to distraction. They exchange a big welcome
hug, and decide to stay and have another beer at the bar before heading for
home. The long haul from Dublin to Cancun, via Newark, has done little to
dim Stephen’s enthusiasm or energy and he fills David in on the smallest
details of his life in less than ten minutes flat. This is not to say that Stephen
has been leading an uninteresting life, it’s just the speed at which the man
can talk. If talking were an Olympic sport, he would be a gold medallist.

Stephen is thirty, blond and good-looking with an easy smile. In the last six
months, he has lost his job, some of his hair and his long-time boyfriend. He
remains positive and upbeat. With what he had left of his severance pay, he
decided to enjoy the Cancun sunshine instead of filling in job applications
in the dreary Irish winter. Maybe he’ll stay, though David doesn’t know
of any IT prospects in this city. David knows very little about information
technology full-stop, even though most of his Irish friends are involved in it
in one way or another. David doesn’t actually know what it is they do. It’s
filed in his mind under ‘something to do with computers.’

“I could always do something else. I mean look at you, selling real estate.”

“Not much demand for that at the moment, every month we’re waiting for
the pick-up we keep saying is around the corner…some fucking corner. I
might have to think of something else too.”

The last commission cheque will only tide David over for another month.
He’s nervous. David has always lived month-to-month, he’s never been a
careful planner. Why is it different now, he wonders? Maybe he just doesn’t
want to leave what he has here, right now.

“I could always reinvent myself as some famous drag queen. Stephen
becomes Stephanie, look at these long theatrical legs, darling.”

David saw Stephen once in drag at a party a few years back and it was scary
how good he looked. It was not the usual man-in-a-dress thing. The memory
makes him smile.

“Well, this is the place to reinvent yourself alright. Nobody here is who he
or she says they are…a lot of artists here.”

‘Artist’ was a code word he had not used for a while. It meant people who
were pretentious rather than artistic. David had had a meeting yesterday
with a New York interior designer, who he later found out through the office
secretary, had merely read a book on interior design on the flight down to
Mexico, after ten years as a sales associate at the Gap.

Could David really criticise? He’s not exactly overqualified. His last job
prior to arriving in Cancun had been three years as a bar manager. He has
spent a lot of time on both sides of the bar. Not exactly the bar his parents
had in mind when he dropped out of law school years before. Selling
condominiums to American retirees had not been in his curriculum vitae.

They finish their beer and head to the parking lot. David loads up the SUV
and pulls it out onto the highway. As the sun sets quickly over the lagoon
side, David decides to take Stephen on the more scenic route home, through
the hotel zone and past the Caribbean beaches. Cancun is a huge lagoon-filled square of mainly reclaimed land and coral reef protruding out into the most staggering turquoise blue sea. The colour is magical, almost unreal in its perfection.

Nearly every hotel chain in the world has a high-rise presence along the
eighteen-kilometre route, one hotel more palatial or outlandish than the next.
It’s Las Vegas meets Maya Disneyland. He checks his speed. This strip is
notorious for local police cashing in on unsuspecting tourists and the speed
limits change from seventy to forty on hardly-visible signs.

It’s a busy Friday evening as they drive past luxury hotels. The occasional
healthy tourist jogs along the wide footpaths. Others stand in front of hotel
lobbies, dressed in loud shirts and baggy shorts, waiting for the feeder buses
to take them to the Tex Mex grills and Surf n’ Turf bars. Mostly Americans
visit at this time of year—the Europeans come later. Mexicans, like most
Latinos, dine and party late. David is always surprised to see the restaurants
and bars full on the tourist of town at only seven in the evening. He prefers
to eat on the old side of the city, where few tourists venture. The old side
is neither that old nor by any means pretty, but it’s where the staff live who
keep the hotel zone running. It’s also real, and David prefers it that way.

As they pass the Hard Rock Cafe and Bongos nightclub, the loudest corner
in Cancun, David slows to a snail’s pace as drunken college kids try to
negotiate the oncoming traffic. One of them hits the bonnet of his car and
David gives him a well-practiced mean look. Years in the bar trade taught him
to perfect the look that says ‘Don’t dare fuck with me,’ and it’s immediately
understood as the guy skulks off.

Stephen pretends to be offended.

“How rude! Let me take him home and have him smacked.”

“You’d like that alright.”

“Well, a bit of rough after such a dry spell. I’m a widow you know.”

“He’s not dead.”

“Oh, he is to me.”

There is still hurt there. It’s always easy to know who left whom in a
relationship despite all the protests of it being mutual.

“Five years I was with that guy, and he picks the worst fucking week of my
life to tell me he was shagging somebody else…oh, and that he needed space to figure things out. I gave him space all right. Look, let’s not go there, I’m on holidays. Next subject please.”

David gives Stephen a reassuring smile.

“You’re right. Forget past affairs.”

Straight away, he thinks of Isabel and regrets it. Is she past, too? He hopes
not.

They take a left turn toward the old city, passing the luxury yachts moored
along the lagoon. The tourist throng starts to thin out at this point and the
shops change. Tacky souvenir kiosks become practical hardware shops. All-you-can-eat shrimp bars convert to simple taco stands.

He drives faster now though the road becomes narrower, negotiating the
steep corners with a well rehearsed ease. While avoiding the potholes and a
series of speed bumps, he explains to Stephen his living arrangement at the
hacienda, Fernando’s estate.

Fernando had been trying to build a series of little homes or casitas around
the hacienda, in order to open a polo resort, until the money ran out. Only
two were completed and he offered one to David. The rent is less than David
has been paying for his condo, and it means he has the stables and polo field
right at his doorstep. He’s free to use the large pool to the rear of the main
house or anything else on the property. He feels very much at home.

They drive through a wealthy suburb filled with Spanish stucco mansions.
David takes a sharp left onto another highway and heads north until they
reach a narrow turn-off and just beyond that another lane. The classic
entrance of a Yucatecan hacienda beckons. Tall walls painted rustic red with
white borders surround the hacienda. The car easily passes through the open
side of the wrought-iron gates and up the short royal-palm-lined drive, each
thick trunk like a sentry guard standing to attention to greet them.

The main house on the estate stands an impressive two metres above ground with a series of cut-stone steps out front. Although only a single storey, the majestic six-metre-high ceilings dwarf the onlooker. Three main columned arches rise above the lower terrace and then break symmetrically off to either side in a line of smaller terraced arches. The scale is daunting and yet softened by the larger-scale wrought-iron lanterns and lush tropical vegetation on its sides. Stephen is clearly enchanted.

“My god, it’s beautiful. I’m staying.”

“Well, we’re actually to the back, so don’t get too excited.”

“Listen, I’ll sleep in the servants quarters if need be. It’s like something out
of an old movie.”

The house looks most impressive at night—the light is more forgiving,
though the garden is spectacular at any time. Impossibly large leaves spring
from every corner in shapes of fans and elephant ears. Deep crimson-red
heliconia flowers, as big as entire bouquets, drip off the walls. Others,
such as lobster-claw and bird-of-paradise, fan out at unexpected angles.
Floral fragrances exude through every pocket of vegetation, so much so that
the senses are overwhelmed. The garden casts such a spell over the entire
property that it’s easy to believe you’re in a lost civilisation, rather than just
twelve kilometres from the drunken bustle of downtown Cancun.

David catches a glimpse of light in Isabel’s room as he pulls around the
back of the house and sees her red Mini Cooper, as if he needs any other
confirmation of her presence.

David normally eats with Isabel and her uncle on Friday nights but had
decided to skip this evening in case Stephen was tired or his flight delayed.
Fernando doesn’t begin dinner until each guest is seated and has enjoyed
at least one aperitif. Punctuality is not considered the greatest virtue here.
Being a complete bore is much less forgivable. Their dinner conversations
often last into the morning and although polo is a favourite topic, they do
touch upon others, but never for too long.

The tyres give a satisfying crunch on the gravel as he pulls up in front of his
ochre-yellow casita. The porch light is on, and he knows Maria has probably
been tidying up since she knows he has a guest. Maria knows everything.
Her housekeeping duties don’t actually extend to his little house, but try
telling her that. He never did, and the intrusion is welcome. He’s not the
most domesticated of men.

Sure enough, fresh flowers are arranged in a vase he has never seen before
and placed on his living room table. In addition, two dishes of sour orange,
marinated chicken pibil have been placed on the counter with strict re-heating
instructions—she knows he could burn water. It looks like the pizzeria can
have the night off.

The casita has one guest bedroom off the open living room which opens
onto a small terrace, and another bedroom upstairs, which David uses. It has
the advantage of an open balcony, from which purple bougainvillea cascade
down toward the driveway. Stephen expresses his approval, as David gives
him a quick tour.

“Not exactly slumming it here, are we??

“I’ve lived in a lot worse.”

“My apartment in Dublin is half the size, zero view and probably ten times
the rent. I need to take a shower—I’m assuming that lovely en suite is mine?
Give me five minutes, oh, and make mine a G and T.”

David also decides to take a shower and heads upstairs. He strips off and
throws his t-shirt and jeans into a ball on the floor. Here in Cancun even
the real estate agents don’t bother with shirts and ties. The more casual the
better. It encourages clients to forget the rat race and buy a piece of this
paradise, or at least that’s his justification. He turned thirty-six last month
but doesn’t look it. Would others agree? he wonders. His body is toned from
daily riding and the few creases around his eyes suit his smile. His dark brown  hair is thick and his body lean, for this he’s thankful. After that, let age do its thing. He showers slowly—he has learned to do most things more slowly here. He even drinks and eats less quickly—he’s learning to savour. Is it the climate or the people that teach you that wisdom? He’s not sure. The
need for speed he definitely leaves for the polo field.

David’s game has improved a lot. He doesn’t think about the horse anymore,
rather he feels the horse. That was something other players said would
happen, and yet when it did he could hardly believe it. It became so natural,
and liberated him as a rider. Except for the club grooms, no one spends as
much time riding as he does. In fact, the grooms have become some of his
best friends. It’s also through them that he has learnt a much more colloquial
Mexican Spanish. The verb ‘to fuck’ here has every possible connotation
and application. Even Fernando is surprised, sometimes horrified, at how
adept his Spanish has become. But then swearing for the Irish is a natural
pastime.

The groom in polo is like the caddy in golf. They often know more than the
player—certainly about the horse if not the game itself. They train the horses
for the player and often, during the week, when members rarely come by,
they will have informal games among themselves. David never misses these
games. He really enjoys playing with two grooms in particular, Juan and
Cristobal. They are both amazing riders. Cristobal does rodeo when he can,
to earn extra cash, and is a very skilled horseman. Juan is the most intuitive
player he has ever seen. He has an ability to be, not where the ball is, but
where it will be. David has learnt so much from the two of them, and from
Fernando who never tires of teaching the game. His mantra is ‘Play the field,
play the man and, only then, play the ball.’

David throws on a pair of shorts, fixes a gin and tonic for Stephen and
opens a bottle of red wine for himself. Stephen joins him on the balcony
to enjoy the evening breeze, the cacophony of tropical sounds adds enough
background ambience. There is no need for music. They go through a list
of mutual acquaintances back home to catch up. Stephen knows most of
David’s circle of friends because of his sister, David’s ex-wife. But for his
ex-boyfriend, David knows none of Stephen’s circle. Stephen’s ex is an
acupuncturist or ‘Needle Nelly’ depending on who introduces him. They
seemed to be a happy outgoing couple, so David was as surprised as anyone
when they broke up. Stephen tells him the ex’s new lover was a patient.

“Does that make for professional misconduct?”

“I don’t see why. He was only swapping one little prick for another.”

“So, then you’re over him I see.”

“I always thought forgiving and forgetting was so over-rated. What’s wrong
with holding a grudge? Which would you rather go out with, a bitch or a
nun? Well, in your case, as you were married to my sister, you can pass on
answering.”

“Trust me, Michele was neither a bitch nor a nun, and some of the nuns we
had in school were proper bitches. One doesn’t rule out the other.”

He and Michele had had some good times together, but David had made the
mistake of thinking she was so uncomplicated. Yes, that rarest of species,
an uncomplicated woman. He sometimes thought Stephen had it easier
being gay—at least you had the heads-up on the gender you were dealing
with. David really believed he didn’t have the faintest idea when it came to
women. Isabel was a case in point. A month ago, they could not have been
happier together—or at least he could not.

When he first met Isabel, she was engaged to Nacho Rodriguez, a very
handsome Venezuelan polo player, one of the best in the world. They
were very much the socialites, no big polo party was held without them in
attendance, and the magazines loved them. The ‘Posh and Becks’ of polo.
He had used the phrase once in conversation with Isabel, but it only earned
him one of her classic scowls. The look that said, ‘Did I just step on some
dog business?’

In those days, she spent little time at the hacienda and they rarely met. She
followed the international polo season travelling around the world from
Miami and Buenos Aires, through to Europe. A good player herself, she
was not just a trophy girlfriend. Polo gets little mainstream coverage in the
media because of its exclusive nature. Many top brands sponsor the events,
such as Ralph Lauren, Rolls Royce and Moet et Chandon. Polo is very much
a circle where the rich get to mingle. Polo is less exclusive in Argentina,
as there are many more players there. He heard once that there are only
fourteen thousand polo players in the world and of those six thousand live
in Argentina. Of the hundred or so players in Mexico, everyone knows each
other. Every player in the world knew Isabel and Nacho, not to mention the
social circles. So when their engagement ended, it was very much public
knowledge.

David recalls the night of the breakup. It happened during the closing party
of Mexico City hosting the Polo World Cup. In classic fashion, the husband,
a polo player, caught Nacho, trousers at his ankles, fucking his wife. David
was at the party and witnessed the slap Isabel delivered to Nacho. The
paparazzi were there and every magazine in Mexico carried that photo, not
to mention the story. It was the look on her face as she turned and walked
away that he will always remember. It was what he fell in love with—the
icy determination, chin aloft, lips pursed and eyes with a steely purpose. Her
exit was worthy of any of the classic silver screen sirens.

During the months after the scandal, Isabel returned to the hacienda, barely
acknowledging him, short of the briefest buenos dias. She often missed
the Friday night dinners he attended, and even when present she contributed
little to the conversation and always made excuses to leave early. Yet David
studied her like an exotic creature. He could tell you on Monday exactly
what she had worn on the Friday, and the previous Friday, and on the Friday
before that. He noticed when her raven-black hair was pulled back a degree
tighter than usual, and he looked for the slightest imperfection on her rarely
made-up skin, which he never found. He always tried to do this without
making eye contact or breaking off his conversations with Fernando. His
mood for the entire week started to revolve around whether she had made it
for Friday dinner or not.

David had his share of one-nighters when he was out with the boys.
Particularly when out with Cristobal, the handsome Spanish-looking groom
who was generally on a mission to have as many wide-eyed female tourists
as he could manage. David was often called in to help, always ready with
his fluent English to fill in the gaps of a story that would paint Cristobal in
a favourable light to any gringa who was searching for her Latino holiday
romance. Juan, who was more indigenous-looking, was less forthcoming,
too shy with women. So David would entertain some of these ever-present
females, and if that meant bringing one home occasionally, he was more
than willing. “Was” that is, until he started seeing more of Isabel. Although
nothing had yet occurred between them, he simply began to feel a sense of
betrayal, not so much to her but to his idea of her. Above all, though, he
knew Isabel was way out of his league. But there was a history.

Stephen switches to red wine as they reheat the chicken for dinner. David
is not planning to discuss Isabel with Stephen, short of the odd reference to
the owner’s niece. He’s not sure why, but knows he’s not ready to go into it
tonight.

“So when do I get to see you playing polo?” Stephen asks as he tries out the
hammock.

“Tomorrow. There’s a game as usual, and in two weeks there’s the big
tournament. Well, big for us, it’s the annual in-house tournament. There’s a
lot of talk about it this year. They’re bringing in some big pros.”

There has been talk of nothing else for the last few weeks and a lot of
second-guessing about who is going to be on what team and who is coming
in to play. David knows they’re hoping to field four teams, and the line-up
is expected to be announced tomorrow. The announcement should ensure
that most of the members show up for tomorrow’s game. Fernando is being
very secretive about the whole thing, even with David, which is not like him.

“Is polo like horse racing and the ladies wear hats? I’m sure I packed one for
just such an occasion.”

“Please don’t. And its nothing like horse racing. In fact, the funny thing about
polo is, it’s all jeans and t-shirts.”

“That’s strange. I suppose the rich-among-the rich can dress down; they all
know who they are. It’s their day off.”

The insight impresses David.

“Never thought of it that way, but it could be true. Though they do let some
poor people play—you’re talking to one.”

Stephen stretches in the full length of the hammock before responding.

“But maybe they don’t know you’re a fraud. I mean, it doesn’t look as if
you’re living poorly.”

“They know, believe me. I’m here on a loophole and his name is Fernando.”

“Oh, scandal at last! You’re a kept man. You’ve finally gone over to the other
side. Wait ‘til I tell Sis.”

“Piss off.”

“No, seriously, explain the game to me. I haven’t a clue.”

“Never a truer word was spoken. Well, I think I’ll let Fernando explain it to
you tomorrow on the sidelines. Nothing gives him more pleasure. For now
just think of it as soccer on horseback, played with a long-handled mallet.
There’s a goal post at both ends and two teams of four players. Although the
pitch—that’s the field—is as big as five soccer pitches.”

“Soccer, shit, please tell me they don’t have an offside rule. No matter how
many times it’s explained to me, I don’t get it.”

David remembers others trying to explain the very rule to him in earlier days.
In polo, the person who last hit the ball has the line, which is essentially a
right-of-way to the ball and beyond. No other player is allowed to cross in
front of that line. The point is that the player with the line should never be
forced to slow down because of another crossing in front of him. Sounds
simple enough, but interpretations of distance and line changes are what
most arguments in polo are about.

“What makes polo so expensive is the number of horses you need to play in
a game. A good player will change horses after each chukka—or period—
and we play six chukkas in a game. A chukka, by the way, is seven minutes
and thirty seconds of play.”

“That’s six horses—shit, do you have six horses?”

“Try two, and that’s more than I can afford. Fernando doesn’t play much
anymore so he lends me his, and often I’ll play one horse for two chukkas.
And, just so you have the terminology—your horses are called your ‘string.’
Some players, even in this club and at an amateur level, have a string of eight
or nine horses.”

He can see Stephen is pleased with his newfound knowledge.

“Oh, I can’t wait for tomorrow to go up to a player and ask him how big is
his string?”

They both laugh at this, and David pictures him doing so, in full falsetto,
which makes it even funnier.

“Last question, I promise. About the outfit, do you wear jodhpurs and boots?
This I need to see.”

“That’s a common misperception. No jodhpurs—polo is just white jeans,
boots and t-shirt with a collar. And, of course, a riding helmet. The outfit is
called a ‘kit’ by the way. Hey, is that the chicken I smell? Let’s get dinner,
you grab the wine.”

They shut the lights off and head downstairs, leaving the tropical sound of
the cicadas behind them.

http://thepoloaffair.com

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