I call it the Margarita Road. It’s the course your heart sets when you want to leave the past behind and start over someplace new and warm. Usually, the path heads south to blue water and white sand, with any bumps along the way smoothed over by rum and tequila. It’s not for everyone. This is a highway traveled mostly by runaways and drifters. I know, because I’m one of them.
“I think I’d like a piña colada for breakfast.” The hammock swayed slightly as Nicole leaned over and whispered in my ear. Her breath tickled.
I pried one eye open and saw the sun reflecting off the sand. It seemed awfully early to be waking up. It wasn’t even noon. But who was I to say no to a pretty lady wanting an umbrella drink? “Okay,” I said with a yawn, reluctantly opening the other eye.
We had fallen asleep the night before in a hammock strung between two palm trees just outside the thatched-roof cabaña where I lived. Nicole rolled to the edge and stood up. I saw a flash of dark eyes and a swirl of black curls as she bent over, kissed me, and pulled away. “I’m going to get dressed,” she announced brightly.
Lifting my head, I watched her walk toward the nearby outhouse that served as my bathroom. Along the way, she stopped and took her bikini from the hook on the outside wall of the cabaña. I groaned and stretched my arms out. “Then I guess I should, too.”
I got up carefully, knowing from experience that falling out of a hammock can ruin your whole day. I reached for the shorts that lay crumpled nearby on the beach where they were dropped the night before. I shook off the sand and pulled them on, standing a little unsteadily to look out at the sea’s blue water.
I had been living on a small harbor carved out of Mexico’s Caribbean shoreline for the past year. It was called Playa Paraiso. Paradise Beach. Corny but true, I was officially living in paradise.
It was little more than a fishing village, with the main cobblestone promenade running parallel to the shore. Along narrow side streets were small, open-air restaurants where freshly caught fish and slabs of marinated flank steak sizzled on grills. Nearby markets sold the necessities of life such as rice, beans, and beer. Thankfully, there was no big resort scene, although the buses from Cancun occasionally brought day-tripper tourists who wanted to see the ‘real’ Mexico. A few small posada-style hotels catered to the divers and sports fisherman who visited in the summer months.
And there was the beach—with white talcum-powder sand bordering a sea made up of every color blue you ever heard of and a few that hadn’t been named yet. Coconut palms lined the shore, and little fishing boats painted with names like Maria were anchored in the surf. Here and there you could stumble across a beach bar or hostel, but mostly it was beautifully wide open. It wasn’t called Paradise without good reason.
I was admiring the view as I did every day, when Nicole returned from the washroom dressed in her bikini. “Are you ready, Poppa?”
That’s me: Poppa. Or Poppi. I answer to either. No, it isn’t some Hemingway fetish or anything weird like that. It’s just a nickname I picked up from some of the local working girls in town. They started calling me that back when I first came to this part of the coast.
“Oh Poppi, you are so good to us,” they would laughingly call out when I would occasionally splurge on a round for the house at a local cantina. They were probably just teasing, since I wasn’t one to indulge in their regular services. Or maybe they just thought of me as an old man. Not that I’m a geezer. I was still in my thirties when I first landed on Paradise Beach, but even that may have seemed ancient to some of those girls.
Whatever the reason, the name stuck. It wasn’t long before everyone called me that. I didn’t mind. If I were going to start a new life, I figured I might as well have a new name.
Now that Nicole and I were dressed, or as dressed as life on the beach requires, we started walking along the shore toward the El Capitan for our liquid brunch. The tropical sun was already high and fierce. As we pushed our feet through the sand, Nicole gave me a sideways glance. “Are you still thinking about my idea?”
I told her I was. How many times does someone offer you a do-over at life? When that happens, you give it some serious thought.
“You’re running out of time,” she reminded me.
It didn’t take us long to reach El Capitan, a ramshackle dive bar not far from my cabaña. The ground floor consisted of a large, three-sided room open to the ocean. Inside was a bar against the back wall, and out front a palm-thatch-covered deck stretched over the sand.
Wooden stools lined the bar, and a few plastic tables and chairs filled the room. In one corner, a small bandstand rose up about a foot off the floor. Out on the deck, a few faded lounge chairs sat near an old oil drum grill used to cook burgers and tacos. An impossibly narrow stairway hidden behind the bar’s back wall led to a couple of rooms on the second floor.
El Capitan offered everything I always dreamed of: cheap food, good drinks, and a spectacular beach. That dream seemed to be a problem for some people I knew. They thought I should want more from life. I was beginning to worry they might be right.
“Jorge!” I called, as we walked up the steps from the sand onto El Capitan’s deck.
Jorge smiled broadly from behind the bar. “Hola, Poppa. Hola, Nicole.”
Jorge was one of my favorite people in town. A few years younger than I, he was thin with dark brown skin from a life in the sun. Like many Mexicans, he spoke perfect English whenever other gringos were around. We spoke Spanish when we were alone, and he was always kind enough not to laugh at my often miserable attempts to master the language.
He had been a guiding light when I first hit the beach, offering advice on such important matters as which hustlers to avoid, the going rate to bribe local cops, and where to get the best barbacoa tacos. He even helped arrange for me to rent my little hut.
“How are you, my friend?” I asked, as Nicole and I sat on a couple of stools.
“Bien bien, Poppa.” He gestured out toward the cold grill. “I’m sorry, but if you want food, I haven’t started cooking yet.”
“No problema,” I assured him. “We’re going to drink our breakfast today. Dos piña coladas, por favor.”
“Perfecto,” he replied with a laugh.
“Just remember, you won’t get this type of service stateside,” I said to Nicole as Jorge began to mix our drinks.
“No, I sure won’t,” she said. “Rum for breakfast is frowned on in most places back home.”
As we watched Jorge construct our cocktails with care, we shouted our hellos down the bar to Patrick, who sat on a stool at the far end. Pat was the elderly owner of the El Capitan. A short, round American with thinning white hair and a flowing white beard, he gave us a smile and a wave.
When Jorge finished the drinks, he placed a glass of frozen, alcohol-laden pineapple and coconut slush in front of each of us. Nicole and I both had a taste. “Ooh, that’s good,” she said and flashed a grin at Jorge. Then the smile faded as she looked around. “I’m really going to miss this place.”
Nicole first walked into my life at the beginning of the summer season. I had been sitting on the sand with a freshly opened bottle of tequila—contemplating life—when I saw her strolling along the shore, splashing her feet at the water’s edge. “I have enough for two,” I yelled, holding the bottle up high.
She stopped in her tracks and gave me a long look, as if considering all the possibilities at hand. “I’m not sure you do,” she shouted back as she walked toward me. “I can drink a lot.”
It was tropical lust at first sight, followed by a real friendship that blossomed over the next few months. The first part was not unexpected, but the second was a bit of a surprise. We weren’t exactly mirror images of each other.
I was a beach bum, plain and simple. Once upon a time, I used to pour drinks for a living. Now I was even ‘retired’ from that. My biggest question each day was which palm tree to use for shade at naptime.
Nicole, on the other hand, was one of those people on the fast track to success. She had an Ivy League education with an MBA from Harvard and had just graduated law school. After passing the New York bar exam with flying colors the previous June, she rewarded herself with an extended vacation traveling around the Caribbean before starting her life as a big-time lawyer.
A few nights in Paradise Beach were part of a scuba tour she had joined. The group spent two days exploring the reef offshore. When the tour moved on, Nicole decided to stay and got a small room in town. “How could I leave all this?” she would ask, as we sat on the sand in front of my little place, sharing joints and fresh mango slices.
Sadly, she did have to leave—and soon. Summer was ending, and there was a job waiting with her uncle’s Wall Street law firm. It was time for her to return to the real world. I was going to miss her. What I hadn’t planned was her inviting me to go along when she left.
We had been cuddling on the bed in my cabaña one night, watching a gecko scamper up the wall in the candlelight, when she suddenly said, “Let’s talk seriously for a minute, okay?”
That sounded ominous and not our style at all, but I said, “Okay.”
“You used to be a bartender, right?”
“That’s no secret. Why do you ask?”
She placed a hand on my chest. “I really like you, Poppa.”
Nicole must have seen something in my face because she hurriedly added, “Now don’t freak out. I’m not talking anything other than good friends here. Lord knows I have too much ahead of me to even think about getting into a serious relationship.”
I involuntarily gave a sigh of relief. She saw it and smiled. “I just think you’re a nice guy. A good guy. In fact, I think you are too good of a guy to hide here in Mexico for the rest of your life.”
I wasn’t sure I liked this turn in the conversation. “Wait a minute. What makes you think I’m hiding from anything?”
“Come on, Poppa. Don’t bullshit me. You think I haven’t noticed how you never talk about where you came from and how you never make plans for the future? I’m guessing things haven’t gone great for you in the past.”
I started to say something to change the subject when she stopped me. “I’m not prying. It’s really none of my business. I just thought you might want another chance, regardless of what it was that sent you running down here. So I started wondering if you would like to give New York a try.”
I told her I didn’t know what to say to that.
“Yeah,” she said. “This is out of the blue. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about how my uncle’s law firm represents a lot of hospitality groups. They own bars and restaurants all over Manhattan. I can almost guarantee we could find you work with one of our clients. Experienced bartenders are like celebrities in New York. Some of them make more money than attorneys do. A good-looking guy with a nice personality like you could clean up. Trust me, there will be no strings attached.” She tilted her head back so she could look directly into my eyes. “I thought maybe you might want to go home.”
I thanked her, of course, and said it was as nice a thing as anyone had offered me in a very long time. I promised I would think about it and let her know. True to my word, I had thought about her proposal. I had thought about it every day since then. I was still thinking about it as we slurped our breakfast booze at El Capitan.
After we finished the drinks, Jorge cleared the glasses. Nicole said she needed to go back to her room to clean up. She wanted a shower with decent pressure and hot water, neither of which was available at my place. Before she took off, we made plans to meet later to do some snorkeling on the reef. She stood up and gave me a quick peck on the cheek.
“I’m not trying to push you into going to New York, you know.”
“I know you’re not.”
She hesitated for a moment, carefully putting the words together in her mind. “I just think you could do so much more with your life than hanging out on a beach. You have to go back at some point. Why not now?”
After she left, I stayed at the bar. Jorge poured me some seven-year-old Havana Club Cuban rum as I watched the waves break on the reef. So, Nicole thought I should try to go back, settle down, and get a real job. It’s not as if I hadn’t heard that before. I had heard the same line for most of my life from teachers, family, and well-meaning friends. I heard it just before I ran away from home.
“Don’t you ever want to be the boss? You know, have a real career for once instead of one more job?”
My best friend Duane and I were sharing bartending duties at an upscale restaurant and lounge in San Francisco back then. Amante on Russian Hill served an Italian-California fusion menu that had critics using words like innovative and groundbreaking. As a result, overdressed, self-proclaimed foodies were five deep at the bar every evening as they waited for a table.
It was the end of a typically crazy Saturday night, and the manager had just locked the front door. As we began to clean up, Duane started to bug me once again about how we should buy a bar. “We ought to have our own place.” He was on a roll. “No more bullshit jobs and batshit-crazy bosses. We’d be at the top of the food chain.” He paused for a moment to wipe at a particularly stubborn stain on the bar top. “And we could hire people to clean up!”
He had been saying the same thing for close to six months. In his opinion, it was time for us to be in charge.
I started tending bar after graduating college. It was a career that took me from Boston to Miami to California. Never in all that time had I given any thought to doing anything other than slinging booze for a living. In the past, I just ignored Duane when he started his spiel, but lately I had begun to listen.
Dad keeled over from a heart attack when I was 18, and mom died not long after I finished college with a major in Business Communications. I had no real family ties, and being a bartender allowed me to go where I wanted whenever I felt like it. I was free and intended to stay that way. The idea of settling down and going into management, or worse yet being an owner, had never been on my radar.
So why was I now considering Duane’s pitch about starting my own business? I can’t say for sure. Maybe I was just maturing. Maybe it was my father’s voice in my head saying I should grow up. Or, maybe it was the girl.
Maripat was part of the Cosmos-and-cocaine, party-hard office crowd that hung out where I worked. They would show up during my happy hour shift wearing Ann Taylor suits and Come-Fuck-Me pumps to debate the morality of the President getting a blowjob in the Oval Office.
With a pixie-cute look and a devilish attitude, Maripat caught my eye right away. Something clicked when we first met, and in no time at all we were a couple. She liked being the girlfriend of a bartender who knew the hip places to hang out, and I liked taking a hot girl to those places. However, shortly after we moved in together, her expectations for the future began to change.
“Wouldn’t it be better if you … ” became Maripat’s constant refrain in suggesting ways to improve my life. Didn’t I want to learn to dress nicer, get to know a new class of people, and start moving up in the world?
In the past, the answer to those questions had always been no. Now I wondered if I should consider it. Maybe it was time to settle down in one place. It would make Maripat happy, and what did I have to lose, other than my freedom of course? How important was that, really? Other people seemed to do just fine without it.
“Okay,” I finally said to Duane after several more weeks of listening to his pitch. “Let’s open a bar and see what happens.” I still remember the cold feeling in the pit of my stomach when I said it. I figured that must be how it felt to be an adult.
Duane and I quit our jobs, got a lawyer to turn us into a corporation, and signed on the dotted line for more money than we’d ever had. It was the American Dream come true.
We opened in a small space over in Hayes Valley, not far from City Hall. We called the bar Wild Deuces, and it was a smash. Within six months, word of mouth and a few friendly mentions in the newspaper had the place crowded each night. We had fun while working our butts off. The only problem was we didn’t seem to be making any money. Despite the nightly crowds, we were often late on our bills and even had to ask the bank for more cash.
Duane was the point man on our accounting, and I wondered aloud about the lack of profit we were showing. “Don’t worry,” was his reassuring response. “There are always extra costs at the start of a business. We’ll be making the big bucks in no time.” I had no reason to doubt him. He was my buddy.
It’s a funny thing: you can know someone a long time, work with him, drink with him, and even own a business together, and still not have a clue about his gambling addiction. By the time I discovered Duane had been stealing from our bank accounts to cover his bad bets, we were too far gone to survive.
After he skipped town with the last of the bar’s money, it turned into a race to see if our creditors or lenders would close us down first. It was pretty much a tie. Between them, they sold off everything that wasn’t nailed down.
If I was crushed, Maripat was hysterical. “I thought you were going to make something of yourself. What am I supposed to do now?”
I tried to tell her it wasn’t the end of the world. “I still have some cash in my personal savings plus a retirement account and a few investments. Losing the bar doesn’t affect that. That will keep me afloat while I look for another job. Once I get a foot in the door someplace, I can pull extra shifts and maybe make up some of the losses.”
She was not impressed. She folded her arms, rolled her eyes, and gave a long, exasperated sigh. “Oh great. We’ll have less time together, and I’ll end up stuck with a guy who still tends bar for a living.”
“Well,” I asked, “do you have any better ideas?” It turned out she did. She moved out the next day.
I figured that was three strikes—what with losing my girl, my best friend, and my budding career as a businessman all at once. So, while the rest of the country was focused on Bush’s hanging chads, I sold my car, subleased my apartment, and left town.
Looking back now, I’m not quite certain why I decided to go. I don’t remember having any clear purpose or plan. Maybe I was tired of trying to meet other people’s expectations. Or maybe there was just nothing there to tie me down. In my mind, I was thinking of it as a prolonged vacation. Whatever the reason, I took off, leaving San Francisco’s endless fog to head south. I thought some sunshine might bake the sadness out of my bones.
Ending up in Jamaica, I applied liquor, ganja, and reggae to my emotional bruises. I slept on the beach and hung with the dreadlocked locals. It didn’t take me long to discover a low-grade rum the Rasta boys called “Buzzard’s Butt.” It is guaranteed to remove the varnish from your tabletop and the memory cells from your brain. I might have overindulged.
After that were more islands. Eventually I made my way to Havana, although I’m still a little foggy about my time there. Then I caught a ride on a charter boat, working as a deckhand on the way to Mexico’s Caribbean coast. I was hitchhiking my way south through the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize when I landed on Paradise Beach.
Pushing my toes into the pure white sand that first day, it became clear I would not pull them out again anytime soon. The little bay with the blue water seemed the perfect place to live cheaply while I figured out my next move. The only flaw in the plan was that now I didn’t know if I even wanted a next move.
My memories were interrupted as Pat, the bar’s owner, came over to take the stool next to me. Pat was kind of the self-appointed mayor of the expats who lived in my beachside neighborhood. He heaved his short, plump body up onto the seat with a sigh of exertion and turned his sun-creased face to me.
“Word around the beach is that you might be heading home to the States for another go at the real world.” Before I could respond, he called to Jorge to bring the rum bottle and an extra glass. “So, are you going back?” he asked me, taking the bottle from Jorge.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “And I wouldn’t be going home. It would be New York. I’ve never lived there before.”
Pat poured each of us a glass of rum. “Hell, son, it’s all the same up there—New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles. It’s one big city north of the border.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But it’s your life. Go where you want. That’s what I’m going to do.”
I gave him a look to see if he was joking. “You’re leaving Paradise Beach?”
He nodded. “Yeah, time for me to move on. This place has a future now. More and more tourists startin’ to show up.” He grimaced at the thought. “I like things a little less crowded. If I can’t wake up and wander down the beach buck naked to piss in the ocean without scaring some family from Des Moines, I need to find a new place to live.”
“So where are you going?”
Pat gave a snort and then took a swallow of his drink. “I guess I’ll just follow the Margarita Road.”
Pat gave a phlegmy, booze-soaked growl of a laugh. “You know that urge you have when you just gotta get out of town and you don’t care what direction you go, but it always seems to be south?”
I nodded. In fact, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Well, that’s what I call taking the Margarita Road. That’s where I’m headed.”
“And where is the Margarita Road going to lead this time?” I asked.
“Who knows? Who cares? I’m like that driftwood out there.” He kept looking at me but pointed out to the beach. “I get washed ashore someplace for a while, but eventually the tide’s gonna carry me away again.” He gave me a sly grin. “Now I do have an invite from a rich widow lady to sail with her from Miami down to Cane Garden Bay in the British Virgin Islands. If that happens, I’ll probably spend some time down there with my old pal Pooie. He owns a bar on the beach called the Wedding Chapel.” Pat burst out with a throaty laugh. “Damn, I hope that name doesn’t give the widow any ideas. After that, who knows?”
“What about the bar?”
Pat looked around for a moment. “I guess I’ll try and sell it. It’s just some old boards and bricks. It’ll probably come down if a really big storm ever hits us. But what the hell, it has been fun.” He drained his glass. “Well son, if I don’t see you before you leave, I wish you well, even if it’s in fucking New York.” He shook his head sadly at the thought and wandered out of the bar and down to the beach, taking the bottle with him.
After he left, I sat staring out beyond the bay to deep water where the blues of the sky and the sea mixed together until it was impossible to see where one stopped and the other began. The horizon had disappeared. I thought of Patrick and his footloose ways. Is that what I wanted for myself—a life spent wandering on the Margarita Road? The only other choice seemed to be drinking away the last of my savings before heading back north with Nicole to jump into the same rat race that wrecked my life once already.
I suddenly had a moment of clarity the old hippie gurus in the Sixties called enlightenment. It dawned on me that Nicole was right. I could have my second chance if I really wanted it. But it wouldn’t be her idea of what I should do with my life. And it wouldn’t be what Maripat had wanted for me. It would be what I wanted. And I wanted to be free of the real world—if only for a while longer.
I made my decision right then and called down the bar, “Jorge, if I bought this place, would you be willing to stay and be my bartender?”
His eyes grew large, and his face broke into a wide grin. “You’re going to buy this place?” I nodded, surprising us both. Without a word, he filled two shot glasses from a bottle of Herradura Añejo. Carrying them around the bar, he handed one to me and tapped his own glass against mine. “Salud, Jefe.”
I worked things out with Patrick the next day. Within a week, papers were signed. I cashed in my IRA and took the last of the money from my stateside bank account to make the deal. It was all I had, but for some reason it felt right, as if I were starting over with a clean slate.
Jorge and I cleared out a second-floor storage room for me to live in. I bought a used table, dresser, and bed. The space was tiny, but it had a large window with wooden shutters that opened onto the Caribbean Sea.
It didn’t take long to haul my things from the cabaña. I only had a few bags, and there wasn’t much in them: clothes, some sandals, my old laptop, a plastic envelope filled with papers, and my passport. I also brought my CD collection of rhythm and blues, a journal, and a few books by Alan Watts. I unpacked in about fifteen minutes and went downstairs.
“Everything all right, Jefe?” Jorge asked.
I still wasn’t used to him calling me that. “Just fine,” I said.
“People are asking if you’re going to change the name of the bar.” He handed me a cup of Chiapas-grown coffee with a little Cuban rum floating on top.
“Yes, I am. I’m going to call it Poppa’s. Poppa’s Bar and Grill.”
Jorge smiled his approval. I sipped the coffee, welcoming myself to my new life.
Nicole stopped by later that day to say goodbye on her way to the Cancun airport. She was wearing more clothes than I had ever seen on her: a white blouse, black jeans, and sensible flat traveling shoes. She looked different. She looked normal.
We walked out onto the beach, watching the blue of the water darken in the afternoon light. I had told her of my plans as soon as I made the decision. She took the news well and seemed happy enough for me, if maybe a little envious.
She looked up at me now, her face colored a soft pink by the setting sun, and slipped an arm through mine, squeezing tight.
“So you’re really staying? This is going to be your home?”
I watched the blue-green waves of the Caribbean rumble onto the shore, the force sending a smooth sheet of water racing across the sand. Just before reaching our feet, it slowed and then stopped for an instant before pulling away back to the sea.
“Yeah,” I said. “For a while.”