The trouble begins because we’re not wearing white. It’s Valentine’s Day, and my husband, Chris, and I are on the date of a lifetime: A croquet game in the middle of the Mexican jungle. Around us are palm trees, dark wooden tables, a bunch of people in white clothes, and a bar selling margaritas. The ocean peeks through the trees. It’s exponentially romantic, like a final date from The Bachelor. Except our love isn’t new.
We’ve been married ten years, have two little kids, and desperately need to reconnect.
A harried woman with pale hair and a clipboard scans the crowd, mumbling our names.
I raise my hand. “Here.”
She squints. “Oh. I didn’t think you were players, because of your clothes.”
I look down. I’m wearing a beige T-shirt with embroidered flowers around the neckline and a soft gray skirt. Chris has on khaki shorts and a plaid shirt.
When we’d arrived in this village a few days ago, I’d seen a flyer hanging on a pole announcing the tournament, which boasted a “Sweetheart Division.” Romance jackpot, I’d thought. How many of our friends in Colorado would be playing croquet on Valentine’s Day? I ignored the fine print and signed up as a way to surprise Chris.
But now I can see how much the fine print mattered. The woman with the clipboard looks at me, flustered. She disappears for a minute and comes back with a white sarong. “Put this on,” she says. “It’s wet, but that’s okay.”
“Um.” I tie the soggy cloth around my mid-section, covering my skirt. It clings to my thighs, accentuating the roundness of my tummy and hips in an unflattering way.
She hands Chris a white button down shirt. The tag says it’s a women’s size XL. Chris glares are me. But he puts on the shirt on over his other one, gruffly adjusting the sleeves and collar.
The other players just stand there watching us. It appears that they all know each other, from the way they were chatting a few minutes ago, but they’re silent now. The air is thick with something unsensual—competition? Nerves? Annoyance? I look over at a hot pink bloom and take a deep breath. Relax, I tell myself. This is going to be fun. I smile and playfully kiss Chris on the cheek. He crosses his arms over his chest.
A man with a moustache and dark glasses, wearing a handmade button that says President, steps to the front of the group. The woman with the clipboard stands next to him. “We’ll be the judges for today’s competition,” he says. “But before we get started, I’m going to have to go through all of the regulations, because we have people here who are not regular players.”
I shift my weight backwards, trying to look smaller.
There are so many rules. No touching the wicket with your mallet. No pushing the ball with your mallet. No touching your partner’s mallet when it’s their turn to shoot. There’s also no “sending,” which is my favorite part in backyard games, when you get to playfully whack someone’s ball off the course. This game feels more like our routine weekday mornings at home, when there are a dozen tasks to remember: brushing teeth, combing hair, making lunches, getting to the bus by 8:19. In the chaos, I often forget to kiss Chris goodbye.
“Well, I hope we can at least touch our partners while we play,” I say. I shimmy over to Chris and tap his hip. This elicits a friendly smile from a woman in a flowing dress, but no one else acknowledges me. They’ve lined up at the start.
Surprisingly, Chris and I begin strong. I shoot first, sending the ball through the first set of wickets, and then Chris completes the second wicket with relative ease. We nod excitedly at each other, and I can see his shoulders softening. The others walk quietly, paired up but not touching, conferring with their partners on strategy. There is an air of great concentration; mostly men telling their sweethearts what to do and mumbling, “Nice shot,” while staring at the ground.
Then our luck changes. At the third wicket, just when my sarong is beginning to dry out, I overshoot significantly. “Crap,” I say, laughing. Chris can’t help smiling. He gives me a sarcastic high five. As we walk over to my ball, we joke about strategy, but really the only thing to do is to keep hitting the ball backwards.
Finally, we’re close to being back in the game, and while trying to line up a shot, Chris accidentally hits another team’s ball, pushing them into a less favorable position.
Tongues click. Loud sighs pierce the silence. “Oh, that was nasty,” a player with a British accent says to the pale-haired judge. She shakes her head, biting her lip in disgust.
Chris looks at me, eyebrows raised. “These people are nuts,” he whispers.
“Should we leave?” I look up at the sun. It’s high overhead. There’s still plenty of time to go to the beach, sip Coronas; pretend I didn’t plan the worst date ever.
“No,” says Chris, looking around. He inhales. “We’re staying. Let’s do this.”
On my next turn, I have to navigate out of a tough spot next to a wicket. I do my best, shooting tentatively. “Push!” someone yells. When I look up, I see the President jogging over. “You pushed the ball,” he announces loudly. He picks up my ball and moves it back to its original position.
“What?” I ask.
“I have to be fair,” he says. “A push is a push.”
“Well, I think the President is partial,” I joke, and walk toward Chris to hand him the mallet.
The President strides up to within inches of my face. “Hey!” he says.
I turn around, startled.
“Are you trying to start an argument?” he asks, his voice rising in anger. A drop of spittle hits my cheek. “Because if you are….”
I raise my hand and step back. “Whoa. I was just joking.”
“Do you understand that this is a serious game?” His hands make fists at his sides.
“Oh my God,” I say. “It was a joke. We came here to have fun.”
Chris appears at my side. I can feel his energy—pure testosterone—pulsing. “Get away from my wife,” he says.
The President steps back.
I walk away and stand at the edge of the course, taking deep breaths, trying to slow down my heart rate.
But as I stare at Chris and the President, sparring with words, my heart keeps pumping fast. It’s not because I’m angry, though. I’m actually kind of turned on. Chris looks sexy out there on the green, his face animated, muscles taut beneath his women’s shirt, defending my honor. It’s like an 80s love song, or Karate Kid.
When Chris returns to my side, I’m smiling like a lovesick teenager. I kiss him on the mouth. “Thanks, babe,” I say.
He pulls me close. “No problem…sweetheart.”
We strip off our white costumes, drop our mallets on the ground, and head to the opposite end of the village for Corona’s.