I wandered like a white girl. Oversized backpack, a money belt full of sports bar tips, and a penchant for men with guitars. A fissure in my heart and bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t afford Europe so I went South, crossed the border a few miles from my home and got on a bus. I’d been a half-assed activist flunking my way out of school, bragging I was heading to Chiapas, Oaxaca, toward mescaline and enlightenment. The goateed and loc’d and rageful nodded in seriousness at my claims, I was righteous.
I was full of shit.
I’d always been been the wrong kind of Mexican, too much of a coward to adopt the local cut-eye and arched eyebrow, too American for the Tijuas who crossed the line daily to get to school. I clung to the atheist fringes of the rockers and Mexi-goths and knew every Siouxie and Morrissey lyric, but the drum in my chest banged hollow. I wanted more. Before taking off to travel I spent secret afternoons in a bookstore that sold crystals and dowsing rods; studying books on Wicca before taking the plunge. I made a circle of salt on the new moon. I’d purchased a dagger and a chalice for the occasion, and I initiated myself witch. Poor little witch, silly little witch, all desperation and pomp. Still, the drum in me banged hollow.
There were other kinds of hollow bangings those faux-bohemian traveling days of mine. Hostels, I found, were ripe with boy-men eager to bang. Bunkbed sex, shower sex, sex in a hammock, ass swollen with mosquito bites for days. It was unusual those days to see a Mexican-American woman traveling like a white girl. I was this rare, wild and broken thing living in the grey area between cultures. I wore my wildness, I attempted to embody those foreign goddesses I read about and chanted to each dark and full moon. The real Mexicans I encountered asked me the same questions: Why wasn’t I married? Why was I in Mexico if my family had been able to leave? I had no answer and hoped my smile was mysterious enough.
I ended up living and working at a hostel a couple of blocks from the beach in a town between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It was a late nineties faux-bohemian paradise, a steady stream of new strangers to enchant, a clear sea to swim in, an easy job entering passport numbers into a logbook and handing out keys. It was a strange, village-like place with other long-term residents who stayed in the shabbier bungalows.
There was Hans, a young marine biologist from Germany, clean shaven daily, who studied the reef a klick offshore. At night I’d hear him spanking Fantine, the French scuba diving instructor who lived in a tent. There was also a divorced woman from Rochester who dressed in all white muslin and insisted we call her Águila. I refused. Her name was not Eagle. It was Carol. And Cisco, the perma-stoned skinny trustafarian owner from Ethpaña. And various guests who came to burn, escape, and if they were lucky, forget where they’d come from.
It was early summer and the first hurricane of the season was gathering rage over the ocean. Hans and Fantine had fallen out the night before over some argument over history and the tension at breakfast was heavier than the air. I don’t remember there being many guests, just us. Cisco always slept all day and emerged from a haze of smoke only after the sun had set. Carol was consoling Fantine.
You know who you are, Carol held Fantine’s swollen face in her hands. I snorted, this coming from a woman who called herself Eagle. Hans raised one eyebrow at me and smiled. I tight lipped a grin at him, happy he’d heard me but not wanting to completely betray my sex.
Do you know what you remind me of, Fantine? Carol had one of those deliberate New York therapist voices, all gravel and honey, I see you each day, carrying those tanks on your back, swimming, breathing underwater and I think sea tortoise.
Turtle, Águila. Hans interrupted, he’d been pretending not to listen but being German, and a marine biologist, he had to correct.
Carol. I corrected Hans.
What? Carol turned to us, annoyed her mystical-magical-wise-woman moment had been broken.
Tortoises are of the land, turtles are of the sea. If she was a tortoise she’d sink. She’s not a tortoise. Hans’s voice went up as he spoke. I couldn’t stop myself.
It’s not a tumor, I said. Everyone’s eyes turned to me; Fantine’s blinking red, Carol’s glared, Hans’s rolled. I opened a box of guava juice and sat down at the plastic table, cracking myself up on the inside.
The Mayan say, Carol continued, ignoring us and focusing all her latent mother energy on Fantine, That when a baby sea turtle hatches from its egg and emerges from the sand, the constellations above are imprinted on its shell. That way it will always know how to find its way home.
Yah the Mayan also say that if you eat the eggs it makes your dick hard for hours because the turtles mate for days, Hans interrupted. Stupid folklore contributing to their dwindling numbers. He got up and started walking off the patio I’m tired of apologizing Fantine, all Germans are. I had nothing to do with what happened to your grandmother. He slammed his paper cup into the garbage can and walked off.
Fantine and the Eagle went off to kumbaya together over the injustices of the past. I washed dishes and rode a community bike over to the internet cafe to check the weather report and see if there were any messages from home. Storm was south of us still, churning. There was an email from my mom, relating a few pieces of family gossip, and cautious questions of what my plans were. I stared at the screen for a long time, imagining her sitting at the old computer in my bedroom at home, waiting for the modem to connect, my dad standing over her shoulder. I was the baby in the family. My sister was in San Francisco, she’d graduated from a Catholic University and was a social worker in San Quentin. My brother managed the mirror and glass business my dad owned and was busy with his rockabilly band every night.
You want to see them? I swiveled in my chair. Hans was standing behind me.
My family? I asked. The drum in me skipped a beat and I thought of their faces. Of barbeque smoke, carne asada on the grill, boom box playing oldies.
The turtles, maybe some baby turtles hatching. Hans said, Tonight I’m going to one of the beaches we know the turtles come up to lay, to collect eggs so the local Mayans don’t take them to sell as aphrodisiac.
Is that legal? I asked. A cumbia was playing on the radio, I tapped my foot in time to the beat and looking around noticed I was the only person in the cafe moving to the rhythm. I was reminded how strange it was to be living in Mexico and hardly interacting with any locals at all. There were Mexicans, obviously, but I never spent any time with them. They had jobs, families.
Yah, Dora, more legal than the idiots who steal the eggs to eat them. This fucking country, backwards. We take the eggs to a sanctuary beach, let them incubate there, with a guard, and then the hatchlings actually have a chance to make it to the sea. It’s a late night, we won’t be back until almost sunrise. Hans ran a hand through his hair.
Is Fantine coming? I wanted to see a turtle but didn’t want to hurt Fantine.
Yah, no, I don’t know. She can come if she stops crying. The more of us the better. We can spread out and signal each other if we see a turtle laying eggs.
Yeah. Okay. I’d gotten into the habit of saying yes. Yes so far had taken me far more interesting places than no ever had.
Hans walked out. I looked back at the screen. There was a new email, from my brother.
Sup Doors? You loving hippy life? Fucking come home already, Mom needs someone to baby and she’s acting like a smotherfucker to me and dad. I saw your boy Pete, he knocked up some fresa, I ran into them in TJ at Cien Años. He asked about you, I said you were living the dream on a beach in Cancun. He says hi. Ya heard Stella’s moving back. She got a job at Donovan, Dad’s pissed. Said no more prisons but he raised his girls to be independent so it’s on him if she gets shanked. Bitchin Ranchero is playing Viper Room next month. You should be there, see the chicks drool over your rockstar bro. Late– Gus
I sat, blood pounding out no, no, no. Pete, my Pedro. Cien Años? Our fucking Cien Años? Song and place? And a fresa. The fresa made sense, I was never pristine enough for my Pedro, too untucked and flyaway. Too many booze fueled collisions between us, everything we wanted in each other existing but in entirely the wrong ways. Our spirits were too much for our bodies when we were around each other and we split into fragments, our worst selves surfacing, blaming. When I left, I left hard. I took something with me.
Really, Pedro? It was the first time I’d said his name aloud in over six months.
That night the entire hostel crew, Hans, Fantine, Carol, Cisco, and I piled into Hans’ VW bus. Cisco and I sat on the back bench, Fantine rode shotgun and Carol sat in one of the buckets. Cisco and I were casual, sometimes lovers, often bored with each other. We had no chemistry for love but our buddy vibe was on. I think we had sex sometimes just for the after, two naked bodies waxing on and on. We bonded over our love of Dead Can Dance, smoking endless nights to Toward the Within, he called me American Girl. He rolled a joint on the bench, Carol huffing out disapproving breaths at the sticky icky scent while Hans and Fantine murmured at each other. The Yucatán night was dark, the moon moving toward full. The air tasted of salt and the metallic tang of the storm rumbling slowly toward us.
Hans took a dirt road, washboard and narrow, darkened on each side by lowland jungle. The headlights illuminated a frantic world of otherwise invisible insects. The road ended at a beach. There was a palapa, strung with yellow light bulbs. There a small group of international biologists introduced themselves, made us wash our hands thrice and handed us headlamps.
We will split up and walk up and down the beach. If you see a turtle coming out of the water don’t approach her because she’ll go back into the water. Wait until she starts laying the eggs and then turn your light on and off three times, facing each direction down and up the beach. The next closest person will help you gather the eggs and bring them back here.
Cisco and I put on our headlamps and immediately headed into the darkness to light up. He reached for me but my body wasn’t feeling anything but pounding, the same no no no that was born when I read my brother’s email. When the porro was a roach I kissed Cisco’s knuckles, slung my small backpack on.
Y así, te vas? Cisco sang, he never tried twice, something I appreciated.
I have something to do. He spoke to me in Spanish and I responded in the language I was more comfortable in.
Vaya. He sat down. I walked away.
I followed my no no no, up the beach, down, keeping half an eye open for a turtles but I just needed a place for the thing I’d been carrying for months, little spell, mine and not mine.
I’d told Pedro I love you sex-drunk and tousled. Splayed and on that razor edge of power when you haven’t only been pleasured to the point of delirium but have returned the favor. We were in that laughing state, bodies soft with use, grinning stupid, masks off. I love you came out of my mouth before I could stop it. I was naked, on my side watching him scratch his belly. He creased a look at me.
Oh shit mami and his smile was pity. He tied the condom off and went to the bathroom. I turned onto my back, listening to his stream of urine, every heartbeat pounding. He came out and sat on the edge of the bed We’re good, no? Friends but. He inhaled and patted my thigh. Patted. I nodded. I bit the tip of my tongue hard between my teeth so the tears wouldn’t spill. I wanted to be the cool one, never frayed, nonplussed. I closed my eyes and pretended to stretch as he dressed, dropped me an air kiss and split.
I don’t know why I did it. If it was some ancestral call awakening in me or just straight possession. I was staring at a white veladora I had burning on my bureau. There was a rock on my bedside table, a funny little stone I’d pocketed after Pedro had tossed it at me earlier when we’d gone to get high at the beach. My hands shook. I didn’t understand how he could look at me the way he did, touch me how he did, how we could laugh full body laughs in perfect comfort and then he could pat me like a dog when I told him I loved him.
I fished the condom out of the bathroom trashcan and used nail clippers to cut it open. I knelt at my small altar, a milk crate covered in cardboard and a cheap scarf. I poured his semen over the rock, coating it. I then poured the wax from the veladora onto them both. One layer, blowing it to harden, then another, and another until the candle was spent and I held in my hand a stone for permanence, my lover’s semen, and the outcome of fire. Come back, I said over the amulet, Pedro. He didn’t, not then.
Eleven days later I was on a bus South.
I walked the beach until I sure I was away from the headlamp crew, the jungle encroached and I headed toward the widest swath of sand I could find. There was a piece of wood, something surf drifted up from another place where logs were from. I shrugged my pack off and leaned against the log, sandals tossed aside. Far out over the water, clouds flickered and were inwardly illumined by lightning. The moon was a cliche over the water, the insects’ song following. I felt the stone through the nylon of my backpack. Wrapped in a bandana, the small comfort of it against my back through all my wanderings. I unzipped the pack and dug, past the journals and wrappers, hair ties and miscellania until the weight of it was in my hand. I hadn’t touched the wax and cum rock since the day I’d tossed it in. I was a little bit ashamed of it and a little bit scared. I unwound the bandana and set the rock on the log by my left elbow.
I wanted to cry but I’d spent so much energy refusing my tears, refusing all emotion in favor of the bombast I peacocked. I dry heaved a couple of times, dizzy and face damp with sweat. I scooted down, resting my head on the log and half closed my eyes.
There was a flash in front of my eyelashes, sometime later. I’d dozed. I thought the storm clouds had moved in. Opening my eyes I saw the flash again, dull, local. Chelonia Mydas herself out of the sea. The flash was the cliched moon reflecting off of her wet shell, not four feet in front of me. Her face ancient, mouth beaked, tears streamed down her face as her back flippers churned up sand. She was digging her nest. Down the beach a light flashed thrice and I was grateful. Let the rest go toward that light, mine was mine. She dug and dug, rasping out breaths I matched mine to until she was finished. I heard the first wet plop. I moved slowly on my hands and knees until I was beside her. She was huge, her shell misshapened by a shark bite on one side, the old scar already barnacled.
I can’t tell you what was exchanged, I’m not sure I know now, all these years later. I know I knelt at her side, traced her face, took the salt from her and touched myself in holy places: wrists, forehead, the dip between my breasts, mons pubis. Her eggs fell from her body, the mucous surrounding them shining. I thought of her, when? Forty? Seventy years before? Deposited just like this, incubating, crawling out of the sand and heading out to sea but knowing how to get home. I reached down to catch an egg, just to feel it and the shape and weight of it told me what I had to do.
When she was finished she used her back flippers to fill the hole, I did what I could to help. It wasn’t sentimental, when the sand was even she turned and went back into the water, unburdened, she had done her part. I walked back and forth over the seam her body left in the sand to hide the trail to her nest.
I walked back toward the palapa, tired, itching with new bites. Cisco rose from the sand, headphones over his ears, Discman in hand. He unhooked himself and threaded an arm through mine.
Aguila found a turtle, but she kept talking and talking to it and it went away. He conspired one of his grins at me. I smiled back, a full smile for once.
I saw you, he sang, you burieded something.
Your English is terrible, I sang back, I planted something.
Lizz Huerta is an emerging author whose works have appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Rumpus, The Cut, Lightspeed Magazine, Bustle, Miami Rail and Lumina. She’s a working class border writer, painting wrought iron by day and writing fiction and essays whenever she’s not on a ladder.