It was a three hour bus ride up the Mexican coast, Blonde was dozing in the seat opposite, Geo would be joining us the next day having messed up his flight bookings from Cuba and Alaska and I were leaning against one another. Alaska leaned in, pulling a headphone pod from my ear “our raccoon will be called Franklin” he smiled and turned back to the sunset beyond the window. I pressed my mouth close to his ear “no raccoon. A dog and I’m naming it!”.
He laughed “no, raccoon first, dog second. Franklin will be awesome! Especially when I dress him in a tux” he followed up his statement with noises “thrttttt” which sounded like a chirping bird despite his assurances they were entirely raccoon.
“I am not staying here!” I snapped. The taxi from the bus terminal had dropped us off in a run down street in the back of Tulum. No one answered the door, it was dark and the mosquitoes had found me. I wrapped myself in whatever layers I could but they buried into my skin regardless, by the morning I’d have forty swollen bites to scratch.
‘I’m not staying here!’ I moaned internally once we eventually gained access ‘There is one lumpy bed and an old sofa. In the same room! For all four of us to share! The air conditioning is one tiny fan that shakes in the ceiling, squealing with every rotation and threatening to fly off at any second to decapitate us! The fridge doesn’t work, the freezer is about one degree cooler than the non functioning fridge. The living room is an oven, there are ants everywhere and OH MY GOD! WHAT WAS THAT! WAS THAT, WAS THAT A COCKROACH!!!! AGGGHHHHH I’M NOT STAYING HERE!!!! And we only have one key for four people! So we either stay in or all go out together. So much for space!’ I debated, trying to get the front door to shut, only to discover the net shutter was torn to shreds, allowing more mosquitoes to come feast on my arms.
“Who booked this?!” I spun around to face Blonde and Alaska. “Geo and I did” Blonde determined. “Why?” I questioned, there had been so many options, places with sea views, balconies, private swimming pools, two beds! And all the prices were reasonable. “Because it had two bikes available for guests to use. Geo and I thought we might do some cycling” Blonde answered.
I sighed, dragging my hands down my face “What? You’re telling me we are in this shit-hole when we could have been in an apartment with two bedrooms, a pool, AIR CONDITIONING! Oh and working wifi! All so you two can have bikes….which appear to have flat tyres?! And you did realise four of us would be staying here didn’t you? We might all want to cycle….” I wasn’t surprised any more.
“I’m not staying here” I insisted to Alaska the next day as we headed out to find a supermarket. The lumpy looking mattress must have been made of concrete because my back from screaming from it! Unable to sleep I tossed and turned itching at the bites whilst mosquitoes continued to dive bomb for me. “I’m going to book somewhere else” I determined.
“But if I don’t come with you, you’ll just hold it against me and I can’t afford to pay for accommodation twice!” he retorted. “I feel trapped here! I can’t stay in a room with those two for two more weeks! And I’m getting eaten alive! Look at my skin!” I held up an arm, great welts broke angrily in the pattern of star constellations across my skin. “Well what do you expect me to do!” he snapped back.
We yelled at each other as we walked back from the store. It irritated me that he wasn’t sympathetic to my cause and worse, that he was could only snap back rather than listen.
“Don’t follow me” I’d had enough, yanking my shopping from him into my arms and stomping off. Alaska followed “you’re going the wrong way” he called down the road after me. “Well you don’t have to follow me!” I yelled back stubbornly.
He had a point though, all the streets looked the same, I was completely lost. I walked into a random shop and asked for directions “four blocks over”. Alaska appeared at my side “see, I told you, you were going the wrong way”. “Ughh fuck off” I hated being wrong, I hated it even more when people pointed it out to me.
I let him walk ahead, turning off on a side street to get away from his over the shoulder glares. I contemplated buying a coconut from a street vendor until I realised I wouldn’t be able to carry that and the shopping, plus the machete looked rather dirty, the last thing I needed was the runs! Especially when the big sign above the toilet told us ‘do not flush paper’.
Two blocks later, my bearings had all but given up when I turned a corner and walked straight into Alaska, it appeared he too was lost. I wanted to be mad at him but at the sight of me, he asked “you lost too?”. I tried to pull my smile down, determined to hold onto the annoyance but my eyes gave it away and he laughed. We wiggled our way around the streets until we came across the blue gates signalling home. Swapping the keys over, Blonde took off for a walk “it’s really easy to get lost, stick to the main road” we called to ignoring ears.
An hour or so later, a storm rolled into town, breaking down some of the closeness we’d all been suffering. Alaska had managed to persuade the gas on the stove into action, as I emerged from the shower he presented me with an egg sandwich he’d already taken a bite from. “We should dance in the rain!” he announced as we took bites from the sandwich – not exactly in turn, his two for every one of mine. I stood in the yard in only my towel, heavy rain splash on my closed eyelids as the sky rumbled above.
Alaska appeared with giant slices of watermelon. “Thanks but I don’t like watermelon” I reacted. “Try, it’s good” he handed it over, I held the giant wedge with two hands, unsure how to proceed. “What do I do with the pips?” I shouted over the arguing gods above. “Spit them out, or eat them” he yelled back.
So we stood in the rain of the storm, under an umbrella sky of dark clouds, spitting pips to the ground and watching them swim to the gutter. The watermelon juice ran down our chins and I’d smile as he’d lean in to kiss the flavour from my face.
Geo arrived later that day, as did the apartment owner who showed us through to a secret second bedroom, built into the garage. It wasn’t any better than the first but at least we wouldn’t all have to share the one room.
Blonde and Geo booked an organised bus tour so Alaska and I rode the bikes to nearby ruins before finding a small beach fronted bar to eat seafood and drink Pina Coladas. We laid in hammocks, swaying back and forth watching the sun sink and moon rise over the ocean. “We should probably be getting back, it was a long ride to get here and it’s getting dark” Alaska advised.
“Oh no, we’ve stayed out too late” I realised as we walked back to the bikes “the mosquitoes are out!” I screamed, swiping four off my thigh “quickkkkkk to the bikes!!” I ran. We peddled as though our lives depended on it, Alaska laughed behind me as a cloud of the blood biters formed behind me if ever my peddling slowed. It was getting dark and the bikes had no brakes, I tore around corners unable to slow, it was only once I’d reached the accommodation that I realised I’d left Alaska far behind.
We arose early the next day to go swim with turtles but Alaska announced he was sick. So we napped and laid around instead, I made smoothies and searched for jobs on the computer, tortured by intermittent wifi. “Even though I’m sick, I’m glad I’m here with you” Alaska rolled over on the bed, speaking in that feeling sorry for yourself kind of way that men do when they catch man-flu.
With Alaska a little more perky the following morning, we hired a scooter “why can’t I drive?” I enquired when Alaska insisted on being the named driver “because I don’t want to die today” he responded. “Err, I just drove you around all of America!” I pointed out. “Exactly, I’m amazed any of us made it!” he smiled. “Hey! I’m a great driver” I declared. “Didn’t you crash the car and get a speeding ticket?!” he laughed, which was technically true but I felt justifiable.
I sat on the back of the scooter feeling far less stable than if I’d been in charge. Alaska revved the engine, we lurched forward, and abruptly stopped. He tried again, we sped down the street, my hands only just managing to hold on before I fell off the back. He raced through the gaps in the speed bumps as we headed to the beach, the wind tore at my face so I buried it in his back.
He sped up on the open highway, less careful until the wheels slipped from beneath us. We spun to one side as he tried to correct the steering, over compensating as we skidded to the other. The scooter veering dangerously low either side as I pictured my skin being torn from knees. We flew across the road, I screamed before he managed to gain control. “WHAT THE HELL!! YOU ALMOST KILLED US!” I yelled when we finally reached the beach. “Well I wasn’t doing it on purpose!” he snarled back “it’s not like you would have done any better” he stated meanly.
The beach wasn’t quite as idyllic as I’d been hoping, a bit dirty, a lot of tourists, grey coloured sand plus a ring of seaweed on the shoreline that made crossing into the water a slippery path of crustaceans and litter. But Blonde and Geo assured us there were turtles to be found, and therefore slippery crustaceans would have to be abided!
We swam out into the murky waters, waves slightly too choppy for any clear visibility but no turtles could be found. Disappointed we returned to the apartment, dogs flying out of yards to chase the scooter “faster” I screamed as they tried to nip my heels.
“You didn’t see any turtles?” Blonde asked that evening over dinner “we went yesterday, there were loads. Geo gave one cancer!”. “What?” I questioned. “I touched one” Geo added, I turned to Blonde confused “apparently if you touch them, you can give them cancer because they’re allergic to humans” she informed.
“Can I drive today?” I enquired the next morning. Alaska sniffed, still suffering from his cold “no, you’re not on the insurance”. Despite my reluctance to risk my life again by his driving, I climbed on the back of the bike.
“Ooh these are cool!” I announced when we’d arrived at the cenotes, large pools of water in limestone sink holes. “You go in first” Alaska nudged me forward. The water was cool but not unpleasant “come on” I called swimming further away from the dock, the dark overhanging caves disguising the crystal cut clearness of the mirror in which I’d entered. “Oooh” Alaska giggled at the change of temperature to the humid heat we’d been suffering all day.
“Oh wow, there are fish in here! And bats! Look up there!” we stayed mostly in the light where the sun drifted through the trees and showed the bottom of the pool, far deeper than it seemed. The dark parts of the cave scared us a little, unsure how deep we could swim into the black and if we’d ever come out again. “Shall we try another pool?” Alaska asked after our skin began to pimple and teeth chattered from the cold.
“This one is even bigger!” I squealed, my t-shirt billowing around me as I jumped into the water. Despite our modest diet in Cuba, I was still feeling uncomfortably heavy from our American diet; my skin had a strange puffiness to it, I was convinced I’d grown cellulite on my knees and calves, and even my feet felt fatter. I tugged at the t-shirt, trying to keep it from floating up in the water whilst Alaska’s words from months before floated through my mind ‘well you have got a fat ass‘ ‘you’re not attractive’ ‘have you got any pictures from when you were thinner?‘.
We were having a nice time in Mexico but my legs met in places they hadn’t used to, my hip bones were much more cushioned and I was pretty sure I once had a collarbone!
‘You’re doing this to yourself, you’re ok, it’s not like you have to wash yourself with a stick on a rag! And look, he loves you, so what if he doesn’t find you physically attractive, who needs that?’ I asked myself ‘Ummm I do!’ I answered. ‘No, it’s fine, I’m totally self assured, I’ll just be content in my fleshy, flabby self and be happy for good health and a positive outlook. Yes. I’m having a lovely day. This is fine. If I feel too self conscious to take the t-shirt off and reveal my bikini body, fine, but let’s just enjoy these beautiful pools and not worry about it’ and just as I gave myself a prep-talk an eruption of chatter burst the stillness and drew our attention.
I looked up in time to see a horde of diamanté covered wedged heels wobbling down the wooden stairs to the pool. Long, slim, tanned limbs followed until an army of Valley Girls stood before us.
I’d never seen people like them, Barbie come to life in all her various guises. Tiny bodies with stuck on boobs, waists that looked sculpted, bums usually reserved for fitness models in magazines after a lot of photoshop. They each wore a face full of carefully contoured make-up and hair so big, they might topple over if they leant too far to the side. I yanked at my t-shirt and wished the pool really would swallow me up. All the insecurities I’d ever had raising to the surface. I felt mortified and so self conscious I almost couldn’t move.
I treaded water for awhile trying to plan an escape route whilst the girls removed tiny denim shorts and cropped tops to reveal even tinnier bikinis, more dental floss than swimwear and yet magically, everything on their body seemed to be supported, remaining in place. I glanced at Alaska, the big jerk looked like all his Christmases had come at once! A massive smile was spread across his face as I deemed he too had never seen creatures such as these in real life.
Whilst Hugh Hefner’s wives descended into the water, squealing at the cold and running back up the steps to “Ohh Tiffany, it’s soo cold, you go first” “No, you first Courtney” I swam around to the other-side and escaped the water, pulling my t-shirt away from my skin with that annoying suction sound.
I went and waited by our bags for Alaska to join me so we could head to the safety of another pool. I waited. But soon I was surrounded by Valley Girls, who’d decided they needed sun-cream for the shaded cave. I stood in the middle whilst models lathered each other up, trying not to listen to their conversation but unable to avoid it “What are you talking about? You look so slim! You do not have a belly! Why am I so white! I feel pasty! You have amazing boobs, mine aren’t as good as yours” they swapped back and forth.
Alaska had taken the route to leave the pool through the busy side of the dock where the girls were all entering, of course he had! I watched as he took great delight “after you” “Do you need a hand, here…” “it’s not that cold, I’ll help you”. By the time he’d joined me I was a beating myself up for every Teddy Graham ever consumed and had convinced myself I was the most hideous creature to ever walk the planet.
“I knew you’d be feeling self conscious” was the first words he spoke, a look of amusement twinkled in his eyes. It kind of angered me, if he knew that, why hadn’t he come straight out of the water and hugged me or something? I don’t know? Made me feel special rather than the weed in a garden of roses? Perhaps I expected too much?
In reality, I knew I didn’t want to look like those girls, and I was perfectly fine as I was, no matter what size or shape but I seemed to construct rejection, loneliness and self confidence into physical appearance. In some warped logic, I was convinced everything would be better if I was thinner, prettier, smaller ass’d.
For some reason, right at the very bottom of it all, I thought that if I was prettier, people might like me more and then I’d be accepted and good enough. This went beyond the grief; that had only dialled things up and I could never quite get control of my self esteem during the whole grieving process. Instead, I’d worn those insecurities like a sign around my neck, inviting the world to chip away at them and telling myself every word was true.
I thrust it at Alaska to take swipes at and then blamed him for doing so. I guess these things go back to childhood, classic Daddy issues anyone? You don’t get the attention from one parent so you cling to the other but it’s not enough so you develop this extroverted, attention seeking persona that’s tells you, you’re only as good as the next male figure thinks you are. Grief dug it all up and made those buried issues more vulnerable and exposed to the seasons.
We moved on to another pool but the Stepford Wives in making only followed, I tried to swim between caves to escape but succeeded only in bashing my head on a low hanging stalactite. “Can we go soon?” I begged Alaska, my fingers tracing the bump in my hair.
We returned to the apartment just as it was getting dark, as I curled up on the bed, Alaska was about to head out for water when he paused in the doorway “why the hell am I getting water! I’m the one who’s sick!” he sniffed for good measure, apparently his bug hadn’t stopped him from swimming in cold pools all day but when it came to going five minutes around the corner for water upon an evening, well, he was a dying man!
“I can’t go out when it’s dark, look at me! I’m covered! No offence but my concern for your dehydration is out weighed by my fear of gaining another hundred or so mosquito bites!” I cut my reply. The fight escalated as they always did with us until Geo and Blonde walked in.
They gave each other knowingly looks and smirked “we were just saying today we wondered if you two would be fighting or having a good day. We settled on fighting” Blonde sat smugly. “You know, if you were sick, I’d go get you water” Blonde turned to Geo, her legs draped over his lap.
“Oh, I’d get you water too” he dazed back adoringly. I felt ganged up on, Alaska informed the room I was selfish. “How is me not wanting to get water because I’m the only one the mosquitoes seem to go for and as soon as I step outside I’m covered in them, making me selfish!” I screamed back. “Because I’m SICK!” Alaska yelled. Blonde laughed “oh this is fun, I like watching you two fight, you’re both always yelling at each other” she looked at Geo bemused who only draped an arm around her shoulder and stroked her in sickening longing.
Ughhhh it was too much to take, Blonde smiled like a cat ‘get out! Get out now you smug, stupid bitch‘ I yelled internally wishing I could go for a walk or get away but the mosquitoes buzzed at the windows trapping me in. Blonde laughed “You guys are always fighting. I don’t think we’ve had one fight have we?” she looked at Geo again for confirmation who was smart enough to smile back, all the approval needed. I wanted to scream.
Alaska and Blonde were trying to sort out money the next morning “you’re a smart guy, I’m sure you can work it out” she informed him. “Oh my god! You’re being so patronising” I butted in. “No I’m not!” she said defensively, I repeated her phrase back to her.
“No, I’m just saying!” she countered. “Well it’s hard to keep track of everything when you keep all of these hidden costs with 15 dozen bloody receipts for everything!” Alaska stated. “I just keep track of things” Blonde lifted her head defiantly. “Yeah, every single cent!” I pointed out; Blonde seemed to forget the numerous coffees brought for her but made sure to charge back every bottle of water or stick of chewing gum she bought for others.
Alaska laughed at my comment. “Ughh you two are hard work sometimes” Blonde informed, shaking her head. “Ha!” was all I could manage before Alaska tore into her, before I knew it, both were in full screaming mode, Geo trying to cool things down but being pulled in every direction by his childhood friend and the girl he’d fallen for.
The stress of the apartment combined with the growing anxiety of going home and what might happen had been triggering mum dreams. She just kept dying. Over and over again when ever I closed my eyes. ‘Please don’t die!‘ I’d beg in my sleep, tears crystallizing on my cheeks in the dark whilst Alaska snored alongside. It had been nearly two years, the world had moved on, but for me, she still died for the first time in my arms every night.
I swam out far into the waters, Alaska had given up, returning to the sand to sleep under a palm. The waves rose and fell gently, I let them submerge me, my snorkel mask providing all the air I needed ‘please let me see one, a hint of shell, the edge of a fin, something’ I called into the gloom, desperate for a sighting.
It was calm beneath the waves, I didn’t feel like I was drowning any more, I knew I could resurface whenever I needed and there would always be air waiting for me. But the stillness, the cloudy waters, shapes in the dark, I was at peace with them at last. It was almost two years and finally I could fall beneath the surface without being consumed.
I felt suspended for a moment, peace washing over me at the acceptance, the world a frozen dream, alone in the gloom but finally ok with it. The world hadn’t changed, but I had learned to live it it.
And slowly, another miracle. A face appeared out of the dark. Swimming directly towards me, a slow dance of graceful wings glided into the light as the turtle and I came face to face. He turned at last and nodded I follow, together we swam further out to sea, he dove down to the sand beneath us, introducing me to his wife who winked in reply to my smile. I watched from above as their neighbours popped around, my own private street party. When it was time, I surfaced, I surfaced back into the day, to a clear sky and promises of tomorrow.