It is my last day in Tulum and between the chef, the view, the quiet, and great company, I have been spoiled. Though I’m not ready to go home, I am bringing these lessons back with me:
– Tequila has neither preventative nor curative properties against amoebic dysentery. I did the research so you don’t have to. Thank me later.
– If you hold a seashell up to your ear, it can hear your thoughts. Think it some good ones, and put it back in the surf. Customs is already suspicious enough of women traveling into the U.S. alone from Mexico. Conch smuggling is a pretty messed up thing to go to federal prison for. Especially in this day and age with so many nobler crimes to choose from.
– Cats meow the same in Mexico as they do in the United States, which is to say that if you meow at them, they ignore you in the same,’I heard you, but we could never be friends’ kind of way as American cats – unlike the Cats in Italy that ignore you in the,’I don’t recognize that sound as representative of my species’ kind of way.
– If you arrived with anything more than a tooth brush, you over packed. Scratch that. Those wash up on shore.
– Time is a constant, but not constantly. The week before you go to Tulum will take eons to pass, but the week you are there will fly by in seconds. In the end, you will still have only ticked off two weeks until your next trip.
I reached a milestone with my writing yesterday. I had to kill off a character.
He made me so happy when I invented him and every time I proofread, I loved seeing his little face. Regrettably, he not only failed to advance the story, but he complicated it needlessly.
I didn’t kill him so much as I just wiped him out of existence. He was never here, as far as you would ever know. But I know better, and last night at dinner, I was feeling a little guilty about that. This is what Mexico has done to me; I’m the kind of person now who yells at dogs and kills Steve.
Kitty suggested that maybe Steve will crawl off and grow a new tale. This is where I have to tell you, so that you can laugh at that last line, that Steve was a snake with a complex back story. He was kidnaped from his home in Greece by Roman mercenaries and taken to a foreign land where an awful lot of responsibility was placed upon his shoulders. Steve handled his predicament with grace and style, but dammit, none of that is what I’m writing about. At least, not now.
So maybe by telling you about Steve, he isn’t dead. He really does exist – somewhere – and, as is the habit of snakes, will pop up again where we least expect it.
I didn’t even know to imagine that a thatched roof has a scent, but it does. And for a North Carolina native, it’s distinct and familiar. The moment I entered this tropical cabana my nose dragged me three thousand miles and thirty years backwards to the tobacco barns that dotted my Appalachian childhood. An air-cured leaf smells like an air-cured leaf, no matter your latitude, apparently. It smells like September.
There have been few other surprises. Learning that the mosquito netting on my canopy bed isn’t purely decorative shouldn’t have been one of them – what, given that I am basically sleeping in a tree house that is only sealed against primates without prehensile tails, ladders, or sufficient motivation. Any living thing that is not lazy but is smaller than a Saint Bernard may come and go as he wishes. So far, this has limited my visitors to reptiles and winged creatures, but Cheryl saw a mouse. A mouse means there are no cats on the property. I was told there were cats so I would not need to worry about snakes. Of course, if there were snakes, there would also be no mouse, so I’m not sure where my sensibilities fall concerning the rodent sighting. I’m inclined to suspect she was pulling my leg – or maybe just herself mistaken, but I won’t outright accuse her of that; that would be rude, and I’m still hurt that nobody believed Laura and I saw a donkey on the ride in.
I’d like to say I figured it out on my own, but it was Cheryl who told me the mosquito netting is functional, though I think hers is serving a dual purpose and acting as a mouse barrier as well.
The first night I slept with only the screen door to my balcony closed. I thought I imagined things touching my face all night, but after sleeping with my netting closed, I realize that wasn’t my imagination. Those face creepies were real. Currently I’m weighting the benefit of bug protection against the blockage of Caribbean wind on my sleeping body. I’m not sure at this time which is going to win. More research is needed.
Also on the first night, I thought I imagined the squeal of the lonely ceiling monkey jolting me out of my almost-sleep. It turns out that was real, too, but it was a gecko in my rafters, not a monkey. By the time I hit the sack again last night, that was just one of the many ambient sounds of the jungle that I don’t even notice now.
There are monkeys in Mexico, as it turns out. It’s very unlikely I will see one. Spider monkeys, long time victims of the illegal pet trade industry, have become something resembling refugees in their own land. In the early 2000’s, a monkey sanctuary was opened by a retired native of Chicago. A couple of years ago, though, he was killed when a camel he kept on site escaped from his pen and sat on him; probably not how he ever imagined he would die. That sanctuary closed, and there is another in its place. Probably the same one, under new name and management, but either way, I’m not going to make it there on this trip, so my chances of monkey spotting are very low. In all likelihood, the squeals and squawks that I mistook for monkeys are reptilian or avian in nature.
Yesterday morning, I took my coffee on a short walk down into the Sian Ka’an, on the beach side. I didn’t see another human being, but could not shake the feeling that I was being watched. What is the Sian Ka’an anyway? Why is there a fence, especially one that looks electrified, keeping me from wandering into its jungle? Surely it isn’t the secret hide out of drug lords; too conspicuous. It could house a secret laboratory where scientists from all over the world are either creating biological weapons, or cures for them, but again, the placement is suspect. Why would you put one of those in a tourist town? That makes it ever more likely that it’s just a posh vacation destination for the über wealthy.
As it turns out, it is rumored to be all of those things, and it is guarded heavily by an armed militia. That feeling I had that I was being watched? It wasn’t imagined. I couldn’t see them, but they most assuredly saw me. God, I hope I didn’t pick my nose.
By dusk, we were all ready for a walk into town – such as it is – for dinner. We stumbled upon Nomade, a hotel / restaurant / purveyor of health service oddities. The staff was clad in peasant attire made from sheets of gauze; the women in white, and the men in shades of grey. Things were more complicated than necessary. There were at least two different menus handed out to our party, and judging from the fare we saw delivered to other tables, there was at least one other different menu floating around this establishment as well. After forty minutes and our third request to please take our order, we were obliged. Poached spider monkey wasn’t on any of the menus we were given, so I asked for the lamb, but they were out. I ordered the Sea Bass and they were out of that, too, so I pointed to Kitty and said, “Just bring me what she’s having.”
That turned out to be a smathering of fungi and the steamed roots of the roadside vegetation served on a bed of risotto made from local sand. The sandwich board out front did not display a daily food special, and after that meal, I can’t really blame them. Instead, it informed us of the activities going on inside of their gratitude tent this week. Because of course they have a gratitude tent. Don’t you?
Monday is essential oils. I don’t know if it’s a lecture, or a baptism. Tuesday there is a talk titled, “Intro to Energetic Lovemaking.” And as tempting as that is, we aren’t going back until Wednesday.
Wednesday is Sound Healing. There was some excitement among those in the know in our group about this. I didn’t understand, but Anne described it this way: You know what a hummer is, right? It’s just like that, but you’re the dick.
But I already knew I was a dick, so I kind of feel like my imagination failed me yet again.
Cloud cover moved in, but I suspect the palm canopy over the road would have blocked any celestial light, anyway. The first quarter of our walk back home was lit, albeit dimly, by the candles and low-voltage bulbs at the entrance to other boutique properties and I wondered if any one of them might serve a decent taco or a margarita made with plain old lime juice, not the pulp of some exotic, furry fruit and simply rimmed with salt, not chipotle seasoning. Probably, I’ll never know. But once we passed those other establishments, it was the darkest of dark and in no time at all, I felt again like I was being watched. I frequently turned around to try and catch what I could feel stalking us and wouldn’t you know it? I found it.
A four legged beast was sneaking up behind Key, so I shrieked an obscenity. In the time it took her to throw her cigarette at it and run, my brain registered that it was canine, probably el chupacabra, or it’s mother was, that I frightened it and it had a collar with tags that made a tinkling sound as it slinked off. Immediate guilt rushed over me “I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t know you weren’t going to eat us.”
But he’d had enough of our shit and left us to walk the rest of the way home, alone and unprounprotected against the jaguars, panthers, and crocodiles. I lost the chance to make a new four legged buddy and I chalk that up to another failure of my imagination.
This morning, right outside of my bedroom, there is a man with a wheelbarrow on the beach, picking up seaweed with his hands. Where’s he going to dump it? His efforts are futile; the ocean is depositing more of it with every wave. I can’t imagine why he’d even bother, but I do wonder what he lists under ‘job’ on his tax returns. Does Mexico have tax returns?
Tulum is definitely a place of wonder and awe, but it is impossible to let my imagination run wild here. Nature and culture is always several steps ahead of me. Every bizarre or unlikely thing that my brain can conceive is just everyday life.
At the end of the land and beginning of the day, there is a peace, a zen, when the sun just barely peeks over the sea. It starts in your toes, your salty, salty toes that have returned to their amniotic balance. Fronds at your back bid you farewell and the rhythm of the ceaseless waves beckon you forward. On purpose, your ankles, then your knees, and then your hips find their way into the tide. Just when you stop caring about the seaweed and all of its passengers taking long, passing licks at your flesh, the sandy shelf you didn’t know you were standing on gives way and you are, quite literally, in over your head. Eyes burning, you emerge and exhale salt, returning it to where it belongs. Probably, you are saving the lives of countless saline-dwelling creatures that would shrivel up from the lack of what you were selfishly holding in your sinus cavities. You tread water and maintain the eco-balance between yourself and the ocean. And just when you start to think that maybe there is no in between, that you are the ocean and it is you and everything else on this big blue ball, and your muscles relax and you are more floating than flailing, something bumps your leg in a decidedly ungentle way. It is nature and it is neither good nor bad and there is no such thing as co-existing because it is all just existing. Not beside each other, but as one with each other. It both doesn’t matter at all who is president, and it matters immensely. And it doesn’t matter if we help each other, or hurt each other because the tide will always come in and it will always go out and no matter what we do, one day our bloated, then bleached pieces will roll right in time with what it already does. The only difference is that we won’t think about it. We won’t have to fight it, we won’t decide to join it. We’ll just be it. That heavy, mean thing can bump you again for all you care.
There is that peace, that zen.
I didn’t achieve it this morning, but I hope to someday. I’ll try again this afternoon.
What if I told you that every ideology that your favorite politician wants to sell you as the key to making America great again has an actual body count, a human story behind it?
American Airlines flight 605 was fully boarded this morning, as far as I knew. Any minute, a flight attendant was going to walk up the aisle, shutting the doors to the overhead storage, and it wasn’t going to matter one bit that I didn’t get my customary, complimentary bump to first class; one row behind was just fine because my seat in row 5 was the only one that had a butt in it. I had the whole port side of the plane to myself for my flight to Cancun, Mexico, where I still had a two hour drive ahead of me. Until.
Instead of readying the plane for takeoff, the flight attendant backed herself down the aisle and motioned to someone I could not see yet. What does one call an airport candy-striper? A porter? A people transporter? Whatever his job title, a strong man dressed in an ambiguous uniform that was part pilot and part maître de wheeled a feeble Latina woman to my aisle and stopped. They were followed by a señorita with a wavy black mane and dressed in a Marine Corps tee shirt. My seat mates had arrived.
And you know what? It didn’t suck, not having a whole row to myself. I had the window seat and it was barely even a three hour flight. It would have been hard to find something to complain about, even if I’d really been in a mood to. Not that I’m in the habit of quoting Kanye, but how you gon’ be mad on vacation?
I struck up a conversation because going to Mexico to hang out with authors and screen writers can really only change a girl so much. Or so little, truth be told.
My very up close neighbor asked if I had gum. She hit the jackpot because I had a bag of 180 pieces of Trident White in my laptop case. Realizing this, she asked for two. She wanted one for her grandmother, too. I know the trick; that’s why I was prepared. Chewing helps keep the ears clear during ascent and descent.
I wish I asked her name. She was from Detroit, but we ended up on the same flight out of Raleigh this morning on account of her family moving south a couple of years ago. She lives down near Fayetteville now. The Marine Corps tee shirt, she told me, was something she picked up when she went to her cousins graduation from boot camp at Lejeune. He, like she and her sister, were born here. In the US, I mean. Not here. That was hours ago and I’m in Tulum now. She was definitely not born here. This was her first trip to Mexico. She was a little cagier about her parents’ origin, but it didn’t need to be said. While she filled out the customs declaration forms for the two of them, I noticed that Grandma was traveling on a Mexican passport.
Grandma, coughed and her granddaughter doted. Grandma drifted off to sleep and she resumed our conversation. She told me about oversleeping and how rushed that made everything because she lives about seventy five minutes from the airport. It was hard, she told me. They were already running late but they had to hurry through security and it fell to her to break up the final hug between her mother and her mother’s mother. “I’m sorry that I had to tell them to stop, but we had to go!” She was still justifying, but she didn’t need to.
I asked, but I don’t know why. “Can your parents maybe go to Mexico to visit her?”
My God I’ve never seen so much sadness on such a young face – and I have daughters.
They can’t, she told me, because they wouldn’t be allowed back into the US. They’ve lived here twenty five years, guys. That’s longer than my own three children.
My seatmate told me she’s turning nineteen on April 15th. Tax day.
Today, a woman who’s probably about my very age just had to hug her own mother goodbye. She won’t be there to hold her hand or hear her last words. She won’t be at the funeral.
There’s already a wall, and there are a million other families just like this one who have been making payments like this for a hundred years.
The taxi driver that took us from our train station to our apartment was not drunk. More dangerously, he was Neapolitan and there are no laws against driving that way. In fact, in Napoli, I don’t believe there are many laws prohibiting much of anything. The subdivision of my heart that is Libertarian did a lot of soul searching regarding my belief in less regulation of the people during our first twenty-four hours there.
Piero, our cabbie, drove us in what we would discover was not the most direct route from point A to point B – a trait that is common among his profession world wide – but we did not mind. He was gregarious and delightfully blended a brief history of the city with making fun of my Italian. He slung his right arm over the passenger seat so that he could pivot himself to look at us in the backseat as we conversed, all while fearlessly driving us up streets that were not wide enough to be two lanes, but were still, frighteningly, multi-directional.
We were in Napoli because we wanted to visit Pompeii. That’s a half-day’s worth of activity at best, so the rest of our days there were just for adventure. If I had researched the city before hand, I most assuredly would not have gone. Organized crime controlled government has allowed the illegal dumping of pollutants for years, causing both their land and water to become toxic. The cancer rates are astronomical, as are birth defects. Plus, there’s a waking volcano next door just waiting to fuck up European air traffic and dominate the 24 hour news cycle for years!
No amount of research would have prepared me for the fact that everything one wishes to see or do in Naples is inevitably up hill; that the city planner threw a plate of cooked spaghetti on the ground and built the road maps to mimic the mess; that some roads suddenly, and without any prior warning, turn into steps; or that everyone has a dog, but no one has a lawn and they’ve never heard of poop bags.
To say it’s kind of shitty is an understatement.
And still, by the time Piero swerved his taxi into oncoming traffic so that he could park upon the opposing sidewalk to let us out, I had already decided that someday I would live in this seaside slum. The City of the Damned grabbed me hard. I think I fell in love with their utter lack of care about what the tourists might think.
When perched high upon a hill top to enjoy the bay and Vesuvius from afar, tens of thousands of antennae are a part of the vista that one’s eyes must be trained to see beyond. I’m not sure if they don’t yet have cable television, or these are left over from long ago. Given the number of Maradona posters still decorating the city, I don’t get the feeling these are a people that are ready to let go of the 1980’s just yet.
From up close at ground level there is nowhere the eye can be directed that it does not land upon graffiti. In Italy, everyone is an artist and in Napoli, I believe they issue spray paint with birth certificates.
Our host explained that there is much seisma in the region. In America, we call those earthquakes and add them to the list we might have compiled of reasons not to visit Napoli, southern Italy, or anywhere in the Mediterranean for that matter. Thank Jupiter for a sense of adventure that is sometimes confused for academic laziness, or I would have missed my dingy little paradise.
Because of the seisma, so many of the buildings are cracked or have crumbling stucco. Last spring it appeared that there was a fledgling effort to start repairing some of the exterior damage. A few buildings were recently plastered and repainted in vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges that one might associate with the region. As new as this effort to refurbish appears, graffiti is already popping up on some of the fresh paint. Nobody is trying to wash it away. And why would they? It would just get re-tagged.
But so too, why would they have bothered with the exterior remodels? Next week the land beneath them is going to vibrate off their plasters again and re-open their cracks. I’m curious to see this summer just how far the revitalization effort has moved in a year.
Maybe revitalization is the wrong word. The city is far from dead. Sick, perhaps, but still so very alive.
This morning I read a discussion between my friend, the talented film-maker, Jonathan Landau and one of his buddies concerning the meetings between house members, the Department of Justice, and the FBI. Jonathan said the writing is on the wall; impeachment is only a matter of time.
Writing on the wall. I will never again hear that turn of phrase that I don’t think of Napoli. I’ve never fostered a fondness for Washington, but it too is a city of graffiti artists. The writing may very well be on the wall, but so what? If you are offended, then you are only a tourist. The locals don’t mind.
I am looking at a dark, pear shaped planet. That’s how I describe my mammogram image to Mike this morning. A mesh of lighted corridors lead, eventually, to a colony settled in the north east.
“Plymouth Rock?” He asks.
“Jersey Shore,” I correct his idea of both the location and the intensity.
“The Situation…” He texts me.
I remind him, and me, that it’s likely nothing more than a Snooki.
There is no history of cancer-of-the-anything in my family. When my benign ovarian tumor was removed two years ago, I was tested for the BRCA mutations – just in case. I’m clean. This was routine; no reason to worry.
On three occasions in the last two years I’ve sat down for dinner with girlfriends. They’ve waited until our drinks are ordered to tell me, as if reading from the same script, “I don’t want you to freak out, but I have breast cancer.”
Only now that each of them is safely on this side of their different treatments, has it occurred to me to wonder why they’d worry about me freaking out. That’s not me. Is it?
Probably no. On Valentines day I accompanied another friend to her biopsy. Her routine, then follow up mammogram and ultrasound indicated it might be a good idea to get a closer look at one area. I held her hand and rubbed her back until I was kicked out of the room for the procedure. See, I am not the freaker-outer.
It wasn’t losing her breasts that scared her, she tearily confided. It was her hair. She shored up her own courage by deciding that, if worse came to worse, she’d get bright, rainbow mermaid hair before it all fell out.
The next morning, as fate would have it, I was scheduled for my annual mammogram. I said a little prayer to the gods of radiology for my friend and they were answered. It was benign. But I bet, and this is just between you and me, now that the idea of mermaid hair has grabbed her she won’t wait until tragedy. Perspective, once found, can be a real bitch to shake. Once we’ve realized that there are no points for self-denial just for the sake of self-denial, there is no end to what a woman might do for herself.
A week later, it is my turn in the hot seat. There was a spot on my right breast. I found myself sitting in a waiting room appointed in the most annoying shade of pink, skipping ahead in my mind and wondering about my hair. I’d shave it, I decided, and send it to a wig maker. I could still wear my own hair, right? Or maybe I’d just stay bald. There’s so much beauty in loss.
In this manner, I’ve already found my perspective. My summer in Italy is my friend’s mermaid hair. It’s the thing I am doing when I literally have nothing left to lose; the thing I wonder why I waited so long to stop making excuses not to do. It’s the thing, I suddenly worry, that a breast cancer diagnosis could really muck up right now.
I am not a freaker-outer, and to continue not being a freaker-outer, I stop thinking about that and strike up conversations with the four other women sitting with me in our front-opening hospital gowns. One had pain and a lump she was getting checked out. The others had been called back, like me, because of a shadow on a routine image. The conversations between us were frank and open and if we’d been left in that room ten more minutes…well, I don’t think it’s that far fetched that we might have pulled out our boobs for comparison. Sisterhood, I’ve found, is only ever born of perspective – and we were all there this morning to get some of that, one way or another.
Once finished with my ultrasound, the radiologist said he saw no reason for a biopsy. I cleaned up and dressed. On my way to check out, I looked into the unoccupied room with the mammography machine and said another little prayer to the radiology gods. Please, don’t let these women wait too long to find their mermaid hair.
“Here we go.” Two seconds ago he thought we were finished talking and I would let him fall asleep now.
“Did you know in outer space your lower extremities don’t exist? ”
“There’s no up or down, like Ender figured out in the arena at battle school.”
“Serena, there was no mention of a penis in Ender’s Game.” His tone is something close to accusation of blasphemy.
“Correct. And that would be a story, not an article.” I’m a stickler for semantics. “So if there’s no up or down, there’s no lower extremities.”
“Was this article about disappearing space penises?”
I don’t know where he comes up with this stuff.
“Not exactly. The article was about how penises shrink in outer space because there is no gravity to help draw blood to the area.”
“Are you stalking NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly again?”
“It’s not stalking if he’s on the space station and literally photographing his location every forty-five minutes.” I might sound too defensive. “But no. I wasn’t thinking of Kelly’s penis. You made this weird.”
“But it made me think – if gravity isn’t helping your blood get to the completely equal extremities, it’s all dependant on your heart.”
“Your heart has to pump extra hard to get blood all the way to your toes because they’re so far away now. That would be a big strain on cardiac output.”
“You know what this means?” I feel a baby sob welling in my chest.
“I probably can’t ever go to space.”
:::::: Really loud snore :::::
I didn’t actually have any ideations of space travel; at least, not since 4th grade when Chad Brewer laughed at me and told me girls couldn’t be astronauts. And right this minute, I’m losing sleep for the second time in my life over this.
I hope somebody is snoring in that butt hole Chad Brewer’s face tonight, too.
In celebration of Earth Day last week I sprinkled a little bit of attention on the small piece of earth I own. A few years ago I created myself a beautiful bed of shapes and colors out in the back yard; it was just one of my many steps to eradicate any trace of grass from my lawn. And at the time, it was the meditation I needed to stay sane during a really shitty period in my life. On Friday I faced that neglected zombiescape with a great amount of shame.
The cherry tree I rescued is thriving and heavy with now-fading bloom, but the barren, boney limbs that were too far gone to be coaxed back into production are grey and brittle, poking towards the sky. I never understood exponential multiplication until I started growing Iris. Where they once punctuated with sharp, green blades and colorful frills, they now threaten to devour the deceptively delicate looking camellia I only bought because it was on sale. Some girls are suckers for abandoned puppies or designer shoes; I can’t pass up a flowering perennial.
My red, twisty Japanese Maple that I affectionately refer to as my dragon tree, is full and lush, but slowly being choked out by the skeletal remains of the fallen army of Chinese Forget-Me-Nots that jumped their flower pots and made my border bed their battle field. They scratch my flesh and pull at my clothes when I walk too near. All of it is calling out, “Tend to me.”
I have, once upon a time, loved this garden. It wasn’t something I ever intended to complete and then maintain; my joy was in nursing, adding, moving, and gifting my plant babies. I started every February and continued until the heat chased me inside for the season. But last year was different. In February I already didn’t feel very good and I barely kept up with weeds. Had I been paying closer attention, I’d have identified the Chinese Forget-Me-Not problem sooner and my arms would not now be covered in long, thin scabs. By the end of May, I was recovering from a surgery to remove a tennis ball sized tumor, along with the ovary it was rooted to. When I was well enough to work in the garden again, my heat limit had already been exceeded. Coincidentally, that’s when I rediscovered an old flame of mine: travel.
Not that I ever forgot my love of road trips; the highway will always be the best hairdryer and my favorite therapist. But I fell in love again with air travel and taking the longest possible route between any two locations. While I was busy not keeping up with my garden, I went to Boston (regrettably, straight through). I visited New Orleans by way of Minneapolis; from Philly to Phoenix to Spokane so that I could spend a long weekend in Montana. I flew to Orlando so I could drive to Savannah and St. Augustine. And then I started on my quest for passion, flying into Nashville so I could drive to Memphis for Elvis’ birthday, and then flying into London so I could spend Easter in Rome. Even as I stooped to yank the uninvited plant life out of my garden, I was making mental preparations for my upcoming trip to Dallas and trying to decide where I’m taking the kids for summer vacation. I have, it would seem, grown myself a lovely little set of aluminum wings, and I love them. But my fingernails scratched at a different love, there in the dirt behind my house.
I successfully pulled the biggest, ugliest weeds on Friday. In this garden, neglect fruits more prolifically than my labor ever did, and I clearly have to make some choices about where my energies are going to be expended. With legs cramped from all of the stooping and squatting, I turned to herbicide as an answer to the pesky grass, clover, thistle, and lemon balm that have appointed themselves as ground cover inside my flower beds. Just as the 1.33 gallon jug of Round Up ran dry, fat, juicy rain drops splashed onto my forehead. For the next twelve hours, all of my chemicals were washed away, reminding me that there really are no short cuts. Not with roots, and not with wings.