Evan told me they call it bleed air. It’s that stuff you smell on the airplane when the vents above your seat start breathing and you can feel the exhalation on a dime-sized circle of your scalp. The odor is strong—a spritz almost more than a scent, like dry-cleaning in your mouth—and it comes from a cocktail of chemicals. But today it smells only of promise.
Evan fills in a crossword clue, 15-down, sea eagle: “tern.” I use his new “e” and fill in “ante” for “start the pot.” I feel a glow on my face. He’s better at crosswords than I am, but I have my moments.
Everyone around us is watching the movies playing in the seat in front of them, wearing big bulbous earphones or black buds plugged like corks. I’m listening to Ocean Waves on my Whitenoise app and every once in a while I can detect the beginning of the loop; it catches the wave mid-crash.
I see the boy in a seat in the row next to ours laugh at his cartoon. Earlier, the flight attendant brought him to the front to meet the captain. He wore a ball cap, but you could still see his hair has been reduced to chemo fluff. I know, because Annie’s did the same thing.
I look back at the puzzle, drink my gin and tonic, skim the clues up and down, up and down. Evan is mulling, knocking his knuckle on his lip. Is he handsome? He’s good, we’ll say that.
The flight attendant is approaching and stacking everyones’ plastic cups into each other, making a tower that curves like a parenthesis on her cart. I pick up the green plastic gin bottle, its Lilliputian screw cap, its empty weight. Do I keep it? Is it a souvenir?
She looks at me, honeycomb pores beside the wings of her nose. I keep it but hand over the bag of pretzels I didn’t eat. I haven’t been dieting for the past six weeks to waste my progress on pretzels.
My ears start to feel tight with descent and I look over Evan to see the ocean looking like it’s been captured under Saran wrap. The captain comes on the loud speaker and says we’re twenty-five minutes from Cancun. I can’t help it, I squeeze Evan’s hand and look down at my hand on his.
* * *
When we check into the hotel, a hostess hands out piña coladas complete with cocktail umbrellas to us darkly-clothed new arrivals. I drink mine immediately, reaching the bottom much too soon. Evan sips his slowly as the receptionist tells us where the pools (plural!) are and attaches a bright green band around our wrists.
“Show your wristband at our sister resorts and everyone will know you’re a guest of ours. Everything is all-inclusive there, too.”
The receptionist writes an X (treasure!) on a map of the resort so we know how to get to our room. I grab it and lead the way, loving how the cartoon palm trees on the map correspond to the ones swaying in the late afternoon sun. We walk over mini bridges. We pass a hut that houses a tiki bar. Women wear cover-ups that look like they’re made of sunsets, and there is that type of man—patterned trunks, tough tanned skin, round belly, crow legs—lounging in a chaise nearly every 30 feet. We pass under an archway and get to the rear of one of the wings of the property. There is a labyrinth back here. White tête-à-tête seats are strewn in the springy grass. Every spot is a possibility.
When we open the door to our room, there are flower petals all over the bed and a towel shaped like a swan floating in the center of them.
“Did you do this?” I say, turning around. I’m aware my turn and expression might belong in The Sound of Music.
“Comes with, I guess,” Evan says.
Is he being coy? Surely. Then he checks his phone.
“We have free WIFI here.”
I check out the bathroom, smell the bottles of shampoo. I detect citrus, herbs, a hint of hibiscus. Just kidding, I don’t know what hibiscus smells like.
“This is amazing, Evan.”
He is sitting hunched on the edge of the bed, looking through the in-room hotel guide. I swing my arm around his shoulder, place my smiling face in front of his—“Don’t you think?”—but he doesn’t move.
“It says there are tennis courts,” he says.
I drop my arm.
“I hate tennis.”
“Oh really? I don’t.”
I flip the page of the guidebook, turning it to the restaurant menus, pressing my chest into his arm, but he doesn’t react.
“What do you want to do first?” I say finally.
“Unpack, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t. My mom says that’s how you bring home bed bugs.”
He starts lifting packets of carefully folded t-shirts and shorts and placing them in a drawer underneath the TV. Boxers and bathing suits in another. Sandals neatly by the door.
It takes a very long time.
* * *
The next morning, we are seated in a thatched-roof hut where they serve breakfast. Our waiter is Juan, who has a corona of gold rimming his left eyetooth. He tells us about a secret beach nearby and about a canoeing excursion you can take at night that takes you underneath a waterfall. I inform Evan we must, must do both. As we chat, I wonder about Juan’s family and where he lives and if he has disdain for the resort. I really want us to be his favorite couple.
Juan brings us fresh-squeezed orange juice and directs us to the buffet. Everything is there. Hillocks of pastries frosted with white icing. Acres of sliced fruit. Condominiums filled with waffles, pancakes, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs. I look at people’s plates around me and they’re full. I start with a plate of fruit.
When Evan and I reconvene, I see he’s found shrimp cocktail and roast beef. He slices into an eggs Benny, makes it ooze, never gains weight. I try not to watch, try to focus on cutting my pineapple with a fork and knife.
If I lose more weight, maybe we’ll have sex again. I was hoping we would last night after there was no ring pulled out of a breast pocket over dessert. When we returned to the room, there was even a silver bar of Mexican moonlight on the bedspread. But he just brushed and peed and tucked in. His breathing evened, and I knew he was gone.
So I did what I always do. I lay on my back and folded my hands over my chest, closed my eyes. Imagined a car accident. Minneapolis, winter, old snow banks pitted with fossilized foot prints beside the road. A truck would slam into my car, T-bone my door. I would be badly hurt. People would run over to rescue me. Someone would call Evan and he’d rush to see me in the hospital. He’d find my room and walk in, see me unconscious in bed, tubes and wires everywhere. He would bring a chair beside the bed, sit down heavily in it, speak to me. Tell me he loves me. Bend his head down, put his elbows on his knees, his thumbs in his eyes and he’d sob. Ugly cry. Please be OK, he’d say.
It always helps me fall asleep.
Evan answers in monosyllables after I tell him there are nearly 70 calories in 1 tablespoon of Hollandaise Sauce. A black bird has landed on the empty table across from ours and pecks at an opened packet of raspberry jam on it, his gold, daring eyes watching us. Another descends and pulls at a leftover sausage, the link thudding on the plate.
* * *
We head to the beach, and it’s that moment I’ve been dreaming about: the warm sand mounding in the arches of my feet, coconut sunscreen so fragrant it makes you long for a different life, one made only of that scent. I’d be happy enough if he asked me right here.
I organize the towels for us and Evan leans back, his palm treed shirt flapping off his white, toneless belly. My one-piece looks like it belongs on a woman who’s 50, not 28, but it is strategically designed to both conceal and accentuate, and I think the strategy is working.
“Why don’t you take off your shirt? Get some sun?” I say.
“I’m fine like I am.”
“Suit yourself, but you’re going to get too hot.”
“I think I can decide what to do if that happens, Olivia.”
I was just trying to help, offer a suggestion, didn’t mean to be bossy. Or did I? Does part of me want him to show off his skinny, egg white, unfit body so he knows he’s not perfect either?
I lean back in the chair, take out my Thomas Hardy. We’ve arrived. We’re here. I need to absorb these minutes, let them sink into my skin like sun so I can refer back to them when the Minnesota winter is pounding. Pure bliss, right? That’s what this is.
I watch a man in the water. He lifts up his little girlfriend as you would a child, so her legs link around his waist. Then he floats her in his arms as if they are about to cross a threshold.
I’ve been to five weddings in the past year. My best friend Meg’s for which I was the maid of honor. My high school friend Tom for which I did the toast. At this age, they just start to add up. I thought I wouldn’t care about getting married, that I’d be too busy honing my career, that I’d be too fulfilled going to concerts, fabulous restaurants, on trips like this. But Evan and I have been together seven years, and it’s getting embarrassing. Besides, I want to see him cry when I appear at the aisle in my white dress. I admit it, I do.
Two people are led to the chairs beside us and, with my sunglasses shielding my eyes, I watch them settle. She pulls out a magazine and he clasps his hands together, lays them over his big, burned belly and closes his eyes immediately. A comfortable couple. They probably have a favorite sports team, tossed the garter at the wedding (I won’t), have friends over for pizza and margaritas on Friday nights. Evan is reading a biography on Andrew Jackson.
I start reading too, but it feels like work. I should have bought a magazine too, a Vanity Fair like Annie used to get. When the waitress comes by to ask the couple if they want drinks, the man awakens and orders a beer. The woman orders something called a Banana Monkey. They flash their wristbands, which are pink.
The waitress asks us what we’d like.
“What is a Banana Monkey,” I ask, I think, quietly, but the woman hears me.
“It’s another word for heaven,” she says in a southern accent. There are stretch marks on her breasts.
I order one and Evan orders a beer.
“You won’t regret it,” the woman says.
“What I regret is my choice of reading material,” I say and Evan looks over the top of his book.
“Take one of my magazines,” she says, pulling a frayed pile from her beach bag.
“Keep it, keep any of them,” she says. “We leave tomorrow.”
The thought of going back to real life makes me pity her, but I mentally cuddle in the fact that we still have three full days left.
I can tell Evan doesn’t want to talk to them so I read the magazine. I drink two Banana Monkeys. I sink into the lives of the celebrities whose photographs fill the pages, stare at their clothes, their bodies. When I get to the last page, I want another magazine.
“Mind?” I ask the woman.
“Of course not.”
“They sure are,” she says, spreading sunscreen on her golden, pudgy belly. The warmth from the alcohol is spreading between my legs. The sun feels fantastic.
“I wonder what it would feel like to live like that. Have that attention.”
“Trust me, you don’t want it.”
I look at her. She looks about 45 and does not look like a celebrity.
“My husband and I came here for our honeymoon two years ago,” she says. “But he died in a parasailing accident.”
The words eject too loudly from me, and I lean in, my hand over my chest. “That’s terrible. I am so sorry.”
“It made all the papers,” she said. “Reporters after me for an interview. There had been another accident in Florida the week before and with the honeymoon and all, well…”
She keeps coating her legs, but I see she mashes her lips to hide a chin quiver. I instantly rewrite her life: a now-haunted wedding, unpacking the suitcases, the wedding gifts sitting on the dining room table. I put my hand on the lip of her chair and she takes it. She’s been drinking too. Her hand is greasy and cool with lotion.
“I wish I knew what to say.”
“No one does.”
“But you came back?”
“I needed to, get it out of my system.”
“Did it work?”
“I don’t know yet.”
She motioned toward the sleeping man beside her.
“We’re not married, just friends. Everyone has asked us that.”
She leans in so I instinctively do too. She whispers, “He’s in love with me, but I’m not in love with him.”
* * *
I’ve become obsessed with the color of wristbands. Almost no one’s is green like ours. Does that mean almost everyone has arrived here after us and gets to stay longer?
Today is a tour at the Mayan ruins. Evan is not going to ask at the ruins, that seems like bad luck. I put on khaki shorts that seem appropriate for ruin exploration. They’re not tight, but they’re not roomy. Why? I’ve given into the breakfast buffet.
Two nights ago, Evan got drunk, which almost never happens. He hit three quick shots of tequila at a village fish fry the resort guides took us to, and that was all it took. I love when he gets drunk because he gets affectionate and I can ask him all kinds of questions, ones I’m not brave enough to ask usually. We were standing in the middle of the little street, closed off for the festival. There were colorful strings of pennants crisscrossing overhead and whole fish, eyes and all, getting charred at makeshift grills around us.
“Evvy,” I said, buzzing.
“Yes, Olivia,” he said with a sloppy smile on his sunburned face. He’d just finished speaking Spanish—he’s pretty fluent—to a little boy who wanted to sell him Chiclets. He told the boy to keep the gum, but gave him $20 and the little kid’s face lit up. Evan is great with kids.
“Do you love me?”
“Of course I do,” he said.
I was giving him an out. I was making it easy for him. He could have asked right there, he didn’t even need a ring. He could just be spontaneous.
But he didn’t. He turned and looked bothered, even confused. And he stopped drinking.
And now it’s an excursion to Chichén Itzá. Evan is extremely excited, tells me it’s the whole reason why he wanted to come to this part of Mexico. I look at him in his PGA Tour ball cap and leather sandals and he looks exactly like the tax attorney he is. We pile on the bus and they offer us cold bottles of Modelo even though it’s 10 a.m. I take one.
When we arrive, it’s very hot and I keep my arms clamped down hoping no one will see how sweaty I am. I should have tied my hair back.
But when the guide starts to explain the construction of the pyramid of Kukulkán, I get into it. Kukulkán was the feathered serpent god of the Maya. His face is carved open mouthed, tongue forked, at the bottom of the pyramid. On the day of the equinox, the various angles of the structure cause triangles of sunlight to form perfectly down the length of the otherwise shaded pyramid, representing Kukulkán’s serpent body. On that day, his head is bathed in light too.
I look at Evan and he keeps shaking his head as the guide points out the other complexities of the pyramid, how it acts as a giant sundial, how it works as a calendar. How there is a 91-step staircase on each of the four faces of the pyramid and if you add up the steps, you get 364. The topmost platform where they meet represents the 365th.
After we complete the tour, I’m about to suggest we buy some water when I turn and see Evan on one knee. Beige-clad people are snapping pictures around us, grouped in threes and fours and smiling mightily with the pyramid behind them. Evan has a black velvet box in his hand and my first thought is that velvet doesn’t belong in Mexico, it’s too hot here.
“Olivia,” he begins.
I am dusty and sweaty. People have started noticing what is happening. I remember to put my hand over my mouth.
“We’ve been together for a long time and it’s time to make this union official. Here, under the eyes of Kukulkán, the supreme god of the Maya.”
He smiles tensely, an elastic pulled and then released, at what he means to be a little joke. Then he squints.
“Olivia Alsleben, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
I blink. His lips are blanched, only a line of pink where they meet and are moistened. His eyes are earnest and blue. Suddenly, things stop moving in slow motion. I say yes, of course yes.
* * *
Annie was my aunt who didn’t like the formality of being called one. She lived in Montreal, moved there with a draft dodger boyfriend whom she abandoned as quickly as she fell in love with the city. There she learned French, bought a gold Fiat convertible and wore earrings made of feathers. She was fearless and I loved her fiercely, in some ways more than anyone.
My parents divorced when I was two. My dad is strict, only eats from-scratch food, follows a fitness regimen, listens to NPR, has academic conversations. My mom is laid back. I could watch movies in my room at her house for eight hours at a time and never be bothered. Eat pizza delivery and take-out Mexican. The Christmas decorations stayed up through January.
If I showed signs of being a product of my mom’s lifestyle at my dad’s or of my dad’s at my mom’s, it was met with extreme disappointment. So I adjusted and became two kids.
But with Annie, I could just be me, no accommodation. I’d visit her every summer and she would take me to Sir Winston Pub on Crescent Street, where she had cut her Montreal teeth. She wore bold lipstick, stuff that required liner and a little gold mirror she’d take out after she ate so she could reapply.
When she became ill, I was nearing the end of optometry school and she flew me up to Montreal for my spring break. When I arrived, the city was so different, still cold and snowy. Everyone had plastic shelters over their driveways so they didn’t have to shovel. They were very ugly.
I knew something was wrong as soon as Annie picked me up from the airport and then realized I knew something was wrong the minute she sent me the ticket for spring break. She wore a Russian fur hat, a long black coat, red boots. When we got to her apartment she took the hat off and there was her scalp, looking like it had been powdered it was so delicate, with mousy, broken hairs poking out in patches.
We had a glass of sherry. She ordered Thai because she never cooked. I didn’t ask because I couldn’t ask. And she didn’t tell.
I died over and over that week, but I didn’t show it. I wanted to scream at the unfairness, but wasn’t even strong enough to ask how long she had left.
On our last night, we got drunk together. Or at least, she got me drunk.
“Love harder than I did,” she told me. “I could never dive, only dip and tread. Your life can be richer than mine.”
I knew I wouldn’t have Annie’s life as much as I admired it. I was too afraid, too chubby, too Minneapolis. I owned no feathers. But commitment meant the ultimate act of bravery for Annie. She thought I could be braver than she was.
On the bus ride back from the ruins, Evan looks out the window while holding my hand. There is no fanfare, not even conversation. I’m afraid he might fall asleep.
* * *
Our last day in Meh-hee-ko. Evan has arranged for us to go snorkeling. He loves to scuba dive, so the snorkeling is a concession to me. I’ve never even been on a boat in the middle of the ocean before, but here we are. Very quickly, I taste the brown burn of the bacon that I had this morning.
But Evan is in heaven. He faces the wind and his hair lifts off his forehead and he looks like a boy. We had sex last night, a little awkward, elbows and knees in the dark, but it’s progress. And my parents were pleased with the proposal I think. My mother started crying into the receiver: “My little girl.” But when Evan fell asleep last night, I imagined the hospital room after the car accident. Evan was pleading with the nurse to please help his wife. Other than that, everything was the same.
The ring on my finger catches the sunlight and sprays rainbows on my thigh.
The boat captain, Ellie, is from New Zealand and she asks who has been snorkeling before. There are four other couples on the dive boat, but me and two other women are the only newbies. Ellie explains the importance of not touching anything on the reef, that it kills the coral. The boat is lurching side to side and I try to focus on the horizon, which is no help at all.
Will I throw up on the boat? Is there a bathroom on here? Evan is applying sunblock on his ears. He doesn’t offer to put any on my back, he doesn’t have extra in his palms that he playfully wipes on my calf or my forearms.
Ellie passes outs the flippers and goggles, suggests I wear a life jacket while the svelte couple beside us decline so they can get closer to the reef. I put it on—it’s too tight—and feel like I weigh 250 pounds. Evan is adjusting his goggles. The captain’s assistant, Rico, is already in the water, swimming around like a seal.
Ellie suggests we put our flippers on in the water and Evan jumps up to get going. Ellie guides me down the ladder, making me feel like I’m the person on the boat with special needs. As I descend, I assume that everyone is looking at my breakfast buffet thighs, but when I nervously look up, no one is paying attention. I look over my shoulder and see the rolling world of ocean behind me. I have to force myself to let go of the ladder.
I immediately swallow a mouthful of salt water and start coughing. Ellie asks if I’m OK and I want to cry. Evan is already floating on his stomach like a starfish, his face staring into the water.
I put my face in to try to see below, but my goggles fill with water. Rico swims up to me, bobbing as though he’s made of Styrofoam. The life jacket cuts into my armpits.
“Not seeing anything?”
I try to blink the sting out of my eyes.
“Here, let me help you.”
He takes the goggles, adjusts the ribbed straps and spits on the lenses, rubbing them.
“Trade secret,” he says, winking.
I try to swim over to Evan but can’t get the hang of the clunky flippers.
“Slow, broad kicks, Olivia,” Ellie instructs and I try it. It works better and I feel like I advance, but the waves are big, overwhelming. Will I be able to get back to the boat? Will I float away?
Evan remains out of reach, and I fight the urge to be furious with him. The other couples are swimming around me holding hands, pointing findings out to each other: “Did you see the trumpet fish?”
But I reason with myself. I don’t need to be by his side constantly, we don’t have to be that couple. I look down again and kick very slowly so I stay steady.
Finally, things come into focus. The coral sways elegantly, the fish dart in packs, the grey, sandy floor of the ocean swirls upward. I can hear my amplified breathing through the snorkel, and it exaggerates the tube’s vacancy. Somehow I can smell it, the tube’s rubber and chemicals, and I taste salt in my mouth. It tastes like honesty. Then I see it: an eel, the serpent god, his head, open mouthed, poking out from a burrow.
I suddenly know that this won’t be enough and that I have known this for years. It makes me very calm.
I am kicking well now. I am seeing everything and am not scared. But the jacket cutting under my arms is starting to chafe. I unfasten one clip and the release against my chest is a dream. I unlock the other two clips, so the jacket starts floating above me like a cape. I take off the ring and let it sink to the bottom, watching the dive.
By Tara Kaprowy