I Know a Lot About Water
Cream City Review, Spring 2001
First prize, Cream City Review fiction contest
At lunch at the outdoor airstrip, where they waited for the bus down the Oaxaca coast, Maria ordered espresso. Smith ordered a quesadilla and French fries. “Is it true the word for Pope in Spanish is the same as the word for potato?” Smith asked.
“Uh-huh. Papa, papa,” she said. “But Papa’s masculine and papa’s feminine. So a French fry’s a papa frita but if you were to fry the Pope he’d be El Papa frito.”
“Very funny.” Smith grinned. Maria touched his wrist, which was delicate and hairless and from which extended the long curve of his forearm. Maria found his wrist among the sexiest parts of her boyfriend’s body.
Smith jerked his arm away, swatting a fly from the puddle of ketchup he’d created beside his quesadilla. Smith was afraid of bugs: flies, mosquitoes. The fly persisted, and Smith, attempting to push his chair from the table and swat the fly in the same motion, fell off his seat.
“Baby?” he pleaded from the ground.
She wasn’t having the same trouble with flies. She stifled the laugh.
“Funny for you.” Smith reached under the plastic table and retrieved his bug repellent from his daypack. He drew a line of the lotion from the bottom of his shorts to his ankle above his Nike. Maria observed the way the yellow-white of the liquid caught the sun—a Mexican light, angling low from the horizon— so as to accentuate the richness of her boyfriend’s skin. I have a boyfriend with beautiful skin, thought Maria, and she leaned back, the sun like a brush of fern on her face. Smith was a beautiful man, with shiny yellow hair that he tied in a ponytail and the hawk nose of an Aztec. He had eyes the blue of, maybe, the Sea of Tehuantepec, which Maria had not yet swum in but planned to today. My boyfriend is a yellow god, she thought.
The scent of Smith’s bug repellent drifted from his seat. It was Skin So Soft, a perfumed lotion marketed by Avon that researchers discovered had the unintended effect of repelling insects. Smith and Maria joked that the company promoted the lotion for everything from hair conditioner to 45 SPF sun block. It smelled like soap suds might taste, sweet and milky and cloying. “Can we use it for birth control?” Maria asked with her eyes closed.
She looked over. “Can we rub it on each others’ bodies and lick it?”
“We’ll spray the lawn with it, at our house with the picket fence.”
Smith and Maria each lived in an apartment, Smith in a room large enough for a caterpillar in a place he shared with two friends in Long Island City, Maria in a small studio in Brooklyn. For a week’s vacation, they had a break from all that. Smith had a way of smiling with his eyes, and he did that, and they touched their ankles together.
They got the last two seats on the bus, his in the first row, hers halfway back. She sat beside a large Mayan woman in a large dress who smelled like earth. Maria felt like a calf pressed into her mother’s underbelly. Her bags were warm on her lap, pushing against her stomach in a way that made her feel full: completa, “complete,” the word you used in Spanish to describe the state of your stomach after a big meal. In the seat in front of her pretty little girls turned to her with friendly stares. Women stood in the aisle chattering in Mayan, all of them carrying the same herb stems; others by the side of the road picked stalks of the same herb. A woman said something in Mayan that might have been an apology for brushing a stem in Maria’s face.
Up in front, Smith looked uncomfortable. He had luggage on his lap; herb stalks of herb women brushed under his ponytail. Maria caught his eye and sent him a sleepy smile, and she was thankful when he looked back with an expression that was not annoyed but warm. At the front of the bus, in place of a placard with the name of the city they were headed for, there was an image of the Virgin Mary. Her gaze seemed pointed at Smith; it was stern, as if admonishing him for having failed to do something.
“What do you do with that herb?” Maria asked a woman in Spanish. “What’s it good for?”
“Here, taste.” The woman answered in broken Spanish, and then giggled and said something in Mayan to her friends.
Maria smiled at the woman and sucked the herb stem for the rest of the ride. It tasted sweet and milky. Maria imagined what its salutary function might be, and wondered if it couldn’t be fertility.
They’d booked at Coco Huts. “So you arrived by plane?” the proprietress asked in English.
“Yes,” Smith responded eagerly, as if thankful for the opportunity to converse in the one language he could. “My wife and I had a long journey. Shall we sign in?” The proprietress placed the guest book on the counter, and Maria watched as Smith signed them in as husband and wife. They’d agreed to it earlier, to avoid seeming indecent before the Latin hoteliers. Plus, it would be a fun charade.
Smith said “my wife” several more times to the proprietress, as if tasting the shape of the word in his mouth. Maria wondered what it would be like to be someone’s wife, though it didn’t immediately occur to her that being a wife meant having Smith as a husband. Neither being married nor being married to Smith particularly appealed to her at the moment, though she liked the idea that the proprietress at Coco Huts now thought of them as a married couple. Marriage meant something different in Mexico, a license to be lovers. It suggested something fleshly and sensual, a breaking down of the boundary of skin, as it was for mother and child. Smith would be a beautiful man when he was a husband. Tossing about the word wife, he seemed more solid to her. She slipped her arm around his waist as he handed back the guest book, and they walked together as the porter led them with their bags.
The terrace of their bungalow gave on to a halfmoon-shaped bay a steep climb below. Bounding the bay on the right was an island, Canacona. Maria decided that each day of their five-day vacation she would swim to the tip of Canacona Island.
“Swim out there with me?” she asked Smith, who’d come up behind her on the terrace and was holding her. The sun was close to setting, and it occurred to Maria that the image of a man holding a woman from behind silhouetted by the Oaxacan sunset was impossibly perfect. She wondered if it was, for Smith, a part of their charade, an image to fit the proprietress’s idea of a fleshly American couple honeymooning at the sea.
“Noooo,” Smith said. He drew out the word and added a question note at the end, so it sounded like someone guessing the answer to a riddle he neither liked nor understood. “It’s too deep, and far, and lined with critters. I ain’t going close.” He was kissing her neck now. “You’re crazy if you’re going.”
“Smith I swim a mile at the pool every day,” she said, trying not to sound annoyed. He pulled her toward him but she shrugged away. “I’m going now, before dinner.”
Together they scrambled down the hillside to the beach, the Sea of Tehuantepec. Boys played soccer at the edge of the water, immediately catching the attention of Smith, a soccer enthusiast. The water was placid, the waves no taller than a toddler. Each time the ball skipped into the waves someone ran into the froth and kicked with bare feet, as if water, sand and air were all joined as a single element.
A boy, noticing Smith’s stare, ran over and told him, in Spanish, that their team needed an eighth and he could join. Smith looked at him blankly and then turned to Maria. Smith didn’t say anything, waiting for her to translate.
“You can play,” she told him, though the boy’s words seemed to her the kind of communication so simple that the actual content of what the boy said was incidental. In fact the boy spoke in a thick dialect with several words that were probably Indian. Maria’s translation was mostly interpolation anyway.
“Is it okay?” he asked.
“I’m swimming in an ocean you’d be crazy to swim in. Don’t trust my judgment.”
Smith grinned, and Maria grinned back, glad he hadn’t misunderstood her tone. Maria entered the water. She swam for several minutes toward the island, then noticed that even though she was far from the shore she could still touch the sand with her toes. It felt like velvet. She turned to face the shore but couldn’t make out Smith among the boys. She waved anyway, then whispered his name to herself. Tiptoeing over the velvet, she ran her fingertips over the water. She was a dragonfly playing with the surface tension, testing the thin boundary that is neither in the water nor out of the water, but something too impossibly in the middle to define.
A wave came behind her and covered her to her neck. She let her feet glide off the ocean floor so her head stayed above water. “Never turn your back on the ocean,” she said to no one. Her mother used to tell a story about how once she and Maria went to the beach in matching bikinis, blue with white piping, her mother voluptuous in hers, Maria with her little-girl body. A wave plunged her mother into the sand. Fumbling out of the surf, she discovered her top missing, carried off in the sea. “Never turn your back on the ocean,” her mother was since fond of repeating.
The ocean here seemed too benevolent to worry about turning your back on. Maria translated the expression into Spanish, though her mother always told her tales in English. “Nunca deje la espalda al mar.” Maria liked the sound of it, and decided to try it out on Smith, to see if he’d believe it was an old Spanish sailor’s maxim and not something she’d only made up now. She would change “el mar” to the sailor’s feminine, as in old maritime poetry, “la mar.” “Nunca deje la espalda a la mar.” She rolled the expression in her mouth as she swam to Canacona. “Never leave your back to the sea.” It carried a slightly different meaning in the feminine, as if the ocean was something possessive and female, poised to take something away.
That night they walked to town. Smith aimed for a table at a sidewalk cafe, tested it for wobbles, brushed off one seat, and sat down in it. The menu was fish, whose local names Smith asked Maria to translate, though she couldn’t. “Loma?” she asked the waiter. “What kind of fish is it?”
“It is a fish from the Sea of Tehuantepec. Local fish. Very tasty.”
“But what kind?” Maria asked again. “Light or dark? Flat? Round?”
“I’ll show you,” the waiter replied, this time in English.
“Show us?” Smith repeated, looking to Maria with question-mark eyebrows as if he hadn’t registered that the waiter had spoken English. Smith had understood the words well enough to repeat them, but this he apparently failed to notice. Maria wondered if Smith was getting so used to asking Maria for translation he would turn off his comprehension faculties altogether. By the time they got back to New York he might have not only failed to pick up any Spanish, but lost his English as well.
Maria gave Smith question-mark eyebrows back. The waiter went for the fish. “He’s showing us,” she repeated.
“Showing us?” he said again.
“The fish,” she stated. She said it finitely, like the period in a sentence.
The waiter came back with a metal tray spilling over with an assortment of raw fish, slippery and silver. It smelled pungent, making Maria queasy. Smith moved his chair closer to hers as if to see the menu, close enough so she could smell his bug lotion. The waiter said the Mayan names for each variety of fish while Maria guessed at their English or Spanish corollaries from words on the menu. “Snapper?” she ventured, pointing.
The waiter looked back unhelpfully. Smith shrugged.
“Halibut?” she tried again, pointing at a flat fish, both its eyes gazing upward from its side. Smith looked back at her with about as animated an expression. “I don’t know,” she said to no one in particular, then pointed to a pink and fleshy square-shaped fish and said, “Give me that.”
“You too?” she asked Smith, who’d made no gesture to choose his own fish. He nodded yes to her, which Maria duly communicated to the waiter, though this time in English.
The waiter looked at Smith, as if not wishing to offend a husband by listening too reverently to his wife.
Smith nodded authoritatively. “Yes, like my wife said,” he said in English.
Maria wondered what Smith would be like when he was someone’s husband, if he someday might carry all the worldly authority the waiter seemed to ascribe to him. Could I rely on you someday? she thought to herself, looking at Smith as he waved away bugs.
“Nunca deje la espalda a la mar,” Maria said.
“It’s an old sailor’s expression, from when traders left the coast of southern Spain to find spices and gems on the Malabar coast. They prayed to Virgin Marys,” she added, ad libbing as she noticed another image of the Virgin Mary, this one on the menu. It was the same image she’d seen on the bus. In fact she’d noticed dozens of these virgins in their few hours in Oaxaca—on bus exteriors and keychains and taxi dashes. The virgin’s face hovered above a triangular, elaborately embroidered shroud large enough to consume an entire flock of faithful. It hid all but her head and hands. Underneath her image on the menu was a legend explaining the significance of this particular rendition of Mary, the Virgin of Soledad— solitude.
“Never turn your back on the sea.”
“It’s good advice,” said Smith, turning the tables on her game, “which you are apparently intent on scoffing.”
“The Sea of Tehuantepec is a very gentle sea.” Smith was protective, and Maria didn’t mind, really.
“Who’s the bell virgin?” he asked, pointing at the image. Her dress did look like a bell. Maria read the legend aloud, translating from the menu as she went. It described her as the patron saint of the state of Oaxaca. “Peasant donkey traders discovered a mysterious addition to their caravan one foggy day in 1620,” Maria read: “an unfamiliar donkey with a box the size of a coffin balanced on its back sideways so it made a cross. On being presented to the priest in Oaxaca City, the beast had a seizure and died in spasms. Inside its coffin appeared an image of a bloodied Christ and, beneath him— gasping, perhaps, for air,” said Maria, embellishing now, “the head and praying hands of a bodiless virgin. The virgin had no body”— Maria was now speaking entirely extemporaneously— “no limbs, no torso, no guts, no womb; head and hands, all a virgin needed. Thereafter, sailors from Oaxaca prayed to her when their ships ran afoul of the sea. Her apparition became a common sight in Oaxaca, and many a man credited her spirit with averting disaster.”
“You,” said Smith, “will be praying to that virgin halfway to the island tomorrow.”
“Wrong,” retorted Maria. “The sea would never spit me out.”
Maria watched from the bed as Smith left the bathroom naked. He doused his body with Skin So Soft, then closed all the windows and sealed the cracks with t-shirts so no bugs would get in. His back was turned to Maria so she could see the contours of his buttocks and thighs. He walked to the low table and lit, first, a candle, and then a coil of green mosquito incense he had pulled from his daypack. When he flicked off the light the candle made yellow reflections in the outlines of his calf and arm muscles. An acrid smell rose from the scarlet ember at the tip of the mosquito coil. The coil would burn all night, the ember moving in a slow spiral— a mathematician moving fastidiously through a labyrinth.
Smith walked toward the bed, grinning. She remembered the first time she’d seen him with an erection; she’d thought sex would be biologically impossible. His penis curved in an arc, rising up but then tilting downward stiffly. They had managed, though. Their sex life evolved into something lovely and torrid, a seal between them, transcending even language.
Smith climbed into the bed and took her in his arms. He smelled of Skin So Soft. With the windows closed the air felt thick and still. Maria could taste particles of air inside her mouth. She licked his forearm but now tasted the Avon. She regretted her earlier suggestion to lick it from limbs. His penis was curled into an erection, its up and down slope like the curve of the mosquito coil. She licked the droplets of semen at its tip. They were salty, like the smell of the fish, an odor that permeated the entire room now. They made love, but Maria was distracted. She imagined the mosquito coil smell entering her through her vagina and circulating through her blood stream. When Smith came she watched the red ember of the mosquito coil from across the room, and she felt it exploding into flames inside her.
Smith fell asleep still lying on top of her. Dead weight; dead air. She eased out from under him and got up to blow out the candle and open a window. “Baby?” Smith wailed in his sleep. Maria couldn’t tell if he was begging for her to stay or pleading for a closed window. She felt treacherous either way.
In a small basement room beneath the church, there was a shrine to the Virgin of Soledad. Maria and Smith went in the afternoon. There were manifold images of the virgin and altars before her picture bearing fresh flowers and candles and little metal trinkets in the shapes of hands and humans and hearts. In a corner was a coffin-sized box that held a gruesome plaster figure of a bloody Jesus. Beneath him lay the virgin mother, just her face and praying hands.
Maria thought her face looked like the women’s on the bus. She thought it sad, though, that unlike the women, this virgin had no womb. “Smith, she’s eviscerated. A woman who’s just head and hands. She can think with her brain and make things with her hands, but her body’s lost everything that makes it human. She’s nothing without her womb.”
“You exaggerate. I don’t have a uterus and I’m still human. Women are known to have hysterectomies and lead fulfilling lives, you know. And this virgin saves people, so she lost something but she got a special power in return, and so did the people she helps.”
“Never leave your back to the sea.”
“She’ll take something from you. The sea. La mar. To the sailors the sea was a woman.”
“I’m just saying be careful baby.” It was a non-sequitur, but she followed.
“Not this sea, Smith. The Sea of Tehuantepec is gentle. It’s the open sea they mean, when you’re on a ship in a storm. The sea is a wrathful angel who can take your ship away. Or your womb, providing you’re the Virgin Mary. And anyway, the virgin protects you here—she’s the patron saint.”
Smith shrugged. “But you have to sacrifice something in exchange. Your first born, for instance.”
Maria walked away from him, to a wall in the back of the shrine with dozens of small wood and metal plaques bearing crudely drawn illustrations of the virgin’s appearances to townspeople over the centuries. On each was a testimonial, written in antiquated, flourished seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Castillian Spanish scripts, often misspelled. Dog bites miraculously faded from the legs of children; men caught themselves midair on precipitous falls to the floor.
Smith came up and Maria translated a plaque for him, about barkeeper Narciso Valencia’s plight before robbers— “One of them struck him with a wooden plank but the blow didn’t take effect due to the love of the Virgin of Soledad.” A primitive two-dimensional image showed four men with planks busting through a doorway and a man on his knees praying to an airborne image of the virgin.
“There she is: floaty, weightless,” Maria said, mostly to herself.
“I don’t feel sorry for her,” Smith said, picking up the thread from a conversation back.
“She lost something, she gives you something, and the ocean takes away,” Maria said, again almost to herself, as if working out a problem. “The ocean took her womb, but she came out holy.”
“You’re obsessed with wombs.”
“Maybe I am, yeah. Smith, do you think we’ll ever have children?”
“I can barely pay rent on a room in Queens!” he retorted, laughing.
He’d taken it wrong, and Maria regretted having brought it up. She wasn’t asking Smith to marry her, just wondering what the fantasy would look like. It was not a conversation she’d wanted to have with him until she knew, for sure. And she didn’t know any better than she did when he’d said “wife” to the hotelier the day before. Still, she wondered why Smith kept calling her “wife” if it wasn’t secretly his desire. She decided she didn’t like the word, anyway. From woman to wife seemed a journey of loss. Maybe when the ocean stole the virgin’s womb it was a metaphorical marriage of virgin to ocean. A barren marriage, with something gained and something lost. What was gained in the bargain, though, was for the moment lost on Maria.
“Baby?” It was Smith.
“You were, where were you?”
“Right here honey. What?”
“You were gone for a minute.” He shrugged again. Smith smiled uneasily and wrapped her shoulders tightly under his arm. He began walking, leading them to their Coco Hut.
By afternoon it was not raining, but the ocean and sky were stormy. The ocean was not blue, but black with muck. The soccer boys kicked the ball in and out of the surf, unperturbed by the raging state of the water. Smith pulled off his t-shirt, revealing his boy’s chest, and joined.
“Baby? What are you doing?” he asked, running up as he saw Maria move away.
“Swimming,” she said.
“It’s not safe,” he said. But then the ball passed and he ran for it, lost in the trajectory of the game.
No one was swimming and the waves were tall. Maria approached a local woman with a small child to ask if it was safe for swimming. The woman raised her eyebrows and free hand in a single gesture. “For me,” she said in an Indian accented Spanish, “I would not go in the Sea of Tehuantepec.”
Maria walked farther and entered the water where it seemed calmest. It was black, and still warm. The tow dragged her toward the center of the halfmoon. She felt strong swimming toward the shore and then letting the tide sweep back out, swimming in, floating out. Waves broke far out, in the center of the bay. A yellowish froth crept toward the shore, leaving a sulfur taste on her lips.
When she reached Canacona, she climbed on to a rock and quickly ascended to the promontory. It was several minutes before she noticed something twisting out of the water, like a tongue curling to the back of its mouth. Soon she could see dozens of black forms flipping in and out of the water, fins breaking the surface and curving back down under it. Not sharks. Dolphins. She watched one, then another beside it, then a pair farther toward the horizon, then a half dozen beyond those. The dolphins moved in no particular direction. They curled up, curled down, somersaulting. They had no pattern, no formula, no destination; no fear of phantom thieves hidden in the depths, no fear for future loss. Dolphins took no precautions, made no plans.
Maybe the dolphins were communicating with her. She and Smith had a beautiful relationship. Why did they burden it with the future?
Maria glanced back to the beach. It was too misty to make out any particular forms, but she thought she could see the movement of boys frolicking in the lip of surf as their soccer ball played the edge between wet and dry, like an emissary between foreign cultures. She waved. “Hi Smith,” she said softly. She wondered what Smith thought about when he batted the ball, wondered if he thought of anything at all.
Back in the open sea Maria felt calm. Smith mistrusted the ocean. But Maria liked the feeling of abandon in putting her small body inside something so vast and consuming. She liked to think of the ocean as a complete entity, with a single rhythm extending from its eastern to western shores. It was pointless to resist the currents of the ocean. Her own rhythm was subsumed by the ocean’s. Only her head and hands emerged from the water. She imagined herself like the virgin, bodiless except for head and hands, an apparition of good will and safety.
There were only two sets of strokes separating Maria from the shore when small bubbles began to pock the surface of the water. The current became formidable, and she grew anxious that large waves at the shore would plunge her into the sand and wrestle away the top to her bikini. Raindrops pricked her skin. In the time it took to get to the beach and find an interval to emerge between waves, the sky had shifted from pellucid sunset to stormy twilight. The sky was mottled and purple, like a bruise.
She lay on the sand, the motion of the water still rocking inside her.
“Baby, where, I was worried— where were you?” It was Smith, his body arcing over hers.
“Smith?” she ventured, sitting up.
“You were gone so long, I was—“he added, panic in his voice. “What were you doing?”
“I was swimming, like I said.”
“I was looking all over,”
Maria thought of telling him about swimming in the ocean, and how it was terrible and nurturing all at once, but it seemed the wrong time. “Sweetie would you stop worrying?” she said instead.
Then he tucked her again, more tightly this time, it seemed, under his long arm.
By dinner the rain was slow but promised a long storm. Smith and Maria went to eat under palapas at a restaurant tented on the beach, in the sand. Smith told Maria what he wanted, and when the waiter asked for his order Smith gestured to Maria as if it was too hard to read from the menu in Spanish, as if to plead, “Baby, please?”
Because of the rain, flies alighted on the tortilla basket by the dozen. Smith swatted all of them. After the meal a bee alighted on Maria’s espresso cup and Smith swatted it, disturbing the liquid and knocking the table with his knee such that the coffee splashed Maria’s turtleneck. The bee became instantly more interested, prompting Smith to shield his plate under a paper napkin that he’d lift carefully so as to prune off bite-sized pieces of chocolate cake. With his other hand he swished at air.
Maria thought about how when you travel, people become more and more the person they already are— more or less independent or more or less afraid of bugs, their small tics becoming amplified into the singlemost markers of their characters. On this trip, however, the more Smith became Smith, the less of Smith there was to fathom. Smith was not expanding but shrinking. Smith was becoming less and less.
Sitting near them was a British girl wearing the Oaxaca tourist uniform of bikini halter and sarong skirt. Maria was dressed the same, only with a turtleneck on top. The girl was talking in Spanish; a guy asked how long she was here for. “Until January.” That was four months from now. The distance of time depressed Maria.
She thought about her job back in New York, and wondered whether she’d be more bored as housewife, employee, or itinerant surfer. She decided housewife would be worst, but surfer-chick/mom in Mexico might be romantic, if she could travel to places like this. She considered Smith as traveler father but pushed the idea away when he knocked his plate so his chocolate syrup spilled on the table, coagulating over the silverware.
At the other end of the sand was a family of French tourists. The mother was young and handsome and the children were multilingual, and Maria said, because they still hadn’t spoken of things serious or personal, that she wondered if she’d ever have such a life as the French woman’s. “Sometimes I want that,” she said, peering at Smith to make him meet her eyes. “Sometimes I think a family would be better than nine-to-five work and two-week vacations and obsessing about how to advance on the job.”
Smith grinned and rolled his eyes.
He rolled his eyes again.
“I’d be a mother who brought her kids traveling.” Maria raised her eyebrows as if to demand a better response, and Smith laughed again.
After several moments silence Maria picked up again. “I want to leave New York.”
“I bet you do,” Smith replied, grinning.
“Smith I’m serious, I think I’m going to quit my job. I want a different life.” She didn’t know what that life was, but right now nothing seemed worth keeping.
Smith laughed again.
“You laugh? I tell you something serious and you laugh?” Smith’s laugh made her know she would go, at least away from him.
“I laugh because I’m nervous,” he said finally. He was quiet but he was still, oddly, grinning. “You’re going away.”
For their last day they hiked to a different beach, beyond the reef, where cliffs separated ocean from land. They set off in weather damp and gray, like rain and like not-rain. They wore shorts and t-shirts and swimsuits. There were raindrops, but rarely enough. The road took a long time to reach the cliffs. Cement streets led toward the coast and away from it in a zig-zag pattern like one in local textiles. Finally, the road gave onto a lush mud path pointing steeply downward. At the moment it seemed they were lost a young boy appeared on the trail. Maria asked him directions in Spanish, and though it wasn’t clear he understood, he started leading them somewhere. The path continued its decline, into gullies dug deep between rock ledges, with roots jutting upward and Bougainvillea vines lacing through cactus spines.
They reached a cove. Mexican kids in wet t-shirts stood under palapas cooking fish in tin foil. The sand was clean from the wash, perfect and footprintless. Boys with faces like their guide’s emerged from the cliffsides, racing ahead of the couple so the kids could face the visitors while walking backwards. The locals offered beach chairs and fish meals and beer for sale, speaking a Spanish even more hybrid than the language of town. Local kids on surfboards floated in the waves. They were dragonflies skating the surface tension, not quite in the water but not quite out of it. Under one palapa sat one couple. They were pale skinned and probably American, sipping Coronas and picking pieces of snapper from tin foil with their fingers. The woman wore a neon-pink bikini. There was a baby at her side in a daypack babyseat with a metal frame. It was dug slightly into the sand so it balanced upright. The man, putting aside the snapper, paid a local kid for use of a boogie board and flippers.
Maria watched the man fling himself into the surf. The water was manic and gave off steam, warm against the pre-storm air.
Smith and Maria stripped to their swimsuits, laying their clothes on plastic chairs at the base of the cliffside. Because the water was so rough, neither took off their shoes. Smith got up to follow the man into the waves.
“Smith what are you doing? I thought you were afraid of the ocean. Don’t swim here,” Maria said.
Maria gestured to the guy on the boogie board. “You always say you don’t swim, and that guy is gonna die.” The gringo emerged from the surf. Pink welts covered his white chest and sea particles clung to his legs; he looked like walking dead. He tossed himself in again. His wife laughed and sipped her Corona. The baby appeared to be sleeping.
“You mean you want him to die?” Smith teased.
“That too. No, I have a bad feeling. The undertow is bad, you can see it.”
“Baby, do you even know what undertow is?”
It was as if he’d slapped her. “Don’t condescend to me,” she replied. She could feel her face heating. “I’ve been swimming all my life. I’m twice the swimmer you are.” She watched the surf erode a sand gully between her feet. A new wave swept between her legs, reaching just to her swimsuit. The water was warm, warmer than the air. Raindrops chilled her torso. For most of its length, the beach had quickly receded to the cliffside. The dragonfly boys no longer skated on the water and were nowhere to be seen. Smith and Maria’s clothes were barely visible on chairs now submerged just to the level of their seats. The Corona woman had moved with her babypack up near the t-shirts. The sky was black. “I know a lot about water,” Maria said to Smith, only she could barely hear herself over the sound of the waves.
Rain began sheeting down, the rainwater several degrees colder than the ocean. Smith kept walking into the waves. The gringo was still flinging himself in and emerging with welts, flinging himself in, dragging himself out, like a beleaguered sea lion. The water climbed the cliffside. There was no longer beach. Smith and Maria were standing in ocean. The chairs that once held their clothes were now completely submerged. Through the mist, Maria could see the Corona woman stumble up the bluff with her babypack and then sit again farther up. It looked like the woman was still laughing, her teeth reflecting flashes from the lip of her beer bottle.
A wave came, bigger than the last one, and as Maria stepped backward, away from Smith and toward the rocks, it caught the sandal of her upraised foot, sending the shoe cascading into the undertow. Her shoe, in the water, traced the pull of the surf, like a drawing of a perfect spiral. Her shoe buckled under the froth and then, in a backwards arc, emerged at the top of the ellipsis, only to be pummeled back to the sand. She watched the shoe, and its continuing circle of repetitions, moving under the waves and to their tops and then down again, sucked in, thrust out, pummeled down.
She could not see Smith. She peered through the mist to find him, but in the droplets she saw only iridescent figments. Hands. The face of a woman. Smith was nowhere. The face peered down to where Maria's sandal repeated the spiral. The shoe somersaulted several more times before it disappeared. Then the mist covered Maria so she could see nothing. She heard only the scream of the child.