I try some geographic cures. The week Sketch moves out, I run away from home to go on a yoga retreat in Tulum. My newly-minted passport photo is so bad that the Spanish lady at the passport counter tells me she’s not sure if the State Department will accept it. “You look like an alien,” she says with concern, holding the photo first up close and then pulling it back slowly. There was a lot of black eye-shadow involved.
Somehow I make it past Mexican customs, and to the Cancun airport, where supposedly someone is waiting for me with a sign with my name on it. I have been really looking forward this sign, and plan to photograph it, but when I reach the designated rendezvous spot, no one is waiting for me with a sign. I wait an hour and then take a $200 taxi to Tulum.
I have a room on the beach, but only if your definition of a “room” doesn’t include the ability to hide your nakedness. Here’s a picture of the dwelling:
It looks like it was made by the little pig who foolishly chose sticks as his building material. Quaint, but less than reassuring after the weeks preceding my visit, in which I was warned about the likelihood of rape and kidnap in Mexico. The fort I built in the woods as a kid was more secure. I sleep with one eye open, caught in the torn mosquito netting and struggling like a mermaid. The sheets are clammy, and sandy, like actual clams that have fallen in the sand.
The shower is situated outdoors, which I have to admit to loving. I wake up early—strange birds are throwing exotic tantrums in the trees. With the first slice of light, I walk to the water and see that it is blue-green and that pelicans skim along the surface. I love pelicans (a perfect spirit animal for a girl who is overly attached to squirreling away bags of leftovers) but the birds remind me of Sketch, who would quote his father, quoting Ogden Nash. Knowing exactly what the cadence of our conversation would be if he were here (his beak holds more than his belly can) makes me feel like someone put a boot down on my stomach.
All I can do is keep breathing. Back in Queens, Sketch is carrying boxes of his possessions down the four sticky flights of stairs, moving out of our apartment. He takes the shitty towels and leaves me the good ones, and I will hold this up as evidence when one of my girlfriends wants to hit me with that whole “men are dogs” trip. Sketch wasn’t a dog—he was my person. He was my back half, the part that people didn’t see but without which I had precious little keeping me propped up, like a slice of cake that has been pared down until it can’t stand up on a plate.
I don’t have international service, so I can’t call in from Mexico, I can’t text. I can only move through it, the sluggish way you move in dreams. I visit Chichinitza, which one of the girls I am travelling with renames Chicken Pizza because the name is so hard to remember. These Mayan ruins correspond, supposedly, to the heart chakra.
The Mayans were just as ardent practitioners of human sacrifice as the Aztecs—how did they end up with the reputation for being peaceful calendar-makers, while no one can picture an Aztec without a beating heart in his hand as a prop? There is a stone court for a game not dissimilar to basketball; our guide tells us the captain of the winning team would be ritually murdered. It’s hard to imagine this lead to particularly brisk competition.
It’s in Mexico that I learn the coping mechanisms of foreign travel and foreign men that I will lean on for the next couple of years; I flirt with the Norwegian guys who came with us and one lets me cling to his back as we swim through the navy blue waters of a local cenote. He is so tall and blond we don’t even look like the same kind of animal.
I sign up for a kayaking trip at the Tulum biosphere—the distance is measured in kilometers, and they are liquid kilometers, so I don’t bother doing the math and don’t pay much attention. I get there and everyone else is wearing wetsuits. I am wearing a bikini and a sunburn.
If you looked at a piechart of my emotional life, it would show 33% of my life is spent being mortified, 10% is spent questioning my own decisions. One percent is reserved for asking my rabbit in an outraged tone of voice why it’s so cute. Half a percent is practicing handstands against the hall closet door. I don’t know how to account for the rest of the time, confetti minutes squandered looking into various glowing rectangles.
But time and distance lose their context outside of New York. Once again, someone tells me how many kilometers the kayaking trip is, and once again my brain fails to make any meaning out of it. But it’s a lagoon. How big could a lagoon be?
We head out to sea. Ten minutes later, I am panting, there is a stitch in my side, my palms are blistered. There is an elderly lady doing better than me, and a mother with an overweight child onboard is miles ahead. I will die here, on this lagoon. I will be eaten by a crocodile, or I will simply stop, defeated, and I will live out my days on this brackish water. Sketch will be sorry to hear it.
Instead, they put the guide in my boat. The guide is a great kayaker, and he also points things out, which is awesome, as my bird-watching skills are on par with my ability to paddle. I point, excited, and the guide tells me gently, “That is a stick.” Everything I point at is a stick, or a rock, or rock that looks like a stick.
“Ahhh, look,” the guide calls. “It is a lovely Lesser Blue Heron.” I feel great empathy for the Lesser Blue Heron; always the invitation to draw comparisons. But I can’t find it along the water’s edge. All I can see are sticks.
I do, however, catch a crocodile taking the water, and I watch the silhouettes of birds, greater and lesser, leaving to catch bugs as the sun drops beyond the lagoon. We nestle our bobbing kayaks in the mangroves to watch the sunset, and wine is passed around. Although I suspect that I may not be an alcoholic in Mexico, I do not drink any.
Once I am safely back on dry land, I sign up to join a group of women at a temezcal that night, continuing to operate around the idea that anything that feels different from how I feel at the present is an improvement– even a Mayan sweat ceremony that I hear induces vomiting. What I lack in courage, I believe I make up for in sheer work-horse endurance; I can do physical discomfort. Also, I’m picturing Sketch prying pictures off the walls of his painting studio in the apartment we have shared for a huge percentage of my adult life, and I need to stop thinking about that.
The temezcal is a kind of yurt-like structure, with a plastic tarp over a framework of branches, and Mexican blankets over that. It looks a little like the blanket forts I used to make with my sister, only scarier. It is dark inside, and when they pull heavy blankets over the exit, womblike and claustrophobic.
As the Mayan medicine man chants, and volcanic rocks heated to glowing are shifted in on pitchforks, I think first about Sketch, and then about nothing; all thought gets blistered from my frontal cortex. We are all prone on the sand, and I am digging in, because the sand is cool and the steam in the air is so hot it flash-sears your lungs when you breathe. Sand gets in my ears and hair, and a man lashes us with palm fronds dipped in a bucket of seawater. There are four cycles of heat and chanting, and then we crawl out, steaming, and run naked into the Gulf of Mexico.
When I get back to JFK Airport in New York, I had arranged for a friend to pick me up, and that friend is there, but so is Sketch, holding a sign with my name on it.
He drives me home, and comes upstairs. His things are already gone, and the apartment is neither half-full nor half-empty. This is not an optimism/pessimism sort of thing; the very meaning of the glass has changed. The books on the shelves look like survivors, and the dystopian echo in the room that was once Sketch’s studio gives me a stomachache. I show him my vacation pictures, which he looks at with more politeness than they warrant. I have like thirty pictures of grackles and maybe four hundred pictures of ruins, skulls etched in stone. He tolerates the long-winded commentary, and then we share our bed for the last time. We each take a side, and in the morning, after ten years of smug partnership, he leaves.