Story by Cody Copeland (USA)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 41
That place once promised us escape. Our fears skittered into the shadows, padded around the cool earth beneath the billowy hands of vibrant fronds, scurried down into subsurface crab caverns etched through wet sand. We splayed out in the sun and bronzed our shoulders with heavy coats of coconut oil.
That place—I hadn’t ruined it yet, like I did Chiapas… The Lagos de Montebello were beautiful, yes, even the brown, dead-looking ones. They really did look like the pictures: this one that turquoise we prize so highly when liquid, and that one, just meters away—bright orange! Like the earth’s fire reflecting up from its core. How did that happen? A full spectrum of watery hues that peeked at us from within a thick density of trees.
This was what I loved to do. I loved going to strange places with you. I saw myself a traveler. This was before I realized that making a tour logistically arduous was not traveling. It did not embed meaning into a journey to add unneeded hours to it. Locals never respected my toil more than they disdained the comfort of other tourists. I had a tendency to look at maps not drawn to scale and say, See, babe? It’s just right there. We can walk. And you had faith in me, as you do still. (Enigmas usually perplex me to anger, but your unconditionality in the face of my madness is one I’ll happily accept to never understand.) The grottos we read about in the guidebook were not around the next corner, not over the coming rise in the road. I thumbed a passing pickup and, for less than he deserved, its driver took us to them and waited while we did what I loved best. Ages of rain had eaten the granite right out of the ground, and we played in the splendid otherworldliness of it all—another meal in our subsistence of dreams. We both look quite happy in the pictures.
It was on the way to the waterfall when the ugliness came out. Chiflón, it’s called. Flume. A rather unimaginative name for such an impressive sight. I’ve never understood utilitarian nomenclature for that which inspires awe—doesn’t it deserve a name far grander than that? Maybe it’s understatement, I said to myself as 120 meters of straight cascade soaked us in a cloud of mist at its base, and we took hurried snapshots, careful not to ruin our expensive electronics. We saw the turquoise again and commented on how it was milkier than that of the lagoons, but that it pleased us to see it. We (I) had to say something that wasn’t: Goddammit! I am living my life! I am enjoying myself and seeing the things that I want to see. This is what I want to do! We had taken a cramped van out to a crossroads where bored-looking men in mototaxis waited for tourists with feet too sore to cover the last quarter mile to the park. At a roadside stand we ordered lunch. Sometimes on these trips it was taxing not look as hot and bored as those drivers who waited while we ate. I think you had a whole fish and I ate the eye just to make you cringe. I had coarse carne asada with roasted baby onions and blackened jalapenos. Corn tortillas smaller than those in Oaxaca were piled up like clothes we didn’t want to pack at the opposite corner of the table. The proprietress smiled when we sat down, but not when we left. You said you wanted more, to go back to school and make something of the life your parents sacrificed so much to give you. Gallivanting was not enough for you, nor should it have been for someone lucky enough to have been plucked out of a civil war, especially one as unscarred as you. But you know me. My head is so hard that even the best ideas are exhausted by the time they make it in.
I wanted to waste away and I wanted you to do it with me. Or at least to watch as I dried up. I made convoluted arguments about how happily and economically we could live on the Oaxacan coast, my naïve faith in the internet to provide me with work convinced me that it could be so. I hated the work, but I told myself that if I could do it near a beach, blogging (expressly not writing, though it had me fooled there for a time) about medical tourism and gold investment tips and herbal sex drive supplements could maybe be a tolerable way to make a living.
This was all when I was drinking, of course. You’ll remember—or maybe you won’t. You’ve always been better at forgetting than I. I drank all through our time there in Oaxaca, stubborn to the very end. Our (my) tightfistedness dictated that we sneak the booze into the Mazunte jazz festival. (How laughable now: is anything really overpriced in Oaxaca?) You and the girls went through the gate and Pete and I set off through the sylvan darkness that the event promoters must have assumed was barrier enough. This was Adventure to me: too drunk too early in the evening and breaking some kind of rule, no matter how trivial—far too drunk to even notice the worry in your eyes each time I did this. Lila Downs sang in Zapotec. Who else among our friends had ever done something so unique? A concert partially sung in a language from the Old World! Before it was even over, I had added that night to the mass of experiences that I gathered like cheap products to soon grow tired of and find a place for in the garage. Pete and I traded bottles, said cheers!, smiled agreeably through beards that spread like algae up our cheeks towards our eyes, down our throats. This—all of this—was the right thing to do.
By the time the shuffling towards the gates began, the rum was gone and I was convinced it couldn’t have been all me. As was Pete. His fists swung like wrecking balls at his sides as he stomped away through the crowd. There was something afoot. The bottle itself was gone! What sort of trickery was this? The two girls who did not have belligerent boyfriends to deal with made their escape and I again made a scene, a mess that you were tired of cleaning up. This called for a cigarette, even though we had quit over the summer. Was I looking for justification? I invented it where I was unable to find it.
The rest of the night passed—for me—without beginning or end. My memories of such nights are honeycombed with great big gaps of time—frightening moments that others had to fill in later on, most often to my chagrin. It was you who finally showed me that for one’s own actions to be news and not memories is not a good thing. It’s one of the multiform reasons for which I love you. I have an unsteady memory of finding Pete at the same time as Rene and I tried to convince him that she had bamboozled us. Our booze was out there somewhere, and even more where that was not to be found. She clasped his face in her hands and said serious things to him as his eyes darted from the orange lights of the bar across the way to the bricks in the beachside path to the moonlight reflected like white noise on the steady waves. Pete had never stood for a damn thing in his life and he wasn’t about to start then. He listened to both of us and agreed with neither. But he was always ready for more drink. He and I fled to the awful obscurity of a laser-lit club set out in the open air. The tinny light made squiggles on the sand tamped down into a dance floor. Pete ambiguously sided (Oh now you take one!) with the bartender whom I accused to have taken my five hundred peso note and then played dumb about it. No me dio nada usted the kid behind the bar told me, still respectful, though he had every right not to be. I stormed off to trouble strangers on the streets for cigarettes. The bill was in the novel I cracked open the next day while waiting for a van to take me home. I forget what I was reading.
If we do go back, it won’t be to those cabanas. The owners, if they were to remember our faces (mine), most likely wouldn’t let us anyway. There were two beds under the thatched roof of our cabana and you moved to the other. You had nowhere else to go. I followed you and harangued you about how You always do this! and, for some reason, God forbid we have more sex! And like most fights it mutated into a ghastly perversion of hashing things out. Just as I’d done with drinking and the camaraderie that it yields, I had divorced the act of love from the force it is meant to represent. I deserved more of it!
I deserved none of it. Not the love, not the sex. I was unfit to touch the hem of your garment, to even be in your presence. (This is not maudlin self-criticism; you know I’ve given up the drink for good. Sometimes you have to name a flume Flume, because that’s simply what it is.) With my insides on fire—a roiling, rum-fueled conflagration—there was no room in there for sympathy, but that’s not why you shed tears, anyway. I accused you of this, of appealing for pity, but breathless, gulping sobs were really the only course of action in the face of such a monster—no, coward. A monster afraid of his own reflection is no beast at all.
No one on the streets had any cigarettes, none for me, at least. The stores were closed. The normal people were asleep and the normal drunks had all passed out. I was so bottomless in those days—a pitch-black well, and only now does the stone you dropped inside begin to echo. In the morning you were not in the bed next to me (I had somehow finagled my way back into it with you). You were in the hammock, staring out at a breathtaking ocean vista rendered moot by your sadness. An unopened box of smokes awaited me on the plastic chair and your bag was packed, even though we had another day there in the sunshine.
After you left I went down to the beach and smoked another cigarette before going in the water. The nicotine was not enough to draw me out, but my brain finally perked up out of a hangover that was more due to stress and shouting than spirits as I dunked it in the cool water of the Pacific. I bobbed there and began my all-too-familiar process of justifying what I’d done the night before. At least I don’t have to go to fucking Canada! I yelled at myself—empty rhetoric. The water I dove into was not the creamy blue that had wowed us in Chiapas. It seethed and turned up all the gunk from the bottom of the sea. Trailing bubbles, I sank down into it and remained below the waves until my lungs threatened to cave, to leave me down there in the expanding darkness.
Cody Copeland’s short stories, essays, travel memoirs and embarrassing web content pages have been published in a number of international journals and sneaky gold dealers’ websites, in both English and Spanish. At the moment he is not on speaking terms with the incessant little voice in his head that in the past was able to convince him to write daily, and is taking a break from the process. He currently teaches bilingual first grade in Austin, TX.
Image: "Cascadas El Chiflón" by Carlos Manuel Citalán.