“To be ten feet from someone on a beach like that is to be a mile from them. It is like a tundra.”
Maeve was a midwife. We had been friends, then lovers, then friends. She travelled a lot, sometimes for work—she was a midwife with Doctors Without Borders: the first of two such women with whom I’d be involved. I guess women who deliver babies in war zones find something they recognize in me. I guess I do in them. Sometimes she travelled for work, but other times she travelled for pleasure. She’d be in Colombia. Or France. Or London or Tanzania. She was from an Irish family in a small town in New Jersey. She didn’t talk much with her parents or her siblings, all of whom were driving kids around the suburbs in SUVs and buying big TVs. She was different from the people she grew up with. She was kind of a loner.
Once when she was back in town for a few months and we were remembering to love each other again she said, “You should come with me to Mexico in October. Buy a ticket now.” She made travel decisions that way. Do it now. I did not make travel decisions that way. It seemed unreal to suddenly buy a ticket with no . . . I don’t know . . . plan . . . but then I realized that a ticket is a plan. So I bought one. In the car. From my phone. I guess I didn’t want her to think I was scared. She was beautiful to me. But we had badly broken each other’s hearts two years ago, and we had been close but wary ever since.
In Mexico, we met in Oaxaca. And then flew a tiny plane (Maeve called it a VW Bug with wings) down to a small beachfront town called Mazunte. We had a third person with us. Her name was Tyra. She was Maeve’s friend from college. I had met Tyra once before in New York. She was slight and stunning and olive-skinned, skeptical with a curved back from scoliosis. She was born and raised in Queens by a white mother and a Jamaican father. She was both mousy and also appeared ready to fight anyone at any time. Whatever softness there was to her, it seemed to me, came from art and beauty. She was a painter and it was easy to imagine that a studio was the only place on the planet where she felt completely safe. Like I said, she grew up in Queens. She wore large, formless brown and tan clothing that hid her thin frame and made her into a silhouette even when the sun shone directly on her.
We three slept in the same room, a small, hastily-built guest house atop a set of treacherous stone stairs overlooking the beach. The toilet and shower were protected from the room only by a curtain that reached halfway to the floor. It was awkward whenever someone had to take a shit. It became a joke. We grew close. We lay awake at night singing R&B songs from our childhoods, talking about our fears. The moon was rising that week. The sea was outside our window. I was falling in love with both of them. It was fun being the only boy. The gentle and true affections of women are like a religion to me. They can sustain me for a long time.
On the fourth day, we decided to go to a beach on the other side of the ridge. We’d heard it was beautiful. Where we were was beautiful, but we were ready for a different beautiful. After swimming separately in the morning and meeting at a café for espresso and mangos and yogurt we set out. You have to walk halfway along the alley into town, an alley overrun with dogs, and German people with dreads, and the occasional plastic Coke bottle trodden over so often with sandals and motorcycles that it had become part of the earth. Past the houses and outdoor kitchens and heavy leaves on tin roofs, the smell of wood burning, a burro, a woman with an enormous belly and no teeth waving at you as you walk by.
You have to turn up this hill to get over the ridge, a steep hill where you are talking when you start, but minutes into it you fall quiet. The sound of our three sets of feet on the dirt and gravel. The path led through canopies of trees and huts hidden from the road that looked vaguely ominous. At the top we reached a cemetery. It was mid-morning. The cemetery was old, the headstones all colors, all faded. Flowers and the faces of the deceased hand-painted in soft pinks and baby blues, tattered banners hung from trees, clung to by dust and cobwebs. We stood and watched until a dog emerged from the shadows behind a tombstone as if we had summoned it. He joined us and we continued walking. Now we were a foursome.
The beach was vast and straight and naked, unsheltered. Near-white sand seemingly spanned two miles in either direction from where we arrived. White flags could be seen placed at remarkably even intervals. We set out to walk the beach. We had not spoken in twenty minutes. We went forward in every combination. Me and Maeve, Maeve and Tyra. Tyra and the dog, whom we named Turtle the Dog. Turtle the Dog and me. We were for some moments all together, then the next moment, one of us would wander to the sea and stand before the waves which loomed at terrifying heights and pounded the earth with the force of a bomb.
We came to the first white flag and realized it marked a sea turtle. The largest reptile I’d ever laid eyes on, largely decomposed, mostly dried, surrounded by a small cloud of sandflies. Its shell was halfway buried in the sand. Its massive flippers were almost reduced to bone. It was as big as something in our human world. As big as your table, or the desk at which I sit to write. It was big enough to demand an entire seat on a airplane or bus. Turtle the Dog sniffed around. (That’s why we would name him Turtle the Dog.) Tyra and I warned him to stay away as if he were our child. We examined it for a while then moved on.
We continued to another white flag and it marked another turtle. This one even further decomposed. Nearly sun-bleached. The enormous shell was so perfectly appointed with polygon spirals, each a small pyramid, each a layer of years and years. Maeve and Turtle the Dog had drifted down the beach to play fetch. I could see them as shadows against the sun, the glow of the wet sand, his body jumping and contorting with excitement, her body running and playing like a child.
Tyra wanted to see what was underneath the shell and suddenly I had a purpose. I went to find the biggest stick I could, a branch so heavy I could only drag it back, leaving a long trail in the sand. I began to pry the shell off. Never before have I felt so useful. I approached it from angles, I formulated plans, I calculated resistance. I got another log and created leverage. And I pried and pried. Tyra watched me, her hands on her hips which were thrust forward. Her brown bony back curved like an “S.” I wanted to make this happen so badly for her that I almost began to cry. I wanted to give this to her. I almost cry now thinking about it. I don’t know why. Everything is worth crying over, if you spend enough time with it.
Eventually I got the shell off and Maeve joined us. She explained to us the anatomy. We listened. Turtle the Dog chased birds.
I walked to the water and watched. Seven years ago, I took my mother’s ashes to the sea, after she died in my arms. I felt her presence, the first time since that day. I cried in a way that didn’t matter because of the spray of the sea, because of the force of the wind. To be ten feet from someone on a beach like that is to be a mile from them. It is like a tundra.
We had seen enough dead turtles. The sun seemed to have moved so we started back without saying anything. Trudging through the sand, swerving into one another and away again. It seemed both longer and shorter before we arrived at a hut near the path that had dumped us off the beach. There was a bar but it was closed. A young man was moving buckets of ice around. We asked if he would serve us. Maeve and Tyra had Bohemias. I had Coke in a bottle. He brought out three bamboo deck chairs and we sat in them and looked out at the sea. Tyra looked so much like herself with a beer in her hand and her eyes on the horizon.
Evening fell. Slowly. Like something we forgot could happen.
After nightfall I was standing at the water. Maeve was in the chair, back by the bar. Turtle the Dog was dozing by her feet. Tyra was sticking her toes in the water, close to me but not close enough for us to be doing it together. I saw bioluminescence. A spot in the sea lit up like god was winking at me. I didn’t believe it. I waited for it to happen again before I told Tyra. It did. She came over and stood right next to me. We stared into the darkness of the sea but we saw nothing. I did not know if it was true. Tyra told me she believed me. Then it happened again! She squealed. And then one more time! A sudden flash of light right under the water of our feet! My arm was around her now. Her head was in the crook of my chest. Her hair smelled of sweat and cocoa. I kissed her hair. She sighed but I could not hear it. We stood this way for what seemed like not long enough.
I looked back to see what Maeve was doing. She was walking back up the path into the darkness by herself. We called out. She told us she was leaving. We asked her to wait. She didn’t want to. Turtle the Dog couldn’t decide who to side with. Tyra and I felt like we had been caught doing something we should not. We hastily gathered ourselves and joined her on the path. We never spoke of it again.
It was dark. Turtle the Dog snorted along beside us. Underneath the trees we could not see our hands. To ward off the fear we talked about ’80s TV shows. We talked about turtles. We climbed the hill, our breath the only sound. Everything seemed longer, darker than before. When we arrived at the crest we realized we were at the cemetery again. We could make out the shadows of a bird perched atop a tombstone. After a moment, Turtle the Dog peeled off from our group, trotted into the cemetery and disappeared once again among the graves. Soon we could no longer hear his paws. Soon we could no longer hear his breathing. Soon we were alone.
Halfway down the hill, we rounded a bend and the whole of the village and the valley was spread out before us. Piles of hills and houses and above it all in the middle of the sky, a bold, pregnant, crying full moon was rising slowly from behind a bank of thick clouds. We were all watching it. The whole earth. A few bats flew over it for effect. It was October. The air was growing cool in the evening. We stood in the middle of the road and watched the moon undress herself. Others would pass by and stop to silently join our group. Sometimes a person would whistle. Sometimes they’d say nothing, just smile at us before they moved on. When the show was over we descended into town.
We walked to a restaurant, a pizza place with no walls under a tin roof. We had been there before. We were on a smiling-and-nodding basis with the people that worked there. The moon was fully up now. But no one was in the restaurant. The entire staff and the cooks were standing in the street, their faces tilted upward and kitchen towels slung over their shoulders. We watched the sky with them. The radio was playing a live version of Elvis Presley singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” His voice quavered and reverbed seemingly all the way to the heavens. We stood. Maeve. Tyra. Me. The waitress. The cooks. Another customer. Another dog. No one moved until the song was over.
Carvell Wallace is a writer and editor based in Oakland with bylines in GQ, The New Yorker, MTV News, The Toast, The Guardian, Pitchfork, The New York Times, and ESPN The Magazine. He is the co-host of Slate’s Parenting Podcast Mom And Dad Are Fighting and a Special Features Editor at Timeline.com. He is working on a book: The Sixth Man co-written with Andre Iguodala due out in 2018. He is allergic to cats and he likes your haircut.