The earth stirred whenever a car passed as we walked along Carretera Federal 307. I squinted from the glare of the sun-bleached road, looking ahead for the ruinous outcroppings of Tulum. The humidity felt thick in my lungs and my sister’s – my half-sister’s – silence reminded me of being young and following Mom’s footprints in the sand. Remembering how I trudged behind her felt like a paperweight in my stomach. That was eight years ago and I was sixteen. At that age I was still trying to keep up, never too focused on reaching that point out in the distance.
An outdated van in the shape of a bread loaf barrelled towards us, churning dust in the V-peak ahead. It came as a pinprick, but the closer it got, the more blinding until it roared and clanked with a grinning man staring out the open window, whistling nonsense to the wind. They slowed down as they reached our side.
“Bonitas. Need a ride?”
I looked back and Susannah was staring at her feet. I grabbed her arm, pulled her to my side furthest away from the van and walked faster.
“We’re fine, thanks.” I avoided eye contact.
The van rumbled on and the man yelled back in a drunken slur, “Hasta luego.”
We resumed our languid pace and Susannah trailed back to her place behind me. I looked over my shoulder to see how she was. She had her hair pulled back in strands of loose gold, thumbs tucked between the straps of her backpack and shoulders.
“You okay, Miss Banana?”
She grinned at me sarcastically and nodded an exhausted yes. Her eyes glimmered like chunks of jade in the sea. I remembered when Mom would tote me along on trips and I followed while watching my feet, too. There was something about them moving across the earth that fascinated me then.
“Don’t worry about those guys,” I said. “That’ll happen sometimes. Just ignore it.”
The road ahead faded to a mirage of pearl and salty blue. As the sun shone brightly on our destination, the fatigue of our trek lifted.
Susannah asked, “Is this the way you came the first time?”
“It does feel different,” I paused. “But I’m sure this is the road we took. I remembered it because we got lost. Cars kept passing, and it was so swelteringly hot that Mom threw down the map, said Fuck It, and flagged one down.”
Susannah didn’t respond. I felt embarrassed and guilty at the same time; embarrassed because it’s true that Mom wasn’t the most responsible in raising me, and guilty because embarrassment is the last thing I’d ever want to feel towards her.
I continued, “A woman picked us up. Kenya. The sweetest lady I’ve ever met. We had dinner with her whole family that night. And by the whole family, I mean seventy close relatives. I had this random urge to call Dad when we got back to the States. I was so proud of hitching down a random highway in the Yucatan and partying with strangers. He was pissed.”
“That’s not surprising.”
The beach was visible now amidst the mirage. Sand dusted plants were scattered in tufts among rows of rock pillars—the walls of the Mayan city of Tulum. The ground became a mixture of dust and grass as we neared the beach. Ruinous pyramids and stumps of temples stretched out to our left as we passed over the crumbled wall.
Susannah looked around at the corroded landscape and said as though it were the result of a long thought, “You were my age when you first came here.”
We walked to where a crowd was staring up at one of the pyramids. A sign read: Templo del Dios del Viento.
“It’s a temple of something,” Susannah said.
“Temple of the God of Wind.”
She looked surprised.
“Mom spoke Spanish to me when I was young,” I answered. “I only remember bits and pieces though.”
We stood at its base, gazing up at the flat, rectangular top, and the steep slope that fell from it. The sun beat down and its rays bit at my skin. “Let’s get in the ocean. It’s roasting.”
As we neared the beach, Susannah asked, “Didn’t the Mayans practice human sacrifice? As if dying was respectable for them?”
I told myself she meant it casually, perhaps even empathetically, and nodded an indifferent ‘yes’.
We found an empty spot on the beach and threw our backpacks on the sand. I sat down to unlace my clunky Timberlands and put on my bathing suit.
“I’ll meet you in the water,” I said as I jogged toward the waves.
The foam met the soles of my feet with a splash. The heat seeped through the playful, erratic current and I thought I heard Mom’s laugh. The undertow lifted me up, flowing swiftly against my stomach. I pulled a big breath of air into my lungs before plunging in, and remembered the face she made when we played the swimming game. She would hold the air in her mouth like a bubble and I would copy her. She’d burst out laughing and could only get one word out.
“Monkey!” she’d say, because my eyes were so big and it looked like I had a mouth full of bananas.
I sank my fingers into the sea floor and small granules of sand trailed along my arm. Pushing myself out of the water, the breeze hit my face as I licked my lips to taste that reminiscent bitterness of salt.
I looked around for Susannah, but couldn’t see her amidst the glimmering current that churned around me like a surface of scales. An unexpected wave crashed against the back of my head and sent me tumbling forward. I sprawled my limbs to find any sign of air or the ocean floor. I found my footing and stood up, flipping my hair from out of my face. I spotted Susannah still sitting near our bags, talking to a bronzed boy who gestured large, pronounced things with his hands.
When she saw me, she waved for me to come over. The boy bared his white teeth through a cocky smile, and I chuckled to myself as I walked toward them like some tawdry beach postcard.
“Hola,” he said. “Susannah was just telling me this is her first trip out of America.”
He wouldn’t stop staring at her. I felt a pang of protection.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I live not far from here. My name is Adàn.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Susannah, are you going to jump in or did you want to grab food in town?”
She glanced at Adàn and smiled demurely. “Well,” she said, “Adàn was telling me about a family dinner at his place. There will be a bunch of people and he’s inviting us.”
They both looked at me for permission. I wondered when I became the mother of the situation.
“Please,” she exclaimed, “It will be fun. Besides, I’m exhausted and I don’t think I can walk all the way back to the hotel.”
“Pleeeease,” She urged.
I ended up saying yes. I couldn’t help remembering how much Mom’s whims stood out as key points in my life. Especially our trip to Mexico. Mom and I danced in the courtyard while Kenya stuffed us with chalupas and flan. We got drunk on bottomless Coronas as Kenya’s husband, Fidel, shouted “¡Salud!” and rhythmically stumbled around as they played his requests from Selena’s greatest hits. Mom sauntered away for a vacant bed to claim, and I danced for Kenya’s son, Hector, as he played the guitar.
Adàn clapped his hands and I was snapped from my daydream. “Bueno,” he concluded.
Adàn’s house was a ten minute drive from the beach. We pulled up after winding down a small forest trail to a mansion lost in time. The architecture was of old Spanish design and the face of the house was rich in a deep clay color. Thick forest vines snaked across the exterior, causing it to look mysterious and claimed. Susannah and I exchanged surprised glances as Adàn parked the car in a gravel lot of Mercedes and BMWs.
“Adàn,” Susannah said. “This house is amazing.”
“My family’s been in the tequila business for generations. They’re all rich and drunk.”
He got out of the car and we followed him to his front door. We stepped inside after him and were greeted by a roomful of animated relatives.
“Besos, besos, besos. Kiss, kiss, kiss.”
They hugged Adàn, and even my sister and I, like they’d been waiting hours for us to arrive. Everyone was already treating us like family. There were only a few women near the back of the room, sober most likely, who looked at us like we shouldn’t be there. I halfway agreed with them.
Long introductions ensued in which I met most of them through broken Spanish. Adàn’s parents spoke the best English, so I stuck with them and explained it was the first time my sister and I had traveled together. Or rather spent any amount of time together, I thought in the back of my mind.
“My Mom was Spanish. The trip’s been great for my sister and I to get to know each other,” I explained.
Adàn’s mother and father nodded. They seemed suddenly more relaxed about their son inviting two strange girls to their family party. I guessed they thought I was one of them.
I turned to ask Susannah something, but she and Adàn weren’t in the room. I thought about going to find them, but remembered what Mom used to tell me about letting others carve their own path. Anyway, I’d missed her childhood. She’d already become a woman.
I followed Adàn’s parents to the kitchen where they had a full bar and a second round of food cooking in the oven. While Adàn’s mom helped the cook organize the platters, her husband served shots of Patron and explained the philosophy of Tequila.
“Tequila is liquid gold,” he said. “That’s all you really need to know.” He fumbled the bottle, poured shots for the two of us and clunked it back on the table. He looked into my eyes intensively and said, “But! To understand how to nurture it as gold, like asking a dirty brown seed to blossom into a flower. Yes, that is when you know the secret.”
I burst out laughing as he spoke through slurred giggles to his wife. She shook her head and wrapped a stack of corn tortillas in a cloth napkin. “Ay, Papi,” she sighed.
Dusk settled and we were drunk. I asked where the nearest bathroom was and got a lengthy description of their first floor plan. “I can find my way,” I said, but really just wanted to get away from the heat of the kitchen and the hand that held the tequila.
I ventured down a series of dimly lit hallways and eventually found the bathroom. The sink was made of a translucent grey marble and the mirror was outlined with interweaving ribbons of metal. I laughed when I saw myself; my hair was a tangle of long dark curls, stiff from ocean water, and my cheeks blush red from the liquor.
I thought of Kenya again. And of Hector. It was his sprightly nature that attracted me. He was sure of himself in a way that made me relaxed and excited at the same time. I convinced him to dance with me after everyone had gone to sleep. We were laughing so hard at something or another when he put his hand on my waist, and then the only sounds were the stereo from the kitchen and my breath shaking upon the cloth of his shirt. His hands were strong, but gentle, and he smelled of cologne mixed with fire and salt.
I had never felt so much like a woman, yet so young at the same time. I wanted to vomit from nervousness, but I barely flinched when Hector closed the door of his room behind us.
I walked out of the bathroom in Adàn’s house and down the maze-like hallway. I was drowsy, and happy to wander down the stairs into a sunroom near the outside patio.
I lay on a couch and thought about that night in Hector’s room. It was the first time I ever made love. I didn’t tell him it was my first time, though, and he handled me like he’d been with a woman before. His movements were precise upon my body. I was intimidated, but I forced myself to be brave. When he made a move I was unfamiliar with, I let him take control; but then answered with a hand pressing his chest to the mattress, or a tug at his hair, or surety in my eyes which told him that I could handle it.
It was only when he went into me that I had to clench my teeth from pain. I couldn’t counter that move. The only way to hide my fear was to hold him close and bury my face in his neck. It took longer than I expected, though, and I was startled that I had time to wonder if sleeping with him was the right thing to do. Mom had seen me dancing for him, and it didn’t seem like a problem. I realized in that moment that Mom and I might share two different opinions on morality. The thought made me nervous and I turned Hector over so I could be on top, and hurried him to finish.
When it was over, he lit a candle and we sat naked across from each other on his bed.
“Why are two women traveling alone?” he asked.
“My Dad has another family.”
“Do you ever see him?”
“No. Mom doesn’t like to talk about it.” I paused to swallow a small lump in the back of my throat and continued, “She tells me everything though. Everything. But she won’t tell me why she left him.”
“She’s a good woman. She doesn’t want you to have a bad opinion of your father.”
“I understand that, but it doesn’t make up for him not returning my calls.”
Hector kissed my forehead and I instinctively scooted away from him. His movement was paternalistic in an eerie way and I said, “I don’t need your sympathy.”
He paused momentarily, and then wrapped his arms around my back, pulling me down onto the bed beside him. I struggled to shift my shoulders from his grip, but his arms were strong around my body. I wanted to scream at him to let me go, but as I tried, I let out a cry into his chest. My face grew hot and I pulled myself up for air. As I did so, he pressed his lips to mine.
I fell asleep at Hector’s side and whispered drowsily for him not to tell Mom what happened. He ran his palm across my eyes and told me to sleep, and to look for the moon in my dreams. I never have figured out if looking for the moon really is what he said. But since that day I would often go to bed thinking of the moon and a warm hand bearing the scent of sangria and pepper seeds lulling me to sleep.
A hand grabbed my shoulder and I looked up into Susannah’s face. I had dosed off on the sunroom couch. She sat down next to me and stared out at the party in the courtyard.
“Do you think about her often?” she asked.
I cleared my throat and said, “It’s hard not to. This place, especially. It reminds me of her.”
“Dad stopped bringing her up when he got the news.”
“He talked about her?” I asked.
“Yeah. It used to cause a lot of fights between him and my mom.”
She continued, “He felt bad about hurting you. He wanted us to be close, you and me.”
For years I thought Dad hadn’t mentioned us to his other family. It was surprising to find out considering the relationship he and I had both ignored since Mom left him.
“You don’t have to worry about me, by the way,” Susannah said. “I know Dad hurt you, but he’s been good to me. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t do anything.”
She replied, “I was jealous, though. I always thought you were his favorite, but now that I’m older I realize that I should have reached out to you more.”
I looked at her and was about to say, “You’re sixteen,” but then I remembered how much I took upon myself at her age. Even though we grew up worlds apart, she was a lot like me.
I put my arm around her shoulders and took her outside. We walked to the dance floor and Adàn took her hand, pulling her towards him. I hesitated to let go of her wrist. I did, though, and when I saw the look on her face as she went to him, I felt ashamed for not knowing her before. The look was so familiar, but at the same time it was a face I’d never seen.
I never told Susannah about Hector. I never even told Mom, even though I suspected she knew. Hector was still asleep when I left his bed that morning. It was just Kenya, Fidel and a few of the children awake when I walked into the kitchen. I helped her prepare eggs and coffee as she turned up the radio and chopped tomatoes.
Fidel picked up his youngest granddaughter and held her as he danced, singing, “Como la flor, Con tanto amor, Me diste tu.”
Still in her pajamas, his granddaughter rested her head against his chest and chewed on her finger. I had never seen that kind of interaction between a grown man and his baby girl. It was so natural for them, though, and I like to remember them dancing together in the kitchen at dawn.
When I went to take a shower, I saw Mom through a window walking in the garden in her long violet dress from the night before. Her movements were slow and precise. She picked a yellow flower from a bush and placed it behind her ear. She then stretched her arms above her head and the sun shown down on her bare skin. She brought her arms to her sides and stood there with her eyes closed as though she’d just completed a magnificent painting.
It only lasted a moment, but that image is what I think of when I remember her. It’s an image that’s like a small brown seed buried in the dirt, like the scent of peppers and salt, and the voice that sings to me, “Como la flor, como la flor. Like the flower, you gave to me. Como la flor.”