By Julian Robles
Featured art: Disappearance at Sea II by Tacita Dean
for Esperanza Duque
I came to Guerrero because they told me my father had been here, once when he was my age, and later, when he fled. But we came to Pie de la Cuesta for Tía Juana. I couldn’t tell her no while she was sitting there with her blouse still unbuttoned down to her waist, and those lines folded sideways through her armpits. The right side had been more complicated during surgery, so the scar splayed from her chest almost to her back. Seeing me dressed for the beach all week reminded her of what she had lost years before: Pie de la Cuesta, a needle of coastline only she remembered. Adán drove us here so she could show me. And now we were here and Tía Juana was far behind us, alone, almost buried in the sand.
Adán plodded along next to me. His long arms swung so low that his fingers grazed his knees. We should rest for a minute, he said. He pointed to a stretch of thatched roofs along the center of the beach. Underneath were plastic tables and a bar and hammocks slung at random around the tables. They won’t mind, even if we don’t buy anything. Adán stretched into a hammock with an image of La Virgen woven into it. His heavy body warped her nimbus, stealing it around his chest, and it enfolded him like a shroud. I might order a soda, after all, he said.
I stayed standing and looked back at where we had left Tía Juana. It would have been better for her here in the shade, I said.
It’s too far with her knee like that. She’s never minded some sun.
We still should have asked.
And then she would have come, and she would be worse off.
Adán called one of the boys behind the bar. The only other people under the palapa were the families that worked them and built them. The boy brought Adán a bottle of Coke and disappeared again behind the bar. Next came the procession of girls with their booklets, bound and laminated by hand. They touched my hair and offered me every kind of braid and piercing and temporary tattoo, all modeled on the same blonde woman I had seen in dozens of identical booklets along the beaches. She looked like that old movie star whose face still plastered billboards across the city. I told the girls I wasn’t interested, but that the braids did look pretty. It must have sounded like I might change my mind. They stared at me and waited and kicked sand at each other, and looked to their moms for instructions. The moms smiled at me and looked away. I could produce embarrassment in anyone I met here. It extended out of me and into most conversations that weren’t moderated by Tía Juana or Adán, because I had given up on fixing my accent or saying more than no or sí or gracias. One of the younger girls had gotten sand in her eyes and looked close to crying. A man yelled at her to quit whining and to go back to her mother. The girl doesn’t want to buy any, he said.
I stepped out from under the shade, and I could still see Tia Juana where the road fell off into the sand and where the river split the road. She had on baggy green shorts that reminded me of bloomers a clumsy, unattractive character in an old cartoon might wear. Her white socks were pulled to the calves. She’d told me of this place while making an inventory of all the parts of her body that had been lost to the tumors. A story occupied each empty space. Arriving at her chest she’d told me of Pie de la Cuesta, and she said that it was the one place she hadn’t taken my father. Her shirt unbuttoned, the fabric split to her bellybutton.
Adán had fallen asleep. The Coke bottle was spilled on its side and soda was pooling into a dimple of sand beneath the hammock. Tío, should we keep going? He didn’t answer. He pulled La Virgen tighter around his chest and twisted over in the hammock. I picked up the bottle and left it on a table. I’m just going a little farther, I said.
When Tía Juana was younger the game was to get to the end as fast as you could. There was a boy named Filemón, she said. His family moved from Tierra Caliente one summer to try their luck at running a hotel. We were sitting around on the beach a few days after he joined our group. The sun had us all worn out and quiet. And Filemón spoke up and asked us, warned us, You know about people from Tierra Caliente? He stared straight ahead at the ocean. They make them real cabrón up there. That means don’t any of you go fucking with me. Tía Juana apologized for using the word. That’s how he told it, she said. He was that kind of boy, and I don’t mean he was bad, only that he was ready to prove himself to anyone. No one said anything after that. We hadn’t expected any sound for a long time, it was so quiet that day. Then Filemón jumped up and ran as fast as he could at the ocean and flung himself right at it. The waves washed him up and he was laughing so much he was choking on the water, and we all started laughing. We got up and chased after him.
After that, we started each day the same. We were like lunatics. As soon as your towel was set, the race began. You broke free and threw yourself at the water, hard, like it might not give this time. And Filemón became more daring. He started launching himself off of rocks, and the next week he ran straight ahead with his eyes closed, confident that what he hit would only be water. Then one day he ran and didn’t stop. He disappeared around the bend where the trees bowed out, and because he made the rules we chased after him. We ran for five minutes before we found him standing at the edge of the sandbar. Where, in August and July, the river overflows and spills into the ocean. No one had ever seen him hesitate, and he was there just deciding which side to jump in on and looking at the ocean water like there was a loss for its mixing with the river.
Sometimes Tía Juana told it differently, and only the boys raced to the edge of the sandbar because it might take an hour to find and the girls couldn’t keep up. That might be the story, sometimes—her knee made of plastic where they found the first tumor, and Adán out ahead knowing better for her. Adán had come here after marrying Tía Juana and never seen the end. I probably wouldn’t either. When the river water is too low, the end doesn’t exist, he’d said. I hadn’t wanted to come, I was ready to leave this city, where everyone seemed to know who I was looking for, and how lost I had become retracing his steps. I could tell Tía Juana it hadn’t rained enough. I could turn around. She would believe me and anyway she was just as content to see me walk off and touch the water a little bit and tell her how precious her childhood must have been. It might take an hour to find the edge, it might not exist. But they hadn’t brought my dad here either, the second time or the first. So I kept walking.
When he came, he wouldn’t have told her everything he had on his mind. Like deciding whether he should return home. He dropped me off at school and instead of showing up at work, he showed up at Tía Juana’s house, two-thousand miles away. I wasn’t supposed to ask about this, my abuela made me promise I wouldn’t. Tía Juana had him when she knew she shouldn’t have. She fed him and gave him a bed like he was nineteen again, and Adán had a few beers with him each night, where he stared at the ground a little embarrassed and said, We can put you back on a plane. You aren’t in any trouble, so I don’t see what’s keeping you from your family. Adán wasn’t embarrassed anymore. I could have asked him any question about my dad and he would have answered. Or maybe he would have stayed quiet out of respect for Tía Juana’s guilt. She took him in, and the next week he disappeared and now I had no dad, and she thought she could have been more stern, or not let him stay there at all. Maybe he was going to disappear no matter what you did, I would have told her, if I could ever look at her without thinking, a kind of tragedy. She was a kind of tragedy to me. Huddled up and sunken into herself and sunken into the sand. She bore the sun and the sand and her husband so dutifully. I shouldn’t be able to see her, we had walked too far, and still she was there just huddled in her bloomers and would wait all day if Adán wanted to sleep and if I fell in love with her beach. It hurt her to be here, that was obvious, but she nurtured a painful happiness like she believed it might one day become just happiness.
I lost sight of the palapa, and I was waiting to lose sight of Tía Juana, looking backward and then looking forward. But she wouldn’t give to the distance. Farther ahead I saw a black speck growing and growing into a person. There was a boy standing near the water. He walked up the shore, keeping his gaze fixed on some point in the ocean. Then he turned around and walked back down the shore, still focused on that point. A boat was docked in the shoal, just close enough that you could probably get to it without needing to swim, and farther inland there were abandoned resorts and a building tall and crooked like a church.
The boy saw me walking down the beach and stopped in the middle of his loop. He watched me take a few steps and then he kept pacing up and down the beach. When I got close enough, he made a wide curve and aligned himself with my path so that we were bound to intersect. We were ten meters apart when he jumped and pointed into the water. There it is again, he shouted. My dad took his boat out to try and help, but we couldn’t catch it. A sea turtle burst through the crest of a low wave. It flailed against the air and the foam before tumbling back under.
It’s bleeding pretty bad, the boy said. A boat hit it or maybe it got bitten by a shark. He said shark with some enthusiasm and he looked back at the ocean like one might emerge at any moment. When the waves drew back, the sea turtle was lodged in the sand. Its shell was mangled enough to red the sand and water before the next wave swept over and washed it all clean. The turtle pointed itself at the ocean and pushed off. It was half the size of their boat. By the fourth cycle of waves, it was cast thrashing back into the sand. The boy waited for me to speak. He probably wanted me to ask him more about what he had seen, or offer an idea as to how we might help the turtle. Tía Juana didn’t tell me that sea turtles washed up here, that if we had come a week later I might have found a carcass in the tide pools she once played in, dried out and wasted to the color of sand. She and her friends came to dance and swim. They raced the boys and kissed them in the water with puffy, salted lips. Sometimes they took photos with their heads thrown back, like they saw the Americans at Puerto Marqués do, and especially like the photo in the magazines and on all the posters that year: that actress, the güerita with the bright-colored sarape behind her. No one’s hair ribboned down blonde like that, but there were plenty of bright blankets around to pretend.
How did I tell the boy that this place was supposed to be made of glamour, and that’s what I would pretend even if I didn’t believe it? I could say nothing. He would keep staring, and I would keep walking. Or I could speak and then keep walking, and speaking might get me walking sooner. So I asked, Where did your dad go?
He’s at the base asking for help. When you were farther away I thought you might be one of the soldiers. He laughed. I’m supposed to stay here and watch the turtle until he comes back.
That’s nice of you to do.
Do you think it will die? He asked like he seemed to think it would. I wondered if his dad had already told him it might die.
If they get here soon, I think everything will be fine, I said. I expected him to argue with me and tell me how certain he was that it might die. If he said, No, you’re wrong, my dad told me it’s going to die, then that would be the end of that. I wouldn’t have more to say other than to wish him luck and keep walking. Instead the boy became quiet and turned away from the ocean for the first time since we had started speaking. He rubbed his eyes and began to cry. The boy set himself on the ground. When he touched his face, sand clung around his eyes and above his lip.
My dad said it would live, too. And I don’t believe it, he said. Look at how much blood there is.
Sometimes things look worse than they are.
I had a dog that my tío ran over with his truck. And it got up and went back to playing all day, it didn’t look this bad, and it died in the morning after eating breakfast. I wish I didn’t wish for a shark to show up. I’ve never seen one before, but I don’t want it to kill the sea turtle.
The turtle was getting slower. It needed the waves to pull it out now.
I’m supposed to stay here until my dad comes back. But he’s been gone a long time, and I’m scared to be by myself when it dies. That’s why I got in your way. I didn’t really think you were a soldier. He put his face in his hands, sandy as they were, and wept.
There were trees a short walk from the water and plenty of buildings, and I thought he must have considered keeping watch from some place that gave him the option of blocking his view. He wouldn’t need to see it die. Or was it that he took his dad’s command so literally? No, he didn’t even need to look away from the ocean, or cover his eyes. The sea turtle was more often in the water, more often just a sphere tucked into the waves – it might be a knot of kelp or a reflection of the sun— and when it died it might stay tucked neatly away forever. And still the boy knew there was something there dying. You didn’t need to see it anymore to know. Tía Juana was crumpled there at the far end of the beach, and it was all dead. Wasn’t that actress they imitated gone now, in her red bathing suit, and her shoulders arched golden-brown? Filemón, too. Filemón would have married Tía Juana if she hadn’t married Adán. He told her that at her wedding. Like fact, like she wouldn’t have had a choice in it. He was too cabrón to keep it to himself.
When the boy stopped crying he looked sleepy and calm. Where is the base, I asked.
He took the hem of his shirt and wiped the sand from his face. Over there, he said, and pointed in the direction I had been walking toward. I don’t know how far, but sometimes I see marines come from there in their boats.
At the end of the beach?
It might be the end. I’ve never gone, but I know my dad has driven past it and sometimes I hear planes flying from there.
They told me something else is there, I said.
What did they say? The boy seemed happier for the distraction the mystery brought.
Just that the beach ends. There is a place where the lagoon and river run over, and the beach turns like an island. You can see right where it splits. The boy smiled and I realized that I had spoken with more conviction than I had intended to.
I’ve never heard of that place.
I don’t know exactly where it is, either.
That’s something I would want to see, the boy said. Maybe if I walk with you I can tell my dad to hurry. There’s no point watching for it if he doesn’t come back in time. He looked at me, waiting for me to agree. He didn’t know that I might turn back, and that he would be left stranded halfway. But halfway between what two points? One might be Tía Juana, pressed to the line of the horizon, and the other would be that faraway end. I imagined that might be the view at the edge of the sandbar, if I ever made it: both sides curving end to end, some azimuthal projection of Pie de la Cuesta. Everyone who was gone out at the edges, where the map is most distorted, and the ones left behind seeming closer and still just as far for our longing. Tía Juana there at the edge. And that actress would be there. My dad—disappeared, but in Mexico disappeared means probably dead. At the farthest edge of the map, the losses compress and collapse almost to one. It would look like the points couldn’t be resolved.
I’m going to keep walking.
Ok, the boy said.
I hadn’t asked him to come, so initially he walked a few paces behind me. He was an imperfect shadow. At times he came right to my heels, but then he might stop for whole minutes at a time and stare back at the ocean. I didn’t stop to wait when he did this, or ask him how the turtle was doing. He always found his way back to me.
The boy’s family ran a restaurant. His mom cooked, and when the tourists left for the season, she took to the city to sell mango slices and hats with rhinestones and drawings of fish on them. And the boy helped with all of it. He was small and his body was already shaped to the demands of work. His skin was burned and tanned and burned, and he moved with rigid, persistent steps. We walked like that, the boy talking and racing to catch up, before falling into a long silence.
The boy finally joined my side when I had to stop. We had crossed into a section of the beach where the land seemed to pull away from me and everything became more vast. I felt the panic of being lost, and for a moment that quickly came and passed, it was urgent that I turn around. The view was barren except for the one direction, where Tía Juana was. To the left was water and there were no trees or buildings. Ahead I saw sand and sand.
Is this it? I don’t see an island like you said.
No. And you won’t actually see the island, I think. It’s more like an edge, like an end and then the waters mix. As I said this, I thought, Did Tía Juana even tell me that much? She said the river splits the land. The cloth of her shirt, pilled and opaque, split to her waist. If the end didn’t exist, we might pass the place where it once was and never know. It could be right at Tía Juana’s feet, where the road spills into the sand, or at the spot where I found the boy. Would the sand show evidence of what was once there? A rift, thick and spindly, like the lines across Tía Juana’s body.
An end, the boy said. He laughed and looked ahead. We’re going to the edge of the world.
I guess you can say that, the end of the world—of Pie de la Cuesta.
The boy laughed again. You have a weird way of speaking, sometimes. I said the edge of the mundo, not mondo. What is a mondo?
Mondo is a dad and an abuela that didn’t teach you enough Spanish, I thought. Adán and Tía Juana knew about that. I grew up somewhere else, I told the boy.
You sound a little like the tourists. My cousin talks like that, too, he said. He left Mexico and he speaks English now, and people call him güero. Even though he doesn’t look güero. I might call you güera, he said. He smiled, like he had solved some important question.
What should I call you, I said. You didn’t tell me your name.
What do you think my name is?
How would I know?
If you had to guess.
What about Filemón, I said. The boy laughed.
I’ve never heard that name. Is it made up?
I heard it from my tía.
Filemón! I’ll be Filemón. And your name will be güerita.
We kept walking. He whispered the name quietly to himself. Filemón, Filemón. A man who set so many people walking, then running, and for a strange pride. Cabrón. It was a strange word, too. Cabrón can be like an answer to the embarrassment you get made to feel. When you’re following a memory you made up yourself. Embarrassment, not shame, because it’s something you can twist out from under. Tía Juana said he was ready to prove himself to anyone, and in her way she was proving something to me by coming here. What kind of embarrassment did she nurture, then, that kept her from speaking about my dad, a man who wasn’t even a person anymore, but allowed her to unbutton her blouse in front of a girl she had met just two weeks before? To be a cabrón couldn’t be the answer. The answer was more like throwing yourself at the water and hoping it flays you smooth as the stones at your feet. Maybe my dad wasn’t running away, I thought. Maybe it was an answer to that feeling that he was looking for, if that’s what he felt, and then he planned to come back and live with it.
I see something, Filemón said. There was another cluster of palapas ahead. They were flimsier and smaller than the ones I had found with Adán. The thatching on all the roofs was dried out pale and brown, and peeled back to the rafters. A white truck was parked in the sand. It had a long bull bar, and a rack fixed to the cargo bed, and in plain black letters the word Marina painted on its side. It’s the soldiers, Filemón said. They’re probably looking for the sea turtle. He ran ahead of me around the truck and up a slope of sand into the palapa. The restaurant was more bare than the first. There were just a few tables and some mismatched plastic chairs. The marines were near the bar.
Chica, bring another.
Bring two more, one of them shouted. A woman brought two bottles of beer from behind the bar. And we’ll need some limes, chica, don’t forget. The man ordering had short, cropped hair and a grey beard. Seated next to him was a man who looked close to my age. Their rifles were propped against the table, the stocks resting on their laps, and they both kept one hand around the barrel, and one hand on their bottles. A third man was standing nearby. Whenever the other two shouted or joked, he smiled and looked at the ocean, like he didn’t want to seem a part of what they were up to. He was the first one to see us. Filemón was standing there watching them, waiting for someone to notice him, or maybe thinking of what to say. The marine saw Filemón and then saw me farther behind him, and he tightened his grip around his rifle. When he realized that it was just a boy he let go of the barrel and stared silently. The other young marine leaned back in his chair, laughing, and asked him a question. When he didn’t answer, he followed his friend’s gaze to the back of the restaurant.
What’s going on? he asked.
The man with the beard saw us and smiled. We have some guests. Chica, two more, and I’ll remind you about the limes now so you don’t need to go back. He laughed. The girl came out with two beers and seemed confused about where to leave them. She looked at the marines, and then at Filemón and she would have brought him the bottles if the man hadn’t stopped her. Put them on the table. We’re almost finished with these. He seemed suddenly bored with his own joke. As soon as the bottles were set, he grabbed one and drank.
Filemón walked to their table. The young marine that was sitting down hissed and flicked his wrist in Filemón’s direction. We don’t want to buy anything, he said.
I’m not selling. I’m looking for my dad.
I don’t know your dad, kid.
He went to get you.
The marine waved at me and said, Hey, come get the boy. He’s not making any sense. I stayed where I was, unsure if I should call Filemón back, or help explain what we were doing there. I wanted to turn around.
They’re both confused, the older man said. Hey, chica, can you hear us? What do you need?
She’s going to the edge of the world, Filemón said, And I’m looking for my dad. He was supposed to find you.
Not the world, the edge of the beach, I said. Now that I had spoken, I thought I may as well walk to the table. With my accent, and that way of walking that Adán joked about. Like you’re waking from a dream, he said. The marines all knew something about me now. That I wasn’t from here, and that I was nervous because of it. And that meant there should be a tía nearby. And it was always the girls with tías that came around here lost, because their dads had lived here, been born in Mexico and then left and then come back to disappear.
We needed some help, I said.
With the sea turtle, Filemón said. It’s hurt pretty bad. The men all exchanged glances, and the older one set his beer down.
We heard about a turtle.
I can show you where it is, Filemón said.
No, the young marine next to him said. We know where, that naco already came and told us.
It was my dad, not a naco. Where is he?
Walking back, I guess. We were closer to the base when we saw him.
Then where’s your boat? You can probably make it in time if you hurry. Filemón looked at me. I had told him that, and he wanted me to repeat it, because he thought that would make them believe it. He didn’t know that if I spoke they would probably believe it less. The marines were watching me, except the one standing. He looked at his boots. When he did look, he moved his head from side to side, as if to say, These aren’t the people I would be with if it weren’t a job.
The boat’s motor is broken, the older man said. Both men at the table laughed. Why don’t you two sit down? He pushed some greasy plates to the side and pulled out two chairs. Filemón sat down. I stayed standing at the edge of the table.
You’ll want to get there soon, I said.
We can all go soon, we can drive you both, he said smiling. A ray of sun came through the gaps in the roof, and a stain of light crossed above his eyebrow in the shape of a star.
I was helping the boy, but I’m going the other way now.
We can take you there afterward. Where was it you were going?
The end of the world, Filemón said. Maybe my dad would want to go, too, after we help the turtle.
The young marine turned to the man next to him. Sea turtles at the end of the world. Sounds like a fairytale. Since when do we deal with fairytales?
Since El Mochomo showed up, the older marine said. They both laughed. Their rifles teetered above their laps. Tell us about the end of the world, chica. I’ve never heard of this place, but you came all the way to Acapulco for it, that sounds about right, about where it would be. There’s nowhere in the world more fucked than here.
They smiled whenever I spoke. He kept his eyes on my lips. Watching my mouth fold and bend the words incorrectly before I had even spoken them. I couldn’t see the woman behind the bar anymore, and the marine standing up wasn’t shaking his head at their fun. He was quiet. It was probably always around then that he turned quiet and stayed quiet.
It’s just something my tía told me about. A part of the beach.
I’ve seen the whole beach, the old marine said. He slid an nearly-empty bottle to the edge of the table. You can sit, or maybe have a drink. It’s hot. There was sand around the neck of the bottle, and it was smudged white with grease stains from the food he was eating.
We need to go soon, Filemón said. No one answered him.
I picked up the bottle. The length of time it takes to drink a beer. How far can a person stretch that? They would make a joke if I wiped it, or if I turned it over looking for a clean side, so I drank straight from there, until my lips and the beer had wiped away the stain.
It will die if we don’t leave, Filemón said.
Calm down, kid, those things wash up every month.
Please, he said. He looked up at me and he was almost shouting. You said it could live if we found them in time. The young soldier watched me drink. He looked at my dress, and at the dark level in the glass dipping lower, then lower.
We can’t wait, it’s dying, Filemón said. He looked close to crying.
Quiet down little naco, we’ll leave soon and you can see your naco dad.
We aren’t nacos, Filemón yelled. He swung his arm across the table, reaching for the younger marine. The table lifted. A bottle spilled into the old man’s lap and his hand slipped down his rifle. A burst of shots rang out. The old marine screamed and the roof split open, and there was sunlight over everything. I heard two more shots and Filemón’s head and chest snapped forward, and his face crashed into the plates on the table.
My ears were heavy and numb. The marine standing behind Filemón dropped his rifle in the sand. They pulled Filemón up from the table and his eyes were wide and confused. There were crumbs of food in his hair and grease dripping from his ear. Que la chingada! You shot him, the old marine said.
I don’t know how, I couldn’t see anything. The marine started to cry. Filemón was shaking and his hands tightened into fists. He opened his mouth and there was a sound like air leaving a tire.
Put him in the truck, the old marine shouted. The other marine scooped Filemón in one arm, and the two younger men got in the bed of the truck with him, and the old man started the engine. The truck spun down the slope and up the beach.
First I slept, and then I washed the sand and leaves from my hair. I must have walked down to the water, though I didn’t remember, and seen the modest and plain horizon, and the truck would have disappeared before I reached the shore. And I would have put my feet into the sand up to my ankles.
When the roof split and the restaurant was swimming in light, before my eyes could adjust to the brightness, I thought it might be raining. Like my first day in Acapulco, when the sky was so grey and wretched that I couldn’t imagine a beach paradise. We were dry and then we were drenched before Tía Juana could introduce herself. There are days and hours, and minutes even, when it will do this, she’d said laughing a little. The pale leaves and all the dead things bound together poured in like rainfall through the gash in the roof, and then two more shots.
The truck won’t come back, I thought, but I hoped it would. I looked down the beach in the opposite direction and found the shape of Tía Juana anchoring the horizon. The shape moved, or rather stretched, and then rebounded to just a point along the sand. It was probably the light, dancing and warped against the heat, but I imagined it could be Tía Juana waving and hoping I saw her, as far away as I was. Thinking of her so hopeful against the distance and improbability, I felt tears come down my face. And what if she really could see me? I was embarrassed by the thought, and then I forgot it and cried myself tired. I ran my fingers along my collarbone and down my side. The spaces I would feel puffy and swollen and absent if I were Tía Juana. Down my chest and around my back. Like the keloid scars of a once-father.
I stood up to keep from falling asleep again. There was still that end if I chose to keep walking. Where I saw a man now coming down the beach. Where they may have taken Filemón. If I followed them to where the sandbar split, they may have thought that a good place to cast his body. The man walked straight aside the water, looking for something inside the waves. From that distance he could be anyone’s father.
I could put myself along his path. And then what? Speak. I might tell Tía Juana about him. About the sea turtle, maybe, and that meant I would tell her about Filemón. No, she was so far now. Far enough to make anything that easy, and on the walk back she might become that same huddled tragedy again. By the time I found her there would only be the sand to tell her about, how it stretched as long as it did. She would understand that.
Julian Robles is a writer from California. He is a fiction candidate at the University of Minnesota MFA program.