I arrived in Mexico from Greece, where I had in part been looking for my father, a task I had taken up and abandoned several times over the last ten years. My father never wanted to be found. This time I had the right connections and with the help of a couple of private investigators I discovered I was a little too late. He had died a penniless drunk, owing money to everyone who was once a friend. I also discovered all the family I didn’t know I had: my cousins, the aunt who had taught me to swim in the sea when I was too young to remember. I sat in their home shocked by tears which came as they answered my questions.
“Did he have any more children?”
“Eight, maybe ten, that we know of. I’m sorry to tell you this but your father, he was not a good man.” My cousin was careful not to speak in the affirmative. He never said, ’Your father was a violent alcoholic, and very manipulative. He spread his seed like he feared going extinct, leaving women and children confused and abandoned throughout the country. If he had wanted to find you again, he could have; he just didn’t.’ He merely said that my father failed at things, namely at being basically good.
My cousin’s diplomacy was admirable. The reason he has to spend almost every waking hour working to support his incapacitated parents is that my father had stolen the family home. He had waited until my grandparents were dying, swept in, burned the paperwork and sold it for petty cash. Then he fled south again, in favour of islands with loose regulations on guns and finance.
I never reached his grave, which was just as well since I had no idea how to grieve something I’d never had. After months of struggling against aggressive bureaucrats across a barrier of language I had lost along with him, larger concerns cut my mission short and I left it in suspension and sought a country I could exist in while unable to return to the UK.
From Mexico City to the Oaxacan coast, my journey had been such a sudden explosion of life after what Greece had come to signify, that I didn’t realise I hadn’t been still until I reached Zipolite. I decided to stop there because I heard it’s the only place in the State which accepts public nudity. I was also told there are no police there, so I was alarmed the first time I saw them rolling along on quad bikes like toy soldiers against the back drop of semi-naked white hippies dragging their feet on the hot pavement like they’d flown too close to the sun.
Beyond that, it was difficult to move between sunrise and sunset. 33 degrees Celsius with 60-80% humidity. The town consists of just two roads and is designed to support tourists for a few days at the beach, but as soon as I stopped I found it difficult to move, so I stayed a little longer and found something like a community suspended out of time and place.
Like in many towns on Mexico’s tourist trail there is the Mexican community, and then the migrant community calling themselves expats. The expats of Zipolite are made up of US and European business owners whose money goes further there, old hippies lamenting days past, when the weed was better and cheaper and everyone was fucking everyone else, new hippies causing the displacement of Mexican-owned business in favour of white-owned artisanal coffee, craft stores and something called ‘chocolate yoga,’ and people who visited and just never left.
I met two Canadians on state pensions who considered themselves stuck out there because paying for the mandated hotel quarantine back home would have indebted them.
“There are worse places to be stuck,” said Ray, while Roy stared out at the sea with steely ice-blue eyes and told me he was sick to death of it. He wanted to go down to Costa Rica. I asked Ray if he didn’t want to see some of the country while they were here. Ray had been coming to Zipolite for thirteen years.
He looked at me like I was mad and said, “You do know that wherever you go, you take yourself with you?”
I had been running from place to place. Travelling functions as a good excuse for your pathology if your pathology is a struggle with stability. This relationship, this project, this home was never meant to last; you’re just passing through. But I began my life in beach towns like Zipolite; my parents worked the tourist season on islands and I am always drawn back to the sea.
The sea is like an amniotic sac, the sound of it hums in the background the whole time you live by it. I realised this when I found myself falling asleep three hours after I had woken up, watching the hotel residents curled up in a row of hammocks, swinging like cocoons in unison. Many of them had no intention to ever break out.
I met Ray when I asked what he was reading, it was some all-American pulp fiction which he excused himself for, he just wanted something light. He asked in return and I told him Ursula le Guin, then I had to repeat the name three times. Then he asked me to type it on my phone and show him.
“Oh — Urrr-shh-lah!” he said. “That’s not what you said! I gotta say, I hear a woman writer’s name and I go cold.”
“What, you’ve never read a woman writer?”
He gave me a loose descriptor of a plot I could only imagine was the feminised equivalent of the trash he was reading and said he couldn’t stand the idea of a book like that. I told him he shouldn’t only look for books at airports and gave him some names to consider based on what he said he likes, which he made no note of.
In all my time there, I didn’t see anyone make progress in their paperbacks. Life revolved around meal times, as it often does, the books merely props to aid rocking side to side on the shoreline, and I fell into the rhythm of the Pacific Ocean.
One day the hotel owner told me he was taking me for lunch and I agreed because I figured he owed me for the state of my room. I’ll call him Saul. He was a tall, lanky Californian with skin like leather boots and whose teeth had seen better days. He’d had the place for twenty-two years, he told me, though I might have guessed a hundred. In all those years he hadn’t learned much Spanish and it remained a mystery how he communicated with his two monolingual Mexican employees.
The place had burned down in the nineties when a fire swept through town. Many businesses discovered their insurance plans were scams and never recovered, but Saul survived. He told me he had to sell all his properties in the States, but he managed to rebuild. He told me that his portfolio had consisted of many repossessed family homes. He was what they call a vulture.
“Family homes always sell, regardless of the market,” he preached.
“Yeah? Well, people need them.”
Saul emphasised that he used his vulture money for good, he told me he left his daughter and her husband a house in California. I asked how she was doing and he admitted he really didn’t know.
“She thinks I’m an asshole and I couldn’t be dealing with all that. You know what? She’s thirty-five, she has her own life,” he said.
I wondered whether I would rather have inherited my father or a house. My own made sure I had neither.
Ray asked me if Saul had taken me out and given me the story. I told him he had, but that I was not the right audience for it.
“The wind is going the wrong way,” Ray said. I asked him what he meant. Ray had been sitting in his spot for so long, staring at the waves, that his beard had grown long and become attuned to the tides. He was right; not long after, the sea became too violent to swim in.
One day I left my spot for a moment and came back to a woman eating my food. Her name was old like a deity’s and her eyes were glazed. She told me not to worry about the food because karma meant that I would receive something in return. Mangoes — she would bring me mangoes.
Her treatise on karma seguewayed her with ease into scattered aphorisms on everything from my star sign to current events to the mating habits of whales. She was one of those hippies who speak as if the wisdom they have accumulated weighs so heavy on them that each and every interaction they have is an opportunity to lighten the load, which they do on auto-pilot. She barely looked at me, but she smiled at the sea through stained teeth, the cadence of an oracle too detached from the material realm to be concerned with anything as banal as social convention.
“People said I was mad because they were all coming here for sex and drugs and I was coming to have a child.” She was from Madagascar but had lived in Sweden and studied to be a lawyer. “It taught me how to lie, that’s all I took from that period. And then I thought about whales. They swim so far to find the right conditions to mate, so I thought I would do the same.” She said it with such certainty that for a moment I was swept up in her stoned swami drawl and the encroaching sea foam, but then half of me, my British half, thought, but we’re not fucking whales.
Her ten-year-old daughter was a name which floated around in her speech, but she was invisible. I asked where she was and she told me she was living her own life somewhere.
“My voice is equal to her voice,” she told me, explaining why she had to raise her somewhere outside the confines of the mandatory schooling system. Her daughter ran barefoot around town and received wisdom by being allowed to play, and make mistakes, and spend time with her elders.
I never saw any mangoes; I never saw her again.
The sky was pink, the tide was coming in and the mosquitoes coming out. Roy was finally cracking a smile because he’d bought a flight out of there, and Ray and I sat out by the hammocks for an evening ritual we shared. We would watch people, share gossip or otherwise invent biographies for people, me with a beer and him, a recovered alcoholic, with a cup of coffee he drank tepid over hours.
We both became enraptured by the sight of a local resident, a young Mexican father, nude as the day he was born and shameless, with his daughter in tow who, at about five years old, was yet to learn shame. She mimicked his cartwheels and his yoga poses, and engaged in some sort of kinetic battle with the sea to defend the sand castle she had built. He joined in with her games and led her safely by the hand into the crashing waves, each time pulling her out so she knew she could trust him. They found a shell to crown her castle and both celebrated by leaping and howling with joy.
Ray and I both remarked that it was moving to witness such an innocent display of intimacy, unburdened by the fear of incest which would weigh on such a thing in our respective countries, and it occurred to me that in all the time sitting like this regularly and talking to the old man about everything, I had no idea if he’d ever had children.
“I did,” he said. He had already told me about the gypsy princess he married. “Do you have them in Europe?”
“Romani? Of course.”
“Well, her mother was the leader of the tribe.”
It was a colourful story he told fairly flatly, involving the evolution of his wife, daughter of a Romani elder, into a successful and aggressively materialistic equestrian, and the mobile home they had lived in together which she had burned down perhaps trying to kill him. But he had never mentioned their child.
He was just a little older than me, he said. Maybe once a year they spend a weekend together to go fishing and mushroom hunting.
“But he does the whole Facebook thing and I don’t do the Facebook thing,” Ray said, as if his relationship to his own offspring could easily be determined by a disagreement in user interfaces.
Ray dodged every question I had about his son. He answered in negative statements: “I didn’t want to fight in court. I didn’t want to move again.” Every response a careful avoidance of an encounter with apathy.
“Anyway he’s married now, he has his own life.”
With those words I stared at the sea and for the first time since I had been still I was filled with rage. I wanted to scream at Ray, to throw my beer at him or just walk away and never come back. I imagined some young woman siting on a beach on Crete while my father, who would have had a glass of whiskey instead of coffee, told her he just couldn’t be bothered to fight for me.
Between mourning and rage I had been tricked into having a friendship with this useless old man who could have been my father, whose only crime was incompetence.
I was leaving the next morning, and I went to bed hating Ray and fantasised about disappearing without a goodbye. I told myself I would be avenging his son who had been raised by another man.
I still wanted to do it when I had a cold shower and stepped out into the tropical dawn with my luggage, when I went to hand in my key.
I saw the back of Ray’s head in his usual spot, with his first coffee which I knew by that time would be slightly tepid. I looked at him looking at the sea, but I was going, and he was stuck there. What had looked like cruel apathy suddenly took on the appearance of fear, and I pitied him; saying goodbye was an ability I had which he didn’t.
“I thought you were going to sneak out of here without saying goodbye!”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said.
Ray got up and opened his arms wide, inviting me to hug him. He asked if they would ever see me again. I said no, and left with a light heart, never looking back.
Image: Salvador Dalí, Women Lying on the Beach