Caverns of Grief

Issue 11 | Winter 2023 |

 

 

I make it through Customs, past the men with signs for luxury resorts and taxi cabs, promising piña coladas and tours of the ruins, and there you are. You always stand out in a crowd with your impossibly long legs and your unhurried stride. The pink of your shirt a bright spot against the fading blond of your hair. You flash that familiar smile, the one I see reflected whenever I look in the mirror, and fold me into a hug. You are a great hugger.

I booked the cooking class in Mexico months before, when Ben and I were still a thing. A surprise for my 30th birthday. A famous New York chef had moved to Tulum and started an open-air restaurant with sandy floors and a woven roof. He offered cooking classes and a stay at a romantic hotel. One with Balinese-canopied beds and views of the Caribbean. Saltwater baths. Yoga in the shade of a coconut grove.

I call you after Ben breaks up with me over breakfast. He tells me that no one will ever love me. That I am hateful and hurtful and will end up alone. You never liked Ben anyway. Still, you let me cry.

When I tell you about the trip you are quick to say that you’ll come in Ben’s place. You say, “I’ll meet you there.” You say it will be so much fun. Even though you don’t like to cook and you think Tulum is for the youths. You prefer destinations with a golf course and at least one fine dining restaurant, jackets required. You are the kind of man who owns a single pair of jeans that you never wear. They hang pressed and starched alongside dress shirts with your initials embroidered on the cuffs. Do you remember how you used to let me pick out your ties? You had one of those electric racks from Sharper Image, and I would spin the ties around until I found one that seemed right.

We’ve never taken a trip alone, and I am both nervous and moved by your tenderness. Your willingness to do something so radically uncomfortable in order to spare me pain. I worry that you will hate the whole thing.

The hotel is small and the handful of rooms are fully booked, though you try to get a second room anyway. We laugh at the canopied bed and the gauzy linen curtains and the sheer romance of our suite. “I’ll sleep on the couch,” I say. You flash me a grateful smile.

There’s a wooden table in the coconut grove and everyone who signed up for the cooking class is encouraged to meet for drinks at six p.m. You are so much older than the other participants. I am slightly embarrassed by your professionalism. As though it were an interview, you ask about jobs and hobbies and what inspired people to join the class. But I had forgotten your charms. Soon you are a group favorite. You laugh your easy laugh, the one where you close your eyes and tilt your head back.

At the restaurant you are all thumbs. The chef is handsome and rugged and he judges you for your long limbs as you bump into a spray of chamomile and bunches of green plantains. He bristles at your casual nonchalance where the other people are reverent. But chefs don’t hold the same celebrity for you. You let me do the cooking while you cross one spindly leg over another in the raw leather chair reserved for dinner guests. You take pictures of me roasting a whole fish in the wood burning oven, branches of mangrove trees tangled in the background. I cut jicama into glossy strips and toss them with lime and chili for a salad while the woman next to me slices fat, pale cubes of grouper for a ceviche.

You spoon the ceviche onto a tortilla chip at lunch and the chef cracks a smile as you moan delightedly. You win him over too. He invites us to a cenote, one not overrun with tourists, but you decline. There is only so much you want to take on in a day. Instead, we head to the beach and you swim out, strong against the waves. I read a book on the lounge chair, looking up to watch you surface now and then in water the color of sea glass. You spread out on the chair next to mine and ask if I want to talk about Ben, but I can tell it makes you uncomfortable, so I shake my head no. That satisfies you. You fall asleep in the sun.

We befriend two women in our class. Movie producers from L.A. They are smart and funny and you are quick to warm to them. We drink margaritas at one of the bars dotting the dirt road that runs through town. They think I should move to L.A. and you second the idea. Get out of Napa for a bit. You tell me that a change of scenery will do me good. I say you’re one to talk, the man who has lived in the same house for years. Like me, a creature of habit.

We take a field trip to a small village on the third day and you are attentive as we learn about the history of mole, though you politely decline when the woman invites us to grind the chilis on the stone metate. I alone kneel on the red dirt and press the rough stone to the spices until I am damp with sweat. We have dinner in her backyard under a strand of lights and you tell me that you don’t actually like mole. You sip on a Negra Modelo and chat with the movie producers. At one point we are drunk and you laugh as you scrape up the last of your flan. Back at our room you are starving and root around in your carry-on for a protein bar. Still, I am grateful for your effort. I know you are hankering for a country-club meal–filet mignon and a caprese salad. A bottle of Barolo.

 

Years later, when I was sick, I asked if you remembered that trip. We were together in another unfamiliar room, and you laughed and said that it wouldn’t have been your first choice for a vacation, but that you wouldn’t have traded time with me for anything. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and you were there to take care of me while I underwent a trial. You joked that it was easier to help heal my post-breakup heart. I laughed with my eyes closed and said Mexico was the perfect distraction. We talked about going on another vacation once I was in remission. Just the two of us. Maybe fishing on the Rogue River like when I was a kid. Sleeves of Oreos and a cardboard tub of nightcrawlers. You’d let me borrow your windbreaker again, the one that hangs past my thighs, practically swallowing me whole.

You were the first person I called to say that the trial worked. The scan was clear. I wanted to hear your pure, rapturous excitement. It was contagious. We need to plan that trip, you said. But we didn’t plan it quickly enough. Your matching diagnosis––what were the odds?––a few months later ripped the ground out from beneath us. At least we know what to expect, you said. As though that made it any easier. As though the knowing somehow made us more prepared. If anything, it made it more painful for me. To know your experience so thoroughly.

“How did you handle it? That proximity to death?” you asked one night on the phone. I was at a restaurant with my husband and stepped outside to talk to you, pacing around the close-cut grass and pebbled pathways. It was early, the sky still blue, but the moon had already risen. I searched that ghostly crescent for an answer.

I finally told you I didn’t know. That somehow I got through it and that you would too. But death was closer than we realized. And after the shaking and the swelling in that hospital room, you slipped away before I could ask you what it was like to be that close to the end, to really brush right up against it. You didn’t remember me in those last days, or maybe you did, but your words were muddled and I couldn’t understand much. So I made a makeshift speaker out of a paper hospital cup and we listened to the Gypsy Kings. I love this song, you said, grinning. It made you think of Mexico.

 

Before we leave Tulum, we go to that cenote. We kick off our sandals next to the ladder that leads down the limestone rockface. The water is surprisingly cold as we dive beneath the bright, clear surface. You swim ahead, towards one of the darkened arms and I follow closely. Stalactites push down on us as the way narrows, the walls reeking of bat guano, sharp and musty. Do you remember how sunless the water was in that tunnel?

Despite my panic, you keep moving forward. A scuba diver swims below us holding a flashlight, like the bright glint of a fish, and you say there must be another opening up ahead. The cave narrows and I hear my breath bouncing off the wet walls. But you are right. The walls gradually widen, and at last we are in a swimming hole taken straight from a postcard. Impossibly clear water beneath a bright blue sky. Bits of jungle around the limestone edges like those seashell-crusted anemones we used to prod gently in the tidepools by your house.

You tell me that the Mayans believed a cenote was the entrance to the underworld. The thin, watery place between the living and the dead. We float on our backs, side by side beneath that sturdy sky. Like me, happiest by the water. This is a great vacation, you say. I’ll never forget it.