I left the boxes where the movers dropped them. Instead, I painted. A bottle of wine, an Ativan, and the stroke of a brush. The swatch promised cappuccino, but it was going on beige. No matter. It did the job, hiding stains and sealing the cracks. I built shelving and a loft, a notional, utilitarian facsimile of a home. I wouldn’t take calls—not from friends, not even from my mother. Once, when the silence threatened to inhabit me permanently, I rewired the bathroom overhead without turning off the breaker. It was a rush. I wasn’t hurt, but I could have been.
After my girlfriend left, I renovated, moving through my new apartment deliberately and mute. We’d spent seven years together, time we’d gifted each other unhesitatingly. We’d believed that our love was inimitable; we’d behaved like it was invulnerable. Maybe it was another lover responsible for our separation, or maybe it was my personal failings. She gave me both these explanations and then she gave me more, until I realized that there was nothing left for either of us to say.
Instead, I fixated on things I could change with my strong back and stubborn fingers. I was mindful to feel my accomplishments, to numbly grasp at these rags of dull pleasure.
During that December, as Toronto’s winds battered the windows, I saw myself as though an observer, shivering in a worn bathrobe under the muted light of a SAD lamp. Beside me on an end table, an enormous philodendron burst from a 40-litre pot, bowed under the weight of its own vitality.
“Screw this.” I yanked the plug from the wall. Three days later, I sold the lamp to a nervous-looking fellow in a corduroy blazer who claimed the light was for his sister. It paid for half of my one-way ticket to Mexico.
I struggled during my first few months in Puerto Vallarta, working hard to get used to the uncomfortable sensation of belonging to no one. In a new country, all these places, these acquaintances, these experiences, they all belonged to me, but the reverse was not yet true. That would take time, at least one rainy season. It was lonely, and it was exhilarating. I learned to name all the elements of my life again. Mi colonia. Mi casa. Mi corazón.
Methodically, I replaced my English life with a Spanish one, my broken life with one not yet born, and in the process of rebuilding, an auxiliary hurt punched through the surface. There wouldn’t be a house with a mother-in-law suite and a vegetable garden out back. I would not keep my promise to always love that imperfection just below her right hip, and she wouldn’t see my laugh lines deepen. We would not have children. That, she’d do with somebody else.
Puerto Vallarta’s beaches were full of sunshiny couples who splurged on umbrella drinks and asked strangers to take their photograph. Unburdened for seven days at a time, they’d find themselves limerent again. I took no consolation in the thought that in a week they’d be back at their desks, grudgingly throwing their resort wristbands in the trash where—hot pink or orange or lime—it would catch their eye until the cleaners came.
“Try Yelapa,” a friend suggested, mapping out the spots where I could hitch a water taxi. “It’s a good place to be alone.”
Though not an island, Yelapa is inaccessible by car. The coastal highway juts abruptly inland about 20 miles short of the village, so everything is brought in by water on pangas that make the journey through Banderas Bay several times each day.
I waited at the pier with four others—a family—while the driver nudged the boat alongside the dock. The father leapt into the pitching panga and then turned around to help the rest of his family aboard. I unsteadily lowered myself onto the deck and took a spot on an empty seat in front of them. Over the dogged growl of the outboard motor, the man’s voice rose and fell, the tenor and cadence of his sentences suggesting improbabilities. His children gasped and giggled. I’d never wanted children—not really—but that fact came nowhere near to filling the achy cavern in my guts.
There’s no place like Yelapa, with its horse-drawn carts, its coconut pies, and its barefoot children. Yet Yelapa is like any other place: being alone hurt there, too. I stayed for a week, spending my days listening to kids and seabirds making a racket in the surf; at night I drank wine from the bottle and wished I still smoked cigarettes.
Back in Vallarta, March gave way to April, and then the sweaty summer chased away the tourists. The streets were deserted until noon, and only a few businesses bothered to open at all. During those interminable days I looked forward to my trips to the lavanderia. I’d chosen it for the dejected Jesus painted over the doorway, and I came to have more interaction with the squat, merry woman who washed my clothes than almost anybody else. At every drop-off, she’d struggle filling out the name on my ticket, until finally she began to simply hand over her pen for me to do it myself. I brought the problem to my language tutor, Ceci. “In Spanish there’s no such thing as ‘ph’,” she said. “We only use ‘f.’”
This made me happy. At last I had something to say.
“Doña Estrella,” I laboriously sounded out the sentence I’d practiced the whole walk there. “En inglés, peh y atcheh son eyfeh.” In English, p and h are f. I expelled a demonstrative ffffff. She nodded and wrote her version of my name on the ticket. From then on, she’d start our conversation as soon as she saw me round the corner. Sometimes I’d hang out at her counter, learning the vocabulary of routine: ¿Qué tal? Venir mañana por la mañana. Nos vemos pronto.
Somehow I could handle, and even long for, conversations with my friends and family over the stutter of a Skype call. But the moments when their faces would freeze and pixelate were moments of respite. I couldn’t bear the immediacy of their concern. From so far away, I could even tell my mother everything was fine.
Like everyone else in Vallarta at that time of year, I adjusted to the weather, learning to siesta in the long afternoons and eat a late supper—tacos al pastor and an icy beer. To get to my favorite taqueria, I’d walk through the old town, where I first met los hermanos. The brothers, two big ones and a little one, were playing street football in the fading light. I reflexively picked up a misguided pass, and the punt was returned to me. On that first night it was all about the game—pelota, aqui, and gol—but in time I could answer their questions, if they asked slowly enough. Canadá. Cuarenta. Sola.
In the autumn, the tourists returned. The shops reopened and vendors worked late each night, asking double for their sunglasses and painted salsa bowls. On the beaches, I routinely accepted cameras from couples wearing not much more than wristbands and lascivious smiles, and took their pictures while they posed with mariachis in the background. My night games with the brothers became impossible on streets swarming with tourists in rented ATVs, but I’d pop my head in their window on my way to dinner, just to say hello.
Once a week, in the early morning, long before Vallarta’s visitors reached shakily for glasses of much-needed water, I’d haul my laundry bag over to Estrella’s. Although it was high season, she still charged me the local rate. In exchange I brought her curious words from English: pharmacy and dolphin and photograph. Ceci, meanwhile, moved me from nouns to verbs. “Como, bebo, bailo,” I’d chant. She’d stop me when my pronunciation got sloppy, echoing my mistakes. “Bebo means ‘I drink’ and vivo means ‘I live,’” she’d chide. “Same thing,” I’d reply, but she and I both knew it was the habit of being miserable talking, and no longer misery itself.
My mother came to visit. I took her to the beach and showed her how to prepare roasted shrimps with lime and hot sauce. We dismissed the vendors selling jewelry and temporary tattoos, but a woman carrying a stool and a stack of white towels caught my mother’s eye. “Beach massages,” I said, waving the woman over. To my mother’s delight I negotiated a price, and she stretched out in the sand like a cat in a sunbeam. I shared a smile with the masseuse. Tourists love their massages.
At dusk, we went for a walk. “Let’s go see if los hermanos are out. They think I’m too old to have a madre,” I teased. On the way, we passed Doña Estrella’s, shut for the night, but under the flaming sunset the moody Jesus’ expression was one of exaggerated despair. “Chin up!” I joked, and my mother and I took turns seeing who could pull the most anguished face. Laughing as the rickety suspension bridge bucked and heaved under our feet, we crossed the river into downtown. People clustered in the pools of light surrounding the taco stands. “Not that one,” I said as my mother peered through the steam and smoke. “It’s cabeza—head tacos.” I pointed us instead to my regular place where we stood in the street watching the taquero shave the meat off his spit with a flick of his machete.
“Why don’t you try ordering this time,” I said, and sounded out the words for her. I watched as my mother approached the counter, spoke, and returned to our table, eyes dancing. “I think I remembered it all,” she said, and the delivery of our order a few minutes later confirmed that she was mostly right.
There was no sign of the brothers when we passed by their corner later, and the metal gate was shut over their window. My mother doesn’t care about football but I felt a twinge of regret at not being able to introduce her.
A few days later, when we grew tired of the city, we took a panga to Yelapa. The wind was up that day and we spent the journey laughing at the absurd spanking we were receiving from the waves. We ordered tequila and beer and quesadillas on arrival, and then we dozed on loungers in the sun. My mother bought some weed from a guy wearing a beanie, and I didn’t see her for a while. When she returned, she was holding a black and white kitten—cow cats are a family tradition—that she fantasized about bringing home. We split a piece of coconut pie, but even between the two of us it was too much.
On a whim, we decided to stay the night, so we rented a shelter overlooking the beach. We’d been seduced by the view, unobstructed by walls or widows, and the two hammocks tied to the rafters. After the sun went down, the volatile winds had returned, and we were each wearing everything we’d brought. “Will you stay here?” she asked, gesticulating to our room, this beach, this country. She had wrapped herself in a throw adorned with a garish lion’s head. The fingers of one hand were exposed; she held a smoldering roach. From my hammock, I waggled my feet, showing off my sandals and socks. “I don’t know,” I said. “No reason not to, at least for now.” The beach was alive in the dark, the waves booming against the shore.
KEPH SENETT is a writer and activist from Toronto, Canada whose passions for travel and soccer have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents. Senett writes about human rights, travel, LGBT and gender, sports, and her own folly in a wide variety of publications. When not writing, Senett spends her time trying to figure out how to qualify for a soccer squad in Asia, Australia, or Antarctica. @kephsenett