You no longer remember, but we landed in Puerto Vallarta in the second week of June, and it was cloudy and rainy and windy, but warm. We walked along the oceanfront past statues made up of combinations of different creatures—a half man-half seahorse, a creature with one horn, a squiggly figure with many arms waving around its neck. We walked until you grew tired and complained, but you were six, and I couldn’t carry you. Instead I bought you a souvenir at a stand, a slingshot.
Finally we arrived at the dock, and in the pouring rain we climbed into a small flat-bottomed boat with a few other passengers. The boat’s striped canopy whipped about in the wind. The captain wore a heavy black raincoat. They threw all our bags to the front, and the boat backed into the ocean. We tumbled along the coast for two hours. The fiberglass bottom smacked hard against the water after each big, gray wave. Water poured in over the sides, people screamed. You laughed, wanted to stand on the seat, lean over the side. I braced myself against each wave, gripping the edge of the boat with one hand and gripping your hand with the other, tepid rain streaming down my face. When we arrived at our destination, the driver threw our suitcase five feet across the water onto the sand next to a beat-up kayak half covered by a tarp. He hooked a little ladder over the side, and we climbed down into the warm water, waded to shore holding our flip-flops in our hands. The boat left with everyone else, bound for a resort farther down the coast.
You don’t remember this either, but the year before, I had fallen madly in love with J, left your father, and then that past spring, we all moved in together: you, your brother, me, J and his two children. Six of us in a two-bedroom condo, the four of you ranging in age from three to eight. On the days when you were with us, you all slept in one room, you and J’s daughter sharing a bed. You started having trouble sleeping.
We walked up steep stone steps from the ocean into the jungle. Our palapa perched on the edge of a cliff against a huge salate tree. White butterflies fluttered up and down the ravine. The palapa was a triangle shape with a cement floor, no walls, and a dried palm-thatched roof which whispered and rustled in a papery way. Because of scorpions, the couch and the bed hung from chains in the ceiling. The toilet and shower were outside the palapa hidden by an embankment. The hanging bed was in the eaves, reached by a ladder, and covered by mosquito netting.
Because of the scorpions, we had to wear closed shoes and hang up all our clothes, even drape the socks over hangers. There was no doctor in the nearby village, and the only way out was the boat that arrived once a day if the weather wasn’t too bad.
You four children put on skits together, learned to ride bikes, were always in costumes, made forts, ran in and out of the house with Super Soakers, threw wood chips at each other. J came home from Costco one day with a foosball table. He set it in the middle of the narrow living/dining room, and we played furiously together, but we also kept getting speared by the rods when we tried to walk by.
That first night we took the new flashlights I brought with us and walked the narrow footpath along the ocean to the village. After a while we came to a restaurant—three tables outside of a little house, with chickens and dogs running about. We inquired within whether we could have dinner. A man brought out a candle, lit it, and handed us menus. We ordered while the chickens pecked under our table and the skinny dogs licked our toes and legs. We watched as the man left the house and hurried down the street. He returned with a bag of groceries and cooked our dinner. When it was time to leave, it was dark, no stars. We switched on the small waterproof flashlights that created white holes in the darkness. We shone our flashlights at our feet and began to walk. After a very short time, your flashlight dimmed and sputtered out. Then mine died.
“Damn cheap batteries, damn cheap flashlights,” I murmured, and shook them. We stood there in the absolute black. We could hear the waves crashing a few steps away to the right; something scrabbled through the dead palm fronds on the forest floor to the left. A dog barked. We turned around and headed back toward the restaurant. When we got there, I explained our predicament and the waiter/owner/cook gave us a candle. We set out, the little light wavering in the wind from the ocean.
You picked all the lemons off the neighbors’ lemon tree and threw them at each other. You and J’s daughter took baths together, then made your towels into capes, and ran around the house naked screaming that you were bats. J’s eight-year-old son called you a bitch, and I yelled at him, “Never use that word in this house again.” He ran upstairs, yelling back that I couldn’t tell him what to do. When we squished all four of you in the back seat of the car, double-buckling you and J’s youngest daughter together, she always cried, sobbing that she didn’t have enough room. And she was right. We were inundated with each other.
When we finally arrived back at our palapa, I switched on the electric light. We blinked. We sat down on the swinging couch. I was going to read to you, but the insects arrived, huge, flying iridescent beetles the size of quarters, enormous moths with fat bodies, scores of them attracted by the bare bulb. They caught in my hair. I pulled them out, their thick, sticky legs waving. I turned off the light, carried the candle in front of us, and we climbed the ladder and went under the mosquito netting into bed. Insects attacked the netting until I blew the candle out. We lay in the absolute darkness in the little palm frond roof. It was hard to tell where I left off and you began. We could hear the ocean below. Insects crawled over the outside of the netting, we could see their silhouettes. It was muggy and the bed swayed. I put my hand on the top of your head to keep the moths off. The wind picked up, the wood of the palapa creaked, and then it began to rain, very loudly.
“Do you like it here?” I asked.
“Yes,” you said. “Can we go swimming tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said.
Did I like it? I thought of J, asleep alone in our bed. I blinked that away,and slept, too.
At night you would call for me three or four times, or knock on our door, or sneak in, desperate to get to me without waking J. And there were our shocked exes. And J and me, trying to figure out how to live with this volcanic passion we’d stumbled upon in our mid-thirties. Once I came home from a conference, I remember I was wearing a new fitted black jacket. I walked in the door and you and J both looked up at me, your eyes bright, naked with love. J jumped to embrace me. You pushed in between. There was so much emotion seething in that little condo, I’m surprised steam didn’t whistle out the chimney.
We woke in the morning in Mexico to a man’s voice at the bottom of the ladder: “Madame? Señora? Esta aquí?” I climbed down the ladder, and you climbed after. There was a man standing at the edge of our palapa in a white chef’s outfit, even the tall poofy hat. He carried a tray of teacup-sized, steaming quiche Lorraine. He had come here from Marseille for vacation, he told me in his French-accented Spanish, met a local woman, got her pregnant, stayed. Now he was selling quiche and custard tarts each morning. We lived on those tarts and quiche, one for breakfast, one for lunch.
“Los cangrejos llegaron hoy, Señora,” he said. The crabs came today? We didn’t know what he meant until we were ready to walk down to the beach. They were everywhere, thousands of them. The crabs had been hibernating, and now that they had awakened, they would mate and make their way to the ocean. They looked like rusty ashtrays. When we came near they stood up on their tiny hind legs and snapped their claws at us, click click, advancing. It was hard not to step on them, and when we did they would give us a sharp pinch if they could. You collected the smaller hermit crabs, brought them to our palapa, marooned one on a rock in the middle of a bowl of water and named it Houdini. I had always loved Houdini, told you stories about his miraculous escapes. The milk can escape. Escape from a straight jacket inside a tank of water. Escape from being buried alive. He always made it look so easy, though I never told you that they say he had to dislocate his shoulders to get out of the straightjacket, and that he panicked and passed out when he was buried alive.
There were a few thunderstorms at night, but it never rained during the day again. We swam. Once when we arrived at the tiny beach there was a man in sagging gray underwear standing up to his knees in the water. We went back up and waited for him to leave.
Every morning when we got up, we swept the crabs out of the house, sometimes off the cliff, if they kept returning. We played cards, endless rounds of five hundred rummy, we kept score, you seemed always to win. I told you about the Gabriel García Márquez tale for children. A couple is suddenly inundated with crabs, just like we were. And then a very old man with enormous wings crash lands in their yard, and they spend the rest of the story trying to figure out what to do with him.
Sometimes we argued, principally because you never wanted to make the long hot walk into town to buy groceries, but I didn’t want to leave you alone, which is why we ate so many quiches and tarts.
You spent hours playing with your hermit crabs while I just sat there on the swinging couch, staring at the big tree and beyond it to the ocean. The rhythmic thump of the waves, birds, otherwise silent and hot. I think I was astonished, drunk on surprise at the turn of events our lives had taken.
Soon after we moved in together, J and I were on one of our regular shopping trips to Costco. I hated Costco, hated buying so much food, the refrigerator bulging with it, frozen meat falling out of the freezer every time I opened it. While we loaded up, J was discussing summer vacation options. We could all go camping in Oregon together. Or rent a cabin by a lake.
I opened the cooler and lugged out conjoined gallon containers of milk. I told J your Dad wanted to take your older brother on a two week bike trip that summer, so we’d have to work around that.
Pushing the giant cart, filling it with the tubs and boxes to feed our expanded new family, I suddenly remembered a vacation my sister and her friend had once gone on to an isolated palapa in Mexico only accessible by boat, owned by the friend’s aunt. A desire for that palapa grew in me. I thought about your brother on his bike trip with your dad, and I had an image of me and you, just floating quietly together in warm water. “I want to go on vacation this summer to Mexico,” I heard myself say. I heaved up a sack of oranges.
“It would be expensive for all of us,” J said, “ but we might be able to work it out.” He reminded me that his brother had an apartment in Puerto Vallarta. He brought me a sample of fresh mozzarella in a little paper cup, because he knew I loved mozzarella.
I told him I wanted to go alone with you to Mexico.
I could see the hurt shiver over his face like lightning. But I didn’t take it back, didn’t explain it or soften it in any way. Just let my desire to escape sit there between us.
We pushed the cart in silence, grabbed outsized bags of potatoes and onions, a half dozen heads of lettuce.
“Do what you want,” he said finally.
I know what he thought. I was abandoning our blending project, right at the beginning, right when we were just getting started. I had shoved him hard, to make room for me and you. But I was stubborn. I bought tickets, made plans. Things grew tenser as we neared our departure date. He was mad and hurt, and he told me he didn’t want to have any contact with me while I was away.
The French chef told us that there was a talking parrot at the public beach at the far end of the bay, and there you could drink from a coconut. You wanted desperately to go. We tried to walk, but there was a covered alleyway that led from the far end of the village to the open beach. Crabs covered the street and the walls and the roof of the alley. They clacked their pincers and fell from above. I walked through and beckoned from the other side, but you stood in front of the tunnel of crabs and began to cry because you would never see the talking parrot, never drink from a coconut.
So I said we would kayak there instead. We walked all the way back to our own beach and pulled the heavy red kayak out from under the tarp. There was a paddle and two dilapidated orange life preservers as well. I put you on the front of the open kayak, which was really just a plastic board. I pushed out and began to paddle across the bay. Our legs dangled in the green water. It took quite a while, and when we arrived at the public beach, there was a big surf, no one in the water. We hit the beach on one of the waves, the sand sliding away under us. I grabbed you under the arm and pulled you away from the kayak. I was holding your hand and trying to drag the long heavy kayak up the beach at the same time when another wave hit us. We finally reached dry sand, but there was a six-inch gash on the top of my foot. There was a lot of blood, but I don’t remember any pain. You asked me if I needed a doctor. “Seawater will clean it,” I said.
We beached the kayak and walked to one of the three snack shacks. There were about thirty people from off a tourist boat on the beach playing loud music. The parrot was mangy, its feathers going every which way. It said something harshly, maybe Polly or maybe Puta. You wanted to feed it, but I was alarmed. I suggested an iguana instead. A boy with a huge army green iguana said for a few pesos you could hold it and get your picture taken. I paid. You held the tail, the boy the body, since it was too heavy for you. I took the photo. We ordered the coconuts with straws, but you found the milk tasted like dirty water. Neither of us finished ours. The surf was too high to swim. I ordered us sodas instead, limón, you liked it. Under the table, my foot kept bleeding.
When we were ready to leave, I shoved the kayak off the beach and through the surf with you clinging to it. You sat in front of me as I paddled.
The wind had come up against us and it was hard going. We seemed to make no progress. I looked back and noticed that my foot was leaving a thin trail of blood through the green water. I thought of sharks, those creatures with only one desire, to feed their restless hunger. Is it true that if a shark stops swimming, she will sink? I lifted my foot out of the water.
I turned forward. You between my legs, I paddled hard for home, home to the palapa and then eventually home to J and our new family. We found a bigger house for all of us. And here we are, thirteen years later, still blending.
So that is the story I wanted to tell you. I realize it’s partly the story of my brutal, brutal ways. The brutal way I first created space for J and me, and then for us to go to Mexico. I hope you are more graceful, slipping in and out of straightjackets or milk cans or handcuffs, making it look easy.
But I see now that it’s also a story about big love. My love for J had arrived in our lives like that very old man with enormous wings. It just crash-landed in the front yard. Not a gleaming angel, but clumsy and miraculous.
And I hope big passions for you, too, like the one I have with J, like the unwieldy, ongoing utopian project of blending our families, like you and me on that kayak together, madly in love, trailing a little blood, paddling hard against the tide.