Stephanie Wong Ken

Mexico? her sister asked. Yes, Lena said. Land of sand and happy hour and ruins of the ancient Maya. They were warriors, right, or is that the Aztecs? her sister said. Either way, they sure didn’t take any shit. Go get that sun. Her sister squeezed her shoulder, the good one, without any bruises yet to heal, the one free of his fingerprints. Might as well, she said to her sister. I’m wearing a bathing suit under this bathrobe, after all.

What was to be their one-week stay at ARCHITECTURAL MARVEL– TULUM, MX, becomes her one week stay alone. The rental property is managed by a young, gleeful looking guy from North Carolina named Roger. Shirtless locals carved out the modern kitchen and built the water-bed on the roof. She imagined Roger drawling against a background of jungle noise under the stars in the company of many, many women.

The Hidden World of the Maya, National Geographic: Cities of Blood, The Complete Mayan Gods. Going on a trip, Lena tells the librarian. She finds safety in knowing. But some men find her need to clarify insufferable. Put your pros and cons list away, he once told her, holding a pair of scissors the wrong way. It’s insufferable.

The workmen stop talking to watch her unstick her legs from the seat and get out of the rental car to open the heavy wooden gate, the padlock slapping with the momentum. She can feel them honing in on the sweat line between her breasts and her bare thighs in a pair of white shorts. The stray dogs circle until she pulls into the driveway and then lower their tails and lose interest.

Do you want it fast or do you want it slow? The guy sitting next to her at the campus bar licked his lips and leaned in. Is that a joke? she asked. It’s my best line, the guy said. Should I say it again?

Rodger from North Carolina is not waiting at sliding glass doors or by the small pool, grinning like she expected. Instead, he’s left a bottle of complimentary rum and a typed note propped up on a glass table, the one he must leave all of his guests: Howdee doo! Have the time of your life.

Maybe it was cowardly, who knows when to talk about bones breaking. She told her sister she had a bad fall from a tree while drinking and slept all day in the guest room in a terry cloth bathrobe, under a cave of down comforters. Before she undressed to shower, she made sure the door was locked and when she moved around the kitchen or the yard, and she knew her sister was watching, she blamed it on aging hips, atmospheric shifts, their shared, pitiful genes.

I’m lounging in this cool, concrete house while Mexicans hang their laundry on clothesline between trees, she tells her sister on the phone. Awful, sure but don’t kill the party before it even gets started, her sister says. It’s all just one big ruin, Lena says. But it’s great. I am disconnecting in five seconds.

The first night will be filed under: to be forgotten. After sitting in the pool in the square shade of the house until her finger pads became little deserts, she drinks the entire complimentary bottle of rum with ice from the bucket in the freezer. She ignores the giant plastic water jug with the awkward manual pump and the way the heat makes her face feel like gauze. Unsteady, but careful, she looks for a remote, a phone, anything. Small miracles, she thinks as she crash lands into the pool. Paradise.

He’d loved the still humidity on the body first thing in the morning, the cobalt tiles, the low-hanging fruit, the bats asleep in the trees. Mexico had been his choice—the ruins, the Maya. Because I love you, her sister says on the other end of the line, sounding very tired, I am going to ask you not to call back and to enjoy yourself. All right, she slurs, feeling dehydrated but also wet.

Some girls like a little bam bam, a slap or a good pull of the hair. Some girls are into bruising, bite marks, everywhere except the face. Which type are you? He was inside her, this person from a party she already wanted to forget. I don’t know, she said, I don’t know what type of girl I am.

At the turnstile to the ruins, someone issues a warning for iguanas and snakes. She stands in the afternoon heat and steadies herself against another wave of nausea, a metallic taste coating her tongue. She wants to the crawl back to the pool, back to the dream house behind the padlock.

Dear Distraught in Dawson’s Creek, Dear Lonely in Lac-Lois, Dear Manic in Moose Jaw. Another night of advice for strangers required caffeine. She spotted him by the counter, holding the metal canister of cream. A boy from her high school in another city years ago. He ended up going to law school or teacher’s college. Something solid after partying abroad in Laos and sleeping with the wrong housewife. He smiled at her, his hair flopping to one side the way she remembered it used to, guileless and non-threatening.   

The tour guide, his face shadowed by a spotless white hat and half the agreed fee in his pants pocket, is eager to tell her about the watchtowers, the famous ball court, and the temple you can climb, unassisted. The hat makes him stand out from the other guides in their clean shirts and leather shoes, huddled under the shade of a twisted Ficus tree behind the BIENVENDOS sign, calling out tour, 300 pesos, four for 400. Welcome, the guide says to Lena, holding a binder between his palms. American? He smiles, polite. His face is a grid of thin lines curving around his eyes and mouth. Canadian, she says. Though she could just as easily have said, Not from here.

The worst person she ever dated? The alcoholic, she told him on their tenth date, when dates are really eating between sleeping and then sleeping together. We met during my last year of university. He would barge into my apartment at four am, completely loaded, and try to get me to wake up so we could go to an after hours club or some karaoke bar. Once, he stumbled in and pissed all over my laptop. That’s disgusting, her date said, laughing. Oh, I know, she said.

Next to the watchtower of stone, the guide runs his fingers on a laminated drawing of a large tree with enough branches for thirteen gods, and a network of roots stretching deep underground to represent the world of the dead. A group of French school children sit nearby in a pile, waiting for their guide to also explain the tree. Lena studied the names in the creased library book, but there are so many, it’s hard to keep them straight. Who is your favorite god? she asks her guide. I like the Cipactli, he says, touching his hat. El cocodrilo. The Earth Monster with the world on his back.

I just drank a lot of cough syrup and watched movies alone, he told her behind a flop of dirty hair when she asked him why he never went out in high school. Once, he drank too much Robitussin and believed he was seeing his body in his bedroom from above and could tell there was some kind of growth, like a tree stump, coming out of the top of his head. So he tried to remove it with his fingers. I cleaned up after that, he said. Often, she’d wake up to him touching the scar in his sleep.

Pourquoi il y a tant de dieux? a French school child asks the schoolteacher, who then asks their guide in broken English. Lena stops taking pictures of the iguanas to listen to his answer. That is like asking why there are so many clouds in the sky, the guide says, shaking his head at the teacher and the child.

He was skeptical of vacations, of taking time away from your life to enjoy yourself. She begged him to book the trip anyway. A year into their relationship and some of their friends were already married, already pregnant, already drying orchid leis in the creases of their photo albums.

The gods made beings from yellow and white maize, her guide explains. When the sun rose on the first day, the humans were flesh. They had brains, recognized their creators, and worshipped them, but the gods thought they had too much knowledge. So they clouded their eyes to keep them focused on day-to-day events. But not too clouded, of course. Her guide smiles at her, at his joke.

Sometimes, they would have to red flag certain letters. Someone came up with a pitying name for them: the cry for help letters. Read them once, then notify the supervisor. Someone else would try to reach the person and provide a number for a helpline or the police. At the time, Lena had not felt qualified enough to write back.

A Danish couple wanders up to her guide, crashes her tour. Is it all right? the girl asks her, handing her a few hundred pesos, clearly stoned. Her boyfriend also looks pretty moony, resting his dirty fingernails in the dip of the girl’s back.

The copper pipes in the show home had already been stripped, along with the door knobs and the door pegs. Wind and a small fire had erased most of the evidence of someone squatting there. She thought they were playing around, looking for a room with good light for fucking. He said, hold still, Lena, positioning her against a wall. He punched the wall, letting chunks of plaster float in the air, forming a circle of holes around her body. When he finished, she turned to stare. She watched a trail of spit fall from his mouth.

The guide cycles like a pro, balancing his binder on the handlebars of a small yellow three speed. She can barely keep up. The bruises on her shoulder and ribs are burning. The Danish couple cycle behind her, laughing. Tourists in bike taxis gaze at the patchy forest along the path. She can tell which ones are beginning their tours and which ones are reaching the end, sun-dazed despite their sunglasses, their drivers talking louder, grinning harder to earn a good tip in the last available mile. She feels the flash and realizes the
Danish boyfriend has aimed his camera at her. Hey, she yells, turning to look at him, to leer. But he is speeding up, holding his camera high in one hand to get shots of the forest and the tops of people’s heads, making peace signs at everyone he passes.

In a video chat with her editor, she tried to explain why she felt comfortable answering this particular letter. There are drawings in crayon, for God’s sake, she said. Okay but I think the mother figure is holding something sharp? And is that blood pouring down or rain? her editor said, holding the kid’s stick figures very close to his large, sweaty face. I think it may be best to pass on this one, her editor said, already moving on.

In bushes by the pathway, she vomits. Here, the Danish girl says, handing her a bottle of water. The rum, Lena thinks as she retches into the dirt, holding her ribs with her arms. Her sister warned her, as she always does. This is very nice, the girl says, looking at the landscape. But it’s no Thailand. Shit, she yells, jumping back. There are snakes.

I’m apologizing to you. Lena? He was on his knees, showing her despair, the S-shaped scar on the top of his head.

The ball court is impressive; two slanted walls of stone angled to form a triangular court the size of a football field. A metal ring is still intact on one of the walls, jutting out from a spot that looked impossible to access, at least from where they are on the ground. What about all those human sacrifices? the boyfriend asks, leaning his elbows against his girlfriend. Oh no, the guide says, standing with his hands folded next to the stone tablet of a god. Only blood sacrifice for this game.

That night, she drove slow because she is night blind. Another search through alleyways and the familiar bars. Her sister was calling but she couldn’t move one side of her body, the side closest to the phone. That was her excuse. Squinting in the dark of the car window, she thought, is that him or a dog or a dead deer in the road?

The steps look like death traps, tiny, uneven pads on the face of the 138-foot temple. Ixmoja, the tallest temple pyramid on the Yucatán peninsula, the guide tells them, Reach the top, make a wish. The French kids climb ahead, slipping on the stone steps in their polished shoes, reaching their sweaty palms out for guardrails and safety ropes that are not there. The Danish couple stop every few steps to take pictures of the view. Lena has visions of falling school children, their terrified faces caught mid frame.

It wasn’t rain, it was blood, and now she would have to get back in the car and drive with the high beams on to see through it and find some road that went away from his body, lying in the middle of the turning lane. A straight line, across an ocean.

At the top of the temple, they wave down at the guide, sitting on a rock under a tree, the white hat resting in his hands. The Cipactli, she thinks as she leans in to pose with the couple. The world balancing on her back. She forgets about her shoulder, her arm, and her ribs, so instead of smiling, she is grimacing. Shielding the sun from her eyes, she stares at the vastness of the ruins. The small details, she is sure, will be important later.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.
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