The beach. The cove. Children were playing a brutal game of king of the hill on the pillar I’d once claimed as mine. Behind them, in the shadows of the cliff face, a temporary town, global nomads on the lam, their tents and sleeping rolls spiraling inward, three, four, five layers deep.
I clung to the rim where the rock floor met the sand, and I gawked at the addicts, wanting and not wanting to talk to them. They’d migrated, since my last visit to Mazunte, from the center of town to the cove, but they were basically the same. Cracked, blackened teeth and half-lidded eyes. A leaning-together, wary of others, wary of each other. It was inevitable, my returning here. I wondered how long it would take for them to recognize me as one of their own, how long it would take me to settle back in.
Cords had been strung, nylon, hemp, petrified rags and towels and rugs hanging from them. Lanes and alleys had been forged.
To move through the encampment was to trace a spiral, one foot slowly in front of the other, like walking one of those Tibetan labyrinths constructed out of brightly colored sand. A single step in, and I’d be committed to making the long slow journey to the end. If I succeeded, I’d break something in me. I didn’t know exactly what this thing was, but it needed to be broken, of this I was sure.
Seeing these people and what they’d done to the cove had me reliving the sense memories of my last visit.
After leaving Ericka confused and bleating on the beach, I’d known just where to go, what to do next. I would run up the sand toward the center of town where the fiesta never stopped and I’d party. I’d bellow and dance. I’d celebrate my liberation from her. Maybe I’d stumble on that Columbian asshole she’d fucked. We could slap each other’s backs, down a few mescals, maybe trade crude self-congratulatory jokes about Ericka’s perfect little body. We’d end up throwing fists and elbows, rolling in the sand, trying to get in the killer nut shot, but in the process we’d develop a cynical bond, deeper and more honest than anything either of us had had with Ericka. A bullying power flowed through my bloodstream. I could see myself, later — see the rest of my life, magnetic, charismatic, the chicks flocking to me for use and abuse. I felt like a man with a destiny right then, no longer the boy I’d been just the day before, which meant, of course, that I was still very much a boy.
This elation has been unsustainable. No matter how happy I imagined I’d be if I could just embrace the dickish parts of myself, the raping and pillaging imperatives of masculinity, I didn’t have the constitution to live like that. Before I was even halfway down the beach, my cockiness had been overwhelmed by regret. I was made for pining and melancholic wallowing. It took all the effort I had not to spin around and race back to Ericka, beg her forgiveness, pledge my undying love. This is what my mother had taught me to do. Attach myself to the women close at hand. Abase myself, if I must, to fulfill their needs. If this meant I had too little fight in me, at least it ensured I’d never become my father.
It had been too late, though, to go back.
When she was in an especially self-regarding mood, Ericka used to gloat about how charmed her life was, how lucky she was to have found someone like me to witness her outrageous adventures.
“You’re a mirror,” she’d say, “reflecting me back to me.”
She believed that the reality around her was malleable, a symptom of her mood, and that it had sprung whole from her consciousness.
“Where does that leave me?” I’d sometimes ask her.
“Really, Ericka, how do you square that with the fact that I have reactions to what you do, and that I sometimes react in ways you don’t like? That I’m a separate person with my own thoughts and feelings?”
“But you never do that. You always react just the way I want you to.”
“One day, I might not. One day you’ll do something so cruel to me that I’ll have no choice but to protect myself.”
“That’ll never happen,” she’d say then. “I can’t be cruel to a thing that doesn’t exist.”
I’d shown her, that day, that I not only existed, but I even had a semblance of pride. She’d hate me for this forever. I didn’t blame her. She was who she was. I blamed myself. What upset me wasn’t her or what she’d done, it was what I’d learned about myself in the process: I was the kind of person who destroyed himself in order to stop himself from hurting others. I turned my rage inward, bought a cheap bottle of rum from the one store in town, mixed it with some sickly sweet nectar and let the fog of self-pity blur the edges of my being.
But why go halfway when total escape was so easy to find?
All I had to do was follow the sound of the drums, let myself spin closer until they enveloped me. This had been true last time I’d been in Mazunte, and it was just as true now. Where there were drums, there were sure to be drugs. The ugly, the sick, the haters and the hated, they found each other in the bang bang bang cadence of the future primitive.
One step. Another. I ducked under a taut length of nylon line and passed a grease-stained blanket from which two grimy feet protruded. Stepping over them, I entered the second ring of the labyrinth.
A spike went through me. A dangerous want.
I’d spent the first ten years of my adult life obliterating the person I’d been as a child. I can’t tell you why. Why doesn’t matter. Any reason I gave would be incomplete, a reduction of my mostly frivolous, often contradictory motivations into one dramatic and self-serving lie. The void at the center of things terrified me, but in a thrilling way. I wasn’t yet capable of understanding the consequences of courting meaninglessness.
Ten, twelve years ago, when I’d bottomed out, I swore I’d never let myself think like this again.
I’d followed the opium trail halfway around the world. I just sort of flew away. To wherever the other winged rats were headed. Places with cheap street food and loose security. Places where too much else was going on for the all-powerful Them to wash us off the beach, out of the park, to flush us from the abandoned buildings. The usual stops: San Francisco, Vancouver, the punked-out East Village, Amsterdam, Athens, the isle of Anafi, Istanbul, Tangiers, Beirut and Goa, I washed up for a while on the beaches of Phuket. I cultivated ultimate trust in the world’s prerogative to carry me, by chance or happenstance, to wherever it wanted me to be. I had no say, is what I told myself.
When, finally, I was so far gone that even the dreaded thieves and tinkers abandoned me, I hardly noticed. I was in Saigon, holed up in the cement and rust-proofed steel shell of a twenty-three-story office building, a raw abandoned place, barely more solid than a thought, that had been left to rot half-finished when the markets had crashed and the real estate speculators had run out of money. I hadn’t changed or washed my clothes in months, years maybe. My hair was knotted into long broad plaits, nests, like the gunk you pull out of the pipes beneath the tub. My beard, which has always been patchy, straggled out everywhere— my moustache curled over my lip into my mouth, a pleasant tickle; I could lose hours twirling it on the tip of my tongue. My experience of that time was relegated to that one soggy room, a dark and syrupy bunker. Though I must have come and gone — I must have travelled somewhere to keep myself in dope — I never seemed to move from the blotchy, rusty mattress. I’d lost the sensation of time. I don’t mean in a gauzy eternal-now way. What I mean is, I no longer felt time in my body. Or my mind either. I was stagnant, like the room. I had no destiny, and thus, I’d lost all sense of self. And this is the thing about that moment in my life: It felt more authentic than all the living that had come before it. I’d been reduced — I’d reduced myself — to the essential fact of my being. And that fact was nothing. I was nothing, or nearly nothing. There was no secret illuminating truth shining down like light to cleave me in half. There was just… I was dying, I guess, or living in death’s shadow. I’d traveled as far from life as my body would go. I was in the grip of some other force, entranced, numb and prostrate before it. There’s a lot of empty space in my memory of that time, a lot I don’t know. A different person might call this a religious experience.
The third ring of the labyrinth. A couple of guys sat in the lip of a tent squabbling over a forty-ounce bottle of Tecate. One of the old guard, a tattoo snake curling around his eye, watched over a dirty child in a loincloth who was throwing pebbles at a rotting, sand-crusted fish. Syringes and empty plastic vials littered the ground. A topless woman with a scar where her left breast once had been picked at the grime between her toes, searching for a fresh spot in which to shoot up.
This time, I knew the price I’d eventually pay. I couldn’t hide behind reckless curiosity. The question was whether or not I cared.
Grotesque and horror-inducing as the scene might have been, there was a grace to it, and within the closed system of its logic, there was a beauty, too, though maybe I was one of the very few who could see this.
Once you let go of your pieties and accept that decay is a kind of growth, that entropy resents being reversed, and that no matter how strongly you wish it otherwise, your children will always be drawn to the undertow, you stop judging people like those assembled in the cove. You no longer see them as something to turn away from. You’re charmed by the way they’ve vanquished the fear from their lives.
Coming to all those years later, after I’d returned to Madison, I found myself in a charred landscape — embers without end, a desert wind blowing through my riddled brain. I’d lived in that landscape ever since. A world without color, tolerable, if only because of the sameness, because my desire for anything at all had been so dulled that I no longer knew how to want. Nothing surprised me because nothing interested me. And when I thought of re-birth, of new leaves and spring buds, foliage returning to color my world, I saw it entering through a needle stuck in my vein. Early on, I’d yearned for that color back in my life. Then, as time passed, color, the idea of color, became abstract. It lost its meaning. I’d remember, sometimes, that I used to think about it, used to ache for it, and wonder how and when those hungers had faded. The sense of waste and waiting, interminably, for nothing had become the limit of the real for me. Any alternative to it was in the past and had ceased to exist.
But, oh, to get the want, the color, back into my life.
What I missed most was the ritual of it all. The way everyday boredom was formalized and transformed into a sacred duty. How the tedious became the transcendental. Not a day went by that I didn’t ache to return to the altar and perform the rite one more time. How it centered me. How it cleared me of uncertainty.
I had cash in my pocket — not a lot, but enough. And I’d made up my mind.
It’s a cowardly thing, hiding from yourself in derangement, and if there’s anything I can say with certainty about myself, it’s that I’m a coward.
As I made my way slowly through the fourth and fifth rings, the tents thinned out. They were older now, ancient. Their zippers were broken. Their screens were ripped. People lingered on ad hoc benches made of driftwood and cinderblocks. They sat on roosts they’d made for themselves on the ground. There were maybe thirty of them, mostly kids flush with the zeal of the newly converted, hugging their backpacks, waiting for dark, for the dance around the fire. Some old gurus too, androgynous in leather and steel, ageless and shrunken, tattooed from head to toe, both the men and the women marked with the unmistakable lizard look that said they knew how to kill and they needed no reason, that they were of the species that routinely ate its young.
They were reading tattered books, listening to iPods. A young woman with dreads perched like a sculpture on top of her head was working her way through a Sudoku puzzle.
In the center of the maze, at the spot where all the energy of this tribe focused and converged and emanated back out onto itself, sat a teepee patched together from old US mailbags. This teepee — it was otherworldly, sincere and kitschy all at once. Thirty feet high at its apex, its hide was wrapped in a looping net of ropes from which hung ostrich and peacock feathers, eagle feathers, seagull feathers, feathers in synthetic shades of purple and green that looked like they’d been manufactured in some Chinese sweatshop for a Dollar Store Halloween costume. Also, Christmas tree ornaments, those colored glass baubles, and what looked like birthday cards. This teepee, a junkyard collage, an experiment in communal outsider art. I inched around it, studying the things that had been posted to its walls — gold and silver stars like a third grade teacher would dole out, Obey Andre the Giant stickers, cartoony portraits of vacationing couples, polaroids of people with their faces scratched out. I wondered how I’d missed this earlier, when I’d walked past the cove on my first day in town. Maybe it hadn’t been there, or I hadn’t needed it yet.
Pulling aside the quilted flap at the teepee’s entrance, I ducked inside. I don’t know how or why, but I understood that this was where I’d find what I’d come for, that this was where the secret exchanges took place.
A black dugout pit radiated in the center of the space, a few weak embers smoldering there, sending out a glow that faded quickly into near total darkness. The atmospheric pressure seemed to have changed, too. I was shielded here from the stickiness outside. The air was cool and dry and scented lightly with patchouli — ah, patchouli, that musty toe-jam glaze that announced the rot while concealing it.
I thought at first that the teepee was empty. There wasn’t much there. A three-legged stool. A tin cup partly filled with stagnant water. A large pile of pressed-felt blankets in the shadows near the wall. But then I heard something, a sound like a latch clicking open, and the blankets stirred and my eyes began to adjust to the dark and they weren’t blankets at all — or they weren’t many, but one, draped over shoulders. The pile slid toward me.
A hunched figure, obese, on wheels. An ancient woman in a squeaky wheelchair. Her coarse gray hair covered her face. I’d bought dope from sketchier, more surprising people than this before.
“Is this the right place?” I asked. “I hope it’s okay. I just figured I’d try…”
The wheelchair pivoted and came to a halt. The woman’s head drooped almost to her knees.
“I’m not a cop,” I said.
The head shook, like a spasm, the warm-up to a seizure.
“So, I mean, what would it run me? Just for a taste?”
She labored and wheezed with each breath, fighting her weight. Then her breathing seemed to stop, and I thought for a moment that I was going to witness her dying. She slid an arm out from under her blanket, dislodging it, sending it falling from her shoulders into a lump on the ground, and pulled her hair out of her face, ran her hand across the length of her skull, then let it rest there at the base of her neck. I recognized this hand, the smoothness of the pale, near-olive skin, like it belonged to someone much younger than her, the creases at the joints where the fat buckled on itself, the way the tips of the fingers retained the elegance of the thin woman trapped inside this massive body. It was my mother’s hand.
She raised her head to see me.
She said my name. She said, “Be bold, be brave, don’t be afraid of anything, for I, the Lord, your God, am with you always.” She was firm. She was strong. For once she wasn’t crying.
When I reached out to strangle her, my hands went right through her.