38,000 feet and landing in the bright blue sky. We’ve begun our steady descent. It looks normal enough, landing in Cancun, and I figure I’ll be in time for Thanksgiving dinner with Harold, somewhere rustic, street food with lime in the moonlight. Depressingly, after power-walking while applying lip gloss thinking I’m about to collect my luggage, I emerge into a loud crowd, disorganized lines composed of young couples in leggings with babies and I gradually lose track of the people from my flight. I get in the line that looks the shortest: this is Immigration. It’s moving pretty fast. I pull out my passport and customs form and turn off my phone after signing off with Harold; he will pick me up in 40 minutes. My cell is only on 42% and my charger’s on the fritz, yeesh. Eventually, it’s my turn. A lady stamps my passport.
I’m here for a few days, just to hang. Casual as a cucumber.
A man is running next to me like we’re in a half marathon, but I’m strutting along in heeled booties trying to get outside.
“Do you need a ride?”
“No thanks, amigo,” I’m focused on, well, I don’t know, I figure there should be an Exito around here somewhere.
“You gotta friend?” Another man with a clipboard and official-looking headset is suddenly next to me.
“No, I’m saying my friend is picking me up,” I reply.
“Who is he?” A very suave man with slicked back black hair, black shirt and white tie appears from behind a high-top table. Suddenly I am in a random a casino-esque lounge.
“Uh, Har – wait a minute, who are YOU?”
Black shirt-and-tie guy punches something into his phone, gold and diamonds on every finger. The scene inside the room is utter pandemonium, men everywhere, on cell phones, walkie talkies, waving at me, asking me where I’m going and who I’m with. A man pops out from inside of a fern.
I dial Harry’s number.
“I’m like, here, I think,” I say into my cell.
“Ok, but…where exactly?”
“Can you guys tell me where my friend can pick me up?”
“Oh, friends and family exit, friends and family exit”, more guys swarm around me and beckon me here, no, there, no, into another mysterious enclave.
But to where exactly, I’m not sure. I plug my other ear to muffle the noise of all these guys asking me questions. From the looks of this scene, you would think I’m Britney, or Lindsay, or Paris Hilton getting hounded by the paparazzi.
“Ok stop!” I shout. “Who are all you people!”
I roll my suitcase onward until I’m outside, finally, and inhaling the sweet Mexican air. Palm fronds surround a line of white sedans circling around the friends and family area and outdoor margarita bar; I call Harold to let him know I am outside.
So wow this is really going down. If Harold wasn’t already down in Cancun and settled in, I’d worry about being ghosted. But, he arrived yesterday and secured the Airbnb in the Hoteleria District, which is apparently right on the beach and only $69 a night. (Although I’m not paying, the significance of this 69 was not lost on me).
“Ok, I will find you. I’m in a white car,” Harold says.
Gee, that narrows it down.
Ahhh, the glorious sun, the heat, the…impending fiestas. Will we hook up? Will we even get along? I’ve never been to any tropical destinations with a beau before, unless you count Ohio. This is a big step for me.
Before long, I see a small white car pull to a curb so I roll my suitcase over there. Harold exits a very, very petite Toyota “Beat.” He has board shorts on, maybe even the same pair as New Orleans, and a blue tee shirt with a fish on it.
“Hey,” Harold gives me a kiss and puts my suitcase in the extremely tiny “trunk.” Casual as a cucumber. The air is hot and dry, and as I squeeze into the passenger seat of the Toyota Beat, I smile with relief.
“How’s the room?” I roll the window down and let the breeze blow through my hair.
“It’s nice,” he says, and yawns. “I ended up staying in a hostel downtown last night because I messed up the dates.”
“Yeah, I mean,” yawn, “it’s on the tourist strip,” he continues.
“I am definitely down to explore,” I say. Harold and I were texting about Mexican wildlife and Mayan ruins.
We drive down a narrow strip lined with resorts one after the other for miles – Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood – and American restaurants like Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings, plus tattoo shops and souvenir stands, COVID test sites, liquor stores- until we get to the very end. Our hotel has an old-timey Aztec vibe, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else staying here. We drive up a curved driveway like at the Chateau Marmont. The halls have stucco walls, terra cotta accents and a steep dusty rose painted staircase we climb to reach up to our room. “4619.” Harold unlocks the paneled wooden door. When we get into the room, it’s just as nice as the Airbnb listing – a big, panoramic window showcases palm trees and a breathtaking view of the ocean, wide sandy shore and pure cerulean waves as far as the eye can see. The air is fresh, oh so fresh. There’s one bed in the middle of the room, sparse, crisp white linens, and no other guests in sight.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d brought a bunch of your bros from the Quisby,” I say. I mean, who knows, I thought maybe even another random girl got invited here.
“No, I only invited you.”
This still might be an undercover taping of Bachelor in Paradise, I wonder. I go into the bathroom to change. I mean, this is only the second time we’ve hung out. After I change into a bikini and shorts and a little peasant blouse, Harold kisses me again. And thus, our date night begins, out in downtown Cancun. We sit side by side on the beach, and listen to the waves. I draw a heart in the sand, then rub it away. I’m uncharacteristically self-conscious, but Harold doesn’t seem aware. As the sun sets in tropical orange hues, we pack into the Beat and go off in search of a place to eat.
“You are dressed too casual,” says a hot hostess with opulent cleavage at the first place we roll up to, in the Hoteleria District, and they had a valet. This place might be too rich for our kind, or at least on the first night. “But you can select a jacket,” she points to a rack of random garments, 80’s gowns and plaid suit coats and pants – which might be a lost-and-found or dinner-theatre costume closet.
“Er, I think we came to the wrong place,” I gaze over at Harold. “Let’s see what else is out there.”
We shuffle out of there on sandy soles, and after a very long traffic jam due to some kind of protest of peaceful teens, wind up in the dirty and derelict downtown regions of Cancun proper.
Cats gnaw on taco shells in shadowy alleys as men mutter “hola” and we wind up on swings in a random run-down playground. We slide into a taco stand, and try some large and extremely sugary pina colada slushies. Back home, I know everyone is chowing down on turkey and pie with their grandma and watching football – but here I am with tacos and toucans and a mysterious dude procured in New Orleans. But I don’t like football or turkey, and all my grandparents died.
‘You doing ok?” I think Harold is referencing the down and out streets were have found ourselves wandering down.
“Oh yeah, I’m great.” I think Harold might be a gentleman. Although, I’m used to grimy scenes. “Just a little tired, that’s all.”
We cross the street and gaze up at a rooftop club with booty-thumping music.
“Aw dude, they’re playing Boosie,” Harold says.
“Lil Boosie!?” Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. It’s kind of hot Harold can recognize a Lil Boosie track from the early 2000’s. “Wasn’t he in prison for murder?”
“Oh yeah, he’s murdered tons of people. He’s out, I guess,” Harold says, but we pass by the club without going in.
“Have you ever been in prison?” I ask
“I used to steal cars as a teen,” Harold says, “And juvie is like prison in Alaska.”
After wandering some more, the flashing lights of trashy tee shirt stores and money exchanges and rapido test swab stations starts to hurt our eyes and we both unanimously crawl in the Beat and head back to the villa. Driving down the narrow palm-lined thoroughfare again, this time a giant ferris wheel, the largest I’ve ever seen, catches my eye.
“How tired are you?” Harold asks.
“Well, kind of tired, but not like I could just fall asleep right here or anything.”
“I’m crazy so, I’m all about going on that ferris wheel.”
“Let’s do it!” I put my hand on his knee.
The extremely-large Ferris Wheel is actually part of a mall, with an ice cream shop, and a swan shaped boat floating below us in a crystal clear moat, as we stand side by side on a romantic drawbridge. The ceilings are festooned with twinkling lights and bows. Oh yeah, Christmas is next month. There is even a random Rolex store.
“I feel like those are fake,” I am seriously skeptical of this random Rolex store. “Probably made by the cartel…”
“Oh it is,” Harold agrees.
Harold and I enter into an air conditioned ferris wheel dome. The door closes around us and as we get higher, and higher, and still even HIGHER, the whole hotel district pans out below us, with a big T Rex and a roller-coaster, Louis Vuitton and hotels, Caesar’s Palace even swear to God, neon signs for days. I’ve never been this high in my life!
“Eeeek,” I sit on Howard’s lap and look over the edge of our seat.
“I’ve been looking into visiting Truth and Consequences, New Mexico,” Harold says. “I have a trailer near Las Cruces.”
“Wow cool, I’ve always wanted to go to New Mexico.”
“Everyone is strange, I guess, with their own personal hot spring and just hang out in robes all day.”
“Cool!” Sounds like my kind of party. Sadly, after several revolutions, the ferris wheel parks. I’m still on Harold’s lap when the ferris wheel operator pokes his head in.
“Five more minutes?” I give him my best puppy-dog eyes.
“No, sorry,” he says, nicely.
“Gracias amigo,” Harold says.
“Gracia,” I reply, diminutively.
We stop to buy beer and wine at Europa Mart. I exchange U.S. dollars for bright colored pesos via Harold’s ATM card. Once we are back in our villa, we pour ourselves drinks to bring down to the beach. Now night has fallen and I have never seen so many stars. The sky glimmers like a Vegas showgirl. Harold and I gaze up, and try to identify constellations from inside an abandoned thatched hut.
Waves bang against the shore in smooth rhythmic succession, turning into frothy foam on contact. I lean back and dig my feet in sand as soft and white as El Chapo’s stash. We let our bodies do the talking with no one watching except the moon. Then, Harold starts to come…inside, unexpectedly.
We sink into a sand dune, bodies intertwined.
“I was going to ask, are you on birth control at all?”
“Er, no. ..”
“I know…I was just thinking about that.” It’s actually really hard to worry, right now, about anything.
“We can pick up Plan B tomorrow,” we both say at the same time. “The generic Mexican version!”
An explosive sunrise bursts into our room before 8 a.m.; day two in Cancun, and not a soul around except the Mayan Sun God ready to party. Yes we are travelers, but first we are bums. Beach bums, bum lovers, with no surprise camera crew in sight. But then I remember that we do have an important errand to run during our beach commute.
“The Pharmacia,” memories of last night, the vacant beach bar, all come crashing back to me.
“We’ll stop on the way,” Harold reassures. I’m riding a wave called trust, and so far I haven’t died.
We score a few hotcakes on the poolside patio (which are more stiff than American pancakes and stand straight up in your hand instead of flopping over), then cruise out of the Hotel District in search of another beach.
“Cuatro seis uno nueve” he tells the security girl as we drive off.
Seems like Harold’s got it all figured out, like he’s got a chip implanted in his head, for today Playa del Carmen is calling our names. We stop at a corner bodega with wooden floors and boys chowing on tortas; I buy a giant water and mango yogurt. We’re in the thick of bright green leaves fanning around us, it’s pretty jugular out here in Quinta Roo. We drive on, passing outdoor adventure parks and resorts tucked into jungle foliage.
“Are there toucans in there?” I researched Mexican wildlife and have been obsessed with seeing, possibly, iguanas, toucans and coutis.
“They are probably all working on the tourist strip,” Harold says.
“Forced to take photos all day,” I sigh. “Probably all signed with agents.”
After a while, we reach an urban area under a highway overpass, and despite crazy traffic, there aren’t any car accidents. Even though there aren’t any stop signs on stripes on the road differentiating lanes, pedestrians crossing wherever they please and bicyclists all over the place, nope, I haven’t seen one fender bender, or ambulance for that matter. We pass white stucco corner stores, a parking lot flea market, even an “adult” boutique garners my attention. Finally, Harry navigates to a back-alley parking lot. A guy with a ponytail hangs out of a window and Harold gives him a few pesos.
We’ve got our beach towels under one arm, and link our other arms while strolling down the sidewalk. Cute shops call my name with brightly-colored embroidered textiles and pinatas fluttering in the breeze. This is Confessions of a Shopaholic: South of the Border edition. “Pharmacias” abound, advertising Viagra Viagra Viagra, muscle relaxers, Plan B. I scurry up to the first one I see, and google “Mexican Plan B” and hold my phone out to the girl with smoky black eyeliner working behind the counter.
“Do you have this?” She at first looks confused but soon enough hands me a paper box for 100 pesos, or $5.00 USD, that I pop right away.
“Maybe I”ll start to trip out,” I say.
“For you one dollar, miss, MISS!” Men chase me at every turn.
“Dollar for what?” I seriously don’t know.
“This hat!” He waves a straw fedora painted with the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL logo.
“Oh, if you had Buffalo Bills, maybe.”
“Here!” The man retreats to his stand and pulls a Buffalo Bills painted fedora from behind a tapestry.
“Only a dollar?” I look at Harry as the salesman puts the hat on my head and holds up a mirror – I look pretty damn cute.
“For you, a dollar -” the salesman pauses dramatically, “Off.”
“Ugh!” I clutch Harold’s hand. “I’ll think about it!”
On and on we stroll in a tight knit shopping district, a cross between Melrose Ave. and Super Flea, surfwear, rocker tees, jewelry, cigars, bongs – it’s all very sparkly, and I love sparkly things. There’s a jeweler with gems in the window; I did plan to return to work rocking a ring to start a rumor I was engaged, so we enter into a dark tent with cellophane wrapped necklaces hanging all around, and rings in a case at the very back. Already a guy in a billowing, Guy Fierri-esque print beckons me back there holding up a board stacked with rings. There are all a cool smoky quartz hue. I put on a heart-shaped one.
“Come see it in the sun.” He pushes me back into the sun. I hold it up; it’s allegedly sterling silver, and in the sunlight, the heart stone turns from smoky off-white to lavender.
“Love it!” I look at Harold; he’s totally chill but about to crack up. It’s not lost on me that public appearance is that, well, we’re a couple, and it must be serious, I mean, maybe even our honeymoon.
“How much senor?” Harold asks studiously.
“Eight thousands pesos, senor,” says the overzealous associate.
Harry starts tabulating on the calculator sitting on the glass case. He holds it up for me to see.
“Oh jeez, $432.00?” I am not about to spend that much, even though it is kind of cute and romantic. I would not even want Harold to dole out that much.
“For you, only,” the man starts to give me the increasingly-familiar line.
“Sorry, it’s not my style,” I hand the ring back to him.
“Miss, miss, I can really give you a good deal,” he tells me, following us out of his tent.
“I will think about it.”
“But what will you do without it?” He looks sad, playing for sympathy, but I’m hightailing it back out to the strip.
“I’ll come back later.”
“Just put it on again and I’ll make you a deal,” the man follows us up to the entrance to the tent and onto the street.
“I really don’t even like it that much,” I whisper in Harold’s ear.
“Get a new boyfriend!” the sales guy is pissed, appears alongside us shaking his fist. “Your boyfriend is a loser, get a new boyfriend!” His angry yells dissolve into the pandemonium of the shopping strip, as we pass another pharmacia.
“He’s a nut,” I say. “I truly do not want the ring.” But a tattoo is not out of the question.
After a while the boutiques and taco pits and $10 hostels thin out, and sand creeps between our toes. We’ve arrived on the beach, just like that. The sand is cashmere soft. The sun is like a laser beam. We wave away kids approaching us with beaded bird keychains and the like.
Harry and I unroll our towels. Tranquil blue waves roll in and out. Umbrella chairs abound.
“Pina, pina, pina,” a petite sun-scorched man pushes in a wheelbarrow past us overflowing with pineapples. “Pina pina pina,” he repeats on down the beach. Another man pushes a wheelbarrow full of coconuts. Harold buys one for us, and the coconut man hacks in open with a machete and sticks a straw in.
“Gracias amigo,” says Harold. We sip coconut water and I rub tanning oil on his back.
“Hola amigo,” a shady hustler type-of fellow crouches down to our beach towels. “I have cocaine, weed. The good stuff,”
“No, senor,” Harold says. After a few mutterings and protestations, the shifty-eyed hustler leaves. Weed is not cool to be smoking here, unless you want to be robbed of your passport and thrown in Mexican jail.
“Damn, we have been offered cocaine, cigars and coconuts in less than 30 seconds,” I say.
The waves lap in and out. Eventually Harold and I drift over to the beachside taco bar. We hang on swings, and I stand on mine to survey the beach scene – popular, a little touristy, but ultimately very boho. We take a seat at a romantic little table. Harold orders us spicy margs and the creamiest guacamole I’ve ever tasted in my life. Next, fish tacos. Maybe it’s the saltwater – the super-fresh catch of the day with a squeeze of lime makes me want to stand on the table and sing opera!
“Have you ever made love – to a fish?!” Harold loves to eat too and his eyes are kind of rolling around in his head, so I think this fish might have aphrodisiac qualities. The salty spicy rim of my margarita – local tequila- is also putting me at ease, perhaps for the first time during this tropical vacation. After a few more sips,a few more chews, Harold starts to open up.
“I have two daughters,” he suddenly blurts out. “They are grown now, 16 and 18.”
“Really?” I choke on my marg on the rocks. “You must have had them young”.
“Yeah…But we hang out sometimes.”
“Oh, wow. Cool.” I say.
“Cuatro seis uno nueve,” Harold tells the security lady and we cruise downhill away from our Aztec villa.
We park along a zooming thoroughfare on the water, and cross with the assistance of polite iguanas crossing with us as well. Before we even gain entry to the beach, Playa Tortugas – which is a port of departure for the ferry to Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women – at least 10 guys with brochures swarm around us selling cruise tickets, fishing excursion passes, swim with the dolphins amigo and photo ops – Harold repeats himself saying “no senor, no gracias amigos” until we are right on the water, which is a bright blue Gatorade hue. Harold removes his shirt; he’s extremely sweaty and slightly defined. We lounge on a big old rock.
“Do you listen to Rancid?” I inquire.
“No – what kind of music are they, metal?”
“No, no, punk rock.”
Among smooth boulders we navigate downhill to the bright blue ocean – deliciously salty and serene. It’s great to float, and remove any insecurities and the memories of things happening back in Buffalo, NY. I could stay here all day. But, Harold tells me that the ferry is coming very soon.
There’s a guy standing on the rock about 20 feet from us, younger than us from the looks of him, maybe 19 or 20.
“Hey there,” I call out. “Would you mind taking a picture of us?”
“Sure,” the blond boy says, taking my cell as I pose with Harold, my arm around his waist side-by-side, and I am not so sure if this angle is flattering (it’s not, we look like just bros, but Harold’s hair is flapping in the breeze so it makes for a fun picture anyway).
“Where are you from?” Harold asks.
“Ukraine,” the kid says. “I was supposed to meet my parents here but they couldn’t get over the border.”
“They didn’t have the right documentation.” ***
“Hmmm…” We look at each other. “That’s too bad.”
Just like that a big ferry boat parks at the edge of the craggy coast. We wander towards the pier, waving bye to the Ukrainian kid and to the huddle of pelicans hanging on the rocks.
“Are these storks?” I ask a tour guide.
“Ahh, maybe a baby for you two,” He winks.
“No, no, not possible…” I reply, wistfully, remembering yesterday at the pharmacia. “Thank God..”
The ferry pulls up alongside the dock, and the pelicans eye us skeptically as we climb aboard the upper deck, with the wind in our hair and cans of cold cerveza in our hands. The ferry sets off with a honk, and a girl holds out a photograph surreptitiously taken of us from when we were waiting out on the dock.
“For the beautiful couple,” she says and holds it out to me.
“Oh wow, that is a good picture,” I start to take it from her.
“Five dollars,” she says.
“Oh, ugh, no thanks.” I hand it back.
“She should have just let us keep it,’ Harold says. “They are just going to throw it away.”
“You’re right. What a waste.”
Hence, the disposable illusion of reality. Or this pseudo-romantic faux-honeymoon which, let’s face it, might be the only honeymoon I ever go on. But if so, the hot wind in my hair and crisp cerveza in my throat, and calm-as-ever Harold tranced out next to me, well, aren’t many content with mere illusions constituting their reality? If appearance is everything, haven’t I hit the jackpot?
Loosely-arranged letters spell out “Scooter Rental” and Harold takes my hand and leads me into a sandy showroom replete with young sweaty and shirtless dudes. One of them hands Harold a clipboard to fill out, and rows of neon green scooters are lined up for visitors to rent. After Harold completes the paperwork, we are given a key and I strap my super heavy mermaid beach bag over my shoulder and put my arms around Harold’s back, slick with sweat and tanning oil. We start out slow, chugging around, but pretty soon we’ve gained momentum and weave around golf carts, up hills and around the periphery of the beach. A roadside DJ is ensconced inside lush bushes.
“Yeah, DJ!” I wave behind me, pointing at the DJ and fruity margaritas being shaken.
Harold continues on for an hour or so – up sandy hills and winding breezy roads, until we reach the end and park across from miles and miles of ocean.
“Let’s go see some Mayan roons,” says Harold.
After sipping a fine tequila from a snifter amidst Mayan ruins, we locate a no-frills seafood shack called “Picus” and sit right on a boat dock.
“Maybe we should go snorkeling after?” suggests Harold.
I’m digging into my first, perhaps only, pinot grigio of the day, and maybe Harry isn’t as much of a wino as me. But once our meal arrives, grilled fresh catch and the creamiest beans to ever exist, well, I’m content to sit here until the end of eternity, especially after a live band begins with a blond gypsy woman shaking a tambourine. I toss all my loose pesos into their tip jar.
“Let’s dance!” I dedicate myself to letting loose, but alas, the beach beckons me forward.
We lay down upon the smooth sand and Harry sinks into a nap. I snap a photo of our butts; we are beach bums, snorkel bums, what more could you ask for?
Suddenly, I realize an older gentleman, in a brimmed hat and belted slacks, is staring down at me on my beach towel.
“Allow me?” he says and begins to strum a romantic tune upon a miniature guitar.
“Gracias amigo,” says Harold.
The sun drops like a big red disco ball in the sky. Isla Mujeres is utterly my favorite beach thus far.
Once we dry off, we scooter over to the ferry stop. Drifting through hazy avenues, cute wine bars and clothing stands seem to be sweeping up for the evening. The Virgin Mary glows in the middle of a concrete pavilion. We score hot churros from a stand offering an array of smears, peanut butter, whipped cream, pineapple jelly. We share one, me nibbling since I feel like being with Harold is a never-ending smorgasbord of food and I would never starve being in his presence but I worry about weight gain. From somewhere in the distance, a techno song plays.
“I’ve heard this song before.” I say.
“No sunscreen. No beer,” are painted on wood signs along the sandy path to Cenote Azul. My sunscreen is reef safe but I decide to rinse beneath the outdoor shower with Harold. You can buy a snorkel for a few pesos at the snorkel shack. We arrive at a crystalline, royal blue reservoir. There’s a handful of young travelers from all over, judging from the motley array of accents, speckled around the craggy rocks and submerged in the perfect blue-green water. Beneath the surface are underwater caves, which stretch for miles and miles in subterranean splendor. We climb down the smooth rocks and delve into the blue deep. It’s fresh and pure. I float face-down and grab Harold’s back and let him pull me around like a human jet-ski. Crystals shimmer underwear with lots of little fish down there.
People are jumping off a decently-tall cliff, which juts over a waterfall right in front of us. Before even taking a second to think, Harold and I emerge from the water and climb stone steps up to the top of the cliff. Harold takes my hand.
“One…Two…..” we chant in unison. “Eeeeek!”
As I free fall, still clutching Harold’s paw, my top is just about to fly up, but doesn’t, until I’m pushed deep deep down into the pool.
“Wooo!” I spring back into reality. “Refreshing!”
The unadulterated sun beats down. Feeling fresh and pure, bobbing around the cenote like a comfortable couple who share a Netflix account back home, Harold continues to pull me around the pool with my legs wrapped around his hips.
“I’m kind of popping a chub,” he says.
“The guy with the snorkel must be getting an eyeful,” I say, because I do feel something tightening in his trunks.
“My German roommate from the Quisby says we can come over for dinner,” Harold says. “So we can stay here another hour or so and then we’ll go?”
Up until now I didn’t realize we’d be going out for the evening with mutual friends.
“Oh that’s right – from the hostel in New Orleans.” It all flashes back to me now, yah yah yah and the goatee and how he left the room to “go down for a drink” so Harold and I could hook up. Coincidentally, he is down here in Mexico too.
“With a girlfriend,” Harold tells me.
We dry off beneath elegant palm fronds, and head into a bustling metropolitan strip not far away. There is a rustic coffee shop, a Victoria’s Secret with a chupacabra strutting past, faux Ray-bans for sale at a stand. An all white liquor store is lit up with tequila in the window, looking magnificent. Harold wanders into a tee shirt store and buys a tee with a Legends of the Hidden temple-style design. We sit across from each other at the rustic cafe; Harold is quiet, pensive…not really that energetic, but I try to mirror his energy.
Tourists filter in and out of the various shops and stands, amidst archipelago-style apartment complexes. We walk hand in hand for a while, until a short man in all-white linen accosts us as we round a corner.
“Tequila tasting, senor?” He addresses Harold. “Follow me.”
The tequila hustler leads us down the alleyway and through an outdoor mall ; then we loop around to the majestic and sparkling liquor store, air-conditioned and bright. The man leads the way to a table where crystalline tequila bottles chill in ice buckets. There is tons of liquor in wooden cases. I’m not sure if Harold likes to drink as much as I do, but I certainly would not be opposed.
“This is a local recipe,” he hands us chilled shot cups, which we toss back and my thirst is instantly quenched.
“Yum,” I say.
“Que paso?” Harold says.
“Two thousands pesos, senor,” the tequila salesman tells us, and Harold calculates the total on his phone to be $128.
“Hmmm,” I nudge Harold, but he is already on to the hustle.
“ATM, senor?” he asks.
“Si, follow me,” says the tequila hustler.
The man leads us through the airy mall down red-brick paths, under trellised archways and past multiple other whiskey-and-wine shops advertising competitive prices. He takes us right up to an ATM vestibule then holds out an open palm.
“Sorry amigo,” I say and follow Harold into the bank vestibule. Afterwards, we pick up a reasonably priced bottle of dark tequila from one of the mall liquor stores and head to where Flem is staying.
Glaring rays reflect off white stucco apartments as we shuffle into the semi-swanky reception area. The desk guy asks who we are there to see.
“I don’t know his name,” Harold tells him. I guess he has been corresponding with Flem, last name unknown, exclusively through Instagram messenger and doesn’t know what room he is staying in. Flem has been staying here a month, traveling around Mexico with a Latina girl, Hannah, as well as another friend named Hanky, an Asian guy based in the Netherlands.
After Flem replies to Harold’s DM, we wander through the hostel/apartment complex, more urbane and landlocked than our dreamy abode. In the kitchen, Hanky’s dicing parsley while Flem peppers the raw steak. Mounds of meat and raw veggies sit on the counter with plastic Walmart bags bunched all around.
“Walmarts are the same here as in the States,” says Hanky, “Just they are bumping reggaeton.”
Hannah is perched on a stool at the kitchen island while Flem dices bok choi and Hanky stirs the mashed potatoes adding butter, lots and lots of butter.
While the food is simmering, Harry and I break into the tequila, which I am steadily sipping alongside a cold beer.
“So is she coming to Thailand with you?” Hanky asks Harold, chewing mashed potatoes with his mouth open, looking side to side at me and then Harold, Harold and then me.
“No, I’m going back to Buffalo, New York” I say, slowly. “I’m not going to Thailand.” Or am I? I mean, I wouldn’t be opposed to visiting. Besides, will Harold actually move there, like he mentioned to me back in New Orleans?
“I’m going to Guatemala next,” says Hannah. “I run an ethically-sourced clothing line sold on Instagram,” and she shows me her page, which is really chic with plenty of mustard and burnt sienna hued garments modeled near palm trees. “Cool.”
After dinner, we all soak in a chlorinated hot tub in a brick courtyard outside. I scooch up to Harold and stroke him underwear as Hannah and Flem get cozy and Hanky is left in a corner by himself but doesn’t seem to mind.
“What does that tattoo mean?” Hannah asks Harold about one of his many tattoos, a stick figure man with a heart for a head.
“It was for a girl I knew in high school,” Harold has a starry twinkle in his eyes.
Harold is either very romantic, and/or the most impulsive dude I’ve ever met.
I am not sure where I fit in with this rag-tag group of travelers, or where I fit with Harold, for that matter.
Back at the abode, surrounded by cacti shaped like pin cushions, Harold tells the door guard “Cuatro seis uno nueve,” and the corners of her eyes crinkle from a smile beneath her mask.
“She has a crush on you,” I say, my hand on his knee.
Wow, I can’t believe we’re really here, and it’s halfway into our trip. We climb the dusty rose steps, and Harold pours tequila from an Art Deco bottle. I refill our waters from a motorized cooler on the floor full of fresh h20. Before you ask, the water in Mexico has not bothered me, and I’ve consumed plenty of ice cubes, brushed my teeth, the works. We take our tumblers to the balcony and enjoy the balmy breeze.
Lighting palo santo incense in a seashell, Harry shows me a video from two travel influencers on Youtube who are in Tulum.
“Where can I go where it isn’t too touristy?,” the skinny white chick asks a Lyft driver in the video.
“Everywhere is touristy, amiga,” he says, as they film him from the backseat and then they go to a Charles Schwab ATM.
“Ugh, is that the thing now, for tourists to say they aren’t touristy?”
“They’re travelers,” Harold says.
“If I was the Mexican driver I’d send them to the tequila hustler in the mall, haha! He would be so happy with me, he’d call me and say thank you, you sent a bunch of white kids my way and they all had trust funds!”
Harold bursts out laughing. I sit on his lap, and indulge in more sips of tequila and the sun sinks down and the moon is bright and illuminates our scantily-clad selves. I untie my bikini top and start to make out with Harold until soon I am bent over the balcony!
“Hola the ventana!” a lady shouts from somewhere in the distance, “Window!”
“Oh my god, “ I yank away from Harold and fling myself across the cool crisp bed. “Someone saw us!”
We are driving an hour south to Tulum, to the Yucatan Peninsula, where the Eurotrash Posse has another hostel booked for a month, and Harold and I are to spend the day. Harry told them during our steak dinner that we’d drive them and then we all probably will hit the beach.
Hannah hands me a chia seed berry smoothie with almond milk. Charmed. Hanky puts on a flamingo-print muscle tank. Hannah Marie, Hanky, and Flem squeezed all their belongings into single backpacks, except Hanky who has a serious mountain-climber situation strapped to himself.
The Eurotrash Posse bags up the rest of their kale and leave an overflowing trash can despite a $30 cleaning fee and self-professed frugality.
“Whatever, just leave it,” says Hannah Marie, and I roll my eyes but don’t take out the trash, either.
I open my guidebook to locate Mayan ruins. Stopped at a red light rolling into Tulum proper, a clown juggles in the middle of the intersection for our amusement.
“So what do you do for a living, Hanky?” I inquire. He seems pretty loaded.
“You know the bots that buy out concert tickets, that was me,” he says.
“Thank God my friend in Guatemala let me move in with him after my apartment was burglarized in Daytona Beach,” Hannah is talking to Harold, not to me. In fact, I’m not sure if she’s dating Flem or just trying to assemble an Instagrammable travel posse. Flem’s on the phone speaking in German to his family.
“So what’s your monthly budget for traveling around the world?” asks Harold.
“Like $1,000,” says Hanky, “for food and lodging, $30 a day. But not including fun stuff to do.”
“Are you guys all vaccinated?” says Harold.
“No,” the Eurotrash Posse says in unison and I roll the window down.
We pull into a sandy parking lot amidst paths heading to boho chic beach clubs and a coffee shop called Potheads. Hanky starts quibbling with the parking attendant about the 20 peso ($1.00 USD) daily parking fee until Hannah speaks proper Spanish to him with rolled r’s. We decide to leave the car there and head into Potheads, then Sfer Ik Tulum, and meander around a boutique with $400.00 hemp trousers and palo santo infusing the mood.
After driving a few miles down a narrow sandy path lined with boho beach clubs, as well as entire families gawking at me “because you are a gringa,” as Hannah tells it, I just scowl in their direction. “I’m sick of being stared at!” I pull my sun hat down over my face. Eventually, the trail leads us into the enclave that contains miles of Mayan ruins.
The scorching heat is boiling my body into a very unsexy blotchy red hue. Harold’s removed his shirt and wrapped it around his head like a turban. I’m chugging water; Hannah, Hanky and Flem don’t seem fazed (by much of anything).
We trek up narrow stone-lined ledges, around vast jugular caverns, and through rolling hills of ancient rock formations. Sadly, my daydream of flashing Harold from inside a shadowy cave is destroyed when I realize the actual ruins are off limits and barricaded by tape, as well as super-serious security dudes blowing into shrill ear piercing whistles when a tourist gets too close. Hannah and Hanky are off posing for the ‘Gram.
I wish they would just go away,” I’m thinking, seriously perturbed. “This is so not about them.”
I’m fantasizing about quenching my thirst with a spicy marg on the beach, lying next to Harold.
“SQEEEEEEEEEEE!” Blasts the security guard on his whistle, piercing through my fantasy like razor wire. Just need to trudge onward…Just need to make it through. Harold and I are sweating buckets.
We trek uphill through jungle foliage as we lose track of the Eurotrash Posse, but when we reach the end of the ruins and it’s time for the beach, they all reappear.
‘So how does this compare to the jungles of Cambodia?” I turn to Hanky.
“Oh, nothing compares,” he says right away. “It is as if you have entered true hell.”
We are back on the sandy path and head down to the beach, past wooden stalls shilling cervezas. Harry buys two after I turn to him with my whiny, sweat-soaked face.
“Ahhhh.” The crisp ice cold beer instantly chills, doesn’t kill, my vibe. We drifts down to Tulum beach, where the ocean looks more neon blue, the sky is magnified and magnificent, and the scene is perfectly glamping and posh. Tents and teepees abound with chic little RVs bedecked with beads and torches in a totally unfussy aesthetic. Surfboards are stuck in the sand and advertise margarita huts and dance clubs where shoes are a non factor.
I lay out on my beach towel, turning redder by the second no matter how much reef-safe coconut SPF I slather on. Hannah, Hanky, Flem and Harry all went into the ocean for a swim, and I’m out here on the towel to watch their stuff, I guess. Hannah jumps into Flem’s arms, and Harry kind of bobs around with them for a while. They chat and connect over God knows what, and I feel totally left out and alone. The sun scorches my scalp and panic sets in deeper than a scalding burn – I’m alone, I’m abandoned, Harold doesn’t even care about me and I’m a loser. That’s what I’m thinking as I abandon our bags and set out in search of a baño. I just want five minutes alone, which I haven’t had in God knows how long. I just need a reprieve from this anxiety beating down on me like the sun.
“SQEEEEE” shrieks another whistle, this time being blown directly at me by a man in neutral fatigues with an AK-47. “MASK!” He shrieks at me, as I stand there alone outside the only portapotty in sight, which I found after passing more cerveza stands but my pesos are running low. Now that I’m alone, I’ll need to conserve my funds. I guess I’ll just die here, alone.
Back on the towel…I surrender in child’s pose and feel tears running down my stupid red face. What the fuck is wrong with me?
Everyone is back, surrounding me, looking at me.
“Where’d you go?” Harry asks, looking a little concerned. I was only gone for maybe ten minutes.
“I just needed a minute alone. Sorry.”
“You were going all turbo,” says Harold. “Want to get a margarita?”
After a salty, spicy marg rimmed in cayenne powder (DROOL), a couple chilled cans of Especial, we find Flem and Hanky lounging on towels in the sand, so we lay next to them while Hannah Marie plays a pick-up game of beach volleyball.
“I just got my passport last year,” Harold says.
“Why so late?” sneers Hanky.
“I owed a lot of child support, so…” the thought drifts away, hangs there in the hot air. Harold is either too laid-back about things…or just doesn’t really care about things, I’m thinking. Hmmm.
After hours spent luxuriating at Tulum beach, where the beautiful people wear thong bikinis and lizards roam free, we drop off the Eurotrash Posse at their new hostel, a second-story apartment with “Fuck the Police” spray-painted in graffiti on the side. They leave iced coffee cups all in the backseat, but I am too relieved by their departure to care. I breathe a deep sigh when they are finally gone.
“Let’s go have a romantic dinner somewhere,” Harold says.
We walk down the street past open air taco carts into an upscale bistro with white curtained partitions and raw wood tables. A DJ mixes electronic tracks in the corner while Harold and I get cozy in the dark. Before long, we have shrimp ceviche in a coconut shell, salmon with queso fresca, and lamb shanks brought by a sexy waiter who looks like Jack Sparrow.
“This is a much better vibe,” Harold whispers in my ear.
I am wearing my fish dress with the beaded straps, and go to third base on the hour’s drive home; with such an endless amount of stars in the sky, can things ever go wrong?
Harold and I slug at a snail’s pace leaving the mercato, stuffed to the brim with Aztec lime soup, eggs divorciados, and a guava smoothies.
A kid blows into a flute that upon further inspection is shaped like boobs. Another man waves towards his stall of tropical print dresses.
“Hola amigo, no senor, hola amigo, no senor,” we drone on and on through the mercato and back to Harold’s rental car.
“Have you ever been married?” I thought the eggs divorciados was the perfect intro to asking about his marital status.
“No, never,” he says.
It was another meal of Harold ordering everything off the menu, of us staring out into the postcard-like abyss, and me trying to fill the “comfortable” silences trying to get to know him. We head to a COVID-testing trailer across from a tattoo parlor and he pays for my $20 test, with a little less than two hours left before my plane takes off.
“I have to sleep overnight in the airport because I was drunk as hell when I booked my flights,” Harold tells me . “Then I have a layover in Dallas”.
Harold, in a camo sweats and backpack, drives to the rental car return and is not fazed by the semi-long line. Minutes drag by in the scorching sun. Will I see him again? Will I even make my flight? This is goodbye.
“Hola amiga,” Harold takes his paperwork from the backpack and the petite Toyota is returned and ready for the next traveler. We catch the shuttle, and have to put masks on basically for the next 24 hours.
“If we just got tested,” I turn to Harold, “Why even wear these masks in the airport all day?”
“I don’t know, because you can catch it in like, the next second?”
I laugh. We cuddle up in the back of the van, until we arrive at the Departures gate at the “Turn Down for What,” crazy AF Cancun airport and it’s time to brace ourselves for the utter lunacy and chaos that is to come in the next hour.
The line is loud, sweaty and tense – not only do we need our ID and passports, but also Vax cards and COVID test results along with the immigration form. By the time I get up to the bag check, and everything is confirmed, I leave behind my boarding passes and have to rush back. Harry has to go through some other line, and then we trudge along and through the crowded noisy airport. I wish I could say I’m bronzed and island pretty, but I’m greasy with tangled hair, and the aqua, oversized Isla Mujeres shirt that was too tight for Harold hangs off me like a chamois for detailing a car. Harold buys $25.00 worth of Mexican candy – even though we were just at the mercato – and we collapse into the seats at my gate.
While I’d love to toss back airport tequila and sleep on the ground with Harold, it’s time for me to get back to reality – back to work, back to my friends, and what will happen between Harold and I is more than a mystery.
The steward with a coiffed pompadour begins to call groups for my flight headed for Detroit, connecting to Buffalo, NY. I’m in group C.
“Group C, you can now board. Group D, you are on standby,” Harold and I are slumped over one another in exhaustion and relief to have made it in time.
“Group D you can now board.” The two of us are soon all that is left, so I stand up and sling my too heavy mermaid beach bag stuffed with souvenirs over my sunburned shoulder. Harold wraps me in a bear hug like in the elevator back in New Orleans.
“I’ll text you later,” he says, and we kiss goodbye, totally those people at the gate, but I don’t care. If this was my own imaginary honeymoon, I can honestly say I had a good time.
“Bye,” I look over my shoulder as I’m walking to the gate.
“Honey,” the steward with the shellacked pompadour approaches me. “If he doesn’t turn around…”
I squint through the mob, see Harold’s lumberjack physique getting smaller and smaller, but he doesn’t turn around.
TO BE CONTINUED