Finished on 3/14/2009
It was in the Café Costa that we settled in for the night. From the beach below, the balcony seemed inviting in its warm, diffused light and the gentle throb of dance music and people talking. Inside only the tables overlooking the sea and street were taken, and I smiled at how well this arrangement worked for the place. Michael and I sat down and ordered a round of beers. The cool breeze blowing in from the sea was drying the sweat and everything else from my face and I began to feel better.
Michael laughed while looking at the floor, ‘Well, looks like all of that’s over now’. We were both looking outside at the noise of the waves, and he glanced quickly at me- he had tried to start the conversation on the way to the café but had failed. I nodded while I took a drink of beer, and decided that I wanted to talk about it: ‘You can’t do it the way I did and have it not end. I’m surprised she hasn’t taken a bus back home yet.’
He dismissed the notion with whatever fingers he could manage to raise while drinking out of the beer bottle. ‘Looks to me, you both just took it way beyond where it was supposed to stay. So you met one night in a hostel bar and talked about books because you were lonely. It doesn’t mean you had to get along outside the whole Europe backpacking deal. I just think…’
I looked at his mouth, feeling very tired and hoping it would show and then he stopped. I had given him advice like this many times before and we both knew what we were going to say- the look was not necessary and I felt half sorry. It was a useful thing to talk it over with Michael sometimes but I was annoyed at having done so poorly in things I had seen before, heard before. It was impossible to learn anything by oneself. I had dragged it on with this girl until the whole of it was dry and it was sour for me and painful for her. It was very displeasing as when staring at an unfinished meal when full, the waste and contempt festering.
‘Anyways. Just don’t take it so seriously. This sort of thing happens to everyone else once every two months- they drink and cry it out to acoustic guitars and then it’s gone with the morning’s hangover. You didn’t get married. She didn’t get pregnant for god’s sake.’
I stopped him. ‘We never…’
Michael stopped, glazed over. I could see he was a little embarrassed for me telling him rather than for it not having happened.
Another dismissal. ‘ Like I said: No one died. If you take it easy she will too and you might even have a friend for a little while. I’m going to go to the bathroom, and then we’re ordering some more beers.’
Michael had a child’s face in that he had round cheek bones, well spread apart from a wide nose. He was a tall young man and gave the impression of health and capability when he walked – I thought it had something to do with his shoulders and chest. He would be very polite and the more he knew you the less you noticed this politeness and it would surprise you when with other people as he calibrated himself to them. As I downed the last of a beer I felt the warmness in my cheeks and some comfort in the bluntness of feeling.
I remembered the night before, when we had been walking along the main avenue skirting the beach. I suppose you could call it the night, as it was very dark, but it must have been 4 or 5 in the morning. I was walking with Catherine and Michael and we noticed a man in a suit lying down on the street, right next to the sidewalk. We were quiet for a little and then Catherine said we should get a closer look in that wonderful English tinged with Scandinavian.
He had passed out from drinking and probably rolled from the sidewalk onto the street. I thought that maybe he was a clerk at a department store for his cheap navy blue suit, all wide lapels and large golden buttons. I made a joke to Catherine about the guy being well-shaven and having drunk whatever after-shave lotion he had left. Michael was trying to wake him up, first by giving gentle little tugs of his coat and then by tapping a cheek.
Catherine and I sat down on a bench a few feet away. I felt the last few hours on me as I sat and watched Michael hail a cab and struggle to get the clerk in, despite the cab driver’s protests. Catherine walked over to try and help get the clerk’s home address, and I could see her steps outlined in the cobblestones, and I could see them going all the way back to Paris. Eventually Michael took the clerk’s wallet and gave the driver a big bill and an address taken from an ID. I watched him walk to the sea to wipe the vomit from his hands.
People below us at the café walked the wide cobbled street and their clothes were blown back by the wind running across the beachfront. It was a weekday during an off season and most of the walkers were young couples, and you could see from the way they were dressed more or less where they came from. I had been in this town before with a cruise and then the lights were much brighter and the sidewalks were crowded with Americans and Europeans.
There would be locals standing against the walls of the restaurants and cafés inviting people inside in accented English and sometimes just plain English. I remembered the girls dressed in the same dresses I had seen a week ago and thinking of their lips very often until I had kissed one of them and felt relieved and sad.
I saw Michael come out of the bathroom with his mouth turned into a whistle, although the music was very anonymous and loud. He asked if I wanted another drink with his hands and went off to the bar to get it. Our waiter did not notice him but the empty bottles on our table and came over. He saw I was still with a beer and asked where I was from with a smile that I believed. When travelling I was always very unsure of conversations with people who stood to gain from sympathy and made myself uncomfortable, but the waiter had huge bags under his eyes and that somehow made him human.
We had been looking around for some good beaches since we had gotten there. We tried the town’s beach and it had been soiled with plastic bags and cigarette butts, and we tried the beaches over at the big hotels and there had been no other people our age. I was happy I remembered this and asked the waiter, who was chuckling over a line on foreign girls.
‘You should’ve asked the first time you were here! You would have avoided these beaches- the hotel ones are good but only during spring break. You should try Bahìa Cerrada where the surfers go. There aren’t many rocks and there are always people.’
Michael came back and stood before the table holding two tall glasses of whisky soda. The waiter soon finished giving me directions and left. I was very thankful for his leaving on time, and a little embarrassed that Michael had circumvented him with the whisky. Later that night I saw the waiter dancing with a foreign woman and laughed as if I had known him for a long time.
Michael and I discussed the little disagreements between everyone who was travelling with us and they seemed to be very pertinent and longstanding like all things do in close quarters. Eventually we had drawn a full circle and had returned to Catherine, and I began talking about the way she labeled things with easy names that didn’t mean anything and how she would cry and sulk to get her way with people. I felt the angry flush in my cheeks of not forgiving her for the disappointment. The coolness of the ocean outside disappeared until I saw myself, aged twenty five, on vacation, drunk and talking and stopped in the middle of a sentence.
We both stared quietly at the streetlamps below: There was a small crowd that was gathering around a spot outside by the beach.
‘Maybe someone’s passed out with drink’ I said.
‘Maybe its a corpse that’s washed out on the beach. Let’s go.’
I told the waiter to hold our table and drinks and I hurried down the steep flight of stairs down to the street. I nearly tripped on my own foot and stood for a long while gripping the handrail very tightly. I remembered the crowd and walked out to the ample sidewalk overlooking the beach. There were about twenty people staring and talking softly, looking down on something between the sea and the cobblestone. Michael towered above most of them as he made his way to the front. I followed.
There on the small strip of beach was a large tortoise burrowing in the sand. It had swum out to shore to lay its eggs and had landed unnoticed in front of the boulevard and its clubs and cafés, cars and people. As I stood in the gap in the crowd that Michael had made the tortoise writhed mechanically, making an outline the size of a car tire on the ground. It had black eyes with spots of yellow from the café lights above, and it opened and closed its beak saying the same thing over and over, very silently.
‘Do you think she sees all of us staring? It must seem very strange to her’ I said. Michael’s face was glowing a little with the moon light, and he had lost all expression. He had been staring very quietly at the tortoise so that the other people seemed loud and not understanding. It was a very beautiful face.
‘She might. But maybe she doesn’t care too much or can’t. I think she’s just doing what is in her and anything that isn’t in her programming doesn’t even exist. She doesn’t know any better and she shouldn’t have to.’
We stood for a few more minutes there and asked a police officer what was to be done. He told me that it wasn’t that strange an occurrence, that they would wait till the tortoise had laid its eggs to send it back to the sea and the eggs to a hatchery. I took a last look at the creature, now sitting very still, and the creases of skin under her shell bending with each breath. We left the thinning crowd and quickly walked back up the stairs to our table and drinks.
I sat in front of the half-empty glass and the couples now dancing to the loud tropical music, watching Michael talk to a plump blonde at the bar. He had an amazing ability to lower his standards at will when it came to women.
I thought about the tortoise coming from the farthest place on earth, all the time in her where she was going. She’d landed in the wrong place and had not minded it because she knew that was what it was in her to do. It had been instinct and her eyes told the conscience and acquiescence to this instinct and that was that, never good or bad but just always there. She’d be put back into the cobalt ocean and would never think again about what she had done. The fullness of her action was definitive- it had been only present, never a shimmer of future or a stale past.
Michael walked over to the table and gave me a slap in the shoulder. Apparently the blonde had a friend and we’d been invited to their table for a drink. I downed the last of my glass as I stood up and glanced out the balcony into the beach. The crowd had disappeared and the sidewalk was empty with the streetlights and the waves, pounding onto the shore with a senseless rhythm that did not need your attention or anything else.