The bus clinked and moaned with the effort of taking on more people while fewer people got off. I shuffled myself to fit between the overweight, rudy man wearing a Cubs cap to my right and the woman with a gregarious hunch hauling a sack of what looked to be potatoes to my left. I suspected my Spanish wouldn’t suffice for a conversation with her, and the man to my right knew less than I did. So I looked in front of me at a man seemingly in his twenties with a shock of hair that held my attention. He wore aviators that blocked half his face and held a beer in his hand. I glanced down at my watch, 10:30 a.m. Well, he might be drunk but likely knew more English than I knew Spanish.
“Hi, sorry to bother you. Does this bus go to Boca?” I enquired of the man that resembled Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
The aviators took their time spinning toward me, a long awkward moment where I contemplated repeating the question.
“Yes, the bus is going there,” he responded, with the imprints of a North American accent swirling with Central American lilts.
“Oh, great ok thanks,” I stammered with relief before surprising myself with a follow-up, “Is that where you are headed?”
The young man seemed genuinely amused by my question, showing it with a smirk that danced on his full lips that were more expressive than most eyes.
“I am paradise bound,” he said, tilting his beer bottle toward me, followed by a question that surprised me, “Want to join?”
I stood there like a kid on the first day of school, contemplating a million scenarios in my head. The truth was, I had no plan or purpose for the day. I had left a job and a relationship a few thousand miles behind with no compass for the road ahead. This guy with the full lips and the beer bottle screamed scam artist but what did I really have to be taken? An emptiness swirled hungrily inside me. Paradise sounded nice.
“Sure,” I said. The red man to my right, who was clearly following our conversation, looked over at me with a mixture of concern and horror. He seemed poised to say something when a woman half his size and pruned like a raisin elbowed his right hip and said, “Honey, we gotta get out at the next stop. It’s going to take a while to get past all these people. My god it is a zoo in here. Let’s move toward the exit.” I placed their home somewhere along the Blue Ridge mountains.
While I was distracted, the man in front of me seemed to have been sizing me up. “Are you ready for an adventure?” he inquired. I shook my head up and down, convincing myself with the gesture that I meant it. I meant it, right? It was why I had hurriedly put everything in storage back home, and rushed to take the first flight out to Mexico without a plan, wasn’t it? The questions mulled in my mind for the rest of the bus ride where I apologized half a dozen times to strangers for accidentally jostling them. I didn’t feel grounded, in more ways than one.
The young man, his beer bottle, and I disembarked at Boca which was less a destination than a roadside halt, like the ones in Central California where farmers put up a stand to sell strawberries and tomatoes from their farms. Without a choice, I followed the group headed down a gravelly slope. My adventure buddy was headed the same way and I followed him like a puppy. Sizing him up from the back, he was shorter than I had imagined. That oddly reassured me. He walked with long but leisurely strides like he knew exactly where he wanted to go and was in no hurry to get there. His hair glinted caramel streaks in the sun as he ran his fingers through it every few minutes. Even though I had no clue what I had signed up for, I recognized in him something that was missing in me.
We reached a flat where through a clearing I saw the turquoise waters of the Boca cove dotted with wistful fishing boats. I smiled involuntarily, envisioning drenching myself in the waters and maybe going on a boat ride. Maybe this man had a boat. That wouldn’t be half bad; I was starting to feel pleased with myself for my spontaneity.
“By the way, I am Eric, and I need to buy some fruits,” he proclaimed, and before I could figure out what I heard, he ran into a dingy store. I stood in place, my stance a combination of confusion and embarrassment at being so utterly clueless. Should I just stand and wait for him or saunter around on my own so I don’t give off clingy vibes? I opted to walk a few steps back just so I didn’t look like I was waiting helplessly for him, but still keeping my eyes on the shop entrance so I didn’t miss him.
Eric reemerged in a few minutes with a bag of fruit and a little boy in tow. “This is Pedro; Pedro say hello to - uh what’s your name?”
“Sylvie, nice to meet you, Pedro.” The buy sidled up behind Eric’s red shorts and peered at me slyly. He then jumped up to grab Eric by the waist and started climbing him like a tree trunk. Eric barely noticed it as he bit into a juicy apple. Halfway into it, he gave the apple to the boy who ran away with it like it was candy.
“Let’s go,” Eric said yawning and stretching his arms above his head. For the first time since I met him, he removed his aviators, and behind them, were eyes the color of butterscotch, tinged with veins of red.
“Oh man, I was very hungover on that bus. Now I am fresh,” he announced as he pulled off his t-shirt and then his shoes and stuffed them into his pack. “Let’s go,” he said again, this time a bit impatiently, and I followed feeling a bit foolish.
“Where are we going?” I finally asked.
“Do you want to know or do you want to be surprised?”
“Both, I guess.”
Eric laughed and turned to face me as he walked backward toward the waters. “Don’t worry, it will be worth it.” He then strode toward a bridge that led from the beach I had envisioned laying on to an outcrop that nestled the ocean, but then disappeared on the other side. When we made it to the other side, Eric started up a stony path saddled with branches and shrubs that seemed to loop around the bend. I gingerly stepped, holding on to what I could for support. Eric, who’s toenails seemed surprisingly clean for being barefoot, pranced rock to rock like a goat. We walked for ten more minutes while I contemplated whether it was too soon to again enquire where we were headed. But oddly, the deeper we went into the tropical forest, the less afraid I felt. The air smelt green and laden with citrus from unknown bulbuous fruits. Eric stopped to grab one of them and ripped it open to reveal black studs in yellow-ish gelatin.
“Maracuya,” he said as he bit into it. “Try it.”
I eyed the offer suspiciously before gingerly biting into it. Hints of sweetness and tartness awakened my lips. “Very good,” I admitted.
Eric continued on toward a clearing where the sun was resting. I guessed my surprise was on deck. “Come, come,” he motioned and I quickened my pace toward him. On reaching him, I gasped, now in full view of deliciously blue water sunning itself under a radiant sky. But between me and the waters were rocks jutting above the fray. I saw cliffs dotted with young locals languishing in between dives. I watched a speck in yellow shorts hurl himself off the edge. I sucked my breath in defensively.
“Let’s go,” Eric instructed as he leapt forward. Halfway to the edge of oblivion, he dropped his backpack and then kept going. I followed, my heart exploding inside my chest, unsure of how to wriggle myself out of this one.
“Eric, hey, so I am not a good swimmer. I can barely doggy paddle,” I offered self-effacingly, “I can’t jump.”
Eric’s lips danced again. “You came to a coastal town without knowing how to swim?”
“Well, I planned to mostly stay close to the beach.”
A voice yelled in our direction and Eric turned to yell back at a girl in a pink bikini, her hair wet from the ocean. The exchange, from one cliff to another, only made my stomach churn more.
Eric turned back to me.
“Yes, you can jump,” he said matter-of-factly. “Sylvie, I don’t know what brought you here and what you are leaving behind, but just let go.” He paused, “It will be fine, I promise. I will be there.” And then without warning, he raced toward the sky and I watched as he suspended himself into the air before cannonballing into the water.
My chest was screaming. I was angry with myself for being in this situation. For being so lost that I had willingly walked into a nightmare. Tears spilled down my cheek. My heart ached, thinking about Kyle, our last words to each other, and the boxes of my life that were frozen in time in a warehouse. Every ounce of the life I had envisioned for myself was in those boxes. As my head spiraled, my legs carried me forward. I was at the edge. I turned to look back. My life was behind me; what was ahead? I felt the shivers of a million gails in my body. I looked down and saw Eric floating on his back, looking up at the sky. His hair floated around him like a spiked crown. Nothing to lose, I whispered to myself and before I could think one more thing, I closed my eyes and leaped into the blue. My heart dropped deep into my body as the air made space for me. In that moment, while my body contemplated death, I felt a jolt of life. I vibrated as it entered my body. And then I felt the warmth of the water, like luscious silk, draping me as I landed. I kept going and going, deeper into its arms, sinking into its caress. I wanted to stay. I was alive even while I was dying.