There was no way for it to know for sure how long it had been in the sea, following the current, subject to the whims of wind and weather. It certainly felt seasick, but that would have been true after an hour or two. Still, there was enough variation in temperature and the movement of the sun and moon for it to understand that it had been months, at the very least. Months since it was violently flung into the sea, from the end of Enrique’s arm, which had been twisted behind his fully-torqued body, and accompanied by a feral scream to give it some extra oomph, shotput-style.
He had inserted something inside it first – a madly-scribbled note on an unnoteworthy scrap of notebook paper, and then stuck something at the top of its neck, presumably to seal the note inside. It reflected that that plug might also be the reason that it was still bobbing along rather than sinking to the dark depths.
What it did know was that one day, it was suddenly over. It had been pushed out of the sea and onto a beach, and when the water pulled away from it, there it was, stuck in some rough sand, which felt familiar at an elemental level. The break from the rocking and rolling was welcomed; but it soon felt itself heat up as the sun arced across the sky.
After a few of those cycles, a wandering lone soul strolled by and picked it up, though he was also carrying an old tin can, a few plastic bags, a long-empty can of Tecate. This was Joe.
Joe carried his beach junk to the bin nearby and started dropping them in. But when he got to the bottle, he hesitated, held it up to the light of the sun. Transparent enough despite its dark color, Joe saw the scroll inside. He carried it to a stone bench nearby and sat down.
There was a cork that had been shaved to fit the opening and jammed in tight. Joe gripped and tugged at it. No luck. He placed it between his huaraches, squeezed his leg muscles, and yanked at the cork again. When it finally released, Joe was flung against the concrete seat back. He shook his gripping arm, kicked some wiggle into his feet, and turned the bottle upside down trying to coerce the scroll out. He had to reach with his middle finger and grasp for the edge of the paper. He got the pad of his finger on just enough of it to gently pull it out.
A letter to Carmina. That’s what it was. It wasn’t dated – this hadn’t been a premeditated love letter, and it clearly was never intended to find its way into Carmina’s hands. This was scribbled in a fit of passion. Enrique’s passion, apparently.
This wasn’t an ancient relic. The end of Enrique and Carmina had been recent – no more than a few years, he guessed. Spanish wasn’t Joe’s first language, but he knew just enough to track some identifying details Enrique had included. But why write all this down and throw it into the sea? What had happened after Enrique threw this? Joe wondered. Did he find a new love? Was he now wandering? With a beard, a journal, maybe some bad habits? Did he even survive the heartache? Joe rolled the note back up, stuck it in, corked it, and carried it home. It sat on his kitchen window ledge. It seemed wrong to toss it out.
Days later, Joe was still thinking about Enrique. He’d reviewed the note again – there were no last names mentioned. Enrique had written about a weekend he and Carmina had spent in Guaymas. Joe had heard of the town on the mainland but had to get his atlas to see exactly. He dragged his pointer finger across the northern part of Mexico’s coastline until he came to it. Then he drew it across the Gulf of California, west and a little south, to a dot marked Loreto – Joe’s home now, since retirement, since the loss of Elaine. Yes, he supposed Enrique heaved it into the sea near Guaymas somewhere and never thought about it being found. Just a record of the worst time in his life, up to that point at least. Joe figured him to be a young man. An older man knows that pain comes and pain goes, and when you think you’ve seen the worst of it – bam – that thought is knocked right out of you, along with the wind and the joy, over and over, by newer pain. But with that kind of experience comes a hardening. Joe still felt the pain, but his feet felt heavier now. Like concrete blocks. It gets harder to tip someone over when they’re used to the blows.
Elaine had been taken from him just as they were about to be free from the daily burdens of the nine-to-five, the yard work, the mundane. He knew they’d still have to wash dishes and launder their clothes, sure, but it would all look so different when they were having their sunset-year adventures. They loved to travel but hadn’t yet gone too far from home. Central America and once to Scotland, but mostly all over the U.S. Once they’d discovered Baja, though, they stopped going anywhere else. They spent longer and longer in the state of Baja Sur, until they decided they could live there. Why not? They had no ties, no kids, no mortgage. They were in good health and the cost of living was low and the lifestyle, well, it couldn't be beat. They went home to make arrangements to sell the house and began to plan their life in Mexico.
They were weeks from handing over the keys to their home of three decades and driving south when it happened. Elaine was taking her evening stroll around the neighborhood, no doubt saying her goodbyes to the people and dogs on her usual route. She must have tripped, or slipped, no one would ever know for certain, but she hit the sidewalk hard, her head snapping backwards. It hadn’t knocked her out – Elaine was a tough cookie and in great shape for her age. She came home, holding her head, a little dizzy, asked Joe for water. He’d obliged, along with pressing an ice pack gently on the sore spot and asking her if she wanted to go to the urgent care. No no, she’d said, I’ll be fine. Just a short rest. And that had been it. He’d turned on the evening news, she’d drifted off, and never woke up. A brain aneurysm, the paperwork said.
Joe went through with the sale of the house because it seemed harder to undo it. Seeing the neighbors all day, bringing flowers, offering meals; it was kind, but he didn’t want any of that. He wanted her, and if he couldn’t have her, he wanted to be gone. Ten months later, here he was, in their…his…little bungalow by the Sea of Cortez. It was everything he thought it would be, but he was alone. He looked at the letter again.
Mi amor, podríamos estar de vuelta en Mariscos El Mazateno, comiendo cangrejos con nuestro vino, mirando a los leones marinos, lo teníamos todo. ¿Por qué te fuiste?
Enrique missed their favorite restaurant, the crab, the wine. Meals. Flavors. Why were they so often at the center of what we remember, what we miss? Joe thought of how long it had been since he’d been to the first spot where he and Elaine had eaten so many years ago when they first visited. Chosa de las Almejas de Alma. Alma’s Clam Shack. It had remained their favorite: it was where they’d agreed that this was the spot they wanted to spend their final chapter. He hadn’t been back since she passed. He hadn’t even thought of going; it was as if it ceased to exist when she had. But surely it was still there, still serving, still moving forward. Maybe it was time to go back, he decided. She’d like that.
The next day he opened Enrique’s letter again.
El mar es nuestro, este mar. Nunca lo veré y no te veré conmigo. Ahora debo irme, ya no puedo estar aquí. Nunca me volverás a ver. Nadie va a. Ya no estoy.
What did he mean, he would never come back to the sea? It was too painful to be there without her, he supposed. Maybe he was headed inland then. You’ll never see me again, no one will? It made sense that he wouldn’t see her again, their breakup was obviously horrific and final. But that last bit bothered him. I am no longer. Joe understood the level of devastation, of numb wandering, but he never considered leaving the world. What makes someone do that, and others not? He tenderly bottled up the note again, and this time did not put it back on the ledge, but into his knapsack.
He pulled his car into the sandy parking lot next to Alma’s. Dust clouds plumed around him and then settled just as quickly. He scanned the patio that faced the sea. Pretty empty. He grabbed his sack from the passenger’s seat, exhaled, and headed toward the plastic white chairs and tables marked with the familiar Corona logo.
“Bienvenidos, amigo! Sientese,” came the warm greeting. Joe’s face relaxed into a smile.
He let himself be waved toward a table with a view of the crushed seashell beach. He identified the seat Elaine would have chosen, and then sat in the other one. The plastic chairback gently gave as he stretched his legs and settled in. He opened the familiar menu.
“What can I get you, Señor?”
“We’ll have...I’ll have…the…almejas gratinadas. And a Tecate.” He chuckled. She would have had a fit – ordering the specialty of the house and then covering in butter and melted cheese. Elaine was a purist. As the waiter walked away, he mumbled, “Sorry hon, but you’re not here.” He kicked off his flip-flops and dug his feet into the warm sand under the table. It would have been better with her, everything always was. But this was pretty good. He was sorry he’d waited so long. He watched the gulls drifting and the pelicans dipping in for a snack just a hundred yards away. He pulled the bottle out of his knapsack and set it on the table. It would have to do for company. He turned it over in his hands, wondering again about its origin, its journey. He slipped the note out and read it once more. Poor Enrique. He glanced up at the pelicans – some were having luck. Raw fish, not au gratin. He reached in his sack for a pen and turned the paper over. He started to write.
Dear Enrique, I got your letter. Love can be painful, especially when it walks away and leaves you behind. My advice to you: Go order the wine, eat the crab, and look at the sea. Your amigo, Joe
He put the note back in, corked it up tight. Seeing that his meal was not imminent, this was Mexico after all, he walked out on the crunchy beach. He wound up and hurled the bottle, end over end, back into the sea. Satisfied, he walked back to his little table just as his gratinadas and beer arrived.
“Here you go, amigo! Enjoy!”
“Gracias, my friend. Will do.”
After such an enjoyable reprieve during its time with Joe, it was not happy to be back in the water. Fortunately, the old man didn’t have Enrique’s arm, and there was a large outcropping of volcanic rock in this area. With a little help from the tide, the bottle lodged itself into a tight cranny teeming with bright yellow and blue fish and within eyesight of Alma’s shack. It felt the cool lapping of the light waves but was upright and not being sloshed around. It settled in to watch the birds and fish play hide-and-seek, and saw Joe scooping one clam after another into his mouth, while gooey strings of cheese dangled out of it.
Eventually, Joe left and the sun set. Alma’s closed up and the cars all drove away. The stars started appearing, one at a time so you can really notice each one, like the first raindrops on a dry sidewalk. And just like raindrops, soon they were multiplying so quickly that the whole canvas changed color. Wedged into its comfortable vantage point, it felt a sense of satisfaction as it looked up and bathed in the glowing light.