In Sayulita, the spaces are small. Nicole passes stores and cafés that would serve as closets where she’s from, and no one apologizes for not having a bathroom, simply wagging their heads, “Aquí, no,” and gesturing at some unnamed place. At night, overpacked bars spill out into the street, upsetting the flow of traffic and breaking every American safety code, fire and otherwise. It doesn’t matter. If rules—reglas—exist here, no one enforces them. Same goes for the rooftop bands that pound Cajun beats into the early morning hours. In Denver, the music would be capped at ten: Go inside if you want to hear music. Too many people need to sleep. To work. No, as long as the cartel in charge is getting their portion of the profits, no one’s going to worry about the few people who aren’t sleeping, especially not a middle-aged gringa tourist who likes to go to bed early and rise with the sun. Go to a different town: one without parties. Go to a different country: one without roosters and church bells and dogs.
Nicole has come to this Mexican surf town by chance. A woman in her neighborhood, upon learning of her daughter, offered it: “Take it, it was my husband’s place,” and Nicole knew by the way her voice slowed a heartbeat before shifting into past tense that her husband had died, and that the death had been sudden, that Nicole’s suffering wasn’t private, that there were others who had lost the people they love best. Behind them, the sky was a vibrant blue, a heart-aching blue. Before she’d gotten sick, this was the kind of blue her daughter Daisy reached for often on her palette, whether she was painting the sea or her big brothers kicking a ball, the summer sky ablaze behind them.
“I’ll email you the details, so you can have them,” the neighbor said, shrugging. Nicole didn’t even know her that well. She was the director of a children’s choir, fifteen years older than Nicole. She and her husband used to give out frozen Otter Pops at Halloween, and when Nicole’s kids were young, they’d delighted in the novelty of it. Tragedy, though, has a way of revealing strange truths about those around us. The people who were once best friends slink away, while others, ones you barely know, like this woman, give you a condo in the tropics.
In Sayulita, the music climbs until just before daylight breaks. In the dark pause of night, Nicole wakes, one ear plug wedged in her hair, a film of sweat clinging to her skin, her body submerged in a wave of nausea. The roosters crow and the pink light of dawn bleeds into the sky, but all she can think of is her little girl dying alone in a hospital in Denver. Nicole had stepped out to take a call from work and it had morphed into a meeting with the board; she went up to the roof to get better reception. The nurse was waiting for her in the hall when she returned: “I’m so sorry.”
It could have been anyone’s shift. Could have been Sean’s, her husband. Could have been that of her sister or brother-in-law. It could have even been one of the night nurses. But it wasn’t; it was hers and she missed it.
Every morning, she wades through the humid air, kneels beside the toilet, and waits. The nausea has been there for a year, ever since Daisy died. Like pregnancy in reverse: her daughter vanishing instead of coming into being.
She wishes her mom were there beside her. She is fifty-four years old, and her mother has been dead for years, but it is her mother’s embrace she wants when the world is its shittiest, whether in the form of a crushing cold or a board member who cuts her off mid-sentence or this: The death of her favorite child. No, not favorite—she loves her boys too—she just loves them differently. What if Daisy had awoken with a sudden wash of clarity and wanted her that night?
But no, the nurse assured her, she was peaceful until the end, by which she means she was the same: A vegetable. The opposite of the true Daisy.
She was Daisy, as in “Oops-a-daisy,” we’re having another child, but that was just something she and Sean said, a little embarrassed to be having a third child after the messiness of twins. Nicole had plucked Daisy’s name from a cookbook she was obsessed with at the time, never realizing how apt it was, how much like a Daisy her child would be—so light, so full of sun.
Nicole was devastated when she first spotted pubic hair on Daisy. The girl was 12 and about to jump in the shower. That dark triangle of hair was the point of no return. What? Daisy asked. Nothing, Nicole said, but inside her head, she thought: This is the beginning of the end.
Afterwards, it had stuck in her mind. What a weird thing to think: the beginning of the end. Of course, years later, the line was oddly prescient—her daughter’s advancement into adulthood was the beginning of the end, her own body conspiring against her, collapsing under an unnamed mitochondrial disease, even as it was developing—but Nicole hadn’t known that then, and it struck her as strange that she would pronounce the ending when she still had many more years of Daisy at home. Yet, try as she might, the line would boil up in her, tormenting her.
In Sayulita, she steps out of the bathroom and pulls on her running clothes. There’s a run she’s discovered. It’s not terribly far—only a mile or so away— but it carries her to a wild, almost untouched beach, fringed by only a few houses, a sharp contrast to the cluttered town beaches. Her stomach hurts, her knees hurt, but if she runs just slowly enough, she can tolerate the pain, which is less than that of her thoughts.
The run winds its way along dirt roads through a bird-filled jungle before angling down to the shore on a steep set of stairs. The stairway is framed by broken concrete and covered with graffiti. Some are the same dirty phrases written by youth around the world—you’re a whore and fuck your mother—women, always women under attack, but some are surprisingly poetic and strange: a veces pienso, a veces no, sometimes I think, sometimes I don’t, and one that’s written in looping cursive and says something about how the world loves us.
The water at the beach is too rough to swim in—the property manager at her condo has warned her not to go in, someone dies every year—but Nicole always makes her way just close enough to splash water on her face before climbing back up the way she has come. Contact with the sea is important; every day she finds a way to feel it on her.
If anyone in Sayulita asks her what she is doing there for a month, she gives the easy answer—she’s working on Spanish, on surfing, on finding the perfect taco. She’s even fed this line to the twins, who don’t really care; they’re busy with their own lives: “Catch a wave for me.” Everyone is happy enough to believe this of her, even those who know about Daisy. Her dream is common enough, a dream that upper middle-class Americans toss over their heads like free t-shirts, without ever stopping to consider where it has come from. And on the surface, Nicole is just like any other middle-aged tourist: sandy blond hair, green eyes, and sagging breasts, athletic but no longer a marathoner, put together just enough to blend in.
Charlie, who she meets at the coffee shop one day, is the only one here who knows about Daisy. The place is crowded and the two end up sharing a table. Charlie is from South Carolina and has a lovely way of stretching a story out all while saying exactly what’s on her mind, transforming one-syllable words like “time” into two syllables. “Fu–ck,” Charlie says when Nicole tells her, her light brown eyes flashing gold. “Forgive me for swearing but fuck,” she says again, and Nicole loves her for not apologizing or crying, for not making her sorrow Nicole’s job. “No, I feel the same.”
“I’m taking you to see the turtles.”
That afternoon, the two walk on the beach to a small lean-to shelter, where an organization is working to preserve the Olive Ridley loggerhead turtle population. They guard the eggs from predators, and then once the eggs have hatched, host a nightly fundraiser, where for a small fee, tourists can release the hatchlings into the ocean. Like most everything, the turtles’ existence is threatened by plastic pollution, by habitat destruction, by climate change. Guiding them into the water insures that some survive.
The turtles are black and small and make little scratching sounds as they climb up the bowls. Just before the tideline, Charlie squats and tips hers towards the sea, and the hatchlings wobble as they make their way to the surf. One wave takes the first half; the second takes the rest. Nicole’s the last to set hers free. “Get right to the sand,” Charlie tells her. “They know where to go.”
This becomes their ritual: walking the beach at sunset, watching even the most hardened adults fall in love with the world, if only for those few minutes. Sayulita might be a broken beach town, with trash-clogged waterways funneling waste into an already polluted sea and drunken gringos gyrating until dawn, but in the instant before night fall, it is still this: a wide stretch of sky, brushed in coral light, arcing over a small flock of humans trying to keep the Olive Ridley loggerhead turtle alive.
Afterwards, she and Charlie wander up to one of the sand-floored bars. She finds she can tell Charlie nearly everything, not just the logistics of Daisy’s death, but the debris kicked up in the wake of it—no parents, both boys busy, Sean silent— of the tears that will no longer come. Most great friends are like that: sparked in an instant, forged in a matter of days.
But when Nicole asks Charlie about her life, she fills the air with stories about her ex-husband, about the romances ping-ponging between the ex-pats, about the beaches she wants to surf. Like her, Charlie has a daughter and two sons, and Nicole finds herself asking what the girl is like, and when Charlie tells her she’s athletic, wondering if she and Daisy might be friends, before remembering Daisy is dead.
Charlie drags her out dancing one night, inviting a few ex-pat friends, one of whom, Simone, a French dancer, seems intent on having Charlie all to herself, turning her long willowy frame in a way that sections off the rest of the group. Even after the others get up to dance, Simone continues to ignore Nicole, telling Charlie about some polo match. “Going to Maho tomorrow,” Simone says, untying and retying the batik scarf wrapped around her hair. Her beauty is intimidating— high cheekbones, skin the color of molasses touched by sun, limbs folding underneath her like a crane.
“Wow, carving out time from your busy schedule,” Charlie teases. “What’s happening with Nueve? Already replaced by Diez?”
“His name’s no longer Nueve, it’s Miguel Ángel,” she says, clearly enjoying the attention. “And trust me, if you were fucking him, you’d be busy too. How about you?” she says to Nicole, as if suddenly noticing she’s there. “Do you have a little chéri on the side?”
“Me, no, I can’t even remember to floss these days.” Nicole says it in a way she thinks is funny but can tell by the way both women grimace that it’s not. “Too much other stuff going on,” she clarifies. It would be fine if she did though: Sean hasn’t touched her in over two years. With each new reveal of Daisy’s disease and the incurability of it, they’d drifted farther apart, the intimacy of sex reminding them of the very act that created Daisy in the first place.
“I’m jealous Maho has time for you,” Charlie says, shifting the topic. “She never seems to be able to fit me in.”
“Take that as a compliment. It means you’re not fucked up enough.”
“Who’s Maho?” Nicole asks, and Simone shoots her a look that’s somewhere between pity and derision.
“Maho’s a…healer,” Charlie says. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Sort of. She does a little bit of everything. She took this hair,” Simone says, uncoiling her hair wrap again, “and made this cream that calmed it. It was going crazy in all this humidity.”
“But she also fixed your heart,” Charlie says.
“That’s true.” Simone’s eyes close for a second, and Nicole sees, in that instant, a glimpse of her before Mexico, before all the boyfriends. “When I first came here a year ago, I was really messed up. I went through a bad divorce in France. Maho healed me.”
“A medicine woman?”
“An everything woman. She reorganizes your memories.”
“Memories?” Nicole looks at Charlie, looking for some grounding, wondering if Simone has mistranslated.
But Charlie is nodding, “She makes you feel like your best life is still possible. You might like her actually. Her daughter died recently,” she says quietly to Simone.
“No, that’s okay,” Nicole says, tired of therapists.
Simone, though, has got her hand on top of Nicole’s. “Charlie’s right. I’m taking you to her.”
The road to Maho’s shifts from broken asphalt to dirt, and they bounce along in Simone’s car, which is not what Nicole would have guessed, not a pearl white Audi but a dusty red Mexican version of a Subaru, lacking shocks and littered with kid crap: “Sorry, my seven-year old’s a total slob.”
“You have a child?” Simone seems too put together to be a mother.
“When he’s not with his dad. They just went back to France. I’ll see him in six months.”
“It’s…hard,” Simone says. The sun is striking one side of her face, exposing the other to the purple bruises of shadow, and Nicole sees that the polished Simone she met at the club is a dress she puts on, that the real Simone is this: a woman driving a shockless car on a dilapidated Mexican road, a woman who only has her son for half a year. She feels small for the ways in which she misjudged Simone: She is never the woman she wishes she were.
“It’s my own fault. I couldn’t do France anymore, couldn’t put up with any of …it anymore.” She cracks open the window and the squawk of bird song greets them before she rolls the window back up. The air outside is as still as the air inside. “Take a nap if you want. The house is another hour out.”
From the sound of Maho’s name and the way they’d spoken of her, Nicole had imagined Maho to be Huichol, one of Nayarit’s indigenous groups, in a grass-thatched hut somewhere. But the house is gorgeous, a Spanish-style mansion perched on a cliff above the ocean. In the tiled waiting room, there’s a framed magazine clipping on the wall from some California lifestyle magazine: Maho is actually Majo, shortened from Mary-Josephine and pronounced Ma-ho to minimize confusion among Spanish speaking crowds. She’s Irish, lived in California for a decade before moving to Mexico, and has been trained in nearly everything related to the healing arts—Jivamukti yoga, sound bathing, reiki, and most notably, psychic readings.
Simone goes through a curtain dividing the waiting room, but almost immediately pops her head back out. “She can’t see you today. Sorry to drag you all this way. She sometimes just takes people on the spot, but I guess there’s been a lot going on this week.”
“Don’t worry.” She’s relieved. She’s not opposed to alternative healing, but she’s skeptical of anyone who’s made a lot of money off it, which this woman clearly has.
Nicole spends the next few days sorting out bills. There’s been some sort of mix-up with Daisy’s insurance payments. She never knows how to answer Mexicans when they ask her what America is like, their hope for a better life as raw as meat in their hands. Should she say how much her country disappoints her or does that sound spoiled? She can never decide, so she smiles and pretends like she doesn’t understand, which she doesn’t. Not really. Her daughter’s been dead for over a year, and she’s still paying bills.
She wonders how many days of her life she has worried about money. They should have taken Daisy to see Europe’s art, should have skied with all of them in Japan. How she wishes her life moved more like a chess game, could move up, back, and to the side. She would do it all over again, but better.
Charlie texts her. “Where are you?”
“Stay there. Simone’s bringing her car to you. She’s been trying to get a hold of you, everyone has.”
“I went down to the turtles. I spent all morning on the phone with insurance.”
“Majo’s ready to see you.”
“But I…” A dozen excuses bubble up, but she allows each to drift past. Work and the twins are fine. And she’s stopped calling Sean; his muted responses irritate her.
“You don’t think you need her,” Charlie is saying on the phone, “but you do. Trust me.”
Meeting Majo is another surprise. The photographs made her look California polished—wrinkles erased, dark curly hair thrown up into a loose but elegant bun, Caribbean-blue eyes, wearing the kind of linen outfit that costs a lot to look simple. The Majo today, though, is more worn, a sandstorm of freckles across her face, her chaotic curls peppered with gray, wearing a ripped Grateful Dead shirt and a pair of old sweatpants. Her body is still the firm body of a yogi, but her eyes are so marred by fatigue that Nicole worries she has the wrong day. “Sorry… Simone told me to come?”
“No, you’re perfect. Sorry, the dog got into the trash and has been up shitting all night.”
“I’ve got one like that at home.”
She studies Nicole then for what must be only thirty seconds but feels like much longer, holding her in her gaze, her eyes like two pieces of ripped sky. “Simone told me about Daisy. I’m so sorry, love.”
Again, there is a long pause. Nicole wonders if this might be the end of it. She drives over an hour and the woman in nearly the same breath acknowledges the shittiness of dogs shitting and a 21-year old girl dying of a disease no one can name, all the while keeping her spooky blue eyes on her. “Right then, you’d better come in.”
The waiting room opens to a ferned courtyard. The sky framed above looks different from the sky she just left—a brighter, jeweled blue. “Sorry for all the fanciness. My ex bought this place for all the guests he thought might come. When they didn’t, he went to go find them.” She laughs to herself, then leads Nicole out to some chairs beside a pool that is carved out of limestone. There are orange trees lining the courtyard’s periphery—the smell of citrus is thick in the warm air—and beyond them, another plant and fern studded wall.
“Is it alright if I put my hand on your forehead?”
Nicole hesitates then nods. This is exactly the woo-woo shit she feared.
“Tell me about your earliest childhood memory.”
Nicole closes her eyes. But rather than think of her own childhood, it is a memory of Daisy at age seven or eight that comes roaring into her head, who with typical fortitude, decided one morning she was going to run a breakfast café: “Everyone stay in bed. No one’s allowed down until it’s ready.” Finding no juice, she spent over an hour squeezing oranges she’d scrounged from the fridge. “Sunshine Café is open for business,” she announced, taking them to their table, her worn-out fluffy bunny slippers flapping behind her. Was the disease already coiled inside her, ready to strike? It gave no indication of doing so. Daisy was her usual happy self: perfect in her joy.
Nicole shakes off Majo’s hand. “I’m sorry, how much is this going to cost?” She winces, knowing that Majo won’t tell her, that this isn’t how these things work, especially not in Mexico; it’s tacky to talk about money before you absolutely have to. But Majo surprises her again. “I won’t charge you anything until I know I can help you. Then it’s two thousand pesos a session.”
A hundred dollars. It’s expensive for Mexico but reasonable considering how popular Majo seems to be and all that she’s done. But she still doesn’t like it. “I don’t need therapy.”
“This isn’t that.”
“Then what is it?”
Majo draws in a long breath through her nose. Then she exhales. “It’s more about energy, about tapping into our past selves.”
“No, the ones inside of you, like the one remembering Sunshine Café.” She pauses, fixing her eyes on some point beyond the wall before returning her gaze to Nicole. If she notices the surprise on Nicole’s face, she doesn’t reveal it. “Please, let’s keep going.”
When she was young, Daisy loved nothing more than to climb into the broken tree house abandoned by the home’s previous occupants. The ladder was missing two rungs and the wood at the threshold had crumbled, requiring those entering to place one leg inside the dark house while wobbling on the other before making the final leap into it. The whole contraption terrified Nicole, and she would wake in the night, dreaming Daisy had fallen through, and would grip Sean’s arm, saying we have to fix that thing, but of course like so many good intentions, never did.
Daisy, of course, had mastered the trick of jumping into the house early on. She was an elegant dancer, could translate her thoughts into the fine muscles of her body, a much more natural athlete than either of her brothers. The rest of the world seemed to find this funny and would chuckle with surprise when Daisy stole the soccer ball from the twins or caught the best surf waves at the beach: To think! A girl better than a boy, and two older boys at that! Americans do little to mask their sexism at such moments. To Nicole, though, Daisy’s ease in sports wasn’t a surprise. Her daughter was terrible at reading, at everything in school. Why shouldn’t she have the finesse of a jaguar, why shouldn’t she have everything, in fact? Nicole regretted the hours she’d forced her child into tutoring. If only she’d known.
She sees Majo every day for the next two weeks. Most of her memories are of Daisy, but not all. Some are of the twins, of Sean, of her older sister Tanya. Towards the end of the second week, a strange thing begins to happen. Even without Majo beside her, the memories fall on her. They’re not just in her mind; they’re in her body. Instead of nausea, she wakes to Daisy coiling her fingers through her hair, a twin’s hand in each hand, Sean’s touch on her thigh. Her body vibrates with the story of her life—of that first kiss with Sean on the train out of Madrid, back when they were just friends traveling Europe together, of the way the twins used to sleep holding hands as toddlers, of Daisy, at three, running up to her at the beach, “Look how many pickles I have,” she squealed, holding out her freckled arm. Nicole’s morning runs have never felt so effortless, not even when she used to really run; her body is buoyant.
The first day she doesn’t see Majo, she and Charlie walk out to the turtles. Afterwards, as darkness tucks in around them, they head up for a drink. “How are the sessions going?”
Nicole doesn’t know what to say. The sky is black on the darkening sea, impossible to distinguish between the two. She’s been in Sayulita for close to a month. In a few more weeks, she’s supposed to leave—the neighbor’s daughter is using the condo after Christmas—and Nicole is surprised to find she doesn’t want to go. This place that she hated initially with its sulphur-smelling sea, its crowded beaches, its late-night bars, has tunneled under her skin. She loves her early morning runs, loves her friendship with Charlie, the time away from home, and although she hates to admit it, Charlie and Simone were right: Majo is brilliant.
“She’s incredible, right?”
“I don’t even know what she does or how she does it, but I feel…” She pauses, draws her finger around the rim of her drink and licks the salt. Does she know Charlie well enough to tell her about the visions that steam out of her at dawn? They sound strange, even to her. “The weird thing is I haven’t paid her once.”
“I know, don’t worry. It all works out.” Charlie studies her and starts to laugh.
“You get so anxious when you have to settle a bill. Mesero, la cuenta?” she says, mocking her.
“I just like to know where I stand.”
“I know, I love that about you.”
Nicole shakes her drink, unearthing the remnants of the cocktail from the ice at the bottom of the glass. “I never learned why you were seeing her.”
“Oh, my dad died,” she says, looking away. She shifts in her seat and perches one foot beneath her body. For the first time ever, Nicole sees hesitation on her friend’s face, sees her run through a catalog of possible explanations before choosing the easiest. “I was having a hard time getting over it,” she says at last. Several long seconds pass before Charlie meets Nicole’s gaze. “Majo’s through with me now. She’ll do that, you know.”
“Leave you eventually. She’ll say she’s got a trip or that someone needs her for the next few weeks and those things will be true. But it will be equally true that you don’t command her attention anymore.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
Nicole shrugs. “She’s only really interested in you when she can touch your pain.” She holds up her empty glass. “Another?”
“Yes, but I’m getting them this time.”
Nicole chats with the bartender as he squeezes out the grapefruits. She hadn’t thought about her work with Majo ending. She realizes now, she thought Majo would always be there for her, even if she returned to Denver, that she could come back to her whenever she wished.
She turns her attention back to the bartender. He is asking her in Spanish how long she’s been down here and without translating in her head first, she answers right back, even asks how long he’s worked here and how he learned to make palomas so well, an exchange that gives her a rush.
“That looked fun,” Charlie says when she returns, her eyebrows dancing.
“Nothing more thrilling than a fifty-something pretending she’s hot.”
“Fuck, these are good,” Charlie says, tilting her glass, studying it, as if the cocktail might reveal its recipe just through scrutiny. “You know, you are actually.”
“Shut up,” Nicole says, but joy momentarily sifts down onto her. A bag of confectioners’ sugar split. She is not hot. That is a word spit at younger women. But for a moment, she allows herself to be caught up in Charlie’s lightness where happiness is as easy as feeling pretty and delicious cocktails.
Together, they bitch about cosmetic work they’ve seen down here, trashing the women who get boob jobs —total fakes, sellouts—before eventually admitting they’d do the same if they could live with themselves afterwards. “Gosh, what a little lift would do,” Charlie says, hoisting her chest up just as the bartender looks over, catching her in the act, sending them both into a fit of laughter. Afterwards, Nicole’s ribs hurt. She hasn’t laughed like this since Daisy got sick. When they recover, they discuss the bodies they have and the bodies they used to have, which for women is at once as shallow and as significant as men discussing their sexual conquests.
On the walk back, the surf picks up, filling the empty pockets of sound. The slamming waves sounds like trucks dropping their cargo in the road.
That night the bands quit early, and in the morning, Nicole rises a little later than usual, under the throes of a nightmare. Daisy is climbing the crumbling tree house again, wearing the orange tennis shoes she loved as a child. The treehouse ladder is not a normal ladder but something out of Jack and the Beanstalk. “Come down, I can’t see you,” Nicole cries, but her voice is muted. The last she sees of her is the orange splash of shoes before they too disappear into the clouds.
She rises to pull on her running shorts but as soon as she does, she returns to her bed and lies there long past when she’d ever run, lying there as the sky transforms from a thing of delicacy into a thing of dominance, its yellow heat squeezing its way through the tiny mesh holes in the screen. She is still lying there when hours later Simone texts to see if she wants to grab lunch; she’s leaving for France tomorrow.
“Last minute change of plans.”
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know…” Simone starts to write something else—Nicole can see the three dots flashing and stops. “I think my time here is done,” she writes at last. “I don’t want to be away from my boy any longer.”
Nicole and Majo walk along the beach the next day rather than sitting by the pool. The day is overcast and the humidity presses everything together: their clothes into their skin, their hair into their scalp. Even the colors of the day feel as if they’re compressed, the sky and the sand wobbling together in a muted gray. “Yesterday, I woke with a nightmare.”
“That will happen.”
“I couldn’t speak; Daisy was climbing,” she says, explaining the dream.
Majo is quiet.
“Simone’s leaving today,” Nicole says without realizing she’s going to. “She wants to see her child, wants to be there for him.” She bites her lip. “I wasn’t there when Daisy died. I told Sean it was work but really I didn’t want to watch…” She pauses. A large set of waves crashes upon the shore. The sound is louder than that of a plane. Out of nowhere, it seems, she is crying, and Majo, for the first time, embraces her in a hug. “I was tired of watching her die.”
“You were there for her.”
“Not when it mattered.”
“Exactly when it mattered.”
In the morning, she wakes again at sunrise and is on the road running in the petal light while a portion of her mind is dreaming: Daisy’s teaching them to dance, everyone moved to laughter by Rex’s attempt to roll his hips. There’s something on her from her own childhood too; her sister Tanya’s arms are around her, pulling her from some pool she hadn’t remembered falling in until now.
At the beach, the tide is low and the ocean seems calmer—there are a few surfers out—and Nicole studies the water for a moment and decides to head in. It is a hot day and her arms are strong from surfing, strong enough she thinks to navigate any current that might be out there. As soon as she’s in though, she discovers the current is faster than it looks and carts her quickly down towards the surfers. She panics when she tries to swim in and can’t. She waves to the surfers but they’re too far out to see her. How could she be so foolish? She knows about rip tides, at this exact beach.
Think. Think for a moment. Sean spent some time in California as a kid. When in doubt, go out, he’d told the kids. Don’t fight it. Eventually the rip will end. As she bobs along, she tries not to think of drowning, tries instead to think of Daisy, of the last instant when she was well. They drove up to ski together; the sun was out and it had snowed the night before. They had lunch on the mountain, something they never did, the snow around them sparkling. A few weeks later, while back at school, Daisy confessed she couldn’t spell.
“I’m sure you’re just tired.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t remember how to spell my own name.”
In the ocean, Nicole looks up. But she doesn’t need to. She can feel the sudden shift in the water—the current easing—and when it does and she spots the set of waves coming in, she catches one and swims hard to shore. Afterwards, she lies on the sand, watching the sky as it deepens to blue. The fickleness of survival, how stupid it is really, how a mere turn into the current or out, how the mutation of a single cell can mean life or death stuns her. None of it makes any sense, none of it, and the more she thinks of it, the less distinct it becomes, how Daisy was fine one day and sick the next, how she and Sean were in love one year and out of love the next, how the sea can decide to take you or spit you back out to live another day.
On the way back up from the beach, she realizes she’s been misreading her favorite piece of graffiti. She’s only been seeing what was easiest to translate: The world loves us. But scratched just below it, in a different color is something so obvious she can’t believe she’s never seen it: Los muertos nos aman. The dead love us.
She calls Sean when she gets home. “I almost called you last night,” he says when he picks up. They haven’t spoken in over three weeks, and her heart surges at the thought of him missing her. “I couldn’t get the Netflix password to work.”
“I just felt like watching TV.”
“It should just go in automatically.”
A wide chasm of silence falls between them. She thinks about telling him she almost drowned. Then she thinks about telling him she misses him. But her thoughts suddenly feel as tired as her arms did swimming. So instead, she imagines being on the couch beside him, the blue glow of the TV illuminating the russet strands of his beard. He has let her pick the movie again and has poured out a glass of red wine for each of them. Brought in a chocolate chip cookie to share. They are leaning into each other, snuggling beneath the wool blanket, the way they used to, back when they were still ignorant, still in love.
“Nicole. Cole.” She becomes conscious to his voice, his calling of her.
“I thought maybe you’d fallen asleep.”
“No, I just…drifted.”
This is the point in the conversation where they’d usually dissect Daisy’s treatment, forking through everything the doctors had and hadn’t tried, wondering if they could have saved her. “Remember when Daisy made us all breakfast that morning? I think she was maybe seven,” she says, recounting the memory.
“There was orange pulp in her hair,” he says. “I remember brushing it out that night.”
“Do you think…” she says, pausing. “Do you think she knew we loved her? Do you think we could have been better, that I…shouldn’t have pushed her like I did?”
Sean is quiet on the other end, but she can hear him breathing. “I think… we were distracted assholes reading bedtime stories.”
She laughs. Sean always used to make her laugh, that’s what made her fall in love with him, all those years ago. “So perfect parents?”
“I think so.”
“Right, night then.”
A few days later, she wakes to the phone ringing. “It’s Majo,” the voice on the other end says but Nicole is still in the midst of a dream. And it doesn’t sound like Majo. She’s thrown too by the ordinariness of the activity—Majo has a phone? And she has Nicole’s number? “I’m leaving for India tomorrow.”
“What time is it?” She thinks the sky might be brightening but it could just be the lights of the clubs.
“I know it’s last minute. My guru is at the ashram in Dharamsala and I need to go see her.”
Nicole knows from Charlie that there’s no point in asking when she might return, that this is how she tells Nicole she’s moving on. “Do you…” she starts to say, but Majo cuts her off. “Don’t worry about paying yet.”
“Okay,” she says, but that wasn’t what she was going to ask.
Charlie organizes a large Christmas party for all the ex-pats and convinces one of her friends, who is renting a large house on the north end of Sayulita’s main beach, to host it. There are vases of tropical flowers on every table, freshly squeezed margaritas, and an open-air living room that empties out onto the sand. Before dinner is even served though, Nicole finds herself drifting away from it, wandering down to the water’s edge with a drink still in hand. What she wants more than anything in the world is the chaos of her Denver home at Christmas time. But she wants it as it used to be, back when everyone was there and Sean still noticed the world, wants her family squeezed around her, while they sip cider and argue about which holiday movie they’re going to watch. She sits down on the sand, closes her eyes, draws her own hand to her forehead, as Majo has taught her, breathes in the memory of the last one she ever watched with Daisy, willing it to land on her skin. But it’s no use. All she can hear is the ache of the waves upon the shore, all she can feel is time pulling out everything away from her.
Charlie joins her on the beach, sliding in next to her on the sand, tapping her knees against Nicole’s. “I saw you head out.”
“Sorry, it’s a nice party. Fun people too.”
“I think so. Most everyone in there has something wrong. Except for Muffy.” Muffy’s the host. She’s someone Nicole’s only hung out with a handful of times but who always looks great, even when everyone else is a hot mess at the dance club. Both her daughters are at Stanford.
“Yeah, but her name’s Muffy.”
Charlie laughs. Then she places her hand on her brow and looks out over the sea, illuminated now by the sun’s falling rays. It’s the same sight they’ve watched a dozen times together, but the humidity is thick tonight, with no breeze, so the colors look lacquered somehow. “Are you heading right back to Denver?”
“I think I might travel for a while. Go to Oaxaca maybe.”
“It’s going to be lonely here without you.”
“Come with me.”
“Maybe,” Charlie says, but Nicole knows that she won’t, that this is where they are different: the very things that make Sayulita claustrophobic for her make Charlie feel at home.
A flock of pelicans glide over the water searching for fish. When one lands, the rest follow, lining up like aircraft.
“I didn’t tell you the whole story with my dad,” Charlie says quietly. “I didn’t tell you that I hated him.” She rubs her hands over her feet, kneading the colored toenails with her thumbs. “Or that I reminded him of this the night he died.”
“That’s why I was seeing Majo. Majo thinks he knew I loved him but…” Her hands reach the end of her feet and she begins again, rubbing each nail. “I don’t know, I still hate myself on some level for it.”
Nicole places her hand beside Charlie’s in the sand. “I wasn’t there when Daisy died. I stepped out to take a phone call. I couldn’t take it anymore.” The sky fades to gray. On the horizon, there are just a few brush strokes of coral light remaining. The pelicans have returned to the sky. “Sometimes I dream that when I go back to Denver, she’ll just be there. But not as her twenty-one-year-old self. At age four. Old enough to talk to me but young enough to begin again.”
Charlie leans her head against Nicole’s shoulder. “I didn’t appreciate that age like I should have.”
“No one does.” She wants to say more, to tell Charlie all the ways in which she’s grateful for her, but her words fail her.
Eventually, Charlie scoops up their empty glasses. “I should get back in.”
“Tell them thank you for me. And sorry,” she says, exchanging kisses with her friend. “I’ll come by tomorrow to say goodbye.”
When Nicole walks down the beach she’s surprised to see the turtle volunteers clutching baskets of hatchlings. She had thought they wouldn’t come at Christmas. One of the volunteers recognizes her and waves her over. “I can’t believe you’re down here on a holiday,” she says.
“We had a whole clutch of eggs that couldn’t wait. Here, take some,” he says, passing her two bowls.
She walks down to the tide line where the others are standing, wishes them Merry Christmas and then studies her turtles. This is by far the most she’s ever had on a single night, so many that they’re scrabbling over each other, always upwards towards the edge, already sensing somehow that the sea is where they need to be, even though no one has instructed them to do so and their odds of survival out there aren’t that great; most of them will be eaten or will eat the wrong thing—a plastic bag they mistake for a jelly fish, a net. She tips out the bowls, but one turtle doesn’t move. It’s a small one—about the size of a baby’s hand— and she fears for a moment he’s been trampled to death by his siblings in their rush to the sea.
“Come on little one, you got this.” She tickles his body even though she’s not supposed to—she’s seen enough of the volunteers do the same. “Are you just sleeping?” She is about to pronounce him dead when he waves a fin. “There you go,” she says. This time when she lowers him onto the sand, he comes to life, motoring his little body down towards the surf. He gets battered by one wave and then another—his black handprint body tumbling in the blue-green foam—before vanishing to the sea. She can feel her recent runs in her knees, the tequila swirling in her stomach, the sadness lodged like a mollusk under her diaphragm. But her mind is clear: that baby-hand sized turtle is going to make it. He has to.