A tarot card reader suggested I go to the coast, to shake myself of a crushing depression. So I did. The Pacific Coast of Mexico, to be exact, to a tiny beach town called Mazunte, in the state of Oaxaca. The town was once a center for processing sea turtle meat, before those majestic creatures became protected under law. It is now primarily thought of as a location one might go to surround herself with white Europeans in dreadlocks or the type of person whose idea of a full day is guessing strangers’ ayurvedic dispositions over kombucha—though obviously those categories are not mutually exclusive.
All that mattered to me was that there would be miles of crystal water, overgrown trails to explore, a quiet place to unravel after what has been a very difficult year. Every morning, when it was still dark, I hiked two miles out to Punta Cometa, a rocky cliff comprising the southernmost point of Mexico. Immense white-capped waves broke against rocks hundreds of feet below and I’d sit saturated by salt air, watching the sun, a bright red-orange disc, ascend the horizon, before hiking back to my cabana to have chilaquiles or entomatadas with a tiny band of revolving transients who kept putting off the task of buying return tickets home.
One morning, Justin, a blonde guy covered in skull tattoos and thin gold chains worn over his tank top, appeared at the breakfast table hand rolling cigarettes on one knee. He had piercing blue eyes and spoke enthusiastically about his Harley and his work back in Vancouver as a welder. He was in Mazunte taking some time off while his back healed, but he could imagine just buying some property out here and, like, really living. “Well, I’m off to the beach,” he told me wistfully as he finished his coffee, slinging a towel around his shoulder as if it were a leather jacket.
Adriana, the Mexican woman who managed our cabana and cooked breakfast every morning, rushed out of the kitchen as soon as he was out of earshot. “Wei, he’s so handsome,” she cooed, at me. “I like him,” she said, explaining that they had met at a bar the previous night and she’d persuaded him to come stay at our cabana.
“Canadians are very likeable!” I responded, attempting diplomacy. But she wasn’t paying attention, gazing dreamily into the distance. She deflated suddenly, plopping down next to me and stroking a puppy that had been nipping at our feet.
“He has a girlfriend,” she said, rolling her eyes. I looked at her, her long black hair falling in waves around her face. She was sullen as she brushed back the little dog’s fur with her fingertips. I wondered if I should reassure her that there were of, course, plenty more fuckboys in the sea, but she looked up at me suddenly, grinning mischievously. “He told me they’ve been fighting,” she said, then winked.
The rhythm of the subsequent days, the narrowing of space between two strangers in the throes of a crush, felt obvious and even comforting to observe. I sleepily followed along while eating breakfast each morning. After Justin left, Adriana would fill me in on her progress while I helped her wash dishes. She’d wail with the agony of being in love. “I don’t know if he likes me,” she’d moan, her head in her hands.
At first, they would meet at the beach in the afternoons to swim and share a pina colada. Then, they began going out all night, drinking late into the wee hours. Many mornings they’d arrive to the breakfast table bleary-eyed, bodies heavy and hair tousled. Within a week, they were inseparable, Justin’s fingers skimming over Adriana’s shoulders as he said goodbye and left for the beach in the mornings. What did they talk about, I once asked Adri. “He just talks crazy, I don’t know,” she told me. “I can’t understand a lot of it. His accent is crazy when he talks fast.” She shrugged. “I just smile and laugh.”
She also cooked. One afternoon, on my way into town for lunch, I caught her humming to herself in the cocina while mixing maseca and water. The air smelled sweet and dense, like mud and I watched as she rolled sticky balls of masa in her palms until they were smooth, then pressed her thumb into each, to make a dimple. Chochoyutes, she explained, masa dumplings.
Soon, I learned that if I arrived back at the cocina just as the sun was setting I might also partake in whatever feast Adriana was preparing. I moved quickly from the sidelines of the relationship into the action, mirroring back to the couple what they wanted to see for themselves, giving them a place to perform their newly shared identity. For my contributions, I was rewarded with quesadillas stuffed fat with fresh shrimp from the sea, tangy sweet ceviches and black mole as dark as earth. There were complicated spiced stews, creamy heirloom beans, thick homemade tortillas. If I had rolled my eyes at Justin in the beginning, now I had no reservations, jumping at any opportunity to muse about what a terrific guy he was to Adri, that it didn’t seem like he liked his girlfriend at home very much at all. So, our lives proceeded in this manner, Adri and Justin growing closer to one another, and me, always on time to mooch off of the fruits of love's labor.
“We had sex!” Adriana announced brightly to me one morning, a month or so into their romance. There had been no breakfast that day; I was at the breakfast table gnawing on mango skins. She loped up the steps, with a big smile and took my hands in hers as she recounted her triumph. “Eh, I don’t really remember much, just that I woke up in his bed this morning,” she laughed. “He asked me if I remember doing it in the shower last night.” I hugged her and told her I was thrilled, and she went on to say that she was a little sad because Justin told her that he had to go back to Canada at the end of the week. But, they’d been talking about starting a restaurant together in Mazunte, sharing a life in the middle of nowhere. “He’s a good guy,” she said. “I know he’ll come back.”
I choked a little on my spit, as the reality of of the situation dawned on me. Adriana didn’t think of this as some silly summer fling - she saw it as a lifeline, a future. It may have been abundantly clear to me that Justin was just a superficial asshole intent on hedonism with impunity, but to Adriana, he was a glimmer of hope. Justin had always has the choice of returning to his old life, to his old girlfriend, to an expanse of possibilities just a plane ride away. But Adriana was here. I willed myself out of my pessimism, but within days, the pleasant first blushes of romance fell away to the painful cliches of relationship endings. A tearful goodbye, promises of letters, calls, and a quick return. Days passed with increasing silence, Facebook messages became fewer and farther between. Adri stayed in bed late and barely left her room, bellowing along to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in the sweltering afternoons. I took to going into town each evening for sub-par lengua tacos and bags of limon-flavored Frito chips.
Soon, it was time for me to leave as well. I felt better, less anxious, more like myself. My circadian rhythms returned; the dark circles had disappeared from my eyes. I didn’t want to make a big deal about the fact that I was leaving, so I only mentioned it to Adriana at breakfast, a few days before my flight. “Nooooo,” she moaned at first. “Okay,” she said, regaining composure. “So we have to drink mezcal,” she said.
The night before my flight, we drank tecates while Adri rinsed out bunches of fresh herbs in the cocina—handfuls of parsley, cilantro, epazote, and hoja santa, fresh from the garden outside the cabana. She instructed me to knead masa until it has the consistency of pizza dough. We were making mole verde, she said, her family’s secret recipe.
“You know, Justin. I’m starting to think maybe he’s not good,” she said, chopping tomatillos and adding them to the the blender with the herbs. “He always says he’ll do things and he doesn’t. I was just crazy when he was here.”
She strained the liquid in the blender, a bright green mixture, into a pot simmering with stock and pork bones, then motioned for me to add masa into the grassy clump that was left in the blender.
“I know he’s back with his girlfriend in Canada,” she said. “I saw photos on Facebook.” She hit the button and the masa turned a brilliant chartreuse. She poured the mixture into the pot and turned the heat up. “It’s okay. Now I can go back to work, study to be an attorney, think about starting my own restaurante.” She placed a lid on the pot and turned to me. “Now we wait,” she said, “and drink!”
I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands.
I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands. “I ordered you a necklace from Oaxaca, but I didn’t know you were leaving so soon!” she said to me, her eyes soft. She showed me a photograph of it on her phone, it was a beaded choker with an enormous handmade red ceramic heart hanging from its center. “I know roja is your favorite color,” she said softly, before returning into the kitchen to check on the mole.
I looked out at the pink sky and the bright red sun, dipping just below the horizon of the sea, for the final time before I returned to my life in New York, feeling nostalgic already for the immense natural beauty I’d had the luck to recover in. But suddenly it dawned on me that my recovery has less to do with the sea or fresh air than it has to do with Adri, with the rich and loving world she’d allowed me into in such a short period of time. I’d just been too distracted by idle gossip to notice.
Adriana set two shallow bowls on the table each with tender neck bones immersed in a kelly green broth, flecked with bits of herbs, made supple by masa. I folded up a warm tortilla and dipped it into the mole It tasted bright green, like sucking on a slice of lime, like a cooling breeze, like tender grass poking through topsoil, like spring.