by Linda Thomas
Xel-Ha (shell-HAAH) is a National Park on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, located north of the great walled Maya city, Tulum, and south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It is, as far as I can tell, a swamp, which has been taken over by a large conglomerate dedicated to ecological preservation and public access. At this location, the sea backs up along narrow fingerlets and forms coral lagoons where mangrove and tropical fish flourish in crystal clear water. Too, there are cenotes here, places where the natural limestone shell of the Yucatan Peninsula cracks, collapses, and reveals deep fresh water pools trapped between the surface stone and underground hardrock.
The area--like the entire coast--is covered in dense tropical forest composed of flowering trees, vines, fruit and nut trees, bromeliads that attach to upper branches and create riots of red spears among the broad leather- leafed almond and flaming flamboyanes. Inside the expansive park, the jungle has been manicured with walking paths, lagoon docks, cafes, diving gear rental shacks, and hammocks hung between coconut palms. Beneath a stand of low-lying trees near a rock outcrop and small wood dock, Robert and I find two weathered Adirondack chairs where we set down our bags and towels. We buy sodas from a vendor, and while I lay back to rest from the hike in the heavy heat and humidity, Robert ventures into the lagoon.
The air is so dense and dank that I might slice off a chunk and eat the ether. There are others about: Spaniards laughing their throaty guffaws at a paper sack of plums they've brought, a Dutch woman dressed for serious snorkeling in a purple wet suit, a Mexican father intent on teaching his young son to dive from the pretty outcrop of limestone that extends over the water just a few feet from where I sit. I steady my camera to snap photos of Robert for our album later, knowing how he will love pointing and telling stories of Caribbean fish-- electric blue, striped yellow and black, fins the color of berries. He waves and dives again so that I watch his hips, legs, toes disappear beneath the glassy surface.
When I grow bored of taking pictures, I watch a young couple nearby-- Americans, young, very beautiful. He is perhaps twenty-five, short golden hair that wants to curl around his temples, tall and slender with straight, powerful shoulders. She is equally perfect, also tall and slender, unblemished in her sleek tangerine two-piece, her long auburn hair stylishly straight. There is an air about the two, a haughty erectness, that bespeaks success, college careers now complete, proud parents, Republicanism set on a course of carefully balanced community service and acquisition. Nothing artsy, nothing risky, nothing that smells of perversion. Just nice young people. His gold band and her diamond set indicate they are married, and her still fresh French manicure suggests to me that the wedding has been recent. Something, however, is amiss.
The young groom paces back and forth between the chair where his bride sits clasping her knees and the rock ledge from which Robert now dives. Clearly, the groom wants to be in the water, and clearly, his bride does not. Finally, when the boy in him wins over, he dives--a long crisp line of downy manhood--and emerges with an explosion of water, bright in the sunshine, and whips his head so that water droplets spin off like fire sparks. He is grinning--as they say in his world--ear-to-ear.
The young woman, however, wears a petulant frown. She picks at her cuticle and studies her nails, while he coaxes her, calling, "It feels good!" Finally, in a kind of long reluctant drawing of herself together to face some disaster, she unfolds, rises, and adjusts the bottom edge of her suit, though for the life of me, I cannot see what there is to adjust. She is so smoothly put together, one long line of breast, waist, hip, thigh, and skin like a midwestern plain of peach flesh. She steps forward out from beneath the trees and stands on the dock, holding on to the railing with both hands as if the whole construction might collapse beneath her and sink into the shallow water. In that pose, she grimaces and pouts to her beloved for several minutes; then, finally, she climbs delicately back up and ducks beneath the trees. Her young groom, still new to this business of husbandhood, follows obediently, pulling himself up from the enchanting water, and together they sit like oldsters beneath the trees, she filing her nails while he gazes longingly at the water as though it holds for him all the happy memories of his now forever lost boyhood.
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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.