The only thing I regret from those blurry, confusing months after my mom died happened during a trip to Mexico. Caleb had the idea that an abrupt and total change in scenery would jar me out of the sense of impending disaster that had become my new normal while she was sick. He said, the worst has already happened, all you have to do is walk out from under its shadow. I had no sense of a bigger picture at the time. Grief made me pliable. This frightened him. He said: You have no form, and then you change it.
My will anesthetized, he went to work searching for a place that might remind me of a life less focused on death. He orchestrated everything: cheap, last-minute plane tickets to the Yucatan, the first available bus south along the coast to a town near Tulum, and rustic, waterfront lodging. I remember being amazed that such a peaceful, undeveloped option existed so close to Cancun. Near dusk, we settled into a little hut on the beach. It was bare but for the wide, lumpy bed and the floor of fine white sand. We wandered to the edge of the sea. It was a release, just the pastel water and sky. In such an elemental place, I was able to cry a little, and we were quiet together.
The light of coming sunrise slanted through the thatch of the hut when Caleb returned from an early swim the next morning. I was awake with my eyes closed, mentally replaying scripts of long-ago fights with my mother over things that did not matter anymore. Caleb quietly shut the door and toweled off. He stretched out on the bed next to me, naked and gently, unsure if I was asleep. This time was also fleeting and precious. After all of his kindness and patience, I wanted him to know I was still capable of being good to him. The skin on his stomach tasted of salt and the muscles beneath it jerked under my tongue.
It was that night or the next that we met Liesl. I had noticed her on the beach, lanky and strong in a black bikini that, next to her blond hair and pale skin, made me think of a hornet. But when we saw her eating alone at the little restaurant by the road, it was Caleb who struck up a conversation and asked her to sit with us. She was German, on vacation from some sort of work or study program in Northern Mexico. Monterey, I think. I do not remember many details from our initial small talk, because I was distracted by her extreme attractiveness. She was surprisingly warm and self-mocking for someone who looked so Aryan and slid effortlessly between English spoken to us, Spanish addressed to the waitress, and contemplation over the menu in German, ostensibly for her own amusement. I felt certain she was invariably happy alone, but that other people always longed to have her around.
Caleb was admiring her. His eyes were bright. Most of the time, for me, he was like one of those science magazine pictures of an everyday object photographed at microscopic range; my brain often failed to recognize the tiny part in connection with the known whole. But right then, I could see him as Liesl did: the sparse stubble that would never be a proper beard, the broad shoulders, the confidently relaxed posture, all blending together into the whole of him. He was telling her a story I had heard once before, about his sister passing out while climbing the stairs of a tower in Munich during their infamous family vacation to Europe. It was a story that made him a little vulnerable because it was the moment when he first saw his sister as a woman that men would be attracted to; three German teenagers had rushed to her aid. Liesl made a joke about German men programming acts of chivalry into their carefully timed schedules. It artfully avoided teasing Caleb and set us both laughing.
At the sound of my laughter, Caleb stretched out his legs and clasped one of my ankles with his, squeezing it tight. A few minutes later I had to mention, in order to make sense of what I was saying, that my mother had recently died. Liesl’s face fell and her hand dropped from the table to my thigh. That was all. I continued my train of thought, but at the same time drew my focus back farther and saw that I was encircled. The three of us sitting at that table felt complete.
When Liesl got up to go to the bathroom, Caleb still had my ankle cradled between his and was looking contentedly out toward the beach. I asked if he wanted to invite Liesl to spend the night with us. I have no idea where the question came from. My mind had been at rest, I thought. His face darkened and he was silent for a moment before he faced me.
“Are you saying that’s what you want?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. He added, “I just want to be clear that this is coming from you. The thought hadn’t occurred to me.”
I believed him. My parents’ split when I was ten left the impression that romantic relationships are unhappy cages, things to escape. Even when I met Caleb, with his easy and seductive faith in happy coupledom, I could not see dedication as anything other than obligation, and obligation as the road to ruin. So each time I noticed our lives entwining more intricately, I would tell him: he was free to do whatever he wanted, whenever and with whomever he wanted, and to tell me about it or not. His reaction was always to laugh at me and roll his eyes, as if the idea of me being okay with that was ludicrous. Either he has never done anything, or he has never told me. I think the former. He has mentioned to me moments as trivial as a strange feeling of connection with a woman he passed on the sidewalk, so I do not think he has walls thick enough to hide a physical experience from me. I could be wrong. But on that evening in Mexico, it occurred to me that the reason he always laughed when I reminded him of his freedom was not because he thought I could not handle it, but because he could not imagine wanting it.
“It’s up to you,” he said as we both watched Liesl returning to the table. His voice was neutral. I knew then he did not want me to ask her. So I knew I would not. I was not consciously trying to sabotage anything. I said it with the open, simple mode of expression we had been wearing like loose clothes since we had arrived in Tulum. If I had not spoken, if Caleb and I had just been sitting silently, ankles wrapped, the whole time she was gone, the night would have continued to be perfect. But maybe that was the problem. He had become so much to me. I did not remember giving permission for things to become like this. Now he was also the person who had steered me through my grief. When Liesl sat back down at the table, the mood was subdued. We were aware of our weariness and asked for the check.
Liesl came down to the beach to say goodbye the next morning before she left, and there was no tension. My regret is that I ever posed the question to Caleb. Not because it destroyed the gentleness of the evening, but because he was giving all he had to me, and I had met him with a wall of fear and doubt. I also suspected I had made him feel like he had denied me something I wanted, which was not exactly true. At least I think this is how he felt, because for the rest of the trip, he was incredibly sexual. It was a pleasurable penance to pay. I felt challenged to absorb everything, and in the end, I think it was okay. The last morning we were in Tulum, we were tangled up slick with sweat, catching our breaths, knowing we had to get up and pack.
He tenderly tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and said: “You look happy.”
“I am,” I sighed. Tulum had become my first point of reference for an existence that could be sustainable—joyful, even—in a world that no longer included my mother. Caleb wanted to chart more points together. I wanted that too, I realized.
“I am,” I said again, more firmly.
“Welcome back from the edge of death,” he told me.