Lost Boys of Cancun
by Jahla Seppanen
It was the end of the day and the local snorkeling guides let their bottoms sag below their hips. A gradient pale to blush like the Mexican sunset took camp on their backsides. Fading dark coco to coffee, caramel, tawny then light beige below the hip. I wondered how many years they had spent in the sun, hauling tourists to and from the reef.
The head guide’s name was Angel, and those of us in the boat tried to mimic the pronunciation of his name without a harsh ‘g’. For the most part we sounded wrong, but Angel laughed at us and it became a sort of game. The fat British man who weighed down the other side of the boat continued trying when the rest of us stopped. I watched Angel for a change in his face that would signal annoyance. It never came. Instead he wrangled the lever sticking out from the motor and turned the boat toward the shore. A woman’s name was written across his left chest. Either she had two first names or it was both the first and middle, I’m not sure. It could have been two different women with two different names. I didn’t ask. All I said was “Thank you, gracias”, and “I need another mask, mine’s leaking”.
The second guide, who led our group through the water to a remote patch of coral and sting rays, was skinnier and taller than Angel, older perhaps, but with the same young face belonging to a tribe of lost boys. At first glance I thought he was flirting with me, but the look remained all day and in his looks with other women and men too. There was a lightness on his cheeks. An innocence only kept by living so close to the ocean. I felt it in myself after only one day. A frenzy quieted by the underwater roar. Expansion I couldn’t put into words. I felt very comfortable in the boat with Angel and the other—his name I don’t remember.
As we returned to the beach from hours at the reef, Angel’s swim trunks drooped showing a stretch of his crack, reminding me of the painted cherubins of the Renaissance. Just above his hip, below the woman’s name, was another tattoo outlining two dancing skeletons with heads too large for their bodies. The drawing fell away at the bottom, unfinished.
While Angel maneuvered the motor from the back, the other guide lay belly down on the forward of the boat, leaning starboard. His shorts were ripped in the rear seam. I saw a nettle of dark hair before turning away. Facing the ocean, water kicked up from the speed of our barrelling and splashed on my lips, puckered from hours at the reef. My arms were cold, but redness burned on my neck where the baby hairs grew still through my mid-twenties. I covered the area with my hand and watched Angel. He looked sad returning to shore, like it held some quiet execution. Perhaps trouble with the girl on his chest. Skeletons wading in the sandbar searching for their feet. His eyes were wet like they were made of glass and I could picture him crying very easily, over a girl or lost comrade. Over simpler things too. But he soldiered us to dock without cowardice for whatever doomed him.
The guide at the front of the boat was laughing with a group of black women- their nails painted the colors of different fish. They watched him and he watched the ocean, all with the same desire. Suddenly I wished to return to the reef, feeling I hadn’t looked as hard as I could at the circular inlays of coral and schools of passing fish. I might never be back and had thought the whole time of my mask and the rubber flippers rubbing the knuckles of my toes raw.
My husband watched as Angel helped me from the boat.
“Good job, lady,” he said.
“Gracias,” I said.
“You did it,” my husband said. “I didn’t think you would.”
“Of course I did it,” I said. “It was easy.”
“Now back to the resort,” my husband said, putting his arms through the sleeves of his pineapple shirt.
“We have a little while, don’t we?” I asked.
“Only twenty minutes before the bus comes.”
“Let’s tip them,” I said.
“We didn’t bring any cash.”
“I’ve got a little.”
I dug through the small backpack I brought to the cove and withdrew five American dollar bills. I thought of giving it all to Angel. Then, of giving all to the other boy for a new pair of shorts. I didn’t know who needed it more, or whether it would insult one to give it solely to the other, or whether their flirtations and sadness were untrue, and I had been manipulated very finely to feel this way.
The strange thing about Mexico is I always felt I was cheating or being cheated. I fingered through the dollar bills, damp and scratched with sand. It didn’t feel like enough.
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Jahla Seppanen grew up off-the-grid in the small town of Madrid, NM. She was born and raised in Santa Fe and moved to New York where she received a BA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently writes for SGB Magazine in Colorado. Her fiction has been published in Fourteen Hills, Bookends Review, and Litro UK, among others. Her vices include long runs, tequila with mango juice, and men with large shoulders.
3 thoughts on “Lost Boys of Cancun”
A subtle story of cultural unease. Well-done, Jahla. I’d love to see this in a more expanded version.
A sensitive account of the nuances of otherness, it’s blend of distance and attraction, the possibilities of erotic allure, here more alluded to than emplotted. AGB
You summed up the tourist experience very well. There was an oddly pleasurable feeling of discomfort with this little story, almost as if I’d been wearing too-tight flippers to swim with beautiful fish.