Ned wants Jane to love Mexico. He wants to show her the churches with bloody Jesus hanging from the cross, a wig of tangled human hair askew on his head. He wants her to smell the sweet aroma of fresh corn tortillas in the tiny grocery stores. If she loves Mexico, Ned thinks she will love him. She will accept his proposal.
They flew into Oaxaca yesterday morning and rode a bus for eight hours through the treacherous Sierra Madre del Sur down to the Pacific coast. For a long time Jane watched as brown plains and then lush green forests streamed past her scratched bus window, and then she fell asleep. It was dark when they got to Puerto Angel, the tiny fishing village that Ned wants her to love. Jane was groggy and smiled at the soft lights, the narrow streets winding through the town. She enjoyed arriving in a new place at night, and she tried to get a sense of things. The air in Mexico was thick and hot, sweet smells of hidden flowers and overripe fruit.
They took a short cab ride into the hills, and then she sat on a bench outside the office as Ned checked in at the hotel, a small canyon filled tiny bungalows tucked behind tall palms and banana trees. Their room was large. The rough-plastered walls were painted green, purple, bright pink, decorated with weavings and simple figure drawings and brightly-colored masks. There was no air conditioning, only a fan on the ceiling, and the thin sheets underneath the patchwork quilt smelled freshly laundered. Jane fell asleep happy.
Ned says that girls, women-- he always corrects himself like that– are not predatory creatures by nature. He’s an anthropologist, so he ought to know. Women stay grounded, and let the men flit around them in their mad quest for genetic diversity. Jane thinks this is funny. She likes Ned and doesn’t want to hurt him.
Jane is not monogamous by nature. So maybe she is an anomaly. She can’t help it. Staying faithful to Ned for the last seven months has been a trial, but also a novelty, like a crash diet that tests the resolve and the willpower, but for a short time only.
“Yeah, I did five weeks on the Paleo,” her friend Lisa had boasted at brunch last week. “No sugar, no carbs, not even fruit. I dropped a fast twenty and I wasn’t even hungry.” But at brunch Lisa had also devoured a stack of blueberry pancakes and looked a little puffy.
Seven months is a long time. But is it long enough to change her nature? Or will she, like Lisa with her diets, break down eventually and end up one night in a stranger’s bed?
Ned knows about Jane’s history; she’d warned him that she might not stay true. “The past is passed,” he said right after he asked her to marry him. He said it with confidence, as though just by his decree it would be so. Jane would change.
Does Ned think his love for her is this powerful? Yes, she can be faithful. Yes, she will love Ned and think of no one else. No, she will never again jump into a cab with a man she just met and thrill to hear him give the driver his address, for her a new neighborhood, a new apartment, a new bed.
Ned took Jane to the White Dog Café the night he proposed and they sat in a corner among the thick flowered carpets, near the fireplace. After dinner Jane was slowly running her spoon over a wide dish of crème brulee, shaving little hollows from the crust of burnt sugar, when Ned grabbed her hand.
She didn’t say yes. She didn’t say no. She just looked at the antique ring, rose gold with a filigree design and several small stones surrounding a good-sized diamond, and marriage was something she’d never thought about before.
“Put it on,” Ned urged.
Jane shook her head. “I need to think,” she said. “Just let me think for a little while.”
He backed off with grace and didn’t press to drive her home when she said she wanted to be walk alone. She slowly wandered alone through the University of Pennsylvania campus, for once not feeling she lacked anything. She felt well-fed and beloved. Bejeweled. Students passed her in twos and threes, identical in their pea coats and sturdy boots, hushed under the tall wide trees, the ancient brick buildings.
Before Ned, erotic desire propelled Jane through her life. She had sex with whomever she wanted, whenever she wanted. But more than the actual sex, what she liked most was being on the prowl. She sauntered through the piles of fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods and there was that charge, that in-kind sexual restlessness emanating from two or maybe three men. She would pick up an artichoke and pretend to examine it, heat coming at her from several directions. Her limbs were liquid and she would move more slowly and whichever, whatever alpha male would close in on her. He stood next to her, eyes never meeting, and her arm brushed against his and the light hairs tickled. Bristled.
Usually that was all. She didn’t have sex with most of the strangers she touched. Just a few. Most of the time, the bristling was enough. It gave her some juice– a little boost to get through the rest of her life, the parts that had no charge.
Any given day on any given street, there are swarms of people like Jane all looking for the same thing. Standing in line at the post office, coming out of a movie theater– there they are, their heat in streaming full riotous color, hot pulsing waves. Scanning across a crowd, behind the backs of husbands and wives, over the held hands of their children, they look for a connection, just a second, a minute, to fuse the colors together. That’s all it is. No one wants to break up families, shed blood, drain bank accounts. A cliché, true, but this thing is as remote as a handshake. It feels so normal to Jane and it’s shocking sometimes that the rest of the world doesn’t understand. Jane finds it beautiful, these crazy colored butterflies moving through the rest of the world, a thick cloud of grey moths. And if occasionally the butterflies have the opportunity to really get it on, well, all the better.
Ned does not get jealous. But when he hears Jane talk about her old life, he gets a little sad. “I think we were put on earth to love each other,” he says, “not to have sex for sport.” He’s had flings of his own, of course, but he alludes to them vaguely and says they felt shitty in the long run. He’s so sincere about it that sometimes when Jane thinks back on her own encounters, she wonders if they didn’t feel shitty too, and she’s just suppressed it. Then she laughs. No, they didn’t feel shitty. Each of them was delicious, vital, and they kept her blood running through her veins.
Before Ned, Jane kept herself slender, feline, a body for sex, not for pregnancy, not babies. Excess flesh was a sign of weakness, a symbol to the sexual world that a person didn’t quite have a grip. So she drank coffee and tried not to think about eating– or only let herself love the best things in the smallest quantities: fresh figs, imported dark chocolate, the most exotic cheeses.
Her clothes fit well and she bought expensive shoes that were more stylish than comfortable. She kept her dark hair in a shiny curtain just below her collarbone and wore a thin layer of eyeliner. She walked purposefully down the street. While she didn’t exactly look like she’d steal a husband or screw a little brother, she gave other women an involuntary little shudder. In pictures, Jane liked what she saw.
Now in pictures, Ned stands beside Jane. They look all right together, he quite a bit taller, she fitting nicely under his arm. She likes seeing them– in a photograph or unexpectedly in a store window as they walk down the street. Together they look solid.
Well, of course they look solid. Jane has put on seventeen pounds since she started seeing Ned. She’s let herself love food. She and Ned eat out, eat in, cook long dinners together. She’s with him so much of the time it’s become impossible to keep up her own Spartan habits. The change happened gradually, stealthily, but it’s clear her body knows it no longer has to be on alert. It can relax.
The extra weight is bizarre– her newly-thickened hips and heavy breasts. She’s had to buy new clothes, some loose pants and long, flowy cardigans. But the clothes, like the weight, are temporary. She is a thin woman by nature and will go back to being thin eventually. But for now she enjoys the novelty of chubby thighs and padded upper arms. It’s like wearing a slight disguise.
And she must confront this idea of marriage. Ned talks about his own past, the serious girlfriend five years after college, the two year-long relationships he’s had since, and it seems crazy to her that she’s been alone for so long, without someone who knows where she is every day. She finally understands how the rest of the world lives. The thing is, most women can’t keep themselves rail-thin and most women pick just one man.
Ned has thick straight hair parted on the side. He always needs a little goo to keep it off his face. He wears healthy shoes that he lets get scuffed. It doesn’t matter because he’s an academic. No one cares what his shoes look like.
He’s taller than he looks. He stoops just at the last minute, hunching his shoulders a bit, as though he wants people to feel comfortable with his height. Sometimes, though, when he dresses to go somewhere fancy, he stands up straight. He knows he looks beautiful in his good suit, his shiny black dress shoes, his hair rich and glossy with pomade.
He’s certainly not the kind of guy Jane rubs arm hairs with in the supermarket. He gives off almost no heat. But Jane suspects she might love him. She believes that Ned is a good man. A good man who wants a good life in a world he’s helped make better. Nothing sexy about that at all, Jane thinks, but maybe her old vision of sexy is wearing out.
They take a cab to Zipolite after breakfast their first morning. The beach at Puerto Angel curves around a still cove, great for snorkeling but there are no waves. Ned says at Zipolite, the waves are wild.
The Zipolite beach is filled with naked European hippies. Jane examines two women sitting in the sun, One has tidy blonde dreadlocks to her shoulders and the other cropped bright red hair. Their tiny upturned breasts are as tan as the rest of their sleek bodies. She hears them speaking German as she and Ned walk past.
Jane feels invisible here. For a minute she wishes her body would magically go back to its old shape, return to its pleasing straight lines. There are little heaps of pudge on the insides of her knees, and her belly, when she sits down, collapses into three distinct rolls. She wears a bikini anyway. She could have bought a more conservative suit, something to hide the display, but that would be an admission that all of this is permanent.
Ned doesn’t care about Jane’s weight gain, or so he says. He only tells her she’s beautiful. He’s lucky, really, because at this weight she could never compete– not here, in Mexico, at this glamorous hippie beach. It’s humbling. A lesson she can look back on later when she’s thin again, herself again.
But she knows that if she marries Ned, she can expect more of the same. More little rolls of flesh will grow from their lazy weekends. Her once-sinewy arms will round out and get dimples, and kind friends will tell her she looks healthy. It’s an option, and Jane imagines herself giving in to it. Why not just throw herself into the world of expensive kitchen appliances and become a great cook? She had the focus for her sex life– why not just shift it over into the domestic sphere?
Ned suggests they walk to another beach, somewhere more private. Jane is relieved to escape the brown bodies. They cut back to the little road and walk about a half a mile, then make their way onto a new beach, an empty beach. They find some worn beach chairs under a palm tree and arrange themselves there. In a few minutes a Mexican woman comes out of a small building to take their order. In his slow, careful Spanish Ned orders apple sodas.
He spreads his towel on the sand and sets about applying strong sun block. Jane takes a big swig of apple soda and stares at the ocean, blue water meeting bluer sky.
After their sodas they race each other to thrash in the ocean. The waves are immense, frothy and playful. Jane laughs and gets mouthfuls of salt water. She and Ned grab onto each other and fall on their bellies, letting the waves carry them to shore.
They pull themselves out finally, exhausted, and order another round of sodas from their chairs. They fall into a comfortable silence and pick up their books. Jane feels content, sated, yet underneath is a thin current of panic; if she gets too comfortable, she may die.
As the afternoon lengthens, Jane suggests that they walk back to their bungalow. Ned pauses for a minute then shrugs, ever agreeable. They roll their towels and shove their books into their bags and head down to the water, where they walk along the lip of the surf. Ned takes Jane’s hand and pulls her toward him. The Mexican sun is strong and she feels irritated for a second– it’s too hot to be close to another person’s body.
“This is good, huh?” Ned says and kisses the side of her head.
Jane looks up at him now, at the bits of freckles breaking out across his nose.
“It’s good,” she replies.
Suddenly she decides it would be ridiculous not to marry him. All her blood seems to go in this one direction now– toward Ned and the future and planning a wedding.
The beach is cut off by a tumble of rocks. Jane sees a little path and wishes she’d worn sneakers instead of flimsy sandals. She and Ned amble gingerly over the rocks, anticipating another beach on the other side, but the rocks don’t end. They are climbing now, grabbing the trunks of short scrub bushes and pulling themselves from rock to rock, testing each step to be sure it doesn’t wobble.
Soon they are on a cliff thirty feet above the sea. The water below is deep, waves hitting the cliff with gusto. Jane looks straight down into swirling dark ocean tipped with white froth. Certain death if she were to fall.
Jane wants to be mad at Ned even though walking was her idea. Brambles scratch her ankles and leave little lines of welling blood. Tiny stones get caught in her sandals and she has to keep smacking them against the rocks to get them out. They are sitting duck up here, hidden from the beach and the street. Thieves, banditos, could be following them. They could stumble onto the nest of a drug lord.
Brave Ned walks in front of Jane. But he can’t help her if someone grabs her from behind though. Jane smells dirt and foreign plants and her own sour sweat. They are silent, and she watches the back of him as they walk. He has long legs that taper into thin ankles, maybe weak ankles. The ankles of a man used to thought, not action. Ned looks belongs in his classroom in his khakis and button-down shirts, but he looks wrong out here in his ragged huraches from his last trip to Mexico and a short sleeved striped cotton shirt– a golf shirt? she wonders wildly– streaked with dirt and drenched under the arms.
Finally there is a clearing and they can see the road. Ned turns around and throws a victory fist in the air. Jane makes herself smile and they keep walking.
“We’ll always remember this,” he calls back to her.
“Yeah,” she replies, “no kidding.”
“You’re a good sport about it all,” he continues. “You take it all in stride.”
“Sure,” she says.
Ned doesn’t even mention that it was Jane’s idea in the first place.
Ned never chafes when Jane is irritable. Instead he treads more lightly. Sometimes she hates when he does this– she wants him to stick up for himself and tell her to stop being a bitch. But he knows she is being a child, and instead of patronizing or antagonizing her, he tries to soothe.
Ned makes being together so easy. There is none of the competitive kill-or-be-killed posture as in her former sexual combat. It’s more like being with her best friend when she was eleven, thinking the same things are neat. Ned and Jane are constantly laughing and imitating their friends and calling each other on the nights they’re apart to read a paragraph from The New Yorker.
Ned’s love is dear and fragile and she feels sick at the thought of crushing it.
Which means maybe she has to marry him.
After a shower, Jane is sore and sunburned and irritable, and she knows she needs to get away from Ned, just for a little while, or else she’ll snap and say something small-minded and spend the rest of the evening remorseful and contrite. Ned fell asleep while she was in the bathroom, flat on his stomach, his huraches askew at the foot of the bed.
The posada has endless paths to explore, carefully-placed flat stones leading into thick hunks of lush jungle. Jane picks the path that winds past the dining room and disappears high in the hills.
At the top is a wooden deck with a thatched roof, festooned with four huge thin-stringed hammocks. From here she can see the cove and the small fishing boats bobbing in the water. She can see the sun falling down behind the town, casting a pink glow on a tiny graveyard beyond the bungalows, with white stone markers sprinkled down the hill.
Jane falls into a hammock and pulls it out around her, closing it in front of her face. She is a caterpillar settling into a cocoon. How nice it would be to spend the night up here, wrapped in a blanket, swinging back and forth in the warm ocean breeze. She lets her body relax into the hundreds of strings, once-bright colors faded. Soon she doesn’t even feel the scratches from the brambles and her aching legs are at ease.
When she gets tired of being wrapped up, she flings her arms and legs out, stretching them as far as they will go, the hammock strings entwined in her fingers and toes. One could do yoga in a hammock, she thinks, how lovely to move and stretch and bend while suspended this way, rocking in the strings.
“Endless fascination, isn’t it?” a male voice startles her, a drawn-out Southern twang.
Jane scrambles to sit up, awkwardly shaking the hammock back and forth. Two hammocks away a man lies still, a book resting on his stomach.
His name is Thaddeus and he is twenty-seven and came from Jackson, Mississippi to Oaxaca to study for three months at a Spanish language school. He goes back to Mississippi in two weeks but wanted to see some of the Pacific coast first.
He is blonde and thickly-built and wears chunky hipster glasses. He moves to the hammock beside to her. Now he is a foot away, and Jane feels a radiance, familiar as if it were yesterday, as if she never stopped prowling. She can smell him, slight body odor, not at all unpleasant. She doesn’t move.
He and Jane lie side by side and she tells him the story of her afternoon on the rocks, but now it is exciting, a real adventure. She says Ned’s name countless times to be sure Thaddeus knows she has a boyfriend. Thaddeus grabs the side of her hammock anyway, pulls and lets go. They both swing.
Soon it’s dark and time to get Ned for dinner. Reluctantly, she tells Thaddeus goodbye and rushes down the path back to the room.
Ned is still asleep. His eyes flutter awake when Jane lets the screen door slam shut. “Hello, lovely,” he says, not even annoyed to be woken up this way. Jane grabs a sweater from her suitcase and they head off to the dining room.
Dinner is served outdoors under another thatched roof. There are already six or seven other guests at the long communal table. Mexican women in long white dresses glide around them serving iced tea and bringing out baskets of freshly-baked bread.
“What is this?” she asked the blonde woman across the table, pointing to a bowl filled with slices of something green, mixed into diced peppers and tomatoes.
“Nopalitos,” the blonde woman replies. “Cactus salad– so fabulous.” She has a perfect, tiny nose and brilliant green eyes.
Jane introduces herself and Ned, who nods politely. Natalia, the blonde, and her husband Brian, are here from Australia where they both have crazy, stressful jobs as magazine editors. Jane asks questions– about their magazines, about Sydney, and soon others at the table are exchanging names and stories.
Dinner is squash soup with pumpkin seeds followed by tamales– banana leaves wrapped around soft cornmeal pillows filled with spicy salsa verde and creamy Oaxacan cheese.
Jane eats heartily. She is famished from the hike. She watches Natalia nibble dispassionately at her food, much the way Jane did not so long ago, and she feels a pang of pity. It’s wonderful to be so relaxed, so hungry, to eat. She notices how slender Natalia’s arms are, how attractively carved her cheekbones. But what’s the point? Does her husband demand it? Is she afraid of losing him to other women?
The tamales are delicious and Jane finishes her quickly. Ned leaves a whole tamale on his plate. Jane fights the urge to ask if she can have it. Just then Thaddeus arrives. He is more tanned than he looked in the hammock and he appears just-showered.
“Hey Thaddeus,” Jane says and introduces him to Ned. He already knows Natalia and Brian– they all went fishing yesterday.
Thaddeus sits across from Jane and she avoids his eye. She talks to Natalia and listens to Ned tell Brian about a project at the university. All the while she eyes his tamale. When Ned is not looking, she stabs it with her fork and it lands with a thud on her own plate. It has cooled off and grown leaden, but she eats it anyway.
Soon she feels sleepy and over-full and she moves down the bench until she is leaning against Ned. The women in white dresses clear the dinner plates and everyone lingers over coffee and cigarettes. Ned is animated now, smoking Jorge’s strong tobacco, but he looks at Jane and asks if she wants to go back to the room. She nods. They stand and say goodnight to everyone and Jane is conscious of Thaddeus talking to a woman from California. She feels a flush of jealousy. Then at the last minute, just as she and Ned are stepping down from the dining room and onto the path leading back to their room, she looks back at Thaddeus. He turns away from the California woman and looks towards her. His meaning is unmistakable– he will meet her later up at the hammocks, if she wants.
In their room Ned and Jane make love slowly. Jane is sluggish from so much food. Sex with Ned is sweet and earnest, not like the sweaty aggressive tumbles she used to have. She decides finally, when they are through and Ned is lying beside her, that she will marry him.
She remembers Thaddeus and thinks how as soon as Ned is asleep she could pull herself up and away, out of bed, and run up to the hammocks. One last time. Ned would never know.
But she’s tired and sated and what would be the point? It’s nice to know she still could, though, and finally, it seems that’s enough.
She and Ned sleep late, and the kitchen is closed when they arrive at the dining room in the late morning. A waitress finds them coffee and a basket of muffins. Jane slathers hers with butter and gulps her coffee with cream and lots of sugar.
They’ll stay here at Puerto Angel today and walk down to the little cove beach. They stop back to their room and grab towels, books, sun block and head down to the cove beach.
Natalia and Brian are already there.
“Hola!” Ned says expansively.
“Heya,” Natalia says, vowels rounded in her Australian accent.
Jane and Ned find chairs nearby and drag them next to their new friends. They settle in, the four arranged in a semicircle facing the water. The cove is still and very blue. Sailboats bob to one side and stray dogs roam the beach, their heads low in broken-down submission. Other groups sit in chairs like theirs, ordering drinks from waiters who appear from little huts set back from the water.
Jane is happy and relaxed. She has not yet told Ned that she’s decided she will marry him. It’s delicious enough to savor by herself for the time being. She feels the sun warming her hair and buries her feet in the hot sand.
Natalia sits next to Brian and she is talking now, telling a funny story about an interview she did with Lady Gaga. Jane marvels at Natalia’s body, her smooth, tanned neck, downy hairs bleached white by the sun. Natalia is angular, slender, no bulges or alarming ripples anywhere. Jane looks down at her own wide thighs, pressed flat into the beach chair. Above her knees, bundles of dark, wiry spider veins are forming. She smiles. How quickly things can change—she just doesn’t care.
Brian stands up and looks around the little cove and out to the water. “It’s a perfect day for snorkeling,” he announces. Ned stands up beside him, puts his hands on his hips and nods in masculine agreement.
Jane turns to Natalia and smiles, “Sounds good, huh?” but Natalia is looking at the men.
Thaddeus appears on the path from the hotel and the men pat him on the shoulders and they all shake hands. Jane glances at him a little wistfully, as if he represents all she is giving up, her spicy little past.
Thaddeus and Ned head to the little hut at the edge of the sand to rent the snorkeling gear. Ned is taller than Thaddeus, but Thaddeus has a bold, almost proud step and his back is wide with muscle. With his stooping gait Ned looks older and less carefree. Well, he is. And so is she– and they will be married.
“Have you snorkled before?” Natalia asks her. Jane says no, but she’s always wanted to. Does Natalia have any tips?
Natalia smiles and digs a slender brown toe into the sand. “Just try not to panic,” she says with a laugh. “At first you’ll feel like you’re going to suffocate. But you won’t. You must breathe slowly, evenly.” She closes her eyes and takes a few practice breaths, looking mechanically serene, like a yoga teacher. “Breathe and kick your feet and look around. You will be fine. It’s beautiful down there.”
Ned and Thaddeus return with arms full of gear. There is confusion and laugher over flipper sizes and everyone swaps the bright pieces of rubber.
As Jane stands up, feet firmly buckled into her own thick purple flippers, she turns back to smile at Ned. But he doesn’t see her.
Her first though is how easy it would have been for her to miss it, not to buckle her flippers so quickly, to put her goggles on before she turned around. She turns around at that very second, and unmistakably Jane sees pass between the eyes of Natalia and her beloved Ned a genuine flash of heat.
Julie Odell’s recent work appears in Five Chapters and Atticus Review and is forthcoming in The Intentional. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow and has recorded personal commentary for NPR. She lives in Philadelphia, near the woods.