In the year that my marriage truly failed, my then spouse and I traveled to Cabo San Lucas for a vacation, the kind that we might now call last ditch, last hope, last chance. Though at the time, we thought of it as the coming-back-together vacation.
I had moved out one the first day of September, and out of nothing good or true, I had come home in the middle of November. By the third day back in my house, my possessions back in their proper places, I broke out in chancre sores, twenty of them dotting my mouth in horrid constellations. I couldn’t chew without pain—I could barely talk. Later in the week, my skin broke out in eczema, rough, red, scaly patches behind my knees and at my elbows. I smiled, I moved forward, but I shook inside, a wind that wouldn’t stop, holding the secret of my despair close to me like a hollow bone.
But I had come home, and I had made my choice. My husband and I decided to try our best, so we picked the hotel from an online resource, booked our flight, and left.
It was near Christmas, and we beat the rush of tourists by just a couple of days, the brand new hotel empty and hollow, the four cafeterias full of empty tables. By the end of our trip, the marble halls echoed with the screams of children and drunken adults, the 24/7 non-stop margarita bar probably not a good hotel option. We couldn’t even get into the gym—every machine taken up and actually fought over—so we started running into Cabo San Lucas, doing an improvised five mile loop—and running back to the hotel.
The beach also filled up—rows and rows of towels and little umbrellas--so one afternoon, we decided to take the rickety local bus and go down to a beach less crowded, more scenic, and better for snorkeling.
We went out in the water together, using the gear we’d brought with us from home. I'd learned to snorkel on a vacation in Hawaii years before, and though at first it scared me to rely on plastic to survive, I couldn’t believe what was under the water. I was alone in this watery world, but surrounded by so much I could see nowhere else. Underneath the water with my snorkel, I was an air breathing creature but below water at the same time, swimming with the colorful fishes but connected to the earth by only the slimmest measure.
In Cabo, the water was clear and crisp, and I kicked my way down to rocks and plants for long stretches, examining things. Down under the water, I was free from the nagging, constant voice I faced above, the voice that seemed to beat and push at me all the time, an angry grandmother in my ear.
What are you going to do? the voice asked, all day long, no matter what country I was in. How are you going to tell him that you made a mistake? How you going to tell him that you must leave again? How can you break his heart one more time? And—the voice was relentless—when you leave, how are you going to make it stick? How are you going to stay alive?
In the water, I didn’t hear or feel any of these questions. I was sure and lithe and free, kicking my mermaid kicks toward beauty, picking up shells and touching the swaying seaweed fronds.
On our last dive of that day, I kicked away from my husband, rounded a bend in the rock, and found a brilliant graveyard of sea urchins. Right under me, were the dead, glittering shells of hundreds of urchins, the fragments and pieces and some whole shells. As I passed over it the mound the second time, a ray of sun struck one urchin’s beautiful, translucent shell. Kicking down to it, I picked it up, feeling the slight ridges under my fingers, lines of bumps, the two holes, one on top, one on the bottom. I wanted to look for more, but I was running out of air, so I kicked up above the water line. Holding the urchin in front of me, I stared at it, noting that it wasn’t just white as I had thought when under water, but a perfect circle of white, light purple, tan, and sand color stripes. Taking off my mask, I looked at it more carefully, noting the way it glittered in the bright sunlight. The ridges were made up of lines of evenly spaced but not necessarily the same sized circles of raised white. The urchin was whole, the dead animal’s skeleton a perfect architecture of calcium.
Holding it carefully in my palm, I put my mask back on and looked down at the ocean floor and the bone yard of dead urchins where I’d found it. Why so many dead creatures right in that spot? Was this where urchins came to die? Or was it the way the current flowed? Where they clinging to a rock somewhere off shore, and when they finally let go, loosening their tight grip, did they float their way to this place where they collected against this bank?
There were so many other sea urchins, some whole, some slightly broken, but none as intact as this one. Somehow, it had left its community and floated all the way to this spot without any damage. How had it made it? How could it have possibly survived
Waves slashed above me, my breath raspy in the tube. I clutched the urchin in my hand, feeling the container of its former life on my skin. In a little while, my husband and I would leave this beach and never come back to it. We would go back to the hotel, pack up for the journey the next day, and never return to this sand again, not as a couple, at least. I didn’t know how I would do it, how it would happen, but I’d finally have to let go and float away. Even as I treaded water in the crystal waters of Mexico, I wasn’t sure I would make it.
My husband called to me, and I looked one more time into the water. I wondered if I should put the urchin back in place, let nature do what it would inevitably, churning the urchin to the finest sand, making is disappear as if it had never existed at all.
When we left Cabo and Mexico, taking the cab back to the airport and then flying home, stupidly, on December 23rd--the idea of actually getting anywhere on time during the holiday a miracle--I had the sea urchin wrapped carefully in my purse in tissue paper I’d asked for at the hotel gift shop. I watched it carefully during every leg of the journey, making sure it nestled without disturbance on the top of my purse. When we arrived back home, I put the urchin in a special place on my bookshelf, next to my Shiva and Quan Yin and Virgin Guadalupe and Ganesha and paper crane.
When I left my husband the next time, I carried the urchin separately, keeping it out of any box, placing it on the same bookshelf in a different home. In my nomadic, single life, floating from place to place, I have moved it three times since.
Once this was a creature living on a rock, shell to shell with other urchins. And then one day, it was a dead thing, barely hanging to a rock. At some point—cleaned of spines and flesh--it floated with the current to the place I found it all those years ago.
Once I wondered how much I would have to die before I could live again, but I was never dead. I was never really floating but treading water, waiting for the next wave to bring me to the shore, my shore, the shore I would walk onto and stay. For a while, when I looked at the urchin, I stopped imagining my own journey and thought of my marriage, something that was perfectly whole but completely dead.
Now, so many years since that trip to Cabo, the urchin is an artifact, a memory, but not one I think about often. Yet I keep it safe, pick up the delicate shell occasionally, feel the bumps with my palms. For a second, I feel the waves around me, see the bright world underwater, notice the current pulling me. For a flicker of moments, I’m trying to find breath and a way to go on. And then I do. And then I put the urchin back on the shelf.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org