by Mila Danilov
I wake to darkness so opaque, I can’t see my hand in front of my own face. My limbs are clammy with salt-water air and I inhale the smell of my skin. It doesn’t smell of anything but residual bug spray. No warmth or familiarity. In the darkness, I can see a face. The face has mahogany eyes shaped like almonds. The arm resting under my head is his arm, warm and secure. Safe. I jolt my legs, snap out of it, and let one rest over the other. They are foreign, detached. He is gone. I wrap my arms around my middle like a child in the fetal position. Clench my teeth. Unclench. Let tears prickle the back of my eyes like a teaser, a nuisance, a hair tickling the part of my back I can’t quite reach. I bury my head beneath the sheet. Open my eyes. Let them roll back in my head until it aches, and dig my nails into my fingertips, where his used to circle. Until it’s blinding and numb.
Eventually, I grasp for the curtain and let the sunlight pour in. Someone has opened the windows and birds are chirping, the early sun flooding the floor, illuminating backpackers’ bags, discarded flip-flops.
I walk to breakfast at a small joint off the main road, devour doughy tortillas, eggs, beans, and syrupy fruit with the appetite of someone enamored with their fork, and make it back to the hostel before most sun-weathered vendors have set up their stands.
“What’s your name?”
Jesus. My backpack falls to my feet, sandals hit the sandy floor.
“You just got here, I presume?”
The man is sitting in a plastic lawn chair in the darker corner of this unlit room (the Abelardo room – I like that it rolls off the tongue, like a bell). His beard is a little scraggly, wifebeater pit stained and clinging to his round middle – I’d guess he’s in his late forties. As soon as I stepped through the door yesterday, I scoured the room for a bikini dangling from a bedpost, or a sundress, pooled on the ground—any proof of another young woman’s stay in the Abelardo room, but his gravely, warm voice is making the lack-thereof only more apparent.
“June.” My voice sounds firmer than I expect it to. The word reverberates in my head until it’s a meek caw, more of a question than a statement.
“Beautiful name,” he inhales, settling a little more into the hard plastic, the whoosh of his bare feet on the grainy floor is the only sound filling this room. We are whispering. He isn’t unkind, I don’t think. I keep waiting for his eyes to scour the length of my bare neck, like those vulturous men in the city, but he’s looking down at his thumbs and I suddenly want to know why he’s sitting alone in a plastic chair in the middle of a hostel in eighty-degree weather at the odd hour of 11 am. With a cabernet bottle beside him on the floor, no less!
Jasper is fifty-one, unmarried, and has the funky air of a cocky bachelor, forced to abandon a cushy pad in the Hamptons when his family went bankrupt. He’s funny, but not the most politically correct. I get the sense he’d offend me and my short fro should I have chosen to stay and talk for even five minutes longer – but he’s made me laugh, I feel a little less on edge, and I can picture the sun-creased smile lines around his eyes crinkling as he guffaws at a buddy’s joke. He’s been here five weeks.
Eshe is a writer. She found me lounging by the pool, reading my shitty thriller. Four attendees of a destination wedding somewhere off the cape have just discovered the disappearance of their fifth. I’m embarrassed to explain it to her when she asks, but she’s already read it. She has beads around her waist and opals on her fingers. She smells of plumeria, jasmine, and something earthy. It wafts beneath my nose as she sits. I pin her for someone wispy, but when she speaks, her thick British accent is commanding.
“Me and a few others are having drinks later at Rio’s – you should join!” Her thick kinks, pulled high atop her head, don’t move when she speaks.
“The bar – it’s just down the road, on the ocean side. We’ll head out around eight, eight-thirty.”
I tell her I’ll be there, we set a plan to meet.
At Rio’s, the air is thick and warm, just how I love it at night, and music reverberates from the band in the corner. The six of us—Jasper, Eshe, and four others from the hostel—are perched around a tiny painted table, sticky with spilled rum and coke. For the first time today, I am not thinking about him. I tell Eshe I once wanted to be a pianist, but I’ve put too much pressure on it, and the spark is gone. I don’t feel I’m telling her too much – the rum is warming me from the inside out, and she is kind, in a no-nonsense sort of way.
“Sometimes,” she says, pausing to sip from her dewy glass, “I think of a pen like a fruit-bearing tree – some inkberries sweet, some sour, some anger, some doubt – some a memory, some a promise – some never more than a bud. Some rotten, some decomposing into the soil.” Jasper leans towards us to crack a joke about the bartender and she leans away to listen.
I think of the keys on my old piano. They always brought pain in sharp bursts, their notes singing and pounding and reverberating and bouncing like each key is a string, and my heart is a puppet. Up, down, to the left a little, dropped to my stomach, yanked back up without remorse. I’d turn around and my mother would be crying, sometimes I would be too. Sometimes, I jammed my fingers onto those notes with the force of a boar and the ferocity of a lion and my insides would pour out onto the keys.
“So,” she’s rotated back to me. “Why are you here?”
I sit with it for a second, while the alcohol forms a premature lump in my throat. “You know when something tragic happens in your life, and… and you just need to –” I trail off.
“– you just need change.” She looks at me.
“Yeah.” The lump disappears like a weight off my chest.
Eshe smiles knowingly and shakes her head. “When my wife left I wanted to cut all my hair off – shave it, dye it green, or orange – something horrendous like that.” I look at her stately updo. Picture a light green buzz cut on her beautiful dark skin. Chuckle a little.
“Exactly!” she laughs a girthy, robust laugh. “When she left, I wanted to be someone completely, indistinguishably new. Maybe because I reminded myself of her, I dunno.”
I tell her I think I’m angry and a bit bitter. I don’t want to be angry or bitter. She sighs while swirling the rum around the coke. I want to know this woman – where she grew up and where she plans on going.
She leans in closer to be heard over the heavy drums. “Be bloody angry. But give yourself time, love. Give yourself time to be however you are – okay but not. Living, but seemingly stuck. It’s alright. Give yourself grace. You’ve been strong – you chose this, chose them, you loved – or maybe still love, you lived.” she sighs. “Cry if you must, please. Please, cry. I mean goddamnit, scream some profanities even.”
She smiles at this one, a wide, easy smile with a chuckle tagging along the end.
“Take your time, but don’t stop moving. And feel all of it, because God forbid you gloss over it. God forbid you don’t feel this one deeply, and learn from it.” She inhales like she’s got a second wind in her, then shakes her head incrementally and goes back to her glass.
Tears well in my eyes. Music pounds around us. The others are up, dancing by the band, skirts swirling to the music, eyes dizzy with life. Cole holds Jenna by the hips as she sways. Elias, high on something, jigs on the side, blissfully alone. He told me earlier that when he feels trapped, he dances solo in a park by his apartment. He looks so at peace, dancing alone amidst a crowd. I wonder for a second whether Eshe is talking to me or herself.
On the walk home, I suck on a cutubrute candy I had snatched from the wooden bowl on the bar counter. When I lick my lips, the sticky coconut between my teeth mixes with my lip balm and it tastes exactly how someone I used to love smelled and for a second, I can’t see anything past him. The palms fade to abstract and the ground materializes as I sink down onto it.
It’s quiet at this part of the road, in the wee hours of the morning. My head is hot and heavy. Tears rack my body as I heave sadness I can feel in the pit of my stomach.
I walk the rest of the way to the hostel barefoot, some kind of walk of shame cliché with yesterday’s shoes in hand. I’m empty. I think of the dried tears on my face as reminders of memories that live, even as I grieve.
At the helm of a fishing boat, off the coast of Caye Caulker, Jasper tells me that my name is derived from the French Jeune, which means youth.
We stop at an island called Tobacco Caye to drop off the lobsters the fisherman caught with his spear. It’s surrounded by crystal clear blue on one side, and dark cerulean on the other, where the water is deeper – untouchable. It’s sweltering today.
Jasper says the island is a twenty-five-minute walk across, and we have time to kill while the fisherman grabs a drink with his buddy. Eshe’s positioned herself on a rock by the water and she’s gripping that brown journal she carries everywhere, eyes vacant and pen moving slowly. She looks a little like a snapshot of my mother in her thirties – there’s this photo of her pinned up on the fridge in my father’s house. I let her be, and the rest of us walk along the edge of the island, searching for nothing and feeling a whole lot. Today, I am raw, like someone cracked my ribs right open on an operating table and left me, lungs and heart exposed to sterile air.
When we reach the cerulean side, I hurl myself into its depths and open my eyes wide as I sink, until the salt burns them like a sore.
In Tobacco Caye, the sky fades to lavender and the palms sound like the ocean in the wind. We’ve joined the fisherman for drinks and The Bar is little more than a cement slab sandwiched between two weathered structures. The six of us take up half the joint, while a guitarist on a wooden stool and two drummers, take up the other. My wet swimsuit bottoms soak through the woven blanket on the floor, skin permanently slick with today’s sweat and salt in the humidity.
They speak mostly Spanish I don’t remember from my first years of college.
A lime wedge floats in our drinks and one man pinches the rim of his. Dusk comes and goes like an old friend, waving in passing. I lay my head on Jasper’s shoulder.
“No rum for you tonight, J?” The fisherman holds a bottle up from behind the counter.
“Not tonight, not tonight.” Jasper lifts a hand in appreciation and his sweat stench wafts under my nose.
Eshe’s knee rests on mine. We could be anywhere. The pounding of the drums is guttural in this sweet night, the sky faded to violet like a bruise. I close my eyes. Picture my hands, digging into the sand below us, crushing the grains together to make a mirror. I learned once that glass is made of sand.
“June! June! Come try it!”
Eshe’s knee is gone, she’s a few feet away, her legs sandwiching one of the drums. She’s grinning, this beautiful woman I adore.
“¡Vamos jovencita, levántate!” Fedor, the fisherman’s friend, is beckoning to me—eyes wide, smile lines smiling.
“He told you to get a move on, youngin,” Eshe stretches an arm towards me.
Jasper shrugs my head off his shoulder. “You heard the woman!”
Fedor shows me how to hold the drum, tilted forward between my knees just the right amount. The beat is simple, just one one one, two three, two three.
“And again, querida! Again.”
One one one, two three, two three. And again. And again. My smile spreads like a flame striking dry grass and I can’t control it, and I’m laughing and pounding and someone has started strumming the banjo. This tiny space is filled with music and these people with their tender, ardent eyes and my stinging hands, raw with sound, feel like someone I love is whispering into my ear, you are going to be okay.
“Come here, darling.” Eshe hugs me from behind, warm, plushy arms enveloping my shoulders.
We are back on the boat, salty mist coating our faces, drunken bums sliding around the bench when the bow hits a wave. I settle into her.
“When all is said and done, I’ll plant you an orchard full of fruit trees, in the hills of France, or Italy, or maybe California.”
“Excuse me?” my body shakes with laughter under her embrace, but she won’t let go long enough for me to look at her.
“Shhh, let your elder speak.” She continues without remorse, but I can feel her smile on the back of my head.
“Its peaches will fall and come and go, rot and decompose like eventually will you and I. And long, long, after we’re gone, a mother, a curious little boy, a heartbroken widow, who knows – they’ll come to sit in the orchard. The trees will envelop them, but not so much that they can’t see the sky.” I’m listening now, captivated. “They’ll sit among the trees and they’ll think — I have laughed today. I’ve sat in a pretty orchard and I’ve cried today. And through tears or through laughter or pain or grief or through simply existing – they’ll eat its fruit.”
And it will taste of youth.
by Prosper Aluu
Mila Danilov is a second-year student at the University of San Francisco, studying media and writing.
Born and raised in Nigeria, West Africa, Prosper Aluu makes figurative and expressive paintings. Prosper grew up drawing comics and characters which enabled him understand the human figure and expressions properly, after which he became a full time studio artist in 2017. Prosper studied at the Federal University of Technology Owerri, where he learnt Building technology with an architectural background on designing. He also acquired expertise in graphic design, illustration, 3D modelling, video editing and animation. In 2018, he had his first official art exhibition where he won the Peace Poster award for his painting on Peace at the ANBUKRAFT. He has participated in several exhibitions and competitions since then and has won some of them. In 2020, he was signed as a brand ambassador to TECNO mobile Nigeria on a one year deal. His works has appeared in countries like, South Africa, United kingdom, United States, Canada, Japan e.t.cNigeria, b. 1999
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