The cashier and two policía were searching for me under the avocado tree. But I sat quiet, the boy’s hand over my mouth. My eyes widened as I sensed he might be dangerous. Then he put his index finger over his mouth, signaling me to stay quiet as he lifted his hand away from my lips. He pointed down and I understood. In order to protect myself from getting arrested, from my parents finding out, I had to trust this stranger. I looked through the leaves and saw the men cursing in Spanish as they walked away. I sighed in relief and the boy smiled at me. I smiled back. He pulled out a pocketknife from his jeans and my eyes widened again, but he only laughed as he pulled an avocado from the tree. He sliced open the fruit, first cutting a straight line down and around the middle, then pulling the two sides apart. His hands were larger than those of most boys back home. He took the side with no seed and cut the fruit into small pieces, then poked the knife into a square and handed the knife to me. I ate the fruit right off the blade.
He was holding a carton of eggs, half-opened, in his hands when he first noticed me. I was standing in line at the convenience store, cradling a six-pack of beer in the crook of my arm. He was checking the eggs for cracks, observing each egg individually, carefully, and tracing his fingers over their rough skin.
When I reached the front, the cashier squished his eyebrows together and looked me over. He stared at my face first, which was small but could still pass for an adult face. His eyes fell down to my breasts. They were large for sixteen, but still a child’s breasts. It wasn’t until he noticed my boyish hips that he shook his head in doubt and said, “Identificación?” My eyebrows lifted and then fell. I smiled at him and stretched my hand into my purse. My passport was on the nightstand at the resort. I pretended to look for it. It clearly stated that I was sixteen, too young to buy beer in Mexico. A sharp line formed between his eyebrows. He knew.
Our eyes met. I looked at the door, at the beer, at him again. I grabbed the six-pack and ran. The cashier jumped the counter. The boy dropped his eggs. When I ran through the exit, I hit my shoulder on the door and knocked over a Mother Mary statue. I didn’t know where I was running. I just ran. The boy caught up to me and grabbed my free hand. I pushed him away. I thought he must work at the market if he was chasing me. He grabbed my hand again and said, “Follow me.” He was the first English-speaking Mexican resident I’d met, and for some reason this made me trust him. We snuck down an alleyway to a large garden behind a row of houses. And then, as if I were the size of a doll, he picked me up and placed me in the tree.
This was my first time outside of the United States. It was my first time outside of the South. I was so excited when my dad told me we’d be spending a few weeks in Mexico, together, as a family. I borrowed a Spanish language guide from the library. I researched all the best places to visit in the Yucatan Peninsula, the bus routes to iconic sites, even the ferry routes to offshoot islands. I got my hopes up for nothing.
I had spent nearly a whole week abroad inside a resort curated exclusively for Americans: the décor of adobe roofs, bright-colored painted walls, and murals in each room of Mexican farmers picking crops; the 24/7 onsite concierge, in case you didn’t know the peso conversion rate or how to ask the taxi driver to take you to a particular nightclub; the four restaurants surrounding the pool that served authentic Mexican food, so you didn’t have to go too far from the resort; the McDonald’s in the lobby, in case you didn’t like the authentic food or in case your children whined about trying new cuisines. There were even two heated pools at the center of the resort and jacuzzis in each suite, in case you found the Caribbean Sea too dirty. These amenities made this trip a pleasure for your mother, but a letdown for you.
“Tell her, Felipe. Tell her how dangerous the real Mexico is!” mother pleaded with our waiter at dinner earlier that night.
“Mom, are you crazy?” was all I could manage.
“Dear, why don’t we wait till after dinner to discuss this?” dad gave his two cents.
“No. Your daughter wants to go explore this city on her own and she will get raped or robbed. Tell her, Felipe!”
“Dear, stop,” dad said urgently.
“Well, hon, I wouldn’t have to start if you were here with your family. You could chaperone us. You know it’s not safe for two women out there.”
“Dear, you have to stop, now.” He looked up at Felipe. “I’m so sorry, sir.”
“I’ll let you all have a moment,” Felipe said.
I couldn’t stand to look at either of them. Instead, I saw Felipe’s face. At surface level, he radiated grace and control and a smile as he walked back to the kitchen. But if you took a slightly longer minute to observe him, you’d see it. Slumped shoulders. Pensive eyes. His chest rising and falling with deep breathes. I’d spent the last few days giving him company as he stood guard at the lobby entrance. We’d spoken in Spanish, so I could practice. He’d told me about his family, his daughter, who’d just had her quinceañera, and we’d connected. Maybe he’d thought my family would be different than most of his American visitors, but we were just the same.
“I’m going to the restroom.” I excused myself, walked out of the restaurant, to the lobby, past the restrooms, and left the resort. The walk to the main street was unpaved and full of soft dirt that kicked up every step I took. I felt my shoulders lighten as I hurried to get out of sight of the hotel. I’m not sure what I expected on the other side of the resort, but still I was surprised.
I turned right off the unpaved road onto a sidewalk. It was lined with tall, skinny trees. The trees fell parallel with floor lights that radiated light upward. The sun was setting and the lights blinked against the trees and tennis shoes and dogs. Shadows of tree branches fell on the pavement. I walked down the path. It looked just like any busy road back home. Tall, dark strangers passed by me speaking Spanish, but they were talking so fast I couldn’t understand. I felt their eyes on me as I passed by, observing their dark features and slow but deliberate steps. I felt my shoulders tighten as the strangers passed and hated myself for reacting this way. I thought of my mom’s words, and shook my head until they fell out of my ears. I took a deep breath and kept walking until I saw the mercado across the street. I waited till the traffic slowed on the streets and then zigzagged around stopped cars until I reached the store. The sign buzzed a bright blue light that read OPEN.
His hand was much larger than mine. His fingertips rubbed against my knuckles. They were callused, but gentle. He held my hand until we reached his apartment. He only let go to reach for the keys in his pocket so he could unlock the door. And then at once, he took my hand back in his. We sat on the patio for hours, sipping warm beer and eating sliced avocado covered in Tajín and lime. We spoke about everything that night. His childhood dreams and mine, the disconnect I had with my family, the reason I’d run away. He told me about his family, who lived in California while he finished high school, who were working on a green card to send him there to study at an American university. He lived alone in this apartment and supported himself. I couldn’t imagine being that independent.
For many minutes, we sat in silence and looked out at the street. We took in deep breaths and my heart sped up during that silence. He smelled familiar, like slices of morning melon and laundry detergent. He didn’t move closer or farther and neither did I, but the darkness of the night pushed us together until there was not even an inch between us. Without my knowing, his hand left mine and his arm circled around me until we held each other so close that the side of my face and his were touching. I was afraid to look up and make eye contact. Instead, I kept breathing and listening to him tell me about his plans once he came stateside. And then when we fell silent again, he moved my mouth to his.
When his lips fell on mine, I tried to think about what it meant, if it was okay to do this, if I could remember how to get home on my own, but I couldn’t think of anything other than his lips. Just soft lips on soft lips, wet with the taste of beer. I wondered if he could taste the worry on my lips. His arm fell to my side and pulled me in until I was on top of him, on the floor of the patio, my knees pushed against the wooden deck, my tongue in his mouth, hips against hips. I don’t remember walking to his bed or standing up at all. It was as if we floated there or maybe it was the beer, which I’d never drank so much of before that night. Whatever it was, I was suddenly naked in bed with this boy I’d just met. And before this night, I’d never even kissed a boy. I was meant to save these tasks for marriage, to be a good Christian girl. My mother and father had only kissed for the first time on their wedding day, and I was meant to follow in their footsteps. But I lost my virginity that night. After, I lay with my back pushed firmly against him. His arm wrapped tightly around my ribs, his breath against my neck. The warmth of his breathing made me drowsy, and I fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke up, I was engulfed in water. Only my head floated above the Caribbean saltwater. My head was dunked under and suddenly the salt took over my mouth and made me miss the sweetness of his tongue. My head came up again and I looked up at her. The woman was Mexican and dressed as a nun. She raised me up her in her arms, with a smile on her face. She looked toward the beach, and my eyes followed hers. There was a huge crowd standing on the shore looking at me. I looked at them as they applauded. The woman held a Bible in her right hand. She read a passage from Romans, “Buried with him through baptism, raised to walk in the newness of life.” I’d heard this passage before in Sunday school. It was the traditional baptism passage. She didn’t just appear to be a nun. She was a nun. She dunked my head under.
When she lifted me back up, out of the water, she held my head close to her chest and smiled. The crowd applauded. She looked into my eyes and whispered in English, “You should be ashamed of yourself…you whore. This isn’t how a young lady should behave. You are surely going to hell after this.” She dunked my head under the water. I held my mouth closed, because the saltwater was so unbearable. I opened my mouth to breathe in, and water filled my mouth. I tried to push it out. I closed my mouth. I looked up and saw her through the waves, smiling. I heard echoes of the crowd applauding. My eyes closed and I thought of avocado slices and the taste of that boy’s lips and wondered if it’d be worth an eternity in hell.