Please, My Watermelon

They meet again at the frontera.

An empty dirt lot. Blowing yellow dust. Shirtless children on the roofs of buses, swinging luggage down. Touts jostling for the chance to carry a bag. Thieves pretending to be touts.

He is waiting for him. There are no phones. This is 2005.

Feral dogs hesitate at the periphery of the throng milling beside the waiting area. Shuffle, wait, look at the departures board. He buys a beer from the vending machine, opens it, sets down the can when he is distracted by a woman whose hair is like Alex’s. The beer is gone when he turns back.

He had been asleep against the chain-link fence. He awakes to grinding gears and shouting. The baking sun. A shadow over him.

Lovely Alexander. He wears a light blue striped cotton shirt, darker and damp at the arms from hours on the bus. A man with a kind face stands sweating beside him. Alex holds his bag defensively against his chest, then, to get rid of him, gives the kind man a few córdobas. Alex’s face is straight, not kind, gauging him. Buses idle, pull away. He hadn’t known men could be beautiful.

He must remember everything.

The insect bites, the mosquito nets, the piles of decaying bananas at the base of the tree outside the window. Alex in a bathing suit, muscles he had never noticed. Tracing his eyebrows, head in his lap on the bus from Dominical, braiding a bit of Alex’s long dark hair. The brown skin of his arms and the white beneath his clothes.

Alex is the most intelligent person he has ever met, but the body is something new.

And already he has a fear of forgetting.

He holds him for a moment before Alex pulls away and flags a taxi. Practical Alexander. The driver tells him that the “Maria” is broken. Alex is the one who warned him of this scam. He removes his bag from the backseat and the driver curses, flips the meter, and they get inside.

The pension is on the edge of town. Three stories. Modern for the region, with a new tin roof, in contrast to the gulf of those with rusted scrap metal upon which their room looks out. Carrying luggage up the steps, he pauses at the sight of the serrated eastern horizon. Then again at the glowing leaves of a banana tree in the upper right of the window. He had tried once to tell Carly about the sunsets here.

Alex is on the bed. He steps onto the balcony where the glycerin waters of the horseshoe bay are visible. The sun straddles the Pacific Ocean. Everything is pastel, which, he tells himself, means that what he’s doing is okay. That not every action is a mistake.

As he unpacks Alex pulls him onto the bed and nestles into him. He has forgotten the smell of his hair during their month apart – citrus and coconut, sweat so sweet it unsteadies him. He is afraid of having so little self-control. He stretches from the bed, across the floor, zipping and unzipping his bag in search of a condom. Alex stops him.

Don’t worry.

He is afraid of this new impulsiveness.

Please, my watermelon. There’s no need.

He has always used protection. With everyone. Even Carly.

The day they met: A New Year’s Eve of unsteadily shy glances, in filthy Dominical – knowing his situation – Alex had crawled across the dark sand and lay so still beside him.

Alex now arranges himself against the pillows in the dusky light. His arm falls from across his chest; a hand disappears beneath the thin sheets.

Please.

He does not know how to say no. He has already done the unforgivable. He has given him what he wanted. Alex has come 600 miles to meet him. This, while the woman he loves is traveling 3,000 miles for the same reason.

Alex, however, thought that relationship was over. Hoped that it was.

With a groan he rolls back to the bed. Alex smiles. He has no idea what the smile means.

He loves Carly. Her softness and safety. Even when separated by thousands of miles, he hadn’t known before that he could feel so distant from his fiancé. A flash of waiting outside her dance studio in the rain for rehearsal to finish. Her quiet voice and unhurried movements.

At night, deep skies across the ridge, lying together in her basement room beside the open window. Her little apartment on the hill near the zoo. The sounds: primate howls, peacocks roosting, a wolf. She’s there now, packing for the trip. She thinks of him, knowing nothing.

They were not really engaged, but they had joked about it. Carly acted as if they were, but it would be hard to use that word. So why did he leave?

The trip was to prove something to himself. He told his family it was to improve his Spanish, work at the escuelita, better his chances for admission to the school of social work.

She was his first. He was not hers. That was it. The sorry demands of symmetry.

*

He and Alex on the beach after a long hike. Crabs in the tide pools, the smell of warm limes in their pack, his legs around him beneath the surf, a tongue that tastes like cigarettes and saltwater.

I could die here.

Same.

Lying beside him on the sand he rests his forehead on Alex’s calf, as if in prayer. The smell of the sea on his skin. A splash of freckles on his shoulder. A small foot retracts when he rests a hand on top of it.

He knows now that when Alex sleeps he must hold some small part of him – a finger, a hand, an arm, once even cradling his head. A sleeping body is a trap set against escape.

What does he want? He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But it’s better that it isn’t a woman.

Or much worse.

I don’t want to go with Beatrice. Alex’s small voice, accent both French and German, is muffled by the towel. He had expected to feel changed after being with a man. I want to stay.

He wouldn’t like someone who has done what he has done. Even if this isn’t real life.

Alex is now crying into a small mound of sand. Affectedly, he thinks. But very quietly. The kohl he uses around his eyes runs down his face.

The tears diminish gradually. His eyes are soft and wet and brown as the chocolate-covered marzipan sweets his mother sends him. Those Alex sneaks when he is in the shower so he doesn’t have to share.

He tries to embrace him, and Alex lets him for a moment, then bites down hard on his shoulder, so hard that he cries out. He rubs the spot, inspecting for a bruise.

No?

He falls back and pulls Alex down on top of him.

Yes. Yes.

*

The night. Thunder as they walk toward town. The breeze off the water carrying the smell of something dead. A strike of lightning behind the mountain that illuminates its ambit.

Where should we go to dinner?

Anywhere.

The dusty road curves southwest as it hugs the horseshoe bay. A strip of restaurants lines the shore side, along with small shops where shopkeepers bring in racks of towels and sunglasses for the night. Beach towns, the same the world over.

The restaurant. Typical post-and-beam bamboo frame construction, dry frond roof, a floor of sand. But the light is softer here. A blue and gold macaw sits on a t-shaped perch of gnarled mahogany, near a cash register that wobbles on a piece of plywood.

There are no other diners. The menus are delivered with a careless toss.

It is hard to take seriously someone who says they are interested in liberation but hasn’t read even Fanon. On her walls, Situationist artists, but she doesn’t know Society of Spectacle?

He nods but says nothing. As he so often does when he does not understand.

The peeling laminate menus stick to the table. The waiter stands silently beside them, balancing on the balls of his feet. He shakes his head and the man retreats to the kitchen.

What will you do while I travel with Beatrice?

Alex’s roommate. Sharp, pale Beatrice who claims to be a debutante from Seattle. He is from Seattle; there are no debutantes from there. You’ve been to Bocas, yes?

The water to the west is perfectly calm. A trawler rises and falls at the edge of the horizon, its twin booms beseeching the dark sky.

The speech he has been preparing the entire time. Admitting guilt, explaining confusion, caught between worlds, conflict and contradiction, his own heart a mystery. His sorrow for having dragged Alex into this. Not wanting to hurt anyone. Etcetera.

I can see you as soon as I get back?

He must drive him away.

I’m meeting a friend.

His voice hangs in the air. The parrot utters a few words of gibberish and shrieks loudly.

What does it mean?

A friend from the states. They’re coming down.

They? More than one?

One. Just one. His voice is quieter to match the empty restaurant. He pulls his hands away, picks up the menu, comments on the special.

Alex swallows. Your girlfriend.

Where’s the waiter?

Alex’s face rocks visibly, as if being struck. The waiter whistles along with the trova that plays on the tinny-sounding television. You said to me…

He takes in Alex’s eyes, understands that he has erred. But he hadn’t offered any assurances. Alex made assumptions.

Alex… What could his expectations have been? He feared having any. Only the smallest, inextinguishable hope. That was his small power over him. Alex—

Alex, Alex. You don’t tell me? Why did I come here?

I didn’t want—

Alex’s face rearranges itself.

You did. You did it. You came. And only now. No. Not even now! Beatrice will love this.

What did you—

Were you going to tell me?

I tried…

Coward! Coward. Liar. Does she know? No. Why do I ask?

Alex sits hugging himself. His eyes are wild. He’s truly never seen a man’s eyes like this.

Please, Alex. I do love you… My watermelon.

Shut up. Shut up. Watermelon? Mother said, “Be careful.” She thinks I’m stupid. My father says nothing. All the time I was diving at the reef. I thought of you. Us together. Finally someone … was nice. Nice to me. I thought, He is so sweet, my social worker.

The violent beat of wings. A blur against soft light. The bird sits on the chair directly between them at the table. It cranes its neck, glass eyes dilating. It looks at him then doubles over to preen tail feathers.

Just a show. A narcissist. No. No. I won’t.

An ear-piercing screech from the parrot. Dry black tongue between brilliant orange beak. Alex flinching, drawing back, swatting with the back of his hand, making contact. Wings, blue and gold and flash, drifting feathers, deafening distress calls echo through the restaurant.

Alex stands and then is gone, sand settling behind him.

He holds the sticky menus and the waiter, on tiptoe, asks him what he wants. First in English, then, when he doesn’t reply, in Spanish. What do you want?

Tomorrow he must take a taxi to the border, get on a bus, change currency. He will worry about his luggage being stolen. He must check in to the Grano de Oro in San Jose. He doesn’t remember where the hotel is in relation to the bus station or airport. He hopes it’s not in Alex’s neighborhood. He wants to impress Carly. With his Spanish and knowledge of local custom – the trick with the “Marias.” But now everything is undone.

Tomorrow he must recognize Carly’s small shoulders and sleepy, hooded eyes and sweater she won’t be able to take off. Kiss her with his old lips, hug her and hold her convincingly.

She will not talk. If they fight it will be quietly. Saying nothing until one of them breaks or forgets and offers some accidental kindness.

Now he is alone.

It will not be like with Alex in his modish apartment the week after Dominical, fleeing obligation, expectation. The burden of being known. To find out that they’d both escaped, and that here, at least, they were the same.

Alex collapsing on the couch, throwing himself on the floor, hitting him hard when he came close. Feeling no control. Then pulling Alexander against him. Taking Alex’s hand and slapping his own face.

Yes. Again. Harder. Hard.

It is not healthy. But it is what he wants.

Permission.

*

Alex is not at the pension. He is not at the first bar they visited, nor at the surfer bar or the upscale tourist bar.

He thinks of how Alex drank an entire bottle of guaro locked in the bathroom when he saw the picture of Carly that fell from his book.

How Alex left his journal on the kitchen table open to a page that said, underlined: Je veux MOURIR.

How he slept against the bathroom door all night and felt so protective of him.

How he reassured him it was over. Then, while he slept, called Carly from the next room.

How strange to cross such a line and wake the next day still thinking of oneself as good.

*

He rubs his sore shoulder, bruised green-blue from where Alex had bitten him.

It is late now. He stands at the north side of the square. Iglesia San Juan Bautista is pink, now purple in the night. The faintest glimmer from a candle burning in the narthex illuminates the stained glass above the wooden doors.

He could go. He got what he wanted. An “experience.” It, of course, hasn’t changed him.

Right now Alex is probably taking his revenge. In the small bar at the backpacker hostel on the other side of town, sitting on a worn brocade cushion beside a hookah, in the red lamplight, drinking himself stupid enough to tolerate the come-ons of an inevitable Australian.

Alex’s need to show him his worth.

And the condom. He had been so insistent. Why?

To own a part of him. To take that from Carly.

*

Without thinking, he is running. Drunk and running.

He is at the sunken lot at the end of the bay, the borderland before the saw grass. The trail up to the ridge is black. He scuffles across paper cups, beer cans.

When his eyes adjust, he realizes the true extent of the dark. The cane is already overhead, a sandy tunnel where trickling river meets sea. A few rotten timbers lead over the brackish waters. The strong smell of sewage and something acid.

Further up the path is steep, changed from sand to rocky stones. He must go slow.

What if Alex was now back at the pension, waiting for him? He would be worried.

Let him be. Let Alex imagine him out in the dark cane grass, the treacherous slope, as he had thought of Alex in the arms of someone else.

Alex had thought of him that way. With Carly.

Tomorrow he would be with Carly.

He could go. He could meet Carly. Have a two-week holiday. Show off his Spanish, eat well, try langosta, hotels with hot water showers. Quiet words. Hardly the need for words.

Carly. It is okay to hurt her because she does not really love him. Is only in love with the easy idea of a future together.

But Alex. He wanted to curl behind him on the tiny pension bed. Breathe him, feel his back stretch against him, the needy writhing of his body, the dark caves of his mind.

To be in control when Alex is not. To give up control.

Reckless.

The blackness of night is profound. He is alone, the moon behind cloud.

He makes his way blindly, never fully acquainting to the dark. The way is smooth, slow, switchbacks snaking toward the crest of the ridge. At one point he stumbles upon what he thinks must be a very small deer.

The sound the animal makes is strange, almost human, a surprised gasp and then crashing brush. Nightmare images of hyenas, scorpions, basilisks, all manner of evil that could be stalking the bush.

Alex was home. Obviously. Rereading the Fitzgerald novel he found at the book exchange in Granada and recommended to him, about which Alex was reserving judgment, but wouldn’t like because stories about the rich and bored generally don’t satisfy like those of the proletariat. Alex with the degree from the Sorbonne. With the paintings that will go to a museum when his parents die. Who talks incessantly of the Biafran War. Alex who has a legal internship waiting for him whenever he finally decides to return home. Giving up his “third-world exercises” – his mother’s words – and volunteering with PaixSuisse.

There is a new sound. He thinks he can hear it; perhaps it has been present for some time.

He calls Alex’s name. The echo is obliterated by water.

Down the ridge he flies. Across gullies, ravines, over rocks, boulders, pulling off branches and leaves as he goes.

At the bottom of the ridge he can’t hear anything. He passes through a dry riverbed. To his left, the sea’s surface looks like a mirror in need of resilvering. There is the loop of sand where they hiked, picking their way through the dark, crab-filled tide pools.

The strand is smooth and undisturbed. Their place.

A hush.

At the apex of the dune, one knee pulled to his chest, his head inclined.

Alex.

He runs clumsily through the sand.

No. The voice – tiny, as if he believes he might only be speaking to himself. No, no.

Alex’s small feet are tucked in the sand like on New Year’s Eve. His wet face shines with moonlight. He presses on his thigh with both hands.

Alexander.

Only then does he see the blood. The whole leg shines with it. Sand cakes around where he leans his hands.

What happened? Alex, what happened?

Not affected tears. Small, stifled, fearful tears.

The sand is damp with blood as he kneels beside him. Alex tries to squirm away.

Alex. What happened?

Get away from me.

I’m here. What happened? I’m here, Alex.

Get the fuck away from me.

What can I do? Please, my—

Watermelon. You are so stupid.

He can’t think of what to do. His hands press against his own thigh.

Alex. What happened?

I thought you came to find me.

I did. I’m here.

No. I thought that.

I don’t understand.

Before.

He can’t make sense of the words.

I jumped in the water to get away.

It is difficult to tell how severe the wound is without light, but when he touches Alex’s hands he feels the warm blood flowing out, feels it coursing out of Alex’s body and across his fingers.

I jumped in the sea.

He got what he wanted.

To get away.

Alex tries to stand, but totters and falls. He bends and gathers his lover in his arms.

*

They are in a sandy crevasse at the base of the cliff. Alex is awake again. His shirtsleeve is tied around his leg.

Alex.

What happened? What are you doing?

It’s okay. You’re hurt. It’s okay.

I dreamed … the sea reminds me of Mother rolling dough when my father didn’t come home.

Alex. I have to go get help.

Go.

Alex. I have to. Right now. You’re okay. I’ll be right back. Please don’t go to sleep.

Fuck you. Putain.

Wind in leaves, crashing waves on rock.

Alex. I love you.

Alex flinches. He kisses his calf, but Alex jerks away at the touch. He does not relax.

Though he can barely see him, he looks small and soft and beautiful. Not hurt at all.

A picture of Alex as a little boy, found on the messy floor of his closet in San Jose. His black hair already to his chin. Carefully applying lipstick in a mirror. A child’s eyes reflected, but already so serious, lips so red. He had asked if he could keep the photo. What? Alex took it from his hands and threw it back on the floor. Disgusting. Don’t infantilize.

He wants to pick up that child and rock him in his arms and keep him safe. From Beatrice and all of the arrows of insecurity that pierce childhood defenses. The parental battles, comments about his weight from an older sister, his teacher who “seemed cool” and told him after school he was so, so special. He wants to hold Alex inside of himself. Protect him from all those who would hurt him. Himself above all.

*

A steady wind from the water; it is not cold. He tries to hold Alex but he pulls away. He must go for help. Alex must be in shock because he is shaking. He is shaking too. How much blood can a person lose?

He must go for help, return, accompany Alex to a hospital, travel across the border by bus. There is no time. It is impossible.

Carly will go somewhere else, not tell him where. To punish him.

So go. Pute.

Alex, you’re not thinking right. You’re going to be okay.

You are a liar.

He hugs him, avoiding the blood-soaked legs. He combs wet black hair from Alex’s eyes.

He pushes sand into a mound so that he will be more comfortable. It won’t stay in place and Alex leans to his left and retches. He kisses his shoulders splashed with freckles.

Alex shakes his head. But he is holding his finger, weakly. A trap against leaving.

His brown eyes and long lashes. Tiny ears dusted with sand. He lets go of his hand.

Alex, don’t go to sleep. Okay?

Alex closes his eyes. He tries to hug him.

Fuck you.

I’ll be right back. Alex, I’m sorry.

She will know.

He wraps what remains of his shirt around Alex for warmth but he throws it off.

*

On the sandy dune, he faces the water. No phones. No light. No compass. No moon. Only sea and stars. The melody of a voice. The wealth of things Alex knows that he does not.

Perhaps there are boulders and a rocky path, briers and sugarcane, a silt-covered road, deer. The only sure thing is dark. His own breathing is false.

*

There is no way to stop the slow end. The inevitable ending, which begins in the Hotel Grano de Oro after his first hot shower. When Carly, pouring coffee over grounds at the kitchenette, frowns at the purple bite-shaped bruise marking his shoulder, but says nothing. Carly, who simply wants a life with him.

The feeling of rejoining time and place. And losing all of yourself.

But remember. Remember the hospital where everything seemed cheap and touched by dirt. Flies outside in the heavy air as the gurney slipped past the automatic doors and across the terrazzo floor. Rows of beds without curtains. The smell of iodine. A man in a white shirt bleeding calmly into another white shirt. A woman in black mourning veil unable to reach her fallen crutch. The hours waiting when he felt angry, angry at the poverty, not sorry for those afflicted by it. The need to speak English overwhelming even before the doctor asked him in Spanish if he wanted to see Alex. The doctor’s lack of surprise when he said no.

Remember Carly’s silent face a week later, sitting with her dancer’s legs curled under her on the settee that overlooked the cloud forest, when she picked up the Fitzgerald. Remember the picture of Alex fluttering to the floor. The photo he had never seen before. A child running across a faded lawn. Not putting on makeup in a mirror and looking very adult, but crying. Almost twilight, five-years-old, short red overalls, pastel striped cotton socks, arms pumping, black hair trailing. Adirondack chairs in the distance and the horn of snow-capped peaks evident through grim, pale light. Lake Geneva. Alex embalmed in childhood, face twisted in pain.

Remember bending to kiss Carly’s forehead, and the welling tears – like those of childhood – that he couldn’t fully explain.

Ryan D. Matthews

About Ryan D. Matthews

Ryan D. Matthews is a writer and editor from rural Washington State. A Hawthornden Castle Fellow, his work has also been recognized with fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, the Ragdale Foundation, the Jentel Foundation, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and others. He was recently nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and was a finalist for a 2019 Emerging Artists Program from the Jerome Foundation. He is the host and curator of The Rally—a political reading series—and his work has appeared most recently in Lit Hub and Joyland.

Ryan D. Matthews is a writer and editor from rural Washington State. A Hawthornden Castle Fellow, his work has also been recognized with fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, the Ragdale Foundation, the Jentel Foundation, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and others. He was recently nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and was a finalist for a 2019 Emerging Artists Program from the Jerome Foundation. He is the host and curator of The Rally—a political reading series—and his work has appeared most recently in Lit Hub and Joyland.

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