Sunday Stories: “Symbols of A Self.”

Symbols of A Self.
by Sarah Millar

January, and it’s raining in Mexico. Warm rain but still, rain. I sit in the window of a split level motel room and wonder what I’m doing with my life. Sunshine adds purpose to idleness. Without it, the rain calls into question the entirety of my existence. A rhythmic tattoo on a thin roof, adding cadence to my freefall. An endless freehand roll, injecting a violent heartbeat to my flatline. The rain is knee deep and I am up to my neck. 

I am alone on a drowning island. 


Yesterday, 9:43: I am standing in a line at Cancun central station waiting for the 9:40 second class bus to Chiquila where I will catch a worn out boat to paradise. I wear a black leather jacket, combat boots and a don’t fuck with me posture best reserved for city streets and dark nights, harshly lit spaces and unknown parts of unknown places. “¡Hola!” comes with a smile that makes me queasy and he drops his backpack to the tiled floor, wipes sweat from his brow and assumes a posture best reserved for cowboys and caped crusaders. 

I knew he would speak to me as I saw him approach. Something about the walk or the look on his face. The self-congratulatory confidence of a man who has adopted friendliness as his social m.o. in lieu of any real charisma. The big smile, the flexed deltoids. It’s a deceptively predatory manner, and simply irritating. Refusal to engage implies a lack of social grace on one’s own part; merest pleasantries are booked as encouragement, flirtation or even gratitude. Hey, he’s just being friendly. This is also a quintessentially American approach and resultantly difficult to ignore due to sheer volume. 

Elbows wide, legs askance, thumbs slung through beltloops. A very mannish frame (with manhood proudly framed). He has the type of tan that only matures after the sear of a sunburn. He has the type of backpack that implies tech start-up. He wears flip-flops. Men like him often wear flipflops. And braided leather bracelets. They weren’t athletes in high school but are gym zealots now. They befriend Janet, the overweight, middle-aged office manager who thinks they are delightful. This one is still sticky with a freshly applied veneer of the road. But the reality of the road has not yet permeated his pores, nor led him astray from a sterile itinerary and detailed daily budget. It never will. 

It is 9:47 and I have been waiting for this bus for seven minutes too long and I have been travelling for almost six months and I can see no end point to either state of being. I have nowhere to return to. I do not have plants being watered by a quietly begrudging friend. I am not subletting out an apartment in my absence. I am ten years too old to claim this one is a gap (it is a chasm). I am not on sabbatical- not in any formal capacity, at least (but I have been known to aggrandize my endeavors with the word from time to time). I am not eating or praying or loving with abandon. Nor am I filtering destinations by WIFI speeds, coding for hire by night. I am, quite categorically, not a digital nomad. I am here because I have never been to Mexico. I am here because the flight to Bali was off-puttingly long. Mostly I am here because if I allow winter to seep into my bones I believe the thin skeleton of my sanity might shatter into a thousand little pieces, dust mistaken for snow.  

A few months ago, I tell my psychiatrist I think I have seasonal affective disorder. He asks why I think that adding to my list of diagnoses would be helpful. I reply that being a sad fuck is just depressing, but if I was a sad SAD fuck at least going to the beach would solve one of my problems. He doesn’t seem to disagree. 

“Where are you from?” New York is my stock response in these moments. Not because New York is the truth but because New York is a place I lived for a while, because New York is a place my accent and general demeanor suit and, crucially, because New Yorkers are assumed inhospitable by their non-New Yorker countrymen.  But also because to answer London, which is closer to the truth but still not the truth, would simply open me up to too many questions. And if you open the door too many times, people stop ringing the bell. The truth is that I have no idea where I am from, where I am going, or where I would like to be, so New York is also firm, resolute and comfortingly finite. I am from New York. And today, I am going to Paradise. 

It is now 9:51. The 9:50 first class bus to Playa del Carmen departs. “Looks like the rest of us are going to Holbox.” I nod while staring into the empty space my bus should rightly fill, willing it appear, willing it to be airconditioned. 

“By yourself?” Nod. “Not a talker?” Shake. “So you’re one of those?” I am one of those.

An elderly lady with walking sandals and horn-rimmed glasses looks at me and looks at him and they share a hearty laugh. The elderly lady informs me, with a heavy French accent, that on Isla Holbox people speak to one another. Isla Holbox is not like one of these other places. Isla Holbox has a different way of being. She pronounces it oll-bosch. I smile and nod, the way nice girls smile and nod when elderly ladies speak. Our shared hypocrisy has drained what is left of my patience and sweat begins to soak the waistband of my jeans. The French have long enjoyed a presumed cultural superiority, tacitly conceded by the rest of us. But isn’t theirs a charm rested upon an exalted refusal to be charming? No one has ever been welcomed by Paris with open arms. You think the warm light of Riviera sun would be so decadently flattering if it weren’t filtered through a breeze of cool conceit? But I must be pleasing, and welcome uninvited guests, and thaw their hands and make them tea. I void my face of its expression and try to ignore the physical relief of blankness, the comfort of vacancy. 

“Don’t worry about it, ma’am. I meet a lot of people. Talk to a lot of people. Plenty people from New York. People like her. People who think like her. People who look like her. Most aren’t like her, though. Most people like to share, you know?” And he winks. He winks at the elderly woman with the silver bubble curls with a pink floral blouse with wide linen trousers with no apparent memory of why she burned her absent bra. He winks at her and turns his back on me. And she winks at him, and turns her back on me. Fucking traitor. Branded a bitch, I resume my clock watching. 

I have been traveling for almost six months and have left no trace in my wake. Three teenage girls ahead of me have heavy packs on both their fronts and their backs and hotdogs in their hands and dark hair on their legs and hemp threads tied around their ankles. They are far from home and chattering over one another in excitable, lispy Spanish. They are fleshy and earthy and unwashed and expansive. They are fully immersed in their lives; I am escaping my own. My large black suitcase insists that I have simply overpacked for a weekend in the sun. Closer inspection would reveal six months’ worth of split ends, a backside grown too acquainted with the seat of a plane, a frontside softened by convenience food, a hemorrhaging checking account. But closer inspection requires an investment that most people aren’t willing to part with.  People don’t look closely. So my large black suitcase and I will be whomever you decide we are.

“What do you do in New York?” Some men believe that success and failure are separated only by persistence. “Not much.” He shakes his head and, with a laugh that falls somewhere between contempt and satisfaction, confirms, “Oh, you really are one of those.” One of those fatally flawed women who see friendliness for what it is.  At 10:01 we board the 9:40 second class bus to Chiquila, where we will catch our worn out boat to paradise. He flip-flops past me down the aisle and offers a fulsome “¡Hola!” to the young Spanish backpackers. 


There are no paved roads on this long and thin little island that the internet calls paradise. There are sandy tracks and there are some golf carts and there are many bare feet.  There are infants in the arms of children on the backs of mopeds, cheek aching grins on their faces. There is a scant handful of cars. There is little cellular reception. Electricity itself only arrived in the eighties and sometimes still seems to be having difficulty settling in. Music crackles through dense air as though transmitted from a happier time. People sit in doorless doorways, watching. The island is stamped with faded Coca-Cola signage and bears Zapata’s face on its walls and market bags and souvenir t-shirts. Tierra y Libertad.  

But Isla Holbox was not built for boatloads of tourists to arrive with their suitcases and their backpacks on a worn out boat from Chiquila. When it rains in the Gulf of Mexico, this long and thin little island floods and the sandy tracks turn to cloudy rivers, and the rivers are not rainwater. The plumbing on paradise won’t support a post-modern pilgrimage no matter how sharable or how chic. When fresh water falls from above, waste water rises from below. And when the rain stops, the rivers stop rising but don’t recede. They are fermented by the immortal sun, and mosquitos hatch. Paradise has been found by the internet, and lost to those who live here. The people who won’t be leaving on the worn out boat to Chiquila (after a much-needed long weekend) use rusted pumps to rid their visitors’ filth from their homes. Uninvited guests. But we love it here because it’s like so virginal. Here, buckle this chastity belt; don’t spoil yourself until we get back. Stay primitive. We mean, authentic. Tierra y Libertad. 


The rain stops and darkness falls and I take my book to a taco place named after a famous pirate. I walk through a storefront but am somehow still outside. There is no floor but more damp sand. I sit at a round plastic table in a corner and a large black and white dog curls up at my feet as a boy walks over and hands me a menu. He smiles softly at the dog but says nothing, takes a zippo from his back pocket and lights the wilted citronella on my table. I ask for sparkling water in accented Spanish. He replies in accented English. He is young; but my side of twenty, I decide. He is tall and fair; Argentine, I decide. His hair is golden, wavy, tied in a low knot beneath a backwards baseball cap. He wears a plaid flannel shirt softened with wear to drape like silk. He wears low slung Levi’s cut off at the knees. He wears old converse with no socks. He is every boy at the back of the school bus. He is every older brother of every once close friend. He is the safe kind of danger. He is good-looking. He listens to Pearl Jam.  He loves his mother. He brings me water. There are three more just like him behind the counter. They are thumbing through my old CD collection on an iPhone. The Smashing Pumpkins fade into Sublime. 

I am reading Lucia Berlin. I have the book open on my table, but I am not paying attention to the story about the old Indian at the laundromat in Albuquerque. Because apparently I’m thirteen again, and I’m watching older boys at the skate park from the confines of the tennis court. I’m hanging from the chain-link fence, rolling my waistband to shorten my pleated white skirt, yanking at the red Twizzler in my mouth, longing to taste Nirvana, and knowing I’m just slightly too young. And now I’m way too fucking old; back leaning on the chain-link fence, longing to smell like teen spirit all over again. 

I ask if El Diablo is very spicy. He tells me it is touristic spicy. He thinks I can handle the heat. 

I abandoned my story soon after sitting down but keep turning the pages, one leg out of the bed to stop the world from spinning. He comes to take my plate away, smiles softly, looks at me steadily and asks if there is anything else he can do to completely satisfy me. I say no and think maybe and he holds my gaze until the heat of El Diablo burns the back of my throat. I douse it with sparkling water and give my blushes a silent reminder that I’m supposed to be a grown up. 

As I walk through the false front of the taco place named after the famous pirate and back onto the wet sandy track, The Foo Fighters quickly fades into The Rolling Stones. I look back and the tall boy with the golden hair smiles at me softly and looks at me steadily and uses his lighter to pop the cap off a bottle of beer. No, you can’t always get what you want. But when I was a girl who knew what I wanted, I got it each and every time. 


Darkness falls quickly on Holbox but mornings are lazy to rise. The sun emerges slowly and wears a cloudy veil; a milky layer of night clinging tightly to the dawn. This paradise is a washed out notion. Once saturated, now sun-bleached, watered down. Even the sea is watery. The internet sells a vivid picture. It filters colors to their sharpest wavelengths. The internet says Holbox is magical and so it must be. Bright murals and white sand. Coconuts and turquoise tides. Palapas and pink flamingos. But there is just enough color here to know what we are missing. It is a spectral Shangri-La, the emperor’s new Xanadu. The internet says pirates came to Holbox in the 1800’s, but pirates still come to Holbox. They take pretty pictures and leave negatives behind- they plunder closely cropped beauty. They wear the face of revolution on their chests. They speak earnestly of responsible tourism and order almond milk with their coffee.  But then I was once primaries and neon. Angles and dimension. More neon. Violent flashes of light. Just a flick of the wrist could ignite the flame. I’m now muted colors and eroded corners. Soft edges and diffused light. Washed out. The knife edge has dulled, and my grip is weak anyway. 


I am unsteadied by this depleted paradise. 


With its island patois so nice. 

With its island patois so nice. 


I go for breakfast at a beachfront hotel. It is all very green, and also black and white. There are cacti and palms and drinks come in jars. It is the cultural endgame of parts of Brooklyn and East LA. 

I order almond milk with my coffee and watch a man with his baby playing in the sand. The baby wears suspenders and a very small flat cap, the man wears a six pack beneath an unzipped hoodie. There is something devastating in the sight of fathers with their babies. Nostalgia or mourning or some unjust combination of the two. They are laughing, and when one body strays from the other the space between them is electrified with pulsating static charge. I watch until I realize I am physically hunched in pain. Until there is a deep, bloodied throbbing in my abdomen, wrapped beneath the protective cross of my arms. Until the pain becomes disgust. Until I watch nut milk pour from a hand thrown lip to dull the bitter punch of one remaining vice. It dilutes the darkness slowly, then curdles quickly.

There is a couple seated to my left in comfier chairs and softer light. The White Album is on the table and I wonder why it is that when I see other people reading Didion I think them pretentious (but will forever worship at her alter). The kiss he plants on her head and the glance to see who’s watching. She’s mine, she’s mine, she’s mine; did you catch that? Less an act of possession than one of a triumphant child, the demand for a gold star and candied praise. The silver hair, vertically pronounced and explicitly undone. It’s the third time I’ve seen this hair this week. How very eccentric. How very Park Slope. How very Copenhagen. How very GQ. How very afraid. And the way he half rolls his trousers and the plunge of his neckline. And the look of deep need in his eye. And the girl is younger but her voice is deeper and she wears a vintage kimono and her hair is cropped short and tied in a topknot and she looks a bit like Stella Tenant without the patrician gloss to her alabaster skin, without the coltish limbs. This girl knows her place only in relation to this man’s gaze and by this man I mean him and every one that came before. The man who was a fat child even if he never carried an extra pound. Without her, or another of her, his social credit limit always belie his bank balance. And fuck, he hasn’t worked this hard for nothing. But fuck, this is so much more work. 

I eat papaya and wonder what we are if who we are is only what we are on paper. Just walking facsimiles, easily shredded. Or maybe we fold inwards; enveloped and redirected. 


There are dogs in the streets here. Some are street dogs and more are clearly not, they have homes to return to. Many wear bandanas and, strangely, more wear t-shirts. Together a Chihuahua and a Great Dane preside over the main square. I watch an old yellow Labrador dig a hole on the beach, settle down inside and take a nap. He looks well fed. He wears a pink collar. Presumably he will get up and go home when he wakes. 

The Spanish word for pet is mascota. There are signs outside restaurants- the image of a dog inside a red circle. The red circle has a red line through and below are the words No Mascotas. No mascots. We are invited to dine alone, without our symbols for our selves. 

I plan to stay on Holbox for five days but stay for eight. I can’t decide where to go next or how to get there or when to go where or what might come after that. I text my sister and ask her to do some research.

Holbox is twenty six miles long and less than one mile wide. Sandbars wrap the shoreline so you can walk and walk and walk and walk further out into the water and still not be able to swim. You can walk along the beach while you are also out at sea. Tides effect the depth of water between the sandbars, but tides are not something I understand well. For thirty years my father has explained how they rise and how they fall and I haven’t listened. I like my nature mercurial, unknowable. I decide to walk as far as I can. Once exhausted and sun stroked I start back. I walk a lot, and often. A therapist once told me that my need for perpetual motion is a palliative. That if I need to walk to move through my thoughts, I should walk, and move through my thoughts. He told me to always get off the bus two stops before I need to. He didn’t tell me what to do when it rains. And he didn’t tell me what to do when daylight fades. There are clouds in the sky. I don’t know which way they’re moving, if rain is coming or going. It comes. And I wade for miles back to where I started, water waist high, arms outstretched above my head, saving my stuff from the tide and offering it up to the downpour. 


I am soaked and sunburned and overexposed. 


And I am alone on a drowning island.


Sarah Jane Millar is a writer, currently based in London.

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