At the gate of the Careyes community, a guard in a surgical mask aims an infrared thermometer into our rental car: the red dot hits my husband’s forehead, our six year-old’s, then mine. “34°, 32°, 32°,” the guard calls out in Celsius, before giving us a slip of paper that proves we’re allowed in. My husband and I keep quiet about these impossible results: at 34° you’re hypothermic, at 32° you’re dead. I fold the piece of paper into my wallet and the gate is lifted for us. We are told not to come out.
It is March 13th and we have already been in Mexico a week: we’ve come here as a family to do promotion for my third novel, Costalegre, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the very community we’ve just been granted entrance to. It is a place on the western coast of Mexico where my French husband’s father’s first wife has a house, a place that we have been visiting repeatedly since 2007, a landscape that inspires a great deal of what I write. This visit represents the last leg of my press tour. I have 40 copies of my book and an art tube full of posters with me for a party we were going to throw at a bar called Casa de Nada. That party is cancelled. The Mexican press I did for the book has solidified into transcripts that won’t be published, radio interviews that won’t be broadcast. I am not alone in this: I am one of thousands of authors watching as years of work is “cancelled,” but I am one of maybe not so many authors who is now living in her book.
Costalegre is a piece of history reimagined: it revisits the exodus of surrealist artists and novelists out of World War II Europe from the epistolary point of view of a young Pegeen Vail, whose mother, Peggy Guggenheim, helped numerous intellectuals escape certain death in Europe. In reality, Peggy’s favorite artists were shepherded to New York City. In my novel, they come to a coastal resort called “Costalegre,” an assortment of abandoned ocean castles and empty stables in the jungled area where I find myself today. In the book eight artists (plus Pegeen and her mother) are sheltering in place for an undetermined amount of time as they wait out the coming war, driven to rascality by fear and boredom. Bumping up the dirt road to our host’s house on a hill, it was early enough in everything that I felt it as a thrill, the question of how we ourselves would navigate the directive to stay quiet. Quedarse. Permanancer. To rest in place, stay still.
The first course of action here is to not piss off our host: Delphine’s home is spacious and luxurious with plenty of room to roam, but she is exacting and attached to her possessions. We start by telling our little girl how important it is to put things where we found them, slide the doors back into place so that the windstorms don’t overturn things, pick up any crumbs so that the ants don’t come a-marching, make the beds real tight. With the number of COVID cases mounting in the United States and Delphine’s native France already under confinement, we will overstay our welcome, this is clear. Accordingly, we must make ourselves like the chosen artists were to Peggy Guggenheim: talented and flattering and diverting enough to keep around. Should Delphine decide to leave before we do or ask us to leave her house, we can’t afford to rent something in this community where the homeowners are heirs to one-word commodities: railroads, sugar, oil. We drive to the closest village to get groceries and cook all the meals and cover the young, Mexican cleaning woman who comes twice a week to make sure there aren’t any scorpions sleeping under pillows, who sweeps the bat poop off the paved stones of the courtyard with a woven broom, who makes night-soaked beans two ways in the morning: boiled and refried, a woman who has a one year-old and a two year-old at home and who steps in a venomous dance of trepidation with us now: she needs the cash from the white home owners and visitors, but we are the ones likely to bring the disease to the pueblos around these ocean homes. We are the ones familiar enough with air travel to complain about it. We are the danger and we are the solution. Closer and closer we come to each other, when we need to be apart.
Love in the time of COVID takes the form of nightly check-ins: each day after the “school” that my husband heads up in the morning and the lunch that always consists of the same thing, and the free time, and the empty time, and the making of dinner and the giant question mark that is the after-dinner space, after our sweaty daughter is put to bed under a clicking fan, my husband and I get into our own bed and lie face to sunburned face. What news do you have, we ask each other. What new things have you heard? Jordan has it, I say. Stephanie. Mark is sure he does but he can’t get tested. The restaurant owner has it—yes, that restaurant, the most popular one in town.
Does your throat hurt? We ask each other. Our eyes fly open with accusation when one of us dares to sneeze, then we say: it’s all that gook in there, pointing to our throats. We took in a lot of pollution this month, overburdened air. We were in Oaxaca before this. Mexico City before that. Giant cities, both, where the citizens were calm and this country’s president calmer, when the borders were still open and the same president said of course we are going to let the spring breakers in, Mexico needs the money. People need to hug each other, this president went on to say, a man known for kissing little girl children with an open mouth. He traveled from Mexico City to Oaxaca to give this speech on hugging, and when I think about how irresponsible that is, what kind of example that was setting, I remember that I came here from somewhere else in Mexico, as well.
The second order of business is to not get bitten by any of the grotesque things that are encroaching on the house. In my book, one of the heroine’s chief complaints is that she has a round opening with a hanging sheet instead of a real door. This detail was inspired by our prior visits: aesthetically, the owners want their homes to communicate fluidity and freedom of movement. Architecturally, this translates to a lot of door-less rooms. Accordingly, things fly in and out—or crawl—at all hours of the day, and it is our duty to protect ourselves from them because an overcrowded hospital waiting room is not a place that you want to be right now.
A yelp from our hostess, the slap-slapping of a shoe: I claw myself out of the sleep hole I was sliding into because it’s scorpion time. It’s spring—despite everything—and there are babies everywhere. The raccoon-like tejón cubs that slink into the courtyard to gnaw Delphine’s papayas, the colts trembling on stilt-legs in the pasture beyond the house…fecundity and propagation have also blessed the predatory arachnids of this region, and I have to close my eyes against the shoe-slaps, because the things we’re killing are so young. Yesterday there was a scorpion in the bookmarked page of the novel that I’m reading, and it was adorable in size—just a baby scorpion!—and I let myself think that it was fine to let it live, it would just go on its way, and then my husband saw the scorpion and he went to get his shoe.
In Costalegre, Pegeen (who is fictionalized as “Lara”) has no idea how long it will take these itchy adults to wait out a distant war. In her diary, she writes the day names out in Spanish, spelling them wrong and then abandoning the practice completely because she loses track of days. So she just writes “¿Dia” with an inverted question mark, updates the list of artists that she hates above all others and sketches growing plants.
In terms of our time observance, we focus on the month. It is “March” or “almost the end of March” and then suddenly, it is: April fools! The question of what to do with the 40 books I’ve brought with me presses. A local friend of mine asks around if anyone would like a copy of a book that takes place right here in Careyes?! Soon, I have responses and indications as to where I can drop the books off, and these journeys eat up hours in a pleasant way. An out-of-work chef has me leave the book outside his door where I find a bag containing two homemade spring rolls and a single square of pizza. A clothing designer leaves me a beautiful poncho outside her door, in trade. The manager of the polo club drops a homemade envelope with pesos in it at the communal entrance gate: the envelope is made from an Excel sheet of all the teams that were supposed to travel to Careyes for the Agua Alta polo match on April 4th. He sealed the envelope with the black electrical tape grooms use to bind a polo ponies tail.
The house that we are in—called, presciently, Aura del Limbo—is located two miles across the savannah from the cobalt blue house (Tigre del Mar) where Costalegre takes place. Instead of thinking of Lara as someone who came before me, survived isolation before me, I imagine teenage Lara passing time in that blue house. Like me, she had a supply problem: her mother put her in a plane and then a boat with only her diary, and she is lacking for paper, books and writing material, so much so, that one of the exiled artists shows her how to pull fantastic colors out of insect’s throats. I only brought one book because I had to leave room for 40 of my own, and I don’t have any paper left because I’d planned to buy a journal in the papeleria in the nearest village, but with the schools shut down, the stationary store with its fax machine, its photocopier, the white pages that I planned on buying, is closed indefinitely, too. My husband decides that he can spare the time-telling exercises from his homeschool plan, and so I keep a diary on the backs of sheets bearing random time stamps: 6:00, 11:00, 9:00, 12:00 (Lesson 10).
Another way we count the time is by the filling of the jam jar. On a stone bench outside of our respective bedrooms, Delphine keeps a jam jar full of alcohol and a pair of silver toast tongs. When we find a scorpion, we are meant to place it into this jar because Delphine has a friend here who bakes them into resin trivets. Ultimately, this friend would prefer that we deposited the scorpions live into the jam jar, but this is tricky with the bread tongs and it is more dangerous, so usually the scorpions arrive a little squashed, post shoe. One day, while we are video-calling with French friends confined across from a nursing home where the hearses come and go, we find a horrendous hard-shelled millipede flapping by our feet; it fights like an eel when my husband tongs it, its mouth utterly furious. I write the trivet man a message about this latest find and he says we’ve made his week. “Keep it up!” he writes me in an email.
In the book that I am living in, the cloistered artists rail against the heat and the fact that their hostess (a Peggy Guggenheim fictionalized as Leonora) won’t let them cool off in the ocean that lies beyond their house. Peggy Guggenheim (the real one) lost her father on the Titanic—family lore claims that he let his mistress take a lifeboat and that he donned a tux pre-keel—and so it was that Peggy maintained a lifelong obsession with the sea. It was something to be feared, but it was also aspirational, something to be near, which explains why she was constantly letting houses by an ocean that she forbade her guests to swim in.
Accordingly, the cobalt ocean castle of Tigre del Mar seemed the perfect setting for this complicated hostess: located six miles in to the tangled jungle of “El Polo,” it rises above lagoons that have actual crocodiles inside of them, and perched on a cliff above the beach known as “Teopa” where the currents are so dangerous, nobody can swim there. It is a place that we have been driving out to visit every other day to get some air and change the scenery, but another missive from the development owners pushes me back inside my book. “The beaches must be considered closed,” it says, in language parsed with loopholes. “You really mustn’t swim. If you <must> swim, you must go in quickly and alone. No paddling or boating.”
Is the beach closed or is it not closed? In my novel, when people defy their patron’s wishes, they start to disappear. But rich people aren’t beholden to the rules of common folk: this is why Peggy Guggenheim was able to expatriate a grab bag of her favorite artists before the war could come to claim them, and this is why the language was so passive in the developer’s email. These homeowners—the also-owners of railroad, sugar, oil—are allowed to bend the rules, or in many cases, break them, because after all, they paid for their creation: tens of thousands of pesos for the year-round, twenty-four hour security, the trucked-out potable water, the hard won electricity and the payments to the cartel that one homeowner refers to as “Señor Tortuga” for the scene in the show Breaking Bad where an informant’s severed head arrives on a live tortoise. It is rich people who have created a biosphere of eccentricity so decadent and fictitious that I can’t stop writing about it, a domed palace whose framing COVID could break down. The owners need their caseros and their cocinars and their “domestics” to keep coming to their houses, because if they halt their passage, then they would have to admit that their lives are changing, which is another way of saying that things are very bad.
For the most part—if I don’t think about my conflagrated income and eviscerated industry (publishing) or my husband’s (film), if I don’t think about the economy and the friends that I am far from and the fact that my father-in-law is stuck inside his Paris apartment with the same sponge he’s had since the early aughts, if I just focus on the beauty of the place we are in and the fact that—for the moment—we are healthy and able to get fresh food, then things are mostly fine, except for the fact that I will be out of birth control in a week, and—contrary to the fertility I see all around me— it’s a bad time for birth.
At night, I stare at my punctured pill sheet, amazed that I used to navigate the world with such confidence that I only left myself seven days worth of pills after our return. Can you imagine a world in which you have a reservation on an airplane, and it leaves at the time indicated on your ticket, and takes you to the airport you wanted to arrive at, instead of a larger airport filled to bursting with potentially ill people where you have to wait between two hours and six hours for your bag, and you get into the car of a stranger whose door handles you touch without bleaching your skin after, and that car takes you to a place that is your home. Once there, you complain about the length of the journey and the dinner you will need to rustle up, and the child that needs calming and putting down to bed, but you complain about these tasks knowing that you will accomplish them, and accomplish them you do, washing down the day behind you with a birth control pill behind which are other yellow refills, refills without question, nothing is a problem in the world my pill sheet came from. None of us live in that world right now, not even the rich people in the ocean castles around us who vacillate between “very scared” and “not scared enough,” whose money in the stock market is giving way under their feet like the sand piles my daughter calls out to me to jump from, jump from, jump from on Teopa beach.
In my book, the increased presence of animals was a harbinger of danger, in the real world, their uprising is deemed celebratory, mother nature for the win. Coyotes scale San Franciscan rooftops, goats are strolling down the shuttered streets of Wales. Here in Careyes, the animal takeover is darker and less cute. We find the body of a tejón on a sandy pass, perfectly intact except for the absence of his eyes. There are vultures standing sentry by his corpse and I assume they have his eyeballs, but later Delphine tells me that it is the crabs that come for them, the crabs that love the eyes.
The beach is closed or it isn’t closed: we allow ourselves to make it down there twice a week regardless, the four of us walking with our shoes off, long meters between us, dark coconuts landing here and there like rolling heads, the waves so high you can see the bonito fish swimming in the wall before the break.
It’s on Teopa that we meet the dogs I start to miss when we’re not with them: one a burly pitbull mix with an armpit tumor, the other cute, pink-tongued. They belong to the Turtle man—he’s called this in my book because this is how people call him; he’s the head of a turtle sanctuary here that’s guarded by these dogs, and on one of our beach walks, I watch the pitbull dig a four foot hole in forty seconds, flip a crab out on its back and snuffle over it until it died from a puncture wound, or fright. The crabs don’t just eat the eyeballs, they also eat turtle eggs. The dogs run after the vultures, they run after the black ducks that nip in beach eddies and the tejóns that are larger and longer-clawed than them, they dig for eels and bite at snakes, but they don’t run after us. I would feel guilty for our walks along Teopa except for the fact that we never see anyone except for the turtle dogs and whatever it is they’ve killed. Except for one day. One day, we do see someone. An older lady in a black string bikini bottom, holding a bichon frisé like a bikini top to cover her bare breasts.
The insect situation worsens: if the trivet maker wanted them, we could add mosquitos and sand mites and red house spiders and black widows and spinyback orbweavers to his treasure chest. The road to our house is dotted with the velvet fuzzles of run-over tarantulas; every morning, the cushions of Delphine’s outdoor furniture are covered in bat excrement, there is bee urine on the walls, and the tejóns have left so much of their berry poop on the garden pavers that it feels like a personal offense, like the animals are seeing just how much shit they can produce before we give up and leave.
During our nighttime bedroom check-ins, I ask my husband how much he thinks the world is going to change, and he says to me that people are so stupid the world probably isn’t going to change at all. Whenever this is over, or if not over, whenever this all morphs into a period where we are antibodies instead of victims, I will not say that we were “stuck” in Mexico, because that isn’t the truth. We received the notifications and the messages from friends saying that all American citizens were required home immediately, that if we elected not to return, there was no guarantee we could. But to get home, we have four airports to pass through. Each in major cities. Our home is one of those destination places for long-weekends out of New York City, an idyllic place that’s now engulfed in small acts of class warfare; the locals vandalizing cars with New York plates because the out-of-towners are arriving with restaurant kitchen freezers to buy up all the meat there is for purchase, the rosé jugs, the soap. My inbox swells with messages from Manhattanites who want to rent our house, saying they’ll pay anything, then there are the messages from friends saying, please don’t. This is what the notifications beg us to rush home to, a pandemic and an endemic and a value system where a stockpile of three-ply toilet paper is deemed more important than your neighbor’s life. We were not stuck in Mexico; we stayed. We’re stuck now—the commercial flights are stalled—but the trivet man sends me an email saying not to worry, if it comes to this, he knows of a luxury bus that will take us to Tijuana, and then it’s just a quick walk across the border. I don’t respond to this. What could I respond? Nos quedamos. We aren’t budging until we can move again, by which I guess we mean, the way we moved before.
A pharmacist friend sends me a WhatsApp about our shared state of Connecticut: the peak will be mid-April, she writes. A week later she redacts this: the peak will be mid-May. She tells me she doesn’t have enough drugs to mix up for the patients—the lack of beds and ventilators is a foregone conclusion, but she doesn’t have what she needs to keep the pain away for people, to keep blood pressures up.
On the same platform, a friend sends us a photo of our orange cat: he is happy, her children love him, we don’t have to worry, Chester can stay with them as long as necessary. This friend is a postal worker and she sorts through everyone’s have-to-have-it purchases behind a wall of Plexiglas with eye protection and a mask. We try using the same mail system to send her more cat food, but this is something else that people have stockpiled: years worth of salmon Friskies. What a time to be an American, I keep thinking, an American out of America. The birth control situation was resolved by the way: I saw a doctor without an appointment in the village over, had a prescription in five minutes. The visit cost me $1.30, the medicine, $1.10, in a country where I am on a tourist Visa, uninsured. <If you want to come back to America, it’s now or never>, the notifications say. Danger, it is danger when your temporary shelter holds you like a home.
This sojourn starts in March of 2020 when I am 41. I don’t know when it will end. Lara’s opens in this same place in Mexico when she is 15 and she is 15 when it ends, facing down two options: one leading to a decision she ended up taking in real life, the other, away from that. She has a complicated man-friend in the story, a mentor, lover, it isn’t clear, and that man is based on a painter slash ranch-owner who is sheltering here now, a dyed-in-the-wool type who finally gave into the hysteria and outfitted his home with squeeze bottles of homemade hand sanitizer that you can buy in town. In my life pre-COVID, this man was going to help me set up meetings here with potential investors because there was a producer who wanted to turn my book into a film. In my life during COVID, these bright opportunities move through me like sex dreams I’ve slept through in my past. Opportunities are the true fiction: they could exist. They don’t.
Week three. Week four. The alcohol jar is tippling: 16 small scorpions and four large ones, plus the mutant millipede that terrorized our feet. The massacred baby scorpions are days behind in wastebaskets, their orange forms too mangled for the trivet man. The tejóns have fully moved in with us: in the morning, my daughter is too scared to leave her room because they don’t move off of the papayas, even when you yell and clap.
We still go to Teopa and pet the crabbing dogs, even though my husband says not to pet them, not to get attached. The cute one licks my daughter’s face and I wonder whether I am doing enough to protect her, us. Back at home, our friends are upset about strangers who are losing people, and then the circle tightens: the lost ones aren’t just numbers any more. I imagine text messages and voicemails in an off-site server. We disconnected our American cell phone numbers when we left for Mexico.
I track time by animals. Easter comes; the weather cools. It cools so much I steal my husband’s t-shirts to curl inside at night. We come home from a walk one day and there is a tarantula on the door. My daughter names it Fluffy. We get up close and tell it it is welcome here. It gives off good vibes.
One day at Teopa, the dogs aren’t quick to come. I decide it’s finally happened: the Turtle man has wisened up and left here with his dogs. Although I’m sad, I can’t be sad in front of my daughter on the beach that makes us happy. I will find the right story later, the story that will soothe.
We are getting ready to leave the beach when the dogs come out of the hut at the sanctuary’s far end: not in a rush like usual. We gave up the no-petting thing a week ago, so the cute dog gives us his belly. For the sick dog, it’s usually just a head pat— I don’t know much about tumors; I don’t know where it hurts. But that day, I pet his belly, and my hand comes away green. At first I think he’s had a run-in with some creature of the sea, something small-eyed and phosphorescent, and then I think that he got into somebody’s land, that it’s a mark of trespassing. Then I see the stitches. The green is from a surgery, some kind of neon dye. The tumor is removed.
Courtney Maum is the author of three novels and the recently released Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting and Surviving Your First Book. She recommends Laura van den Berg’s new story collection I Hold a Wolf By the Ears.