Emmanuel Ordóñez Angulo

Illustration by Dianna Xu

I never knew why the sunsets at Pie de la Cuesta were so legendary. Not that I spent a lot of time wondering; I just found it strange that they were so much more famous than Acapulco’s, as there’s no more than ten kilometers between them. In any case, I had no objections when Nacho suggested that we end our trip there instead of in the port. I had only been a couple of times, but Acapulco, as I remembered it, was a beach with green water and little kids swimming in their T-shirts. I’ll pass. Maybe my friend wanted to use the sunsets as a sales pitch to compensate for the fact that the surf at Pie de la Cuesta is always rough, but that wasn’t necessary. At that point of the trip, neither of us was in the mood to swim. All we wanted were a couple days of beach chairs, beer, and prolonged silence.

Pie de la Cuesta is a long sandbank flanked by a lagoon and the open sea. Its one street is scattered with little hotels, seafood restaurants, and piers where you can take boat rides around the lagoon: visit the islands, glimpse crocodiles, admire exuberant tropical plants. And you can explore the other bank if you like hiking; or surf, on the ocean side; or waterski, or get lost in the mangrove swamps.

Naturally, we didn’t do any of that. We made a beeline for a decent-looking, solitary hotel with a shabby white paint job and rooms named after the actors in Casablanca that were distributed between a pair of two-story buildings and arranged around a pool. The receptionist/manager/bell boy, the sole employee, put us in the Humphrey Bogart room, the only one with two beds. The rest were empty.

The bus had been delayed and it was late, long past lunchtime. We left everything in the room, which was both very clean and sea-spattered (sand in the corners, humidity, coastal bugs), and we went off to the beach to sprawl in the sun like dogs and entertain our hungry stomachs with alcohol.

The clouds were low and heavy. I opened a beer. Nacho searched his pockets for a moment and looked at me, holding out his bottle. I tossed him the lighter. He caught it, barely (it was a bad throw), and grunted. After a month of traveling together around southern Mexico, we were tired of each other.

There were almost no tourists. A few walked past, one accompanied by several dogs, before the man with the briefcase appeared. I’d like to say he started as a dot on the horizon that grew and grew before it became a figure standing half a meter away from us (that is, that we saw him approach from far away, as colossal things are seen to approach), but the truth is that he was suddenly right there. We scrutinized him at once. He must have been around fifty and he was short. He was naked except for a dark checkered bathing suit, too big for him, and in his hand he carried a very awesome or very ridiculous briefcase: made of wrinkled, worn-out plastic, with blunt corners, yellow and smudged by the passing of time. For some reason, or for highly obvious reasons, it reminded me of a submarine. About the man himself I can only say that he looked out at the sea as an office worker looks at his desk after returning from lunch on a Friday: with weariness and resignation embedded in a sort of calm. It was an accurate image down to his black-rimmed glasses, which he constantly had to adjust because his sweat made them slide down to the tip of his nose. He spent about fifteen minutes like this, no more, standing there and facing the sea, sometimes sighing, rubbing his incipient beard, not looking at us even once.

Then he began to walk. We didn’t pay much attention at first, because his decision to wander toward the shore didn’t seem any stranger than his decision to pant beside us for a quarter of an hour. His pace was slow but steady. He carried the submarine as if it really was one; it was clearly heavy, but it also seemed like it didn’t bother him, like he was used to it. I relaxed my head and covered my face with a book, but Nacho shook me and I looked again. The man hadn’t stopped walking and was now entering the water. We both sat up in our beach chairs and shaded our eyes with our hands to see him better. He soon reached the high surf and turned into a ball that bobbed from side to side, suddenly sinking or vanishing behind a fold of water, suddenly reemerging. I once heard someone talk about the “bystander effect,” a kind of psychological paralysis that overcomes someone who witnesses a crime or a tragedy and prevents him from intervening. I don’t know if this was the case. Watching the man get smaller and smaller and the waves grow bigger and bigger from this other side of reality was more like an unexpected show, something worthy of being seen—like stumbling across a deer giving birth, or one dying, in the middle of the forest, both things beautiful and impressive to city mice like us.

A shadow flew out from behind us, from the hotel, toward the sea. The manager who had assisted us threw himself into the waves and we saw his own floating head approach the man’s, now very small but still visible, and then pull it slowly toward the shore. A couple of passing girls had stopped and watched from a critical distance, close enough to observe everything and far enough that they wouldn’t have to do anything. The little heads took ages to emerge and reveal their bodies. The receptionist/manager/bellboy/lifeguard let the man drop to the sand, in an area safe from the waves as they broke, and inspected him with great agitation. From our vantage point it was hard to say whether the man was conscious, but I inferred that he was because he still had the submarine with him and neither Nacho nor I remembered seeing it tied on, which meant that he must have been holding on to it. But he wasn’t moving. The manager seemed convinced that he was fine and spoke to him. I’m sure he asked some questions, and I’m sure he received no answers, because it wasn’t long before he got up and walked back to the hotel, dragging his body sheathed in wet clothes and his face sunk in an expression of sorrow that left us uneasy, especially because he passed us without saying anything at all, as if condemning our stillness.

The girls resumed their wandering, but they kept detouring a bit to glance back at the man, first as they walked, but then pausing for a few seconds, without deciding whether to approach him or crouch down for a second inspection. They ultimately seemed satisfied with the knowledge that he was alive—that he hadn’t died and they hadn’t sinned by omission—and carried on.

The sun was languid and just about to set. The man stayed stretched out, submerged in the gray light of the cloudy dusk, totally motionless except for his belly as it subtly inflated and deflated. I looked at Nacho and glimpsed in his expression the same uncomfortable pleasure that I was feeling: that of bearing witness to an event so real and wrong that it seemed not to be happening, and which, for that very reason, it was essential not to miss (and, above all, not to interrupt).

The whole affair was also affecting us on another level. This was the most exciting thing that had happened to us in a long time, and it smoothed out—we could feel it clearly—the sharpness of the past few days. It united us again, as a storm unites the sheltered. Silently, we hoped the man wouldn’t get up and the sun wouldn’t set. That the birth or the death throes would continue.

But he did get up. Almost exactly as the sun began to graze the water, the man guilelessly rose to his feet, stupidly shook himself of sand, and headed toward the sea again. Nacho and I, who hadn’t exchanged a single word but kept our mouths busy in protracting the last beers (lukewarm now, so we wouldn’t have to leave for new ones), jumped with nerves and cold. We looked at each other and then around us, mutely calling for help. The man walked with the same gait as before, dragging the submarine with the same fatigue and resoluteness, and he held it even when he was in the water, as if he were still stepping instead of splashing.

This time the manager didn’t come and neither did the tourists. No one came. We were no one. We were pinned to the ground, our eyes pinned to the sea, our hearts exploding in our chests, in our tense hands, the empty bottles, and the sun decided, for an instant, on a final whim before its death, to let out a red beam, the only one I saw corroborate Pie de la Cuesta’s fame and which illuminated, for one second, the man before he disappeared.

I’ve always been amazed by how quickly the sun vanishes in relation to how long it takes to cross from one end of the horizon to the other. One moment, it’s still there; the next, it’s gone. Just like that. The man’s annihilation was equally nondescript, unfairly so—not for him, but for us. We were about to burst with adrenaline and we demanded more. It couldn’t end like this! The fawn is born and is followed by an exhibition of blood, lowing, placenta, but the dying deer passes on—and that’s it? After death—there’s nothing?

We stayed there for an indefinable time. We stared out at the dark mass of the sea, hopeless. We heard it groan. We felt the mosquitos devour us and we didn’t lift a finger. We didn’t think. At some point I turned to look at Nacho and he turned to look at me, too. We got up as if we’d been there for a hundred years, gathered the bottles, and left the beach. We drank one last beer in the bar. We discussed our return home; we laughed freely. We felt good.

We crossed the courtyard with the pool, still chatting, and went into the Humphrey Bogart room. We slept like babies. The next day, we woke early and went to the station in Acapulco without eating breakfast. Not once, from the previous night until we boarded the bus, did we look back at the sea.

translated from the Spanish by Robin Myers