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This is What Happens

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

By Cynthia McVay -


Ruben floats over to Sabrina and gives her a kiss. "Am I allowed to do that?"

Sabrina smiles. He's being confusing on purpose. So is she.

The light in the hot tub displays their submerged bodies as if they’re in a large paper weight. Ruben's belly buoys slightly. He's gained weight since she saw him a year ago and he knows it, is a touch self-conscious. Sabrina finds his roundness endearing, befitting, although in general she avoids paunches. She tries to mask her own middle-aged body since Ruben speaks frequently of his (younger) ex-girlfriend's perfect physique, which he was disappointed to find came with an all-consuming workout regimen and a certain vanity.

"We've done well,” Ruben says.

"I was thinking the same thing,” Sabrina says. They’d just spent a week together without really knowing each other. "It's been easy."

Built into a cliff, the hot tub overlooks the surfer beach. Pelicans, cormorants and gulls share the violent crashing waves near the rocky shores of Punta de Pelícanos with the surfers, who float patiently, chatting in the spray, awaiting a curl. Pelicans fly in twos and threes, and then tuck, point and drop from the sky at staggering speeds into sloshing brown water-clouds. They emerge, beaks laden with fish wrestling for their lives.

Sabrina wants to be lost in love, wrapped in Ruben’s warmth, sweat in his Mexican heat. She wants to drown herself in the surf and excitement of a new romance, in the swing of a hammock under the full moon, here above the surfer beach. But it won't happen. Seems like a waste, a waste of this perfect place, of time. Of him. Of her. She senses time running out, in general. But maybe for good reasons? They are trying to be thoughtful.

They are talking about it, like grownups, or not, in the lukewarm hot tub this evening, poking at mashed avocados masquerading as guacamole (how could guacamole be so bad in Mexico?), and slurping his over-sweet mango-tequila concoction she feels could lose the Grand Marnier. She doesn't even like tequila. By design, they sleep in separate rooms surrounded by people, in this private eco-community of dry forest coastal preserve, so nothing happens. So, they won't just end up there—in each other’s arms.

"I need time to get my shit together," he says.

She thinks, how much time? She knows if it doesn't happen now, her desire will be tamed, fade. She is already protecting her heart with her head, creating a list of why he's not The Guy. This is what happens. She's sending pictures of this magical place to another man, to hedge. She'll start to see things clearly, in the light of day—in the light of Mexico's high noon, from a cool, blue, short shadow.

"That's fine," Sabrina says, too quickly, clearly not hurt, maybe not interested. She's not sure what she wants, actually, so obfuscation is easy. She certainly doesn't want someone who doesn't want her. She does a few leg lifts underwater.

"I don't want to disappoint anybody else ever again. Including myself. I'm done doing that," he says.

Ruben assumes she’d be interested because he's always had whomever he wants. And because they've been suggestive. She can't tell if he's invoking timing to create distance, or to not hurt her, or whether he’s preserving possibility. Or giving her fair warning, as men do. This is who I am, you knew it! She doesn't believe people can really change, not fundamentally. Just the little superficial things, tweaks. They can evolve. But they can’t change the things that drive them to cheat, at least not generally.

When Ruben and Sabrina spoke on the phone, they gingerly catalogued the decades—marriages, kids, divorces, work—avoiding their romantic status. When he came to New York City a few months later, and invited her to a conservation conference, interaction was easy, natural. She thought, as they sat in a dark Mexican restaurant in the east village at the end of the day, this is a man I could fall in love with.

But when Sabrina followed him on Facebook, she saw pictures of him with a woman, posted by that woman, which that woman's friends liked and loved. You look so happy! It was like a territorial piss, the woman claiming Ruben publicly, driving momentum, Sabrina posited, and Ruben confirmed later, that perhaps didn't exist within the relationship. Sabrina rose above it, and liked the pictures, too, letting Ruben know that she knew, she got it. So, when he invited her to Mexico this year, she was confused. They spoke again. There were updates, developments.

Ruben is now relationship-free. As she made her flight reservations, Sabrina thought there might be potential. I want to fall in love with this man. She wondered if she could still fall in love with him, with anybody. It’d been a while.

Expansivo, not unlike herself, Ruben is garrulous, social, open, a gripping storyteller. His generous spirit is one of many reasons she—and many others—adore him, but also why she remains guarded. He lives in California, on the other side of the country, and travels constantly for work. Ruben counts many women friends, smiles easily, drinks with enthusiasm, is comfortable and affectionate with everyone, like her. Even if he were, by nature, by moral standing, loyal, he has confirmed now her fear: he has succumbed to infidelity more than once. And as much as she doesn't want to be, she is by nature suspicious and jealous. She wouldn't trust him, and he would not be trustworthy; he said as much. He’d drive her nuts. He balks at control. He moved in with that physical therapy girlfriend, that woman, a year earlier, a mistake, he said, a decision he made for practical reasons, not contemplating the implicit commitment. When she demanded a ring, and stopped working, assuming he'd be the provider, he panicked, and slept with someone inconsequential. What does that even mean? Sabrina wonders if the woman he slept with knew she was inconsequential, whether the woman felt that he, too, was inconsequential.

Even without knowing about his dalliances until now, Sabrina had sensed his permeable boundaries. She was ready to protect herself, based on what she knew, prepared to reign in a burgeoning hope, thinking that as much as she could and wanted to fall in love with Ruben, he would likely ultimately disappoint. She came to Mexico to be in his eddies, to feel the sand between her toes, but brought few expectations.

"Maybe you just haven't found the right person," Sabrina offers, "the one you would stay true to."

"That could be. That could be," Ruben says, smiling. His hands and eyes skim the water. It's getting dark.

Ruben grew up in Mexico City, or Distrito Federal. To Mexico insiders, DF, Day Eff-ay. Ruben's father was Bavarian and his mother from Los Angeles. Although olive-skinned and moreno, Ruben is not Mexican by blood, nor by education, having studied in The States and Germany, but his allegiances are clear and multifaceted. She, too, is half German and spent many summers in Mexico, so they share not only this German-Mexican-American mix of cultures and languages, having arrived from different places, but also a profound desire to save the planet.

A few days earlier, they ambled the lovely, intimate, tree-lined blocks where Ruben grew up with neighbors like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo, among Mexico's greatest artists. In the courtyard garden of an old hacienda where Ruben played as a child when it was still overgrown and abandoned, now an elegant restaurant, they sipped mescal with orange slices and sal de gusano, worm salt: sweet-agave nectar fattened moth larvae ground up with rock salt and dried chili peppers.

As they walk to the infinity pool, Ruben takes Sabrina's hand. Although he is taller, his legs and gait are shorter. He doesn't seem to notice their strides are out of sync. She adapts her step.

He likes being with a woman, with women, he likes affection, she can tell. He kisses her on the lips in the morning and at night before they head to their own rooms.

"Am I allowed to do that?" he asks again.

She smiles and shrugs. She offers nothing. She won't go to him, she'll just let him take. Take her hand, her lips, in his hand, with his lips. Let him get used to her. She knows men like to be in control and he may become accustomed to being with her. She won't demand anything. Some part of her knows this is just his game, keeping interest alive.

At the pool, a flick of color lands in the pool and then the bushes.

"Did you see that?" Sabrina says. "Look! Another one!" They slow their movements to share the pool with two orange-breasted buntings, stunning small finch-like birds, parrot-tropical, painted blue and orange and yellow. They are among the most beautiful birds she has ever seen.

A dozen white-winged doves arrive with dusk.

She wonders if Ruben really wants to change, whether he should slow down a little, to feel and think.

"I get the sense that you are never alone, Ruben. You're having dinner with someone every night of the week."

"I am. I’m out every night," he says, "and in meetings and calls all day long."

Although similar in disposition, he and she have created different lives. She spends most of her time alone, writes in solitude and lives in the middle of nowhere.

Sabrina heads out to the beach, not dawn-early like at home, but early enough to be one of few. Not even the beach birds are out yet in numbers.

The day is humid, the air thick with salt. Centuries of crashing waves hang brine and jumble-load sound into infinity. Although she doesn't consider herself obsessed by cleanliness, Sabrina finds herself washing her hands frequently because they always feel sticky.

Sabrina walks from the scrubby dunes onto the public beach and stops by the turtle hatchery. A couple dozen oversized popsicle sticks mark turtle nests. The eggs have been gathered and reburied, a life yard. Each stick marks the date and time of collection, the number of eggs buried in the sand below (152, 148, 143, 161) scrawled in black by someone whose writing is compromised by the grained wood or the fat marker or illiteracy.

A legless white Eames airport prefab chair sits on the ground, occupied by a coughing guard. No one was here the last time she'd come through.

"¡Buenos días!"

"Buenos días."

He jumps up as a second guard emerges from an almost-cave, beyond a tree where a hammock hangs beside a modest outdoor kitchen against the rocks set up for long shifts.

"Are any baby turtles being released tonight?" Sabrina asks in Spanish. It's her last night and she is only now checking. She regrets not inquiring earlier, not enlisting her natural, proactive curiosity. Ruben said the guards would let them know so she hadn’t pushed.

"No, no . . ." he says, shaking his head. "Thursday, Friday nights there will be."

"We are leaving in the morning." Wednesday. "We are missing them by a day? What a shame."

"The eggs take 45 days," to percolate. They know. She has been here five days, had hoped to release baby turtles, but none have been ready. Now it occurs to her, of course, that she's missed the female turtles emerging from the sea to lay them. The nest depressions are all over the beach. She'd followed the tracks of turtles on her daily walks. One large turtle hit a sandy ledge and then a second, another dead end.

Releasing baby turtles is sheer jubilance but watching the egg laying is heart wrenchingly moving. She witnessed green turtles laying eggs years ago in the middle of the night in Michoacán. The turtles drag themselves up the beach in such an effort, laboriously dig holes and lay their eggs, over the course of an hour. While the females are focused, or afterwards, poachers swoop in to steal the eggs.

Ruben told her that the turtle hatcheries are now managed and manned by local volunteers and paid stewards all over Mexico, one of the great conservation success stories in the country. Poaching still continues, generally committed by older men who sell the eggs in the fresh air market for their alleged potency properties, but the younger generation understands the importance of turtle protection. Sabrina thinks that the way to quell the poaching is to humiliate all those men seeking assistance for their own inadequacies. What is wrong with them that they need rhino horns and turtle eggs?

"Are the females still laying eggs?" she asks the guard.

"Yes, it's still season."

"What time do they come from the sea?"

"After nine. Usually around eleven, but it can be whenever."

Her Spanish feels natural, good, with this turtle guard. This is the way she speaks Spanish, how she learned, speaking with Mexicans like him.

That night, Ruben and Sabrina return to the beach. As they approach the hatchery, Ruben jumps and tips on the path down the hill.

"Are you okay?" she asks, thinking, too much tequila!

"Boa!" Ruben says, and with his phone lights up a blotched moving coil disappearing into the scrub.

As they arrive on the beach, the turtle nightguards grab their egg-carrying bags not missing a beat as if they'd been waiting, so she's glad they decided to come down. She hadn’t thought her casual questioning in the morning served as an appointment. The four speed-walk down the beach and back, but see no dark forms pulling out of the surf. No mama turtles.

Ruben pulls out a book of poetry, and says, "I love Pita Amor, don't you? You know her work?"

"Yes. Haven't read her in a while," Sabrina says.

"It's fast, short reading, just perfect for a trip," he says.

He had the same book of poetry in New York a year ago, and then, too, he carried it visibly, but rarely, barely cracked it, read a couple pages. Then, he also said, "I love Pita Amor, don't you? You now Pita’s work?"

Sabrina's not supposed to notice that, the repetition. The same book? Two trips? A year apart? It impressed her the first time. The second time serves as a warning, or maybe a confirmation.

When they go camping, the rule is to pee in the surf, not on the dry parts of beach, where it remains forever, or a very long time. Only a couple men in the group pee above the surf line, and Ruben is one of them. She wonders how he justifies it, being an avid environmentalist.

Sabrina reminds him of the rule when she sees him head up to the dunes again. He waves her off.

Sabrina is in the back of a two-person kayak, trying to follow Ruben’s strokes. They are short, fast and random, the way he walks.

"Do you ever think you're manipulative?" she asks.

He says, "Several girlfriends have accused me of being manipulative. But it's ridiculous! My father taught me to find a connection or something about a person to make them feel good."

"I meant, in general. If you—one is—thoughtful and aware, and you can see yourself from the outside, see your effect on someone else, you know what you're doing. Listening actively, telling them something you know will make them feel good, trying to influence their behavior. At what point is that manipulative? Is it only considered manipulative when the intention is self-serving or mean-spirited?"

“I don’t know,” Ruben says.

Maybe she really is asking him, that she has not merely posed a rhetorical question, as he has already assumed, because she's feeling manipulated. He could be more straightforward. She doesn't trust him, not just in romance, because they are not being romantic, but in general.

After cocktails and dinner on the beach, the group goes out looking for scorpions with a black light.

Sabrina sees Ruben take a couple hits of pot. Sabrina's not interested in this drunk, high outing and no one's actually looking for scorpions. She's taken in the glorious moon-sky, and tired, decides to head back to her tent to catch up on sleep. She hasn't been taking afternoon naps like the others.

She lays for hours atop her sleeping bag, awake. They return to camp. Things quiet down, but she hasn’t heard Ruben come back to his tent pitched to her right.

She hears crunching stones and shells on her left. It’s too close to be anyone else but Ruben.

Then, right there, just outside her tent, a short zip and a steady stream of pee.

She debates pretending she's asleep. There was a time she would have let it go. She sits up.

"What? You pee here? Right next to my tent?"

"You awake?" Ruben says. Zip.

The next morning, Ruben says, unprompted, "You know, I was at least fifteen feet."

"You were right there."

"I’m sorry. My gout hurt so much, I couldn't walk further."

You walked down the beach, and back, but pee outside my tent, she thinks.

"You have gout?" she asks, looking at his bare feet. The test of character is what a person does when no one is watching. Or listening.

"Nothing to see," Ruben says.

"My sister had gout. It was gruesome. A huge open sore."

"Just hurts. My dad had it. I get it all the time."

"Maybe you should cut back on the tequila," Sabrina says.

"My doctor never said anything about alcohol.” It's the first thing on the list when she searches the internet. No amount of lubricated charm and extensive common ground can wash the beach clean. Basta. That’s enough.

Ruben returned her to Mexico, Sabrina is thankful for that. Like the sea turtle who returns to the beach she is born on, Sabrina will pull herself up this beach. This will be the last time.


Cynthia McVay splits her time between a defunct farm in New York's Hudson Valley and St. Croix, where she writes, forages and makes art. Cynthia's work has been published in Orion, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Mondays at Ten (anthology), Chestnut Review, DASH, The Ravens Perch, 2019 Orison Anthology, Ragazine, daCunha's Anthology 2, and Eclectica. Her work won the 2018 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction and was performed in the UK as Editor's Choice winner, daCunha's 2017 Flash Nonfiction Competition. You can find her at

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