What Happened Just Before I Was Kidnapped & Assaulted On Vacation

Photo: Courtesy of Get Red PR.
The following is an excerpt from the upcoming memoir The Jaguar Man.

He’s a talker, the angry man, talks the whole time. Talks as he picks me up in his pretend cab, talks as he turns the wrong way toward Maya Beach instead of toward town, talks as he extends his hand with a knife. He tells a winding story about his son who was taken from him, his ex-wife who he hates and loves, the government on his back, a $10,000 fine for holding a joint. He considered killing himself this morning, he needs money, my money, he’s going to take my money, he’s going to take other things from me too, his knife is in charge, he has to get home, he can’t live without his son.

I’ve always been a good listener, so while he traps me in the jungle beside the Caribbean Sea and brutishly inserts me into his story, I listen to him carefully, hoping to find clues about how to get out of this alive. His story isn’t hard to follow, but it shifts. One madness becomes another until it takes a turn down a dark dirt road in Maya Beach. There it splinters in kaleidoscopic bits of me, him, me, him, me, him, with pieces of both of us sprinkled over sand and sea.

That night I believe what he tells me. Now I’m not sure. Maybe he told the truth about himself, maybe he lied, there’s no way to know, and what does it matter? That night he says what he says, he does what he does, and I respond, my own fragments of the story turning and turning in the kaleidoscope’s jewel-cut eye.

On the morning of the angry man, I’m on vacation in Belize on a peaceful Caribbean beach. The air tastes like salt. Warm air surrounds me with thick arms, and I welcome its insistent embrace. This isn’t my life in Los Angeles. Here I’m relaxed, unhurried. The breeze is slow, like the waves. Even the salt takes its time from the sea to my lips. Low wooden chairs with colorful chipped paint sit empty in front of rustic cabanas. One or two tourists walk the white packed sand close to the gentle water. Several Belizeans sit in the early shade of a coconut palm, one of the few trees still standing after a devastating hurricane wiped out much of the beach.

It’s Sunday, the fourth day of what I think will be two weeks of bliss in this tiny village with the quick crossing from sea to lagoon, the long sidewalk officially deemed “narrowest main street in the world,” no hospital, only a police sub-station, and a long glorious stretch of beach dotted with hibiscus and the sea’s natural debris.

I’m used to my city’s saturated smells, at home my senses are fine-tuned for safety, and I’m a fairly experienced traveler alert to my surroundings, but here I don’t detect a scent of danger. I’m a teacher so I take advantage of holidays and summers to explore. I’ve interviewed theologians in South Africa, walked along the Great Wall of China, helped organize an arts festival in Zimbabwe, followed migrating butterflies in Mexico, ridden an ostrich, and lived on a boat. I trust my instincts, choose adventures that don’t carry excessive risk, after all, I’m a single woman and usually travel alone. But I also trust in people’s good nature, mostly have positive encounters, and have made lasting friendships with people I met along the way. Still, it’s important to be careful.

In this quiet village, I’m happy. The sun, that great dream doctor, rises; the sun, that fierce lion of love, sets; the earth spins and spins, and I’m like an eager child, my heart wide open to whatever I’m about to find.

I’ve returned to fall in love with the diver I met on this same Belizean peninsula three months ago. The one who sat down uninvited at my wooden table under a thatched umbrella, bought me tall glasses of rum punch, and talked with me into the night while wind and residue of salt water tangled my hair. It rained lightly, drizzling off the fronds of the umbrella onto the sand around our chairs. It wet my skin and despite the warm night I shivered.

In the past I’ve become friends with men in other countries but never started a romance. This diver, though; he’s smart and sincere, attentive and kind. We made plans to meet again the next day. By the time I left the country a week later, we had met for dinner every night, explored the peninsula together by boat, sped across the water to a soccer game in Monkey River, danced to a reggae band at the beach bar, talked, kissed, and held hands. It was sweet; he was sweet. I wasn’t in love but I thought he was sweet. I returned to Los Angeles, and we began three months of daily emails and phone calls. We were curious about each other. We played with the possibility of love. When summer break arrived, I decided to return.

Embarkment. Los Angeles.

Disembarkment. Belize City.

Back again? asks the customs official. You must like our country.

Yes.

On the morning of the angry man, I sit looking at the sea and wonder if I could adapt to living here. The diver and I are having a wonderful time, falling in love the way we hoped we would. I’m falling in love with the diver, falling in love with the village, falling in love with the sun, sand, water, air, and sky.

The diver has always lived in this paradise. He swam before he walked, blends Creole and English in a voice as smooth as deep water. His voice, my God, his voice is so soothing, even and low. Living on the water has made him calm. He slows my city pace down, and I appreciate that. What’s the rush? He balances my thinking, too. I’m an analyzer; he’s a simplifier. It’s a relief to not get entangled in heady debates, but to take in wisdom from the stories he tells me of the sea. He’s a dive master and professional fisherman, spends his days exploring the coral reef. Elkhorn, brain coral, leaf coral—it’s hard to name the corals because of how many there are. Fishes likewise. Groupers, snappers, marlins, barracudas, blacktip sharks, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, and the rarely seen tiger sharks.

When strange things come to where we live, the diver says, we tend to look at them with curiosity. Same way with the fishes. Most things under the water are curious. Most will look but won’t approach. We’re interfering in their world, yet they won’t swim away except if we swim toward them and spook them a bit.

His birthday is next week, and I’m here to celebrate. I made him a book of the emails we sent back and forth since we met, each page uniquely designed. I think I’ll give him the book on his birthday. I think the week will be carefree. I think my biggest worry is whether I’m being foolish and naïve starting a romance with this man. I’m aware of our differences, of course I am. I’m city; he’s ocean. I’m let’s make a plan; he’s let’s see how it goes. I live inside art, theatre, and books. He lives in an underwater galaxy I’ve barely touched floating on the surface. He doesn’t mind our difference in age or culture or race and neither do I. I’ve been through enough disappointing relationships to take a chance on this sweet younger man. Last night sitting on the beach, he told me he thinks we can be happy together for a long time.

I trust my instincts, choose adventures that don’t carry excessive risk, after all, I’m a single woman and usually travel alone.

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There are dangers in scuba diving, the diver says. You should be aware of the risks. But if you’re careful and follow instructions, it’s a very safe sport. Don’t put on scuba gear immediately. First you should learn basic skills.

There were warning signs I missed.

There are warning signs I miss.

After my first trip to Belize, I returned to Los Angeles to a swarm of bees that had invaded my bedroom. I never saw them alive. By the time I found them, they were already decomposing, hundreds of bees along the windowsill, piles dead on the floor. I have an elementary knowledge of physics, enough to understand if a butterfly flaps its wings in Belize it can cause a storm in Los Angeles, all things are connected. As I stepped onto the coarse sand for the first time in Belize, is it possible the energy of my life changed, reverberated in a storm of bees in my bedroom countries away? The bees stained the curtains; they hung by their delicate wings, sticky from the brown sap of their bodies. The bees clung to the walls I’d painted the color of dried palm. Their thick dead smell stung my nose and eyes. Were the bees a signal—beware?

Even though I’m a woman who looks for signs, I sometimes ignore the ones I don’t want to see. I swept up the tiny bodies and wings, scrubbed the walls and windows with an organic cleanser, and called an exterminator who wore a full protective suit and fumigated behind the wall with toxins.

I don’t think about the bees as I sit on the beach with my feet in the Caribbean Sea. The sky hums, darkens, the wind hits my right side and trails across my body, my hair blows into my face no matter how I try to hold it back. I notice how quickly a storm enters the sky here, huge black clouds, plump like a belly, a womb not ready to release. The sea changes from teal to emerald, the waves bigger, capped in white. I don’t know it yet, but the angry man is nearby under this same sky. Rage is building in him, dark like the turning clouds, sharp as a jaguar’s teeth. In a few hours the angry man will unleash his violence on me. It doesn’t occur to me to be afraid in this beautiful place, and if I sense a ripple of the angry man’s life spiraling toward me out of control, I simply accept it as part of the natural landscape, wind and wave.

Myth. The angry man slides his hand under a waitress’s dress, feels her thick thigh, leans in to breathe her musk. She slaps him and he laughs. Earlier he sat in a room with his ex-wife and her parents, and no one spoke. At the end of the visit he smacked his wife’s ass and left. He loves the smell of a woman. He loves the smell of a woman.

Under the blackening sky, I pray the same prayer I’ve been praying for months: for an experience of love so big I’ll have to change my life to comprehend it. This is a new way of praying for me. I was raised on Catholic prayers, recited them like lists. When I was little, my favorite bedtime prayer was naming the apostles: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon, Judas the brother of James, and Judas the Traitor. I zipped through the list every night, so proud to have come up with this prayer myself. As an adult, I drifted away from religion. I’m still not in sync with the Catholic Church, but in recent months I’ve been feeling pulled back and found a progressive church with a progressive priest I’m trying to learn from, not about ritual, but about a real relationship with love. This is new for me, too. Growing up, the nuns at school terrified me with the threat of God’s love, how it could take me out of the blue the way it had taken them. “I never thought I’d be a nun. Then one day, I got the calling. You have to be ready, girls. The calling could happen to you.” For years I added to my nightly prayers: Please God, please, please, don’t make me get the calling.

Now I pray for an experience of love so big I’ll have to change my life to comprehend it. I mean romance. I mean with the diver. I ask love to break me open the way I expect the clouds to break open and pour out rain.

Tomorrow the diver plans to take me in a boat to his private caye, a tiny island along the coral reef. I think I’ll snorkel off the edge of the sand and listen for the pirate ghosts he says haunt his island. Belize has a long history of pirates: Peter Wallace, Captain Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and Jean Lafitte. Armed attackers still ransack tiny islands, so when the diver goes to his caye he shoots a gun at random intervals to warn away the would-be pirates. This appeals to my imagination, and I let myself build it up, wanting and not wanting to feel scared.

I think the diver will return tonight from work and tell me more stories about the corals and sharks. His favorites are the whale sharks, the biggest and friendliest fish in the sea. They grow to sixty feet long and have three hundred rows of tiny teeth inside their cavernous mouths. They could swallow him whole yet if he forced his way through a whale shark’s mouth, the shark would turn its stomach inside out to expel him. Instead, they feed on the tiniest plankton traveling the sea’s currents. The diver wonders if whale sharks take advantage of their colossal size against the microscopic plankton, but he figures whatever created them must have designed them this way on purpose. He’s dived with thousands of whale sharks and knows some of them personally by marks on their bodies, missing dorsal fins, propeller scars from big ships, and tags from researchers. I think he’s like a whale shark, big and playful and gentle.

Imagine breathing underwater, the diver says. That’s a lovely thing.

I never learned to scuba dive. I enjoy hearing about the world that exists below, but I have no desire to strap a tank on my back and dive deep. Even snorkeling gives me pause. I’m a strong swimmer and amazed by the corals, but it makes me uneasy to see all those fish up close, so many of them, and some are big, swimming right next to me. I can’t explain my resistance to fish, but I’ve had it all my life. My grandfather used to take me fishing, and I was always relieved when no fish bit my line. I didn’t want to reel one in, touch it, and see it squirm on the hook. I don’t even eat fish or seafood—the taste, the texture, the smell—no, not for me. I have a private theory that I’m deathly allergic to some type of fish so my body revolts at the mere thought of consuming any. Even so, it’s an awkward theory when I’m dating a man of the sea who lives in a Central American village along the Caribbean coast. I don’t admit this to the diver, but I prefer to swim oblivious to whatever I’m joining in the sea.

Diving is not something anybody should be forced to do, the diver says. It should be something you want to do. You should do it because you feel the urge.

Myth. The angry man’s mother was from a border town. His father was a Guatemalan cowboy. His abuela washed clothes against a stone in the lake. When he was a child, he helped her some Sundays when most of the other women attended church and the men played soccer. He wanted Abu to himself. He wanted to grow up and escape.

Myth. The angry man wears a jaguar tooth necklace so that some of the jaguar’s power will rest on his chest, as if the energy of the animal can be transferred, like heat to cold.

Fact. This is how heat travels. Warm molecules move faster than cool molecules. Put a warm object on a cool object, and the fast-moving molecules collide with the slow-moving ones, giving up some of their heat to warm the cooler thing.

The angry man wears a jaguar tooth necklace so that some of the jaguar’s power will rest on his chest, as if the energy of the animal can be transferred, like heat to cold.


On the morning of the angry man, I sit on a breathtaking beach while the diver leads a group of tourists underwater. I think I’ll wear my black sundress with pink trim tonight. I think I’ll sit at dinner and tell the diver stories about my life in Los Angeles. The diver likes hearing about the house I recently bought and started renovating. I think I’ll tell him how I keep catching the neighborhood kids peeking into my windows while I’m sanding the wood floors. I’ve been winning the kids over by giving them art supplies to use in the driveway and whispering to the two main culprits that I have a very important job for them: They’re in charge of making sure no one ever, do they understand, never, peeks into my house. Can they handle the job? Yes, yes, they agree, they’re in charge! I think the diver will smile his sweet smile. I think we’ll walk together along the beach. I think I’ll ask the diver about the strange seaweed that reaches out from the water and strangles my feet.

He’ll return tonight, but by the time I see him again: X.

X will mean many things.

X will shift with the shifting tides of the angry man and me.

X will take that horrible turn down the dark dirt road in Maya Beach, and the whole of everything after that will change.

The angry man is somewhere nearby gaining strength and speed, taking on the wild nature of a beast. Soon he will hit me with his full force and break me apart, spin me into a different orbit—parts of me will fall, bit by bit, like broken light tumbling through clouds. Salt burns my chapped lips, but I lick it away unbothered. The palm trees weep, but I can’t hear them. The trees know what is going to happen, and they are bending toward me in sorrow and anticipation. Beside me, the palm trees throw shadows on the sand. Their tears, mixed with the sea’s unhurried salt, fall softly on the chain of events that’s already in motion, nothing to stop what’s coming.

Fact. Adult jaguars are at the top of their food chain. Nothing preys on them in the wild. They’re most active at dusk and dawn. Cubs are born blind. Young cats stay with their mothers up to two years. Afterward, they travel alone.

Myth. The jaguar got its markings by making paw prints on its skin with the sludge of the earth.

Myth. Jaguars hold up the sky.

Myth. The rosettes on a jaguar’s pelt mirror the heavens—rosettes like blooms or broken rings of clouds around stars’ dark eyes. The skin of el jaguar is a blooming sky. The skin is blooming. The skin is the sky, el jaguar, el jaguar.
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