I can count on one hand the times I’ve lived, I mean really truly lived, with passion and ferociousness and all that stuff. However, after further consideration, I am forced to admit that four of those times I was drunk.
When I am sober, which is fairly often, there is nary a hint of primordial fight in me. Nor flight for that matter. You see, I am evolved from a rare strain of homo sapiens whose particular defense mechanism against wooly mammoths and vicious cave bears was to roll his body into a little ball and let the animals kind of pick him over until they got bored. Sort of like a possum, but really just a guy who tried not to be there when the shit went down. I picture this early ancestor on the plains of Africa or wherever, when a lion wanders up and, rather than scurrying up a tree or grabbing a fire hardened spear, my ancestor — let’s call him Chuck– he goes into his ball-rolling routine and the lion starts batting him around. Chuck says, “Okay, okay look man! I’m just here doing my own thing. Plus I smoke. Taste like an ashtray. But listen, if you go down that way about a mile, you’ll find a cave with a guy in there who’s really toned, you know, he really takes care of himself. Only eats acorns. So go eat that guy…or not. Christ! Who am I fooling? I really don’t give a shit.” And then the lion, mind-fucked, slowly backs away.
You see, I have indeed inherited an aggression gene, but it’s the gene for passive aggression. When I was a kid, my Dad, though it came from a good place, could be really pushy. One time, still smarting after a particularly brutal parent/teacher conference, he cracked open the door to my room and said: “You know, Jim….if you set your sights low enough, you’ll never be disappointed.” I was 11 years old and I didn’t understand things like irony or gentle sarcasm. I took him literally. 25 years later, I would finish college.
In the meantime, I became a bike messenger. But after a few years I got tired of pedaling around all day, and more often than not would get off my bike to walk. Eventually, I would get a job more suitable to my personality, working as a professional power washer, which mostly involved spraying stuff with a hose. Generally speaking, I’ve spent most of my life adhering to a vague philosophy that if I let enough doors close and let enough bridges burn, eventually there will only be one path left–and I won’t have to suffer the anxiety of having to choose, to act, to attack the world with a clear-eyed ferocity of purpose based on dodgy concepts like faith or logic.
Ultimately, I guess that all I need to say with respect to my own passive aggression is that I drive a 1997 Honda Accord. I won. Official biographer, make a note.
Unfortunately, like bad TV, real life is unavoidable. Having kids makes it tough to not engage with the world around you. It’s been pointed out to me more than once that it isn’t “politically correct” to use the word “babysit” when I’m describing the act of being left alone with my own children. Even worse, now these miniature persons employ the same passive-aggressive tactics on me. They say things like, “Fine, then I guess I just won’t go to my prom,” and “That’s okay if you didn’t go to the store. I could stand to skip a few meals anyway.”
And life, you know, it gets real. Hard, even. Stuff comes flying at you and you try not to get hit in the face, but it’s the invisible body blows that take the heaviest toll.
Over the years I’ve garnered no small measure of relief from real life while traveling in Latin America. It’s not just my compatibility with a siesta-oriented culture, but that I find comfort being in places where people have low expectations of Americans.
But last Christmas was different. My wife and I brought our kids to Mexico to spend time with my Mexican father-in-law, who was very sick. Not to mention that back home, reality was waging a frontal assault on my lazy defenses. My own father had passed away the year before, my job situation was less than stable, and our oldest kid, a teenager who had elected not to join us on this trip, hated my guts.
So we’re sitting under a palapa on the beach in Acapulco –myself, my wife, my two younger kids, and my in-laws. Acapulco is a very old place on the Pacific that started off as a port for the Manila galleons arriving once a year from the Philippines. Their cargo was mostly spices and silks, but the Manila galleons also brought coconuts, which I like to imagine fell out of a cart and sprouted and made this sleepy port an idyllic setting for those seeking quiet shelter from the world. Over time, Acapulco evolved into a huge, sprawling city. It can be messy and crowded and occasionally dangerous, to where an American can still entertain a reasonable expectation of getting stabbed on the main beach — but in a cool, Anthony Bourdain kind of way.
I should explain that a palapa is an open-air structure featuring a palm-thatched roof. This one is huge and it is also a restaurant. This particular palapa used to be an idyllic spot to sit and eat fresh-caught shrimp and langostino by the kilo off of steaming wooden platters. If you were thirsty for something other than beer or tequila a kid might sell you a coconut, hacking off one end with a machete before inserting a plastic straw. But these days this place is overpriced and crowded with sophisticated bureaucrats on holiday from Mexico City. They have beautiful white teeth and sit packed into a close-set formation of white plastic tables stretching all the way to the edge of the surf.
I am sitting in a white plastic chair across from my brother-in- law Aldo, who is drunk and blasting Barry White over his Bose portable speaker, immune to the hateful stares of the other diners only inches away. Though this was meant to be a festive occasion, a miasma of melancholic frustration hangs in a thick fog around our party. The shrimp I ordered, fried in oil and slathered in angry red chile sauce, is proving a messy business. I look over at my two little ones, 10 and 11, who sulk with uncharacteristic glumness at the foot of the table. They came to the beach hoping to swim. My wife is off looking for a clean bathroom, and my mother-in-law is locked in a discussion with the waiter over portion sizes and the quality of the mariscos. Aldo consults his playlist and changes the music to Donna Summer. He is dealing with his own demons. His kids are back in Boston with his ex, a psychiatrist at Harvard. It is his daughter’s birthday. He leans over to grab another beer from the cooler and asks me, for the umpteenth time, why my kids can’t speak Spanish like his. This is a particularly sore subject, given that my wife is a Spanish teacher, not to mention that it’s none of his fucking business. All the while my father-in-law, who is very sick and who doesn’t speak any English, just sits there, smiling to no one.
I did the only thing I could. Turning to my kids I said, “Guys…I think it’s time to go in the water.” My children, unleashed, tear off their clothes with the confident aplomb of superheroes and bound toward the ocean like Irish wolfhounds. Before I can remove my shirt they are out of sight -disappearing into the mass of humanity milling about in the shallow surf.
To reach the water, I must negotiate massage tables, vendors selling plata, and skinny horses sporting uncomfortable wooden saddles. A churning mass of local Acapulqueños who can no longer afford to dine at the palapa, their exposed torsos thick from child rearing and physical labor and corn and beer, frolic on a narrow strip of beach between the encroaching white tables and the waves. A mini Sinaloa style banda reduced to tuba, trumpet, and bass drum stands outside the invisible wall of the palapa soliciting requests. A soccer ball is scooted back and forth. One of the horses unloads a pile of manure next to a toddler, who is digging with great enthusiasm in the sand. He doesn’t look up.
Impossibly far off into the ocean, against the orange and pink sky being painted by the setting sun, I can see the alarmingly tiny silhouettes of my children immersed in the cacophony of pounding surf. They are unfazed by the power of the ocean, having joined the daredevils and longboarders way out at the wave break, riding the narrow edge of safety so far from shore. As I wade out against the rushing foam, I skirt a teenage couple, cheek to cheek, heads bobbing as one above the surface of the ocean while beneath their bodies press together in a cheerful frustration. They ignore me.
Finally I reach my kids out in the big waves. And I am reacquainted with the fact that these are Big! Fucking! Waves! and suffer a “Holy shit this is really dangerous” moment of parental self-flagellation. My kids, for their part, laugh and howl like madmen. They are buoyed by sheer irrepressible delight. I make them hold my hands and together we assail the crashing waves. Again and again, we vault like dolphins over those we can surmount, and duck dive under the really big ones the moment before they break lest they smash into us and grind us to bits. Often we are pulled apart. My youngest, utterly fierce, the girl, daring always to wade out ever deeper, leans forward into the waves. She is fearless and pretends she can’t hear me when I call. My son, a year older, hangs back only ever so slightly. He and I take turns karate chopping the waves, screaming our anxious defiance.
More than once I get smacked in the face, feeling all of my 237 pounds lifted like a trifle and blasted out of a cannon in five directions at once, no up or down, any pretense towards volition an empty concept in the deafening silence of pounding water. The sea forces itself down my throat and out my nose. I close my eyes and do my best to retract my flailing limbs, lest they be sheared off in the roil. The skin of my body is scoured raw by the rough grain of the sandy seafloor. However, surfacing, my lungs ready to explode, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of pure, rhapsodic joy. I am laughing uncontrollably, hysterically, as I bob on one foot, jumping up to face the next wave, one hand engaged in a futile attempt to extract the sand from my butt.
We’re out there for what seems like hours, cavorting like otters in the fading light, feeling the salt on our skin. We wipe the snot from our salt-encrusted nostrils. We float in the salt. Despite the encroaching gloom, every bead of spray shimmers with eerie luminescence.
From way out deep, our faces occasionally bumping together in our three-headed intertwinement, my children and I search the beach for my wife. We are desperate for a witness to our hysterical bravery. But all we see is a darkening wall of bodies churning unabated at that point on the beach where the land meets the surf. Then, as one or two fluorescent lights flicker to life in the palapa, the churning mass of humanity on the beach, now half lit, begins to crackle and spark. The trio of musicians strikes up a bouncy tune, the tuba oompah-ing for all it’s worth. Then we spy the tiny forms of my wife and father-in-law walking along the sand. We wave. They wave back.
James Sweeney lives in Berwyn with his family. He’s told stories about Hooters, his lawn, curating the music at his funeral, and the dark underbelly of the Pinewood Derby. More than anything, writing helps him keep his shit together.