My father loved to watch the cliff divers of La Quebrada; they were the main reason we took our winter vacations in Acapulco. We'd fly direct from Houston and be in 'Pulco, as he called it, by noon. As soon as we checked into our El Paraíso bungalow, my father would summon the resort's peppermint-striped jeep to haul him and me up the coastal highway to the El Mirador hotel so we could catch the 1:30 show. "You boys have fun!" my mother called, as she and my sister, instantly in their bathing suits, traipsed down the palm-shaded path to the beach.
The El Mirador was one of Acapulco's oldest and finest hotels. The year I turned fifteen, as we entered the sunny restaurant-bar, whose sparkling windows offered a famous view of the divers on the cliff opposite, I asked my father why the family didn't just stay at this hotel, where he could watch the diving right from his room, if he pleased.
"No way," he replied. "Your mother doesn't want to stay in town and swim at these nasty old Mex... these public beaches. El Paraíso, that's the only place for her in Mexico."
I, too, loved the El Paraíso. I loved to float beyond the breakers of its little cove, bob on that swelling coolness which seemed to rise on a kind of surface tension between the close cliffsides and carry me high above the beach and its frothy line of surf. But for all its pleasures, the El Paraíso was a little too secluded and sedate for me now. Like I said, I had just turned fifteen, and what I most craved now were those urban beaches my mother shunned, the ones I could see in the direction opposite of La Quebrada, hazy, hotel-lined curves dotted with hundreds of brown bodies. I wanted to get closer to those bodies, smell the perspiration sizzling on that dark skin, watch the bulges in the men's bikinis, perhaps encounter, in the coconut-husk-littered sand of some palm grove, the thrilling sight of some boy's stained, discarded underpants...
A waiter approached. My father thrust his square gringo chin toward a table by the window, and the waiter gave a little bow of acquiescence.
"The very first time I came here," my father said to me as we settled into the rawhide equipal chairs, "Errol Flynn was sitting right at this table. And across from him, where you are, one of his twelve-, thirteen-year-old girlfriends."
He gave a vulgar little bark of laughter. I squirmed in my chair, making its stiff leather creak.
"You know who Errol Flynn was, don't you, Mike?"
Naturally I knew who he was, and my father knew I knew. Errol Flynn was one of the best-looking guys in movie history. I had a poster of him on my bedroom wall, swinging from a rope onto the deck of a pirate ship, a dagger prized between his brilliant teeth, his gorgeous legs clad in golden-brown tights.
"Swashbuckler," I said.
"Swashbuckler," he said. "Swashbuckler and pervert."
"Have a beer, Mike," my father said. "It's vacation, and this is Mexico."
But beer repelled me, and my father knew that, too.
"That soft drink I had last time was good," I said. "Tamarindo." I remembered the word because it was so pretty and light.
My father regarded me appraisingly, his head reared.
"Tamarindo," he told the waiter, his tongue tripping daintily -- mockingly -- over the consonants. "And a Dos Equis," he said, painting the Xs in the air with firm, manly strokes.
I gazed out the window at the convex, burnished ocean and the golden cliffs from which the divers, genuflecting before a small shrine, were preparing to dive. The ocean looked metal-hard under the midday sun, motionless except where it touched the blazing rocks and became molten. The first diver drew his ankles together, spread his bronze arms, and waited for that pivotal moment when the tide begins to surge back in: a second too soon, or too late, and he would split his head on the rocks.
Necks craned; the diver dived; people gasped. The diver stayed under for an alarmingly long time, then popped up and bobbed in the surf for a minute before clambering onto the rocks and waving to his audience.
"God, it takes some real courage to do that," my father murmured.
Laughter rippled through the restaurant when the next diver came forward. He wore a pair of Icarus wings made of long red and yellow and blue feathers, and a leopard-spot bikini. He stood at cliff's edge, shaking his long black hair around his shoulders and beating his wings, and for a moment I thought he was going to dive with them on; but then he removed them and handed them to an assistant. Now he stood naked save for his skimpy bikini. He extended his arms, his hands cupped, his back in a feline arch, and faced the sun. I thought of a young Aztec priest offering a beating human heart to the insatiable sun god. When he dove, I felt as if it were my heart he was carrying with him.
He stayed under even longer than the first diver. My legs grew weak. "There he is!" an American voice cried at last. I rose in my chair and saw, to my relief, a flick of seal-black hair in the froth.
"Think you'll want to go parasailing this year, Mike?" my father abruptly asked.
My father had attempted to take me hang gliding the year before. He rented the equipment and hired a pair of guides, and we went to a little promontory not far from La Quebrada to practice. The promontory could not have been more than thirty feet above the beach. The man who stood below, holding the rope fastened to a belt around my waist, assured me that I could not possibly crash. But I couldn't jump. I stood there, trembling in the blue shadow of the contraption's ungainly wing; I wouldn't budge. Just when I thought my father might, just might, give me a little shove, I backed away from that rocky edge, and stared at my oversized feet until my father gave the guide a disgusted order to unbuckle my straps.
And now he was suggesting something called parasailing. I didn't know what parasailing was, and I didn't like the sound of it.
"What does 'La Quebrada' mean, Dad?" I said, trying to change the subject.
"Well, Mike, it means 'the break.' The break in the cliff that forms the sea gorge into which the divers dive. Now answer my question. Do you want to go parasailing?"
"No, I don't think so," I said, ducking my head for a sip of tamarindo.
"You don't even want to know what parasailing is, do you, Mike? You have your mind made up: just going to lie in the sun with the girls all day at the El Paraíso."
There was no bar at El Paraíso, but around sunset the coco loco man arrived from the coconut groves the next beach over. Every year it was a different man, it seemed, but they all rolled what appeared to be the same ancient wooden cart held together with crude strips of metal lathe. The cart was loaded with coconuts and had a bottle of Bacardi in the corner and a machete in its scabbard strapped to the side. A coco loco was easy to make: whack off the top of the coconut with the machete, pour in the rum and a little sugar, and serve with a straw.
One year the coco loco man was a richly-brown-skinned older guy with a shock of fluffy white hair, whom my father dubbed "don Cappuccino." Before that, the drinks were prepared by a thin black man from the Costa Grande whom my father called "Solo," as in cafe solo, black coffee. And then there had been an unhealthy-looking boy with bluish skin, whom my father called "Skim." I once asked my father what name they might have for us, and he looked at our sunburns and said, "the Red Zingers, like the tea." We all laughed, because it was true, we had exactly that deep pink glow. I wished I could tan like leche manchada, that luscious "stained milk" made with hot milk and a smidgeon of coffee, but it was never to be: somehow the tropical sun managed to pour even through my shirt like boiling water through cheesecloth, scalding me.
This year, the man who brought the coconuts and the rum was none other than the diver with the Icarus wings. He didn't have his wings on now, of course, but I recognized him by his long hair and the flash of leopard bikini I spotted under his long shirttails as he bent to deftly lop the top off a coconut with a single stroke of his machete.
"That's him!" I blurted.
"Who?" my father asked.
"The diver! The guy with the wings!"
I instantly regretted having identified him. Now he could no longer be my private fantasy, my Icarus, my Aztec priest. Now I'd have to share him with my father, who, sure enough, brought him immediately down to earth with mundane questions about diving.
"The torches you dive with at night," my father said in his tortured Spanish. "What are they made out of?"
"Do you?" my father asked. "Dive with the torches?"
"Of course," said the diver, flashing his dazzling smile.
"Speaking of cocos locos, " my father said to my mother, "I wonder if he's aware of the brain damage he could get from too much diving."
"He doesn't seem brain damaged to me," she said.
"Yo," said my father to the diver. "Mucho clavado hacer coco loco?" He tapped the side of his head.
I felt the mortification rise beneath my sunburn.
The diver grinned good-naturedly. "Sí, señor, así es," he said, and my father barked his laugh.
As my father watched, Ramón (for that was the diver's name) selected a young green coconut, split it open, and offered it to me with a little scooping stick. The sweet white substance it held was mousse-light, with a delicate vanilla flavor.
"Ramón," my father said, "that's my son. Mi hijo."
"Okay. So I ask my hijo, I ask him, you want to dive? And he says, 'No-oo. I'm scared.'"
"Pues sí," said the diver, winking at me. "Da miedo la primera vez."
"Did you get that, Mike?" said my father. "He says sure it's scary, the first time around."
"Oh, God, he's totally gorgeous," said my sister as soon as the diver had carted his coconuts away, throwing her head back on the chaise. "But I don't like that name Ramón. It sounds like some stupid rock star. What silly nickname do you have for him, Dad?"
My father sipped his coco loco thoughtfully.
"Eagle," he said at last. "Because of those wings he wears in his show, and because he's just the color of a cup of really rich Mexican coffee with one teaspoon of that Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk they like to put in it down here."
"Mmm," I said.
"What do you mean, mmm?" said my father. "You don't drink coffee."
"Well, maybe tomorrow I'll start."
"You're so weird, Mike," said my sister.
The next morning, over papaya and huevos a la mexicana, my father asked me to go deep-sea fishing with him.
"But don't you remember how deathly sick he got last time he was on a boat?" my mother said.
"It's all a matter of thresholds," my father replied. "Once he sticks it out and crosses the threshold, he'll be cured of it." He turned to me again. "Don't you want to cross that threshold, Mike? Don't you care to conquer your weaknesses?"
I said nothing.
"All right, fella, just wallow around here," he said, and stalked off to find the peppermint-striped jeep.
Wallow I did that morning, in the sea and on the beach, my thoughts a roil of fantasies about the Aztecs and the Maya, most of them starring my diver. When the sun began to lower and the worst of the mid-day heat was over, I went exploring over the giant boulders that defined our cove.
I descended upon the beach with the coconut groves. From the depths of their shadows came a thwacking and a ripping in syncopation with the tinny beat of a cumbia from a radio. I sneaked over to investigate. I spied my diver, peeling the green husks from the coconuts. Next to him sat the coco loco cart, and behind him stood a primitive wooden device for pressing the oil from the copra. It smelled as if I'd wandered into a suntan lotion factory. I strolled conspicuously down the beach, and the second time I passed him, he saw me and waved. I waved back languidly, and continued on to the boulders. Before losing myself in them, I looked back and saw that he was still watching me.
I lay on the rocks and listened, in those ineffable moments of stillness between the crashing of waves, to the thwack-thwack-thwacking of Ramón's machete. I slipped out of my bathing trunks. Crabs emerged from their crevices and stared at me with suspicion.
I arched my back over a boulder in the position the Aztec priests forced their warrior prisoners to take before plunging their obsidian knives into their captives' chests and pulling their hearts out as offerings to the dying sun. Through my cracked lids I could see the shiny skin of my bony chest tremble with the flailing of my own heart, and far away across the flat stretch of my hairless belly stood my cock, ticking in counterpoint to those heartbeats, its head blotting out the sinking sun. I became aware of a silence from Ramón's coconut grove, and this excited me even more. And then I felt his shadow pass over me.
I scrambled behind a rock and snatched on my trunks. When I dared look up, I saw he was offering me a coconut. I took it with trembling hands and drank the cool water from its three pierced eyelets.
Without a word, he took me by the hand and led me nimbly across the rock to a path that led to the crags above the beach. Far below lay the cove of El Paraíso, its bungalows hidden in the foliage, and beyond that, disappearing into the hot haze, the city and beaches of Acapulco. I spotted my father getting out of the candy-cane jeep, his pink pate winking in the sun as he removed his hat to wipe the sweat. I felt woozy, aware of how precipitously the rock dropped off on three sides, and then I felt Ramón's steadying hands on my back and belly.
On the beach stood my father, gazing out to sea, his hand shielding the sun, perhaps looking for me.