Halfway through Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis’s narrator receives a letter from “a mountain somewhere in Tanganyika,” sent by an old schoolmate named Karayannis. Formerly a professor of theology, Karayannis had absconded to Africa after hooking up with a female student. Sitting alone on a stone in Crete, the narrator reads the letter and reflects: “Once again I felt flashing inside me the urge to leave, not owing to any need — since I am fine on this seashore where I comfortably fit in and lack nothing — but owing to my compelling desire to see and touch as much sea and land as possible before I die.”
At the start of the quarantine, I had decided to reread Zorba in an unimaginative tribute to the fact that I was supposed to have traveled to Greece in May. The golden sand and crashing waves of Zipolite served as the backdrop for my reading-slash-mental-boomeranging between other lands and seas, even as I lacked nothing on this seashore aside from immunity to periodic eviction by Mexican soldiers and police. In my case, the seeing and touching of everything was also a convenient way to postpone sorting my shit out or committing to a single identity, as the constant motion enabled a suspension of conventional reality and the illusion, at least, of an elongation of time, into which I endeavored to cram as much land and sea as possible between myself and mortality.
Since the onset of my travels in 2003, I had become more comfortable with the idea of one day ceasing to exist, a prospect that had disproportionately preoccupied my childhood in Washington, DC, and Austin, Texas — to the extent that I would remain awake at night calculating the number of years/hours/minutes I might reasonably have left based on current American life expectancy. In the evenings, I could be found lying in rigid petrification on the living room rug, imagining myself inside a coffin while my parents watched the newscast. It’s possible that I simply associated death with failure in the prevailing context of cutthroat capitalism; after all, I could not be the best, most successful student and person ever if I was dead. At any rate, the peripatetic urges that were to consume me later in life would provide a welcome distraction from morbid fixation.
It was during the period of Zorba and beach confrontations with police that I met Javier, a diminutive near-septuagenarian sporting a modified mullet and old red undershirt, who, installed in a plastic chair by the water, remained unmoved by the exhortations of the forces of law and order. Firm in his spot, he sipped mezcal from a plastic bottle, chain-smoked, and wrote meticulously in a notebook he kept in a large Ziploc bag, itself kept inside a blue-and-gray wool hand-woven bag.
Desperate for some of the permanence and security exuded by this man, I crept over to him one evening after the police had once again chased me off. Javier explained good-naturedly that, while he understood that the cops were simply doing their job, both they and the coronavirus could chingar a su madre. From then on, I pitched my Turkish Airlines blanket next to his chair in the evenings.
Hailing from Cuernavaca in the central Mexican state of Morelos, Javier had been a regular in Zipolite since the famed solar eclipse of 1970, which had coincidentally taken place on my birthday, March 7. Since 1982, coincidentally my birth year, he had owned a small plot of land on a hill, where we would subsequently plant corn, beans, and squash (or rather, where I would get my rustic farming fix by following Javier’s instructions for a few minutes on which seeds to drop in which holes). He also ran a small auto parts shop, called El Sol, which was located across from the soccer field where I conducted morning jinn expulsions and whose most official address was “Autopartes El Sol, across from the soccer field,” as I confirmed during my frantic survey of yerba mate delivery options.
Javier divided his time between Zipolite and Morelos, where his wife, a sociologist, held down the fort, but his scheduled return home in early April had been thwarted on account of the pandemic and the cancellation of his flight. His idea to ride his motorbike instead for more than seven hundred kilometers had been shot down by his sons, both academics in Mexico City, who reminded him of the arbitrary nature of the checkpoint regime and the likelihood of ending up trapped in the middle of nowhere. His wife, for her part, would over the ensuing months grow increasingly unimpressed with his poetic text messages of inmensa gratitud — usually accompanied by his preferred seedling emoji — and narrated cell phone videos of surf and sky.
Javier’s gratitude became ever more immense in accordance with mezcal and marijuana consumption, and he would spend much of the night saluting the stars, moon, and sea — to which he committedly referred in its feminine form, la mar. There was gratitude for all the people who had smiled at him that day, from the young girl on the street to the older woman on the beach with whom he had shared a brief exchange of meteorological predictions to the motorcycle repairman, who had been one of many recipients of unsolicited mango delivery. (As he had recently discovered, randomly gifting people mangoes was an easy way to earn smiles.) There was gratitude for the hummingbird that had visited him as he was watering his bougainvillea, and for AMLO, who was nobly wresting Mexico from the grip of the hijos de la chingada — an undertaking Javier reckoned was even more difficult with one’s mouth covered, leading him to wholeheartedly endorse the presidential aversion to face masks.
Javier was additionally grateful to AMLO for expediting pension payments during the coronavirus crisis — although there were plenty of critics who said the government wasn’t doing nearly enough to facilitate the survival of the most vulnerable Mexicans — and defended the president’s attendance at a mid-pandemic meeting in Washington with Donald Trump to celebrate NAFTA’s new and improved iteration. (At the bilateral July encounter, Trump was commended for uncharacteristically good behavior.) AMLO’s participation, Javier insisted, was not a bout of neoliberal ass-kissing; rather, it was a calculated move to keep the gringos happily distracted and not chingando while he went about reinventing Mexico behind their back.
I myself was also repeatedly on the receiving end of Javier’s thanks — and not only for introducing red wine into the mix of mind-altering substances, which had earned me some lines in the Ziplocked notebook, e.g., “Belén vino, con su vino” (“Belén came, with her wine”). Turning to me with an expression of wonder that the life he had lived had really been his, and as though watching a rerun of it play out in the space between us, Javier would dispense gracias upon gracias for bringing to mind memories he hadn’t thought of in decades — like the time in the 1970s his abuela in Cuernavaca, who had taken in stride his decision to abandon an impending professional soccer career in favor of mushrooms and other activities, had given him a Volkswagen and a blender to go make smoothies in Zipolite. On the drive south from Oaxaca City, the car had flipped and Javier had ended up in a ditch, from which he was extricated by a woman waiting at a bus stop. The moral of the story, according to Javier’s abuela: the woman had been an angel.
The same buoyant optimism applied to his recounting of other episodes, such as the one in which he had sustained a severe head injury falling off a Zipolite rooftop while urinating in the middle of the night. Even the devastating Mexico City earthquake of 1985, for which casualty estimates ranged from horrific to even more horrific, had a bright side, and Javier recalled the human solidarity that had been on display — primarily, he said, among rescue volunteers of the fifteen to twenty-five age range, and excluding the people in the government.
Now, the coronavirus constituted another opportunity for human improvement, and Javier foresaw the cultivation of a better, more just and equitable post-pandemic world that was not managed by hijos de la chingada, although it annoyed him when I asked for the details of how maladies like capitalism and climate change were to be suddenly rectified when capitalism thrived on mass suffering in the first place. Sometimes, his annoyance would abate, and he would admit that our sitting and staring at the sea was perhaps not the most hands-on approach to revolution.
As Javier liked to repeat, he was a great fan of Octavio Paz’s musings on the immeasurable uses of chingar — a “magical word,” Paz writes in The Labyrinth of Solitude. This did not mean that Javier discriminated against other popular Mexican vulgarities. “No mames” was a frequent rebuttal when he’d had enough of my insistence that the world was irreparably shitty; it was also the response to another white chick who approached Javier in my absence and inquired if he was a shaman. “Pinche Javier, estás loco, cabrón” was meanwhile reportedly his response to himself when he awoke at sunrise to find himself curled up next to the remains of a fire he made on the beach the night before. Although Javier was generally mild-mannered even in his effusiveness, my choice of reading materials conditioned me to detect Zorba-esque moments, as when he would break into song or spontaneously perform a headstand.
The arrival of the checkpoint to my front yard was a new occasion for the deployment of Octavio Paz’s magical word and many others. I also managed a Zorba the Greek parallel when, barred from entering my apartment without a mask and shouted at by Toño — the stocky agente municipal carrying out his two-year term as overlord of the village assembly, where the decision had been taken in March to institute the checkpoint regime — I imagined myself the Cretan widow being pursued by the bloodthirsty mob of villagers.
The day was May 11. Sometime around midmorning, I’d heard a ruckus and looked out my window to discover a crowd of civilians and police erecting an encampment of tarps, plastic chairs, water barrels, and coronavirus signage. Still not putting two and two together, I opened the front door to find a thick rope stretched across the road, one end of which was held by a volunteer who cheerfully communicated to me that, following complaints from neighbors down the road, the checkpoint had officially been moved here. My first thought was how, given my lack of curtains, I would now have to wear clothes inside — certainly high up there on the list of global coronavirus tragedies. My second, related, thought was that my life was over.
I ran, disheveled, to the beach, where, sure enough, Javier was ensconced in his plastic chair and had gotten into the mezcal earlier than usual. I dropped my Turkish Airlines blanket next to him, bleating unintelligibly about tarps and ropes and surveillance and captivity. He attempted to execute one of his signature longwinded hugs — complete with sniffing of my neck — before being reminded about social distancing, and I dashed to the water’s edge to stare into oblivion. Once a sufficiently dramatic period of time had elapsed, I returned to Javier, who had resolved to accompany me back to my apartment in order to convey a message to the checkpoint folk: “No chinguen.”