Rachel squinted, trying to turn the pile of limestone rocks into the sanctuary the tour guide said it was, and sighed. It looked nothing more than a pile of gray rock threaded with green vines and brown tree roots to her. How did the trees survive with their roots all exposed like that? she wondered.
She fanned herself, uselessly, with her hand. She should be lounging next to the pool or strolling down the beach. That’s why they came to Mexico. To take a break, relax. But Will just had to see the Mayan ruins. Not Chichen Itza, the famous one with the pyramid everyone on her Instagram feed would recognize. This place, whose name she could not remember, with its jungle-choked limestone outlines and piles.
She pushed her sunglasses up her sweaty nose and tried again to pay attention to the tour guide, a stout Mexican of Mayan ancestry dressed in a white shirt and white pants with a turquoise beaded belt who spoke English precisely, as if translating word by word as he spoke. Miguel, his humidity-curled name tag said.
“In the Mayan language, the word Coba means ‘water stirred by wind,’ a reference to the two lagoons the ancient city is situated around,” said Miguel. Coba. That’s the name of this place, remembered Rachel as a tickle of sweat rolled down her back.
“At its height, an estimated 50,000 Mayans lived in Coba,” Miguel’s staccato continued. “Sanctuaries like this one played an important role …”
A woman next to her coughed. Rachel flinched and shuffled sideways, not that there was anywhere to go. The dense, tangled foliage pressed in all around, obscuring everything but the gravel path on which the crowded tour group was standing. She glanced over at Will. She couldn’t see his eyes under his floppy army green sunhat, but she could tell by the set of his chin and the way he crossed his arms — one across his chest, the other one resting on the crossed arm, his index finger up to his lips — that he was actually interested in all this.
“It’s just an hour drive inland,” he’d said to her yesterday at the resort’s buffet dinner, holding out the brochure from the front desk. “It’ll be fun.”
Trekking through the jungle sounded anything but fun, but she knew if she went along, it would be it easier to beg off tomorrow, or the next day, when he would undoubtedly have found some other tour to drag her along on. We did your thing, honey. Then she could zone out to the swoosh of the Caribbean Sea rolling turquoise over the white sand.
Any minute now, she knew, he’d grab his camera from his backpack, aim its bulky lens at the pile of rocks, seeing something she couldn’t.
She crossed her arms and tried again to picture what the crumbling limestone might have looked like fourteen hundred years ago.
All she saw was rubble.
Will kept his eyes glued to Miguel. He knew if he looked at Rachel, the boredom on her face would infuriate him.
He focused instead on Miguel’s explanation of Mayan daily life. Will touched on Pre-Columbian art and architecture in the art history survey course he taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and had always found the rise and mysterious decline of the Maya fascinating. Walking through the ruins of their biggest city, seeing everything they’d built, he felt a stab of sadness in his chest. Such a solid foundation should have ensured longevity.
He knew Rachel wasn’t interested in all this. History didn’t hold her attention. She was focused on the future, the cutting edge, the what’s next, a social media strategist endlessly job-hopping as she followed the hottest trends. He wanted to see if she’d go, if she could spend an afternoon doing something he wanted to do. The way she used to, back when he didn’t seem to annoy her so much. When their differences were exciting, and they’d talk and talk for hours or just hold each other in easy silence.
To avoid looking at her, he crouched down next to the stacked limestone and brought his camera up. The sunlight filtering through the thick trees above dappled the gray stones, creating nice depth. He snapped wide shots, close-ups, as many angles as he could find. He could always throw a few of them in his class presentation.
Miguel waved his arms, shuffling the group to the next site. A ballcourt. Central to Mayan life, Miguel explained. Games lasted two weeks and captain of the winning team was honored with decapitation. Miguel waited with a practiced patience as he let his group soak this in. “Now, why would they do this? This game was a religious event, and Mayans believed the sacrifice to the gods was necessary to ensure their survival.” He shrugged. “We live in different times now, yes?”
Will glanced at Rachel, wondering if this had caught her attention. But she’d drifted away from the group and was looking closely at something near the ground. Could it be she was interested in something?
Will walked over to her.
Rachel crouched down to get a closer look at the exposed tree root she’d just tripped over. The root arched up into the air as it climbed over all the other exposed tree roots snaking across the ground. Rachel frowned. Roots were supposed to be buried. Not exposed for all to see. She looked up. The tree that towered over her was, to her inexpert eye, green and healthy. It didn’t make sense.
She heard Will’s voice behind her. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing.” She stood up. “We should catch up to the group.”
Will shrugged. “Okay.”
They walked side by side back to the tour group. Rachel tried to take a deep breath, but the moldy air frustrated her lungs. She dragged her wrist across her sweaty forehead, fanned herself with her hand again. It didn’t help.
Will leaned in. “Are you okay?”
Rachel’s jaw clamped shut. The only thing worse than being dragged along on a stifling jungle tour when she was supposed to be on a relaxing vacation, was Will asking her yet again if she was okay. Yes, she was okay. And no, she wasn’t okay. But neither answer ever satisfied him. It infuriated her. She’d blame it on all the hormones racing through her body, erasing what had only just begun. But the miscarriage had happened five months ago. She was pretty sure the physical part of it was over.
“I’m fine,” she snapped.
Will’s eyes narrowed, his face muscles tensed, like he had something to say, but didn’t want to get into it now. Well, he shouldn’t have asked then.
He walked off, camera in hand, distracted by some bit of stone. Rachel glared at his back.
Will struggled to keep his camera steady as he snapped random photos in an attempt to calm himself down. It was a technique he used, when a student was giving him trouble or he’d had a day when no one seemed to pay attention to the lecture he’d carefully prepared. Return to the images. The paintings, the palaces, the pictures. Commune with the artist.
It was why he dropped his fine art photography major for art history. Art history let him take a wide view of art, put it all in broad context. How others interpreted the world was more interesting to him than how he did. And it had a path — teaching. Photography required hacking his own path. He was too practical for that.
He was at an opening for one of his former students, an up-and-coming street photographer, when he met Rachel. She was managing the event’s social media campaign. She was different from anyone he’d met before. Fast-paced, always going, she had a VIP pass to every social event in town. She got him out of his house, out of his routine, introduced him to a whole new world of people and ideas and activities. He found himself picking up his camera again, for the first time in years.
When she told him she was pregnant, he’d bought her a ring that same day. She’d said yes with happy tears in her hazel eyes. Just weeks later, the tears in her hazel eyes were not happy. He’d been crushed by the news, too. But she didn’t seem to be interested in how he was feeling about it.
Rachel flinched at the ceaseless clicking coming from Will’s camera. He didn’t care at all that she didn’t want to be here.
He used to care. He was a homebody at heart, but he went to all the openings and art crawls and brewery tours with her anyway, even seemed to enjoy himself. And he gave her a reason to stay in sometimes. She discovered she liked the occasional quiet weekend, watching a movie on Will’s couch. He had a nice couch, a nice little 1920s bungalow with just the right amount of art on the walls to make it interesting but not overwhelming. Just like him. There was a restraint, and a depth, to Will that made her usual crowd seem loud and shallow. She worried she was loud and shallow too, and that Will would figure that out eventually
She tried to be more like him, reading the New Yorker instead of InStyle. When her period was late, and then the stick turned pink, she was terrified to tell him. Only an airhead would forget to take her birth control pills. This would unmask her once and for all. But he proposed, bought her a lovely vintage ring. And he began crafting their future together as artfully as he’d crafted his home.
He had to blame her for the miscarriage. How could he not? The weekend she conceived was a haze of concerts and drinking and partying to celebrate the release of her friend’s new EP, followed by back-to-back weekends of wine-soaked gallery openings. Only an airhead would be so careless. Thanks to the lovely vintage ring currently slipping around her sweaty finger, he was stuck. Obligated. But he was too nice to be honest and walk away.
Behind that camera, he was hating her. And she hated him for that.
“The most important feature of Coba is not the buildings. The most important feature is this.” Miguel paused to point to an elevated stretch of limestone. “The sacbeob, or white roads. The Mayans built many sacbeob, linking all the surrounding settlements to the city center. They were called white roads because they were topped with white limestone. White limestone glows in the moonlight, helping travelers to find their way at night. A little Mayan magic.” Miguel chuckled and rubbed his hands together. “The white roads are most important because they connected the people of Coba.”
Will stared at the remains of the white road, his camera forgotten in his right hand, as the group moved on.
Rachel stared, her mouth hanging open. She hadn’t expected such a sight, jumping out of the jungle.
“When people think of Mayan ruins, they all think Chichen Itza, yes?” smiled Miguel. The group murmured around him. “Well, our pyramid here at Coba is even taller.” He gestured to the hulking gray stone pyramid behind him. “It is called Ixmoja, and yes, you can climb it. There are one hundred and twenty steps. From the top, you can see for miles, all the way to the sea. But be careful. It’s very steep.”
Miguel began explaining the ceremonial aspects of the pyramid. Rachel watched tourists crawl up the crumbling blocks, growing smaller the higher they went. Heights made her nervous. But she wanted out of this hot, inscrutable tangle. She left the group and crossed the dusty, foot-packed clearing to the base of the pyramid.
She put her hand on the bottom stone block. It was solid, warm. She stepped up.
Wow, she actually wants to do something. Will jogged to catch up to Rachel.
Rachel climbed. Up and up and up. The stone blocks narrowed as she near the top, and she had to step sideways. The sun burned hot on her back and neck. Sweat dripped down her nose and she gulped in air.
Rachel looked a little unsteady. Will stayed a couple of stone blocks underneath her. He didn’t know what he could do if she stumbled, but at least he could try to break her fall.
Rachel pulled herself up over the top and straightened up on her shaking legs, bracing herself against the buffeting winds. She was so high, it was like standing in the sky.
Then she looked down.
Ixmoja was steep.
Her vision spun, and her stomach looped. She tried to step back to safety, but her feet wouldn’t move. The front edge of her white flip-flops, her red-painted toes, hung over the edge of the top block. Panic raced through her veins.
God, she’s gonna fall. Will hurried up the last few stone blocks. But he stopped short of grabbing her arm and pulling her back. He didn’t want to startle her.
She wouldn’t want his help anyway. Everything he did to try to help since the miscarriage she slapped away. He felt like she was daring him to call off the engagement. But he didn’t want that. He’d proposed because he wanted to marry her, not the situation.
“Rachel?” he said, tentative.
He held his breath as she looked over her shoulder at him. Tears flooded her hazel eyes. “How will we ever get down from here?”
Will let his breath out and smiled. “We made it up. We’ll make it down. One stone block at a time.”
Will had rescued her, the night they’d met, from that hipster jerk who couldn’t take a hint. Will had smiled at her, asked her what she thought of the photography. The way he was smiling at her right now. She’d leaned into him that night, so relieved.
Her spinning vision slowed.
Will hesitated. Rachel was still standing at the edge, but she wasn’t shaking anymore. He took a step closer to her.
Rachel could feel Will behind her. She stepped back and took in the wide view.
Gazing out over the canopy, vast and green and growing even with all those exposed roots, she could see now the jungle wasn’t as impenetrable as it had seemed when she was walking through it. There were clearings here and there, where the tallest temples stood, and stretches where the white roads cut through. Mounds of unexcavated rock peeked above the trees in places, waiting to be unearthed and understood. And there, on the horizon, the blue line of the sea.
Rachel relaxed and leaned into Will.
Far below, Miguel waved, signaling it was time to move on. She let Will take the lead as they worked their way down, one block at a time.