Letter from 16.8000° N, 87.7833° W

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Before you go on vacation, before you swim with hawksbill turtles and a Nassau grouper follows you like it’s a dog, before your parents are diagnosed with cancer in the same month that a billionaire running for president accepts his party’s nomination and further metastasizes into a despairing public consciousness where expertise is measured in volumes of disdain for critics, imagine you’re a person of letters, mostly of the unfinished variety. You fill the first pages of notebooks then set them aside. You own Foucault but have never gone beyond a scattershot reading and feel terrible about this. The terribleness of the feeling makes you want to get rid of your copies of Foucault: A Reader (a good place to begin, you were told), The Order of Things and a third one you can’t find but know you own. You fear their unread presence makes you look like a collector instead of a reader. Like someone who believes proximity to ideas is equivalent to comprehension. The only reason you still have Foucault is keeping Foucault means you could still read Foucault or at the very least have Foucault at your disposal if, in a pinch, you need to quote Foucault to sound sharp, while getting rid of Foucault means you will not only never read Foucault but will be a person who never read Foucault yet easily could have. He was right there. Even now, as you type these words, he is steps away, unread. While it sounds like you have a problem with finishing things, this isn’t the case. Your problem isn’t with finding endings, it’s with beginnings—since they lead to endings. The result is unread Foucault and a life spent in transition. You think this makes you unusual.

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In your own defense, it’s not like you’ve never opened the books. You have. You know Foucault in broad sweeps. (Power is everywhere. Knowledge is power. Identity is mostly a way of imposing constraints on someone. Institutions exist to maintain power for certain people.) But it doesn’t really sink in. Your shame is assuaged by your paraphrasing of someone else’s paraphrasing of the philosopher Maurizio Ferraris: if everything is an expression of power then knowledge is an expression of power, so if power constructs knowledge and knowledge constructs reality then power makes reality. And if power makes reality then any reality claiming a basis in knowledge is an expression of power, thus making that reality malleable, which makes facts irrelevant and should at a minimum allow you to conclude that you don’t have to actually read Foucault to know what it means.

By you, I don’t mean you. But you know that.

I was a teacher. Past tense is key. For several years I taught argument, which is to say I taught how to use and not abuse language, how to spot when others did so. It was either an ideal or terrible background for the next job, teaching writing in a program designed for students who’d been deemed unprepared but possessing something the university wanted. That something: athletic ability, musical ability or “assisting with the university’s diversity initiatives.” The muddying of qualities attained through desire with the stuff we’re born into or have dumped upon us felt as poorly considered as the criteria for selection: a low standardized test score. Still, I figured I could be a “force for good.”

It was exhausting and draining; late one night—or early one morning—I turned vampire and, set again to devouring myself, sunk my own fangs into my own flesh and withdrew the last of what I knew to be true, leaving behind nothing to sustain me when, again, tired and gaunt the next morning, I expressed my deep disappointment with a room of eighteen-year olds who’d done not a lick of the assigned reading. They responded, as if to help guide a lost old man back to the retirement home, that they hadn’t because…they hadn’t.

“You need to punish us,” said one. I tried to lecture about motivation and locus of control and the danger of being incapable of self-induced movement. You want punishment? No need to ask for it. Its arrival is the only guarantee any of us have. I wasn’t wrong but pedagogically, and tonally, the moment wasn’t top shelf and, at a point when jobs were precious, after teaching the class for three years I turned down the offer to renew my teaching contract. I didn’t offer much of an explanation but the program director said he understood.

*

Drift. Loss. These are the words that come to mind. As do my more successful friends who were kind enough to name their pets after characters from The Wire and listen to Wayne Shorter so I might have something to point to that wasn’t their careers, their beautiful families, their seemingly effortless happiness that made my mantra to commit, to work, to be serious into the chanting of a lunatic circling a house with increasing rapidity, knocking, scratching and digging in the garden for hidden keys or a fist-sized rock in the shape of half-finished ideas of uncertain merit. The way I explained it to a woman I’ll call Maria, who I thought might have been my girlfriend, was that I had the silver medalist’s complex; a history of second places traceable all the way back to second grade when I’d lost a contest to design a poster for a school book club because, said the art teacher, I’d misspelled a word and she’d felt it unethical to tell me to fix it. Maria didn’t ask who won, but I told her. The vice principal’s son. He’d doodled Kilroy reading a book, his flaccid proboscis flopped over its cover. It was plagiarism as far as I was concerned, a much more egregious ethical breach than suggesting a correction, not to mention anatomically impossible. He would go to Yale.

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“Did you really just tell me that story?”

Yes, I told her, I had.

“You should be more like Daredevil.”

“I’m committed,” I said, pulling my complaints from the same catalog everyone else ordered from. A mix of want and need. Wanting life to be easier and hating that desire. Life, to paraphrase the words of a friend more solid than I, is about trying to do something meaningful in the company of those you care about, and who care about you. It drove me mad for its simplicity and its truth, and its presence in a book ushered into being by one of the planet’s largest publishers. It was to philosophy what the paleo diet is to nutrition, but that didn’t mean it was wrong any more than it meant it was easy to attain. At least with the paleo diet I knew where to find the things on the list. My resentment, in this rare instance, was diminished by learning the people who ate the original paleo diet died long before reaching my age. None of which hid that I was resentful in the ways everyone feels resentful. I felt wronged and unlucky and confused and lacking the secret handshake or treasure map or magic decoder ring at the bottom of the cereal box. I’d developed the unsightly habit of beginning sentences with “The world is” and finishing them with “indifferent,” which was both accurate and precious. Of course it is. Inevitably, I reached the event horizon of self-sabotage and resented my resentment.

*

At a debutante ball where old men dressed like ship captains escorted princesses to a stage, I was told I needed to get moving. They meant on a career and marriage and children. I said I didn’t ascribe to temporal realities. They gave me space.

It wasn’t my usual scene. I was a guest of a father and stepmother I rarely saw. I needed a haircut. The tuxedo was a rental.

“I teach,” I said to the seventh person to ask what I did. It had once been true and “indifferent dilettante” is less a profession than a diagnosis.

“I had a friend who did that, I think. She said it was very challenging given the breakdown of the traditional family. What do you teach?”

“Sex ed. It’s a how-to class, like shop.”

She drifted away. An hour later, in line for ice cream sundaes, she asked if we’d met. I told her we hadn’t, my name was Vern and I worked in finance.

“Like the plant?” she asked.

I sent Maria a text message telling her the story. The ice cream sundaes convinced her I was at a birthday party for a ten-year old. I’d yet to tell her, or anyone, I’d quit. So I might fix myself.

The next time I saw her, I spilled it.

“It’s a good thing we aren’t dating,” she said, and went back to Daredevil.

*

It was around that time I bought dog food from a woman made to dress in a zookeeper’s outfit. She was a year or two older than my students and, presuming me lost, had trailed me into the fish room where I’d wandered with a fifty-pound bag of food for the weight-conscious dog of a certain age.

I told the zookeeper I was just looking and had ditched my tank.

“Freshwater or salt?”

She approved of my answer as she was opposed to marine aquaria, most saltwater fish being wild-caught. “I’m a total fish nerd,” she said. What sounded like an unnecessary apology was an introduction to her life plan. She had it mapped out. Pile up her pre-requisites at a less-expensive community college then transfer to a state university where she could major in marine biology. “I want to go down south. The Amazon. Central America. Belize.”

I’d been, seven years earlier, with another ex. It all came back. How we’d fought, how I’d overturned our canoe after misjudging a wave and she drank so much she threw up while snorkeling. We’d talked about moving there and working to save the manatees and probably would have if we’d been totally different people who liked each other.

Once home from the pet store, I wrote “Tourism” on a piece of paper and drew an arrow from it to the word “Community;” under these two words I added “Aquarium” and an arrow to “Ocean.” The arrows pointed the way: most of the earth’s surface is not designed for us. We are on the margins of the real planet and it is rising to find us. I thought it wise to again make its acquaintance, to stay on friendly terms, and flew to Miami and then Belize City. A ten-seat hopper floated six of us forty-five minutes south over forest speckled with pale green squares and rectangles of land razed for farming. My companions were strangers: large and pale. I sat in a bucket seat in the rear. It had been years since I’d been genuinely happy. I didn’t know why I was bothering with anything at all and resolved to stay until I’d either answered the question or stopped asking.

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That first night in Placencia I fell in with three Canadians who I suspected saw my primary value as someone with whom they could share their admiration of the little fishing village being rebuilt into a delightful getaway, a respite, a photo-op with seaweed shakes, lattes, yoga studios. I explained my presence as driven by a need for time and left it at that, believing it made me sound mysterious, and possibly on the lam. They couldn’t have been less intrigued. I was consoled by street burritos and walks by empty beach palaces and sun and wind-beaten shanties renovated into an Italian restaurant, an ice cream shop and bars.

The village didn’t have a road until 1986. That one was dirt and flooded frequently. The population was under 300 and there were ten hotels. Thirty years later, 1500 people would live amid 104 hotels, none owned by Belizeans and the dirt road would be a single lane of blacktop slipping past plank houses on stilts and concrete grocery stores with intermittent electricity. Elaborately lettered signs promised jungle river tours, manatees and monkeys. Conch shells delineated property lines, traveling in bleached bone white lines along windowsills and invented sidewalks. Lobster and conch, these were the things you were meant to eat. Conch was out of season; lobster was not. Without them, none of this would be here.

Economists explain what’s happened in Placencia with dependency theory, the idea that colonialism created overly specialized economies that merged with local customs and culture to function in ways designed to satisfy imperial appetites. It’s a dispassionate way of saying their neighbors to the north wanted conch and lobster and since Belizeans in Placencia didn’t have much else to sell and less to provide for themselves, fishermen trapped, netted and plucked their conch and lobsters from the ocean floor. When the supply of conchs and lobsters shrank, tourism followed. There are papers on all this. Studies. You can look them up. People like me were there because they had nothing left to sell but laconic breezes and sunsets. Because we ate their food. Once you know this, conch shells look like skulls.

In the hotel room, a flat screen television had replaced the old tube television I’d been pleased to discover only had audio and ghostly orange blobs for a picture. Because it was now an option, I turned on a cable news channel. A debonair and prematurely gray anchor stared at an orange head not unlike the orange blobs on the old television. The next day, I signed up for a trip on a pearl-colored dive boat with the Canadians, an accountant from Washington, D.C. and his Brazilian girlfriend. Down we went. A parrotfish. A hawksbill turtle. A truck-sized grouper. Of the swim, a Canadian said, “The ocean was such a beautiful shade of blue today.” Everyone concurred. The Brazilian woman, a marine scientist, emerged distraught and refused to re-enter the water on the next dive saying the reef was dying, choked by sand and algae. The dive-master, an enthusiastic, plump-cheeked Belizean woman confirmed the diagnosis. Where, I asked, was it healthier? She pointed out to sea.

*

I slept in a dormitory on stilts beside a green river. The only other occupant was an Australian tour guide who had closed up shop for a few months so he might float around Central America. In the morning, a catamaran loaded with a dozen or so five-gallon water jugs, boxes of food and nine tourists plowed twenty-eight miles offshore to a nine-acre atoll called Glover’s Reef on a twenty mile-long oval encircling over six-hundred patch reefs. A UNESCO World Heritage site and marine reserve partially closed to fishing, it is one of the last remaining spawning sites for the Nassau grouper, a thick-bodied fish with buff stripes upon a brown body that camouflage it like bands of pale coral against shadow. Its place as one of eight groupers on the World Conservation Union’s endangered species list is due in part to its tendency to approach, and inspect, swimming humans.

A year later, asked when it was I last remember being truly happy, I will say these five days on a hump of sand thick with palm trees and overrun by hermit crabs. I will think of the feeling of being submerged and weightless, because pretty much all I did was dive thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred feet down to where nurse sharks snaked over reef walls and schools of jacks flashed in silvered mirrors amid blue reef fish slipping in waterfalls over barrel coral. A half dozen hawksbill turtles. A Nassau grouper that followed us like a dog as we swam a reef wall, lobster antennae fluttering from its open maw, evidence of a recent meal. Purple fantail corals, stingrays, snapper, grouper, barracuda. After each dive I emerged to catalog the sights with the Aussie and a British couple and, with increasing frequency, a New Zealander named Roma who had an endearing habit of performing slow, lazy backwards somersaults at the end of a dive. As both a gypsy ethnicity and an anagram for unplanned travel, her name was so appropriate for an itinerate backpacker I debated whether to ask if it was given or chosen and decided I liked both possibilities too much to risk eliminating either one.

In common cause, we united against two American couples, one from Georgia, the other from Las Vegas. The Georgians, as the Brits called them, weren’t so bad except he performed naked yoga outside in the early hours. Underwater, both grabbed at whatever was within reach, putting their heads inside barrel coral as if bobbing for apples, or giant toddlers pawing through a toy chest, an ecological faux pas, destructive and foolish. Very American, in Roma’s estimation. No matter where she traveled, my fellow citizens could be counted on to be the ones who had to examine whatever there was to see at the closest range possible.

Unless you were an inhabitant of the reef, the Georgians were modest embarrassments compared to the family from Las Vegas. Referred to as The American Family, the mother worked in real estate, vaped constantly, and had met her husband at a concert for the country singer Clint Black, who she believed he resembled, with the bonus of a soul patch. Her first act upon arrival was to ask the park rangers on duty to carry her family’s luggage and booze-filled cooler to the thatch hut they’d rented on the water. They left their two little boys in the care of whoever happened to be in the vicinity before embarking on evening benders back at the hut. I was sitting on the porch of another dormitory on stilts talking to Roma and the Aussie one night when he ambled up with two fingers of rum left in the bottle, sat down and told us what it was like to manage a casino restaurant. What it’s like is: hard.

With a rapidity that is only possible in compressed experiences, the Brits, the Aussie and the Kiwi and myself united in opposition to the Georgians and The American Family. For the rest of the week, they injected a sense of joyous outrage into each day. Without them, I doubt I’d still be in contact with the Brits, the Aussie and Roma. I envied their willingness to express their quest for happiness in identifiable and achievable actions and acquisitions almost as much as I appreciated that, without them, we’d have lacked the means to reveal ourselves as better people.

The last day on Glover’s Reef, I tagged along with the dive-master and Jeff, the owner’s son, on his daily spearfishing run. A chubby blonde fellow in his early twenties who spoke rarely, but with a Caribbean lilt when he did, my guess was he’d invited me along as a repayment to my lending of a cell phone charger during one of the hours when the generator had functioned, a recharging of batteries being the international gesture of goodwill. The dive-master plowed the skiff out past the no-fishing zone and left us to bob in the swells. We were no longer on an island. We were, at best, a loose set of coordinates. For most of my life, water has been a comfort, but rising and falling in the current, I wanted the boat to be a little closer. Pride and common sense dictated I snorkel alongside Jeff until, with a few languid kicks, he dove to the edges of visibility, fired the spear gun, pulled on the line, swam after it, then dropped the gun and rose to the surface.

“Swam under a rock,” he said.

“How deep?”

“Seventy.”

“Oh,” I said, spitting water. “Shit.”

He took a long breath and rolled into a pike. I lost sight of him within seconds. A minute passed, then another. With each wave, I kicked to the height of the crest looking for the boat, which I had somehow lost. Or it had lost me. The chain of responsibility was unclear. I could see the island. That was good. I could swim back. I did not want to swim back. Also, I did not want Jeff to drown. I dove and swam as deep as I could, flashing briefly to an image of myself hauling Jeff’s limp form, spear gun and fish to the surface where I’d perform CPR in the boat and stand in the bow as we returned to land, squinting into the wind with heroic gravitas. I looked up. The long diver flippers had pushed me deeper than I wanted to be. This information adjusted my assessment of my role in the situation. Jeff was, obviously, a professional who knew what he was doing. I’d probably just missed his ascent.

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I hadn’t, Jeff’s rise was slower than I’d expected and, after rolling onto his back on the surface to rest, he pulled at the black line arrowing into the blue. With the line rose a snapper as long as my arm, a brick-red fish mottling to black at the end of the spear, resisted by the water in its ascent, and spinning like hands on a clock. Place and time jumbled into an inseparable mass. It was time to leave, time to go home. To what I did not know but would become: a harvesting of stem cells, bags of red gelatinous fluid, needles in bellies, trials based in research that upsets certain politicians and, purportedly, God. To a body opened up scraped clean. To blasts from a chemical found half a decade ago in the bark of the Pacific Yew tree and synthesized from its needles into what became one of the most widely used cancer drugs ever produced. To exhaustion. To waiting. But not only that. To a retrieving of a misplaced voice. To an embracing of risk. To an idea Foucault might agree with. Human nature, like knowledge and notions of justice, none of it is innate. Anything created is learned and anything learned can be unlearned. When and how we depart is rarely up to us but we can live however we wish. In isolation. In fear. In flashes of admiration of our cumulative ability to see and love one another. In proximity to ideas, or within them. In distractions: hobbies, work. In the inspiring or terrifying behavior of other members of our species. We can even do what should be impossible and breathe air seventy feet below the ocean’s surface. For a while.

The catamaran, loaded with smiling, sun-kissed tourists, left at nine a.m.

All photographs taken by Steve McNutt.

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About Author

Steve McNutt lives in Iowa City, Iowa. He is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa where he received his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture. His work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and appeared in the Iowa Review, The Millions, Knee Jerk, The Morning News, The Burnside Review and on WSUIs (Iowa) Weekend Edition, among other places. A novel-in-progress, The Animal Lovers, was a finalist for the 2016 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. For more, see www.stevemcnutt.com.

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