Zoe found out about the turtle restoration project online in September once she began to emerge from her post graduation funk and couldn't stand being around her parents one more day. By November she had enough money saved up from her job at a doctor's office to fly away from the leafless trees and the weak New England sun. Now, sipping a cerveza on the porch of the project's research station at the intersection of the Pacific Ocean and the tropical rainforest, she knew she had done the right thing for herself and the sea turtles whose eggs she came to protect.
The other volunteers played Hearts while various flying insects of the evening hit the screens with soft taps. Zoe swayed in the hammock. Never had she felt so enclosed or surrounded, maybe even defined by the natural environment. Constantly damp, she was at home here with the macaws and sea turtles, lizards and scorpions. She liked listening to the sounds produced by animals she couldn't see. The cicadas made a low thrumming hum, the fruit bats hunted using a sort of electronic noise and the howler monkeys declared their territory with a booming hoarse bark as if they were giant dogs. This was all real, not a tropical dream, a part of her that she could keep. The kids in the village next to the station were her friends; she was getting to know some of their moms. She had already changed and when she returned to the states she would be different from the Zoe who had left. More like the earlier Zoe who kept polliwogs in jars and red eared turtles in little aquariums.
Really the only problem was her stomach. She hoped that the banana and two spoonfuls of rice she ate for dinner would stay down. By midnight she was leaning on the toilet, her cheek against the cool lid. Everyone who slept in the station could hear her vomiting. Alexa's face appeared like a moon above her.
"You've got to see a doctor," Alexa said. "Jared will take you. He has to pick up supplies anyway." Alexa was the station manager and she wasn't hiding her annoyance which seemed unfair. Zoe hadn't eaten anything from a roadside stand. She hadn't drunk unbottled water. Yet ever since the bus ride a week ago now, she hadn't felt one hundred per cent.
In the relative cool of the early morning, she and Jared rode in the station's only vehicle, a rusted out GMC truck with a cracked windshield. The two of them had hardly spoken to each other since the day she arrived. Jared surfed and spent a lot of time in a hammock drawing cartoons in his journal. She guessed he was verbally challenged. They drove for half an hour in silence before he asked, "You think its morning sickness?" He swerved to avoid a washout, and a tree branch grazed her cheek through the open window. Zoe already had a bruise on her arm from bouncing against the door handle of the truck during one of these swerves.
The possibility lurked as a hypothesis. She and Matt had broken up and gotten back together three times at least since graduation. By early fall Zoe had decided that Matt who hadn't graduated but had a band, was a hopeless pothead. She was sick of having a boyfriend, sick of being stoned. The medical journals that arrived at the doctor's office got her brain working again, got her in touch with her scientific self. This reawakening of intellectual curiosity propelled her into the final break up with Matt.
But then they were at the same Halloween party, she was a sea turtle as a matter of fact. He was a pirate. Both of them shy about meeting new people, they slept together for old time's sake. She bit her lip, trying to remember the details. She'd stopped taking the pill, but Matt must have used a condom. Anyway she had had a period since then. Covered in perspiration, Zoe reconsidered the splotchy flow that she didn't think much about because she was busy getting ready for this trip. Could she be so out of touch with her own body?
The truck tilted forward suddenly and Jared swung his arm across her chest to protect her from sliding into the peeling vinyl dashboard. Zoe observed that her breasts were not tender. The truck had forded several gullies, but none this wide, and the front tires sank in the soft mud. Jared got out and sunk a little too.
"Want me to push?" Zoe offered standing on the running board, her foot poised in midair. It was odd sharing this intimate experience with someone she didn't know.
"Not in your condition." Jared wedged a thick branch under one tire. He had swollen red bites on his arms; his shorts and tank top were smeared with mud. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the same dirty blue rag he used when he met her at the little town where she got off the second bus last week. The sun had just come out and huge puddles covered the road. The salmon colored hibiscus perfumed the dense air and invisible monkeys chattered up in the canopy. She had had to cross a river between buses, so unbelievable, and she, her duffle, and backpack were all dripping wet, but she was buzzing with the accomplishment of traveling so far by herself.
Smelly and sunburned, Jared had seemed like such a slacker.
"You speak Spanish, right?" he asked while he threw her duffle into the truck bed.
"I thought that was a requirement," she answered. Something red, a macaw maybe, flashed through the branches of the trees.
"Was it?" Jared laughed. "Along with knowing how to surf?"
"Along with an interest in marine biology or third world ecology."
"It's just counting turtles."
"So I'm the only one teaching English to the village kids."
"And their moms and dads."
A ten minute ride through the jungle and they arrived at the station, a ramshackle building that seemed to be constructed of screens and orange crates, and a few smaller cinderblock structures set on a bluff above the sea. The beach curved around a bay and the jungle curved around the beach and it all looked absolutely beautiful.
The mostly young women and men eating at the palapa shaded table all shouted, "Buenas Dias" and "Viva Las Tortugas." They held up bananas as if they were toasting her with champagne glasses. A futbol field extended from the south side of the station to the village.
The project offered volunteers a choice of housing, in the research station or in the home of a local family. Aiming for total immersion in the culture, Zoe had asked to live with a family. She wanted to experience dirt floors, outhouses, and frijoles. Roosters crowing at dawn, skinny dogs scrounging for bones. She wanted to speak Spanish as much as possible. In the event, she was assigned an alcove in the womens'dorm on the second floor of the station where Alexa, the sisters Crystal and Kayla, and the retired teacher from France slept.
The following night she and Alexa patrolled one sector of the beach while two of the guys monitored the sector favored by poachers. Zoe, who had laid awake almost suffocating underneath the mosquito net in her little alcove and listening to the French woman snore, trudged along the soft sand like a zombie. The air clung to her skin like a warm washcloth and the urge to lie down was hard to resist. She bumped into Alexa who stopped next to a whorl of tracks that looked like a fat bicycle had done a few wheelies in the sand. "A nest,' Alexa said. "Possibly."
"Oh," Zoe said, pointing toward the sea. "Olive Ridley, isn't it? Although it looks a little like a Hawksbill too." A turtle with a beaked head and greenish shell the size of a garbage can cover made its way through the surf.
"Too small for a Hawksbill." Alexa shone her flashlight at the object bobbing in the dark water five hundred feet away. "It looks like she's tagged. Can you tell?"
"Well, she's left us in charge now. Entrusted us with a sacred duty—well not sacred, but, you know, a responsibility."
"Wouldn't they stick around if we weren't here?" Zoe wanted to keep things scientific. She burped and then swallowed something icky that had risen in her throat.
"They're not mammals." Alexa's tone was distracted rather than condescending. She scanned the sand with her flashlight.
"I'm gonna throw up." Zoe scooted away from the nest toward the vegetation bordering the beach.
"You can't do that here, you know. Too close to the ocean."
Zoe's nose and eyes ran and she shuddered involuntarily. She didn't think vomit was as environmentally hazardous as shit but she didn't argue, sensing that Alexa held her responsible for their failure to tag or at least measure the mother turtle. She stood up and kicked some sand over her mess. Alexa had pulled a measuring tape out of her backpack and two pairs of latex gloves. They were about to begin the process of transporting the eggs to the safety of the hatchery, an enclosed area of sand divided into squares, on a bluff above the beach.
They had to poke around very carefully in the sand to find the hollow space above the nest, and they handled the eggs gently so as not to rub off the protective slime deposited by the mother. Zoe measured the depth of the nest, and then counted while Alexa placed the eggs which looked like ping pong balls in a plastic bag. As she counted, she reflected on her situation. She concluded, after recalling a lecture her doctor boss gave to his staff about fevers and the ways the body rids itself of toxins, that her body must be purging itself of bad microbes or exotic bacteria.
Now in the truck with her thighs glued to the hot seat, she watched Jared squish a bug against his neck, and was ashamed of her conclusion. A baby or rather an embryo wasn't a toxin. It wasn't a bad microbe.
Jared climbed back into the truck and put it in reverse. The tires gripped onto the little pallets of branches he'd rather ingeniously put together, and the truck inched out of the mud.
"We used a condom," Zoe hadn't meant to say this out loud. "I could have appendicitis."
"Condoms don't always work."
"Do you want me to be pregnant?" She was annoyed that Jared wouldn't consider other possibilities.
"Jesus," Jared muttered, keeping his eyes on the road.
Right after their Halloween sex Zoe wished she hadn't done it.
"Don't take this the wrong way," she'd said as she lay underneath her brown and green painted cardboard shell which she was using as a blanket. Matt wore only his eye patch.
"Should we make one of those promises that if we haven't found anyone else by the time we're thirty, we'll marry each other?" His question made Zoe cry because maybe he was the only man who would love her.
As she and Jared continued, jostling along like they were in a stage coach, Zoe touched her stomach and tried to imagine a grouping of cells like the red blob she sometimes found in the organic eggs her mom bought. She hadn't spent much time around kids before this turtle project although she liked them. She couldn't even remember thinking about having any.
"How much farther?" she asked Jared.
Out of the jungle, the road widened into two lanes and was partially paved. More tin roofed houses encumbered with telephone lines and satellite dishes appeared. The hospital kept getting closer and she could no longer avoid thinking about the exam, the doctors and nurses all speaking Spanish, all disapproving of this unmarried Americana. If she tested positive, she'd have to change her return ticket immediately and call her parents. She would disappoint Isa, a child from the village whose family had great plans for her brother Silvario's birthday party. They had hidden a Sponge Bob piñata in her little sleeping alcove along with all the birthday cards written in English. Zoe would have to leave just when everything was starting to jell.
"We're almost there," Jared said. "Okay if I drop you off at the hospital? I'll go to the building supply place and the market and come back. Save us some time." He kept his eyes on the road, and Zoe couldn't speak.
Matt had sent her a video of the band playing a song he wrote.
"I see you baby everywhere I go. The shards of glass underneath my toes,
Keep me dancing; keep me moving, mirrors breaking all I know."
He sent her this after she broke up with him the last time but before Halloween and she kept it, partly because she didn't know what it meant. Although she kind of did know. She and Matt had grown up together, having sex for the first time with each other, getting stoned for the first time—well, Zoe's first time—together, and renting a motel room once. It made sense in a way to have a piece of him inside her.
Jared stopped in front of a white washed building with bougainvillea covered walls. It looked like a decent hospital. "United Fruit Company built it," Jared said. He was waiting for her to get out. Zoe sat still.
"I'd go in with you, but look at me," Jared said. "And I don't speak Spanish."
He was making excuses, trying to hide his embarrassment and for a moment she was furious with him and with all of them, all men.
On the second floor of the hospital she couldn't think of the word for pregnant and used a combination of Spanish and hand motions to communicate to the nurse at the obstetric clinic. The other women, a real mixture of ages, sitting in the wooden chairs along the corridor regarded her with friendly curiosity before resuming their conversations. Pressing her hand against her mouth, Zoe looked for a door with a Mujeres sign. Dashing into the bathroom, she didn't notice at first the splotches of blood on the floor. She vomited into the stopped up toilet and felt a light splash against her forehead.
After a very young nurse who apologized each time she missed the vein, extracted blood from her, Zoe joined the others in the hallway. The seat of her chair was gouged and splintery. Children sat on the floor next to their mothers. The pretty woman next to her asked, "Suo primero?" and pointed to her belly. Zoe always welcomed the opportunity to speak Spanish. On the buses, she had struck up long conversations with both men and women about the turtle project. Breaking through the language barrier actually gave her chills. But now she could only smile very faintly. The pretty woman patted her hand, and Zoe patted hers, and they both thought their own thoughts. Zoe sat there for over two hours cursing herself for blowing it in every way.
The doctor who didn't smile spoke to her in Spanish, and she answered in Spanish hoping that they really did understand each other. They were in a partially screened cubicle on one end of the maternity ward. Many of the beds were occupied. The nurse whispered in the doctor's ear and they both left. Lying on the table, she could see women's legs or heads in other partially screened cubicles. Zoe waited and grew hot. Her head pounded. She had the sensation of being in a huge white incubator, surrounded by babbling, crying, and laughing chickens, but then she closed her eyes and felt like she was in the jungle with its random shrieks, and restless rustling. And then she thought about the arribada phenomenon, a convergence of thousands of turtles, Ridleys, to the same beach at the same time to nest, usually under a waning moon. What if all the women in the hospital had their babies at the same time? A gigantic human hatch.
The turtle hatch was the big deal at the research station. Zoe was sweeping spiders out of her alcove in the dorm room when she heard voices shouting, "Hatch! Hatch!"
She ran outside. Jared, in the middle of a group of children, motioned her over to the hatchery. One of the squares of sand shook and undulated. A tiny flipper popped out and the first hatchling dug its way to the surface. Soon a swarm of baby turtles were crawling all over each other. At first the wriggling mass made her dizzy; it reminded her of a viper's nest she'd seen in a horror movie.
Jared and Alexa handed out hatchlings to the children who took off for the beach.
"Take two," Jared said to Zoe. "Follow the kids."
The individual hatchlings were so cute that Zoe almost didn't want to release hers. They moved their flippers clumsily at first, gaining momentum as they approached the water. She went back to the hatchery for more. When they finished the release, the sun had fallen low on the horizon and the waves twinkled. She, Isa, and the other children formed a long line across the beach.
"Adios tortugitas," "Good luck," they called.
"There goes nothing," Jared said.
"Have some faith, dude!" Zoe couldn't make out any of the hatchlings in the darkening surf.
"You've been watching too much Finding Nemo."
"One of them might make it," she said. Isa and another little girl danced around her, kicking up sandy water. One of those tortugitas would catch the East Australian current and ride around the world on an underwater roller coaster with the other denizens of the deep. The girls ran over to Jared and took his hands. They swung his arms back and forth and he finally shouted, "Go little turtles, go!"
The doctor returned and without a word thrust his hand into her vagina. The nurse must have seen the shock in Zoe's eyes because she made calming motions with her hands and said, "It's okay, it's okay."
But the doctor's fingers crawled deep inside her and it wasn't okay because what if her rejection of her own body's creation had destroyed more than she knew? The doctor pressed against her abdomen with his other hand, and she looked at the ceiling hating this man too.
She walked out of the hospital finally after cleaning herself up in the horrible bathroom and paying a surprisingly small amount of money for the exam, the blood test, and the anti nausea pills. The male cashier had said 'I'm sorry' like everyone else in the hospital had said.
Jared sat on the lawn talking with a boy on a bicycle. The truck was across the street. Zoe wanted to sprint across the lawn and hide inside it. She was relieved of course, but the experience had been all too basic and inconclusive too. Possibly she had miscarried over a week ago. She did not have appendicitis. On the second floor of the building United Fruit built for its employees, its' banana humpers, she was just a female of the species, not ready to nest. She didn't want what the other women waiting in the hallway or moaning in the beds wanted. Well, maybe they didn't want it either. She really didn't know. Given the choice, Isa's mom and the others in the village might prefer gringos with birth control pills to gringos saving turtle eggs.
Hey, Zoe," Jared called. "Can you tell me what this kid is saying? Is he telling me about his machete accident?"
Zoe tried to act normal; she knew Jared couldn't handle anything else from her, but when she listened to the boy who had a jagged scar running across the back of his neck and down his left arm say, "I need a surfboard to enter the championship at the Playa," she had to blink really fast.
Jared had bought her a large cup of crushed iced and guava mango juice. The ice melted and the cold juice was fantastic. They drove out of town, past the pulserias and billboards. The sky cleared in the late afternoon and the air was a little drier. She had learned to appreciate the slight variations in humidity, in temperature; the pattern of each day. Things that might stay with her.
"It's nice of you to lend that kid your board," Zoe said.
"He may not even show up." With his sunglasses on Jared looked like the boys who hung around outside the airport. They had crowded her asking if she needed a ride or a place to stay or something to eat. "Gracias, no. Gracias, no," she had said a hundred times, trying not to look afraid or rich or first world or global north. That she had thought she was changed after a few nights listening to howler monkeys was beyond ridiculous. She at least understood that now. And she was beginning to understand—it was almost in her sights—like the flash of red high up in the canopy—something else, not less, not more, how she didn't need to change to be a part of where she was.
"Hey Jared," she said, I'm not pregnant. Just a stomach thing."
"That's good, isn't it?"
His question hung in the air, and then rose higher and higher until it disappeared in the canopy.