Our ferry was leaving Tangier in less than two hours.
It was her birthday. She wanted a camel ride. We'd been fighting for weeks, since even before we got off the ship. It was my fault that our vacation in Morocco had been cut short. If, for her birthday, she managed to at least ride on a camel before heading back, I might save the day, our trip, even our love. I'd succeeded in coaxing her along on the trip from Mexico, across the Atlantic on a Mexican cargo freighter (I was researching "a novel") -- she, me and 20 macho Mexican seamen -- only by promising we'd spend weeks in Morocco, a destination she'd long dreamed of. It was my fault, in the end, that we ended up staying only six days. Rush rush rush. Francisco's work always comes first! Rush rush around the world. Plus he's a pinche liar!
Someone at the Tangier ferry office had told her you could ride camels on the beach. The ferry wouldn't be leaving for another two hours. Now I was struggling down the beach carrying our luggage, trying to keep my eye on her as she receded through the crowd. She'd spotted, far ahead, those longed-for camels, had handed me her bag and scampered off, telling me she'd wait once she caught up to them. The tide was out and the beach was crowded, mainly with men and boys, most wearing their long hooded djellabas, sitting in the sand, playing soccer, hanging around, walking up and down. Stray dogs everywhere. The beach was wide, the water a long way off. Far away, in the deepening blue seaside haze, I could see the silhouettes of the camels she was chasing.
If she caught up with them, she might forgive me. She is highly symbolic in this way. I once sent her a Valentine's Day cookie -- a gingerbread man with a red heart on his chest -- carried from New York to Mexico City by a mutual friend. I had stayed up in New York for much longer than we had initially foreseen. The cookie arrived broken, the head separated from the body. She carried the decapitated gingerbread man, shrouded in its paper napkin, around in her purse for months, taking it out now and then to remind me, or herself, or her friends, that the fundamental problem with me was that my mind was severed from my heart.
I trudged along through the sand, head down, limping on my bad knee. The luggage was growing heavier, straps digging more searingly into my shoulders. The late afternoon air was sticky and warm, and there was that familiar fetidness of a port city beach in a poor country -- fish rot, garbage and excrement. I wove my way around sewage ditches emerging from under the sand to run into the sea, some of these filled with the first of the incoming tide, or holding what hadn't yet flowed out. I was thinking that the whole disaster was no one's fault but my own, and that I always found a way to let my loved ones down. It wasn't the worst lie ever told. It wasn't much of a lie at all . . . Just my stupid big mouth again! I stopped and took a long look down the beach. The light was darkening, evening loomed, and people were leaving the beach, headed into the city. I couldn't see her, or the camels. Well, she must be up there somewhere . . .
As lies go, it was nothing. But it was a lie. And she had believed -- she'd told me many times she believed -- that I was one man who was never ever going to lie to her, not even about little things. Of course there are lies, and there are stories, the sentimental fictions that you tell knowing they aren't strictly true, though pretending they are seems by far the happiest, and most harmless, option. Back in Mexico City, weeks before we'd even boarded that ship to begin our ill-fated trip, she'd asked me if what we were doing just then -- really something quite unexceptional, though daffily romantic enough -- was something I'd ever done before with any other previous girlfriend. A question that, arguably, should never even be asked. So I answered: No, this is the first time I've ever done this with anybody. Then one night on the ship, sitting around drinking beers, playing dominoes and boasting with the seamen, I had let slip another version. It was a silly, stupid, macho thing I'd said, while just trying to be one of the marineros. Unfortunately, it was also true, exposing what I'd told her earlier as the lie. I thought it was a harmless little lie. She did not.
A cargo ship in the middle of the ocean is a bad place to be fighting with your novia. Nowhere to go but overboard. A cargo ship is claustrophobic enough as it is, but when your girlfriend is angry at you, it's as if all the ship's narrow passageways and stairwells and bulwarks are whispering her innermost thoughts to everyone on board all the time, the bulwarks shivering not with the churning of the engine and propeller below but with her fury. It was impossible to hide that we were not getting along from the Mexican officers and crew. And I began to think that was dangerous; these were sailors, not monks, cooped up without women, after all. I was the only non-Mexican there, the only foreigner, a norteamericano, a gringo (so what if I spoke Spanish, and had family roots in a little country on Mexico's southern border, Guatemala, that Mexicans habitually disdain). I felt vulnerable as hell, we were vulnerable, anything seemed possible . . .
But my insecure paranoia was unjustified. The seamen were great, true caballeros, and they endured us with friendly dignity. Though of course they really did adore her, her combination of feminine charm and salty-tongued impishness. At the dominoes table, she was in her natural element -- after all, her beloved grandfather, an exile from Franco's Spain, had owned a rowdy little cantina in downtown Mexico City, and even as a little girl she was constantly at his side. She knew these cabrones, the Mexican seamen, knew how to deal with them, how to command their respect and leave it perfectly clear where she stood.
Then our ship hit a five-day stretch of very rough weather. Now we couldn't even escape our captivity and airless feuding by going out on deck anymore, for the danger of being swept overboard by the giant, frothing waves. Whenever we crossed a time zone, almost daily, the clock was pushed ahead an hour, though breakfast was always at 7 and lunch at noon and dinner at 6, and soon we were all screwed up, queasy and rubber-legged from the constant tilting of the ship and disoriented by the treacheries of time, and people were opening their first evening beers at breakfast, and sleeping until dinner, and finally ignoring the meal schedule entirely and living off microwaved popcorn. For days she and I had been too seasick and muddled to fight, and when we finally left the ship in Valencia we still really hadn't made up. But we did. And the food and wine in Valencia were delicious after weeks of shipboard meals of chopped frankfurters in canned tomato sauce. The solid earth beneath our feet fortified us, helped our truce feel like a return to sanity, and our hotel room walls held blessedly still. And then I ended up having to cut our trip to Morocco short and I was right back in the storm.
Evening was falling really fast now, and people were streaming off the beach. Where was she? She must have been unable to catch up to the camels, I thought. She must be heading back. And I imagined her walking back toward me over the darkening, emptying beach, sad-faced, crestfallen, even the symbolic redemption of just one little camel ride on her birthday having eluded her, sealing our six-day sojourn in Morocco with a final judgment of failure and betrayal once and for all. (But also, now, delicately stepping out of the dark to stand with glowing eyes in the shadows just beyond the walls of consciousness was the fear that had been trailing me around throughout our truncated stay in Morocco: and that was the story we'd heard about the honeymooning Mexican bride who'd vanished in some Moroccan souk during the brief seconds that her young Mexican husband had averted his eyes, never seen again, the Mexican bride for whom the Mexican Embassy had been quietly searching for any sign of or information about for years. A real-life Paul Bowles ultimate Moroccan nightmare story . . .)
If we miss the ferry, I adamantly told myself, we'll have to stay the night in Tangier, and then we'll probably miss our flight from Madrid to New York, too. I wasn't looking forward to a night in Tangier. It would only make us regret not having stayed another day in Fez (if we were going to miss the ferry and the flight from Madrid anyway), and that would do nothing but exacerbate things. Tangier seemed dreary and desperate, long past its glory days as a place for cosmopolitan bohemians, fashionable expats and legendary sexual adventurers. In the outdoor cafe where we'd had breakfast that morning, one that our guidebook told us had a link to Jean Genet (something like, "Keep your eyes out for Jean Genet having breakfast in his favorite cafe!" though he had already been dead a few years), an NHL playoff game was playing on ESPN on the television mounted over the tables. An emaciated transvestite in a tattered djellaba and masculine haircut, but wearing long, silvery false fingernails and electric-blue high heels, kept walking back and forth past our table, seemingly trying to lure us with his beckoning stare . . . Happy birthday, mi amor!
The beach was almost empty now, dark sand and horizon fusing. On the long avenue overlooking the walled edge of the beach, the streetlights had come on, and I could see the tops of illuminated buses passing. Now, silent panic was setting in again. Now I couldn't help but think of that vanished Mexican bride. I remembered, also, a story my ex-wife had told me long, long, long ago, about a trip she'd taken to Morocco as a teenager with her mom. A Berber from the Rif, on horseback, in black robes, I think, or maybe white ones, had swept at a hard gallop into the market plaza she and her mother were shopping in, and before she even understood what was happening, horse and rider were upon her and he was leaning down and his arm was reaching out and in a blur of horror and clouds of stampeded dirt she felt that arm close around her waist and herself being pulled off the ground and somehow she managed to push with all her might and twist her body free and then she was lying in the dirt while horse and rider thundered away.
That story is true. So is the one about the Mexican bride. I was obsessing on those true stories now. Whatever else you want to say about it, Morocco is absolutely not the best country for a non-Moroccan woman to go wandering off alone in.
But now I could relax, because phew, here she came. Quite a long way off, I could make out the distinct shape of camels. That had to be her. Here she comes, at last. There was at least one camel. I couldn't make out any of the riders, though, couldn't even see if anyone was wearing white. She was wearing a white shirt that day. Her birthday. Well, she'd gotten her camel ride! And they were coming toward me, so everything was going to be okay . . . except wait . . . they were not quite coming directly toward me, that is, they were aimed diagonally across the beach, seemingly headed for a point somewhere between us and the city side of the beach.
Because I had decided that we could only spend six or so days in Morocco, and not the near-month that I had originally promised, we'd decided on a single destination, rather than try to visit many places. Fez, at first sight, is like any young kid's dream of an Arabian Nights royal palace-citadel, with ancient, high, mud-clay crenelated walls and ramparts. The first day or so was a disaster. At the train station we were mobbed and harassed by would-be guides and advice-sellers and luggage-carriers and taxi-seekers and hotel scouts and trinket vendors and experts on the vendors of great valuables and experts on history, mosques, the medina (the old city), the new city, restaurants, pharmacies, night life and so on. What else could I do? I gave in to that crush and selected a luggage-carrier, a taxi-seeker and a ride-with-you-to-your-hotel guide. They all had to be paid. My novia now wore a highly skeptical and annoyed expression. I told her sternly: Listen, this is an inevitable part of traveling in Morocco, so get used to it. It says so in all our guidebooks. It says in the guidebooks to resign yourself to having guides and to choose only those who wear badges identifying them as government-certified tourist guides. We were met by another mob at the hotel and another waiting for us outside the hotel in the morning and another at the gates to the medina and so on; it was a miserable day, people pulling on us and nagging us and trying to rip us off everywhere, our badge-displaying guides entirely complicit with all of them.
Why can't you say no? she asked. Badges! Guidebooks! Ay no, gringuitos and their guidebooks! When my Mexican girlfriend really wants to get my goat, all she has to do is call me a gringo. I guess it's just First World guilt, I said lamely and earnestly. That makes it hard to say no. It's not guilt, she said. It's fear. People from rich countries are always afraid of people in poor countries. They don't know how people are going to react.
She wasn't afraid. Why was this any different from any Latin American thieves' market? And I watched in admiration as she cheerfully and robustly let all those tiresome would-be guides have it. She left them splattered with a classic chilanga's earthy market harangue of outrage, ridicule and warning. For the next four days, Fez was a city of miraculous beauty and peace. As we wound our way through the medina's narrow alleyways, through what that first day had been an impassable gantlet of grabbing and imprecation, people now parted and nodded toward my girlfriend, respectfully repeating, La Mexicaine, la Mexicaine. Nobody bothered us. We went everywhere. Of course the city was impossibly complex, sometimes we got impossibly lost, and I would nervously start thinking about the vanished Mexican bride again . . . For two days we hired a badgeless, brainy, swaggering little boy who really knew his way around and didn't insist or try to talk us into anything.
One camel. Still quite far off. Now I could see that there was only one camel coming down the beach. In growing confusion and dismay, I watched its long, undulating neck and bobbing head as it gracefully and methodically mounted the plaza of tiled, balustraded steps leading off the beach and into the city. It did seem that the rider was wearing white. I assumed that the camel's owner must be leading it along by its reins. Why were they leaving the beach? Was that a shortcut to the ferry port? What was she thinking? That I'd be waiting for her there? I shouted out her name, but they were probably still too far off to hear me, my voice lost in the wide, empty sweep of the beach and the wall of city sound just beyond. The camel reached the top and vanished from sight.
I was running toward those same steps now. And when I reached them I saw that a wide ditch of rank water separated the bottom steps from the beach like a squalid moat. Everybody leaving the beach via this route had to splash through it. I quickly rolled my pants up as high as they would go and waded in, our two bags lifted high, in my boots. And I scrambled up the steps, and when I reached the top, I looked up and down the avenue, and down the street running away from the beach at a right angle, and saw buses and taxis and pedestrians and not a single camel. I stopped people around me, frantically asking everyone in Spanish if they'd seen a camel, a young woman in jeans and a white shirt atop a camel being led along on foot by its owner. Nobody had. From the vantage of the streetlight-bathed sidewalk, the beach below was a vast blackness. Where had they gone?
I no longer remember what exactly I did next, or how long I stood there, how many times I marched up and down those steps. At what point should I abandon my waiting and go for the police? I stood by the bottom step paralyzed, trying to have a lucid thought. I could smell the rankness of the water I'd trudged through. I had an open cut on my shin. I had banged it against a sharp corner of furniture in our tight little cabin on the ship. I was suddenly sure that that water was going to infect it. I was going to die of blood poisoning. My girlfriend was going to be the second young Mexican woman to have vanished in Morocco without a trace in recent years, and I was going to die of blood poisoning, raving, hallucinating, cursing myself for my stupid lies in a Tangier hospital bed.
I still wonder what would have happened if I'd decided, instead of prolonging my vigil, to run then and there to a police station to report her missing. Perhaps it would have been like the fateful choice of two alternative endings to a story, this one following the story's most overt internal logic, leading inevitably to that Tangier hospital bed, or perhaps to a lunatic asylum. I won't try to re-create what I felt. Just imagine that I am still standing there, in the near dark, staring into that empty beach, our luggage at my feet on the steps, my soaked-anyway pant legs rolled back down to my soaked boots. The melancholy, far-off blast of a ship's horn. A warm, steady breeze, blowing out of Africa . . .
I watched camels slowly emerging from out of the dark, coming toward me down the beach. And I saw her white shirt glowing, high atop a camel. I saw the man in the white djellaba leading them. Three camels, like the Three Kings rode to Bethlehem on. She looked so happy and sweet and proud of herself way up there on her camel. She looked like Senorita Lawrence of Arabia.
So grace comes like that sometimes, like forgiveness, like falling in love, just when you were thinking never, thinking doom, thinking that soon we will be a horrifying story told by traveling couples to scare themselves and warn themselves into sharp-eyed vigilance. Who knows what might have happened to us if she hadn't gotten her camel ride? Maybe I would now be like a decapitated gingerbread man, wandering the earth, howling in loneliness and regret.
I splashed back to the beach through that rank moat. The kind owner of the camels hoisted our bags up onto his camel, and helped me seat myself atop mine. He said that if we rode our camels directly to the port gates, we'd catch our ferry just in time.
Francisco Goldman has written The Long Night of White Chickens and The Ordinary Seaman. He lives in Brooklyn and Mexico City.