We used to stand—arms linked—on yard lines, our hands criss-crossed over each other’s shoulders, right arms forward and left arms back, our fingers pressed together and palms resting over another girl’s deltoids, no gripping allowed. When we jumped, we jumped together and sent our legs flying on the even counts. One two three four. We pointed our toes, we lifted our chins, we spread our pink-painted lips into maniacal smiles.
That was in high school, during halftime dance performances. Now, it’s one o’clock in the morning and one of us grabs the others’ hands under the pool water and we bounce our bodies through the chlorine and giggle. Something like “Ring Around the Rosie,” but woozier and tinged with pathos. We’re not in high school anymore; instead, we’re twenty years out and living in different cities, but we’ve boarded planes and packed one-pieces and arrived here to a resort in Playa del Carmen to try to turn forty. We’ve arrived with various forms of the need and weakness that age brings: postpartum depression, trauma-fatigue, relationship distress, etc. Permiso, a hotel worker calls from out of the darkness around us, La piscina esta cerrada. We’ve been caught in a late-night escapade and we brim with an adolescent, transgressive delight.
When we checked in two days ago, the concierge convinced us to pay an additional fee for what he called “privilege,” and because our taxi driver stopped to buy us a case of Tecate Light on the way in from Cancun, we say, “Sure!” and whip out credit cards. They bejewel us with bracelets that actually say the word privilege on them in a simple cursive, and I, for one, can’t get enough of this joke. Does anyone else see the irony in this? I ask. We’re white women in Mexico, at a Disney-cruise like resort with shops chockfull of high-end sunglasses and overpriced maracas, and restaurants, and free salsa lessons from local teenage boys, and still they have to brand us as privileged. Well, no shit. At various points in the weekend, when we have questions about what’s appropriate to wear to dinner or whether we have to reserve a cabana at the beach, one of us will point to her bracelet. Privilege, she’ll say and we’ll all laugh, although not without some discomfort. We attended an inner-city high school where white students made up only one-fourth of the population. Our parents were cops, teachers, service-workers. Our boyfriends were Mexican, Filipino, Vietnamese. Now we’re vascular surgeons, highly specialized body healers, published writers, “Communications specialists.” We’ve always had privilege, of course, but this new adult type doesn’t sit well with us, which perhaps is why we make faster friends with Victor the Bell Hop than we do the other guests and why it takes us a day and a half to discover our privilege gives us access to a fancy, exclusive restaurant at the top of the resort with spectacular sunset views and wine from bottles with actual labels. We had been dining at the buffet with the less-privileged hotel guests, poor fools.
At the beach we read novels and take turns slathering backs with SPF 55 sunscreen. Sometimes we allow nostalgia its undertow and confess who from our youth was a good kisser and who made us want to retch. We’re not embarrassed about how many of these boys more than one of us can assess with historical accuracy and we laugh that our assessments match: he was a horrible kisser, you’re right. Out in the foamy green ocean, we tread more lightly and ease into conversations about in-laws or marital strife or politics, although on the latter we’re in as much agreement as we are about kissing.
Our post-beach primping has the air of old choreography to it: we’re comfortable handing hair dryers and mascara back and forth in front of the mirror, or considering and reconsidering earrings and whether or not we need to wear bras. Hours and hours we’ve spend coordinating movements in mirrors and changing wardrobes in backrooms. We strip off bathing suits and towels with impunity, our naked bodies—now older and softer—exist without the modesty they might with other women. I am surprised and moved somehow by how much we still resemble ourselves or, more precisely, how we’ve come to inhabit the skeletal architecture of our true selves, which existed in high school, erected years ago by some architect for us to furnish and redecorate and fill from the inside out. Each morning one of us burns Palo Santo and waves it around our bodies for “better energy” and we indulge her because we’ve passed the point of poo-pooing any form of appeal to a deeper power. Our physicality together is mothering, both ancient and new: one of us tucks another’s tag back into her shirt, one of us wipes a flake of bread from another’s bottom lip. I should shave my bikini area again, one of us says. Another responds, Don’t bother. You could braid your pubic hair and I wouldn’t care. We’re crass in a way we weren’t always in our youth, because bullshit isn’t a thing we’ll abide much now. If we were interested in kissing random boys still, we could make that happen with or without proper grooming of our nether regions. Our concerns now are bigger; how to receive the sublime blue-black horizon as a teacher of humility, how to measure and catch the low thrum of tenderness in our lives, how to age.
One night we step onto a dance floor and our dancing is glorious, free-form and warm. My dress has lost its elastic and the halter sags low onto my sun-licked shoulders. We’ve kicked off our shoes. We circle around a ten-year old boy who dances his heart out to cover songs from the 80s. This is no practiced routine, and yet it is precisely that, women circling a child, the innate rhythm of tribal love.
At the Privilege Restaurant, one of us says, “It’s perfect to travel together, because we’ve known each other so long that we’re safe and comfortable, but because we’ve lived apart so long too, there’s so much still to discover. There’s still mystery.”
We enter into the mystery the way we enter the ocean. First, the rocks bite into our soles so we learn to throw ourselves over them, full belly flop. Next the slow walk over sand that shifts and moves and knocks us over. And then the movement toward depth, a tidal pull that moves us into ever widening concentric circles and which we do not compel so much as relent to, the water rising to our ribcages, to our shoulder, to our necks, the bluing of the water beneath us, the watering of our eyes in response to stories, our stories. We’re swimming into our privilege, not anything like unlimited chilaquiles or Miami Vices, but still a bottomless thing, the privilege of this communion, of temporal relief and primordial recognition: Woman, I see you, I know you. I want to know you.
Our husbands and family members think we’ve gone on vacation. They say things like “girls’ trip” or “rejuvenate” or “how fun.”
But no. It’s not a vacation. The resort is, in fact, an unnecessary and slightly silly backdrop. Not a vacation, but call it a tiny homecoming, minus the high kicks and gawdy mums, so much less glitter. Our bodies have softened, as have our hearts and irritations. The softness we extend to one another is one we extend to ourselves, and a softness that reveals, paradoxically, our feminine strength. We travel because, as women, we must learn and relearn this strength and recognize its vast waters again and again and again as a privilege of the highest order.