When a traveler wakes up to find her husband missing from their hotel room in Belize, she searches for answers in the memories, decisions, and frustrations of the previous days. This story was selected as the winner in the Soundtrack of Travel writing competition.
Rhythmic bass carried by the wind’s whim bounced off bent palms through the rain. A party in the distance. But my honeymoon was anything but a party, and it definitely wasn’t supposed to look like this—me standing on the deck of a beach hut in Caye Caulker, a tiny island in Belize, squinting through wet eyelashes, searching for my husband. The moon stole the sun’s spotlight, emitting brief flashes of light through swiftly shifting clouds. Gale force winds slapped palm frond against palm frond, and rain railed past me horizontally like a freight train on a deadline.
“Vino rojo, por favor,” I said to the waitress in my best Spanish accent, which, in my mind was excellent. Her bright eyes and kind smile boosted my ego.
“Sí, señora,” she nodded and turned to Shaggy, the man I had married eight months prior. He glanced at me, the space between his eyes scrunched together, confused by my order. “You’re drinking?” A lock of thick brown hair had fallen over one eye, and he suddenly seemed very vulnerable for such a large man.
“Well, yeah. I’d like to enjoy a drink here and there. It’s my vacation, too,” I replied. It came out sounding defensive; it was all logical to me at the time. His problem with drinking was not my problem. We had agreed before we married that he would quit.
With a barely perceptible shake of his head, he looked up at our server: “I’ll have a coke.”
We had just arrived in Mérida with two backpacks, no itinerary, and a one-way ticket home—dated two months later—out of Belize. We wandered along cobblestone roads and gazed at the colonial architecture painted in bright yellows, electric blues, and deep reds. Local children skittered past us, girls in white dresses cinched in red ribbon, their giggles like the delicate music of a wind chime. An open-air café marked by massive arches fed tourists and locals sweet Mexican pastries and espresso in tiny mugs.
The odor of braised meat and butter carried through the air and finally reached me. “I’m starving, and my backpack is getting heavy. Let’s grab some food,” I pleaded, eyeing a diner’s plate full of sweating cheese and fresh meats.
“Our hotel is right up there; let’s see what’s on the way,” he agreed.
The fast, cheery plucks of the Spanish guitar reached us just as we rounded the corner to La Negrita Cantina, inconspicuous but inviting with wide open doors on either side of the block it sat on. We sat at a small table for four, the plastic tablecloth covered in bright images of giant flowers outlined in black, not unlike a flashy tattoo. The blue, green, and orange walls competed for my attention. Speakers pumped out bright guitar riffs, the mood breezy and cheerful. Our faces were shiny with sweat, and outside, it began to rain.
The waitress brought my wine as I inhaled the free apps—a compartmentalized platter of black beans, refried beans, tomatillo salsa, fresh pico de gallo, marinated pickles and jalapeños, and homemade tortilla chips, shiny with grease. I inhaled the apps because it was easier than looking at my brand-new husband and feeling the shame that accompanied my drinking. I reached for my wine, feeling a combination of relief and guilt. Tipping the glass to my lips, I closed my eyes, briefly escaping the awkwardness, and felt the hot liquid coat my throat and travel down to my belly. Thirty seconds later, I felt it in my blood and any doubt about consuming alcohol faded away.
I’m content, I thought. It’s going to be fine! He won’t drink, and I can enjoy a cocktail here and there. We’ll get past this.
Except we didn’t.
“I’m checking into our hotel,” he said with an annoyance I was used to. I stayed and ordered another glass of wine, drumming my fingers along the sticky tablecloth, trying to match the upbeat melody of the guitar, maracas, and drums dancing through the cantina. I gazed out at the rain and through the open door Shaggy had just walked out of.
I don’t remember exactly how I noticed my husband was missing. Maybe we were sleeping, and the tropical storm woke me, and I saw he was no longer next to me. I do remember stepping into the rain and onto the dirt road, the storm slapping my face like it was desperate to wake me. Deep drums and bass pulled my attention north to the “boots and cats and boots and cats and boots and cats” beat of dance music.
Of course. He was at The Lazy Lizard, a backpacker’s bar perched directly on The Split, aptly named for a slice that runs through the island’s sandy floor. We had spent most of our day there before the storm came in. We sat on the top deck, a roof of browned palm fronds providing shade. With bare feet propped up and gripping the railing, we took in the turquoise ocean below, visible in three directions. Barefoot backpackers sucked down blue slushy cocktails, and Bob Marley’s Sun is Shining drifted through the scene, completing the beach vibe that reminded me of a glossy magazine article covering the “Best Beach Vacations on a Budget.” Travelers were sprawled out along the deck below, jumping in the salty water, all laughter and buzzed giddiness. This was a bar that didn’t stop, transitioning from laid-back boozy-reggae-days to frenzied dance-party club vibes with a flick of the DJ’s wrist.
I squinted even harder in the direction of the Lazy Lizard, into the drumming rain, my bare toes gripping the wet sand. Should I go and look for him? I knew what I would find; my husband’s resolve had left, and I knew he had been sneaking drinks when I wasn’t around. Was it pointless to confront him, especially in the state I imagined he was in? I didn’t fully understand his struggle, but at that moment, the tropical storm pouring over me, I was finally beginning to get it.
Two nights prior, sitting on plastic chairs that sunk into the sand, my husband and I were enjoying a Greek dinner served out of a wooden shack that was tucked back behind Caye Caulker’s main road. The ocean barely reached our feet, small waves dark and inky.
“Jamie’s gone,” Shaggy uttered the two words so quietly I barely heard him. He was looking down at his phone, and I knew what had happened. His best friend had finally lost his long battle with an aggressive form of Synovial Sarcoma cancer. Jamie, the friend who never held judgment, who was fiercely supportive, and who was always there to pick my husband up when he fell.
“Oh my god,” my eyes welled with tears. He stared at the ground, and my heart broke.
I don’t remember how or why, but we had a small, white pillar candle. Maybe we were preparing for the news.
The restaurant’s owner, a short man with kind eyes, approached. “Do you have a match?” I asked him. He did. Shaggy and I walked out to the water, the moonlight breaking up over the jagged ocean surface, waves lapping the shore in a gentle rhythm. We lit the candle and said a prayer for Jamie, neither of us religious.
There was no music that night.
I contemplated walking over to the Lazy Lizard, but the drums and bass crowded my thoughts. Then, a large figure came into focus. It was my husband, lumbering back from the bar, head down, his long brown hair wet and covering his face.
My disappointment left, and my eyes burned hot, although I couldn’t feel the tears for the rain. While I still didn’t fully understand his struggle, I thought I could at least hold space for it. I grabbed his hand and turned around, and we walked in the direction of our rented hut. But we didn’t stop. We kept walking, our clothes soaked, mud between our toes.
We sat down at an open bar, bright white string lights blurry in the rain. We both ordered a cold bottle of Belikin. We drank together that night, reliving the carefree drinking days of our past. The acoustic chord progressions of Jack Johnson’s Sitting, Waiting, Wishing filled the wooden bar and competed with the sounds of the storm that reminded me of a swiftly running river.