Love Signs

Stones in the shape of hearts lay directly in front of me on my walks along the 20 miles of lakefront between Chapala and Jocotepec. I still have some of these rocks, starting out with a perfect little white heart and ending in a progression of multicolored irregular stones that were, nonetheless, hearts. Then within a few months of my finding the first heart rock, I noticed one calf with a perfect heart on its forehead. By then, I had started taking a camera along on my walks, so luckily, I was able to snap a photo. A month later, I saw another cow with a heart on its side. I had grown up the daughter of a cattle rancher in South Dakota, and in my 18 years of riding the plains in a pickup with my dad, checking out cattle, I’d never seen such a mark.  Now, in the course of a year, I’d seen two.

It isn’t that I thought Bob had slipped into the gene pool of local cattle and engineered these love signs, but rather that my finding them was some sort of special synchronicity that kept me believing that he was still near, guiding me a bit, sending messages.

I’d walk along through the silt of the dried-up lakebed, look down and find a perfect little plastic heart, or a few heart imprints in the dirt. Where had that sneaker that had made them gone afterward? Had it disappeared? Bob had been cremated in his red suede high-tops. What had the soles looked like? I’d never noticed. But over the years I learned to appreciate these little Bob reminders, and to be comforted by them if I was feeling lonely, to try to decipher some message if I were thinking out a particularly hard problem.

On the beach in Baja, I’d found other perfect heart prints. In San Miguel, with no camera along, I kept seeing countless cacti that grew in perfect heart shapes that a friend grew tired of photographing for me.

Once, five years after his death, when I’d returned to Bahia de Los Angeles, a place where Bob and I had shared a very special time during our first driving trip to Mexico, I had reached down to examine a stone that, buried in the sand, looked heart-shaped. When I’d pulled it free from the sand, it had proven to be ordinary, but when I threw it into the bay, a heavy favorite ring had gone sailing off my throwing hand and landed about 20 feet out in the water. I’ve always had faith in miracle finds, so I waded out and scanned my eyes over the sandy bottom. After only minutes, I’d found the ring. If it hadn’t been so broad-banded, it would have been hidden in the sand, but as it was, enough of it was showing to allow me to slip my finger into it and scoop it up, along with a rock it was nestled next to . . . a rock in the shape of a heart.

It is the strangest thing. I’ve been to Melaque, on the Colima coast below PV and above Manzanillo, four or five times, but I can’t remember if I was ever there with Bob. One thing is sure. I always think of him when I’m there. I think a lot about how we would have been camping out in our van  with the  porta-potty seat divider right on the beach. He would have found a hammock he didn’t feel guilty lying around in all day. And no one would have blamed him, even me. I hope.

Instead, I am here all alone in a two-bedroom, two-bath bungalow meant for two. I’d rented it with a friend whose life went elsewhere and I’d just never bothered to cancel the reservations. Some part of me cried out for solitude, and wanted to try another vacation alone to see if I’d fare better than my last attempts—22 years ago in Amsterdam or 35 years before in the Sudan.  Both times, I’d felt unsure and bored without a companion and gone back quickly to rejoin friends.

But this time I had just turned 60, certainly old enough to sit alone in a restaurant or club and not be embarrassed. At first, I felt like I was a wandering ghost. The ocean swim aerobics group I met with on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays continued to be a closed group, with none of the groups opening to include me or even to inquire superficially about who I was. When I went to restaurants, I sat alone. The other couples in my quadraplex were distant. By the end of the first week, I had ventured alone into some of the palapa restaurants further up the beach from where I ordinarily beach sat and eventually met a few people with whom I talked for a few hours. I joined up with a German woman who lived on the Isle of Wight and another woman from Alaska, and we went to other beaches, met for dinner. Midway through my second week, I finally learned that once you get into the right place, you start meeting people, and for me it was when I went to the plaza at the times when Mexicans were there. I started a photo essay on games, and was even asked to join some of them while the players explained the rules. I recognized the lotteria, a Mexican version of bingo with wonderfully vivid cards, but I also discovered a strange combination of  dice and a Chinese checkers-like board with only a few black and white marbles that they called “Now Don’t Get Angry!” and another gin-like game that was played with a deck which looked very close to a taro deck minus the major arcana. At the  block-long chain of taco stands near the plaza, everyone looked like someone I’d like to know. When I sat at a table alone, people at the next table quickly called me over to join them. This was the best restaurant in town, they told me, and they were right. The handmade coarse-ground tortillas with breast of chicken and melted cheese were the best quesadillas I’d ever tasted, and totally unlike any I’d had before. When I told them I was leaving the next day, they said they’d see me next year, and I was sure I probably would.

Meanwhile, with all the extra time gained by no TV, no telephone, no local acquaintances, I’d started going online more to check emails and Skype messages. During the two weeks, I hooked up again with a  friend from Switzerland I’d carried on a Skype relationship with for over a year. His name was Paul, and although he spoke three languages, our communication via typed messages back and forth had been hard for him, and after 16 months, I still knew little about him. Earlier in the week, he had sounded me out about coming to visit and I had panicked. Now he had turned on his camera and was phoning me. I could see him for the first time. Quickly, I put a folded piece of paper over the camera on my laptop. I’d seen how I looked without makeup on earlier trips into the photo booth of my computer, and I didn’t want this to be our initial contact. Quickly, I went into the bathroom, combed my hair and put on makeup. I’d found out yesterday, when I was trying to take some pics to send him, that if I pulled the orange drapes, that the light was much more flattering. While he left his computer for a bathroom break, I quickly checked myself out on camera—I at least looked like myself, not a crone—so I kept the paper off the camera lens and miraculously he saw me for the first time. He seemed nice, friendly. Cute. Not as handsome as in his picture, which was kind of a relief. He’d asked me a few times how old my pictures were in my Skype profile and this made me wonder if his pictures were older ones. In every one he looked totally different, and all were different from Paul on camera. At any rate, I felt like this was some kind of a milestone. We were flirting a little bit—at least I was—a first for me since Bob’s death.

After about an hour of trying to get the sound connection right so his voice didn’t cut out, and of me getting camera-ready, I told him I had to go catch the sunset on the beach. I was very busy, he remarked, and I knew this was true, compared to his life which seemed to consist of meeting his children, going out to dinner with friends, or sitting in front of the computer. I could never get much information about his life. Meanwhile, I told him about my art, my writing, travels, friends, work with different disaster relief groups, readings, a book I’d published with friends.

I had begun to think he might be a man with little life, yet he was fun to talk to in person, gentle and gentlemanly. Now I walked on the beach and the sense of panic that I’d been met with when he hinted at his coming over lessened a bit. The sun was at that particular point—about an hour before sunset—when it was lying over the sand like a sparkling carpet. Whenever a wave came in, the sand caught the water and  water caught the sunlight. I sat for a half hour trying to photograph the different stages of waves, foam, sand and light. Then I walked. Stoping to pick up a pelican feather that lay on the sand, I idly wrote in the sand, Paul?, feeling teenagerish as I stepped back to look at it. Since I’d been chronicling my day, I decided to snap a picture of it. Only then did I notice the outline of a perfect large heart that rose out of the sand directly below his name. The product of two footprints, placed heel-to-heel with toes pointing outward, it had been run over by a wave at least once and been smoothed out into a perfect heart. And I knew, finally, that Bob was sending a sign. Did he mean to say that I should go ahead, or was he trying to remind me that he was still with me and always would be? As I pondered it, a wave came up behind me, covering the heart and washing it away. Only Paul remained . . . and the question mark. Seconds later, a second wave wiped out the writing and a third washed out even my own footprints. 

My heart opened in a feeling so different from anything I’d felt in the 21 years since I’d met, married and been widowed by Bob. Suddenly, I felt totally single and free. And I realized how quickly time passes and that we need to seize opportunities while we can. Whether I chose to meet Paul or not was not the issue. The point was, for the first time since Bob had died six and a half years ago, I felt totally open to the possibility.

The next morning as I was packing up the car to leave, a man walked by holding a large open flat of three dozen eggs. He stopped, asking where I was coming from. When I said I was in fact just leaving, he stayed for a few minutes anyway, trading information. He lived there year- round. In the hot months he just stayed inside all day, coming out at night. He was the first man in two weeks who had approached me in a flirting manner—now, minutes before I left. I wondered if it had been a change in me that triggered his interest. Or was it just another little synchronistic prod, reminding me that I have life and juices left . . . and some time left to use them.

Judy Dykstra-Brown
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2 thoughts on “Love Signs”

  1. Beautiful thoughts Judy~! And it is a pleasure seeing Bob coming back into your writing. I told you once that we were both cursed with those memories of long ago and the sweet nostalgia can be both sad and happy at the same time. Up the hill from my house, on my place “Los Perdidos” is what we call the fossil pit where exposed cretaceous fossils of all shapes can be found. When I walk up there, I too, often find another heart-shaped fossil, which brings back some of Shirley’s final words to me. She said: “You will find another one like me to fill your life with love, and she will take care of you”. That has not really completely happened, but she loved me enough to let me know that she was giving me that freedom as a final gift. So I pick up the heart-shaped fossil and drop it into a copper pot by my front door. That pot is a bucket full of heart-shaped memories of love to me.

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