I’d been haunted by death since I was five years old and got mowed down by an Indian motorcycle while chasing the ice cream truck, begging for a snow cone. The doctors said my heart wasn’t beating when I arrived at the hospital. I was a miracle. I didn’t see it that way. I’d cheated death at an age when I should have been easy pickings. That I’d made it to my 40th birthday was a testament to my cautious nature and frequent hand washing. But at the age of 43, after a seven-year unhappy marriage and a messy divorce involving multiple lawyers and a brief stay in a psychiatric facility, I found myself having unprotected sex on a dilapidated couch with a poet named Ashley only three hours after matching with her on Tinder.
“I’ve never felt this way before,” I said. “Me neither,” said Ashley. “Let’s go to South America.”
The 747’s engines turned dinosaur bones into fire, and the plane shot down the runway at such an incredible speed that the slight curvature of the wing caused the plane to lift off the ground, and ten hours later we were in a taxicab zipping through the streets of Cartagena, Colombia.
My seatbelt didn’t work. Ashley squeezed my hand and said, “Isn’t this fun?” I said yes, but all I could think was: do these people speak Spanish or Portuguese? Is that the Atlantic or the Pacific? If we die here, will anybody tell my mother?
We found our Airbnb and had sex on the king bed and opened the patio doors. Horses clomped through narrow cobblestone streets ferrying wealthy tourists to emerald museums while indigenous women in yellow dresses with bowls of pineapple on their heads sat on sidewalks selling plastic cups full of papaya slices. A mosquito landed on my arm. I killed it, but I was too late. I had malaria now.
Ashley said, “I’m hungry. Let’s eat ceviche.”
We hailed a stagecoach and galloped to a fancy restaurant where we ate octopus cooked in lemon juice. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s summer house was around the corner, but I couldn’t enjoy any of it because I was pretty sure you were supposed to get shots before traveling to a foreign country.
I had an international data plan and googled malaria on my phone. It was bad. Left untreated, it resulted in seizures, coma, and death.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ashley.
“Nothing,” I said.
This was only our second date. She didn’t know I was insane yet.
We went back to our Airbnb and had sex again. Ashley sat on the toilet. As my semen dripped out of her, she said, “Do you have any kids?”
“One,” I said. “A daughter. Her name is Isabelle.”
“Ooooooh. Good name.”
Another mosquito landed on my arm and bit me. The room smelled like cunnilingus and pineapples.
Ashley hopped back in bed and squeezed my flaccid penis. “Your penis is funny looking. All of them are. Yours is the best one though.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I got bitten by a mosquito. Twice.”
“You’re probably dying.”
“We should have gotten shots or something.”
“Let’s go swimming.”
The concierge’s name was Santiago. There was no swimming after 10 p.m., but we said things in Spanish like, “In America, we are funny people. You swim with us? We have many drinks tonight. Much drinks. The stars are pretty. Do you eat fish?”
Santiago had to stay at the door to protect us from bandits, but he let us swim. We floated on the water holding hands. There were stars in the sky, ones we’d never seen before. Crux and Centaurus and Telescopium.
I barely knew anything about Ashley. She grew up in Michigan or Missouri. She was a Cancer, I think, or she’d had cancer and beat it, or her mother was a cancer doctor from Mississippi. It didn’t matter. My whole life I kept falling in love with the wrong people, and now I’d found someone that made my teeth hurt I loved her so much, but now I was dying from parasites probably, or I died a few weeks ago and this was a dream I was having, preparing me for the afterlife.
The sun set and rose, and we were still in Colombia, so we found a harbor and paid someone to take us to an island. The locals fed us mojitos and ceviche and gave us terrible massages with so much oil that their hands slipped right off our bodies, and then thunderclouds filled the sky. I had a slight fever and felt like vomiting from the malaria, but a lightning bolt hit a tree about 20 feet from the masseuse shack, so it was hard to worry about diseases.
“Let’s swim in the ocean,” said Ashley.
We floated in the sea wearing cheap jewelry we bought from the locals because they pestered us because we were wealthy and they were poor. The water was warm and salty like amniotic fluid.
“Do you want to have kids?” I asked.
“I can’t,” said Ashley. “I don’t have a uterus.”
Lightning shot out of the sky and hit the ocean, but we were still alive, so we got on a bus and traveled to a national park and signed a waiver because the mosquitoes here had yellow fever and the snakes were poisonous. We covered ourselves in DEET and entered the jungle. Howler monkeys climbed through the tree canopy making frightening noises that sounded like they were sharpening their teeth with steel files.
I said, “Ashley, can we slow down? Everything is happening so fast.”
“Watch out for that boa constrictor,” she said.
“Where did you go to college?” I asked.
Ashley chased a lizard into the density of the jungle. I lost track of her. Men rode by on mules burdened with burlap sacks full of coffee. I sat down on the trail but checked for snakes first. A mosquito landed on my arm and bit me.
When I was 13, I opened my dad’s bedside table and found a picture book about Swedish hot tub culture. On page 27, there was a photograph of a naked woman so pretty I lost the ability to sleep for all of the 8th grade. I’d lie awake at all hours tugging on my penis, trying to imagine what sex felt like and what part of me went where and weather it felt spongy or spiky or slippery in there. The mystery of it and the tingling sensation that wondering about it produced on the top of my skull was by far the most profound experience of my life.
Having sex with Ashley felt like that. It all came rushing back. I wanted to slow down and stop time. I wanted to make her mine forever. I wanted to not have to die one day so I could come home from work at my stupid job and find Ashley in my bed naked. Ashley, my wife, who loved me more than other men.
I heard a sound in the jungle. A horse appeared with a caballero on it. Ashley was holding onto his waist.
“I found us cowboys,” she said.
Another cowboy appeared on another horse. I hopped on. We rode to the beach. There was a sign that wasn’t in Spanish or English. It showed a black silhouette of someone swimming inside of a red circle with a big red slash through it.
“Let’s go swimming,” said Ashley.
I started to cry but swallowed and pretended everything was fine. Ashley took off all her clothes and went skinny dipping with the caballeros. I took off my clothes and joined them. I had the chills now from malaria.
The caballeros kept saying, “Esta mujer esta loca.”
I felt jealous and insecure, and then a rip tide sucked us out into the ocean so far that I got worried.
“Ashley,” I said. “I’m worried I died in my sleep at some point, and this is a dream I am having, preparing me for the afterlife.”
“That sounds right,” said Ashley.
“I want this to last forever, but now we’re drowning and I have malaria and yellow fever.”
Ashley shrugged. She didn’t understand it either. Waves crashed over us. We swallowed water and started to die, but then we noticed the naked caballeros. They were floating on their backs and had their arms stiffly pressed against their sides. They turned themselves into boats this way. Secret currents carried them back to the shore. We copied them and the secret currents carried us to safety.
We thanked the caballeros and paid them for their services with money with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s face on it.
Ashley suggested we have sex on the beach, but park rangers kept appearing wearing badges, telling us to put our clothes back on.
“Can we wait until later?” I asked.
“I’m bored,” said Ashley.
“We almost died. Can’t we just relax?”
“That was forever ago.”
Raindrops fell out of the sky. A few seconds later it turned into a monsoon. The caballeros and park rangers fled. We followed them. The trail turned into a river. We swam through horse feces until we found the road, then hailed a bus heading north, which deposited us at a fishing village. We found our way to a private resort where, in exchange for money, women in saris led us to a hut with a thatched roof. They fed us mojitos and ceviche and told us not to walk under palm trees since a coconut could fall on your head and kill you.
The rain lashed against the hut causing parts of it to cave in. Mosquitoes snuck through the holes and bit us, but we didn’t care anymore. Ashley had a yeast infection, so she made me ejaculate on her breasts. Afterwards we lay on our backs, getting eaten. The ocean crashed twenty feet from us. I couldn’t stop shaking from my malarial fever.
“I went to UNC Greensboro,” said Ashley.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A college in North Carolina.”
Ashley and I played with the ejaculate on her stomach. After a while it dried, and we rolled it up into little balls and fed it to the mosquitoes. Ashley had blue eyes, which I noticed for the first time. She had freckles and moles and good lips.
“What happened to your uterus?” I asked.
“It was full of cysts,” she said. “A doctor removed it using a remote-control robot called a da Vinci machine.”
There was a flash of lightning and the sound of a tree falling nearby. Parrots screamed from the forest canopy.
Ashley said, “Remember that time we were in a thatched hut in Colombia and we got bored and fed your dried semen to mosquitoes?”
I laughed and fed another semen ball to a fat black one.
“Then you asked what happened to my uterus.”
I nodded. “I totally remember.”
“Then the Grim Reaper appeared and said your time on earth had come to end.”
At 6 a.m. the storm broke. We stumbled from our hut like newborn babies popping out of our mothers’ vaginas, covered in slime. The sun was everywhere. Parrots shot out of the trees in vibrant green swarms. We lay in the sun until our skin burned. Then we flew home in an airplane and moved in together.
Ashley sleeps next to me now. Every night I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and run my finger up and down her arm to make sure she’s real. I’ve never felt like this. I keep saying thank you thank you thank you, while the Angel of Death, with long proboscis and compound eye, flies in circles above us, descending.
Kevin Maloney is the author of Cult of Loretta (Lazy Fascist Press). His writing has appeared in Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Nervous Breakdown, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.