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Nancy Townsley

Leaving Tulum


The way Martin left things when he went to Mexico in 1990 was, in a word, unsettled. He paid the final invoice from his divorce attorney the same week he took off for Tulum, relegating the notarized papers to the top drawer of his desk. At the time, Eliza indicated little awareness of her parents’ marital devolution, save an inquisitive eyebrow here and there when she’d heard them arguing, and Judith and Martin were determined to keep it that way. As far as they were concerned, Eliza knew only that her dad had gone somewhere to get better, and that he’d be back home when he was. 

In those early days, Judith and Eliza went over everything: How Martin had gotten sick in the first place (his pipe habit had likely triggered the dystonia, according to Doc Ralston), why he’d been able to recover his health once but not twice (again, the pipe), and the things that meant the most to him in life (Eliza, and newspapers, and his pipe).


They never, ever talked about Mina.




Martin’s black canvas backpack, now faded to charcoal, had been around a long time, given its mended zipper and frayed front pocket, into which he slipped his one-way ticket back to Portland. He believed in accessibility, and also in order, and he demonstrated both in the way he organized his luggage: Pants and shorts rolled up in hay-bale coils, T-shirts with the sleeves tucked back in two crisp creases, tidy as could be. He folded the last of his Hawaiian shirts—his favorite, featuring smiling hula girls in coconut bras and palm-frond skirts on a sea-green background—and set it on top of the others, a quick change upon arrival at Portland International Airport, when his travel clothes would be wrinkled and smelling of stale, recirculated air.

The last things he added were the bottles of supplements he’d begun taking at the retreat center, at Pedro’s suggestion. He’d need the rose hips and turmeric on the plane, to ward off inflammation. It would be a long flight. He latched the bag and stepped back to admire it. He felt accomplished. Someday he’d be six feet under, just like everyone else, but today was not that day.

After his time in Tulum, Martin wasn’t whole, but he was better. He’d accepted his body’s deficits as permanent: The shriveled arm, the stilted gait, the shortness of breath, the occasional pronounced stutter. He was going home to Oregon, though he didn’t know exactly where home would be. He wasn’t wild about flying alone. He was superstitious enough to send pre-flight postcards back to the states from the Cancún airport, in case he didn’t make it, if something unforeseen were to occur, a loose bolt on the airplane engine or a rental car crash, even a last-minute capitulation on his part, though that was unlikely, as there was nowhere he wanted to be except back in Portland.




Martin paid the woman behind the convenience-store cash register for three postcards and found a table out in the concourse, sitting down to write. He pulled the first postcard from his bag—one with a photo of a fiery Mexican sunset—and scribbled “Dear Ronny” on the back. The postcard would go to his brother Ronny in Pennsylvania, the brother who’d headed east after high school, in pursuit of a girl, and hadn’t attended college, both choices nearly sending their mother around the bend. Ronny was Jane and Colin Donovan’s youngest, and his mom had been particularly attached to him, for no good reason according to their Aunt Constance, other than that he was her sister’s bittiest baby.

“Coddled and swaddled in cotton from the day he was born,” Constance had observed at more than one big family dinner, the words flowing from her mouth unedited after several gin gimlets.   


Jane Donovan’s proclivities were evident from the early years forward. “Ronny dear, you look a bit peaked—perhaps you should stay home,” she might say at the beginning of a new school week. “Be a love and fetch mommy her knitting,” she’d add as Martin gathered his school books. She clearly preferred Ronny’s company to his, and to another day by herself in the family’s ordered and ordinary house in the suburbs. Ronny would stay, and Ronny would fetch, and Ronny would sit in a corner of the den at his mother’s feet, playing with his train set as Martin went out the door, walking the one city block to the school bus stop by himself.

“Be a good boy, won’t you Marty? And be on time getting home,” Jane would call after him. “Ronny and I will be waiting.” No mention of their father, who often stayed late at the office, seeing another edition of the Journal off to the press and starting on his next column, chock full of mischievous leprechaun adventures. Colin loved working at the paper in the quiet of the evening, rather than from his home on Maple Street. His dinner would be warming in the oven when he came in the door. He would eat it by himself at the kitchen table, chewing each bite with the same sense of purpose he brought to his writerly musings. He’d remove his loafers at the foot of the stairs, go up, and look in on his boys long after they’d drifted off to sleep in their shared bedroom, down the hall from their parents’ suite, stylishly appointed with velveteen drapes and a lamp on each side of the queen-size bed, half of its chenille bedspread turned down in a triangle, awaiting Mr. Donovan’s tardy arrival.

Jane was often asleep with a book on her chest. Colin would turn off her lamp before putting on his pajamas and getting into bed, brushing aside any fleeting inclination to kiss his wife goodnight, as he did not wish to wake her. She would repay him in the morning with sausage slightly undercooked and eggs slightly overdone, offering him the newspaper, and her cheek instead of her lips, as he sat down to breakfast.

“How was your night, dear?” Colin would inquire, to which Jane would answer “just fine,” before turning to the boys and handing them their brown bags.


“Ronny, be sure to wear your warm jacket,” she’d say if the weather was below 60, and “Martin, save a seat on the bus for your brother.” Two hugs—the longer one for Ronny—and all three of them were off, Colin’s head already at the newspaper, anticipating typewriter keys pressing the ink ribbon against the paper-bail roller, “the best sound in all the world,” he’d often said to Martin, who paid rapt attention to such pronouncements from his father, the wisest man he knew.




Martin took a drink of water, licked the back of a postage stamp and pasted it on the corner of the postcard as squarely as he could. He addressed it to Ronny Irving Donovan, 365 N. Montclair Ave., Hershey, Pennsylvania 17033, in neat block letters. On the left side, Martin wrote about his two big dystonia flares and how, now that he was “at least somewhat improved,” he hoped to see Ronny again. Fifteen years were too many. A meeting needn’t happen right away, but sometime soon, he wrote, signing it “Your older brother, Martin.” He also drew a smile-face with curly hair and freckles, so Ronny would know it was really him, in the flesh, whether or not news of Martin’s illness had previously reached him.


Maybe there’d be a reunion, an end to their estrangement, and that would be grand. It was high time Martin tried to make amends for his behavior, omissions and commissions both, things he’d neglected to bring to the confessional booth, both in Oregon and in Mexico. He had lost faith. Not so much in the big-G God of his childhood, the one he’d studied as a Catechumen, but in himself, having broken his marriage vow of fidelity to Judith, having so badly tarnished his reputation with their daughter.

If Martin still believed in a supreme being, and most days he wasn’t at all certain he did, it was a small-g god, a much more New Testament than Old Testament version, one who could forgo punishing Martin for his failures. He was only human, after all, and quite disliked the idea of burning in Hades for all eternity. But he could not figure out how to forgive himself.




The next postcard had a picture of a reporter on it. A female reporter at her desk, eyes wide with determination, hands poised on the keyboard. And—incredibly—a black-and-brown pipe in her mouth. As soon as he saw it on the store display rack, Martin knew he had to buy it for his daughter.

A postcard meant only for Eliza. One he’d never send.


He penned a brief note, left-handed, as he’d taught himself to do.


“Te quiero,” Martin wrote, I love you in Spanish. “Wishing you days of leprechaun capers and nights filled with happy dreams.” He laid the postcard on top of his suitcase, along with Ronny’s, but did not affix a stamp.

After three years, it was time to leave Tulum and the Holistic Healing & Wellness Retreat behind. It was time to get back to Eliza.

About Nancy Townsley

Nancy Townsley lives on a floating home along the Multnomah Channel just west of Portland, Oregon, where she runs and writes. A career newspaper journalist, her creative work has appeared in Hippocampus, Brain Child Magazine, The Big Smoke, NAILED Magazine, the Timberline Review, and several anthologies. "Leaving Tulum" is excerpted from her novel SUNSHINE GIRL, a story about a journalist-turned-activist in a time of devalued news, currently out on submission.

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