Octoberish, 2003


The phone wakes me up. My clock reads 11:30am. Today is Friday, I’m still drunk. Usually I stay in bed until it wears off but the phone has interrupted those plans. I hate the phone, but today it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s Nate on the phone and he wants me to call Claudia to see how she is. It seems they’ve had a disagreement of some sort and he wants me to intervene. I’ve never called her before and the idea of doing so unnerves me. I feel like saying no and asking him if we are still in high school or something, but the idea of venturing into uncharted waters seduces me and I agree to do it. We talk for a while and the most comforting thing he says is how messed up he got last night. I wasn’t the only one then. Getting significantly more drunk than anyone else depresses me the day after and starts a cycle of worrying that takes days to wear off. The so-called “moral hangover”, if you will. There is a lot about last night I don’t remember.

I hang up and lay in bed. I’m awake now and it’s useless to attempt to get back to sleep. My right thigh reads “Val Sucks” in blue pen. I assume it’s from the same Bic pens I use to write in my notebook, only this is on my thigh. I always do really strange things I wouldn’t do otherwise when I’m drunk. On my left thigh it says “Claudia (?)” I’m using parenthesis on my body now, I say aloud. My voice is deep and cracked. I finally end up calling Claudia and she sounds bored to hear from me. My awkwardness increases. It’s a short call, she’s busy and asks if I can call back in 10 minutes. I say OK but I won’t call again. We will never again talk about this conversation and I won’t ever call her again, it’s like it never happened.

At around 12:30 the phone rings again and this time it’s Marjo calling me from Boston. She makes me ashamed that I got drunk again last night instead of doing something productive. Her call reminds me of my inability to stop binge drinking with my friends. The sound of her voice cheers me up. We talk for a while. My mom breaches the doors of my room to tell me we will go to lunch as soon as I hang up. Dealing with another person while I’m on the phone annoys me – my multitasking skills are lacking (Marjo used to say this about all men) – and I wave her away.

Marjo has a way of lecturing me that doesn’t bother me. She’s right most of the time and so I listen intently to see if I can learn anything constructive from her. We talk for a while and I thank her for two letters I received a few days ago from her. In both she told me I was a beautiful person, a special person, and not to change. The letters had momentarily elevated my spirits.

The highlight of the conversation occurs when I tell her about my recent trip to the lake. While I was driving I realized I was enjoying the drive there. I had actually slowed down and absorbed the scenery. The hour and a half I had left to reach the lake seemed too short. I wanted to be on the road more than I wanted to get to the lake. The road ahead ceased to be an obstruction. I was enjoying myself.

“Noooooo wayyyyy!!” Her response, “You, mister ‘I hate to wait, I want to get from A to B as fast as possible’? Mr. I hate waiting and hate the journey? Mr. All I care about is getting to where I’m going?” She pauses to kind of take it all in. “Wow,” she’s impressed and I smile like a little boy that just tied his shoelaces in front of his mom for the first time.

We talk until 2:05, and I’m starving. My mom is too. My dad is at some ophthalmology congress all day and so we are going out to eat – just the two of us. Usually I would balk at going to somewhere alone with my mother, but today I agree to go without hesitation. I’m not sure if it’s just the hunger or something else mixing in with my hangover, which is still going strong.

“Where are we going again?” I ask as I shut the car door.

“It’s the pupusa place up on Reforma ,” she replies.

On the way there I hear a song and could swear that it’s Phil Collins. I ask my mom but she isn’t sure.

“I don’t care much for Phil Collins,” she jabs at me.

“Phil Collins rules man! Phil Collins is god,” the words come out of my mouth, I did say them. But my infatuation with Phil Collins’ music comes from my roommates in Boston during my senior year. They implanted it inside me. I have no idea how I really feel about Phil Collins, although I’m pretty sure his music doesn’t repel me.

The pupusa place is close by, just on the other side of Reforma Avenue. It’s one of the busiest streets near my house. One of the city’s main arteries. We walk into the place and I almost bump into a well dressed guy with a wireless microphone in his hand. His shirt is orange or pink. It’s a big place with two different levels. One with old pool tables and foosball games. The main room looks out onto Reforma, and I quickly sit down next to the window. My mom seems to be OK with this and she sits down across from me. I look outside and notice we literally have a window into everyday Guatemala. Buses zoom by, cars stop and go, people walk by, some slowly and some rapidly. My attention is probably 75% what’s going on the other side of this window and 25% on my mom and the rest of the restaurant.

It’s loud inside – there is live entertainment today. I wonder if it’s a Friday thing or not. I know nothing of the daily schedules of this place, since I’ve never been here before. The guy I almost bumped into is karaoking into the microphone. I shouldn’t use the word karaoking, I think to myself. It would be a disservice to this guy. He sings very well and I’m entertained. But it bothers me that I have to yell for my mom to hear me. The restaurant is very simple – not quite humble, but simple. It clashes with the fancier places I am used to going to, with well dressed waiters and elegant décor. Humble is a polite way to say poor. As expected, my mother and I are the only white people in the place. Maybe because it’s so empty or maybe it’s because I’m with my mom, but it doesn’t bother me. No one is staring and hating me for being American and for causing all of their economic woes. The paranoia must be taking a nap. Or it could be I’m still buzzed from yesterday.

I order two pupusas with beans and cheese, plus a shrimp ceviche. A pupusa is basically a tortilla that is hollowed out and stuff like cheese and beans are put inside. Not entirely unlike pita bread. Pupusas are widely considered to be food for the masses, and I don’t recall ever eating one at a restaurant. I also order a lemonade and will later order another. My ceviche includes a free Brahva beer that I don’t want and my mom will drink instead. Brahva is a brazilian beer that just arrived in Guatemala not more than a month ago. The national beer, Gallo, now has some competition. To me, all beer tastes the same, although I will usually drink Gallo simply because it’s the national beer. In Brazil it’s called Brahma, but they can’t call it that here because in Spanish Brahma is the same thing as ‘in heat’. Many jokes were made about what would happen if they didn’t change the name. The most common one was “Hey let’s go drink some Brahmas.” Incredibly enough, it elicited laughs on more than one occasion.

The singer finishes his song and starts talking, “Congratulations, I hope your meals are good. Don’t forget to pre-order your fiambre for November 1 st.”

Pre-ordering food sounds bad enough but fiambre is absolutely disgusting. I don’t really know what it is, I tried it once when I was a kid and hated it. More people I know hate it rather then like it. It’s like me and cancer, I don’t know what it’s like but I still know enough that I don’t like it and want no part of it. I make a mental note to stop it with the cancer jokes already, it’s bad karma. November 1 st is All Saints Day and to celebrate a huge amount of fiambre is made and people go have picnics at the cemeteries. Having a picnic at a cemetery sounds enticing enough to me, mostly because it spooks everyone out. But I’ve never done it and for All Saints Day I don’t do anything different than I would on a Tuesday or Monday.

The singer starts another song.

“I love this song,” I had almost forgotten about my mom. She closes her eyes and listens, clearly enjoying whatever it is the guy is singing. She seems lost in a time warp, a flashback. My attention shifts to her.

I pause and listen to the words, “He’s a swell guy my old man is.” Or something like that. I wonder if the song brings my mom images or memories of her father. He got Parkinsons and would shake a lot towards the end. He would forget things, and people too. Then one day he died. I wonder to myself, if he knew what a pupusa was.

My gaze goes back to the window. It all looks odd to me, like my brain is missing some clue to understand what exactly it is I’m seeing. I realize I’ve never walked along Reforma before. So many people are doing it now right in front of my eyes and yet I never have. This is probably the closest I have been to it since I was ten. My interaction consists of driving through, nothing more. The sidewalks are foreign to me. The restaurant is right in front of a bus stop, and the old, worn, red buses cringe to a stop and then slowly regain their roar as they leave. All the buses are loud as if they had some super-charged motor under the hood. The sad truth is that they are so broken down and old that they are permanently on the edge of breaking. They also all leave a thick trail of black smoke that is spit out from the tailpipe. The reason for this is that every bus has a valve that is supposed to filter the smoke so that it comes out cleaner once it enters the air. It’s the law that every bus has to be equipped with it, so they all do, and then the drivers take the factory installed valves and sell them. To whom, I don’t know, because it certainly isn’t to any other bus drivers. Every bus has an attendant. Attendant is too fancy a word. They are really just young (16-25) men who are probably very poor and their job is to hang out of the door yelling out where that particular bus is going. One guy is almost completely hanging out of the bus as its brakes strain to bring the massive machine to a halt. He spits on the street before it stops and waits as long as he can before getting on as it’s moving again. The whole thing looks like fun to me, jumping in and out of a moving bus. except for the part of being poor.

The song ends and the guy starts talking, “Congratulations, I hope everyone’s meal is good. Here we go with some national music: Ricardo Arjona.” He starts singing again and I feel sorry for the fact that he has these really awkward pauses in between songs and he has to come up with stuff to say because I guess they can’t let him just sing. I ask my mom how much she thinks he gets paid.

Ricardo Arjona is Guatemala’s biggest musical star. While most Guatemalans are proud of him, many of us are a bit ashamed and embarrassed at the fact that he had to go to Mexico in order to start his career. Guatemala just wasn’t capable of taking him to the level he is at now.

Out on the bus stop, which is really just a sidewalk without a sign or a bench or anything, a little boy and his mother await their bus. The equivalent to a bus stop sign in Guatemala is a group of people gathered anywhere, waving a bus down. The kid must be four or five, brown skinned of course, everyone on Reforma is. He is holding on to a pole that has a sign at the top of it. It’s back faces me so I don’t know what it says, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a no parking sign. The pole is thin, but the little kid’s hand can’t quite make it around all the way. He’s swinging around and around it. It causes no emotions inside of me. But then he starts trying to climb up, jumping up and grabbing it between his legs. It’s useless as he starts to slip back down to the sidewalk. The five year old now reminds me of a novice stripper. I wonder if his mother ever stripped or prostituted herself to put food in his mouth. If he has it in his blood, encoded in his genes. I look to the mothers’ face for any possible confirmation of my horrible suspicions – but I get nothing. The boy now sees some of the buses coming by, attendants half inside them – yelling out to the people waiting. Every time one goes by the boy stares and it looks like he’s either mumbling something or yelling, I can’t tell. Maybe he will be a bus attendant when he grows up, the future is bleak either way. I shift my attention back to my mom, so she doesn’t suspect she only has 25% of my attention. She’s fine though.

The singer pauses again after a song, “Congratulations, what a beautiful day.” I wonder for only a split second why the overuse of “congratulations”, but then I immediately realize his predicament: He has to say something and congratulations is as good a word as any if you need meaningless filler when addressing a group of people. I don’t know German, but the image of Hitler raising his hand quickly and sternly calling out “Congratulations!” puts an unnoticeable smile on my lips.

I shift my gaze quickly towards the window for a peek to see what’s going on outside as my mom talks to me, I don’t want to miss anything. Nothing interesting coming from either the window or my mom. Then a lady walks by with a bag in her hand – a small one with a straw inside. The American part of my brain notices the bag of soda, and it frustrates me since I know it’s common. I used to buy a soda everyday at practice at the old baseball field in Zone Nine. The city is divided into Zones. Everything gets distributed in bottles, and nothing tastes better than a cold soda in a bottle. But since most small stores on the streets (called casetas) just serve you and then off you go, they can’t let you leave with the bottles (because of the deposit), hence the bags. I’m reminded of Iliana, the lady who worked at the caseta on the baseball field. She always was very nice and even let some of us start tabs.

“We’ll pay you next week, I just didn’t bring money today,” she noted it down in her notebook and gave us our bags of soda. I saw her there for around five or six years, then the land was bought and turned into a parking lot. She was too old to be a stripper now, I think to myself, returning to my mom.

Something changes in her eyes, and after a pause she says, “The city is evil.” She now has my attention. The words strike something in me that wants to agree but first wants to know more.

“Imagine living here without having anything else. The traffic, the pollution, too many people. That’s why it’s important people have a place to go out of the city – anywhere. We’re lucky because although we live in the city, we really don’t – not where we are.”

I let the words sink in, wondering what inside of her sparked the comment, but at the same time glad it did. I see my mother in a whole different light, as an individual, independent being. It’s odd yet refreshing to feel this way about her. Something tells me I should make a note of what she just said. Later on I would.

“All right,” the singer stops singing and is talking again. I lock eyes with my mom as we simultaneously wait for it. “Congratulations.” We both let out a little smile acknowledging we both picked up on his pervasive use of the word.

The food arrives – first my two pupusas. They are much bigger than I thought they would be. My mom’s dish also arrives, along with her second beer. It takes me what feels like too long to finish the first pupusa and then I stop, putting my fork and knife down on the plate. I breath in deep, thinking this will accelerate my digestion.

“I’m gonna have to take this home if I’m gonna eat the ceviche.”

My mom smiles victoriously. It’s kind of a mental “I told you so,” even though she didn’t tell me so at any point before or during my meal ordering. It’s just something annoying she always does. It doesn’t seem to bother me though. Something doesn’t feel quite right between us, at least not the way it usually does.

When my ceviche arrives I request the pupusa be wrapped up, the lady is real polite and I ask for another lemonade. The free beer is also put on the table. My mother tells me she can’t drink it and so we get it to go along with the pupusa.

We have casual conversations about buses, cars Papa has owned, gluttony, politics, the elections, poverty, money, etc. The usual, only that today I’m struck by the fluidity and frankness of our conversation.

I realize I’ve been on a bus in Guatemala no more than four times (not counting the school bus) and it embarrasses me, although I’m comforted by the fact that four is more than most people I know. The papers recently have been covering a lot of crime on the buses. It’s always been a problem, people getting robbed in transit, but lately murder and violence has escalated. I’m glad I don’t have to ride on the bus. Bus drivers even went on strike for better safety measures – paralyzing thousands of commuters. Every time the bus drivers go on strike you see tons of pick-up trucks or freight trucks with people packed to the brim, which is illegal. I’m jealous of the stories my mom tells about when she was free to roam the city at will, taking the buses all over the place, back when it was safe as a teenager. I wish I could mingle freely on the buses of Guatemala. It reminds me of Boston and the T. The freedom hits me and I suddenly dread driving the car, which is something I usually enjoy. I guess you always miss what you don’t have.

I take another peek out the window and spot a man dressed in an old brown suit jacket, a vest beneath it. He has glasses and his hair looks Cuban. My mom also spots him. My word to describe him is intellectual, my mom’s is shopkeeper. He’s waiting on the sidewalk for a bus that is just coming to a stop. The attendant swings out and lands on the sidewalk, the street way of saying “come on in sir, after you.” He’s got one foot on the first step and the roar intensifies again as the bus begins to pull away. The bookkeeper/intellectual frantically pulls himself in, but his demeanor isn’t surprised. No one gives it a second thought.

My mom is addressing me again, her face is that of urgency, but her tone is slow and calm, “I haven’t even read a newspaper today.”

Something that has been happening gradually suddenly clicks inside of me as I can actually feel my buzz wearing down a notch. I mock the meaninglessness of my mom’s comment, sarcasm envelopes our whole table as I speak, “Maybe the war started again somewhere.”

My mom laughs. “Damn, you can’t get away with anything around here,” I’m sure she’s thinking to herself. She doesn’t seem to notice the change.

Suddenly a little boy materializes next to our table, he isn’t that brown and it makes me wonder why he’s selling stuff at a restaurant, table by table. He says something and stretches out his arms towards us, his product held between both arms. I don’t even know what he’s selling and before I even start to wonder or get curious about it I notice I’ve already smiled, “No thank you.” The whole thing took less than three seconds and my mind stands there shocked, like it was just robbed. My reflexes are at full alert.

We ask for the check and the lady brings it, along with a white cup filled with foam. The “to go” version of beer, I guess. We will take it home, but eventually no one will drink it and it’ll be tossed. My mom opens up her wallet and takes out a brown credit card. As soon as it’s out of the wallet the hand holding the card freezes. She’s thinking. Now she puts it back and reaches for a blue credit card, handing it to the waitress with a smile. The waitress doesn’t have a reaction to the two credit card scene. My mind races, perhaps she was angry, maybe she thought my mom was making a point of showing how many credit cards she has. It’s all ridiculous though.

In the time it takes for the card to be returned, the idea of waitressing or being a waiter lingers in my mind. It’s a status thing here. People are waiters and waitresses because they can’t get anything better. It’s never just something temporary to make a little extra money. The American part of me thinks of it a racism. The Guatemalan part of me doesn’t even think about it.

We get up and start to leave the table, turning our backs to the window and Reforma as we move toward the back of the restaurant. I know the street and all of it’s life is still there, but I am no longer thinking about it. When we walked in I was worried my mom would notice I was still drunk. Now it didn’t even cross my mind. We are headed towards the parking lot in the back. We smile and nod at the little counter where our waitress is – she smiles back. I wonder if she secretly hates us, and if she does she fooled me.

We walk next to the singer and say thank you, while deep down I want to shake his hand and give him my most insincere “Congratulations.”

His response to us is “Thank you, hope your meal was good, safe trip.” He speaks into the microphone though it’s directed towards us. My jaw relaxes from the tense moments where I was expecting a congratulations from him.

The rear end of the restaurant is pretty dark, and the small doorway to the parking lot has bright sunlight streaming through. As I step through the doorway I look up and the sun hits me like it is the first time. Blue skies surround me, I am a newborn baby extracted from the womb, my senses overwhelmed from never having being used before. I breathe the fresh air and it feels as though I’ve done all this before.

We get in the car and the excess beer is put into the cup holder, the pupusa is on my lap, warm. The meal was filling and the buzz I have now is a combination of digestive satisfaction and of going somewhere new. I also feel proud of myself for having gone out to eat, the way I always feel proud of myself for doing anything productive while still being hung over instead of just laying on the sofa watching television. I feel changed for the better. I’m happy. Then we drive home.

On the street perpendicular to the restaurant I see an indigenous woman in full traditional dress, sitting on the sidewalk. She’s in the sun and her left hand is outstretched to no one in particular. The sidewalk is empty but for her. Later on it would strike me that her hand was outstretched for everyone, not for anyone in particular. A few blocks later I see another beggar, but this one looks slightly emaciated. Same deal as the first one but this one is twitchy, slightly psychotic. Also alone, she is talking to herself, mumbling something. My mind takes off, where did she come from? What is she saying? Is she cursing God? Begging to God? Does she want to hurt me? Her eyes are shifty, a clear sign of a problem. She has obviously been out there longer than the first one. We drive on. Reality is setting back in.

As we reach a stoplight a five year old kid goes to the front of the line of stopped cars and begins juggling lemons. His face is painted, supposedly like a clown, but he really just looks like he has paint on his face. He is quite good at juggling, though I’ve seen better on the street that flows into Proceres. This is a relatively new phenomenon, less than a year old. It sounds harmless at first, but it turns out that trucks filled with little kids go around the city dropping them all off at certain locations. Then at night they pick them all up again, along with their earnings. Their money is going to the people in charge of the scam. The kid’s outstretched hand reaches our car, my mom nods sternly, ‘NO.’ Beggars always stay a little longer at our car. It can’t be the car, it isn’t a Jaguar or Mercedes or a BMW. It’s a ’92 Land Cruiser for Christ’s sake. Maybe it’s our white, American-like skin. American in my mom’s case anyway. Five minutes later I’m home, surrounded by lush bamboo trees and the sound of birds chirping. This is my reality, I think to myself. Traffic sounds are muffled and unreal. I am relieved to be home. It’s home and it should feel old, but it looks new; changed somehow.

I go to my room and lay back in my bed to sleep off the remnants of my hangover, though it feels like I’m ending a surreal dream by going back to sleep. As I wait for sleep to take over, I wonder if I even really ever got out of my bed. It felt like it was a dream going out to lunch with my mom. Confusion and sleepiness sets in.

Tonight I’ll get in a fight with my mom, spurn family dinner and go out drinking with my friends. The memory of lunch will be lost the same way so many dreams are lost.


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