Hot and mute and seemingly oblivious to the recent night, the morning sun scintillated off the stone streets. I squinted through the apartment door, trudged six blocks to buy two newspapers, and then walked to the Parque Central to spend a couple hours of my hungover morning combing through stories describing Guatemalan political corruption, concerts, local murders, hungry families, under-educated children, kidnappings, car accidents, cultural events, and whatever other news I’d find of the day. I got stuck, however, on the front page of Prensa Libre, looking at a photograph of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina playing a guitar reconstructed out of a decommissioned AK-47 rifle. The concert he was taking part in was supposedly a plea for peace, the automatic rifle-guitar meant to symbolize the sword being hammered into a ploughshare, and yet just glancing at the photo you easily could have taken it to mean the opposite, the plough hammered into a sword, the guitar smelted to look like a cuerno del chivo (literally goat horn, as AK-47’s are often referred to in Mexico and Central America). And just the posture of the President, the way he was holding the rifle-guitar, I thought, made it seem that he was more familiar holding a gun than a musical instrument. (I later learned that he was both a combat veteran of the country’s genocidal civil war, and an amateur guitarist). I still hadn’t read past the front page of the paper, my eyes trained on that strange photograph of the musically militant president, when a short, dark-skinned man dressed in black clerical-looking shoes, a thin light purple dress shirt with a grease stain on the chest, and loose black slacks sat down next to me and asked if I was reading today’s paper. I nodded that I was.
And where are you from? the man asked me.
Estados Unidos, I said.
And you read in Spanish?
Bueno, he said. Muy bueno, and then we fell into a silence, which, after another few moments, I finally filled by opening the paper.
I lived in the United States for two years, the man said to me, just as I was about to fall into the first article.
Ah, I responded, glancing up, in what part?
Ohio, I said. That’s where I’m from, and soon we discovered that the man not only lived for two years in my home state (first as a high school student and then as a dishwasher), but in the Maple Heights neighborhood of Cleveland, a neighborhood close to where I grew up, and which I know very well.
Libby Road, the man said, and I chuckled, because I know exactly where Libby Road is.
Pleased with each other at the coincidence, we chatted for a few minutes, the man describing to me how when he was just 15 years old a group of American aid workers came into his war-rattled village and offered two young students scholarships for a year of study in the United States.
As I’m sometimes a story-grubber (and was in Guatemala in part to do interviews about migration to the United States) I was curious what he meant when he said, describing his village, que nos tocó la guerra, or, we were touched by the war, which, in all that I’ve heard and read about the 36-year-long Guatemalan Civil War, I imagined might be a euphemism for slaughter, or enslavement, or disappearance, or any other form of the terror that ravaged parts of the country for nearly four decades, the scarring of minds and memories, the tearing apart of families, the impoverishing of communities, the derailing of the economy and, to this day, the forcing of many people north in search of work, security, peace of mind, or just any kind of peace they can grasp. But I didn’t ask for him to specify what he lived through and, again filling a silence, the man suggested that we go and have, as he said, a good Guatemalan coffee.
From the Parque Central we walked together towards the cathedral and then crossed onto 7th Avenue, passing in front of a Wendy’s restaurant outside of which an either very drunk or very high man slept with his wide-open mouth drooling onto the bare, hot concrete. We crossed a few more streets south and then turned again, walking through a plume of black smoke that was backfired out of a city bus.
I found the air in Guatemala City to be powerfully dirty. Almost sweetly dirty, the air heavy and sticky-feeling in a way that reminded me of how jeans can be perceptibly heavier after you’ve worn them for a few weeks, and perhaps even slept in them a few nights. Even the new TransMetro busses meant to curb what can be grotesque traffic jams burp out clouds of black diesel smoke directly at the grimed sidewalks and their passersby. The day I had arrived in Guatemala City, I recalled, I watched a heavily armed guard, in full national police regalia, standing outside the Ministry of Economy finish a pack of Tortrix (a cheap and popular Guatemalan snack, similar to but inexplicably better than Fritos) and then drop the plastic bag at his feet. How easy, I thought, how always beckoning in a city is the easy pull to entropy, chaos, pollution—nothing simpler than to just to drop your trash where you stand. Even the very air takes our constant waste and exhalation. I sometimes find it almost unbelievable that a city doesn’t simply fall into discord, its streets, buildings, and people all falling in on themselves, spilling into an oily tangle of heavy bodies and garbage.
Héctor—the man and I exchanged names—led me into a large open-air café called Café de los Leones. It was crowded and the only open seats were in a far corner in front of two bean-stained plates that an energetic older waiter soon cleared away for us. I felt like we had set ourselves up for a boring conversation—we were even facing a blank, yellow wall—but Héctor kept the chatter rolling, continually digging into his memory for other place-names or weather complaints or jokes we could share about Cleveland. I ordered a café americano, Héctor ordered a café americano con leche, and then I tried to steer the conversation back towards Guatemala, but Héctor, landing on another Cleveland memory, started telling me about his first Christmas away from his family.
Soon after he arrived to Maple Heights in the late summer, he told me, his host family, a childless couple, had separated from each other, the wife going to live with her family in Detroit and the husband staying in Cleveland. It turned out, however, that the husband began to travel to Detroit as well, spending a few nights a week with his partially estranged wife and her family, leaving Héctor alone in the unnecessarily large house in the quiet neighborhood of Maple Heights for increasingly long periods in the coming months. At this point Héctor was still going to school, he was involved in a Spanish Club, and he didn’t mind that his host family left him alone. He did, though, sometimes find himself lonely. Very lonely, he told me, and he paused, as if he could still feel that loneliness from 20-some years ago. He often spent entire weekends without speaking a word to another person, he said, and he would turn off the television and eat by himself in silence because the noise from the shows, he said, had started to bother him, seemingly only enunciating the larger silence around him.
You talk like a poet, I said, because it seemed true, but Héctor only laughed and told me that he had been a very sad young man.
I wanted to ask if his sadness had to do with the war that “touched” his village, but before I could find a way to phrase the question, he started talking again.
It was not long after he had seen snow for the first time in his life, a week into winter break, that once again, a few days before Christmas, his host father told him that he was going to Detroit to see his wife. Christmas is a day so important for Guatemalans, Héctor explained to me, with families gathering together, shooting off fireworks, sharing food, everybody in their best clothes, hugging each other, singing, and exchanging gifts. And so, alone for the first time on Christmas day, in order to assuage his deep feelings of loneliness, he went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in a dollar theater, which is a movie, I remembered, that also meant a lot for me as a child.
My parents, I recall, had recorded from television the previous Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, onto a VHS tape, and as a young boy I had watched the movie dozens of times. I can still see the fat black letters written on the label in permanent marker—TEMPLE OF DOOM—covering over the smaller print of whatever had been the previous movie recorded on the tape. I loved not only the name of the movie, but I had parts of it entirely memorized and became giddy when, for example, Indy frantically scrambled for the diamond amongst all of the fake jewels on the dance floor in the Shanghai nightclub, or, my favorite part, when Indy and Willie (I had to look her character name up), the damsel constantly in distress, are served a lunch in Pankok palace consisting of giant insects, live slithering baby snakes cut out of their pregnant mother and, the climax of the scene, steaming monkey brains supposedly served in the trepanned monkey heads in which they were once ensconced. And so it was my father’s special treat for me, that same Christmas back in Cleveland, to take me to the dollar theater to see the new Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade, on a big screen. It was the first adult movie I had ever seen in theaters.
But besides just being a special treat, perhaps my father also wanted to distract me from the tension in our home, because the same Christmas that Héctor found himself alone in a land so different and far from his family, was memorable to me not only for Indiana Jones, but because my family had been closely and nervously following the Romanian Revolution that was playing out like another unlikely adventure on the television news. I so clearly remember my uncle trying to explain to me why, in a promise that turned out to be much more complicated than true, my cousins in Romania would have much better lives now. He told me, I can still remember, that our family would get our fields back so my cousins could play in them and, at that point not yet having traveled to Romania, I imagined Ohio-like breezy fields of grass filled with my many tumbling, running, happy Romanian cousins. I also remember the grayish television screen shots of squares filled with masses of nervous crowds, and, turning away from the television at one point and seeing both my grandmother and grandfather crying quietly in their EZ chairs, an argument between my mother and uncle about turning off the television because it was too much for them to handle—too much for my grandparents, that tireless and still hard-working couple who had had their land stripped from them, their homes invaded, some of their family members and friends and neighbors arrested, tortured, killed, and then had suffered the long fight of getting out of the country, keeping the kids safe, migrating with my young mother and uncle first to Italy and then to the United States, to a small town in northern Ohio. And, though perhaps I’m conflating some of my memories from late-night YouTube sessions much later in life—when I watched the last two hours of President and First Lady Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu’s life, the two of them dressed in great coats and sitting calm-seeming and pale and probably trembling in their very hearts during their last few minutes of life until they were pushed through a show trial and then pulled away to be peremptorily shot by a firing squad—I remember that during our Christmas dinner, back in Cleveland in 1989, after prayers were said and the food served, we ate in near silence as the television, like another somber but talkative guest, updated us from the corner of the room. Héctor, of course, would have understood the fixation on hearing news of violent social unrest, extra-judicial executions, coup attempts, and fear that family members were either in danger of or had already succumbed to the tides of havoc and murder. But, even though the civil war in Guatemala was raging in the same year, Héctor could have turned to no news channel in Cleveland to find updates, because not only did Cleveland newspapers hardly mention the atrocities in Guatemala, but very rarely did any American media give the Guatemala Civil War any attention at all. I wondered if Héctor, after coming home from the dollar theater and buying himself a coffee—that same snowy Christmas—perhaps turned on the television and watched a few minutes of the news, listening to reports on the execution of the Ceaucescus and what was naively being called the triumph of the revolution, the glory of the Romanian people.
The coffee Héctor and I were drinking was acidic, strong, and delicious. It felt like it was sizzling into my empty, hungover stomach, and I imagined it leaving a grayish stain like that which was revealed to me along the inside rim of the coffee cup with each tilting sip. Héctor was telling me about teacher’s wages in Guatemala, that he made the national minimum wage, 2,400 Quetzales, or about 300 dollars, a month. And it’s very hard, he said, because he sometimes buys schoolbooks for some of his pupils himself, and, though he doesn’t have a wife or children of his own, he gives money to his parents and his sister and her three kids. And sometimes, he told me, he doesn’t get paid for a few weeks and has to take a series of bus and combi rides into the capital, which was why he was in the city that day, hoping to get paid by his government employers, though already their “meeting” was delayed from that morning to the afternoon. I soon started feeling sure that Héctor was about to ask me for money, and I remember thinking that I just wished that he would do it, so I would give him a little from the little I had and we would get back to talking about Cleveland, or Indiana Jones, instead of watching him calculate (or so I thought) how best to earn my financial sympathy while I was trying to figure how much I should or could give him. But then Héctor changed the topic himself. He said, You know what my favorite part of The Last Crusades is?
Thinking back to the film, which, though it’s been years since I’d seen it, I still remembered well, I guessed that his favorite part of the film, perhaps also the oddest, was when Indy is rescuing his father’s diary by posing as a German soldier in a military fortress in Berlin and, just as he is escaping, he gets pushed into a Nazi rally where Adolf Hitler is shaking hands and signing autographs for his torch and standard-bearing fanatics. So as not to betray his identity, Indy, thrust face to face with Hitler, after a moment of tense (or perhaps meant to be funny) hesitation, his eyes darting in disbelief, hands the Chancellor his father’s diary. Hitler, with a straight face, signs his autograph and then Indy is in the clear, the soundtrack bugling triumphantly to signal his safe escape.
No, Héctor said, laughing, but that was a good part. What I liked best is when, at the end of the movie, the last knight of the crusades, who is a thousand years old (supposedly kept alive by the power of the grail) sees Indiana Jones—the first human contact he’s had in hundreds of years. And, not surprisingly, Héctor continued describing the movie to me as if I’d never seen it, telling me about how when the knight tries to speak he realizes that his voice, out of use for so long, doesn’t work. And so, in an attempt to communicate, he draws his sword to write a message of welcome in the dust on the floor. Indy, Héctor went on, takes the knight’s sword-wielding as a threat, draws his own sword and the two engage in battle, the knight the whole time trying to write on the ground that he welcomes Indy in peace, but having to defend himself at the same time from his guest’s violent misunderstanding. Finally, despite his incredible age, the knight knocks Indy far enough back to be able to write a quick message—welcome pilgrim—in the dust.
Chuckling, smiling, but also at times locking an intense gaze on me, Héctor finished describing the scene. I felt nervous for a moment, not only because I was sure that this scene doesn’t exist (Indiana Jones doesn’t even carry a sword in the film) and not only because the scene was oddly similar in theme (a weapon used for peace message) to the photo of Guatemalan President Otto Molina (who, with makeup, I realized, might slightly resemble the old knight and protector of the holy grail) playing his AK-47 guitar which I had been contemplating as Héctor first interrupted me earlier in the morning, but because the contrived coincidence made me question the greater coincidence Héctor and I had already stumbled on, that he had lived for two years, 23 years ago, so close to where I grew up, which was so far from where we both were. I felt, for a moment, that he was doing it on purpose, that he was stepping on my memories somehow. Or perhaps he was just plainly lying to me. But, of course, if he had only seen the movie once, in a somewhat vulnerable moment and in a language that was not his native language, perhaps he was simply misremembering. The idea does, if I remember correctly, come up earlier in the film when Indy’s father, played by a worsted-wearing Sean Connery, squirts ink into the eyes of the Nazi keeping him hostage and his milksop of a sidekick, Brody, comments that, indeed, the pen is mightier than the sword. Or maybe, I imagined, Héctor’s favorite moment was a deleted scene I had never seen.
The scholarship was only for a year, Héctor went on, but I decided that it would be a good idea, instead of returning to my country empty-handed, to stay and look for work. I moved out of the host family’s house and into a small apartment, found a job washing dishes at a nearby Italian restaurant called Brio Italiano. Did I know it? he asked me. No, I told him, though it did sound familiar. Oh, it’s real good, Héctor said. They treated me nicely there. There were two Mexicans who worked in the kitchen who made sure I ate everyday. And once when I was sick (I was so skinny back then) they even brought me a plate of lasagna. I lived right around the corner, on Eastwood Avenue. Did I know where that was? he asked me. Sounds familiar, I said, still feeling slightly suspicious that he was making everything up. And yet what could be more convincing, I thought, than a place-name—Eastwood Ave, Brio Italiano, Maple Heights—or a specific detail—a plate of lasagna, a worsted suit, welcome pilgrim—?
I can’t now remember how I found out how old Héctor was, but I remember being struck that he said he was only 42 because he could have easily passed for being in his 60s. Only 11 years older than me, supposedly, and if we had looked more alike people might have taken us for not being father and son but (I’ve always looked younger than my age) even grandfather and grandson. His thin hair was graying at the temples and even the skin on his face seemed to be graying around the eyes, losing the deep brown pallor of his chin and cheeks. And his hands, though he was a schoolteacher, looked like very old hands.
We had both finished our coffees. All three of my newspapers (I had picked up a free paper on our walk to the café) sat unread on the chair next to me. I told Héctor that I should get going soon, and then I flagged the waiter down to bring us the bill. I asked Héctor if he had any recommendations for me in my last few days in the capital city. He said that I should go to the cathedral and then visit another church, whose name I can’t remember, with a ceiling he described as being as blue as an angel, and then, if I liked to dance, I should go to the dance hall El Porvenir de los Obreros, The Future of the Workers. I wrote down the name of the dance hall in my small back pocket notebook, but Héctor didn’t remember the address because, he told me, it had been years since he had gone. I paid for the two coffees and, as we were leaving the Café de los Leones, Héctor thanked me and then apologized, I’m sorry, he said, en todo respeto, from one Clevelander to another, if you could loan me just a little money, just enough, 25 or 30 Quetzales, just enough to buy a little pound of chicken.
His eyes misted, as if on command. Just a little pound of chicken. He put his hand on my forearm.
I had been waiting for this. He apologized again. Of course, I said, and I gave him his baksheesh, 30 Quetzales (about three dollars), trying not to make either of us uncomfortable, and he thanked me, we told each other how nice it was to have run into each other, and then we quickly, perhaps too quickly on my part, parted ways.
I spent the day wandering around Zone One, Zone Four, and Zone Eleven, taking the TransMetro to the enormous and labyrinthine El Guarda market where I bought the pirated Guatemalan movie I’d been looking for, a few bananos, and a pack of Tortrix to feed my sun-growling stomach. As I snacked on the Tortrix I noticed that my fingers were mysteriously blackened. Perhaps the railing from the TransMetro? Perhaps something I had picked up in the market? I paid three Quetzales to use a bathroom just to wash my hands, but found that inside the dirty-curtained concrete room there was nothing but a seatless hole with no running water, not even a tub and a bucket.
Arriving back in Zone One I ate a simple guacamole tostada for lunch, drank another Guatemalan coffee and went back to my friend’s empty apartment (where I was spending the week) for a siesta in which, instead of sleeping, I lazily read more of Mario Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del Celta, a novelistic biography of the gay Irish separatist, anti-imperialist, and defender of human rights, Robert Casement, a book set mostly in the Belgian Congo and the Peruvian Amazon. Occasionally I took breaks from my reading to lean out of the third-story window and listen to the street. There was an evangelist church around the corner from which rang rambunctiously beautiful tambourine-accompanied songs about Jesus on his feet. At one point I set my book down to get up for a better listen as a fat young man with the voice of an angel ambled down the street below me singing, strangely, yet enchantingly, The Star-Spangled Banner.
In the early evening I met a friend in the Parque Central for an ice cream and, while watching a barefoot, big-bellied fire-breather suck gasoline into his throat and then spit it at his torch, I remembered Héctor’s recommendation of the dance hall, El Porvenir de los Obreros. I asked Celeste (my host’s sort-of girlfriend) if she knew the place. She didn’t. I thought it would be a lost cause, or perhaps even El Porvenir didn’t properly exist, or exist anymore, or exist outside of Héctor’s imagination or mismemory, but I figured I’d give it another try and so asked a young street salesman sitting on an exhaust-blackened plastic stool, who had a cloudy eye and was selling used stove parts (on a Saturday evening) if he knew of any dance halls nearby. He knew, and mentioned right away, El Porvenir de los Obreros, giving us complicated directions for what he claimed would be only a five-minute walk.
The evening was finally settling, the blue of the sky touching all the way down to the darkening streets where a breeze was kicking up, cleaning the day’s burn off of the surface of the city. The streetlights were a lukewarm, beery yellow.
The evening in Guatemala City seemed a transition not only from the day to night, but, as a number of people warned me, a complete remaking of parts of the city—day-goers abandoning entire Zones with new shifts of transients, dealers, users, predators, johns, and prostitutes moving in, opening unofficial bars, blossoming corners into new kinds of night shops, cruising grounds, and hangouts. Even in Zone One, I was told, dusk is an introduction not merely to the coming darkness, but to the night-dawning of a whole new city. Or maybe some of the stories and warnings were meant to startle, impress, or scare me: feed into my tourist/reporter’s wanderlust for danger. And yet I recognized that it was not just a gringo’s anxiety that made me second guess whether or not the frequent backfirings of the Bluebird-manufactured U.S. schoolbusses converted into tricked-out city busses were gunshots, because I saw a number of boys pop their heads out of the abarrote shops where they worked with an unmistakable and universal gleam in their eyes—like sharks drawn to a single shot of blood in the whole wide sea—rubbernecking for violence.
Celeste and I asked for directions again, twice, before, in another abarrote, a beautiful indigenous-dressed woman told us we were only a few blocks away. The inside of the small shop was ringing with the pop and applause of four young women in cascading age standing around a giant comal, slapping maize dough into thick Guatemalan style tortillas while her husband, or their father, or brother or uncle or son, or whatever he was to them, sat back and slurped meat off a chicken thigh. The man handed Celeste change for her bottle of water through the cashier bars while keeping an eye the whole time on the small grainy television showing a soccer game in the corner. As we walked away the noise of the eight expert female hands clapping out tortillas and sliding them onto the comal started to give way, it was now undeniable, to a distant pounding of bass. The Future of the Workers was at hand.
The entrance fee was 30 Quetzales. The two bands, Checha y su India Maya Caballero and La Sonora Dinamita, were only playing for another hour, but neither of us hesitated to pay and enter. Inside, the music coming from stadium-sized speakers was so loud I felt my own lungs vibrating hard enough that when I opened my mouth I could feel myself humming. In those first few minutes, before my body had adjusted to the extreme noise, my left ear, which had been infected for the past week, felt like it was being rammed with a heavy spike.
The large, smooth concrete dance floor was painted the same faded lime green as the walls and ceiling and was filled with what very much looked like working class Guatamaltecos dancing animatedly, passionately, or even (a few of them) seemingly desperately to the overwhelming rhythm of the marimba beating cumbias. Besides the working class, there were also a number of women in indigenous dress, some octogenarian-looking couples, and some clearly handicapped men and women dancing excitedly and with shockingly happy smiles on their faces. Celeste and I (both of us much younger, differently dressed, and lighter skinned than most of the others in the hall) turned a few heads as we shuttled across the dance floor, propelled by the still present instinct of taking refuge from the sound. We signaled to each other, that universal thumb-to-mouth and throwback of the head sign, that we should get a drink.
I held up two fingers to the fat young bartender and, after she fished two cans of Gallo beer out of the dirty icebox, gave her 30 Quetzales. She returned 6 Quetzales in change and then I mouthed a gracias to her. Already sweating, nearly deafened by the music, and completely enthralled with El Porvenir, I gulped at my beer and suddenly remembered Héctor, who had recommended the place to me. I imagined him and a pretty novia dancing a frenetic tarantella to the crazy salsa thundering through the floor. Celeste and I signed to each other that we would finish our beers before trying to dance. The noise itself was so stimulating that it seemed to absorb into my vision, and, fixating on a chubby, obviously very drunk couple (the man in slacks and a button down shirt and the woman in a long indigenous skirt, an apron and a blouse) it seemed to me for a moment that their stumble-dancing, fondling, and French-kissing was the origin of the sound in the hall and not Checha y su India Maya’s dozen-person band up on the stage. I watched as the couple consistently smacked into other couples, though nobody seemed to mind or notice at all as they all looked lost in the oblivion of sound and beer and the lime green walls surrounding them on all sides. I watched an extremely short woman with braces on her legs over thick white socks and buckle shoes dancing with a nun, and two older women, both in indigenous dress, dancing expertly with each other, and an impeccably dressed ancient-looking couple dancing what seemed to be a slow waltz despite the rapid rhythm of the marimba, and then I saw, dancing by herself, a short, dark-skinned, drunk-faced woman staring hard and directly at me, her two gold teeth beaming from halfway across the dance floor. And then the vision snapped shut; the song ended.
I massaged my infected ear. Everything felt lost in plain sight. I was already drunk somehow, the noise like a pill spiked into my drink. Celeste and I took our last swallows and barely had time to gesture a shall we before the trumpets shrilled into the first notes of the next song. We danced a few cumbias together, a son without knowing the steps, a very fast salsa. I kept catching the gold-toothed woman laughing and smiling, staring at me like she was famished and I was nothing but a nugget on a plate. I wanted another beer but thought that if I let go of Celeste the woman would surely grab hold of me. But then Celeste, too, needed a beer. Sweat was dripping openly from our faces. We skipped quickly off the dance floor and interrupted the fat young bartender, who was writing something in her notebook, for two more Gallos. As she was digging for the beers in the icebox I leaned over the counter (the music was so loud it boldened me; made me feel, besides mute, almost invisible) to see what she was writing. On the left side of the page, as evenly spaced as if she were a child writing out her punishment, she had written Te Amo, Te Amo, Te Amo, Te Amo… On the right side of the page, which she had been working on when we interrupted her, she was writing Te Quiero, Te Quiero, Te Quiero, Te Quiero… And the declarations of love were repeated—I could see her hard penmanship almost penetrating the previous pages—spelling out her love hundreds and hundreds of times, perhaps even filling up the entire notebook (it was opened to the middle). I paid her with exact change this time and the girl took my money, took up her pen and, unembarrassed, went back to work…. Te Quiero, she wrote, defiantly glancing up at Celeste and me—we were both staring back at her. Te Quiero, Te Quiero…
We walked back to the dance floor gulping at our beers, looking at each other in astonishment, wishing we could somehow comment on the bartender’s spelled-out obsession of love. The gold-toothed woman, dancing by herself, smiling her lascivious smile, appeared suddenly in my vision through the forest of couples, staring at me as screamingly as the salsa. And then she blew me a kiss. Unthinkingly, I blew her one back. The song ended.
Checha y Su India Maya thanked the dancers, wished us good night, then hurried off stage. Instead of clapping the dancers mopped the sweat off their foreheads, re-tied their shoes, went for beers. In only a few minutes La Sonora Dinamita, the next band, was already tuning up, and then they were already playing, the couples back on the dance floor, a man on a crutch with a disfigured, drooping face, dancing with a short man in a gray three-piece suit, the French kissy, chubby couple stepping on each others’ toes, a man in a tank-top trying to follow the big rhythmic hips of his scantily-clad partner, and the two gold teeth flashing at me through it all. Celeste and I finished our beers and stood up to try a cumbia when I saw Héctor (it was unmistakably him) getting patted down by the bouncer with a shotgun just inside the front door. Somehow, even right away, I wasn’t surprised. It was as if I had been expecting him.
I widened my eyes and held up an apologetic finger to Celeste, and then skipped over to Héctor. We both greeted each other in obvious excitement and, for a minute or so, we tried to have a conversation, attempting communication by shouting in each others’ ears, shaking our heads, nodding, pointing to our ears and shrugging our shoulders. I offered to buy him a beer. He either declined or didn’t understand me. I thought of the knight of the holy grail and Indiana Jones miscommunicating with a sword in Héctor’s mistaken memory. Or maybe it was in my own mistaken memory. Had he really described a false scene to me with such sure details? Can you misremember that well? Was my own favorite scene nothing but my own recreated memory? Did Hitler actually sign autographs?
We gave up trying to talk and stood side-by-side, watching the drunken couples clinging to each other and pushing their feet across the dance floor. A few empty beer cans were being kicked (in complete silence compared to the overwhelming sound of the music) amongst the dancers. I saw Celeste being spun by a man in a checkered sport coat who was a head shorter than she was. The gold-toothed woman was guffawing and spinning by herself. When the song ended Héctor and I both shouted at each other Que gusto verte, Igual, Que Gusto, Un Gusto verdad, Sí, que suerte, Sí, que super suerte. He reminded me again that he had lived in Cleveland, which of course I hadn’t forgotten. Maple Heights, he shouted. I laughed, happily. The 30 Quetzales I’d given him hadn’t gone to a pound of chicken, I knew, but to the cover of El Porvenir de los Obreros. We fell into a sort of awkward, ear-ringing silence, which was not silent at all in the thrall of the music’s still cla-clanging echo. I clapped Héctor friendlily on the back, and then, when the next song started blaring out of the battery of speakers, he held out his hand. It was a gesture that took me a few seconds to recognize. Was he asking for something? Offering me something? And then I understood.
I laughed briefly, raising my eyebrows.
Héctor reached his hand out further, bowing his head slightly, emphasizing his gallantry. Mutely, I took his hand. We walked a few symbolic steps onto the dance floor we were already on, and then, together, we started stepping. This is, he showed me, how you do it. He laughed. I stepped. We caught onto the rhythm for a moment, then I lost it. He guided me. We stepped, swaying, laughing, laughing with each other to the swing and then settling back into the cumbia. Héctor’s small hand was surprisingly powerful, much stronger than a schoolteacher’s hand needed to be. He led me, spun me, guided me, pulling me back to the rhythm every time I started to lose it. He corrected my mistakes, swinging me, pulling me in, pushing my hip to the left, to the right, a spin, all the while clenching my hand so hard I thought he was trying to tell me something.
Read John Washington’s Terrain.org recommended reads: “The Good, the Bad, and the White Man’s Mexico Novel”.
Photo, “Romanian Revlution 1989 2”, by Denoel Paris and other photographers – “1989 Libertate Roumanie” by Denoel Paris (ISBN 2-207-23695-1). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.