Thursday, June 30, 2016

Spain

Isn't it strange how certain stories get recycled on an endless loop at family gatherings while others get skipped over like stones across the water never to drop beneath the surface.  Every time someone mentions Spain, there are the funny stories of my sunburn and the overnight train ride shivering on a hard bench across from the Japanese couple who merely dropped their chins to chest to sleep peacefully while we restless Americans twisted and turned, grumpy and complaining. And how the Spaniards simply stepped outside for a smoke while the strike left us stranded in the middle of nowhere just a few miles outside the Madrid border.  But no one talks about my brother’s heartbreak as we traveled, him dutifully showing his little sister around the tourist sites.  And no one mentions the outing that cut short my innocence and that will forever haunt my subconscious. 

My pent up energy ready to explode, I instinctually rebelled when my older brother said he would lie down for a nap upon arriving in Córdoba.  I simply couldn't hide in his heavy shadow any longer.  Energized by a 16-year-old independent streak, I instead head out to the park to read a book on my own.  Not paying attention to the name of the hotel we had just checked into and too engrossed in the mesmerizing sites to pay attention to street names, I wandered down the cobblestone with a book locked securely under my arm.  

I reveled in the romantic scent of freedom, alone in a foreign country, finding my own way, Spanish words bubbling up and sporadically popping effervescent from my brain.  Finding an empty park bench, I sat down purposefully and strategically avoided any prying eyes of passersby determined to lose myself in my own version of this moment and not wanting a mirrored reflection of myself as an awkward American staining my experience.  I have no idea what I was reading or even if I in fact was reading.  It was more a staking out of place, a reclaiming of identity in a foreign land with no reference points. 

I don’t know how long I sat before I noticed a slight change in the light sifting through the canopy and had that entrenched sense in my gut that it was time to head home.  But just as my muscles were contracting to stand, I caught sight of some teenage boys in my peripheral vision and decided to fall engrossed in my book for just a few more minutes until they meandered by.  But no matter how hard I tried to ignore them, I eventually could not deny their incessant attempts to get my attention, first gradual like they were calling a cat “psst” then angry guttural sounds as they grabbed their crotch, each egging the other on. 

Finally looking up, and my eyes fell on the leader of the pack with his dark hair falling in soft waves.  His body formed a staggering S, all bravado with sleepy eyes that drilled into me.  I gradually became aware like a camera coming into focus that he was standing too close, and the others were forming a semicircle around us blocking any view of a now almost entirely empty park.  Startled and confused by my rapidly changed environment, I strained to understand their Spanish words that were hitting my brain like staccato notes.  Something hard and bitter was getting caught in my throat and tears threatened to sting my eyes as I desperately tried to decode the situation.  The next thing I knew, he was next to me embracing me, and I was numb, as if I were watching the scene from outside my body.  My skin felt hard, the border of my being closing off in defense to the intrusion like even the cells of my body were uniting, squeezing the space between them to create a more defined barrier. 

The next thing I remember was the sound of dried, crunching leaves behind the bench and looking at the branches of the trees towering above me while a disembodied voice was telling me something I couldn’t understand in tones no longer aggressive but sated, soft and wistful.  As if waking from a dream, I struggled to remember who it was that was talking to me, this stranger who was whispering as if we had known each other for years.  Disoriented and stunned, I had the sudden relief that he was telling me goodbye.  He pulled my hand open in front of him and gently placed an earring in it as a parting present.  I stared in disbelief that he thought I would want a memento to remember this night.  When I sat still as stone, he placed it in my ear and then was gone.  I watched like a stunned animal as he strutted off with his fawning posse in tow. 

Blinking, I quickly become aware that I was alone in a darkened park without any sense of from which way I had come.  The darkness of the trees was now feeling oppressive like they were tightening in around me.  My breathing grew heavy and my chest began to heave.  No time for tears, I staggered out and head instinctively in the opposite direction from which they had sauntered.  

Reappearing abruptly from what seemed another dimension, my eyes searched desperately from right to left for landmarks.  The families that were strolling through the streets earlier had all gone home and were surely gathered around their tables sharing a warm meal.  The quaint corner stores had all pulled the shutters and locked up for the night taking their comforting chatter with them.  The Spanish phrases that I had diligently studied on the airplane over the ocean had all drained from my head.  This must be how a deer in headlights feels.  The light was rapidly fading so I randomly chose a direction that seemed vaguely familiar and walked as if pulled by a deep yearning to forget.  But as I turned each corner only to find a less and less familiar street unfold before me, the sinking knowledge of how incredibly protected I had been my whole life smacked me in the face.  How stupid!  This proud, independent, free thinker finally facing her own flimsy grasp of the world.  I was suddenly a character in a dark novel.  Toni Morrison would have a heyday with me, wandering aimlessly with glaring white skin glowing in the darkness like a beacon of naiveté. 

There were new movements in the streets now.  The same space had been transformed.  Older men called out to me “¿Estás sola?” and I began to run blindly down random streets as sweat slipped between my young breasts.  Flashes of dead ends and turning around desperately as if lost in an endless maze.  Time stretched out and bulged around me, having lost all meaning.  My mind was on an infinite loop scrolling down lists in my mind, considering possibilities and then crossing them off. 

Just as I was about to give up and curl into a ball until daybreak, I turned a corner and saw a blue glow rising up ahead.  Heladería.  I stumbled under the awning and swallowed hard as I hesitantly approached the counter jittery, suddenly aware of my wrinkled appearance.  A young, vibrant man with sparkling eyes paused to decode my stammering.  His eyes registered the dry leaves on my clothes, the sweaty t-shirt.  ¿Borracha?”  No.  Perdida.”  He handed me a phone book, and I desperately scrolled down the list of hoteles hoping something would catch my eye.  I was near tears, panic creeping up my spine, but I let myself trust his kindness, his patience.  Then it appeared, like a strobe light in the sky, larger than the rest Rincón de Córdoba.  The gods had decided to have pity on me, having tired of their cat and mouse game. 

Enrique quietly asked permission of the gentle middle aged woman behind the bar and disappeared, reassuring me “Regreso en un ratito.”  I was still shaking as he pulled his scooter around.  He put his jacket over me, and I climbed mechanically on behind.  Tentatively I stretched my arms around his muscled body.  Just hours before this would have been the most romantic moment of my life.  But now I was numb, mentally on hold.  I didn’t know where he was taking me and no longer cared.  As we pulled up to the hotel, I realized someone must have called ahead because my brother was waiting in the street, his face sewed up and puckered with worry.  I had never seen him like that, my hero standing helpless. 

I was speechless as he led me up to our room.  His words washed over me but couldn’t sink in.  I slid into the bathroom and turned on the shower and cried quiet tears into the hot streams of water like a torrent over me.  I stepped listlessly out of the shower and gingerly wrapped my newly sensitive skin after having scrubbed it raw.  It was then that I remembered the earring.   I ripped it roughly from my lobe and tossed it like a dead thing in the trash.  If only I could have removed the invisible scars as easily.  I felt them sending down roots, tangling their tendrils around everything I had known, redefining who I once had been.  But when I stepped out of the bathroom, I was startled to find a smile on my face and an invented story spilling from my lips to set my brother’s worries to rest before we climbed under the covers to sleep.  

Yet when I closed my eyes, I was forever running down dead end streets and nothing looked familiar.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Town Lake


There’s just enough light for one more lap around the lake she muses vaguely to herself.  Feeling strong, she savors the way her muscles flex and hold her as her feet land firmly on the ground.  A smile sweeps across her face as she quietly greets familiar strangers passing by.  A breeze provides a luxurious pause from the Texas summer heat.  A song fills her mind, and she laughs to realize she is singing out loud and not just to herself.  

Crossing the Mopac bridge, she falls naturally into her latest ritual.  A look left toward the sprawling city acknowledging her past and with a slow turn of her head to the right, she watches her future disappear tantalizingly around the bend.  The excitement of that catches in her throat.  She loves the sound of her footsteps on the long metal bridge, as cars rush by on an endless treadmill up above.  She shares a suspended moment over the water, a runner’s community acknowledged with knowing nods.  The setting sun fills her with contentment and a solid sense of accomplishment as she finishes her 2nd full lap.  Suddenly she senses that she has one more left in her and finds her feet carrying her back over the 1st street bridge and steering her around once again.  She’s never done a third lap, but 13 miles feels right tonight, a half marathon.  She softens her eyes and sinks into the rhythm of her body.  Her swinging arms allow her full 120 pounds to rock efficiently back and forth evenly distributed and sleek. 

Opening her eyes she is suddenly aware that the sun has set.  She has the panic of biking home before dark as a kid.  Feeling mom waiting impatiently with dinner on the table as the illusion of time makes the sun sink fast once it hits the horizon.  She winces slightly as she realizes some of the bends ahead are now fully shaded.  Picking up the pace, she concentrates more on the time in the air than the time on the ground.  Crossing the bridge for the third time, she is conscious of the difference she feels in her body crossing it alone.  A dark foreboding creeps along her skin when she looks off around the bend to the right.  On the backside of the loop, she is grateful for a bright stretch and slows slightly to enjoy it, letting her breathing even out.  She inhales the scent of wisteria growing thick over the gazebo as she curves smoothly around the next bend.  Her muscles are heavy but like a horse heading to the barn they are locked resolutely into the homeward stretch.  She blinks away the sweat from her eyes as the thud of her feet rock the little wooden bridge faintly over the cove, all the ducks already tucked safely in their nests.  

An immense blackness has settled around her as she nears the end of her run with a vague sense of relief.  But the path up ahead is still dark and inky.  She picks up the pace slightly and feels the weight of that last lap catch up to her.  Her thoughts are fragmented as she remembers the day she helped clean the trail and found a stash of used needles just down the bank from this section of the path.  Someone’s pain discretely hidden in the roots of the wise and wispy bald cypress rising up out of the water.  This trail has always been a healing place for her, symbolized her gradual recovery and persistent clinging to life.  She shivers at the stark contrast.  She had never considered that others might come here with any other motive. 


That’s when she sees it.  Doubting herself at first, she keeps a steady eye on the trees and is able to catch the choppy motion as the branches shift a second time just as a menacing shadow takes shape behind her as she rounds the corner.  Suddenly aware she hasn’t seen anyone in the last 30 minutes, the presence rattles her.  Glancing over her shoulder, she sees him.  This is not a runner.  She’s had enough experience to know the look in his eyes.  She met it once in a Spanish park when she was 16 and innocent and again as a more mature adult when the Rainy Street biker threw his bike to the ground and tried to bolt inside her home as she ran from door to door sliding the locks just as he hit the peeling paint of the wood outside. 

Making quick calculations in her head she knows there’s no light on this part of the trail and no exit from here to the Lamar Street bridge.  Adrenaline surges through her muscles.  Her inner warrior takes over, barking commands like a drill sergeant, “Push!”  Shaking the web of exhaustion from her mind, she feels tiny daggers strike like stinging needles in her chest as she tries to nudge fear to the distant periphery of her mind but it dangles there, a nuisance.  She digs in.  The strength in her arms lifting her body higher off the ground with each swing.  Every inch of her taut, she stretches out her stride as much as her 5’3” frame will allow.  Shoving the air forcefully out of her lungs frees up space for each intake of breath.  The sound of her exhale accents the pounding rhythm of her heart in her ears, and her legs drive her forward to the beat.  She’s learned her lesson well.  Riding the wave of her own momentum, she feels the distance between her and the dark shadow lengthen.  He’s losing interest and eventually fades back into the darkness from where he had emerged.  She allows herself a grin remembering something she had heard once about cheetahs but can’t quite remember what.  Just then she sees a beaten path up a muddy incline.  The light of the streetlamps flashes like a beacon between the lacy leaves of the oak trees.  She harnesses her body’s built up momentum to carry her up the slope.  She bursts onto street level as if from another dimension, and her brain snags trying to process the image of people chatting calmly together as they wait at the cross walk so far from the danger she has so narrowly escaped just a few yards below.      

Monday, June 27, 2016

Mountain lion tattoo

She peers out at me from the curve of my arm, a reminder released from the buried depths of my skin.  She holds me with her eyes.  Powerful but compassionate.  I feel the ink seep into my muscles.  
A promise not to forget.  To not take this life for granted…

Mesa Verde, Colorado 1998.  Fire scorched, black ashes, and drooping trees feel like fresh wounds as I enter the park.  Skeletons of the earth are laid bare like fallen giants, the forest’s bones exposed.  I am traveling alone.  Having conquered yet another battle with my lungs, I am celebrating my freedom from hospital beds, high doses of prednisone and nebulizers.  I set up tent in time to head out and explore before dark.  Driving down winding roads to the ancient cliff dwellings, a splash of color catches my eye. I pull over to take in a stunning patch of wildflowers.  Beauty in resilience.  Life returning, a reminder of the endless cycle of rebirth, time spiraling forever on.  With my camera hanging around my neck, I crouch low to the earth to take aim, try to capture the small miracle on film.  But a movement distracts my trance.  A presence hovers above me.  I slowly lift my gaze, caressing the rocks with my eyes, searching the crevices, stumbling over pebbles and brave clumps of grass, delicate petals in the desert punctuated by prickly protectors.  I momentarily marvel how life takes root in the tiniest grey, green leaf of lichen. 

Then suddenly I see her.  Soft padded feet the sandy color of the boulder that she rises from as regal as if rising from a throne, commanding my respect.  I am startled by the realization that I am trespassing in her kingdom uninvited.  I am at her mercy.  How long has she been observing me, tolerating my intrusion?  Her eyes sear my skin, and I am instantly humbled.    Mesmerized by her power and grace, I watch captivated as her back curves into an elegant arch as she lunges from the rocky crag and lands before me. Time and space blur out of focus, and we are alone in the world.  Our eyes lock in an intimate embrace.  I rise slowly to full height as she pours like liquid towards me, her shoulders rolling in a supple display of strength.  Hypnotized by the rhythm of her stride, I back slowly away, attempting to match my own steps to the fluid nature of hers.  

I am stunned by the complete absence of fear, in its place only awe.  Her penetrating eyes never leave mine, and I am whispering to her.  I hear my own voice like an incantation spiraling out of my soul, a secret code I didn’t know I knew.  Like a song sung under your breath, communion, the muscle memory that walks you through a sacred ritual forever encrypted from the mind.  Our steps are a loom weaving our disparate worlds together.  And for that one fleeting moment I surrender, dissolve indistinguishably into our shared air…  and then she is gone.  With one agile leap, she disappears into the wilderness.  I feel the sudden emptiness like a gaping chasm and gasp as if rising from the waters of a baptism.  Blessed, relieved, but irrevocably changed.  


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Raw

I remember reading in college about a Native American belief about the raw and the cooked as I sat in a lecture hall that held 300 wide eyed students.  My professor said babies were often not named until they were considered fully “cooked.”  Before that moment their soul was not thought ready for this world, not yet fully embodied.  Walking around Oaxaca I am definitely a raw soul.  My white skin glows in a sea of golden brown.  I am still an infant here: malleable, untried and shamelessly exposed.  “¡Güera!  Compre unos recuerdos aquí.”  I will forever be seen as una turista no matter how long we stay.  I pay 10 pesos for a bag of tortillas from the woman on the corner while my indigenous husband pays only 5.  Of course, I feel ridiculous voicing my frustration with the blatant discrimination, even in my head.  Por favor…  Poor little white girl, things not going your way today?  Pobrecita.  Like I could ever know what it feels like to grow up with the legacy of my people’s condemnation written on my face and reflected back to me in the condescending eyes of the fairer race.  Staring back at me from the unfamiliar pale faces in Bimbo commercials, all Formica and sterile surfaces. I wear my privilege on my skin, in my confident glance, in my walk.  It is my unearned inheritance as the conqueror’s child.  Therefore, I reluctantly accept my place as tolerated outcast.  I can only bridge that gap so much with my sencillez.  I drift alone, through the streets stewing in my good intentions.  Held at a distance by polite smiles and the shallow hope for their own economic benefit shining like a broadcast from my translucent skin. 

Sunblock and vomiting are my “tell.”  The neighbors hear me in the communal bathroom late at night as my stomach violently rejects a street tlayuda I tried to eat nonchalantly so as not to draw more attention to myself.  My in-laws wait awkwardly as I slather banana boat on my face before we leave home.  And then there’s the constant over thinking of everyday activities.  The awkward maneuvering of personal space and the futile attempt to analyze body language.  If only there were a dictionary to interpret the signs!  I try to meet the eyes of people I pass on the street, aching for connection, but all I see is a sea of avoided glances and heads tipped down as we pass on the sidewalk.  My presence feels like an intrusion to their daily routine.  I offend just by being here.  I’m a tourist out of place, not respecting the proper roles and boarders, making everyone uncomfortable.  Does my stepping off the sidewalk to grant them space to pass register as ignorant or genuine?  I can’t seem to catch the rhythm.  I dance off beat.  My eyes are impulsively drawn to the sky as I walk in awe of the shadow of history hovering above me on every corner.  I trip often on the uneven sidewalk and feel like a fool.  I’m the village idiot startled by exiting cars from underground garages.  I piss off the smoker at a cibercafé when I ask him to put out his cigarette as I rub my pregnant belly.  
I hesitantly cross my heart when the conversation stops passing a church on each corner, but I wonder if it is seen as sincere or just condescending.  And when I pass the exposed breast of an indigenous woman with baby held to her body in a rebozo and hand outstretched, to offer money seems patronizing, to ignore her, cruel.  I am instantly paralyzed to act, because both are expected from someone like me, but would instantly label me with a code I instinctively reject. 

Is there somewhere in between?  Where do I fit in this mix?  I’ve stepped into an unsolicited role built for me hundreds of years before my birth.  Is it honorable or naïve to try to evade it?  I don’t want to be the tourist here just out to pick up unique souvenirs and interesting memories and then go home with some good stories in my pocket and pictures to share at parties.  This history is now part of my history; it runs in my children’s veins.  A story I cannot tell but only point to like the moon.  I am humbled now looking back at my innocent stumbling into this messy world.  Stepping out from my own well delineated, Tupperware divided upbringing.  Not the slightest clue if I could swim…or even aware I would need to!   


I’ll never forget my husband’s mom making the dreaded trip down the mountain from the pueblo to the capital after I lost Angelito.  She was unfamiliar with my expressed grief though intimately familiar with the emotion.  But hers was only occasionally aired out through silent tears, quickly wiped away, always unspoken.  And in my indignant defense of women’s education in the face of an ancient bias, I still remained ignorant to the wisdom looking back at me through her eyes as she rubbed el huevo over my belly to take to the curandera.  I watched in wonder the steady dignity with which she sat in the pale skinned doctor’s office and surveyed the cold machines with skepticism as they beeped defeat and the doctor declared authoritatively that the fetus was dead.  I am drawn to her other worldly knowledge that can never be attained from books and degrees.  My privilege drips off me like a melted sugar coating.  A saccharine puddle I can’t pick back up off the floor.  I am shaking and crumpled on the ground before such an ancient pain.  I am raw.