We were driving by the Escuela Americana (the "American School"), in the San Benito, an area next to Escalon that rivals it in huge mansions, tall walls covered in spiked wire and broken bottles and security guards with large thick black and silver shotguns. As we drove past the long street that led into the school, I could remember the many mornings when my mother’s car was about to turn left by the tall red brick wall topped with large bushes and flowers and I could feel the sliding metal gate approaching and I knew that soon I would be in a classroom again, a place I perceived (and still perceive) as a somewhat benign prison, surrounded by kids that I saw as fellow prisoners, some friendly, some not so friendly and some openly hostile. I never looked forward to that turn, to that shift that signaled the end of freedom, and I could sense some part of me, a very old and tiny part, was clearly happy that today I was not going to school, not to that school in any case, and all the little chained moments of private horror which it entailed. Today I could decide where to go and so we drove past the school and up the street which had been a mystery to me for all my childhood, as if the world turned to shadows after that turn, as if there could be nothing beyond that barrier.
Flashes of memories went through my inner mind as we passed by: the kids in the first grade moving up a dark hallway that had a solid ramp instead of a stairway, the mass of them creating loud echoes of laughter and screams in the narrow enclosed space, my fight in the middle of the first grade playground when all the kids started shouting and calling our names even from far away and the boy who was my enemy was bleeding slightly from his lip and I wasn’t sure if or how I had done that and what it could possibly mean for my future, the time that someone saw a ghost in a little alleyway behind the second grade classrooms and we all rushed to figure out what it was and there were so many kids that nobody could see anything but everybody shouted in fear and wonder as if there was something there, the first time that I looked at a girl with lust and the many complex and violent stories that I constructed around it as if through the stories I could step away from the simple crushing reality of her mouth, her cheeks and her eyes, the little gang of eighth graders that became my friends when I was in fifth grade because they shared my intense interest in geometry and the many afternoons we spent together looking at textbooks that were just beyond our intellectual grasp, the three pretty girls in sixth grade that all the boys talked about as if they were sophisticated models or starlets even though they were only little twelve year olds that were just as confused as their admirers, the wide green lawn where we played soccer during the day and where I walked around with a couple of friends after school, exchanging stories and magazines and books, reclaiming our freedom after the last bell had rung for the day. All of it rolled through me like a movie in fast forward, like a quick reckless flight through a recurrent dream that repeats in almost the same way, the same characters, the same plot, the same chambers, night after night.
We drove up to the main boulevard that signaled the western border of San Benito and we turned towards the north, back to Escalon. Just as we turned northward, I looked over to the car to our left and I saw a girl looking at me. She had dark strong eyes, thick arched eyebrows, long black hair and dark brown skin. She was probably about seventeen or eighteen and she was wearing some kind of uniform that I couldn’t fully see through the window. Another girl was next to her and she was also looking at me. It seemed to me that the second girl had said something and the first one was now looking intently at me. Her eyes had an intensity that signaled not only strength but the kind of security that comes from practice. She was accustomed to looking and she was used to people backing down from her wide open gaze. I looked directly into her eyes and she looked back at me and I kept on looking and she kept on looking and I saw that her eyes were like deep black wells of curiosity and lust that bubbled under the pliable surface of her black pupils and her dark skin, and as I looked at her, as I allowed my attention to open, I dived deep into her black depths and I saw her strength and I also saw her softness and I kept on exploring and digging deeper and she noticed that something was happening and she tried to hold the unexpected contact a moment longer, but then she had to look away. She lowered her face and she blushed, a full sincere blush that traveled all the way to her surface from the bottom of her being, and she looked down for a moment and then she looked back at me, embarrassed at the weakness she had shown me, ashamed that I had seen her innocence, her soft core that was hidden beneath layers of image and personal armor. I smiled softly at her, letting her know that I was not an enemy, that I was not trying to conquer her will or cut across the real muscle of her strength, letting her know that when I had dived inside her I had done it with tenderness and not with anger. She took in my unspoken message, carried across car windows and the no man’s land of the road around us, and she smiled softly back at me with an innocent hint of flirting and a flowering sense of discovery. Then her car turned away and drove up a side street and another car moved next to us and I couldn’t see her anymore, not even to say goodbye, and we kept on going on our way back home.
My heart was touched by her, by the momentary breakdown of her image, by the soft loving real girl that came out from under the thick armor of the sophisticated secure fake woman. I could see the place in me where I wanted her to be mine, where I would have wanted to know more about her, follow her, talk to her, kiss her, touch her. But like the tiny place in me that was still afraid to turn towards the school, this voice was already diminishing, and I could see that both were attempts to alleviate the real pain of a heart that is open, the spiraling rays of heat that have no apparent objective and which hurt in a way that has no center and appears to have no end. The beautiful dark skinned girl was gone, like all other Salvadorean girls I had ever known were gone, like all my friends from school, like almost all my friends that came later, like everyone would eventually go in their time. But the heat and the pain and the love would still be there. There was no way to avoid it. I was beginning to understand that there was no reason to try.