I called Fanci, the father of Dilcia, and Leti, her stepmother, answered. She sounded very happy to hear from me, in fact a bit too happy, something didn’t fit just right, there was something strange in her happiness. After all, I was the bad man who had betrayed her daughter with another woman. (I knew that’s how the tale would be told, and that’s how it would always be remembered among my wife’s relatives.) I held the phone against my ear as I paced on the sun drenched terrace of my grandmother’s house, looking up at the volcano as I heard the familiar voice against my cheek. I told her that I would have wanted to talk to them long ago but that I had always preferred to talk in person. This was true. The disembodied voices on the phone could never replace the truth of a simple hand gesture or the twinkling in the other’s eyes. (Of course, I had now realized that I had waited so long to talk to my Dad face to face that the issues had become irrelevant. Maybe it would have been better to call when the kitchen was still hot and simply deal with the limitations of communication over phone lines. But it was too late to retrace my steps.)
"So many things have happened…" I said.
"We have much to talk about, don’t we?" she said.
I said yes and we both laughed about it. What were we laughing about? I would never really know. She said that we could see each other that very same day, in the early evening, when Fanci would be free from previous engagements. I felt immediately happy, knowing that I would get to see them, the thought felt like cool water running down my parched throat. I remembered the dream I had, where I saw him as an aggressive entity that I ran into by mistake, an angry creature that had stepped beyond forgiveness, and I thought that maybe my dreams were wrong, maybe it was only my fear that made me have them. It crossed my mind that Dilcia would feel isolated, set aside and forgotten, if I made peace with them. Where I had struggled to bring her back together with her father, for years on end, she would now do all she could to keep me away from him. I expected that from her at this point. It would follow the recurring pattern that I had come to understand. But what did I truly expect from them? What was really hiding under our mutual silence?
Leti called me later, when only about a half an hour had passed, to tell me that they wouldn’t be able to see me that night. We agreed that maybe we would see each other on Monday. I asked her about Fanci and how he was feeling about our meeting. She said that he was feeling good, but as she said it, as her voice traveled through the cold phone line, I heard again that same strange happiness, and this time I recognized it as the mask she would put on when she would talk to one of Fanci’s clients, to a stranger on the phone, it was the same mask she would use when she wasn’t happy at all. I suddenly heard the fake intention behind every word that she spoke, it came through in a moment of clarity that was like a crystalline teardrop surrounding the red phone in my hand with a kind of liquid brilliance. Then I thought that maybe Fanci wasn’t as happy as she claimed that he was. She said that she would call again around 7pm. I hung up the phone and I realized that the cool water I had anticipated might not be coming. But I still felt the thirst.
Avelar had been my friend as far back as I could remember. Avelar was his last name, and Francisco was his first, but I always knew him simply as "Avelar", just as I was "Mendizabal" to him. He was a strong boy that enjoyed soccer and basketball. He moved through the world with a fluid gentleness that betrayed no weakness or timid fear. Unlike some others, he was my friend and a part of our group of outcasts because of pure affinity and temperament, not out of weakness or need. He preferred to play with us rather than play with the tough sarcastic little boys that were our classmates. He could have been with them if he had wanted to but he was truly at home with me. His skin was very dark, darker than most in a society where light skin was a sign of beauty. His arms were full and muscular for a twelve year old, and already showed the signs of the strong man he would someday become. Whenever a fight broke out in the playground at school, he would run madly towards it, ready to do anything in his power to stop it. While other kids would circle the two fighters to see what would develop, calling out their names and prodding them to fight, he would stand between them and push them apart, without any regard for his own safety, while repeating over and over: "No fighting! No fighting!" He said it with such intensity that even back then I could tell that something was triggered within him at the sight of violent anger, something he would rather forget. We became friends early in grade school, in the days when walking up a little dark hallway marked a sign of newfound status and third graders seemed like strong wise giants beyond the reach of our weak little hands. Each day, after the last bell rang, we would go together to the front patio of the school and walk in circles, talking and talking, until our parents showed up to get us. Then we would say goodbye, still hungry to talk some more the next day. Other kids accused us of being girly because we talked so much amongst ourselves. But we loved each other with such clarity and such simple commitment that we disregarded their accusations easily, without shame, without anger.
When my mom and me moved into the little apartment in the middle of the dark garden, we discovered that we lived not so far away from each other, about ten or twelve blocks. From then on, he ran over to my place almost every afternoon and we would spend the time talking and playing and dreaming and roaming the neighborhood, finding ways to get in trouble. We would throw little rocks at passing cars and then run for cover if the cars stopped or the drivers got out. We searched far and wide for parked cars, with screwdrivers in our hands, to remove their metal logos and keep them for ourselves. We had no use for these heavy metal logos other than as trophies of a good afternoon’s hunt. Many years later, I still had a large bag full of metal car logos, stashed in the lower level of my bookshelf. We would go to the movies on lazy afternoons, another ten blocks away, and scream out little comments and jokes at the screen, accusing the characters of stupidity, pointing out their mistakes, laughing at them when they showed weakness. Sometimes we would throw things at the screen and at other kids that were in the theater. The kids would respond by throwing things back at us and we would laugh about it while the movie played on. We would climb over the roofs of our houses and travel from roof to roof, jumping over obstacles, traveling onto foreign roofs that signified the unknown, the undiscovered. We wanted to take a look in the places that were meant to stay hidden. Sometimes we would get a glimpse of a woman in a window or a man sitting in front of a TV. Avelar’s mother would warn us with urgency in her voice: "This is very dangerous! If people hear you walking on their roofs they will assume that you are thieves and they will shoot at you! People shoot like this all the time! You can’t be doing this!" We would nod together, letting her know that we understood, assuring her that we would never do it again, and then we would go up on the roofs again the next day, when we had made sure that she wasn’t home. We felt completely safe in our adventures, in our knowledge that bad things could happen to others, but certainly not to us.
When Amaya, a beautiful blond girl from the Basque country, came to live in the upper front apartment of my mother’s building, it was inevitable that I would fall terribly in love with her. She was just too overwhelming in her beauty, in her intelligence, in her confidence, in her poise. It was also inevitable that Avelar would fall for her as well. It took a while for us to admit it to each other, but once we did, it became our daily conversation. We would advise each other on what to do to get her attention, how to make her like us, how to make her love us as much as we loved her. Each one of us knew that if she were to like the other one, it would be like falling into a deep dark hole from which there could not be any rescue. And yet we insisted on helping each other. It was a clear attempt at demonstrating what had always been assumed between us: I will put your happiness ahead of mine, and you will do the same. He was sincere in his offer of help and so was I.
One afternoon after school was over but the day was still sunny and bright, we rested in the dark stairs that led up to the upstairs apartments. We sat on the cool gray tiles of the staircase landing, talking and joking as usual, waiting for Amaya to get home. I was wearing a pair of old ripped jeans and a short sleeve T-shirt. Avelar was wearing blue shorts and a yellow soccer shirt. I had my back against the wall and he was leaning against the metal bars of the stairway. We had nothing else to do, no other place that we would rather be. The world was complete when we were together, and it became a dense landscape filled with incomprehensible fire when Amaya was around. This afternoon, as we waited, the air was misty and calm all around us, there was something so sweet and gentle in the air, that I suddenly realized that it couldn’t last. In a moment of clarity that broke through the veil of my innocence, I saw that nothing that good could last forever.
"Hey Avelar, whatever happens with Amaya… I want us to still be friends," I said it, with more than a bit of effort, as my voice started to break when the implications of my words echoed through my mind.
"Of course Mendizabal… we’ll always be friends… nothing can change that…"
"But if she likes one of us… the other one will be hurt, you know?"
"The other one should be happy… I will be happy if she likes you. I will be happy for you."
"You won’t be sad at all?"
Avelar turned his dark face to me, even darker here in the shadows of the stairway, and he thought for a moment, looking at me in silence. His eyes were down turned as usual, in a way that radiated sadness. Maybe he was always sad and I had never noticed. Maybe that day I was able to see things that I was not meant to see.
"I will be sad… a little… but I will be more happy for you…"
I nodded. "Yeah, I would be sad too. But I would be happy for you as well…" I said it a bit too quickly, afraid to truly ponder that possibility.
We were quiet for a while, both of us imagining what the world would be like if Amaya liked us, what it would be like if she never did. In the silence, I felt a sense of dread come over me, a knowledge that if I had perceived the fragility of our love for each other, it was only because it would soon come to an end.
From the depths of his thoughts he turned again towards me, again with melancholic eyes that dropped at the edges.
"What if we make an oath… a blood oath like they do in the movies… saying that we will always be friends? Would you want to do that?"
He immediately nodded, without any sign of hesitation. "Of course I want to do that. You will be my friend forever. There is no doubt about that." It was like him to simply agree to my suggestion. No need for any further questions, no need for explanations. Like stealing metal logos from parked cars, I had made a proposal and it instantly became something we would do, something we must do, something we would definitely do together.
We left the stairway then and went to our apartment in the back, forgetting all about Amaya for a brief moment. I found a sharp knife in the little kitchen. Then we went to the depths of the garden, where no one would be able to see us. We sat on the ground, under the shadow of the capulin tree that brought the bats at night, surrounded by tall grass and dark soil. We sat face to face, and looked at each other intently as I held the sharp blade between us..
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Of course I’m sure… are you sure?"
I nodded, nervous at the sight of the knife but unwilling to back out. I grabbed his hand and ran the blade over the flesh of his thumb. A thin red line appeared at the tip and a tiny drop of red blood started to leak out. He didn’t make a sound at all. No complaint, no protest. He just looked at me. I handed the knife to him. He grabbed my hand and then cut my own thumb just as I had done with him. When both our thumbs were tainted in blood, we reached towards each other and pressed them together tightly. As we pressed, we looked at each other, right in the eyes.
"I swear that, no matter what happens, with Amaya or with anything else, I will always be Avelar’s best friend, for as long as I am alive."
I said it in a voice that echoed in the dark garden. I said it slowly and with an intent as solid as the edge of the knife that had just cut us. Avelar smiled at me, with the same sweetness that he always had, but now his smile seemed to shine among the green and brown of the garden, shining with a special significance that I could recognize even if I couldn’t begin to comprehend it.
"I swear that, no matter what happens, I will be Mendizabal’s best friend forever… for as long as I live."
We stayed in that position for a long time, staring into each other’s eyes, our thumbs pressed against each other, with only the sound of the birds and the wind to break the solemn silence of our oath. It might have been my own secret wishes, but for a moment I thought his eyes didn’t look quite so sad.
I called Leti again and she answered with the same happy voice as before. I asked her if they were coming that night and she said that she didn’t know, she said that Fanci wasn’t there. I asked her then about his reaction, what had he said or done when she had told him that I wanted to see him. She said that he didn’t say anything.
"Nothing at all?"
I asked her to please tell me the truth. I told her that I would rather know clearly if Fanci really didn’t want to see me. I would rather know it than just wonder. She responded with a question:
"Why do you think that he wouldn’t want to see you?"
I answered clearly, calmly and without hesitation: "Because of what has happened with Dilcia…"
"Right," she said, "but we really have to hear the other side of the story, don’t we?"
"Right," I responded, "and you have never heard it…you haven’t heard it at all." I said.
She then promised to call me again later that night. Then she would tell me exactly what Fanci wanted to do. I asked her to call me, no matter which way the decision went. That way things would be clear. She promised to call me no matter what. I hung up without fully believing her promise.
I stopped the car by the corner of Mission and Fifth, double parking momentarily while cars swerved around me. Dilcia, still my wife in those days, ran towards me, with only a hint of the enthusiasm that she once had had for me. The sound of car horns was all around us, people talking, motors rumbling, buses screeching to a halt. She opened the door and stepped inside. She looked as beautiful as she ever did. She wore a long dark brown skirt, a black jacket and a white shirt. She was carrying an attaché case and a stack of papers that threatened to fly away. I hugged her warmly and she hugged me back, kissing my cheek. We had been separated for over six months but in a moment like this, we could be almost as close and as loving as we once had been. Almost. I felt happy to see her. She seemed hesitant but eager to find the warmth of our mutual embrace.
"Happy birthday!" she said and she handed me a little certificate in an envelope. I opened it and smiled. She had bought me a new car stereo, knowing the last one had been stolen weeks ago. It touched me that she would still care whether I had music or not while I drove. I kissed her and hugged her again.
"Thank you…thank you…" I moved back into my seat and we drove away. She looked out the window, at the same buildings that had once scared her out of her mind, and we carefully began to talk.
Talking with Dilcia at this time was like walking through an intricate and delicate maze made of crystal figurines, each one perfect and complex, each one ready to fall over and break into a million little pieces if I made the tiniest mistake. I had to pick our topics of conversation with extreme care, taking note not just of their basic content but of their implications, their further tangents, their possible ramifications. I had to think ahead two or three moves, making sure that the subject that I started wouldn’t lead to the subject that would end it all. So we talked of what she was doing, of her work, of TV shows, of other people. Carefully skirting around the subjects that would prove painful, we managed to slide through the city, together again, loving each other again, even if it was only for a brief moment. We laughed many times as we drove to the restaurant. And more than once, I felt the deep resonance of real love in her voice.
Sitting across from her at the little round table, I noticed that she looked more and more like a confident executive, the kind I had met when I worked in an office many years ago. She would flip her head from side to side, signifying an air of abandon, of certainty, of heavy presence in a world that had been clearly determined and clearly understood. We were back in a place we had visited many times before, but the difference in her made it all brand new. I wondered how different I looked to her. I wondered if every new gesture she saw in me made her wince with pain, if every new habit in me made her wonder where I had learned it, made her wonder who I had truly become. I continued to restrain myself from dangerous tangents in our conversation. I knew it was more important to let her talk, to let her lead the way, she knew where she wanted to go, I would simply follow her there and listen.
It was early evening, and the sun was still out, but the wind was starting to make its presence known. We sat inside the little Italian restaurant and ordered what we usually did, what we had ordered so many times together in those occasions when I wanted to please her and she wanted to be pleased, when she would be so happy because for a moment it seemed that we were a respectable couple out on the town, a married couple that had a clear and respectable place in the human world. The illusion would break sooner or later, but for those brief spaces of comfort, she would be very happy and very grateful. Her happiness today was not as open, not as forthcoming. I could see her restraining herself as well, as much as I was or maybe more so. I could feel the hardness in her voice that she tried to hide to no avail. I could see her eyes were not as innocent, her smile was not as true.
She started talking about Ricardo and Carlos and all my other friends, the ones that had stuck with me since childhood. As soon as she did, I knew I should have stirred the conversation elsewhere. This was definitely dangerous territory as I knew that she partially blamed Ricardo for what had happened between us, but the gravity of the memory would surely eventually lead her back to me. But my curiosity triumphed over my caution and I urged her onwards. She told me the things they said when I wasn’t around, how they saw me, how they saw her, she told me what they wanted and what they didn’t tell me and she lightly laughed as she said all these things, as if she was pleased with the subtle look of shock on my face.
"That’s right… you have to understand, Juan… you trust people too much… just like now you trust her too much… you trust everyone too much…People are not like that… people will betray you…" and her eyes narrowed into coldness as she said it.
I nodded, reminding myself to simply let her speak, to let her say what she needed to say. For me, the simple act of careful listening did not imply agreement or acceptance, although maybe it did for her. I couldn’t stop myself from feeling the pain of imagining these secret conversations, these unimaginable sentences in the mouths of the people that I had always held so close. I couldn’t help but feel the restaurant become a little tighter, the wind become a little colder. And as I felt it, I just kept on listening, as closely as I could.
"That’s something that I saw in you all along… you hear me? You trust everyone too much. You think they’re angels. But people are not angels! You just can’t trust people… not in the way that you do. Nobody is worthy of that kind of trust. Not even me. You hear me? Not even me." She paused and looked me straight in the eyes, and our contact was full and intense for a moment. As the air began to crackle with the familiar electrical impulses, she leaned towards me and said: "Listen, you want to know what I did today?"
I nodded and said: "Yes, please tell me." I said it in the softest voice I could muster.
"You see all these papers in my hands… they’re from a lawyer… my brother asked me to go see him… see all this stuff… "she pointed to a stack of folders and papers that she had carried into the car, papers I had assumed were related to her work. "It’s all from the lawyer. He’s the kind of man I would always avoid… the kind of man I would never want to have anything to do with… he’s horrible. He’s a horrible brutal gringo with a sweaty red face. The kind of person I despise. But I went to see him… because my brother asked me to. This is where I’ve ended up…you see?" And she pointed to the papers again, as if they would explain everything, as if the mysteries of cause and effect were all hidden in the small type of the wrinkled white pages.
I kept on looking at her and nodding, feeling a wave of coldness rushing up my body, making my bones shiver.
"I talked to him about you and me, about your mother… he tried to convince me to sue you, to get money from you…he said that I wasn’t thinking of myself enough… that I deserved a lot of money from you…He said that I was trying to protect you, both of you… but that I should stop caring about you… that I should only care about myself."
"And what did you say?" I asked, as softly and as calmly as I could.
"I said I would think about it…"
There was a long silence between us. I knew she had more to say and I would wait until she came around to say it. Outside a bus honked loudly at a small convertible that had stopped to drop off some passengers. Women in stylish dresses, their high heels clicking on the slanted sidewalks of North Beach, walked by the window of the restaurant, talking and laughing in loud shrill voices. I kept on waiting.
"I won’t do it…" she said, "I won’t do that to you or to your Mom… I simply won’t. Even though I could… it would be my right to do it… but I won’t."
I nodded at her, my eyes on hers, feeling the icicles that had formed around the thin silver cord that joined us.
"I promise you… I won’t do it."
I smiled at her with an attempt at tenderness and waited for her to speak again. As I waited, as another bus honked and more high heels clicked outside, all I could hear in my mind was her voice saying: "You can’t trust anyone that completely, not like that. Not even me."
As the night approached, I realized that she wouldn’t call. I realized that I could wait all night to confirm it or I could leave and trust the message that had already come through her voice. I waited for another hour and then I drove away into the darkness, on a night of slight drizzle and strong winds. My Dad told me what streets to avoid if I came back late, he told me the places where he had heard that there were assaults and car-jackings. Then he said "good luck" in a voice that sounded worried. I drove away and, as soon as I turned the corner, I felt the rightness of my choice coming over me with the solid weight of a heavy stone.
I drove straight to my old neighborhood, the "Satelite". As I drove, I thought about Fanci, I thought about all of Dilcia’s accusations, years upon years of stories, of him, of Leti, of her sisters. I had struggled for years to repair Dilcia’s contact with him. I wanted to do it for her and I wanted to do it for him. Now the structure had been flipped on its back and, apparently, Fanci had jumped at the chance to close the door and ascertain that I was the one that had broken the pact, I was the one that was evil and I should be removed from the picture. He had never talked to me since Dilcia and me broke apart. He had never even made an attempt. From what I knew of him, from what I knew of both of them, they never would. The years would go on and someday Fanci would just be a tombstone that would decay through the ages in silence. Fanci had truly been my second father but now he was only a man, a man who was angry in the distance, a shadow fading in the darkness of the Salvadorean night. I had no recourse and I had no solution. I could only take their anger and let it drip into me slowly, hoping to somehow transmute the black thick oil of their dismissal into a new creative gesture, a new attempt at life. I was the sacrificial goat and I would have to accept my fate in silence, without a murmur of complaint.
We were sitting in the overgrown foundation of an old mansion, overlooking the gray cliffs of the Bay, the burnt out remains of the Sutro Baths and the Cliffhouse. Fanci and Leti were there with us, and so was my mom and Celeste who was still little and just wanted to run in every direction she could find while Dilcia trailed behind her. They ran over the wide open lawns and somersaulted over and over on the wet grass, laughing like hyenas, and their voices trailed into each other, and commingled in their sweetness and their innocence, so that one couldn’t be distinguished from the other. They ran all the way down to the restaurant below us and then back up again, gasping for breath but still smiling and ready for another adventure. While Celeste and Dilcia ran, the rest of us, the sober adults, sat under the shadow of a thick strong tree that stood close to the center of the abandoned tower.
"There is such a difference here… being here with all of you." Fanci said, in his voice that always seemed to resonate a bit louder than all the others, his head always leaning backwards as if still reciting for an audience, as if still preening with heroic confidence on a stage. "Over there, with Paco and Mili, they have no culture, they have nothing, they talk about the same things over and over…" Paco was Fanci’s first born son, who lived in Los Angeles, with his wife Mili.
Leti, sitting cross-legged next to Fanci, just nodded and pursed her lips in a slight gesture of discontent. When Fanci paused momentarily, she spoke up, only to repeat Fanci’s words: "There is a great difference… no comparison at all."
"It’s very good to be with you all here, the level of conversation is so heightened, the breadth of culture, it all tastes different, it’s so much better…"
I nodded and smiled at them, unsure of how to respond. Dilcia came back with Celeste and sat next to me while Celeste tried to climb the tree. Dilcia was sweating and breathing hard. She was wearing a little cloth hat and a soft little brown sweater. She looked so sweet and innocent that I wished we were alone on that gentle afternoon by the edge of the ocean. She leaned over close to me and kissed my cheek. I turned and kissed her back on the lips, smiling. The air crackled with our easy fluid contact. Then I whispered: "You should listen to this…"
Fanci continued as if there had been no interruption. "I was just talking about Paco and his family… the boy only plays video games… they just sit night after night watching television… sometimes he will want to talk to me and, when he does, it’s just to complain about the past… a past that is long gone! And then it’s back to the daily grind… it’s hard to be there… hard for us… isn’t that right, Leti?"
Leti nodded again, her lips still pursed tightly, her face a tight brown mask of judgement, a mask I had known well in the past, back when I had faced it as a blasphemer and as a fornicator. In this case, the judgement was not directed at me so I could simply sit back and enjoy the display. "They have no cultural life… they have a nice house and they live well… but there’s nothing else there, nothing at all."
He looked at me, as if wondering what I was thinking. I smiled more widely than before and simply said: "I’m glad you are having a good time here Fanci… I want you both to have a good time with us."
He spread his arms wide, signaling to the great vast blue sky above us, to the soft winds that came in from the ocean, to the grass and tall weeds that danced around us, to Celeste still trying to climb the tree, to all of us. "Look at this… we don’t have this over there… we wouldn’t come and just sit like this… under the sky, just to talk… this is so precious… I really appreciate this. Thank you for bringing us here."
As much as I struggled against it, I couldn’t help but feel a rush of pride at knowing that Fanci was happy with us, that he liked what we did for him, that he was pleased by our lives and our work. Without even looking at her, I knew Dilcia was vibrating with strong pride, knowing that she had won a small battle with her older brother. Our place was better, our place is the one they liked the best. I pressed my arm around her shoulders and pulled her towards me. She melted into my arms and I kissed her once again.
Many months later, after Fanci and Leti had returned to El Salvador, Dilcia went to visit her brother Paco in Los Angeles. When she came back, she told me that when Fanci and Leti had been there they had been terribly pleased with Paco’s house, to Paco and Mili they had said that their house was so much better than our place in San Francisco, that they enjoyed their stay with them much more, that we had found them a bad motel to stay in, that we hadn’t treated them well at all. Dilcia said it to me with clear anger and disappointment in her eyes. She pressed her body against me as I was laying down in our room and I pulled her into me, cradling her head in my arms.
"They’re such hypocrites!" she said softly into my chest, her lips brushing against my ribs.
"It’s ok Dilcita, that’s just the way they are. That’s the way most people are. They’ll say one thing one day, then another the next. It’s nothing to worry about."
I shrugged my shoulders and kissed her forehead, feeling the pain surging through her little brown body. I looked at the decaying roof of our broken room and I saw it for a moment through their eyes. Ultimately, I knew it had been my mistake to be proud of their kind words. The more I fell for their praise, the more it would hurt when it turned out to be untrue.
"Let them think whatever they want, Dilcia…as much as they may imagine that they know, only you and I know what we’re doing together, only you and I know what we are to each other…"
Dilcia was crying and her tears were falling on my naked skin. As she heard my words, she nodded in agreement, but her tears didn’t stop.
As I approached the "Satelite" neighborhood, I could only barely recognize the old corners, the old houses, the old windows, the old streets. Everything had changed so much. The walls were a different color, the grass was no longer there. It all looked so much more like the dirty downtown, there was more garbage, more darkness, more signs of age and decay. Yet somewhere underneath, there was a glimmer of form that still held the same shape.
I looked for Ricardo’s father, for the new house that they had bought after their return to El Salvador. Just as Ricardo had been like my brother, his father had been like my own. Our contact now was mostly based on years of silence interrupted by short evenings of instant warmth. I hadn't seen him in over a year. It was certainly time for another visit.
I didn’t know the number and I didn’t know the street. I followed my vague memory of having been there once before and I parked where I thought I should. The winds flowed through the narrow street in a strong current that made the tree branches flip back and forth, like fierce whips against the helpless bark. The sound of the wind current was like a deep drone that resonated intensely in the middle of my chest and made my whole body vibrate in harmony. A street security guard, his thick shotgun ready over his oversized stomach, came out to greet me as soon as I stepped out of the car. I talked to him for a few minutes. I told him who I was looking for and he readily agreed to help me in my search. We both looked for the house together. I told him what I remembered and he pointed out the houses that would fit my vague description. There were some kids playing in a living room. I could hear their screams and their laughter and the sound of the TV and the glare of the screen against the opaque windows of the house. There was a young couple kissing each other while leaning on a car. They said "good night" to me as I passed by. I smiled at them and I asked them about Ricardo’s father. They didn’t know who he was. They couldn’t help me at all. But they were kind in their responses and they wished me good luck. The security guard pointed out several more houses that were possibilities. I knocked and called and rang. I finally realized that it was probably the wrong street. As I drove around the block, I asked another security guard that stood beside a gray telephone pole. He didn’t know either. Then I ran into a man that knew Don Ricardo. He was a slim man with a gentle voice that overheard me asking the last security guard. I was very happy when he said he knew who I was looking for and he pointed out the right house. But he also told me they were gone. The house I was looking for was empty.
I rose from a night of wonder, a night where so many boundaries had come tumbling down around me, where the sky was dark and angry, and the ocean responded with great screams of liquid angst and my arms held a young beautiful girl who sobbed with happiness, who trembled against me and kissed me every few minutes, even in her sleep. Where we lay together, there were no walls, the winds of the ocean swam through us and made the hammock rock in a motion so gentle that it was almost not there, and my weight and hers kept it from moving any further. Through the night, with her little body pressing against me, I slept very little but I felt no regret. I didn’t penetrate her then but that night we were united in a way so profound that neither of us could fully comprehend it, not then, maybe not ever.
I opened my eyes to see the gray skies already breaking into blue, and the waves crashing so close I could almost feel the pain of their final moments. I was so far away from everything I had ever known. I was immersed in the world of others and one of these others was now immersed in me. I rose to the knowledge that the world had changed, it had changed in a storm that raged over a beach of salt and rock, over two ranches that rose over the sand dunes, over long green leaves of grass that danced in the wind of the morning, over the first few skinny old men in old ripped swimsuits that were throwing their nets into the waters, hoping that the fish would be as hungry as they were. I stood up and recognized a sense of peace, something utterly alien to me in those days, something ephemeral and evanescent that would surely disappear soon. By this time I had firmly learned that such beautiful things didn’t last. But for that one moment, with people sleeping all around me, with an ocean caressing the salty flesh edge of the earth with its waves, with the sound of dark birds that flew in bursts of desire from palm tree to palm tree, for that one moment, peace had no end. I didn’t know where it had come from, I didn’t know who or what to thank, but it had descended on me as calmly as a girl that kisses without hesitation, a girl that says "my love" after only one day.
I very slowly disentangled myself from Dilcia’s sleeping form and I moved off the hammock. There was another hammock where other people were sleeping nearby and I made my way underneath it, trying as best as I could to not disturb them. I walked down the wooden steps, feeling the early winds of the ocean caressing my face with such tenderness that I didn’t want to move. I looked towards the ocean to spot a little boat in the distance, and two more skinny men in wet white T-shirts throwing nets into the shifting waters. I wondered for a moment what their life was like, what it would be like to grow up here, next to the ocean and bring up all my food from its black depths. Would the ocean become as invisible as a city street or a room with four walls and a couple of paintings, or would the ocean reclaim its own intensity, day after day, never letting you forget that you dived into mystery and mystery was always new? I turned away from my thoughts and walked the last few wooden steps to the ground below. Leti was already up and she was walking towards me.
"Good morning," I said.
She smiled softly and whispered "good morning, Juan Carlos… how are you?"
I said: "Good… very good… as good as I have ever been…"
"I’m glad," she said with welcoming eyes. "We’ll have breakfast soon, after everyone wakes up…"
I nodded. "Sure… no rush… no rush at all."
As she passed by me, I thought that here I had met a family with no secrets, a family that was as open as the ocean itself, as clear as the sand that was washed daily by the endless love of its waves. I had spent the night with Dilcia in my arms, on a hammock only a few feet away from her sisters, and only a few more feet away from her parents. They were happy. Dilcia was happy. So was I. There was no resentment, no anger, no suspicion, no pain. I saw them as a family of crystalline beings that had emerged whole from the pure strong ideals that formed Fanci’s foundation. I was awestruck and even a little envious. Next to what I saw that morning, every family I had ever known was like a muddy river, a trail of dirty water that tries to find its way back to the source, but is ravaged and hurt by the obstacles on its path. Here there was clarity and completeness. Dilcia had two parents that gave her to me in an act of pure complete sacrifice, without fear of loss, of hidden intentions or unexpected consequences. As I walked back from the bathroom, I looked again at the ocean and realized that I had truly traveled further than I ever had before.
It was months later that I came to know about Leti’s poisonous resentment and jealousy, about Fanci’s suspicions, about his anger and his hidden machinations, about the rivers of mud that extended between them, so profound as to obscure any further sighting of the sea. It was years later that I came to understand that it all lived within Dilcia (just like my family’s own mud lived within me) and it would come back to drench our life together in struggle, in misunderstanding and ultimately in a final division that would break even the magic of a night beyond the rigid boundaries of time or space.
But what I saw that morning remained within me and it always would. The words of it did not persist, they perished like little fish caught in a net and brought back to a little hut to be roasted and eaten. But the clarity was like an open window. The room was still dirty, the family was still a network of anger and lies, but the ocean was true and infinite. As much dirt and mud as there could be on land, the infinite ocean would always be ready to wash it with the touch of a wave, sometimes tender and loving, sometimes fierce and violent. But always ready. Always there.
I drove past Fanci’s house, and I stared momentarily at the sign: "Center of Philosophical Studies and Investigations" and at the clutter of magical equipment that could be seen through the open windows. I felt the barrier that now stood between the inner world of that house and me. There was a clown puppet in the window and I could almost see the old Fanci in his eyes. Another security guard started walking towards me when he saw me stop the car. I drove away before he could reach me.
I drove to the place where the whole story started, the corner of Gemini and Galaxia. There the houses were very different, covered by tall walls and metal gates, and the trees, which were barely saplings when I had lived there, were now full and grown. Dead leaves danced down the slanted asphalt. Broken glass was sprinkled over the ledges. Cars were parked on both sides, leaving only a narrow passageway for my car to pass through. There was no one there to greet me but I felt at home. I had come here once, back when my mother was alone and I had no father. I had come here again, now that my second father was gone.
I parked and I walked around without a clear destination. There was no security guard here. There was gang graffiti on some walls. The streetlights were few and far between so I was mostly drenched in darkness. I walked all the way up Galaxia, past Ricardo’s old gray house on the corner (now painted red) and Zonia’s house right above, and then Rodney’s house covered by a black metal gate. Around the corner, in Sagitarius, I found warmth and happy eyes where I did not expect them. I realized later that I had placed the right key into the right lock and the night finally surrendered to me its treasure trove of surprises.
I last talked to Dilcia face to face one night on a lit stone bridge overlooking a city street, one of the three bridges that interconnected the Embarcadero shopping center in Downtown San Francisco. It was only later that I realized that it was the same bridge where she had told me she would die soon, back when she was glowing with the intensity of discovery, on the very first day of arriving in this far away land. She was so overwhelmed that afternoon that her eyes were watering and her hands were trembling. She was like a golden bird that had flown far beyond the confines of her known world and now she sat helpless in my arms, here on this very same bridge, with her weak tired wings not yet strong enough to fly. Back then, she looked at me with a heart as open as the sky, as bountiful as the earth and she confessed that this was all too much for her, this place, these buildings, these people, it was all so big and so beautiful and so brilliant, and back then I hugged her and I kissed her and I told her that everything would be ok, that I was with her, that she would not die any time soon because we were together and we would live many years in each other’s arms before death finally came to pull us apart.
It was this same bridge where I now looked at her and told her that I still loved her, that many things had happened, that she felt betrayed, that she felt set aside, that she felt jealous, insecure and lost, but that she could set it all aside, just for one moment, one little moment of silence, and maybe then she would feel how much I still loved her, like the roaring of the waves lapping against a sandy beach, even now, as stormy as the night had been, as bright with the colors of tragedy and disaster, and as peaceful as the morning had been, as loving as her kisses, as soft as her arms around my shoulders, I was still here with her and we could still live a long life together, a strange life, a life unusual, a life unlike the lives of others, but still a good life, and I held her hand, and tears slid from the corners of my eyes and she shook her head and she said that she couldn’t, she would always be jealous, she would always be afraid, and then she ran away, and I saw her shadow as it got lost among the buses and the cars and the steam that slipped out from under the entrails of the city, I saw it all and I wished she would return, but she didn’t, I saw it all and I wished it wasn’t so, but it was.
I stood there for a long time, letting the cold thick air of the night flow through me like a healing salve and I looked at the lights on the buildings, the same ones I had looked at with wonder so long ago, the ones that the American girl had said only signified tired office workers working overtime, and I still saw them with wonder. Out there, there were many stories, some tragic, some funny, most of them touched from both cups, and I knew that Dilcia’s story, and my story, were only two more stories in an unthinkably wide web of stories that trailed thousands of years into the past and thousands of years into the future. Sadness and love were the ingredients out of which they were made, and so now it was our time to walk through our own trail of tears and pass through with our eyes wide open, trusting that our habits would carry us through.
I stood and waited, knowing she would not come back, but also knowing I should wait because I wouldn’t want the street to be empty if she did. As the hour passed, I finally looked down at the crisscrossed gray sidewalk and I stepped into my car. A man was washing the sidewalk across the street with a large white machine that rumbled as it moved. A homeless man was snoring on the corner, draped in newspapers and old dirty rags. It was just another night in a cold city, no better and no worse.
The next day, Dilcia told me over the phone that she had decided to sue us and that she didn’t care about the consequences. It was like a harsh blow from an unexpected direction, unexpected only because I believed, only because my faith in her innocence had never wavered, only because I still held on to a night of waves and wind and gentle kisses with the weight of years of patience. She told me over the phone, while I was parked outside of my piano teacher’s apartment complex. I said "are you sure you want to do this? Things will never be the same…" and she said, "yes, I am sure… I need to do this for myself… nobody will step on Dilcia ever again." I nodded and hung up. I came home to release myself from her presence, from the spell that still lingered from the wind of an earlier time. I let her go but I left behind a frail little silver cord, just in case the innocent girl that kissed me back then with such abandon ever doubted her decision, just in case she decided she wanted to come back. I knew it wouldn’t happen, but I didn’t want the path to be empty if she showed up.
Late that night, when I came home to my grandmother’s house, Lorena was still awake. She was sitting at the dining room table watching TV. She told me she had been a little worried about me, specially since I had been gone so long and it was so late. I smiled at her and thanked her for waiting. She shook her head and brushed my gratitude away. "Of course, it’s no problem." I asked her if anyone had called. She said that there had been two calls from the United States. She smiled knowingly as she said it. Then I asked if there was another call from Leti. She shook her head and said "no, nothing at all." I nodded and we said goodnight. One more tiny promise broken. The first step is the last step, and each step is the whole path. I felt tired but I stayed awake for a long time, writing, thinking, then writing some more. I had done my duty. I had called, I had made my presence known, I had tried to break through the now frozen barriers. It was their choice to simply remain silent. It was their choice to turn away. I would look for new doors with new keys in hand. I now knew that the old chambers had been exhausted. The walls were still there but the inhabitants had gone away.
One day I was coming home on a sunny afternoon. This was back when I was seventeen and the war was still raging all around me but the fear had diminished into a controllable substance that I could access when needed and then seal tightly in a jar and put away when it was not in use. Home in those days was in my Grandmother Tona’s house, the mother of my mother. I walked down the short alley that ended with the big gray letters: "NOVO" which signified the hotel that stood next to my grandmother’s house. As usual, there were two guards in front of the hotel, holding small machine guns, and making jokes amongst themselves. As usual, there was a small skinny man in a dirty blue shirt and ripped brown pants sitting on the curb working on fixing a pair of black leather shoes. There was also a car parked directly in front of my destination and an older woman was standing by the driver’s door, waving goodbye to another woman that was walking back into the hotel. This was unusual. The car was an old fashioned Ford, something out of an American movie from the ‘50s. In El Salvador this was not a sign of style, only a sign of resourcefulness and need. The woman seemed vaguely familiar but not enough to make me stop. I walked around her and towards the black metal gate of my grandmother’s house and then I heard her voice say: "Juan Carlos?" I turned around, wondering how she knew me. I looked at her with curious eyes and she looked at me directly and then she said: "Juan Carlos… it’s me… Francisco’s mom…" I still was not sure who she was, but I walked towards her anyway and looked at her more carefully. She was about my mom’s age, around fifty or so. Her skin was dark brown and her face was full and round. She had black curly hair and a generous open smile that made me feel at ease and reminded me of something… something I still couldn’t quite place. She looked directly at me and then said: "Francisco Avelar… I’m his mom….remember me?" Then everything fell into place within me, and I knew where I had seen those eyes and that smile, and why I felt so comfortable in walking towards her. I smiled broadly then and I hugged her and kissed her cheek. She stepped back and surveyed me from my head to my feet.
"Look at how big you are! It’s been so long! It would seem like a lie! How long has it been?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I don’t know… maybe four, five… maybe even six years… I’m not sure…"
"It really has been a long time… how are you? How have you been?"
I quickly filled her in on my adventures since I had last seen her, on the United States, on coming back, on living with my grandmother, on going to the all boys’ school that was just a few blocks away, on going back and forth to the United States. She listened intently, still smiling.
"How time passes doesn’t it?" she said to me and ran her hand through my hair. "Francisco will be very happy to know that you are here! You should call him!"
I felt a sense of apprehension, a dread of touching the perfect picture of the past with the rough hands of the present. It had been so long and I had no idea why. I couldn’t even answer that question for myself, much less to another. I didn’t know who Francisco had become, I didn’t know what shapes filled the dark gaps in my knowledge of the boy who had been my best friend for life. She wrote down the number on a small piece of paper and I kissed her goodbye.
Inside my room in my grandmother Tona’s house, I stared at the little piece of paper and wondered what to do. There were very few choices, if any at all, and yet the images crowded into my mind and made the moment confusing. I imagined leaving the paper alone and never dialing those numbers and never running into Avelar’s mother again and leaving once again for the United States and never coming back. It felt wrong. It felt too easy, so easy that the images dripped through my mind like syrup and made me feel a little sick. I then tried to picture talking to Avelar once again and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine him older. He was eleven years old forever in my mind and, as much as I might have grown, he would always stay the same. And so I could not be friends with an older Avelar, a strange Avelar with experiences I could never be a part of, with new habits, new gestures, an Avelar with a new voice. But the other Avelar, the one who would be my friend forever, he was an eleven year old that sat across from me in a dark garden on a sunny afternoon that was showered in light and purpose. He was still there and he was untouchable.
I walked over to the living room hallway and grabbed the phone from the shelf and placed it on the floor. I sat next to it and dialed the number. A woman answered. She said that Francisco was not there. I told her who I was and I gave her the number for him to call me back. For several hours I waited, expecting a call from Avelar at any moment, feeling very nervous about what he would have to say. It didn’t come that afternoon. It didn’t come that night. By the next day, I was starting to wonder. By the next night, I was starting to realize that maybe he had taken the first choice that I had glimpsed before I called. I decided I had to know for sure. So I tried once more. The same woman answered. I gave her the same information and she said she would pass it on. I thanked her and hung up. This time I wasn’t so sure that a call would be coming. It didn’t. After a few days had passed, it was clear that he taken the first choice. Maybe he didn’t remember who I was. Maybe he did remember and wanted to keep me as clear and as frozen as I had wanted to keep him. Maybe there were other reasons to avoid me. I would never know. I had made my choice and he had made his. I never tried again and Avelar remained perfect and frozen in the past, under the shade of a capulin tree, my best friend forever, beyond question, beyond doubt.
Ultimately, the things we said, the agreements we made, the promises we sealed, the oaths we signed, they would last only as long as the thread of our consciousness lasted, and that could be as brief as a single breath or a heartbeat. Our minds would switch from moment to moment, like TV channels under the guidance of a hidden remote control, and as they switched, all the promises would be forgotten, all the intentions would be set aside for the new show that now was shining across the flat screen of our life. How many times did I say to Dilcia that she loved a mirage, that she loved a story, someone she met long ago and loved beyond all measure, someone who looked like me but not exactly, someone who had my name but whom I had never truly met, someone who lived now only in the chambers of her mind. It was that mirage that would prevent her from seeing me then. It was a new mirage that would prevent her from seeing me now.
How many times did I see a little innocent girl in a pink and white short dress, pressing herself against my body as she kissed me with passion, a passion that seemed strange in such a virginal face. How many times did I see that girl and not the woman who stood before me then? The one who may have had something new to say, the one who only looked like the one in my memories, the one who had come to replace her in the middle of the night when I was looking elsewhere, the one whose laughter grew darker as the years passed by.
I had no doubt that all these people meant what they said when they said it. I knew I did mean it when I said what I did. I also had no doubt that the being that spoke in those moments of passion, of triumph, of heartbreak… that being had vanished only moments after its brief appearance, and it was that being, which had now returned to the primordial void, that being that was beyond my reach, beyond the reach of any intelligence in this world or any other, it was that being which I had loved and which now was only a faint memory, one more fading picture in a gallery of ghosts.
When they had said what they said, they meant it. They were simply no longer there. The one who would love forever was long gone. The one who was my second father was also gone. The one who would be my eternal companion had also vanished. The one who would be my endless best friend had fallen down a trap door that neither of us could have anticipated. Never to return. In the midst of eternity, they were all present. They always would be. But here, within the endless tunnel of time, they were all castles in the sand that the waves had taken away.
To love now, would be to love what was before me, to leave behind all other illusions and focus on the images that flourished now before my eyes, the ones that loved me, the ones that feared me, the ones that hated me, the ones that would never know me. This being of Life, this Presence of the Real, before me, what was here today and would never be again, that was the only Being I could ever truly love. It would vanish as well, like the dead dry leaves of a grand old tree that had flourished one last time with grandeur during a particular moment of a particular year, when the sun had touched it in just the right way and the wind had come not too soon and not too late, like tears that slid painfully over a soft brown cheek only to disappear into the endless mystery of the resilient flesh. To maintain this thread of being through time was the quest of ages, it was the only true skill that laid hidden underneath all others. It was a quest I had only just begun. There was much black road still to travel, there were many dangers ahead. Some would travel with me and then leave. Some would come to join me. Some would become an integral part of my being as I traveled. Some I would only see from afar. But the journey would always continue. And in every journey, there were choices to be made.
One day, when my Dad traveled to San Francisco to see me, he brought me a little piece of wood that he had found in the garden of the old house, the big beautiful house into which I was born. It was a little block of wood that I had used to build little houses in the many clear afternoons when I would play alone, creating stories that no one would ever hear, imagining worlds that nobody else would ever encounter . He had found it and brought it back for me. He wanted to give me a piece of the past, to remind me of what once was. He placed it in my hands with a smile and asked: "Do you remember this?" I held it in my hands and, for a moment, I was once again six years old, and I was on my knees in the little garden under the vast shadow of the volcano, creating towns and cities on little piles of dirt. I said that I did. I thanked him profusely. I held it for a while, feeling the tenuous, almost invisible contact between that little boy and me. I turned it over and over, letting the winds of time crash through my eyes, until they filled with tears and I had to close them. Then I put it away safely, and allowed it to be forgotten once again. I had new blocks of wood that I now played with. I had new houses to build.
Sitting alone in the living room, late at night, I closed my eyes and I pictured myself as a skinny old man in an old ripped up swimsuit. I went to bed every night with the sound of waves by my window. I woke up every morning, prepared my little boat, and rowed deep into the sea. I now knew that I had indeed been born next to the ocean, and I knew that the waves would always kiss the sand dunes, and I knew the waters went on forever, and, as long as I had my boat and my net, I knew I would always have some fish. The wind blew into my grandmother’s house then, and it smelled like a salty early morning, on a calm cool beach, after a night of fierce storms. The sound of the leaves rustling in the wind had a freshness I could only barely recognize. The white walls were coming down and the ocean was coming up to kiss me. The silence was only a promise of new songs.
As she came to me,
Drenched in color and laughter,
A survivor of the 400 blows
scarred and bruised and battered.
She was still ready to jump into my arms
And offer me her love and her laughter
and the shining radiance
of her open eyes.
My parents and hers
In what I once thought
was a drastic contrast.
I came to find out
They were only further reflections
In an endless hall of mirrors.
There is a boy in between us.
The boy is lost in the swamp of lost memories,
But Avelar would always be the model
By which all other friends were measured.
Once I saw her as a loving mother
A kind and faithful companion
to the pure Being that was my teacher.
Once she became an evil stepmother
Capricious and vehement in her fierce anger
Careful and stingy in her kindness
Demanding and prudish in her belief.
Now I only saw a mirror
Of my years of failure in transmission
Of my years of fruitless wheel spinning
Of my years of hiding behind a mask.
Together on the day we became a body.
She was dressed in black as I was
In a show of loyalty and allegiance
But she never understood
What the color truly meant.
Playing in the dark garden
The same garden
Where I first had a taste of desire
Where I first heard the finality of death
Where I first glimpsed the fragility of life.
When the current of our contact
Flowed twice as strong as ever
And poisonous accusations
From the left or from the right
Had no power and no weight
Against the strength of our sacred bond.
Avelar is the wraith that leans sideways
Among the other wraiths from the past.
Even through the mist of so many decades,
Our clear contact still radiates with truth.
When her laughter was no longer so innocent
And her eyes were no longer so bright
She could still evoke the thunder of pure love
With a soft kiss
Or a simple smile.
Galaxia street, in the Satelite neighborhood.
It was now a street like any other
In the intricate maze that was San Salvador.
It was only for a few of us
That this small stretch of asphalt
Would still echo with years of laughter
And the sound of solemn promises
That none of us could ever keep.