Friday, June 3, 2011

At The Beach


We drove through the long dusty roads of El Salvador.
These were the same roads I once saw as infinite and oppressive, an endless sentence to the depths of a certain kind of green and messy hell that allowed me no sanctuary. It was a place where I would be tortured by insistent mosquitoes that would fly into the car and roll in spirals around my ears, buzzing in and out like tiny generators, eager to taste my sweaty flesh. It was a place where I would be tortured by the unrelenting heat that would lay upon my shoulders like an endlessly heavy burden. The sweat would roll down my back in thick heavy drops and it would slide over my face and it would accumulate in every indentation of my body and it would make everything seem even hotter and heavier than it already was.
No matter how tortured I felt, the road would just keep on going, adorned on both sides by tall uncontrollable bushes that reached around twisted lengths of barbed wire, and little huts where peasant women sold pupusas and cocos and mangoes and little half naked kids walked barefoot on the scattered pebbles with big water containers on their heads. Big trucks would pass us by, always roaring like hungry monsters and swinging from side to side, threatening to turn over at any moment and spread their contents all over the burning asphalt.
Back then, I could only lay in the back of the car, hoping this would soon be over. I would quietly repeat to myself: “I don’t ever want to come out here again. I don’t ever want to come out here again.”
Out here was the land beyond the city. If the city itself was a mystery to me then this was a space beyond mystery, a space so utterly unexplored that we could only drive through it without ever truly seeing it, without a miniscule hope of ever knowing even a fraction of its multifaceted squalor.
When it was over, we could only know we had left it behind and that we would soon be travelling through it again,. It was a place that didn’t quite exist because I had to really see it for it to materialize, I had to be able to touch it and understand it and describe it, and all I could see were mosquitoes and cocos and palm trees and long stretches of bush and twisted barbed wire and all those things were just the uppermost layers of a deep world beyond my experience, an uncontrollable mass of thick brown skin and long green leaves and dirt, dirt upon dirt, wet dirt, dry dirt, flying dirt, heavy dirt that coagulated into pebbles and rocks and more dirt, all over my face and my arms and my neck, dirt flying through the window in brown clouds as the car moved quickly through this land of nothingness.
And all I could say to myself was “I don’t ever want to come out here again.”
Infinite and oppressive and inherently unknowable.
We drove through this land now, and it was the same land I remembered and it wasn’t. A few slight changes were having consequences that I could never have predicted. There was a map spread over my lap, which I looked down upon frequently as my Dad drove, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. I would carefully trace the names of the roads, the numbers and the intersections. Then I would match them to the posted names that hung from corners and posts, always dusty and faded but still there, still fulfilling their mission.
I slowly began to understand that the roads were not so many. If I only concentrated on the roads themselves, then this space was somewhat knowable, at least I could grasp its outline. Of course there was still the deep expanses of bush where the weeds grew ten feet tall, where the law couldn’t reach with its long metallic fingers, where cockroaches flew in the night and centipedes grew ten inches long, thick and hairy, their bodies pulsing like infected wounds, where the little trails had no numbers and no signs and you simply knew where to go or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, then something or someone would find some use for you, because this world wasted nothing, and so it grew plentiful.
Out there was the unknowable. But here, in the confines of the little red car, I was getting to understand that this great unknowable space was crisscrossed by a limited number of very knowable roads that were not beyond comprehension. Turn here and you ended up in Izalco, turn there and you ended up in San Miguel, turn here and you would be on your way to the ocean. The turns were few and they were populated by the same little huts I remembered, overflowing with green coconuts and men and women with big machetes to cut them open, tired travelers sitting in old half broken benches tipping big coconuts over their mouth to suck the juice out of the big balls of greenness.
We drove towards Izalco. I saw the mountains in the distance and took some pictures. As I stood by the side of the road with my camera in my hand, a woman passed by me with a little boy who wouldn’t stop crying. He was crying so hard that I heard his squeals from a hundred meters away, crying intensely and profusely, a complete generosity of pure sadness that overflowed out of his little body and made me sad for him. I turned around and saw him: dark pants, dirty white shirt, black shoes covered in dust, his eyes squeezed tightly, his mouth wide open as he cried and cried and cried. I tried smiling at him, hoping that the smile of a stranger could somehow distract him from the horror of his present situation but it seemed that the utter desolation was too great for him to see me. His mother did notice and she smiled at me, acknowledging that I was at least making an attempt at helping. She was a short woman (but almost all the peasants of El Salvador were short compared to me.) She was dressed in an old dark blue dress. Her legs were dark brown and her feet seemed thick and strong, covered only by thin rubber sandals. I nodded at her and she nodded at me.
“He wants a toy, but he already has one,” she said. I smiled at him again, but his pain was too great. I sympathized with his misery but I realized I couldn’t reach him, I couldn’t change his placement within the wheel of desire where he had already found his spot. The crying would not be as loud once he grew up, maybe, but the pain would still be there, just like that afternoon with the pizza, just like that night of the storm, just like that morning with the plastic soldier. Losses buried but never forgotten.
“Que le vaya bien (May you have a good trip)” I said to her.
“You too,” she said and they kept on walking and the boy continued to cry hopelessly. I forced myself to turn again towards Izalco and I took a few more pictures. Then I returned to the red Fiat where my Dad was already getting impatient.
I unrolled the map once again, and I pointed to the meeting of two roads.
“Let’s go here, to the beach,” I said.
He seemed to stop for a moment, as if looking for an objection. But it was hard to find objections in a trip that had no purpose and no deadlines. The only objection possible was the one that was underlying the whole endeavor and it wasn’t worth mentioning, at least not right now.
The little car sometimes shook as it rolled down the long roads. He would say that it needed to be looked at, but then we would keep on driving. I had a sense that my Dad was simply letting it find its own conclusion and I took the same position towards him. We would keep on driving until it was too late and then we would find out what would happen. He would simply wait to see if the car finally rebelled against his wishes. I would wait to see if he finally rebelled against mine.
We turned into a road that seemed cooler already, shaded by tall, thick palm trees and surrounded by more people drinking cocos and eating pupusas. As we turned, several little street kids ran towards us offering little snacks of mango covered in salt and little plastic toys haphazardly covered in plastic.
“Look see! Look what we have for you! Only a dollar! Only a dollar!”
I shook my head at them in as gracious a way as I could manage. My Dad simply ignored them. I probably would ignore them as well if I saw them every day. There was only so much kindness and sympathy that you could muster before it rolled off you like rain water and you became dry like white dust. Then the pleadings of little kids with salted mangoes in their hands would be just like the buzzing of the mosquitoes, another nuisance to be discarded, another sound to be forgotten and shut out.
The car rolled down the shaded narrow road and I felt that now we were going in the right direction, the feeling came through the windows and invaded my skin and my body like a breath of ice cold air, something that came to settle in the middle of my chest and made all the colors seem brighter. We were now heading straight towards the beach. I could almost feel the ocean breeze against my face even if we were still many miles away.
We came to an old bridge covered in political slogans and some gangster graffiti. It seemed to me right then that the difference between the two types of messages was so tenuous that they simply faded into each other like transparent photographs, sigils borne of a thirst for power and unity, all backed by violence and money, all eager to establish a presence wherever there was a flat surface ready to take a new sign. The old silver bridge offered plenty of flat surfaces, even if they were covered in dust and tiny pebbles. Once the people came by to paint their slogans and their sigils, they would never come back to erase them, so the bridge, like the entire surface of El Salvador itself, would become a giant palimpsest telling the many stories of hope and failure and renewed hope that made up the overarching history of a land where people were bought with T-shirts and cheap little hats and maybe a chicken or two.
I stepped out of the car and my Dad told me to be careful. We were nowhere and nowhere is always dangerous. I looked to my side and I ran right into the old couple.
The old man was thin and covered in wrinkles that were a further wrinkling of skin that had already been squeezed dry and pushed sideways by decades of sun and hard work. His eyes were squeezed together by the thick wrinkled brown skin and his arms were very thin and trembled slightly. The woman was just as thin. Looking at her was like seeing a skeleton with some brown loose rubbery robe draped over it to lightly cover the empty eye sockets and the clicking teeth of old death.
I smiled at them and they smiled back. I asked them if I could take their picture and they immediately responded with unabashed happiness.
“Si, hombre!” The old man said.
Once again, I was offering a kind of immortality that nobody else had troubled themselves to offer them. I was letting them know that there was something about them that mattered. Their eyes reflected that realization as they posed for me with bright smiles.
Such simple communications made me wonder at the distinct and complex levels of betrayal that must have moved through this land like invisible storms of linguistic power: “Make them into workers of the land, make them into workers of factories, make them into soldiers, make them into guerrillas, make them into workers again, make them into nothing at all.” And yet here they smiled with a simplicity that transcended whatever they had been made into. They were simply glad to be here, as tired and old as they were, and they wanted to become a part of me, a part that I would carry as a reminder of the innocent hearts that hid behind the tall dark bushes that threatened to swallow the road.
I took their picture and I said thank you. They thanked me and walked away calmly. I turned towards them, to see them walking away. I saw the little cardboard sign tied to a tree about twenty feet away from me: “We sell cellular phones – zingular” The tree also functioned as a pillar for the rough gateway to a dirt road that rose up and away from the road on which we were travelling. It snaked around the trees, all brown dirt and white rocks and little brown pebbles, and eventually disappeared among the mango trees.
I pictured a tiny hut with an old table covered in dusty cell phones. I looked at the sign again. The letters had been scratched with an old dying marker, each of them was bent out of shape. Then I looked again at the old couple slowly walking away past my Dad’s red Fiat. The new world was clearly intent on encroaching on the old world and yet the old world persisted, even in the tree and the dusty little dirt road, even in the long machete that was lightly swinging as it hung from the old man’s belt. Here was a place where the postmodern kissed the land but only with tentative movements, as if unsure, as if knowing that this land was still not ready for its full electronic advances. It would take the cell phones but it would not surrender the machetes. The dirt road would persist long after the corporation had been swallowed up by future economic waves.
I turned back around and walked towards the bridge. I stepped up on it just as a red truck was crossing in my direction. I felt the bridge moving back and forth, undulating under my feet, just slightly, but enough to remind me that I was now suspended on trust and memory.
I looked towards the river below and I saw the dark green and brown water flowing underneath me. There were bits of branches that traveled slowly under the bridge’s shadow, carried by the current, giving shape to the delicate river waves. I felt the wind of the river’s movement as it caressed my cheekbones and I looked further out there, towards the invisible source. I heard the high pitched laughter of a little boy and the slightly lower laughter of an older woman.
The river was surrounded by little beaches that reached into the current like thick fingers caressed by the cool water. There were thick gray rocks on top of thick wet rocks and flat black sand and some broken trees that were slowly turning black under the sun. It was from one of these beaches that the laughter was coming from.
I first saw the little boy splashing in the river current, wearing old red shorts and nothing else. He had a long thin branch in his hand and he was enthusiastically hitting the water with it. Each time he hit the river surface, the water would splash up to meet his face and he would laugh loudly and then do it again. Behind him was a woman that simply splashed herself in the water. She was thick and brown and wearing a dark blue swimsuit. She would reach into the water with her hands and splash her face with it and then laugh just like the boy. The boy would then jump up and down and splash himself as well. On the beach just behind them was a man wearing long blue shorts and a dirty sleeveless sports T-shirt with a number on it. I could hear him calling out to them in between sips of his beer. He was leaning against a cheap plastic chair and he was smiling. They were all smiling together and the sun was shining on them and the river was cooling them and they would laugh and drink and splash and laugh some more.
I felt a rush of something within me that crawled up from my shifting feet, up through my stomach and right into my heart. I smiled as well, and I took pictures of all of them playing in the distance. I felt that I had been there before but I had never really been there. It all seemed so familiar, so utterly known and understood, as if the memory had attached itself to my skin a long time ago and it had made its way into my body without the burden of real experience. I was never that boy and yet I was, and I was never the woman in the water and yet I was and I was never the man with the beer in his hand and yet I was. I stood there quietly, trying to let the moment pulse within me, aware that, like all things, here and everywhere, this would all be so fleeting. I would soon be gone, and they would soon be gone as well.
Maybe someday the boy would be a man and he would remember days at the river when everything was perfect, days when he could laugh and jump with abandon, knowing he was safe and loved and limitless, days when the sun was a sign of hope and the river was a call to adventure, days when other bad things hadn’t happened yet, bad things that would rob him of the simple gratitude that he now exuded as I looked at him, all thin and brown and happy and covered in the cool water.
Maybe his memory would not be so different from what I saw. Maybe my own memory had just shifted to accommodate the memory of others. I walked away, still feeling the freedom of standing in the current, splashing water over my face.

* * *

I was leaning on a white wicker chair. The bright green cushion was covered in plastic and it felt sticky and wet under my pants. But everything was a little wet here because we were so close to the ocean. The sound of waves carried through every breath and injected itself into every room like a white cloud of foam that floated through empty space and delighted in caressing everything that stood in its way.
I was leaning back, feeling uncomfortable, hoping that the day would be over soon. Now that I look back on it, I can’t quite say what it was that bothered me so much. It had something to do with the utter strangeness of being here, in this beach house, among people I couldn’t understand, people so strange to me that I could have imagined they were a whole other species. And yet they were my family and they were sitting around and acting friendly, as if they knew me, as if they were meant to know me.
I could only hope that I would not be forced to do things I didn’t want to do, things outside where the sun was blaring down on the sand and on the tall beach grass and on the stepping stones and on the little boats that shifted back and forth as they floated by the little pier that was part of the same house.
My Uncle Calin was sitting across from me, shirtless, drinking beer in great big gulps from a slender dark bottle, and making jokes in his loud voice that resonated throughout the large living room. His chest was covered in dark hair and his arms and back were red from the sun, as red as apples. It looked very painful but he didn’t seem to mind. He would take another gulp of the beer and then his eyes would squint and he would ask a pointed question and he would laugh before the answer came back to him.
There were other people around, all sitting in similar wicker chairs, all talking and drinking and laughing. My Dad was sitting to my right, wearing a short sleeve shirt and long beige shorts. There were three other men across from me, my Uncle Raul and two others whom I didn’t recognize. My Uncle Raul would trade jokes easily with my Uncle Calin. He would laugh in his hard raspy voice that sounded like sandpaper being rammed hard against broken glass. My Uncle Calin would respond and laugh in single bursts of merriment, strong spheres of joy that would burst out of his mouth in single servings to roam around the hot moist air of the beach house. Then he would clamp down again. My Dad would drive the conversation back to some idea they were discussing, something to do with engineering or politics. But as soon as it seemed that they were about to explore further into the question that my Dad wanted to understand, my Uncle Raul would make another joke and the whole room would dissolve into laughter again. My Dad’s question would be forgotten.
My Uncle Calin was not really my uncle, not by blood. He was simply married to my Aunt Chichia who was my Dad’s sister. My Uncle Raul who was their older brother, an older brother with whom my Dad had never been close. But here, on this particular afternoon, they were one big family. I was invited to become part of their circle of beer induced warmth and jokes that tasted of sweat and salt and lemon. I was only about seven years old then, so I would not be drinking beer myself (although they probably would have given me some if I had asked, this had happened once already, when I was even younger, and I realized that I didn’t like the taste at all and never asked for it again.) They all made up for my lack of drinking by taking more than their fair share.
My Aunt Chichia came out of the little kitchen in the back with a tray full of tiny appetizers (“boquitas” – “little mouths”) and some more bottles of beer. Her eyes were squinting as always. They were squeezed so tightly that it was a wonder that she could see at all. Her head was tilted back, in an exaggerated motion of sophisticated relaxation, a move she must have practiced for years until it became as natural as breathing. She laughed with the men even if she hadn’t heard the joke. She already knew that the joke itself didn’t matter, not the punch line, not the story, not the set up. It would take me many more years to learn that.
The whole room smelled of oysters and fish and sweat and humidity. The walls were white but covered with dark splotches where the airborne ocean moisture had accumulated. I could feel it on my skin and slipping inside my nostrils and I didn’t like it. I simply kept on wishing that we were somewhere else, even if I wasn’t clear where that somewhere else would be.
My Uncle Calin seemed smart in a way that I hadn’t encountered before. He seemed to be in control of the room in a subtle way that I couldn’t pinpoint, as if every movement of his lips resonated with the swinging of the palm trees outside and left just enough space for the wind to caress the windows and to find its way back inside the room. When he turned to say something, specially when he wasn’t joking or laughing, there was a gravity to his statements that I could feel in my stomach even if I didn’t understand what it was that he was saying. I knew that he was my Uncle in some way, but, aside from that nearly useless bit of knowledge, I didn’t truly know who he was, or what he represented for others. He was simply this shirtless man, in a pair of red swimming trunks, leaning his head back to take another sip of cold beer, talking in a way that made me wonder.
The conversation went on for quite a while. My mind got lost in the recurrent rhythms of words and laughter and loud breathing and long sips of beer. Suddenly it was time to move, and everyone was up and getting ready. I turned to my Dad to ask where it was that we were going. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said:
“We’re going to have a little adventure. Nothing to worry about.”
In fact those words did make me worry. What kind of adventure could I possibly have with these strange people? My Aunt Chichia came back out and my cousins were with her (these were cousins that I barely knew and with whom I had never shared a single conversation.) My aunt was wearing a one piece dark swimsuit. Her chest was covered in freckles and her eyes were just as half closed as before. She was smiling in a half drunken way that spoke of self assurance.
We all walked out onto the front lawn, which was covered in moderately trimmed grass and large stepping stones. The palm trees were as tall as two story houses. There was a couple of men sitting on a bench cutting coconuts open with large shiny machetes. No matter where we went, there would always be skinny brown men on the sidelines, always occupied, always ready to drop whatever they were doing if one of the “patrones” had a job for them.
My Uncle Calin called out to one of them and said something about a boat. I turned to my Dad to figure out if this had anything to do with us.
“A boat? Are we going on a boat?”
My Dad smiled and nodded, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be an adventure. It’s all an adventure.”
But I had been worrying all afternoon and I was not about to stop just then. I pictured us sinking into the depths of the ocean. I saw myself flapping away, trying to grab onto something that would carry me to safety, but there was nothing to hold onto. I sensed that there would be no way out once the boat started to sink, and there was no way out of getting on the boat itself, so there was simply no way out. One event followed another, and I was just a message being carried around by larger beings that decided where it was that I needed to go.
We walked towards the little pier and I saw my Uncle jump into the small boat that would be my final grave. (By this point, I was certain of this.) It was about 15 feet long and painted white and it had a large motor attached to the back. The skinny man that had come running when my Uncle called also jumped onto the boat. He swiftly pulled on a long black cord that make the motor start running.
While the rest of the little party stepped onto the boat, I looked at it and wondered how I would get inside. Beyond my fear of these strange people who claimed to be my family, there was my deep fear of the water itself, which was doubly compounded by the fact that I couldn’t swim. Something as simple as stepping onto a boat was a major obstacle.
My Dad waited for me to look at it and then he said:
“Just jump. If you don’t make it, I’ll catch you…”
I looked up at him and wondered if I could really trust him to catch me, specially when he was smiling slyly at me, as if he knew a great joke that I had never heard. Everyone else was already sitting on the boat and they were all waiting for me. My fear of total embarrassment trumped all my other fears, which were even now multiplying. I made a single short jump which landed me on one foot inside the shifting surface of the boat.
Immediately I felt it rock underneath me and I felt water on my shoes, sliding up into my socks and tickling my toes with coldness. Nobody else seemed to mind it so I said nothing. For a moment I looked at the floor of the boat which had some scattered dead leaves floating in a thin sliver of water.
My Dad followed me and he pulled me down next to him, right on the edge so I could see everything. My Uncle Calin then pulled off the rope that held the boat to the pier and I saw the beach house start to disappear as we moved deep into the dark and waving currents.
I stared right at the water. All my thoughts started to revolve around themselves like a giant merry go round that only I could see. I could still feel the fear of not knowing what was expected of me and the fear of being out here under the sun, which blared even hotter now that the water was reflecting it and there was no roof to protect us. I could still feel the fear of these strange people, for I truly saw them as utterly alien and incomprehensible. I was surrounded by strangeness. It was there in the hairy sunburnt chest of my Uncle Calin and the raspy laughter of my Uncle Raul and the nonchalant eyes of my Aunt Chichia. A kind of strangeness that sent shivers up my spine.
But most of all, above all other fears, there was the fear of the water, the endless water that seemed to go on forever. I pictured myself falling into its clutches and then falling and falling and falling and never reaching the end, all in the midst of an infinite darkness where I could gain no foothold, a darkness that had no foundation. I knew that this was death, down there, among the fish and the mud and the eels and the crabs, there was simple dark silent endless death, and I saw that death was a tumbling over, over and over, without ever reaching the bottom, in the midst of total darkness, total despair. It was a fear that swallowed itself and emerged ever bigger, without giving me a single moment of rest or relief. This was death, where no matter how much I flapped my arms and screamed and wished and hoped and struggled, there would be no one to save me, no one to pull me back up and tell me that everything would be alright. Down here, in the silent heart of death, ‘allright’ had vanished and it would never come back. There was just deep cold dark water, water that would change me and twist me and rupture me and still I would not go away, I would simply keep screaming without ever making a sound, and my screams would be heard by no one and I would fall over myself, over and over, into the bottomless abyss, without help of any kind.
All of this I saw right there, on the quiet vaguely greenish surface of the water next to the slowly moving boat. It was so close to me, just a few feet from my eyes. I reached over the side with my hand, and the water sprinkled over my hand as the boat moved forward into the ocean, gaining speed. There was something about the cold drops of water on my hand that I liked, something about them that pleased me, but not enough to allow me to forget the deep fear that seemed to reach up from the depths and tempt me into jumping in.
I sensed then that my fear went beyond death into realms of hopelessness that I was somehow aware of, even if I couldn’t place my finger on where such thoughts had come from. It was a fear of finality, a fear of the end of light and of the kaleidoscopic variety of experience that came with its presence, it was a fear of having no solid foundation and no hope of ever finding it again. It was fear of fear itself and, if I didn’t pull back and away from it, it would swallow me like the ocean itself and never let me go.
I stared at the water, and at the jungle that stretched in the distance like a long line of green soldiers crowned with showers of leaves. I could hear the others still talking and laughing. My Uncle Calin had brought more beers onto the boat and they were all passing them around.
We moved even further away from land. We were now travelling over small ocean waves and this seemed terrible to me. The water would rise around us and splash over my face, over all of us, in great bursts of wet whiteness. My Uncle Calin would laugh in the midst of it, and I could see the water splashing on him as well and thick cold drops would slide down his hairy sunburnt back all the way to the bottom of the boat where there was now more water than before. I could feel it on my shoes and even on my ankles. I heard my Dad laughing as well and I turned to look at him, to make myself understand that this was fine, that we would soon be on land again and the terror of the endless depths would be a thing of the past.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said to me. He pointed in the direction of the jungle, where there were gigantic black rocks in the shape of porcupines. The huge waves would splash against them and water would rise like a kind of monstrous relentless desire, up and over the rocks, covering them entirely for a moment, only to then fall and leave them naked once again, sprinkled with tiny pools of salty water.
“Look at those waves! Aren’t you glad that we came?”
I stared at the crashing waves and again something in me did relish the incomprehensible shapes they made as they exploded against the harsh black barriers. There was something noble about them, something true and deep, something I couldn’t grasp. I tried to hold it in my mind but it was like a strange movie that moved too fast for me to understand it. Maybe it was the sheer bigness of it all, or the raw unstoppable power, or the loud noise that seemed to invade my ears even over the sound of the boat’s motor and over the sound of the laughter coming from my Uncles and their friends. Maybe it was the many shades of contrast between the deep green palm trees and the gray sand of the beach and the blackness of the rocks and the pure white of the foam and the blueness of the water, all of it coalescing in shapes that transcended geometry. All sharply outlined, all bathed in high contrast.
All this grandeur, it was all coming into me through my eyes that were themselves being splattered by cold water. The boat jumped up and down and left and right, and the sun kept on blaring down on my forehead and my back, making me sweat and itch from the little bit of sand that had gotten under my clothes. There was no place where I could let it all rest, there was no single spot where I could firmly find an answer for my astonishment.
Then the fear would return, as the boat traveled further into the waves. My Uncle Calin, who had already been drunk when we left his beach house and who now had several more beers working inside of him, took control of the boat and started to make it swerve to impress his friends. They laughed as the boat swiveled and bent sideways and then fell back on the water with a big splash. I looked again towards the beach, where the waves were once again exploding. I felt them both at once, as if they were one and the same: fear and awe, all coursing through me like bolts of lightning. For a moment, truly only for a very brief moment, I surrendered to the extreme perfection of it and I allowed myself to simply look, to forget about the depths and the laughter and the strangeness and simply look at all that stretched before me.
One afternoon, many months after the ocean depths were but a distant memory, I saw the picture on the cover of the newspaper. I hesitated at the jagged border of its meaning. My Dad confirmed it with a phone call. When I still didn’t quite believe it, my mother explained it in detail, in a very calm and collected voice, as if these things happened all the time, as if it was to be expected, as if the photo held no shock within it and instead simply finally described something that had been a long time coming, something that we all knew would eventually show up.
The photo in the cover of the newspaper was of a car that had been destroyed by large detonations. The windows had exploded into a million little bits of glass, much like the waves I had seen crashing against the black rocks in the ocean. The doors of the car were bent inwards, like a man that is folded over himself when another man has punched him in the stomach. There were people standing around the car, a man pointing, a couple of reporters with cameras, a woman covering her mouth, a teenager without a shirt trying to pull the door open with his bare hands.
Inside the car, somewhere behind the broken glass and the twisted metal, was my Uncle Calin, the one with the hairy chest and the single vibrant bursts of laughter, the one with the boat and the beach house. He had been shot to death outside the University by unknown assailants. It appeared that he wouldn’t be taking us on any boat rides anymore. It appeared that I would never be able to solve his mystery for it had been silenced by unforgiving enemies.
I could picture the moment when the bullets ripped into him, into the same sunburt chest I had seen not too long ago. I could imagine the shocking surprise when his flesh took unexpected shapes as the car windows exploded all around him and the doors curved inward, cutting through muscle and skin. Then the waves of darkness penetrated him and took him away. I could see him tumbling endlessly in the darkness, and I could faintly hear his pleas for help.
It seemed that something terrible had happened, but my Dad was calm and my mother was even calmer. It seemed that Uncles died every other day and it was not a big event, nothing to truly worry about. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t try to respond to the faint calls for help that I might have imagined under the drone of the afternoon winds. I saw him tumble over and over without end, without hope, without further purpose or destiny. And I felt the weight of the entire ocean closing in around him, burying him in black oblivion.

* * *

We were driving at a moderate speed but the car would shake angrily every once in a while, metal would bang against metal and the entire moving artifact would shift to the side and lurch forwards and back. It seemed like it was doing it more and more frequently, but I had already decided not to think about it, so I put it out of my mind as well as I could.
I had to admit to myself, in the brief seconds when I wasn’t successful in putting it completely out of my mind, that there was something tempting about being stranded out here. It seemed that if the car were to suddenly stop and not move anymore, it would be like a strange door opening. We would emerge into this world of mango trees and hand written signs and old wrinkled couples and find a destiny that neither of us suspected. Maybe it wouldn’t be enjoyable but it would definitely be new. The newness itself beckoned with its own light even from the depths of the green bushes, every time the car shook and rattled again, and every time it seemed to lose power and just skate over the two lane road and every time it shifted strangely so that we seemed to be floating momentarily without power or inner strength, before the familiar sound of the little motor came back to our ears and let us know that death had not arrived. Every single time I felt a doorknob twisting, as if that new something out there wanted to open its doorway and come crashing out upon us in a single burst of chaotic activity without a clear predetermined form.
We came to a place where there were two oxen slowly making their way up the road. They were tied to each other with a harness and had long white horns that curved up towards the sky. Their skin was bright white with little splotches of brown on their sides and over their thick bulging neck. There was nobody guiding them as they traveled in the middle of the two lane highway. It was as if they knew where they were going, simply because they had made this trip so many times before. (Their journey was wrapped in routine, a routine made of paper and wrinkled aluminum foil.) Maybe their guide had suddenly disappeared and had left them to their own luck here in the middle of nowhere.
My Dad started to turn the wheel to make his way around them, but I placed my hand on his shoulder and shook my head.
“Wait a moment. Don’t pass them. Park the car. I want to take some pictures of them.”
My Dad raised his eyebrows in that particular operatic way that had earned him the nickname “The Cat” when he was young. He chuckled to himself and shrugged his shoulders. He had gone past the threshold of needing or even wanting to understand what it was that I was looking for, what it was that I wanted to understand or capture through my pictures. He had simply given in to the idea that at least we were together, and at least I had come back to El Salvador and I was staying with him and he could once again talk to me and confirm that I was alive and reasonably well. Everything else, everything, no matter how strange or incomprehensible, would have to be put on hold and simply float around the vicinity of our heads while we kept on talking as if nothing had ever happened.
In the spirit of that avoidance, he simply slid the car to the right shoulder and we both jumped up and down as the wheels encountered the thick gravel that covered the edge. Then the car slid even further into the raw dirt, adorned with a few scattered soda bottles and pieces of wrapping paper.
When we finally came to a stop, I saw that the oxen had moved off the road but still there was no guide. Maybe they had felt the presence of our little car and had decided to let us pass or maybe this is precisely where they needed to go and they were simply turning towards their accustomed route. I took out my camera and pulled it around my neck. Then I walked out of the car, feeling the touch of that mysterious newness all around me. I closed the flimsy red door (everything about the little car seemed flimsy to me, I could only shudder at the thought that my Dad had proposed to take it all the way to the Andes, I couldn’t imagine this little car making it up a small hill) and I turned towards the crossroads where the oxen were standing.
I noticed a big white rock covered in political slogans, layers of them, more evidence of the political palimpsest that was the landscape of El Salvador. I wondered if centuries from now there would be political geologists that would be able to determine the ideological shifts of this country through the careful examination of its rocks. The true wonder of it was that, no matter how many times the theater was repeated, people still believed, people still hoped, people still felt triumph and despair when the election results were announced, people still forgot while claiming to remember.
I walked on the shoulder carefully, avoiding the large green grasses and the fist sized boulders that covered the ground.
The oxen were standing on the corner closest to me. It was a kind of intersection where a small dirt road started from the paved narrow highway that we were on and went off into the distance. Right where they had stopped was where the barbed wire also stopped. On the other side of the road it was all pure bush (“monte”) without any shape or pattern that I could discern. There were a couple of tiny houses on the other side of the highway and a little store, which was also a house, right at the corner of the dirt road. Several ads for Coca Cola, Fanta and Pilsener beer were hanging from the straw covered roof, which gave shade to a little wooden porch in front of a small window.
Without actually seeing her, I could picture a young girl on the other side of that window. She would be about fifteen or sixteen, she would be watching a little black and white TV with a bored look in her eyes, she would be chewing on “churritos” that she was slowly pulling out of a half empty bag, all while her mother washed the family’s clothing in the backyard. There would of course be a radio playing further inside the house, but that was as far as my invisible eyes could see.
On the porch there was a little table and a skinny short brown man was sitting there, slowly drinking an orange soda out of the bottle. He had a large white hat over his head, but it was pulled back to reveal his face and his sweaty shiny forehead. There was a large machete adorned with many little bits of colored string hanging from his belt.
As I approached the intersection I heard a few little kids playing on the other side of the paved road. They were kicking at a little plastic ball and laughing loudly. I didn’t see it happen directly but I believed that they got a little quiet when they saw me approach. I could only imagine what went through their minds, what they thought of this strange long hair man who was walking slowly so close to them. (A stranger, a hippie, a subversive, a musician, a terrorist.) I could feel their eyes on me as I approached the oxen. They were like tiny subtle fingers sliding over my skin.
Before raising the camera to my eyes, I nodded to the thin man on the porch.
“Buenas,” I said to him and I waved faintly.
He nodded, more than once, and then he said “Buenas” back to me. His eyes were as fixed on me as the kids’ eyes were. Whether I liked it or not, I was now a show for them, a strange sight in the midst of the everyday occurrences of flying dust and singing birds and loud rancheras.
I turned away from all of them, still feeling their attention on me, now like a blast of heat that had been focused, and I moved towards the oxen. Up close, their skin seemed even more white and somehow unearthly smooth, thick and hard and perfect.
The ox on the left was busy eating from the green grass that stuck out from in between the barbed wire of the hacienda that ended with the dirt road. I wondered momentarily why the ox liked this particular grass over all the other grass that was around it. Maybe it was simply that it had become hungry at this particular moment. Or maybe he felt the urgency of the challenge calling to him from the other side of the barbed wire. We would always want what we can’t have, me and the ox and everybody else.
The second ox had been forced to stop by the first one’s sudden impulse and it now simply waited, as if it was used to being forced into unplanned stops like this one. Maybe he was like my father, who couldn’t understand why we were stopping in the middle of nowhere to take pictures of an ox. He also knew that, at the moment, we were bound as one and there was no need to struggle against the harness that kept us together.
I took a step towards the waiting white ox and it raised its big head towards me. The gray and black and brown horns stood up and they were framed by the bright blue sky, emphasizing the perfect curve of their shape, a form that transcended ten thousand years of signification. I was suddenly astounded by its raw beauty, a surge of white strength that was absolutely untainted by self awareness.
The narrow alert eyes were on me and I looked straight back at him. It was now clearly a him, his maleness had made itself known. I could feel his presence stirring within its white folds, maybe some kind of organic dream was now going on behind his eyes. I could almost make out the shapes forming in his nearly hidden pupils. He let out a small exhalation which made his thick lips tremble, thick lips covered in gooey slime that slowly dripped all the way to the dirt below, dark thick slime full of discarded life. Then he let out another exhalation and its tail rose up and it beat against his own broad white back that seemed too big and perfect to be alive and breathing.
I lifted my camera and took a picture and then moved a little closer. I turned briefly to the other side of the paved road and I saw the three children standing there: a little girl about eight in a frilly blue dress and a smaller girl, maybe about five, in a very dirty pink dress, and finally a little boy who was only wearing a dirty white shirt and who was probably three or four. All three of them were staring directly at me with faces of spellbound wonder. It was impossible for me to even begin to imagine what they were seeing, what could they see in me, what was being processed through their minds right now which would be transformed into other thoughts and other dreams as the factory of their future thoughts and memories went to work on them. What I could say for sure is that they were staring with the intensity reserved for great sudden discoveries.
I smiled at them and the little girl in the pink dress waved back at me, and she smiled as well. The other two just continued to stare.
I moved closer to the ox, fearing that someone would soon tell me to stop. The ox had turned, as if he had sensed my temporary distraction and had decided to look away as well. He was trying to determine if his companion was done with the grass, but the other one was still pulling intensely at the long brown weeds that stuck out through the tangled barbed wire. I moved a step closer and took a few more pictures from the side and he turned again towards me.
I looked deep into his sleepy eyes through the lens of the camera and I felt a raw strength under his apparent submission, a knowledge of possibilities that remained hidden under the veil of time and choices. He knew of his own strength and he knew that he was made for something other than this. He knew that there was no way to avoid what had become of him. He also knew that something out there was looking at him intently, something out there was looking at him in a way that didn't fit into the routine.
I stepped closer and I felt him exhale again, as if letting me know that that was close enough, that I was right at the border of intention, that a step further would be to dive beyond the breakers. I could see the waters raging behind his eyes, observing me, tempting me to explore what was patiently waiting on the other side.

* * *

We arrived in a cramped little car that could barely hold us. My Uncle Raul was driving and his wife was sitting next to him. She was my aunt through social agreement, but I felt as if I had never truly met her. I didn’t know anything about her and she didn’t know anything about me.
I was sitting in the back with my Dad. They had all been talking non-stop for the entire trip, which had seemed endless to me but had probably taken only about forty minutes. (Forty minutes had been endless once. The minutes had once ticked by so slowly that they were like black holes of loneliness and boredom that threatened me with endless imprisonment.)
We passed through a guard post, where a uniformed soldier looked through my Uncle’s papers and then looked quickly at us through dust stained windows before letting us move on.
I saw the giant ship in the distance and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It seemed to shine brightly in the middle of the afternoon, like an unreal wizard tower beckoning travelers in the distance, something out of a sword and sorcery story, something that couldn't happen. The hull was deep black like an endless night. It rose two or three stories high above the concrete floor of the pier. The quarters on top of the ship looked blindingly white. There were little life boats tied all along the edge of the deck and there were sailors running back and forth on different errands. It all reminded me of my garden structures and my little plastic soldiers, so much activity, so many things going on, all tied to this one single giant ship.
There was a very small and narrow bridge that started from a wooden structure on top of the pier and went deep into the hull of the giant ship. I stared at it and wondered what it would be like to walk through something like that, and as I wondered I shuddered.
The car turned into a small parking lot by a small one story building. There were a couple of small cars parked there, as well as a large Cherokee with polarized windows. A few feet away, there was a little boy in a dirty red shirt playing with a yo-yo. We stepped out of the car and I inhaled the mixed aromas of port water, ocean breeze and fish being cleaned somewhere nearby.
I quickly followed the adults into an air-conditioned office where a middle aged secretary invited us to sit down. There were pictures of different ships on the walls and a distinct smell of burning tobacco in the air. The leather seats were smooth and clean and luxurious. The floor was made of smooth shiny gray bricks. We all sat down to wait. They continued to talk but they used softer voices than they had in the car. The air conditioner produced a loud hum that formed a deep underlying drone under the shifting rhythm of the conversations.
It seemed that we all had changed as soon as we stepped into this room. Maybe it was just the fact that we were inside and cool and in a strange place. I looked up to my Dad and he looked down at me and smiled. My Uncle was still talking but his usual loud growl had turned into a kind of raspy whisper.
The secretary disappeared behind the only door in the room besides the one that we came in through. After a few minutes, she came back and signaled for us to go inside.
My Uncle Raul went in first. It was clear that this was his show and we were going along for the ride. My Aunt followed him and I walked in next to my Dad, my head turning in every direction. Inside, the first thing I felt was the soothing touch of cold air. The noise of the air conditioner was not as loud in here but its effects were even more noticeable. The windows were tinted so that the port outside looked slightly green. There was a thick and long desk covered in papers and photographs and other paraphernalia. There were also pictures on the walls: some more ships, several men in full military uniform and a large Salvadorean flag.
Right behind the desk, high up on the wall, there was a picture of President Molina. I recognized him immediately as I had watched him many times giving speeches on TV. I was never able to follow what he was saying in those speeches, almost as if he were speaking in a different language that I had never learned, a language full of sentences that bent upon themselves and emerged from all linguistic sequences unscathed from the burden of having to say anything in particular. But I could recognize his round brown face and his thick menacing voice.
In school we would all tell jokes about President Molina, jokes in which he was always the fool, always the one who was punished or taught a lesson. We would all laugh heartily at the incompetence of this distant man whom we didn’t really know. In this way he had become a kind of mythical figure, a distant god to be laughed at when he wasn’t looking, a figure reserved for tall tales and dreams. But here he was real, in a shining picture, with his chest covered with medals and large showy epaulets on his shoulders that demanded respect.
Sitting behind the desk was a man that looked very much like him: brown and thick and in full bright military uniform. Like the President, he had a thick black moustache over his lip and, like him, he exuded an atmosphere of power and intense disdain for weakness, cowardice or any sign of fearful hesitation. For a moment I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t in fact the President himself who was sitting in front of us. I wanted to ask someone but they were already talking a mile a minute and I had barely started to make sense of where we were.
Somewhere inside of me I knew that we had accessed a deep place which usually would have remained hidden. I didn’t know why we were here, I didn’t know what connection there was between my Uncle Raul and this man who now leaned back on his luxurious leather chair and laughed in great outbursts of prideful mirth. I didn’t know why my Dad and me had come here with my Uncle and his wife and I didn’t understand the jokes they were telling or the sly statements they made when they weren’t laughing.
I looked around the room slowly. I looked at all the many portraits that seemed to hide more than they revealed. Then I looked at the man behind the desk once again. He seemed to me a solid heavy and distinct personification of masculine strength, behind him stood the raw power of physical might and deadly violence that was the military. This was MAN spilling out of the coffers of my subconscious and pounding away at the edges of my reality. His whole demeanor was an implied threat that never stopped dancing with cutting movements that reached deep into my chest, sliding sideways and moving in circles. He was the monster that lived behind the stories, the creature that was both the thing that I most feared and the thing that I most admired, the savage impulse of murder encased in an elegant uniform within a cool and clean temple of masculine pride.
To be with this man was to understand that one lived at his mercy, that he could decide to let you go or not, and the choice would be completely based on his whim. If he decided that there was no reason for you to continue living, then he would simply close the curtain on your private cinema and continue with his own, without worries, without regrets, without shame.
He carried with him the gift of nothingness, and with it he carried the gift of pain. I couldn’t bring myself to decide which was most fearful. Maybe I would ask for nothingness to make the pain go away, or maybe I would cling to excruciating pain just to stay away from the final plunge into nothingness. This man would not care about my preferences. He had given out both gifts in overflowing handfuls. His weight rested on the solid foundation of those twin pillars of his temple.
His hands were brown like a peasant’s but, unlike theirs, they were thick and muscular. He would flex his thick brown fingers as if fully aware of what they represented. His voice sounded like thick deep drums that shook the foundations of our surroundings with every syllable that escaped from his lips. Behind this man there were deep currents of blood and pain, the sound of old screams almost escaped from the edges of his lips each time he opened his mouth to speak. It was precisely these underground secret rivers that fed into his raw power, a power that was tangible throughout the room and extended far beyond this little office. Good or evil, righteous or unjust, pious or blasphemous, there was no way to escape from the deep clarity of this man’s strength.
I could only look at him for brief moments at a time and then my eyes would wander around the office once again. I looked at the portraits of ships and of other military men (maybe his father or his uncles) and then I looked at the Salvadorean flag once again. The flag and the man went together. There was a thread of connection there that I could only barely understand, I could feel it crawling all over my arms like angry red ants piercing my skin with insistent hunger.
What we sang to in the simple verses of the national hymn, what we praised eloquently in the poem to the flag, what we honored with our hand across our chest when a physical manifestation of the flag was waving above our heads, they were all masks to cover the truth that this man manifested plainly and beyond question. Here was the truth of nation and honor and courage and valor, here in this thick brown man with a full black moustache, this man who was now laughing with my Uncle as he leaned back on his luxurious leather chair. There could be speeches and ideas and philosophies and tales of supernatural influence, but, in the end, it all came down to this man and his thick brown hands and his self given right to grant life or death.
Suddenly the man and my Uncle stood up and the rest of us followed suit. The man was still laughing and my Uncle and my Dad were laughing with him. My Aunt maintained a role similar to my own, quiet and observant, subtly vibrant at the outer edges of the main scene. Here, in this land of cold unspoken rules, women and children lived on the same level, they were very nearly interchangeable.
We walked out of the inner office in a line. The man said something to his secretary, and she nodded. Then we walked outside into the open air, which now seemed specially hot and humid after sitting inside the air conditioned office for so long.
“We’re going to see the ship…” my Dad said to me and he shook my shoulders to engender some kind of enthusiasm.
I looked again towards the concrete pier that reached into the water like a gray thick finger. There was the giant black ship I had seen as we approached the port. In the middle of telling more jokes and making more cryptic pronouncements, we were slowly making our way towards it.
As we walked past two guard points, the soldiers stood up quickly from their posts and saluted with a clear and loud shout:
“At your orders Coronel!”
The man saluted as well, putting his hand near his forehead briefly, not quite as intensely as the soldiers that had saluted him. Then, in a relaxed voice that still seemed to imply an unspoken threat, he said:
“Back to rest.”
When they heard his reply, the soldiers would relax their shoulders and put down their hands. Then they would exhale and they would slowly get back to sitting on an old wooden chair, reading the newspaper or talking to another soldier, the topic of their ongoing conversation probably lost by the sudden shocking break of royalty passing through.
In this way, we made our way to a stairway which seemed to lead right into the ship’s hull. I looked up at the giant behemoth and it looked now even more imposing than it had when I saw it from a distance. I was now at the feet of a kind of mechanical titan that had roamed far beyond the places that I could imagine, a creature of metal and wood capable of braving the horrifying ocean depths, able to make its way through the vast emptiness of blue and white that covered the little plastic globe that I could only stare at in my room, able to brave the dashing storms and merciless hurricanes and still be here, ready for another voyage.
The blood and the ocean, the man and the ship, they were all as one as we followed up the stairs, that deep and decisive voice still ringing in my ears.
As we got to the end of the steps, I realized we were about to walk over the narrow bridge I had seen from the car. I was suddenly gripped with fear. As if my Dad could feel it, he pushed me along and leaned over to say in my ear:
“We’re going to see the insides!”
I stepped onto the dangling wooden structure. It creaked loudly as I felt my weight come to rest on it. I felt it shift and wave but there was not much time for me to stop to assess what I was walking on. In a single file we all walked over it as it danced up and down and in all directions. It was all a very brief moment but enough to send chills up and down my spine.
I looked down, simply because I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. Down below was an abyss of darkness, a moss covered rock wall on one side and the smooth black hull of the ship on the other. At the bottom there was just black green water, a thin thread of nothingness that ran all along the edge of the black behemoth, a thin thread that spoke to me of endings and places that could never be escaped. Down there was the end of hope, the end of all things I had ever seen or known or heard of, down there was the end that was never fully satisfied, the curtains that never fully closed.
The ship shifted ever so slightly and I could see the water moving down below, dark green waves covered in thick shadows like spider webs made of long black hair. I could see myself falling over the edge of the narrow bridge, I could see myself sliding all the way down the side of the ship, trying to scratch at the black surface with my nails, trying to hold on, to call for help, trying to grab onto a window or a piece of wood or a hand but there was nothing at all to grab onto. I would simply slide all the way down, all the way to the bottom where the true nothingness was waiting in its bed of dark green restless waves.

* * *

The air grew more humid, thicker, warmer. The soil grew darker, richer, more full of life. The rocks grew bigger and their shapes grew more complex. The palm trees grew taller and more full of a kind of innocent pride.
I could smell the salt in the air. I knew that we were getting close, that the ocean loomed ahead like a giant open doorway, that it waited to soothe me and heal me after so many hours of dry land and dusty land and more and more land, it waited to heal me from the tall green bushes and the thick mango trees and the pickup trucks full of people pressed up against each other and the noise of the transistor radios and the long columns of poisonous black smoke and the clouds of dust that would make their way into the little red car like microscopic armies in the process of aerial invasion. All of it would be washed away in a single moment in front of the ocean, the pure and everlasting ocean, the ancient chaotic roar that beckoned just around the next bend.
As soon as I felt it, I started to smile, without a thought or a wish or a clear reason for being happy. It was simply something I had never really questioned, something I had never truly understood but had always assumed to be true, this overwhelming power of the ocean to cleanse me of all memories, of all sights and feelings that had come before. Where did it come from and how had it come about? I only knew that it reached out to me with the sound of the waves and the warm breeze that washed over my face like a gentle cloth.
Soon enough, between the trees, I was able to see the great expanse, light blue and white and darker blue, spreading outwards in the distance, all blue and all pure and beautiful, letting me know that there was rest and comfort at the end of the journey, and the end was here and now, at the edge of the world where the waves splashed against the giant rocks and the murmur of the dancing palm trees scattered all remaining concerns of everyday life to the vast emptiness of the horizon.
I remembered the woman I talked to in Santa Fe, the tough red woman whose skin was like hardened leather. I remembered her standing under the faultless desert sky as I looked deep into her eyes. I said what seemed obvious and yet sounded strange when it came out of my lips:
“I can’t be away from the ocean too long. Here, we are far from the ocean and I feel like I am drowning in a dry hole. I can take it for a while but not for long. I have to be back next to the ocean as soon as possible.”
She nodded and smiled.
“Yes, I am the same way. Here I am drying away. I feel the call of the water, and I feel that I should be back there, but I have to stay, at least for a while.”
I looked at her, standing before me all dry and red and hard. I tried to imagine being out here in the desert for years at a time. Maybe a river would be enough to satisfy my unexplainable need, maybe a lake, maybe just the sky itself which could seem like a vast empty ocean spotted with white cresting waves that were really clouds.
But I could not reconcile the difference. I could not surrender to the dry empty expanses of the desert and sacrifice the simple touch of the ocean breeze. I couldn’t stay there, not for long. If she truly was like me, then I admired her for her sacrifice. Within a few days of driving through desert highways, through a land of billboards and oil pumps and McDonalds, we spotted the long calm blue line that was the ocean kissing the gulf with rolling waves of vibrant desire, and I breathed again, and I smiled and turned the music up louder.
This is how I felt on this day, as we approached the Salvadorean coastline, but there was no music to turn up so I simply listened more closely to the giant waves that roared behind palm trees dancing in the wind.
Seagulls cried in the distance and the waves responded with their deep roaring crashes. The deep water itself was all around us in the form of a constant drone that made everything shift slightly, it seemed as if reality itself was about to burst open, as if the trees and the rocks and the dirt would simply vibrate into pure singing substance and slide off their placements in the web of the world, the road itself would then collapse from under us, all of it dancing back and forth like the waves in the distance that had never lost their pure vibrant form.
This wasn’t a cause for fear just then, for I felt myself dissolving with it, becoming one with the roaring drone, simply shifting away from what was into what was coming, finding myself in twisting roads of a very different nature, roads that turned in more than one direction at once, and the sky itself would drift and break apart, and long golden fractures would appear across the blueness and roll towards the horizon. I would smile as it all broke open, knowing that it had to happen sooner or later, and it might as well be now, it was only now that it would ever really happen.
Underneath it all, the drone would still be there, breaking me into pieces that vibrated with an easy and flowing surrender, just like the sky was breaking, breaking into pieces that formed and reformed into a myriad shapes without meaning. There was still no fear. Or rather the fear itself had been broken apart and in the process of breaking it had lost its foundation. Now there was only shapes and colors and sound and an intense oscillation that caressed me from the inside out. But there was no clear ‘me’, there was no clear ‘inside of me’ or ‘outside of me.’ By then there was only oscillation, only the drone itself, and the drone was the ocean, and the ocean was a vast expanse of blue water that beckoned to me from just beyond the palm trees swinging gently in the wind.
We stopped so I could take more pictures. My Dad waited in the car while I stepped to the edge of the cliff and looked out into infinity. I realized that I couldn’t really take photos of the ocean itself, for it was simply blue nothingness and I might as well take pictures of a blank wall or a close up of my finger or the inner lining of an eye. Then I could say “look, here is the ocean, look at how fierce it is, look at how enormous it is, look at how blue and complete and empty…” All I could really do was take pictures of the things that surrounded that emptiness, the elements that pointed towards it, that framed the blueness in gray and black and green.
I walked towards a small wooden structure that smelled of fish and humid wood. I walked up the old creaking steps and I stood alone above the wide open mouth of nothingness. I pointed my camera at the jungle itself, the rolling jungle that fell off the side of the cliff and swept down fearlessly all the way to the edge of the water. I pointed it at the giant black rocks on which the waves crashed and scattered, at the waves themselves which formed complex explosions of white intensity, white shapes that were something only for precious instants before becoming nothing once again. So quickly come and gone. So sudden. So constant. So ever lasting.
I pointed the camera at the structure on which I stood and realized that it was a door in itself, a small wooden door that led to the greater doorway which was unknowable, the greater doorway which touched realms beyond my reach.
I then turned to look at the tunnel that covered the road in its darkness. Its dark mouth stood only a hundred feet from where I was standing. It was all so quiet, since the drone of the ocean itself was a kind of raging silence that swallowed up all other sounds and made them part of itself. There were hardly any cars at all passing through the tunnel and no people walking along the edge of the road. For a moment at least, we were alone, alone out here at the edge of comprehension.
I looked at the lonely tunnel again and I noticed what it was for the first time. I realized that I was past the old barriers, past the great fortress of fear which had been erected at the edge of my reality by hands that didn’t know what they were building even as they carried the bricks. Soon we would be back in the realm of clear distinctions, and the tall smooth walls would surround me like a giant black glove that would firmly hold me in its leathery palm. But for now, on this single instant of temporary awareness, the city remained on the other side of the tunnel, and I was standing at the doorway of nothingness, where the shapes of creation emerged recklessly from the wild absolute, undisturbed by purpose or utility or need.
I was an intruder here and yet I somehow belonged among the little trees bent sideways by the raw power of the ocean wind. The drone again rose up from my feet, like a dark wave ready to burst into a roaring white explosion when it hit the black rock that sat in the middle of my chest.
I smiled at the simple, direct ways of the Universe, this thing on which I walked and breathed. Here was the tunnel, and here was the door and here was the void. As clear as a slim little colorful card held between two fingers and yet so easy to ignore. Nothing hidden, nothing to be uncovered, nothing to be questioned, nothing to be rearranged, nothing to slide through my hands on its way to becoming something, the something which came from nothing, like my hands and my eyes and my heart and my camera.
I took pictures of the tunnel which was a vaginal hole ripped from the entrails of the living mountain. I took a single picture of the little number that was hand painted at the top of the red arch, letting me know that this was one of many, letting me know that symbols still existed and they still held onto some kind of meaning back in the world of the dead.
As I saw the number, I suddenly knew that we were in the right place and I also knew what we were about to find, what I was about to touch again, even if only with my eyes. It couldn’t have been any other way. The roads that cut through El Salvador were many, but they would always lead back here. They would always cut across the dust and bring me back to the living edge.

* * *

My Uncle Roberto was on the driver’s seat and my mother was sitting next to him. Dilcia and me were sitting on the back seat, her head pressed against my chest. My right hand was roaming through her disheveled hair, my fingers were tracing a single thread of her dark brown curls. When I had traced its entire length, I would come back to trace another one.
The wind was blowing into the car through the open windows which made it slightly difficult to hear what my Uncle was saying, but if I focused on his lips and the movements of his head, that gave me just enough additional information to make out the words that were flowing out of his lips.
“My mother didn’t want us to come. She insisted that it was better that we don’t come here. She has heard of terrible things here. She’s right, you know? She’s absolutely right. This highway is famous for being lonely and dangerous. Once you get past the second tunnel, it’s terrible… you couldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard…”
I leaned forward to listen more closely. Outside the window we could still see the outskirts of San Salvador. A little corner store (a “tiendita”) with its name “Rosario” painted in big white letters over the cracked surface of the deep blue wall. A young woman in an old brown skirt and yellow shirt was leaning against the metal doorway of the store, talking into the darkness inside while she played with her key chain. A little boy jumped off the side of the sidewalk, which crumbled towards the blue asphalt of the street like the side of a wounded mountain. A thin brown man, covered in sweat, slowly made his way up the same sidewalk, maybe walking towards the store. The light changed, and then they were all gone. I turned my head slightly to see the remains of their presence, like rainbow streaks across the side of my pupils.
I felt Dilcia shift against me, maybe to accommodate her body or maybe to remind me that she should be the focus of my attention and nothing else. My fingers once against ran over her brown hair and she rose slightly and kissed the side of my neck.
“A friend of mine was driving to his beach house… not too far from where we’re going… and several men with machine guns were waiting at the end of the third tunnel… they flagged him down and he had to stop… you never know if there’s more of them waiting ahead so you have to stop…you can’t rush past them… they took everything and even when he gave them everything they still beat him up before letting him go…”
My mother shook her head in fear and shock. We had all heard so many stories like these that it was a surprise to me that she could still find some new element in them to make her shudder, some new imaginary chamber to incite her to run away.
Dilcia looked up at me and shook her own head, letting me know that she was tired of hearing about these things, that she didn’t want to know about my Uncle’s friends getting beaten or robbed or killed or stabbed. She just wanted the ride to be over, so we could be all alone once again, so we could simply stare into each other’s eyes within the silent bubble that would emerge softly from our chests and settle around our intertwined bodies covered in sweat.
I knew there was no sense in listening, but the stories were like a tooth that hurts terribly, a painful tooth that I couldn’t stop myself from licking over and over, feeling its rough edges with my tongue, even if it would only make it hurt even more. My eyes turned again towards the window, where I could now see deep green bush rising over barbed wire, and fat women carrying large plastic buckets and straw baskets on their heads, always followed by two or three little kids, also with buckets on their heads, and sometimes a thin man on a horse, a tiny whip in his hand used to lightly motivate the tired animal to keep on moving.
“What they do is that they wait inside the tunnels, or right after… the tunnels are dark and long and there’s nobody there… nobody…it’s all so lonely… so nobody can help you if you get into trouble… once they have you, you’re at their mercy… that’s how things have become in this country… see? I’m telling you, it’s worse than ever! And so they wait, in the darkness… or they put obstacles on your way… big rocks or pieces of wood… and then you have to stop… or you will simply crash and then they will have you anyway… they don’t care…”
I could see my mother nodding and nodding with a feverish sense of urgency. All this talk was obviously having an effect on her. To some degree, it was having an effect on me as well.
The Magician, had told us: “If you talk about the bad things that can happen, then you call them to you. If you think with fear, then you live in fear and the world itself becomes fearsome. If you think clearly and positively, then nothing can touch you.”
His words came to my mind over and over again as I listened to my Uncle. Dilcia had been drinking her father’s philosophy since she was very little, in every weekend speech he gave to his crowd of followers, in every little trip they took together, in every moment of quiet when he could talk to her. Within that framework, within a proposed reality that responded to your inner fears and hopes, it was clear that my Uncle was actively putting us in danger.
I could feel Dilcia becoming more and more restless as he continued to talk. Her little body would shift and shift again and her head would press tighter against me. I leaned over and kissed her forehead, letting my lips linger on the hard brown surface. Then I tried to change the conversation itself. I asked about the town we were driving through and my Uncle gave me a quick reply as if such things couldn't possibly matter.
The texture of the air had suddenly shifted, and the smell of fish invaded the car like a flood of dead memories. There was a park just outside the window, its grounds only half covered in unruly green grass. Several little kids were playing in metal structures the color of rust and fading paint. Along the sidewalk, several men and women with wet carefully combed hair were waiting for a bus. As we passed by them, their eyes all turned towards us, something about our presence was disturbing to their sense of normality. A drunk man was lying on the sidewalk and people were walking around him, used to his nightly habits. Two men in cowboy hats were talking loudly by the side of a pharmacy, each one with a large machete tied to his belt, each one with shoulders tilted back in an effort to conquer imaginary territory.
I mentioned the current political climate in the United States and the situation with Iraq. My mother tried to follow my lead and for a moment my Uncle’s attention was diverted. But as soon as we hit the open road again, and as soon as there was an empty space in our conversation, my Uncle returned to his main concern.
I could now smell the ocean, the air impregnated with salt and moisture, a touch of cool breeze riding over stagnant waves of heat. If we lifted our heads a bit, we would see the shiny blue horizon over the tops of the bushes to our left. The long emerald leaves were twisted wildly in all directions, as if frozen in the middle of a frenzied dance.
There were fewer people walking on the road now. A young boy was selling coconuts all by himself in a little wooden hut overlooking a cliff. An old woman was walking very slowly up a hill while talking to herself, her wide mouth flapping open and closed so distinctly that I could see her movements from a hundred meters away. The car stumbled for a moment, as if it was running out of gas, and our bodies shifted forward and back, then the motor roared again and we continued moving.
“To make matters worse… did you feel that? I’ve been meaning to get it checked… something’s wrong with this car… maybe the transmission… I don’t know…now we’re going to get stuck in the middle of nowhere… out here by the tunnels… out here in this lonely highway, the worse place to end up…stuck and unable to get help…any kind of help… I knew I should have gotten it fixed and now look at where we are…you see what I mean? Now we’re really going to be in trouble…”
Dilcia turned to me, her eyes were little pools of concern. She was much too scared of my family, of the aristocratic glow that emerged from their presence, she much too polite, much too shy, much too insecure about her own place within our circle to say anything out loud. But I could almost hear the strong words bubbling up from deep within her: “Shut up! Please shut up! I don’t need to hear your horror stories! I don’t need to hear any of it! No more!”
I smiled at her, letting her know that I was on her side, letting her know that if we didn’t take my Uncle seriously, then nothing at all would happen, letting her know that at least we, the two of us, at least we were not afraid. If we could restrain our own fear, then there would be no problem, nothing could get in our way. Just like the Magician said. She smiled back at me but her eyes were still down turned, and my Uncle was still talking.
“Look, here comes the first tunnel…I bet you…we’re going to end up getting stuck right in the middle of it! I just know it!”
I looked ahead of us through the windshield and I saw the curved archway of the tunnel, faded bricks roughly pressing against naked stone, a dark doorway holding up a mountain that still breathed with twisting bushes and lizards and big flat white rocks covered in moss. The tunnel itself was so long that looking into its entrails I could only see darkness, pure raw darkness that smelled of long dead fish and salt water.
We entered this nether world and the darkness swallowed us like a giant mouth with teeth made of jagged stones. The smell of moisture and death invaded the car and it pulsated in a twilight realm between grotesque and strangely pleasant. Dilcia burrowed deeper into my chest and I ran my fingers over her hair. My Uncle turned on the headlights and we could barely see more white rocks and some graffiti on the walls and thick green moss that looked almost fluorescent in the dim light.
“This is where they sometimes put obstacles on the road. A rock, a tree, a car, whatever. If you stop to remove it, then that’s when they grab you. If you try to run through it, your car gets stuck. If you try to turn around, they shoot at your tires. There’s no way to escape here. You see? You see?”
I heard my mother saying yes under her breath, simply acknowledging the apparent truth of my Uncle’s words. My Uncle wasn't lying. He was simply emphasizing one particular truth. I could taste in her breath the presence of an old fear, the same taste that was there when our house in Satelite was invaded by masked men with long brown guns, the same taste as when she sat next to me in my room while soldiers roamed through our belongings in the old gray house, looking for the flimsy evidence they would require to take us away. It wasn’t as strong now but it was definitely there.
Maybe my Uncle had lived so long with that taste, that he now lived off of it. Or maybe he needed the fear to feel alive, needed to feel close to harsh violent death to feel an urge to keep on breathing. As we approached the end of the tunnel, I heard my mother let out another long breath and I had the sense that she had been unable to breathe the whole time we were moving through the long cylindrical darkness. As the sunlight streamed through the windshield again, my Uncle spoke up:
“That’s only the first tunnel. It’s really too close to the city… it’s not the most dangerous. But there are two more tunnels ahead, those are well known for being places for assaults and murders… and we are heading straight towards them… we are in a very dangerous situation here…”
The question I couldn’t get out of my head was why? My Uncle had given us a honeymoon gift: a place to stay for a week, away from everything, in a private cabin in a kind of small resort away from the city and from everyone that we knew. He had chosen the place and he had determined that this was his gift for us. I had seen it as a very thoughtful gift, something I wouldn’t have thought of and yet it was absolutely perfect. But if he truly thought this place was so dangerous why would he choose it? Why would he place us and himself in so much danger? And if he didn’t truly think it was that dangerous, then why did he insist on making it sound as if it was?
The second tunnel was a repeat of the first. I could see that the muscles in my mother’s neck were getting more and more tense and her fingers were stretched out over her knees like tight cords over a ship’s mast. Dilcia was pushing closer to me, resisting as well as she could the strong pull of fear but falling into its undertow: the fear of fear itself. Once that spiraling tornado got a hold of you, there were few ways of breaking the momentum. Her way was to press her head against my chest and sigh every so often, as the dark moist walls of the second tunnel passed by our windows and my Uncle just kept on talking about the terrors that soon awaited us, just around the bend.
“Here they stopped a man once and they pulled him out of the car and they cut his throat, they sliced it clean open… it was in all the papers… he was the cousin of Jaime’s wife… remember Jaime… so, the cousin of his wife… they killed him mercilessly… they left the body right here… in this tunnel… it wasn’t found until many days after his death. He was on his way to the same place we’re going… you see what I mean? You see how dangerous this is?”
My mother nodded at him and Dilcia turned towards me in the near total darkness and shook her head for the hundredth time. I smiled and kissed her forehead once again. I felt certain that soon we would be at our destination and this whole trip would be another story to tell, another long joke without a punch line, another long tale without a clear lesson for an anchor.
Through the windshield we saw two strong lights approaching and then passing us by. I faintly heard the last echoes of a rock song as the car drove by us in the opposite direction. There was a slight smell of burning gas in the air. My Uncle’s car shook all over again and my mother reached for the edge of the window and grabbed onto it tightly, expecting this to be the moment when everything changed into horror. I remembered that movement of her hand, grabbing onto a window ledge, grabbing onto a crumpled bed sheet, grabbing onto my hand in the middle of the night. We had seen such moments before, we knew how they felt as they descended upon us out of a clear sky, ready to grab us and hold us tight, refusing to let us forget that the change had finally come.
But the car just keep on going, oblivious to fear, reluctance or visions of the past. Soon we were slipping out of the darkness and into the bright sunlight once again. This was not the moment. Not now. Not now.
A fly had made its way into the car and was making the rounds from backseat to windshield and back. The car stumbled again, the motor hesitating for a second in its recurrent powerful rumble.
“You felt that? I should have had somebody look at it… I shouldn’t have waited so long… see, now we’re screwed no matter what… even if we’re lucky enough to not meet any assailants, the car is sure to break down, either on the way there or on the way back… and then we’ll be very screwed… we’ll be lucky if someone stops to help us…”
I thought of the car we had just seen driving past us. Would they had stopped if they saw us stranded by the side of the road or would they have kept on going, the music blaring, the heads unturned, afraid that we could be some kind of decoy, some kind of bait for armed men hiding behind the bushes? Would we have stopped if we saw others stranded around here?
The smell of the ocean was stronger than ever now. I could hear the waves crashing against the rocks. If I looked towards the blue horizon I could imagine that I saw the last white teardrops that flew up the cliff from the watery explosions that were happening many meters down below. I looked at the rocks to my right, the broken remains of the mountain that had been brutally cut to allow for this road to exist. As everywhere else, all the flat rocks were covered in political signs stenciled into the uneven surface with some kind of cheap paint that would fade into a blur before the election was over. I looked to the ridge above and I saw overflowing green bushes and swaying palm trees. There was the roar of the ocean and the soft murmur of the wind, but it all added up to a kind of distinct heavy silence, heavy full silence all around us except for the motor of the car and my Uncle’s voice, which would still sputter out more dire warnings every few minutes, restless in its need.
“Here comes the third tunnel. This is the last one we have to cross. After this we will get to where we’re going. Then we just have to hope that we can make it back. We’re almost there… maybe we’ll make it… but the tunnels get more and more dangerous as you go… this is the longest one… so it’s more likely that there will some kind of obstacle… people can hide in there so easily and you can’t see them until you’re right on top of them… and then it’s too late… you can’t run away from machine guns…and everybody is armed here… everybody is armed…you know?… that whole thing with the disarmament is a lie… everybody has weapons and there are no jobs… that is what we got from that war… the damned war that you supported, remember? The damned fucking communist war... That is what we got…you see? That is all that we got…”
I looked at my Uncle and wondered if right then he was actually wishing that something would happen, if only to show my mother the consequences of the war that she had believed was necessary, the consequences of the glorious revolution that never quite happened. That would at least teach her a lesson, show her that he had always been right. Maybe he had been wishing all along without knowing it, maybe he wished it on himself if only to have a taste of something real, something that transcended the world of stagnation that he inhabited.
My mother meanwhile was more tense that ever. She had already tasted some of the consequences of the war, and they had left invisible scars deep within her that now showed in the tight grasp of her hands on her thigh and on the edge of the window. Maybe she was wishing that my Uncle would stop talking but, like Dilcia, she would never say it, nobody ever would.
The third tunnel looked a bit more abandoned than the others. There was a field to the left that formed a wide green barrier between the ocean and the road and to the right there were large brown rocks that sputtered into a smattering of brown pebbles and dirt. As the car passed by, large clouds of dust rose up around us. My mother closed her window and coughed. The tunnel, like the others, was a wide brick arch that seemed like a violent cut into the green and brown fabric of the mountain. I looked up at the number three that was roughly painted on the apex of the arch. Then we were in the midst of heavy darkness again, surrounded by moisture and deep green moss and white rocks and the nothingness that recurrently threatened to become something undesirable.
“This is the worst part. At this point we have no control. If they are waiting, then we are done… we have no hope if they are somewhere out there… you see what I mean?…I read about some college students in the paper… they came to the beach and came all the way out here… and they were stopped here… in the middle of the tunnels… all the girls were raped and beaten and the boys were killed… all of it right here… see?….this is serious… this might be it!”
And he laughed, a high nasal sound that just then sounded like chalk being scratched across a blackboard. My mother shook her head and muttered: “With the grace of God, none of this will happen…”
She pressed three of her fingers together in a subtle invocation of spiritual magnetic energy, trying everything and anything, simply hoping that my Uncle was wrong, at least wrong right now.
He was smiling as the car sputtered again. Dilcia looked up at me, afraid of his fear, afraid of her own, afraid of the darkness that stretched out before us, with its moist smell of ancient death. I pulled her tight towards me and I kissed her on the lips. She kissed me back with an intensity that said: “If this is our last kiss, then let’s make sure it’s really good.”
We kissed like that for most of our drive through the third tunnel. By the time I turned away from her, I could see a big gap of bright sunlight at the end of the dark.
“Here’s the thing… they could be waiting right on the other side… that’s probably more likely… out there they can wait in the sun… or under the shade of a tree… just waiting for some car to come by…if we make it past this, then we will probably make it… at least on the way there… who knows on the way back… right?”
And he turned towards my mother and he laughed again, and it was that same trebly noise as before, and I could see that my mother’s fingers were still tightly pressed together. We suddenly slipped out into the sunlight, and there was nothing but more bushes, more brown rocks, more tall palm trees bending forward over the road, more dust and more road, and then just nothing, nothing at all.
I smiled at Dilcia and she smiled at me. I looked back towards the tunnel and at the number three that was painted at the top of the dirty white arch. We had made it past the obstacles, most of them at least. My Uncle still talked about possible calamities on the last stretch of the trip, but it seemed that his energy had dwindled as we crossed the third tunnel. Even he had realized that nothing would happen this day, even he had realized that none of his dire warnings would come to pass and it was now time to find new threats in the infinitely pliant fabric of the world.
I looked towards my left and now I could see the large white waves rushing towards the giant black rocks, unstoppable in their titanic strength, unaware of fear or hesitation or thought. Unaware of their imminent end.

* * *

I knew that my memories were close by, hiding like snakes under the cover of green shadows. We crossed one tunnel and then another, without any mention of assaults or possible catastrophes. Coming from the opposite direction and after having driven all morning, the tunnels seemed much shorter than before, but just as quiet and lonely as ever.
I asked my Dad to stop every so often, so I could take a few more pictures. There was nobody walking on the side of the road, there was not even the sound of cars in the distance. There was only the roar of the ocean, the waves recurrently splashing against the black rocks, shiny with white foam that slithered over the jagged surface, the sound of the rustling trees and the mosquitoes which surveyed my flesh with hunger.
After a half hour of driving in short increments, I saw the open gate and the well maintained asphalt road that ran in sharp curves down the many colored hill side. I knew that this had to be the place. Once again, I asked my Dad to stop the car and I jumped out, walking slowly towards the guard house that stood next to the open red gate. The memories slipped up my legs, tightening around my muscles, pushing up my stomach without ever uttering a word.
There were two men in the little house made of yellow bricks. I could hear a little radio reporting on the latest results from local soccer games. One of the men was older and a bit heavy set. He was sitting on a little wicker chair, leaning forward with his brown arms on his knees. The other man was very young, maybe eighteen or nineteen, he was in a security guard’s uniform, blue and gray. He had a small black gun hanging from his belt.
Both men turned their heads and stared at me intently as I carefully approached them. The boy reached for his gun but didn’t take it out. He just left his left hand resting on the black handle. When I got close enough that they could hear my voice without shouting, I raised my hand and greeted them. They greeted me back with cautious smiles.
“I’m sorry to bother you two…” I spoke as I took the last few steps towards them. I stopped when I was only a couple of feet away. Now I could hear the radio distinctly. There was an ad for cell phones that I had already heard, it featured a woman laughing hysterically and a man trying to explain a brand new type of service to her. “I was wondering if this is the place that I remember…”
I looked towards the curving driveway that spiraled downwards. I could see the clear blue water of the large pool down below, the little cabins off to my left, and the bright white waves sliding towards the sliver of beach, all framed by gigantic palm trees and lush green bushes that had been trimmed to perfection.
“Is this the place that is connected to the sports club in San Salvador? The ‘Deportivo? Is this the same place?”
The large man on the wicker chair nodded at me and confirmed what I already knew. I was in the right place. My memories slipped up my stomach and settled in the center of my chest, where they started to pulse intensely, pushing recklessly against my rib cage.
“I came here a long time ago… for my honeymoon… I stayed here for a week…”
The boy with the gun relaxed his grip on the gun and he smiled. He still didn’t say anything but his eyes were full of curiosity. The older man smiled as well and nodded, as if he knew exactly what I was talking about, as if this story lived in his dreams as much as it lived in mine.
“Are you a member of the club?”
“No, I’m not. I only stayed here for a short time. It was a gift from my uncle who is a member. We were here for a week and then we never came back. We went to the United States… to San Francisco…”
“Ah yes, San Francisco… I’ve heard it’s very pretty there…” He nodded and his eyes looked up to the sky, as if he was reviewing invisible postcards in his mind against the background of white clouds.
“Yes, it is very pretty there… it’s also very pretty here… I like this place very much…”
“You were gone for a long time! Ten years!”
“Yes, ten years…” there was no use going into details, no use explaining chronologies, no use trying to establish causes and effects. Most of them were very possibly inventions anyway, so what could be the purpose of repeating them.
I nodded and tried to act the part of the “distant brother”, the one that was greeted with a giant banner on a bridge overhanging the highway from the airport to the city.
“Ten years is a long time… but I’ve heard a lot about California… San Francisco…very pretty…”
I could feel the rhythm here. Their job was to sit in this little yellow house and mostly do nothing. Every once in a while a car would approach. It would usually be people that they already knew, so they would simply wave them in. The rest of the time they would sit here, listening to their radio, listening to the waves, smashing mosquitoes against their forearms, smoking cigarettes here and there, fantasizing about some of the maids that worked in the restaurant below. The rhythm was slow and peaceful, lazy and dreamy. As soon as they were both convinced that I wasn’t an immediate threat, it was time to talk slowly and expand on any subject that came to mind. There was no rush to come to any conclusions, the conclusions would develop all by themselves.
“Yes, it has been a long time. I have always remembered this place… I didn’t know if I could find it… “
“We’ve been here… all this time, we’ve been here…ten years…”
I smiled broadly at him and he smiled back.
“I was wondering if I could walk in and take some pictures, just a few pictures of the places I remember… it won’t take me more than half an hour… if that much…I just want to take some pictures with me…”
The boy nodded, as if it was clear to him what I wanted. No further explanation was needed. The older man nodded as well.
“I understand… yes I do… ten years is a long time…but are you a member?”
“No, like I was saying… I was never a member… it was a gift from my uncle… he gave us a week here for our honeymoon…”
“Is that your uncle in the car?” he asked and he pointed towards the rumbling Fiat where my father was waiting with the motor still turned on. From where we were, he was only a dark silhouette behind a dusty windshield.
“No, that’s my father…I’m not even sure if my uncle is still a member… I’m pretty sure my cousin still is…”
“You would need a letter or something from them… if you had a letter from your cousin… the one who is a member…then I could let you in…”
“Are you sure? I really only need a brief moment to take some pictures…” I pointed to my camera which was hanging from my neck and bouncing slightly against my chest each time my weight shifted from one leg to the other.
“I would want to let you in…but the Boss has told us to not let anyone in…”
The boy nodded when he heard that, acknowledging that he was referring to a real conversation. Something had occurred recently and the Boss had not been happy about it. If they messed things up again, they might both lose their job of dreamy laziness.
“What if I could give you some money? Maybe just a few dollars so you would let me in for a brief while?”
The older man hesitated. He turned on the little chair and I could hear it squeaking under his weight. He looked at the boy, but the boy didn’t say anything. He just looked back at him with eyes that offered no solution.
It seemed to me then that if the older man had agreed to let me in, then the boy would have gone along with it, he would even have smiled with relief. But if the older man said no, that I couldn’t go in, then the boy would also agree wholeheartedly, he would say that it was the only possible answer. The older man turned back towards me once again.
“You know… if it was another day, I would let you in… sometimes it’s very quiet here… sometimes there’s hardly anyone here at all…but they have an event down there right now… and if the Boss sees you, he will ask me about it and then I’ll be in trouble… you know?… you could go and get a letter from your cousin… maybe you can come back another day?”
“I’m leaving in a few days… I probably won’t be all the way out here again… not for a long time…”
“Ten years…” he said it to himself and he looked down at the hot asphalt. If I looked at the asphalt I could almost see his own memories flashing over the rough surface, ten years of little escapades that dissolved into nothingness like stick drawings on wet beach sand. “I really would like to let you in… but I can’t do it…if you could go back to the main offices… the offices in San Salvador… and get a letter from them… maybe you pay them… then I can let you in…”
“Are you sure?” I asked, finally realizing that it was probably not going to happen, that the old chamber would remain sealed within my memories, it would remain pure and clean of the dirt of the present, clean of the merciless attention of my wide open eyes.
“Yeah… like I said…if it was another day…but I can’t do it… not today…”
I smiled at him and said thank you and shook his hand. He shook my hand with a sincere touch of affection.
“Ten years… it’s too long… you should come back more often…”
“I will… I definitely will…” I said and I started to walk away.
In the car, I explained to my Dad what had happened. He nodded and shrugged his shoulders and the car started to roll down the highway once again. About a hundred meters later, I asked him to stop. He moved the car to the side of the road and I stepped out once again. I stepped to the edge of the cliff, and peered between two thin trees that had been bent out of shape by years of strong ocean wind.
I looked down the long slope covered in bushes and grass and rocks, and I saw the beach in the distance. It was the southern edge of the stretch I remembered, the southern edge that ended in gigantic rocks shaped like porcupines. The waves crashed against them and formed beautiful explosions like white supernovas that vanished before I could even begin to grasp their shapes, leaving little black pools on the uneven surface of the rocks.
I took a few pictures of the distant past, listening to the drone of its dark matter, feeling it make its way up my legs once again like pulsing electricity, feeling it squeeze my chest like a soft glove covered with metal spikes.

* * *

We embraced in the middle of the shifting sand. The water would rise to our waists and then slide back, tearing at the sand and turning it into a kind of soft black mud, it would cover our thighs and our arms and leave black trails that would soon be washed away by the returning waves.
The sun was slowly sinking in the distance. I saw it just then as a kind of wise elder being that gently approved of our union, a distant being that smiled without a mouth and stared without eyes, shining with a yellow brilliance that slowly turned to orange and then to bright red. The beach itself was a long horizontal arch of gray sand that started with large black rocks and ended with large black rocks, there was nothing in between but the grayness that would turn to blue and white when the waves would come to try to swallow it.
We were deep enough in the water that the waves would sometimes splash over our shoulders. Tiny salty drops would scatter over our faces and long trails of moisture would slowly crawl down our cheeks, our chests and our stomachs.
I turned towards the flat one story buildings every so often, trying to determine if there was anyone there, anyone at all. In the whole time we had been there, we had seen evidence of life only rarely. It was as if these people would only appear when we needed them and then they would vanish into the walls or the bush as soon as the need was fulfilled, waiting for the right to once again emerge into the light. We didn’t need them very often so it was easy to forget that there was anyone here but us, here in this little beach, here in this whole resort, here in the whole world. Nobody but us. The two of us and the water and the sand and the sun.
After confirming our complete solitude, I turned back towards her. Her eyes were wide open and full of a kind of longing that could never be fully satisfied. She would press her lips against me and I would press my own lips against hers and as we kissed another wave would splash over our intertwined bodies, we would both moan with a kind of unexplainable pleasure.
The shifting wet sand and the foam were like parts of us that extended beyond our bodies, the sun itself was a living manifestation of our complete surrender, all traces of fear or doubt dissolved into this spiraling warm vortex. In the center there was only her, brown wet flesh, wide open black eyes, hungry red mouth, and my hands to feel her and pull her against me, and my lips to kiss her and swallow her, and my eyes to take her in a momentous symphonic crescendo that rose and fell recurrently, always new, always a mind shattering surprise.
She kissed me again and I kissed her as well. I let my mouth roam over her cheeks as she kissed my own. I saw the sun slowly sliding into the ocean over her shoulder, and a long streak of orange light was painted on the darkening blue surface of the water. And still the water was warm, and still I was hard inside of her, pulsing with red desire, and still her thighs were wrapped around my waist like the arms of a spider, and still her eyes were like a bolt of electricity that would drill straight into my heart and make my rib cage tremble and still she moved up and down, slowly, like the waves, like the breeze, like the waning light.
I could only think in small flashes of words and phrases, small attempts to maintain a connection with what had come before, what I had been before this moment.
All I could say to myself, within the echo chamber of my mind but without speaking anything out loud, was that this didn’t happen, this couldn’t happen. Not to me. Not here. Not now. Not ever.
It was all too ideal, all too perfect. When I feared that my thought itself would make the moment vanish, then she would kiss me again, and she would once again slide up and down my erect penis, and she would once again press her breasts against me. I would sigh softly, because the dream hadn’t yet vanished, and the water was still warm.
When the sun had finally sunk completely into the vast open blueness of the ocean, leaving it dark and ominous, with only the thin thread of moonlight left to emphasize its blackness, we moved to the empty pool that stretched quiet and calm and lonely, just about a hundred meters from our cabin.
There was nobody around, nobody that we could see, and if we couldn’t see them, they might as well not exist. We had already spent what seemed like years in that pool. We had kissed and made love in that calm blue water. We had floated in each other’s arms for hours and we had laughed and told stories and we had carefully reviewed the past, the long stretches of the dream that had transpired before we met each other.
This night we jumped into the mild water in the darkness, and the pool itself seemed larger than ever because its boundaries were not clearly defined by our vision. The gentle waves seemed more complete, they seemed to touch us in deeper ways than they had ever touched us before. What I felt, she felt. And what she felt, I felt. There was no doubt in my mind that this was true and there was no doubt in hers. We had both become completely transparent to each other and there was nothing left to hide.
We floated together in the darkness, and there was only the sound of the wind rustling the palm trees and the song of crickets singing unseen behind the bushes and nothing else at all. We were right at the edge, where the world dissolved and the future stopped rolling over us like a giant metal ball and the past stopped pulling us down like a heavy metal anchor. There was simply the water and her in my arms and her own thin arms around my shoulders, and her lips every so often on my skin and her thighs and her back on my fingertips and her breasts pressed against my chest and her voice, most of all her voice, that was as soft and sweet and gentle as the night itself. No matter what she had to say, I could always hear more. I always had more questions and she always had more answers. Then we would be quiet for a long time, just listening to the crickets singing about nothingness in all its many forms.
We slowly drifted to the center of the pool. She knew I couldn’t swim. I had never learned even though there had been many years of trying. She said it didn’t matter, she said that I didn’t have to swim, I only needed to float. I said I couldn’t float either, and she said that I could, that I just thought that I couldn’t.
She told me to let my whole body float on the surface, to simply let it rest on the shifting water of the pool and that she would hold onto my shoulders. I felt her gentle, soft hands on me and I agreed to do so, because tonight there was no past and no future, so all things were possible.
I let myself fall back and then I felt her close to me and I breathed in and out and relaxed as much as I could, feeling her wet hands on my shoulders and then her voice on my ear.
I opened my eyes wide and looked up and there were the stars, the whole of the sky was covered in bright pulsating stars and they were all looming over me like the primordial blanket of raw creation. Nothing was hidden, nothing was secret, the whole Universe extended itself before me as I floated in those gentle waters. Her hand kept me steady, until her hand wasn’t there anymore, and there were only the stars, shining down on me and singing like the crickets, singing of endless transformation, from nothing to something to nothing and back again, forever. Forever into the past, forever into the future, forever in all the other directions which I could barely begin to comprehend.
It was only the part of me that thought I was something, the part that held onto dreams of what I was, what I could be, what I should be, it was only that part that could feel fear. That part was gone for now, so there was no fear, no fear at all. And once the fear was gone, there was only transformation and creation and floating, floating gently on the warm pool with her breath by my ear and my eyes wide open, taking in the Universe itself which was framed by palm trees that shook with the ocean breeze.
Her hands were no longer on my shoulders and I hadn’t even noticed. She whispered in my ear to tell me that now I was floating, that I had been floating for a while now. I just nodded and she couldn’t see me but still she could understand me. I realized that it must be true, that I really was floating, because she couldn’t lie to me.
Right then and there, her voice was that which was beyond lies and appearances. She was the soft and gentle manifestation of love itself and I only had to take her in, take her in like the moon and the stars and the wind. She would enter through my ears and my mouth, and she would come to reside deep within my chest, where she would light me up from the inside. The light itself was the absence of fear, and the absence of fear was life, and life was what I had been waiting for, life was what transcended time and what was shining all around me, as I gently floated on that warm pool. Life was her and me. I knew it then as clearly as I could know anything. Even if she were to go, we would always be here, looking at the Universe shining over us, letting us know that beyond the beach there was only life, and it was only from the edge that it seemed terrifying. Just a few steps beyond, it turned into bright shining eternal creation and then there could be no fear, there could be no hesitation, there could be no doubt.

* * *

We drove further down the curving highway, which was lonely, quiet and calm, covered as it was in green leaves and brown twisted tree trunks stretching their branches over the asphalt to partially block the sunlight.
We passed another tunnel, as dark and moist and smelly as I remembered. But we were now coming from the other side, we were slowly returning to what was known and what was understood, so there was no anxiety. There was no constant, nasal voice urging us to be afraid, there was no hand squeezing the window edge tightly until the knuckles turned white, there were no stories of horror punctuated by a laugh of ironic resignation. There was only a quiet tunnel full of white rocks and moss and the smell of dead fish.
As we emerged once again into the light, it hit me that something even more distant was waiting somewhere behind the bushes, something that I had placed in a cardboard box under the stairs of my oldest memories and then forgotten, letting it grow old in its private oblivion.
“Isn’t Atami around here?” I asked. My Dad nodded.
“Yes, it should be somewhere around here… it seems right… but everything looks so different… I don’t come around here much you know…”
I thought of that other cousin, the one who was so young that he didn’t realize how young he was, the one that wanted me to take pictures of him surfing, the one who spent his days drinking and smoking pot and surfing, the one who had long hair like mine except his was brown and well taken care of, the one who talked in a smooth herbalized voice that was somehow reminiscent of mine but also not like mine at all because it contained an assured sense of relaxed cool that I had never been able to master. I thought of him because when I met him, my Dad had said to me:
“Don’t let him take you to the beach. No matter what he says, don’t go to the beach with him.”
And just like with the casinos, there had been no explanation, no clear argument as to why the beach would be a place to avoid. This made me think of the sand and the waves as a kind of gamble. You might be fine and just have some kind of good time, some kind of agreeable afternoon touched by sand and salty water. Then you would simply come back home exactly as you had left.
But then again, you might not. Unpredictable things could happen in this place where the blue waters of infinity caressed the rough flesh of heavy matter. And if some particular things did happen, then nothing would ever be the same again. Then there would be a ringing in the ears and a recurring high voice that said, over and over: “If only… if only… if only…” And the high voice would never go away, no matter how much I tried. I would always remember the day that I decided to go to the beach. I would always try to change what had happened but I would never be able to touch a single detail, I would never be able to alter the past.
A gamble. But wasn’t that true of all places in El Salvador? Weren’t all chambers in the world some kind of gamble? Maybe he just didn’t like the odds, maybe he had heard the stories, maybe he had lived through some of them, maybe he had hear the ringing in the ears. But he didn’t say what or how or where. He only said:
“Don’t let him take you to the beach.”
I didn’t agree to obey. I even thought of doing the opposite. But in the end, I never went to the beach with my cousin, and he floated away from me like a soft young wave that came close to touching me but then retreated into the ocean never to be seen or heard from again. I saw him leave. I was standing at the edge.
“Let’s go slow… maybe we’ll find it…”
My Dad responded by pushing on the brakes of the little red car and it trembled roughly in response. We then moved slowly through the winding road, slow enough to look at the large green weeds that poked out in jumbled masses from the edges of the asphalt.
I had to remind my Dad to slow down again every few minutes. To drive was to go somewhere, and to go somewhere was to want to arrive, and to want to arrive was to want to arrive quickly. It was his habit, it was our habit, to move fast and decisively, to rush forward until a conclusion was reached. But in this instance, as in many others, if we moved too fast, we would shoot right by our destination, we would leave it behind us and we would never know when it was that we had left it behind, we would never know when we missed it or if it had even been there are all. We might not ever even know what it was that we had missed in our endless rush forward.
Then we would have to go through a whole cycle, a whole revolution of the invisible wheel, to find our way back to this place once again, this place where we had some hope of finding the entrance. We would have to once again remember to move slowly; otherwise we would go right past it again, and the whole thing would repeat, one, two, three, infinite times.
There was never a need for the cycles to be over. The cycles grew on more cycles like invisible weeds of time and trees made of broken purpose. The cycles tended to stay as they were, always repeating, always making us slide right by our intended destination. Always knowing that we had been so close, so close.
I had to speak to him, over and over, just like I would have done with myself. I had to remind him, time and time again:
“Slow, slow… we are not rushing towards some place in the distance… we are trying to find a place that is just around the bend… something that is so close we can smell it… and yet we will completely lose it… if we move too fast… so slow, slow, slow…. Keep moving slowly…”
And he did slow down, as much as he could bear and maybe even a bit slower. I could feel his impatience like a tension that vibrated all through his body. It urged him to push down on the accelerator, to move quickly towards the waiting future that looked so much like the past. When I would see him growing tense, I would place my hand on his shoulder and I would again say: “Slow, slow…” and we would both look for a gateway, some kind of entrance to a place lost in our shared memories.
We arrived at a paved crossroads with a long wooden plank that served as an official barrier. There was a little guard house off to the side, very similar to the guard house we had seen earlier. There was another man sitting there, smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. He had a thick brown body and his hair was black and combed backwards. He was leaning on a wicker chair and his right leg was propped up against a little stool.
There were tall white walls a few hundred feet from where he was sitting. The paved road sloped down towards the ocean. This was not at all the way I remembered it, and yet the name of the hotel seemed to imply that it was the place we were looking for. My Dad shrugged his shoulders and said:
“This must be it… this has to be it… there’s the sign for the hotel…but they probably won’t let us in here either…”
“Let’s just try… it won’t hurt to try…”
“Sure… but it looks like it’s all closed… they probably will turn you away… just like the other guards did…”
I again said that we should try and again he shrugged. He turned into the paved driveway and stopped the little Fiat right in front of the barrier. I stepped out of the car and walked over to the little guard house. The camera was still hanging from my neck and it bounced lightly against my chest as I walked. The air felt specially warm here, there was no breeze at all. The humid smell of the ocean was strong and it seemed that the street itself was covered in a thin layer of salt and moss that made me feel as if I was walking on an ancient carpet. It all felt very sleepy and quiet, temporarily forgotten by the crowds and the incessant spinning of civilization. My footsteps seemed like shocking drum beats as I walked, loud noises that seemed completely out of place in this quiet crossroads.
The man looked up from his newspaper and lowered his head as I approached. In my white skin, in my clothes, in my beard and long hair, in my camera, somewhere in all of it he had immediately recognized that we were of a different social class and he took on a submissive posture that seemed somewhat incongruent with his thick strong physique. Maybe he was new or maybe he simply didn’t have a gun like the boy at the first guardhouse.
“Buenas…” I said, and I raised my hand.
“Buenas…” he said and nodded with his head, while placing the cigarette in an ashtray. He was wearing a white and blue shirt with short sleeves. There were thick sweat stains around the armpits. There was a thin gold chain around his neck.
“I wanted to know if you could do us a little favor…”
“How can I help you?” he said. It came across as a sincere offer, rather than a calculated phrase learned from an employee manual. I felt the warm silence all around us like a bubble of tranquility framed by the sound of the waves in the distance.
“Well, first of all, we’re not even sure if this is the right place…is this Atami?”
He nodded and smiled, proud to know where he was and to be able to tell me.
“Yes, it is… the hotel is closed today though…it only opens on the weekends now…”
“That’s ok… we didn’t come for the hotel…we used to have a little house here…I used to come here when I was a little kid…”
“Oh really?” His eyes lit up, as if I was talking of a land of fairy tales, populated by beings he had dreamt about some times but had never met in the flesh.
“Yes, it was much different then… that’s why I couldn’t even recognize it…I was wondering if we could come in… I just want to take some pictures… I want to take them with me to the United States…I’ve lived over there for almost thirty years now… “
“You want to take the pictures to remember?”
I nodded. “Yes, to remember…”
The reason I wanted to take the pictures was obscure enough that I wouldn’t have been able to say it to myself, even in corrugated whispers that would swiftly make their way over the surface of my brain. It would be very difficult to try to explain it to him. There was no time or need for such an effort. Remembering was close enough to the truth and it had the advantage of being expressible in a couple of words that everybody believed they understood already. (But what did it really mean to remember? Did I not remember enough already? Would I remember more by walking among the remains of something that had changed so much that it couldn't even be recognized? Would photographs of this strange new place augment my fading memories in a way that would make them clearer, easier to touch?) He didn't really know what I meant and maybe I didn't either. I wondered how much of human communication consisted of these tiny simplified lies, unnoticed capitulations to the iron clad hand of language that set side truth in the name of expediency.
“It’s nice to remember…The thing is that the hotel is closed today…”
“I understand, but we don’t need to go to the hotel… is there a way we can walk down to the beach itself?”
“Yes, there’s a little path around the hotel…”
“That’s all we need… I just need about half an hour to take some pictures…”
“Usually people only come when the hotel is open… or if they own a house here…and most of those people only come in the weekends…there’s hardly ever anyone here during the week…”
“I understand…we used to own a house here… a long time ago…”
“Thirty years ago…”
“Yes, thirty years ago…”
Ten, twenty, thirty… past a certain point the numbers stopped meaning anything and they just became great gaps of emptiness in between a few distinct memories that jumped out at me like swirling islands of color and sound. If he hadn’t just told me that this was Atami, I wouldn’t have believed it. Maybe it really had been too long and my memories had become distorted beyond recognition.
“It’s a very long time… “
“We just need a half hour to come in and take some pictures…then we’ll come right back…”
“Just a half hour…?”
“Yes, maybe even less than that…”
He stood up and took out his keys, all dangling and clicking against each other like tiny bells in his large silver key chain. He walked towards the locked barrier, pushed the key in and turned it with a gesture of easy efficiency. I smiled at him and bowed my head slightly.
“Thank you so much! This really means a lot to me…thank you…”
“Si hombre… no hay problema…” (No problem.) He said it and he smiled, pleased to let us in, pleased that something was happening on this day of salty emptiness, pleased that someone wanted to remember this quiet place which was now his daily life.
I came back to the car and stepped inside. The red door squealed as I pulled it open. My Dad was very surprised to see that the gate was being opened and he showed it by grinning and shrugging, as if to say “One never knows…one never knows what can happen…” In fact we never knew. I certainly didn’t. Even as we slid down the long sloping paved road in the little Fiat, I still wondered if this truly was the same place I remembered or if we were entering entirely new territory.
I saw many colored houses on the side of the paved street, all painted in yellows and oranges and light browns and even purple. It all had the look of a very quiet and faded circus, a place where there could be much celebration but now there was only silence. The gates were all locked and the doors were all closed and barred and the windows were all shuttered.
We continued down the gently sloping road until we saw that it came to a dead end where there was a large metal gate, wide enough for two cars to pass through. The hotel’s name was printed in tall letters on a big banner stretched across the black metal bars. Behind the bars I could see a light blue pool shimmering silver and white in the sun and a flat building in the shape of a rectangular C that surrounded the pool which was its center.
There was nobody around that we could see. We parked by the side of the road. When my Dad turned off the motor, the silence was even more profound. There was only the sound of the invisible waves, the endless drone that swallowed the entire area in its endless presence, deep, recurrent and white.
I stepped out of the car and grabbed my video camera. My Dad immediately advised against it. We seemed to be completely alone in a strange place and it was clear that he felt the presence of a certain kind of danger all around us. The danger of silence, the danger of solitude.
I looked up the street and noticed a little store that was open, maybe hoping that some strangers would show up looking to take pictures of a place they had left so long ago they couldn't even be sure they were back. I took a couple of steps towards it and I heard the sound of a tiny TV from inside. If I focused on the shadows behind the barred doorway, I could see the tiny reflections of colored light in the darkness.
Again my Dad said I should leave at least one of the cameras behind “just in case…” I agreed that there was a danger of having them stolen, but I had understood that danger before I ever came here and I had already stored all the digital pictures and all the used video tapes back at his house. I also didn’t see that the cameras would be any safer in the little Fiat all by themselves, so I took them all with me. My Dad shook his head at my stubbornness. I shrugged my shoulders as I had learned from him. One stubborn man facing another. Then we started walking towards the hotel.
Three little boys came up running from a side path which I hadn’t noticed before. One moment there was nobody, and the next moment they were there, loud and happy and full of an intense enthusiasm that seemed incongruous on this forgotten road.
They were all about ten years old, all thin and dirty. As soon as they reached the narrow sidewalk by the colored houses, they started trying to spin a little wooden top. They would throw it hard against the uneven surface and pull back on the string to make it spin. One of the boys, who was dressed in a dark brown shirt, was particularly good at this; the other two boys applauded him for it. I asked them if I could take pictures of them and they immediately agreed. I to video taped them playing and they eagerly offered me suggestions on how the “scene” should be shot.
“Shoot me like this… I will throw like that… see? Get that! Just like that! From that angle! See? Like that!”
The boy pointed to the spinning top. I obeyed him and shot the top and then moved the camera back towards his grinning sweaty brown face. Another boy wanted to try it. This one was just as skinny but he was a bit shorter and dressed in a blue shirt and blue pants, maybe part of a school uniform. He grabbed the top and threw it over his shoulder, but he was harsh in his throw and the top just landed on its side, bouncing a couple of times on the gravel. The boy with the brown shirt shook his head and grabbed it away from him.
“See, you’re not doing it right! This is how it’s done!” He looked at me, smiling, proud to be the skillful one in this equation. “Shoot with your camera… right here… I’m going to do a real nice one!”
I stepped back a bit and the boy lifted the top over his head and threw it in a wide arch. I saw it flying through the air, against a background of swaying palm trees and blue sky and a battered yellow wall. It landed precisely on its point, spinning beautifully, perfectly. For a moment I could imagine that it would simply spin forever, perfectly straight, eternally energized. We all looked at it with intense attention, the entire world seemed to revolve around its spinning. Soon it flipped sideways and flopped on the sidewalk and then came to a stop. Then everybody exhaled.
“Do you guys know how we can get to the beach?”
The boy with the brown shirt, who was clearly the leader of the trio, pointed towards the hotel. The other two chimed in and pointed as well.
“Down there… just keep going towards the hotel… there’s a little path on the side… just follow the path…it’s long and narrow… just follow it and you’ll get to the beach… no way to get lost!”
The other two pointed and laughed and repeated the same words:
“Straight! Straight! You can’t get lost!”
I smiled and thanked them. The same boy was now holding the top, ready to throw it again.
“Get this one! Get this one!”
“Maybe when we get back… we’re going to get down to the beach now…”
They all jumped and waved goodbye and I turned back to see the dark brown top spinning, perfect once again. Perfectly beautiful, perfectly temporary.
We walked down the quiet and empty street and I persisted in my attempt to find some kind of clear correlation between my memories and the scene that was before me. The hotel did fit. I remembered some kind of construction at the end of a long dirt road, I remembered a gate and a sense of things changing. The hotel was coming and the beach would never be the same again. I could never have imagined how much things would change.
We got to the gate itself and on the right we saw a very narrow pathway in between the spindly trees and the bushes and the moss covered white wall that surrounded the hotel grounds. We followed the narrow path which was itself also covered in moss. It looked like an abstract painting of gray and deep green shapes, freely formed over the uneven surface.
As I walked, I discovered that the stones were moist and a little slippery. I stepped slowly and carefully, swallowing the chamber with my video camera while my Dad trailed some steps behind me.
Now the silence consisted of little bird songs and rustling branches and sudden movements in the darkness behind the tall green bushes. But most of all, the silence was the ocean waves, which were getting louder and louder as we advanced, as the path got more and more slippery and the air itself got thicker with the salty mist. We got to the large jagged stone steps and now we could see the waves between the thin, twisted branches. The waves were as powerfully white as I remembered, they beat against the flat, gray sand with a continuous relish, like loving kisses that never stop flowing from the lips of a mother who was never born.
We walked slowly down the large stone steps and we finally emerged onto the sunlight. Here was the beach itself, finally here again, if only for a moment.
With the roar of the waves and the ocean, and the sound of the birds and of the wind, there was a sense of even deeper quiet, a delicate and solid present, an enduring stillness that pressed down on us like a gigantic bubble of air. The light, cool breeze reached for my cheekbones and it spoke to me of afternoons that had never happened, moments I had wished for but was never able to manifest into a tangible reality.
I looked to my right and saw a little empty restaurant. All the walls and the tables and the chairs seemed wet and severely damaged by the proximity to the water. There were little ads for Coke and for all kinds of local beers hanging from the edges of the straw roof. There were posters of half naked women drinking from sweaty bottles all over the scarred white walls. (The way they drank from the long brown bottles seemed to imply an eager bout of fellatio, a reference I would have never envisioned in the past. Maybe I had just been too innocent back then, or maybe I had truly become too perverse as the years went by.)
There was nobody around, no little kids, no fishermen, no lonely stragglers other than ourselves. In the distance there were more little huts and maybe a couple of houses in the middle of the trees but there was no sign of humans anywhere around us. The red roof in the distance, pointing up like a beacon in between the green palm trees, made me think of my Uncle Calin’s beach house, made me think of a frightening ride through deep ocean waters that I could only barely remember.
I looked at the waves again, splashing against the spiky brown and gray rocks, reaching into the sand with long wet dark fingers, caressing the edge of the world with unquenchable desire. The wet sand was a perfectly smooth black surface that extended from one end of the beach to the other. All quiet, all perfect, all pure. No footsteps at all. Just the silence of the edge.

* * *

I sat by the window of the red pickup truck, wearing a little t-shirt and red swimming trunks. My thin, pale legs were a little cold but I kept the window open anyway, letting the wind hit my face, making my hair dance around my head.
The maid sat next to me in the middle of the cab and my Dad sat in the driver’s seat, maneuvering the pickup without speaking. Many years later, my mom would tell me that the maid didn’t like to go on these little trips, that she was scared of my Dad, that he was too quiet and strange, that his eyes focused forward in unnatural ways that sent chills up her spine every time he looked at her, that there was something utterly frightening about the whole thing, like a kind of horror story that hides its own hideous heart, that she would rather be excused from going, that she would rather stay at home where things were clear and understandable.
But it was not up to her, and it was not up to my mom either. We were going out to hunt pigeons early in the morning, because my Dad had decided to do it, and he was the one that made these decisions. I wasn’t even aware of it as a decision. It was only something that happened, like the rain or the night or the heavy oppressive air of the hot afternoons.
There was a brown and black slender rifle leaning against the seat next to my Dad and a couple of half empty boxes of bullets rested on the dirty floor. The rifle rattled a little with the movement of the pickup truck, it shifted sideways when we went around a curb. Sometimes I looked at the long black barrel, trying to imagine what it would be like to fly at breakneck speed through a long narrow tube and then explode outwards into open, empty space. Closing my eyes, I managed to get a glimpse of that moment of utter release. I wondered how soon it would come to an end, and then what would happen next.
I turned back to the window, away from the rifle barrel and my restless questions about release, progress and time. I went back to hoping that we would soon get there. The trip probably took about half an hour, maybe a little more. But for me, it was endless, it felt as if we would never arrive. It was too long a time to simply float in my thoughts without anything to grab onto. I got very restless and shifted around on the battered seat of the pickup. I was very pleased when I finally saw the little dirt ramp that I immediately recognized as our destination.
It was a side road that veered at a narrow angle from the main highway on which we had been driving. (I call it a “highway” now because I am used to such words, but it was really a two lane paved road pockmarked with holes and uneven imperfections that served the purpose of a highway. In the same way, when I first heard the term ‘third world’ it took me a while to realize that I was living in it.)
The side road rose up towards a makeshift gate. There was a hand painted sign on a piece of brown bent wood that said “Atami” in very thin and uneven letters. To me “Atami” meant the ocean, and the ocean meant “Atami.” The two were one and the same.
A thin brown man with a yellow straw hat on his head and a machete hanging from his belt came out running to open the gateway, which was just a long bamboo stick that gyrated around another stick sunk deep into the ground, all of it connected by twisted pieces of rusty wire. My Dad didn’t have to show an ID or anything else in order to get past the gateway. The thin man with the machete recognized him on sight and waved him through with a smile and a slight bow of the head.
“Buenos dias ingeniero!”
My Dad nodded towards him and we slid up the dirt ramp. I could hear the crackling of the pebbles and the dirt under the wheels of the pickup. We jumped up and down as we moved over the unpaved road. The path was very rough and uneven, the pickup trembled and groaned when the wheels turned over large dusty rocks that stuck out of the soil. The maid held onto me but it didn’t help her or me to gain any stability, since neither of us had anything else to hold onto and the jumps were too violent and forceful for our combined strength.
I didn’t mind the jumping at all. It was a relief from the apparent hours of smooth driving over asphalt, moving sometimes slowly behind crowded buses spewing black smoke, behind rattling trucks full of sacks of coffee or rice, past little shacks where old women sat, hoping to sell some coconuts or mangoes. The rough road meant that we were about to reach our destination and then the pickup would finally come to a final stop.
We parked by the side of the dirt road, where there was a little piece of land, roughly marked by three lines of wire. Other than for the presence of the wires and the poles that held the wire up, it all just seemed like wild bush to me (“puro monte”), palm trees and bushes and little else. But my Dad recognized it as our destination and soon we were out of the truck.
As soon as I stepped out, I could feel the moisture in the air and the light cool breeze that made its way through the bushes. Most of all, I could hear the sound of the waves in the distance.
The maid stayed near the pickup truck while my Dad and me went down a long and narrow little footpath which was very steep and very tricky to handle. He had the rifle hanging from one shoulder and a light green cloth bag around the other. I followed him hesitantly, unsure of how to walk on the severely slanted path still wet with morning moisture. Whenever I would stumble my Dad would laugh and point out that I should be more careful.
The air felt warmer in the middle of all these branches and flowers and leaves that seemed eager to press up against us until we couldn’t move at all and then finally swallow us whole and split us apart so that there would be no trace left of us after it was all over. I looked at them with a kind of grim apprehension, suspicious of their real intentions.
The path got so narrow that I had to raise my arms over my face to protect it from all the thin thorny branches that reached out to scratch me. My Dad walked confidently ahead, with the rifle bouncing against his shoulder. I did my best to keep up, sometimes sliding on the mud, sometimes grabbing onto a branch that would snap away from its rightful place in my hand. Sometimes a rock rolled down under my weight and that triggered a small avalanche of pebbles and dirt. I scrambled to stay standing through my balance alone, but sometimes I had to reach down and place my palms flat on the mud to keep myself from falling.
My Dad would just keep on moving ahead, without looking back, and I had to rush to catch up with him.
We came down to a slightly wider path that was flat and led straight towards the ocean. Here my Dad pointed out some of the birds that flew above us. He didn’t shoot at them, but just pointed with his hand and told me their names and whether they were good for hunting or not.
My feet would sometimes sink deep into the mud and I didn’t like it, it felt like a kind of invasion of my physical integrity, as if the dirt was trying to find its way inside of me. Like the day and the night, like the rain and the afternoons of suffocating heat, this was something that had to happen, this journey into the raw.
I found a kind of delight in it, a sense that we were far away from all that I knew, from the house, from my plastic toys, from the slanted wooden roof and the shiny white brick floor, from the cars and the comic books, from the nice quiet garden where the plants got regularly trimmed and the grass was regularly cut. We were out at the edge of things, where the primordial chaos was not so hidden, where things grew wild and untamed in all directions, where the origin displayed itself in shameless fashion for my curious eyes. It was complex and dark and unpredictable. I feared it and loved it all at once.
We emerged from the last stretch of path onto a sandy plateau that stood above several man sized rocks scattered at the edge of the beach. These were big heavy spheres with little imperfections here and there upon their curving hard surface. I could see little crabs scrambling over the curved walls. From here I could finally see the waves that roared furiously against the flat gray sand. I could see them splashing furiously against the gigantic rocks that lined the sides of the small empty beach. I could see narrow little streams that stretched from the edge of the ocean to a small lake of green water that was covered by vines and light green leaves that allowed only thin rays of sunlight to pour through them onto the calm dark surface.
The sun was starting to shine more brightly and soon it would be intensely yellow, soon it would cover me in sweat. For now it was still only a kind of warm embrace that was a welcome contrast from the cool air of the early morning.
This finally was Atami: the waves and the sand and the little green lake (the “estero.”) Here, unlike the path and the pickup and the dirt road, here I somehow felt at home, here there was no sense of impatience, no urge for relief.
We made our way down the large rocks and soon our shoes were sinking into the sand and leaving a trail of footsteps on the otherwise smooth beach. We went over the little sand dunes while the ocean wind caressed our skin and made my eyes water.
Our destination was unclear to me. It was only my Dad who really knew where to sit and how to arrange himself. I sat by him among tall spiky grass, looking up at the slowly brightening sky. He got the rifle ready and then pointed up towards the wide open emptiness. He told me to look up and I saw vague clouds in the distance, and the splashing of the waves and, every so often, a flurry of flying feathers and the sound of pigeons singing. Sometimes there was one, sometimes two or even three, soon after there would be a pop close to me, and my Dad would lean back, and there would be another pop, and he would lean back again, and maybe one more pop.
It was inconceivable to me that something that moved so fast could be stopped from this distance, stopped by a tiny metal projectile that was flying at an inconceivable speed from the mouth of the same long barrel I had been watching in the cabin of the pickup truck. It seemed impossible to match the speed of the pigeons as they flashed across the gray sky above the top of the tall grass that surrounded me.
Most of the time the pops would just be pops and my Dad would recharge the rifle and we would wait again, looking up at the sky, maybe talking a little.
He would tell me stories of when he was little, of things that had happened to others, of wars and conquests. Then we would be silent again. And more pop, pop, pop… and then he would stand up and tell me to wait.
I looked again over the grass and I couldn’t see anything, so my eyes would go once again to the giant white waves that kept on splashing over the blackened wet sand at the edge. I would wonder what it would be like to be under those mountains of water, what they would feel like on top of me, what it would feel like to become one with them and crash against the sand and dissolve only to be pulled back into the depths.
My Dad came back with a pigeon hanging from his hand and he placed it next to us, on a white plastic bag that he had brought just for this purpose. Then he sat next to me again and we waited. I looked at the dead pigeon and wondered what it was like to fly freely over the beach, to look at the waves from far above and feel no fear of drowning under their power. I wondered what it was like to fly recklessly over the bushes and to be suddenly stopped by a sharp pain that turned everything dark, and then to flop hopelessly to the ground, unable to resist, unable to struggle. I wondered what it was like to be dead in a bag and question what had gone wrong, what had made everything change so suddenly.
I looked once again at the waves, at their splashing, at their rushing force and their careful receding back into the depths. Coming and going, back and forth, for as long as there would be ocean, for as long as there would be land. Coming forth, going back, then coming forth again.
Soon it would be time for us to go back home. I never knew when we would come back here to the edge. It could be days, it could be weeks, it could be years. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I did know that it would. No matter how far I strayed, the edge would always be here waiting.

* * *

We came back from the empty beach the same way we had arrived, following that narrow path of concrete covered in moss that ran along the edge of the long stained white wall. As we reached the hotel gateway, my Dad pointed to the wall of one of the houses that lay along the road. It had apparently superfluous curves designed into its structure and looked distinctively different from all the others. It was my Dad who saw them as superfluous, I saw them as purposefully beautiful.
“That might be the old beach house… that looks like something your mother would have designed…there’s traces of her mind on it…”
He smiled, in a very subtle mixture of pride and disdain. It was clear the he liked what he saw, there was something about it that reminded him of days of discovery and simple happiness. It was also clear that he found something wrong with it, something wrong that he could never pinpoint. Maybe a lack of practicality, clarity or rigor.
“You think so? You think this is the one?” I looked at the curves of the wall and tried to make the picture in front of me correspond to a very faded memory of a place I had never known too well.
“Yeah, look at this…” He walked over towards it and ran his finger over the edges of the curves. “That looks like her work alright…”
I looked through the circular little windows that ran all along the wall, unsure if this was the old house or not. Looking up, I could imagine the old sign hanging from the corner, I could imagine the old house and my mother’s white pickup truck, partly shaded by large old trees. But it seemed to be too close to the hotel itself. I remembered it being much farther away. Of course, I had been much smaller then, and maybe what once was far, would now seem close. After all, once a walk to the corner store had seemed like a distant voyage and a drive across town had seemed like a life altering journey across the world. (Maybe these things were still true and I had forgotten how to look at them.)
Behind the wall there was an old house that didn’t look at all like our old house, not like the little beach house I remembered. It was much bigger and much more complex than the little two room structure that my mom had built there. Maybe the new owners had demolished our little old house and built a new beach mansion on top of its remains.
My mother had always said that the problem with architecture is that you had no control over your legacy. Whoever now owned your work could do whatever they wanted with it and there was no way for you to protect it, to even advocate for its preservation. It could be changed and changed and changed again until it would bear little resemblance to the original design. I agreed with her but added that this applied to all creations, for they were all ready to be changed, rebuilt and re-mixed endlessly. Nothing was ever permanent, nothing ever retained its original form. (Not even words or memories.) Some things just lasted a little longer than others.
Maybe that was exactly what had happened. Maybe the house just seemed to be closer to the hotel now because I was bigger and distances had grown shorter, maybe what had been two different houses had now been combined into a new and vaguely elegant mansion covered in a distinct layer of quiet mystery.
I looked inside again at the long silent corridor, at the rusted metal gates on the other side, at the air of disuse that seemed to sit upon the entire property. I could feel the echoes of forgotten parties running through the corridor. The walls held onto someone else’s memories, moments I had never known but which could never be fully erased. They clung to the bricks like spiders, they stretched across the concrete like moss.
There was an old thin brown man crouching in the middle of the overgrown grass. He was flashing a machete slowly, cutting the lawn down, inch by inch. His back was towards me but I could see the side of his face. It seemed to me that I knew him, that he was the same man that had once taken care of our beach house, not the same body but the same man nonetheless. He cut slowly, taking his time between efforts. It was clear that the owners would not be coming back any time soon.
I felt an entire universe of little stories flowing through the empty dusty hallway, through the old stained wooden doors at the end of the open hall. These were stories that came long after I had left this place, and yet I was somehow within them. I was an integral part of them. Maybe another body served as my presence. Maybe the body I now occupied was a replacement for another body that left long ago.
The old house had been named after me, and maybe my name infected the whole area with my deepest habits. (Habits so deep I wouldn't recognize them even if I stared directly at them.) Just like my mom had left her mark on this place, so I had left my own.
Or maybe this was the wrong place, or maybe this was the wrong house. Or maybe, even if I was standing on the wrong place, looking at the wrong house, it was all true nonetheless. As true as an old thin man crouching and cutting down the long green weeds one by one while the sound of the waves flowed through the air like a constant chant from an ancient forgotten temple.
How many unique combinations could there really be? Once two people got together, how likely would it be that one would become me and the other would become you. Not me as I am, but me nonetheless. Not you as you are, but you nonetheless. You enough to think you are unique. You enough to fear the nothingness. Me enough to ask these questions. Me enough to leave them unanswered.
Maybe wherever I looked, if I looked hard enough, if I truly caressed the edges of the structure with strong and careful attention, I would find myself. I stared through the circular holes for a while and the man never looked up. The sound of his machete was a very slow but firmly constant rhythm that was a perfect companion to the recurring sound of the waves we had left behind.

* * *

The beach house was in the shape of a small letter ‘T’, with two big rooms on either side, a bathroom in the middle and a long terrace stretching out of it, covered with a straw roof. There were several hammocks hanging from the wooden poles that stood on the corners of the long terrace. The floor was made of large square red bricks which were a bit moist from being so close to the ocean. The entire house was surrounded by a large open space, with relatively trimmed grass, large thick brown trees and several bushes that had been trimmed into the shapes of animals. This particular detail was for my benefit. It was meant to please a little boy that didn’t know such things were there for him, who couldn’t begin to comprehend the amount of effort it had taken for this place to even exist and be available for his pleasure.
There was a little peasant family that lived in a hut off to the side of the property but I never knew them very well. They were extras in my movie, people that only emerged when they were needed and then disappeared once again as soon as the need was met.
The house was mostly there as a place to change into or out of swimsuits, to eat some sandwiches with ham and mayonnaise, to lie on the hammocks when you were too tired to go back to the beach. Sometimes I would walk around the open space, feeling the wet grass around my ankles. Mostly I would walk towards the back of the property, where a little gateway led to the very same crooked path I had once taken with my Dad when we went hunting for pigeons.
This place then was the old bush, the one that had been blocked off from the world around it by stretches of barbed wire and thick wooden poles and was now surrounded by concrete walls and fences. I hadn’t recognized it before, and some time in the future, I would again fail to recognize it. Maybe all things that I had ever known were already on their way to becoming completely unrecognizable, like the voice of lost friends, like the eyes of a forgotten lover, like my own writing on an old yellowed piece of paper that has been left alone for too long and has utterly changed meaning in the intervening silence.
I sat on the terrace listening to my mother and her friends, feeling the warm breeze settling on my skin. Every so often, I would swat a mosquito away. There were so many mosquitoes that I had to decide how much I would let them bother me. If I focused on them for too long, the trip to the beach would turn into an endless buzzing nightmare. So it was better to place my attention elsewhere and let the mosquitoes themselves become something that had always been there, always would be there, so ever present that it could be completely ignored and forgotten.
Each of the two friends was laying on a different hammock. My mother was sitting on a towel with her legs crossed. She was wearing jeans and a yellow T-shirt with a typical Salvadorean design across her breasts, colorful images that spoke of the innocence and beauty of the common Salvadorean peasants. (There were peasants right around us, hiding behind the large green weeds. But they were not so colorful, and they were not so innocent, and they were not so pretty.) The shirt was a not-too-subtle way for my mother to claim solidarity with her people. As if the peasants would get a chance to see her shirt behind the polarized windows of her Mercedes Benz.
One of her friends also wore jeans and a flowery shirt that was slightly transparent. Her flesh was deeply tanned and it contrasted with the whiteness of her bra which I could barely see through the fabric of her shirt. The other friend was wearing a light blue bikini. She had just come back from the beach and her bright white skin was still dripping with ocean water. Her face was long and flat and when she laughed she made a sound that reminded me of a horse. She leaned back on her hammock on a white towel that she had spread underneath her.
They were all listening to a little battery powered radio, listening to the intense calm voice that came through the little speaker with tremendous gusts of force. Their eyes were riveted onto the small apparatus, as if by the constancy of their focused attention the voice itself would grow louder, or the words would become clearer, or maybe the man himself would emerge from the radio and beckon to them like a wraith from another world.
The voice was indeed coming from a very different world to the one where we were sitting. It was a world of fervent commitment that touched them, that invited them with its promise of glory and frightened them with its threat of harrowing torture and cold final death. The voice came from the far regions of our limited reality, where men and women had jumped over the fence of the acceptable, into a realm of pure devotion and total belief, devotion to a lost cause that didn’t know it was lost, belief in a dogma that was already showing signs old age.
The voice told them that sooner or later it would be their time to make a decision, it said that for now it was fine to simply listen, to place their eyes on a little silver machine and listen intently to words of commitment, but soon enough such words would have to come out of their own lips, sooner or later they would have to move beyond the edge and slip into the deep waters where there could never be any promises of safety or return.
They now lived on the cutting edge of a world that had been sliced in two and was now in the process of further separation, the sides slipping away from each other at a furious speed. (I lived in this new divided world as well but I was too young to fully realize it.) It was no longer enough to simply breathe and learn and work and procreate. Decisions had to be made, actions had to be taken.
The voice, in sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt ways, spoke of the nature of this decision, spoke of a commitment that transcended all fears.
The three women were fascinated with the possibilities. They cloaked their fascination with colors of compassion and caring, with the images of honorable and blessed sacrifice that they had learned from very early on through other sermons and other priests. But this priest was different, he spoke of a commitment to living in this very place that was all around us, he spoke of thrusting our very bodies into the fray and to use them as living tools for changing the human landscape that extended like barbed wire over the jungle and the bush and the smoke filled streets of the decaying city.
There was more to their attention than simple political awareness or pure compassion clear of hidden agendas or traces of selfishness. There was more. I could feel it even back then. There was an energy coming through the radio that was almost impossible to resist. Something as tangible and insistent as the warm ocean breeze or the buzzing of the mosquitoes. In some, it might incite anger and violence, in most it would incite a need to act, a need to jump into the waves that never stopped crashing in the distance, that never stopped beckoning you into their deep blue hidden hearts.
I looked at their faces of intense attention and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to make that jump myself, even as I remembered the fearsome depth of the waters and the hopelessness of the darkness within them. In some ways the fear itself would make the jump all the more glorious. Maybe it wouldn’t last. But then again, nothing did.
When the sermon was over, the three women discussed what they had heard, trying to make their way through the thick sense of pure awe that permeated the terrace in a way that was almost tangible. I sat there listening to them, my eyes going from one face to another, trying to grasp the full meaning of their words, trying to visualize the consequences of their statements.
“…what he is saying is simply the truth…”
“…yes, the truth that has been evident all along… the truth that all of us have seen with our own eyes…”
“…yes… but it is amazing to hear it spoken by a man in his position…”
“…that’s just it… he has taken his position and used it in a way that others wouldn’t…”
“…yes, to hear him talking on the radio like this… in front of everyone…where everyone can hear him…”
“…he is very brave to do so…he is the voice of so many that can’t speak…”
“…yes, of all the voices that have been silenced for so long…”
“…many people throughout the country sit just like this… every Sunday…listening to him giving his sermons…”
“…yes, many listen quietly, with the volume turned way down, afraid that their neighbors will know what they are listening to…afraid that they will be seen as suspicious, as possible subversives, terrorists...”
“…but how can they blame them? They are only listening to the voice of the church…it just so happens that now that voice is speaking like it never has before…it is speaking directly to them about the hardships that have always been ignored by the upper classes…”
“…it’s a very special thing that is happening…it has never happened before…”
“…and that’s why we can’t just sit by in the sidelines…we can’t wait for it to come to us…”
“…yes, it seems clear that this is a moment that demands a choice… a commitment…”
I could hear the waves in the distance growing louder. The breeze would blow through the terrace, and I could see the glory of the white crests of the waves as they rushed towards their sandy end, I could see the terminal blackness of the abyss that waited underneath. Their words carried both along their edges, they were crackling like lit firecrackers about to explode. I could feel it all pressing against my chest, like a large heavy weight that refuses to release me.
To look at the crashing of the waves or to jump into their wild fury, knowing that they might swallow me and I might never come back up again. This was the question that vibrated in the air of the terrace. This was the question that, sooner or later, I would have to answer. Sooner or later I would have to find a way to respond.

* * *

We walked towards the open store we had seen earlier. The little paved street, surrounded by many colored walls, was as quiet as it had been when we first got there. It was a place outside of time, forgotten temporarily by the crowds. (They would remember soon enough when the weekend came around.) Up the road, there was a small sign of movement, a few people walking in our direction.
My Dad asked me if I wanted something to drink. I said “no, thank you” but I walked with him towards the dark open doorway of the little store anyway.
I looked up the street again at the little group that was approaching. It was a little family slowly coming towards us. A short thin man with his wife, an old woman who was probably the mother of one of them, a little boy, an even younger little girl, and a short beautiful girl who was probably around eighteen. They walked slowly, talking among themselves with a lazy rhythm that allowed for long gaps of silence between sentences.
My Dad asked for a soda and checked again with me to see if I wanted anything. Again I thanked him but said no.
The family turned towards us, or rather towards the store. I smiled at them and greeted them. They all smiled back and looked at me as if making a strange discovery. The man advanced towards the store doorway and the others stayed a few feet behind him. They all smiled shyly, with a gentle innocence that felt like warm fingertips over my face.
The little boy walked slowly around me, trying to somehow reconcile my appearance here with the rules of the world that he had known so far. As he stared up at me, I looked down at him with a welcoming smile upon my face. I asked the older woman if I could take pictures of him and she said it was fine. They all smiled and joked with him as I took out my large black camera once again. The boy never stopped staring, although he suddenly broke into a big smile as well. I took one picture and another and said thank you. He nodded and then asked me:
“Where do you come from?”
“I come from here… from El Salvador… I used to come here when I was a little boy like you…”
He gestured with his head in a way that implied disbelief, his chin rapidly twisted down towards his chest and his eyes narrowed.
“Really?”
“Yeah, really. I used to come here all the time, before any of these houses were here… when all this was just dirt and bushes…”
The older woman laughed in a sign of shy sympathy, the others giggled with her. They were somehow both embarrassed and fascinated by our interaction. I turned to the woman and asked her if I could take pictures of the rest of them. She giggled and said:
“Vaya… it’s fine…”
I raised by camera, and, one by one, I swallowed them all into the digital entrails of my memory card. The last one in line was the teenage girl. I had left her for last because I thought she might be the most reluctant to have her picture taken. Now that I saw her up close it was hard to determine how old she truly was. She could have been fifteen or twenty. Her eyes were so innocent that she seemed younger than a ten year old in San Francisco, but her body showed signs of womanhood. Her small softly curved breasts pushed against her blouse and her hips were full and inviting under her long skirt.
I asked her where they were from. She pointed in a general northward direction and said the name of a little town.
“How far away is that?”
“We just came from there… about half an hour walking…”
“What made you come over here today?”
“Just taking a stroll… taking the kids out…”
The girl smiled at me and blushed when she felt me looking at her intently. In her voice, in her innocent eyes and smile, in her shy demeanor, in her tangible curiosity, she reminded me of Dilcia, of the Dilcia that once was when I first met her, of the one that listened intently when I gave her suggestions on her creative work, of the one that grabbed my hand so tightly that it seemed she would be permanently welded to my flesh. Here she was again, just as soft, just as open, just as new.
The older woman, her mother as far as I knew, spoke up:
“So are you visiting from the United States?”
“Yes, I live there now… in San Francisco… I didn’t intend to be here today, we nearly passed it by…I hadn’t thought of this place in years…”
“It’s a beautiful place… we like to come here…they all like coming… “
She pointed to the young girl, who was still looking up at me. I raised my camera to take one more picture of her. She blushed and looked down in a way that told me she wanted me to take more pictures but she was embarrassed to let it show.
“She’s very shy!” the mother said, “Raise your head so the gentleman can take your picture!”
She lifted her head and looked up at me. There she was, just as insecure, just as curious, just as vibrant with a barely hidden inner fire.
“So you come here just to visit?” I asked them.
“Yes, during the week… when it’s quiet...it depends… it’s a nice place to visit…we just walk up the road…through the side paths…”
I thought of the different scale of our journeys, and how irrelevant that scale became when other elements were taken into account. I thought of the Australians I met on a ship in the Mediterranean. They were as far away as they could possibly be from their own homeland, and yet they couldn’t ever truly leave it. Everywhere they looked they only saw what was lacking, what was not as good as what they knew, what was not as great, what was not as perfect. Their eyes had no curiosity, their hearts could not open, would not open, no matter what they saw or heard or felt. Even the giant Mediterranean waves that shook the entire ship that carried us, the waves that convinced me that the ship was about to slide underwater forever, even those giant waves could not move them.
This girl had only walked for half an hour and yet she had traveled much farther. Her eyes were wide open and ready to swallow the world. I was a part of the world just then, and I was glad to be a part of it. I wanted to be swallowed by her eyes, if only for a brief moment.
How far you traveled then didn’t matter, if your eyes could not open. And if your eyes were open, then any distance would do. If you pushed that equation to its logical end, it would be unnecessary to move at all. One could simply open one’s eyes or ears, and the world would come rushing in, like a mad symphony without a beginning or end, motifs building upon motifs, sprawling in all directions like spider webs, structures developing from unthinkably complex themes that never fully rested on a firm and final cadence. It would all be right here, as close as right here, as far as forever.
The required element was the openness, the bursting bleeding heart that was willing to take in the unthinkable. Even if it hurt. Even if it was frightening. One had to be willing to take in the infinitely deep and inexhaustible truth that couldn’t be circumscribed by words or sentences, by thoughts of categories or clearly delineated sequences of cause and effect.
In this girl’s eyes, I could sense that truth, bursting like giant tears from her eyeballs, sliding down her blushing cheeks. I could see that it was that truth, that eternal maelstrom of beauty, that would pull me in, that would reach out and grab me and force me deep under the waves of her destiny.
It had happened once already, with another girl which was the same girl. I had dived into those unknown depths and I had tasted the rushing current of her generosity. As the eyes narrowed, the current became weaker, and as her heart closed, the ocean became a lake and then a desert. Maybe it was I that had closed it all down, maybe because the eyes beckoned I was doomed to close them if I were to rush towards them. In my desire for them, I was bound to slam them shut.
Maybe that is what had happened. Maybe that is what always happened, what always would happen.
Then the only solution would be to open my own eyes, to swallow her in but only briefly, to take her into my own entrails and feel the intensity of her fire, but only for a moment. And then bow to her openness and release her, leaving her untouched.
My Dad had finished his drink. I said thank you to all of them and the boy waved goodbye at me. He waved with long and exaggerated movements of his arms, as if we were already a great distance apart. Then the girl waved goodbye as well. She did it with a small quick movement of her hand, something only barely visible, a final expression of her precious shyness.
I waved back at her. This time I would not be the one to destroy her innocence. This time I would just brush against it briefly, letting the ocean breeze caress my hair and pull me away. I would stand at the edge of the ocean, at the beach with its gray flesh of sand and rocks. I would stand on the sand dunes, but I would not jump into the waves. Not here. Not this time.

* * *

The sand felt wet and heavy under my feet. The ocean breeze was strong enough to make my long hair dance around my head, sliding over my cheeks and rising behind my back. But the breeze was surprisingly warm. It was surprising for me, since we were in the middle of a deep darkness, within the embrace of a bubble of yellow light coming from a single dangling light bulb that hung from one of the unknown beach houses around us.
The sound of the waves was very close but I could only see vague outlines of white rolling power in the darkness, sometimes hints of dark blue against pure black, and the stars that covered it all in infinite brightness.
I walked only a few steps and my feet sank into the wet sand and it didn’t matter. I was now breathing the air of a different world, a place where past disturbances didn’t matter, where the old rules had broken down and new ones were in the process of emerging.
The Magician stood in the center of the yellow light and I stood to one side of him. Dilcia was next to me, shivering slightly with the unspoken pressure of the moment. I was not yet an expert on her reactions so I didn’t know what to expect from her. I ran my hand over her naked arm and she turned towards me and smiled. My touch made her feel safe and I wanted to touch her, I wanted to give her that gift of safety, of tender comfort which she had needed for so long.
The Magician turned towards the darkness for a moment. I saw the outline of his squashed round face in the yellow light. I felt a sense of distinct pride at being in his presence.
I was exactly where I had always wanted to be and I had arrived through unexpected means. Dilcia had been the key, the key that offered herself willingly, the key that opened the hidden doorway into the Magician’s inner sanctum.
And I had opened it without thinking of results, without hesitation or second thoughts. Right then the golden key was the most precious discovery in itself, it flowed in white and brown and red through the edges of my senses, it gave itself to me in kisses and hugs and soft spoken declarations that came in and out of my perception like fluttering morning birds. They caressed my deepest places in ways that I couldn’t have fathomed just a few weeks before.
The key was not a key any longer. If it still opened doors, it was without my conscious volition.
I looked at her again in the warm darkness. I felt the warm breeze in my eyes and it seemed that she was kissing them with her soft generous lips. I opened them wider and knew once again that a door could only be opened when it was no longer desired, when it was no longer needed, when it was no longer wanted.
And yet I did desire her. But those were questions that I would have to set aside. Now the Magician had turned towards us, towards me. He had spread his hands and his shoulders were raised and it was time to listen.
“This has been a time of magical events, this last two weeks have been special. Unique. You two know it more than anyone. It is important that you know it. It is important that you remember. This is a special time.”
I turned to Dilcia and smiled and she smiled back at me, sharing secrets that we didn’t intend to reveal, as if they were truly secrets at all, as if they truly awaited revelation. I could still feel the gooey texture of her wet and open vagina on my fingers, I could still taste her tongue in my mouth. I could still feel her brown nipples getting hard under between my lips as she released tiny transparent moans into the sweat soaked atmosphere of my apartment.
“I want you to know that I bless this event, that I could not be happier with what has happened, that this connection fills my heart with joy… I can hardly stand here… I want to run into the waves and swim in the darkness… I am so full of joy… so full of happiness!”
Maybe there were tears in his eyes, but I couldn’t see them in the dim yellow light. Maybe there were tears in her eyes as well, but they were just as invisible. They were both so pure and so perfect, at least that is how I saw them right then. They were truly perfect to me, and in my memory they would remain pure and perfect.
I felt like the damaged element in our little trio, the part that didn’t quite fit, the counterfeit artifact in the fragile structure. They seemed to glow with so much raw beauty that I could only stare at them and smile with such force that my cheekbones hurt with the continuous effort.
(This was before she told me all about him, before he told me all about her, before I saw them in other colored lights, in the darkness of second hand memories. This was before I dug under the perfect surface that I wanted so much to believe in to find the worms and bugs that crawled under the fertile moist earth.)
That night they would forever remain perfect, like forest creatures in a land of faerie magic. They were as perfect as living things could ever be, as perfect as I could ever imagine. And I had the honor, the pleasure, the gift, to observe them in their perfection, to listen to their voices, to feel their touch, to know that they loved me, to know that I loved them.
“I want you also to know that anything that is good is also hard… I know that you will be far away from each other… I don’t know for how long… and that the distance will be difficult to endure… but I tell you this…this will be a test of your love… for distance destroys the small fire but it strengthens the big one…I believe there is something real and strong about the love between you… something greater than distance…“
He was quiet for a moment and just smiled broadly, the same smile I recognized from so many Saturdays of listening to his speeches on all kinds of esoteric subjects. It was the same smile that he had on when he talked of vibrations on a long distant afternoon, the same smile that broke from his lips when my friend and I first arrived to see him after so many years of separation.
I looked at his glowing smile and his vibrant eyes and I allowed my own smile and my own eyes to meet his in the silence. The waves were bursting into nothingness in the darkness and my beautiful brown girl was breathing hard just a few feet away and there was nothing more that I could ask for.
Then he nodded, content. And then he nodded once again and his eyes were pressed tightly together, a mask of overwhelming emotion that threatened to shake his body apart. He moved towards me and embraced me and I felt a kind of reverential welcome, a sacred invitation into the folds of his pristine and perfect family. I embraced him back and I felt his small muscular body shaking and then I knew that he was certainly crying. I simply held onto him until he let me go.
“You have my blessing… you absolutely have my blessing…I told her…didn’t I tell you?… I told her…it was not even a month ago… I told her… her sisters were both going out with their dates and she was all alone in her room, looking sad and dejected… so alone, so sad…and she didn’t have to say anything at all to me… I knew it all as soon as I saw her lying alone in her room with her head down, her face between her hands… and I told her… soon your man will come… I can feel him in the distance… he’s coming for you soon…and then you will be glad to have waited… and then all this sadness will mean nothing… nothing at all… soon it will be your time… and when the time comes you will remember my words… and here it is…the time has come.. so soon, so perfect… I couldn’t have imagined that it would be like this…with you… but it is just like I told her… isn’t that right?”
He turned towards her, for the first time in several minutes. She nodded and smiled with shy hesitation.
“Yes, it’s true… I remember…”
I thought that this wasn’t why I had come, but now it was. I would look back and reexamine my thoughts and my dreams and they would all tell the same story. I could feel reality shifting underneath me, the symbolic structure that formed its skeleton was being transformed and I was allowing it to happen. I had come here to help and maybe, in a way that was very much unlike what I had pictured, I was indeed helping. I was helping them all, I was helping her, and I was helping myself.
But the truth was that my thoughts were not of much help at that moment. As I turned to look at her, I could only feel the powerful intensity that swirled through my chest, deep into the center which I now called my heart. The words slipped from my eyes like tears, and the reasons crumbled like sand castles and there were only her eyes, her eyes and her mouth and her hands, and years of searching through urban jungles and years of driving through desolate dark purple roads and years of dreaming and wishing and trying. It all slipped into the past and a new future emerged before me, dark and yellow and shining blue.

* * *

I was in a place that was strange to me and yet familiar. I recognized it as I would recognize an old friend whom I've known for years. And yet I didn’t have a name for it. I couldn't place it in a long chain of memories, a particular even with a beginning and an end. I only knew that I knew it, that I knew it very well.
There were rows of trees overlooking a cliff hanging over a long white beach that went on for miles. From where I was, wherever it was that I was, I could see the smooth sand at the edge of the water, and the rocky cliffs, and the thin ribbon of green forest. I could also see the little pool that was behind the forest, little when compared to the vastness of the ocean that rumbled beyond the beach. A hotel stood behind that, a tall white building at least twenty stories tall, lined with polarized windows and solid columns of gray cement.
I could see it all at once, as if I had multiple sets of eyes that could be in many places at once. I could even see that there was no sun in the sky but it was not night or early morning. It was that time that is not dawn or noon or midnight, at that particular time the sky has no color at all. I looked directly at that strange sky. Maybe it was when I looked at it that I knew what I would see if I turned my head and looked towards the ocean.
I didn’t want to turn and yet I couldn’t stop myself from doing so. I finally did turn my head and looked in the direction that I was dreading. I saw the wave, the giant final wave that was rolling straight towards us, greater than any wave I had ever seen, tall and thick and deep and unstoppable, taller than the cliffs or the hotel, stronger than any barrier I could think of.
I saw it and my heart sank. I knew that there would be no way to avoid it, no way to hide from its terrible force. It was like a tall mountain made of blue water, a mountain that was smooth and clear and merciless. And it was coming straight towards us. Straight towards me.
I looked and looked at the giant wave, momentarily frozen. Then I had to try to run. I thought of hiding, as if maybe by hiding in a gap in the trees, or in the calm water of the pool, the giant wave would go away and then I could regain my moment of peace among the gray concrete overlooking the dark green of the trees, my moment of endless gray skies that withheld any promise of sunrise or sunset.
But I couldn’t just stay there. I couldn’t just look and stand still.
So I ran. I moved ever so slowly, so slowly that I seemed to be frozen in place. I could feel that the giant mountain of blue water was getting closer and closer and soon it would be too late. All I could do was run, or try to run, even if I was so slow that I didn’t seem to move at all.
I knew that my friends and my mother and my father were somewhere back there in the hotel. I had to warn them, as if they needed a warning, as if the warning would make any difference. Wherever they were, they could probably see what I was seeing. They were probably frozen in place or trying to run in ever slowing strides like I was, maybe hoping to find me, maybe just hoping without knowing what to hope for.
I saw people with dark glasses staring at the giant thing that was at my back. Their mouths were wide open, staring, staring, staring, shocked and awed, terrified, unable to move. I thought that at least I was moving, at least I was trying to get away. But I could still see the pool, which was the pool that I remembered even though I had never seen it before, and I could still see the trees, which were the green fresh trees that I remembered, even though I had never seen them, and I could still see the beach and the water, and I could still see the giant wave that was rushing towards me, ever closer, closer and closer. I had to at least try to run, even if it was hopeless. I had to reach something, somewhere, someone, even if nothing could work, even if there was nowhere out of reach of its power, even if no one could help.
I kept on running while staying in the same place. The pool remained as calm as ever and I thought of diving into it. There, deep in its calm water, maybe the wave would be like nothing, maybe it would pass over me like the sky or the sun had once passed over its calm blue waters.
I dived, and the sky was gray above me. It was neither day or night, and the hotel was tall and lonely. There was nobody around, and there was a giant wave coming towards me and I had to somehow try to run. But the light blue waters were calm and soothing as I floated in the pool that I remembered. I could only look up at the gray sky and wonder when the terrible wave would finally arrive.

* * *

We drove down the curving highway towards the city. I could still feel the warm breeze of the ocean but it was growing fainter. Soon it would only be another memory to be shifted and displaced every time it was reviewed.
I saw two men sitting at a little restaurant overlooking a cliff. They were drinking beers and laughing and the water was blue in the distance behind their heads. I saw two women walking along the edge of the cliffs with large heavy plastic water recipients on their heads. They were so used to doing this that their bodies didn’t react to the weight at all, the heavy recipients were like another limb that had sprouted out of their cranium. One had an old blue skirt and an old white shirt with no sleeves. The other had an old purple dress. Their clothes were stained with sweat and years of work. Their skin was like leather from the sun and from years of hard work. They stared straight ahead as the sun beat down on them.
I saw a pickup truck full of people. A woman had placed a tiny baby right on the metal frame of the truck bed, the little fragile baby swayed with every movement of the truck and the woman only held onto him with one hand while gesturing with the other and looking over her side. I saw a thin brown man in a ripped white shirt squatting on the side of the road under the shade of his own white hat.
As we approached the little port city, the ocean moved further into the distance. There was now only the smell of fish and sweat and money. People were waiting for buses in corners and other people were walking down the street with large bags full of vegetables and fruits and groceries.
The ocean felt farther and farther away although it was still present, hiding under twined brown rope and the cracked blue walls. The dead fish were like a faint memory of black depths that were unreachable and the sweat was the remains of the salty waves, the money was the sand that scattered along the edge of the unreachable vastness.
I inhaled deeply, feeling the distance, knowing that we were back from the edge. For now, we were safe from the terrible dangers that terrorized my Uncle, safe from the vestige of final decision that could be found in a young girl’s eyes, safe from belief and from conclusive proclamations, safe from the depths and from white explosions. Safe and yet less alive.
Even as we moved back and away from its touch, I felt the urgency to return, I felt the need to step right up to the edge one more time and feel its salty kiss upon my dry lips. It was a curse to know it would always be near me. It was a blessing to know it would always be there.
A man with the eyes of a killer was standing in a corner staring at us as we passed by. His arms were knots of tight brown muscle traced with bulging angry veins. I smiled at him with years of friendship in my eyes. His eyes opened wider and threatened to swallow us. The breeze made my long hair dance around my shoulders. Several blocks away I turned around and I could still see the man’s eyes, fading away like a distant star.



Tunnel number four,
far beyond all expectations
beyond my Uncle's fear,
beyond my own limited knowledge.
Here it was quiet
as simple as a tale
overheard in whispers
in a time before
sounds had meanings,
before stories had an end,
before causes had effects,
before time became a river.

A living manifestation
of an underlying principle
that escaped all simple explanations
all quick linguistic cadences.
Horns there were,
as horns there are,
curved and paired,
bold and shameless
rising in defiance of the sky.

I would never know
if my memories
were a fantasy
or if a sudden fantasy
would soon become a memory
a memory I would soon
believe to be true.

The rocks were huge shapes
that my mind would turn into people.
The people were small shapes
that time would turn into dust,
some day, maybe, rocks
some day, maybe, people.


What I was
and what I couldn't be
fused into a single moment
of warm wind
touched by salt and sweat and whispers
caressed by waves
that I had never known
as friends
by the Other
that I had never known
so gentle.

We met at the edge of a river.
To eat,
I could only give her
the simple gift
of my attention.
To drink, she offered me
the liquid memories
that formed deep pools
within her eyes.


In the morning
we would walk out into sunshine
In the afternoon
we would float the hours away
in gentle waves of blue innocence
In the evening
we would swim the spiral currents
of our dark desires
and the morning
would call use once again
to rise
to add our love
to its overflowing kindness.


I waited for you eagerly,
all other worries
all other concerns
floated away from me
like fallen leaves
on a gentle pool
of warm sweet water.


For all their hardships
they had the untouchable pleasure
of fearlessness,
a single moment of freedom
riding on the very machine
that would one day
make that freedom vanish.

I remembered being them
and yet I had never been there.
Maybe someday they would
remember seeing themselves
just as I finally began to forget them.

She was perfect
yet unlike
any sharp edged drawing
of perfection.
She was perfectly in movement
perennially floating
on currents of change
the same beautiful currents
that would eventually lift her
push her far into unknown landscapes
take her irretrievably away
leaving me only
the whispers of her absence.

El Salvador shifted
once and again
from new to old to new again
broken walls covered in twisted letters
cloaked in blue and green and black
a kind of effervescent beauty
filled with chaos and randomness
once invisible to my eyes.

For a moment she had no fear
because I knew her
for a moment I had no fear
because she knew me
for a moment we sat
at the edge of forever
and the infinite ocean
bathed us with its light.


I saw her in you
I saw you in her.
Were you always present in her
since before her eyes fell upon me?
Was she always present
in you
before her eyes came to open?
before she owned a name
before a name owned her
a name
to tell her what she was
a name
to tell her what she was not?


Was he seeing now
what I had once seen myself?
Would he return one day
to find that nothing was the same
that what was once a long walk
had become so short
what was once a lifetime
had become a brief flash
of sound and light
an ephemeral movement
against a background
of pure solid white.


I could look beyond the gate
but I couldn't fully cross it.
Not until I could leave
all solid ground behind me
and sink into the depths,
the dark blue depths
that the beach
could only barely
touch.

1 comment:

Roxana Galindo said...

So well written, so deeply felt...