Alone in the house with his wife's Peruvian maid, his emotions get the better of him. The sun is setting in the kitchen, its last rays illuminating the fading yellow wallpaper. She sits across him at the breakfast table, listening attentively as he discusses his upcoming divorce. “Is terrible,” she says, thoughtfully scratching her chin with her index finger, “is terrible what you say.” His wife has cleared out for the weekend in order for him to pack the rest of his belongings, but he has been drinking instead, starting right after lunch.
The maid looks distracted, deep in thought. “I think,” she concludes, “I think you come visit.” She lives in Queens. Why would he visit her in Queens? “Mr. Dietz,” she says, correcting the misunderstanding on his face, “my country, you come visit my country.” Her sister, her brother, her mother, her father will all take care of him. “I couldn't possibly,” he responds. He isn't desperate. “I just don't think I can,” he goes on. He isn't a charity case.
But, in fact, he has cleared his desk of cases (he is a patent attorney) in order to get out of town; only the thought of how lonely he'll be wherever he goes has stopped him from making the reservations. Lima is known for street crime and terrorism (it is still the days of the Shining Path) but is very far away from Westchester Country, and he is nearing his fifties without having seen much of the world. He's braced by the thought of a whole country of dark, warm, round-faced people like his wife's maid.
He stares blankly out the window as the plane pierces the early morning fog, ramshackle constructions of tarp and corrugated metal dotting the desert hills. “Si,” is his only answer to the questions asked by the immigration official with the dark moustache, who shrugs quizzically, stamps his passport and ushers him forward into a long Kennedy-era corridor slippery with wax but scratched by decades of traffic. He swivels carefully to avoid the tearful reunions going on around him. His sallow white skin, thinning ash-blond air and lanky, not very Peruvian frame signal his otherness. Two men show him grainy Polaroids of “secure” and “commodious” hotel rooms, and another offers him a ride to wherever he wants to go. He hesitates before refusing as he can't believe that his wife's maid's family can actually be there to meet him, that he's traveled so far and found people he knows. As the taxi-driver's pitch goes on, he becomes more and more convinced that in this case, like all other cases, he must look out for himself.
But then he hears a version of his own name. A short thick man with dark sunglasses and a hulking Fred Flintstone jaw emerges from the crowd along with a light-skinned girl with an elongated Castilian face and a plumper girl with wider, more indigenous features who indeed resembles his wife's maid. He is led to a huge ancient vehicle that looks like a fifties checker cab. In the back, a boy of about four or five and three not quite teenage girls shyly avert their eyes. The dark sun-glassed man takes the wheel, the young women sit in back with the children, and the front seat is surrendered to the American visitor.
He has only visited wealthier more verdant countries (once France, once Italy, twice England), which did nothing to prepare him for the chaotic desert highway onto which the rickety vehicle quickly merges, the sensuous odors of gasoline, grilling meats and dust coming in through the open windows. Indigenous looking men wearing dark wool pants and tattered suits jackets weave in and out of vehicles stuck in traffic, selling newspapers, toothpaste and condoms. Off to the sides of the road are makeshift wooden stands offering discounts on beer and Inca Cola, ceviche, fruit and car batteries, more commerce than he has ever seen. The prices written on chalkboards show how little everything costs. He could remain for months on just the cash in his pocket.
They turn off the road into a more middle-class neighborhood of wobbly adobes, a drier, bleaker version of the low-rent suburbs he's seen on the way to airports in southwestern cities. They pull to a stop. The pretty Castilian girl reaches into the front seat, kisses him on both cheeks and gets out. As they speed away without her, he wonders if she had been a lure, a false advertisement to tempt him along.
They brake to another stop in front of a small concrete building painted quaintly blue. It sags precariously forward onto the street. Once inside, they are greeted by a warm-faced zaftig woman of about forty and a much older man and woman. The older woman is preternaturally short, barely five feet tall, and the man has Indian features but luminescent white skin, Spanish blood or some sort of pigment problem.
It is only after the flurry of greetings (pecks on the cheeks from the women, firm handshakes from the men) that the American visitor manages to piece everyone together. He gives them simple labels in order to easily remember. The dark sun-glassed man (the brother of his wife's maid in America) becomes the father; his wife, the pretty zaftig woman, the mother; and her children, the girls. The very short old lady is the grandmother, and the very white old man is the grandfather. The other woman who came to the airport (not the Castilian girl who'd been dropped off) is the sister of his wife's maid. As the little boy is hers and she has no apparent husband, she becomes the unmarried other mother.
Despite high school and one year of college, his only Spanish comes from the polite, friendly world of introductory language study: “bienvenido,” “como esta,” “mucho gusto.” He smiles when he doesn't understand his Peruvian hosts. “Gracias,” he says or “si” or “si, gracias.” The father and grandfather lead him through a living room with brightly patterned quilts thrown over run-down couches into a small dining area ingrained with the smell of fried food. The three men sit down at large table with a wax tablecloth. “Comer? ” asks the father, “tomar? ” The American visitor does not feel hungry. “Tomar, ” he replies. He could use a drink despite how early it is and how little he's slept.
Nodding his approval, the grandfather signals to the grandmother who fetches a huge bottle of beer and three small glasses. The father opens it and pours about a cup of beer into each glass. “Salud,” concludes the largely incomprehensible toast that follows. Then the father drinks it down, and so does the grandfather, and so does their American guest. By the tenth or eleventh toast, he can no longer distinguish the edge of the table from the air hovering right near it. The tarp and corrugated aluminum shanties visible just up the hill through the window seem like they're part of the house. Boundaries of time and space seem so porous that it not only seems possible for his wife's maid's sister or mother to walk right in, but his own aged mother in America or even his grandmother who had passed on long ago.
If he excuses himself and walks out the front door, he may not find himself in a blazing urban desert but on the neatly ordered early-sixties streets of his Midwestern childhood. His own toasts are simple and to the point. “Salud,” he says. “Salud, ” they reply. After several hours of toasting, he's led by the hand up a flight of rickety stairs into a small room with three child-sized bed lined up horizontally. His long legs stick way out, but he's grateful to the three little girls for having given up their room. He wakes up soggy with sweat, the glaring sun shining into his eyes. A hotel would be more comfortable, but the Peruvians have opened their home to him, a generous spirit lacking in his North American life.
The faucet inside the bathroom trickles only silty water, which makes it difficult to properly wash. He also feels suddenly hungry. The only person who appears to be around downstairs, the grandmother, smiles at him distantly and serves him eggs fried in a peculiar tasting oil, a piece of hard flat bread, and some ink-thick concentrated coffee mixed with hot water and lots of sugar. By the time he's done, the grandmother, too, has disappeared. He sits by himself at the dining room table, closes his eyes and wills more sleep to come. It doesn't, and before his mind slips precariously back into the recent past, he walks across the room to the old family photos of men and women posing stiffly in what look like nineteenth century clothes. Then he flips on the flimsy little television with the large antenna and tries to follow a novela. Sleazy men with pencil-thin moustaches consort with young mistresses in very high heels as their brave middle-aged wives fight back tears.
Time passes in this way until the sudden setting of the sun turns the room dark and shadowy. Then the house fills up again as quickly as it had emptied, and the grandfather leads him by the hand into the living room and sits him down on one of the old couches, which creaks warily under his larger American frame. Everyone else sits on plastic folding chairs. The Peruvians smile convivially as they surround him, but the unmarried other mother bites her lip anxiously like she's about to receive unwelcome information. The grandfather disappears and reappears again, bearing more large beers and an acoustic guitar. His sonorous bass sings of a lost very Castilian-sounding love. The short song is greeted with rousing applause and a new series of toasts. Then the guitar is passed to the father whose strangled tenor struggles through a similarly somber piece. More applause, another toast, and the guitar is handed to the American visitor.
“No puedo,” the right words take a while to come to him, “no puedo cantar.” He can't sing. The grandfather and the father talk to him in kind but determined voices. Their exact words don't jell, but their meaning is clear. No cannot be the answer. They're all that stand between him and the dangers outside, so he has to obey. But he hasn't held a guitar in his hands since those lessons in his teens and knows not a single song. The Peruvians look upon with him with hushed anticipation as tries to remember the frets and strings. He starts to strum, an easy chord progression from deep in his muscle memory: slightly bluesy, a little country. Then he hears the prickly tones of his own voice. “Christine, Christine, you make me crazy Christine.” “Christine, Christine, you make me lazy Christine.
Christine, of course, is his ex-wife who did make him crazy but never particularly lazy. This is the nonsense song he had started to sing to himself when his marriage first began to go south. That silent chant turns out to have an actual melody, which is undeniably catchy. By the fourth repetition, the Peruvians have started to tap their feet. The girls even clap. By the sixth time, the song no longer even rhymes (“Christine, Christine, you make me want to break out/ Christine, Christine, for heaven's sake, man”) but the Peruvians politely sing along. He hears his wife's name in their accented voices.
Once he's finally done, they applaud. Afterwards, of course, they toast. “Un otro,” says the grandfather. “Un otro,” agrees the unmarried other mother looking tenderly at him. “Canta, canta,” chants the father. All he can do is return to same chord progression. Wagging his finger at the American visitor to hold on, the father disappears and returns a moment later bearing an antiquated boom box. Placing a cassette inside, he pushes the Record button and signals him to start again. The American visitor recreates it in almost exactly the same way.
“Christine, Christine, you drive me crazy, Christine etc.” He runs out of gas again after a few minutes, but, before the song is finally retired for the evening, the father rewinds the tape and plays the fuzzy, distant-sounding recorded version. After it's done, he explains that a cousin of his works for Radio Lima. The song is destined for a wider audience. In the American visitor's sudden fantasy, an international case takes his wife (who is also a patent attorney) to Peru. While cabbing from the airport to her fancy hotel, the driver turns on the radioÃ¢â‚¬Â_
Time skips more quickly forward after that first busy day. In the afternoons, he staggers awake to be fed eggs, flatbread and concentrated coffee. Afterwards, he climbs up to the unfinished roof, rests on a towel in the sun and reads the Graham Greene books he's brought with him. They serve regular late afternoon meals of rice and overcooked vegetables, giving him the lion's share of the grainy poultry and gristly meat. He talks. He listens, never entirely sure what anyone is saying including himself. Occasional outings punctuate his days. Once they take the long dusty drive to the centro historico and shoot photographs of themselves and him in the Plaza de Armas in front of the grandiose colonial cathedral. His guidebook calls it the city's main attraction, but no tourists are around. The family guards over him as he changes a few hundred American dollars into a massive pile of Peruvian currency that barely fits into his bag.
Another time the Castilian-looking girl picks him and the unmarried other mother up in her snazzy sports and drives them to Miraflores, the fancy neighborhood where all the embassies are located. Here, too, things fall apart: chips of plaster from the walls of the grand villas, trees and bushes both under-watered and overgrown. Their destination, the Panamanian consulate, looks recently painted, though, its gardens verdant and orderly. The unmarried other mother goes inside and comes back out again several minutes later, something about a transit visa. She sighs sadly as she gets back into the car.
Late one afternoon, the Castilian girl and the unmarried other mother take him for another ride. They park near a cliff overlooking the ocean and watch the waves pound the rocky desert beach. The sun begins to fade, and a chill creeps into the air that reminds him of late summer evenings at Rehoboth Beach where his grandmother kept a cottage. Across that great ocean, remarkably few people likely think about him. He pities himself a little less when he realizes that West Africa lies across the water where no one has actually met him. After climbing down a narrow and precipitous path, they walk along the beach, allowing the incoming tide to lick their toes. In the distance, they hear music that resembles what Puerto-Ricans listen to in his part of the world. The huge tented nightclub they approach a few minutes later smells evocatively of beer, sweat and perfume. The two women engage the bouncer in a heated discussion before dragging their American visitor away in disgust. It is too expensive, explains the Castilian girl, like everything these days.
---Afternoons without expeditions are harder to get through. He reads. He dozes. He stares vacantly at the refrescos stand across the street where the family buy their enormous beers. Nothing prevents him from buying one and promenading with it around the neighborhood. The Peruvians have neither chained, nor cuffed him, but their frequent warnings keep him in place, the untold horrors that lie right outside. “Hoy dia,” the grandfather repeats again and again, looking distractedly out the window. If it is not the criminales, it's the drogados. If it's not the drogados, it's the senderistas. The American Visitor had read that Shining Path operated far from the capitol, but apparently they are everywhere. “Un turista, un blanquito,” says the old man, who is even whiter himself, “muy peligroso.”
The number of days before his midnight flight back to America slowly dwindle (4,3,2). On the morning of his last day, the usually silent grandmother talks to him while she prepares his eggs and flatbread. “Hoy,” she explains slowly and carefully so he's sure to understand, “una fiesta para usted. ” Today, there will be a party for him. The party is the topic of conversation when everyone gathers for lunch earlier than usual. As is his custom, he lies down after the meal in a different little bed from where he had slept the night before. But, before he can slip into slumber, someone enters his room. “Perdun,” says the father, lightly shaking one of his feet, “la fiesta, ahorita. ” The party is about to happen. “Tiene ropas? ” he wonders after the American visitor has risen to his feet, “ropas mejor?”
He has indeed brought better clothes, as it is always his habit to do so, one of the many suits he wears to court. The father leaves him alone for a moment, and he puts it on, dirtying it quite a bit as he has not washed himself first. Downstairs, the family has gathered to leave for the party. The girls wear elaborate pink cotton dresses while the mother and the unmarried other mother's generous bodies have been forced into form-fitting short dresses with extremely high heels. The mother's significant bosom takes his breath away. The men wear cheap polyester suits, but the Italian one covering his greasy body costs easily twice everyone's clothes put together. The party takes place in the large living room of a house owned by neighbors who live down the block.
Enormous platters of fried fish, ceviche and lomo saltado are set on tables on the side of the room along with plastic glasses and enormous beer bottles. The center of the room is a makeshift dance floor. Little girls (the three in whose room he sleeps and several others he does not know) hurl their bodies around to the music, almost knocking him over as he tries to make it across the room to get another beer. About half way there, the mother grabs his hand and pulls him into the melee. He shakes his hips and thighs in rough approximation of the dancing around him. When the music slows, a ballad replacing the salsa, the mother braves his smelly body, ignores his swelling member and encircles him with her arms. As they sway slowly back and forth, the unmarried other mother watches carefully from the side of the room.
He resolves to ask her to dance, too, but before he has a chance, the music grinds to a halt and familiar voice emerges from the other room. “Christine, Christine, you make me crazy, Christine.” “Christine, Christine, you make me lazy, Christine.” After they've walked home through the blaring late afternoon heat several hours and many beers later, he waves at his hosts and begins to climb the steps to the three little girl's room to continue his nap. Bone tired and rather drunk, he plans to sleep until it's time for them to take him to the airport, but the grandfather puts his bony hand on his shoulder after he's climbed the first step. “Un momentito, senor, ” he says. Had they always called him senor? He didn't think so. Once he's turned around and walked back into the living room, he sees that the father, the grandfather, the unmarried other woman and the Castilian girl sit awkwardly waiting for him on their fold-up beach chairs.
They have something to say, something pressing on their minds. Has his mother died in America, he wonders, bad news funneled through his wife's maid? The grandfather's formal introduction to the topic (which doesn't sound that ominous) is taken up by the father with occasional commentary by the Castilian girl and absolute silence from the unmarried other mother, who keeps taking her bracelet off and putting it back on again. They praise their American visitor. They praise his country. They thank him for the generosity he's shown in visiting them. Then they get more personal, expressing sympathy for the sad situation they must have learned about from his wife's maid, “divorciado.” Which makes him ponder his marriage for the first time in days. Not regret nor nostalgia but simple record-taking, he wants the capture the already-fading memories of the last decade of his life. Of course, he really can't do that and pay attention to what the Peruvians are saying at the same time.
When he focuses back on them, he sees that they have stopped talking and are looking at him expectantly, questions on their faces. They've said their peace and wait for his response. The Castilian girl grabs the unmarried other mother's hand and holds it protectively. He doesn't have to ask them to repeat themselves because whatever they've said has obviously not gotten through.
Speaking for the first time, in a halting voice gradually gathering strength, the unmarried other mother lays it out. She will go over land through many countries (the Panamanian visa) but, once in America, she wants him to marry her. They will have to live together for two years, the minimum required by the immigration policies they've carefully studied. During that period, her son will remain in Peru, and she will take care of the needs of the American visitor, which will be many as he lacks a wife. She will cook. She will clean. She will sew back the buttons falling from his clothes. Later, when she earns her citizenship, her son will join her, and the American visitor's role will be completed.
What she will gain from this will be joining her sister and making something of her life. She is an excellent secretary (fine clerical skills), but she lacks the necessary connections to get the little work available of that kind in Lima. What he will gain will be care and companionship. What he will lose will be nothing at all.
Beseechingly, she looks at him, her indigenous face far prettier than before. While there is something a little indecent about this -- he thinks of his colleague with the sweat gland problem who sent for a Ukrainian bride -- the American visitor indeed dreads the lonely sexless life lying in store for him back in America. He wouldn't have to worry about his apartment or his person falling into filth and disrepair. He wouldn't have to wait for rare sparks of physical interest as he had with his first wife. The mind-reading grandfather picks just this moment to officiously explain that their arrangement would be “un matrimonio exclusivamente legal, sin obligación conyugal. ”
The American visitor's false assumption makes him blush. It also make him peevish. He can hire a maid in America, another Peruvian if he so chooses, without having to marry her. Do they have any idea how much money he makes? His wife's maid in America must actually have given them a good idea: hence the dancing, the toasting, the recording of the ridiculous song. The carrots were obvious, but the stick was implied. Stranded on the edge of the shanties in dangerous times, he may not be able to get home without them. But the thought of marrying her agrees with him less and less. The sulky claustrophobia building afternoon after afternoon on the steaming concrete roof, watching everybody else proceed un-tethered about their lives, pulses through him at the speed of blood. He couldn't care less about the drogados outside, the criminales. The senderistas can have him; he's been kidnapped already.
Still wearing his Dolce and Gabbana suit and his black dress shoes, he stumbles drunkenly off the couch and out the front door into the still-blaring afternoon sun. The people at the refrescos stand across the street stare curiously at him as he starts to run down the hill. A relieving breeze flits through his face as he picks up speed, grains of dust slipping into his mouth, pebbles hitting his ankles through his socks. Once he's out of the immediate neighborhood, he'll find a stranger to pay for a ride to the airport. His money and his passport bulge from his pockets where he's been keeping them at all times.
After ten minutes sprinting easily down the mud road, past children playing outside of their unfinished concrete houses and vendors screeching bargains on cigarettes and lottery tickets, he runs out of wind. Blood thumps through his body as he gasps ineffectually for air. He falls to his knees and rests his hands on his thighs, but his heart won't stop exploding from its cavity. Each breath brings mostly dust, but the dust begins to have air in it, and the arrhythmia gradually tapers away. His sweat-drenched clothes stick to his body, his head pounds mercilessly, but he's still alive.
Once he's able to lift himself back up and look around, he sees that he's caused something of a sensation. About two dozen young men wearing dirty American tee-shirts (Nike, the Boston Celtics) and raggedy woolen slacks have gathered at the food stand across the street. Their dark eyes don't reveal their intentions, but he doesn't think they own a vehicle to take him to the airport. Lilliputian short, they surround him, peering curiously up at his filthy clothes and bright red face. He doesn't see them as individuals but as one large entity: ears, noses, heads of startling black hair and a fecund odor that actually comes from himself.
Marrying the unmarried other mother couldn't be worse than this. He can't understand them when they start to speak: their sentences spattered with indigenous expressions or impenetrable urban slang. They repeat whatever it is again and again, louder and louder, pissed off that he won't answer.
Just then a rumbling sound begins to come from not so far away, a large mufferless rescue. The father opens the door and pulls the American visitor into the front seat. “No se preocupe,” the father tells him as they climb back up the hill, “no es necesario.” It's not necessary for the American visitor to worry about marrying the unmarried other mother, at least not until he's back at the house. Once inside, he realizes that his suit is soaked in sweat and he appears to have pissed himself. Despite his atrocious condition and strange behavior, everyone seems glad to see him as if his departure hadn't been his own doing, as if he'd been removed from the house against his will.
The rush of gratitude plus a large shot of pisco poured for him by the grandfather make the idea seem a bit easier, more reasonable. They had saved his life. Of course, he should marry their daughter. They were right that he would be lonely back home. They were right that he would be in need of care. “Puedo,” he begins, I can.
But the word for marry just won't come to him. “Puedo,” he starts again, but his mind is as blank as before. He can't announce that he wants to “marriage” their daughter; he's made enough of a fool of himself already. Not very interested anyway, they take him upstairs towards the bathroom, so he can bathe as best as he can and try to sleep a little before going to the airport.
A few hours after his head hits the pillow, he feels himself nudged awake by the father once again. They don't have pressure him. He's already agreed on his own. But they still don't bring it up, feeding him coffee instead and getting him ready for his flight. They've even packed his bag for him, wrapping his sour-smelling suit in plastic so as not to dirty his other clothes. Everyone climbs into the vehicle to go along for the ride except for the grandparents who hug him tearful goodbyes right outside of the house. Either they've grown fond of him despite his peculiarities or feel sad because he's not marrying their daughter. He falls asleep on the long ride, the old vehicle swaying from side to side. The last goodbye hug comes from the unmarried other mother. She drapes her arms around him, briefly caressing his shoulders with her strong soft hands as if to remind him what he's missing. As he turns his tearing face away and walks into the terminal, a familiar melody can be heard in the back of his mind, everything he's not returning to, everything he's left behind.
“Christine, Christine, you make me crazy, Christine.” “Christine, Christine, you make me lazy, Christine.”