August 4, 2011 – Conversations with Geraldine
One of my favorite parts of coming home from a day in Lima is catching up with Geraldine. She’s terrific. She’s opinionated. She’s feisty. She’s one-of-a-kind. She’s my friend. I’ve just walked from the bus stop after going into the city for the day and I’m ready to go cook some quinoa for dinner and settle in for the evening. I ring the bell at the front gate.
The gate is kept locked at all times and I don’t have a key. So whenever I return home I’m at the mercy of whoever is watching the house and their whim of answering the bell. While I’m waiting, more or less patiently, I look up, the sky is clear for the moment and I can actually see stars. From this, I know that Cieneguilla must have had a day of sunshine.I ring the bell again. Geraldine told me once that she and Jose really hate it when clients don’t even get out of their cars to ring the bell and just lay on their horns as if she and he are servants to be summoned. I understand that, it’s annoying. But I also understand having to wait. I’ve got no car horn to honk, but I try to be nice about the bell too. Usually I ring once and then if no one comes to let me in I use my cell phone to call. So they know it’s me at the door and not some obnoxious sales person or unwanted client. I pull out my phone, dial in the number and press call. Instead of ringing, an automated voice informs me that I have no more prepaid minutes and that I should go recharge my phone at my earliest convenience. Damn. So I ring the bell again.
After a few moments Geraldine comes running. “Sorry, Amanda,” she says. “I was with some clients.”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I say. “Thanks a lot for letting me in.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “How was Lima?”I tell it her it was good and that the sun even came out for a bit. Both she and Jose know I live for the sunshine and that I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to go sit for a while and bask. They keep me updated on the daily sun, especially the days I’m away from Cieneguilla.
“The sun came out with force today!” Geraldine tells me.“Figures,” I tell her smiling. “The day I go to Lima the sun comes out.”
At the front patio we part ways. She takes care of the clients she’d abandoned to let me in and I go to the kitchen to start some quinoa cooking.I’ve got the quinoa set to boil, I’ve squeezed the lemons for lemon juice and set out the oil when she comes into the kitchen.
“You came back hungry from Lima?”“Yes, very,” I reply.
Geraldine’s a spitfire. I’m short, I know it. I’m the littlest one in my family. Even my mom has me beat by a quarter of an inch. My dad calls me a dagblang midget. But Geraldine is even shorter than I am. What she lacks in height she makes up in attitude. She is not your typical Peruvian girl. She’s not your typical stereotyped Latina. I don’t think she’s your typical anything. We get along great.I tell her about my day and ask after hers. She gives me the low down while she’s fielding the phone calls, helping the clients, washing the dishes and talking to me.
“El Senor Walter has the same thing on his computer as you do,” Geraldine says, she draws a rectangle in the air with her fingers.Walter is out on the patio where there is better internet connectivity talking by Skype to his daughter in Australia. Thursday is one of Jose’s days off.
“Skype?” I ask.“Eskype, yes, that,” she says.
“He’s talking to his daughter in Australia,” I say.“It’s good that they’re talking. When he talks to his daughters I think it helps him forget all his problems.”
On Father’s Day Geraldine had told me how forlorn Walter had been because his daughters hadn’t called. It made her sad to see him like that. I’d found out from Walter that they’d called him the day after and later relayed that information on to Geraldine. We were both glad for his sake that they’d called.“Last night I emailed Walter the part of his story that I’ve been working on,” I say. Geraldine asks me on a nearly daily basis how my progress with the memoir-writing work is going. She knows I’ve been laboring to organize the mess of words into a coherent tale and that it’s no easy task. “I hope he likes it. If he doesn’t I’m not sure what I’ll do.” Start over, I think. Or hand it all off to him and wash my hands of it.
“I don’t think he’s read it yet,” she tells me. “He was pretty busy working today.”I’m leaning up against the counter timing the cooking of my quinoa for fifteen minutes by the clock on the wall. Geraldine looks into a pan at something Walter had made for dinner, shakes her head and replaces the lid. “I don’t know what this is,” she says. I’d shared some of my quinoa with her one night when she and I were at Casa Del Gringo by ourselves and she’d liked it like hot cakes. “How much lemon do you put in your quinoa?” she asks me. “I’ve never made it like that and it’s really good.” We talk recipes for a second. She’s interested in the foods I eat or don’t eat and she often talks about my love for avocados. “When you go back home to the United States you’ll have to take some avocados to your mom.”
“Can I?” I ask. “Can I take live foods? They’ll let me?”“Why wouldn’t they let you?” she asks, “It’s not like you can put drugs in them.”
Then I have to try and explain that I meant perishable foods. I don’t know the word perishable in Spanish, but after a good long paragraph of words I get my point across. Reminded of avocados, I go squeeze the ones that I’d picked the other day and tell her, “These ones are still not ripe.”There’s a short, but pleasant silence in the kitchen.
After a while, Geraldine breaks it. “Do you eat fish?” she asks me.“No, I don’t.”
“You can’t eat fish either?” She knows I am careful about what I eat and that I can’t have some foods for health reasons.“Well,” I start. “I could eat fish. Fish is supposed to be really good for your health, but I choose not to, because I don’t like eating a thing that has to be killed for me to eat it. Before I changed my diet I ate all kinds of meat. But after three years of being a vegetarian I have a really hard time even thinking about eating animals. It just doesn’t appeal to me. It seems sad.”
Of course, this could open up a whole conversation about plants being alive and grains being alive, but we don’t get into that. At least not tonight.From fish we move on. We’re talking about traditional Peruvian foods and she tells me that guinea pig is quite tasty, but that rabbit is even better. Guinea pig, or cuyo, is a traditional meat dish of Peru. In a painting of The Last Supper that resides at La Iglesia de San Francisco in Lima (where all the catacombed bones were) one of the dishes on the table is cuyo.
In Cusco the little pigs are sliced up the belly (Geraldine tells me) and their heads are left on when the dish is served. In Lima usually just the meat is presented for the meal. “It’s not very much meat,” Geraldine says, “There’s a lot more meat on rabbits. Rabbit tastes good.” She rinses the dish she’s just washed. “Guinea pigs are pets in some countries, right?”
“Yes, in the States they are. And we don’t eat them. But rabbits are pets and food. So there you go. Have you eaten llama?” I ask her.“No, I’ve never eaten llama,” she says. “Some animals are just not supposed to be for food.”
How do we decide this? I wonder to myself.“Like the turtle,” she continues, “I’ve never had that. Or squid or octopus.”
She puts the dish in the rack next to the sink. “What other crazy things do people eat?” She thinks for a minute. “There are places where you can go to have frog juice. You look into the aquarium and say, ‘I want that one and that one and that one,’” she points in the air as if selecting frogs. “Then they take the frogs, still hopping, and put them in the blender and start it up. Then it’s all frog blood and guts and everything.”I’m eating my quinoa at this point and I’m getting a little grossed out. Poor frogs. How many princes have died in the blender?
“And is that supposed to be good for your health?” I ask. “Does it taste good? Why do they do this?” I ask her.She doesn’t know.
“Blended frog seems a little extreme,” I say. “But, I guess not really, I’ve known people who eat frog legs.”“Frog legs?” she asks.
We’re both grossed out a little at this point.“My mom makes this traditional dish from the mountains,” Geraldine says. It’s a potato-like food that supposedly tastes good but that smells so bad Geraldine has never tried it. We talk about natural remedies and the potions her dad concocts for healing up the common cold and other things which are effective but gruesome as death. The natural segue from there is to plants. She tells me about the Ortiga plant (Nettle) which will leave you covered all over with welts and embedded with tiny spines if you run your hand the wrong way from the top of the leaf to the bottom. “You’re safe if you run your hand upwards though,” she explains. “It’d be the perfect weapon. Who needs a pistol or a knife?” she asks. “It’s instant punishment. It’s instant pain.” She sets down the plate she’s washing and turns toward me. She puts out one hand and tells an imaginary assailant, “Un ratito (one moment),” as she reaches behind her with her other hand as if to pull an Ortiga leaf from her back pocket. She then proceeds to flog the imaginary assailant.
The sound of her laughter is a thing of beauty, a joy forever. It delights me. It’s infectious. Some days I’ll be working in my “office” on the front patio and I’ll hear her and Jose talking. Their voices rise with the energy of their conversation and then their laughter breaks across the lawn like the sun’s rays through Lima’s enshrouding fog la garúa. Laughter is something that doesn’t need translation. I laugh too.Walter comes in from outside shivering. “I think I’m going to come down with a cold after being out there,” he tells us in Spanish. Then he switches to English. “I talked with Rayle and with Adrian [both of his daughters] and then while I had a good internet signal I read the pages of my book that you emailed me.”
The last few weeks I’ve been working on smoothing out and filling in and setting in chronological order the tales of his childhood. My goal is to give him a working first draft by the end of August when our work agreement is over. I’ve still got a lot to do. I’d sent him about 40 pages worth of material to see if he liked what I was doing and if I should continue in the same manner for the telling of the rest of his life.“What do you think?” I ask him.
“It brings a smile to my face,” he tells me. (I breathe a sigh of relief). “Boy, was I brat though.”He leaves the room.
I spoon up the last of my quinoa. “He said he liked what I’d done. Thank goodness.” Geraldine doesn’t speak any English. Often times when Walter talks to me he’ll talk in English regardless of who is in the room with us. Geraldine had told me once that she thought Walter and Mary sometimes talk in English to keep her or Jose from knowing what’s being discussed. So as much as possible when she’s in the room I try to keep the conversation in Spanish or once he’s gone I fill her in on any essentials.She’s glad for me.
“Are you going into Lima this weekend?” she asks me.“I’m not sure. Katrina has a Film Culture class she’s starting on Saturday and I might go for that and stay until Sunday. I haven’t decided yet. Are you going back this weekend?” She’d gone to town last weekend and missed out on the weekend’s sunshine in Cieneguilla.
“I’m going in on Saturday.”“For what?”
“For a thing.”That to me sounds like an “I’m looking for another job and have an interview” kind of a thing. I don’t press the conversation.
We move on to another topic. I don’t quite remember how we get on to the subject but we’re talking about cartoons and animated films. She’d seen Ice Age at the theater when she had a job watching kids and she’d really liked it. “Have you seen Toy Story?” I ask her.“I didn’t like that one so much.”
“Oh?” I ask, a little disappointed. “I really like those movies.”“It’s because I saw the third one first. And the boy is growing up and he’s got this relationship with his toys and it’s really nice. Then I watched the first one and there was that really bad, evil boy,” she pauses. “The one who tortures his toys. I was like that evil kid with my toys. I was very destructive.”
Well, she’s a spitfire all right.“I had these dolls and I’d want them to sit, but their legs were straight so I’d bend them to make them sit. And then they’d break. I had this doll that would cry, “Mama, mama, mama” and it wouldn’t stop. I’d tell it, “shut up, shut up,” and then stick the bottle in its mouth to make it be quiet. It made me feel really bad to see Toy Story One because I was so mean to my toys.”
“Well, at least you used them,” I say. “You didn’t set them on fire like the kid in Toy Story One.”
I look at her.
She looks at me.She looks back at me with this look.
With a look of, “Well, I hate to tell you, me da pena (it makes me feel really bad), but I did actually set fire to my toys.”Someone has to be the evil kid, right?
When she was little, a friend of the family had given her and her older sister a tiny tea set to play with. “To play with,” Geraldine emphasizes. “But my sister, she had the set up on a shelf, all set out pretty. We never got to play with it. So one time my school friends were over and my sister was gone. So I took the set down and we made mud pies and mixed all sorts of concoctions together and put them in those tea cups and on the plates. When my sister came home she was furious. That was the only time I got to play with that tea set. My sister told me I was too hard on my toys. That I didn’t take care of my things.”They’d both had paper dolls. Her sister cut hers out and placed each figure with its clothes carefully in between the pages of a book. The clothing tabs were never bent down. They were pristine.
Geraldine’s? Well, hers had multiple creases and got torn and lasted a month at the most. She played them out.When her sister graduated to high school she gave Geraldine her book of paper dolls. Geraldine took them to school and they were played out in a week. Her sister never forgave her for that. “You never take care of your things,” she’d said. “I’ll never give you anything again.”
“I was really destructive with my toys,” Geraldine says, thinking back. She gets a gleam in her eye. “I should flog my sister with the Ortiga plant,” she says. “That’d serve her right.”I make a note to myself to stay on Geraldine’s good side.
We say our goodnights and I head off to bed.The next morning, Friday, I set up for work at my patio table. I’m getting a little bit of a late start and Geraldine and Jose are already in full swing with work. They’re busy cleaning and getting clients settled in. I see a girl sweeping the bungalow stairs, but it’s not Geraldine.
A little later Geral sees me on my way to my room. “That’s Mary Elena,” she says and points to the other girl. “She’ll be keeping you company from now on.”
She shakes her head. “I’ll be here through next Saturday.”I nod. I had a premonition. I would have done the same thing too. Quit.
“Four years is long enough. I don’t want to work someplace where I have to feel this bad any more. He made me feel this big,” she brings her thumb and first finger together so there is only a tiny bit of space between the flesh.“I understand,” I tell her. And I do. I was treated badly by a boss once in a similar manner and I never in my life want to feel that small again. No one should have to feel that way.
“He was right to get on to me, but not in front of everyone the way he did.”“I know,” I say. “I was so mad at him about that.”
“I think it’s better to leave now. If I stay longer and anything else happens then I’ll be very hateful. It’s better to leave with a more or less positive attitude.”“Yeah.” I have a fleeting panic that Mary Elena won’t know how to laugh. But I’m proud of Geraldine. I like her independent take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude. We’re like two frogs that jumped out of the aquarium to avoid getting thrown in a blender. We make our own way.
“I should put nettles in Señor Walter’s clothes as a final practical joke,” she tells me.“I won’t say a word,” I reply.
“It’ll be our secret,” she says and goes off to show Mary Elena how to keep this place in order.