Thursday, September 29, 2011

Free Hugs and Red Wine

September 29, 2011 – Free Hugs, Paragliding and Wine

I get off the bus at the Ovalo in Miraflores and trot over to where Rodney said he’d be waiting. We’ve got a 12:30 lunch date with the promise of writerly talk to accompany the meal. I’m proud of myself because I’m three minutes early. Rodney, despite having lived in Peru several years has not succumbed to stereotypical Latin American lateness. In fact, I’d bet money he’s already there and has been waiting at least twenty minutes. He likes to be early.
Sundays in Miraflores are busy times. Families, lovers, friends and loners all flock to Parque Kennedy for a day out. Today there are rollerblade rentals and a small tennis court set up for play. The exercise-dancers are packing up and leaving. In the distance where weekend lessons are given, Tango music mixes with the sounds of the children and the noise of cars. I make my way through vendors and visitors and locals and tourists. The church is ahead of me and all I have to do is turn to the right and I’m sure I’ll see Rodney. He’s an easy spot being one of the tallest men in Peru.

I’m galloping along and on the homestretch when something catches my eye--a sketchy looking skinny guy holding a sign that says in English “Free Hugs.” My community college Speech teacher told our class that humans need five hugs a day or they start to go insane. It was something about the power of human touch. She also told us she was personal friends with Quentin Tarantino. I believe everything she said. I have no reason not to. That Speech class was one of the best classes I ever took. And I had some great classes. It was memorable for several reasons; the least not being that my older sister took it with me or that as part of an assignment I went skydiving. At the end of the semester, as a final assignment, we had to give another student a gift. We drew names like a Secret Santa exchange. We had to try and get something for our person that would be special to them specifically. Give them something that we thought they’d like based on conversations we’d had throughout the semester. I can’t remember what I gave as a gift, but I remember what I received. The man who drew my name was from the Middle East, I’m pretty sure. I can’t remember his name. I wish I did. It might have been Mohammed. He was quiet, shy, yet calmly assured, confident without being boastful, timid without being weak, kind, and one of the most thoughtful human beings I’ve encountered. He was handsome, older and spoke softly. On the last day of class he handed me the gift, a flat, lightweight envelope, with an apology. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have much money. I’m sorry I couldn’t get you something bigger, something better. But after something you said, after the things you told me--I think you’ll like this.” He was nervous, afraid I’d be disappointed.
With a little trepidation and a quiver of fear that I would be disappointed I opened the envelope. I pulled out a laminated sheet with some decorative, certificate style swirls in soft blue and this quote in a pink-orange hue: Dreams take a little time, the Impossible… A little longer.

It was one of the most perfect gifts I’ve ever received. I hope Mohammed saw the emotion in my eyes. If he didn’t, I think, I hope, I told him how much it meant to me.
I kept that laminated paper hanging on the wall in my house for years and it was one of the few things that survived the 2011 Relentless Purging of Things. It’s partly because I try to live that saying out in my life that I’m here now in Peru. Words have power.

“Free Hugs!”

Words have power. Hugs have power. I usually attribute my craziness to genes or my artist temperament or just my eccentricity (which I am intentionally cultivating), but now I realize what my problem is. I’m way behind on my hug quota. I waffle, start to head the sketchy guy’s way, hesitate then pass him by because the path isn’t clear. There are too many people. A few steps later I run, nearly literally, into a beautiful little girl. Her unbrushed hair blows across her smiling face and she’s also holding a sign that advertises free hugs in Spanish.  

I give her a hug. I feel bad about passing the other guy by and start to go back when I’m caught up in the stream of humanity and carried along the way.
I figure the sketchy guy’s probably gotten his five hugs already and has avoided insanity for one day more. So I go on my way guiltlessly. I spot Rodney. He’s sitting on a tall cement lamppost base reading a book. I’m still about twenty feet away.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
My way is blocked by four high school aged girls.

“Uh, yeah, a little,” I say. A little?! What the heck? What language do I speak? Sure I don’t know all the words in English, but it is my native tongue. What a silly fool I am, caught unawares by questions.
“Would you mind taking part in our survey?”

“What’s it for?” I ask.
“We’re doing a school assignment,” they say.

“Oh. Okay. Sure.”
One girl readies a camera to record, one girl stands by, and the other two take turns asking me questions like, “How long have you been in Peru?” “What do you think of Peruvian food?” “What do you think of Peruvian buses?” “How do you find the Peruvian people?” “What languages do you speak?” “What do you like most about Peru?”

I answer and then we take some pictures and laugh and smile and take our leaves of each other.
I reorient myself and make a beeline to Rodney. I’m accosted by two more huggers. Now I’m only two hugs away from sanity for today and it’s only 12:31. I’m late.

“Hey!” I tell Rodney. He folds his book and stands up. “I was gonna be on time but I got interviewed and hugged and it made me late.” I have a twinkle in my eye. Maybe there is something to the power of human touch. “You haven’t been waiting a long time, have you?”
He assures me he hasn’t and tells me that he’d researched restaurants online and found a vegetarian restaurant that’s supposedly only blocks away from our meeting point.

“I didn’t even think to look one up,” I say. “You’re fantastic.” I seem to encounter a lot of incredibly thoughtful people. I’m really lucky. 
“Ready?” he asks. I am, so we walk and talk and at one point I stop and ask some hotel doormen if we’re headed the right way. I hold out the post-it note Rodney had written the address on for them to read and per their directions we do find the restaurant and it’s open.

After a brief conference we decide on an outside table. The sun is out. And I like the fresh air. I like the outdoors. The daily special is agreeable and we tell the waitress we’ll have it. We eat a garbanzo bean soup with small pieces of wholegrain bread. We chatter on and on about books and writing and friends and life and villains and evil. Rodney tells me about a story he’s going to write that was inspired by me. “I’m working on two short stories. Katrina’s ghost story and then your story. I’m going to tell you about it and I hope you’re not offended,” he says. He’s got that excited air of inspiration in his tone.
A butterfly-thought flits through my head. I wonder what I would be offended by? I’m distracted by my thought and totally intrigued by his introduction.

“It’s a story about a word-thief,” he says.
“A word-thief?” I ask. I might put my hands together with suppressed glee. I grin. I’m delighted. But I’m Gemini. One part of me immediately rises up and wants to defend my honor by saying, “I don’t steal words.” Oh, but I do, the other part of me contradicts. I write them down and I use them later. I record them and post them for the universe to read. I delight in phrases and half-sentences and emotion, and spoken thought, and arguments, conversations, turns of phrase, idioms, clichés and words, blessed words. Yes, I steal them, but eventually I give them back. You’re right, I say, to myself.

“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on,” as Guildenstern said in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Rodney reads me the first paragraph of his story. I won’t quote it here. When it’s finished maybe then I’ll share it without robbery. For now, those are all his words and no one else’s.

The waitress brings us the main meal. There’s potato and something meat looking and rice. It’s artistically arranged on the plate. I forget to take a picture.
“What is this?” Rodney asks poking the meat thing with his fork.

“Maybe tofu?” I say. “I’m not really sure.”
“It’s not meat,” Rodney says. “I know that much.”

“It’s seitan,” a guy at the table across from us says in English.
“Seitan,” I say. “Oh yeah.” I’ve heard of seitain before. It’s pronounced like Satan. Which I find to be funny. My vegan friend Sarah bought some seitan based food when she and I went to New York City the summer of 2010. But I really have no idea what it is. “I’m a terrible vegan,” I tell Rodney and the man. “What exactly is seitan? I should know this.”

The man smiles. “It’s a gluten-based protein food. It’s mashed and processed and mashed again, very concentrated until it reaches this state.”
He’s from San Francisco. He’s in Lima for business and will be presenting at a conference about something Green that I can’t quite remember. His luggage got lost and we all cross our fingers that it’ll come tonight with the evening flight. I want to talk with him and I want to block him out. I want to include him in our conversation and I want to keep this time to just Rodney and me. It’s a weird contradiction. Without too much overall awkwardness, he pays for his meal and leaves before we do.

With Rodney, I feel like I’m talking a lot. I hope I’m not monopolizing the conversation or sounding like a fool. I have this trepidation at times. But I’m having a really good time. The food is tasty. The company is splendid.
“Excuse me,” a voice interrupts my (or Rodney’s) talking. “Do you guys speak English?”

A pretty, fit, braided-haired, American girl stops by the railing alongside our table.
“Sure,” this time I remember I do speak English.

“So sorry to bother you, but do you by any chance know where I can find some probiotics?” she asks. “I asked at the store across the street and the guy didn’t seem to understand or think he had any.”
The shop across the street is a whole-foods, health food store.

“Ooooh,” I say, thinking hard.
“I also already tried the little pharmacy around the corner.”

“Maybe try Fasa,” I say. It’s another little pharmacy. “One of my friends came to a party once with a container of probiotics so I know you can find them.” I feel like this is something I should know right off the bat as a health-minded and mostly vegan-vegetarian type. Every hippy should know where to locate their probiotics. If I were a real health-nut I’d have some in my bag. Damn it. I’m a failure.
“Try Vivanda,” Rodney suggests. “It’s that building right there on the corner.”

“Thanks so much,” she tells us. “Thanks for being willing to talk to me and in English and everything.”
“Good luck,” we wish her and she walks away.

“She should at least have a Spanish-English dictionary with her,” I tell Rodney. It’s a mean-spirited thing to say. I really do hope she finds some probiotics and fixes whatever ailments she’s having. Pobrecita (poor thing). I think I’m more annoyed at myself that I can’t tell her how to fix the problem right then and there. I’ve been here four months, I should know everything.
We finish our entrée and eat the little yogurt dessert thing our waitress brings us. Rodney treats me to lunch and we decide to go down to Larco Mar for coffee and a real live dessert.

The blocks we walk are nothing. We talk about writing programs and how sometimes they distract you from actually writing. We talk about the ocean and Larco Mar.
“I don’t usually like the touristy spots,” Rodney says. “But I like Mangos. They have great desserts. And the sea view from the patio is great.”
It’s full.
The maître-d tells us that it’ll be a twenty-five minute wait for a patio table but that we can sit at the bar.

We shrug and go sit at the patio bar.
“Do you want something?” Rodney asks.

“What are you going to get?” I ask in return.
“Red wine?”

“That sounds good.”
“Dos vasos de vino tinto,” Rodney orders for us from the bartender.

I lean across the bar to ask the bartender if we can have a patio table when one becomes available without realizing that Rodney is asking the same thing of the lady maître-d who’d followed us down the stairs.
Minutes later we have a table on the patio. Then not much longer after that, our glasses of wine find us.

In this spot the restaurant music is muted, more like background music to the sound of the sea. I like this. The ocean’s music is relaxing and I don’t feel I have to shout to be heard.
“Do you speak Spanish?” our waiter asks.

“More or less,” I tell him in Spanish. “We’re in Peru. We should speak Spanish. Claro (right)?”
He grins. “That’s great. Then when I go to the United States,” he tells me in English, “I’ll speak English.”

“Perfecto!” I say.
He calls me Señorita and Rodney Amigo.

We order dessert. I get some chocolate drowned cake thing with strawberries and caramel. Rodney gets Tiramisu.
“I’m totally throwing all my usual dietary restrictions,” I tell Rodney. “This is a decadent day.”

If that dessert was a sin, it would be worth going to hell for. The strawberries alone (probably my favorite food of all time) were enough to die over. The caramel crunch with the chocolate cake and the vanilla icecream. Well. Let me just say, omg.

This dessert was not vegan. But it was one of the best and most delightful things I’ve ever eaten. In my entire life. (And if you’re a male Peruvian who’s asking, I’m thirty-three.)

Rodney orders us a second glass of wine.
The wind coming off the ocean becomes chilly with the descent of the sun. I put my jacket on.

Rodney talks about how his novel villains seem to be taking over his story.
“I know just what you mean,” I say. “In my second book I have twins who are evil and they have more personality and character than my protagonist. I think there’s something in all of us that desires that evil. That we relate to. I don’t know if anyone other than another writer would understand this.”

Rodney nods. He’s a writer. He’s got dominating villains. He knows exactly what I mean.
We finish our desserts. We drink our wine. We watch the paragliders pass overhead. We talk about roommates, living alone, religion, family, parents. I tell him about my encounter with Franklin in the park the day before. He teases me about me giving out my number.

“I know. I know,” I say. “I should know better by now. But at least I didn’t give it out to him. The other guys, well, yeah.”
I pause.

“Do you want another glass of wine?” Rodney asks.
I do. I’m relaxed. I’m happy. I feel like I’m on vacation. I’m in good company.

“That’d be great,” I say. Maybe it’s the vino tinto that’s loosened my tongue. Or maybe I’m just more of a talker than I like to admit. “I’m not a drop-dead gorgeous girl. I know this. I have my moments, but...” I have a point, but it gets lost. I think I mean to say these men just hit on any American girl. They want their ticket to a richer life. Boys, please, let me just disillusion you now about me…
Rodney takes up from my pause to say kindly enough, “You are a good-looking woman. I was just trying to see what the color of your eyes to get it right for my story.” His word-thief story.

“What color are they?” I ask. “Green or blue?” They change depending on what I’m wearing.
I think he says they’re more green. “They call that hazel, right?”

“That’s what I put on my driver’s license,” I say.
A paraglider passes overhead.

“Did you see that?” I ask, pointing. There’s a girl hanging from a bar on the paraglider. She’s in perfect position. Her back arched just so. Her arms hanging down in good form. She’s wearing a leotard. She’s got to be freezing with her arms bare in this ocean-dusk air.
I get up and take some pictures. We’re amazed. I’m amazed.

“I think they’re advertising for the circus,” Rodney says. “It’s in town right now.”
The glider passes over again. Rodney reads the words on the sail. Sure enough, it’s for the circus. I’m still impressed. Athletes are amazing people. I’ve known a lot of them. I’ve been a mediocre one myself. Circus people are amazing people. The things the human body can do are magical, incredible, unfathomable. I have no problem believing this girl can hold a position like she does. I tell Rodney of some of the athletes I’ve known.

Rodney twirls his glass.
The sun has almost completely disappeared and I’m just wondering if I should tell him he’s more than welcome to call it a night. I don’t want to take up his whole day. But I personally don’t want the day to end. I don’t want tomorrow to be Monday. I want this moment, this time, this day-vacation to last forever.

“What would you think about one more glass?” Rodney asks.
The happiness I feel is more than just the wine. He’s having as much fun as I am.

“I would love another glass,” I say. “Even at the risk of being considered a lush.” We’d talked about lushes a little bit earlier.
Rodney waves our waiter down.

When Edgar comes to our table the paraglider is passing over again. “Can you believe that?” I ask him, pointing up.
“It’s a doll,” Edgar says in Spanish.

“No!” I protest. I don’t want it to be a doll. At this moment I want Pinocchio to be a real boy, I want to clap and say, “I do believe in fairies,” and more than anything I want for the girl hanging from the paraglider bar to be alive and spectacular.
“It’s a doll,” he says again.

“I thought it was real!” I say. “It’s not a doll.”
“At first I thought it was real too,” Edgar says. “But you see her arms never move and she holds that position perfectly. The second time they passed over, I though two things: One, she’s dead. Two, she’s asleep. Besides she’d freeze up there if she were really bare-armed like that.” He moves off to go get our fourth and final glasses of wine leaving me with doubt.

Rodney and I crane our necks back to watch the paraglider as it passes by again and this time even lower.
“It is a doll,” I say, sadly, disenchanted.

“When I talk about it in my blog,” Rodney says, “She’ll be real. She won’t be a doll.”
I can’t do that. I have to say things like I see them. If I know the truth I have to tell it. I sigh. There’s something to be said for ignorance. While I’m thinking this, the girl I’d imagined to be real on that paragliding bar crashes with the girl Yamilet I’d been trying to write a story about.

“Oh, Yamilet,” I think. “You’re a circus performer, are you? Now I know. Now maybe I can write your story.”
It’s only taken two trips to a church, four attempts at a short story, some agonizing thought, a truly decadent dessert, four glasses of wine, some leading conversation and a circus advertisement for me to get the combined inspiration to tell a story.

Yamilet’s story isn’t written yet. I’ve got to leave off the truth and go hang out in a fictional world for a while to get her story completely out. But she’s there over me, hovering, hanging--her limbs aching, goose bumps shivering over her skin, and, in her mind, thoughts that you wouldn’t believe.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful stuff. I can't wait to read about Yamilet.