I miss Geraldine. It’s been four weeks since she shook the dust off her feet at Casa Del Gringo and went to live her own adventure.
I can just imagine her there in her mother’s village talking the ears off the cuys, telling the llamas about documentaries she’s seen, enlivening the lives of all the people with her vivaciousness, crouching down over a portable, battery operated radio to try and catch up with the world. I wish I were around to hear about it all. Her storytelling is epic, her view of the world is alive and fresh, and her tongue is unsparing of anyone. She tells it just how she sees it. I admire her spunk. I love her no-nonsenseness. I like seeing things through her eyes. My world definitely quieted when she left. I knew it would.
It’s hard to Be in the Now in the temporary. Sometimes.Last week was a blur. I sped through it, doing my best to follow in Katrina’s footprints. I managed okay. I showed up to classes on time, I paid the electricity bill two days before it was due, I remembered to leave the housekeeper her money and I conquered turning on the oven. All in all a success. Huzzah. Three cheers for me. Then Friday dawned. And, instead of the freedom I was expecting to come with the arrival of my weekend, I had, what I call, an indention. Some people might understand this as the artistic temperament at its nadir. Others might say it’s being a little down, a little under the weather, or they might call it a slight depression. I don’t like to get as deep as depression. That’s a low too hard for me to climb up out of so I make it easier on myself. Several years back, while I was going through an especially hard breakup I had some bad times. These were the days I dwelt on the past. These were the days I took two steps back. These were the days when I thought about crying (and sometimes cried). I allowed myself to have these days every now and then and I called them indentions because they were shallower than the initial grief I’d felt when love turned to nothing. Now I think the lows I experience are natural, I don’t enjoy them, but they’re natural. Usually a good night’s sleep will cure an indention just fine.
During this Friday’s indention I realize that I have a great silence in my life from Geraldine’s missing voice.In fact, I have no one to fill that Spanish Language spot.
Yeah, yeah, I remember all the times I complained about not being left alone. I remember the silences I craved. The irony does not escape me that now I can’t seem to find a soul to talk with.I still get honked at, I still get the occasional whistle, and I still get the “Hola, Señorita,” from guys on the street. But these aren’t the people who will talk to me about the Smurfs being demon possessed, the inappropriateness of Lady Gaga’s music videos, the rivalry between Peru and Chili, how good Lady Antebellum’s music is, the unresolved splendor of a Korean documentary, or whether Walter’s friend Terry is bisexual or not. The best thing about conversations with Geraldine--besides the friendship—was that she didn’t speak any English.
I had to listen, learn and respond in my non-native tongue. She stretched me. She assumed I understood everything and treated me accordingly. She never (that I could tell) dumbed down her Castellano for me. She poured it out, hand gestures and all. Sometimes I didn’t understand everything, but I got the gist. And every time she and I talked I learned something. Even better, nearly every time we talked--I laughed, we laughed.
The people with whom I currently interact with most I’m supposed to be teaching English to. I also realize I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I can do that, but while in a class it’s hardly fair for me to say, “Okay, enough with the Past Perfect Continuous, let’s converse in Spanish for my benefit. Okay? Okay.”The people in the Chamas don’t talk much. The conversation I had with Peru’s next novelist about the crocodile and the elephant was unusual. People on the buses keep to themselves more or less. I’m surrounded by people every time I go outside and we pass each other without so much as a “Howdy do.” That’s the way the world is mostly. I know this. I’d forgotten. There’s isolation in a city of nine million.
And then on Friday I forget how to conjugate the English much less the Spanish Verbs. Monday is even worse. Class with Giancarlo is okay, but I feel like a complete failure with Ivonna. She has to answer some questions for her Social Studies class. Her textbook is in English and is written in language from the 1500s. Oh yeah, and that’s the time period she and her class are studying. There are four questions and we have to read to find the answers. “Why did the Europeans go to the Americas in the 1500s?” is the first questions.Ivonna flips through the textbook to find the spot and I read the paragraph. Good lord.
“In the 1400s the empire-expanding gaping mouths of the European rulers opened to try and suck in the rest of the world. These vacuumous demons desired to accumulate the entire sum of the earth’s expansive territory. The world conquerors did not have the capital to pay their explorers to venture out into the feral wastelands of the ocean so they promised them governance of certain areas of their jurisdiction in the new worlds and a portion of the wealth theretofore and hereby gained. In return for this graciousness, the conquistadores had to share with the European rulers one fifth of all things they acquired in the new world.”
I don’t understand half the English words in the paragraph. Neither does Ivonna. I try to explain in my round about Spanish what the book expounds. Couldn’t you have used simple words so I’d be sure to understand, blast you!? I think to the book. Geraldine would know how to explain it and would have her own opinions on the Spanish Conquest and how it influences current Peruvians.
“I don’t understand,” Ivonna says after my first attempt.Yeah, me neither. “Pretty much,” I say, “The Europeans went to the Americas by accident. They wanted spices and silk from Asia. Columbus thought it was shorter to go around the world by boat and bingo he shipwrecked in the Northeast.”
“I don’t understand.” Ivonna twirls her hair and puts her head on the table.I wonder if I can just leave. Call it a class and leave. Would that be history repeating itself?
I stick it out. We break down the words. “I still don’t understand,” Ivonna says.“Write this down,” I tell her. “They wanted to get rich. That’s why they went to the Americas in the 1500s.”
That’s not exactly how it goes. But that’s basically how we answer the question. More or less. The rest of the homework is a tad bit easier. In the end I still feel insufficient. Inadequate. Useless. I want to cry when I’m waiting for the IO-50 out on the street’s curb in the dark. I’m exhausted. I just want a corner seat window shoulder to lean on, to cry on. A score of buses pass. None of them are mine. Finally, I see the Chama in the distance and I wave my hand. This IO-50 doesn’t even pause. It doesn’t stop. I wonder how long it’ll take me to walk home. Can I just sleep on the corner? After all I have to be back in this part of town again tomorrow at noon. I cross my arms and stare into the oncoming traffic lights. I have to wait another half an hour until the SCR26 comes by.(Screw you, IO-50) I get on this bus and go home.
I stop at Metro and get some comfort food snacks and then walk the three blocks home. I make my dinner and unwind. An online chat with a good friend puts a much needed smile on my face, a relit sparkle in my eyes. I laugh when I think of Walter’s question, “Is that a friend on Facebook or a real friend?” In this case, Walter, it’s both.I go to sleep happy and wake the same way. The indention is over.
But I’m still suffering from lack of Spanish conversation.
(This has got to be one of the best songs of all time. And this has got to be probably the worst music video I’ve ever seen.)
I need more than just the little words I understand. I need way more than all the words I don’t understand. I’ve got to have at least one conversation a day, I tell myself. Something more than just, “What’s up?”
Tuesday morning when I leave the apartment complex I bid the front desk señor and the guy who opens the gate a good morning. I tell the IO-50 Cobrador that I’m getting off at Caminos Del Inca. I say, “Thank you,” when I disembark from the Chama. I say “Hola, que tal,” to Julia the front desk girl at Giancarlo’s office, but she’s on the phone and we can’t really talk.Then it’s an hour and a half with Giancarlo. We speak English with an interspersion of Spanish just for clarification’s sake. It’s a good class.
I buy some bananas from a Bodega and then sit in the sun at a park for the time between classes. I’m too far from the couple on the bench across from me to eavesdrop on their conversation. When it’s time, I pack my things up and walk a couple blocks over, get let into the gated community and ring the bell to Matías’s house.Matías doesn’t want to come downstairs for his class. “It bores me,” he says. “The classes are boring. They bore me.” The housekeeper threatens to call his father. “No!” Matías screams. Eventually she talks him downstairs. I entice him into the front room with promises of games. We play. We learn while we play, he just doesn’t know it. Forty-five minutes pass. “That’s the class,” I tell him.
He looks at me with surprise. “El tiempo pasaba bien rapidito (The time passed really super fast),” he says.
He runs off to play. I straighten things up, bid the housekeeper “Chau” and go to stand on the corner to wait for my bus.What are the chances that I’d end up on the same bus that I’d taken this morning? I don’t know since I don’t know how many IO-50s run the route. I wonder if Geraldine would know. I’m going to ask one of the Paraderos one of these days. Or one of the Cobradors. Right now I am on the same bus as the one I took that morning. I recognize the Cobrador. He has a distinctive nose, one that might be called an Incan nose. His hair is windblown from calling out the stops through the open window of the van. “Belén, Salaverry, Mira Flores, El Ovalo, Pershing,” the names roll out like a litany. He has a smile on his face that wasn’t there this morning. I see a flash of recognition in his eyes, but then I imagine I imagined it. It’s a full bus and I have to sit on the little bench behind the passenger seat.
“San Felipe,” I tell the Cobrador when I hand him my fare. Do you remember me? How many buses run this route? Do you like your job? What do the numbers the Paraderos tell you mean? What are the secret code words? Were you and the driver friends before you became the Cobrador for this bus? I want to ask him all these things, but I sit there mute instead.A spot on the Reserved seat opens up and I move over into it next to a buxom lady. Several stops later another older woman gets on. I shift to the bench seat behind the driver. The buxom lady moves next to the window directly in front of me. The leg space is nil. I have to stick my right leg under the seat underneath her. I’m beginning to think the position I’m in will lame me for life. “Stand up for a moment and let me put my legs over,” the woman says. “This is terribly uncomfortable.” The two ladies on the seat and I play Twister. The new positions are better, but not ideal, but then again this is a Chama. When a back seat opens up I take it. I’m squeezed in next to a guy who is not at all thinking about personal space. I’m okay with it. This seat is better than the other three I’ve had so far this ride.
More streets go by. “Paradero baja (One to get off at the bus stop),” “Semáforo baja (One to get off at the stoplight).” These calls run through my head like a song throughout the day. Like a song, like a prayer. I find myself repeating the words silently through my always moving lips as I walk from class to class, from bus stop to home. “Paradero baja, semáforo baja, esquina baja, teléfono baja.”The single seat across the aisle opens up after a few more stops. I take it and settle in peacefully for the remainder of the ride. When another seat opens up I decide not to move again. Five seats out of eighteen in the bus is enough for one ride. Taking a bus ride in Lima is a lot like playing musical chairs. Constant flux and motion and movement. On and off and all around.
“Nicaragua baja,” I tell the Cobrador.I squeeze out when the bus stops and then walk home.
“Buenas noches,” I tell the door and desk men.I haven’t had my Spanish conversation of the day like I’d intended. It’s been a good day though. I can live with it. I take the stairs up four flights and stick my key in the lock.
Something’s changed. Something’s wrong. The house is different.The chairs are upside down on the table. The patio door is open. There’s a new smell in the air.
It’s no break-in. It’s Pilar!The housekeeper.
She’s kneeling on the patio scraping paint off the tiles. It’s strange having a housekeeper. She comes once a week to clean. “We could do it ourselves,” Katrina had told me when we were talking monthly expenses. “But I’d hate to take a job away from her. It’s not very much per month.”It does feel strange to me, but it’s okay. We keep things as they are. The status quo stays status quo.
A roommate knows an awful lot about your habits. But a housecleaner knows everything.I know this because I was a housecleaner once. I worked with my sister in her cleaning business. We were good at our job. We could clean like nothing else. I learned then that I could tell a lot about a person by how they kept their house. Habits and the things that were left lying around screamed personal secrets to me. My sister and I knew that Jeri smoked so much her glass shelves turned yellow with nicotine. We knew the Solanos were going on vacation to Disneyland before their kids knew. We knew Bill kept a pistol under his pillow.
“Oh, Amanda,” Pilar says. She’s startled a little by my appearance. “Que tal?”We exchange pleasantries.
“Is it better if I leave?” I ask her. “I don’t want to get in your way.”“No, no, I’m almost finished.”
I sequester myself in my room until she’s putting the supplies away.“It looks great,” I tell her. I play some words around in my head in Spanish. “Is it correct if I say, ‘After you come to clean I never want to go anything in the house because I don’t want to dirty anything?’” I’m trying to improve my conjugation skills.
“Yes, it’s correct. No te preocupes (don’t worry),” Pilar says. “I’ll come again on Thursday to do the regular cleaning.” She starts to gather her things up. “I’m a little sad. I used to chat a little bit with Colleen when I came to clean.” Colleen was Katrina’s roommate up until mid-August. “I see people all day, but sometimes I don’t have a chance to have a conversation. I’ll even get home and see my husband and we’ll just pass each other by. We all get so busy.”“I know what you mean,” I reply.
“How many clients do you have?”“Two. I clean for you and for another apartment with three boys. Their place is much dirtier, much harder to clean. And then during the day I’m a Teacher’s Assistant at a kindergarten.”
“That’s a lot of work,” I say.To my delight, Pilar talks incessantly (in Spanish) for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. Blessings on your head, I think. She tells me about her concerns for her two daughters. How her husband had gotten sick and she’d had to start working. How she wanted a week’s vacation to rest and she and her family were planning for it. I lean my shoulder up against the door jamb and listen. I respond. We have a conversation.
There could never be another friend like Geraldine, but Pilar might just be a new friend entirely on her own merit.“There,” she says. “We’ve chatted for a little bit. I guess I’d better go.”
I let her out.“Take care, chau.” I close the door after her and look around the house.
We all just need someone to talk to.