November 6, 2011 – Damn the Thieves
“The bubble you live in must be pretty nice,” my friend Charles once told me. It is. But I do know the world isn’t perfect. I know there’s hunger and grief and pain and poverty and suffering and need and horror and greed and hate. I look at world events and think, What in the world are we doing? How can humans treat other humans this way? How? Why? What?
All bubbles burst sometime.I meet Rodney at Café Zeta this morning as arranged. He’s had breakfast with friends and he and I are going to go grab lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. He’s just returned from a month long sojourn to his hometown in Illinois and we have some catching up to do. I’ve missed his company and have been looking forward to this day. While he was home, despite his busy social schedule, he read my first novel. Over a café Americano he gives me his writerly opinion and a critique.
“At one of our writer’s meetings,” he ends with, “you once said that one of your college professors told you that you have to write from the darkest place in yourself. I think you wrote this story from the brightest place.”
I understand what he means. Writing from the abyss (as my teacher said) means to put emotion on the page. It means to bare the soul and chance vulnerability. It means to put part of yourself into every character; the good and the bad parts of yourself. Drawing from the darkness can be the most frightening thing a writer does because the author is not the character and yet the author is the character too. I put myself out there in that first book, but not completely. Rodney is right in his critique when he says my protagonist, Jonas, is a little too perfect. I knew this when I wrote it. His flaw of pride isn’t much of a flaw. Even as Rodney suggests some ways to darken Jonas up, I can’t see doing it. I can’t see Jonas acting in those ways. It’s just not in line with his character. He really is perfect. See, I’m still a little too in love with him--with this fictional character I made up in my head--too blinded. But I take mental notes of Rodney’s words. I agree with him that the story could be cleaned up.We pour the last drops of our coffee down our throats, Rodney packs his notebooks into his backpack and shoulders it, and we start walking toward our lunch spot.
Over lunch we talk about homesickness and how we can be torn between two places. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. This idea of home. In the midst of the conversation, when I’m distractedly raving about the sun, I tell him, “I was out on the balcony the other day, standing in the sun reading when I heard a knock on the window above me. I looked up and saw the little neighbor boy. He waved at me. I waved back. They must think I’m a crazy foreigner, always seeing me out there. But I don’t care, I love standing out on my patio like that in the sun.”
“Did you hear what you just said?” Rodney asks me.
I run through my words. “What did I say?”“My patio,” he says. “You said, ‘My patio.’ Starting to think of things as your own is part of being at home.”
Part of my soul settles. My balcony is my home. I can live with that.I eat my quinoa soup and he eats an artichoke quiche thing. Then the waitress brings out the main dishes and we talk and eat some more. We’re kindred spirits, Rodney and I. “You’re a lot like me,” he says. “Groups are tough, I’ve seen how you tend to get quiet in a group situation, but one on one…”
“Yeah,” I say. “Tell me if I’m talking too much.”I fork the last bit of my food into my mouth. The air is warming up. Spring has come to Lima finally. The sun is out and a cooling breeze brushes by us. It’s a perfect day.
“Do you want to head to Larco Mar for a glass of wine?” Rodney asks.“I do. I mean,” I say. “I don’t want to take up all your day--” I stop myself. “Yes, I do want to take up your day. I’m having a really nice time and would like it to keep going.”
He feels the same way. So we gather our things and walk down a side street to the ocean front.Mangoes, where we’d gone the last time, is stuffed to the gills with lunchers. The hostess tells me that even the bar is totally full. She gives me this, It’s lunch time on Sunday afternoon in Larco Mar, you shouldn’t expect to get a patio seat, you silly gringa, kind of look. I shrug. “It’s a thirty minute wait,” I tell Rodney.
“I don’t want to wait here for thirty minutes, do you?” he asks. “There’s another place nearby we can go.”So we go.
Portofinos--the restaurant--is more out in the open, yet not so touristy that I feel on guard or crushed in by people. Our outside seating, only feet away from the walkway edge overlooking the ocean, makes me feel closer to the water. The waves wash up against the thick pebbles on the shore making a soothing raucous. The paragliders fly above us. A group of surfers dot the water down below. I watch them catch waves and watch the waves crash over them. “Maybe sometime this summer I’ll go down for a surf lesson,” I say. There’s a beetle on the table and I try to get him to walk up on the leaf I heartlessly snatch off the plant behind me.“Oh my god,” the waiter says as he comes up with our menus. He starts to hand me a napkin.
“It’s okay,” I say, turning the beetle back on his legs and guiding him onto the leaf, “No quiero matarlo (I don’t want to kill it).” I get him off the table and dump him in the plant (which I hope I haven’t inadvertently killed by relocating the beetle).The waiter is both shocked and pleasantly surprised by this. He might prefer the beetle to die so another less insect friendly patron doesn’t have to have an entomological experience, but at least for now the beetle lives.
With my good deed done for the day, I turn my attention to the menu. Unfortunately Portofino’s is a little more expensive than Mangoes and I almost ask Rodney if he’d rather go somewhere else. But we’re there and we stay. Rodney orders us a bottle of wine and a dessert. I slip my flip-flops off and tuck my feet up under me on the chair.
Our waiter brings out the wine, shows Rodney the label, opens it up and hands him the cork to sniff, pours him a small amount and waits for him to approve it. He does. The waiter pours more and then departs.
“Salud,” I say, holding out my glass.“Salud,” Rodney agrees as we toast. “Another one,” he says and holds his glass back up, “to living our dreams.”
“To living our dreams,” I say.We touch our glasses again and drink.
We’re fortunate and we know it. We’ve talked about this before and we talk about it again. He tells me of his past trips to Egypt and to Thailand and to Machu Picchu. There’s so much to see in this world. There’s so much to do. And even with that knowledge, I can’t forget to appreciate what’s right in front of my nose.He tells me of his friend Cynthia (or Cindy) he’d visited with in Illinois and how he’d asked her if she was happy with her life and she’d said no.
“Not every day is perfect,” Rodney says. “But overall, I’m happy. If I died today, I would have no regrets. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die anytime soon.” Then he tells me about another friend he’d spoken briefly with when he was home. They hadn’t touched base in years and in their quick catch up conversation she said, “My life is a living hell. Why don’t you come visit?” Given that invitation, Rodney opted out. I don’t blame him. I would have too.“Life is too short to be miserable,” I say. “Sometimes hell can be lived through if you know it’s temporary or for some specific reason. But if life is a hell, man, you gotta change it. I used to be really good for solid advice. But now, not so much. If someone tells me they hate their job I just tell them to quit.”
I’m blabbing and Rodney starts to fidget. Then he starts to really twist. He looks around, down next to him, under the table.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“My backpack,” he says. “I had it right next to my leg, but it’s not here.”“Oh my god.” I stand up and look under the table, hoping his backpack is there.
It’s not.I glance up and down the way, but there’s nothing to see. Catching sight of our distressed movement the waiter comes over.
“His backpack is gone,” I tell him.The Larco Mar security talks with us, the waiter talks with us. They tell us they’re reviewing the restaurant security video to see if they can see anything. “Do you want to call the police and make a statement?”
“What good would that do?” Rodney asks. It’s a valid question with no good answer. He’d had the printed out manuscript of his novel, his notebook full of notes, and a small coin wallet with a handful of soles in it. “Thank goodness I took out my computer this morning,” he says.The security guard takes down Rodney’s name and age and country of origin. Then he gets my name and age too. I don’t know what good that will do. But it seems official.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see anything,” I say in disbelief. “Shows how observant I am.” I’m disappointed in myself.“I can’t believe I didn’t feel anything,” Rodney says. “It was right here between the wall and my leg. It must have slipped backwards or something. I usually put a strap under a chair leg for just this reason and I didn’t this time.” He and I are both glad that he keeps his real wallet in his pocket and he’d put his iphone in his shirt pocket earlier. In the scheme of life, this could have been a lot more devastating. But that thought doesn’t help me in this moment.
I’m angry. I’m angry at thieves. I’m angry at the mindless cretin whose actions put a damper on our glorious day out. I’m angry at a world that says, “There isn’t enough so you’d better take other people’s things.” I’m angry at the poverty and hunger that would drive a child to need to steal. I’m angry at those who steal for kicks. I’m angry at the feelings of guilt and blame I experience in this moment with a victim’s chant of, “I should have… if only I’d…” I’m angry at the blame that Rodney takes on himself too, “I should have… If only I’d…”I’m angry that one of the first questions my student Joaquin asked me was, “Have you ever been robbed?”
When I had said no, he then asked, “Has your dad ever been robbed?”I’m angry at a world where being robbed is just a matter of time.
My burst bubble drips water down around me. Drenches me with dark reality. Makes me hate my fellow man. Not forever though. Just for my bus ride home, during which I clutch my bag to my chest and have no problems not smiling at anyone. I know bad things happen. I know this. I just don’t want them to happen anymore. To anyone.I want to cry. I want to yell at someone. I want to say, “This really sucks.” But I don’t. I tell the cobrador, “Gracias,” when I exit her bus and say “Buenas noches,” to the desk guard who lets me into my apartment complex. As I climb the four flights of stairs I remember the big speech in Rocky Balboa where Rocky tells his son how life is: “The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”
A new bubble starts to form. It’s fragile and transparent. It’ll probably be burst again and again. But I’d rather believe that good triumphs over evil. That people do bad things out of hurt and need. That maybe out of every awful situation something good can grow up through it. That we don’t have to kill the beetles that walk on the tables of our lives.I breathe out my anger. I cry a little bit for the pain in the world. But I don’t hate. I don’t want to hate.
Yeah--I know--the bubble I live in must be pretty nice.