“Have you accomplished what you wanted while being here?” Fiorella asks me. We’re drinking tea at La Bodega Verde in Barranco, catching up face-to-face a final time before I leave. I’ve got my hands folded around my cup. The wispy scent of rooibos drifts upward and dissipates away. I meet her glance and smile. This question is easy to answer.
“Yes,” I say. In the goal oriented sense of achieving – absolutely yes. My goal was to edit my book and have it presentable enough to send off to agents. I did finish it. I basically rewrote the entire thing, changed the premise of the story and the title, cleaned it up and added emotional and plot depth. To date, I’ve sent queries to twenty-six agents, received negative responses from half of those and am still waiting for the rest.
Outside of goal-orientation, the answer is also yes. I hadn’t wanted to waste my life doing something I hated. I wanted to live. To travel. To write. And write. And write.
“Did you ever imagine you’d stay this long when you first came?” Walter asks me. He and his friend Gregory had picked me up in Miraflores in front of the Haiti and taken me to La Rosa Naútica. “You can’t leave Peru without eating at the Rosa Naútica at least once, can you?” he’d asked me on the phone when I’d called to tell him I was leaving town.
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” I say. I’d had a graspable dream of staying. Of going somewhere. Of doing something. I’d set a three month trial time just to give me a way out if I needed it, and hadn’t had to. I had hoped I’d find a way to fly free from the drudgery I was in. I found it and I don’t ever want to give this freedom up. At La Rosa Naútica I listen to Walter rant about money and politics and the end of the world. They’re the same rants as usual only the current events have changed. His friend Gregory tries to tell me his life story between Walter’s interruptions.
“The first time I came to Peru was in 1996, no, ’97,” Gregory says.
“Let me introduce you to Gregory,” Walter cuts in. “Simplicity, innocence with money and the personality of a bulldog.”
“What happens next?” Gregory asks himself, trying to realign the story-car on the track of his mind.
I sip my wine, eat a salad, take pictures, jot notes and think my own thoughts while the men ceaselessly talk. They’re both vying for my attention and each other’s. It’s an extravagant outing that later Gregory pays for from a thick wad of cash that would probably fund me for several months. He’s worked for the money and for him this is just an afternoon jaunt.
“And I walked into the 99 cent store,” Gregory says. He’d met Norma there. She was Peruvian and didn’t speak a word of English, working at the store to try and provide for herself and her family. Gregory went back there a lot to shop. They’d had a long term relationship which led him to visit Peru and then buy an apartment that he spends a few months of the year in. I never got to hear how his relationship with Norma was concluded. We didn’t make it that far into his history.
After the plates are cleared away and the wine levels inched up, I check my phone for the time. I have to teach at 7:30.
“What are you doing?” Walter asks.
“Just checking the time,” I tell him.
He gives me a doubting look. He gets louder and more abrasive as he drinks. I know this. I’ve seen it plenty of times before. I’m trying to calculate what time I’d need to leave the restaurant if I was to walk to my stop and take the bus home. I’m not looking to have another harrowing drive with Walter.
Gregory tells me about Norma’s daughter who’d been told she was Norma’s sister and daughter of Norma’s mom for a reason I’ve forgotten. He tells me about the son Norma left behind her in Peru to keep her father from finding out she’d had another child. He tells me about the wicked and depraved uncle who’d abused Norma’s daughter. “It’s all true,” Gregory tells me. “And this isn’t even the half of it.”
“Jeez,” I say.
Walter jumps in to talk about the dead dolphins and seabirds being found on Peruvian shores. “Are you going to tell me that the anchovies have moved because of the current and that the dolphins can’t dive a little deeper? That the fish can’t go north just a little to find their food? What’s really going on?”
I’m waiting for his conspiracy theory.
Behind us a flock of seabirds dive beak first into the ocean to fish. “Walter!” Gregory says, “Look there. Are you going to tell me that there are no fish? The birds seem to have plenty to eat.”
I let them have their theories, have a silent moment for the dead dolphins, fish and birds, and check my phone again.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. He’ll think the worst anyways, encouraging that might be more fun.
He gives me a new look that means, “I knew it.” At least he hasn’t asked me point blank about my sex life. Not yet. It’s still early in the day.
A bit later, we get up to go.
“I still want to know what you’d do if I grabbed at you,” Walter says. He takes ahold of my wrist to test his words. He’s got this idea that my black belt in Judo means I’m some kind of ninja. I’ve never tried to dispel this belief. I don’t try to now either. I turn and lightly free my hand with a soft twist.
“Well, I’m getting a real hug from you before you go, a real hug,” Walter says, leading the way out to the parking lot.
He drives me up towards the ovalo of Miraflores where I can catch a bus.
“You can drop me off here,” I tell him. We’re stuck in traffic at a light. “I can walk from here.”
He gets out of the car in the middle of the road, and I give him his hug.
“Chau.” I wave through the window at Gregory. “Nice to meet you. Thanks for the lunch. I’ll have to get the rest of the story some other time.”
And that’s how life is; half told stories, some finished, some never completed, some only intersected at points, chapters, sagas, novellas, shorts, bits of unconnected interactions that play into some strange overall theme.
“What other work would you want to do?” Fiorella asks.
“Nothing.” But I try and think of something else. They’re ideas I’ve ruled out before. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
She and I cheek kiss at my bus stop.
“Chau,” I say.
“Buena suerte!” she calls as she crosses the street to go her own way.
I go home. My possessions are half packed. I’ve got a list of things to remember to do and take. As my llama and I prepare to catch a flight back to the States and then a boat to Europe I think of the time I’ve spent here. The things I’ve shared, the stories I’ve kept to myself, of the ending of my Nazca trip, of the eventful and fun weekend I spent with Stefan – a coworker of my dad’s – who I showed around town my second to last weekend in Lima. Of the drinking and dancing and site-seeing we did. I’ve got stories yet to tell.
I look out the window at the busy street I see from my ironing board desk. Lima may not be my favorite place, but it’s familiar.
And in a way, it’s comfortable in that familiarity. The circles of goodbyes I make are like Venn diagrams bringing me into one big closed curve that reads Peru. How to sum up a year? How to bid farewell to good people and interesting places? How to succinctly mark the changes I’ve experienced or the things I’ve learned?
I don’t know that I can.
I’m turning a page of this book of my life, seeing the end of a chapter.
I’m eager to turn the page, yet bittersweet in the doing of it. So instead of goodbye, even instead of see you later, I’d rather just say to all I’m leaving behind for now, “Cuidate, chau.”