The Facts and Romance of Colombia

I’ve been accused of being a Colombiana de Bibloteca before. An insult to slap me with the truth that I’m not a “real” Colombian. A Colombian-American shaped by the proses of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the lyrics of Rafael Orozco’s vallenatos, and the docu-dramas that Carcacol favors, and I watch on Netflix. My defense, five words: I love all things Colombian. Arepas, palmeras, futbol Colombiano, Shakira, Juanes, Grupo Niche, Los Carnivales, los indios del Caribe y los Chibchas. I spent most of my childhood summers in Colombia damn it! Lived there for almost a year after college hijueputa! I have dual citizenship to both America and Colombia, both blue and brown passports to prove it too. That’s not a Colombiana de Bibloteca!

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And for the longest time I was so certain of my position as a Colombiana. But, a Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, a memory from the past, and something my daughter said, has made me reconsider. Perhaps, I’m neither Colombian or American, but a bit of both, and something in the middle. I’m still trying to figure it out.

*

This was the weekend I was supposed to be in Bogota at a U2 concert with Mike and his girlfriend. And, for a few hours on a Tuesday evening in mid September, it almost came true, but facts and romance collided. And my dream to travel to Colombia disappeared.

“Have you ever had a pipe placed in the back of your head?” Ruben asked.

We were in Mike’s living room. The Yankee game on the big screen television illuminated Ruben like a spotlight.

I sat on an ottoman with my legs tucked under me. The air conditioner buzzed in the back, a reminder that summer still clung in the night air. Mike and his girlfriend on opposite ends of the couch, the space between them where Ruben just sat. Bracco, retired for four years already, sat in a corner, able to see the whole scene as it unfolded. The original grade 5, the three of, having taught years side by side, always came together. Dinner, brunch, even a late lunch squeezed in, and pow wows when one of us sent out a Batman signal.

“Well?” Ruben asked again. His hair sweaty from the motorcycle helmet he had worn.

“What kind of pipe?” Mike’s girlfriend flashed a wicked smile.

“A pistola mujer!” Ruben said in Spanish, though only I could understand him. “You know what it’s like to hide because someone shows up waving a gun.” Ruben looked down at me.

“Yes, but…” I pushed away the memory, and turned to Mike and his girlfriend.

“We are going to stay in one of the best hotels,” Mike’s girlfriend waved her phone to show a blur of color on her screen. “I read the reviews.”

“Reviews? Ha! You don’t know Colombia like I do,” Ruben shook his head back and forth, and slapped his forehead. “Four times I had a gun pointed at me in Colombia. One time coming off a bus in the middle of the day. Do you know what they wanted?” Ruben looked at us.

I knew the answer: a Casio watch. Cheap plastic hand me down watch. Ruben had told this story in front of me several times, but I watched the others become transfixed by his words.

A warm week day night, similar to the one now, crept it to my mind. Eighteen years to be exact.

Bored by a long hot day of doing very little. Sophia pointed the video camera I had brought with me from New York. We passed the time by making videos of our adventures in Colombia. Inspired by the endless hours of MTV Real World we both watched like devotees, Sophie and I taped the snippets of our lives. This way we fooled ourselves, that we were doing important things in Colombia, like soul-searching, and cultivating experience. And, not hiding from life.

“We should go out tonight?” I said as I did my makeup by the glow of the veladores on the altar Tia Delia had for Francisco. His picture in a silver plated frame bounced the light of the flame that flickered in front of him. Next to Francisco was my Abuela’s framed photo, having died two decades before, it seemed less ominous.

“Yeah,” Sophia nodded. She laid across the bed stretched on her back, eyes closed, and arms crossed made a pillow rest under her head.

“I will call Ruben at work,” I said. “He will know a spot for us to have fun.”

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Colombia is broken up by classes, and the color of skin tends to fit that structure like in every other country. The lighter folks sit in the high estrato, status acquired by money. Nightlife could be found in all the estratos de Barranquilla, but El Norte was the it place. The bars, restaurants, and nightclubs were modeled after Miami’s South Beach. Populated by rich kids, tourists, and the likes of me, American-Colombians killing time. I took taxi cabs from San Roque, Abuelo’s neighborhood, to El Norte several times a week. I ate lunch in La Cafeteria Americana, strolled the huge department store, El Super Ley, and looked at the latest t-shirts and dresses at the clothing store called, Tennis. I had even gone clubbing at clubs with names like: Macondo and Frog Legs. All while I stretched the monthly allowance Mami sent me. For the first time I felt rich, that I was in Colombia, a detail I learned to accept.

El Norte was as safe as Colombia could get, and I was not in the least worried when three men barged into the bar looked around and left. The crowd in the bar had dwindled down, not even ten in the evening, and it was near empty.

Buzzed, by the four Cuba Libres I had just down, the world around me felt magnificent. I laughed at Ruben’s jokes. And, belted the lyrics to Ricky Martin’s Vuelve with Sophie, our heads pressed together and arms around each other’s waist.

Algo me dice que ya no volverás. Estoy seguro que esta vez. No habrá marcha atrás. Después de todo fui yo a decirte que no. Sabes bien que no es cierto. Estoy muriendo por dentro.”

I pulled apart from Sophie and pressed my fist to my heart, pantomime the heartache of the lyrics. My eyes shut, I popped them open, and saw Ruben’s face transform. No longer tipsy and laughing, Ruben’s face became very still, and in the calmest voice he told me to go to the bathroom.

“Go now, both of you.” Ruben ran over to the bartender.

“What’s wrong?” I looked around. The three men were back again, but carried rifles over their shoulder, as if it were nothing more than a gym duffel bag. I grabbed Sophie’s wrist and ran to the bathroom.

“Don’t come out until I get you.” Ruben called out.

“Are we going to die?” Sophie looked at me. Her eyes teared, her eyeliner smudged.

“No,” I answered. I reached over and wiped Sophie’s smudged eyeliner with my thumb. I strained to hear, with our bodies pressed against the door, and listened for wails, broken glass, or bullets. But, only Ricky’s voice rushed to my ear.

“What just happened?” Sophie asked.

“Those guys came in. They had guns,” I said. My brain answered, my voice spoke, but my mind played scenarios. I worried Ruben would be dead by the end of the night. And, with nothing to do but wait. I prayed to El Divino Nino.

Thirty minutes went by before there was a knock on the bathroom door. “It’s ok you can come out.” Ruben said.

I pulled the door open, Ruben stood before it. “Oh my God, what happened? I thought you were dead.” I flung my arms around him.

“Some guys had beef with another guy here last night. They thought they saw him. Came to settle things… They looked all over the place, couldn’t find who they were looking for, and left.”

“What if they hadn’t left?”

“Someone had to have the bartender’s back.”

“You? What about the cops?”

“La policia here is not like in Los United.”Ruben grabbed my hand, and put his arm around Sophie’s shoulder, and steered us towards the door.

“Hombre, I like how you think. You were fast.” The bartender said, as we walked by.

I looked at the counter where two shot guns were laid down.

“Want a drink before you leave?” The bartender pulled a bottle of aguardiente and three shot glasses.

“Next time,” Ruben said.

*

Later on, the story of hiding in the bathroom while three armed guys almost shot up a bar, seemed less terrifying. It became an example about how wild and scary Colombia could be, and how I lived there for almost a year. It was badass. I was badass. Now years later, I sift through that memory, and think not how bad ass. But, how sad. Sad for Colombia, and sad for the people in which violence is part of their everyday, and survival instincts are developed alongside the terror. And, how every summer on those last days of August I got to climb back on plane and head home. New York. Where cops are called from the smallest to the biggest incident, sometimes late, but they do come.

And that year that I lived there was a blur of dancing, musica, aguardiente y cerveza, and day trips to the beach. Long evenings rocking back and forth on Abuelo’s porch with the stars above me, as the night breeze rushed past my arms. But, there were a list of facts I tucked away. Refused to dwell on, that my watch was locked away, that I never took the bus by myself, and that before eight in the evening you had to be locked inside. That I hopped on a chair and unscrewed the light bulb above the porch light, and helped my cousin Clarita drape blankets over the windows so no light from the inside spilled out. An invitation to los rateros.

*

“So, are you going?” Holden asked me a few days later. She knew about this possible trip to Colombia.

“No, tu papa says it’s dangerous. He’s afraid something will happen to us if we go.” I rolled my eyes. “Colombia is safer than it once was.”

“Mama, don’t you get it.” Holden shook her head in my direction.

“Get what?”

“Haven’t you listened to all of Papi’s stories.” Holden’s eyes searched my face.

I looked at her. She seemed so grown up right there in the kitchen table dressed in her soccer uniform. Apple sauce cup in her hand.

“He knew a lot of people who died over there. It wasn’t just Francisco for him that was killed. He was just the one that mattered most.”

“I know that,” I sighed.

“Ok, then give him time. You keep pushing Colombia on him.” Holden scooped apple sauce in her mouth.

What if he’s never ok? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Later that night in bed I thought about the trip that never was. Ruben thought of Colombia in facts, and I thought in romance. I wondered if we would ever meet somewhere in the middle.

 

 

 

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Drowning On Land

The word itself, is like a ragged blanket, one you wrinkle your nose at, as it lays unfolded at your feet. Taking my cue from those around me, I have kept that part of myself the most hidden. And, in order to build distance, I laugh and joke, as if depression has a sense of humor. Smiled in its face, hopeful that my dimples will force a grin on its somber face. It never has. These “funks” have plagued me since I was as young as three or four, unable to escape the shroud which enveloped me, night terrors invaded my sleep.

I didn’t have a name for it until much later. But never tired of all the different ways I could describe it.

  • Drowning on land, the ocean my thoughts, and emotions the waves.
  • A dark tunnel, like the ones that take you on a ride at Six Flags, but endless with no euphoria in sight.
  • An exhaustion that comes from the fuse box of your soul. And sleep is all you can hope for.
  • A sadness so heavy and thick, it wraps around you like burlap. You wrestle to loosen yourself, but the ache of melancholy grows tighter.

The evening news triggered my nightly decent into despair, my heart hung low, close to my stomach. Late at night, laid on my back with my hands folded between my heart and chest, my fingers pressed the space, and willed the pain to subside. I was ten, maybe eleven when I realized that the sadness on the screen crept around my throat and left me mute.  Weeks later I gave up the news altogether. But, already contaminated, sadness had infected me, a zombie bite to my soul.

Sadness like any emotion is sticky, it clings to you, settles into that part of your brain that stores memories, and comes to keep you company. And for most of my life, sadness sat the emperor of all my emotions.  The reason I love heart wrenching ballads, dramas that make you weep till your eyes are sore, and poems that make you wince. As a teen I video taped episodes of Life Goes On and 21 Jumpstreet and watched the super sad ones over and over. I cried over dreary scenes, soundtracks that matched what unraveled on the screen, and emotional dialogue, which all gave me permission to cry. The first time I watched Platoon I balled as the character of William DeFoe got shot as he ran from the Vietnam jungle and towards the helicopter. I saw the scene several times over, feeling connected to the pain on the screen, awakened. Numb free, if only for a brief moment. I knew this fascination with heart-break was odd, so I kept it a secret.

My last summer in Colombia with Francisco being alive, I was fifteen, and he was in his early twenties, the Spanish translation of Platoon came on canal RCN. It was late at night, Francisco sat in front of the television. His bare feet on the floor as he pushed himself back and forth on the rocker. Uncomfortable on the orange couch, but near Francisco and the television, I sat and read. A novel propped in my hands, lost to the world of the pages before me. I looked up when Francisco began to quote the character of Charlie Sheen. His eyes closed and fist balled in the air, no longer in Abuelo’s sala and on that rocker, Francisco dug into his own sadness. Francisco became Chris the hero in Platoon, as he rode high on the helicopter and looked down on the chaos that was Vietnam.

And when he finished his performance I clapped. “You are so good!”

“I’ve seen this movie so many times. It’s my favorite.” He smiled wide at me.

“Everyone thinks I’m weird because I love Platoon. I also like Born On The Fourth of July too.” I thought about how I had read the book as well. “I guess I like war movies,” I said.

“Nah, your like me. You like sad movies.” Francisco rocked back and forth, his eyes straight ahead.

“I like sad songs too,” I said.

“The sadder the better,” Francisco now faced me.

“Why?”

Francisco stared at me for a long time before he spoke. “Because we have a lot of sad in us.”

I nodded. I didn’t realize until much later, that the attraction to sad things, was the shine of a flashlight against the silhoutte that was us.

“You and Joann are my sisters. But, you and me, we are the most alike.” Francisco eyes clung to me.

“Claro,” I agreed with him.

*

In many ways, Francisco was right. A lot of sad existed in him and exists in me. If I search in my past I can come up with a long ass bulleted list. But, I suspect there is more to it. A predisposition fortified by this sensitivity that has me feel things in only two frequencies: deeper and deepest.

Recently when I told a friend I felt sad. I was asked: Why? That I needed to think of the misforntune of others. I became quiet. Said nothing because the retorts were on the tip of my tongue. But, I no longer want others to understand me. I seek to accept myself. Of course I know why. I’m a writer, and articulation of feelings is what writers spend endless hours cobbling. The misforntunes of others? A keen awareness of other’s has always been my greatest burden, but it’s the reason many confide in me, and share details of their life with me. At forty, I realize these truths about myself cannot be hidden, es como tapar el sol con la mano.

Here it is: I’m mad sensitive, and I over think, and I live in my head way too much. I seek art, to be punctured by its beauty, because it moves me. I get into these funks, and always have, since I was a little girl. The waves don’t batter me like they use to, when the current pulled me under and left me breathless. I have learned to defy the waves, turn my back against them and ground my legs. Also, I have learned ride them, lay on top of them, float. When you see me quiet and lost in thought, know that I’m on my back riding the waves, my eyes on the sun. The sun, so merciful, it bows down everyday so that the darkness can be illuminated in its absence.

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Doc Martens 

This past Thursday I had a rare ninety minutes to myself. Ruben was at soccer practice, Holden at her best friend’s volley ball game, and my husband late at his office due to the company move. Laundry was in the wash, chicken cutlets fried, baked beans and a salad were the sides. I thought of going home to wait for the clothes to be done, so I could toss it in the drier. All in an effort to save time later in the evening, and maybe in between, watch the season premiere of This Is Us on my DVR. But, I found myself driving to Park Slope, in search for a new pair of shoes. I needed something comfortable and practical for work. I sped through the Belt Parkway, merged onto the Gowanas, and then the Prospect. Sun, hung low in the sky, as it threatened to disappear. Pandora was on blue tooth, the Eagles station, forever hopeful for Hotel California, instead Tommy Petty’s voice came on.

She’s a good girl, loves her mama

Loves Jesus and America too

She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis

Loves horses and her boyfriend too
Windows wide open, my hair wiped over my face, with one elbow propped on the window, and the other on the steering wheel. Those four lines, transported me to another time. A time when ninety minutes to myself was not something I snatched and stole, but owned. I thought of being in college and dressed in a bright orange Charlie Brown shirt, green baggy pants, and the latest shoe trend at the time on my feet. Converse, Adidas shell tops, Timberland loafers, Nike high tops, and Doc Martens, once I stepped into them I became someone else. Cool. Artsy. Anyone but myself.

I parked by a shoe store in Windsor Terrance not far from my old high school. Bishop Ford no longer a highschool, closed down for the last two years, now a labyrinth of a charter school and a handful of universal pre k classes, maybe a public middle school too. The store was empty, all except one client at the register.  I walked in, a giant timer was set in my mind, time quickened its pace. A fast look of the displays of shoes, and I saw nothing I liked. I should be at home, midst a juggle of wiping down the kitchen, answering emails, and planning lessons for school. Forever in a mad dash to finish before ten, so I could have some writing time. I turned on my heels to leave.

“Can I help you?” A sales woman asked. She walked over to me and smiled.

I flipped around to face her. I really did need a new pair of shoes. “I need something for work, practical and comfortable. I have the flattest feet ever, can you help?” I asked.

“The dansko shoes have great support. She pointed to the front of the store. Those by the window are all the latest ones we have.”

I walked over and grabbed one clog after another. They were ugly and looked like an odd-shaped box. How I could wear these?

“Why don’t you try them on. See how you feel.” Sales woman said.

I nodded. “I guess these in a size 8.” I held up a reddish-brown clog.

While I waited for her to return. I looked at my phone. I had forty-five minutes before I had to pick up my son at soccer practice. My eyes wandered to the display next to the dansko clogs. Doc Marten combat boots lined up a tiny corner of the front window. I reached for a pair of maroon combat boots, and traced my finger around the yellow thread around the bottom of the boot. My mind drifted to freshman and sophomore year of highschool. Obsessed with Doc’s, I wore them with everything, my school uniform, jeans, shorts, and even long dresses. Loved the echoes that followed my footfalls as I walked. Stomped. And I felt heard.

“I have a size eight and nine for you. They don’t come in half sizes.” The sales woman said.

I sat down.

She placed the shoes by me.

I pulled off my sneaker and slipped on the clog and walked around the store. One sneaker on and one clog, with each foot set in a different world, I hobbled around the store. I hated how I looked in the clog, and ignored how comfortable they felt. I didn’t wait for her to ask if I liked them or wanted to see another color or style. “I hate them,” I said. Still up, I yanked the clog off. I walked over to Doc Martens and asked for a size eight. “I want these.”

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Those were the words that played on an endless loop in my head as I tried on the maroon boots. I want them. What I heard when she told me the cost. I want them. And when I asked to wear them out, and stuffed my sneakers in the Doc Marten box. I want them.

I didn’t think about how they were not in my budget. Nor did I think about the fact that I was forty and bought Doc Martens to wear like a seventeen year old.

A mother of two, financially responsible for three, owner of my apartment in Brooklyn, married, and a school teacher for seventeen years I have little space for rebellion. My schedule is rigid, packed tight by places to be and events to attend. I must show up. But, my Doc Martens are me showing up for myself, the biggest rebellion I have stomped for.