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!
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.”
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.
“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.