A new desk can’t help that it’s gloomy here at home.
The six o’clock rain has come on schedule and it’s starting to fill the hall.
Today is the seventh of July. Yesterday the last of the volunteers who showed up for Independence Day made their way to the bus station and back to site. The weather, true to Faulkner, has obliged to fit my mood. Of all the hardships and frustrations that Peace Corps manages to work into our cushy post, leaving volunteers has to be the worst.
We’re like a family here in country and not in the sense of the usual platitudes. If this were high school or college or any other normal stage of life, we would most of us not know each other, and if we did would not be friends. We’re disparate people, more so than anyone’s ideas of the Peace Corps would lead them to believe. We have teachers and organic farmers, but also marine biologists, computer scientists, graduates of psychology and criminal justice, writers failing to aspire. I don’t know the new kids that well, but as of May we can count on at least one fracking engineer.
We should not fit together, but training and service push us into an artificial closeness. For three months we share everything, every day, and then we lead the same lives for two years. Just like in families, that closeness breeds love and friendship. Along with annoyance, constant frustration, grudging tolerance and occasional enmity.
Get-togethers like the one we just had are our reunions, with the upsides of our youth and that kissing cousins is kosher. Trey, Janessa, and I have roles for these things now, and we cut work Friday so we could get an early crack on cooking and cleaning. Trey handles the crux of the meals, the turkey of Thanksgiving, the roast at Christmas, the grilling on the Fourth. Janessa takes on soups and salads and sides, filling in the gaps with potatoes and couscous and shredded carrots. I tackle the pies and desserts and anything I can make to bring in more Americana. There’s a schedule for pies: pumpkin and pecan in the autumn, sweet potato in the winter, key lime in the summer and apple all year round. This weekend I squeezed in deviled eggs while the pies were baking. I thought about potato salad, but my family never did meatloaf nor casserole nor mayo salads and you can’t fake what you don’t know. Or you shouldn’t, not when we’re desperate
Music changes with the seasons, too. This weekend instead of Bing Crosby or a Charlie Brown Christmas, we swapped through rock and folk and country. Janessa went to shop and corral early volunteers around noon while Trey pirouetted around each other in the kitchen singing along to John Prine and Tom Petty, trading the few dishes we own as they came in and out of use.
I’ve gotten more of my father’s neatness and my mother’s intuitive, ad-hoc baking as I’ve grown older. Instead of an “oh, no!” realization, it’s been a comfort. There’s enough of them in me to make it feel like home as I’m washing measuring spoons and the smell of baked apples spills out into the apartment.
Time with volunteers is precious. In site, we live a more isolated and isolating experience than we ever did at home. Even if you have great and gregarious Spanish there are a thousand barriers between volunteers and nationals—culture and upbringing, regional language, experience and schooling, economic situations, time in the community. They will always be host country residents and we will always be interlopers with an exodus in sight.
Among ourselves, we’re more connected than we may ever be again. Our lives see the same challenges, the same frustrations; we confront the same petty ignorance and the same unmoving bureaucracies. We can talk for hours about our imposed commonality. Through classes and trainings and exercises we lived and died with each other, and it is a strange volunteer who doesn’t offer up project difficulties and irregular bowel movements equally openly.
I know every volunteer in Mexico who’s shit himself and when, who’s had amoebas, and who’s worried about cholera after passing clear water for a week. I’ve slept next to, between, under, and on top of almost every volunteer I know in tents, beds, cots, and on bare floors. None of the social conventions that keep our intimacies secret here apply, and I’m more exposed to these people than I ever want to be with anyone else.
When our sweatsoaked friends fling packs to the floor, we sweep them up in moist embraces and enter into a dull euphoria that won’t quit until they’re gone again. Subtle enough to forget it’s there, but strong enough to keep us grinning and impatient for each other’s company. We nag like Jewish grandmothers, demanding why we haven’t written or come to visit more. We want to know if we’ve found jobs or girlfriends, whether work is going well and how the in-laws are.
Sweet moments aren’t hard to find. We make coffee for each other and find time to play Spades and Euchre and talk about back home. When someone brings a guitar, requests are over-indulged and each has a group of devotees. This weekend we piled onto the roof and belted out “American Pie” and our class’ anthem “Wagon Wheel,” cheering into the Mexican night and wondering if Protección Civil would come to shut us down again.
Nobody worries about sleeping arrangements because we wander off when we’re tired and fall asleep listening to whoever came with us. In the morning we shake each other up and pack off for family brunch before we squeeze thigh to thigh in a mixto and make the river. Cold water and colder weather get us down as we struggle over rocky riverbeds and muddy floodwater, but we’re gigglingly happy to find hot springs and we cram together arm to should and play footsie to see who can sink deeper into the warm gravel at the bottom.
The party is relentless even when it’s tame. If you think you’ve found a quiet moment to perch on the terrace and figure out your lives, it will only be a minute before a troupe of roving dancers or drinkers or stargazers moves in and co-opts your participation. Our weirdness tends to compound into the morning, with one going off to make kettle corn at two and another to throw together Rice Krispy treats at three.
We play old school games like Never Have I Ever and invent dance moves we would never show elsewhere. We stave off thoughts of the day to come by keeping on until we collapse next to whoever’s there and ignore the inexorable rise of the sun.
When we have to wake, we can postpone a little longer, throwing ourselves into the cleaning we’ve ignored for days, sweeping and bleaching and fighting the blanketing plague of flies that has come with this phase of the rainy season. It becomes harder to ignore, and festive morning beers turn into desperate afternoon ones determined to prolong the party. When the last volunteers leave, melancholy creeps into the goodbyes and hugs last longer than they ought.
As day changes into evening, I leave Trey and Janessa downstairs and grey little waves start to crest and break in my stomach, spreading out to deaden every part of me. If reunion breeds euphoria, then separation begets depression, and the contact withdrawal settles over you like a weight, not to leave for days.
All good things and the best ones sooner. Work looms and bed beckons, but you stay up watching movies and putting it off, heart lifting at every voice outside the window, crashing back when they resolve into Spanish instead of English. You find yourself wishing you’d stayed up later, stayed talking longer, found more time, agreed to go on that trip or planned another. In the morning there’s nothing to do but pick up the last sad cans that couldn’t stave the end and try to put it all to words.