And Then There Was One

I roll out of bed at three, having woken up hours earlier and given into my malaise, drifting in and out of sleep before the final plunge off the mattress. I eyeball my kettle, full of old grounds, and tiptoe through a week’s worth of webs and spider husks, wondering if I’ll get up the ganas to sweep. Typical Sunday. My phone rings and the number’s too long to be domestic, so I know it’s Trey, and that cheers me up as I wait for him to call again. I saw the guy just enough over Christmas to remember how much I’ve missed him since he took a job with the state of California.

Look at him

Look at him

It rings a second time and we go through our how do you dos before he tells me Janessa’s had an accident in Panama, that she’s in the hospital down there, gone into surgery, leg full of pins. I’m doing the math as he’s talking—we’ve got forty-five days out of country to recuperate on medical leave, and two bones in the leg spell more than that.

Two down...

Two down…

Another volunteer got medically separated for a fucked up ankle, did it stepping off a bus. I ask Trey what it is with us volunteers and getting down from stuff. He laughs and tells me to be careful and we hang up.

I call Ben and break the news just this one time, to get it out of me. I keep thinking I left them both in a rush in the city, that it was the only time I haven’t said “take care” to another volunteer as they left for a trip. I pull out a cigarette, me who never smokes in daylight, and my hands shake through a cup of cold coffee. The next month bears out all our hurried calculations, and Peace Corps in DC medically separates her before the forty five are up. Not sufficiently ambulatory. After fourteen months, I am alone in site.

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Yo No Sé Qué

I went to visit Ben Weiss a couple of weekends ago.[1] It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the feeling I like another volunteer’s digs more than my own.

Case in picture

Case in picture

Ben lives in San José de Gracia outside of Aguascalientes, home of the (very, it turns out) locally famous Cristo Roto, a Statue of the Crucifixion they dropped during construction. Apparently it came alive to tell the townsfolk not to fix it. It’s now a strobe-lit tourist-trap.

The ride from the city skirts past the benighted Pabellón (sorry Kyle) and then climbs up into the foothills of the Sierra Fría until it arrives at a small plateau on which is a pueblo very much like the one in which I live. It’s not as old and it has wide avenues instead of Jalpan’s cramped colonial streets and alleys, but it’s close enough the same.

Ben pays less than me for a house that’s three times as large on the first floor and comes with a second and a yard. Housing prices have skyrocketed since Jalpan got provisional approval as a Pueblo Mágico.[2]. Ni modo, but there’s thing one. Thing two is that Ben has a family. Not the host family—I’ve seen his now, and as nice as his abuelos are, I’d take my own. No, Ben has made a family.

After a kind of trial period, he’s settled down into a comfortable domesticity with his Mexican girlfriend Mara, a biologist who does freelance work from her own small consultoría. A family up the road from him has eight kids and money for not quite that many, so the youngest two sell donuts around town every morning. I found this out when they rang the bell at seven and peeked in to see me pretending to sleep on the couch. He sent them whispering off, and when I was up to see them on their return at nine, I wished he hadn’t.

Karla, who’s nine, and Jonathan, who looks like he’s around there, are the two cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Here, there, anywhere, these are them.

Seriously they're real cute

These kids man, the photos don’t do them justice

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All Happy Families

I’m not close to my folks, not the way other people seem to be.

I'm not heartless though

I’m not heartless though

We moved from Nashville to Shanghai when I was six, and I saw my extended family during home-leave, the month of summer General Motors gave us to tour the US. I’d see Mom’s people in New Braunfels in Texas for a week and then we’d visit one or another branch of Dad’s side, in Oregon or Washington or down in New Orleans.

My mother’s father died when she was seventeen, and her mother passed during my last summer in China. We didn’t go back to Texas much after that. My father’s parents started ailing soon after, and what I saw of his brothers and their kids depended on who was caretaking at the time. I’d go years between seeing a given set of cousins, and there’s a group of Texans I haven’t laid eyes on in a decade.

When I went away to college, I took a perverse pride in how emotionally independent I was from my folks. Other kids would call home daily or weekly for advice and support while I might go months between phone calls. My parents had helped me to grow up an independent kid, and I thought it was all advantage at the time, that I was making my way on my own and better for it. That was a fiction and an obvious one—I wasn’t paying my own way, and there are mistakes I made in college they could have helped me to head off.

Even now, my folks are in China and I have less contact with them than, I think, any other volunteer has with theirs. Schedules and time zones keep us from Skyping, but I try to write more and make sure they follow the blog so at least they’ll have that bare-minimum of information. All the same, I don’t see family in the way quite the same way as my friends and fellow-volunteers, can’t imagine planning my future based on their geography, tethering myself to Nashville where they’ll retire.

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Thanksgiving

I’m reading The Labyrinth of Solitude and I’m so wrapped up in holding the text steady that I don’t notice when the bus blows past El Lobo. We’re a half mile down the road by the time I stagger to the front and explain in panicked Spanish that I meant to get off, “You know, apenas,” just now. My permanent affect in Spanish is contrition, and I keep apologizing to the driver as I try to mime that he needs to stop the bus. I mumble disculpe and perdóname to sleeping Mexicans on my oh-so-long trip to the back to grab my pack. Off the bus, I huck my gear to the ground and try to take stock. I am immediately covered in ants. I curse and giggle and try to shimmy them down and out of my jeans. I sling all forty pounds of prep onto my back and start down the road towards Lobo.

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I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the stubby mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre, and I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving. I live in Jalpan, the de facto capital of the region, and I’m traveling up into the hills to stay with the two other volunteers that the Peace Corps placed out here. James is tall, gangly, and fiercely blonde. He’s Michigan Dutch, Cortez reincarnate in the way he enchants the dusty campo girls. Danielle is a small and perpetually hungry environmental educator out of New York State. They both live in the mero campo, the real country, in pueblos that Jalpan dwarfs, far away from the Internet and bus-lines that keep me pretty well in touch with the world outside.

As I walk up to the misty intersection that leaves the highway and climbs into the mountains, I realize that—God knows why—I’ve worn a cardigan. Between it and my camera, I’ll look like what the grizzled men in this leg of the Sierra refer to as a mano caída, a fallen hand, letting their wrists go limp as they say it. Transit from here to where my friends live goes by way of improvised taxis and converted pickups, and I try to look at home as I sidle up to the group of drivers.

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“Who’s going to Río Verdito?” I ask. One of them raises his hand. “Cuanto?

Eighty pesos,” he says, about six-fifty US.

“No manches,” I reply, don’t mess around. He laughs. “I live here,” I say, and light a cigarette for effect.

“Not right here”

“Down the road.” He laughs again. “Quince,” I say. Fifteen, less than a dollar.

“Then you’ll have to wait.” I pass him a cigarette and we talk about where he’s worked in the States. He’s been to pick apples near where I used to live in Michigan, but we don’t know any of the same people. One of those things. When a critical mass of travelers builds up and gets into his truck, he waves me towards the cab, but I beg off and sling my stuff into the bed. The ride is gorgeous and I’d rather not have to navigate small talk.

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We climb up into the hills while the fog lifts and peaks and pastures dance into view. It’s a cut-rate Bavaria without the more impressive Alps, long narrow valleys blending into terraced farmland spotted with goats and mongrel zebu cattle. We make it to James’ pueblo without incident, and I’m not sure if I’m excited or afraid. We’ve got a turkey, but it’s not, you know, dead yet. Peace Corps is full of this kind of experience—things you want to say you’ve done but which you’re not so sure you want to do. James’ cabin clings to the hillside far up the valley wall, and I poke around for telltale feathers as I hike the muddy cow-path to his door. His kitchen is always unlocked and when I push inside, he’s just taking a pot of water off for coffee.

We do the slap-and-a-fist bump that passes for a handshake out here. “So uh, where is she?” I ask.

“Penelope? I had to do her yesterday. Didn’t want to lead her on.”

“Was she a hassle?”

“No, sweet bird. Calmer than I thought she’d be when I carried her over in the corn sack.”

“I should’ve told you I was gonna write about it.”

“You want to see her? She’s outside.”

James is an engineer, but he spent most of his time between college and the Peace Corps on organic farms, and him also being from Michigan, it’s not his first time to a turkey shoot.

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“You use that same handle-less abomination on her?” He only has one knife.

“Yea. Had it so sharp it almost scared me. She went quiet.” He nods over the edge of his porch and I look down to see bloodstains and a mass of feathers in the trees below. “There’d be more down there, but chickens are notorious cannibals,” he says, and indicates the crowd that’s turned out to bawk at us. I look into the pot, and she’s tiny, just enough for four, with little black hairs clinging to the gaping pores where feathers used to be.

“Gross, man,” I say, prodding the little craters.

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“Yea. Butterballs, the commercially grown ones, they’re bred to be pluckable. Ugly, all bald and patchy.”

Night’s closing in, so we take the coffee and huddle into his living room to talk. James and I have the best non-native Spanish of our class of volunteers, but we both find it difficult to connect emotionally outside of English, so we talk about the Mitten State for hours when we’re together. It’s not long before we have to bundle up, shaking spiders out of blankets and knit ponchos. It’s as cold as it ever gets up here, not less than thirty five degrees. But Mexico is all poured concrete, and the walls welcome the cold in, making sure that if it’s chilly outside, it’s just as bad in here.

At daybreak, the clouds are gone and the temperature shoots up as we hitchhike to Agua Zarca, where our other volunteer Danielle lives. We catch a ride straight off, and for all that I rip the ashtray out of the car door trying to pull it closed, the guy seems happy for company. He drops us just outside of Danielle’s place, some thirty minutes down the road. When we step out, she calls down from her balcony that there’s no running water, hasn’t been all morning. James and I look at each other. Neither of us has showered much since the cold rolled in, and we’re both pouring sweat now. “Ni modo,” he says, something like ‘Nor a way,’ the national anthem of amiable resignation.

Danielle has to run out to pick up our fourth, Janessa, the other volunteer from down where I live. James visits the neighbors to see if they’ve got water while I unload pie supplies from my backpack. It turns out they have got some, in a rain cistern, and he begins the first of dozens of runs for water, carrying it back in six-liter plastic bottles and dumping it into tubs. Between his frame and the chore, he looks like a broomstick from the Sorceror’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia.

I busy myself with the pies. Danielle hasn’t got bowls, so I make dough in the massive 12-inch cake pans I’ve brought along. Closest I could find to pie tins. James is on a personal crusade against the Coca Cola that’s singlehandedly giving diabetes to rural Mexico, so I’m cutting all refined sugars from the recipes this year. Pecan is easy since honey subs in fine for Karo syrup, but I’m more dubious about the apple. The jar broke in my pack on the way, and I spend much of the time scooping honey out of the bag I wrapped it in.

“You think you’ll have enough water for me to wash anytime soon?” I ask James as he stumbles in puffing from the stairs.

“Screw you,” he laughs, putting his bottles down. I waggle sticky fingers at him. “How’re the pies going?”

“Fucked if I know. I’m going to have to shave some piloncillo for the topping.”

“Good luck with that,” he says, and heads for more water. Piloncillo is solid molasses, boiled and poured into diamond-hard cones. I picked up ten pounds of it on the corner for just under a dollar. I’m willing to do my Mom’s Dutch apple without the sugar, but I don’t feel like I can get away without crumb topping. When Janessa arrives I get her to promise to do me a favor and then leave her scraping a butter knife against the big brown lump.

Janessa’s a middle-height brunette, at turns mothering and full-on partier, and she’s liable to bite your shoulder in times of high excitement. Peace Corps was her dream, and her husband Trey gamely brought his southern Georgia charm down to Mexico along with her. This past October, though, he got the job he’d been waiting for, inspecting operations and developing best practices for California weed farming outfits, and she’s out here alone until he comes down for Christmas.

James and I head out back to consider Penelope. We’ve got a brining recipe written down, but it’s the container that’s holding us up. The pot we brought her over in is too shallow to submerge her, and Danielle’s plastic washtub is larger than her fridge. We’ve heard you’re supposed to keep the bird cool.

“I murdered her, I didn’t nick the bowel, and I’m sure she’s clean.”

“Been out in the sun for a while though.”

“Yea.”

“Weather kind of let us down.”

“It’s a long way from Michigan.” He looks at Penelope. Turns her from side to side. “Wait,” he says, and runs into the house. He comes back with the crisper drawer from the fridge.

“No fucking way,” I say, but he waves me off, and when he lowers her into the plastic, it looks like she’s striking a pose for my camera. Perfect fit. “Maybe that’s what it’s always been for,” I say as we pour salt brine and a table of Danielle’s precious American molasses in with her.

“Guy who invented the refrigerator wondering all his life why we’re putting vegetables in the turkey drawer.”

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The pies go into the oven and the girls start on dinner. Pastries aside, we’ve fallen further into gender roles out here, some kind of cultural osmosis. We take out the first bottle of wine. After the luxury of daily Safeway runs, it’s a sweet rarity, way outside of our normal price range for bottom shelf tequila. For this weekend, though, we’ve got four bottles and it feels like a bounty. We’ve got no corkscrew, and I paint most of my shirt a deep violet ramming the cork down.

“Hey, I think there’s eggs in the pasta,” says Janessa. Danielle walks over and looks into the pot.

“And weevils. Could have come in the water, too,” she offers. “You know they eat them here. Some kind of diet.” James nods.

“They say it forms some kind of colony inside of you. You know, in your stomach acid.”

“Protein is protein,” Janessa says, and we all gather round to fish the bugs out with a tiny colander.

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Dinner goes well until music starts pouring in the front from the dingy cantina across the way. Banda is hard to listen to in the best of times. Its swaggering imitation of mid-nineties rap values is set to country guitar and a polka bass-line, and when the ridiculous tuba-plus-accordion begins to blare, we shut the door.

Part of Peace Corps, maybe the only part that matters, is opening yourself to your host country and sharing with it in return. But when we get together for American holidays, we guiltily close ourselves off, trying to create a warm little bubble of home. All weekend we’ll leave huapango and ranchero and even Vicente Fernandez to one side for Macklemore and The Shins, Patsy Cline and the Avett Brothers. I’ll try to start in with Christmas, She & Him and Bing Crosby and Vince Guaraldi playing Charlie Brown, but Danielle will nix it.

“Not until Thanksgiving, and that’s not until Thursday.”

Rules are rules, and as long as we’re pretending that this is the States, we’ve got to respect them. Mexico goes from Día de Muertos on the first of November straight into Christmas, and I walked past the fifty foot iron-and-plastic fir tree in my town square on the first of November with a mix of familiarity and deep confusion.

In the morning, we can’t remember how long we ought to roast a turkey, so we take the campo attitude and wing it, packing her sideways into a stew pot and deciding that three hours or so ought to do it. The dial eschews degrees for an inscrutable I to V range, and we figure that somewhere between II and III is a good bet. The bird safely in the oven, James and Janessa head to the terrace for yoga. We’ve all gotten more New Age since joining up, but Danielle and I draw the line at sugarless pies. She and I turn on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and sing along to ‘Eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.’ We’re together but we’re not together, each of us lost remembering the mothers that first played it for us.

When the chorus comes around, we fall back into the kitchen and yell, ‘Can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in, singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement,’ before laughing to each other and sighing.

“Time for tequila?”

“Yea.”

When the cooking gets into full swing, it becomes clear that we’ll have far too much food, each of us trying to make all the tastes of home. I’ve got the two pies and a pseudo-casserole of green beans, bacon, and slivered almonds. Slap Chops absent, only dull knives and patience get them thin enough. Janessa’s making cooked carrots and her grandmother’s Jell-O chutney, its myriad fruits replaced by three sad pears and a cup of dusty craisins. Danielle makes stuffing from Bimbo bread, two steps down in substance from Wonder. The most American ingredient is a family-size box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, scrounged at great cost from the Walmart down in the city. We pour it into a baking pan and crumble stuffing over top in lieu of breadcrumbs. It crisps up under Penelope. All of us have given up on the way we smell, and we pack the mashed potatoes with garlic, the white starches yellowing under the onslaught of cloves. For all that we’ve tried to make things as healthy as we preach, we’ve somehow gone through a good twenty sticks of butter before we’re done.

Dishwashing becomes laborious, one of us having to pour from our bottled reserves while another scrubs. Before long, the tub that collects from the basin is full and Danielle starts grilling us on the state of our bowels.

“Somebody take a dump already. We’ve got to flush with the dishwater so I can keep washing.” I go first, and James turns up the music. Danielle’s bathroom is separated from her kitchen by the thinnest plastic and tin—we’re lucky if only the sound makes it through. Shit-shy in the States, I’m not worried. I think it must be true in every country that the first vanity to die in the Peace Corps dies on the toilet. Training is an endless seminar on amoebas and food poisoning, and few meals went by without our speculating on how soon we’d be seeing what we were eating and how it would look when we did. Unwashed vegetables and home-slaughtered turkey long-eaten by time of publication, it looks like we got out scot free this time.

The weather’s still good once Penelope’s out, so we pull Danielle’s small kitchen table outside. The towns here hug the highways as they skirt round the mountains, and when you head to the back of the house, the ground falls away. It’s a five story drop from the edge of her terrace, pine trees rolling out into woodland and a valley that flows as far as you can see. She’s got the best view in all of Mexico, maybe all of Peace Corps, and we use it as the backdrop for a few Last Supper timer photos before we lose patience and fall on the food.

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It’s an orgy and we make ourselves sick trying to eat our way back home. By the time we make it to the pies, we’re moaning and cussing with each bite. Only the firmest pain signals from our bellies induce us to quit. We have to stop, and when we do, not even the last three bottles of wine and a good deal of tequila can keep us from seeing what we’ve put off with mad cooking and manic conversation. There’s nothing left to hide that it’s Sunday afternoon and Janessa and I will have to be on the bus back to site at six in the morning. We fall into a melancholy silence, collapsing onto blankets in the last of the sunlight and trying to accommodate our swollen stomachs.

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The hills lift the horizon high into the sky, and sunset always comes as a surprise in the Sierra. We were all nodding or napping, and the stars stole out before we knew it, Orion peeking over the hills to our east.

“Do you miss your family?” Janessa asks.

“I dunno. I mean, my folks are in China,” I reply, “So there’s not much of a home for me to go back to for things like this. Plus, you’re married and everything, but for me, every holiday away is a kind of growing-up. Every one a little more adult.”

“You want to be an adult?”

“I don’t feel like one,” I say, but I figure this must be what it’s like for everyone when they’re first out on their own, whether it’s in Mexico or Michigan. Trying to recapture bits of what they’ve left behind.

We stay out until we can’t keep our eyes open, pulling on sweaters and scarves as the wind turns. It rushes around the valley in waves, building to a waterfall roar as it comes to the house and tousles our hair. Dozens of shooting starts streak over us and we put off bedtime, wishing our private wishes.

In the morning, we blow on fingers and chafe our palms together. We pack stuffing and pies into shopping bags and snug them in the spare pockets of our backpacks. We turn and hug Danielle at the door.

“You’ll have to make that apple pie again for Christmas,” she says as we pull away from each other.

And she’s right. I will.

Parenting

I got a little liquored and sentimental awhile ago and scribbled all this out on printer paper at two in the morning. It’s more melodramatic than I’d like, but it’s not bad and I don’t mind it as a little giving-thanks, especially since we did our big dinner this past Sunday. I’ll see what I can do to make the pictures lighthearted.

Last Sunday

No reason for it. This is just our Thanksgiving

I’ve written about kids, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written about parents except to denigrate the idea of becoming one. There’s a lot of thought behind that. In the first place, not much is left of the American Dream except the notion that you ought to give better than you got. My folks came of age during the last great gasp of old-time Corporate America. From the golden age of Reagan’s military straight into the arms of General Motors they went, knowing that thirty years from the first day in the plant they’d be taken care of, that the Company’d care for their health, their kids, their retirement. And they did well for themselves. Smart, driven people navigating the world they’d been bred for.

I grew up in the most luxury you can have without being ruined as a human. I never had cause to want. I lived abroad, went to good mostly public schools, met decent people. Any desire on my part was not the result of privation but considered withholding on theirs, careful choices by my parents that kept me grounded. I was never aware of our wealth until late in high school; they’d shielded me from the tacky excess that seems to typify the upper ranks of the middle class now. They worked hard and long, maybe too much so. Much of our early care was given over to nannies and au pairs, but it’s a testament to my folks that I barely remember those caregivers’ names now, while my father reading us One Thousand and One Arabian Nights at bedtime is as fresh as what I ate for breakfast.

The Nights kind of created the bedtime story, if you think about it

The Nights kind of created the bedtime story, if you think about it

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Slice of Life

Mexico is a cacophony. It is everywhere and at all times noisy, riotous, polluted, and beautiful. My buddy James and I went to breakfast at Reina del Sur today. It’s a homely little place, four wobbly tables out front of a dingy kitchen. The wait staff is surly and slow, the coffee is terrible, and the juice is usually Tang. But the food is delicious and quick and there’s just enough quiet for a hangover. It’s great.

When we made it down to the main street across from Reina, the place was gone and some kind of fiesta was going on instead. Balloons hung in chains from every railing and cornice and masses of junk food had been unwrapped and set out as a buffet with a ten-dollar plastic chocolate fountain. Two girls, the worse for wear, were out stopping all traffic on what’s also the only highway through the Sierra, passing out fliers for a restaurant that has nowhere to park. Bachata music was blasting out at around lawnmower volume, and they had one of Mexico’s ubiquitous emcees belting a never-ending stream of gibberish. My boss has this ability and it’s fascinating—they can yell into the mic for hours without saying a thing, calling on passersby, cracking jokes, and selling whatever they’re selling, all of it just loud enough to be understood over the music.

We stood in the street for five minutes just looking at the train wreck. We ended up walking in but wishing there was some way to indicate with body language that everything they were doing was dissuading rather than persuading. When we made it into what used to be the cave of a kitchen, we saw that it had been turned into a dining room, new, light, clean. Slow renovations to the stove and overflowing sinks over the past year had exploded in two days. New floor, new walls, new paint, level tables, all approaching an actual restaurant. As we sat down, the guy with the mic dropped Reina del Sur into his monologue and James and I looked at each other. Only in Mexico can you have a grand opening a year after opening.

Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey

Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey

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Married with Children

Kids are a hot topic for the volunteers in Jalpan. My erstwhile brother and his wife—Trey and Janessa—are of an age to talk about it—30 and 29—and I’m here to talk with. Given that we’re in Mexico, it’s always a topic at hand. “Why don’t you already have a kid?” is as valid a question as how-do-you-do for any woman of marrying age, and “Why don’t you have a kid with one of ours?” is just as good for any strapping young foreign man.

And it's not just the locals

And it’s not just the locals

Trey and Janessa take what I imagine is the typical line for Americans of their cohort. Children are part of the plan, after careers and travel and messing around until their fun has been had and they’re ready to settle into the waiting-for-retirement grind that seems to brand life after 35 for all of us aspiring young graduates. If you aren’t famous or otherwise important by then you might as well pop a couple out and see if that masks the hole inside of you.

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Contact Hangover

A new desk can’t help that it’s gloomy here at home.

This is a crummy cell photo

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.

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Homecoming

I thought that coming back from the States was going to be hard. Returning to site after Early in-Service Training (EIST) was a nightmare. For all of us, I think. A full week of depression, malaise. Couldn’t get work done, couldn’t write, couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to see people in town. But the States has been easy. Leaving friends and folks was tough. Both times, riding the metro out to Reagan from DC and letting my parents go and checking in at Detroit International, all the way through to getting on the bus in the city to come back here, like I was toting a sackful of rocks behind my navel. But once I hit my house, my stifling room, and my sopping bed, not a pang.

It might be that during EIST you’re with people who so well understand your situation, or that you’re still it Mexico when it happens, that it’s part of service and so more keenly felt when you’re back in site, in service. Being in the US was another world. Something apart enough that it couldn’t touch me here. Not in the sense of reverse culture shock. The Peace Corps and volunteers will go on about that, and maybe when I haven’t been back for more than a year it will hit me too. But Mexico is too developed, too unlike a regular site for service to present a totally different culture. What I felt there was something subtler.

Part of it was coming back to college for a little while. I stayed with my uncle and aunt in Virginia for a spell, like I did every weekend the summer before I shipped out, and I stayed with all the guys I lived with that summer too. The people I saw in DC were all college friends, from the year before, my year, and the one after. Because my buddy Eric’s dating a year younger, I ended up going to her awards ceremony and through their largesse (and that Brian Baum had a spare suit) I went to Senior Ball a second time.

They've gotten prettier since I left

They’ve gotten prettier since I left

So a real repeat of what should have been an uncapturable past.

 

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Easter

Courtesy of Incarnate Word Ministries

I walk to Lupe’s house at eight, happy that the weather’s cooled. Easter Vigil feels long enough playing American rules without worrying about pit stains. We start a half-hour late, but I don’t mind. Lupe has been talking about the procession and the Mass as if they’ve got no time limit, as though they only end when you give up and walk out. ¡A ver si nos aguanta! She screams at intervals.

We start the walk across town without our friend Elvia, who’s running even later than us. Women with canes and rebozos trundle alongside, candles at the ready. I ask Lupe if only women go to the procession. No, she tells me. It’s for everyone.

The fair starts tomorrow and half the town is already partying. The frantic one two one two polka sound of banda music pours out of trucks and houses. Stoops are full of young men drinking from forty-ounces and eyeing us in the wary way that young people have here.

We make it at eight forty for an eight thirty curtain, but the priest is nowhere to be seen and neither are most of the people. Don’t worry, Lupe says, they’ll be here. And see, guys come too, she adds, sweeping a hand at the few stooped and silent men. I nod and keep looking around when she taps me again. Esta vela se prenderá para la Pascua, she says, as if it were a secret.

I know, Lupe, I say. I’m Catholic, remember.

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