Hearts of Palm

Hearts of Palm

Photo by Julia Manzerova (copied from Flickr)

Photo by Julia Manzerova (copied from Flickr)

They had spent the night freezing in a bus stuck in a long line of vehicles from Lima to the sky.

                “Qué puta el frío,” Galiano had said, but still did not understand that if two people slept close, they’d be warmer than sleeping alone. She didn’t care; she couldn’t sleep anyway. Instead, she worried about the pressure on her bladder – how she’d have to manoeuvre past the bodies huddled against one another in the aisle of the old school bus. Outside, it’d be much colder. She’d have to squat between bumpers, balancing herself precariously till her thighs ached, until she heard her urine steam and sizzle into the parched pavement.

                Too much chicha, she thought. Too much of the purple – maize drink, prepared with the saliva of the indígena women. Galiano had warned her earlier that it would run right through her. Yet, she purchased baggie after baggie on the roadside, bit off pieces of the plastic, and sucked down the dark violet liquid as if she couldn’t be satiated.

                Now shivering next to Galiano, she tried to think of dry things to lessen the urge to go – sand; cracked lips during a Northeast winter; her knuckles red and angry from too much sanitizer; her chafed hands after hours of washing clothes in Lima. Funny, how sometimes water only made things drier.

                The next day, they would have to set out early to walk to Huancayo. It would be warm by then. She could bake herself beneath the clear skies and the hot Indian sun.

                “A toast,” says Drew’s father, standing at the table. The other dinner guests murmur, and some ding their glasses with their silverware. “To my daughter – in – law to be.” He tips his head in the direction of the blonde – haired woman, dressed smartly in a pink blazer with white, braided trim, a modern take on something Jackie O would wear.

                I don’t know her, or them.  I hardly know Drew at all, though we’ve been out dozens of times over the past few months. He works in Sales at Penguin Group. He likes books – George Saunders and Garth Stein. I’m a temp in Production. I do data entry and correct spelling mistakes.

                Raising my champagne flute, I throw back the tart bubbles, which immediately sting my nose. I wonder if all engagements start this way – in fancy restaurants with strange people who you don’t really know, saying they’re your family.

                I don’t know what to order on the menu because I’ve never been to a steakhouse, so I imitate Drew on my right. Only well done. Well done so I can’t taste the blood coursing through my teeth.

                They followed the indígena up to the top of a dirt road, an offshoot of the highway. She crunched a heavily – notched hunting knife between her teeth as she bent down to retie her canvas sneakers, worn through at the big toe. Droplets of saltwater burned her eyes; she was simultaneously sweating and freezing. The women spoke to her in Quechua – exaggerated s and zsa sounds – and she had to respond in Spanish, though she somehow understood what the women were directing her to do.

                When she turned to look for Galiano, she found he had fallen behind. He was sharing a joint with a pair of cute Peruvian girls, whose wide smiles split their faces. City girls, she imagined. Lima girls. She could tell by their starched indigo jeans, somehow pristine and spotless after a night of sleeping in the buses.

                The indígena chattered about the huelga that they had started. All of Perú had stopped. They had blocked all the roads so no one could drive anywhere. Not anywhere, de veras.

                She stood up and adjusted her heavy backpack. The indígena smiled a warning at her that they had to keep moving.  They should at least get to the next town – four, five, six hours away.

                Serve from the left, take from the right. The appetizers arrive – carpaccio of beef tenderloin, seared ahi tuna, lump crabcakes – enough to share as the table chatter continues. My sisters’ voices cluck in my head. They had coached me before I came:  

                You start with the salad fork first if you have salad first. And keep the napkin in your lap. Don’t spill the water. Of course order something to drink, just don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu. And whatever you do, don’t bring up politics. You know how you get.

                She imagined the skies in Perú did not exist anywhere else in the world. Cerulean, flawless, and brisk, they could convince even the most indignant atheists that the gods weren’t too far away. They watched just above the icy peaks of the Andes, spreading forth divinity and hope and crisis.

                The indígena were striking because the government had privatized the lakes and the rivers throughout the country. The indígena were prohibited from washing their clothes and fishing for trout in the now private water sources. Soon, there would be a tax imposed on the indígena. Jail time, even, for scrubbing a pair of socks on the side of a creek.

                “Qué hijueputa, no?” Galiano muttered to no one in particular. Everything was hijueputa with him. Son of a whore.

                Though she wanted to agree with him, she had decided not to talk to him anymore. Giggling conspiratorially, the cute girls had moved off to the side of the road. She was certain they were laughing at her. In an effort to feel more presentable, she hitched up her oversized jeans, filthy from the long days of travel. She tried to pat down the flyaway hairs that had escaped her scrappy ponytail.

                She tried to keep up with the indígena women who seemed cheerful as they shooed their children along in the dust. The women smelled like wood and coca leaves. They confessed they didn’t know where their husbands were. Probably burning tires and cutting down trees to further block off any more roads.

                Passing the deserted cars and trucks stalled all the way from Ecuador to Chile, her stomach lurched from the stench of overripe fruit and the dozens of caged chickens. It crossed her mind how much money was being lost. The fruit and chicken peddlers at the very least. But this was the cyclical understanding of history, she thought. Those with power, however fleeting, only fought for whatever benefitted their own people or their own interests. The rest watched their fruit rot in heavenly sunshine.

                She peeled an orange with her knife, and in a loving gesture that surprised even herself, she gave it to Galiano. His eyes met hers briefly, but she couldn’t read them. He slurped the sweet juices as they locked with the dust in his beard.

                The restaurant is called The Palm and famous people eat here. Inside my head, I compliment myself on my good table manners, comparable to those of the pretty women, nursing their glasses of Pinot Grigio and clutching their Kate Spade bags. The men all drink Scotch. No one really speaks to me, for which I’m thankful. Instead, I pick at a pink jumbo shrimp that Drew has put on my appetizer plate. I’ve cut it up into eighths and I swirl it in a dollop of horseradish, which scalds my nostrils from afar.

                At the other end of the table, the men murmur and I hear the mention of Fryeburg, Maine, a town I’ve read about in the papers. The Fiancé motions to keep it down, to change the subject, but it’s too late. One of the Kate-Spade-Ladies cocks a suspicious eyebrow in his direction. So does the Bride-To-Be.

                “Really?” says the Kate-Spade-Lady. “Can’t we have a few hours without the mention of work?”

                The Fiancé looks sheepish, while the other men acquiesce with their jaws pulsing.

                Aside from Drew, they’re all Nestlé executives, headquartered in Stamford, down for the weekend to celebrate Drew’s brother’s engagement. Last year, Poland Spring had pumped 110 million gallons of water out of Fryeburg, but the locals were fighting the company at every turn – even the ones who knew Nestlé would bring more jobs to the area. They were saying the water table had dropped, that the municipal aquifer was running dry, that the future environmental effects of water extraction remain unknown.  

                “Yes, let’s take a break from work,” says Drew’s father, but the Kate-Spade-Lady doesn’t seem satisfied. She taps one of her manicured nails on the table top. “Do you know that there is a higher incidence of tooth decay among young children nowadays?”

                The table seems to mull it over.

                “More sugary cereals,” says one of the men who could be her husband.

                She shakes her head. “Do you want to know my theory?”

                “Do we have a choice, darling?” he says.

                “Bottled water.”

                “She adores playing my Devil’s Advocate,” says the man to everyone’s amusement.

                “No fluoride in bottled water,” she says. “And how many parents think they’re doing their kids a favour by avoiding the tap?”

                The table nods in approval, and the Kate-Spade-Lady tilts her glass in the direction of her husband and the other men. She seems the perfect balance of wife, mother, and woman of the world.

                When they approached yet another blockade in the road, the indígena women finally reunited with their husbands and friends. From the deep pockets of their skirts, they pulled out bags of chilled potatoes and boiled eggs to share.  For a moment, everyone beamed broken smiles, and the children kicked up a spontaneous game of football with a crushed can of Fanta Orange.

                She didn’t know how to say policía in Quechua, but she knew what it meant when the women started running in their little black shoes, their hats flying off their heads and long braids falling loose as they grabbed their children and took off into the hills. They didn’t scream. In fact, the only sound she heard was baskets dropping and vegetables rolling. A mule galloped off into the distance.

                Policía? she wanted to ask, but everyone was moving so quickly.

                “¡Susana!” Galiano pulled her in with his voice, then his hands. Together, they scurried with their backpacks loading them down like burros.

                The Peruvian national police were small, wearing uniforms that resembled the cub scouts of New Jersey, but their AK-47’s were massive and glinted in the sunshine.

¡Parren por favor!¡Parren ustedes!” they shouted.  

They’d probably shoot any minute, she panicked. But the indígena had already disappeared. Of course, they’d already disappeared.

On the protected embankment of a grassy knoll, she and Galiano hid, their short limbs and backpacks impossibly twisted. The cold ground seeped green through her too- big jeans, and Galiano sneered at her as if it were her fault his backpack had slowed him down. More salt dripped from her eyebrows and burned her eyes. Goose bumps speckled her arms.

*****

                Well, let’s see the ring!” someone exclaims, diverting my attention from the politics in my plate. I look up to see them all so pretty. The pretty ladies fuss over a diamond that sparkles all the way across the table even in the dim light.

                The Bride-To-Be is stunning. I try to sit up and straighten my shoulders. I fidget with the hemline of my skirt, which is too short, not because I favour short skirts, but because of the static cling of the polyester sticking to my thick tights. I try not to be a sourpuss, as my sisters would say.  Drew squeezes my thigh, and when I look at him, his smile reaches up his face and crinkles his eyes. His teeth are perfectly straight and stained with nicotine.

                “¿Qué vamos a hacer?” she panted, under the assumption that Galiano would just know what to do.

                He gestured for her to shut up.

                They watched as the policía continued down the road to the smoking blockade. A few of the indígena men had not run away.  The policía barked at them and stabbed their machine guns into the air, but the indígena didn’t move. Next to the policía, they appeared much, much smaller. They wore their hair in long braids like their wives. They wore the same kind of hats – a localized fedora style. They didn’t say anything, and instead, stonily eyed their brothers in uniform.

                One of the officers had had enough. With the butt of his machine gun, he slammed into the quiet face of one of the indígena.

                “¡A la chucha!” exclaimed Galiano, perhaps loud enough to give away their hiding spot.

                She hid her face with her hands, still smelling of citrus. It was too late though; she’d already seen it. The blood spilled from the man’s cheekbone.

                “You hardly ate anything,” says Drew. “You didn’t like it?”

                I had squeezed all the red juice from my filet mignon and let it contaminate my creamed spinach and whipped potatoes.

                “No, it was great,” I say. “I loved it. I like steakhouses.”

                “Another round?” booms his father. He orders a Scotch and so do the rest of the men. The ladies order B&Bs, and obsessing over my inadequacy, I follow them.

                “Shit … what do we do?” she asked, still shielding her eyes. She didn’t need to see it because she heard everything. The schwa sound of indígena Spanish, the swears of the policía. A jumbled new dialect until there were only slapping noises and quickening breaths. The clap of metal on flesh and bones. Then, breathing and sweat.

                The small policía outnumbered the smaller indígena. When she and Galiano finally raised their tired heads, the indígena were on the ground with wet, maroon faces dented by the machine guns. Blood and dirt and juice. Her eyes stung, this time with tears.

                “Arrest them and take them away, hijueputa,” ordered the sergeant firmly.

                The other officers jerked the broken men to their feet and dragged them to a green police truck waiting not too far away. The brown murk was still pouring from their faces.

                The Bride-To-Be talks about their plans for the honeymoon.

                “Costa Rica,” she says. “You know, something a little ‘off the beaten path.’ ” She makes air quotes with her fingers. Her French manicure includes tiny rhinestones, which shimmer in the light.

                The Fiancé grins at her over his glass. “I told her, why not Turks and Caicos? Why not Mustique? A luxury retreat.” He slaps his hand on the white table cloth.

                “Costa Rica is very up-and-coming,” chimes in the Kate-Spade-Lady, “and there’s still adventure. You could do one of those canopy tours with the howler monkeys. There’s an active volcano …”

                “Never a dull moment with my little pet,” says the Fiancé.

                He seems genuine. They all seem genuine. When I look again, they’re all beaming at the lovely and adventurous Bride-To-Be.

                “¿Y ustedes tienen pasaportes?” asked the sergeant, towering over her and Galiano, still topsy-turvy on the knoll. He had surprised them from behind.

                In silence, they showed him their documents, which he glanced at half -heartedly.          “What the hell are you doing on the road to Huancayo in the middle of an Indian strike?” he asked.

                “We’re tourists,” said Galiano.

                The sergeant sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Get a move on,” he said. “Stay out of trouble.”

                With their knees and their backsides wet from the grass, they readied themselves to continue their trek. The policía drove away with the indígena in the bed of their truck. She imagined them clutching their bones together as they bounced and rolled over the hillside.

                “Are they going to kill them?” she asked Galiano after the truck had disappeared, but he didn’t answer her.

                The Andes were suddenly forlorn. Everything was silent, even the gravel under their feet. Rising against the sharp mountain peaks – brown, white, then blue-white – there was only smoke and the stench of burnt rubber.

                “So what about Drew and Susan?” A voice pulls me from the toasty cinnamon of my B&B.

                I look up dully and try to figure out who asked the question. For a minute, they’re ogling me with fiendishly wide, perfect smiles and bulging eyes. When I glance over at Drew, he’s blushing, and I realize what they’ve insinuated.

                When Galiano slipped under the cold, stiff covers, she was still crying. Hours had passed. She could tell he was at his breaking point, but still, she couldn’t stop.

                In Huancayo at last, neither of them had much money, so they rented a miserable room where the door didn’t close all the way. The walls, marred by the names of sweethearts and perverted poets, didn’t meet the ceiling, but the sheets on the bed were clean enough. She was afraid to go outside by herself because of the prostitutes, gossiping and blowing rings of smoke near the patio. She cried harder, while chewing brittle coca leaves in her cheek.

                Puta, you never stop, do you?” Galiano’s patience finally cracked.

                The sounds of snapping bones resonated in her temple. “I’ve never seen men beaten that way,” she tried to explain. “I hate these dirty places,” she said, reading the walls again. “God, it’s so cold.”

                “Humph,” said Galiano. “I thought you were from New York. Surely, it’s colder in New York?”

                She tried to snuggle closer to him, but he turned his back toward her.

                “You need to be tougher,” he said. “Stronger. Así es la vida in la calle, vos.” That’s life in the street.

                Knowing he was right, she bit back her tears.

                “You’re just not accustomed to this. It’s too hard for you. If you think it’s hard here, you’d never make it in El Salvador.”

                The war again. He was talking about the war that had ransacked his country a decade and a half ago. Galiano, begot by the death squads, born into the mass graves – he still carried it with him, pinched into the premature wrinkles lining his eyes and forehead. Sometimes, when her mind was clear enough, she felt like he blamed her for it, even though she was just a baby when Reagan was president.

                “Maybe you should just go back to your own hijueputa pais where you feel more comfortable. The life’s easier there, isn’t it? ¿En los Estados Unidos?”

                She hated him. She hated him more than the cold and the filth etched into the walls. Hijuelacienputa. Son of a hundred whores.

                “I’m not going back to my country,” she spat. “We decided that we would travel together and we are going to stay together because supposedly we care for each other, no? I’m not going back to the U.S., not now, not ever. There’s nothing for me there, and I wish that you would stop talking about what I’m accustomed to when you don’t know how my life was there. It’s not easy there either you know.”

                He frowned at her doubtfully and reached up to turn off the naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

                In the noisy grayness, she recalled the Chilean artisan they had met on the road. She was older, maybe in her forties, with freckled cheeks and thick eyeliner. At first, she and Galiano had talked about their travels – the best border towns to cross into Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil. The places where the policía were tranquilo; the places where they were the most hijueputa. Then, they discussed the business of crafts – the polishing of quartz and amber, the price of wire, the best tools to make earrings, necklaces, and anklets for the tourists. But before long, the two were flirting openly, so much that she was afraid Galiano would suggest a threesome, which she wasn’t sure she could bear. He’d make fun of her then – call her a coward, inflexible, frigid – like all the gringos.

                “What can you buy in the U.S. for just one dollar?” the woman had teased her, grinning with her thick silver teeth.

                She hadn’t wanted to answer. She knew the woman would squint derisively at her Nuyorican Spanish.  

                “One piece of gum?” Galiano had asked, joining in.

                In Manhattan: a 12-minute phone call from a pay phoneyou could still find them; a few postcards; a couple of newspapers; two Snickers bars at CVS; the best fucking cup of coffee in the world. Could you say the same of Santiago? she shouted in her head, but at the time, she’d shrugged and said nothing.

                Outside their dark room in Huancayo, one of the prostitutes barked with laughter. The others shrieked like night birds. Galiano finally rolled over and pulled her close.

                “I’m not going back there,” she whispered again, and he offered her a squeeze.                                                                      Finally.

                I feel my face contort, but I can’t form the words. A giggle escapes, and I somehow convince myself that I can fake it. Quiet, giggling girls can be cute sometimes. Suddenly, Drew, still flush-faced, adopts an awkward demeanour – the feigned confidence of a braggart. It fits him like a pair of shoes that are too big for right now, but into which he’ll grow.

                He announces to the table and to my dismay: “Susana spent some time in South America.”

                “Ooooooo …”

                That must have been gorgeous,” says one of the ladies.

                My mouth is instantly dry.  I try to will the words to my tongue, but my brain seems lost.

                “Really, dear?” His mother’s brows arch toward her hairline. “What were you doing there?”

                My mouth opens on one side while on the other, my teeth clench shut. The voices in my head throw up their hands.

                “She was teaching,” Drew says. “What was it? Two years ago?”

                “Oohhh …”

                “Yes,” I finally sputter.

                “Where?” asks the Bride-To-Be. Her words are like a song. “Not Costa Rica, by any chance?”

                “Perú.” The words escape in Spanish.

                The Bride-To-Be and the Kate-Spade-Lady nod their approval.

                “Peru?” thunders Drew’s dad. “They have a large Indian population, right?”

                “Yes … there is,” I say.

                And with that the table erupts with talk.

                “Is that right?”

                “Indians?”

                “The Incas.”

                “Incas or Incans?”

                “Native peoples … tribal peoples.”

                “Amazonians.”

                “Amazons.”

                The men snicker at the other end of the table.

                “So, tell us about them,” says the Kate-Spade-Lady, ignoring the men.

                They grow quiet again. Eyes wide and attentive. All eyes on me.

                Reclining, Drew reaches his arm around the back of my chair. He seems relaxed and proud. Proud of himself. The words still escape me.

                “Were you working on a mission, dear? Educating the Indians?” asks his mother.

                The table approves unanimously. “How noble.”

                “No,” I say. “I didn’t work on a mission.”

                The mother nods thoughtfully. “Are they still barbaric?”

                “They have big families,” says one of the men. “The girls marry incredibly young.”

                “I saw a documentary not too long ago,” says another. “They’re untouched by civilization.”

                “Don’t they kill their babies if they have too many?”

                “Remember what happened in Cochabamba.”

                “… No running water …”

                “… Dreadfully impoverished …”

                “Living in mud huts … cow dung …”

                “… No healthcare; no birth control …”

                “… Typhoid …”

                “… Yellow Fever …”

                “… Jungle …”

                “… The lack of education …”

                “… Flies everywhere …”

                “Uncultured.”

                “They have culture,” snips the Kate-Spade-Lady, rising above the din. “Just not education. There’s a difference, you know …”

                “What?” I blurt out, confused by the buzzing. “Who?”

                “The Indians, dear,” clarifies his mother, polishing off her cognac.

                “The indígena.” My ears fill with water. “Yes … Yes … Barbarians.”

American writer Alison Grifa Ismaili has spent most of her life teaching in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Morocco, and the US. She is the winner of the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition in the short story category. Her work can be found in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Dos Passos Review.

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