My brother just sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a 40-foot sailboat, and as I stared at his pixilated, bearded face on Skype last week, a few minutes into our first conversation in a month, I joked that I guess he was a grown-up now. After doing something like that, I think you earn the right to be called an adult, even (or perhaps especially) if you’re only 21 years old.
I have these fierce mental images of Jake crossing the ocean— I see this idea of a squall, the cloud-tops dark and billowing, with the long sharp-edged flat bottoms that Jake tells me mean a storm’s coming on. I see the water, the color of metal and endless to the horizon, and the deck of the boat, and I imagine the feel of salt on my skin—layer upon layer of it, dozens of days of saltwater accumulated to a coarse film on my chest and legs. Feet bare on the fiberglass deck, the boat’s body the only thing tangible for miles. Jake says that dolphins would come play in the waves breaking off the ship’s bow, and I imagine it—imagine my brother lying belly-down on the deck, one brown arm dangling off the edge of the sailboat, the dolphins larger-than-life and mesmerizing as they dive up out of the wake, their bodies like sleek impossible shadows, just a few inches down in the turquoise depths.
It’s not just the accomplishment of the journey that marked my brother, not just the unbelievable checked-box of an Atlantic Crossing— he’s changed, too. He thinks with a clarity now that boggles my mind. As I watched the palm trees click back and forth in the delayed stop-motion of our video chat, Jake said that while he was on the boat, he worked hard to not think about time. It took 24 days to sail from the Canary Islands to Antigua, but Jake wasn’t counting the days. Nothing made the time pass faster or slower, he said, and our speed was completely out of my control— so I just put time out of my mind, and tried to take each day as it came. The three other people on the boat kept counting the days and the passage of time drove them crazy, but I was almost surprised when we finally arrived; like, oh, it’s over?
And I said to him, as our voices grew jittery and robotic over the weak Internet connection, that that was some pretty wise shit for a 21-year-old. Two minutes later, the connection failed entirely, and I was left staring at an empty black box on my screen, my own hazy features reflected back where Jake’s face used to be.
Weeks later, on my sugarcane-covered outpost in the sea, I wake up thinking about bicycles. I can see the road stretching out in front of me, smooth two-lane asphalt magically free of cars, green endless farmland all around and a little river with big maple trees reaching their fat arms across and casting shadows onto the blacktop. I spend hours plotting bicycle routes from city-to-city, take notes on mileage, bid on eBay auctions for vintage touring bicycles I won’t be able to ride for months.
I think about work, too. I think about the classrooms full of eager 20-somethings in Elias Piña and the South and up on the coast in Cabarete, think about my endless hours of computer work, editing the curriculum for our human rights promoter program— think about moving accent marks and punctuation from one place to another, copy-pasting logos into headers and footers, sending medium-long professional emails that I sign with “Atentamente” even when they’re in English, out of some inexplicable habit.
I think about West Virginia, the place I lived and worked before I came to the Dominican Republic to speak Spanish and eat chicken and yucca and forget who I used to be. I think about autumn on the high plains and the hawthorn thicket on the hilltop and the time I saw a family of wild turkeys on the edge of the spruce thicket and how they startled me so much I actually grabbed my chest and gasped, like a some fainting Renaissance maiden. I think about going back to the mountain in August, after I leave this island, and I think about staring up at the Milky Way as thick and bright and solid as I’ve ever seen it anywhere in the world. I think about peppermint tea and warm whiskey and crystaline mountain air.
I think about Maria, ever-smiling, her long weave tucked up by four extra-long bobby pins, one of her daughters’ bedazzled headbands holding her bangs in place. I think about Maria’s husband Enriquito and his clumsy, childlike brand of hospitality, the big empty grin he paints on when I bring my American friends to their house to visit. He beats Maria and doesn’t respect her, and he resents her for the positive changes she’s made in her life and the independence and fierceness that she’s taught to her daughters. I hate him for being a man in a house where women should run everything. I hate him for not leaving her, because she would be so much the better if he did.
So I am here and I am not here. I worry about Maria and I listen to the neighbor’s cat meow pitifully in Jefe’s bean field, I say hello to everyone and I mop my floor and get water and do the dishes and make coffee, and I reminisce and fantasize and think obsessively about May.
May, when my 27 months will finally, unbelievably, be over. May, when this island stops being my home and starts being a place that I come back to visit when I can save up the cash for a plane ticket and manage to find the time.
I’d do well to learn from my brother—to be where I am, to stop counting—but living in the moment has always been a challenge for me. I am a writer, ever considerate of the ways I can retell moments later with greater clarity or brighter colors, and I am a maker of plans. I know the passage of time is beyond my control, but I’m so good at pretend games, at reliving the best days and nights endlessly in my mind and my journals, at using the Internet to build a complex plan for the future that’s one quarter possibility and three quarters dream.
I’m not proud of this part of myself; I know everyone fights to be present, that there’s a reason “live in the moment” is such a tired cliché (because we all could use the reminder, because none of us really know how), but I struggle to change. I think I will always be struggling to be where I am. I think, too, that maybe the only way I’ll ever really live in the moment is to stop struggling—to exhale into it. To be on the boat. To let the ocean reach out around me and to sit down on the bow and to watch the water pass me by.
In December I met my family in Belize for three weeks of vacation, an absurd privilege that I was almost embarrassed by—don’t mind me, friends, I’m just leaving Peace Corps for a family vacation in Central America real quick. Jake was there, just a few weeks off the boat, tanner than he’s ever been with a scraggly, untrimmed beard framing the bottom half of his face. We’re brother and sister, our parents’ only two children, and even with the year that passed since we’d seen each other last, the camaraderie was instant and complete as it ever is. But we’ve both changed, immeasurably, both of us living lives too wild and weird to not transform us.
He’s known me since before either of us can remember knowing anything at all, and he saw changes in me I can’t see in myself. Peace Corps turned you into a square, he said. More than a few times, I knew he was disappointed, frustrated, even disgusted with my reactions to things. I was not the partner-in-adventure that I think we both had hoped I would be. It took his critical eye and a new country—not America, not the Dominican Republic—to show me this side of who I’ve become.
I am more conservative. I am more compelled by material comforts—clean sheets, fast Internet, new clothes. I am more cautious. I am less culturally engaged and less capable of blending into a crowd of hip, international young people on the balcony of a hostel overlooking some sleepy, bougainvillea-draped mountain town or in some smoke-hazy dive bar in the city. I live in the country, here—I speak Spanish like a campesina, I spend most of my time with people who never graduated high school, I dress like someone who’s only recently left the Evangelical fold. I avoid eye contact with men. I’m ice cold if spoken to by strangers, I am desperate to be accompanied, at all times, by someone I know, and I hate being alone in public places.
It’s not arbitrary. Being alone in public makes me unsafe. I am catcalled, harassed, I make myself a target. Everywhere I go, I am with my gente de confianza, people I trust— my motorcycle driver waiting for me at the curb, by Maria or her sister, by the girls I work with at World Vision or the documentation promoters on the batey. In the capital, I meet with other volunteers and we are inseparable. Being alone means becoming too visible for comfort— all but asking for unwelcome leers, unwanted conversations, someone trying to aprovechar or engañarte, to take advantage, to trick you.
My brother’s judgement embarassed the hell out of me. I care how he sees me and I hate that he thinks I’ve changed in a negative way. But I’ve done what I had to—you adapt or you are miserable. You become this place or you fight it bitterly for two years, every day a frustration, every failed meeting or difficult bus ride something to gnash your teeth over, to shout about, to hate. We talk about integration like it’s a neutral activity, but it’s not. It’s the path of least resistance, but when you get to the end you can’t just turn around and walk back to the beginning again. One month of vacation will not take this country out of me, it’s not enough time to try and reconstruct the things I’ve lost or the changes I’ve made. My identity is more complicated than it was before I came here. The cross-stitching and overlap of reactions and desires aren’t as easy to disconnect as I wish.
From the beginning, Peace Corps trainers tell us that going back to the States will be hard. But there are so many other impossible things between now and the end of service that it never feels real, or anything like close to real. The daily challenges of life in-country, of trying to do your laundry or flush your toilet or feed yourself, let alone have a project or build meaningful relationships—it’s never time to think about the end of things. But May is creeping closer and it might finally be time to start. I am trying to take a step back from myself and see the person I’ve become. I’m trying to start charting a road that will take me back to the States in a way that won’t hurt like hell; or at least that hurts for a reason, that hurts in the right places, in the right ways.
In May I’ll get on an airplane and leave this island, and I will be so different from who I was when I came. And on the plane ride, at least, I will be in that special suspension of time that comes with travel, and I’ll think about Jake and his month on a sailboat at sea. I’ll watch the air passing me out the airplane window and think about the dolphins dozens of miles below and in the water, the boats sailing in slow motion and the many miniscule human lives tracking their precise courses in the cities and towns on land. It won’t take weeks or months, but if I don’t count them, the moments pass the same—time moves through me and I am in it— on the boat, eyes on the water and on the horizon. I am in my own space, distinctly myself, with no desperate reaching for the hours or the days to come.
This week the Americans were here, and their visits always throw me for a loop. They’re missionaries from the Midwest, mostly hog and corn farmers, young and earnest and conservative. Through some long and complicated network of international relationships, they’re tied to the Haitian church in my front yard. The missionaries and their shiny American dollars built the house I live in and dug the well I drink from, and those facts combined with our shared language and nationality make me feel like I owe them something. In the weeks leading up to their arrival, one of their leaders, a sweet, strange fellow named Tom, sends me enthusiastic, semi-literate emails asking what “the village people” need.
I never quite know how to answer him.
The Americans play with the neighborhood kids indiscriminately, with no limits and total abandon– the patio is chaos for days, kids kicking up huge clouds of dust as they laugh and scream and rough-house. Inevitably, the little ones fall and scrape knees, bruise elbows. They are Band-Aid’ed and cuddled and sent back into the fray, and I watch from my porch with a crooked look on my face– I don’t like this, and I have trouble explaining why.
A part of it is the anonymity. The Americans can’t speak Spanish– they don’t know these kids’ names, or their parents, or where they live. The don’t know their histories or who their siblings and cousins are, they don’t know who’s a trouble-maker and who’s sweet, they don’t know which families have the greatest needs. But still– they wrestle with the tumult of kids and give them candy and let them take pictures of each other with their iPhones.
The Americans’ presence overshadows all the normal routines, a kind of extended shout that silences the regular patterns of my days– Kikito doesn’t walk the goats in at night because there are too many kids around, Jefe doesn’t stay up late listening to his radio because of the noise. I can’t get any work done in my house. When their truck rolls up in the morning, the neighborhood kids arrive in a vast noisy wave, and they don’t leave till dusk.
The missionaries stay for four days, and on day five they depart in an enormous child-swarm of chaos. All the missionaries but one get in the back of the pick-up truck, and then Ben, a beefy carpenter from Minnesota, picks up a black duffel bag and books it up the hill back towards my house– four dozen kids follow at a dead run, screaming and cackling and reaching madly for Ben’s back. At the top of the hill Ben shakes the bag empty, the toys and crayons and jump ropes hit the ground, and he sprints back to the truck while the kids descend on the goods in an insane dog-pile. As soon as Ben’s in the back, the Americans pound the roof– two thuds means go– and they’re off, waving and taking pictures as the kids emerge from their cloud of dust, the lucky few with toys in hand.
I’m left standing with my neighbors, my mouth actually gaping with disbelief. Just like that, the Americans are gone– no goodbyes to anyone, no handshakes or hugs for the adults, just a duffel-bag full of plastic toys and a tap on the roof of the pick-up and they’re gone. My neighbors, laid out in a semi-circle of plastic chairs, are laughing, perusing the goods their kids scored.
One boy shows off a spray-can of Neutrogena SPF 70 sunblock, and I almost laugh. Sunblock? I translate the label and he clutches it like something made of gold. In his defense, it probably cost about $15, more than enough money to feed his family for a few days. But this object has no real value, not anymore. This object has no practical use for him, for his family, at all.
When the Americans are here, no one talks about anything else. They are the main event, the only show in town, and our patio is their three-ring circus. I don’t think their intentions are inherently bad, but their presence makes me uneasy. I wash dishes on my porch and watch two of the missionaries play a very loud, dusty game of dodge ball with fifteen screaming boys, and I want to be different from them. We all carry navy blue passports and we all have white skin. But we’re not the same, I tell myself. We’re not.
Peace Corps has an annual survey that all volunteers worldwide fill out, and one of the most confounding questions is this: How integrated do you feel in your community? Very integrated, somewhat integrated, not at all integrated. No further definitions provided. Integration is something all volunteers strive for, but there’s no formula for achieving it, no precise definition of how it feels. Being universally loved? Being involved in every project? More often than not, we seem to lurch to extremes: I am the most important, the most adored. Everyone knows me. Integration as some quantifiable measure of yes-ness.
Late afternoon Maria and the girls stop by on their way up the hill. Maria comes in and the girls stare at the photos I have taped to my wall; they’ve seen them a thousand times but they’re still just as mesmerized as they were on first sight. Pictures of me and my Peace Corps friends, my parents, my brother. One faded snapshot of my best friend from high school, a goofy smile on his face, the sweeping sandstone of Utah’s canyon country in the background. Another picture of me and my brother at my college graduation, both of us smiling for real, the sole scandalous proof of my past-tense nose piercing.
Maria and I discuss our plans for tomorrow and then we all walk down to the main street. I watch my host mom and sisters walk back up the road in the falling dusk, baskets and empty pots balanced on their heads, a bag of plantains and squat green squash in a plastic sack, snuggled between my littlest sister’s braids. I do feel integrated, but it is not how I thought it would be. I don’t have to match my Dominican friends and neighbors step-for-step, don’t have to follow them everywhere or do everything with them. Integration and omnipresence are not the same thing, and it’s not about “being Dominican,” either– playing dominoes, dancing perfect merengue, or even going to church the way I always used to. It’s not about conforming.
Being integrated is about integrating other people into your life, and integrating yourself into theirs. Daury and Ariel come over and goof off for two minutes and leave. The girls are never surprised or even overly excited when I come visit, but we sit on the bed and watch TV together and laugh. Esmeralda and I share my USB Internet stick, she rambles about her classes at university and I listen sympathetically, her only peer who’s also been through college and might understand. She makes fun of my cooking, and we send bowls of rice pudding, sweet breads, and bollos back and forth in the hands of her nephews. Maria and I engage in what is essentially one long, never-ending interaction, a collage of phone calls and conversations and meals. We never say goodbye– our usual farewell is “Cualquier cosa, te llamo,” Anything happens, I’ll call you. An assurance that our lives will not move too far in any direction without the other person’s knowledge.
Over the course of a day, maybe ten people step onto my porch and then out again– some stay for a minute, some stay for thirty. Enana and her friend play cards, my sisters sit on the floor by my propane tank and play jacks, Cruz Maria sits in a plastic chair and complains, at great length, about her health problems. I stop what I’m doing to listen, or I go about my business and step around my visitors, nodding and agreeing– “Si, claro, ¿es verdad?”–while I wash dishes, write a lesson plan, or clean my house. Integration is almost literal– my family and my neighbors become a part of my home’s geography for a few minutes. On my way to the bookshelf, I step over Meralin, and she reaches past my ankle to recover a jack scattered too far from home.
I don’t have to go to church five times a week to be integrated. I don’t have to know everyone, I don’t have to do the things everyone around me is doing. I don’t go to church anymore, but people know that I did once, and any gossip about my absence has drifted clear of my ears. The parishioners from Jesucristo Reina still greet me warmly, call me sister, give me hugs. My time there had value and meaning, and just because my life has driven away from that doesn’t mean these bonds dissolve.
Peace Corps administrators talk about how integration keeps us safe, and of course it’s true. Maria and I talk five, six times a day– a day of silence, with no explanation, would be uncharacteristic and troublesome. Juana notices when I sleep late, chastises me for it from across the way, and if by noon I haven’t emerged half my neighbors are gathering at the windows to ask what’s wrong, ¿que tienes, estas malosa? The vigilance is exhausting and frustrating and, at the end of the day, a blessing. My neighbors know exactly what I’m doing every second of the day. If something goes wrong, they’ll know that, too.
Another volunteer, sharing her lessons learned at our one-year conference, said, “Just because we’re foreign doesn’t mean we’re exempt from Dominican standards of hospitality,” and this rang deeply, essentially true for me. I reflect the same hospitality back to people that they’ve shown to me– I give a cup of water to anyone who asks, I give juice or soda or banana bread if I have some around, and I apologize, profusely and ritualistically, if I have nothing to give. Later, when I am visiting Cruz and there’s nothing in her house to share, I will respond to her apologies with the same generous, dismissive gestures that she so graciously offered me. We give what we have, we forgive one another for the things we lack. It is a balance.
When the first group of missionaries came six months ago, I was here. When a new group comes back six months in the future, I’ll be here. Someday, I’ll leave too– but for now I am different. For now I am here. The Americans’ truck pulls out and my phone rings and it’s Maria, who says she’s on her way down to talk about a meeting we have planned for tomorrow. My cousin Samuel wants me to explain a card game he scored from the duffel bag. As the dust settles, we sit down in the shade and I translate the instructions to Uno.
We carry the same passports, but we’re not the same. They left, and I stayed.
After I teach my business class, I change clothes quick as I can. The late afternoon sun is cutting through my blinds in dusty golden streaks, and I lace up my sneakers and lock the door and hide my key behind the bottle of honey sitting on my outside sill. My neighbor Julia is burning a pile of leaves on the gravel in front of her house, and the smoke comes off it in a slow tongue, spiraling up through the royal palms and mango trees. Cunina’s dog paces in circles at the end of his chain like a panther at the zoo, panting and looping back over the same dusty track again and again.
Every evening is the same. I teach class from five to six, me and a few smiling, semi-literate 8th graders learning about entrepreneurship and businesses. On the best days we drink soda and do art projects, and on the less successful ones we do math. Class ends, and before I can convince myself otherwise, I change clothes and I leave. At the main road I turn right, weaving between the gutter and the dirt road; motorcycles roar past, faces snap back to stare at me as they disappear into clouds of dust.
The late afternoon sun colors everything yellow and cranks up the contrast, silhouetting animals against the sky and turning every smile and sideways glance into a photograph. I’m heading for the baseball field, the pley, a wide swath of green just past the community center, a few hundred yards from my house. On the hill above the baseball field is barrio Vietnam, a long row of company houses and barracks, close enough that people can shout my name from their back porches, but far enough that I can’t ever make out a face. At this hour, they’re backlit by the sun anyways. Articulated black outlines, arms waving back and forth, smiles erased by shadow.
I don’t put in my headphones until I’ve walked to the far side of the baseball field— past the real athletes, who come here every day to practice for races, and dreams of scholarships and playing in the Major Leagues. I pass dozens of teenage boys in hand-me-down baseball cleats and Yankees jerseys, the younger ones greeting me shyly and the older ones leering and posturing like fighting cocks. I know their trainer, a friend of Maria’s— his name is Moguel, and he took me to ride horses once. He smiles his crystalline smile and I wave, half-smile back. The runners are there too, one man with arms like tree roots, the muscles wrapped tight around each other under his slick, dark skin; my cousin Yolanda, too, stretching out against a rail-tie-turned-fence-post, her little boy riding a tiny bike with training wheels along the dusty track.
I turn past two girls in braids running sprint ladders along a row of orange cones, and in deep right field I slip in my headphones. The baseball field is a kind of all-purpose gymnasium slash animal pasture; on my first walk around, I pass a herd of brown-and-white goats, headbutting and fussing each other, and two gray horses with a fuzzy brown colt. I round the farthest corner of the field, where three black dogs play ferociously in a long stripe of shade, chasing circles up and down the grass. They collapse to the ground and roll over and tackle each other, delirious with their dog-ness, their mouths hanging open, domesticated fangs flashing against pink gums, growling and laughing and pouncing at shadows. I finish my first lap and break into a run.
I have never been a runner. I hate getting places quickly, can’t bring myself to care about achieving goals like distance covered or mountains climbed. Once, in Guatemala, I climbed a volcano and decided that summits mean nothing to me. I would rather walk two miles through someplace beautiful and end the same place I came from— better that than to walk two miles straight up just to say I reached some peak. I love mountains, but that doesn’t mean I need to see the tops of them. I love motion, it doesn’t mean I need to do it fast.
But life here stresses me in ways I didn’t know were possible, and sometimes the energy I swallow is just too much; my body runs out of space for all the anxiety, the frustration, the suppressed commentaries and desires. I run so my energy goes somewhere. I can feel the want drain out of me as I pound my way around the track. Slow, my shoulders slick with sweat, the music driving me from one loop to the next.
The whole time, people watch me. Maria and the rest of my friends have forbidden me from running anyplace other than the baseball field– a woman alone in these cane fields isn’t safe, and I have volunteer friends with terrifying stories to prove it. So I go to the pley and run circles, eyes tracking me from one side of the field to the next. The tigueres, shady young men from other towns who come to El Valle for baseball practice, shout catcalls that float to my ears in the silences between songs, but even without their voices I can feel their eyes. I practice staring straight ahead: eyelids half-lowered, vision trained on the dirt track in front of me, run eight minutes walk two and then run again, don’t forget to breathe. Everyone has an opinion about me. Everyone watches my every move.
I run and my face burns, brilliant shades of crimson and magenta, the colors fierce and cloudy behind my freckles; once or twice I’ve seen people point and gawk. If I want to run, I have to swallow my shame. I am a spectacle, it is a part of the role I play in this steamy valley town. If I want to do something with my nervous energy other than slam my fists against my cinder block walls (and I have), I have to look straight ahead and not think. I have to run.
At seven everyone goes home except the kids who play by the irrigation ditch, and I keep running circles. A boy with no shirt throws stones at a mango tree. Two girls play hand clap games near third base. Chichi, a boy who used to come to my English class, is practicing wild gymnastic handsprings in the outfield, his movements tight and controlled. My breath cuts hard on my throat, the back of my neck is wet with sweat. I focus on my knees, try to lift my legs a little higher, try not to stumble. A few more minutes.
Up on the hill by the barracks the sun is setting. The clouds are tall and billowing, deep layered grays and blues, and the sun is as strong as it can be at dusk, the light so bright it leaves a hot trail in my vision when I look away. Opaque and motionless against the sun is a single cow— staked out in the grass by the houses, head turned away, frozen as if photographed. This circle and the next circle, this dusk and the one after that, the same cow will be there. Standing still against the sunset.
On the walk home, people greet me and talk, “Oh, but you’ve been practicando,” they say, and smile, comment on my flushed cheeks and my sweat-streaked shoulders. My blood is hot with the sweet, blissful afterburn of my run, and I smile wide and crack jokes and feel no pain; this is the feeling I have been gunning for, this and the impossibly smooth caress of a cool evening breeze on my body, the air sucking away the moisture from my wet skin and making me feel almost cold for the first time all day.
My neighbor Juana, a grandmother who’s grown thick around the middle, who calls me sister, hermana, and sometimes gifts me thick yellow wedges of sweet cornbread, cackles from across her cactus fence— “Running? I can run faster than you. I was a quick one, when I was young,” she pumps her arms back and forth, running in place. Someday, we will have a race from here to Garabito, she says. It’s one of those jokes we play over and over, every time she sees me exercising, every time I pass her house on the way home. I still smile, we still laugh. Every moment is its own kind of routine, driving me along in circles.
I use my shirt to wipe the sweat off my face and I squint at the last haze of sunlight catching in the branches of the cereza tree as I turn the corner home. My house is as I left it— dark, quiet, stuffy with the accumulated heat of the day. All around me are the sounds of nightfall— my little neighbors giggling and shouting at play, the goats bleating their child-like mews from nighttime pens, a few radios playing evangelical sermons and loud, lewd bachata. I unlace my sneakers, kick them off, drink water, watch the sun set.
Tomorrow I will do it all over again. Tomorrow, and the day after that.
Kiti just moved into her new house and it’s adorable, like something off the prairie, totally appropriate for her life on the Haitian frontier. White-washed walls and a high zinc roof and a spotless kitchen with raw wooden tabletops, where we sat drinking coffee and chatting about the future while I watched the shadows shift across the blue wooden shack in the backyard. Sour orange and mango trees grew on the patio, turned the dirt scruffy and soft with dead leaves. That afternoon we made sangria with pineapple and cheap wine and honey. Kiti climbed a tree in her sundress to knock down an orange with a broomstick, and I stood on the ground and laughed and laughed.
After my work fell apart, and my dog died, and the luz disappeared, I went to Elias Piña. It’s a border province, dusty and remote and overlooked, and in a small town almost ten hours from El Valle, my friend Kiti lives in a white cinder block house. She’s an education volunteer with a pretty Tennessee accent and a contagious laugh, and I had owed her a visit for months.
I was biding my time until vacation, two much-anticipated weeks in America to buy things and wear sweatshirts and eat. Desperate to get out of El Valle as soon as possible, I took my last three days in country and spent them with Kiti, eating roasted chicken with her host family across the river from Haiti, and thinking about anything that wasn’t the lonely disaster I left back home.
The days blurred past in the deepening heat, and on Tuesday morning, after what felt like thirty minutes of sleep, my 2:30AM cell phone alarm woke us up, sleeping side by side under Kiti’s gauzey, crooked mosquito net. I dressed quickly and packed my clothes and my toothbrush in my half-empty backpack, the single, buzzing light-bulb casting a harsh glow over the front room.
Before leaving town, the bus passed twice, roaring over the speed bump in front of Kiti’s house to pick up passengers in a distant barrio, and then doubling back for passengers in the center. On its first pass Kiti raced to the front door and flung it open, her long hair crazy, dressed in yoga pants and a nightgown and a cardigan, to watch the bus head towards the barrio. “I am so confused,” she said, the plain talk that comes at two in the morning.
We hug goodbye and I join the four other passengers on the 3AM guagua to the capital. It’s dead dark, and I drift in and out of sleep as we roll towards Santo Domingo– half-lucid dreams about snow and cruise ships and pick-up trucks. I wake with a start when the overhead light flickers on– the driver hops out, the guagua‘s engine idling, to buy a cough-syrup sized plastic cup of ginger tea at a roadside fritura. When he turns the light off again, I catch a glimpse of the woman selling tea– her face lit by candlelight, framed by the walls of a narrow zinc shack. And then we’re gone.
The guagua groans over speed bumps at military checkpoints, and soldiers overdressed in second-hand ski parkas step out of the dark and onto the bus, take a cursory look around, gesture greetings to the driver. No one on the bus looks Haitian, so we get passed over quickly. The soldiers wish us a safe journey, return to fitful sleep-by-turns in the narrow cots of their checkpoint house.
Dawn hits slowly, and the young man on the seat across from me reaches out to tap my shoulder. He’s well dressed– lilac-colored button-down shirt, tucked into clean but worn-looking slacks, shiny black loafers– and he’s been wide awake since the guagua left the border, staring straight ahead. He smiles now, and opens up his hand to offer me a hard candy: doble mentha, square and in a green-and-silver wrapper. I thank him and slip it into the pocket of my cardigan.
Five hours after leaving Kiti and her house in the dark, we reach the capital and daytime– the morning traffic is thick and foul-smelling, motorcycles weaving between packed, ancient minibuses, and Mack trucks covered in dust and belching vast clouds of noxious black smoke. At an intersection near the plaza de la bandera, a motorcycle is inexplicably lifted off the street and wedged awkwardly into the guagua‘s center aisle. When we arrive at my stop, an unremarkable street corner a few blocks north of the Peace Corps office, I have to climb over the back of the seat in front of me to get past the motorcycle. The cobrador lifts my heavy backpack, ushers me fussily to the curb. “Cuidate, querida,” he says, and I nod and shoulder my bag.
Several hours and two bus rides later, and I am sitting in a blue vinyl chair at the Santo Domingo International Airport, exhausted and not a little awed. In the hustle, I forgot to buy myself breakfast before arriving at the airport, and here, on the far side of security, all the prices are in dollars, astronomically beyond my volunteer stipend’s reach. From here ’til Utah, I’ll have to make do with the fifteen-peso piece of pineapple I ate while standing in line at the Delta ticket counter– bought off a street vendor in between guaguas, I consumed my chunk of pineapple the only way I know how: slurping, dripping juice everywhere, drawing disapproving frowns from the doñas next to me in the check-in line.
A voice dings over the intercom, bilingual Spanish-English for the flight to Atlanta, and I send a few last farewell text messages on my Dominican cell phone before turning it off and tucking it into my pocket. My fingers find the hard candy the man on the guagua gave me, and I unwrap it slowly and slide the sticky green disk onto my tongue– mint, menthol. I’m hungry, and cold from the air conditioning, and I can’t believe this is actually happening. For the first time in one long, outrageous year, I’m going home.
America is shocking and lush and fantastic— tucked into my parents’ world of book groups and dinners out and trips to the dog park, I wear sweatshirts everywhere and am overwhelmed by grocery stores. Following my mother on a routine, weekend run to Smith’s, I go slack-jawed and inarticulate at the international foods aisle. “So many kinds of hot sauce…” I murmur. My mother is unimpressed.
The internet is fast and the food is expensive, and I feel comfortable despite myself in the large-scale, sterile world that I’ve been fantasizing about for so many months. I’m stunned by the distance people place between each other– I talk to strangers only when I’m buying something from them. In one of my old favorite coffee shops, I study the other patrons with their deliberate complex espresso drinks and clean clothes and their evidently urgent things to do– a room full of interesting people, and everyone is fiddling with smart phones, iPads, laptops, newspapers, or books, ignoring each other. I squirm in my seat, claustrophobic. How does anyone make friends in this culture? I can’t remember where I ever found community before.
In Southern Utah, the big sweeping wilderness that’s my truest home, I feel perfect. Deep muscles relax and the air tastes right and I almost break into tears as we drive up Boulder Mountain, elk in the meadows and the red rock sweeping out for miles down below. There’s still snow at the summit, and although I’m a little carsick, the beauty of it is deafening. Why was I so eager to leave this place? Why would I ever want to be anywhere that wasn’t right, right here?
And then, one of my last nights in the States, Passover– my favorite holiday. The usual group, friends of my parents, all middle-aged and irreverent and eager to hear about where on earth I’ve been, and I’m happy to be talking to them, to be laughing. I eat crumbly slivers of matzo and chat conspiratorially with the people at my end of the table– I have sat next to these same people, at this same table, eaten this same food, for my whole life. I am suddenly an adult, throwing back glasses of lovely fancy wine with the best of them, and for a minute I’m totally present. Not thinking about the cinder block house and the family that’s waiting for me on this island not as far off as I wish.
New clothes, books, gifts for other volunteers that their families had shipped to my house, photos for my host family, and a single bottle of Sriracha hot sauce– somehow, I fit it back into my backpack, checking the weight limit on my parents’ white bathroom scale. My last morning in the city, it snows. I wake to streets wreathed in white, the treeless branches frosted with heavy, wet layers of it. By afternoon the snow has melted and it’s like springtime again, some of the trees already flowering in baby colors, pinks and whites. I leave at one in the morning, to arrive in Santo Domingo almost twelve hours later– Santo Domingo, where it’s still summer, just like always.
After coming back from America I threw my shoulder into my work like the bulls hauling sugarcane at the grua– blindered, determined. There was never any question of whether I would come back after my two sweet weeks of vacation, in the same way that there has never been any question from day one. Another year of work, endless, uncountable, each hour of every day a thing I can’t number or name– but I know the time is out there, that I will be held accountable for it. This is my commitment, this place and these people. I made my decision a long time ago.
And somehow, it’s okay. The depression that weighted my days before my time in Elias Piña and my weeks in the States is gone, a feeling I can remember but not one that feels true to me anymore. My life is not definitively different– in many ways, my work is still a struggle, and while my luz has been turned back on I could lose it again any day. But I feel better now. New perspective, time to recover… whatever it was, it worked. I have my life back.
Dusk is coming on and I’m in the garden, knife in hand, cutting up a soft green head of butter lettuce from the overcrowded rows. It’s been raining hard this week and the greens popped up in a growth spurt, my small plot suddenly explosive with life. I pull apart the lettuce leaf-by-leaf, drop each one into a pink plastic tub– water and a drop of chlorine bleach, since I live downhill from pigs. I rinse off the taste of bleach with drinking water and dry the leaves on a dish rag. Slice fist-sized, heart-shaped tomatoes from the plant by my front gate, add fresh basil, aceite verde y vinagre, dried oregano from the States. I eat dinner from a banged-up metal mixing bowl, sitting in a plastic chair and watching the sun set through the blue-gray metal bars of my galeria.
Darkness sets in and my small cinder-block room becomes a kind of universe. No one visits me after eight, and the nights last forever– I listen to Drake at low volume and bounce around my house, read books, text my friend Dave in the Cibao about what he had for dinner, write stories and watch movies and wait to be tired. I love these nights, have learned to look forward to them. These hours are perfectly, utterly my own.
I put my puttering on hold to do battle with pests of various sizes and species: pale cockroaches with long, delicate antennae and translucent wings layered over their bottle-brown backs; gray-green frogs surprising me as they fling themselves from the top of my refrigerator onto the metal window-blinds, amphibian skydivers; and tiny golden beetles that swarm my bare CFL light bulb and settle in disgusting swarms on the white-and-brown curtains that split my room in half.
And sometimes, there’s a fierce kind of loneliness that comes at me deep into these evenings, in between cooking adventures and phone calls and bug killing. I love my nights, but the isolation– of this life, of these hours– wears me down. If I just had someone, someone to count on unequivocally, I think this would feel more sustainable. It’s been a year since I’ve had any real relationship and it is exhausting, a kind of slow burn that builds up to this– a broad, reaching loneliness that makes my behavior around men unreliable, high-stakes, embarrassing and undeniably weird. On the phone with Kiti, I joke that, “I’d date any adult human who would have me, really,” and it’s almost true. When I joined the Peace Corps, I was never warned that crippling, judgment-altering loneliness would be an occupational hazard.
I don’t trust my own instincts anymore. The months of accumulated loneliness have warped what used to be a perfectly normal sense of social norms, and now the first words that come to my lips, the first actions I take, aren’t always logical– they are strange. Excessively personal text messages, premature and half-baked declarations of affection. What is wrong with me? I have never been this person, not before. It’s eerie to watch myself dissolve.
Before, in the long blank months when I was depressed, deep in the well-acknowledged “One Year Blues,” all of this destroyed me, added another layer of misery onto my already flattened life. But now it’s kind of funny it’s own sick way– yep, I’ve become an unrecognizable and desperate spinster at the advanced age of 23. Now I can laugh about it. Before it was just another thing that made me sad.
To celebrate my return from the States, we go out in the pueblo. At night the town gets rich with shadows, develops depth and layers that I never see while I’m here grocery shopping or going to meetings during the day. The streets back in the barrios are wide and empty, and we walk down the dead center, weaving a little and talking about which street food stands are the best, the yellow one by the farmacia or the blue one by the park. Everyone has an opinion.
The shadows from the houses and the palm trees usher us down the street like waves, every one a different shade of dark, double-striping Cass and Adam’s polo shirts. Anna and I are in our going-out clothes, Dominican and ubiquitous– cotton tank tops in bright colors, skinny jeans, 200-peso gladiator-style chancletas, mine white and hers purple, decorated with non-functional zippers and shiny rivets. All nights out in the pueblo start the same way– coffee at Adam’s house in Barrio Las Quinientas, showers and changes of clothes and the first drinks of the night, and then the long walk to the centro for cheap, greasy dinner, the stuff of dreams.
Me and my three closest volunteer neighbors pick a bench and settle in– a hot sandwich in one hand, a flimsy plastic cup of cold beer in the other, surrounded by people laughing and dancing and listening to merengue on the blown speakers of their cell phones. We gossip and plot the rest of our night, and I’m caught up completely– I am so busy loving my chimi de pierna and my friends that I don’t have time to feel lonely. Around us, people shout and play-fight and gossip just the same, their voices forming a sweet upbeat universe, meshing with the bachata and salsa from nearby bars and the sound of passing motorcycles. Somewhere behind it all, the wind rustles the heavy, ripe pods in the tamarind tree, and the stars hang behind high, spun-sugar clouds. Sky as dark as a cafecito. I’m back.
Tomorrow we have a workshop in a far-off batey, so we sit down to plan things out over stale, sweet crackers and mugs of hot chocolate thickened with corn starch. Our documentation equipo coordinadora has four members: Maria, my many-talented host mother, passionate but a terrible listener, gives long speeches that have nothing to do with the questions at hand. Andres and Mateito, our two 18-year-old boys affected by Resolution 12, drift back and forth between long, dumb silences and pronouncements framed exclusively in generalities. I take notes, ask leading questions, and struggle to keep us on track while my little host sisters interrupt constantly, demanding snacks or cinco pesos.
The agenda is simple– decide on content for our meeting in Batey 17 tomorrow, and assign who’s talking about what. We sit around the wooden dining room table, the nicest piece of furniture in Maria’s zinc and cinder block house, all of us sitting slightly forward on our chairs, slick from the plastic wrap that covers the upholstery. Mateito is coming off a two minute monologue on why we need a Facebook page, and we still don’t have a single useful piece of information on paper. I try to get the boys focused, but then Pastor Tiswa stops by to say hello, and we all stand up, and then we’re exchanging greetings and proffering chairs and talking about nothing, and everything is just completely derailed.
By the time Tiswa leaves and we get reorganized, it starts to rain. The downpour on the zinc roof builds a thick wall of sound around us, and we sit without talking, sipping our hot chocolate and spitting whole cloves, splinters of cinnamon stick, and malageta into our palms.
The work I’ve chosen for myself has tied me up in a struggle, but it’s not really mine to fight. My family is Haitian and Dominican-Haitian, marginalized, discriminated against in law and in life, but I’m not really a part of their community. The work our equipo does is important– but I should not be the voice, or the face, of our projects. So often, it’s the American voices that shine through, and I struggle to stop myself– I talk too much, always. Well intentioned, but it’s really not my place.
Our planning meetings are my attempt to shift the focus away from myself, to get Maria and Andres and Mateito organized enough to do this work on their own, so I can be invisible– taking notes in the back row, playing the song we listen to at the beginning of every meeting, holding up posters and passing out fliers on cue.
But how can I possibly step back when the team refuses to step forward?
Later on, on the phone with my volunteer neighbor Anna, I stand under the cereza tree and rage about the documentation team. “I feel like I am the only person who cares what happens,” I tell her, “How long do I keep banging my head against this thing before I decide it won’t work?”
I wonder, sometimes, what I am doing here.
The whole week had been a bad one, almost comical in its complete, profound terribleness. My electricity had been cut off– four houses connected to the same cheap breaker box and all those households dependent on the church to pay our light bill, in a long international chain of missionaries and misunderstood promises and local political intrigue. Of course, we were three months late on the bill. Of course, no one wanted to talk about it. I tried to investigate a few times, but it led nowhere– no Dominican wants to be the bearer of bad news. And so when one day my single bare light bulb wouldn’t flick on, and when one day turned to two, and when my neighbors a couple houses over were still playing their sole Christian reggaeton CD over and over, from dawn until dusk, like they do when they have electricity, I knew the company had cut us off.
And then a heat wave hit. No electricity means no fan, and I sweat in slow wet streaks that framed the sides of my face, tiny sparkling drops lining my upper lip like a mustache. With no power, we also lose our water– it’s pumped up from the well by an electric pump. I rapidly ran through the half-tank of water I had stored inside my house, and spent my days staring at the big blue sky and hoping, endlessly, for rain.
A few days later it did finally rain, and that was the day Mike and I had the fight. It made sense that it all came crashing down over the phone, me standing rain-streaked and crying under the mango tree in Maria’s backyard. Still, phone calls are where we are at our most honest and familiar– I just didn’t expect him to get so angry, to be so mean. We had been friends for almost a year, and he never lied to me. I just wanted him to be something that he wasn’t. And I said as much, on the phone, and he just exploded.
I started to cry almost immediately, and we kept talking, him monologuing and me stumbling back and forth across the same ideas. I told him I couldn’t be his friend, and he told me he was sorry, and I hung up. The phone screen was wet in a spiderweb pattern, “Llamada terminada, 20:34” distorted by the rain.
I cried. Big sobs from the bottom of my body, my shoulders nodding forward, my face all wet and wound-up, and Maria grabbed my wrist and pulled me into her room and sat next to me on the bed, our shoulders touching, and she pulled back my hair with a rubber band, asking what is it, what’s wrong, ¿que tienes?
She handed me a small green washcloth and I wiped it across my face, shaking my head, still crying, and struggled to find the words– my Spanish felt distorted by this wall of sadness and I kept slipping into English, “No es nada. E’ un muchacho, a boy, it’s always a boy, pero… it’s stupid, yo siempre sabía que iba a terminar asi.”
I was thankful for the rain, the noise on the zinc giving me some sense of privacy. A few feet away on the other side of a thin curtain, my host sisters watched cable cartoons on low volume, the three of them ominously silent.
Two days later, still without water or luz, my puppy stops eating. I’ve started calling him Capitán, a silly name my aunt gave him at random, and he’s good company– sweet, cheerful, eager to bark at any living thing that walks past my house after dark. It’s not unusual for dogs to get a little sick here, but after my first dog, Luna, died from eating rat poison, I fear the worst. Late one afternoon, I squat next to Capitán in a spot of sun in the galeria, try to coax him to eat some raw egg and milk from an empty margarine container. He is unimpressed, nudges the plastic bowl with his black nose, and tucks his head back under his tail, eyes closed, already falling asleep. He seems unsteady on his feet, unwilling to walk very far, and I let him be. That night on the phone, I tell Anna that I’m worried, “I don’t really know what to do,” I tell her, “I don’t think I can handle the death of another dog.”
The next morning Capitán is walking like a drunk, weaving back and forth and stumbling. I carry him inside and lay him down on an old t-shirt on the concrete floor by my bed, hoping against reason that he’ll sleep it off, and I head to a 9am meeting. When I come back, I find a small, orange pile of dog poop on the floor just inches from Capitán’s bed. He looks up at me, sad and messy with his own waste, and I know things are not right.
There is no veterinarian in my pueblo. There is no veterinarian in the next one. The closest cities I can think of where there might be a reputable vet are La Romana and the capital, each of them easily two hours away on packed public buses. And even if I managed to get to a clinic, money would be a problem– volunteer salaries are low and private veterinary clinics are expensive. We are a week from the end of our pay period, and I have a little over a thousand pesos in my bank account, about $25. Transportation to and from the capital alone would eat up almost half that.
I wrap Capitán in my beach towel and flag down a motorcycle on the dirt road in front of my house, heading for the pueblo. There’s a farm supply store there that sells medicine for pigs and cows, and I figure they must have something for a sick dog. On the motorcycle Capitán perks up with that universal canine love for moving vehicles, and he pokes his nose out into the wind as we shift onto the highway. He’s started to drool, long clear strands of saliva sticking to the beach towel and streaking my arm.
At the agrovetrinaria, I pay 400 pesos for antibiotics, which an uninterested teenager injects into Capitán’s side without much fanfare, over the glass counter at the front of the store. Despite myself, I am embarrassed as I hand over the cash. I swore that I wouldn’t be ridiculous about this dog, wouldn’t baby him, wouldn’t make myself look like a fool. My neighbors struggle to find the money to get identical treatment for their children, a clean syringe-ful of antibiotics the endlessly lauded, all-purpose cure, and here I am, spending half my bank account on a one-eared dog.
I take him home. He can’t walk now, and he’s panting. Still without electricity or water, I wipe the dog drool off my arm with a rag and use the last five minutes of charge on my cell phone to call a Peace Corps doctor, a well-known dog lover, who tells me that Capitán may have distemper, a viral infection, and that all I can do is wait it out. It’s hot, late afternoon. In the ditch in front of my house, Capitán finds a patch of shade and collapses in it, his slobber-soaked paws now muddy with dirt. Within an hour or two, he’s crying out with pain, high-pitched like a scream, his legs twitching in seizure, and I sit in my house on the floor and cry. I can’t be with him. It’s too much.
When he stops yelping I go outside and look at him, my hands clenched to fists, and watch for the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his belly– still breathing. I wish he would die, wish I could find some way to kill him that would cause less pain that what he’s feeling now. I swore I wouldn’t treat this dog like a person, but he’s a living thing and he’s suffering. I can barely look at him, let alone put him out of his misery. In between seizures, he pants hard, like he’s been chasing a motorcycle.
Months before Capitán’s arrival at my little block house, when I was still reeling from the sudden absence of my first dog Luna, I began to watch every sleeping thing for breath. I woke dogs and cats with a gentle toe poke, a whistle, a spoken name– all to watch their eyelids flutter, to see them stretch a soft paw away from their bodies.
My friends scared me, too– in a shared hotel room in Santo Domingo, all of us sleeping three to a bed to save money, I fixed my eye on the curve of a friend’s body, his back to me, the room bright with streetlight from the open persianas. I waited for his ribs to rise just a little, the horizon of his skin curving up against the air around him. I pressed the palm of my hand against his back and felt his heart beat, slow with sleep, an assurance.
Every sleeping thing looks to me like it might be dead. I feel that slow bolt of panic, of knowing, and I can’t help but react. My friends I don’t wake, I just watch them. Try to breathe through my own panic. Await their quiet inhale, my relief.
The day after my dog dies I stay in my house, eating mindlessly and napping for hours at a time. Unwilling to engage with my neighbors, I tell them I am sick, and Julia brings me a huge bowl of yellow soup, chunks of carrot and pink, texture-less salami floating at the surface. I finally charge my phone next door and talk to Anna, who says she’s worried about me, do I want to come stay with her? I say no. I don’t want to see anyone. I just need to be sad for a while.
That afternoon, I close the blinds and the front door and pump the sound on my computer as high as it will go, turn on some big sad music that’ll make a wall of sound, thick and loud as rain on zinc. I slip under my mosquito net, into my bed, and I wrap myself around a pillow and cry, the music blurring out the noise so my neighbors can’t hear me. I sleep for hours.
I think about the resilience of human beings. I have struggled through the death of one dog, and then another, and I feel marked by their passing– marked by their pain and the way they disappear but their bodies stay behind. I think about human death, think about the tragedies that we live through– violent crimes, gunshot wounds, the experience of watching another human being die. I can’t know what this is like but I can know that to survive, to witness, is a testament to some grand thing about humanity. It’s not about surviving with grace or coping or any of that, it’s just about getting dressed and drinking coffee and having conversations with other people, about continuing to live while knowing the fragility, the crudeness of it all. We’re all just made of soft things that can snap and bruise and bleed. It’s a miracle we’ve made it as far as we have.
I never thought it would be this hard. I’m still here and the months keep passing and there’s so much time left. These have not been the best weeks. I don’t feel abandoned exactly, so much as stripped bare. I feel more naked and more aware of the reality of things– that things are not always just about to turn a corner, that sometimes things get bad and stay that way. I’m not sad exactly. The fight has gone out of me, the desperation and the need and all that. I am lonely, but loneliness is not a chronic condition. I have my books, and my writing, and my garden and my coffee maker and my friends. Life is not a tragedy, even if it seems like one on my off days.
I am not always right, and I don’t want to be. If my time here has taught me anything, it’s that I’m young. And not young the way children are, or even the way I used to feel when I was in college, but young in the sense that I’m only just becoming whoever it is I am supposed to be. I change constantly, even if my friends don’t see it– because we never see our friends change, they are too close to us and all we notice are new hairstyles, not the slight list of their frown at a thing they didn’t hate before, not a new crease in the corners of their eyes. The real changes go unnoticed because we are too busy loving each other and talking about ourselves.
At the end of the day, I have this. Sure, these weeks have been lonesome and blinding, I have lost a dog and a friend and some faith, and my heart is a little broken. I make mistakes like everyone does, but I am trying. I am living boldly, even when I feel like a fool. I am many things, but I am not a coward.
So one day I’ll wake up, and make coffee and put some peanut butter on bread, and I’ll sit on one of my plastic chairs and feel the sun and it will be okay. At least I’m feeling something. Sadness did not kill me, and it will not define my life. Heartache goes and something earnest and whole comes in its place. These terrible days have an end.
It’s been breezy this winter, and the corn stalks hush against each other past the ditch and the cereza tree in the yard. My puppy, scruffy and patchy-furred, is asleep on the concrete stoop. A scrap of old green t-shirt, left behind by my brother before he left the island for Spain, is tied around the puppy’s neck. He awakes every few minutes to assess the patio– the neighbor’s plump chickens picking along, a dog that belongs to all of us sulking near the edge of my garden. The puppy barks sometimes, and his voice is already that of a much larger dog. I buy dog food for him in the pueblo, and he goes through almost two pounds a week. He’s going to be a monster, I joke with my friend Yubi, y guapo que está. We laugh and gossip, and the puppy goes back to sleep on the concrete, still warm from the late afternoon sun.
I’ve only had this puppy for a few days, and he doesn’t have a name yet. His arrival has marked a new onslaught of questions from friends, neighbors, small children– ¿Y tu otro perro? And your other dog, where is it?
Se murió, I say, Alguien la envenenó. I’m not sad about it anymore. They’re just the facts.
In July I adopted Luna out of a cardboard box at the beach. A friend of a friend had found this puppy by the side of the road, and I had been sort of casually looking for a dog, and this one was cute, and I just said yes and that was it. I spent five hours on a packed public bus with the puppy in my lap, her whining and squirming the whole way, and on the motorcycle back to my community she puked on my leg. She was tiny, and I don’t remember much about the first month, only that she whined and that I worried, both of us more or less constantly.
When I moved out of my host family’s house, Luna came with me, ever the companion. At night she slept under the table while I watched movies on my laptop, and during the day she followed me everywhere– once, into the principal’s office of the El Valle elementary school, which caused a minor scandal. Children would call Luna’s name before they’d call mine.
When I was growing up in the States my family had a dog, but a family dog is not a child’s responsibility, and Luna was the first dog that was really mine. Dog ownership, as it turns out, is not a very romantic thing– when dogs are not charming, they are irritating. They have needs and preferences and desires. In September, Luna started refusing her expensive dog food and would eat only rice and fried eggs. I fretted endlessly about getting her spayed– the closest vet was two hours away, and the procedure cost over half of my monthly living allowance. Even her flea treatments were expensive, and it seemed that nothing ever really worked. The label on her 400 peso flea collar said it lasted ten months, but I still found glossy brown insects weaving through the fur of her ears after week two.
Luna made friends with the scruffy neighbor dog, Picaro, and I began to blame him for her constant flea infestations. I would yell at Picaro, chase him off my porch while brandishing whatever object was at hand (a plastic bucket, a paintbrush, a broom). I felt responsible for Luna, invested in her well-being, and perpetually guilty. I had Peace Corps friends who would ferry their full grown German Shepards on six-hour bus rides to take them to veterinary missions, friends who had used their savings back home to pay for spaying and neutering at private clinics in the capital. But it just felt wrong to me, and it was so much work– and in the day-to-day, Luna was already so lucky. I fed her Puppy Chow and played with her, and she went almost everywhere I did. What more could a dog possibly deserve?
At night, we had a routine. I made dinner as it was getting dark out, chopping onions and red peppers on a worn plastic cutting board on the front porch. I boiled water for pasta and fixed myself dinner, and Luna would eat the leftover noodles from a metal mixing bowl and then curl up under the table, where she would nap imperturbably for hours. I’d do dishes and settle in for the night– chatting with friends on my phone, reading, writing letters I would never manage to send.
When 11 came, I’d get up and crack the door and kneel beside it, call Luna’s name. Sleepy, stretching like a cat, she’d pad over and stick her head out for a pat. I’d scratch her behind the ears and point her towards the door, and she’d let herself out for the night. Luna gone, I’d double-lock my door against the crack of darkness and sleep until dawn.
A few nights before Thanksgiving, Luna and I danced through our evening routine and I slept late, till mid-morning. I never tied her up, so she explored the barrio on her own, stopping by my host grandmother’s house to nose for scraps and wrestle with the other dogs there in the mornings. On this particular day, she wasn’t waiting for me when I unlocked the door– but I went about my business. Brushed my teeth over the drainage ditch, swept, put on coffee, read for a bit. No sign of Luna.
Suddenly it’s almost ten, and after three cups of coffee I stand and walk to the bathroom. The door is cracked, and I can see a sliver of sink and trash can, and there is Luna, her legs splayed wide like she’s deep in some afternoon nap. I call her name. Once, twice. And I know it’s not right. I know she’s not right.
I push the door wider with my foot and take a step back, and oh gosh. I find myself almost afraid of this body that I’ve spent so many hours with, afraid to see the face of it, because I know after seeing her face that it’ll be real. And it is real. Her gums are shiny like plastic, and her teeth look dry and flat. Her eyes are not the worst part– they are half-closed, black like always. I look for a long time at the slow curve below her rib cage, wait and wait and wait for it to rise in a breath. It is not happening.
I take a few steps back and fall into one of my plastic chairs. I let the door creak back on its hinges so I stare at her body headless, her four legs laid out as if in sleep, and I find myself frozen. I’m not crying so much as slightly breathless, shocked by this totally unexpected turn of events. I let her out just last night. I pat her on the head and she slipped out the door like we always do. Why did I sleep so late?
And then a part of me is horribly relieved. Thank god she’s not still hanging on by just a thread, I think. Thank god I don’t have to watch her die or feel I could have saved her. It’s a terrible feeling, this relief, but it comes over me in a wave. This is bad, but oh it could have been so much worse.
My morning becomes an impenetrable unmanageable thing. I feel an intense aversion to her body, don’t want to touch it, don’t want to be anywhere near it, let alone have it pressed into my memory so strong. So I do the only thing that I can think of: I leave.
At my host family’s house, sitting on a plastic chair while Maria putters in the kitchen, it takes me a good thirty minutes to tell her what happened and until I start crying she thinks it’s a joke. My host family all know Luna, the little girls played with her endlessly when she was small, and I think they’re shocked to see me cry. I confess that I have no idea what to do with the body, that I simply left her on the bathroom floor, there, in an endless nap. Maria makes a few calls, and by the time I walk home a few hours later, the body is gone. I move through the day like a ghost.
It seems inevitable that she was poisoned. It’s not uncommon here, and my old neighbor tells me that a few months back one of his pigs got loose and the same thing happened– animals rooting around in other people’s fields find rat poison tucked away between plants for just that purpose. And Luna was too friendly, always approaching strangers, fearless in the gardens and patios of others. It got her into trouble. For weeks, people ask me where she’s gone, and if I cried. I am honest and tell them yes– Imaginate, imagine it, I tell them. She was my friend.
I am constantly amazed here, by the way creatures grow and change. I see dogs everywhere– Puppies wandering the streets, dogs investigating the plants in front of my house, shy strange animals lurking filthily in the corners of colmados and on the corner outside the butchershop. If I don’t know them, I yell at them just like everybody else. I see miserable, harried dogs in heat, backed into corners by neighborhood dogs of all different sizes. I hear dogs bark endlessly, night after night. Every few months, a friend’s dog has puppies or a neighbor’s dog dies. It is nothing. Their lives cycle fast and endlessly, and each dog fills the same role as the last.
In America, I never saw anything grow. Dogs are raised in isolation, puppies something that I interacted with primarily in photographic form on the internet, their cuteness heralded as a kind of distant, mythological thing. But here I watch their skulls grow solid and their bodies expand, ribs and hipbones disappearing under fur and fat, watch their teeth fall out and appear again, low and jagged like mountain ranges, each jaw its own topography. The rate of change is unbelievable. I leave for a week and when I return it’s as if months have passed.
My family and neighbors are nonplussed. For me this is all so new– in America I don’t even see children age, each family so closed in on itself that the very young, like the very old, grow and change in buildings apart from us, built just for them, in silence. I went to school and college and then entered the “real world,” to live my life in an airless bubble of twenty-somethings, all of us young forever, as desperately immune to immaturity as we were to old age. Every five years, perhaps, someone dies or someone is born. But there is nothing in the day-to-day. People live and dream in privacy.
Here my family is immense and varied, and my old man neighbor is best friends with a four-year-old named Irene. Children are chastised and cared for by older sisters and aunts and cousins, and when I talk to kids the questions come in cycles: Are you sisters? No. Cousins? Yes. Neighbors? Yes. And friends, amigitas? Claro. Lives are lived out intertwined and ageless, and everyone is connected by blood or geography.
And the scenery itself, it changes too. I mean, the plants, my god, the plants– my small garden is this kind of spectacular wonder, dry beans exploding into leaves as veiny and thin as the wings of bats, the thick green necks of squash seedlings pushing aside pebbles and earth and unfolding with a force that stuns me. I watch Tati and Laura wander back down from the loma, a sleepy donkey between them laden with short, stout bananas and huge earth-caked root vegetables as thick as my thigh. Day after day, this wealth of green things pouring out of the mountain soil like magic. I watch my plants grow and am stunned, glittering with amazement, at the way these tiny lifeless things explode into sustenance. Changes are quiet and they are everywhere.
And so the months pass. My house is quiet and at night I lock my door early, ill at ease without a dog to bark at strangers and keep me from feeling alone. One day, drinking a cup of coffee on my grandmother’s porch, she hands me six plantanos and a puppy. I take them both. I give him a bath and tie a piece of fabric around his neck and feed him powdered milk in an old margarine container, and just like that he’s mine, and home. I fry the plantains for dinner, and he eats one.
I find I can’t bring myself to name this new puppy, watching him drift in and out of sleep on the porch. This dog is an animal. He will grow and change and eventually, maybe sooner than I think, just like Luna, he will die. I value the company of this small soft creature, but he is not a human being, and I don’t value him as such. His needs are simpler than I realized.
Dogs, they are companion animals. They cannot kill mice, they cannot carry you to your farm on the loma, they cannot lay eggs or be slaughtered for food. Dogs are friendly and they bark occasionally, if they’re good ones. Dogs eat your leftovers and carry your sandals out behind the latrine and chew them into tiny tooth-marked sparks of plastic.
I like this new dog. I am happy to feed him and to play with him, and on the long lonely days I spend here, I am grateful for his company and his affection and his bigger-than-logical bark. But he is a dog. He might die, like my last dog did, of poison or disease or a wayward motorcycle on the main road. I don’t lose sleep over this possibility. No matter how short his life, I am giving him more thought and attention than any of his canine siblings growing up Dominican– despite my distance from home, I can’t shake certain Americanisms. I still pet my dog, still let him sit in my lap, still talk to him in an awful baby voice even I can only half believe. But he’s just a dog.
So the puppy sleeps, and life goes on. I let my family call him what they want– Campeón, Wisi, Superman, Gacho, Sol. It doesn’t really matter. My dog, just like everything else around me, is in motion, and the only certainty we share is the moment.
Tilo’s birth certificate is the color of coffee and the texture of cloth. It’s been folded and unfolded a thousand times; along each fold, there’s a deep fault-line tear. Some of the sections are pulling away like hangnails, and in places the old typewriter ink has been wiped away to nothing.
And then some fool gave Maria a stapler, and now it’s a mostly-disintegrated original birth certificate full of crooked staples, the metal bursting through the backside of its paper skin like stab wounds. Tilo’s papers aren’t the only ones that have fallen victim to Maria’s haphazard stapling techniques– I discover other birth certificates and identity cards that have been stapled to one another with abandon, some belonging to different people.
In short, the archives are a mess. Maria is my project partner. She’s also my host mother, laundry service, best friend, lunch cook, dog sitter, meeting organizer, and general savior– without her, I would be nowhere in this town. She may be incompetent at organizing papers, but her community organizing skills are the stuff of legend. I ask her to spread the word about a meeting in Batey 15, and when we arrive, almost fifty people are waiting for us in the church, everyone on time, waiting politely for the event to start. She’s charming, persistent, articulate, and knows how to get people’s attention. She has a 9th grade education.
Maria’s only a few years older than me, but her life has followed wholly a different track. Around the time I was brooding my way through high school, wearing ill-fitting polo shirts and strutting around the literary magazine office, Maria was pregnant with her first child, getting married to Juanito, and about to drop out of her first year of liceo. In her wedding photos, water-damaged and stained from when Hurricane George flooded her house, she looks terrified in a rented ruffle-covered wedding dress. Her smile is strained and toothy, and the rain damage blurs the upper part of her face and her eyes.
I went on to college, struggled through predictable crises of identity, made friends, got drunk, traveled. Maria’s relationship with her husband took a nasty turn, and he started beating her. Around the time I was submitting term papers on Beowulf and Saint Augustine, Maria’s oldest brother Papo attacked Juanito with a broken bottle on the church patio, retribution for a beating so terrible that Maria’s eyes had swollen shut.
After Papo’s attack, things quieted down. Maria gave birth to her third daughter, and found religion with the evangelicals who lived and worked by the railroad tracks. I took a semester off to travel when the stress of a full course load and two part-time jobs put me on anti-depressants. Maria went to church three times a week and raised her daughters. Juanito spent more and more time away from the house, and Maria did not complain.
And now we see each other every day. Maria is shorter than me, wider and thicker than she looks in her faded wedding photos. She wears her cropped, relaxed hair pulled back in a spiny plastic clip shaped like a teardrop. When I don’t walk up to her house for lunch, she calls me in a panic at three o’ clock– I saved you a plate, where are you? I’ve gained ten pounds since I arrived in El Valle.
When I leave town, she checks on my house for me, walks down to open the windows on the day I come back so it’s not too stuffy when I arrive. She sends me sweet oranges and grapefruit. She lends me spectacular three-inch heels for Sunday church. And she has become the most important leader for my project, the actual work that I do in between the laptop television and the fried egg sandwiches.
Together, Maria and I work on documentation. In most countries, and certainly in the States, a child is born and automatically receives a birth certificate. Logical, since all the paper certifies is that the child was born. But in the Dominican Republic, especially for women who give birth outside a hospital, and especially for women of Haitian descent, birth certificates are elusive. The process is insanely complex– copies of the documents of both parents, signed letters confirming the child’s gender and name, documents regarding baptism and school attendance, and little two-by-two passport photos.
All these requirements wouldn’t be such a problem if birth certificates weren’t so incredibly important. Without documents, people in the Dominican Republic do not legally exist– they can’t study past the 8th grade, open bank accounts, work outside of agriculture or domestic help, get married, or declare their own children, if or when they have them. They also can’t vote, suspending their ability to advocate politically for their own rights. People without papers are stateless, citizens of nowhere. It is a human rights disaster.
Worse, a new law called Resolution 12 has suspended the documents of Dominicans who already have papers– young people who have attended high school and university, who have lived complete lives, are suddenly unable to move forward. The law targets Dominicans of Haitian descent, retroactively punishing parents (or grandparents) for declaring their children with fichas, a formerly legal form of identification distributed by sugarcane companies. In the zonas cañeras, or sugarcane producing regions like where El Valle is located, the number of people affected by Resolution 12 is huge.
So Maria and and I stand over my table and sort through stacks of dog-eared manila folders. I came to this town to run environmental education youth groups, but soon realized that these kids had bigger problems that throwing their lollipop wrappers in my front yard. A quarter of the teenagers I work with have problemitas with their papers– and, when we surveyed the community, we found numbers closer to a third. Suddenly, teaching about the water cycle seemed less important, especially when I realized kids only came to my youth group meetings because they had been legally barred from a public education, and had time to kill.
So I’m an Environment volunteer, but I spend all my time re-organizing Maria’s case files, talking on the phone with teenage girls from other bateyes, and waiting around in a pencil skirt at government offices. As the weeks pass, Maria has become the leader– she does the interviews, makes the contacts, passes on the information. But as long as she adheres to the popular Dominican practice of recording important information on one inch squares of scrap paper (which, generally, I find stapled to unexpected surfaces), my work is just as important. She is the face of the project, organizing people and building relationships with the disgruntled employees of public offices. But Maria doesn’t know how to maintain the archives or do research or type reports. I fill in the gaps so she can always have the information she needs.
My whole life, I’ve struggled to make myself indispensable– to do better, more, different than the people around me. To be noticed and acknowledged for my work. But my life in this country has an expiration date, and if I want my work to be sustainable, I have to do things that other people can eventually do without me. For a project to be worthwhile, it has to be something that can happen even if I’m not around. I think maybe this approaches something like selflessness. It’s a huge challenge to my ego– my invisibility does not feel like success, but I know it must be. Sustainability is not as sexy as the internet would have us believe. Making your work dispensable, replaceable, and replicable, feels distinctly un-American.
Maria has the words to convince people from the smallest, most distant bateyes that the struggle to declare their children is the first step towards a life beyond poverty, and I have the skills to keep everything organized and ensure the information we distribute is correct. It’s an unexpected relationship, but our system works; I find myself standing back, letting Maria do the talking. In our own way, we are making an impact. After home visits or meetings, we walk back to her house along the dusty main road, sucking on menthol-flavored hard candies and making plans.
For a few years, my life and Maria’s are running parallel. Our needs and days are still different– late at night, I’ll be watching Top Chef on my laptop and eating handfuls of raisins; she’ll be finishing the dishes from dinner and putting her oldest girls to bed. But our lives are linked, however unexpectedly. As much as anyone, Maria has made this town a home for me. She’s the reason I’m still here.
To learn more about documentation and statelessness in the Dominican Republic, check out the Open Society Foundations statelessness initiative, or this project, from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. For a Spanish-language resource on Resolution 12, a current law affecting Dominicans of Haitian descent, try reconoci.do, a project of the Jesuit Service for Refugees and Migrants in Santo Domingo.
The ex-pat Italians are old, and they all wear faded cotton tank-tops that show the stretch marks on their sagging triceps, suntan liver spots on their necks and forearms. The men have short poofs of white hair, sometimes dyed an unconvincing auburn, and the women sport thick dirty blonde manes, splayed out across their shoulders like a beached octopus. The elders wander up and down the beach; men struggling through the sand to their reserved umbrellas and beach loungers, women leaning heavily on the muscular caramel forearms of their Dominican “friends,” handsome young men who reap considerable financial benefit from the long weekends they spend with the Italians.
In a half-abandoned beach town just outside the capital, it’s just us and them. The Italians talk too much, but they’re inoffensive and forgiven any sins for the fantastic pizza restaurants they open along the waterfront. The food is expensive but we’re feeling spendy, me and a handful of volunteer friends here on a rare vacation. After a conference in the capital, we set aside two days for sun and late nights and the sweet freedom of life outside our communities. The people who live in this beach town are strangers. I can wear short skirts and drink in public and have conversations with my male friends, and there are no consequences. We are just like the Italians: foreign stereotypes, young Americans talking too loud and wearing rubber flip-flops and blending into the backdrop.
We celebrate our anonymity with abandon, moderation suddenly impossible and overrated. On Saturday, we start drinking early and walk two miles down the beach to a karaoke bar. Time passes in fits and starts– the DJ playing American pop music on the stereo, the flash and glow of projected music videos, shots of cheap rum, a few haphazard games of billiards, dancing salsa and merengue alongside leery capitaleños with slicked-back hair.
My friends scatter into smaller knots, and we slip past the lax security at the all-inclusive resort. Surrounded by wealthy light-skinned Dominicans and Europeans on vacation, we duck through the crowd to a wide open space in front of the stage. The band is a reggae group from Santo Domingo, and we sway blissfully to music, dance with each other, feel the sand work its way into our sandals. We walk home with arms draped over each others’ shoulders, harmonizing to “Stand by Me.” The waves make low hushing sounds against the beach. It’s almost dawn.
Back in the States, our jobs were day jobs– we worked, we went home, and in the privacy of our houses we could do and be whoever we wanted. Our neighbors’ opinions of us had no effect on our ability to make lattes or teach sixth grade or build houses– because work life and real life were completely separate. I clock out, and my work relationships don’t exist until I walk through the doors again the next day.
Here there is no such thing as time off, and work and life are irrevocably intertwined. If Cunina sees me drinking on my porch, she will tell her cousins, and none of them will come to my meetings. If Julia thinks I am missing too many Sunday cultos at church, she’ll stop offering me coffee and her children will suddenly disappear from my youth group. If I ask what happened, no one will give me a straight answer because no one wants to deliver bad news.
So when we leave our communities we find ourselves suddenly shameless, surrounded by people with whom we can make mistakes and speak frankly and not fear any repercussions for our work. On vacation, I forget my site, forget my host family, forget my dog and my house and my projects. All I see are my friends, making pineapple sangria in a hotel bathroom and shouting, laughing, over American hip-hop loud on someone’s laptop speakers. We are present. We have no regrets.
I hate to leave the beach, and on Sunday, nursing our hangovers and snacking on avocado and toast, we let it drag. Mike and Carlos and I walk down to the beach, towels swung over our shoulders as we drink cool water with sliced lime from plastic bottles. We abandon our clothes on the sand and sink into the ocean, and I hold my plastic 100 peso sunglasses above the waves as I dunk my head underwater. The surf is rough, and I get a mouthful of salt and tromp back to the shore alone. Without my glasses, the beach is a watercolor– bodies fading into each other, the sky bleeding down into the ocean, a distant raincloud like a smeared thumbprint over the half-finished high-rise hotels. I listen to the boys crack jokes, their voices hazy behind the sound of distant radios and breaking waves.
When we finally do part ways– Carlos and Mike across the highway for a bus towards the capital, and me up the road for a ride back East– we separate reluctantly. No one ever knows when we’ll see each other next. We exchange hugs, hand clasps, high fives. I shoulder my backpack, heft my plastic grocery bag, and pick a spot under an uva de playa tree to squint at the placards on the buses as they fly past.
An hour later, my bus comes to a rapid and ungraceful halt before me, and the driver’s assistant grabs my elbow and all but carries me aboard. The air conditioning is blasting, musica romantica on the speakers, the old man next to me slurping graphically on half a sweet orange. I close my eyes, let my head fall back, settle in for the ride. I am surrounded by people, but for the first time in days, I feel alone.
And then it’s Monday, and I wake to the sound of the dog whimpering outside my door– almost ten o’ clock. Groggy, in my underwear, I slide out from under the mosquito net and switch off the fan, walk in a slow circle opening the top half of the window shutters. The room glows with daylight; through the gap in the blinds, I see blue sky, mango leaves. I pull on a tank top and throw my shoulder against the front door so I can jimmy open the deadbolt. It makes a grating, metallic sound, and the hinges sigh with the pressure’s release. I open the door just a crack, and Luna slips inside, growling contentedly and rolling around. I scratch her belly with my bare foot, and she stares up at me, cooing little sounds of devotion.
The only food in the house is powdered milk and quick oats and coffee. I fix Luna a bowl of milk and give her my leftover oatmeal. I drink my coffee slow and in silence, watching the neighbor’s chickens pick through my gravel front yard.
After breakfast I go visit Little Haiti, my host grandma’s house. The porch is covered in dry corn cobs. Their kernels are yellow and orange with bright white stress marks in the center, each one a little glow like a sun. It’s Indian corn, like the decorative inedible objects you’d find at a pumpkin patch. But here it’s never autumn, and this corn is food.
My cousins Vosten and Wiliam are sitting on greasy wooden chairs. Vosten’s feet are planted on either side of a plastic ponchera, and his elbows rest on his thighs, just above his kneecaps. He is shirtless, his dark skin dusty and flecked with bits of corn husk, and he smiles as as I approach– his teeth, bright white and pointy, are spaced widely in his mouth like a jack o’ lantern’s. He is twenty-one, a cane cutter. We’re friends.
Vosten and Wiliam are de-graining the corn, knocking each kernel from its bruise-purple cob with their broad fingers. I pull up a chair and grab a piece of corn, push hard with my thumbs, grip the cob in my fists and snap it in two. I work in silence while the two men speak in Creole, gossiping idly and lapsing into bouts of slow laughter.
I leave before lunch. Walking down the dirt path back to the road, I look down at my fingers, warm and sore from my hour’s work. My thumbs are dusty and bright red, and on my left thumb I see a heart-shaped blister. It’s small, framed in the wood-grain curve of my fingerprint. Hot and tender and full. I smile a little, drop my hands to my sides, whistle for my dog. On the porch, my family keeps working. I head home.
I am sitting on the floor. It is a reasonable place to be; these cinderblock houses heat like ovens in the late afternoon, and when I walk down the street I see my young pregnant neighbors splayed out on their concrete floors, all but panting, their tight bellies catching breezes and their tank tops pulled up.
I drink coffee, sweet and strong, and I listen to the sounds. My refrigerator hums, just like refrigerators everywhere. Behind that there are sounds more specific. The two sassy pigs, digging around in their mud, grunting contentedly. Birds. And then sawing, hammering: they’re building something behind the jobo trees next door. Children– my nephew Tati, the neighbor woman’s toddlers, and Clara, who’s maybe thirteen and lives back up the hill a ways. They yell and their knock-off Crocs make coarse friction sounds against the gravel. Every now and then there is a motorcycle, accelerating towards the pueblo, shifting gears. The pretty long-haired dog with the cropped tail, who lives tied to a stake in Cunina’s back yard, barking.
And there are silent things. My puppy asleep in the darkest coolest corner of the room. The ants that trace across the floor in untrackable patterns, approaching my coffee cup, circling my toe, fleeing as I threaten violence with a wave of my hand.
For months, I lived in a pretty zinc-roofed house, shared with the three little girls, a teenage aunt, my host mom, and my mostly-absent host father. It took me weeks to find a house and just as long to move, my belongings trickling to the new barrio one plastic bag at a time. My last trip, to bring down dishes and bedsheets and my books, turned into a kind of tiny parade– a trail of little girls with plastic buckets full of cups, bleach bottles, and paperbacks balanced on their heads, my dog sprinting around and barking like an idiot.
In Los Solares, the nights were marked by shouts and gunning motorcycles and the occasional fistfight, every man, woman and child sprinting out to follow their bickering neighbors down the street. But Las Cenizas is different, a long exhale of houses along the main road, each footpath drawing you back into a honeycomb of homes– zinc, wood, palm leaves– until you crest the hill and hit the fence, a pasture that belongs to the cane company. I live behind the Haitian church, a big long mudflat and a few mean dogs and then my house, facing away from it all, up toward the hill and my old man neighbor.
Every wall in my house is painted a different color: palm frond green, papaya orange, baby blue, birthday cake yellow. My home is really just one room, split down the middle with curtains, my bed on one side and the rest of my life on the other. The bathroom, shared and dusty, has the monumental luxury of running water; I fill buckets in the shower and do my dishes in green plastic bins on the porch. At night, I stay up to read at the table, flinching as moths and beetles dive-bomb my face. During the day, I drink too much coffee. I sleep late.
Every day, people bring me things. Three brown eggs from my neighbor Cunina. Two packages of saltines from my host aunt a few houses down. Huge green mangoes from Enrique, the Haitian man who lives in a zinc shed next to the almendra tree. A bowl of arroz con leche from Yuberkis, a stack of yaniqueques from Julia, and a ripe purple avocado, its heavy brown pit rattling around inside, from Juana. In my newfound isolation, my neighbors seem worried I will starve to death.
Pastor Napwen (Kreyol for No-Name; the ultimate nickname, I think) brought me three dozen green plantains in a black trash bag puckered with stretch marks. I give away all but four. The heat turns them ripe right away, so I slice and fry two of them in a spattering half-inch of sunflower oil. The platanos maduros burn sweet and brown in the pan, and I salt them and eat with my fingers off a blue glass plate.
The ants spring like tributaries from my door frame, course down past double-lock and handle, ease in and out of the canyons and crests in the wood.
They move onto the concrete floor, still weaving in and out of each other, a dark superhighway with no lane markers. The floor is yellow, one corner stained ugly and gray from food ration boxes. Christian Community Relief sent dozens of them, big cardboard crates filled with canned meat and white rice that stayed in this hot cinderblock room for weeks, months, waiting for someone to take control, organize, distribute. In the end, the food trickled away, to the cousins of the caretakers and a few choice parishioners in the church. There is still one box, half-empty, in the bathroom below the broken sink. The meat expired two years ago.
My kitchen is a low cabinet, every drawer and door slightly skewed and never quite closed. Inside, through a crack in the fiberboard, the ants are exploring my dry goods. I seal the important things, and the expensive ones, in plastic containers– coffee, oatmeal, a wildly overpriced bag of powdered soymilk I found in the capital. But the rice (the brown rice, almost 100 pesos for three pounds) is unopened in its thin plastic bag, and now it’s full of ants. They are kids in a ball pit, cruising around each grain, tiny mouse-like holes in the bag their entrance and exit points.
For a minute, I think about throwing it out. But throwing out is not really possible. There is no “out,” here. My new barrio is poor and sparsely populated, and the garbage truck never passes. My neighbors burn their plastic bags and feed their food waste to the pigs. I know the pigs wouldn’t mind a few ants in their rice, but it’s three whole pounds of food, perfectly good. The shame of throwing it in the pig bucket, in plain sight of my neighbors, is too much.
So I rip open the bag, pour the rice into one of my dishwashing bins, and drown the ants.
My fantasies were detailed and perfect: my garden, my kitchen, puttering around and defining my own days and only eating when I actually wanted to eat. The dream of life alone defined me, helped me survive life as a seventh family member, as an extra child. But now that I am here, everything in its right place, ants eating my expensive rice and my dog trying to kill the neighbor’s chickens, it is different. The reality is never quite what you imagine it will be.
I watch the clouds turn heavy. Down at the railroad, a passing construction car sounds its whistle.
I am outside staring at my seedlings. I have never gardened before, never planted anything or watched it grow with success, but a friend gave me a few seed packets and this country is already so hot and wet and green that gardens practically grow themselves. My sisters helped me start– we found rusty one-kilo tomato paste cans along the railroad, filled them with soil, poked radish and cilantro and tomato seeds into our fingerprints. Some of the soil they grabbed is terrible, gray and brick-like. I watched the cilantro seeds poke up and then mold, furry white jackets wrapping around their pale starts from the clay.
Growth is foreign and surprising to me. The tomato seedlings are green moths today, two slim leaves reaching out to the sides, a yoga pose– Warrior Two– from the 20-minute videos I sometimes do in the afternoon, when I am sweaty and bored. The light hits the plants just so; some of the leaves are still pulled together at the top– Warrior One– gripped to one another by the rough shell of their seed.
Next door, my neighbor Jefe tends a garden. He grows lemongrass, two types of oregano, parsley, four kinds of root vegetables, peas, beans, sour oranges, mangoes, tangerines, and cereza. One slow morning, he lends me his wheelbarrow and the two of us build a wide stone planter in front of my porch. I want to transplant the tomato seedlings there, but he laughs in my face. You need flowers here, he says. Flowers and shade.
At three o’clock the power goes out, and my fan whirrs to a slow, tragic stop. The air is thick with heat. I shut the front door, strip to my underwear, lie back on the concrete and feel my spine crack into alignment. I close my eyes, and a drop of sweat slides behind my ear, down my neck to the slow rise of my vertebrae, and the droplet hangs there in wet suspension. The floor is almost cool, but not quite. I wipe a line of sweat from the curve below my lip.
Tati and the neighbor kids are still playing, cooing and shouting and now dragging something plastic across the ground. Luna, in her leggy teenage puppy stage, pulls herself off the floor in the corner and walks my way. Pokes her face into my cheek, wags her tail hot and sleepy. I scratch her ear, and she lies down behind me on the floor– it is too hot to do anything else.
Luna makes a dry tongue-smacking noise and presses her round soft puppy skull against the back of my head. Sighs, relaxes. Goes back to sleep.
We lie there and the afternoon rolls on. The kids play. I watch the ceiling, Luna dreams of snacks and digging holes. I am here to work, but I am here to live, too. This is my life. Today it is hot. I am taking a nap on the floor with my dog.
It is enough.
I ask my neighbor how he is doing and he says, “Alli, cheri, luchando.” It’s a mix of Spanish and Haitian Creole, “So-so, my dear, in the struggle.”
He is standing on the sidewalk with a half-eaten green mango in his hand, shirtless, his extra-large Goodwill pants belted tight around a narrow waist. Like nearly all the men here, my neighbor looks like a medical sketch of muscle groups– cane cutters spend ten hours a day swinging machetes, and it shows. Even if today he is going to seek a sliver of shade and gossip with his cousins, my neighbor is in the struggle. Everything is a struggle. So when he says, alli, luchando, as he stands there picking his teeth, I believe him.
Luchar doesn’t just mean to fight, like the way it’s used in Lucha Libre, the theatrical Mexican wrestling circuit, nor is it the struggle of a trapped animal– desperate, wild-eyed, with an end. Luchar is the struggle of the oppressed, of the impoverished, of the spectacularly challenged– it is less a specific battle and more a state of mind. It is a noble struggle, and its roots– however distant and obscured– lie in faith. Faith in some endlessly far-off future where everything will change.
My lucha is not like my neighbor’s, but in my own small foreign ways, I’m luchando too. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, a Community Environmental Development Promoter, and all those capital letters look like a mission and a system and a life. But there is no one watching me out here, in this endless valley of sugarcane. There is no one checking up on me, no one making sure I clocked in, no one looking around and saying “Yes, Wow. You’ve really done an excellent job of informally integrating into the community today. Nice work.” There is just me. Luchando.
So in the morning I wake up, and I stare at the pellets of rat shit suspended on my mosquito net. It is a quarter to eight. I twist my sheet around one leg and roll onto my side and pull my knees up. Wrists laced across one another, eyes closed, one hand still wrapped around my cell phone with the alarm on pause. I can already hear the zinc roof tic-tocking with heat; today will be a three shower day. I smell hot oil, hear it spatter. Arepitas for breakfast. My littlest sister is whining in her most irritating voice in the next room over. I am not ready.
The cell phone starts to flicker with my next round of alarmas, and I silence it before it can ring. I untuck the mosquito net, slide my feet into my flip-flops, shuffle to the bathroom, holding my breath against the cloying smell of moisture and piss and flower-scented antibacterial Fabuloso. The indoor toilet is new in our house and the little girls are used to the squat latrine– they can’t aim, and I suspect that the littlest one sometimes climbs atop the toilet bowl and plants her feet on either edge of the toilet seat, like she’s used to.
I throw my towel over the bare metal curtain rod and snap open the metal blinds, peek out at the hot white sky and the platano trees and the neighbor’s coarse zinc roof. I inhale deep and dump an empty tomato-paste can of water over my face on the exhale, so I don’t catch my breath on the cold. Wipe my hand across my eyes, spit.
My whole life I have worked towards success that other people can see. Good grades, a college diploma, a cool job– or at the very least, the approval of my peers, of my community. The approval of people who understand me, who know what challenges I’m facing and who can see and know the world I inhabit.
Here I have a community, but it is scattered and strange. Again and again, in the monthly volunteer magazine and on the phone with one another and half-drunk at a Peace Corps party on one of our rare weekends off, we say it: You can’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. No one knows your site. No one knows your challenges. Like a mantra, a comfort and a curse. Our lives and our journeys are horribly, beautifully distinct. No one can tell me I’m doing this wrong. But no one can tell me I’m doing this right, either.
I go back to my bedroom wet and stand naked in front of the fan– the moving air and whatever process it is that pulls water from my skin makes me feel almost cold, the only time I’ll know the sensation all day. It lasts about a minute– when the water’s gone, the heat comes back. I run my fingers through my hair (where is my comb? Did I leave it in the capital?), apply sunblock like body lotion, and put on my morning clothes, the ones I will sweat through before noon.
I brush my teeth over the dirt in the back yard, and Luna the puppy weaves between my legs excitedly, growling low in her throat and grabbing the bottom hems of my pants with her sharp tiny teeth. I pet Luna with the flat of my palm and she all but falls over, her whole body tousled by the weight of my hand. The sun’s already low and bright through the leaves of our grafted mango trees, so heavy with fruit that the branches are braced back with old extension cords. Some mornings my host father is in the tree, two of the girls pushing up with all their skinny might on a low-hanging branch. Juanito wraps cord around the branches like a lasso, pulls back like he’s slowing a horse. The girls moan and whine with dramatic boredom. I go back inside.
The freedom is absolute. There is no one watching me, no one making sure I do my work. I can’t imagine the Peace Corps before cell phones, because I talk to someone every day, and it keeps my mind from disintegrating. I find myself asking permission from my volunteer friends: Is it okay that I haven’t left my house this morning? Is it okay if I don’t go to church with my host family? Is it okay if I leave El Valle and hitchhike into the pueblo today? My friends always say yes, because that’s what we do for each other. It is a transparent exercise, but I find myself dependent on it.
I am not this person. This codependent needy creature. My lucha is to stay sane, to accept the twists of culture and conflict that have brought me to this cinderblock house that I am never allowed to leave alone. The challenge is this: in order to be a good volunteer, you must feel like a bad one. Guilt shouldn’t drive us but sometimes it does. Guilt that I am not doing enough, that I am not liked, that I am not taken seriously or respected and that I am somehow culpable for all of this.
At night, in between telenovelas, I am mesmerized by the summer beer commercials– so many beautiful glistening people, always at a beach party, always about to fall into each other in a bliss of youth and limbs and alcohol. These advertisements produce in me a kind of desperate longing. I recognize the Presidente jingle from two rooms away, rush in to catch the last few seconds of the ad, try to look nonchalant. What I really want to do is catch a motorcycle to the pueblo and a bus to the little resort town near the capital where the corner market sells French bread, and I want to spend the day on the sand drinking freezy-cold beers in green bottles.
And meanwhile every day is a struggle. Every moment I piece into something coherent is a victory, every decision that yes, today I will get out of bed, I will stay in this town, I will try– this is an achievement. And still there’s this guilt deep in the core of my body that it is not enough, that I am never enough, because there is no one here to say “when.” No one except me.
I don’t know how to say when it’s enough. All my training and preparation, the hundreds of thousands of dollars of private education, the tutors, the applications, the workshops, the letters of recommendation… it is irrelevant. I do not know how to stop myself, to pull back my hand and say, “Ya, you have done your part.”
In the evening, I walk just to walk, to see people and let them see me, waving and greeting and asking short questions. The streets are dusty and bright with activity, girls tottering back and forth from the public water faucet with plastic jugs balanced on their braids, women with thick rolling gaits making their way from one house to another, glassy-eyed boys in t-shirts and underpants chasing old tires down the sidewalk.
Sometimes people call out my name, or just shout in a low boom, the Dominican “Hey you, I see you over there.” I pass my neighbor’s house, and he’s outside splashing water over his shoulders from a wide gray tub. His 3-year-old niece is standing next to him on the curb, staring wide-eyed into space, her damp cotton shorts hanging halfway off her tiny butt cheeks. I tug them up, pat her head; she squeals and grabs at my hand. My neighbor waves, smiles, and I wave back. The sun is a slow glow against the horizon, hot gold until it fades to dusk and black.
The small things define my life. One short exchange or conversation can turn a bad day into a good one, and this is why my lucha is different. I am luchando for a day that makes me feel okay about myself, a day that dulls the guilt and lifts that sulking, heavy feeling I wake to every morning. My life feels hard, but my struggle is personal, internal, distinct. My neighbor, his wife, their niece and all her brothers and sisters, they’re luchando for things much more elemental– dignity, a bed to sleep in, an education, a sack of rice.
I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know if I have the steel to struggle alongside my neighbor. But I am wrestling with the challenge, getting flipped on my back by the bad hours and lifted up again by the good. I count the moments. Every struggle towards the next one. Every dawn, a new day.
Hurricane season started yesterday, and already the evening sky hangs low and ominous. On any other day, we’d spend the evening in the house– watching telenovelas extra loud to drown out the hammer of rain on the zinc roof, eating packets of soda crackers and singing along to advertisement jingles. But it’s Sunday, and there’s church, and all the little girls are already wearing their sundresses and their best sandals, so we go out anyways– down the muddy, pot-holed streets, speed-walking to beat the storm.
La Iglesia Evangelica Jesucristo Reina holds services three times a week in a halfway finished cinderblock room. The back half of the church is bare cement, with sheets of zinc tacked across the window holes. The front is painted butter yellow, window blinds fully installed, a drum kit and a set of large, dusty speakers resting on plywood risers against the wall. A hand-painted banner says, “Bienvenidos,” and a lace tablecloth lies across the wooden pulpit. At the pulpit’s base, a set of old office chair wheels has been installed, making it prone to drifting into the congregation at inopportune moments.
Children scream and dance and make trouble, and the fifteen or twenty faithful, who have dared to endure the imminent rain, stand for the first song. The music is so loud I can feel it in my collarbone, and, somewhere near the back, our family’s motorcycle taxi driver is clapping off-beat. The men rock from one foot to another, eyes fluttering shut periodically, brows knit in concentration. Soon, I am watching a grown woman in a well-fitted sport jacket vibrate orgasmically at the pulpit, crying “Hallelujah, hallelujah.” I want to avert my eyes but don’t know where to look instead.
I can’t relate to the pandemonium of evangelical services, the moans of praise and thanks, the waving hands or the bone-crushingly loud music and prayer. I respect it, and I want to understand it, wish I could derive the same kind of satisfaction or fulfillment that I know my host family does. But this does not feel like religion to me. It is so loud, so performative. And a part of me is overwhelmed by this irrational fear that somehow I will be coerced into believing it, that by the end of these two years it will be me wailing “Gloria Jesus” at the love-worn wooden pulpit.
Back in the States, my family is Jewish, and I think about religion in terms of holidays and Fridays. Judaism is about tradition, and asking questions, and being practical, and knowing how to cook. It’s also about the holiness in repetition, in the ritual of getting slightly drunk around the dinner table at Passover, the ritual of burning your fingers frying latkees during Hannukah, of puttering around in a weird stick hut on Sukkot. The ritual soothes and satisfies me. Knowing that for generations, people I’m related to have been going through the same motions, cooking the same recipes, reading the same books.
When or if I have children, I’d want to raise them Jewish– want them to complain about memorizing their Torah portions and read transliterated Hebrew versions of prayers during the High Holy Days and, when no one is looking, discover that they have found some meaning in all of this history. Religion has never been a primary part of my identity; for me, it is generally a rather private, quiet thing. It’s only on holidays that Judaism really defines my actions or my days.
But here religion is life; it is a part of everything. I ask the older woman across the street how she’s doing today, and she says, “Estoy viva, gracias a Dios.” I’m alive, thanks to God. And not just any God, but a Christian one, the kind of God who’s the father of Christ and who has very strict rules about morals and expectations. And one thing that this God certainly doesn’t approve of is The Gays.
My host mother, Maria, is a kind, no-nonsense woman who does magical things with rice and chicken, knows nearly everyone in the community, and speaks fluent Spanish and Haitian Creole. She also openly detests homosexuals. We talked about it last night while watching a dubbed episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on the family’s hard-won cable TV. Maria explains to me that the gays have a kind of sickness, that God didn’t make man and man, he made man and woman. Being gay is unnatural, evil, perverse. I stutter and try to frame a comeback, something simple, believable: People treat gays badly. No one would choose something that would lead others to treat them badly. So being gay must be innate, something you’re born with, that you can’t change. And if that’s true, then God must make people gay, because God makes everyone and everything. Ergo: gays aren’t evil. They’re just people. Like everyone else.
Issues: One, I don’t believe in God, at least not the way Evangelical Christians do. Two, My best friends since forever have been gay, or queer, or lesbians. They are charming brilliant compelling people with hearts that touch everything and minds that challenge everyone. I don’t know how to explain that I love my friends not in spite of, but in addition to this thing that people here hate. That when my host mom rolls her eyes and snorts with disgust at the thought of two men kissing, all I think about is the look on Mike’s face when he told me he was in love.
In college, surrounded by my radical friends, wearing second-hand clothes and eating undercooked whole-wheat bread with a thick half-inch of butter on top, I remember talking about how certain things are non-negotiable. I remember specifically a conversation about alienation, and how it’s not always a bad thing. How sometimes as activists we have to take a hard line, say “This is Right,” and not step down, refuse to pardon people who oppose us. Hate, especially hate towards the people I love most, was something I would never step down from. I know that the person I was then would scorn these women, with their bibles and their many children and their repetitive days.
But Maria feeds me, and listens to me struggle with verbs, and I love her too despite her hatred of the identities of my friends. And in a place like El Valle, the meaning of life isn’t always so accessible or clear. Here, the cane company keeps the people poor. The local government is filled with crooks who make promises and never do a thing. International nonprofits come and go. At the end of the day, the road is still a treacherous mudflat, the schoolteachers barely understand the material they’re teaching, and the kids are hungry.
So while I can’t understand Maria’s hate, and I can’t understand the hours she spends in church, I can understand her faith. Her dedication to the Bible and the way she understands, this is how she finds logic and comfort and a way forward in this damaged, unjust world– people here have to find direction in something, have to believe in something. Maria does not live with the North American luxury of believing in herself.
I don’t want to go to church, and last weekend the pastor figured out I’m not baptized when I didn’t stand for communion. I don’t want to accept Christ as my personal savior because I don’t think I need one. If anyone will save us, it’s ourselves, it’s our families, it’s our communities. I refuse to wait for death to change this world, refuse to depend on hope instead of demanding justice. I can’t blame or judge my family here for their faith, because it’s only my privilege (my wealth, my race, my nationality, my education) that allows me to live without it. I would never take this from them– their church is their community, the Bible defines their days, and that’s not a bad thing.
So this Sunday, and the Sunday after that, I’ll be in church. Staring into space, mumbling along to the songs, waving my palm back and forth although I’m not sure what it means. I won’t accept Christ as my personal savior but I will go to church with my family, hold hands with my littlest sister, sit and stand on cue. I’ll smile when we all file out, and as I shake hands with the congregation and amen every blessing, I’ll think hard about my own kind of God. I’ll think hard about my own kind of justice.
I am in a new place, and everything here is about sugarcane. A railroad runs through the center of town, and instead of the cute square you might expect in a rural Caribbean village, a huge rusted metal crane and two teams of surly long-horned oxen mark the heart of El Valle. Just like a cowboy movie, gun and machete-toting vaqueros flank the crane and wander moodily around the vast wet mudflat that surrounds it. Oxen pull in carts of sugarcane, the crane weighs the cane and dumps it in open-topped cars, the train hauls away, and the process starts again. Every day, cane. Great long bamboo-like sticks of it, red and yellow and thick.
Beyond the crane and the mudflat are vast blocks of houses painted verde claro, light green, and everything painted that color belongs to the cane company– Central La Romana. La Romana also own the railroad, the crane, the guns, the horses, the land the elementary school is built on, most cows, most vehicles, all the sugarcane, and a considerable number of mango trees. Everyone here is connected to the company somehow, because without the company this community, a batey, wouldn’t exist. Bateyes are, by their very definition, sugarcane company towns. Central La Romana built this place and Central La Romana can tear it apart if it wants to.
The company works hard to keep progress out and people in. Everyone here, all 5,000 residents, pull well water from the same three public faucets, which are always on and where there is always a line. There is a company doctor, and a company butcher shop where workers can sometimes buy meat of questionable origins. Outside the center of town are barrios– Los Solares (The Plots), Las Cenizas (The Ashes), Vietnam (just like the country, although no one can explain why). Things in this town aren’t great, but they could be worse. There are seven churches and a steady stream of foreign missionaries who bring baseballs, zinc roofs, and The Good News About Jesus. Even so, life on many bateyes bears a striking, not coincidental resemblance to life in slave communities before the Civil War in the American South.
Although we’re in the Dominican Republic, bateyes maintain strong ties to Haiti– cane cutters, or braceros (literally “arms”), are historically Haitian, and most people in this community are only first or second generation on this side of the island. All braceros dress the same, in old Goodwill button-downs and slacks tucked into high black rubber boots. Machete at the hip, baseball cap on the head, everything dirty, every worker with skin dark enough to mark them as Haitian. They walk to work, or ride tiny raw-shouldered burros, or hitch rides on company transports, usually old school buses hauled by tractors. Men who live without papers, without the right to an education, without a right to anything except four dollars a ton for the cane they cut in tropical heat.
I live with a family here, in a cinder block house in Los Solares. My parents are both first generation Dominicans, lucky enough to have citizenship, and even luckier to work outside the reach of the company. Juanito, my host father, dreamed of being a baseball player but ended up working at a furniture store in the nearest pueblo instead– it’s good work though, good enough that the family just finished an indoor bathroom, complete with shower fixtures that will never run because the house has no water. There’s a toilet, too, that you flush with a bucket of water through some process of physics I am yet to understand. The toilet flushing and the bucket showers mean that the tile floor is always wet. Every time a guest comes by, they peer into the tiled cube and ooh and ahh on cue, take off their flip-flops before stepping inside.
And then there is Maria, my host mother. She is six years my senior, the mother of three girls, and has been married to Juanito for a decade. She is also my connection to the world– she sees with a clarity that my cultural bias prevents, she points out the good people and the bad, the safe places and the unsafe ones, she explains to me subtleties I don’t understand and washes my clothes and serves me dinner first, with a saucer under my coffee, and scolds me when I am overly gracious or deferential. Despite the fact that she only has a 9th grade education, she corrects my grammar with a patience that is superhuman. Without her, I would be lost in this hot flat town.
Like any good Dominican family, our household also includes more distant relatives– the cousin, Joselyn, has lived here for three years. Joselyn is sixteen and dark and, unlike the daughters of Juanito and Maria, has no birth certificate. On the street, little boys hiss at us and call her Haitian. Joselyn shakes her head, “Malcriados, badly raised,” she says. “Haitian is a bad word, they say it because they don’t know anything.”
Joselyn does not legally exist. Without a birth certificate, she is barred from education past the 8th grade. She pours her life into the church, where her contribution is affirmed and she can feel agency. I want to give her feminist novels in Spanish and teach her about birth control and take her to the identification office and shout until they give her papers. She does not live with her real mother because her real mother is “unstable,” which I think is code for “sex worker.”
She is beautiful, too, which somehow makes it worse. She spends all morning mopping, washes dishes for about two hours. I watch her work and I feel ashamed. I am the only woman for miles who does not spend three hours a day doing housework. I am the only woman for miles who does not cook her own food, or wash her own clothes, or empty her own faded plastic chamberpot.
I want to be a part of this life and live it, but I don’t want to mop four hours a day and right now I have a different job. My job is to integrate, to meet people, to remember how to speak the language. And I am different. My world has different rules.
I am a white American. I am young and speak cute almost-correct Spanish, and I walk with the power of a navy blue passport. Walk with the power of the English language and the US government and a college diploma and a sense of self-righteousness that comes as my birthright. Everyone I talk to gives me their phone number and offers their help and I know it is because I am white and foreign. Every doctor, every government official, shakes my hand and thanks me for the work I am doing, even though so far I’ve only really played with toddlers and eaten a lot of mangoes. Women in their 60s, El Valle’s community leaders, have been fighting for this town’s rights and progress for decades. The company ignores them. No one shakes their hands.
In the evening the sky gets beautiful and we eat boiled green plantains and fried eggs with sliced purple onions on top. I sit at the table with Maria and we talk and halfway watch the television through the curtain to the bedroom, not because I want to but because I still haven’t learned how to look away from a screen when it’s on. I’m a sucker for technology. I never learned to filter. Like a baby, I am mesmerized.
In between the waves of telenovela drama and intrigue, the little girls fight and Joselyn scolds them and Maria winks at me when she bribes the youngest girl into eating two more bites of her dinner. For all of the differences, and despite the sound of tractors and horses in the street, my evenings are calm and the motions are familiar. “Eat your dinner,” Maria tells the youngest girl, “there are children in worse situations than you.” She’s right.
We drove for an entire afternoon, through national forests and across state lines, to this bar in Virginia where a country band that Anna loved was playing one night only. The place was called The Ice Box and we got horribly lost on the way there, so we pulled over on a streetlit corner and pulled out our crummy cell phones. Grace and I called our siblings in far off cities and giggled, asking them to Google us directions to the venue.
An hour late, Anna parked her car and we all tumbled out– me and Luke, Anna and Grace, and a pretty Colombian girl Grace had met at the library the week before. The room was packed and the light was perfect, strings of Christmas lights glowing warmly all along the edges, dance studio mirrors against a far wall, tons of windows. We bought five dollar beers in pretty brown bottles and shared them, each one sharp with the taste of coffee, cold and fizzy on our tongues.
Shy Luke and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd as the fiddles crooned, and I watched the older men spin Anna and Grace around the dance floor, through two-step after two-step. I remember Anna’s bright sweating face and Grace’s laugh. I remember the way that Grace’s Colombian friend was the best at all the dances, and how the men eyed her in an appreciative way, the way that age looks at youth and smiles.
Anna leaned over in between dances and whispered something in Luke’s ear, and he took on a slow smile and asked me to waltz. So we stepped out, and up my palm went to his shoulder, my other hand clasping his. The waltz was beautiful and slow and Luke lunged mechanically around the floor, both of us laughing, me counting quietly in his ear. One two three four, with momentum! Still laughing, falling against each other. Other couples floating past us, a little girl laughing sleepily in her father’s arms, the music bright.
The band kept on and Luke and I walked out into the darkness, holding hands and talking nonsense. I kissed him up against the brick wall of a Chinese restaurant and then we went back to the venue, stole books of matches, hit the road. That night we five slept in a field off the highway, listened to the cars blow past and our collective breath ease in and out. A bottle of whiskey, poking my feet through the bottom of my sleeping bag. The stars bold and fearless up above.
To different men in different mountains, I count a new set of dance steps. Now, it’s one two three stop, one two three stop, the hitch-beat of bachata, tropical country ballad of the Dominican Republic and the campesino and the broken-hearted. Each night after darkness falls, over the buzz of diesel generators, music throbs from dusty sound systems. The whole town comes out , and under the fluorescent lights and the gloom of the dance floor and the glow of a cable television playing 80s sci-fi classics, we drink ice-flavored beer from returnable green glass bottles and yell our conversations over the beats.
I wear cheap sandals that cut into my ankles, and a man I’ve never met asks me to dance. We slide endlessly around the dance floor, a merengue this time, my hips halfway sore but my smile thick and going nowhere– I sweat a little, laugh at compliments, track the music through my bones. The song ends and we thank each other, he guides me back to my plastic seat and disappears. I suck a mentholated cherry lozenge, everyone’s favorite kind of candy here, and feel the sugar coat my teeth. In the chairs around me, the other Americans: Claire is telling a story about Maine, Mike is listening to someone’s host brother tell a joke, Marcus is gazing into the middle distance, Laura is rolling her eyes. I take another sip of beer.
My American friends are still learning these new dance steps, and the men have it extra tough– they lead. Marcus catches my eye and we duck through the crowd to the dance floor. Our hands meet, eyes fall to our shoes, and we listen hard for the beat. We talk in low intimate voices, our lips inches from each other’s ears, and try not to run into other dancers. The room is hot and the song is a slow one, about some woman the singer wishes he’d had, and I can feel Marcus sweat through the cotton of his button-down shirt. I press the collar back towards his neck and allow him to pull me a little closer.
If we run out of words, we laugh. If we lose the beat, we laugh. On the television screen, Arnold Schwarzenegger is battling poorly costumed aliens in a styrofoam cave. All around us, strangers are dancing the same way– palms pressed smoothly to the smalls of backs, smiles and knowing looks cast from one dancer to another, the pantomime camaraderie of the dancefloor.
I walk home with my 14-year-old sister along the dark edge of the freeway. The grass grows right to the asphalt, and we step off into the weeds on all the blind curves. I watch the glow of headlights swell and make the corner– motorcycles humming downhill, or trucks lumbering their way up. Below us in the valley, Santiago shimmers like the ocean in daytime. My host sister asks me to take a photo, but I tell her it’s too dark for pictures to come out.
Our arms are linked as we descend, sandals slap the asphalt, mountain air cool as midnight floats closer. The house is shut tight when we arrive; I hop the cinderblock gate, knuckle the red-eyed dog between his ears, and my sister unlocks the front door. We slip in as quietly as we can, every shuffle and murmur loud between concrete walls. I unbuckle my sandals and slip them under my dresser. I listen to the sound of Judit spitting toothpaste in the shower. I crawl into bed. Sheets to my chin, I roll towards the wall and blow out the candle. Exhale. Finally, silence.
I graduated from college on a sweltering May afternoon. We all sat in folding chairs and held our thick-bound programs over our heads like sun hats, waiting impatiently for the alphabetical parade to reach our names. All weekend, sweating through t-shirts at picnics and open houses and happy hours, I fielded the same questions: where are you going next? Brooklyn? San Francisco? Grad school?
Every time, I gave the same answer: “I have a job in West Virginia, but I don’t know much about it. I start in two weeks.”
This was clearly not enough. Because over and over again:
“Oh. That’s nice.”
Alone, boxing the last of my belongings on the fake hardwood floor of my bedroom, I felt unsure– a sense of suspension, of tipping into the unknown. Although I’d be hard pressed to find West Virginia on a map, my mysterious job at this outdoor education center had to be better than the alternatives. Without West Virginia, I would plop down in some distant city where I’d start from scratch– no community, no plans. I wanted something wilder than a studio apartment and a job making lattes. So I slapped packing tape across the top of my last cardboard box, manhandled all my earthly belongings into the back of a borrowed pick-up truck, and never looked back.
I arrived in West Virginia on another sweltering day, dropped off at the foot of a long gravel driveway with no directions and only the name of the man who’d hired me– Tom. From where I stood, there was one building in sight, a long flat structure tucked back into the hillside, wildflowers fountaining over the edges of the roof. I shouldered my backpack and headed down the drive, pools of sunlight stenciled onto the gravel from the beech trees overhead.
At the end of the drive, sitting on a low brick wall, a man and a woman dangled their legs and talked quietly, eyes locked on the pine break silhouetted against the nearest ridgeline. I cleared my throat. They both looked up at me; the woman smiled and the man avoided eye contact, and soon we were rattling up the rutted road in a rusted-out Astro van missing it’s passenger-side door.
“So you’re the new intern? We didn’t know you’d be here this early. How long are you in for?” The woman shook my hand earlier, but I forgot her name instantly. She’s shouting her small talk; we’ve just bottomed out crossing a cattleguard, and I bounce hard against the exposed springs poking from my seat cushion.
“I’m not sure,” I call back, the van groaning its protest as we crest another hill. “Until August, at least.”
Then it’s September, and the new moon comes. Forever without a flashlight, I pick my way along a rolling path through the hawthorns, feeling with my feet for the familiar contours, occasionally drifting too far to the left and catching myself up to my waist in goldenrod, suddenly crisp and yellowing as it earns its autumn name. I walk to the edge of the woods and lie on my back in the high grass– thick late summer grass, so tall it falls in around the edges of my vision like a frame. I fixate on the stars, stars like they are supposed to be, bright halos to the very edge of my sight, silent meteors streaking across the sky. Every time, I inhale sharp. Tell myself I’ll stay for just one more shooting star. Feel condensation gathering between my toes.
Between the shooting stars I focus and unfocus my eyes, let the sky blur to black, and soon I’m laughing– out loud, full and bright, dry summer soil packed under my fingernails and into the soles of my feet. Laughing because I’m alone, and it’s beautiful, and it all turned out so right. Because I didn’t know I needed this summer in the wild, didn’t know I needed to drink powdered milk and instant coffee from metal cups or spend my days sweating and cracking jokes and tromping through the woods with friends I didn’t used to know. When I said “I don’t know what I’ll do in West Virginia, I don’t know what it’ll be like,” I meant it. I didn’t know how badly I needed six months without judgment or regret.
The things we need the most are the ones so far beyond us that we can’t begin to comprehend them. We wander through life in search of dreams so distant we rarely have the words to ask– but sometimes, when we are very lucky, we stumble into these moments– stumble into love or trust or renewal or adventure– and suddenly the world explodes into color and we remember why the wandering is worth it. Life really wasn’t bad at all, before– in fact, sometimes it was lovely– but only when we strike upon one of these truly magical unknowable things, things so spectacular they’re impossible to imagine, do we really understand how wonderful it is to be alive.
When snow started falling in West Virginia, my friends and coworkers scattered north to ski resorts and south to warmer climes, and I left, too. Already oblivious to the five o’clock traffic that defines cities, we left the mountain too late and I almost missed my flight out of D.C. Headphones on, already numb with distance from my new community, I slept the whole way back– to Salt Lake City, the long wide valley I grew up in, flanked by postcard-perfect mountains and draped in a seasonal cloak of smog. I stepped off the plane expecting nothing. A few months to catch up with my family. A few months in a city that made me feel utterly faithless.
I found two jobs and ate dinner with my parents and rode my bike everywhere, through windstorms and blizzards and the occasional unseasonable spring day. One night I rode my bike to a dive bar to meet someone I’d known for years– since high school, since before. We grew up four blocks apart, in the identical narrow brick houses that line the streets of our parents’ downtown neighborhood. We rode the school bus together, took classes together, shared friends, and never talked. I had seen Sam’s face thousands of times, made empty awkward small talk at parties and then walked away. I never thought twice.
And suddenly I am sitting next to him on a bar stool, my fingers wrapped around a half-empty pint glass of beer, and I see him for the first time. See the color of his eyes and the shape of his smile and listen to him, follow the intonation of his voice and realize his jokes sound a lot like mine, and soon we’re biking home together through the empty city and laughing hard as we sprint through golden puddles of streetlight. This was not what I expected. I did not come here imagining I’d fall in love with someone whose name I’ve known for years.
One afternoon, the clearest in weeks, I went for a walk in the foothills alone. I hiked without thinking, my parents’ goofy brown dog galloping around in the scrub oak and losing herself on the scents of rabbits and trash. No one was out, and the trail was melting– no more ice, just terraces of coffee-colored mud, last year’s cheatgrass matted into the ground like fur. I took the steep way, digging my toes into the last few slicks of crusty snow, watching the dog sprint ahead of me to the summit. Breathing hard, the air coarse against my throat.
I crested the top and I fell to my knees in a patch of snow, looked out across the city– from my ridgeline all the way to the edge of the valley, where the freeway wraps around a big thick turn and cars begin their descent into the suburbs. I felt the snow begin to melt through the knees of my pants, and the dog loped over and pushed her wet black nose in my face– and I laughed, tumbling backwards, catching myself with the heels of my muddy hands.
Salt Lake City did right by me, even though I stepped off the plane expecting little more than boredom and internet televison and long phone calls with friends from West Virginia and from school. I didn’t know I’d fall in love here, with this familiar city or with a boy I thought I knew. I didn’t know I’d cook so many lovely meals or read so many brilliant books or go for late night bike rides that left me feeling so awake and satisfied. Like the stars in West Virginia, none of these moments could have ever been predicted. None could have been planned in advance.
In one week I leave for the Dominican Republic, and I won’t come back for two years. I’m back to those familiar conversations: You’re joining the Peace Corps? How wonderful! What will you do?
“Well… it’s hard to say. Environmental work, I think, but I don’t know the details. I’ll be back in 2013.”
“Oh. How nice.”
But having no answer is a good sign– not knowing what to expect, having no predictions or all that much to say about the next wild frontier, that’s a good thing. To live a life predicted is to live a life without spark, without energy. We will never become better, or brighter, or more honest or wise, if we can only run the patterns we anticipate. We must strive for the unknowable, thrust ourselves into times and places where we’ll sink accidentally in those perfect wild things that we haven’t known we needed all along.
And so, one more time, with the absolute conviction of someone who has no idea what’s coming, I finish another mindless conversation and step onto another airplane. Ready to be blinded. Ready for the wild that’s next.