About the Author

Dory Trimble is a writer and educator living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She graduated from Oberlin College with a BA in English in 2010, and spent 2011 - 2013 serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She cares about wilderness, social justice, exploration, and snacks.

27 Stories

Essays, adventures, and opinion by Dory Trimble

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79H

You Ain’t Gotta Say Too Much

12/16/2014

Artistic achievement and personal politics be damned, I just want to do Zumba and listen to Usher.


In college, I worked at the campus radio station. Sorting through bins of new music, I unwrapped CDs with a fierceness, tearing the impossibly tiny, meticulously folded plastic wrap with my teeth. These were albums from cool bands, bands that made music described in snappy three-sentence blurbs on the back of the jewel case; “a wall of sound,” “jarringly symphonic,” “atonal,” “ambient.” Bands whose concerts demanded earplugs — the good kind, the ones musicians use so they can gather every bass and high note without going completely deaf. Bands with conceptual album art.

I liked those bands and listened to those albums, said thoughtful things about their craft and stood with my friends, smoking cigarettes in the Cleveland cold outside half-empty venues by dark of night, waiting for the next set to start, caring deeply about music that — and this was a thing we said, and meant, back then — “defied genre.”

I graduated from college in 2010. And yesterday night, since I’m a middle-aged woman living in a 26-year-old’s body, I went to Zumba class, and in the company of several other uncoordinated ladies, with a slick film of sweat coating my face and, inexplicably, the insides of my elbows, I totally lost my shit while listening to “Body Language.”

In case you don’t listen to your local mainstream hip-hop radio station, “Body Language” is basically an Usher song with 10 seconds of Tinashe samples, and the unidentifiable support (producer, or something?) of a person/corporate entity named Kid Ink. It’s catchy and beat-driven and easy to sing along to, and while the content is mostly about how talking is for sissies and nonverbal consent is the best, this song is the only song I want to listen to.

Walls of sound have their place, and I value that music for what it is — it’s art, individuals coming together to make interesting, compelling, deliberate sounds, sequences that demand your attention and ask something of you as a listener. In college, I half liked it and half felt like I was supposed to, and the net result was an interest that I simply don’t have anymore, passions that have dulled into a phase. Noise rock fades, but Top 40 hip-hop is forever.

So back in Zumba class, Usher croons and the beat rides and I punch the air in front of me while awkwardly jogging in place, and it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in days. College radio and artistic achievement and personal politics be damned — I just want to do Zumba and listen to Usher.


Also published at Thought Catalog and Medium.

Photo by Stephen Trimble, 2011

“Beach Fish,” and Finding the Leisure to Write Shorter Stories

08/29/2014

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it short.

Blaise Pascal

“Beach Fish” is about travel mementos that last longer than expected. I wrote this piece for an essay contest (Spoiler alert: it didn’t win) but cutting the story down from its first draft length–almost 750 words–to the required length– a shockingly brief 500 characters– was a seriously educational exercise. When every word counts, certain images get left by the wayside, but the passages that remain shine brighter, and show more.


 

The wounds hug the edges of my hips, five thumb-sized circles of hot red blisters. They look like hives or chemical burns, little liquid-filled boils set in frames of scorched flesh that I notice as I’m changing clothes.

I call a doctor. Boriana, a Bulgarian with the slow small voice of a grandmother, doesn’t hesitate: “Have you been to the beach recently? Did you eat any lemons or limes?”

Playa Grande is long and broad, flanked by black cliffs like bookends, with palm trees bursting from the rock and blurring up into the liquid blue sky. Down below, I’m on the hot sand, lying on my belly and squinting through cheap, tinted plastic sunglasses. Colleen and I chat mindlessly and sip from plastic cups— cool Dominican beer, slightly bitter, the carbonation and grit of stray sand drifting across my tongue. I swallow, and sand lingers between my teeth.

Lunch is fried fish: cotorra, with technicolor interlocking scales and funny calcified teeth for nibbling on coral out on the reef. Someone caught this fish today, with a spear gun, and sold it to his cousin Luisa, and she gutted it and sliced it down the sides and sprinkled it with lime, salt, sazón completo. She slipped it into a blackened metal pot resting on hot coals, and the oil bubbled away, and she flipped the fish twice and then scooped it onto my plate. Two sliced limes on the side.

I am ravenous. I squeeze a lime like I’m making a fist, feel the acid creep into a hangnail and instinctively stick my finger in my mouth. I taste salt, stone, citrus. When the limes are spent I set them aside and do what any self-respecting person eating beach fish in a swimsuit would do— I wipe my hands on my skin, in the curve just above my hips. Colleen and I eat in blissful, amicable silence. After, we throw fish fins to the hopeful dogs and watch the sun fade over the water.

Phytophotosynthesis, a compound word easy to pick apart—phyto, plants. Photo, light. Synthesis, the reaction between the two. I wiped the lime juice from my fried cotorra on my skin. And the citric acid drew the sun down like some cruel magic and left me with blistered, discolored sunburns in the shape of a handprint on my hips.

The burns faded to bruises, and the doctor said, in her small sweet voice, that they’d be gone in a few months. But a year later, the marks are still there—a matched set of off-color fingerprints, wrapped around my ribcage like tattoos, bruise-colored reminders of the fish, and the sun, and the island.


Also published at Medium.

How to Build a Life in a New City

02/18/2014

I’ve been on the move a lot for the past few years, and I like to think I’ve picked up some know-how along the way. I wrote a super-quick guide for folks who are relocating to a new city and looking to build community there– and it’s live now on Thought Catalog.

Here’s a teaser…

2. Be a sinvergüenza.

When I was living in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, I shared my tin-roofed top floor apartment with a girl named Dora.  We moved to the capital at the same time, but while I stayed home reading books in my pajamas, Dora was always off somewhere, to rockclimb by the mirador with Julia, or to go see a reggae band play in the Colonial Zone with Pedro.

Pedro and Julia weren’t old friends, or people Dora was introduced to. They were coworkers, or people she chatted up at bars, or someone she ran into while she was out for a jog in the park. Dora was a social sinvergüenza(Spanish for shameless)— never afraid to ask someone who seemed interesting if she wanted to meet up later. It’s an attitude that pays off instantly; all it takes is one moment of social bravery, and you’ve got a cool potential friend to check out that gallery opening with on Thursday. Put on your most genuine smile, tuck your awkwardness in your back pocket, and channel your inner sinvergüenza. You’ve got nothing to lose.

…and you can read the other six steps to life-building success here, at Thought Catalog.

Photo by Dave Richie

Thanks, and a Fresh Start

01/25/2014

A few months ago, this website was different. The content that’s now tucked away under Portfolio is actually the reason this whole thing came about– Twenty Seven Stories for twenty-seven months, the time I spent serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Some of you followed that journey, responding with enthusiasm and generosity when I posted a story, and patience when I let a few months slip by in between. I didn’t end up writing 27 essays– the final total is actually 14– but they’re good ones, and I hope that if you’ve got a chance, you’ll revisit the original Twenty Seven Stories. In another shift, I’ve now enabled comments on all those entries, so if you’ve just been brimming over with opinions for the past two years, now’s your chance to share them!

Meanwhile, this site is in transition. Any future projects, this is where to find them. Any desire to track where I’m headed next, this is the place to find out!

Thanks to all of you for keeping in touch and continuing to share your time with me. Thanks, too, to Dave Richie, who provided the beautiful header photos now gracing each of my Twenty Seven Fourteen Stories (and this post, as well!) He doesn’t have a website at the moment, but if you’d like to chat with Dave, just drop me a line and I can make the connection.

For now, that’s the update. Stay tuned!

Photo by Dave Richie

Life on the Boat

01/30/2013

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.

Photo by Dave Richie

Integration

07/04/2012

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.

Photo by Dave Richie

Running Circles

06/03/2012

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.

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