Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Bleeding Soul

     It took place behind the restaurant with banana trees dancing in the Caribbean breeze. Friends arrived with bottles of tequila.  
     Women and men arrived with tear-filled eyes, memories of Francisco still so fresh they didn’t know how their life could go on without his singing and laughing, his love of life. We sat at plastic tables and ate as if afraid to speak, as though the food had no taste, as if we would be punished for any enjoyment when a loved one could not be there.
     I remember Dona Maria getting up in the middle of her meal and walking to the alter of photos and flowers and candles with the Virgin Mary on them, tears flowing down her wrinkled cheeks as she picked up the biggest photo of her Grandson, held it to her chest as though cuddling a child, and danced around the terrace.  All eyes were on her as she cried and said proudly, “Francisco promised me a dance.”
     I bit my lip and couldn’t look at the boy’s mother beside me, my dream of moving to Yucatan rising above me like the spirit of the boy we had just buried, getting further away.  I remembered having to pull his mother, Lisbet, from the coffin of her son as she tried to raise him from the dead.  With her thin body she would not allow him to lay there with the dead. And I remembered  laying beside her the night before as she told me that Francisco was coming over the next day, and how she was getting friends and family together to drive South of Tulum and dive in some remote cenote.  I remembered reaching into the air above our bed and trying to grab onto her mind as it floated like smoke above us, but my words could not penetrate her castle walls of pain and suffering.  And when I touched her, so hoping for a nurturing response, a word, a touch showing there was still a bond between us, I felt her pull away like a cat trying to escape.
     After the dinner one of Francisco’s friends grabbed a bottle of tequila and stood up.  After a long pull on the bottle, he told everyone about his last day with Francisco, tears bursting into his words and making him pause.  One by one we drank, stood up and shared with everyone around us what the boy, the young man, had meant to us, how he had touched our lives, how having him with us had brought love and laugher , helped us forget life.  When it was my turn I took two hits and let my memory take me back twenty years to the shirtless little boy who brought me a photo of a beautiful woman cut from a magazine.  At the time I was living in an abandoned little house with a frog named Ralph in my toilet tank, and Francisco thought it a shame I lived without a woman, so he cut one from a magazine and said that I should call her. 
     As I stood there with palm leaf roofs around me, people watching my tears, I thought how strange it was that my life would be entwined with that of the boy from memory, his passing driving a wedge between my plans and reality. As I sat down I saw Francisco’s sister stand up, and the sight of her made me think of something she would never know.
     Early that morning, Lisbet woke me with the sun, while her daughter slept upstairs, and led me outside.  Birds had just started singing in the jungle as the sun chased night into the shadows. On the ground lay Francisco’s crash helmet and leathers.  Lisbet asked if I could wash the blood from inside the helmet so her daughter would not see it.  It sounds like a simple task.  Wearing only shorts, my feet scrapping the rough limestone soil, I turned on the spigot and watched Francisco’s blood color the water as it flowed over my feet, memories of the tanned, shirtless boy with sun-bleached hair running along the street and calling ‘basura’ to me as I carried home some reef fish I had shot.  Each time I reached into the helmet and touched his blood, I watched another bit of him enter the stream and wash over my feet, flow so gently into the limestone, and vanish without his laughter, without a shake of his hand, just gone as jungle birds filled the air with song, another day in Yucatan.  
      So like his blood did my dreams of opening a cafĂ© disappear. 

Monday, July 16, 2012


Cultural Sunglasses

It was another day in the home improvement center. Half of the people I asked if I could help them said no because they were embarrassed they could not speak English.
I met Tan in the Hardwood flooring aisle.  He was with two other short Cambodians, and each smiled a lot and seemed to be always tugging at their shirt front, a habit fat people often developed so their clothes didn’t become tucked into belly creases. One of Tan’s friends pushed a cart, and they spoke a lot and buzzed around the cart, hurrying here and there. 
Tan asked for me by name, and said the manager sent him over.  Right away he started telling me about a tile project he was undertaking, and handed me a sheet of paper with all his measurements on it.  Like all my Latino customers, he expected me to calculate how much tile he would need.  Tan and his friends shared such enthusiasm for the work that I too got caught up in the excitement. 
I would tell him something, and he would translate to Cambodian and the three men would discuss it, each shooting back some quick words as the shuffled around the cart in plastic sandals, looking at this and that tile.
As I went through my calculations I began forming an idea of what I thought Tan’s house must look like, and what the tile job would look like.  All total I guess I spent over an hour helping them, pulling down another pallet of tile with the forklift, and then having the communal discussion about what type of thinset he should use for the job.  At times I felt I was back in Cambodia dealing with village elders, and not in a busy Home Improvement Center in the U.S.A.
Finally he had two carts loaded with the supplies I helped him with, and he turned and shook my hand.  From his notes he took a photo of his house to show me.
“Your tile make my house very good,” he said.
I looked at the photo and was shocked.  I had imagined a California bungalow, something I knew, a house I felt a bond with, a house from my culture, like so many I had worked on during my contractor days.  But the house he showed me was a direct transplant from Cambodia, with multiple little pagoda towers, totally foreign to anything I knew.
After Tan left, I continued to think about our interaction, thinking about how different we were, each coming from countries so different and strange to the other, meeting in a home improvement center in the U.S.A.  But no matter where we met, each retained our culture, a pair of sunglasses through which we see the world and measure everything by, calculate right and wrong, even our idea of what a house should look like, what is eaten in that house, the relationship between the man and woman there.  Then I realized that Tan carried all that with him because he had been raised in Cambodia.  But his children who are born here would have a different pair of sunglasses, a different culture.  Before I started my closing chores, I wondered how difficult that must be as a parent, to see your own children with foreign values, foreign likes and language.