I was living where I’d been born, in a town outside of Boston, in a house for sale. The mayor’s son was class president. The sheriff’s son distributed the marijuana. A handful of people tried suicide. Some succeeded. It was March of 2016 and I was on the verge. Of graduation, for the most part. I was eighteen. Soccer season had just ended, in the semifinals, in the rain. The game had gone to penalties. I didn’t save one. In the six shootouts in which I’d ever featured, I’d never saved a penalty. I had flat feet and a habit of guessing. My guessing never did pay off. Maybe I was easy for the penalty takers to read. Maybe I was bad at reading. Nobody had blamed me and neither had I. Still, I wept. Weeping was another habit of mine. I’d had it since birth.
In April I mailed a love letter to the English teacher who’d listened to me for the better part of two school years. The letter stated that I was drinking wine and included a proposal that her and I get together and do the same. I sent it to her mailbox at school. The principal placed a call to my house a few days later. I went to his office. The English teacher was there. They told me they hadn’t wanted to call me in but that they’d had to. They said they were doing their jobs. You shouldn’t be drinking wine, they said, you shouldn’t be in love with your teachers. We’re all adults here, I said.
My sister was in Alabama, gone as ever, busy drinking and defending the public out in the middle of the confederacy without a word for my parents and I. My mother was preparing her divorce. My father was doing the same. The house was warm. The house was clean. The realtor was around. The market was good and I was in the way. I had an uncle. His name was Nico and he lived alone. I don’t remember exactly how it happened. He might’ve sent for me. I might’ve sent myself. It was May and the days were growing longer. I went.
The last time I’d seen Nico was Christmas. He’d been his usual self. Discreet, drunk, and watching. In other words, a good uncle. I’d gone up to bed before the conversation inevitably wandered offshore and into banter. Nico and my father had remained by the fire until morning. I’d fallen asleep, upstairs, to the dim sound of their drunken song. I woke up to a different noise. Laughter and some weeping.
Nico lived an hour’s drive west of Boston in a square, red house just big enough for two people, so long as they got along well enough. A fallen tree was rotting on the yard. The grass was long and the weeds looked like flowers. I arrived in the middle of the afternoon. Nico opened the door. He’d lost weight. His black hair was beginning to thin evenly on all sides of his square head. His eyes had grown as yellow as his teeth. Regardless, he smiled. I told him he looked good. You’re late for lunch, he said.
Nico ate slow. He spread the beans over his rice and cut into his steak. The fat, he said, is the best part. I finished my plate in minutes. Then I served myself another. I had two plates in the time it took Nico to eat half of his. Once we’d finished eating, he scraped what was left into his black cat’s bowl. Tuesday, he called. Tuesday continued lying on the couch. She opened her eyes, looked at Nico, then returned to sleep. Nico started a cigarette and set his pack down on the table. He told me to take one and I did. We talked about soccer. He reminisced about his playing days. He’d been a forward. He’d been good in the air, good with his head. I told Nico the story about the many times my father stood behind the goal I was tending to during any one of my team’s matches, how he would smoke on his cigarette and tell me, in his most fatherly way, to kick it further. As if I could.
We got on the inevitable subject of my sister. Thankfully, it was brief. I asked Nico if he’d heard from her. He shook his head. He asked me if I had. I said no. We got through the subject of my parents’ divorce almost as quickly. All Nico asked me was how I felt. I think the divorce is a good idea, I said. Nico nodded. But how do you feel? he asked. I told him I felt good. I told him I felt fine. I told him I didn’t know.
Nico showed me to my new, temporary room. There was a twin bed in the corner and a filing cabinet that doubled as a dresser. I set my bag down and looked around. Opposite the bed was a framed photo mounted on the wall of two black stone sculptures. Two doves. One stood round and intact with its eyes open and forward. The other dove was cracked through its chest and talons, and though it still had its head, it had little else left save the tattered void of what had once been its wings. I asked Nico about the photo. Nico looked at me and then at the picture. Should we really be discussing these things in the middle of the day? He asked.
Night came. Nico pulled two glasses from the cupboard and a bottle of rum from the freezer. Again, we sat at the kitchen table. The window beside it was open. Outside the crickets were doing their tune. I took a sip of the straight rum and pretended to like it. Nico laughed. I would’ve been embarrassed if it hadn’t been just us. The first sip was the worst. With each one that followed the swallowing only got easier. I asked Nico about the doves. Do you want the short version or the long one? He asked. I looked at his teeth. I looked at his eyes. I opened my hands and held them over the table between us as if to say, I’m not going anywhere.
Okay, he said. I was living in Medellín at the time. Where I was born. Your father too. He was away at university in Bogotá. He had a good life there. He’s always had an ability to set himself up nicely. He was renting an apartment downtown, halfway between the two universities he attended. In the mornings, he attended one. In the evenings, he attended the other. When he had time, he spent it with his friend, your mother. As far as I know, she didn’t want anything to do with him at first. Eventually he convinced her to love him back. You can imagine the rest on your own. Your father’s told you these things, hasn’t he?
I shook my head. I said that my father didn’t like to talk about himself. Nico shook his head. That’s not true, he said, he’s just not good at it. He laughed at his own joke and continued the monologue I’d asked for.
I was living with your grandfather, Nico said, sleeping in the same twin bed I’d always slept in, next to an identical bunk that had once been your father’s. I remember it well, lying awake, alone with all of our family’s ghosts. I’d bring it up to your grandfather in the morning, over coffee. He’d answer calmly, as if he too had been lying awake at night, next to me, with nothing but a wall between us. He knew. The ghosts were here first, he’d say.
Ghosts? I asked. I didn’t believe in ghosts then. Not that I do now, not always, but back then I was sure I didn’t. Nico sat himself up in his chair.
My mother, he said, my sister too. They were dead. Both of them. Dead. That’s another story. That’s another day. We have plenty of them ahead of us. You do, anyway. What I was trying to say was that, technically speaking, I too attended university. I left after about a month of classes. As they say, it wasn’t for me. I ended up working at the Museo de Antioquia, in Medellín, where most of Botero’s paintings and sculptures were displayed. Look, if you don’t know who he is, you should. I did whatever was asked of me. I sold tickets, I made coffee, I answered phones. I even did some cleaning. Believe it or not, the cleaning was my favorite part. I’d be alone with the sculptures and the paintings in the still light of that silent museum. It was sacred, I guess. I was saving money. What for? At the time, I didn’t exactly know. I was saving money for the same reasons anyone saves money. I was saving money in case I’d want it, in case I’d need it, in case your grandfather lost his job or became sick, in case I found someone to marry, in case I had children. I saved what felt like a lot of money at the time. It was a lot. It was enough.
Nico reached for the bottle, then for a cigarette. In an effort to keep pace, I did the same. Enough for what? I asked. Nico took his hand to the back of his head and messed with what was left of his hair. He stared a thousand miles into his glass of rum. He coughed, tried to speak, then coughed again.
To leave, Nico said. To leave. I don’t know if you can comprehend. It’s history. Maybe it’s more than that. It’s not something you can understand by reading. It’s not something you, you who grew up here with what you’ve had, can ever really understand. But I’ll tell it to you anyway. Every time I left the house, I didn’t know if I would make it back home. Every time your grandfather left the house, every time I got off the phone with your father, I knew it could be the last time we’d ever speak. It was that simple. You couldn’t trust anyone. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t trust anyone. That’s true anywhere, I know, but Colombia was Colombia. Hell, I guess. There were bombs. Buses, planes, office buildings, supermarkets. I knew people who, upon hearing an explosion, looked out their window and saw the burning remains of a car raining onto their lawns. I’ve seen these pieces of burnt metal in the baskets next to people’s fireplaces. People killed people because. They killed children, too. Children killed children. I know we’re all children, and that all we’ve ever been are children. But still. There’s a difference between a young child and a grown one. There’s a difference between the dead child and the one still living. People here, in America, they’ve asked me questions. They’ve said, hey Nico, don’t you miss Colombia? I tell them I don’t miss Colombia. It’s half true. I have missed Colombia my entire life.
I interrupted Nico. I asked him a stupid question.
What does it mean to be Colombian? Nico repeated aloud. To be Colombian is an act of faith. Nothing more. For many people, that is enough. Most people have no choice. You don’t know how little a person can have. I don’t either, but I’ve seen it. I’ve met them. I’ve met their children. I’ve known their names. In Colombia, hungry parents name their children in English in hopes that someday their children will land ashore a place where they can be happy. They name their children after Catholic saints and Spanish priests. That’s what happens. Here, I live a life in broken English. Today, all I have to say is hello, goodbye, and good luck. That’s how I stay silent. When I’m alone, I talk to myself. It’s better that way. It’s like being alone in a crowded room. It happens to everyone, I hope. To make a little sense of anything all you have to do is look around. I have myself to talk to. I have you too, I guess.
Nico refilled his glass and I did the same. You’re drunk, he said. We’re drunk, I said. He blinked, nodded, waited, then resumed.
Your grandmother spoke of silences, he said. God hears them, she’d say. Once, when I was very young, I kept her company in the kitchen while she washed the dishes. Some argument had taken place at dinner, nothing important. Nothing worth remembering, anyway. She looked at me through the reflection in the window. Nico, she said, listen. That’s all she said.
I waited. I listened. The doves, I said.
The doves, he said. Originally, there was only one sculpture. A Botero. He’d donated it to the city. They’d thanked him and put it in a plaza. Years later, there was a festival there. There was music, food, lots of people. A close friend of mine invited me to go with her. I stayed home. Sometimes, I wish I’d gone with her. It would’ve been the right thing to do.
Nico, I said.
One of the cartels installed a bomb behind the dove statue, beneath the feathers that stuck out from its backside. It killed more than thirty people. My friend was one of them. Had I been there, I would’ve died too. I left Colombia a week later. They asked Botero to replace the dove. He told them to leave it there. He built another one and made sure it was installed alongside the original.
You left a week later? I asked.
I left a week later. I wrote my family a letter once I had an address here in the states. I can only imagine what they must’ve imagined had happened to me. They must’ve assumed the worst. I should’ve written the letter sooner. But that’s always the trouble with letters, isn’t it? If you don’t know what I mean now, you will. In the letter I told them I loved them and that I was sorry. Every now and then I think about what I wrote, why I did what I did and said what I said, why I left without telling them. If there’s anything you learn from me, and I hope it’s not much, it’s this. There is only one kind of letter. A love letter. To write a real one, you have to be sorry.
Nico, I said.
Don’t ask another question, he said. I’ve said too much. I’ll finish this story and we’ll leave it at that. A month later I received a letter from your grandfather. I still have it. I read it when I need to. It’s very short. I could show it to you, but I’d rather tell you what it says. Beloved Nico, we’re not angry you left without a word, what matters is that you’re happy.
There was a month of school left and attendance was more or less optional. Nico couldn’t have cared less whether I went or not. I think he would’ve preferred it if I’d stayed with him while he read through newspaper after newspaper in the morning, if I’d helped him with his crosswords, if I’d been there for us to dissect daytime television together. He never went so far as to try to keep me from going. He just had the habit of pouring me a drink or two every evening, be it a Monday or a Thursday, then asking me if I had plans the next morning, knowing full well I had class. In return, I’d ask him what his plans for the next day were, knowing full well he never did much of anything. He’d laugh. Tomorrow I’m taking the day off, he’d say. My father supported Nico. Financially. He’d done so for decades. I suppose, in some way, Nico had earned it.
School was school. I was mostly surrounded by people I wasn’t going to miss. Not that they were going to miss me either. I guess I enjoyed going. Nico was nice enough to lend me his car. I’d wake with the sun and watch it rise while I waded through the morning traffic. In the evenings I’d take the long way home, through neighborhoods that looked just like mine.
Despite my failed romance with the English teacher, we remained friends. She told me about the boyfriend she’d had for eight years who never proposed. About her absent father and her difficult mother. About the head of the English Department who demanded that the curriculum be geared primarily to the state test. The Master’s Administration degree she was slowly finishing up, night class by night class, and the book she wanted to write about her imprisoned brother. One morning, I kept her company during her free period. I helped her make copies to prepare for her next lesson. The phone rang. She answered. She screamed. My mother died, she said. She ran out of the classroom. I knew there was nothing I could do. I went to the library and took a seat on one of the open couches. The principal came and told me that he’d spoken with the English teacher. He asked me if I was okay. I asked him if she was okay. He shook his head. I stayed in the library for a few hours. At one point the frontrunner for Valedictorian took a seat on the couch next to mine. He did most of the talking, mostly about his Ivy League future and his growing interest in robotics. I don’t know why I didn’t leave. The whole thing dragged. He questioned the value of literature, the value of good books. He dared me to change his mind. Somehow, I’d inherited a debate. Naturally, I lost.
I had friends. A few of them. Like any circle, we had traditions. Like most circles, our traditions weren’t very special. We liked to get high and drive around. Eventually, we’d buy some sandwiches at the deli and eat them by the river. There we watched the local adventure kids do backflips off the bridge. My friends and I did our part and applauded. The day the English teacher’s mother died, we got on the tired subject of our futures. When questioned about my plans, I said that I was going to sell my blood, my plasma, and maybe even a kidney. Get a job, my friends said. What’s that? I asked.
I got especially high that day. Too high to drive. One of my friends volunteered to take the wheel until I regained direction. We were on our way to the gas station for tobacco and rolling papers when the driver misread a sharp turn and drove us into a tree. The driver was the first to get out. The two guys in the back quickly followed. I remained there, in the passenger seat of my uncle’s totaled car. I was slow but I was okay. It was like I was trying to wake up from a dream except there was no dream. Familiar territory. My friends pulled me out through the window and made me assure them I wasn’t injured. Once that box had been checked, we proceeded to throw our weed as far as we could into the woods.
That night I explained myself to my parents. I told them the truth about my English teacher’s mother and the lie about a family of deer appearing in the middle of the road. I don’t know if they believed all of what I said or none of it. The primary takeaway was that everyone was okay. We talked for a while, over dinner. I mentioned the history Nico had given me some weeks before. I explained to them what I’d learned. How easy it was to die in Colombia and how little one could do about it. On the other hand, how strange and how familiar it was to live in a town where people’s biggest threats were themselves. My parents thought it would be best if I stayed the night at home. I talked my way into getting a ride to Nico’s. When I got there, he was at the kitchen table, rum in hand. Sit down, he said.
I got lucky. My story worked. Nico was compensated for my accident. So compensated he was able to buy a newer model of the same car. He let me keep driving. He let me stay. The insurance had paid off and things were going well.
Tuesday was a good cat. Tuesday was tired. Tuesday was dying. In the time I knew her, the first two weeks I lived with Nico, she kept to herself. She had no interest in food. She spent her last days beneath Nico’s bedframe, as if in hiding. Nico told me all about Tuesday’s good life one Saturday afternoon. I was supposed to get together with some friends of mine. For the tenth straight weekend, we had big plans to get drunk and stoke a bonfire in the woods. I had little interest in staring at a fire and even less in listening to someone learn the guitar. What I wanted was to listen to Nico and watch him weep. In other words, I wanted to help. I assumed my position at the kitchen table, opposite Nico, and did just that.
I’ve never been one to keep people from leaving, Nico said, and I’ve never been any different with Tuesday. She was no more than a kitten, the equivalent of a teenager, when I first found her. She was sifting through my garbage can next to the garage. I invited her in and she came. She stayed. She liked to tap on the window glass and look back at me. It was her way of asking to go. I was afraid to, at first. I had some conversations with myself and finally accepted the fact that I wasn’t her mother. We reached an agreement. A silent one, but an agreement nonetheless. I’d let her go and she’d come back. When she did, she’d always bring something with her. At first she’d bring easy things. Crickets. Roaches. Fallen birds. As she got older, she brought white mice. It was love. I’d sit with her. I’d talk to her. I’d make sure she had food. I think she’s grateful. There’s a difference between love and gratitude. Both are rare enough on their own. But Tuesday loves me, and Tuesday thanked me. The only ways she knew how, sure, but who am I to choose? I think that’s what the mice were for, honestly. It wasn’t just instinct. She didn’t toy with the mice. She didn’t eat them. She’d be gone for a while. Usually hours. Occasionally for the night. I worried, but I trusted her. When she’d come back, she’d tap on the glass with a white mouse between her teeth. I’d open the window and greet her. She’d walk in, slowly, head up, her eyes on mine, and she’d drop the mouse in my open hand. A couple of months ago, she began eating less. She got slower. She slept more. She didn’t follow as closely behind me as she always had. I’d still let her out. She’d come home empty, no white mice. I don’t let her out anymore. She doesn’t ask. All she can do is sleep. Tuesday does her best to hide her pain from me, the way the smartest animals do, but it’s too clear now. It’s time for her to sleep for good. I owe it to her. She’s earned it.
Tuesday refused the sedatives. Hold still, Nico whispered. He kissed the top of Tuesday’s black head and looked into her gold eyes. Nico’s trembling hands moved slowly over Tuesday’s showing ribs. He waved me over to the kitchen tile and told me what to do. When I open Tuesday’s mouth, he said, I need you to make sure she swallows the pills. Drop them in the back of her throat, he said. Once she’s swallowed those, do the same with the Valiums.
I suggested we take her to a professional. Let them take care of her, I said. Nico shook his head, disgusted. Why should this be easy? He asked. Let her die where she lives, he said, let her sleep where she’s slept. Nico spoke to Tuesday as she tried to cough up. Have faith, he whispered, go to sleep. He laid Tuesday down on her side. He kissed her stomach until she stopped moving. Once she’d finally passed, Nico pressed his head to hers and wept. I asked Nico where he wanted her buried. I don’t want her buried, he said, I want her here. Here? I asked. Here, he said.
Nico sat and smoked in the passenger seat holding Tuesday, at first speaking only to give me directions to the taxidermist. He’d never looked so tired. Half of the sun stuck out over the top of the mountain. The other half pulled away.
What’s strange, Nico said, is digging a hole for someone you love. I was younger than you when I left my mother in a hole. I was your age when I left my sister in a hole. It’s normal, I know that, but that doesn’t make it any less strange.
It’s not like you can take people to the taxidermist, I said.
Why not? Nico laughed. When I die, take me to the taxidermist. Take me to the taxidermist and tell them to close my eyes and lay me down, on my back. Give me a room and lay me down next to Tuesday. Leave me with her and bolt the door.
If that’s what you want, I said. I drove slow, with both hands. The few cars on the road sped past mine with ease. When we passed a raccoon that’d been flattened to the pavement, Nico brought Tuesday to his lips. I waited a moment. Then another. I asked Nico about his mother.
She was young, he said, 33. She got sick in the heart and was in the hospital for about a month before she died. She told jokes to make us laugh, mainly my brother and my sister and I. To make things easier, I guess. It was what it was. Your mother will die, and while she’s dying, she’ll tell jokes too. At first you’ll cry, then you’ll laugh, and then you’ll cry again. Eventually you’ll do both at the same time. It’s called growing up. I remember her there, in the hospital, smoking. The doctors all smoked then, too. They said smoking would be good for her, that it would help her relax. Dying, smoking, telling jokes. That was my mother. She taught us well. When she was getting close to the end, a sister of hers brought a priest to pray over her. My mother thought that was funny. When he came in, poor priest, she told him not to waste his time. Pray for the living, she said.
And your father? I asked. Nico took two breaths.
He was working in his office when he suffered a stroke. He was always working. It was his choice, I guess. Your father and I flew back to Colombia as soon as we heard. Your grandfather was in a coma when we got there and your father made it clear to the doctors that we didn’t want them to prolong the inevitable. No heroics, he told them. We decided not to bury him. We let the doctors take from him whatever might be useful to the living. I was against it at first, but I gave in to your father’s pragmatics. It was what your grandfather would’ve wanted, after all. What was left of him, we had cremated. We spread the ashes atop his favorite mountain. I cried the way I always do, with my head in my hands and my eyes on the ground. I looked up at your father. Yes, he was crying too. Of course he was. But he was standing. He had his hands in his pockets. He didn’t look at the ground.
I almost missed the exit. Nico had to point it out to me just as I was about to pass it. What about your sister? I asked. Nico took his time to speak. It was as if life were a question, he said, and her answer was, No.
Nico carried Tuesday into the taxidermist’s and laid her down on the counter. The taxidermist asked Nico how he’d like her to remain. Make her asleep, he said.
At the time of my graduation, I had little experience with ceremony. My baptism, for example, I do not recall. The only thing I remember about my first communion is the stale taste of sacrament. That, and trying to come up with something to say to the priest during my first confession. I told him that I didn’t always brush my teeth. I was never confirmed. My father never let me anywhere near a wedding. This was a direct product of his regrets over his own marriage. In all fairness, he wasn’t exactly an institutional person to begin with. Everybody that died in my family had done so before I’d been born. The only funeral I’d ever taken part in, if it can be called a funeral, was Tuesday’s. Today I like to think that my entire life has been a ceremony of some kind, but I didn’t know that then.
Everyone looked funny in their hats and small in their robes. I did too. We were outside of the auditorium, madly arranging ourselves in alphabetical order, when the English teacher showed up. Wearing a flattering green dress, she said her goodbyes to her favorite students. She gave me a big hug. I asked her if she was going to stick around for the ceremony. No, she said, I’m going on a first date. We congratulated one another. I visited her in her classroom a couple of years later. She ended up marrying him. They were expecting a boy.
We were the class of 2016. The speeches were on the mark: optimistic and forgettable. One by one our names were called. One by one we shook hands with the principals. The band played. We turned our tassels. Some people cried. Mostly people rejoiced. I managed to feel. Relief, or something like it. I wished people luck. I posed for pictures, mostly with Nico and my parents. I even took one with the principal. My parents thanked him for allowing me to graduate, despite my grades. It’s my job, he said smiling. According to my parents, the principal’s comment was reflective of his commitment to helping his students’ progress in life. I didn’t totally disagree, although I think it had more to do with the tax money he’d saved the school by not keeping me around for a second senior year.
My family held a small, celebratory dinner at the local Brazilian deli. We had skewered beef, chicken wrapped with bacon, rice and beans, and guava juice. My parents asked me if I’d come up with any plans for my future since I’d moved out of their house. Things are going well at Nico’s, I said, I think I’ll stay there as long as he’ll have me. My parents looked at one another. A silence lingered, a silence I couldn’t read. Nico broke it. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, You can stay as long as I’m around.
After dinner, my mother handed me an envelope. It was a gift from the three of them. Inside were two plane tickets to Colombia. I’d only ever been once, as a kid. I didn’t know exactly what I’d done to deserve a gift. I thanked them. Nico explained that he was the one that would go with me. I asked my parents if they were sure it was a good idea for Nico and I to go on vacation together. It’s not a vacation, Nico said, it’s a trip.
Nico sat passenger in the taxi we hailed at the Cartagena airport. The driver asked Nico where he was coming from, then asked how long it’d been since he’d left Colombia. A lifetime, Nico said.
The two spoke of war. The two spoke of peace. The driver asked Nico if America was actually capable of electing Trump. Nico said yes. When their conversation paused, Nico made a point to turn to the backseat and tell me that taxi drivers knew more about politics than anyone else. The driver’s laminated headshot was displayed on the back of his seat. A rosary swayed from his rearview mirror. Statuettes of Jesus and Mary shook on the dashboard. I grew carsick. I rolled the window down and watched the ocean crash into the walls of the old city.
The hotel was a large house. The clay walls had all been painted white and the ceilings too. The ceramic tiles kept the ground cool. While Nico settled our reservation at the front desk of the lobby, I sat on a stool in the corner and tried to regain my senses. I closed my eyes and made myself still. A girl no older than fourteen or fifteen woke me from my nausea and handed me a halved lime. Eat this, she said. I thanked her. She laughed. Nico called to me from the desk with the half mocking tone of a knowing uncle. Eat the lime and come back to life, he said. The girl laughed again. Welcome to Cartagena, she said.
I showered and dressed. While Nico did the same, I watched television. News of a soccer game, a murder, and the weather. He emerged from the bathroom wearing a loose white linen shirt and matching pants cuffed up to his ankles. Who do you think you are? I asked. Who cares? Nico said.
We walked alongside the Laguna. Nico would point at something, a little bar or café or market, and say something about how he’d spent time there during his stint with the Navy. I don’t remember all of what he said then because of how hot it was. I told Nico that I needed a break, to stop and sit for a little while, that blisters were beginning to form on my soles. It had only been an hour or so. Blisters, he said, that’s what happens in Cartagena. I sat down to remove my shoes and take my chances barefoot. Nico stopped me. No, he said, you’ll burn holes in your feet. He offered to lend me his sandals and use my shoes. No, I said, I’ll be fine. He’d meant it. He would’ve helped me, I’m sure, but he seemed satisfied with me for declining his offer.
We stopped at a small lunch spot by the Laguna, a square concrete shack surrounded by small tables bolted to the ground. Nico ordered a platter of ceviche and white rice for us to share. I did most of the eating. Nico did most of the talking. I asked him why he’d joined the Navy. For something to do, he joked. I nodded and kept eating. Nico took small, slow bites and drank from his beer to wash down his food. When he swallowed it looked like he was swallowing medicine.
When I was your age, Nico said, your grandfather didn’t know what to do with me. He was busy working and I was busy doing whatever I wanted. My mother was gone, dead. My sister was gone, dead. Believe it or not, I didn’t do well in school. I didn’t like it, either. I preferred the movies. I learned more at the movies than I did at school. I learned even more walking around. I’d go out at night and I wouldn’t come home. I got into some fights but not many. I was exercising my independence. A silly thing to do, sure, but acceptable in moderation. I ended up crossing a line, maybe several. So I got sent here, to Cartagena, to the Naval Academy. I don’t blame my father for doing so. It wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. It was a good, customary alternative to my adventures. I suppose I learned some things. I learned how to shower and shave in two minutes. How to make my bed. How to march. I learned how to keep my mouth shut.
We walked to the old part of town; the part carefully preserved and surrounded by tall, stone walls built by the Spanish. Our guide was a dark, short man with round glasses. He approached us at the entrance of the old city and asked us if we’d like a tour. After a quick negotiation, he was hired. He’d been born and raised in Cartagena and he’d never left. He taught literature and history at a public high school a few miles away from the airport. He told jokes that weren’t very funny, that weren’t meant to be funny, but that made me like him.
We circled the old city for about an hour or so while the Prof gave us a detailed history lesson. It was difficult to pay attention, I admit. Whether it was because of the Prof’s coastal accent, my nausea, or the heat, I’m not exactly sure. I watched tourists buy paintings of the balconies from street vendors, and pose for pictures with the women selling fruit. The tourists were amazed by the way the women balanced large woven baskets on the tops of their heads. Nico tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to the tourists dressed in safari gear with their cameras hanging from their sunburnt necks. Nico pointed them out to me and laughed. I laughed. The Prof laughed, too.
There were churches everywhere, some of them beautiful. I asked the Prof about them. The Spanish had more money than they could count, the Prof said, they didn’t know where to put it, so they built churches one next to the other.
When he spoke of more serious things, the Prof tended to lean in close to Nico and whisper. He was never quieter than when he pointed out houses that belonged to important people. He pointed out the house that belonged to Pablo Escobar’s oldest son. Big parties, he said. Still? Nico asked. Of course, the Prof said. He pointed out the house that had belonged to Gabo.
We passed a statue of an African prisoner and a Spanish priest who, according to the plaque, baptized around three hundred thousand slaves. Just what they needed, Nico said. The Prof nodded. That’s how the story goes, he said.
The Prof offered to make us a list of good restaurants and music venues. Proudly, Nico declined, citing the years he was stationed in Cartagena with the Naval Academy. Yes sir, the Prof said. Nico and I thanked him for the tour. Before the Prof could leave, Nico handed him some money and asked him for a favor. We smoked a cigarette and waited for the Prof to come back. He slipped a pair of joints into Nico’s shirt pocket and was on his way.
Nico proposed beer. I accepted. We sat down at the café and watched the tourists pass us by. Are you tired? he asked. I shook my head. Good, Nico said, there’s something you should see.
We finished our beers and thanked the boy who’d brought them to us. We walked into a large white building with unpainted wooden balconies. This, he said, is the Palace of Inquisition. Nico bought one ticket and put it in my palm. I’ll be outside, he said.
There were no tourists. There were no guards. Aside from the ticket man, there was nobody save myself. There was The Corda, a device designed to hang prisoners by a rope tied around their wrists with their hands behind their back. There was the Thumbscrew, which was used to break hands and feet. There was The Rack, where they tied prisoners by the wrists and ankles and pulled them until they broke. There was the Breast Ripper. There was the Head Crusher. There was The Wheel, where prisoners were tied down, beaten, and left for days until their bodies gave into thirst. All things considered, it was worth the price of admission.
I left. Nico was smoking, waiting on one of the benches in the courtyard out front. Sitting next to him was a bottle of rum and two plastic cups. You missed the sunset, he said. It happens, I said. We walked to the edge of the old city and set up on a bench by the stone wall, below an old turret. Cheers, he said.
A different crowd began to colonize the town. Lines began to form outside a cluster of nightclubs across the street.
Nico asked me if I wanted to join them. I said no. Right answer, he said. He grabbed my cup and filled it. Drink it slowly, he said, take it little by little. I know, I said. It didn’t take us very long to finish half the bottle. I’m a stranger no matter where I go, I confessed. Good, he said. Good? I asked. Well, he said, you can either be a tourist or a witness; it’s up to you. A witness? I asked. Yes, he said.
We watched the glittering mob grow larger in the street. I counted the silver on their wrists, the diamonds on their ears, and the gold around their necks. Nico asked me if I wanted to hear a story. Tell me a story, I said.
I knew a man, Nico said, a friend of my father’s. He had a typical man’s name. I don’t remember exactly, it doesn’t matter. Normal guy. He was an accountant I believe, or an insurance agent. He did pretty well. But he drank too much. He drank at home and he drank at work. He’d liked whiskey, but switched to vodka so people wouldn’t be able to smell it on him. Eventually, his friends and family convinced him to stop. They made sure he didn’t go to the bar, made sure there was no liquor at home or at the office. Do you know what he ended up doing?
What did he do? I asked.
He began to buy his wife perfume. I don’t know if she liked perfume or not, but that’s not the point. It’s a nice thing to do, I guess. I think people should smell however they want to smell. That’s another conversation altogether. What I’m trying to say is that we buy things for people we love so that they know we love them. Everyone knows that. People buy each other all kinds of things. Some people buy each other clothes, other people buy each other diamonds, some people buy each other gold. This man, he began to buy his wife perfume. A lot of it. Maybe it was a way of saying thank you. Maybe it was a way of saying sorry. Sometimes it was gold, sometimes silver. Mostly, though, it was perfume. Every week or so, he would bring home a handful of new, expensive bottles of perfume. French, Italian, whatever. Why do you think?
Because he was sorry, I said, because he was grateful.
That’s what you’d think, right? That’s what she thought. That’s what everyone thought. But no, that wasn’t it. He bought his wife so much perfume that she’d lost track of all the perfume he’d given her. Just imagine all that perfume.
Who needs that much perfume? I said.
He did, Nico said.
Why? I asked. To forgive himself?
No. You’d think so. Maybe not. But no. He was drinking the perfume. Think about it. He found a way. A man drinking his wife’s perfume. I don’t know what it means. I know it means something. I’ve told people this story and all they’ve said is that it’s sad. But of course it’s sad. It’s beautiful, I think. I mean, who drinks perfume?
A man with a typical name, I said.
Right, he said, you’re right.
We ended up at a bar near the hotel. It was an older, local crowd, and there was a live band playing. Nico and I sat a table near the back of the bar and watched. He leaned over and screamed in my ear. Vallenato, he said, the music they’re playing is called Vallenato. Pay attention to this song, he said, pay attention to the words.
I did just that. I did whatever Nico asked of me. I ignored the happy dancing couples, the young and the old, the beautiful men and women who moved in ways I knew, even then, I’d never be able to. The singer wailed into the microphone.
They took it with them, they took it with them, they took it with them and it’s been lost. It so happens that an honored rat has it, it so happens that an honored rat is the one that stole.
I had to help Nico on the way back to the hotel to keep him from falling. We passed by two men talking to two prostitutes. One of the men used his finger to inspect her teeth. From what I could hear, he was negotiating the price.
We were only halfway to our hotel when I was left with no option but to hail a taxi. I hoped it would be our driver from earlier that day, but it wasn’t. Still, the driver helped me drag Nico onto the backseat. Is he going to vomit? the driver asked. He won’t, I said, I promise.
The same girl who’d gifted me a lime in the morning was alone in the lobby. She didn’t smile. She said hello and nothing else. She helped me walk Nico up the stairs and into the bathroom of our hotel room. I pulled a bill from my pocket and held it out to her, as if I were paying a toll. She refused. I insisted. She kept the money and left with a tired bow.
I smoked a cigarette while I waited for Nico to finish vomiting. Once the dry heaving began, I flushed the toilet. I grabbed him, turned him flat on his back, and wiped the vomit from his leather face. I shook him until his eyes opened. I told him it was okay, that he was going to be fine. Even then, I knew I was lying. Nico shook his head and tried to speak. Shut up, I told him. I put the back of my hand against his face and decided he was too hot. I moved him to the shower and propped him up against the back of the tub. I baptized him in cold water and let the water run off of his shivering body, down the drain. I wrapped a towel around him and dragged him to bed. I put him on his side and made sure he was still breathing. He was. I kissed his forehead. I picked the newspaper up from the nightstand and read while I prayed for his heart to slow. I checked the weather forecast for Cartagena. It was only going to get hotter. Nico’s breathing normalized. His heart kept ticking. I folded the newspaper and set it back down on the nightstand. It was then that I noticed the headline on the front page. I read it aloud. I knew Nico could hear me. I said, Gold miners say output has peaked.
The following morning, we began our resurrection in the makeshift cafeteria adjacent to the hotel lobby. I didn’t think I’d be able to stomach anything aside from a cup or two of coffee. I tried to convince Nico that I didn’t need to eat anything. Thankfully, he ignored me. We feasted on arepas, empanadas, pork belly, sausage, eggs, rice, and beans. Nico requested a second order of the pork belly. The fat, he said, is the best part.
Nico and I set up close to shore on the public beach, just close enough to the tide so that the water would reach our feet. Nico made a point to tell me that the ancient cure to each and every hangover was to look directly at the sun for seven seconds. Somehow, I believed him. I made it to five seconds before I couldn’t look any longer. Nico laughed at me, apologized, then laughed some more. Before long, Nico had begun snoring ashore the Sunday beach. In the shallowest water, naked baby children splashed and screamed. The school-aged children took themselves more seriously. Three boys competed with three girls to see who could build the most impressive, temporary castle. I don’t remember who won. Eventually, both groups outgrew their little game and retired to the waves. The deeper water was littered with teenage romances, each couple seemingly attached by the mouth.
A boy asked me if I wanted to buy a flower. Nico mumbled in his sleep. The boy made a joke of it and claimed that he’d clearly heard Nico say yes. I chose the healthiest orchid. I watched him as he continued selling flowers to the world. I pressed the orchid to my nose and breathed until I got dizzy, then placed it on Nico’s sleeping stomach. I closed my eyes. I woke up to Nico looking down at me, mouthing an urgent question: Who gave me this orchid?
We swam, showered, and returned to the old city. After consulting a few random locals on the street, Nico was able to locate an old favorite restaurant of his. Once there, we shared a large caldron of fish soup and two or three pitchers of sugar cane water. Nico said that our day together had been one of the best hangovers he’d ever had. Of the very few hangovers I’d experienced before then, that one with Nico was easily the best. I told him so. He laughed. That’s not saying much, he joked, but thank you.
Before easing into an early, responsible sleep, Nico and I positioned ourselves, once again, on the bench at the edge of the old city. I listened as Nico soberly lectured me about money. He spoke of silver. He spoke of gold. He spoke of entire peoples in the Americas, where exactly I don’t recall, who decided to commit mass suicide before the Inquisition could wash upon their shore. We had the land, Nico said, and now we have the bible. We? I asked.
I didn’t know it then, but I know now that that night was the last time Nico stood before an ocean. He didn’t say so. He said something else instead. We were walking along the shoreline, the water washing over our feet. Nico stopped to gather his breath.
You’re tired, I said.
The tide is low, he said.