fiction

Bogota

 

Fran finished another beer. He stared at Marina who sat opposite him, yammering with her friend on the sofa. She turned in full profile so that the fineness of her brow, her nose and chin was apparent. Contemplating her features had been the best of a limited selection of diversions for two or so hours. The soft rise of her cheek, her dark yet translucent skin and the black of her eyes and hair had over and over beome the center of his shallow attention. Similarly, a framed Jesus, doe‑eyed and blonde continued to stare at him through a shiny, soft dome of plastic, a semite made into an aryan for the identification and devotion of Colombians. Insistent latin music, full of stark brass and percussion, careened hard, with the light off the white washed walls. To the left of Jesus was the breastplate of a conquistador, which hung over the sofa and which he had imagined falling off the wall and onto to Marina. Next to the breastplate was a family portrait. In the past two hours, Fran had stared at the photograph many times, trying to determine which of the children in it had grown into which one of the students in the small house.

“Una cerveza?” Possibly the hostess, a very dark girl with immpossibly wide and high cheekbones stood over him.

“Si” He returned a sympathetic smile.

That had been the extent of his interaction for quite a while now. Uncomfortable, he adjusted his position. Marina was no help. Not that she could speak any real amount of english, but he felt she owed it to him to occasionally try to get himinvolved in the conversation. It was her idea for him to meet her friends from the university. A girl kneeling in front of the stereo to Fran’s right chose the next record as men laughed inthe kitchen. Too bright in here for a party, he thought as waited for his the next beer and hoped a steady flow of liqour would quell his dull headache.

When Marina and Fran first arrived, he had been the center of attention and conversation was easy. The questions they asked he had heard before and they talked about matters with which he was well rehearsed; cultural differences, his impression of theircountry, politics, the weather. Familiar patterns and key phrases and pat responses allowed him to keep up with the discourse. Eventually, though, these subjects were given to tangents and new topics were introduced. He struggled to keep up, to understand, but doing so took on the features of an unpleasant game. He was fine as long as he held the floor, but when others spoke, he missed the jokes and often had no idea what was being

discussed. He began to withdraw.

“A la orden.” His best friend arrived.

“Gracias”

She had opened the beer. He drank as if he were still thirsty asa television bleating upstairs mocked his quietness. At one point, someone asked him about his work and he tried to explain what the Mobilized American Friends Program was and his own work providing poor people with basic medical care. He was glad for the opportunity to talk about it, but as it turned out they were not very interested in his what he did or in the plight or conditions of the people with whom he was working. Several times he attempted to rejoin in the conversation but guessed incorrectly more than once at what they were talking about. These apparent non‑sequiturs were met at first with patience but soon with irritation or dismissal. He seemed to lose all of the spanish that he had learned in three months.

In the kitchen, the men were laughing loudly and he  could see they were opening a bottle. One noticed that he was looking and yelled for Fran to join them. Partially because of his stifling boredom, he got up and sauntered over. But more so because he was aware, and almost apologetic, of his being the stranger. Even though language had failed, he felt socially obligated to attempt some kind of linkage or communion. He was welcomed with a cheerful shot of agua ardiente, a licorice‑flavored liqour.

 

Five drinks later, Fran found himself slouched at the

kitchen table, staring flatly at a shrine to the Blessed Virgin.

Luis (or Roberto or Oscar) was laughing hard while his friend

Oscar (or Roberto or Luis) sighed, caught his breath and poured

three more shots. They mayhavebeen laughing at Fran, but he

could not comprehend their slurred and rapid speech. They had

been drinking shots for an hour as the party

disintegrated around them. A third man, almost assuredly

Roberto, was across from Fran, his head down on the table, the

first victim of what had evolved into a contest between the

three Colombians and the gringo. It was silly, for Fran was

much larger than they were, outweighing each of them by at least

seventy pounds, but agua ardiente, it seemed, was the unofficial

national drink and they felt it was necessary to test the limits

of their new acquantance. In the living room, Marina and the

hostess played theloud and monotonous dance records. They

were the only other people remaining from the party.

Luis stopped laughing. He picked the shot glass up a couple of inches off the table. He stared at it, mumbled something of

which Fran could only glean the phrase “no puede”, set the

glass down and fell off his chair. This produced a squall of

laughter. Luis rolled over and laid down, still giggling.

Oscar, glassy eyed, managed to squint combatively at Fran,

grabbed his glass, threw the liqour into the back of his throat and smiled. This Fran found very amusing and calmly drank his

shot, then the one left by Luis. He took hold of the bottle and

was about to reduce Oscar to incoherencewhen Marina appeared

in the doorway and announced flatly that it was time to go. He

shook hands with his remaining drinking partner and thanked the

hostess. As they left Fran, tried to avoid hitting his head on

the low doorway, but instead tripped over the threshold. Marina

called him a borrachon, a drunk.

 

 

They stood for some time at the bus stop. Marina’s breath fogged in the crisp night air while he stood unaffected by the cold, his jacket wide open. A large open lot, oddly common in urban Bogota, was behind them and across this lot the wind blew

unhindered. Marina shoved her hands deep into the pockets of

her too large coat, drawing up her shoulders and, bringing

her arms in tight against her sides, compacted herself as she

shivered. Fran laughed at her.

“Pobrecita, tiene frio?”

She contrived a pout, something he had seen before. He was sorry he taunted her but only because he was afraid she

might say something. She didn’t. That much spanish was easy but

he was tired of speaking another language and even more tired

of trying to comprehend it. Moreover, he was tired of her.

She was nineteen, immature and spoiled, She lived next door to

the family with whom he was staying and paid a lot of

attention to him. She began by coming over many evenings,

ostensibly so he could help her with the english courses she

was taking. The two families made a big production of the purported romance, but he was mostly ambivalent. He dated her

only because he had been feeling restless of late and because she

was actually beautiful.

He couldn’t remember if they spoke on the way to the bus

stop. In any case he got the impression she was less than happy

with him. It was probably the drinking contest. She stared

off down the street. The wind  gusted and blew small, low clouds

towards the east. He followed the path of one of these across

the black sky until it disappeared behind the denser blackness

of the Andes. Fran could make out little detail of the mountains, only differentpatterns of lights against the darkness. Lights in

straight vertical rows, of consistent intensity were the lights

of the high rise apartment buildings in the new section of the

city. Vital and cosmopolitan, Marina and he had gone to

restaurants and taverns there. In this same black field, he found

other groupings, lights more like the stars, randomly set and of

varying brightness. These were shacks, clinging to the side of

the mountain, hovels made of stolen lumber, tin, cardboard and

even sheets of plastic. There lived what he called his clientele.

Campesinos, peasants who after being displaced in the

countryside, moved to the city and took residence wherever they

could. Uneducated and disenfranchised, they were of mostly indian blood and although deprived of running water or sewers, they did

manage to tap into power lines, stealing electricity. These stars twinkled as the light from the bare swinging bulbs escaped

through the cracks of the flawed construction.

From a distance, the two constellations appeared to be next

to each other and actually were not far apart, less than half a

mile. Walking down the street after dinner earlier, he was

uncomfortable with the idea that one of the campesinos selling

flowers or collecting  cardboard might recognize him. He could not be certain how Marina would react and was careful not to look in the eye anyine who might be from the underclass. He felt

ashamed about this. He tried to explain the conditions there

to Marina, as though bringing about some awareness would be a kind of atonement. She was more interested in selling him on

the idea of the party.

The bus came and they got on, Marina paying both fares, the

first thing for which he’d ever seen her pay. The bus was almost

empty, a rare instance. A young man was asleep near the front,

presumably so the driver could wake him at his stop. An older

man sat alone near the back and across from him was a mother and

two daughters. These four stared at Fran as he made his way,

hunched over, to the back of the bus. Tall by north‑american

standards, to the colombians, especially those of indian stock,

he seemed a giant. As a spectacle, he seemed to appeal most to

school girls, groups ofwhich followed him for blocks, giggling

and pointing. After a few months, Fran had gotten used to it

or at least resigned himself, for there was nothing he could

do about it. Marina went to the back row of the bus and sat

next to the window. Fran squeezed in next to her, the seat barely accomodating him. She slid her arm under his and, taking hold, she pulled herself close, resting her head on his shoulder. Fran

looked at her but her eyes were closed. She said something about

where they had to get off,which he already knew, and pulled

herself closer still, smiling.

His first impulse was to pull away from her. He knew this was a typical example of the way she potioned out affection, in an

arbitrary, girlish fashion. And for his part, particularly in

light of the fiasco of this evening, he felt no real affection

for her. Yet despite the bad faith, he found her actions warm

and funny and as impersonal as a childs.

The young man at the front awoke and began talking to the

driver. The banter was the same as the sound puzzles Fran had

struggled with earlier in the evening. Now he let the noise

bounce contentedly off a relaxed ear as one would with birds or

monkeys. It was a hot jazz. This was alien chatter, not the sum

of the sounds but the sounds themselves, untranslated, indistinct. They may have discussed a murder or a soccer game,

but their words Fran would not follow. The older man was in the

seat three rowsahead of Marina and now he was staring out the

window. He wore a black suit under a wool poncho. He occasionally

turned his head towards the conversation in the front as if

alarmed or disgusted by what was being said. It almost made Fran

tune his ear to the dialogue and he imagined the old man

scorning foolish things being said, thinking their opinions were

indeed so much monkey chatter.

The bus stopped and a Franciscan priest, attired in the traditional coarse hooded robe stepped on. He recognized Fran and

headed to the back of the bus.

“Hey, Fran, how are you?” Grinning, he extended his hand.

Fran, though not certain he was pleased to run into him, managed

a smile and shook his hand firmly.

He sat down on the edge of the seat the next row up and across

the aisle so they could face each other.

“Good, George. How are you doing?”

George was a friend of Fran’s cousin who was also in a religious order and it was through that friendship that Fran had come to South America. George taught classes in Theology and had

introduced him to the people who made up Mobilized American Friends.

“O.K. Where have you been? I haven’t seen you around.”

“I’ve been working on the side of the mountain.”

“Where, up by the Septima?”

“Yeah.”

“By yourself?”

“Mostly. No one else seems to go up there.” Marina

stirred. Fran figured she wasn’t asleep but would pretend she

was as long as they were speaking english.

George waited for Fran to say something more and then

laughed,looking at Marina. “Lord, that is a pretty girl.Who

is she?”

“A friend.”

“I’ll bet. Now remember what Brother Brian said about the

local girls.” He assumed an irish accent. “They’ll be wanting to

take them home witcha.”

Fran muttered sardonically. “No danger here.”

George frowned for moment, unfamiliar with such reticence.

“I don’t know if you ever got them, but I left a couple of

phone messages for you. I thought you might like to come over

for some beer. You know, the usual Friday night thing.”

This was an informal party thrown by George, purportedly to just have fun and drink beer, but because of the rather political nature of his friends usually ended up one step below a beer hall putsch.

“No, I got them. I don’t know … I just haven’t been in

the mood lately.”

“Well, we’ve missed you. You help keep the discussions

lively.”

Fran smiled. “I don’t know why you would have missed me,

George. I was downright antagonistic to you and your comrades

the last couple of times I came over.”       There was a glimmer of recognition in the priest’s eyes when

he used the word comrade.

“Why would you say that? I thought we were all friends. We

realize that you play the devil’s advocate,” He chuckled, “Albeit

a rather vigorous one, but  I didn’t feel that you were being particularly hostile.”

Fran sighed and began to stare out the window.

“The other people at our discussions realize that you’re, say,

less of a marxist than they are. We’re all have our own beliefs.

I think the group is really rather eclectic. Actually, that’s what Liberation Theologyisall about.” He spoke in the same

cheerful but didactic tone that he used in teaching, “We draw

from any number of ways of looking at things. I can’t be a

literal marxist. I believe in God. But marxism, particularly the economics of marxism, is one…”

“They’re entitled to any ideas they want.” He finally

interrupted,”I have no problem with the intellectual aspects

at your get‑togethers. You remind me a lot of the people in the program. I don’t care for you as a group.”

George became very somber.

“Quite frankly, I’m confused. What do you feel is wrong?”

“The smugness and the rhetoric and the righteous indignation

and…” He took a deep breath and looked out the window again. He was struck with a new idea and, although many accusations freely coursed through his mind, the precision of one word stood out.

“… and presumptuous. You are all so damned presumptous.”

George stared at the floor for a moment, apparently shocked

and in thought. Though their mother had turned around, the girls

were still leaning over the backs of their seats and

looking at Fran. When he returned their stare, they slid down and were content with sneaking glances. They were campesinos, newly urbanized. The woman wore a black bowler and a

light print dress with a shawl over it, while the girls wore windbreakers over similar dresses. As they peeked over the seat at him, with eyes as black as ink, he felt a real sense of empathy, a sensitivity that had eroded over the months. It was

partly due to the realization that his was no more than a

band aid approach to an enormous problem. But  mostly, this

detatchment had stemmed from the attitudes of the other

north americans, the others doing this work. They were

condescending to those that they helped and arrogant to

anyone not noble enough to do what they were doing. When the

program begantoassume that it could fill the role of

spokesman for the campesino, Fran, without leaving it altogether,

began to work away from the group, doing his job in a

compassionate butpassionless manner. He felt angry for losing

this sensitivity.      “What do you mean by presumptions?” He spoke not in a

manner of someone defending or attacking a position, but rather

of one truly puzzled.

Fran’s skin felt flush and warm. He had many things to say

but wasn’t sure how to answer the question. He didn’t want to

turn the conversation into a diatribe or a confession or to

bare his soul. He stayed quiet for a couple of minutes.

“I meant at first that I didn’t like that you all believed

you had the answers, that you alone could presume to speak for the poor and that  North‑americans could understand the campesino when other Colombians can’t even do it. And that, along with the attitudes of moral superiority, does offend me. But there is

something more personal for me.” He took a deep breath and

continued. “I guess it’s related  to the rhetoric. Um… maybe only somewhat. You all seem to have an epistle, whether it’s Marx or Mao or Camus or Jesus or whoever and when you chose one you get to become part of the group.” He wasn’t certain where he was going with his idea, groping, but certain that something was there.

George responded anxiously.

“Well, we have different ideas, but similar aims. That is how Liberation Theology can cross paths with the Marxist. We both believe we are trying to build a just society.”

“You might even take that a step further and say that both

are trying to build community. I’m trying to remember a qoute by

Malaraux, something about the will to be proletarian.” Fran

noticed that George relaxed as the conversation took an

intellectual turn, but Fran was concerned he would get

sidetracked.

“That is really true. We look for a common cause, something

to make us as one.”

“Then both offer me nothing.” He began to garner a strength

about what he felt, “Answers and Epistles are bulk commodities to me. I don’t want to see it all in context. I don’t want a perspective to view things from. You compromise my experience when

you presume that I am the same as you, that I share your feelings,

that we feel the same poignancies. I don’t need to share indignation or to join the moral elite. Your presumption, the presumptions of the others are that I belong to the community is

simply wrong. I will feel, I will think, I will experience but only if the things that are mine.”

The brother became dejected. “I really don’t understand.”

For a moment, he seemd to grow angry, looking Fran tenaciously

in the eyes for some sign of uncertainty. But George looked

away first. He looked out the window and stood up. “I’ve already

missed my stop by several blocks. By the way, I spoke to your

cousin the other day. She said that your family hadn’t heard from

you in a while.” He started moving towards the front of the bus.

“If I talk to them again, can I say you’re allright?” His tone sounded almost vengeful.

“You can tell them I’m fine. Goodbye, George.”

George got off without saying anything. Fran watched him

step onto  the sidewalk where beggars sat in front of a huge,

dark cathedral. They drew towards him and he stopped and was

blessing them as the bus moved away.

All the words of the conversation rang in his ears,

beginning to mix in sequence and chronology as a process of

memory, but clear and poignant and forceful. He was certain of his words and, in a way, proud. Proud not of the ideas or

the structure, but of the purity of the sentiment. He was

only bothered for a moment by the thought of his family, but

exhiliration overwhelmed any guilt. He was truly alone. He

felt perfectly alienated, really apart. As frightening as the

proposition of true lonliness was, it was more seductive. The

notion of being solitary seemed to make being alive more intense,

that without the identifications, the values, the contexts,

each feeling became his own. He never had a family, never had

a friend, his words had never been understood. He felt very

strong, powerful in the physical sense, as if released, for the

first time unfettered.

Marina stirred. Her body felt distant and unreal. He looked

downat her, her eyes closed placidly. He looked down at her

beautiful face. He thought about his earlier anger and almost

laughed aloud.

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