In December we moved to Valencia, a large city two hours west of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. We moved into our new home, a single-story stuccoed building in an older section of town that covered the entire city block. It faced the street with shuttered windows behind rusting iron bars, and peeling plaster exposed weathered brick walls. My room also faced the street. At night I would listen to street traffic beneath the netted tent, the mosquito coil filling the room with its musky scent. Slitted light raced across my wall from passing headlights. The bloodthirsty attackers whined, circling the netting for an opening.
Soon after unpacking our bags and becoming familiar with our surroundings on the block, Dad walked me through the single-lane cobblestone streets to the local corner grocery store. This was definitely not like home. There weren’t any suburban style ramblers or 7-11 convenience stores. Dad explained to the shopkeeper that I would be by from time to time to buy groceries. I began making the trek regularly, filling with my large burlap bag with eggs, cheese, mangoes, an occasional beer for Dad, and of course my favorite, Orange Fanta soda.
“¿Que mas Senor?” the man behind the counter asked with a gold-toothed smile.
“No mas, ¡gracias!” I would answer proudly as I handed over the Bolivares and counted exact change in centavos.
I enjoyed the routine and Mom would beam when I returned with the groceries. “Mijo, mi hombre grande!”
I loved it when she was proud of me.
* * *
A few months into our stay, Dad suggested a trip into the countryside. “Somewhere away from the heat, in the mountains,” he said.
Valencia lay in a large basin, bordering the Andes Mountains to the northwest of the city. The Andes were home to Angel Falls, the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfalls, Dad explained. Excited for the coming trip, we packed the night before and left early the next morning in a borrowed VW microbus. We drove for several hours, winding our way through the city and then the suburbs, the switchbacks and narrowing roads indicating we had left the sprawling population behind. The micro bus groaned as we climbed in elevation. Soon we were in the clouds and the road became slick with mist as we entered a small village straddling the road. I gazed out the windows at the passing donkeys laden with burlap bags and weathered riders wearing colorful sarape’s. People looked different in the mountains—almond shaped eyes packaged between high check bones and tiny foreheads.
We puttered slowly through the village, passing a couple of young guys hitchhiking. They looked different than the locals. One, tall with an angular face and intense eyes; the other shorter with a large round face and broad nose. They extended their thumbs a little higher as we drove by without stopping. I locked eyes with the tall one and he smiled, as if sharing a secret with me as we pulled away.
“Honey, pull over” Mom said as Dad began accelerating up the hill.
“Those boys need a ride.”
“They could rob us blind!” he protested.
“They’re kids honey. We’ll be fine,” she said. Her dark eyes were shining.
Dad slowed reluctantly as Mom rolled down the window. The boys broke into a jog to catch up to us.
“A donde vas?” she asked. The tall one responded enthusiastically, his unshaved face producing a stream of unbroken Spanish as he pointed in the direction we were heading.
“They are going to the next town,” Mom translated as she leaned back to release the sliding door. As the two hitchhikers piled in, Dad stared straight ahead, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the steering wheel. My sisters and I retreated to the back of the microbus as Dad pulled back onto the wet road, forcefully working through the gears, the engine roaring in protest.
“Me llamo Gustavo. Mucho gusto,” the tall one said to me as he held out his hand, introducing himself.
“Nestor,” the round faced companion said, raising his hand to say hello.
“Mucho gusto,” I responded, shaking his hand. Nestor nodded silently.
“Muchas gracias por la vuelta, Senor,” Gustavo said to Dad. He downshifted in response, lurching the bus forward as the engine raced. The microbus slowly climbed the winding road as Mom chatted energetically with the passengers. The conversation was too rapid to understand, but Mom’s expression said it all. She was enjoying herself.
“Ask them if they know where we can find a hotel,” Dad said, grudgingly breaking his silence. The stream of sing-song Spanish continued, Mom’s melodic voice garnishing Gustavo’s baritone delivery. Occasionally Nestor would interject a gravelly response to her questions, “Si Senora, Si.” I eventually drifted to sleep to the drone of the engine beneath my seat and woke sometime later as the gravel popped beneath the tires. We pulled into a single pump gas station on the side of the road. It appeared abandoned until Dad cut the engine and a small, hunched man appeared at the side of the microbus. His face like an ancient raisin, he spat dark juice onto the dirt as he pumped the gas. I watched Dad through the side glass, miming his words slowly to the raisin. The old man nodded as he spat more dark juice onto the ground.
“Porque no viennes quedarse con nosotros?” Gustavo asked Mom. He was inviting us to stay with him. “The house is large. There is much room.”
Mom leaned out the window and explained the offer as Dad paid the attendant. His lips drew tight as he counted out the Bolivares.
“Gracias Senor,” The Raisin thanked as Dad started the microbus, ignoring the courtesy. Grinding gears, he pumped the clutch and spit gravel as he drove onto the highway. I didn’t get why he was angry. I thought the invitation sounded cool.
Dad followed Gustavo’s directions off the main road onto a single-lane dirt track, deeply rutted and walled with jungle canopy that arched across the top of the road like stretched fingers. Bouncing our way over the ruts, we eventually broke into the open, approaching a turn-of-the-century colonial mansion overlooking a large plantation. From a distance it looked grand, like the large antebellum homes in Lexington. As we got closer it was less like the old homes I remembered from Kentucky. The white paint was stained and peeling. Balusters were missing from the railings and the dark green vegetation was overtaking the building, engulfing the structure in a leafy cocoon.
Gustavo leapt from the van before it had rolled to a stop, greeting people enthusiastically. Dad parked the minibus and Gustavo lead us into the house. Entering a large kitchen, he introduced us to a group of old women preparing food. He spoke to one seated at the table peeling yucca root, motioning to us. Her face was deeply lined and she wore a braided ponytail, tightly woven down to her waist. Her hands worked the knife expertly as she nodded, looking us over briefly and returning to the peeled yucca. “Esta es La Senora,” Gustavo announced. “You are her guests.”
We then followed him down a hallway to a vacant room in the rear of the house, passing several rooms filled with bedrolls haphazardly scattered on the floors and crazy art on the walls. I imagined what the original occupants must have been like—wealthy landowners who hosted big parties and had servants wearing white gloves, waiting on them hand and foot. Now it housed scruffy travelers whose arrival went unquestioned. As if it were expected.
I caught up with Gustavo after we unpacked and tagged along with him for the rest of the day. He seemed to know everyone and would stop and visit, occasionally sharing a hand-rolled cigarette. I watched the interactions with fascination, especially as some of them passed around an open jar that they raised to their nose and inhaled deeply. One of the guys held the pungent smelling jar to me.
“Hoye!” Gustavo retorted, pulling me away from the outstretched arm. “Lo que esta mal con usted? El es simplemente un chico!” (What is wrong with you? He is just a little boy!) Gustavo said angrily, leading me away. “These people here,” he explained, “are harmless, but a little loco. Stay with me and you will be okay.” He gave me a wink and I fell in behind him as he continued touring the plantation.
“We grow all our food on the farm,” he explained as we walked through the cultivated rows in the field. I stepped over the knee-high stalks of corn wondering whether Charlie was here also.
“Who are all these people?” I asked.
“Friends and students. From La Universidad. We come up to the farm for a rest from the classes.”
“Who owns this place?”
“Hijo pequeno!” he said with a smile, ruffling my hair. “You ask a lot of questions. La Senora in the kitchen is the owner. She is the grand daughter of the man who built this farm many years ago. She did not marry and has no family. She says we are her children.”
Toward evening one of the kitchen ladies banged a metal spoon against an iron pipe hanging by the front porch and people began to gather for dinner. Everyone ate together, seating family style in several tables setup in the large room at the front of the house. I inhaled the food. Grilled chicken, black beans and yucca root were served on large platters and I listened intently to the table conversations, trying to pick out familiar words. After dinner a bonfire was lit in the fire pit off to the side of the house and random groups began to surround the hot fire. Several guitars appeared along with a small ukulele-like instrument called a cuatro. I knew that is what it was because Dad had played one at the Mercado Central in Valencia when we first arrived. Dad was amazing that way. Given a little bit of time, he could play any instrument.
Suddenly tired from the travel, I looked for Mom and found her engaged in a conversation with several other women. I lay down on the wool blanket, placing my head in her lap. She stroked my cheek and I fell asleep in the glow of the bonfire, listening to the unintelligible conversation and Venezuelan folk songs. I woke in our room the next morning alongside Yolanda not remembering how I got there.
Breakfast was similar to the communal dinner, though much more subdued. People mostly kept to themselves, quietly drinking coffee or mate, a tea drink served in a gourd and sipped through a straw. After breakfast I asked Dad if I could look for Gustavo. I liked hanging out with him. He was friendly and treated my like a grownup, including me in his conversations with his friends.
“I want you to stay with the family today, Ricky,” Dad said.
“But why?” I protested.
“Because…,” he paused searching for words. “Because we just need to be together.”
“Enough, Ricky. You are staying with us today.”
While it happened rarely, Dad did occasionally put his foot down and there was no point in arguing. As if he were a modern day Walter Mitty, acting as if a defiant stand against a seven year-old kid was a noble act on principle. Once he reached this conclusion, he could not be reversed, no matter how menial the issue.
I traipsed along behind Mom and Dad for the rest of the day. Spotting Gustavo at lunchtime, he waved and smiled and I returned them halfheartedly. I really felt like crying though. It wasn’t fair. Following Dad around wasn’t the same as Gustavo and his friends. Dad tried hard to fit in with the young students but I cringed at his stiff attempts. He attempted his Spanglish nervously on the various guests and they were kind in their responses, but the chasm between them was glaring: one big-ass white gringo among the stoned-out Latino hippies. Mom, on the other hand, glowed with confidence. She nestled into the floor pillows as Spanish flowed from her like an artesian well. She folded in with the dark haired and olive skinned guests, soon becoming more them than us. She even answered Dad in Spanish when he spoke to her. He didn’t like it. It made him angry and he bristled at her responses.
“We should be leaving soon,” he spat, stomping off.
After dinner the second night, the bonfire was lit and everyone began to gather. I asked if I could sit by Gustavo and Dad relented. “I suppose, since it’s our last night here.”
“What? We are leaving tomorrow?” I asked looking at Mom. She avoided my gaze, picking at the hem of her skirt.
“In the morning, after breakfast,” he answered before she could say anything. “I need to get back to work.”
I walked glumly to where Gustavo was sitting. Unlike with my family, there was laughter here. They were having fun, not worrying about having to get back anywhere or be embarrassed by a dad that didn’t fit in no matter how hard he tried.
“Hola, mi amigo!” Gustavo said, noticing me standing on the edge of group. I stepped over legs and laps and dropped heavily beside him. He mussed my hair and returned to his guitar. I sat quietly listening as the light of the fire cast the faces in partial shadows, Gustavo and his friends laughing and chiding each other. Mostly I could not understand, however I could tell they were discussing leaving the next morning to Maracaibo, a beach town to the North.
“Cante con nosotros, Ricky,” Gustavo said as the group broke into verse. “Sing with us.”
I woke the next morning smelling smoke. I was still in my clothes from the night before and they smelled like the fire. Yolanda and Christine slept soundly beside me, but the bed was empty. Mom and Dad were already up. I slipped out of the room and found them on the front porch drinking coffee, talking with La Senora.
“Have you seen Gustavo?” I asked Mom.
“Yes, earlier. He may have already left, however. He was packing up to leave and said to tell you goodbye.”
I ran back into the house in a panic, racing to his room. The floor mats were empty of the bedrolls and backpacks that littered the room the day before. Tears flooded my eyes as I ran onto the porch, and then I heard his laughter. It was unmistakable, coming from the side of the house. Racing in the direction of his voice, I found him loading his pack on the roof of a jeep with a few other people joining him.
“Ricky, buenas dias. Que pasa?” I tried to respond but the words were stuck at the top of my throat. Trying my best not to cry, the tears flowed anyway. I looked away as a sob escaped my mouth.
“My friend, why so sad?”
“Please,” I asked. “Can I come with you?”
“Ahh, yes,” he laughed. “The adventurer.” He ruffled my hair and knelt down, pulling me into his embrace. His stubbly beard scratched my cheek as he hugged me tightly. His scent filled my nose, incense, sweat and hair. It smelled like home to me.
“But your parents will miss you, mi amigo. Your place is with them. They need you.” He looked in my eyes with his black pupils and wiped my tears dry. “We will meet again, Ricky. Perhaps in Maracaibo—you will visit me, no?” I nodded my head though I didn’t know how or when we would.
“Andale,” Nestor said, climbing into the jeep. Gustavo climbed into the drivers seat and started the engine, producing a voluminous blue cloud from the exhaust. Giving one last wave, he drove away in a clash of gears as I felt a hand rest on my shoulder. It was Mom and she cupped my chin in her hand. I leaned into her, the sadness settling over me like a fog.
“Come Mijo. Let’s get something to eat.” I didn’t feel like eating. I wanted to go home.
Packing after breakfast, Mom bade tearful goodbye’s to her new friends. Dad and the girls were happy to leave while I sat in the car kicking the back of the drivers seat. The trip back to Valencia was made in silence, the sewing machine rattle of the air-cooled engine the only constant noise. Arriving home late in the day, I went straight to my room, skipping dinner. I laid in silence in the dark room, listening to the traffic outside my window. Awhile later, the door creaked open shooting a beam of light against the far wall. Mom walked quietly into the room, shutting the door behind her.
I paused, contemplating whether to fake sleeping or not.
“Yeah, Mom?” I finally responded.
“Are you okay honey?”
“Why so sad?”
I couldn’t answer what I was really thinking. How could I tell her I was ashamed of my family? Why were we so weird? We weren’t like anyone else. We didn’t fit in with people white people like Dad and weren’t like Mom’s Hispanic friends. We were something in the middle. Something invisible and indescribable.
“I’m just tired I guess.” She stroked my cheek and kissed me on the forehead. I rolled over and tried to fall asleep, counting cars that passed by my window.
* * *
Things quickly reverted to how they usually were before. Dad was in control. Mom was quiet and distant, staring sadly out the windows. I mostly thought of Gustavo and his friends on the beach in Maracaibo, laughing as I imagined them singing around the bonfire, playing bocce ball and eating fresh oysters.
Mom and Dad began arguing a lot, and late into the night. First I would hear his voice, then hers, then Dad sobbing.
Dad disappeared one night after really bad argument. “Your father is out of town on business,” Mom told us. “He will return soon. Do not worry, Mijo,” she reassured, though doubt lingered in her face.
By the following week Dad still wasn’t home. “He had to go back to the states,” she said. “More business.” Her mouth was tight, eyes wide as they flitted beneath her almond shaped lids. She cooked the meals in silence as we played quietly.
One day after school, she packed us onto a city bus and we traveled an eternity to the Peace Corps office across town. My sisters and I sat in the lobby as Mom met with the Director behind closed doors. When she came out, her eyes were red. She clutched a wadded tissue in her hand.
“Alicia,” the director said, his voice almost pleading as if trying to make her see reason. “At least let me give you a lift home.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly. We piled into his car and I feel asleep on Christine’s shoulder as he drove us home.
Three weeks later, Dad appeared out of the blue full of smiles and with an armload of gifts. The girls and I hugged him tight as he gave us each a kiss on the cheek. He was freshly shaved, smelling of Bay Rum and his eyes were bright and smiling. Dad reached a hand out to Mom. She turned away, her face rigid. He bent forward and kissed her on the back of the head anyway as she walked into the kitchen. I opened my gift. It was a metal statuette of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela. He was seated on his white horse with one hand perched in the air as if to signal the troops to march on. Simon confidently returned my gaze with hand painted eyes. I went to sleep wishing I were Simon Bolivar.
* * *
The fighting got worse. So bad that I thought the neighbors would complain. One night another Peace Corps couple joined us for dinner. Dad was drinking too much wine and began saying mean things about the Peace Corps director. He said the director didn’t like him and was out to get him.
“Bob,” Mom kept saying sharply, wishing he would shut up.
He ignored her and kept on talking to the guests. The husband looked uncomfortable, keeping his head down and nodding to Dad’s complaints. The wife smiled stiffly and tried to make small talk with mom, chasing her food nervously around her plate. As soon as the guests left for the night Mom and Dad started in on the arguing. I escaped to my room, shutting the door behind me to block out the shouting, but it didn’t work. I lay in the dark room listening, not able to make out the words but the tone communicating everything — Mom’s voice, angry and accusing; Dad’s high and whiny. A metallic clang rang out as a something hit the floor. It was followed by the crash of breaking glass and then silence. I burrowed into my pillow hoping it was over, but I heard sniffling outside my door—it was Dad. Whimpering through the sniffles, he was arguing by himself, much more forcefully now that Mom wasn’t there to hear him.
“Don’t tell me how to behave!” he said. “I’ll really be gone and then what will you do?” He sobbed again as the front door squeaked open then slammed shut. Dad passed by my open window, still muttering to himself as his footsteps disappeared down the street. For a moment I was worried where he was going, but then realized the house was quiet and I was glad. I soon fell asleep, wishing I were in Maracaibo with Gustavo.
I woke later as my bedroom door creaked open. It was too dark to be the morning and I lay with my eyes open, wondering if I had imagined it. Then I heard feet shuffling unevenly across the concrete floor. A sliver of streetlight snuck through the open shutter casting a profile across the figure standing beside my bed.
“Dad, is that you?” I asked.
He stood behind the mosquito netting, breathing heavily with the sour smell of alcohol hanging on his breath. Fumbling for the opening in the net, he fell in beside me, rocking the coil springs with his dead weight. Why was he getting in my bed? Please go away I wished. I turned away from him but kept rolling into his crater in the mattress.
I shut my eyes shut tight as he draped one arm over me and began to weep, speaking between sobs. He was slurring his words, his breath making me want to barf. “It’s not fair,” he kept repeating. “You don’t understand. No one understands.” I held my breath, not daring to exhale. Please go away. Dad kept whimpering unintelligibly.
The red glow of the smoldering mosquito coil in the corner of the room was the only indication of passing time. Dad eventually quieted while I balanced on the edge of the bed, doing my best not to fall onto the floor or roll into him.
Later, I woke to Dad touching me down there. He cupped me with his rough hand while he cried softly. I attempted to move his arm but he just squeezed tighter. It hurt. Dad lay there with me in his grasp, silent. Wanting him to say something to break the void, so I could scream, or cry, or tell him to stop. I couldn’t though. I was muzzled by the wordlessness until I could no longer take it.
“Please stop,” I finally managed to squeak. He didn’t respond. “Daddy, please stop,” I said again louder. Gustavo, where are you? Lying frozen, I numbly stared at the red glow orbiting the Coke bottle mosquito coil stand. Eventually it winked out and Dad released me. He rolled over, rocking the bed, springs groaning. I clung to the edge of the mattress wishing morning would come quickly. This didn’t happen, I kept wishing. It was a bad dream. Tomorrow everything will be all better. Mom will not be sad and Dad will be normal.
I woke with the bed striped in sunlight streaming through shutters. For a moment the foggy memory of last night was just a bad dream and I was relieved. Then I noticed Dad’s pants splayed on the floor, the dismembered legs confirming that last night was no dream. I lay in my wet spot, the familiar smell of urine filling my head as the bright rays slowly worked across the covers. The pit in my stomach grew with dread as I imagined facing Dad. What would I say? I watched the dust fairies levitate in the sunbeam, glowing in their gravity-defying dance. I wish I could be a dust fairy, free from gravity and creaking doors in the middle of the night.
The smell of breakfast eventually got me out of bed. I changed out of my wet pajamas and found Mom in the kitchen frying arepas on the black iron griddle. The smell of ground corn maize frying in oil filled the house. I sat at the table as Mom slid a plate in front of me, scrambled eggs heaped over the hot corn cake.
“Good morning sleepy head,” she said with a smile.
“Quieres Mango?” She deftly peeled the football size fruit, picked from the tree in the backyard. We also had a lemon tree with lemons the size of softballs.
I heard Christine and Yolanda’s voices in the courtyard. I didn’t want to ask Mom, but I had to know. “Where’s Dad?”
“He must have gone to work early,” she said. “I didn’t hear him leave.”
I didn’t know what I would say when I faced him. Would he apologize? I hoped he would forget it.
Dad came home that night at the usual time and settled into the wicker chair with the newspaper and a glass of wine. I was playing Life with Yolanda and Christine. The game was going well for me. I was a doctor earning a hundred grand with a large home, a pink plastic wife and one each pink and blue plastic child sitting obediently in the second row of the yellow station wagon. I’ll bet their parents didn’t argue too.
“What did you do today, Ricky?” Dad finally asked over the top of the newspaper.
“Nothin’ much,” I said, turning attention to my next move.
“Hmm. That’s nice,” he said absently. Last night didn’t exist to him. Not anymore at least, as if a turn of the newspaper made it disappear. I realized then that the dad I thought I knew, the dad that swam out to save me, no longer existed. There was no one to protect me now. I was on my own.