A note about this story: From time to time I will post stories I have written for my Master’s course in Non-Fiction Writing. I have decided to post them as I write them, and not the edited versions after they’ve been through the ringer in class. I’d like this blog to remain a place where I can write freely, and be able to look back upon the changes in my writing. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this story was received well in class.
Also, if this story sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about it before, in a roundabout way, here, and most recently, here. I was set to write another story for this assignment but someone inspired me to share the truth behind what happened in Antigua; travel, and especially travel romance, is not always as glamourous as it may appear from afar . It was difficult to write this story as I feel so far removed from it now, and, to be honest, I feel the complete opposite to how I felt a year and a half ago in Guatemala. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to share every side of travelling: the good, the bad, and everything in between. TheHopeless, if you’re reading this, this one’s for you.
I arrived in Guatemala with a broken heart, or perhaps a heart broken too many times. We travel because we are seeking to find something, adventure or love or ourselves, but this time I just wanted to get the hell away from what I had left behind. I didn’t want to find anything at all. I wanted to lose, to be lost.
There was music in this place, in the wheezing cars on uneven cobblestones, the roosters that crowed day and night, the low voices of the men who played checkers on the street, sat on overturned barrels. Looming like kings of a former empire, three volcanoes surrounded the city, protecting it, or threatening it, I didn’t know. The buildings of Antigua were painted red and blue and green, little jewels, and it was hard to imagine that once this place was ravaged by lava and fire. I walked through these streets half-dead, impervious to the action around me, unsure of my decision to come here. I feared I was taking it for granted, that the month I had planned in the city would be wasted on sadness and regret.
I lived with a family of four in a few rooms behind an Internet café. Manuela, with a long black braid and a wide smile, and Pedro, a man with a penchant for shining his boots in the evening, had two children, Miguel and Valerie. Miguel would run around the courtyard with a deflated balloon or an old cloth, playing the most fantastic of games, his imagination wild, his eyes always looking for the next object to add to his arsenal. Valerie, quiet but confident, would sit beside me in the mornings, colouring, here and there practicing her English while I drank rich, creamy coffee. The TV was always on in the kitchen, but we’d sit round the table together and eat warm corn tortillas, spicy bean stew, salsa with fresh cilantro, and chilis from the garden. The children would giggle as I asked for more water, my eyes and nose dripping from the heat, my tongue raw and burning. Manuela would hand me a glass of milk and pat me on the shoulder, her second daughter. I was older than her by a year.
I decided to learn Spanish; I imagined myself worldly and sophisticated, making that language roll and dance. My teacher talked only of food and God, but I liked her. When she grew bored of talking about either, she’d make me do a puzzle, telling me jokes I couldn’t possibly understand as she sprayed cookie crumbs of laughter across the table. “No novio? Aiiieeee!” She’d clutch her hands to her heart, as if it were incomprehensible that a woman of my age wasn’t tied to a man. She’d then guffaw heartily, crunching down on yet another treat as I repeated my verbs again and again. She never once corrected me, and my visions of seducing men in smoky bars with my perfect Spanish Rs fell quickly by the wayside. Still, I enjoyed thrilling her with stories of how cold it got in Canada. It was the only time she’d stop chewing, her mouth open in horror.
Despite the busyness of the lessons, despite the kindness of the family, I couldn’t shake the sadness that followed me everywhere. One Friday I walked through Antigua Market, caught in the chaos and the exoticism: the ripening fruit spilling into the aisles, the fluttering paper wisps of piñatas, the air perfumed by bunches of lilies and fly-covered meat, and everywhere, everywhere, people milling and yelling and eating and laughing, sweaty bodies and open mouths. I emerged panting on the other side, with one bruised papaya and a sense that it was time to change something, time to give myself some life. To snap out of it, if I could only figure out what it was.
That Friday, I followed a group of backpackers up four flights of stairs to a rooftop bar. I joined them as I drowned myself in cheap Gallo beer, pretending I knew what I was doing there. The crowd was the usual one: Kiwis, Brits, Americans, the faces changing but the stories staying the same. The night was heavy, the air thick; a storm was on its way, we could feel it and we could taste it. I made idle chitchat with a group, absent-mindedly plucking a guitar with a missing string. There were flickering Christmas lights strung up around us, and Bob Marley warbled off in the distance: the classic image of a gringo bar, tequila-soaked but very much loved. A group of Guatemalans were playing an enthusiastic card game, sometimes throwing the cards at each other and crashing to the ground in jubilation or in intoxication, or maybe both.
“Look!” someone shouted, and we all jumped from our picnic tables and plastic chairs. A volcano was erupting.
We could barely make out the shape of the mountain, but knew that it was bigger and closer than was comfortable. All we could see was the lava, oozing out of a rupture in the black sky, red and thick and slow. It was eerily silent. When the first flash of lightning struck, we gasped. It had illuminated the volcano for just a second, but the scene stayed in our mind’s eye, terrifying, apocalyptic. We were assured we were safe, but nevertheless, the card game stopped, and as one we retreated under the tin roof at the back of the patio, our voices hushed.
To my left, I noticed someone standing away from the rest of us. I could only see him from behind. The hood of his sweatshirt was up, his sleeves rolled to show a pattern of tattoos. He was smoking.
And I don’t know if it was the volcano or the lightning or the hole inside me that used to be my heart, but I sensed he felt as alone as I did. I walked toward him, asked him his name. His voice was deep, gravelly, his smile sincere.
“El Salvador next.”
And then the rain came. That was the beginning.
After that the skies opened whenever we met, thudding, powerful rain, so loud we had to shout to be heard, some grand gesture of pathetic fallacy that I chose to ignore. It would last for a week, nothing ever really drying, the streets slick with water, the discomforting smell of dampness leaching itself to everything. The city closed up with its arrival, retreating indoors. Antigua’s colours ran, the whole of it becoming a muted, wilted rose. And above it all in our rooftop bar, Matt and I spent every evening of that week together, our words colliding into each other as if we wouldn’t have enough time to share all we were thinking. The rain made any sightseeing near impossible, and so I balanced a life at school and at the bar, and not much else.
He had a troubled past. His hands were rough and torn at the cuticles, but he held mine with conviction, with tenderness. When I talked he looked at me like he couldn’t get enough of me, and I didn’t know what to make of it, didn’t know if I was gobbling this up too quickly, a starved victim whose own gluttony would be her downfall. He was newly heartbroken, too, and we fed off of each other, grabbed and clawed at each other like two wolves. What we talked about didn’t matter, but through those nights of cigarettes and rum I often wondered if Matt was healing me at all, or simply tearing me open anew. I was still half-dead; now I feared I had another corpse beside me.
But then the week was ending, and he had to leave. We sat side by side at the bar, watching water pour from the gutters onto the ground. The rain was relentless, forming puddles all around us. There wasn’t much left to say to each other; we just wanted to be close, I just wanted to smell him, a mix of cologne and mildew and that indescribable scent of desire. We were drunk, and part of me thought that was wildly inappropriate at five in the afternoon. With the sky so black and the rain so thick, it was as if nature was giving us permission to flaunt our sins at all hours.
He leaned in close.
“I’ll stay.” His breath was hot.
Somewhere a dog was barking, and was that a parade I could hear? The rain on the roof was so loud I could barely make out my own thoughts. Scrambled visions of the two of us on the road flashed before me, like the lightning illuminating the mountain I thought I needed – the thing that loomed in the background, the thing that had been the reason I was here in the first place, the thing I had told myself I didn’t care about finding.
The thing I had gone out searching for anyway.
And I looked at him and it became abundantly clear. I shook my head deliberately, my eyes still on him. He pushed back the table so forcefully splinters of the decrepit wood pierced my skin; penance, perhaps. He took the stairs two at a time, goodbye, goodbye, and I was sure I’d never see him again.
I slowly finished my rum, gathered my things, and made my way down. He was waiting for me at the bottom, drenched. He had gone out into the rain and come back, to say what or to do what I don’t think either of us could predict.
“Brenna,” he said once, and I went to him, his arms encircling me whole, his lips on mine, the world and all that was in it disappearing for that one instant. Perhaps I’d never again feel something so sweet, and so sad.
He turned and left, his body a damp imprint on my clothes.
I wanted nothing from Guatemala but for it to be different than the place I had left behind. I didn’t expect it to save me, to make me feel whole again. But I realized it wasn’t Matt who would heal me: it was those afternoons playing with Miguel in the courtyard, it was bartering over the cost of papayas with the talkative vendor in the market, it was dedicating my days to learning and wandering and trying to put myself in this place. It was to feel human again, by nobody’s volition but my own. This place was what I needed. This place was different, just as I had wanted it to be, and so I needed to be different.
For the first time in many days, the rain stopped. I was still standing there, left to ruminate on the past two weeks in Antigua as my clothes dried, erasing all trace of Matt’s touch. I still had another two weeks to go. The sun shone through the doorway, beckoning me outside, everything coming to life once again as people opened their windows, the sounds and the smells and the pulse of the city no longer burdened by the torrential downpour. It was the most beautiful of clichés. I rolled my eyes at it, laughed, and stepped out into the sun, embracing it with everything I had left.