New Year’s Day (I)

“I was wondering … do you believe in God?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Jacob – we’re about to eat.”

“Well, if that’s a problem … ”

I ignore his last comment; my gaze concentrated at the menu. Jacob seems confused for a second, then looks straight through me, into some kind of world in the empty restaurant behind me that only he can see.

He’s an okay guy, though. Kind of. I guess.

It happened as it always does: We got to sit next to each other on the bus from Puno in Peru to Copacabana here in Bolivia. By the time we were ready to stand in line like cows at the cramped border-station to get out tourist visas, we just sort of drifted together once more.

Preemptive insanity protection, you know; if I hadn’t had someone to talk to during that hour, I’d have gone positively loco, as they say here. Because Bolivians apparently seem to think that efficiency rhymes with multiplicity. So if you need three stamps in your passport, for example, it is obvious that you also need three persons for the job – one to give each stamp – and one long line to get each stamp.

“What’ll you have?” I ask him again.

“Hmm … ”

Jacob scans the menu as if it was a secret map. At least he finally picked it up.

The small, round restaurant owner hovers over in some imaginary corner of his small, round restaurant and waits patiently for us damn gringos to make the decision that will secure him a few hard-earned bits of another day’s pay.

It’s a touristy place, I’m sure – but not now. Except for us. Because we’re very late – because the bus from Puno was very late and because of the Kafka-esque stamp circus at the border.

I make a supreme effort to concentrate on the choice of fish and the funny English spelling errors in the menu.

“They don’t have Diet Coke here?” Jacob suddenly exclaims to no one but himself.

“I don’t think they know what that means.”

“Diet or Coke?” he asks, raising his eyebrows and looking directly at me like he was a comedian waiting for the audience to react to his punchline.

“Funneee … ” I snort and push away my menu. “Hey, you aren’t diabetic or something?”

“No,” he replies. “Just never liked all that sugar. So what about it?” He closes his menu.

“What about what?” I ask, feeling tired already.

“If you believe in God – ” he stops and quickly follows up ” – I didn’t offend you? By asking, I mean?”

“Of course, you didn’t.”

Oh, brother.

“I just read somewhere – ” Jacob continues “ – that despite what everyone thinks about the United States – with your Christian Right, Bible belt and all – Americans are in actuality quite secular minded.”

“Meaning?”

He puts the menu away, like he’s already forgotten about it. The owner frowns.

“Meaning that you say that you believe in God – but most of you don’t.”

“I’d like to show that little research to my uncle from Louisiana.”

“Is he very religious?”

“He practically lives in church. I think he’s a Baptist or something, though, but I don’t know much about the different strands of … Have you decided?”

“About what?”

“Food, Jacob – ” I say and realize that I am no longer trying to hide my irritation. “I almost haven’t had anything since we left Puno. Do you want to be responsible for me dying of starvation? If you don’t make up your mind soon, our amigo over there is going to have a fit and kick us out.”

“I hardly think so. We seem to be the only ones in his restaurant.”

“Just choose.”

“Okay, I’ll have the trucha. Am I saying it right? – And a normal Coke.”

I lean back and try not to sigh from relief. The owner’s smile widens again and he comes over, greasy, curled notepad in hand. I try again not to think too much about Siobhan back in Puno, that I could have been sitting here with her instead of just leaving in the morning without a word. Is she disappointed that I left without saying good-bye?

No. She seemed so carefree, so up-beat … She probably already forgot me. I really think that she has.

Yes, I really think she has.

And now I’m sitting here with Jacob instead. Whoo-hoo.

He’s definitely not remotely like that cutie Siobhan and I gawked at in that Puno bar last night. More like your stereo-typical student-type; a bit thin, big glasses, don’t-care-too-much-about-my-hair-hardo, and generally too introspective and silent to be much attracted to a dance floor.

It probably looks like a minefield to him.

We eat our trucha – trout – and fries and drink normal Coke, all in relative silence, except for the usual small-talk about travel plans from here and guestimates about bus and boatfares.

The topic of God does not come up again, but I think Jacob is thinking of it. Or that he is still thinking about whether or not he insulted me or something. Trust me, a girl develops instincts to detect a guy’s thoughts about such things, especially when it relates to her.

And now he begins to talk about religion again, sort of sneaking up on the topic:

“I wrote an essay in high school about why we keep thinking God must be good, even if there is so much proof to the contrary … ” And he smiles his shy but kind of endearing smile and adds: “I thought for once I would get good grades by sounding really smart and copying large parts of text from an old philosophy book I had found, and which I believed not even my teacher had read.”

I just nod but don’t say anything. I really don’t feel like talking about … it.

At that begins to feel awkward now – this God-sized elephant in the restaurant. And, you know, I do regret sitting here pretending I like being with him and not wanting to talk about what seems to be really on his mind. He was good to talk to while we drove along the winding roads along the Lake and marveled at the newfallen snow on the hills above the Lake, while the sun was blazing from an azure mountain sky. I told him all about high school and college in Ohio and he got all the usual lies about why I felt so damn free traveling here, taking a break from my studies, carving my own path and yadayadayada.

And all the while I tried to forget how I chose to leave Siobhan in Puno without even saying goodbye. She would have been a good traveling mate.

Better than shy Jacob I have to admit, but on the other hand he is here and she is not. And he means well. And I …

I hurt like hell but I don’t want to be a bitch-in-disguise. I have already tried that too often and it never works.

“Look,” I start and slowly turn my last frie around on the plate. “I think it’s … an interesting topic … God and all. But I just went to a funeral some weeks ago. I don’t feel like talking about it much.” I give him my best smile. “I hope you understand.”

“I do,” he says without hesitation. “I don’t agree, though.”

My brows go into knit-mode instantly. “About what?”

He shakes his head and finishes the last of his fries as well. “Forget it. I understand. I would just have said that maybe it’s the best of time to talk about … God.” He looks up, almost apologetically. “When … you know.”

“Right,” I say and I actually feel something warm in my chest now and it’s not excess heat from those lazy fries.

He really wants to talk. About this and a million other things, I guess. Which I don’t care much about, yeah. But he doesn’t want to be a jerk.

I guess we have that much in common, then.

“Come on,” I say and get up, pushing out the squeaky chair from the table and nodding towards the door, our escape into the cacophony of the main street. “Let’s go find a place to stay.”

“I saw a nice looking hostel just around the block,” Jacob says. “Aransaya, I think it was.”

“Yeah, that looked nice.”

It also looked cheap enough, but I don’t say anything about that. I have burnt my money much too fast coming down here, but that is also a topic I don’t feel like discussing.

So we pay and leave the restaurant and it feels like we are good. All the elephants walk out of the restaurant and follow us, though.

*

[GO TO PART II]

*

Last edited: 30 September 2019

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