The boy is crying. I can hear him even before I see him.
I am trying to make my way through the grand market of the valley city of Cochabamba. Through hundreds of Bolivians, mostly women, selling everything from new hats to cabbages. They sit on big piles on sheets of plastic on the asphalt and wait and wait. Then the next day the do it all over again.
Now I see the boy. He must be about five. Faded red training jacket and shorts. No shoes. Cute curly hair and big streaks of grime and tears across his face.
The Bolivian women sit by their vegetables, silent as sphinxes, gazing into the milling crowd and at nothing in particular. I am sweating in the noon heat like it’s a marathon and cursing it all away. I want them to look at the boy – take some kind of responsibility.
I was on the lookout for some cheap vegetables and bread for my lunch, now that I have burnt my travel money. I need to make every penny last.
Yeah, I have a lot on my mind.
So what do I do?
I walk on, of course. Past the boy.
For a brief moment, though, as I pass him, he looks at me. And, of course, I look at him.
I quickly look another way and continue to walk. He continues crying.
This is somebody else’s kid, somebody else’s problem. This is not even my country.
I stop. Turn.
The boy is still there, still crying. People still moving about him, like indifferent waves of flesh and sweat.
I’ll have to hope I don’t have to look in the dictionary too much. Or for too long.
I go back to him and squat down beside him. He looks at me again, and I can see he is struggling because he is afraid of me – the stranger. But he is also afraid that nobody is going to pick him up. And God knows what else.
One of the few things I’m good at is languages, and my high school Spanish is still very much present. Not because I’ve used it much until now, but because a vaguely autistic drive had me reading Spanish books all night the last year Lin was alive. I should have been studying, but it was better to read gloomy love poems in Spanish. It was a better escape than commercial law.
So that at least I’ve got going for me. Not so much else.
“Hola,” I say and continue in Spanish with the thick accent that I know all the nasty love poems did not erase. “What is your name?”
“Luis,” the boy mutters and flinches again. I don’t try to reach out to him. This has to work or not work.
I look around feverishly. The human waves roll on past us, oblivious. God I hate them all …
But I have got to pull myself together. I look at him again. What if I was 5 years old?
“How old are you?”
He says he is five and I congratulate myself for yet another easy victory. I also make my best effort at smiling, which is difficult when you are sweaty and hungry and has a beehive for a mind. But at least he gives me something to focus on.
“Where are your parents?” I ask.
“My papa is dead,” Luis says.
What the …
“Now? Where?” I ask and feel the world tumbling.
“Last year,” he says and I calm again. A twitchy weird calm. Because what the hell can you feel after such an answer?
“And your mother?”
“I can’t find her… “
Okay. So now the mission is clear. I get up and finally reach out for his hand. The litmus test.
He takes it.
“Come now. We will go find your mother.”
So we’ve been running around the market for half an hour and I am getting fucking desperate. I’ve tried to follow Luis directions. When and where did you last see your mama? I’ve tried asking around but all I get out of it is a growing chunk of ice in my stomach.
I have fucked up. I have made things worse. What if his mother is running around in the other end of the market? Now she can’t find him because he is not where I found him, and where she expected him to be?
No, he said he had walked around. There is no place she expected him to be, except the stall where he wandered off and which he says he can’t remember. His mum was buying bread but I see 10 stalls with bread and none them have seen a boy like him or his mother.
I stop for a moment and feel the cold knot in my stomach and I dare not look the kid in the eyes, though I know he is looking at me.
“Hey – queres agua?” I ask and hand him my plastic bottle with water. It is half-filled and he drinks greedily but what the hell. I can still afford another bottle. And if I don’t find his mother that will be the least of my problems.
Cochabamba valley market – I hate you. I hate your sea of dirty vegetables and plastic and cracked asphalt, which I can feel through my worn shoe soles. I hate your chattering women. And men. And everyone.
And then suddenly one of those women explode from the crowd and virtually assaults me:
“Luis – hijo mio – there you are! What have you done to him?!”
She is slim and wiry and angry as an alley cat. Her black hair swirls around her like a stormy night and there is lightning in those dark eyes.
She tears Luis out of my grip then lashes out of me, as if to hit me. I am not sure. I instinctively take a step backward before I can find out.
“Calm the fuck down! I was just trying to help – !” I cry, in English.
To my surprise she answers in English:
“I not need your help. You leave my boy alone.”
“He was lost,” I continue, still in English but she seems like she comprehends, even if her own English is broken and all over the place:
“I not believe you. You gringa – you take him for tourist photos.”
My jaw almost hits the asphalt. An elderly woman grins at us, half-hiding behind a mountain of mangos.
“Bien,” I say – going Spanish again because that could at least give me the upper hand now that I am in the ring with this crazy woman – “no quería tomar fotos estúpidas. Tu hijo estaba perdido. Tratamos de encontrarte.”
Yeah, I let her know in no uncertain terms it was not about photos but about finding her. Because maybe, you know, she could’ve looked better after her son, right?
She looks as if she is about to give me another punch, words or fists. Luis looks away, like he is trying to hide in her skirts.
Then it sinks in:
“You speak e-spanish?” she blurts, still in her own, heavily accented English.
Yeah, I might have gotten the past tense wrong but I do speak Spanish, you crazy b…
And with that punch of my own, I don’t need to defend myself anymore. Instead I point to Mango Lady, who is having the time of her life at our expense:
“Ask her – preguntarle!“
We were here 10 minutes ago, so Mango Lady knows me. Yeah. She and I are like peas and pie.
But it doesn’t matter. I get what I want. When Crazy Mum asks the question, I understand that mango lady confirms what I say.
Good, or I would have smacked her.
Good that I can still get the gist of it even though they talk much too fast now and weave in and out of Quechua, the native language.
So much for my bloody Spanish. So much for all the long nights with Neruda’s poems while listening intently for Lin’s door. Was she getting up and taking those pills again – one time, or one hundred times too many? Yes, I read those poems all night.
First time I get to show of and I use what I can to piss somebody off.
They still talk – Crazy Woman and Mango Lady. Luis looks at me. He has my bottle of water in his hand.
“Keep it,” I say in Spanish. Then I turn and walk way before his mother’s interrogation of Mango Lady is finished.
Fucking story of my life …. I should talk with people here all the time, share all the time.
I should be much more than a bloody tourist. I actually bothered to learn Spanish, even if I did it for all the wrong reasons. And the first time in weeks I talk to a Bolivian, and not another bloody tourist, it’s Crazy Woman.
I don’t the hell know. I don’t much care. My stomach is no longer ice. But now it is screaming at me to find something to eat, and make it something that won’t send me in exile at the hostel toilet.
So I do what I have done each and every day for the past many weeks. I buy some groceries and bread, and another bottled water. Then I find somewhere to sit and watch people while I chow down.
And I do it like I have done in the months since I crossed the Rio Grande with no goal but getting away.
I do it the only way I can:
Once again, I am not allowed to be alone.
You know, like I have forced myself to be since I went away on this trip to South America and ditched law school, probably forever.
Since I closed the door for the last time to our apartment back in Columbus.
A void has become the center of me since Lin died. I thought it would help to travel away 6000 miles, but it hasn’t.
And here she comes again, out of the crowd, right towards me. Just when I thought I had found somewhere good, so I could get the fuck away from annoying pests like her.
My spot is a street corner at the far edge of the big market. I eat my dry bread and gulp it down with lukewarm bottled water. I feel kind of good.
And then I see her.
Crazy Woman. With little Luis in tow. Heading towards me.
I should get up but I am so surprised all I manage is to sit like a dunce, with my mouth full of bread.
She reaches me and stops, right front of me, on the pavement.
With the same assertiveness that almost made her assault me half an hour ago, she says:
“I talked to women at the market. I am very sorry.”
I swallow my bread and nod. I don’t know what I look like, but this was the last person in the world I thought would come and see it.
“He told me, too, of course.” She manages a faint smile, while looking down at her son quickly. For the first time I see embarrassment behind her stern façade.
Then her visage changes even more and she shifts to almost despondent:
“I am so, so sorry. Can you forgive me?”
And I am taken aback. If she was night before then how did the sun come out so fast?
But I can see that she means it. If only she didn’t … mean it so much.
“It’s okay,” I say nonchalantly and try to focus on anything in the crowd behind her. Anything but her.
She bites her lip and begins rambling:
“I am really sorry. You see, I – I … ”
“It is okay,” I blurt and hold my hands up. “No harm done. I was just trying to help.”
She nods, more vigorously: “A white hombre – a man – he took Luis, last week. He took photos. Gave him candy.”
I frown. “That’s sick.”
“’Sick’?” she repeats.
“Depravado,” I explain.
She shakes her head: “No, no – I don’t think he was like that. His wife was there. But Luis was playing – “ she continues in Spanish and it all comes out more freely.
I don’t run away again. I know how to function among other human beings. I can still do that.
So the story winds down. She was busy outside some office or other, discussing something with some people. Many people were waiting in a line. Luis was there and this elderly couple began taking photos of him and giving him, well, candy. And maybe it looked to her like they were going away with him? I don’t know.
She speeds up, and I know she is embarrassed too and wants to get away, too, but she cannot. The story grows like a weed as she tells it and it locks her to the spot. It locks us.
I have to pull it up.
“Look – “I say, continuing in Spanish, “I don’t understand exactly what that hombre did, but I only gave Luis water.” I try a strained smile. “And like I said, I don’t take photos.” I pull out my camera and open the flap. “Look – no film.”
She hesitates a moment, and now she smiles at me and I know she caught it. But she also blushes. I can see it, even though her skin is quite dark – darker than usual for the women of the Bolivian lowlands.
“I must make no sense to you,” she says and ruffles Luis’ hair. The boy is beginning to look around, getting restless.
I shake my head: “No, no – I get it. You thought they were going to take him away. I could have looked like that.”
“Only – “ she replies and something in her dark eyes become even darker “ – if you are always on the watch. Then you see ghosts everywhere.”
‘Ghosts’ … There is something in that word. Fantasmas in Spanish. But there is nothing fantastic about it.
I feel cold, even though the afternoon heat is still warm. It is also choking and mixed with fumes from the big roads on either side of the market.
“You see ghosts?” I say, not knowing if it was a question or not I wanted to ask.
Now it is her turn to shake her head, and the red in her cheeks is quite evident now.
“Not those kinds of ghosts … “ Then it looks like she makes a superhuman effort, like she has to pull an arrow out of a leg. Her words are slow and strained:
“My husband – Luis’ father – was killed a year ago. It was a demonstration. Against the government. A policeman shot him. It has … not been easy since.”
She turns to me again: “I should go now.” She looks like somebody is tearing at her, and it is not Luis.
And what the hell can I say? What would you say?
So I just nod.
“Thank you once again,” she holds out her hand. “I am Julia. Julia Jimenez Aroyo.”
“Carrie,” I say and don’t add anything.
“Ca-ree,” she repeats slowly. Her grip is firm even if she looks like she is falling apart and gathering herself up at least five times in a minute now.
“Julia Jimenez Aroyo,” I repeat.
She smiles one last time, then reaches out for Luis who has been playing with some stones. She begins to walk back towards the market. But then she stops again, like a rope jerked her back. Back to one last question:
“Where are you going, Ca-ree?”
I look at the bustling market. Then back at the main road and the long line of coughing cars and mini-buses. Then at her:
“I am going … back to my hostel.”
“I wasn’t asking that,” she says and her dark eyes now lock firmly with mine. “I was asking where you are going in Bolivia – in South America?”
She grins: “Is that a strange question?”
“Why – no, I mean – ”
She grins even more: “So where are you going?”
I feel her sizing me up.
And I let her.
There is a … something in those eyes of hers. The same as before. But before it was angry and ghost-seeing. Now it has revealed a power that was always there, a core that wants to know – all the world around her.
It is a power to lash out to hurt people when they are ghosts. But also to catch them and reel them close.
I know for I have seen that so many times with Lin.
We are what we are. And most of us do want to get to know each other, I guess. We just need to get the ghosts out of the way first.
“I don’t know exactly where I am going,” I admit and without being able to explain why I know it is safe to admit it to her. This strange, crazy-not-crazy woman. Julia …
She could make all kinds of comments on that. But instead she says:
“Then why don’t you see some more of Cochabamba? I can show you.”
“Really?” I cross my arms in mock-seriousness. “What is there to see here?”
“Not much,” she says. “But perhaps you will see more interesting things than me, because it is all new to you.”
I hesitate for the briefest of moments.
“Okay,” I say. “Where do we begin?”
“Right here,” she says.