I’d thought Central America would be hot and tropical, but Guatemala was not like that at all. It was cool and almost alpine, with fir trees and grassy meadows, high cliffs, hemp bridges swinging across deep gorges, and fields of maize planted six or seven thousand feet up steep green mountains. Most of the people were indigenous, the most primitive I’d ever seen. Everyone went barefoot, and there appeared to have been no change in their lives since before the arrival of Columbus, except for the machetes — made in Chicago — that the men all wore at their waists.
One day I was hitchhiking in the Guatemalan highlands, when up drove a tall, rangy, middle-aged American couple in a camper truck. They were the Schmidts, they said, from North Platte, Nebraska, headed for Guatemala City, and they would be delighted for my company. I hopped in, and we crawled off over the narrow, winding dirt road that proudly proclaimed itself every few kilometers as “The Pan-American Highway.”
Though kindly enough, Mr. Schmidt is incredibly talkative and neurotic, unable to focus on a subject for over a few seconds. When he steps out to dribble in the bushes by the side of the road, Mrs. Schmidt nudges me and whispers, “The reason why he appears so strange, son, is that he’s got a fatal neurological disease, and he only has a few more years to live.” When he found out about the illness, she says, he sold their ranch in North Platte, bought the camper truck, and decided to see the world before he was bedridden for the few remaining years of his life. As for her, she has no interest in travel at all: “I’m only along for the ride.”
About an hour later, near the town of Totonica, a Volkswagen camper with New York plates has stopped by the side of the road. By the door, in a greasy pinstripe suit and a filthy white polo shirt, beckoning to us frantically, stands a swarthy curly-haired little man with the sharp-nosed, chinless face and quick, furtive movements of a rodent, and a left eye that wanders about in no apparent coordination with the right.
“Hi, I’m Ray. Hey, listen, you know what? A rock just split my oil pan,” he says, in a Brooklyn accent so thick and vulgar that it sounds almost theatrical. “And, like, whadaya say? Could you tow a fellow Americano into the next town?”
The Schmidts agree to help, and while the two older men busy themselves with the work of attaching the towrope, I turn toward Ray’s companion, a young Latin beauty who has just stepped out of the van. Wondering how she happens to be traveling with this crass, middle-aged American, I give her the once over, and she stares boldly right back.
We have parked along a cliff that falls into a rushing stream. Across the stream, a steep green and yellow mountain rises precipitously to a height of nearly nine thousand feet. There are high rain clouds above the mountain. It’s growing late, and an evening wind comes sweeping down off the ridge, blowing the smell of fresh wet grass and wild flowers. The wind blows the girl’s yellow summer frock against her brown thighs.
As the two American men chat in the background about their towing job, I sniff the air, fill my lungs, and look again at this dark, exotic creature with the pouting red mouth.
This time I make it a point to smile at her and shrug, as if inviting her complicity as a fellow young person amongst foolish adults. And the smile that she flashes in return, which lights up her entire face, causes my canine member to sit straight up in my trousers, as if to beg for a bone.
Eventually the Americans get the towing organized and drive into Totonica. When they find a garage still open at 9 PM, we all get out, and I step over to chat with the girl.
“Pero que bien ustedhabla castellano!” she exclaims, in her quaintly formal Guatemalan Spanish. “But how well you speak Castilian!”
“Soy de origenespañol,” I reply with pride; “I’m of Spanish origin.” Though in fact I’m only part Mexican and picked up Spanish as a kid in California.
As it turns out, your name is Celestina, and you are the daughter of a Guatemalan customs officer. You have been to visit your father at the Mexican border, and he asked the American gentleman if he might carry you back to where you live with your mother in Guatemala City.
Why your father has entrusted his pretty daughter to such a disreputable-looking American, I will never know.
You are seventeen but look twenty, with a grave, polite, and mature manner that makes the brief flickering glances you send my way even more alluring.
“I want to ask you something,” you say, after we’ve chatted for only a few moments. “Could you accompany us in the van? I don’t trust this man, Ray, and he’s got a pistol.”
As it happens, I’ve had my own strong reservations about Ray, ever since we saw him by the side of the road. On my journey through Mexico I ran into several fugitives from American justice, and he has the look.
Yet when his van has been repaired, I say, “Hey, Ray, mind if I come along for the ride? Looks like the Schmidts are gonna be here awhile, and I’m kind of anxious to be on my way.”
I do this for you, Celestina, despite my normally very healthy self-preservative instincts. Even now, I wonder why.
“Hey, no problema,” Ray replies. Then a sly look crosses his smooth grayish face, and he lowers his voice to a confidential tone. “The thing is, man, I don’t speak the lingo. Can’t get nowhere with the broad. Maybe you can.”
I sometimes find Ray’s Brooklynese to be almost indecipherable, and it takes me a while to understand what he means by such phrases as “da ting iz,” and “wit dis broawd.”
“Then what?” I manage at last.
“You ain’t gonna keep her all to yourself, are you?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I say. I lie because I like you, Celestina; and I do not intend to feed his unhealthy appetites.
Ten or fifteen klicks down the road and we pull into a village with a fiesta going on. There’s a group of Red Indians in the bandbox in the center of the square, playing European instruments such as guitars, saxophones, trumpets, clarinets, and drums. Yet the sound that comes out is like no earthly music I’ve ever heard. Indian couples in their native costumes are dancing in the square, very somberly, barely touching each other, and the crowd is amazingly quiet, given the festive nature of the occasion.
Ray parks the van; we all get out and order drinks at a kiosk. After knocking back a few cupsof the local firewater, a cane liquor called “aguardiente,” I begin to find the strange, otherworldly syncopation of the Indian band rather catchy. I ask you to dance, Celestina, and you step into my arms and press your body to mine with such abandon that I realize the aguardiente must be working on you, too. Quick-stepping about the slick tiles of the square, doing a hot, writhing salsa dance, we are good together, so good that everyone else in the plaza stops dancing to stare at us. What I like about you is that you never smile at me, never speak, and just let your body do the talking.
Yet despite the excellence of our performance, no one claps when we leave the plaza. No one says a word. Soon the Indians are all silently dancing again, as if we were never there at all.
Another hour down the road and Ray pulls the car off in a pine grove.
“Too tired to drive anymore,” he says, stretching, yawning, winking at me with his one good eye. “Gonna take a blanket, throw it on the pine needles somewhere, and try to get me some shut eye.”
You don’t ask me what he says, Celestina, for it’s as self-evident as he’d intended it to be. As soon as he’s scurried out of sight, you are in my arms.
I find the combination of your cheap perfume, your heavy perspiration, and your warm panting mouth that tastes of refried chili beans and sugar cane liquor utterly captivating.
“Get in back,” I say, and you wordlessly comply.
I know this is not in your best interests, Celestina, especially when Ray is added to the equation, but there is no resisting the fever of youthful testosterone.
On Ray’s gamy, fetid mattress, I fall upon you like a beast of the night, gnawing at your tender lips, frail shoulders and sparrow breasts while breathlessly you murmur my name in Spanish, “Eduardo, Eduardo. Eduardo…”
Up the yellow frock. Down the homespun cotton knickers. Black thatch to flowery folds. And dewier penetration. Oops! A web of opposition. Virga intacta!
I enter ever so gently, millimeter by millimeter until you shriek at me, “Just do it, Eduardo, do it!”
Instantly I oblige, and in an exquisite fusion of pleasure and pain, you weep, you moan, you cry my name.
I climax almost immediately, howling my ecstasy at the moon — and glimpse Ray standing just outside the van, one verminous eye glued wide to the rear window, the other wandering aimlessly about.
Even before our last reflexive thrusts have ceased, he swings the rear door open, climbs in beside us, and unbuckles his belt.
“Wait a second, man.”
“She’s a virgin.”
“Hey, if they’re old enough to bleed,” he says, hauling down his pin-stripe pants, “they’re old enough to butcher.”
“¡No, no, no!”you cry out. “¡Socorro, Eduardo, por favor!”
But there is no succor to be had, Celestina, for Ray has already hoisted up your dress and crawled aboard.
“No hay nada hacer,” I murmur to you in Spanish, stroking your sweaty hair and brow as he thumps at you like a one-eyed rat. “There’s nothing we can do. He’s got us out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s his car, and he’s got a gun.”
On the way to Guatemala City again, you will not utter a word. And you will not look at me, no matter what I say.
“No way we gonna leave her off at her mother’s place,” Ray confides. “The bitch gets hysterical, they call the cops. Right? Gotta get over that El Salvador border tonight.”
After taking a moment to translate his Brooklynese – huh mudda’s place – I must agree, for I fear we’ve got no choice.
Therefore, Celestina, when we make a piss stop at a gas station, Ray and I just pretend to go pee. We drop your bag by the gas pumps while you’re up in the pine grove that serves as a ladies’ commode, and we abandon you there, alone, in the middle of the night, and fifty long, hard miles from home.
I do not recall what you look like anymore. Your face has receded in my memory to the point where it’s become a kind of generic Latin American face. Even so, I’ve retained one thing from our brief encounter, besides undying shame and guilt.
The way you said my name in Spanish, in your curious Guatemalan accent, sounded so good to me that I instantly shed my childish diminutive “Eddie,” and I’ve been known forever since as Eduardo. Like my master, James Joyce, ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void, I invented and created a brand-new self upon the fruitful field of my own distended ego, with a dash of pure random chance.
Next day, across the border in El Salvador, I’m body-surfing off Acajútla Beach when two big tiger sharks with dorsal fins like black sails cut me off from shore and dawdle amid the shoals as if they’ve got all the time in the world.
Treading water beyond the waves, wondering if they’ll ever take it into their fishy brains to depart and allow my return to terra firma, I feel a surge of water against my swim fins and find myself being drawn swiftly out to sea in one of the infamous riptides of this stretch of coast.
I know better than to struggle against it. I go with the flow until it finally lets up about a half-mile from shore, from which point Ray and the fisher folk on the beach look like a bunch of teeming ants. No use swimming against the tide, so I try swimming around it: first to the right for a few hundred yards, then to the left; but everywhere the current is just too strong.
In an attempt to rest and ride out the surge, I roll onto my back and try to float, but I quickly discover that the little chopping waves and wind-driven spray keep washing over my face, clogging my throat and nostrils and preventing me from getting my breath. By now my arms and legs feel like dead weights, and for the first time I begin to contemplate the possibility of divine retribution for my recent sins.
An hour later, when my lungs are filling with water and my heart has nearly stopped from adrenalin fatigue, when Celestina has come back to torment me – “Die, die, die, bastardo, for what you did to me!” – and small, colorful carnivorous fish, sensing the inevitable, are already beginning to nibble at my fingers, I hear a putt-putting sound. Off in the distance, I make out a little one-man fishing boat bobbing in the waves.
Now, if I can just manage to raise my hand and…
But it’s all I can do to keep my nose above the water.
Fortunately, the solitary fisherman, a wizened old native, has got eagle eyes. Spotting me from a long way off, he putt-putts over, grabs me by the hair and — barely grunting with the effort — hauls me aboard.
I lie gasping in the bottom of the boat beside his gnarled brown feet for nearly half an hour, like a big gaffed fish, until the sly demonic Celestina, still mouthing innuendos, finally departs for whence she came.
As we round the breakwater of the fishing port, I finally manage to raise my head and thank the wiry, wind-burnt little fellow for saving my life. But he just crinkles up his eyes and laughs.
“Señor, don’t thank me. Thank the Lady.”
“The Lady of the Water,” he says. “You weren’t even swimming when I saw you. You were already dead and drowned, headed for the bottom. But swimming right there beside you, I could see her. Beautiful as a young girl she was, a dark virgin, holding you up, waving at me to sail over and bring you aboard. I tell you, man, without her personal intervention, you would be sleeping with the fishes now.”
“Or worse,” I say. For the implication of my watery lesson has not been lost upon me.
And I wonder again at the supernal nexus of women. Their seemingly infinite wiles. The weightiness of their deterrent examples. The whimsy of their mercies.