Sunday, March 9, 2014

Some Place to Believe in

Gina and I are sitting in a little Peruvian restaurant-cum-bar. There are two Peace Corps volunteers with us. It’s our first weekend in Asuncion. The PCVs have come to the capital to take their GREs and finished a few hours before I called one of them. “Yeah,” she said, “come over and see us. We’re at a bar on the same block as your hotel.” It was Saturday and Gina and I had nothing planned. We could always have taken another walk, but we’ve been taking walks all week. We decided to go to the bar. I didn’t know what the situation is here, but I decided to warn Gina anyway. “PCVs,” I told her, still in our beige hotel room, “drink when they come to the capital. Not always, not really even often, but sometimes, it’s like the capital is too much for them, maybe it reminds them of too many things they’ve nearly forgotten about. I don’t know. Somehow, it seems to remind many of them that they used to be college students and that they used to go out on Saturday night with their friends, friends that, mind you, that haven’t seen in, like, 14 months, friends they’re not entirely sure they still have. They get nostalgic and critical and it’s then that I think they realize they have no idea where they really belong anymore. Rather than think about it too much, I think it’s easier for them to keep socking away the booze and limp back to their sites in the morning, cursing the brashness of the capital and the former home it’s so rudely reminded them of.”

“You think they’re going to be drunk?” Gina asked.

“No, not at all, but I just wanted to mention it, just in case. But, we’re not in the CIS; these PCVs are probably much more accustomed to drinking terrere. They wouldn’t have the same nonchalant approach to booze that we did. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal. You about ready to go?”

I turned off the horizontal air conditioner, scraped the key card off the table and we walked downstairs on the slightly plush red carpet.

We know the guy who runs the restaurant-cum-bar, we’ve been here two or three times this week and spoken with him about his business, the Peru that he left and Paraguayan politics. He’s happy to see us and says ‘hello’ when we all enter. We sit down with the PCVs and order a liter of beer. For four people, this only permits about an eight-ounce serving. The beer tastes good and we continue our conversation where we had left it when we came in and ordered. We talk about Paraguay and listen to the PCV’s opinions. I feel a closeness with them. God, I feel like I’m back in Yerevan, talking with the new group that’s just arrived. Except, somehow, I’m part of the new group. I don’t know what’s ahead for myself in Paraguay, but I know what’s ahead for the PCVs when they return to the states, or leave after their Close of Service to spend their readjustment allowances travelling. I know how it’s going to feel when they step off the plane, or bus and see something they had nearly ceased to believe in and how long they are going to talk over that first meal at home and that first drink with friends and how, when they are alone, pouring over graduate school applications or looking for a job on the internet, they are going to have pangs, literal pangs remembering Paraguay and how for a moment, they will stare into space, remembering their first host family, the idiomatic expressions they learned and used in another language that don’t work in English and the sounds made by birds they might never hear again. These volunteers have five-months left; I remember exactly what five-months-left felt like. I let them tell me about Paraguay, because they tell it so well and with so much love and I don’t tell them a thing about what’s coming at the end of those five months.

We have a few more 8-oz. glasses of beer and a big plate of rice and fish appears on the table. The conversation has lost its focus; we’re at the point which comes in any conversation that’s gone on long enough in which we’re talking about anything that comes to mind. “Where’re you guys from in the states?” One of the PCVs asks. I love how we’ve gotten the special addendum reserved for people living outside the country ‘in-the-states.’ Travelers ask each other where they’re from. Expats have to specify what they mean. I tell them my California/Michigan thing. I’ve been going back and forth to California for too long to not consider it some kind of home, but I was born in Michigan; my family still lives in Michigan.

“Where in Michigan?” one of the PCVs asks.

“Jackson, it’s about 70 miles west of Det— ”

“Yeah, I know it; I’m from Michigan, too.”

We have our Michigan conversation. The same Michigan conversation I’ve had in in San Francisco bars, Chicago music stores, cheap European flights. I know this is a conversation everyone has, but I think people from Michigan come to expect it more, especially when meeting anyone under thirty. I’ve never looked into the statistics, but I would imagine more young people have left Michigan in the last thirty years than any other state.

“You know,” the PCV tells me, “I know someone here from Jackson; he’s a friend of mine you should meet him.”

Look, I’m used to meeting people from Michigan, but from my town, a sleepy, blue-collar place, set at the confluence of a river and a highway, well, it just never happens. Once it happened in San Francisco, only once, but here, in Paraguay? It didn’t seem possible.

“Oh, yeah,” the PCV continues. “He’s been here forever, came in the 60s or something. I guess he just really liked it.”

I ask a little more about the guy from my hometown, but we’re beginning to feel the heat and the conversation turns lackadaisical. Sweat drips into our empty beer glasses. No one makes a move to order more. Flies buzz around the few grains of rice left of the plate. The fish is so completely gone; I find myself wondering where the bones went. A few moments later, we’re awkwardly standing up and telling each other how nice it was to meet. Gina and I walk back across the street to our hotel. I shower and drop off to a nap immediately.

More than a week later, I’m at work, popping into the teacher’s room to see if there’s any coffee made. There’s an older man in the room alone. He looks like he wants to talk.

“Hola. Que tal?”

“Bien, y vos?”

“Bien, gracias, vos tenes clases aqui?”

I’m not sure if what I hear is an accent or just some kind of dialect. After he answers, I ask him in English where he’s from.

“A town in Michigan called Jackson.” The man says wistfully.

“Me too,” I say and he looks up at me with a slightly confused look and I fire out the next question before he can beat me to it.

“What part?”

“Fourth street.” He says with one eyebrow way up on his forehead.

“Me, too.” I say and it’s the most poignant, ‘me too’ of my life.

There but for the grace of God…me too.

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