The rug is slightly bunched up on the white floor. The plants are green shoots struggling out of their cans and clay-colored pots. The empty couch seems a hulking and meaningless object. I haven’t been alone in this apartment for nearly two months. It’s good that it’s been so long. It’s too easy to get acclimated to being alone. You turn inside yourself and watch the world as though it were something that had no bearing on you.
I flew back to Paraguay one of the last days of January. I was scheduled to start work again the 3rd of February and didn’t want to wait, so I e-mailed my program in Washington and asked them to book me a flight. They sent me a ticket within a day. I received it in a faded hotel next door to a European train station. Outside, the weather was grey and rainy. I packed up everything and left the musty hotel the same day, by that night I was over the Atlantic in the dark. There was lightening in the distance and over the dark oceanic expanses, it seemed to light up the entire horizon.
When I got back to my apartment, I found that the plants were all dead. I could smell their death throes. One of the pepper plants had been baked into the sliding glass door that it stood next to, the other plants in the shower looked like a pile of autumn that had blown in from somewhere. Never before had I seen so many brown leaves in such a verdant country. Outside, everything was in riotous bloom. The parrots squawked in the mango trees and the yellow and red guava fruits were lazily rotting in the warm haze of summer. My apartment looked like Michigan in early November, before the snows come. Even the white floor tiles were cool when everything outside was roiling in tropical humidity.
I cleaned out the apartment and within days I set to work on a new project the Embassy had handed down to me. They asked that I create a curriculum for an online English class. I had begun work on this project before going on vacation but with dismay I realized that there was still a lot that had to be finished. I probably wasn’t even half-way done. The Embassy had given me leave from my other jobs to finish the curriculum; all I had to do was sit around in my underwear writing out activities that would require knowledge of the present perfect or simple past. Initially, I was fine with the task. I had to sit in front of the computer all day, but it wasn’t so bad work with the heat and humidity outside.
Going outside, you could actually feel the sun burning you. It was so humid it felt like someone had doused you with burning mud. Every time I came back in from the smallest task outside I had to change all my clothes and take a shower. I got sick of doing laundry and started wearing a bathing suit at home. It was much easier to wash.
I was desperately trying to get as much work done as possible before Mikey came into town. I hadn’t seen my old friend since I had dropped him off in Missoula nearly two years earlier. We had taken a road trip through the mountains together and he had elected to part ways in Montana to head east while I went back to California. It was a true Kerouac moment, but without all the Benzedrine and crazy American night jazz talk. Right after we dropped him off, Gina and I passed a series of billboards for some kind of gargantuan used bookstore which made his recent departure almost tangible. We drove on in silence. I realized I was waiting for him to say something. It felt like that until well in Idaho.
I was thinking about all of this as I typed out exercises in the muddy late summer heat. I stopped drinking coffee because it was distracting me. For a week, I was working like a machine. By the time Mikey got into town, I felt I had done enough to take a break.
I worked until five or six the day Mikey was to arrive and then went out to skate a little. The last bus to the airport went by around 9:30 and Mikey’s flight was coming in a little later. Waiting for someone at the airport always makes me feel anxious as hell, so I went skating to try to wear myself out before going there.
I missed the bus and ended up having to take a cab. Nothing ever seems to be on time at the Asuncion airport. I found out after I got there, that Mikey’s plane was scheduled to get in about three hours late. I had nothing to do. I hadn’t even brought a book with me. I went out and crossed the highway to buy a beer at the gas station across the street. Luckily, Asuncion’s airport is not situated in some immense and impersonal concrete highway-scape. Just outside the small parking lot, the land is like any other land in Paraguay. The grass is green, the earth underneath is red. There are clusters of palms and lapacho and, yes, just outside the airport, someone had brought their cattle to graze. I sat down with my beer and watched the cows for a while. I dozed for a while thinking, ‘even if I fall asleep, when his plane comes in I’m sure I’ll hear it.’ At the Asuncion airport only two or three planes are scheduled per night and the flight after Mikey’s wasn’t coming in until four am.
I woke up a little while later all dew-covered. The cows were still grazing. They had moved under a big streetlight and standing over the pools of their shadows, they looked forlorn, like they weren’t sure how they had gotten way out by the airport and had no idea how to get home. I brushed the dew off myself and walked toward the airport.
It is impossible to be late for anything in Paraguay. I’ve tried. I’ve sat around all morning reading, paying no attention to the time and when I see I’ve got 10 minutes before my class starts, I start getting ready. Invariably when I show up, the class has been cancelled or at least delayed. I have gotten to the bus station seconds before the scheduled departure of a bus, only to find that it still hasn’t arrived. Things at the airport were no different. Mikey’s flight had come in nearly half an hour earlier, but no one had even come out through customs. I stood around, not even sure if I was waiting at the right gate. I watched everyone ecstatically greet their friends and family. There was a detachment of what looked like warrior priests there with cloaks embossed with chest-sized red crosses, knee-high leather boots and chains around their waists. The way they were dressed, they looked like they had left their broadswords out in the car so they wouldn’t have problems with airport security. One of the first people to come out of customs was an old man in a wheelchair who had a very dignified look. An attendant pushed him out to where everyone was waiting and a cheer went up, the warrior priests quickly approached him, took a knee, and kissed his ring while another man came up and joked with him like they were old war buddies. I was the only one watching. Everyone else was too preoccupied looking for the people they were going to meet as more and more people came out of the gate. The warrior priests wheeled the old man out the automatic doors and they were gone.
Mikey was toward the back of the group coming through customs. After most everyone had left, he came out all covered in patches and tattoos doing that kind of nodding thing he does when he’s considering something. In all the years we’d known each other and all the traveling we’d done, I’d never seen him in an airport. For two people who met in a diner and have since spent most of their time together in diners, or places that greatly resemble diners, our meeting in the airport’s sterilized atmosphere seemed strange. Still, I was happy to see him and I came darting out of the crowd to hug him the maniacal way people do in the airport. He told me he still had to get his visa. Apparently, this late at night, no one had been available in his concourse to issue a visa on arrival. As soon as I said ‘hello’ to him, a customs agent led him through another gate I couldn’t pass. If I had come about four hours after he was scheduled to arrive, I probably would’ve been right on time.
We spent the weekend catching up, drinking beers and a bottle of mescal that Mikey’d brought from Mexico. Saturday we had a party and I invited everyone I hadn’t seen since I’d left months earlier for vacation. After the party, Mikey and I took a walk into the end of the night. He played Bonnie Prince Billy on a portable speaker and we drank a ridiculously large can of Miller that neither of us needed. The end of the night found us walking back behind the Olimpia stadium, the yellow-orange streetlights glazing the smooth, black cobblestones. We walked slow, dragging our feet on the cobbles, talking about our childhoods and the effect of our fathers on our personalities. It was a talk we’d probably had thousands of times before, but I enjoyed it greatly.
For the next few weeks Mikey and I did nothing but work. We established something of an office/bachelor vibe in the apartment. Gina was still in California and Mikey and I were way too busy with our projects to worry about anything so inessential as cleaning the bathroom or taking out the trash. We did a decent job of keeping the dishes clean, but the rest of the apartment became sweat-darkened and sour. It was hot and we both sat around all day in our shorts with the fan on. I was through the major work with writing the curriculum and all I had to do was to put everything on the platform—which was an incredible tedious process. Luckily, I could do it without thinking much, so we could talk and listen to podcasts or music. We drank coffee in the morning and terere in the afternoon. I kept a big bottle of water on the floor and all afternoon, we’d tap away on our computers, sweat and take large, open-mouthed gulps of water.
Mikey was working on a music project that he’d started back when he was living in Guadalajara. He was fine tuning and editing recordings he had already made. Several times he played them for me, but I could scarcely ever discern much difference. I was like when I told some students about the idiom ‘cream of the crop.’ “Cream of the crap?!” They all shrieked out in response, laughing. “No,” I told them. “Crop as in cosecha. ‘Crop’ is different from ‘crap.’” The students looked at me blankly. “I don’t hear the difference,” one of the students remarked. Mikey’s fine tuning was like that for me. There was a distinction, a very important distinction separating the new, edited recordings from the old, but, like the student unable to differentiate ‘crop’ from ‘crap’, most of the time, I couldn’t hear it.
Mikey tuned and I created questions on the platform for the online English class until Gina came home In March. We cleaned like crazy the night before she came home and got the place looking halfway decent. I was nearly done working on the curriculum, which was good because my butt was starting to form a permanent indentation in the chair where I’d been sitting at the kitchen table. My wrists were getting calluses from where they’d been leaning on the kitchen table clicking and typing in such a vapid way for weeks on end.
Gina’s return was slightly marred by a toothache that had recently presented itself as chronic in my lower jaw. Years before, a dentist in San Francisco had neatly removed all of my wisdom teeth. “Except that one,” she said showing me an x-ray. “You’ll have to wait until that one crowns.” I said I would and then forgot all about it. Years went by, I lived in three different countries, revolutions toppled leaders that had been in power for decades, two presupposed end-of-the-worlds passed and nothing happened with my wisdom tooth. The last time I had been to the dentist, I had been told that the rogue bastard had hidden himself under the gum line so that he could grow into all the other teeth. The tooth had never crowned, but now it was pushing all the teeth on my bottom jaw together. “You’ll have to get it out sometime.” The dentist had told me, knowing that sometime would not be now, having seen crumpled wad of cash I had used to pay for the filling I had gotten.
Occasionally, I get a stab of pain from the vicinity of this tooth, something to remind me that all was not well with my dental health. But when the pain subsided, I forgot about it again. When the pain came up toward the end of February, I waited for it to subside. But it only got worse until I was constantly gnashing my teeth together and having a hard time getting to sleep at night. Mikey shrugged. “You should probably get it looked at,” he said after I’d tried to show him the place in the back of my mouth where the pain was coming from. “I don’t see anything back there, though.”
When I picked up Gina from the airport, her reaction was different. We hadn’t even gotten to the bus stop before she asked to see the offending tooth. “Oh god!” she practically yelled. “It’s all grey back there!” I wasn’t sure what to make of this, but grey never sounds like a healthy color so I decided to try and set up a dentist appointment. I sent a very non-committal e-mail to one office and tried to call another before giving up. I knew these people were never going to get back to me. As much as my tooth hurt, I really wasn’t interested in shelling out 1,000 dollars to have someone pull it out of my head. I had just paid my taxes and having an untaxed self-employed status job, I had had to pay over two thousand dollars. Sick of throwing my money away, I thought of all those people in Victorian England with the bandages wrapped around their heads. If they could make it through life with an abscessed tooth then so could I.
It might be possible to go through life with an unbearable toothache, but it’s not possible to go through life with an unbearable toothache and be a nice person. My whole jaw ached to the point where I couldn’t be bothered listening to the things anyone said. When anyone asked me a direct question, I got annoyed that I would have to listen to them and squeeze my jaw at the same time. It was too much to ask of a suffering person. Eating, probably my favorite activity, was also ruined. Every bite seemed to run down my jaw, touching off nerve endings along the way, like those explosions rigged for demolition that blow one floor out of a building at a time. I could almost live without the talking, but not being able to enjoy eating was quickly turning me into a snarling ogre.
I was going to try calling some other dentists when I remembered a dentist whom a friend had recommended before. It had been suggested that this dentist might be able to give us a deal if we made an appointment and mentioned our friend’s name name. I made the appointment and mentioned the name. The woman on the other end of the phone told me not to worry. She wouldn’t take too much of my money. She seemed candid and straightforward, a thing too many regulations have made it impossible for American dentists to be. When you don’t have a permanent dentist, every office tries to rope you into multiple visits before treating the problem. They claim they must do this and that before they can pull out your tooth or fill you cavity or even assess your problem. Perhaps they do need to do these things, but it makes the dentist seem like a hopeless bureaucracy or a complete swindle. Even the kindest dentist in the US is unable to surmount these impersonal barriers. I once had a dentist— who had been a former Peace Corps volunteer like myself— give me about 300 dollars’ worth of free dental stuff because he felt so bad about not being about to give me a filling without scheduling two appointments beforehand one for an x-ray one for a cleaning, each of which priced at about 200 bucks that I didn’t have.
Paraguayan dentists don’t have this problem. I went into see the recommended dentist and all she said was: “That’s infected. Take this medication until the swelling subsides, come back in a week and we’ll pull that tooth out.” She didn’t even ask for any money. She would’ve been the ideal dentist if I didn’t have doubts about the cleanliness of her practice. Because her main practice was about two hours outside town, she only came to the capital once or twice a week. Because she was not around much, she kept her practice small. Everything was in a small, windowless room: the consultation desk, the chair for the patient, the hanging light, the stool, the tray of tools, the little sink to spit in and a battered air conditioner. The first appoint I had made was nearly cancelled because the air conditioner had gone out. I thought the dentist was being melodramatic when she told me if the air wasn’t fixed we’d have to postpone the appointment. When I saw the jaundiced, airless room, I knew why she’d said it. It probably would’ve been hard to breathe in that room without the air conditioner.
The room was basic. The floor was the same institutional rubbery stuff they have in schools and hospitals that comes in big rolls. Time had darkened the linoleum but frequent passages had run lighter channels through it. Near the floor, the walls were darkened, as if inadvertently kicked repeatedly in the night by someone looking for the bathroom. The lightswitch had those smudgy Hershey bar fingerprints all over it.
When I first walked in, I tried to sit in the reclining patients’ chair, but the dentist told me to relax and come over to her desk and talk to her first. We chatted about all kinds of stuff while my tooth pulsed like a radar beacon in my mouth, each heartbeat sent out a red shockwave of pain I could practically see. After 20 minutes of talking about the weather, we discussed my tooth. “well,” the dentist said. “I guess we better see what’s wrong.” She said it like it was really unpleasant, but necessary job, like shoveling the stables. I appreciated her candor. Just because she was a dentist, didn’t have to mean she liked pulling out teeth, or even looking in people’s mouths.
Where the area around the tooth was infected, my gums were all red and swollen and, according to Gina, in some places they were grey. The moment the dentist got my mouth open she jabbed a finger right into the grey and red mess and asked “that hurt?” I had to nod assent; I was too overwhelmed with pain to talk.
After the dentist had made her diagnosis, she patted the chair over by her consultation desk. We talked about the weather for another 20 minutes and she gave me a prescription for antibiotics and a topical analgesic. While she talked, I noticed that she had left her surgical gloves on. A few times, she brought a gloved finger up to the wing of her nose and, while not overtly picking it, was certainly flirting with the idea. I found myself wondering why she hadn’t taken the gloves off. Was she planning on using them again? Or did she not realize they were on? Either prospect was disconcerting and after I got home I began to worry more and more about my pick of dentists. If the problem had been a routine filling or something, I wouldn’t care if she’d patched the thing up in a cardboard box with a couple of forks if it would’ve saved me money, but this was oral surgery we were talking about. You get an infection in your lower jaw and it can spread to your brain pretty quick. I kept thinking about that gloved finger probing the edge of her nose and then rustling around in my gum socket where all kinds of blood would certainly be geysering after my tooth was removed leaving me vulnerable for all kinds of infections. I also kept thinking about the dentist’s age, in one way her advanced age was good, it would mean she’d had lot of experience, but it was also bad, when I saw a ‘text book’ in her office that resembled something that would come in a cereal box, I started to have doubts. She would’ve gone to school back in the 70s. What was an Asuncion dental college like in the 70s? Did the people teaching back then even know what they were talking about? The country was ruled by a crazy dictator, I found it easy to see the dictator’s rise to power as symptomatic of an overall backwardness of the time and I worried. Mikey made it worse by suggesting that the dentist wouldn’t even have the strength to pull out a tooth. “Remember Little Shop of Horrors?” He said. I waved away the comment away, not wanting to hear more.
The week leading up to the surgery, I was nervous and frequently felt like trying to back out of it. With the analgesic and the antibiotic I was feeling better. My tooth didn’t hurt as much and I started toying again with the idea of just living with the pain. I mentioned this to Gina and Mikey, and they both told me that I’d probably be better off getting the tooth pulled, although I could tell that they too had their doubts about the dentist.
The day of the surgery, I rode my bike to the dentist’s from work. Again she greeted me and made me sit down at her desk and talk for a while. As I talked, I found I was warming up to her approach. I had time, and now that I was no longer in pain, I wasn’t in a tremendous hurry to have my tooth pulled. I looked around the room. There were no credentials on the walls. The floor was stained with innumerable dirty footprints. The tools looked old and dull, except one laid out that looked just like an X-acto knife. I thought of it slicing through my gums and shuddered.
My tooth was still mostly under my gum line. The dentist seemed confident that she’d be able to get it out, but I was worried about what she planned to do to get at it. I’d been able to understand enough of her Spanish to know that she wasn’t planning on giving my general anesthesia or even cutting into my gums if she didn’t have to, but seeing the X-acto blade made me nervous, all kinds of terrible scenarios began to flit through my imagination and I saw them all playing out in the faded dentist chair directly before me.
The dentist came up behind me. “You’re looking at the chair, huh? Yeah, it was a great deal. I got it cheap because it was used.” I looked around the room. ‘How many other things in here are used?’ I thought to myself. I looked back at the X-acto blade. ‘Maybe that’s even used. Maybe she picked it up cheap from some failed graphic arts outfit. Oh, well, what the hell. I’m already here.’ I thought and sat down in the used chair.
My tooth had to be cut back so it could be gripped and there was a lot of rocking and that horrible sound of blood squelching in the socket, like the sound of someone trying to free a stuck foot from a bog. This went on for a while. It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t hurt and I kept thinking if something did get infected, I could probably just take antibiotics. With each pull, the tooth seemed to give a little more until finally, with a sound like a big sloppy kiss, it came out. No roots had broken off, no gums had been cut. The tooth was intact and it was out. I was free. The dentist jabbed some gauze into the ragged socket and I happily chatted with her for a while before hopping on my bike to head home, overjoyed that I had been able to save some money.
Gradually, as I rode home, the Novocain began to wear off. At first it felt like someone was putting a great pressure on the back of my jaw, but gradually, a shrieking white pain, like what I imagine a gunshot much feel like after the shock wears off, began to break through. By the time I reached my apartment door, I was nearly cowed under it. I struggled up the stairs, my eyes bulging from their sockets. It felt like someone had knocked a big tent peg into the back of my jaw and then pulled it out with a claw hammer. I plowed through the door. Mikey and Gina stopped in their conversation and congratulated me on getting the tooth out. I didn’t hear. I was like a bull seeing red. I stumbled into the bedroom and curled up on the bed.
Gina brought me ice. I took the ibuprofen that had been proscribed, but nothing seemed to help. I rolled back and forth groaning working my jaws up and down to try to staunch the roiling pain that was everywhere in my head at once and terrible beyond all measure. After about half an hour, I could take no more. I stumbled out in the kitchen and poured myself a half a tumbler full of Fernet, which was the only booze we had in the house. I gulped the whole thing down vengefully and I immediately felt a little better. I didn’t wait a second before I poured myself another half a tumbler. I drank this one down, too, and the feeling was even better, under the pressure of the intoxicant, the pain was subsiding. There gets to be a point when that’s all that matters: the cessation of pain. It may come back tomorrow, it might even come back in a few hours, but the only thing that matters is that, for a moment it is gone.
To make sure it didn’t come back, I kept drinking. I had hardly eaten all day and I was drunk very quickly. Gina and Mikey had a few drinks with me, but the rest of the night was me demanding Armenian music be played, yelling ‘oh-pah!’ over and over and then demanding that we find a karaoke bar, which, thank god there wasn’t one open.
The next day, my gaping tooth wound felt better, probably I had just ameliorated the pain by adding other pains (most due to a hangover) to my growing list of maladies. With a dull headache and a nauseated stomach, I didn’t notice my tooth as much. The sharp shooting pain in the back of my jaw had mostly fled, but it still hurt bad enough to warrant 400 milligrams of ibuprofen a few times a day. For about a week it was difficult to eat, but gradually the pain passed.
As it happened, I had apparently gotten too accustomed to pain to let it past out of my life so easily. The day after I got my tooth pulled, I tried to stop smoking. During the day it wasn’t a problem, but in the evening, especially after work, it knotted me up. I’d come home and not know what to do with myself. I’d pace the floor, pick up books and put them down again. Dinner and a glass of wine helped, but nothing was a cigarette. Even weeks later, I found myself inhaling deeply when I could smell someone outside smoking. Which made me feel like a smoking voyeur, but by then I was in too deep. I couldn’t go back to smoking because I knew I would only try to quit again. Once you make a serious effort to quit, you become like an inverse addict—you become addicted to quitting. Smoking loses its joy and you start fiending for your next quit. You smoke because its familiar, but the cigarettes have lost their appeal. Every cigarette seems like a pointless indulgence. They don’t taste like anything and half the time you find yourself sneaking away to suck one down when no one is looking. The occasions around your smoking friends are spent in a rhapsody of grey hazey rooms and overflowing ashtrays, but still, you’ve gotten the bug, you can’t stop thinking of giving up on the habit again and you know as soon as things quiet down, you will try to quit again. Although quitting is wrecking your life, you can’t stop. Your family misses the old predictable you who smoked. Back then, when you got upset, you merely stepped outside for a minute and came back in the house smelling like an old bowling alley in a much improved mood. Now that you’re quitting, your emotions run in unpredictable torrents that leave everyone feeling vulnerable to your unprovoked attacks of nicotine withdrawal. They wish that you never would’ve started quitting, and so do you, but unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about it now. Once you’ve picked up the habit, it’s hard to drop.
The days were never too hard, but sometimes at night, it felt like part of my head was caving in. It felt like I needed a drink of water in the middle of a desert. I tried to occupy myself, but no matter what I did my mind screamed “why are you not smoking!?” Sometimes, to quiet my thoughts, I had to squeeze my eyes shut and clench my teeth.
We went out to a bunch of concerts like this. I felt like a fraud. Everyone else was enjoying themselves, but all I wanted to do was smoke. Between bands, I felt fidgety and was constantly looking around. This, by the way, is, I think, how smoking makes people appear cool. When you’re smoking, you’re enjoying yourself. You’re not really overly concerned with what anyone else is doing. But nonsmokers, damn, you guys are always looking around for some new source of entertainment. Suddenly, just standing there and drinking a beer didn’t seem to hold my attention.
We found other things to do, one of which was to finally go to Salto Cristal, which is a swimming hole/waterfall/idyll about two hours outside Asuncion. Because the place is fairly remote, we had to take a tour bus there which, with picking people up and making unscheduled stops, took more like four hours.
The bus was crowded and hot. The last 45 minutes of the trip was down an endless dirt road that had been scooped out in particular places by heavy rainfall. Every few minutes, the bus slowed to a crawl and dropped way down on an axle to scrape against the ground. On the bus, you were suddenly pitched into the window or spilled out onto the floor depending on which side of the road the pothole was on. The sensation produced was akin to that of a boat making its way over choppy water.
The waterfall was worth the trip. The water was cold and dark. In the shallows it was a sandy green, but beneath the waterfall it was black, like an immense flooded cave. I swam out over the dark eye of water and dropped down a few times. I never touched bottom and I had the feeling I never got anywhere near it, no matter how deep I sank. The further I let my weight carry me down, the colder the water became. As the light dissipated over the surface, the depths darkened and the darkness seemed to press against my eyes, as if it sought some kind of blinding equilibrium there.
In the middle of the afternoon, when we’d been swimming and jumping for a while, we climbed the trail to the top of the waterfall and found a bunch of those orb weaver spiders that have the long skeleton-hand legs, the poisonous green abdomens and are about as big as squirrels. They had great nets of webs strung out over the top of the river. I thought about what it would be like to run into one of their webs by accident, as many of them were at face level, those things looked like they’d be able to take off your nose if they decided to bite.
After our foray with the spiders, we went back and swam around until we realized we were the last ones from out bus left. We raced all the way back to the meeting place, where we found everyone waiting and no bus driver. A young guy who’d been drinking beer on the bus ride in, was now lying prone in the grass with a warm can of Polar in his hand. He smelled like he’d been drinking in the sun all day and laughed at everything anyone said. On the bus ride home, I found myself wondering why anyone would want to spend eight hours on a bus just to go drink somewhere else. I had never noticed the guy down by the waterfall, much less swimming around. He had probably just sat on the bus tipping back beer after warm beer.
Everyone fell asleep on the ride home and I stared out the window, watching the purple and magenta streaks settle over the dark green yucca and corn fields.
Back in February, when Mikey had first arrived, I told him if he was going to stay through March, he had to stay for the first week in April when I would have Semana Santa off from work. I dazzled him with all kinds of ill-considered plans and he agreed to leave early in the second week of April.
I had forgotten to plan for Semana Santa and when it was only a few days away, I threw out wild ideas. “We’ll convince Mikey to get his Argentine visa and go to Buenos Aires; We’ll go out to the Chaco; We’ll go to Iguazu; We’ll just stay here and have the town to ourselves.” I suggested all these options but no one, including myself, seemed too convinced of their worth. “Maybe we can just go back to Salto Cristal,” I found myself thinking in a lazy way. Swimming in the falls had been fun, but it was a long trip and I wasn’t ready to sit on a bus for eight hours again to go back to a place I had just been, no matter how cold the water or how big the spiders. Luckily, our friend Rebecca had a suggestion.
“You guys should come out to Carapegua,” Rebecca invited. “Clemente can take you on a hike and I’m sure we’ll find something else to do.” Everybody agreed that this was the best option we had. The only problem that remained was transportation. Wednesday and Thursday (the beginning of the holiday) were to be terrible. Rebecca told us that there would be no buses on Good Friday and everything would be closed. Saturday, the buses would be running again but, like Wednesday and Thursday, they were sure to be crowded as hell.
In Paraguay, buses are usually crowded. Even on long distance buses (three, four, five hours) passengers stand. Often, they are packed into the aisle, but at no time of year is the packing as bad as it is during Semana Santa when everyone goes to the countryside for a few days to eat asado, drink beers and relax, but in order to relax you must first brave the gauntlet of traffic and the public transportation exodus away from the city before you can put your feet up and munch some of abuela’s chipa.
We got to the terminal Wednesday evening, thinking it would be better to leave after the sun had gone down and the heat wouldn’t be so strong. Either everyone else had the same idea or they were giving away free bus tickets. The terminal was like a human flood, the dross of small children and baggage washed up against the burger stands and the turnstiles. People yelled and handed bursting garbage bags over low fences to each other, buses, strained their gears and roared off into the dark, the vendors, hung back timidly, no longer shouting ‘Gaseosa! Agua!’ but just watching the human tides siege the buses and draw back into waiting room estuaries.
When our bus rolled up, it was immediately swallowed by a wave of pilgrims. The bus driver and his assistant, driven by a natural impulse, tried to keep order, but they soon just gave way and let the tide roll into the bus. When I came to the door, I lifted a leg to the first step and a middle-aged woman darted in front of me from the left, I looked to my left and saw another woman eager to follow her accomplice, already forcing herself in front of me. I pretended not to see her and pulled myself up onto the bus. I hate when people start grabbing like that. You know what I mean? Like when something in a limited quality if being given away and people just start grabbing at it. Maybe I’ve never known enough hardship or maybe I’ve had too many comfortable bus rides to understand, but damn, I’d rather get out and walk than steal a seat away from someone else like that.
Despite my lateness getting on to the bus, there were still two seats together in the back that had miraculously not been claimed. I made for them and couldn’t believe my luck when I attained them before anyone else squeezed past me and got to them first. I was about to toss my bag down when I noticed the reason no one had taken the seats, a largish swamp of puke was coagulating there on the floor. The driveshaft, or whatever it was, running just beneath it on the floor, was heating up the gastric juices and the vomit actually appeared to be curdling, little bubbles rose to the surface and popped like toxic ampules breaking open. I reeled back wildly. The middle aged lady who had tried to snake me, saw me move away from the prize seats and made ready to pounce. “Cuidado,” I warned her, pointing to the mess on the floor, “Hay vomita.” She gave me a look like I had been the one to make the mess and scurried away to another part of the bus.
The traffic was backed up for miles. No sooner had we pulled out of the terminal than the driver cut the engine. The stationary quality of the bus seemed to draw potential passengers. The bus was like a large fly caught in the web of 100s of tiny spiders. The longer we sat there the more passengers we took on. The temperature of the bus rose. Someone’s elbow kept banging the back of my head, about eight people we leaning all over me. I wanted to get up and give my seat to one of them, but how could I chose who should take it? None of the people standing near me were any older than I was. Besides, how could I find a way to sandwich myself into the standing crowd after vacating my seat? I would’ve had to wedge my pelvis between about seven other pelvises.
I read the whole way. I can’t remember what anymore, really, I just shoved a book into my face so that I wouldn’t have to look at all those elbows and ears and fingers and chins all over the place.
The further down the line we went, the slower we seemed to go. After a point, the driver finally seemed to stop letting people on but no one seemed to be getting off. It was like they had all heard that this bus was going to Pleasure Island and they weren’t going to budge until they saw the golden lights and the red arcs of the Ferris Wheels high up in the sky.
There seemed to be something wrong with the bus. We were only about 20 minutes away from Carapegua, when we started slowing down. Every few minutes, the bus would slow down and then speed up, slow down and speed up, like the driver was a kid messing around with the accelerator. People just seemed to accept this. Forty minutes had passed and we had hardly gotten anywhere and the sweat was beginning to run down the aisles in rivulets, probably mixing with the clotted grey mess of puke just about three seats behind me, which, I noted with horror, someone was now sitting in.
As we went through the town of Paraguayi we zoomed by three houses and the slowed for the next five or six only to zoom by the next three. This pattern was maddening. I thought to myself, ‘I would rather see the bus completely breakdown that have to endure this for much longer.’
It took twice as long as usual, but we finally reached Carapegua. When the bus stopped we had to fight our way to the front because no one was getting off. I permiso-ed my way past 100s of eyes, noses and knees and 1000s of toes and fingers. When I had nearly emerged from this horrific orgiastic birth canal I noted that yet another kid and burped a skein of grey vomit out onto the floor of the front of the bus. The damn thing was literally awash in vomit. I leapt over the grey mass that I noticed had splattered up around the seats and onto some passengers’ shoes. I fell out onto the dark roadside like a duffel bag tossed onto a runway. Gina and Mikey tripped out after me and in a few minutes we were making our way through the quiet town. We stopped for a beer at the first store we passed and gulped it down on the way to Rebecca’s, unable to believe that we were no longer on the bus and yet projecting it into the distance of our imagination, starting and stopping and rolling, a tight knot of chaos in an otherwise pacific night.
A few days after we got back from Carapegua, it was time for Mikey to leave. He was going to catch a flight to Bolivia that left at some ungodly hour. There was enough mescal left in the bottle he had brought for a shot each. We drank the last of the smoky corn liquor after dinner and later we looked at some pictures of Mikey and I after we had first moved to California, pictures that seemed to come from an unbelievably long time ago. Us standing by Crater Lake, us by some desert gas station, walking down the street in Eugene, sitting in a café in Cincinnati and scores of pictures of one night in Taqueria Cancun on Mission where I must’ve eaten three or four burritos for some reason.
I was glad that we had added some new memories to that storage space of photos on Mikey’s computer and that years from now, hopefully we’ll be able to look back on all those pictures taken while he was here and remember them as a bright time.
I am 2 and a half months into my ten-month work contract. I only recently returned and already the time has fled by so fast. Mikey is gone and the empty apartment seems to empty itself of meaning. The home we have built here, while beautiful, is temporary like so many others. I have to wonder, sitting here alone, how many others like it I will move through in my lifetime and how many more times will one of my friends make the 1,000 dollar trip across a continent to see me in one of these places? I’ll probably never be able to enjoy that luxury again. If you follow travel writers, you’ll find that the friends of their earlier books disappear in later stories and are eventually replaced by innumerable and meaningless acquaintances.
Maybe it is inevitable that this should happen to everyone, if so, it is good that we are able to do the hard things in life like getting wisdom teeth out and quitting smoking while we are still in the company of true friends. In the lonely years ahead, I would imagine these things to be much harder.