It was a slow descent into Montevideo, zooming in on neighborhoods sprawled beneath the paraíso and olmo trees. As I turned away from the window, my neighbor’s face beamed over my shoulder. “¿Muy tranquilo, no?” I nodded and smiled, but I had already forgotten the scene below. After a mind-numbing series of flight connections from Seattle to Buenos Aires, I wanted nothing more than to drop my suitcase somewhere I could call home for the next year. Now the plane was touching down, rocking from one wheel to the other as the cabin shook. I raised a silent prayer.
The plan was to stay with Ana’s mother. We had been talking about this since Ana left college during her sophomore year and returned to Uruguay. Ana was a close friend whom I hoped might one day be a lover. She taught me Spanish in the heavy Tennessee night at a picnic table outside her dormitory, where a giant sycamore stretched against the moon and the red-dirt smell of the Appalachian hills rose from the ground. I started smoking there and measured two years of platonic friendship with hard pulls on Camel Wides. We talked about God and politics, and she complained about her redneck boyfriends while the cicadas roared. After nightfall a lamp cast its light into the shadows, gleaming on our legs and arms and Ana’s round face. Her hair hugged her cheeks like the petals of a tulip. She was always tossing her head back to laugh. Ana and I were sitting at the picnic table when I learned that she was pregnant and had to return home. Jack, the ex-Navy Seal and sire, wanted an abortion—a thought she could not bear. My role then was to sympathize. I had a string of girlfriends at that Bible college whom I never touched unless they were weeping in my arms.
When we said goodbye she made me promise to visit. “I’ll be lonely, Juan,” she said, using my adopted name. “And you need to learn more español. I’ll get you a teaching position.” I kissed her cheek and gave my promise.
Four years had passed. I was twenty-three years old, a newly minted M.A. brimming with wanderlust. Ana and I had kept in touch, and she was quick to invite me to Uruguay. “When will you get another chance?” she wrote. “You’ll see, it will be good for you. Everyone is so amable here. I know you’ll feel right at home.” When I thought of Ana I felt a visceral tug like I had when I heard flamenco music for the first time and wanted to eat those beefy chords. Duty likely drove me, too. Why roam among strangers when I could visit a friend in need? Ana arranged a teaching assignment for me at the school where she taught, a full-time load with the sixth grade that she said would give me enough cash for weekend travel. It sounded good. I asked few questions. The important thing was that I would get to hold her again—at least one big hug to say hello. I lost myself in reveries of Tennessee throughout the flight. I could almost smell the lilac perfume she wore.
My head was thick with fatigue when I stepped from the plane in Montevideo into the humid air. I remember the walk from customs to the baggage claim as if it were a dark Monet—heat waves on the tarmac, blurry queues stretching back from the booths, three wide windows smeared by handprints. Once inside I searched the crowd for Ana. A frantic hand caught my eye. I followed it to the unfamiliar face of a blond woman in mid-life, eyebrows raised, mouth wide in a false smile. She waved harder when our eyes met, so I hitched her way, suitcase banging against my leg.
“I am Teresa,” she gushed.
The quiet man at her side extended a broad palm. “Soy Juancho. Papá de Ana.”
I grinned and gripped his hand. “Mucho gusto. Nice to meet you.”
“Sorry about Ana,” Teresa said, as if I already knew.
It was an hour’s drive from Montevideo to Minas, where Ana lived near her family. Juancho drove silently, one hand dangling from the wheel. Furrows crisscrossed his dark face. A crucifix swung from the mirror. Teresa twisted around in her seat, and I could see Ana’s features in hers, the same round cheeks and brown eyes. I tried to ask why she had not come. “¿Ana está bien?” Teresa forced a smile. “Espera,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
It was December, the start of their summer. Sheep milled about on the brown hillsides. Eucalyptus groves flashed past in a shifting matrix of trees. Occasionally, if I watched closely, those long corridors would give me a split-second glimpse into the distance. To pass the time I fell into a daydream from my youth, imagining a giant blade running perpendicular to the car, lopping off the telephone poles and fence posts, slicing through everything that fell across my line of sight.
Teresa’s house in Minas shared walls with a candy store and a neighboring home. She was a lawyer, and it said so on her door—Teresa Arrillaga, Abogada—engraved on a brass plate. After Juancho and Teresa helped me unload my things, I leaned against the car to hide the sweat on the backs of my thighs. The air smelled of burnt rubber. The front door swung open, and a little boy, no more than a toddler, ran out onto the sidewalk. He was followed by a thin young man in a white T-shirt and faded jeans who wandered up to me, flipped a shock of blond hair out of his face, and stuck out his hand.
“Hey. Ah’m Chris.” His clammy fingers folded together in my grip. Over his shoulder I could see the boy looking back through the open door. Ana’s eyes were lowered when she stepped out, dozens of pounds thinner than when I had seen her last. Black slacks matched the hollows in her cheeks. She took the little boy’s hand. “Hola Juan,” she said.
The next afternoon I found Ana alone at the kitchen table. Her son was playing in the courtyard, his laughter drifting through the window screen. I would never have recognized her on the street. Her skin was ashen, her eyes puffy. She was sitting with her elbows on the table and her head thrown back a little, the way she used to look when she laughed. But there were no curves in her cheeks now, just angles and shadows. She blew a straight stream of smoke toward the ceiling as I sat down, then immediately drew hard on the cigarette. I had not smoked since I had seen her last, but there was a pack lying open on the table, so I took one and lit up.
“¿Como estás, Ana?” Smoke trickled out of her nostrils as she looked toward the courtyard without answering.
“You don’t have to tell me anything. But I don’t know why this guy Chris is here. I don’t know what’s going on with you.”
She laughed without smiling. “We met a few years ago in Tennessee. He thinks we’re in love. I don’t know how to make him go home. Estoy enferma, Juan.”
The next day she admitted herself to the local asylum for severe depression. Juancho took her. They went quietly while I was asleep in the courtyard, a book forgotten in my lap.
I lay awake that night and the next. I had nearly decided to bag the whole plan. Then Teresa came home from the hospital with two notes written in an unsteady hand. Chris showed me his note. It read, “I’m sorry, you should go. This is a bad time.” He asked about my note, but I did not show it to him. It said, “Don’t leave, Juan. I need you here.”
After Chris left I moved to Ana’s apartment for a couple of weeks. The lease would run out at the end of December, and I planned to move back in with Teresa then. This would buy the family some time alone. Ana had begun electroshock treatments, and her parents were the only visitors allowed. I was not sure that I could be of any help, but I desperately wanted to see Ana again, so I moved into her flat.
Ana lived on the second story of a cement building near the town square. When I turned the key and nudged the door open with my knee, the smell of cumin and chili powder rose with the draft. Toy cars lay scattered over the floor, a purple sweater hanging from a chair as if she might come back at any moment. I inched sideways through the kitchen with my guitar and suitcase, my backpack brushing along the counter. A Spanish arch led to the hallway, where the bathroom shared a wall with the kitchen on one end and the bedroom on the other.
Compared to the rest of the flat, Ana’s bedroom seemed huge. I shut the armario to avoid looking at her clothes hanging there and tossed my backpack onto the queen-sized bed. A sliding glass door led to the balcony overlooking the street. 18 de Julio was a thoroughfare named for the day Uruguay accepted its constitution, one wide lane of traffic buzzing through the city center at all hours. I leaned for a moment on the balcony railing, surveying the frutería across the way before stepping back inside to sit on the rumpled bed, where the comforter still held the shape of a woman’s hip. I rested for a moment, considering the vacant stucco wall, the lamp and bedstand.
Each morning I descended the stairs to buy bread from the panadería two doors down. A kiosk around the corner sold canned tuna. Aside from the occasional chorizo al pan from the street vendors, these were my meals.
Nights, I sat on the balcony above 18 de Julio until the drone of the street weighed heavily on my eyes. Then the dark house, the bedroom door looming overhead, and finally the bed, which still smelled of lilac. Rattling walls as I drifted off.
Every night a recurring dream. It came in different forms—strangulation, heart attack, burial under intolerable weight—but it always began and ended the same way. A moped with no muffler would turn onto 18 de Julio about a quarter mile in the distance at a quiet night hour. About that time I was usually somewhere in subconscious bliss, camped in the Rocky Mountains, lying in Nebraska grass, listening to cicadas while I smoked in Tennessee. Wherever I was in my dream, a change would come over the landscape when the bike started to go through the gears. A hush would fall as a feeling of dread began to build, my body twisting toward a threshold that broke when the engine ripped past on the street.
I thought I loved Ana, and this surely kept me in Minas. But something larger was at stake. When others around me had fallen apart, I had persevered. My mother attributed this to a spiritual covering, which she believed protected the family from harm, some blood sign upon our door that kept the plagues at bay. Such knowledge was to carry us through the unknown without injury, and so far that had held true for me. But it was a tortured logic that bound up my sense of self, a certainty that my blind sallies were steered by providence. More than anything else it was this belief that held me in Uruguay. I could not leave before my promise was kept, because I had not yet learned how to break an oath before it broke me.
Knowing what I do now about mental illness, Ana’s note from the hospital could not have signified trust, at least not in the way I perceived it then. Nor was it guile, though that is how it felt later on. She was grasping for a handhold on a crumbling bank, the roar of despair in her ears. Unlike me, she was able to ask for help.
When the lease on the flat began to run out, I was in a pinch. Teresa and Juancho were preoccupied with visits to the hospital and caring for Ana’s son. The last thing I wanted was to impose further on them, yet I would soon be homeless. Since I had met with Rosario, the director of St. Catherine’s School, and had agreed to take on Ana’s high school courses in addition to the full-time contract I’d signed for the sixth grade class, and since this added burden made me feel that I was contributing to Ana’s recovery, I decided to ask the school for housing. Rosario was not pleased to hear from me. When she answered her cell, I could hear surf breaking in the distance.
“I’m on vacation,” she said. “Can’t this wait?”
“Look,” I said. “The lease is almost up. Teresa can’t take me in again, so I need to find a place to stay. Could the school sign a new lease?”
“No way, we’re not going to pay that kind of rent.” The receiver crackled as she shouted to her grandchildren. “¡Chiquilines! ¡Cuidado!”
My eyes began to burn. I tried hard to steady my voice. “Well, I don’t know what you want me to do. Ana is getting shock treatments and I can’t see her and you’ve asked me to take a double teaching load, which I’m glad to do, but I’ve got to find someplace to stay in the next two days.”
She fell silent for a moment. Rosario was a plumpish woman in her late fifties. She had short dark hair and an imperious air, often lifting her chin as she spoke. Through the phone I could hear the breakers and the babble of children at play. Her breath came over the line in nasal gusts. I imagined her in a sun bonnet there on the beach, picnic basket and cooler nearby, ice cream vendor within earshot. My thoughts were not kind.
“Fine,” she said. “Let me see what I can do.”
The next morning I sat reading on the balcony. When the buzzer rang I leaned over the railing to see who it was. A balding man looked back, sweat stains blotching his polo shirt.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Ramiro—friend of Ana.” I let him in and he climbed the stairs, wheezing a little as he went. He would not sit when I offered a chair. His hair was thin, but his wide chin and thick forearms suggested lingering strength.
“I need few things,” he said. “Ana live with me when she get out.” My lips made the shape of a smile as I followed him into the kitchen. The refrigerator went first, then the range. I helped him maneuver both down the stairs. They fit neatly into the back of his Toyota pickup. He drove away without a word, returning an hour later. This time the couch and table went. Finally we packed her clothes and the remaining groceries into his front seat. Only the bed remained, but he did not hesitate. He yanked the sheets off, tossing them over the balcony railing into his truck. After finessing the mattress around the corners in the stairwell, we dissembled the frame and were done. He offered his hand. “Que pase bien,” he said.
I trudged back up the stairs and went from room to room, taking in the bare walls and empty floor. My suitcase stood where the couch had been. That night I folded a dirty shirt under my head and lay on the hardwood floor. An ant crawled across my arm, then another. I retreated to the balcony and watched traffic until I could no longer stay awake.
At a quiet time of night, sometime after I had fallen asleep, a moped with no muffler turned onto 18 de Julio and went through all the gears. I was dreaming of the ocean, bobbing chest-high in the waves, when the drone cast its pall over the scene. Then there was no bottom as I was spun and sucked into the depths. The water moaned. I gasped for air, head awash with vertigo. Just before my chest burst, the scooter screamed by on the street, and I sat up with a ragged breath to face the empty wall.
After Ramiro gutted the flat I hit a low point. Ana’s note sat on the table, rumpled and smudged from the times I’d reread it to assure myself that she wanted me to stay. If I could have seen her, we would have fallen into the old roles of confessor and confidante, and I would have had the usual messianic reason for sticking around. As it stood, I could not yet admit to myself that my purpose was to shoulder her teaching load, freeing her from obligations to the school and clearing the way for her new life with Ramiro. The implications of this reality were too insulting to contemplate. Those Tennessee nights—were they as lovely as they had seemed? Or had the lure of that sweet and secret Spanish blinded me? What would it mean if I was not the one taking her into my arms—if, instead, I was being taken in? Beneath the paranoia was a deeper fear about the truth of prayers and their power to cover me.
I haunted the Internet cafes, trying to get my bearings by writing to family and friends. I plied them all with questions. Some thought I should go. The most devout were certain that good would come of it all. Remember Romans 8:28, they said: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” My father was resolute in encouraging me to stay. He was fond of analogies, though they were often bizarre. He wrote: “I was just thinking of Corrie Ten Boom and how she managed to love her persecutors even in the concentration camps.” Uruguay was no Germany, and St. Catherine’s School was no Auschwitz, but there was a sense in which my father’s comparison characterized the inflated self that I was trying to inhabit. All of the arrows pointed toward my narrative of promise, my indestructible faith. The truth is that I did not stay in Minas to help Ana, nor did I stay there because I cared about teaching, at least not initially. After meeting Ramiro I stayed to protect my narrative of self. Soon enough I would learn that experience is the touchstone for self making, that even the most essential certainties can fall away.
The Hotel Verdún was my new home. Rosario sent someone to collect me from the apartment, and I moved my suitcase to the southeast corner of the town square, where the hotel sat across the street from the local prison. The hotel was very white. Its cramped foyer opened into a spacious lounge filled with natural light from a high glass ceiling. My room was on the second floor: two beds, a television, and a tiny bath. This arrangement came about because the owners, whose children attended St. Catherine’s, were behind on their tuition payments. I did not want to imagine their conversation with Rosario. It left a chill in the hotel. Carlos was always smiling at the front desk. ¿Andas bien, Juan? But beneath the smiles we both knew I had come by force.
The room was quiet, tucked well away from the street. Its one window overlooked the courtyard, which was little more than clay tile and a central shrub surrounded by whitewashed walls. I had room enough for my clothes in the closet, and my suitcase fit neatly into the top shelf. My books and paper went to the extra bed. I lay down to take it all in, and for a few moments I had a delicious sense of escape. No promises had been broken. My self was intact. Then a pang of loneliness struck. I longed to be with Ana, and the memory of lugging furniture out of the flat with her aging lover came back like a desert wind. Pinpricks of heat broke out over my forehead and neck.
Why not leave? It seems an obvious question now. But by then I had begun to justify my decision. It was too near the start of the school term. I had shouldered forty-six hours of classes—twenty from before and twenty-six of Ana’s high school credits. Surely they could not find someone to replace them all, and I did not want to be the person who left all that to someone else. They were counting on me. It was a way to prove I was not afraid, that I was covered by a blanket of grace.
A few weeks remained before the start of the term. I lost touch with Teresa and Juancho and kept to myself at the hotel. When an administrator gave me a key to the school, I began spending my days in the vacant computer lab. St. Catherine’s owned two stone buildings within a block of each other: one for the high school (liceo) and the other for grades one through six (primaria). Each school had two large wooden doors so caked with green paint that they were soft to the touch. The doors were at least eight feet tall, bolted to the stone walls with iron ties like the entrance to a church. Each day I walked from the hotel to the liceo, slid my skeleton key into the lock, and disappeared. Two classrooms flanked the foyer, then a short row of steps leading up to the main hall. The computer lab sat in the rear of the building near the walled-in school yard. It was cool and dark there. A trellis shaded the window looking out on the yard, and the scent of grape leaves filled the room. I wrote for hours in that refuge, my back aching from the tiny wooden stool. Words on a screen were never so sweet.
St. Catherine’s was a bilingual primary and secondary program founded by a British expatriate in Montevideo. Like most Uruguayan institutions it retained only nominal Catholic ties, waiving classes in catechism and ignoring most feast days. The school was as different from Catherine of Siena, its self-mutilating namesake, as it could be. Rosario oversaw the Minas branch. She came twice a year to scold, cajole, and admonish the cadre, but mostly the school ran as it pleased according to a confederation of teachers and laissez-faire administrators. As a first-time teacher I struggled to find my bearings. When my colleagues met a week before the first day of classes to plan for the upcoming term, I expected to see lesson plans, assignments, and calendars. Instead I received a stack of books. The other teachers were pleasant, but I internalized my doubts. What do I do when the lesson is finished too early? How do I get through four hours every afternoon with a pack of wild kids? Such questions seemed too foolish to ask. I knew they could only be answered by doing.
This is the story of any rookie: the self-doubt, the numbness before leaping into the fray. And from my vantage now, none of these anxieties needed to mean half as much as they did. But I had traveled too far from myself to recover, like a skier who has fallen midway on a difficult run and must finish the descent. This was difficult to communicate to others, because even while I was retreating into denial about the sheer magnitude of my duties, I was overwhelmed by the reality of my solitude. Still, there was a certainty about loneliness. It was something I could choose.
Despite my inwardness one teacher made the effort to befriend me. Claudia was a tall Italian woman with piercing eyes and a runner’s build. Her son Nacho would be in my class, so it was surely motherly concern that sparked her interest, but we soon grew close in my platonic way.
By the time classes had begun, my double life was well established. The public face remained impassive. No problem. I’ve got it covered. The private face did not weep, but it was a montage of trouble. Prayer had been a refuge for the likes of Corrie Ten Boom, as my father reminded me. I knew that my mother had weathered many trying times on her knees. Disciplined silence, I thought, should quiet the heart enough to hear the still, small voice of God. But for me prayer was no more than a daydream, a handful of scattered thoughts. I had never admitted this to myself. It had been easy to close my eyes with a congregation or to go through a bedtime ritual without feeling the urgency of spiritual awakening. My most earnest petitions were short bursts of panic. Get me out of this. Keep me alive. Let it work out OK. This is not enough when the self is slipping away. The self needs firmer footing. And so, after many weeks of failed prayers and paralyzing doubts, I took two measures to calm my thoughts. I ate nothing but bread and fruit. And I began to run.
Despite all of the sympathetic clucking I had heard from my primary school colleagues about the sixth-grade class I was to take over—a group reputed to be the worst behaved in the history of the school—they were meek on the first day. There were eight. Nacho was a handsome boy with dark hair and an athlete’s face. His eyes drank up the room. Inés was his closest friend. I remember the flash of her smile and her stories, always stories about dreams, adventure dreams where she and Nacho were battling lions and giant snakes. Lucía was blond with brown eyes. She was the shortest in the class, but had no trouble shoving her way through the crowd when it was time for recess. Sebastian was a troublemaker. I could tell this from his bucktoothed grin and cowlick, and from the fact that scarcely two minutes into the introductions on the first day he had already kicked Inés under the table. There were two Santiagos. Effinger was a man-child, beefy and troubled. He was nearly six feet tall. Gadea was a petite boy with straight black hair, a nervous laugh, and the neatest penmanship in the class. Martín had a dark, smooth face and was just as tall as Effinger. His father was a doctor, and the son already carried himself like a professional, but he was still a child and was easily cowed. Then there was Gonzalo, a small boy, distant and given to sudden outbursts and brooding silence.
We met each afternoon in a room with eight green desks facing each other and scarcely enough space for me to slide along the plaster wall behind the chairs. A chalkboard hung at the front of the room near a small table that served as the teacher’s desk. Inspirational posters spangled the walls: rainforest birds, a smiling indigenous child, the Apollo 17 Earth photo. Opposite the chalkboard, at the far end of the room, sat a radiator below a window to the street. Through the wooden doors to my left, as I stood at the front of the class, was the school’s entryway. This corridor emptied into a common area with a checkered tile floor. The restrooms were here. A piano sat against the wall, and a corner door led to the reading room. Straight ahead was the cobbled playground with its lone tree, where I could release my delirious children once a day, stand like a sentinel, and chat with Claudia for a few moments before herding them back. Most of my memories of St. Catherine’s begin in that musty room, as if I slept and woke there.
In truth my days began well before dawn. Breakfast at the hotel was a small pleasure that surely sustained me more than I knew. But long before that I would have risen to make preparations for the day. I was to teach at the high school from the first bell at 7:30 until noon. An hour later I began my afternoon shift at the primary school and soldiered through until 5:00. Then my daily run, dinner, and grading until bed. I had never taught before, so I was dashing blindly through this routine, planning a dozen different lessons in the predawn hours, papers strewn over the spare bed, hurrying downstairs for toast with dulce de leche and yogurt, then hotfooting it through the town square and off to my first class. I had no time for memories and even less for sadness, though it was always there, that buried yearning. I dared not think of it, lest the toothpick fortress of my routine give way. And so it was that I turned to my ascetic ways.
Uruguayan bread is mostly made of white flour, and it took me some time to realize that I could request a loaf of whole wheat at the local panaderías. (Pan negro, por favor.) The bread would come in three conjoined sections. For lunch I broke off the first section and ate it like the Eucharist. One section of bread, an apple, a glass or two of water. One cornerstone of my day. One decision I no longer had to make. Dinner was the rest of the loaf and an orange: twice as much bread and a little more sweetness. An indiscriminate eater before, I relished variety and often overindulged. But this was not about pleasure. It was about sticking to the plan. A hunk of bread and an apple was far less than my usual lunch fare, never mind the afternoon run, so by evening I was ravenous. Over time the two sections of the loaf began to seem like an extravagance. Then the orange. (What decadence.) I was learning to understand a few baked grains, learning to live in that space between mouthfuls, feeling the flesh as the one true thing.
After the honeymoon of the first day, the sixth grade class reverted to its usual ways. Sebastian was always the center of the ruckus, a pinching, spitting, face-making dervish. Effinger labored so long over his work that the others would grow impatient and pelt him with spitballs if my back was turned. Such things happened so often that I can only recall them in the plural, like a time lapse photo. Always Sebastian’s leering face—cowlick, ears, toothy grin—Effinger’s cheeks reddening, then the rumble I heard nearly every day. ¡Dejate de joder! Gadea tittering. Nacho turning from his reading, and Inés catching his eye. Martín blushing as he laughed. Lucía shouting. Gonzalo looking on, bemused.
It was not a happy chaos, though memory threatens to translate it into comedy. Once I went blind with anger, the room darkening as I shouted for order. Another time, as the noise in the room escalated, my voice rising with the rest, Lucía stood on her chair and let loose a scream. Bedlam. The other teachers had warned me about this. There were no surprises. And there was no help. For self-preservation I learned to deflect noise with silence. Gentle answers did not turn away all wrath, but they kept me together until I laced up my running shoes.
Running began as self-torture. My legs were geared for strength, not speed. But pain was what I was after. It was something real. Those burning lungs, the feverish weakness in my bowels, the aching shins—they were my refuge from thoughts of Ana. Most days I was stripping myself of memory, the way my mother had advised me to palpate a pressure point between my thumb and forefinger whenever I complained of a headache. The throbbing at my temples would never entirely disappear, but it could be lessened by shoving my thumb into the flesh of the other hand. As the ache rose in my palm, spreading down to my elbow, the heaviness between my eyes would lift until I released myself. This was the game on the running trail, this self-inflicted pain and the illusion of relief.
The dirt path began on the edge of town. To get there I walked from the hotel through several blocks of graffiti-sprayed gates and homes made of cement blocks. Each lawn had a two-liter bottle filled with water lying in the middle of the grass. This was thought to deter dogs from defecating there, which may have been true given the number of road apples I had to dodge. At the edge of the barrio I crossed a yellow bridge, glancing down at the river, which rose and fell with the rain. During the dry spells, plastic bags festooned the overhanging brush. The stench of sewage lingered year-round.
Across the bridge, where the highway led out into the countryside, I began my stretches on the grassy shoulder. A few toe touches and lunges, then some seated poses, and I’d begin, crunching through gravel up the first hill, legs and chest tightening. A little reprieve at the top. Blue sky overhead, smell of eucalyptus trees. Slow strides over a long flat, starting to labor again. Head bent to the ground. Cars buzzing on the highway. Then the big hill, gunning toward the top, eyes blind, one column of flame from heel to anus to throat. I’d take a turn at the crest, near the green 6k marker, then ease into the descent, cool air flooding my chest. Back on the flat, I’d quicken my pace, seeing nothing but the grassy mat underfoot and the ruts baked hard into the path. Gliding over the first hill, I’d sprint all out back to the bridge, belly boiling, chest enraged.
Most days I lingered at the trail’s end, hands on my knees, thoughts gone to fog. I lost many lunches that way, tossing puddles of bread and apple into the ditch. Then the slow walk back to the hotel through the barrio, along the prison fence to the white arches of Verdún. Carlos at the front desk. ¿Todo bien, Juan? The cold shower. Bread and orange. Back to the papers strewn over the spare bed.
It is difficult to pull places and times from those first few months. What I remember best are patterns and rituals. Thankfully my high school students were well behaved, so most of my mornings, even while teaching, were spent thinking anxiously about my afternoon class. I pushed a pseudo-self through those early hours. Small things occasionally jarred me out of distraction. A curvy senior, Paola, struggled with English and often came to my desk for help, brushing my shoulder with her breast or grazing my elbow with her hip. Two tall twins, Franco and Marco, were distinguishable only slightly by ambition. They sat at opposite sides of the room, and at first it was like a magic trick, the same Roman face wherever I looked. But memory has a way of sanitizing itself. I am now reconstructing these memories in a vain attempt to see the whole picture, trying to be fair to the students who knew nothing of my pain and unknowingly eased it by cooperating with my lessons. Whatever cloud I carried through those morning classes was a darkness of my own making, though I suspect now that the sunny side would be an equal sophistry. My high school students allowed me to withdraw, so my thoughts of them cannot be trusted. We would have to meet again.
More and more the sixth grade class drove me to desperation. I was the son of necessity during those months, grasping after anything that would keep them engaged. My greatest triumph was a vocabulary drill that killed at least an hour each day. American newspapers are said to be written for comprehension at the sixth-grade level, so I gathered as many online articles as I could, made copies, and doled them out each week. The class was to read each article aloud, circling words they did not understand. Cocky. Legislate. Acute. Vernacular. Surreptitious. I asked each student to write a word on a small card, look up the definition, and then illustrate the card, using markers and crayons to give the word a personality that would match its definition. I found a wall-hanging made from a sheet of blue fabric with plastic pockets for the letters of the alphabet, and we began to alphabetize the words.
After a few weeks we had a sizable cache of new vocabulary, so I began many classes by dividing the group into pairs that were least likely to disintegrate into eye scratching and yelling. Each pair was to select five words from the vocabulary bank and construct an imaginary dialogue integrating those five words. Sometimes we brainstormed scenarios. A man is on a park bench contemplating suicide—convince him to live. You are saying goodbye to your best friend, who is moving to another city. You are a parent explaining to your son or daughter how to deal with a bully. The President of the United States and the President of Uruguay are arguing about the World Cup. A knight confronts a sorcerer who is about to curse a city. Time to choose the words. Time to compose the dialogue. Time to rehearse the sketches and perform them. For an hour each day my cramped room was filled with the murmurs and earnest whispers of children lost in thought, tongues pressed between their lips as the pencils scratched over the paper. Then the other three hours began.
It was as if we were on a road trip, all eight children crammed into the back seat. Wordplay could only distract them for so long from tormenting one another. I was to teach them science, so we balanced a penny on the mouth of a chilled bottle, cupped our hands around the glass, and watched the coin flap as the heat tried to escape. We made paper pinwheels and memorized the names of the planets. Each student had a notebook with a yellow plastic cover, and I assigned many compositions in English. Describe one of your pets. Choose a magazine from the bookshelf and write a story about one of the photographs. Explain why you like your favorite band. Explain why your favorite football team is the best. Straightforward lessons. But the class’s attention was shot by two p.m., and chaos reigned.
My heart began to race when I saw the sidelong glances and the kicks under the table, because I knew the immortal spitball was close behind, then snot wiped on a neighbor’s sleeve, the mouthed obscenities, the muttered insults. Maricón. Ímbecil. Tu madre trabaja en la esquina. I knew all was lost when the animal noises began. Mooooo, one student would say. Ar-ar-ar-ar, another would reply. Caaawww, caaawww, another would cry as the blood rose in my eyes.
Twice a week we walked down the hall, over the checkered tiles of the common room, and into the library. White bookshelves lined the walls, beanbags and quilts strewn over the floor. Reading time was thirty minutes. Each student was to choose a book, find a place to sit, and keep quiet. The plan might have worked if it had not been for Sebastian, who peered over the top of his book until he caught someone’s eye. If I asked him to turn his back, he sighed or groaned or shuffled his feet on the carpet. Once I gripped him by the shoulder and led him out into the common room, his cowlick bobbing as we walked, his front teeth pressed into his lower lip in the usual smirk. When I pointed at the floor, he slouched against the stone wall and pretended to read. I returned to the others, who were chattering and watching us through the windowed door, and had nearly quieted them when Effinger let out his goofy laugh and pointed toward the door. Sebastian had flattened his nose and tongue against the glass, his eyes crossed and both hands waving from his ears. I longed for a good stiff cane.
But this was a progressive school, and I used the full range of nonviolent discipline. Some days I withheld recess. If that failed, I’d assign handwritten copies of the history textbook. Trips to the principal’s office were a last resort, then phone calls to parents. I wrote each student’s initials on the board and kept track of demerits. Three demerits meant no recess. Five meant no recess and one page copied longhand from the history book. Six meant no recess, one page copied during recess, two pages to copy for homework. When the novelty of this system wore off, I tallied demerits for half the day, then rewarded good behavior after recess by taking demerits away. I soon learned that this was a group identity that I could not crack. They might be tricked into learning for an hour or two, but they soon recovered their real purpose, which was to drive me mad. My class had seen the other teachers shaking their heads for six years. Nearly each student had sat through a parent-teacher intervention, escaping unscathed. They knew their power. Time was on their side. They would wear me down.
It was late afternoon on a rainy day. I had taken the class to the liceo for a research assignment on the computers. The room was dark. Stools scraped over the tile floor as students settled into their pairs. The assignment was to find three of Galileo’s discoveries by searching the Internet. I planned to use these findings for a composition the next day, but as usual there were more immediate concerns than the lesson. In the space of five minutes, Gonzalo had already opened an online game of Asteroids, mimicking the sound as he fired each shot. Pkew, pkew. Sebastian was pinching Gadea. Ahhhh. ¡Basta! Lucía and Inés were engrossed in glamour shots of Shakira. It was a mass mutiny. As soon as I had coached one pair back on task, the others had run amok. I had no new threats to give and searched myself in vain for new rewards. Even Nacho and Martín, two students I could usually count on, were laughing. “I can’t help it, teacher,” Nacho said. “It’s a fracas.” At that moment, Gadea yelled again in pain, and before I could think, I had Sebastian by the ear, lifting him from his stool and jerking him across the room—owww, owww—where I threw him against the wall, stuck my finger in his face, and hissed, “I’ve had enough of your crap for a lifetime.”
His face crumpled. The others fell silent as he sobbed. I got them turned around, completed the assignment, and then herded the somber bunch back to our room in time for the final bell. As the children were filing out to go home, I was dialing Sebastian’s mother. She was unhappy, but not outraged. She understood. While the other teachers exulted in the story, glad the little pica got what was coming to him, I was haunted by it. Something was changing. I was turning mean. The bread-and-fruit ceremony was not working, and neither was the running, though I had lost fifty pounds. The sheer crush of work had forced me to live in the nutshell of the present, but now the denial was fading. Memories were coming back. Tennessee. “Don’t leave, Juan.” Ramiro. “Que pase bien.” It was April, and I had already begun counting the days until December, when my contract with St. Catherine’s would expire. Doubts were creeping in.
I had not allowed myself to contemplate leaving once classes had begun. It would have been one thing to cut and run before the start of a job, but I had been raised to finish what I started. There were no more illusions about helping Ana. Rumors trickled through St. Catherine’s about her sugar daddy and the high life they were living in Punta del Este—the shopping sprees and the bungalow on the beach. My only purpose now was to survive the year. I had been drifting through each morning, measuring mouthfuls of bread at midday, grasping after any stalling tactic to get through the four interminable afternoon hours, then punishing myself on the earthen path each night. There was order here, but I did not like the shape it was taking. When I cut the lamp in my hotel room and looked over the empty courtyard, moonlight glowing on the whitewashed paling, my window could have been the mouth of a sepulcher.
One night after dinner at Claudia’s house, I sat in her car outside the Hotel Verdún. The moon beat against the prison wall. The hotel gleamed across the street. Claudia rolled the window down and lit a cigarette, its red eye glowing in the shadowed cab. I felt a bubble expanding in my chest.
“What if I were to leave in July?” My belly washed cold with the thought.
“What would happen if I quit at the end of the quarter?”
“Nothing would happen. Rosario would find another teacher,y ya. They’re all surprised you’re still here. What are you afraid of?” Her cheeks hollowed as she drew on the cigarette.
“I don’t know. I guess I thought there might be trouble with Migración, since I signed a contract with St. Catherine’s.”
“Migración won’t care. If you need to go, then go.”
Pressure built in my chest. My throat ached. I watched a moth bump into the windshield, folding its spotted wings as it came to rest. “It’s impossible,” I said. “Even with half the teaching load, more time to travel… It’s just that I’ve killed myself trying. And I don’t know how all this happened with Ana, how she could change so much. Why couldn’t I see it?”
“Preguntale a tu Dios,” Claudia said.
I said goodnight and walked toward the glass doors of the hotel. The car slid away, and for a moment I saw myself against the red clay of the prison wall, reaching out. Then I was inside. Carlos gave me the key, and I stumbled through the lobby. The ceiling was dark and bright. As I climbed the stairs, I could feel something breaking loose within me, and I had scarcely entered the room before I was running for the sink. The avalanche of vomit seemed to have no end. Black thoughts came out with each heave. As I gripped the sink, my weight broke the calking and the basin sagged, spilling its mess onto my feet. I sat back against the wall. A heavy mass was growing in my head, like an eggplant dangling from a tiny stem. The stench of vomit cut through the delirium, and I stood. The mass swayed behind my eyes. I steadied myself against the wall and began the slow business of cleaning up, leaving a mound of towels below the ruined sink.
For the next three days every effort was an herculean task. Time slowed. Sitting up in bed seemed to take forever. Then the shower, the lesson plans, the walk to school. I pushed my public face through the routine, distant voices echoing. Now two students fighting, the disruption like a sudden burst of flame. The leaden mass rocking between my ears. My voice sounding as if it were coming through a tube.
Gradually I came back to myself. Meetings were arranged. I made plans to leave in July at the quarter’s end. Rosario tried guilt. “You’re leaving us in the ditch!” Then she offered more pay and reduced hours. When that did not persuade me, she said, “Well, it’s a shame about Ana. I would not want to be you.”
The last two months came and went. The hills turned gray as winter fell. I was less anesthetized to trouble, and sometimes the cold reality was harder to take, but there was also comfort in its bleak certainty. I continued to run, now for the pleasure of it. Before I had covered the same distance every day as fast as my body would allow, but now I began jogging past the green 6k sign to the 8k, the 9k, and beyond. Food was once again one of my chief delights, though I had learned to enjoy less with more gusto. I indulged in fry bread on rainy days and began buying Pascualina for lunch, a crispy spinach pastry with a boiled egg in the middle. Chicken empanadas, hambuergesas, and helados found their way back onto my plate. Now and then I even sipped a little whiskey. Road trips to Montevideo with Claudia helped me grow back into a whole life. But I never saw Ana again, and not once did I pray.
It would be wrong to say that lost love and a group of bratty kids took away my faith. This realization would not come for several years. Yet grief was a mirror, and I could not ignore the man who kept appearing in it. He had been there all along. Now there was no denying this self that could break, no way to make prayers ring true when the body refused to feel more than its flesh. No single cataclysm, just a series of humiliations breaking over my thoughts like water against stone. A steady reduction.
July came, and I left without fanfare. On the last day I rose an hour before dawn, dropped my key on the bed, and struggled through the glass doors with my bags, laboring through the cold to the bus station. Drowsing all the way to Montevideo, my neighbors’ heads bobbing in their seats. Then another bus to the airport and a deliciously empty hour to wait for the flight. I was suddenly rich with time. As the plane taxied and rose over the bare maples and jacarandás lining the city streets, I looked out across the Rio de la Plata, where the brown water emptied into the South Atlantic, and at last felt something like tranquilidad.
Today when I imagine the picnic table in Tennessee and see those two kids sitting beneath the sycamore, the boy leaning in with a whisper and the girl tossing her head back in glee, it is hard to believe that they could grow so distant from one another that they would no longer speak. But if the choices were weighed against the odds, how could they choose differently? The boy would surely be as much a fool for playing it safe as for boarding the plane out of hope. And the girl, belly growing with a new moon, how could she know what the end of this would be? There it is in the glowing smoke above their table, rising from the bright eyes of their cigarettes, that vaporous faith. Then they rise, hand in hand, and make their way to her dormitory. One last embrace. Lilac in her hair. Buenas noches, Juan. Y tú, Ana. And the parting, each body drawing its own breath.