Cybelle Dabner_for_Verdaderos Peruanos

The traffic here is like some type of perpetual-motion machine, spinning and flowing with a complete disregard for the laws of physics, incessant honking, rabid lane changing and no hesitations to drive the wrong way down a one-way street. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of near accidents every moment but, as far as I have seen anyway, no actual accidents, which implies that Peruvians are really good at chaos. Instead of taking turns, Peruvian cars use their horns to claim the right of way as they approach each other at intersections, an intricate honking code that, on the surface anyway, does not seem sufficient. But then just when you are certain there is going to be a horrible collision, they modulate their velocities slightly so that they miss one other, however usually only by a few feet, never coming to a complete stop. I don’t think I have ever seen a car actually stop moving in Peru until, of course, it has reached its destination.

I have quickly learned not to be the first one to step into the street, to wait for someone else and then to keep their body between me and the on-coming traffic. That one, the first one, will die if someone needs to die, if someone needs to be sacrificed to the taxistas, and the rest of us will live. On the other side those of us that have survived will exchange grateful looks, exhale, and then gather ourselves and approach the next intersection, still alive in Lima.

She crosses such traffic effortlessly, as easily as she breathes, always the first one off the curb, and then makes fun of me for my horrific facial expressions as I try to keep up with her and not die at the same time. Watching her makes me imagine a female super hero or maybe a ninja, as she moves, even when confronted by speeding cars barreling down upon her like bullets, with statuesque posture, her body skinny and strong and exceedingly feminine all at the same time. “Verdaderos Peruanos cross whenever they want and wherever they want,” she tells me, and then I want nothing more than to be a verdadero Peruano, a true Peruvian, in her eyes. This is probably how I will die, running into a Peruvian truck to prove myself to her. The truck will probably slow down after killing me, but not stop.

This is my mother’s city. She is the last of twelve children, the last one born as well as the last one living, meaning I have no uncles here anymore but I have more cousins than I can count, all of whom are older than me, more like uncles. I have to keep reminding myself that they are cousins and that all my uncles are dead, most of them long dead. Because they are older than me they remember me from when I was a little boy in Peru, but I can’t remember them. I remember Inca Kola and tall walls with glass shards embedded along their tops and poor people washing clothes in the Rimac River and not much else. I don’t remember Sendero Luminoso, but my cousins, because they are older, remember them. We walk down the streets of Miraflores together, and they point to this building or that building and tell me, that is where I was when the bomb went off. They must sense that I am fascinated by them, the terrorists, but I am sure that if it were not for me they would rather not talk about it. Sendero Luminoso was the reason we stopped coming to Peru when I was a little boy, or so my mom says, and now I have to start all over again with this place, as a stranger. Those were bad times for Peru one cousin after another tells me, meaning the eighties. Dangerous, dangerous times.

But I am starting to think my family may be more dangerous than Sendero Luminoso ever was. They keep telling me I have to eat different things if I want to be a true Peruvian, some of these things I doubt are even food. I have eaten raw octopus, purple tentacles and all, twice now, and the heart of something, a cow I think, more times than I can count. Yesterday my cousin told me, when his wife left the table, that I had to eat a whole tomato quickly, if you want to be a verdadero Peruano, except the tomato was not a tomato at all but a obscenely hot pepper called rocoto, which, for a reason known only to God, looks exactly like a fucking tomato. I took a giant bite and then asked my cousin if he could call an ambulance for me, but he assured me that I would not need a doctor. “You will be okay. Maybe ten minutes,” he said, pushing his beer across the table to me. “Twenty at the most.” I have since learned that this is a common trick Peruvians play on tourists.

“Who is the girl?” My boss asks me. I imagine him sitting at his desk and scrolling through the images I sent him and then freezing, of course, on her image.

“My guide.”

There is silence as he digests this information—that with the money he gave me, rather than hire some thuggish body guard, I have hired a beautiful woman. “Her face is interesting,” he finally says.

“I guess. Sure.” I am thinking that as a writer he has failed miserably. Interesting? Intoxicating maybe.At least that much. He has not even seen the ones I took recently, after she had a little too much pisco and started telling secrets. We were at a ceviche place on the cliff, and she turned from the ocean, looked right at me and, out of the nowhere, told me that there are places in Lima where she is not welcome. The breeze from the ocean was tossing her hair across her eyes intermittently so that I couldn’t get a good look at her. She told me they will tell her they are full, but then if a blonde, or at least a less indigenous-looking woman, arrives, there is always room. It was kind of a joke—that a country with so few blondes would have this thing for blondes. It was a funny, absurd joke, and we laughed about it, but then it also was not a joke because there was nothing she could ever do about it. While she was explaining this to me something was suddenly right there at the table with us, as if it had arrived late and then sat down without anyone noticing. I couldn’t see it, but I am sure it was really there because I felt it. She told me it didn’t matter how educated she was, how nice she dressed or even if she was beautiful. That was the secret—that there was a wrong type of beautiful. Then she smiled at me and shifted her jaw a little to the side to make me laugh, and that is when I took her picture.

“What is her name?”

Another cousin has an apartment which compromises an entire floor of his building, the elevator opening up to his living room. He is so proud of his views, straight down onto the cliffs. He holds me there with his gigantic hand on my shoulder, demanding I look even though I explained to him that I am terrified of heights. “Look down,” he insists. “When the earthquake hits, this is where I will stand. I will stand here and wait for everything to fall into the sea.”

I look, I guess I have to look, and am immediately left breathless by the coastline of the city. Lima is both next to the ocean and also somehow very far away from it at the same time, an impossible wall of rock separating them, as if maybe the Earth is flat after all and Lima is the last stop before going over. I feel a sense of pride well up inside me. This is my mother’s city but surely some partial ownership passes to me. Some small piece of this must be mine too. For a moment, all my fears subside, until I look closer and realize there is nothing there between me and the outside. My hand carefully probes the area, passing through the line of the building as if I am trying to push some imaginary button suspended in the Lima sky. There is a fucking hole in the side of this man’s apartment! And it is big enough for two people to jump through at the same time, no screen, no guard rail, no nothing, only cold, black rocks a few hundred feet below. What the fuck! Is this supposed to be a window? Is this some sort of patio door? Who the hell constructs a patio door without a fucking patio?Is there no Peruvian OSHA? Are there no safety codes? Is there no government agency to help me stay alive in Peru? He pounds my back with his palm, perhaps trying to knock me out of his apartment, and I collapse to the floor and hug his kitchen linoleum for safety.

She took me to a bar for lunch on the very first day, ordering some special Peruvian beer from Cusco, matching me swig for swig, each drink affecting me like a roller coaster. When she had suggested beer I had told her I usually prefer something stronger, like whiskey, but she had only laughed and ordered the beer anyway, leaving me with the thought that maybe she had meant it was too early for such serious drinking. But that was not what she had meant. At first I was terrified she was going to be able to drink more than me, and then I was terrified she was smarter than me, and then I was just terrified. After the second beer, my mind spinning like a top, she leaned in close to say something to me and, as her face neared mine, her eyes suddenly catching the reflection of the brightly-colored pisco bottles behind the bar, I felt like someone was putting a knife into my side and twisting it there. It sometimes hurts to admire art that much.

They have collected the photographs from the time when Sendero Luminoso was setting off bombs and they have them on permanent display in the national museum. I was there yesterday looking at them, being punched in the stomach by them. It bothers me that the poor suffer the most in war. You would think that if you had nothing to begin with, if you were living in a shack built out of thrown away materials and on the side of a mountain so steep that one good rain, although it never rains in Lima, would wash you into the Rimac River that that would be enough and they could fight their wars without bothering you too much. But Sendero Luminoso wrapped themselves in that poverty, planted their communist flag on top of those steep mountains, and then the army went in there to sort them all out and everybody looked like Sendero Luminoso to them so there you go. The poor of Peru, living on dirt floors and in between cardboard walls, were getting the horrid worst of some obscene three-way. And there are photographs.

There was a photo of a group of dead reporters that Sendero Luminoso had murdered. They were stripped down to their underwear, their arms still bound behind their backs, their flabby bodies pale and muddy like slaughtered pigs, cameras lying broken everywhere. This photograph almost made me vomit right there in the museum, but I think it was brilliant to leave them like this, in their underwear, I really do, somehow much more horrific than either fully naked or fully clothed. Those guys really knew what the hell they were doing. Maybe my mom saw that photo so many years ago. Maybe she talked to my uncles, all of whom are dead now, and made a decision never to return to Peru and to this day she has not been back.

My cousin, more like an aunt really, takes me out to Chorillos, to a seafood restaurant that sits in a horseshoe-shaped curve of the Pacific Ocean. Our waiter appears to be one hundred years old and half blind. He keeps walking off while she is in the middle of ordering. “Hey!” She calls him back and calmly explains that she was not done speaking. “I would like—” But he walks off again, and she looks at me incredulously, her mouth dropping open. I take her picture. This is Peru. I know that much. We will simply wait and hope he returns.

My cousin scoops the whipped cream off of her coffee with a spoon and stretches it across the table, offering it to me, and then some long, lost memory of mine jumps back into my head as clear as water. I tell her about it, that I can remember her doing just that very same thing when I was a little boy.

“But that’s all I remember,” I admit. “It’s strange I remember so little from then.”

She smiles but doesn’t look up, stirring, the soft dinging of the metal spoon on the cup like a bell from a far away church. “You were a little boy turned inside yourself… You never paid any attention to what was going on around you. If you don’t pay attention, you don’t make memories.”

This gives me an idea. I close my eyes tight and grunt, trying to turn back inside myself. If I can manage to turn back inside myself then twenty years from now I won’t still be haunted by the shape of her face. Maybe I can burn all the photos too, pry them from my bosses hands, incinerate his hard drive while he looks on in horror. Of course I will have to kill him as well, and everyone else that has seen the photographs. I can’t have some fucker bringing up her smile as conversation over beers in the future.

“Do you think you will remember Peru this time?”

“… I think so.”

After lunch I have my cousin drop me off at the park and I go marching through Lima, making wider and wider circles, to the point where I don’t even know where I’m at anymore except that it is somewhere I have certainly never been before. I am certainly walking through some district that I have been advised to never walk through. I walk until there are no more taxis blinking their lights at me or giving me that quick honk that asks if I need them, or maybe warns me that I am in the wrong place. The streets seem strange without them, the taxis. Everything is now coated in some dusty, yellow haze that makes me think I’m looking through a camera filter. I keep going, marching like them, mimicking them, adoring them. I am getting really thirsty and hungry again but the restaurants seem to have all vanished with the taxis, and the cold beer, and the ceviche, and the secrets. All of it gone, replaced with poverty.

But this street is my mother’s city too. If I own a tiny piece of this city then I own a tiny piece of all of it, not just the sushi bars. It is this idea that keeps me walking, or maybe it is all the drinks I had at lunch. Regardless, I don’t put my head down, spin around and walk fast for the sunset to have a nice meal at the edge of the Earth. I keep marching, the landscape becoming increasingly more hellish, my expensive cameras bouncing off my shoulder. It’s afternoon, but still, this is what the Peruvians call begging to be murdered. But I’m not afraid. And who knows? Maybe if they beat and rob me and leave me for dead on this street, I will really be a true Peruvian, much, much closer to her somehow.

I buy a pork sandwich from a street vendor and he hands it to me with a strange expression on his face, as if I am a thief and he is passing me his wallet. My cousins have warned me not to eat from the street carts, no matter how good the food smells. It was the last thing my mother said to me before I left for the airport, be careful what you eat! She told me I would die if I ate from a street cart but I think she might have been exaggerating. Of course, tourists don’t have the defenses in their body that Peruvians, people that belong here, have and they will almost certainly get sick if they try to eat like Peruvians. Stick to the tourist places, the whole world has told me. I understand what they are saying, but I just don’t think I am a tourist anymore.

I start taking pictures. The Peruvian foot traffic stops and smiles at me for a moment as if maybe this is some sort of joke and that they are being secretly filmed. A few of them look around, maybe searching for film crews that don’t exist. The light is almost perfect, another fifteen minutes and it will be perfect. I’m moving back and forth from one side of the street to the other, navigating the traffic like an expert, like a Peruvian, crossing wherever I want to cross, changing lenses quickly so I can get in real close. I’m only interested in faces now, faces of women. I want to find a face that is long and dark and filled to the brim with secrets, and with bloodshot eyes that stare into empty beer glasses for long periods of time. And what about that ferocious shadow that appears when she is sad? Do other women have such ghosts following them around too? I keep looking, but I know it’s hopeless.

When I get back to my apartment, there is a message from my editor. He says they are replacing me and that I have three days to get back before they cancel my expense account. He doesn’t say why. He just says everything is going to be okay, that he has been through it all before and all I need to do is get back, and I will be right as rain. He reminds me he was in Vietnam. He says he understands everything and that it was his fault because I wasn’t ready to go solo. He had just thought that because I had family here he would give me a shot. He promises that he will give me another shot, when I’m ready, but repeats that I have to be in New York within three days. “Settle up,” he says. “Come home,” he says without understanding anything that has happened to me here. Anyway, I think he’s lying. I think he just doesn’t want to look at the photos of her anymore. They hurt too much.

“What is her name? We want to run a few of your shots, the ones with her in them. Make sure you get a release from her before you leave… What is her name?”

I ask her to meet me in Barranco, at a bar across from the famous foot bridge which hangs there over a giant crack in the earth. The crack, surely a scar from some long ago earthquake, cuts through the cliffs all the way to the beach, slightly left and then slightly right all the way down. Although I don’t like heights, I like to stand on this bridge and look at this path spilling into the sea, a secret passage to avoid going off the end of the Earth, if that is what you really want. You are supposed to make a wish and then cross the bridge without breathing and then your wish will come true. I cross it fifteen times while waiting for her, just in case. I even manage to cross it both directions once with the same breath hold… La Puente de Los Aspiros. La Puente de Los Aspiros… La Puente de Los Aspiros. I sound just like fucking Dorothy, except I don’t want to go back home.

She looks genuinely sad when I tell her I’m leaving and then takes a swig of pisco and then holds the glass to my mouth so that I can drink from her glass. The knife twists.

“You will come back one day?”

This question punches me in the face so hard that the bartender turns to look at me. I have not even thought about this reality—that this may be the very last time I ever see this woman.

“I hope you come back. I will miss you.”

I am still not one-hundred percent certain she is sincere or if maybe this is all some game she has been able to play because she is so much smarter than me. I hope it’s a game. If it’s a game it means that she is not the person I think she is, and I don’t have to miss her when I am back in New York… But it’s not a game.

“Do you want to know one last secret?”

I hold my breath again, out of reflex, thinking she might tell me she loves me, thinking maybe all that crap about the bridge is true. That would change everything. If she tells me she loves me I will take out my passport, tear it into pieces and then eat the pieces with a smile on my face in between swigs of that special, crazy-strong beer she likes so much. But I know that is not what she is going to say.

“My family was in the revolution,” she tells me, taking another drink and then putting the glass to my lips again so I can have one more tiny taste of her again, all I am allowed. “Sendero Luminoso. Both my mother and father were with Sendero Luminoso. My father died in jail… murdered… A million years ago.”

The traffic is horrific on the way to the airport. I get nauseas and yell at the driver to stop, but he only slows down, and I spill out of the taxi while it is still moving and start vomiting onto the street, on my knees, my stomach convulsing. The cab driver arrives and starts screaming at me, gently kicking my shoes with his shoes. I can’t understand him. Certainly he is irate that he is no longer in motion. Sorry. I think he is explaining to me, in a very nasty way, that I should have just stuck my head out of the window, like any normal person, and that now we are trapped here not advancing towards the airport. He’s really upset.

I will tell everyone about this later. I will lie and tell them my cousin took me to a questionable seafood place in Chorillos, which of course she actually did, and that I got food poisoning the night of my flight… But I don’t have food poisoning.

I have been told that after the Titanic hit that ice berg it continued to move for quite some time, as if everything was fine. But everything was not fine. That little twist of fate, that little bump, that little knife in the side had sealed its fate and there was no way that ship was going to survive, even though it would continue to move forward as if everything was fine, which it most certainly was not. I am that ship. My editor insists I will be right as rain… but he is a big, fat fucking liar. My body, the shell, may leave this place, but everything else will sink here on this filthy street and remain here in some murky grave forever. My only hope is that one day the sun might explode or go cold, whichever, or that an asteroid might hit the Earth, purge everything the universe and the CIA has on me into nothingness, erase all record that I was ever here at all and ever met her, a woman with long dark hair that falls to her waist, a woman who’s name I will keep secret and carry with me to the ocean floor.

About the Author: Nicolas Poynter has a MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma City University. His work has appeared in numerous publications including North American Review and Fiction Fix. In 2013 he won the Vuong Short-Story Prize sponsored by the South-Central MLA. He is a high-school drop-out (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches physics and engineering.

Artwork: Cybelle Dabner