Sudden Handcuffs

A short story about a day at work in Washington.

 

Camila shows up without an appointment. The receptionist calls my desk in the social work office and informs me that she is waiting. Something personal is going on, I intuit. If she came for help with welfare forms or letters, she would not have waited in the lobby through my lunch. She is asking for someone she trusts.

I call her from the lobby into an empty office where we can talk in private. Baby Diego wiggles happily on her lap when I smile at him.

“Necesito que me ayude con mi hermano,” she says.

“Ok?” I ask. “En qué sentido?”

“Necesito que me ayude a escribir una carta.”

Now she drops her eyes and straightens baby Diego’s little hat. At her full adult height she is four feet tall like her mother and grandmother, and wears clothes she buys in the children’s section at Walmart. All of them, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and a growing band of cousins have come from a remote mountain village in Mexico. They live together as they did before they stole across the border, in a decrepit three bedroom trailer heated by a wood stove in the living room. I have been there. I sat with her every month on the sagging bed in the living room, in that intimate chaos, discussing baby Diego’s growth from the time he was nothing but a little lump.

“Está en la cárcel,” she tells me.

“Qué pasó?” I ask.

He’s a good man, she tells me, and the family is very sad. She wants to write a letter telling the judge that he should be allowed to come home. He is not a bad person. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t drink. Will I help her?

“Sí,” I tell her. But why is he in jail?

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque su esposa es muy joven. Ella tiene trece años. Y lo metieron en la cárcel.”

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque la esposa tiene trece años?”

“Sí.”

Ah, I say. Yes. In this country it is illegal for a man to have a thirteen year old wife.

“Ya sé,” she tells me, “Pero para nosotros, es normal.”

“Yo lo sé,” I say, and prop my head on my hand, looking at her.

I hate this.

“Como está la esposa?” I ask, trying to understand. If he is in la cárcel, something happened. Something.

“Ella está muy triste,” Camila says. “Ella quiere que lo dejen ir.”

“Ella lo ama?”

“Oh, sí. Mucho,” she earnestly nods.

“Él la trata bien?”

“Sí, la trata bien. Es un hombre muy bueno. No toma licor, nunca.”

“Cuántos años tiene él?”

“El tiene 21.”

Well, yes. Indeed.

“Tienen niños?” I ask. I realize I don’t need this much information to write the letter she wants, but I can’t help it. Throughout her pregnancy with baby Diego, we developed a sort of lopsided friendship, and I care about things for which I can offer no remedy.

“No, she says, “Pero está embarazada.”

Quietly, a sigh deflates me.

I can see it perfectly: the thirteen year old girl who speaks no English and very little Spanish goes to the doctor with her mother, or mother-in-law, where it is confirmed that she is pregnant. They do not show their delight or any other emotion in front of the large white strangers. Their round faces are stoic, expressionless, and the nurse sends them directly to speak with a social worker. They do not know what a social worker is, but they know to cooperate with large white strangers.

They answer the interpreter’s questions in broken Spanish.

How old are you?

Are you in school?

Where is the father of your baby?

How old is he?

Where does he live?

The large white strangers note his name, his age, that his address is the same. They do not ask her if she is married, if her baby’s father is her husband, betrothed to her when he was fifteen and she was a child of seven. They read flickers of fear on the face of the older woman and they misunderstand.

“El es muy bueno, y queremos que lo dejen ir,” Camila says. The sadness in her is bottomless.

 

I write the letter to the judge, stating that Eduardo is a good man, that his family misses him very much and that they need him. That the pregnant child is his wife and that she needs him. That he is a hard worker who doesn’t drink liquor or consume drugs. That the judge may please consider that he is not a criminal and let him go.
I realize, of course, that by my country’s law, he is.

Camila hugs me gratefully and leaves carrying the letter in one hand, clutching delighted baby Diego to her small hip with the other.

I go back into the little room where we can talk in private and sit there by myself, immobilized by a sorrow that seems to expand in all directions. I say a prayer for rain in the high plains of Mexico, that corn may germinate and grow, that the goats may have milk enough for everyone’s babies, that people may find hope in their homelands far away from large strangers with our clipboards, prying questionnaires and sudden handcuffs.

Awake en el País de los Sueños

Me hacen falta los temblores
how the walls shudder when
the ground beneath takes
a deep breath and mumbles in
restless sleep.

I miss the soprano of mosquitoes
around the net, cantando
en la noche de enfermedades que me
darían in exchange for
my sweet blood.

Extraño hasta los escorpiones,
their wicked tails cocked against surprise
in my shoes, the folds of towels,
esperando entre las sabanas
at my feet.

In the silent safety of America,
my loud breath keeps me
awake at night en el país de los sueños
donde lo que amenaza es la
soledad.

Open Book Test: May (18 years ago), 1997

When: May (18 years ago), 1997
Where: Santa Cruz, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
What: I’ve been married to my first husband for 5 months.  Every day I go to work in Tamarindo where I oversee a little tourist information center.
Age: 26

Hey! It’s Friday and me and G haven’t had one argument all week! That’s marvelous. Peace on earth.

This is one big old Indian Summer. It’s hot and dry and windy again. Hello. Well, I imagine that when the rainy season comes de verdad, it will come with a huge dumping aguacero. Hope this holds up at least long enough to wash out clothes one more time!

I crack myself up. I I’m going to give my friend Candy some clothes tomorrow and I am so excited, I can hardly wait. You’d think someone was giving them to me. I keep wanting to tell her, but I’d better not. Then she might get excited and have to be disappointed when she sees them. Plus there’s nothing like a happy surprise. It’s so nice to have a nice friend. Candy talks a lot and doesn’t ask much, but I like her. I’m a little cautious about deciding I love people I’ve just met, but she’s growing on me.

There is something in me that cannot or will not believe that G is mine. I wake in the night, I go to the bathroom and come back to the bed and there he is: sprawled in the gale of the fan with the sheet tangled around him. Something somewhere in me cannot or will not believe that he is really mine, that no one will take him from me, that he himself will not leave.

Sometimes I feel really furious about something. I feel really furious with my parents for being the good upright Christian people that they are. It screws up my whole life. How am I ever going to write anything publishable? I guess being married helps a little, but sometimes I think what a great book sections of my diary would make and I’ll never do it because I write about love and sex and true guttural things and I swear and marry a man with children. How can this be? I hate it. Why can’t I be a rebel? Why do I not have it in me? Why am I so nice? It depresses me because I love my parents and I want them to live long lives but I can’t write a thing until they and their siblings are dead. Oh, pain. It makes me feel like giving up. I mean, I guess I can still write it, but all it does is lie around in fat notebooks. How annoying. If you’re making up tales that’s one thing, but if you’re writing about your life, that’s something else.

First Soup

From The Riotous Walls, work in progress

I do not know how to eat the soup.

There is an enormous bowl on the table in front of me with fist-sized potatoes, gristly chunks of meat, yucca, whole carrots, halved ears of corn. And a spoon. My mamá named Hilda smiles at me because she is pleased to have made me something special and “Coma,” she says. “No le gusta la sopa?”

I like soup and I am hungry but I don’t know what to do. The soups I know have small-cut meat and vegetables, not these ingredients boiled whole. I look again but she has not given me a knife. She stands there smiling at me in confused expectation as I look helplessly at my plate.

I must look for words in this language and I have so few.

“No entiendo,” I say. “Como?”

“Ai mamita,” she says through an accidental giggle and asks me if I’ve never eaten soup before. “Asi,” she says, and taking my spoon, she slices off a piece of potato and offers it to me as if I were a giant 20-year-old baby.

“Ah,” I say. “Gracias.” I take the spoon.

Mama Hilda disappears into the kitchen and then joins me with a steaming bowl for herself. The delicious broth is scalding hot and I spill it onto the table as I chop clumsily at the carrot and then at the corn.

“No no,” she interrupts me. “El maiz, no. Ai mamita. No sabe tomar la sopa,” and she giggles again. “Mire,” she commands. She dips her fingers into the boiling broth, fishes out the ear of corn and bites the kernels from it in the way of every summer.

“Ya?” she asks me, meaning do I need more help or do I finally get it.

“Si,” I say. “Ya.”

“Provecho.”

“Gracias. Igual.”

I know nothing, not how to eat, not now to speak. All my life I have heard people talk of being born again and although this is not what they meant I see that this is its truer meaning.

When we are finished our faces shine with sweat and soup.

Everything But the Words / Todo Menos las Palabras

(The same poem first in  English, then in Spanish because I try to pick my favorite one and I can only pick both)

i remember the night you
borrowed flavio’s blue car
the bottom halves of trees i
could see through the
window where
we stopped along the
dusty road

what did we say to
each other
that night i
remember it all but
the words

* * * * *

recuerdo la noche en que
prestaste el coche azul de flavio
los troncos de los árboles que
veía por la
ventana donde
paramos en el
camino polvoroso

qué nos dijimos
esa noche yo lo
recuerdo todo menos
las palabras

(from Tell Me About The Telaraña, 2012)