2007 Travel Story Award Winner
From his experiences in Chiclayo, Peru,
© Copyright 2006 by Eric Roman
Photo by Alvaro Palacios on Unsplash
I wrote this story a few years ago just to get it out of my head and on paper. It takes place while I was an exchange student in the city of Chiclayo, in northern Peru during the summer of 1985. It’s a story that I feel compelled to tell, not just because I am the only probable living eyewitness, but because it marks an event that helped to shape my character.
Her name was Medelite Mambuella. Her friends called her “Eme” – the letter ‘M’ in Spanish, but I never did. To me, the sound of her name, Medelite, was perfect just the way it was - a little melody. Nothing could have described her better. She made my heart sing when I looked at her.
I had known her for about three weeks when she called me. It surprised me, not just because I didn’t know her that well, but because in Peru, girls don’t call boys on the phone. It’s just not done. In school, I went to her classroom for English. Unlike at home, most of the kids stay in the same classroom the whole day and teachers for the different subjects come to them. But because I was an exchange student from the States, the English teacher liked to have me go to the upper grade (Senior) classes with him to expose the students to a native speaker. He also liked it because I did a large portion of his job for him. That’s how I knew her. That’s really all I knew about her. She was a pretty girl in the upper class who had a really thick accent, and would never, in my opinion, be able to make a ‘z’ sound. But I didn’t care.
Medelite was going to turn 18 or had just turned 18. I can’t remember which. I was about to turn 17 and sitting at the Café Roma, just off the Plaza de Armas in Chiclayo at an outside table, trying to decide if I loved her or not. She had big beautiful brown eyes, and a light olive completion that was offset by hair that was the color of milk chocolate with ends that were somewhere between orange and yellow. Her youthful skin shined on her forehead when she bounced her head to make her hair move out of her eyes as she was talking to me. She was talking to me, a scrawny, pasty kid who looked like he was closer to twelve than 17.
Medelite was angry, scared and confused as she sipped at her coffee. She was about to graduate and wanted to go to University to study journalism. Her father, an Argentine, didn’t want her to. He said it was too dangerous. That field was full of controversy and though girls often fell under less suspicion than young men, he felt that his country of origin would make his daughter a target for the Secret Police. She thought that was ridiculous. Her mother suggested that she attend University and study Finance or some other field where she could meet a man to marry who would be a good provider. She snorted when she talked about her mother’s idea and then said, “The boys in my class are such crude pigs. I would never want to end up with someone like that.” This was music to my ears. She hated the boys in her class! Great! I would eagerly be the little dog by her side. It didn’t matter to me that a bigger dog would someday come along to unseat me. I wasn’t planning to stay in the country that long anyway. My heart leaped.
Then she leaned into the table, closer to me. She exhaled a white, gray cloud of smoke from her cigarette while wrinkling her nose and squinting. When she inhaled a clean breath and strengthened her arm closer to the ash trey, I could see her delicate long fingers shaking, just a little. I didn’t know if it was from the caffeine, nicotine, or the fear of the unknown next step in life brewing inside her that made her hand tremor. But when I looked at her face, those big, soft brown eyes of calm forced the question from my mind. She had thought of an alternative. Go to the States for school. No one would question or care what she studied, or follow her and write down the names of all the people she happened to talk to. But that would be hard. It would take connections, bribes and time to lineup exit visas, U.S. student visas and go though all the academic application process. Not to mention, she wasn’t that good at English. Ah ha! That’s why she wanted to meet with me. But I didn’t care. Her parents weren’t sold on the idea of sending a girl abroad and were so backward she was saying. I wasn’t listening. I know the shades of gray and deeper meaning of her words were lost on me with my Anglophone ears, but I didn’t care. The wrinkle in her brow, the haste of her tucking a strand of hair behind her ear while she rattled off words with an impassioned voice was all I could take in.
It was about 5:00 PM in July. The sun, in the middle of the South American Winter was dropping. And with the sun gone in Chiclayo’s dessert, the temperature can drop really fast. It’s also the end of the siesta. Respectable people come out of their private clubs, or houses and go back to work for a couple of hours before supper time at 7:00. The Café Roma pushes out all the teens, who are only permitted to exist in its space during siesta because bigger spenders aren’t around during that span of the day. A nearby waiter was lighting a kerosene heater, and I was cursing the decision not to bring my jacket along for this rendezvous. When Medelite saw him, she moved closer to me. I could feel her warmth. It wasn’t smart to talk too openly about feeling repressed about anything in Peru or about making plans to leave the country regardless of the motive. So she moved closer to me. Then it happened.
First there were screams and shouts coming from the direction of the Plaza de Armas. A general strike by City Workers meant that the square was blocked off to traffic and anyone within 200 yards was made to suffer hearing a monotone speaker droning on through a second rate blow horn interrupted by electronic feedback every so often. Screaming and shouting were never part of the script. Glancing down the street, we could see a large knot of people pushing, stumbling, and looking over their shoulders behind them. They were moving in our direction. When the first in the crowd reached us I could see why they were moving. Behind them was an eight-wheeled armored car with a turret on the top. A water-cannon was sweeping from side to side as it went down the street. Behind it were Army troops in riot gear. The water stream was so strong it was knocking people over and actually rolling them down the street, sometimes ripping their flesh. My eyes met Medelite’s and I tipped my head backward over my shoulder in the universal sign, “let’s get the hell out of here”. As I grabbed her hand and made for the alley, she hesitated and pulled on my arm. I shouted over the roar that I knew a safe way.
My friend Jose Luis lived about 300 yards away and the two of us often went through the alley and a neighbor’s back yard to the rear of his house and up the back steps to sneak back into his room so that his parents wouldn’t know that we had been out drinking and chasing girls instead of doing our Chemistry homework. We thought ourselves so clever for deceiving his parents, but I found out later they knew all the time of our little “secret escape route”. This time I hoped it would save Medelite and me. When we reached the corner of the building housing the Café and the entrance to the alley, we stopped with our backs against the wall panting and instantly sensitive to everything around us, the way only terror can make you feel.
The sound of water gushing out from the cannon was overcome by the smashing sounds that were being made as the metal tables, chairs, umbrellas and heavy tall heaters of the Café Roma were knocked around. The awning in front of the shop and its large floor to ceiling window shattered. That’s when she did it. Medelite couldn’t resist. She stuck her head, just her head, around the corner to look. Less than a second later she was rocketed backwards twisting in the air as she landed. Her head made a cracking sound when its back hit the dirty cement along the restaurant.
The armored car rumbled on. The shouts faded. Medelite lay crumpled like a doll that had been put away by holding its foot and throwing it on the toy pile. The soldiers stayed on the street walking by without noticing us. I went to her and picked up an arm to look for a pulse. I couldn’t find one. I thought I had made a mistake, that my own heartbeat pounding in my ears obscured hers. Trained in first aid, I went to look for the carotid artery in the neck. I was afraid to move her, until I looked at her neck. There was a hole where the neck meets the chin. I lifted her chin to listen for air. Nothing. Her big brown eyes were red from the pressure bursting every vessel in them. I moved my arms under hers and around her body. Her cheek fell softly on my shoulder, its warmth giving me false hope that there was life left in the body I was moving further back into the alley. How I had wanted her to put her head on my shoulder and embrace me, yearning for me to kiss her. I wanted to tell her it would be all right, not to worry, that she could be what ever she wanted to be.
There was light spilling out of a doorway about half way down the building’s side wall. It was the kitchen. All the employees had gone to the front to salvage what they could of the wrecked outdoor dining area and marred entrance. I left Medelite’s body outside and entered the brightly lit kitchen. I grabbed at the black wall phone and moved the circular dial to the appropriate six numbers to reach my friend Jose Luis. I told him what had happened and to bring someone he trusted. He was there ten minutes latter with a priest. I was a bit surprised that he brought a priest and so fast, but the main cathedral was less than a block away. Priests, I learned, tend to get trusted.
The priest looked to be 90 years old, but I’m sure now he was only in his 60’s. He spoke with a gravely voice and administered what I assumed were last rights. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said in a low voice, “My son, this was the will of God. It had nothing to do with you.” I couldn’t fathom what he was saying and was sure that he was either wrong, or only half right, and I didn’t know which half. He turned to Jose Luis and threw him a bunch of keys. After what seemed like and eternity, Jose returned with some blankets and we all carried Medelite our secret way, through Jose Luis’ yard and put her in the Church’s Toyota minivan. The priest drove us to the back of the church and we all went to the basement. In the cool dry air we laid down Medelite’s body and I thought that would be the last I ever saw of her. I was so wrong.
It hit me hard when I walked past a mirror where the priests prepare their vestments. My shirt, neck, arms and the front of my jeans were covered in blood. Only when I saw myself that way did I feel the sticky wet mess that used to be part of Medelite. I felt ashamed that I was disgusted by it and angry at the priest for having told me that this had nothing to do with me. How could it not? I was covered in her blood! Up until then I had seen violence in Peru, the aftermath of a car bombing, and other seemingly indiscriminate acts. But until then, it was like passing an auto accident on the freeway. You glance over as you pass and in the quite of your mind are thankful that that’s not you and then by the time you’ve gotten to where you are going, in the course of just going about your business, you forget about it, put it out of your mind. It has been over twenty years now and Medelite is still with me, bobbing her head to make the hair move out of her big beautiful brown eyes, wondering what to do with the rest of her life.
I washed the blood off my skin and threw my shirt in the furnace. I would tell my host mother that the blood on my pants was from a goat that we had at a friend’s party. The priest gave me a white shirt used for conformations and then took me home. My host mother was surprised to see me, especially in that white shirt and accompanied by a priest. Coming home with a priest is sort of like coming home with a cop. You either were in an accident or you screwed up big time. All that the priest said was, “This boy was learning how God works tonight”. A smile erupted on my host mother’s lips. Was the priest right? I thought he was dead wrong, that the only thing that happened that night was that all the hopes and dreams of a young person were dashed against a dirty chunk of concrete and gone forever. Maybe, maybe not.
After that night, there were of course other
challenges for me to face, heart aches, hard times, the loss of
friends and more violence. But that night, in the basement of a
church, I realized that I was not indestructible, life might be short
and that worrying about when to live your dream is a waste of time.
Medelite taught me to live, not to wait until life happens to you.
Now she is alive in me every time I dare to chase after a dream. She
isn’t some ghoulish specter who haunts me. But when I feel like
I’ve settled for less than what is right, or that I haven’t
quite tried my hardest, I see her. She wrinkles her nose and blows
smoke at me. Then I get up and try harder. Once in a great while, she
in the subject line of the message.)
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