Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Guatemala, December 31, 1992
To celebrate the arrival of the new year, Grace and I went to the south coast with our friend Pete. We stayed only a short walk from the beach, in a house that belonged to Andrew, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who had flown home for the holidays. It was a one-room wood-and-thatch structure with a hammock and seven surfboards, a couple of them split in the middle and repaired with duct tape. When we arrived, stinking from the long bus ride, Grace and I took turns bathing in buckets of well water, naked behind towels that we held up for each other.
Grace was a Southerner, five-foot-nine and big-boned, with light brown hair that she liked to call auburn. Her accent was obvious and musical, and was the thing I liked best about her, followed by her nose, small and sunburned. She was thirty-two, five years older than I, and we’d been dating for two years, having met at a Christmas party.
After lunch, Grace, Pete, and I walked on the beach, admiring the sprawling, fenced-in vacation homes of rich Guatemalans. We swam in the ocean, and Pete and I tried to ride Andrew’s surfboards, but neither of us could stand up to catch a wave, so we lay on our bellies and paddled to shore like kids on inflatable rafts. Afterward we examined the iguana farm Andrew had built with one of his neighbors: two dozen iguanas lying motionless in a mesh cage, as if hypnotized by the sun. Grace picked up a particularly big iguana and held it like a kitten while I stroked its smooth scales. “A true beach bum,” Pete called it.
In the evening I played my guitar while Grace made spaghetti and Pete napped in the hammock. We ate lightly, the heat having stolen our appetites, and gave our leftovers to the pig next door, who sucked up the mound of pasta in a single breath. We wanted to stay up until midnight to celebrate, but we were too tired. Pete slept in Andrew’s bed while Grace and I carried a foam mattress thirty yards to an elevated platform covered with a thatch roof. We didn’t go to sleep right away, but stood at the platform railing and stared at the ocean, which in the gray light had begun to blend into the sand and sky.
Grace would be leaving Guatemala in two months, her stint in the Peace Corps over, and I would be following shortly thereafter. From time to time we had talked about moving in together back in the States, in San Francisco or New York, or perhaps some small town in Florida or Texas, where we could work with migrant farmers and lead the kind of simple, satisfying life we’d led here in Guatemala. Although we lived five hours apart by bus, we’d been together a lot over the past two years. On holidays and vacations we’d traveled all over Guatemala, clinging to each other during jarring bus rides, sleeping in a tent by the caves in Lanquín, staring at the moon from a temple in Tikal. She’d said she loved me, and I’d said I loved her.
As the starless night turned blacker, further blurring the distinction between ocean, sand, and sky, I remembered what I’d once told my sister about love. The ultimate act of love, I’d said, would be to die for someone without his or her knowing it. I think I was reading Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and was impressed by the sacrifice Sydney Carton had made for Lucie Manette. But being only seventeen and never having been in love, I wasn’t too impressed. If only Lucie had been ignorant of Sydney’s sacrifice, I decided, it would have been a true act of love.
I reached out to touch Grace’s long brown hair, stroking it until she turned to me and smiled. “Not a very romantic night,” she said.
“Too hot,” I conceded.
“But the ocean is nice. The waves.”
She was right. Slow and soothing, the waves fell onto the shore. This was romantic enough. We kissed, then drew each other to the foam mattress.
“This must be how guerrillas make love,” Grace said, “out in the open, under the sky.”
“I love you,” I said. “Same here,” Grace responded. Soon her breathing became heavy with sleep. I closed my eyes but couldn’t relax, so I returned to the railing. After a few minutes, the clouds floated away, and the moon and stars were visible, their light reflected softly by the ocean. I was about to go back to the mattress when I heard a sound above that of the waves and Grace’s breathing: a buzzing, like a hummingbird. It seemed to come from the sky, but when I looked I saw nothing but stars. The sound grew louder. Then I saw it, far down the beach: the silhouette of a helicopter.
On the way here we’d passed an army base surrounded by a high wall, where soldiers crouched in turrets, their machine guns pointing down at the road. I’d read in La Prensa that guerrillas had been spotted recently on the south coast. There’d even been a military encounter in the town south of where we were staying. A guerrilla and two soldiers had been killed.
Awakened by the noise, Grace joined me at the railing. “What is it?” she asked, but I didn’t need to tell her, because by now we could both see it clearly. The helicopter had turned on its spotlight and was searching the shore with it, lighting up the beach as bright as day. When it passed us, we saw a soldier standing in the hold behind a machine gun on a tripod. We were glad when the helicopter had gone by.
“Do you think they saw us?” Grace asked.
“I doubt it,” I said, though I wasn’t sure. “I guess they’re looking for guerrillas.”
We watched the helicopter fly farther down the shore. The spotlight went off, and the sound of the blades became less distinct, but didn’t disappear entirely.
“I can still hear it,” Grace said nervously. And a few moments later: “It’s getting louder.”
“It can’t be,” I said. But it was. The sound grew, and soon the helicopter was visible again. Its spotlight went on, shining directly at our platform, bathing us in bright light.
“Shit!” Grace said, ducking.
“Let’s get down from here!” I shouted, already racing to the edge of the platform and climbing, almost sliding, down the ladder. Grace followed a few seconds behind. We hid behind one of the platform’s posts, which were as thick as oak trees. She pressed against me. The sound of the helicopter grew faint, practically disappeared, and we both let out a breath of relief.
“False alarm,” Grace said.
But before we could gather the courage to come out of hiding, the sound returned, louder than ever, as if the helicopter were hovering right above us. From behind the post, we could see only the bright circle of light the spotlight threw on the sand.
“It’s landing right here!” Grace said. The sand stirred, then kicked up. The spotlight turned everything white. “Hold your hands up and show your face,” she yelled, pushing on my back, trying to shove me from behind the post. “They won’t shoot if they see you’re an American.” But I was too scared to move. If the soldiers did mistake us for guerrillas, they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot, even if my hands were up.
The helicopter was indeed landing, drowning out the sound of the surf with the violent beating of its blades. Soon soldiers would emerge and find us cowering there — like cornered guerrillas. Flying sand stung my arms and legs. I didn’t want the soldiers to find me. I didn’t trust them not to fill my body with bullets. “Run!” I shouted, as much to my own legs as to Grace. I turned my back to the light and sprinted from behind the post, bare feet skipping across the sand. I didn’t look to see if Grace was following behind me.
I must have jumped the three-foot-high fence around Andrew’s house, because I found myself stumbling wildly past the well and falling in the sand by the front door. Pete stood in the doorway, stretching as if he’d just woken up. “What are you doing?” he asked. After a moment, Grace dropped beside me, doubled over from panic and fatigue. I turned to look at her, suddenly conscious of what I’d done.
Pete pointed, and we both looked back. The helicopter had landed probably twenty-five yards down the shore from the platform. Its blades were still turning, but the spotlight was off.
“They must be picking up some general who’s on vacation,” Pete said.
Grace and I stood up and brushed the sand from our legs, saying nothing. In a minute the helicopter rose straight up, then roared past, close enough for us to see the face of the soldier behind the machine gun: he was grinning.
When the sound of the helicopter had finally faded into the distance, Pete said, “I wonder what time it is.” We heard the distant sound of firecrackers — or bullets. “It must be midnight,” he said. “Happy New Year.”
Back in our perch on the platform, Grace said, “Some protector you are.” She was trying to be playful, but her hurt was obvious.
“I told you to run,” I said.
“You ran and left me behind,” she said. “They could have captured me and taken me away.”
“You told me to show my face and tried to push me out in front of them,” I said. “If they had thought we were guerrillas, they would have shot me dead on the spot. . . . ‘Show your face.’ Right.” I tried to laugh. “In the dark, do you think they would have been able to tell the difference between a gringo and a guerrilla?”
Defeated, I returned with Grace to our mattress. We assumed a familiar position of intimacy and talked for a few minutes more about what had happened, trying to add courage where there had been none, trying to joke about it, but the memory was too immediate to chase away with lies and stabs at humor. Eventually, we stopped talking and endured a rare long silence.
“Good night,” Grace said, and we kissed, but our kiss was tired, and she soon rolled over, shielding herself from me with her back. It was a long time before I thought to apologize. By then, she was asleep.
When I awoke, the sun was out, hot and bright, yet I felt as if I’d slept only an hour. Grace was at the railing. I got up and joined her. Following her gaze, I saw dolphins leaping across the water, their backs shining in the morning light. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” she said, and I thought she might reach over and touch me, the way she had at so many other moments like this. But she didn’t. She just kept holding on to the railing with both hands.