i get another letter from my sister Kay, who is in Honduras riding mules and skidding around the muddy mountain roads in a pickup truck. The roads have curves sharp enough to tempt death, she writes, sharp enough for you to see yourself leaving. When the priest drives, her life is in real danger; his faith is too big for safety or reason. Kay hopes for the truck to break down. Until then, she and her fellow relief workers cower in the open bed as the priest speeds through the countryside; they lean all their weight toward the mountain to keep the truck from sliding off the washed-out roads. Some days, they carry their supplies up into the mountains by foot. They pack Tylenol, Imodium, vitamins, a variety of antibiotics (Keflex, Pen VK, erythromycin, Lorabid, Roxar), tubes of antifungal cream, and everything for parasites.
Me, I stock up on band-aids and Flintstones chewables as I wheel my cart down the pharmacy aisle. Suntan lotion, cotton balls, hair spray, toothpaste. In the next aisle, I gather toilet paper and paper towels — the jumbo pack of paper towels, in fact, for all the spills I have to wipe. Wouldn’t a sponge work better, save some trees? my sister might ask. But I am known to leave the sponge in the sink until it turns smelly and sour and the odor clings to my hands and infects everything I try to clean. “That wouldn’t happen if you squeezed it out every time,” my husband instructs me and the kids. He demonstrates his method over the sink, a surplus of gray water drizzling from the sponge, an army of germs eradicated. “Squeeze out all the extra,” he says. I nod, but I still prefer paper towels. They absorb everything. Plus, there’s the satisfaction of throwing them away. The illusion of throwing something away.
Kay says there’s no indoor plumbing where she is. No showers, no tubs. The toilets do not flush “as you know it,” she says, as if to emphasize the differences between us. On the other hand, she says, there is plenty of water. It rains daily for an hour or more. She washes in a pan of rainwater and keeps her gray, shrinking bar of soap in a zip-lock baggie. The baggie has become invaluable, irreplaceable, and she folds it neatly to preserve it.
Her team of eight — the priest, another relief worker, a paramedic, a skittish med student, and a teenage interpreter, plus two bodyguards strapped with bullets — hikes back to their base camp, exhausted from another day in the mountains: another day of shouting, “Atención! Atención!” through a bullhorn to the trees, announcing the arrival of a médico to treat infected hands and swollen limbs that need to be amputated, diarrhea of all types, pneumonia, chickenpox, dengue, skin fungus, worms, and clogged ears. When she is finished distributing antibiotics to treat sexually transmitted diseases and parasites buried deep beneath the flesh, my sister carries her bucket’s worth of rainwater to her stucco cell, where she soaps herself a leg at a time, an arm, a shoulder, trying to remove the day’s dust and sorrow. The stench of the sulfurous water, though, is not much better than the decay she’s wiping away.
Afterward, she gathers her clothes, scrubs them in her bath water, and hangs them to dry. Then she uses the twice-dirtied water to flush the toilet in the corner of her cell. She says she has not yet gotten used to the sourness that permeates her hair and skin and clothes. “How does a thing become so soiled?” she asks. “So black and unwanting of touch?” I don’t know if she is referring to her cell, or the toilet, or the countryside in general. In any case, I cannot answer, having never witnessed a thing so dirty as to be mourned.
Many years ago, Kay and I were two girls swimming in the ocean every summer. Family vacations, sand, sunburn, salty waves. If we weren’t at the ocean, we swam in the pool until our lips turned blue. We knew how to make our bodies float or sink, how to dive away from our mother’s voice when she pleaded with us to get out and dry off. “Girls!” she’d yell. “Girls, I’m warning you. If I have to, I’ll pull you out myself!” Kay and I would plunge even deeper, isolating ourselves in the silence of water. We taught ourselves to jump waves, to dive, to hold tea parties underwater until our lungs ran out of air and our bodies floated upward.
I have tried to teach this trick to my own children, along with underwater handstands and somersaults, but my children do not swim like me. They have inherited their father’s fear of water. They keep to the shallow end or drift to the sides. My youngest child is afraid to get his face wet and screams if he is splashed, hyperventilating until he turns purple. I hold him close to my chest and gently glide back and forth in the water, but this never soothes him as it would me. He is happiest playing on the grass, where his feet feel sure of the world beneath him.
On sunny afternoons in my suburban home, I worry about my kids, my sister, the world. I fear catastrophe. I’d like to write Kay and ask how she escaped these worries, but instead I write short letters begging her to be careful. Then I sometimes forget to mail them and use the envelopes as a place to jot down my list of things to do:
go to bank do laundry call therapist buy aspirin, ice cream, diet coke nap
I fuss over my children in the same distracted, heartsick way while I count the tiny pairs of socks that come out of the dryer and fold their miniature clothes into piles. Some days I feel like Gulliver, every part of me tied down by Lilliputians. I feel as if it is I, somehow, and not my sister, who have wandered into a strange land: the land of marriage, motherhood, matching socks. This is not what I expected. How did I choose this? I think, wandering the grocery store with my squeaky cart. Nor is it clear how my sister escaped to Honduras. It seems impossible that all these worlds are connected — the past with the present, Honduras with here — yet passing from one to the other could be as simple as purchasing an airline ticket and trusting the winds of God to settle you in a small pocket between the slopes of two mountains, like finding shelter between the breasts of a giant mother.
Kay flew to Honduras to help clean up after a devastating hurricane that ripped through the country and poured rain down the sides of the mountains. Tegucigalpa was flooded four stories high. The hospital was underwater, and rushing torrents scoured away bodies, depositing death everywhere like sediment, and with it infection and disease. I heard about this not from the evening news, which was reporting on other, wealthier parts of the world, but from my sister, who left a few months later with a small band of relief workers, bound for this smelly, distressed tropical place.
Kay writes, “I took a rare dip in one of the rivers today, surrounded by mangrove trees. I floated in smooth brown water where I wanted to live forever as a fish.” I am envious. I would like to run away; I would like to be the kind of person who would run away.
Some days I feel as if I am at the bottom of an empty aquarium, watching the world through a glass wall. The floor of my aquarium is covered with toys that have fallen apart or are missing pieces. “Somebody has to clean this up!” I yell to my children, who are upstairs in their rooms, hiding from my voice. When no one comes, I bend down and straighten the mess myself, picking up the pieces and putting them in a pile.
How on earth can I — from here — straighten up the world? Absorb all the spills? Every few weeks, I write out another twenty-dollar check to UNICEF, the Firemen’s Fund, the Police Youth Camp. I stuff my checks into their pre-addressed envelopes, then misplace them.
“Don’t you think we could do something?” I say to my husband at night in bed. I sound like one of the children pleading to keep a stray kitten.
“You’re suffering from guilt,” my husband tells me. “Did you call your therapist?”
It’s not guilt, I want to explain. It’s something else. But my husband is a giant wall of a man whose back is turned to me. I draw invisible circles on his skin.
“Go ahead and deny yourself,” he says, “but don’t deny the rest of us.” He’s fed up with the diet of rice and onions I’ve been serving for dinner lately.
“This is what your Aunt Kay is eating tonight, so lick your bowls!” I tell the kids. They love eating with their fingers. “In other parts of the world, people are starving,” I remind them.
“We are civilized in this household,” my husband says. “We will use forks.” But he’s too late to stop the chaos at the dinner table.
“What about pizza, Daddy?” one of the kids asks. “We eat that with our hands.”
All of us except my husband scoop up the rice with our fingers, lick and gobble like dogs. But this is play to my children, not a normal state of being. I cannot replicate the poverty of the world. I cannot pretend I am anywhere but here.
We eat mangoes and bananas for dessert. The kids think life’s a picnic because we’ve been eating off paper plates every night. With the drought and the state’s call to conserve water, I’ve stopped doing dishes. We have not hooked the hose to the lawn sprinkler, washed the cars, or turned on the birdbath fountain for weeks now. My husband thinks this is enough sacrifice. Every evening, he studies the withered landscaping that cost a fortune, the browning lawn. Then he looks at the sky, waiting.
I’ve been making the children bathe at the same time, though the three at once are harder to handle, with all the splashing and name-calling, the middle child squished in between. Afterward, we scoop the bath water into pots and carry it downstairs to soak the houseplants. Then we drip all the way out to the herb garden in back and make circles of mud around the wildflowers and tomato plants. My clean-scrubbed kids parade across the yard in their pajamas, gray water the color of old soap dripping down their arms. Really, there is more dirty water than I know what to do with.
I tell my family that I am going to the store to buy water, that I will be back soon. I buy ice cream instead. I’ve been buying ice cream regularly these last few months, and each time I drive a little bit farther, looking for a different store, another flavor. We’ve got several cartons of ice cream at home, along with several gallons of water, so there is nothing I lack. But I’ve been taking refuge in the grocery store lately, and the water is just my excuse to get away.
In the grocery store, I wheel up and down the aisles, amazed by the abundance. I study the shelves of canned vegetables, the rows of soups. “Excuse me,” I overhear a woman ask the clerk. “Can you tell me where to find the artichokes?”
“Heart-a-chokes,” she pronounces it, and I think, They’re everywhere. Kay just wrote me about a woman with mastitis who has a giant, sloughing pit where her breast used to be, the worst case Kay has ever seen. That’s a heart-a-choke. I cannot picture the breast except as black ash, one side of a woman ready to blow away.
Tonight I finger the fresh produce. I stop my cart next to a bin of corn and pick out an ear. I pull back the husk, part the silk — the kids call it “Barbie hair” — and find a fat worm tunneling its way through the kernels. Even the worms of this country eat well. I think of the Honduran children Kay wrote about, some of whom had worms sprouting from their foreheads. The torsala flies, which are everywhere in Honduras, circle the children’s heads like black halos. When the children are napping, the flies bite their foreheads and lay eggs. The larvae hatch from swollen pouches. Kay says it’s a horrific sight, but not life-threatening, easy enough to treat with antibiotics and creams.
How can worms bursting from a child’s forehead not be threatening to life? To my life? I am haunted by these images when I bathe my children at night, their skin glowing and gorgeous, as smooth as fresh peaches — which, I notice, are on sale. I pick out a half dozen flawless fruits and admire their beauty, free of deformities, parasites, and unmentionables.
I leave the grocery store with a gallon of water, a carton of ice cream, the peaches, and a bundle of paper towels. Weaving through the parking lot looking for my car, I see myself in someone’s sideview mirror, my hair in my eyes, my French twist loose and lopsided, my arm stretched around a six-pack of paper towels. I balance them on my hip as if I am carrying one more child, the child who will clean up the world, wipe up spills, absorb it all.
As I carry my groceries through the parking lot, an old woman backs her car into my hip. “Hey!” I pound my fist on her trunk and drop my bags. She is wearing a feathered hat and cannot fully turn her neck to see me. Is that a condition of old age, or of life — the not turning to see? I want to ask. But the peaches are rolling across the asphalt, and the plastic jug has split. Clean, clear water seeps from the burst seam, forming small puddles and soaking the pavement like a stain. The old woman’s hands tremble on the steering wheel. She must be somebody’s mother. I can tell she would like to help me pick up my groceries but doesn’t know how. She cannot move from inside the safe bubble of her car. She can only wave and say she’s sorry.