Carro Publico 1987
I am crammed in the back seat of a public car in Santiago, my arms hanging out the window to try to take up less space. I have placed myself behind the driver so I can tap him on the shoulder and point to the side of the road to indicate where I want to get out. That way, I don’t have to talk. I don’t like to speak. Drivers don’t like my tapping. They cup a hand onto their shoulder to receive a fare, but I simply point. I have already paid. I try to always have exact change. That way there is less need for communication. Even when I know the words, as I do, “a la Puerta de la Universidad” (I repeat them to myself), I try to avoid speaking. The accent in my voice will reveal, even more than my skin and my eyes, that I do not belong here.
When I walk down the street, men call me “Rubia.” I know from my dictionary it means blond, and this bothers me because I am not blond and do not want to be blond. I want to blend in better, be noticed less. When they call me blond, I feel as if they are trying to make me even more different. But it’s just a word they call light-skinned people, and mostly they are only trying to catcall me. All the same, it gets annoying being catcalled by men who can’t notice that your hair is not blond.
I have memorized every bit of this route, but the car still scares me. Too many people packed in too tightly make me afraid. They block my vision, and they block escape routes. I have to say “permiso” so they will let me out. And they are so loud. Sometimes they argue, get angry at each other using brash, unintelligible words. They talk over each other, and I don’t understand anything they say. I can pick up on the feeling, but not the content: anger, bluster, hilarity. Sometimes they snort with laughter, and then point at me with their lips and exchange glances as if to ask why I am not laughing, and I look away and hope they will forget I’m there. I try to make myself invisible. I worry that in their hilarity or their argument, they won’t hear me when I tell the driver where to stop and I will be trapped in the car.
Every day I go to the university in this public car, where I teach English grammar to rich girls who want to be bilingual secretaries. I like the classes because the students understand English and speak to me in words I know. Their parents drive Mercedes Benz and when I ask them if it doesn’t bother them to drive such expensive cars when there is so much poverty here, they tell me not to be silly, that everyone drives Mercedes Benz. Except this pubic car is a long, long ways from Mercedes Benz, and the men have started screaming again, and the driver turns around in his seat, and a man in a fruit wagon with a burro moves slowly into the path of the speeding público and the driver’s head is turned back to scream at the man pressed up against me and the wagon is coming closer and closer with its barely balanced cargo of fruit, and I scream louder than all of them.
I could have said, “¡Cuidado!” I knew the word, but there was no time to form it, so I just yelled, “Look out!” and even though the driver didn’t understand me, he read the panic in my voice and looked where I was pointing and swerved just in time.
And once again the men in the car are all speaking at once, pointing at me and saying things in words that to me are just noise.
I live in a tiny, wooden house on Juana Saltitopa Street with Héctor and Inés who are friends of my husband’s from when he was a child. I have been placed here until he can finish his degree and come. I am in suspension here until “Cuando Carlos venga,” a phrase I hear a lot. I finished my own doctoral studies before coming here to teach at this university. A person who lived in a world of words, I now I have none. The house is full of people. I count nine of them. Besides Héctor and Inés and their two children, Melba and Crisalini, there are others. I make up names for them because I don’t understand when they explain who they are. I am sleeping in a room with a 14-year-old girl named Ynelis who is somehow related to Inés. They sent for her from the countryside to take care of the children. She works all day in the house and doesn’t go to school. She tries to teach me words: escoba, barrer, fregar… these are the words she knows too well. When I don’t have class, I stay sometimes and help her clean, repeating the words to myself. I watch television with the children, Plaza Sésamo. They speak slowly on these programs: “Hola niños, vamos a jugar.” Crisalini, not yet two, asks me over and over, “Cómo tú te llamas?” Over and over I answer. She never tires of the game. Ynelis is patient with me, naming her world: cocina, calle, baño, limpiar. I try to ask her what she wants to do with her life, but my meager supply of words fails me. I ask her if she likes it here. The question doesn’t make sense to her. She tells me slowly so I will understand that they brought her here from Neiba because Inés needs help with the children. She remains an object even in sentences of her own construction. I cannot tell her that it’s not the words I don’t understand. Sometimes, at night, after the cena, after she has cleaned up, we sit on the tiny porch looking at the street. Boys pass and notice us. She seems to enjoy the attention. Sometimes we stay quite late, taking advantage of relief from the oppressive heat, the absence of the intense sunlight that fries the day. Each day is a struggle. The night is our brief respite. We fall into silence, and it is as if I can watch her dreaming, imagining another life.
I am being taken to meet my suegra to the house of my husband’s sort-of-sister, sister-of-raising, who is not really a sister, but is. We enter a poor neighborhood through what feels like a portal, into a world where there are no roads, only a labyrinth of dirt paths that wind between and behind makeshift houses formed of cast-off materials with zinc roofs. Wires strung down from distant light poles snake through in a giant web of stolen electricity. Inés told me the sort-of-sister is poor, but rich in babies. I follow Héctor blindly, tight on his back, because it would be all too easy to be lost here forever. I have never seen anything like this in my life, so I cannot process it. I focus on stepping carefully, avoiding obstacles, stagnant pools of water and garbage, until this becomes my whole purpose.
We arrive at the house; a young girl, maybe eight years old, is sweeping the dirt patio with a palm broom. The houses seem to lean against each other for support, forming a circle around this tiny space. Children swarm around me, pouring out of other places. I don’t know if they are neighbors or if they live here, but they are many. Carlos’s sister-not-sister stands, and offers me one of two plastic chairs. She hands me a fat baby, a boy, about eight months old. He is naked and I worry he will pee on me, but I’m grateful for the distraction he provides. I bounce him on my lap. My mother-in-law occupies the other chair; she’s a delicate woman in a white uniform; her silver hair wound in two long braids which encircle her head like a crown and reflect the light. She begins to speak to God, her voice a steady murmur of sound. I find it oddly comforting.
They soon give up trying to converse with me. My mother-in-law and I sit in the patio like royalty on our plastic chairs as life whirls around us. I rock the baby. Her long prayer becomes the music that lulls him to sleep.
As night begins to fall, the lights go out; electricity is, I have learned, a transitory thing in this country. The cooking fire and the stars are our only light. I try not to think of how we will never find our way back out, try not to think about tomorrow and the day after that, and I wonder instead about the night sky in New Hampshire. But it seems too distant. I have trouble believing my old life still exists. Already it is like a story I once knew, and the details are beginning to fade.
The smoke of the fogón stings my eyes and my vision begins to blur. I feel as if I have stepped out of time into a realm where there is only this moment, the baby on my lap, the soft murmur of prayer, the brilliant stars in this deepest, darkest night. And I may not know who I am anymore, but for now, I don’t need to know. It is enough to be here.
Meg J. Petersen is a writer and a teacher of writing at Plymouth State University, where she directs the National Writing Project in New Hampshire. Her poems have won prizes with the New England Association of Teachers of English and the Seacoast Writers Association. She was named as a feature poet by the New Hampshire Arts Council. Her poems have appeared in Concrete Wolf, Entelechy International: A Journal of Contemporary Ideas, Garden Lane, English Journal, The Leaflet, The International Journal for Teaching Writing and other publications.