She reminded me of a cat, the way it brushes against you, hoping to draw all of your attention. Her eyes were black, wide open, unblinking it seemed, and they sought mine at every moment. I was suddenly nervous and tried to stop myself from staring into them as I talked to the guy standing with her. She hung on his arm, resting her head on his shoulder from time to time, but kept staring directly at me, moving her chin up, then down, turning her pale face slowly in quarters. The eyes never wavered.
They had been loitering on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, much like the ubiquitous hippie street vendors with their little blankets covered with pretty rocks on strings. But what these two were selling wasn't readily apparent. They both spoke decent English, much better than my Spanish, I thought. The man kept talking to me about tourist sites in Peru, but I was clearly not interested in them, and I got the feeling he couldn't give a damn about explaining them to me anyway. We were all pretending. Every time he thought of a new subject, he'd brighten and say, "Hey," and then poke me in the stomach through my t-shirt. It was irritating me. I wondered why I stayed there at the curb. But then each time I looked at her, I looked a bit longer. It didn't take long for me to understand she wasn't affectionate with him exactly, just comfortable. With an exaggerated sweeping gesture, he brushed my stomach with the back of his hand. I began to suspect I was being hit on.
He had spoken to me first, introducing himself as I broke a cardinal traveler's rule and stood in the middle of the street looking at a tourist map. I only needed to take everything out from my money belt and count it right there in front of God and everybody to make my idiocy complete. He introduced the girl as Marcela, and she stepped in close to me, slowly, as if choreographed and rehearsed, and kissed my cheek close to my mouth, lush soft lips, slightly parted, and then lingered there breathfully before backing away. I was lingering myself. I suddenly felt too tired to walk away.
Another guest at the hotel, a young Austrian man with long, blond hair in a ponytail, approached from across the street and greeted these two Peruvians as if they were old friends, though, like me, he had probably only been in town a day or two. He promised to return later but had to be somewhere and needed to get something from his room. Chao.
The man turned back to me, poked my stomach, "He is a nice person. From Australia. Hey, have you seen the Gold Museum here in Lima? Hm?"
A taxi driver slowed down, honked, and gestured to me with a frown as though he had been waiting for me and I had finally shown up. "Do you need a ride or what?" I shook my head at him and he drove off annoyed. The man continued. "...Hey, do you like to eat ceviche? There is a wonderful place for ceviche just on the other side of the Plaza de Armas. If you want, I can take you there... The conquistador Francisco Pizarro created this plaza. Do you know? Los conquistadores?"
One of their hippie friends stood up from his blanket of shells and paperclip jewelry and gave Marcela a wide, loose belt of beads. She fastened it around her narrow waist and raised her slight wrists over her head and shook like a belly dancer to rattle them. I couldn't really hear what her chatty partner was saying, but I sensed a drop in his level of enthusiasm as he knew I wasn't listening. He continued, "Hey, have you been to...? Hey, another thing you must see is..."
"It would look good on you," she said. She took the bead belt off and stepped up against me. I tensed. She wrapped her arms behind me and looped the belt around, pulling me close. I could smell her hair, the vague fragrance of the generic fruits of soap products. She fastened the buckle. "Mm. There. Dance."
"I don't think so."
She bumped her hip against my thigh to encourage me but then removed the belt as she pressed against me, coyly disappointed in my nonperformance.
She stared at me again. Her black hair, in straight lines to the corner of her jaw, created a Gothic frame for a picture of seduction. She suggested we meet somewhere. I hesitated at the vague "we" and cast a glance at the talker who was looking off down the street, unconcerned, but suddenly far away—though not far enough. She appeared very young. Bad idea.
I made an animal decision, not a reasonable one.
I looked at my watch. "No. 6:30."
"Here on this corner?" she asked. She bit a pink lip that turned white along her fine teeth. Lolita. The clear skin, the lips parted, chin forward, eyes penetrating.
"In the café?"
She turned slowly to look where I pointed. "Mm. Can't afford to drink there."
I shrugged, suspecting the popular trick of finagling drinks out of tourists. Like the infamous Mojito Scam of Cuba: Oh, first day here? Let me show you where Hemingway used to drink and I'll order a double round of his mojitos, and then you will pick up the inflated tab because I have no money when the bill comes and the bouncer is big and you are a foreigner and afraid to say no. Different countries, same routine.
"Okay, then, the corner. 6:30."
A slow, dreamy smile spread over her face as she nodded, still biting her lip. It was too much. I started to wonder if she had a bag of glue in her back pocket.
We parted. She kissed my cheek again, brushed my elbow with her fingertips. The man shook my hand tenderly, "And don't forget, my name is Jorge." He patted his chest. I pinched my lips into some semblance of a smile.
I stepped back into the hotel, a rough-around-the-edges building from a better time that had likely been converted from offices and apartments to cheap accommodations with high ceilings and fancy crown molding, the paint flaking off. Shoestring travel comes with its own exhausting price, exacted in shoe leather, patience, and bed bugs. Saving a taxi fare for a two-mile walk through a gauntlet of hawkers, squeezing in with a hundred people on a fifty-person chicken bus, going door-to-door some evenings like a backpacking Mary and Joseph—"Is there a cheap room in the inn?"
It was a tradeoff, but one I was willing to make. The typical traveler ended up running from site to site, breathless and photo bombing an exotic life for a week or two to impress the poor bastards stuck back at the office. That wasn't for me. I didn't take vacations, I just quit jobs. Then I traveled light and with no particular itinerary until an empty bank account sent me back for another round of paychecks.
The people I met by lingering longer were both the reward and the curse. One day you might find a Maya holy man willing to talk about his mystical world over a beer in a Guatemalan bar; the next day it's some fellow expat who latches on to you at the bus station and thinks you are both part of some sacred Brotherhood of the Common Passport, obliged to walk among the strange streets of strange lands and condemn them for their tainted tap water. Sorting out the good souls from those who just want to get into your pocket, your head, or your pants, eventually gets tiresome.
Sometimes I wondered why I was doing it. When locals or fellow travelers asked me why I came to Peru, I was hard pressed for an answer. "To see Machu Picchu," I'd say if I didn't really give a damn. "It's been my dream since I first saw it in a magazine when I was a kid. There's something so... so... spiritual about the place, don't you think?" They rarely sensed the irony.
I was back in the street at 6:30, still obeying some cultural imperative of punctuality, which much of the world—at the very least Lima, Peru—didn't seem to know anything about. I waited only a short while, telling myself it was best to avoid this girl—certainly too young and guaranteed trouble. I had the strange sense my resolve was being tested. No one was looking. I was a thirty-odd-year-old zoo animal that wakes one day to find the cage wide open.
I knew this scenario. I had seen it before—middle-aged men or older from North America lurking around big cities in Latin America, picking up young girls, often underage. Something they would never think to do back home. It was as if by stepping outside national borders they were somehow outside moral limits as well.
Back in Panama City, I remembered fat, white gringos sprawled in sidewalk cafes as if beached there by a rogue wave, sipping beer with ice in it, wiping the sweating glasses across foreheads that appeared to have been rubbed completely with rouge. Young innocence perched on their knees, awaiting the next round of drinks and the next promenade through the shops where they'd be treated to a few "gifts." I had always thought the word "gringo" a sort of harmless joke until I saw these men—ex-military or Canal Zone men, or portly pensioners with real estate incomes back home—chewing on cigars, patting youthful bottoms, and talking too loudly about how the whole place could be improved, how stupid the locals were. They were parodies of themselves, and they knew no limits. From then on I never wanted to be called "gringo." In places like that, the locals spit the word.
I checked my watch: 6:50. From around the corner came the blaring horns of a marching band, brassy and bold in the style of a funeral march in New Orleans but lacking the soul. I peered around the edge of the building, and at the end of the street was a religious parade. Holy Week was approaching more quickly than this procession. A group of perhaps twenty-five men were carrying a mammoth platform adorned in gold and lace and featuring a statue of the Virgin beneath an ornate canopy. The bearers leaned into the weight of it, walking at an angle to the ground. One side pushed as the other side swayed away slightly and up a bit. Then with the heavy movement of ocean surge, it would sweep back again. And with each sway, with solemn faces, they all took a mere fraction of a step forward. This pendulum sort of motion perhaps eases the labor—or exacerbates it; the greater the suffering, the greater the reward.
At the opposite end of the street was their destination, San Francisco Monastery, a bright yellow colonial affair, complete with catacombs. Deep beneath the street, the anonymous dead of the last centuries had been reduced to a collection of dusky skulls arranged in concentric circles at the bottom of what looked like a wide well. A dim yellow light lit the shallow cavern so that all could see the macabre final communion; worn teeth sank into the dust, taking one last bite in unison. Upstairs, heavy in gold and painted gore, the promise of eternity outlived its servants below. Out in the street, the men struggled to get here with the burden on their shoulders.
I stood in the middle of the street before the swaying Virgin and decided it might make a good photo. I ran inside the hotel for my camera and returned to take a few shots before the light faded completely. As I went to one knee in the middle of the street to get a better angle, someone called my name. I ignored it and kept focusing. Again, I heard my name. I turned and there he was—what was his name again? —Jorge.
He asked me if I liked processions. I stood up and stared at him. He patted my stomach with the back of his hand. "Hey, are you going to be here for Semana Santa?"
"There are many processions for that week."
"Do you like the clothes the women are wearing?"
I sighed. "Sure."
"It is traditional."
"Are you hungry?"
His smile faltered, and then he looked around as though searching for another subject of conversation. He found one. "Hey, have you been to the Museum of Art?"
I hadn't. "Yes, I went yesterday."
"Oh... So tell me about your country."
I wanted to get away, but I could not figure out how to do that without him following. I wondered where his little catlike friend had strayed to. "What do you want to know?"
"Oh, I don't know. Is it like here?"
"Not so much. Well, I mean it is and it isn't. Like any place in the world. People are people. But then there are things that are wildly different."
"Wildly?" he raised one eyebrow.
"Er..." I looked away quickly. "Well, this procession. Or ceviche."
"Oh, you like ceviche?"
I loved it. "Not really."
"The ceviche here is the best in the world."
"I've heard that."
"Hey, do you like—"
"Hey, listen, I'm feeling a little tired. I guess I'll just go back to the hotel. Long bus ride back from Cusco, you know? Maybe I'll see you later..." And I was gone.
I stood in the balcony of my hotel room watching the people pass below. The balconies of Lima are tourist attractions in their own right. Ornately carved, they are diverse works of art as much as private perches overlooking the streets. A person could do a photo gallery of them all, a coffee table book for the people who keep coffee tables but not balconies. I leaned on my elbows, an emperor observing his people. I was bored and debated wandering around in the streets, but I knew I would be searching, not wandering. I heard the call of a cat somewhere. I scanned the sidewalks, the rooftops across the way. No sign of it.
When I looked back to the street, she had just rounded the corner and was passing beneath my perch. I meowed down to her, and she looked up.
"Why are you up there?"
"So I can see down your shirt."
"I don't understand."
"Nothing. Just watching people."
"You will come down?"
"I'm thinking about it."
Even from that distance the black eyes drilled me.
"Where were you at 6:30?"
"I was there," I pointed to the corner behind her, "waiting for you."
"I didn't see you."
"I don't understand."
"Not important. I'm coming down."
I swung open the heavy wooden door in the lobby and stepped out into the street. After eleven p.m., the outer iron gate, which now stood open, would be padlocked shut, and only the hotel night clerk had the key to open it. The hotel suddenly appeared to me like some sort of safe house or an embassy in a hostile land.
She kissed me in greeting, and I shivered. We were alone. The street at the moment was empty. "What will we do?" she asked with a coy upward tilt to her chin, her face so close that I had to look back and forth between her eyes.
Before I could answer, someone called my name. I probably should have thanked him, but a darker part of me scowled from behind a fake smile as he came around the corner.
"So you have rested?"
"Not really. I'm going to the store to get a bottle of something to wash down a pill."
I even pulled out a serendipitous Tylenol that was lodged in my pocket among strange coins and lint and held it forth in my open palm. We all looked at it uncertainly.
"Maybe we can meet later tonight," he offered.
She said nothing as I left them, and I felt her watching me as I crossed the street to a small convenience store.
I bought a bottle of neon-yellow Inka Kola and threw the pill and its coating of lint into the cardboard box full of wrappers and empties on the floor in front of the counter. I drank half of the bottle quickly, waited a moment, and then stuck my head back into the street. Empty. I headed off in the opposite direction, hoping to make the corner before someone called my name again. The streets looked harmless enough, but the other guests at the hotel and even some of the hotel workers warned me about them after dark.
Streetlights had come on, and many of the shops were already closed. I passed a cantina spilling its mossy warmth and a couple of staggering clientele onto the walk. I eyed a group of children playing with something in a doorway across the street.
"Do you know what piranhas are?" someone had asked me in the hotel lobby, a German guy traveling after living in Peru for six months with some kind of internship in economics.
"Sure. The fish?"
"No, no. Street kids. Gangs of them. Maybe seven, maybe eight years old. Little kids. They come along, and there are maybe twenty of them or maybe thirty, and they surround you, and they take everything. Money, backpack, keys, jacket—all your clothes sometimes."
"They leave you naked. It's better than if they cut you. Sometimes they do that. Very dangerous. Be careful at night."
I didn't believe him. Or at least exaggeration had taken its monster share of the story. Perhaps they weren't his embellishments, just the cumulative edits of the travelers' network of imagination. The truest part of the story was probably fear. If something bad happens in a place, the network instantly knows and spreads it like gospel. A single attack on a tourist can tarnish a place's reputation for months or even years.
I found a man with a food cart and ate some salchipapas, essentially hot dog pieces and French fries. I wandered another hour or so before making my way over to the Plaza de Armas. The large brass fountain in the center was shut off. Even the water wasn't venturing out in the dark. A dozen palm trees stood among the few patches of grass separated from the paving stones by low-hanging chains. I found a vacant bench and watched a few people meander past. Some were travelers; others looked more like the trinket hippies out in front of the hotel. I saw a couple of police officers wandering along the perimeter and wondered vaguely if they weren't more dangerous than most of the other people I might be wary of here.
A small voice came from behind me. "You are very fast."
I looked over my shoulder and saw her figure turned silhouette in the glare of a street lamp beyond. She could see my face, but hers was a dark space.
Had she been following me? I held up the empty bottle. "Caffeine."
She didn't understand, but nodded. She turned the grassy corner, and her face reappeared. She stood in front of me, her midriff bare, her pierced navel at the level of my face. Her pants brushed against mine as she seemed to be about to straddle my crossed legs. She hitched her hands in her back pockets and thrust her hips forward slightly so that the bones rose beneath the smooth skin just above her belt. I searched the park and could not see her friend anywhere.
"Why are you out here alone?"
I shrugged. "Couldn't sleep."
She bit her lip once again and fixed me with an eye. The hair swung out from the side of her face as she tilted her head. "Do you have trouble sleeping?" she asked in almost a whisper.
I didn't answer, just stared back at her to see how long she would hold my gaze. Long. I looked away and uncrossed my legs, bumping one of hers. "Sorry."
"Not important," she told me. She lined up her shoes touching the tips to the ends of my own and then looked up at me again.
"Marcela," I said to no one.
"I like the name... M, like the sound you make when food is delicious... The C—or is it an S?—like a sigh."
"Er, un suspiro."
"And the L, with the tongue, very sensual, the mouth curves around it."
She smiled stiffly. "That is nice."
"Beautiful. Appropriate name."
Her body tensed like a small animal's does when something unexpected enters the field it thought empty and safe. Some of the seduction shifted from her face when the expression froze, and something pitiable took its place. I could feel the sexiness blow away like the scattering trash, and as if on cue, something light and plastic skittered in the gutter.
I fell silent. Somehow I had broken protocol. As though I had misspoken the dialogue and the play had fallen out of its exchange, and neither actor could find a place to resume. She crossed her arms, and her head leaned to the other side; she stared off back toward the park.
She was a child, naked in a dirty street. I cringed and sought my next words in the tops of my shoes where they still lined up with hers.
"How old are you, Marcela?"
She looked at me once again but with the subtle friction of defiance, as though I was scolding her with my question.
"Guess," she told me.
I never could, especially in Latin America where youth seemed to live longer in the cheeks and smiles of many of their older women, or else age came suddenly, making even teenagers look as though they had seen decades of life's blunt edge. The best bet was the eyes sometimes. "Nineteen?"
It was only the second smile I had seen from her, not counting the concealing one of a moment before. "No. Sixteen."
I stole her concealing smile for myself. "Nice," I managed to say. "Out kind of late, aren't you?"
She sat down next to me, but not so close. We were now adult and child.
"I am always out this late."
I was going to ask about parents but stopped myself. "Um, where do you live?"
She jerked her head toward the opposite side of the park. "In an apartment. There are rooms there. Jorge lives there too. We are five."
"I see. You have family?"
She darted a look at me. "Yes. But I can't live there anymore."
She stated that with closure so I did not ask more. She stared down at her feet, her hands on either side of her clutching the edge of the bench. Her hair hung limply, obscuring my view of her profile until she pulled it behind her ear.
"I leave tomorrow. I return to my country."
"Yes?" She looked up with some interest. "Is it nice there?"
"Yes, sometimes. But I often get bored."
I didn't know where to go with the conversation. I couldn't ask her about traveling. It was enough to be so young, but even the older people around her rarely had the resources to go anywhere. I felt uncomfortable with my freedom, my opportunities, my lack of firm boundaries. The imagined edge that I was living on—not owning a car or house, no health insurance or significant savings—didn't change the fact that I was from a land of plenty, far beyond her hardest efforts.
"You have been to many places?"
Modesty urged me to say no, but respect compelled me to nod.
"Where was your favorite?"
I looked in her eyes, trying to imagine that only moments ago they had stirred something dark and disturbing in me. Now I felt protective.
"Here, actually. Peru."
"Really?" She wrinkled her nose with surprise and perhaps a little suspicion.
"Yes, for certain. It is a beautiful land. Lima. Cusco. Lake Titicaca. Machu Picchu, of course. So much culture. You're lucky to live here."
She shrugged. "Maybe. But I want to leave."
"Where would you go?"
"I don't know. Maybe the United States. That is your country?"
"Yes. Why there?"
"Everyone says it is nice. There is money there."
I wanted to tell her there was so much more in life than money, but again it is a luxury to be able to say such a thing. Maybe it isn't even true.
I looked at my watch. "Damn. My flight leaves early. I'd better go back to my hotel."
She nodded with a polite smile.
We both stood up, and she came close enough that I could have taken her gently in my arms. "Well, take care of yourself, Marcela..."
"Yes, you also."
I kissed her forehead and left her in the park. Lines would not be crossed. Our limits define us, for better and for worse. While I wander this earth, alien to my own culture and a stranger in the next, I am sometimes not sure who I am. But I am damned sure who I am not.
I didn't want to be mean to Jorge. He seemed nice enough, but he was dull. Hell, I was dull at the moment, my edges worn away by the road. What on earth kept him from boredom? It made me wonder how many times I had persisted too long with someone—attraction perhaps glossing over the glaringly insipid reality of our exchange—or how often I had misread mere conversational interest as something more.
I had returned to the convenience store across from my hotel, which was still open at almost midnight. I sat at a plastic patio table drinking a bottle of mango juice and watching the large raggedy woman who ran the place gradually rest her chin on her ample bosom under the blaring television mounted in the corner. Jorge found me there sitting opposite an empty chair. I didn't invite him, but he sat anyway, grinning like it was some grand coincidence that we encountered each other there after all this time.
"Hey, the procession was beautiful wasn't it? Do you like the festivities? All the flowers..."
What was my answer? I thought.
"... I have been to the United States. Have you ever been to Los Angeles or San Francisco?"
I crossed my legs, then uncrossed them. He was just toying with me, a sort of cosmic justice for any uninvited interests I had displayed for various women in the past. Was I ever this persistent? The poking, the measured touches continued. No matter how wide the table was or how far I leaned back, somehow he was still able to brush my arm with his fingertips.
I took the offensive, hoping to actively bore him. "So your little friend... Marcela..."
The corners of his smile tightened. "Yes?"
"How old is she?"
"How old did she say?"
"They say sixteen, then it's fifteen... or fourteen."
"I think she could lie better than sixteen."
He just waved me away, and I saw him glance up at the television.
"So, er... Jorge, what do you do?"
"I was a student."
"And what did you study?"
"Nothing interesting. Business."
"You seem a little old for a student."
"Or twenty-six or twenty-seven, right?" I reached out and jabbed his shoulder a couple times and winked. He smiled weakly. "So that makes La Gatita a little young for you, no?"
"Little cat? I don't understand."
"I mean, Marcela."
His eyes narrowed at me. "What makes you think she interests me like that?"
"No reason. She reminds me of my girlfriend. Back home." Neither existed.
He looked tired. "Oh yes?" His gaze flicked to the TV for a second.
"Very much. Something in the eyes. Yes, the eyes."
"So young as well?" he asked ironically.
"Well not fourteen or fifteen certainly... So Jorge, what do you do now?"
"I work. At a store. I sell clothes." He glanced at the television again, a bit longer.
The woman behind the counter awoke with a snort and looked around, wiping her mouth self-consciously. Like a reflex she asked, "What would you like?"
I stood up and went to the counter, "Another bottle of mango juice."
Behind me Jorge said, "And a beer." I ignored him.
She came back from the fridge with both and set them on the glass counter. I laid out exact change for the juice and stepped away pretending to watch the television as I drank. Jorge seemed uncomfortable. The woman looked back and forth between us and held up the beer. "You want beer?" she asked him. He shook his head. The woman rolled her eyes and turned toward the fridge with the bottle.
"Wait. Here." I dropped a few more coins on the glass, and they rattled to a stop.
He looked back at the TV as I set the bottle on the table. "Oh, thank you." He took a large swallow. "You are nice."
"No, I'm not. But that's not important." I remained standing. "Jorge, it's been a pleasure." I squeezed his hand, wet with the condensation from his drink. "But I need to sleep. Early flight."
"Have a safe trip."
I stepped back into the street where a couple of stray dogs picked at some trash along the sidewalk. They cleared away, skittish, walking sideways as I passed. I felt imposing and fearsome. I pressed the hotel buzzer and waited, while down the block a street light flickered and went dark. All the shop windows had metal doors pulled down tightly over them, as if bracing for a storm that never comes. Colonial yellow had become dusky gray, and the city took on the sullen gloom of an abandoned amusement park. After a couple of moments, the door opened, and without speaking a word, an old, withered man turned a key in the large brass padlock to open the gate. I slipped past him as the iron bars clanged shut, and he rattled the lock back into place. I crossed the lobby without looking back, and as I started up the stairs, I felt the thud resonate through the building as the heavy wooden door closed behind me.
Title image "With Interest" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.