Zaruma. Late morning. At his Abuelita’s house we ate cheese empanadas and overripe fruit, and we sat in chairs that lined either side of a hallway leading to the front balcony, the one that overlooked the central plaza. I’d discovered in the early dark one morning that a crew would meticulously groom the flowers planted down there between the palm trees, and they’d trim the swaths of grass where in afternoons lovers sprawled, smiling beneath their sun-shielding hands. After they trimmed, the men would hose the golondrina shit from the tiled sidewalks, leaving the plaza with a dew-like freshness as the sun crested over the rooflines, pouring down into the town.
From Abuelita’s back balcony I drank in Ecuador to the north. It was a tiny platform cluttered with various pots and broken chairs, not for guests, scraggly impatiens growing in an old yogurt container, two blue-green parakeets in a cage. They lived out there because Abuelita’s cat, a longhaired Siamese who was perpetually in heat, would upend the cage, and Abuelita was too addled to deal with the trouble. From here I gazed out at mountains half-denuded, the hills and the silver stratocumulous always just almost touching, leaving a thin sliver of blue light in between.
We were only supposed to stay three days. I’d run out of nice clothes, and so I wore earrings I’d bought at the local market—made of a cheap metal so light they lifted in the wind like leaves and tangled in my hair. The tias brought me earrings, too. When they arrived at Abuelita’s they would kiss me on both cheeks, then grip me by both hands and hold me at arms’ length smiling and saying que linda! And they would hold R. in the same way, laugh about his beard, which his mother insisted he shave off (Your hair or your beard, please hijito, do it for me, she’d said). But he hadn’t. He’d attempted a half-assed compensation by trimming each, leaving his beard so short I could trace the outline of his jaw and chin when he stood in the right light. I didn’t like it. I’ve always found the topography of a face too intimate to mess with. It looked like a hillside in winter, before the snow, the way I might see the outline of ground beneath the raw and leafless trees. And maybe I should have known then, in the way his half-shrouded face filled me with a peculiar twinge: neither here nor there.
We’d left our own denuded hillside landscape to come here, to this little teetering town up in the mountains of southern Ecuador. I had wanted to escape New England winter. I wanted to get away. Or maybe what I really wanted was to get R. away, the two of us away together, no work to distract him. Where his focus could be on me, where I might indulge in my perpetual quest to define: us, him, our purpose here. I was looking for that ethereal it.
Anywhere, I’d said, when he asked where we should go.
He didn’t understand, not entirely anyway, this urge to go, but he agreed. We could see his family in Zaruma he said—hadn’t been there since he was a kid. For him, having people to visit gave our travel purpose. We saved—and counted down the days via January stalactites of ice clinging to the eaves of the old farmhouse he lived in. Dagger-shaped, lethal. On sunny mornings they sometimes slid off the roof, landing upright in the snow below.
At night. We sat in silence on the hostel verandah. I picked dried blooms off the geranium, let them flutter to the plaza below. Across the square we saw Abuelita’s balcony, the square of light that was her sliding glass door, but she had gone in. We bought a big beer from the restaurant below and drank it from small glasses, looked at the rooflines of Zaruma, sagging or jagged, straight or angled, crossing and bisecting on into infinity—like an illustration from a picture book. I watched his profile, the black lashes come together, open again.
What are you thinking?
He was quiet. A pigeon sang from under the eaves. I loved to watch them in the morning on the windowsill of our tiny room, their iridescent shimmer and quiver, the way they prepared for takeoff, hunching down and pausing before taking the plunge, their wobbled frantic flight and near-crash landing—a bird of so little grace. The song was distant, as though choked out from beneath a pillow.
Across the town, last year’s landslide: a smear against the mountain.
What do you think of all this, I asked. I was watching the way the language knocked loose inside him. I was waiting for him to say that everything was unwinding and settling into place.
What do you mean, he asked? Of what?
Time consumes the memory of things. I find this years later reading Pedro de Cieza de Leon, the Spanish scribe who wrote down the conquest, traveling and writing for six years on the path Pizarro scorched through South America. He did not write of Zaruma, but of a nearby city, Loja. He wrote because he knew he had to, that already the accounts would dim or change, that people would forget or warp or rewrite. If only he knew it happened anyway. He wrote because he sometimes thought that when one people and nation succeeds another, as time rolls on the first is forgotten and that the same fate may overtake us as has befallen others.
We’d flown into Guayaquil, that sweaty, cloying city by the coast, from which we were whisked away by R.’s tio before that city’s grimness could settle in. We wound up, and up, and up as we drove into Zaruma, me getting sick in the back seat.
Wow, his tio kept saying, looking over at R. Wow, sobrino, wow! His shock that he was there in the flesh and blood. His instant love for family.
My God, one of them said, how many years had it been?
On first impression, Zaruma looked like a strong gust might take it away. I feared the rainbow clapboards might collapse in a jolly heap. But its very precariousness was the little town’s charm, and nobody seemed to notice. Tailors hawked their goods from tilted wooden storefronts, men dressed in button down shirts and shined their shoes and chatted on the sidewalks, and women leaned on the arms of men and teetered over the broken cobbled streets in ill-fitting heels, mountain winds rushing down and mussing their hair. Every year, we were told, a new layer of paint went over the trim of the buildings. Over columns and cornices, lintels and scrolls. Lavender on mint green on cherry red.
Abuelita, too, looked like a strong gust might take her away: a waifish matriarch, a frail figure over which her polyester trembled. Her thin hair dyed red, the slender, plum-colored pencil lines filling in her eyebrows. There was the slowness in which she completed all tasks, the draw of her face that lifted into a smile when she realized you were looking.
Maybe R. and I were waiting for our own gust to take us away—either to carry us aloft or to turn us to shambles. People used to always tell me that traveling with a partner would either make the relationship or break it. I remember my former self always thinking in such absolutes: either this was going to work or it was not. I wanted to push it into something deeper, something more defined, to not settle for such imperfection. Or I wanted out. My discomfort with being stuck in New England for winter was more the fear that R. and I would be stuck with our lukewarm love forever. But here, in Ecuador, we floated in and out of his relatives’ daily lives, our stasis like a plastic bag stuck in an ocean current—it never grew or shrank, but drifted in and out, sometimes billowing this way, sometimes inside out and billowing that way.
In a black and white photo, his bisabuelo—Abuelita’s father-in-law—stands in a doorway. Six slender European-looking men are sitting around a table, each dapperly dressed, legs crossed with their tailored trousers draping to the perfect height at the ankle, each foot showing off a fine and gleaming shoe. Over Bisabuelo’s head is a crude wooden cutout of a saddle shoe filling the width of the doorway. The men sit with their noses tilted every so slightly up, their hats cocked cockily to the side, each with a pint of beer in front of him. Bisabuelo smiles, but the grain of the photo obscures details, and beneath his brow his eyes blur into one dark band. He’s a large man, chest puffed as he fills the doorway.
I still have the old photos in my computer. When I flip from this one to the next, it’s nearly the same shot except Bisabuelo’s gone. He might be one of the figures at the table; it’s hard to tell. Everything is a little blurred, like someone knocked the whole scene with an elbow as she got up to leave, left it swinging right before the photographer captured it. Seven, or maybe eight, bottles are scattered across the table now. The shoe over the doorway is reversed, the toe pointing in a different direction, as though the photo were an image of the scene in a mirror. Except that I’ll never know which way is the real one.
There was a thick manila envelope we carried with us. R’s mother had packed it in his suitcase, and inside were photos from all the relatives who lived in the US—the relatives in Jersey, the ones still in the Bronx, the ones in Florida. We’d also come with a purse for Abuelita, a baseball cap for Tio.
When the relatives came we would sit with each new set and show them the photos one by one. There were photos of his brothers, the babies of relatives R. had never met, the cousin who’d come to Ecuador for a nose job (So much cheaper than in Nueva Jersey! said Abuelita) and a young attractive couple in front of their Christmas tree who looked like they were posing for a JC Penney ad. The tias looked at the photo of the young couple many times. The wife wore a satiny dress.
Is she pregnant?
I don’t know, R. would say.
I think she’s pregnant, Abuelita would say.
The tias would nod. I think so. I think she is.
They would flip to the next.
Ah, look at Fredito. He’s getting a little gordito, no?
Which do you like better, Ecuador or Peru? Abuelita asked me this one morning. We were sitting in the red vinyl chairs, facing the relatives, who came by in streams as though paying honors at a wake. It was almost as important: Abuelita’s nieto! All the way from Nueva Jersey! Even though he didn’t live there anymore. The tias wore plastic beads, three-quarter sleeve jackets over their button down shirts, always perfume. The tios arrived with damp hair, the comb lines traceable across their scalps. Or maybe we sat on the balcony if the day was calm, if the wind didn’t budge the tias’ hair out of place. Perhaps we had just passed a silent moment, the tias smiling, patting their hands against their legs as though keeping beat to some distant music, R. gazing silently out. Perhaps Abuelita had been pointing people out: There’s your tio from a long time ago; there’s the woman who just had a baby; there’s the man who doesn’t go to church anymore. That one, that one, that one, and maybe she had run out of people to point out.
They can’t be compared, I said.
You don’t have a favorite? She still remembered the war. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say she still felt the war, the miasma of conflict still in her bones; maybe time consumes the memory of things, but the body remembers. She smiled slightly, sweetly, but not enough to disintegrate the furrow between her eyebrows. It reminded me of the houses here—brilliant colors over rotting wood, Norman Rockwell plates arranged over the crack in a wall, the mushrooms R. and I had spotted growing beneath Abuelita’s finely scrubbed bathroom sink. It was like Zaruma’s vulnerability beneath all those joyous colors, how the true nature of the place revealed itself slowly, over time, like a submerged photo in a darkroom. The tias paused, all looking at me now.
Ecuador, I finally said. Definitely Ecuador. The people here are so much nicer. The tias smiled, fanned their faces with their purses.
Behind the rooflines the sky was almost dark.
How Ecuadorian do you feel?
He hated that question. He hated most questions. He hated that I was always trying to squeeze meaning out of something.
Does this feel like home, or at least some version of it? I asked, revising the question.
To him, things just were. But it was never that way for me. When he bought a quail egg from a vendor in the market, a tiny speckled thing he could close inside his fist, he was eating potential. The more we wound our way up and down the rickety stairwells, the crumbling alleys and dislodged cobbles, I wanted to know if he felt himself winding closer to his identity, to home. I lived vicariously through his connection to place, hoping if he belonged, maybe I would feel better. Closer to it. To something.
No, he always said. Home was back with our farmhouse stalactites.
Twilight. Golondrinas would slice through fading light. Swifts or swallows—narrow winged birds cutting up the night air, acrobatic, lusting after insects who lusted after the light. From the front balcony they rested on wires so close that if I had the guts I could have reached out and grabbed a handful of birds. The Siamese cat hovered on the balcony railing. When a golondrina swooped close she’d lift up, attempting to clasp the bird. I possibly have the most photos of this cat from our trip. Siamese sleeping, Siamese leaping, Siamese sitting by the door waiting for someone not to notice her so she could slip down the stairwell. In her desperate heat she let out low, mournful yowls, and the tias joked that she cried like La Virgen. She never caught a bird, her attention always distracted by keeping her balance, by her resistance against the emptiness below. But she always landed four feet on the narrow bannister, a flex running through her body as though she were made of one long, lean muscle. Abuelita and the tias would gasp. In my memory’s imagination I pause them, their faces wrought with worry as they cry out, clasping an arthritic hand to their breasts. In this image only the polyester of their blouses moves, quivering over their frail, anxious frames.
The golondrinas swooped away every time, and I would feel myself choking on bird, the feathers lodged in my throat, the quick Spanish lost on me, leaving me to feel what I couldn’t understand.
The people who originally lived here, at least according to Cieza, had a sense of immortality not entirely different than that of the Catholics. When a man died, they might bury his wife alive, her flesh to keep him company, I suppose, as he continued on in some sort of afterlife. To accompany that ineffable state we might call the spirit or soul or essence of a person. (Burying the wife alive, however, might imply that only men carried this immortality into the afterlife—otherwise, why wouldn’t they just kill her too, and allow the two spirits to continue on?) It implies that they believed that outside the here and now something lingers. It was that something, I think, that I was trying to locate in R.—a reaffirmation that we were more than mere mortal bodies, as Cieza would call it. That R. would want me to be put alive beneath the soil, and perhaps I traded that literal suffocation for this metaphorical one—not living, not dead, neither here nor there, but trapped in the middle and waiting.
I was always waiting.
What I should have been trying to locate was my own immortal essence, but instead I searched for it through him.
In early mornings, I awoke in the still dark. While R. slept, I tired myself recording, pressing it all into memory. Men worked in the plaza, their figures vague ghosts in the almost light. Across the plaza the church was always the first thing to see, the roofline taking form in the burgeoning day. But early enough I could catch a point where it was all still darkness, only a faint sense of the mountains looming, as though there were nothing nestled on the hillside, only the land in angles and shadows. Then slowly daylight would fill it in, the church then the buildings around the plaza, then the telephone wires connecting them all, the little porches with their open doors, a figure standing in every threshold, and behind each a private world of love and strife and ordinariness, the blanks I could only fill in with imaginings. It would never light up enough to see through walls. Never got so bright that I could see through skin and muscle to read what was written across a heart. I was only left to figure it out with the shapes given to me.
One day, the cat did escape. Swooped out through the door and into the plaza: gone. I wasn’t there when it happened, but that I do remember. Chances are she wasn’t far, probably lived in the alleys and crevices, a thousand places to hide in just the plaza below. She’s free now, or some semblance of the word. Or dead. Perhaps no longer plagued by being stuck, by the limitations of the narrow bannister and the finite universe it offered her, the empty space stretching out below. It is all hers now.
Across the plaza’s darkness, Abuelita’s light went out. The geranium petals fluttered to the plaza below. The wind whipped down from the mountains, lifted them up, tangling them into cobwebs, into trees, carrying them away out of town.
On one of our last days in Zaruma, his tio took us inside the church. It was aquamarine and sky blue along its pillars, a deep red lining the border, the squares of a grid-like pattern across the ceiling. Behind the altar was a micro-church, this one painted with gold, real gold. The church was a sanctuary for La Virgen del Carmen.
Even the old women with rosaries twined in their fingers who whispered in the front rows seemed as though they’d been placed there, along with the cornices, the statues, and the stations of the cross. His tio joyfully pointed out the details and we dutifully listened.
He led us behind the altar, into the sacrosanct. We went up a staircase to a narrow second floor where there were racks of altar-boy gowns. He opened a door, another staircase, this time narrower. We went up, and up, the passage tighter and tighter, each 90-degree turn a few steps shorter. We came to a small platform of rickety boards, in the guts of the steeple now, the joists like ribs spiraling out to all sides of the steeple walls. It was not round, but made of very many flat surfaces, so narrow and so many as to give the appearance of roundness. I could feel it, the sense of destination, everything coming to a point. The suffocating heat and the smell of humid wood made it like being inside a very tiny closet. The roof narrowed up above us; we traced the spines that held it all together. On the platform around us were moth and butterfly wings, beautiful in their own resplendent array of colors and patterns. There were the scattered carcasses of other insects.
I love to look at the old photos of Zaruma, the historic blacks and whites of people I will never know, but I can’t bear to look at photos of us. I am enormous next to the tias, and even the tios. R. and I stand behemoth and unkempt, his face foreign to me in its half-beard. We tried to look nice. At least he brought the dress shoes. I can imagine them looking through the photos. Ah, R.’s girlfriend? Was she always that gordita? His face is equally inscrutable in each photo—I never see us drawing closer together, or something wedging us further apart. Although thinking of it now, the lack of something must have been, in itself, a wedge of sorts. We posed. Pretended. Or at least that’s how it felt to me. Whenever my camera peeked out of my shoulder bag the tias would gasp and shout.
Photo! Photo! Everybody line up!
First everybody outside, and then everybody inside. Sitting on the stairs, With Tio in the middle, then with Abuelita in the middle! The tias, now the tios, now R. and his girlfriend holding hands in the sunroom! Later, R. and I would joke about the artificiality of it all. But now, looking over the un-posed photos, there is nothing more authentic about them. At least in the posed photos we could all pretend, and then later—who knows? If time consumes the memory of all things, maybe I could forget our ambiguity.
But in truth I am still dissatisfied. The problem with a photo is that in only captures a moment. Time consumes the rest and we are left with this. Worth a thousand words the cliché goes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a story. I can search a canvas, the edges of a gelatin print, but I always ask: And then what happened?
We would go back to our farmhouse, back to the deep-freeze, and I would feel no closer to my ethereal it. We would keep posing as lovers. Eventually, the same fate overtook us that has befallen others, even though we tried for too long to make something out of nothing, to find meaning where there was none, to create love from a tenuous attachment. And then, long after it ended, I still had Zaruma, all those photos, a bright spot standing out in all that murk. And it’s tempting to revise. It’s tempting to go back and fill in the stories whose endings I’ll never know, to bring to life something that seemed to be suffocating from the start. To paint a fresh layer of bright paint over all that rotting wood.
Among the scattered insects, a flattened golondrina rested too, the body desiccated to bones and feathers; it was lured in by the insects, no doubt, and unable to find its way out again through the small cracks of the vent. I consumed the hours, the days, the weeks since its death until I could feel its body beating against the joists, hovering at the cracks where in early morning the light streamed in, the motes roused into eddies through the steeple’s darkness.