He was saying “We are all alike,” when I nearly ran into him outside a furniture store in Colombia. “Won’t you spare something, please? Look how they treat us, my God bless you, you never know where you’ll end up, and look how they don’t even let us stand over there by the mall anymore. God bless you—we’re all alike.”
This was just a few years ago, in Bogotá, one of those times between semesters, or grad school, when I would buy a discounted ticket and sleep under a bench in the Miami airport. I came so close I could have licked the soup still dripping from his black soot beard. So I jumped back. Dirty rags on a dirtier frame, like black sails on a burnt ship. And I came so close I nearly kissed him on the lips. He said, “Look how I’m hungry,” and, “Look how they don’t even let us go stand by the mall over there anymore.” And that’s when I laughed. Which was the wrong thing to do.
Another man, another time—in Bogotá—came up to me once and showed me every wet, cavity-riddled tooth in his mouth. He was hard to miss, dust and scab and dirt, and a series of black streaks across his face which made it seem like he was sweating engine grease. I watched him kick his way through cars at the intersection, spit on street vendors and yell at the women selling umbrellas to suck his cock. He covered half the sidewalk with his gait and parted crowds like Moses did seas. All lines and bloodshot eyes and spit and spark. I stood against a wall, and I should’ve looked away, because this is what you do, but didn’t. I met his eyes and he fixed on me like he’d been waiting for just that all along. He crossed the street again, grabbed his penis through his pants and rushed toward me. It wasn’t “so fast I didn’t know what to do,” and I wasn’t “just frozen there.” I felt my toes inside my shoes, the width of my shoulders, length of my arms, saliva drying on my lips and I did not move an inch, like stillness made me bright and poisonous. He set a foot between mine, open his mouth and swung his head toward my face like a hammer. Two crooked rows of yellow teeth, the dampness of his breath on my lips, a mouth like an open palm. The sight of a wide open mouth coming toward me like a dog for his Frisbee and the memory of running as a child, through hallways and bedrooms, trying to catch little moths, and flies, and long legged mosquitoes. The pink of his tongue and the sound of him snapping his mouth shut millimeters from my nose, like the moment when I finally caught a little moth midflight and opened my hands to find bits of wings and specks of blood.
I didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. I just stood still as if all human interactions were interchangeable and of equal value, and I watched him walk away, spitting and kicking and groping.
“Little rich whore laugh at me, laugh at me eh?” He shouted louder and louder, and the louder he shouted the less people saw or heard us.
Usaquén is one of those nice places, big open markets, Asian fusion restaurants. Once an autonomous town, but Bogotá is a disheveled hungry thing that keeps chasing down anything at its periphery and swallowing it whole. Now Usaquén is barely a neighborhood, more of a clean weekend playground full of drunk-musician nights and theme-brunch afternoons, where cops keep escort the local indigent residents down, away and out of sight to the outskirts of a nearby mall.
I shifted, tried to get past him but he paced, set his foot down next to mine, turned, took three or four stomping steps and came right back like he was anchored to me.
Once, when I was sixteen, a man followed me through a dark alley. He rose from the shadows and I thought very briefly he was a shadow come alive. It was late, it was Bogotá, I was alone and too tired to take the long way around. So I headed down this unlit alley because I could see the light of a bar at the end, hear the noise of merengue clashing against champeta, and some people huddled by the road as if a bus might arrive any minute. Then this man rose up from a corner like he was the cloud of dust something large and fast leaves in its wake. I remember seeing it from the periphery and thinking I ought not to look directly. The sound of his feet hitting the pavement was faint but clear, like the first few drops of rain in a storm. He walked quickly and I saw only the shape of him from the corner of my eye, streaks of a man with hands in his pockets rising and materializing. Just the two of us in an alley, quiet and dark, so I pulled a glass bottle from my bag and swung it against the metal fence. It was not as loud as I thought it would be and some glass hung off the plastic label sort of limply and unthreateningly. But, it was surprisingly easy, this movement of the arm, smooth and relaxed, so much like waiving hello, like it might have been the bottle driving the motion, metal and glass and an easy swing. I held it out for him to see and waited for something to let me know it was time to turn around and tear through his neck with glass fangs. But nothing came, and he was too tired for a struggle, or maybe he was rushing to take a leak, or maybe I meant it when I thought, I’m going to lose this bottle inside you.
Sometimes I think about teeth on my nose, or on my cheek and neck. A mouth like an open palm catching me, specks and scraps, wings, and blood, and dust. I imagine a half-torn lip dangling on my chin as my mother pours sugar and panela shavings into holes and bite marks. She wraps me up with gauze, tells me, “It’ll fill in the hole, you’ll see. It won’t be bad, hold still.” I consider flinching and not flinching, and worse, I’m going to split you open. I think of another man I more or less used to know. I sat in his mother’s living room not so long ago, while he lay on a bed a room away. He’s been there for more than twenty years now, ever since the bullet. If I close my eyes I can see his mother pointing at a spot on her lower back, “Right here, see?” That’s where they shot him. “To ruin him.” It’s like pulling a plug, a blow dryer, a microwave—all of us contraptions with an off switch. The television fizz of electricity runs back up, through feet and knees and thighs and then the lights go out in your legs or arms or eyes. A twitch, a spark, paralysis. For a long time I thought a stabbing had put him in the chair. I had this idea of someone pushing in a knife and twisting it, to ruin him like they’d felt ruined by him. I know better now—“No, no, Lina. It was a bullet, the knifing was another time”—but I still have the image, an irrevocable knife being pulled out of a spine.
I dream about him. About the knifing. He runs through the night, through unlit alleys, dripping. Someone’s unzipped his abdomen with a knife and he’s spilling. He holds himself in as he runs like a fugitive piñata, a belly full of red candy, ribbons and string. When he finally reaches a hospital, his socks are soaked; they squish as he stumbles and he has to kick the doors open. Nurses and doctors stare at the sight of a man holding himself together with interlaced fingers until they hear him yell, “Sew me up, malparidos!” And they do, because what else are they going to do? And for a moment he’s whole again, beautiful and stitched and unconscious on a hospital bed.
Last time I saw him he was soaked in the blue glow of his television. I peeked in through a crack in the door like he was something to see, something to poke at with a stick or gawp at. I didn’t think there was enough left of his mind to put noise to face together and notice me, but then he turned and met my eyes. A second, maybe two, both us as alone in this interim, the thought of ripped open piñatas, red ribbons and moths, and then he turned away because that is what you do after commercial breaks.
“Listen to me you little whore, you listen to me now. I’ll tell you a story.” Every time the man in Usaquén began to walk away he’d reach some imaginary edge and got pulled right back around. He smelled of wet smoke, like he’d slept over damp coals. “You laugh, I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you. I will.” He pointed at the street like he was picking it out of a lineup, said, “These white vans come up, with these kids,” he turned his head and then pointed at me, “These kids they come, they set my friends on fire.” He shook his head and let it hang. “They’re dead,” he mumbled, “burnt-dead.” Then I saw him tense from the tip of his toes to the top of his head, something between a guitar and a suspension bridge. “You with them?” He looked me straight in the eye. “You come down when we sleep, set us on fire? Clean up society? Eh?!”
The first time I saw snow on a mountain in Utah, I put my feet in the fire. It was colder than I’d ever imagined the world could be and it felt dangerous, like the sound of something moving carefully in the bushes, or that deep, long, rumbling thunder that echoes like the sky is the hungry tunnel of something’s throat. All amygdala and chilled blood. So I stood in the fire, between two logs, flames licking the edges of my socks into a crisp curl. I couldn’t feel my feet, and then I could feel them too much and nothing in between seemed right or true. But no one seemed concerned, they were all used to this cold and how sharp and hard ice makes everything, and they seemed dangerous to me too. Made dangerous by their familiarity with the sharpness of winter. So I stood in the fire and it surprised me how easy it was, just standing there until the hem of my jeans was scorched. My shoes caught fire and coals melted holes in the soles. I put my finger through those holes when they’d cooled off; I wore them out walking through Bogotá, I broke a bottle against a metal fence when I thought a shadow had come alive.
I apologized. Because, what else was I going to do? But I said it under my breath when he’d turned for a moment to stare at the sidewalk as if were about to explain itself somehow, answer for white vans and cops and themed brunches. I walked around his invisible perimeter while he wasn’t looking, and I apologized. Lo siento, in Spanish—which is “I’m sorry,” but not quite. Lo siento, “I feel it.” Less about responsibility and more about company in a feeling, in a fire, in a snow storm, in a wreath of broken glass and torn moth wings. I’m sorry, about the laughter and the burns, and whatever look on my face made you think I’d set fire to you too. And I’m sorry I looked and I’m sorry I hadn’t before. For little cans of gasoline poured on sleeping men, catching moths and long legged mosquitoes, standing in the fire. Sew me back up, malparidos.
Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. was born in Bogotá, Colombia. She attended Brigham Young University, where she attained at BA in English, and later moved onto the University of Iowa for two MFA degrees—one in literary translation and the other in creative nonfiction writing. She currently resides in Wenzhou, China, where she teaches all manner of things and works on her book, Don’t Come Back, forthcoming in May, 2015, from Sarabande Books.