Cerro Alegre

This is a story in 5 scenes, an assignment originally written in Spanish for my creative writing class. When I wrote the first scene, I didn’t know there would be four more to follow, so I had to do a little wriggling to make it work. The most important parameter of the assignment was that it take place in the famously lively, colorful, and popular tourist destination, Cerro Alegre, which is where I happen to live. Since I’m *very clever and creative*, coupled with my circumstances, I ran the other way from writing about the typical sights and sounds that most people associate with this area. Turns out it’s mostly about isolation, though that wasn’t really intended to be a pattern. It’s funny how things just end up that way and then you realize “oh that’s probably on my mind”. The story is as true as it isn’t.

I. Night’s already fallen. The people who passed to and fro below my window all day —the people who are making their vacation on Cerro Alegre, where I am carving a slice of my life— have left to their beds, and I think how they are probably even less at home tonight than I am. They’ve finally ceased complicating the air with their jumbled words, leaving behind a rare evening hush that I drink like hot tea, feeling the wet warmth of silence sooth my throat that aches from speaking words whose imperfection scratch and scrape on their way to meet the world who will never know exactly what I want to say.

I fit perfectly in my bed; there’s no wasted space. I can feel each spring that digs gently, a shallow pressure every four inches from my head to my toes. I could count them if I wanted to, but I don’t. It doesn’t matter because I always go to bed tired, and they do nothing to keep me from sleep at the end of long days, which they all are.

Now it’s the seagulls who fill the sky with sound, and I understand them no better than the tourists— although I wonder more what the birds have to say. One squawk after another, two at a time, and then a whole chorus singing an unpleasant song which resonates like cruel laughter. In the space that lives between wakefulness and dreams their voices change and reality blurs…

II. The chatter shifts from nonsensical squawks to unintelligible speech and the red glow behind my eyelids takes the shape of a sunny day on a crowded, rusty bus navigating twisting streets. Streaks of color wiz by outside rickety windows as an old man in the front seat wipes sweat from his active laugh-lines with a frayed handkerchief from his shirt pocket.

The bus driver finishes recounting the story about his hippy son-in-law from California, and there’s an eruption of fresh laughter. He’s become the butt of many jokes among the old friends who often occupy the first row of seats. They’ve heard so much about the gringo who married the bus driver’s daughter that he’s become an intimate sort of trope. They feel like they know the man themselves.

A woman aged by the sun and wind in an ankle-length orange dress shakes her head at the relatively good-natured resentment in the driver’s voice. Silently, fondly she acknowledges that the father-of-the-bride probably holds some unfair bias against the poor boy. She considers disbelievingly the time that’s passed since she was a newly-wed. The tension between her husband and her father faded, but never, ever disappeared before her father passed. She smiles a little sadly, privately marveling at the small consistencies of an ephemeral world, taking solace.

There’s a comfortable air of familiarity, as if they’ve been riding this very bus up winding hills together for years— which they have, ever since their knees have gotten too weak to climb them. The driver, who knows each of them by name, steers expertly around serpentine corners. Their bodies barely react to the harsh inertia that tosses the tourist gringos behind them like confetti in an indecisive wind.

The bus slows slightly as they round a corner, then screeches to an unexpected halt as a slumped figure in the road obstructs their path.

“Pobrecito” says one of the friends with distant sympathy, a plump woman in maroon with kind eyes, leathery skin, and a face framed by silvery strands who’ve aged faster than the rest.

Most of the passengers stay on the bus and crane their necks, but the front row stand and venture out, one by one. A wispy man even older than they descends heavily from the back of the bus where he sits daily, quietly, usually unnoticed on his solitary commute home to his beloved wife and dog.

He walks slowly forward, hobbling over cobblestone, overtaking the small crowd of concerned on-lookers. He crouches to wrap his arms around the cumbersome shadow and stands with some difficulty. A couple moments he remains still before ambling off, upwards, taking an alley sheathed in shade toward his home. The friends watch his ascent in instinctive reverence, dazing in confused wonderment after him. What was his name? Diego?

The wind picks up again and the friends look around as the windows of the bus rattle, break, and disassemble in the wake of violent gusts, but curiously remain suspended as if the air had turned to oil. Disjointedly the scene falls apart and is rebuilt with more solidity as I blink into abrupt awareness…

III. It’s the window of my bedroom that’s making the real-life noise that cast less real, sonorous shadows, echoing in the walls of my skull while the walls around me threaten to cave in at the violent bequest of insisting winds. I stand up and go to the window, leaving warm covers behind, and find myself captivated by the pinkness of a too-early morning. Some miles away a thick and unforgiving smoke chokes the sky. The air smells like marshmallows roasting on a campfire. I can imagine, I can practically see, fields burning, living trees devolving into fuel for the flames just outside city limits.

I climb out the window and fix myself on the tin roof, inexplicably desperate to be enveloped in open air, to be more a part of the phenomenon I’m viewing from afar.

A siren wails who doesn’t sound like home, who seems to signal something more insidious than the more familiar urgent cries that I know from my life in Tennessee. It strikes me that these sirens have nothing to do with the disaster I’m witnessing at a distance. They indicate a closer, private disaster whose details I should hope to never know.

Uninvited tears forge trails down my cheeks and the chilled wind stings in their wake.

Seagulls seem to scream in panic rather than mirth, a warning that’s probably all in my imagination.

I set back through the window, and seal it securely from the wind.

I climb back in my bed, cocoon in wool covers.

I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for sleep and a more reasonable hour…

IV.   I can tell before I open my eyes again that it’s nearly afternoon. Light pours in from every window. The rooms feels stale and too hot.

I open the door to my little isolated environment and breathe welcome, fresh air for a few moments in the patio that separates me from the main apartment. I take pause before I enter the part of my home that feels quite a lot less like mine, and descend the stairs to face a world outside of my imagination.

I take in distinct airborne flavors, greeted by the dry scent of vanilla and patchouli incense that interact pleasantly with spicy thai aromas who are probably giving flavor to corn, rice, and chicken, swimming together in a bowl I haven’t seen yet. I reach the bottom of the stairs unnoticed. I see my host mom, Cata, cooking to feed her family, which for the moment I am a part of. I feel humbled as I observe her work which looks like a pleasure as she sings with the radio, English and pitch imperfect. She loves The Beatles.

She takes a knife to some iceberg lettuce that makes a crunchy sound that’s as green and wet as it is. Behind her a pot begins to boil, begging for attention. She turns obligingly, opening the fridge to collect half a dozen eggs. Gently she places them in the waiting water who gurgles in anticipation. I can see the marker on the counter which she uses to distinguish otherwise identical cooked eggs (branded with a small red “x”) from raw ones (unmarred) before she will return them to their individual nests within their assigned shelf.

“¡Diego! ¿Has visto el abierto vino?” she calls to her son without lifting her eyes.

I sneak out without listening for a response.

V. I sit on the sidewalk and close my eyes, looking for words to assign to the moments I’ve lived, to contain the ephemeral dreams and inexplicable sensations that threaten to consume me any moment. If I wrap them in words, I can control them. I’m overwhelmed by everything and my mind is as much a prison as it is a refuge.

And no matter where I seek peace, I can’t seem to find it. The exception is within the pages of my journal, and the temporal, leafy space between its emptiness and fullness. It is in moments of expression, not a moment before or after, that I feel the way I imagine the rest of the world to feel, and suddenly I can imagine how they walk about as if they have something to live for.

Maybe it’s like bleeding a patient in the old days before they understood that disease and sickness don’t live in the blood in that sense. But I can see the reasoning. I guess that’s why I’m not a doctor.

Expression is like bleeding. Both are proof of life.