Looking back, Raúl remembered his first visit to the room and the view from the window of what would become his first home away from home. It was a lovely view, he had to admit. With one knee on the small bed, he looked out the window at the tree-lined street below, the charming row houses with their well-tended small gardens down the street to the right, and the creek winding its way through the park beyond. To his left, the tall bridge carried cars and bicycles, silently from here, from the northwestern suburbs into the heart of the city. Robins jostled at the canopy of the tall trees ahead. Sensing movement below, he watched as an elderly woman struggled to direct a beagle up the sidewalk, intent as the dog was on a squirrel in one of the front lawns.
“Very quiet, you see?” asked the prospective roommate, mixing sensory modalities, and the young man nodded, still watching the beagle track the squirrel away from the twig-strewn sidewalk, while the elderly woman yanked weakly at his leash. “Everybody loves it,” she smiled. “Like living in a tree house, but with better plumbing.” She laughed at her own oft-repeated joke.
The young man eased off the bed, standing before the woman, towering over her short and slight Asian frame. “I love it,” he said.
She smiled broadly. “You leave me the deposit today, and it’s yours for the summer.”
And so it was that the young man, Raúl, secured a place to live during his upcoming summer internship with the embassy from his Central American country. His worried mother had initially frowned upon this idea and any connection with the embassy. After all, they had escaped with their lives and little else following the government coup during which his father, a mid-level government functionary, disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered. Raúl and his sister Violeta were still children when the elder Raúl, fearing for their lives, arranged to have them and their mother Eustacia stow away on a freight ship carrying crates of bananas to the U.S. It was a long and nauseating journey; and Eustacia anxiously cradled the children, fearful always of being arrested, kidnapped, or worse by potential sympathizers of the new regime.
Disembarking under cover of night over the oily and dark waters of the commercial docks, they finally made it safely to the home of their contact, a friend of Raúl’s father. He had worked at the consulate until the coup, when word arrived that he was to be recalled by the new regime. Instead he sought and obtained political asylum in the U.S., anticipating that he would be imprisoned or killed upon his return. He had not heard any news of the elder Raúl’s whereabouts or safety, and Eustacia prayed and cried as they saw the news reports. It was said that the insurrectionists had executed the president and many others connected with the U.S.-backed dictatorship.
With their contact’s assistance and that of other U.S.-based friends, the exiled family was able to obtain asylum as they waited to be reunited with the elder Raúl. They settled into a small apartment outside of Miami and waited for months in dwindling hopes of hearing from him. They never received any official word, but his name was among those circulated through the grapevine as having been executed and dumped into a mass grave in the coffee-growing mountainous interior.
Though Eustacia remained a fearful, overprotective mother, she was able to provide a loving home for her children with the aid of distant cousins who came swiftly to their assistance when they learned of the newly arrived primos. Raúl and Violeta grew up in bilingual, sunshine-drenched south Florida among the Cubans, Colombians, and variously dispossessed Latinos who were carving out a new identity there, amid the sounds of salsa and cumbia in the streets.
While holding proudly to their language, food, and traditions, most members of the community there showed a surprisingly patriotic devotion to their adoptive country. Nonetheless, as new waves of migrants arrived, including Salvadoran gangs, Colombian drug dealers and others, crime became rampant and a backlash of prejudice and bigotry became directed against them.
Despite occasional eruptions of anti-immigrant sentiment, the children were naturally bright and curious and did well in school, mastering English quickly and finding support among their teachers. They were not alone in being marked for periodic insults and taunting, and they knew that the Haitian and Guatemalan kids had it worse, so they were not overly sensitive or scarred by the experience. Raúl grew up with a strong sense of social justice, recognizing every advantage he had and overlooking those he did not. He did not judge harshly the kids who joined the growing neighborhood gangs and cruised the backstreets of Dade County in souped-up Civics with big spoilers, holding big guns in their tremulous hands. Raúl understood these kids to be sad and unloved, and he was eager to engage in an effort to provide more opportunities to those who like him had come to America for a better life.
Raúl excelled in school and had his pick of colleges to attend. While his mother urged him to attend the prestigious university in the Northeast that offered him a great scholarship, he felt that his mother still needed him at home. He chose instead to commute to the local state college, allowing him also to keep his grocery store job and help out financially at home. As he approached graduation, he began to contemplate his options and felt at a crossroads as he never had before. He listened to the conflicting advice of his college professors and felt no closer to a decision. Then he found the name and address of Hortensio Ojuela, the family’s old contact at the consulate who had lobbied on their behalf and started them on the path to becoming new Americans.
Raúl wrote to Don Hortensio to ask for his advice and support, citing his desire to become politically active as an American citizen and a member of the Latino community. Don Hortensio responded graciously and noted that the political climate in their native country had changed. He urged Raúl to pursue a summer internship with the embassy in Washington, D.C. He still had connections with the diplomatic staff, and he told Raúl that he would gladly write him a letter of reference, highlighting the unique experience Raúl could have as an insider in both countries.
Fifteen years and seven months after first setting foot on U.S. soil, Raúl received a letter of response from the embassy. The letter, unusually formal and italicized in an era of ungrammatical and abbreviated e-mail missives, offered Raúl a position with the assistant to the assistant to the ambassador in D.C. He would participate in interviews with relevant politicians and members of Congress, and he would have the opportunity to help write position papers for the U.S. news outlets.
Raúl arrived in D.C. in the midst of a May heat wave that made the buildings shimmer and was, if possible, even worse than that of south Florida. His mother dropped him off with tears and lingering hugs at the Miami-Dade airport and he took the Metro in from Reagan airport, wheeling a large duffel bag and carrying a knapsack over his shoulders. He had reserved an extended-stay room for a week until he could secure a room for the summer. He had made multiple appointments to look at rooms over several days prior to starting the internship, but it was proving a disheartening experience. The ones he liked were beyond his budget and those that seemed even only barely affordable were located in dangerous and out-of-the-way neighborhoods. He felt the disappointment in his gut as he reached the last address on his list. To his surprise and suspicion, it was a tall building, elegant if somewhat faded, on a lovely tree-lined street overlooking a park in a tony and convenient neighborhood. The front door was locked and there was a concierge, providing some added security. Mom would like that, he thought.
The woman posting the room for rent ad was Annie Chen, a tiny fifty-something who still divided her rooms with strings of beads. The apartment smelled of ginger and sandalwood, and a fat gray cat sat at one of the windowsills, unfazed by the human company. A number of oil and acrylic paintings lined the walls and sat on every surface in the small apartment, ranging from abstract expressionist canvases to whimsical portraits. Formal black-and-white portraits of an Asian couple, presumably Annie’s parents, stared from the wall alongside brush paintings on rice paper, a concession to her ancestral past. Annie took evident pride in her artwork, and she pointed out almost every painting, sketch, print, and knickknack in the apartment, describing her eagerness to embrace every aspect of the creative process. “I also sing and write music,” she beamed. “I get energy and inspiration from young people like you!” Raúl felt there was something over the top about Annie, but also a sincere openness that appealed to him.
The apartment was small, and the bedroom she was renting out was actually a space probably meant to be a home office; it did not even have a door, and a heavy red curtain was all that separated it from the main living area. She drew the curtain revealing a messy makeshift bed piled with books and clothes. A bike leaned against a small cheap chest of open drawers. Annie’s artwork was the only other decor; that is, except for the view of the trees from the wide window. He set one knee on the bed and looked out at the view. He knew then that he wanted that to be his view upon waking in the morning and going to bed at night.
The bedroom was occupied by a Swedish guy named Lars whose lease ran out in two days; he had promised to clear his stuff by then, as soon as he found a storage place for it. Lars worked for a cable TV channel and was going to spend a month in India on assignment. According to Annie, Lars was hopeful of returning to the room once he came back to the U.S., but she had told him that she could not keep the room open for him. Other people would want to live there and the room belonged to whoever was willing to commit to pay for it. Raúl nodded in agreement and felt a wave of possessiveness: Lars’s day had come and gone; this would now be Raúl’s place, and it would be his stuff in the room.
Raúl arrived as agreed three days later, lugging his stuff off the Metro stop escalator. He walked past the park and down the tree-lined street, grateful for the shade. He buzzed the concierge to be let in, and he thought that the decor in the lobby seemed more faded and neglected than when he first visited. The dour woman at the concierge desk eyed him appraisingly and did not return his smile. She told him that Annie was not in, but— at this she shuffled unenthusiastically to the numbered cubbyholes on the wall behind her, retrieving an envelope – she had left him a note and the key to the apartment. Annie was at an art show, according to the note; but it read to go ahead and make himself at home.
Raúl took the slow, droning elevator, its walls padded in thick gray sheets. The hallway of the sixth floor was quiet; a faded sign in front of the elevator door indicated that the even-numbered rooms were to the left and the odd ones to the right. Seems appropriate, thought Raúl as he turned right and found the nailed metal numbers on the front door signaling his new home.
In the absence of Annie’s enthusiasm, the silent apartment took on an oddly anoxic feeling. The tiny kitchen on the right by the front door was messy, with stacked bowls and porcelain dishes. The windows were closed and the air felt heavy and musty. The ubiquitous artwork was eclectic to the point of seeming now haphazard and disconnected. It’s a damn attic, thought Raúl to himself. He threaded his body and belongings through the cramped living area and drew the heavy red curtain. He was disconcerted to see Lars’s books on the bed and his bike leaning against the open drawers of the small chest. Had he even been back? Did he expect to return? Raúl pushed the books aside and dumped his duffel bag on the small lumpy bed. At least the view out the window was as comforting as he recalled it. He pressed his face against the glass to look around. The trees were fuller now as summer approached. Two girls were running together along the path by the creek and right below him a couple walked two retrievers. He let himself flop onto the bed, pushing aside the books and debris on it, and discovered himself to be more tired than he had recognized. His arms and legs felt tight and lying down soothed and relaxed them. To his surprise, he felt himself drift off as memories of the flight in morphed into dream images. He was on an escalator climbing up towards the sun, arriving at the apex of a pyramid overlooking the jungle below. Raúl recognized this image as incompatible with his present reality, and knew he must be wavering in and out of sleep.
Raúl started, and saw the big smile and little body of Annie standing by the open curtain. His first thought was, what time is it? He smiled sheepishly, and Annie launched into an explanation of her day, the art show, and “oh yeah sorry about Lars’s stuff still here no problem we can take it downstairs to the basement storage area but it’s too heavy for me to do alone but now you’re here so no problem okay”?
Raúl nodded, still heavy with sleep.
“You stay here. I want to take a picture of you,” smiled Annie, and she zipped away, returning with a camera. You’re kidding, thought Raúl, but he said nothing as Annie squinted through the camera for what seemed an excessively long photo shoot. At last she stopped and put the camera down. “You hungry?” she asked. “Let’s eat first. Then we can take stuff downstairs.”
Annie’s space in the basement was slightly larger than my putative bedroom and it was crammed to the proverbial gills with clothes, books, loose leaf binders, tools, painting supplies, and boxes with torn corners and frayed packing tape. How she could possibly find room for Lars’s stuff was astonishing, but before long his things had merged into the earlier mess with no evident change. “You could hide a body in here and no one would find it for years,” Annie laughed. Raúl laughed hollowly in response. It occurred to him that he had never met Lars and had no explanation for Annie’s choice to keep his stuff in storage. Did she kill him? Is his body hidden here, he asked himself, recognizing how ridiculous this thought was. There would be a simple explanation if only he asked her, he told himself; but he just didn’t want to appear to be challenging this tiny vibrant and artistic Asian woman.
The first few days in his internship were exciting and heady indeed. It was odd to find out how many people had personally known or known of Raúl’s dad, whom he hardly remembered, and it gave him a sense of connectedness such as he had never known before. It also instilled in him a strong sense of mission, as the consulate staff appeared to making a sincere effort to assist their nationals who faced a range of problems, from immigration issues through questions about taxes and educational opportunities, to family concerns that they did not dare discuss with the local authorities. The director of the student internship program, Calixto San Inocencio, was a young Georgetown Law graduate who seemed to know everyone in D.C., as well as all the cool places for young people to attend. His street knowledge was invaluable: he guided Raúl not only to the best inexpensive restaurants and clubs, but to the places where the Capitol Hill staffers and diplomatic corps members lubricated their tongues and gave away useful information.
But for all that, Raúl found himself feeling uneasy at home. His odd thought that Annie might have killed and hidden Lars’s body, absurd as it was, infiltrated itself into every odd experience, of which there were several. He found clothing items he had folded neatly and placed in the top drawer, in the same manner but in the second drawer. Twice he woke up during the night to see Annie’s face peering around the curtain at him, only to disappear so quickly he thought he might have only imagined her. And he found his face now displayed in the house; Annie had worked some of the pictures she took of him into somewhat abstracted renditions in charcoal and pencil that she framed and set in various locations. What bothered Raúl most about these was that she had twisted his features so that he appeared to be in agony; he thought of them as resembling death masks. When he looked quizzically at one of them by way of introducing the topic, Annie clapped her hands and squealed with delight. “Beautiful! This one is also my new favorite,” she stated with such unself-conscious glee that Raúl felt inclined only to smile in ostensible approval.
On his first Saturday morning, eager to sleep in and perhaps take in the sights in a leisurely fashion, Raúl awoke too early to the commotion of various loud voices. He flipped opened his cell phone to look at the time; it was 6:45am. What the fuck?, he thought. No sooner did he turn than Annie peered in his curtain.
“You’re awake!” She exclaimed joyfully. “Come meet my friends!” The other end of the curtain then parted slightly to reveal the face of an elegant Filipino woman, who smiled at Raúl and then turned to nod at Annie. Annie laughed and both women left, allowing he curtain to spread closed once again.
Raúl slipped on a t-shirt over his pajama pants and slipped out of his bedroom into the living area. There were several people there, all older and sitting around the central table that displayed many of Annie’s heavier objets d’art. They gazed at him in a manner that he felt intrusive despite the surface friendliness. Two men, seemingly gay — maybe a couple– held out their hands and introduced themselves as Brian and Paul. Brian had a decidedly Irish brogue and Paul had a soft Southern drawl. The Filipino woman was introduced as Gloria, another artist; she crossed her arms over her chest and made a motion as if she were going to cry. “Raúl was my father’s name,” she said, as her eyes disappeared into her face. “But he spoke Tagalog, not Spanish.” Annie laughed along with Gloria as Raúl smiled politely.
The two other women stayed seated. Raúl now noted that they were not as old as he thought at first. Brian, Paul, and Gloria were probably all close to or past fifty, but the other two—Karin and Gisela—were probably in their late 30’s. They would have seemed younger in a younger crowd, thought Raúl, recognizing that both were fairly attractive, Gisela especially so. He assumed immediately that both women were German, but he learned that Karin was Austrian and Gisela Swiss.
“So you’re neutral,” he chirped in an effort a humor that fell completely flat.
Gisela held his gaze. “Not if by neutral you mean dull,” she responded, with an inflection that struck Raúl as profoundly sexy while also somewhat supercilious.
“So will you be joining us?” asked Brian. “We’re going to Paul’s cabin in the country for a barbecue and fun.”
“It’s a cookout,” corrected Paul. “Barbecue is something else altogether, you Yankee.” They both laughed heartily.
Oh no. Absolutely no way, thought Raúl. He intended to enjoy his first weekend off in D.C. by himself, and with Annie away from the apartment at last, he saw this as a perfect opportunity to enjoy some privacy.
“You should come,” said Gisela, matter-of-factly; there was nothing plaintive to her tone, but Raúl found himself persuaded to pursue the potential adventure.
Paul’s cabin was in Maryland, a little over an hour out of D.C., and he had a van into which the whole group piled in. Raúl sat between Karin and Gisela in the middle seats, and Annie sat in the back with Gloria. The movement of the van led Raúl and Gisela to bump into each other periodically and after a while they remained close enough that their hips and legs touched even when the van was not negotiating turns. Raúl felt an exciting tingling sensation in that proximity to her but was careful not to bring attention to their propinquity.
When at last they reached their destination, it turned out to be a beautiful secluded redwood and glass home atop a hill, with a view in all directions. The bucolic cabin Raúl expected was fully serviced and stocked, and beautifully decorated. Even though it was still only about 9:30 in the morning, Paul announced “cocktail time!” and produced a tray with a pitcher of vodka, one of Bloody Mary mix, and assorted fixings, including celery stalks, limes, black pepper, and horseradish.
Annie and Gloria gave Raúl a tour of the house, pointing out their own contributions to the art work that adorned the house. Brian sat on the living room floor before the stereo set with his drink on the carpeted floor. He shuffled through a variety of CD’s and started with an old Neil Young album. “Sugar Mountain” came on and he and Paul exchanged brief, meaningful glances. From the kitchen, Gisela and Karin could be heard speaking German and laughing. Raúl walked in to the large kitchen, where the Teutonic women stood leaning against the cabinets, smoking a joint. The smell was familiar and unpleasant to Raúl; against his usual judgment, however, he accepted it and took a drag when Gisela passed it to him. Annie and Gloria took hits off the joint as well, and before long the women all seemed stoned and giddy. In contrast, Raúl was untouched by the pot and he started to feel resentful about the gathering. The more the others found everything hysterically funny, the more antipathy he felt toward them. He decided to go out for a walk by himself. As he crossed the living room toward the sliding glass doors he passed Brian and Paul lying down intertwined on the living room in front of the stereo speakers.
Raúl crossed the deck, where the grill stood ready. He walked through the yard into the woods, where a path beckoned. He ambled along the path into a grotto-like space under the canopy of the deciduous trees, and as he looked around him he felt he was in the presence of God. Nature was infinitely beautiful, the breeze against his face was reviving, and the swaying of the leaves was too intelligent and conscious to be ignored. He knelt down and felt tears of joy and appreciation run down his cheeks.
At some point, he turned back down the path, aware of the footsteps of the squirrels and the wind through the wings of the birds. He stepped cautiously and gratefully, and as he emerged into the yard within view of the house he felt himself brimming with happiness at being reunited with the other humans.
His first such encounter was with Paul and Brian, who sat at a porch swing on the deck. They smiled wordlessly at Raúl and it occurred to him then that they understood him better than anyone else. As gay men, they belonged to mainstream white American society but also stood outside it, scorned by many; as a Latino immigrant fluent in English and raised in the U.S., it was the same for him. He crossed the deck and entered the house, turning toward the kitchen. There was no one there and he returned to the living room.
In the living room, the women sat at the couch and easy chairs as Moby played from the speakers. Gisela smiled at Raúl and her smile was simply glorious and luminous. He walked over to where she sat. She moved over slightly, clearing a space for him on the loveseat. Annie, unusually quiet, smiled at him as he found a spot nestled against Gisela’s accommodating body. He melted into her and felt a comfort he had never experienced before. Gisela opened her arms and took Raúl into her bosom; he closed his eyes and listened as every note of the Moby CD cemented his sensory memory of her.
Some time later, Gisela got up to head into the kitchen and pour another Bloody Mary into her glass. She winked at Raúl, who followed her. In the kitchen, they reclined against the butcher-block island and kissed as he had never kissed a woman before.
The next day, Sunday, Raúl woke up to the sound of Annie noisily moving things around in the kitchen. His head hurt and the banging of pots and pans pierced into his brain. He felt uncomfortable and a nagging sense of guilt hung over him. He then remembered making out with Gisela and his guilt took on a clearer shape. Oh no, oh no, he thought. Through his discomfort he could hear Annie singing something vaguely familiar; after a few off-key bars he recognized it as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.” Raúl rolled over in bed and the singing stopped abruptly.
“You up?” Annie pulled back part of the curtain to peer in at him. I so wish she would stop doing that, thought Raúl; but all he said was “Yup.”
Annie smiled her wide grin. “We had a great time yesterday, right?”
“I guess,” said Raúl, although all he could summon was an extraordinary sense of wrong.
“Gisela is a good girl,” Annie said. “Very smart, too.” This was not what Raúl wanted to hear at all. He was truly hoping that the whole thing had gone unnoticed entirely (just about impossible), forgotten (still unlikely), or at least ignored and unmentioned (too late for that).
“Yes, I’m sure,” Raúl responded, resigning himself to Annie’s inability to recognize signs of reticence. It became clear to him that if he stayed in the apartment today he would not have access to the privacy, the soul-searching time, the quiet contemplation and reflection he needed. He was in over his head here. Raúl was a bright and well-liked, but ultimately bashful boy who had not left his mother’s side. Despite his intellectual prowess and seeming independence, his personal life lacked the experiences of love and autonomy that most 21-year old males in this country had, or at least claimed to possess.
So finding himself in a new big city, living with an older Asian woman in a semi-room whose previous tenant had seemingly disappeared, spending a day in the country with older foreigners, and making out with an older German woman – not to mention getting high, a wholly illegal act and one that he had frowned upon when his schoolmates did, dismissive of their escapism, their immaturity, their disregard for the rule of law – all of this flooded his sense of identity and swept the mileposts that safeguarded his direction in life. He could not undo the events of the previous day, but he could pledge renewed commitment to his path and reinforce his mission. So he would return to his internship on Monday with abandon, throwing himself into service to others and the path toward greater success at doing so.
That still left today, however, and he would have to get away from this den of iniquity if he was going to stay true to his mission. And that’s when Annie said, “I got a picnic ready for us. Let’s go to Rock Creek Park and have a relaxing day, me and you.”
Raúl shook his head before he could formulate a verbal response. Annie looked crestfallen for a brief moment and then a smile crossed her face. “I have everything ready. Just a time for relaxing. You can read or whatever. Nobody else is coming today. No need to talk if you don’t want.”
Well, thought Raúl, one more day and I’m back on track tomorrow.
The day was perfect. It was even a little cool as the morning light spread softly over the park. Birds chirped above. Runners took to the pathways, earbuds attached to mp3 players providing their individual soundtracks. Dark squirrels a color Raúl had never seen scurried across the ground and up into trees. Even Annie was uncharacteristically quiet, lugging a picnic basket with a linen towel peeking out from the lid.
They found a place under the trees where they laid out the blanket and pillows Raúl carried, and they set down the basket after taking off their shoes. Annie smiled. “Nice,” Raúl allowed.
“Tell me when you’re hungry,” Annie said. Raúl had not been able to see the contents of the picnic basket and he worried that she might have packed some odd Asian foods that would trouble his stomach— something with squid or duck feet, or sheep brains, who knows. He hesitated.
Annie wordlessly opened the picnic basket and turned down the linen towel, revealing a baguette, a jar of pâté de foie gras, various cheeses, and cornichons. A bottle of champagne was wrapped in a cooling sleeve and she extracted a bottle of orange juice and two plastic flutes. “For Buck’s Fizz; you probably know them as mimosas,” she explained.
Raúl stared in ill-disguised disbelief. Annie laughed. “I never told you I lived in Europe, right? I spent two years in London and three years in Paris. I love French food.” Raúl felt chastened at his stereotypic assumptions, and was grateful that Annie said no more about it, while clearly understanding that this was the case. She opened the bottles and mixed mimosas while he tore chunks of the baguette, spreading pâté and cornichons on some and cheese on others, as per Annie’s instructions. “You can mix the pâté and cheese if you want,” she said, but she shook her head with a look of disgust as she did. Raúl laughed.
“This is unbelievably good,” he said, savoring the pâté as it release wave upon wave of subtle flavors. The cold mimosa was refreshing and produced a delicious light buzz. Raúl felt more conscious than ever of the beauty of the park, the gurgling of the water, the dancing shadows cast by the tree leaves, and the perfect feel of sun and breeze upon his skin.
After eating, Annie lay back against one of the pillows and reached for a book she was reading. Raúl saw that it was in French, titled Rédemption, by an author named Chantal Chawaf. He reached for his book, a much-publicized recent memoir by a Washington politician, and leaned back on a pillow as well. However, his attention kept drifting to the moving shadows and playful rays of sunlight, and he could not keep track of the words on the page.
He opted to set the book down on his chest and just watch the unfolding natural landscape before him. It was quiet and perfect. He had found the silence he craved and now, with food in his stomach and his headache gone, even yesterday’s events seemed understandable and benign to him. Not only that, as his mood eased up from euthymic to mildly euphoric, he thought about Gisela and wondered when he might see her again. He raised himself up on one elbow and watched Annie as she read.
“When were you there —in Europe, I mean?” Annie looked up at him and seemed briefly disoriented.
“I was in London in 1965 to 1967. I was just a kid. Then we went to Paris, from 1968 to 1971.”
“Wow, how did that happen?”
“Long story. My mother was born into great shame, and she did not have place to call home. You ever hear about Nanjing, or Nanking?”
“City in China, right?”
Annie smiled sadly. “The Japanese army invaded in 1937. One of the worst episodes in modern history. They killed hundred of thousand people and raped up to 80,000 women. Today this is still known as the Rape of Nanking.”
“Oh my God, I hadn’t heard anything about this.”
“My grandmother was fourteen and raped by the Japanese. When it became clear that she was pregnant she became an object of great shame. The people wanted to put the baby to death, as the child of one of these Japanese monsters. My grandmother, just a child, heard of an English missionary family in Shanghai, about 180 miles away, and hope that they might give the baby a chance to live elsewhere. She waited for an auspicious night and left her house, walking, with the baby. Somehow she made it to Shanghai and the house of the missionaries. This we know because they told and wrote the story. However, she never made it back to Nanjing. Her body was found outside the bridge to Suzhou.
“Anyway, my mother was taken to India, the next stop of the missionary family, who left Shanghai by ship with news that the war would be spreading and they were no longer safe. They loved Shanghai and were deeply saddened to leave. Even once in India, they continued to honor their Chinese experience and used feng shui guidelines to arrange their new house. They even built a Chinese-style temple, with incense, pictures, and offerings of fruit, although they denied any conflict with their Baptist beliefs. They saw my mother as a gift from China to them, and they took loving care of her.”
Annie stopped and Raúl saw that she had abruptly choked up. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have not talked about this in a long time.”
Raúl was at a loss for words. “I’m sorry. I would love to hear as much as you want to tell.”
Annie smiled. “Let’s enjoy this beautiful day. No more sad stories.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Maybe later then. More pâté?” And that was it. In her polite, good-natured manner, Annie made it clear that her story was over for today.
The sun overhead was starting to sear as the temperature reached the mid-80’s, following a surprisingly cool morning. Annie’s cell phone vibrated and she picked it up.
“Yes, he’s here with me,” she grinned and mouthed Gisela at Raúl. Raúl smiled and waved with his hand. “He says hello,” said Annie, all the time looking at Raúl. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “She wants to join us,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Raúl actually wanted to hear more of Annie’s story, but he was surprised to feel a sense of both longing and excitement at Gisela’s presence on the phone. “Sure,” he said, and Annie conveyed the response. Raúl leaned back on his pillow, shielding his eyes from what had become a more incisive sunlight, and he felt that a new life was spreading out before him, unexpected, unanticipated, but perhaps predestined somehow.
The following Monday at the embassy, Raúl arrived a changed young man. He ran into the director, Calixto, who asked if he was settling into D.C.
“Definitely,” responded Raúl with a degree of excitement that surprised him. “I love it here.”
“Cuidado,” cautioned Calixto. “This town is known to exert its spell on newcomers and seasoned pols alike.”
Raúl smiled and thought back to yesterday. He wanted to hear the rest if Annie’s story—one of forced migration and familial tragedy such as he had not imagined—and he wanted to spend more time with Gisela, the beautiful 38-year old Schweizerdeutsch woman who had awakened in him such passion. She met him and Annie at the park yesterday, and they spent time together there talking about art and music; they then went out to eat at a place on Connecticut Avenue, close to the Woodley Metro stop. They did not kiss or in any way give in to the dizzying attraction that held them, but he did get her number when she slipped him her business card over dinner.
Gisela, it turned out, was an art dealer, specializing in abstract expressionist paintings. Raúl knew nothing about this genre, and if asked would have expressed doubts about it being art at all. However, she was going to be attending a Rothko exhibition and explained to Raúl what she saw in this defiance of the traditional mores of the art world. He and Annie perused the book of reproductions she brought with her and then, far into the book, he suddenly got it: it was a view of the primal world beyond, the colors of nature at various times of day and night, as if viewed from a cave home. He found himself close to tears as he recognized a feeling of sad beauty that he had never previously found in art. These are so fucking beautiful, he thought. Annie agreed, and mentioned having been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
“You will love it,” Annie told Raúl, and Gisela agreed. “We should go someday,” she said, winking at him, and it seemed to Raúl both promising and frightening to hear this suggestion of a future together.
By Wednesday, Raúl was aware that he ached for Gisela. He found all kinds of ways to explain this away, and they were easy enough to find. Even so, however, he wished to see her. He and Gisela had behaved politely to a fault at the park, and no plans for further rendezvous were made. He had her card, turned it often in his fingers and memorized her work number, but did not know whether it would be appropriate to call her. He hoped that Annie would mention something and give him a reason to call Gisela.
However, in an inexplicable new nod to discretion, Annie had not mentioned her again and for the last few days she had not even pulled the curtain aside to peer in to Raúl’s bedroom when he gave indications of waking up. Raúl was now living with the privacy that he had craved at first, but it now felt distant and isolating.
And yet he was here for a purpose, in the heart of the nation’s capital and one of the most important locations on the planet, surrounded by his people — darker-skinned, Spanish-speaking people, people who shared a pre-Columbian Indian heritage as well as a post-colonial Latin American culture — and his dalliance with white Germanic Gisela as well as Asian Annie seemed somehow treasonous. He was here on a mission, to do right by his people and the country for which his father had died. His mother had reluctantly entrusted her confidence in his mission, knowing all too well how her own people rose up from time to time against themselves, leaving death and devastation in their wake. She had come to the U.S., foreseeing a post-national American life, bilingual and multicultural, which required leaving behind the national identity Raúl was now claiming; but she was willing to sponsor his adoption of that identity if it was in fact the right thing to do. The sacrifice his family had made was tantamount to that of the young virgins whose living hearts were ritually removed from their chest walls atop Maya pyramids in his ancestral land. He could not allow that legacy to go ignored. He would throw himself into his work at the embassy, and that would be the target of all his attention and concentration.
But the embassy did not reciprocate his dedication. He was being kept busy but it was not satisfying work. He was given a number of readings but no worthy assignments and he was largely functioning as an overeducated page. Calixto was busy these last few days and mostly unavailable, and Raúl wondered if he had conveyed a bad impression somehow. He had anticipated being at the center of the storm, rushing to interviews with world leaders, lunches with staffers for the OAS, coffee with Congresspersons. But instead he was being asked to proofread trivial flyers and serve as a guide for a group of high school students touring some of the embassies.
Raúl thought he would lose all sense of direction and mission were it not for his mother. She would have called him several times a day but knew to give him some space. Instead, she limited her calls to evenings, when she would ask about his day, although she called on the occasional morning as she drank coffee and ate toast with cheese, missing her son. Raúl kept these conversations brief and factual, only allowing himself the emotionality of long goodbyes in which he and his mom professed their love. He told his mother the things she would want to know—that he was doing well, in the midst of exciting times and enjoying the accolades showered upon him—but what he did not tell her was that he was homesick, really; when he talked to her he wished nothing more than to be home, eating her home cooking, being around his friends, and feeling in control of his life, the life he knew and could manage. Still, for all the heartache as he recognized missing his life, his mother’s pure and absolute love for him made him feel deserving of better things. And this gave Raúl the faith that he could emerge from all this confusion a better person.
Of course, she wasn’t fooled at all, but knew to respect his efforts at presenting himself positively. She knew that only if he was truly defeated would he acknowledge it; and that if things ever did get that bad for him, he would tell her.
The thing that was hardest for him to recognize, to verbalize– to confess – was that his sense of national identity was up for inspection and found full of kinks and inconsistencies. Raúl found that he tended to be more Central American among his white American friends, and more American among the Central Americans. In the midst of a Latino community in America, this always allowed for safety. However, there was more of a divide at the embassy, and he found himself to be the local gringo, albeit one with a pass, rather than one of the paisanos as he had expected to be seen. While he had previously found his otherness to be a mark of pride and distinction, it was now leading him to feel isolated there.
In some inexplicably paradoxical way, he was even more at sea with Annie, Gisela, and their friends, all of whom were naturalized foreigners, making him less other than ever. The Latino-American divide inherent in him meant nothing special to them; they were not aligned with one side over the other. And yet there was something newly exciting about this lack of preordained coordinates; it left him being just Raúl, and it was surprising to realize that this was a new identity to explore.
Thinking back to Saturday with Annie and her friends, Raúl realized that they had all brought with them their stories, their nationalities, and their unique experiences as people. Even the lone native-born American in the group had probably felt likewise as a gay Southern man.
On the next Thursday morning, Raúl finally got a juicy assignment, a meeting with an attaché from the Mexican embassy regarding immigration issues and the alleged failures of the Mexican government to protect Central Americans who crossed through Mexico into the U.S. The issues were fairly contentious and had caused considerable tensions. Various Central American governments alleged that their nationals were detained and jailed indefinitely in Mexican prisons without due process or access to representation. The Mexicans argued that illegal immigrants into their country did not have the same rights granted to their citizens and that moreover, these migrants contributed to the costs and displeasure of the U.S. Border Patrol and hurt relations between Mexico and the U.S. Not to mention, they added, it was the suspicion of the Mexican government that many if not most of these migrants were mareros—gangsters – and drug-runners.
The hope was that some kind of multilateral treaty could eventually be reached, and it would be Raúl’s project to research the related arguments and draft a position paper to go to the OAS. He interviewed various immigrants who told tales of harrowing journeys through Mexico, enduring beatings, robberies, rapes, and witnessed deaths at the hands of Mexican authorities as well as roving gangs.
Simply making the journey was hazardous enough without these added dangers. One 15-year old boy told Raúl about how he and his guide, barely older, waited at night in a desert valley in Sonora to hop a night train. They were seemingly alone in the valley, crouched quietly behind scraggly bushes for hours; when the train approached they ran out, joined by at least twenty other migrants who came running out from their hiding places behind the other bushes. They jumped the train to ride on top; one young woman was far along in her pregnancy and had to be pushed up to help her get on top. As she planted one foot on top she slipped down the side of the railroad car. She managed to hold on to the sidebar to avoid falling off, but the momentum of the moving train propelled her back and under the wheels. The boy was behind her and saw her body sliced in half as she screamed into the uncaring Sonoran night. He still saw and heard her in frequent nightmares, sacrificing the baby that was meant to live a better American life.
Another man who had made the journey several times explained that those in the know learned to speak like Mexicans, pronouncing all s’s, using the familiar tú instead of vos, and peppering their speech with words like pinche and chinga. To do otherwise was to risk being targeted for theft or worse. By the time they reached the U.S. border they melded in with the Mexicans whom they regarded so suspiciously. It was he who also explained why so often the journey was carried out only by men, leaving their wives behind: the routine nature of the rapes committed against the women by cops and mareros was such that it was basically accepted; and the prettier and younger girls endured repeated or gang rapes. Rightly or wrongly, upon making it to America those girls were then marked as damaged and unfit for marriage.
The scope of the problem was daunting, and there was both virtue and fault on all sides. Many of the assailants were other Central Americans, particularly the mareros, eager as they were to demonize the Mexicans. And it was the contention of some of the Mexican authorities that the jailing of the foreigners delivered by the U.S. Border Patrol was meant to house them safely until they could be deported back to their homelands. They were only detained for as long as it took to round up enough numbers to undertake the expense of busing them back to their countries of origin, according to treaty. The fewer the migrants from any one country, or the more distant their country of origin, the longer it took to do so. They couldn’t very well fly home every individual caught from distant lands at the expense of the struggling Mexican government.
Raúl researched the treaties and international law cases relevant to what was certainly a timely issue, particularly as a weakening economy in the States meant that many Central Americans were now pressured into taking the feared journey overland back through Mexico and sometimes several Central American countries.
He was thrilled to have this project and eventually to have his name as an author in the position papers, website releases, and letters to the editor that would follow, and in several countries at that. He threw himself fully into his work, and came to be less irritated by Annie’s face peering at his curtain when she heard him rustle awake in the morning.
There had been some outings with fellow interns; but these gatherings, while pleasant on the face of them, conveyed a subtext of insecurity and competitiveness. Raúl’s instinctive response was to be unfailingly pleasant and polite, avoiding all invitation to insult or mock anyone, and hold his cards close to the chest. He enjoyed a drink or two as much as anyone, but the intern parties tended to become fairly drunken fests that cliqued quickly; his studied neutrality came to be seen as an unwillingness to commit, which eased him further toward the outer circles until he opted out of these gatherings altogether. At work the interns all appeared to get along well, with no evident sarcasm or negativity, but it was increasingly clear to Raúl that he had lost a game of musical chairs that had never been announced. The music he did not hear had stopped at some point, and he was left standing.
So that it felt as comfortable as a breath of fresh air, as slipping into an old pair of shoes, when Gisela called him the following weekend and suggested an outing to the National Gallery, just the two of them. They met in front late Saturday morning and toured both the original building and the Annex, after which they walked up the Mall and into the sculpture garden. As they walked and talked about art, Gisela appeared both older and younger to Raúl. As if under the effect of some Alice in Wonderland potion, she alternately seemed parental, experienced, and inaccessible; or girlish, enthusiastic, and exciting. He enjoyed both aspects of her: her knowledge and maturity as well as her verve and zest. He had the romantic notion to drape a coat on her shoulders and walk with his arm around her, digging her into his side; but the heat made foolishness of this notion and they walked apart, their hands periodically brushing together.
They stopped for lunch at a small place that specialized in salads and light fare, and Gisela ordered a Stella Artois, giving Raúl the valor to order a European beer as well. To his surprise, he felt a light buzz as he finished his lunch.
“Now what?” he asked. Gisela was still picking at her Cobb salad.
“What would you like to do?”
“As long as it’s with you,” Raúl said and could not believe those words had left his mouth. Gisela smiled, and Raúl thought it was the sexiest smile he had ever seen.
“Annie is likely to be at the house,” she said, leaving Raúl feeling quizzical. “So why don’t we run by my place for a bit?”
Raúl and Gisela made love that afternoon in her third-floor apartment in the Adams Morgan area as the sun cast dappled shadows through the wavering sheer window drapes. A staccato oscillating floor fan did all it could to dry off their perspiration and muffle their moans. He felt that he was in love, as he never had been, and he hoped to hold onto this moment forever. He swore his love to Gisela and to himself began to wonder how he would broach the topic of this love with his mother. For having felt what he now did, he could not imagine life without Gisela anymore.
Of course, those of us who have lived longer know better. The universe, as playful as it was, did not careen off into the unlikely: Lars returned a month later to pick up his belongings from the basement and move in to a new apartment in Georgetown. He proved to be a lanky, bearded Swede: friendly and bright, and decidedly alive.
Gisela remained sweet, loving, and passionate toward Raúl; but she knew theirs to be a lovely dalliance, a parenthetic piece of beauty that would never fit in the larger jigsaw puzzle of their lives. She and Raúl enjoyed occasional weekends of love and art, and she quietly suffered his passionate protestations and tearful rants when he came to understand that she did not share his expectations.
Raúl left Washington upon concluding his internship and he went on to graduate school and a career in diplomacy. It would serve him well, and it would afford him the opportunity to serve others well. He often came back to D.C., working with various governmental and civic agencies, and every time he remembered the unforgettable summer in which he discovered himself to be the person he now was.
Annie died a number of years later, her boundless energy contained at last. Paul and Brian, Annie’s closest friends until the end hosted the wake at her apartment. She had bequeathed her art pieces to the individuals who had inspired them, among them Raúl. He accepted the envelope with the charcoal-and-pencil renditions Annie had made when he first moved in. He noticed that they no longer appeared as frightening as they had, and that they were actually a good likeness of his younger self.
Gisela was unable to attend the wake. Raúl was disappointed; he had hoped to see her, even though he was now married and did not pine for a rekindling of their love. She sent flowers and notes addressed to the friends. Included was a postcard addressed to Raúl from the Rothko Museum in Houston. It is beautiful: lovely and serene, if somehow sad, the note read. You really should come someday.
Raúl looked at the paintings and drawings that were still up on the walls. Nothing there, he now thought, conveyed the pain that she had hinted at so briefly that day in the park when she began to tell the story of her mother’s life. She never did finish telling that story; enough had been said and enough sadness had already been lived.