The manuscript is almost ready to go out again! I really appreciate all the views I’ve been getting on FB! And on this rainy day (for my area at least), I add a picture of the beautiful rocky shoreline of Lima, Perú.
This party should never have happened. I was standing at the far edge of my aunt’s spacious lawn, gripping the grass with my bare toes as if that would secure me to the ground. My friend K’antu came up and handed me a drink. I took a sip and glared at her.
“Hey, if you wanted it spiked, you should have gone yourself,” K’antu said. “The bartender told me to get real. No alcohol for the employees.”
But I wasn’t about to go myself. That would have meant passing half a dozen people that I did not want to talk to, including my aunt. The bartender probably wouldn’t have given it to me either. I look even younger than I am.
Walking out from under the canopy, I flung the pineapple juice, cup and all, at one of the bushes by the swimming pool. K’antu came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. Her touch was light and her hand was bony. I had noticed that she had lost a lot of weight since last summer – too much – and she looked bad. I hadn’t told her.
“Tamara, I know you don’t want to be here in Manchay. But nothing bad is going to happen this year. I promise. And this is your aunt’s birthday party. You should be with her.”
“No,” I said.
K’antu squeezed my shoulder, but didn’t insist. Instead she said, “Hey, your aunt gave me the day off tomorrow. We can go out on the dune buggies and have some fun, just you and me, getting away for a couple of hours…”
Turning back, I looked past her at the party. The DJ was playing old Afro-Peruvian music. I didn’t usually listen to that kind of music, but when I was in the right mood I really liked it. I wasn’t in the right mood. My friend was trying to distract me, but a dune buggy could not take us far enough away from what I was afraid of.
“You can’t be sure it won’t happen again. Hasn’t it been happening all year?” I shivered. Even thinking about it made me nervous.
K’antu pursed her lips and looked up, “Well, yeah…”
I stepped away from her and started pacing.
“But they are getting more infrequent now,” she said quickly. “And they were never as strong as the first one. I am sure there won’t be one while you are here. And… well if there is, Laura’s house is different from your Aunt Ada’s. Nothing happened to Laura’s house last year, and since you are staying with her, you will be safe.”
Every year in the summer I come to Perú to visit family, staying half the time with Laura and the other with my father’s sister, Ada. Ada is a nurse. She doesn’t make much money, and her house is – or I should say was – a lot smaller than Laura’s. My father’s family lost over two hundred acres of land about twenty years ago under a government that was trying to be communist. Epic fail. But even so, the land had never been returned.
Since then the family has been struggling. Ada’s house was made of slapped-together adobe bricks. She had finished construction on the third floor a few years back, but the entire thing was basically a pile of crap that no inspector had ever set foot near, never mind signed off on. One day last summer I chose to stay with her an extra day – and that choice had almost killed me.
The last night of my visit an 8.1 earthquake hit the coast of Perú, and Manchay was the epicenter. The only thing left of Ada’s house was the front room on the first floor. We were inside that room during the disaster. I still had nightmares. So K’antu was right. I definitely did not want to be here this year. I was afraid of the aftershocks – or worse, what if another earthquake hit? My mother had forced me to come, saying it was good for me. And now that I was here, her sister Laura was just ignoring my fears – laughing them off. According to her I was making a big deal of nothing. It’s all right for her to say, she didn’t have a house collapse on her. And now she was throwing this lavish party for herself with all of her cronies – political big wigs and wealthy landowners – while my Aunt Ada continued to suffer from last year’s disaster. I love Laura, but how is that fair? She should have at least toned the party down a few notches. The cake alone probably cost her a couple of hundred dollars. My eyes gravitated over to the three-tier, red, black and white Alice-in-Wonderland looking confection.
Ada… to be honest, I had not called her yet, and I had arrived in Manchay yesterday. I had been in regular contact with my cousin Elías. The week I had gotten back to Chicago, we video chatted, and he had given me a virtual tour of the ruins of his house through his tablet. He and I had both cried so much that for the rest of the year we had avoided talking about it, instead discussing stuff about my life, and his work as a glass blower – nothing else. And that had been fine with both of us.
“None of us are safe if another one hits,” I said, replying sourly to K’antu’s assurances. “Even this house – that earthquake probably loosened the foundation…”
“Oh Tamara,” K’antu laughed, “That’s ridiculous.”
I gave her a dirty look. She sounded like Laura – overly optimistic and unwilling to face the potential dangers of another natural disaster. What is wrong with these people? I guess you can’t live in constant fear, but at least have a little respect for my feelings. I heard my name being called.
“Tamara, there you are. I have been looking for you. You remember Rodolfo Alvarez, don’t you?” My aunt Laura was coming up to us with two men beside her. She indicated the tall man standing to her left. He was tall and stocky, with dark blond hair that was greying now. His face was not traditionally handsome, but it was one that showed confidence and power. I remembered being afraid of him when I was a child. His family owned the second most successful vineyard in town. My mother’s family owned the first, run by Laura. Even though Rodolfo and my aunt were in direct competition, they were also good friends. He smiled at me and ignored K’antu. It wasn’t entirely his fault. My aunt had not bothered to introduce her. There was a class system in Manchay that I had never been comfortable with. My aunt was a kind employer, but she was still part of the upper class.
“And this is Tomás Romero, I don’t believe you have ever met him. He is our esteemed magistrate here in Manchay,” she continued, indicating the short man with heavily lidded eyes and a politician’s smile standing on the other side of Rodolfo. I had heard a few things about him from my cousin Elías. Nothing complimentary.
They both gave me the obligatory kiss on the cheek and complements on how I looked just like my beautiful aunt. “And I am sure you both know K’antu,” I replied, raising my hand and wiggling my fingers to where she was standing. “Tía, you forgot to introduce her. I know she’s just the help, but –”
“Don’t be silly,” my aunt’s tinkling laughter filled the air. It was irritating. She was as good a politician as anyone. She never let me see her get angry or frustrated, even when I pushed her. “K’antu isn’t even here. But if she were, I would be happy to introduce her. Such a delightful girl, gentlemen. She is my party planner – she did all the work on this lovely party.”
I spun around. My aunt was right. K’antu had disappeared. I started to go after her, but Laura grabbed my arm and squeezed it. Hard.
“Cariño, Rodolfo has wonderful news,” she said to me. “His son Mario is here in Manchay. Or rather, he left for a few days, but he’ll be back tomorrow. And he can’t wait to see you. Isn’t that wonderful?”
My memory conjured up a chubby boy with overly large glasses and short, thick black hair with a cowlick right at his temple. We had played together on the rolling hills and shady vineyards of our families’ properties. I had not seen him for many years. One year he had disappeared from Manchay. His mother had taken him away. No one had ever explained to me exactly why, but once I had overheard the servants talking about her taking Mario and going to Spain with one of Rodolfo’s clients. I had not understood what they meant at the time, but soon after I had met K’antu and had put him out of my mind. Until now.
“Yeah, sure,” I brushed off her enthusiasm about a boy I barely knew, focusing my attention on the little man whose responsibility it was to run the town. “Señor Romero, since you are here, maybe you wouldn’t mind, I’d really like to know when my Aunt Ada can rebuild her house. Isn’t she supposed to be receiving some money from your government?”
“Not at my party, Tamara,” Laura said between her teeth. She beamed at the two men.
“What do you mean, Tía?” I squirmed around trying to release her grip on my arm. “Why shouldn’t I ask him now? Señor Romero will be going back to his house to sleep tonight, right? It is probably a beautiful house isn’t it, no cracks or collapsed walls? It isn’t a tent like at Ada’s house? Maybe he can explain how he feels about his people living in tents a year after –”
“You are right, Tamara,” Tomás said, showing his teeth. They were crooked. “I will be going home. I will sleep in my beautiful bedroom. And if I’m not mistaken, it is very much like the room you will be sleeping in tonight.”
We locked eyes. There was a flash of triumph in his. I looked away. He had hit a nerve. I felt pretty guilty that I had not gone to stay with my Aunt Ada – and didn’t plan to at all on this trip. That had been a purposeful choice. Never mind that my visit was mainly because of Laura’s birthday party, there was no way in hell I was going back to Ada’s house. In fact, short of inviting her to Laura’s, I didn’t see how I would see her at all this visit. I never wanted to go to the center of Manchay again. Never.
During the virtual tour Elías had given me last year I had seen the shell of what had been their house. An aid organization called People Help had donated a bunch of tents right after the earthquake. Ada and Elías had set up theirs – still there twelve months later – in what had been their bedroom. They slept on thin mattresses since most of their furniture had been crushed. At night they had no heat and only canvas walls to protect them from the wind. Manchay is in the desert, and it is hot during the day and cold at night.
Two days ago, before leaving Chicago, I had called K’antu. She had told me that Manchay hadn’t changed much in the past year. The private school and some homes had been rebuilt, but otherwise – no reconstruction on anything, including Ada’s house. So I had told my mom and dad that I would be staying exclusively with Laura on this trip. I hadn’t talked to my Aunt Ada at all yet because I did not even want to give her the opportunity to offer her house to me. I wanted to feel safe, so I was blowing her off.
I grit my teeth, “Yeah, you are right, I will be sleeping in a nice place. I… I can’t sleep at Ada’s house, it isn’t livable. So what is the government doing about that? Why is it taking so long to help her?” Maybe getting some answers from him would help alleviate my guilty feelings. Perhaps I could call Ada with some good news. But he went on to crush my tiny glimmer of optimism.
“Of course you are concerned about your family,” Tomás Romero said. His eyes disappeared under the hooded lids and he made conciliatory gestures with his hands. “That does you credit, my dear. But you don’t understand. These things take time. My administration and I have been working closely with People Help, the aid organization that has come to help us. Also, my deputy or I go to Lima every week to raise money. Believe me, Tamara, we are doing all we can. Your family should have patience. Good things are coming, I promise.”
He patted me on the arm and turned to Laura, babbling something about dinner.
“I wonder if you’d have patience if you had to live in a tent, you pompous pig,” I muttered under my breath.
“It takes a while to raise money to help these people, Tamara.”
I jumped. It was Rodolfo talking. He had heard me. He went on, his face shining, “We are all doing what we can to make our town better. In fact that is what my son, Mario is doing here –”
This was useless. I tuned him out and scanned the room hoping to find K’antu. I had made friends with her several years ago when she came to work for Laura. At first my aunt tried to keep me away from her because she was an employee. But that had only made me want to befriend her more. I had insisted on K’antu spending her free time with me, and over the years what had started out as a forced friendship had turned into something real. To give my aunt credit, she had learned to accept it.
Instead of finding my friend, I saw my aunt Laura talking to a tall man with huge eyeglasses. Without warning she keeled over forward, and would have fallen on the ground if the man had not reacted quickly and grabbed her. The people around her closed in, blocking my view, and the rest of the partygoers began to comment. A few people screamed, and there were restless shuffling sounds coming from several areas under the canopy.
Alarmed, I rushed over, pushed through the people and grabbed at the man’s shirt. He was on the floor now, my aunt lying in his arms.
“Tía? Tía! What is wrong with her, Señor?”
My aunt’s eyes fluttered. She waved her hand at me and said in a weak voice, “Tamara.”
“Tía, it’s me. I am here.” But it had not been me she was talking to.
“You are Tamara?” The man’s glasses reflected lights from the roof of the canopy when he looked up at me. “I was asking your aunt about you. You are friends with K’antu right? Where is she?”
“Yes, I am friends with K’antu. I don’t know where she is. What about my aunt –”
“I need you to go get K’antu for me. Now.”
“But – why?” Why the focus on K’antu when it was my aunt who had fainted? He was making me nervous.
“Just do it. Please.”
I looked at my aunt. A woman had taken over for the man, sliding a pillow under my aunt’s head and putting a cup of water to her lips. The man stood up and faced me, “Please, go get K’antu. Her husband has been murdered.”