Oh God, they smell terrible.
Look at their small hands. Look at their smiling faces. Their eyes glow as they look at me and I see them coming near and I’m full of dread. Their putrid smell hits my nostrils like deet on a mosquito. I stop breathing so I don’t throw up. Please, please get away from me.
Oh God, I’m a terrible person.
In pictures they’re so adorable with their bronzed skin and their silky black hair. Now I see that tangly catastrophe creeping towards me like the black plague and I hold my breath. I can only hold it for so long until the lungs scream for air and the nausea floods me.
Go away, go away, go away.
The stink of poverty is real and rancid and repelling. I don’t know what’s worse—the smell or that they don’t know they smell.
No, wait, that’s a false dichotomy. I am the worst. Me, born in riches and bathed in perfumes and adorned in ignorance.
Soon they stroll past me and no rotten whiffs paralyze me. Now I smell like them too. I don’t even notice.
Sometimes I walk outside without shoes on. I move my feet from the pavement to the cool dirt and I close my eyes so I can feel the breeze brush my skin more seductively than any man has and I block out the sounds of tires and traffic and horns. I pretend I’m in the jungle again with the treacherous sun burning my skin. I balance on logs and if I twitch one muscle wrong I’ll plummet into the mud and dirty my Keens and, well, my legs will be panted with dirt for another two days until I scrub it off in the river during bathtime while naked brown-skinned kids rock our small canoe back and forth and maybe today will be the day the canoe floods and sinks again. I feel a sudden pang of pain and I know a fly just bit me and I look down and slap my legs and ten mosquitoes fly away and a hundred gnats loom nearby, indiscreetly waiting for my hands to leave so they can attack my two dozen oozing wounds on my legs, and I think some must be by my ears because the buzzing is so loud and constant and why won’t they go away and leave my depleting sanity unscathed? My pace quickens and my thirst deepens and twigs scrape my skin and I try to avoid stepping on the ungodly large ants, probably the kings and queens of the ants I ate this morning when they tried to steal my peanut butter crackers from me. The sun ceases its torment and sets low in the sky and God, how could I ever be considered beautiful when the setting sun casts its tired rays on the verdant trees and they glisten in the oncoming twilight, their dark silhouettes dancing in the soft orange and pink and yellow and purple hues of the sky? I’m hungry for dinner I’m hungry for rice and faroja and do we still have those small pieces of bread or do we have to wait another week before we get more? I slide on another pair of pants and then another and I add some socks and a long-sleeve shirt and I can still feel the mosquitoes pinch my hands and my neck and one must’ve taken lessons from some white American because it just went up my shirt and bit my lower back and the itching takes over and I can’t stop scratching again and I keep scratching until it doesn’t even feel good anymore—I only feel sick, and now my limbs are heavy and raw. The night is dark, darker than I’ve ever seen, and the sky has so many stars. I didn’t know that many stars existed. And maybe if in America I had seen a night sky like this I’d be Galileo I’d be Copernicus I’d be a great astronomer or scientist on my way to the moon. I crawl into my holy zone, my mosquito net, and I feel safer than I’ve ever felt and the cool, silk of my thin sheet soothes my bites and the world is so quiet and dark. I can only hear the bugs, and I say a silent prayer that the roaches don’t get into my net and hopefully this morning I don’t wake up to a centipede two feet above my head and maybe a bug won’t crawl under my shirt tonight. There probably isn’t one there but I still feel it anyway. And in the morning I will wake up bright and early at 6AM to the sounds of roosters crowing and children laughing and cutting wood and the village will hustle and bustle and work as one and I will wish for the next day to come and the next day to come so I can go home and seek respite from mosquitoes and I can sit in air conditioning and I can shower but time passes so slowly here.
And then I open my eyes and here I am, a foot away from a paved road and I hear cars roaring by and a radio blares in the distance and children scream in English and all at once I want to cry because I want to go back to the jungle so bad. I want to go back more than I want a boy to hold my hand. I want to go back more than I want Uncle Bill’s pancakes and waffles. I want to go back more than I want to see Brand New perform my favorite song. I want to go back and I want to see the faces I love and I want to feel the hot sun on my pale flesh and I want to see the stars again and feel the wind and the rain and hike through the mud and long, razor grass and balance on log bridges.
My mom signed me up for Pinocchio today! My teacher thinks I’m shy and she thinks that this will help me make friends. Mom is sad every day when I get home from school and I tell her I don’t have any friends. I get to leave class to go to this group and play games. Please give me some friends.
Thank you for the sign delivered directly from Heaven today. Boy, oh boy! I read about you turning water into wine, but today’s miracle better proclaims your might and your grandeur. Nick Jones bumped his desk into me. “Maybe,” the twelve-year-old boy sung with his prepubescent pipes, “if your butt wasn’t so big, I wouldn’t’ve hit it.” I swear to God, to heaven, to Gabriel and Michael, you turned my blood into sizzling flames. My face burned and blistered and the whole class, teacher included, witnessed your magnificent miracle. “Ignore him,” my teacher’s cool words brushed over my face, but O God! Your radiant blaze could not be snuffed by his human waters. I pray you can make me invisible next.
What is this? I can’t breathe. You designed humans to breathe! Why are my breaths short, sporadic? I didn’t know my breaths are quivering. How do they quiver? It isn’t cold in here and I’m wrapped in my blanket and why am I shivering? I’m in a loose t-shirt and shorts—why is my chest so tight? The bogeyman broke into my mind. I’m scared! I’m scared! Send help, please. I need a friend. I need a friend. I need a friend to take the terror away. Oh please, oh please. It’s 2AM. I’m so scared. I’m so scared! I’m SO SCARED! And oh God, now I’m crying. I’m crying and I’m quivering and I’m shivering and I’m tight and lonely.
James says no human being can tame the tongue. I have to disagree with you. I hear the eloquence, the sophistication and grace with which others speak. With ease, without breaking a sweat, they saunter in front of the room and their tongue is an instrument. My tongue is lame. It is dry and heavy, and I haven’t taken anatomy class, but I don’t think a normal tongue stretches all the way to the stomach like mine but I can feel its heaviness in my chest and how I am supposed to talk with a heavy tongue I can’t lift? I can’t tame a tongue if it doesn’t work. Sometimes incoherent words flow from my lips and oh wow, oh wow, I’m so embarrassed! Please, thoughts, leave my head. Mind! Stop replaying that! Please stop! Oh stop, oh stop! I’m so embarrassed. Why did I say that? Why did I do that? I can’t tame my tongue and I can’t tame my body and I’m so embarrassed! Will you erase those memories, God, please?
Oh God, oh God. I want to die. I can’t take these pills. I am too weak. Let me lose control of my steering wheel. How about a lightning bolt? I heard you like that. If I look back, will you turn me into a pillar of salt? I am frightened and I am afraid and I am laying in my coal black room and I am alone. I am always alone. Please, O Giver and Taker of life, take mine. Bring me to Heaven so I can be with you.
This is the thorn in my side, isn’t it? Use this all-consuming, omnipotent fear that rigidly reigns in my mind and in my body and let it bring glory to you. I will overcome! I will overcome by the blood of the lamb! I am ready! I am strong. I will defeat my fear.
I can’t. It’s back. It’s back and it is spreading and the fear paralyzes my entire body and I am stronger than my high school’s quarter back because of the weight of this dread I carry. But I can’t do it anymore. Please, take it away. I am miserable. I hate myself. I don’t want to be me anymore! Let be me anybody but me! Or better yet, let me be dead!
Celexa. The name cascades off my tongue. It is the delicate breeze that lightly tousles fields of sunflowers and wheat. It is the amaranth pink that blends into a lilac purple after an evening thunderstorm. Peace I have never known coddles me. I am renewed, baptized in the name of citalopram, hydrobromide, and serotonin. My mind rests. I was a child, but I am grown now, standing tall in a room of people, and my tongue is still heavy and my heart is pounds and pounds against my chest, but less. Dear God, I am sorry, but I’m leaving now. You won’t hear from me again, but that’s okay, because I don’t think you ever heard me to begin.
I will go running off into the blue.
I will double knot my boots and sling a backpack over my shoulders. The water bottle in the side pocket will crush and crinkle as the water inside swooshes against the plastic.
My feet will patter against the dry, dusty dirt. The palm trees will wave their welcome. The canopy of birds will whistle its greetings. I will hear voices boisterously belt out a lively tune in their native tongue. The song will replace the blood in my veins and it will circulate throughout my body. I will breathe in wonder, mystery, and excitement. I will fully and immediately immerse myself in this new culture. I will feel more at home than I ever did at home.
That morning the refreshing, crisp breeze wisped about my face as the tiny boat chugged down the river. My fingers grasped the worn wooden ledge and I leisurely leaned back while maintaining my balance. This foreign land was exotic and enticing. My left foot tapped against a suitcase in wild anticipation; my dreams were coming true. I was about to step foot into the blue.
And then I did, and the blue rapidly drained from my world until nothing but grey remained.
My feet sunk into grassy mud. Long, razor-sharp grass grew to the side. A wooden board embedded in the mud offered a respite, but I had no balance and I splashed into the mud. I took in my surroundings. There were no palm trees to wave and no birds that sang.
A young, thin girl grabbed my heavy suitcase from me and carried it across the long, muddy field and through the untamed grass. My arms were weak from the weight, but I had to return to grab more. The natives looked at me and laughed. I felt ashamed.
I grabbed a water container only to have it snatched from my struggling hands, too. The weight of the water paled in comparison to the weight of my embarrassment.
We set up in the hut and I felt lost, and only fear and dread pulsed through my veins. I breathed in the stench of dirty children and a dirty hut in a small, dirty village that had pathways of dry, dusty dirt and no singing multitudes.
Instead of immersing myself into the culture I immersed myself in my mosquito net and I laid on a thin, feeble pad and shut my eyes and hoped to wake up in my bed in America, my one true home and nothing else would take its place.
Shutting my eyes didn’t work. I was still in my net in a village God knows how far down the Amazon. Six weeks of this lay ahead of me. My naivety was abruptedly murdered.
That hot, hot, sticky, sweaty day.
My legs were itchy, itchy, itchy.
I scraped my fingernails against my skin
like an ice scraper on a ice-covered windshield.
Slowly, slowly, then I gained speed and
I wouldn’t stop ‘till all the skin was off
and the bumps were smoothed out.
But it wasn’t working and the nausea crept in
and took over like LSD.
The tears were hot in my tearducts and
I could feel them about to pour out.
The sky was darkening and it looked like a storm.
Its anger matched mind.
The water in the atmosphere was homesick for the ground,
and I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed and prayed for rain.
And then it came.
On a dirt-covered chunk of concrete between splotches of grass
I stood, eyes gently shut.
Rain hit my skin like a hug in the airport.
It mixed with my sweat and soaked my clothes.
I stood and stood and stood and
Rain fell, fell, fell.
The wind blew and I felt cold.
Everything will be okay.
Once I saw a man who read Salinger
Adorned in plaid and pomp
With a beige backpack and a bicycle.
His mind, I imagined, fantastical
And I yearned to hear thoughts profound
Pour out of his mouth melodically into my ears.
Strategically I planned my outfits,
My hair, and my location to garner attention
But never received even a glance.
Then I realized my folly—
Caulfield would deem him a phony,
And Franny would ridicule his ego.
So, I ended my madness:
Where longing once lodged apathy made home.
To read is not to be, and he certainly was not.
I tap my heels together
The crinkle in my forehead deepens
My eyes squeeze shut
Visions of America explode across the darkness
My body is not home, but my heart is.
My muscles are rigid
My breathing relaxed
Gently my eyes rest closed
Clouds of Peru drift across the horizon
My body is home, but my heart is not.
My heavy eyes opened groggily. A dim light from a single bulb cast an orange hue over us. My watch read 3:30AM. Vladimir urged the four of us to raise; it’s time to leave the launcha. I sat up, my hammock slightly swinging, and strapped on my Keens. My legs swung awkwardly from the left to the right as I determined how I could successfully manuever myself out of my hammock without crushing the baggage we had bundled beneath our hanging bodies. We all untied our hammocks and began to carry our supplies off the launcha. We descended two flights of stairs. Our shoes clanked against the worn metal. The other passengers slept snug in their hammocks as fisherman scurried on the ground level of the ship.
My weak arms were full of supplies. Headlamps adorned the heads of workers, providing light so that I could watch my step. Branches of plaintains, boxes, lumber, and metal littered the ground. A wooden plank with pegs connected the launcha to the shore. Cautiously I stepped, worried my grasp would weaken and I would spill the supplies or that I would slip on the muddy boards. I made it, but the ground outside was wet and muddy and squished beneath my feet. Sarah tripped in a hole.
As the fisherman finished unloading their cargo onto the earth we laid down a tarp and sat. Vladimir and Sarah disappeared into a hut. The fisherman finished their business and left. The launcha left. It was pitch black out, the blackest black I had ever experienced. Here we were, in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city.
Sarah and Vladimir returned. All five of us sat on a tarp.
Despite the darkness the area was replete with a cacophony of noises. The creatures of the jungle do not rest.
We gazed at the night sky. Trillions upon trillions of stars densely freckled the sky. Entire galaxies were visible. Suddenly Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star made perfect sense—the stars twinkled here. Light pollution’s dense cloud had not yet corrupted the sky here.
We sat. We talked. We gazed. We listened.
The sun began to raise behind us over the trees. The sky turned a lighter blue, pink, and orange. The light glimmered off the river. Mosquitoes fested on us, but we had not yet learned of the torture mosquitoes brought with each bite.
We had a breakfast of a piece of bread as two strangers arrived on a long boat. We loaded the tiny boat with our things and then ourselves and started down the river.
Everything was fresh, thrilling, and new. A mystery surrounded us—the mystery of the jungle. The trees were more verdant and tall, the sky bluer, the air fresher, the sun brighter. We breathed in air tainted with water. Although we only slept an hour our eyes were peeled and taking in the thick, dense forest and the profound beauty it offered us. Here we were on the largest river in the world with 6 weeks of mystery ahead of us. Excitement and wonder filled the air with a trace of fear.
He decidido seguir a Cristo
My tongue vibrated against the roof of my mouth, pressed against the back of my front teeth, and the sharp oh jetted through my lips with gusto. The ten syllable phrase resounded through the room, echoing in my ears.
A rhythmically disadvantaged crowd attempted to clap to the beat, filling the dark concrete building lit only with a small lantern with a cacophany of muffled pats. A woman in a worn pink blouse and dirty bermuda shorts poked her brown leg, killing a mosquito, and nonchalantly rubbed blood and the insect’s remains on her wooden chair.
Engaged children sang along vivaciously, eyes sparkling in the dim light that colored their brown flesh with an orangish hue. A few adults sang earnestly along with the children; the rest muttered the words with a mild disinterest, their hands meeting like the south poles of two magnets. The white faces of the foreigners were alit with joy, eyes crinkled in happiness, hearts overflowing as the Spanish voices of the impoverished vibrated their entire being with their praises of the one true, white Creator God.
No vuelvo atras
I was an automaton, regurgitating the noises and robotically clapping my hands, bouncing my head from side to side to impress a pretense of joy. Once I had genuinely decided to follow Christ. Una vez. Now here I sat in the middle of a jungle, and as the crowd professed that there is no turning back from the decision, I secretly denounced Christ. The thought surfaced from the deep crevices of my heart, from the most remote corners of my brain, and it swiftly crept into my consciousness and swept across my being: I turned back. And now I had to guard this jewel from the others, throw a dozen dirty rags over its luminescence and hope not a trace of it seeps out. I had turned back, and no matter how much I strained to reverse this thought, I couldn’t. From this there is no turning back.
No vuelvo atras
Late at night I lay in bed I lay in the dark and the fan steadily hums above me.
All else is quiet within these four walls on this frosty winter night.
My head is stationary against these pillows but my mind drifts and I’m in the humidty and I feel the sweat drench my skin and I breathe in the muddy, dirty smells of the jungle in the bright hot Amazon sun.
The face of Gender fades into view and he looks on quiet and curious with his penetrating, inquisitive brown eyes and his soft brown skin and he looks at me. He looks at me and his somber expression falters and his eyes gravitate upwards and a slow grin steals across his face. His one gold tooth glints in the sunlight.
There he stands with his piercing gaze and his mind ablaze and what is he thinking? Unravel your brain and paint the field with your neurons and replace the starry night sky with the electrical currents firing between your synapses.
Can you see me now, as I lay here on these comfortable pillows engulfed by fluffy blankets in my temperature-regulated room? I pray you don’t but I pray you do.
"¿Está bien?" you asked me one day. The opacity of my lies eluded you and you saw right through them and right through me. The truth is, the truth is I turned back and lies fluttered off my tongue and into everyone’s ears and I’m so sorry and I want you to know this. Will you forgive me?
If I scribble in a letter “No creo que Dios exista” will you still plop down next to me and put your thin, strong arm around my shoulder and verify that I’m all right? I hope you will and I hope you will forgive me, but it’s okay if you do not because we had no right to be there spreading lies, making you believe lies, instilling false hope into you all.
Please tell me you still have that dingy piece of paper with my note scrawled out to you. Carry it with you as a piece of me just as I carry you. Or perhaps you shouldn’t, and you should throw it into flames and watch the smoke blend into the treeline of the infinite Amazon forest and forget me, me laying in my bed with no sweat on my flesh, no strain in my muscles, a belly full of food, and a broke down savior complex.