Central America. Belize. A village—Benque Viejo del Carmen, which translated means “the old bank of Carmen.” Old bank on which beats gently, gently, the Mopan River. By the Mopan I sat on stones, reading Dickens. My students leapt and laughed in the gently foaming tides.
In those days I was in love with love and wrote love letters to the manifestation. I wandered in a haze through those days of hundred degree heat and humidity with my face pressed to large glass bottles of Coca Cola which I would buy for a buck fifty Belizean from Delia at the corner store, along with her home-made polvarones cookies, which were hard, dry, and sweet and meant to be dunked in coffee for breakfast.
I ate them after dinner for dessert, my mouth stung and dry from all that sugar.
Polvo means “dust” in Spanish.
“Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
At the end of each day I would write in my notebook, epistle-style, to the girl who wasn’t my girl but who I wished was. I told her everything, a hundred wide-ruled pages of earnest 22-year old thoughts.
When you are in love with love and writing to the manifestation of that love, everything matters: the iguana you heard drop into the Mopan yesterday reading Tolstoy, the long-time volunteer’s motorcycle you rode back of, through the bush, the poem you tried and failed to pull off on the other side of the page. Everything.
And why lie? I wasn’t only in love with a manifestation, but a person, too. That person is now a nun.
Late fall that year we had a missionary priest come, a Mexican, Father Gaetan. Fat and jolly and always talking about spiritual warfare and the Eucharist. Tengo hambre, he would say. Tengo hambre por la eucaristia. The crowds came out for him, hung on his every word. I hung on his every word, too, his Spanish big and slow enough even for a gringo like me to grab hold of, wrap my arms round and ride into the darkening bush.
Milton says, He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem . . .
I want to be a true poem. The true poem of Benque Viejo del Carmen. I want my memories to father forth my manhood, whatever that is, true as it is, young as it is.
The first time I had to tell one of the third form boys I taught that he was out of line, my heart beat wildly in my chest. I felt I was play-acting, and I felt he knew that I felt I was play-acting and that he felt it, too, could read the wonder in my child-like face when I said, “You need to respect me.”
And the boys laughed at me when I told a group of them they needed to come with me, back to the classroom, though the school day was over. And though they laughed, they came. And in the humid room with the bush encroaching through the open windows and on the cracked cement stone floor, I demonstrated a push-up, ten push-ups, twenty push-ups, for the boys.
“Give me some time for the time you wasted,” I said, or something like it, acting what I’d heard from old coaches and teachers. The boys laughed, but they tried the push-ups anyway, and also sat against a wall as if there was a chair beneath them as I showed them to and sweated while I called out the time. Fifteen seconds. Thirty seconds. Done.
“Maestro, you were in the military?”
It wasn’t easy after that, but it was better.
True poem. What kind of a poem was I in those days? Sentimental? Reckless? A piece of juvenilia?
I remember sitting in the back of another teacher’s truck, the gorgeous night whipping past in orange and purple dusk. Getting ready for the city lights of the Cayo District. Beer. A dance club.
Father Gaetan is saying a Mass at our school, where we have all of our all-school masses, outside, in our home basketball court. The girls fill the bleachers and the boys drag their hard, heavy wooden desks out into the middle of the court. The boys form rows with their desks, more or less straight.
We teachers are to perform crowd control during the mass, as usual, but we don’t need it today. Father Gaetan has their attention. He speaks of the Devil and of Jesus as he has been speaking of them all weekend, as if he is ready for their knocks at the door of his rectory later that night. Like him, they are both hungry for dinner.
At the end of the Mass, when the students are going up to receive Jesus in the communion wafers, I hear gasps behind me. A girl has fainted. A minute later, another. This is not so unusual: after all, it is a hundred degrees and humid. All that standing and sitting. I receive Jesus in the host, sit back down, try to pray.
Again, Milton: He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true Poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and practice of all that which is praiseworthy.
Delia’s nephew—or was it her son?—worked with her at the corner store. He was also a student at the high school. He was a gentle soft-spoken boy.
Benque was not an easy place to be a gentle, soft-spoken boy.
Maricon. If I heard boys say that word, I would stop them. “We don’t use that kind of language,” I would say.
According to my Google-searching, maricon derives from the word, “marica,” meaning Australian magpie. The root word is “Maria.” So maricon means “little bird” or “little Mary.”
I don’t know if anyone told me that when I heard the word maricon I should translate that in my mind to the English word “faggot,” but that is what I did.
One day, one of my third form boys stopped me after class and said, “Maestro, when I was five years old, my uncle raped me.”
I remember when he told me what had happened we were sitting down on the steps of the school, near the teacher’s lounge. It was warm and full of sunshine as it often was. I remember saying, “that’s very hard,” and falling silent.
Radical evil entered this boy’s world at age five. At seventeen, he is called a little bird. And wants to fly away.
Jesus once said, “If you cause one of those little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you if you had a millstone tied around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Sin, for Jesus: something to fall into, like the sea.
In the teacher’s lounge after Father Gaetan’s all school Mass: there are girls, seven or eight of them, shouting and screaming and shaking. I move from girl to girl with the other volunteer teachers, the young gringos like me who have been called to serve, and try to hold down the shaking girls. I see a pair of eyes rolled back white. I hear a low voice come from out of a young girl’s mouth. I watch Father Gaetan move from girl to girl with his golden crucifix. He asks the shaking girls to kiss it. They will not. I cry. I say, Jesus, help us. Jesus, help me.
A day after the lounge, in the dark of my bedroom, I felt a fell spirit. I say I felt a fell spirit, and I know it was one, as personal as any letter from a beloved, and I knew it knew me, but not as a love knows but as fear knows, clutching, grasping, desperate, the hold I hope I never hold with, the hold that has lost its grasp of what is human.
That is all. That is the nub, the heart of things. I am nine years from that memory now, nine years from the teacher’s lounge in Benque Viejo del Carmen. Some day I will be ten years, some day fifteen, some day, God willing, a lifetime, and I will be old, with my old flesh and bones, wondering how I once held those girls and prayed Jesus, help us, and I will probably say those words again, as my own final cross comes into view. I see it from time to time now, that golden cross in Father Gaetan’s stubby fleshy hands. Now, I blow it a kiss from the distance. Then, up close, its sweat-stained metal will brush my face.
There is a good woman, flesh and bone, who I love and who loves me, who will read these words. She is why I write these words, brief testament to flesh and bone, to what is and what will be.
Some day I will be dead, as dead as any martyr or heretic, as dead as any willful human bereft of will, memory and desire. And then Benque will only be dust in my mouth, dust with other dust, mixing and mingling beneath my skull. And I will wait as others wait in the valley, to be remade, to dance in my fitful way with the other resurrected bodies. I will wait to be clothed again with flesh.