Some things should not be known
When I met my first marriage proposal, he was wearing a pressed oxford shirt and deferred respectfully to his father. The two rode in the row behind me on the airplane that set us all down in Guatemala City from LA in the summer of 1993. I was every parent’s worst nightmare: a 23 year old woman headed for a month in Guatemala, and landing at 10PM in an airport notorious for robbery and worse, I had no hotel reservation, precious little Spanish and no idea what I would do when the plane landed. But fate was on my side. Next to me, a fluent American traveler befriended me. For hours she chirped plans, paged through guidebooks and offered advice. The men behind us gave hotel suggestions, circled restaurants in her book and gave us a local perspective over the plush airplane seats. They invited us to dinner and although it was late, we ate, danced and drank in a dark restaurant they knew with low ceilings and enormous white plates. They paid. The older man was maybe 45 and seemed professional or at least proud. Something about the younger one—maybe his knee that never stopped bouncing up and down or his entreaties to me to visit or meet him later that night that grew more insistent whenever his father left to pee and then retreated when his father returned—made him seem like a dog on a short, taut leash.
Still, the encounter was interesting. I was in the whole adventure for the stories; I wore inconvenience like a mantle. And equally important, John was damned handsome. Probably born Juan or some derivation, he’d spend at least 10 years in LA and spoke English with very little accent. He was tall for a Guatemalan and broad shouldered. His hair was a black wave that fell in his eyes when he wanted to seem innocent. In his supple and probably expensive leather jacket, he was a sight. I kept thinking that if he’d just stop pressuring me, I’d love to get to know him.
But the pushy questions, his hands brushing my arm or back persisted, and I decided that I should sally on to the West as my new travel partner had planned. John and his father returned to Livingston on the East coast, where they lived. Or his father lived. I remained confused, but offered the empty promise to visit if I had time.
Memory is a funny thing. After weeks of anonymous touring, crisscrossing the south of Guatemala, I hankered for someone to know me, or romance, or God know’s what, but in the last week the hunger for something more intense drove me to hustle across several states, chickens riding on my lap in the second-class busses that I took with my travel friend Amy. Since Guatemala City, we’d climbed waterfalls and ruins, visited an art commune, hunted turtle eggs in the middle of the night to save them from sale and consumption, climbed a volcano, ridden horses and became good friends. It was time to head home, but pulling at me was the possibility of John.
Disembarking from our bus in Livingston, it seemed auspicious that a woman offered me a baby armadillo in a ropey sack. Without thinking, I bought it. A vegetarian, I didn’t know what I’d do with it or that she expected it would be used for soup, but the soft, straw-like pink nose poking out between the knots in the sack, pulled at me like a human baby might. I was all about possibility and openness.
John met us and we walked across the small town to a café on a pier. Amy and I giggled as we gave him the armadillo as a gift. It almost immediately peed through the bag and onto his thatched sandals. John seemed much less dangerous in the daylight. Maybe it was because he was drinking coffee rather than beer or maybe he was just less lascivious in his own town. In fact, he seemed almost disinterested.
Amy and I arranged to go to a hotel, rest and meet up for dinner. I remember throwing myself on my rumpled bed, disappointed. I don’t know what I'd expected, but I wasn’t getting it. At the restaurant, John was late. Amy and I had downed a whole beer before he arrived and she was yawning through dinner. When I saw him I realized something was different. First, he’d arrived with a friend, but more importantly, whatever was missing in him at lunch, was present 10 fold by dinner. John tapped not only his knee, but his hand thrummed and he looked around furtively in between his long looks at me from under his brow. It was like someone plugged him in. From the start to finish of dinner John and Carlos had little time for food. I learned John had gotten in trouble in LA and his father’d come to bring him home. Carlos had also been in LA, and planned to go back. Their hands were all over us. After dinner and a few too close dances, Amy had had enough. She begged illness and exhaustion from the ride and told us she was headed back to the hotel.
I still don’t know why I stayed. I usually followed the cardinal rule of never leaving a girl friend (including myself) alone with strange men, but that hunger to see it through was undeniable. Or maybe it was the beer.
We drank and danced and talked. Eventually Carlos left. John was sweet, but as pushy as before. Yet I always had a way to make him back off. I’d simply ask, “Again, why did you leave LA?” and he’d return to his corner, all shy and hand-waivey. Around 2 in the morning, we went for a walk by the ocean. A new brick building hiding a pier gave us some welcomed privacy. Lights on the small pier reflected off the water on an otherwise dark, summer night. We were alone, and then the kissing started in earnest. I was fine with that, but when John’s hands got too far, I again pulled out my reliable back-off card. Only, this time he turned around and then back, his face changed, more serious.
“Would you consider marrying me?... It’s nice here.” He said.
Dumbfounded, I again reached for my card. “Why did you leave LA…?” This time with less humor and more fear.
“Do you really want to know?” He asked. Suddenly, I could tell I didn’t want to know the answer,--I just liked the game--but I couldn’t back out anymore.
I nodded slowly and shrugged.
“Well, it was a lot of things.” Small smile.
Slowly, he peeled back the layers of crimes he’d committed, punctuating them every time with that clause,“but it was a lot of things.”
“So you were arrested….. for being in a gang… and selling drugs… and shooting people…. That must have been…. Hard for you.”
“But it was a lot of things.” He smiled sheepishly.
Apparently I wasn't the only one who wanted to be known. An urgent dose of adrenaline, like an epi-pen to the heart woke my every survival instinct at that moment. What more could it be?! Time to go into non-judgemental, every man’s best friend, labrador retriever, never disagree mode. And a calm, kind, admiring look washed over and froze on my face. My eyes widened, my body turned entirely toward him. I brushed away his hair with my index finger.
“Oh?” I tried not to let my voice shake or get shrill.
“Did you know… that you can get $2000 for a human eye?”
Oh god… he’s an organ dealer.
“$4000 for two!”
And he’s good at math. Oh shit.
Do not. Do not. Do not ask where he got the eyes. Don’t do it.
My head bumped hard against the brick wall I was leaning on as he shook his fist repeatedly next to my face, as if wrapped around a liver or a pounding heart. “It’s more if you can get the body early and get more organs.”
Somehow I found a yawn. I was so terribly tired--tired of being away from home and trying to meet people and see things and have adventures. And I told him that. Somehow I told him and he listened. Somehow I had all my body parts by entact by the end of the evening. I told him how much I wanted to meet him for breakfast tomorrow morning at 9AM and that I’d think about his proposal… I needed time. And I kissed him. I kissed the organ dealer a lot.
Back at the hotel, I woke Amy and regaled her with the unbelievable tale. The next morning at 5:30AM we were on the first boat out of Livingston to the first bus to Guatemala City and the first plane out of Guatemala. It was hours before I stopped shaking in the bus. A couple with a cute girl sat in front of me. The little girl played peek-a-boo over the seats. I stuck my nose in a book and ignored them. I was ready to go home.