In Writing

I grew up Catholic AND Hispanic. That means that I got a whole lot of guilt and “shoulds” right out of the womb. What will people think? If you do that, what will happen? When I was little, I was sure the Big Dude was always watching, cataloging, frowning at the booger I wiped behind the toilet paper holder. If He had a record of how many times I’d sneezed (as I believed well beyond the age when I should have outgrown the thought), then certainly He noted when I was being a terrible person.

So I was a goody two shoes. I smiled at strangers sweetly and obsessively followed rules. But here’s the problem with enforcing goodness through fear of being watched: one day, you figure out you’re not being watched. This is the tale of that day.

I was six years old, newly arrived in Argentina for what was ostensibly a two-week visit, which I could not know at the time would turn into a two-year exile. The setting: the town on the outskirts of Mendoza where my grandmother’s house sat squat and unlovely, its thick, seismically-correct walls holding in a little butcher shop and a handful of rooms behind. Today, Mendoza is known for its Malbecs and wine tours, but back then it was hicksville. The street my grandmother’s house sat on was dirt. Adults would all tell you the story, whether you asked or not, that the money had been raised to pave it, but politicians are all crooks and the money had been squandered. So the street remained unpaved.

I didn’t mind. Along my grandmother’s side of the street ran a magical little rivulet known as an acequia, a fairy waterway on which to launch ants on leaf boats and follow them until the bend by the oak with the big hollow in its trunk, past which I wasn’t supposed to go. There were little walkways over the acequia, connecting sidewalk to street, and I could dangle off them for hours, mesmerized at the mountain water running down to who knows where. Across the way was the mighty “canal,” and although I rarely saw a car on the old dirt road, I wasn’t allowed to cross the street alone to get near it. This only added to the canal’s appeal, a mystique enhanced by the tales told about it: the times it would run over its banks, bringing silty spring runoff from the Andes mountains flowing into the houses, ruining stored wedding veils and heirloom blankets. Or the fact that it was the preferred method of getting rid of unwanted litters of kittens, tied up in burlap bags. Beyond the canal were fields of grapes, stretching all the way, it seemed, to the towering mountains to the west. It was a wild and dangerous place, this Argentina where I’d gone as a visitor but couldn’t seem to leave.

My choices of companions were limited. In my grandmother’s house lived my “cousin,” whom everyone whispered was not really my cousin. It was not an enlightened place or time to be adopted, as I now understand he was. He was the dark-skinned child of the town’s fallen woman, taken in by my barren aunt, who had the bad sense to die when the boy was still young. (The old women always spoke of it like she’s done it on purpose). She left him to be raised by her well-meaning but clueless husband, whose main distinguishing feature was that he was missing several of the key teeth.

So my cousin “ran wild,” as the old women said. He was the most fascinating creature I’d ever seen. I still have the slingshot he made me from a “V” in a tree branch. He was all flashing green eyes and feline smile, free in a way I wished I could be.

The boy next door, however, was less fascinating. He had a bit of the Little Lord Fauntleroy in him, always in perfect knee socks and rosebud red lips. He visited his grandmother, my grandmother’s next door neighbor, every once in a while. Although he was a little whiny, and not nearly as exotic as my cousin, he added a certain something to the long, yawning days. We’d play by the acequia, floating paper boats down it, while he listened obediently for his grandmother’s call.

I have no idea what started the dispute on this one day. All I know is that there the three of us were, the mountains blue in the distance, except where they were snow-capped, our bare knees covered in a coating of the dust that covered everything. One moment we were cooperating in whatever the task was at hand, the next we were retreating into our adjoining yards, hurling insults, the fight flaring hot and instantaneous. I’d never seen this argumentative side of the neighbor’s grandkid, and it girded my loins for battle.

The backyards were separated by a tall wall made of some kind of muddy brick – I’d been warned not to lean against outdoor walls in Argentina because they were crawling with vinchucas, bugs that could paralyze you – that was so tall not even a grown-up could see over it. I can’t remember who threw the first rock. My sense of decency would like to think it was the boy next door, so I can at least wrap myself in the mantle of believing that what I did I did in self-defense. But the truth is I can’t be sure. I just have a memory of a rock sailing high over the wall, then way behind me, and my cousin getting up as close as he could to the wall to fling a rock back. It seemed like a well-practiced ritual, a rock sailing at us, a rock flung back. My heart thumped at the dangerous possibility of a fast-flying rock striking me, and it fed something else, a certain bloodthirsty calculation I’d never before felt in my six years of life.

That’s when it struck me: by the trajectory of the rock, how far he was getting it behind us, the little grunts of his from which I could triangulate, it became obvious that our nemesis was right up against the wall, like we were. That he hadn’t figured that out about us, and that my cousin, in his concentrated, rock-throwing zeal, hadn’t figured it out about him, either, swelled me with evil mastermind pride. I knew something they didn’t know, and I was instantly covered by the itch to act on it.

I picked up a hefty rock. I listened for him again, took my time. I aimed it almost perfectly straight up, with just enough angle to get it over the wall, but not much further. I flung it up. I held my breath. I didn’t have to do it long.

Almost immediately, the meaty thud let me know my missile had hit its mark. There was an airless silence, that moment before the wail. And then the most blood-curdling scream. My cousin, more practiced in the outcomes of injuring neighbors with rocks, grabbed my forearm and dragged me in the house in a hurry.

I’d like to say I was ashamed. Certainly adult me feels that no one should ever get hit by a rock. But I’d be lying if I told you six-year-old me felt much empathy. What I felt was satisfaction at my mind’s problem-solving abilities, the glimmering thought that maybe my mind would give me an advantage in feats where I lacked brute force and a strong throwing arm. That realization as served me well.

I waited for the thunderbolt, the divine retribution for what was, until that point, my worst sin. It failed to materialize. And while it would be just under a decade before I let it make me conclude that we were alone and unwatched in the universe, certainly the seeds were sown that day. No amount of indoctrination by nuns, no enforced confessions and soaring cathedral ceilings would ever outweigh the heft of that rock in my hand, the moment of realization of what my angle should be.

Yes, I would come to believe in good and evil. And I would understand they lived side by side in me, as they do in everyone in some measure. That day, the realization felt like a heady power I’ve never forgotten.

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