This week we have a story by Jane Dykema. Jane is a writer and assistant to a doctor at Partners in Health's domestic PACT Project. She lives with her husband and two Satos in Boston and is applying to MFA programs this year.
When Eleanor was twenty-five and recently married, she took a week off from the Illinois Department of Revenue to go with her mother to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Her boss called her on the phone from the office adjacent to hers.
“Please draft some bullets regarding any tasks and correspondences in the pipeline. We want them on our radar during your absence. Hey, many thanks.”
She walked to the L along streets as wide and hot as runways in July. She pushed her way off the train through suits and buzzed haircuts. She lay on the floor of her living room and listened to the pink pink of her new husband playing an unplugged keyboard.
“The orphanage is Pentecostal,” she said. Eleanor wasn’t Pentecostal, wasn’t anything to speak of.
“Take your malaria pills,” her husband said, and handed her a pillbox, one compartment for each day she’d be gone.
“How long did you have to wait?” Eleanor’s mother asked the man sent to pick them up at the Santiago airport.
He was cheerful and shiny, hairless on his head and under his unbuttoned shirt. Another man rode quietly in the passenger seat. “My cousin,” the driver said.
They could take us anywhere, Eleanor thought, and rape us and chop us up. A family of five piled on a Vespa zipped past their van through a red light. Sandy distances grew between new, gleaming buildings as they rode north. Eleanor tried to stay awake to see the things she’d never seen.
Inside the high-walled compound with rainbows and children’s handprints painted on the gates, Eleanor and her mother were instructed on the appropriate distance the volunteers should keep from the orphans. “Best not to ask the children about their lives before they came here,” the pink, fleshy Director, who called herself Cookie, said. “They may not remember, or they may be ashamed.” A young man watched Eleanor from across the lunchroom. When she stared back his smile cracked bright and white across his face.
They communicated with each other like frustrated children. Eleanor learned the Spanish word for liar when Santos’ friends heard him tell her he was twenty.
“Then what are you still doing here?” she asked. Santos pretended not to understand while the other boys leaned on one another and laughed behind their hands.
The orphans stood straight in t-shirts advertising an alternative US history. President John F. Kerry, 2004. 2007 MLB World Series Champions Colorado Rockies. This world, Eleanor thought. Just try to die alone in a place like this, with long arms draped around your shoulders, with someone leaning on you, a part of you. You couldn’t.
The orphans listened calmly, hid their knowledge of English. Their caramel skin glowed. Their bodies wore only the weight they were using. The volunteers were baby moles, shoulders hunched up by their ears, pale, exposed. “Ojos! Eyes!” Breathless volunteers nodded around at the circle of students. Santos’ eyes, blinking next to Eleanor, were the deepest brown she’d ever seen, curled lashes above and below. “Mano! Hand!” Eleanor frowned at her hand, her arm—brazo—pink and covered with mosquito bites, at her mother, at Cookie frowning back at her.
A group of volunteers and orphans jogged before the sun came up. Eleanor’s second day running was Santos’ first.
“Santos, since when do you run?” Junior, a young athlete, called in English so Eleanor could understand. She was the slowest. Santos stayed beside her as the others raced and pushed and kicked up dust in their wakes.
“I’m pacing myself,” she said. He looked as if he’d just realized she was there, as if he’d be running—on that road and at that pace in that pink light, breathing in the sweet cilantro in one breath and the dead animal covered in garbage in the next, past the woman sweeping her porch and up and up— whether she were there or not, if he were the last man on earth.
He threw stones at her while she tried to nap in the shade. He turned her water bottle upside down on her head. He called her mother his suegra. She flushed her malaria pills down the toilet, though the volunteers were only supposed to flush when they shat.
The day before she left Santos ignored her. He ignored her so successfully that Eleanor wondered if she’d invented his affection for her. She never caught him looking at her. He didn’t come near enough to make a point of not speaking to her. His attitude didn’t betray pain or manipulation in him. She was an adult—married, for god’s sake—and depending on a glance from a boy—older than Junior, certainly, who was sixteen, but not twenty, either—for happiness.
Still, she wasn’t surprised when he came to her ramada before dawn, into the four chain-linked walls with tarps hanging from them. Of course, she thought, watching him silently cross the room. She watched, unable to stop him from going to her mother’s bed and whispering, “Eleanor,” in her face. Her mother screamed. A dog barked. Her mother scrambled and fought to escape her mosquito net while Santos slipped away.
“Someone was here,” her mother told Cookie. The Director who’d nicknamed herself stood in a nightgown with a flashlight in her hand and a dog by her side. This was just the sort of thing Cookie would relish, Eleanor thought: bad behavior, a delicious validation for her mission here, an opportunity to be generous and patient. But the fleshy face looked tired.
“I didn’t see anyone,” Eleanor said.
“The guard said the perimeter is secure,” Cookie said.
“Could be nightmares from your malaria pills,” Eleanor said.
Her mother glared at her.
Minutes stretched so long and thin that they couldn’t hold Eleanor’s patience. Her mother’s breathing finally shallowed in sleep. Eleanor tip-toed through heat as thick as water, past the guard and his rifle asleep against a tree, over to Santos’ slight figure on top of the picnic table. Her fingers and ankles were swollen from dehydration. The air smelled fresh with cilantro growing in the sand. The world turned slowly from black to blue. He stood as she approached. They were the same height. His face was so soft she couldn’t tell when she was touching it and when she wasn’t. A rooster crowed. And another. Invisible behind the wall around the grounds, ten, twenty, thirty roosters crowed, fans in a stadium, roaring.