My first memory: the Panama airport. Not first in my life, but first that stands out from that trip to Ecuador when I was eleven. We were going to spend a year there; the way it felt, we might have been leaving the country for good. I remember a contraband runner at the departure gate, shiny hair starting to thin, arms stacked with watches, wrist to elbow. By now, the memory has been embellished with the trench coat wings of thieves and perverts from a thousand newspaper cartoons — Hey, lady, wanna buy? — and I wonder, what was he wearing under there besides watches? Boxer shorts, maybe, or a hand-tailored suit. A Superman t-shirt and tights.
“Don’t look now, but look over there,” my mother said.
“Why does he have so many watches?”
“Shh, better not to ask too many questions.” But she showed me, didn’t she? As if it were something I should see.
It was a typical airport, somewhere between scruffy and gleaming. We could smell the cloistered perfume from the duty-free shop across the sterile tile. Chocolates sat in their cardboard, revealing nothing. Liquor bottles rang faintly, vibrating to the pace of tepid shoppers and jet engines, not quite ready to shatter, but don’t move too quickly. You break it, you bought it, in six different languages. We kids weren’t allowed even to cross the threshold.
But what I mainly remember is the man with the watches, the way he displayed them while keeping them hidden, gold on his right arm, steel on the left. Man’s above, Lady’s below? I only remember the way I was urged to look, then look away.
I remember sitting in gum on the cruise ship dock in Miami, filling the hours before our overnight flight, and a corduroy jumper that was never the same. I guess that’s before the airport, an earlier memory. I remember the patchwork wooden ceiling of our first Quito hotel, and the tiny, scratchy towels. I remember altitude headaches and the hotel’s clean, stale smell. I remember the food — rotisserie chicken, fried rice at the chifa around the corner, afternoon pastries when our wheedling struck gold — and the exorbitant deposits on the bottles of mineral water that today are plastic and ubiquitous as flies. I remember the warm Pacific waves of New Year’s on the beach and then the bus ride, reconditioned vans screaming around curves, up to the mountain village where we were to live. Then the feast of the Holy Innocents with masks and bonfires, and the narrow, dark stairs I climbed to a balcony with a girl who later became my closest friend, though that was before I knew her name. I remember the dust caking in my eyelashes — the village streets weren’t paved — and the color of afternoon sunlight on the mountains.
I remember everything with filtered light — honey-colored, syrupy; a clear, harsh brightness before pinky dusk — and serially, fragmented: and then, and then, and then, a rising heap of the glass dollops you can buy at craft stores, blue, yellow, red; they make good jewels for treasure hunts. But I’m thinking of the clear ones: transparent, only slightly distorted (or distorting), mounted on a hand-twisted tree of copper wire, dangling close but not too close: and then, and then, and then.
Another trip, long after New Year’s: we took a train from Riobamba and got off in Milagro to take a bus to Cuenca. Milagro was a small city, seven crossroads, not paved but not yet muddy, because it hadn’t rained that day. That’s how I remember it. A lowland town, rice fields all around it. The buildings were low, too.
We took the train, and then we must have walked in the heat to the chifa. Yellowy floor, open, cool. We sat near the back. It was one of those buildings where the whole front is a roll-up metal shutter, or maybe a couple of them; there was no fourth wall.
I think we only wanted a soda. My parents might have ordered a beer. But my brother — blond and thus unusual, adorable, amazing — impressed the owner as in need of food. He was a sturdy eight-year-old, nothing ethereal about him, nothing underfed. Still, the restaurant owner brought out several dishes for the starveling to try: egg drop soup and chaulafán (that Chinese-Ecuadorian classic) and an entrée slick with oil and cornstarch, chopped pork and bean sprouts. White rice, more soda. I was jealous of the attention to my undeserving brother, but I was hungry, too. I ate my share.
Then he took us home.
It seems impossible — that he should offer, that we should accept — but somehow the man invited us, somehow my parents agreed. Were there no rooms to be had? Whatever the reason, the man took us under his wing. His house was blue inside, painted concrete, and there was a Pink Panther movie on the TV, dubbed. I remember one of the jokes was “¿qué cera será?” which my mother had to explain — “which wax (cera) might it be (será)?” The echo of the Doris Day song occurred to me only years later. Whatever will be, will be… dipped in wax? It was that kind of evening.
The restaurateur had four or five children. The older ones took me and my brother out to the movies. Maybe they didn’t like the Pink Panther. I don’t know what we saw, but I remember sitting in a row, waiting for it to start. The next morning, the two year old got café con leche — heavy on the milk — in her bottle. The rest of us were offered hot chocolate. My caffeine-starved parents gazed after that toddler and her bottle like people about to take coffee from a baby. As a parting gift, the family offered us a 29-oz can of Delmonte peaches in syrup. In vain, we demurred. It was heavy, we were on the road: these were not excuses to be taken into account, this was mere politeness. We could not say — they were generous people; why would we say it? — how profoundly odd it struck us as a souvenir of Ecuador, of any part of Ecuador. It was a wholly foreign product. It was meant to represent our home — a new twist on mi casa es su casa — and it wasn’t even anything we missed.
We accepted the peaches, we thanked the family, we got on our bus. And we kept the peaches for months. No occasion seemed worthy. I am tempted to say we finally carried the peaches back home to the U.S., but we must have eaten them in a final cupboard cleanout. Perhaps we, in turn, passed them on to friends. Better, though, if we brought them home, packed alongside the blow guns we bought on a trip to the rainforest, the black and white sweater with the little llamas and pigs knitted into it that my mother had to have, the 45s with all my favorite sentimental songs. Maybe my father hid the peaches in his suitcase and traded them for a watch when no one was looking. What I know for certain: I don’t remember eating that fruit.
Instead I remember the Chilean artist in Quito who drew my portrait a day or two before we did fly home. I knew he was in exile, so I knew in a general way that things were dangerous in Chile, dangerous for a lot of people. I don’t remember how much more than that I’d heard. Exile meant had-to-leave-can’t-go-back, a formula I absorbed without understanding. I wish I knew how my parents met him, what happened to him later. I still have the drawing, framed in the bedroom. It’s slipped off its backing, tilting inside the frame, like another image that doesn’t quite belong or want to fit. His name was Sergio. The signature’s hard to read now, I don’t know his last name — only that, to keep me entertained, or still, he talked about seeing condors in the mountains when he was a boy. Maybe he was really telling my mother. She always wanted to know about birds.
Sergio’s father had a car, one of the few in town, sure sign of wealth but in his case a hand-me-down, an in-kind payment for a debt that was never explained. That was before they moved to Santiago. They drove all night to reach the canyon just after dawn, when the chicks were most likely to hatch. He tried later to find corroboration for the dawn hatch, but none of the books he read said anything one way or the other. But they did see condor chicks, two of them, perched on a ledge beside their sunning parents. At first they were almost invisible against the sand-colored rock and the huge adult birds, but look again and there were the chicks, fuzzy and hideous and yet magnificent.
When they parked the car — in the middle of nowhere, a not-quite park that someone hoped would become a national reserve — a self-appointed guardian promised to keep an eye on their vehicle and sold them a hand-drawn, mimeographed map for a few cents. He claimed to have a nephew nearby, eager to give them an informative tour, but Sergio’s father declined. No hard feelings. The parking guard shrugged and pointed out the most notable features on the battered map. He smiled with no teeth and told them to keep an eye out for feathers on the ground. “Don’t just look up at the sky,” he said. They could keep any feathers they found, he said, and a condor feather under the pillow at night would keep away nightmares. A wing feather might be as long as a man’s forearm, maybe longer.
“I looked and looked,” Sergio said. “After that speech, you can imagine, it was hard to look anywhere but at the ground.” He didn’t find a feather, but his sister did. She let each of them hold it for a moment or two, then she put it away in her bag. She kept it under her pillow for years, even as the quill softened and the barbs frayed and fell off like the down that worked its way through the pillow ticking under the pressure of her head. And she never had nightmares, not even bad dreams, those dreams that leave one uneasy but fall short of the heart-pounding terror of a true pesadilla. And when she had her first nightmare, that’s when they knew, all of them, it was time to move again.
Did they take the feather? I wanted to know. But I was supposed to be sitting still. I didn’t ask.
And then, and then: I have hidden in my shirt sleeves, in my turned-up cuffs and sagging pockets, all the little bits of home, and home-away-from-home, that might be forbidden. A contraband drawing. An artist in hiding. Coffee in the baby’s bottle and cocoa for the grownups, canned fruit and dubbed movies on small TVs in the late afternoon.
Or cranberries. We had Thanksgiving in the jungle, staying at a missionary camp that took paying guests, but grudgingly. Real guests stayed in the official guest house, with a living room that felt like a basement rec-room out of the Midwest and tables where we were allowed to take meals, though we never made it upstairs to see the bedrooms. One of our hosts, describing her Thanksgiving feast, mentioned proudly that cranberries were an import specifically disallowed, yet another member of the community had managed to sneak a few in. You can’t have Thanksgiving without cranberries. Gratitude just isn’t the same without the tart-sweet, the jewel red, the jokes from cousins who can’t abide them.
We were en route to somewhere further, junglier, where my parents had a friend they wanted to visit. This was the last regular airfield, a transfer point. We spent the night in a house meant for tourists or strangers, those ineligible for a real invitation, off in the “native” portion of the settlement, a no-frills structure of split bamboo layered with DDT heavy as coverlet lace against the malarial mosquitoes, powder so thick we signed our names in it with a finger. There were rats, too, that I managed not to notice. My mother told me about them later.
Our next flight was just like a movie, four passengers and the pilot, kids shooing away a crowd of lazy cows so we could land on the airstrip that might have been a soccer field if the cows had been allowed to finish their meal. We had lunch with the resident priest, a Catholic missionary (presumably a counterweight to the Protestants with their guesthouse and Thanksgiving feast) who had been out in the jungle for three or four years and had been patiently — oh, so patiently — teaching the local women to bake. Not to save their souls or make communion wafers that he could always have flown in. He was homesick and lonely. Bread grew moldy on the trip and there’s only so much boiled yucca a person raised with ovens and yeast can eat. My father played gin rummy with him all afternoon. And then gravely, cheerfully, hopefully, we broke bread together. That priest was so proud, as if he’d baked it himself. But they had forgotten the salt, it was bland as flour and water. I opened my mouth to say something and my mother saw the comment in my eyes and touched my hand before I hurt anyone’s feelings. I ate another roll. We all pretended to enjoy the turtle soup, and then we hiked to our friend’s forest house. We saw parrots flying in flocks. My brother hoped for pythons hanging in the trees; I asked about jaguars. We spent a night or two and then retraced our steps, back to the priest, back to the guest house (Insecticide Arms, my father called the place), ultimately back home to yeast bread and cranberry sauce and fresh local peaches in season.
I can still see the split bamboo walls of those bare-bones rooms (a bed frame, a mosquito net) but I’m no longer sure if we were actually there at Thanksgiving or if we just heard about it, something that had occurred a week or two before. So far as I remember, our Thanksgiving that year passed unmarked and unmissed. But I have those cranberries in my trouser turn-ups, I know what might be smuggled in, what might be wanted.
That week in the jungle, my brother and I went out on a boat, a soon-to-be-sinking dugout canoe, aiming for the diving dock in the middle of the lake where it was deep enough to swim without fear of the electric eels that lurked near the bottom. Anxious to swim after months in the highlands far from water; terrified of eels that would zap our ankles and then our legs and paralyze us, dragging us back to their burrows with their leechy mouths or, more likely, feasting on us right there as we floundered and drowned; giddy and sweaty in the lowland heat and perplexed by the missionaries everywhere, we who were never religious, never even had a chance to lapse: we paddled forth, stroke, stroke, left, right, and then the canoe began to fill with water and we began to scream, thinking only of the eels, the only real danger, because we were both strong swimmers.
We returned to shore unharmed, the canoe half full of water. We found another vessel. We tried again. And I suppose that time we made it to the dock and were able to swim in safety, but there the memory’s fuzzier and I’m not sure how the story ends.
Truthfully, I don’t remember swimming with the eels at all. It’s what my brother told me really happened. He may be right. He’s told me so often that now I do remember — almost — but if that made for true recollection, I would remember myself at Kennedy’s inauguration with my Great-Aunt Madelyn, and I would remember the lunar eclipse of 1968, and I would remember the 1962 Columbus Day storm that leveled fruit trees all over Oregon. I would remember the watch smuggler bending down to tie his shoelaces, shiny patent leather that belonged on a girl, and I would remember savoring illegal cranberry jelly in the rainforest with a grainy Pilgrim filmstrip projected in the background and a lengthy sermon about self-sacrifice and exchange.
Instead I have a yellow restaurant, a blue concrete house, and an immigrant chef who took his foreign customers home: a man who needed a story to tell his wife at dinner when we needed a place to stay.