I was like a stranger in a strange country who was welcomed, who felt at home, who shared festivities, births, marriages, deaths, banquets, concerts, birthdays, and then suddenly became aware that I did not speak their language, that it was all a game of courtesy. — The Diary of Anaïs Nin
The Chapín is getting married. (Chapín and chapina are words that Guatemalans use to refer to themselves — as opposed to gringo and gringa, which refer to people from this country.) I always imagined that would come as the most devastating news of my life. But the e-mail he sent me, nearly six years to the day we first met, arrived just as I was starting a new job as a college writing instructor. I was too busy figuring how to teach the structure of a good story to worry about the Chapín.
We met at the center of Guatemalan Jewish high society, one of the least likely place for two people like us to meet. (I’m not Guatemalan, he’s not Jewish.) I was a tourist with no plan and no Spanish, though I had an invitation to the synagogue for the Jewish holidays. I had intended to decline, but it was 2001, I was stranded, and the world was beginning to fall apart.
A sequence of good intentions and miscommunications lead me to an influential family in the Central American country’s tiny, tribal Jewish community. The father was balding, starting to round out with middle age; lines on his face traced his Eastern European heritage. The mother was tall and angular, her chestnut hair tinged with red, striking enough to be known as a “Sephardic princess.” He was gregarious, affectionate with his children, but always working; she was patient, elegant, and reliably witty. Save the armed guards on the property, this could have been my family home — or a more archetypal Jewish version of it.
When we rang in a new year together at Rosh Hashana services, I did my best to follow along. I mouthed the words to Hebrew prayers I could recognize but not understand, substituting the Iberian j with the Americanized h as I read the transliteration in the prayer book, replacing ll with y. I was unobservant and never Bat Mitzvahed, but these suddenly close strangers aroused a kind of physical attraction for the religion into which I’d been born. I was in a shockingly foreign country — Guatemala is the land of Maya rituals, war crimes, rain forests, and active volcanoes — but now I was just another daughter in another Jewish family.
The Chapín was a friend of their son. He toured me around downtown Guatemala City in his sports car. I’d been warned that the area was too dangerous to visit, but he knew his way around. His family’s business had been headquartered in that neighborhood for generations. We parked at the office’s secure garage and walked the few blocks to the presidential palace (built by a ruinous dictator) and the cathedral (built by ruinous colonists).
“Have you ever seen mass before?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I told him, though the words reverberating off the walls and the traditions inspiring them were as unknown to me as those of any other organized religion. I had to ask if the priest was speaking Spanish or Latin. (Countless times since then, I’ve tried to imagine the two of us exploding tradition by joining ourselves in a multilingual and polyphonic holy matrimony in that very spot.)
When the Chapín returned me to the family house, his friend’s younger sister asked if we would like to attend her high school graduation. I hadn’t yet thought about the Chapín and me, as such, going anywhere. But she handed us an invitation with both of our names written on it, which he put in his pocket. If I was going to the party, I was going with the Chapín.
He picked me up wearing a dark green suit. I’d never been out with anyone my age who could wear a suit that well. I’d never been out with anyone who took me by the hand and introduced me to everyone in the room, who fetched me drinks, who danced all night with me alone.
At 4 a.m., a driver took us safely back to the house. “Do you want to come in?” I asked, knowing only in another part of my mind that it was not my home.
He broke my heart, of course. In the weeks after the party, he begged off with stories about work, trips out of town, and finally another girlfriend.
I stayed away from the family in Guatemala City after that. The betrayal worked both ways. I didn’t come to temple on Yom Kippur to atone for my sins, and they didn’t come to my rescue. New to religious devotion, I learned that passion in faith — just as in love — can be convoluted.
The next time I saw the Chapín, I was on my way home to New York. Finally invited, I went to his house to say goodbye. “What did you expect of me?” he asked as I looked at him emptily.
It was only later, when I wrote the whole story down, that I could come up with an adequate response. “I didn’t expect anything of you,” I wanted to tell him then, “but you defied even my nonexistent expectations.”
Following what zealous instinct I don’t know, I returned to Guatemala again and again. The Chapín and I circled around each other over the years, sometimes friends, sometimes estranged acquaintances, occasionally lovers (though to admit that means placing both of us in the wrong places at the wrong times). I wonder how well I really knew him. Only once have I ever woken up in his bed — I remember having breakfast with him, but I barely recall the clandestine circumstances that brought us through the night. Other moments, though, are indelible. Hours before I left the country another time, we fucked on the hood of his car, my arms splayed wide, him poised above me, the arch of my foot resting on his ass.
The last time I left Guatemala was two years ago. I spent my last months there scrounging to recover from the passion a different man had brought to, and then taken away from, my life. (In a country that sits atop shifting tectonic plates, catastrophic love is inevitable.) And it was with the man who came next that I left altogether, trying to outrun the collapse of our volatile tryst.
I must have just missed the engagement announcement. Jewish or not, couples in Guatemalan high society tend to have long courtships. The only exception would be if his fiancée is pregnant. That old-fashioned predicament is not uncommon in Central America — I saw it happen to several friends of mine. Still, the Chapín is quick with a condom (as I recall, he keeps one in his wallet). So the union must have been official for some time.
The day I taught my first class, I wrote to congratulate the Chapín. I told him I’d been thinking of him, explained that I’d run away to yet another country to get married but wised up before going through with it, apologized for not being in touch.
“It was really rude of you to leave without saying goodbye,” he wrote me. “However, since I like you so much, I’ve always managed to forgive you.”
His wedding was just a few months away. “Just so you know,” he wrote, “I do consider you one of the hottest girls I know.”
“Chapín,” I wrote to him, “I’m flattered.” I was polite, but cautious.
The Chapín’s news was not the most devastating of my life. But I’ve been preoccupied by those e-mails in the last weeks. Once again, I missed my opportunity for the perfect response.
“Don’t you remember that clumsy first night?” I could have asked. “I couldn’t walk in those shoes, I barely knew how to wear that dress, I fell on the ground trying to dance salsa.”
Before I turned him into a symbol of transcendent intimacy, the Chapín was my partner in the most adolescent entanglement in which I’ve ever been caught. After I invited him inside, the head of the household walked in on us. I had to keep my face glued to the Chapín’s chest to conceal the buttons of his shirt that I’d undone.
The dad is in the room! I remember thinking. He isn’t my dad. He isn’t even your dad. Someone else’s Guatemalan Jewish dad is in the room! The man might have punished me for giving up my chastity under his roof, or thrown me out for taking a lover not of our faith. But, of course, he didn’t. My clichéd predicament (doing what I shouldn’t have been doing, with someone I shouldn’t have been doing it with) wasn’t about religion. It was about fumbling into adulthood.
The father disappeared. The Chapín locked his hazel eyes with mine, closed the door, and removed my borrowed dress. On that night, in that suit, with that look, he seduced me. His tongue translated sex from something foreign and uncertain into something I knew — would always know — instinctively.
I could have been firmer with the Chapín, and with the men who followed him. I could have protected myself better. I could have given less of myself. But, corresponding with him so many years later, perhaps I should have been more generous.
“You have a role in this story,” I could have written. “If I’m hot — I learned that from you.” • 11 September 2009