Friday, December 25, 2015

Cojetes y Fuegos

I've been here before.

Last Christmas eve, I was peering down from the third floor of a house on the street, Calle de Cuba, as we've renamed it - for all the mechanics disassembling cars, the carpenters sanding boards, the babies crawling on the cobblestones that occur on this small block. I've lived here for a year. When I'm not living here, I'm still living here in some way.

This Christmas, I know the drill. I know the food won't start until midnight. I know the preparation of tables and fires on the cobblestones won't start until 11. I knew the piñatas won't start until 2am. I go to my friends' house to wait it out, snacking on beans before I leave and then eating a small meal at their house - jamon and sweet potato and tequila. This is first dinner. Their 25 year old guest, Carlos, the bartender at a local place, wants to go to Canada. He wants to see snow. He doesn't want to inherit his father's bar. Anywhere but here, he says, except to visit.

Bob, the husband of Sandy, and I amble down to Cuba and sit on white picnic chairs. My best friend Max is nowhere to be seen. We chat with the owner of the fire, built on the cobblestones. The fires occasionally cause the stones to crack and explode, sending shards to either side of the street. Above hangs a rope and a hook, meant for the piñatas. It is the first time I have seen all of the street since early September. Cookie-giving commences. Much kissing. Ana has saved me a scarf she says was 'Maleea.' I put it on. I am handed a styrofoam plate by the neighbours of Magda and Lupe. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, salsa picante, corn, rice. Second dinner. I gulp it down. I kiss the chef.

I am expected up the street again, where Ana and Fernando are cooking. My best friend Max shows up, unable to stand, he is so drunk. He doesn't want food. He's a scarecrow in a sweater I've brought him, already scuffed from his falls. We sit at Ana's table. Third dinner: turkey, rice, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, salsa, butter-grilled bread. It soaks up the tequila I've been drinking all evening. I forget the drunkenness, until "vete a la verga" escapes his mouth, because you don't talk to drunks when they can't form a sentence, when everyone else in the family averts their eyes and tucks their mouths and makes a gentle joke of something unrelated, and his brother says to me, his eyes kind, "he was fine two hours ago."

I advance to the piñata. We are there to watch, but the boy hands me the stick, saying, "girls do this too." And adults, apparently. "Arriba!" they yell. "Abajo!" I swing. I make contact. It is like a line of a poem zinging out of the wilderness. It has nothing to do with me. When the burro explodes, shattering greenware red clay over the stones, I am there picking out the tamarindo candies. Max operates the rope, until someone gently relieves him of it.

"Vete a la chingada," I say, as we part. And "nos vemos mañana," because I still love him, and alcohol for an almost purely indigenous carpenter is a fuck-up that has 300 years or more of colonial guilt attached. I walk home down the small cobblestone street I have walked 100 times before. A girl swings out of the next block in front of me. She wears a black shirt with a zipper up the back, a short, beautiful skirt. She looks back. She smiles. "I have gas," she says, hearing me insult my friend and hearing him call after me as I stalk away. She pulls out a canister. I smile. "Not at this point," I say. She must be visiting. She is too beautiful for words. She has a white dog that she walks perfectly while smoking a cigarette.

Now it is 4am. The neighbours in my friend Jeanne's barrio, where I am staying, break out another load of fireworks. The children scramble for the candy. Neighbours serve food to whoever passes. White plastic chairs shift and lodge into the dirt spaces between stones. Huapango, cumbia, ranchero, banda. A woman's raucous laughter. The courtly men. The lightest of touches on the perfectly imperfect world.