Flight   (excerpt)

Jorge trains his gaze on the broad seat back in front of him, balance his breath to match its seams avoids looking at the fatigues and muzzles patrolling the aisle. They will not stay long on the plane only the officials in polished shoes and ironed khaki will remain strategically among the rows. They watch the passengers with suspicion, a pen in hand, sights eager. Jorge is sweating in the only coat he has ever owned. Feels the blanket lining he paid a tailor to sew inside chafing at his nerves. It’s the heat. It’s his first time ever on a plane. It’s the quiet word hidden behind each passenger’s teeth.

The woman next to Jorge could easily be his younger sister. Her dark hair pulled back against the swelling in her eyes. She bites the inside corner of her lip. Her slender fingertips draw across the worn edge of her linen skirt. Jorge turns away, adjusts his feet, stares until intimately familiar with the curtain track above the rounded window. Six metal clasps hang a tweed curtain. “Seis,” Jorge repeats. Counting like when he was a boy behind his desk at La Salem. “Seis, doce, diez y ocho, viente y cuatro,” he counts higher as the plane lifts farther from the ground.

No one speaks on the flight. The woman next to him whimpers softly beneath the propeller’s droning. Jorge scans the adjacent seats, glances at her face only briefly then takes her hand in reassurance. “Listen,” he whispers, “get a hold of yourself sister. They can still send us back.” She looks up from her lap finally drawn out of herself to notice Jorge for the first time. His pleading expression sobers her into the present moment. She expands her ribs and draws her wet lashes together. The shuddering mutes and it is back to silence, each rigid body an island against the tide.

In the oval Jorge watches storm clouds gathering, their bright cumulous doting the expanse of blue. He escapes into the unfolding sky, back to the rocking tip of oars. That first solo row past the swampy edges of the Tíbets. Where it was just him in a wooden boat with the taraya at his ankles. Propelled only by his senses and the repetitive pull of his shoulders in unison. What called him to a place was just the feel of the water the insistence in his legs to stand, the fishing net familiar in his grasp. Jorge learned how and where to twist the fibers into knots. He recalled the mangrove-dyed strands boiled in a pot over driftwood flames. Then after how the ochre net cast into turquoise. How he centered himself, draped the cordage over wrist, propelled the weighted ends, trusting the middle pull to bring back all the edges.

***

When Jorge was a boy in Cueto his world was six blocks wide. In the mornings he dressed for school in slacks and a white t-shirt, Jorge climbed the ladder for the zinc rainwater tank in the backyard. He pumped the metal handle to start the flow of water into the house. Jorge flip-flopped in a hurry through the verdant patch flanked by banana trees, ferns, and a dry stack rock wall. Removing his shoes at the cement step, he traveled through the living room to watch his mother light the charcoal stove, bring water to boil in a pot, make coffee through a tapered sock. The kitchen was one room he was not allowed to enter after letting a pan of maduros flame with inattention.

For breakfast, his mother alternated between oatmeal and hard-boiled eggs. Eggs were Jorge’s favorite, oatmeal his sister’s, and his mother would not be moved to cook additional preparations. She was also indifferent to the objections of her children, who rotated between elation and disappointment every weekday morning. Afterwards, Jorge and his sister walked together to the Baptist elementary school. Jorge memorized lines of Martí and added fractions. He was quick to study but easily meandered to inattention. At noon, his sandaled feet competed for a faster time to the house. At the dining room table he was chastised for swinging his legs under the chair and picking at his food until he was released to sit by the radio with the volume low.

Jorge waited out the midday torrents by occupying himself near the back glass door. He watched the continuous drops rhythm into broad green leaves dampening the red soil underneath. Awaiting a pause of rain he played marbles by himself, sharpened the tip of his painted top, or collected rubber band ammunition. On car rides through the rural sketch of Eastern lands, Jorge hung his skinny arms from the back window of his Father’s yellow Lincoln sedan. Any horse near the roadway was met with Jorge’s latched thumb and index. He launched attacks that caused animals to buck and guajiro riders to rear and scramble.

There was also the incident with a thin linear saw one humid afternoon. Once a week it was Jorge’s job to fetch and kill a chicken for dinner. He entered the wire coop and zigzag chased a panic of feathers, finally grabbing a bird to swing dead by the neck. Handing his mother the fowl, he then resumed a test of strength with a young banana tree. Finding the rusty saw on the driveway, he could not image the miniscule teeth drawing so much as a scratch. So to test his theory he inched an arm through the chain link separating his yard from the neighbors. After four days of diligent labor, Jorge downed the entire tree, nearly clipping the neighboring roof. And while Jorge laid flat against the prickly grass he heard the flapping of livid hands and sharpness of raised voices in puzzlement at how the tree could topple with no wind at all.

On such occasions, his mother took her pink house slipper to his backside, hiding behind the front door until he entered the house. He was often misbehaving and forcing his mother into more creative means of punishment. The worst of which meant skipping a Friday night at the Arab Club with Pedro. It was the one location in town with a TV and Jorge received entrance on account of Pedro’s friendship and Lebanese heritage. On Friday nights, the boys scooted across the road to watch Lucha Libre or boxing. They took empanadas filled with r beef and homemade yogurt. They took a dozen stuffed grape leaves bursting with tender rice and raisins. The two boys were the club’s youngest fixtures, hunching close to the picture glass while elders passed bets and cigars and Arabic.

On punishment Jorge must run additional errands for his mother. He walked slowly to the dry good store, not Casa Rodrigo with the hitching post out front where they scooped beans from a sack, instead Sucrusal with a red painted sign where Jorge once knocked over the suitcase display. Jorge brought the groceries home in a paper bag and sulk, forgetting the coins in his pocket to pay the tab. And though the grocer just added the items to the family credit, Jorge’s mother would not have her reputation tarnished. So Jorge was sent back with the urgency of slipper whacks and absent-mindedness added to the expanding list of grievances.

Nights when Jorge was not in trouble, his mother Zoila sets aside her strictness. She entertained the children with monopoly or picture books, trivia or radio dramas. Often chess was scattered across the floor until it was time to brush teeth and his mother nested in a chair with a novel and espresso.

By contrast, Jorge’s father, Amador, was rarely home. He traveled often for work and his arrival marked a shift in temperature, a deference, and seriousness not otherwise present. There was never yelling. Never open hostility in front of the children, but rather a sullen polarity. An oppositional under toe pulling at the house until it finally became unbearable and Zoila gathered both children to head for her parent’s house in San Luís.

Jorge packed his suitcase, a pouch of shooters, and his wooden top. He played final matches crouched in front of the house. He sent the prized top spinning from the coiled thread and into the opponent’s piece. After he stuffed the last army figurines into his pockets and grabbed his handball, he shuffled behind his mother and sister on the walk to the train depot. His mother wore a straight lined cotton dress, one hand around the luggage, the other grasping his sister, Rosamaría. Jorge managed with both hands to waggle the brass-latched baggage all the way to the railway platform. Then they wait on the wooden boardwalk under the corrugated tin roof in the gathering heat.

Jorge liked the train, looked forward to the thrill of passing scenery, the palms and damp rusty hills, elbowing his sister from the view. The conductor knew Jorge liked chicken sandwiches and called out the order as soon as he punched the ticket.

Eating out was a treat reserved only for haircut Sundays in the summer when Amador brought Jorge back into Cueto from the beach. On those days Jorge waited at the barbershop where the guajiros spat tobacco from a porch and leaned against the stucco like bulls with an itch. They never said much and Jorge preferred to scurry in to the tiled room to the metal chair that pumped upwards and faced a mirrored counter with jars of combs. He watched the ceiling fans whisk in futility and stiffened in his seat. There was something about the emission of cigar smoke, the decaying teeth, the firmness of the guajiros baked grip that Jorge recognized as both intimate and unsettling.

When his father collected him they went across the street. It was the only occasion Jorge set foot in the cafe for an orange juice and a biscochito. He always promised himself to chew slowly, savor the bright pulp in his mouth, but the flavors refused patience and Jorge left trying to hold the memory of butter, anise, and citrus.

Then he walked with his father to the double matinee. Amador’s gait was lanky, unattached, shoulders drawn outward with indifference. There was a formality to the ritual. As though he knew only how to be with his son in the darkness and flicker of a back-to-back thriller. Jorge’s father was often a distant source of severity, an outlying star in the familial constellation. His mother was the center. His sister a survivable annoyance and the moves between his father and grandparent’s house just another seasonal rhythm, predictable as afternoon rains.  

The single indignity of his grandparents in San Luís was the one room schoolhouse. He could not be expected to concentrate looking at the back of his sister’s ribbon hair. The teacher fumbled around the chalkboard and Jorge grew restless. He threw paper, did homework as the lecture meandered on, and tried without success to tame his impatience. And when the teacher kicked him out on a Monday afternoon, and because Jorge had bitten his friend Pedro once when he was very angry, his mother sent him to boxing class in a neighbor’s garage.

It was more a shed than a garage with a pull up front door. It was a box of sweat and decaying attachments from the tropical downpours and reused gloves. The canvas bag hung at an angle and looked as worn out around the seams as the teacher did around the face. The teacher had been an amateur fighter with failed ambition. His cheeks were all angles, his pitch a gripping hustle. He barked, prodded then demanded attention. So when Jorge tugged at the gloves and squared off to the bag he let loose a fury, punishing the rocking lump for all he could not answer.