Loaded into the back of the family station wagon with wood panels, en route to the annual vacation week at a rented cottage on the Cape or cabin in Maine, we wrangled for spots near the windows. When the highway finally narrowed to a road, and the road to a lane, and the lane to a dirt path closed in enough so that branches and leaves from trees were within reach, we free-reining passengers of an era unfettered by seatbelts pushed and shoved in the vastness of the backseat, jockeying for position to grab at any foliage our fingers could snatch as the car drove on, our arms yanked backwards until we let go or tore the greenery free. The victors would hold up the spoils – torn leaves and twigs clutched in child-sized fists. “Proof” we called it. Not in the evidence sense of the word, but a name native to the family lexicon, assigned by children labeling the world around them.
I have not shared this childhood detail with my teenage sons. It is of no consequence; they would not be interested. To them, their father and I are potential embarrassments, tottering towards old age in failing bodies and comfortable shoes, grounded by apathetic aspirations – an early evening in, an occasional dinner out, a predictable furnished monotony punctuated by a concert or play, or maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime eco-safari on the Serengeti or trek to Patagonia in a last ditch attempt at adventure. Our offspring humor us, as if we are youngsters who must prevail in game after game of Sorry or Go Fish, lest we break out in a fit of poor sportsmanship. They chuckle at jokes they don’t find funny, endure near-miss witticisms. They try to protect us, the way we want to protect them.
And so my sons have no knowledge of Casi Loco. I hold what happened in my closed hand as if clutching a fistful of dead and crumpled leaves. I want — no, need — to record it before I forget it. I must remind myself; from this vantage point, already, it seems impossible. Proof pulled from trees I passed close to, while wending my way before them.
Casi Loco belonged to Cartagena, Colombia, a beautiful city back then, even when Medellin, the country’s second largest city, was the reputed murder capital of the world. It was 1989 and I had been following a parallel route with two women I’d met in Costa Rica, Katrina and Carlotta, an Aussie and a Brit, respectively, in their late twenties like me, who had paired up as travelling buddies. We made our acquaintance at a clapboard hostel in the Caribbean beach town of Cahuitas, and they invited me along while our loose itineraries coincided. Of the two redheads, Katrina had more freckles and charm, a contagious, bawdy enthusiasm accentuated by a Queensland drawl. Carlotta was less spontaneous, meticulously planning the day’s activities, down to “having a shower” at the same time each afternoon. Both were equipped with the requisite guidebooks that mapped out the Gringo Trail through South America.
I followed them along to an economy pensión in Cartagena. The lone American, I didn’t want to seem too persnickety. Though I had been staying in cheap accomodations all along, the one they’d found was the dingiest and darkest I’d considered up to that point. But I was tired of travelling on my own and appreciated the company, even if their pragmatism and resolutely outsider observations often burst the romantic bubble I moved in, imagining myself one of the locals wherever I went, with my Ecuadorean lineage and almost fluent Spanish. I took my own room and they shared one, but the bugs bothered me. I could not unsee the little black spots that darted about the sheets. I convinced myself they were lifeless specks, forcing myself to lie on them each night.
Yet, I knew what I had seen from the little balcony off my room above the unlit alley. The van into which two policemen shoved a dark-skinned, short-skirted, cursing young woman. And despite the cries and shouts coming from the shaking van, nobody else appeared on the balconies above the alley, even as her shrieks rattled the night. The residents whose windows faced the dark passage must have known not to get involved. Was I less or more safe as a foreigner who spoke with an accent? The distance between me and the woman whose muffled cries the van could not contain, and those people behind closed curtains, was no longer disputable. That distance, like a fleshy hand over my mouth, silenced me into shameful complicity, forced me to inhabit my tourist status, my outsider’s bubble.
Perhaps it’s the visitor’s distance that provides the thin layer of protection, that allows a tourist in a strange place to take in what is brilliant, the sheer film distorting or blurring the more unsightly. Because, Cartagena was beautiful — the whitewashed buildings glistening in the sun, or deep blue or yellow stucco houses with terracotta roofs and bursts of purple and red bougainvillea vines winding up the walls, the towering royal palms in the hot breezes, ferrying the salted breath of a warm Carribean sea. The plazas and cathedrals, the malecón — it was hard to not think Cartagena as one of the most striking cities in the world, even with its egregious abuses, perhaps more flagrantly committed than in other places.
Oddly enough, in the heart of a country renowned for its quality coffee, we were served Nescafé instant in the local cafes we visited. In one such cafe, over a breakfast of toast and coffee granules in hot water, I mentioned that I needed to exchange money. Carlotta and Katrina reminded me how the guidebooks warned against changing money on the streets, as con men were known to pull quick, sleight-of-hand switcheroos to swindle unknowing tourists. But changing money on the black market always yielded a higher rate than banks and other legitimate venues. “Mind you, all of the guidebooks advise against it.” Carlotta pursed her lips and nodded, as if agreeing with herself. “Even the American one.”
“I’ve been doing it for two months,” I said, trying not to sound too cocky. I didn’t point out that the difference in exchange rates, though small to someone with a more generous travelling budget, was considerable if you were counting every bus ticket and coffee (instant or otherwise). I had limited funds and was determined to scrape by on as little as possible to make them last.
I left Carlotta and Katrina mapping out a day of museums and churches, and set off for the district with the most exchange houses, where storied entrepreneurial coyotes offered competitive rates. I had not made it a hundred yards from the door of the first exchange house when a trim, mustached fellow in a yellow-and-white striped dress shirt and cream colored pants sidled up to me and spoke, head bent down, in lowered tones. Amiga. ¿Buscas el mejor precio? Compro dolares, libras, francos suizos… ¿Que tienes?
He was calling me “friend,” asking if I was looking for the best deal. It was too easy, as if he were reading a script from the guidebooks’ warning about exchange scams, offering to buy any kind of currency I might be carrying. I told him I wasn’t interested and continued onto the exchange house with a bright red awning, perturbed by the stranger’s accurate appraisal of me, as if I had a sign suspended above me that read “tourist,” with an arrow pointing straight down upon my head. I had checked the daily exchange rate listed at the national banks and knew I’d suffer a slight financial loss by cashing dollars at an exchange house. But the banks had long lines and the transaction could take a whole afternoon, another reason I preferred to do business on the black market. But this casa de cambio was going to make money and I would lose money at the rate posted. I turned away from the door; the fellow was still eyeing me from nearby.
I went up to him, looked him in the eyes. How do I know you won’t rip me off?
No, amiga, no. Everyone changes money on the street. Those ones there; they are the thieves, he said, jutting his chin in the direction of the exchange house. The street was busy with people moving around us, and he led me to a doorway where we had more privacy. He offered a rate not much better than the exchange house gave. I told him to forget it. He complained he would be losing money.
I turned and started down the steps of the alcove. Wait, he said, and came back with a better rate. Not good enough, I insisted, pointing out that the banks would buy the dollars for more. But I need to make some profit, he reasoned. We went back and forth, both of us calling the other’s bluff until we came to an agreement. I said I’d change 100 US dollars with him and he counted out the Columbian pesos, with the larger bills on top. The transaction completed, we parted ways.
I had walked only a few blocks when something made me stop and pull out the bills he had given me. It was only half the amount he had counted out. I checked again, hoping I was mistaken. But no, I was missing $50 US worth of pesos. My stomach sank; my whole body felt the blush of gullibility. How had he pulled it off right in front of me? I had watched him intently, with my own eyes, as he counted out the bills, his hands in plain view.
I went back to the exchange houses and looked around. This time, people on the street I hadn’t noticed before seemed to be looking at me. Two cabbies leaning against their cars at the taxi stand stopped talking as I approached. Hey, have you seen a small guy with a moustache and yellow-and-white striped shirt?
They knew exactly who I was talking about. You mean Casi Loco?
Casi Loco? The stranger with whom I had entrusted my currency exchange was known as Almost Crazy? Maybe they didn’t understand. I held up my hand to show his height, described the white pants and shoes, the yellow-and-white striped shirt. He was hanging around here a little while ago, I explained.
Si, Es Casi Loco. One of the cabbies jerked a thumb toward the exchange house, the smoldering end of a cigar jammed between his index and middle fingers, leaving a faint trail of smoke. El anda por allá. How quickly they gave him up, telling me his name and confirming his corridor of commerce.
I blew off my plan to meet back up with Carlotta and Kristina and hung around in the recess of a doorway as I had seen detectives do in old movies, missing only a fedora and trench coat. I waited, fueled by adrenaline, emboldened by indignation. The only way to alleviate my self-reproach would be to get my money back. Finally, he came sauntering down the street with the gait of a man who owned the sidewalk. I ran up to him, close to his face. Casi Loco, me robaste. Dame lo que me debes. I kept my voice from quivering as best I could, accusing him of ripping me off, demanding he pay me back, even in another language.
He stepped back slightly, and looked around, as if checking that I wasn’t speaking to someone else. What are you talking about? He acted as if he had never seen me. He moved around me and continued on his way.
I trailed after him. Give me the rest of my money.
¡Déjame! he snapped, and kept walking. Not heeding the order to leave him alone, I ran ahead and stood in his way. I was slightly taller than him. We could have been related, with our slight builds, black hair and dark features, standing only inches apart. Onlookers took notice and stopped conversations, turning to watch the street drama unfold.
I could smell a saccharine citrus scent of aftershave. Give me my money, I repeated. He began yelling now for me to stop bothering him.
A police car screeched onto the curb, blocking the small street, and stopped right where Casi Loco and I stood face-to-face, surrounded by a small crowd taking in the afternoon show. An older uniformed cop came between us, while a younger officer pulled out his club and stood to the side. What’s going on?
He robbed me, I insisted, at the same time that Casi Loco held up his hands in innocent protest.
She’s lying. I don’t know what she’s talking about.
Get in the car, they commanded. I did not have time to process the directive. Even as I moved toward the squad car, my mind and body diverged, startled out-of-sync, my physical self obeying in an act of self-preservation, ignoring a deeper internal alarm. What else could I do? It did not make sense to go in a car with these people, so I rationalized away the unnamed fear: Of course, we’ll go to the station and straighten this whole thing out.
The younger policeman pushed Casi Loco into the back seat, motioned for me to follow, and then climbed in after. The officers said nothing as we drove away from the picturesque colonial section of town, through a more rundown area. ¿A donde vamos? In the silence that followed, my voice sounded childlike. Casi Loco sat scowling, quieted in this state of captivity. Even if my gringa status might confer some deference with the law, this was not the time to talk.
The patrol car entered a roundabout, then a freeway ramp. His thigh pressing against my leg in the back of the car, the younger cop put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder. I kept my eyes focused on the windshield in front, not daring to glance anywhere but straight ahead, sensing him looking at me intently. He leaned in and planted a kiss on my cheek. My face stung where the cop had pecked it. My shoulder, the officer’s hand still cupped over it, stiffened, as if it belonged to a mannequin. I did not know how long we’d been driving; it seemed only minutes before they pulled off the highway.
And then there was nothing — no buildings, no people — just a dry, garbage-strewn landscape with bare, bent shrubbery.
The driver stopped the car. He and the younger officer got out and ordered Casi Loco to do the same. Every new action presented a different potential scenario. Despite his having ripped me off unceremoniously, I was afraid for Casi Loco. Any bravado or swagger he brandished in the streets didn’t follow him here, in the company of these hefty, uniformed men who barely deigned to look at him. In this isolated location, the cops’ silence was more menacing, as they moved together in a choreographed sequence. They must have acted out the scenario before. If I kept quiet, they might forget I was there.
The younger, taller cop held Casi Loco’s arms behind his back, right outside the car, where I sat with the windows open. I flinched inside, dreading what they would do next. Casi Loco and I shared a recent past, the short time before we were both at the mercy of two police officers at a deserted, highway turn-off. I wanted justice, not revenge. Did not want to be the cause, or the recipient, of violence. But nobody threw a punch. Instead, the older one rifled through Casi Loco’s pockets, pulling out two fat wads of bills. He held them up, as if presenting the evidence.
The cop bent down, poked his head through the window. He was talking to me now. How much did he take from you? A hundred and twenty-five US dollars, I answered, adding a little more to the amount Casi Loco had ripped me off.
Liar! Bitch! Whore! Fuck you! I didn’t take that much from her! Casi Loco strained against his captor’s grasp. The older officer grabbed him by the collar and yanked him closer. ¡Callate!
The senior cop shuffled through the worn, flimsy bills in pale hues of green, blue, red and yellow, counted to himself before passing me a handful. Then he counted out more, and gave half to his partner, before shoving the diminished wad back at Casi Loco. The coyote shot a glance right through me and spit into the dust. He didn’t say a word. None of us did. It felt over, the score settled, the men in charge satisfied. The pesos were in my pocket.
The three men climbed back in the car, the young cop paying less attention to me, now. But as long as we were still in the car, moving, I was not yet free. I focused on not breathing too deeply, too audibly, convinced that remaining still and quiet would keep them from considering any other detours. At last they dropped us off where they had picked us up. I said thank you. But didn’t add “for my life.” Casi Loco straightened his shirt collar and walked away, in a hurry to get anywhere else. We avoided each other’s eyes like embarrassed strangers after a one-night stand.
I headed back to meet up with Carlotta and Katrina, spying on myself from afar as I walked through the shaded, narrow streets of Cartagena, over uneven cobblestones wedged between stucco buildings, numbed by the energy charging every cell, shuddering with each twinge of survival. It did not matter if my companions believed me. I didn’t imagine they would understand. Telling them would change nothing; I would be asking only for them to bear witness, something I didn’t deserve. I did not step up as witness to the woman in the van. Unlike her, I had emerged from my encounter unharmed. Nonetheless, my heart expanded with relief, and sped up in a deliberate, regular beating, reaffirming its purpose: to pump the blood through my body.
Carlotta and Katrina would have surely been done with the museums by then. After Carlotta had a shower, I would join them for an evening meal. But first I would sit on the balcony of my room, maybe smoke a cigarette, and take it all in. I felt so tired.
Not the way I am tired these days. These days fatigue comes from routine and abundance, family and friends, a job, clean sheets, and all of the blessings. And pain and suffering, the world’s and our own. The nights when my sons return home short of breath, eyes bright as if holding a vision of their own lives almost extinguished, a secret suppressed in a shrug of the shoulders, a mumbled “nothing” in response to my asking what they’ve been up to, those nights are the reason I have not shared my story of Casi Loco. It would give them more license than they already take. Besides, I have no handful of torn shrubbery or ripped leaves to hold aloft, no remnants of that trip, that day, that car ride, that lie.
Anita Cabrera is a writer, teacher and parent in San Francisco whose work frequently explores the themes of addiction, mental illness and the complexities in parent-child relationships. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart, and more recently, adapted for the stage by Word for Word Performing Arts Company. When not writing or teaching, Ms. Cabrera spends time dancing and working in the recovery community both at home and abroad.