Love, Theft and Power

12 Feb

<By Adam Janos>

I had become insanely good at cell phone tetris.

I hadn’t planned for it to get that way; in fact, like most of my many talents, it was something I just sort of fell into. At twenty-three, my brain was ripe and overflowing with the energy. Still, who could’ve predicted in a million years that mobile gaming was the challenge I would take on with such zeal? God works in mysterious ways.

When I first moved to Ecuador, I knew I was going to be learning something. I didn’t have any friends or any women in my life, and that usually bodes well for skill acquisition. However my original plan had been to channel my energies towards dance, and to end up becoming the most fearsome salsa dancer in the city.

(Okay, even in my wildest fantasies, I didn’t really see myself reaching #1. But I thought with a little practice I’d be top five.)

Salsa turned out to be extremely difficult and a disheartening task to take on (“What do you mean, I have to lead?”), so as the weeks turned to months, I found myself gravitating more and more to the cell phone tetris.

Double line.

Triple line.

Motherfuckin’ tetris.

When I went to the house party where I met Luz Maria, I assumed this would be a brief respite from all that tetris-ing around. A friend of a friend of a friend was throwing the party because the city was dry for gubernatorial elections, and it seemed like a good place to drink away part of my weekend. I’d drop in for half an hour, then head along my way to another underwhelming event. This was my life at the time: I had places to go, but never anywhere good.

Luz Maria and I clicked immediately. She was the most beautiful woman in the room, and I was in no mood to flit about in the crowd of cast-off acquaintances and pretend otherwise. We talked for hours, grabbed a bottle of wine off the table, then headed to the roof and drank ourselves into a stupor.  She was six years older than me, but neither of us really knew that yet; to me, she was young, sophisticated, and beautiful. To her, I was a bushy-bearded foreigner with a cute little accent.  We both figured whatever age difference there might be was somewhat irrelevant.

That said, she definitely did know she was married, and when her husband of nine years came upstairs to tell her he was leaving, she barely batted an eye, told him she’d follow along later in the evening, then went back to chatting with me. He likewise showed little reaction, and that was that.

At the end of the night, she told me she was married, and I was openly shocked.

“Wait,” I said, flabbergasted. “You’re married?”

“Yeah,” she said with a shrug. “Remember that guy who told me he was leaving and asked me if I was coming?”

“Not really. There was a guy?”

“There was a guy.”

“Really?” I asked, in disbelief.

“Yeah.”

“Wait… like… really?”

She cocked her head to the side, unsure what to make of my refusal to understand.

“…yeah.”

We exchanged email addresses and I didn’t sleep that night.  I’d met women before, but never one like this. Why couldn’t I sleep? What a demon! What a saint!

A few days later, she contacted me for a coffee.

“To give you a comic I wrote,” she told me. “I need to give you this comic, because we are both artists.”

“Right,” I wrote back. “We need to exchange comics. It’s the artist exchange. It’s logical.”

We met for comics, then for more coffee, then for movies in my apartment. It couldn’t have been a week before we were lovers.

The first stage of our affair was painful bliss. I kept thinking she wouldn’t have any time for me, and she kept making it, crunching it in between her full time job and her life as a domesticated partner. The time she made – of course – was always short and unsatisfying. An hour or two after work. A quick brunch before.

Always at my apartment.

Never staying the night.

She started to tell me all about her failing marriage, about her husband’s brutal infidelity, about the way she knew almost immediately after they took their vows that the partnership had been a mistake. I listened with sympathy, and – despite both of us being wracked with guilt for our part in a fundamentally sinful relationship – we were also both convinced that the partner we were sharing time with was a complete gift from God. It was veryemotional, and very dramatic.

One day, she came by my place with deep bruises on her arms.

“I told my husband I was leaving him, that I had met someone,” she told me. “He tried to physically stop me from leaving the house. I moved to my sister’s today.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m leaving him, and because I’ve met somebody.”

I went silent.

“Don’t worry,” she continued. “I thought about your safety, so I told him that I had come to the realization that I was a lesbian. I told him that my new partner was a woman. He’ll never know how to look for you. If you’re not comfortable seeing me anymore, I understand. Thanks for everything all the same.”

“Why would I stop seeing you now? We can finally hang out for more than a couple minutes. It’s about to get good.”

But, like all good things, it also had to come to an end. My stint as a volunteer at Children International was over, my savings were trickling slowly and steadily towards zero, and – with no viable source of income in Quito and a healthy dose of homesickness – I decided to continue moving back towards the United States by land. This had been my original plan, and I didn’t feel like I could stay in Ecuador ad infinitum, no matter how great the woman. She and I were a fling, I told myself. A good story to write one day. I would get over this and so would she.

Still, I asked her to prolong the magic and to bus through Central America with me. She asked her work to give her vacation time and she got it. And so we were off, bussing from one city to the next. Eventually, when that time ran out, and she flew back to Quito, got back to work, and began to set up a new life for herself as a divorced woman.

We stayed in touch in the years that followed. In 2009, I flew back to South America, this time to live in Colombia. I was twenty-five now, but no less lost. During Semana Santa (Holy Week), I flew down to Quito to see her.  A few weeks later, she flew to Bogota and stayed at my place. This visit was more somber; it would only be a weekend, and I could tell she felt that my traveling act wasn’t leaving her in the healthiest emotional state.  That weekend in Bogota felt like the end of a party.

For our last night, we went to a Japanese restaurant uptown. Wok. We ordered far too much food and split the bill (She always insisted on splitting the bill, and I always let her). After grabbing the check, we took a taxi back to my neighborhood.

It was a nice night by Bogota’s brisk Andean standards, so we decided to get fresh air and walk the last few blocks back to my apartment. Shortly after getting out of the cab, we saw a homeless man digging for scraps in the trash.

“Adam,” Luz said. “I’m going to give that man our leftovers. Do you think that’s alright?”

“Sure,” I said. “He looks hungry.”

She approached the man, and gave him our food. On closer inspection, it became clear to us both that he couldn’t have been older than sixteen or seventeen. He was a boy. His hair was a bit long over his face, and he wore rags. He mumbled some disingenuous words of gratitude, then wolfed the ribboned carrots and goza down in a few gluttonous bites. We continued walking, but – to our surprise and slight dread – he started to follow close behind.

Our walk at that point brought us to the narrow alley that lead directly to my house. La Candelaria – the bohemian neighborhood where I lived – is a hilly labyrinth of zig-zag streets, and alleyway walks are par the course for getting from point A to B. Normally though, you don’t have the homeless following you in.

“Hey buddy,” said the homeless boy as he walked us into the dark.

“Hey,” I said.

“What’s your name?” the boy asked me.

“Miguel,” I lied.

“Hi Miguel,” he muttered. “Where are you from?”

“Hungary,” I lied again, my blood starting to turn to ice. I had a feeling where this was going.

“Hungary,” he said. “Man, I know someone who once went – ” And then, mid-sentence he made his move. In one quick motion, he grabbed me by the shoulder and raised his hand in a fist up next to his face. Fighting stance.

“Okay,” he said. “Give me all your money right now.”

His grip was tight.

“Give me all your money,” he repeated. “And I won’t hurt you.”

I took a moment and evaluated the situation. Time seemed to be slowing down, and suddenly a million factors were buzzing in my brain.

1) The alley was empty, and there were no cops near.

2) The boy holding me was two or three inches shorter than me, and – to the best of my knowledge – wasn’t armed.

3) He had me by the shoulder with one arm to keep me from running, but the arm he was holding had not been incapacitated.

4) He had one fist up, not as a boxer might, but as if he were getting ready to slash with a sharp weapon. Like he was pretending to have a knife, or a piece of broken glass. But there was no weapon. I was more confused than anything else. You can’t just pretend your way into having a knife.

“This can’t be a mugging,” I thought.

“This is so bush league,” I thought.

“I could probably take him.”

I’ve never been in a fight before, and in retrospect, my attitude surprises me. You see, one of the worries I have about myself is that that – when push comes to shove – I’m really just a coward. I talk a big game, and I like to act bold when it comes to things like job interviews and pretty Ecuadorian ladies who obviously like me. But how would I react to a true test of courage, like getting mugged in the third world, or facing down bone cancer at age fifty-five? When faced with these things, would I curl up into a ball and cry like a sissy? I daydream about it, and I always think, “Yes yes yes. I will – in that situation – show my true color. Yellow.”

This mugging scenario in particular was something I’d really thought about, because in Bogota I was living in a rough neighborhood and I figured I had a coin’s flip chance of getting mugged at some point. In my mind’s eye, curling in a ball, crying, and being kicked repeatedly by the evil faceless bandits was always how this story ended.

And yet here I was face to face with the mugger, and I felt nothing. Not fear, not anger, not excitement. Not even sky blue Buddhist calm. It was just colorless thought.

Luz grabbed the reigns. She spoke directly to the homeless boy.  “Okay, calm down, friend. We’re going to give you the money.”

“So give it to me then!” he shouted, still looking directly at me. He was breathing heavily, totally off his rocker.

5) Was he on drugs? And if so, were these drugs that would provide him with stupid super strength (PCP, crack, etc.), or drugs that would destroy his motor skills?

6) If I threw him into the brick wall behind him, would he collapse into a heap of ragged bones?

7) And what was this pretend knife bullshit?

“We’re going to give you the money,” Luz repeated. She took a handful of bills from her pocket and handed them over. I reached into my right pocket, took out what I had, and forked it over.

I had learned long ago that you should always keep your big bills in one pocket and your small bills in another. I handed the heavy-breathing stumpy homeless boy 1000 pesos, or approximately $0.53. I probably had another 230,000 pesos and a credit card in my other pocket.

“Give me more!” he shouted.

“We gave you all we have,” Luz said calmly. “Now please leave us alone.”

And then, like that, he did. Luz and I walked home. She was badly shaken, and immediately began to swear profusely about how stupid she had been for giving him food and attracting his attention.

“And you’re the gringo!” she exclaimed. “I’m getting you mugged! Have you ever been mugged before?”

I shook my head no.

“It’s my fault. It’s like when they stole my car in Quito and fired a gun at me as I ran away.”

“Damn girl,” I said. “You got stories.”

We made it back to my apartment and told my housemates about it. Luzma had lost 2000 pesos ($1.07) in the robbery, so between us we were out $1.60. Economically, we would survive the hit, but the rest of the trip was ruined. No more romantic moonlit walks. Mostly, we sat at home and watched pirated movies on my laptop. That night we watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“I’m so angry with him,” she said as we snuggled up for the night. “We gave him our food. What a piece of shit. We gave him our food and he still robbed us.”

“It could be worse,” I said, trying to play the hero as I so love to do. “Imagine if you had to be that guy. We only had to be in his world for a few seconds. Now we’re back in a nice warm bed. He’s $1.60 richer but still out on the street, strung out on drugs, looking for a way to survive until tomorrow.”

And that was genuinely how I felt… but I also felt completely stripped of security. All the fear that I had anticipated feeling in that moment of danger hit me in the year that followed. My mugger daydream intensified, so that when I walked alone at night, I walked faster, breathed faster, hoped to just get back to my apartment. Fear was now an everyday part of my life. Even after moving back to the states, the fear of violence stayed with me. Here stateside, I imagined that the mugger would have a firearm. Here stateside, my cowardice would actualize in real time, and there would be no beautiful, sophisticated woman to share the fear with.  Here stateside, the “curling into a ball, getting kicked repeatedly” fantasy would come true.

Danger shared between two is an adventure. Danger absorbed solo is just a really bad night.

But maybe that danger is what I was looking for with Luz all along. Maybe that’s what she was looking for with me, when we first met at a party in Quito. I remember one night with her, shortly after our affair began, we went and got dinner at a nice Italian restaurant downtown. On the walk home, we spotted a parked car of the same make and model that her husband owned, and so she made us pick up the pace, hail a cab, and hurry back home. Another time, she came over in fits, and swore that someone had been following her.

And then there was one night, in the early AM, the deep bruises from her altercation only just starting to fade, when we woke in my bed to the sound of heavy pounding – thump thump thump – someone banging nonstop on an apartment door. Both of us opened our eyes but neither of us spoke, and later we recounted to one another that we were sure her husband had found her and was outside my door, pistol in hand, ready to end our partnership the old fashioned way.

And somewhere out in Bogota, there’s a drugged out boy waiting in an alleyway to take your cash. Or maybe he failed to improve his lot, and froze to death, clearing the way for more efficient thieves.

Or maybe he’s finally fallen in love.

After traveling the Pan American  Highway Adam Janos found a passion for teaching theater at Harlem Children’s Zone.  He was a member of the touring indie-cabaret band The Easy Tease and the sketch comedy groupOlde English.

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