“Ben,” I said. I was clutching his arm. The streets ran with rain; a cold wind was coming down off the mountains, and all the people we passed had their hats pulled low over their eyes.
“Ben. I’m really depressed with the Alvarezes. I can’t stand it. I’m doing everything wrong: the chocolate, the dinner—” I fluttered my free hand in the air like I could make something materialize if I stirred it enough. “I don’t know—it seems like our friendship isn’t meant to be. And that house is grossing me out. I’m afraid I’ll get electrocuted in the shower. When we get back from the mountains, let’s stay in a hostel, just the two of us. Okay?”
Ben stopped in the street and pulled his arm from mine. His face was not sympathetic or concerned or loving. It was mad.
“You’re acting like a real princess, you know.”
I felt like I’d been punched.
“Did you come to Peru to see hostels? I didn’t. They didn’t have to open their house to us, and they did, and they’ve been very kind. It isn’t nearly as bad as you’re making it out to be. Why is everything such a big fucking deal with you?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered. I can still, today, feel the shame.
“I don’t know either,” Ben said, “but I’m really sick of it,” and then he turned and walked away from me.
Fucking big deal. Princess. I knew what it meant to be a princess. Princess was a word my father had used, growing up, to describe a cousin who made trouble, who had to get her own way. Princesses wanted too much; princesses thought the world revolved around them; princesses weren’t tough enough. Princesses couldn’t stand lumpy mattresses and dirty bathrooms. Princesses were too feminine, too weak. I had never been accused of being a princess before. I had always been outwardly tough—“get tough” was my parents’ mantra, until they didn’t need to say it anymore—and since we’d gotten to South America I’d toughened up even more, at least on the surface. I’d shat in more holes in the ground than I could count. I’d slept in more lumpy beds than in the rest of my life put together, sharing a lone polyester pillow with Ben. I’d carried my backpack up and down mountains, through sketchy cities, into the jungle. I’d eaten intestine and weird indescribable meats and questionable dairy products.
I wasn’t, really, a princess. I wasn’t even a snob. I didn’t think I was better than the Alvarezes, or that I deserved something different—I didn’t even kid myself that my behavior was acceptable. I knew Ben was right; I should have tried harder, and I should have been more grateful for the generosity of people who didn’t have very much to give.
But I was incapable, at that moment, of gratitude.
Because everything was a big fucking deal. Ben had that part right. For as long as I could remember, I had struggled with worry so overwhelming it superseded rational thought, worry I was so ashamed of I never wanted anyone to see. It enveloped me, struck me at times I couldn’t predict. It had happened one Thanksgiving when Ben’s sister was visiting, and I spent the entire long weekend picking at my face, attempting to calm down, wanting to die, wondering why everything was such a big fucking deal. It had happened when I was traveling through Poland with a friend. We fought incessantly for three days over things that to him were nothing and to me were a big fucking deal. And it was happening in Huaraz. Blame homesickness, blame neurology, blame discomfort—I was falling apart, and had been since the moment we’d stepped off the bus in that town. I was scared of murderers and a hundred other lesser threats; I couldn’t do anything right; I was acting rude when I didn’t mean to; I wasn’t myself; or perhaps I was more myself than I wanted to admit. Ben was a continent away from me, because he would never understand, not then, not in the future, not ever, what it was to be afraid all the time, what it meant when everything in your life was, at times anyway, a big fucking deal. I had no way, no earthly way, to ever explain it to him, in part because I was afraid if he knew the truth about me, he would leave.
He was the only person who loved me for miles.
Standing on the street corner in that ghost-filled town, I looked at Ben’s familiar fleece-clad back ten feet ahead of me. His shaggy hair, his broad shoulders. He refused to look back, pissed, and I remembered with painful clarity the July day my little brother was born. I was six. My mother was at the hospital, and after camp that afternoon I was sent to my grandmother’s. I knew that even though my father would come and pick me up later and take me to our house that my mother wouldn’t be there, that she would be in the hospital for several days, the first time she had ever been the one not to spend the night at home. And I knew that when she did come home, everything would change, irrevocably. I sat on a stool in my grandmother’s kitchen and, at her kind suggestion, wrote my mother a letter that said, cryptically, “I kind of miss you,” when in reality I felt like little knives were pushing against the insides of my eyelids and I was going to die if I didn’t see her again soon. I didn’t know how to explain the immense hurt of her being away, the betrayal, the sadness. But I knew, though I didn’t know why I knew, that I needed to keep that feeling as tightly locked down as I could, because my grandmother had already suspected too much, that “kind of” was the safest way to modify that great, almost unfathomable missing, because the truth might tear me apart, or worse, make her think I was too much of a burden.
It was then that I realized what I was most afraid of.
“Ben,” I cried. “Ben,” and he turned, mad, prepared to argue, but I started bawling and apologizing. I stood there and wailed, crying for some old, old grief, ashamed of myself and relieved, both, and once I’d cried for a few minutes the streetlights began to take shape again, I could feel my feet on the ground, and Ben came over and quietly put his arms around me.
VI. The trip to the Cordillera Blanca flashes like a series of stunning Polaroids in my mind: me underneath a sky so close I could reach up and pull it down; Eduardo stoically chugging up a pass of 15,000 feet with my ill-fitting rented hiking boots, traded mid-day for sneakers, strapped to his pack, while I sucked on whatever air I could find behind him. The barefoot child who stared, fingers in his mouth, for forty minutes as we took down our tent one morning, until Ben went over and said, “Quieres una dulcita?” and handed the boy one of the Snickers bars we’d brought with us. The tiny gumdrop-shaped straw houses called cochas, where the mountain people lived, and their sheep, whose hoofprints had turned the hills to hot-crossed buns. Ben and me on our last afternoon, which was sunny and clear, looking down the path and seeing we were about to be overrun by fifty sheep and a herder bringing up the rear in her hoop skirt and bowler hat. I shrieked, and Ben laughed as he hopped out of the way.
And the man who came riding out of the mountains on his horse, the horse adorned with various ropes and bits of colored cloth, the man draped in a poncho, and the lower part of his face covered by a bandana, like an outlaw or a murderer. It was not dusty there. The man stared at me as he rode past, fixed his eyes on mine, and I felt my heart leap. I stared back, but of course, couldn’t tell if he was smiling or leering, frowning or laughing. We never saw him again.
In places the hills were planted to the top with quinoa, a leafy green plant with purple flowers, and with potatoes, much less ostentatious, though mostly the altitude seemed to support only a springy wet groundcover, like cropped gorse scattered with tiny white blossoms. We wondered how people survived. Eduardo told us it wasn’t easy, but answered gently, “Yes, they’re warm,” when I asked anxiously about the cochas; through the middle of each one smoke rose like a snake being charmed. There were white-capped peaks in the distance, and Eduardo had climbed several of them. He hoped to climb Everest one day, an adventure he thought might cost him as much as $20,000. He was convinced he would go. He was a quiet, old soul, but I learned one day that he was only twenty-five.
Being in the mountains was a breath of fresh air—thin air, but air nonetheless. And eventually, the time with the Alvarezes began to sound like a story I would tell someday. My despair in Huaraz still didn’t make an awful lot of sense to Ben; it might never make sense to him. But one night he turned to me in our tent, with the rain running off it in miniature rivers, and neither of us having showered since we’d left Lima, and he gave me this look I will forever think of as his look of loyalty—sad eyes, mouth turned down regretfully—a look he gives me when I break down over something small or stub my toe because I’m moving through the house in an anxious tear, the look that says, I accept you for who you are, even if I don’t always understand you—and he put his hand on my cheek and said sadly, “my love,” as though he would take away all the sadness I’d ever felt, if he could, if it were in his power to do so.
On the way back to Huaraz we visited the ancient pre-Inca ruins at Chavin, which were scattered like stones across a football field bolstered by a whole network of tunnels and caves. Eduardo and Ben ran around like boys, climbing up and down ladders. I moved through the ruins more sedately, preferring the open spaces to the dark underground. Then we had a crowded and boisterous bus ride back to Huaraz, where I struck up a lengthy conversation with two girls about Veronica’s age, who could not believe that at thirty-one I wasn’t married with several children yet. Eduardo, meanwhile, was reading the Spanish-English dictionary we’d lent him as though it were a racy supermarket novel he just couldn’t put down.
In Huaraz, Eduardo took us to return our gear. We paid him for his guidance and told him to keep the dictionary. We hugged and shook hands, traded email addresses, took a group photo. Then, ever gallant, he offered to walk us to the house.
“That’s okay,” I said quickly. “We already said goodbye. We’re going back to Lima first thing. We’ll stay in the hostel tonight.” Ben and I had come to this agreement after I’d stopped crying on the street in Huaraz—he’d finally said okay, we can do that if you need to—and when we’d returned that night I told Mami we were leaving in the morning, heading into the mountains for three days, then immediately going back to Lima. She seemed not to understand, and I grasped her hands and tried to make up for all my failings with an emphatic “Gracias, muchos gracias para todos,” and then I hugged her, and she hugged me back, and asked me to pass on her warm wishes to Rosa for a nice Christmas. She smelled good; like fires burning.
If Eduardo suspected anything, he didn’t let on. He saw Mami and Papi’s house, when he dropped us off there several days earlier, tipping his hat to Mami and standing with polite folded hands in the living room. And we’d been to Eduardo’s house, too, with its spotless tiled floors and new deck. His Huaraz was that of the tourist guide who makes his money off travelers and dreams of climbing Everest someday. It was a far-fetched dream, but having the presence to even imagine it gave Eduardo a certain wealth. Whereas the Alvarezes made their money selling guinea pigs and making photocopies on a machine that was liable to encounter another paper jam one day soon.
That night after a hot shower and a meal Ben and I slept like angels in two side-by-side twin beds in the hostel attached to the Casa de Guias. We slept so soundly that we didn’t hear anyone come into the room at 2:00 a.m., another traveler, nor did we see him early the next morning when I stole out of my bed and into Ben’s, wrapped my legs around his warm body and kissed him on the mouth. Then we heard stirring above us, and Ben stilled me.
Sometimes, by touching him, I could make the spaces between us smaller.