It’s in the choice of his words, the raw expression. In the wise, rough, playful eyes. I’m in bed in New York holding the phone to my heart, feeling him.
He is one in a million million.
He notices me.
I first hear his voice in a park in London, and it’s careful, but unfolded. The dew drips off his tongue and my ears buzz with delight.
His words cover his walls and I ache to collect each one, but they can’t be caged.
They are living. They are one hundred flying.
He said “You know I would never let them do anything to you. You know I wouldn’t take you there, through the barrio, if I couldn’t protect you.” He holds up his fist, hardened by stubborn kung-fu repetition. “I would destroy them before I let them do anything to you.” My face flushes hot under his sincere, severe, savagery. My body already believes it.
And I say “I know when I’m safe.“
He teaches me how to find South from the stars.
Says “I love you, Zoe, you are one of my favorite people on this planet” and I believe him.
He says “You can do it. You can do anything.” And I believe him.
He sings thick, light, and sweet like clover honey.
I say “I love the way you see me.” He says “I like who you are, so I love seeing you.” and I close my eyes and sink into the soft timbre of his poetry, and I believe him.
I know I can’t be with him, can’t be with the Still Life. Pushing him away as the rip tide pulls me deeper, in, and under.
Here I am, in this moment, in this now, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. And I want to touch his life.
To feel it without a screen between. To absorb him.
He says “no matter how far you may go, you will always be in my heart, Zoe”
And I believe him.
All that he says is a surprise. All that he says I already know.
I am in Puente Alto, a notorious neighborhood outside of Santiago, Chile.
I am visiting Fuego, who I met on Instagram.
He is a sweet diamond in the rough. Lives with his alcoholic and abusive father. Born and raised in Puente Alto. Has scrawled poetry in English and Spanish all over the home’s walls. He has learned English from Hollywood, and speaks it fluently enough to compose in it.
Fuego plays guitar and sings to me, shows me his plants – cannabis and San Pedro. He tours me around his neighborhood, and then the one next door – the worst neighborhood in Chile. It looks the same as any bad neighborhood in California. Same climate, even. Spaced out houses painted bright colors, some augmented with cardboard and corrugated metal. The wash out on the line. Kids playing in the streets.
It’s only at night that you can tell that the cocaine for much of Chile arrives here and then is distributed.
The businessmen set off fireworks to signal the arrival. Soon afterwards there is traffic as people come through Fuego’s neighborhood to the pickup point. Meanwhile Fuego teaches me to throw the Puente Alto signs. There is no difference between the gangsta life here and the gangsta life in the US. Everything is familiar, and therefore safe.
We camp for a night in the mountains. We prepare by buying supplies, including a trip to the Puente Alto liquor store. I buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, which is the most expensive bottle in the store. It is, as usual, covered in dust. The stern shopkeep dusts it off carefully for us, and puts it in a bag. He keeps looking up at Fuego and back at me, raising his eyebrows at Fuego as if to congratulate him on being with me.
There is a public outdoor market, with food at the head, household supplies in the body, ending up in flea market wares for the tail. I buy figs, cherries, homemade cheese, avocados, beans, vegetables. In the poorest parts of the world we eat like royalty.
We hop on a public bus for pennies, taking it on bumpy roads to another stop in the middle of nowhere on a dusty road. We wait here for 40 minutes before another bus passes, longer distance. Here we ride this until Fuego signals the driver, and hop off at a random point on a mountain pass.
I have been to these mountains before, on a former trip to Santiago, but it was just a drive. Here I ford streams and climb through brush, no trail. We gather firewood.
Here we smoke the bud that Fuego has been saving for months, just for my visit. The weed is very good. Puento Alto grown in his closet. He has a sponsor who buys it, but his house is hot and Fuego’s is less so (which isn’t to say there hasn’t been heat), so Fuego eats the risk for free herb. He has a six shooter revolver pipe, metal. We laugh, smoke, drink, and talk, and tell stories.
The sun sets over the mountains. The familiar smell of sage and chaparral. We build a fire.
We compare proverbs. He teaches me words in Mapuche.
I stare at the stars of the Southern hemisphere, unfamiliar, still. He points out the constellations. He shows me how to use the Southern Cross to find true South.
We fall asleep snuggled together.
The story is so much better if I end it here… and not many months later with him on his knees naked in the dust calling me “mama” and me pulling a 7-inch hunting knife on him at the prospect… and so I *will* end it here.
I love Latin America:
Oaxaca, Mexico: Ruta Del Mezcal
La Paz, Bolivia: Route 36
Medellín, Colombia: Buying Drugs in Iconic Places
Bolivia, Chile, Peru: Singani or Grappa?