Cutter Ulhorn is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Magdalena, Colombia.
My friends ask me questions. I have answers.
“Profe, how old are you?”
“Profe, how tall are you?”
I still don’t know how to explain my height in meters. I say six pies and show them my foot.
“Six of these,” I say.
They ask me what shoe size I wear.
I ask them what they think. They take a minute, examine the arch of my foot, pick it up in their hands, feel the heft of it, like they’re divining for water, practicing the rituals of an arcane science: guess the size of the gringo foot.
They look at each other, and nod in agreement. The council has spoken.
Then, they ask me if they can have my shoes. They look down at their feet, half the size of mine, their Crocs run through, burnt out on the bottom from serving as the frenes to a bicycle that doesn’t have brakes, maybe never had brakes.
“Sure,” I say. “We will see.”
“Profe, can you sing for us?”
I used to say no. I used to feel self conscious. But if Colombia has done one thing to me, it has turned me into a broken voiced ambassador for American culture. I can sing with, if with nothing else, ganas; and ganas, in many cases, are a finer currency than a stack of cien mil peso bills.
There is only one song to sing. It is the best song ever written in the English language.
I open my mouth and sing “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind.
And they love it; they cheer.
For a minute I almost forget that they can’t understand a word I am saying.
“Profe, what is your favorite color?”
“Profe, how did you get here?”
“Profe, where do you live?”
“Profe, what do you eat?”
“What everyone else eats here.”
“Profe, is amor ‘love’ in English?”
“Profe, will you teach us pirropos in English?”
“Profe, is Spanish easy to learn?”
“Yes and no.”
“Profe, do you love Colombia?”
This is a trick question. There is only one answer.
“Of course,” I say. “ I love it.”
“Do you have an hembrita?”
They look at me expectantly. It’s a Saturday evening. We are sitting in the park. They are in their best clothes, styled, raitos freshly cut into their close cropped heads, the air thick with the fumes of five different body sprays.
I say I have my students, I have my work. I say it is enough.
To them it is not.
“Do you want one?”
This is not the first time someone has attempted to gift me another human being. It is an act of dubious courtesy, one that, like yucca, is offered repeatedly and in increasingly larger portions. At first, I was flattered, if a little chilled. But six months on, there are not adequate words for what I feel. It’s the feeling of someone presenting to a stranger something precious, something so precious that it could not be given in good taste, like a Faberge egg, a relic, the bone of a patron saint. It is a prima, or an hermana.
In this case, it is someone’s thirteen year old niece.
I say nothing.
“But she’s beautiful, right?”
I turn to to look at her on the swing set: laughing, her yellow sundress stained with mud, the bottoms of her bare feet black and calloused. She is glowing, in that way that children glow, in that way that clearly marks them as young, that separates them from the throng of doors and meanings and complexities that populate the halls of adulthood.
But it’s rude to say that she is not beautiful.
So I say that she is.
But I mention that she is a student. She is my student. She is thirteen. She is thirteen years old. She is a thirteen year old girl.
After this, my friends drop the subject.
I cannot tell if they have understood me.
“Profe, what do you do when you get bored?”
The road out of town is long and wide. I walk into the mountains. I listen to music that I shouldn’t. I turn on Future’s “Thought It Was A Drought” and run a strobe in my mind’s eye. The sky goes black and there is bass and rays of lightning crashing into a red haze behind the peaks. There is the smell of ozone, and the air hisses with the sounds of fires firing away. It is a resounding static that collapses everything, and I am bored and this is living in a pueblo, and there is nothing to do. There is soccer and there is the park, but eventually you can only kick a ball so often, and you can only walk through the throngs of sixteen year olds in licras so many time before any thrill you first found feels hollow, and you feel like you’re living someone else’s fun, going through the motions, doing what you should do, and “should” is just another way of saying the things that you do where you feel nothing at all.
There are strobes and there is lightning and there is the smell of ozone and the frigid cold of the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
There is walking right up to a speaker screaming vallenato and pressing your body into it, letting the bass throttle your innards, wrapping your arms around the subwoofer until you can’t stand it anymore, and you have to lie under a tree in the half-darkness and wait for the ringing in your ears to die down, the swan song of a register you will never hear again.
I think of heat. Of aguaceros that lock the town in their homes for hours. Of days passing, each one as burdensome and the same as the one before it, thick with routine, drowning in expectations made and met.
I think of love; of waking up and choosing to love something, looking an experience in the face and saying because you are mine you are loved, and you are as you are, and because you are not perfect, you are more perfect to me than anything. I choose you, I choose you, I love you.
But they did not choose this experience; this life happened to my friends. Like an accident.
And every day I strap myself into the front seat of this experience like a car veering wildly down the truncal to a collision certain and imminent. I put on my flame retardant suit, my neck brace, my mouth guard. I see the end and I choose it, and as the car wraps itself around the bright corners of the day, the aluminum crumpling, the shockwaves breaking the glass, I am smiling through gritted teeth.
Meanwhile, my friends are in the trunk of the car. They were born there. They scramble for the door release. The car speeds on. The car crashes. Their mouths are full of questions.
“Profe,” they say.
I look at them. Their eyes are wide, pleading.
“Profe, tell us what you do when you get bored. We are, too.
We want to leave. How can we? How can we leave?”
Many questions I can answer easily. This one, I can’t.