Expatriate Studies - The VZ

Mom arrived two hours early, afraid that if she was even a few moments late, Dylan might get into one of those taxi cabs from which expatriates were never seen again. In the distance, through the arrival hall windows, she could see the barrio, or was it called something else? Houses were stacked up the hillside like presents around a tree. Mom knew that in those houses there lived a brown people, but any thoughts of them laughing and cleaning and shitting and making love were pressed beneath a nightmarish image -- that of fierce brown men with mischievous and evil design. These specters were the cause of the fires and riots, the murders and drugs, the police men swarming the streets like flies to spoiled meat.

Dylan was easy to spot. Amber hair, milky skin, a bearclaw of stubble. He handed his luggage off to the new driver and gave her a hug. They exchanged funny holas.

“No musicals,” she said, when Dylan was plugging his phone into the car radio.

“I don’t listen to musicals anymore,” he said.

“Oh, good.”

From the airport, the car drove down big oily freeways. They sat in silence except for the odd chirp from Mom. She was anxious about the roads, and those anxieties manifested in the way she ruffled about when huge trucks thundered past, or the way she squawked when cars cut in front of them, or in how she monitored the speed gauge with a clucking noise, or in her whispers of  “cushion, cushion” anytime the driver came too close to a car.

Dylan, meanwhile, inspected the driver. Dylan had been told there was a new driver but he'd forgotten. Death isn't always permanent over the phone - it becomes as easy to delete as a voice mail.

The new driver was not tall like the old one but he was composed and dangerous like a trained rottweiler. He’d been a police officer and from what Dylan had been told, the police here were gun-fighters with near impunity.

Dylan's father had sent him a Youtube video of the new driver shooting at pop-up targets. It'd been intriguing how calculated the man was. At the first whish of a target, he'd roll to a knee, pull his gun, fire. Pop pop. Two shots to make sure the target was dead. Roll to the next target. Pop pop. At the end of the video the new driver looked into the camera and said, "when you pull your gun, you use it."

Now that man was wearing a blue uniform that could have belonged to a Webelos scout.

“The other day I was saying hi to the gardeners,” said Mom, suddenly, sifting through their silence like a desperate panhandler. "I was bringing out some lemonade, when I saw two dogs lying on the lawn.”

“The dogs were lying on their sides, not moving,” she said. “I thought oh no. Two dogs, two of us. They must have left them as a warning. I walked over thinking please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead dogs.’
 
‘But they were breathing. And then one of them rolled over and looked at me with scared little eyes. They were wild dogs taking a nap. We have those, what do you call them? Dingies.”

“Dingoes,” Dylan said.

“Yeah, dingoes," she said.

“Mom, dingoes live in Australia.”

“Oh,” Mom said. “Well, wild dogs.”

There was a rumbling from the sky. They watched two jets stream by like fish in a clear creek. Mom must have looked worried because right then the new driver spoke.

“Russian fighter jets,” he said, “purchased by El Presidente. They buzz around the country, and then Chavez gets on the radio to say that when America invades, we are ready."

The driver turned on the radio and searched through a few stations before settling on a Spanish purr.

“You see?” said the driver. “And now he's sending the tanks to the Colombia border.”

Mom mistook his weariness for pride and whispered confidentially to Dylan, "you hear all this macho patriotism stuff all the time over here. Chavez, Chavez, Chavez. They're scared of us, and I would be too, if I weren't American."

"Technically, they are Americans."

"Well, I mean United Statesians."

United Statesmen, thought Dylan.

They rode awhile, listening to the decry of American Imperialism. It seemed to Dylan that there was much unsaid between the three. Maybe they would rather leave it all to El Presidente. Finally Mom asked the new driver if he'd turn the radio off, please. And there was silence once more.

Dylan tried to remember the old driver's face but it was like trying to remember an old poem. He did remember the night he found out about the death. Dylan had been drinking with friends in the village, and someone had brought out an unicycle which Dylan unsuccessfully tried to ride. Walking home, covered in scrapes and tar grime, with a head full of Maker's Mark, Dylan had rashly picked up a call to hear the joyful tone inherent in silly moms.
 
“Hola, Dylan!”

And then she’d begun.

“Did Grandma tell you yet? Our driver was killed last Sunday.’

‘He was stopped at a red light and two motorcycles pulled up on both sides of the car and shot him through the windows. They shot him eleven times so you know it was on purpose. And they killed his mother, too."

Dylan sat on the curb. His university was in the Panhandle, far removed from drive-by murders or Hugo Chavez.

"You guys okay?" he asked.

"No, no, I mean yes! We weren't in the car, thank God, although I'd just seen him that morning but I guess they caught him while he was taking his Mom to eat. The police think they were targeting her because she was a lawyer investigating one of Chavez's friends. They say it's political. There’s a kind of government mafia over here - the Chavista's."

"They didn't kill him because we're gringos?" he said. Gringo squished like cream in his mouth.

“No, and don’t say gringo. It’s like saying the N-Word.”

“It’s not."

“Sometimes Dylan,” she’d said, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

* * *

Mom was flustered - not willing to leave the car but still vying for power. "We're not stopping here," she told the driver through a crack in the window. The driver shrugged.

"It's not protocol to stop at gas stations off the highway," she said. "We need to keep going."

They'd stopped in a dirty urban area that smelled like fish and crude oil. The driver was standing with a few older men with orange gasoline cans. As they filled the car, they glanced uneasily at Mom.

"Lo siento," the driver said to Mom. "One minute."

The gas station, or gas ruin more like, was enclosed by stone walls embellished with political graffiti and topped by shards of glass to ward off birds and night-time visitors. Dylan eyed the tags with interest. Someone had scrawled mucho chavistas, mucho bargos and below it no es nos.

Then they were driving on a highway along the sea.

* * *

“Oh,” said Mom, and Dylan’s senses returned from another daydream. The car had pulled up to a red light.

There was a motorcycle sitting to the left. Its driver was a fair-skinned man, not the hickory brown that Dylan had imprinted into his mind as the natural color for the Venezuelan people. The driver and his bike were both pudgy, with a sloppy appearance characteristic of a laborer, and he wore what nearly looked like a Nazi helmet, except it was pale as silver.

And, as if shambling from a dream, breaking through a sleepiness he hadn’t been aware of until now, Dylan noticed that on their right was another bike. This man was concealed by a blue hoodie and tight jeans, and he was bent over, focused on the light.

They were not far from their neighborhood Las Villas, a suburbs nestled against the ocean like Venice, with a network of rivers modeled after the Venetian canals. There, the Venezuelans drove million-dollar yachts instead of cars, using the waterways to head to the mall, the marts, or out onto the ocean to a chain of recreational islands or into the bay of Puerta La Cruz to watch the sailboat races. Dylan's parents had a day cruiser which Mom had named The Mango. She'd stuck with The Mango even after Dylan had pointed out that mangoes weren't native to South America. Dad would take the boat unaccompanied onto the canal like a king atop his chariot, swinging by the house to offer a regal wave and zooming back out to weave around bigger boats. Dylan remembered this had once provoked a laugh from the old driver. He'd told Dylan that mango was slang for a playboy.

Other times Dylan and his Dad would take the boat out to chase the dolphins. Their only company would be fishing boats and distant oil tankers. The fishermen would sit in their little tugs and wave but Dad warned Dylan that some were pirates. They’d pull up asking for agua and shoot you when your back was turned. He showed Dylan a tiny beach where a coworker had been killed. The man had dropped anchor to spend time with his wife, and was found days later lapping languidly in the waves, his wife nearby, in the bushes.

In the distance there'd been oil tankers like dead, bloated fish, gazing callously at Dylan and his father just as they'd gazed callously at the coworker and his wife.

But Dylan and his Mom hadn't reached Las Villas yet, and were in a poorer urban district. And they were surrounded by motorcycles, a scenario similar to one Dylan had imagined over and over again in his head.

The laborer seemed to have noticed something of interest in their car. He left his bike on the road to tap on their window.
Dylan, still groggy, felt an alien squirt of fear in his head. Mom went static as an ice sculpture, although her jaw was still working -- chewing her gum into a sticky colloid. And the new driver was seated. How could he roll to his knee from the driver's seat? What an awkward position to fight from.  
Dylan imagined the laborer asking for agua.

The new driver took a moment to roll down the window. The men spoke to each other in a smoothie of Spanish. The laborer seemed to be asking for something, his hands rubbing against the sill.

There were cracks, like gunfire. In a surprising blur, Mom shoved Dylan down and covered him with her body.
When nothing penetrated, when they kept alive and remained there, Dylan and his mother slowly pulled themselves apart. The laborer and their driver were still in position, gazing up at the sky.

Two jet fighters were speeding away. It'd been El Presidente and his bold claim that if America invaded, they would be ready.

The new driver handed a packet of matches to the laborer. They were separate again. The
window rolled; the light changed.

And as they left, Dylan had a glimpse of something unspoken, something that always lurks in borderlands and post-worlds. He saw himself as living in an aquarium, a house of glass walls, or a bottle. And he saw every other person living likewise. And it was up to him to throw the rocks. Or up to them. And if no rocks were thrown, maybe, well, then maybe peace could be had.

But it was just a glimpse, and he soon forgot it when Mom began a story about the maid.