Anyone who catches sight of him through the tinted windows of the black stallion that we drive into town shouts his name to the high heavens as though their prodigal son has returned.
It is his first trip back to this small, mountain-bound town on the Honduran border since his Peace Corps service ended more than two and a half years ago. We did not tell anyone we were coming. Betting on the probability that his connections would still be there — with the exception of those young men who had been lured to the States by the promise of work valued by money — we go immediately to the home of his surrogate family.
Rosa arrives at the door when we do, she from inside, we from out. She greets us with the type of disbelief that for a minute mimics indifference until she turns from leading us into their home, and the stars in her eyes shine the light of surprise, and she repeats his name as if the apparition before her must be named to keep from vanishing.
She instructs us to sit, disappears behind the curtain that separates the front room from the rest of the house, and shortly returns with spiked cola. It’s a dry town.
Hernan arrives as I am polishing off the last drop, having nervously sipped through my drink before my fiance has so much put a dent in his. I am nervous about my Spanish and how it might affect their impression of me. I have heard so much about them, and I had glanced Hernan only that once when I came to visit for a week in 2006.
We were eating lunch across from their home, and Hernan was leaning against the rail of his terrace, located above an obtuse angle of the main street, surveying the scene from the advantage of his vantage point. I wondered then if I would ever meet him. With the perch and the face of an eagle, he seemed the center of town for reasons beyond the location of his home. From the shelter of shade where we ate, we studied him unobserved.
That moment was not one that I consciously retained from that trip. Of the hundreds of photographs that captured what I, in retrospect, consider a slight intrusion into my fiance’s initiation, I had none of Hernan, of his terrace, of that corner of town. And perhaps that was fortuitous.
In the days following my return home from Honduras in 2006, a rare strain of strep throat left me shivering in pools of sweat as the fever burned off the haze of dream that imbued that trip. When my fever broke, so did the hope that I could sustain some essence that already seemed lost over such time and space. I searched for it in the photos, those receipts of grief, where I saw the face of someone I had lost.
After days of tossing and turning in a damp tangle of sheets, I wake in a charcoal hued hour, released from delirium. The antiobiotics have kicked in. I grab my phone from the bedside and trigger the backlight. Two days have passed since I last felt alert. Four years have passed since I’d last felt this sick. These strange occurrences of strep — to happen the week I returned from Honduras without him in 2006 and to happen again the week before I return to Honduras with him in 2010 — overwhelm me with temporal vertigo, which my weary mind cannot handle, and I fall fast asleep.
Two days later in the early hours, the alarm clock blares. I bolt out of bed and stumble to the shower to wash off the sleep. The warm water hardly wakes me. Before dressing, I slip back under the covers, my shivers subsiding against the warmth of his body. Slumber seeps in. Then he stirs and stretches, nudging me back into consciousness. At this hour, there is no sound from the street. We seem to be the only souls in this still world. We finish packing our suitcases. Then the taxi arrives.
Following my dad’s sudden death, I felt compelled to find faith in some sense of afterlife. I couldn’t turn to conventional religion, which a politics I reject had usurped. So I summoned moments from my memory that felt spiritual and turned to books and poems that still resonated with me long after the reading. I became obsessed with a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
My mom gave my sister and me each a vial of his ashes to spread in a place where we wanted him to remain with a favorite memory. I decided to summit Mount Massive again, the last 14er I climbed with my dad. But I was completely ill equipped for such an unexpected climb, and winter still lingers on Colorado’s highest peaks in mid-June. My mother was terrified at the prospect of my determination to summit despite whatever weather. I assured her I would not act stupidly even as I knew I would. I drove to the trailhead, arriving at night. I parked, killed the engine, and folded down the back seat into a makeshift bed. I didn’t leave the cab for fear of being able to ascertain in the cold and absolute black of nature at night some sense of the conditions to which I would awake at daybreak. I fell asleep conflicted, my mother’s plea pounding on my resolute determination.
At daybreak, before I even opened my eyes I knew with an unshakable certainty that the climb would be fine. In the dimension-defying time and space of my dreams, I had encountered my dad. He was younger by a decade or more. He was walking with a group of friends on the other side of the street, heading in the opposite direction. He stopped as the group continued on, smiled, slowly waved and then continued onward.
Hours later when I reached the summit, the exposed peak offered little shelter, and the wind paid homage by leaving only the living bound to the ground.
The sun rises while we’re in the sky. It seems an illusion, emerging from an invisible horizon. There is no mountain or building or even vague ocean to give some sense of limit to the world, no earth to blunt the intense and immediate blaze that is daybreak at 35,000 feet. I feel unattached from the limits of space, the progression of time.
So much has changed between my first trip to Honduras and my second. The main street is paved. The young girls who braided my hair four years ago have left their mother’s home, gotten married. The hillsides are lush forest where they had been scorched fields, and at every home we visit we are offered produce that I have never heard of, never tried before.
Hernan and Rosa are no longer just names. They are the keepers of a space in time that is part of his past but is now part of our future. I weep when we leave them, waving us onward.
Of all the times I have flown into New York, I had never seen it from above. But this time, I had the right seat, the right hour, the right approach, and as we arrive from the southwest, I finally get the bird’s eye view of Manhattan. It is late afternoon and the sunlight scatters off the mirrored sides of the skyscrapers; gold light glides across the Hudson. I turn to get his attention, but he is already looking, and I see in his eyes somewhere I’ve been before.