In 1961, Nicaragua and I were still developing, both of us unsure of our desperate passions. I knew nothing of politics. When the U.S. Air Force needed my father to teach Somoza’s pilots to fly, my family moved to Managua. The State Department warned of the dangers: malaria, earthquakes, revolution, poverty, sharks swimming in fresh water. They left something out.
I was thirteen, with pale, half-peach breasts and no word, in any language, for what I wanted. But on a blistering Saturday afternoon, in the cool dark of the Teatro Real, I would see what I dared not desire.
My best friend Sue and I were meeting our boyfriends at the movies downtown. Running late, I hurried along the Avenida Rubén Darío toward the theater, worried that the smell of ripe fruit rotting in the hot Managua sun would cling to me, and that Jim wouldn’t notice my new perfume. Brown-faced women crowded the sidewalk, selling papayas and mangos, corn tortillas wrapped in steamed banana leaves, warm red sugar waters, fried bits of iguana meat laid out on old newspapers. Guardia soldiers in new boots stomped along the broken pavement, sometimes buying from the old women, more often cursing them.
I knew better than to eat native food. Beggars cried out, “Señorita, por favor,” their shrill voices pleading over the honking of tinny horns. I refused to notice them, the way Sue had taught me to ignore the soldiers when they called after us like they knew the color of our underwear, “Ay, chiquitas.” I made it to the theater without surrendering a centavo.
Inside the Teatro Real, traces of cologne and hair cream perfumed the cool air, and I felt safe. Sue was already relaxing into the comfort of Paul’s arm. I took the empty seat next to Jim, knowing it would be well into the feature before he would fake a yawn and stretch his arm over the back of my chair.
In crisp Spanish, the newsreel announcer admired our handsome president and his pretty wife. The Kennedys looked like movie stars. Secretly, I wanted to be First Lady when I grew up. I thought it was good that the air force had sent my family to Nicaragua, so I could learn to speak a foreign language, like Jackie.
The theater was crowded with Nicaraguans, hungry for anything American. Blues and greens reflected off slick, black hair during the preview for Gidget Goes Hawaiian. The Elvis movie began, and the surly smile that postered the walls of my bedroom filled the screen. I hoped Jim would pay attention to the way Elvis kissed, but instead he was fidgeting, snickering with Paul at some private joke. Sue was in on it, too. I whispered, “What is it?” and she pointed with her chin to the couple a few rows in front of us.
Linda Saunders and Emanuel Gomez, seniors in our American School, cuddled in what they mistook for privacy. Even we seventh-graders knew Linda’s father would ship her back to California if he caught them together again. Mr. Saunders was in Nicaragua to develop banana production, not to have his beautiful blonde daughter fall in love with a dark foreigner, no matter how rich his family.
Emanuel studied Linda’s face the way I imagined a painter would memorize his model: the arch of her eyebrows, the curve of her mouth, the tilt of her nose. From where I sat, I could see the slightest smile on Emanuel’s full lips when he put his hand on Linda’s cheek. Then, one by one, his fingers slid to her mouth, moved on to trace her chin, her neck, her shoulder. Linda’s thin hand, white as porcelain, was lost in his dark hair. Their lips met, and they kissed like in the movies. I could feel the danger three rows away, and I wanted it.
Jim turned to me and said, “That’s disgusting. If her father was giving a reward I’d turn them in.” He poked Paul in the side and they laughed. Sue leaned across them both to tell me in a loud, sure whisper, “It’s stupid for an American girl that pretty to like a Nicaraguan.” I didn’t say that watching Linda and Emanuel kiss gave me goosebumps.
On the screen, Elvis was kissing Juliet Prowse in a magical motion that seemed both hard and soft at the same time. Jim stretched and let his arm fall to the back of my chair. It was my turn. I forgot about Linda and Emanuel, Elvis and Juliet Prowse as Jim’s hand found my shoulder and he pulled me toward him. He pressed his dry lips against mine, then pulled away fast and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked at Paul and they laughed.
A bright, scorching sun greeted us as we came out of the Teatro Real. Loud, dirty children surrounded us, chanting, “Chiclet, Chiclet, Chiclet.” Sue shooed them away.
Hours were left to our lazy afternoon. I imagined strolling along the Avenida. Maybe this time Jim would take my hand. Or we would go to the record store, crowd into a small glass booth, where he would touch my cheek and steal a kiss while Ricky Nelson sang of teenage love that lasts forever. But before we could decide where to go for a Coke, my mother pulled to the curb. Hanging halfway out the window of our lumbering Edsel, she shouted, “Y’all get in, quick now!” Her easygoing Alabama voice was fast with fear. She was close to tears over someone burning the American flag at the embassy.
Jim laughed, and Paul explained. “Crazy Communists, they do it every year at this time. Don’t worry, Mrs. Parker, the Guardia will take care of them.” My mother relaxed then, the way she would get after a drink. “Well, all I can say is it’s not very nice, given how much we do for these people.” Her voice lingered over the vowels.
Sue, Jim, and Paul had all lived in Managua long enough to know their way around. I envied their sure knowledge of the people and the language. Their fathers were American businessmen, good teachers of confidence in a strange economy. My father had been instructing Somoza’s pilots for less than six months.
Mother made me get in the car with her. “You have to be careful when you’re a foreigner in a new place,” she lectured, speeding past the mango orchards and cardboard huts which lined the highway to our house.
She didn’t need to remind me to be careful. The air force had already moved my family from Ohio to South Carolina, then to California, in and out of Texas twice. I had spent the sixth grade in the knee-deep snow of North Dakota, now the seventh in the tropical heat of Nicaragua. Every place I had ever lived was foreign. At thirteen, I knew caution like a hometown.
Because of the trouble at the embassy, my parents made me miss a party that night. In my absence, Jim danced every slow song with Ruth Ann. The next morning, Sue had the best friend’s duty of letting me know I had lost him.
I hated my parents. I wished my father’s plane would crash. I wanted my mother to drive into Lake Nicaragua and get eaten by freshwater sharks. Eaten alive.
I went to school Monday, hoping no one would notice my pain, while wishing all the world would grant me sympathy. American boys never spoke to girls at school, so nothing seemed different between Jim and me. But everyone knew I had been replaced.
Mine was a pale tragedy, however, compared to Emanuel’s. On Sunday, Mr. Saunders had put Linda on one of his United Fruit boats bound for San Francisco.
Sue and I passed Emanuel in the hall on our way to biology. He stood at Linda’s locker, staring at the light yellow raincoat she had left behind. He ran his hand down the full length of the sleeve. I didn’t know boys could cry.
In biology, I returned to feeling sorry for myself. Jim probably wouldn’t even notice if I got sent back to the States. I was watching him throw spitballs at the teacher’s back when María Elena passed me a note. One of the popular Nicaraguan girls, María Elena wore expensive, hand-embroidered blouses that showed off her full, womanly figure. We were classmates with no shared intimacies except attendance at the Home Ec lecture to all the seventh-grade girls on proper sanitary-napkin disposal. I wasn’t sure the note was for me until I opened it.
“Alice,” it read, “would you like to be Pedro Quiño’s girlfriend now?” I quickly folded the clean white paper, hoping to keep the words from flying off the page. “Pedro Quiño!” I thought. “He’s in eighth grade! He’s fourteen! He’s Nicaraguan.” Pedro was the American School’s best soccer player. His father was a general in the Guardia. Pedro had a wide smile and sparkling black eyes set in a handsome, almost chiseled face. But I couldn’t be his girlfriend. Then I saw Ruth Ann pass a note to Jim. The back of his neck turned crimson. I ripped out a sheet of paper and wrote “Yes.”
When the air force driver dropped me off at school on Tuesday, Pedro was waiting to open my door and take my books. “May I walk you to your locker?” he asked.
Pedro’s walk was cocky, a swagger that accommodated his impressive chest and short, muscular legs. He was sure of himself; even when he spoke in accented English, there was no doubt in his voice. “Here comes Alicia,” he announced, strolling down the corridors of the American School, heralding my passing.
Near my locker, Jim and a group of American boys stood around making disgusting sounds with their hands in their armpits. When Jim had been my boyfriend, I had taken this behavior as a sign of his desire for my attention. Now, Pedro commanded, “Out of the way, out of the way for the lovely Alicia!” He looked straight at Jim. I felt a sort of thrill.
Pedro invited me to join him at recess, to sit together on a cool cement bench under the shiny, broad fronds of banana trees. The American School was a low, sprawling complex of buildings surrounded by a high stucco wall. Jagged bits of broken bottles, green, brown, and clear, flashed in the noonday sun from the wall’s highest edge. We children of visiting Americans and wealthy Nicaraguans were guaranteed safety at the American School. I couldn’t imagine anyone risking a bloody gash to steal a book.
In the leafy shade of the banana trees, Pedro and I talked all through recess. He laughed — not mean, just surprised — when I said I thought you had to be Nicaraguan to cha-cha, and he promised to teach me at the next school dance. He was interested in all the places I had lived, the music I liked. His brown hands pantomimed fire and lava as he explained how a volcanic eruption had created Lake Nicaragua out of an ocean bay eons ago. Sharks trapped in the lake had to adapt to fresh water to survive. He didn’t laugh when I said I knew all about adapting.
On Friday afternoon I went to Sue’s to get ready for the dance that night. We were in her parents’ marbled bathroom, shaving our legs, when she told me that Jim might no longer like Ruth Ann. I felt sophisticated when I said, “I don’t care. I like Pedro now.”
“Pedro,” Sue repeated, as if the name tasted bad. “How can you like a boy you can’t even talk to? Who can’t pronounce your name right?” I started to tell her about our conversations at recess, but she trampled my words with a tirade in perfect Spanish, using a tone I’d heard her employ with the maid when a dress or skirt wasn’t ironed right. I couldn’t translate what she said word for word, but I understood she was asking what was wrong with me. “Eh, Aleeezia?” she snapped. “Eh, Aleeeeeezia?” she laughed, mimicking Pedro’s pronunciation.
The way Pedro said my name made me feel beautiful. But I didn’t have the courage or the conviction to tell that to Sue. She was the most popular American girl in the seventh grade. My first day at school she befriended me, and I instantly became a part of the inside crowd. I wanted to stay there. I shrugged, relathered my legs, and worried she would make Ruth Ann her best friend.
The dance was in the school’s covered outdoor patio. A breeze from the lake carried the sweet fragrances of oleander, hibiscus, and jasmine. Colored lights swung from the tin roof, and the leaves of the banana trees swooshed softly. The teacher in charge believed in equality, and alternated records in English and Spanish. At our private American parties we never played Latin songs, just Elvis and Brenda Lee, Ricky Nelson and Fabian.
Pedro and I danced to everything. He taught me to cha-cha, not “one, two, cha cha cha” like in the movies, but to feel the rhythm that moved the music. His friends encouraged me and said I was good for a yanqui.
American boys never danced right away. Sue and Ruth Ann pretended to be interested in the punch while they waited for Paul and Jim to feel like twisting. I wondered if Sue noticed what a great time I was having.
A slow song played, and Pedro held me close. He smelled of a sweet but masculine cologne, like a grown man. He whispered my name and I pulled back, startled. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “Just Alicia.” He kept dancing, humming little bits of “Cuando Caliente El Sol.”
We took a break and Pedro brought me punch. We were silent for a while and then he asked, “Do you know the poetry of our Rubén Darío?” I nodded, and Pedro whispered a verse. I understood only two words: manos and beso — hands and kiss. I wanted to understand it all.
Pedro then recited a translation, after apologizing that the English was not as beautiful as the words deserved:
First, a look: then, the hot touch of hands; and then the racing blood and the kiss that triumphs.
“Do you like it, Alicia?”
“It’s really nice,” I said. I felt on fire. To steady myself, I leaned back on one hand, my palm cool against the cement bench we shared. Pedro touched my wrist, then ran his finger up to my shoulder, a fine line which sketched his intentions.
“That tickles,” I said, hoping he didn’t notice the goose bumps covering my bare arm. Pedro looked at me as if he knew everything, and smiled, his white teeth brilliant against his copper skin.
He held me tight when we danced again. His cheek was warm, like mine. He said my name and I didn’t pull away. Pedro’s voice was soft and sure. “Alicia, will you meet me at the movies tomorrow?”
I stopped dancing. I was sure my chest would explode. My parents said we were in Nicaragua to help these people. I knew they wouldn’t want me to meet Pedro, or let him kiss me triumphantly.
But I wanted to be kissed. I wanted to kiss Pedro, to touch his hair, and let my fingertips slide all the way down his muscled brown arms. I had never felt this way about Jim. I imagined that good girls, good American girls, never had such feelings. People like Linda’s father knew there was something dangerously wrong with Nicaraguan boys.
I said, “No.” Pedro understood. The word is the same in English and Spanish. I said it again to be sure. “No.”
Sue ran after me into the girls’ bathroom. She said it was really smart how I used Pedro to get Jim back. She let me use her new Maybelline lipstick. We joined the group of American girls clustered around the punch bowl. Ruth Ann wanted to know if it was true that Pedro had tried to kiss me.
“Of course not,” I said, in a tone meant to convince us both that the very idea was unthinkable.
Brenda Lee’s husky, woman-child voice filled the patio as she wailed “I’m Sorry.” Jim asked me to dance. In his awkward embrace I felt relieved that reason had triumphed — good, common-sense American reason. “Are you going to the movies tomorrow?” he asked. “Sure,” I answered, eager and ready. Jim cleared his throat. “Maybe I’ll see you there.” Brenda Lee stopped singing, Jim and I parted. “See you,” I said.
Crossing the dance floor alone, I was aware of Pedro across the room, his black eyes following me. Does he know, I wondered, that I lost too? I wanted to tell him. But in Nicaragua, the failures of small revolutions went unreported that year.