The Dominican Song
© Copyright 2020 by Natasha Rogers
was as hard to hold as a wet fish.
Chanel stood in a bustle of Mormon Dominicans as they mingled before their Sunday sacrament meeting. The tone of her bronze skin and golden hair stood out in the pallet of blacks and browns. A young man with short cropped hair, clean shaven, and a thin body walked up to her and patted her shoulder, quickly retreating it and wiping it on his pants.
“Are you visiting? Where are you from? What’s your name? Sorry.” He said in Spanish.
“Hola, I’m Chanel, from Utah. I’m here with a program from University.” Chanel said in American accented Spanish.
“Oh wow. Very exciting. It’s very exciting to have you here, Chanel. It’s very good.”
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“Oh! Yes. My name is Jhonothan.” He said and put his hand out awkwardly. “I had some mission companions from the U.S. They were very good, very different.”
The pianist stopped plunking the keys of the piano, indicating the meeting was about to start.
“Nice to meet you, Jhonothan.” Chanel said as she made her way to the back of the room to sit.
“Nice to meet you, Chanel, very nice to meet you. Enjoy the meeting. You’re Spanish is very good.” Jhonothan whispered louder and louder to Chanel as she walked away, still standing in the small room, his voice carried to everyone in the congregation. Chanel turned back and waved, almost giggling at the man’s awkwardness.
Chanel sat on the row of chairs against the wall of the tiled room. In Utah, the chapels were carpeted, the pews permanently attached to the floor, and the podium was raised on a platform above the congregation, the majestic pipes of the organ as a back drop. Contrasting the two very different chapels, the pulpit at home seemed to symbolize the importance of the bishopric who sat in front each week with the speakers, steps above everyone else. In this chapel, however, everything was temporary. Folding chairs made up the pews, a portable podium was placed on a folding table, the bishopric sat on the same level as everyone else, and the piano had wheels. Chanel loved it.
The chairs creaked and screeched as kids wiggled around on their seats. The focus was on the people, not the formalities. The grandeur wasn’t distracting, the humans were. The bishop and his counselors were on the same tiled floor as their congregation. Chanel, who in later weeks became the pianist, enjoyed singing the opening hymn in Spanish without the convention of the organ, again it was the humanness of the off key voices singing with the professionals that caught Chanel’s attention. She soon realized, too, that the ward would come together at nights, when the pews and pulpit were folded up and leaned against the walls, and the chapel would become a dance floor.
“Hola,” the dark Dominican whispered as he sat on the pew beside Chanel after sneaking in after the opening hymn. Chanel noticed how the young man’s well-groomed angular and precisely manicured facial hair outlined his jaw and framed his easy smile. She also noticed his curly, black hair, with curls hanging from his forehead like a grape fine. Chanel, usually fighting men off with her impossibly high expectations and her disgust for flirting or weakness of any kind, uncharacteristically allowed the fluttering in her chest as he sat on the chair beside her.
Chanel had just arrived on the Spanish speaking island, surrounded by palm trees, dancing, conchos, and men who craned their necks to watch the Blancasita walk by, only 3 days before. She was returning home, to Provo, Utah, in three months and hoped to practice her Spanish as much as possible before then. Chanel had assumed she was fluent in Spanish; however, since arriving in the Domincan Republic, she painfully admitted that she struggled to understand their quick, rhythmic and inflectional dialect. She was spending the semester there as the only student from a service-learning program. She worked just three hours a day at the government funded day care, and realized that filling the rest of her hours with productive Spanish speaking was all up to her.
The way the handsome stranger whispered Spanish to her on the folding chair pew in the back of the chapel exceeded all of her expectations of Spanish practice.
“Me llamo Victor Emilio Gomez Estrella,” Emilio said with a bright smile, showing his straight teeth. “Sorry I’m late. Where are you from?” He was polite and confident.
“I’m from Utah.” Chanel said. Even after just three days in the D.R., Chanel was used to attracting attention from all Dominican men of all ages; however, Emilio’s relaxed manner seemed different than the other men who goggled and shouted at her. After realizing that Chanel wasn’t a visiting missionary he was supposed to meet, Emilio asked her on a date.
“Can I take you out to dinner sometime this week?”
“I would like that.” Chanel said, hoping she was speaking Spanish well enough.
“You’re sure you’re not a missionary? I don’t want to be breaking any rules.” He said, making Chanel’s laugh jingle quietly.
“No, I’m definitely not a missionary. I did serve a mission, though, a Spanish speaking mission in Washington. I got home about a year ago.”
“I served a Spanish speaking mission, too,” he said, making Chanel laugh again, “in Mexico. I just got back.”
When the meeting was over Chanel didn’t want to say adios to Emilio, which, she admitted to herself was unusual, and, in fact, had never happened with a boy before. Not like this.
“Pardon, Chanel?” Jhonothan said as he awkwardly tapped her shoulder again. “How did you enjoy the meeting?”
“It was good, really good.” She said, looking at Emilio and smiling.
“Good. Good. I need your contact information because I am the secretary.”
After giving Jhonothan and Emilio her number, Chanel breathed in the green, humid, Dominican world. Her family and friends were far away, she was in a foreign land with foreign people and speaking a foreign language, but they were making a home within herself. The people and the culture were familiar, waking and speaking to the rhythm inside her soul. She was where she wanted to be.
That night Emilio texted her, inviting her to his family’s house for their Monday night family home evening. Chanel grew up in a devout Mormon family, where Monday night family home evenings were a weekly occurrence, and she easily accepted. Trusting. Like visiting a new country, a new relationship was a risk, she’d go to unknown places with unknown people, having faith in strangers, risking her heart and her safety for knowledge and, maybe, even belonging.
Emilio picked Chanel up at 9:15 on Monday night – not an unusual time for Dominicans. Chanel followed his athletic swagger to his own personal car on the warm February evening. In the D.R., the most popular form of transportation is by concho. A concho is a regular car, with a driver, but the trick is to stuff as many passengers into the car as possible. Strangers sit on top of strangers. Passengers are advised to attach and hide all belongings on themselves, quite often the stranger stuffed vehicle becomes a mysterious thief, relieving the guests of their belongings. Chanel’s host mother shoved Chanel into a concho on her first day in the D.R., advising her to tuck her purse into her pants, and then shut the car door and walked away, oblivious to the alarm on Chanel’s face as she realized she was no longer in Utah; Chanel sat on top of a pile of unaffected Dominicans for twenty minutes.
But on that Monday night, Emilio hopped into the driver’s seat of a green Honda while Chanel comfortably sat alone on the passenger side. She would soon realize that even this privacy would be a rare occurrence as Emilio was the only one of his friends or family members to own a car. Often, Chanel and Emilio’s relationship would be witnessed by many Dominicans squished into the back seat of his car.
At Emilio’s apartment, Chanel met his mother and younger sister, Esperanza. Esperanza made dinner with Emilio while Chanel talked with their madre.
“You are from Utah? That is a good place for the church,” said madre.
“Si. I grew up there. There are a lot of members here, I had no idea. How did you become a member of the Church?”
“Missionaries came to my door when Esperanza and Emilio were little. Their father and I had just gotten divorced. I was going to school for 20 years to be a doctor, becoming a woman doctor here is very hard. And those sister missionaries taught us about the gospel.”
“ That is a beautiful story.” Chanel said, appreciating madre’s consideration in speaking slower than normal for Chanel to understand. “You are a doctor?” Chanel asked, looking around at the small, clean, tiled apartment with teak wood doors. She knew that more people than just the Estrella family lived in those two rooms. Emilio shared a twin bed with his friend, Wilbert. Esperanza shared her bed with another friend and her room with her madre. Someone slept on the couch most nights as well. Contrastingly, Chanel grew up with six siblings, a stay-at-home mom, and a hard-working father in a home with six bedrooms. In a lower-middle class neighborhood, where doctors never bought houses, her neighborhood was filled with art teachers, factory workers, and office workers, but her house had six bedrooms.
Chanel loved the family night with Emilio’s family. Again, the supposedly foreign place spoke recognition and longing to her soul. The dinner, the spiritual lesson, the game. She laughed so hard in this family that was so different from her own. This is who I am, too. Chanel thought. She had to continually turn to Emilio, “No entiendo,” she’d say. They would figure it out together, with a lot of Spanish and a little English. Despite the language barrier, Chanel felt comfortable in the humid Estrella home, the non-verbal communication was warm, kind, and joyous.
Living plants grew in terecota pots on the Estrella’s caged in balcony overlooking other apartment buildings. Theirs was a view of cement and windows stacked on top of each other with white and orange stucco walls. A view that Chanel fell in love with. The air conditioning, in her host home and the Estrella home, didn’t exist and the running water was spotty as was the internet service. The locals knew to always keep a bucket of water in the house, while it’s not drinkable, it is needed for flushing the toilet or emergency washing. Embarrassingly for the American, if the water in the pipes didn’t get turned on by the time the bucket went dry, no one was able to flush the one toilet in the home. Adding unusual smells to the already humid environment was somewhat of a culture shock.
Chanel’s phone vibrated in her back pocket and saw she had a text from Jhonothan, the other boy she had met at church. He had texted Chanel a scripture.
forward with a love of God and of all men, 2 Ne.
There was no explanation.
“I’m busy every day, but I will always make time for you.” Emilio said, “Study, study, study. I’m at the university all day, studying dentistry, and then I go to the college for English studies at night. Everyday.” Emilio said on another night, on another date, with Chanel.
“At least we have the nights.” Chanel said. Looking out of the corner of her eyes and smiling. Luckily, the car had air conditioning. “Did you know that I am a dental assistant in America. And I am studying Spanish at university.”
“See, we do have some things in common, don’t we?”
Emilio drove Chanel to the center of Santiago marked by El Monumento a Los Héroes de la Restauración -- The Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration. The grey marble, square foundation held the next story of beige marbled columns. On top of the two stories was a tall, marble cylinder rising from the base far above the city. Standing on top of the victory column was an angel de la paz, or angel of peace. Contrasting the grey stone, bronze statues of Dominican Generals were stationed around the base of the monument acting as sentinels, protectors, of the peace angel flying above Santiago with her arms open to her people.
“Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who ruled the Domincan Republic for thirty years, built this monument in 1953 on the hill in honor of himself.” Emilio told the story he learned as a boy growing up with a view of the monument, “He called it ‘Trujillo’s monument to peace.’ However, he didn’t realize that peace can’t be represented in a bronze angel de la paz when it isn’t founded in the hearts of the living leaders and people. A statue, no matter the name, does not bring peace . Trujillo had a disconnect between his head and his heart. Trujillo’s actions of violence directly disregarded peace in this country and particularly, with Haiti. Trujillo’s violence promoted tyranny and corruption; his monument became a mockery to peace. However, after Trujillo’s death in 1961, instead of destroying the monument, Santiago decided to rename it for the people, for the restoration of our country.”
Chanel listened and she and Emilio walked up the grassy hill. The angel de la paz rose into the black sky as a testament of Dominican resilience. Where once she was used to mock peace for her people, now she represented her people’s ability to, instead of rewriting history, learn from it: adapt, continue, move, and adjust.
Music, lights, and people surrounded the two young strangers. Chanel, usually asleep by this time back home, felt herself absorbing the rhythm of the Dominican life. Joy was palpable and pushed into her heart through her senses. Color, music, dancing, and laughing exuded from everyone around her. Emilio, walking up the steps by Chanel’s side, occasionally burst into song, grabbing his heart, and then spreading his arms wide, seemingly unable to contain his song. In Provo, Utah, this would have been a glaring red flag to avoid, but here, in the D.R., where even their language was a song, Chanel loved it. The uninhibited joy of Emilio freed something in Chanel; live in this moment, she thought, and, again, she realized that the song of his culture lived within her, too.
The monument was lit with purple, turquoise, and yellow lights. Chanel noticed that Dominicans had the ability to make even a stone pillared monument warm: just shine some funky colored lights on it. The social rules were different here. Everyone around her seemed to be bubbling with energy, color and joy. Dancing and singing erupted from all of the young people congregating around downtown Santiago.
They walked around the monument and then ate at an outdoor restaurant.
Taking her hand, Emilio pulled Chanel into the sea of bodies and rhythm of the street. As a band played, Emilio held Chanel’s hands in both of his and taught her his nation’s dance.
“It’s simple,” Emilio said. “Dah, dah, dah. If you want to know this country, you must know the Merengue.”
Merengue and the bachata are at the core of Dominican life. As Chanel
tried to step with Emilio and move her hips in the opposite
direction, she realized that all the couples surrounding them were
moving, twirling, and stepping to the same rhythm as Emilio. Through
the Merengue the people in the streets became a sea moving and
swelling as one. The band, the rhythm of the European accordion, the
ancient Taino güira,
and the African drum blended together the histories and cultures that
created the Dominican Republic. Emilio was teaching Chanel the
rhythm of his country, his culture, his history.
He put his hand on
as he stepped in closer. She inhaled. His eyes looked directly into
hers. He led with his steps as Chanel became part of the sea of
people dancing and partying.
Chanel started spending everyday with Emilio, well, a Dominican day, which started around 9pm. They danced in the streets, danced at the church, ate lots of rice, and played games at Emilio’s house. Chanel’s previous relationships had all been one sided.
“I just don’t like you like that.” She said to Eric, Taylor, David, Yani, and more.
“This is not going to work out.” She’d say. And when they asked why she was honest with them: “You aren’t ambitious.” Or “You’re too nice.” Or “You like me too much, it makes me uncomfortable.” Or “I’m just not attracted to you physically.”
However, Emilio was ambitious, he wasn’t too nice, he didn’t smother her, and she was definitely attracted to him physically. Emilio stood just out of reach. He expected little affection from Chanel and offered little. He made her laugh. He was never needy, never asked her to be someone else.
One night, over text, Emilio stepped a little closer.
“Espera, wait. Before you go. You said something earlier, and I don't know if I understand you correctly.” Emilio said. Lighting up Chanel’s cell phone screen in the dark of her room.
“Hmmm, I think I should go to sleep now, haha.” Chanel texted back. Laying the phone’s light down on her chest. Her heart meeting the screen in a deep rhythm.
“Well just do it quickly before you go,” Emilio said, asserting a gentle initiative, possibly aware that Chanel was like a butterfly who only lands for a moment before flitting away.
“Alright, I will explain.”
“I like to be with you and you are very kind and you are very attractive so I like you.”
“Ok, I understand now. The matter is very clear.”
“I feel trapped by the language, I can't say it well,” said Chanel.
“I know it is hard.”
“But, also, I am happy we are friends so don't feel like I expect anything, I am grateful for your friendship.” Chanel said, painfully aware of the unreciprocated vulnerability. Realizing for the first time that she might like him more than he liked her. She’d never said these things to anyone else before, she’d never felt them. She felt exposed. Hiding her phone under her pillow, she hugged herself, not knowing if he would text again. Realizing she had just exposed her heart. Oops.
In the silent dark room, her phone vibrated under her pillow. She let it hide, the words he had written not really existing yet. Finally, she slid the phone out, lighting up the room with shadows.
“To be honest, I like you as well.” Chanel’s hands started shaking, and she smiled there in the dark even though he couldn’t see her.
“I don't know, it has been so fast,” he continued, “I would like for something to happen . . . you are amazing and good and giving and beautiful.”
“Yes, it has been so fast and usually I don't feel like this but I feel like we met for a reason.” Chanel said.
“That is what I have been thinking. I really love to spend time with you. Tu sonrisa, your smile.”
“Even though you have to explain so many words to me in Spanish?”
“I love to see your eyes more than anything,” he said. By ignoring her acknowledgment of their language discrepancy, he acknowledged the non-verbal communication that was happening even over text, defying the name itself, suggesting that more than text was communicating between the two new lovers.
corazón --- Good
with his words.
Emilio parked on the street in front of Chanel’s gated apartment complex. He got out of the car when he saw her coming. He’d told her he needed to study, but here he was anyway.
“Can I ask you a question?” Emilio said, as he leaned against the car.
“Sure, what?” Chanel said.
“What would you do if I kissed you?”
“I would kiss you back,” Chanel said as she stepped closer.
“Are you sure you won’t regret it?” Emilio asked looking intensely into Chanel’s eyes.
“It’s actually all I want right now.” Chanel whispered, her lips so close to Emilio’s, her breath kissed him first.
They kissed until the pink Dominican sun slipped under the ocean and the palm trees turned black. She’d only kissed one other person, the neighbor boy who wore pajamas all day, and she’d never kissed him like that.
A group of teens walked by. Some of the boys jeered words at the couple as they stepped away from eachother. Emilio, still holding Chanel’s waiste, smiled and waved at the posse.
glad I’m not a teenager anymore,” Emilio said, as the
group disappeared down the street. Chanel stepped close to him again
and laid her head on his chest, knowing he had homework. This
just for fun, I live in another country, Chanel thought. It
can’t last. She’d been hearing stories about how it
used to be easy for Dominicans to visit the U.S. It only took three
months to get a visa. But now, Camila, a woman from church, can’t
get a visa to see her daughter who is having a baby next month. And
Isabella’s son, the one at school in the states, was going to
visit after this semester, but decided to stay in the U.S. Chanel was
not going to fall in love with this boy. She was just having fun,
enjoying her life in the D.R. with a Latin boy before she had to
Chanel, someone who slept with a wooden sword under her pillow for most of her life, noticed how, occasionally, Emilio would take her shoulders with both of his hands and step in a little closer. Her heart would hope, but it seemed that Emilio wasn’t just doing it to be close to her. He seemed to be doing it instinctually. The time was 11:00 at night, now dark on the streets of Santiago.
“Why do you keep doing that?”
“Grabbing my shoulders and stepping closer.” Chanel said.
“I don’t know?” Emilio said as he instinctively did it again. “It’s to keep you safe.”
“Safe from what?”
“I don’t know. It can be dangerous on the streets at night. You should go inside and I need to go do my homework! You’re going to think I’m a bad student.”
Chanel, as she unlocked the door to her apartment realized, again, how different the DR was from Utah.
up in Utah, Chanel, anxious about unseen dangers from her
imagination, slept with a wooden sword under her pillow to help her
sleep at night, to help her feel safe and brave. She was taught about
danger; however, danger was instinctive to Emilio. Chanel’s
home taught her to trust without thinking, and Emilio knew people
were good, but also desperate and potentially violent. Chanel started
to realize, for the first time, that the Dominican Republic’s
culture ran deep in the veins of the natives, like the language, she
had to acknowledge that she didn’t know everything. Dominicans
lived and breathed their country, while she breathed hers. Their
culture was vibrant, resilient, and passionate, but it was also
violent. Drive by robberies were one of the most common types of
crime in the D.R., so, instinctively, every time a car or motorcycle
drove by, Emilio hid Chanel from view.
( 12:04 AM) Descansa corazón --- Good night my heart
Yo voy a seguir en mis estudios ahora --- I am going to continue studying now
que ten buenas noches y sueña conmigo--- dream
A few days later, on a grey, rainy day in Santiago, Chanel scooched out of the concho she rode from the day care. Having just said good bye to her sweet, toothless kids, she was happy and thinking of how Peder only wanted her to hold him.
“Adios!” She waved to the kind nurse who she’d just spent 15 minutes with - half her bum on her thigh. The concho’s windshield wipers splashed rain from the car like a sprinkler as it drove away. Chanel swung her back pack onto her back, and walked quickly to the stairs that lead up to the street where her host family lived. Her head was down, watching the cracked pavement, avoiding the warm rain hindering her vision. She hadn’t worn a jacket that day and was focused on getting home; the rain already dripping through her shirt. Chanel guessed that it was around 12:30, but the rain and the heavy clouds darkened the street and made it seem like the sun was already hiding behind the earth. She noticed a man, at the top of the stairs as she was jogging up them.
Chanel didn’t take notice until he looked right at her and smiled, like he had been waiting for her, or like he knew her. She did not know him. Chanel noticed that the man was in his late 20’s, clean, well dressed and well groomed. As she slowed at the top of the stairs the man cheerily greeted her.
“Buenos dia.” The stranger said as he took Chanel’s hand and kissed her cheek with his wet lips. "Te voy a acompañar."
The stranger walked threateningly close to Chanel and the whole situation was so sudden and bizarre that Chanel didn’t know what to do. She felt like he was abusing her, but she didn’t know how. He wore a pink polo, jeans, and sunglasses. She thought of screaming, but no one was nearby. She thought of running but she knew the gate to her host family was locked and she didn’t want to fumble with the key. Besides, she thought to herself, he isn’t doing anything. He’s just being friendly, too friendly. But what would I scream? THIS MAN IS TALKING TO ME! And no one was around, what would he do to her if she screamed?
“Do you have a boyfriend?” the man asked.
“Ah. So do you speak Spanish?” he asked.
“Are you on your way home?” He dominated the conversation. And he was walking too close. Much too close.
As the two turned onto Chanel’s street, the man slipped his hand onto her back and curled his fingers around her waist like an octopus reeling in his prey, coiling his arms around her, pressing her against his strange, wet body.
“This is me.” Chanel said, her voice pretending like everything was fine as they reached the entrada of her apartment complex. She stepped away from him to slide her backpack from her shoulders. She kneeled, trying to be on a different plane than him, anything to get away from him. She placed her backpack on the ground and told him she needed to find her key. She unzipped the front pocket, hardly able to feel her hands and searched for the key, but couldn’t find it. This doesn’t feel real.
While she was bent over, the man grabbed her hips with his hands and pulled her into his body, between his legs. His strange body revolted her and she dug more aggressively into her backpack desperate to locate the small key. He was so much bigger than her. The pepper spray she’d put in her back pack earlier kept being pushed aside in search of the key. His hands, uninvited, slithered over her body, across her thighs, her stomach, and down.
Chanel clutched the pepper spray in her hand, twisted her body, determined to get a good shot, and sprayed his whole face, thoroughly, with the burning cloud. She worried about his sunglasses protecting him, but, startled and surprised, he covered his face with his hands and immediately sprang back almost falling off the curb as he stumbled into the street. Chanel watched as he ran blindly up the road, away from her, until his pink polo disappeared around a corner. Her face burned from the mist.
Chanel body started shaking as she closed the door behind her, finally home. After the assault, Chanel searched for her keys again in her backpack, but she could not feel them or see them. She stood outside the gated apartment complex for just a moment until a neighbor opened the gate and let her in.
Chanel found her host sister, Jaazmin, getting ready for the day on her bed with a small mirror in her hand. Chanel tried to explain to Jaazmin what happened, that a man had waited on a deserted street, that he had put his body on her, kissed her, violently caressed her, and had further intentions, but she couldn’t speak. Her whole body, her body that had been calm while it was violated, shook and convulsed now that she was safe. Her voice, that had given the man calm answers to his questions, now chose silence.
Why did I walk with him?
Why did I answer his questions?
Why didn’t I scream?
Why was I kind to him?
The man was an expert. He wasn’t what Chanel had envisioned a rapist to be. He was clean and well dressed. He pretended friendliness. He was confident and assumed that Chanel would err on the side of kindness rather than violence. He preyed on her trust in the goodness of others. He preyed on the goodness within Chanel. He assumed that he could take what he wanted at the expense of her safety, her desires, and her kindness. But she burned him. She protected herself. And because she protected herself, hopefully, she helped another woman who would have been his prey. Hopefully, everyone that saw that man in the pink polo wearing sunglasses would see his raw, burned skin and know what he had attempted to do to a young woman, and know that she, instead, had surprised him.
Chanel’s body went through shock, her mind asked the questions, her heart became a little wiser, and, when she found her voice, she shared her experience with Jaazmin and with officials.
is nothing we can do. It happens all the time. At least you’re
alive. They all said. They also advised her not to get out at
that concho stop where she would have to walk up those steps onto
that deserted street again. However, a week later, Chanel wasn’t
afraid. She started using the concho on the lower street again
because it was faster. And she made sure to always have her pepper
spray. Chanel moved on with her journey, on with her life. She would
not give that poor, selfish, and abusive man her fear. He was
Chanel spent her mornings surrounded by little children at Cáritas.
“How is Emilio?” Jenny, another volunteer, asked Chanel as they both were dancing with the kids outside in the cement courtyard.
“The boy is loco!” Chanel said over the squeals of the kids pulling on her hands.
“Watch me! Watch this Chanel!” little Pedro yelled as he moved his body like he had a snake in his pants.
“Why is he loco?” Jenny said, as her and Chanel laughed and mimicked Pero’s sweet moves, making all the kids laugh.
“Okay! Everyone, lunch is ready, go sit down!” Jenny yelled, clapping her hands and herding the children to the covered picnic tables where plates were being filled with rice and brown goop for the children. Chanel had already been told not to eat the food, she didn’t tell them that they would have had to pay her to eat the mysterious, brown chunks she spoon fed to the children every day. She had been a vegetarian most of her life and was confused about what the chunks in brownish gray gravy even were. She was relieved, on her first day there, when they explained that they didn’t have the money, food handlers permit, or the initiative to get her to eat the Caritas food.
Chanel spoon fed petite Peder and Esperanza as she sat between the two young children on the bench. Their little mouths opened obediently exposing their decayed teeth, some worn down to just slivers of bone. Sometimes they shuddered from the taste of the food, but they never complained and they actually held still for a moment while she fed them.
“So, tell me about Loco Emilio.” Jenny said again, as she sat with some other kids across from Chanel. Jenny had been volunteering at Caritas for three years, her strong voice could carry conversations over the screaming, dancing, yelling, and crazy schedule of the day care. She had four kids of her own who she brought occasionally with her, but her oldest, Patricia, was 11-years-old now and old enough to take care of the younger ones while Jenny spent a few hours every day wiping, feeding, holding, and dancing with other mother’s children. Jenny was 27-years-old, only five years older than Chanel, and the two had become close friends since Chanel started volunteering.
“Last night we were planning to go on a date, so when Jaazmin invited me to the movies I said I couldn’t go. I waited for him to come pick me up, but he never came. Finally, I called him and all he said was that he was tired. Tired! I could have gone to the movies with Jaazmin, but I waisted my night because he was too tired to be with me.”
Jenny shook her head and tsked her tongue against her teeth as she put another spoonful of rice into a hungry mouth.
“And today we have a Young Adult activity in La Vega after I leave here. We were planning on meeting up, but I’m so mad, I don’t know if I want to see him! Do you understand?” Chanel said, making sure her Spanish was making sense.
“Si. Your Spanish is good.” Jenny said. She had been married for 12 years and enjoyed the drama of the American and her high expectations of the Dominican boy, who she’d actually heard about from some friends. She knew he was a heartbreaker.
“And I kissed him!” Chanel said over the table in an appalled whisper.
Jenny raised her eyebrows and stared at Chanel for a moment, pausing the rice filled spoon halfway to John’s mouth.
Chanel was just as shocked as Jenny was about that small detail. And she figured she’d needed to tell someone, “And . . . And he gave me a hickey. On my lip.” Chanel said pointing to her lip. The surrounding children were watching the friends’ conversation, interested in the shocked facial expressions.
Jenny’s laugh burst from her like an elephant trumpet. All the kids jumped and Esperanza started to whimper. Chanel picked up the 2-year-old, her beaded hair clicking together has she lay her head on Chanel’s shoulder.
“I’ve never heard of that.” Jenny said after taming her laugh. “Just see how it goes today. But don’t let him give you a hickey on your lip every again!” She said as her laugh trumpeted through the courtyard again.
“I just don’t know if, him ditching me, is a cultural thing or an Emilio thing.” Chanel said, snuggling Esperanza and touching the soft spot under her little chin, suddenly a little homesick.
“Adolfo is not like other Dominican men.” Jenny said, referring to her husband, “He likes being smaller than me. He is okay with me volunteering at the Caritas. He even cleans the dishes after I make dinner! He’s always been like that.”
“Haha! Machismo is real if those things aren’t normal, Jenny.”
“Si. Yes. Dominican men don’t want to share their feelings or cry. Or listen. Or help much. I think it is hard to date in the D.R. if you are an American.”
After lunch, Chanel helped Jenny pile the forty kids into a tiny room, similar to her concho she rode to and from the day care every day, squeezing and cuddling them together where they watched a show on a tiny television attached to the stucco wall. This was their quiet time. Chanel, again, noticed that they didn’t have any books at the day care.
“Why aren’t there any books here?” Chanel asked.
“Some people have donated books, but they get destroyed by the children.” Jenny said.
“Can I grab some for them while I’m in La Vega today?”
are very expensive and besides, the children rip them apart, we have
to throw them away. But if you want to take a look, they just have
them in the gas station.”
In La Vega, Chanel finally found some children’s “books” as she left the young adult activity. They were just paper with black and white stories on them, no cover, no colorful pictures. Of course the children rip them up, Chanel thought, while she did yoga in her room. Balancing up into a handstand, trying to breathe and be in the moment, upside down, not back in La Vega.
“So, how did your church thing go with Emilio?” Jaazmin asked as she came in and sat on Chanel’s floral covered bed. She was eating a handful of limoncillos, popping the little green fruits with her teeth, squeezing the seed into her mouth, and then sucking off the sweet flesh before spitting the pit into a cup.
Jaazmin was from New York, spending a semester at the University with a few other students. She wore her black tightly ringleted hair on the top of her head. Her dark skin and endless energy caused Chanel to sometimes forget that she was a foreigner, too, just like herself.
“He acted like he didn’t know me.” Chanel said, giving up on her meditation and her hand stand. “He asked me to dance a couple times, but the whole day I just wanted him to hold my hand, or hug me, or make me laugh, or something! He just acted like a gangster with his friends. A really cute gangster.”
“What a jerk!” Jaazmin said, spitting another pit into her cup.
“And now he won’t text me back.” Chanel said, accidentally checking her phone again, remembering why she started doing yoga in the first place.
“No way, girl. Do not let him treat you that way. If I were you, I’d get drunk and make out with everyone else in the room except him.”
know you would.” Chanel said smiling, “but remember, I
don’t drink, neither does Emilio. And I don’t kiss
people! This is so not normal for me! Why am I acting like this? Why
do I even care?” Exasperated and annoyed with herself, Chanel
turned off her phone.
Chanel exited the concho in front of the white stucco wall of Caritas. Jenny was already there waiting on the dirt road vibrantly in a red, loose fitting, cotton dress that exposed her voluptuous breasts. Jenny had invited Chanel to her home for an early dinner. Jenny walked to and from Carnitas every day, and today, Chanel was joining her.
A small boy in a white tank top careened past them, staying close to the shoulder. and Loose dust from the road trailed behind him like he had a rocket booster. A whole gang of boys sat on bikes outside a rusty tin shack. There was a narrow sidewalk on the store fronts, however, the women walked on the dirt road. Chanel noticed that no cars were driving by, but there was the front of a semi-truck parked, taking up half the road, with the front open.
They walked in the shade of colorfully painted cement buildings. Limoncillo green, plantain yellow, and ocean blue squares indicated each new establishment. Some were deserted, but some had brightly colored letters and white, plastic lawn chairs out front. “Rosario,” was painted in a bright red wave on a cactus green storefront. Music sailed from every doorway and window. Men leaned back in lawn chairs, women walked in brightly colored clothing, holding filled bags. Kids ran pushing car tires down the street. There were smells and sizzling from frying food. All of this on the same road, between the two rows of color.
Soon the store fronts became trees and bushes as the sounds quieted to voices, laughter, and an occasional radio playing music. The cement curbing disappeared and the dirt road met the house doors. They passed a pink house, a teal house, and then an orange house. Each one had bars on the windows. Jenny stopped at a yellow, cinderblock house with one crumbling pillar in the front that looked like it was holding up the roof.
“This is my home.” Jenny bellowed throwing her arms wide.
“It’s beautiful,” Chanel said, meaning it. Strange, dirty, crumbling, yellow, poor, and beautiful. The contrast between her host family’s and Emilio’s home was staunch, but Chanel loved it.
Satisfied, Jenny led Chanel into her “fenced in yard.” The fence was yellow painted cinder block, and the yard was a pile of rocks. The moment they walked into chickens started squawking, flapping, and jumping around. Chanel screamed and jumped on Jenny’s strong, black arm.
Jenny pealed Chanel off and said, “What? You’re afraid of some chickens?” picking a chicken up like a football and tossing it to the other side of the rockpile where it flapped its wings and landed gracefully.
Finally, safe inside Jenny’s sunshine house, Chanel found Jenny’s four kids, who she’d met at Casitas many times.
“Chanel! Chanel! Chanel!” They all yelled, giving her a big group hug. The tiny home had two rooms, a small fridge in the hallway, a table, a sink, a small portable stove, and a very old television. All six of them were crammed into the small kitchen area when a teeny tiny man walked in from the chicken yard. His shirt was much too big and his pants were cinched with a belt. His head was shaved and he went straight to Jenny, put his arm around her large waist and kissed her bare shoulder.
“Chanel, this is Adolfo, my husband.” Jenny said, winking at him.
“Nice to meet you,” Chanel said.
“The chickens scared Chanel.” Their oldest child, Patricia, said with a laugh like her mother’s.
“Oh, they won’t hurt you.” Adolfo said.
“Do you eat them?” Chanel asked.
“Yes, we do. Right here in our own back yard. I can’t do it, though. You know what I mean by ‘it?’” He asked.
“Like, kill the chicken?” Chanel said.
“Yeah, I like them too much. Jenny, here, does it. I sure like to eat them, though.”
Chanel and Jenny laughed, filling the whole room with a trumpet and bells.
Chanel was concerned about eating dinner there, in such a sparse house, she couldn’t see food anywhere. But, somehow, magically, Jenny created a delicious dinner of pasta and fried plantains for the lot of them. Patricia brushed Chanel’s hair, the other kids ran around with the chickens, and Adolfo sat and talked with Chanel.
“Sometimes women are just stronger than men, is all.” Adolfo said to Chanel, making Jenny and Chanel laugh again.