When I was nine years old my first love died. She liked to sit out in the sun, in front of Niña Marina’s whorehouse, her face to the sky, her long hair behind her, the tips touching the sandy soil of Acajutla, that little town where I grew up. People called her La Garroba: The Iguana. I remember her as a thirty-two-year-old prostitute who, aside from sitting out in the sun, liked to sing the songs coming out of that whorehouse’s jukebox. She’d sing everything: the Spanish songs sung by Roberto Carlos and José José, the English songs by Air Supply and Scorpion. A Korean businessman stopped by the whorehouse one day and donated one of his records to Niña Marina. She had it put into the jukebox. La Garroba learned those sounds too.
I don’t remember being in love with her. I do remember coolness in my chest, happiness, I think, whenever I was with her. My mom’s friends claimed it was love and nicknamed me after her. They were all truck drivers, including my mom, and they’d sit on the ground, in a circle, in front of a fish warehouse, gambling while someone loaded each of their Toyota pickups with fish and crushed ice. Then, when the vehicles were fully loaded, they drove to other towns in El Salvador to deliver their load. The warehouse sat on a small hill that overlooked the ocean as it stretched comfortably on dark sands. North of the ocean was a line of palm trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. In the midst of all that green flowed two long rivers. Sometimes I liked to stand right at the place where the hill began to descend into the water. I’d close my eyes and I could hear the waves, the rivers, the palm trees, all, talking to each other in hushed voices.
At one point, I knew all the men in that circle, the way they always smelled of fish, the way their dark skin hung loose on their face, creased by the weight of the sun. The finer details of their faces are blurry, hazy in the collage of the many other noses and mouths and foreheads I saw throughout my childhood. Even their voices, the sounds that remain in my head, are lost in the collective harmonies of the many other people who populated the periphery of my youth. However, two of the men in the circle I remember well: a fat man nicknamed Panza and another one they called Funes. They played with me the most.
The men in that circle saw me come daily to ask my mom for money or for food or just because I missed her. My father couldn’t feed me. He often left the house early to go to work. When I’d wake up he and my mom would already be gone.
“It’s La Garroba!” the men in the circle yelled whenever they saw me. They would laugh and pat each other on the back, proud of their old joke. My mom would give me money for food. “For a Coke,” she’d say, and I would sit with them for a little bit, my back against my mother’s back, her straight hair on my shoulders. Her friends would ask how old I was and they’d make up ages that were obviously not possible: “Thirty? Thirty-five?” Then they would ask where La Garroba was hiding. They’d search their surroundings just in case they’d somehow missed her presence. Sometimes they’d look inside my pockets for her. Most of the time I knew where La Garroba was.
“Está en el salón,” I’d tell them, because that’s what we call whorehouses in El Salvador. When she wasn’t at the beach she was there. That’s where she was the day she died.
Then they’d tell me that when I was little, La Garroba would sing me a song about a man who’s heartbroken because he falls in love with a cabaret dancer, who only loves him for his money. It was a popular song for a long time and I heard it often coming out of the jukeboxes of the whorehouses of that little town. “Cabaret love, you kill me little by little,” the singer sang. My mom’s friends would hum it and Funes would grab my hands and spin me in place. I always laughed at that part.
What I know about La Garroba I learned from bits and pieces of information I’d hear from my mom and her friends after they stopped harassing me and continued gossiping over their game of cards, as if my presence and their use of the nickname summoned from sands nostalgia of past lives. They shared stories that La Garroba never shared with me. I always listened.
Before she was La Garroba she was Carla. My mom was two years older than her. They went to the same school, as did many of the other fishermen in the circle.Before she was La Garroba she was Carla. My mom was two years older than her. They went to the same school, as did many of the other fishermen in the circle.
“Carla didn’t like going,” my mom said. “She would go to the beach instead.” She’d sit on the sand and stare into the ocean.
They said she liked the waves more than she liked learning about mammals and reptiles and fish and math. At the age of seven, she told her parents she didn’t want to go to school anymore, that she’d help clean fish at the fish market. Her parents didn’t let her. They told her she needed to learn to read and write and do math. She would be more help that way.
Panza often said that Carla began offering sex for money after both her mother and father were lost at sea during a storm. The coast guard searched the water for two days and managed to find only the inner tube on which both her parents fished, one with a nylon mesh in the middle. It would be four days before her mom washed up on some rocks and her father washed up on the sand. Both were bloated and covered in fish bites.
Whenever Panza shared that detail my mom would cover my ears with her hands. She’d tell him that I was too young to hear of such things. But I’d already heard the entire story many times before.
Carla was thirteen when her parents died. I wasn’t born yet. She tried working at the fish market, cleaning the hammerhead sharks, the tilapias and the glossy tunas. She wasn’t skilled and the man who hired her fired her and hired an older boy who was better with the knife. She’d also tried to fish. Her father had taken her on many of his fishing trips and taught her how to sit quietly on the inner tube, the waves lapping at the rubber and the night wrapping around them. He’d taught her to release the hook and bait and to wait patiently for the fish to nibble, to wait for the right type of tension on the line, for the hungry pull of an eager mouth. She’d bought a small inner tube from a fisherman and had created a colorful mesh of synthetic fabric to attach to the inside of the tube, just like her father taught her. She knew from where to launch her vessel so as to not get pummeled by the waves. But no matter how much she tried to stay out in the open sea, a current always brought her back to exploding foam where she was flipped over and pushed onto the sandy shore. The first time this happened she laughed and blamed it on the ill nature of the ocean. The next day she tried it again and again she was dragged toward the waves and slammed against the dark sands. That time the ocean broke her nose, gave her a black eye for three weeks.
“I saw her,” Funes said. “It was like someone had punched her.”
She tried it again, this time using a paddle to push the dark rubber deeper into the waters, away from any strong currents but, again, the sea shoved her back toward the waves even though she paddled with all her strength until the blisters on her palms sent streams of blood running down the wooden oar. Some fisherman laughed at her. They said she didn’t know what she was doing. Others, older fisherman, knew the ocean did not want her in the water and no matter how much she tried she wouldn’t be successful. The ocean, Panza said, was trying to keep her from a similar fate as her parents.
“El mar es sabio,” he’d say.
“Y el hijo de puta de Manzanilla?” someone would say, reminding everyone to not forget Manzanilla’s role in Carla becoming a prostitute.
Two years before Carla’s parents died, when she was eleven, she’d been walking home from school when Manzanilla walked behind her and told her he wanted to fuck her. This was another part of the story from which my mother tried to shield me, her warm hands around my ears.
Carla ran home and told her father, Don Julio, who went to Manzanilla’s house, pulled him out in a headlock and dragged him to the beach where he tried to drown him. Had it not been for a then fourteen-year-old Panza, who was standing on the beach watching the whole thing happen, Don Julio would have killed Manzanilla. Instead, he released his grip around Manzanilla’s neck and walked back home. Panza, teary-eyed and confused about what was happening, stared at the injured man. Manzanilla got up, his eyes red and swollen, and, silently, dripping water from all over his body, walked back to his house.
“I was scared,” Panza said. “Don Julio almost killed him.”
“That son of a bitch deserved it,” my mom would say. Funes put his hands on my ears. Everyone laughed.
After the death of her parents and after her failure at the fish market and her failure out in the ocean and the fact that she had no money to eat and no one would help her, Carla went to Manzanilla’s house and told him she would have sex with him for twenty colones. I think that was about two dollars back in those days, a lot of money.
“No one helped her?” I asked. The answer was always the same, recycled by everyone in the group at one point or another.
“We all had problems.”
My mother and friends would fall silent after that line and all movements of their bodies seized, as if the suddenness of a memory stopped their breathing, as if whatever force was keeping back pain took a break and allowed all of that life, all of those stingers held back by deliberate attempts, to be released all at once, to penetrate flesh and soul. They all had problems. Carla’s were just different than theirs.
My mother would undoubtedly be thinking about my great grandmother, how she had enough money to take my mom and my grandmother out of poverty but how she’d chosen my aunt instead. Sometimes I would ask my mom about my great grandmother, but she didn’t like talking about her. “She loved my sister more,” she’d say sometimes. My great grandmother paid for my aunt’s education, sent her to expensive Catholic schools. Along with Carla, my mom had to go to the poor school in town, the same school I went to.
Panza would probably be thinking about the death of his mother. He often talked about how, when he was twelve, he had to drop out of school to take care of her and to get a job unloading boxes from the ships that arrived in Acajutla. He would cross himself whenever he talked about how, on her last days, it was difficult for his mother to breathe, how he would spend many hours at night, awake, hearing every single strangling breath scrape out of her throat.
“It’s a horrible way to die,” he’d say. “Who knew seconds could last so fucking long. When I go I wanna go quick.”
He said he’d have to sneak in naps throughout the day just to be able to survive the sound his dying mother made at night.
The others kept their fears to themselves when I was around. I have no memories of listening to them describe their pain.
Panza said that no matter how much Carla tried to convince herself that sex was just sex she felt shame and cried through that first time with Manzanilla. He said that Manzanilla told him what had happened, that he even gave him money to buy the same services from Carla. He said Manzanilla pulled him close and told him that Carla was good at what she did. Again, my mother tried to cover my ears during this part of the story but all she did was make Panza’s voice hollow, like he was inside a cave. Panza gave Carla the money Manzanilla gave him. He said he didn’t ask for anything in return.
Trips to Manzanilla’s house became weekly and when she turned seventeen, Niña Marina, one of the madams in our town, offered her a job in her whorehouse. My mom said that on the first day, eleven clients came to seek the services of La Garroba. This she found out through Niña Marina, who bragged to everyone she could about how well her whorehouse was doing. That day, and for the entire length of that first year, La Garroba would make more money than any of the other women. She was young. Her body still resisted gravity and her supposed innocence enticed single men, married men, and even some of the boys with whom she’d gone to school.
A wave surprised me, grabbed me by the feet and threw me against one of the cancerous iron legs, cutting a long gash into my thigh.I never met Carla in her younger years. My memories of my relationship with her wouldn’t start until three years before I left that little town. I was eight. She was thirty. By that age, I’d already almost drowned three times. Each time I was saved by someone who’d gone to the beach to look at the ocean and throw their thoughts into the blue, to feel weightless while the heavy things they carried on their shoulders floated out onto the waves and swayed back and forth in the glistening depths. The last time I almost drowned, Carla was there, on the beach, staring at the waves. I was swimming too close to the old dock, the tall rusted relic from the past that still stood ten feet tall, pushing into the ocean decades after the last train stopped traveling its length, many years after the last ship had docked on it. A wave surprised me, grabbed me by the feet and threw me against one of the cancerous iron legs, cutting a long gash into my thigh. I think I fainted immediately. When I woke up Carla was above me, her hair dripping salty water onto my face. I coughed and cried and she hugged me and rocked me back and forth.
“Estás bien, Marquitos. Estás bien,” she said, and she sang a Korean song to me and it calmed me.
I spent many hours with her after she rescued me. I’d stop by after school, almost daily. I’d ask Niña Marina if Carla was busy and if she said no I would run into the whorehouse. I’d say “hola” to the other prostitutes but my voice could never penetrate the music coming out of that dark brown jukebox. I’d run to the last room at the end of a long hall, quickly, so as to not hear the sounds coming out of the other rooms. I’d often find Carla alone on her bed, singing romantic songs. I’d say hi and she’d smile and then I would tell her about my day while she listened. She always listened. While I talked I ate the fruit meant for the clients who weren’t coming around anymore. Niña Marina didn’t mind me there. No one thought it was strange for a child to hang out inside a whorehouse talking to La Garroba. I visited her many times during those two last years of her life.
One afternoon, a couple of weeks before she died, I’d come to the whorehouse and walked in on her having sex with a man. I knew what sex was. With five whorehouses within four blocks of my house I was surrounded by it. But seeing Carla bouncing on top of the man, her bored eyes open, her hair tied back with a brown clip, I felt a sudden surge of shame. He saw me first, yelled at me to get out. Then she saw me and tried to cover herself up quickly and threw herself, face down, on the bed. The man she was with, an old man I’d seen picking through trash at the landfill, cursed at me. He said he would come out and put his foot up my ass. I ran out, ashamed and scared, her naked breasts bouncing in my head. I ran to the beach and sat on the sand. I knew I was in trouble. I knew I should have knocked, should have asked Niña Marina if La Garroba had clients. But I didn’t; she rarely did, so I’d forgotten.
I’d been on the sand for no more than ten minutes when I felt Carla’s hand on my shoulder. She sat next to me. In front of us the ocean whispered in hushed voices. Dark clouds gathered in the distant horizon. Rain was coming.
“Estás chiquito,” she said. “You shouldn’t see those things.”
She ran her fingers through my hair. Inside my head their movement sounded like the rushing of water.
“Lo siento,” I said.
We dug our feet into the sand and stayed like that until the ocean reached and covered them with white foam. Then she got up, took a couple of steps into the water and crossed herself. Her lips moved in a short prayer while she bent down to scoop sandy water into her hands. She used the water to wet her hair.
A week before she died I found her crying in her room. I’d seen her cry before, many times, in fact. Sometimes I would watch her from her door as she sobbed into her pillow or her hands. Those days she and I didn’t talk and the next day I wouldn’t tell her I’d seen her cry. But that day I felt like I needed to walk up to her and put my hand on her back so I did. She wiped her eyes dry and hugged me against her for a couple of seconds. She said, “You are my only friend, Marquitos.” It made me smile but she didn’t smile with me.
I visited her the day before she died. Her room was clean. Fresh hibiscus glowed red from inside a green plastic vase. When I arrived she took my backpack off and offered me a fresh bowl of jocotes. I sat on her bed and finished the fruit while I told her about my day. She sat in front of her mirror, running her brush through her long hair many times. There were holes in the ceiling but someone had placed a pink curtain on the roof to keep the rain out during storms. Sunlight filtered through them, casting round pink circles onto the bed, on my lap and on her mirror.
“Do you love me, Marcos?”
“Sí,” I said. “You’re good to me.”
“Would you miss me if I left?”
I never considered her absence and when she asked the question I couldn’t help but feel sad at the idea of her not being there anymore, at not seeing her hair flow behind her, shiny strands of darkness.
I told her I had to go, that I had math homework to finish. I started walking out but she called me back and hugged me tight against her. She smelled of lavender.“Sí. No te vayas.”
I watched her reflection in the mirror; it darkened under the shade of a passing cloud. It stopped brushing its hair. It stopped smiling. It turned around to face me and somewhere through that movement her smile had returned.
“I won’t leave, Marquitos. Don’t worry.”
I told her I had to go, that I had math homework to finish. I started walking out but she called me back and hugged me tight against her. She smelled of lavender.
* * *
The day she died I stopped by the market on the way to the whorehouse and bought us each a mango. I planned to eat it with her while I told her about how our teacher had let us play with a thermometer, how I knew how it worked. I knew she would ask me to explain it to her and I’d practiced my explanation: the mercury inside reacted with the heat in my hands. The heat made the silver water rise. But, when I got to the whorehouse I saw a crowd outside. Niña Marina was crying.
“¿Qué pasó?” I asked a man who was standing with his arms crossed on his chest.
He pointed with his lips and said, “Se murió La Garroba.”
The spirit is a coward. During moments of sudden pain it flees the body, leaves it empty, hollow. Everything sounds louder when we’re in that state, as if sound has newfound space through which it can reverberate, through which it can birth echoes that ring the loudest behind the ears. The ocean, which, on my way from school to the whorehouse, was far away, like the soft running of fingers along the scalp, was now raging inside my head, crashing against the emptiness within.
Someone should have stopped me as I made my way to her room. Someone should have noticed the unblinking eyes, the tears beginning to form behind stiff eyelids. But no one did.
Her toes looked crooked. Her dress, a white one I’d seen her wear when she walked along the beach, hung around her, still, like it was made out of wax. Her nails were painted red, on crooked fingers. Her arms hung next to her, still, flexed somehow. Her neck was bloated slightly along the place where the rope squeezed. Her eyes were closed and the darkness of her hair hung behind her, a loose mess of darkness.
“Her neck didn’t break,” someone said. I didn’t know it had to break.
“Qué trágico,” said another voice.
“Pobrecita,” another one.
Someone grabbed me by my backpack and pried me from where I was frozen, took me outside, left me standing under the hot sun. I tried going home but all that was once automatic became a thing I had to force myself to do. I forced air into my chest. I commanded one leg up and pushed the other down. I blinked to clear the blurriness in my eyes. I opened my mouth to let out a moan. But all this was tiring and I’d only walked a couple of steps when I fell to the ground and sobbed.
* * *
The next day I didn’t go to school. My dad was home when I woke up, sitting at the round wooden table he’d made himself. The morning sun had already begun to warm up the metal sheets that made up the four walls of that house. I could hear the clucking of the chickens outside. His eyes watched me from a distance as I tried to put on my school uniform. He walked up to me, told me it was okay to stay behind, that I shouldn’t have seen what I saw, that he was sorry he wasn’t there to keep me from seeing. Then he went to work. My mom would already be at her usual station, playing cards with her friends. At home I sat under the jocote tree until I felt hungry. I walked to the warehouse and found my mom at the same place, playing with the same people, laughing at the same jokes. They saw me approach but didn’t say anything. Their fingers gripped the cards. No one played any hands. I sat next to my mom. She patted my back and kissed the whirlwind of hair on my head. Her lips were warm.
They played their game in silence.
“I’m hungry,” I told my mom.
She gave me the Salvadoran equivalent of a quarter. I put the money in my pocket. I got up to leave. I could sense tension getting up with me. It would follow me when I left. I stood there for a second, trying to find a way to ask the question I wanted an answer to, a question I wouldn’t be able to ask Carla. I looked at my mom, tears in my eyes, and asked half the question.
All their faces looked at me. No one said anything. They all fiddled with their cards, looked at each other, looked away. My mom sat me down, ran her fingers through my hair and the scraping was so loud I shook my head and she stopped.
“She carried something that was too heavy for her,” she said. The others grunted in agreement.
I didn’t understand what that meant. I took it literally, thought about my grandfather’s oxen and how they pulled on the wooden cart when it was full of wet sand and how they didn’t kill themselves when they couldn’t pull anymore. They just stopped and my grandfather knew to let them rest. I asked my mom why Carla didn’t just rest, like the oxen pulling the wooden cart.
“Oxen are meant to suffer,” she said. “We are not.”
She put her hand on my back, told me to go play, to go distract myself.
I went to the beach and sat at the place where Carla and I had sat. I listened to the waves, trying to understand what happened to people when they died, trying to understand what would happen to me if I couldn’t make the suffering stop. But I didn’t understand it then. She was only the first. More people would have to die before I could look into the bloated face of death and understand why it amplified the ocean the way it did. I closed my eyes and listened. In the distance I could hear the jukebox and I imagined it was Carla’s voice singing that sad song about the man who fell in love with a cabaret dancer.