Sunday, March 26, 2017

For Claudio

The silver ring on the middle finger of my right hand is dented, scratched, and scuffed from ten years of constant wear.  If you look carefully, the word “Recuerdo” is still clearly etched into one side, though the way light reflects off the ring makes the word difficult to see.  People rarely notice it.  In fact, people rarely comment on my ring at all.  But there’s a story behind my ring, and I'd like to share it in full.

Xalapa, Mexico, 2007
We met them on Valentine’s Day.  It was perhaps 11:30 at night, a Wednesday, and the three of us had stopped along the quiet street in Mexico, waiting for a taxi to drive by and take Rebecca to her host parents’ home.  We’d just come from a party with some local friends, students and teachers from our school for foreign students, and we were ready to return to our host families and get some sleep before classes the next day.  
Our return home was delayed, however, when they--3 teenage Mexican boys just a few years younger than the three of us--stopped on the street and introduced themselves.  We sat there with the boys that night, on the steps of a church, until nearly 2:30 in the morning.  We got to know them, just a bit.  Claudio, the leader, was talkative and clever.  Alonso, with his greased curls and pouty lips, looked bored and uninterested.  Levi, with his frizzy curls, seemed friendly and eager to chat with us.  We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, and we went home.
After that, we began to see more and more of our Mexicanitos.  We met them in cafes, or on the street.  We chatted and flirted and practiced our Spanish.  And with our three teenagers, almost right from the start, there was drama.  One of the first nights after we’d met them, Claudio showed up at 12:30am to the house where Jordan and I were staying.  He rang the bell and pounded on the door until our host mother woke up and spoke to him, but Jordan and I weren’t even home at the time.  Our conversations with the muchachitos became dramatic attempts at sounding stern and expressing our displeasure in broken Spanish.  Or, if not us being upset with the boys, they found mysterious reasons to be upset with us instead.
It didn’t take long for Jordan and Claudio to begin a relationship.  They made an awkward-looking couple--him small and slight, her rosy and round--but in a way they fit together perfectly. Both outspoken and full of jokes and laughter.  And they both loved the attention.  
We all did.  We ate up the drama.  It gave us something to talk about, something to do, plans for our evenings.  Eventually Alonso and I started “dating” as well, leaving Rebecca and Levi as awkward third wheels who really wanted to be just friends.  
Then came the morning, a few weeks after we’d met the boys, that Jordan woke to realize her wallet was missing.  When we walked downstairs and out the front door, we found it, slipped under the garage door.  The cash was missing, but all of her credit cards were still there.  There was only one clear culprit--one person who would have had access to her wallet, and who would have known where to return it.  Claudio.  
At this point, Claudio also had in his possession Jordan’s ipod, because she’d lent it to him some days before, and when she asked for it back, he kept saying he’d forgotten it at home.  Jordan assumed after finding her empty wallet that Claudio had no intention of returning the ipod, and she and Rebecca and I decided the time had come to cut ties with the Mexicanitos.  
Of course it wasn’t that simple, though.  We ran into Alonso and Levi one day, and we told them our suspicions.  They seemed to believe us; in fact, they told us it wasn’t the first time Claudio had done something like this, and that a few days ago he had had some extra money mysteriously.  They told us they would talk to him and would bring Jordan’s ipod back to her.  Yet when we next spoke to them, they claimed to have spoken to Claudio and assured us that he was not the thief after all.
So we continued our strange friendship with the boys despite our misgivings.  Gradually we learned more about them--or we thought we did.  Claudio told us he played for the soccer team in nearby Veracruz, the Tiburones Rojos.  Alonso hated school and never went, but he wanted to study birds in university.  Claudio’s mother worked for the government and was currently out of town, working twelve hours away, so Clau was staying with his grandparents.  Alonso’s parents were getting a divorce.  Claudio’s birthday was coming up at the end of March and he was hoping for a new gaming console.  The drama continued too, of course.  The “fights,” the moody silences.  And we spent long hours sitting on the sidewalk outside of our house, playing on the swings of a nearby park after nightfall, visiting cafes and bars, or walking along the lakes and parks of the city.  
And then, six weeks after our first encounter with the boys, came the weekend that changed everything.
On Saturday morning, the 24th of March, I woke with my first ever hangover, (brought on the night before in a ridiculous attempt to drink away the latest bit of drama with Alonso).  Still, I packed up my things and left with everyone else to go to the beach.  Nine of the girls from my study abroad school had planned to go to the beach that Saturday, and at the last minute the night before, Claudio had been invited and had decided to come along.  It was his birthday that weekend, he said.  He wanted to celebrate with Jordan and the rest of us.  So ten of us took the two hour trip to a nearby beach that day.
At the beach, the waves were choppy, and the sun was bright.  We spent a few hours relaxing, and by 3pm, I was even feeling well enough to join in the fun.  We jumped and splashed in the waves, a few of us up to about our waists in the water, and some only up to their ankles.  Suddenly, a large wave came in, and the water was up to my chest.  And then, in a matter of seconds, I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore.  
Looking around, I remember thinking to myself, “Maybe everyone else is okay with being out this deep, but I’m not.  I’m heading back towards shore.”  And I tried to turn around and swim back towards the sand.  But, as I did, I made no progress.  The shore kept getting farther and farther away.  
I heard a shout for help, and I heard Claudio yell Jordan’s name.  I watched, helplessly, as the people back on the beach became smaller and smaller.  I still got no closer to the shore when I tried to swim for it, so I resolved not to panic, simply to tread water and conserve my strength.  I had no plan, no memory of what to do when you’re caught in a riptide.  The thought crossed my mind, for the first time in my life, that I could die out in the ocean.  
Eventually, though, I saw someone off to my left standing on the ocean floor, motioning wildly to come in her direction.  And soon after that, my feet touched the sand, and the waves started pushing me in the right direction again, and I waded back to shore, so gratefully.
Standing on the sand, then, I scanned the waves.  A few of the girls from my group had made it back to shore before me, but not all of them.  I counted heads, watching people come back to us.  A crowd had already begun to gather on the beach.  I kept counting.  6, then 9.  All of the girls we’d come with had made it back to shore.  
But not Claudio.  And I couldn’t see any sign of him.
It was the worst moment of my life, standing there on the beach searching the waves, not seeing him, and feeling completely helpless.
Claudio couldn’t swim.  We didn’t know that. We assumed, through our privilege, through our narrow, naive worldviews colored with childhood swimming lessons and summers spent in pools and lakes, that anyone living as close to an ocean as Claudio did would be able to swim.  It was just like Clau, with his macho ego and his lies, to let us believe as we wished when we invited him to the beach.  
Eventually, an English-speaking Canadian woman who lived in the area approached us, told us help was on the way, and got us into the shade to avoid us going into shock.  She led us through as we spoke with authorities, called Claudio’s mother.  It turned out his mother was not working across the country, after all, but was right in town where she always was.  Perhaps learning, at this point, that Claudio had lied to us yet again should have come as no surprise, but it still hurt.
Help never really came.  It turned out that there was another emergency at the next beach down the coast, and the rescue boats were busy saving the child who’d been sucked out to sea there.
Ten of us had gone to the beach that day, but only nine of us boarded the bus well after dark that night and returned to our city.  
Upon returning home, Jordan and I wearily went to bed without waking our host mother or telling her what had happened.  A few hours later, there came a knock at the front door, and our host mom woke us up to go and speak with the two men and the boy who stood there.  It was Claudio’s uncle and Alonso’s father and younger brother (though we didn’t know that at the time).  Breaking into tears, we tried to explain to them all in Spanish what had happened, but our language skills failed us, and we ended up calling the Canadian woman who had helped us at the beach, so she could explain in more fluent language what had happened.  We had come to Mexico to learn the language and the culture.  We weren’t prepared for interactions on this scale; we hadn’t known our actions during our Study Abroad experience would alter so many other lives.  
The next few days were difficult.  Sunday we spent with Rebecca, talking through our experience and simply being together.  Monday we skipped our classes, met with Alonso, grieved with him, broke the news to Levi, went with Alonso to the cathedral and sat praying for a long time.  We did what we could.  We learned how to grieve.
A fisherman found Claudio’s body three days later.  It washed towards his boat miles down the coast from where we’d been.  That evening, as we sat at our favorite hangout spot, Alonso showed up in a taxi and asked us to come with him.  Though we’d been instructed by the lawyers at school not to speak with Claudio’s family without a bilingual representative present, we didn’t think twice before we got into the car with Alonso and the cab driver (who turned out to be Claudio’s uncle) and went to the memorial for Claudio.  
It was held in a school located right next to the tiny house where Claudio had lived with his mother, his sister, his uncle, his grandparents, and his cousin.  We would later enter the house, talk with his mother.  And I finally understood the reason for Claudio’s lies.  Entering through the front door of the house brought us into the bedroom, which served also as a living room.  A bed filled the entire space, and there was barely room for us to squeeze through the room into the kitchen.  There was only one other bedroom in the building that housed seven people.  A curtain served as a door to it.  Nothing about the place was fancy.  It was certain that Claudio did not have a video game console, an ipod, or a computer. These were things he dreamed about.  I began to understand why he made up a fictional life, asked us for things for his imaginary birthday.  
The night of the memorial, we met Claudio’s family, and we saw Levi and Alonso again.  Being there, we felt out of place, guilty for our role in Claudio’s death, but it was also healing.  Alonso and Levi laughed and joked about their memories of Claudio, and we knew we were right to be there, right to pay our respects.
That night, Claudio’s mother asked us not to forget her son.  She asked us to remember him always.
So a few days later, I went to a market vendor in the central plaza and purchased a plain silver ring.  The man working the stall asked me whether I’d like it engraved, and I told him yes.
“Recuerdo,” I told him.
“Recuerdo de Xalapa?” he asked me.  No, it was not a memory of the city where I lived.
“Solo ‘recuerdo,’” I told him.  Just the one word.  I remember.
And I do.  Every single day, and I look down at the well-worn ring on my right hand, and I remember the boy so full of life, so full of cunning and cleverness that he could create an entire alternate life for himself to tell us.  I didn’t know the real Claudio well.  
But I remember him.