Time don’t stop. But at my tío’s house in Ecuador, it ticks along like a broken metronome, drags like a costeñx’s Spanish. There’s an excess of energy in the air, but it all gets caught up in a sweaty warp. Temporal tracking’s got nothing on a hot city.
I’d moved to Ecuador by way of Guayaquil, ‘cause port cities were made for grand entrances, and in a sense, I would always be an extranjerx, no matter how many times I returned.
The city is like an aging monarch nostalgic for her former glory, but when I try to track those days down, all that comes up is a reputation of endless piracy. We arrived just days before the anniversary of our country’s independence from Spain, with which came the hard-won right to watch all the pretty colonial shit they had slaves build erode into decay. Her red lights are purely symbolic, and skeletal Cadillacs running only on hubris race straight through them, hugging the Guayas River in the shade of one palm tree after another, down streets lined with chipped colonnades that retain their creamy spring palettes in some form of resistance to time. A metallic current idly wanders off the water and finds itself in everyone’s mouths—the teenage pros that wind boldly through wild traffic, the nuevo dinero families who prance along the Malecón wishing that this were 1533 and that they were Spanish. Guayaquil’s still got it, but I’m the only one who thinks so.
Overnight, swarms of bichos track constellations across Mami’s face, who has traveled with me to see the family, to see her hometown, and to see me off.
“Les gusta la sangre gringa,” tío told her in the morning, one in a line of endless tíos. She waved her black cloud of hair in the way to interrupt their line of eye contact, careful to keep her pissed off expression to herself. Like everything else.
Meanwhile, my tías were busy cornering me in their nude concrete kitchens that reeked of mold and good food, demanding, —¿Y tu novio? I’d always get mad surprised when they asked. I’d walked up into the homeland with a bald head, facial piercings, and hairy legs, so I’m read as 100% maricona, 100% of the time. But the talk of Ecuadorian families is laced with bullshit, and these are matters that are better left undiscussed. We, as a people, pretend. “You’ll find one, mija,” they promised.
It’s not easy eating bad soup in the bus terminal’s cafeteria while a man stares at you. The blank kind, like dogs watching TV. When I crossed the lot to board my bus, a driver took one look at me and told his friends, “Women don’t look any different than men these days,” and they cackled.
I was just beginning to answer to “señorito,” not even bothering to correct folks. For the uninitiated: being misgendered is a matter of holding space, of waiting while they travail the seasons of epiphany; watching for the first light of realization to dawn on the reader’s expression, until they are warmed by the amusement of their own error. “Lo siento, lo siento, lo siento,” they say, as they laugh.
The bus took me to Guayaquil’s polar opposite in the matter of a day—a city surrounded by volcanoes in the clouds, a notch on the planet’s belt. Buried in a small depression in the Andes, the country’s capital struck me as a place one could disappear into, a place for me.
Waiting for the trolley, I looked to the west, where dark clouds hung low over icy peaks, full
of storm. To the east, the sun shimmered in a cerulean sky, and white clouds stuck onto it like balls of cotton. Before and after shots exposed in one perpetual panorama. Everything subject to change.
No other place kicked my ass like Quito did. I mean, I’m lucky my family made it outta East New York before I could even say the word Brooklyn. I’m lucky I didn’t die on the streets of various towns across Gringolandia while I slept in the subzero cold. I’m lucky one guy tried to throw me into an unmarked van one night when I was walking in Queens, and not two or three. And I’m lucky I outran a gang of Nazi punks in some outskirt of fucksville Pennsylvania when I was 17. Pero like, none of that compares to the swift and incessant series of cocotazos Quito got in over the arc of the following years. What unforgivable error had I committed against her in a past life? I still ask myself.
But all of that was concealed from me on one of those early days, when I stood right at the equatorial intersection between zenith and nadir and could see a double rainbow arching over the Pichincha Mountains. Zero latitude, the literal middle of the world. I wanted to believe they were signaling a Golden Age for me, like they did for the ancients. Hindsight is a bitch.
A little more canelazo and I’d have believed anything. It’s this sweet cocktail designed to subdue the unfortunate high that overcomes the body at 10,000 feet, and with its aid, I trusted those rainbow-hued veils to be my bridge to heaven. But they were absorbed by a mass of clouds in the following instant, those voluminous monsters who reign over the Andes and lasso the entire town in a coil of vapor every late afternoon, until I could not see a foot in front of me. At nightfall, I dove into the suspicious bowl of soup of the city.
Within weeks, I found a room in the old neighborhood of Guápulo, a little time portal laid with cobble along the sharp diagonal of a mountain. Quito, like most big cities, is loud with mad buses chugging up and down the slopes, discharging ashy exhaust all over the place, but my new neighborhood was chill, my neighbours were llamas, chickens, and one solitary cow. There was a cupola over my room encircled with stained glass, and bright squares of color would flash across the white stucco walls, depending on where the sun was. I had a habit of waking up late with blue all up in my face.
My roommates were a common cast of the usual expats: English teachers, NGO workers, and biology majors looking for a free ride to the Galápagos. On most nights, they liked to prepare communal dinners, talk about how broke they were, and evaluate the encyclopedia of Ecuadorian quirks, like it was something new. I never had anything to share.
“Do you know if they even recycle here?” Elliot directed to Sonia, since she’d been living there the longest. Towering, tanned, and German, Sonia was always looking for an excuse to tell you how’d long she’d been in Quito, the way a woman who’d endured a prolonged labor would.
“Tree years I’ve been here!” she shouted. “And zere still isn’t any official recycling program in Guápulo. Zat’s why you always return your beer bottle to ze vezinos when you’re done,” she evangelized, sounding like my moms. “Zat way, you get half your money back.” The others nodded thoughtfully around the table.
Just then, a truck came down the steep road facing the kitchen. It was piled high with paper of every kind, and at its peak perched a little boy, a look of glee pasted on his sooty face as they zipped down the block. “Zat is the family who collects recycling! They take paper away for free every Monday night.”
Elliot made a show of jumping outside, stopping the truck, and making arrangements with the family in his horrible Spanish. He was the sandy-haired, 23-year-old who took the room next to mine and taught world history in the country’s most exclusive high school tucked away in Quito’s suburbs. He was always complaining about his workload (“mucho traba-ho”) and kept us both up late at night, singing brooding ballads alone in his room to a girlfriend in California, his weak voice shaking with homesick grief.
He waved to the family. “Nose vaymos el loo-nays!”
I hated him.
In the trailer to the 2010 film Prometeo Deportado, a voice begins to narrate: “Ecuador. Maximum circle of the spheres of East. A country in South America that owes its name to the equinoctial line running through it. It divides the earth into two hemispheres, north and south. Those above and those below.” Then, he proposes, “If Ecuador is the name of an imaginary line, then we Ecuadorians are imaginary beings.”
I’d moved to Ecuador with two goals in mind: to become a citizen and a published writer. I considered “published writer” to be a flexible term, but getting my papers was no joke—tourist visas ran out after three months, and my mother’s birth certificate had been missing for years, a paper without which I would never gain citizenship. The other gringxs laughed off illegality the way the skater kids down at the ramps at La Carolina showed off their scars. I was six weeks shy of my visa expiration.
“Mine runs out in a month,” said Elliot in our garden one day. The city was so dry that fires erupted all over the hills that summer, and Cayambe’s craggy white cone was visible in the cloudless sky to the east. After four, you wouldn’t even know it was there.
“Zat’s nothing. Mine ran out over a year ago!” Cigarette smoke escaped from Sonia’s mouth with every word, finding a new home in the already smoky sky. She taught Latin American studies at the country’s most prestigious college, where her white bosses overlooked her outdated visa. If anything were to happen, hers and Elliot’s students’ wealthy parents would be footing the bills for a lawyer.
“I heard you’re not allowed back in the country for six months afterward,” Elliot added.
“Nine,” I said.
Sonia shrugged. “I’m not planning on coming back, anyway. I’m so tired of ze Ecuadorians!”
I thought about getting “unofficially” deported to New York three years earlier, getting stopped at the Colombia-Ecuador border and told I’d overstayed, sneaking in anyway and getting caught three weeks later. An anticlimactic process of paying fines, watching officials confuse each other over the bureaucratic process, and being escorted to the airport. I thought about the things I did to get back to Ecuador. I revealed only parts of it to the others.
Sonia laughed at me incredulously, scores of smoke escaping in time with her movements. “It’s usually the other way around!”
They came every night, like clockwork. It’d start where the sun was, when no one was looking. A vellum overlay slid down the sky until it reached the mountaintops, where it became viscous, and avalanches of collected moisture would start pouring down the hills, looking like someone just dropped a chunk of dry ice into the bucket of the valley. Secret portal that Guápulo was, we received the brunt of the phenomenon, and were drowned in mist until morning rescued us.
But I preferred the clouds. I liked sticking my hand out the window and watching it disappear into the other side. Time might’ve dragged on la costa, but up in the skies, it stilled.
The city was no longer on fire, and I was watching my favorite thing happen when Sonia stumbled into the house, slamming the frail door behind her. “Look,” I pointed outside, “It’s beautiful.” The front door opened into the kitchen, which had panoramic views of the mountains to the south.
“Tree years I’ve been here!” she said, sweeping imaginary clouds away with her right arm. “Zat’s nothing new to me.” And she disappeared down the stairs. The recycling paper piled up in one corner, forming miniature, white mountains all by themselves.
Immigration had failed all of us—here I was, back in the homeland, poor as fuck even by third world standards. Most of my money went to the bus drivers, to paying countless fees at the ministerio de extranjería and the registro civíl, to my dealer Jimmy, who owned a cevichería by day and sold bricks of chola wrapped in newspaper for five bucks at night. The first time I saw it, a medley of stems and seeds mixed with cement and dirt, I thought that it was a joke. They don’t call it weed for nothin’. But it got me through the days. The rest would go to the pharmacy for the sleeping pills that got me through the nights.
On my way to the farmacia one day, Sonia invited me to Café Guápulo up the block.
“I can’t, I have to pick up my meds.”
“What for?” she asked.
“Tengo insomnio crónico,” I answered.
“Oh, don’t be such a gringa!”
After paying rent, I was completely broke by the beginning of my third month in Quito. I wrote pitches by day and read rejections at night. Already at 100 pounds, I was losing lots of weight, disappearing into the landscape, an imaginary writer and an imaginary Ecuadorian. While everyone else was off performing their neocolonialist tasks, I’d be stealing their food. Just a little so they wouldn’t notice.
I couldn’t afford papers or a pipe, and would swipe baby fist-sized potatoes from a basket in the kitchen and poke two little holes in ’em. Sometimes I ate the others raw.
Mami’s birth predated digital records and the handwritten deed was lost somewhere in the library of the Ecuadorian imagination. I couldn’t afford to renew my tourist visa, and without my gringa pills, I stayed up nights—writing, smoking, and watching my hand disappear into the clouds.
The first time an editor wrote me a personalized rejection letter instead of simply ignoring my pitch, I felt excited. This was a thing I had. A pathetic thing, una vergüenza really, but a thing.
On Día de los Difuntos, parasites grabbed at my intestines and wrung them out every few minutes, making me rush back and forth to the bathroom outside. Wawas de pan taunted me from the windows of panaderías, their sweet aromas triggering convulsions in my guts on the way to the hospital, gravity dragging my bony ass downhill. I breathed through my mouth and kept my gaze on the ground to leave the wawas in the realm of ritual, ’cause the image of their jelly innards bursting through the bread, an offering to the dead symbolizing rebirth, was fucking me up. Their little, candied eyes seemed to follow me into the emergency room, where I cried in front of the beautiful doctor because it was all free. The nurse slapped an x-ray of my abdomen on the wall-mounted box behind him, to which he pointed and said, “You know what’s inside of you? Nothing.”
The day before my visa expired, I had a dream I was walking along the edge of a volcanic crater, slowly, silently. On a night so dark, it swallowed us and all our things up.