“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. If Ecuador is the name of an imaginary line, then we Ecuadorians are imaginary beings.”
From the 2010 film Prometeo Deportado
I traded hemispheres like my parents and abuelitos before me, but like, backwards. I still can’t tell which way I’m going. There’s no handbook on how to return to a place for the first time or how to live in a home you never knew; all I know is what it’s like to be raised in Ecuador, but the one in Queens. So I settled in Quito some six years ago with private intentions of mapping our family’s lineage of ghosts, hoping to track down the other half of my shadow, like Nakata in Kafka on the Shore. But as Crow warned Kafka, “distance might not solve anything.” And since it hasn’t, I’ve gotten used to this in-between place, of being dead broke and half-alive. So I’m on my way to borrow money from La Negra.
A honeycomb hill rises before me in countless cells of hexagonal concrete, making the summit look infinitely far away. When the block I’m walking meets up with the next, the houses give way to an oversaturated panorama of fluffy green hills and the bright Lego-like houses that collect along their shelves. I turn away from them to keep climbing. The street evens out at the top, horizontal for a moment in a diagonal city, until I reach the plaza, where high peaks stab at the sky, and beyond them, volcanoes. In Quito, you could be in the clouds and still not have reached the top. You just keep on climbing.
Across the plaza stands the tipo who sells papayas from the bed of a squeaking truck, and when he squints in the too-close sun, I’m afraid that the arches of his face might rip through their tightened skin. A few steps past him, I almost trip over a dude tryna breathe between puking convulsions while the mechanic’s dachshund watches on—bored; and at the corner two kids play fútbol with a chewed-up plastic bottle cap wearing impossible child smiles. The fragrances of fresh gasoline and baking bread wander skyward together where storm clouds swirl, forming a stain in the West.
La Negra lives in La Casa Equinoccio about twenty minutes away from where I live now. It’s a house for travelers and artists and traveling artists named after its street, Equinoccio—an imaginary line projected into space, tracing a circle equidistant to the celestial poles. My old home, that stinks with the perennial aroma of feet. The lokos who lived there took my cat and I in when we’d gotten kicked out of my first place in Quito years before, and even though I’ve long since moved out, I always make sure to stop by, especially when I need a meal and don’t have ni un centavo on me, which is often. When I lived there, my housemates were Ecuadorian travel addicts like me, struggling artists like me, romantic hustlers bent on packing every inch of living into their twenties, like me.
At La Casa Equinoccio there was a rotating cast of characters, but the core ensemble stayed the same: Adrianna, a perfectly round beauty from Guayaquil with an unquenchable thirst for white boys (“Ecuadorian men are just so…”); Lisseth, a high-pitched Ibarreña who lived for two things—feminism and the theater—and who could squeeze drama out of nada; myself, a perennially broke ecua-gringx who lived by my four W’s: writing, weed, wine and women; and of course, there was La Negra. First time we met, she drummed her fingers one by one upon her chest and, closing her eyes, announced, “Soy La Negra.” I was waiting for the, ‘I’m _______ but they call me la negra,’ but it never came. She’s from Quito but every blankito, be they German, French, Canadian or Argentinian, always responds with, “but you don’t look like you’re from Quito. Where are you from from?” They’re the same kids who congratulate me either on my great English or my great Spanish, depending on the day.
I hear the vehicular free-for-all that is the roundabout before I reach it—restless wheels flash by at top speed sounding like a bad brass band warming up before a show. Crossing is a matter of guts and dumb luck so I take a deep breath, make a run for it and hope for both. When a bus or truck whips past, sparing my motherfucking life by a whimsy margin, their exhaust valves let out a taunting emission of pure black smoke, and for a moment, I’m not there—just swallowed up in an ashen bind—until the high alpine wind comes and shakes me free. The air goes invisible again, and I reappear in the middle of traffic, like magic, and run.
After the roundabout spits me out I climb up another stony hill that pulls a sticky cold sweat from somewhere within me. Breathing is hard enough at 10,000 feet but add one steep incline after another and it gets to feeling like trudging through space. The woman ahead of me with pendulous trensas who measures even shorter than my 4’ 11’’ has a refrigerator strapped to her back and, when we reach the top, I see that she has a baby strapped to her front. Another traffic clusterfuck parades by, and people mask their faces from the pollution with cupped hands. Once I’ve woven through it, the steepest hill so far stretches above, foliated by cotton candy-like trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. I stick my hand in them when I finally reach the top, every time.
Back in the day when I lived in La Casa Equinoccio—before La Negra started working at the bar, before she officially lived in the house and was just ‘hanging out’ for months at a time; when I was scraping by on ghostwriting (which I guess made me an imaginary writer), when I was high all the time and didn’t have papers—La Negra and I were poor together. Not that our poverties could ever be comparable but we reached our respective lows in unison, which ended up bonding us, probably for life. In Ecuador, we call friends who are tight like that ‘panas de la vida.’
We binge-watched films to try to mute the hunger in our bellies, felt up the dusty sofa cushions for loose coins to buy eggs, wordlessly crunched down on microwaved noodles that never really filled us up, while keeping our self-pitying thoughts to ourselves (like real Ecuadorians). And on some of the coldest nights after everyone else had crashed, we killed found cigarette butts over instant black coffee while I told her tragic cuento after cuento about growing up in Gringolandia (the real one, not the tourist hood in Quito folks called Gringolandia). I would often think, here I am, back in the motherland, this motherfuckingland, struggling even by third world standards. My tíos and tías are working and smiling to death in Florida; Mami never stopped drinking—just slowed it down—and Abuelita, who held us all together, the only one in our whole mini-diaspora to return to Ecuador besides me, has been gone. My ties to her cut long before she died. The only ghost I found is the one I’ve become.
One night, La Negra asked me,
“You know why this street is called Equinox?”
“Just as there’s an Equator here on Earth, there’s also a celestial Equator up in the sky, ¿si me cachas?”
“Yo te cacho.”
“And on each Equinox—in Spring and Fall—the sun crosses the celestial Equator on the way from one solstice to the other, ¿si?
“So guess what happens when the sun reaches its zenith, at noon, on the Equinox, in the Republic of the Equator? ¿Pues, en Quito, por lo menos?”
“Our shadows, everyone’s shadows, even all the shadows of the trees on this block—disappear!”
On penniless days, some of them, anyway, La Negra buys me lunch, flan, a cigarette. “Te debo,” I always say afterward and she waves her hand in the air like it’s nothing, saying, “You’ll give it to me when you have it,” which is what I used to say to her. The tables have turned. I wonder if we’re going to spend our lives like this, flailing through adulthood, popping into each other’s lives when shit gets real to say, “Hey, can you help a bitch out?”
On my most depressing days, some of them, anyway, she shows up at my door at the literal edge of La Floresta with panela, candy, and a bouquet of lavender all shoved into a black plastic bag. She doesn’t like to let me indulge in dark shit so she makes small talk or digs up stories from the bar.
Over the last few years in Quito, most of my money went to the bus drivers, to paying endless fees at the ministerio de extranjería and the registro civil for my double citizenship, to the surgeon who left big-ass scars on my right shoulder, to my insurance company for the countless co-pays, 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 it was a joke. But it got me through the days. The rest of the money went to the pharmacy for the pills that got me through the nights. I once had a German roommate who called them my “gringa pills.”
La Negra disapproved of all my coping methods save for cigarette smoking, so that’s all we did while we talked. I had told her about living in Section 8 Brooklyn and that the number one spot to watch the sunset in New York was from the Co-op City rooftops in The Bronx; she told me all about the leper colony down the loma and the dirt roads she climbed as a kid in La Floresta, now paved. How it got muddy when it rained so she’d slide back a little with each step forward.
I greet the neighbors (“¿Qué fue, veci?”) through the tienda’s bars before ringing the bell and staring up at the sky, waiting for La Negra to drop the keys down from the balcón.
“¡Hija de mi vida!” La Negra shouts to the entire street.
“Yo,” I say, offering up a palm to catch the keys.
“Jo jo! Brook-leen een da ha-oose!” she yells, waving her arms through the air as she throws them down.
The house is empty save for the hundreds of band posters, flyers from shows, photos from parties and maps of countries in South America plastered on every inch of available wall space. La Negra swoops down on me with a sleepy-manic stare and says, “Estoy taaan cansada,” by way of greeting. She works late at an Irish bar in Gringolandia and wakes in the afternoons, her afro shaped by whatever position she was last sleeping in. I want to back down from asking her for money, but hunger wins out. I’ve been getting thinner and lighter and quietly disappearing, so I say I gotta bounce soon and she slaps me 10 Lucas. When I say, “¿Tanto?” and she replies with, “Pues, ¿quieres menos?” I stuff the money in my pocket by way of response.
“Quito’s trying to tell you something,” she says when I turn to leave La Casa Equinoccio, her eyebrows raised and nodding like it’s The Word. Always the doña, La Negra likes to advise everyone on everything, not skimping on her self-appointed sabiduría one bit. I have this image of her emerging from her mother’s womb a full-fledged abuelita. “But what?” I ask, still broke and hungry after years of climbing these hills. Her palms just turn to the cosmos, an imaginary message settling into the cups of her outstretched hands.
I make my way back home (“¡chau, veci!”), succumbing to the slope, running through the roundabout, spiraling down the mountains like this whole place is a staircase, letting gravity pull me back to earth, across the plaza and down to that single horizontal spot, the one with the view. I can see the lush hills across the valley, wispy clouds floating past them like they’re crossing the street. They swallow houses whole then reveal them again, just the same as ever.