Cuatro veces más. Cuatro veces más.
Sofia is disgusted. I’ve known her for six hours, but I can see it in her eyes, through the dusty right-hand mirror of the green Nissan pickup—I assume it’s a Nissan, anyway, because of the logo centered on the keychain dangling from the ignition. The midpoint of the steering wheel, the part that usually displays a branded label, I realize, has been stripped off, leaving behind a gray, tethered patch where la marca del coche presumably once was. I’ve started to think like this—in patches of Spanish, interspersed as phrases embedded in my otherwise English internal monologue. This, I realize, is almost definitely detrimental to my language learning progression, a thought which develops milliseconds after it dawns on me that I, in fact, have no idea what kind of car I’m in, besides that keychain, which could easily be one of those false indicators or whatever the right behavioral economic term is for such a datapoint.
We hit a bump in the road, and I watch the steering wheel jerk on its own accord, freed from the dark hands of its operator, who has started contemptuously flaring his lips. His bottom labio, in particular, is really twitching, flashing the pink of his inner lower gum at an interval of every few seconds. I even think I catch a glimpse of darker red—a clandestine, infinitesimal moment of intimacy, where I can, at least for a moment, gaze as deep into the pit under the man’s gum and above his chin as I wish. The lips remind me of Hector Salamanca’s, from “Breaking Bad,” in the moments before he blows up his wheelchair in front of Gus, and, coincidentally (or not), of the lips of the bus driver from my last long journey, a week earlier, from San Jose to Sixaola. That was a really twitchy lower lip.
In the last two months, everyone has reminded me of everyone. I’ve asked my growing list of older friends whether this is a product of aging—if I’ve met so many people by now that new faces are bound to resemble old. The phenomenon has not been widely reciprocated. Meanwhile, I’ve seen my childhood best friend, Nathan—who I haven’t spoken to in half a decade, over a fifth of my life—dozens of times this year, exclusively in surfing lineups, up and down the Pacific coast.
Sofia doesn’t remind me of anyone. This is a thought I cannot begin to entertain in her native tongue, so essential to this day yet now, I fear, toeing a dangerous line. Perhaps this is the Duality of Sofia—her distinctive traits allowed us to be the last ones standing, half an hour earlier, at Playa Concha, golden light streaming into sharp-ridged, leafy mountains towering over a perfectly clear, rock-dotted bay, replete with massive vultures circling overhead. But they would also, a few hours later, bring us into the fluorescent hell of the sparsely decorated Santa Marta Tourism Commission, where a street vendor would lure her (and, therefore, us) in by asking us two trivia questions (what do basketball players get for winning a championship, what is the longest river in the world) which, if answered correctly (they would be; I got the basketball one, she knew the river) could be redeemed for one of two gifts: a free vegetarian dinner for two, or a complimentary three night stay at a local hostel. Even though we got the questions right, we soon would find out that the offer came with two conditions: to redeem the prize, we had to be at least 30 years old, and also, somehow, either single or married.
I should be able to question this apparent paradox, its particularity the exact fodder I usually pursue ruthlessly, like the time in Morro Bay when I had to know the significance of a sign in a diner that read SORRY NO WAFFLES in a large font and then Available On weekends in a slightly smaller font, written just like that, below. When exactly, were the waffles available? Here, though, language barriers prevented me from tracing the conundrum’s origin; I knew the Spanish words for single and married and thirty and why in the world but I couldn’t fathom how to construct them all in a way this Colombian salesman, who I am positive is scamming us, will understand.
That will all happen later tonight, though. I shouldn’t let my mind wander like this. I’m in a dangerous country, I’ve been told, with hidden threats everywhere, ready to surprise me the very second I let my guard down. It seems that it is during precisely these times—the threat, maybe, is staring at me through the rearview mirror—that my mind likes to trace its most convoluted paths. As such, there are 15 Colombian teenagers piled into the back of our pickup truck, it’s getting dark, Sofia is screaming at the cab driver, and I’m thinking about waffles in Morro Bay.
Cuatro veces más.
Four times more. That’s how much we’re paying for the taxi compared to the kids in the trunk.
Sofia hardly pauses long enough for me to congratulate myself on understanding her before unleashing a torrent upon the driver, from the passenger’s seat, which I am mostly glad I do not understand. Something about justice and fairness and lying. How we had been dropped off further from the beach than advertised, and had to pay more than we should have because we arrived after the beach had closed—the result of an unannounced stop for gas at a mundane looking house on the dirt road leading to the beach, where a 13-year-old boy, after a chat with the driver, disappeared into the house and reemerged, a few minutes later, with two liter-sized glass bottles of Coca-Cola filled to the brim with petrol, which he proceeded to dump into the truck’s tank.
Sofia, exasperated, stops after what must be a consecutive minute of shouting, one of those activities, like being held underwater, which feels a lot longer than it sounds when it’s happening to you. It’s the driver’s turn to respond, but his lip just keeps trembling, and not in the way which sometimes can precede an important announcement.
With most negotiations, you know, mostly, how things are going to turn out. A deal, pretty much preordained, is hatched between two parties entrenched within the obvious contexts of their power positions. The variables bouncing quantically off the beige interior of this green (probably) Nissan, though, are so foreign to me that this one could really go in any direction.
If I didn’t have the distinct perspective of a person inside this pickup truck—if I were, say, sitting in on an ethics class of those aliens I sometimes imagine peering in at us from many light years away with their impossibly long lenses and sensitive microphones, observing the light and sound from Earth which has taken years traveling through space to reach them—I would likely be firmly on the side of the taxi driver. Sofia is, after all, haggling over, in total, eight thousand Colombian pesos—the equivalent of, between the two of us, roughly two full US dollars. The two of us wear backpacks, so we think ourselves above the word, but we both are tourists from the west—she is from Barcelona—who should suck it up and pay the relatively meager service prices.
Except that I’m not in space. I’m in the car. And if you, too, were in the car I promise you that, despite the unassailable objectivity of a neutral galactic observer, any thought of fairness would have zipped across your mind for about half a second (and only if you had a severe proclivity for equivocating) before being swiftly dismissed by the sheer force of Sofia, for whom this is, obviously, no longer about the money.
Pure indignity oozes out of her every pore. It has since she asked how much the kids in the back of the pickup were paying for the ride to the bus stop from the entrance to the beach, and, for some reason, the driver decided to tell her. She hadn’t actually said anything at first, but upon hearing that each of them was paying less, the skin on the right side of her face drooped down, like it had somehow, instantly, become heavier, and sunk into her right hand. Her eyes, as they remained for the ten minutes of ensuing silence, iced over with a ferocity I could hardly recognize because of how long it had been since I had felt anything like it myself. Before she had said a word, it was impossible not to root for her.
And the way she speaks now, it somehow all makes sense. I have no interest in comparing our rate to that of the locals in the back, but it had felt like we were getting fucked around by this driver and his apparent boss, who we met outside the bus stop, from the start. They had lied to us about the distance to the beach, the gas situation, the hour of the beach’s supposed closure (we had to, in effect, bribe our way in to enter after hours). Sofia’s conviction, from within the walls of that car, is rooted in merit.
We pull to a halt at our destination, back near the bus stop where we started. No agreement has been reached. The driver, in fact, has said nothing in response to Sofia’s outburst, despite some minor subsequent prodding. The man who I think is the driver’s boss is waiting by the curb, sitting on a short stone wall under a branchless, prickly tree I have never seen before. Sofia finally does what I know she will do, and we arrive at the moment I have been dreading for the entire 45 minute ride home from the beach.
She turns back to me.
“What do you think?”
Unflinching, a chain of syllables emerges from the shallowest possible point in my throat. It is likely the least conviction with which I have ever spoken a sentence, one which barely moves the air outside my mouth as I make the necessary sounds.
“I think we should pay half.”
At no point during the ride has this possible solution crossed my mind. Now, though, it is out, and there is no taking it back in. Sofia stares at me blankly for a few seconds from the front seat, deep in thought. Then she grimaces, as if I’ve just revealed a profound if unfortunate truth about the world, one that she has known all along but just needed someone else to confirm, and nods her head a single time.
Later that night, as I lay in bed, on the precipice of an over-air conditioned sleep in the upper bunk of a hostel in Santa Marta, I wished I had said anything else.
“Just pay the whole thing.”
“Don’t pay at all.”
In the hours that had passed, the meaning of Sofia’s grim words of acceptance morphed into an indictment; not of her own weakness as a negotiator or the state of a world in which people can be so petty over so little, but of me. Because of course I had said half, mindlessly, with the palms of my hands sweating against the zipper of my backpack as I tried to ignore the faces peering curiously into the cab from the back of the pickup, its load lightening as passengers hopped off into their homes filled with dust and spices and petrol and music, so much music, along the route to town. I never again spoke with Sofia about that ride; I, in fact, didn’t really speak with her again at all after that night, apart from a few awkward breakfast orders (she worked at the hostel restaurant). But I am sure that, in some way, the only words I uttered on that ride home profoundly disappointed her. And Sofia was one of those people; one who you simply could not let down.
We exit the car, both on the right hand side. A boy who had been riding in the back of the truck, inches from my face, reaches out to give me a fist bump. Sofia hands the compromised cash to the driver’s boss, giving a half assed explanation along the way. I turn back to the driver, leaning against the left hand door, eyes drawn low under his red cap. He looks at his boss and subtly shakes his head. The boss flicks his hand up at us, though I doubt Sofia sees this motion. He speaks with deep disdain.
“Ciao.” It’s time to leave his neighborhood.
Sofia has already huffed away towards the bus stop, mumbling to herself. I wave my hand back to the boss with the enthusiasm of a suburban pedestrian showing his appreciation to a driver for braking completely at a stop sign.
I catch up with Sofia. Only she remembers where the bus stop is, and only she is confident enough to get us back to the center of town, where we’re set to have dinner. I am entirely dependent on her to make it the rest of the way home.
We wait for the bus on the side of the road. A guy in his twenties walks up to us in a soccer shirt and asks where we’re from. He wants us to come to a party. I say no, but thank you, before he finishes the question. Sofia’s eyebrows twitch with temptation. But she gives in. The bus, anyway, is pulling into our stop. Sofia flashes the inviter a polite smile, and climbs on board. As I take a step up to follow, the guy taps me on the arm.
”Bueeeeennnaaaaa, amigo,” he rasps, nodding up at the platform Sofia has just vacated. I look up to where he points, then back at him, then back at the empty surface, and try to respond. I gargle out something unintelligible in any language, nod my head seriously, and leap up the stairs onto the bus, racing as fast as the reasonable limitations of a Santa Marta public bus allow, to snatch a spot as close as possible to Sofia. It’s crowded, and I have to duck my head to stand inside, but she’s there, somehow already tucked into a seat in the back corner, her own rinconcito, wet eyes torturing another window framed by whirling dust and burnt orange rays, gazing towards something I cannot see.
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