I took my husband to see the town where I took my first breath in. To where he wouldn’t have even looked my way because, before we met, I walked around with a cigarette in hand. I smoked until the last day I lived in my hometown, and then swore there’d be no more smolder in my lungs once I got on the airplane. The smell of raw-damp earth that arose from the sugar harvest stayed. I left clothes stained with ashes on the clothesline. I deserted the library that wouldn’t lend books to its people. I left the vodka-drowned nights to the same faces that had seen me dance and sweat every single weekend. I left my liver behind.
My husband knew some of the stories. The way the macabre followed me around town. He’d heard about the crashes outside my gates, and how I’d rush to stare with neighbors, waiting for a man with a pickup truck to designate himself as the ambulance. I told him about looted coffins with blood that looked like old coffee stains. I described the crackling that erupted from a hit and run of a kid on a bicycle. I told him about the kidnappings after the local beauty pageant. He knew how cigarettes had calmed me, even though he had never seen one in my mouth.
In the outskirts of my town—six years since I’d last been there—a man rode his motorcycle wearing the usual ice cream uniform: a jumpsuit the color of bruised navy and daring pink. My husband drove stick, and I pointed to memories. We’re almost there, I said.
The heat felt like home.
We’d already dined, hiked, and ziplined. We’d traveled from Quito to steep volcanoes and abundant waterfalls, passing by kiosks of roasted guinea pigs and wandering dogs at gas stations that would refuse crackers. I’d saved my town for last because there was not much to do there but eat and drink and gossip. I wanted to point out the sculpture of the gigantic pineapple that lit up in phosphorescent green, for him to meet some of my seven uncles, old friends, and slew of cousins. For us to taste tripe from the lady that had sold the same street food to my father. But that was it.
I was lost in anticipation when the ice cream man rose in the air and the thwack of his body on the ground made me gasp. A car sped off, but my husband didn’t flinch.
The man wriggled on the ground while his hands thrashed as if trying to quell an invisible fire.
Look at me. Babe. No. BABE. Look, just—look at me. We’re. Not. Home, he said.
I sat back in the rental car, facing my town, peeking in the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of a forming crowd. I remained silent in front of this man who I’d met in a different country some months after my last cigarette. This man who looks so white that in a few minutes my former neighbors would assume he doesn’t speak Spanish. This man who, in the instant after the collision, would remind me of my father. Papi would insist before I went out in my truck to flee the scene if I ever saw a hit and run. To leave and not look back. The resemblance only lasted seconds, until I snapped out of it and took up the role of passenger with directions to the labyrinthine streets of my hometown. Minutes after the man flew up in the air, we were beyond the gates my father had constructed years ago. By then, my husband would be back to his old self, eyes kind, not letting go of my hand, resting on the wall of the eternal corner store next to my house. The house my father built. A house—not our home.
I told him that my neighborhood is not the same as it was when I left at twenty-two. I spent all of my late teenage years living across a logging company. The thud of trees would feel like daily miniature quakes, but they had been replaced by the produce aisles of a chain grocery store. The streets used to quiet down by ten, unless there was a house party playing salsa. Now, walking around the block late into the night resembled the thrill of a main street. The beeps from the motorcycle taxis were relentless and would wake us up at five in the morning, our ears not used to anything but chirping. I was grateful no mangoes fell on the zinc roof, the thump resounding enough to frighten anyone into insomnia. Even more grateful nothing else spooked us the few days we were there. Still, my husband looked me in the eyes as I took in the new street lights that night, as I thought about how the façade of a small town may change but the foundations remain the same. He’d say: I’m sorry your dad made you live here. I get it now.
All I could do was laugh, wondering if throughout all this time we’d known each other whether he hadn’t believed me. My descriptions, the life I had lived before the iris of his eyes met mine. The ice cream man had confirmed everything he’d once heard, and as I walked with him, introducing him to who I used to be, I realized my words hadn’t been enough. Just how nobody can explain what it feels like to pull on a lit cigarette—warm between fingers, lips pursed in wait—until that very first time smoke reaches down to scratch your lungs.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in The Citron Review, Bending Genres, Lost Balloon and more.