When I click to magnify the photos, they take on a fuzzy, unreal quality at the edges, the pixilated artifacting of digital cameras, and memories curl into smoke at the sight. There are still clean edges, sharp lines, and black shadows in memory; digital photographs — there weren’t digital photographs in those days, I still remember where we bought Kodachrome — are another electronic colonization, everything as flat and rote and spectacular as everything else. Still I won’t stop looking, won’t stop scrolling through pages and pages of Google Images that give only slight relief to a pain they also create, sharp and specific and teary.
I lived there, you know. I walked those streets. The dust from those buildings came off on my fingertips, red with flakes of paint. Was it only three years? It seemed a lifetime. And another lifetime since.
Three years and three months, actually. The three months were first, learning Spanish, suffering gastrointestinal transitions, finding a letters page from Penthouse in the bathroom. Three years after, we moved back into the same house; except for the grease on the kitchen floor there was no sign of the family we had stayed with when we went to language school. Later we heard that the father, a medical doctor trained in the U.S., was in jail for drug-running. He had saved my life and my sister’s once, from the treacherous undertow of the Pacific.
My brothers rode their bikes around the suburban trails outside of town and had them stolen at knifepoint; built forts in disused lots out of bamboo and chichicasta, the leaves of which left tiny needles in your skin and so were planted all around coffee fincas to keep out trespassers; climbed trees and built treehouses from which they fell and broke limbs. I climbed up onto the flat roof and read.
I walked into town; I drove into town; I was followed by two gringos on a motorcycle who suckerpunched me when I got out of the suburban. I was holding a collection of old Vanity Fair pieces and read P. G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley to myself in consolation.
I read The Idyls of the King on the upper floor of Burger King, looking out over the flower-strewn courtyard. I read Delta of Venus on the sly in a New Age bookstore on the central plaza. I read Fanny Hill in the new English-language library off the main road. I saw Death of a Salesman performed for an audience of less than a hundred, in the round. I saw a screening of the Jim Carrey movie The Mask with an audience of less than twenty. I listened to The Spaghetti Incident? in a tourist-trap clutch of shops where the most notable item for sale was a Rasta-colored top hat with attached dreadlocks. I met with an English teacher and a bunch of his other favorite students in the back of a small café where we talked about The Hunting of the Snark and Dostoevsky and read each other pieces we had written. He would later be fired for, among other things, sexually harassing my sister.
The photographs online show none of that, only the same three or four views over and over again: the Santa Catalina arch on the street up from the park to where this great Italian restaurant used to be; the gorgeous façade of the cathedral I never entered, repainted and illuminated since my time; the dormant volcano at the south of town, a perfectly conical slab of green pitched high against the blue-white sky. I lived in its shadow for three years, and would give anything to see it again.
I dream sometimes of being wealthy — not fabulously wealthy, just comfortable — and returning. Of buying a second-floor walkup over a nice tienda, of settling down there with my books and my laptop and a maid who comes in every few days, of walking to the plaza on nice days and watching the tourists on weekdays and the pretty girls and their narrow-eyed chaperones on Sundays. Of course I know that it wouldn’t be the same, that you can’t go home again, that it was never really home in the first place and I’ll always be a stranger everywhere I go because if you’re not comfortable in your own skin you won’t be comfortable in a roomier body either.
But the fantasy is seductive because of the way it compresses time, pitch-shifts history so that it all runs together into the Everywhen of nostalgia. History lies uneasily on the city anyway; most of the true seventeenth-century stones are fallen, quaked into ruin, and the colonial beauty which tourists love, which pierces so deliciously in those strangers’ online scrapbooks, was reconstructed in the mid-twentieth century. The city was originally built on the backs of slaves, and the reconstruction was not much better. My fantasy is a despicably colonial one: to be the munificent sahib among the brown natives, so poor that my moderate wealth reads as extravagance, that hiring them as domestic servants can be considered doing them a favor.
From this perspective, from the intolerability of economic, social, and racial inequality, the city is a cesspool of oppression and exploitation, a neocolonial Disneyland for simple-minded expats. Rich whites and mestizos own the businesses the expats patronize, a handful of families own the property and hold political offices in the region, and the city’s orientation towards tourism means that no meaningful change can occur, since half the population at any given time is as transient and self-absorbed as I was. Am.
When I was fourteen I stood atop the ruins of a Capuchin convent and dreamed of setting a mystery novel there, because that was the only way I could think of to bring a setting to life, to capture the winding staircases and small windows between passageways and the grass growing right up to the alcoves where statues of saints once stood, now lopped off at the knees, and the round cellar with the amazing acoustics where to sing a hymn or a folksong is to weep at the sound of it, ethereal and mysterious and haunting, bouncing off of seventeenth-century plaster and rushing round the room like a living thing, like the Platonic ideal of music come to life.
When I was eighteen I sat in an Arizona living room and sketched out a novel set in the city, featuring a young woman returning to the country after college in America and following several sets of characters, expats, tourists, locals, and natives, all based not on people I knew but on the personas of Hollywood actors I liked. Insofar as it had a plot, it was pretty strictly derived from E. M. Forster’s first three novels. I decided that no one would want to read it, because who had heard of Antigua Guatemala? Real literature was set in places like Paris or New York or London or the Midwest. Places that people whose opinions mattered had been to.
The only way I could write that novel now would be to tear down the melodramatic superstructure of plot and just John Kennedy Toole it, turn it into a self-loathing self-portrait that incidentally paints a sharp if diseased picture of the locale. And that, frankly, sounds like a lot of work.
Alt-tab. Address bar. “antigua guatemala.” Pause. “dona luisa.” Posada Doña Luisa or Doña Luisa Xicotencatl? I never stayed at the posada — why would I, I had a home — but upstairs, Doña Luisa Xicotencatl had the best ice cream in town, possibly in the hemisphere.
Ctrl-t. Address bar. “antigua guatemala.” Pause. “parque central.” Images.
It’s not real. It’s false, it’s a compromise, a scattered and unfocused motley, a too-late scrambling after an unrecoverable past. But right now it’s the only thing I can think about, the only thing I can write about. Right now, it’s what I need.