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We were Sitting Around, my family and me, all of us not being disappointed at how I turned out, when my uncle brought up Ricardo Niebla. My wife and I had been in the thin air of Bogotá almost a week. We were almost used to the lack of oxygen. It was my wife’s first time in the country.
“His brother lives across from us,” my uncle said. “He hasn’t paid his rent in half a year.”
I used to work for Ricardo and vaguely remembered his brother Santander. He had done something in government but made most of his money as a middleman in hostage negotiations. Both brothers shared the same aquiline nose, the same love for double-breasted navy blazers. If I were to run into Santander right now, I’d mistake him for Ricardo. Or maybe it would be Ricardo, visiting his brother, and I’d tell myself, No, that’s not him, and I’d walk right past him. It’s likely he wouldn’t recognize me either.
I’m not the only one who has changed.
My aunt and uncle lived in the same apartment in the north, with the same stunning view of the Septima, but my five cousins were gone, all of them off to Canada or France. My parents had fled as well. They lived in Texas, my sister in Florida. We had all arrived at the same decision at different times. We moved, we aged, and Colombia stayed behind. Susanita remained extraordinarily elegant. It helped that she was tall, regal in her Japanese silk robe despite the oversized, sneaker-shaped fuzzy slippers she wore around the house. Camilo Jose stood two heads shorter than her, his Amish-style beard turned white with age. He was in remission from prostate cancer, his left eye turned milky and no longer working. He staggered when he walked and was frequently out of breath. “He’s never complained,” Susanita told me, on the day they drove us to the Salt Cathedral and to Andres Carne de Res. She said it when he was out of earshot, not long after they bickered about stopping the car at a colonial plaza so my wife could photograph it from the back window. “Never once,” Susanita said. She helped when he needed help. Otherwise they were the same as when I left them thirteen years ago.
I expected to see everyone. I expected the lot of my past to return to Colombia along with me after so many years away, but we are never so lucky, never so unlucky. My wife and I had honeymooned in Kauai two years earlier. We flew to Thailand and Cambodia the year before. She kept saying, “We should go, we should see your country,” and I agreed. We should see my country. All the while not wanting to. Wanting to and not wanting to.
Part of the problem was staying with Camilo Jose and Susanita. They had been too kind to me when I was living in Bogota. It was my first time out of sleepy Bucaramanga, my hometown, and it was my first time away from my folks, and I kept dropping in and out of school while writing for Ricardo’s English-language newspaper. My country proved too much for [End Page 45] me. I told everyone that my novel was getting published, that I was going to New york. None of that was true. My novel wasn’t very good, and I’d only written thirty pages. And instead of New York, I flew to a friend’s couch in Orlando, Florida, from where I did not move for three months. I didn’t call my uncle and aunt. I didn’t even call my parents. No one knew where I was or what had happened to me. No one even knew how I’d been able to afford a plane ticket.
Well, Ricardo knew. My check from the newspaper had bounced, so he offered me the plane ticket in exchange. I had taken the ticket as acanje. We were running ads for Avianca’s new...