The night is warm, same as every other night in El Salvador. There is no sun, no street lamp, only a shaft of light from the bare bulb in Julia’s mud house, spilling onto the cement slab of a porch.
The boys have gathered here, perhaps because it is the weekend, perhaps because of the heat, or perhaps because they have finally grown accustomed to my presence in the village. They are chattering and laughing. I do not understand their Spanish. Julia says they are telling dirty jokes and that I wouldn’t want to understand anyway.
I look at their faces in the dim light from the house, seeing only half of their features: harsh lines chiseled from the elements, arms muscular and brown from working the fields. Daniel’s weathered face is mocking, cruel. Carlos has a high-pitched laugh, awkward in his pubescent body, all limbs and hands designed for grabbing. César’s round, innocent eyes sparkle brightly, even in the absence of light. He blushes at Daniel’s joke. I wish I understood.
I am an outsider, all but forgotten in the dark on this wooden bench. If I knew the words, I still wouldn’t understand. The barrier reaches beyond language. This is not how I imagined them before I came: silent, dignified, mysterious. Instead, they are like the boys at home, only perhaps nastier and more dangerous.
Daniel turns his black eyes toward me. He makes a comment. His lips curl into a sneer. Julia hits him on the arm. She tells me, “Daniel says you are not amused by them.” They wait for a response.
I am mistrustful. Daniel’s eyes linger, looking me over: my tank top and cotton pants, sunburned shoulders, weak arms, and pale feet caked with red dirt in my Birkenstocks. I feel he is flirting with me. I imagine the touch of his callused hands, the smell of his sweat. Can he read my mind, even as he doesn’t speak my language?
Carlos is laughing again, his gawky girlish giggle. I feel a hand touch mine. Tiny. César. He squeezes my hand in his grubby 10-year-old fingers and smiles a toothy grin. I smile back, grateful for a new friend.
Andrea Klunder is a Chicago-based writer/actor/director and is artistic director of Chicago ScriptWorks, a non-profit that produces staged screenplay readings. Klunder has traveled throughout Europe and El Salvador, where she recently collaborated on a weekly milk project and a new library for the elementary school in the rural community of El Rodeo. E-mail: cswcasting[at]yahoo.com.