The following is from Alejandro Varela's The People Who Report More Stress. Varela is a writer based in New York. His debut novel, The Town of Babylon (2022) was a finalist for the National Book Award. His work has appeared in the Point Magazine, Georgia Review, Boston Review, Harper’s, and the Offing, among others outlets. Varela is an editor-at-large of Apogee Journal. His graduate studies were in public health.
There was a person my sisters and I called Tía. Her name was Beti, and she wasn’t related to us. She was married to Aníbal, a Colombian man who we called Tío and who also wasn’t related to us. Aníbal and my father worked at the same Manhattan restaurant—a French place where the tables were packed tightly and the burger platter was legendary, not only for its fries but for its cornichons.
Beti and Aníbal were a good-looking pair who wore their hair large and their pants bellbottomed. They comported themselves with an air of fame, and they were possibly the first cool people in my life. Beti was from Puerto Rico, and it took some time for Aníbal’s relatives and friends to accept her. It wasn’t only her Caribbean-ness that set Beti apart—Aníbal hailed from the interior of Colombia and held little allegiance to its coast—her dark, freckled skin, wide nose, and tightly curled hair gave everyone, including Aníbal, license to look down on her. The slights were subtle and usually delivered playfully. Beti said she didn’t care, but she’d bring it up from time to time.
“Everybody wants to feel superior,” she’d say. “¿Y para qué? We all have nothing.”
“¡Tranquila!” Aníbal whooped in response, before joking that it must be her time of the month.
“¡No, idiota! Wake up! This country ruins everything. First, the gringos ruin us there. Then they ruin us here!”
“Then why don’t you leave this terrible place, Doctora Seuss?”
“As soon as esos hijos de puta leave my country, I’ll leave theirs.”
Beti’s grim outlook and everyone else’s casual racism did nothing to dilute our affection for her. She was the only person who talked to my siblings and I as if we were adults, but who also protected our status as children. Under the auspices of Beti, we were permitted to watch uninterrupted hours of TV and eat whatever we wanted. If our parents tried to intervene, she’d pull a beer from the fridge or a bottle of whisky from the cupboard. “Here, drink this. Let these children be children. Nuestra gente a sufrido suficiente.”
Beti, too, had suffered something, but no one ever said what it was. All we knew was that she’d left Puerto Rico in a hurry. “La maestra swam all the way. In one breath,” said Aníbal.
“That’s right, cabrón, and I’ll swim all the way home, too. But first they’re going to have to spit me out. Like a fishbone.”
Beti often described herself in that way, as if she were proud of causing pain—fishbone, thorn, headache—but that was the opposite of how we saw her.
Whenever the adults huddled around a table to eat, drink, or play cards, Beti retreated to the kitchen to be with us. And when the nights got long and the ire of our parents grew, she would volunteer to tuck us in. To drown out the music playing and the boisterous games happening down the hall, she’d sing us nursery rhymes in her high-pitched voice and tell us a story—usually the same one.
“Do you know what happens to survivors when they die?”
We’d shake our small heads artfully, as if we didn’t know what was coming.
“Something, an essence, like love mixed with anger, leaves their bodies. It dissolves through the ceiling,” she’d say, pointing toward the cracked paint above. “Then it soars into the heavens, leaving a stream of white light that, for a moment, binds their bodies to the most purple sky you’ve ever seen, before falling back to Earth, somewhere near New Orleans, near where the French ruined everything.
“Its return is slow at first; then it pours down in sheets of rain and enormous hail. Big, big pieces. There’s flooding too. The dirty runoff then travels south along the Mississippi and revives all of the plants in its path before pooling in the Gulf of Mexico, where it shines for days. Days and days. Sailors travel hours away from their shipping routes to see it. Far, far away. The pieces of light eventually grow tired of treading water and begin collecting themselves. They climb onto one another carefully, as if by instruction, getting less bright the tighter they pack. After all the lights have disappeared from the surface of the water, a tall figure, human in size and shape, stands above the water. With each step, it flickers, like a loose bulb. People along the coasts—Mexico, Texas, Haiti, Cuba—claim to see a silhouette on the ocean walking toward them. Big and imposing, but not scary, the image heads west toward Matamoros, where it touches land.
“Rumor has it that this incandescent being patrols the border. People with origins from Baja down to Ushuaia tell stories of how they were able to cross into the United States with her help. They call her L’Ampara. She appears on cloudy nights to lead them through the desert, brightening just enough to blind border security and vigilante militia so that pilgrims may sneak past.”
Then, we’d fall asleep.
I don’t know when—we stopped visiting them as often after my parents moved us to the suburbs—but Beti eventually left Aníbal, who then moved to Miami because he preferred to be lonely in warm weather. Soon after, Beti went back to Puerto Rico; she could no longer tolerate living on the same land mass as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, I heard my father say to my mother. There was no word from Beti or Aníbal for years, but at some point, my parents began receiving postcards, usually around New Year’s and always with the same message: “I’d rather suffer here than there. Visitors welcome. Besos, Beti.”
Even as a child, I remember feeling that Beti didn’t fit. She was somehow better—smarter, more interesting—than everyone in the room. I got the sense that my mother thought so too. For starters, she spoke English more fluently than any of the other adults. Whenever we spent the night there, my mother would remind us to bring our homework, so that we could ask Beti for help. My mother cared more about Beti than she did about most of the other people that my father met through work. One time, I recall my father referred to Beti as la negra during a gathering of friends and neighbors, just as everyone else used to, and my mother slapped his thigh as forcefully as she’d done to me when I’d stuck a pencil inside my sister’s ear. And yet, after we left the city, she never invited Beti to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. A few years ago, my mother mentioned in passing that Beti had been an alcoholic.
“Always,” she said.
It was then that I realized that my memories of Beti’s demeanor, character primarily by a loopy energy, corroborated my mother’s assessment.
But that’s a Puerto Rican story; this one is Salvadorian.
I cried at the news of my grandmother’s death. It was Valentine’s Day, and the other travelers at the gate must have thought I’d been dumped. I was halfway to El Salvador, to meet my mother, who’d already been at my grandmother’s bedside for a few days. It should have been my father to travel instead of me, but he couldn’t pass up his shift at the restaurant—in tips, Valentine’s Day was the third most lucrative day of the year.
The voicemail was waiting when I landed in Texas. “Mi mami,” my mother said through sobs, “she’s dead.”
My grandmother had been alive when I boarded the plane in New York. “She’s with us still, but I hope your flights aren’t delayed,” my cousin Adela had messaged. I deduced that my grandmother must have died while I was flying over West Virginia. That’s when the turbulence had forced me to chug my bottle-let of red wine and grip the armrests. I recalled eyeing the map on the small screen affixed to the back of the seat in front of me. A small avatar of the very plane I was inside of toddled smack in the middle of West Virginia, a state that had once signaled great potential when it cleaved itself from the Confederacy.
In retrospect, I was lucky my grandmother hadn’t downed the plane altogether. To hear my mother tell it, she was always going to put up a fight. “Ni me voy ni me callo,” had become her mantra during the morning calls with my mother—I’m not leaving, and I won’t shut up. Intrepid was the cancer, as far as she was concerned.
I hadn’t expected to care. I’d only met my grandmother in person once. But there I was, Gate B22, surrounded by heart-shaped things. Full of secondhand love and, in a way, dumped.
The enduring memory of my first trip to El Salvador is of a mischievous experiment involving matches and perfume as fire accelerant. I destroyed my grandmother’s underwear drawer and ruined a suitcase’s worth of beauty care products that my mother had gifted her. My spoiled and arrogant yanqui grandchildren, she must have thought.
On that trip, I slept alongside my sisters and mother in a gray room of exposed concrete, inside a two-story house that rested at the bottom of la colina in Santa Tecla, a small suburb of La Libertad. Feral dogs with more bark than meat on their bones sauntered the empty roads on thin dirt-dusted legs. A tin-roofed shop on the corner sold an entrancing array of candy and accepted our coins well before El Salvador officially adopted US currency as its own.
Two hundred kilometers east, in El Mozote, a village near the border with Honduras, a US-trained battalion killed close to nine hundred Evangelical Salvadorians under suspicion of collaborating with rebel forces. By that point, the civil war was being fought almost exclusively in the countryside, far from the capital. I don’t recall anyone uttering a word about the war.
What I recall instead is my grandmother preparing breakfast but never eating with us. She remained in the yard, collecting water and flesh from coconuts she’d cracked open with her trusty dagger-shaped rock. After breakfast, she ran errands while my grandfather took the bus into the city’s center to attend mass. They returned in time for lunch, through which my grandmother sat quietly, and after which she disappeared again, to one open-air market or another to buy the ingredients she’d forgotten during her morning excursion. In the evenings, my grandfather allowed us to climb him while he read his right-wing newspapers, which he held with the hand of one arm, while the other trembled uselessly at his side, incapable of gripping anything—the result of nerve damage from a bullet that had ripped through his shoulder at a pro-government rally in the early 1960s. Men in uniform had somehow mistaken him for a counterprotestor.
In the nearly forty years they were apart, my grandmother and my mother spoke every day. Sometimes in the morning before my mother went to work; sometimes during lunch; sometimes in nightgowns after they’d wiped the day away from their faces. Although taciturn, my grandmother was a shale of support and clarity. By comparison, my grandfather was a geyser. My mother labored to tell him things: that she was never coming back; that she was getting married; that my youngest sister was living with her boyfriend. Rather than blurt anything out, my mother always found it easier to end calls earlier or to ask my grandfather to put my grandmother on the line sooner.
To my mother’s surprise, her father wasn’t upset when she told him I was gay.
Then, laughter. Endless laughter, it seemed. Rather than interrupt him, my mother set the phone down and used the time to iron her work blouses, preferring to pay for the extended call than divert the trajectory of her father’s emotions. Eventually he composed himself and said, “En el país más rico del mundo tiene que haber una medicina para su condición.”
In the richest country in the world, surely there is medicine for his condition.
“He took it well,” my mother later explained.
By comparison, my grandmother’s response was muted. “Eso no importa, Hija,” was all she said before reminding my mother to eat smaller portions.
That doesn’t matter, Dear. My grandmother said this in response to almost everything: marital spats, earthquakes, authoritarianism, late-stage cancer. Whether it was the tone or the pith that made her words so persuasive was unclear. But whomever heard her say them understood that she knew well the distinction between problems and pain.
In addition to pragmatic, my grandmother was also dour in expression, wiry of frame, and proletarian at heel. In person and in pictures, she wore her housedresses knee-length and tapered, her hair short (black, then silver), and carried her head as elegantly as an uneven gait allowed—the result of a bullet lodged near her pelvis. In the early 1980s, she’d gone down to the university to stop her only son from joining an anti-government protest. She’d just begun to twist his left ear when the line of soldiers raised their guns.
In fact, three of my four grandparents (across two countries) survived bullets in their lifetimes—in all cases, the bullets had been manufactured in my country. The fourth grandparent, my paternal grandfather, was the only one of the quartet who was killed. He died shortly after the small bit of aerodynamic steel tore through his esophagus. He’d been carrying a crate of eggs and whistling. “Beneath him spread a shade of orange I’d never ever seen,” recounted the boy in a Catholic school uniform with chocolate under his fingernails, who’d found my grandfather face down in a pool of yoke and blood. “It looked like the sun had crashed into Bogotá.” If my grandfather hadn’t recognized his assassin, the eggs would have survived. It was the shock of knowing, more so than the bullet, that caused him to lose his balance. But that’s a Colombian story for another time; this one remains Salvadorian.
The second time I saw my grandparents was on a screen, nearly two decades after the first visit, several years after my mother had outed me, and not long before my grandmother died. My mother had asked me to call. “There won’t be too many more opportunities,” she said. When I hesitated—I truly had no interest in talking to them—she blurted out, “It was her idea—tu abuela.”
“¡Hola, primo! ¿Cómo estas?” asked my cousin, Adela—a second cousin—who was tasked with helping my grandparents set up the call. Her face was soft, young, and oblong, like a dinosaur egg turned upside down, not all that dissimilar from most of the faces in my mother’s family. Adela was a lawyer who defended union organizers against powerful people who hid behind other more shadowy powerful people. Adela’s career was unique in my family. Most relatives of my generation—cousins, second cousins, young aunts, young uncles—were call-center workers who didn’t seem to have political opinions one way or another. Adela was unique in one other regard too: she was the only openly gay person I knew of in my family.
“Bien, gracias,” I responded, straining to sound like a native speaker.
Adela winked before disappearing from the screen to reveal my grandparents.
They were exactly as I’d remembered them: my grandmother, steely and parsimonious; my grandfather, lumpy and gregarious. In their living rooms, we chatted—me, in my prewar home; they, in their postwar one. A large, ornate crucifix hung prominently in their background, the savior’s white face, hands, and midriff dripping red. Behind me was a poster of something abstract and geometric with sharp edges, a Picasso poster I’d bought on vacation, at a museum gift shop in Madrid. Whenever the Internet connection froze, the frame of my laptop screen gave the impression that my grandparents were trapped in a poorly lit photograph. At one point, I asked if they planned to visit. No, hija, no had been my grandmother’s standard reply to my mother’s countless invitations over the years. On that day, however, my grandmother said nothing. She merely swatted the idea away gently, like a winged insect harmless enough to be spared her precision. After a few minutes of stilted conversation, my grandmother put an end to the intergenerational experiment. She thanked me for calling. I lamented how seldom we spoke. “Eso no importa, hijo,” she responded, no doubt having sensed my lack of conviction. My grandfather remained silent, waving and crying.
My grandfather completed his first century a couple of years after my grandmother died. Everyone traveled, hoping the special occasion would snap my mother out of her depressive state. During our descent into the capital, the pockets of air tucked between the lush green undulations below caused turbulence that was strangely lyrical. My mother, who hadn’t been back since her mother’s funeral, gripped the armrests and smiled. The disturbance was a wry welcome from her mother, she explained—a where-have-you-been rebuke. I was too busy waterboarding myself with tiny bottles of liquor to care about anyone’s superpowers.
A mix of yanquis and Salvadorians celebrated my grandfather’s three-digit age in the courtyard of a military club—the type of venue that only right-leaning and apolitical people had no compunction about renting. Across the courtyard, men dressed in fatigues, consorted in groups of three and four, limbs akimbo, drinks in hand, grins expansive, confident, thoroughly convinced their own words were consequential. Some of the men were old and bloated; others were trim and willfully ignorant. The party guests seemed inured to the surroundings. Except for one.
He stood on the perimeter of the celebration, scowling for most of the night. He was a cousin thrice removed—younger than my grandfather but older than my mother. He had a craggy palimpsest of a face and walked with a distinct hobble. Everyone called him Streets because he knew his way around and because he’d often drink himself into uselessness and collapse on his walk home. He’d spent most of the country’s civil war in the countryside training law students and farmers in armed combat. My mother had only ever spoken of him in a way that led me to believe he was dead.
When everyone else grabbed plates and formed a line at the buffet, Streets approached my table and whispered, “You resemble your dead uncle.” Then he walked away. When I’d finished eating, he returned and announced, unprompted, that he was still a communist. “But I’m a Trotskyite. Don’t confuse me for a Leninist— ¡Hijos de puta!”
Later, as my mother lit the birthday candles, Streets pulled me aside somewhat aggressively by the elbow. “Mira ese—¡Ahí!” he said, pointing to a soldier too old for combat but still in uniform: oversized pants that bunched at the ankle and a dark khaki shirt unbuttoned midway to his chest that revealed a canvas of white hairs and a large gold crucifix. “That’s the one. He killed thousands. Bestia repugnante.”
What I had until that moment experienced as guilt for cavorting near the enemy, turned to shame and anger. It crossed my mind, ever so briefly, that Streets and I might join forces and do something unexpected, something severe, something to avenge.
“The assassins always live next door, hijo,” he said, while jutting his chin toward the soldiers and patting my shoulder.
It was then that the scent of rain saturated the air, bringing with it cool gusts of wind. The gathering of people had barely enough time to line up beneath the terracotta eaves. Streets remained in the deluge, nodding. “Tu abuela,” he said faintly, a few times. She was chastising us all for forgetting. I assumed he was referring to my uncle, whose death has always been a well-guarded, inconclusive tale—it was political, it was cancer, it was an accident. Streets dropped his head back, in what appeared to be a combination of gravity and a desire to empty the bottle of beer in his hands. After a lengthy eructation, he added, “Penance and punishment. That’s all it ever is.” Then he let out a wheezy cackle that caught everyone’s attention, before vomiting into a tree pit.
Adela took me to a discotheque after the birthday party. It was on a quiet residential street with few signs of life apart from the tall palms and their feathered fronds. I suspected the dancing was her attempt at cleansing us of our time spent with the enemy. I couldn’t be certain of her intentions because Adela, too, remained agnostic about her political views whenever she was around me. Whether this was a postwar precaution or a general mistrust of anything produced in the United States was unclear.
Inside the club, she introduced me to another lawyer, a friend of hers. Because of the thumping music, I wasn’t able to decipher whether he practiced employment law or if he was currently unemployed. He was thin, of average height, with large ears, a narrow, aquiline nose with flared nostrils, and a neat mustache. In a hallway, as we waited to use the bathroom, we kissed. “I don’t live far from here,” he said. I declined the invitation, suddenly fearing intimacy and isolation with a stranger, in a city and country I barely knew. The lawyer and I slipped into the club’s bathroom instead, where he remained with his back pressed against the door because of its broken lock, while I lowered myself into a crouch, unwilling to set my knees onto the wet tiles. I hadn’t expected such a large cock from such a slight man. He came quickly and offered to reciprocate, but the taste of his ejaculate, the cloying scent of disinfectant in the air, and the murmur of voices beyond the door killed the mood. We danced for a bit a longer, albeit with less urgency, before I made my way alone back to the house my parents had rented in the upscale Colonia Escalón. I found the empty, damp streets pleasant—the humidity of the afternoon had transformed into a warm, breezy night. Still drunk, I ignored the countless warnings I’d received about gang violence: young Salvadorian immigrants and refugees who’d left in no small part because of the United States’ intrusion in Salvadorian affairs and who then banded together in the United States because they were unwelcome upon their arrival, before being deported back to El Salvador. It was a sort of triplication of hopelessness. I paid it no mind and counted the trees instead. I’d gotten to twenty-three when Adela drove up beside me and told me to get in.
On the last day of our visit, before boarding a large and imperfectly painted van to the airport, everyone took turns saying goodbye to the centenarian. My grandfather’s large frame, easily felt through a pappy and sagging flesh, hugged us all with the same desperation. His left arm vibrated like a tuning fork that had just been whacked. His tears swelled before streaming his bronzed cheeks.
While my sister and I accommodated the luggage into the trunk, my mother beseeched her father to come live with her. “No puedo, hija,” he responded, as he steadied his trembling hand against the thin, gold crucifix beneath his shirt. My grandfather had reached a bracket-less age characterized primarily by loneliness. There would only be one way out of his predicament.
The housecleaner my parents had hired to care for my grandfather came out of the house to retrieve him and to blunt the trauma of goodbye. Her name was Blanca, and she remained behind him, like a sentry prepared for anything. Her skin had a youthful doughiness and her lips were boldly red. “Don’t worry. He is never alone,” she whispered, her hands tucked into the front pouch of a blue apron. “Your mother is still with him.” At this, my mother veiled herself behind a handkerchief she’d been using to dab at her brow and sobbed. Blanca continued matter-of-factly, but now in a smaller voice, “He talks to her. In the morning. In the evening. It’s odd. I tell him so. All he says in return is, ‘Odd is someone disappearing suddenly after always being there.’”
The day that my grandmother died, I called my mother several times while I waited for my connecting flight. There was no answer, only ringing accompanied by the echo of international calls. I was relieved not to have to offer condolences. All of the things I could think to say didn’t seem enough. Or accurate.
A short while later, a sullen voice came over the speaker system. As a result of an unforeseen and fast-approaching storm, all flights were canceled. “And happy Valentine’s Day, folks.”
The airport began its chaotic transformation into a ruin of unrequited love: abandoned half-eaten heart-shaped boxes and cheap bouquets strewn about everywhere. I sent Adela a message asking her to tell my mother about the delay. Then I found a row of empty seats near an electrical outlet. I sat for a long while doing nothing but staring out of the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows typical of airports. The sky had already commenced its march toward darkness, but the reflective vests and electric torches of the workers stacking luggage and performing semaphore remained visible. I thought of the story that Beti used to tell at bedtime, the one about L’Ampara—a portmanteau: lampara means lamp and amparo means help, shelter, protection. With each bolt of lightning, the sky’s ominous and striking purple was revealed. Soon, hail, larger than I’d ever seen before, began to fall. Followed by the rain.
From The People Who Report More Stress Alejandro Varela. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Alejandro Varela.