I’D OFTEN WAKE to find the old man staring down at me, watching me sleep, his mustachioed face a few feet above mine, obscured by the mosquito netting. He’d say something like: “you’re a light sleeper, aren’t you?” I barely understood Spanish at the time, but I knew he was passing judgment: the way I slept somehow struck him as soft, fussy, maybe even effeminate.
The children went through my things while I was away. A headlamp or Swiss Army knife might turn up on the kitchen floor, being chewed on or fought over by the grandkids. A young man named Ernesto spent hours sitting in the room with me: looking through my luggage, holding up clothes or cassette tapes, asking where I’d bought this or that, how much it was worth. The rest of the family was content to watch me from the doorway, and to leave my possessions in the room after going through them.
This was a small village called San Cayetano in rural El Salvador, at the base of a big green volcano called Chichontepec. I was a Peace Corps trainee, living with a host family and spending most of each day at a training center in the nearby city of San Vicente.
But my hosts weren’t a single family at all. Instead, four or five families, three generations, all lived together under one roof. The old man—the one who watched me sleep—kept all of his sons in the house after they’d married and had children of their own. They ran a lumber business, which meant that the men would periodically load into a rattling yellow pickup and disappear into the woods for days at a time. They’d return with a truck full of boards milled entirely by chainsaw. The courtyard was always full of rough-hewn lumber, stacked next to the family pig. Occasionally, strangers would stop by and make a purchase. My Spanish was dreadful, so I figured most of this out by watching.
There were small squabbles about how long the men were gone or how little wood they brought back. But the biggest source of household contention was the men’s nightly outings. Whenever they weren’t away in the woods, they’d pile into the same rattling pickup after dinner and head to San Vicente.
Apparently, they went to the labyrinthine market district to play lotería—a Latin American game similar to bingo. It’s played with the iconic pictograph cards—bearing roosters, devils, watermelons, and the like—that have recently become popular with fashion designers and hip Mexican restaurants.
The nightly exits were always tense, accompanied by shouting, weeping, or the holding aloft of a baby—a gesture meant to demonstrate neglected responsibilities. Unable to follow their bickering to the letter, I gathered that the women suspected the men of doing more than playing the game.
Early in my stay, I contracted a severe and unidentified tropical fever. The family had no choice but to watch—and listen—as I stumbled my way to the latrine each hour of the night. A policeman lived in the house as well; I never understood how or if he was related to the others. He’d come home late and stand in his boxer shorts watching soccer on a silent television. During one trip to the latrine, I accidently kicked his sidearm and sent it spinning across the tile floor. “¡Cuidado!” he said.
For days, I suffered from chills and shakes, and became little more than a weak and sweating piece of furniture. The men left for another trip to the woods, and things turned civil and quiet around the house. My health improved, as did my grasp of Spanish. It was nice to finally develop a rapport with my hosts—or half of them, at least. The grandmother was a wonderful cook, and better at running the household than any of the men. We ate big meals together, played with the children, and laughed about my mispronounced words.
It wasn’t hard to side with the women on the lotería issue. There was something hurtful in each of those late-night exits. Sitting on a dusty wooden bench in San Vicente, swatting mosquitoes and thumbing cardboard pictures of fruit and mermaids, it hardly seemed a reason to make wives and children cry.
Days later, the men returned from the forest. This time, along with the wood, they brought a tiny fawn. When I first saw it, I worried that my fever had returned. Big eyes, long spindly legs, white speckles along its rump: it was the first and last deer that I ever saw in El Salvador.
They took the frightened animal out of the pickup bed, put a rope around its neck and handed it off to Maribel—the oldest of the grandchildren, a skinny girl of about twelve who always wore a pink Sunday dress. She took the fawn out back and tied it up alongside the family pig. Maribel made a baby bottle of powdered milk; the fawn sucked away at the rubber nipple.
Dinnertime was always something of a standoff—the hour before the men left for town, the women doubly resentful as they dealt with the food and dishes. I wore a stupid grin and focused on the food—my main strategy for coping with awkwardness.
It started off as a joke. “Why don’t we bring the gringo along with us?” Ernesto asked.
“To the lotería?” The grandfather was incredulous.
I wasn’t quick enough to erase the smile from my face, or to make up an excuse. The rest of the men looked confused, but the grandmother’s eyes widened.
“Yes, take him with you!” She shot me a conspiratorial glance. “Take him to the lotería.”
All of the women warmed to the idea immediately. The men glared at Ernesto in judgment. It was clear that I wasn’t simply being invited along; I was being asked to spy. After a long pause, the grandfather announced that I would join them.
We finished dinner. I put on a clean shirt and met Ernesto and the others at the pickup. As the sun set, we bounced our way down the dirt road into town. The men patted my back and taught me dirty words. Along the way, Ernesto leaned into my ear and said: “If anybody asks, we only went to the lotería.”
It was night by the time we reached our destination. Glowing bulbs dangled from bare wires—each with its own halo of dust and bugs—and lit the game pavilion. A crackling loudspeaker read the names of cards: banana, guitar, crab, gentleman, skull. Players diligently covered their boards.
We parked just outside. One of the brothers went in to play. The rest of us stood around the truck. Somebody bought a glass bottle of orange soda, and we passed that around, along with a bag of fried dough. Every few minutes, one of the men would tell me, with a sly grin: “If anybody asks, we only came to the lotería, okay?”
I nodded and said I understood. That was all we’d done. In fact, this whole errand seemed far more harmless than I’d imagined, even a little silly. I was disappointed. I expected some high stakes gambling involved, at least some drinking and smoking. Something illicit and manly. Instead, we were like a bunch of teenagers who’d just gotten their licenses, and had nothing better to do than be seen with the family car. I hadn’t even learned how to play this game.
Ernesto and I struck up a solid conversation. I asked about their trips to the woods. He told me stories of sleeping on the ground, eating iguana and possum. He was the last of his siblings who had not yet married, and admitted his anxiety about finding a wife. It was the most we’d ever bonded. As the night wore on, I began to empathize with the men’s side in the household battle of the sexes. They were stuck camping in the dirt for days at a time, with only each other for company. So they wanted to spend a few hours in the relative hustle and bustle of San Vicente. What was so wrong about that?
Warmer, fuzzier notions took shape in my mind. Tomorrow, I could report to the women just how benign our night had been. Perhaps it would bring a measure of understanding and peace to the household. This would be my first humanitarian act in this country, I decided, the first of many good deeds.
Finally, the grandfather whistled for all his sons to load back into the pickup. I counted three actual games of lotería having been played among us. It was now late, and the truck’s headlights were so dusty and dim I wondered how the driver could see.
Our return trip took far too long. The road was unfamiliar, not at all the way home. We came to a stop at a lone house among thick trees. Though it had no visible windows, yellow light flooded from the seams between the walls and roof. Two of the married brothers, whispering and giggling, stepped out of the pickup bed and went inside. Though I’d never seen one before—and had no idea what the Spanish word might be—it was obvious that this was the rural Salvadoran version of a brothel.
“Remember,” Ernesto leaned in towards me. “If anyone asks, we only went to the lotería.”
I nodded. Now that it was a lie, I felt compelled to ask: “Did we win or lose?”
“We lost.” Ernesto grinned. “We always lose.”
The other men laughed. We all waited there while the two lucky brothers went about their business. I wondered how they’d decided who went inside and who waited in the truck. For all their faults, they were a patient group of guys.
The next morning, I rose for breakfast while the rest of the men slept in. The family fawn acted especially twitchy and nervous.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked the grandmother.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. It’s been that way since yesterday.”
Maribel carried a baby bottle over to it. The fawn sucked eagerly at the nipple. I noticed that the liquid inside was brown and watery.
“Is that…coffee?” I asked.
The grandmother dropped a plate of beans and plantains in front of me and nodded. “It doesn’t like milk anymore.”
As I ate, the other women left their housework and gathered around me. I stared at my food, trying to ignore them.
“So,” the grandmother finally spoke. “Where did you go last night?”
I swallowed a mouthful of tortilla and looked at each of their faces in turn. They had a right to know where their husbands went off to night after night. None of them deserved to live in an environment so toxic with jealousy and suspicion. They were all kind, generous and warm, but the men barely saw that side of them. The sneaking around, it seemed a disservice to both sides.
I swallowed and looked the grandmother in the eye. “We went to the lotería.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
“And we lost,” I said.
She frowned and made a nonverbal noise in the back of her throat, a disappointed clucking sound that suggested I was no different than the other males in her life. The women turned away from me and went back to their work. At the time, I felt ashamed for having lied. Now, I realize it was one of few instances when I showed enough sense not to get involved in a conflict that was older and more nuanced than I could hope to understand. In fact, the rest of my time in that country would be defined by trying to impose abstract principles of fairness or rightness on real-life situations that couldn’t accommodate them.
As I returned from training that evening, Maribel was leaving the house with a plastic shopping bag. I saw the long, spindly legs poking out the top and knew immediately that the family fawn had died. In her same pink Sunday dress, she carried its body off toward the village’s edge. I thought back to my weeks of fever, my lips chapped and my tongue swollen with dehydration, my vocabulary lacking the words to even describe what was wrong. I couldn’t help but wonder: how close had I come to an equally unceremonious death inside this house? Maribel swung the bag by its handles and tossed the fawn’s body into a gully at the far end of the road.
After my first outing, the men invited me to return to the lotería. I begged off for several nights in a row, until they stopped asking and instead treated me with renewed suspicion. Perhaps I considered this some sort of a compromise, another attempt to stay neutral. But the truth is that I simply didn’t enjoy sitting in that pickup truck drinking warm soda.
Ernesto continued to visit me. We listened to music on my cassette deck, while he moved the volume control up and down for emphasis. I was doubly grateful for his friendship, now that I’d been ostracized by everyone else in the family. My plan was to spend the next two years in this country, and so far I couldn’t get along with any of its citizens.
In my final month there, Chichontepec, the local volcano, caused a series of tremors throughout San Cayetano. Like the other villagers, we dragged all our mattresses out to the courtyard and took to sleeping outside. The pig got the living room all to himself. I’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night and sit up in bed. The stars above were bright and dense. Male and female bodies of all ages slept around me in a hodgepodge of mats, cots, and hammocks. I wondered if all marriages were like these: a careful balance of secrets and lies, only slightly preferable to solitude. My government-issue mosquito netting draped over me like a veil, like something porous and permeable but always hanging between my hosts and I, like language, like culture, like a long history of jealousies and trespasses that could be described but never fully shared.