The Sunday Rumpus Essay: The Year of Light and Dark

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It is July 2015, and in the doorway of Education and Hope in Quetzaltenago, Guatemala, Julie Coyne is doling out hugs and kisses. It’s the kind of scene—a white middle-aged woman embracing one school-uniformed Guatemalan child after another—that would look contrived in a Hollywood film, but in person, the mutual joy of both Julie and the children at being reunited is a visceral, real force.

Julie has just returned to Quetzaltenago (Xela) from her home in Connecticut, where she was raised and where her husband lives and works. She spends half the year in Guatemala overseeing Education and Hope, the nonprofit foundation she singlehandedly launched in 1994 when she was barely out of college. Back then, Julie was in Xela to study Spanish, but she ended up raising money to send a small handful of her neighbors’ kids to school—kids from families who otherwise couldn’t afford the costs of books, uniforms, supplies. However, she soon realized that just sending the kids to school was insufficient: their parents were in many cases illiterate and working multiple jobs to support the family, so there was no structure at home to support the children’s educational endeavors. Many of the kids were going hungry or had no one to assist them with homework. Instead of deciding that her “do-gooder” notions had been naïve and in vain, as many people would have, Julie stepped it up a notch—or twenty. Education and Hope’s after-school program now serves hot, home-cooked meals and provides tutoring to more than one hundreed kids a day and over the last dozen years has provided scholarships, textbooks, uniforms, shoes, supplies, and even medical care to thousands of children in this small city.

As child after child greets her in rapid-fire Spanish (“Julia,” they call her, like Julio) while clinging to her neck, it’s clear that Julie has become like family to hundreds of children. Kids from the past still keep in touch, or now work at the foundation. Though Education and Hope provides an ever-growing host of services, Julie has been known to refer to its core mission as “love.” Still, “I hate being thought of as saintly,” she tells me. Indeed, she is hardly Mother Theresa. She’s married to a longhaired younger man; she swears; she has a penchant for bourbon. And, of course, the United States’s history with Guatemala is far from pure.

In 1954, a CIA-led coup ended—and ultimately reversed—the Guatemalan Revolution overthrowing the progressive, democratically elected government and installing a dictatorship. Political parties were banned, and widespread torture, repression, and murder followed. US-backed, authoritarian governments didn’t stop running the show in Guatemala until 1996, causing many of the very problems Julie was later called to help the poor children of Xela overcome. “Sainthood” for an American in Guatemala—as in many places around the globe—is hardly an option.

Still, it isn’t much of a contest to say that Julie Coyne is the single most inspirational human being I have ever met. And I am here—in Xela—in part because I could use a little inspiration.

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“Don’t bite the hook,” Julie says to me the day after my arrival, at Casa Santo Domingo, back in Antigua. The hotel is so beautiful as to be almost preposterous, built on an old convent and containing ancient tombs within, aglow with hundreds of candles ritualistically lit each night to illuminate walkways and ruin sites. There’s even a swanky restaurant my twin daughters, sophisticated urban teens, are giddy about. Now, my daughters in the pool, Julie and I are able to have an adult conversation about my impending divorce, which for a couple of months had teetered on the great hope of amicability, but now seems to be rapidly deteriorating, as my ex-husband’s anger approaches a boiling point. I gulp a gin and tonic and marvel at the civility of infidelity in James Salter’s Light Years, which I will end up accidentally leaving at the hotel. I try to quell the knots in my stomach every time I think about my ex. I’ve lost twelve pounds in perpetual anxiety. “The hook,” as Julie calls it, is so far down my throat I’m choking.

I have recently, after a clandestine three-year affair, left my husband of twenty-two years. It is hardly possible to feel worse about myself… except that I may have felt even worse before confessing to my ex. Now I am a homewrecker, but no longer a liar.

My drink is empty. On the pages of Light Years, an affluently bohemian couple cheat on each other with Noel Coward urbanity and then later, years after their cleaving, the husband and his new wife nurse his former wife through cancer and death. That kind of scenario makes sense to me: a resistance to the idea of easy victims and villains, an acceptance of moral ambiguities, a history that transcends sexual bonds and outlives heinous lies. But more and more, such concepts seem the pretty possibilities of novels. In real life, I am stuck on a hamster’s wheel playing the villain, like it or not.

*

Xela is a sharp contrast to Antigua and the Casa Santo Domingo. Here, my daughters and I stay in a $24-a-night room where we have thus far found spiders in our beds and the water that emerges from the shower (a pipe protruding from the wall) is ice cold. The sink runs, rather than through a drain, directly into a bucket under the basin. We are across the street from Education and Hope, two buildings that take up half a city block, and where the entire rooftop play area is painted with murals from Where the Wild Things Are. Indoors are individual classrooms, small and sparsely furnished, where tutors help children with their homework and run computer classes. Across the street in a separate building is the sprawling cafeteria, with seven or eight traditionally dressed Guatemalan women cooking at any given time. Whenever my daughters and I enter the cafeteria building, women hand us bowls of chicken stew or rice and beans. The teachers and administrators eat with the children, but as is the case everywhere, the cooks never seem to sit down.

A handful of the children have special needs. Many more are toddlers, too young really for “tutoring” and school, but already part of the Education and Hope family. Wandering around the periphery is an artsy twentysomething, perpetually sporting both a hipster scarf and a camera, slung around his neck. He looks almost as out of place as my daughters and I do, though it turns out he is an alum of the program and that he painted the Wild Things murals. Now he has a French girlfriend, about whom Julie and the other women seem skeptical. Education and Hope is clearly a family, and like every family, its younger generation may or may not be doing things the way the elders would prefer—though here “elders” can include girls in their late teens, already toting around babies. The cooks as a group appear to be homogeneously women of a certain age, but on closer individual inspection, many are younger than Julie and I, even if their attire and bearing remind me more of my Italian grandmother than of a peer.

Some of these women take busses for two hours to get to work, to begin cooking for the kids at the crack of dawn. Some bring their children with them. I find myself wondering how many are divorced or have been abandoned by their men. I don’t wonder how many abandoned their men, as I have jumped to the assumption that such a thing might be unfeasible here. But what do I know of their lives? Wrecked love and broken families and betrayal and its subsequent rage know no national boundaries. The difference is that my daughters and I can afford to go on vacation, to temporarily get away from it all, and our holiday has landed us as tourists in other people’s everyday lives, which, my daughters often quip, is the specialty of “white people.” My daughters are Chinese, adopted at nine months old, from an orphanage that makes Education and Hope look like an elite Swiss boarding school. Before the orphanage, they were found in a train station in YueYang, China, one June day in 2000, with umbilical hernias, weighing three and a half pounds each. But of course they have no memory of that, and for all intents and purposes consider themselves part of the joke. “Oh my god, we are so white,” they sometimes groan in collective embarrassment.

This embarrassment does not prevent them—American teens, after all—from griping about our Xela hotel room. Still, I’m hoping that this first solo mother/daughter trip can prove some manner of salve after what my girls have been through lately—can lay the groundwork for a new relationship I need to forge with their nearly adult selves as a single mom who disrupted the only home they remember. I am grateful to be here, witnessing Julie’s work; I am embarrassed to be here, as a spectator. I want to help, but we are here only a week. I half-want to be Julie, as I’m sure many people who meet her do, but I have three children and disabled elderly parents who live downstairs from me and the days in which I could run overseas to “make a difference” have long passed, at least until my children are grown and my parents are dead. I miss my nine-year-old son, home in Chicago with his father.

It’s unclear what I’m looking for, exactly. What is clear is that only the privileged have the ability to travel continents “looking for” something to begin with.

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My ex-husband and I were travelers. We met backpacking, four days after my twenty-second birthday, in Avignon, France. I have been to Guatemala before, when he and I came in 2005, before I became pregnant with our son. It was the last solo trip we would ever make as a couple where we were indisputably “happy”—before things began to fall apart like a chain of dominos that took some eight years to lead here.

Antigua is haunted by the memory of our former happiness. Everywhere, we once stood, holding hands. Every crumbly, magnificent street seems as though it might lead to the charming hotel with its beautiful patio, where he photographed me in a pink pashmina, smiling wide. Look, just off this square is a place where I ate the best cheese sandwich on earth: something about the grain of the bread, the avocados; I would spend years attempting to recreate it to no avail. If my daughters and I wander far enough in that direction over there, we might find ourselves at the strange Indian restaurant that operated out of someone’s house; I might see the thirtysomething version of my then-husband drinking beer from a bottle in its courtyard, slightly tanned despite his pale skin, loving me and believing his good feelings about me a permanent condition.

I am impaled with grief. How can it be? I am the one who left. I am the one who fell in love with someone else. I take my daughters to ruins, to restaurants, to markets, and we snap photos, beaming next to one another, every day together in the aftermath of our former-family’s demise a kind of new ground, a kind of reinvention I meant to be healing. But meanwhile, for me, the streets are paved with broken glass.

*

“Do you have children?” the little girls in the English classroom ask my daughters. Our Spanish is crappy, their English not better, and for a moment we all stand gaping and saying sentence fragments back and forth at one another, trying to figure out what they mean. Only after some repetition does it become clear that of course that is what they mean: do my daughters, age fifteen, have any children? It is not such a preposterous question. My father dropped out of school at thirteen to work in a factory and help support his family; aunts on both sides of my family married at fourteen and sixteen, respectively. I was the first person on either side of my family to go away to college, at a time when my parents made around $9,000 annually. I was aiming for a “different” kind of life than the one I’d grown up in, and indeed, adopting my daughters at thirty-two, I was the first in my friend group to become a mother. How quickly, in less than one generation, what was once normative can begin to seem implausible.

“We are children,” my daughters try to explain, pointing at themselves. They have been to Kenya, to Europe, to Belize, to St. Lucia, to visual arts camp at Interlochen, and now they are here, teaching a class at Education and Hope. Soon enough, another teacher snags me away to my own classroom to help with math, leaving my daughters to teach (and take selfies with) their students alone. We are children. In a country where the average national income is $3,440 per year, my daughters have lived dozens of lifetimes in experience.

Wife of twenty-two years. Chinese orphans. American traveler studying Spanish. We are all permeable, shifting. We are all only one strange leap away from becoming inconceivable to our former selves.

*

My husband and I, before he was my ex-husband, spent time in the Lake District in Guatemala, one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth. We rented a romantic cabin, but either forgot our key or it didn’t work (I can’t remember anymore), and we ended up stranded on the steps in a rainstorm, him gingerly venturing out to see if any of the neighbors had the landlord’s number. Almost miraculously, he met with luck, so that instead of getting pneumonia we ended up laughing about our short-lived mishap from the comfort of our warm bed. The next day, we caught a cab back to town, and our cabbie was, strangely, an American hippie chick a bit younger than ourselves, though we were still young enough to forge the instant connection of fellow travelers. She gave us a CD of her Guatemalan boyfriend’s music, and later—maybe a year or so—she called me when she was in Chicago, and I met her at a Latin American café that had a play area for kids.

We both seemed so… different on Chicago soil. She, just another twentysomething white girl from the suburbs, lamenting her moody boyfriend; I just another mom fast approaching middle age, with baby food stains on my shirt, breasts swollen with milk, and three small beings hanging noisily off my body. The magic of that taxi in the Lake District had evaporated, so that we were merely two relative strangers, stuck with one another for the duration of our meal, with nothing on earth in common to join us anymore.

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One of the cooks, Marta Maria, invites my daughters and me to her home. Julie comes with us. We drive about an hour away to a gravel road with an assortment of small, squat buildings; one is an auto shop, the other an indoor/outdoor barn. Dispersed among these shanties are other rooms: the kitchen, a bedroom where the family sleeps. The smell of fire from the stove, of gasoline from the cars, of manure from the animals, intermixes; the ground is muddy and strewn with straw.

Marta Maria’s husband materializes, and my daughters and I are friendly in our broken Spanish, though it soon becomes clear that no one else there likes him much. Marta Maria herself launches into a monologue that my daughters and I can’t understand, praising Julie, whom she kisses and hugs. There is a half-taken-apart car in the living area of the house, and my daughters and I have been posing for photos with a giant pig in the yard. The outdoor bathroom is in a whole separate area, through a lot of used car parts. Julie is embarrassed but smiling, hugging Marta Maria back, and grudgingly translating some of what she is saying for us, so we aren’t left out—her cheeks turn red repeating the claims that Julie saved the family’s lives, has done so much for them, is the most wonderful person they have ever known.

We have been invited here as a courtesy to Julie—any friend of Julie’s and so on—but now that we are here there are no chairs to sit on and only one person speaks both English and Spanish, so we all stand around awkwardly, giving and receiving hugs, until we pile back into Julie’s truck, leaving Marta Maria and her family behind. Julie explains to us how her husband was once chronically unfaithful, what an asshole he’d been, and how then he got cancer, and now Marta Maria is stuck taking care of him.

“I’ve tried to explain to her that she needs to either forgive him or leave,” Julie says, “but sometimes holding on to anger is important to people and is what keeps them going.”

My daughters and I have been given an almost too-intimate glimpse into the lives of people we will probably never see again, who know nothing about ours. The sense both of being a spectator and of strange gratitude increases in me, contradictory and intermingling. But back in our shabby hotel room, my daughters say things like, “This place is actually pretty nice for only $24 a night,” and, “Look how they decorated the dresser; they’re really trying to make it look nice for us,” and “Our shower really isn’t that bad.” No one mentions the spiders. If love were a thing that could split a body open, I would be gutted with love for them.

They watch Spanish TV on a small set protruding from the wall, content. I want to say perspective isn’t a thing you can buy, except maybe you can buy it if you’re in the market and lucky enough to afford the fee. I miss my son, and in Chicago my mother has been hospitalized, and my ex-husband has turned her care over to my friends, and I need to get home—I am needed at home. I am a wrecking ball, but this doesn’t actually exempt me from ongoing responsibilities. My stomach flips so much I cannot remember a time anymore when it was calm.

Still somehow, this night in a bare-bones hotel room with my daughters shimmers.

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Two months almost to the day of our return from Guatemala, my ninety-three-year-old father will die in our home, on hospice, surrounded by family, as well as the round-the-clock private caregiver that my ex-husband’s income and financial generosity made possible for the final year and a half of his life. Four months almost to the day of our return from Guatemala, I will be diagnosed with breast cancer and face the uncertain future of staging, DNA testing, recidivism rates, chemo. My ex-husband will be engaged to be married, blocking me on his cell phone and refusing to speak to me via any mode but email, and our children will be adjusting to the dynamics of having two households and a mother awaiting a bilateral mastectomy. Things will pile, and pile, until it feels almost impossible that anything more can happen—that I almost dare not step outside my house or surely I’ll be hit by lightning. Every small thing appears a straw that will break my back… or perhaps parts of me are already broken, and I can only hope, as Hemingway said, to come together stronger at the “broken places.”

*

For our last stop in Guatemala, Julie takes us to the Lake District, where my daughters and I lounge in an infinity hot tub, surrounded by lush gardens and misty mountain views. The world pulses with impossible beauty. By now, my daughters are calling Julie and me their “lesbian moms,” joking that our shared boho aesthetic and whiteness mixed with their Asian-adoptedness makes us look like a stereotypical “alternative” family. We four have found, though Julie was a near stranger at the onset of this trip, an easy rhythm with one another by the end, assaulted together by splendor and kindness and hardship and hot springs in bright contrast to the cold morning air.

I miss my son intensely and I need to go home to attend to my ailing parents and I cannot, despite my fantasies, “be Julie Coyne” and stay here, any more than I could remain on the streets of Antigua with the perfect cheese sandwich and a marriage not yet imploded. My daughters and I pose as Julie takes our photos, and I feel water and sun and gratitude and perspective and confusion and love and pain. I have no idea that in less than half a year, that trip will come to seem to me like an “easy” time in my life. I only know that divorce and loss and cancer and anger exist in Guatemala just as they do on the pages of Light Years, just as they do for me, just as they do everywhere on our messy planet.

Somewhere, Julie Coyne is drinking a bourbon or bickering with her husband or passing through her own needle’s head of pain and revelation or being a normal human being, and somewhere else, simultaneously, she is changing a small corner of the world, blooming constantly outward.

There is no conclusion.

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Education and Hope is a nonprofit organization funded largely by individual donations. You can contribute here


Gina Frangello’s fourth book of fiction, Every Kind of Wanting, was released on Counterpoint in September. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, Dame, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Fence, FiveChapters, Prairie Schooner, the Chicago Reader, and in many other magazines and anthologies. More from this author →