Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Finding Home: Caracas, Venezuela

In July 1977 the boyfriend and I landed in a world so alien to me I felt numb. I'd been to Mexico City. I'd experienced the density, rhythm, and flavor of a huge Latin American city. Still, Caracas in the late seventies was running on oil boom fever. You could feel it in the air, smell it on the winds blowing through the city, see it in the construction cranes dotting the skyline. The city is in a valley and at the time maintained rigid laws limiting the growth on the surrounding mountainsides. With nowhere to go, the city built skyward.

We stayed in the boyfriend's family home, and I landed a job right away at the British Embassy school - with a name like Arleen Feeney, I managed to exaggerate my Irish-ness. Before returning to his studies in Santa Cruz, the boyfriend arranged for me to live with his sister and brother-in-law in one of the many new residential developments at the limits of the city. The commute was dreadful. I took shared cabs, small vans crammed with ten to twelve commuters. You had to shout your stop over the heads and voices of the other passengers. I'd spend the hour plus commute rehearsing what I'd have to say and worrying I'd forget when to shout it.
As dreadful as the commute was, the family life was worse. I felt I was under constant surveillance and scrutiny. In all fairness to the boyfriend's family, I imagine they felt they needed to take care of me. But I wasn't used to being taken care of and wasn't liking it much at all. I remember once getting a deep cleansing facial - a gift from one of my wealthy students at her favorite spa - and the boyfriend's mother insinuated the ensuing redness and rash was caused by the unshaven chin of someone other than her beloved son. What do they say about living up to others' expectations? I suppose I figured if they'd already condemned me for something I hadn't done, maybe I should consider doing it.

Salvation came from the same lovely student who gifted me my first spa visit. She was recently married and owned a vacant downtown condo. She insisted I'd be doing her a favor by living there. I'd never known such luxury. The servants' quarters seemed as large as any of my prior apartments. There was an ornate iron balcony overlooking a large park, the view and peace marred only by construction cranes and noise. The condo was fully furnished, complete with linens, kitchenware, and a stocked liquor cabinet.

When I told the boyfriend's family I would be living alone downtown, they were horrified. And then, they quickly washed their hands of any assumed responsibility for my physical or moral well-being. I was ecstatic. I certainly hadn't found home, but I loved teaching and filled weekdays with embassy classes and weekends with outings. The other teachers were largely older British and Australian ex-pats who knew how to have a good time. I took lessons. I'll never forget slurping oysters and lime in a narrow canoe as fast as the local fisherman could catch and shuck them. Where was that? Who was I with? Did it happen with the colors and fragrances I am now sensing as I write these words? Memory has a veiled dreamlike quality. I had no camera. This was before computers or cell phones. Memory consists of what I still hold or took the time to describe in a notebook. Connection with the boyfriend was limited to the occasional letter.

Six months later I returned to Santa Cruz to find that the boyfriend had left me behind in much the same ways I had abandoned him. Maybe the tiny studio with the bright blue swimming pool was where he took his flings when I was in his homeland. But who was I to point fingers? After all, I had indeed lived up to expectations thrust upon me. Returning to campus was another challenge. I heard too many whispered stories of the boyfriend's adventures in my absence and felt too much remorse about my own.

We tried to make a go of it, even renting a different apartment. I lasted about a month with him. I didn't find home in Caracas, in Santa Cruz, or with the boyfriend. I was so busy looking for a sense of belonging elsewhere, instead of within myself, my first love ended without finding home.

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To read the prior posts in this mini-memoir series, go to the posts listing in the left side bar. If no longer visible, just click on "March."

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