Eight Pieces: Rungs of the Ladder

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More tourists than locals frequented the plaza. The vendors sold trinkets and supplies that only tourists would desire or need, though the food stalls attracted residents before and after Mass.

Kristal had hoped to practice the language, but when she stumbled over the syllables, lengthening vowels, rushing through consonants, and misplacing the accent, the person she conversed with would smile politely and default to English.

“It is easier for us this way, Miss,” the vendedor said. “More conversational, yes? Less confusing.”

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Of course he was right. He earned money by selling tortas and huaraches, not conducting language lessons.

She saved her practice greetings for the stray dogs that meandered through.

Hola, chien! ¿Qué pasa?

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One evening, when the day vendors had closed, and the night vendors had not yet opened, when the tourists were in the cantina and the locals at evening Mass, she shared the plaza with only a bobcat who’d wandered down from the mountains.

They looked at each other in silence, in that momentary meeting that can happen between two beings.

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Then Mass let out and the night vendors arrived, and the tourists, tipsy from beers and salsa rhythms, began to chat in over-loud voices.

“Doesn’t it just beat winter at home?” said Victoria, a woman who lived one city over from Kristal’s. “Just think of the mess we’d be shoveling!”

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She was like her, Kristal realized. Rich. White. Educated. With the money, experience, and confidence to escape whatever boredom or hardship waited back home.

She had thought she was doing something bold. Something liberating. And maybe, in one way, she was. But this choice opened to her because of the specific rung of the ladder she stood on. So, in another way, it was simply the circumstances of her birth and marriage–her race, her class, her country-of-origin, her socioeconomic group–that opened this option for her.

They liked to dress in the fashion of local peasants, these white, single, female tourists–just like she did. We’re of a sort, she realized.

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Maybe it had been cowardly to come here. Maybe the strong and brave choice would have been to stay home–to dedicate the resources she was funneling into this retreat towards a more meaningful cause, something that could enact a change. Green Peace. The Nature Conservancy. Amnesty International. They always needed money.

Even worrying about issues like this was a mark of privilege.

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Her husband–or rather, her ex–for all his lousy personal qualities, held  some decent political ones. He was a Marxist, after all. She usually closed her ears when, after a few beers, he began to rail against the system, but some of what he’d said had snuck through deeply enough to seed some broader ethics.

Well, she was here. She’d left home out with the energy of spite and stubborn passion. For art! To become an artist! What whimsy. What an irresponsible use of resources.

She calculated what she’d spent on airline tickets, luggage, oil paints, and cabin rental. Surprisingly, it came out less than what she’d leased her home for, to the visiting professor. So, perhaps it wasn’t exactly a waste of resources, merely a redirection.

But there was no denying that it was her privilege–and her divorce settlement–which gave her the freedom to come here as a single woman to devote three months to painting, without a single other responsibility.

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If she was starting this far up the ladder, she had damn well better become a good artist.

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