Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Mennonite “rom-geschwien”


Continued from Mennonites and Vampires

When I woke up the next morning, I was confused about where I was, because I felt like a different person. But when everything that had happened the night before came back to me, I recognized that I was feeling light because I had been carrying a heavy rock with  Aaron Newdorf’s name on it my whole life, and now it was gone. I had very little experience with such a feeling. The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I experienced when I learned that I wasn’t a “hard learner” by receiving the “fastest learner award” in Canada.

As hard as it had been, I felt free and accomplished knowing that I had done the right thing accepting Aaron Newdorf’s apology. It would have been nice if I could have shared it with someone at the time, but I had figured out a way as I had with many other situations when I desperately needed affirmation, reassurance and a hug. I closed my eyes and pictured George wrapping his arms around me, hugging me and telling me, “You did the right thing, Anna. I am so proud of you.”

I hugged the blanket and thought, “Because of you, I am going to be okay. Thank you, George,” and when my little sister sat down beside me and said, “Ekj sen nich George, ekj sen Marijke.” I realized that I had said it out loud. But before I was able to explain myself, mom yelled, “It’s time to get up—we have a long day ahead of us!”

She sounded mad; I knew that it was because of my actions in the past few days, and just like that my feelings of accomplishment dropped back to feeling that I was nothing but a disappointment. And that’s how that particular laundry day began.

We all sat around the table and ate breakfast. No words were exchanged; the only sounds around the table were those of the clinking utensils. I kept a close eye on my brothers. As soon as they bowed their heads to say their end-of-meal prayer, I bowed my head, and my prayer was, “Please do not allow an opportunity to be alone with Mom today.” I got up and followed my brothers outside. I helped them pull water from the well and carry it over to the mea grupen to heat it for washing the whites.

My brother John went and drove the pickup that he was working on closer to the house and put on the radio. My heart sank to the ground when he turned the dial to the La Tremenda Santiago radio station, and we heard breaking news about a shooting that had happened in Nuevo Ideal the night before. I couldn't understand everything, but enough to know that there were a few confirmed deaths, many wounded, that it was related to a man named El Chapo and something about drug wars that had been going on for quite some time.

It turned out that everyone in the entire Durango colony was familiar with the name El Chapo except me. The names that were familiar to me were El Guero and Aaron, and that’s when I woke up, and all the strange behavior that had happened the night before came back to me.

The news scared me to death. I didn’t know what to do or say. It was a very long day indeed. The hours passed slower than they ever had before. We worked our way through the piles of laundry, and I found myself alone with Mom in the kitchen while preparing lunch. She let me have it about going to El Guero’s New Year’s Eve party.

I was in so much trouble at that point. My mixed feeling and guilt were eating me alive, and I regretted my decision to sneak around like I had. I felt that I had been very selfish, and I wanted nothing more than for things to be right between Mom and me. I was ready, and needed to hear what she had to say about it.

As I stood at the stove with my head hanging down, stirring the noodles, Mom let me have it. “Soan rom geschwien aus dot Heljeowent to Niejoa haft passiet sol dot hea nich nach imol passieren! (That kind of “pigging around” that happened on New Year’s Eve is not to happen here again!)” she said. It was understood that it was directed at me, not my brothers.

Dot wuat uke nich! (It won't!)” I answered, never making eye contact with her as I continued stirring the noodles.

As the day went on and the colony gossip grew at a rapid rate, I found myself caught in the middle of two worlds. When word went around that Aaron Neudorf was missing, I stood back and observed how the whole community was concerned only about Aaron’s safe return to his family. That was when I saw how others might see us, because in this situation I was “the other” looking in, as I watched and heard the language that shaped the stories in the community. That’s when I saw a clear picture of how and who we were. It became undeniably clear to me that no other person involved in this was worth our thoughts and prayers.   

I considered myself “the other” because I was worried about El Guero. It didn’t matter what the news said, or that I didn’t know or understand much of what was said on the news about him. To me, he was a good person, and I needed him to be alive and well just as the entire Mennonite community needed Aaron to be alive and well. I didn’t see any difference there.

As “the other” looking in, I asked myself the question so many people had asked me, “Who are these people?” followed by, “And who the heck are you, Anna?” A dark cloud followed me around for a very long time after that, especially after Aaron Newdorf came home a couple of days later and the incident wasn’t spoken about again, because that was the only ending the community seemed cared about.

As the days faded to dusk time and again, people in the colony moved on. I struggled with not knowing whether El Guero was alive, just as I would have had it been my friend George, Josh, or any other person I had known. That’s when I recognized that I needed to leave, and I began mentally preparing myself for the twenty-four-hour road trip to Texas with my Uncle Jake and cousin Izaak. I went through my stack of pleated dresses and gave one to each of my younger sisters, explaining to Mom that they were too small, and that I could make myself more in Canada. Mom agreed with me, and she had stopped trying to talk me into staying in the colony. She didn’t tell me why, but I know it was because she knew that she had lost me, and that she couldn’t have me living there if she couldn’t convince me to behave in the way she saw fit. I concluded in my mind that if I was far away, then at least she wouldn’t have to witness my sinful behavior. I accepted the fact that if I was going to be “rom geschwieng met mexa (pigging around with Mexicans),” I had no business living in the colony.

After I’d successfully gotten rid of a bunch of my Mennonite dresses, Mom, my sisters and I sat at the kitchen table during faspa and discussed how the dresses had changed since I had left, but only in the color choices. As I was disagreeing with my little sister about what color looked best on her, Izaak walked in, looking more frazzled than normal, and asked to speak with me. My first thought was, “Oh no! He's going to tell me that El Guero is dead.” Or “Are you ready, because we are leaving at five a.m. sharp tomorrow morning,” because I had no idea when exactly we were leaving. I just knew to be ready, and that it could happen any day at that point. Instead, he said, “I need you to come to Potes with me; we need to take care of some things before our trip back to Texas.”

I turned to Mom. She nodded her head, gesturing that it was okay with her, and out the door I went, leaving my half-eaten banana cream pie behind. The thought crossed my mind that I should have just brought my half-eaten pie with me, because the last time I left before finishing what I was eating, it had haunted me for years after. I thought to myself, “You can handle this now, you are stronger now, you can leave a piece of pie behind and not be traumatized by it for years to come. Or can I?”

As Izaak sped through the colony, leaving it behind in a cloud of dust, I asked, “Okay Izaak, what is going on?”

“A few of us are having a little Dia de Los Reyes celebration by sharing a Rosca de Reyes before we leave, and there is someone there who wants you to cut the Rosca.”

My heart began pounding out of my chest as the thought hit me that it could be El Guero.

When we got to a house in the outskirts of Nuevo Ideal, there were a couple of armed men guarding the entrance. When we went inside, I recognized many people that I had met at El Guero’s ranch, but El Guero was nowhere to be seen. El Guero’s cousin Paula greeted me at the door and walked me to the bar, where the bartender had already mixed my favorite drink, the Vampiro, and handed it to me. I was uptight and uneasy until the salty, tangy sweet taste hit my palate, and the red liquid washed all of it away, leaving me with a feeling of ease and weightlessness. I drank the whole thing in one shot; it reminded me of a time I had once watched a calf drink an entire bucket of vaudikj (whey) without stopping to take a breath. When I put the cup down, the bartender handed me another one, winked at me and asked, “Long day?”

“YES!” I shouted, and then regretted it immediately after. I thought to myself, “Okay, I have no idea how to act or behave right now.” I held my breath and desperately searched for a familiar face. Then I saw Paula walking toward a table with a large cake that looked like an oval-shaped ring, which I assumed was the cake called Rosca that I was supposed to cut. Sure enough, she gestured to me to come closer. So I took my drink and walked toward her, with everyone gathered around the table.  Paula handed me a knife and explained to me that the Rosca had a little plastic doll in it, and whoever got the piece of cake with the doll in it had to throw a party and serve Rosca the next year.

“Okay,” I said and scanned the crowd to figure out how many pieces I needed to cut so that everyone would get a piece. I was just about to slice into the cake when Paula said, “But wait! Before you cut it, we’re waiting for one more person.” I looked up and saw El Guero walking toward me. He didn’t have a scratch on him. He was as calm, tall, confident and perfectly groomed as I remembered him. I wasn’t sure if I could trust my ability to control my emotions if I were to make eye contact with him, so I just stared at his shiny shoes as he walked toward me.  

With the knife in my hand, I began shaking as he greeted me with a soft, warm kiss on each of my cheeks, and took the knife from my hand. My emotions became a monster, eager to burst out of me and wreak havoc, but in this case, my years of experience hiding them was beneficial. It helped me tame the monster for the time being.

El Guero said some things in Spanish, handed me back the knife and asked if I would cut the Rosca.

“Okay,” I answered, took the knife and began cutting the cake with my shaking hand. El Guero took the pieces that I cut, placed them on plates, and handed them to the guests. He served me a piece before he took one for himself.

He said a few things again before everyone began eating the cake. I just waited until I saw others take a bite and did the same. As I watched the others, including El Guero, eating, I remember comparing the Rosca to the banana cream pie I had eaten shortly before and thinking, “This cake doesn’t have room in my stomach with this monster still in it! It’s really dry, and it doesn't taste that good. I don’t get what all the fuss is about.”  I was tempted to give up and put my half-eaten piece down, but then my George-influenced mind said, “Just eat the f#cking cake, Anna!” I forced down each bite, and then I bit into something hard. I took it out of my mouth, and sure enough, I had the piece of cake with the doll in it. Paula shouted something out loudly, and everyone put their plates down and clapped for me. I smiled, but all I could think was, “I just want to hug El Guero and cry!”

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