I’m sitting on a concrete bench in the Plaza de Armas, a large public square that features a bronze fountain built in 1650. Incubus plays loudly in my ears through my headphones, and I’m staring at the different textures of La Catedral de Lima, a massive baroque church rebuilt multiple times since the mid 16th century. A young man sits beside me.
He might be talking but I don’t remove my ear buds for a moment. Casually I remove them and look at him with a, “Buenas tardes.” A conversation immediately ensues, one that I don’t yet know will precipitate spontaneous giggles and gathered brows for the next 24 hours.
He asks how I like the cathedral and if I’m an architect. He asks how long I’ll be in Peru and where I’m from. Finally he questions why I’m sitting alone before saying that Peruvians think gringos are cold and raw. Here my ever-truthful face makes one of its countless expressions, one of many that he’ll try to mimic, perhaps in his own attempt to understand them– The Peruvians, you see, don’t make many obvious facial expressions.
“Yes. See? You are right now. When we meet people in Peru we kiss and we’re very friendly. Gringos never do that; they shake hands like this,” he says, a mock serious expression contorts his face as he imitates the sterile distance of Westerners.
I stifle a giggle lest he think I’m laughing at him, rather than with him. He continues, elucidating his meaning by comparing our white skin to that of ice and other cold things. As he talks I get lost in his anthropological majesty. His beauty isn’t one that evokes images of fashion models but rather a marvel at human evolution and diversity. My eyes feel like caresses over his skin, the hue of brown sugar. A freckle in his supersternal notch is almost as dark as his thick, black wavy, shoulder-length hair kept controlled beneath a heavy alpaca hat.
I’m briskly brought back to attention when he nonchalantly asks about my own hair, “Is that your natural color?”
I nod my head yes, mostly to avoid a conversation about why Western women color their hair. He looks curious, perhaps disbelieving, and he brings his small hand up to my face.
“It doesn’t match here,” he points to my hair line, which admittedly shows signs of sun lightening. “Or here,” he says, gesturing toward my rather thin eye brows that I just can’t bring myself to dye. While he looks intently at me, my smirk reveals the laughter floating around in my belly.
I’m looking at his dark chocolate brown eyes, almond shaped like every tribe of Western Indians. Previous experiences of having my purse stolen and having 20 Hong Kong dollars picked right from my pocket enter my brain, a cautious thought pattern that all solo world travelers learn immediately and instinctively. I do believe, however, that I’ll be safer with him in an establishment than sitting here on a bench, though numerous armed guards do roam these streets in the center of Lima.
“I’m cold, so I’m going to sit in a cafe and take a coffee. Would you like to join me?”
“If you pay for me,” he says with absolute sincerity.
“Nope. No va a pasar,” I retort. Yet he accompanies me anyway as I stand up and proceed to an Illy cafe I’d discovered earlier in the day.
He’s a few inches shorter than I, I notice as we walk. This is also when I see how slender he is, that he bears not a drop of waste. We exchange names and I learn he’s Arshtek. He begins talking about his physics studies at his simpatico university here in Lima. He tells me that his university is the oldest in all of the Americas, failing his sciences by failing to offer proof via historical evidence, though for all I know he’s correct.
We arrive at the Italian cafe and he begins to tell me about his village in the Peruvian jungle. The 24-year-old’s father is, apparently, a shaman, and therefore he adores ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drug common in the Amazon. Sounds such as birds flying or insects walking become surrealistically loud to people under its spell. Its effects render impossible the ability to lie to oneself; rather it reveals answers to life’s looming questions.
“It shows your real form,” he says, seducing me toward curiosity by the throes of passion in his voice and the look of succumbing on his chiseled face. He licks his lips repeatedly as if he’s tasting its deliciousness, causing my eyes to linger on his gleaming, straight white teeth. I wonder how different the conversation would be if his English weren’t so good; then I wonder why he knows these particular words in English but he won’t tell me. He says only that he’s never taken an English class. It also dawns on me that he avoids using Castillano, or Peruvian Spanish, too. When I ask he tells me he speaks Quecha, known as the language of the Incas, admittedly not close to Spanish.
Then things change. He slows down conversation and observes.
“I like to watch you. We have a connection. I like your sexual energia,” he says. “I like your hair also. What is that thing you put your head on in bed?” He tilts his head onto his hands, slanted and in prayer pose.
“P…p…pillow,” he pauses then and seems to look into my core. “I think your hair would look good on my pillow.”
My eyes fly up and my nostrils flare at this Latin Lothario’s candor. When being cheeky or trying to scandalize someone with brashness, I used to say things like that about Eastern Indian men: “Yes, I love brown skin; it looks fantastic against my white bed linens.” I said it to get a rise out of people. Arshtek, however, has something else rising.
His machismo makes me feel exposed as if naked before a crowd of people and I keep my hands in front of my mouth to hide my face, to cover my blushing as he continues talking.
“In my village we have two very important roots to life. Do you know what they are?”
“Yes, love making and continuous life learning.” He talks about orgasms and carnal knowledge, the shameless, natural act between humans.
“What did I get myself into?” I mumble under my breath, punctuating my question with a full-throated laugh.
My 37 years are reduced to nothing as I feel like a teenager. My experiences with men from around the world have evidently not prepared me for this. Any defense I might practice against the heft of this romanticism couldn’t possibly be taken as true. I’m giddy as if my favorite singer were serenading me. I’m pathetic as a woman in a Harlequin romance novel or a female protagonist in a romantic comedy. Its power unveils every instinct I have as a liberated American woman to remain an equal to men. Instead every fiber of my feminine existence feels woven like fine silk.
This is not China, where people rarely touch in public. This is not India where public kissing is illegal. This is not America, where men couldn’t be bothered to sensually dote on women. This is Peru, where the lack of disguise of public affection stirs memories of my first blushing moments in Italy.
I have already fallen for this country. And while the tarot cards I recently had read did indicate marriage in my future, I doubt it’s with a young jungle man. I’m not enough of a cougar to do more than imagine a romp in the grass with Tarzan, regardless of his handsomeness.
After two perfect cups of cafe leche, I pay my bill and confess it’s time for me to go home. he doesn’t fight.Yet he also doesn’t let me get away so easily.
“When can I see you again?”
“Probably here sometime,” I say ambiguously.
That won’t work with Latin machismo, evidently, so I try another route. I pull out a piece of paper and a pen for him to write his number. If it were in his nature to give a look of disgust, he might have. But he didn’t.
“I think we have a connection,” he says. He notices my failed attempts to hail a taxi and secures one for me, opening the door for me and lingering at the curb, still holding the door open.
The look on his face isn’t a cultural expression. His is merely an expression of basic human instincts. My shoulders sink in defeat and I give him my phone number. He immediately calls it while still hampering the taxi’s departure.
It isn’t more than a couple of hours until he contacts me and asks if I’ve arrived safely. A girly smile sweeps across my face and I respond in kind.
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