September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mannequins of Progreso

One of the reasons I decided to move from my old apartment was my neighbor, Vivi. Vivi was the kind of vecina that had a proclivity for dropping by the second I sat down to enjoy the fruits of a home-cooked meal. Once seated at my rickety kitchen table, where she would kindly helped herself to a plate of whatever I had prepared, the saleswoman who doubled as a psychologist in training would often try selling me underwear and socks even when I said I didn’t want any. And how could I forget the times (times meaning most hours of the day) that she would yell on the phone, not seeming to notice that our walls were paper-thin and that anything she had to say, regardless of how personal it was, was mine for the hearing.

If Vivi did anything that was absolutely bothersome, it was her habit of blasting the same song over and over again most mornings, noons, and nights. It was a Beyoncé song that, judging by its showtunesiness, came from the movie Dreamgirls. After listening to the Dream Girls song 90 times for several weeks straight, I could accurately conclude that it wasn’t Beyoncé’s best. It made me realize that I much prefer monotone Beyoncé with a dance beat, i.e. All the Single Ladies, Telephone, Videophone, Say My Name, Survivor, etc. etc. etc.

Channeling my inner passive aggressive teenager, I couldn’t simply ask Vivi to lower her music. Instead, I’d play my own music a few notches louder. My choice was Judas – a song that many Progreseños view as the devil’s anthem – which I had learned to use on several occasions to drown out the perpetual racket from the evangelical church across the street.

As predicted, Vivi would respond by raising her volume. Then I’d raise mine. Vivi would raise hers again, and once again up mine would go. Fortunately, the power of my laptop speakers was greater than whatever device she was using, which allowed me to claim a not-so-quiet victory each morning as I tried to eat my oatmeal in peace while ignoring the subsequent shouting match between American pop princesses.

Vivi’s music selection really aggravated two Alaskans who lived with me during the month of May. The Alaskans, who were accustomed to extreme sleeping impediments such as 24 hours of sunlight, couldn’t handle the 5:30am alarm that was Beyoncé’s attempt at Broadway, especially when it went on repeat. Vivi clearly didn’t have a care in the world for anyone else’s sleep cycles but her own. I didn’t know whether to be peeved or impressed by her total lack of empathy.

Vivi took a liking to me in a way that she didn’t to the Alaskan guys – I suppose because I actually said hello to her and occasionally gave her food. One night she stopped by to share some of my curried lentils. After raving about the food (and successfully stroking my culinary ego), she told me all about her career in psychology. She admitted that she had chosen to study psychology because she had needed clinical help when she was younger. Ever since the death of her mother when she was fifteen, Vivi felt like she was divided. A part of her wanted to go on with life and study and be successful, yet another part wanted it all to end before the rest could even begin.

Vivi’s psychologist not only treated her, but he inspired her to study psychology so she could have an impact on people struggling with mental disorders or suicidal thoughts. That day, in fact, one of Vivi’s patients at the clinic had slit his wrist. Vivi had to watch doctors sew the violent and screaming boy up in order to control the bleeding. The clinic called at least seven times during our meal to update her on the patient’s condition. Vivi apologized after each call time, but I didn’t mind. It was clear that she had bigger things to attend to besides curried lentils.

Vivi went on to say that one thing she disliked about the psychology department was that it was overrun with girls. She said she was ready for a boyfriend but that it was hard to find one at school or in Honduras in general. An attractive girl with long eyelashes and birthmarks in cute places like the tip of her nose, Vivi was well used to the raspy sounds and comments from Honduran men on the street who would tell her she was deliciosa and rica. Not one to remain quiet, Vivi could not help but yell back at the men, which normally resulted in more comments like, “Oh, angry chicks turn me on!”

The dinner ended with me being so thoroughly impressed by Vivi that I didn’t mind when she went back to her room and started blasting Beyoncé. I did end up minding the following morning when the repeating song woke me up yet again. That’s when I decided that no matter how much I liked Vivi, the second-story apartment wasn’t big enough for the both of us…even if my speakers were better than hers.

Beyoncé was kind enough to serenade me even as I moved out. Vivi and I parted with a cordial hug, and we agreed to remain in touch. I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter since Vivi wanted me to offer a yoga class to the psychology department of her university. She wanted her fellow students to learn about an alternative form of therapy, which I was more than happy to share.

I waited for Vivi at the bus station in El Progreso. The Honduran family whose house I had previously shared with Vivi dropped her off. Inside the car, I complimented Vivi on her professional attire. The comment normally would have elicited a polite thank you, but this time it resulted in an eye roll and a grunt. Once we were out of the car, the Honduran aunt pulled me aside to ask if I knew that Vivi was bipolar. I nodded, even though that knowledge was new to me.

“You have to spend the whole day with her,” the aunt said with a smile.

I did? I wondered if the family was getting back at me for having ditched my former dwelling.

The Honduran family sped away as soon as they closed their car doors, leaving me behind with someone who looked more like a pissed off cat with all of the hairs on its back spiked up than a person. Vivi refused to sit next to me on the bus ride, which I thought was odd. She said I couldn’t talk to her until her headache went away. When the fare-collector tapped Vivi to ask her for her money, she snapped and told him not to touch her. The man pulled his hand away and exchanged a smile with the girls behind Vivi, the kind of cordial gesture rational people make when in the presence of someone on a far-off mental plane.

Once at the University, Vivi took me to the psychology department. It turned out that she hadn’t scheduled the yoga class in advance, so there was little for me to do other than to talk about yoga to the students as they waited in rundown classrooms for their professors to either show up thirty minutes late or to never arrive at all.

Vivi and I stopped for brunch at the university, where we met Doña Suzy, the owner of La Porra, one of the university’s small café stands. Doña Suzy was a very heavy woman who was permanently plopped on a wooden bench since moving around wasn’t easy and she was too big for the plastic chairs. Vivi called her “Mami” and vented to her about all of her problems. She had a headache…professors in the psychology department were giving her a hard time…her clients weren’t showing up for their appointments…her cousin had just been shot and killed, and the already decomposed body had been found near a river several days after the incident.

Her cousin had what? I thought. Were these really the kinds of problems people just casually brought up in conversation around here?

Doña Suzy looked at Vivi with the concerned eyes of a mother who senses something wrong with her child. When Vivi got up to return her plate to the kitchen, Doña Suzy took the opportunity to whisper to me that she was worried because Vivi never used to act this way. She wanted me to see if I could use yoga to make her feel better.

When Vivi came back to our table, I suggested that we do a few yoga techniques to relax before her next class. Vivi thought it was a good idea and said we could do yoga just over the hill behind the basketball court with the cracked concrete and hoops with no nets.

On the way over, Vivi told me I was walking too fast. I should have helped her up the hill because she was wearing heels, she said. When we were under the tree, I taught her how to rotate her neck. She said that I was stressing her out more because I wasn’t explaining that she needed to rotate her neck in full circles, not small circles. I had her do breathing exercises to get her to relax, but she criticized me when I accidentally told her to breathe through her left “nose” instead of her left “nostril” in Spanish.

“How many noses do I have, Michael? Six? Seven?”

I finally got Vivi to calm down a bit with the breathing exercises, but before we finished she said she was stuffed up and didn’t want to practice them anymore. After a few unproductive shoulder stretches, I suggested that we head back to the school to make it in time for her last class.

Once we were in the classroom, Vivi sat next to the back window and told me that I could sit next to her, which was probably the nicest thing she had said to me all day. She then pulled out her blue Black Berry, a status symbol in Honduras, and told me that music helped her relax. She asked if I could help translate the words of her favorite song.

Favorite song? I thought. Dear God…Allah…Rah…Shiva…Beyoncé! Anything but the song!

But I knew I didn’t have a choice.

After pressing a few buttons, Beyoncé’s overly dramatic voice started belting out the lyrics of the same Dream Girls song that had driven me away from my former home. The other students didn’t react at all to the noise, carrying on casually with their conversations as though the song was a normal part of their daily routines.

I couldn’t help but grin at the scene and the situation I had gotten myself into.

“Why are you smiling, Michael?” Vivi asked, her eyes narrowed and critical.

I gulped. “I…I just don’t know if I can translate it, Vivi.”

“You’ve been in Honduras for 9 months and you can’t translate a song? Just give it a try!”

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and decided that there was no choice for me but to do Vivi Hyde’s bidding. So I listened.

“Listen to the song here in my heart
A melody I start but can’t complete
Listen to the sound from deep within
It’s only beginning to find release

“Oh, the time has come for my dreams to be heard
They will not be pushed aside and turned
Into your own all ’cause you won’t listen.”

The lyrics were actually pretty in their own way. Even though I didn’t like the melody or the voice, there was still some merit to the song’s message.

“Listen, I am alone at a crossroads
I’m not at home in my own home
And I’ve tried and tried to say what’s on mind
You should have known.

“Oh, now I’m done believing you
You don’t know what I’m feeling
I’m more than what you made of me
I followed the voice you think you gave to me
But now I’ve gotta find my own, my own.”

It wasn’t until then that I realized that I had never taken the time to listen to the words. I didn’t even know the name of the song until Vivi told me. “Listen,” it was called.

As I sat there with Vivi playing the song, she looked of into the distance at something far beyond her fellow students and the off-white walls with faded messages about democracy and femicides. She didn’t speak English, but she nodded as though she understood every word. She rocked back and forth ever so slightly while Beyoncé sang the song I had heard so many times but whose meaning I had failed to comprehend until that very moment. He eyes were blank and absent, and her thoughts – however severed and wounded those thoughts were – went tranquil in those soft seconds of Beyoncé’s ballad. She didn’t blink once until the song had come to its familiar end.

“Well that’s over,” Vivi said, sitting back in her chair once the song had concluded. “What did you think of it, Michael?”

I didn’t know what to say. This girl with her two personalities, her fallen mother, her disintegrated family, her class schedule, her two jobs, and her dream of companionship had been struggling for breath all this time and I hadn’t even noticed. Even when she had Beyoncé practically screaming her story at me 90 times a day, morning, noon, and night, the hurt seeping in through the cracks and crevices of our hollow apartment walls, I hadn’t been listening at all to all that was missing.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, my grin long since faded.


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