On blacking out in Peru
I BLINKED INTO THE SPILLING LIGHT, turned away from the window, the sounds of the tinny announcer at the fútbol game across town, the street dogs fucking and fighting below.
Sometimes when I’m traveling, I can’t remember where I am. I have learned to let go of the panic, wait, and eventually, the desk, the narrow bed, the stuffed animals on the shelf, the dogs outside, the curtain-less window, the locked door will start to make sense. The things around me start to look familiar, even if just a little, letting me know where I am.
But this morning, I couldn’t figure out where I was, or more frightening, who I am. The panic rose like bile. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and pounding hammered between my eyes. Maybe I was hung over. But where had I been? What had I done the night before? There was nothing. I waited, hoping for the shadowy images from the night before to form, the way they finally do after a night of too much drinking, but they didn’t.
I sat up on the bed. I was in my homestay in Cusco, the room that the language school had found for me to live in for the four weeks I would be studying Spanish in Peru. I was still wearing the clothes from the night before, jeans and even my sandals. I hadn’t gone to bed without changing out of my clothes since college, and I had never before slept in my shoes. How did I manage to drink so much? I reached into the pockets on my jeans and found the crumpled bills. I knew how much money I had brought out with me. It was all there. Nothing made sense. How could I have gotten drunk enough not to remember, yet I hadn’t spent any money?
I walked to the bathroom, and the water was out again. Someone had gone to the bathroom, and the brown turd floated in the toilet. Mascara smeared down my cheeks. I hadn’t even washed my face. I went to the bathroom, tried not to look in the bowl.
I took off my jeans and shoes and crawled back in bed. I wouldn’t make it to class. I tried to retrieve something from the day before, started to run through the day and into the blank space where there had been night.
I went through the entire day in an effort to piece together where my memory stopped. I had eaten breakfast as usual, the 17-year-old maid, Juanna, serving me cereal and bananas, instant coffee, and bread. Juanna told me she had been working for the family ever since her mama married her new papa, and he didn’t want her. The family called her lucky because they had enough money to take her in. In exchange, she cooked and cleaned for them, fed their children and their host students. I had asked her to sit down and eat with me, but she said she wasn’t permitted. That she must wait, so she stood there, leaning on her mop, waiting for me and the “real” daughter to finish so she could eat.
The real daughter asked me if I had ever been to New York.
I told her I was born there, and she gasped, “Really?”
“It’s just that I’ve always wanted to go.”
“Because of Sex and the City. I love that show.”
“Most of the women in New York aren’t really like that,” I told her in my elementary Spanish.
“It’s just a TV show,” I said. “The women in New York aren’t really like Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones.”
At this, the real daughter stood up and said, “Forget it. I’m not asking you anymore questions.” She walked away, leaving her plate for Juanna to clear.
Juanna took her plate to the sink and began washing it. She turned to me and said, “I’m glad.”
“Glad?” I asked.
“That the women in America aren’t really like that. I had believed the same thing. That all the women in New York were glamorous and had fancy clothes and high heels.” Then she told me, “I’ve lost one of my sisters.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, wondering if I had misunderstood.
“We don’t know where she is,” Juanna said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Me too,” Juanna said. “It’s so hard to be the oldest.”
I nodded, thanked her for breakfast, and left for school. I walked, and men called to me in both Spanish and English: Hola, guapa. Bésame. Hey, babyyy. I looove you. I want to kisss you. I learned to stare ahead, ignore them. I learned that only a prostitute — or an American — would dare to meet their eyes. It was less threatening than in India, where there is no catcall, just a quiet stare, the kind you can only guess at what’s behind it. The stares that penetrate deeper than catcalls or compliments. The silence of them, terrifying.
I concentrated on what I remembered: The pack of dogs that came after me, and a little girl with a rock who scared them away. I thanked her, and she told me it was nothing. I was glad she was already so tough. I remembered walking past the Incan walls, the stones smooth like pillows, fitting together perfectly. And studying the subjunctive tense in class, walking home, dinner alone in the kitchen. The taxi ride to town and asking the driver how to say hello in Quechua, the fondue restaurant and the glass of red wine. I remembered everything before the Cuba libre. The rest, gone like a hole punched from my memory.
Here was my first thought: How could I have gotten so drunk so fast? I was ashamed. I had fuzzy nights, the kind you don’t remember until someone says something and then it all comes back. But a true blackout? I had a blackout once in college, the first time I learned what a shot was and passed out in the hallway of my dorm. But still, there were only patches missing. This was something else entirely. It was as if there had been nothing — straight from dancing to dreamworld, though I couldn’t even remember my dreams.
I tried to count my drinks: I had ordered a glass of red wine at the fondue place but no food because I had already eaten. My friend Marcela said, “I’ll pay for your wine. You bought mine last time.”
We left and walked to a nearby bar on the plaza because they had a DJ and dos por uno. I went up to the bar with Marcela and Louis, another language school friend. “Do you want a Cuba libre?” Louis asked me. “Two for one.”
“Sure,” I said, digging into my pocket for the money.
“I’ll get these two; you get the next two.” He handed me a Cuba libre, a drink that tasted more Coke than rum.
“Deal,” I shouted over the music.
We brought our drinks over to a table and sat down with our Swedish friends, Anna and Gus. A group of Peruvian men came to our table, and one of them said, “We want to practice our English. Can we sit with you?” We all wanted to practice our Spanish, so we agreed, even though the loud dance club was not exactly conducive to conversation.
One of the men turned to me and said, “Do you like to dance?”
I nodded. “Let’s go,” he said. “And your friend,” he pointed at Anna, “she can dance with my friend Gustavo.”
Anna and I agreed and followed them onto the dance floor. I brought my drink with me, but it was still full, so Gustavo took it and set it on a table behind us so I wouldn’t spill it. He took Anna’s and did the same. After a little while, our dance partners seemed to multiply. Anna and I were dancing with five or six men. I walked over to Marcela and asked her to come dance with us because we were having so much fun.
On my way back to the dance floor, I walked past the table where we’d left our drinks, and I took a sip.
The next hour or so was blurry, as if it happened underwater. I remember someone saying that another dance club would be more fun and the group of us walking down the cobbled streets and around the corner to another bar. I remember my legs being heavy and leaning on Marcela while we walked because the cobblestones seemed more slippery than usual. I remember being so tired and sitting down on a couch next to a young man from Israel, talking to him about something, but I couldn’t say what. Then the blurry images spin into a black hole, and the next thing I remember is the way the light slanted through the window in the morning, the way my mouth tasted metallic, the frightening blank space where there should have been memory.
I slept into the afternoon, missing class. Even though I still felt horrible, I dragged myself there because I wasn’t sure what happened, and I needed to find out. The usual guilt came, the worries: Did I get drunk and say something stupid or offensive? But mostly, I wanted someone to tell me what happened during the hours I lost. I was ashamed of myself, but more than that, I was curious.
When I got to the restaurant, I sat next to Marcela and said, “What happened last night?”
“You were in rare form,” she said.
“What happened? I remember dancing with the Peruvian guys, and then I can’t remember anything else.”
“It was so strange,” Marcela said. “It was like one minute you were fine and the next you were slurring your words, stumbling around, and hanging on Louis.”
“What do you mean hanging on Louis?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Like flirting.”
“What?” I was flirting with Louis? He was exactly half my age. I was 36, and he was 18, the age of my youngest students. The term cougar hadn’t even been invented yet, or if it had, I didn’t know it. Plus, I was in a relationship. I had given up flirting. Hadn’t I?
“Or maybe,” Marcela said, “you just couldn’t walk. You were pretty messed up.”
“How many drinks did I have?”
“I don’t know. I only saw you with the one at the first place. It was like one second you were sober, the next you were wasted drunk.”
“Did someone buy me drinks?” I asked. “I didn’t spend any of my own money.”
“I don’t know.”
“What happened after the second club?”
“You were slurring and falling down, so we put you in a taxi. We paid the driver and told him where to take you.”
At that moment, I realized these new friends, most of them much younger than me, had saved me. My friends in Peru ranged in age from 18 to 40, but most of them were well under 30. I was the second oldest in the group. And the least able to take care of myself, or so it seemed. The thought that the taxi driver might have done something bad to me crossed my mind, but I would have known, wouldn’t I?
“Where’s Anna?” I asked, my drunkenness still a mystery.
“No one has seen her all day,” Marcela said. “She didn’t come to school, either. She got drunk really quickly, too. We had to send her home in a taxi as well.”
“So weird,” I said, my head still pounding.
I started to apologize for getting drunk and having to be taken care of, and Marcela interrupted me, asking, “Do you think maybe you were drugged?”
Suddenly the evening made sense: my grinding headache and my loss of memory made sense. It was the only explanation. I had spent the entire day in bed, ashamed that I could have done this to myself. Now I was mortified that I had been so stupid. I nodded, mad at myself that I had allowed such a thing to happen. All at once I felt like I both deserved to feel as terrible as I did and didn’t deserve it. If I had too much to drink, it would have been clear that it was my fault. But this? I decided it was my fault because I had not been careful enough. I had allowed myself to be in the way of danger. Between the poundings in my head, I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “Watch your drink!” According to my mother, there was always someone to blame. Certainly it was the fault of those who had put the poison into my drink, but the men remained faceless, so I blamed myself.
I knew that I had been stupid but also lucky. I had a group of new friends who saw that I was in trouble, even if they didn’t know why, and put me in a taxi for home. It was luck that someone in our group had decided to leave the bar and that the men who had drugged us didn’t follow us. Luck that the taxi driver was a nice man and delivered me to my homestay.
Anna eventually turned up. Same story as mine. No memory after dancing. Lots of puking.
The strangest part of the whole thing was seeing the digital images of me before I went home but after my memory had failed. There was me, dancing with Louis, and I had to admit, it did look like I was flirting. And again, me, arms around Anna and Marcela, smiling for the camera. It was a me I recognize but one I did not embody. It was a body acting on its own, the mind elsewhere, yet the body still smiled for the camera, maybe even said, Gringo! as the shutter opened and shut.