Anne Hoffman meets someone in San Pedro and finds, as usual, it’s never how people tell you it’s going to be.

I SAW A GUY come out of the back of a restaurant. He’d just gotten off work. He was about my age, and he reminded me of my first big crush: the lead singer of a high school punk band, The Bowlcuts. I had never cared much for their sound, but I came to the shows for him.

This one had tanned skin, curly brown hair, and green eyes.

He looked at me. I looked away. Shy, retiring, girl-with-glasses habits die hard.

“Diosa!” he shouted out.

Goddess.

It took a little time to realize he was talking to me.

“Hey…?” I said, smiling.

I remembered my Spanish teacher Virna warning us about the boys in San Pedro, that they were all drogadictos, that San Pedro, being so close to Bolivia, was the main point of entry for the cocaine and heroin in Chile.

But I didn’t care. I had been listening to nueva trova music all month. I was getting over someone back in the US. I’d come here for adventure, but mostly life had been barbecues with my host family that seemed to go on forever, or getting drunk and fighting off street dogs in Valparaiso. San Pedro was a return to independence, a break from my life as a student and a host daughter. I was falling in love with the idea of falling in love. Particularly in South America, right where the continent curved.

The guy introduced himself. His name was Daniel, and he just happened to have a friend, Julio, who wanted to take us out.

Emily and I followed Daniel and Julio to a ramshackle house where Julio lived. His bed, table, guitar, and clothes took up most of the floor. We sat down in the crowded space, which was lit only by candles, and the stars, which, in the absence of any big city, shone visibly in the night sky. The air was cold, and Daniel gave me his sweater to wear. It smelled like him, that different, boy smell. I was nervously, cautiously, elated.

Julio rolled a small joint, and offered it to everyone. Emily and I drank wine from plastic cups. In a little while, another waiter friend came.

He was younger, nineteen or so, and made fun of our accents.

“When you speak Spanish, it comes out enrevesado.”

Garbled.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

He imitated how we rolled our r’s, the nasally way in which we expressed desire, need, and opinion.

“It’s hard for you,” he concluded.

I felt uncomfortable with him around. He left after a little while, and the night wore on, until the candles were considerably lower in their holders, just wicks. Daniel and Julio said they would walk us home.

Daniel and I walked slowly, while Emily and Julio went on ahead. He had his arm around me, and soon we were holding hands. I don’t remember when I consented to what was inevitably happening, unfolding right before me. I was so in it, I’d lost all control.

He and I had a moment of silence, excited, empty space between words. We kissed, underneath that starry sky, in the middle of a field, near some cow pastures.

We continued walking, and when we reached Carla’s house, Emily and I realized we had a bit of a dilemma on our hands. Carla was my host mother’s friend once removed; she was a tour guide in San Pedro and had reluctantly agreed to let us stay with her for a few days. We couldn’t invite the two strangers in to her house, but we didn’t want them to leave either.

“Let’s take the mattresses outside,” said Emily.

I was hesitant, but Emily insisted. Maybe the plastic-cup wine and the weed smoke made me move toward what was looking more and more like the best option. I gave in.

We opened the windows, and Emily pushed each mattress through the small grate. I pulled them out. We placed each colchón several hundred feet apart, in the alfalfa field that encircled Carla’s property.

I lay down with Daniel on the makeshift bed, and we pulled my scratchy blanket over us. My feet were sandy. My eyes were still sensitive from the sun-desert combination. My hair was so dry my curls had flattened around me.

He smelled faintly like the marijuana he’d smoked back at Julio’s place. I tasted of salt. The kisses were fumbling, and his movements rushed.

The whole night was me saying I didn’t want to have sex, and him saying he couldn’t sleep, and telling me how beautiful I was. He kissed my back, told me about medical school, how his mother got sick. He wanted to be in Venezuela, making her proud with his degree. Instead he was here, trying to make money. I said I was sorry.

She was a Mapuche Indian and his dad was a German immigrant. He felt no connection to his father, who had left when he was little. From Concepción, where I’d heard that the food was tasteless but the rivers pristine, Daniel saw himself as entirely indigenous.

It felt exotic and interesting and odd; but the illusion was soon shadowed by the reality that he was the strangest combination of someone with grown up problems — poverty, furloughed dreams, a crappy chamba so he could send money home — and not much life experience. Daniel admitted to me that I was his segunda mujer, meaning the second woman he’d ever slept with. I suddenly felt like the guy. Like I had to take care of him.

He didn’t really know what he was doing, he kept trying to rush into me. In English I would say what I was thinking. I have to teach you everything.

He pretended to be offended by my lapses into my mother tongue, and so I just said, tranquilo.

I noticed that when I finally took control, he trembled. I felt honored in a strange way. I wished that love didn’t have to be something that takes us by surprise. I wished it weren’t so unfamiliar.

He told me jokes until the sun came up, and Emily said she woke up to the sound of me laughing.

In the early morning light, Daniel said, “I’d like to see you many more times.” I told him I couldn’t stay, but that we could see each other before I left.

“¿Por qué no te quedas?”

Why don’t you stick around longer?

It was time for them to go, but Daniel kept kissing me goodbye. I started to feel the sinking sensation that I wanted him to leave. This wasn’t a Cuban bolero, and I didn’t love him. I wanted to run away, to be on my own again. But he wanted me to stay in his little tourist town, and go sand-boarding, and become another resident of San Pedro, which, for me meant: confused, dependent, alone. An outsider in a town where no one really belonged.

“Ok,” said Julio, “Let’s give the girls some time to rest.”

A few minutes after they left, Carla woke up.

“What the hell are the beds doing outside?” she yelled.

My good girl self broke down and confessed everything, with Emily adding a word in here and there. She spoke better Spanish than I did then.

Carla couldn’t believe that we’d taken her property outside without asking her, but most of all she couldn’t believe that we’d invited two desconocidos into her house, where no one knew that she lived alone.

“You’ve put me at all kinds of risk,” she said.

“Guys who work in San Pedro are all drogadictos. Who knows what they’re capable of?”

Carla left for work soon after that, and the feeling that I’d done something wrong, that no longer felt right or justified – just thoughtless – rose uncontrollably in my stomach. I wanted to cry, to take back everything that had happened.

Emily and I wrote her a letter. We explained that we were leaving that day; that we hadn’t meant to compromise her living situation. We gave her Julio’s cell phone number, and the name of the restaurant where he and Daniel worked. And then we called a cab, got on a bus, and left San Pedro de Atacama. We left without saying anything to Daniel or Julio, mouths dry from too much kissing, and went on to the next town.