Literary Orphans

El Fenómeno del Niño by Nicolas Poynter



He could see it now, clearly.  He could even make out her foot tapping nervously the way it did when she was surrounded by people and certainly it was that aggressive, distinct rhythm that had allowed him to find her in the crowd.  From a distance he finally saw what he had never been able to see up close.  She hadn’t told him about it directly but had mentioned it in passing, as if it hadn’t needed to be introduced formally because it was obvious, but he really hadn’t seen it because she mostly wore jeans, until now, and when she was naked with him in bed the angle was all wrong and anyway he never seemed to get past her eyes which were storms of brown and gray, but somehow different from one another in a way that he could never understand.


He had, of course, noticed her slight limp from the beginning.  And when she had reached for her drink on their first date, he had seen the transparent band surrounding the delicate, oddly-thin fingers of her right hand and later, when she removed the band, how they bent awkwardly in different directions making him think of Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar.  Often he had had to cut up her chicken breast for her because while she was more than one-handed, she was less than two and sometimes when she was exhausted it was just too much.  But still he had never really seen it.  Not really.  Now he did.  She was stopped at the corner of Pardo and Diagonal and he could clearly see that one of her legs was skinnier than the other.  And that was why she limped—some disease that she had named twice but never explained—and that was why she always wore long pants.  Until now.


Beads of sweat formed on his stomach and he smothered them with a handful of table napkins, a desperate attempt to save the shirt.  Hopeless, he thought, like those country people back in the states that filled sandbags all night against a river.  Hopeless.  Soon enough their farm would be underwater and soon enough his shirt would be soaked through, waves of salt residue along the curves of his chest and back where the sweat tended to accumulate.  He had been the first to carry two shirts to work, back in January when the cruelty of this particular summer became obvious, and now everyone arrived with two shirts, but sometimes they needed three.  He moped his forehead and, anticipating the arrival of his girlfriend, her foot moving up and down like a jackhammer, asked the waiter to bring two more drinks and another dozen paper napkins.


Haiti had survived fifty years on the corner of Pardo and Diagonal but it had little to do with the food; it was the strong drinks and it was the cool winds that always seemed to be sweeping across their tables. Without air conditioning, and almost no Peruvians had it, these were the only weapons against the heat.  “Que rico,” they had whispered to themselves as the breezes wiped away the suffering of summer.  “Que riiico.”  Even on the most sweltering day, you had always been able to find mercy within Haiti.  But this summer was different.  Not even Haiti could fight back against this summer and the long line of tables that fronted Diagonal like a row of beach homes remained mostly unoccupied.  Haiti had been abandoned with the rest of them and waiters all over Lima were losing their jobs.


A trio of young professional women passed along the threshold of Haiti, not even pausing at the thought of an afternoon drink because Haiti had long stopped being Haiti.  The heat seemed to have its hand on them, pushing them, their normally regal posture warped like so many bricks were tied to one side of them.  They had been walking past his table for longer than he could remember, like Peruvian princesses with silky black hair cascading to their waistlines, but now something was off, one of them had cut her hair shoulder-length and he felt sure that he could see the pain of that submission on her face.  Soon enough, he thought, if the temperature kept rising like those rivers back in the states, the other two would surrender as well.


The traffic light at the corner of Pardo and Diagonal finally changed and the taxis began collecting there like dirty eggs thrown against a wall, an army of pedestrians, his girlfriend in the lead, moving through them, across Pardo, down Diagonal and towards him.  She still didn’t see him.  She was struggling to keep up because she didn’t like it when people walked around her but they did it anyway, all the while inspecting her, sensing some defect in her and needing to satisfy their curiosity.  Their eyes went first to her arms, her right arm also a bit skinnier than the left one and her wrist bent awkwardly like it was waiting for some imaginary prince to kiss it.  But it was hard to see it there because of the distance between the two arms.  Their faces then dropped lower and lower, looking but not looking, until they arrived at her naked legs and then, like him, they could see it.  They exchanged smirks with their friends, certainly feeling some sort of absurd pride at solving the riddle.  But she didn’t notice them or him because she always walked with her eyes looking directly at the ground in front of her, and with a slight limp.  And that was why she wore long pants and that was why she drank too much and that was why she sounded like a wounded animal in her sleep sometimes.


He rested his forehead against his hand and started to cry.  He couldn’t help himself.  His tears dotted the table like rain even though it never rained in Lima.  He cried into his cocktail and into the sweat puddles that had accumulated on the table in front of him.  He smothered his face with paper napkins as the waiter, the one who always shook his hand when he arrived, slipped quietly back into the restaurant.  He just couldn’t help himself.  The sun was going to destroy everything.

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Nicolas Poynter is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University.  His work has appeared in many publications including North American Review, Citron Review, Chagrin River Review and So It Goes–the journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.  He is a high school dropout (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches physics in Lima, Peru.


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–Art by Kaia Pieters