I recently discovered photographs of our home in Bogotá among pictures taken by my grandfather in early 1964, a few months after we’d arrived. Especially dear is the photo of my sister (7) and me (9) with our neighbors, the Cárdenas family. Here is how we met.
We had never lived in a whole house by ourselves, and this was the home provided by the Embassy for the Public Affairs Officer, Dad’s new job in Bogotá. We were not allowed to be alone on the street, but the house included a walled-in backyard where we could play on our own.
Behind Rosanna’s garden, we played Foreign Service ladies in the wooden crate that had carried Mom’s piano, using old Embassy paper for our calling cards.
Closer to the house and just beyond the kitchen window, Dad hung a tire swing, like in the Bobbsey Twins. If I faced the neighbors’ tall brick wall and trailed the toes of my shoes in the dirt, I could go straight away from the kitchen window and then back again, but usually one of my shoes didn’t keep up and I’d be twisting in a circle with my stomach beginning to hurt. If I looked up, I could get a deep breath and let my hair blow while I wound my way back again. I usually just pushed Susie back and forth, pretty nicely most of the time. Sometimes, if we called him, our new boxer Caesar would come out and let us chase him and tackle him, avoiding his piles of poop. No one was strong enough to walk Caesar.
About a week into the new year, Susie and I were playing when a clod of dirt came flying over the brick wall, narrowly missing Susie’s head.
“Hey!” I yelled. The wall was too high to see over. I jumped back as another clump of dirt soared into the air. I was getting mad now. “Ma, cosa fai?”
Italian was my best defense. Spanish was beginning to sound familiar, but I still counted on Italian to express myself when it really mattered. It was such a good language to be angry in. Here we were in our own backyard, without an adult to protect us, and we were under attack by a invisible enemy. “Managia!” I grabbed Susie and turned toward the house.
A shock of cold hit me right between the shoulder blades. I pivoted. A wiggly stream of water wavered in the air like a wary snake, wobbling here and there in search of its next victim. Susie let go my hand and tripped over a soggy clump of dirt. I reached down, took a few steps toward the wall, and heaved the clump as hard as I could over the wall. The stream of hose water died down. We were fighting back.
I took a deep breath, feeling not very filled: at 8,000 feet, Bogotá’s air was very thin on oxygen. I took off my sweater, never minding the cold damp of the grey afternoon, and led Susie parallel to the wall to the edge of our yard where the fragrant leaves of a eucalyptus tree hung like icicles.
“Okay,” I knelt down and spread my sweater next to the dirt. “Help me.” We quickly covered the red wool with old leaves, dead grass, and dirt and tied the arms together. I lifted the weapon by its buttonholes, ready to launch.
Instead, more dirt came flying over the wall. Both of us yelled this time, and suddenly our maids Julia and Rosanna were next to us, screaming at the wall in Spanish and herding Susie and me back toward the house. In moments, we were seated at the kitchen table, wrapped in Julia and Rosanna’s bright wool shawls, their ruanas, which they normally kept in their room next to the courtyard.
Julia fussed at us, shaking her head at the ruined sweater. She had worked and lived at this house for the other families of the men that used to have my father’s job, and she spoke a little English. “Cardenas children very bad! Maleducados! ” Rude. So, these attackers had a name: Cárdenas.
Julia carried the ruined sweater out to the laundry tub while Rosanna stayed at her stove, shaving dark chocolate into scalded milk and whipping it into brown foam with a whirly paddle she rubbed between her palms. She poured the hot chocolate into two big cups. “Tomen, niñas.” Here you go, girls. She stood back looking uncomfortable, her arms folded in front of her chest.
The milk and tangy chocolate spread their warmth inside me, offsetting the wet war and the chilly day. I felt my stomach begin to relax. I swung my leg into Susie’s foot. “We will win this war,” I said, and smiled. We had the name: Cárdenas, and we’d win this fight without involving Mom and Dad. It was good to feel confident about something.
The following Saturday afternoon I was pushing Susie on the tire swing, keeping a wary ear open for the sound of scuffling or water dribbling and my eye on some very nice dog poops to toss over at the Cárdenas enemy if they made any moves. I knew I could pull this sweater over my hands like gloves. We weren’t going to lose another battle.
There was a scrambling on the other side of the wall, where branches of our huge peach tree stretched onto the neighbors’ side. A pair of hands followed by a boy’s head popped up over the tiled top of the wall. The boy looked at me in surprise, and then disappeared. Then, another boy looked over the wall and also disappeared. Susie climbed out of the tire and we walked over. Muffled conversation, then two pairs of shoes poked over the wall as the boys swung from the tree and onto the flat tiled surface.
They raised empty hands, grinning big sheepish smiles. They looked to be about our ages. “You are not Abramsons boys, yes?” the bigger one said, speaking about the family who we’d replaced. “We fight those boys, not girls.”
I stood astride a dog poop, my hands on my hips, and looked up. I knew Susie was just behind me. I hoped she’d seen the poop.
“Muy malos,” I said, very bad. My Spanish was not much better than their English, but I wasn’t going to let them get off the hook that easily. Confusing us for boys? It still was not okay.
“Yes, we are sorry. Very bad. Sorry,” the older one said. He smiled a little bigger. “Soy Luis.”.
“Andres,” the other one said, nodding.
It was only polite to follow suit. I used the names that Julia and Rosanna called us. “Juanita,” I said. “Mi hermana Susi.” My sister Susie. I took a step back and knew I’d landed right in the poop. There wasn’t anything to do but wait the boys out, smiling.
“Hola,” Susie said.
“Hola,” Luis and Andres said in unison. We looked at each other. “Adios,” Luis said. Andres waved and they disappeared.
“Yuck!” Susie said, pointing at my shoe.
“I know, I know,” I said, sidestepping the rest of the stuff as I limped toward the edge of the grass to grind the poop off with dirt. My shoe smelled the whole rest of the weekend while it aired out in the laundry area outside the maids’ room.
Luis. Andres. Not the enemy. Maybe even friends?