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One Day in July


           It was less of a road than a neighborhood, budding off from the main bustle of the periodically cobble-stoned street. Divided evenly by a canal whose waters fed rice paddles, cooked dinner, and provided bathing water, the two sides of the street were connected by a single wooden bridge with slender bowlegged supports. Like the road, the street was less of a street than two parallel streams of hurrying bodies, baskets on heads, babies on backs, hands in hands. The cars and motorbikes surrendered to this human current and kept to the avenue, which ran quickly past the street-that-wasn’t-quite-a-street and the road-that-wasn’t-quite-a-road-because-necessity-made-it-a-neighborhood. And it was there on the packed red dirt of the road, between a cluster of narrow doors, pockets of men playing cards, clotheslines, and tight knots of chicken wire, that we came to their house. 

           She held the curtain that was the door open and motioned for us to come in and watch our heads. The house was one room, one bed, two chairs, and several heaps of blankets, with various living utensils stacked against the wall that was once a shipping crate. She sat next to her husband on the bed and waved us to the chairs. The four of us piled into the room. As the guest of honor, I sat on one of the chairs. We looked at each other through the dim light.

           Our hosts were my new mother’s sister and her husband, or my new aunt and uncle. “Manahoana…my English…very bad. Miala tsiny aho.” The husband smiled his embarrassment at us with two teeth. He gestured around the room and then plucked at his thin linen shirt, searching for the right words. “Tonga sao. Welcome.” My new mother placed a hand on my shoulder and nodded to him in encouragement. My new siblings and I smiled and each other and at our hosts. Our hosts grinned back, grasping onto that thread of common communication. We bobbed heads at each other in a circle for a while. Eventually, the husband shrugged and spoke again. “Tonga sao! Welcome. I am….” He grinned crookedly and gestured sharply around the room.  “Welcome. I am poverty.” 

           I could hear my new brother shuffling his feet. He tapped my shoulder, urging me to play the part we had all rehearsed before coming. “Manahoana,” I said. “Faly mahalala anao.” Hello. It’s nice to meet you. Smiles all around and my host mother softly explained that we had to leave. 

           My new aunt let the curtain fall shut behind us, but her husband’s words had already rippled slowly down the packed dirt road, past the men gathered around their card game and past hundreds of rushing feet. They had seeped into the exhaust pipes and sputtered out to wade across the sluggish canals, dance through the rice paddies and jump up, up, up only to get caught by the black soot of industry and settle above the city in a thin greyish haze. I watched them pass by, breathed them in, coughed them out, felt them settle in my pores, drank them, ate them, and there they still sit in my stomach, waiting to digest.   ■

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