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On This Shore of the World

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En esta orilla del mundo, lo que no es presa es baldío
Creo que he visto una luz al otro lado del río
*
-Jorge Drexler, "Al otro lado del río"

*

Alberto came back to lower deck, where Luz was standing next to the cot. Ernesto was awake now, breathing normally, talking and even smiling up at her, but still flat on his back.

"I brought you some dinner," Alberto said. "Fish and boiled potatoes. Not too exciting, but it's good enough for us, right?"

"I'll leave you two," said Luz.

"You're welcome to join us, though--"

"I should go back to work."

"Thank you for staying with me," said Ernesto. "Maybe we can talk more another time."

"Yeah," said Alberto, "thank you for watching him for me."

She smiled at both of them.

"Hey, I'll see you later, right?"

"Enjoy your evening, boys."

When she was gone Alberto set about arranging their bodies and blankets, balancing himself on the cot while helping Ernesto prop himself up with a pillow and a duffel bag. He was afraid Ernesto might be too weak to feed himself but he did all right once he was sitting up. He was obviously hungry but moving slowly, still shaking a little.

"Can't say I'd mind having a girl like that tending to me next time I'm not feeling well," Alberto said, nudging him.

Ernesto smiled tolerantly. "We had a nice talk."

"Oh yeah? Say anything about me?"

Ernesto shook his head. "We were talking about her family. She has a little boy, did you know?"

"She didn't say." Alberto suddenly wished for a cigarette, though he wouldn't think of smoking next to Fuser at a time like this, when he was still recovering from an attack. He wanted to clench something in his hand though, so he just gripped the side of the cot.

"He lives with her mother and her aunt and uncle in Iquitos, and she has a younger sister and brother."

"How nice."

"The ferry trip is a day and a half each way, so she doesn't get to see him for two days each week."

All right, he should have guessed earlier where this was going. Still, he tried to steer them away. "Good thing her mom's there to take care of them all."

"They have a little plot of land but they haven't been able to sell any of the food they grow lately, so they all depend on the money from her job."

And what was he supposed to say to that, really? Thanks for letting me know? Wouldn't you like to help support her family by lending me the rest of the money I need for a date with her? I'm sorry I ever considered exploiting this poor girl, I'll now make it my life's work to ensure she and her family find dignified work and never again have to depend on letches like me?

But Ernesto was quiet, concentrating on eating again rather than staring at Alberto in the sharp, challenging way he did sometimes. He didn't seem to need the conversation to continue, so Alberto just left it alone, but it was still there, in the dank river air hanging between them.

That was the thing about Fuser. He couldn't let things go, decide to have a good time with a nice girl. He had to weigh the ethical and political consequences of everything. It wasn't that he demanded you do the same, exactly. But he made you wonder what was wrong with you, that you hadn't thought about it, that you hadn't cared.

Without him this trip would have been fun, one long party from Patagonia to Miami. Without him this trip would have been a waste of time, money spent with nothing gained, kilometers covered without meaning.

Without him this trip wouldn't have happened at all.

"I'm lucky she was there to help," Ernesto said after a while.

"You're lucky I was there to help."

"Yeah, and lucky it happened here, with plenty of people around, not out in the middle of nowhere…"

But it had happened in the mountains too. There'd been other asthma attacks on this trip. Just without other people in the way they'd always had the medicine close at hand. "I would have taken care of you anyway, Fuser. What, do you think I want to face your old lady after I let you choke to death on the side of a road somewhere in the Andes? An adventurer I may be, but I'm not that brave."

Ernesto laughed out loud and immediately started gasping, making Alberto regret the joke. He rubbed his friend's back slowly, saying, "Calm down, Fuser, come on, it wasn't that funny." Ernesto nodded, slowing his breathing with effort. "We've got the medicine right here, nothing's going to happen. You're all right. Do you want it?"

Ernesto shook his head. "I'm all right," he said after a few more breaths.

"Of course you're all right." Alberto took the plate he'd almost dropped and set it on the floor, and then came back and put his arm around him again. "I told you, I'm bringing you home in one piece."

"I don't know if they're going to recognize us when we get back."

"Not if you don't keep eating, they won't."

Ernesto didn't bother answering that. He'd had enough. "We'll go back to Alta Gracia and Luz and her family will still be here," he said.

That was the other thing Fuser would do. Whenever you actually started to feel like a real adventurer he would remind you that you were just playing at being poor. That maybe you weren't good enough for Chichina but you were too good for la Negra. That you were hungry for a few days there, crossing the mountains, but you share a continent with people who never stop being hungry, who can never decide enough is enough, call mom and dad and go home to a hot meal and a warm bed. Of course, the people they met along the way were always reminding of that too.

Ernesto was shifting, moving to lie down, but Alberto didn't want to let him go, so he lay down with him. It was uncomfortable because the cot was narrow and Alberto wasn't small, but Ernesto didn't complain. Neither one of them said anything for a long time, just lay there and breathed.

Alberto had never had asthma, but at times like these he thought he knew what it was like, because he wanted so much it made his chest ache, and he didn't know how to take it in, get a hold of it. Still he breathed in and out and he hoped, believed that made it easier for Ernesto, when he could hear and feel Alberto's chest rising and falling, slow and steady at his back.

"No, we'll still be here," Alberto promised, though he wasn't quite sure what he meant, and he wasn't sure whether Ernesto was awake to hear him now. "We'll go back to Alta Gracia, but we'll always be right here."