The Third World is Just Around the Corner

By R. Clifton Spargo

Even after the trip, when they’d arrived back in the United States, Anne couldn’t get Baní out of her system. The town was immediately memorable. “Baní is—I can still smell it, hear it, feel it on my skin—it’s pure chaos,” she’d written in her travel diary the day after her first visit. “I’ve never seen anything like it. How to describe it? There are people everywhere, coming at you from all sides.” A stampede of smiling impoverished Dominicans advanced each time the bus stopped on the trip from Santo Domingo into the small town, the people stretching up to the windows to sell fruit, candy, trinkets, hats, water, forcing items toward the inquisitive American passengers (the Dominicans inside the bus simply ignored the importunate crowds), and if a passenger so much as pointed at an item, it was thrust into her hands even as a mendicant trader raised an empty palm, demanding immediate payment.

Outside the bus Anne couldn’t focus and so just followed her sister Kit’s lead. The only way to get around once you were inside the city was on scooters with exposed engines and exhaust pipes. Iván, the oldest son of the family that had hosted Kit when she’d been stationed here with the Peace Corps, had arranged for the two women to ride on the back of the scooters, holding on to their drivers, trying to keep legs raised so as not to burn them on the exhaust pipes. Winding their passengers through thick crowds, the drivers would head straight for pedestrians, expecting even elderly women to move rapidly out of the way. All around them there were noises: a medley of back-firing and distant gunshots, bartering, heated arguments. In front of a row of shops Anne watched a man working construction in the street, lying on his back to reach an exposed pipe of some sort, while an ordinary pedestrian, who’d been squeezed off the sidewalk into the streets by the crowds, stepped over his prone body. The construction worker got to his feet and began to wave his hammer violently in the air, swearing in Spanish, but the pedestrian kept walking as if the man didn’t matter to him. Eventually they were shouting at each other and Anne was asking Kit, “What are they saying? My God, is he going to hit him with that hammer?” and Kit responded, “No, he’s not going to hit him, but he says he is.”

All afternoon they shopped without urgency, looking at paintings by local artists, trying to decide if they’d make good presents and whether they could be taken through customs unharmed. At a pharmacy Anne wandered inside without telling Kit, fascinated by what toiletries were sold in the D.R. When Kit found Anne a few minutes later, the terror was just starting to fade from Kit’s face. “Anne, you can’t do that. You can’t wander off. You don’t speak any Spanish, you don’t know this city. You could disappear so quickly, hardly anyone would notice. Someone could just pull you into an alley.”

After that, Baní seemed full of foreboding and dangerous characters. A woman tried to sell them scarves and as they passed her by Anne said, “Gracias, no thank you,” whereupon the woman, angry at being rejected, called after them, ¡Americana! ¡Americana flaca! Kit laughed and told Anne that the woman thought they were too skinny. Men kept saying things to Anne in Spanish and when she’d ask Kit to translate, Kit’s answer was always, “You really don’t want to know” or “Stop making eye contact with them.” Involuntarily Anne remembered how stressful it had been for Kit her first few months in the D.R., her stories about what it was like to be a single, modernized woman in the Third World—how she had to ride her bike from her remote village into the community center in Baní, how men would say lewd things each day, how even little boys threw sticks at her spokes so they could stop her and talk to her, flirting with their fantasy (gleaned from the pornographic images of American women played on Dominican television after nine each night) of sexually indiscriminate, unmarried womn. On the way into Baní it was downhill and Kit sped past the comments, but on the way back up she struggled, having to endure everything the men said, some of them jogging alongside her, assuring Kit that they knew where she lived and would visit her if she wanted a man’s company.

Toward evening when Kit and Anne found themselves in front of a row of shops, Anne noticed that Kit was staring ahead into the crowd, bending her head to follow the movements of a stranger.

“That’s so weird,” Kit finally whispers and suddenly they’re all the way inside of a world her sister knows in a way that Anne herself can never fully grasp.

“What’s weird?”

“I think that might be Marta.”

Marta was a girl who lived down the road from Kit’s host family. As a child of seven she’d often visited Kit, completely entranced by the exotic American woman who lived alone. Whenever Kit would travel back to the D.R. after her visits to Chicago, loaded up with presents for her host family, she always also brought a few small gifts for Marta.

“Marta,” Kit begins to call, with that beautiful lilting “r,” the cadent accent on the first syllable, sounding so much like a local almost no one stops to look around, except for the girl herself who, still a long distance away, turns to look directly at them, though it’s hard to say whether she recognizes Kit. Without nodding, the girl turns again, continuing on her way as if she’d never been addressed. Kit is stunned for a moment. “That was her, I know it,” she says and begins calling after Marta again, this time more loudly.

By the time they arrive at the section of the street where Marta had been, there’s no one in sight. “Something strange is going on,” Kit finally says.

“Maybe she didn’t recognize you.”

Though the day’s visit to Baní is behind her, it hangs on dreamlike in Anne’s mind. She is recalling photographs of a beautiful mocha-skinned little girl, reasonably confident from the glimpse she caught of her that last night’s teen-ager and the child of the six-years-old photos, are the same. Sitting in the morning sun by the pool, Anne writes in her journal:

October 29th, 9:00 a.m.

So now Kit tells me what has her so worried. “Where we were yesterday evening,” she says, “there were a lot of prostitutes. In that part of town most of the women are prostitutes, and you get so you can tell pretty quickly which are which.”

Iván has arranged a taxi for their trip to see Kit’s Dominican family. Soon they are driving for close to two hours on the dusty road into Santo Domingo, then another hour by bus on into Baní, finally on motorcycle driven again by two of Iván’s friends, to reach Kit’s small village up in the hills above Baní well after noon.

Kit’s Dominican family is not surprised to see them. Kit had called ahead over a week ago to say a package would be arriving and somebody should be there to receive it, so already the family was suspicious. No more than two minutes after Anne and Kit have entered the house, the family demands of Kit, “What did you do to your hair?” Expressing undaunted horror, in which they are absolutely sincere, they declare that there is nothing worse than a woman with short hair. Before the trip Kit warned Anne, “They’re going to hate my hair,” but now as all the Dominican women touch her sister’s shorn locks, appalled by how closely the hair clings to her scalp, lamenting Kit’s lost beauty, Anne cannot believe it means so much to them. They talk endlessly about it, coming back throughout the day to the subject of how long and golden her hair once was. When Kit speaks to them in Spanish, she often doubles her words up with English, so that Anne won’t get too lost. “Maybe I should wear my hair like my Barbie doll sister?” she asks sarcastically, recalling a reference made by a Dominican man in a bar last night, and then the women turn their focus to Anne and the name sticks—suddenly Anne is Barbie, una Barbie, except that the women say it with frank admiration. They spend the next half hour praising Anne’s beauty—her fair skin, her precise lips, especially her hair—while Kit rolls her eyes and says in English, “This is what I couldn’t stand about this place.”

It’s not just about the hair, though. It has to do with familiarity. They have Kit back again and they want her not to have changed. Immediately they begin telling stories of Kit’s first arrival, when they took her in with affection, when they became her second family. They are proud of her, as of one of their own. They are eager to hear of her wondrous life in America almost as if she were a daughter who had emigrated, but they also want her back here with them, never having left. When Kit returned for her first visit to Chicago, after having been in the D.R. for only four months, she casually referred to her Dominican family. “Kit,” Anne had said, “they’re not your family; we are,” and Kit tried to explain how intense it all was, how quickly everything about her life felt altered. Almost every day she wanted out, badly. “I hate it there,” she said, “but my Dominican family is so sweet to me, they love me already as one of their own. It is like that—it’s like having a second family.”

Like family, like sisters really, Esmerelda and Josefina talk non-stop of what they liked about the old Kit and with suspicion of the newer Kit. Esmerelda was only a teenager when Kit lived in the D.R. Now she is a woman in her twenties, with three children, already looking back upon those years as the time of her youth. As for Josefina, she was in her twenties at the time, closest in age to Kit and also closest in sensibility. Suspicious of traditional codes, Josefina is especially obsessed with Kit’s hair because it seems to her Kit’s sex life must be suffering without it. Maybe, she suggests in English, “Tju cut it because tju are grieving a man—no?”

Worried that the conversation will become offensive to Kit, the family matriarch Fatima puts an end to the topic of hair. She insists upon hearing all about Kit’s life back in the States, but even she cannot sustain her politeness—which is to say, can’t quite suppress her alarm—when she learns that both Kit and Anne are still unmarried.

“Two beautiful women such as yourselves,” Kit translates, “she cannot believe two beautiful women like us cannot keep a man. She’s especially shocked about you, Barbie doll.”

Fatima takes Kit’s arm with concern and speaks to her again. “Now she’s saying,” Kit reports, “that she thinks it might be because we’re too skinny, flaca, like sticks.”

“Yes, yes, flaca,” Fatima says to Anne. ¿Entiendes?

“Obviously she hasn’t seen me in a bikini,” Anne smiles and, though Kit translates, the women don’t get the joke.

When the Dominican women are shown pictures of the sisters’ lives back in the States, shots of their friends and family, Esmerelda and Josefina lust playfully over the Ramsey brothers, the older of whom they’re gratified to learn is now married. Then they come to the pictures of Anne’s precious dogs, and Kit wants to show them Baxter, who was Kit’s before she entered the Peace Corps. Though Baxter now lives with Anne full-time, Kit and Anne always refer to Baxter as “their” dog, and whenever Kit stays with Anne, Baxter spends the night going back and forth between their beds.

“She is your child,” Josefina says to Anne with no judgment, only a kind of perplexed admiration.

¡Ay, Dios mio! Fatima exclaims when Anne flips to the next picture. El perrito está dormiendo en la cama. ¡Que sucio!

“What’s wrong, Kit?”

“She says, ‘Oh my God, she’s on the bed. The dirty little dog is on the bed.’”

Marta’s father is less happy to see them. He remembers Kit, of course, but seems unwilling to invite them in until Marta’s mother insists. It was in fact a relative of this family, Anne recalls, perhaps a second cousin, who tried to break into Kit’s house one night many years ago. After he was chased off and went to live beyond Rio Arriba, the family felt humiliated by his behavior and tried to bring Kit meals. None of them except Marta said more than a few words to Kit for the rest of her time in the D.R.

Inside the house Kit asks after Marta. Without hesitation her mother speaks of the great opportunity that befell them while, beneath the flow of the mother’s words, Kit translates for Anne. Marta went last year, at the age of twelve, to live with a gringo to sweep his house and do his laundry, until he could find her a place working as a maid in North America, where she is to attend a private school. He even helps the family out with money for their house, for a newly purchased refrigerator. When Kit asks for the gringo’s address, Marta’s father pretends he does not understand her and then says that the gringo is an important man, who cannot be disturbed for sentimental reunions.

“I thought I saw Marta yesterday in Baní,” Kit tells them.

The mother is surprised by this information. No, she tells Kit, the nice American woman must be mistaken because Marta left the country several months ago. Perhaps it was some other girl Kit once knew. It was a long time ago, after all. Kit can’t see the use in informing the woman, who really wants to believe her daughter is off starting a better life, that Marta turned when Kit called her name and then fled as if she were being pursued.

After the unsatisfactory-in-every-way visit with Marta’s family, the two sisters return to Kit’s Dominican family, accepting an invitation for dinner. Anne is Kit’s excuse for not staying overnight—apparently, Anne’s too Americanized, too used to hair dryers, so they must return to Casa de Campo. Finally they are allowed to leave when Kit promises to return either tomorrow or the next day. Yet after the first round of good byes, while Anne and Kit are in fact standing at the door, the Dominican women begin to reminisce more aggressively than ever, trying to pack Kit’s entire two and half years with them into an evening. Iván, who has disappeared for much of the day but is back now with the cab to ride with them to the resort, reminds the family of the attempted break-in and of his heroic intervention. Kit translates bits and pieces of their version of a story Anne already knows.

One night Kit was reading long after dark when she heard someone wrestling with the lock of her front door. She went to the door, banged on it, and shouted for the person to go away. A few minutes later the intruder was working on the back door, and Kit was sure he’d soon break in. She began to shout from inside the house, hoping her voice would carry the hundred yards from her shack to her host family’s residence, whereupon the intruder began scolding her in Spanish to shut up and let him in, and she recognized his voice right away—Eduardo, one of Marta’s cousins, already well known as a predator with women. Waves of fear overcame her. Her Spanish began to desert her. She could not think of the words for breaking into a house.

When Iván and Esmerelda came to the part of the story where Kit cries out into the night, they’re laughing fitfully. They pitch their voices into a frightful register and cry in broken Spanish, mocking Kit’s terror, “They are trying to molest my house. Amigos, they’re molesting the house.” Soon everybody is laughing, remembering Kit’s desperate ineloquence.

It was Kit who first brought the issue of sexual slavery home to Anne. While in the Peace Corps, Kit followed the U.N. reports and resolutions on the growing international problem of trafficking in people, mostly women and children, and she saw firsthand examples of what she read about, since the D.R. was high on the list of problem countries. For a while she tried to establish a network of advisors for such young women at her community center, having obtained a promise from a liberal UCC church she’d attended while living in Massachusetts to help with the costs of the project, and many of her Peace Corps colleagues told Kit she was becoming too political. What decided the matter, however, was that most of the exploited Dominican girls were shuffled out of the country too quickly for Kit to keep track of their whereabouts, and of those she could monitor, none was willing to pursue the counseling services she’d been able to arrange. The initiative died before it started.

After a night of shallow sleep and terrible dreams, Anne is outraged with Marta’s family for agreeing to sell their daughter and then lying about it. Kit reminds he sister that Marta’s family probably believes at least some of the story they’ve told. It’s the impact of their poverty. To them there’s a mythic realm of opportunity, somewhere other than where they are, and every now and then one of theirs gets to cross over to it. Any opportunity, even one that is obviously a story veiling a much unkinder truth, seems a genuine blessing. Some of them believe in benefactors, in people who arrive and deliver their children to prosperity, so that one day their own child might look back upon them and share what she’s obtained from that better world. Others just think about the money: when their daughters go to work abroad as night club entertainers, waitresses, exotic dancers (never, in their parents’ minds, as prostitutes), a few really do send money back. Sometimes there is a new house to show for it and a daughter’s tale of prosperity, and so the next family is honored when approached by a benevolent gringo. Kit has seen it before, a willful belief surpassing all suspicion. Didn’t Anne notice how the mother looked at them, beaming with hopefulness for her daughter’s future?

“Is there any chance that it’s true?” Anne asks.

“None whatsoever,” says Kit.

Kit is trying to walk a fine line, between not judging the family for what they’ve done and believing there is no excuse, under any circumstances, for exploiting young women who are still just girls for profit.

“We’re only here for three more days,” Anne says. “Do you think we can possibly find Marta again? Do you think we can help her?”

Kit tells Anne that she’s already spoken with Iván, who maybe, just maybe, can help them find her. Reminded of her own intentions, Kit goes in search of him at his bar station on the beaches of Casa de Campo, while Anne waits by the pool, reading Julia Alvarez.

By the time Kit returns, Anne is drowsing in the sun, but comes instantly awake when Kit stands over the chaise lounge, her shadow tactile and cool, like an airy vacuum substituting for breeze. “Can Iván help us?” Anne asks.

In the morning Iván, after spending the night with a few shady acquaintances in Baní and showing Marta’s picture around, brings them information. It turns out Marta’s living with a gringo in the hills just down the coast from Baní. Iván is confident he can find the man’s home. Since they’re already scheduled to visit Iván’s family again that afternoon, they plan to leave from there and travel through to the other side of Baní to track down Marta in the opposite hills.

As they walk through the main floor of the hotel there are signs everywhere of a wedding to take place on the grounds later that day. One of the hotel’s corridors is closed off to guests, and along the walls there are vases of flowers waiting to be arranged. Iván picks the sisters up under the awning in a van he has rented on their behalf, and as they get into the van Anne’s thoughts turn obsessively on Marta. Today’s visit to Kit’s second family feels trivial to her, like predictable obligation. There’s little time left to do anything for Marta, and yet here they are inside a wide expanse of time in which they have nothing to do but pay dutiful visits and fill days with the pretense of leisure—golfing, riding, sun-bathing—enamored to the point of genuine distraction by the Dominican Republic. During the ride Anne becomes drowsy, fixing her eyes above the clouds of dust floating up from the road onto the far away hills where Kit tells her the truly poor live. It’s hard to imagine a poverty poorer still than what they’ve seen on the streets of Baní, especially since the campo in far perspective looks so beautiful. The sun is hard upon her eyes and she squints as she surveys the horizon, trying to keep track of where they’re going. Reaching into her bag, Anne discovers that she has forgotten her sunglasses and with that knowledge the sunlight suddenly seems harsher, the countryside trembling in severe heat, its variegated foliage and palm trees fired with dangerous, auburn light.

When they arrive Fatima is waiting for them on the sunlit front porch, and Anne positions herself at angles away from the sun’s glare, sweating still in the ninety-five degree heat. Each time she looks up into the sun, she has a faint memory of the correlation between squinting and wrinkles, as if each squint were magically capable of etching a line in her face never to be erased. Finding herself even less able than on the previous visit to include herself in the conversation, which whips by her in racing Spanish, Anne is consoled by the company of Esmerelda’s daughter Lara, who clings to Anne as to a long-awaited friend. Lara has a few English phrases, and Anne offers her own paltry Spanish, while the two of them walk into a nearby field authenticating their friendship. Lara points out a variety of indigenous flowers and, knowing how much Anne loves dogs, she tracks down a few of the village’s scraggly, unloved dogs. When they finally enter the house, it is a great relief to be out of the sun but Anne can focus only with a kind of rainbow fuzziness, her eyes heavy from the heat, the headache she feared already clustering above her temples as though the light had somehow amassed like blood cells that were once, but no longer, untreacherous. She’s worried that they’ve stayed too long, that there won’t be time left to search for Marta. Kit is so caught up in conversation that she seems not to notice as Anne takes a seat across the room from her, with the migraine advancing, with Anne trying not to think about her own suffering, which is acute but also temporary, which is so unlike Marta’s. She cannot allow herself to be incapacitated because there are important things to do and so she rests her thumb and forefinger across her eyebrows, shaping her hand like a visor that slants low over the bridge of her nose. “Aqua, por favor,” she says to Lara, who returns with a glass that Anne sips recklessly before remembering the taboo against Third World water.

Her own folly causes her to lose patience with her sister, and suddenly Anne hears herself hissing “Kit” several times, amazed to find that her soft beckoning has not been heeded. “Kit,” she whispers loudly, but can barely lift her eyes to assess the response she is getting.

“Anne, that was so rude,” Kit says when they’re in the van, having finally said their goodbyes.

“Damn it, Kit, did you forget about Marta? We said we would leave early.”

“Anne, it is early. It’s barely past three.”

“You said they were like family,” Anne says. “People who are like family get treated like family.”

“Don’t be hypocritical, Anne.”

Anne shuts her eyes and decides to ignore Kit the way, only a short while ago, she ignored Anne. “Anne, I’m still talking to you,” Kit says but then adds, “oh, who gives a shit, be whatever way you want to be.”

Still, Kit makes Iván stop the van in Baní in front of a small pharmacy, and she goes inside and returns with a 7UP, saltine crackers, and Tylenol for Anne. Kit has discerned Anne’s suffering, and she is again solicitous of her sister. “Anne, we don’t have to go today. We could come back tomorrow.”

“I can stand it, Kit. Let’s at least find out what we can today.”

So they leave Baní and drive along windy, ascending roads, as the terrain becomes increasingly exotic, the sun’s light deflected by the arc of trees above them. After a long hour, during which Anne tries to doze unsuccessfully, during which she has futilely deployed every tactic she knows to distract herself from the assault occurring inside her head, the van comes to a stop at the side of a road, near a faint path tucked into an enclave of trees.

“Anne, wait here a while,” Kit says. “We’ll come back for you if we need you. Your head is killing you, don’t do anything right now.”

Too weary to fight Kit’s orders, Anne becomes conscious of her own merely symbolic function in the rescue. Kit needs her for courage, for a seconding of will, and if she is successful Kit will need Anne’s money. Anne tries to look around her. They are inside a plush forest, the ground lined with long-leafed, umbrageous plants. Overhead there is the incessant noise of birds. She begins to wonder what it must have been like for Marta to know that she was being bartered, to see her father handing her over and then to be brought to this bungalow, knowing that it cannot possibly end here, having no doubt heard rumors of what happens to girls once they are abroad. Do they even let her choose a country? When Marta looks ahead, what does she see? Anne wonders whether Marta still believes any of the lies—that she will make it to North America, that she will be an au pair for a rich family, that she will be a dancer not a prostitute, that she will some day get to go to a better school.

Having stupored herself on Tylenol with Codeine, her tolerance for those pills by now so extraordinary that it takes five to six of them over the course of a couple of hours before she feels any numbing, Anne is hallucinogenically unconscious when Kit and Iván return to the van. She is just alert enough to see that they are without Marta and so asks, “Did you find them?”

“We’re in the right place, but Marta’s not here,” Kit says. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Anne is relieved to learn that they’re headed back to the resort, but their decision to relinquish Marta to her fate for even one more day seems a sign (much like Anne’s own exhaustion) that their efforts are futile, that Marta’s life is hopeless, that it cannot be changed.

By the time they return to the hotel, Anne can think of nothing but her bed. In the lobby she abandons Kit to Amado, a man they’ve met on a previous occasion who is dressed in a white linen suit and has, at least temporarily, forsaken the wedding because it seems to him ostentations, so unnecessary. Opening the door to her room, falling immediately into bed, Anne wishes there were someone to take care of her in her afflicted condition. She crawls to her small travel bag, turning it upside down on the floor, running her hands through the make-up and minor medicines, until she remembers a zippered sleeve inside the bag, from which she pulls birth control pills, Aleve, a leather envelope filled with jewelry, and finally a small sterling silver pillbox in the shape of a suitcase. After taking her Imitrex she lies again on the bed, too tired to wash the make-up off her face, worrying dreamily about clogged pores and break-outs and thinking to herself, How can any of that possibly matter? In the dark much later, she hears Kit slip in and step on the contents of Anne’s spilled bag, whispering “What the fuck?” and then sliding into the bathroom, turning on the light which casts its glare onto Anne’s bed. “Kit! The light!” Anne says, and the door swings shut. Then Kit is lying in the bed next to hers in the dark, and she asks what Anne would think about the possibility of Lara’s visiting them next summer in Chicago. It turns out she mentioned it today to the family, and they were excited by the idea. Anne understands how it probably came up—Kit thinking of Marta, wishing to be able to do something practical on her behalf, wanting to make a keepable promise. “Sure,” Anne says though this promise to Lara feels profligate, like an admission of what they will be unable to do for Marta, of the fact that they will soon stop trying.

R. Clifton Spargo is currently completing a novel entitled The World Will Do As It Is Required and a collection of stories entitled Anne, Afterward, from which the story above is taken. His short stories have been published in Glimmer Train Stories, SOMA, Fiction Magazine, and other journals, and he is the most recent winner of Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest. He is also the author of a literary critical study, The Ethics of Mourning (Johns Hopkins, 2004).