I made some friends in the village—a few Americans, a few Brits and Canadians, an Italian woman, a German. Indigenous people, finding my name hard to pronounce, took to calling me Feliz—“happy,” the rough translation I’d come up with for Joyce. Children stopped by my house because I kept crayons handy and occasionally made them popcorn or gave swim-ming lessons. A man passing through took me dancing some-times. No romance there, but we got good enough at salsa that we performed in a town pageant, in which he successfully flipped me 360 degrees—a flip so wild I had to buy a pair of red underpants to wear when performing it, with a dip so low that the top of my head grazed the ground.
Once a week I’d ride a boat across the lake to a town with an Internet café. My children checked in now and then, but they were occupied with their lives. I finished my novel, e-mailed it to New York and sent word to the people renting my house: They were welcome to stay through the winter.
On one of my weekly trips, I e-mailed the stockbroker, re-minding her to disburse money for Charlie’s tuition. Hearing nothing back, I wrote again the next week, asking for confirmation.
Another week passed with no word, though there was a re-minder from the school bursar: Payment for the upcoming semester had not been received.
I didn’t think about this as much as I should have. I was busy swimming and writing, scooping out avocados and chopping cilantro. Listening to birds. Studying the stars.
Another week and another. I knew I needed to call the bro-ker, but the simple act of making a telephone call seemed like a terrible intrusion into my lovely, quiet life, so I sent another e-mail instead, insistent now. Please disburse tuition immediately. Send confirmation.
It was the end of December. Word came from New York: My editor liked the new novel. I’d need to revise, but the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t write anymore had been si-lenced.
My visa was about to expire, and so, not wanting to return home, I set out by bus to the Belize border, with the plan of crossing out of and back into Guatemala—a trip of three days, with the sole mission of getting my passport restamped.
On the last day of the year, in the little village of Livingston, just on the Guatemalan border, I stepped into an Internet café. Finally, a message from the brokerage firm. But the sender was not the woman to whom I’d entrusted my savings. An unfamiliar person had written to say I didn’t have sufficient funds to make the disbursement. My broker had invested my life savings on margin—an unauthorized action for which she had been fired and was under investigation. None of that changed the fact that my account was now several thousand dollars in the negative column.
I can remember the walls at that little café—the last page of the calendar curled up around the edges, indicating the end of 2001—and the sound of Garifuna music in the street, as New Year’s Eve got under way. I had a feeling that this was the kind of moment in which a person would cry, and I remember thinking, my life will be different now.
“But it is different already,” I reminded myself. And directly on the heels of that realization, this one: I will be all right.
I thought about what I could do to keep my son in college. But I worried about this only briefly, because the next e-mail I opened was from Charlie: “I hope you won’t be too upset about this, Ma. But I’ve decided to withdraw for a semester to join Willy in Africa.”
No tuition needed after all. Not that season, anyway.
I made my way out of the café. I found a restaurant, where I ordered a beer and a plate of fresh shrimp. The next day, I re-turned to my rented house and calculated that, apart from a heavily mortgaged California house, I had about $500 to my name, with a very small amount coming in from a royalty check. No stocks. No savings.