I was in Lima for the first half of that year. For two months—winter months in the southern hemisphere—I visited my cousin's dental office every Tuesday. I'd gotten financing for a recording project, and since I had no insurance back in the States, it seemed like a good time to get my teeth fixed. Before I'd left, my girlfriend let me know she approved.
Maybe this way, she said, you'll smile when you see me.
My cousin and I had a standing appointment, which I kept at all costs. My case was a difficult one, he told me again and again, repeating this admonition so often I began to take some pride in it. How'd you break your front teeth? he asked on my first visit, and without hesitating I described a schoolyard fight I'd once observed—two brave, wiry boys pummeling one another with abandon.
Interesting, my cousin said. He ordered X-rays, as if to confirm my story.
When I was a boy, my cousin lived with my family in Birmingham, Alabama. He went to the local public school, and most weeknights one young lady or another would phone our house and ask to speak to—and here she would stretch out his name in an impossible Southern drawl—and my mother, always severe, would correct her, then call the proper pronunciation out loud. Upon hearing his name my cousin would race to the kitchen like a man on fire and pull the long cord into the hallway, where he'd spend an hour whispering his broken, seductive English into the receiver. In matters of flirting, he was a minimalist: Oh, your hair, he'd say, or, Oh, your eyes. I'd eavesdrop, unable to fathom what a girl might say in response to these cues. When it was over, he'd lock himself in the bathroom, emerge awhile later showered and combed; and as we prepared for bed, my cousin, flummoxed and anxious, would ask me in Spanish: What do American girls want?
I was eight years old.
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