Culture and Ideas Gold Winner: Honey Colored Lies

By Michael Sano

Secrets surround a romance between a visitor and local in the mountains of Nicaragua.

The music at the discoteca is so loud that I have to shout to be heard. I’m nodding my head, pretending to listen to one of my co-workers, while searching the green slices of light on the dance floor for a particular pair of calves. We are sitting around a group of white plastic tables taking turns on the concrete pista de baile. The tabletops buzz with each beat of the bass causing a mob of empty bottles to clamor out its own shaky melodies. One fall could bring the whole clan down.

A hand lands on my shoulder and I stretch my neck back to meet his eyes but he’s not looking at me. His fingers tighten on my muscles as he reaches with his other hand for one of my female co-workers. They sweep onto the dance floor and disappear among the sweaty midriffs undulating to the tempos of reggateon. I imagine myself out there, watching the rhythm of his feet, feeling his hand on my hips, his knuckle under my chin. But he hasn’t danced with me all night because he doesn’t dance with me in public. Tonight he spins my co-worker and sidesteps her thighs. I salsa with his friend’s sister; she’s good at pretending I’m leading.

When we leave the club to walk back into town, I lag behind the others and he joins me. We walk side-by-side, shoulders touching, fingers and forearms teasing here and there. He talks to me with through his touches. As our groups split, I nod my head, motioning for him to stay, to meet me, something. But he backs away with one last look and that coy, familiar turn of his lips.

We met last summer on my first night in Jinotega, a small town in the mountains of Nicaragua. My co-workers and I were walking its dark streets in search of dinner. The air, so thick during the day, runs away at night, up the mountains at the edges of town, leaving a cool emptiness I had not expected. Jinotega’s central blocks are lined with cement homes painted in pastels and stenciled over in graffiti that reveals a bit of Nicaraguan politics. The symbols, similar to those from the 1979 Sandanista revolution, looked stamped, like the pretenses of the president, Daniel Ortega. Once a popular war hero, he has grown into a controversial oligarch. My co-worker, Alyson, who had worked here the previous summer, told us about the province as we walked. Its verdant ranges are dotted with coffee fincas and stained with the blood of guerrilla warfare.

We rounded a corner and came chest to chest with three young men. Feet scraped to a stop in the dirt. They looked us over. They were completely silent. One of the men held my stare longer than the others. His eyes were the color of honey and in them I saw a longing, an ache familiar to my youth. It was cloying.

Suddenly the air was full of nervous laughter and moving hands. The men embraced Alyson and began to speak to her in sign language. They fluttered their fingers in front of us telling a story on palms, on arms, in the air. They touched Alyson’s shoulder lightly when they wanted her attention, taking turns with it. Though I was surprised and impressed with her fluency, their sign language was more expressive than hers; it evoked space and time and ownership. I watched, trying to translate this language I didn’t know.

Laughter erupted abruptly and the young men’s arms flew up in the air. They were spinning in giggles. Alyson’s cheeks spread red like berries.

“I meant to say we have to go because we’re hungry,” she said, grinding her fists in front of her stomach. “But I said we have to go because we’re horny.” The boys were still laughing as they backed away and waved goodbye. Before they turned, I met the honeyed eyes again. They yearned for recognition, and in that yearning I saw my own reflected. As he faded into the darkness I felt as though I were watching a ghost slip into hiding.

My co-workers and I spent the next few days readying our house, cramming it with plastic furniture and creating walls with sheets. Steel pickaxes and shovels, caked with mud from years past, piled up in the back yard. We assembled wobbly bunk beds and lined them with mattresses stuffed with recycled clothes. Every surface we bleached. On the walls we hung up colorful signs. We killed the ants again and again and again. Then we taped over the holes they streamed from. The trick, we knew, was to convince ourselves this was home. If we believed it, so would the teenagers who were about to arrive and join us.

“In Nicaragua,” I often said, “we dig.” In Peru they build classrooms, in Ecuador homes for the elderly. The crews in the Caribbean have constructed houses, medical clinics and community centers. We do some construction in Nicaragua too, but mostly we dig. For almost a decade our organization had been assisting a local NGO install potable water systems in rural communities around Jinotega. Since the end of civil war in 1990, Nicaragua has become one of the most peaceful nations in the Americas. The coffee production that has replaced guerilla warfare in Jinotega, however, is a battle in its own right. Nicaragua struggles to prosper in a globalized economy; it is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere. The impact our teens have through our work here is large, but they contribute shovelful by shovelful in thick, muddy clay-dirt.

On our last night before the teenagers arrived the three deaf men came over for dinner. Though we lacked a shared language, we conversed through the night. The boy with the honey colored eyes sat next to me. “Willem” he wrote on a notepad, pointing to it and to his chest. Then he made a W with three fingers and bounced it under each of his eyes. When he handed me the pencil I wrote “Miguel.” Willem placed his finger on my name as he gripped my arm. He ran a hand along his smooth chin, stroking an imaginary beard and then pointed at me. After he repeated the sequence, I understood: I had just been given a sign name. Head bobbing and lips broad, Willem seemed pleased with his baptism.

As we ate I could feel the heat of his leg approaching mine under the table and then the skin between his sparse hairs as he pressed his knee into mine, his calf, his thigh. On the table I moved my hand closer to his, but he backed it away.

A cake came out, the rum disappeared and when someone turned the stereo on we all started dancing. My feet pretended to find a rhythm in the salsa steps and I shook my hips when the merengue horns blared. I was a bit dizzy by the time we were saying our goodbyes. As female cheeks were kissed and male shoulders patted, Willem caught my eye and wandered outside. I waited a moment and then followed. In the dark, he pushed me against the wall. His breath was hot and short as his mouth approached me. He kissed me hard, his lips like soft fists rapping on mine. He pushed himself into my groin.

And then he was gone.

I saw Willem from time to time after that. On my days off I would find him and we would share a bench in the park, or a computer in the internet cafe. In the coffee shops around town, we drank the local beans. The baristas didn’t talk about the coffee; they were unattached to its farming and the profits it brought to the finca owners.

Willem showed me the school he went to, where students swarmed in blue-and-white uniforms on the concrete schoolyard. The boys kicked old, slightly deflated soccer balls and the girls bickered over small pieces of colored chalk. When we walked the streets at night, he might dare to hold my fingers in his hand for a moment or hang his arm over my shoulder. Sometimes he kissed me in the dark, in shadowy alcoves off the streets. He never invited me into his home.

I learned how to talk to Willem without using my voice. Through writing, lip reading and body language I told him about dating men in the United States, about coming out to my family. I tried to show him the possibilities that I never knew when I was in the closet. I knew it was different to come out in Nicaragua, more dangerous. I wasn’t out in Jinotega either, though I wanted to be.

Our presence here, we told the teenagers, was an opportunity to exchange knowledge, beliefs, customs, all the things that marked our differing cultures, and to learn from one another. The Jinotegans we met were eager to form friendships with us visiting Americans despite the history of a complex, violent relationship with the U.S. It was from the surrounding mountains that Augusto Sandino emerged to lead the Nicaraguan revolution against U.S. occupation in the early 20th century. The liberty he fought for was short-lived, however, and not long after his victory the U.S installed a dictatorship that would rule the country for generations. Sandino’s legacy inspired a similar revolt a half-century later. The 1979 Sandanista movement culminated in the fall of the Samoza dictatorship and the civil war of the 1980s between the Sandanistas and U.S.-backed Contras. This war divided Jinotega along fractured lines. Citizens of the same towns and members of the same families placed themselves on opposite sides of a gory counterrevolution. Their memories of this time remain mostly silent.

On other topics, our friends were garrulous. I grew comfortable talking with them about a general acceptance of homosexuality where I lived in California, but I was not comfortable sharing the details of my own sexual identity. I got the sense that homosexuality, though not necessarily demonized, was not demonstrated. Men might sleep with other men, much in the same way they might sleep with women who weren’t their wives, but they wouldn’t talk about it. This silence was part of a cultural contract I was trying to respect. As staff, our organization had asked us to put our own needs aside for the sake of our group’s efforts. But I was struggling to maintain my own self-respect in my silence. I tried to make it clear I was gay without saying so. I said I was not interested in a wife or a girlfriend, though I didn’t have one. My silence about my sexuality was similar to my silence at church. I would go to mass in Jinotega, even if I wouldn’t say the prayers. It was similar to the silence about the blood staining the surrounding mountains.

Sometimes I wanted to tell my own story of transformation, my personal sexual revolution, but how small it seemed, how insignificant the history of one person compared to that of an entire people. It took me a while to realize a religion is nothing without its saints, a war remembered most for its heroes. But, still, I never came out that first year. Each time I left Jinotega between job assignments, I told myself maybe I would come out when I returned. While I traveled in other parts of Nicaragua and neighboring countries, I didn’t face the same challenges to coming out, it felt less intrusive to do so.

The first time I left Jinotega, Willem and I exchanged email addresses to stay in touch while I was gone. The only message I tried to send him bounced back with an automatic reply that I didn’t understand.

The following year, a few days after our night out at the discoteca, I’m at home alone doing some paperwork when I hear a knock at the door. My breath halts for a moment. The staff and volunteers are off at various worksites. I hope it’s a friendly neighbor but fear it’s the police or a doctor or some other local official bearing bad news about one of the teens. As I rise, the plastic legs of my chair echo a scrape across the cement floor.

When I open the door it’s Willem. As I lean in for a hug, he cuts me short with a handshake. Disappointed but not entirely surprised, I take his hand. I hold it like a fragile souvenir. Willem turns his head and makes a motion to someone out of view and a woman walks up beside him. She smiles and sort of bows at me, her dark bangs bouncing over her eyes. I kiss her on both cheeks, a gesture she accepts but does not reciprocate. Her gaze stays lowered. Her fingers are laced in a net across her navel that catches her stare and my stare and Willem’s stare as it holds her protruding belly. She’s pregnant.

I look back to Willem to ask him who this woman is, but the proud look on his face says it all. White and wobbly, I force a smile, lift my arms and spread them wide like I’m holding my happiness for him high above my head. “Felicidades,” I say, though the syllables come out stunted. Shaking my arms in the air I say it again. Then I hug Willem. I hug this woman.

Stepping back, I look at the couple. Her head remains lowered, his high. He winks at me. Then he begins to talk to me with his hands, but I can’t understand. To me he’s just dancing, just responding to the beats of the street behind him. I try to keep smiling, but all I can think about is shutting the door and retreating to the quiet of my room.

Finally, Willem says goodbye. I hug him and the woman again before I shut the door behind them. Sliding to my room, I lie down and try to take a nap I don’t have time for. But I can’t fall asleep anyway and so I just lay in the dark, on a lumpy mattress on the floor. I think about lying in my teenage bedroom when I was the same age as the kids I chaperone here. I remember the boy I had a crush on in high school who I would brush against in benign moments, hoping he would notice, hoping he would look back at me in the same way I looked at him. I wanted him tell me my thoughts. He never did, but there was comfort in his silence. I wonder if my silence about my sexuality here in this foreign place, is an imitation of that comfort from my youth.

When I hear someone knock at the door again, I’m not afraid or hopeful I’m just a bit numb. I open the door and see Darling, our cook, and her wide amber eyes. She’s here for her regular shift but she looks at me in a way that I want to believe shows she understands that something is wrong. I always joke with her that I’ll marry her, that I’ll be her grandkids’ granddaddy. I call her jaguara because I don’t know how to say cougar in Spanish. She knows I don’t really want a wife, but I’ve still never told her why in so many words, or anyone else here in Jinotega. They know I’m not interested in the daughters, nieces and cousins they introduce me to. They know my secret but they don’t want me to talk about it, as they don’t talk about their own. Willem’s wife doesn’t want to know about me. She will allow him his secrets as long he keeps them hidden. Perhaps that’s why she kept her head bowed at my door.

Darling tries a smile and stands on her tiptoes to kiss my cheek. Instead, I take her in my arms. She pats my back with an awkward hand. I let her go, then hold her fingers in mine for a moment before I let her slip away. I watch her swagger into the kitchen as I sit down to get back to work.


Michael Sano is a wanderer and wonderer from San Francisco, CA. He has spent time living and working in Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Australia. He has traveled throughout Latin America as well as a few other spots around the world. At home, he supports students in their academic endeavors and writes non-fiction and fiction. His work has appeared in RFD quarterly and Around the World (Harvard Bookstore Press). “Honey Colored Lies” won Gold in the Culture and Ideas Category of the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.

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