An Apparition at Night
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to flow into and out of your life only to re-emerge later and unexpectedly like an apparition? Why does it happen? And does it mean anything later? These apparitions rarely seem to happen at home but only when I travel. Why is that?
An apparition occurred this spring in Puebla, Mexico, the evening I met my friend Maribel for coffee at el Profeta bookstore on 3 Sur. Our friendship began years ago when she was my Spanish teacher and has since deepened to include her siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews at celebrations of birthdays and other family events. It was already dark when we arrived and we talked for several hours. When it was time to leave, we went outside to say “Hasta la próxima” (until next time) with hugs and kisses. Maribel walked west to catch a bus to her barrio and I turned east toward my hotel. That’s when I saw a man standing at the corner, half in the shadows, staring at us. It felt odd but not dangerous. As I passed him, he touched my arm. “Señor, te acuerdas de mi?” Mister, do you remember me?
My first instinct was ‘no,’ I didn’t know this thin man with glasses, a week’s growth of beard and a cap jammed over his uncut hair. He wore tennis shoes, rumpled slacks, a nylon windbreaker over a button-down with and a cheap woven bag over his shoulder. His mishmash, out-of-style ensemble was the kind of cast-of clothing sold by charities in thrift stores. I assumed he would ask for money. How could he know me?
Then I looked closely into his eyes. “Sí … te recuerdo. ¿Omar?”
He nodded. I knew him five years earlier and never expected to see him again. That was when I was his volunteer teacher’s assistant in the third-grade class at a Puebla orphanage. In those days, he wore pressed white shirts, peered through horn-rimmed glasses and kept his hair cut short and bushy. He was a conservative Catholic and sent his children to private schools. We worked together for only three weeks and knew little about each other.
He relied on rote learning as the primary method of instruction without explanations or helping the students understand the material. Correct answers weren’t praised and any disturbance was met with “¡Callase!” (shut-up) and “¡Vamanos!” (Let’s go!). This increased the disorder and provoked several of the boys to challenge his authority several times a day. He had no idea how I might help him so, on my own, I worked with the students one-on-one, encouraged them and gave them attention. I became the un-Omar.
Omar was a computer programmer before he took up teaching. Maybe that explained his frustration with the children when they didn’t respond like a line of code. As a teacher, I thought him temperamentally ill-suited to instructing abandoned eight-year-olds emotionally scarred by adult abuse. Maybe he reached that conclusion himself and left teaching or maybe the nun who ran the orphanage decided that for him. Whatever the case, he worked once more with the codes and algorithms he could control.
He spoke softly, even deferentially, in a way I didn’t recall and he gave me his business card. It had his name and a list of his data services. He was self-employed and, judging by his appearance, I guessed his professional trajectory was sloping downward. I didn’t want to know why. Our unexpected meeting made me uncomfortable. I still expected him to ask me for a favor (he didn’t).
I crossed the street and he fell into step beside me so we talked was we went. “I wonder what became of David and Lalo?” I said. “They must be about 15 or 16 years old now.” They were the brightest boys in the class, the greatest challenge to Omar’s authority and cried when I left.
“Ah, you remember them?” he asked.
“Yes, especially David. He said he wanted to be a narco gangster.”
Omar sniffed. When our paths diverged after two blocks. We shook hands and wished each other well. Then he turned up a dark street and I watched him dissolve into the shadows, a man as ephemeral as the fog. Our meeting seemed out of the ordinary, like an apparition, and I wondered if he were merely a figment of my imagination.
I walked to my hotel, perplexed and asking how he could materialize at that moment, in an unlikely spot and recognize me from a distance in the dark? How long had he been there? Did he follow us out of el Profeta and wait? Or was he already at the corner when Maribel and I left the bookstore? How could he remember me, a near stranger, after five years? Would our paths have crossed if I had left the bookstore a minute earlier or later?
My Mexican friends often react to the inexplicable events like this with, “It was meant to be.” I don’t believe in coincidences and “It was meant to be” feels like enough of an answer when I’m in Mexico. It was meant to be because I learned the language and doors opened, because I made friends and filled roles in their lives as they have in mine and because Spanish makes my life larger and wondrous.,
Was the encounter meant to be? And if it was, why? I went to bed wondering if there was something more behind the encounter? Call it superstition but when someone appears to me unexpectedly, it’s hard to escape the notion it happens for a reason. If so, I would know why in due time. And if not, then I’d know that, too. Either way, I would have an answer.