As my final flight touches down, the bump of the wheels shudders through me and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
It’s over. It’s all over.
I step off the plane, down through the airport and into the waiting arms of my family. Pressed against my mother’s chest, I cry unashamedly. In a flurry of moments, we’re picking up my bags, walking out of the airport, piling into cars- real cars! – and driving away.
In the New York night, surrounded by air conditioning and English, Guatemala feels like some sort of fantastic and hazy dream. I can’t quite tell what is fiction and what is fact, like maybe I made it all up in my head.
At home, I stumble into the apartment and promptly dump everything into the washing machine. I shuck off my clothes, reeking of travel and sweat, and once I remember how to turn it on the shower feels like being reborn.
In the hot water, I lather up my hair and body with soap and shampoo, caring for my countless cuts and bug bites and cleaning the last remnants of dirt from under each nail. Curled up on the shower floor, I silently wonder if my host mother from Cotzal has ever had a shower like this. I think of the square-meter shack of a bucket shower, laundry soap and a torn curtain hung so low I’d had to crouch. I have to keep myself from crying a second time.
When I emerge from the shower, dripping wet and gloriously not-dirty, I pass the mirror in my room and have to stop and stare. I do not at first recognise the person staring out at me. While the changes are minor, they are changes all the same, and my eyes gobble them up, reading differences like a book.
There are new scars on my body- long thin scrapes up my leg from a fall while swimming, now-permanent rub marks on my ankle from when I was too stubborn to tie my boot right, a single line on my right arm- a burn from an iron, the very first night in the Miami airport.
Along my stomach, thighs and back, hundreds of fading bites dot my skin and I grimace, remembering the flea fiasco in Cotzal. And all over my body is the patchy, uneven tan that comes with wearing a strange mixture of swimsuits and hiking pants every day.
The final thing I notice is that the way I hold myself has changed. I can picture the me of a month ago, probably stooped beneath the weight of a bag, wringing her hands and talking everyone’s ear off from nerves. Now, my back is straight, and when I squeeze my thigh I feel muscle, most likely from carrying that same heavy bag every single day. I feel stronger than I’ve ever been.
My family ushers me to the table, eager to hear my stories and force food down my throat, regardless of the late hour. On the table in front of me they lay out toast, corn flakes, cookies, tea, a slice of cold cheese pizza- a veritable American feast. They grill me for details, asking about my host families, the food, the other students, the trek, on and on and on.
It’s nearly one A.M. by the time I go to bed. I am wrapped up in clean clothes and cozy blankets and surrounded by everything that I love and I am so deeply exhausted but I cannot seem to sleep.
I am startlingly aware of the ridiculous excess I find myself drowning in.
There is wi-fi at my constant disposal, and a phone and a computer and a TV to use whenever I like. Our kitchen if stuffed to the brim with food, food and more food, some of which we will never eat. I own more than twenty different products, lipsticks and concealers and eyeshadows and liners that I can press over freckles and dark circles, to hide my face away, and I own more clothes than I could possibly need. Again, I am reminded of my family in Cotzal, who I did not see change their clothes once during my visit.
I am disgusted with myself.
In the dark of my room, my mattress soft and springy beneath me, the night is eerily quiet. Even the ever-present hum of the AC cannot replace the trucks and wagons and barking I expect to hear in the street below.
It feels like there is a hole in my chest, aching and raw. Where there once were butterflies, nervous and bright in my chest there is now an empty ache. I want to feel them again, fluttering against my ribcage, their wings whispering adventure and yes.
I am still Rose. I am still that same person, silly and impulsive and alive.
But in my heart, I know that everything has changed.