Certain things just don’t get forgotten. Moments can etch many an experience into the memory that we might prefer not to remember. An unfortunate bit of bad timing can burn a split second into an indelible scar that could one day be seen as amusing. At the time, of course, it was not.
When we moved to Lima, Peru, in July of 2005, the bone-chilling dampness of winter in the southern hemisphere came as no surprise. It wasn’t the first time we had lived there. Our daughter Cristina had been born there almost 15 years earlier, the year before we left for a job in Costa Rica. Now, we were back, applying to the same high school that her Peruvian father had graduated from decades earlier, and where her gringa mom had taught for a few years before she was born. Those years, Marta had worked in the Superintendent’s Office, but in 2005, she was the new Admissions Director, the one who would process Cristina’s application. As soon as we entered her office, something in her eyes betrayed a clear intention to savor an imminent triumphal moment. I could feel it coming, but I couldn’t blame her.
During the summer of 1992, I got to know Marta pretty well. I had been hired to revamp the February summer school program and my right-hand assistant was the same Marta who was now in charge of admissions. As soon as school let out in December, we began intensive work together to expand the usual remedial offerings, add more arts and crafts, music, sports, and even fledgling computer classes given by the most state-of-the-art expert—a junior high school student. With terrorism and kidnapping still rampant, we upped the security and tightened protocols. Then we spread the word, rallying the largest registration ever.
Marta was brilliant. Fast. Efficient. And experienced from assisting the previous summer school directors. We spent late nights working out course schedules, feeding data to our spreadsheets, printing out student lists, teacher info, labels, orientation information, supply request forms. All the nuts and bolts of juggling 325 kids and 30 teachers for one intensive month.
The most pressured part of the preparation came as we finalized student schedules the weekend before opening. Not everyone could get all their first choices, and sometimes the classes they wanted were in the same time slot. We did our damnedest to get everything done as quickly as we could, but there was a lot left to finish. I lived near the school and would often keep baby Criss with me while her dad wrangled the boys at home. She was almost walking, but preferred crawling, could entertain herself in a playpen for good stretches of time, and would nap there as well. Her good nature made it easy for us to plow ahead, intent on our work.
As Saturday evening ground toward midnight, Criss woke up and had no interest in going back sleep. Her cherubic smile lit the room as she worked her way along the couch, back and forth, chortling contentedly. Marta dictated the names and preferences while I found the slots that meshed best for each schedule. This was pre-Windows, only one thing at a time per screen, but we had developed a good rhythm together, and the entries went faster with every student. We had almost finished the whole batch when suddenly the computer went dark.
We both gasped. Another electrical tower blown up? A local car bomb? The whole reason we were working late nights at school instead of at my home was because the rationing grid had designated our small neighborhood as part of the nearby industrial zone, where electricity was available during daytime hours to keep production going. The school was in a residential zone, where power was directed to homes at night. The school had to use a generator during the day–not just for light and A-V needs, but because without the pump, we couldn’t even flush a toilet.
Our first thoughts were the same. A bomb? A random outage? But our second thoughts locked as our eyes met. The lights were still on. Only the computer was off.
Maybe a power surge had blown the motherboard. What if the computer were dead? Fried? Would our computer whiz kid be able to recover the data? The data. We both suddenly realized with horror that, in the flush of productiveness, it had not occurred to us to stop and save along the way. No backup since the first batch of entries. While we held our heads in our hands, despairing, Cristina’s smiling face popped up next to the computer desk. She pulled herself to standing and chattered something incomprehensible. In her hand was a plug.
Marta’s eyes slowly filled with the unspeakable. My heart sank with the weight of the irretrievable.
Gently removing the plug from Cristina’s hand, Marta replaced it in the wall and hit the on button. The computer whirred as it powered up, then glared back silently from the home page. Our whole evening’s work was gone. Marta stared at the computer, lips tight. The clock on the wall ticked loud seconds into the silence, then she took a deep breath, leaned over the computer, and turned it off without looking at me. “See you at sun-up?” I nodded. A few hours of sleep would be good. “Without her,” Marta added in a near whisper.
‘Right,’ I replied.
Though we did not see our families at all on Sunday, we managed to stagger into Monday morning with printed schedules in hand. Kids found their classes. Parents were happy. A few months later I was unpacking boxes in another country. The following year, Marta became the Summer School Director and has run the program every summer since.
When Criss walked into the Admissions Office with me thirteen years later, Marta stood up to greet us. Her head tilted back and her eyes lowered like darts. ‘YOU,’ she said. ‘Oh, yes, I remember you.’
Now living in Tennessee, K. M. Huber (she/her) grew up in Seattle, but called NYC home before moving to Latin America. Her adventures resulted in a novel about ancient Nazca, a documentary about deforestation, and various works in Earth Island Journal, Poydras, Rougarou, MacGuffin, Post Road, and failbetter.com, among others.