I Can Smell the Tear Gas From Across the Sea

Alejandro Puyana


I’m seven or eight and I dig my hand into the wet sand in search for clams. The water on Playa Guacuco is cool, with small waves that crash so consistently, you could count time with them. My sister, one year younger than me, is doing the same thing. She’s wearing a bathing suit with Minnie Mouse on it. Whoever gets more clams will win one fuerte, a five-bolivares coin. My dad will cook espagetis con guacuco, using the bag full of clams that Emiliana and I gather.

I’m sixteen and I’m asking my friend Jorge if he’s seen the pineapple juice. In my hands is a big plastic cup with ice, Smirnoff and Blue Curaçao. I need the juice to finish making my drink. The car, a 1994 Toyota Samurai (Land Cruiser in America), is backed up into the sand while speakers blare Bob Marley. My first girlfriend, Corina, wears a flowered sarong on top of her yellow bikini. That night we are both flushed and excited as we awkwardly explore each other’s bodies for the first time. She thinks I have already had sex, but it is a lie told to mask my inexperience.

I’m twenty-two and standing on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. A colony of seagulls are flying so close that I can almost touch them. One of them drops a half eaten snake by my feet. That night we will all laugh at my friend Goza, who has a huge steak in his plate but has hidden it under a mountain of salad. Goza will die two years later under suspicious circumstances and the gathering of young people mourning a close friend is still one of the saddest images I can recall.

I’m twenty-four and my sixteen year old brother, Manuel, has been kidnapped for the first time. My heart is like a war drum, and I can feel my veins throbbing to the beat. Two hours later he comes back in a taxi, the robbers gave him some cab fare so he could get home.

I’m twenty-five and falling in love with a girl. She is intense and confused and cries of rage watching the news. We take part in protests and marches that fill Caracas streets with thousands waving Venezuelan flags. I feel safe in the crowd, but she knows better. She’s been in the front lines before, throwing tear gas canisters back at military police, a vinegar-soaked handkerchief covering her mouth and nose. She knows that tear gas is odorless, but every time she watches the news the pungent smell of vinegar and b.o. comes rushing back. We marry and move to Austin together, we will be back soon, we promise — when things get better.

I’m twenty-seven and separating CD’s in two piles. My ex-wife’s pile is a lot larger. We’ve been to a couple’s therapist twice but we both know we will never go again. I don’t know if the pressure in my chest is mostly due to the sense of failure or the oppressive Austin summer.

I’m twenty-nine and my mom is crying on the phone. My brother is being held hostage by four armed men inside a house. Policemen, who are just as poor as the criminals inside, surround it. Manuel is talking to one of the robbers, asking him to turn himself in; otherwise they might all die in the ensuing firefight. The robber cries and apologizes to my brother for what he has done. After they turn themselves in and my brother is safe, I think about how — if we had been born to the poverty and misery that most in Venezuela are — it could have been us holding the guns.

I’m thirty-two and looking at the Caribbean through an airplane window. I’ve done this trip so many times that when I think of the Caribbean I no longer picture my hand digging for clams. I think of a small blue rectangle 25,000 feet up in the air.

I’m thirty-three and I’m on the phone with my sister. She lives in California. It’s impossible to concentrate on work. My dad is in court, fighting a second lawsuit for being the owner of an opposition newspaper that dares to publish damning information on Venezuela’s Assembly President. My sister is so angry with my father she is no longer speaking to him. She doesn’t understand how he hasn’t left Venezuela yet. That country has gone to shit, she tells me. It’s no use, she says. I don’t understand how she can be so right and so wrong all at the same time.

I’m thirty-four and somewhere in Caracas there’s a long line in front of a supermarket with people trying to buy toilet paper. In Universitario Stadium a nineteen-year-old is having batting practice, scouts say he might be the next Miguel Cabrera. In Petare there’s a fourteen-year-old kid loading a revolver for his older brother. In Juan Griego an old man is mending a fishing net with the help of his nephew. In Miami a young middle class woman, just graduated from law school, is being picked up by her aunt at the airport — she has a job lined up in a coffee shop in Doral. In Maracaibo, a single mom is cleaning the house of an oil executive; tomorrow her son will be the first in their family to graduate from college. On the highway, a group of students wearing masks are burning tires and closing off traffic, a sign reads “release imprisoned students.” This morning my dad is scheduled to go to his weekly mandated court visit as an assurance that he hasn’t left the country while his lawsuit is pending. It’s spring in Austin and there’s a nest with baby birds chirping somewhere in the yard. I can smell the tear gas from across the sea.


Alejandro Puyana grew up in Caracas, Venezuela but lives in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in The Butter and adapted for radio by NPR’s The Texas Standard. He makes a living as a writer for progressive causes and is a sporadic contributor to TheAustin Chronicle. He’s working on a novel about Venezuela.