I can see the water bottle in my hand.
I hold it carelessly, my thumb making dents in its plastic hide as I roll it against my bare arm, feeling its coolness against my skin.
Five pairs of eyes watch its motion.
It’s hot. Dense sunlight creeps in from the single window. A strangling humidity settles on top of the heat. The low whinnying of mosquitoes and flies fills my ears, but I have no strength to wave them away.
I stop rolling the water bottle and twist the cap off, feeling an odd joy as the crackling of the safety seal announces to the room my water was never tampered with: pristine in a tinted bottle.
The classroom smells like crap. The toilets don’t work but the kids go in them anyway, and there’s a week’s worth of excrement clogging the dead plumbing. Breezes are a mixed blessing. When they come I first sigh in relief as my sweaty skin prickles. Then the odor from the bathroom wafts in and I recoil. The kids don’t care, though. They’ve gotten used to the stench.
I toss the bottle cap in the air, catch it with one clumsy movement, and then put it in my pocket, aware of the eyes, always the eyes. But it’s my break and I’m tired of being watched, which seems to be my job as ‘la profesora de inglés’. I just want to drink my water and feel it slide down my parched throat.
“¿Como se dice ‘agua’ in inglés?” one kid pipes up.
“Water,” I croak.
“Wa-ter,” he repeats in wonder, and his classmates say it, too.
“Y ¿como se lo dice in coreano?” he adds.
“Mool,” I say.
They all laugh. English fills them with wonder. But Korean makes them laugh. I raise my water bottle to my mouth, letting the bottle rim moisten my cracked lips. The laughter stops. They’re watching the bottle again.
There’s a water pail in the corner, and the kids drink from it whenever they’re thirsty. The last time they put in fresh water was two days ago, and I saw one kid scoop a bug the size of his thumb out of the bucket’s murky depths.
“Parasito!” he crowed.
He thought it was funny, for everyone in the class has parasites from drinking contaminated water. I cringe thinking about it. Their eyes catch that flicker of weakness, and I know the game is over.
I take one sip and hand the bottle to the smart-alecky one.
“Compartamos,” I tell them, but there’s no need to remind them to share. They pass around the bottle, taking sips from it slowly, eyes half-closed in ecstasy. I am reminded of the biblical Last Supper, the unsaid thrill of the sharing. We are all one now.
The last kid holds the empty bottle and hesitates.
“Quiero la botella,” he says blatantly, his eyes meeting mine.
He wants the bottle as a forever reminder of its contents. He doesn’t know the water tastes of chemical nothingness.
I nod, and all kids clamber up to me. Will I bring a bottle for all of them tomorrow? No? How about the day after that?
I smile, thinking vaguely that before my summer spent in Nicaragua I would never have guessed they wanted water bottles; perhaps I should have run a water bottle drive instead of a school supply drive. The thought of asking my cynical classmates for water bottles makes me laugh, and the kids laugh with me, delighted by my good humor.
Later, finding the bottle cap in my pocket, I think about the incident again. What was it about that bottle that appealed to the Nicaraguan kids? Was it the oddness of it, water coming in sealed packages? Was it because it smelled faintly of something they couldn’t have, representative of America? Or did they want it simply because it was mine? Perhaps it was because the bottle was a gift, nothing more, and drinking from it an act of remembrance of the companionship formed in that sultry Nicaraguan classroom.
Back at home, I drink from a water bottle. The water is cool in my mouth, but the memories burn in my mind.
Rachel Lim is a current University of Virginia student studying English and East Asian Studies. Rachel recently finished writing her first novel, although her current passion is short fiction. Rachel is a weekly book review columnist and editor for her university newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, and enjoys reading, playing piano, and working out in her free time.