He had an innocent face. I looked at him again. I have to say he was a pretty handsome kid: athletic, strong build. He was fast out there on the plaza with the ball, and he was sweating bullets. I asked him what he liked to study and he said mathematics. But romance… That was what he really wanted to know about.
A group of Colombian children play soccer every day after class in the big plaza just a stone’s throw from where they attend school at Cartagena’s La Milagrosa school. One wanted to show me his sketchbook. Another one wanted to know about romance. This is a personal essay about when the children play, Colombia’s La India Catalina, and innocence.
The ball was almost flat.
It seemed worn out and tired. Even the color green was like a brownish green moss. To Juan Carlos and Marlo, it didn’t matter. They knocked the ball back and forth, faking out their opponents, slipping it through the legs, splitting, cutting, spinning. They were kinds in the small pick up game on the brick plaza of the church Santisima de la Trinidad.
Meanwhile, a priest dressed in white robes broke bread, munched on it, and then swallowed it all down with a gulp of wine. He was sweating madly. It was Friday evening mass. Juan Carlos and Marlo come to play after school. They go to a school called La Milagrosa, just down the street from the plaza.
Tonight it was Juan Carlos and Marlo, plus two five year olds. One played goalie. He defended a goal made up of the two pairs of legs of some statues in the plaza. The other goal was a park bench. Juan Carlos beat an older kid, danced right around him. Then he lost it. The older kid came back, beat Juan Carlos, fell, scrambled on all fours for a second, and then picked himself up. He almost scored. The moss green ball got stuck between the feet of the five year old goalie. Save.
The ball they were playing with reminded me of a puffer fish actually. But I knew it wasn’t really. Juan Carlos scored. A young kid fell and scraped his knee. It was a bad slide tackle. He almost cried, but the other children helped him up.
“We’re all friends,” Julieta told me afterward. Julieta is 12 years old and also attends La Miligrosa. She likes art and mathematics and has a crooked smile. Marlo ran off. Juan Carlos likes math too, but he’s also a singer. “I like ballads.” Then there was little Jonathan. “What do you like?” I asked him. “I like futbol!” he said, changing the subject on me. “Not school?” I persuaded.
“Look!” he said, changing the subject on me. It was a notebook. I flipped through it. They were sketches of action heroes. No puffer fish or sea creatures. Disappointing. Then I saw a girl who was topless. Her hands were touching her breasts. “What’s this?!” I exclaimed.
“Those are tits!” said Jonathan. “All you think about is sex,” I told Jonathan.
“And he sketches them too. He copies them. He can’t really imagine them!” said Julieta. It was a good point. Jonathan was 11.
“I didn’t think about sex when I was your age. I thought girls were gross,” I said.
“Uh huh. But there’s a lot more than just sex out there. There’s romance.”
Juan Carlos plays soccer twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday. 2 hours. And then 3 hours on Sunday. “What about mass?” I asked.
“No,” said Juan Carlos. “What do you like better, Jonathan?” I asked. “School or football or church?”
“Isn’t romance stronger?” asked Juan Carlos. He was 14. Jonathan put away his sketches of the boobies. “Stronger than sex?” I asked. I had to.
“Yeah.” I thought for a moment. “Yeah, I guess.”