by Ana Ortiz
Disclaimers: Not written for profit. The lead characters often look and sound like THEM. This is an ALT story, and several languages are used profanely.
Dice que se empina y que no alcanza, Cuando niño yo saqué la cuenta
que solo ha llegado hasta el dolor; de mi edad por el año dos mil
dice que ha perdido la buena esperanza (el dos mil sonaba como puerta abierta
y se refugia en la piedad de la ilusión. a maravillas que silbaba el porvenir.)
Sé de las entrañas de su queja Pero ahora que se acerca, saco en cuenta
porqué padecí la decepción: que de nuevo tengo que esperar:
fue una noche larga que el tiempo despeja que las maravillas vendrán algo lentas
mientras suena en mi memoria esta canción: porque el mundo tiene aún muy corta edad.
Venga la esperanza, Venga la esperanza,
venga sol a mí. pase por aquí.
Lárguese la escarcha, Venga de cuarenta,
vuele el colibrí. venga de dos mil.
Hínchese la vela, Venga la esperanza
ruja el motor, de cualquier color:
que sin esperanza verde, roja o negra,
dónde va el amor. pero con amor.
Silvio Rodríguez, -Venga la Esperanza" (Used without permission.)
Chapter Two: Changes in the Air
January 1993 La Habana, Cuba
The faint glow of a lone cigarette pierced the pre-dawn darkness of the Humboldt alley apartment. The alarm had gone off at four in the morning: Jonas did not fully trust himself to properly function on his traveling days and religiously gave himself substantial amounts of extra time to prepare, but now he faced the ridiculous dilemma of being completely packed with the taxi not scheduled to come until half past six. As he finished his morning smoke, he found himself reconsidering his decision to slip out quietly without interrupting his bedmate's sleep. It wasn't that he feared a scene: that was thankfully just one of the many things that he didn't have to worry about with the sensible, mature woman he had found. Rather, he was surprised to find himself anticipating the loss of her company with a note of sadness: his subsequent mornings would be devoid of the comfort and color she had brought to his days.
She is another way that this island thaws my ice: the sun calms my arthritis and this girl has broken up the blocked channels of my ideas and my loins. She made this trip the most productive one so far. He reached over to the bedside table and flicked on the lamp. Jonas smiled as he noticed the dog-eared copy of Seven Viking Romances lying there, and was pleased to see that in just two nights, Chela had easily made it halfway through the text. Forget having you as a lover and maid. What I would do to have students like you, hungry for knowledge. He pulled back the bedcovers to gaze at Chela's sleeping body, her skin glinting like dark copper in the room's half-light. It was one last opportunity to memorize the constellations of freckles on her back, and the lines of her muscles. I'm being a fool. I should take one more conversation, even if I went through the trouble of composing my goodbye on that antiquated typewriter. Jonas skimmed his fingers lightly up the length of her spine in a rare gesture of tenderness.
-Chela... it's time to get up."
-Uy!" Chela's arms moved up to lock the pillow more firmly in position over her head.
-No, really. There are some things I need to go over with you before the taxi gets here. And I need to eat something healthy for breakfast. I can't stand that fatty meat they serve on Cubana."
-Hrmph. You're going to miss that fatty Cuban meat when you get back to the North Pole." We already miss it badly here, she thought bitterly, realizing that Jonas's departure likely meant a return to soy patties for her. She propped herself up on en elbow and tried shaking her head to disperse the fog of sleep, her light brown ringlets bouncing softly from her efforts. -Give me a minute I'll get the coffee started."
-No," he said quickly as he pressed down on her shoulder, holding her in place. -I can do it this once, Chela. After all, I'm going to have to practice for my new espresso maker you know that half my suitcase is full of coffee and the other is full of Populares cigarettes. I wish you exported them. They would be all the rage in Trômsk." There he goes confusing me with the country again, as if I were preventing him from getting his precious -chest-breakers". Chela rolled onto her side and watched the thin older man carefully plug in the hot plate and set about filling the coffee-maker. The room felt obscenely cold to her in the early morning but Jonas persisted in wearing nothing but his briefs in the privacy of the apartment. In six months she had only seen him shiver once, after he insisted on an ocean dip during a late summer storm system. The wind, strong enough to strip the new fronds off the straining palms, had finally bested the Norseman's constitution, forcing his pale bony knees to rattle like dried gourds as she helped him back into his clothes. Chela had refrained from commenting on Jonas's lack of good sense during the weeks she nursed him for the resultant cough and respiratory infection, just as she kept her distaste for his smoking to herself.
The coffee he brought her was too weak, she noted. Still it was luxurious to be served in bed and she sipped the liquid slowly, warming her hands on the mug as she watched Jonas wash up using a small plastic basin at the sink. The water was not turned on this early in the building, and he had to settle for last night's leftovers for his morning cleansing. Breakfast was leftovers as well, but the rolls came from a -dollar-only" bakery and were made with real wheat flour and butter. Soon a sprinkling of flaky crumbs filled the space between Chela and the edge of the bed, where Jonas perched to share the meal with her. They ate without speaking for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the street as it started to come alive. Calle Humboldt had its share of early risers: the men leaving to work on the docks and the women who prepared their breakfast; entrepreneurs with pushcarts who went in search of prime locations in the many informal markets of central Havana; and schoolchildren hoping to find the odd job to do or pair of shoes to polish before they had to be in class. Chela had not been among them, enjoying the benefits of a long-term engagement for her services. Today she would re-enter the ranks of those chasing the peso, chasing the dollar.
Jonas shook the remnants of a roll off his shirt and onto the sheet, wiped his hands on his jeans and pulled up his briefcase.
-I wanted to show you this, Chela," he said pleasantly, extracting a bulky manila envelope. Chela scooted forward to look at the sheath of papers that Jonas fanned before her. -These are the page proofs, dear one. They arrived through the diplomatic pouch yesterday I'm glad they managed to get here before I left. Otherwise who knows how long they would have sat at the Norwegian embassy. Look at the third page." Chela carefully lifted up the first two pages of Knife in the Gut: Violent Corporeality in the Free Verse of Jose Martí, to read through the acknowledgments. Upon finding her name and a description of her role in the production of the text on Cuba's most important poet, she stopped and looked up into Jonas's smiling face.
-Thank you, Jonas. I only wish it were true." Jonas guffawed.
-Chela, it is very true. You can legitimately add being my research assistant to your list of employment experiences, because it was the conversations that we shared concerning those poems during our first two months together, the close reading that you were willing to endure with me, that allowed me to fix the text." He moved closer to her, tentatively placing a hand on her knee. -There are some other things I would like to give you. This apartment is paid up for another six months. I made an agreement to take it for the year. I know that it is not easy being with your family. I have told the owners that you will be staying on and that they are to leave you alone to live as you see fit."
-How do I know they won't just take your money and throw me out?" asked Chela warily. I can see them overjoyed to have their tenant's whore left behind like an abandoned pet cat.
-They are interested in my repeat business, Chela. I have told them I will come stay with them for a fourth season, and that it is important to me to have the same place and to know that they have followed my instructions. And I hope that you are interested in my repeat business, Chela," he continued, laying a thick wad of US currency between her legs. -I know the mechanics of the market and that you will have other offers but I hope that this bonus will help you remember me as an appreciative and fair man." Chela took in the bills and the words: this was more than she expected. Jonas had been an extraordinary find. She had just been hustling for a few months when she was introduced to the eminent Scandinavian scholar of Martí. In their six months together, not only had she and her family eaten well and reliably, but she had been treated as an intellectual companion and felt that she had learned a great deal. His predecessor as an exclusive client had been a volatile alcoholic Canadian businessman, who insisted on going dancing at the same decrepit discotheque every night because he could bribe the deejay into playing -Caribbean Queen" over and over again. Chela knew that she was not a clichéd fantasy for Jonas: the man was honest in his inability to reproduce romantic platitudes and in his blunt appraisal of the pragmatic nature of their relationship. I will never fully understand. The man comes here to take a break from the cold, and he intuitively understands the sensuality of Martí's work in a way that few foreigners have, but he has the emotions and social skills of a popsicle. Jonas dangled a piece of paper before her nose.
-I know that you will be looking for work again after I go," proceeded Jonas good-naturedly. -This is a list of contacts you might find helpful - friends of mine who will recognize your name and who are interested." He sighed. -You are a gem, my Chela. The others are so jealous when I tell them that you have the only mouth skilled and patient enough to bring my withering root to life, and that you help me with my irregular verbs and the correct rules of accentuation. When Castro said that Cuba had the most highly educated prostitutes in the world, he was lying about all of them but you." Swallow me, earth. I suppose he's trying to be flattering. -And then those other girls are all clamoring for marriage proposals and visas. Not my Chela, I tell them. She doesn't insist I meet her family, she doesn't want to marry or leave this place. And she doesn't play games with her birth control, trying to trap you through guilt. She takes care of everything herself." The memory of her most recent D and C procedure was still fresh in Chela's mind from last month's trip to the neighborhood clinic. She had not troubled Jonas with the knowledge of the pregnancy, let alone involved him in her efficient removal of his unwanted seed. Just fifteen minutes left. Maybe the taxi will come early. And this little speech is better than a goodbye fuck. -These men are all older and clean. They will pay well."
-Thank you, Jonas," she replied evenly, her green eyes betraying no emotion. -I am very grateful that you are leaving me this apartment. You are right I could really use some privacy to read and write and rest." She gave his wrist a light squeeze and got up to dress. -I don't want the taxi driver to catch me without my clothes on." Chela quickly wiped herself down with a wet rag and settled a light blue sun dress over her compact, softly curved body. -I am never up so early, maybe I will go down to the Malecón and watch the ocean."
-Careful, Chela," laughed Jonas. -You don't want to take too much time off."
Chela ignored the remark, choosing instead to concentrate on washing three meals' worth of dishes now that a muddy trickle was finally emerging from the ancient faucet. The awkward pause in the conversation was interrupted by a loud rapping on the door.
-Taxi!" boomed a deep voice cheerfully. Chela stopped her washing to help gather Jonas's luggage. In the doorway, the taxi driver waited to take the bags.
-I can take those, señorita," said the man contemptuously. Jonas missed the pointed insult to his companion as he busily fussed with his plane tickets and travel papers. -And will you be going to the airport with us this morning?" He must not have any sisters or girl cousins my age or he wouldn't be such a prick, thought Chela miserably. He thinks this is easy.
-No, I will be staying here." They all end up staying here, thought the taxi driver self-righteously. They push us Cubans aside for these old foreigners and they never fulfill their promises to marry them. Still the coldness between this couple was exceptional, noted the driver, as he watched them part with only a quick handshake. Well, I guess it may be better after all when there are tears and screams, concluded the man.
Chela stretched out on her side as she lay on the seawall, watching the pelicans as they dove for fish against the rising sun. Behind her the promenade was busy with morning commuters, and the sidewalk was already filling with the tourists and vagrants who would occupy this stretch of the Malecón - Havana's three mile seafront drive for the day. She looked up and nodded a greeting at a small group of artisanal fishermen on their way to one of the many piers that jutted off the stone embankment, the giant inner tubes from which they would cast their nets riding balanced on their backs, making them look like a procession of turtles. Our heroes of the sea, just like Starkad and the Vikings in that story of King Gautrek in the book Jonas left me. We also have our fates, our gods who don't seem to care, except that we should face the challenges they set for us with valor. As the men passed, she noticed a bright handkerchief being waved to her in greeting: Chela had not seen the young woman who now hailed her in almost a year. She recognized her as a fellow woman of the street, and wondered whether the two babies riding in the stroller that she pushed determinedly towards Chela were the products of business or love.
-You are still here," opened the young mother.
-Where would I have gone?" asked Chela, squinting into the sun and with a hint of annoyance entering her voice.
-Well, you know," replied the woman casually. -You don't see someone around for a while, you assume they have taken off across the water." She reached down to caress the heads of her sleeping children. -Their father left on a raft last month." She chewed on her lip. -My mother-in-law says that he is lost, and that it is my fault, you know? Because of the babies and my not working enough...but I think he would have tried it anyway." She moved next to Chela to rest her elbows on the wall, and looked northwards, as if sending her thoughts out directly to Key West. -This way I at least have the babies. And I think she is wrong. It is too soon to jump to conclusions about what happened to him. He could be arranging things for us before he writes, or maybe the Yankees caught him and are sending him back."
-Yes," offered Chela neutrally. -It does take time to get back in touch with one's family." Three years and counting, sometimes, she thought dully. But her man left on a raft. One month. The sea has taken him in her embrace.
I have given birth so many times
that I have populated whole worlds,
their skies filling with the hummingbirds of wishes
and the dragons of doubts.
My breasts carry the memories of many hungry mouths
vying for a place at my table.
They tasted milk sweeter than cane the greater part of days,
but gall-like bitter in the moments of despair.
They fly away:
The measured words and tender touches
The efforts at turning the wheel
The patient hours in the endless lines
of life lived in constant waiting.
Will my children return to me yet
to hold up my step when the years rob the iron of my bones?
Or will they send word through letters of silence,
accusing me of having not done more?
Chela finished the line, then closed the notebook and tucked it in with the others under her mattress, pleased that her new lodgings insured that her brothers would not raid the older volumes, tearing precious sheets out to use for their schoolwork. It had been a long afternoon: her mother had insisted on outwardly grieving Chela's move, making a great to do about the her daughter -abandoning the nest" although the girl hadn't slept at home in months and sometimes would go for days without coming by the house. Chela knew that the older woman feared that once the meager possessions that marked her place in the family were gone, the division of labor in the family might be altered. For close to a year now, Chela had found the dollars and Maritza had made them stretch to cover the needs of the whole family by strategically hunting the best bargains for food and clothing on the black market. The boys also pursued dollars, but Pedro and Manuel were just as likely to steal them from Chela and their mother as to bring them home, and Tomás often lost the trifles he earned as a shoeshine boy to beatings at the hands of his competitors. He is sweet... and feminine. If I can just put off the day he starts going with men for money. May this wish go from my heart to your ears, my ancestors, my saints. Chela walked to the corner of the room where she had set up her altar, noticing that several of the candles were burning low and needed to be replaced.
Chela's altar had been a sore point in the Stevens household for years. Martin and Maritza were staunch atheists and had been shocked when their first-born started seeking knowledge about the worship of the orishas the West African deities who still survived in the hearts of the descendents of Cuban slaves, and who were often depicted as Roman Catholic saints. As soon as she was old enough to wander the neighborhood and visit with practitioners of the old religion, Chela had defied her parents' admonitions to avoid the -backwards superstitions of the lumpen-proletariat". It was in the course of learning the rudiments of the care and feeding of the ancestors and orishas that Chela became acquainted with the shape of the future.
The man known in el Monte as Old Juan Sanchez carefully recorded the positions in which the divinatory cowrie shells had fallen. At this sacred moment, however, Juan Sanchez was not truly present: his body was a shell inhabited by Obatalá, the orisha of his special devotion, who was clothed in the old man's flesh in order to answer the question of Chela Steven's spiritual identity. Each person had one spirit with which they shared a special affinity, and the twelve-year old had skimped on lunches for months, raising the funds that would pay for the materials and time of the discerning ceremony that would reveal which orisha claimed her as a daughter.
-Eyorosun is the reading," gravely intoned Obatalá. -This reading announces that nobody knows what lies at the bottom of the sea." Black eyes that had witnessed millennia looked into Chela's young ones. -Young daughter of Yemayá, young daughter of the ocean, there are too many paths and too many choices before you. You will struggle over which direction to take in life. But you will not struggle alone. Your mother Yemayá is always with you, holding you close just as she surrounds this land in her tender arms. And I am always with you, child of the saints." He closed his eyes briefly, as a current of power coursed up his spine, making him visibly shiver. He leaned forward to hold Chela's gaze on his wrinkled face, distorted with a grimace that made his next words come out slowly and with apparent pain. He looked through her into the world of tomorrows. -There is more, daughter of Yemayá: a mighty storm approaches in your future. At the center of your destiny is a child of Changó, a fire waiting to burn out of control until your ocean tempers its flames. You will not escape without burns."
But I will try to, thought the child obstinately as she walked home from the old santería priest's hovel. I will make my own fate. I will sacrifice and I will fight. And when Changó comes with his sword to dabble in my life, I will be ready.
Eyorosun, indeed, thought Chela as she finished lighting the candles. Nobody knows what lies at the bottom of the sea, and I do not know what lies at the end of this night. She stood and checked herself in the mirror, adjusting the halter top to fit more snugly and accentuate the rise of her breasts. Her makeup was light, just drawing out the surprise of green eyes against the dark skin. If necessary, tomorrow she would opt for a heavier application. Let me see what look the tourists are buying this season. She tucked her identity card and a packet of condoms into her purse and headed for the door, then paused.
Tucked next to the doorframe sat a lone orisha, a molded sandstone head that guarded the entryway, with cowrie shell eyes that looked out towards the street. He was the trickster Elegba, the master of the crossroads and of the doors of fate, and he was still thirsty tonight. Normally, Elegba ate yams, left for him on small plates before the statue, and he drank the blood of roosters. Chela, however, could not bear to sacrifice the birds, so she kept a small lance by the door and periodically nicked her thumb to provide the hungry god with a few drops of her own essence.
As she squeezed the cut digit, allowing the liquid to drop in a series of fat red tears upon the stone head, she prayed in a tongue that she knew only phonetically and in its effects, the specific meanings of the words lost to the members of her generation. -Laroye akiloye aguro tente onú apagurá akama sesé areletuse abamula omubatá okóloñiñi toni kan ofó omoró agun oyomna alayiki agó." She paused to consider what petition to make. I am tired of just asking for the minimum, for some luck, for a little money. She drew her breath in. -Open the doors, Elegba. Open them wide. Bring it all. Bring my fate." Then she stepped into the evening.
In transit from Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic to La Habana, Cuba
Barbara attacked the thick slabs of ham and salami on her tray with great enthusiasm. The flight between Boston and Santo Domingo had been on a US carrier and had featured the withered lettuce and small frozen bananas with which she was familiar from her domestic flights. This, however, was an interesting addition to her airplane food experiences: the cold meats arrived before her unencumbered by vegetables or starches, and the surly stewardess had responded to her request for condiments by bringing her a handful of hard candies. Oh yeah, no messing around. Heh. This must be the country to do a cardiology residency in: a nation of angry little red-faced blocked arteries. Now if they only gave us some mustard with this, or mayo. Ugh. Hold that. Warm mayo. Just what we need for the digestively challenged on this flight. Because the Santo Domingo airport was partially administered by US aviation agencies, Cuban airplanes were not permitted to come into the terminal gates. There was no refueling permitted, no loading of refreshments, and no emptying of refuse and toilets. Barbara was particularly pleased that her immunity to foul smells allowed her to take up a full row of seats located near the aircraft's front restrooms.
This meant she also had a clear view of the cockpit, and she watched in curious amusement as the flight officers openly passed a flask of rum between the two of them, becoming louder with each passing minute of the flight. She knew that she should feel more worried than she did about the pilot's sobriety, but it seemed that his general happiness and love of life obviously enhanced by the alcohol might also contribute to her safe arrival in Havana. The cockpit door, like many other non-essential pieces of the plane, was simply missing, and Barbara wondered how many of the critical components of the elderly craft were held together by duct tape and magic. As she turned to look out the window and took in the reality of what she was doing, though, she found that she didn't care about any hardships entailed in flying Cubana: for the second time since yesterday she was crossing over the ocean.
The first leg of her journey, however, took place in darkness. She had sensed the water waiting beneath her, an invisible and magnetic presence above which the comparatively small jet and the rising moon had hovered at a respectful distance. Now she could peer down and take in the immensity of the sea and the way that the sunlight played across its undulating surface, coloring it in hues ranging from mint green to rich indigo. A profound feeling of awe towards the beautiful but dangerous expanse swept over her, then shifted into the nervous realization that she was arriving in an unfamiliar land, where she would have to function fulltime in a second language and where she would be hard pressed to dominate social situations in the manner to which she was accustomed. I guess crossing the pond must have freaked out the old folks too, coming over from Connacht. They shoulda picked this place though the water's gotta be nice compared with L Street Beach. Friggin' Irish would end up in cold water when there was warm for the taking. Not that we wouldn't be in hot water everywhere. Geez, there go the Puerto Ricans again. Please someone change the jukebox!
At the back of the plane, a boisterous contingent of travelers busied themselves pulling out guitars, tambourines and hand drums, and noisily debated which song to entertain their fellow passengers with. They had been on Barbara's long flight from Boston, and she had already heard the Solidarity Brigade's repertoire of Puerto Rican political and folk songs several times. Just what I feared from friggin' activists, although at least none of them were love songs to tractors, and none were as bad as that old women's music. Could just see that stuff in the Caribbean. Heh. We will, we will not be moved. We will, we will not be moved. Like a manatee that's stranded on a coral reef, we will not be moved...just wish there was something a bit more party oriented happening. Barbara considered her options: trying to sleep, ignoring the music, or bullying the congenial but repetitive Puerto Ricans into silence. There is another way, she concluded, and briskly standing up, she pulled her guitar case from the overhead bin and started down the aisle, smiling broadly.
She disregarded the stewardess's frantic gestures directing her back to her seat. As Barbara's intention became clear, there was an eruption of catcalls and comments from the rear of the aircraft, some of them clearly not meant for her comprehension.
-All right, the gringa is going to sing!" -Sing Kumbaya!" -Those gringos are breeding giants in their secret laboratories, just look at her!" -I'll Always Love Yoooo! Sing Whitney Houston! I'll Always Love Yoooo!" Fuck Whitney Houston. -To hell with Whitney Houston!" -Don't Worry, Be Happy!" -Oh mama, look at those curves and me without brakes!" Ooh, remember that one. -Sing the Marseillaise!" -Elvees Presley!"
And fuck Elvis, thought Barbara, as she finished extracting her guitar from its case and bracing herself against a seatback. Boy do you have me all wrong. She readied herself to play, closed her eyes, and delivered the opening line of the Matamoros Trio's most famous son, a cappella and in a crystalline voice that penetrated every crevice of the cabin.
-Mamá yo quiero saber, de dónde son los cantantes?"
With the exception of the still disgruntled stewardess, all the crew and passengers joined her for the second line. Heh. You are all mine. Boy, was she right about nailing the music.
A tall, heavily-bundled figure made its way down the central hallway of the Roslindale Home for the Aged, a slick trail of muddy tracks marking its progress through the building. Its long arms swung slowly, the bulky guitar case carried on the right side of the body offsetting the weight of the parcels riding on the left. It passed almost imperceptibly by a small staff station where two young men were immersed in watching a horror movie on a small black and white TV set. Noting a movement out of the corner of his eye, one of them stood and looked down the corridor in dread.
-Tim, did you clean the lady in 17 yet?"
-No. Why?" His companion hauled Tim up by the hair.
-Fuckin' Christ! That hurt! What? What?"
-Look." Tim caught sight of the imposing visitor just as she turned to go into the room.
-I thought she had no family."
-This one is so much worse than family. I am outta here taking my lunch and taking the two hours you owe me for working alone last weekend."
The miserable orderly who was left behind returned his attention to the TV screen. If I'm gonna die today I might as well know how this ends.
In room 17 the air was thick with the pungent smell of urine. Barbara struggled to reel in her temper as she set her burdens down next to the room's lone chair and moved up to the bed where her friend huddled, waiting expectantly. I'll have to kill those fuckers later. Is it too much to ask that they wash her by noon? Lowering the sidebar, she leaned over to kiss the small woman softly on the cheek.
-Hey sweetie. Brought you lots of cookies and some books."
-Barbara !" The response was croaked in the high-pitched broken voice of the very old. -I don't smell very good. I'm sorry. You can open a window. I promise I won't jump."
-We'll both catch pneumonia if I do that, Irene, and the Cubans won't appreciate it if the hot shot doc coming to help them with their little problem ends up in the hospital."
-Cuba..." trailed off Irene wistfully. -You're going to see it Barbara. You're going to see Communism brought to reality and with such a greater vision than our Soviet comrades ever had. Oh, how I wish I could go with you."
Well," answered Barbara brightly. -I could bring you something back, like a Young Pioneer scarf, or whatever uniform they make senior citizens wear." The old woman coughed a laugh and weakly shook a finger at her tormenter.
-It's the Chinese comrades who fail to understand the importance of individual fashion and taste, Barbara. The Cubans do not make people wear things! You've been listening to those people in Miami again." Barbara smiled and captured Irene's hand, stroking it evenly as she spoke.
-You know me, Irene. I haven't been listening to anyone since the doctor spanked me on the way out from me ma's belly. Now how about I do something to improve the air quality in this room a bit?"
-Oh, honey, I don't know where those young men are right now."
-Well I do, Irene. They're busy polishing their willies one last time before I forcibly remove them for not taking better care of you. But I don't want to waste time right now fighting with them for something I can do better myself. Where are your pads and chucks?"
-Top drawer of the bureau."
Barbara moved over to retrieve the packages of sanitary items from the drawer, her attention alighting briefly on the small collection of mementos that graced the top of Irene's furniture like figurines set out on a small altar: an autographed photo of Paul Robeson, a half-burnt dog collar, a pair of Purple Hearts their ribbons already faded to lightest pink - and a picture of herself taken at her graduation from medical school, her blue eyes forever looking into the camera in a strange mixture of pride and disbelief. I gotta bring her back a picture of Fidel. I wonder if he gives autographs. Then she set about filling a small basin with water, and soaping up a washcloth.
She barely registered Irene's weight in her shoulder muscles as she supported the old woman, turning her twice in each direction, first to clean the accumulated filth off her skin, and then to tuck the clean pads and linens underneath her. Barbara worked quickly, knowing that it was not easy for Irene to accept this intimate care from the younger woman, but feeling great satisfaction in attending to the small details, like applying scented powder down Irene's back, that she knew staff at the home were unlikely to pay much mind to. In order to make the ordeal more bearable for her old friend, Barbara kept up an incessant patter as she washed and dressed her, filling her in on her continuing studies at Harvard, the ongoing adventures of her criminal siblings and the quest for sainthood of her religious ones, and the final preparations for her upcoming trip.
-You know, I have something for your trip," piped up Irene just as Barbara was finishing. -Look over on the windowsill."
Barbara sifted through the small pile of compact discs she found there, then carefully unfolded the three t-shirts that lay next to them. The titles of the discs weren't familiar, but one of the t-shirts displayed the face of a Puerto Rican folk singer she had seen perform once in Hartford.
-I asked one of the young comrades to go down to Red Book Store and find some T-shirts that what help you fit in when you go to Cuba, that would show that you are in solidarity with the Revolution." Irene's eyes had come alive with passion. -It's just so important that people understand that you're not there as a tourist but as a worker, doing your part. I also asked him to find some Cuban music for you to listen to. It's a good way to connect with people, Barbara. And you'll find that it has such spirit."
-Yeah, right," laughed Barbara softly. -I am very grateful, and the T-shirts I'll definitely use. The music, well...I'll try it for you, Irene, but Commie music has never thrilled me the way it does you. So what'll it be for you today?" she asked as she strode over to the guitar case and took out the instrument. -A little Phil Ochs? Some Joan Baez? I've been taking good care of my voice lately, so I can even hit the high notes on The Internationale if you like."
Irene's chest heaved with laughter until she coughed. She settled herself on her pillows, then looked over at the young woman sitting across from her, the guitar held like an infant in her arms. She is so beautiful. Inside and out. What a wonderful thing to have seen her bloom in this way. Irene let the warmth she felt mix with tiredness.
-I want to hear something new, Barbara. Something for younger folks. Play some Beatles. Not sure how long I'll stay awake, though."
The Beatles and -something new". Not a common association. What to play. She smiled at the black eyes dreamily watching her through half-closed lids from the bed, then looked down to compose herself.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free
Into the light of a dark black night
Irene was asleep before she finished the song. After pulling the covers tight around Irene's shoulders, Barbara ducked her head to kiss her goodbye on the forehead, then left the room as quietly as she could so as to not disturb her. After pulling the door closed, she went in search of the two men who had privileged television over the dignity of the woman who had put her through college.
A rough tap on the shoulder interrupted Barbara after her fourth encore. She turned around and found herself facing the pilot, whose nose came up to the level of her chest. She couldn't see the man's eyes through his mirrored sunglasses, but she assumed he was in good spirits from the toothy grin that poked out from under his bushy moustache, and from the strong odor of rum that wafted towards her from his mouth.
-I just have one thing to say," he bellowed at her good-naturedly, slurring his words. -And that is that at this moment at this very moment I am a very happy man. I have just pissed like a horse and I have been serenaded by a nightingale. I could die happy right now. But that would deprive my fellow countrymen of the delight of witnessing the arrival of a goddess on our soil. We are still a few minutes away, but let me be the first to say welcome to Cuba, and if there is any way I can make your stay pleasurable let me know. I am single." With that, he turned and wove back up the aisle.
I can't kill him. I can't fly this thing.
She was met at the gate by a serious young man in a white medical coat holding a placard with her name printed on it. They quickly exchanged introductions, and Barbara watched as her fellow travelers were diverted towards customs inspection stations while she was allowed to pass directly to a waiting car. Hell, I woulda brought more sex toys and my pet iguana if I'd known it would be this easy. She let the driver load her luggage into the trunk, then got into the back seat of the car with her new companion, Dr. Santos Valverde of the Cuban Health Ministry.
Even through the half-tinted car windows, Barbara was drunk with the intensity of the Caribbean sunlight, and she was eager to take in every detail of tropical difference she could garner on the drive to her hotel: the lushness of the ground cover, and the swaying palms; the oxcarts and bicycles choking the thoroughfare and cheerful noises of the crowds lining the streets. It took her a moment to register that Santos was speaking to her.
-... and take the rest of the day to rest since we will have a team meeting tomorrow to make sure everyone on the Tufts, Stanford and Florida teams are sharing information. You will probably want to spend the first days here in the capital going over the data we already have."
-Well," responded Barbara distractedly, -it shouldn't take me that long to go through the available stats on a thousand cases if the data are organized properly." Santos picked nervously at his pants and cleared his throat.
-Doctora Murphy, now that you are here I am authorized to let you know that we need to make a slight revision to the numbers that you got before leaving the United States."
-Ok," said Barbara. -But nothing that's going to seriously alter my work timetable, right?" I had to beg Eladio for this time.
-Doctora, we will be making an upwards adjustment from that figure of just over a thousand that you had." He found an interesting speck of garbage on the floor of the car to focus on. -We now have found that over twenty-one thousand people have suddenly lost their sight over the past few months."
Barbara tried to not visibly react.
Dang. Well. Happens with my checkbook all the time.
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-Blackbird" by Lennon and McCartney used without permission.
Translation of -Venga la Esperanza", by Silvio Rodriguez.
She says that it gets steeper and out of reach/ and that she has only made it to the pain/ she says she has lost the good hope/ and takes refuge in the compassion of dreams/ I know the nature of her complaints/ because I suffered from deception/ it was a long night that time clears away/ while this song plays in my memory:
Come on hope/come sun to me/ Away with the frost/ fly the hummingbird./ Burn more brightly candle/ growl motor/ because without hope/ where does love go.
As a child I calculated/ my age at the year 2000/ (2000 sounded like an open door/ to wonders that the future whistled)/ But now that it gets closer I realize/ that once more I have to wait/ that the wonders will come somewhat slowly/ because the world is still too young.
Come on hope/ come by here/ Come by at 40/ come by at 2000/ Come on hope/ of whatever color/ green, red or black/ but come with love.
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