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.
Thanks to Prof of Xena Warrior Lesbian, and to Jessica Michallet for coming on board as beta-readers and editorial advisors for this story. A special thanks to Old Warrior for test driving this story.
De que callada manera
se me adentra usted sonriendo
como si fuera la primavera
Y de que modo sutil
me derramó en la camisa
todas las flores de abril.
Quién le dijo que yo era
risa siempre, nunca llanto?
Como si fuera la primavera
no soy tanto.
En cambio qué espiritual
que usted me brinde una rosa
de su rosal principal.
De que callada manera
se me adentra usted sonriendo
como si fuera la primavera
Nicolás Guillén, "Canción" (Adapted by Pablo Milanés, used without permission.)
Chapter 4: A Tentative Cartography
The next afternoon Habana Central, Cuba
"And I would not give you false hope, no, on this strange and mournful day..." Barbara alternately sang to herself and whistled as she strode through Vedado, briefcase in hand, the afternoon sun warming her exposed shoulders and beginning the process of darkening the freckles on the nape of her neck and her upper back. Moisture was again thick in the air and she could feel the dampness both where her bangs draped over her temples, and in the line running between her shoulder blades where her hair - collected into a thick braid - rested. Still, she concluded, even if she was back in New England she would be perspiring from the uncertainty and the excitement of her mission.
It had already been a day of substantial accomplishments. She had returned from Chela's apartment water-logged and muddy, but with a remarkable amount of nervous energy that drove her to sit down and draw up a set of preliminary field protocols for her research team. Then, after a satisfying long shower, she had gone for sweet rolls and coffee and treated Cynthia to brunch on the balcony of the project officer's hotel room. Although the older woman had raised some questions about the feasibility of engaging in an island-wide sweep - punctuated by return trips to Havana for data analysis and clinical sample processing - she had ultimately capitulated to the maverick physician's proposals. Most importantly from Barbara's perspective, she had granted her carte blanche in arranging for human resources to support the Tufts effort. Glad I didn't spell out that the proposed research assistant was a local hooker I met last night, who probably has the hangover from hell right now. Yep, that pretty face has got to be looking like these buildings a bit - like the party was good but a long time ago. The daylight accentuated the contradictions of ornate architecture that wanted for decades of paint: the buildings of Havana with few exceptions displayed a mottled appearance of grays mixing with soft, faded pastels. "...but the mother and child reunion is only a motion away..."
Barbara slowed down and stopped singing as she came up to Chela's Humboldt alley apartment, her heart picking up in the strength of its beat despite the attenuation of activity. Control. Gotta sell this. Bad enough you're here days before you said you'd be. Fuck it's not like she's interested that way anyway. Why am I doing this? I'm fucked. I don't know why I'm doing this. Am I like those old Irish nuns that used to take fallen girls off the street? But they probably didn't want to grab them and kiss them. Geez. Maybe they did and they lied! Maybe nuns lie all the time! Maybe Sister Mary Frances smoked the occasional bone too!
Her mind momentarily went silent in panic as she found herself in front of Chela's wide open door, but she quickly recovered her sense of purpose, anchoring herself in her role as physician. The young woman she had treated the night before, and to whom she had left clear instructions to rest, was out of her bed and on her feet, awkwardly attempting to iron some clothes without the full use of her left arm.
"Good day," she said softly. Chela startled at looking up from the ironing board to find Barbara in her doorway. "I'm sorry. I know," continued Barbara, "this is earlier than you expected me, but something important has come up - an opportunity. And now I see that it's a good thing that I have come because it seems that you have ideas about returning to work tonight regardless of what your body needs in order to heal."
She just doesn't seem so dangerous in the daylight, thought Chela, taking in the woman before her. Perhaps it was the stress of being attacked that led me to have such a strong impression of her. Barbara looked to be a bit older, and clearly physically stronger; she appeared intelligent - she was a physician - but also acted naïve and arrogant in ways that seemed equally endearing and annoying. Best break the enchantment quickly. She must just be another one of these feminist do-gooders who thinks I don't really understand what I'm doing. "You want to come in? " asked Chela evenly, although the hairs were still just settling back down on the back of her neck. "You can keep me company while I iron, compañera Doctora." She pulled a chair directly in front of the ironing board. "Please have a seat."
Barbara shook her head ruefully as she dusted off the seat of her khaki shorts before sitting down, resting her briefcase against the chair.
"Chela, even the ironing can wait, I'm sure," she chided.
"Well, no. In fact, it can't. I have blood all over my other nice top and I don't want to go out full of wrinkles."
"But your shoulder..."
"My shoulder, "interrupted Chela, "will only suffer until I finish getting dressed. Trust me, I am not planning on any strenuous activities this evening. And since you insist on discussing this, it is best if we do so in English. My neighbors know, of course, but it is still not spoken of very openly. Look, " she walked around the board so that she could hold Barbara's gaze more closely, " I have a family that depends on me finding them money every day - there are no sick days in this work. What there is are extremely old men who will pay well and will probably fall asleep before I even get their zippers open."
Barbara smiled at the comment despite her dismay at the implications of Chela's statements.
"OK, comrade Chela," she conceded. "So you know how to take care of yourself, even if you found yourself in considerable trouble last night when our paths crossed. But surely there is other employment for a young woman who is bilingual and sharp." Chela opened her mouth for a retort, but her attention was diverted towards the flickering of the light bulbs in the flat, and an interruption in the smooth whirring of the small fan which cooled the small room.
"Damn!" swore the younger woman as the lights went dark. She resignedly unplugged the iron. "I guess I will have wrinkles in my shirt after all."
"Is it always like this?" asked Barbara, as she stepped in to hang up the blouse that Chela had been ironing, and then fold up the board.
"No," sighed Chela. "Just over the past year it has gotten steadily worse. We used to get our fuel from the Soviets. Even after they stopped sending crude for us to process we had reserves to draw upon, but now we have finally reached the bottom of the barrel. And it is not just the electricity going off there is no more petrol for vehicles or fuel for cooking. At least it is still the day, " she said, sitting on her bed and motioning for Barbara to bring over the chair. "We can still see each other in this light."
And that is a blessing, although I swear I would still see her in the dark, thought Barbara, as she made an effort to look elsewhere.
"So," said Chela quietly. "When we left off you were scolding me, first for not caring for my shoulder - I think I have addressed that issue - and next for not having a different kind of job."
"I was scolding? I'm sorry," Barbara wondered how the conversation had gone so awry - she had meant, after all, to be a source of hope, and not irritation for the younger woman.
"So I have two answers to your question, Barbara, " said Chela, laying back onto her pillows and looking up at the ceiling. Fuck, thought Barbara, pay attention. Serious conversation. Think of something else. Ice cream. Swirling my tongue over...crap...
"First. There is the mathematical reason. Salaries in good government jobs right now are about the equivalent of ten to forty dollars a month." Chela tilted her head, satisfied to see that Barbara's eyes had widened at the comment. "It is not as bad as it would be in your country, because we don't have to pay for housing or health care or transportation, some of our food, and for power - when there is power. But there is never enough food - and a pound of meat costs a month's salary on the open market. So most people make it by having someone in this business, by having many jobs, or by having someone overseas who sends them dollars."
Chela shifted onto her side, the better to hold Barbara's gaze. "Then there is my little family reason. You see, Barbara, my family is socially offensive. I can't get a job anywhere because my father disgraced us when he defected. He was a very important person, a trophy the government showed off to demonstrate the failures of the US system. My mother was always a good Party member but a very unpleasant person socially - once he left none of the comrades at work put up with her any more. It's up to me and my good people skills to provide."
"Chela, broke in Barbara, finally smiling, "we have something in common then. My family is also socially offensive and I am also the member who is best with people - the others just talk to God or their defense attorneys."
"No, " laughed Chela, boldly reaching over to tug at the logo on Barbara's T-shirt. "You can't fool me. Look at this - Harvard! You must be some kind of Rockefeller."
Barbara sighed and reached over to the bedside table, picking up the tattered green ration book that lay there. She quietly flipped through it for a few moments, considering how to proceed. Crack the door just a little bit. Yes she takes no prisoners and this might come back to bite you. But fuck. Well. On your terms. In your tongue.
"Chela," Barbara's eyes were as soft as her voice as she cautiously displayed some weakness before the jinetera. "It is true that I have a very good education. I have been lucky in that way. But I am not a Rockefeller - it has all been through charity. I lived in an apartment that was like this, just a bit bigger because there were eight of us in the family. And I know about not having enough food. I won't exaggerate - it was never as bad as this," she said, indicating the ration book. "But it was often very close to it at times when I was growing up. My father was working in construction to support six little girls when he had an accident and became disabled. My mother stayed at home to care for him and us. That last week of the month before the disability check would come was always bad. I only complained once about the yellow cheese and saltines, because Ma slapped me hard for it, and then she ran into the kitchen and cried. And then my big sisters whacked me too, for making Ma cry." She started leafing through the pages of the ration book again, as her voice started to crack. She masked the discomfort by chuckling softly. "Of course, now I remember things a bit differently. I was the baby. I remember that I sometimes got seconds before others got their firsts. I know my sisters watched out for me."
She stopped and looked up at Chela, finding an odd comfort in the glaze of moisture covering her eyes.
"You know compañera, " said Chela quietly after a long moment, " I think since you first sat next to me at the House of Tea I have been rather quick to judge you."
Barbara put the ration book back down on the table, and reached down for her briefcase. "No, you haven't, Chela. Or at least you haven't been all wrong in your judgements. I will be honest, yes part of why I am here today is that I just didn't want to see you going out tonight, and maybe that was some kind of very innocent savior complex and I'm sorry if it has offended you. But I'm also here because I really need you to do a job for me. You know about this epidemic of blindness?" Chela nodded, intrigued. "That's why I'm here, Chela. Trying to find the cause and trying to find a treatment. I need a research assistant who can travel with me both here in Havana and across the island over the next several months. But I need more than that." The sparks were back in Barbara's eyes as she sat forward, engaging Chela with a controlled enthusiasm. "I need a fully bilingual, intelligent, socially offensive person, Chela. Someone who isn't afraid to look for the truth and to tell me the truth, especially if I am on the wrong track. And we know, from our limited but very intensive experience, that you are very good at calling me on my shit, at questioning me whenever my confidence oversteps my knowledge." Passion and earnestness lit up her face as she moved closer still, finishing her request in a voice that - while rising from deep in her chest - sounded barely louder than a whisper. " It is good work Chela, because it is work that matters for the well-being of so many people, and work where one person - the right person - can make a difference." Her eyes flitted down before returning to those of the woman she was drawn to as a companion in her hunt for the elusive blinding agent, and - she would have to find a way to hide the fact - as a companion for her bed. "You know, all morning I have just had the strangest feeling that you are meant to do this, that you are the right person" laughed Barbara. "I probably need to get some sleep."
"Will you be paying a Cuban salary or an American salary for this job?" asked Chela quietly.
Shit. Shit. She's going to say yes. But she hasn't yet. It's OK. You can't faint because you are sitting down. I love you Mr. Gravity.
"American salary, in dollars. I'm thinking eleven hundred a month clear of expenses, which is what a graduate student would make on this project." Barbara swallowed. Her throat felt so dry as she awaited Chela's response.
"Could the monthly salary be paid in advance?"
"I'm sure I could work something out. Yes."
So, thought Chela. This is to be for more than one night and more than one storm. Perhaps this challenge that she speaks of is the test that was foretold. She is not a bad person, and I can still be careful. I suppose I will cast my lot - for now - with this Barbara, who among her many skills can count the coaxing of cautious yes's from people who have learned well the numbing safety of no's.
"I'll do it, compañera, " affirmed a serious Chela. "I assume you want me to start today?"
"Absolutely!" replied a heartened Barbara, fishing in her briefcase for several thick folders and handing them to her new assistant. "You see, you can work for me in bed too." Fuck my mouth. Fix it! There ain't no elephant in the room. "There's a lot of catch up work for you to do reading the clinical materials, and the project summary. Then I have some maps in there. We'll be in Havana another two weeks before we start out doing field studies, and I want you to spend the next two days thinking about the best way to divide up our people and our time given the diversity of sites I'd like to see visited." She stood up, grinning broadly. "And Chela, is there anything you need right now that I could get you before I go get some sleep?"
"I have everything I need, I think. You haven't gone to bed since last night?"
"I get excited some times," confessed Barbara, using the moment to look around the apartment in the daytime. "Add that to your assignments, " she laughed, "Make sure I get six hours of sleep somewhere in every twenty four hour period." She readied herself to leave, but paused when she noticed the stone statue of the orisha Elegba tucked in its niche behind the door, with a small saucer laid before it heaped with offerings of candies and cooked yams. She turned back to face Chela, who observed Barbara's discovery of the Elegba with interest.
"Umm, Chela, " began Barbara with a shy smile. "I'm not going to have to watch my fingernail clippings around you, am I?" Chela laughed, then her face turned more serious.
"You think I am the kind of person who might use spiritual forces to try and control your behavior?"
Fuck, baby, you are already controlling my behavior. You are human ritalin. Frankly yes. "Frankly yes."
Chela smiled and shook her head. Then she looked carefully at Barbara, taking her measure with her eyes, binding each inch of her from crown to heel in a visual sweep that was born from equal parts of wonder, wariness and emergent affection.
"Compañera Doctora, " said Chela carefully, " I will make every effort not to take advantage of the considerable trust you place in me. Your fingernail clippings are quite safe."
"Well, then," replied Barbara in mock relief, "I'll leave you to your work. I'll pick you up Monday morning at eight for staff meeting. Rest that shoulder, Chela." And she was gone into the alley, her receding form again exuding confidence, as she whistled and found the bounce in her step.
It took so little to give her joy, thought Chela, as she spread the papers out on the bed. Yes, I think I will be able to hold my own. She doesn't seem to realize everything that is at play. Then she surprised herself by discovering in her heart a profound desire to protect the other woman's innocence.
End of February Baracoa, Cuba
Pedro slowed the truck and pulled over to the side of the road. He had anticipated having to stop frequently for calls of nature when he took on the ordeal of driving the two women across the country, but the American doctor's compulsion to stop every few hours to strip a stalk of fresh sugar cane from the stands growing by the highway still unnerved him. He focussed on the positive aspects of his assignment as he mopped his brow with his handkerchief. Dr. Murphy had been extremely generous and patient with him, taking every opportunity to teach the second year medical student turned chauffeur. He had already acquired so many clinical skills from just a month of shadowing her in the capital and out in the countryside. His English was also improving, and the research assistant was very good at conveying the subtleties of both social and clinical exchanges. And today, Dr. Murphy had declared it a day off, even though it was clear that she was always on the prowl for more information about local life. Yes, all in all, this was a wonderful opportunity, even if she was addicted to sugar and her frame was too big for the pickup's cab, making it a tight fit for the three of them.
Chela smiled as Barbara climbed back into the cab, her mouth already wrapped around the piece of cane.
"What?" replied Barbara to the unspoken teasing. "It's not like I'm doing it in front of patients." Chela had explained early on in their travels outside the capital that sucking on cane was viewed akin to using a pacifier out among the rural folk, and it had taken considerable effort on her part to convince Barbara that her authority as a physician might be compromised by engaging in such childlike behavior in public. Barbara had pouted, and had sullenly refused to engage in conversation for almost an hour after the discussion.
Well and that was not even a bad one, thought Chela, recalling some of their other disagreements. It seems my way with this one is for conflagrations to clear the way for connection - not the smoothest path. Still I am grateful we have learned to be easy around each other. The beginning of their work partnership had looked most unpromising during that first week in Havana.
Barbara looked on in frustration and anger as the child whose care she had been observing over the past hour on the pediatric oncology ward vomited on her for the ninth time.
The Cuban attending stepped over and efficiently wiped her smock with the same soiled towel she had used the previous eight times.
"You get used to it. I know you are not an oncologist, Doctora Murphy. Dr. Pinela," she addressed a younger physician standing at the bedside. "I think she might have loosened the chemotherapy line with that last episode of vomiting. Could you check and secure it?"
Barbara watched in horror as Pinela coughed into her fist, then - glove less - moved to handle the child's intravenous line. Without hesitation she bumped the younger Cuban physician aside, taking her place as she pulled a sealed packet of latex gloves from her back pocket.
"I'll do it, " Barbara forced the words through her teeth. "No, I'm not an oncologist. But I've read the chart and I am a good generalist. I know this girl had already vomited twelve times before I got here this morning, and that you didn't give her any anti-emetics to counter the nausea the chemo would produce. I also know that only an idiot would not use gloves to handle a line, especially on an immuno-compromised patient." She quickly assessed that the line was stable, as the attending and Pinela uncomfortably shifted their weight on their feet, unsure of how to respond to the American doctor's outburst. Finally, the attending cleared her throat and broke the heavy silence.
"Umm, compañera Doctora, you know, we are not ignorant of these needs. It is not within our means to provide them at this time."
"I need to speak to you outside - now, " hissed Chela, materializing like an angry snake at Barbara's elbow. She turned her back to Barbara and marched off the ward, swinging the door hard on its hinges as she left.
"Excuse me," said Barbara awkwardly in parting to the Cuban oncologists, as she ran out the door after her upset assistant. Chela had not stopped in the hallway, but had continued all the way to the front of the building, where Pedro waited in the truck, his feet resting comfortably up on the seat while he read Granma.
"You," she poked the man roughly on the shoulder. "Out, now." She turned to Barbara, who had just arrived, as Pedro hurried to comply with her order. "And you, get in."
Pedro hastened to get away from the vehicle, certain that the tension which he had perceived accumulating in the young assistant all morning had reached its eruption point. The morning's task had been simple enough - to acquaint Dr. Murphy with the general state of maternal and child health services in Havana, but at each of the stops so far, first at a Maternal Home for high risk pregnancies, then at the neonatal intensive care ward and now at the children's specialty wards, Chela had come out of the facility brooding and clearly displeased with her American companion. My saints, thought the man as he looked for a stall to buy a beer or some fruit juice. What will I do when they've been working together for a few months and they start cycling at the same time?
As soon as the windows were rolled up, Chela began to scream at Barbara, her face a scant half foot away from that of the appalled physician.
"You shamed them, you piece of self-righteous shit! They don't have gloves! They don't have lots of drugs! And they don't have a lot of equipment! You've been doing this all day! "Why aren't you using prostaglandin? We save newborns with these conditions in our country! Why are your residents and house officers only showing up for half of their assigned shifts? Why do you make these women stay inpatient for their pregnancies? We don't do that in our country!" " As she imitated Barbara's earlier queries, her face distorted with rage, Chela's hands danced in the air, mocking her companion's habit of gesturing as she spoke. "Let me tell you about this country, compañera Doctora." She put her hands down and her voice descended to a low growl as she skewered Barbara with a glare. "This country needs surgery because it has your country's dick rammed so far up its ass that it can't walk. The blockade means we don't get those things, Barbara...the gloves, the prostaglandin and the anti-emetics at a reasonable cost, enough fuel that we could allow women with borderline pregnancies to stay at home and be driven in when they need to be seen. And those doctors? They are my fucking heroes, Barbara, because they show up for half of their shifts, when someone who only cared about themselves would not show up at all. You know I recognized three of them today from the business. They will be out tonight fucking for dollars, but this morning they are in their trying to work miracles with their bare hands and broken machines. Next time, think before you ask a stupid question, because I swear if you insult another one of these comrades I will quit."
Chela hopped out of the cab, slamming the truck door on her way out. She passed a quiet Pedro on her way down the block.
"Don't leave without me compañero, " she muttered to the man, who warily stepped away from the moody woman. " I just need a few minutes to clear my head."
Back in the truck, a stunned Barbara found that her head was very clear. She is very good at answering questions. If I could only get her to look into anger management.
Two sugar cane stops later, Pedro turned down the dirt path that Chela assured him led to one of the many places she had visited with her family as a youngster.
"It is definitely this way, compañero Pedro," she confirmed, peering at her surroundings for landmarks. "There!" She exclaimed, smiling and pointing at a small roadside stand with a hand drawn sign proclaiming that they had arrived at the "grotto of the Indian". "You are going to love this Barbara. You are sure you don't want to come, Pedro?"
"Compañera, " sighed the man as he turned off the engine and stretched his wiry frame, "I am afraid of enclosed places and of bats. I cannot understand your fascination with going down into a tunnel, even if there were a gallery of Da Vinci paintings at the end instead of the scribblings of our poor Indians." He opened up the back of the bed, extracted a battery-powered lantern and handed it to Barbara. "This is fully charged, compañeras. Just understand that I am not coming to the rescue if you get into trouble. Shall we say that we will meet here in two beers' time?" Barbara shrugged.
"That sounds about right," nodded Chela, calculating Pedro's preferred unit of time. "I picked this one because it is very close to the road, Barbara. Not that you aren't very physical, it's just that we will have time to really look at the petroglyphs." She headed off at a quick pace down the path with Barbara in tow. They walked without conversing, although the forest about them spoke volumes, as the tree ferns and lianas hosted an abundance of birds and insects which raised up their voices to join the cries of the ubiquitous tree frogs in marking the passage of the two women through the lush tropical plant growth. After about twenty minutes, the path abruptly terminated, and Chela led the way down a rocky slope to where thick roots and young trees partially occluded the opening of a cave.
"Not to sound like Pedro, Chelita, " Barbara still felt slightly nervous using the diminutive of her companion's name, a practice she had been experimenting with for a few days now, "but you do know what you are doing?" Chela turned and looked up at her, smiling and nodding.
"This is perfectly safe. And yes, I am glad you are feeling more comfortable and informal around me. We haven't fought all week, have we? Well maybe I can get us lost and then you can yell at me. It must be building up for you." She turned and stepped into the darkness.
"You're the one who yells, " complained Barbara to Chela's receding back. The lantern revealed a narrow passageway with a high ceiling, moist with the waste of bats and seepage from surface water. Their descent was very gradual and mild, with the passage gently curving until the light from the opening was entirely lost.
"They are up here," said Chela, lifting up onto the tips of her toes and raising the lantern. "Here, Barbara. Maybe you can hold the lantern for us and we will be able to see better." Barbara came up from behind, reaching over the younger woman to take the lantern from her. She stepped forward, stretching up to place the lantern at as high a point as possible, balancing herself by resting her hand on Chela's shoulder and leaning her body against Chela's back.
"This doesn't hurt?" she checked. Geez I'm sure she can hear my heart pounding. This place echoes. Hellooo in there! You are so fucked-ucked-ucked-ucked-ucked!
"No, " answered Chela, looking up at the petroglyphs. " It doesn't even itch anymore where the stitches were. You have good hands."
"So tell me about these," interjected Barbara. Nothing like a patented Chela lecture to send Mr. Libido to time out.
"Well," began Chela wistfully, "these were made by the Taínos, the indigenous people of this island, probably between a thousand and six hundred years ago. These were the people that the Spaniards found and mercilessly killed." Barbara contemplated the crudely drawn figures.
"But, Chela, no wonder the Spaniards won," she said half-jokingly. "These guys just drew smiley faces." Chela sighed loudly and looked up at Barbara in irritation.
"You know, I've heard that so many already about them, that they were too soft, that their only talent was knowing how to make love in hammocks and not fall out..." I can't do that, thought Barbara. "But they were a very complex civilization, with elaborate political and trade networks and they left us beautiful artwork. Those "smiley faces"? They are the markers of infant burials, Barbara. The dead were very important to them. Oh, and Miss "Understanding"?" You have my attention, Professor Chela! "They allowed women to be warriors and to take women lovers. Even had all women teams for the sacred ball game. It's one of the reasons the Spaniards were so ruthless with them - they felt sodomites were not human."
"Are you descended from them at all?" asked Barbara quietly.
"Probably. Most of us are at least partially descended from them."
"Is that where you get your green eyes, Chelita?" If you think back to cadaver lab, you won't try to kiss her. Oh, that's good. That's good. Large bowel dissection. Chela laughed softly.
" I don't think so. Both my parents had green eyes. My father was white. My mother is not, but obviously she must have had green-eyed people in both her parental lines. We are such a crazy mix, Barbara. Someday I'll take you to meet my little brother Tomás - he's practically blonde and very light-skinned and I swear he came out of the same belly I did. One never knows with fathers, of course, but I am pretty sure we are of the same seed my mother is not an easy woman to get close to."
"This one is different, Chela." Barbara looked closely at a figure set apart from the rest. It was humanoid, but its limbs were almost froglike, the legs splayed out to reveal the vulva and vagina. The eyes were screwed tightly shut, a disc balanced between them which matched the figure's earrings and chest plate.
"Yes, " said Chela reverently. " That is Atabex, the great mother of their religion. Her eyes are shut because she is looking between the worlds and under the waters to where we all wait to be born. At least that is what the first people of this land believed." They meditated upon the drawing for a few minutes in silence, each of them mulling over what it meant to have shared this place and the weight of its dead surrounding them. "Well," said Chela, taking back the lantern, "I think two beers' time is up!"
Several hours later they were stretched out on their bellies on Duaba Beach, watching Pedro try his hand at fishing with some of the local youth. Behind them a corpulent dark-skinned woman tended a fire pit and grill, awaiting the catch and the rare opportunity to cook for dollars on this little stretch of coastline not frequented by tourists. Barbara guessed that the source of the woman's charcoal was illegally harvested wood, but knew better than to ask.
"Chel, " she said to the ocean, knowing her companion could hear her. "I've been thinking about what we have so far, what we should be looking more closely at. When we rendez-vous with the others back in Havana, I will know if it has any significance, but I can't help but be struck by how much weight people have lost and so quickly. I'm thinking the caloric intake has been halved for adults over the past year. And you know what you told me a month ago in your apartment?" She turned to face Chela, who looked at her in disbelief.
"You always do that, " she responded, her face wrinkling into a grin. "You always expect me to be able to pinpoint some conversation or fact out of the hundreds that you could be referencing."
Normal brained human, Murphy. Give her a roadmap to your thoughts. "When the lights went out you told me the energy reserves were finally being depleted. This means that in effect, people are being asked to provide with their bodies what machines used to - whether in the field of transportation where they must now walk and ride bicycles, or in agriculture and in manufacturing where they have to step in for engines that have no gas. But they have to do this on less food than they have ever had. Whether we are looking at a toxin or a virus or a nutritional deficit, this has to be a piece of the picture."
"Barbara, I could have told you that, " said Chela softly, "that the country has been slowly starving but having to work harder everyday. It's curious how you physicians think. We are systems. Nervous systems. Digestive systems. Circulatory systems. So you are like those blind men who each feel only one part of the elephant and then think they know its full shape. Still, I should say that you are not like that too much."
"Thank you, I think," laughed Barbara, as she flicked a ball of wet sand at Chela with her fingernail. Chela contemplated retaliation, but thought of the pragmatic difficulties of cleaning clothes that had really wet sand ground into them, and decided instead to respond by indulging herself in Duaba's pristine and uncrowded waters. She stood, unbuckling her shorts and pulling them down to reveal a powder blue bikini bottom that matched the color of her T-shirt. She took a few moments to stretch out her limbs, casting her arms in broad arcs around her trunk, and lunging forward on each bent knee in turn. I wish I could just set a black pearl in her belly button, thought a very warm Barbara. And then I would just suck on it. It's the Vitamin D the sun is producing on my skin. That's what's making me horny. Check the vitamin profiles on the blood samples. Fuck, just expose the research subjects to Chela in her bikini and see if they survive.
"You are coming in, compañera? " asked Chela casually.
"I'm not much for ocean swimming, Chela," replied Barbara. "And I was stupid. I didn't bring a bathing suit and haven't had time to buy one."
"You can just go in your clothes, " said Chela, reaching down to pull the larger woman up. "They will dry right out in this afternoon sun. And you know? The ocean is really my element. I'll keep an eye out for you."
Barbara allowed herself to be led to the water's edge. She inched a toe into the cool sea, and shivered. The Atlantic was spread before her - imperious and daunting. As if to flag the magnificence of the seascape, a massive black stingray broke the surface of the water some twenty yards before her. She gasped loudly enough to be heard over the steady rumbling of the surf, and in what was turning into an unfolding procession of wonders, she found her hand gently enfolded within Chela's smaller one as she was taken down past where her knees were submerged. Chela released her then and gracefully dove into an oncoming wave, shooting back up as the crest passed, shaking her brown curls in the sun and laughing. Just for a second, Barbara saw how all of the colors came together: the emerald of the eyes and of the sea where the sunlight played across its face, the rich burnt tones of the skin and the floating patches of seaweed, the blue fabric and a clear sky that also served as the vessel for life in motion. Then she stepped forward and a searing pain shot up from the sole of her foot.
"Fuck! Fuck! Goddamit to motherfucking hell!" Her curses and screams brought both Chela and Pedro racing to her side.
"What is it?" asked a frightened Pedro as he supported a dizzy Barbara. Chela carefully fished around with her hand in the shallows where Barbara had been standing and pulled out a round white object, its surface covered with intricate patterns of spikes.
"Sea urchin, " she answered. "It's going to swell and it's going to hurt, but she will be all right in time." She dropped the urchin back into the water and stepped up to cup Barbara's chin in her hand. "I'm very sorry you got hurt."
"It's not your fault, Chela," managed the other woman through her clenched teeth. "I do want to clean and bandage this, and take some anti-histamine for the toxins. If you could get the first aid supplies I have packed in my bag, I'm sure Pedro can get me up to the shade. I want to lie down for a minute."
Chela sprinted up the beach and past the tree line, where the truck was parked in the shade of a stand of palms, surrounded by sea grapes. Opening up the back, she reached in for Barbara's duffel and started to hastily rummage through it, seeking the first aid kit. Frustrated that her first pass had failed to produce the needed items, she unzipped a built-in side pocket, and was unnerved to find that she had come upon Barbara's cache of very personal items. She paused, taking in the tangible evidence of her companion's erotic proclivities. Well, she has never made it a secret that she wanted to investigate more than the epidemic. I have been insensitive. I should give her the space and time to find what she needs. Maybe insist on separate rooms sometimes, or go for a long walk and let her know she can have privacy. She re-zipped the pocket, and continued her search, feeling incipient bitterness over the fact that Barbara would not have to worry about stifling her - Chela's - desires. When did it happen? she asked herself, as the kit finally emerged from under a clump of dirty jeans. When did I just stop wanting in that foolish, unguarded way?
In the narrow space behind the Stevens' living room couch, two youthful bodies were immersed in an exploration of previously forbidden territories. Chela marveled, her head nestled against Rogelio's chest, as his organ pulsed and bobbed in response to her tentative nibbles at the boy's nipples, and her skimming her fingers down and across the line of hair that ran from his navel to his groin. His pants and briefs were pushed down so that she could see his sac straining and lifting as his cock pulled up on the skin, and she drew up her leg to straddle his thighs, which trembled with excitement, thighs that she had watched now for months with great interest as they flew across the soccer field, their muscles rippling as Rogelio performed the athletic feats that marked him as the school's best player. Rogelio ducked his head so that the fine hairs of his new moustache tickled Chela's earlobe, his breath warming her temple as he entreated her.
"Ay Mami, touch it for me already. And then get your panties off so I can give you the kind of nailing all the girls ask me for."
"Patience," whispered Chela, stealing a kiss. She intuitively sensed that her power was in the waiting, in postponing the moment of his release. Rogelio shifted his body, so that he could reach beyond Chela's breasts, and their weight pressed against his bare chest, the pressure torturing him and spurring him on as he sought to overcome his partner's hesitation. As he worked his fingers under her panties and over the mound of soft curls, the girl moaned and shook against him, her control wavering and he knew that she was as ready as he was.
"Mami, this is so good. You are so good. You are so wet, " the boy softly chanted as he ran the pads of his fingers frantically over her vulva, seeking her clit.
Chela didn't care about the lack of precision. She was flying in sensation, the entire region between her legs alive with fire, and Rogelio's fumbling served well enough to propel her quickly towards the wonder of the first orgasm shared with another. Chela gasped, the waves of pleasure robbing her of her will, reducing her actions to a mindless, relentless grind against Rogelio's hand. At the end, as she realized that she could take no more, a hoarse laugh escaped her lips and she finally reached to take the boy's penis in her hand. To her surprise, her partner batted her hand away, hastily pulling himself off from her still shivering body. She followed the terrified look on his wide brown eyes to its object, and took in the unexpected sight of Maritza gazing down upon them with almost morbid interest, as if they were chickens ready for their necks to be snapped. Chela's mother turned away and moved to the other side of the room as the two young people quickly dressed in silence. They stood awkwardly awaiting some cue from the older woman, who stared stonily out the window that opened onto the balcony.
Rogelio cleared his throat, still unsure as to what he should say in the wake of the disaster. Maritza turned, and the young man was stunned to find a pleasant smile on her face.
"The team is doing very well this year I understand?" she purred.
"Ye-yes," he stammered. "It seems we will be favorites at the all-Havana finals this year."
"That is wonderful," said Maritza warmly to the boy. "Your mother must be very proud of you. And you will be taking the exam for one of the boarding schools?"
"Yes, compañera Stevens," nodded Rogelio, the color returning to his face. " I think I have an excellent chance of getting into the polytechnic."
What the hell is she up to, worried the miserable Chela. They both seem to have forgotten I am here.
"Well, if your work for the block association and your devotion to your teammates is any indication of your nature, I am sure you will achieve your goals. If you will excuse us now, Chela and I have some errands to do," she calmly concluded. Rogelio bowed his head to her in respectful parting, and fled out the door without sparing a glance at the girl he had been begging for a touch a scant ten minutes before.
As she looked back on that afternoon and evening in the following years, Chela would have preferred a slap, a fit of rage, or a lecture from her mother. She did not go to Drama Circle and Athletics Club that afternoon, as was her practice. Instead Maritza dragged her to the family doctor for a referral to the sexual and reproductive planning clinic. They sat in frozen hostility for an hour in the clinic waiting room before they were brought together with several other equally unhappy mother-daughter pairings for a verbal and pictorial introductory tour of heterosexuality, an hour-long monotonous litany of anatomical terms that reduced desire to a series of plumbing connections and elementary hydraulics. Finally, each young woman was given a box of condoms along with a sheet of instructions on their proper use. To Chela's horror, her friend Leti from school was the Pioneer volunteer assigned to the clinic, and she anticipated that the news of her visit would soon grace the tongues of the school gossips.
As the women and girls crowded round the door preparing to leave, Leti discretely pulled Chela aside.
"So you and Rogelio, ah? But that's tremendous, negra!" she whispered. "Listen," she reached under her sweatshirt, carefully slipping Chela a small package. "I owe you for helping me pass math this year, Chelita. The government condoms are shit. You'll be popping babies from looking at his dick if you use those. These are Trojans. I have a cousin who works on the base at Guantanamo and he gets them from the Marines - sends them every few months. Take care of me and I'll take care of you, negra." Chela nodded and slipped the package into her pants.
From the clinic Maritza took Chela to her military solidarity group, where women from the block association gathered weekly to mend clothing for soldiers stationed away from their families.
"You all know my daughter Chela. Now that she is getting to be such a woman and is opening her eyes to the boys, I thought it time that she joined us in women's work." Her introduction was full of meaning for the embittered assemblage, and the women understood that theirs was the task of indoctrinating the sullen thirteen year old into her role in the war between the sexes. Like their Catholic foremothers before them they spun a rosary of sorrowful mysteries detailing the betrayals and weaknesses of men. By the end of the evening, Chela still could not knit, but her stomach hurt badly.
The relationship with Rogelio, who apologized profusely for abandoning her to her mother's wrath, lasted for two shipments of Trojans. After that, she found that she could not sustain her motivation under the petty if ostensibly indifferent - surveillance of Maritza, and the onslaught of responsibilities that family and school life placed on her shoulders. She learned to translate the immediate, the tangible, and the impossibly complicated world of attractions to a freer language of fantasies, where she could dream in safety, away from the clinical and judging eyes of her mother and her society. Rogelio, and in time Marcos the journalism student, and Wifredo who played the French horn; they all became el Ché Guevara, his soulful black eyes and chiseled features floating tirelessly over her, his soft voice calling her "Mami" all night long as her own fingers roamed over her breasts and down into her vagina, filling it in strokes that carried the passion of his commitment to her and her country. And, because she knew another type of hunger as well, Marta who trained with her in soccer, and Ada who was her preferred study partner, even Leti the reliable source of Trojans; they were also transformed. And so in the night the Sandinista guerrilla heroine Dora Maria Tellez would lead Chela out to her jungle hideout where she would clasp the girl tightly against her, whispering poems no one else could hear as Chela rode her thigh in ecstasy; the illusion breaking apart only after she came, biting down on her own forearm to stifle her cries, as Dora's body once again became her old and worn pillows, tightly bunched between her legs.
As time went on, even these touches lost their novelty, the dreams of revolutionary princes and princesses fading into the background as the grinding dreariness of routine and correct behavior took hold of her spirit. And then came the loss of her father. And then the business, as eroticism was fused with the tasks of selling femininity in an efficient manner. It was not that Chela disliked sex. On the contrary, she was always pleasantly surprised to encounter a partner who was skilled or considerate. It was just that compared to the straightforward, never-disappointing pleasure of a strong cup of tea, or finding a book one had sought for a long time, or absorbing the sun in silence on the Malecón well bed play came in a poor second choice to any of these. But somewhere, beneath the layers of sand that she and others had heaped upon it, expecting to bury its flame forever, an ember of that young desire still glowed, waiting.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Trojans Timex Almay
Before the conquest cut our line
Before the factories which produce us
Faceless assembly-line style,
We would lie on the sand,
Paint bellies, cheeks in coconut milk and bloods,
Wake to birds come to sing our praise
And Atabex would look down from the heavens
And would bless.
Compañera, do you remember
Before the pirates who shackled us
Before our punch-carded races towards
A goal that vomits tears and cash,
We would wait on the hill,
For the cyclone to clear a path
So we could carry wind and rain home in our skirts
And Oya the mighty would look down from the thunderhead
And would bless.
Compañera, do you remember
Before the book of shame and sin
Before the beds where greed and pride war
Taking our pleasure hostage in the fray,
We would laugh kisses, you and I,
Between stealing tastes of honey and of skin
And make communion out of passion and need
And you, my love, would look down from between my breasts
And would bless.
"You seem happy to have finished that," commented a drowsy Barbara, observing as Chela carefully closed the journal, tucking the pen into its binding. After stoically enduring the urchin sting for the better part of an hour, Chela had finally convinced her to take something stronger than aspirin for the pain, and now she drifted in and out of consciousness, listening to the surf. Her right foot and ankle were quite swollen, and the flesh was mottled green and purple in the area surrounding the puncture.
" It feels good to write," answered Chela quietly, looking out at the sea. "Barbara..."
"I want to go in one more time before we leave. It's getting late."
"And I wanted to tell you that you are more than an American to me..."
"And that I hope that we can think of each other as friends that can ask things of each other." Barbara tried desperately to focus her eyes. She managed a smile and nod in Chela's general direction. "I am worried that you might be lonely here, Barbara."
"Why would you think that, Chela? I always have you and other people around." Please God, don't let me drool. It wouldn't even be for a flattering reason right now. Chela stood up and stretched, and finished what she had to say without looking at her companion.
"I guess what I am trying to say, Barbara, is that I know you are a woman... and that you have needs. And maybe I can help you find people who could meet them." With that she tersely shuffled off across the sand.
Barbara was incredulous. Then she drew upon her considerable pride, clenched her abdomen and held back the tears that threatened to break loose as she watched Chela walk away and into the water.
You're right, Chelita. I am a woman. But every time I'm within ten yards of you I have to deal with the fact that I don't just have needs, I have feelings that scare the bejeezus outta me streaming out all of my pores. So don't fuckin do me any favors by finding someone to fuckin service me, sweetie. Catch a fuckin clue - either do something with that heart you have in your hands or give it back.
The next day Maisí, Cuba
On the following morning the Health Ministry/Tufts project team led by Barbara Murphy crossed the Yumurí river, the rickety bridge foreshadowing the terrible condition of the road that lay ahead: there was not much traffic to Cuba's most easterly village and resources for repairing the roads were tight in the best of times. The landscape turned inhospitable, shifting from the vibrantly green forests of the Baracoa foothills, to a semi-arid panorama of scrubby brush devoid of the range of colors to which the three travelers had become accustomed. The three hours' drive between Baracoa and Maisí was spent in tense silence, without the diversion and relief of sugar cane stops to appease Barbara's palate. Pedro did not know what had happened between the two women - other than perhaps the foot injury eliciting a volatile prickliness in the usually amiable research leader but they had been spatting intermittently over insignificant matters the previous evening and that morning before getting in the truck.
When they arrived in Maisí - a collection of scattered dwellings overlooking the sea - the residents of the village had already gathered to receive the visitors. It was unusual for anyone to brave the highway from Baracoa, so outsiders were a true novelty. The purpose of the visit was also compelling: tiny Maisí with its one hundred and fifty odd souls had seven newly blind residents. A section of the small community center had been cordoned off for Barbara and Pedro to conduct interviews and screenings, and it seemed as if the entire population was straining at the rope barriers as they waited their turn, trying to overhear what was being said and offering commentary on the proceedings. Barbara was having more trouble than usual concentrating, and her patience was exhausted when a knot of children flew past the examination table where she was seated, knocking over a tray of blood samples.
"Well and what are we doing here?" she rumbled, glowering at the children as she struggled to stand. "If you want blood on the floor I don't have to waste test tubes, I can just let your parents drip dry." What the hell is wrong with me? Come on kids! Come watch the American doctor's head explode! Again! Do it again! Fuckin urchin.
The crowd did not quiet. Instead Barbara's outburst unleashed a whole series of commentaries on how Americans didn't like children, indeed were known to eat children on occasion. Fuck, they are gonna lynch me for smart mouthin. Oh Sister Mary Frances you were soo right. Above the din, however, another voice could be heard, and the angry horde parted to reveal Chela making her way through them, a bright smile on her face and a bag of sweets in her hand.
"Chiclets for everyone! Just like the ones the Marines give out on the base!"
The children swarmed over her, climbing up her body to get at the tiny yellow boxes of chewing gum that showered out of the sack she held tilted over her head. The contact from the multitude of eager small hands made Chela laugh.
"I am so glad that you have your mouths busy with the chiclets children, because I think I would very much like to tell you a story. Would you like to hear a story?" Chela guided her young audience away from the area where Barbara and Pedro were returning to their work.
"Yes!" "Yes!" answered the children of Maisí. "Tell us about el Ché!" "No, about Goofy!" "She can do both because Ché was Goofy's dog!" Ay, thought Chela. I am not thrilled about these suggestions. But we are not so far away that a very crabby adult cannot hear me... "Today I want to tell a story from a long, long time ago children," began Chela as she settled onto the floor. "This is a story I heard in Old Havana from a very old man named Juan Sanchez. He was so old that his Papi was born in Africa and was brought here to Cuba as a slave. Juan heard this story from his Papi."
So was he like a million years old, thought Barbara irritably as she drew blood from a woman whose veins danced about, making it very hard for her to get the needle in. Oh, wait. They had slaves til the 1880s, so maybe he wasn't a fossil.
"This is the story of the tiger and the bunny. The tiger and the bunny were friends but the tiger was a rough and tough, while the bunny was very smart. They were visiting a house together when they fell in love with the same girl. They made a bet about which one she would prefer."
Why do I have the feeling this is a classic butch femme allegory, being retold to make butches look way stupid. Hope I brought enough dry ice for all of these samples.
"So what happened, was that since the bunny was smarter than the tiger, he pretended to the tiger that he was sick. Then he told the tiger's sweetheart that the tiger was actually his steed. So that bunny was acting really sick. The tiger said, "Oh my god, now we aren't going to be able to visit that fine girl this afternoon." And the bunny replied, "Oh well, but then you should go along and well, I will stay here. Poor, poor me!" And the tiger said, "Don't you worry about a thing! Get on top of me."
No, don't do it! Geez. Never let them get on top!
"The bunny went and got spurs and a bridle, and well there you have it! He had the tiger as a horse. And even from a distance he was saying into the breeze so that it would carry to the girl "Look, here I have him. This is my horse." And he spurred the tiger on."
"They got to the young woman's house and she said, "Hey Tiger, You Horse of a Bunny, thanks for bringing my lover!" And that tiger was so mad, he screamed, "No! No I am not!" And since he had been wronged by that bunny they both took off to the beach to fight, with the tiger running after the bunny. Because the bunny could see that the tiger was going to catch him, he dug a hole, burrowed inside and left one eye looking out to wait for the tiger to pass by. When the tiger passed by and saw the little eye, it looked like a pearl to him. So he stuck his claw in and plucked it out."
Oooh gross, Chela! There are children here! Fuck, I'm gonna barf.
"Well that bunny was in such pain, I'll tell you, but he managed to get far away from the tiger. Then he yelled to him "Listen you are really stupid: It's me, with but one eye to see, but living I be!" So that tiger lost the bet to the bunny. So that's the story!" she concluded brightly.
"Those bunnies, they are just so smart! Now, who would rather be a bunny than a tiger?" Excited hands filled the air around Chela like a flock of tiny birds. Then she looked over to the examination area, to see if the story of misplaced pride and the trumping of a larger power by a smaller trickster had registered with the American as another volley in the low-level warfare that had occupied them since the previous eve. Chela felt the slightest of tugs at the edge of her heart when she saw that Barbara had raised her hand and that she was the only adult to do so - a faint smile breaking at the corners of her mouth as she caught Chela's eye.
I am too hard on her, thought Chela as she made her way to the other woman. Yes she makes mistakes and I go out of my way to rub her nose in them. And instead of being resentful of my response she moves past it with a humility and dignity that makes me want to smile too. And so, when she reached the table and, putting a hand on Barbara's shoulder, conveyed without words her need to set the harshness of the morning aside, she did smile too.
After the rough start, the townspeople warmed to the American doctor, who in turn revealed her playful and engaging side to them, coupling the taking of samples with the tickling of children and the earnest solicitation of people's life stories, sharing their challenges and accomplishments as an avid listener. That night the town of Maisí found an excuse to bring out its musicians and dance. Barbara, Chela and Pedro sat together on a bench as the some of the village's older men serenaded the assemblage with old style sons and guajiras to the accompaniment of guitars and hand-drums. Older couples moved gracefully under torch lights across the earth of the town square, to the amusement of younger folk who emboldened by the consumption of strong drink - commented loudly on the style and technique of their parents.
"Pedro," said Barbara quietly to the medical student, as she watched an inebriated young father encouraging his little boy to take a taste from his bottle, "this would be a good time to get the samples of the home brews and rum that people are drinking in Maisí." Then looking at the father and son more closely, she thought, gotta remember to check the sex of the blinded toddlers. Wonder if the papas are trying to get some of them to be "little men" by starting to drink early. Pedro nodded and set off to his task. They had previously agreed that it would be awkward for either woman to ask local men for drinks.
After about an hour of listening to old-style Cuban country music, it was time for a generational changing of the guard, and as the local musicians packed up their instruments, some youths brought out and assembled a radio and generator. If tiny Maisí was isolated geographically from state services, it was also somewhat removed from state surveillance, and nobody made a fuss as someone managed to tune in to a dance music station from the neighboring island of Puerto Rico. The square soon filled as couples ranging in age from teenagers to thirty-somethings moved to the rhythms of contemporary salsa and merengue. Pedro climbed back up next to Barbara to watch them.
"All done, compañera Doctora. They are packed in the truck in dry ice next to the blood samples." Barbara laughed.
"Compañero Pedro, let's make sure we keep those separated lest the state laboratory think the people of Maisí have pure alcohol in their veins." The man joined her in chuckling, relaxing now that the work was ended.
"You know," he ventured, "I would really like to dance. I mean I only want to dance, but the local parents will not believe in the good intentions of a Havana boy, and I don't want to cause trouble in asking." He shyly looked over to Chela. "Since our Doctora has a sore foot, would you be interested in getting some exercise with me, compañera?" Chela turned to Barbara.
"You won't be too lonely sitting here if I go with him?" Barbara smiled.
"It's up to you to dance for both us tonight. And the truth is, even if my foot weren't bothering me, I don't know how to dance to this fast stuff."
"All right," said Chela as she stood and took Pedro's hand. "But any time you want to leave just say the word, cariño, and we'll go. Plus it's an early start tomorrow."
A stunned Barbara watched the younger woman walk out among the dancers on Pedro's arm. Cariño! "Sweetie"! Has she used it before and I have just not been listening carefully? Did I miss something? Vitamin profiles and social network diagrams are done think I have all that. And I miss Hercules, who would really enjoy some of these local insects. But Chela, did I miss something? Her mind ground forward relentlessly over the next several hours. She did not ask to leave, and Pedro held an astonishing amount of energy stored in his slight body. It was very late when the music was finally turned off, and the three teammates left in search of their sleeping quarters, Barbara limping along after Chela and Pedro, who carried the lantern.
"Well goodnight, compañeras," grinned a slightly inebriated Pedro as he stopped before a small house and passed Chela the lantern. "You two are three houses down on the left side. The door is open. It is an empty residence the owner just ran away to the United States. No need to rise too early though. I am not going to try and get us to Havana in one day that is madness. May you sleep well."
"Sounds like a good plan, compañero," replied Barbara. "May you also have a good night."
She and Chela continued down the street until they arrived at the one-room shack that Pedro had indicated. The door rumbled in protest as Barbara put her shoulder to it, then she stepped aside to let Chela pass. The lantern's light revealed a humble residence with basic amenities. A bucket of water and two washcloths sat atop a weathered table, which stood next to the little room's lone chair. There were two beds, both with pillows and with clean linens neatly folded on them, but to the dismay of the two women, there was but one mosquito net, which was set up to cover the bed closer to the door. Barbara looked over at Chela and then nodded towards the bed. You know, I was just having a fantasy like this but this is awkward as hell. Be careful what you wish for!
"You take it. It's only for one night and I'm so pumped on anti-histamines I'm not going to notice the bites."
Chela sat down on the bed, and started taking off her shoes and socks. "Don't be ridiculous, Barbara. There is plenty of room for both us here, and I will hear your snoring the same whether you are in the same bed or across town. It just takes one wrong bite for you to end up with dengue, and I thought I was in charge of keeping you well."
Barbara hesitated a moment, then nodded her assent. She stood and went to the table, taking a washcloth to her face and scrubbing hard in an attempt to occupy herself while Chela undressed and changed into a T-shirt and shorts. She heard the younger woman getting into the bed and arranging the covers. Pathology specimens. Think pathology specimens. Oh yeah. Gonna count placentas and kidney stones to get to sleep tonight. Barbara slipped under the netting and then the covers, scooting to the edge of the bed, away from Chela.
"You're going to sleep in your clothes?" asked Chela quietly from beside her shoulder.
"Yeah. Don't want to jostle that foot. Goodnight." Barbara nestled her face into her hands, looking out into the darkness and watching imaginary patterns develop on the wall before her eyes.
"I could help you if you want to change," offered Chela. She turned over and saw the tightness and discomfort in Barbara's huddled form, and felt compelled to give her comfort. She put her arm tentatively over the other woman, risking a light hug, and swallowed audibly as the contact initiated, she had believed, from a place of mere friendship drew heat up from her belly, rolling up across her until it crested in a blush. Thank you saints, that she can't see my face, she thought, lightening the touch. This would just confuse her.
"I don't want to change," muttered Barbara as she shrugged off Chela's arm. Then she abruptly sat up, threw the netting up and over her head, and reached down for her shoes. "I want to sleep but I'm just not ready. You know what I really need to do right now? I need to drive. I need to just drive for a little while."
"What?" Chela sat up, flustered and worried. "But you were in bed! And you're not thinking clearly your foot is hurt. There is no light and you don't know the roads." Barbara was already moving towards the door.
"I'll go wake Pedro for the keys." She fumbled with the door handle.
"He doesn't have them," said Chela as she scrambled to reach her. "He leaves them in the ignition."
Yes! Something I can take a head off for in the morning! Leaving the keys in the goddam truck. Jeez. I have to get out of here.
"Please, Barbara, don't go. I'll sleep in the other bed." But Chela was already talking to a shut door. Please Mother, keep her safe. Don't punish me for having dared to name my affection for her in words and in touch tonight.
Barbara took the road from the village down to the Point of Maisí. As soon as she passed the last of the houses, she rolled down the windows and turned on the radio, hungry for the company of an expressive human voice even as she fled from Chela's side. The first signal to come in clearly was the government station, Radio Rebelde, but they were in the midst of a news report and so she moved the dial further to the right, seeking some music to accompany her on her journey towards numbness. As she turned into a clearing that looked out onto the beach, the static faded, and the mellifluous and smoky voice of Marvin Gaye weighted with longing and dissatisfaction - filled the cab and spilled out to ride on the sea breeze.
"No. No," complained Barbara aloud, as she slammed her wrist on the steering wheel. "I do so not need this."
"Oh I'd give you all the love I need in return, sweet darling..."
She turned the truck so that it its wheels eventually followed a tight figure eight, as she drove mindlessly, praying for an exorcism of her frustration and her hunger for the young Cuban woman who had insinuated herself behind her considerable defenses.
"I want you...the right way...I want you... but I want you to want me too, just like I want you..."
"That's right Marvin," she said miserably, before joining him in the lament. "But I'm gonna change your mind...someway, somehow..."
It was a long time before she tired. As the hours passed, the tires formed a deep depression shaped like the sign for infinity, and Hawkesbill turtles on their way to lay eggs the next morning were pressed hard to climb in and out of the trenches on their way to their own quest for fulfillment. And although Barbara thought she had suffered in solitude she had not. The ghosts of Taínos, of buccaneers and conquistadors, of escaped African slaves; they all bore witness in the night, as the slow jams of a late night Miami deejay played over the beach, punctuated occasionally by a woman's voice mournfully crying out "Chela". It was not uncommon at Maisí Point for manatees to beach themselves, and for the surviving mate to remain out in the water all night, raising its braying voice in grief and despair. Maybe, considered the spirits, the woman's calls were akin to these.
In the morning Chela found her, tucked up into the cab of the truck, which was parked against the building in which they had briefly shared a bed. Barbara was sound asleep, her face and arms covered with the red welts of mosquito bites, and her eyes were still puffy from having wept. She's cried herself to sleep like a child, thought Chela as she reached out a hand to lightly caress a lock of black hair. Barbara didn't stir.
My poor Changó. My American Barbara. If I thought it would do us any good I would not have you think you were alone in this wanting. If I thought it wouldn't hurt you more in the long run I would tell you how just the little closeness we have shared has awoken me, and that after you left me it was your name I called out, and that I felt no shame. But this is a place that kills big dreams, cariño, and so it is better to keep one's hopes small and inconspicuous.
Two days later, the pickup pulled up in front of a house in Old Havana.
"You're sure we shouldn't wait for you?" asked Pedro.
"No," said Barbara, smiling at him and at Chela, as she carefully stepped down out of the cab. "It is enough that you two are taking my things to the hotel. I will ride back in a taxi when I'm done here. I'll see both of you in the morning, after we've all had baths." The last comment elicited a chuckle from the two Cubans. She waved cheerfully to them as the truck pulled away.
She saw that she needn't have worried about whether or not she could read René's handwriting to make out his family's apartment number. Her friend was already out the door and making his way to open the gate before she had laboriously covered the distance from the street to the front walk.
René's joy in seeing her was tempered with concern. He could see that Barbara was limping, and that her face was covered with dozens of irritated patches. Impulsively, he threw his arms around her and was gratified to feel her accept the affection and maintain the contact even after the hug was spent, as she leaned on him for support in walking up the drive.
"But compañera, what did they do to you out in that jungle? You look terrible!" René helped her sit down next to him on the front steps.
"René, I need to ask you a big favor."
"Barbara, I will do anything within my power to help you," he replied, putting his smaller arm around her broad shoulders. She looked up, excitement starting to show on her weary face.
"I need to learn how to dance. I need some basic salsa steps, and also some merengue."
"But, my dear, what a fabulous request you make," chortled the relieved René. He leaned back so that he could shimmy his shoulders provocatively at her. "I have taught so many of the other girls in this neighborhood how to dance."
"And," continued Barbara more seriously, " I need to be able to lead."
René looked down for a moment, pondering this complication, then patted Barbara on the knee.
"That is Jorge's department. And he will do a good job. But compañera, trust me when I tell you it is best to know both sides of the dance."
Continued in Part 5
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The story of the Tiger and the Bunny is not mine. It is a free gift from my ancestors who were slaves. The tale is still told by old folks on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, in the towns of Arroyo and Guayama.
Translation of "Canción" by Nicolás Guillén, (also known as "De Callada Manera" by Pablo Milanés).
In what a quiet manner/you have come inside of me smiling/as if it were springtime/when I was dying./ And in what a subtle way/you have spilled on my shirt/all of April's flowers/ Who told you that I was/ always laughter, and never tears/ as if I were the springtime/I'm not that much./ On the other hand how spiritual/of you to offer me a rose/ from your largest bush./In what a quiet manner/you have come inside of me smiling/as if it were the springtime/when I was dying/when I was dying.
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