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. Unpleasant m/f sexual contact this chapter only.
Thanks to Prof of Xena Warrior Lesbian, and to Jessica Michallet for coming on board as beta-readers and editorial advisors for this story. Thanks to the Masked Punctuation Goddess. A special thanks to Old Warrior for test driving this story.
Note to readers: In scenes set in the United States, I use the convention of italicizing dialogue when in bilingual contexts characters choose to communicate in Spanish. In scenes set in Cuba, I invert that practice: when characters opt for the use of English in dialogue, it is italicized.
Agustín Lara, "Noche de Ronda", (Used without permission.)
Chapter 7 - Dream of Serpents
The next day, a Sunday
Not again. Please someone wake me up. So friggin' ashamed. Yeah that's me, all right. Jesus I looked dorky in that plaid school uniform. C'mon Murphy, pull out of it...nope, here we go. I'm scootin' up those stairs as fast as my little legs will take me. I have the Archies lunchbox that I have been wanting for months the one that Louise Sproull got from sending in I don't know how many Cheerios box tops. It's taken me a while but it's mine today and I'm gonna show it to Willie and Ruthie. But more than that more than wanting to show them my prize I'm runnin' hard because today's the day that Da comes home. He's been in the hospital for three months. Actually, he's been in two hospitals. He was in one for a month right after the machine fell on him and then he was in another one for two months to teach him to move again. When I get upstairs I carefully hide the lunchbox in the front hallway under some old board games that no one plays with anymore, because I haven't thought of a good story to tell Ma yet about how I got it. When I run into the living room there are two strangers there two women with briefcases who are wearing glasses and gray skirts and my Da is lying on a bed that they've put right there, right in the living room. My Ma is there too, and so are Connie and Bridget and Ceci. I don't see Willie and Ruthie. I come right up to Da and hug him, and he gives me a big fuzzy chin kiss right on the nose, and he tells me I am his Baby Bee, which embarrasses me because I'm already seven years old and there are these ladies I don't know here who are listening to us. Then they aren't listening they are asking Ma questions about how much money we have and what she made us for breakfast this morning and what we ate for dinner last night. I am still looking at Da. I'm walking around to where he got hurt the worst. His right leg looks like one of those old sticks that come up on L Street beach, which is where I go to float on my back and pretend to be a little boat. It's all twisted and thin and there are parts that look like a monster took a bite out of it. I am at the end of him, where nobody can see me and I decide to play a joke and tickle him. He always screams when I tickle him and then he runs and catches me and tickles me back for a really long time. I don't understand, because I'm tickling him very hard and he isn't laughing at all. And then I don't know why but I try a little bit of my fingernail I scrape it along the bottom of his foot. Nothing. He is looking at the ceiling and coughing a bit I think he's forgotten that I'm here because he is praying to Jesus to keep his lungs clear and says he's sorry that he smoked for so long, and I know that we aren't supposed to know that he smokes. Ma always makes him go outside under the stairwell of our building but we know what it smells like because we all smoke. I wonder if Ma has something wrong with her nose that she never catches us or says anything. I don't know why, maybe it is the devil inside of me Ma says that I belong to him sometimes but I pull out this pin from my uniform pocket, which I used to prick Howie Curtis in music class today, it really made him scream and Sister said he was getting better on the high notes. Please somebody wake me up. So friggin' ashamed. At least watch from a grown-up place. Fuck. I make a little hole between Da's toes and a few drops of blood come out but he isn't moving or saying anything. I thought that he would whack me for sure. Ooof. Now I'm getting slapped but I don't think it's from the pin, because nobody saw. It's Bridget and she's telling me that everything is my fault. She stops hitting me because Ma and the two ladies are coming back into the room. The uglier of the ladies asks "Is that Barbara?" And Ma says yes. And the lady says "She doesn't look malnourished but the reports have been very clear: parents have been letting us know that this child has increasingly reported not getting meals. And thank you for showing us her closet it appears that the report that she didn't have any clothes other than her school uniform isn't true. The school nurse said she found no evidence of the reported beatings when she examined her today." I thought Mrs. Flinn was checking me to see if I'd gotten the chicken pox from playing over at Sally McHarty's house. I almost kicked her when she said she needed to look at my bottom. I can't believe they all told their parents. I just really wanted the lunchbox and I figured if they felt really sorry for me I could ask Louise for it. Scam 'em and wham 'em like Willie and Ruthie say. And they should know, they get lots of stuff from stuff they tell people. They even get cigarettes for us by telling Brother Andrew that they are gonna tell about him showing us his wiener unless he gives us a pack every week. Ceci and Bridget and Connie don't get a lot of stuff. They pray the Rosary to get things and they say that I should too. Well I tried it, and look at Da's leg. It didn't work. That's Connie dragging me down the stairs after the ladies leave. She's yelling at me that the saints need to help her and Ma so that they don't kill me for being such a liar and getting the family in trouble. I'm a little worried at first, because I think that she's gonna take me into an alley and really wallop me, and then I remember "No this isn't Ruthie, it's Connie she won't hit." She pulls me into the church, which is empty except for these two ladies praying real loud in Italian to one of the saints. I wish we had a secret language that God would listen to too. Connie says she's gonna light a candle for me and she wants me to light one too, and she gives me a nickel to put into the box next to where they leave you the matches. I'm gonna keep the nickel but I do want to light a candle. There are lots of altars but I really like girls the best, so I skip all the boy saints and Jesus. I'm gonna do a Mary today, although Joan of Arc is my fave. Sister Dierdre who used to be an actress before she got called did the whole story for us, including the horse screaming as the flames came up around him. The Marys are all plaster with painted on clothes and faces. But whoa! There is a new one today, one like the boy saints that the Spanish people brought when they joined the parish. It has real clothes, with real beads and ribbons running all around it. She is covered in blue and white shiny gems and her hair is like a wig very black. Our Lady of Regla. Like Regular. Funny name, so I laugh. Well I know Ruggles is a stop on the Orange line of the T. I wish I was a better girl so I could leave the nickel too, but I'm not. It must be the devil in me. So I just light the candle. She is riding on these plaster waves and there are little angels floating over the water. Shit Chela, you've always known me, haven't you? Oh fuck, this is new. This is new. Hang in there little girl. I am shaking because the devil is really here just like in the movie I wasn't supposed to be watching last night because it was too grown up. He laughs really loud like a bad Santa Claus and my candle blows out. He has a silver dollar and he puts it in the box and picks up the matches. He is going to burn the Mary and I start screaming for help but Connie doesn't hear me. I try to put my nickel in the box but it won't go in. I don't know why I think it will help. I want him to burn me instead but he is flying around her really fast in circles and everywhere that he touches her little flames come out, and the Mary has woken up. She is screaming louder than Sister Dierdre when she showed us how the horse died. I start patting the parts that are burning and it hurts my hands bad, really bad, but I don't want to stop. I don't know who is screaming louder anymore, me or the burning Mary...
"Ma'am....ma'am, wake up. You're disturbing the other passengers. Also I need for you to put your seat back up. We've started our descent into Boston."
Chela sat expectantly at the picnic table, with the honey rolls spread on a wax paper sheet before her. It was a warm day and the visitation yard was full. She looked around her, taking in the numerous clusters of family groups islands of love that broke through the austerity of the institution and made her feel acutely estranged from her kin. The prospect of making the trip to Los Cocos on a regular basis to maintain contact with the exception to this pattern with Tomás depressed her. She nodded politely to a nurse who approached her to leave two containers of milk and a bowl of sausages on the table. At least what they said appears to be true. They are even serving good food to the visitors. The people who are skinny here are sick, not starved. She had been waiting for a half hour before the back door of the massive sanatorium building swung open and her brother walked out, accompanied by a male nurse. Look at him, Chela thought to herself. Nothing affects him he is peaceful and smiling, as always.
"Chelita," said the youth warmly as he straddled a bench. "You have barely given me time to settle in! This is Armando, and he is going to be taking care of me here. I told him that if you were my visitor, there would be honey rolls."
Chela watched in mild irritation as the older man tentatively prodded one of the pastries with his fingers.
"You know, compañero, this is my brother. You don't have to sit here to make sure we don't have relations!"
"Chela!" chided Tomás gently. "I invited him to come. He has been telling me about how the food for visitation is better than what they give the staff so I wanted him to share the meal with us."
"And, compañera," rumbled Armando through a mouthful of sausage and pastry, "the compañerito has really helped me understand some problems I'm having with my family. His knowledge of what is happening is incredible. Word is spreading through the entire facility that a very powerful young babalawo has been interned here. I understand if you wish to speak to him privately let me just have a little milk." He drank clumsily from a funnel-shaped paper cup, letting a few drops of the liquid trickle down the sides of his acne-scarred chin before swiping them up with the sides of his finger and licking it. "I'm so sorry. I'm behaving like an animal," he confessed bashfully. "I don't remember the last time I had any real milk. We get some watered-down stuff for our children, but this is the real thing. All right, I will be headed back in then. Have a good visit. And compañero Stevens? Anything your godparents want to bring you for your altar will be fine with me. I'll make sure it goes through untouched." He bowed his head politely to both Chela and her brother before retreating into the main edifice.
"You see, Chela?" smiled Tomás as he twirled a sausage with his fingers. "This is perfect for me. Juan and the other members of my house are going to visit and keep teaching me here, and this is a place where the power of the Orishas is very badly needed. The people in this place are desperate for peace and for company. I can provide that for them." He paused and looked carefully at the puffiness under Chela's eyes. "She has gone away..."
"For two weeks," she whispered in response. "And I cannot imagine how it will be if she leaves me for good. Even this brief separation is breaking me. I am surprised... I have always been able to pull myself together and do what needs to be done. When Papá left, when I had to leave school, the business..."
"I know that this is different, Chela. All those other things you mention even our father they were never part of you the way she has become. I hope that it ends well," said her brother sadly. "I wish I knew what your fate means and how to influence it, but Juan has always said that your path was shrouded in uncertainty and pain. I can only love you - and pray."
"Well, I am going to influence my fate." Chela forced the words out through her frown. "Starting with the fact that I have to get back to reality. She has come and she may go, and in the end I have to be prepared to be alone once again. I have to remember how to survive... Tomás, you have not told me... how did you get sick? Were you working as a jinetero?"
"Why would I do that, Chela? There was no need. You always provided well for us, and I am not interested in parties. But yes, there is a part of me that feels very much like a woman and I met a handsome older boy on the beach about a year ago. We were together for a few months just being sweethearts and playing together sometimes before it became clear that I was being drawn in another direction. The orishas can be jealous, Chela. I think this is their way of keeping me focused, giving me this virus. In any way, I will be all right here. I have work to do."
"Work." Chela spat the word out bitterly. " I have to think about getting back to work. To Vedado. To the Malecón." Tomás shook his head.
"Your work is figuring out how to stay with her, Chela. But you always were stubborn. Listen to me." He waited for her to meet his eyes. "You are different now. Everything that used to be easy will be hard, and things that once seemed impossible will come without effort. Since you don't believe me, you will have to learn this on your own."
Chela was stunned. Tomás not only seemed markedly unsympathetic to her statements of resignation, but he had lectured her and was now standing up to leave.
"I'm sorry, Chela, but I really have to get my altar ready, and I don't think you are open to hearing what I have to say right now. I will be watching and waiting, cariño. And you make sure you take care of yourself until she gets back you have a responsibility towards her."
"I can return tomorrow," she said urgently to his back.
"One week, Chela." He turned and waved. "I will see you in one week and not before. And if you see Mamá and our brothers, give them my regards."
A lone pastry remained on the table. A toddler from another family group a tiny girl wearing a bright pink dress teetered over to Chela, pointing with interest at the leftover delicacy. Chela sighed and carefully placed the food in the child's cupped hands, then watched her walk back towards her mother, her chubby legs holding her in precarious balance as she swayed side to side in her gait.
She walks like I feel. The earth and its gravity betray me and all I feel under my feet is the tilt, the tremors I am riding an earthquake every day. Barbara, forgive me, but I need to know where the edge lies before I over-step and go careening down. I have to see what is left untouched now that your wildfire has swept through.
Boston, Logan Airport
The coffee pot in the "ready room" had been left on all day, and the distinctive odor of burnt beans wafted through the air. Two men sat at a card table playing slap jack to the soundtrack of Prince's 'Purple Rain'. The door cracked and a fair-haired youth excitedly called out to them.
"Head's up! The American Airlines flight from Santo Domingo just got in. I'm on Richards." The door closed.
Slap! The heavier of the card-players a spectacled, bald man clearly the far side of forty - grunted in satisfaction at his move in the wake of his partner's distraction.
"And it's my call! You lose, Agent Cousins. Let's see. Not only was your 'bastard' a bit off yesterday, but I'm gonna puke if I have to do 'Mother Teresa' another day in a row."
"Crap," muttered the younger loser. "This one comes with a bullshit detector if the advance press is on target."
"You're worrying too much," laughed the other man, as he scooted his chair back and stood. "You gotta understand, Bob. We are gonna go meet an insect. Then we are gonna study it. Then we are gonna pull its wings and little legs and antennae off one at a time. And then, Bob, then we are gonna go pin its pathetic little body in our specimen case along with all the other little insects that have passed through our lovely laboratory. This isn't acting, Bob. It's science."
"You're right," conceded Bob, breathing deeply and placing his hand on the his co-worker's shoulder. "And in the long run, what she does or doesn't do is of little consequence. OK. Grab your coffee. Ernie?" He grinned and reached for a cup of coffee, as the music prompted him into the pre-session ritual.
"Is the water warm?"
Ernie guffawed, spilling some of his coffee as his body shook with laughter.
"Shall we begin?"
Crap. This is why I should have a cell phone. I need a friggin' lawyer and I should let Eladio know I'm going to be late. I wonder what they're doing to Cynthia. I didn't know someone could go that pale and still be among the living. Yep, just get in the driver's seat. The people holding you are just run-of-the-mill bacteria and you are a two-week course of augmentin. You are Barbara, Warrior Antibiotic. You will prevail in this crappy little petri dish.
She shivered and realized that the room was probably intentionally kept at an uncomfortable temperature. She was sitting at an empty table, across from two chairs, and had been separated from her possessions, including the paperback history of Cuba she had been trying to read on the plane. Fuck, good thing Chela has the toys. Chela...Shit. I miss you, my baby. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two men, who hurriedly placed a stack of manila folders and a tape recorder on the table without speaking. One of them appeared tentative in his movements, letting his larger partner select a chair first.
"You already know that," she replied bluntly to the more aggressive man. I am in such a proctology mood, pal. Back off.
The man ignored her comment and flicked the recorder on.
"You know, ma'am, I could get you some coffee," offered the younger man, his voice expressing a hint of gentleness. "It's probably not better than what they had on the plane, but it might make this go faster for you."
"I want a lawyer. I don't know what this is about, but I know that I'm entitled to a lawyer." The recorder was turned off. The large man sighed.
"You're right." He leaned back in his chair. "This is Agent Robert Cousins and I am Agent Ernest Townsend, and we belong to a special investigations section of the U.S. Treasury Department."
Treasury Department? God, don't let me laugh. Jeez, seven years worth of receipts. Is it April 15 yet? I didn't think so...
"And you are being detained under suspicion of among other things having violated provisions of U.S. law barring trade with the enemy. You are entitled to a lawyer, but I had really hoped to get this business with you over with quickly. I guess we'll proceed to number two on our to-do list, Agent Cousins, while we wait for the citizen to get a lawyer. Let's go formally impound her luggage for detailed inspection on the unit. I mean it's going to take at least a month to go through some of those things."
Fuck. Holy crap. Our research notes. All the data. We are screwed. The project would never recover.
"Are you sure that's necessary, Ernie?" asked Bob. "I mean, I know that these women have return tickets for two weeks from now. That could really throw their plans off."
"You know what, junior?" began Barbara icily, glaring into the man's friendly face. "I have no fucking respect for the little butts that get the suck-up assignment in these situations. Fine. No lawyer and my stuff doesn't go where the bad luggage goes. I can connect the dots."
Ernie laughed. "I'm so glad to be dealing with someone who's bright."
"I'm really sorry that you are perceiving this as a more hostile situation than it needs to be," protested Bob. "I can understand being nervous." He reached for the recorder, but Barbara was faster, placing her hand over it.
"The friggin' game with the recorder stops now. It's either on or it's off."
Ernie continued to respond jovially to her interventions, grinning broadly as he reached for a pen.
"I'm not a technology man myself, Doctor. I'd much rather take my own notes. Leave it off, Bob. So, Doctor Murphy, we have it on very good information that beyond your 'research activities' you have spent a fair amount of your personal financial resources in Cuba over the past few months. Our tracking of bank transfers from your accounts suggests that this is the case. Now you did know that you are barred from spending any money in Cuba under current law." There was a long pause as Barbara considered her response.
"You're not Treasury," she said evenly. "You could never have gotten access to my account information prior to an actual case being built against me and Treasury doesn't have agents in Cuba watching how people spend money and the timing is all wrong. You move too fast."
"I am really impressed." Ernie tapped his pen and looked knowingly over at Bob. "Well, I am sorry we are not taping this because I think she's gonna be fun. On the other hand, our bosses wouldn't be pleased to hear how quickly you won at masquerades, Dr. Murphy."
"We are with the National Security Agency, Barbara." Bob persisted in conveying a quiet civility to the trapped woman. "And there are a number of reasons that we find your trip to Cuba problematic. Starting with a pattern of very questionable acquaintances. We could start with Irene O'Hara, who has been tried twice for sedition and is a lifelong member of..."
"Wait, let me do it," interrupted Barbara with a growl, as she stood up from her seat and leaned menacingly across the table. "Am I now or have I ever been from the heart of Southie, which would make Irene O'Hara a blip on the screen of 'problem acquaintances.' I mean there was Penny Cassidy's mother who used to always be sloshed when she'd have our Brownie troop over for baking lessons, and the entire fire station crew from P Street who would pee out the second story window every time there was snow to play 'competitive firehose.' Yeah there's a fucking conspiracy when Southie's done with the Union you're gonna think that little spat with the Confederacy was small time fun. Don't play with me. This isn't about Irene."
"Well, there is the matter of your connection to Martin Stevens," said Ernie malevolently. "I understand you bat for the other team, Dr. Murphy, and that you have a piece of Cuban ass that you enjoy giving the occasional business to. And she is a hard workin' girl, now isn't she? It's rich a guy who took out some very fine agents in the service to their country has his daughter grow up to suck Commie cock."
Breathe. Chela. They know about Chela.
"Jesus, Ernie," whispered Bob as he glanced towards the closed door. "You're gonna get us sent back for another weekend of diversity and sexual harassment training if you keep that up."
"Well, March Madness will be over by then, Bob, so I won't give a shit about coming in and eating donuts while they teach us to speak politically correctese." Ernie noted with great satisfaction that Barbara had sunk back into her chair and that her knuckles were tightly wrapped around the armrests. Gotcha, my pretty. "So I take it your new squeeze has told you about him."
"He's dead," Barbara forced out. Shut up. The best option is to not say anything, not reveal anything. But it sounds like they already know more than I could have imagined. Someone has been feeding them information about us. I'd bet my stethoscope. Fucking Alex.
"Yes, I was really sorry to hear that he had passed, even if he was one of our most wanted fugitives. That was a terrible accident," intoned Bob with concern.
"Well, I wasn't sorry, Bob." Ernie waited for Barbara to look up at him. "I was really pleased to hear that we arranged for that little problem with his brakes in Switzerland." He reveled in the sharp intake of air that Barbara was unable to suppress. "Good, you should be worried. Here's what I think, Dr. Murphy. I think you already know that we have someone on your tail in Cuba that you have no secrets. And I think you've already guessed that Martin Stevens is old history for us that we want something new. What you don't know is that Kansas is playing UConn in two hours and I want very much to be out of here. So I am going to make a guess. My guess is that I should just tell you what I want and show you a very big carrot, because it will take me longer than that to identify which of my many sticks is shaped just right to beat your goddamn ass."
"I really think you should treat her with more respect, Ernie," started Bob, before two fists hitting the table from opposite sides silenced him.
"We're done with that now, Bob. Shut up," glowered his colleague.
"What is it you want?" asked Barbara quietly, removing her clenched fist from the tabletop.
Ernie shifted in his chair to make himself more comfortable. He folded his hands on the table before him.
"Before I tell you, you need to know that dealing with you is not necessary. It's optional. But it is efficient. We will get this data whether you decide to cooperate or not. Your presence in Cuba is temporary and places you in some locations that are advantageous to us. I would rather not use contacts that are long-standing if I don't have to, and your being there means I don't have to."
"We need someone to carry out some data related to livestock immunizations. It's warehoused at the Ministry of Health."
Her mind whirred. So I would be solving one big problem related to starvation only to contribute to another one.
"Again, this data transfer will happen regardless of your participation. But it is better for both of us if you play along. You see, Barbara, I have a "Get-Out-Of-Cuba-Free" card ready for Marcela Stevens if you can help us. I think you know that it is extremely difficult to get Cuban nationals out, but we can do this. I can get her a temporary work pass into Guantanamo, and our internal contacts can make sure she gets through the Cuban end."
"Even if this were true, she would never leave her family." Goddammit! Why did I say that? Don't give them anything. Goddammit! Rank, name, serial number, nothing else. They aren't gunning for cereals and legumes. Time to drop big hints with Santos to prioritize vegetable proteins, cuz my guess is that this is not the time to invest in Cuban beef and pork.
"All the more reason to work with us, Dr. Murphy," broke in Bob. "It will be harder to get the minors through the checkpoint, but we can figure something out."
Bite that tongue, dammit. No... no... check it out. Options. You need to know all the options. "This country excludes people with HIV from immigrating. She has a brother interned in their sanatorium. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Damn. Los Cocos. Now that is a problem," winced the agent. "Those patients aren't allowed out without an escort. We would have to get the escort through to Guantanamo as well. Of course, he or she would go back. I could see this working out better than the work pass scenario, though. Arranging for special treatment on the Base for an acquaintance you vouch for, and who is properly escorted, and of course accompanied by the family. We can arrange for an exception to the immigration policy."
They didn't know about Tomás. Assume that they know only about time on the clock time spent on the project.
"And you know, Murphy, I can hear you thinking from here," growled Ernie with a sinister grin. "Don't even think of telling the Cubans. If you do, we'll make sure that Marcela Stevens is implicated in the eventual data leak. It will not go well for her."
Blow me. You don't know what I'm thinking. Because I don't know what I'm thinking. But I do know that it hasn't crossed your mind that I would stay. And I do know I need to get back to Chela as fast as I can. And that we need options. This is only an option...
"If I decide not to?"
Ernie shrugged. "Yeah, I'll be pissed. This would be better all around from my perspective. But I'm not the one who's gonna be saying adios to their lezzie girlfriend. Their lezzie whore girlfriend. You know, that's not a profession where people age very well. What will she do later, huh? And let's leave 'later' aside. What will she do now, huh? You think she's gonna wait very long for you?"
They don't know Chela. And they don't know I would stay. Keep the option open. You can fix the harm after you get her out. It would take them months to make anything happen with that kind of information.
"How fast can you get her out?" She carefully voided all emotion from her voice.
"Your project winds up at the end of April," replied Ernie. "She'll be at Guantanamo by the end of May."
Bingo. Yes. Another option. And it really harms no one. The Hippocratic Oath wins again.
"So, what do I do? Break into the Health Ministry under cover of night and hack into their computers?"
Both men snorted. Bob coughed, trying to dislodge the sip of coffee that had gone done the wrong passage.
"You've been reading too many adventure novels, Doc," chortled Ernie. "No, I'm afraid this will be very uneventful for you. Bob, get the folder ready with everything she needs." He looked at his watch and smiled. "Yes, ma'am, we will be home for tip off."
In an unusual gesture for them, the two women embraced.
"Holy fuck, Cynthia. Are you all right?"
"I didn't enjoy their going through my suitcase like that, and then making me wait forever to call a lawyer. But yes, I'm all right. I hope they choke on the cigars. I'm sure they smoke them themselves. Did you call your lawyer?"
"No, it never got that far," lied Barbara. You will fix it for her later. Stay safe. "Let's get out of here."
"You're staying with Eladio Torres, right?"
"Yeah. We can share a cab to Harvard Square. I've gotta pick up the T-Bird." Not to mention a hell of a buzz.
Agents Townsend and Cousins watched the women stroll away towards a uniformed Customs agent who stood next to their baggage.
"Do you ever feel sorry for them?" asked Ernie, as they turned to walk to the elevator.
"No," replied Bob simply. "And it's not like anything really changes for her. But us, buddy us we've had another good day at the office."
Later that night, Cambridge
Eladio tentatively reached out to stroke the green, spiked back.
"Ay, Hércules. What shall we do with that crazy woman of yours, eh? At least we have spent this time together as two older men, speaking of manly things and eating meat together. Well, I will go and finally put that soup away. She is clearly not coming tonight."
As if on cue the large clock in the kitchen rang in the midnight hour. As had become his custom, the iguana turned slowly on his wire perch to face the source of the clanging. It watched as the old man shuffled out of the foyer and up to the stove and put on a pair of oven mitts. Eladio headed towards the refrigerator with the pot of soup. Conditioning prompted the reptile to bob his head excitedly at the sound of the appliance opening, and he was disappointed to see the man returning to the foyer empty-handed.
"Good night, Mr. Green," quipped the old man, as he started up the stairs to his bedroom. He was halfway up to the second-story of the house when the doorbell rang.
"At last!" he cried, rushing to answer the door. When he opened it, he found that it was indeed the missing Barbara Murphy, but she was not alone. The physician, obviously intoxicated, was leaning precariously over the shoulder of a Harvard University police officer.
"MmmLadio, toldem I wazzunt gonna drive, that I mailed mmmsel the keys to the T-Bird affer I opened the door," mumbled the crumpled form.
"And ma'am, as I have explained, it can be considered a DUI even if you don't have the keys. I am giving you a break because you were in one of our parking lots and you have a courtesy faculty appointment. We'd rather keep these things in house when we can. Dr. Torres?" The officer could barely conceal his contempt as he moved to transfer the weight of the woman to the small elderly man.
"Yes?" answered Torres as he reached for Barbara's arm.
"Wouldn't drive drunk... worked trauma... seen it," sighed the woman, as she cautiously stepped forward.
"When she's clear-headed, give her this card. It's the tow and impound service we use." Eladio struggled to reach for the card without dropping his hold on Barbara. "And, ma'am? You're lucky to still have a license," concluded the officer. He felt no obligation to help the old man negotiate the steps with his heavy human burden and hurried back to his cruiser.
Barbara was more attentive to her surroundings after the exposure to the cool spring air. Eladio was furious. She could tell by the stiffness of his facial muscles and his reddened earlobes. And it was clear that her final destination for the evening was the living room couch. She pitched forward onto it and kicked off her shoes.
"I'm not going to say anything tonight," Eladio scolded crisply. "But this is very unacceptable. Beyond appearances, you came close to committing one of the worst acts a physician could carry out putting the safety of others at risk." His tone was tempered by the tenderness with which he set about covering her with a thick wool blanket. Then he could hear that she was softly muttering something, and he knelt down to better understand her words.
"Yes, my friend. I am here."
"It's very late, Barbara, and I don't know where I would go at this hour to find any..."
"No! Cuba... ice cream..."
"I told you that you would be disappointed there, my friend." Eladio watched curiously as his comment prompted Barbara to throw back the top of the covers and attempt to sit up. Well, I never! She is crying!
"They have the best there... best I ever had... need it... need her for the rest of my life..." The effort to speak outdid her and she fell back. The snoring began instantaneously.
Oh no! thought Eladio sadly. She has gone and fallen in love with one of them. He stood up, reaching down to gently stroke her cheek before turning and meeting the gaze of Hercules. "Your woman is in big trouble, Mr. Green. Like so many of us, she appears to have left her heart in Havana."
Five days later Vedado
What is wrong with me? thought Chela despondently as she sat on the darkened curb around the corner from the Hotel Nacional. I have really gone out of my mind to have let her affect me this way. It is not rational. This business means nothing in regards to my feelings for her. We all know this. It is as if I have been infected by a set of sensibilities I can ill afford here - like getting a fancy poodle for a pet when Havana demands that one have a streetwise mongrel. She reviewed her intentional return to the life of the jinetera over the past five days, a return during which she had failed to earn a dollar. It was a good thing that I am not, in fact, wanting for cash right now then it would be double the disaster. Bad enough that things just aren't working.
She had managed to enjoy a few drinks at the expense of her escorts, but every night had ended in the same fashion. After meeting with the clients drawn from Jonas's infamous list of contacts she had managed to keep up her end of the conversation to a point. After all, none of the men had turned out to be psychotic like Dmitri and three of them had actually been interesting in terms of their jobs and hobbies. But Chela found that she was utterly unable to project the illusion of intrigue and romance that was required to succeed in these encounters from a business standpoint. Her boredom and dissatisfaction her desire to be some place else and with someone else were legible on her face, and in the buyer's market of Havana nightlife there were better performances available to the men. They had politely (these were Jonas's friends after all, and their civility was predictable) declined her company after a few hours and moved on to more promising delights. Jonas. He will be returning later this year. Will I not be able to work with him? I have to be able to do this. I have no guarantee with her except for my heart to be broken.
She looked up at the sound of people coming down the pitch-black alley, and could see the faint light of several cigarettes which marked their positions as they moved towards her. She briefly considered moving away, but found that her feet were rooted in place, a pair of heavy weights at the end of her legs which failed to answer to her mind's commands. They were immediately in front of her now, three young men foreigners by their dress barely visible in the soft glow cast by a lighter. Then two of them continued on past her. The third remained behind, intrigued by the sight of the young Cuban woman.
"Oh, come on, Klaus, for crying out loud. We have dates waiting for us at the club!" complained one of the men as they doubled back.
"You come with us?" the man named Klaus addressed her in a friendly voice. Chela shook her head.
"She's probably sick, Klaus, to be sitting on a curb alone like that. I know you're Mister Ever Ready, but this is too much." Klaus laughed but when he replied his voice was steeped in irritation at his companion.
"You think I can't tell when they're sick? And what's wrong with a little appetizer before our main course? You all sound like pathetic one-shot specials." He turned back to Chela. "You want some dollars, right?"
Chela found her head mechanically nodding yes. This is what is left, where there is no pretending. Where there is only the raw transaction dollars for release.
"Can you talk?" the man now sounded annoyed at her as well. She nodded again.
"She's probably crazy, Klaus. Come on, let's go." Klaus shook his friend's hand off his shoulder and placed his own over his own crotch.
"Why don't you go on if you are so worried about her?" he replied. "I'm not going to be the one missing out on this beautiful face. Who cares if she's crazy? She's hot. And I'll let you know I've gotten fantastic head from crazy women before." He turned back to Chela. "You have identity papers?"
Chela reached for her purse.
"That's all right. Leave them be." Klaus looked back at his friends. "There you have it. When they are sick the authorities take their documents. She has papers. Therefore she is not sick. It's elementary!"
"I'm not going to wait around for this," muttered one of Klaus's companions. "Come on, Paul. And Klaus, I hope she bites it off and that we get to split that piece of cinnamon you're standing up to do this."
"Ahh, you bite me," called out Klaus defiantly at his departing friends. He returned his attention to the woman, who remained immobile on the curb. I wonder if she really is crazy. Well, let's see how crazy.
"How much for a blow job?"
I don't know. What did they tell me when I was starting? "Twenty dollars."
The man roared with laughter. "Beautiful, for twenty I get more." He continued to rub his growing erection through his pants. "Fifteen." Chela nodded, willing herself to stay still as he moved closer.
"Condom?" she asked quietly.
Astonished, the man stepped back again. "Unbelievable," he muttered to himself. He shook his head in frustration.
"You have condom?" he asked.
"Do you? Do you have an American condom? Or a German condom?" she countered.
Klaus reached into his back pocket, extracting his wallet. "Condom. But only ten dollars then," he said firmly.
Chela nodded, taking the small package from his hand. "You pay first."
Her mind registered the money being pressed into the space between her breasts and the sound of Klaus's zipper being pulled down. Not one smile. Not one look. Not one unnecessary word. Ten dollars cannot buy the woman that Barbara Murphy loves.
The dark circle of hair was slowly widening before their eyes, as Barbara's hands framed the woman's straining flesh. "You'd better get up here closer if you want to be part of the welcoming committee, Chelita! This one is coming out right now," she tenderly crowed. They were in a small village where they had stopped to rest on the way back from Pinar del Río. The family practice physician in charge of the health of the little community had alerted them to the impending birth and invited the quartet of researchers to accompany her. The young couple, expecting their third child, had requested that the American physician perform the delivery, sensing that the participation of the foreign doctor would somehow positively affect their child's fate. The labor had progressed far by the time the band of clinicians trooped into the tiny hovel that was the family home. Now the birth was imminent. The father sat in a corner of the room, comforting the two older children and quietly narrating the event to them in terms they could understand. Chela cautiously came forward at Barbara's invitation, gently placing her hands on her lover's shoulders and peering over her head. The pregnant woman cried out painfully between loud pants that sounded like the inflations of foundry bellows. "That's it, compañera," cooed Barbara. "You're doing a great job, the little head's almost all the way out. I saw a bit of ear that last push!" She was smiling, ecstatic to be sharing this unusual moment with Chela. "This is the best part of my job, Chela. And I haven't gotten to do it since my residency." She tossed the comment in English - quietly over her shoulder as she continued to guide the baby's crown through the tight portal. Then it all happened in a sudden outpouring of flesh and fluids a small form spilled into Barbara's waiting hands. It writhed slowly, slightly shaking its puckered face side to side with the tip of its tongue emerging from between bluish lips to taste the air. Then she for now Barbara had wiped off the tiny torso to reveal the absence of a penis sucked in her first breath and blew her outraged cry at the physician's face. "Yes, darlin'. That is the effect I have on females," quipped Barbara, laughing. "You have a beautiful new daughter, compañera," Chela informed the mother, who struggled to sit up to see the fruit of her labor. "Thanks be to the Virgin!" the woman exclaimed, then a worried look crossed her face as she realized the implications of her words. "Don't worry, compañera," smiled the local physician. "I won't tell and technically, yes, this little one is certainly a virgin." "Doctora," the woman gasped, directing her speech to Barbara. "What is your baptismal name?" "Barbara Jane," replied the American as she tied off and cut the cord. "That will be her name, so we remember this blessed occasion when you passed by our home." The mother forced the words out through her exhaustion, as she lay her head back down. Then Barbara handed the swaddled infant to Chela and gestured for her to place it on the woman's chest. They stood together side by side for a long moment, looking down on mother and child, before Barbara left to wash her hands in a tub of water left right outside the door. Chela followed her, permitting herself the liberty of fondling her lover's hair as Barbara knelt and scrubbed up to her elbows. "That was amazing," she whispered. Barbara looked up, her eyes sparkling. "It sure was, my lover. And just think she has my name and temperament and your skin color. Watch out, Cuba!"
He had stopped any pretense at gentleness as he pulled roughly at her hair to force her to take him more deeply into her throat, and she was dimly aware of the bitter taste of the condom's spermicidal lubricant on her tongue.
She was awake, although it was clear that Barbara was not aware of that fact. The American woman had dressed in the dim light of a single candle, slipping a few last toiletry items into her bags and quietly setting them next to the door. She peeked carefully out of her right eye and found herself profoundly moved at the sight of Barbara to whom she had never clearly explained the role of the Orishas solemnly kneeling before the small altar and crossing herself. Chela watched as her lover stayed there, her eyes shut and her lips moving silently, for several minutes. When Barbara stirred to rise again, Chela quickly closed her eyes and resumed breathing deeply. She felt a soft touch on the side of her face and lips brushing against hers. "Chelita, wake up a minute. I have to go soon. I want to say goodbye." Chela hummed a greeting to her partner and reached up to envelop her in her arms, drawing her back down into the bed. " I don't want to say goodbye," she whispered into the straight black locks. "I don't know how to do this either, cariño. That's why I don't want you to go to the airport. I would rather leave you here, on this bed where we have loved each other well." "I understand. I will think about you all the time while you are gone, you know. And I will pray for you to come back to me." Barbara lifted her head up to look into Chela's face and smiled. "That altar of yours. I hope you don't mind that I've used it a few times. It's been a long time since I asked the saints or Mary for anything. I'm really a lousy Catholic." "That's not the only thing that it's about," started Chela, but Barbara interrupted her. "I know, I know there are other aspects of what you believe that are not Catholic, but for me, that's what I grew up with and what I was disappointed by and what I fell away from. But the only way I can get on that plane today is if I believe that miracles can still happen, even for people who are selfish and frightened and cowardly, like me. You know something, Chela? I love you. I love you with every bit of the imperfection that I am." Then she laughed and shook her head slightly, confusing Chela a bit with the sudden shift of affect. "See, mami? It worked! I already owe them a rosary I managed to tell you before I left."
At the end it was turning into a battle, as she struggled to terminate the increasingly uncomfortable act and he fought to keep her in place, striking her repeatedly on the side of the head as he blindly thrust into her.
"I'm not so stupid that I think it all has to rhyme, Chela!" Barbara was smiling as she shaded her eyes with the sheets of paper as she lay, head to head with Chela, on the seawall where they had met. " I mean, I do read a fair amount of poetry." "You shouldn't give up, cariño," replied the Cuban woman with a note of amusement in her voice. "I just think that especially since Spanish is not your native tongue that you should give yourself the freedom to experiment with free verse after all, these are your first poems in this language." "Chela," sighed Barbara, "I am really just a prose kind of woman. Worse, I am a tactile kind of woman I speak through my hands much more comfortably than through my words." Chela laughed. "And Barbara, I am not complaining about how expressive your hands are. You are spoiling me. It's as if you are another Cervantes when you touch me." "Come on," complained Barbara in mock irritation. "You're not seriously comparing me to an old man on a crappy horse with a broken shield and lance." Chela quickly sat up, her upside down face shoving the papers aside and covering Barbara's view of the sky. She was scowling. "You're not serious, right? You know that that was the protagonist, Don Quixote, not the author, Miguel de Cervantes." Barbara could not hold the poker face, and guffawed, and received a light slap across the midriff. "Don't ever, don't ever make jokes about my favorite authors. And you know, someday you might find yourself on a really old horse with a broken lance and you're going to remember that you thought it was funny...and I hope I am the one sitting on the burro behind you laughing." Settling back onto the seawall, Chela barely caught the words "Thanks, Sancho" as they floated on the sea breeze.
"Five extra dollars. Sorry I lost where I was there for a moment." She felt the additional bill thrust into her hand, as Klaus stepped away from her. She could barely make out through a swollen eye what the man was holding out in front of her face.
"Some girls like souvenirs. Swiss baby? Good Swiss stock, strong, handsome like me." She turned away, and he laughed, flinging the condom with its cargo of dying gametes out into the void of the alley. She heard his steps receding, and felt herself crumple back down to the curb, barely catching herself to remain in a sitting position. Then she felt another presence drawing close and her muscles tensed. The touch on her shoulder made her flinch and she prepared to scream when a familiar voice broke through the darkness.
"Compañera. I have been looking for you since you left the bar at the Nacional. I lost you out here in the dark." The man knelt down - concerned at her lack of response - and was horrified to look into a face full of tears, bruises and anguish. "Oh, compañera. Oh, Chela. Come on, let me get you home."
She let Pedro half-carry her back to the apartment.
She was starting to come back into herself fully, the gentleness of the man's ministrations tugging her into her everyday awareness. Pedro carefully dabbed at some light scratches on Chela's left temple with a moist napkin with one hand, as he held a bag of shaved ice up against the swelling on the opposite cheek.
"I know this hurts and I really am sorry, compañera."
Huddled at the edge of the bed, Chela groaned despite the lightness of his touch.
"Why were you following me, Pedro?" she asked warily.
The man swallowed hard before answering, and she could feel his hands tremble slightly through her aching flesh.
"Compañera, I was worried about you. And I have been watching for a few nights now. I don't understand I imagine you must need the money. I was going to offer to buy tonight myself to keep you inside and safe I have no woman or family to spend my pay on. I have some cash laid aside."
Alarmed at this confession, she jerked away from him. "Pedro, I could not have consented to such an arrangement. It would be too complicated."
He tentatively placed his hands back on her injuries and tilted his head down so she could see his face and appreciate the earnestness of his words.
"And this is not complicated? Chela, I am not blind. I was not thinking of violating what you have with her. I am a bit old-fashioned that way I would not be with a woman that I had no hope of winning for myself."
Chela smiled, then winced as her skin pulled.
"I guess we didn't do a very good job of hiding it at work."
"No, you very much did," reassured Pedro. "I cheated. I have a sister who is that way and I remember how it looked when she and her compañera tried disguising their love...they are in Miami now."
He finished with the cuts and stepped back to look at his handiwork, nodding approvingly at the cleanliness of the torn areas. He pressed the ice bag into Chela's hand.
'Let me get you some water, compañera, so I can give you something for the pain." He stopped and laughed sadly. "At least for the pain in your head. I can imagine that is the least of it. What were you thinking? I could understand if you didn't have a good job right now. I had a girlfriend once that did this worked the business when she didn't need to. But then again," he sighed and turned to walk to the sink. "Maybe chocolate really was a necessity for her. I just couldn't afford it."
Chela waited until the man returned to stand in front of her before replying to his question.
"Pedro, it is true that right now tonight I had no financial need. But I was desperate to know, could I just jump back in to how things were now that this big change this Barbara has come into my life."
Pedro considered his response while he watched her swallow the medication.
"You know," he said quietly. "I think I am in love with her too in a way. She has such confidence and presence as a physician. When I think about the kind of doctor I want to become she looms large in front of me a real heroine. Silly of me, I guess. I am just a half-starved Cuban jackass, and I will probably end up cutting cane before I end up really practicing medicine the way I want to with that brilliance that she puts forth."
He looked on as Chela, exhausted, picked up her knees and got up into the bed, pulling the covers over herself.
"Compañera," he whispered. "Would you like me to stay? I can put some chair cushions down on the floor."
"Yes. I wanted to ask, you know. But I wasn't sure how it would sound."
" It would sound like you need a friend here... I only wish I was a better man and could offer to hold you, but you are attractive and I don't want to disrespect you without meaning to."
She heard him settling down on the floor beside her, and thanked the Orishas for having sent her this tangible comfort in the absence of her lover. Chela reached down to touch Pedro's head.
"Thank you for your friendship, compañero. And I can tell you that you are a real hero, even though you cannot see that fact."
She lay in the darkness, absorbing all that had transpired since the morning Barbara Murphy left for the airport. It is clear then. Yes, I can survive, I suppose, by occupying a rung lower than that of jinetera and becoming a street whore. I can survive by turning to my friends and asking for help. But I want more. If she insists on leaving and there is no other option, I suppose I must find a way to go to her.
The next morning she found that she was able to write for the first time since the American woman's departure.
I was looking for a new taste.
My exile was a hunger for home,
and I waited to be fed.
How I hated the sugar cane,
its sweetness a conjure trick of evil fairies
that cast the finished white powder like spirit dust
all ground up bones and flesh and hair,
the raw material for their candy magic.
As it grows it is not like the other delights of my field.
Its green spears stab at the back of my throat.
Its fibers pose scratchy barriers to my teeth and lips.
It is a refusal of welcome
so unlike the open doors of mangos and guanabanas.
Its roots soak in the blood of my fathers.
Its roots suck in the milk of my mothers.
I cry out as we are poured into
the coffee cups of the Spaniards,
of the Yankees,
of the Soviets.
The bitter liquid peels back our skins,
leaving us as human bagasse.
I was looking for a new taste.
My exile was a hunger for home,
and I waited to be fed.
When I was thirteen my womb awoke
and I wished for the power of creation,
but what I witnessed was the birth of A New World Order
which is the spawn of The Old World Order.
I saw cane which is Middle Passage
saw cane which is arms
saw cane which is sweatshops
saw cane which is drugs
saw drugs which is MTV
saw MTV which is Coca Cola
saw Coca Cola which is cane.
I tried to burn down the stands,
choking the innocent birds in the acrid smoke,
and still the stalks grew back.
Tilling the earth with my bare hands,
I tried to plant yams and the roots could not hold as
the alien crop stood firm,
denying me the fruits of my labor.
I released insects
I released storms
I released anger
and the mocking shafts regenerated,
the growth rising up to block the light of the sun.
I was looking for a new taste.
My exile was a hunger for home,
and I waited to be fed.
And what fire and machetes and rebellion could not accomplish,
You come, a fugitive princess yellow-jacket
traveling lightly between the blossoms of tenderness
and the flowers of inspiration,
and make out of these abstract graces
the tangible morsels that at last sate me:
a honey so pure and delicate
that upon my tongue I know the flavor of freedom
the texture of belonging
the sweetness of my home in your arms
where you serve the finest love for my meals.
Feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am hopeless. Yes, I lost a bunch of mail before I could answer. I am such a ditz. I did read it all, though.
Translation of "Noche de Ronda" ("Prowling Night") by Agustín Lara:
Prowling night/ how sadly you pass/ how sadly you cross/ across my balcony./Prowling night/ how you wound me/ how you hurt/my heart./ You moon, who breaks/over the shadow of my loneliness/ where are you headed?/Tell me if this night/you are going prowling/ as she has gone/ Who are you with?/ Tell her that I love her/ Tell her that I am dying/ from waiting so long/ to come back already/ because prowling isn't good/ it causes damage and brings suffering/ and it ends in tears.
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