by Ana Ortiz
Legal disclaimers: Not written for profit. The lead characters often look and sound like THEM.
Chapter Nine Disclaimer: At this point, I find myself incapable of sorting out what is potentially disturbing to readers from what is not. I personally find the real political and economic policies that would lead people to commit the desperate acts described in this chapter more obscene than any curse words or sexual acts I could insert into the plot. There is a lot of suffering in this chapter. There is a lot of suffering in the Caribbean. I will warn readers that there are graphic scenes of animal sacrifice. They are limited to the section beginning "Mid-September 1993/ Los Cocos Sanatorium."
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. Thanks to OW for test driving this story.
Todo pasa y todo queda
Pero lo nuestro es pasar
Pasar haciendo caminos
Caminos sobre la mar.
Nunca perseguí la gloria
Ni dejar en la memoria
De los hombres mi canción.
Yo amo a los mundos sutiles
Ingrávidos y gentiles
Como pompas de jabón.
Me gusta verlos pintarse
De azul y grana al volar
Bajo el cielo azul temblar
Súbitamente y quebrarse
Nunca perseguí la gloria.
Caminante, son tus huellas
El camino y nada más
Caminante, no hay camino,
Se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino
Y al volver la vista atrás
Se ve la senda que nunca
Se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
Si no estelas en la mar.
Hace algún tiempo en ese lugar
Donde los bosques se visten de pinos
Se oyó la voz de un poeta gritar
Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Golpe a golpe
Verso a verso.
Murió el poeta lejos de su hogar
Le cubre el polvo de un país vecino
Al alejarse le vieron llorar.
Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Golpe a golpe
Verso a verso.
Cuando el jilguero no puedo cantar
Cuando el poeta es un peregrino
Cuando de nada nos sirve rezar,
Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Golpe a golpe
Verso a verso.
Antonio Machado, Joan Manuel Serrat, "Cantares," (Used without permission)
Chapter Nine: The Reading is Eyorosun
June 1993 Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Chela struggled down the narrow streets of the old city, the cardboard box she balanced on her shoulder seemingly increasing in weight with each block she covered. The humidity made her blouse feel as if it was affixed to her body with a thick paste, and the sweat trickled in rivulets off her curls and down her temples. The moisture in the air made the city perspire along with her, and the aged buildings found themselves choked in the tight embraces of plants that thrived in the water pooling on their cracked faces. This was the case of the venerable establishment that was her final destination, the Rubén Villena Library, which suffered the additional indignity of having sewage flowing from a pipe in its front wall out to the gutter. Still, Chela found herself smiling as she approached the library: even if the shell were deteriorated, the marvelous organism of knowledge that lived within had never disappointed her.
She entered the main reading room and found the tables predictably full. Citizens of all varieties -- from young women she recognized from the business to old men who used their straw hats as placeholders in their books -- were packed in tightly together like fine needlework stitches. As she passed close to one of the tables, two pimply and smiling teenaged boys wearing the uniforms of the Polytechnic elbowed each other, then scooted over to make room for her, beckoning with raised eyebrows. Yeah, right! she thought to herself. "Thank you, compañeros," she mouthed silently, as she went past them to the reference desk, where a wizened, dark-skinned woman -- her head covered in a dirty white handkerchief - presided over the room. She just keeps getting dustier, assessed Chela. The dress, the handkerchief, the shoulders -- even those thick glasses are covered in such a thick layer of grime that it looks like she has been bathing in the Sahara. As Chela set her burden down on the desk, the caked dust on the librarian's face rippled like aftershocks from her toothy smile.
"Che," whispered the old woman hoarsely, leaning her tiny form over the desk for a quick but energetic hug.
"Magdalena," Chela whispered back. She spent a long moment looking with warm affection at the woman who had shepherded so many of her youthful adventures in reading. From the time she could negotiate the distance between El Monte and Vieja Habana on her own, Chela had preferred the oldest of the three public libraries of Havana and she had come to absolutely adore the oldest librarian of the city. One of the benefits of working for Jonas during the previous year had been his sensitivity to the building's dust: it had made him sneeze and swell up in hives like a puffer fish. Chela had therefore been able to spend time on her own reading after coming to gather materials for the Scandinavian scholar's research. In a small recess behind the reference desk sat a lone majestic armchair, its carved wooden feet almost successfully resistant to the gnawing teeth of rats. It was strategically positioned under a skylight, which made it an ideal location for reading even as it bleached the color out of the ancient fabric that covered the chair frame. In all her years as head librarian, Magdalena had deigned to share this place of refuge only with Chela Stevens, and it was to this chair that she now gestured. Chela gratefully slumped into it, exhausted from her trek.
"Magdalena, I've brought my books. I had to move out of the place where I was staying and well, I just don't know how long I'm going to be anywhere anymore. I thought this would be a good place for them." She paused and looked up with a note of sadness in her eyes. "Did you hear what happened?"
The librarian sighed and shook her head. "Yes, Che, 'Radio Fat Mouth' broadcast the news about the trouble all the way to the old city."
"Well, I would still like to take books out -- especially my own that I am donating - but they took my library card away."
The librarian reached out a hand to stroke the young woman's face, and her dry-paper skin dabbed at the moisture on Chela's brow. Then she turned back to the desk, opened one of the drawers and discreetly pulled out a bundle of paper before returning to her waiting patron.
"Che, you will never need a card to borrow a book with me here, although you should probably not take more than one or two at a time so as not to draw attention. Things are changing, Che. It is hard to know who to trust. For the first time books are disappearing from the libraries -- I never thought I would see the day. Trust is important in another way, Che. There have always been some books that have had to circulate very carefully. And while it is the case that it may be foolish of me to do this when you have just been through this trouble, it is also the case that you need to know you are not alone."
She handed the papers to Chela, who looked down at the tattered photocopied pages. There she read the title, Antes Que Anochezca ["Before Night Falls"], por Reinaldo Arenas.
"Welcome to my very special reading group."
Chela cried in bitter silence for hours as she sat in the chair, turning the fragile sheets as if they were the shrouds of dreams. Although she could not bring herself to believe everything Arenas had written about the conditions that led him to abandon the island and -- eventually -- to take his own life, her own recent experiences bore an uncanny resemblance to much of what she was reading. There have to be exaggerations. I mean, the man not only fucked chickens, but he thought that Gabriel García Marquez didn't deserve the Nobel Prize. Still, to be living among people you thought incapable of betraying you who are informants and to have the libraries and schools purged of lesbians and homosexual men... to sleep in prison clutching a copy of The Iliad to your chest to keep you sane and to dream of flying over the palms of Cuba after you have left in exile... to hear the crowd as it calls you scum and makes you a scapegoat...yes, all this I have either more-or-less survived or can see happening to me soon. So it is not just the life of the crazy Stevens family and of the post-Soviet generation that I have been living: it is the life of a Revolution long-betrayed and broken apart. My society is not a fruit that has been left out in the sun for too long, but one that has been rotting from the inside out. If even half of what he writes is true then the dream was sick even at the time of my conception, and the poets which sang its praises knew this. It is as Magdalena says: it is hard to know who to trust. And that is a very hard way to live.
Chela did not care that the very air reeked of disapproval as she crossed Calzado Street to approach the U.S. Interests Office. She had just spent three days in jail and there was very little that could intimidate her.
The van had come for her the afternoon of that wretched day Barbara was torn out of her life. She was not interrogated until the second day, and Chela speculated that the delay was intended to disorient her and lower her resistance. In any case, her tormentors were treated to a consistent and simple mantra for the duration of the nine hours that the questioning lasted on that second day: Barbara Murphy loved Cuba and had intended to stay, Barbara was blackmailed into an unfortunate meeting with a traitor that produced no ill effects for the country, and Chela was unaware of any other people involved in this mess. The one time she deviated from the script, adding a defiant, "for all I know, you could be involved," it earned her a hard slap that split her across the cheek.
The third day was easier because it was devoted to what seemed much more like a meeting than an interrogation. Santos Valverde, Cynthia Richards and Pedro Guttierez were all brought in for a "discussion" concerning possible security breaches involving the epidemic response team. In the end, the assessment of Santos the morning he oversaw Barbara's deportation prevailed: yes, there were strong suspicions, but no way of really proving anything and given the dramatic contribution of the researchers to the well-being of the Cuban population it was best to minimize the situation. It was to be understood that for the foreseeable future, Cynthia would work alone -- requests for visas for U.S. colleagues would not be approved. As a precaution the two Cubans who had worked the most closely with Barbara Murphy -- Chela Stevens and Pedro Gutierrez -- were released from the project, which was in the winding-down stage anyway.
It was the look on the jail clerk's face as she returned Chela's purse that sent her over the edge. The young woman, very heavily made up for the setting in which she worked -- the orange lip-stick in particular disturbed Chela in a way that sleep deprivation and harassment had not -- attempted to make a show of bravado, tossing the purse across the front desk and uttering a flip comment.
"So... not just a traitor, but a puta [whore] and a pata [dyke]."
"Yes, a puta, a pata, and happy," replied Chela without missing a beat. She felt the bile rising in her throat, then looked more carefully at the clerk. It was not contempt but the fear of contamination that was written on her face. We are not that different. If I am in here, so can they haul her in on some fine morning. I am becoming a political leper. To be close to me is to touch disaster.
Unlike the rest of Havana, the street in front of the U.S. Interests Office was relatively empty. Positioned at intervals along the sidewalk were men who in their carefully-arranged casual attire and sunglasses were meant to be fully visible as "secret" police. When the occasional Cuban citizen ventured across the street towards the Interests Office he or she would be intercepted by one of these men, who functioned like well-trained sheepdogs. Chela braced herself for what would no doubt be an unpleasant social interaction. She was instead surprised by its efficiency and civility.
"Compañera," murmured the pleasant Adonis who placed himself in her way. "I have to ask for your identity papers, and I have to record your basic information. It would be better if you did not proceed into this building. If you turn around now, we can forget you even thought about coming here and I will not look at your papers."
Why couldn't they have people like this at all the government offices? thought Chela as she handed him her papers. It would have made everything so much more bearable. If they put the nice workers at the ends of the lines when you are trying to stay and the surly ones at the ends of the lines when you are trying to leave, that would be more reasonable. She realized that the address on her identity papers was that of the El Monte flat and she hoped that her act would not have repercussions for her mother and brothers. The handsome policeman winked at her and nodded as she took back the papers before making her way into the office building.
She signed in at the receptionist's desk and joined the other two souls who nervously awaited their appointments with the local gatekeeper to a safe passage to the United States. Both were older men who were dressed in suits and polished leather shoes. Their bulging briefcases served as heralds of the owners' professional accomplishments and potential value to an adoptive nation. Chela had not bathed in three days and her right sandal was barely held together by a narrow strip of red plastic. She resisted the urge to scratch her scalp.
This is crazy. What can I possibly say that will get me a travel permit? To speak of what happened with Alex and Barbara is to bring up such messiness that I would be lucky if they didn't serve me poisoned tea just to make me disappear. And if I say I have come under suspicion of spying for the United States, well, that describes half of Havana. Asking to be reunited with my lesbian lover does not seem like a promising emigration strategy. Nor does reviewing my occupational history. There isn't much I can say, but I have an obligation to her to try the safest and quickest way first. And this is certainly it.
Mr. Adam Brentice was gracious enough with her -- Chela concluded later that it must have been pity that motivated his gentle treatment. While he acknowledged that her argument that sheltering the daughter of a notorious U. S. traitor might have some merit if one really believed that immigration decisions were made on the basis of archaic Cold War posturing, he could not really find any exceptional circumstances that justified granting her a travel release to the United States. His best advice -- the one he gave to most Cuban citizens who came to this office desperately seeking a route off the island -- was to agitate for political change. "You seem like an intelligent and energetic young woman, Ms. Stevens, and I hope that someday we do see you in the United States, visiting under the passport of a free and democratic Cuba."
What a waste of time, thought Chela sullenly as she made her way back to her apartment. When she arrived she found that everything but her altar had been ransacked. So, even among the secret police, the Orishas command respect. She threw herself on the ground before the pictures of the saints before starting the daunting task of picking up the clothing and papers that covered the floor like a madman's artwork. "You know," she addressed the solemn faces somewhat irreverently, "I know there is a lesson in all of this, and I promise to learn it. I know you like your daughters to prove themselves in the challenge and I hope to not disappoint. Just please, I beg you, have her there for me at the end when all is done. It was foretold that I would be burnt and I reply now that I have felt the blisters rise on my flesh: I would walk into the flames without a second thought and stand there until consumed if it meant that I could be with her."
The summons from her mother arrived the next week. The note was short and cryptic, indicating only that Chela should be prepared to remove everything that was hers from the premises and noting the time she was expected with some specificity.
The crowd assembled in front of the El Monte building at the appointed hour simmered unevenly in its fervor: the uneasy citizens looked to each other for direction as to how to act appropriately, for most of them had only heard of such gatherings. After the 1980 Mariel boatlift such events had become increasingly rare and in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall they were almost unheard of. After all, once the "special economic" period got underway in earnest even beloved and well-respected musicians and authors had gone abroad to live in great numbers and it was unthinkable to question their love of their homeland: they were the composers of the images in which the masses sang of their patriotism and were beyond suspicion. The spectacle unfolding in front of the Stevens' home was unusual in two other aspects. Usually the subjects of such occasions were citizens who were undeniably on their way to the United States, but Chela Stevens -- like every member of the crowd poised to abuse her -- was ostensibly trapped on the island. Also, Cubans who were the targets of Acts of Repudiation -- for this is what Chela suddenly recognized she had been invited home for as she approached the throng -- were uniformly lonely figures who were forced to walk a gauntlet of hurled invectives and refuse with no company but their misery. Anticipating both trouble from her family and the need for help carrying things away, Chela was flanked on either side by Leti and Pedro.
When they got to within a half-block distance from the house Chela stopped and nervously addressed her two companions.
"You know what is happening here, right? I just can't believe it. I thought they didn't do this anymore. And I don't even have a U.S. travel permit! I mean, they can scream at me to 'leave right now!' all they want but where am I going to go? And somehow I don't think telling them I am working on getting out of here is really what they are after."
"I went to one of these when I was a little boy, compañera. I was so angry because our neighbor made me go and I missed going to the cockfights with my father."
"Maybe you two should leave," offered Chela bravely. "You know that you will be reported to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution of your own neighborhoods."
"But Chela," protested Leti, "that means that you would have to do this alone. And you don't have to. When have either of us turned away from each other, negra?"
Pedro chuckled. "Me too, compañera. You know I am an unreformed reactionary machista who could never let two women go through this alone. My fragile sense of manhood just couldn't take it."
Chela's eyes watered -- touched as much by Pedro's feeble and rare attempt to be humorous as by his loyalty. The young woman's incipient show of emotion did not seem like a good development to Leti.
"No, negra. You can cry later after we get through this and we get some rum into us. For right now it is strictly forbidden for any of us to cry, no matter how bad it gets. We will not give them the satisfaction. It is time to think about what kind of attitude that big bad Americana of yours would project."
The two friends matched Chela's steps, moving closer to her as the crowd pressed in. By choosing the ostracized young woman over self-interest that afternoon both their fates took a new direction. As Chela had noted, the behavior of participants at Acts of Repudiation was carefully observed and recorded. This was the reason it was unthinkable that anyone would opt to stand with the accused. Three days later, Pedro would find the note dismissing him from medical school in his mailbox. His classmates would say their goodbyes silently with regretful looks, not daring to name their sadness at the injustice meted upon the easy-going young man aloud. Leti's future was altered much more pleasantly. Among the onlookers at the El Monte spectacle was the nephew of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution block captain who was overseeing the whole event, a woman who was friendly with Chela's mother. This man was a decorated veteran of the Angolan campaign and a major in the Reserves and he liked to think that his military experiences meant that he knew something about courage. It was another four months before he made up his mind to find and court the fierce-looking small ebony woman who defiantly marched alongside her shunned friend. When he was introduced to her two small boys he wondered if this was how he would be able to fulfill his dream of fatherhood despite having lost his testicles in Cuba's equivalent of Vietnam.
On that day at El Monte, however, there was only Chela's gratitude that the presence of friends at either side kept her from fainting or falling. She willed herself not to sort the sounds into words although the occasional "bitch," "Yankee whore" and "worm" made its way through to her consciousness. She was aware of being pelted with small stones and pieces of rotting fruit. Unbelievable, she thought. I really thought that nothing was too rotten to pass up these days. A knife of guilt passed through her when she realized that Pedro's chin had been cut by a rock. A hand snaked over her shoulder and roughly pulled her back. She found herself facing her downstairs neighbor, a sad childless woman she had known all her life and who had often saved some of her sweets rations for the Stevens children. The gray eyes bored into her as she was pulled in closer so that they were afforded some privacy by the very noise of the crowd. "If this is because you are leaving, good for you. And please, Chelita, forgive us," she hissed, masking the message with her angry expression. To back up her convincing performance she delivered a mighty backhand slap to the young woman's face that almost buckled her knees. Leti surged forward to retaliate and was surprised when Chela restrained her by practically climbing onto her back.
"No," she whispered into the combative small woman's ear. "Don't give the secret police in the crowd an excuse to take us in. I don't want to go back to jail. Besides, that old woman is as sad about this as I am."
Chela was still holding her cheek when she got to the door, where she was met by her mother and her twin brothers, Pedro and Manuel.
"Well, here she is" called out Maritza to the street. "The snake whore that I sheltered and that turned on us! Let her leave! Let her leave to her Yankee imperialist masters if they will have her! But I bet they won't. You were so stupid, Chela! Because they gave you everything that they were going to give you -- which was from what I understand, just some perverted Yankee sex..."
The crowd was quiet now, as even those members who had attended Acts of Repudiation in the past recognized that the script had been set aside and that some deeply personal and deadly dynamic was being played out between mother and daughter. Maritza Stevens was practically casting off sparks as she pontificated on her child's perfidy. She was a vengeful priestess of bitterness, ready to extract a public sacrifice from her first-born in payment for the disappointment she had suffered at having been a good wife, a good worker, a good comrade yet having nothing to show for it but an empty bed, meaningless citations, dispersed offspring and a hardscrabble life.
"I knew you would come to get your things, and yes, there are a few little things upstairs that you can look at and decide if you want. But most of what is here, Chela, was never really yours. It was the motherland's and it was given to you in trust. All of these school trophies and awards..." She gestured and the twins obligingly produced them in a heap, setting them down on the concrete step. "They are not really yours to take because it was the motherland that taught you how to read and write and you presume, you piece of shit worm, you presume to say that you earned them and you would take them as a badge of honor to our enemies, but this is what we think of your sperm-faced Yankee pride..."
The crowd came back to life as Manuel and Pedro Stevens lowered their zippers and proceeded to urinate on their sister's school mementos, the warm liquid rising up in steam off the heated cement where it splattered at the edges of the pile of paper and wood.
"That's right hose it down!" "Hose her down, she's a 'fireman', anyways!" "Let me fuck her to show her what's right!" "I want to fuck her little butterfly boyfriend!"
"Don't worry, Chela," whispered Pedro. "I won't let them hurt you." He raised his voice to the crowd. "Aren't you ashamed of yourselves? Is this what El Ché gave his life for? What our fathers gave their lives for at Moncada and at Playa Girón? You do this on the basis of rumors -- that is the way that the goddamn Yankees act. You are no better!" A ripe mango hit him squarely on the face. Chela noted that the culprit -- and those who had shouted the worst of the insults -- was not a neighborhood resident. It seems that -- other than my own relatives -- everyone who actually knows me is here under duress. I wonder how much longer this charade is going to last. She felt a twinge of regret over the fate of her old report cards and plaques. I can't believe they were still that envious of my success at school -- which I dropped out of to support their deadbeat and delinquent lives.
The brief distraction of the reflection cost her, leaving her unprepared for the swiftness with which her mother snatched her purse off her shoulder. The other woman pulled the contents out, throwing Chela's cosmetics and keys on the ground. While the younger woman scrambled to retrieve them, the mother triumphantly sorted through the papers that were bundled together with a worn rubber band. She threw the purse back at Chela, then handed her a faded citizen identity sheet, her health records and a green ration book.
"Here, whore! Since the state sees fit to still feed you, you may keep your rations and for the safety of any visitors to our country who have the bad fortune of being enticed by you, you may keep your certificate of cleanliness -- although clean is not a word I would use in relation to you, you boil of moral pestilence. But these others -- these are all privileges which are no longer yours." She turned back to the assemblage and held up a tattered piece of paper.
"Do all of you see this? This is the certificate of live birth that documents the unfortunate day that this piece of Yankee-sucking shit came into the world." She began to neatly tear it into minute flakes that descended in tight twirls in the breezeless afternoon. The gesture was met with applause and hoots. "I have no daughter!" she bellowed like a wounded sow. "All right then," she growled at Chela. "Come up and see what you want of what's left -- I believe there is the mandolin of that other traitor that lived under this roof. Your two friends stay down here." Chela nodded and followed her mother up the stairs. She was torn between her desire to beat the older woman and her impulse to cry. Keep it together. Remember that marvelous moment when the woman who treasures you above all things took on the one who has always placed you second - and won, just by speaking the truth to her: "the sun rises and sets for me because one of your children is in my life."
A cursory look at the possessions she and her father had left at El Monte revealed nothing that she would want to take upon herself given her uncertain living situation. Still, the time spent sorting through the items allowed her to settle her emotions, and she found herself moving from a place of anger and panic to one of frank curiosity. At the very least, if I find this out, I may be able to warn Leti and Pedro about the specific ways they will squeeze their friends and families.
"So... I didn't think they did these things anymore," she stated quietly to her mother, who was leaning against the doorway of the common room, exhausted from her public performance. "I'm sorry that you all got drawn into this, that I got you into trouble."
"Nobody forced us to do this." The voice was eerily pleasant, as if describing a distant and impersonal event that had not torn apart the fabric of their lives. "The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution block captain came and told me that you had been blacklisted and I volunteered to do this in the hopes that the Party would show me some special consideration -- and they have! You saw them out there, free and by my side! And they have jobs now, both of them. Someday you will understand. Daughters you can invest in but they always leave you for their own lives. But your sons..."
Chela exploded in laughter, the tears streaming down her face as she clutched her aching sides.
"You stupid, stupid bitch! You think I am an idiot for trusting my Yankee woman -- who is not an imperialist and who doesn't produce sperm, by the way -- and you are going to trust your future to Pedro and Manuel? Well, Señora Stevens, I have to thank you for my freedom today, because if the price for my manumission was this public humiliation that is a small cost to pay for not having any further responsibility for sustaining you in your perpetual unhappiness. I wish you the best, although I know you won't find it, since the best is waiting for me somewhere North of this island."
She hurried to reunite with Leti and Pedro in the downstairs vestibule. They looked up at her, trying to read the meaning behind the tightness of her face and the fact that she was empty handed.
"Compañera, are you all right? And where are your things?" murmured Pedro.
"There is nothing wrong with me that some rum and some distance from this apartment and crazy mob won't help. And there is nothing up there -- absolutely nothing -- that I need." She let a small smile break out as she briefly reached out to touch each of their hands. "And I don't feel so bad. I am walking out of here with two of the greatest treasures in Havana."
In the end she had to set the pages of the forbidden book aside and seek solace in the familiar verses of Martí, turning to one of the volumes she had carted to the library with her.
I am a sincere man
From where the palm tree grows
And before dying I want to
Sow these verses from my soul...
I wish Barbara was here, she thought as she sniffled loudly. Although all this would probably have made her break out in a campy version of "Guantanamera." Of course, she probably wouldn't know that the author of the lyrics ran like a child into a hail of gunfire during our War of Independence. It's just the song all the tourists know and request at the hotel bars. I think I remember getting fucked by an ugly Danish accountant under a table while that sweet poet's words were crooned by a talent-less lounge performer. So it is not as if the sanctity of poetry fares any better in the market economy. Barbara...I hope that she can put the pieces of my soul together that this lie-ridden, hopeless system has broken apart.
July 1993 Guanabo, at the eastern edge of La Habana
The evening meal was taken in painful silence on the Monday that the letter announcing Rogelio's death arrived. Leti and Chela each held on to a squirming child as they listlessly picked at their cassava and beans, periodically offering a bite to the restless occupant of her lap. A third chair sat empty: it had been occupied by Pedro the night before on one of his infrequent visits to the city. Since taking a job as stable hand with Chela's old friend Cheo, he had only managed the difficult trip back from Pinar Del Río three times. Chela wished that he could have been with them this night, lending his quiet support to the despondent pair as they sat under the heavy weight of the news that Leti's husband had succumbed to pneumonia at the age of twenty-four.
The letter was written by a chaplain ministering to Spanish-speakers at the public hospital in Miami where Rogelio had died. The young priest expressed his great sadness at the loss of a man so obviously devoted to his family and who had such hopes for a better life. He assured the widow that Rogelio had not died alone and that the end had not come in a frightening manner. The clergyman had astutely alluded to the amount of dollars -- Rogelio's savings from his occasional work as a day laborer -- that he was including in the envelope in the text of the letter. It would have made the pilfering of the meager remittance noticeable.
The dollars sent posthumously by Rogelio went into a household pool that now had to be renegotiated in terms of its purpose. Chela and Leti had settled upon a split between living expenses and savings reserved for each of their journeys to the United States. Now it seemed that Leti's journey was aborted, since the destination of Rogelio's arms was no more. The women had engaged in every strategy they could think of to care for their joint household and for their futures. When they could do so, they rented out the beach cabin. Both plied the beach trade, even though this meant sometimes turning tricks for Cuban pesos rather than for the more valuable U.S. dollars. Leti had great success raising chickens although she was never able to persuade Chela to kill the birds or even carry them squawking in protest to their deaths at customers' houses. They briefly attempted to earn money by braiding the hair of the few women tourists who ventured as far as the eastern edge of Havana, but they were angrily set upon by a group of women who had staked out that particular economic niche. Rather than risk a beating they absorbed the loss of their investment in a small supply of colorful beads that were to have been used in the braiding. Chela, ever mindful of her Orishas even when these appeared to be less than attentive to her, used the beads to make necklaces that she lovingly placed before the makeshift altar that she kept in the corner of the bedroom that she and Leti shared.
As the meal was finishing, Leti reached for an envelope that rested against the water jug and carefully counted out a pill for herself, for Chela, and for each of the two children. Thanks to bureaucratic inefficiency, Rogelio was still registered as a member of the household, and his special emergency nutritional allotment was consumed by someone who had essentially suffered social death: Chela Stevens.
Chela took the vitamin from Leti's hand and stared at it for a long time, the edge of her mouth curling into a sad smile. I played with verses for so many years and for what? It was just a game. I will never see those scribbles in print. But you, my Changó, you were a poet of sorts. Every day your lines are recited at our tables: two milligrams of B6, two and a half of thiamine, one point six of riboflavin, twenty of niacin, six micrograms of B12, 250 of folate, and 2500 units of retinol. I know it by memory. We all do. You are the wizard that wrote the chant that keeps blindness at bay.
"You are thinking of her?" asked Leti softly.
Chela nodded, then popped the pill into her mouth and chased it down with a glass of water.
"I was thinking about what good if any comes out of what has happened." Leti paused to clean some bean sauce off the face of the tiny boy on her lap, who attempted in vain to ward off the wet towel with his fists. "There isn't much I can think of, except that now I won't be forced into the American definitions of family. We have that in common, you and I. Even if things had been different in other respects, she would never have been able to claim you as a spouse. And these two..." She gestured to the two boys. "We always treated them as brothers and in my heart they are. I took Marcos from my sister when he was two weeks old. I am the only mother he has ever known. I was suffering, thinking about how I was going to have to take him back to her in Santiago, although she has even less conditions for supporting him than I do here, because there would be no legal claim for taking him with us. This is the only consolation -- that in this way at least, the family is not broken apart more. Still, still, God help me I know what I would rather have..." Her voice choked and she could not go on.
I know, answered Chela silently as she rocked Marcos on her lap. It is what I would rather have. I, who have no blood family now by my side, would also have the choice of my heart and not the accidents of biology. Despite everything, I would still choose Cuba, the land of my birth, which is not just the act of dropping out of a womb -- because the woman who used to call herself my mother never parented me, oh but this sweet land with all its contradictions certainly did. I would choose to love Barbara here -- in Spanish -- for the rest of our days, surrounded by the kind of friends who prove themselves over time. I would choose a seawall with a five hundred year history. Oh, Leti, but we didn't get to choose, did we?
Later that night
"Cuando estás en mis brazos, quiero amarrarte a mi, y no entiendo como puedes estar, estar sin mi..."
I will not be sorry the day the Miami deejays tire of that damn Jon Secada song. Chela reached over Leti's shoulder to turn off the radio, then set her head back on the pillow. And it doesn't help that Leti has taken it up as a damn anthem in the past month for what we are both going through, although now it is just me with the possibility of taking it off the jukebox of my mind forever... 'just another day without you'... She realized that she was not the only one awake: Leti's huddled frame was pulsing sporadically as choked sobs broke the silence of the Guanabo night. Chela could feel the weeping through her whole body as she lay wrapped around her widowed friend like a liana vine. The right words to comfort would not come -- perhaps because they did not exist -- so Chela simply hugged the other woman more tightly to her. Leti responded by turning into her and burying her now-howling face -- a distorted mess of tears and snot and drool, into Chela's shoulder. What is going to happen to us? thought Chela despondently. I always thought she was a chosen of Oshún, yet love has been ripped out of her, leaving her like a half-torn animal. Is this how the Orishas are treating their favored these days? And I, who am the daughter of the Ocean, expect to be cared for by Her when the time comes...
She was not sure exactly how and when the anguished cries and desperate clutching by the other woman transformed into something else, but she became vaguely aware that Leti was kissing her neck, the intimate placements of her lips punctuated by sniffles and short exhalations of pain. At the touch of Leti's hand upon her breast she drew back, momentarily putting a stop to the subtle grinding movement that the mourning woman had started against her. Black eyes with pupils too wide in the knowledge of "never again" and too filmed with the tears of "still alive" stared into Chela's own.
"I'm sorry, negra," whispered the daughter of Oshún. She wiped off a trickle of snot on the edge of the pillow cover. "It's been so long... and it's going to be so much longer. You felt like something good and safe against me..." Her face fissured into a thousand canals of grief as the tears began in earnest again, shaking the mattress and reducing her capacity to speak to short clips that penetrated the barrier of her lips like controlled gunfire. "I'm just a whore slut, anyway...Rogelio...I should have been the one to die..."
Well, this is fucked, thought Chela as she studied Leti's frightened, shame-filled face. But if we were cellmates in prison, or condemned to die tomorrow, I would not begrudge her this... And that's what we are tonight, aren't we? Two miserable dying prisoners with our lovers just memories that make us ache for a human touch. Where is the morality of making her beg, or of letting her sit in this self-loathing? I can't find it, and I doubt that Barbara could either.
"Shut up, Leti." The words -- if firm -- were delivered with a tenderness that conveyed the deep affection she felt for her closest friend, before she straddled Leti's body and lowered herself to kiss her tear-streaked face.
When Leti came -- coughing out a series of soft curses that terminated in a word that sounded like something roughly midway between the name of her late husband and that of the friend who was bedding her - Chela was faced with some uncertainty over whether she had in fact committed an act of kindness. The woman's release seemed so devoid of any obvious pleasure or happiness -- it seemed akin to producing a stillbirth at the end of labor -- that Chela thought she might have left her more depressed than before the brief - if studiously tender -- session of lovemaking between the two friends.
She gently batted away Leti's hand as it tentatively grazed her groin.
"But, negra, what about you?"
"Look, negra," reassured Chela, hugging the other woman to her. "It's not because I'm better than you or because I'm not as desperate. I've always been more private that way, you know that. You're the one who always jokes about what a prude I am."
"Except with Barbara," murmured Leti, from where she was nestled against Chela's neck. "I used to be able to hear you from here."
"Yeah. Except with Barbara." She lay there, using her mind to project the happiest scenes of her time together with the American woman onto the ceiling, watching the love story over and over again as her friend slept.
She was woken rather late in the morning by a tiny fist coming down repeatedly on the bridge of her nose. Flustered, she pulled the sheet up about herself and groggily peered at Marcos's smiling brown face.
"Mami says to GET UP NOW!" he shouted emphatically before scampering out of the bedroom, giggling. She could hear him chanting " I hit Titi Chela! I hit Titi Chela!" in the kitchen, along with Leti's quiet reply of "My son, it's not nice to hit Titi Chela, especially when she is asleep."
When she entered the kitchen Leti was seated with her back to her and she hesitated, feeling awkward and uncertain given what had occurred between them the previous night.
"Negra," Leti called the word over her shoulder. Chela approached then and hugged her friend from behind.
"Negra," she replied, following the endearment up with a light kiss to the tight curls over Leti's temple.
"Chela, I am taking the boys and going to Santiago for a few days to visit my sister. Will you be all right here minding the place?" Chela finally noticed the carefully packed bundles. She stiffened and let her gaze drop to the floor. Leti pulled her chair back and stood to face Chela. She reached out and cupped her chin and gently drew Chela close to her for a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Negra, it's not about last night..."
"We do need to talk about last night," answered Chela softly.
"Well, I can tell you this: I am sorry and I am not sorry. I am sorry because you are closer to me than my own sister, you know? And I don't want things uncomfortable between us. I know you are in a different place with all this, Chela. But, goddamn, Chela, I don't want to just shrivel up and die. You were sweet to do what you did -- I will always be grateful that you didn't let me just drown. I've been thinking about what I want for you..." She rested her head on Chela's shoulder as she embraced her, looking out the window at the palms as the skinny trees held up the gathering canopy of clouds over the beach. "I am going to stay in Cuba, negra. I am going to raise my sons here and try to pull my family together. Maybe I can talk my sister into leaving that miserable little collective farm and joining me here in Havana. Because you will need to be leaving soon, Chela, before the moment passes, before you get used to being without her. The money I saved for my trip is yours, because if our situations were reversed, I know you would do this for me..."
Chela was trying not to cry because she didn't want to confuse or frighten Marcos, who was desperately trying to get her attention by throwing pellets of bread at her face. Still, her voice was gruff with swallowed tears as she acknowledged her friend's gift.
"I am really going to miss you when I leave, Leti. And about last night...I am not sorry either, because if our situations were reversed, I know you would have done this for me."
August 1993 Central Havana
"Thank goodness it is you! I didn't know where to find you! The messenger I sent to your house said you had left!"
Jonas looks like hell, thought Chela as she took in the sight of the disheveled man who had opened the door of the Humboldt apartment. That bathrobe is yellow and his slippers are plaid. It is three in the afternoon. This is going to be bad.
"Yes, I've been living with a friend," answered Chela. "I just heard that you were back. I'm not in this part of the city that often anymore. Can I come in?"
"Please, Chela!" He waved her inside. She could see in the dim light that the housekeeping of the flat had been neglected: dishes were piled up in the sink -- the plates and saucers rising in crazy towers that suggested the physics of Escher drawings - and dirty clothes spilled out of the bathroom. The strong scent of cigarette smoke hung in the air, and Chela noticed the butts littered on the floor near the head of the bed. I have never understood how he can have so many allergies -- literally wilting before my eyes like a cut lily when he goes outdoors -- and still put that stuff in his lungs. "Can I make you some coffee, Chela? I have some good bread, too. I have a boy who has been doing the shopping for me." He reached out for her and steered her by the elbow to a rickety chair, before throwing himself down on the bed to face her. "I am so glad to see you, Chela. You are free to work, aren't you? Chela, you won't believe what has happened! The Cardenio Foundation has scheduled me as their featured lecturer for their 1994 conference. It is the first time they have asked someone with a Latin American specialty -- they usually limit themselves to peninsular literature. I have to submit drafts for translations for the program by the end of September."
He paused for breath as Chela connected the thread between his manic rambling, his appearance and the state of the apartment.
"You're blocked," she stated simply.
"Yes," he acknowledged mournfully as he lit a cigarette. "You have to help me. Being with you changed everything before. Working with you was magic."
"We may be able to work something out, Jonas, but my life has really changed since you were here last."
"Look, how different can it be? You are still beautiful and brilliant. You can still make both my neurons and my testicles fire by walking into a room. This is the deal with the Cardenio Foundation." He breathlessly dashed forward with his exposition, his face taking on light as he presented what he hoped was an irresistible intellectual challenge to the young woman. "It's named after a lost comedy by Shakespeare which was in turn based on a comedic chapter of Don Quijote -- so the lectures always center on the influence of translated Spanish literature on British literature. Until now, when they suddenly demonstrate an Americanist bent and invite me to speak on Martí.
"And yes, obviously there is a lot of material to work with -- after all, his poetry was composed in New York, and he wrote for several newspapers and did translations for Appleton - but that effective hook that makes work stand out and makes people feel completely engaged, aargh..." Jonas grunted in frustration and his fist clenched over his thigh. "I just can't put it all together in a way that conveys the lyricism and importance of Martí's work."
Chela tapped her hand on his knee to get his attention. He jerked slightly and the long ash from the tip of his cigarette plummeted to the floor. Someone's going to have to clean that up and I'm guessing that it won't be him, thought Chela. Let me get him back on track for both of our sakes.
"Jonas, I get to talk now," she said calmly, remembering how much power she held in her relationship with the accomplished but fragile scholar. "And I need for you to really pay attention because what I have to say actually is connected both to the conditions under which I could work for you and to this issue of how to approach Martí's work."
She could literally feel ideas reaching for each other in her mind as she spoke. I wonder if I'm being possessed by Barbara? No, then this would all be accompanied by the immediate need for ice cream or sugar cane as well.
"I spent much of the earlier part of the year working as an assistant and interpreter for this incredible American physician. Now I know that usually people think of interpreting as a process of emptying yourself out and just becoming a channel for the next words coming out of someone's mouth: you are supposed to suppress your own consciousness and anticipate what happens next but in a very unengaged fashion. Now, translation is not the same, but people have the same bias of just looking at the text that goes in and the text that comes out.
"There's not enough time spent looking at the process, Jonas. No one looks at how contexts meet and reflect off of each other in the background while words are transposed across languages. I certainly have never given it much thought as I've read Martí. But it has to be there as he makes his words accessible to the New Yorkers around him: his longing for his little son and for his homeland and his dreams for its independence - all the while knowing that the English-language readers who are picking up his verses are caught up in a grand and exciting moment of imperialist pride and see his island nation as an infant that needs to be shepherded towards civilized maturity.
"You know, I watched all this spring as well-intentioned and neutral utterances from this woman I was working with wounded Cuban pride -- that was predictable, I guess. But I also saw how the meaning of the context changed over time and in doing so changed how she spoke about this country - and spoke to it. Words changed in their potential references as the country shifted for her -- from a place to act upon to a place that could enter her and make her truly love it.
"She came here as a hot shot -- ready to take on this major epidemic of blindness that no one else had been able to get a handle on -- and she did do that. It was amazing to watch her work. But there was something beautiful about watching that sense of certainty get chipped away, and seeing how she learned to approach new situations open, like a child. I thought she was strong when I met her, but when I compare it to what she was when she had to leave -- well, I don't know how to describe it, this process of becoming more solid by becoming less guarded. I know that it moved me more than any poem I've ever read."
Jonas stared at her for a long moment. Then he slumped back, the wind knocked out of him by the force of his realization.
"My god, Chela. You have lost your good sense and gone and fallen in love. And with a woman! I really didn't see this coming at all!"
Chela laughed, appreciative of how well the man could read her when he tried to focus.
"You know, Jonas, we have always been very frank with each other and I know that you positively detest anything that smacks of emotional messiness or drama. I would very much like to work with you on this project -- and I promise I will give you my full attention as we develop it. I also would be more than willing to take care of you a bit for the next six weeks. This place could use some cleaning up. And I can cook.
"If you need someone on your arm at the bar, I can do that too. What I just can't do anymore is get you off and like it -- and face it, part of what has worked between us in bed has been that that aspect of our arrangement was satisfying to me as well. That's over, Jonas. I have no problem with you finding other women to take care of that need."
"Chela, this is very hard to hear," pouted Jonas. "But you are right. I would not have you service me unwillingly. Do you think, if we worked things out so that I was employing you that I could just touch myself in front of you sometimes?"
Time to place the limit. "Would you do that with your graduate students or colleagues at the university in Trômsk?" asked Chela quietly.
"No, of course not. I mean I have wanted to but I would never actually do it."
"Good," replied Chela, rewarding him with a smile. "That rule will work for me, too. You are allowed to want anything, but I am just not available... You know it is very hard for me to insist on this because I have some very great favors to ask of you: favors that I know go against every one of your instincts. But I ask you to consider them, nonetheless, out of respect for the honest and productive working relationship we have shared in the past and because of my commitment to insure that you give the best Cardenio Foundation lectures ever."
Chela waited anxiously for permission to proceed with her requests. She could see that he was -- of course -- tempted by her overt intellectual seduction: she had known as the words rolled off her tongue that the tentative insights she was providing him on Martí and translation were the academic equivalent of letting him get to third base. She also knew that although Jonas was capable of honestly discussing his limitations with her, he did not like being defined by them. She was gambling that - in hearing the suggestion that aiding her was too daunting a task for a man of his sensibilities - he might be lured into defying her characterization of him as someone who was afraid of the messiness of life and the baggage of relationships.
Jonas listened incredulously for the next half hour as Chela laid out her plans for reuniting with her lover. Chela gave him credit for not shooting off the surface of the bed, he was wound so tightly by the end of her explanation.
"That sounds so frightening," whispered Jonas. "You are sure you must take that risk?"
Chela sighed and nodded her head. "I've given it a lot of thought and I've done a lot of research on the process. There is no way for us to share a life together in Cuba and because of her troubles with her own government, it is unlikely that I can enter her country any other way. This way, I am just a member of a well-established category whose interests are safeguarded by the powerful Cuban-American community of Miami. I just hope I can make it to shore -- they return you to Cuba if they find you on the high seas but once you step onto U.S. soil you are well taken care of."
"Well, Chela, well... ," Jonas stammered grimly, his fingers nervously picking at the mattress cover. "It is true that my international reputation places me in a position to do things like use the diplomatic mails, and I will gladly make it available to you. As to the other request... My god, Chela, I hope you don't fail. I do not want that onerous duty placed upon me. But if it comes to that, rest assured that it will be done."
"Jonas," she whispered, as she took one of the man's gnarled hands in her own. "I know sentimentality nauseates you, so I will make every effort not to cry and to be brief about what I have to say to you in response. When last we met I was twenty. I was too young to have given up on love, Jonas. You are a decent and generous gentleman and there are other patient women -- both in Havana and in Norway -- who will recognize that and give you the extra attention you need. You are too young to give up on sex. And no matter how this turns out I will -- first of all -- be forever grateful, and second, never tell anyone that you did something in the interest of making the world safe for true love, which I know would embarrass you worse than telling people you believed in god or 'the truth.' Your reputation as a champion of cynicism is secure with me."
Beginning of September Back Bay, Boston
"Yo soy un hombre sincero ...de donde crece la palma...y antes de morir yo quiero...echar mis versos del alma..."
Fuck. Fuck. I am going to be late. Well, just a little late and screw her that she didn't want to bring her car to Mission Hill because it might get stolen. Nobody on the Hill ever touched my T-bird which is a lot classier than Miss Yuppie Editor's SUV. All right, if I just take it to the sidewalk I can cut another fifteen seconds -- I can see her disapproving-of-my-tardiness prune face from here.
Barbara found herself without time to adequately respond to the threat: standing defiantly in the path of her front tires was a diminutive old woman -- bundled up in too many coats for the balmy fall air -- and her plump dachshund, which was determinedly lapping up some spilled ice cream off the sidewalk. Unable to brake, she was forced towards a table where local Girl Scouts were busy selling cookies to the upscale lunchtime crowd. Bike and rider came apart, and as the vehicle angrily clattered with its frame wrapping around the table legs, Barbara herself was projected over the top of the table, sliding across like a well-aimed curling stone until she lay there, eye-to-eye with the shocked young merchants. Behind her she could hear the old woman finally reacting to the near miss with a set of surprisingly contemporary obscenities.
"That was awesome!" said a little red-haired pixie to her stout dark-skinned Scout friend.
"Yeah, but now all those boxes are dented," responded the other Girl Scout pragmatically.
"Get over it!" Barbara irritably shouted over her shoulder to the still-cursing old woman. " I was nowhere near your dog! And if I hadn't gone to considerable trouble, ma'am, we'd probably still be trying to extract Fifi from my 'ho bitch pussy' as you so colorfully term it." She turned back to the shocked salesgirls and spoke to them as she picked herself up off the table and smoothed down her clothes. "Excuse my language and the rather forceful way I got to the front of the line, but I really do want your entire stock of S'Mores. If I pay you extra, do you think you can deliver? Two blocks from here -- on Clarendon Street, on the first floor of the YWCA - is a social club for people with AIDS. There's five bucks in it for each of you if you can take the cookies over after you finish up here."
"Ma'am, we'll take the cookies over, but we can't accept a tip for it," stated the African-American Scout as she took payment for the thirty boxes of S'Mores.
"Good girl," smiled Barbara. Chela would approve, little comrade! Shit, Deirdre just watched all of this. And I so wanted to impersonate an adult for this meeting. She locked the damaged bike to the railing of the sidewalk café where Deirdre Kurtz -- a senior editor with Bay Crossing Press - impatiently waited, her fingers clenched around the third martini of her lunch.
"Guess you saw that," Barbara opened amiably as she set her helmet down an empty seat, before sitting down across from the woman, whose straw hat covered a poorly-dyed crown of maroon hair.
"Dr. Murphy, I am surprised by very little anymore where you are concerned." She tugged a thick manila folder onto the table, pushing the martini glasses together so that they softly clinked, then opened it to reveal a fat manuscript with dozens of yellow Post-Its emerging from its body like bright porcupine quills. "This does surprise me, though," continued Deirdre. "I spend half my work life cajoling authors into delivering the goods. I wish there was just a good aversion therapy program out there on the market where I could detect when they are online shopping or playing solitaire and get their computers to give them a non-lethal dose of electricity that would get them back on track. You, however, have managed to compile this text and add your voice to it in very little time. I mean, I saw the last draft a month ago -- there must be eighty new pages between that and the finished text. You work full time doing something else. How do you do it?" She leaned forward, her irritation at Barbara's lack of punctuality forgotten.
Barbara barked out a laugh. "It's simple. That's my life there. I mean, I go to seminar. I do my clinic shifts. I go home and I work on our book." Her voice became noticeably softer. "My and Chela's book. What else do I have to occupy myself with? I mean, I do work out and play the occasional game of pinball, but that's about it."
"Yess..." Deirdre drew the word out pointedly. "And speaking of pinball, I have to say that my administrative assistant was rather disappointed the evening ended so early and that she didn't get another call."
Barbara shook her head lightly in disbelief and tried not to let her annoyance show.
"I thought you were up to something in setting up that dinner date, Deirdre, and I had a good time at the restaurant. And she really did seem to enjoy the pinball. But for crying out loud, don't do that again. I mean, you're reading this..." She indicated the text. "You can imagine that I'm not interested in dating right now. Not while I still have some hope that the woman who wrote most of that material is still a part of my future. I don't want anyone else."
"Well, that is a shame, Barbara," confessed the editor wryly. "Because given some of the descriptive passages you've inserted and the author photo I could have commissioned, you could be very popular with the ladies, I'm sure."
"I think I hear your martini talking," countered Barbara good-naturedly. "And that worries me because we have serious business to discuss. You think you can track here?"
"Barbara, I'm at this level of alcohol consumption precisely so I can take up a series of concerns that the press has with your book. Starting with a little piece of fan mail we had delivered to our Miami office." She handed Barbara a faxed copy of a typed missive.
To the Decision Makers at Bay Crossing Press:
We write to you in the hopes that disaster can be avoided and understanding promoted. We have recently learned that your press has been deceived into publishing an apology for the criminal and dictatorial regime of Fidel Castro. It is a collection of lies that will cause immeasurable harm to the cause of freedom in Cuba, and it is an insult to the thousands of Cubans who have lost their lives escaping from the hell that Communism has brought to our homeland. Barbara Murphy is nothing but a shameless puppet of that monster who is starving our people to death. We ask that you cancel your plans to proceed with this book. Please understand that if you do not, we cannot permit this attack on our sovereignty to go uncontested: the books themselves, the stores that choose to sell them, the printers who print them, and the company who would choose to make money from the blood and tears of our countrymen will all be treated as our enemies in our ongoing war for freedom.
The Sons of Martí
"I'm crushed -- they left me off the list of party invitations," replied Barbara, returning the paper to the editor. "How did they know?"
"An eager intern posted about your book on the 'projects in progress' page of our web site. I don't have to tell you that this has the suits worried. The problem -- as it's described by some members of our board - is that you really have more than one volume here. There is the story told by the poetry and the journal entries, and then all the material that you have added. Most of the objections I am hearing in the corridors after we discuss projects in progress has to do with the material that you have added. Some of it is all right and adds context -- the material on the circumstances of your meeting and working together on the epidemic, for example - but then you go and talk about the causes of the epidemic, blaming it largely on the U.S. trade embargo. Many people on the editorial staff feel that this kind of material is very polemical and incendiary -- and it really isn't necessary for the book to sell."
"Well, I disagree. I think that in the long run a book will do better the more truth it contains, even if those truths aren't palatable or shared by all. You know, I'm reading a book right now by this guy -- Reinaldo Arenas -- whose politics are definitely not my own. He has this one line where he says that the difference between the communist and the capitalist systems is that both will kick you in the ass, but that the communist system will expect you to applaud and in the capitalist one you can scream. Well, I don't know. I see poor people in the clinic every day who get nothing out of their freedom to scream but would have gotten a lot out of a system that -- even with all of its resource limitations -- still managed to have incredible health and education indicators for its general population, especially compared with the rest of Latin America.
"So yes, I'm going to include my truths just as much as he included his. Although I've got to hand it to the guy -- you have to respect the integrity of someone who comes right out and tells you he used to date chickens and who is critical of some of the sacred cows of Latin American literature. So the politics stay, Deirdre."
"Barbara, I am going to fight for this book, but I am already exhausted and we are barely into the process. I have the suits who are scared of groups like the one that wrote this note. Of course, there is the other side of the problem: you implicate the National Security Agency in the vicious harassment of U.S. citizens and in engaging in biological warfare against Cuba. The Feds attempted to impound Philip Agee's CIA Diary for less." Deirdre had started to absent-mindedly draw on her napkin as she numbered off the list of the potentially-offended. "Then I've got the guys who are already wondering how we are going to ship to Canada given how explicit some of the scenes are. I'm mostly concerned for you in that regard -- I mean, don't you have an academic reputation to uphold and don't you have family that's going to read this?"
"You let me worry about that stuff, Deirdre, all right? I mean, if I put it in there I have no problem with other people reading it. If I got the verb tenses wrong, then you fix it -- if you can. But I see that it's stuck in your mind on some level," she stated quietly, pointing at the napkin. "Nice breasts." She chuckled as a flustered and blushing Deirdre crumpled up her napkin and stuffed it under a menu. "There is a point to it, you know. Chela, she's the kind of person that could learn about the world by reading about it or by hearing a good explanation. I've never been that way. I've always had to be shown -- and it's always had to be by someone who's been very close. And it's not easy for me to let anyone get that close. I have a really hard head so I'm lucky that Chela Stevens found a softer way in."
"That brings me to the other unit that is distressed about this project." Deirdre bravely pushed past the blush provoked by Barbara's last statement. More information than I wanted, really. And I hated being wrong on that copy edit -- I really did think the past tense was "rammed."
"Chela Stevens poses a number of challenges for our legal department. We already anticipate a lawsuit from the family of Martin Stevens -- much of the early text dwells on her relationship with her father. Then there is the fact that as co-author she is out of the country, whereabouts unknown, unable to enter into contracts except through her delegation of you. This is just a mess. Ironically, we would be completely screwed if she wasn't an 'enemy national': the courts aren't going to be too picky about her rights. But now you have asked me to draw up papers authorizing Dr. Eladio Torres to act in your stead in all matters related to this book if you should become unavailable. Do you want to tell me what that's about?"
"Not particularly," laughed Barbara. "Like I said before: I think Arenas was wrong. Screaming is not enough. Writing is not enough, although I think that it is important for people to learn about lives like Chela's and I want her poetry out there in the world. It's important to get out there and act. I'm glad that I get to act every day. I have the best job in the world. I get to -- at least some of the time -- make a difference. So maybe, someday, I want to take that capacity and employ it somewhere where it makes the difference. I just hope that when I go to do that, I have Chela by my side."
She stayed for a while after Deirdre left, reviewing the pages upon which the editor had pasted requests for more information. After examining a few of the marked passages she lost track of her task, letting herself be drawn in to the text, randomly selecting a passage and trusting that somehow it was Chela's agency guiding the process.
November 12, 1991
I will do what must be done for my family and for this country.
I remember my parents telling me stories of the great literacy campaign of 1961. Everyone took to the countryside, ready to prove themselves in "study, work, and the rifle." An army of volunteer teachers cut the knees off the giant of illiteracy until he was but a mewling fraction of his old self. Then there was the great battle that we lost -- but no one can say we did not try. The struggle to harvest ten million tons of sugar in 1970 -- well, the photos of the period speak for themselves. There they are, recorded for posterity: small children, frail elders and rail-thin adults all working around the clock, acting as beasts of burden when these were insufficient in number. And I recall when my own father went to war against the dengue fever. We were so proud. He came home with his equipment to show us: one of 15,000 volunteers who would carry the insecticide packs on their backs and blast the mosquitoes who carried the fever to hell. He looked like an astronaut with the bulging canister strapped to his body and he made us all laugh as he spun around the room pointing his hose at imaginary insects.
There is no other way. This morning I realized that the money I was making tutoring and washing clothes is just not going to be enough to get us through. Not with the way the prices are going up in the black market - and there is just not enough food coming in through the coupon system.
It is not just me. It is like those Medieval times when the bubonic plague arrived and people thought the end of the world was near. They envisioned fish flying up into the air and time running backward and death dancing with maidens in the streets. Economic Armageddon has come upon us and Cuba has unleashed a battalion of whores to combat on its behalf.
I have just spent my first night on the front lines. Our country needs the currency as badly as our families need the food. Nobody wants to buy our sugar anymore.
I had to give the owner of the room two of the dollars to take the man there. Because it was my first time I didn't want to go down to Vedado where the competition would be intense. Leti knew someone who worked in this bar where lots of older men would come looking for girls and thought she could get me a customer. He was red-faced and fat -- an American, probably in his late fifties because he said he had fought in Vietnam and had the tattoos to prove it. It took forever. I tried distracting myself by reciting Federico García Lorca in my head. I had barely gotten through the opening of Romance Sonámbulo ("Green how I want you green, green the wind and green the branches, The ship is over the sea and the stallion is on the hill. With the shadows about her waist she is dreaming on her veranda, green her flesh, her hair is green") when he farted and it ruined everything. It was bad enough that he had all that foreskin. So I focused, rather unwillingly, on an angry red boil that contrasted against the paleness of his flabby thigh. But then I thanked Oshún because my mind wandered to another poem of Lorca's - one he wrote with Cuba in mind - about a man taking a married woman and making love to her by the river and he has such an image of thighs in that poem. He wrote "Her thighs were escaping from me like surprised fishes, half full of radiance, half full of cold." And I started wondering if I would ever look on thighs that would make me feel that way - that would make me want to take someone and ride them wildly without bridle or stirrups. Then the old man finally came and not knowing what else to do, I swallowed.
Leti was waiting outside on the steps. She knew I'd never taken it in the mouth before and might not feel at my best. I was spitting into the gutter and she was clucking her tongue at me and scolding.
"Chela, Chela, Chela.You always have to use a condom. Even when you are just using your mouth and even when they are ugly. Especially if they are ugly because that means that they probably only use whores in their home countries and they don't always have clinics to treat poor women for diseases in those places. And the next time you do this you are not going to do this as a street whore. You are really beautiful, Chela. And smart. You can be a jinetera and do this in style and get anyone to pay for you. You're a mulatta. It's not like it is for me -- a real negra - with this black skin and these thick lips and big nose. Nobody wants this in the nice discos."
I told her I thought I was going to throw up.
"Don't do that," she said, and she pulled out a quarter bottle of rum from that giant bag she always carries with her. I keep expecting her to pull an airplane out of it some day to fly us to Varadero Beach on a holiday.
"Here, Chela," she insisted. "I don't let Rogelio have it because it makes him stupid. But you need to get that taste out of your mouth."
So it was a night of many firsts for me. It was the first night I got drunk and the warmth rising out of my belly after I drank the liquid changed everything. The streetlights were cheerfully glowing and it seemed that the jukebox music drifting out of the open door of the bar had secret messages encoded in the lyrics that were directed just to me. I started feeling much braver and in no time at all I was loudly bragging to Leti.
"Bring them on! Bring on all the ugly fat sailors and businessmen of the North! I can get the dollars out of them. It is not a big deal. It is nothing to me."
But Leti spoiled everything because she put her arms around me and started stroking my face.
"Chela, if it's not such a big deal for you, then why are you crying?"
And because she noticed it I had to notice it, and I could only answer her with the words that the man had offered me when I asked him about the scars on his lower belly and if it had hurt when he got them.
"Well, you only cry over your first wound."
I wish I had met you earlier, Chela, thought Barbara as she rebound the stack of papers with a thick rubber band. I wish I could give you those years back. Only you would have Lorca going through your head in those circumstances. It is the kind of thing I love you for. And you are right: poverty is a plague. You have acquitted yourself with great courage in the middle of this scourge, my darling. When I entered medical school so many of my classmates were there because someone in their family -- someone they loved very much -- had been lost, and they wanted to take that life back from death, even if in the person of a stranger. I never really understood that before, even though my own father had been ill for some time. Oh, but now I do, Chelita. I just want to find the cure for the economic cancers that led you to the bar that night and to the political fevers that keep us apart on this afternoon that I would call "beautiful" if you were sitting across from me, our hands touching to make a bridge for our hearts to travel freely to each other.
Mid-September 1993 Los Cocos Sanatorium
The ceremony to prepare Chela for the journey was held in the sanatorium cafeteria two nights before her scheduled departure. Because of the gravity of the risk Chela faced, Juan Sánchez himself presided over the sacrifices and at the "drumming for the saints" and his full house of Orisha worshippers was in attendance. Although Pedro did not believe in the Orishas, he came to the event to wish Chela well and bid her goodbye. As a daughter of Oshún, the patroness of love and romance, Leti had more than a general interest in the celebration. Because Chela's goal was to be reunited with her lover a female goat would be fed to this Orisha.
Nothing would be wasted. The inmates of Los Cocos would feast on the meat stews for the rest of the week. This was only appropriate: the quarantined men and women of the facility had made an extraordinary sacrifice to purchase the three animals required to pay for the protection and health of the sister of their fellow-patient and young priest-in-training, Tomás Stevens. It had taken them more than two months to get the money together.
Chela was seated on a stool in the center of it all, her head swimming from the cigar smoke and the smell of the coconut butter wicks, scents known to entice the Orishas into appearing and taking human form. The members of the community were warmly greeting the Orishas in song, complementing the voices of the three hour-glass shaped batá drums that held the ground-note in the conversation with the spirits. She was relieved to see that Oshún's goat, Changó's sheep and Yemaya's lamb -- each dressed in the colors of the appropriate deities - were being given liberal amounts of rum. This aspect of the traditional worship of the Orishas was one that had always been difficult for Chela to accept. It was Tomás -- in his spiritual position as her elder kinsman - who had insisted on this formal blessing as his last gift to Chela: it was estimated that only one person in four survived the sea journey from Havana to Miami and the young man wanted to mobilize all the forces of heaven and earth to insure that his sister was among that fortunate number. She watched hazily as iyalochas, formal initiates into the worship of the Orishas and dressed all in white, held the animals' lips back from their teeth and poured in the liquor. If all went smoothly, the animals would experience no fear or pain.
Chela thought about what she was asking for while the three sacrifices drunkenly danced with their human partners as they awaited their appointment with the knife. She understood that this was one of those times when many boundaries would be simultaneously crossed: her essence and that of the sacrifices would mix. Together they would feed the gods. Strengthened, the gods would return the favor and champion her and her loved ones.
She was fully present as the goat came forward and was offered Oshún's sunflowers, and then she was not. Because there was no evidence to suggest she had fainted, she could only conclude that one of the Orishas has used her body during the missing time to look through human eyes upon the activities of the faithful. So it was that Chela came out of the possession and found herself staring into the hazy eyes of the lamb as it sloppily nibbled at a wedge of watermelon, its jaws barely working at the fruit as the juice spilled down its wool and onto the bright blue shawl that covered its body. Juan Sánchez smiled, pleased that Yemaya had approved of the lamb -- since it was accepting her favorite fruit -- then reached over to push Chela forward so that her body rubbed against the animal. It tried to pull away, and it was then that Chela realized that she was already covered in blood, which dripped off her limbs and the stool into a thick puddle on the floor.
Changó, I hope you appreciate all that is given for your happiness. And not just this. The risks taken by all of them. Pedro. Leti. Tomás. Juan. Even Jonas. If we succeed it is not our victory alone.
"This is the important one, Chelita," murmured Juan. "Make sure all the places that mark you as a woman are touched before she goes for you in your place before the Mother."
When Chela was finished, Juan -- with a strength that taxed his frail body -- forced the lamb down to a bed of poplar and banana leaves, then neatly slit its throat. The spouting fountain of blood was carefully aimed at the supplicating woman on the stool: Chela was fully bathed in it. Then the carcasses were removed by one group of iyalochas, who rushed to prepare a feast for the evening, while another brought forward a basin of scented water littered with the herbs sacred to the Orishas.
Chela was washed again, this time scrubbed so carefully that her skin was reddened from the friction and not from blood. Finally, Juan replaced the necklace of Changó that Tomás had given her as a birthday gift and added the blue and white necklace of Yemaya, and the coral and yellow necklace of Oshún. The formal portion of the evening was over. People broke into small groups to chat, drink and eat. The mood was guardedly optimistic: Juan had a wonderful reputation in preparing travelers for their journeys to the states. Many had found a way too send word back not just about surviving the sea passage, but about surviving street life in the urban U.S., starting thriving businesses and finding true love.
After receiving the greetings and blessings of everyone who had come for the ceremony, Chela was exhausted and wanted only to retire to the nucleus of those persons closest to her. In the end all four of them -- Chela, her brother, Pedro and Leti -- sat together quietly talking over bottles of weak beer. Their conversations deliberately shied away from the painful fact of their impending partings, but were punctuated by silences that were pregnant with emotions. The next morning Pedro would return to his job in Pinar Del Río. Leti's new boyfriend Pablo was happy to mind the children for her for a few days, so she would stay with Chela on the floor of Jonas's apartment until the end, ready to help with any last minute preparations. The two women would come back to Los Cocos one more time so Chela could say goodbye to her brother with more privacy.
I hope that Barbara was able to get those journals to safety, thought Chela as she draped an arm around Leti's shoulders and tried to laugh at a joke that Pedro had just cracked. Because once these living holders of my memories are gone... It is not as if I have ever been the most trusting soul but Tomás is the only one who knows what it was like to grow up in that politically-fraught bicultural imploding family, and Leti understands what it was like to come to womanhood in a declining Havana -- I will miss her the most of all. And this last one who stepped forward like a knight to my defense: he was more of a witness than I realized at the time to the birth of that love which has led me this turning point. I will never have my life laid out before me like this again.
Old Juan Sánchez stopped to peer at the quartet as he shuffled towards the exit. He knew his time was almost over and the offering he had just completed for the daughter of Yemaya was the last ceremony over which he would officiate. Then he looked more carefully at them and -- as happened to him more often now that he lived closer to the other side -- he saw the future.
Well. Well. He caught the profile of the young man. Sometimes wisdom stays in flesh for many decades and sometimes it likes to surprise us in one glorious day-long bloom. He held in his sight the face of the young woman. To be so favored and to be cut so short of time. It makes us appreciate the presence of an open heart on the earth so much more. Moddu cué, Elegba -- thank you for letting me see, but also moddu cué, thank you, for not making me see much longer.
Two nights later Cojimar
It was a little after three in the morning when the reverse invasion of the beach took place. A dozen Cubans -- the youngest a drugged nine-month old carried in his father's arms and the eldest a hairdresser in her early seventies -- crossed the sand off the edge of the sleepy little fishing village of Cojimar, some sixteen kilometers east of the heart of Old Havana. Waiting out in the dark waters past the point where the waves broke was an ambitious contraption -- a massive raft made of eighteen covered inner tubes with two six-foot sails -- and the six artisanal fishermen who had fashioned it by hand out of common-place materials, as they fashioned all of the equipment of their trade. The plan represented a compromise of risks: a large embarkation was more likely to be spotted by both the Cuban and the U.S. Coast Guards -- which would foil the goal of arriving on the mainland of the United States - but it was also more stable in rough seas and was manned by paid, experienced rowers who -- because of their profession as fishermen -- had retained good muscle mass and could keep the vessel going even when the winds did not cooperate with the sails.
The surf was a bit rough and Chela stopped to lift up a little girl who had been bowled over by the rushing water, handing her to her father before turning to assist the elderly woman, who was also having trouble keeping her feet under her as they waded towards the raft. She kept her eyes focused on the silhouette of the man in front of her, who was laboring to keep moving forward with a child under each arm. Finally, he stopped and she waited as first the children and then the father were pulled up onto the raft.
The vessel was laid out as a four-by-four matrix with a little tail stub of two tubes appended to one side. Because they were the last to arrive, Chela and the hairdresser found themselves relegated to these last slots, away from the center of the little impromptu community. Chela arranged herself as comfortably as possible for what would be the most critical portion of the passage which would be passed in silence and darkness, and with sails furled. The Cuban Coast Guard did not patrol the coastline intensively but it did make a point of intercepting some of the illegal travelers leaving the island's shores and making an example of them through fines. For most Cubans living on the edge, just the loss of the rafting materials would represent a terrible blow to any hopes of a repeat trip.
Chela took off her soaked backpack. She had a spare change of clothes inside and another pair of shoes. They would dry off in the heat of the coming days. She was already wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit under the dark T-shirt and shorts she had worn into the water: while she wanted to be inconspicuous on this first night, if anything happened to the raft she wanted to be spotted by rescue planes. She also carried two tightly sealed plastic bags. One contained enough food and fresh water to last her for four days -- one day past the projected crossing period. In the other bag she carried her Cuban identity papers, enough U.S. currency for food and bus fare between Miami and Boston, and Barbara Murphy's driver's license.
I should have packed a book. But I would probably get motion sickness if I tried reading with this roll of the sea and to vomit is to dehydrate. To dehydrate is to die. It would be my luck to die from reading too much after getting this far.
She turned around to look at the receding shoreline. To the right of the modest glow of lights that was Cojimar was the bright snake of incandescence that was Havana proper. The lack of a moon made the old city shine all the brighter.
During the next hour or so that followed the light started to fade in the distance, until it was only the defiant lighthouse of the old castle of El Morro that marked the location of land. It was about that time that the rules of the cobbled-together ship could hold no longer and the peculiar generational shift occurred. Little children slept or kept silent in the night and it was the adults who cried inconsolably -- men and women alike -- as Cuba slipped away from them like a dream from which they had been awakened too quickly. Fifteen minds questioned their decisions, despaired of ever tasting a really fresh mango again, wondered if it was not too late to turn around, felt guilty and selfish, thought of one avenue they had not yet explored but which would probably not lead to a better outcome, remembered a loved one, imagined having to speak English all the time, and could not make the path of their life's events end at any other point than that intensely grief-stricken moment upon the sea.
"Santa Clara," croaked out the hairdresser.
"Habana," whispered out Chela in the last hollow of the raft.
The towns that had lost their sons and daughters were collectively acknowledged one last time before the paying travelers, exhausted, settled into an uneasy sleep while the six fishermen paddled in the pre-dawn cool.
Chela had already taken her small breakfast of rice and beans when the rower in charge of the raft addressed the group as a whole. Andrés was a sturdy short soul with an impressive black beard that reached half-way down his T-shirt and a booming voice that seemed too large for his small frame. Chela had met him through his godmother Magdalena, the librarian, who had vouched for the trustworthiness of the young woman and helped negotiate her fare. Despite the breeze blowing in her direction, Chela still found herself straining to hear Andrés words over the sounds of the water slapping against the tubes and the efforts of several of the fishermen as they hoisted the craft's sails.
"I need your attention, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girl, young misses and married folk. I am glad to finally address you in this way instead of with that hated term -- compañeros -- by which the government tried to erase our social differences so that it did not matter if one had achieved a married state or was an elder or had quality or was a doctor."
Chela took another look at the assortment of Cubans gathered on the fragile vessel. In addition to herself, the hairdresser and the six fishermen, there were three children on the raft, two of them siblings. The children were there with their fathers and Chela wondered what had become of the mothers. A young Chinese couple from Havana had placed themselves between the two family groups and an awkward dynamic had developed between the Chinese woman and the father of the brother and sister pair, who scowled at the woman and pulled his little daughter back every time she responded to the friendly advances of the Asian-Cuban stranger.
Incredible, thought Chela. They still think that the Chinese have the power of the evil eye and maliciously curse children. My poor countrymen: to have arrived almost as slaves many generations ago and to also have given their blood in the cane fields and never to be fully made a part of the nation.
There was a very light-skinned couple who looked to be in their fifties and who were dressed conspicuously well for the trip. Chela noted that they also had a large number of bundles and that the fishermen went out of their way to act deferentially to them. So already we are re-making the classes -- and it appears they bought the front seats.
The remaining passenger was a young skinny dark-skinned man whom she recognized as a fellow worker in the business but had never actually met. He sat with his arms crossed and sulked behind his mirror sunglasses, intentionally turning away from the man who was giving them all directions.
"I will only be addressing you this one time and I hope that you will keep conversations among yourselves to a minimum. This is because to speak is to use up moisture, which we have precious little of. Try not to move if you don't have to -- save your energy. And even though you have all brought food, try to eat as little as possible because you will use up water in your digestion. Try to cover yourselves from the sun. I know it is tempting to wet yourselves with sea water and you can do that now and then, but if you do it too much your skin will crack from the salt.
"You can start preparing yourselves mentally for the arrival. Make sure you have your essential papers in a plastic bag. If we are intercepted close to shore, then everyone is on their own. Split up and do whatever you must to get onto the beach. Remember, once you are on the beach you are a political refugee from an enemy state -- you will not be sent back. If you don't have relatives vouching for you, however, that plastic bag with your documents is indispensable, because you must prove that you are not a Dominican. Very well, then. It is getting hotter so we are going to go ahead and rest and let the sails do some of the work."
Chela joined a number of the passengers in thanking Andrés -- despite the moisture expended on the words -- then set about developing a strategy for dealing with the oppressive sunlight. She carefully balanced her backpack and food on the padding between her inner tube and that of the hairdresser, then stopped to indulge herself in a long drink of fresh water from her plastic travel cup. She stretched out and felt the simple pleasure of popping her joints. She decided to remove her dark outer layer -- the clothing was stiff with dried salt crystals -- and use it to cover up her legs and arms. Chela had already draped the dark shirt over her shoulders and was preparing to cover her legs when the fisherman who was closest to the back of the raft happened to look her way.
"I shit on the mother of hell!" yelled the man, his face screwing up into a knot of rage and fear. " I shit on the mother of hell!"
Every head on the raft -- except for the nine month-old, who was eating a cookie - turned towards him. The man had not spoken up to this time, and all any of the passengers knew about him was that he was from Cojimar, like most of the rowers. A concerned Andrés looked first at the shocked faces of his front-row passengers then addressed his irate crew member.
"Have you lost your mind, Juan? What is wrong with you?"
"I thought you were taking care of telling her and the Chinese woman about the rules, Andrés, but either you shitted it or she has. Look," he said grimly, pointing at Chela. "She has her menstruation."
Crap! A week early, thought Chela in horror as she saw the bright red stain across the bottom of the jumpsuit.
All the fishermen were cursing now. "Communion hosts!" "Handful of warm sperm!" "May a bad lightning bolt strike this fucking mess!"
"Why did you do this?" Andrés growled at Chela.
"Do what?" she answered, with confusion showing plainly on her face. " I know you told me I could not come if I had my period but I wasn't expecting to have it right now. And do we really have to all discuss it like this? This is a very private matter, as far as I am concerned, and not one that I thought gentlemen involved themselves with."
"Well, no, young lady!" answered Juan, not waiting for Andrés to reply. "We are not gentlemen. Right now we are sailors crossing the Straits of Florida and you have just become a lure for all the sharks in the vicinity."
"Sharks!" The word reverberated through the passenger complement. Chela started to worry: the hairdresser was shrinking away from her, pressing herself against the far end of her adjoining inner tube.
"Señorita Stevens, the reason that I was so careful to warn both yourself and Señora Wong -- as the two persons who might be affected by this policy -- is that I did not want to be faced with the sad duty that many other crews have faced -- of having to sacrifice women who have their monthly in order to keep the rest of the group safe."
"What?" asked an incredulous Chela. " You are joking, right?"
"No, I have heard this as well," chimed in the young man with the mirror sunglasses. "Women who get their periods go overboard. The Dominicans trying to get to Puerto Rico do it as well. Only those black idiots the Haitians try to cross with bleeding females and you see how few of them make it."
"This is so unpleasant," complained the light-skinned woman in the front of the boat. "Surely we don't have to do this."
"Shut up, Felicia," snapped her husband. "The fishermen are the experts out here. And if you want to see unpleasant I can show you unpleasant in Miami after we get there. Or better yet, let the sharks get excited and then you will see unpleasant. Even with a big raft like this it can get ugly. I saw a raft full of Haitians that was sinking once, back when I was in the Navy. Or rather, I heard it, because after a while I couldn't look anymore. So, shut up and let them do what must be done."
"Please don't do this," begged Chela. "Surely you must know that this is wrong. We haven't even seen any sharks."
Andrés cursed one more time, then bit his lip. He pondered what to do for a long time but could not come up with any answers.
"Well, we are headed to a land of free elections. So I will ask of those old enough to understand the question: who would vote to permit this woman to continue with us, despite the risk?"
The little girl who Chela had lifted out of the water on the mad rush towards the raft started to lift her hand and was slapped hard by her father for her efforts.
"How many vote to remove this woman from this embarkation?"
Thirteen hands went up.
"It could have been me, you know," whispered Mrs. Wong. "And they would have been glad to do it because they think we are bad luck anyway." Her husband lowered his eyes and then his hand, but the count was still overwhelmingly against Chela.
As three of the fishermen started to climb over the network of tubes towards Chela, she stood and braced herself. It was a turning point for her: all the years of swallowing calumnies and disappointments in the hopes of negotiating better outcomes for herself, of turning the other cheek in order to survive had left, buried under the surface, a defiant rage that been waiting for the appropriate moment to be kindled.
"How dare you, you bastard pieces of shit!" she screamed out in a rabid voice that surprised everyone in its ferocity. "You pretend that this is about fairness and it is just about cowardice! If you can't imagine yourselves in my situation and have mercy on me then you are just as bad as those Party hacks you like to think are so different! I want to live!"
Two of the men had reached her tube section but they seemed uncertain as to how to proceed.
"If you do this, you're going to die!" continued Chela, backing away as far as she could. "It's true! You are men of the sea, so you should recognize this..." She pulled out the blue and white necklace that marked her as a daughter of Yemaya. "Do you really want to try to ride the currents after throwing one of her chosen away to die?"
"Hell," muttered one of the fishermen from the back of the raft. "That is a problem."
"It is not for us to decide," pronounced Andrés calmly, his voice cutting through the confused rumblings of the crew and passengers. "We are not going to throw you overboard, but you are not staying on this raft. Patricio," he called out to the man standing closest to Chela. "Cut her section loose and, young lady," he skewered Chela with a glare. "If you give him any trouble we will -- to a man, necklace or not -- throw you into the sea."
"And this is supposed to be better?" she yelled back. "You are lying to yourselves which is the worst kind of lie! You are murderers!"
Patricio started cutting through the thick padding while his crewmate steadied the tube.
"Are you really going to let her food and water go to the bottom of the sea with her?" This question came from the disaffected young hustler.
By the time Chela looked down her pack was already gone, leaving her with just the large plastic cup, which was -- at best -- a third of the way full of fresh water. She turned in disbelief to the elderly woman crouched beside her.
"Give it back!"
"I don't have enough for myself and you know as well as I do that this it is for you!" protested the old woman. She appealed to the others. "Don't let her hurt me! She is insane!"
"Who is hurting whom here?" Chela turned back to the passengers, since it was clear that the crew had made up their minds. "If you are so frightened then, yes, separate my tube but don't just leave me floating out here. Tie it to the raft with a long line and in the very unlikely case we have trouble with sharks I can understand if you release the line. But don't start your new lives with a murder on your hands."
She looked down and stared numbly as Patricio prepared to finish severing the side of her tube.
"At least give me a fighting chance! Give me a sail and a paddle! There are others who have managed with just that!"
"We can't spare anything," replied Andrés firmly. "And although I do not blame you for being bitter about your situation, this is not personal. I really do hope that you are saved."
"Well, I cannot say the same for you!" called out Chela from the growing distance between the two bobbing platforms. "I think there are enough people in the world who would sell their own grandmothers to save themselves and all of you are of that kind. So I don't take it back. I hope you die! I curse you - and I hope that if you do manage to escape the sea's anger that you dream about me every night. I will be in your nightmares!"
With all six fishermen paddling hard and both sails full, the larger raft quickly became a speck on the horizon for Chela. She thought about what it meant to have that spite-filled exchange potentially be her last interaction with other human beings. She decided that she was not sorry for expressing her anger, even if it had cost her some moisture.
As the sun set, she found that she was mostly angry with herself.
I should have fought for my things. At least I would have more water. I should have been more careful about the timing and allowed for two weeks before my period. I should have tried to get in the middle of them all and then really fought like a tiger, and maybe it would be all of them in the sea and me on a big raft -- well, maybe with just the children and the Chinese couple -- on my way to Florida. I am so stupid. What if she was just a day away from arriving like a miracle to take me away with her and I ruined it all for us by doing this crazy thing? Barbara is going to be so angry with me.
The lack of clouds and the high temperatures had left her both with a severe sunburn and a parched throat, despite her efforts to cover herself and her judicious sipping at her water bottle. There was no moon and nothing to see. She was exhausted. She fell asleep to the worst thought of all.
What if she isn't angry at all, but indifferent? What if this is -- for her - just something very sad that happened and which must be put aside and forgotten? I could have just been an adventure to her -- a visit to the tropics and a taste of forbidden fruit -- sleeping with the enemy. She said she loved me but I may have thrown my life away for someone who is -- even now -- moving on to the next stage of her life.
The next morning she somberly noted that she had only about five ounces of water left: not enough to last more than one day in the oppressive tropical heat. As she leaned over the side to urinate she briefly considered drinking the fluid her body was expelling. She cupped her fingers to catch it, then grunted in anger as the liquid that filled her hand was tinged red with the blood of her cycle.
"Communion hosts!" she croaked out as she washed her hand off in the ocean.
I could have gotten another day of liquid in this way, but it would all come to nothing if I vomited and I remember that time Barbara treated Pedro's nosebleed. She said swallowing blood makes people throw up. I cannot make any mistakes. I want to live.
Because she did not want to think about the last mouthfuls of water -- they were tempting her from the plastic water bottle -- and did not want to imagine how good they would feel swirling around her wool-dry tongue and then coursing down her tight, scratchy throat, she decided to attempt sleep during the daytime. She did not have any way of propelling herself across the sea -- and she had only a poor sense of which direction in which to head, anyway: it did not seem worth the effort to stay awake and aware during the daylight. She was tired of looking at the ocean. She let herself have just one mouthful from her cup before putting the T-shirt over her face. Even though she had thoroughly soaked it in sea water before using it for cover, its dark color absorbed light and heat and in just a few minutes she could feel her already blistered skin start to bake again. This is going to drive me crazy, she thought before the rhythm of the waves against the tube finally lulled her into unconsciousness.
She knew she was crazy when she awoke suddenly and it seemed that she was surrounded by a tangible thick layer of evil. It was some indeterminate time in the night and her entire body was violently shaking. She did not hear or see anything that would provoke such a reaction, so she concluded that it was her own body that was uncontrollably screaming its horror at the ordeal to which she was subjecting it.
Chela looked up. The stars were clearly visible, but she had never learned their positions, so she could not use them to tell time or measure what course she was on. She hugged her clothes and bottle closely to herself and started to slowly rock. Then she realized that something about the container was different. It's too light! She shook the bottle and scrambled to her knees - moaning in despair - when she confirmed that it was indeed empty. When did I finish it? I don't remember drinking it. But it was sealed! She held it up to her lips and knocked against the bottom hard, forcing a few stray drops onto her tongue. She was positioned slightly off balance -- her whole body stretched out in a line with the bottle as she let her tongue snake out in search of more droplets - when something struck a mighty blow against the tube, sending it skipping and spinning across the surface of the waves like an amusement park ride. What the hell was that?
If she had had any strength she would have cried out. She pushed herself down into the center and bottom of the little craft as it was hit twice more and almost went over on its side from the force of the collision.
It was a soft crooning of her name that drifted across the dark water. Or was it an echo bouncing off the brittle walls of her fluid-starved brain?
She lifted her head up and peered over the side of her little nest.
There you are!
Whack! The tube -- hit soundly like a polo ball - spun again across the water. Although it was pitch black, Chela could see them now: at least half a dozen large grayish-white sharks lazily circling her. The largest one was alongside her cruising slowly, its eye contemplating her with what seemed like amusement.
You should come in and play with us, Chela! We're not that bad!
Don't move! And don't talk to them, Chela thought sternly to herself. Then she realized the absurdity of her precautions. Get a grip, Chela! You're acting like these are bad boys leaning on a street corner lamppost drinking beer and making nasty comments at girls. Still, she tried to make herself as compact and still as possible.
I don't know why you fear us, Chela. We're not like those people who left you out here -- thinking ahead and erasing you from the future. We just do what we do and live in the present, you know? This is what our mother created us for. We are just part of the balance. You do smell good though, Chela!
He's telling the truth, Chela! We don't do to others what we wouldn't have done to ourselves. Can you see my tail from there? You should take a look! About a third of it's gone but you don't see me holding a grudge, do you?
The next bump was a bit gentler. She slowly ventured another look and could see that the huge fish were starting to drift further away from her.
All right then, Chela! Don't complain when it gets too lonely out here! The seaweed talks too, but only when it wants to, not when you need it to. And it just goes on and on...
She felt relief for just a few seconds, then the reality of what had just transpired sank in and she passed out.
The dawn brought a welcome respite from her suffering. The small squall of the morning rocked the little craft but it granted Chela both shade and rain. She sat leaning with her back against the inner tube, her mouth wide open and her jumpsuit pulled up so that the raindrops could touch as much of her tortured flesh as possible. Her hand trembled as she held out the plastic bottle and prayed hard that the downpour would continue. She had no materials with which to make a funnel and the mouth of the container was tiny. Her task was like fishing for hope in hell but she persisted, keeping the bottle aloft until several minutes after the last drop fell. She drew the opening up to her straining eyes and assessed her results.
My god. My god. All that and maybe two ounces. She looked at her arms and grimly estimated that the skin on her face was probably also seared white by the sun at this point. The temperature did not stay cool long after the storm. The high fat cloud that had just dispensed its contents had blown off to the west, and there were no others in sight. I need to re-hydrate. I do not want to die. The bottom of her craft had a layer of about four centimeters of water trapped in it, but it was foul from Chela's own body resting in it and from the dirt and sand she had carried onto the raft. She knew that her stomach would repel the fluid if she tried drinking it. She also knew that the bounty from the storm could not be wasted if she was to survive.
She remembered something she had seen Barbara do once to save a badly dehydrated infant in Maisí during that trip in which her life changed. The baby was so far gone that the physician had been unable to get an intravenous line into it, and its esophagus and stomach were so irritated that it could not keep anything down that was administered orally. But Barbara had pulled the baby back from the door of death by giving it fluid through a series of enemas. "Gets 'em every time and that's water that's going to stay in -- you can always trust the large intestine to absorb it," she had triumphantly crowed. "Don't try it at home though, Chela," she had then joked to her curious assistant. "Remember: the hangover is never actually that bad. It just feels that way."
Chela let herself caress another memory of Maisí for a moment. She recalled discreetly catching the stunned look on Barbara's face the first time she dared to call her "cariño," and then that awkward but revealing night in the hovel when the tension between them made plain that their desire was growing past the point of containment.
I am going to live, cariño. No matter what it takes. No matter what it takes.
She grimly picked up the long thick plastic straw and -- curling her body forward as tightly as she could - inserted it and determinedly started to trickle water into it. Although she thought it was an original venture, it was - in fact - a strategy known and used by desperate sailors throughout history. Her water-starved body was able to absorb almost a half-liter rectally and she bought herself another day of life.
She woke and it was again the night. She felt strangely light and almost cheerful. She realized that she had lost much of the sensation in her body and that the euphoria she was experiencing was the absence of pain after having suffered for three days in the sun with no effective protection from the damaging rays.
Sparkles in the air above her caught her attention and she gasped at the beautiful sight of cloud-to-cloud lightning projecting across the sky like a magnificent spider web. She took her first comfortable and deep breath in days and felt a bit of warmth in her chest and belly as she thought about the woman who had tended to her wounded shoulder on another Caribbean night during which electricity had played in the air. She sighed and lay back again, pillowing her head on her arm. She felt -- for the first time since she ran across the beach in Cojimar -- cared for. Even if things came to an end in this vast space between land masses and her life wound down like an old clock, she knew that she would not die alone. Changó would not leave her.
She stirred again a few hours later when she felt the presence behind her. It was still dark. She knew who it was even before the arms wrapped around her and she heard the voice.
Chela let out a half sob and clutched the arms more tightly, afraid to turn around.
"Barbara... am I dead?" Despite her terrible situation and apprehension, she had to smile when she heard the snort that preceded the response to her question.
"You know, Chelita, you never asked me that after any of the times we made love. Is this what it takes? No, you're not dead."
"Well, it's definitely you... I think. I made a mess of it, huh?" She felt a bit braver now and shifted so she could see Barbara's face. The American woman was calm and smiling and wearing the Sarita González T-shirt that she had worn the night they met on the Malecón.
"You didn't make any kind of mess, Chela. All I have ever seen you create have been masterpieces: keeping your heart through all of this, your poems, bringing about this love between us -- even managing to stay alive out here by yourself for all this time."
Chela looked down at her arm - streaked white on the dark brown -- as it rested against the tanned arm of her lover.
" I'm going to scar, probably," she whispered. "I might lose some skin."
Barbara shrugged her shoulders.
"Who cares?" she said, dipping her head so Chela could lose herself in the laughing blue eyes. "You can lose some skin, Chela. You can lose it all. You can lose every piece of you until you're just atoms floating around this sorry planet. I am still going to love you. Don't suffer on my account and don't blame yourself for the limits of your flesh. I won't think less of you if it happens, you know? Now, drink your water and save your breath."
Chela let herself be sung to sleep with her head resting on the older woman's lap. She was alone when she awoke. It felt so real. Maybe if I am still alive tonight she will come back again. She felt the sunlight beating on her skin and was profoundly grateful to have been able to look into her lover's eyes the night before. Three days of unprotected exposure to the reflection of the ultraviolet rays on the ocean surface had taken its toll. Her vision was almost gone -- if she waved her hand directly in front of her face she could see only shadows. This was a merciful development, actually. It meant that she was unable to see the ominous line of high black clouds stretching across the eastern horizon.
Late that afternoon, as the seas began to become noticeably rougher and the humidity hung heavy in the air, two tiny islands of human misery floated closer and closer to each other, until they finally intersected.
The raft of the three Haitian farmers was much larger and sturdier than the inner tube, and the men were still healthy enough to be paddling even after five days at sea. At first they thought the inner tube was unmanned and they hoped only to salvage it for supplies and for use as an additional flotation device. The youngest Haitian - a one-legged man who determinedly was maintaining a lit pipe in the blustery wind -- looked over the edge of the tube and let out a long whistle.
["My brothers, you have to look at this! This is a serious thing!"]
The two other men carefully crawled over to gaze upon the sight of a crumpled woman, her dark flesh mottled white with burns, tucked into the bottom of the rubber disc.
["Is she dead? She appears to have no supplies with her."]
The first man reached in and turned the woman over as one of his compatriots held the tube steady. The woman gave out a weak moan. Her face was so heavily blistered that it was interfering with her breathing.
["She lives, but not by much. The poor thing. Why did she not even bring a paddle?"]
The two men started to pull her up onto their raft and paused when they saw the blood soaking the cloth between her legs.
["Well. Well. This is turning into the trip to end all trips. She has her period. She will draw the sharks. Papa Nicolas?"]
The men looked up to the third, a thin elderly man who pushed the two younger ones aside to have a closer look at Chela. He put a hand to her forehead, then raised up her eyelid to look at the state of her eyes. Nicolas noticed the necklaces and pulled them up, fingering them gingerly. He carefully studied the prominent blue and white one, then spent a few minutes in silence trying to discern the truth about the situation in which they found themselves. She is wearing the colors of the one we call Agwe and which the Cubans call Yemaya. Maybe we have been blessed.
Finally, he let out a long hum and stood up. He reached out for his younger raft mate's pipe and borrowed it for a quick puff before addressing the two other men.
["Look at us! Three skinny poor blacks with nothing to show for our lives. You don't even have both legs, Claude! We are completely fucked. We have been out here for five days and have no idea where we are. All my experience tells me we are about to see the hurricane come upon us and we are sitting on a piece of floating wood the size of an outhouse. We are going to meet our maker, my boys, and do you know what will happen when Bon Dieu weighs the soul of old Papa Nicolas? He will look on the side of the bad and say, 'Nicolas, back when you were a wicked beast and 'worked with the left hand,' you made four men into zombies and you deflowered five virgins through deceit and you drank quite a lot of rum.' Maybe the only thing He will find when He goes to measure the good will be 'Nicolas, when you found your little mother floating helpless in the sea you did not turn away from her.' The woman stays."]
Nicolas -- like most priests of Vodou -- was as skilled in healing as in causing harm, and among the supplies packed on the little raft were a number of the herbs and salves that he had feared would be hard to come by in the United States. He worked methodically, giving Chela small sips of fresh water that she swallowed reflexively and sealing the burns so that she did not lose valuable plasma through the breaks in her skin. He badly wanted to give her herbs for the pain and the nausea but could not risk taxing her poorly-functioning kidneys.
Chela started to become aware of her surroundings. She was very confused because she still could not see anything other than shadows. She could feel the roll of the sea beneath her and heard the excited voices of men speaking in a language she did not understand. French? No, not French. Kreyol. But they will understand.
"Où sommes-nous? Les États Unis?"
She heard hearty laughter around her.
"Oh, little queen, your guess is as good as ours. We know we are not in the United States, though, because there is only the sea about us. And don't trouble yourself on our account -- all three of us have cut cane in the Dominican Republic. We know your language."
"So what are we doing? Where are we going?" Her voice was getting a little stronger now.
"There is a bad storm coming, little queen," replied a deep voice close behind her. It is a fitting endearment, thought Nicolas, as he searched for words that might reassure the young woman. Those streaks on her skin make her look just like a warbler, the bird which the Spanish-speakers call "reinita," the "little queen." "It is almost dark and we will start sending up our emergency flares in the hopes that the weather planes or coast guards see them. We hoped not to use them. For us, it means a trip back to Haiti, but that is better than dying. I guess for you it will make a big difference which country responds but again, the important thing is that someone find us."
"Mam'zelle," she was addressed tentatively by a younger, softer voice. "I am not going to give you a bunch of stories. I am really scared. I don't know how to swim. I have never been to sea and have only been off my Uncle Lucas's farm for the three years I went to work for the Dominican sugar companies. Nicolas is our houngan -- our priest. But his loa is Ogún, the god of war and iron. This is not his domain. It is yours. Can you pray to Agwe for us? We know you call her differently, but it does not matter that our ancestors were Fon and yours Yoruban. In our bones we are all from Guinea. We trust that you will know what to say."
I only hope I can do this right.
She started, of course, with the greeting to Elegba to clear the road for the rest of her requests, then quickly slipped in a brief prayer to Changó. She wondered if somewhere far away Barbara could sense the call to the energy which linked their spirits together. Then she concentrated and pulled from her memory every invocation to Yemaya she had ever heard.
Iya mí late o Yemaya asayabí Olokun ibutá gana dedé wantolokun okaba yiré ayaba ibú la onu kofiedenu Iya mí ayuba...
Yemaya olodo Iyá lokoto Olodumare. Iyá omi tuto omi oyé sina woto abila Iyá mi onio moké taro ero awa lu ma fon ma yon minie ma yon ba tioko eminiacho kuerio...
Her prayers - punctuated only by the occasional hiss and pop of the flares - were a soothing melody delivered at a measured pace that ignored the storm's insistence on panic and frenzy.
Everything is as it should be, she thought, and recalled Barbara's reassurances in the night. There is no shame in this, and I am in good company. And it is a good thing -- if I am to leave this world -- to be of service up until the end and to give honor to all the generations of my ancestors that survived unspeakable misery to grant me the moments of happiness and pleasure that I stole from the enemies of life.
To be continued. Feedback to email@example.com
Federico García Lorca's "Romance Sonámbulo" ("Sonnambulist Romance") -- inadequately translated by me -- used without permission. The second poem referenced is "La Casada Infiel" ("The Adulterous Wife"), taken from the same collection, Romancero Gitano.
Translation of "Cantares" ("Songs") by Joan Manuel Serrat, adapted from the poetry of Antonio Machado.
"Everything passes and everything remains/But it is ours to pass/To pass making roads/Roads over the sea./ I never pursued glory/Or to leave in the memory/Of men my song./ I love the delicate worlds/ Weightless and graceful/ Like soap bubbles./ I like to see them paint themselves/ In blue and scarlet as they fly/ And beneath the blue sky tremble/ Suddenly and pop./ I never pursued glory./ Traveler, your footsteps are/ The road and nothing else/ Traveler, there is no road/ One makes the road by walking./ By walking one makes the road/ And when you turn and look back/ You see the path that will never/ be stepped upon again./ Traveler, there is no road/ But the wakes breaking the sea./ Some time ago in that place/ Where the forests dress themselves in pines/ The voice of a poet was heard yelling/ Traveler, there is no road/ One makes the road by walking./ Beat by beat/ Verse by verse./ The poet died far from his home/ He is covered by the dust of a neighboring land/ As he left he was seen weeping./ Traveler, there is no road/ One makes the road by walking./ Beat by beat./ Verse by verse./ When the goldfinch cannot sing/ When the poet is a pilgrim/ When praying serves no purpose,/ Traveler, there is no road/ One makes the road by walking./ Beat by beat/ Verse by verse."
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