HABÁNAME (Havana [Verb Transitive] Me)

An Original Uber-Fiction by Ana Ortiz

Disclaimers: Not written for profit. The lead characters often look and sound like THEM. This is an ALT story, and several languages are used profanely. Consensual f/f eroticism.

I wish to thank an exceptional team of beta-readers. Prof of Xena Warrior Lesbian, and Jessica Michallet worked tirelessly to make this story more effective and accessible from Chapter 3 onwards. MedoraMacD was kind enough to offer her editorial skills and encouragement beginning in Chapter 6. Thanks to Old Warrior (reading voluntarily over e-mail) and to Laura Briggs (reading in captivity before her morning coffee) for test driving this story.

Note to readers: In scenes set in the United States, I use the convention of italicizing dialogue when — in bilingual contexts — characters choose to communicate in Spanish. In scenes set in Latin America, I invert that practice: when characters opt for the use of English in dialogue, it is italicized.

Esto no puede ser no más que una canción,
quisiera fuera una declaración de amor,
romántica sin reparar en formas tales
que pongan freno a lo que siento ahora a raudales.
Te amo, te amo, eternamente te amo.
Si me faltaras no voy a morirme
si he de morir quiero que sea contigo
mi soledad se siente acompañada
por eso a veces sé que necesito,
tu mano, tu mano, eternamente tu mano.
Cuando te ví sabía que era cierto
este temor de hallarme descubierto.
Tú me desnudas con siete razones,
me abres el pecho, siempre que me colmas
de amores, de amores, eternamente de amores.
Si alguna vez me siento derrotado
y renuncio a ver el sol cada mañana
rezando el credo que me has enseñado
miro tu cara y digo en la ventana:
Yolanda, Yolanda, eternamente Yolanda.

Pablo Milanés, "Yolanda", (used without permission)


Chapter Ten: The Walking Alchemist

Mid-October 1993 Boston

Barbara felt her every muscle battling exhaustion as she grimly made her way home. She had not anticipated having to walk most of the way back from L Street pulling a damaged bicycle behind her as best she could.

Fuck! Fuck! This is the third bike since I got back! And this time it really wasn’t my fault. Friggin’ potholes. A whole Cuban family could have lived in that fucker. Crap, I’m just safer in a car. I haven’t had an accident with one since that little problem with the hallucination back when I was sixteen and had that Volkswagen Beetle. Still. Aiming for the mailbox was the best option; a car that small could not have handled a direct impact with a rhino if it had been real.

Barbara left the bike out by the dumpster in front of her building: she could see that it was not salvageable. If she was honest with herself, she had to acknowledge that lack of sleep may have compromised her reflexes and judgment. She had spent most of the night at Countway Library trying to do a more extensive search on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis: the neighborhood clinic where she was spending an increasing number of hours was seeing a steady rise in new cases of the terrifying illness. Rather than try to fit in her ritual visit to the beach on her way into seminar that afternoon, she had chosen to make the trip in the pre-dawn hours. Now she was arriving home to her apartment sweaty, tired and bloody. Her left elbow and knee were going to require ice packs if she were to avoid stiffness from swelling. She paused to wipe gravel and dirt off her torn scrubs before heading up the stairs.

Ah, well, I needed to get my ducks in a row before the task force meeting on how the city is going to respond to MDR-TB. Of course, the first thing they will think of is forcing people into treatment and confining them to make sure they are taking their medication. But crap, I am a physician, not a jailer. And I hate surveillance. I hated it in Cuba and I hate it here. That’s not the way to make people feel cared about and invested in their health. No friggin’ way. I’ll do what it takes to help show that if you make it easier for these folks to comply with treatment, they’ll do it without being threatened.

She was primed for a struggle and the conservative elements among the city’s public health bureaucracy seemed like an ideal target for her in her re-invigorated state. Despite the unfortunate biking accident, Barbara was feeling more confident and optimistic than she had in months. After several unsuccessful recruitment efforts she had finally met a male health care activist with a trip planned to Cuba who would seriously consider marrying Chela in order to bring her into the country. The man was very sympathetic to the plight of the two women but was still concerned about what legal consequences he might face if the deception were discovered. Barbara knew several of the clinic staff had engaged in staged marriages with foreign nationals and was planning on grilling them on how to successfully pull off the charade.

Right now, however, she was fantasizing about a warm shower, something to remove the grit she felt caked into every fold of her scrubs and coating the skin on the back of her neck. Still she was dead on her feet: it would take a superhuman effort to not succumb to the temptation to fall into bed regardless of the state of her hygiene. Letting out a loud yawn that echoed in the building stairwell, she stopped before her door to stretch out and lazily scratch her midriff where the top came up too short for her lanky frame. She managed to clumsily insert the key into her apartment door lock, when she felt her toe brush against something. It was a stack of mail thoughtfully brought in for her by her next door neighbor, Jack, who had been fussing with her for weeks to get her broken mailbox fixed. Right at the top was the item she had been awaiting with some anticipation for weeks.

"All right, Deirdre!" she cried out, picking up the package from Bay Crossing Press and tossing it in the air. "We have copy edits!" She exuberantly caught it behind her back before picking up her remaining mail and pushing the door open with her shoulder. After throwing herself and the stack of papers onto her bed, she used her teeth to strip the adhesive closures off the package containing the edited manuscript. She lifted the top of the box and stared reverently at the first few sheets as she picked them up. She paused at the dedication, wondering what Chela would think about Martin Stevens sharing that space of honor with the feisty Irene O’Hara, who had finally passed away on the Fourth of July.

Awright! I can get these done in a month. No problem! Besides, less time trying to sleep is less time thinking about what I’m missing. Fuck! No wonder Sister Mary Frances used to be such a heartless pisser. And I guess if she was playing by the rules she had to go in and confess every friggin’ time she let her fingers do the walkin’. No wonder it must have seemed easier for her to just torture local schoolchildren. It’s kind of how white collar criminals get off easy while your average food-stamps-ran-out shoplifter does spooky time. They probably used to give the poor woman a Hail Mary for accidentally disemboweling a kid that brought a bologna sandwich on "no-meat" Friday and a freakin’ Novena per jill-off. Maybe I don’t really need that bath. Fuck, I’m tense… well, I know how to fix that, but let me get this crap off the bed first. I hate it when a perfectly good orgasm gets interrupted by a staple or pencil showing up in an inopportune place and time.

She had kicked her shoes off, banking them off the wall so that they left scuff marks before dropping to the bare wood floor with a loud thud, and was gathering up the debris that littered the bed’s surface when a bulky envelope fell out from the surrounding flyers and catalogs. Curious, she pulled it up to examine it more closely — she did not recognize the sender’s name or address. Barbara ripped the end open and tried to make sense of the contents as they tumbled out. There —lying atop the sheets - were her driver’s license, the small booklet of clinic records that Chela had shown her many months before, and a worn Cuban Cédula — an identity document — in the name of Marcela Stevens.

Her hands were shaking as she tapped on the edge to remove the letter hidden at the bottom.

September 30

Dear Barbara Murphy,

I don’t know whether this envelope brings you good or bad news. It was bad news for someone, that’s for sure. But if identity theft is as bad a problem for you all up in New England as it is for us in Florida — well I hope that it’s a good thing you have your license back. You don’t want just anyone to have that.

This stuff came ashore in a plastic bag after the last big storm, along with a whole bunch of other things: shoes, toys and a mess of ripped inner tubes. I figured it wasn’t any use mailing the Spanish documents to Cuba. And maybe you knew this person. I’m sorry if you did.

We see this all the time on the beach. We often get personal possessions and pieces of the rafts. I don’t remember ever seeing a body — the sharks are pretty well-fed in these parts.

We do also get the ones who make it and I wrote the phone number of the agency that deals with them on the back. But because of the storm, no one that I know of has arrived alive on our side of the Key for the last week or so.

Again, you have my sympathy if you knew the owner of these other items. Perhaps you can notify their family.

Robert Fergis

There was a slab of ice where her intestines used to be. She looked at the clock. It was five in the morning, too early to call the refugee clearing center that Fergis had referred her to. Barbara’s chest was tightening in earnest now, and her limbs felt too heavy to move, but she forced herself to act, ordering her almost sensation-less fingers to sort through the materials lying by the side of the bed.

Maybe she was robbed. Maybe she made it and for some reason this stuff wasn’t with her when she landed. She wouldn’t do anything that stupid. Why would she jump the gun and do something so dangerous? I was still working on it. I would have gotten her out of there. Shit. Why didn’t I see this?

The distinctive blue envelope embossed with a seal displaying a graceful red rearing lion caught her eye, but it was the smeared postmark on its far right corner that filled her with a chilling dread. The letter from the Norwegian embassy in Cuba had been processed on September 15. She vaguely recognized the name of Jonas Erskildsson as that of one of Chela’s old clients.

I never thought I would say this, but please let this be a Dear Barbara letter. Please let it say that she’s changed her mind and that she’s as happy as a pig in shit with Mister Norseman and that she is in Cuba with him or in Norway or anywhere but the fucking bottom of the sea.

She didn’t make it past the first paragraph before turning into a storm of misery, the blood flowing from her knuckles in rivulets where she forcefully bit into them to try to hold in the wails that seemed to roll like giant waves out of her chest. She crumpled the letter and reached randomly for the items sitting on her bedside table. She was outside of herself, watching numbly as the giant heartsick child inhabiting her body threw the lamp and paperweight at the wall before kicking a sizable hole into it. Another two craters were opened on the wall by her fist — without her gloves on, her smallest finger had no protection when she threw the blows, but she didn’t care. The half-full glass of rum from the bedside table was directed towards the window, the amber liquid adding a curious effect to the early morning light streaming in through the broken glass. The first sound she let herself hear was the upstairs neighbor pounding on the floor and calling out, "One more noise and I’m going to call the police!"

She slid onto the floor and fumbled for the paper ball that had provoked her outburst. She was spent. She thought she might have broken a few toes and fingers; agonized messages from the nerves in those areas were starting to get past the wall of grief that had protected her as she incurred the injuries. It was over. Her tantrum was over and her hoping was over. She could not use her mind to busily think up places that Chela might be and things Chela might be doing. The letter confirmed that Chela had sailed roughly a week before her possessions turned up on the beach in Key West. She numbly flattened the paper into its original form and looked at the beginning of the message again.

September 13

How I miss you. I really can’t go on any longer without you by my side, Barbara. This isn’t a life. It is just waking up to your absence and then falling asleep to it every night. I think about what I want for us and it is a life together where we are the ones who decide our fate, cariño. I have been reading the old stories these days, love. I know that our governments like to think they are these rational and scientific creations that are such an improvement over the theocracies of old, but they are not very different from those puffed-up gods and goddesses of whom Homer sang, who thought nothing of breaking human lives apart on a whim. So tomorrow I will start my journey by sea to make us safer from their heartless games. We need to share a citizenship, my love, so that nobody can say, "Look, her passport is blue with a gold eagle and yours is not, so she is forbidden to you." I will do whatever it takes to never let them take you from me again.

I think it’s funny that I am to become a U.S. citizen. We were raised to despise and fear the U.S. You will remember that tacky billboard on the Malecón that says, "Mr. Imperialist, we are not at all afraid of you!" We learned all about the Rosenbergs in school and about lynching. We learned about the Klan and the Japanese Internment and Wounded Knee. And I know that all that is true.

But then there are all the people who survived these horrors and all the people who spoke out against them. Aren’t they the U.S.? And then there is you. You did not make yourself, Barbara. No one does. So the U.S. is also a place that taught you the values that led you to help others so selflessly and it kept your mind curious and seeking.

I would like to see those places and those people who made you, you know. And soon, very soon, I will also be a part of the U.S. — a part it never expected and that may goad its conscience at times — but a part that will love the whole because I love you…

She stopped reading and paused both to center her thoughts and to straighten out the sheet of paper. Then she read through to the bottom of the page. Well, she thought, glancing at the boxed manuscript, this is how it ends. This is how it really ends. She stood up and stumbled to her desk. Before faxing the wrinkled thin paper, she hastily penned a cover sheet to Deirdre.


I know it’s late in the game for additions, but this can be placed right at the end without altering any of the preceding text. You should add the notation "Author presumed lost at sea" right after it. Just do it. Don’t call me. I don’t want to talk about it.

The fax went through on the first try. She turned and looked at her apartment, her shower long forgotten. She was too exhausted to pick up the broken ceramics and glass or even to properly tend to her bruised and painful digits. She threw herself on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

She might have survived that cut on the shoulder that night, but she didn’t survive meeting me. Barbara imagined herself making time run backwards: she visualized hastening away from the seawall and going back into the hotel long before the appearance of the stunning woman who fell bleeding a few paces away from where she stood playing her guitar and singing. I always thought we would end differently, she thought ruefully, recalling the lyrics that were cut short by Chela fainting:

I’m the kid who always thought we’d be lovers

Always thought that time would tell

Time was talking, guess I just wasn’t listening

No surprise if you know me well.

No, no surprise at all. What is surprising is that someone that beautiful gave me a second look and forgave all my arrogance and cowardice. She just loved me. And in a few hours I am going to have to get up and walk back into a world in which she no longer exists. I just don’t think I am brave enough.



Later that day

She told Eladio as soon as she arrived — uncharacteristically early - at the department for the weekly seminar that afternoon. She was profoundly grateful when he excused her: there was no way she could sit still through the rather abstract discussions of social suffering. Today she would have screamed, laying into the unfortunate colleague who dared to reduce the human toll of structural violence to economic terms; or she would have gone to the other extreme and started sobbing if a remark hit too close to home. She always had difficulty with her fidgeting in the best of circumstances.

The reprieve from academic activities left her with a void to fill in her schedule and she decided that the wisest option would be to stay busy. She checked into the clinic hours before her shift formally began. She managed not to cry as her staff tended to the bruises on her hand from the early morning agony and splinted her broken toes. She insisted on working although she couldn’t stay on her feet for very long due to the damage she had inflicted upon herself.

Her first cases were uneventful: an elderly diabetic with a bad laceration on her foot and a young homeless man with an upper respiratory infection. It was the third case that caught her attention and reminded her that what she and Chela shared was not truly over.

The little girl was four and impeccably dressed, with bright yellow ribbons tied into her curly hair. She was in terrible pain — the tears streamed out of her big round eyes and rolled down her cheeks - yet she showed remarkable control for one so young. As Barbara quickly reviewed the chart she discovered why: her little patient had sickle cell anemia and was a frequent visitor to the clinic for her painful crises. As she assessed the necessity for transfusion therapy, Barbara recalled the harsh words of the Cuban health aide on the day Tomás Stevens had been quarantined: before effective testing of the blood supply there had been many casualties from HIV among "sicklers" in the U.S. She was grateful that that risk at least was not at issue in her deliberations here. She decided that pain control was in order and chose to give the shot of morphine herself rather than delegate it to a nurse.

"All right, María. Are you ready? It’s just going to be a little stick and it’s not going to hurt at all."

"You are a big fat liar!" squeaked out the child miserably. "It always hurts a lot! I want to poke your rear! Then your bottom would hurt and you would see that it is never worth the lollipop!"

"María!" barked out the girl’s mother. "You shut your mouth before I shut it for you! Insulting the doctor… I taught you better!"

Barbara was frozen, her eyes locked on those of the irate little girl’s. Chela? Is that you? Nah. I’m so fucked. I’m losing it. She swallowed and tried to regain her composure. Her eyes were tearing. She decided that she had best get the procedure done as quickly as possible and then take a break.

"It’s going to hurt, you’re right. And hurting is never worth a lollipop, but I’ll give you one anyway. You’re a smart girl, so you know that this shot will make you feel better soon."

Fifteen minutes later the child and her mother were on their way to Children’s Hospital for a transfusion and Barbara Murphy was writing a letter to the landlord of the building in which María lived. The mother had complained that keeping the heat on in the apartment was a chronic problem and painful crises were often triggered by extreme cold. She finished composing the thinly-veiled threat and thought back to the powerful moment of her dissociation when the child’s identity had seemed to fluctuate.

I wasn’t all wrong. No one has yelled at me with so much passion in months. There was a little bit of you in there. I just have to stay open to seeing it. Thanks for saying "hi."


December 1993 Boston

Barbara gestured out the window of the cab for the flower vendor to approach, gambling that there was enough time left in the red light for her to make a purchase. The man kicked up the soft snow with his boots as he ran to the vehicle, sheltering a few pre-packaged bouquets under his arm. She quickly inspected his offerings and settled on a modest mixed collection. These aren’t over the top and they look fresh enough to survive until dinner time. The bitter cold was making inroads into the taxi’s heated interior and she pulled her coat about her more tightly as she rolled up the window. With the recent accumulation on the ground the journey from Logan to her apartment was easily going to take an hour. She was frankly surprised that planes had been allowed out of Washington, D. C., and into Boston, given the amount of snowfall and wind.

The last two weeks in the nation’s capital had given her much to think about. After her human rights and epidemiology conference was over, she had gone for a preliminary interview with Doctors Without Borders. The organization seemed like a promising place into which to concentrate her energies now that work on the book was wrapping up. The truth was there was little to hold her in Boston anymore — at least not professionally. She would relish the opportunity to travel again. She looked back down at the flowers lying on the seat beside her and thought about the implications of her rootless-ness for the relationship she seemed on the brink of beginning.

Angela was a nurse-practitioner at the clinic and had always been friendly to the funny and work-driven physician. When Barbara had returned from Cuba she had turned into a supportive confidante and had been willing to listen to Barbara’s sometimes semi-coherent and repetitive narrations of what had befallen her. The woman had been respectful of her grief and had never pushed for anything beyond companionship over meals or company at the movies. She did not play pinball and she deplored Barbara’s taste in seventies rock although she was very appreciative of her co-worker and friend’s interest in Latin American music.

Barbara had been moved when Angela had masterminded a conspiracy among the clinic staff to replace the guitar she had left behind in Cuba. The rumor mill at the facility already regarded them as a potential item and Barbara was sorry that the easy-going nurse was subjected to incessant razzing about their closeness. She had been discreetly micro-waving her lunch one afternoon and caught a sampling of workplace opinions: "It is time to treat that blue-eyed heartbreak with a love injection, girl. What are you waiting for?" "Watch out, Angie! She is a cutie but doctors always dump nurses!" "You can tell us, Angie! We’re cool that way! Hell, I don’t play for that team and even I can see that she is one sexy animal!"

It had happened almost accidentally the night before she left for Washington. They had been saying goodnight after sharing a particularly bad movie and had been laughing all the way to Angela’s apartment door about what fools they had been to drop that much money on a sure loser just for the chance to see Susan Sarandon in action. The hug had lasted just a few seconds too long and as Barbara pulled out of it she impulsively let the moment take them and they kissed. She had blinked hard and half-smiled, unsure of how both she and the other woman felt at this unexpected development.

"My," she had awkwardly muttered. "I didn’t mean to surprise you, Angie."

" I’m not altogether surprised," Angie had reassured her, before pausing to steal another kiss. "And I’d be lying if I told you this hadn’t crossed my mind, but I didn’t want to hope for anything, you know? I know what you’ve been through and I know that you need time and I know that you need a friend more than you need anything complicating your life right now. But I care for you and I think you’re wicked attractive. I’m not going to be disappointed if you want to spend the night."

Barbara had taken a moment to regroup and had sadly shaken her head in reply.

"I just can’t… yet. But shit, Angie, you’re the first person I’ve even wanted to think about maybe possibly eventually gradually exploring something with." Barbara blushed.

"Oh, hon," answered Angela softly, reaching out a hand to cup her distressed friend’s cheek. "You either must have had adverbs for dinner or we really do need to take this very slow."

Slow is good, thought Barbara as the cab turned onto her street. But I sure as hell ain’t gonna stand still after dinner tonight. We need to talk about where this might be headed. She’s sweet and generous in ways that remind me a lot of Chela. So maybe if we keep at it, someday I’ll feel fireworks going off again — or it may fizzle out. Either way, I couldn’t ask for a nicer woman to figure it out with. Damn, it’s happening again. And it’s not a bad thing. Finding traces of Chela in so many people and places. I can’t believe I was so blind to what was around me before meeting her.

She struggled into the foyer with her bags and the flowers, feeling mildly guilty for tracking so much snow inside with her. She could see mail straining to escape from her repaired letterbox and stopped to pick it up before the long climb up to her flat. After managing to open the door she set her things down and hurried to place the flowers in a vase before turning to the mail, blowing on her fingers before attempting to sort it.

Someday I’m gonna have to learn how to hold on to a pair of gloves. That or move someplace where frostbite is not an issue. Shit, it’s not just what would happen to me as a clinician. But this ain’t the moment to be losing any fingers, not when I’m thinking of getting back into the dating saddle and riding the range.

Her tentatively optimistic mood was immediately quashed by the unexpected encounter with the blue envelope bearing the seal of Norway. She was loathe to handle the piece of mail: it seemed to burn her fingertips as she quickly flipped it over and set it aside next to the box containing her completed but overdue copy edits. Her guts were clenching again and she felt the warmth rise quickly to her cheeks.

Fucking turtle-speed international mails. Like I need that right now. A letter from a dead woman to welcome me home. All right. Some friggin’ rum is in order, big time. Of course, I’ll treasure this, like everything else that has come from her hand, but I just can’t the fuck read it right now.

She helped herself to a tall glass of her favorite dark rum and returned to her task. She had set aside the usual number of "wrong addresses" and "no longer at this address" pieces when a greasy brown envelope that she had been about to dispose of drew her attention. Normally, she would have laughed at the gender switch and placed it with the postal mistakes, but the letter to Dr. Robert Murphy was postmarked from Haiti and bore the return address of the Port-au-Prince Church of Latter Day Saints.

Now that is different!

There was a tingling of the flesh at the back of her neck even before she extracted the translucent thin papers.

October 31, 1993

Greetings Dr. Murphy on this day of all souls.

I hope you will not mind if I address you in a more informal and intimate fashion, Bob.

Barbara snorted rum out of her nostrils. "Bob!" Oh my god, this is too funny! Not only do Brian and Teresa Murphy finally have that son they wanted, but he also bears the "intimate" name of "Bob."

You see, Bob, I know everything that has transpired in your recent life. You understand me, Bob? And I have a lovely young Mormon missionary who is translating this dictation and writing it for me for free and he is even providing the stamp, Bob. So I am going to make this as easy a task for him as I can. Afterwards we are going to read from The Book of Mormon together.

You really have to admire this kind of effort. This is so much more elaborate than the Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to trick me into answering the door early on Saturday mornings. Not only are these guys doing long-distance proselytizing, but they are hiring psychics who "know everything" about you. Dionne Warwick meets the Osmonds! Too spooky!

I know you will appreciate the effort I have put into writing you, Bob. You see, I have spent the last month with your woman — in a strictly innocent fashion of course.

Fuck you! This scam is in such fucking poor taste. This is hitting all the sore spots, just like that fucking Norwegian envelope.

You are in a lot of trouble, Bob. You know that? Because she is as smart as God made them and when she gets to talking the lies mix with the truth in a way that even puts career Haitian politicians to shame and she can get people to do just about anything.

Oh my God! He really has met Chela! Holy fuck! Holy fuck! She’s alive! But where the fuck is she?

We did not meet in the most favorable of circumstances. She was in a very bad condition when my companions and I found her at sea and we rode out the opening of a hurricane together. But God and the Cuban coast guard spared us, Bob. We were very lucky because the guards were worried that tourists might still be boating about — they were only looking for people needing assistance in areas of tourism. We were off Varadero Beach. I can imagine they felt a little disappointed at not rescuing Germans or Canadians. We had good flares, Bob. That and the blessing of the sea.

Barbara reached over and tore off the cover of the box containing her copy edits, madly rifling through the sheets seeking the page which displayed a detailed map of Cuba. So she’s in Varadero? Let’s see… Oh, mami! What were you thinking? You were going the wrong way! Varadero is east of Havana! I am north of Havana! Fuck, and she was in "bad shape." Some details would be nice here, pal! "Bad shape" as in she could have used a higher grade of sunscreen, or "bad shape" as in her kidneys shut down and she’s on dialysis?

Your woman was very sick from her sunburns and the dehydration, Bob, although I like to think that my medicines kept her alive the last day we spent at sea. They took all of us to the hospital in Matanzas, which was the facility closest to Varadero, and there was where things started to get interesting.

The Matanzas hospital! Well, fuck, at least they would know what they were doing. Not that knowledge would necessarily help with no supplies at hand, depending how bad off she was. "Kept her alive"… fuck, that does not sound good.

She knew the people there, Bob. They all said you had treated people in this hospital and they were very concerned for your woman’s health. When they inquired about you she said that you were fine and that she would convey their greetings. They wanted to transfer her to Havana but she insisted that, no, she would rather be treated at Matanzas. You must have done some wonderful work at that hospital, Bob, because all those physicians and nurses knew she was a "rafter" but they still treated her with such respect.

Yeah, no shit! I busted my ass in Matanzas!

The guards were about to leave her there and take us away for deportation, but she had the doctors talk to them. Oh, Bob. It was a beautiful thing. She talked to the doctors about how she had seen us use a series of effective herbal treatments for her on the boat and how were they going to let the opportunity to learn of such techniques slip through their fingers. She said that she knew people at the Ministry of Health and would have them put in a word to the guards’ home Committees for the Defense of something or other, for being creative in the performance of their duties and helping Cuban medicine respond to the conditions of the "special period." Does she ever do this to you, Bob? I do pity you, you know.

Heh! So, pal, you witnessed Chela in action! Yes, as a matter of fact she does run circles around me. A sob broke from her chest as she paused in her reading for just a heartbeat to allow the relief and joy to start coursing through her. She is alive. And she is well enough to be the Chela that can cast a spell with her words. She is a very smart and fast little bunny and I am just a very slow tiger.

The doctors believed her and the guards believed the doctors. Of course, after that the hurricane hit full force and things became so busy. So we remained with her during the long period of her recuperation. I am very proud to say that I was given great responsibility for her treatment. I think I did a good job for you, Bob. She will have to be very careful about taking the sun in the future and should dress in a modest way that covers her up. The young man taking my dictation agrees that that is a good idea.

So I am back in Haiti now, but I am going back to Cuba next month. The doctors in Matanzas want me to bring them more samples of the materials I used in preparing the medicines. They are paying for my passage and even paying an honorarium. I am saving up, because I am going to try to go to the United States again, Bob. I think I will not go by sea. I am ready to take the risk of giving up bachelorhood, if you understand me. I am busy collecting my bride price.

I truly am happy for you, but where the fuck is my lover? Are you going to tell me?

I do not think I will see your lady again. She was going to be leaving shortly for Havana and then I think it was her intention to contact you. She believed that I would have success in placing a letter more quickly and so here it is. I have dispensed my obligation to her as I dispense all of them.

I hope that you will give my "little queen" my regards when you see her.

Nicolas Fouron

Crap! But where is she? In Havana? I have got to stop her from trying this crazy shit again! Whatever it takes! I will find someone to marry her!

Barbara scrambled then for the blue envelope, her eyes practically popping out of their orbits as she realized that she had overlooked an important detail when she had set the missive aside. She had only noted the Norwegian crest and drawn a quick conclusion about the letter’s origin. Now she saw that she was mistaken. The letter was posted — three weeks ago — from the Norwegian consulate in Cancún, Mexico.

She cursed when she realized that there was no letter inside, just a newspaper clipping from the society pages of a Cancún newspaper.

"Goddamnit, Chela! Just come out and tell me where you are!" she cried out to her empty apartment as she unfolded the clipping. "We can stop playing James Bond now, baby! Nobody is tracking us!"

Oh, but if someone were you did a great job, mami.

The "People News" column was a series of submitted announcements of weddings, engagements, graduations and other felicitous events. It was the second item from the bottom that penetrated through the cloud of excitement that blurred her vision. It informed the elite of Cancún that the acclaimed Norwegian scholar of Latin American literature Jonas Erskildsson and his bride were enjoying a protracted honeymoon of several months at the Cielo Campestre Beach Resort.

She read the contributor name and started laughing hysterically, letting the mirth shake her so hard that she didn’t care when her chair fell over and she found herself sitting in the puddle of cold water that had melted off her boots.

Surely the Mexican editors must have noticed and let it slide. But Chela had obviously not thought much of the basic literary education of any U.S. agents who might be monitoring Barbara’s correspondence. The helpful contributor of the notice was "Sancho Panza," the diminutive and wry sidekick squire of Cervantes’s tragic-comic knight Don Quijote.

She sat on the floor for several moments looking up at the window through which she could still see the snow falling.

You scared the holy crap out of me, Chela. You scared the holy crap out of me. I would not choose to have it work out this way, mami. Fuck, I would have loved to stay with you in Cuba. And yes, I would have found some place here in the States where we could both feel safe and useful.

But, fuck, mami. You did your part. Now I’ll do mine. Hell, I’m not even going to bother unpacking. I just gotta rent a car and make two stops to drop off a manuscript and some flowers — because I know that a good parting makes a difference in life, Chelita. And you would have liked her. You actually made me into the kind of woman attractive to people who don’t have a creep fetish!

And as for the text, well, mami, I hope you like the portrait I have composed of us and what our coming together means. Except now it is the most wonderful kind of story: an unfinished one.


The next morning Eladio Torres steeled himself for the daunting task of shoveling his walk. He saluted the iguana, perched silently next to a portable heater that served to preserve the reptile’s body temperature in the poorly warmed foyer.

"Well, Hercules," mumbled the old man through his scarf. "I wish that you could live up to the feats of your namesake and just paddle this white curse off my property with your mighty hands, but I sense that is not going to happen. It is always at this time of year that I miss Havana the most."

He fumbled with the doorknob — the heavy gloves made his hands slip against it. He took a deep breath and stepped outside into the cold and almost fell over from the surprise. Not only were his porch and front steps clean of snow, but his walkway and driveway had also been cleared. He was stunned, for he believed neither in elves nor altruism. He concluded that the explanation probably lay in the folded paper affixed to the large box that mysteriously sat at the foot of the steps.

He wrestled with the package, leaning against the railing since the thin coat of ice on the ground compromised his balance. He finally managed to drag it indoors and took his gloves off before removing the wet sheet of paper from the box and unfolding it.

Eladio. I thought it would be easier to get this to you if your walkway was clean. And then once I got started I couldn’t stop. I am too happy to stay in my own skin, Eladio. You know how I get fidgety when something either very bad or very good happens. And something very unbelievably good has happened. Chela is alive and I am going to her. Thank you for agreeing to take care of this book business ahead of time, Eladio. And I will be in touch.

Well! he thought. I wonder if I will ever see her again. But she has caught the spirit of Havana - this one — with all that exuberance and passion that possesses both her and that beloved city when the time comes to meet a challenge.

He moved to close the open door and decided to go back outside and down the steps to retrieve the shovel before it iced over. He was turning back to climb back onto the porch when he noticed it: all the houses in the little cul-de-sac in which he lived had meticulously shoveled driveways and walks. It was five in the morning on a Sunday and he was willing to bet that he was the first resident on the street to be up and about attending to his property. He laughed.

Ay, you crazy gringa! I get it. You were so happy that once you got started you couldn’t stop. God help the place the two of you end up — if happiness can cause earthquakes they are in for a very hard shake indeed.


Nine days later Cancún, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

The poolside revelers at the Cielo Campestre resort were the facility’s usual clientele: older Europeans who were loathe to recreate either with rambunctious American college students away on their winter break or with locals, who were viewed as unhygienic and needy. The steep prices for the winter season and a liberal distribution of intimidating security guards on the roads approaching the hotel’s grounds kept these two unwanted populations at bay. The tinny music which blared through the speakers mounted on the faux-thatch roof of the patio bar was safely distant from anything that could be construed as contemporary. Posted prominently on a bulletin board next to the bar was a schedule of the kinds of unimaginative activities which are the daily fare of the tropical tourist: limbo sessions, talent contests and races featuring the passing of various food items between teammates without the use of hands.

There was one odd couple that broke sharply with the mold of mindless satisfaction and bland escapism that characterized the others. Positioned at a distance from both bar and pool — at the very edge of the patio where the shade of a building overhang reliably shielded them from the sun and where the air did not smell of chlorine — were Jonas and Marcela Erskildsson. They were not happy.

For Jonas the previous month had served as a purgatory of frustration and offered up an incessant series of material and emotional inconveniences. Transferring his activities from the intellectually stimulating and familiar environment of Havana to the academic wasteland of Cancún had seriously distressed him and disturbed his fragile ability to work. Even the benefit of Chela’s consistent and generous participation in his scholarly production could not outweigh the disadvantages of residence at Cielo Campestre. The humidity of the Yucatán Peninsula equaled that of Cuba but less effective measures had been taken to control the mosquitoes and he was continually feasted upon by the insects, which seemed to have a predilection for Norse blood. The air quality was also less healthful than Havana’s, which paradoxically benefited from the severe fuel shortage of the "special economic period" and the consequent inability of city dwellers to operate motor vehicles. Jonas’s temperamental mucous membranes were protesting this new respiratory diet and as he sat on the patio he was periodically wracked by coughing fits. The spasms interrupted his incessant scratching at the welts and bites that covered his splotchy skin.

His skin and lungs were not the only organs being tortured in Cancún - for there was also the unavoidable presence of the now-unattainable Chela for him to contend with.

Although part of Jonas had enjoyed imperiously demanding the assistance of his country’s diplomats in securing the paperwork necessary to marry Chela and then remove her from the country, he had not anticipated the indeterminate duration of their unusual arrangement and all its complications. They had now "cohabited" as "spouses" for over a month, during which Chela had steadfastly adhered to the prohibition on sexual contact between them. Whereas in Havana he had cultivated contacts that provided him with sources of relief, the staff of the rather isolated Cielo Campestre had reacted with indescribable disgust at the honeymooning groom’s oblique requests that he be introduced to the local ladies.

He was, of course, not interested in preserving the "marriage" even nominally past the time required to establish Chela’s Norse citizenship, but he would not have minded enjoying his conjugal rights with her.

To his chagrin, Chela was refusing to acknowledge his compelling arguments that she had both risked her life and burdened her old client in vain: Chela had not had contact with Barbara Murphy since the beginning of April. The separation of the two lovers had now lasted more than twice the length of the time they had actually spent together. There had been no reply to the indirect message he had sent on her behalf from Cancún. In a month’s time, Jonas would be leaving for Madrid to deliver the Cardenas Foundation lectures. He did not look forward to the additional bureaucratic hurdles which he would face in obtaining a visa for Chela to accompany him, but it also troubled him to contemplate leaving her behind to an questionable future in Mexico. It was supposed to have been an unproblematic hand-off to this larger-than-life stranger, Barbara Murphy, who had unwittingly altered his life in wooing his Cuban bed companion. Now it was an untidy situation that made him extremely nervous.

The woman sitting beside Jonas Erskildsson was not nervous. Anxiety would require from her body the ability to churn its discontent and from her mind the ability to believe that things could turn out anyway but badly. Chela had moved past this point in her emotional exhaustion. As Leti had once predicted would occur should she be deprived of Barbara’s love for too long, despair had settled deep into her bones.

She had survived the unspeakable horror of abandonment on the high seas. She had stepped back from the threshold of death and onto Papa Nicolas’s raft only to find herself perched on the edge of mortality again as the winds whipped the waters around the little craft, tipping it precariously.

She had swallowed her bitter disappointment when the vessel that drew alongside and plucked her and her companions from the water returned them to Cuba and she was faced with the prospect of starting her escape all over again.

At the Matanzas hospital her skin had protested vehemently at having to make contact with the rough cloth of the hospital bed sheets — but she barely raised a whimper. She had endured her treatments stoically and managed to muster up gratitude that her scars were minimal.

She had braved Jonas’s displeasure when she returned to Havana to hold him to his promise to serve as an avenue of last resort for her to leave the island. She had found the capacity to intellectually engage with him and look past his constant brooding and requests for sex.

She had done all of this, but in the absence of any immediate crises to occupy her attention since arriving in Cancún a space had been created for the weeds of resignation to grow. The interminable Mexican days were a debilitating holding pattern during which Barbara Murphy’s absence and the growing uncertainty over whether she would come for her had reduced Chela to an automaton of grief. She had become a ghost as much as if she had drowned in the Florida Straits.

Chela looked upon the tourists frolicking about her - sipping at drinks festooned with large paper parasols and gambling at shuffleboard — and decided that she was in that section of hell reserved for those who cease believing in the redemption of passion and come to accept their lives as a chain of banal opportunities for mediocre comforts. The pad and pen at her side were there more from habit than from any expectation that something might bloom upon the page. She had written nothing of consequence since the long letter she had composed to Barbara before setting forth from Cojimar. The words would not come. The spirits which had whispered inspirations in her ear had gone silent. Returning time and time again to themes which had compelled her to write in the past, she found that the lakes of images and rhythm in which she had always successfully fished had been dredged and were parched wastelands, their beds cracked and lifeless. She could barely manage the necessary task of entertaining Jonas, whom she alternatively regarded as savior and jailor.

I guess I have moved into another story, she thought miserably as she tugged the sleeves of her light blouse down to cover her wrists. In the space of a year I have gone from Sleeping Beauty to Don Quijote, from The Ancient Mariner to Waiting for Godot, and now I am trapped in Scheherazade. I am spinning out my thousand and one nights of interesting variations on the theme of Cuban reality for him to consume and then present as his own and I fear that it will still not be enough to stave off a real world class tantrum from him.

Sometimes I wish there were a real sultan holding power over my fate and I could just present my disappointing and empty slate to him and feel the mercy of the blade going through my neck. Better than this slow process of feeling every tiny part of me starve from the lack of her, and then hardening to form a soulless mummified corpse. Perhaps I am like those species of animals which die when taken into captivity out of their homelands: if I was not to have her, I would at least have had Havana.

Well, let me bring the next payment for my keep to Jonas. I swear, in some ways it would just be easier to fuck him than to continue to hand over idea after idea. Let me see… what might be an amusing development to have associated with his name in Martí studies?

She sighed loudly and turned to her companion, forcing a half-smile onto her face. The sunglasses kept her eyes and the truth of indifference reflected in them safely hidden.

"Did you ever think about what it meant in terms of gendered expectations that Martí published his first novel under a pseudonym that represented him as a woman?"

"I think I mention the pseudonym, but I haven’t really done anything with it, and you are right. I should. I think it would be particularly useful to think this through with you because you are a woman. Perhaps there are some dimensions to this masking of identity that I have missed." I will take the bait, Chela, thought Jonas as he reached for his own notebook. I do appreciate your attempts to compensate me for this long exile from Havana and its beautiful whores.

A vestigial spark of resilience stirred amidst the ashes of Chela’s spirit.

"Well, you know," the Cuban woman coolly began, "it won’t be easy to integrate a lot of what I think on this subject into your presentation. What is on the surface to examine is Martí’s romantic notion of women as the mothers of patriots and that is very easy to expound upon. But he ignored them, you know, the ones who weren’t suffering mothers and wives - the ones who were doing the fighting and the dying. Women fell in battle in positions ranging from general to flag bearer and died with no promise of having a vote or voice in the new regime they gave their lives for. I think there is a real ambivalence towards women in Martí that nobody wants to look at."

"I think I need another lemonade, Chela. Can I get you something?" Damn it, thought Jonas as he hastily got to his feet. I thought we were on the way to discussing sensuality and women, not to having you spew feminist bombast at me. Still, I suppose it would look very cutting edge and politically correct of me to incorporate this avenue of thought into my research and it wouldn’t hurt to introduce this new topic into Martí studies.

"I would like some water. Thank you." Chela found that since her ordeal at sea she could never get enough to drink. The current bottle of spring water at her side was still half full and already she was anticipating acquiring the next one. She settled back into her deck chair to rest, satisfied that her companion — although intellectually stimulated by their conversation — had been sufficiently put off by her comments so as to leave her be for a time. Yes, she thought despondently, more minutes to feel the absence of Barbara Murphy and the absence of Cuba. She ran her finger over the claddagh ring, which she had refused to take off since the day her lover placed it on her hand. It was a haunting souvenir from the land of happiness from which she found herself exiled.



"After all is said and done…I gotta move while it’s still fun… I’m gonna walk before they make me run…"

At the foot of the drive leading up to Cielo Campestre a skirmish of another sort was being fought. The groundskeepers and security men were scratching their heads about what to do about the interloper who displayed many of the traits considered anathema at the resort. The woman’s vehicle was very loud — both because of its trumpeting muffler and because of the offensive music spilling out of its open windows. Allowing the passage of the car onto the pristine grounds of Cielo Campestre would be the equivalent of permitting a flea-ridden pack mule to gambol among the thoroughbreds in a royal stable. The Volkswagen Beetle was gray — where it retained paint of any sort on its rusty body - and it was weighted down with an oversized roof rack intended for a larger automobile. The driver, however, did not appear to be a conventional hippie refugee, as one might presume from her down-scale mount. The woman, although dressed modestly in T-shirt and jeans and bronzed by the sun, assertively waved in the faces of the staff a U.S. passport that identified her as a physician and insisted that she was expected at the hotel.

"Ma’am!" yelled an exasperated guard. "It would be easier for us to chat if you turned that down!"

"I don’t want to ‘chat,’ thanks. I told you, I’m really late and someone is waiting for me." She relented and lowered the volume.

"Who specifically and I will see if you are on the list?" inquired the skeptical man.

"Umm, Erskildsson. I’m late to see the Erskildssons."

My god, thought the guard as he matched her passport against the "admit" list. It is that weird man who wanted me to get him a whore! He has had to send to the United States for a woman! Well, let the dollars flow! Who am I to deprive a guest who has gone to such lengths to ruin his honeymoon! He waved her on.

The Beetle chugged slowly up the hill to the pool area, its coughing and sputtering so alarming the birds as it passed that these altogether dispersed from its path. The guests on the hotel patio stared wide-eyed in disgust as the disreputable vehicle approached their playground and came to a grinding halt. A few of the more timid wondered if the "troubles" from the southern state of Chiapas had worked their way east to the Yucatán and they were about to be assaulted by grimy and dark guerrillas — for didn’t these travel in Volkswagens? - who would be violently resentful of their riches. After the music and motor were turned off and the driver was revealed to be a non-Mexican woman, most returned to their interrupted leisure, reassured by the woman’s unthreatening appearance.

As Barbara approached the patio, Chela rose to greet her — and was surprised to find herself awash in dread and fear. She had played this scene through in her mind a million times between her first lonely night in the Cuban jail and her most recent night in luxury at Cielo Campestre. She had always imagined that it would be a moment of profound and indescribable joy. Surely she would run to throw herself into the other woman’s arms, thunder would sound, and every heart in the immediate vicinity would tremble as the balance disrupted by her and Barbara’s parting was restored. She found instead that she could only stand waiting — a somber and stooped figure draped in gray vestments — with her hands shaking by her side.

It is all illusion. I am not going to be the fool that leaps up into the air and comes down hard and bruised. I have already done that too many times. Oh, but what if this is real. Then there is the small matter of what I am right now. It is not just my sensitive skin and those scars on my face. Barbara fell in love with a strong woman and I just feel so weak. I do not want to see pity on her face.

Jonas returned with the lemonade and water and — noting both the approach of the attractive stranger and Chela’s immobility — quickly surmised that Barbara Murphy had arrived. He placed the drinks down next to the deck chair and discreetly absented himself. This was a moment in which he did not wish to participate, although the best part of him was very happy for his companion and the lust-driven part of him was wildly rejoicing in anticipation of the end of his involuntary period of celibacy.

Barbara raked her gaze over her surroundings several times before zeroing in on the woman who stood apart from the poolside bustle. The sunglasses and the elaborately protective garb — which seemed extreme for the warm weather of the Yucatán — had thrown her off, but only momentarily. Is she in disguise? Cuz, heck, I am a friggin’ homing missile. I can find her anywhere. Well, with quite a lot of help from her, I admit! She hurried toward the figure waiting against the back wall of the deck.

Then, as if hit by a round of buckshot, she was slowed in her tracks, stunned into near immobility by the forceful realization of how very different their lives had been since they had parted, in fact, since their births.

Before her was the woman who had written the journals she had been painstakingly reading and editing for the past seven months.

Love has left for the North.
To the South are bequeathed razors and socks
A broken mandolin…
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…

They fly away:
The measured words and tender touches
The efforts at turning the wheel
The patient hours in the endless lines
of life lived in constant waiting.

Aché to those who found a way
to not be counted among the defeated,
to not be taken as trophies
in the terrible night…
I cry out as we are poured into
the coffee cups of the Spaniards,
of the Yankees,
of the Soviets.
The bitter liquid peels back our skins,
leaving us as human bagasse…

I have spent most of my life walking around with a friggin’ chip on my shoulder because I thought I’d had it hard. But those words that reduced me to tears time and time again as I read them - they are drawn from life. They are drawn from her life. From the life of this flesh and blood Chela which is a little different from some heroic figure on a page who you can’t really see hurting. And in all that time we were together — before I knew what I know now - I never saw any self-pity or bad attitude or bitterness.

And I just spent the last seven months feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have Chela by my side. I sat in air conditioning. I ate what I wanted when I wanted. I slept in a soft bed. I had people treat me with unbelievable kindness because "Poor, poor Barb, she left her girlfriend behind in Havana." I friggin’ started to court another woman. I’ve been self-righteously flying down the road feeling like the big hero because I’m romantically leaving it all behind for the love of my life, and the truth is that I have a place to go back to, if I want it. The truth is, I was ready to be over it — in the sense that I would have survived. But she almost did not. The truth is that I don’t have a clue what it must have been like for her to go through all of this.

She took a few more steps, and now she could clearly see the tightness with which Chela held herself. She could see the thin light-colored lines of discoloration just under her eyes and the note of fear that revealed itself in the slight twitch of her facial muscles and the set of her jaw. Barbara thought about what she had not permitted herself to read between the lines of Nicolas Fouron’s letter and about how hard she had worked to avoid learning anything about what happened to people desperate enough to take to the sea in the way that Chela had. And then there was the abject misery that had permeated Chela’s letter to her from Cuba: Barbara had focused only on the eloquent analysis, but it was clear from her rigid stance that the younger woman had undergone tremendous suffering in the months of their separation.

Cowboy up time, Southie girl, she encouraged herself as she closed the distance between them. You can do this. You don’t deserve her at all, but it’s given to you to be the one who claims her. It’s given to you to be the one that accompanies her back up to the surface and breathes the life back in to her after this goddamn shitty world has let her drown.

She boldly took the Cuban woman in her arms and held her close, not waiting for speech or for invitation, and rocked her in silence for a few seconds until she felt the stiffness in her partner’s shoulders begin to melt.

"Hey, mami," she whispered, pulling back slightly and reaching for the sunglasses. "I came a long way to see your eyes." She removed the barrier that prevented her from seeing them and read all the uncertainty that they telegraphed. "There you are, Chelita. I missed you, Chela. I love you and I want you. Am I still what you want?"

Chela finally reacted, raising a hand to brush away a stray hair from Barbara’s brow and letting her thumb linger against the older woman’s cheek.

" I am a little frightened," confessed Chela quietly in a broken voice. "I feel like I’ve died and resurrected myself a million times since you went away, each time pulling myself back with the hope that I would have you again. And Barbara, now you are here. There are no more barriers of geography between us. Now it becomes real between us in a way that it never truly was before. But I wish that I was in stronger shape to start this journey with you. I’m not feeling that great."

Barbara shrugged her shoulders and bent her head to plant a tentative kiss on Chela’s lips. She smiled broadly as she moved away, so that Chela could see her face and the sincerity behind her words.

"It’s not a problem that you are how you are right now. I’m your canoe, remember? I’m supposed to be carrying you. Except that’s not how it has really been, has it?" She tilted Chela’s face up with her hand, encouraging her to meet her eyes. Tears were breeching both of their defenses now as they moved closer to revealing their vulnerability and emotions to one another.

"Chela, you are the one who has always carried us. You are the one that always did the unthinkably brave things to keep our love alive, and you are the one who was patient with me in a way that no one in my life has been.

"So maybe it’s time that you just let me do some of that hard work, Chela. You’re right — it becomes real now, and ‘real’ is having someone who is weak and tired sometimes. I read the journals, Chela — all of them. All those years of perfect scores in school and perfect politics and perfect behavior — even being the perfect fantasy. It must be exhausting, mami.

"And we are a pair, you know? Because I have been the opposite: I’ve taken a kind of pride in messing up and then challenging people to love me anyway. But ‘real’ is also having someone who you can count on to try harder than that, Chela: it is having someone who is not going fade away from you when it gets this bad. I am sorry that I haven’t been that person before. But I am ready to be that now."

Barbara was gaining more confidence as she spoke, her certainty that she speaking the truths that resonated with her partner’s experiences bolstered by Chela’s beginning to move against her. Chela was running her hands lightly up Barbara’s back now and pressing herself into the taller woman, attempting to feel all of her through the abundance of clothing separating them.

"That’s better, Chela," affirmed Barbara. She could hear the younger woman’s breath coming stronger in a re-awakening of the warmth between them and she was overwhelmed by a sense of deep gratitude and awe. She is coming back to me. She feels safe with me. I am not the biggest friggin’ jerk in the world. Maybe just today and just with this woman, I am something better.

"Go ahead and feel me. Scream at me if you need to — that would be all right too. I will just be happy to hear your voice. I am so in love with you, Chela, and I want you to take anything you goddamn need from me. I will never deny you anything."

"Good," murmured the other woman tearfully as she lay her head against Barbara’s shoulder. "Because I do want a lot. It is not going to be easy. I don’t have the Cuban land under me any more, Barbara, and without that soil my roots are feeling pretty tender and fragile." She reached up to stroke the older woman’s cheek and let out a sad laugh as she remembered the last time she had felt this close to her lover.

"You know there was one night when it seemed that it was all over for me. I was alone in the sea and I was terrified. There had been sharks about. I had not had enough fresh water and my guts ached terribly. And suddenly I felt you there with me. The things I heard you say that night, Barbara — they are very much like the things you are saying now. The words brought me a lot of peace: I thought that even if I was cast out of every country and cut off from every familiar landmark that I could always find a home with you." She paused and Barbara felt Chela stiffen slightly as she drew a deep breath before continuing.

"But, Barbara, you need to really be sure about this, because as awkward as it would be, if you are not I can probably still find it in myself to get Jonas to take me back to Cuba. If you are not absolutely certain I need to know. I don’t think I can survive being uprooted one more time if we commit to each other and then you walk away."

"Chela, look at me." The American woman was not smiling; the moment was too grave for defensive humor or lightness. " I love you and I will not walk away. And you know that I do not lie."

Chela sighed. Let me see. Please, God, let her give the right answer.

"All right then, Barbara," she stated calmly. "Did you find anyone else while we were apart?"

"I started seeing someone as more than a friend right before learning that you were here and waiting, Chela. I had thought you dead for several months and I was just starting to consider the possibility of opening my heart again. We never made love, but we probably would have soon if I had not been given this second chance with you."

The American woman had replied without hesitation and without turning her eyes away. Her voice had not faltered and the volume of her speech had not altered as Barbara confessed that she had indeed believed in a life beyond the two of them.

So… it seems she is not afraid anymore of sharing the truth with me, even when it concerns hard things. And that was a very hard thing to tell me. I think this may work out, after all!

Chela took in a deep breath and let out her first genuine smile in months. Then she let laughter force cracks into the walls of her doubts until they crumbled. Barbara reached for her again, giving her another fierce hug. She also let soft laughter mix with the tears running freely down her face.

"I suppose I shouldn’t ask you," she affectionately growled into Chela’s ear.

"I never gave anyone what we had, Barbara. I told you that I would only share my passion with you. Nor did I look for someone to replace you." Her voice was thoughtful and quiet as she found the right words to convey the truth of her heart.

Ah, Chela, thought Barbara as she picked the smaller woman up and ecstatically kissed her face and neck. You should have been a diplomat, my tactful goddess. But I don’t need to know anything else. You risked your life and left your country for me. That is enough.

Chela was responding with great enthusiasm now, kissing her deeply and unabashedly letting her caresses of the older woman’s body skirt the edge of propriety. They interrupted their kisses as they suddenly realized that recreational activities around the pool had come to a halt. The confused tourists had stopped to witness the intense and intimate interaction and were now staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed, like dozens of outraged sea bass. In a synchronized explosion of delight the two women began roaring again, until their hilarity threatened their very ability to stay upright. Chela sobered as, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jonas begin to approach them.

Barbara put Chela down and warily turned to face her lover’s former client.

"You must be Barbara Murphy," he tremulously began. "Well, I hope you see I’ve taken good care of Chela in your absence."

"So is her citizenship finalized?" Barbara chose to ignore the man’s comment and his bid to shift the conversation into the language in which Chela would be at a disadvantage. It was taking all of her self control to keep from lashing out at the timid little man who had been her predecessor in Chela’s bed.

"Not yet," replied Chela, silencing her ‘husband’ with a raised hand and not sparing him a glance. Jonas visibly shrank, the meager confidence he had mustered to face the formidable Barbara Murphy evaporating at the young woman’s dismissal of him as a participant in the conversation. "I have the passport and in another five months they can either send the final documents to Jonas’s permanent residence or to a Norwegian consulate of our choosing. At one year past our marriage date Jonas will divorce me for abandonment without prejudice to my citizenship. I am sorry, my compañera, that I could not find an American."

"I am sorry that I wasn’t exactly what was desired for this arrangement," protested Jonas petulantly. "Nonetheless I think I did a pretty good job in making this little reunion possible." He was surprised to find that Chela’s indifference mattered to him. His pride — which he thought was armor-plated outside of academic contexts — was showing dents.

"Arrange to have her papers sent here to Cancún," Barbara coldly ordered Jonas. "Does she owe you anything?"

"No." "No."

Chela and the man had answered in unison. They both understood that the intellectual property she had brought to the table more than equaled the value of her passage off the island.

"But," added Jonas quickly, "it would mean a lot to me if there were a way we could remain in contact, Chela. And maybe we should talk about your having more formal recognition in my publications. Would you like that, Chela?"

Chela looked at the man in disbelief. "That sounds like something that would happen between friends or between colleagues, Jonas. And even though you have always been a kind man, I thought you appreciated the ‘sensible’ nature of our business arrangements. Weren’t you the one who always said that it would be devastating to your career to have it known that much of your recent work is the product of a collaboration with a prostitute who never went to college? I am not disappointed by the service you have given me in providing me my citizenship. Are you disappointed in the service I have given you?" She waited a few beats for him to answer, but Jonas was silent, his face sagging at the young woman’s refusal of his peace offering.

"All right, Chelita," interrupted Barbara, her voice returning to a warm and soothing register. "Go get your things then, my love."

"It’s all right here," said Chela in a small voice, indicating a bag tucked behind your deck chair.

It is over! thought Jonas in shock. She will walk away from here and never think twice about me again. And I will see her every time I turn the pages of my own books! She will be inescapable! But I — I am very escapable! It is just as I feared: the stamen has consumed the pistil once again! She is just like every other woman! Realizing that he needed to say something to combat his steady erasure from the drama unfolding around him, he grasped for any words that might re-inscribe the kind of power he had once felt in the presence of the beautiful young Cuban woman.

"Yes, it’s rather funny," he finally offered with a nervous giggle. "She has brought that down every day. It was a bit like watching a dog waiting for its owner who has gone on holiday."

"Come on, Barbara," said Chela forcefully, taking her bag in one hand and grabbing her lover with the other. Let me head this off at the pass. We are almost home free and I — who am not the hothead - want to castrate him for that last comment. And for better or worse, he has kept his side of the bargain. She resolutely strode away from Jonas, not deigning to turn for a final look.

On any other day Barbara would have relished strangling the man with his own intestines, but today was the day she was starting a new life with Chela and continuing to engage with Jonas was only postponing their departure from Cielo Campestre. She let herself be led to the parking area.

"I thought you had a big car," smiled Chela as she set her bag down next to the beetle.

"So wasteful, mami!" replied Barbara jokingly. "This uses very little petrol. Also it cost me very little to buy after I returned the rental I drove over the border and we will not miss it very much when we have to leave it behind." She opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat, her excitement mounting as Chela placed her bag in the back seat and took her place beside her. "We are off, Chela! I can’t believe it!"

A hand covered hers, stopping it from turning the key in the ignition.

"Barbara, where are we going?" Listening intently for the answer, Chela began the process of unveiling herself, removing the kerchief from her head and taking off the long-sleeved shirt that covered the light shell she wore beneath it.

Barbara reached out to caress the soft baby-smooth skin of Chela’s arm. She is just beautiful in a new way. She looks a little like an exotic cat with those faint suggestions of lines coursing across her limbs and chest.

"You have heard about the indigenous uprising south of here, in Chiapas?"

Chela nodded.

"I thought we might give them a try, compañera. It would be refreshing to be a part of a revolution that we still have time to shape. It seems their cause is just and our skills are useful: they need doctors and they welcome poets."

"Barbara," replied Chela hesitantly. "What if things start to go bad there, too? What happens when the leaders start taking better care of themselves than they do of the foot soldiers, and what do we do if the rules for proving one’s loyalty to the struggle become as ridiculous as the laws of the old regime? It could be like Cuba all over again.

"Hmmm," acknowledged Barbara grimly.

"And worse - what if they decide that two women who love each other cannot be sufficiently revolutionary?"

"I’ve thought about that a lot, Chela." Barbara pulled her lover close, running her fingers through Chela’s curly hair as she nuzzled her face. "In the end, Chelita, the only revolution I am committed to for life is the one we are making with our relationship. Damn, mami, the way you overthrow my limitations and open up my heart — not to mention the way you stir up my body - those aren’t things that any movement or government is going to give me, but I won’t stay where I can’t have them.

"Chela, we can try to make it work with the Zapatistas in Chiapas - as long as they can make room for our differences. And we can keep each other honest about whether they make decisions that are good for all of us. If they botch it, well, we will move on to the next struggle that looks promising. And if that one also should be corrupted, we will pick up and move on again."

They shared a long kiss as the Beetle’s engine sputtered into action.

"All right, then," smiled Chela quietly, trying not to react to the music which blared from the little car’s speakers as they rolled down the Cielo Campestre drive. "Take us to Chiapas."

After about two minutes on the road Chela had had enough. Barbara warily looked on as her partner removed the Rolling Stones cassette from the tape player and threw it out the window into a garbage heap. In her rear-view mirror, Barbara could see the tape’s distended black insides fluttering like kite tails in the wind.

"Umm… Chela," she began. "You really need to talk to me before getting rid of stuff like that."

"Barbara, I am very familiar with that album. It is incredibly sexist and it is racist as well. This…" Chela gestured at the interior of the Volkswagen, "is my home now, too and there are some things that I just can’t tolerate in my home. All that white machista posturing about ‘we’re gonna come around at twelve with some Porto Rican girls who are just dying to meet you’ and all that shit about ‘how black girls just want to get fucked all night"… I mean you love good music, too… right?"

Heh! She is, like, so back! That man who wrote me, Nicolas, was right! I am in so much trouble! Oh god, please help me. OK, visualize Superglue slathered liberally between your lips. Your tongue is sutured to your palate. No! No! Don’t do it! This is not the time to break into the chorus to "Brown Sugar!"

Half an hour later, with the car safely pulled off the road and hidden behind a stand of trees, Barbara wasn’t thinking about the Rolling Stones tape anymore. She was marveling at the way some things had come full circle in her life: she was thirty-two years old and once again wedged in the rear seat of a Volkswagen Beetle making love to another woman. She had a momentary flashback of the fumbling, stoned sixteen year-old who had first undertaken this delicious activity in comparable quarters. Today she had imbibed neither booze nor pot, but she was intoxicated nonetheless. The soft cries emanating from Chela as Barbara pleasured her repeatedly made her feel drunk with all the possibilities of their future together.

"That’s it, mami," she hoarsely whispered in the younger woman’s ear. "Let me hear how good it feels to come home."

I could listen to her forever this way. Well, maybe in a place more comfortable than this back seat! My back’s gonna kill me tomorrow. But it’s a kind of magic, watching her body and spirit wake up when I take her. I could no more give this up than I could give up being a doctor. I guess both things are similar: it looks like I’m the one doing the healing, but I’m the one who feels brought back to life in the end. I kiss her and I can see the flames rise up in her eyes again. I touch her and I can see the new stories and poems waiting to be born, and her renewed sense of adventure and the endless kindness inside of her. I can see this working… I can see.




November 1995 Boston

It was closing time and the restaurant was empty of customers save for the two men who shared a corner table. The sullen young man fidgeted with his place setting and nervously took sips of water between impassioned bursts of speech directed towards his dining companion. The portly older man was still eating. He delightedly twirled his spaghetti around his fork, not caring that the sauce was spattering lightly onto his dark suit jacket and white shirt. His attention seemed to be well-focused on his dinner, a fact which irritated his younger companion who endeavored in vain to draw a response from him.

"Look, you must be able to do better by me than this! Shit! How the fuck am I supposed to be able to pay back my student loans if I can’t practice? They can’t take my fucking license! They can’t! I have paid you a lot of money! Do something! Get me sent to a fucking rehab program! Tell them I have a treatable sex addiction or something! Use your fucking imagination."

The older man interrupted the inhalation of his pasta to shoot a tired look at his excited table-mate. He took a sip of wine, then wiped his face and shirt front as he replied to the other man’s comments.

"You are being extremely ungrateful. I would not have come anywhere near a case this hopeless if it were not that your father and I came from the same town in Cuba. You are lucky that it is just your medical license. You can find another career. But I would advise you to find it in another town. I can guarantee you that even if there are no other legal repercussions, your health may suffer as a result of what you did. Excuse me, what the young women allege that you did. Perhaps jail time and losing a career are the expected consequences for doing inappropriate things with yourself in the presence of young lady patients. But the fifth complainant against you is the daughter of the head of one of our older Sicilian families. Frankly, I am surprised you are still alive."

The younger man’s face was screwed tight in anger as he cut short the portly man’s commentary by slamming a fist down on the table. Utensils went flying onto the floor and a busboy discreetly moved in to pick up the items.

"I don’t need to hear this! You are supposed to be on my side!"

The busboy made his way back to the kitchen, which was closed down for the night. Only he and the dishwasher remained at work in the back. He threw the soiled utensils into the sink. Their clatter stimulated the dishwasher into motion. He had been sitting with a massive textbook open before him, quietly studying as he waited for the last of the evening’s dishes to come in. The busboy was always impressed by his co-worker’s devotion to his studies. He knew that after working the closing shift the other man would head home to put in more hours of reading.

"Christ, dude! You are gonna need glasses! At least sit closer to the light! No one is gonna want a physician’s assistant that’s so near-sighted that he tells you to ‘say ahhh’ and then gives you a rectal!"

The dishwasher laughed and whipped a towel jokingly at the busboy, hitting him lightly on the shoulder.

"By the way, dude, I think a few of your countrymen are out there. They are talkin’ in Taco Bell so I didn’t understand anything, but I could swear that I heard the word ‘Cuba.’

"Let me see," replied the dishwasher, looking through the small window that opened onto the dining room.

May a bad lightning bolt hit this shit! I shit on the mother of the devil!

Twenty minutes later the two diners had parted. The older gentleman went off in the direction of Back Bay station to catch a bus. The younger man wearily shuffled down the long alley where he had found a rare legal parking spot. Suddenly, he realized that he was not alone — the person who was quickly coming up behind him was making no effort to hide their presence - and he picked up his pace. He could hear the footsteps behind him also quickening.

Oh my god! I am going to be mugged! Or worse! I wonder if it is the mafia! That little bitch! I didn’t even have it out of my pants!

He was abruptly stopped in his tracks by a hand that reached over his collar and pulled him back and off balance at the same time that his feet were swept out from under him. He fell onto his belly and struggled to protect his head from the blows and kicks that began immediately to rain down on him. He was roughly yanked up by the hair and forced to turn so he could see his attacker and the large kitchen knife that he wielded.

"Don’t scream! And don’t move! Because I will use this without thinking twice! I just have a few things for you, you piece of shit!"

He drew back his leg and solidly connected his shoe against the prone man’s testicles. Despite his assailant’s warning, Alex yelped.

"That one is for Chela Stevens and the suffering she endured because of you!"

The foot connected again, this time cracking a rib.

"And that is for Barbara Murphy, whose honor you soiled after she sacrificed herself helping the people of Cuba. And this one…"

He grunted hard as he put all the strength of his body into the blow that flattened Alex’s nose sideways against his face and tore his cheek open.

"This one is for me, because Cuba needs doctors and I would have made a good one. I don’t care if you call the police and tell. I really don’t. I will tell anyone who will listen that you are a dishonest worm with no shame — and that you do not deserve to be a doctor."

He released the beaten man, adding one more kick for good measure. Then he walked hurriedly away, disposing of the knife in an open garbage can before turning onto Huntington Avenue.

That felt really good, thought Pedro headily. But I wonder if I will regret it? He is a doctor here and I am only a dishwasher. It would not go well with me with the police. Well, only a dishwasher for now. The time will come soon when I will see patients and if I am lucky I will be working with a doctor as good as the one I have just avenged.

As he passed the all-night donut shop on the way to his bus stop, Pedro felt a moment’s fear at seeing the police car parked outside. He approached and saw that the officer had his car window cracked open and that the steam from his Styrofoam coffee cup was rising up to cloud the glass. The two men briefly caught each other’s eye and the policeman nodded a greeting. Pedro smiled back.

Well they are human beings, too and - even if they had to arrest me - maybe they would understand. And if I am to go to jail let it be for being a man who would not allow what he loved to be harmed with impunity.




1996 New York City

Simultaneous web-cast of the 1996 PEN American Center Literary Awards from Lincoln Center.

Announcer: For the past four years the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award has honored U.S. residents who have sacrificed themselves to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word. I’m sure that all authors and publishers were chilled this March by the images on the television news of the bombed-out offices of Bay Crossing Press and the funeral of one of that press’s senior editors. This violent and deadly act was the culmination of a harrowing series of attempts on the part of the U.S. government and rabid bullies to prevent the publication and distribution of the ground-breaking and now best-selling memoir Embargoed Love.

The attempts by the state to suppress portions of this book in the interests of "national security" are representative of the increasing encroachment on citizens’ abilities to describe and make public those aspects of their experiences which belie our sense of ourselves as a "free country." Co-author Barbara Murphy’s ordeal with the National Security Agency is paralleled by Bay Crossing’s legal struggles, which prompted editor Deirdre Kurtz’s courageous decision last year to endure imprisonment for two months rather than turn over confidential data related to Murphy’s current residence. Then there were the pickets by some elements of the Cuban-American community and their slanderous and strident efforts to intimidate book-sellers. As Barbara Murphy noted in the preface of this book, it is a great irony that in the name of winning freedom for Cuba some sons-in-exile of that troubled land should silence the very people they seek to succor.

This unusual book — part memoir, part poetry collection, part travel narrative, and part love story — provides us with a rare glimpse of what it means to have come to maturity in contemporary Cuba and then grants us a view into another soul — that of U.S. physician Barbara Murphy - who reaches out to understand that experience through an intimate and engaged lens. It is a powerful testament to our common humanity, a testament which threatens those forces invested in preserving ideological boundaries and rigid borders. That is why it has merited special negative attention and extreme attempts at censorship.

The PEN Center is pleased to celebrate the courage of two U.S. citizens who have fought to bring this book to life despite the impact of repression on their lives. This year’s PEN Newman’s Own Award is awarded post-humously to editor Deirdre Kurtz, who continued to labor ceaselessly on behalf of freedom of expression in the face of mounting and ominous threats against her life and in absentia to Embargoed Love co-author Barbara Murphy. Although the citizenship requirements of our award bar us from formally making a presentation to co-author Marcela "Chela" Stevens, the judges wish to honor her tonight as well. As one member of our panel noted, her words take the concept of "the enemy" and altogether shatter it. Accepting this award on behalf of co-author Barbara Murphy is her friend and literary executor, Dr. Eladio Torres.


Torres: Good evening to all of you, ladies and gentlemen. And good evening to you, Barbara, since I am hoping that Subcomandante Marcos has been able to spare your skills as a physician for a brief time and has you hooked up and online. It is truly a remarkable thing to think about how small the world has become through technology and that — over the Internet - we are able to practically follow every step of the struggle you are waging in Chiapas.

But the world is much too large in other ways. Only ninety miles away from Miami sits the old city of Havana, veiled from the eyes of most North Americans by a thick curtain of mutual fear and mistrust. Chela Stevens pierces that veil through her eloquent and intimate musings — musings that were never intended for publication.

I was initially uncomfortable with Barbara Murphy’s decision to use these very personal writings as the basis for this longer text — to which she has added her own voice as Chela Steven’s lover and as a physician struggling to respond to the suffering caused by both U.S. policies towards Cuba and Cuba’s own internal mis-development. In the wake of the death of Ms. Kurtz, I must retract my earlier discouraging statements to Barbara. This senseless violence proves the necessity of Chela Steven’s voice being heard.

I believe that Barbara originally undertook this project out of her rage: she found love and then had it ripped way from her through deceitful means and all because of an outdated and ineffective Cold War politics. She wanted the North American reading audience to see up-close one of the human faces that is distorted in abstract political speech about our "Communist enemy" to the south. She wanted the painful separation she describes never to happen to other lovers who dare find each other across national boundaries. I am very humbled to be accepting this award on her behalf. I thank the PEN American Center in her name.

And Barbara… please forgive this inflexible old man who once told you not to go to Havana and who railed against you when you said you wanted to help my estranged countrymen. I told you they did not deserve your consideration. I am just different in degree — not in kind - from the people who took your editor’s life and who starved your lover and forced her onto the streets. I am very grateful that in response to all of this selfishness what you have chosen to do is share Chela with all of us.




Cheap Planet Travel Guide — Washington, D.C. Updated for 1998

Restaurants and Buffets: Adams Morgan Neighborhood

La Reinita Café (The Little Queen Café)

387 S. Ursuline St. (375-8455). Open: Noon to 10PM. Monday through Friday, only. Main courses: $10-$17. No credit cards accepted.

During peak hours be prepared to stand in line to occupy one of this tiny eatery’s eight tables. Haitian-Americans and lovers of Caribbean cuisine of all nationalities flock to this little gem from all over the nation’s capital. Madame Fouron, the owner’s wife, will personally attend to the hardening of your arteries with her fabulous pain patate (sweet potato bread) and griot (fried pork). The portions are exceedingly generous. Do not miss the stewed lambi (conch) when it is available. Also do not miss the opportunity — if you are lucky enough to have it — to sit down with colorful owner Nicolas Fouron, who is always ready to share a drink and a story with patrons. This reviewer recommends asking him to tell the whopper about his encounter with the young woman after whom the café is named. ("How big were those waves again, Monsieur Nicolas?")




February 1, 1998

From the New York Times


Jonas Erskildsson, 58. In Trômsk, Norway, on January 31, from lung cancer. A prominent and prolific scholar of Latin American literature, Erskildsson surprised the literary world in the mid-1990s by abandoning his specialty — the poetry of Cuban nationalist José Martí — and turning to the writing of poetry himself. His collection, Iceberg Flowers, won Norway’s prestigious Fjeld Award in 1996. It was described by Gabriel García Márquez in a 1997 NYT Book Review as a "potent revival of eighties-style nihilistic sentiment" and a "haunting and perverse celebration of mechanistic sterility."




BuyBooks.com: buying info: Embargoed Love


Avg. Customer Rating: ☻☻☻☻☺

Write an online review and share your thoughts with other customers!

☻☻☻☻☻ Umm, Is this Posting? , June 6, 2003

Reviewer: marcosmandabomb@youthcon.net from Dad’s computer, Upstairs.

Well, this is not really a review but I saw someone else use this site this way. I know it’s weird but maybe your publisher knows how to contact you and will let you know that I wrote. I mean it’s not as if we really know each other. I really wish I remembered you, Titi Chela, but I don’t. Although I heard enough stories about you growing up I sometimes think I do. I just was thinking about you tonight because I’m going to this dance at school and it’s this whole retro-salsa thing and I guess I have you to thank for having some idea about what to do even though I’ll probably look like an idiot anyway. I loved that story the parental units would tell about how you taught mom to dance in fourth grade. She taught me. She taught the old man, too. It used to really embarrass me to watch them dancing around the house — it was way too mushy. I mean everyone wants their parents to look dignified, or at least look like they don’t "do it," you know? I have read your book even though I don’t really think I understand everything that you and your girlfiend are trying to say. I liked the embarrassing parts too but I think the old man would kill me if he knew I was looking at those parts. You are really cool. Anyway if you sent us any letters after those first two, we never got them. We left Havana for the countryside a little after that second letter and then things got worse and mail delivery stopped completely. We finally left for the States and have been here for the last three years. We, meaning me, the old man and my brother. Mom died from cervical cancer a year before we left Cuba. The old man says he doesn’t think she would have lived even if we had been able to get her treatment, but I don’t know. So your book is really important to me because I get to see little bits of what she was like when she was younger, even though it’s really hard to read a lot of that stuff. We were all with her when she died and she was thinking about you when it was getting pretty close. She said she imagined that you were happy and that you were still with your girlfiend. And that if I ran into you to say that she was putting in a good word with "Oshoon"? and that she "owes you big time." Does that make any sense? Anyway, I do hope I hear from you, but don’t tell the old man about my reading the sex parts. — Your "nephew" Marcos.

Was this review helpful to you? Yes ○ No ○




June 10, 1998 Chavavejal, San Juan de la Libertad Autonomous Municipality, Chiapas

I use the first light to read the vow written on your skin
We will not part - you have sworn this -
And I have trusted you.
But the noon time comes and I see you contemplating a voyage.
My tears mix with the blood that runs so heavily from your flesh:
We are imitating the actions of the tired village priest on Sunday
When he brings together water and wine,
But our sacrament saves nothing.
It is an escape of the holy through our careless fingers.
I try to learn the new catechism that you would teach me.
I have a weak faith.
If tonight the stone is rolled away
And you stand before me again,
My resurrected companion,
And show me the places where they pierced your side
And laugh at how death could not keep a tight hold
And ask me to share some food and drink
And to couple with you in defiant aliveness,
I will still be holding my seed of doubt
Tucked into the last jar
Standing on the last shelf
In the last long corridor of my soul.
So bring me the grace to accept
What must inevitably be your transmogrification
And to see you as truly miraculous:
That if you someday are squeezed under the weight of mountains
You will just become the diamond hard enough to scratch into my heart;
That if you someday are swept away in a high wind
You will just become the song that insinuates itself into my mind;
That if you someday are shattered into the tiniest of fragments
You will just become part of the air that I breathe.
Place on my lips the prayer that will make it all so
And recite it with me until I too believe.




August 12, 2001 Chavavejal, San Juan de la Libertad Autonomous Municipality, Chiapas

"Sshhhh. I know! It’s good, isn’t it? But I want you to share this just with me, baby."

There was only one good bed in the Chavavejal clinic complex and Chela was extremely grateful that no patient required it this night. Indeed the absence of any in-patients in the modest little infirmary provided her with the rare opportunity to enjoy the fruits of her seduction of her lover without having to worry too much about unwelcome eyes and ears taking note. Most of the Zapatista peasants and soldiers of the little community were aware that their doctor and her companion "made tortillas" together and either avoided acknowledging the behavior or endeavored to keep safe the two women’s privacy. Still, Chela was acutely aware that for most residents of the closely-knit village, strict adherence to Catholic orthodoxy warred with a tolerance born out of genuine and earned respect for the two of them. She was mildly concerned that someone might hear Barbara even as she wanted to laugh in delight at her partner’s unguarded responsiveness.

"Just with you, mami. Oh, please, please, Chela." Her voice was quieter now, but raw with insistence. "Only you fuck me good like this, mami. Only you fuck me like this."

It was one of those unusual times when her obstinate and assertive older lover was complete in her surrender and Chela was moved by Barbara’s innocent voicing of her need. She was tucked against Chela’s chest with her arms wrapped firmly around the younger woman’s shoulders as she begged shamelessly for Chela to sate her. For her part, Chela let her voice soothe and encourage the woman in her arms as she maintained the steady rhythm with which she was filling her with her hand.

"Don’t worry — I’m not going to stop until you have enough. I love fucking you. I love feeling you around my fingers like this… so wet for me. I’m not going to stop."

Barbara let out a soft cry in response to the words and rocked herself harder against Chela’s hand.

She’s just magic, she thought, as the Cuban woman kissed her deeply, letting their tongues wrestle against each other. She knows exactly what I need and she doesn’t think less of me for needing this strong touch and for needing it so much. If I could just spend my life in her arms.

"That’s it, my big gringa… fuck my hand as hard as you can. I love you, Barbara. I love you so much. Do you think you can give it all up for me, honey? Do you think you can come from my fucking you?"

"Chela…Chela…," Barbara was starting to cry now, overwhelmed by the emotions coursing through her. She was grinding against the younger woman in her excitement, hugging her more tightly as she sought more of her intimate touch.

In response to Barbara’s desperate writhing, Chela started to move more quickly, pulling her fingers well out of her lover’s vagina before forcefully re-entering her. She could feel Barbara drawing closer to her release and she disentangled herself from her embrace so she could lift herself over the American woman. It was Chela’s very favorite position — hovering over Barbara Murphy and looking into her eyes, daring her to stay present and unflinching as she claimed her. She could see Barbara’s eagerness to stay with her in this way — with no barriers separating them — and she smiled warmly before calling to her.

"Let go, baby. Let me take care of you…"

She felt the other woman’s flesh start to pulse against her fingers and she brought herself down onto her body, thrusting hard into her as Barbara’s climax began.

"Oh, you’re coming… I feel it. Oh…"

"Chela!" she was wild-eyed and helpless now, riding the powerful spasms of the orgasm out as she repeatedly cried her lover’s name. "Chela!"

"That’s right, woman! That’s who you belong to," smiled Chela as Barbara’s bucking slowed and she burrowed into the younger woman’s chest. She moved to quickly wrap herself around Barbara, covering her face with kisses as she heard her breathing gradually return to a normal speed.

Barbara struggled to focus her eyes.

"Damn, Chela! Damn!"

Chela laughed, then kissed her again.

"Happy birthday, my old woman!"

"Jeez! Rub it in! I’m a friggin’ dinosaur!"

"Hey, I am so happy to see you hit forty! You are almost, almost, acting like a grown up!"

Barbara grunted happily, then sighed.

"Thank you for doing that — that was sweet. I never thought I would miss hearing English, but I do sometimes. I know it’s the language of ‘world domination.’" They both snorted in amusement at the pretentious political term. "But it was the language of my childhood and the language I came out in, you know? Some of my erotic buttons are hardwired in it. I love when we make love in Spanish, too, mami, but this was special."

"Anytime, cariño. Anytime. Just ask. I really do love fucking you sometimes in English."

Barbara growled softly at hearing her favorite English-language expletive delivered in a overtly sexual tone by Chela.

"Hey," cautioned Chela tenderly, "we really do need to get some sleep. I know for a fact that there is a dance tonight, which means that early tomorrow morning we may meet some cracked heads or sprained ankles."

"That’s good." Barbara yawned. "It’s a good day when all my business comes from people behaving foolishly at a dance." Her eyes were drooping and she settled herself around Chela.

"Will you rub my back? Bringing that second container of water up really did me in." She felt satisfied and peaceful as Chela’s fingers began to press lightly against the sore places, and she looked forward to having good dreams. In a few minutes she was happily snoring into Chela’s ear.

Despite her admonition that they needed sleep, Chela reached over her sleeping lover and relit the lantern. She propped up the light source so that she could look at Barbara’s naked form as she lightly ran her fingers the length of the taller woman’s back.

I love touching her. Her body is an instrument that I have learned to play well, I think. She is so beautiful. And I love watching her body change.

Although Barbara had once declared it an impossibility, she had indeed gotten tan on her belly. She was more heavily freckled on her shoulders now, too. Barbara had given up her use of a punching bag — they were already stretching the gender conventions of the little indigenous community without her being seen practicing a "manly" sport — but she was as muscular as when they had arrived. If anything, she was a little leaner: even though she missed her sweets and ice cream, the diet of Chavavejal was healthier than her old fare in the States.

She let her finger linger in the depression of the angry apricot-sized scar that marred the skin of Barbara’s side. It had been acquired on a terrifying and grief-filled day three summers before, when a platoon of Mexican soldiers had penetrated the village defenses and shot fourteen Zapatistas and Zapatista sympathizers before being repelled. Three of the shooting victims had been at the clinic. Only Barbara had survived: Chela’s quick actions in stanching the loss of blood and her diligence in caring for the physician in the aftermath of the injury saved Barbara’s life. The little boy whose appendix Barbara had been removing when the soldiers entered the compound, and the elderly nun who had overseen the building of the clinic were not so fortunate. They had taken bullets in vital organs and Chela could do nothing for them but comfort them as they passed on.

Yes, she thought sadly, I am the only one left to speak English to her after that dark day.

She smiled as she recalled the afternoon she met the irascible old Sister. A young Zapatista guard had led them up to the clinic after explaining that the previous doctor had fled when the ruling party threatened to send in an assault force to raze the entire San Juan de la Libertad Municipality. They were out of breath and thirsty from climbing up the hill to the little cluster of shacks.

"The Sister will give you clean water to drink. And she speaks English, too," encouraged the young man, gesturing for them to continue forward and greet the habited woman who was facing away from them putting away supplies.

"Excuse me, Sister," asked Barbara politely. "But we are the medical staff the compañeros mentioned would be arriving. We could really use a drink."

The woman turned around slowly and faced them. The woman’s eyes grew wide in shock and then Chela watched in astonishment as the nun turned an ugly shade of purple and let fly a string of colorful expletives in English.

"Well!" replied Barbara cockily. "Maybe you could really use a drink, as well! And hell, I’m really happy to see you again, too, Sister Mary Frances!"

It was the first of a series of daily exchanges of profanity between the two spirited Irish-Americans that stretched out for a period of over four years. Although the two South Bostonians made a great show of snapping at each other, Chela could tell that there was a bone-deep affection and a sincere respect between the old nun and her former student. They liked to joke about how they were present-day "San Patricios," comparing themselves to the Irish-American soldiers who rebelled against poor treatment by Protestant officers during the Mexican-American wars and deserted en masse to form the St. Patrick’s Battalion, which fought alongside the Mexicans against Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista and Churubsco.

"Yep," laughed Sister Mary Frances. "Count on us to volunteer for the losing side because it’s the underdog! Well, Murphy, maybe this time we will do better!"

You did do better, sighed Chela, remembering the woman who had worked alongside her and Barbara during the difficult times when the army attacks were frequent and the casualties to the community high. You are missed, old Sister.

It was after losing Sister Mary Frances and almost losing Barbara that Chela overcame her aversion to weaponry and began to make use of the skills she had first acquired and honed with her Young Women’s Achievement Cadre back in Cuba. Barbara had first been a little surprised at her partner’s proficiency in riflery and then expressed outright distress that Chela would take direct responsibility for the compound’s defense: she had found that she was inept at handling weapons herself and felt no compulsion to develop her abilities in this area. But Chela had insisted in taking up this necessary task.

Never again. Well, not if I can help it, she thought grimly as she touched the scar one more time. Then she ducked her head to softly kiss the shamrock etched on Barbara’s chest. I will not let her be taken from me without a struggle. She is my land. When I lay my head on her breast it is like resting on the ground of Havana once more.

She blew out the light and cradled the older woman in her arms as she waited for sleep to come.

It was a short time later that a mighty gust of wind blew open the window shutters and drove a noisy wave of dirt and leaves across the floor of the shack. Alarmed, Chela sat up. The temperature of the air abruptly fell and through her squinting eyes Chela could see that the moonlight streaming into the room had taken on a noticeably brighter glow. An undeniable presence moved across the small space: she stared in wonder as the miniature cyclone of dust and leaves tracked gracefully over the ground before dissipating as quickly as it had formed. She felt a spark of recognition light in her heart as the air about her stilled and the nighttime sounds of Chavavejal returned to normal. She bit softly into her knuckle to quiet the sobs that rose as much out of gratitude for knowing that she was lovingly remembered as out of her sadness.

Tomás’s soul — flying triumphantly towards the motherland of Guinea — had detoured west to bid his only sister farewell.

Tiló okanifé, arakori. She offered the silent goodbye in the ritual language she had not heard spoken in almost eight years.

You were right to insist that I needed her — that I would be only half-alive without her sparks of lightning to complement the ocean that I am. I know what the old stories say: that it is my force that rights her unbalance and allows her to come into the fullness of her beauty and strength. But those legends only tell half the tale, my sweet kinsman, because there is very little joy in being the ocean without the kind of rejuvenation that she brings with her storms and playfulness. I do not want to be still water. I want to be the currents full of leaping dolphins and the waves tearing up towards the dunes. And that is what I have become with Changó by my side.

So I hope that you were pleased, my brother, to find us here, joined and at peace with our inescapable dependence on each other. As you hoped we would be. As the oracles predicted we would be. As our ancestors created us to be.




"…well, yes that is true. She is Santa Barbara and is the virgin warrior but that is only part of it. There are other aspects. Because Changó is also a child. Changó was taken in by Yemayá when He was a baby and She was a good foster mother to Him. She made Him feel loved but He lost all of that. He got very lost and went out into the world and became all womanizing and proud and like He enjoyed tricking women. He had no shame. But She felt sad seeing Him that way and went looking for Him everywhere until she found Him and She had to teach Him all over again. She had to teach Him all about the love of women because He had forgotten it all. It wasn’t until she found Him and taught Him about the love of women again that He finally became the great king that does not lie."

Doña Paula, Cuban daughter of Obatalá, (in exile from her homeland) teaching Ana Ortiz, Puerto Rican daughter of Oyá-Yansan (in exile from her homeland).




September 13

How I miss you. I really can’t go on any longer without you by my side, Barbara. This isn’t a life. It is just waking up to your absence and then falling asleep to it every night. I think about what I want for us and it is a life together where we are the ones who decide our fate, cariño. I have been reading the old stories these days, love. I know that our governments like to think they are these rational and scientific creations that are such an improvement over the theocracies of old, but they are not very different from those puffed-up gods and goddesses of whom Homer sang, who thought nothing of breaking human lives apart on a whim. So tomorrow I will start my journey by sea to make us safer from their heartless games. We need to share a citizenship, my love, so that nobody can say, "Look, her passport is blue with a gold eagle and yours is not, so she is forbidden to you." I will do whatever it takes to never let them take you from me again.

I think it’s funny that I am to become a U.S. citizen. We were raised to despise and fear the U.S. You will remember that tacky billboard on the Malecón that says, "Mr. Imperialist, we are not at all afraid of you!" We learned all about the Rosenbergs in school and about lynching. We learned about the Klan and the Japanese Internment and Wounded Knee. And I know that all that is true.

But then there are all the people who survived these horrors and all the people who spoke out against them. Aren’t they the U.S.? And then there is you. You did not make yourself, Barbara. No one does. So the U.S. is also a place that taught you the values that led you to help others so selflessly and it kept your mind curious and seeking.

I would like to see those places and those people who made you, you know. And soon, very soon, I will also be a part of the U.S. — a part it never expected and that may goad its conscience at times — but a part that will love the whole because I love you.

So I have spent the day saying goodbye to Havana, from one end to the other, starting with the Hemingway Marina in the west and ending with Guanabo at the eastern edge. I spent the afternoon swimming in sight of the cabin where we first made love. You started a transformation in me with your touch that has brought me to the point where I am ready to let go of the familiar and ride the currents of uncertainty to find you.

I stepped into the Atlantic there, in front of the place where you claimed me. The water rocked me in the same cradle my nation was born in. This was the meeting place between slave and slave master, the line between European peasant and gun-less, antibody-less Taíno. I am the product of the love and hate between peoples whose worlds collided, shattering them into pieces that were glued back together all wrong — or all right — depending on how I feel on any particular day.

The sea’s rocking lulled me into perceiving — for today — what is all right. The reduction of sensory input to just the buoyant envelope of water all around me and the light of the afternoon sun that seeped past my closed eyelids with a rosy glow served to focus and reassure me in a way that little else can.

I leave it all and I take it all with me, Barbara. It is like a poet from our sister island once said when he proclaimed that he would be Puerto Rican even if he were born on the moon. I will not lose my motherland when I go to you. On the contrary: with your love grounding me I can find Cuba everywhere.

And if I cannot find it I will make it. I will breathe deeply and take off my shoes and then I will watch as the soil changes into Havana on every spot where my feet land — the dirt will reconstitute itself into these old buildings, and the gulls wheeling over the Malecón, and the majestic palms which line the avenues.

Soon, very soon, we will be in each other’s arms in that new country without borders that we will make for ourselves.

Until then, my love, I will dream of you and our future journey together.


Umm. Now it’s really The End!

For my own blue-eyed child of Changó. Laura, you are my treasure.

For all of us from the Caribbean who manage to live with pieces of our hearts scattered all over the world.

Feedback goes here:


Translation of "Yolanda" by Pablo Milanés. This is the best-known love song of contemporary Cuba and is often regarded as an allegory for love of the nation. It’s first chorus graces a billboard that overlooks the Malecón, right at about the spot — I think — where Barbara and Chela met.

"This can not be more than a song/I wish it were a declaration of love/romantic but without falling into clichés/ that would dam the torrents of what I am feeling./ I love you, I love you, eternally I love you./ If I lost you I wouldn’t die/but if I am to die I want it to be with you/ my loneliness feels your companionship/ that’s why sometimes I know I need/ your hand, your hand, eternally your hand./ When I saw you I knew that it was accurate/ this fear of finding myself revealed/ You undress me with seven reasons,/ you open my chest every time you fill me/ with love, with love, eternally with love./ If at some time I feel defeated/ and give up on seeing the sun every morning/ I’ll pray the creed that you have taught me/ I’ll look at your face and call out the window:/ Yolanda, Yolanda, eternally Yolanda."

Return to Main Page