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.

Thanks to Prof of Xena Warrior Lesbian, and to Jessica Michallet for coming on board as beta-readers for this story. My cat was getting too old to catch things! I apologize that the first installments went out without extra eyes at work to nip errors and excesses.

Note to readers: In previous scenes set in the United States, I used the convention of italicizing dialogue when – in bilingual contexts – characters were choosing to communicate in Spanish. Beginning in this chapter I will be inverting that practice: when characters opt for the use of English in dialogue, it will be italicized.

Tiras tres monedas al aire

Y le preguntas al I Ching

Cómo será el fin?

Sabes que no puedo salverte

Pero vienes hasta aquí, a mi

Tal vez, tal vez un milagro baje

Hasta aquí.

Tienes miedo de encerrarte

Y de no poder salir

Sabes que no puedo escaparme

Aunque sospechas de mi

Tal vez, tal vez un milagro baje

Hasta aquí.

Tiro tres monedas al aire

Y le pregunto al I Ching

Cómo será el fin?

Y aunque ya no peudo salvarte

Ven y agarrate de mi, de mi.

Tal vez, tal vez un milagro baje

Hasta aquí.

Carlos Varela, "Monedas al Aire" (used without permission)


Chapter 3: A Flash of Pattern

Later that same day, a Sunday La Habana Central

Up on the eighth floor of the Hotel Habana Libre, the steady drumming of leather upon rubber could be heard coming from behind the big gringa’s door by the bellboy as he cleared away the tray left outside. Incredible, he thought, as he looked at the barely touched, half-melted cup of ice cream. She is still at it with the punching bag. And she wastes food. Well, I am going to eat that, he concluded and - quickly checking to make sure no one else saw - he ducked into the stairwell with his prize. Perhaps it would be worth his while to try and break into her room later to see if she was using all of her allotted toilet paper.

Inside of the room, Barbara’s pounding fists, encased in a weathered pair of Everlast gloves she had inherited from her father, barely kept pace with her thoughts, which manifested with the speed of meteorites and - like those flying bodies upon encountering earth’s atmosphere - broke up into fragments and went off into all directions. She had awoken from a full afternoon’s sleep feeling anxious and inpatient (or "twitchy", as she herself called the state), and a half hour of skipping rope followed up now by an hour of working out on her portable speed bag had not brought her relief. Flattest vanilla I’ve ever tasted. Man, Hercules woulda loved this place. This is the climate his ancestors came from and he would have just been a big green posing machine unfurling his manly frontal crests and putting all the other iguanas to shame. Heh. So, that’s as bad as not having any ice cream. Dang. And there’s not enough toilet paper in the friggin’ bathroom. They’ve got it all measured into little piles of four squares. It’s as bad as when Ma used to lecture me about three squares being enough for number one, and was I eating toilet paper for the ruffage cuz I made it go so fast. Twenty-one thousand blind people…blind comrades, as Irene would say. Geez. And what would she think of this cushy room. Does this still count as the Hilton? It used to be the Havana Hilton. Ok. I have got to get out of here for a while. I don’t want to relax. I want to see some Cuba!

She stripped down, throwing her sweat-soaked clothes over a chair, and treated herself to a long bath. Back in her Boston apartment, the hot water would always run out after fifteen minutes or so, leaving her wanting for more. If the accuracy of the health statistics and the quality of the ice cream were found wanting, then Cuba had at least met the challenge of providing a muscle-sore woman with a luxurious warm soak. She would have to tell Eladio about this. Emerging from the bathroom she rummaged through her suitcase until she found one of her new T-shirts, then chose a pair of plain black jeans and flat sandals to complete her outfit. Riding down on the elevator, she realized that she had no idea where she was headed. She knew that she needed to eat, and – if the ice cream room service had brought was any indication - that she would be better off finding food away from the hotel.

She could feel herself starting to calm as she strode out the door of the hotel. She could smell the sea – due north – in the air, and decided to go in that direction, easing into a comfortable gait that would afford her legs the opportunity to fully stretch out, and would still allow her to absorb the sights and sounds of the Vedado neighborhood that the Havana Libre was located in. It was already twilight and the streetlights were starting to come on, their glow outlining the well-trimmed trees that lined the roads. She walked a short block west, to access a ramp street that would lead her towards the ocean, but upon reaching the crossroads she stopped. She had not been surprised to find the night full of people. Indeed, as soon as she had exited the hotel, she had garnered unwanted attention from countless taxi drivers and tour operators eager for her business, as well as many offers from young men who implied that they would – for a price - serve as her escort at the hotel disco. But Barbara was transfixed by the sight before her: slightly to her left was a brightly-lit park, from which emerged a steady stream of contented pedestrians. The majority of them appeared to be eating ice cream, contentedly lapping at their cones or scooping the substance from paper cups as they walked.

She quickly crossed the street and stepped in front of a young couple swinging a chocolate-faced toddler between them.

"I beg your pardon," she politely began, "but the ice cream, where did you get it?"

"Well, at Coppelia’s," responded the mother matter-of-factly.

"And where in the park can I find Coppelia’s," continued Barbara with an endearing earnestness.

"It is your first time here if you have to ask," smiled the woman. "First of all," she said, extending her arms to gesture widely, "Coppelia’s is the whole park, the entire block. There is ice cream everywhere in there. In the second place, it is better if you buy in pesos. You pay ten times as much if you pay in dollars. We will give you a good rate of exchange. We will help each other in this way, you will get more pesos for your dollars and we will have dollars for the things one can buy only with dollars in this country. The last thing is that if you can not look too much like a tourist while you are in Coppelia’s so much the better. Sometimes the authorities try to make the foreigners go eat really bad ice cream somewhere else where they will pay more." Wouldn’t know about that, thought Barbara ruefully. "But you look fine. Great Lucecita Benítez shirt."

Barbara thanked her for the compliment, and after a hasty exchange of currency in the shadows, she was determinedly making her way towards the maze of stone courts, stands of trees, gazebos, and benches that was Coppelia’s. Music blared from all directions, and a cacophony of salsa, ballads, and even rock and roll filled the air of the park. Barbara noticed that the Cubans seemed nonplussed by the noise, absorbed as they were in socializing with each other. A whole nation used to tuning out excess stimulation. I could fit in here, she thought. She remembered the shock of her college roommate when she had used Barbara as a subject for a psychology class experiment, and had discovered that the straight A student scored high on tests for attention deficit disorder. Barbara hadn’t been very surprised: she had always been aware that her mind worked idiosyncratically and from early childhood she had developed a host of coping strategies to mask her difference. Moreover, she had learned to use her quirks to her advantage. Erratic lightning strikes of thought would reveal the patterns behind apparently disconnected phenomena, patterns which eluded more conventional thinkers. Barbara was counting on this gift to help her solve the puzzle of the mysterious blindness afflicting the Cubans.

She navigated through the park, noting that the lines in front of the ice cream stands seemed to be decreasing in length the further she went in. Whereas there were easily up to two hundred persons waiting for ice cream at the stations at the very southern edge of the park, by the time she approached the northern boundary the lines only held about fifty souls waiting for the cold delicacy. Barbara picked her line and walked up behind a short young man in a tank top and shorts. To her surprise, he turned and spoke to her.

"Last one in line," he announced, before turning back to continue a conversation with the man in front of him. Barbara shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, then crossed her arms, and decided to look up at the stars in their very unfamiliar Caribbean positions to distract herself. She could hear the scuffle of feet and the sound of voices behind her as new people took their place in line. She heard one of them softly clear his throat several times. She turned and faced a man about a foot shorter than herself, with curly, light brown hair and a well-kept short beard. Behind him, she could catch a glimpse of his companion, a much darker-skinned man with a thick black moustache and very round cheeks.

"Last one in line?" asked the closer man expectantly with a smile. Oh, so that’s how it works here.

"Yes, last one in line," she answered shyly. The man’s hazel eyes were warm and he smiled, inviting her into conversation.

"You are a tourist."

"Please don’t inform the authorities," she laughed. "I really want to taste this ice cream!"

"Well, the ice cream is the very best in all of Latin America, and you can get it throughout the park. I just think since you are not from here that you might want to eat where more of the foreign women and families do, which is the other side of the park…"

"René," interrupted his companion, stepping forward. "Look." He pointed at the front of Barbara’s T-shirt.

"Well," said René, arching his eyebrow. He sucked in some air through his teeth, looked at his friend, nodded, then turned back to Barbara. "You know, we really like Lucecita Benítez." He caught Barbara’s gaze and waited several beats. "Do you really like Lucecita Benítez?" What the fuck? Is this the music police?

"I’ve heard her in concert once."

"Do you like Sarita González? We really like Sarita González." Someone needs to teach these guys better pick up lines. René again waited, the pause causing them obvious mutual discomfort. Finally his companion waved his hand to get her attention, the enthusiasm of a new approach bringing more lightness to his already cheerful features.

"She’s American, René! Young woman, we like Judy Garland! We really, really like Judy Garland. Do you like Judy Garland?" Oh! Barbara impulsively grasped the man’s hands and enfolded them in her own, pumping them in greeting.

"I love Judy Garland! I’ve loved Judy Garland ever since I was quite young," she gushed. Actually I’m indifferent to Judy Garland, except for that one movie, but...Hey! I’m over the rainbow now and not in Kansas anymore!

"Well, then," said the man, somewhat breathless from being shaken. "You are on the right half of Coppelia’s then. Everyone on this side either likes Judy Garland or knows someone who does. We are all "understanding" ones – entendidos." Barbara looked up and down the line, not grasping how she could have failed to notice that she was one of only three women in a long procession of men, and that said men – unlike the other Cuban males she had experienced since her arrival – seemed uninterested in the project of acquiring female companionship. "The "normals" all eat on the other side of the park. Please forgive us, we didn’t mean to send you away… we just thought you would be like most of the foreign women here who want to find a Cuban Papi to play with."

"And who wouldn’t want a Cuban Papi to play with?" laughed René, tickling his companion on a patch of bare skin that peeked out between his jeans and his half-open white shirt. "This is Jorge, my boyfriend. And it is a pleasure to meet you, "understanding" woman."

"Barbara," she grinned. "And I have a question. Do only men like ice cream?"

"No," said Jorge, shaking his head.

"No," repeated René. "But the compañeras really don’t come here too often. Mostly they socialize at their homes, or at the tea houses."

"Well, what about her?" asked Barbara, discretely indicating a table where a policewoman sat happily eating ice cream and chatting with several young men.

"Oh her…well she is the policeman assigned to this beat. She is just doing her job. You have to be investigated very carefully to be a policeman, so I don’t think so."

As if invoked by Barbara’s question, trouble emerged from the night in the form of a belligerent old drunk, who approached the line bottle in hand, and with a scowl etched across his weather-beaten face.

"Goddam faggots! Have you no shame? Buttfuckers of shit! Let me give you a beating so you understand what it really means to take it like a man!" As the man wove dangerously close to her new friends, Barbara prepared herself mentally to defend them. This proved unnecessary, however, since the policewoman had begun her move as soon as the man came out of the shadows. She subdued him effortlessly, her uniform granting her an authority in the drunken man’s eyes that he was not willing to violate by verbally abusing her or resisting arrest. The officer waved at the Coppelia’s customers as she led the man away. "I’m sorry for the lack of respect and the disorder, compañeros. I’ll try to send out a replacement to watch the park while I have this man processed." People returned to their interrupted conversations. Wow, thought Barbara. The cops just apologized cuz a drunk called us faggots, which most of us are.

Barbara was still processing the incident when a new apparition, this one much more pleasant than the angry drunk, entered her field of vision. The woman was achingly beautiful and moved with grace, despite the fact that the expression on her face was tight and worried and that she was holding her purse close against her waist. She was short, about a half foot shy of René’s height, with skin the color of coffee served with just a splash of milk. Her shoulder-length brown hair framed a face in which Africa and Europe had met and left tokens of their love: a fine nose overlooking the fullest of lips, impossibly green eyes shielded by long black lashes. Her clothes were ordinary enough, a red halter top and jeans, worn rather tightly. She had certainly seen other attractive women since her arrival on the island, but Barbara found her sight riveted on the woman as she approached and passed her by, but not without first giving Barbara the briefest of looks, the emerald eyes drilling into hers before turning away. As her attention narrowed to fix on the departing figure, Barbara started receiving troubling messages from her body: her feet felt like they were stapled to the ground and her knees were locked. Like when Sister Mary Frances found those two pounds of pot in my locker. I hope I don’t barf. A voice intruded on her reverie.

"No. Absolutely not. In no fashion, young woman." It was Jorge. "We have just met you, young woman, but already we care enough that you not chase after a jinetera, which we know that one to be from the company she has been seen with."

"Why would I care if she works with horses," murmured Barbara, as the woman disappeared from sight.

"Not jinete – your jockey – but jinetera," explained Jorge. "Although the root is the same because they both take you for a ride. Look, we really don’t socialize with too many women, but if you give us time we will try to find you a nice one."

"And that one was not nice?" she persisted.

"Look, you may as well be prepared," René jumped in. "There are boys and girls, jineteros and jineteras, and they will all be on the lookout for you because you are a foreigner with dollars, and not bad looking like most of the customers they have to entertain."

"So they are prostitutes?"

"It is more than about sex," replied René seriously. "Jineteras are party girls, so it’s about getting into the foreigner scene as much as about sleeping with you. It’s about getting into discos and restaurants and beaches and stores that most of us can only dream about. But with a foreigner who is paying on your arm… well, that is the passport. And some of them get the ultimate prize - they get a passport off this miserable island."

"René! Stop with that bullshit," said Jorge, the anger making his nostrils flare. "You think everything is better in other places and it isn’t! It’s because you don’t watch TV down at the block association like I do! There are people living on the street and beggars in her country. Do we have anything like that here? And she is a woman out alone in the night! Do you think she would be doing that in Madrid or New York and not be worried for her safety? When is the last time there was a woman attacked on the street in Havana?"

"Enough, enough already, Papi," soothed René, stroking Jorge’s arm. He looked up at Barbara in embarrassment. "Please forgive us. We usually don’t disagree like that in front of people. I think someone is a little frustrated." He smiled shyly. "It’s been a long time." More than I needed to know. "My father has been sick. He went blind two months ago, and I have had to stay at home more to help the old lady take care of him." One of the twenty-one thousand.

"So you don’t live together?"

"I wish," sighed René. "I live with my parents and Jorge lives with his brother and two cousins. We have no privacy. This one," he nudged Jorge, " worked for a year building the Pan American Games barracks because he thought we would get a unit when they were finished but it wasn’t to be. We have a friend who has a good job with the Tourism Authority and he lets people use his apartment, but there are many of us. Like everything, there is a line."

"So…where?" asked Barbara delicately.

"Things are very difficult," began Jorge.

"Like animals!" blurted René, interrupting him. " Wherever we can. On the fire escape. In the bushes. In the alley, if it’s late enough. Not like people!" Sore point! Change the subject before they take each other’s heads off again! Yes, we’re almost to the front.

"Look," cut in Barbara. I would really like to spend more time with you. You could teach me where to go here, where the understanding people are. I have some rum in my hotel room. Would you like to come up with me after we get our ice cream and watch some TV and chat?"

René looked at Jorge, who nodded.

"Ummm, Barbara," he said softly. "We would like that very much. But you should know that the people at the hotel will assume that something very different is happening when they see two poor Cuban men coming up to a foreign woman’s hotel room." Barbara laughed.

"I should be so lucky that they think I am the kind of female who would require twice as much Cuban manhood as the typical foreigner."

Fifteen minutes later, Barbara crossed the Habana Libre lobby, with René and Jorge at either side.

Sitting at the hotel bar, Chela discretely watched the trio for a minute as they waited for the elevator with their ice creams, then returned her attention to the irascible Russian agronomist who was her companion for the evening. If they were decent, they would have shown her to the normal side of Coppelia’s. Two of the plaza’s regular pretty boys… how could she not have noticed. Well, she isn’t getting anything she wants tonight, unless it’s the experience of being ripped off by strangers. She nodded her head, trying once more to demonstrate her interest in the difference between two new strains of lima beans. Not that I am doing better.



Friday that week

Barbara looked at her watch as she waited her turn at the counter at the House of Tea. She still needed to kill another two hours before René and Jorge expected her back at the hotel room. After four nights of enjoying their good company at Coppelia’s, the Hotel Inglaterra bar, and several other haunts popular with Havana’s gay men, she wanted to reciprocate their kindness by affording them some privacy. It had taken a considerable bribe to hotel security before they would permit the two men to stay on grounds without her, but in the end her dollars had overcome any revulsion on the guards’ part. She had already walked for an hour around the streets of Old Havana, and now looked forward to stretching out with a hot cup of tea and her copy of today’s Granma. I deserve a break today. I deserve more than tea. I deserve more than ice cream, or cigars, or rum, or Fidel coming to my hotel room to cook me breakfast in lingerie. I’m gonna get this bad boy epidemic, even if I have to make some assholes pucker in horror at my "not doing things the right way." Fuck, what a long meeting that was.


Barbara had expected opposition from the Cubans to her proposals, but it turned out that it was the specialists on the US teams who were the most distraught over the suggestion that research on the epidemic expand beyond looking at strictly clinical indicators in patients hospitalized in Havana.

"You mean we’re going to be mucking around the countryside? Where there are mosquitoes and dengue fever?" This challenge came from the senior neurologist with the Florida contingent.

"And Barbara, you have to admit that the conditions for doing research deteriorate the further one gets from the capital," cautioned Cynthia Richards, the senior member of her own Tufts team. "There are practical obstacles to implementing your ideas. But I am willing to listen some more to what you have to say. Do you have any preliminary data that would support this shifting of resources?"

Barbara grinned, pulling up some poster boards she had stacked neatly next to her chair. Her hard work of the last four days was about to be put to the test, and adrenaline was running wide open through her system, the excitement serving to lend her focus and intensity.

After her initial briefing, Barbara had spent her first two days on the project going over the clinical records of the original set of one thousand plus patients, reasoning that she should start looking for clues in the cases that had been under observation the longest. The demographic statistics revealed a few tendencies – the afflicted were overwhelmingly men in their prime, for example – but nothing that definitively set the patients apart as a group from the general population. It was troubling. There were infants and elders, patients from all regions of the island, members of diverse occupations. Furthermore, there were very few cases of people losing their sight within the same household. This would seem to mitigate against the theory that they were dealing with an infectious disease, but it still couldn’t be ruled out. After two days in a stuffy room surrounded by towers of manila folders, Barbara concluded that she needed to see some of these patients in person, had to probe for information that had never made it to the medical record, because it was clear that re-reading the same charts over and over again was not giving her any new insight. She had spent the next two days working all over Havana, meeting with the newly blind and their associates and families. Her initial foray was lucky, she knew that, but she intuitively understood that the method she had experimented with was sound. The problem was, could she sell what was essentially a social science approach to a group of clinicians? She pulled up the first chart that documented her visits, and turned to address Dr. Valverde and a small group of Cuban colleagues who were sitting together on one side of the room.

"I will ask your pardon for doing this presentation in English, but I know that you will have no difficulty in following what I am saying. My companions, however, are not as linguistically prepared." The Cuban physicians smiled and nodded. Heh, the Sarita Gonzáles T-shirt wasn’t such a bad idea, either.

" I have just explained the basis of my reasoning. First, because the initial cohort of patients are drawn from across the island, let us assume for the moment that they can stand – in their diversity – for the full complement of twenty-one thousand. While we can all see the prevalence of adult men in the sample, and that some groups are under-represented," she hesitated just a moment, glancing at the Cubans, "like upper-echelon Party officials, there is still no group completely excluded nor is there any one identified factor which is present in all the cases.

But what if we are looking at a syndrome that has multiple stages? In this scenario, all the afflicted share some common quality – some factor necessary for this blindness to manifest. They might share this factor, this predisposition, with people who never get sick, because while it is necessary to have it to go blind, it is not sufficient to have it for one to go blind. We need something - maybe several things – to additionally happen for people to develop the syndrome. But here’s the kicker – and it would explain the absence of an obvious pattern at this point – what if those additional things aren’t the same for everyone? So we need to look at the epidemic at two levels, that initial predisposition that they all share, but also those additional events that will differ across the population. We have been focusing on commonalities. What happens when we look at difference?" She held up the first chart.

"This is what happens when we look at the case of General X, the only upper-echelon military official to have gone blind. There is nothing remarkable about his medical record. But what happens when we go to General X’s residence on the military base? For starters, the enlisted men who guard the entrance to the base were very concerned about the General. They knew him personally. He socializes with them. General X is from the town of Nuevitas in Camaguey province. Rural, unassuming. He is the only officer from this province and there are a number of men stationed at the base from Nuevitas. Almost all of them are among the blind." Barbara switched to a poster showing the connections between the afflicted men on the base. "But whatever has been happening to them didn’t happen in Nuevitas. None of them had gone home in over a year before they were struck down by this illness, because of the fuel shortage and the reduction in pay for men on leave. These lonely men regularly get together to keep each other company. The approachable General X joined them in these social gatherings. At which he had the opportunity to partake of the homemade alcohol that these men brewed to make up for their rum allotment all but vanishing in the current economic crisis. I’ve had the opportunity to take samples of some of these equivalents of our "moonshine" from the men’s homes." Here she raised her final poster, detailing the presence of men at specific locations, and the samples taken from those locations. "At least two of the batches contained methanol, which can cause severe neurological damage." She paused.

"This is just one network - one story – of what is linking these people together. We need more stories. I am not suggesting that we set aside our clinical investigations. I am suggesting that we supplement them with information about how people are living their lives on the ground if we really want to see what leads them towards the syndrome. I am suggesting," she paused and looked at Santos, "that we take the research to the people."

"Oh, please. Anecdotal evidence, slapped-together conjectures, and a dose of political posturing," blustered the Florida neurologist. "This is what we’re deviating our course for?" Several throats cleared simultaneously. Cynthia pushed back her chair, openly glaring at her Florida colleague.

"Well, we are not afraid of taking risks at Tufts," said the woman evenly, as she came to Barbara’s defense. "And we have many examples of other mysterious epidemics being broken, precisely through this approach - through getting dirty on the ground and asking the people affected for help. We will be moving our portion of the budget over to a new field protocol, which I will leave for Barbara to develop." Oh yeah! Better than a strawberry-hot fudge combo sundae! If Herc was on my shoulder he’d be bobbing up and down at that Florida asshole saying, you’re on the bottom today pal – spread ‘em! Santos Valverde had made his way to the head of the table. He looked gravely at the entire assemblage before proceeding.

"We have been waiting for months for a new approach, and always the same things we try with the same result. We will support this effort of Doctora Murphy’s with everything we have." Then he turned to her, speaking in Spanish. "Anything you need, of the meager things we can offer, is yours: personnel, vehicles, equipment. Sometime a man has to go with his gut. It worked for el Ché, and it worked for Fidel. I trust you, and if I may speak frankly you are one of the first to come here to help us who hasn’t treated us as if we had the intellect of fleas." Score! Heh. Road trip, road trip, road trip! On a souvenir hunt for monsters that make people go bump in the day!



A hand rapping on glass pulled her out of the memory.

"Tea, compañera?" asked the haggard young woman behind the counter.

"Yes, please."

"Things are difficult right now. Please forgive that we don’t have any milk for it," apologized the clerk. "That will be twenty-five cents, blondie." Confused momentarily, Barbara turned around to find no one waiting behind her. Oh yeah. Heh. The blue eyes means I’m blonde. Geez. Blonde and blue-eyed. I knew I could do it if I tried. She handed over the coin, accepted the proffered mug, and scanned the room for a place to sit down. The tea house was quite full: René and Jorge had explained that it was the preferred hangout of poor intellectuals and artists, lesbians, and – of course – workers who liked to drink tea in a comfortable setting. Given that the tea was one-tenth the cost of an ice cream at Coppelia’s, Barbara could see how this venue would draw a more economically-challenged clientele.

There were no empty tables, but at each of two tables positioned side by side in a corner of the establishment, there was a lone customer seated and Barbara decided that it was worth the effort to share, especially since the two solitary tea drinkers were women. She could see that one of them – with her back to her - was hunched over writing, with papers spread across the entire table surface, so she approached her neighbor, a dark-skinned woman with short curly hair who appeared to be in her forties, and who was leaning back in her chair, arms knitted behind her neck, observing Barbara as she came closer.

"Need a place to sit?" offered the woman smiling. Barbara nodded. The woman scooted the chair opposite her back with her foot. "It gets crowded this time of day. Please have a seat."

"Thanks," murmured Barbara as she set down her tea and newspaper. As she pulled the chair still further back to accommodate her long legs she glanced to her side. Whoa. It’s that hustler from Sunday night, the gorgeous "jinetera" from Coppelia’s. Guess this is where she goes when she’s slumming. I wonder.

"I’m Minerva," boomed her tablemate, holding out her hand in greeting.

"Barbara". They shook forcefully.

"You’re a foreigner."

"Yes. American."

"But your Spanish is excellent, compañera! And I have to say, I really like that Sarita González shirt." Barbara laughed.

"Thank you. And yes, I understand! It’s very good to meet you, Minerva. So far I have only made male friends."

These two loudmouths are just not going to let me work, thought an annoyed Chela from the next table. At least she had gotten some work done on a prose piece for her journal before the arrival of the big American. And the conversation is not altogether uninteresting, she decided, as she shifted from composing original text to editing some old material, a task which would not consume all of her attention. So… she was on the correct side of Coppelia’s after all. Good for her for finding a friend here.

"Well I am honored to be your first woman friend here, Barbara," said Minerva, raising her tea cup in a mock toast. "You are here on vacation?"

"No. I wish. I’m here as a volunteer doing some work for the Health Ministry. I’m a doctor."

"Really?" Minerva slapped a hand down on the table, the smile growing even wider across her mahogany face. "But, negra, that’s tremendous of you to be coming here to give a hand. I’ll have to help you fit some vacation time in."

Negra! "Dark one"! thought Barbara. But I was blonde just a few minutes ago! Ok. Ok. I get it. It’s viewer’s choice of any of my impressive features to focus on. Go on, call me muscular next.

"You work out," observed Minerva, pointing at Barbara’s upper arm. "So do I. Of course, I do all the time at my job as well. I work on the docks unloading cargo. There are a few of us who work on the docks. Maybe I could host a get together at my home and you could meet people, drink a little rum, play some cards."

"I’d really like that," answered Barbara, hyperconscious of the woman sitting to her right. She was careful not to look, not even to allow her face to cross the imaginary boundary set as a perpendicular line down the table’s center. Still she felt as though a magnet were pulling at the skin on her right cheek and it was hard work to suppress the anxiety the jinetera’s presence was provoking in her. Unreal. Time to get back in the driver’s seat.

"So, Minerva," Barbara edged forward on her elbows. "Are you single?"

"Yes I am, compañera," Minerva’s smile wilted and her voice took on a notably sadder inflection. "I had a good woman for many years, but she left me last month for a Spanish businessman. She is in Madrid now. In fact, I just received a postcard from her telling me that she is well. It is hard for me. I loved her very much. But she was much younger and it was harder for her to put up with how bad things have gotten here, the boredom, the shortages. I worked as much as I could but the paycheck and the ration book could only do so much." Her voice was starting to crack. "I am so sorry, Barbara. I did not mean to lose my resolve like that in front of you. So the answer is yes. And yourself?"

" I am very single," replied Barbara, rather loudly. "And that is a miracle, because I think I am rather gifted at pleasing women." Shit, did I just say that? I mean it’s true but still, better to let it come as a surprise.

What a fool, laughed Chela to herself. Minerva guffawed and reached over the table to slap Barbara on the shoulder.

"Well then we have very much in common, compañera, and I can tell we are going to have a wonderful time together. I will be glad to take you around."

"Actually," Barbara offered her best smile, "I was wondering if you might like to come spend the night at my hotel with me, you know, and we can get to know each other much better."

In the ensuing pregnant silence, Chela struggled desperately to maintain her composure, shading her face with her hand and chewing on a corner of her napkin to keep from laughing out loud. Jesus, Lenin and Uncle Sam! Even I, who don’t move in those circles, know better!

Minerva leaned back in her chair and looked down at the table, confusion drifting across her face as she drummed her fingers on the placemat. When she finally looked up to meet Barbara’s eyes, sparks of irritation could be seen in her own black ones.

"Let me ask you something, compañera," she growled. "Have I done or said anything that would indicate that I am weak, or that I need to be taken care of?" She abruptly stood up, scuffing the floor with her chair, and looked down at a puzzled Barbara. "Because I was offering to be your friend, not offering to be your woman. You and I are alike – we take women. We aren’t taken by them. I offer you all the best I have, and you insult me by practically offering me flowers and a fuck. I wish you the best for your stay here, American. But think before you talk." And with that declaration, Minerva turned and walked away without looking back.

Alrighty then, Minerva. Good thing I didn’t bother getting a ring, thought Barbara as she sat frozen in her seat, listening to the quiet laughter of the jinetera. She surrendered to the blush and looked down miserably at the empty tea cup next to her hand, the old Jackson Browne song intruding unpleasantly into her assessment of her prospects for romance as she flexed her fingers. Well, I’ve got to hand it to me…Looks like it’s me and you again tonight, Rosie.


Much later that night

The hotel guard was not surprised to see the big gringa leaving the premises in the early hours of the morning, although the guitar she had slung over her shoulder had initially startled him, its long silhouette suggesting a weapon to his bleary eyes in the lobby’s muted light. This was a strange one: arriving in the private car of a General one day, and leaving faggots alone in her room the next. Well, perhaps, whatever she was up to tonight would bring him some extra income in the form of another bribe, or some information, which he could trade with his supervisor or block commander for favors in the future.

Barbara sniffed the scent of the coming storm in the air, but it did not deter her. She had woken a bit past two in the morning, and her attempts to find sleep again had been fruitless. From her experiences earlier in the week, she knew that walking could return her to a place of balance and reflection: if she was lucky she might even be able to put in a few hours of work on the project’s field protocol before dawn. Also, as much as she enjoyed being with Jorge and René, she craved some time outside alone, with just her guitar for company. Well not entirely alone, she thought, as her legs made quick work of the six intervening blocks between the Hotel Habana Libre and the Malecón. There is that ocean that I have been trying to get to all week. It’s about time.

The streets were not completely empty: the occasional tourist taxi plied the byways of the Vedado neighborhood and up and down the Malecón, and as she approached the seawall, Barbara could detect the presence of the occasional lovers and drunks leaning against the barrier in the darkness. Still, it was the most privacy she’d found in a public location since her arrival. No doubt for most residents of Havana, only the power of love and alcohol was strong enough to overcome an aversion to the tangible electricity and moisture which hung heavy in the air, signaling an imminent thunderstorm. For Barbara, the flashes of lightning in the clouds floating over the ocean made the seaside an irresistible place to be. She removed the guitar from across her back and placed it gently on the seawall, then leaned over the wall to watch the storm as it came in over the ocean. Just like the fireworks over Castle Island in Southie. Ma would always get mad that Uncle Liam would give me sparklers but I never did get hurt. And they were so pretty. Flowers in the sky and nobody would let me pick ‘em. And once I understood how they did it, I just wanted to set some rockets off myself. A particularly large bolt snaked horizontally across a chain of clouds, illuminating the sky in a burst of bright gold, which bled into orange and purple at the edges of the visible horizon. I still just want to set some rockets off myself. But this isn’t so bad, for a girl from Southie that’s wearing the black tears. This isn’t so bad at all. And I am really here. And this is a real ocean, not like the water at that little excuse for a beach at L Street. These waves are from friggin’ Africa. From another friggin’ continent. And they are riding in straight to me.

The wind was picking up and she knew that it would be time to head back soon, since – although she would not mind having the Caribbean rain come down upon her - she did not care for her guitar to get wet. Maybe just one song. She picked up the guitar, quickly checked the tuning, and leaned her side against the wall so that she could still see the sea as she played. Barbara knew that she was not "creative" in any artistic way, and the disastrous encounter with Minerva at the tea house only served to remind her that – outside of competitive contexts - the language of emotions was not her strong suite. It was why she was deeply grateful that there were songs that served as resources for her in moments such as this, when she felt deeply moved, but could not organize her feelings into a format that would make sense. She turned to a beloved song by Buddy Mondlock, hoping to make an indelible memory for herself.

I’m the kid who ran away with the circus

Now I’m watering elephants

But I sometimes lie awake in the sawdust

Dreaming I’m in a suit of light

Late at night in the empty big top I’m all alone on the high wire

Look, she’s working without a net this time

She’s a real death-defier

I’m the kid…


"Whore, I know what’s in there aren’t really poems! I know you’ve been stealing everything - everything - while I sleep, to sell to someone. I don’t know if it’s the Chinese or the Americans, but I will kill you first! You will give it to me! Now!"

Chela’s sight temporarily dimmed and stars flashed before her eyes from the pain as Dmitri managed to land a particularly sharp blow to her right temple. Summoning every bit of strength and concentration that she had, she managed to avoid passing out, and even succeeded in ripping her notebook out of the hand of the enraged drunken man. She held the journal tightly against her belly, shielding it. Help me, Mother. He really is crazy. Jonas and his "safe" men. I am throwing that list away if I get out of this one. She was effectively trapped between two vans parked up against side of the Hotel Nacional, where she had spent the past five nights in a room with the moody Russian. One of the hotel’s security guards had already been drawn to the scene because of the noise, but upon seeing that the foreign client was the aggressor, he had withdrawn, making an audible comment about how "some people reap what they sow in the ‘business’."

"Dmitri, I swear I don’t care about your goddam vegetables. In fact Dmitri, no woman – even if she were really a spy and wanted a medal– would put herself through the maddening tediousness of copying down the things you say. But I don’t have to show you anything and I say when you get to touch my body. You don’t own me, and that notebook is as much a part of me as my cunt."

Chela’s bravado was short-lived. She watched in horror as Dmitri quickly picked up an abandoned bottle lying on the drive behind one of the vans and smashed it, leaving a deadly circle of jagged glass attached to the bottle neck in his grip. She back-pedaled, increasing the distance between them, but found herself backed up against the hotel wall. Her best bet, it seemed, would be simply to choose one of the man’s sides to pass on, and make a break for it: to wait for his approach would be to meet the broken bottle on his terms. In your hands, little Virgin of Regla, she silently prayed, calling on the European name for her protectress, Yemayá, orisha of the ocean. Then she set her heels, took a deep breath, and ran for freedom. Dmitri was mercifully slowed by the alcohol, and as he reached out to grab for her, his left hand barely caught at the fringes of her blouse. But his right hand – the one that held the improvised weapon – found its target, and as Chela passed the bottle caught her across the left shoulder, leaving a deep gash.

She kept up her pace, knowing that Dmitri was too terrified of the Havana streets at night, and much too inebriated, to pursue her. She would surely be turned away from any hotel at this hour, looking the way that she did, bloodied and with her clothing ripped. She knew that she was bleeding heavily, and that it would be wise to seek medical assistance, but would her condition attract the wrong attention, say of the police or of a block committee? And with the power outages and equipment shortages it was possible that a clinic really might not be able to help her, especially in the middle of the night. She did have some money, enough for the short ride back to Humboldt alley. Maybe one of the other jineteras would help her tend to the injury, and get her safely home. If any of the others were to be found at this hour, it would be down at the Malecón, and Chela found that her feet had already taken her halfway there, automatically directing themselves to the place where she routinely sought solace and inspiration.

She was very dizzy as she approached the ocean drive, and she noted with dismay that the weather was getting ugly to boot, with the occasional fleck of hot rain riding in on the growing breeze. She scanned up and down the near sidewalk and saw no familiar figures that she could ask for help, so she crossed the street and made her way up to the support of the barrier and held on for dear life, hoping that drawing some slow breaths and standing still would ease her discomfort. As the panic dispersed, she became more aware of her surroundings. They were full of dissonance. Where there should have been the stray Cuban streetwalker or drunk laid out on the wall, there appeared to be the giant American lesbian from the tea house, upright and holding a guitar – she was unmistakable even from behind at five paces, illuminated every few seconds by the distant lightning. And where there should have been the strains of Cuban salsa music or spicy Dominican-style merengue, or - if all the humans were abed – the chirping of frogs from the beach grasses, the measured strumming of the guitar broke the night, accompanying a strong voice that carried on the unsettled coastal air, singing in English.

I’m the kid who always looked out the window

Failing tests in geography

But I’ve seen things far beyond just the school yard

Distant shores of exotic lands

There’re the spires of the Turkish Empire

It’s six months since we made landfall

Riding low with the spice of India through Gibraltar,

We’re rich men all

I’m the kid who…

I am really fucked, thought Chela, as everything above her neck started to tingle, and she felt her knees turn rubbery and buckle. I think Dmitri broke my brain. I am seeing things. Then she fainted. As Chela hit the pavement, her bag spilled out its contents with a clatter. Change and cosmetics rolled in all directions across the sidewalk.

Barbara jumped at the noise, stunned that in indulging herself she had allowed someone to get close to her in the darkness. But as she turned to peer at the source of the sound, she could see that it posed no danger: some twenty feet away, a woman lay still on the ground. Setting down her instrument, she hurried to the woman’s side and crouched, gently turning her. It’s her! But how?… . Her surprise and wonder were tempered with concern as she noted the blood soaking through the woman’s knit blouse and trickling out onto the ground in thin streams. The little epidemiologist in her head tried frantically to get her attention. Red flag! Red flag! Third world sex-worker! Universal precautions! This is a latex moment, darling. Look but don’t touch! Barbara swallowed. The jinetera was already starting to come to, her horizontal position having restored enough blood to her brain to enable her to sustain consciousness. I don’t care, thought Barbara impulsively as she reached down to apply pressure directly to the wound with one hand, and tilt the jinetera’s chin up with the other. Barbara noted that the woman seemed to be breathing normally and she could see her attempting desperately to focus her eyes.

"You are injured," stated Barbara awkwardly. "Geez, I wonder where I can take her for help at this hour," she muttered to herself.

"Nowhere, really. I’ll be fine in a minute," answered Chela, as the world returned to her.

"You speak English. Well, no. I don’t think you’ll be fine in a minute. I’d like to take you to a hospital," continued Barbara as she removed her own sweatshirt to place it over the injured site.

"Absolutely not!" sputtered Chela, shifting back into the language in which she felt more authoritative. "They can’t fix blisters at the emergency clinics right now. And I don’t want any more problems than I already have." Barbara stopped and pondered the jinetera’s words. No doubt, she would know what is feasible in this situation. But I cannot just walk away. She took another look at the cut, finding that it was deep, but not as long or uneven as she had initially feared.

"I can help you. I can at least stop the bleeding and put some stitches in. Maybe even keep it from getting infected. I’m a doctor."

"I would hope so," sighed Chela, "if you are offering to try and sew me up."

Barbara shot a mildly irritated look up into the defiant green eyes. Geez. Guess the nuns never taught you pride is a mortal sin, Miss Bleeding Hooker. But I forgive you.

"I’m going to try and get us a ride back to my hotel. I can take care of this wound there, and you can rest afterwards."

"No! In no way am I going near a hotel right now!" Chela struggled to prop herself up on her right elbow. She looked seriously up at the woman hovering over her. I should not be so short with her, she is just trying to help, after all. She is the one who is here, no other. "I meant what I said. I don’t want any more trouble in my life. I want to go home. If you want to help me, then just help me get a car." Barbara thought quickly.

"Very well," she said carefully, nodding. "I will help you get home, but I won’t leave that cut open and untreated. We will stop by my hotel first, for me to get some supplies for your shoulder. But you won’t even have to get out of the taxi. Will you have electricity at your place for me to work?"

"Probably not," admitted Chela. "But I have a propane lantern that I filled just this morning. That and some candles would give you enough light, I think."

Man! Suturing by candle-light! Too much romance for me, thought Barbara as she stood to hail a vehicle before the jinetera changed her mind. "Keep pressure on that cut until I get back." She tossed off the instruction to the woman as she detoured briefly to where she had left her guitar, and – retrieving it – stood at the edge of the street. In the distance headlights flickered, and she raised her hand to flag the oncoming vehicle down. As if obeying a silent command on her part, the rain started to come down heavily, rapidly covering the surface of the Malecón with thick drops that fell so hard they bounced after landing on the earth. Shit. I have got to get her out of this. A taxi pulled up to the curb, and as the window rolled down, Barbara could see two men seated up in front.

"Tourist?" smiled the driver.

"Yes," answered Barbara, opening the rear door and throwing in her guitar.

"You lucky. Rain. Taxi. Double dollar. OK?"

"Yes, I understand the situation perfectly," answered Barbara, cutting to the chase. "Look, there is one more passenger and we will have more than one stop. I have lots of dollars. Please just wait for me." She threw the door shut and ran over to where the jinetera waited on the wet ground. "What’s your name?" she asked as she scooped an arm under the woman’s shoulders to help her to her feet.

"Chela. Marcela really, but no one calls me that. Just Chela." She leaned hard against the tall American, feeling the dizziness start up again.

"Almost to the taxi, Chela."

"I’m bleeding on you. I’m sorry."

"Think nothing of it. I’ll tell my friends I was attacked by sharks when I get home." Barbara settled Chela next to her in the backseat, disregarding the angry glares of the driver and his companion. "Driver, we need to go to the Hotel Habana Libre first."

"Communion hosts!" swore the driver to his friend, as he saw the stains spread from Chela’s blouse to the fabric of his vehicle’s seat. "A "cowboy", a guitar, and a bleeding whore! And it’s raining! I should get a full day’s pay for this trip!"

Barbara reined in her temper as she recognized the derogatory local term for lesbians interspersed among the driver’s complaints.

"Compañeros," she rumbled as evenly as possible. "I am aware that I am asking much of you in patience, discretion and speed. I promise that I will compensate you generously for helping us – in dollars, of course. But I hope you understand that my generosity will reflect the respect that I am shown."

"Not a problem, compañera," replied the driver as they pulled up in front of the Habana Libre. He turned to his companion, swatting him on the arm. "You heard her, Juan, so shut up."

In the hotel lobby, the guard watched with unabashed curiosity as the big foreign woman, blood spattered across her T-shirt, ran across the lobby carrying her guitar, and repeatedly punched the button to summon the elevator. Why do the Americans always do that? It never comes any faster. It’s as if they don’t understand how technology works. As she disappeared into the car, his mind returned to the matter of the blood. Maybe she used that guitar as a weapon after all. He was outside doing rounds in the Habana Libre garage when Barbara emerged from the hotel again, this time with a small bag in hand, and got into the waiting taxi. The driver covered the seven blocks to Calle Humboldt in less than two minutes. A generous bonus on top of the fare and the costs for cleaning the seat insured that he waited – headlights pointed at the door – while Barbara unlocked the door, and located and lit the lantern.

She helped Chela over to the bed, set her kit bag down, then set about lighting the candles that were placed by the sink. She turned the faucet handle and cursed when nothing came out.

"I should have warned you," said Chela quietly from the bed. "It’s never on this early. I guess you won’t be able to clean the cut."

"No, I’ll still be able to clean it," replied Barbara, as she transferred the candles over to the bedside table, creating the maximum illumination possible around Chela’s upper body. Reaching into her bag she pulled out a bottle of rum and opened it. "You don’t have a head injury, do you?" she asked, offering it to Chela.

"No," lied Chela, deciding that she could use the drink.

"Normally I would never give alcohol to someone who had lost consciousness, but I have nothing else to offer you for the pain while I suture."

"I understand." Barbara took back the bottle after watching Chela down almost a third of it in one grand swallow. Fuckin’ Jeesus. Someone is either stressed or ready for Betty Ford. Pulling down Chela’s blouse, she prepared to pour some of the liquid directly onto the injury.

"Does that really sterilize it?" asked Chela skeptically.

"Yes, it absolutely does and it also deadens sensation," assured Barbara. In the movies. In fact I hope you don’t feel anything when I amputate your attitude. Chela winced and arched as the rum hit the torn flesh. "Sorry. I’m really sorry," murmured Barbara. She rummaged in her bag for her suturing supplies.

"Where did you learn English without an accent?" she asked, positioning herself to begin. Best keep her distracted while I do this.

"My parents," answered Chela. "They are from the United States. Well, my mother is Cuban but from the States. They came here in the 1960s."

Barbara was dumbfounded. She sat up and looked at her patient in frank curiosity.

"Was their compass screwed up? Because from what I understand about Cuba, everybody was trying to go the other way." Chela offered a sad smile.

"They were idealists who wanted to live here and support the Revolution." Her eyes dropped. "They aren’t together anymore. My father left us three years ago and is somewhere in Europe."

Barbara nodded, letting the subject drop. The jinetera was clearly becoming a bit morose, and it seemed wise to lighten the mood given the onerous task she had yet to perform. She pinched together the two edges of the cut and set herself to do the first stitch, then paused, stunned that she was about to embark on this almost intimate procedure without even having given the woman her name. She tilted her head, waited for Chela to meet her eyes and smiled broadly.

"I am Barbara, by the way."

"Yes, you are Barbara," affirmed Chela hazily, hoping that the woman hadn’t caught the full implications of her comment, a play on the words "untamed" and "outrageous", homonyms of the proper name of the doctor who was now busy knitting her skin together. That rum. I’ll have to watch my mouth.

"How did you know?" Barbara stayed concentrated on the act of suturing. I was never great at this but I think I can leave a real thin line. A bolt of lightning landed rather closely, and the old building shook a bit as the thunder sounded.

"I was at the House of Tea this afternoon. I was sitting next to you. I heard you introduce yourself."

"Oh," said Barbara coolly. "You were there? That’s right. You were." She finished a third stitch. What the hell, right? I mean I don’t think she’ll slap me if there’s a chance it would leave her with a funny scar. "So, compañera Chela, do you like Sarita González?" Chela sighed audibly and straightened up a bit, causing Barbara to pause in her work.

"Yes, I do," she answered, forcing Barbara to meet her eyes. "Do you?"

"Well of course," replied Barbara with a dazzling smile.

"Which song is your favorite?" Barbara’s smile fell abruptly and her eyes flitted to the side. She could feel the tips of her ears heating up and was suddenly glad of the room’s limited lighting.

"I thought as much," said Chela wearily. "You know, Sarita is not just a face that goes on T-shirts. She is one of the three founding members of our New Song movement, a real Revolutionary hero. She’s been singing for almost thirty years and fills stadiums all over the world. She is the Johan Sebastian Bach of the Cuban son style – just brilliant in how she puts arrangements together and her lyrics touch the soul in a way I can only dream about with my little café poems. She is a big deal. But you know what? She came to my primary school to give us – a bunch of little snot-nosed uniformed fledglings – instruction in music theory. That is the kind of person that she is. Maybe you should listen to her music."

"I will," said Barbara gamely, as she returned to her suturing. Christ. I wonder if she fucking quotes Fidel Castro while she’s doing it. Heh. On the other hand, I’ve heard his speeches can go on for hours. One could just tune it out. "Just one more, Chela." She pulled the thread, cut it and tied off. Sighing, she rested her hands in her lap, looking at the young woman who managed at every turn to dislodge her poise and composure in a way that she just couldn’t make sense of. "So, I think I did a pretty good job for you." Chela nodded, a slight smile breaking on her face.

"I am very grateful." Barbara briefly dropped her eyes, before returning them to meet those of her patient.

"You know, I know what you do for a living," she began slowly, hoping that she could convince the young woman to take some time off, but Chela interrupted her, pulling herself up on the pillows.

"If you need payment, I have cash," she interjected woodenly, her face taking on a hard edge. With this one’s big attitude, she thought, remembering the incident with Minerva, I would be lucky if she didn’t expect me to pay her if we went to bed.

"No, please," said Barbara in dismay. "That is not at all what I meant. Only that you have been badly hurt and that I hope that you can just stay here – by yourself – for a few days and rest. No, Chela," she shook her head emphatically, "there is no charge for my service. You were in trouble, I helped you. You know, I became a doctor through the efforts of a lot of other people. It is all right that I just do this sometimes. I don’t have to always get paid."

Chela’s face softened, then her eyes dulled a bit as she went back into a place of old pain. "Yes," she said quietly. "That is what my parents told me it was like when they first got here." She smiled sadly at Barbara, feeling compelled to make her understand some of the grief she carried every day, although she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why it was important that the American hear this. "If you healed someone, or you taught someone how to read, or you helped someone carry a burden that was too heavy for them, you did that because you were all in this together. You never humiliated someone by presenting them with a bill for their services – you knew that they worked because of the honor that it brought – the satisfaction of having done the job well." She looked down towards the foot of the bed. "I don’t really remember a time when it was like that. It certainly isn’t like that anymore." She shook her head and laughed. "But then, I don’t have to worry about honor with my work, do I?"

Barbara did not know how to respond. She was overwhelmed by the words, by the woman, by this place where she felt both a sense of belonging and bewildering unfamiliarity. Wisdom – and good clinical practice – dictated retreating, and letting her patient sleep. She gathered up her things, not looking at Chela’s face.

"I’d really like to come back and take a look at those stitches in a few days, if it’s all right with you. And you know that I’m at the Habana Libre, if you develop a fever or start throwing up, or if you get any puffed up red lines running from the area towards your neck. My last name is Murphy. If you don’t want to - or can’t - come yourself, you could always send a messenger and I will pay for it." She stood, and took a last look. I wish I knew what to do. I don’t get it. She’s smart and speaks English. And she’s so beautiful. This is what the angels in the churches would look like if they had tans. Really dark tans. "Umm. I’m leaving, then."

"I’m sorry I don’t have an umbrella to offer you," replied Chela, almost inaudibly from under the covers. "I can hear it still coming down out there."

"It’s all right, compañera," said Barbara from the doorway. "I like storms." She shut the door behind her, but not tightly enough. Within minutes, the persistent wind had worked its way through the crevices of the beaten wood, and - gaining purchase - swung the old door open. It swept through the small room, picking up dust, rustling papers and causing candles to flicker wildly.

Chela was half-asleep already, lulled by the long night and the strong rum, but she forced herself out of bed, her breath hitching as she felt the stitches in her shoulder pull with her effort. She stumbled to the door and closed it firmly, lowering the cross-bolt. She blew out the candles on the night table, then thought to check the ones on her altar lest the wind should have extinguished or knocked any over. Chela gave the altar a cursory examination. All looked well, although a few of the candles were sputtering up after burning unevenly due to the earlier breeze. Then she looked more closely and saw that several of the tacks which held up one of the larger saint portraits had been dislodged from the wall, and that this painting was swinging slowly from the remaining attached corner. Best to fix that before it tears altogether, thought Chela, reaching for some tacks. As she lifted the portrait to center it, the candle beneath it briefly flared, casting a spray of light upon a face painted so vividly it that seemed to jump off the paper. Deeply troubled by the emerging set of coincidences, Chela sat down on the floor.

It must be the rum. It’s my artistic imagination. Holy Mother, the rum…. Reaching up, she took down the picture and stared at it. And I took the rum from her hand and I invited her to pierce my skin. I handed her the key to the apartment and let her walk right in. She spent a few more minutes looking at the black haired woman with the flashing eyes who wielded a sword in one hand and a chalice in the other: St. Barbara the Virgin, the European saint who corresponded to the tempestuous orisha of lightning and fire. Chela decided she could not ignore the mounting evidence of this unusual night, and it would behoove her to tread carefully around her new acquaintance. In a fashion not immediately recognizable to her, a child of Changó had arrived.

The heavens have torn.

Between the worlds a fissure grows

and into it I fall

flailing and directionless:

my reason wiped clean,

my will reduced to ash,

my eyes so full of light

that the everyday refuses me the comfort of form and color.

At first I lament the absence of my sight

raging at the current of dreams that hold me sway.

Then I disdain smell and touch and sound

and find delight in a sense so perfect

only fools and angels know its worth:

an electric skin of stars that marks a path

beyond this insignificance of my life.

Translation of "Monedas al Aire", by Carlos Varela

You toss three coins in the air/And you ask the I Ching/How will it end?/You know I can’t save you/But even here you come to me/ Maybe, maybe a miracle will come down/Even here./ You’re afraid of being closed in/And not being able to leave/You know I don’t want to escape/Though you think I do/Maybe, Maybe a miracle will come down/Even here./ I throw three coins in the air/And I ask the I Ching/How will it end?/And although I can’t save you now/Come hold onto me, to me/ Maybe, Maybe a miracle will come down/Even here.

"The Kid" by Buddy Mondlock used without permission.

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To be Continued

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