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.
Thanks to Prof of Xena Warrior Lesbian, and to Jessica Michallet for coming on board as beta-readers and editorial advisors for this story. A special thanks to Old Warrior for test driving this story.
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. In scenes set in Cuba, I will be inverting that practice: when characters opt for the use of English in dialogue, it will be italicized.
un cuerpo complaciente
que soltara tus amarras,
que en tus nudos desnudara
a tu animal más inocente
un fuego tan ardiente
que encendiera tus cenizas,
que te hiciera sentir brisa
donde ya no había fuente
un corazón de refugio
donde huir de tanta gente
que te hería y te quería
para hacer feliz un día
Si soñabas con buscar la libertad
a través de otra persona
que librara tus palomas
de las ansias de volar,
que luchara en tu trinchera
de traer la primavera
Salvador Cardenal, "Si Buscabas" (used without permission)
Later that night La Habana Central
Chela was relieved to find that the lights were on as she cracked the door to her apartment. So, Tomás is probably still here and the power is on as well! She had stopped at the dollar bakery before coming home precisely so she could gift her youngest sibling who had a sweet tooth as strong as Barbaras, and who she had entrusted with the upkeep of her altar in her absence with his favorite honey rolls. As she stepped inside, she felt her shoe skid on something and was barely able to keep her balance by throwing her shoulder against the near wall. Chela looked down in dismay at the matted clumps of bloody feathers spread in an arc around the statue of Elegba, and bit her lip to keep herself from cursing outright.
"Ki Loricha, Elegba," she said in greeting to the Orisha, composing herself. Then speaking to no one in particular she expounded on the source of her irritation and surprise. "I know I told him several times that in my home Elegba does not eat roosters," she muttered, wiping off the bottom of her shoe on the baseboard.
"Chela," responded a soft voice behind her, " you know that you have been spoiling Him here it is not good to get them used to human blood. What would happen if He had to go live with someone else who is not so generous?" Chela turned, her anger already dissipating in anticipation of her brothers embrace. When she saw him, she dropped her packages, shocked at the sight of Tomás dressed in the white suit and cap of an iyawó an adult in the process of being inducted formally into a house of Orisha. The boy, although already as tall as she, was barely twelve years of age. How is it possible? It seems just yesterday that he was putting pepper in my oatmeal, and stealing my bras and shoes for his "fashion" shows. And who would train a little boy? I dont have the discipline to keep all the rules how can a child manage?
"This is a joke," she stated numbly.
Tomás laughed, throwing back his head. "Oh, Chela! So I have finally done something to surprise you! I hope there was nothing that could break in those bags."
"No," whispered the still stunned young woman. "I brought you some rolls in the smaller bag." Tomás reached down to pick up the treats.
"So it was for the best that they fell. I couldnt take them from your hand now anyway." Until the year long period of novitiate in the santería house was ended, the boy would eschew physical contact with others, even from the members of his blood family.
"Does Mamá know?" asked Chela quietly as she walked over to the bed and sat down. She must be out of her mind: our family just seems to be expanding infinitely in degrees of "social offensiveness."
"Oh yes, she knows, Chela," answered Tomás as he sat cross-legged on the floor before her. "Ive stayed here the past few days. And tonight I will be going to stay at the house of Juan Sánchez for good Chela," the boy looked down and shook his head in disbelief. "She took me to Mazorra to see if they would hospitalize me. They actually kept me for twenty-four hours of observation." He laughed ruefully and looked up at her, his hazel eyes twinkling. "I am lucky that the conditions are so bad right now that they cant take any more patients. You should have seen Mamá when they told her that yes, I was a schizophrenic with the kinds of delusions common to many blacks and Africans, but that unless I hurt someone I did not qualify for admission. She cried and cried about how I was ruined - that I was already a "butterfly" but now also a mad boy."
Chelas heart clenched at her brothers words, as she imagined his ordeal in being taken to the psychiatric hospital. She would have abandoned him there! And to have dwelt on what a disappointment he is to her he who is the gentle lamb of our home! This is my fault! I have not been paying attention to what is going on in his life. When is the last time I sat down and really spoke with him? It must be almost a year that we only have brief moments of trading news when I stop by the house, or when he comes for Mamás money. She ached to take him in her arms and rock him, to press kisses into his fine hair. It will be a long year!
"I am so sorry you have gone through this without me at your side," whispered Chela as a tear made its way down her cheek. Tomás smiled tenderly at her and reached out to brush it away, barely catching himself in time before his fingers would have stroked her face.
"My beloved sister, Mamá didnt have the money ready for medications, so no real damage was done. And you must believe me, Chela I am very happy now! Everything is as it should be. Juan is getting ready to pass over, and he says that my training is the final task he must accomplish. And in his house, my having a strong aspect that is woman-like works for me, not against me. It is easier for me to work with both male and female Orishas."
"Wait," interjected Chela in confusion. "What do you mean that Mamá was out of money? I just sent a thousand dollars three weeks ago."
"Well, Chela," said the boy slowly, "that is one of the things I have to talk to you about tonight. My initiation cost about two thousand dollars in materials. Juan put in all but five hundred himself he says that he wont be taking any money with him when he flies away to Guinea, so he may as well spend it on me. I already gave his house five hundred dollars from what you sent last time." Chela gagged.
"You you took five hundred dollars," she croaked.
"Yes," replied Tomás, his voice gaining in confidence. "But, Chela you need to know that this is my destiny. I am not just being made a part of the house. I am going to be a Babalawo in my own right the youngest Juan has ever trained. He says I am to be a great priest. And Chela " He waited for her to meet his eyes. "You will never have to worry about me again as a Babalawo from a great house, I will have security for the rest of my life, however long it should turn out to be."
"What do you mean?" asked Chela in disbelief as she raised her hands up to her face and squeezed against the temples, attempting to center herself within the disturbing conversation. "What do you mean about however long it will be?"
"Juan says that this is my calling and that I am worth training, whether I fly to Guinea as an old white-haired grandpa or I go before my moustache grows out to its thickness. That is my reading, my fate."
Chela looked again at the boy whose eyes seemed to transform before hers into those of an old man, whose words seemed to come to her from a place of many decades serenity. My Cuba, is it that all your children are skipping over their youth, or that my brother has indeed found special favor with your saints?
"Is there someone you can ask for another five hundred dollars to replace what I used?" asked Tomás gently.
Virgin of Regla, I would wish that there were someone else but there really is not unless I try to work at night again and the good money comes from being company in the daytime as well. It would interfere with my main job. Ay, Barbara. I hope that you dont think less of me for behaving like all the others who leach off foreigners.
"There is someone," affirmed Chela. Tomás smiled broadly, and rocked back to support himself on his arms, stretching out his legs.
"I thought so," he said lightly, a note of joy entering his voice. Chela felt the atmosphere of the room change, as she perceived what almost seemed a tangible cloud of relief and contentment emanating from the boy. "Juan said as much that your Changó was nearby. What is he like, Chela? You know not to let fear keep you away from him."
Chela looked at the floor and laughed.
"What is it?" asked Tomás, deeply intrigued by his sisters response.
"The child of Changó who has come into my life is a woman a big, funny woman who likes to suck on sugar cane, and whos mind likes to go in a thousand directions all at once," sighed Chela. She looked up shyly at her little brother, and offered him the hint of a smile. "And you are right to speak to me of fear. This is more complicated than I am willing to take on right now. Beyond the fact that she is a woman, she is also a Yanqui." She scuffed her toe on the floor, waiting for Tomás to respond. When he did not, she continued. "I am just trying to avoid problems, and to avoid suffering. Our family has been through enough. I have been through enough."
"Ah, but Chela," said the boy seriously, "there is little you can do stop the suffering in our family. That is a useless quest. Our father explained it to me very well the other night, and he was most insistent that I convey that message to you." Chela was so taken aback by the words that a wave of dizziness came over her and her breathing quickened.
"You have seen him?" she gasped.
"Yes, Chela," intoned Tomás with some amusement. "But it is not as you think He walks with the ancestors now, Chela. He came to me in a dream."
"So you dont really know that he is dead," protested Chela.
"Ay, my sister," replied Tomás. "I do know you may doubt it but I do know! It is not a sad thing, Chela. He is at peace. And what is more important is what he learned in those lands as he made his way and as he remembered us." She was hearing the boys voice as if it were passing through water, in soft reverberations. My saints, the chills I feel running through me. He is telling the truth. He is telling the truth. And so, my waiting for him to write, to send word it has all been in vain. And I am an orphan in my soul. "Chela, come back!" he prodded gently. "Listen to me he never stopped thinking of us, and he missed us terribly. But it was the right thing for him to leave. His staying would only have made him bitter he would have had to choose bitterness, the same way our brothers and our mother choose bitterness." My twelve-year old brother who doesnt shave yet is explaining the nature of free will and destiny to me. I must accept the only explanation that makes sense within all this rain of impossibilities: he has been chosen despite his tender years. Well, if the world is turning upside down, let me at least take every bit of wisdom with me when I fall into the sky. "I have chosen happiness, Chela - and freedom, as our father did. You know," he stopped and got up on his knees so that their faces were close enough for their breath to intermingle, "nobody knows what lies at the bottom of the sea, Chela. Juan told me that this was your reading. You are imagining eels and sharks, and so you refuse to dive. What if there is treasure and you have scorned it? And now you practically tell me that this American woman has laid riches of a sort before you that she makes you laugh, and you know, I could see the strength of the joy she brings when you described her."
"This is not easy," commented an emotionally exhausted Chela. "I am not sure what she is thinking in regards to me much of the time. It just seems simpler to stay at a distance."
"Well, Chela," replied Tomás as he stood and dusted off his trousers, "at a distance shadows look like demons. That way is not for me. I want to take a look at life very close up." He smiled and picked up the bag of sweet rolls. "Except I do not need to see our mother and the psychiatric hospital very close up again. You know where to find me. It is best if you take her the money from now on."
Chela nodded to her brother as he prepared to walk out the door. So! Perhaps he is right about how I choose to see only the danger she brings and not how she breathes light into my days with her silliness and her small kindnesses. And, my saints, I am to have a Babalawo for a brother!
"Tomás!" she called out to him. He turned. "Awa kunle, Babá," she said softly, addressing him in parting as a full-fledged priest. "Get used to it, my brother," she smiled. Juan is correct you are already moving between the worlds, already changing reality. At least, you have changed reality for me tonight. "I love you."
The boy nodded to her, his eyes answering that her love was returned. Then he was gone.
That Friday, March Ministry of Health, La Habana
" and this is why I think the methanol insult is a good model for us to proceed with. I would put money on this being a case of the metabolic pathways that usually process toxins being made ineffective because of nutritional status," concluded Barbara, looking down the long table at the assembled Cuban and US researchers and officials. Papers were shuffled and pens were tapped as people tried to process the flood of information shared by the young physician, who had managed to get through her lengthy and complex presentation effortlessly while juggling a popsicle with her teeth. OK. Come on here, comrades. An "oh thats brilliant Barbara" would be good about now. Chela smells good. If no one says anything soon, I might lick her face just to see if anyones awake.
"Doctora Murphy," began Santos Valverde, "do you feel confident enough to start actively pursuing the issue of treatment? We are under tremendous pressure since the figures were revised to reflect the eighteen-thousand additional cases."
Thats right! Were at thirty-nine thousand in the shade and the temperature on the blindometer is headed straight up. And given the protein shortage, if we shipped them thirty-nine thousand seeing eye dogs well it couldnt be any worse than what they serve at McDonalds. Heh. Ill have the Big German Shepherd combo super sized, please.
"I would feel more comfortable if we held off just a bit we still have to finish carefully sifting through the data from this trip to the eastern provinces. And then I really think we should at least do one trip to the west." Barbara could see the look of disappointment on the Cuban physicians face. "Compañero Doctor," she said earnestly, switching languages. "I know how terrible the suffering of the people affected by this condition is. It is not an academic exercise for me anymore, this need to solve the epidemic. I have met too many people whose lives have been destroyed by it. Trust me I just know that resources are limited, and I want our interventions to be the most effective ones possible "
"Could you please do this in English? We are making major policy decisions for the project and half of us are being kept out of the loop right now, as well as having our time taken up needlessly."
Barbara stiffened and shot a glare at the man who had interrupted her one of the junior ophthalmologists from California. She was poised to lash out with her breath drawn and her mouth already opening - when she felt Chelas hand briefly grip her thigh under the table.
"Excuse me," ventured Chela, as all eyes turned to her. "I know it must be frustrating not to understand. I could sit next to those of you who are having difficulty with our Spanish I know we speak rather quickly here - and interpret simultaneously for you. Or I could sit with my Cuban compañeros and do the same. I know that your time is valuable, and I do want to be of service to you." Well, thought Chela, I knew that all that experience babying spoiled men who couldnt get it up would come in handy sometime.
"Thats all right, Ms. Stevens," replied Cynthia Richards, taking charge of the meeting. "We are almost done now although I appreciate your willingness to do this in the future. You have been most gracious with us."
Boy, did she score brownie points taking Cynthia shopping for art and jewelry on the black market yesterday! thought Barbara. Geez. Hope they remembered not to buy anything made out of tortoise shells or black coral. Bring on the rum and the contraband cigars, though! Fuck you, public health fascists!
"I think Barbara is right on this. We have a limited number of intervention trials that we can fund lets make them count. And speaking of counting, gentlemen," Cynthia looked around at the North Americans seated at the table, "we need better lab facilities to assess those alcohol samples that have been collected. Someone has to carry them to Boston Harvard has offered to donate techs and equipment to look at this, in return for our taking on one of their grad students." Her eyes finally rested on Barbara. "I know who has earned a trip back. Incredible job, Murphy. How about it? A nice trip back to the Vatican of academia and the opportunity to have the electricity on twenty-four seven."
Barbara shrugged. She discretely looked out the corner of her right eye, noting that Chela had gone still, her knuckles wrapped so tightly around her water glass that the white of the bone showed through the skin. Shes holding her breath! Goddam! Goddam! It does matter to her if if Im in the same country! Hey, its a start! Fuck, I wish I knew! Like if she would just grab my crotch that would be very clear. As clear as my not being ready to get on an airplane headed away from her.
"Cynthia, thank you for the offer," began Barbara, deliberately drawing out her response. "I agree with you that one of us has to run these back. And I know that Pedro and Chela can easily take on my teams portion of the western trip on their own But I insist on staying I am the one who has to go to bat for the methods we are using, so I want to remain directly involved in the hands-on data gathering. You should go, Cynthia." Yes! Yes! That was an exhale! Damn!
"Thats all I have then," said Cynthia as she packed up her briefcase, dismissing the group. Within a few minutes, the room had emptied, save for Barbara and Chela. Both women sat glued to their chairs, uncertain on how to proceed. While Barbara fidgeted with some paperclips, her assistant quietly sipped from her water glass, periodically glancing to the side. It was Chela who broke the heavy silence between them.
"I have something to ask you."
"Me too. I have something to ask you too," said a relieved Barbara. "But now you have to go first." She shifted her chair so that she faced Chela, and smiled. "Go ahead. Ask me how I managed not to kill anyone at these meetings before you came along." Chela laughed nervously and looked at the floor.
"Barbara This request is not easy for me. I am afraid that you will think I am taking advantage of your good faith."
"What? What could be so bad?" asked Barbara, leaning in closer to Chela. You could invite me over for a quiet evening of human sacrifice, baby, and I would say yes. Just for the love of God dont demand celibacy. Actually, shes looking kind of miserable. Impulsively, she reached out and cupped the other womans chin, gently bringing her face up so she could look into her eyes. Shes shaking! But, dang. I dont think its a good shaking, like an "Oh my god, my sexy boss is touching my face" shaking. More like a "the dog that bit me just tested positive for rabies" shaking.
"Barbara, I need some money," Chela managed to say in a voice that was barely audible. "Actually I need a lot of money. My family needs it so that my youngest brother can pay for an apprenticeship its something the government would frown on, so I cant really ask other Cubans. I would ask you for an advance if I didnt know that then I would just be short the next month. And I dont know that you will be here long enough for me to pay you back if you gave me a loan."
Fuck! Fuck! Dont wanna think about it. Dont wanna think about what happens in a few months. Ill give you all my money. Just stop friggin time. Barbara let her thumb venture up to tentatively caress Chelas cheek before lowering her hand.
"Chela," she smiled. "That is not a terrible request. Ask me a hard question. So, how much do you need?"
"Five hundred dollars," whispered Chela, looking back down. "I need five hundred dollars."
"I can do that, Chela," responded Barbara softly. "Can it wait until tonight? I just need to figure out how to get it from my account at home."
"Im sure that I can," said Chela, nodding. Her breathing, which had become noticeably shallow as her request was considered, returned to its normal rhythm. She settled in her chair, and gave Barbara a concerned look. After a few seconds, she prompted the other woman out of silence.
"You also needed something, compañera."
"Chela I dont know," began Barbara awkwardly. Now it was her turn to assume a slumped posture and to sit in discomfort. "This changes things for me. I mean, I am truly happy that you trusted me enough to ask for this favor, but I dont want you to feel you that have to say yes to my request just because I am giving you money." Her eyes dulled, and a small frown bloomed on her face.
She is afraid that she is buying me. As if I would sell her what I dream of giving her freely. If only I did not have responsibilities.
"Barbara," she said, warmth infusing her voice. "Have I ever not been honest with you? Look at me." She gave the other woman a light pat on the knee to draw her back out of her unhappiness. "Thats better. Barbara I have told you before that you are more to me than a foreigner, that I want you to think of me as a friend "
Friend! Dont sigh! Dont barf! Barbara commanded herself.
"So please dont think that I would ever treat you like I treated the Sugar Daddies in my other line of work "
Shes reading my mind! Im fucked, thought Barbara. Just like when Father OMalley could guess which specific mortal sins had added up since my last confession fuck, I suppose I helped him out by tagging about em on the chapel wall.
"Ask. And if I cannot say yes with a glad heart, I will say no," concluded Chela simply.
"Ok," replied Barbara, although she found that she still could not meet her assistants eyes. "I am going out tonight to the Comodoro Hotel with two of my friends. They are men, but they are together. We want to dance. It would be helpful to have another woman."
Helpful to them or helpful to you? "And you want me to find you another woman?" Barbara snorted and shook her head.
Oh, what must I do to get that color of red in her face more often? thought Chela.
"No, Chelita," said the older woman shyly. "I was hoping you could join us."
Chela drummed her fingers on her knee, allowing the seconds to pass while she pretended to ponder the request. "I think I could do that, Barbara." She smiled, ducking her head down so that Barbara could see the cheerful expression on her face. "That is not such a terrible request. It will be a bit awkward. I have been to that disco in another capacity than as a friend, and never really just to have a good time." Oh, what a wonderful shade of mauve that brought!
Barbara straightened up, composing herself and willing away the unease. What is wrong with me? She said yes! I wanted this Geez I hope I dont embarrass myself tonight. Left hip forward, lift shuffle step, keep trunk above waist straight yep I can do this. Reptiles have it so easy. A sexy head bob with an over the head tail flick and the dance of love is on!
"Should I meet you there?" asked Chela.
"No," replied Barbara, standing up. "Ill come by your place at nine to get you."
"Good," nodded Chela. She watched as the other woman hurriedly packed up her papers and pushed her chair in. Barbara was still looking uncomfortable and stiff as she walked to the door.
"And Barbara," added Chela, addressing the other womans back. "Thank you for asking me out I am honored."
Barbara stopped and turned briefly, a smile lighting her face. "Nine oclock!"
After the door closed, Chela remained seated, finishing her water. I want to see life up close too, Tomás, she thought, recalling her brothers words. I want to see life dancing in the most beautiful eyes God ever made, and know that I had some small part in creating that happiness. Then she remembered the rest of Tomás revelations, and knew that she also was walking across the broken terrain of uncertainty. How will it end? But I suppose this is my fate, whether what grows between us flies away to Guinea as a gnarled old root, thickened through years up drawing up fresh water, or as young shoot cut down on its first dawn in springtime.
René and Jorge were waiting outside the Habana Libre, ice cream in hand, when Barbara walked up from the street, a lopsided grin on her face.
"I think compañera," ventured Jorge good-naturedly, "that the stupid look on your face is not because we have brought you your favorite flavor from Coppelias." Barbara laughed and slapped his arm. "I think that this mysterious woman you have been hinting about is joining us this evening. I am correct, no?" Barbara took the cup of ice cream from his hand and pointed her head in the direction of a park bench.
"Ive been inside all day. Is it all right if we enjoy these outside?" she asked, stretching out the kinks in her neck.
"But of course, Barbara," replied René. "I can try doing something for those sore muscles too." They sat down, Barbara taking her place between the two men.
"My god, I am getting so spoiled in this country." Barbara purred audibly, with her eyes closed and a bite of Coppelias richest chocolate ice cream melting on her tongue, as Renés fingers dug at the knots in her shoulders.
"If all goes well, you will not be needing me to do this much longer," he joked.
"So she is from the Health Ministry?" queried Jorge.
Its not like they wont recognize her. Could have her wear a mask jeez, I shoulda brought the leopard mask that matches my lucky underwear. Might as well get this over with. "You remember that woman that made my knees go weak on the first night we all met? The one you told me I must absolutely not get involved with? Well I gave her a job and some stitches not in that order, and it is a long story and I am pretty sure that I have fallen in love with her." Jorge sighed loudly and shook his head.
"Now, Papi," said René in a soothing voice. "Im sure Barbara knows what she is doing and even if she does not, sometimes we just have to try things out in life."
"This is an area where we know too much, René," growled his lover. "Im sorry, Barbara, but it infuriates me as a Cuban to see the jineteros and jineteras swarming over foreigners like mosquitoes and sucking them dry. They are nothing but vampires."
Barbaras muscles were busy re-knotting as she listened to Jorges tirade. She had known that the men would not be pleased with her date, but the degree of vehemence evident in the gentle mans voice surprised her.
"Jorge," she said neutrally. "I have gotten a chance to observe how she is in many different circumstances as we have worked side by side over the last month. This is a dignified woman who was in a bad situation."
"Yes, yes," interrupted Jorge. "We know all about their "bad situations". So has she asked you for money yet?" Barbara flinched. "And I bet it was for some big family problem, a sick mother perhaps, and nobody can help her but you "
"That is not how Chela is," cut in Barbara passionately. "She does have responsibilities and we are friends." Jorge shrugged.
"I know no other way to show you this, Barbara, but it is better for you to be hurt and get it out of your system now," said the man quietly. "René, that is Tito sitting over on the other bench isnt it?"
"Yes," answered René, looking at a skinny dark skinned youth who was smoking a cigarette several benches over. "My god, Papi, you are not thinking of inviting him over?"
"Tito!" called out Jorge, hooking a finger at the youth to beckon him. He turned quickly to Barbara. "I hope you have a few dollars with you, because this conversation will not be free." Barbara nodded dully. Tito ambled over, assessing the trio through his mirrored sunglasses.
"Whats up my brothers?" he called out in a lilting voice as he squatted before them. "Who is this female with you?"
"Look, Tito," said Jorge firmly. "We need a favor."
"Uh uh," said the youth, shaking his head. "I dont do women. Things arent that bad for me right now."
"Things arent that bad for me either," said Barbara icily. Why does everything about this guy make me want to dismember him and feed the pieces to hyenas?
"She knows Spanish!" commented the surprised youth. "Well, forgive me young woman. I was simply expressing a preference."
"Look," piped in Jorge. "I want to skip over the formalities and get to the point here. The young woman wants to buy maybe five minutes of your time and as much honesty as is still left at the bottom of that lying head of yours."
"Well!" exclaimed the offended Tito, arching his back. He started to get up but froze when Barbara reached into her pants for her wallet. She pulled out a ten dollar bill and folded it discretely between the fingers of her left hand.
"Jorge, just ask him what you are going to ask him," she said dryly.
"Tito, the Papis you go with, do you tell them that you love them?"
Tito looked confused. What kind of kinky game are they playing with this woman? And they think I am a pervert!
"Are you stupid?" replied the youth smiling. "Of course I do. Thats what they pay for they want a little tropical romance. It helps that my hips are slim and that I am delicate they like to treat me like a little flower."
"And little flower," continued Jorge, rather harshly. "Do you ask them for money for your family?"
"Well," replied Tito laughing, "it depends on whether Ive told them Im an orphan or not. Some of them are really into orphans. Those are usually the same ones that it goes best with if I say I am a virgin. I have a few right now that Im an orphan virgin with, and only one that I have a sick mother with. Those are tricky, because sometimes they want to see your sick mother, and then I have to actually pay my mother some dollars to call into work and stay in bed so that the story will fly. If shes been drinking it can be a disaster, though she called one of them a hairy buttfucker a few months ago, and there was no way I could convince him that she was insane. And that was a very good client who liked to buy me jewelry and whos cock was really little."
"Ive heard enough," said Barbara angrily, throwing the ten dollar bill at the man as she stood up. She turned to René and Jorge, her eyes narrowing as she addressed them. "Do you think you can be polite to her tonight?" she asked tersely. René reached over to Jorge, holding his forearm to silently communicate that he was answering for the pair.
"Barbara, as far as I am concerned you are taking us out with Princess Diana of Wales tonight," replied the man quietly. "I am sorry that Jorge does not appreciate that things are not always what they seem."
"Ill meet you in the lobby at quarter to nine then," rumbled Barbara, crushing her empty ice cream cup in her fist. "I want to take a nap and then freshen up before we go take the prettiest woman in Havana out dancing."
As she walked away she could hear Tito whining at the other two men.
"I would never have done this if Id known I was messing with someone elses hustle we are all just trying to survive out here! I have solidarity with the others! Or at least I would have asked for more money!"
Chela straightened out her dress, and reflected on that first stormy night that had brought Barbara into her life. In truth, Cubans would have left me bleeding to death on that sidewalk out of fear that interfering might "bring problems". And most foreigners would have turned away as well. I am lucky in so many ways. As, I think, she may be as well. As she readied to leave the apartment and wait in the alley, she stopped and flipped open her journal to look once more at that mornings poem, and then vividly replayed in her mind the dream that had prompted her to accept the other womans invitation to go out:
She was at the illegal but sprawling farmers market that operated around the corner from her parents flat in El Monte. Chela followed the figure of a child as it scampered about the stalls, reaching surreptitiously into bins and boxes and filling its pockets with candies, small fruits and sticks of sugar cane. After passing by a corner stall the child turned, and Chela beheld a girl of about four or five years, dressed in the white clothes of an iyawo, with sparkling blue eyes and a long mane of black hair. "Barbara Changó ," Chela whispered, but the child did not seem to see or hear her. The urchin began drawing handfuls of stolen treats from her pockets, and soon her mouth was so filled that the cheeks puffed out. And still she did not stop pulling out food from her garment.
Chela watched in horror as the little girl inserted shoots of cane up each nostril until the blood ran, packed chiclets and gumdrops into each ear, and finally smeared the flesh of ripe bananas over each eye, the cakes of fruit leaving her essentially sightless as the eyelashes batted helplessly trying to remove the offensive substance. Despairing, Chela cried out to one of the market women. "Cant you stop her? She is a thief!" She could not understand why these were the words that came from her mouth: she had intended to say, "She needs help! She cannot see!" The market woman turned it was her own mother, Maritza, but much larger at the waist and with an incongruent smile on her face as she began to scold Chela. "Of course, she is a thief. Where is the mother? Of course, she is a thief. Where is the father?"
The father! Chela could see the familiar blonde man squatted behind the market woman. Chelas heart jumped as she ran to him, but Martin Stevens paid her no heed. Instead, he stared with affection at the senseless, blinded girl child, as he shook in his hands the divinatory cowrie shells. But he never believed in this, Chela complained to herself in the dream. Then she watched as the shells went flying to the ground like hard bread crumbs, with some of them landing such that the cut opening was visible. Martin Stevens lips moved silently as he counted out the ratio of shells lying with the opening exposed to those displaying a smooth surface. He lifted his face in triumph and finally looked up at Chela, his green eyes shooting sparks. "The reading is Obara!" "But you never spoke the lucumí tongue, Papá!" protested Chela to her father. The man disregarded her and continued identifying the reading. "Chango and Elegba speak to say: From legends, the truth is born! The king does not lie! Do you hear me? The king does not lie!"
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. Chela turned around to face Tomás, who winked at her, then said "The king will not lie, but that doesnt mean he knows the truth!"
She had woken in a sweat and had feverishly reached for her pen, the words spilling out in a chain of images:
I wash the scratch on your knee and bandage it with a butterfly kiss.
I can see the cracked tree limb outside my window where you once reigned
as the queen of the jungle,
your sword a dried flamboyán leaf that bested the attacking fireflies
and sent them circling in search of stiller air.
You say the leopard gave you this wound
before you wrestled him to the ground.
You ask if I would like his golden skin
so I can make us both capes that we can wear when we go flying.
Today the leopard drew your blood.
I let the truth of the tree limb pass,
your defeat by gravity a minor footnote in our family history.
I know what every mother knows:
That Rachel crying for her children,
That Yemayá searching for her son,
That every Cuban Madonna frozen in a corpseless Pietá -
her children taken by the sharks -
would safe keep these little lies and find them sweet,
would forgive with gladness youthful boasts and tricks,
to have one more day to tend to the fragile flesh
of those beloved.
Yes, thought Chela, as closing her door - she made the decision to set aside the safety of her autonomy and act on the intense affection she felt for her American Changó. I know that there will be pain, but I also know that she needs my ocean as badly as I need her fire.
Napping proved difficult for Barbara, given the storm of thoughts raging in her mind following the "lesson" provided her by René and Jorge. She assaulted the punching bag for an hour with such fervor that the screws attaching it to the ceiling finally pulled loose, bringing with them a shower of plaster fragments, and still she found no relief. So, after showering and dressing, she turned to the rum she had purchased as a souvenir, and sucked steadily at the bottle until it was time to go down to the lobby. A half bottle of the strong drink barely nicked the layer of glumness that weighed down on her usually cheerful disposition, although it made her feel warm enough to forget the light jacket she had brought to protect her sleeveless shoulders from the night chill in the taxi.
An hour after the quartet arrived at the Comodoros Havana Club Disco, Chela observed with dismay that her woman companions mood still had not improved, and that she had in that brief time downed two shots of liquor on top of the obvious inebriation she had arrived with. The Havana Club was packed, and Chela and René had had to struggle for a space in which to dance to a few salsa numbers. Several male patrons had already complimented René and Jorge on their extraordinary escorts, although one of them suggested to Jorge that he invest in platform shoes in order to approximate Barbaras height. The two women managed to stand out in a venue crowded with attractive dancers, many of them jineteras looking for business: Chela wore a simple iridescent blue dress that left her back bare to the waist, and Barbara displayed a complementary amount of skin at the front, wearing a black vest that opened down to her belt, with jewel-inlaid buttons held loosely together with leather thongs keeping the garment from falling off altogether. It was a bittersweet display of beauty, however, as each woman sat unhappily engrossed in deciphering the others thoughts, unable to fully take in how provocatively they had dressed for each other.
After all that crap, thought Barbara irritably, it was Chela who had the decency to offer to pay her own way. Fuck, have I ever gone anywhere with René and Jorge that I havent picked up the tab? But thats ok, because we are just "friends" and neither of them has ever offered to fuck me in return. So just who is a mosquito and who is not one here? And that old fat dude sitting next to us has what looks to be a twelve year old on his lap. I am supposed to believe that she is taking advantage of him because she needs money? Her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of two women dancing to an American disco/funk song together at the edge of the dance floor near their table. Well I see that anti-imperialist solidarity doesnt extend to boycotting Stevie Wonder tunes. Good! Now, let me think. How can I ask this without pissing Chela off?
"Chela," she whispered to the younger woman, managing to force a smile onto her face. "Those two women would they be involved in a vestigial form of gender discordant behavior that used to be justified under the implicit inequality produced within a heartless market-oriented system but is no longer acceptable given the ideological and super-structural adjustments enacted by the Revolution?"
Chela spewed Tropi-Cola out the sides of her mouth as she exploded in laughter. Oh, she has been listening all those times when I thought she was just spacing out looking at my breasts! And thank god, it seems as if she is back after this long evening of frowns.
"No, compañera," replied Chela, between hiccups, as she dabbed at Barbaras newly moist top with a napkin. "Remember that in Cuba often women friends and women relatives will hold hands when walking around, or will dance if no men are available to them, and it doesnt mean anything."
Oh good, thought Barbara hazily. And it probably doesnt mean anything that my nipples just decided to stand up and wave hello. Good thing this vest is thick.
A merry cry went up from the room as the rhythm of the music changed, signaling the beginning of a Dominican merengue, with its rolling backbeat. Hey, I think I can do this, mused Barbara as she quickly reviewed her dance lesson in her mind. This one doesnt have a lot of turns, and the pattern of the beat is straightforward. How badly can I fuck it up?
She listened for the lyrics, quickly translating them for herself, and found that the opening verse captured perfectly how she felt about Chelas appearance that evening. "["your male friends tell me of your brown skin / that when you walk it shoots off sparks/ that you bought yourself a new dress/ when you put it on, even the heavens shake"]"
"Ok, Chela," she cooed mischievously at the young Cuban woman. "Im tired of sitting down! Dance with me." Then she leaned over to René and muttered in his ear. "Wish me luck, compañero. Showtime!"
"Wait, Barbara," said René, reaching for her arm. "This song ."
But Barbara was already approaching the dance floor, pulling an astonished if willing Chela by the hand. They paused at the edge and faced each other, briefly assessing where to place their hands.
"Do you know how to dance to this?" asked an amused Chela, tilting her head questioningly.
"Oh yeah," replied a confident but fairly drunk Barbara as she curled a hand around Chelas lower back. "In fact, I am leading so dont get any funny ideas, you very smart bunny. Tigers are not all stupid some of us know what we are doing," she concluded as she stepped off.
"["your female friends tell me that you have changed/ that there is sadness in your gaze/ that you go quiet when I am mentioned/ that you are a but a shadow and I tell you that"]"
Well! thought Chela as she allowed Barbara to guide them onto the floor. Was that what was bothering her? That little story I told back when we fought in Maisí? I dont think so. Oh, and she does feel so good tight against me and her hips are right on time! Now if she were only not going backwards, but I think I can adjust, because as she has just pointed out, I am a very smart bunny and sometimes you just have to give your idiot tiger a break.
"["Im not going to lift a finger "]," Barbara sang along softly into Chelas ear, before daring to nuzzle the lobe for a second. Ay, mami, I thought I would never get here. I want to die right now. Well, no. I want to solve this epidemic and bed this woman not necessarily in that order - and then figure out how to keep her living happily with me and Hercules for another sixty years, or longer if human life spans have improved by the time we get there, which they very well may thanks to advances in molecular genetics, although iguanas really dont last that long and then I want to die.
I wonder if she realizes that this is the bitter break up song of the season? Chela asked herself as she felt Barbara move in more tightly and run her fingers down her bare back. When the older woman used the momentum of a soft turn to hide a stolen nip to the sensitive skin of her neck, Chela could not hold back her response, and a moan escaped her lips as she pressed into her partner and laid her head against Barbaras shoulder.
"["you asked for it/ and you made a mistake/ and I tell you that/ Im not going to lift a finger "]"
My god, I would dance backwards to the Star Spangled Banner with her. I dont remember the last time I was wrapped so tightly around someone and it wasnt business or trouble. She feels solid against me, like the young pines on the Island of Youth, thought Chela, as she let a thumb knead at Barbaras shoulder. Then she felt Barbara inexplicably stiffen slightly and pull away.
What is wrong with me? a torn Barbara asked herself, as she recognized Tito and an older Asian man among the dancing couples. I cant get that crap out of my head. And she as much as said that shes been on this dance floor before, probably vertically fucking johns to the music. I cant get it out of my head, and Jesus help me I dont want to be an asshole
"Chela, I am worried about something," she said, slowing down a little so that the younger woman would look up into her eyes.
What happened? What in the heavens happened? thought a disappointed Chela. "My compañera, Barbara," she said quietly with a shy smile. "You dont have to worry I thought it was rather obvious, but I want this too this closeness with you."
Perhaps it was the rum finally taking its toll, or panic at her imminent surrender to the younger woman at a time when doubts still buzzed like angry wasps in her head, but Barbara felt herself recede into the role of passive spectator as her voice and will were hijacked by the insecure adolescent who had survived the Southie streets by means of intrigue, deceit, and manipulation. To her horror, it was the captain of the Crying Shamrocks the champion player of head games who bubbled to the surface in an act of unwelcome possession, directing the course of the conversation away from the perils of intimacy, and towards the more familiar if isolated land of mistrust.
"Im not sure my bank can do the transfer you asked for ," began Barbara awkwardly. Thanks a fucking lot, Jesus! I am being an asshole.
"["because of your damned pride/ I dont want anything of yours/nor your love Im not going to lift a finger"]"
"Lets worry about it later," whispered Chela, reaching up to smooth her partners eyebrow where it was ruffled.
"I dont think you understand. I might not be able to get you that money you asked for."
"Barbara," replied Chela gently, "all the more reason to let me enjoy tonight. Ill have to worry about it later." She tried coaxing the distraught American back into an embrace, but Barbara continued to stay off the pace of the music and firmly maintained a space between her body and that of her dance partner.
"Its just my bank is giving me problems ."
"Your bank is giving me a terrible problem right now," cut in a flustered Chela. "And its not about money. Barbara if you need some money to get by for a few days, I have a few dollars stashed away that will keep you in ice cream until things get ironed out. I can help you but please snap out of this."
I am worse than an asshole. I am worse than an expelled segment of tapeworm. I am worse than a pellet of pig shit being rolled downhill by a dung beetle.
The two women managed to finish their dance, although they could not recreate the intense closeness that they had felt towards each other at the beginning of the song. They stood awkwardly facing each other, unwilling to drop the hands that bound them together, even as the next song a slow number started up.
"Barbara, no," cautioned Chela, trying to shrug off the other womans hands as the American attempted to resume dancing. "This isnt safe."
"But I thought you said two women could do this," said Barbara with a frown.
"Not to slow songs and there are always secret police at places like this who are looking for unusual things to hold against people." Indeed, the presence of the two women on the dance floor did not go unnoticed. As they approached their table, they were intercepted by the foreign man who had been seated next to them, and was now pulling his pre-pubescent escort along by one arm. He looked at Barbara and smiled, the noxious odor of cigars and stale rum wafting from his open mouth towards the surprised physician.
"So you have one too," crowed the drunken man good-naturedly. "Arent they incredible? Cuban pussy is the sweetest in the world must be all that sugar they eat. Dont you wish you could just pack them in your carry on when you leave? Damn, then I could just fuck her in half on the plane instead of watching a stupid movie."
The right cross caught him right under the chin, whipping his head back as his knees crumpled. Cries of alarm went up directly behind the women, as people saw the unconscious man lying on the floor, and soon a circle of onlookers gathered about them.
"My god, Barbara," gasped Chela as she restrained her from striking a second blow. "We have to run now. Before security gets here."
"No," answered Barbara quietly. "We need to stay. Dont worry I know enough about the global brotherhood of pricks to make this turn out all right." Two large men in mirrored sunglasses pushed their way through the crowd, looking first at the fallen man and then at the formidable American woman who appeared responsible for his condition.
"And what happened here?" asked one of the guards neutrally while the second one knelt to check the foreigners breathing.
"This man is not Cuban," began Barbara carefully. "He is not a gentleman. I was trying to get back to my table, where our boyfriends are resting their sore feet, and he failed to respect me as I passed. He tried to touch me without my permission."
The guard shook his head. "That is terrible, Miss. I always tell my Cuban brothers, you can say whatever you want to a fine woman in the street or in a club, but you just cannot cross that line and touch them. Our women may receive rather strong compliments at times, but no one would rape them. And then there is the severe matter of his having disrespected your boyfriends honor. Well, we will take care of this he will not be welcome here again."
Chelas eyes were wide as she observed Barbaras performance and its aftermath.
"How could you say those things?" she hissed to her in English after they returned to their table. "You are one of the strongest women I have ever seen and you spin this story about how he "failed to respect you when you were passing"!"
"Chela," countered Barbara. "Lets be frank here. Dont tell me you never faked it to get out of a bad situation without getting hurt I have no interest in bringing us to the notice of the authorities. Mister "Fuck her in half" though, hes paid and will pay for messing with me, messing with you, and messing with that child. And it still seems too small a price to extract."
Several minutes later, Barbara and her three companions left the Disco. As they stepped into the street a small figure approached them out of the shadows.
"You! American bitch!" called out the child jinetera. "You really fucked it up for me. He hadnt paid me yet."
"Youre right," answered Barbara coolly. "I owe you." She reached in her wallet and peeled out five one-hundred dollar bills, then stretched out her hand to the girl, who snatched the money away. "Next time try to find a nicer one, so that I dont have to do this again. Its a bit expensive." Then she turned to the stunned Chela, and handed her an equal amount of cash.
Tell her you remembered your pin number for the bank. Tell her you thought youd lost this thousand dollars in a casino en route to Cuba in the Dominican Republic and you just found it. Tell her the project just voted you a bonus and gave it to you in cash... Or cowboy up. Or get back in the saddle here, away from this backstabbing whispering bullshit, away from this grade school note passing way of playing a relationship, and take the licks that are coming to you. And hope to hell that she can look at you without throwing up after you tell her the truth. She took a deep breath and held up her chin so her words would carry to the two men as well.
"And you. I need you to forgive me if you can, compañera. I didnt trust you completely when you told me that I was not business to you, and a doubt came into my mind while I was holding you as we danced. I feared that what I was feeling for you made me weak so I lied. I was confused, and I cheapened what should have been a wonderful night out with you. I wouldnt blame you if you refuse to see me outside of our work."
Chela started to cry, her lips trembling as the tears coursed down her face. René and Jorge quietly departed, thinking it best not to interrupt the difficult moment between the two women. Barbara waited, unable to move towards Chela, while sobs wracked the younger woman.
"Ill get you a taxi, Chela," said a defeated Barbara finally. "Im sorry. I understand that you dont want me after this."
"You are such an idiot! Such an idiot!" squeezed out Chela between tears and sniffles. She crossed the distance between them, grabbing Barbara by her arms and shaking her. "Youre right I dont want this drunken paranoid American who will see a parade of faceless customers over my shoulder every time I take her in my arms."
"But," she whispered hoarsely looking up into Barbaras pained face. "I am pretty sure I still want the woman who asked me out this afternoon, the woman who makes me laugh, the woman who cant turn her back on a bleeding stranger or on a child who is yoked to a monster because of hunger." She paused and let go of Barbara, then rubbed her face dry with the back of her hand. "Dont call me a cab. Im going to take the bus. And tomorrow tomorrow I am taking you out. Ill meet you in the Café Rimbaud on Calle Salud at six oclock. Wear comfortable shoes we are doing this the Cuban way tomorrow on the pedestrian express and the slow-trolley-to-Santiago local." Then she reached up to caress the face of the still immobile Barbara before turning and walking away.
Better than any absolution I ever got in a fucking confessional, thought Barbara as she watched the blue sparkles of Chelas dress fading into the night. How many times is this going to happen for me? First Irene. Now you. Taking my betrayal and turning it into a moment of grace.
Oh yeah, theres that third ball about friggin time, thought Barbara as she pressed her hips forward against the ancient pinball machine. Ok, baby now fall. She willed the small projectile into the Whacka Cave for thirty thousand points, watching with satisfaction as the scoring mechanism reached its maximum limit for the sixth time since she began to play, re-setting the score at zero. Barbara had been playing off the same US quarter for two hours since arriving ridiculously early for her date with Chela at the Café Rimbaud. The establishment was empty save for the owner and the American physician, who had been thrilled to discover the classic Bally 1958 Balls-a-Poppin in the corner and had persuaded the elderly proprietor to plug it in for her. The old man felt a certain relief in seeing the machine in use it had suffered in sad isolation for decades. He was so moved by the spectacle of the animated glass and metal emitting its merry symphony of squawks and bleeps at the hands of the skilled American woman that he had set aside all notions of business prudence, offering her drinks on the house. The customer, however, had refused his gift, opting instead to pay for bottled water.
No way am I gonna be tanked around Chela tonight. Geez, why does she unsettle me this way? OK. Other tough things Ive done sober. There was that penis re-attachment in Farmington. I would say its really bad acid when you try to fuck your lawnmower. But its incredible how these Cubans take care of their machines. The classic cars, the old airplanes, and this this beautiful Bally. This is as good as the first time I played in a womens bar jeez. The Saints and a fake ID. Oh, the pinball and the girls were so good. Heh. I guess when you cant replace things and youve got to repair what you have. If they arent replacing their folic acid, even a small amount of toxin could leave you blind like that. Come on, fall! But I really have to confirm that the dietary stress has been that severe and widespread, and other vitamin deficiencies could be involved as well. Thou shall not tilt.
From the doorway, Chela stood and watched the other woman play for a few minutes, fascinated by the intensity and concentration on her face and the tautness of her muscles. What is going through her head? I wish I knew. But look at her and that is with a soulless machine. My god, what must she be like in her passion with another woman? The blush was still strong across her face when Barbara, finally tired of the game, turned and saw her.
Caught you looking! Barbara nodded in greeting to the Cuban woman. On her way to Chelas side she briefly paused to address the Café owner.
"Thank you, sir. You know, that is a very valuable machine. Balls-a-Poppin was the first one made where you play with multiple balls." The man laughed.
"It is worth nothing, young woman. Less than nothing because I cant bear to break it down for the metal and components. But I am glad that you enjoyed it." Then he turned to the other woman and swept her up in a bear hug. "Young Chela! Blessed are my eyes to see you again!"
"Don Alfredo!" laughed Chela. "It is very good to see you as well."
"Can I get you something, girl?" he asked.
"Thank you, Don Alfredo," she answered, gracing Barbara with a smile. "But I found what I came here for." The man grunted in amusement, and with a wide grin on his face, withdrew to his place behind the bar. Well, and it is best to be very clear with this one, given how her mind works, thought Chela as she set her bulky pack down on a table.
"So where are we going?" asked Barbara, hooking her thumbs in her jeans pockets. Fuck, that yellow sundress is painted on. Sorry, Sister Mary Frances, but please, if there is a god - lead me unto temptation. "And what are we doing?" She shifted uncomfortably on her feet, then relaxed as the younger woman captured her in a loose embrace. She took in a deep breath, and with it, the now-familiar scent of her companions hair and skin. Coconut and cinnamon: Chela.
"As to the first question, we are going to a beach east of here, in Guanabo. Its two long hot bus rides away." She paused and reached up to gently draw Barbaras head down for a lingering soft kiss that prompted a whimper from the other woman as their lips parted. Me too, cariño, thought Chela, as she felt a wave of heat ripple up through her body. "As to the second, if you are asking a logistical question, I am taking you for a walk on the beach. But if you are asking a different question, then I dont have a clue. You are the one who has gone with women before. Im just the one whos been thinking about it non-stop for weeks."
The day I got the T-Bird. The day Irene came to see me the first time in juvey, and brought me ice cream and a copy of Capital. Solving my first Rubiks cube and then whacking my cousin Jeffreys head open with it when he tried touching my girlfriend. Ma wheeling Dad to the front row to hear my valedictorian address in college. The day I played the 1958 Balls-a-Poppin and Chela kissed me.
Guanabo the Eastern edge of La Habana
It was that paradoxical time right before twilight, when the light intensified in brightness before making its departure, making the ocean surface reflect up in fiery orange hues. Sea birds made their way back to land, preparing to rest for the night, while a stray dog made its way up the beach, pausing intermittently to investigate rubbish left behind by bathers and debris carried in by the tide. As all of these the suns rays, and the diverse inhabitants of the coast moved through the transitions of the evening, two figures made their way up from the oceans edge to an outcropping of flat-surfaced rocks at the tree line.
It had been a chaotic but quiet ride out to Guanabo for Chela and Barbara. Both the long segmented Bulgarian-made trolley they initially boarded and the smaller micro-bus in which they had continued their journey had been overflowing with travelers on their way to Santiago. The vehicles had creaked along precariously with passengers hanging out of their windows and exits, like two metal Gullivers overwhelmed by swarming Lilliputians. After getting off the micro-bus, they had walked the beach in silence until Chelas suggestion that they sit to wait for the sunset.
Barbara laid the pack down and pulled herself up on the nearest rock, then faced the sea, her feet dangling a few inches from the ground. Chela climbed up past her, and reaching into the bag extracted a thin wool blanket. He was supposed to take this with him to the Olympics, thought Chela. Now he will never use it, but maybe it can help take me out of this cold I have lived in for so long. She scooted forward on the upper ledge so her knees pressed against her companions shoulders, then draped the blanket over her own so that it also sheltered the older woman. Then she leaned down and clasped her arms across Barbaras chest, resting her chin atop her head. The silence had re-imposed itself and it was several moments that they sat in this way, feeling each others self conscious and erratic breathing as their own hearts pounded in an inseparable mixture of excitement and fear, drowning out the ability to think clearly and to will speech.
"Chelita," said Barbara finally. "Its going to get cold out here. We should think about heading back."
"No," smiled Chela, looking out over the ocean as she shifted to rub her cheek across Barbaras hair. "We dont have to go back. Ive already made the round trip once today arranging for a place for us to stay."
"When did you do that?" asked Barbara in surprise, turning and looking up at the grinning Cuban.
"I didnt have a hangover this morning," smirked Chela. "You see that cabin up past that abandoned school bus?" She pointed at the building and waited for Barbaras nod. "It belongs to an old school friend. She rents it out privately, but we have been friends a long time. I helped her get some good medicine from a dollar-only store the last time her older boy was sick. I should warn you though there is only one bed, so I hope you dont have to run away like the last time."
"Geez, Chela," answered a scarlet Barbara, reverting to English in her embarrassment. "I didnt run because I was scared! I didnt want to take advantage of you."
"And with everything that you knew about me even by then you really thought I would let anyone take advantage of me? I have the scar to prove thats not the case. Anyway," continued Chela, switching the conversation back into Spanish. "I want to talk about what happened last night."
Barbaras felt her intestines turn icy. Knew it was too good to be true. Here we go.
"I spent some of the morning at the House of Tea. You remember the one, you who are "really good at pleasing women?" Chela was lighthearted in her teasing, but Barbara was now truly mortified, recalling how Chela had overheard her overbearing attempt at seducing a Cuban dockworker.
Isnt there a statute of limitations for humiliating behavior? Just shoot me now.
"It was a nice time. I sat and had tea with a few of the other girls I know from the business. You know, they were telling me how crazy their boyfriends and husbands get sometimes. Most of them get obsessed with whether their dicks are big enough, or if they are still the best in bed. They either want to make love all the time when their women get home - like that will erase all the time spent with the clients. Or it will be the other extreme their own men wont touch them even though most times afterwards if you have someone you love you want to feel close again I can see why this would bother you, Barbara. So we have this saying here: "in a pre-announced war there are no casualties". Of course, that isnt entirely true. We know that from Iraq. But I dont want you to be afraid and afraid of shadows, really if we are going to take this further. If there is something you need to know, something you need clarified, this is the time."
I cant believe shes gonna make us "process issues". Geez. Femmes are the same everywhere. I dont wanna know. I wanna know. I dont wanna know. Well, I dont give a shit so much about the men except maybe Barbara took a deep breath.
"Very well, compañera. I know people probably ask this all the time. I mean I bet clients have asked it. But I want to know the truth. Do you enjoy it at all?" I am such a pig. I cant believe I just asked her that.
Chela sighed. Dont react. Take it as a serious question. Shes just scared. Maybe some good will come of visiting this.
"Well," she said carefully. "There have been times when I have, in a physical sense. Sure. Was it what I would have wanted to be doing? Not with those specific individuals." She thought of Jonas. "There were times when it wasnt just about sex and some of those times were very good: going out and listening to great music, drinking a fine wine. And sometimes it was very human to be with them, hearing their stories about their lives, about the places they had been, and their dreams, and who loved them. The man I was with the longest taught me a lot about poetry, and how it is celebrated in other cultures. And, of course, sometimes it was dreadful, and I was either ashamed or scared. You met me one of those nights. So there is your answer. Is there anything else you need to know?"
"Women," answered Barbara quietly. "Did you go with foreign women as well?"
"No," replied Chela, as she watched the sun dip under the horizon. "There were some guys who wanted me to do it with another woman with them watching, but it made me feel crazy to think about having it happen that way. And it never occurred to me that foreign women would come looking to buy I dont know why I didnt think about it. Actually I guess I do. It was something I wanted, and I never wanted business to be about something that I wanted that badly that would leave me open and vulnerable. You need to understand, Barbara," she said, her voice taking on an edge of pain. "Yes, it has crossed my mind to be with women before, but it was just too hard to think about taking on that kind of risk. The women I thought about were my closest friends I needed them. I couldnt take losing them altogether. And then there is my complicated family. It has never been worth the trouble How about you?"
"Well I hope I am worth the trouble," teased Barbara, hoping to lighten the mood.
"No," said Chela, laughing and swatting her on the shoulder. "Have you ever paid?" She felt Barbara flinch and through the sensitive skin of her forearms - could feel the heat moving to the older womans ears. Well, this should be good!
"Please withdraw, Eckstein!" thundered the professor like an angry god. "I have no idea how any of you are going to make it! Technique, Eckstein! Look at you, forgetting to warm the speculum so we could see the "patient" flinch from here, and forgetting to cool your jets, so we could see you get a hard-on from here as well! I told all of you: the more you worry about getting one, the more likely you will. Its not a woman while you do this its a body that may display some pathology."
What a freaking asshole, thought Barbara defiantly from her place in the second row of the knot of medical students. Allrighty then Ill try not to worry about getting a hard-on. Fuck! I cant wait to get the hell out of here and back to Massachusetts. Two more goddam weeks! Why the fuck didnt I pick one of the other semester exchange sites? I will never come back to Bismarck.
As Barbara mulled over her misfortune in having chosen to do one of her third-year semesters at Mercy Medical College in North Dakota, the disgraced Eckstein made his way back to his classmates. The students nervously stood waiting to learn who would be called forward to their death next: learning the pelvic examination was considered one of the great traumatic experiences of the clinical rotations. Barbara had overheard her male classmates anxiously discussing what to do if they, or - even more horrible still the patient, became aroused. Obviously they have never been in the stirrups with a pimply Doogie Howser ramming Mr. Speculum in like a toddler trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, thought Barbara irritably. Before the students, a dark-skinned woman lay on the examination table, her face shielded by a surgical drape, giving the disturbing impression to observers that she was headless. Unlike most medical schools, which relied primarily on plastic models or professional teaching assistants for introducing the manual skills required for the pelvic, Mercy proved itself a dinosaur in the field of medical education by still hiring prostitutes to play the role of patient. Of course, to practice the pelvic Mercy students like those in many institutions used anaesthetized women who were often unaware of how much they had consented to when they registered for their surgeries.
"Well, then gentlemen," droned the instructor haughtily. "Shall we see if our visitor from Massachusetts can do any better?" Barbara could hear the comments of the Mercy students as she passed through their number on her way to the front.
"Fuck, I would hope so. I mean shes got the equipment." "Yep, unfair advantage - probably uses a speculum to play with herself." "Boston bulldyke time."
Barbara could feel her temper rising as she selected an instrument and set it on the warming tray. "Sir, you want me to do both modalities?"
"Yes, Murphy," he sighed. "After youre done with the speculum I want you to do a bi-manual exam You know we dont have all day."
Thought you wanted it warm, you bastard. Oh well at least its room temp, not straight outta the box like the one that idiot just used. She picked up the speculum, twirling it around her index finger as she approached the "patient."
"This is not gun slinging Murphy," harrumphed the instructor.
Fuck you. "Just warming up my end too, sir," smirked Barbara.
"Yes, sir. Talk before touch." Fuck you, dickhead.
"Maam, youre going to feel my hand now, against your thigh. Thats me. Ok. Im going to insert the bills of the speculum into your vagina, now. You may feel a little pressure. The bills arent really that big and I woulda showed them to you if they didnt have you watching a movie somewhere back there " The comment brought forth a flurry of titters from the room. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. That tattoo behind the knee. Oh, fuck. "Ok. Im gonna spread the bills now so I can see up into the neck of your uterus, which is what the cervix is. And I have to say, yours looks great. Youve been taking great care of it, I can tell." More laughter erupted and the red-faced instructor was overcome by a coughing fit.
"Murphy," he finally hissed when he got his breath back. " I dont know how you got into medical school. I assure you that you wouldnt be staying if you were a Mercy student. And I would end your career right now if it wasnt more trouble than youre worth. So what if your technical skills are excellent! My colleagues in Massachusetts will see through you soon enough. Im not referring just to the inappropriate humor, of course, but also to the fact that you are morally not suited to the practice of medicine, and that frankly the thought of people like you working with real women patients horrifies me. Finish the bi-manual so I can check it off."
Fuck all of you, thought Barbara as she looked across the room at the smirking, judgmental faces. Fuck all of you. None of you shits would last an hour some of the places Ive been.
She went through the beginning of the bi-manual mechanically, practically blacked out from the rage. Then she drew herself up and opted for a performance of bravado that would mask the persistent feeling that she didnt belong. With her hand still inside the woman on the table, she turned towards the students with a malicious grin on her face.
"Well, just thought Id tell you something none of you will figure out on your own," she began. "First, this aint gonna bite my hand off. And second," she shifted the position of her hand and stared directly at the dumbstruck instructor. "If I hit this special spot on the anterior wall, Im always gonna score high on my patient satisfaction questionnaires. Good luck finding it, gentlemen." Well, she thought as she looked at the stunned faces. Guess thats worth having to repeat ob/gyn rotation in Boston!
Fifteen minutes later she was cleaning out her courtesy locker in the female house officers lounge, as she was "excused" from the remainder of the rotation. She turned the corner to get to the door and came upon the "model", sitting on a bench tying her shoes, with her back to Barbara.
The dark-skinned woman felt a hand on her shoulder and flinched, but didnt shake it off. The presence was familiar. "Gypsy," she heard a remorseful voice say. "Im sorry about what happened in there. I was just really pissed at them and I kind of lost it. Im sorry Please let me make it up to you. Hey, girl Let me take you up to Knife River this weekend. Its so pretty there like you. Ill call you tomorrow?"
Gypsy forced herself to stare at her right sneaker, willing herself not to let her eyes water at the words spoken by her regular client of the last four months, the one she called "The Sweet One" to the other girls a gender-neutral term that protected her from any insults on the part of those who thought such liaisons unnatural, and a moniker that provoked envy in them as well. Gypsys stories of a customer who always pleasured her first, and who always brought flowers, were uncommon in the Bismarck night trade. She swallowed hard and struggled to speak as evenly as possible.
"No, Doc," she said in a quiet voice, refusing to look at the other woman. "You need to lose my phone number. I cant let the kind of disrespect you just showed slide. Im sorry but you cant afford me anymore."
"If its that bad," said Chela to Barbara, who was still quiet after a long minute, "then you dont have to tell me."
"No, not that bad," said Barbara, shaking off the memory. "But not that great either. It was just one woman a long time ago, when - this may be hard to believe I was stupider and more insensitive than I am now. I shamed her in front of a group of people so I could look good. I guess I still feel guilty about it. More so now that I know you and understand how wrong it was from a new perspective." Chela wrapped herself again around Barbaras shoulders, bending her head to nuzzle the older womans temple before speaking.
"Cariño, I just dont see you as such a terrible person. Except for last night, you have always been sweet and funny with me, and you have always done what was giving and right." She stopped to plant a few soft kisses on the line of Barbaras jaw, and hugged her more tightly. "So, I have another question Up there in the United States, what happens when two women find that they are wanting each other, and there is no one to stop them from acting on it?" Barbara pretended to ponder on the subject for a few seconds.
"Well," she began. "Speaking from my limited but I believe representative experience, they are usually in some spot that isnt quite the one where they hope to end up, like sitting on the curb in front of one of their houses, or on the floor of the living room watching television, or parked in a car after they have watched a movie. And they spend hours talking in circles trying to figure out who will make the definitive move. This can continue until the early hours of the morning, when exhausted, one of them finally has her inhibitions go to sleep and forces the issue. In the best of circumstances, the excitement of having a new partner overcomes the fact that you have been up all night with your muscles knotted from trying not to move too fast."
"And you people won the Cold War?" asked Chela, laughing.
"Dont start with me," smirked Barbara. "Ive seen how things work around here. If your central planning committees were in charge of you having your first lesbian experience youd wait in line in the sun for five hours until you made it to the front, and there would be some guy standing there handing out bags of onions and saying "We are sorry, compañera, but there have been technical difficulties. We will try to bring enough lesbians for everyone next week.""
When was the last time I laughed this hard? Chela asked herself as she let the blanket fall and climbed down to straddle Barbaras lap. She was still chuckling as she ran her fingers through her companions thick hair, before nesting her head against the American womans shoulder.
"I am done with waiting and I would rather not sit here until morning," whispered Chela. "Please let me take you to bed."
For Barbara, it was an unusual time of clarity when she looked into Chelas eyes - the excitement and wonder in them clearly visible in the lanterns soft light - as they finally lay down together, dressed only in skin and need, on the cabins small bed. They had disrobed each other slowly, removing garments in a careful dance of limbs punctuated by long kisses. During all of it, the expectations for the moment noisily crashed through Barbaras mind, a litany of concerns over mastering the moment. Jesus, I just want to take her. Want to make her come harder, better than she ever has before. I want this perfect. But the frank curiosity and eagerness in the other womans eyes focused her in a different direction, and instead of immediately mounting her as she had in the fantasies that had flashed through her mind the past weeks, she instead found herself drawing Chela closer to her as she lay on her side.
"Come here, cariño," she said, caressing Chelas cheek before taking the Cuban womans hand in hers and placing it over her own heart.
Ive never seen the detail of the tattoo before, thought Chela, as Barbaras gesture drew her attention to the patch of decorated skin. Of course, there would be black tears. Even if I touch her and claim her, there is that small matter of her leaving too soon. She let her fingers drift up and down across the other womans neck and collarbones.
"Whatever you want, whatever you feel comfortable with you can have that," said Barbara simply, allowing Chela the freedom of setting the pace between them. She arched slightly - but willed herself from moving any further - as the younger woman tentatively moved to caress her breasts, slowly running her fingertips across each nipple in turn before bending down to take the right one in her mouth. "Oh, that is so good Chela," she managed to breath out, raising her own free hand to feel the strands of Chelas hair and softly rub the back of her new lovers neck.
She has such strength, thought Chela as she tasted the sensitive skin under Barbaras breasts. I can feel the tremors that break through that incredible control. She does this for me lays open for me to explore. She paused in her journey down Barbaras tall frame and spent a few seconds idly running her hand over the belly, then stopped briefly, entranced by the contrast between them: the cream of the skin below accentuating the darkness of the hand studying it.
"Stop it," laughed Barbara softly in mock irritation. "I know what youre thinking and I cant help it. Its winter half the year where I live, and even if it wasnt Ive never been able to get that part to tan. Im just pale, Ok?"
Chela smiled at her, then shifted her upper body so that she could kiss Barbara deeply, before she reached down to touch the patch of soft curls between her legs. "Youre not just funny and pale, my lover. You are beautiful."
"Mami Chela," groaned Barbara, as her hips bucked at the contact. She spread her legs wider to give her access to her sex. "I need to touch you too. I want to give you pleasure."
"This is my pleasure," answered the other woman softly, as she dared to run her hand across the moist softness. And it was. Chela wasnt aware of when her own breathing had altered to reflect the intense arousal that flooded her senses, but she knew that she was crossing a border that would forever change her, and that the grace of great joy and great passion was being bestowed upon her as she took that step. She felt a sweet pressure on her nipple as Barbara captured it, rolling the soft bud between her fingers, then let out a loud gasp as it was released. And still the sensations unfolded, as the hand that had fondled her breast continued downwards, skimming down the center of her belly to rest on her mound, teasing her. "Please, Barbara," she begged, unsure whether she needed to laugh or cry in her anticipation of the touch. Her own hand played across the tender flesh of her lovers vulva, learning the intimate terrain through the pads of her fingers. She dipped a fingertip slightly into the opening at the base of the labia, then waited, breathing so heavily now that her shoulders shook with the effort, for some sense on how to proceed.
"Go ahead, baby," Barbara growled affectionately, reaching to rub her palm across Chelas wetness. "I meant it whatever you want."
What she wanted, decided Chela, was to lose control, to leave every bit of past disappointment behind. She could sense her opportunity to finally spring the traps of denial and bitterness and longing, and to run blindly towards the escape and freedom that this gift, this child of Changó who embodied such a set of contradictions wisdom and immaturity, generosity and shame, promise and loss offered her. She observed her own hand as she entered her lover, with touches that were cautious at first, but soon settled into a slow and steady rhythm of full strokes that took her fingers from deep inside of Barbara up and out across the slick vulva, to where they pressed her clit up against the underlying bone. I am done waiting, she thought to herself, deliriously happy to hear the soft cries that accompanied each movement of her fingers against the other womans inner walls. Then she looked up and took in the intensity of the other womans expression, and in her eyes found the match that could light her own desire past the point of containment.
It seemed to Chela that her body was acting of its own accord, her hips rocking faster and harder against the fingers that firmly pressed across her sex.
"Thats it, Chela. Oh, baby thats it. Take it, Chela. Take everything you need."
"I dont ever have to stop again." Damn, I just said that out loud.
Where did that come from? thought Barbara, upon hearing the comment. Oh, fuck. Oh, Im gonna come. But I wanted so bad for her to come first. "Oh, fuck. Oh so good. Mami, dont stop. Im going to come for you, Chela. Mamita, kiss me while you do this to me. Let me give it up for you, Mami." Fuck, I just said that out loud. As she began to crest she could barely make out the endearments and encouragement murmured by Chela amidst her own moans of pleasure. Then Barbara surrendered to the younger womans touch, the climax taking her as she raised herself to stroke hard against Chelas hand. "Chela Chela," she whimpered, her eyes shut and her face tight in concentration as the spasms shook her.
How did I live this long without having this? thought Chela as she kissed Barbaras closed eyes. Ill have to do something about that later. I want to look in her soul when we have this together.
The eyes were open soon enough. Barbara smiled at her partner, drawing her up close to her chest as she collapsed onto her back, exhausted. Fuck, that was more than good. What is she doing to me? And what was that she called me while she fucked me? A "chángo" is a monkey, I think. Right? God, she feels sweet on me. And shes so responsive. I could touch her like this all night. Oh, shes close. So sweet.
"Theres something I want, Mami," she whispered to Chela, who continued to move against Barbaras fingers as she lay across the older woman. "Look at you, so beautiful, getting ready to come for me. Come over here, cariño, right over me." Against Chelas soft protest she withdrew her hand, then guided her to straddle her upper chest by reaching underneath to take hold of her buttocks, gently kneading the soft flesh as she did so. "Put your hands up against the wall for support and move up, Chelita, so I can make love to you with my mouth." She watched in awe as Chela complied, practically throwing her arms against the cabin wall in her haste, and crossing them to serve as a rest for her head. Then she noticed that the Cuban woman hesitated in lowering herself.
"What?" she asked tenderly. "Surely youre not shy about this. Youve done this before, I bet," she softly teased.
"Yes," admitted Chela quietly, looking down at her lovers face. "But not with you." And, she said to herself as she felt herself giving in, seeking the other womans tongue, if you take me this way, if you take me in your mouth as you release me, then I am really lost, and your leaving me will become more than the horrible pain I have bargained for it will break me apart.
Barbara looked up, her own excitement acute as she watched her lover moving over her. She gently shook her head side to side as she pleasured Chela with her tongue, occasionally pausing to kiss her labia. I wondered and now I know. The ocean and sunshine. Chelas taste.
The younger woman was becoming more desperate now, straining to rock herself hard against her partners face, her moans changing to short sobs that kept rhythm with her quickening strokes. Oh, baby. I wish I could do this and talk. You are so good. Ay, my Chelita, go ahead. Come for me. Fly, my cariño. She reached up a hand to play with Chelas nipples and felt her start to release at the touch, crying out loudly as she doubled over, bested by the first waves of her orgasm. She bucked hard through the climax, and Barbara struggled to clasp her tightly, not letting her escape until the shaking ceased and then helped her roll off onto her side, spent.
Barbara pulled the blanket up over them and embraced the smaller woman, softly kissing her face as she played with her hair. Chela snuggled against her chest, reaching around Barbaras back to lightly scratch up and down her spine.
"Ummm. Thats nice. Are you all right, Chela?" Chela pulled back so she could see Barbaras face. She smiled.
"You have to ask?" she teased.
"Well," said Barbara in mock seriousness, shrugging her shoulders and yawning. "I dont know. It could be that you would have been better off with one of those bags of onions." Chela laughed, shaking her head.
"Look," she said carefully. "This is how it is. Dont take this wrong, but if I had money or a good job or anything of value, I would try to get you to give up your job so I could keep you in bed."
"Wait a minute," countered Barbara, teasing. "You mean you dont have any money? You owe me for tonight," she laughed sleepily. "Well let me think. We can do an exchange, a barter, compañera. To each, according to her need, from each, according to her abilities. Not everything has to be reduced to the evil of profit-seeking, of "mans heartless exploitation of man"." Chela snorted at hearing Barbaras sacrilegious quotation from The Communist Manifesto. "Tell you what, compañera. Ill call us even if you write me one of those poems that you hide away in your notebook."
"Done," murmured Chela as she rested her head back upon Barbaras chest, running her hand lazily over the tattoo as her eyes drooped.
"Mmmm. Mami, youre putting me to sleep," said Barbara groggily. "Mmmm. You made me feel so good. You should ask for something oh, keep rubbing me there," she purred.
"Right," said Chela quietly, knowing that Barbara couldnt see the sad edges of her thin smile. "You live here, you learn not to ask for things."
"Mmmm," grunted Barbara, halfway to her first dream of the nights sleep. "I am not the central planning committee. I want you to ask."
I have nothing to lose. How do I walk into tomorrow without making any effort to keep her?
"All right then, compañera," whispered Chela, trying to control her voice. "You are a good doctor which is something this country needs. And you are the only person that makes me feel so free in my body, so you are something that I need. Rip up your passport. Stay with me."
Crap! Im awake! thought Barbara, as she carefully rolled Chela off her chest and shifted up onto her elbow. Stay here? Geez, but I didnt bring my u-haul. I dont want to leave her, but me here? Oh fuck, dont let her cry. The pain in her lovers eyes tugged at her heart, and she struggled to maintain her composure, searching for the right words with which to respond.
Chela tried to read the confusing expression on the American womans face. You went too far too fast, Chela, she thought miserably to herself. Well, I couldnt have lived with myself without having taken the risk. So I will seize what consolation I may tonight but this struggle is not over. I refuse to concede her to that damn current that washes hope away from these shores.
"I knew it was too much to ask, but you said you wanted to know this. I will understand if you cant say yes to this rather big request. Perhaps," Chela pressed on bravely, "you might consider giving me a "yes" to a smaller one." Then she ducked her head to run her tongue across one of Barbaras nipples, before starting to suckle it.
"Chelita," murmured Barbara earnestly, as she straddled the younger womans thigh. "I dont know what to say, but Im glad that you told me. I dont know how to fix this for us. This isnt a matter of stitches." She paused to tip Chelas face up from her breast, and kissed her. "But I can tell you this," she said as she started to move slowly against her. "I will think about it, and as to that "smaller request" this is my yes."
You are my canoe:
a solid vessel carved of the finest ceiba wood
and bleached by the rays of the sun.
I rest across you as you take us out across the reef
and into deep uncharted waters,
leaving you to navigate by the light of stars
that only you can see.
You want a better land for us.
Years ago my fathers and mothers also sailed,
coursing down the mighty Orinoco until they reached the sea,
defying currents and the prevailing winds,
they came here:
buttons of soil and rock that adorned the shirt of the horizon
the Antilles beckoned them.
Now you sense our shore of promise.
I kneel at the bow, trusting,
as the waves break upon us,
soaking our skins in their spray as they drive us towards our landing.
Their cadence is my heartbeat
as I ride you all the way to the beach,
the sand cushioning our arrival.
I kiss the ground and then you:
with you beneath me I fear no storm.
With you beneath me I need no homeland,
only more journeys.
Well, my compañera, here is your first payment. When I woke this morning and looked at you, and felt the warmth that looking at you provoked in me, I couldnt help but think that I got the better part of the bargain. I know that I am operating on a severe trade deficit already. Still, if you are interested and you are willing to extend me some badly needed credit, I have many more poems. Come find me on the beach when you are done with your snoring.
To be continued.
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"No Voy a Mover un Dedo" ("Im not Going to Lift a Finger") by Yordano, used without permission. The irrepressible merengue version by Alex Mansilla and Cañaveral is lamentably out of print. If you have it in vinyl or CD, please have mercy and contact the author at email above. My cassette is wearing thin.
Translation of "Si Buscabas" ("If You Were Looking"), by Salvador Cardenal, Guardabarrancas version:
If you were looking for/a willing body/ that would loosen your ties/that from your knots would unravel/disrobe (homonyms) your most innocent beast /If you were waiting for/a fire so intense/it would light your ashes/ that would make you feel a breeze/where there was no longer any source /If you were yearning for/ a heart of refuge/where you could flee from so many people/who hurt you and who wanted you/just to make their day happy /If you were dreaming of seeking your freedom/through another person/who would liberate your doves/ from their need to fly/ who would fight alongside you/ to bring the springtime /you have found her.
I am indebted to Terri Kapsaliss Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both ends of the Speculum, for all the bad news about how pelvics are taught and practiced. Historical clarification: prostitutes have not been used as models for instruction in the United States since the 1970s.