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. Thanks to the Masked Punctuation Goddess. Thanks to OW for test driving this story.

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

Aunque tú me has echado en el abandono
Aunque tú has muerto todas mis ilusiones
En vez de maldecirte con justo encono
En mis sueños te colmo
En mis sueños te colmo de bendiciones.
Sufro la inmensa pena de tu extravío
Siento el dolor profundo de tu partida
Y lloro sin que sepas que el llanto mío
Tiene lagrimas negras
Tiene lagrimas negras, como mi vida.
Tú me quieres dejar
Yo no quiero sufrir
Contigo me voy mi santa
Aunque me cueste morir.

Miguel Matamoros, "Lagrimas Negras", (Used without permission.)


Chapter 8: Listening to Matamoros

Second week in April In transit from Santo Domingo to La Habana

Barbara reached across Cynthia to accept a cup of lukewarm juice from their Cubana stewardess. The young woman lacked the resolute surliness of the previous attendants she had encountered on the airline and Barbara wondered if she was new at the job. In any case, thought the troubled physician, she is not my enemy. She looked around the cabin, spotting the Cubans sprinkled in amongst the tourists. They were identifiable by their more sedate clothing and manner and the absence of vacation accoutrements. Now I know, for some those expressions mask quiet relief upon approaching their homeland, for others quiet despair. And then there are those like me, masking both feelings. None of them are my enemies. Fuck, and I arrive on their soil like some dime store novel Mata Hari in service to the Feds. I’ve got vitamins in my friggin’ luggage and betrayal in my head. I used to think it would be cool to be a spy. Secret Agent Man, although as a kid I thought that Johnny Rivers was singing "Secret Asian Man" and I wondered how all that worked . I gotta remember: I am not trapped like a rat. Chela — who is not my enemy — will help me figure out what to do. Chela… She used her elbow to nudge the project manager, who had been silent for much of the journey — her attention rooted in a stack of printouts detailing the composition and projected efficacy of the micro-nutrient "cocktails" the two women had developed over the past two weeks.

"Ummm?" grunted Cynthia. She looked up at her colleague and could see plainly etched on her features a blend of weariness, apprehension and pain. My, but she has grown up working on this project, which is a good thing in some ways. But I do miss the joking, bubbly, irreverent individual who came onto this enterprise with me. I didn’t think I would. "What’s up, Barb?"

The other woman sighed, her eyes dropping to her hands.

"Cynthia, you offered a while back to help me out in my relationship with Chela Stevens. This is tough for me to ask because it’s in my nature to be a workaholic, but I’m asking you for time, any time that you can cut us. And if there’s any way you can push my ticket back that would be good too."

Cynthia took off her glasses and set them atop the papers on her table top. Barbara watched in fascination as the other woman reached over and rested her hand over the physician’s. Crap, I must look whipped and pathetic. This is getting to be a regular thing for us.

"Barbara, I wish I could do something about the length of your stay here, but our visas expire May fifth. In terms of time from the project, yes, I can cut you some slack. You’ve worked your heart out for us and with magnificent results. We’ve already arrested the onset of new cases from methanol poisoning and may be able to have an impact on some of the other precipitating events. And of those 51,000 who ultimately made it onto the patient rolls, we may be able to reverse the neurological damage for those with limited or recent exposure to toxins. To use your language, you are a ‘friggin’ hero,’ and you deserve anything I can do for you. Don’t feel shy about asking."

"In that case," replied a relieved Barbara, "could you do one more thing? Could you put some distance between me and Alex López? I find him too offensive for words. I’m pretty sure I’m just gonna kill him by accident one of these days."

Cynthia chuckled and shook her head slightly.

"Not a problem. He’s actually shipping out tomorrow, and I’m not at all sorry to see him go. He’s incredible, isn’t he? I wouldn’t have assigned him to your Pinar Del Río trip if my patience hadn’t been exhausted. It isn’t just his lack of social skills where the Cubans are involved — he was driving me crazy with his self-centered obsession with shopping. When I had him working with me we would have to stop at every record store and stall set up by itinerant music vendors to search for something his grandmother in Miami wanted. The greatest hits by the Mattmoors or something."

"Matamoros," corrected Barbara, smiling. "They’re a golden age trio that wrote a lot of classic sons and ballads. Good tunes."

Cynthia removed her hand from Barbara’s and replaced her eyeglasses, signaling a return to a more formal register of interaction.

"I respect how much you’ve immersed yourself in the local culture, Barbara. The Cubans really like you." Barbara swallowed hard and shifted to face Cynthia, who was delicately picking at some salami.

"I need for you to know something, Cynthia. It has to do with the visa issue. I’m hoping that this won’t create any complications for Tufts or for the project, but I am going to meet with whoever is in charge of foreign-national residency here. I am going to do everything in my power to remain in Cuba. If that requires me to renounce my U.S. citizenship, I will be doing so."

I hope I can do the Heimlich maneuver in this small a space. I should have waited to tell her until she was finished with her snack. Oh, well. It’s the truth. Everything I need to be happy is in Cuba. Chela and I will work it out. So… Alex is leaving the day of my information pick-up at the Ministry. I guess his dirty work is done. My hands are about to be soiled. Please God, let my plans for getting them clean again go smoothly. Fuck, between Chela’s altar and breathing in atmospheric Catholicism in Southie the last few days, I seem to be invoking the Great Dude all the time. Southie…long may she sit like a righteous zit on the nose of a Boston that wants to forget the regular folks that built the friggin’ city!


She had never felt so attached to her hometown as on the weekend during which she carefully traversed it in a journey of leave taking, a Via Crucis of torn attachments that left Barbara raw from grief. At times this was the grief for connections that should have been stronger and where she felt consuming guilt for her ability to walk away.

The trek actually began in the city of Framingham, less that an hour’s drive from Boston proper. Barbara hurriedly left the Harvard lab on Friday after her final morning of work there and sped to make the early afternoon visitation hour at the Framingham State Prison for Women. It was a truly banal last encounter that she shared with her older twin sisters. Wilhemina and Ruthie seemed incapable of entertaining any subject beyond institutional politics - who was at fault for what egregious injustice that they were currently suffering and what was going to be done about it. It’s the same conversation we’ve been having for years, thought a weary Barbara. We said goodbye a long time ago even before we were forced to talk to each other on a phone through a plexiglass window. I don’t remember the last time I touched either of them. For that matter, I don’t remember the last time I touched any of my sisters.

The small grate and rotating turnstile through which she communicated with her three eldest sisters later that afternoon also failed to satisfy her need to feel family connections in an embodied way. It was worse than at the prison, in a way, because she arrived during a period of Silence. She sat on the opposite side of the barrier, writing brief notes to each sister in turn, dropping her missives into the little drawer and watching it spin around. After a short pause the contraption would rotate again, and the response from her cloistered siblings would magically appear. Barbara wondered if voice and touch could have overcome the profound gulf between them anyway. Barbara: "I have fallen in love. I probably will be leaving the country. I may not make it back. I wish that Ma and Da wouldn’t be all alone and that I could share my happiness with you." Bridget: " We have wonderful tomatoes in the garden this year; our prayers have brought a rich bounty." Constance: "I will pray a Novena for your safe journey and for our parents’ health." Cecilia: "Just remember that if you cannot offer up your chastity to our Lord, then you must try to wait until you have entered into matrimony. And, Barbara, please, please, get married in the Church." She remembered her childish frustration upon her first visit to the monastery, after Bridget’s profession. That afternoon had also belonged to the time of Silence, and Barbara had wickedly spun the little turnstile fast, like a potter’s wheel, and felt a perverse satisfaction at hearing her sister’s gasp of surprise and then her whimper as her fingers caught in the iron mesh. She had thought it served Bridget right for running away to God and to a place where she could not be seen or heard.

And this is where I was supposed to be seen and not heard, Barbara reminisced that evening as she looked in through a classroom window at the first of her two pre-collegiate schools, St. Vincent’s. She could see in the twilight that very little had changed. The hooks where she — a stigmatized scholarship child — had hung up her ratty winter coats were still there, the copper-colored claws ever ready to display the local economic pecking order. The desks seem to be defying natural law in their tenacious upright balance upon their rotting legs. The wood had already been decrepit when Barbara sat at the small square seats during her seventh grade home room period. And I wonder if there are grooves in the linoleum from where I used to have to kneel in penance for mouthing off to Sister Mary Frances. She left for the missions two years after I graduated eighth grade. I guess after working with me there were no domestic challenges left. She had to go find cannibals in the tropics or chicken-fuckers in Scandinavia or something that would let her work up a redemptive sweat after she’d survived contact with real sin. Heh.

The basketball court at South Boston High was not empty when she arrived to pay her regards. Yep, this is the same too. I could just join any of these little groups in the shadows, flash my Cryin’ Shamrock and get offered a beer or a toke. If they saw the black I’d score hard — get a piece of whatever action was happening. I’d load them into the T-Bird and off we’d roll for a night of burglary or aggravated assault. She impulsively ran up to a basket and lunged, pushing the ghost ball up into the air and over the rim of the hoop. Score, Murphy! Ah, I owned this friggin’ place. She came down, swinging herself around the pole. Or did I? I wonder if anyone even remembers the kid behind the trophies in that case next to the principal’s office. Geez, I wonder if they’re even there! I could break in and check. Practice for fuckin’ Cuba. Oh that’s right — I’m not going to be a ninja of the night, I’m gonna be a nerd knife-in-the-back turncoat of the daytime. If it comes to that. If they don’t let me stay with her. The reminder that she might be forced to cooperate with the National Security Agency soured the evening for her. Even stopping at JP Licks for a generous serving of rocky road flavor ice cream on her way back to Eladio’s house did not restore her spirits.

The second day was more difficult. She drove out to Castle Island early in the morning and joined the sparse gathering of townies and gentrifying yuppies who were up and about at the dawn. Barbara briefly contemplated lying down on the grass and watching the planes fly overhead, their bellies so close to the ground by the time they made the pass over South Boston that she could almost visualize the luggage falling out of the holds and onto her head. Nothing did ever fall from the sky, like I’ve heard happened in Eastie. With my luck, though, it woulda been a suitcase full of makeup or dresses, instead of one stashed full of cash or porn. She jogged down to L Street, finishing her run by standing on top of the short seawall — a miniature Malecón — with her hands on her hips as she looked out at the Atlantic, panting softly to recover her breath. Hurricanes travel up here from the Caribbean, right? So Chela and I have this too even when we’re apart. Maybe L Street’s not such a bad beach after all.

There were two youths standing a scant ten feet away from her, also recovering from a sprint to the shoreline. They wiped the sweat from their faces and chests as they chatted, imbuing an aura of toughness into their speech.

"Don’t look now, Mick, but there’s one hot yuppie on your right."

"Don’t need to look. She’s probably half plastic. Friggin’ Southie wanna-be."

Barbara chuckled and turned slightly in the direction of the boys, whose attention immediately focused on the tattoo plainly visible at the edges of the sports bra.

"Fuck! I’m sorry! No disrespect meant. You’re Barbara Murphy, aren’t you?"

"Really! No disrespect. Fuck! Black tears, too! You gotta understand, miss, this place has been going to hell in a hand basket since the yuppies decided they could fix up the old houses."

"That’s right! And we know this is the best place to live in the world, isn’t it?" The youth questioned her through a crooked tentative grin, clearly eager for her approval. Barbara took in a deep breath of sea air and smiled broadly at the boys.

"Yeah, it is. It’s our hometown. And you know who makes it the best place on earth?" They chuckled and elbowed each other, giddy in the knowledge that they were in the presence of a South Boston legend.

"Who?" The shorter of the two young men, an orange-haired youth sporting the shamrock on his chest, indulged her by answering the rhetorical question. Barbara carefully walked the narrow wall until she was close enough to boldly jab him in the tattoo with her index finger as she spoke.

"Every person who made this more than a poor excuse for bullying people and ripping them off. Every person that managed not to get these filled in with black ink, and give the friggin’ state the right to control their lives. Trust me, I know. I’m a friggin’ doctor now and I’ve had the honor of putting toe tags on guys from Southie that thought they’d be chumps if they backed down. They’re still chumps, but they’re worm food to boot." She stepped away and quieted when she recognized the look of practiced boredom that had covered the two young faces like an eclipse. Crap! I’ve become a friggin’ lecturing adult! How did Irene always manage to do this without turning people off? She filed it away as a question to ask her old friend that afternoon.

"I’ve got a feeling twenty-one is going to be a good year. Especially if you and me see it in together…"

Barbara sang with particular vigor on the drive out to Roslindale — the breeze coming in through the open windows lifting up her thick hair - and ran the fingers of her right hand lovingly across the plush seat. Yeah, old girl. The time has come to trade you in for a new model. My new woman is so much more lovely than classic chrome and white leather. Riding Chela. Oh, yeah. Time to friggin’ sublimate. Crap, I can’t walk into a nursing home wet and horny. Tomorrow. I get to touch her tomorrow. After a brief meeting with the Roslindale Home for the Aged bookkeeper, Barbara started making her way to Room 17. She was intercepted in the main hallway by the director of the nursing staff.

"You’re Irene O’ Hara’s daughter, right? I haven’t seen you here in ages or seen your name in the visitor’s log."

"I’ve been out of the country," explained Barbara to the woman. Not gonna bother correcting her. It never takes. Now, who has Alzheimer’s in this place?

The woman eyed her with benevolent concern. "You know, Irene had a stroke about a month ago. She never fully regained consciousness and she’s really deteriorated physically." Barbara reeled as if struck smartly on the chin, reaching out to steady herself by leaning against the wall. "I’m so sorry that I had no way of letting you know. Your number was disconnected."

"So her status is stable right now?" asked Barbara dryly, shaking her head as if to ward off the bad news.

"Not really, miss. She’s had two serious systemic infections since the stroke. I just don’t think she has the physical resources to keep fighting her way back for much longer."

"And does she recognize people?"

The nurse sighed. "I don’t know what to tell you. Families always ask me this question when our residents slip into these non-responsive states. Some families choose to believe that the person has already died and that just a shell is lying in the bed. Others go to the opposite extreme, expecting the person to snap out of it at any minute and thinking they can chat them into activity. I do believe that it’s best to proceed as if they can hear and understand simple statements."

Barbara started to cry silently and was immediately ashamed. Crap. The waterworks are getting to be a regular thing these last weeks. It’s like Chela opened up the floodgates. Heh. She hiccupped and a slight smile broke through the anguish. Kinda like the opposite of what’s supposed to happen when you stick a finger in the dyke. OK. Cowboy up. She wiped away the tears and met the other woman’s eyes.

"Thanks for warning me… And it sounds like you’re really on top of her medical care. Listen, it’s very possible that I’m not going to be coming back to New England for a long time. I know that you don’t know me at all, but it would mean a lot to me if you could… look out for my mother. If it comes to the end, I’ve already made arrangements with the administration for her to be buried in the spot reserved for me at Forest Hills, but I want you to do everything possible to insure that she doesn’t die alone. And please don’t call in a priest or give her the last rites." Barbara paused to quickly pull a card out from her pocket and handed it to the surprised nurse. "This is the number for the Red Book Store. Tell them that an old comrade is here, getting ready to pass and that she would like to hear The Communist Manifesto read to her. Thank you."

She hurried to the room, barely feeling her feet under her. The pain was making her dissociate badly and she breathed hard as she stood outside the door, trying to center herself back into her body before entering. Her head hurt. You can do this. Practice. You are gonna have to be strong as shit over the next month. You still have to wrap up the micro-nutrient interventions, figure out which government you want to piss off the worst, and save your relationship with Chela. Saying goodbye to everyone and everyplace that’s made you who you are? Fuck, shit! You can do that before your morning coffee with one boob tied behind your back! Now, come on. Assume she can sense what you’re about. Make this count for her. Barbara pushed open the door and winced at the sight of Irene hooked up to a ventilator. The old woman’s eyes were cracked open but unseeing.

Barbara rested herself against the bedrail and reached over to take Irene’s hand in her own. Her friend’s hand was dry and cool and felt stiff inside the warm cocoon of Barbara’s own palm and fingers. The somber physician ran the fingers of her other hand through the stringy white hair that fell over Irene’s forehead.

"Hey there, sweetie," she whispered, then paused to plant a kiss on the cold hand that she held tightly in her fist. "I should say ‘hey, cariño’, which is how the Cubans would say ‘sweetie’. So I’ve made it there and back, Irene, and I’m headed back to the island tomorrow." It serves no purpose to disillusion her. Although if we pick out our heavens, and she ends up in Cuba when they finally turn off life support, she’s gonna be pissed I left out some details. "Let’s see. Where to start? Well, I guess with the big stuff. I fell in love with a Cuban, Irene. Big time! You’d like her. She’s smart and political and funny. Her name is Chela, and she’s a poet and an idealist. She’s in love with me too and with her homeland, and I’m gonna do my best to not make her choose between us. I’m gonna try to stay. They can use doctors. And I know that would please you very much, to know that I was working there. So, you see, Irene, I may not make it back here. You know how things are with the U.S. refusing to ease up on the last front of the Cold War." And if it comes to the other route of salvaging my bond with Chela — becoming a collaborator (however unwilling and temporary) of the National Security Agency — then I may be too ashamed to come back. "But I want you to know that all your work with me has paid off. We stopped that epidemic in its tracks, and I even got to deliver a Cuban baby! Not bad for a girl from the projects that didn’t know her ass from her elbow before you decided to push her to be something better than anything she coulda imagined. Well, I gotta go say goodbye to my parents, Irene. I left my guitar in Cuba, but I think I can do this one a cappella. Feel free to join in — I know you’re singing in there."

The housekeeper working outside Room 17 was a recent arrival from the Georgian Republic. The melody wafting out of the comatose patient’s room was hauntingly familiar, and the man felt a slight revulsion upon identifying the song. Still, the passion behind the interpretation, the novelty of hearing the lyrics in English and the sheer beauty of the voice forced him to assume a stance of reverence, setting his sponge aside for moment to clasp his hands before him.

Arise ye workers from your slumbers

Arise ye prisoners of want

For reason in revolt now thunders

And at last ends the age of cant.

Away with all your superstitions

Servile masses arise, arise

We’ll change henceforth the old tradition

And spurn the dust to win the prize.

So comrades, come rally

And the last fight let us face

The Internationale unites the human race.

So comrades, come rally

And the last fight let us face

The Internationale unites the human race.

Barbara was still softly humming the tune to herself as she sat in the back of the taxi on her way to the Southie projects where her parents still lived. She quickly reviewed her progress in finding good homes for her most beloved possessions. Hercules. Check. He and Eladio already have the same hooded eyes. I bet they start to look like each other over time. Hitachi Magic Wand. Check. Glad I could convince the Mother Superior that it was a health care device for muscle strain. Bet there will be more Sisters visiting that infirmary from now on. Maybe they’ll see Jesus while they’re taking care of those aches and pains. I know I sure did the first time I used it. T-Bird. Check. I hope those old ladies at the home enjoy being driven around in style. Classics belong with classics. If I ever end up here again, I’ll get a bike. OK. Enough of giving things away. Time to go pick something up.

She had never quite imagined the circumstances in which she would have this conversation with her mother. At a certain point, she had simply assumed that it would never take place. Now, here it was about to unfold, appended to a pain-filled explanation of her likely exile from her homeland and a frustrating disagreement over whether her father should be woken from his slumber to bid his youngest child farewell. It was Teresa’s opinion that Brian could well be spared the confusion of Barbara’s disclosures and would be better off receiving some tasteful postcards from her final destination. In the end it was the mother who prevailed, although Barbara remained very unsettled with the decision.

"But you’ll tell him I was here?" she entreated her stubborn parent.

"Yes, dear, I will," answered a resigned Teresa, her inflexibility buttressed by her incredulity at the impending "loss" of the only daughter still able to visit the maternal home. She bit back the temptation to unleash a volley of recriminations: why taint the young woman’s last visit any further? It was enough that she had demonstrated her control over her myopic social domain in protecting Brian’s sensibilities.

"So there is one more thing I need to ask of you," said Barbara carefully. "I hate sounding like the prodigal kid in the Bible story, but I would like my inheritance now — the heirloom that you always said would be mine if I chose to marry."

Teresa pulled in her breath, her face growing tight as she understood what was being asked. She looked down at her hand, at the old gold claddagh ring that had crossed the Atlantic on her Grandmother Rose’s finger. This is not the time to be selfish. Ask Mary for help in bearing all the trials this child in particular has brought. And what if she is killed in those foreign places to which she’s headed, or if this really is the last time you see her? Do you want her last memory to be of her mother denying her this request? She worked the ring off her slightly swollen finger and held it clenched in her fist for a moment.

"Does this mean you are marrying, then?"

Barbara was unable to suppress a snort. "No, Ma. I’m not. But I think I am pretty attached to someone." The older woman nodded gravely, reading the meaning behind the words.

"Do you have a picture of her, then? And do you know if you’ll be having to adjust the size? It’s very old and best not tampered with."

Thoughts of Chela’s fingers provoked a mighty blush across the daughter’s cheeks.

"I, I don’t have a photo, no," stammered Barbara.

"Is she Catholic at least?" asked Teresa, the picture of martyrdom as she reached over to drop the ring into her child’s hand. Barbara tucked the small treasure into her jeans pocket.

"Basically, yes," she answered tentatively.

"Basically?" echoed an austere Teresa. "Oh my lord, Barbara! This person is in Cuba, is she not?"

Barbara nodded, ready for an explosion as comprehension of the implications erupted on her mother’s face.

"Don’t tell me that Grandmother Rose’s ring is going to a colored woman!"

Hoo yeah! Some things I am just not going to miss.


Late that afternoon Los Cocos

Tomás was not surprised to find Chela had brought company with her when she came to visit him that day: he knew that Chela was going through a time of particular turbulence in her life and that — if she were wise enough to access them — affirming her relationships could serve as a source of great solace. He recognized the woman that walked by her side, her arm affectionately wrapped around Chela’s shoulders, as an old school friend of his sister’s. The skinny dark-haired man bringing up the rear was unknown to him, but the stranger’s quiet devotion to Chela was etched on his sun-burnt face. Tomás wiggled his toes as he sat on the picnic table, his feet dangling off the edge. He smiled at each member of the trio in turn as they approached him. He noted the slight bruising on his sister’s face and chose to let it pass, giving her the freedom to disclose however much she felt comfortable with concerning what had transpired since their last meeting. He had guessed that Chela would be forced through a gauntlet on her way towards her happiness and would reap some scars in the process.

"Well, and this is a fine group to greet the Royal Leopard upon its return!" he remarked cheerfully, referring to one of Changó’s many adulatory titles. "She is back today, right?"

"Yes," answered a relieved Chela, as she sat across from him. "We are going to meet her flight! You remember Leti, right, Tomás?" He nodded. "And this is one of my co-workers, Pedro, who has been trying to do your job as brother since you are locked up here."

Pedro blushed and extended his hand in greeting, growing more uneasy as his gesture was apparently rebuffed.

"She exaggerates, compañero," mumbled the man. "I could never take the place of family, and I am sorry if I have given you offense."

"Compañero Pedro, I am an initiate in training into a house of Regla de Ocha, the worship of the Orishas. I can’t touch women or non-initiates for a time. Please don’t feel rejected. I can tell that you care for my sister." Pedro flinched a bit at the words and blushed again. So, thought Tomás, you protect her out of a love that cannot come to fruition. Blessings of Babalu-Aye — the Orisha of my head — upon you, Pedro, that the love you give so freely may return to you from the one you are meant to be with, and returned in abundance. "And I am grateful that you have served as a good companion to her, especially in the absence of her compañera." He accompanied the last words, spoken very slowly, with a significant look at his sister, hoping that he was correct in how trusted these two friends were.

Pedro glanced slightly at Chela’s marked face and shook his head sadly. "I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job at taking care of her for Barbara, not that she asked me for the favor. She has given me so much as a teacher and mentor that I wished to return some of this kindness."

"Look," interrupted Chela, irritation evident in her tone. "I am not this fragile creature to be kept high up on the shelf and watched over. I’ve done all right for myself, and I haven’t faced a problem that I haven’t walked away from in one piece, more or less. Yes, I ran into some rough trade last week. I am all right." She paused, a bit embarrassed at having started to lose her temper, and dropped her eyes as she continued to speak to her brother. "In fact, Tomás, I am better than all right. You were correct — I needed to shift my priorities. And I needed not to be run by fear. If I am paralyzed out of the fear that I will lose her, how can I fight to make it otherwise?" She paused and realized that Leti and Pedro were also listening intently to her words, and she blushed. "Anyway, I have to apologize that I was not able to stop at the bakery before coming over. Pedro has been kind enough to be driving me and Leti around all weekend and I didn’t want him to have to drive too fast to get here."

Tomás laughed and reached behind him to pull out a paper sack, which he gently placed on the table and pushed towards Chela.

"I’ve already eaten my fill. I bet you all would enjoy them on the way to the airport and that she will be hungry after her journey. One of the mothers of Juan’s house brought them yesterday. You see, Chela? Everything is taken care of. Even if Changó takes you far away from here, the finest pastries will still make their way to Los Cocos."

I see, thought Chela, as she picked up the bag and hugged it to her waist. I see that every person close to me steps back to make room for her. Well, brother, I have a large heart — larger now that Barbara Murphy has knocked down so many of its walls with that big love of hers — and there will always be room for you.


Two hours later José Martí International Airport

They were not the only party present at the airport with the intention of welcoming Barbara Murphy back to Havana. Chela and Pedro exchanged quick nods and polite greetings with the reserved Dr. Santos Valverde and were even less effusive in their acknowledgement of Alex López, who returned the lack of enthusiasm, yawning and looking up at the stained airport walls as he waited, his hands stuffed into his back pockets. Leti refrained from speaking with either man and felt an instinctive distaste for the young blonde Cuban-American with the wispy sand-colored moustache, who seemed so deliberate in his efforts to be rude to her two companions. Shortly after their perfunctory greetings, all five Cubans surged forward with the gathered crowd as the passengers began to emerge from the terminal area.

As Barbara — with Cynthia close by her side - made her way towards the waiting group she quickly considered how to negotiate what she perceived as a profoundly awkward situation. Pedro and Leti! And Santos and Alex! Well, I have very little to lose here. In fact, the best thing I can do is to have as few secrets as possible. She strode confidently up to Chela, dropped her bags in front of her surprised lover and impulsively scooped her up into a tight embrace. She felt Chela relax in her arms, and her heart leapt at hearing her hum a soft greeting of relief and satisfaction into her chest. Glancing over the young woman’s shoulder, she noted that Santos was visibly ill at ease at witnessing the public display of affection. Alex was scowling, a marked contrast to the obvious delight on the faces of Leti and Pedro. Blow me, scumbag, she thought loudly in Alex’s direction. I will not give you the pleasure of controlling all of my behavior.

"Hey, compañera Stevens," she warmly pronounced. She cracked a smile at Pedro and Leti, as she released Chela from her arms and extended her hand to the representative from the Ministry of Health. "Sorry, she’s the only one getting a hug today. Dr. Valverde, it is good to see you again."

"Dr. Murphy. Compañera Richards. I am happy to see both of you as well. We are very anxious to start treatments right away, and our pharmaceutical factories stand ready to mass produce any preparations you think promising." Santos reached out to take one of Cynthia’s bags and nodded to Alex, indicating that he should go to help Barbara with her luggage. Barbara anticipated him, moving to block his access to her bags with her outstretched arm.

"There’s no need, compañero." She let the words drip out venomously, shooting the youth with a quick malevolent look. Turning to Cynthia and Santos, she adopted a more respectful tone. "In a way it’s very good that Pedro has come with the truck, compañero Valverde. That way you can take Cynthia directly to the hotel and I can proceed to where I will be staying for the rest of my time here. I know that it is not the usual protocol to have foreigners stay in private homes, but I am hoping to accept this compañera’s offer of hospitality. I find that I am much more comfortable and productive there than at a big hotel."

"It is my understanding," said Alex officiously, " that such arrangements are strictly forbidden for foreign nationals, since they deprive the state of the currency that would be spent at hotels — and Tufts has already budgeted for our stays. At least this is what I was told. Otherwise, I would have tried to stay with relatives while I was here."

"Well," answered Santos slowly, as he pondered the implications of the request. "As I have said before, Dr. Murphy, you are an exception to most of our expectations, so perhaps it is appropriate that you be an exception to most of our rules as well. Just make sure that the Visitor Registration office has your address."

"I’ll make sure to inform them tomorrow, compañero," replied a delighted Barbara. She noted that during this brief time, most of the other groups waiting for travelers had dispersed, leaving the seven people loosely connected through the epidemic response team as a residue of that ebbing human tide. Time to break up this love fest. Cynthia must have her insides crawling at my little "indiscretion" problem, and I should leave Santos a little space to process his traumatic primal scene of exposure to lesbians. They really belong together: I bet behind all of that formality are the libidos of wildcats. "Well, shall we get going?" she asked, picking up her bags again.

Pedro led the way to the truck. The quartet of friends spoke little until they reached the vehicle and began loading the luggage into the bed.

"Compañera," began Pedro, with a shy smile, "we have been waiting to feast and really tie one on until your return, and now you are here."

"And Chela has been very patient with her hunger, which I imagine must be just killing her now that you are so close by," added a saucy Leti, who was elbowed in the ribs by Chela for the comment. "So even though I will be delighted to spend some time with you, compañera Americana, I don’t think we should make it a long social event tonight."

"Food and friends sound good, and some sleep, too," murmured Barbara as she stood facing Chela, running her hands gently over the younger woman’s face. Oh, baby, she said to herself, upon noting the signs of healing contusions. Later, when we’re alone, you can tell me or not. I guess this is what it used to be like for Aunt Mary when Uncle Liam was on the police force. She’d just be glad to see him coming home after shift, and she would have the compresses and band aids ready and would wait for him to talk. She leaned forward to lightly kiss Chela, then nuzzled at one of her earlobes.

"I missed you too," choked out Chela softly. "You can’t imagine how much it has hurt to not have you by my side." Barbara drew back to meet her eyes.

"Then let’s not do this again, cariño. Let’s not part again. We have a lot to talk about, you and I, but I think we can settle this first question right now. The easiest way for us to be together is for me to stay here, and as soon as I can, I will start whatever process is necessary for that to happen."

Her statements were rewarded with another tight embrace from an ecstatic Chela, who seemed to be laughing and crying at the same time.

"Shotgun!" called out Leti to Pedro, as she watched the lovers with approval. "Just remember, you two, that any show you put on in the back there is likely to attract a lot of attention — good movies are rare here and the television shows are very boring, so two Orisha-possessed women making love in the back of a pickup will draw very high ratings."

Chela snorted in amusement and released Barbara, who gave her a boost up into the back of the truck. Within minutes, the soft rumble of the truck as it made its way to Guanabo and the warmth of the arms in which Chela rested lulled her to sleep.


The first night after Changó’s return Guanabo

Barbara closed the cabin door after warmly hugging Pedro and Leti goodbye. Who woulda though they’d come through for us that way. She was surprised at the rush of well-being flooding through her veins like a drug at the thought of how effortlessly the pronoun had come to her. Us. We can have a life here. And already I feel as though I’ve made more friends — ones I can really count on — than in years in the States. I know this place frustrates me, but then it turns around and gives me things I thought would always do without. Friends. A new vision. A real love. Her happy meditation was pleasantly interrupted by Chela, who drew her out of it with a deep kiss that left both of them gasping for air at its end.

"Oh, mami," growled Barbara, as her hands sought out the other woman’s flesh in passionate caresses. "I am so starved for you. I know we should stop and talk about what we are facing — there is a lot that you don’t know."

"You’re sure it can’t wait until the morning?" whispered Chela, abandoning herself to the desire to climb onto her lover, wrapping her legs around the American woman’s waist. "I need this — to feel this physical bond with you again. I have had you in my heart and mind for these two long weeks, oh… but now you are really here."

Barbara moaned as she felt Chela tentatively grinding against her belly. Jesus. She’s so wet that I can feel her through our clothes. Waiting… there is nothing I have to do tomorrow that can’t be undone. And she needs me.

"My Chela," she murmured as she carried her lover to the bed. "It can wait until morning. I want you too." She carefully lay her down and then settled next to Chela, who began to softly run her fingers across Barbara’s cheek as she cupped her face with her other hand. As she slowly undid the younger woman’s blouse, Barbara returned her attention to the fading marks on her face. Chela did not know how to respond to her lover’s deliberate placement of a series of light kisses over the bruises. She fought to contain her confused but overwhelming emotions, and failed as desire blended with profound sadness. Tears coursed down her cheeks even as her hips continued to respond to her arousal, bucking lightly as Barbara reached underneath her to pull down her shorts and panties.

"I’m sorry." She managed to force the words out as she let go of Barbara’s head to wipe the moisture away.

"Hey, stop cleaning my kisses off," complained Barbara in mock irritation. "Besides what’s so awful that you need to be sorry about?" She stopped to nip at the other woman’s neck, then became more serious as she looked into her eyes. "Now I don’t care what you’ve had to do with your body while I’ve been gone, but have you been loving anyone else?" Chela shook her head.

"No. You know you’re the only one in my heart." She looked away for a minute, slightly embarrassed. "And I made sure that we would stay safe, Barbara. You don’t have to worry that way."

"I figured that you would be careful, Chela, although it looks like ‘safe’ is not a good description for how it was." She gently brushed her fingertips across the hurt temple and cheek, before reaching behind Chela and starting to run them up and down her spine. "You feel so tense and sad, Chela… hold on for a minute, will you?"

Barbara got up out of the bed, pulled a small container out of her hand luggage, and went in search of the water container that Leti had left for their use. She returned with a cup of water and a clean cloth and placed them carefully next to the bed, then shed her clothes onto the floor.

"Do you like how this smells?" She held up a scented vial to Chela’s nose.


"Yes, and some aloe. Stretch out on your belly for me, mami, and close your eyes. Let me just take care of you for a little while."

The voice was steady and mesmerizing, and Chela found that she was all too ready to comply with Barbara’s requests. She was edging towards relaxation, with the knots already unraveling in her back and shoulders, when she felt Barbara begin to tend to her. She sighed as a triad of touches worked its way across her shoulders and neck: first the coolness of the damp cloth, followed by the warmth and slipperiness of oiled fingertips which gently kneaded her muscles, and — in a culmination so arousing that she found herself beginning to move against the bed — the insistent lips and tongue of her lover, who seemed determined to leave no part of her untouched. She was surprised when a path of breaths and nibbles was laid the length of the soft skin on the back of her arms, and ended with a warm tongue bathing the rarely touched flesh of her axilla. The sensation was so intense that she cried out and her pelvis bucked solidly against the mattress of its own accord.

" It feels good, my beautiful woman. I know." The voice came from behind her now, and the puffs of air produced in speaking tickled her shoulder blades. Chela could feel the light weight of Barbara’s breasts as they swept slowly over her lower back, and a knee settled between her thighs, prompting them to spread apart more widely.

She gasped as she felt a hand snake under her and probe at her moist sex. The other woman held her delicately at the perfect balance between peace and excitement, and she reveled in being able to surrender fully to Barbara’s lovemaking without worries over compromising her independence. "It feels so good, Barbara…I’ve missed you… just take me, cariño," she cried into the pillow. Take everything that is yours. I don’t care if you leave and I never find anyone to make me feel like this again. I will have had this. When Barbara entered her with her thumb, leaving her the rest of her fingers to thrust against, Chela began to rock in earnest, seeking her pleasure.

"My Changó, what are you doing to me?"

"What do you think I’m doing? Guess." Barbara laughed lightly as she drew lazy circles across Chela’s back and bent to kiss her sensitive sides.

"Cleaning me? Taking me back and making me yours?" Chela’s voice was strained as she exerted herself in fucking Barbara’s hand. Then she was aware that the other woman had paused in her movements and had moved up to where she could again see the expression on Chela’s face. The American woman graced her with a smile, but Chela was familiar enough with Barbara’s affect to see that she felt troubled.

"You know, my love, I deserve both of those guesses," confessed Barbara softly, before pausing to kiss the tip of her woman’s nose. "Because I have been a real shit to you both about the business and about needing to be in charge. But no…" She moved to nuzzle Chela’s neck before continuing. "I know I am slow about understanding everything that is between us, but I know that you have a goddess within you when you love me, and I want her to recognize me everywhere." She returned to her slow fucking of her lover, whose face was tight in concentration as she lifted herself to meet Barbara’s strokes. " I don’t want her to ever let me go," concluded Barbara quietly before moving down to kiss Chela’s buttocks.

Chela could feel her orgasm approaching — it had been a long day of waiting for release and intimacy.

"Oh, don’t stop, Barbara…" she begged as she drove herself against her lover’s hand. "I’m going to come, cariño… I only come for you, only for you while you touch me…"

"That’s right, mami… this is just for us. Feel me kiss you everywhere while you come hard with me, mami." She struggled to hold on to the desperately bucking woman as she boldly ran her lips down the crease of Chela’s ass, letting her tongue dance at the entrance of the only opening she had yet to claim in her reverence for her lover. Astonished at the sensation — which felt strangely comforting even as it seemed jarringly transgressive — Chela found herself laughing in delight as her climax began, before losing herself in the white heat of the moment, her breath coming out in a flurry of soft grunts and endearments as she traveled the distance between Barbara’s fingers and mouth. We are home now, mami, thought Barbara as she listened to Chela and felt her inner walls spasmodically clenching her thumb. Oh, I’m gonna come just from hearing you.

But she didn’t, and her own need felt acute. Still Barbara drew out Chela’s pleasure as long as she could, her own hips flailing against the bed as she waited for Chela’s orgasm to ebb. She climbed up her lover’s body, wanting only to hold her tightly as she lay on Chela’s back with her thighs straddling the younger woman’s buttocks, which still bucked lightly beneath her. She felt slightly embarrassed to find herself moving helplessly against the soft flesh.

"Oh, baby… I’m so close. Is this all right?" she whispered, uncertain if Chela could hear.

"Yes, it’s all right, cariño. It’s wonderful. I can feel how wet you are against me," encouraged Chela, as she raised herself slightly to increase the contact between them. I wish I could see her, giving herself in this way: letting me hear her need and trusting me to take care of it… that beautiful vessel of flesh in which her soul lives throwing off sparks as she comes into her pleasure.

"Chela, I missed you, too… I missed you so bad. I tried touching myself and it just felt so goddamn lonely…"

"Come for me, Barbara. I love you and I love feeling you come against me. Go on, this is for me now…" She heard the other woman cry out — her voice a strangled exclamation of wonder and passion - as she finished rocking against her in a series of long quick strokes. Then she felt Barbara collapse — spent — against her side. Chela turned to take her in her arms, running her hands through the long black hair as she ducked her head to kiss her.

"Chela," mumbled a sleepy, but smiling, Barbara. "I didn’t want you to think I was just using your body — I know it makes no sense given what we’ve shared, but I feel shy about that. It’s the lovemaking of a teenager that can’t wait."

"You forget who you got in bed with when we started this — more or less a teenager that couldn’t wait. And I can tell you from all the time I have spent in lines in this Mecca of the long lines that waiting is overrated. And it is me, too, you know, wanting every time we are close to each other. I saw you walking towards us in the airport and I couldn’t understand how I had managed to find such a beautiful and caring woman when I hadn’t really been looking." She waited for a few seconds, listening to her lover’s breathing slow. She always gets so sleepy afterwards, and I could tell she was exhausted to begin with. I had best ask her before she drifts off.

"Hey, sleepy one." She gently tapped her finger against Barbara’s forehead.

"Mmm. I’m sorry I’m so worthless tonight… jet lag."

"Not so worthless," smiled Chela. "Pedro is coming for us at eight. Do we need to set an alarm or do you think you’ll wake up?"

"Pedro is coming for me in the morning, Chelita," mumbled Barbara. "Abracadabra. You have the morning off. There’s no need for you to suffer through my morning meetings with Cynthia and I’m going to take the afternoon off myself. I’ll meet you at our spot on the Malecón for lunch."

"Are you serious?"

"Yes, mami. Cynthia knows we are not going to be around as much as before — that we need more time together."

In case things don’t work out… Chela finished the sentence in her mind. "Barbara," she tentatively inquired, "if things don’t work out for you in immigration, how long do we have before your visa expires?"

"Chelita, we need to talk tomorrow over lunch, because there is another solution if I can’t work things out that way…but technically I have almost four weeks left on this visa."

Four weeks, thought Chela miserably. She heard Barbara begin to snore and settled herself around the American woman’s body, knowing that the kisses that she planted on the top of her head would not interrupt her slumber. So… I can just watch you tonight, my life. I can always catch up on my sleep — one way or another — in four weeks. Four.


Take these four minutes, my lover:

four minutes like four roses that I have stolen for you

from the garden of time.

And resting a while amongst those roses, I

build a staircase between our rooms out of the rainbows,

re-arrange the dictionary to make spaces for all the new words

that I speak in the language of your soul,

raise a flock of doves to carry the seeds of our desire

to the ends of this galaxy and back.

Take these four heartbeats, my lover:

four heartbeats like four feathers that I have stolen for you

from the birds of creation.

And resting a while amongst those feathers, I

compose an opera for skin voices,

snap my fingers and make castles appear in the wind,

knit you a hat that hugs your mind so tightly

that your ideas feel safe in their cocoon and

start dreaming themselves.

Take these four breaths, my lover:

four breaths like four loaves of bread that I have stolen for you

from the ovens of the planets.

And resting a while amongst those loaves of bread, I

plan a flying carpet journey to Guinea and beyond,

teach my ancestors the alphabet of your names,

grind the sands of Nubia into hundreds of mirrors

so I can see you from every angle

and flash signals up into the vault of heaven.

Wanting you has made me a thief,

tucking contraband happiness into my pockets

as I traverse this market of life.

No punishment can deter me:

I sin I sin I sin

and laugh when I am caught.


The second day Malecón

Barbara found her mind disturbingly empty of music as she made her way down towards the seawall. She alternated between watching her feet as they slowly carried her over the heated tar — which shimmered in the midday sun - and looking at Chela, who sat atop the barrier writing in her journal. Man, which side of me is heavier? I have a ring for her in my left pocket and a fucking floppy disk full of state secrets in my right. Be careful what you wish for. I used to think it would be cool to be right in the middle of a glamorous spy adventure, but it sucks. I have to figure out how to get out of this pit as quickly as possible. Well, buckle up. I’ve probably done a million stupid things in handling this situation, and I’m sure Chela will point out each and every one to me. At least that little twit Alex is gone.


The call had come at an inopportune time. The researchers were huddled together reviewing possible dosages and treatment timetables for the most recent wave of epidemic victims — the ones with the greatest likelihood of making a full recovery. There was a strong philosophical difference between the two women who served as the leaders for the Tufts team: Cynthia was committed to a triage procedure which would favor those with the least neurological damage, while Barbara was a passionate advocate for investing their scarce resources in those cases involving children and heads of households, regardless of severity. They had been trapped in a circular argument for over three hours when the phone rang. Barbara took the phone from an unhappy Cynthia and carried it as far into the corner of the room as possible, stretching the cord out like fresh taffy. The ordinariness of the man’s voice infuriated Barbara, as she acknowledged her summons and took down directions to the Ministry Annex in which his office was located. It seemed that there should be some clear auditory marker to identify a man who would so bloodlessly betray his country, some sneer or lisp that would convey his sinister nature. He was in a hurry, and she would have to access a motor vehicle to make it on time to the impromptu appointment. She was relieved when Pedro offered to drive her, then her heart sank as it became clear that her errand would be appended to the more pressing task of getting Alex López to the airport. Prepared to obliterate the young Cuban-American verbally out of her frustration, she followed him into what she hoped would be a place of greater privacy.

Alex was standing at a urinal - groaning in relief — when he noticed the shadow cast in front of him. He jumped in surprise, and frantically attempted to pull the front of his pants together as he cringed, leaning against the bathroom wall.

"So you do have balls," glowered the incensed American woman.

"You shouldn’t be in here," he stammered back.

"Well, I don’t plan on moving in. Let me be clear about why I’m here. I don’t need you riding me about this miserable little errand your task masters have set me on. Or is it that you need to report that I actually went?"

Alex had composed himself somewhat, although he was still blushing. "It would be better all around if I knew for sure, yes."

"Fine. You go in the back of the truck like the sack of manure that you are. And you’re not going in with me. This is my deal and you’re not fucking it up, like you almost did to my staying with Chela yesterday. All that crap about your family…"

"That wasn’t crap," Alex hotly interrupted. "I have grandparents here, and even though I don’t think I could take staying with them, I have gone to see them a few times while I’ve been here!"

"And you would do this shit with your grandparents living in this country? You understand that the intention of the Agency is to starve these people into submission."

"You are wrong!" he hissed in response, his eyes watering. "They would starve anyway — at least this way there’s a chance that things come to a head here, that people are forced to act to get that son of a bitch out of power. And you think this is easy for me? I go to visit the old folks here and there is nothing for us to say to each other. How can I talk to them about the rest of the family, when all my parents and other grandma do is curse them for not having left, and the ones who are here call me a worm behind my back? And I am their grandson. This isn’t some perverted playground for me like it is for you. I mean, look at why you’re doing this: so you can make a Cuban woman a lesbian."

"Stop now!" The order was punctuated by a stiff finger pressed against the man’s lips. "Not one more word about Chela. Not from you." And not one more word from me, either! I just want to gloat about how they don’t have me in their pockets as much as they think they do, and that just wouldn’t be wise. Jesus Christ! You would think that after thirty years they would get that starving them doesn’t work — and it’s not like it’s Castro who goes to bed without dessert here! Fuck. She turned and walked to the bathroom door, gesturing for Alex to follow her. "All right then, let’s go do this."

Santos Valverde was standing in the hallway when Barbara and Alex emerged. "Dr. Murphy, again you prove the exception to both expectations and rules!" said the dumbfounded man. "You are taking the compañero to the airport, are you not?"

"Yes, compañero," she replied smoothly. " He just wanted me to check his hemorrhoids before starting this long trip back home." A flustered Valverde waved them away.

Fifteen minutes later, the truck pulled up to the Health Ministry Annex. When Alex jumped out of the back of the truck and moved in the direction of the building, a seething Barbara intercepted his path.

"No," she growled. "I do this alone."

"Suit yourself," countered an angry Alex. "Fine! I’ll go see if any of these guys out front has Matamoros."

"I hope you never find your fucking tape!" She tossed the comment over her shoulder as she loped towards the front steps. The office she was looking for was on the first floor. It was large, the waiting room alone was the size of the entire space being use by the Tufts team at the main Ministry building, and Barbara noted that Dr. Jorge Pineda — Chief Veterinary Officer — had a secretary as well, a rarity in the health infrastructure. This clerical worker, a light-skinned woman with dyed red hair whose face was pinched into a scowl, tried heading Barbara off as she strode towards the inner office.

"You can’t go in there! The Chief is busy getting an important conference paper finished and is not to be disturbed!"

"Compañera," began Barbara with a strained patience. "Dr. Pineda called me. I am here at his request." She forced herself to wait while her appointment with the man was confirmed by the territorial and defensive assistant.

Pineda was — as she had suspected from his voice — a most unremarkable man. He was every bit the asocial bureaucratic technician - his thick glasses and pocket protector almost provoked laughter in the American physician despite the problematic conditions under which she was meeting the man, precisely because of how closely he adhered to her stereotype of a nerd. Well, and they say still waters run deep — they run treacherous at least. Pineda was pouring over a sheet of numbers, his finger marking his place as he read. He seemed profoundly unresponsive to the presence of the tall strange woman in his office. Barbara cleared her throat and he finally looked up, offering her a quick glance before pulling open a desk drawer and extracting a floppy diskette. He held the object out to her without looking at her face.

"This is it? No message accompanies this?" she inquired.

"You have everything that is required there, Dr. Murphy," said Pineda softly. "And I hope you are successful in carrying it to its destination."

Barbara nodded, and turned back towards the door. She paused for a few seconds, unsure as to how to conclude this odd social exchange. Well, it’s not like you kiss on the first data transfer, but what does one say to one’s first contact? Hope this was as sneaky for you as it was for me? The man’s gruff "Good day and shut the door" prompted her to finally exit.

As she emerged from the building she could see Alex excitedly arguing with one of the cassette vendors stationed outside the Annex. Geez, hope he doesn’t hold us up. I want to get out of here. She walked briskly up the truck and got in, then leaned over and blasted the horn, surprising Pedro, who laughed after his initial shock. Alex came running, crossing in front of the truck so he could stop momentarily at Barbara’s open window before continuing to his place of exile in the bed of the truck. He triumphantly held up a package and sneered at her.

"Matamoros! And I bargained that poor bastard down to half of what he asked for. Bet I got a better deal than you did!"


"Please don’t yell."

"I am not yelling." Although I am going to have nail marks on my knees from digging into them to keep from yelling, thought Chela miserably. She was still stunned from hearing Barbara’s disclosures about the morning and the events in Boston that had precipitated them. "All right, I have been patient in letting you tell me what you are doing and why, so now it is my turn…" She found that she could only look at the sea, letting her eyes train on the tiny dots of fishing boats as they bobbed in the waves. To face Barbara would lead her to the edge of uncertain emotion and untested control.

"I don’t understand why you came back. By going this far you have let them really box you into a corner. And you know what, Barbara? As much as I love you and just cannot see myself ever being complete without you by my side, I would never, never leave under the circumstances you have just described. I would never be able to live with someone who had collaborated in such a way with the people who would hurt us. I wouldn’t stop loving you, but it would be over. I would resign myself to becoming a bitter older woman who only had the memories of love to keep her company. You need to think about more than just you and me."

"What the fuck did you think I was doing, Chela? Has a few weeks of not being on the road erased your memory? You saw the people whose lives have been taken apart by this epidemic. But I bet you can’t imagine what it’s like to have your days stretch out one fucking black-as-night time after another, and not know whether anyone can help you get back into the light. Was I supposed to have a happy conscience at their expense?" Barbara found that Chela’s refusal to face her was adding to her anger. "Are you even going to look at me? I mean I realize that to you I’m just some morally inferior creature — I guess I’m not a righteous enough comrade, Chela. I can’t find the place where you seem to be standing — where everything is black and white and the good guys have ‘G’s painted on their foreheads and there is a correct answer that will make everyone comfortable." She hopped down from the wall and sullenly kicked her toes against it as she stood - her eyes tearing — looking down at the ground.

"This isn’t a poem, Chela. This isn’t some moment full of choices and creativity. This is just me — your lover — in an impossible and very lonely situation, and if you could find it in your heart to remember that right now, instead of sticking to your life goal of being absolutely right, that would be really helpful." She reached into her pocket. "As for this diskette, I might as well throw it into the sea."

"No," hissed Chela urgently. "Don’t pull it out. I’m going to assume that we are being observed. I mean, I’ve always expected that my government would be interested in us as a matter of routine surveillance, but now that I know that yours is too… well, I think you are wrong. I think this is very much like a poem. It is a moment to be creative and both emotionally and politically forthright." She looked around her, breathed deeply and reached out a hand to knead at her lover’s neck.

"I love you, and we will see this through together, and no, I don’t think you are morally stupid. I do think there are moments when you get frightened and want to control how everything will turn out when you don’t really have that kind of power. What time is your immigration appointment?"

"First thing Wednesday morning," replied Barbara quietly.

"Take that diskette with you," began Chela. "And tell the truth. Tell it as loudly and to as many people as you can. We don’t know who these shadow figures are that play for both teams so you be the one that chooses who hears you. Pull several officials into the room, and pull their secretaries in, too. Tell them you were being blackmailed with the project being held in the balance. And then ask for political asylum. It will be obvious to everyone who hears you that this is just the beginning — that once they get you to do something like this, they have you looking over your shoulder for life. In a way, this will have been good practice for living here — and at least here everyone is fairly upfront about the constraints on our freedom. And Barbara…"

The American woman tentatively met her gaze.

"When you walk out of that building, no matter how it comes out, you and I will be free with each other. Nobody can take the truth away from us. Come on, my life, let’s go get some tea." She suddenly did not care who saw her plant a kiss on the other woman’s temple. After doing so, she climbed off the wall, hooked her arm through Barbara’s and gently led her towards the heart of the old city.


The bucket feels too light as I swing it:
the weight of the scraps of meat —
the parts of chickens and rats that humans still won’t touch —
barely registers on the muscles of my arm.
I open your cage and find you stretched out in the corner.
You have found a puddle of sunlight that both warms you
and pulls at the colors of your coat.
You are a dream of the Maker:
a golden canvass upon which She played.
Her brushstrokes and fingerprints sing on your skin,
making a kaleidoscope pattern that breathes as your ribs expand.
You do not rise but wait for me to approach
and I am glad that this is my solitary task
for the others would surely think me mad,
sitting on the cold cement next to you
when you are so hungry and bored.
More than one Havana child has lost its taunting fingers
to the discipline of your teeth.
I tip the bucket and then relax,
running my hand over the fine hairs of your flank
while I listen to you chew.
We are across the path from the llamas and the bears.
The first are nervous and thin:
they have known hunger since their arrival
and they have no champion to secret them food.
The bears came from Moscow and remember better times.
They are a sorrowful pair ever begging
and sadly tossing their toys with their snouts.
You neither beg nor play,
and sadness is not how you face mortality.
We know that the time draws near
when the terms of your service will be changed:
the day will come when you entertain the palates of the public
rather than entertaining their minds.
A starving populace will dine on zebra steaks and brown bear soup.
I will go with you, my beautiful and dangerous one.
I hope that when the slaughter begins
you will accept the invitation of my bared throat and feast
so that in those fleeting moments before the bullet finds you
I too can be a royal leopard
and dream of misty savannahs and African skies.


The second night after Changó’s return Centro Habana

"More sea vegetables and strategic fish farming, and more kitchen gardening. I mean, I know there’s already a strong emphasis on household production of food, but I need to encourage them to ratchet up their public education campaigns to target higher protein-yielding legumes. And after this disaster with the home brews I think we have to be realistic about people’s tastes and taste buds. If we could centralize alcoholic beverage production and routinize quality surveillance and guarantee a minimum weekly allotment…"

"Ay," interrupted Chela with mock weariness. " I am in bed with the Central Planning Committee." She gently scratched Barbara’s scalp as they lay in each other’s arms in the darkness of the Humboldt apartment. "Why don’t you just write all this down in a list? Then you wouldn’t have to keep it all in your head. Actually," she said laughing, "part of the problem is that you don’t keep it in your head. It spills out over the edge of the cup of your mind."

"Well, I’m just not a list person, Chelita," replied Barbara earnestly, reaching up to brush some stray curls off Chela’s forehead. "Plus I want your input and your support at these response meetings. I’ve always held that these top-down pharmaceutical interventions weren’t going to be enough, that there had to be a popular response where people could help themselves." She was silenced by fingers gently pressed against her lips.

"Well, I can give you some popular response right now," joked Chela as she pushed herself onto her lover’s body. "We hate soy beans and seaweed and we always will, even if you discover that they are the secrets to everlasting life and make them taste like roast pork. I mean we will eat the damn soy — we will eat anything when hunger squeezes. You don’t see many cats around Havana, do you?"

"Eeew, damn, Chela! You have to bring up stuff like that now?"

She is laughing at last, thought a relieved Chela. Their time at the tea house had been awkward. Barbara was initially moody and difficult to draw into conversation beyond guilt-filled ruminations concerning her susceptibility to blackmail and anguished revisiting of her ordeal with the Boston agents in search of things she might have done differently. As the evening wore on, angst over her involvement with US intelligence had given way to the frantic elaboration of possible solutions to the threats raised by this involvement, which merged eventually with her commitment to respond effectively to the findings of the Tufts optic neuropathy epidemic team. It had been an exhausting night for Chela, who attempted in vain to redirect the conversation towards less troubling topics. It is not as if anything can really be settled until she meets with the residency officials, and why should we opt to live in misery until then?

"You were the one who wanted to discuss nutrition, my silly tiger," gently rebuked the Cuban woman. "And let me tell you that I think we have spoken of it enough tonight, unless you are thinking of feeding my hunger for American women."

"This is big problem for you?" Barbara was now grinning broadly.

"Just since you arrived on this island," replied Chela before stealing a nip at her lover’s throat.

"Yep," said Barbara with a hint of sadness. "I seem to have brought many problems in my wake."

"You have to stop thinking this way, cariño. Look at all the good you have brought — you have stopped the suffering caused by this ogre of blindness which trampled on so many lives. That is a very great thing. And then there is what you have done for me, Barbara, really. I’m sorry I was so harsh with you earlier. The truth is that I would have gone mad if you had simply failed to return. Now," she whispered as she dipped her head to nuzzle the older woman’s eyelids. "What do I have to do to take your mind off this? Putting my thigh between your legs doesn’t seem to have worked."

"I don’t know," murmured Barbara. "I’ve seen you soothe fussy children while I’m working, but I think I’ve already heard all your stupid tiger stories."

"Oh, my compañera," rumbled Chela tenderly. "I hope I never run out of stupid tiger stories and I know I have stories I haven’t told you. Let’s see…" She paused to kiss Barbara again, letting her tongue skip lightly between the other woman’s teeth, then let herself sink further against the soft body beneath her. "It was the night after I had very foolishly called down my fate that I found it standing in line for ice cream. I remember that the night was warm and that everything seemed so ordinary — the lights, the people I encountered on my way, my destination, which was a paid tryst with a dull but psychotic Russian agronomist. And then a light pierced through that curtain of boredom and routine. I saw this woman…" Chela started to softly rock against her lover, the subtle rhythm and light pressure providing the ground note for the intoxicating melody of her voice.

"She was a beautiful creature although I hadn’t really seen her yet. It was as I passed close to her — I was able to see her eyes and just for a few seconds I leapt in. They were blue stars and just for those few heartbeats I let myself want everything that she was: the gift that was her form but also the spirit - an endearing mix of cockiness and shyness - and I felt a burn go through me like the pulsing of an electrical current. Then I forced the feeling away because what was the use? She was just a stranger and I was on a different path…" Barbara had started to respond, her body gingerly moving to meet Chela’s as her lover spun out the genealogy of their love.

"It was after I saw her at the Tea House, at which, yes, she acted every bit the silly tiger, that I wrote the first poem in some time that had color in it — the color of her eyes. It was a very blue lightning poem… And then came the night when I thought I would die and I was reduced to my essence and I am convinced that she was reduced to hers. We met by the home of my protectress — Yemayá of the ocean — but under the face of her master — Changó of the lightning - although I did not see at the time the extent to which those two forces drove us together. Now I have to laugh, because it was all there in plain sight. She said ‘I am Barbara, by the way.’ Well, of course she was! And I knew that night that I had surely met a great part of my destiny. Oh, but I still didn’t know how long all of me had waited for her, including the parts that I kept safely asleep." She was punctuating her story now with quick nuzzles at the breasts of the American woman, who arched in response and had started to breathe raggedly.

"One night I knew that I had drunk enough of her presence — a slow, imperceptible accumulation of affection and respect and desire — that I could cross that line into wakefulness and not turn back. I let myself touch her, and even though she fled from my side into the night, I never really let her go, for I kept her image and the memory of her heat there with me in the bed. I found myself in need of such release — my bedclothes were soaked through and I felt that I couldn’t breathe from my excitement. When I started to touch myself I was frightened that she would come back and find me in that way: on my back and with my hand between my legs — out of control and crying out my hunger - as I rubbed myself in tribute to her. I can show you, you know," she whispered to the woman writhing beneath her. "I can show you how I felt… I can let you hear what her name sounded like as I came … and I can let you see just how much the thought of her moves me to lose all sense of boundaries until I fly apart, every cell of my body leaving to go in search of her…" She felt Barbara’s fingers slipping between them to begin gently stroking her vulva and stopped her tale to look into the aroused eyes of her partner.

"Chela… oh, Chela ," gasped the older woman as she slid herself against the Cuban woman’s thigh. "Don’t stop…yes, mami, this is the story I need to hear tonight…"

Both of them would later remember the night as a masterpiece of passion, the epic of their journey into each other’s skins and souls.


The third night after Changó’s return Malecón

Chela shivered slightly in the night breeze, prompting Barbara to wrap herself more tightly around the smaller woman as they sat huddled together on top of the seawall and looked out at the night sky. Clouds were drifting over horizon such that the full moon processed through a series of eclipse-like periods of shadowed muting interspersed with moments of naked gaudiness. As it was late on a Tuesday night, traffic on the boulevard was light, and the women had little company other than the crickets and small bats that frequented the palms after dark. Chela turned her head slightly to look at her lover’s face in the moonlight and found herself feeling great comfort at the serenity displayed on the other woman’s face.

"So you are ready for tomorrow?" she asked, leaning into the American woman’s chest.

"Well, I am scared, Chela," replied the other woman as she continued to look out over the dark water. "I just can’t figure out what I’m more scared of, if it’s that life can change this quickly or that we are always going to be puppets with other people pulling our strings, or that I’ve been so clueless as I’ve gone through life. I mean," she paused as a chuckle escaped from her lips, "I used to think I was pretty clever. Now I’m not sure…"

"You’re the brightest person I’ve ever met, Barbara." Chela pulled the arms that enveloped her so that they held her more tightly still. "And if we are puppets, you have become the bravest one of us. If we are graced with long life by the ancestors, then this is a time I will always look back on with awe: you setting forth to fight for our future with the truth as your only shield. You have no idea how much I love you…"

" I am starting to figure it out," laughed Barbara. "Along with all the other lessons of this place: how to drop all the last consonants in informal speech, how to make a catheter bag out of discarded plastic, how to properly compliment small children without having the parents think you’re going to steal them…"

Chela felt herself give into the older woman’s giddiness, allowing the ripples of laughter to shake them both. Then she disentangled herself so that she could turn and face her lover, pushing herself up so that she was sitting on her lap with her legs tucked around Barbara’s back.

"You know, Barbara, you are going to make a fantastic Cuban. You already have the ego and the attitude and the joy that makes living here possible."

"I’ve been thinking about this," answered Barbara thoughtfully. "I think that the Irish would make excellent Cubans. I mean, we both know what it’s like to have our little pieces of dirt in the water occupied by people who thought we weren’t smart enough to manage on our own, and we’ve both been starved and had our families ripped apart to make our masters comfortable and rich." She paused to pull Chela into a long kiss, her hands cupping the Cuban woman’s face as she tenderly caressed her cheeks with her thumbs.

"I don’t think we kiss as good as Cubans do," she continued, resting her forehead against her lover’s. "But we do appreciate beautiful women, drink more than we should and love our music loud. And, yes, most of us are Catholics but scratch the surface hard enough and everyone’s got some saints or fairies or Druid ancestors in there that aren’t behaving the way the catechism said they should. I think this could work… although you’d have to divert critical resources to produce mass quantities of sunscreen for us."

"I’ll see what I can do," replied a delighted Chela. "And just so you know, I want this to go that far, you know? To have my ancestors and my spirits recognize you as part of me, to watch over you and twine our histories together…"

Barbara raised her head away and nodded, her eyes reflecting indigo in the moonlight which had just flooded the portion of the wall upon which they sat. She shifted so she could reach into her pocket and fish out the ring she had been carrying everywhere for the past three days — she was sure that she must have worn down some of the delicate design from worrying it with her fingers.

" I can do that, too," she said, as she reached for Chela’s hand and rested the ring against one of her fingertips. "I can make you part of my line, although you must promise not to become a nun or a criminal like every one else in my generation. And if you become a criminal nun I am going to become very angry with you." Then she worked the ring over Chela’s finger and raised the hand to plant kisses on the knuckles.

Chela was laughing hard now, even though her eyes were watering as she took in the seriousness of Barbara’s gesture. Of course, she would never be able just to give me a ring without joking about it. But this is the lesson I have to learn through this: that her humor and the crazy way her mind works is the deepest level. It’s not some mask hiding the real self. She is innocent in that way, in her openness, and she is so beautiful in that innocence.

"Let me see it," she whispered as she raised her hand so that it was in the light. The claddagh glinted, casting orange sparks that seemed to shoot from the tiny hands that clasped the heart at the center. "Well…" she leaned forward to give Barbara a light kiss, then moved back so that the American woman could see her smile and the tears that coursed down her cheeks. "I don’t think becoming a nun is in my future but you can be assured that I will try to steal your heart every opportunity I get, and you have no grounds for complaint since you are holding mine ransom. We had better get back to my apartment … I am feeling less like a nun by the second and it would be a shame if I got you arrested for making love in public the night before you ask for citizenship."

Barbara would look back on that journey to Humboldt Street as the night when she loved Havana the most, as the old buildings parted the night sky to allow her and her lover to pass through it as they floated on a wind of happiness.


On the fourth morning: Obara

"Venga la esperanza, venga sol a mí… lárguese la escarcha, vuela el colibrí…"

They were sitting on the floor, as had become their custom in the mornings. Chela was sipping coffee as she listened to Barbara accompany herself on the guitar, her voice rising to caress with warm tones a song that was one of Chela’s favorites. They would later recall that the knocks on the door had sounded too gentle to alert them to trouble. In fact, they seemed to blend in seamlessly with the rhythm of the ballad as it flowed from the strings and Barbara’s throat.

Barbara rose and opened the door. A uncomfortable-looking Santos Valverde stood in the doorway, flanked by two Cuban military officers, who nervously fingered their holsters as they waited for the Cuban physician to speak. Behind them she could make out the white minivan that had carried the odd trio down to Humboldt Street.

"Dr. Valverde, well… well, this is a surprise," stammered Barbara. Chela was frozen in place on the floor, her muscles knotting as she immediately grasped the gravity of the situation.

"I would say good morning, Doctora Murphy, except that it is not a good morning," said the Cuban doctor sadly as he looked into her eyes. "I think it is one of the saddest mornings of my life. You see, over the past months I have come to trust you and admire you as a real hero. And you have achieved a remarkable accomplishment that has changed the lives of so many of my countrymen for the better. That is why I don’t for the life of me understand what has happened."

"And what has happened?" Barbara’s tongue felt wooden as she forced the question out.

"Yesterday the chief officer of the Health Ministry’s Veterinary Division asked for political asylum at the U.S. embassy in Spain. He confessed that he has been feeding the Yankees critical information concerning our susceptibility to biological warfare. He named you as his contact. I would not have believed it, but then we heard from our negotiators at a high-level series of meetings being held secretly between our two countries that the Americans are suddenly no longer feeling any urgency to continue exploring curbs on these types of weapons - because they have detailed information about our livestock protections. The traitor says that you carried this data out with you on your last trip back to the States."

"That isn’t true," said Barbara evenly, finding her ability to speak mercifully restored. " Santos, I have not carried any data out of this country." She took a deep breath. "It is the case that I was blackmailed into meeting with Jorge Pineda, your former colleague, but I never turned over what he gave me. You need to understand, the American agents were going to disrupt our ability to treat the epidemic unless I agreed to this meeting. I have kept the diskette Pineda gave me because I was going to present it as evidence of good faith when I went this afternoon to ask for political asylum myself. You can confirm that I have an appointment today at your immigration office. You have to believe me…"

Valverde was shaking his head, his eyes filled with regret.

"I so much wish that I could believe you, Doctora Murphy. As it is, we are in a very awkward situation. We owe you so much, yet there are too many questions about your status here. I have come to escort you to the airport — your visa was revoked this morning."

He was interrupted by a sharp intake of breath from Chela, who was struggling to get up from the floor.

"You are wrong, compañero!" she cried as she flew up to face him. "She has not betrayed our country and she was just on her way to bring to the authorities the evidence of Pineda’s treason and of her own victimization. Please, give her the opportunity to prove herself."

"I cannot change this deportation order, compañera. I am sorry. As it is we are showing Dr. Murphy special consideration in allowing her to leave the country, rather than detaining her for intensive interrogation… But for myself," he paused and let his gaze rest on his shoes. "It would make a difference to me, Doctora Murphy, to know that I am not such a bad judge of character."

Barbara turned and pulled up her laptop, thanking all the saints that she had charged the battery before leaving Boston.

"Look," she pled urgently. "Let me just show you this — this diskette has all your livestock immunization data. It’s not true that it has already left the country. And then perhaps you can find it in your heart not to return me to a country where I will face great suffering because of my refusal to sell you out. I would rather go to a Cuban jail…"

She worked quickly as she spoke, turning the computer on and working her way through the opening programs until she accessed the word processor. She was aware of twin presences behind her - Chela and Santos as they eagerly awaited for something to appear on the screen - and realized intuitively that both of them were praying for a miracle that would reset the direction of the morning. The diskette had only one file on it, named "Aquí está!" — "Here it is!" She clicked open and looked on in horror as the familiar words scrolled across the screen: "Mamá, yo quiero saber, de dónde son los cantantes…". The lyrics of "Son de la Loma" filled the page. Matamoros. Matamoros. Fucking Matamoros. Right under my fucking nose. Right under my motherfucking nose. They are protecting whoever met Alex in front of that building that morning. And they played me all along. They were never going to help us.

"I don’t understand." Her voice was a lifeless croak. A hand gently came down on her shoulder.

"It’s time, Doctora," whispered Santos. "I am so sorry that this is how it ends between us here." Chela had begun to sob. Valverde looked over at Barbara’s possessions, she had only unpacked her duffel in the few days since her return. "Let me give you a hand with these…" He moved to pick up the suitcase and side bag.

"I’ll take your duffel," managed Chela through her sniffles.

"Compañeros!" Santos turned to address the two officers who had observed all of the proceedings with a mix of interest and confusion. "Please wait for me outside in the van, we will be out shortly." The two men looked at each other, uncertain about the propriety of the physician’s request, but ultimately complied, each accepting one item from Valverde to carry out to the vehicle. Valverde turned back to Chela. "I’m sorry compañera, but I cannot permit you to accompany us to the airport. This is for your good as well. It is bad enough that your name has come to the attention of the authorities in relation with these unpleasant occurrences."

"Fuck," growled Barbara, straightening herself out and looking the Cuban doctor in the eye. "Santos, she had nothing to do with any of this other than convincing me that I would be permitted to stay if I told the immigration office all that has happened. But it seems that the people who have harmed all of us, Santos — both your country and myself — have their own way of manipulating events so that the truth doesn’t matter anymore." She gave in to the impulse to kick a chair across the room, sending it crashing against the wall, then collected herself. "Please, compañero," she whispered. "At least give us the privacy and the time to say goodbye. I beg this of you in light of the positive experience we have shared in working together."

The man briefly considered the petition, knowing that it was unwise to provide a suspected spy with such an opportunity. He would later think back on his decision as the inevitable outcome of the powerful effect the dissonance of the situation — the contrast between his fact-based obligations and his embodied sense of morality — produced on his judgment.

"Yes, compañera. I can give you this. Just a few minutes, though. I will tell them you are gathering your clothes." He walked out, shutting the door behind him.

Barbara did not know what to do. She was caught at the crossroads of dozens of impulses: to run, cry, scream, throw herself on the floor in a heap, cast herself into her lover’s arms. Chela was much more decisive and the door had barely caught in its frame before she was in motion, scrambling for the duffel, opening it widely and frantically rummaging through it.

"What are you doing," asked Barbara quietly in astonishment as she saw Chela pulling out her sex toys and dirty laundry.

"Get me any dirty clothing you can find in the bathroom — and all the feminine hygiene products you brought. It doesn’t matter if what you find is mine or yours. Just bring it to me," she ordered.

Maybe she has gone mad, thought Barbara miserably as she ran to do as she was told. God knows I am on the verge of losing it. She came back to find Chela pulling notebook after notebook from between the mattress and bed frame and stuffing them into the bottom of the bag. Chela looked up to see the tangle of clothes and sanitary pads that Barbara cradled in her arms.

"Good. That’s good. We will be able to bury all of them in there. If they think to look they will stop soon enough when they find these other things." She put the dildo and harness at the very top, before zipping the bag shut. "You want to know what I am doing…" She stood and embraced her confused and crying lover. "I will tell you. I am going with you, but only part of me can go ahead. I made up my mind while you were gone — I told you those two weeks would make things much clearer. It doesn’t matter that you are getting on that plane. I will find a way to go to you."

She took one last kiss, pressing herself into Barbara until her chest ached for breath. "I don’t even have a picture of you," she lamented into the other woman’s neck, before nuzzling it.

"Wait," muttered Barbara, reaching into her back pocket for her wallet. "Here," she said, pulling out a handful of U.S. currency and her driver’s license. "This is all I could take out of my bank without calling attention to myself. Take it. The photo isn’t very good, but the license has my address on it, so you will know where to find me. I will be at that address starting in May… You won’t do anything stupid to get there, will you? I love you, Chela. I won’t stop trying to find a way for us to be together."

"I know you won’t stop. You have my permission to read those journals. In fact, I want you to. It will be like getting the chance to talk to you while you are far away. You should go before they come back for you — I don’t want them to search your hand luggage and find them. And, Barbara…" She cupped the American’s face in her hands and drilled her with an intense look of earnestness and longing. "You were wrong in what you said to Santos. The truth always matters. Here are two truths: I love you more than this island - which is a very great deal — and I am very proud of who you are. You are my Changó, the king who cannot lie."


I don’t feel much like a king, thought Barbara as she looked down on a shrinking Havana through tear-blurred eyes. I feel like a child that’s been beaten within an inch of its life for saying the emperor has no clothes. I wish you could all see me — all you eyes that I have opened. I wish your irises would dilate open and that you could take an x-ray of me so that every damn bone and flaw showed. I wish you could see me for what I am. I didn’t do anything wrong — neither did my lover. We didn’t do anything wrong. No great state secrets were exchanged between us. Unless it was the knowledge that love can grow in the cracks between the barricades and checkpoints that ideologies set up to keep people apart. And - come to think of it — empires have fallen for less.


June, 1993 Brigham and Women’s Community Clinic, Boston

January 8, 1993

When I cast the day in red

the busses come on time

my skirt is a proper length

people pass each other carefully on the street

and the flag flutters on the breeze just like it appears on postage stamps.

But blue is a peacock’s tail that serves no order

but that of an alluring, waltzing gait

that announces a readiness for the play of flesh on flesh.

When I cast the day in yellow

I am complimented on my efforts

I speak in the safe tones of chastity

lambs approach me instead of tigers

and the breeze tamely refuses to ruffle my hair.

But blue is a lake where I dive

without checking the depth,

each opening of my body permeable to the water’s touch.

When I cast the day in white

the light pretends to reflect all of life’s hues

the routine masquerades as preferable to the exotic

dead nerves insist that only they are clean

and the sides of the road are clear of any distraction.

But blue is me seeking the particular lines in your rock

that lead to the molten layers under your surface

where your heat glows in unearthly cerulean brilliance.

"Can I get you a burger, Doc? I’m headed out to get some lunch."

The friendly offer of the nurse interrupted Barbara’s reverie as she sat, notebook on her lap, with her feet propped up on the desk.

"Nah… that’s all right Doris. I can wait til I’m off." She returned her attention to the poem scrawled on the page. And here I was thinking that I was the only person rocked that night we first saw each other. Oh, Chela. I wish I’d figured it all out so much faster, so I could have more memories to hold me until I find you again.

"Oh, Miss Murphy! It’s time for your appearance in ‘Fifty Ways to Get a Penny out of a Baby’".

She laughed at the affectionate taunt from the nurse practitioner working the shift alongside her that afternoon.

"I’ll be right there!" she called out. " I have to get my fingers properly magnetized before I start the job…and I get to keep the penny!"

She closed the notebook and bowed her head, repeating the same prayer that she said every morning when she rode her bike out to L Street to throw flowers into the water that made its way slowly up from the Caribbean.

I am waiting, my Yemayá. Come to me and ease this loneliness that breaks me every day. Please.

To be continued. Feedback to ortizbriggs@aol.com .

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The ordeal with the NSA is loosely based on the experience of Ross Danielson, historian of Cuban medicine, whose dissertation research was confiscated when he refused to cooperate with U.S. authorities. And it’s not like the other side plays any nicer. I know.

Translation of "Lagrimas Negras" ("Black Tears") by Miguel Matamoros.

"Even though you have left me abandoned/Even though you have killed off all my dreams/ Instead of cursing you in righteous anger/ In my dreams I heap upon you/ In my dreams I heal upon you blessings./ I suffer the immense loss of your going astray/ I suffer the profound pain of your departure/ And I cry without your knowing that my weeping/ Produces black tears/ Produces black tears, like my life./ You want to leave me/ I don’t want to suffer/ I will go with you my saint/ Even if it costs my death."