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Prosa, Issue 9 | March 2013

     

The Country and the City

In the beginning I died to see a movie. I’d never seen one. Where we lived was all farms. Before we married, my husband came to my parents’ house and we’d sit in the living room and talk. Domingo was always a tremendous talker. He harvested pineapple as a kid and he was built like a tree trunk. His shoulders looked like they would burst through his suit. And while he talked I imagined he was projecting a movie out of his mouth. Moonlight from the window hit the wall across from him. While he talked and talked and talked and talked I looked at the wall and imagined his mouth played a man and a woman kissing. Or a woman running from houses to beach. Or a woman writing by machine. Honestly, I don’t remember.

How did the other Beatríz and I end up living together?

 

After we got married my husband was a lawyer. Practically a lawyer. He worked for this political man named Arturo Betancourt. They’d go out to dark bars to smoke and scheme against both Castro and Batista. Domingo always came home saying he was the only muerto de hambre in the party—the only one dying of hunger. The only poor one. So I’d starch his one white suit so nice you thought he put on a new one every single day.

Of course we weren’t really dying of hunger. I didn’t work. We had a girl who helped with the children. We had chickens. Out in the yard I’d swing them around by their heads until their necks broke. Constantly I was cleaning their blood off my elbows. And we ate our steaks, you know. We lived fine in the country.

But right before everything changed we moved to the city. They’d put the political man in jail. Domingo said Fidel was getting him back for some high school feud. He asked us to live in his apartment and take care of it because already his wife and kids had left for Miami.

Imagine! All of our things—furniture, suitcases—fit in a corner of his living room. They had plush red armchairs and red Chinese cabinets. Bookshelves stacked high. A huge oriental rug. And mirrors everywhere so we could see the reflection of our belongings, yellow and scuffed and brown and faded, in the middle of all their red.

The man in jail’s family paid us to live there. No more killing chickens! In La Habana we’d go out to eat in restaurants every single day. The children with their hair always combed nicely to the side. Our life was a marvel.

But one day Domingo comes home wearing his white suit and sits down at the political man’s marble table. No steak that night. We were going to eat en el Barrio Chino.

Just like that, without even a kiss hello, he says to me: It’s time to do like the Betancourts.

My husband always sat derechito, his legs apart and his hands on his knees. Like a monument and you can’t argue with a monument. Those shoulders straining the suit seams. I thought he meant leave Cuba. I knew sooner or later we would go.

Then he says, But the kids have to go first.

He might as well have asked me to send my organs out of my body. I got this fist in my chest and my spine iced up.

All day I had been talking to the kids about arroz frito. Fried rice tonight. Chinese cookies. How inside the restaurant would be red like the political man’s wife’s jewelry box.

I say to him, Why?

I never challenged him. I’m telling you, he was a monument! I would never say no. But in one moment I saw my children shriveling up and blowing away.

Domingo looks at me like I have three eyes. He stands up and says, Because we have the opportunity.

I say to him, Oh.

The kids were playing in the park next door. I had a tremendous desire to go to the window.

Domingo crosses his arms and he looks at me like this for awhile without talking.

I felt like I would throw up.

Mira, he says. On the radio they’ve been saying crazy things. Cosas espantosas. He makes like a radio voice: Send the children to the United States! Get them out of here!

But Beatríz, he says, it’s true. I asked around. It’s true.

I know, I say, even though I didn’t. I just imagined it different.

He talks and talks and talks about Russian labor camps and communist schools and the government comemierdas and I don’t know what and I don’t know how much.

And he says The Catholic Church is making flights to Miami. Beatríz, he says, I know it’s a drastic thing. But in Miami Ramon and Arsenio and Sonia can live with Betancourt’s wife. They would be almost in family. Fijate, he says, she’s even named the same as you.

He tries to laugh like he’s making a joke.

 

I met the other Beatríz through her photos. Their apartment was full of them. Pictures of her with a polka dot scarf around her head. In evening gowns. One where she was pregnant. In photographs all of her clothes and makeup were blacks and dark grays but all the material of her body – flesh and hair and pupils – was in soft whites and silvers. My children and I were fascinated by their pictures. Why hadn’t they taken them along? We examined them every day. My little girl said, She looks like a movie star. When we took the kids to the airport I told them: You’re going to the pretty lady from the pictures.

(Later I thought: How had Beatríz given birth? I couldn’t even imagine she could be bothered to push out a baby. Reading a book, the sheets a heap on her belly.)

I resigned myself and we put the three children on a plane with a river of other little kids. I went back to the apartment and cried for two hours. And then…I got up and drew my eyebrows back on. But my husband didn’t even notice. He was too busy putting on his white suit and going out to see this man in jail. He probably fed him, like a baby, with a spoon out of a jar.

I got my papers to leave a year later but my husband stayed in Cuba two more years like that. The government gave him a hard time. And when I finally got to Miami I didn’t know my sons. They barely wanted to talk to me. They had jobs and they had little mustaches. My daughter’s eyes had grown bigger and she spoke less.

 

I stayed with them in the other Beatríz’s house in Miami Beach. In exchange, I attended to all the children, her three and mine, and cleaned and did laundry. Besides that I mostly stayed out of her way.

Beatríz slept every morning until twelve. When she woke up she came down to the living room and read thick novels with fabric bindings. Their titles stamped in foil on the fronts and spines. She bought so many of them at once, and ooop! Down the gullet. She read one every day, like a shot of whiskey. She’d settle in her red armchair, kids screaming everywhere, como que nada for long afternoons of reading in Spanish, English and Russian.

She took the pretty jackets off those novels and threw them away. That didn’t sit well with me. I was always rescuing book covers from the trash. I smoothed down the creases and kept them in a drawer. I didn’t even know what I would use them for.

Her vice was fotonovelas. Soap operas on paper, photo romances. Those she read in her room at night away from me and the kids. When she finished, she threw those away too, in a wastebasket by her bed. And I read them and loved them. I knew they were trashy like most of the men and women in them but they fascinated me. At nights I’d say my prayer and get into bed and read a page or two.

I’m lying. Sometimes I’d finish the whole thing before I fell asleep.

 

Those novelas were from Mexico. Usually the covers said the name SOCORRO LOPEZ in huge letters. The women in them so stylish, and I loved how the pages looked: all those squares and photos of people showing up in each one. Their words came out in black letters on white rectangles or bubbles next to the people or above their heads. Some of the photos were bién dramatic, with the peoples’ faces so big, almost filling up the whole square, so you could see every eyelash and the pencil line around the ladies’ eyes, and these big fine white foreheads they had, their hair brushed back from the roots and smoothed tight like a flamenco dancer’s. The heroines always looked so blanquitas on the page. Everyone’s faces so perfect and smooth, like the cheekbones on a mannequin. The stories were about…things good people should never do.

 

In one a little girl from the country went to the city to work for a wealthy man, doing I don’t know what. In one square she types on a typewriter. It said she was a virgin and she loved coca-cola.

Imaginate que she lives alone. Next door lives another woman who wears stiletto heels so high they curve like unkempt fingernails. It seems they both have it for the same man: the country girl’s boss. He’s in one square, wearing a suit and a tie, and each woman is in a square on either side. They peek out the doors of their apartments. Two little white clouds over their heads both lead to him.

Every day the stiletto woman comes back happy from the mailbox because this man sends her love letters wrapped around money. She can buy chocolates. She can buy hot dogs. She can go to the movies and buy smart red suits at the department store.

The rest I barely remember because it’s been so long. I always told my daughter to never let a man in her room. Dirty girls, the wealthy man visits both their apartments. The country girl’s is almost empty, the stiletto woman’s is full of furniture.

The man takes the stiletto woman to a restaurant. Gifts her books. Buys her bracelets. But in three more squares he takes the country typist out to the movies. Buys her popcorn, sits with his arm wrapped around her in the dark. She’s….curvier, see, and he takes liberties he doesn’t with the stiletto woman. By this time the country girl is arrepentida. She knows better, and you see a little white cloud over her head and white dots leading down to her ear. It says: ¿Que quiere conmigo? She’s trembling (in the next box a cloud over her head says, I’m trembling!) and you can tell her eyes aren’t watching any movie.

When they get up to leave the stiletto woman has been sitting behind them the whole time. Her jaw is set. Her teeth clenched. The cloud over her head shows she’s thinking revenge.

It’ll get too long if I describe all the squares, but guess the ending. The two women form a tremendous scandal outside their apartments. You knew it, right? The stiletto woman is la mas pesada, metiendose in the country girl’s apartment and yelling and trying to throw her papers and dresses out into the hallway. The country girl’s eyes like this from fright. The wealthy man nowhere to be seen. The letters in the cloud over her head say, What now? Now that I think of it, it’s almost always a question that shows up in the bubbles over her head.

 

You know my husband and I didn’t write letters while we were apart: we talked on the phone. He couldn’t send me photos. Anymore he was only a voice. I sat on a gold velvet chair in Beatríz’s hallway to talk. The phone had its own huequito in the wall.

Tell me about Miami Beach, he would say. I would ask him what he meant.

Dime como es, he’d say. How is it?

From what I could tell it wasn’t so much city as I thought it would be.

I’d tell him, There’s air conditioning and a lot of Jewish people.

Because for me Miami Beach was the inside of Beatriz’s house, the three blocks to the store, or the school.

And like always Domingo said he was still back there, putting on his suit, visiting the other Beatríz’s husband in jail. While she sat in a red dress with red lipstick in her red chair, reading her books; and I got bags under my eyes and my knuckles chapped.

The year after we sent the kids to Miami I put away the feeling of a child on my lap, a sweaty cheek on my shoulder at the end of the day. And I put away the hairs between the eyebrows, the smooth part of the neck, a whisper of the iron’s smoke on the collar. Because for what? If ya you don’t have them esas cosas no sirven. Who has time to look at a book every day? Who has time to go out and act like a boba crying around?

This Beatríz, she never went out either.

 

One day I found blood in my son’s boxers. Ramoncito, I said, have you been playing with your butt?

I had a dream or a daydream. I was in a square when I found the boxers. The camera shot through the hole the waistband makes and you could see my face from below. My best angle. My hair was pulled back smooth instead of short the way it really was, my mouth open and my eyes wide, and you could see my shadow on the wall behind me. In the next square the camera shot a closeup of me with my forehead on my wrist. As though I were leaning on a table and crying. The words appeared: What now? There was a square cloud above with just a white suit in it, and dots leading down to my head so you knew what I was thinking about.

And always the country girl writing by machine and ordering all the squares in a row, one after one after one. Always an order to it, except when there wasn’t.

 

During that time I was always afraid to read to the end of a novela. Because there would be nothing more to look at. What were we thinking? I had always imagined the other Beatríz’s home safe, a place where the kids would be in family. But until I got there it must have been like a dog kennel. You know what I’m saying?

Boba que soy yo, I told Beatríz about the blood because it worried me. I grew up with brothers but as far as I knew nobody ever had that. So I thought she might have some ideas. I didn’t have any other women friends yet. All day long that day I had walked around con eso por encima, like one of those cloud bubbles over my head.

So Beatricita, I said to her. I made myself really sweet. I sat down next to her in the living room with all the beautiful furniture. Very elegant. She was reading as usual and she put her book face down on her lap while I was talking to her. She always wore a face full of makeup even though she never left the house.

I say to her, Beatríz, you know, I found a pair of Ramoncito’s underwear on the floor the other day. There were spots of blood there. I go, Imagine! I keep thinking to myself, how strange. What could that be? Has that ever happened to one of your boys?

And she looked at me like como quien dice, Is someone talking to me?

This woman had light eyes. And there’s nothing more beautiful in this world than a pair of light eyes but in that moment I felt like they were burning through my face to my head and into my chair. Her chair.

And she says to me, you know what she says to me? She says, ¿Sabes que, Beatríz? There is nothing I hate more than to be called Beatricita. ¿Sabes que? My maid in Cuba never bothered me this much. You don’t see I’m reading?

And I don’t know what got into her? But while I was still distracted with the idea that she compared me to her maid in Cuba, she closed the book and got up from her red chair and went upstairs and started making a lot of noise, moving things around. I heard her feet creaking across the floor.

By the time I got up there I saw she had knocked over my dresser and the drawers had thrown up all over the floor. I saw she was looking at the novela I left by my bed. What were you doing with this? she said. This is mine. If our maid in Cuba touched any of my things like that we would call the police.

Calm yourself, Beatríz, I told her, and I started to explain that I’d taken it out of her garbage. But then she says, Is this where you stopped reading? She opened the novela and pointed to where I folded the corner of the page. Is it?

Yes, I said, yes, Beatríz, but what does that matter?

And then she rips out all the pages from the folded page to the end of the book. She rips them up all over my bed.

Ahora si, Beatríz, she says to me. Ahora si you’ll never know how it ends!

 

When I took Ramoncito to the doctor he said he had a growth, some kind of lump in there. That’s what they said, and they had to do an operation on his rectum. He was in the hospital for a week. He healed up fine. The government paid for everything, almost. For six months I got up at five and washed clothes for two other houses on our street. Así resolví. That ending was fine.

And so the worst thing about what happened with the other Beatríz was that afterwards I felt as though she could see into my head. As if  my thoughts really were hanging over my head in white clouds.

But really what she said about the end—it must just have been a coincidence.

That day I only yelled back at her once. I was so tired. I couldn’t foresee it, what she did to me. I sent her and her political man and her spoiled kids to hell. I said, ¿Sabes que, tu? ¿Sabes que, Beatríz? ¡Atienda, Beatríz! Why don’t you put your book down a minute to atender a your kids. Today, I said, today you can wipe them their asses and wipe the snot off their lips. Atiendalos tu. ¡Atienda! ¡Beatríz! ¡Atienda!

And then I really lost it. I screamed the “a” of the “atienda” so long and so loud that my temples hurt. That house was never quieter than when I got to the end of that word.

I had never talked like that to anyone. I was never one to walk with nowhere to go just to go out but that day I did. I went running out of that house. In slippers! All the children followed me to the door and watched me take off. I should have taken my own kids with me. I didn’t. They were barely children anymore anyway. I ran all the way from Meridian and 17th to Collins and 23rd to where I could see the beach where I never went. I just stood from the sidewalk on tiptoe and craned my neck to where I could see stripes: the two blues and the sand. It was a beautiful picture.

When I came back the living room was a chicken coop. Kids everywhere. Messes I would have to clean. The boys and Sonia following me around asking me what happened. Beatríz had fallen asleep on my bed. She had cried all her makeup off except for the lipstick on the masitas of her lips.

 

Not too long after that, Domingo arrived. The monument himself! He smelled like two years’ worth of other women but I chose to ignore it. I wanted to leave Beatríz’s house. That day after I cleaned up the living room and she woke up and put her makeup back on we acted like nothing happened. Cada cual por su lado. She treated me with politeness, that was all.

We bought a queen sized bed for our own apartment. Beatríz stayed living alone with her children and later her parents. We didn’t keep in touch. I tried not to think about that day, or even that life. Us not leaving the house. My husband far away in a white suit. The other man in jail.

 

Pero mentira. I thought about it all the time. For years I held a grudge. I scraped matches against the idea of her. I’d grind my teeth over the way she’d owned my kids so reckless for a whole year and then treated me like a piece of trash.

Every time I said her name I wanted to spit, except it was my name.

I couldn’t paint my lips red or buy myself red clothes even though they suited me. I couldn’t read for pleasure. I couldn’t sleep till noon. I couldn’t stand it.

What consoled me is that my children never called her by a name. Not Beatríz, not tía, not señora, not nothing. They called her Excuse Me. They called her Con Permiso.

Maybe Beatríz was on drugs.

 

In our new home I invented meals with the big canisters of cheese and powdered milk from the government. By then the kids would talk to me again. Sonia helped me in the kitchen. They had all kinds of friends coming in and out laughing until late at night.

When my husband arrived, he didn’t want to hear any of my stories about the time he’d been away. About Beatríz, about Ramoncito, about the blood. About nothing. The way he was showed me how to hint, how to get things in. Because I used to say things outright and then he’d reject them. There were days that I’d try to tell him things four times and he’d pretend not to even hear me. Let’s say I had something in a cloud over my head—he wouldn’t have even noticed. So I learned to say the same thing but in a more subtle way, and that way I never left myself with things I still wanted to say.

 

We got a bigger apartment. I got a job as a maid at one of the bigger hotels. Domingo got a job at a shoe factory. He couldn’t tag along with the important political men anymore. Because they too were working in factories…or staying far away, trying to become what they’d been again.

Domingo and I finally went to the movies. I didn’t have to imagine with any moonlight through windows from mouths on walls. Everything was right there, with squares going by so fast you couldn’t even see them. It was in English and I can’t remember the name. They showed lo mismo de siempre, pretty girls’ faces filling up the screen crying, women arguing in black and silver, men prancing around in suits, a place that looked like New York City. Domingo kept putting his hot breath in my ear asking me what was happening. It irritated me and I didn’t know much English myself so I finally just made things up.

Everyone dies at the end, I tell him. He raises his eyebrows. I tell him, They don’t show it but you know it’s happening from what they’re saying. And I read it in the newspaper.

He says, Why did you tell me?

I say to him, You asked me!

He couldn’t tell it was a joke. I was laughing at him in the dark.

I think finally Beatríz had to get a job, too, at a department store or something.

But our lives were a marvel. I mean, we had very ordinary lives, and for that I give thanks.

 

The Country and the City