|Jul/Aug 2007 Fiction|
In Cien Fuegos one desperate Sunday afternoon when Ricardo Cruz was a mere child, his mother strangled and stuffed the family hen.
"We are the poor ones, niño," she said, serving Tita for dinner, "not your ancient farmyard chicken." The old bird was devout, tough, and discerning, but sensitive; she'd laid a great many eggs into Ricardo's small, waiting hands. She'd followed him through the streets, down the dirt road, nearly all the way to the school where the nuns used to preach about sins. Tita knew about sin; she understood temptation. At the side of the road, she waited all day, while Ricardo sat in his chair in the little room with the red flag, where God had all but been erased, and now a big gray lady in a uniform read the same patriotic passage over and over.
Sometimes, out back during recess, Ricardo managed to convince Diego Ruiz, Hector Lopez, or Junto Marcal to play Communista with him. In the game, Ricardo played the wife, passionately kissing first Diego, who played the husband, then Junto who played the soldier turning Diego in for being a traitor to the Party. It made Ricardo popular to be so staunch about Cuba, and some of the boys actually kissed him back. Mostly, though, Ricardo kept to himself, glancing toward the road, where he could see Tita's head bobbing for seeds, like an old nun pecking out prayers.
"Murderer," Ricardo said the day of Tita's demise. He refused to allow his mother's arms around him, knocking them off his shoulders when she tried to apologize. Mostly, though, she was too busy setting the table with special linen for the twin's 15th birthday. The old tias took their seats, clapping when Patria and Libertad appeared on the staircase like twin brides in matching hand-sewn dresses of ribbon and silk.
"Patty and Libby only have one quinceañera, niño," Ricardo's mother whispered. "What was I supposed to do?"
The fickle black market affected everyone, even loyal, connected families with fathers who worked directly for Party leaders. Ricardo's father had given everything up to join the high ranking inner-circle, but he spent the better part of every month in Havana. When asked why they couldn't all live together as a family in Havana, his father always said: "Hijo, you're safer here with Mami's family."
Wait until his father heard about Tita.
Ricardo cried quietly during the meal and refused to eat from Tita's tender breast. He cried loudly when the tias praised the presentation of an elaborate cake made with Tita's final eggs. Feliz Cumpleaños, the frosting said.
"Don't cry, hermano," his sisters said in one voice, "Papi will buy you another chicken."
The next day, Ricardo refused to eat the lunch his mother made for fear she had poisoned it. The lunch was the usual fare: bread and cheese, but with a slice of birthday cake. Ricardo wanted the sweet taste of frosting on his tongue, but he couldn't forget what he'd seen the day before: his mother chasing Tita around the mango tree, her lithe fingers snapping Tita's neck with a casual twist, Tita's limp body being carried to the kitchen for plucking. Ricardo shuddered. He'd heard stories of brother turning on brother, neighbor turning in neighbor, husband betraying wife. Now, he feared the worst for everyone, even himself.
"Niño," his mother said in the morning when he pushed away his café y pan, "Kiss your mami goodbye." She was on her way downtown, where she worked as a clerk in a government office. Holding him close, she smelled so sweetly of perfume and lotion that he almost forgot his grudge.
At the door, she faced him one last time.
"Do you think I would let my darlings starve? We'll get another Tita for you, mi amor. You'll see." She lowered her voice, a twinkle in her eye. "Your father will march into Castro's hen-house and get you the best little communist chicken in the world."
Ricardo did not smile. He did not mention the pink-orange claw his mother had left next to his bed for him to find that morning, though he had it in his pocket. He did not even speak when she walked back across the room and stood by his chair to brush back his hair with her cool hand.
"I am sorry, Ricardito."
On his way to school, Ricardo searched under every fence post and tree stump to find the perfect place to bury his dangerous lunch. He ripped it into very small pieces, even the cake, and covered it with leaves, carefully checking over his shoulder for spies. When he got to the school, he planned to get Hector to wrestle him. In La Revolucion, two boys were chosen to play Castro and Castro's brother, fighting for power over Cuba. Hector was not the best looking choice. He had thick lips and a strange glow in his eyes that made him seem slow, Ricardo thought, but he was always willing to wrestle as the weaker brother, and he never seemed to mind when Ricardo pressed him to the mat, lips against neck, thigh in his groin.
The tour bus was leaving Barcelona at 6 a.m., and the American woman still wasn't on it. Late as usual, she'd had a bad habit of delaying their departures by at least fifteen minutes. Ricardo found it amusing. This morning, for instance, having blown out the electricity in the parador, a small hotel run by a very old man, she'd sent the maids scurrying out of their beds.
"Auxilio!" they cried. "Auxilio!" Or maybe they were joking.
The old man handed out candles from a sack, but the sun had risen before he'd managed to limp back around with the matches. Ricardo put on a robe and stood in the doorway to watch the olive-skinned maids putting on a show, their nightgowns hauntingly thin in the gray light of morning. Elbow to elbow, they huddled under a chipped archway, raising quite a racket, as if the Spanish Empire were coming to an end. Ricardo wondered if these were the old man's granddaughters and smiled, trying to call one of them over, but she blushed and turned away. With Spaniards it was difficult to tell.
Ricardo had spent an entire summer in Europe already, a graduation gift from his father. He was used to the August heat, the idle chitchat of strangers, whose faces ran together with paintings and photographs in a strange familiar blur. Spain was his final country—ending in Barcelona, with several daylong junkets by bus to Valencia, Toledo, Sevilla, Madrid. The very names of the cities held out a kind of magic for Ricardo, as if somehow they formed a map of possibility, the final destinations of summer, his last chance.
The tour guide, a relentlessly cheerful European named Mercedes, looked at her watch and smiled. Like all the other tour guides of the summer, Mercedes had fleshy arms and strong perspiration mingling with her cologne.
"Buenos dias!" she said, nodding toward an empty seat, as if to call attention to American bad manners. "Shall we start the guide, even if we can't start the tour?" She began to speak in a lilting British accent about the day's visit: Tejera Park, Los Burgos, and the Museo de Navarra.
When the American woman finally arrived, she made a quick apology, shrugging vaguely at Mercedes, and took the empty seat next to Ricardo. The bus sputtered forward, and the other tourists, mostly Germans in tube socks, sent up a little cheer. Ricardo glanced sidewise to see the American woman watching out the window, sad somehow, and silent. He was slightly put off by her fragile appearance—reedy, almost—reminding him of an article he'd read once about birds and their small, hollow bones.
"I forgot to plug in the adapter," she said. "I was blow-drying my hair."
Violet guessed that the young man seated next to her was barely eighteen. He looked a bit like the figure in an El Greco painting they would likely see in Toledo—Saint Martin and the Beggar—his long gaunt body, his close-cropped hair. Young enough to be my son, she thought. There was something about his soft pink lips and clear eyes that made him seem foreign. She couldn't discern an accent, though his Castillian was impeccable, better than hers, and she had taught Spanish for sixteen years at Montclair Community College.
Canadian, Violet guessed, pressing at her skirt, as it billowed in the heat.
Writing in a notebook, the young man had stopped to scratch his chin with a pencil, where a slight beard had grown in over night, making him seem a little rugged. Violet noticed his green eyes—the color of ivy—and the subtle curve of his neck under a thin blouse, which he wore tucked into the same tan corduroys as yesterday, and leather sandals. A shoulder bag lay in his lap. Definitely not American.
Looking out the window at the Catalonian countryside, Violet couldn't help but think about Edward, who would have loved to see the old gypsies hanging their wash over the stone wall at the edge of the city. He would have made up a line of poetry about how they looked like old crows, so worn in their black widow dresses. But Edward was not in Barcelona; he was home in New Jersey, making decisions about their life.
Violet hadn't known what to tell her friends, and so she didn't say a word. The other woman, she knew, was ten years older, a humiliating fact. Still, she forced herself to review as much as she could bear: Her husband, Edward Fields, the well-known North American poet, was leaving her for a 54-year-old woman, a law librarian, whom they'd met once at a Rutgers faculty party. Edward had been thrilled to discuss the class he was teaching, named for his new book, The Great American Bard. Bird? the woman had said. Her name was Georgia, like the slave state.
The news came later as quite a shock, arriving somewhat psychically the morning of Edward's confession. Before he even opened his mouth, Violet knew who and what, even where. Luckily, she'd managed to react quickly, and as soon as Spring semester was over, she'd booked several package tours to European cities to spend the summer abroad. This way, Edward could take all the time he needed either coming to his senses or packing his bags.
Violet's sister Judith tried not to gloat. "Imagine," she said of the older other woman. "Edward. Human after all! Why he's practically searching for his mother."
"Aren't we all?" Violet said.
A recurrent difficulty filling her lungs with air became socially embarrassing. Once she nearly fainted in the faculty lounge. Edward seeking his mother: the thought yielded a certain terrifying sensation, more like strangulation than sorrow.
"Panic attacks," Judith said, offering the name of a shrink, who insisted on downplaying the dramatics by using smaller words that packed a wallop.
Anger, the shrink said repeatedly, fear.
In Pamplona, the tour group split up once the major sites had been tackled. Mercedes napped while the bus driver flipped through a magazine, pointing the Germans to the center of town with cameras and a map. Ricardo wandered aimlessly into the warm afternoon, happening across the American woman, who was lunching at an outdoor café.
"Last month, in Romania," he said, approaching cautiously with his best grammar, "I caused the black-out of an entire village with my electric razor."
Surprised, she squinted the sun out of her eyes, motioning for him to sit in an empty wrought-iron chair at her table.
"How did you know I spoke Spanish?" she said.
Ricardo pointed his thumb over his shoulder, southward toward Barcelona: "I heard you speaking to the old man back at the hotel."
"Your Castillian is perfect," she said. "Where are you from?"
"Cuba." He shook her hand: "Ricardo."
"Violet," she said. "Havana?"
"Cien Fuegos, but I live in New York now."
"My mother was Cuban," Ricardo said. "After she died, my father got us out."
She smiled. "I teach Cuba as an example of Spanish colonization, failed political vision, and cultural despair—oh, perhaps that's insensitive of me."
"It's okay," Ricardo said. "My sisters still live there. They think it's wonderful. Patty is going to medical school, and Libby raises chickens. My mother named them after a Party slogan: Patria y Libertad."
She nodded. "Patriotism and Freedom. It's prettier in Spanish."
"We send them American money in the mail. There's a trick to it," he told her. "You lay the bills flat between the pages of a poetry book to fool the border guards. Or so we hope; there's no real way of knowing. When my mother died and my father took me out, they were put under surveillance. I still get letters with the sentences blacked out."
"It's like letting go of everything when your mother dies," Violet said, somewhat mournfully. "My mother died right before this trip."
"I was very young," Ricardo said. "My mother died in a bus accident. My tias say she was carrying a bomb in her purse meant for El Caballero, but my father says that's nonsense."
"What do you think?"
Ricardo shrugged. "She could have been working for Castro or working against him. I don't know."
Violet's hair was curled up in the heat, Ricardo noticed, as if it might lift off her head.
"Are you traveling alone?" she asked.
"I was supposed to stay with relatives in Avila, but it didn't worked out. I couldn't find my mother's family." He smiled. A brief silence followed. "I'm going to the University of Madrid in the fall."
"To study Spanish?"
Ricardo shook his head. "Architecture."
She fingered some postcards. She looked at the ink, absently waving the little photographic placards back and forth. "They're for my students."
He dug around his shoulder bag and found some stamps, offering them up. Pointing at her neat signature, he said, "It's a lovely name: Violet Fields."
Her face was pink. "You don't seem like the architect type." She was gazing over his shoulder, as if it might hurt to look him in the eye.
They sat quietly in the little café. Ricardo thought about his father, who had already paid his tuition at Madrid for his entire freshman year.
When Violet insisted on paying for his drink, Ricardo told her a secret.
"What I really want to be," he said, "is an artist."
After the bus crash that killed his mother, Ricardito grew up quickly and stopped burying his lunch on the way to school. At first his father lay around the house in his underwear, drinking rum from the bottle, which Patty or Libby tried to hide out back in the garden. When Ricardo turned nine, there were secret meetings in the backyard, whispered accusations and disapproving glances from neighbors. His father sent him off to bed with a pat on the back and a wink. "Now, we're going to get somewhere, hijo. You'll see."
Ricardo wasn't so sure.
The school janitor once cornered him in the hallway. Beware political dissent, hissed el viejo. What do you think killed your mother?
"Papi," the twins warned, "We have Ricardito to think of. We have our future."
The year Ricardo turned ten, his father woke him out of a sound sleep and carried him to a beat-up car that had magically appeared in the driveway, then to a rickety boat, and finally what must have been the tiniest airplane in the world. His father carried him up the ladder and belted him in the seat. The whole ride to Miami, Ricardo's ears popped, his head buzzed. His father slept through the thunder storm that rocked the little plane until Ricardo threw up twice: once in the well where his legs were and once in his own lap.
There hadn't been time to pack clothes or even a photograph of his mother or his sisters. No toys or shoes, though later his father would present him with a box of things from Cuba. In the pocket of his jacket, Ricardo gripped his only worldly possessions: three Cuban coins, a marble, and the dried-out chicken claw from his mother. After that night, flying in the tiny airplane, looking down at the lights and the small disappearing island, he never saw his sisters again, or Cien Fuegos, his mother's home.
At the end of each day, the Alta Vista bus slid along under a wide Spanish sky. Violet watched a deep orange sun sinking behind the red rooftops and turned to Ricardo with an urge to speak. For a moment, she thought she saw him crying, tears in his eyes reflecting the sunset, but as the bus reached the great-embattled entranceway at dusk, Ricardo yawned and smiled. She'd been mistaken. She was alone.
"I'm nobody's mother."
Ricardo raised his eyebrows, soft pink lips parting, as if to speak.
During the bus's belabored efforts to park behind the little parador, they were silent, as if afraid to disturb the sanctity of Violet's confession. When the bus finally rolled to a stop, Violet handed Ricardo a yellow slip of paper, like a credit card receipt:
Please call stop Need advice stop
Georgia wants to marry stop Quick divorce? stop
The Germans were filing off, inviting Mercedes for a nightcap at the café across the street. In France and Italy, Violet had learned to appreciate the Germans: their constant tobacco smiles, their enthusiasm for Europe, which seemed like something to count on.
"Edward?" Ricardo said, pensively, fingering the telegram.
"My husband," Violet said. She'd gotten the notice yesterday and stuffed it in her purse without sending off an answer.
"Funny," she said. "I felt like crying, all day, and then I thought..."
He tilted his head, waiting for the rest of the sentence. By the look on his face, Violet realized she'd made a mistake and motioned to the empty aisle. "I think it's time to go."
Off the bus, they went their separate ways—he to meet the Germans for a cocktail, she directly to bed.
It was 6:00 on the dot the next morning when Violet appeared. The Germans, who were raring to go, gave her a standing ovation. Violet whistled and took a deep bow. This was a three-day excursion to the South—Toledo, Sevilla, and Madrid.
"You're almost on time!" Mercedes said, as Violet made her way down the bus's rubber aisle to her usual seat.
"Sleep well, Ricardo?" she said.
The night before he'd spent hours at the outside café across the street. "I'm hung over."
Violet cleared her throat. "Alcohol!"
He nodded. "Though to watch the Germans, you'd have thought it was water."
"I tossed and turned all night," she said, "I could hear you all the way across the street, explaining to everyone how I'm not your mother."
He blushed. "What do Germans know?"
"Well, they're right," Violet said. "And without him, I'm a spinster."
"In France, I met a man."
Ricardo felt his excitement rise. "A man?"
"A wonderful man!"
"At your hotel?"
Violet patted the thin material of her skirt: "No."
"You went out?"
"To a disco."
Mercedes began to speak into the microphone. She was wearing a yellow straw hat and seemed in particularly good humor. "Today we are starting our three-day tour, featuring Madrid: city of industry, fashion, and broken hearts." The bus driver popped in a video of the sites they would see: The Palacio Real, the Plaza Mayor, and Puerta del Sol.
"You went to a disco?" Ricardo's voice floated above the sound of the Germans' dull drone behind them.
"One night when I couldn't sleep, I went for a walk and found the most delicious little dance club." She paused to catch her breath, as if excited by the memory. "It was so hot that night, Bastille Day, and I stepped inside because I knew it would be nice and cool."
"Was he French?" Ricardo asked. He tapped his foot anxiously. The skin on his arms prickled, as if the stifling air might actually burn him.
"He was from San Diego," she said. "A divorcé."
"An American," Ricardo whispered. How many times had he himself dreamed of falling in love with a dark handsome stranger from a dark land? A divorcé from San Diego would do, anyone, as long as it was someone belonging to Ricardo, even if only for the night. Then suddenly Ricardo felt a new desire rise up. He wanted to kiss Violet Fields in a dark smoky disco with throbbing music in his ears, while men from every nation looked on, wanting him.
Violet peered through the window, as if to study the low-growing trees that slid along the countryside. Dreaming, Ricardo barely saw how they differed. Some were gnarled and dense, others were shady and expansive with branches like feathers.
The next few days, Ricardo was sullen. He thought about writing his father the truth: that he wanted to go to Paris and study with artists. Traveling day in and out by Violet's side, he'd grown accustomed to the dreamy haze of his own imagination. He might start out listening to Mercedes' light chatter about the Moors, but soon he would find himself sinking heavily into thought, where he could walk and talk with Violet Fields alone in the hot yellow sun of his own yearning.
Slowly, morning developed into sweltering afternoon. The driver, who was humming softly and sweating, nodded as he drove. Cool air blasted from the vents, lulling even Mercedes to sleep. Violet seemed half in a trance when Ricardo said her name, softly at first. She turned, knitting her brow slightly at his hesitation.
"What is it?"
"Did you kiss that man?" he asked.
She laughed and patted his leg. "What kind of a question is that?"
He frowned, leaning his head on the seat in front. "Did you? Did you kiss that man from California?"
She swatted at him lightly, smiling, as if he were teasing rather than serious, then sat back and closed her eyes for the briefest moment. "He kissed me, not that it's any business of yours."
Ricardo studied Violet intently. The way her hair framed her face, the freckles on her neck. She seemed to look younger and younger, the longer he knew her.
"Really?" Violet said sharply. "What do you see? Because frankly I think you're too young to see anything." She glared at him. "How old are you, Ricardo?"
"Eighteen," he said. It would be true in a few months.
"What does a person actually see at eighteen?" The question seemed to startle her, and for a moment, Ricardo dared to hope.
He sat up a little straighter in his seat. "I see a country," he whispered, leaning over into her space to look out the window. "A beautiful country."
At lunch in Segovia, Violet announced to everyone—even the Germans—that she had hopes of drinking all the wine in Spain. Ricardo tried to keep her glass filled, but she only sipped it slowly. He said, "Well, what about you, Violet?"
She skewered a shrimp between two sensibly manicured fingernails. "What about me?"
"That's just it, isn't it? He leaned expectantly across the table. "No one knows a thing about you. I mean, I'm going to be an architect, the Germans are always going to be German, and Mercedes, here, is very soon going to be free of us."
Mercedes burst out laughing, reaching across the table to touch Ricardo's arm. He glanced around the room, hoping to charm the lot of them. "So, Violet, what about you? What are you going to be?"
"You mean, when I grow old?" she said, playing along.
"I mean, whenever."
"I don't have a clue." She raised her glass. "Except maybe alone." Her voice was barely audible above the din of the restaurant. The Germans had moved on to another topic.
"Speak in Spanish," Mercedes pleaded. She'd been talking all day into the bus microphone as they drove through the country, pointing out cathedrals of stone and great ivory crosses carved into cliff-side cemeteries. Everything was yellow in southern Europe in the summer. "Even my brain is dry," she said, no longer laughing.
Violet patted Mercedes arm. "Claro, querida," she said, in a soothing tone, as if perhaps to comfort herself. Of course.
Disappointed, Ricardo sat back in his chair and turned his attention toward the end of the table, where now the Germans seemed to be singing English nursery rhymes.
Violet hummed along, surprised by how quickly after traveling so much with a group even the most unpredictable behavior had come to feel expected, as if a hundred closed doors had suddenly flung open. Returning to Barcelona, to the parador with the fountain out front, for instance, Violet might whisper the truth to the slant of Ricardo's sleeping profile. At that moment in Segovia, anything seemed possible.
"I'll never see that wonderful man again," she might say.
Or you, wonderful you.
At Les Arenes, on their last day in Spain, the bull ring was crowded with men in rolled-up shirt sleeves, abandoning their wives and children to the higher seats, en el sombre, the shade, by climbing down the stone steps to the bull pens for a closer look. It was nearly noon. Everyone, even Violet, seemed slightly drunk with excitement. Violet sat in front of Ricardo, settling into position, for once below him. He enjoyed the view, studying the top of her head, the clasp of a pearl necklace, her bare shoulders. She wore a large brimmed sombrero.
"Last day blues?" he asked her.
Violet nodded. "Back to school next week."
Ricardo closed his eyes momentarily, afraid of what he might say in the strange silence of Mercedes's absent commentary. Saturday was her day off. The night before they'd thrown themselves an impromptu farewell party with jokes about the trouble they might get into without her. Even the Germans were momentarily subdued, cowed by the heat and chafing against the quiet. They smiled shyly, as if Mercedes had merely gone to the concession to buy them paper-back gift books and posters of the famous Toreadors.
"I know I look ridiculous," Violet said, indicating her hat.
"You look pretty," he said.
The Germans didn't seem to have an opinion, as if reserving their energy for the main event.
When the bull finally appeared—furious and muscular, kicking up orange dust and huffing through large black nostrils—Ricardo was relieved. Perched safely high up near the stone coliseum's pinnacle, suffuse with colors, peanut shells, the smell of urine and cerveza, he was hypnotized by the beauty of el toro, the lusty tone of its hide, the sheen of its muscles. At the appearance of the horse-backed picadores in full uniform, much to his delight, Violet leaned her whole body back against his knees. The sensation of her spine against his shin so excited him that it took a full minute for him to realize what was happening. Violet had fainted and was slipping now to the hot stone at their feet. He grabbed her under each arm, but before he could hoist her up, one of the large Germans, a blonde oafish fellow named Gustav, had intervened and now was carrying her—groggy and silent—to the bus. Ricardo trailed foolishly behind, holding Violet's hat.
Once she was laid out flat on the bus's back seat, Ricardo insisted that Gustav return to the fight. He splashed water from a cooler on Violet's forehead. He fanned her with a program and opened the button of her collar, imagining what it might be like to touch her.
"Water," she said.
He hovered close by, trying to shake off the shame that lingered beneath his desire. "Don't get up."
Violet was looking at him, her eyes working to focus, to take him in. Longing to be seen, he leaned down and kissed her. No longer listless, she came to life, opening her mouth to deepen the kiss before pushing him away.
"How humiliating," she said.
In Montclaire, she knew, her house was empty.
After Violet had rested long enough, the group gathered for some final sight-seeing in the old part of town, Las Ramblas. Ricardo watched the crowds in the market, losing track of the others. He'd read once that Mario Varga Llosa said no other city in the world was as snobbish as Barcelona, except Milan, but when he looked into the Spaniard's eyes, he found the glancing reflection of his own dead mother staring back.
In the restaurant, as the Mariachi serenaded, the Germans replayed the bullfight for Violet, making finger horns and dancing around the table. "You missed the best part!" Gustav said, pretending to be a bull about to meet the sword.
Violet protested slightly.
After dinner, she took Ricardo's arm as they headed to the bus waiting to take them the short distance to the hotel for their final night. They stopped at a mailbox. Ricardo searched his bag for the postcards he'd carefully composed the night before. He showed them to Violet. One of a stone statue was for Patty and Libby; the other, displaying several severed ears from defeated bulls, was addressed to New York City.
"For my father," he said.
A letter he'd written about art and life and all his secret desires was safely tucked in the pocket of his linen jacket.
As the bus rode toward the little parador for the last time, Ricardo waited in silence for one of Violet's confessions. "What are you thinking?"
She turned toward him, sighing. "Oh, about Edward," she said.
The Germans were singing a patriotic song. Ricardo was about to speak when she placed a hand on his arm. "It wasn't the thought of the blood that made me faint."
He felt the warmth of her skin through his shirt, closing his eyes, fingering the letter to his father. "What then?"
The bus lurched forward, bucking slightly against cobblestones in the ancient road.
"It was their lives," Violet said, "their sad, caged lives."
Ricardo nodded, envisioning suddenly the arc of his own on-coming life, as if it were a vision produced by the very mention of bulls—an artist's existence. He saw the paintings he'd make, the women who'd adore him, and the men, the beautiful men he would love.
Then, as if sensing something about to burst, he reached out into the dark for Violet's hand.