It was a little after three in the morning when Heriberto Ebula shut off the engine in his old Toyota Corolla. They’d found the perfect spot to carry out the verbal agreement they’d reached, all hot and bothered, at a private table in Morena’s pub, or paff as they’re called in Malabo. Their agreement was none other than to find a dark, isolated place and have sex, once and for all, as they should have done since forever. Heriberto suggested this place because, according to him and his drinking buddies, it was the darkest and least traveled spot in the neighborhood of Elá Nguema, a witness to this story. Clearly, this was the best way to keep out of the sight line of prying eyes in a place where congosá, that malicious, hyperbolic form of gossip, had come of age, where it had learned to smoke and snort.
His headlights off for several meters already, Heriberto parked halfway between the María Auxiliadora school run by Salesian nuns and the Elá Nguema municipal cemetery. In that sinister spot, avoided by children and skittish adults alike, the night was dark as the armpits of a man dressed in a suit coat, and christened with sprinkles of bass that blared from countless loudspeakers in the distance, and the honking of solitary cars rolling along the asphalt on Calle José Sí Esono, perpendicular to where he’d parked.
It was December, when the customary tolerance for noise was more conspicuous than during any other month of the year. Music played everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, including, obviously, the outer edges of the capital city’s graveyard, whose inhabitants had to put up with both the joy of the living and night-time visits from guys like Heriberto, disrespecting the souls of the faithful departed.
Heriberto was pure poetry, an excellent cabbie who liked to hit the bottle to dilute his outrage and then pontificate, calling into question how the Republic’s government and its cronies were being managed, which, thanks to his own hybrid experience, he considered collateral damage, byproducts of poor Spanish management and its brutish, excessive colonization. Someone had to pay the piper. His Guinea wasn’t a country, it was a project, an ‘aborted’ project, like all the other projects started here. According to Heriberto, every initiative in his native land ended up aborted. That was why the roads were never finished, or the building projects, or the benevolent work, the decrees in support of the most vulnerable layers of society, the cinemas, the Nzalang national football team, educational programs, laws of inclusion, the arcades and recreation centers for kids and teenagers (though there were a considerable number for adults), not even agreements with companies, embassies and countries, to give just a few examples. All of these, each and every one, had been halted for reasons that defied logic. Some initiatives never even got off the ground. Money flows like manna, but always in the wrong direction. Instead of falling from the heavens, it burbles up from the ground in the form of crude oil, yet another incentive to disrupt, slightly more, the nation-building project, especially when all involved were looking to line their pockets.
Heriberto blamed Spain. He always did. There was no way to make him budge on that. Stubborn as a royal mule. It didn’t matter that Spain had been his refuge when members of the MAIB, the Bioko Island independence movement, were forced to flee via Cameroon, thanks to the persecution of that government ‘project’. His father had been a hyper-proactive member of that organization for self-determination, known in those days as the ‘group of rebels’. More than twenty years in Spain had taught Heriberto to hate the Spaniards as much as the Fang people, despite the fact that he had several Fang friends who weren’t like those other Fang, and he always told them this, because they didn’t do Fang-like things. More than twenty years in Spain getting shaken up and down by people intolerant of tolerance; by racists, supremacists, xenophobes and all sorts of individuals with ‘problems’ acquired in childhood, who had free rein. Spanish institutions themselves belonged to the ranks of those who exploded with mental orgasms when recalling how the sun used to never set on their country. Delusions of grandeur. Ignorance of the laws of physics, especially the ones governing the rotation of Mother Earth.
Heri came back to Malabo when he was twenty-seven, and despite having two degrees it took him a thousand and one nights to find work. The old-boy network also worked in reverse. Instead of opening up doors for him, they were all slammed in his face. That’s normal in a country so small that everybody knows one another. And his father’s shadow stretched long in the sun. A year after moving in with his older sister, he managed to land a somewhat decent job. Being banned from entering Spain for his association with the ‘rebels’ finally started to weigh less on him. But as they say, ‘Happiness is fleeting in a rebel’s house.’ He was fired for requesting a pay rise, and for relentlessly putting bugs in his coworkers’ ears about ‘bad practices’ like striking, demanding contracts, seniority and ‘suchlike things’, of which the bosses in his hometown were not the least bit fond.
Heriberto never beat around the bush about things, never backed down, saw things through to the end. That was the legacy his father had left him, and he was willing, if need be, to abandon this bleak, inequitable world the same way his father had. But let’s not forget our saying: ‘Happiness is fleeting in a rebel’s house.’
Heriberto was already pleasantly lit that 27 December, and so was she. Maite, she of the nice ass that had slayed him forever, well-shaped and bouncy. Their sexual tension had remained unresolved since they’d met in high school, in Fuenlabrada outside of Madrid. About ten years had passed since they’d last seen each other. Being the only black guy in class had given him a clear advantage with her, but in those days he was a tangle of raging, rebellious hormones.
Hurriedly they reclined Heriberto’s seat and resumed the kissing and petting they’d started in Morena’s paff. For a while now his erection had been in a constant state of charged tension.
Regrettably, neither of them had anticipated this encounter, so they had a struggle of coordination while removing her ripped jeans and his camouflage Bermuda shorts. If that weren’t enough, Maite had been living in Bata for a while now, so Heriberto had to endure, in her every movement, every lick, the unmistakable aroma of a woman from the continental capital. That briny smell of the sea that bathes the coastline and a kind of corporal dankness, the result of Bata’s unbearable sun. It put a little pressure on his mind, though he didn’t complain the way he might have years ago.
They laughed at their clumsiness, but ended up in a position that worked for them both. Taking advantage of the car’s relatively spacious interior, and the outstanding maneuverability of the driver’s seat, Maite was able to straddle him, her rear end sharing its personal space with the steering wheel, which was never quite far enough away.
They shared passionate kisses, letting out gasps of pleasure that muffled the nearest party’s music, which now somehow seemed a little farther away. And so, Heriberto’s heart galloped frantically in his chest, craving this contact, this triumphant entrance into her garden of delight.
He wanted to be careful, though, to enjoy every second, every lick, every bite, but at the same time be quick enough to reduce the likelihood of a passerby recognizing his license plate and running off to tell his wife, whom he’d married traditionally three and a half years ago. His mother had begged him to marry, hoped it would quell the rebellious streak that might land him in Black Beach prison or six feet under like his father. It goes without saying it was his mother who arranged the marriage to the daughter of one of her closest childhood friends. The whole idea had gone entirely against the grain of the youngest of the Ebula family’s way of thinking.
Maite, lost in the heat of arousal, anointed his member softly with her sex in little up and down movements, sending his blood-sugar levels spiking, compelling him to tear his lips away and remove her white top. And suddenly he found himself face to face with her dangling, defiant breasts.
He exhaled in jagged breaths, licked his lips.
Not a second did he intend to waste. He fastened lusciously onto her nipples, killing an obsession that had danced around in his mind for a long, long time. She took hold of his member and introduced it slowly into her moist depths, still charmingly coy despite the barrage of nibbling. They both held still for a moment, aware they’d reached the point of no return. Heriberto’s mind raced in all directions, but each one carried him down to the pleasures of that precise instant.
Before they could set themselves into motion, a familiar light appeared in the darkness. His heart committed suicide the second he caught the reflection in the rear-view mirror, a thunderous drowning sensation took over his chest. He knew those headlights well. She had a better view of the scene, and immediately pulled away to recover her jeans and white top.
Before Heri had a chance to cover up the situation, a police officer was banging brazenly on the windows of his car.
‘Muf!’ he shouted angrily in Pichi – Move it! ‘Open up! Get out! Open up! Open up!’
Heri lowered the window timidly and greeted him, his voice faltering.
‘Good . . . good evening, brother!’
‘Don’t you good evening me, who do you think you’re kidding? Get out of the car! What the hell is going on here!’
They didn’t give him a chance to hitch up his Bermudas. Classic tantrum, completely by the book. By the time the first cop had finished speaking, another had come out of the rapid intervention vehicle and flanked them, an angry look on his face, disgusted by what he saw, even though it’s exactly what they all did in the streets of Malabo when they weren’t on duty, even sometimes when they were. If they got caught, they just flashed their ID and case closed. You know, the old guard.
‘Hey, wä, get the fuck outta there!’ the new arrival said to Maite, who had managed to pull up her underpants, but not the rest of her clothing. ‘Open up or I’ll break this glass, einñ!’
They both stepped out into the glare of the cangrejo’s headlights. All Heri had on was a Hawaiian shirt. Maite, her underpants and now the top, which she’d put on as she was getting out of the Toyota Corolla.
‘Brother, there’s no need to shout. We know we’ve done wrong.’
The soldier seemed confused by those last words and the tone he used to speak them.
‘Oh, so you know more than I do, huh?’
‘I didn’t say that my brother. Can I speak with whoever’s in command, please?’ asked Heri cautiously.
‘What do you mean in command? What the fuck kind of talk is that?’ the other officer replied, annoyed, working himself up even more. ‘You’re breaking the law.’
No shit, Sherlock, thought Heriberto.
‘I know brother,’ he said in a near whisper. ‘We had nowhere else to go, brother. You know how it is.’
Keep it up, Heriberto, his consciousness murmured again, while the cop decided whether or not to answer him, circling the car as if searching for a dangerous suspect. Call him brother as many times as it takes to calm him down. They say it relaxes them. Don’t cave in. Keep cool. Don’t show signs of anger. Lower your head. Speak calmly. They like you to kiss their asses. You’re moving in the right direction.
‘No, I don’t know how it is,’ the policeman said finally, walking over to Maite.
A few centimeters away from her, he pulled out a flashlight and slid its beam from Maite’s feet up to her face, which was bowed from the unresolved sexual tension with Heriberto. He lingered a while on her crotch, on her cleavage, where he drew little circles of light around her breasts.
‘You two come from Spain, you have studies,’ he spoke again, briefly moving away from Maite, though keeping the beam of his flashlight pointed at her. ‘You think you know more than us, is that it?’
Shit. My accent gave me away again.
‘That’s not it brother,’ Heriberto said. ‘You know, we were just partying, brother. We’ve had a bit to drink and . . .’
The end of Heriberto’s sentence was irrelevant to the young officer. He wasn’t listening, his attention was back on Maite.
‘You!’ he shouted at her. ‘Lift your face! Little late to be acting the saint. LIFT YOUR FACE!’
Maite immediately obeyed, blinking like someone who’d just woken up in an operating room. Just then, the cop who’d banged on the car window reemerged on the scene and quelled his impatience by grabbing her by the arm.
‘Muf! Go on! Get in, get in!’ he shouted as he waved them both into the rapid intervention vehicle.
‘Give me the keys to this car,’ said the one with the flashlight.
‘Wait a second brother. We can work it out, right?’
That’s it Heri, set the bait.
‘You can talk all about it up there. You know they’re going to lock you up and you’re gonna have to pay. This your wife, right?’
‘No brother. She’s a friend.’
The soldier, or policeman, hard to tell, grinned, and sought out the complicity of his colleagues for a good laugh at the situation at hand.
‘How come you having friends like this?’ he asked, then took advantage of Maite’s movements to illuminate her rear end. ‘I want a friend like this too.’
‘Brother, let’s talk. How much for us to get back to our little party?’
Well done. Now that wasn’t so hard. Wait and see what happens.
After a quick silence and a half, the aforementioned answered with a question.
‘You see how many we are?’ he said, turning his torso toward the vehicle, out of which hung, like bats, officers hungrily watching the scene.
‘I do. How much can I slip you?’ he said in a paper-thin voice. ‘She’s married and so am I. We can’t go up there, you know what would happen, brother.’
‘Don’t look at me, I didn’t tell you to come here and do these things.’
Agree with him Heri, tell him he’s right, that will puff up his ego and he’ll lower his guard.
‘I know, brother. All my fault. All my fault. She had nothing to do with it. That’s why I’m asking, please.’
There was another pithy silence, interrupted by recriminations in Fang from the rest of the policemen, or soldiers, he had no idea how to tell the difference. Their jurisdictions almost always overlapped.
‘Fine. Don’t got all night. You cough up a hundred grand and make it quick. All you out there drinking and doing your stuff, and it’s us looking out for you.’
‘Can you lower it a little, please? I don’t have that much.’
‘Friend? You trying to screw around with us?’
Careful now. Careful. Negotiate well. Negotiate wisely. Remember what Reyes told you. Learn to lie to them. Learn to lie to them. In the end they’ll take whatever you give.
‘No, officer. How could I be? I just don’t have that kind of money on me.’
He made a disapproving gesture and then spoke.
‘How much you have?’
‘Around twenty grand, I think.’
‘You think?’ he asked with a marked change in his tone of voice. ‘Yo, Lucio, put ’em in the vehicle! They can go talk to the commissioner directly, let’s see if they get off with less than two hundred grand.’
So stupid. Fix it! Quick!
‘Okay, okay, hold up,’ Heriberto said in desperation. ‘I have another fifty grand at home. We can fetch it there, no need to go anywhere else.’
Silence. Then the one holding Maite by the shoulder finally spoke.
‘Where you live?’
‘Close by, over behind the church.’
Idiot. Fucking idiot. So pathetic! Who are you even?
After a brief exchange of words in Fang with his colleagues, who by now were champing at the bit, the guy holding the flashlight said, ‘All right, let’s go. It’s Christmas, we don’t want to ruin it for you.’
Of course not, you son of a bitch.
Heriberto and Maite were allowed to get dressed, the soldier or cop, he couldn’t tell which, hustling them on. They headed over to Heriberto’s home like a posse, him driving the Toyota Corolla with that same policeman, Maite in the vehicle with the other soldiers to make sure he didn’t hightail.
Heriberto parked along the square in Elá Nguema at a prudent distance from his home, just in front of the church run by the Salesians. He got out of the car with the keys in his hand and trotted over to the door of his house. He opened it deftly and went inside, heading straight to the room where his wife was sleeping. She was hogging the entire bed to underscore how she resented her husband staying out late yet again.
‘Consuelo! Consuelo!’ He woke her up with subtle but effective little pats.
‘Where’s the money for Junior’s school registration?’
‘Why? What’s going on? What time is it?’
‘Those bastard soldiers seized my car. They say I’m missing some document.’
‘What document is it this time?’
‘Again. They don’t even bother to change their strategy anymore. Please, give me the money. I don’t want them to impound the car because then I’ll have to cough up three hundred thousand, which you know we don’t have. I’ll work it off tomorrow and pay it back. You know I can.’
‘The money, Consuelo.’
‘The money I gave you yesterday to pay Junior’s school tomorrow.’
‘Oh, that fifty thou.’
‘I don’t have it. I lent it to Papá yesterday so he could see the doctor.’
‘I lent it to Papá yesterday. He said he’d pay it back day after tomorrow, when he gets paid.’
‘You gotta be kidding me.’
‘I don’t have it, main. Let me sleep now! I’m tired.’
‘Fuck! So, you pressure me for the money, then go and give it to your papá so he can see the doctor for drinking, when he’s not supposed to be drinking?’
‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’
Heriberto walked out of the house, scratching the nape of his neck. He had to find a solution before it all blew up in his face, before his inner peace turned into inner war, and outer war too, because Maite’s husband was an influential second lieutenant in the air force and he’d just been assigned to the capital.
But when he got to the plaza, to his horror, his distress, they’d all vanished: the policemen, the cangrejo, Maite.
Photograph courtesy of the author