If Zoraida and Marilu had not met they might each be married. But they did meet, because they lived in Sagua La Grande, a place too small and contradictory to offer any choice in the matter. As girls they’d fought over chewing gum sent from someone’s newly American cousin. Considered each other in a neighbor’s kitchen while their mothers smoked cigarettes. Marilu lived two blocks away in a house full of women, on a street teeming with boys. She preferred the boys. She wore their baggy, leftover shorts and played baseball until the calluses on her palms hardened into bulbous black snails.
It was on the last day of school that one of those boys, charged with the electric possibility of summer, hit their ball the furthest it had ever traveled, beyond the panero’s orange trees and into Farola Durazno Hererra’s muddy yard, pegging her mutt in the stomach with a hollow plop. Marilu arrived breathless, eager to retrieve it and hit her own home run. It was the singular thing on her mind until she found: Zoraida.
Zoraida was the daughter of Farola, a green-eyed mulatta who could predict your future in the figures she saw creeping into her cigarette’s ever-growing ash. In the sixties she’d worked at the Cuban embassy in Berlin and returned with a sour arrogance, a less than impressive knowledge of German and a belly halfway swollen with Zoraida.
It was hard for any of us to imagine a time when Zoraida would not be beautiful. Pressed to find a why for her perpetual baby-nakedness, the more optimistic neighbors among us had attributed it to her effortless beauty, and not the ravaging regret Farola felt for having to leave the night-lit sky and modernity of Berlin. By the time she had snapped out of it, Zoraida was nearly a toddler parked in a puddle of spilled milk in their kitchen, watching her through angry wet eyes that flashed from green to brown. From then on Zoraida was beyond dressed, infinitely gussied, for every day of the life she would remember.
Farola sold off her precious birds one by one – the pigeons as carriers, the white doves to santeros – to buy the material for Zoraida’s dresses. This surprised everyone including the santeros, who’d previously just been granted privileges for funerals. The doves were the hum to Farola’s humdrum, the only things in her life yet to surprise her. Now she turned feathers into even seams and finishing touches.
She’d taken sewing lessons from an old Austrian in Berlin and her fingers summoned his expertise like telepathy while stitching frills and bows. Then she’d call half of Sagua looking for someone to lend her a blow-dryer to straighten her daughter’s blond waves. She’d place Zoraida in the white wicker basket on her bike as if she were the centerpiece in the window at El Encanto, and parade her through the streets. The viejos sitting outside their houses nodded and waved, even if we were all waiting for something better than a baby stuffed into a basket.
By the age of six Zoraida had learned how to walk in high heels. After school she’d peel off her boots and step into the shoes Farola had traded two doves for: pumps the pale color of hairless piglets, three inches high with toilet paper stuffed into their pointed tips. She was instructed to pace the house in them for practice and she did so with determination, arms out at her sides, teeth clamping onto her tongue.
It would be years before the thing stirring inside her made itself known. Five years of peace before the hot surge came up through her ruddy face and she shouted that No, she would NOT wear the heels, and when her mother only looked at her, stunned, Zoraida flung one of them, its pointed tip stabbing Farola’s long neck.
Anger rose quickly, like the water that sometimes exploded from the dried-up pump next door. She buried the heels under the raised roots of the wild banyan tree in the backyard, refused to wear dresses and would go naked when Farola denied her anything else to wear, gathering dirt and crumbs in the folds of her ass as she sat banging the head of her only doll, a blonde named Linda, into the ground.
This was the right era and corner of the world for the physical abuse of minors, and like many of us too Americanized now to admit it, Farola did not spare the rod. She shouted, shook, spanked and tried our Caribbean version of ‘time out’, deporting her to the backyard with the dogs at the peak of afternoon heat. But Zoraida’s German roots were showing – she was becoming too tall and efficient. She wriggled out of the clothes and slapped Farola back. They brawled like cocks in a pen, squawking on the floor until one of us would come in screaming of shame and mercy for a goddamn God in the clouds and break it up.
Zoraida. Sitting by the back door scraping patent leather Mary Janes against concrete. In a dress puffy and white like dandelions sprouting from the mud. Marilu winced as she watched her grab a handful of dirt and smear it across the waistline.
Her hair. Buttery. A halo. Littered with ineffective bobby pins that Marilu imagined tracing out slowly, coaxing strands up from the nape of Zoraida’s neck. She wanted to inhale it, even if she already knew it would smell like the same shampoo we all used. She studied the shiny black ribbon along Zoraida’s hairline and thought, Sagua’s very first Alice. And Marilu, she wanted to be the cake in front of her. EAT ME. Desire was a slapping, bone-chilling wind the likes of which did not exist this close to the equator. It blew out everything around them – horses, clothespinned underwear, the loud stream of piss coming from the wounded mutt. In a minute Marilu mapped out their domestic future together, scenes that included massaging Zoraida’s scalp the way her abuela had when she’d brought home lice, cradling Zoraida between rounded breasts Marilu had yet to grow.
She had known from early on that her inclination to play with boys would not evolve into an inclination to play with boys. Until this point she’d told herself she was asexual, apathetic to the reproductive cause. Call this a turning point. She’d never wanted to touch another girl so badly.
Zoraida stood, her dress falling wonderful around her. She was surprised by this fawn of a girl in her yard. She knew it was Marilu but she hadn’t really seen her in years. Maybe the last time they’d been fighting over a marble on this same patio. Marilu looked new somehow. She was striking, though not in the Zoraida Time-Crushing way. Her eyes were set a little too close together, her teeth too far apart, but she had a fluffy Afro the shape and shade of a new penny, freckles and rounded pink lips that held her face’s entire expression. There was an admirable stiffness to her five-foot frame, as if on its own it could bear the brunt of whatever tropical depression was current. Zoraida waved at her. Marilu sent back her own dopey wave.
What do you want? Zoraida said. Your ball? The way her mouth moved when she said it, pe-lo-ta, her teeth demonstrating every syllable, made Marilu want to repeat it. Tu pelota, she said. Then, even more idiotically: Tu pelo. Your hair. Zoraida scrunched her forehead, patted her hair.
Marilu’s lips twitched. Pelo, she blurted again. Zoraida stared, mouth slightly open, a look Marilu would come to understand as the acknowledgement of her own seductive power. She crossed her arms over her chest. Your ball hit my dog.
Sorry, Marilu mumbled.
Zoraida shrugged. I don’t care. But I have to tell your abuela.
Everyone knew Marilu’s abuela Chiquitica, whose name came with no irony whatsoever, though it was easy to forget how small she was when you consider she was never without a child or grandchild draped over her. Her kitchen was an expansive place, the vinegary scent of sofrito shoving its way across the air, the pressure cooker’s shh shh shh stimulating salivary glands in Chiquitica’s own Pavlovian arrangement.
Her husband Parracia was an old guajiro with nine fingers and a glass eye who could find water in the desert or potatoes in Sagua, which is essentially the same thing. This was thirteen years before the Special Period but even at the height of nationwide starvation the Parracias had frijoles shoved into their cheeks for the long winter. Come around at 5 a.m. and they were selling café and single cigarettes for three kilos out the kitchen window; bring some lard at 9 a.m. and watch them mix it with stolen lye for your soap; come back in the afternoon and store your horse in their homemade stable for the low price of two avocados. Even the drunks and mutts were allowed in until they got shooed with the flies circling in the kitchen.
It would not have been odd for Zoraida to simply amalgamate with the children spreading through the house like freshly poured oil in a pan. Chiquitica would have fed her whatever was on the table and stroked her arm as she asked how her mother was, even if Farola only came by when she needed to borrow water, showing the recycled jugs in her hands by way of a greeting. Zoraida had just never found an appropriate excuse to enter the house.
When she walked in with Marilu her cousins parted the space where they’d been gossiping in a clump on the bed, the oldest one saying, ¡Mija! Aren’t you embarrassed, going around with your hair looking like that? Zoraida, suddenly shy, sat still as the cousin took a brush to her tangled hair. Marilu watched. She knew one day it would be her fingers working through those knots. She closed her eyes and laid her head on her cousin’s lap, taking in the scent of Zoraida’s sweat.
No one mentioned a thing about the wounded mutt.
A compound formed. Zoraida, Marilu. Maraida, Zoralu. White girl, brown girl. Together they were the color of mud, tree trunks, café con leche – a two-part chameleon perched on Zoraida’s bike, sharing an ice-cream at the Coppelia, huddled together in Chiquitica’s bathroom, comparing the color of their bloody underwear the day their first periods arrived in chorus (Zoraida’s coffee-ground brown, Marilu’s the deep red hue of her rooster’s waddle). One day, sitting under the shade of the Libertad tree in the park, Zoraida channeled her mother, squinting deep into the long ash top-hatting a stolen cigarette. What do you see? Marilu asked.
You see those two peaks right there?
That’s an M. That’s for you. See how it’s going up, like it’s stretching into the sky?
Ah ha. Yeah, I see it!
That means you’re growing.
Ha, ha. That’s not a fortune.
Okay, okay. Wait, look, it’s getting bigger.
They watched paper revise itself into snowy crumbs. The M lengthened until its left leg kicked up and around, spiraling into a black crater. Zoraida shook her head. No, she said, flicking the ash into the ground. I don’t like it. It’s not a good sign. Really she hadn’t the fuzziest, could read the future in a smoldering cigarette about as well as Columbus knew how to find India. But she’d watched Farola do it so many times she’d almost convinced herself.
Here, try again. Give it a few more puffs.
Marilu placed the cigarette between two pillowy lips and inhaled, handing back a short-stemmed carnation of cinders.
Okay. Now it’s reaching out like a rose. You see? Sometimes that’s bad, but this time it means – it means you’re going to find love.
Marilu let out a huffed Ha of undetected sarcasm. This wasn’t the future! She’d not only known this information, she’d birthed it, watched it come out of her kicking and screaming the day she rediscovered Zoraida. She wanted to wear it like a brand name T-shirt, post it on a street lamp:
reward: my life.
What else do you see? She said.
Look, that little curvy thing there? That’s a boat. It means someone’s going on a trip.
By boat? Where am I going, down el río Sagua? Marilu snorted.
Zoraida stubbed the cigarette into the grass with an angry twist of her foot. You can get in your boat and go to hell, she said. She rode off on her bike, leaving behind a dusty, gape-grinning Marilu.
The future was easy compared to Zoraida. At night Marilu would lie awake, imagining Zoraida’s heavy head on her stomach. In the morning she’d find her fingers patiently straddling her own groin and would resolve to kiss her, today or never. She negotiated her own fear in the most dramatic of adolescent terms. If she was rejected she’d simply stop being friends with Zoraida, move away to her mom’s in Santa Clara, say goodbye to her abuelos and cousins and start a lonely new existence. She could already feel the bus fumes pinching at her nose, furious wetness elbowing its way out of her eyes as Zoraida and all of her Sagua heartache stood motionless behind her. She almost welcomed it – Let’s sing this woebegone bolero already.
Had she clicked beyond the lusty fog in her love viewfinder she’d know this: Zoraida at night alone in her own bed, fingers not patiently straddling but clawing at her ten-haired toto, performing a Jacques Cousteau-type investigation on the pulpy thing, masking the squishy sound by whispering the name floating in the darkness behind her closed eyelids. Marilu.
It was August, the final gasp of summer. Six days till the end of life as they’d known it together, when Marilu and Zoraida would be pulled apart by two different schools like sugar ants clawing to a melting merenguito.
Farola had noted the shift in her daughter’s mood and eased up on the dress code. But that morning Farola only had to mention she’d be home late and there was Zoraida looking five years younger in her best dress, vibrating with anticipation.
Hours later the girls sat fanning themselves on a bench, two understudies in a Tennessee Williams play, the swooning Southern belle and her underage mammie. The sea foam taffeta ignited a slow-burning fire across Zoraida’s skin. She was angry at herself for wearing the dress, for awkwardly mentioning that her mother wouldn’t be home till late. Fuming at Marilu for not getting it, dawdling in left field when there was a big frilly ball delivering itself straight into her mitt.
She took the strawberry ice-cream cone in her hand and offered it to her, then pummelled it face down into Marilu’s jean shorts. Marilu sat there, black eyes rattling dice. She shoved Zoraida’s shoulder, then immediately steadied it with her hand. Why’d you do that?
I’m going home. You coming?
What for? You have something else you want to dump on me?
I’m going to let my mom’s doves loose, Zoraida said. That wasn’t part of the plan but the words hurled out with conviction anyway. Before she could change her mind she hopped on her bike, one swift breeze short of feeding Marilu a glimpse of pink bloomers. Marilu skipped behind her to catch up, ice-cream running sticky sprints down her leg. Equating Zoraida’s action with motivation had made for a summer school of diligent study.
Lesson one. Here, staring into the chicken coop at the doves cooing into fattened cheeks, Zoraida is nervous. Observe her breath, in but not out, slender shoulders held up near her ears.
There are seven doves, ten pigeons, two ways to do this: let the doves out one by one or open the floodgates and let the lot of them go. Zoraida is the floodgate-opening type. (If a certain bearded revolutionary had been around to see it, he might have snatched her up as an advisor). Marilu stands on the side of the coop with the barking mutt that never seemed to forgive her. Zoraida stands on the other side, fingers reaching in through barbed wire. Calculating her move. As is Marilu.
Here’s to libertad, Zoraida whispers. Yes! goes the voice contracting and releasing Marilu’s crotch. Yes, libertad!
Zoraida brings a sharp incisor down onto her hot pink lip and tears open the coop door. Birds flap molt and dust around them. A pigeon beats its wings while suspended in the air, as if stretching for a race, nearly slapping Zoraida’s cheek before soaring off.
She jerks back. Marilu jerks forward and pulls Zoraida down with her, leaves and mud gripping her legs, Zoraida’s eyebrows a squiggle of surprise but she is smiling (smiling!), her eyes closing in as Marilu opens Zoraida’s mouth with hers, briefly recalling the smell of her own drooly pillow, her sinking stomach beaming up through her, culminating in a hot rush of breath that she pushes out into Zoraida, who is finally kissing back, bold tongue circling Marilu’s mouth like she’s done this before. Marilu tugs at her hair and stops to look at her. Lips swollen like a nursing baby’s, cat eyes half-shut.
Beyond them birds fly in a loop like they haven’t learned their way out of Sagua yet, colors alternating in an oval crown over Zoraida’s head. Zoraida dives in to kiss her again but Marilu points up, gently moving her aside so she can see too. Zoraida places her head on Marilu’s chest and sighs into her neck, watching their plain blue sky speckle white and brown. Bello, she whispers.
The slam of the front door. Warning enough to unglue sticky bodies and stand at attention. Farola did not immediately register the guilt on their faces; she had other things pressing. Reported for stealing some rice during her shift at the bodega and the same pendejo officer she’d slipped some extra bread to last week couldn’t even look her in the eyes when he handed over a ticket she’d be paying for till Christmas. Had to cancel her outing with friends, the only thing she ever did for herself, coño. She’d come home and admire her doves one last time before having to sell them all for far too cheap, much too soon.
Well go ahead, imagine. Imagínate tú. Her daughter covered in mud in her most expensive dress, hands clasped in front of her like San Lazaro. Standing with one of Chiquitica’s negras. Farola may have stood there scratching a long yellow fingernail at her temple forever. May have even lit a cigarette all fuck-it-like and let it slide. Instead she sighed and rolled her eyes up to the sky.
No warning, she just charged. Pounced like a shadow, giving the girls less than a second to move. Zoraida pulled Marilu toward the door. Farola grabbed at Zoraida’s dress and heard the collar rip before her toes met with something impossibly solid that hurled her three feet across the yard. One of the wild banyan tree’s upturned roots suddenly alive, tripping the bad guy in a cartoon animation of itself.
She lay there inhaling the sour, rotting fruit. When she looked up again she saw Zoraida and Marilu running out the front door, arms linked like elephant trunks.
Zoraida took asylum at the Parracia house – another burro to rob them of their grass, Parracia sighed – until Farola removed her a few nights later. She threatened to send Zoraida to live with her tío in Santa Clara if she ever caught her with Marilu again. Except everyone knew Zoraida’s tío was a drunk with enough illegitimate progeny to start his own Save the Children Foundation, never mind the distant niece he was lucky to recognize at Christmas when he brought his gropey friends around for the free lechón.
The girls hid in the cracks of Sagua, in the darkness between shows at El Principal, bartering sweaty limbs against cool marble at the abandoned Teatro, even out in the cemetery, far from the sleepy guards by the tall mausoleum that held the sixteen-year-old wife who’d been stabbed by her husband, her quinceañera portrait encased in life-sized glass alongside flowers and teddy bears. Hid from themselves, too, in the dark cloak of experimental whatever. Do you like this? What does it feel like when I do this? What about if I touch you here? What about here? What they think but never ask: Why do we feel that down there if we don’t have penises? Will we ever not be virgins? Zoraida tossed aside her uniform and squeezed her overgrown body into Marilu’s shorts and tank tops. She’d sneak them back home later, put them on and walk around with stiff limbs.
When the rainy season came they were forced out of the cemetery, back into the world with the sapos and slugs. But two girls in love are a totally different reptile and people took note. The same waitress at the Coppelia who’d called them muñecas the month before started refusing them ice-cream, explaining in an unoriginal way that they didn’t serve tortillas there. The boys Marilu had once beaten at baseball chased after her with their bats poking through their open flies, dare she forget the power of what lay curled up beneath the wooden sticks. Zoraida tried to shut it all down by promising Marilu they’d wait till they could escape to La Habana together once they were eighteen.
But Marilu wanted one last night.
She made arrangements for them to meet at her cousin Tito’s apartment while he was driving his ambulance around the province. Tito had had his own indiscretions with the same sex and asked no probing questions. He offered to turn on his siren when he was approaching to give them warning. Isn’t it romantic? Marilu asked Zoraida, eyes skating figure eights. Our stopping will be an emergency.
Zoraida arrived sweaty in her dress, a manic pulsing in her throat. Marilu assured her no one knew where Tito lived. How could Farola ever find his apartment in this big cuidadela?
Truth is she should have listened to Zoraida but the little Suzy Homemaker was too excited. She’d prepared a whole dinner, even put some symbolism on the table, a cup of the little red blossoms from the Libertad tree. She placed a small gift on Zoraida’s chair, a Tweety Bird peluché she’d stolen from one of her cousins. Her tuna spaghetti was a spectacular failure – all overcooked pasta and mayonnaise – and she even managed to burn the café but no matter, they’d been granted a bed and some privacy. This was a honeymoon, coño!
Zoraida sat down to eat wearing a loopy smile that Marilu would bury in her memory and roll around with in her grave. She plunked herself on Zoraida’s lap and they ate together like that, feeding each other Marilu’s mush, the fork turning textbook-brain-pink with lipstick.
Later they lay on Tito’s nubby sheets, Zoraida watching Marilu fake sleep, tracing a finger around her eyes, across wide cheekbones, rounded nose and chin. She stretched her curls out and saw them bounce back, coils of red fibers that glowed. She thought, You are so different from me.
Fee Fi Fo Fum, what’s behind door number one? Mere yards away Farola stalked through the cuidadela in her robe and slippers, waking up babies and women who asked, Don’t you have any decency? Until they saw her face blubbering Mi hija, Mi hija, and then, partly because they had daughters of their own but mostly because they loved spreading chisme thicker than adobo, these women joined her in the search, going door-to-door collecting more women until they were a team of batas fluttering in the wind like capes, chancletas shuffling a symphony of hush in the stairwells.
Inside, Zoraida and Marilu slept in an unsuspecting naked tangle, Zoraida dreaming of running with Marilu from a pack of spaghetti-haired nuns. In the dream she hid Marilu in a very small hole in the wall and said she’d be back for her. She was telling her to ssh when she was awoken by a pair of hands around her neck. Zoraida thought she was maybe still dreaming when she saw the audience of viejas but then the constriction was so real, Farola’s face opening wide, even while her grip kept closing in.
There was not one noise but many, the women shrieking for Dios and Maria, some of them clawing to stop Farola, others clutching their faces behind her, Marilu making noble attempts to cover her naked body with sheets while screaming, Take it easy! (To whom she wasn’t sure, easy being about as passé as Hatuey at this point.) The smell of toto and tuna was one and the same as Zoraida finally wrestled her mother down, still choking, managing to direct a thick trail of spit from her raw throat into Farola’s mouth. Farola coughed. Spit. Suddenly it was over. She sat up and whispered in Zoraida’s ear, You have embarrassed me for the last time. When she let go Zoraida collapsed face-down on the bed still clutching fistfuls of her mother’s hair. She breathed through her nose, mouth, even feet, her mind pleading AIR AIR AIR, her chest aching with an exhalation too big for this moment.
An appointment was made with a psychiatrist. Farola and Zoraida traveled to Santa Clara, where the doctors knew more about this kind of condition. On the way there rain fell in quick, punishing bursts. The bus bloated with stinky viejos sniffing Zoraida out. Farola seemed to take pride in this, practically licking her daughter like a kitten. Sit up straight, miamor. They’re watching you. The doctor had a sparse black mustache and a Sancho Panza limp. He looked them in the eye exactly once, in reference to a plan already pinned down. His eyes shifted from side to side. Course of action. Next appointment. New therapy treatment. Electrochoque. The word sounding to Zoraida like a dance.
Two weeks passed before she was summoned to the hospital again. She thought of nothing but Marilu. Marilu at the table making faces into Farola’s bitter café con leche. Marilu singing the Russian anthem at El Instituto while Zoraida mouthed the same words in the courtyard of El Apostolado. Marilu’s baseball clunking off her bat, past the orange trees and over Zoraida’s roof. Every knock on the door meant a potential Marilu. Everyone, even the lechero, was greeted with the same air of disappointment. She ate nothing and slept few hours between dreams that began with kissing and ended in bloody fistfights. By the time they went back to the hospital Zoraida was a tree branch with hair, red pockets lining her eyes like puffed keloids. This time she would tell the Sancho Panza doctor how badly she wanted to be drugged, vacuumed into blackness so she could sleep for long enough to discourage the forward-motion of time.
Farola and Zoraida wait at the hospital, trying not to breathe in the scent of urine and mashed malanga. Just beyond Door #2 a man is being shocked straight out of his anti-communist ways via four electrodes of voltage evenly applied to each testicle. Farola lights a cigarette and smokes it through crossed arms. In its ash she sees a small boat. She looks at it for only a second before flicking it onto the ground.
AVEMARIAPORFANOMECASTIGUESPORQUEEE?? The man’s protests enter Zoraida and sit just below her heart, waiting. Something awful is coming. Her hands two wet shivering puppies in her lap. Her jaw one clench away from locked. She’d allowed Farola to brush her hair that morning. She asks if after this they will go home. She has homework to do, she explains, nearly adding that she will be a good girl from now on, but she is well beyond the age of promises that end in forever clauses. Farola shakes her head no. The doctor has reassured her; this is the way towards forgetting.
And yet the word failure has managed to wedge its sharp lines into her eardrum so that this – FRACASO, FRACASO – is what Farola hears as the man screams. She takes another drag of her cigarette.
A nurse in a cap and white skirt gives a curt bow towards an examination room. Please.
Farola lifts Zoraida by the arm. Go. Zoraida is pushed or takes one step; Farola does not follow. Zoraida looks at her with pleading eyes. She will cling to her mother if she has to. Farola squeezes her cheeks between her fingers and repeats, Go. Zoraida shakes her head. Farola’s eyes are scary, more white than green, but they soften when she whispers, Go now. Zoraida runs, a valiant stumble down the corridor. Farola does not chase her but then the nurses catch her, several arms snaking in a frantic shuffle back to the room. Zoraida hears the doctor tell Farola not to worry, that Zoraida will forget all of this. She is pulled down to the floor by a circle of hands and arms. Her last thought before the shock of the injection: Medusa.
In the end there was serenity. Like waking from an exhausting, satisfying sleep loaded with contents that cannot be excavated. The process – the injection, the suffocating wet pack, the trembling – was never immediately recalled. Until it was repeated 140 times and became stubborn muscle memory.
Coming out of her stupor she would not, her brain absolutely refused to, remember the nurses or herself or any fact of importance. What she knew were sensations. The stickiness of her mouth. The tiny, false vibrations behind her eyes. Feeling light as a paper doll in her hospital gown. She lay staring, working hard to label things – Ceiling. Wall. Light. – until she could sit up and see again. Even then it was just a hospital courtyard encased in windows, a diorama of some life not her own.
Sometimes when she awoke Farola would be waiting by the bed, dark lips slightly parted as if she was about to say something. Zoraida did not know her until she recognized certain gestures – the way she flicked her wrist when she spoke, a laugh that ended in a high-pitched wheeze – as unmistakably her own. It would be days before she could recollect any specifics about their relationship or experiences together. She felt ashamed when the woman was hurt by her deadpan stares. What, was I such a bad mother you can’t remember me? It made them both feel better if Zoraida stayed quiet and allowed herself to be kissed and petted.
That first day she left Zoraida at the hospital Farola returned to Sagua and began tuning the rumors. She told anyone who would listen how much she missed her daughter, how hard it was to watch her run off to Santa Clara with one of her drunk brother’s pawing friends. Farola would explain that Zoraida had only met the guy at Christmas, but it was enough to drive her away, nothing could convince her to stay. And so young! She’d say, slapping a hand down on the bodega counter. She’ll have to finish school in Santa Clara, and she could live with her tío for all Farola cared, he was the one who created this mess. When some of us shook our heads and placed our hands on hers in sympathy she’d shrug and sigh. What can you do? That’s love, right?
Of course Marilu knew there was no way it’d gone down like that. She pictured her girl held captive in her tío’s shabby wooden house, cleaning mold from the bathroom walls like a Third World Rapunzel awaiting her princess Marilu. She decided she would rescue her. She traveled to Santa Clara with Tito in the ambulance and circled Zoraida’s tío’s house late one Friday night, even daring to turn on the siren once. Through the front window Marilu could see an unmade bed, a woman’s yellow terrycloth slippers at its foot. No one answered the door.
They took their search out to the plaza where many of us once sipped coffee in our university days. Salsa beats swelled the air above teenagers mutilating the lyrics to ‘Lucy and the Sky of Diamonds’ in the crowded back room of a café. Marilu entered a string of discotecas, dodged elbows, found nothing. You’d think it’d be easy to spot a tall blonde with German roots in a crowd in Cuba.
When Marilu returned to Sagua the next day she found on her dresser a brown paper sack bundled with red string, the exact size of three heartbroken, unopened letters, each marked Devue?lvase al Remitente. She did not cry. Chose instead to develop scenarios for the explanation of Zoraida’s disappearance. Abductions and scholarships and murders. She resolved not to speak until she saw her again. It was months before Chiquitica could break the silence with a postcard sent from La Habana featuring a frothy panorama of the malecón, the words Nos vemos pronto, amiga scrawled on the back.
Zoraida returned to Sagua exactly one time before she was leaked into the straits of Mariel on the lengthiest voyage of her long life.
It was her eighteenth birthday. Farola had arranged an excursion for the two of them to enjoy carnaval together in Sagua. In recent visits to the hospital Zoraida had been receptive, affectionate even, with Farola, and she deserved a better birthday than Chinese checkers and stale meringue.
The things Zoraida recognized about her former home struck her as odd. The empty chicken coop. The closet door’s tendency to roll off its track. The memory of her fingers digging a pushpin into the wall to hang some stuffed imitation of Tweety Bird whose origins she could no longer place. The mismatched tank tops and shorts she found in her closet confused her, too. Whose were they? Farola’s response was a noncommittal shrug – she’d kept them there as a test in Zoraida’s effective standardization.
At carnaval the Russian sailors stumbled out from the docks of Isabela in droves. Farola whistled at a pair of them and began dancing, holding their hands tightly in hers, although both were more interested in her glowing, slender daughter. She extended the bigger, ape-like Russian to Zoraida, who looked to her mother for a cue. Farola flicked her cigarette and nodded. Go on, dance with him. Zoraida thought there was something strange about Farola’s eyes. Everything that was not the hospital was false, unworkable. Was she really standing here in the steamy outside air, surrounded by impossibly fast-moving bodies, layers of noise upon music upon music, the offensive shine of colors? She watched her feet move as she backed away from the Russian’s roaming hands. But he was like a ball tethered to a bat, insistent on filling the space between them. Had she consulted with her previous self she might have recalled her ability to halt all course of action by narrowing her eyes. Instead she mimicked her mother, blushing with attention and smiling at the ground. Farola caught herself thinking it was quite an achievement to finally be bonding out in the world with her daughter after so many years. When Marilu first saw her through the people and costumes she comforted herself with the notion that it was not the real Zoraida.
By now Marilu had conjured up enough phantom Zoraidas to fill every empty cupboard in Las Villas. Zoraida, she was sure, would never dance with these russos, the same sailors they used to haunt as girls, begging them for chewing gum at the docks. No, this girl was taller, if that was possible, and thin as the iguanas hatching down by the river. She wore a gauzy beige dress so clingy with sweat you could count off the indentations of her body: hip, rib, rib, rib, breastbone. Her hair was darker and limp, movement squeezed from it along with the fat from her cheeks. No, this was not Zoraida.
This girl danced half-heartedly, searching the space around her with the preoccupied look of someone who has misplaced something. Marilu watched her until she looked up and their eyes met in a black and white Hollywood way, bursting with stillness and trumpets.
For Marilu it was like seeing her own heart drop straight through her body onto the dirty ground at her feet.
For Zoraida it was like seeing someone you are clearly supposed to know and being scared and ashamed when you can’t recall a thing about the person. She went through the system of checks and balances she had begun to put together since returning to Sagua the day before. Age: roughly her own. Friend from school? Appearance: dirty shorts and a holey tank top, Afro pulled back into a man’s handkerchief. They couldn’t have been that close, right? But the girl was like a deer in a staring contest. Zoraida was supposed to know this person. She was supposed to feel something for her. She catalogued her collection of Life Experiences, brought up nothing beyond the hospital’s graying walls and patient nurses.
She felt her mouth twist into a frightened little smile as the girl approached her. Hi, Marilu said, all teeth and anticipation.
Hi? Zoraida repeated. Marilu let out a nervous laugh and gave Zoraida’s shoulder a shove.
Come on, vieja, quit fucking around. Zoraida imitated her laugh and shoved Marilu back. This was how she’d deal with things, by becoming a mirror.
The chaos of carnaval puffed up around them. The russo made a planetary sweep for her and she moved towards Marilu to get out of his way. A couple on stilts rushed at them. The man raised his long wooden leg to step over Marilu; she grabbed Zoraida’s arm to keep from falling. Someone whistled. ¡Coño, Marilu! Watch out! Drums cracked like guns. The air smelled of lecho?n, though if anyone had access to a non-government-owned pig they’d be guarding it with a machete.
Marilu’s chin wavered. You look different, she said. Zoraida was not lying when she said Marilu looked different, too. A miraculous silence wedged itself between them. Farola danced over, her slow smile like a spark inching its way up a firecracker.
Is this your friend? She asked Zoraida.
Yes, Marilu answered. Neither she nor Farola looked at each other.
And how do you know her? Farola lit a cigarette in a vain effort to settle shaky fingers.
Mamá, Zoraida said, scanning Marilu’s face for clues, this is – what she saw was a puzzle: blinking eyes and flared nostrils paired with the intimate, nostalgic grin of someone who’s found an old family photo in the back of a drawer. She could only answer by repeating the girl’s name. This is Marilu, she said, recognizing the taste of a familiar rhythm on her tongue. Marilu placed her hands down into the back pockets of her shorts so as not to touch Zoraida. Just then it started to rain. Not the drops of a bored, teasing storm but a theatrical drenching, a head-on collision between sky and rooftops. Farola instinctively grabbed at her hair. She turned to follow the mass of us running for the coverage of skinny awnings and sparse trees.
Marilu and Zoraida stood still. What is it about you? Zoraida said. Marilu reached her fingertips into the wet icicles of hair hanging down Zoraida’s forehead. She tucked them behind her ear, stretched her calves and neck up as far as they would go and placed her lips near that same ear. Zoraida remained completely still as Marilu whispered something, one word, followed by another, and another, each one less recognizable in the gaining storm. Zoraida fought to understand but could only feel this – warm breath, a slight hand on her hip, this small figure shrinking below her like smoke. It was, she knew, a memory.
Photograph courtesy of Oliver Townend