Not Fifth Avenue

It was the pounding of it, more than its liquidity, that demanded my attention, but the rain was sufficiently wet to soak me from head to toe in less than a minute. It wasn’t unusual to get “lightning-raid” storms at this time of year, usually around eight in the evening, but this one struck with a power unlike any I’d experienced in my three months in Oaxaca. My jeans and t-shirt were no match for it. Moments ago, I’d been admiring the almost-full moon against the dark sky. Now, I was looking for refuge.

Just yesterday afternoon I’d been on this block, sitting in an agencia de viajes, chatting up Cuba with a beautiful young agent named Citali. My motives were both prurient and practical. She was a stunning sight, her deep green eyes tucked above angelic dark cheeks. “It is pronounced “Chi-tali,” she said. “Like chocolate,” I either said or thought, and almost forgot why I’d come in. But there also was Cuba. Castro had run the place for fifty years and still I hadn’t popped in for a visit. I’ve read dozens of books about the place, watched all the documentaries, and grilled anyone I ever met, stranger or friend, who’d actually set foot on the mythical “pearl” of the Caribbean.

I know it as others know Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Baum’s Oz, or Shakespeare’s Verona. It’s the land of universal literacy, state-of-the-art medical training, eye-popping ancient American cars, and most of all, its revolutionary past and mixed-message present. For years, I alternated between Fidel and Che at Halloween, depending upon the length of my beard. There are pictures to prove it. From the states it wasn’t impossible to get there, but it wasn’t easy, either, and unauthorized travelers faced real political and financial risks. From Mexico, though, I’d heard it wasn’t an ordeal, that the prices and packages were good, and that the Cuban authorities were happy to “forget” to stamp your passport, if that was your desire. While I’d love to see such a mark on my passport, my more temperate self did not want a $10,000.00 fine, and my long-suffering bank account would laugh itself into bankruptcy were it to occur. I knew a lawyer who had recently developed a sub-specialty of fighting such fines, but I’d rather not play that game.

The lovely Citali explained various options, showed me prices, pamphlets, and maps. She was intimately versed in all things Cuban, “especially the music,” though she also had not yet visited. In her university days, in both Oaxaca and Puebla, while studying Travel and Tourism, and adding a minor in Political History, it had been on her radar, too. I had three more weeks before my return trip to Wisconsin, to the job that rarely excited me, and to the home that no longer housed my wife, so I had enough time, and I really did have enough money, but I’d decided to think on it for one more day – sometimes I do remember that not all of my rash travel decisions have been good ones. Had the vote been called now, just before the rain, I’d have said yes, sign me up, but I was determined to wait until tomorrow, after breakfast, after pan y chocolate, before I signed on the dotted line, took a big breath, and paid the cash deposit.

But that was yesterday, not tomorrow. And as luck often had it, today was today. I had been walking about twenty minutes from my apartment on La Carbonera, comfortable at first, shivering now. More than shivering, I was shaking. I knew it would pass quickly — most things do — but I could use a respite.

My walk shifted to a jog, then transformed to a splashing run, still heading north, with the thunder caroming between the stucco walls that narrowly lined the cobblestone street. I felt my way along, unable to make out numbers or signs that would confirm I was on the very block of the travel agency. Maybe, tal vez, that light up ahead was it, and perhaps, quizas, I’d pop in, to get out of the rain, and, who knows, be sheltered by Citali herself. Now if Citali were to decide to accompany me to Cuba … oh, my, there was a summer dream to caress. Hell, I’d clutch it to my chest and never let go.

So there was the familiar and inviting door and with two quick hops I was up the steps and inside, dripping like a dog on the immaculate tiled floor. I tried to shake most of it back outside, after which I closed the door and looked around. Looking around is often helpful – to develop a sense of where you are, for example – and it certainly was in this instance because I saw that I was not where I’d thought I was. It was something else, a different office, though of similar dimensions and decor, and, of course, someone else sitting behind the counter. Four plastic chairs lined the small office wall. The non-Citali was speaking softly on the telephone, not looking up. I sat on the end chair, closest to the door and the raindrops I’d brought with me. The two chairs next to me were vacant, with only the last one occupied, by a young woman. Her eyes were half-closed and on her lap was a sleeping little girl.

I almost ventured a “Buenas Noches,” but felt constrained not to interrupt her half-sleep. She did acknowledge me with those eyes and a hint of a smile, but did not speak, and re-focused her eyes toward her child. The mom may have been Zapotec, and with my newfound but-still-extremely-limited sense of the various indigenous communities within the State of Oaxaca, I guessed that for her, too, Spanish had been an acquired second language. She was not wearing traditional colorful Zapotec clothing. Instead, she wore the dress of another tradition: modern poverty.

I glanced back at the counter, stuck in that state where you understand you’re not where you had expected to be, yet cannot make any sense of how it might have happened. On a tiny side-table I found written documentation of my error, a brochure for this business that included the address. Well, for one thing, I wasn’t even on the street I’d thought I’d been. This wasn’t Cinco de Mayo at all, it was a parallel street, Los Libres. This mistake was relatively common for me, especially in Oaxaca, and in itself did not cause any distress. I was still heading in the right direction, toward my friends’ place near Los Arquitos, for a jovial mix of locals, ex-pats, and in-betweens, not to mention excellent chocolate caliente. I wasn’t lost, just off a bit. I was laughing a little, internally, I believe, when the woman behind the counter called to the young mother. “Senorita Nheda, la doctora esta lista.” Ms. Nheda gently raised herself from the chair without waking the child, held her to her chest with both hands, and walked through a now-open door for the doctor who was now ready for her. I returned to the brochure, in no great hurry to go out again, and learned that this doctor was not just any doctor, she was Leticia A. Moreno Flores, Cardiologia. And had I been quicker, I would have raced past mother and child, knocking them down if necessary, to seek salve for the sudden piercing in my own heart. Was it the two year-old child, or the twenty-year old single mother, who required a heart specialist? There was no good answer to that one.

Were this woman, or this child, with me in Cuba, or even back in Janesville, Wisconsin, would the future look better?

I couldn’t say. I could say, were anyone there to listen, that tonight was drenched in misery.
Through the door I heard a voice, though I couldn’t tell if it were the mother’s or the clerk’s: “La bolsa.” I now saw the mother’s bag was still beside her chair. I sprung to it and shoved in an envelope I pulled from my front pocket, an envelope already filled with twelve five-hundred peso bills. I’m no fool, I knew it wouldn’t solve everything, and very likely nothing at all, but it might deliver a moment of ease, or, some God grant the small favor, even a little pleasure. I know less and less with each passing summer storm, but I was confident Fidel could do without me for one more year, and with that certainty I began to drag my fortunate self outside for a few more sodden Oaxacan blocks.

1 Comment

  1. Jon Sindel

    Such clear, tender prose. Felicitationes!


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