He had his appointment with the santera on Thursday morning. That was the whole reason for this trip. The lies we tell ourselves. He didn’t even believe in Santería, but here he was. Maybe, just maybe, the santera would be able to fix his problem. We do a lot of things just to prove to ourselves that they won’t make us feel better, like calling that ex-girlfriend when your dog dies just to remember that she never made you feel any less alone. There is always the hope, though, that it’s going to be a tender and warm moment and you will realize you’ve been remembering everything wrong.
He had been seeing that ex-girlfriend last March. His wife didn’t know, or maybe she did. He felt, at times, that they had developed a non-verbal agreement. He had seen the movies. The wife is supposed to smell the perfume on your clothes and spot the lipstick on your neck and say, “I don’t have that color”. He wasn’t careful either, but she never said anything.
He went out to dinner alone. He had arrived that afternoon on the island and didn’t know anyone here anymore. Maybe he had never known anyone; he just had the illusion that he did. He remembered his childhood friend, Lazaro, well. Dark skin, olive eyes, robust — even as a nine-year-old boy. The streets where they used to play baseball with improvised baseball bats made out of wooden blocks that once held buildings together; majestic Baroque houses in pastel colors facing the sea.
Lazaro probably didn’t remember him or the details of his face. He probably didn’t remember his skinny, long legs and the weird shadowy mustache that he had when he was just ten. “We forget the ones who leave because they are too many to remember,” his Aunt Haitana had told him once, years before, on his first visit to the island. She was dead now, her ashes swimming somewhere in the Caribbean with a gam of sharks.
The restaurant where he dined was right in front of the Malecón, the big stone wall that protects Habana from the anger of the ocean. He thought that it would be nice to go for a walk after dinner. It was always relaxing to walk next to the sea. The waves crashing into the wall sounded like a song he liked when he was a teenager. In this song, there was never a climax, just an approximation to it. The waves came with all the energy and determination to go as far as their force would permit it, to travel through the sand until all the power in the water was exhausted. Instead, they were abruptly stopped by this stone wall. No warning. He wondered what the first waves felt, the first waves that hit the Malecón wall. The anger and confusion that overpowered them and how ever since that day they’ve been trying to tear the wall down. Some day they will. You can’t kill the ocean.
The ex-girlfriend that he slept with in March had once told him a joke that really made him laugh. He would think about it every now and then just to remember why he fell in love. For some reason, that night, he wanted to remember why he fell in love. It gave him a false sense of autonomy – so much in his life felt unintentional. They were talking about dying and how they wanted their bodies to be disposed. It was a phone conversation. He was driving on the highway. He wondered where she was, but he never asked, and she probably didn’t even remember the joke anymore. “I want to be stuffed and hung in a plaza like a shirt in a clothes hanger.” He laughed so much that he almost got into an accident, even though most people would find it hard to even understand it was a joke.
The reason why he had been able to hear her joke, and all the other things they talked about on that phone call is because of electrical signals and cell towers. Her phone had converted her laugh into an electrical signal, which was then transmitted via radio waves to the nearest cell tower. Then the network of cell towers received and passed the radio wave to his cell phone which converted it to an electrical signal and then back to sound again. He wondered how her laugh looked in radio wave form when traveling from wherever she was to his car. He imagined it as a salty and warm Malecón wave speeding through the air only to be abruptly stopped by his 2001 red Honda Civic. Her laugh could have travelled galaxies if it wasn’t for him.
They were over now, though, and he was in Habana, and she really didn’t matter. These were the things that sometimes occupied his mind, and he couldn’t control it. He felt dumb about walking through the Malecón thinking about how a good joke had reached his red Honda Civic eight years ago.
The night smelled like tobacco. There were people drinking bad rum everywhere. Some had old guitars and others were playing reggaetón from their black-market smartphones. He tried to imagine what he would be doing on that August evening if he had stayed. He had tried to fantasize about how his life would have turned out if he had never left Cuba. It was impossible to imagine; yet, he did have a feeling that he would have been happier. Maybe he wouldn’t need a santera to help him with what everyone else back home called a hallucination.
The next day he woke up with an urge to walk to Parque Almendares. He got out of bed and realized the floor wasn’t wet, he wasn’t wet, and he had slept all night without waking up once. He got to the park and felt like he was stepping into a bathtub full of hot water, a delightful sensation until the water starts getting cold and all pleasure is lost. He had played there as a kid and every time he came back, it seemed like nothing had changed, or at least everything that had changed was for the better. This nostalgia for an untouched past felt healthier in the park than when looking at the crumbling columns of the city. He had heard about the man who died when his building on Calzada del Cerro collapsed in the middle of the night. The park was different, though – all the chaos and abandonment had paved the way for the most beautiful urban jungle. In front of him the trees were huge and had vines that fell like Venus’s hair. The plants on the ground seemed like a sky of fluffy green clouds.
But then the water went cold. There’s only so much walking and reminiscing he could do before the absurdity of this trip started to catch up with him. His wife was eight months pregnant, he was an atheist, and he had taken a three-day trip to Habana to talk to a santera.
The pills that the psychiatrist had prescribed had done nothing during all these months. If anything, it made it worse. The sound was louder, the room got colder, and every night there seemed to be more and more of it. His wife couldn’t feel it. He actually hadn’t asked her, but he figured if she could, there was no way she wouldn’t have brought it up. When she found the orange prescription bottle in the bathroom, she walked up to him and hugged him for a very long time. He stood there feeling more misunderstood than ever. Nothing was wet this morning, though, so maybe the pills had finally had an effect on him.
He hailed a cab right outside the park. It was a pink convertible, probably more expensive because it was for tourists.
“Where to hermano?” The man had white hair and looked tiny on the driver’s seat. He was wearing round, wire glasses and a striped button-down shirt.
He pulled out his phone and read “Carolina and Torres, in Guanabacoa, house 73.”
They left the park. The cab driver asked him all the typical questions: where he was from, what he was in Cuba for, had he enjoyed his visit, did he have family here. Then he talked for a long time about something, maybe politics. He suspected he had given the driver very monosyllabic answers so the man felt the need to fill the silence himself.
The experience was like going to a big concert. The words in the conversation were the strangers at the concert. He knew they existed, and he had seen them, but he couldn’t remember one single face. Sometimes people talk at you like they are holding a gun, like they are shooting question marks and words like “happiness” and “sister” and “president”, and you try to catch the words in your hands before they hit you, so you can throw them out the window, but sometimes they are too many. And with your silence you beg the person to please drop the gun, but they are too busy shooting, and you don’t have a gun, so you just sit there, and words hit you, and then you forget everything anyone said.
“Chico, get out, we are here.” The man hit his arm, and he realizes the car has stopped.
The neighborhood is composed of one-story houses and smells like pulled pork and sewer water and warm asphalt. He takes out a $20 bill, hands it to the driver and gets out of the cab. $20 will make up for his social impairments, at least in Cuba.
He knocks on the door. He can hear the TV inside. It sounds like a game show. He can also hear some salsa playing which might be coming from the TV, but it could also be a radio.
A large Afro-Cuban woman opens the door. She is wearing a pink t-shirt that says “Paradise” in glitter and sequins. She stares at him, he stares back.
“Yes? Who are you?” She says while she bites into her long, red index nail.
He gives her his name.
“Mijo, your appointment is tomorrow” she says as she begins to close the door.
He stops the door with his hand.
“Please.” “Your manners, Dios mío. It’s my day off.”
“I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m leaving.”
The woman stares at him with the music and game show still playing in the background. “Okay, let me get dressed. There will be a fee, okay? For this whole…” She makes circles with her hands to explain what a disaster he has caused, then walks back inside.
Sitting on the sidewalk he can hear old, rusty bikes in the distance and kids screaming. The day has gotten hotter. The asphalt breathes out the heat. The door squeaks behind him. He turns around and the woman is standing in the doorway with a long white dress, a white scarf covering her head and a red flower resting above her left ear. “Come in.” she says.
He stands up and follows her in.
The walls in the hallway are turquoise but the old paint is falling, and you can see a mustard yellow below the turquoise paint. The floor is concrete. He can see the room with the TV at the end of the hallway, but the woman leads him through a hallway where he has to crouch, then through another doorway.
They enter a space filled with all types of religious figures: baby Jesus, Virgin Marys, adult Jesus and others he can’t identify, but if he could, he would refer to them as Yemayá, Eleguá, Ogún, Oshún . There are flowers and fruits in bowls everywhere. Two of the walls are turquoise, one is yellow and the other one is pink. There are no windows. Flower-patterned cushions lay on the floor. The woman gestures for him to sit down.
She takes out four cowrie shells from a box. “So, we are going to communicate with your ancestors and spirit guides with the cowrie shells now. I am already sensing that there’s a spirit following you, an old man, maybe.” She closes her eyes. “Maybe a grandfather or a father.”
“Can I just explain why I’m here?” The words tumble out of his mouth like old dust balls.
“The reading of the cowrie shells will explain that. I can sense you have a deep connection to Ogún right now, maybe he is protecting you during a complicated phase of change.”
“Please let me just tell you what my problem is.”
She looks at him, and he feels naked. She looks at him and snorts. She looks at him and says, “So you are another one of them.”
“Yes, those who left and think they want to come back.”
He finds it hilarious that this woman thinks other people have the same problem as he does. He feels the baby Jesus and the Virgin Marys and the Yemayás and the Oshúns and the adult Jesus and even the cowrie shells laughing with him. He imagines all of them have a phone, and they are all calling each other inside this tiny room just to laugh in unison over the telephone. The room is filled with each deity’s laughter in radio-wave form, and he can see them travelling through the air like ocean waves, except each one has a different color. They’re all dancing and laughing, and Baby Jesus kisses Yemayá and, she blushes, and the Virgin Mary spanks Oshún.
Antonio laughs as he imagines this. The woman in front of him looks at him with pity in her eyes. He laughs at the absurdity of this woman thinking she understands.
There is no way this woman knows that it rains inside his bedroom every night. That it rains so much that his room is flooded. There is no way she understands that on some nights there’s even thunder, and he gets cold, and he gets wet, and he wishes he could drown. But he will never drown because the water never rises above the bed, it always stays just under the edge of it, even when it keeps raining. He can hear and feel drops all night, but the level never rises above the bed.
“I suppose your bed becomes an island because it rains in your room every night.” The woman plays with her long nails, her eyes lost in the red acrylic.
And just like that, the radio waves of all the deities’ laughter drop to the ground.
“Go back to your country.” She looks at him now. He thinks she’s about to start shooting words like “exile” and “freedom” and “letting go.”
But they both just sit there in silence, and he understands.
Maria Luisa Santos is a Costa Rican filmmaker and writer. She writes stories and makes films dealing with immigration, personal loss, and family. Luisa is interested in the connections between one’s internal life and the natural world, and she expresses subjective, unknowable experiences through description of landscape. Her latest short documentary Café de Temporada won at IndieGrits19 and her short fictional film TER premiered at SXSW20 and was broadcast by PBS. Her work has been shown in The New Yorker, SXSW, PBS, New Orleans FF, Femme Frontera, and Philadelphia Latino FF, amongst others. She can be found at https://www.marialuisasantos.com/, https://www.sinfincine.com/, https://www.facebook.com/marialuisa.santosf/, and https://www.instagram.com/marialuisasantosf/.