Now that the sun burns my eyelashes, now that the sea salts my hips, I simply let them. The city behind me is a hot, melted shore. I’m here flirting with what this sea could give me. The sea pushes and pulls me. He tells me go and melt yourself in those streets under the sun. He tells me, come, dive a little deeper until the tide weighs on your neck, a necklace that forces me to continue, that drowns me. The sea is an indecisive swell. His lack of determination adds to his humanity. It turns out that the sea is a man, and he is as drunk as I am. He grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me. I left my shoes on the beach, as well as the little bag in which I carry my lipstick, my ID, my lighter and my condoms. With each wave the sea floor crumbles and rebuilds itself under my feet. A dancing hourglass. I would like my flesh to be rearranged by the effect of the tide. And leave here…yes…and return to the city…but as someone else.
Crying and not wanting to give a shit about anything. Sometimes I think I live one day for myself and the next for my best friend, who smokes. Dry those tears, she tells me. Stop crying so much. Don’t be a drag, just be a “cuin.” And she takes me down to Camellón de los Mártires and we walk through the crowds of faceless men there. We arrive at a bar on Media Luna Street. Salsa! And my best friend shares her cigarette with me. At night, Cartagena is something else. When I say Cartagena, what I mean is the Media Luna. The truce with the sun is necessary. What resists evaporation during the day survives in the atmosphere and flies low, barely above people’s heads. A state of gravity. My best friend who smokes is also my best friend who knows how to lie and get free beers. Those make me stop crying. She sits at the bar, shakes out her hair, rolls up her skirt, and that’s it. There is always a desperate guy willing to quench our thirst. In exchange for what? A look…a wink…a sigh in their ear. Tonight’s desperate man is a Mexican. Almost a dwarf. The hair on his forehead draws a straight line over his eyes. A mustache of barely two hairs. A miniature Cantinflas. Hello, alone? Hi, yes. Laughing (at him, not with him). Do you dance? The dance floor gets soaked. Salsa! The sauce spills out. The Mexican dances as I had suspected: A dying fish. But he’s paid for the margaritas, so he has the approval of my best friend who smokes. She tells me, dance, cuin, dance so you forget. Spill your own salsa. Take him to the bathroom, cuin. Don’t be a drag. A kiss is not to be denied. Spill your own sauce. But the dwarf wants more than a kiss. His fingers groping where I don’t want them. I say, NO! He insists. I slam my fist down on his head. It sinks between his shoulders. For a moment he does not move, his eyes unseeing. Then he is awake again. Screaming HEMBRAAAAA at me in various species of domestic and wild quadrupeds. Bitch, I get the hell out of there. I run past Parque Centenario. Its rusty gate singing. At the last corner of Media Luna, I find myself under the gaze of the policemen and the girls who make money there. Those intimate enemies. I avert my gaze toward the cats out on their own nightly strolls and straightening my six-foot frame to mimic their regality, not deigning to show interest in either the cops or the girls. I don’t want any more trouble. I want to cry/breathe so badly. I don’t have a friend or cigarettes. I just want to let my pain overflow from my nose and eyes. I should go to the sea, dive where I cannot cry/breathe. I finally go home on a ghost bus as the sun begins to take back the sky. I fall asleep crying. I wake up with a swollen face, and old Amalia is serving “tramp” for breakfast. Tramp. Tramp! And I’m hungry and still sleepy, without a friend or cigarettes, unsure of last night.
Being an actress is my job. Or maybe, I should say I pretend to be an actress. Extra in commercials, product promoter, nude model for drawing art students at the Alianza Francesa. That’s when I act as an actress. The rest of the time I play the role of myself. My script seems to be put together with romantic Salsa lyrics. These days, I am working in “Hollywood.” I’m in charge of filling in the filling. I am working on the set of a period film based on a novel written by our one and only Nobel Prize, the story of another man who won’t take no for an answer. It takes place in this city, a hundred years ago, when the plague was raging. The years of a plague-stricken Cartagena. The corset squeezes my tits and hips. The petticoat creates rivets of sweat between my thighs, and I really hope that global warming is real, because if not, a century ago women would also have had to endure this unbearable heat. Not that it would have mattered. Clothes were invented by men to mortify women. I like to be exaggerated. Today is my chance. I’ll be a little less extra. I’ve won the casting to play the head prostitute at the brothel where the main character of the story has been taken to lose his virginity. When I say I won the casting, I mean that a guy came into the room where we extras were trying on clothes and pointed at me. This is a multinational film production. The star is a Spaniard who plays a Colombian from the Caribbean but speaks English. I’ve seen him in other movies. In those he acted in Spanish. The severity of his forehead, nose and chin have always tickled me. He has the build of a Viking, but no beard. In the scene, it is night, but outside the sun is still doing its thing. Spill the sauce. I must dance and take off my clothes. He must bite his lip while admiring me. All with just the right dose of lust to keep the film’s rating PG-13. As I dance and strip, I notice that he is looking at me—not the character, but the actor. With those eyes set deep in his face, almost hidden under the gravity of his forehead. He looks at me, like some of the art students who pretend to make art while I pose for them. I fantasize about it and remember dreaming of the flooded city. The sea water covering it up to the rooftops and all the drowned inhabitants floating on the surface, swelling in the sun. Floating gently. I would like to be drowned in the arms of this Viking. Salsa! Dancing to forget, to spill myself. My friend who smokes would be proud. The Viking approaches me outside the dressing room. His voice is as intense as his features. As intense as his Spanish Spaniard accent that makes his English sleepy and makes his performance a joke. I tell him that I am at a disadvantage because he’s already seen me naked. Come on, we can balance that out, he says. He tells me to come to the party that the production is throwing on the terrace of an old mansion in the colonial area tonight. I pretend that my best friend who smokes is there and that she has just advised me not to be a drag but a cuin. Girl, cuin, Bella, say yes, you’ll be there. And I say yes, and I go. And where is the Viking? He is nowhere to be found. But then why bother bringing his intense voice so close to the back of my neck to invite me to a party that he is not going be at? Damn Viking. You better be here before I make it to the fourth margarita. If I get to the sixth, I’m going to fall asleep before climbing on your rooftop. Ay! The rooftop of your shoulders. Hey, Viking, where are you? I’m already on the eighth margarita and if I finish the ninth, I just won’t know anymore. And who is this assistant´s assistant of some lighting thing pulling me into his arms? I saw you this morning, he tells me. You looked like…I looked like what, I ask him. Talented. Actresses like you need roles like that. Ones that really bring out your talent. The ninth margarita has left me without the strength to pull away from him. Or resist. I let myself be driven, but I don’t want to. What’s wrong with me? Where are we? And how can I get rid of this assistant´s assistant. Damn Viking. This is all your fault. Don’t do this to me. Especially not like this, without a condom—where is my little bag? The assistant´s assistant has left sweat all over my dress. I wish I was dead and floating on the surface of the sea that flooded this city in my dream. Outside…during the daytime…during the thousandth take of the apocalypse.
Something of my essence has become unbearable. It makes me want to find out what it would be like to live without myself, at least for a little while. But who else could I entrust with my bag of bones, the natural perfumes of my skin, the sad song of my guts? There must be something in this world besides oneself. Something beyond. Humanity cannot be a question of limits. Of being trapped in the middle of eternity. We. Me. Something beyond either of those pronouns. Impossible. I am aware of my feet dancing to the sound of this sea, of the salty water that now kisses my breasts. My breasts that are swollen. My small tits and the drops of water that run my hair down my forehead are all that I have. That dripping is constant. Now, that at least is an affirmation, one that is out of my hands: Myself.
I walk while melting under the sun. I’m dripping onto the sidewalk. Deep inside of me, my sauce rocks. What happened last night? Where was the wild woman that the Mexican baptized with the name of so many animals. I should have refused. Said no, period. Said: I don’t want to. Nobody will believe the margaritas’ excuse. Even if it were true. Now I’m going to have to scratch lines on the wall to count the days. Like a prisoner. One who talks and talks to pass the days until I know that last night will have no consequences. Days. Days out of rhythm. Out of tune. But they pass. The production team is now gone. And with it the Viking and the assistant´s assistant worm whose name I still don’t know. An explanation that I would not like to give to any Margarita. Jueputa. Old Amalia is right when she calls me a tramp. We can’t even afford to buy a bag of milk. I thought this was my direct ticket to Hollywood, I’d tell her. Oh, my God. Ay dios mío. Ay mamita mía. The production team has left, but I am still here. A clown without a circus. But, my chance will come. I’ll leave old Amalia with her mouth shut. Or open in amazement when she sees me on the big screen. Here, go and buy all you can bring from the bodega. I’m a good actress. I will make it some point. As long as the cocoon spun by those margaritas doesn’t open first, the remnants of that night planted within my guts. Ay dios mío. Ay mamita mía. Amalia, my dear, if that were to be the case, you are going to drag me by the hair. I walk by the immense door of the Cathedral and I do not cross myself. When I was a child, I was convinced that was an obligation. But I stopped being Catholic the first time I tasted the host. That watery white stuff in my mouth made me nauseous. I pretended to swallow, but later I spit it into the toilet. Standing on the corner under the sundial, a stiff breeze blows and scares the pigeons away. The breeze is so strong that it makes the pigeons spin as if they are in blender when they try to take flight. For an instant, it holds them in the captive in the air, spinning freely. Then it drops them on the ground. The pigeons shake themselves, adjust their feathers and continue scratching the cobblestone with their hooves as if nothing had happened. Cold droplets form along the edge of the hair along the back of my neck, and I shiver as they travel down the curve of my spine. I need the obliviousness of the pigeons after having faced the gale. I need their hooves to claw this hot ground. To keep moving forward, as if nothing has happened.
And what’s the use of me getting angry with myself? My rage is not enough to force the sun to stop burning these streets. This city where no one gives a damn about anything, what will it care about what may have been planted in my belly? Just in case, I paint my mouth with the reddest lipstick I can find. Misdirection. As if what is happening to me is written all over my body. Then I see him. My ex. The one I left a couple of years ago after which he left for the capital city of the bitter cold. I broke up with him unceremoniously. Not because I didn’t want him, just because I didn’t want us. You’ll be better off without me, I’d whispered into his ear, and I was right. Look at him now, with those glasses and pink cheeks. He looks like a cachaco. Don’t let him see me. Cuin, he’d better not see me. Not now. I hope I didn’t screw up with the pill. I took it, right? I took it, right. Yeah, man, yeah. He better not see me. I’d better walk around the block. Him on his side and me on mine. I forgot that in the city center, the streets have curves that always bring you back to the same place, no matter where you go. A single pill with a glass of water. And then slight nausea. Drink lots of liquids. It won’t take long, my best friend who smokes told me when she handed me the box of pills in Parque Centenario. And then I run into him. Face to face. He greets me and hugs me and gives me a kiss on my cheek, a long kiss, and the skin on my shoulders bristles. If my best friend who smokes were here, she’d say to me, cuin, Bella, how are you going to give yourself away so ugly. Has he noticed? What, the shoulders or the guts? No, that’s what the red mouth was for. He wants to take me for a drink. Let’s enjoy the coincidence. Lets get a juice, a soda, a beer or whatever will help with this heat. Let’s go to Santo Domingo square with the little tables and the stiff breeze that tosses around the pigeons. The man is describing a scene in a movie. And where’s my best friend who smokes now that I need her? What am I supposed to do, accept? Eh…well…yes…eh…Anyway, I’m already here in the Santo Domingo, dazzled by his smile. I say no to beer, juice is better. Women in my state are not supposed to…state? Cuin, what state, we are supposed to be getting out of this state. I mean the beers might affect the pills. Ah, yes, yes, yes, yes, the guts. He will think that I am crazy, or that I am not paying attention to what he is saying. He tells me about his two years in the capital city of the bitter cold and all that he has achieved. But what´s happening in my body distracts me from that. My brain is in my gut. It will be at least one more month until my body tells me if I´m free. I like to see him happy. The glasses and pink cheeks make him shine. His eyes sparkle as he asks me to move with him. If it weren’t for the guts, I’d fuck him right here. He suddenly takes my hand. I want to pull away, but I can’t. I feel paralyzed inside the circle that this charm has drawn around me. I feel that I will remain trapped inside this circle until I die. Not eating or drinking unless he provides it for me. Let’s go where we can be alone, and I can finally explain why I broke up with him. Why? Why, why? That was the only thing he said. And I didn’t have the patience to be his mother. Evening falls and we can’t stay here drinking juices forever. He decides for both of us and takes me away. He looks at me as if he can’t believe I’m there, takes off my clothes as if he’s seeing me naked for the first time. He runs me over with kisses and asks me if I don’t like this city, if I’ve had enough of the heat, why don’t I come with him? I could thrive in the capital of the bitter cold. There is an industry there. And me thinking with my guts, in my guts, I ask myself, what? I mean, cuin, what? This is why I broke up with him even though I still loved him. He wants to tie me up. What he wants is to make me bitter. Someone should hang him on a kite and then cut the sting. Oh no, you cuin, what a mess, Bella, my best friend who smokes used to tell me when I felt the urge to go back to him. You were always so controlling. Next to you I felt like I was walking on all fours like a bitch. And I couldn’t take it anymore. So I left. I am leaving. What a shame, I’m really sorry, I say as I caress his face. I don’t know if you’re good or bad but you’re not for me. Not now. Not at this moment. I need power, to decide for myself. I get dressed. I leave.
Well done, says my best friend who smokes. What does he think? That he can just come out of nowhere and pick you up off the street? No way, you’re a decent homeless person and you belong to yourself and to your street. Shut up, cuin, stop it, this is serious. How do I do this? Where does the piss go? The other day he wrote me an email. He told me that he understood why we broke up and had no grudges. That he had learned to deal with a no as an answer. Oh that clown. I am surprised, said my best friend who smokes, because that man seemed liked the type who, a thousand years later, shows up at the funeral of the husband just to tell the widow that he still loves her. No, cuin, what a joke. Yeah, I think as I put the pee on the end of the white stick. Now it’s time to wait. I had a good time with him. I can’t deny it. We used to spend every afternoon at Las Murallas, making out while the sun disintegrated in the water. I wanted him from the first time I saw him. At a recital, I watched him read one of his stories. It was about a lazy dad who lived with his son in a house that flooded when it rained. It would rain all night and the son would stay up changing the buckets that filled up with the leaks. The father slept the whole time. One rainy night, the son decides to go out instead of changing the buckets. When he returns at dawn, he finds his father floating in the flooded house, his nose against the ceiling. My ex is a good guy, but not for me, especially now that the days have passed, harsh, out of tune days, a month’s worth of little lines scratched out on the walls of my cell. And now I am hoping for just one more line to appear on this test. Damn it, what did I do, what did I do to myself, where am I? The bathroom is spinning, the walls are coming together. I feel like throwing up. I stop fighting and let it go, empty my guts until there is nothing left. Amiga, pass me a cigarette. It’s been so long since I had one. How long has it been since I peed on that stick? How long does it take? Damn, whose at the door? Old Amalia, stay out of this. Tramp. Bitch! Ay mamita mía, don’t say anything else or it will mean my grave. Tramp. Fine, this toilet will be my grave. Oh no, Bella, such drama. Have you seen the pigeons stop shitting on the walls of the cathedral? No shit. No way. Cuin, look, you are saved. No, it can’t be. Yes, it can be. The walls are coming together again. Bella, what is happening? a voice asks on the other side of the door. It’s old Amalia again. Oh Amalia, if you only knew. We have so much to talk about, mi vieja. But I’d better tell you later or you’ll catch me by the hair. Damn, I fucked up. I fucked up. Yeah, I fucked up. But I was saved by a hair.
Inside the sea I feel more inside myself. Now more than ever, I feel that I finally know myself. That I can reach beyond. To learn to play the songs. I mean really play them. Pure salsa. Tempt the sound and let that be a cure for sadness. Like opening the door to let in that other person who is myself and greeting her and hugging her and saying, Bella, it’s over, and it wasn’t that bad. To tell her, it’s just decisions…decisions we make. Relax, this is a smooth little sauce. A habanera. What do we do now, best friend that smokes? I already told you, she says, let’s go to Parque Centenario. Let’s go to the bar of the Eternal Salsa. Let’s see who will solve the margaritas issue for us today, and maybe even old Amalia’s debts. She will be scandalized at first, but then she will eat quietly and happily. She just wants to be able to buy a bottle of milk. She is just afraid of going to bed hungry. We could continue to move forward in the tide until it covers our heads, but so what? Even with all the rivers that reach the sea, and it never overflows, what difference will our tears make? Let’s do what the heart, the brain, the intestines, this whole body of guts say. Go back. Return to the melting shores of Cartagena. Hear it, Bella, shake that bass line with your hips. Spill your sauce. Show off, woman, get your shit together, let nothing stop you. This is your life. Spill your sauce.
About the Author
Juan de Dios Sanchez Jurado was born between the sea and mud of Cartagena de Indias-Colombia. Former layer. Emerging writer and journalist. After graduating from NYU with an MFA in creative writing in Spanish, he became a teacher at Fordham University and Lehman College. Left-handed. Taurus. Flaneur. Some of his short stories have been published in several magazines. He makes his living out of lengua. He identifies as non-ordinary. He is the director of the magazine www.cabezadegato.com. He came back to Cartagena from NY when Colombia opened its airports for international flights after the pandemic’s first wave @diospoeta