In the end, I have only myself to blame.
Somewhere, deep in the darkest recesses of my twisted mind, I always knew this outcome was a possibility, my just reward for a life lived such as mine.
That edge. That precipice. That tantalizing dance of excitement and danger. It had always called to me.
Carefree to the rules and mores of an obedient, conforming society, I’d always been a wild child with a strong disdain for toeing the line. My mouth, somehow disconnected from the impulse control centres of my brain, disengaged from my prefrontal cortex, had left me with jagged scars both seen and unseen.
Making peace with that thought as it flits through my mind, I reach out gingerly to pick up the phone. There is a bone chilling cold that grips me from head to toe as I feel the heft of the phone receiver settle into my weakening grip. Why is it so heavy? I hope I don’t drop it.
I start to shiver uncontrollably.
Through the open windows, carried aloft by the oppressive heat and humidity, I hear the sounds of life. The birds chirping. The cars’ tires as they rumble along the heaved, undulating asphalt. The joyous cries of children and the rhythmic thumping of music, as the children and the band, play on.
My stiff, rigid fingers struggle to depress the resistant buttons of the rustic phone resting on the rickety table beside me in the dank, foul-smelling bathroom of that decrepit hotel on the outskirts of Havana.
I make the call.
You’re probably wondering how I ended up here; alone, contemplating my future, coming to the stark realization of what little of it I may have left.
I wondered the same in that few moments after my eyes had opened, the heavy curtains of my eyelids finally defying gravity and allowing me to take stock of my situation. Eyes now open to the world as it is, not as I wanted to see it. How I had seen it.
I thought it was a dream. Or maybe it is. It doesn’t matter, either way, as this is my reality now. A reality that struck me the moment I read that note set down beside the telephone.
I read it at least a dozen times. Each time expecting the words to melt and blend and offer a different story, a different narrative. A better one. They didn’t. They never do.
That is the power of words written so plainly.
It all started yesterday in that little cafe called ‘justo al otro lado de la frontera’. I was walking along and heard the riveting sounds of music.
The moment I entered, I saw her. Instantly, as we usually do if we pause to listen to our intuition, I knew she was dangerous.
She was stunning.
The kind of stunning that feels like a sharp knife slicing your body open and exposing your insides in a way you never thought possible. Exposed. Vulnerable.
Even in my current state, she continues to mesmerize me, a force like no other.
As I allow my eyelids to close briefly, waiting for the connection to hold, I can still see her long hair spin about her, a dark halo of mystery and intrigue drawing me in, my event horizon.
I can still see her hips sway seductively, cavorting intimately with the pulsing Latin beats of Cuban son music; an ecstatic union of physical perfection and powerful psychic being – she would be the perfect ideal to show an alien being what dance represents.
The hypnotic allure of the forbidden emanating from every magnificent articulation of her body compelled me – there was no other option – to approach to her. It was cliché. But it held to its truth.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was pulled by her gravitational force, men and women both, surround her, creating a wall of gyrating, sweaty bodies.
“ven un poco mas”
With those words, our eyes met, and as the Red Sea parted for Moses, the crowd parted for me. I walked her way, the chosen one, my feet afloat on the ground.
She presses against my body, her delicate perfume rising up to fill me, she is intoxicating beyond comparison, dwarfing even the effects of the copious amounts of drugs that have flowed through my body during my tumultuous existence.
She doesn’t speak English. My Spanish is limited. But we don’t need words to communicate, we are dancing in that little cafe, our bodies enmeshed, the heat and desire of our flesh intermingling as we twirl and shift. A cosmic dance.
The band picks up the tempo, frenzied, an unsettling pace which my intuition picks up, but my mind chose to ignore.
I slowly slip my right hand into her hair as it surrounds her neck, my fingers entangling with the silky tendrils. I pull gently, fisting a handful of those luscious locks. I tilt her head back and expose the smooth flesh of her throat. I feel her pulse on my lips as I lean forward to kiss her softly.
The electricity is palpable. It heightens all my senses. Alive in every meaning of the word. I look into her eyes as she returns my gaze, the intensity setting off alarm bells deep inside me. Every fibre of my body, of my being, telling me to get the fuck out of there. To escape.
This one is dangerous.
I can’t move.
I realize I haven’t taken a breath.
As life giving air rushes into my lungs, my eyes are able to focus once again in the dimly lit café. It’s at that moment I notice a distinct mark on the pale skin of her throat that seared my lips.
Four simple letters.
In clear, expressive black ink, they snake along the sultry curve of her neck, dancing with her pulse. A cursive metronome to her heart.
Again and again, I wonder why I didn’t turn around and run at that moment. My feet, which only a few moments prior had been floating, were now cement blocks, tethered to the dance floor, a masochistic bondage which pushed my ever extending boundaries into realms unthinkable; always needing more, chasing that next delicious taboo.
I wish I could tell you what happened over the next few hours, but those memories only come to me in snippets and flashes, incomplete, surreal.
The night is a blur, a twirling, writhing escape with that raven-haired vision who kept entreating me to come a little bit closer, the tantalizing son music, and la fée verte; nary a more deadly threesome have I imbibed in my lifetime.
I had been sent the warnings so many times. Repeatedly, I disregarded them. A foreign man in a foreign land. Immune in my youth and my hubris,
I was immortal.
In the end, we pay the piper – this idiom, used by my parents in my youth -now seems so apropos.
It is my time to pay up. The ultimate price.
I’m brought back to my current predicament, jarred back from my reverie by the Spanish voice on the other side.
“Help, I need an ambulance.”
I don’t recognize my own voice, it’s weak, tired. Strained. My parched lips stick together, slurring my words. My tongue uselessly darts out to try to moisten them. It doesn’t work. I struggle to sound coherent.
The Spanish words are repeated in my ear. They are clearly spoken. Enunciated with a steely calmness. Rehearsed through practice and experience. My own words fall heavy in the thick air as my body slowly starts to shut down.
The shivering, relentless, causes my teeth to chatter.
My words, for once in my life, fail me.
I hang up the phone knowing the language impasse is too great and that my time is too limited.
Without thinking, my fingers automatically dance along the buttons. Pressing here. Pushing there. I am dialling a number I had committed to memory many years ago, a number I had refused to dial for over a decade after we had both been unable to see it from the other side, a fight where words that couldn’t be taken back were hurled with the fiercest violence, as only words between loved ones can be used. Weapons. Poison tipped, jagged spears to the heart.
Back then, I couldn’t see the truth in her words, only the lies I wanted to see, wanted to believe. I saw the world as I wished it to be, not as it was. Now, I see them clearly. As clear as those four letters. If only I had listened to her. She had been trying to keep me safe.
I call my mother.
She answers on the second ring. Her voice.
How I’ve missed it.
I hear a soft splash in the tub full of ice water where I sit naked, exposed in every way, my legs stretched out in front of me. I can’t stop shivering.
Another soft splash. And then another. My tears are flowing freely now, meandering down the salty paths forged by their predecessors. Splash. A decade of sorrow unleashed with that one word.
“Mama. I’m dying. I need your help.” My voice cracks. The reality of my situation hitting me. Over and over.
“Son…?” Her voice softer now, asking the question without wanting to know the answer.
She had long ago warned me about the dangers of women with tattoos. Especially those with neck tattoos. But ever since I was a young boy, I was drawn to them. The designs, the shapes, the colours…a human tapestry that wove a web of tales so fecund and varied that let my imagination soar to heights that left me dizzy with lust and wanting.
We had fought about it that fateful day, and I had left home, not looking back. I never thought that the woman who had given me life could be the only one who could give it to me again.
I should have known. That neck tattoo. Those four simple letters that burned my lips as I kissed them. Sealing my fate.
José. Bad man José. She belonged to him.
Why hadn’t I listened. Even my buddy Jay, and his group of American friends had tried to forewarn me.
“Mama, they took my kidneys. I’m in a bathtub full of ice in Havana.”
Photo by Max Hofstetter on Unsplash
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