“Here! Me quedo!” A sophisticated, honey-brown woman of about forty, tall, slender and wearing fashionable American city clothes, raps the side of the bus and calls out in true Bolivian style. The bus draws to a stop; she alights and waits as the conductor climbs the step ladder to the top of the bus, unties her bag, and flings it down at her feet. Xica has survived the harrowing five-hour trip on the Death Road to this place that was her home. She looks around.
It is six pm and the shops along the main street in Arapata are beginning to throw open their doors, now that most people are back from the coca fields. In the tiny central plaza, an old man sits knocking his cane against the concrete culvert, and humming an Aymara song in staccato beats between puffs on his pipe. A group of giggling teen-aged girls fleeing two young
men in hot pursuit, kick up a dusty swirl from the unpaved, rutted road. Nothing seems to have changed in twelve long years, except for the presence of two internet cafes and a telephone center, all displaying colored billboard signs. But it feels good to be back.
Eduardo is nowhere in sight, but his drinking partners are still sitting out front of De Nazario, the local casino and watering hole, playing dominoes, demolishing Pacena, and heckling the women on their way from the fields, bags of coca leaves balanced on their heads, and sleeping babies, wrapped in colorful, striped blankets, on their backs.
Xica closes her eyes and inhales the chilly evening air laced with the pungent odor of freshly-picked coca leaves. From here she will make her way on foot to her village of Dorado Chico, but first, she must find Germina. They say this is where she hangs out after work.
Xica scans the faces that go by but Germina is not among them. Minutes later she finds her sitting on a bar stool in a nameless three-table local food joint, half her body sprawled across a table amid an array of plastic glasses, evidence of drinks hastily downed. Germina’s short, jet black, naturally-twisted hair clings to her head like moss to river stone. Xica calls her name. She jumps up, standing erect but lightly, like a leopard ready to pounce.
“Drinking something?” the older woman asks.
“Pacena. Soy mujer sin vergüenza.”
Woman without shame. Às though naming herself was really an act of summoning some inner power or exorcising some looming evil, Germina’s ebony eyes come alive in her deep, cocoa-brown, oval face with its pronounced cheekbones and full lips. Even without make-up Germina has to be the prettiest Afro-Boliviana Xica has ever seen. Like an untamed animal, she throws back her head, downs the beer in one gulp, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, and dries it on the blue plaid traditional apron that covers the front of her three-tiered skirt. She’s neither wearing a woolen blanket nor bowler hat like the other women who are all hastening home to prepare dinner for their families while the men come into Arapata for some down time. They did say Germina is different.
Producing a gaily colored tin from her apron pocket, she opens it, retrieves a few coca leaves, and pops them into her mouth. As she chews, she shuts her eyes tight, nostrils flaring, shoulders erect and back, standing tall like an ancient Amazon. This is the woman who stole Eduardo’s heart from Xica, the woman the village folk have all warned her to stay away from. This is the woman who has, from the moment Xica first heard of her, intrigued her and occupied her dreams. She knew she had to find her. She thinks of Jesús, her Afro-Colombian lover of ten
years, back in DC, dying to marry her but for her reluctance. It was the same with Eduardo. She cannot explain her reactions but she knows Germina, somehow, holds the key.
The two women sit facing each other. Xica introduces herself as Eduardo’s ex. Germina gives no indication she has heard. Instead her eyes are fixed on Xica’s attire.
“Tu ropa. Me encanta. Your clothes. I like.” Germina speaks in half-sentences, mixing Spanish with halting English.
“You do?” Xica’s voice catches in her throat.
“Before me. Eduardo’s woman, no?” There is no animosity in Germina’s tone, only a sense of awe. She draws closer and fingers Xica’s neatly-coiffed hair.
Xica takes out a multicolored, silken shawl from her bag and gives it to Germina, who hesitates before taking it, turning it this way and that, holding it up against the dimming light, then wrapping it about her shoulders, throwing back her head and laughing. Xica could see she is missing some of her molars on either side, but when she laughs, her whole face glows with fulgent light, and her eyes dance.
“You’re beautiful!” Xica tells her.
“I know.” Germina nods. “From small. I know it. In here. Adentro, sí. All women. Todas. Y tú tambien. And you, also. Me entiendes? You understand me?”
Xica’s tears stand on the brink, performing a delicate balancing act. Germina wears with gracious ease the very power she is seeking.
“Him say I ugly. Fea.” She leans forward, speaking slowly, holding Xica’s manicured, bejeweled hand between hers, and caressing it like a man in love would. Xica wonders if she is speaking of Eduardo, but dares not disturb that connection passing like electricity between them.
“Was twelve. Doce años. Papi se murió. Dead. Gone. Se fue. Then Simón. Him come live en casa con mi Mama. Him say I, yo, la negrita fea. Black. Ugly. Him say. But I know sé him want me. I see in him eyes. One night. Mamacita long sleep. Him come. In my bed. Mi cama. Tú sabes? You understand what I tell you?”
Xica nods and holds her breath.
“Him say Eres hermosa. You bootiful. I make him say. Cada noche. Every night him come. Eres hermosa.” She sighs, her upper teeth pressed down into her lower lip, her eyes becoming limpid pools, her hands shaking. After a long pause, she touches her finger to her lip drawing Xica into her pact of silence. “One night. I tell nobody. I leave. Corrí. Muy lejos. Run far. Never go back. Nunca. Mama not know why.”
Xica is consumed in a raging heat slaking through her being, threatening to explode like a land mine from within. She doesn’t want to hear anymore, but cannot interrupt.
“Them say it. I make them. Like Hail Mary. One time. Two. Ten. Eres hermosa, eres hermosa. That power. Women. We have. Tú sabes? You know? Them take me. But them no own me. Nobody. Nadie. Tú sabes? Germina is free woman. Sí!”
The balancing act is over; like water from a baptismal font, the stream flows unhindered and Xica makes no move to hold it back. They sit, for how long, she cannot tell, hand in hand, each woman enfolded in her own life-defining memories.
The door opens and a chill walks in, its shadow darkening the table between them. Xica pulls her coat tighter around her. But Germina’s face lights up, a youthful softness creeping into her eyes as she drapes the shawl over her head, framing her face. She is focused past Xica’s shoulders to Eduardo standing there. As tall, deep chocolate, and handsome as ever, he is leaner, more chiseled than the Eduardo of Xica’s youth, but graying at the temples. The corner of his eyes are crinkled, but not in a smile. He is watching her with an unfathomable stare, eyes shaded by his long lashes and pronounced brow. Xica sits waiting, stripped naked of her fancy Isaac
Mizrahi garb, unable to summon the words she had rehearsed for their reunion. No one speaks. Her eyes darting from one face to the other, Germina is observing the interplay between them.
Eduardo makes the first move. His eyes dismiss Xica as he crosses to stand next to Germina. Xica watches tongue-tied as he embraces Germina and tenderly kisses the lips she offers. His arms enfold her like the mellowness of the silken scarf, while his eyes, gentle and adoring, leave Xica in no doubt that this woman is the center of his world. Still without greeting Xica, Eduardo takes Germina by the hand and guides her out
“Nos vemos. We see again,” she mouths to Xica as she leaves.
Xica remains seated, struggling to steady the mad whirring in her head, the inner tempest at the sight of Eduardo. She knows he has not yet forgiven her, and probably never will. Still, she wanted him to be happy to see her, or at least show a glimmer of affection, if only for old time’s sake. In his eyes there was no trace of the fun-loving, caring Eduardo she once knew, the one who, late at night, would fill the old wheel barrow downstairs with warm water when there was no coca out on the drying floor, and tenderly wash her body, kissing her all over while Mama Nita, unawares, slept on upstairs. But even in their better days, Xica had never seen such softness in his eyes as when he looked at Germina.
While those memories wash all over her like a crystal waterfall, cooling, cleansing, cascading, she picks up a straw and traces the outline of the butterflies in flight on the peeling, yellow, floral oilcloth. Another hour goes by before she changes into her pink Avia walking shoes, gathers her bag and merges into the crisp darkness of the autumn night to make her way alone to Dorado Chico.
At the crossroad cemetery, where she and Eduardo used to linger, often too long, during their moonlight walks, she pauses. In the engulfing darkness, she tries to locate their favorite spot, but there are many more tombs here now and barely room to plant a foot. One of these is the final resting place of her parents who died when she was ten in one of the worst accidents the Death Road had ever seen. It was Mama Nita who raised her since then. That was when Xica had decided she was not going to live and die like they did, and like Mama Nita, in the shadow of Los Yungas, without knowing anything else. But not even Eduardo could understand her need.
It is hard to identify anything here without the benefit of moonlight. A twig snaps behind her.
“Who’s there?” Her voice is a hoarse whisper. Only the silence echoes in response. She exhales.
The crackling sound returns. This time, she feels strong fingers on the back of her neck, and a hand at her waist, turning her around, crushing her to him. She would know that touch anywhere. His lips are harsh, probing, bruising hers in their intensity.
The raw manly scent of him sends that old fire racing in her blood. She stifles the urge to lean against him, and surrender to that familiar passion soaring between them. Xica wrenches free, tasting the saltiness of her own blood in her mouth.
“What’s wrong? Isn’t that what you came for?” Eduardo’s voice is ragged, his tone gruff.
“No.” She shakes her head, rubbing the corner of her mouth with her thumb. “Just visiting Mama Nita,” she lies. “Doesn’t everyone come home for the feast of San Benito?”
“Yes, but you never did, so why now?”
“Can’t you just be glad to see me?” Her voice is husky. Inside she is reaching for that power of which Germina spoke.
“Claro! You know I missed you. But you left for no reason.” Eduardo’s voice is terse, tinged with an unfamiliar sharpness. He will never understand.
Eduardo jams both hands deep into his pockets and half turns away from her. “Besides, things have changed for me.”
“Don’t worry!” She touches his arm “I haven’t come to upset your life, Eduardo, but to find my own.”
“I have Germina now. We have five children.”
“So I’ve heard. You never answer my mail.”
“She’s a good woman, Xica. I can’t hurt her.”
There was a time when those words would have caused her pain, but they don’t. Her voice is gentle as she squeezes his arm, “And I’m not asking you to. I have a good life back in DC, Eduardo. I’m glad you’re happy with Germina.”
Eduardo shoulders her bag. “Come on, hermanita. Mama must be worried.”
She doesn’t mind that he has called her hermanita, little sister, and not mi riena, my queen, like before.
“Sin vergüenza!” Mama Nita stabs the trousers she is darning with all her might. “Believe me, my child.” She wags a bony, knuckled finger, “That woman is no good. Not one of those children is his. None.”
Mama Nita stands under five feet in her now almost-doubled frame, her skin sun-toasted, face wizened, and eyes rheumy, but like all the elderly women here, her hair is still jet black.
“Hmmph! My son is a fool, believe me.” Her voice is fierce, her tone rasping, strident, authoritarian.
“Does Eduardo know?”
“Lo sabe muy bien. He knows it very well. He found her in bed with Beltran. His own brother!” The deep furrows on Mama Nita’s brow add accordion-pleated layers of texture to the already-variegated fabric of her face. “He refused to leave her, so I put them all out. Not in esta casa. No shame, believe me. Sin Vergüenza!”
On the day of the festivities, Xica, in black slinky tights, red sweater and ankle boots, is standing along the parade route, watching the costumed groups go by, when she spots Germina among them, dressed in white saya outfit like the other female dancers. Beltran and Eduardo are among the men in white attire and black hats, with jimbé drums slung around their necks. The main dancers are two muscular, bare-chested men brandishing whips. They prance to the pulsating rhythm of the drums and sing while the women supply the chorus.
When she sees Xica, Germina leaves the group and comes over smiling. Two women, huddle together, pointing at her, whispering and laughing. Germina ignores them. “Hermana,” she greets Xica, grabbing her by the arm, “you come with me, no?” She leads Xica to a nearby refreshment stand and orders two papaya smoothies, telling Xica it is good for high blood pressure. “Black women. Mujeres negras. Too often we have. Tú sabes? You know?” She hands
the vendor two Bolivianos, waving away Xica’s offer to pay. “No. I pay. I like you. You my bootiful sister. Muy bonita. You go back Los Estados Unidos. You write me, no?”
Not trusting herself to speak, Xica squeezes Germina’s hand and nods. They make their way back to the parade route. Some school-aged children follow them, pelting pebbles at
Germina, and calling her “Puta!” She spins around to confront them and they run away shrieking. Germina lifts up her skirt, exposing her generous backside to them before sashaying off, full petticoats swishing. Xica smiles.
The morning before her departure, Xica is up before dawn preparing corn humitas for breakfast. She puts the kettle on the table-top, kerosene stove and goes to the window. Tentative tendrils of tempered light are beginning to scatter the morning mist. On the hillside behind the house, she sees the lone figure of a woman standing with back half-turned, puffing on a cigarette, and blowing the smoke skyward. Something in the woman’s stance speaks of a soul-weariness that causes a corresponding heaviness in Xica’s heart. Like cornered quarry, the woman seems tired of fighting some monumental battle. Her shoulders sloping as if in defeat, she turns to resume her work. With a start, Xica realizes it is Germina.
She, too, used to go to the coca fields early when she wanted to be alone with her thoughts of freedom. Xica stays at the window, transfixed, watching Germina, until the sun has opened both its eyes to usher in a new day. From the little, duct-taped, battery-powered radio sitting atop the wooden box in the corner, the words of the song are suddenly clear, the usual static gone:
“How many nights in my dreams
I think of your face
But the love that I live for
Is in some other place”
Two nights later, back in DC, Xica’s slender fingers tenderly explore the muscled stretch of Jesús’ back, turning every touch into a soothing massage that becomes at once a sensuous caress. They work their way from his shoulders, thumbs criss-crossing along his spine until they feel the narrowing of his waist, then slip beneath the elastic of his boxers, and slide them down over the rise of his lean, knotted haunches. She hears his moan and draws herself up the entire length of his body until her every contour is molded with his. She kisses the nape of his neck. He shivers and moans again.
Xica’s hands gently urge him onto his back. Golden, fluorescent candle light flickers across his perfect face. His eyes are closed, lips parted, breath coming in quick gasps. She revels
in his sharp intake of air when she lowers herself onto him, and together they begin soaring to Eden.
“Who are you and what’ve you done with my Xica?” Jesús asks when all is calm again.
“Se murió. Dead. Gone. Se fue,” she says, imitating Germina.
“So you’re ready to marry me?”
“No. This new Xica has to be free. But you like this one better, no?”
“True. She’s exciting. Eres hermosa,” he whispers against her hair.
And Xica’s fingers begin again their slow, circular dance.
Germina winks, blows a butterfly kiss, and disappears in the flowering glow.
Next day, Xica addresses a card to Germina. She encloses the photo they took together at the fiesta and scribbles behind it, Mujeres sin vergüenza. Women without shame. Later, she drops it into the mailbox and walks away humming, that new-found power evident in the sultry swaying of her hips.
© KPLewis (KalyPsouL)