In the Shadow of the Porticos
IN THE SHADOW OF THE PORTICOS
Grazie Sophia Christie
Issue No. 12 – June 2016
“Do not pretend to be either dead or a saint, you will not be able to wake from your dream”
—from the proverbs of Oché Ofún
At the statue’s feet flower offerings: Watch the candle, San Lázaro, white at your side! Watch out for the dogs, pressing their tongues gingerly—for now, at least!—to the wounds on your calves. The weight of his halo pushes him forward. The cripple leans on his crutches, his pelvis draped in a purple that picks up around the room—there, on the skirts of the (super-sale) two dollar Virgin figurines, on the packets of powders for the loveless, in the bags under Elena’s eyes. The face of San Lázaro is haggard, two butterfly wings of ribs across his chest. Surrounding this saint of the poor is a mosaic of dried black beans, toasted corn and tobacco, the dusty bottle of white wine that is long-necked enough to watch the customers come into the botánica and make their offerings, to drop their coins by his blistered toes. From behind the counter, Elena likes to watch prayers and pleas made material, gratitude even more so. They bring San Lázaro rum, then, or dark espresso. Elena always steals a sip, envies the perks of patron sainthood.
Purple again, this time from the collares slung around the neck of her Javier. He is slipping under the curtain that divides the small room where he does his consultas from the botánica. Javier has had only one customer today. Though Elena has never been allowed to see Javier give a reading, she has heard the telltale signs of divination for years and can imagine it: the rattling of cowrie shells like a set of desiccated dice, and the shells spilling out of his warm hands onto the table, the hopeful and hopeless breathing of patrons as he recites the proverbs and parables that correspond to the orientation of their fall. In the small room, to his customers, he must seem big like a god! They, like Elena, must feel under their skin the sound of him, he her Javier, the collares around his neck, purple and red and green and white strings clashing, delicate and glassy, whenever he raises a coffee-brown arm or turns his head.
The readings always begin with words muttered in Yoruba, the language she will never learn, one Javier speaks only in that room or in his sleep. A language out of place, a language crawled out of something subterranean. Whatever Javier says in that room is sliced into syllables by the beaded curtain between them, so that what comes to Elena as she dusts altars and alphabetizes tonics are only fragments of sound from which she can never construct anything intelligible. It seems to her impossible, like a blind man trying to summon an understanding of the sea with only the falling of the rain for reference.
But this is fine, because later, always, Javier tells her what it was he saw, inky outlines of a future foreshadowed–“Mi suertesita,” he says, “My luck. You will make it come true!”
Elena sees the flash of his crisp white guayabera from the corner of her eye before she feels him. His hands on her fleshy shoulders, his face pressed against the soft folds of her neck and then upturned so that she can hear him.
“Buenas Noches, mi suertesita,” he says to her, like he has for years, like he may never do again.
His suertesita. Today, she cannot be this. This prediction, this one she cannot make true! The lottery! For days now she has been thinking. This she knows is too much for her, this finally she will admit, so her reaction to him is her usual one but worse. Never is it that flashing, familiar recognition of mutual love, a feeling like a fullness in the abdomen that she once thought she felt with Lionel, and was so wrong, wrong about. It is always something else, a movement with a swifter and more anxious rhythm. Today it is a churning or maybe the beating of eggs. So she speaks sharply, which surprises them both.
“Where are they? It’s almost eleven. They’re going to announce the numbers soon. And of course they keep us waiting. Are you sure you told them the right time, Javier?”
He laughs. “We have time. And we have the commercials. You’re impatient, of course, my Elena—this is the biggest one of all!” He nudges her, so that she looks up. “You’ve done it again, my luck.”
It’s the Palominos, cafecitos in hand, crossing the street towards the botánica.
Mariel and Eduardo Palomino look familiar, but not only because Elena knows them. She knows them because Eduardo’s mother was a santera like Javier and they come by often. They know to call Javier padrino and to leave glasses of water, brimming and lukewarm, in corners of rooms to pacify the spirits who might be drifting by, those poor immaterials, lost and lugubrious. But they are also familiar because they are like all the couples that come to Elena and Javier’s botánica. Even from behind the counter she can see how they look at each other, that familiar dance of hate and love and hate playing in the wetness of their eyes.
Mariel does not have the bottom-heavy walk of most of the woman in the Sagüesera. She is a radiology technician, but her baby blue scrubs look like something else on her. Elena sees her and thinks: hot Havana nights, the glinting blue of a powder room’s mirror, a woman bending forward to pencil in a beauty mark, a feather falling slowly from a boa. Even her house has style like she does; Elena knows this because once she crawled through its windows and fell on her knees onto a plush carpet like a cat dark and huddled. “There is a crime coming,” Javier had predicted for them, so she tore magazines, smashed a vase purple against a creamy wall, swiped a wallet she checked to make sure was half-empty.
Eduardo wears white, like Javier told him to. He is handsome but not as handsome as his wife.
Elena knows what she and Javier must look like, and she must remember so that she can sketch this in her diary later, mark this last moment of theirs together. She, of the rounded edges! And dressed in red, brown like her mother, with a forehead six fingers wide. Javier is behind her, smiling easy, bald and better worth knowing. She is lucky to have him. This she knows because of Lionel. She can feel Javier’s eyes on Mariel—she has felt them on other women for years—but never has she blamed him, this husband of hers, who has needed her all this time for what he will know, after today, has all been a lie! To their left is the altar to San Lázaro, to their right the gold-skirted figurine of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. There are twenty-four colored candles in the counter’s display at their feet, all of them etched with the faces of the saints. They are not lit; that would be too much.
The Palominos are stepping into the botánica, ducking their heads under the store’s low awning. At once Javier is with them, clapping Eduardo on the back—but he is, impossibly, still warm around Elena. He is also in the back, searching for two cigars and dragging chairs from the room for consultas out to the front of the shop and placing them deftly before Elena’s counter. He’s saying, “Oye, Chico,” and to Mariel, “Que guapa.” Since the day they met he has been like this, everywhere at once. How her love is! The man simultaneous, the one she first saw on 8th Street.
It was on 8th Street that she first saw him, under the shade of the ceiba trees, whose roots clambered out of the dirt, hungry to show themselves. Elena watched him bend forward like a great bird swooping down, withdrawing from his pocket a cloth bundle that he placed at the foot of the tree. It was a movement of doubles: even from so many feet away she could feel inside of him the symbol of someone else, in the super-severity of the eyebrows and the extra lusciousness of the lips, moving wordlessly. Even so many feet away she could see that he was like Lionel, only now they were somewhere else, only now she knew better.
“Santero,” her mother had said, sibilant in her ear. “They make offerings to the ceiba trees.”
Elena’s father was with the other men, playing dominoes on benches by the Tower theatre. All of the men in the park wore white guayabera shirts, but only he—who would become her Javier—wore collares, like charmed snakes stacked around his neck.
Elena saw Javier at La Tijera next, where she was buying thread for her mother. And at La Habana Vieja, his face bobbing in the steam of her black beans as he left the restaurant. She saw him at El Credito Cigar Factory, laughing with the cigar roller, and at mass at San Juan Bosco she watched him from her pew, his black eyes closed in prayer. Up and down Calle Ocho, in the shops along the Sagüesera, among the crowds milling around the cafeteria ventanitas and along the fruit stands along the street, with their sweet-swollen mangos grading into piles of papaya, mamey and guayaba, she searched for him. Elena learned to listen for his santero necklaces, there in Little Havana, where the old men spoke with a particularly Cuban kind of gruffness. On some afternoons she would stand on the sidewalk for hours, sipping chilled coconut water from a straw and sniffing for the silhouette of his cologne on passersby, her stockings clammy in the Miami heat.
In her diary she tried to map it out for herself, all of it—she with the plump, plump legs so far from the streets of Ciego de Avila, Cuba, where she was born. She sketched herself on the streets of Little Havana, and on the other side of the page she drew a boy called Lionel perched on the edge of an island, its shores lifting out of the sea like the swift upward beating of a pelican’s wing. And in between Little Havana and Cuba, because he connected it all, and also on the streets walking beside her, him! Him, Javier, whose face she had seen before in another.
One day—the most important day! – Elena was on her way back from the Ten Cent Cubano store. There—the statues of black-skinned saints in the window, the promise of incense wafting through the door, a ”Help Wanted” sign. Botánica de la Caridad, the awning above the store said, cursively, on an etching of an eagle.
She was inside, and there he was. When she saw him she felt like she had known, all along, he would be there.
“Hola. ¿Como te puedo ayudar?” He put out to her an arm, and smiled.
“¿Será con una preocupación con la fatalidad? ¿O te rompieron el corazón? ¡Yo lo maldigo!”
An hour later she agreed to five hours a day, four days a week, for minimum wage behind the counter of the botánica, the possibility of a raise expected to bloom at any minute. It took her three hours to be sure she would love him forever, and no time at all to despair of his ever loving her.
“Do you practice santería?” Javier asked her, showing her the statues and explaining their names. He said them in Yoruba, the language of slaves brought to Cuba, which he says he can never teach her. Changó, Oshún, Ogún, Babalú Ayé. Then in Spanish, the names of saints more familiar. Santa Barbara, la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, San Pedro, San Lázaro, who has an altar all to himself on the counter. Javier told her he was from Pinar del Rio, a Pinareño, and arrived here years before her.
He said, “I come from a long line of santeros, and I visit Cuba in my dreams.”
Elena didn’t practice Santeria, though she had dreams like Javier. She knew santeros back home, but this her mother never touched, called it a sin, never let her learn.
“And this,” Javier said, plucking from the great, technicolor display of “¡Remedios!” on the wall behind the counter a rose-colored packet of paper, “will make you lovable.”
Javier spent most of his days in his room for consultas, divining for the desperate, but emerged often to drink a cafecito with Elena. As for Elena, she drew in her diary, again and again and on many pages, two adjacent abysses. One, the gaping mysticism of Javier’s world, from which his figure emerged—her pen moving ardently— weary and smelling of the anxiety of his customers. The other: the abyss of second love, which she felt was more frightening than first love, the outlines of Javier and Lionel superimposed, over which she tried to trace drifting mists of jasmine.
Girls wept their way out of the woodworks when Lionel Blanco left Ciego de Avila, Cuba, and Elena watched them. By then, Lionel had been a star baseball player (standing, in the white uniform pressed by his mother, bat over shoulder languidly like the David, Elena thought once, like the David). He declared himself for the first time to Elena when she was fifteen (and to Mirta, and Ana Gloria, and Berta, and Marilu, too, that same year, although Elena wouldn’t know that until after he was gone). Even thirty years later she would remember thinking, with the anguished happiness of an adolescent: I have his eyebrows burned on my insides!
In her diary she called the story of their love “Love Under Porticos,” for it was under the porticos they first met, the ones that formed the colonnades that stretched on either side of the streets of Ciego de Avila. Elena liked how she and her friends navigated the Caribbean swelter of their town in the crisp cool of these portales, dark strips of umbra in a maze of sun.
It was through gossip that Elena first heard Lionel’s name. The handsomest boy in town, they called him. The choicest cha-cha-cha partner, the reincarnation of the poet José Martí, this young man with the widow’s peak and quizzical brow, writing furiously—in the pages of his notebook with grand, masculine movements of the hands— by the pool of the Club de Cazadores when he wasn’t beating their sons and brothers in any sport he tried.
Elena always wore pink to quinceñeras, from fabric her mother bought at La Elegante. When they were nearby she would go on foot with her friends, and notice how under the portales their skirts, swollen with petticoat, would brush along the edges of the columns they passed, a mass of pastel murmurs. Even in the crowd, though, there were differences—in cadences of movement, in the circumferences of their waists, in the number of the men who in the street would mark them individually with their eyes, seeing them in the way Elena never felt seen, felt she would never be seen, no matter how many hours she kept her hair in her mother’s curlers. This feeling—she had drawn it about herself like a dark mantilla, and closer when she met somebody she liked.
This time they were on their way to Barbarita Villena’s quince.
“Look who it is,” Carolina Vasquez said to Elena.
It was Lionel Blanco, crossing the street from the opposite colonnade toward them. He walked, hands in his pockets, with what Elena could tell were intentions of a lover. He with the face of a troubadour!
He fell in easily beside them, and kissed them all hello.
“This is Elena de Zayas,” Carolina said to him, who Elena knew was his cousin and something of a matchmaker. “And you and she are reading the same book.”
Lionel turned to Elena, slowing his pace to match hers.
“Stefan Zweig? Confusion of Feelings?”
Elena nodded. Walking beside her!
“How many times have you read it?”
“Three. Or maybe four.”
He laughed. “Well, you owe me a dance for every time— what do you think of that?”
Elena thought, no no no not me, not me with the legs, not me with Isabella beside me and that Lola, like two tall orchids perfumed—yes, yes, yes me, Lionel, your eyes on me on me on me, hopefully for always.
Elena drew illustrations for “Love Under Porticos:” a frowning figure in the mirror dissolving into a graphite hand on a girl’s suddenly-slimmer waist, a couple dancing on stacks of books, tall and toppling, from the library. There were some things she could never draw, though she tried—an element of his character, a thing paradoxically fleeting and hard, a deftness of hands and language. He, with the slow-starting smile of his mother, letting Elena beat him at domino games at dusk!
Lionel wrote her letters, even though they saw each other every day. She slept with them pressed to her chest. “Mi querida,” her favorite one said, “You know I am reading Plato, and you are the form of all things…”
The summer she thought Lionel loved her, even with the revolution and Castro closing the Club de Cazadores, she was never bored like the rest of her friends. Together they dragged furniture out under the porticos and sat alongside each other. To look at him! To read his writing, this poet of hers. This, all in the boy who thought her beautiful, who picked her from among all her friends! Even in the heat of her hometown she felt cool in his long-armed embrace.
Of course, it came to an end. Lionel told her he was leaving, going to Miami. He would not look at her, at Elena, sobbing against a column crisp of the portales. Lionel! Even with eyes so swollen she could make out his embarrassment.
“How will we find each other?” Elena asked. “When will I see you again? How can you leave me here?”
“Cariño,” he said. Darling. “You and I? You and I? You think we are meant for this seriousness?”
“Yes,” Elena said. “Yes.”
“You and I? This I leave behind me, Elena. Like the books that don’t fit in my suitcase. Like the shells of the sugar cane that has had its sweetness pressed out, piling up in the stands where they sell guarapo frío.”
A month later she learned of the other girls. She knew this should not have been a surprise. This she should’ve known since before she even met him. One of them he even was writing to, lithe and lovely, lovely. Elena took to walking in the roads, forgoing the shade of the porticos. How scared she was of remembering him. Up and down the streets she baked in the sun until her skin was peeling. Still, she thought of him, and when she left Cuba a year later, darker than she had ever been, it was a good thing. It was a relief to be rid of it all, all that he had ruined for her, she thought, her legs heavy in her nightgown. She had learned her lesson.
“Elena!” Mariel is saying to Elena, and Elena knows that she must leave her counter to kiss her hello. She can smell the perfume of violetas on the spot behind her ear when their cheeks brush, sunshower-soft. “It has been too much time since I have seen you!”
“Only Eduardo has been coming for consultas,” Elena says to her lamely. This is something Mariel knows, obviously. To be beautiful like that! To know what to say! A woman like Mariel does not have Elena’s fears.
Mariel keeps up that smile indefatigable as she opens her purse, and after a moment, puts out a long arm toward the altar to San Lázaro to make her offering, a dollar or so in coins. Elena can see her eyes on the walls, on the shelves of oils and the rows of packaged herbs, promising the end of indigestion and the despair of one’s enemies.
“We’ve been lighting the candles for Eduardo’s mother,” Mariel says, turning back to Elena. “And the candle we bought for Wicho’s case in court worked, thanks to the Virgin. And to Javier.”
“Oye cabrón,” Javier says to Eduardo, “It’s almost eleven! It’s about to begin. Elena and I thought you were going to miss it. I suppose you are going to blame your Marielita, eh?” He laughs, cigar smoke tumbling from his open mouth.
“Miss it?” Mariel says. “Eduardo hasn’t talked of nothing else for days. And I got home from work early!”
Eduardo cuts in. “Early? Javier, she kept me waiting ten minutes.”
“That’s twenty minutes less than the usual!” Mariel says, and the three of them are laughing.
Elena goes to the television set in the corner. She turns it on, to the channel with the 11 o’clock news.
“What are your numbers again, mi amor?” Mariel says to Eduardo. Then, to Javier: “You really think he’s going to win, padrino?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times! Thirty two, eleven, eight, forty three—”
Javier interrupts him. “And two. You should have seen his caracoles that day, Mariel. I’ve never seen a better reading from the cowrie shells. You know I can’t say much, but the luck of your husband! All symbols point to blessings. I promise you, this week even the streetlights must have raced to turn green for him!”
Elena watches Eduardo rest a hand on his wife’s thigh, watches her turn to him, abloom. This is the look of falling back in love. This is what Javier does.
“If you say so, Javier, it must be right,” Mariel says.
They all seem to notice at the same time that the woman on the television is speaking.
“Turn it up!” Eduardo says.
It is Elena who does it.
“Hello, Florida!” the woman says. She is wearing green. “It’s your Saturday Lotto. I’m Marissa Cordero—”
“Oh Eduardo!” Mariel says. ‘Did you pray to Santa Barbara? To the Virgin?”
“Relax,” Javier is saying, looking at them all. “Relax. This luck, the extreme luck of Eduardo, it was told to us by the santos. And I have never been wrong, not since I found my lucky charm, my Elena.”
This is not something Elena can do. Not this. She can hardly breathe, her husband looking at her like that, for what she knows is the last time. In her mind is the face of Lionel, who is turning away from her again and again, a rejection infinite, in her memories. She is sweating in the fatty spot between her shoulder blades.
“Tell me you prayed to the Virgin!” Mariel is saying. In her eyes is the haze of shorter workweeks, of beds turned down for her in hotel rooms, of days spent reading in the shade of palm fronds by the pool.
“The winning lotto numbers are—” the woman is saying.
They are all praying to the santos, except for Elena. For her, for years now, she makes her offerings and adorations to a god of her own—a god which in her diaries has two heads, like the ones in the books of mythology Lionel lent to her so long ago. Lionel’s is one of the faces, gaze averted, and it is always behind Javier’s, which is ringed by strings of beads, luminous behind its screen of cigar smoke. And as for Elena’s offerings? Soon this god will know their artifice!
For those first months that Elena worked behind the counter of the botánica, while she waited for Javier to come out his room and drink a cafecito with her, she thought about Lionel often. She drew her love for Javier in her diary like a love coming out of another love. She drew herself, watching a rose behind a pair of Lionel-shaped sunglasses. And always, always, she drew the moon-face and the thicker legs that had driven him away!
One day, Javier came out his room for consultas looking particularly distressed (eyes wide, full mouth trembling). The customer that he had been with had left a few minutes before, and Javier came up to the counter, close up to Elena’s face.
“Elena, Elena, we are friends, no?”
“Yes, of course,” she said. Yes, yes.
For an hour he cried to her, thick, opalescent tears getting lost in the beard at his jaw. It was his divination. He was a failure, he said. The first of his family. No matter how he interpreted the caracoles he was wrong, always wrong, since he left Cuba and the partnership of his father.
“This one,” Javier said, “will be wrong too. My own customer told me, to my face. He asked for a refund! Said I knew less about the world than his three year old son.”
“No, “ Elena said, holding his head in her hands. “You come from a long line, Javier. You visit other countries in dreams!”
“I said that he was in a time of fortune, of wealth and security!”
“And maybe you’re right!”
“He told me after I was done that he had gambled away the rent money, just last night. One hundred dollars, and his wife was going to kill him.”
Him, his head in her hands, her Javier, her wrists tangled in beads. A memory of Lionel, his hair black on his long neck, and neither of them could ever love her.
“Your customer’s name?” Elena asked.
“Carlos de la Paz,” he said, and went to splash water on his face.
Her mother knew where the de la Paz family lived. She worked with Maria José de la Paz on a fundraiser for San Juan Bosco, and when Elena asked her for the address in the kitchen she looked at her, hard, under the weight of the curlers she kept wrapped in a yellow pañuelo.
“Is this for that santero?” she asked her. “Mija, in nonsense you will not find love.”
She gave her the address anyways. It was three blocks away. While walking there it was as if Elena was walking through revelations. This was like Lionel, still this mantilla, still this nonexistence of love—but different, not like how she was after he was first gone, bareheaded in white, blistering on the streets of Ciego de Avila. This, this had an honor! A kind of beauty!
It was a first floor apartment, and Elena knocked on the door, emboldened by her new morality. This, an act of ethics! This, an act of faith!
A man, wrinkled at the neck, opened the door.
“Buenas Noches,” Elena said. “My name is Carlota, and I’m the daughter of the man you lost your money to yesterday.”
Carlos de la Paz stared at her through the doorway, white t-shirt straining with the burst of his belly. “Sergio has a daughter?”
“Yes,” Elena said. She wasn’t anxious. “And my mother sent me, because she said my father wasn’t supposed to be gambling in the first place.”
“Sent you for what?”
Reaching into her purse, she drew out an envelope and pressed it into Carlos de la Paz’ hands. Turning quickly, she slipped out of the door and out into the night, springs in the places her bones met, light and one hundred dollars short in savings.
The next morning Javier was waiting for her when she came in to the botánica.
“Elena, guess who called me? Carlos! I was right, for the first time, and because I told you! They made the rent! Wealth and security, my prediction was right! My lucky lucky charm, my mi suertesita.” His hand on her face, rough from his attempts to scale the wall between this world and that of the santos.
Elena leaned into his hand, towards him, like she’d be leaning all her life. From the counter behind her came the sighs of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, sympathetic in her ear. Another revelation, she felt: this was how someone like her found love.
It took him a week to kiss her, a year for them to marry. His suertesita, his little luck, the fulfiller of prophecies behind the botánica counter. In her diary Elena tried to sketch out what it was she did for him, all those years: unnecessary visits to a doctor promised better business, thievery at a Laundromat to tailor pairs of jeans for women expecting easy weight loss. There were two stick-figures, gossiping, and then a careful rendering of heartbreak. She was like Matisse, only with stubby pencils! And then on some pages a full-figured Elena, and Javier sleeping beside her, but drawn in such a way that he looked already half-gone. And always, always in the corner the specter of Lionel!
“The winning lotto numbers are—” the woman is saying.
Elena watches Javier’s face, and his mouth is metamorphosed into someone else’s: curving upwards on the right side, it asks “You and I?” “You and I?”
This one, she cannot fulfill. Her hands, brown and lined now, are too small for this. Him, his head in her hands for so many years now, her Javier, her wrists tangled in beads, a life tangled in Lionel, Lionel who never loved her, who waits in the shaded porticos of her memory to shout at her, endlessly, the facts of her worthlessness. And Javier would now know her as she was, ugly! ugly! and luckless.
“Thirty two,” the woman on the television says.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Eduardo and Mariel cheer.
“Pray on the next number, mi suertesita,” Javier says to Elena, his arm extending towards her.
“Eleven,” the woman calls out.
“¡Sí! ¡Coño! Three more!” Eduardo says, his arms high above his head.
Javier’s eyes, bright on her, triumphant. “Mi amor,” he says, as the woman on the television readies herself to speak.
Grazie Sophia Christie is twenty years old. She was born and raised in Miami, Florida and is of Cuban descent. Grazie is a junior at Harvard College, concentrating in English with a focus in Creative Writing. Her upbringing in a family of Cuban exiles has informed her writing greatly, this story in particular.