When Dr. Aurelio-Garcia-Fusco received word from his Auntie in Cuba that his mother had died, he called the director at the Mission Barrio Adento clinic to say he would not be in for work that day, “Who told you?” the suddenly alert director demanded. The panic in the director’s voice was all that the young doctor needed to know that the information about his mother should have gone through the director first and not his Auntie. Someone had screwed up. There it was; just one month of working in Venezuela under Cuba’s Doctors for Oil program and the doctor was handed, not that he needed it, another reason to abandon his post. “Some secretary,“ the doctor said, trying to sound casual, his mind racing to the consequential lies he would have to tell in order to cover up the one he just told.
“That’s not –“ the exhausted director, also Cuban, paused. “Not protocol. What was her name?”
The doctor remained silent. For all he knew his phone was tapped. Be careful whom you talk to. His colleague Javier Luis had told him that they’re monitoring us. A local family had invited Javier to a chicken dinner, and one minute later he received a text telling him he would need permission to go.
The doctor could hear the clamor of metal trays, cries from family members and fits of exasperation from patients in the clinic who’d been waiting to be seen, probably for days, in the overcrowded, understaffed and un-air-conditioned clinic.
“We need you in the clinic today, “ the director, now, all business, said finally.
“We’ll see you at nine.”
Just as the doctor was about to hang up, the director added, as if it were some consolation, which it was, “You can take the Sunday at the end of the month off, to mourn your mother”.
Oriana’s cheap gold lamé dress red high heels and yellow fishnet stockings from last night’s romp were strewn about the doctor’s room. She lay face down on his bed snoring loudly. After just a month of paying to be with her, the doctor had done an unusual thing, he trusted her.
“Up, up!” Dr. Fusco said, gently hitting the bottoms of her feet.
“What? No. It’s too early,” she moaned.
“C’mon, gotta go, “ he said from the bathroom.
“Let me stay,” she said yawning. Her white teeth and green eyes shone even brighter against her caramel skin. Venezuelan women were less dreary than those in Cuba, but he still had to be careful. Fleeing the country and finding salvation in the United States was going to require his utmost clarity and he didn’t want to blow it because of his weakness for fractured women.
“Please,” she whimpered.
Nothing here to steal, he thought as he waved 8,000 Bolivars across her eyes before placing them on the night table.
“Leave the keys with the shopkeeper next door,” he said. He traced his finger across her large lips, “His name is Jorge”.
Two years earlier, on the morning of December 11, Aurelio Fusco awoke in the medical student dormitory in Havana eager to attend the lectures. The building, a former Naval academy stood on a stone cliff in overlooking the ocean. He ate his breakfast in the cafeteria with the other idealistic students. He dunked his tostada in the café con leche and thought how his motivations had changed. Initially, he had wanted to save lives and earn more money to help his mother mostly, and stay in Cuba. He had believed all the boasting the school had done about the good work Cuba and by extension, he, would be doing by leaving Cuba to help the victims of the Ebola virus in Africa, the survivors of mudslides in Honduras, and the hurricanes in Haiti.
Outside, the sky was baby blue, a thin wispy cloud stretched across the horizon. He waited for an opening in the traffic on the main highway that separated the school from the Malecon by the Caribbean. He leaned against a wall to light a cigarette, taking it all in. A red ball rolled past him and into the busy traffic, followed by a blur of a girl laughing hysterically. The doctor’s hand instinctively grabbed her neck, it was as thin as a twig - he could have easily snapped it clean; he yanked her back to the sidewalk. Her laughter turned to tears, kicks, and punches; a reaction more likely from the shock of having been pulled with such force than with not having gotten her way, or maybe she was just crazy. “Hush,” he said softly, trying to soothe the tiny beast.
“It’s mine,” she yelled. With her free hand, she scratched his arms, neck, and face. He clutched her pencil-thin waist torso, careful not to crack her ribs. He pinned her arms behind her back, her legs swung wildly. From the color of her school uniform, he surmised she was either eight or nine-years-old. Eventually, her bony body relaxed. Her wails turned to short abrupt sniffles. Just as he thought she was calm enough to reason with, she sunk her teeth with surgical precision into a tendon on his wrist. He stepped back in shock, drew his wrist close to his body, and off she went, screaming into the traffic.
When he told his mother that story, she said he was always like that. He couldn’t help himself. That if it weren’t for him, where would they all be? Protective of the crazy ones was what she was talking about. They both knew that if it weren’t for the doctor’s part-time position at the school’s Pharmacia, and his deft hand at stealing Oxy without anyone noticing, his mother would be sent to die from hunger and cold in one of Cuba’s “Psychiatric Hospitals”.
“I’m changing, Mama,” he said as he handed her a glass of water to swallow her pills. When her warm brown eyes glazed, he kissed her on her forehead and left feeling good knowing she would be pain-free for at least the rest of the day.
Dr. Fusco lived in one of Venezuelan’s more depraved cities, a 90-minute bus ride to work, in a neighborhood where people competed with the dogs for food. Emaciated women in colorful scarves sat outside their tin-roofed, plywood- walled two-room shacks they shared with their family of five. Others dug through piles of garbage for scraps of food.
The doctor pushed his entire body weight against the barrage of bodies on the bus to jockey himself closer to the door. He needed space to think. If his Auntie hadn’t called him when were they going to tell him about his mother? Were they even going to tell him at all? What else were they withholding? Everything they did was calculated to remind him he was their slave. Then again, why should he be shocked?
Cuba’s Oil for Doctors program had turned out to be one big trick as well. The disillusionment began the moment he and his classmates arrived in Venezuela.
They waited for two days at the airport to be picked up. They slept on chairs, in waiting rooms and were shuffled from terminal to terminal. The Cuban recruiters told them how great it was going to be in Venezuela; about all the things they would be able to buy and at how grateful the Venezuelan people were that they were coming. Then, the shock of reality set in. The Venezuelans resented their presence. His salary was 60 dollars a month, not even for food or transportation, let alone a phone call home to his mother. The slap in the face came when he learned from his supervisors that Venezuela was paying $7,000 for his services.
If he didn’t perform illegal abortions in the back of the grocery store in his neighborhood, he would have been sleeping three to a room and starving. How would he afford Oriana? Being leased to a foreign government was modern day slavery.
It took him less than a month of working in Venezuela to formulate a plan of escape - a bus to Colombia was his first idea. He had heard that the flight to America from there was less expensive than if he went to Ecuador. His research on what to do after that was ongoing. Once he was set up in another country he’d figure out a way for his mother to join him. It was the least he could do.
Six months earlier, Oriana walked hand-in-hand with her four-year-old daughter, CoCo, and her two-year-old son, Arthur, to church as trucks filled with avocados, mangos and oranges drove past. One driver, drunk, swerved into them, killing her children instantly. A year before that, a fire started by junkies had swept through her entire neighborhood, leaving her homeless.
She moved into the Black Table brothel in Puerto Cabesto. She kept her room neat and tidy. Pictures of her children rested on her night table. Red satin pillows shaped like lips hung on her walls. Benefits of her trade were stacked at the foot of her bed: bags of rice, flour, sugar and cooking oil -- products that other Venezuelans had to line up for hours to buy at regulated prices in the shops- if they could find them at all.
She stretched out on her bed, the biggest piece of furniture in her room at the brothel, closed her eyes and thought about the Cuban. At first, he wanted her just once a week for an hour, and then for an entire afternoon that included walking to the beach, sharing a guanabana juice and pork Arepa.
Lately, he’d paid for her to spend the entire night on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, without fail for the past six months. She looked at herself in the mirror and thought, watch yourself, Oriana, don’t fall for the doctor, don’t fall or anyone.
The arrival of a Liberian-flagged freighter with Ukrainian, Arab and Filipino sailors spelled one thing -- dollars. She had to keep her mind off the Cuban. She put on her tousled platinum blonde wig, anything to stand out from the other girls, and besides that the sailors loved it. She’d been called names like Dolly Parton, Marilyn Monroe, and Farrah Fawcett. They could call her what they wanted, she didn’t care that they saw someone else when they looked at her.
They didn’t want to know who she was, what she thought, how she felt anyway. The distance she created between who she was and whom they imagined her to be was why she lasted as long as she had. Three years was a long time.
Oriana protected her face. She wore it empty for them to dream on. The meaner ones projected their fantasies of fucking their mothers, daughters, sisters, or nieces. The greedy ones were lost in the unobtainable: fast cars, mansions, gold this, gold that. The shy and lonely ones were the worst; they asked for permission to do what they were going to do anyway regardless of what she said. Then they apologized. The nasty ones beat her.
It didn’t matter. In the end, they were all the same. Eventually, they awoke and saw her for real, and were reminded of where they were, and then they grunted and rolled over. As they slept she stole from them whatever she knew she could get away with.
She slipped into her pink metallic dress, the one with the shiny white belt that she cinched at her waist. She looked approvingly at herself in the mirror. Her doctor would also approve and would want to take her, over and over again on the bed.
When Dr. Fusco undressed her on their first time away from the brothel, he ran his tongue down her bare shoulder. “Tell me, how does it work?”
She wasn’t sure what to make of his direct line of questioning. “Let’s talk about what you want me to do for you today,” she said in her studied playful voice.
“I’m really curious,” he says insistently. She looks away, skeptically.
“It excites me,” he said as he picked her up and held her in the air, like a kid.
She wrapped her legs around his waist and clung tightly. He pressed himself against her, their bare bodies swaying. From over his shoulder, she looked at his room, at the neat way he folded his green, blood-spattered doctor scrubs, at his desk, with his pen and notepad filled with handwritten lists and notes placed just so. She believed that the same way you could tell everything you needed to know about a person by the shoes they wore was also true about a person’s handwriting. The doctors’ was ordered, determined, and elegant.
“I help the sailors to book rooms, find taxis, and -” she paused.
“And, for my services, I charge them in dollars – then I pay the hotels and taxis and restaurants in BolÍvars.”
“You moonlight as a currency trader!” he said with delight gently laying her on his bed, stroking her hair, deep in thought about how much more to her there than he had imagined. They lay entwined. Shrieks of laughter and pings of tin drums from the outside pierced the oppressive silence of his room. He put his face close to hers.
“I have to go,” she said.
He looked at her perplexed.
“If you want me to stay longer-“
“Oh!” he said uncomfortably. “Of course.” He took his wallet out and handed her a wad of Bolivars. An awkward silence ensued.
“Tell me everything about these boats.” He said finally.
“A handful of dollars and the Ferryman will let you go wherever you want,“ she said, bored of the topic.
“Does the Ferryman check who goes on and off?”
“Don’t you listen?”
“How many, dollars?” he said.
“Shut up about the boats,” she said. “Kiss me.”
A month later Oriana walked home from her third trick of the day. Her long shiny black hair tied tight in a high ponytail. Wearing flat silver sandals that laced up all the way to her knees, like a Grecian, ripped red shorts that felt tight around her swollen stomach. On top, she wore a red midriff with cheap gold chains for buttons. She turned right onto a narrow street to avoid having to walk across the plaza in the blaring sun. She left the I Heart Miami visor she had stolen from the backpack of an American student traveling through Venezuela hoping to improve his Spanish. He talked non-stop, hoping she might correct him? She never listened anyway, not to any of them.
Sunglasses alone weren’t enough for the days’ bright sun, especially with her sensitive green eyes. But retrieving the visor would have meant circling back to the greasy, greedy face of her last trick. He’d misinterpret her return, and use it against her, she wasn’t sure how, but that’s how things went when she didn’t follow the rules; go – do what they want– get their money – leave. Circling back
wasn’t worth it.
She walked quickly past an unruly crowd gathering near an abandoned storefront desperate for a false rumor to be true that there was bread to buy. She weaved in and out of a group of children kicking a ball made of masking tape, watermelon rinds, and egg cartons. Tucked in her bra was a small wad of dollars from her morning work, more than enough to get her a bowl of Tripe soup and a platter of rice and beans from the kitchen of her friend Marielena.
She veered left onto a narrow cobblestone road, shaded from the sun by crumbling plaster buildings, and up a hill, thinking about the Cuban. It was Wednesday and he hadn’t contacted her yet to make a date. Had he moved on to another girl? Good. Who cared? If he were out of her life then she wouldn’t need to think about him anymore.
Let the Cuban go. Who needed him anyway? She considered her mother who had died from a stray bullet while hanging laundry. The only person her mother loved was her daughter and look where that got her. Who knew what could happen in life. Maybe the Cuban was screwing some girl right now. Maybe he would be waiting for her when she got to the brothel, begging to see her. A sharp jab in the base of her spine jolted her to the present.
“Move, and I’ll kill you,” a man’s deep voice said.
“My cell is in my bag,” she said reflexively; she always carried two cell phones.
Everyone knew the rules; you leave your house, you get robbed. Oriana kept her second phone in a pouch on the inside of the legs of her shorts impossible to find if you didn’t know where to look.
“Do it,” the man said.
A kid, not much taller than Oriana, wearing a black scarf across his nose and mouth came out of the doorway to her left, holding up a pair of scissors.
She’d heard about these mafias, or ‘piranhas’ as they were also called, who cut girls hair and sold it to salons to make wigs and extensions from Yaraina, a girl in the brothel. Yaraina was fifteen years old, her long, brown hair that she parted in the middle and which practically draped her entire five-foot-one frame, had been hacked off in a doorway near the train station. She came back to the brothel cowering in a scarf. She looked smaller and older. Worse, without her biggest asset, bigger even than her age, she lost customers.
The demand for real hair was more profitable than cell phones. Sure, there were announcements asking the police to act against the thieves, but that only made the bribes higher. Besides, it wasn’t a crime to steal hair. Had Yaraina been stabbed, beaten or raped while they stole her hair that might have counted as
something. Might. The unspoken rule was to keep silent. No one wanted to be teased or humiliated more than they already were. Yaraina’s hair had grown since then but the long line of men shortened. She never left her room without a hat or a scarf.
Oriana cursed herself for not going back to the fat man for her visor. She was going to pay for her laziness.
With a gun at her throat, she had to think fast.
“I’ll give you something better,“ Oriana said.
His grip around her waist tightened. The pain was so acute she knew, for a fact now, it was from what was growing inside of her.
“Dollars. Over 15. I have it.” She said.
A pack of rowdy teenagers on bicycles appeared at the top of the hill. The leader, a tall boy, shirtless, picked up a pebble and threw it down at the man with the gun. Others in the pack laughed and joined in, taunting the robbers with pebbles, none hitting Oriana.
The man pushed Oriana deeper into the doorway, out of the boys’ view, the tip of his gun pressed against her throat.
“My bra, “she managed to say.
He slid his hand down her shirt, feeling around clumsily until he found what he wanted.
The stream of heckling boys on bicycles rode past.
With the boys out of the way, he pressed the gun to her temple. She thought of her children, Co-Co and Arthur, of joining them, she wanted to feel relieved but somehow dying wasn’t an option. Not now. Not with the doctor in her life.
“Do it, “ he said.
In three sharp motions, the kid yanked her ponytail and snipped. In an instant, they were both gone.
She fell to the pavement, her back against the cool plaster wall. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” she said. She patted the back of her head. Hair that would have normally cascaded on her shoulders hung impotently above her ears.
A kid from the pack rode past, tossing her a stick of gum in a silver wrapper. She picked herself up and stood, dizzy and nauseous, leveling her gaze at the horizon. She wrapped her arms around her waist. Why hadn’t she been more careful? She thought she had been, very careful, actually. She wished they had killed her. She hated herself for caring more about the life growing inside of her than for her own.
At four in the morning, the doctor was approaching his fourteenth hour of work at the Abento clinic; he was tired. Thankfully, no young mother was ready to give birth to her fifth, sixth or seventh child. Abortions were illegal in Venezuela, but it was more the women didn’t have any other choice but to be a
mother. They couldn’t get an education; they couldn’t get jobs. Those who went the abortion route risked their lives taking over the counter drugs or performing them on themselves. In that sense, the doctor felt like he was helping them. He offered abortions for a nominal fee during his off hours. Women in Cuba didn’t want to have children, not right away. Babies cost money. Cuban women were waiting longer and longer. He had heard that the population was diminishing. They wanted careers, an education, and freedom. Abortions in Cuba were as common as prescribing antibiotics, no stigma; it was another form of birth control. If the Venezuelans officials found out he performed abortions they would hold him up as an example. They’d put him in jail and after that, most likely he’d never be heard or seen from again.
The doctor stepped out of the clinic and sat in a folding chair under the roof made from a corrugated piece of tin. He lit a cigarette. His mind lost in thoughts of his mother. Where was she buried? Were her last thoughts about him? Did she suffer? He shouldn’t have left her.
His colleague from the academy, Jose Cabrera, stood behind the screen door.
“We’re not getting paid for this over time,” the doctor said.
“When have we ever?” Jose said, extending his hand out for a light.
“I can’t take this,” the doctor said. “What do they expect us to do?”
“What choice do we have?” Jose said as he lit a cigarette.
“Ok,” Jose said evenly.
“Remember what happened to Juan Temprano,“ Jose said then paused, waiting until he had the doctor’s full attention.
“He thought he’d go straight to the U.S. Embassy and submit an application for a visa under CMPPP, right?”
“Within days, he receives the visa and a sealed envelope to give immigration officials once he arrived in the United States.”
“See. It’s easy!”
“Not finished, brother,” Jose said smiling. “It all started to unravel when he admitted he works with us, at a clinic. Venezuelan officials called him a “traitor” and ordered him into a security office at the airport, where another official took away his ticket, ripped up his passport and threatened to deport him back home.”
“Yeah, well. Juan is a dumb ass.” The doctor said.
“Doctor! Doctor!” a patient from inside the clinic screamed.
Jose rose, dropped his cigarette on the pavement and put it out with his foot.
He paused by the door.
“Be careful, Aurelio.”
The doctor’s first thought when he awoke to fists pounding on his door was thank god Oriana hadn’t spent the night with him. It would be bad for him to be found with a Venezuelan prostitute, but worse for her to be found with the doctor.
He fumbled in the dark looking for the light switch. He flipped it on and off.
Blackouts happened all the time during the day; it hadn’t occurred to him they occurred at night as well; or did they turn the electricity off at night deliberately?
He covered his naked body with his scrubs then opened the door.
Three men wearing olive-colored uniforms stood in the doorframe. That was all he remembered before a sack covered his head and a blunt object whacked the back of his head. The doctor’s body collapsed into the arms of the soldiers. Two of them held the doctor up, his feet dragging, in the narrow hallway. The third directed them out to the street where a car was waiting.
The doctor came to in an air-conditioned car, pure and crisp. He couldn’t believe the smell– real leather. The ride was so silent and smooth he wasn’t sure they were actually moving.
“Where am I?” he asked.
The officer on his right knocked on the glass partition that separated the back from the front seat.
“Keep him covered.”
Without any landmarks, he couldn’t gage where he was or how long it was before the car finally came to a stop. The window lowered and a blast of hot humid air infiltrated the cool air-conditioning. After an exchange of whispers, he heard the sound of a metal gate unlocking. The car drove steadily uphill. He had heard about the wealthy Venezuelans and their golf courses, country clubs and hilltop mansions owned by drug dealers, diplomats, and corrupt government officials. He was eager to get a glimpse into that world regardless of what his future as a captive held.
The car door opened and he was escorted out. He recognized the feel of the cloth “shoes” on his feet. They were the kind he wore in the operating room in Cuba, another lifetime ago.
Inside the house, his feet sunk into a thick soft carpet. “Wait here,” a guard said.
Moments later he was escorted this time judging by the grip, two women, and up a long staircase.
At the top, a hand pressed firmly into his lower back and prodded down a long hallway then through a doorway. Once inside, the sack on his head was removed. It took him a moment to adjust to the strange light in the large octagonal shaped room, decorated with heavy mahogany furniture, and ornately patterned rugs scattered on the dark wood floor. In the centre of the room was a bed. Above the bed, an old-fashioned standing lamp formed a halo of amber light around what was actually two divans’ pushed together. Lying under the bloodied white sheets, draped over the bed, was a terrifyingly thin white woman – hugely pregnant, drenched in sweat, writhing in pain. Her red hair splayed wildly across her blue face. Without permission, he walked confidently to the bed and knelt beside her.
“How long has she been like this?”
Immediately, clean surgical instruments on a silver tray were set down on a night table. Anything was obtainable in Venezuela if you had money. Housekeepers on either side of him soaked his hands in soapy warm water. Three men whose voices the recognized as the ones in the car with him stood in front of the tall windows with the guns poised. Standing in front of a large wooden desk, three Venezuelan officials whispered reassuringly it seemed, to a tall, fat Caucasian man, American most likely, wearing khaki pants and a white linen shirt. He had a patch over his left eye and a white cowboy hat on his fat head and walked with a swagger around the desk with his Venezuelan entourage in tow. The power in the room generated from and to him. A sleazy looking Venezuelan official acted as his mouthpiece.
The pregnant girl couldn’t have been more than fifteen-years-old. Who was she?
What was her story? What had this blue-eyed Caucasian girl gotten herself mixed up in? At the height of her fever, her eyes opened wide, she clutched the doctor’s arm with a strength that startled and impressed him. With her mouth wide and round like an O and in a low and gravelly voice, as if possessed, she intoned. “Get out.”
The doctor injected the girl with a painkiller. She was no good to him, to anyone in that state. The girl’s rigid and taught body relaxed like a piece of silk.
As the doctor examined her he wondered which man in the room claimed her and what was their relationship? Daughter? Lover? Prostitute? Why had they gone to so much trouble to bring him there and why all the secrecy? There were hospitals for the wealthy. Had they known about his performing abortions all along? Clearly, it was too late to abort. That truly would be murder. Or is that what they wanted?
Between her fever and the narrowness of her pelvis, the doctor could tell that either the baby or she was going to live, but not both. Regardless, the fault would be on him. Someone needed to be the scapegoat. The sleazy official looked directly at the doctor.
“Save the baby,” he said. He leaned in closer to the doctor.
“The girl,” the doctor said.
The official waved his hand, indicating but not implicating that it would make no difference if she died.
Twenty-two hours of non-stop pushing and prying and still no child. The girl’s grip on the doctor never ceased. She wouldn’t let go; he couldn’t leave her, he didn’t want to leave her, not even to use the bathroom. He felt for her, this girl whose life, based on the distance the American kept from her, and his lack of warmth, was worth no more to them than a piece of garbage. What did she represent? Whose mistake was she that they wanted to just cover up. Having stood by her side for so long, he felt as if they alone were on a raft in the ocean, abandoned by all. She looked up at him, with her watery blue eyes, pleadingly; to save her or let her die, he couldn’t tell.
The constant murmuring and arguing in the shadows had to be continually subdued to hold the fat man with the patch back. The doctor pieced together that he was an American businessman whose business in Venezuela was oil. His relationship with the girl was still unclear. Her father? Was the child his? The doctor couldn’t tell. What the doctor did know was exactly how much his own life was worth: 100,000 gallons of oil a day. That was the amount the Cuban government sold him for. If he failed at whatever they expected him to do and then he suddenly disappeared, no one would know, or for that matter, care. Aside from his Auntie, he had no family left in Cuba. His colleagues might wonder about him, but most likely they’d be too afraid to investigate. Oriana figured into his calculations. She would miss him, he concluded, or was it his dollars she’d miss more; he was too tired to decide.
As the day wore on so did the tension. The man with the patch’s impatience caused the whole room to be on guard. “Get rid of him.” The man with the patch said in a twang the doctor recognized from having watching reruns of “Dallas,” with his mother as Southern. “I don’t like him. Get rid of him. Bring me
someone else. Let’s get this done.”
The doctor avoided all eye contact. He overheard the official whose voice the doctor recognized as the one having sat the front seat of the car, whispering to the man with the eye patch. He’s the best. Give it time.
Twenty-seven hours later, a four-pound brown-skinned boy was born. The girl, thoroughly traumatized, and perhaps to the doctor’s happiness only, was still alive.
The doctor was handed a glass of whiskey. The man with the patch slapped him on his back. The sleazy Venezuelan official cut-in, he directed the American away from the doctor. “Let’s toast,” he said to his entourage.
Sunlight crept in from under the heavy draperies. It was the morning of the third day of no sleep and yet the doctor didn’t feel tired. Amazing the alertness and longevity that adrenaline can produce. He had been a witness to medical miracles before but this felt like something different. He thought of his mother, to the time well before her illness had taken the best of her, when he had unmercifully scorned her for trying to buoy his spirits when he came home from school feeling hopeless. His lack of athleticism and his glasses had made him a prime target for the bullies.
He could still hear the distinct pitch of his mother’s passionate voice as she wailed from behind his bedroom door, “Wait for the miracle, Aurelio.” For all her distorted thinking and misdirected infatuations, largely due to the Roman Catholic church, she could, at times be so prescient. Even two years ago he would have argued with his mother that the only kind of miracles that exist in this world was medical. And even those, if you analyzed them seriously, were the result of hard facts. But there, in a darkened room overlooking the Caribbean Ocean, surrounded of strangers, a new mother so worn out that if he hadn’t taken her pulse, he would have taken for dead, a screaming baby in the arms of a housekeeper, men holding rifles in one hand and toasting each other with champagne with the other, he wished his mother had been alive so he could tell her he was sorry and that she was right. Miracles do exist. For the first time since the phone call from his Auntie, he cried.
With no recollection of how he got there, the doctor awoke in his narrow bed, his body and breath heavy with fatigue. Except for the large bump on the back of his head and the scent of the girl on his skin, he had no proof of where he had been, who he had seen or what he had just done. A text from the director of the clinic appeared on his phone letting him know that he was to come into the clinic at noon. The doctor tossed his phone across his bed. Their timing was impeccable. He looked around his room for a hidden camera, a microphone.
Ten minutes later, a knock on his door. Oriana? The knocking stopped. He walked hesitantly to the door and opened it slowly. No one was there. Just as he was about to close it, he noticed a large wooden crate. He looked down the up and down the hall for the messenger but whoever had brought it was gone. He put the crate on his bed. Inside the box was a white cowboy hat. Below that was a pair of cowboy boots – his size – with spurs. On the bottom layer of the box was a thick leather belt studded with rhinestones, a package of “Texas’s Best,” smoked turkey, and eight bottles of Ranch Dressing.
He fell back on his pillow. May 1st, he decided. No matter what it took, in four weeks, he was going to abandon his post and get on a boat to Ecuador or Colombia, or wherever, and from there, he’d figure it out.
She’s not for sale, the doctor told the Ferryman, a junkie-thin man who stood propped on a leg that the doctor surmised was a prosthetic. The doctor couldn’t take his eyes off the Ferryman’s pockmarked face or the thousands of small skulls he had tattooed on his bald head.
“This is only enough for one, you want to bring her, and you have to pay for her,” the Ferryman said smugly, a cigarette dangling from his toothless mouth.
“Don’t bullshit me, that’s what we agreed,” the doctor said, holding Oriana tight trying to edge past him. “Let’s go.”
The Ferryman lifted his heavy leg, adhering his foot against the wall of the gangplank, like a gate, effectively blocking them from the entrance.
“You or her, not both.” The Ferryman said defiantly.
“Move it. Go or get off,” people in the line behind them yelled.
“Go,” Oriana said dramatically. Weakly.
He knew what would happen to her if he left her. She’d end up at some shitty clinic maybe even the very one he was abandoning, brutally beaten, or found dead. She’d be buried in a pit, or underneath a pile of garbage. A prostitute’s life was worth even less than his.
“Go!” she said, releasing herself from his grip. Her martyrdom touched him, he wanted to shake her and tell her she was worth more. She wrapped her arms around him, repeating, “I’m so sorry.”
An officer from the Venezuelan police wedged them apart.
“Dr Fusco?” the officer demanded. The doctor looked at him, stupefied. How had they found him? Oriana turned away. She slid by the Ferryman, handing him a wad of cash that he stuffed swiftly into his hollow leg. Their act was so polished it looked choreographed; the Ferryman handed Oriana a wad of bills that she grabbed and stuffed in her shorts and walked away, her tears long gone. Like a rapid change in the weather, she went from ailing girlfriend to ageing grifter.
How had he not seen it; Oriana had been at that same location and in that same situation with many doctors before him, doctors wanting to pay their way out of her country. And how many others scumbags, besides the junkie, were involved, waiting for their cut? How could he have been so naïve? He trusted her. Her blatant betrayal hurt and embarrassed him. He wanted to punch her, strangle her, but the crowd behind him pushed him forward and away from her.
“You are a traitor to your country,” the officer said, holding his cell phone up and taking a photo of the doctor. “Try this again, and you’ll never leave.”
The official grabbed his arm and forced him off the line towards a car. The doctor looked back at the Ferryman. “Fuck you,” he said. “And your country.”
“We don’t have a country,” the Ferryman said, smiling.
Stories began to circulate throughout the brothel and the clinic, all attached to the doctor's name; stories that grew more detailed and elaborate as the days past. Some stories said he was helped to get to Colombia by Coyotes, carrying drugs and even submitting himself to prostitution. Sometimes he was the villain in the story, sometimes he was the victim and sometimes he was the hero. The doctor flitted across the collective imagination like a ghost.
The doctor rests his head on the steering wheel of his Honda waiting for the traffic on Loop 360 to let up. He puts the air-conditioning and the music up higher to cover up the honking. It’s the end of his last day at the rehab where the meth heads twitched, bit their lips and begged for cash. He distributed condoms to sixteen-year-olds and took blood. Basically, work the paid nurses didn’t want to do. Stripped of his Cuban medical license he had worked so hard to get, he was starting from scratch. With his Associate's degree, he could now look for work as a technician in a hospital.
Once off the highway he drives well over the 50-mile speed limit and slows down when he arrives at the gate. The guard waves to him, and the gate is lifted. He drives less than 20 miles an hour in the quiet cul-de-sac, passing landscapers planting flowers, children playing catch on their front yards, girls selling lemonade. In America, everyone minds his or her own business. He pulls into the driveway and like magic one of the four garage doors raises. He gathers his books and walks on the slate pathway, past the above ground swimming pool to the backyard, Bar-B-Que thick in the air.
A small boy climbs the multi-colored plastic jungle gym. “Look at me,” the boy yells. The doctor stops, he wants to say something but smiles instead. The boy does a summersault. “See!” the boy says. The doctor pats the boy on his back.
A thin woman with red hair that she wears in a single braid down her back, barefoot and in a white sundress opens the sliding glass door of the house.
Once she catches sight of the doctor her face radiates, she puts her hands on her hips in mock exasperation. Probably, imitating some actress in one of the sitcoms that she watches all day; every day. She performs raggedy looking cartwheels across the lawn. “You’re late!” She says with a crazy shrill, waving him towards the long picnic table decorated in red, white and blue. Silver balloons with “Happy Graduation!” written on them floats above the table. She darts past him. “Catch me if you can,” she says playfully. The doctor stands motionless.
The girl races back, and leaps on him, clinging to him with her arms and legs, like a monkey, smothering him with loud kiss-like noises. A traumatized girl trapped in an adult’s body is a new kind of crazy, but crazy is crazy.
At the table pouring lemonade from a glass pitcher is the tall fat man with the patch and white cowboy hat. Next to him sits his fat tanned wife and their fat friends, with tousled hair, double chins and garish lipstick and who talk and talk and talk in long drawls, about nothing. The doctor often wondered what kind of deal had been struck to get him there, how much money or oil or both had been paid by the girl’s father to bring him out of Venezuela to America. Why had God placed him in that car that night? Who was he? What was he? What would his mother have to say about this new life? No one spoke Spanish or even tried to learn it. She’d be lonely. When would he be free from being bought and sold?
He didn’t know where he belonged only that it was somewhere else. He spent most of his ‘free time” trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged.
He was glad his mother would never know how her son had turned out.