Wendy A. Gaudin
In the waters of Playa de este
I swam in a sheer lace underwire balconette bra
with tiny orange ribbons
that hid none of my coloring when wetted by
Our Lady, Star of the Sea,
not one person was on the beach
so I was not worried about my anatomy
not one person was in the water
and my friend
whose black beard glistened
with shining dollops of the sea.
He lived in a fourth-floor apartment on Calle Neptuno
its green glass windows opening onto a cascade
of pastel façades and cast iron galleys.
I sat on the couch and he fed me sweet bread and candy.
The hair against his skin, dampened and curled.
I free-styled against the current out until the water darkened
and I floated in the vast bed of oceanic quiet
letting Our Lady have her way with me:
the water gazed at me, the water grazed me, ever so tenderly smelling me,
nudging me in the directions she wanted me to be,
the water’s breath whispering, remember me, remember me
I buried so many in your ancestry
the water held me, tasting little pieces of me:
cashew-colored and free.
swimming = nadando
sea = mar
surface = superficie
frog = rana
we can = podemos
breathe = respirar
bottom = fondo
Oro, he calls me, out there on the Malecón, a fishing wire and a weight in his hands. Down below and off at some distance, other morning fishermen throw out their pole-less lines. The sun looks like a great lemon in the sky. I wonder how those fishermen got down to the rocks, how they catch fish without a pole.
I crave the pool of the sea.
He sits a few feet from me for some time, I see him there: his skin, a midnight pearl. He comes closer in a careful gesture, every few breaths, a little closer. Our Lady brushes up against the rocks below in the same movement. A little closer, a little closer. Slowly, building the liquid trust of water.
I want to swim.
Oro, he calls me, his voice fired in delicious glaze. His greeting is a keen observation. I was born to my mother golden and amphibian, my skin, a source of breath; the frog, the salamander, the toad: my totems, the smooth-skinned and the rough-skinned. The ones who can breathe air and water.
I trust my body in freestyle. I trust my ability to float.
¿Mi piel? I ask him, gesturing to my skin, my mouth smiling because he smiles his white mouth at me. Many words have been used to describe my skin: light, bright, fair, high yellow, tan, olive, gold, many words to condense the history that I carry, the many generations of women light and dark who made me through choices and non-choices of their own, the white-skinned grandmothers who chose brown-skinned men to be my grandfathers, mustached and tender-hearted, the gift of their choices giving me this skin.
The rasp of his voice is metallic.
Sí. Pero, no. The silver light from the surface of the water winks down below the seawall. Each wave, insisting she be seen, each wave, a diamond of brightness beginning from the dark at the bottom. Light reflecting from my skin, he sees that I am metal. Shining and cold to the touch. Yes, but no.
I ask his name and it rolls from his mouth like a rum cordial. (That evening, I write his name in my journal, I write his name in parentheses, I write the look of his teeth, I write the black patipemba tattooed onto his forearm, I write the turquoise and gold beads around his wrist, I write the trident, I write the words he used and I guess at the accents, I write the words that I’ve guessed and I write the things that I know for sure.) Me llamo Wendy, I tell him in my elementary school Spanish, my Spanish that sounds like my Chicana teacher’s Spanish, saying my name again, Wendy, and he repeats it and it is powdered with sugar and it sounds like Gwaindy.
The splash of the sea is throaty.
¿Puedes verlo? his rasp asks me. Can you see him?
¿Quien? My voice open-throated, I remember how to say “who.”
Espíritu, his rasp answers me, his feet hanging over the edge of the seawall, white Chucks clean and loose-laced.
No, no puedo verlo. I turn his “can you” into “I cannot.”
The spirit wears bells, he tells me, brass bells around his calves that glow like coal. He is the one who announces his presence. He is the one who pleasures himself. He is the one who keeps the wolf at the door. He is the one who holds the machete. He is the one who eats honey.
I remember the word “miel.” Slowly, hesitating, I say, Mi padre…producir…miel, my Spanish too deliberate for the Malecón. I gesture a bee buzzing and my bearded friend is generous. His knee-length shorts are tight around his thin thighs, his fruit a bundle in his lap.
Apicultor, he says, twice, like I said my name, twice, slowly, every syllable tipping gently from his mouth, his face tipping toward mine: ah, with his mouth open; pee, exposing his sugar-cube teeth; cool, his tongue touching the roof of his mouth; tor, his lips puckered, his mouth a chocolate drop. My eyes on his mouth, my mouth, mimicking his.
Yes, my father is a beekeeper.
He tells me that the Espíritu is protecting me. I remember the word “proteger.”
It is true that I’ve never been harmed. Never thieved against, never blood drawn, never bruised upon, never burned down, never knocked askew, never torn in two.
He could not simply approach me out there on the seawall, and neither can anyone else, he tells me, the one that I met on the Malecón. The Espíritu gave him permission. His bells rang yes.
My bells ring, too.
They say yes. But, no.
swimming pool = piscina
bells = campanas
each other = el uno al otro
reminded me = recuérdame
seashell = concha
skin = piel
The taxi isn’t a ’57 Chevy, or a ’49 Ford, or a ’53 Cadillac, but it’s a Lada, a boxy old Soviet car painted a dull green. The interior hasn’t been decorated with fringes or flashing neon lights, there is no air conditioning and no music. Nothing fancy for the tourists. We climb into the back and sink into the seats whose springs sprung years before the Special Period. The brown-skinned driver is happy to take our fare.
My bearded friend tells me to keep quiet in the taxi. Menos dinero. The fare will be lower if I can pass for a Cuban.
We arrive at the edge of the beach. Exiting the taxi, I say, ¡Gracias!, and the driver looks at me again. Prescription sunglasses. White sun hat. Brown skin. White dress.
I look at the one that I met on the Malecón. I know I’ve made a mistake.
¿Mexicana? the driver says, probably detecting my Spanish teacher’s accent.
My bearded friend affirms the guess, and my silence keeps the lie. A few CUPs and the taxi is gone. On the side of the road, three teenaged girls offer us bottled water and bagged snacks. They look like my sisters and me when we were girls, with bare feet on the sand, with hair tucked behind the ears, with tomato-colored sun-burned shoulders, with the echo of swimsuits on the skin; my sisters and me when we were girls, the eldest with long, straight, black hair, the middle with short, curly hair, the youngest, with long, wavy hair; my sisters and me when we were girls: medium, light, and dark.
Banana trees flop in the wind along the walk to the beach. Como Louisiana, I tell him. The trees remind me of home.
We find two sticks on the beach. He stands them up in the sand, and I tie my dress at the ends, my dress: a white flag, blowing in the wind.
We leave our impressions on the beach and we swim.
Our Lady is magnificent in blue.
wings = alas
candy = dulce
sand = arena
fish = pescado
waves = olas
will become = se convertirá
lips = labios
Some CUCs pay for the taxi back to the city.
We walk up Calle Neptuno. The people who pass us on the street call out his name, its alliteration like cotton candy. He is walking with a foreign woman. He will have a story to tell. (That evening, I write his name in my journal, I write his name in felt tip, in the color of cerulean blue, I write Calle San Lázaro, I write Calle Infanta, I write cigars and treeless streets, I write the woman on the rooster’s back, I write the palm above the door, I write the cannon, I write my feet in the sand, I write the sounds of the words he used, I write the words, yo soy, también, y tú.)
He opens the door to his home and there are the toothed skulls of animals, there are polished bones, there is a machete, there is a clothed doll, there are wooden sticks, there are cowrie shells, there are clouded coins, there are brass manilla. There is a jar of honey. Miel de Cuba.
The altar confronts me with a question: are you afraid? I am not. My bells announce my presence.
He is the one who eats honey.
The walls are rose velour.
We smell of the sea. Its skin has pressed into ours, has left its trace and we are damask. Patterns of Our Lady arise and we are rubbed with ashes.
I don’t like the feel of the sand on my skin.
He leaves me alone to sit on the orange couch, so I gently look around the room, making benign comparisons between this one and another in Port-au-Prince, between this one and another in Ponce-de-León, the French and the Spanish imprinted on my tongue, hot coals of our colonial past. I befriend the altar. It feels elderly and black. I ring my bells and it blows its smoke at me. When he returns, he is wearing a clean set of clothes. He is mahogany and fine. I curve like a string of copper. I am the color of pine.
Food in my mouth, I listen as he speaks to me slowly. He is windy and rasp. He is salty and raven. His wings are waxy and fresh. His crest is blossoming and blossomed.
wind = viento
hear = escuchar
pleasure = placer
write = escribir
the past = el pasado
will come = vendrá
gold = oro
It is early in the morning and I belong to no one.
I am flattered by the nonchalant way that people pass me on the street. When I speak, I am asked if I am from the Yucatán. They think that I am a black Mexican. Afro-Mexicana.
Norteamericana, I say in response, a necessary correction. In Vietnam, I’ve learned to say, Toi la người lai Mỹ. I am a mixed-race American.
Yo soy mulata.
Yo soy mestiza.
Yo soy criolla.
Yo soy morena.
Yo soy metál del mar.
I am the metal of the sea.
Down the slope from the Hotel Nacionál, I see him. The one that I met on the Malecón. When I come upon him, his smile kisses me before his mouth does. Oro, he says in an early morning rasp. I can smell him. I bring him bread and coffee, I bring him wind against the sky, I bring him milk and honey, I bring him the hum of the pearl, I bring him the brightest fish of the sea.
I am sugared and crisp.
His breath is a silver ball.
He enunciates very carefully, I am going to give you a gift, each word a grape rolling from the gap between his teeth.
Espérame, he rasps, so I wait for him as he climbs down the rocks, into the water, all of his clothes neatly folded on a large rock, goggles strapped to his face. I glance around to see if anyone is watching us, to see if anyone is watching him: stark naked in the waters of the city, stark naked in the flesh of Our Lady. From the sea, he plucks an anemone. From the sea, he bites a clamshell. From the sea, he sucks a black stone. When he emerges from the water, his fruit hangs heavy as a papaya.
Regalos de Yemayá, he says, his voice a hard candy I want to eat. Gifts from Our Lady, Star of the Sea.
Thank you, thank you, I say in another colonial tongue, cradling the three gifts in my hands, one of them sharp / needles, another smooth / petal, another rough / pumice. He repeats the English words after me, the words like amber in his mouth. Like honey in his mouth. (That evening, I write his name in my journal, I write his name in simple syrup, I write la librería, I write his camouflage hat, I write the studded doors, I write the tile floors, I write the nakedness of the beach, I write the coral church, I write the fire in his mouth, I write the see-through dress, I write the words that I remember and the things that I won’t forget.)
He takes the gifts from my hands and lays them out along the width of the seawall, his clothing clinging to his wet skin.
¿Espíritu? I ask him. ¿El está aquí?
¡Claro! his rasp tells me. Of course, the spirit is here.
I look around and listen for his bells, but I see and hear nothing.
The anemone, the clamshell, and the black stone sit motionless on the seawall, lifeless objects that have been fished from the water. The one that I met on the Malecón pulls a cigar from his backpack, lights it, and blows smoke over the offerings, adding to them some cowrie shells that he pulls from his pocket. He pulls from the cigar again, blows smoke again, another pull, another blow.
All will be well with you, his rasp tells me while the sea clears its throat down below. The sun looks like a great lemon in the sky. El caracol del Santero. The oracle of the saints makes it so.
I am told that he likes honey.
I am told that he protects me.
When you enter my home, you will see the first altar.
It sits in the cubital fossa of the staircase,
bent as it is like an arm at the elbow.
There is a glass plate that holds an egg of quartz,
there is a little corked bottle with a spit of rum,
there is an avocado, there is a candle,
there is a glass of water, there is a stick of incense,
and there is a jar of honey.
Miel de Cuba.
Hanging above the altar is a brass bell
suspended from a cobalt blue cord.
I touch the bell,
my fingers tipping it gently,
calling him to me,
touching it as if it were a hot metal and not a cold one.
I am a shiny and decorative one:
the one who makes her presence known.
My grandfathers’ great-grandfathers
threw their poleless lines out into the Caribbean Sea,
my grandfathers’ great-grandfathers:
plasterers and bricklayers,
my grandfathers’ great-grandfathers:
barbers and printmakers,
my paternal line: builders and clarinet players,
my maternal line: dressmakers and soothsayers,
all of my grandfathers’ great-grandfathers
with honey on their tongues for their many women,
turquoise and gold beads around their wrists.
With the moon still in the sky,
they entered Our Lady, Star of the Sea,
dipping their fingers into the holy water, they sat in the canoe pew
knelt on the cushioned bench,
and prayed to her for plenty.
The fish came enough to feed them all.
In gratitude, they hung the fish around their necks
thank you, thank you, they uttered
to the orishas and the saints, thank you, thank you,
to the loas and the haints,
around their necks: pink coral and cowrie shells,
strung along the golden wire:
and brass bells.
Wendy A. Gaudin is a writer of creative nonfiction and poetry, a history professor, and an artist in the medium of beadwork. Her written work engages themes of race and skin color throughout the colonized world, Louisiana’s histories and mythologies, oral narratives and memory, Creoles and racial hybridity, the body and the landscape of the Mississippi River Valley. Her nonfiction publications are featured in North American Review, Puerto Del Sol, The Indiana Review, The Rappahannock Review, About Place Journal, and the New Orleans Review. She lives in New Orleans and teaches at Xavier University of Louisiana.