Puta

Nicaragua, 1978

I’m not a prostitute, honest. I’ve never even done anything like this before. But since we only met three days ago, it’s probably too early to call myself Luis’ girlfriend. Besides, I’m not in love with him, though I do think he’s a truly nice person, and he doesn’t love me, though he must enjoy my company or he wouldn’t have asked me to stay when the others flew back to Miami last night. Maybe what I am is a mistress, because Luis says he’ll take care of everything like jewelry and clothes, and of course it will be my job to sleep with him, which I’ve already done. But he hasn’t mentioned money, so I don’t think he’s going to pay me, and I wouldn’t want him to. I’m just amazed to be here in a foreign country at all. I mean, Friday afternoon at Cindy’s apartment I had never heard of this place, and when everyone got excited and said, “Hey, let’s go to Managua!” naturally I said, “Where’s that?” They thought I was joking.

“Bonnie,” said Cindy, “you are a scream!”

Then everyone rushed off to pack, and I hurried after Cindy into her bedroom. Cindy tells people she’s a beauty consultant, but she’s really a cosmetics clerk at the Paradise Boutique where we both work. All the same, she knows a lot about makeup and fashion, and we’re forever trading tips. Like even though I’m brunette, my skin is pale, so I need a blush to add warmth, and Cindy found me just the right shade of peach. She also says I have good bones, and if I sweep up my hair and spray back my bangs I look almost regal and way more mature than nineteen, especially if I do a little black dress thing. Next month when my lease runs out we’re going to get an apartment together.

“What’s happening?” I whispered. “I thought we were going to Key West for the weekend.”

“Not anymore. We’re flying to Managua.”

“But where is that?”

“In Nicaragua. Central America. It’s where Luis is from.”

“Central America! I don’t have enough money to go that far. I don’t have a passport.”

“You won’t need one. Luis has a private plane.”

“A private plane?”

Cindy nodded and stuffed a sundress and a pair of high-heeled sandals into a duffel bag. “Look.” She held up a lace bra and sighed. “It’s my favorite bra, and it was such a pretty beige color. Now it’s got this awful gray tinge. Somebody must have washed their crummy blue jeans in the machine right before me.” She inspected the bra sadly. “It just makes me sick.”

I still felt confused. Luis and his friend Jorge had come over with Willie and Marcie, who live down the hall. Willie is an engine mechanic, and apparently when Luis bought a boat in Miami last year, Willie solved some problems for him that no one else could. So now every time Luis comes to Miami, he visits Willie, who in turn introduced him to Cindy on a previous visit. But I had only just met all of them, and we’d hardly talked together.

“Luis must be pretty rich,” I guessed. “Is he somebody important?”

“Bonnie, you dope!” Cindy cried. “He’s only the nephew of the general who runs the whole country. Come on, you can borrow some of my clothes.”

So we drove out to this little dirt airstrip, where there was a plane and pilot waiting, and Luis was very nice to me on the flight. He speaks very good English. Even though he’s rich and Latin, he doesn’t wear gold necklaces, just neat, casual clothes. Overall he’s pretty handsome, though his stomach is a bit soft and late in the day he gets a five o’clock shadow. His friend Jorge is short with curly hair and a badly scarred face, and he always seems to be grinning. I probably shouldn’t say this, but he reminds me of a monkey.

When we landed in Managua I realized I had a lot to learn. Like there were men everywhere with great big guns, machine guns even. Then I discovered Jorge has a gun, too. He keeps it in a shoulder holster, and he’s not just Luis’ friend. He’s his bodyguard! He and the other men are from their Secret Service, all to protect Luis. Managua was pretty rundown, at least what I saw of it. Luis explained they’d had a huge earthquake a few years ago and the city was still recovering. I felt ashamed about that, to accept Luis’ invitation to visit his country and not know anything about it. So as we drove through the streets I asked Willie to tell me everything he could. He was driving one car with Marcie, Cindy and me in it, while Luis, Jorge, and a couple named Ramon and Elena that we’d met at the airport were in another. Willie did a really good job as tour guide because he’s Puerto Rican and speaks Spanish, so he could read the signs.

At one corner we almost had an accident when Jorge slammed on his brakes to avoid a woman crossing against the light. Then Willie almost crashed our car into Jorge’s. The woman was wearing a low-cut top and a short red skirt, and she tossed her head and gave us all an insolent look.

Puta!” Jorge yelled out the car window, and Willie laughed.

“What does ‘puta’ mean?” I asked.

“It means ‘whore,’” said Willie.

Luis came back to our car. “Ramon and Elena have suggested we go to the boat in Corinto. Would you like that?”

“Great,” said Willie, and Marcie said, “Oh, yes!”

“You’ll like Corinto,” said Willie as we started up again. “It’s a fishing town on the coast, and Luis has a house there right by the dock.”

It was past dark when we arrived. The house turned out to be a wood building, like a large ranch house but very plain inside, and there were maids and a cook and different men with guns. Willie and Marcie got a room together, and so did Ramon and Elena. That left me and Cindy and Luis and Jorge, but Jorge said Cindy and I would share so we went into another bedroom and unpacked our bags. The cook fixed us a big shrimp dinner, then Jorge brought out grass and everybody got stoned. I thought it was funny Jorge being Secret Service that he should be in charge of the grass, but he said everybody in the Secret Service smoked it. I don’t remember much else because I fell asleep on a couch.

When I woke the next morning, Cindy was brushing her hair.

“What a night! You sure crashed early, Bonnie.”

“I’m sorry.” I stretched guiltily. I was still in my clothes. “I guess it must have looked pretty rude.”

“Luis seemed to think it was cute. He told Jorge to get you a pillow, and we just partied without you. Then about two in the morning I woke you up, and you walked to bed. Don’t you remember?”

“No.”

Cindy worked at a snarl. “Well anyway, which one do you want? I think you’re going to get Luis, so I better resign myself to Jorge.”

For a minute I didn’t say anything. “Do we have to?”

“Well, nobody would make you, but what did you expect?” She put down her brush. “Look, Bon, you can see the others are paired up, and here are you and me as if we’re in a girls’ dormitory.”

“I know.”

“So be a good sport. After all, you’re getting an all-expenses paid trip to Nicaragua. Don’t you feel you owe Luis something in return?”

“That’s just it.” I drew up my legs and hugged my knees. “Why should I have to feel I owe him?”

Cindy came over and put an arm around me. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like him? He’ll use a condom. Look, if you’re really turned off him for some reason…”

“No, it’s not that. I think Luis is very nice. But why do I feel like I owe him that?”

“Because when a person does something nice for you it’s natural to want to repay them, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what other moola have you and I got?”

*****

I’m not smart. I barely made it through high school. But I am pretty. I have hazel eyes and long brunette hair and a really good figure, tall, with the kind of cleavage that’s hard to ignore. I don’t know if I’m a good lover. I don’t do anything special. But Luis seemed to like it, so Sunday night when he asked me to stay, I felt flattered and proud. Anyway, it’s not fair to expect every woman to be a lawyer or an executive. I can sell beachwear to tourists at the Paradise Boutique or I can come to places like this, with men like Luis, and have a really nice time. Which would you choose?

“Do it!” Cindy whispered when I pulled her aside for advice. We had spent most of the weekend out on the boat, cruising along the coast drinking piña coladas. Being from Miami I’ve seen lots of big yachts, and Luis’ isn’t the biggest. But it has three staterooms, a lounge with a glass-topped table and lavender suede settees, a television and a bar. The kitchen has a freezer and microwave. “You can always cut it short and come back, and I’ll cover for you at work meanwhile. I’ll say you had a death in the family. Gosh, who knows, Bonnie, you could end up being the first lady of Nicaragua!”

“No!” I protested, though it was fun to think about.

As everyone left, Willie kissed me goodbye. “Be careful, Bonnie,” he said in my ear.

“I’ll be with Luis,” I assured him, feeling both brave and suddenly scared.

The next day Luis took me back to Managua where he has an apartment outside the city. We went shopping, and he bought me dresses and shoes and jewelry, since Cindy had taken her clothes home. I told him I wanted a dictionary.

“A dictionary?”

“A Spanish-English dictionary, and some books in English about your country.”

Luis looked amused, but he told Jorge to get them, and that afternoon I started reading. About beef and cotton and bananas being Nicaragua’s main export crops. About the tropical forests and the rainy season that would start soon. I told Luis he was to speak to me only in Spanish in bed, and I actually understood it a little. I think it was fun for him, too, to drive me around and show me the churches and monuments. Then we went shopping again. He didn’t seem to have much else to do.

That weekend we drove back to Corinto and went out again with Ramon and Elena on the yacht. The only other boats in the harbor were small fishing boats. Later, as we were tying up at the dock, there was a loud rat-tat-tat from somewhere outside the town, and Elena and Ramon started. Luis’ jaw worked as if he were trying to swallow something.

“What was that?” I asked.

Jorge shrugged, his usual grin on his face. “Just a little target practice.”

On Monday Luis had to return to Managua on business. He took a different bodyguard and told Jorge to stay with me on the boat. I could watch TV, sunbathe, and do my studying. The next afternoon Jorge asked if I’d mind if he went into town, to see his “mujer” he said with a wink. Sure, I said, though it was funny to think what kind of woman a scrawny little guy like Jorge might have. He flicked his cigarette over the side and disappeared. I watched a children’s TV program about the circus. It was good because they talked slowly and exaggerated everything, and I made a list of new Spanish words. After a while I decided to walk into town since I hadn’t been there yet.

It was four o’clock, and at first I figured the reason the streets were so deserted was because it was still siesta. Then I began to realize there wasn’t much to the town at any hour. The houses were dirty shacks crowded together, and none of the streets was paved. The dust hung in the air, hot and choking. There was nothing like green bushes or lawns. I found a square that must have been the market, but the stalls were empty. Sometimes I heard voices or laughter, but they vanished when I turned my head to find them. Sweat trickled down my armpits and stained my white dress. I thought somewhere there must be a restaurant or a bar where I could go in, get a drink, and talk to the people firsthand. But nothing looked like the colorful photographs of Nicaraguan life in the books Luis had bought me.

You know how in scary movies there’ll be a scene where you’re lost in the woods at night? The leaves rustle, shadows lurk behind the trees, then glittering eyes surround you in the dark. You tell yourself it’s nothing, they mean you no harm. But your throat tightens, and you shrink inside your skin. That’s how I felt, only with the colors in reverse: me alone in broad daylight, in the silence and hot sun, a circle of gleaming black eyes piercing me from behind closed doors.

*****

But of course it takes time for people to accept a foreigner in their country, so I set out to gain their confidence and earn their respect. I began by trying to speak Spanish to the maids and cook in the ranch house. I nodded graciously to the fishermen when their rusty boats passed the yacht on their way out to sea. It was no use pretending we were equal, but you couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist. The morning Luis returned I persuaded him to take me to the market. The stalls had fruits and some vegetables, live chickens and a goat, fish and red meat already smelling in the heat. The vendors shooed away flies, and the shoppers, mostly women lugging children and babies, made way for us. I bought bananas and a melon for the yacht. Jorge came along as usual. Remembering his “mujer,” I figured he probably knew more people in the town than he let on. It still wasn’t the gay, laughing scene pictured in the books, but people were polite to us, and overall I thought it was a success.

That night in bed I tried to find out how Luis felt about the poverty in his country. Maybe, like a lot of men, all he needed was some encouragement to take a stand. Maybe I really could be the woman at his side as we brought prosperity to the land. But Luis insisted he wanted to talk about me, and before I knew it I was telling him crazy stories about things Cindy and I had done at the boutique. Luis laughed and laughed, but when he fell asleep he looked tired. I stroked his hair. Around midnight I heard far-off gunfire.

The next two weeks we spent back in Managua. We went to nightclubs and restaurants, often with Ramon and Elena and Luis’ other city friends. Most of them were older than me, in their twenties and thirties and sophisticated. Latin women really know how to dress. At the end of the month we returned to the yacht, and one afternoon Luis threw a big party. Half the guests were on the aft deck, the other half lounging in chairs on the dock. There was plenty to eat and drink and more grass. I went inside the boat to freshen my makeup.

Mira.”

Coming up from my stateroom, I stopped at the top of the stairs. Ahead Jorge and another bodyguard sat at the bar, their backs to me. Jorge had his pistol, and the other man cradled a machine gun under his arm. They were drinking, and Jorge nodded outside toward the aft deck.

Mira el payaso,” he said to his friend.

I peered beyond them out the window. Look at the clown. At first I saw only Ramon and Elena and the other couples like them. But some of the guests had started laughing, and now applause spread across the deck and onto the dock. For a moment, I still couldn’t see the reason, then a figure danced into sight. It was Luis, in his bathing trunks and bare-chested. On his head he wore a pair of blue boxer shorts, the elastic waistband around his forehead and drooping over his ears. The empty boxer legs stuck partway up, then folded over like flaps. On his face was a silly grin. He danced a circle on the deck, hula-ing his hips and twirling his hands in the air, and I remembered an old picture of a court jester in a funny hat with horns and bells. The laughter rose and broke and rose around him again.

Payaso, tonto, idiota.” The other bodyguard spat.

Jorge drew his pistol from the shoulder holster and aimed it at Luis. The other man chuckled.

Un día,” said Jorge. There was no grin on his scarred face as he made a clicking noise with his tongue.

Y la norteamericana?” his friend asked.

Ella no importa.” Jorge shoved the third finger of his left hand into the air. “Es puta.”

*****

Jorge was right. What I am is a whore. What else would you call a woman who sleeps with a man, accepts jewelry and clothes, then deserts him at the first sign of danger?

Luis didn’t ask for a reason. He just took me to the airport in Managua and escorted me to the steps of his private plane. I had wanted to return the gifts, but he wouldn’t let me. And I tried to warn him about Jorge, but he shook his head as if he already knew.

“Will you come to Miami again?” I asked. I had swept up my hair the way Cindy showed me, and I spoke as if we were not surrounded by a ring of armed men.

“That would be delightful,” he replied gravely. “I hope my schedule will allow.”

I offered my hand. “Thank you for showing me this hospitality in your beautiful country,” I said in my best Spanish.

Luis kissed my fingers. His voice was very clear. “It has been a pleasure to have the company of such a lady.”

I mounted the airplane steps, and they closed the door. When I took my seat and looked at Luis from the window he lifted his hand in a wave. We landed at the same dirt airstrip we had left from, and there was a car waiting to take me home. I called Cindy, and of course I’d lost my job. It’s okay. I’ll get another, and I can pawn the jewelry Luis gave me to tide me over meanwhile. Every day now, I read the international section in the newspaper. Un día, Jorge had said. Sooner or later, I’m bound to hear.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1988)

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