Pudica Darling. #SOScuba

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Chapter 23

Pudica was unsure whether fright or hypothermia caused her shivering. She hugged her knees and nestled against a tree, watching the shade by her feet retreat and the sky gain color. The sand was the lightest yellow, bathing in the foam of crystal water. No dangerous animals, no loud engines—it was a girl on a quiet, sunny beach.
And it sucked.
In search of warmth, she crawled out of the shadows and lifted her face to the sun. So much water and she couldn’t drink any. Knees dragged to dry sand.
Great—not! The overrated white dirt stuck to her. Wiping it on her red shirt, smeared it everywhere, which was as annoying as being cold.
It must have been past eight because Pudica’s empty stomach twinged. She scanned the beach for signs of activity.
Loneliness struck.
Her sins were vaster than she had imagined, so God used Ninel to punish her. She sank her hands in the sand to cry, recalling the fate of everyone involved in her life.
Ninel was evil and greedy, and she had it all. Wasn’t that worse than Pudica being horny and disobeying her mother? To God, all sins measured equally, and if a believer repented, he or she was likely to go to heaven. It was all in the Bible; in one of those chapters with numbers.
That’s when the ultimate epiphany reached its peak. God wasn’t looking to punish anybody, or He wouldn’t have dictated a best seller about love, kindness, and forgiveness.
Pudica never defied her mother or fought for what she wanted. The lesson to learn was to work hard for what she desired. She longed to feel Oliver’s lips brushing against her neck, to tell Betsy she didn’t hate her, and to have Robert accept her as his daughter.
Since the grove surrounded the isolated beach, the girl took off her clothes and hung them to dry on a branch. She would find a township after, borrow a phone, and leave the country.

Ideas came better when one was dry and cozy. Pudica pushed her long blonde hair over her shoulder while walking on a dirt road in deep thought. Twenty minutes inland, she found a little town of modest houses. She didn’t need to knock on a stranger’s door as everyone was already outside. Though it wasn’t the weekend, no man was working. They sat in a group. Children ran without pants or shoes in the middle of the street. A woman tended to an enormous cauldron over a fire pit between what looked like two curtains hanging from wires.
Pudica smiled—the international symbol of friendship—and pushed one curtain aside.
“Hola,” she greeted the woman.
What came next, she couldn’t translate in the literal sense, but she understood the lingo.
“Yes, hi, good-days,” said the woman in Spanish, leaving a scoop in the cauldron and approaching the girl.
“Good-days to you, too. My name is Pudica and I—”
“You’re not from here, are you?” The woman, who was forty or ninety years old, examined Pudica unabashed.
Suddenly, all eyes were on her. The pitcher boy pointed at her and yelled, “Look, a gringa.”
“I’m lost,” said the girl.
“Your Spanish sounds from Havana. You’re white, but you’re not a gringa.” The woman pulled up her shirt and wiped her forehead with it.
Pudica frowned as if the woman spoke an unknown language. She felt like a zoo animal. Oddly enough, the native herself had white skin, too, although hers had an uneven tan from working under the sun. Then, a young lady in a silvery coat walked out of the falling shack behind them.
“Okay, Seño, continue boiling the sheets,” she said. “That will help with sanitation.”
Pudica glanced at colored fabrics inside the cauldron, then back at the lady in silver. She seemed to be a health authority since every man and woman gathered around her.
“How’s our neighbor, Doctora?” said a shirtless man.
“Listen, gentlemen, this spreads the virus. Everybody, go back to your homes and start sewing face masks.” The health worker pushed the air with her hands to disperse the crowd, then stopped to scrutinize Pudica’s features. “Good-days,” she frowned.
“Doctora, this girl says she’s lost,” said one villager, pointing at Pudica. The fact Pudica hadn’t talked to this man startled her. The nodding heads meant everyone had heard her conversation by the cauldron. Whispers became louder, raising the hairs on the back of her neck.
“Do you have a cellphone, or know where I can find one?” Pudica addressed the health official.
“Ah, a telephone.” The doctor grinned and pulled Pudica’s arm with an unyielding grip. “Come, come this way. First, I have to check you for coronavirus.”
The natives fixed eyes on both women as they hiked into a trail.
“Excuse me, where are you taking me?” Pudica spoke softly. Forest grew alongside the narrow pathway. At the lack of response, she twisted her forearm and freed herself. No one would take advantage of her in a foreign country. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
The doctor spun and tapped her index finger to her lips. “Shut your mouth, they can hear us.”
“They should.”
Twigs cracked, and pebbles crashed in the distance. The white coat looked behind her while shoving Pudica into a copse. They squatted between the greenery and pointed at the trail. Two men in olive shirts and caps scavenged the area, then continued down the path. The foreigner didn’t comprehend their actions, but if she had to hide, letting them see her wasn’t a smart idea.
“Camilitos.” When the green hats disappeared, the lady stood up and dusted her coat.
“What did you say?” Pudica followed her frantically.
“Girl, wake up. You know nothing, do you?”
“No, I can’t even point at this place on a map.”
“We are near Gibara. And they are from the Cuban military. Somebody snitched on you and told them you were trying to escape the country.”
“I still don’t know where I am, and I do want to leave Cuba.”
“Shut up. You’ll get us killed or worse, imprisoned.” The woman clenched her teeth, punching the air over her head. Where the trail ended, they found a perpendicular road. She stepped onto the pavement and swayed her head as if searching for something. “I’ll find a bottle. Don’t say anything, and if you have to, don’t use that hideous Havana accent.”
“What's wrong with my pronunciation?” Pudica touched her neck and lowered her brows. “Wait, did you say you’re getting us a bottle? Of what? Water?”
The doctor dropped her shoulders, returned to Pudica, and tilted her head. “Now, I’m beginning to think you’re not from Cuba at all.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to say. A trafficker from Florida left me here. The woman I thought was my sister paid him to do it.”
Silver coat winced. “Your sister must be a monster. You won’t make it a day on this island. Not without me, at least.” She extended an open palm. “I’m Doctora Caridad Emilia De La Concepción Pérez Pérez. But everyone calls me Cari. I’m a student of medicine.”
Great, there was a shorter version.
“I’m Pudica Darling.” Pudica shook her hand.
“Ay, that’s a pretty name. Poodeeca Darrrrleeng sounds so American. I’ll call you Darrrrleeng.”
Pudica gave her a shy smile. She enjoyed being called by her last name. It was a happy reminder of her husband. Well, ex-husband; after Ninel made her sign the divorce papers, she probably told Oliver a million lies.
“Can we get that bottle? I’m thirsty. And where can I find a phone around here?” Pudica licked her dry lips.
Cari shook her head. “Darling, a bottle is a free ride. First, we get a horse carriage to Gibara town.”
“Oh, nice. I like horses. So in Gibara we’ll find someone with a phone.” Pudica nodded.
“No, then we take a bus to Floro Pérez town and then a taxi to Aguas Claras town.” Cari traced a map with her index finger.
“Is that too far? When do we eat?”
“In Gibara while we wait for the bus. Just don’t eat too much or we’ll run out of coins.”
All these planning and Pudica had just remembered she didn’t have Cuban currency. “Oh, my God. I can’t pay for a phone booth or food.”
“Then you’re just as poor as any Cuban.” Cari tittered. “That’s why we’re going to Holguin city, where I live. There, you can get a job. I’ll pay your bus fare and water, but if we can get a bottle, we’ll save a bunch. It’s easy. I do this twice a week.”
Twinkles appeared in the foreigner’s eyes, striving to keep her tears inside. Nothing was simple or painless. She noticed Cari’s tennis shoes were three different colors of patched up fabrics. The laces were woven strands of the material used to make sacks of rice. The lady was a doctor and she couldn’t afford shoes or a vehicle. She was a natural beauty with brown eyes, honey curls, and brittle fingernails. Pudica concluded she had entered another dimension.

The strange world was a blend between eighteen-hundreds’ Spanish colony and nineteen-fifties’ vintage. But the citizens wore twentieth century clothes, and the neighborhood had murals of Soviet revolutionaries. A statue of Vladimir Lenin stood at the center of the main plaza.
Cari and Pudica had walked thirty blocks before they stopped by a picturesque facade of pink arches and wooden double doors.
“We’re here,” said Cari.
“This is your house?” Pudica’s jaw dropped at the mansion. Real estate had to be cheap in Cuba. The homes were crammed and had no front yards, but they appeared spacious inside. She was dying to find the toilet and evacuate her bladder.
“No, my house is the second door.”
The foreigner saw a number on each entrance. She followed Cari through door twenty-two to find scratched wooden furniture in front of an old boxy television set. To the left they found a dark hall with two doorless bedrooms divided by a large quilted curtain instead of a wall.
Cari took off her coat and dropped it on a twin-sized bed. Then, she guided Pudica to the end of the hallway where a middle-aged woman scooped water from a bucket, and poured it over dirty dishes in a sink made of concrete. The little room was a kitchen with one electric stove, rice cooker, pressure cooker, and a refrigerator. There were no chairs or tables. The counter-top was a bar of unpolished cement.
Thank goodness! If they had a fridge, Pudica could drink some long craved cold water. What she had in Aguas Frescas was too warm because Cari made the kiosk vendor boil it. She said regular water wasn’t filtered enough for an American to drink. It had gotten several tourists sick.
“Hi, Mami, this is Pudica Darling, from the United States,” Cari addressed the middle-aged woman.
Her mother dropped the plate in the sink and wiped her hands on her shorts. She grabbed Pudica by the shoulders and kissed her on the cheek.
“Cari, my love, if you had told me you were bringing an American friend, I would have made your father fix the fridge and kill a chicken,” she said nervously.
“No, Mami, she’s not that kind of American,” replied Cari. “She’s one with problems.”
“An American with problems?” The woman’s chin disappeared into her neck. “Like not enough sunscreen?”
“Bigger than that.”
“Is there anything I can help with?”
“Tell her,” Cari said to Pudica.
Pudica nodded, tapping her feet and squirming. “Sure, could I use your bathroom first?”
“Yes, it’s that way.” Cari’s mother pointed toward the wooden panels of a window.
“The backyard?” The desperate girl frowned as the woman confirmed the location.
No time to argue with an exploding bladder. The foreigner darted outside, looking for toilet signs. Maybe Cari’s mother hadn’t understood her Spanish because she saw a corral of five pigs and a tall, wooden structure with a door.
That couldn’t be it. Approaching the human-sized box, a smell of feces stabbed her brain and made her throw up into her mouth. She opened the door with her pinky finger to encounter a smaller box with a hole on top. Two roaches scampered out of it. Newspaper strips hung from a hook beside it. What she called the news, Cubans called toilet paper. Pudica winced.
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