“If he waited for us, the Cuban police would’ve caught him.” Oliver buckled his belt, then leaned on a tree while sliding his running boots onto his feet.
“We’ll lure him with money if we need him back,” said Betsy.
Oliver dropped his forehead on the tree’s trunk and sighed. “If? You mean ‘when.’”
“Are you still feeling sick?” Robert grabbed the younger man’s head and examined his eyes. He lit a pocket flashlight at his pupils as the moon glowed over them.
“Sick of the sea and this place.” The godson picked up a pebble and pitched it toward the water. He sat on the sand with his elbows on his knees. Betsy squatted and gave him a side hug.
“I’m not giving up,” he said in case they wondered. “I’m pissed. I’m her husband.” He poked his own chest. “We could have stayed in Texas. I should have protected her.”
“I was the one who insisted on going,” said his god-father. “When I discovered Pudica was Betsy’s daughter, I wanted to go to Palm Beach and land two fists on Francisco. I knew he was dead, but still.”
Oliver didn’t care for anybody’s feelings. He didn’t miss The Woodlands, his gym, or his friends. His life became solely focused on a woman he met just months ago. The morning news on his phone said businesses might reopen in phases, and a vaccine that could save millions of lives was in development.
Let that world burn. If Pudica wasn’t by his side, hell, nothing mattered?
Oliver was oblivious to the fact he stepped on a shoe print his wife had left on the dirt road. After not being able to light a fire in fear of drawing attention, he had to spend the night shivering under a thin towel. Awareness decreased as he yawned. Different scenarios where he found Pudica ran through his brain.
Betsy and Robert walked ahead in silence. Neither looked at each other. Every few seconds, the woman’s arm pivoted to the side. Rocks crackled under their synchronized steps. Betsy’s forearm swung wider outwards and tapped her husband’s hip.
“Sorry,” she said.
Her husband didn’t reply, continuing to gaze forward. She crossed her arms and lowered her chin. Then, he reached for her right wrist, found her palm, and slithered his fingers between hers. There was a bit of tension in her limbs, but she slowly relaxed.
“How long has it been since we met?” said Robert.
“Twenty-five. No, twenty-seven years,” said Betsy.
“You had just received your American green card.”
“Quite some time from our first encounter at the inn. It was the day before I quit my job as a hotel maid.”
Both of them smiled, still not making eye contact.
“Do you remember when you asked me what brought me to Florida?” he continued. “I said something about a medical conference.”
“Yes,” she said, squinting at the memory. “A doctor who separated conjoined twins was delivering a speech.”
This time, Betsy directed her gaze at him with a ridge in her forehead. Her lips almost touching the tip of her nose. Oliver had heard their love story, but he was unaware of this aspect. The godson paid more attention. Betsy must have had the same questions, so he avoided giving his opinion.
“I was visiting my girlfriend in Yale,” said Robert. “But I broke up with her that afternoon after I met you.”
Betsy’s eyeballs showed their full circumference. “You did that for me? But you didn’t ask me out until two months later.”
“Imagine falling in love with someone the first day you meet them. I was a man of logic fighting my heart.” Robert kissed Betsy on the cheek and placed his arm around her shoulders.
Oliver had to smile. He wished to have a conversation with his wife in twenty years about how much he still loved her.
In the middle of his reverie, they arrived at a deserted village of wooden houses. Palm tree leaves covered each roof. A woman’s head popped out of one shack, then her body walked outside. She was wearing a fabric face mask.
“Worms! Imperialists! I’m tired of ungrateful people trying to leave the country by boat,” she said in Spanish.
Robert and Oliver frowned, but Betsy was agape. She would later translate her gabbling to them.
“Excuse me? Don’t yell at me. I’m a tourist guide and these are my Canadian friends.” She pointed both of her hands at her companions.
The woman shut one eye and held her fists on her sides. With a raised chin, she scrutinized Betsy from her shoes to her hair. Behind the mask, they noticed a jerking of her nose. The men didn’t comprehend the women’s interaction, but suspicion was a common human emotion.
“Ah, I see. You’re a cowgirl,” said the villager.
In recollection of his poor Spanish, Oliver whispered in English. “Did she just say ‘cowgirl?’”
“It doesn’t mean what you think it means,” his god-mother replied with a grin and clenched teeth.
That left him puzzled. According to Betsy, no Caribbean islander spoke the same Spanish as the people from the other countries in the American continent, especially Cubans. Mostly isolated, restricted travel prevented other cultures from influencing them. In the last two-hundred years, Spain, The United States, and some of Africa made an impact. Then everything stopped in nineteen-fifty-nine. The Bolsheviks hung for a while, but Cubans had invented unfamiliar words, gave their children original names, and even embraced other gods. It wasn’t like American versus British English; it wasn’t something Oliver cared to probe.
Robert seemed to know, however. He took offense and stood in front of his wife, but Betsy coughed and tapped his chest.
“If I’m a cowgirl it’s not your problem,” she told the villager.
“It’s all right. I’m familiar with the profession.” The villager pressed her lips. “I assumed you were with the girl from yesterday.”
“Which one?” Betsy lengthened her neck.
The masked woman approached her, eager to reveal the gossip. “Mija, let me tell you. I thought she was a gringa at first, but she sounded like she was from Havana. We think she was trying to leave the country because she had no backpack and her hair had sand in it.”
“Really. What happened to her?”
“We reported her.”
Betsy’s lips curved still, although her eyes showed fear. She sighed, fluttering her hands as she and the woman kept talking. Toward the end of the chat, her semblance turned happier. They waved at each other. Betsy led the men through a trail.
“Let me repeat what you just said,” Oliver told Betsy. “We need to find a bottle because it’s faster than a gua-gua, and camels don’t come to this area.”
“That’s what I said.” Betsy threw her thumb over her shoulder while a car drove closer.
“It’s just different ways of transportation.” Robert dismissed Oliver and addressed his wife. “How do you know Pudica is in Holguin city? This female doctor could have taken her anywhere.”
“If the specialist is from there, and Pudica needs a phone, that’s the place to find one,” said Betsy. “Here we go. This one’s stopping.”
A blue nineteen-fifty-five Chevrolet Bel Air stopped by them. They inspected the vehicle as if they had just time-traveled. Nothing in the car looked replaced. The machine was an original artwork. The raised sides with silver strokes added to its mightiness. Aunt Betsy wasn’t kidding when she said the island was in a vintage loop.
“Hola.” Betsy lowered her torso over the passenger window. Two men and a teenage girl rode in the front. They nodded with a smile as Betsy told them something in question format. She gave them a thumbs-up, then opened the back door.
Used to the comfortable American way of life, it was a relief they didn’t have to hitchhike to the bus station. Oliver glanced at the driver to thank him for his generosity when he saw his friend rub the little girl’s bare leg.
“Wait, uh—” A rage developed in Oliver’s gaze. The underage lady wore pigtails and two pimples on her forehead. Her thin features and youthful eyes couldn’t be older than fourteen.
Betsy shook her head at him and pulled him toward the back seats.
“No,” he said. Had he been the only one perceiving these details? The teenager and the man with a fully grown silver mustache weren’t friends or relatives.
Robert grabbed his shoulders and turned him away from the car. “Oliver, this is normal here.”
“She’s a child.”
“Not to them.”
“This isn’t normal.”
Robert joggled him. “Listen to me. That won’t be the worst thing you’ll see. I need to know you can handle it.”
The perturbed American stared at the Cuban men, finding no trace of humanity. Crystalline beaches weren’t enough to cover the evils of the world that surrounded him. He picked up his backpack and went inside the car.
The ride was slow and the road uneven compared to the high-speed freeways in America. The driver made conversation with Betsy and she replied with brief answers. Apparently, everyone was heading to Holguin city, so there were no frequent stops, except for bathroom emergencies. The teen didn’t seem in distress. She even showed affection for the man on one occasion, which caused the travelers grimace. The lack of A/c and the old-fashioned roll-up windows added to their awkward sweat. Oliver still didn’t trust the strangers, so he regularly checked his pistol in the front pocket of his backpack.
After arriving in Holguin city, they had yet to see new constructions. Everything looked like a collage of Soviet Russia and nineteenth century Spain. To find Pudica in such a place took time, but hopefully her complexion and behaviour stood out from the crowd.
Robert gave the chauffeur a ten-dollar bill for the bottle ride. Oliver thought the small tip was offensive to the driver. Instead, the man stared at the print of Alexander Hamilton as if it were gold; and it was. Betsy said that was enough to cover monthly groceries, water, and electricity.
Oliver pulled up a picture of Pudica on his phone to ask a man if he had seen her. It was unbelievable Robert had to send him the image because he had none. The young husband promised himself he would change that as soon as he found his wife.
Pudica was not afraid of tough labor as long as it was honest, and it provided a living. Unfortunately, her hosts saw those requirements as too demanding. Unless she had identification documents, she couldn’t ask anyone for a job. But Georgina, Cari’s mother, had a discrete neighbor, whose cousin had a daughter with a friend’s butcher’s—well, she knew somebody who might help.
Four elderly men in guayabera shirts and farmer straw hats squinted at Pudica. One sucked on his cigar and placed a domino piece at the center of a table.
“It’s my turn now,” said another gray-haired player. “Don’t you try to rig the game.”
“I’m not rigging no game.” The old man to his right grunted, holding his tobacco stick in the corner of his mouth.
“Dale, I need suggestions quickly.” Georgina clapped violently at them.
“Cowgirl,” said a third elder. “Easy money and gets paid in American dollars.”
“We’ve already stated she won’t be a prostitute.” The woman rolled her eyes.
“Why does everyone keep suggesting that?” whispered Pudica. “First, the tailor, then the street vendor, and even the milk-woman.”
Georgina whisked her hand at her and addressed the men again. “You have to know somebody, come on.”
Smoke puffed out of the elders’ mouths as they looked at their game pieces. One knocked on the table and the rest chuckled. Pudica whispered again, but Georgina interrupted her. “Shh, they’re thinking.”
“Got it,” said the bearded one. “Go to the kiosk market and ask for Yordan.”
Georgina clapped above her head and traced a large circle with her arms in celebration.
“Thank you, great wise men,” said Pudica, making a small reverence.
But the elderly farmers did not take her manners seriously. They shook their heads while puffing more smoke. The girl stepped back awkwardly and walked after Georgina.
Finally, Yordan turned out to be a businesswoman who sold pork sandwiches. Pudica was excited. If all she had to do was to prepare the food and sell it to customers, making money in Cuba wouldn’t be as hard as she thought. They greeted the delightful woman at the center of the market and she immediately offered Pudica a job. She waved her arms toward a row of colorful kiosks, and they scurried behind her.
When they passed the market and crossed the street, Pudica frowned. Perhaps she trained her employees in a different location. Right, she needed classes on how to prepare the delicious pork sandwiches.
“The key to raising a good Cuban pig is the palmiche,” said the businesswoman, pulling a key from the cleavage of her massive bosom. “That’s the fruit from palm trees. We feed all animals with it.”
Interesting facts made the girl smile. Yordan stopped by an enormous iron door and unlocked it with her key. As she rolled it open, a large corral with fifty pigs bathing in mud appeared in front of them. Where were the chef’s table, the knives, the bread, and the recipe book?
“I’ve been needing another worker to maintain the corral for a long time.” Yordan squeezed Pudica’s biceps. “Your fat arms will be perfect for the job.”
Pudica took a narrow step forward as her facial muscles twisted out of place. The muddy floor turned softer underneath her. She squirmed, realizing she had stepped in a puddle of a rotten substance.
“Do—do you have gloves or aprons?” Pudica stuttered, trying to avoid a mental breakdown.
“A what?” said Yordan.
Then, a tiny apartment in a poor Texas neighborhood and a small paycheck didn’t sound so bad.