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The International Writers Magazine: On Being A Man

The Curse
• Piotr Wesolowski

He’s had this thing now: … well … then again, most men do. At least when they’re young, or inexperienced. He couldn’t … with girls ... he was hopeless and …. And yet, at night, alone in his bed, he was a lion.  But tonight, again, he was humiliated.
‘Go! Go! Don’t waste my time!’ Sirelis went on.
Oh, yes, women, girls, … she was a girl, all right …  very young … they become mad at such times, at least those whom he’d been meeting so far.
‘Go! And don’t waste my time,’ echoed in his mind late at night as he crossed el Paseo del Prado (she lived nearby), a once elegant avenue (no so much now) that led to el Malecon in Central Havana.

He turned sixteen last summer and met Yanis, his first girl ever, to be anyway. She was a beautiful mulatta: voluptuous - big breasts, hips, thighs, everything - and believed indisputably insatiable by most men in the neighbourhood. And that’s when it had happened, at night, in a small room in the attic she shared with her mother (her father had left them years back) that the evil curse, he thought, was cast.

He sold a soap bar and a toothbrush he’d got from a French couple he’d met earlier in town. The toothbrush was used, but almost new, and the soap unwrapped; still scarce merchandise on the market, they’d fetched a decent price. He had money now, not much but enough.  They sat in a café and drank beer – he el Bucanero and she el Nacional. It was their date. The beer was cold and soothing. Outside, on the steps, someone played a love song on the tres. And love stirred in the air, and inside their bodies.  He walked her home that night, wanted her, just didn’t want to rush, but she kissed his ear and bit it gently and asked:
¿Lo quieres? My mom’s not home. She’s gone for the night.’
¡O Dios!‘ he said, ‘I want it badly.’
She coyly dangled the key in front of his face, then his mouth. He snatched it with his teeth, put it in his hand, and they ran upstairs. They were in the dark moments later, facing the door, and the key wouldn’t fit the hole. No he wasn’t drunk – two beers, one each, was all they had had; they were both just excited. She kissed his neck and bit it hard now; he dropped the key, but picked it up. He fumbled it from hand to hand, groped for the lock but couldn’t find it. She moaned and called him names like ‘bad bad boy,’ ‘mucha … muchachon’ or ‘pig, absolute pig’ ‘mi cochito, mi amor; and begged him in whisper ‘yes, yes, gimme, gimme right now’ ‘ahora si, ahora Manicito, si, te quiero ahora, te quiero hacer la mama …’  but his zipper was stuck, or her hands were trembling; they were both struggling, pressing against the door which then swung wide open, as if by magic (perhaps it wasn’t locked after all) and hit an object behind it. The thing fell on the tiled floor and broke with a great noise as it crushed.
‘Jesus!’ she uttered, ‘Holy Mother of God!’
‘What? What is it?’ he asked.
El Indio. We broke el Indio,’ she said and cried, ‘It is a terrible sign. Go home, Manny! Go home right now!’

He lit a match; they didn’t turn the light on. Why? Perhaps they felt they’d done something wrong, something  terrible. They saw clay shards scattered on the floor: the head cracked in two halves and  the corpse, separate from the legs attached to a base, was  chipped in a few places. Indeed, they had broken el Indio who guarded the households from bad spells and evil spirits and now, in vengeance, el Indio cast a curse on Manny.

Since then, they hardly spoke; he felt ashamed, frightened, guilty, she … just ashamed. They broke up. Weeks had past since then and then he met Diyanee, a bit too young for his taste, thirteen or something, but she was said to be experienced. They went to the beach, swam and when the evening came they tried to do it in the bush.  Not a chance. She became mad. Nothing’s worst then a girl when they’re mad. She threatened to inform on him for rape, well, an attempted rape. She was outraged and underage. This could turn ugly, he thought, very ugly, and yet law was only law, no shame in raping a girl, a year in jail at most; but the fact that he couldn’t … and the thought of the curse dawned on him for the first time.  This, more then anything else, preoccupied and frightened him.  The curse did. Otherwise, how could this all  explained? In the end, this too he put behind him, although he had to pay her, not much, still money is money. She had threatened to report him to CDR, where her uncle was a big thing, and as if that was not enough, she’d threatened to tell his friends; ‘a rapist and an impotent,’ she’d said she would call him. One thing kinda rules out the other, but ….

With the summer gone, the rains came and washed away, so it seemed, his sense of defeat, his shame. He even began to blame his failure on discomfort – the sand, the prickly grass of the dunes, the weather, the ocean breeze, well, everything, that night, he was sure, had worked against him. And then he met Celia, twice his age,  and a prostitute, who said she’d known his dad, whom he hardly knew himself, and would do it free, out of, as she said, sheer goodness of her heart, and for the sake of fond memories.  She paid for the room, too. Her casa was her office, she said, reserved for customers, hotels were for friends.  And, at first, everything seemed good, he felt empowered this time, confident. But then … again … the usual. It was  there, under a rattling fan, in the dim of a shabby windowless room, on a bed that wiggled and squeaked, on its tattered sheets turned yellow and stained by past raptures and passions that he became certain that el Indio meant vengeance and he, Manny, had no doubt in his mind about it.

Celia said: ‘You just have to be patient, that’s it. Or find yourself a girlfriend. You’re not bad-looking.’ But he knew that to find yourself a girlfriend you must be a man first and for that you needed proof.  Must see a doctor, he thought, What a shame! But I must do it.

A few days later he sat in a crowded room, a waiting room to a doctor’s office. Warnings of contagious diseases, deadly dangerous – syphilis, etc - screamed at him from the walls. Yet, that wasn’t a deterrent; he had to conquer it, he was no sick or anything, he thought, he just had to defeat the curse.
‘What’s your problem?’ the doctor asked from behind thick oversize glasses, his pupils enlarged. His heart sunk and pressed now on his stomach. He felt he might vomit.
‘I just have this chronic….’
‘Well, it happens all the time …’
‘Chronic what?’
‘I just have this chronic cough. I mean when I’m nervous.’
‘Hm.. coughs when he is nervous,’ the doctor noted removing his glasses and looked deep into Manny’s eyes.
‘Yes, like this one,’ and he began to cough and he coughed until he almost choked, red in his face with tears in his eyes.
‘I will take your urine sample,’ the doctor concluded, ‘And blood,’ he added, ‘And stool.’
‘Yes, feces, your excrement, young man. Mierda.’
‘But I only have a cough.’
‘A chronic one We’ll have you properly checked and for now… well, you said you cough when your nervous … just relax. I’ll see you next month. Will do you a physical then,’ the doctor said, ‘I would do it now, but you’re out of luck,’ he smiled, ‘I’ve just run out of gloves. And, by the way, young man, you should find yourself a proper girlfriend.’

He thinks he saw through me, thought Manny as he left, but he is wrong. He heard the doctor laugh when he closed the door: ‘A chronic cough…. But they have no shame and frequent the brothels. What a scoundrel!  God damn it.’ 

He didn’t pity himself, wasn’t sure whether to laugh, or cry, he was upset with himself, disappointed, confused. He had no herpes, nor  syphilis, he knew that, still, he needed help.
Do they see him when they’re sick only, like with syphilis? he wondered, Am I alone with this thing? How can I catch herpes or syphilis like this? I can’t. If I could I’d be better off. Less shame. But I can’t! I can’t!
He went to Celia’s, had phoned her first, needed advice.
‘Relax, be patient,’ she said.
‘But I can’t relax or be patient. I just need to …’ tears blurred his sight now, he almost cried.
She nodded sympathetically: ’You must see a proper man.’  She seemed concerned. She leaned back in her armchair, she was worried; she cared, she was all ears. Maybe, after all, she’d known and really liked, maybe even loved his father. She removed a wad of crumbled papers from the drawer, put them on the table, scanned her many clients’ names, their faces in her memory, picked one, read the man’s name aloud, sighed  and handed it to Manny.
‘Go Manny and see this man.’

He was thankful. Celia was nice. He had always thought so, but now he knew that, had no doubt about it. Thanks God for prostitutes! he said to himself, almost loud, as he rushed down the stairs of Celia’s house. There were a few men, three or four, in a queue outside.  They talked and smoked cigarettes, each patiently awaiting his turn. They sure have no problem, he thought, or maybe they have many problems, but not this one, none of them has been, to be sure, cursed. What a luck! What a damned luck!

The man, the proper man, Celia’s contact turned out to be a babalao in a temple just off San Lazaro, a poor, mostly blacks district of Havana. Yet,  they met at the man’s place in Vedado. A substantial amount of money was required; a ritual had to be performed to appease el Indio, known here as Orisha, who was second only to Oshun, the highest, the most powerful deity in santerismo. In addition, Manny had to bring his own chicken, bought of course on the black market  (where else?) so the sacrifice could be made, blood spilled and fed to Orisha himself and his fellow gods. He was very fortunate to be Celia’s …. friend, an acquaintance, said the man unsure and reluctant to say ‘a client.’ Of course, anybody else with a bad spell upon his … head, he’d ask at least for a goat. They were to meet in the temple on Monday and they did, but …. The temple was tiny and dark and reeked of potent incense which, too boot, obscured Manny’s sight.

African prayers were made; the santero touched Manny’s loins, took a gulp of darkish liquid, maybe rum, sprayed it onto Manny’s crotch, sighed, evoked ancestral spirits by their proper names and, on behalf of the young boy, begged them for help. What happened to the chicken Manny never found out. Did Orisha accept the man’s offering, or did the man, the santero, eat it himself?

All this boggled Manny’s mind – the ceremony, the missing chicken, etc. – plus it all turned out to be of no use, as Manny later found out. Three days later, no more than that,  he met with Trisha, a black beauty from Isla de la Joventud. He tried with her, and again, he failed.

He turned then to Catholicism. He had always viewed the African faith with incredulity, besides: why would Orisha want to help him? He was Hispanic. He travelled to Rincon, a sanctuary on the city’s outskirts, one Sunday, and made his offering - three bottles of premium rum. He was instructed to do so by a sacristan who in Manny’s presence placed them at the foot of the altar with Jesus bleeding on the cross in the centre. There were other objects at the foot of the cross: food and more rum. Chicken popped back to Manny’s mind momentarily; his memory began to wander, but he chased bad thoughts with devout prayer, as he pleaded for his strength to be restored, this time, to a Christian god.  

Perhaps though the rum  never made it to Jesus, or el Indio was stronger than the redeemer himself, at least in these matters, for a week later, this time with his distant cousin, Tanya, visiting from Camaguay, Manny failed again. She wept, and apologised, she thought she was at fault; she was inexperienced. He told her it was all right, that he was to blame, that he’d had things on his mind of late, had been worried. He’d said he liked her a lot, just too much stuff on his mind, that’s all. He spoke of his defeat casually, as if it meant little, but deep in his heart he was desperate. He thought of suicide. Suicide or priesthood. But how can he devote his life to a church, to a god, that won’t help him when he’s in need? Besides, he had already joined the youth communist party, and suicide was viewed by Marx as bourgeois, an aristocratic whim, and thus, in Fidel’s opinion, anti-revolutionary. No, priesthood wouldn’t work, and killing himself had to be ruled out.

Three times he tried now with Sirelis (this was his third time) a daughter of an Armenian engineer, a Soviet long gone; the sweetest, the most patient. And tonight was her birthday, and she’d had enough.  ‘Go! And don’t waste my time anymore,’ he remembered as he reached the end of el Paseo. But how can he win this battle? he asked himself. Persevering, only persevering. He’ll outlast el Indio, he just must be patient. He must be relaxed and … ‘Find yourself a girlfriend,’ returned to his mind. Who said that? The doctor did.  And yes, this was also Celia’s wise advice. And who knows more of men than a prostitute? Nobody does.
But Sirelis, he’s just realized, is his girlfriend, and she’s been so patient. It was his fault; he just rushed her, he just rushed her too much…. He saw her only three times and each time …

Tomorrow, he decided I will tell her, I’ll apologize. He’d try again, he thought as he turned into el Malecon, and if he fails, he’d keep trying. He was now determined to defeat the curse; he had a girlfriend, he had the strength. Sun half-emerged from the sea. Manny stared into horizon – an average morning; he’d seen those before. Yet, today was different; little by little he felt his hopes of manhood returning. Yes, tomorrow he’ll say he is sorry, he decided as waves broke gently against the shore. He’ll buy flowers. Meanwhile, a new day was breaking, a cloudless sky, not a stir of wind in the air, that’s it, another summer day in Havana.

© Piotr Wesolowski Jan 2010

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