Where had he found rum? I took a sip. It was strong but sweet. Warm from his hands. “In Cuba we have a saying,” he said, “when you drink from my cup, you learn my secrets.”
Creative Nonfiction by Dacia Price
It was the second June after the August of my mother’s death when I moved to Monterey. My house in Seattle had started to shrink and the rains, to settle into the walls and my body. We both had become saturated by a cold and heavy solidity which pulled and pooled and caused us to buckle and bend in ways we were not meant to buckle or to bend. I had taken to laying on the couch for days so that even when I left the house, my body remained in the same position, awaiting my return. It occurred to me somewhere in January that I was drowning, but it took until March before I understood that no one was coming. That it was just me. That I would need to teach myself how to swim.
I met a man in Cuba who brought me rum and orange juice as I sat on some rocks, looking over a pooled river. The little fish nibbled on my toes and ankles while the bigger fish hid just out of view.
I didn’t ask for rum.
He called to me from the bank, raising the plastic cup as if it were a question mark. “Sure,” I said. He climbed across the rocks, cup in hand, orange liquid rolling up the inside and splashing back down with each step. There wasn’t enough to spill. He handed it to me. He had a kind face. Open. Warm. He wore the uniform of a security guard, long pants and khaki shirt, work boots.
Where had he found rum? I took a sip. It was strong but sweet. Warm from his hands. “In Cuba we have a saying,” he said, “when you drink from my cup, you learn my secrets.” He smiled. I returned the cup to him a bit left in the bottom. I didn’t want him to think I was greedy, that I didn’t understand sharing, or secrets. He drank the last and looked at me. “More?” I nodded my head.
He had two gold teeth and olive skin.
There are nine-hundred-and-forty-two miles between Seattle and Monterey, most of it through mountains. In June those mountains are rocky and arid and coated in the greens and browns of forests not yet dry enough to burn. In August they will be ready. In August the whole place ignites. But in June it is still fresh, and the wind through my open window stings my eyes as I climb. There is Rainier, and Saint Helen. Mount Adams before Mount Hood. When I see Shasta I’ll know it’s time to come down. I’ll know I’m almost home.
My mother died on a Friday. We held her funeral the following Wednesday at the church she attended with the tall pointed spires and stained-glass windows which dissected the summer sun into its prism colors, painting the floor and walls red and orange and green and blue. There was no casket. There was no body. Just a room of all the people she had ever known, and a rainbow, and sweltering August heat. After, in the coolness of the church’s basement, the colors faded to black and white and grey, and the sounds muted to hushed tones of mourning and grief. One after another, strangers holding cookies on square paper napkins whispered words of condolence into my ear, sugary crumbs marring the otherwise crisp blackness of shirts and pressed dresses. The air smelled of staleness and dried things which once held life. My body itched. My feet ached. The weight of the sanctuary above caused the ceiling to bow and sag, and my knees in response, to wobble and shake and beg for action. Now that it is over, they seemed to say, we need to move.
In Havana I wandered into an area where paint peeled from walls. Where walls themselves were shadows from which rock piles grew and around which trash accumulated. I was caught in the rain. There was no warning, and I had no umbrella. The water made everything feel smaller. Tighter. Closer together. From above, a few pebbles and dust fell, mixing with the rain to splash and crash on the street beside me. Erosion there happened in minutes. Rivers and gullies and softened mountain peaks formed and carved their way through valleyed buildings, carrying loosened gravel and plaster and mud to the ground below. The residents knew this, but I was a tourist and understood nothing of building ecology.
A woman called from a doorway inviting me in. It was wooden and chipped and dulled by weather. Inside, her floors were marble, her furniture antique. Paintings on the walls in rich oils, and ceramic busts on tall spindle legged tables, a stark contrast to the desolation of the street outside. There were teardrop beads hanging from light fixtures on the ceiling. I wondered if they were glass or plastic. Rough gold twine linked them together to form a complex lattice. We sat to wait out the rain, she in the kitchen and I on the sofa. She didn’t speak. I didn’t either. After, I tried to give her some money, a thank you. She refused and I was embarrassed. Maybe she was too.
Outside her door a kitten stood in the corner, wet, tiny, hardly old enough to walk. It mewed and tried to move toward my feet. No one noticed. Where was its mother? I picked it up and moved it behind the door, away from the rain and the street. I didn’t think it would live very long but I couldn’t watch it suffer. Behind the door felt better.
After my mother’s funeral I bought my first house plant. It came in a square plastic container that leaked water and soil on the back seat of my car. I didn’t care. I replanted it in a pot made of rough and polished ceramic and painted it white. The plant had no name. I found it on a rack in the back of a grocery store at midnight when I didn’t know why I had come. It was the only one of its kind, sandwiched between ferns and cacti and clearance stacks of canned tomatos. I stood there looking at it for a long time before reaching out and touching its leaves, and then its rounded trunk. This is why, I thought, and carried it home.
Ashland in June is an oven. Heat mirages waft from the asphalt and I can feel the rubber of my tires stick and pop as I make my way south. The plant, yesterday a kaleidoscope of greens, today wilts in the heat and drops yellowed leaf after yellowed leaf.
The security guard took off his boots at the shore and his uniform shirt. Under, he had on a red t-shirt that hugged his arms. I smiled. He smelled of rum as he sat beside me, a little closer than before, and offered me the cup. “There is no more juice, but this is 3 year rum. It doesn’t need juice.” The liquid inside his cup was pale yellow and tasted of wood and burnt sugar and heat. It was smooth, invigorating.
We talked about America. About his children. About the fish and the water. He asked if I wanted to swim. It was dark and there was no one around, except him. He placed his pants and shirt on the rocks.
The water was cold and deep. The waterfall, a white noise behind us and I wondered briefly, if the big fish were lurking somewhere below. “Are there stars in America?” he asked, looking up at the sky between the trees. Someone told him there weren’t. “Too much light” they had said. I was quiet, imagining a world without stars. I thought maybe starlessness was like hopelessness and felt a need to reassure him. “Where I live, I can see stars every night,” I said. He grinned and the gold in his mouth reflected the moon light.
Descending hills mark the entrance to northern California. In summer they are covered in yellow grasses, marred by pockets of succulents and rock. There are few trees. At the side of the road in the fields of sprawling ranchland, residents have erected sculptures of metal. Cows, dragons, horses, each constructed of the leftover bits of machines and painted red or green or white or blue. In some places these edifices are the only structures to indicate settlements, homes, human existence in an otherwise vacant landscape. The mountains loom in the background, snow-capped and majestic, but I am lost in the expanse. My tiny car filled with boxes and plants, a life squished into a few square feet. What am I doing? Where am I going? The radio is static, and the gas tank near empty.
The buildings were the colors of flowers and the ocean over white sand. The color of sunset and fruit, and cocktails with fancy straws and pineapple wedges. They were almost, though not quite, the color of stained-glass windows which cast their prism of light on the church pews of home. They were concrete and plaster, with balconies and covered porches and glass windows with shutters. They were tall and imposing, and one blended into the next, into the next. Where the streets narrowed their walls seemed to taper in as they rose to create a tunnel through which I walked, eyes always up. Laundry hung; shirts and sheets flapping in the wind. Whites and reds and blues and oranges waved to me as I passed below.
A group of men huddled around a motor on the sidewalk fiddling with its metal parts. Tweaking.
Tightening, until it burst to life, vibrating against the ground. I wanted to cheer for them, another restored machine in a place without new ones. Across the street another man played the trumpet in a doorway for an audience of boys, all legs and arms and the hues of human skin. He raised his fingers to indicate notes as he played. The boys were focused, captured by the sound and the impromptu music lesson. He wore a suit the color of sand and they wore flip flops.
There were sandwiches in a shop for one Cuban cuc, made with real bread and pickles and tuna, if you knew where to look. There were bags stuffed with sweet pastries. Chocolate. Vanilla. Knotted on top and melted in the Cuban sun, less than a cuc. There was cold, crisp Cuban beer, available to go if you asked: one cuc, sometimes a little more. There were mangos and bananas, ten for one, on wood tables beneath burlap in the covered produce markets where everything smelled of fermentation and dust.
When you have little money and a lot of time you can find just about anything. Except lettuce. Or peppers. Or herbs.
A man wearing jeans and boots his brother sent from New York showed me the stores where Cubans shopped for food. Bare shelves. Colorless. Devoid of choice. One pound of beans. Half a bottle of oil. One roll of bread a day. Monthly rations for the Cuban people. I wasn’t allowed inside.
In Weed I pull over. The temperature is cooler here, the air crisp. Shasta peeks from behind the hills to the south and I feel as though I am standing in foreign land. Nothing is familiar. The woman behind the counter counts my quarters, sliding each one across the linoleum into her open palm. Her mouth silently moves as she counts eight, then drops them into the till. She is focused, but I am disinterested. Through the window I watch a man with long yellow hair exit from an ancient RV and imagine, for a moment, how it might feel to jump inside. To leave him standing there open mouthed as I drive off. My life for his. My car of things for his of possibilities. It feels fair somehow, equitable.
Instead I return to my car and pump it full of nine dollars in gas. A jar of quarters, a decision made, a door closed. Three-hundred-and-eighty-two miles and then …what?
In Cuba there was a street which ended at the water. The statue of a woman stood guard, her face cast partially in shadow. Her hair a tapestry of bronze strands caught in the midst of metamorphosis: from hair to flowers to butterflies which flit and float on the imagined wind of the Caribbean Sea. Her eyes were holes to capture the sun. Her lips, ledges upon which rain collected. In her shadow crowds gathered to watch the sunset and old American taxis awaited fares. Lovers met to kiss and touch, and children played tag on the cobblestone. Every night throngs of people descended on her manicured corner of ocean wall, her expression Mona Lisa in bronze; timeless, placid, unknowing and all-knowing at once.
Our wet clothes lay draped over the rungs of the ladder. In the night the drops of pooled river water formed a small black hole in the ground, so that the ladder appeared to hang, unsecured over a deep chasm. As the water emptied into this abyss its edges grew until the hut itself was floating over nothingness.
We sat at a table in the grass, a bottle of rum between us, a second cup conjured while I changed from wet clothes to dry. He was in his security guard pants and nothing else. Boxed orange juice had also been found. I wondered if the locked cafe had been raided with his security guard keys. I wondered if he’d be reprimanded in the morning. I wondered if he cared.
Around us were the sounds of night birds, insets, river running over rocks. There was no one else. He told me that he didn’t have to work anymore and I pretended not to understand why. He told me he’d never done this before and I pretended not to understand what.
The stars overhead shifted to the west and I watched the Pleiades slowly vanish behind the jungle canopy. Dawn was still hours away, but I couldn’t decide if I was ready.
In northern California the landscape folds upon itself so that one moment there is nothing but flat open fields, and then suddenly the earth beneath compresses into mountainous peaks with sharp cliffs that culminate in lakes and rivers of turquoise. The highway cuts a narrow path through, skirting edges and corners, at times tilting precariously over the far below waters without the security of walls or trellises or wires to hold it up. My fists grip the steering wheel with such ferocity that my knuckles turn white, the skin stretched tight, the blood rushing back to my heart.
It takes all my attention to navigate this road and yet I am incapable of focusing. The cliff-face a foot from the passenger side; a drop of a thousand feet an inch from my left tire. I am aware of all these things, terrified even, but there is something else too. I am compelled by them both to be reckless. What if? I think. How might it feel to destroy such a tiny thing with another so eternal? My heart pounds as I imagine the impact, metal buckling and glass shattering, and then blackness, forever nothing.
The road veers right and there is an exit for runaway trucks which ends in a concrete block the size of my car, and beyond that, trees and dirt piles and man-made hills which lead to other hills with other trees not made by man but used all the same to stop the forward motion of those who cannot seem to prevent themselves from driving straight in. And I find myself driving straight in. My foot slides off the petals so that I am not accelerating but not stopping either. I can feel my car slow as it bumps and jolts over the gravel of this emergency road and think: maybe this. But even in my recklessness I am not capable. I slam my foot down onto the break so that I skid to a stop long before the concrete.
There is no one around to see. No other cars or trucks or humans. It is just me and my car and the barrier and the trees and the mountains and the wind which whips my hair into my face as I open the door and stand staring out. I can feel a bubbling scream begin to form in my throat and do nothing to stop it. I let it consume me until my body shakes and my throat becomes raw and tears carve deep grooves into my cheeks. Until I am a chamber for the sound and nothing else. Until my mind is empty and my heart is weak and my limbs limp and lifeless against my side. Until I collapse into the driver’s seat, spent and hollow.
We are entangled, his body against mine. His fingers knit themselves through my own, to trace the contours of knuckles and palm, fingernails and wrist. Inside my hut the air was warm, the night dark. His shape a shadow I wasn’t sure I saw or felt, until his finger dragged across my skin reminding me that he was real. That I was there.
It was November and my mother had been dead for three months, except I stopped marking the passage of time. Cuba was a place where time held no meaning, a purgatory of in between. How fitting that we be together. How perfect we were for one another – both unsure and unable to decide what we would cause next, or where that should lead.
Beside me his breathing grew deeper and blended with the breeze so that if I remained still he vanished, and I was left again, alone. I ached to be alone. I ran my hand over his shoulder and down his back, gently reminding him that I was there, that the space belonged to me.
“You have to leave” I whispered as his eyes fluttered open, bleary and vacant. “You have to go home.” I began to gather up his things and put them into his hands, but he was still half asleep and didn’t understand that I was serious. He put them down and reached for me in the dark.
“Let me stay” he said, “I’ll leave in the morning.”
“No. You have to leave now.” I paused trying to choose words which expressed exactly what I wanted to say. “You can’t sleep here. You have to go home.” He was confused, unsure. I could see he was trying to understand where he went wrong, where he misstep.
“But… I love you.”
What meaning did love have in that in between place?
“I feel nothing.” I said and knew that it was true. Perhaps the truest thing I had said since August when I stood in that basement of sugar-coated strangers. I felt nothing then and nothing there. And as those words filled the space between us, his face was already beginning to blur. My eyes saw through him to the hut’s outer wall, and through it to the river, I saw through the river to the jungle, and through the jungle to the ocean beyond that. His voice, once rich and compelling, mixed with the sounds of night, unrecognizable and easily ignored, as he closed the door behind him.
South of Redding I buy a doughnut and water and begin the task of gently removing the yellowed leaves from my nameless plant. We share the water. “You’ll survive this,” I say as I feed a pillowcase through the open window and then seal it closed, pinching the fabric between glass and rubber chord. “No more wind to batter your leaves. No more sun to burn your bark.” Already she looks better, healthier. Already she looks loved. I stand to stretch my back and legs, and feel the muscles tighten and pull at my joints. There are stores here and exits every mile or less. The road is wider, traffic thickens, commuters traveling to and from mix with the trucks and travelers descending from the mountain passes. The radio sputters to life with Spanish, and dance music with heavy treble and not enough bass. Ranchland has gradually turned into olive groves. Soon they too will be replaced by vineyards, and then city, and then acres of lettuce and peppers and herbs. Eventually I’ll turn right, and the farmland will change again to eucalyptus trees and finally sand dunes and succulents and ocean.
At the side of the road, where the olive trees still dominate and the city remains many miles further south, where commuter traffic has not yet filled the holes between trucks and travelers, and the air retains a subtle coolness from the mountain winds, there is a man asleep. His body is curled around itself and a pack is propped under his head. To the right is grass of vivid green. Further still are trees which dapple and soften the sunshine. He sleeps on the road’s concrete shoulder, his body in the dust and dirt and debris of vehicles and people. He sleeps under the baking summer sun despite the shade and cool a few feet away. For a moment I feel kinship. Familiarity, Recognition of all the choices which brought him to this moment. I want to reach out and help him move but I still have two-hundred-and-eighty-four miles to go.
Dacia Price lives in Seattle, Washington where she studies creative writing at Western Washington University. Her short stories and creative nonfiction can be found in Pacifica Literary Review, Storm Cellar Quarterly, Into the Void, and Chaleur Magazine. She loves craft beer, mountain hiking, her single speed bicycle and used books of any kind. Find her on Instagram @dacia.price.