Fortuna Egozi Pierces Her Ears by Ruth Behar


When Fortuna Egozi was a baby in Cuba her mother was going to pierce her ears, but her father wouldn’t allow it. He was amazed that she was a complete human being, with feet, fingers, a little mouth, everything. “Mira, está completica,” he kept saying. He didn’t want to see his perfect baby girl cry and so she left Cuba without having her ears pierced.

Upon learning that Fortuna didn’t have pierced ears, her friend Leonor Rodríguez shook her head in dismay. “A Latina has to have pierced ears,” Leonor exclaimed. “It’s tradition.” Half in jest, Fortuna told Leonor that she would pierce her ears the next day, when Leonor pierced her baby girl’s ears.

The baby’s ears were pierced first. Her head had to be held still by Leonor and the baby wailed miserably as one ear and then the other were attacked by the cold steel hole puncher.

Fortuna had chosen her studs and the salon lady was dabbing alcohol on her ears and saying, “Okay, ready?” When Fortuna didn’t reply right away, the salon lady grew impatient. Two rows of hoop earrings hung from the rims of each of her droopy ears. “Look, honey, I’m running late. The baby took a long time, so if you have any doubts we can leave it for another day.” Fortuna told her to go ahead. As the gun punctured each ear, she was surprised how much the piercing hurt—it was only a moment, but it hurt.

On her return home, Fortuna thought to herself, “If I can pierce my ears at the age of 47, it’s not too late to take on a lover.” For years her friend Amaryllis Goldstein had been urging her to seek some pleasure outside of her marriage. Both Amaryllis and Fortuna married good American men who were faithful and caring, but a bit dull. Amaryllis had a theory about their marriages: “Look, Fortuna, we had to choose very safe men because we were uprooted from Cuba as children. We needed to marry men who’d never abandon us. But there’s a sexy world out there and it isn’t sinful to have an affair.” Amaryllis knew a lot about affairs. She’d had several. “Look, as long as you’re discreet and do it in a spirit of fun, it’s okay. You keep on appreciating your husband; the process isn’t one of subtraction, but of addition,” Amaryllis explained. “Bringing a lover into your life is like having a yummy dessert without the fat calories.”

Fortuna began dancing tango. There was a club at her university that met on Wednesday nights. At first, the men steered her around the floor and she felt pathetic, tripping over her own feet. But she adored the passionate music, the way the violins wept and the bandoneon sang, and worked at her dancing diligently, until she became an acceptable dancer.

On a Wednesday night in July, Fortuna squeezed her voluptuous body into tight black pants and a tight black top and pulled her hair back into a ponytail to show off her first pair of pierced earrings, orange and black coral set in gold, which her mother had brought from Cuba. She said goodbye to her husband at the door and drove off in the Subaru to her tango club, arriving after the lights were down and the dancing underway.

No sooner had she slipped on her red suede dancing shoes when she saw the handsome stranger across the room. His salt and pepper hair fell into his eyes and his legs were powerful beams holding him up. He was middle-aged, even more middle-aged than she, but he danced better than the young men in the club. He’d wasted no time and was dancing with the best dancer in the club--red-haired Amanda, an art student with a model’s figure. He led her effortlessly around the floor, and Amanda, who always kept her eyes open when she danced, refusing to surrender to any of the men, was on the verge of drifting off.

At the end of the song, the man came and offered his hand. “Me? You want to dance with me?” she said.

“Yes, with you,” he said.

Fortuna soon was dancing with eyes closed, song after song, in a trance from which she didn’t want to awaken. The stranger whispered in her ear, “I want to dance naked with you.” And then, “Let’s go have a cocktail.”

They sat with their thighs touching on their adjoining bar stools. She still didn’t know his name. He took her by the chin and gave her a kiss that left a taste of burnt sugar in her mouth. No one else was around, but she saw the bartender watching with amusement. She could rise and say she’d had enough. Why didn’t she? Maybe because--she was enjoying it. Her husband had never done anything like this, even when they were young.

“So you’re married?” he asked, pointing to her ring finger. “Or do you wear the ring just to scare off any potential suitors?” She looked at the gold wedding band; on the inside it was inscribed with her husband’s initials, but she hadn’t looked on the inside for a long time.

“Yes, I’m married,” she told him.

“How long?” he asked.

She had to take a moment to count the years since her wedding. “Twenty-two years,” she said solemnly.

He laughed. “So you want me to get you into trouble? Or out of trouble?”

She didn’t know how to answer. “What about you?” she asked. “Are you married?”

He immediately replied, “Married three times. My first wife was my high school sweetheart. My second the mother of my two children. The third was a cute lady, Spanish like you, except she was dumb and we had nothing to talk about.”

Fortuna imagined herself as wife number four. She’d be the one to keep him by her side forever.

They finished their drinks and the bartender winked at her as she caught his eye and said goodnight. It was after midnight and still muggy.

Leaning against his Jaguar, he reached under her top and caressed her breasts. With his other hand he unzipped her pants. “No,” she wanted to say. “Stop,” she wanted to say. She recalled the words of her friend Amaryllis Goldstein, “If it happens, enjoy it. Gózalo.” But she didn’t like the idea of making out in the parking lot like two teenagers. “Let’s go somewhere else,” she said.

“Wherever you want to go,” he whispered. “You lead.”

Fortuna directed him to the hotel downtown that she’d passed many times, but never entered, on the way to the People’s Food Co-op. There were rooms for rent by the hour. She strode into the room in her red suede dancing shoes and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to start. He undressed her, touching her arms, her shoulders, stroking and kissing her breasts, working his way with his tongue to her tummy, her thighs, her ankles, her toes. She felt like a lightening bug glowing from end to end. He was a pro, she realized, definitely a pro. She screamed, cried, and laughed hysterically. “You’re driving me crazy,” she said. “Crazy.”

Suddenly the venom in his voice scared her. “Can you shut up now? When are you going to give me a chance?” She’d had her eyes closed the entire time.

“I’m sorry. Has it not been good for you?” she said in a small voice.

“Turn on your stomach,” he said. “I don’t want to see your face.”

He’d gone soft and angrily pumped up and down trying to grow hard inside her. The ceiling seemed to have fallen on her. Everything ached—kidneys, liver, ribs, womb. “Slut, you better relax and let me enjoy this,” he yelled in her ear.

It wouldn’t end and it wouldn’t end, but finally it did, when he simply gave up. “I hope I didn’t hurt you,” he said. “You’re such a nice person. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

In silence he drove her back in his Jaguar to the lot next to the tango club where she’d left her Subaru. It had begun to rain and Fortuna rushed to get inside and turn on the engine. When she looked back, he was gone.

She swung her car onto the road and drove for a bit before realizing something wasn’t right. Then she saw that she’d forgotten to turn on her headlights. She turned them on and as she approached the entrance to the freeway she had an urge to jump on and drive until morning to wherever destiny took her. But she kept driving home. Now and then, for a split second, she dared to close her eyes, driving the way she liked to dance tango, in a trance, not seeing, but trusting.


Trusting the universe still loved her as tenderly as her father did when she was a baby girl in Cuba.                                        
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