by Rolaine Hochstein
We were leaving Colombia. The driver was waiting. Dennis, my husband, a man of action, was downstairs with our baggage. I, just a woman, was still upstairs. Tooth brush and toothpaste zip-locked in my shoulder bag. Drawers empty (except for the Bible in Spanish). Hangers bare in a bare closet. Pesos for the chambermaid left on the writing desk. My hand was on the door knob when the room phone rang. I ran for it. The caller was Juan Camilo.
“I had the most interesting dream,” he said.
I sat down on the edge of the double bed.
We were traveling in Colombia, Juanca began. You and Dennis and me and another person—Norteamericano. This other person was suffering from a toothache and I had to take him to a dentist. We were all sitting around a small round table outside some café and someone came out from the bar next door. I could see him so vividly. Another Gringo—old, with wrinkles, wearing khakis and a khaki hat with the kind of hemisphere top and the big brim.
“An explorer’s hat,” I said.
Juan continued with a characteristic change of tense.
I see him so vividly. He comes directly to our table.
Before he gets there he says, Betty! He stands behind the man with the bad tooth. He says, Betty! Is it really you? I don’t remember his name in the dream so I’ll call him Larry. You squeal, Larry! And he is an old friend from high school. Maybe college. And Dennis is looking not at all happy and you are saying, Larry it’s wonderful to see you.
I could see Juan’s delight, his smile almost a perfect circle because his mouth was wide open in amazement at the doings in his dream. But Dennis was waiting.
C’mon Juan, I wished, let me go. But Juan was, as always, swept up in his tornado of enthusiasm. His café-con-leche skin was puckered with devilment,
And I am saying, We can’t stay here. We have to go to the dentist. And Larry is saying, But Betty, I have so many stories to tell you. And you say, Look, Larry. Stay right here. Don’t move. I’ll come back to you straight from the dentist. And that was the end of the dream.
“Good,” I said. “Because Dennis is waiting downstairs. The taxi is here.”
“Whoops,” Juan said. “I’ll put on clothes and be down in three minutes, no more than five.”
The lobby was open-air like so many places in Cali and already blanched in morning light. Dennis was standing among our check-ins and carry-ons amid tongues and fingers and fists of green protuberances, bushes and trees and shrubs growing out of the ground, hanging from the walls, rising from ancient Inca pots. He gave me his adorable look of feigned admiration at how late I can manage to be. I dropped into a bamboo chair beside a gushing waterfall. “Juan will be right down,” I told him. “He had a dream he wanted to tell me.” Dennis was spreading sun protection over his nose and forehead and bald spot. “It must have been an all-nighter,” he commented without rancor. I love my husband for good reason. It was his idea to take a vacation in Colombia. He wanted to be high in the Andes (high altitude-wise, I mean. Dennis is a down-to-earth guy with no bad habits). Besides, in Cali, now that the city was on the rise, nobody seemed to mention drugs.
The day was starting to get hot, and the driver had come inside, swabbing his face with an extra-large, extra-colorful handkerchief and talking to me in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand. Then, like a fanfare, Juan was there, to hell with the elevator, jumping the last four steps, zooming in with armloads of baggage and his shirttails flying. “I hope I’m not too late,” he said with a face you’d have to forgive for anything.
The ride to the airport took us climbing up the sides of the bowl of the city, on newly-paved roads that cut between fat, curious trees leaning in, looking at us, just a little bit menacing, leaves like giant paws and claws, and pushy bushes, variously green—for Go, for envy, for being new at the game or in one’s salad days, as green as green gets—and splintered with pokes of HD flowers—wine-drunk purple, showbird yellow, bloody red, orange gone mad. The mountains served as neutral background, solid greens with a bright sky topping. These mountains, though steep and hulking, were cozier than our mountains up North. They stayed green all the way up and the tops were scalloped and smooth as lollipops. We were speeding in ascending circles so that all that landscape became spectators and we were the show. The car was compact and Japanese. The driver was a white guy. The air conditioner was pitched on high and his handkerchief was now a neckerchief. Aside from being a speed freak, he seemed to be a friendly guy with comic strip good looks. Anything to say, he addressed it to Juan, who would have understood if he could have heard it. Juan was in back with me and the bags that didn’t fit into the trunk. He was leaning forward to tell his dream to Dennis, who was in front with a seat belt on and phantom-braking, I knew. Dennis kept his eyes on the road while he was leaned back to listen. I was listening, too. The dream had filled out since the first telling. Juan’s English, of course, was impeccable.
The American with the bad tooth was bellyaching all the way. He was complaining about everything. The hotel wasn’t good enough. He didn’t like the guard at the gate. Why does he sit there holding a rifle? he kept asking. Inside the hotel, the air conditioning was too weak. The bed was too soft. Outside, the taxis were too small. The food was too spicy. He was a real complainer.
“Who was he?” I asked.
Juan thought. “Maybe he was your friend Tom.”
“Tom!” I howled. “No way!”
But he could have been. Maybe he was. Tom had planned to come down from Texas and meet us in Cartagena. Tom and his wife and sometimes not his wife often joined us on vacations. This time, at the last minute, he had canceled the trip because of illness—real or feigned we hadn’t found out yet. Maybe it was a toothache. But Tom was usually an A-one travel companion. It took some effort to imagine him being a pain-in-the-neck. And yet…
Juan Camilo has worked with Dennis’s firm for a long time. He had met Tom once or twice when we’d all gone out in New York. Tom, though Juan didn’t know this, happens to be a bit phobic—heights, tight spots. He had reason to bow out of our trip as Dennis penciled it out with his mind on the Andes. Tom was a stocky six-foot-three. He might have found ample grounds for dissatisfaction—dinky cars on steep slopes, dirt roads like the downswing of a roller coaster. A couple of no-star lodging establishments. Spicy food. If he had a sore tooth he would probably not have been able to eat the fruit—the luscious mangos and scrumptious papaya, the slurpy tangy guanabana, naranjilla with fat beads of juice, the chontaduro and the guava, and purple passion fruit that we rolled in our mouths and pressed with our tongues and sighed over like after-sex bliss.
Deprived of fruit, Tom would have been testier than his usual benign self. The man in the dream needed to see a dentist. That made sense. Juan Camilo’s father was a dentist, though many years ago he had sold his practice to devote himself to playing polo.
And you were so happy to see Larry, Juan was saying to me. He was sitting back now, addressing me over two of the suitcases. Dennis was…he made a face that smelled something faintly rancid. “Disgruntled?” I said. “Yes. Disgruntled,” Juan said.
“So who’s Larry?” he asked me with his misbehaving smile.
I thought. I asked Dennis. “Could it be Larry who comes with the fish soup?” Larry is a graphic artist who lives in our building in New York. He makes a soupe de poisson, really French, with much garlic and a little Pernod.
“No.” Juan said firmly. (Juan loves Larry’s fish soup). “I only gave him that name for the dream.”
I thought again. Deeply.
“Maybe he’s Manny Valente from high school. I Googled him a couple of months ago. We’ve been emailing. He stayed in our home town and married some local girl—I mean, woman. He’s got arthritis now and says he doesn’t get out much.”
Juan wasn’t sure. “He was old and wrinkled but he was wearing the clothes of an adventurer. He wanted to connect with you. You’re an adventurer, Betty.”
“Adventuress,” I corrected him.
Juan is the most heterosexual man I know. Put him in a bar or dance hall and he immediately becomes the center of a daisy with all the petals hanging around him and not a single loves-me-not. He likes the Heterosexual title. “I have to keep at it,” he said recently with a shadow of worry. “I will soon be almost fifty years old.”
I wasn’t overcome with sympathy. Juan is at least a dozen years younger than my husband. More, if I wanted to be frank. Juan’s girlfriend in New York is Viki. His girlfriend in Medellin is another Viki. Coincidence. Everyone from Colombia has emailed the New York Viki, who has prior claim, about the new Viki (Juan, too–he keeps no secrets) but New York Viki isn’t jealous. Correction: only a little bit of residual jealousy, because she and Juan are in the process of dissolving from lovers to old friends and it is to be expected–encouraged, really—that he should see other women while she sees other men. Many other men, in her case, even though she’s no spring chicken.
My Dennis still finds it hard to look at Viki, the New York one. He says he is blinded by the sun of her beauty. (I’m not jealous). The Medellin Viki is by no means bad-looking, not as blinding, but just as sexy and athletic, as hot a dresser, almost as cheerful, and in addition she’s a highly-placed executive at Colombia’s second to richest oil company. She, too, is close to fifty but both Vikis in clothes look like the lean and nubile young women who go naked in the locker room of my gym, where I keep a towel wrapped around me, even though I have nothing to be ashamed of. Colombians all look younger. No surprise. Medellin–once best–known for epic drug activity–is now at least equally famous for cosmetic surgery. Everybody does it (cosmetic surgery) and all the while they’re eating that fortifying fruit and going out dancing every night. Juan looks younger, too.
Neither Viki shows up in his dream. Here is cause for wonder. Why is he dreaming of Dennis and me and a cranky friend with a dental problem? To say nothing of my tie-in with a high-school sweetheart who is single again?
You can’t go far in the Cali area without coming upon the eponymous river, an energetic worm of a river—chugging through a curly crevice between the jungle and the mountainside or streaking headlong at eye-level behind an innocent pineapple field. I always thought pineapples grew on bushes in Hawaii but here they were in Colombia—lined up in squat platoons, acres of them, growing right out of the sloping ground. Even everyday fruit like pineapples–there isn’t a way to describe them that’s rich enough, juicy enough, tasty enough, radiant enough. Manny, when he saw me, was a little like that, even though his posture was not as straight as it used to be and the skin on his face—once so smooth and tight–was now rough and saggy. CocaCola eyes that used to send out sparks of dazzlement …they were chocolate now, deep set, but… Betty, he sang out in his undiminished baritone, arms wide (with his cane like a baton), smile wide with the small indented teeth (now varnished with age) that I remembered from his invitation to dance on the gym floor while the chaperones kept an eye out. Betty, as if I were the pot of gold.
Dennis is not at all happy to see him, Juan says, relishing the words, taking his usual delight in awkward situations. And I am delighted. Delighted that Juan’s dream features me as the object of erotic jealousy. Larry, our affable, soup-making neighbor, has made a Faustian exchange with my teen-age love interest. And what about poor Tom? Poor pain-struck Tom sits sourly over his coffee—Juan ordered it iced to assuage Tom’s toothache. Tom is chewing on the ice. “A lousy three cubes,” he grouses. “And besides that, they’re skinny.” We were on a terrace overlooking the sidewalk of a nice residential section of this ambitious Colombian city. But this scenario improves upon Juan’s dream. Juan allows Tom to fade into the background. In Juan’s dream Tom becomes nothing but a toothache. How like Juanca, I have to notice, to bring someone to a party, promise him a good time, great food, sparkling beverages and sparkling company (and perhaps a little goody bag)–getting his hopes high and then just leaving him in some vacant corner, hunched over a not-very-strong aguardiente…
Maybe Tom is yin to Juan’s yang. Or maybe Juan found out that pre-toothache Tom, in genial Texas mode, had once invited New York Viki to come out West for a barbecue on his ranch, expenses paid. Or that Tom on another occasion had failed to respond to our neighbor Larry’s fish soup despite Juan’s rave review. These possibilities are impossible to penetrate. Juanca, by the way, is what Colombian intimates call Juan Camilo to distinguish him from Juan Fernando, called Juanfer, and Juan Luis and Juan Martin and Juan Patricio, etc.
We were on the tree-defined terrace beside the café, making a centripetal circle around the little table. I pushed my chair back to make room for Manny. Juanca called for another cup of strong black Colombian coffee (ha-ha, it was from Ecuador because all the Colombian is exported) but Manny stopped the waiter and told him descafeinado. We all moved our cups and saucers to give Manny some table space and I was happy thinking how he and I would soon be regaling an audience with home-town gossip and scandals, Manny filling me in on what was new since I bolted so many years ago.
But before Manny could sit, Juan Camilo rose from his chair and reminded us that we had to go to the dentist. Commanded us. With a smile, of course. Poor Tom, we remembered. Juanca, for all his mischief, was often able to put the needs of others before his own.
I couldn’t say No. (Ask my therapist). I wanted to stay in the cafe. (Therapists never tell). I wanted to stay with Manny and hear his stories. Dennis had his eye on me. I could tell he was thinking I’d gone to bed with Manny, a youthful escapade filled with guilt and ecstasy. (Maybe he thought I’d gone to bed with Larry, too, in love with his fish soup). He thought I’d been in love with Manny and never gotten that first love out of my system, as Juanca might have said in his fondness for Gringo clichés. Dennis had never asked about my private life, assuming—I assumed–that he was my private life. Had he asked, I would have assured him that Manny as a youth was only a fantasy lover, or would have been if my fantasies had dared to venture that far. Still, it pleased me to imagine Dennis imagining me in the heat of an affair. If in the dream he was a little bit aroused, a little bit curious or even ferociously worried, I might have savored his discomfort—not wanting to hurt him, of course. I would not want his discomfort to dig into him like the cutting aroma of Colombian garden herbs, their rosemary, their basil. But I might have liked him to be, let’s say, piqued by the more delicately suggestive scent, to put a finger on it, of their digitalis flower, so subtly sensual as well as medicinal.
So of course I went to the dentist with my suspicious husband and suffering Tom (whose toothache now joined Juan Camilo at center stage). There was no way out, especially as the dentist was Javier, Juan’s father the polo player, and I needed to say hello. Juan’s mother Estella would be the handsomely coiffed, elegantly poised wife-hygienist, who was not much older than I claimed to be. I must chat with her, too. Buenos dias, Senora.
I said to Manny, “Stay here and wait for me.”
And Manny stayed, of course. He lowered himself into one of our deserted chairs and pulled up to the tiny, glass-topped table strewn with variously-emptied coffee cups and coffee-stained saucers and pink paper sugar wrappers and crumpled little paper napkins, a disarray of spoons like bodies after an explosive drug raid, and a crushed paid check. Manny rubbed his pants belly, spread his legs wide, leaned against the caned chair-back and looked into the setting sun. The brim of his explorer’s hat protected his eyes, I hope. As our little group descended from the terrace, I turned to wave to him once more and to tell him once more that I would be back.
The horizon: a swollen orange sun easing down into the mountaintop. The far distance: eerily tall wax palm trees stabbing the sky like spooky, spaced-out solar units. Middle distance: elephantine ceiba trees with enormous lumbering roots, canopy trees with white-washed leaf-tops, strangler figs, eucalyptus, marmalade bushes, fuchsia and bougainvillea vines. Closer in: verbena shrubs with fading colors and then the dear, tiny-flowered border plants and mosses. In the foreground Manny waited, closing his eyes in the cooling breeze.