Today is the day I’ve decided to write about. I’m sitting on the top bunk in the room I share with my son Bayron, who asks me to change the channel on the TV. My sister asks about the entrance exams for a city college she wants to attend. Today’s the day to deal with this blank sheet of paper. I imagine that I picked up a pencil last night, that I fell asleep with it in my hand, and that I’m ready for anything now.
Today’s first challenge: my son’s father has sent $300 U.S. I’m not the only beneficiary. Here’s the note that accompanies the money:
“China (folks call me China):
Here’s something to help out a little. Please copy this message for my family so there’s no confusion.
–$80 for Bayron (our son), which includes what my mother owes you;
–$70 for my mother;
–$50 for my grandmother;
–$30 for Maribel;
–$30 for Papo;
–$30 for Omni and Zona Franca (our poetry and performance groups);
–$10 for my Aunt Zory, whose son is in prison.”
“Momma, I’m hungry,” my son says, poking his head out from the bunk below me.
“Then go get in the breadline.”
“I don’t want to.”
“It’s always the same with you: you never want to go get the bread. Can’t you see I’m busy writing?”
The girl at the Western Union office, which sends the money “fast and secure” according to its slogan, gives me the money in five $20 U.S. bills, and the rest in tens. She asks if I want to exchange them for CUCs, Cuban convertible pesos (we have a third currency too, virtually worthless in our economy, the simple Cuban peso or CUP, which is about 25 to the U.S. dollar and a few more to equal one CUC). I tell her no, that the money isn’t all for me.
The girl at Western Union hands me the twenties very carefully; they’re torn. But, in the moment, I don’t notice. I like her. We’re chatting about family health problems: she tells me that a friend took her mother home from the hospital to take care of her, and I tell her how my mother, recently recovering from an ischemia, was put into a non-intensive-care room and was almost given the wrong injection.
I thank the girl and put the money in my day planner, not in my wallet, because I don’t want to tempt the muggers. But when I get home and check the money, I realize all of the twenties are torn. I try to tape them up.
My father tells me he had a lot of trouble changing a torn bill. He ran around until he found a bank that would do it, but it took a big chunk as a fee because it was torn. I can’t believe it: two percent that the State already deducts, plus another percentage because it’s torn.
When I get to the currency exchange, the doorman tells me I probably won’t be able to get the bills replaced because I didn’t do the original transaction there. He suggests I go back to Western Union and ask the girl there to exchange them, in good faith. When I saw her ancient adding machine, I didn’t want to trouble her and didn’t ask for a receipt – in good faith!
I run to the bus stop, the money stuffed in my day planner. Once I’m on one of the broken seats, I think about how the girl at Western Union fooled me, how she lulled me with her conversation and then …
“Momma, I’m hungry! I already got the bread!” my son yells up at me again as he gets back in the bunk.
“Do you want me to make you garlic toast?”
My son says yes with a smile.
It’s okay, this is how I write: with people talking, the TV blaring, the radio on … I get down, pad to the kitchen, make the toast and bring it in. Then I climb back up and try to find my place.
I’m on the bus thinking about that girl’s face, the pitiful face she made when she looked at that old adding machine and didn’t give me a receipt. Oh, I was stupid, so stupid!
I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid. It’s just money for an old woman with cancer, for a young woman with epilepsy. How can I be afraid? My hands sweat when there’s an argument, my heart throbs, my throat closes up. I imagine myself taking off my hoop earrings. Am I wearing my lucky elephant earrings? What am I wearing? Nothing lucky – that’s what. I may as well be naked. And now I have to fight about money; it’s always about money.
The bus leaves me a few blocks from the Western Union. I’m going to write all about this, and depending on how the girl at Western Union treats me, I’ll decide if I believe in humanity. I walk quickly. As I hand my bag over to the bag-check woman, I explain why I’m here again.
“You should have checked the money. You’re right to come back, though; they charge the family over there a lot to send it,” she says to me in solidarity.
I approach the office door. There’s no line. Good, because I plan on telling her, “Hey, you have to give me my money, okay? I’m not leaving until you give it to me, even if you call the police.” That’s what I’ll do. This money is for my ex-mother-in-law who has cancer (and whom I hate) and for my ex-sister-in-law who has epilepsy (and whom I hate even more.) I push the door, then realize it’s locked and the lights are off inside.
This is what I get for not wearing my wooden elephant earrings. I take a deep breath and look around. I hear the girl’s voice from somewhere.
“I’ll be there in a minute. I mopped the office and closed it so it could dry.”
“China!” my sister calls out to me (as I said, everybody calls me China). “You didn’t get the soy yogurt.”
“No,” I say. “I don’t think they had any at the store.”
“There’s not even any soda; you should have gotten the yogurt.”
She goes on, haranguing me, and I keep writing.
The girl at the Western Union office approaches and I look up at her. I’m breathing heavily.
“Do you remember me?” I ask her in a low voice. She nods. “Nobody will change this money for me. It’s torn. I’ve come all the way from Alamar with it.”
“Of course I remember you. I asked you if you wanted to change it to CUCs.”
She makes me take a seat, then gives me an official-looking paper. It’s ordinance #33. It says that currency is coming into the country already in bad condition but it’s fine to exchange it if it’s torn or written on, so long as the serial number is visible and it’s legally determined not to be counterfeit. I don’t know what to say, so I just nod. How is it possible that no one else knows about this authorization?
“I’m going to exchange the bills for you, don’t worry,” the girl tells me. “I just gave you that notice so you could see I didn’t do anything wrong.”
I leave the office with the money in tens in my day planner, because of the muggers. On my way to work on San Rafael Street, I need to write something down and pull out my day planner. I feel something drop and remember the money. I’m at a park, on the exact spot where the store Fin de Siglo used to be, before it was blown up in act of sabotage in the early days of the revolution. It was never rebuilt; instead there’s this park – a hangout for beggars, crazy and indigent people, and male prostitutes too. I look around…
From my bunk, I see my mother gesturing at me, speaking gibberish. Since the ischemia she’s had trouble communicating.
“Do you want me to turn the TV on for you, is that it?” My mother’s TV, which used to be mine, has problems with the volume. I climb down and fix it for her.
I stand here and look around again; I don’t see anything on the ground. Maybe the wind blew the money away. I’m embarrassed to look. I pull my bag to my chest and count the money in the day planner. It’s all there. I sigh with relief.
But this relief reminds me of something else: Yesterday, I left my 2GB memory stick on my computer at work. There was another next to it, a 565MB. All my work materials, plus my novel, are on that stick. I hurry. A memory stick costs 35 CUCs – almost two months salary – when they even have them in the stores, which is infrequently. It isn’t the first time I’ve forgotten it, though, just like many of my co-workers; when I see they’ve left theirs, I don’t touch them, I don’t even put them in a drawer.
I open the door to the small government publishing house where I work. The air conditioning reminds me I’ve been walking under the scorching sun on Obispo Street between the local hustlers and foreign tourists. I go to the computer in the back, where my boss and co-worker, Félix, is writing. I check for my memory stick, but it’s not connected to the computer.
“Have you seen my memory stick?”
Félix pushes his glasses up on his head. “I didn’t see it,” he finally says. “I don’t think it was here.”
I look for it under the table. I look in bottles I find hidden under there. Nothing. I can’t believe a girl who doesn’t know me, in an office that’s alien to me, is more honest than my own co-workers. I look everywhere, but nothing.
“Eiko was here before me. He went home already,” Félix says.
Another co-worker has arrived. “Sandra, have you seen my memory stick?”
“I just got here. I don’t know anything.” She doesn’t even look at me when she answers. She sinks into the chair in front of a computer.
“For God’s sake” – actually, I don’t believe in God, I’m an atheist – “all my work is in there. If Eiko saw it, why didn’t he put it in the drawer?” I interrupt Félix again to look through it just as the door opens and Maite, the designer, and a technician come in from having lunch.
“Don’t get that way,” Felix says. “It’ll show up.” He gives me Eiko’s phone number.
I dial 9 to get an outside line and then the number. A woman answers.
“Eiko probably hasn’t had time to get home yet,” Felix says without looking up from the keyboard. And he’s right. I hang up.
Maybe it’ll be better if I go eat. I go to the secretary, who’s the person authorized to give me a ticket for lunch in the office cafeteria.
“Oh, I’m so sorry; I forgot to get a ticket for you. I thought you weren’t coming in today.”
I tell myself: I really needed those lucky elephant earrings today.
My stomach grumbles. Sometimes I come to work just to eat. The secretary sees that I’m making a face. She asks me something but … I’m so hungry, so hot, so in need of … I know I’m focusing on my memory stick because I need to repress my anger, but I barely manage.
I leave the secretary’s office with her apology rolling around in my head. I walk past the hallway between my office and the lunchroom. Without meaning to, I read the menu posted on the door: rice, peas, soy burger, bread and soda.
I go back to the phone and call Eiko. “Yeah, I took it,” Eiko says on the other end of the line. “I gave it to Maite. I told her that she should give it to you as soon as she saw you, whether you asked for it or not.”
Maite isn’t at her desk. I wait 20 minutes and then write her a note.
My eyes are irritated from trying to write under this yellow bulb. I’m tired of getting in and out of this bunk bed, but I decide to go get the soy yogurt. I look for the ration card so the grocer will give me what is due my family and me. But as I go out the door, the sun momentarily blinds me. I stop and wait to adjust to the heat and the light again. I glance at the ration card and realize we have already received all the yogurt we’re going to get this month.
I leave my office and go home. I take the bus, which is suffocating. I stand in the middle, where it bends like a worm, and hold on. I no longer give a damn about the muggers. Before leaving the office, in the note to Maite, I said something about “my apologies to Eiko.” My apologies. I don’t even know what for. Since I’ve started to work, it’s been an adjustment. I’ve become a hypocrite. I think that, at 39, I’ve finally begun to understand what that means. I’d always heard a certain hypocrisy was a sign of good manners.
The bus is entering Alamar. The man next to me has a spool of green thread on his finger, like it’s for sale. A large sweaty woman is on the other side of me. The man with the thread holds it out to her (yes, it’s for sale) and she shakes her head no.
“Driver, please stop!” yells out a woman with a baby in her arms. We can barely stand as he takes the curve. “Driver, please!”
The tree I spy out the window disappears in a flash, like my memory of the secretary who forgot my lunch ticket, ordinance #33, the note I left for Maite, the fight I’ll probably have with her later. Instead, I watch the woman with the baby, who’s slipping in his loose diaper.
“Driver, stop! Stop already!” I scream with a voice I hardly recognize.
We can feel the hissing of the brakes, the shudder of the chassis, the popping sound of the doors opening.