Searching for Dreams in Little Havana, a short story
Karen knows it’s a bad sign when she sits wondering whether the man she’s crazy in love with is a liar, or a fool, or both. Fuck first, talk later, yes, that approach seems outdated, rather quaint. Impatience has always been her biggest problem. The way this one calls women bitches, it’s like a warning beacon, but she’s not listening because she already thinks she loves him.
Karen wants this man. Or rather, she wants something, and she is trying to figure out if it is him. She orders a latte made with chocolate milk, lights another cigarette. The waiter serving her is thin to the point of illness — his sharp elbows have worn holes in the sleeves of his chambray blouse. The waiter looks nothing like the man she thinks she wants. She wonders if the waiter wants anyone, right now.
“Can I get you anything else?” he, the waiter, asks.
“An audience with the Pope?” she says. “Eternal life, maybe?” She is only partly kidding. She has had her past lives examined under hypnosis. She remembers being locked in a tomb in France. She did not care for it.
The waiter laughs and shakes his head. He flees from her the way young waiters always flee from her — looking back over his shoulder, tossing his hair out of his eyes, knees trembling like a young mule deer’s.
Karen calls Edward, the man she thinks she wants, from her office. While the phone is ringing, her assistant comes to the doorway. She holds a sheaf of papers which Karen knows is the monthly billing.
“Go away,” Karen says to her, smiling. This is the way she talks to all her employees — imperious jokes, self-mocking but at the same time crushing and heavy with the power she refrains always from using.
“Hello,” says Edward.
“What are you doing?” Karen asks.
“Paying bills,” he says.
“Can I come over?”
“I told you I was impatient. I’m tired of dictating.”
“I need to dust off,” he says. “Shower, change.”
“Twenty minutes?” she says.
“Make it forty,” he says.
Before she gets out of the office, her ex-husband calls. Donald is furious, he is always furious, it is the reason they are no longer married. Donald has forgotten how to have fun. Either he has forgotten, or he never knew. He is a very practical person, he runs a tidy house, a neat garden, a solid social life. Karen is no longer sure what drew her to him in the first place. She tries to remember, often when she lies down to sleep she thinks of what it was like to live with him — the predictable days, the fully planned weekends. He never kissed or bit her in the throes of passion, merely covered his face with his hands, as though trying to block her out. He never talks about religion, nor politics, nor his health.
“Where have you been?” her ex-husband says. “You missed Sara’s school open house. I tried calling you all day. Didn’t your secretary tell you?”
“I had an emergency to attend to,” she says. “One of my clients was stranded in Baltimore.”
“Well, there’s always a reason,” he says. “There’s always a reason for the way you neglect your personal life.”
“I guess that’s why you divorced me,” she says. Karen remembers the day she told him she didn’t want to stay married to him — he threw his shoes at her , but they landed in the kitchen sink, splattering her with soapy water. She can have no doubts.
She kept waiting for Donald to have an affair, so she wouldn’t have to. But he was lazy, he put aside passion and loveliness and focused only on money. He could make a lot of it, it was his best talent.
At thirty-five, Karen gets carded one last time for cigarettes, tells the clerk she’s really old, takes off her sunglasses to show him her crow’s feet. Later, her man Edward says with heat, oh, he wanted you. She laughs nervously. No man is able to endure her — it comes from how her father left, how he wanted to stab her when she was born, how her secret heart is looking for some man to make up for that, to endure every hateful thing she can say but never leave.
Most of her adult life has been spent sleeping, so when Karen develops insomnia, she assumes it’s her own fault, always having been a slugabed. She has the blues every day even before she gets up. Life is both too full and too empty to tolerate. Like a snake, she holds everything in fierce embrace, she has loved it all so much, it is dead. She has slept enough, she decides, she’ll make the best of these wakeful hours. She takes up needlepoint, cross-stitch, knitting and crochet, and soon her living room is filled with her creations. Still, she misses her dreams.
Karen goes to a shop in Little Havana, searching for some harmless herbal remedy, something almost, but not quite, a placebo. She’s a firm believer in the power of the mind over the body. Witchcraft is another thing entirely, so when the pale shop-woman draws back a beaded curtain and motions her in to the back room, which smells of burnt sugar, she hesitates. She takes in the woman’s hairy upper lip, her gold canine tooth, her precisely lined red lips, her sexy upper arms — decides it’s worth a try.
Hirsuteness notwithstanding, the pale woman is abnormally beautiful, the kind of beauty women admire and men find frightening — hard, pristine, with sharp angles everywhere. This lady’s nose is a work of art, of architecture, of poetry. All Karen wants is to close her eyes and dream of this moment, twist it into a candy fluff to sustain her through the miserable waking hours.
It’s her desperation, Karen guesses, which has aroused the shop-woman’s sixth sense, a sympathy so strong her pale hands shake as they hold the tangle of beads behind her. Karen blinks back tears, surprised. The bottle the woman chooses is purple, with a gold foil label. Imported from Cuba, it reads. Cuban witchcraft — Castro hasn’t killed every colonial superstition, evidently.
And the voice in Karen’s head says: do what you must, and break your heart down even farther, you haven’t touched the depths yet, of where I will take you. And you will weep for your own folly, and still not be satisfied. You ask for sleep. What can you live without most easily? What can you give up, forever?