34. Food, ludopathy, bullied for being white, Chiva, Coca-Cola, El Laguito, dead fish
Silence and surrender would not be more honest than the urge to erect our own memorial in our lifetime.
PETER WEISS, Notebooks.
Back to Cartagena. Three, The Food. Green mangoes sprinkled with salt, papaya, pineapple, orange, watermelon, bananas, coconuts, arepas stuffed with cheese, arepas stuffed with egg, carimañolas (fried yuca pies stuffed with cheese or meat), fried fish, ceviche de camarones (shrimp ceviche), chipi chipi (a type of edible mollusk), coconut rice, panelitas (sweets made with cane sugar and coconut). For some unknown reason, everyone I remember drinking something had a Coke in hand. Four, Work and School. Grandmother’s ludopathy wasn’t evident nor a reason for concern at the beginning. The illness grew, though, little by little, like a malicious weed. She went from one or two hours in the casino of the Hotel Caribe, to the entire afternoon, to staying until the middle of the night, to leaving at noon, arriving at three or four in the morning, sleeping a couple of hours just to wake up and leave again to be there at noon the next day, the hour the Casino opened, and this, two or three days in a row. Grandmother gambled and lost everything she made renting apartments for days or weeks to employees from shipping and oil companies, emerald dealers, and tourists, gambled and lost her savings, sold, and gambled, an apartment she owned. In the meantime, Mother and Aunt Diana found job as waitresses in Piccolo, a popular pizzeria in the center of the city. Aunt Diana was dating the owner of Piccolo, and that facilitated the process.
Sister went to La Presentación, a school run by nuns, and I went the San Isidro, a public school where I was the only white kid. Most of the black kids were nice, a couple of them even played marbles with me during the breaks. Some weren’t. Lunch consisted of a Coke and a slice of cake, not the healthiest meal already, the kids who smacked me behind the head and ears to steal the food from me where probably doing me a favor. A big, fat, black teacher who used to wear a tight purple blouse too often was my savior. The time she saw one of the kids hit me, she took his ear, twisted it until the boy cried, and told him to even dare to take advantage of a smaller kid again. And you, Cachaco, she told me, fend for yourself, carajo! You are already old enough. I used to commute to school in a Chiva, a colorful windowless bus painted yellow, blue, and red, the colors of the national flag, which picked me up after eight in the morning to the bus stop in front of the house where Grandmother used to walk me. The driver, an old black man who seldom wore a t-shirt, shouted every couple of minutes in a voice of thunder the name of the following stop.
Five, Random Events worth of mention. It was not common that we ate with Josefina and her daughter at the same table.That time was, even though I do not remember clearly, without a doubt, an special occasion. In the midst of the animated dinner, most likely fried fish served with a milky salad with cabbage and raisins, coconut rice, and patacones (fried plantain), Josefina’s daughter took a bite, opened her mouth wide, and started to profusely bleed and cry. The tooth fell in the plate, and in took some time before Josefina could find it in the mix of fish, blood and rice. There was a big brown and yellow dog, possibly a german shepherd mixed with another breed, that lived in the patio that separated the main house and our room. I used to like the dog until the night when he, excited for a reason I still ignore, jumped on my back and scratched my buttocks. He is just playing, Josefina’s daughter said, he is just playing. The scratch bled and hurt and left a scar in my right cheek and my child’s soul. I was terrified by the brown and yellow dog from that day onwards. One of my favorite places was a simple grocery store next to Josefina’s where we used to buy cold Coke after school. The owner, a thin and white bald man in his forties, exchanged the bottle caps that read winning cap on the back for stickers, served to Sister and I a bowl of warm milk with sugar, and helped us fill the album of The World of Coca-Cola. Josefina, as expected, kept the jewels, the television set, and the washing machine as payment for the rent.
Aunt Diana found the right places to obtain the drug she needed. Her behavior was erratic, to say the least. She arrived one time in the middle of the night, started a fight with Grandmother for no reason in particular, and smashed the rock we used to use as doorstopper against the wall. Fragments of the rock fell on all of us, our own Caribbean big bang. During an argument with Mother, where both were handing knives, even though they were blunt and didn’t look particularly threatening, Aunt Diana told Mother she would not allow her to escape from Father, go wonder why, and tore several pages of her passport. In Cartagena, the sea is black, sometimes brown, the sky is blue most of the time, unless the evenings when it’s green. El Conquistador was in an area of the city called El Laguito (The Little lake). The arm of the bay had closed in itself, in a task that took centuries, forming with its hug a small lake of sea water. I saw from the window of the apartment how a black man tried to evade the police officers by swimming in that lake, a remarkably polluted place. The police officers waited at the shore, probably laughing at the man’s stupidity. Five or six hours passed before the man, exhausted, surrendered. I used to capture small fish in the beach and brought them back home inside Coke crystal bottles.They never lasted more than an hour. That is how I learnt that water was made of hydrogen and oxygen and that once the oxygen depleted inside the bottle, the fish would inevitably die.