In those moments, Loba believed that everything had finished oh-so quickly, oh-so painlessly, oh-so suddenly that death by AIDS was just a missed step on the runway, a path of sparks over the Caribbean like a passage to another world. A moon in the water, caught in tropical currents and beyond the reach of the epidemic. But morning always found her there just the same, leaping from star to star.
Her missed step was not death, but rather a pale return to the destitute life of an unsung loca. Lobita luckily never understood what it meant to be a carrier, or AIDS would have taken her straight down on its depressive toboggan. Loba was always a hopeless loca, rubbish at her studies and bullied at school.
A plus could no less subtract than a minus could ever add , and up yours with those numbers and to hell with life. We never saw Loba sad, but a dark cloud bloomed in her yerba mate that day. She folded the sheet and took a deep breath, inhaling the stale air of the room. She gulped and sighed until the stench overwhelmed the gravity of the news.
Then she walked to the window and opened it over the rusting seaside roofs. She took a lock of her hair, faded by cheap dye, and yanked it out with the sound of paper ripping. She watched it flash copper in a ray of sunlight reflected by the glass. Then she opened her hand, letting her hair float into the feathered breeze that cushioned the afternoon.
La Lobita never let emaciation ruin her looks. As she yellowed, she added rogue; the bigger her bags, the bigger she drew her sunflower eyes. She never let herself go, not even in those final months, when she was a string of a body, her cheeks stuck to the bone, her scalp shining through a downy fuzz of hair. For us, the locas who shared her room, Loba had made a pact with the devil.
How has she lasted so long? How does she still look pretty with those scabs falling off like petals? How, how, how? No AZT, just spunk and her own pulsing heart, and boy did her stubborn ass resist. She withstood the whole summer like a cherry, the whole fall which was warm, and only as winter arrived, as the numbing brine of harbor rain began to drizzle, only then did she show symptoms of goodbye. She fell into her cot and never got up again. And so the agonies began.
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Lobita never wanted back to the doctor after than first exam. His cousin is the gravedigger, she said. And she remembered perfectly that part when Charlie Heston goes looking for his mother and sister in the leper colony.
And they both hide, not wanting the boy to see them like that, stripped of skin, their flesh falling off in chunks. Because they had been so beautiful, gorgeous, real nice-looking, though never nearly as nice as Loba, who spent whole nights delirious recounting the movie. Burning with fever, she cursed the Roman galleys together with Ben-Hur. Forward, Maracas of Mambo! We took shifts caring for her, washing her bum like a baby. We were her nannies, her nurses, her cooks, a troop of slaves she bossed around with the air of Cleopatra.
We had so much patience for her, we would count to breaths to stop ourselves from wringing her neck. At least an hour, during all those insomniac nights on her deathbed. Her demented condition of the moribund queen who refused to kick the bucket, who wanted every little thing, every eccentric whim satisfied.
At midnight, in the depths of winter, raining, she wanted to eat fresh peaches. And like idiots we left the house in the downpour, all of us wetter than pelicans, rummaging for change as we went searching through the deserted streets, waking up every shopkeeper in the port, going up and down the hills until we found a can of the damned fruit.
And when we returned, shaking ourselves dry like dogs, La Loba threw the can at our heads because that craving had come and gone. Now she wanted tangerine ice cream. Tangerine ice cream?
And in the middle of June, frostbitten with cold, the locas turned around and left again, braving the elements until they found a slick-eyed Argentine who, after hearing their wailing tango of the dying mamacita, agreed to sell them a cone. And not even then could Lobita sleep, now fixated on the pink flesh of a summertime melon. Because in hell there are no peaches, or tangerines, or melons. And that much heat makes you thirsty. Slaves of Egypt, bring me melons, grapes, and papayas, raved the poor darling waking the whole boarding house with her queenly pregnancy.
As if the holocaust of the disease had become a gestation of grief, switching death for life, the throes of agony for the pangs of birth. The deranged Loba transformed AIDS into a promise of life, imagining herself the carrier of a child incubated in her anus with the fatal semen of that lost love, that prince of Judea named Ben-Hur, who had planted the fruit one night in the Roman galleys and then left at dawn, leaving her pregnant in a sinking ship. Night after night we heard her call him, while we tried to placate the cravings of the parturient Loba.
She set us all to knitting little sweaters and hats and vests and booties for her baby. She made us sing lullabies, rocking her as we fanned her with feathers, as if we truly were the slaves of an expectant Nefertiti. At some moment or another she had managed to cast us in her movie, so convincingly acted that, drained by exhaustion, we too came to believe in the coming delivery. So all the locas kept getting up in the freezing cold, sneezing, listening to her psych ward fantasies, her final dalliances, her little voice strangled by cough, her shrieking orders each time more muted.
Until one day, still haughty, she opened her mouth like a hippopotamus on the Nile and no sound emerged. She was struck dumb in her pharaonic command.
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Begging, praying, pleading for that airplane from nowhere to arrive soon. Also, I can never forget our awkward first conversation. It came out like a whisper. She was busy biting her lips while she stared at a bowl of Maggi placed before her. So, I tried again. The girl was taken aback. She glanced at me concernedly. Well, not just with her, but with any girl at all. Her parents wanted her to stay somewhere until they sorted it out. When they finally sorted it out, I mean, more like broke their marriage off, her mother called.
She was going to leave and never come back. I outright begged her not to go. But when I woke up the next day, she was already gone. I stayed in my room, crying all day. I was angry. I was hopelessly in love with the girl. Later that night, when I decided to sleep without supper, I looked at a pillow before crashing on my bed. I remembered she rested her head on it last night. I was about to tear it into pieces when I found a neatly folded envelope under it.
I tore it open in a hurry. Dear Karthik, the letter began. You looked so adorable. Angry that I spent more time reading books than spend time with you. Angry that I kissed you last night only to leave you today. I want you to know I had my reasons. I knew very well that my parents were separating and my mom was planning to go abroad.
Now, you can ask me why I kissed you. But the things I have been through in my life so far, I believe that I deserve to be selfish. I hope you understand.
I smiled. There were still tears in my eyes, but I smiled because of this scenario I was imagining in my mind. I imagined looking at that letter 50 years from now and Jessie sitting next to me, smiling and blushing while I read it out loud. So, what happened in those imaginary 50 years, you ask me? A reunion after 10 or so years.
We decide a place to meet later. When love happens, breakups and patch-ups are a given, right? After that, there would, no doubt, be a nail-biting chase scene. It depends on what she could afford at that time, you see. Otherwise, what a waste of effort. And then, there would be kids followed by grandkids.