I drifted. My left knee stiff and bloated like a corpse. I couldn’t move, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t escape the ennui, humidity and heat. For five days I lay there. And on the sixth I made ready to leave. I was sore. I’d been humbled. I’d picked up a noticeable limp.
About where I expected to be after forty plus years of living. I hailed a taxi to Manolos. One last meal before I fled the city. The girl, Alejandra, was there. She was inside laughing with my waitress. They both looked over, then back at each other, as if they’d been waiting for me to appear.
My waitress hustled over.
– Where you to be? She said.
She sounded annoyed. But then she always sounded annoyed.
– You no come for many day. And I tell Alejandra about you.
– You what?
– No worry. Alejandra to tell me you very handsome man.
– You don’t understand. I’m leaving …
But she’d already turned away. So I thought about it. Maybe she was on to something. I mean, sure, she was an indifferent waitress, a closet Noriegista. But she was right, I was a very handsome man. At least up until the late nineties. Before everything turned to shit.
I got up, trying not to limp, but grimacing with every step. I crossed the room to Alejandra’s table. I introduced myself. I actually told her I was a writer traveling alone through Panama. I hoped that would go down better than stoned pervert holed-up in the Hotel Panama.
I asked if I could join her. Right away I noticed her shyness. Alejandra had this fragile look in her eyes. She looked down and whispered something. Yes, I think. She’d said it so softly I almost couldn’t hear over the other patrons. I took a seat. She glanced at my knee, then the dog. Her lip curled up on one side.
– He name Cojito, she said.
Perhaps she was wondering if I’d make the connection. I looked at him: old, crippled, drooling and licking his junk. Sure, I could see the resemblance. I just couldn’t figure why she hadn’t named him El Guapo or Señor Lindo. I ruffled his fur and gave him a good scratch about the ears and head. He looked unsure, like he was still a little shell-shocked.
– He no usually like gringos, she said.
– I don’t blame him. Probably not too keen on cars either.
Alejandra’s black eyes twinkled. It looked like her natural reserve broke down. She smiled widely. A conspiratorial smile. It was easy after that. And as I listened to her story, I flashed on that line from the Book of Five Rings:
“Get beyond love and death; exist for the good of man.”
Over the next hour Alejandra told me about growing Punto Rojo on a rented farm near Medellin. Finding her father’s body when she was fourteen; her hatred of the para* fucks who’d chopped him up. How she’d come to Panama a year ago to work and help her family. How the job didn’t pay shit, and her boss was always trying to fuck her.
I was about to compliment her boss’s excellent taste, but Alejandra suddenly looked out the window and said:
– Ay no, rain come.
– You don’t like the rain?
– Many mosquito, dengue, malaria, flood. Many sick and die. Last year my family lose everything.
She smiled ruefully.
Then our waitress came with a bill. Alejandra took the uneaten turkey sandwich, wrapped it napkins, and placed it in her bag for later. The rest of my toast, along with several sugar and ketchup packets went in the bag too. I paid the check.
– Wanna get together this weekend?
It looked like she had to think about that. I caught my grizzled reflection in the window. I couldn’t blame her. What was this beautiful woman doing talking to that nasty old man? Then she smiled and said:
I offered to help her catch a taxi on Via Espania. She took my hand as we passed the whores on the corner. In the taxi I slipped her a fiver, told the driver to take her where she wanted to go. She handed me a napkin with her number on it. The taxi pulled away from the curb. I heard her say, “Curundú Señor,” though a half-open window.
Rain began to fall.
-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.
(*Para = Colombian paramilitary)