Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

What You See Is What You Get

 

  

Man, what’s really unbelievable is that people don’t believe in the unbelievable. If I were to tell the clueless American college kids some of the shit my mother dealt with, like some of the crazy, unbelievable people and problems she faced in her little spiritual consulting room, I might end up with no friends or a bunch of people that thought it was cool to hang with the girl who grew up with a mother whose calling she thought was to be a spiritual medium. We’re not talking the stereotype from movies involving voodoo, possession, and chicken sacrifices in some tropical island where everybody looks sweaty, or Latino-inhabited cities like New York and LA, although, yes, she does use chickens when called for. We’re talking about communication with the dead. Yeah, I said it, the dead. The dead are actually up and about. You wouldn’t believe it unless you’ve experienced it, obviously. When I was in middle school, when we weren’t in this country even a decade, and when my parents’ social circle involved a cocktail of Santeros and Santeras, spiritists, and their faithful groupies who believed in all of it but couldn’t channel the spirits themselves, I’d see other kids my age attending the misas, the gatherings. What a relief to consort with other kids whose parents were too fucking weird to talk about. It’s the kind of stuff about my upbringing I’ve reserved for people who are just as weird if not weirder than me. So here I am, back in Jersey for another Christmas break from school, reminded of that magical end of life, the polar opposite of the pragmatism of being in a university, where magic is a life-revelation explained through a piece of literature, or through a good shroom trip or kind bud from Cali, or when you can’t believe how much you’ll owe in student loans when you’re done.

 

Aside from the whole mom-is-a-medium thing, we, my younger sister, Julia, and I have inherited some of mom’s talents. I’m really small-time compared to my little sis who gets visited way more often than I do. You know there are two types of magic in life. There’s the magic I’m talking about to you now, the whole living and dead interacting bit, like how can people think that the dead are just gone like that? People just don’t get that it’s not just our bodies that make us who we are; it’s that crazy force inside us that never dies. Anyway, so the other magic is this we got right here, life. Just plain old everyday crap that you just can’t fucking believe, that crazy shit that usually involves other humans and their freakin’ trivialities or tragedies or trickeries. Like how when my dad comes to pick me up from Newark Airport and as soon as we’re in the car, after bracing ourselves against the afternoon wind of an unsympathetic Jersey winter, I get this: “Your mother thinks I’m with another woman.” Now that’s magic.

 

Like I said, my sister Julia and me, we’ve seen some crazy shit people deal with when they come to my mom, either desperate or as desperate believers. It’s mainly possession, some past life issue or problems of love, relationships, marriage. So when we came across Rosa Villalobos, who is in the category of marriage, it was the weirdest situation we’d come across in that category. The typical marriage category issue was the wife who wanted Mom to tell her if her beloved was cheating or instruct her on the marriage remedies when it’d gone stale, or getting some guy to marry, or the way I saw it, trapping that guy. Never once, in all the years Mom had been consulting, as she called it, since I was in middle school, and now at 20, not a single guy had ever come to do some remedy to catch a woman he wanted to marry. It was always the women who came pathetically crawling on their hands and knees to trap the animals they thought would complete their lives. I didn’t even understand why anyone would want to get married to begin with. Maybe it was, like everyone said, me being too young to understand it, too young to think about marriage, but it seemed suffocating to be with the same person for so long, not even knowing if you could ever really trust that person.

 

So Rosa didn’t come to see Mom for any of these categories of relationships, and I actually found out not from Mom, who wasn’t on speaking terms with anyone these days because she wanted me to 100 percent take her side on the whole cheating issue and since I had been home just a few days I wasn’t taking anyone’s side until I knew what the fuck had happened since I left last August. I found out from Maria, one of Mom’s gathering participants, who just loved to talk it up cause she just couldn’t help herself. Many Latinas had gossiping in their blood, like it was a gene; so being Puerto Rican, and I’m not singling out Puerto Ricans, but they love to talk it up, she spilled it. I just had to offer her un cafesito, the one cooking (if you could put it under cooking) talent I picked up from mami: the perfect espresso with sugary foam on top. If I could lure her out onto the front porch for a smoke, I’d get the whole story. So that’s what I did because Rosa looked like quite a character when I first met her. She is a petite Colombian woman in her thirties with bronze skin and jet-black hair who was apparently raised to be so submissive to her husband that she ended up with a permanently submissive expression on her face. A few days ago, when I got home, Rosa was in my living room sitting daintily on the edge of the sofa with a permanent expression on her face that reminded me of the Virgin Mary, and in an instant I pictured her with a head scarf and her hands in prayer. She was not at all talkative like some of Mom’s clients who strike up a conversation about anything and everything or tell you their entire personal life or the very personal reason why they are there over el cafesito. She barely acknowledged me until I offered her some water or coffee, which she refused anyway, all the while her hands were entwined on her lap like the teacher’s pet.

 

As I was preparing the coffee, Maria kept going on about how they couldn’t tell if Rosa was crazy or if it was the real deal. It was a perfect four o’clock winter afternoon when it seemed that winter had made an agreement with the sun to let it break up the cold grays. Maria and I sat on the top stair of the wooden porch and we could actually feel the warmth of the sun against the 50-degree afternoon; the kind of day that reminds me that I’m still homesick, which lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. We set our mugs by our sides and I lit two smokes at the same time cause she didn’t mind smoking with me, even though it bothered Mom, who didn’t want me smoking to begin with. Maria took a good drag and let it out through thick lips that always looked like they were puckered up and then told me just like this, “Girl, our little Rosita Villalobos claims her husband is starting to turn into a donkey.” She shook her head and then let out a raging cackle that made her cough so that she had to take a gulp of her café con leche.

 

“You’re full of it. I thought you were gonna tell me for real.” I turned away, happy that I had my smoke that I could follow that one up with.

 

Niña, I’m not kidding. That is the real story. The whole consultation with your mami was about how she and her husband, Carlos, needed help because he has no idea he was starting to look like a donkey, an ass, you get it?” She stopped to chuckle with her head between her legs, dark roller curls dangling haphazardly, her cig dangling from her right hand. “No matter how your mami tried, Rosita is convinced that every day he looks more and more like un burro. The back story to that is that, of course, she thinks he’s cheating, but that somehow he’s possessed. Can you believe it? She thinks that what? He’s possessed by a donkey? She finally came to your mami because she was getting scared when she looked at him. She actually tries not to look at him if she can help it, like she averts her eyes and then from the corner of her eye she catches a glimpse and she freaks out because she claims it’s not her Carlos. So you know we don’t know what to believe. Your mami thought that maybe she needs treating instead of the husband.”

 

“But what do the spirits say?”

 

“Yeah, the spirits know that something is wrong but sometimes even they are baffled. We’re gonna have to go over and see for ourselves. I wanted her to get a picture of him but can you believe it, she doesn’t own a freakin’ camera. The woman is still living in Colombia in a shed in the country, you know?”

 

“So when are you all going over? I wanna go too.”

 

“Not sure. Ask your mami.”

 

I would if things were normal but they’re not. My mother is in her silent-treatment mode, customary when she's pissed about something. She’ll go for days, sometimes longer than a week, without saying a word, her face like one of those catatonic patients, just a blank slate. She goes deep inside and she breaks for no one. I wasn’t even sure how much Maria knew, or how much people knew about mom going for weeks without talking to dad, that they were sleeping in separate rooms now. I’m sure she had told her crew. Hispanic women tended to have no boundaries when it came to telling their friends their personal business. No doubt she had told them her suspicions of dad's infidelity. She couldn't talk to her daughters because she knew we weren't convinced.

 

 

* * *

 

 

I don’t think I’ve been this excited to sit in on a gathering for one of Mom’s clients as I am for the gathering we’re having for Rosa, which is to investigate if there are forces at work or whether the husband’s just cheating. All the mediums get together and focus their energies on uncovering the forces responsible for the client’s misery or problem. Most of the time, it’s definitely spiritual. By the time someone comes to see my mom, they have tried everything and are pretty desperate because the problem will not resolve but sometimes it’s just life. In the case of Rosa, we are all wondering which one of the two we’re dealing with: some mischievous spirit at work making her think her husband’s turning into a donkey or her being nuts. The reason pretty much all of us think it’s the second one is because she pretty much acts like there are some loose screws. Mom actually tried to get her to take a picture of her husband because I think Mom didn’t want to waste her energy if the woman was just seeing things since even the spirits were baffled. One of the members, Teresa, a short Ecuadorian woman who’d been in Mom’s circle for years, volunteered to lend her a blank disposable camera she never got the chance to use. Rosita claimed fear that her husband would catch her because he was a light sleeper and that would be the only time she could get a shot of him. She was convinced that some dark magic was at work and worse yet, that the mistress was manipulating the dark arts. No surprise there. With superstitious Hispanic women, it always came down to these two options. Pretty funny how it never occurred to these women that it wasn’t the mistress that was responsible, but the husband , for cheating. Magic is a much more tolerable explanation than reality when it came to men and their unfaithfulness.

 

Pretty sad to admit, but aside from passing up hanging out with my friends and possibly smoking some good bud, and aside from coming to see whether Rosa’s husband was indeed turning into a donkey, I come for the food. All the yummies I don’t get while at school are in great numbers at these misas. The circle members did up the potluck style trays of guayaba and meat pastelitos, bocaditos, and croquetas. Maria and another circle member, Chiqui, were setting up the espresso tray. Chiqui was even shorter than Teresa, which is why they nicknamed her Chiqui, short for chiquita. Mom, Teresa, and the other members, Inez and her husband, Pedro, are sorting dried bouquets of sweet basil in the kitchen sink, which comingle with the smell of espresso. I decide I won’t wait for the espresso and lunge for a guava pastry. I justify my truck driver appetite with the whole I’ve-been-away-at-school-eating nothing-but-Ramen-noodles bit. I add a couple croquettes and a couple finger sandwiches filled with Deviled Ham, which, although I’ve been eating it my whole life, I have no idea what it could possibly be made of. The small paper plate is too small for my helping and I portray the starving student image quite well, but no one is paying attention to me because they’re all busy doing their own thing. Particularly Rosa, whose hands are ensnared in a white rosary she hasn’t let go of since we got here.

 

Chiqui places the espresso tray with tiny white plastic cups filled with caramel-colored foam-topped espresso. One shot. Just enough to get us through some spirit-wielding during the mass. I’m relieved that by the time everyone actually starts eating, I’ve already eaten most of my plate and I won’t look like the starving student after all. I don’t have a second plate because no one ever does. One plate now and another when we’re done and everyone is starving from battling some crazy entities, some of which get aggressive, so the inhabiting body has to be held down, and that’s usually my mother, who is a six-foot-tall Amazon, the tallest of all the members. Rosa has transferred the rosary to her pocket because she realized she needed both hands to eat, but even while she’s biting into the meat pastry, her eyebrows are wrinkled in a permanent expression of anxiety.

 

Rosa thinks she is a good woman and good women deserve good husbands, but in her third year of marriage to Carlos she started catching on to her husband’s indiscretions; not coming home when she expected him to, always with some excuse about work. He started dyeing his gray and pretended he hadn’t and he simply wouldn’t touch her, even though the first year of their marriage he couldn’t get enough. Then he started making fun of her and the way she dressed in those dresses that covered up everything, so he told her she looked like an old lady before her time. When she shot back that he wanted her to look like a prostitute with short and tight clothing, his response about how she couldn’t get away with that anyway infuriated her even more. Now he was never home on time for dinner and he had stopped bothering about giving excuses.

 

Mom takes her place to the right of the altar, which was an arrangement of dried twiggy herbs and fresh white carnations, a basin filled with water, perfume, and carnation petals, a bottle of Aguardiente, the cheap alcohol used to cleanse the herbs, and two coconuts. To the left is Maria and the rest of us in a circle, with Rosa sitting in the center. Mom begins with three knocks on the floor, a greeting and invitation to the spirits. When Mom begins the first prayer, a simple Our Father, we all close our eyes and begin the deep meditation to make us receptive to visions and messages from the spirits. At about the third round of prayer, just as my visions are going from black to shapes and images, the solemn chorus of voices stops short at the sound of footsteps which seem to be heading toward the door of Rosa’s apartment. Then someone’s keys are opening the door.

 

Carlos Villalobos opens the door to his apartment to find his wife sitting in the center of a circle of multi-colored, kerchief-clad strangers in a mist of tobacco smoke. Honestly though, it’s hard to say who is more shocked: Carlos, who walked in on what he perceived as a brujeria séance, or those of us in the circle who are looking at a man whose face had truly taken on the resemblance of a donkey. We stare at each other in silence until Rosa snaps us out of it when she calls out, “Look, look, it’s worse now, ay Dios mio, he’s got the ears now.”

 

* * *

 

Does imagination make you see things in the real world or does the real world make you imagine things? So did we imagine the donkey-faced man because he was cheating on his wife like a dumb-ass or did we just imagine it? Did a bunch of people imagine it? Well, it was confirmed that Carlos was cheating and he had to admit it after his wife went through the trouble of arranging a meeting of mediums who had confirmed through visions that he was cheating. Truth is we all had the same instinct to start packing up to leave, one because we didn’t want to be in the middle of the argument between Rosa and Carlos, and two, we didn’t want to watch Carlos arguing with his floppy ears and larger-than-life teeth peeking out of a snout-like mouth. Personally, the tuft of black hair sprouting from the top of his head was too much for me to deal with. It’s been days now and from what I hear, there is no talk of divorce. All that trouble just to find out that Rosa was telling the truth but that she’s still not going to leave her dumb-ass, two-timing husband. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink, right?

 

I’ve been studying my father closely for signs of transformation but there have been none. My father has always been my father. I wouldn’t say he’s handsome but he’s not hideous or anything. He’s not the most charming of guys, either, like those that are so charming even though they’re not attractive at all but you see gorgeous women with them. It’s their money, charm, or sexual performance. In that order. What in the world could any chick see in my father? Maybe I just don’t see him in that way. What has got my mother convinced he’s cheating? Since he’s not resembling a donkey, what’s the sure-proof way of knowing? I watched him eating the other day and something occurred to me which was unsettling because maybe this was it, why my mother needs to get away from my father. I was kind of grossed out by his eating. The way he ate fast and hungrily, his thick cigar-like fingers dripping with pork grease, his breath coming fast and uneven. I knew though that I was being ridiculous. He had just gotten home at six after working a twelve-hour day. Who wouldn’t be eating like a hungry beast after a day of labor and driving? But I understood how my mother might feel after twenty-some years of watching my father eat, of watching him do everything the same way he’s done it all the time they’ve been together. Can you really be with someone that long and not grow out of love? Who knows? I know for sure that I’d respect the decision of leaving that person more than staying with them even though it’s gone sour. I can’t say there is a difference, though, between wrinkle-faced Rosa fervently praying to her white rosary and my mother’s stoic silent treatment. That line between happiness and obligation is blurry. Just like we’d like to go on thinking one exists between reality and fantasy. Whatever it takes to believe. Whatever it takes to lie.

 

 

 

 

Katherine Haro was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. At the age of three she immigrated to the United States as a passenger of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, and has dedicated her professional life to educating secondary learners in English and literacy. Katherine’s stories are inspired by a feminist perspective of her Cuban-American culture. She can hold her own in karaoke, with a special affinity for ’80s music.