Fátima, Queen of the Night

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Apologia? Manifesto? Confessional? In this stream-of-consciousness narrative, a Havana drag queen tells her story. “Fátima, Queen of the Night,” published here for the first time, won Cuban writer Miguel Barnet the Juan Rulfo prize for short fiction in 2006.

 Perfume bottles
Photo by Josephine Caruana/Flickr

 

 

When I was seven years old, the Virgin of Fátima appeared to me in the kitchen of my house in Madruga. That’s why people sometimes see a pink halo around my head. It was an apparition that marked my life. I saw her in the kitchen door, but she wasn’t standing on a rock like everybody says, she was on a stool, and she was mulatta. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Virgin of Montserrat, the black one sitting in a big gilded chair, well the Fátima I saw looked just like her, except not as black, just sitting there in all her glory on a stool.

I’ve always been a lucky person, and that’s probably why. Well, that and I’ve never stepped on anybody’s toes, and I don’t go around sticking my nose in other people’s business. I do whatever I feel like, and that’s all there is to it. I get by because I have a youthful spirit and a positive energy that comes from Saturn, at least that’s what my horoscope says. If you could just see me right now, naked from the waist up, but I’m actually very modest, and I don’t let just anybody see me naked. If you want to see me, you’ve got to cough up some big bucks, and if you want to touch, even more. Deep down I’m a prude. I don’t even like for people to see me naked in the dressing room when I do shows. Not the other girls—they take off their clothes and throw them on the floor without giving it a second thought. They call me the nun, Fátima the nun. I may be a sinner, but I still believe in dressing screens and covering up. I also believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I even go to church on Sundays, to Nuestra Señora del Carmen, because I like big, fancy churches with cute, young priests like the one at Nuestra Señora. Holy Mother, if I could, I’d smear butter on him and eat him for breakfast, cassock and all. I catch him checking me out, but he doesn’t know it because when I want I can be a serious woman, with a lot of class.

 •

Of course it shows in my clothes, in my fierce high heels. If you just could see how I stand out at mass from everyone else in my stiletto heels, which I don’t even take off to sleep. Everybody at Fraternity Park says I’m the one who made them popular. You should see the other girls, my sisters, they can’t even walk in them; they wobble from side to side like storks because they don’t have any style. Nobody can walk in them like me. I never fall or lose my balance. And then there’s me, up here, walking on stilts, like the Queen Mother, who was actually short but looked like a grande dame because they made her shoes out of cork and wrapped her feet with padding so her bunions wouldn’t hurt. I may not be the Queen Mother, but I am Fátima of Fraternity Park, and they respect me. Business is one thing, survival is another, but showing off and showing your ass are another thing altogether.

This is my kingdom, and the Virgin of Fátima and Our Lady of Charity are my ladies in waiting, because the conch says I’m the daughter of the goddess Ochún Panchágara.

I’m a queen, and when I stand on the corner and a guy comes up to me, it’s because he has already decided he wants to go with me and sample my buffet. He doesn’t walk up to me because he wants to talk about my life. He just wants to have a good time, or sit for a while on the park bench. But then he gets horny looking at me and listening to me talk. And his thing gets hard and stands at attention because he’s shy, the guy who goes with me the first time, so sweet and naïve. I get them excited because I like to tease them. Then there are the girls who are snakes, the greedy ones, pigs; the ones who think that just because they go for it they’re going to get the best piece.

No, they don’t know anything about this business: you have to talk to them, take them by the hand, tell them not to feel guilty, that their wives are their wives, their house is their house, and that what you’re going to give them is a little present, a quick bonbon. They laugh, because first you help them get it up then you have to help them get it down; they have all kinds of problems, disguised, and hang-ups, hang-ups that I never had. Some just want to pour out their soul, but when I take off my dress they pounce right there with their clothes on, they pounce right there, desperate because they’re so naïve. . . . Dear God, free me from this burden, thank you for having made me this way, always willing to go out on the street and take care of business. I’m very laid back. I don’t have hang-ups. They do, they start to make things hard and ask personal questions like, “Tell me, girl, how you can feel like a woman if you have a cock like me and probably long like a cannon and everything?” That’s when I grab them and unwrap them like a present, I take off their ribbons and pins, everything, and they end up all naked, they’re closeted fags, but they pay more than men because that’s what they like. I’m not happy to have what I have, I’d rather have something else, but I’m the way I am, just like God brought me into this world.

I could tell you a lot of things that I’ve seen, that have happened to me, not now but when I was younger. . . . I prefer not to say anything because if doctors and priests can claim confidentiality so can I. If I want to play along, it’s better I keep quiet. It would be cruel to put a piece of candy in somebody’s mouth and not let them suck on it. I’ve been in bad situations, it’s true, but I’m here to do a job, but I get into tight spots with some bad people. I know about them, I know all about them, but I don’t say anything because when all is said and done, that’s why they come to me.

Don’t get the wrong idea, they say, I’m all man, it’s just that you make me horny. All I have to do is talk like a parrot in heat, and they get into it. And imagination . . . my talent for driving them crazy: mirrors on the ceiling, on the walls, the floor, the kangaroo hop, the stripper pole, and a little stage close to the floor where I do my striptease. I toss my clothes to them one by one and then ask them to take their clothes off. I don’t touch them though. I don’t even go near them. They lose it. They want to wrap their body around mine and do me right there. But when they see how God brought me into the world, they want to die. That’s when I pounce on them and eat them in little bites without kissing them. I tickle them and drive them crazy. All of that costs money, of course. But I have a good time because fantasy is the mother of sex. They leave happy, and they give me whatever I want. Just ask the hotel maids and shop clerks around here. “Fátima,” they say, “you really made out.” Look, my latest addition is Smoke in the Night by Lanvin, but it doesn’t matter how good it smells if someone doesn’t buy it for me. . . .

My perfume collection is so big I could open my own boutique. That’s why I lock the door to my mansion because poor people like nice things just as much as rich people, maybe more because rich people have a lot, too much, and don’t appreciate what they have. That’s my theory, at least, without ever having read a book or opened a dictionary. I’ve had this diarrhea of the mouth since I was a little girl. At home they always told me to be quiet because I’d give sermons on the front porch. I used to think I was the boss whenever there was a fight or when my father would come home drunk and want to beat on my mother. That’s when I would become wild, like some man I had swallowed in another incarnation was coming out of me, a man with hair on his chest. I even sounded like it. I’d hit him with the broom or the lamp from the bedside table or whatever was within my reach. 

The son of bitch did horrible things to my mother. When I start to think about it, I want to eat all men, humiliate them, and if they dare start anything with me, I kick their ass. I keep that hatred inside, and I’ve never forgiven him for the beatings he gave me or the times I had to sleep outside the door or on the patio next to the chicken coop that smelled like shit, listening to the beating he was giving my mother. I don’t know if I was supposed to be gay or not, but I like men too much. But I keep them on a short leash.

 •

I don’t let them get away with anything.

They respect me in Madruga because they know me and they know that if somebody fucks with me, it will come back on them. My Guardian Angel is very strong. 

I have the Ice Commission on my side. With it, I don’t have to do any kind of witchcraft or evil eye; it works all by itself and can paralyze anyone. All I need to know is the person’s first and last name. I take a piece of paper, preferably silver because it’s blessed by the god Obatalá, and I put another one inside with the name of the person who tried to fuck with me, and I put it in the freezer for seven days. On the seventh day, I take it out frozen, and they’ll never fuck with me again. The Ice Commission is stronger than the Jewish cauldron. That’s why they respect me. That and because I make my own money.

I sold candy at the Marta movie house, candy, cookies, soft drinks. . . . And the customers would buy from me, but then they made me work for it because they weren’t getting it anywhere else. Psst, psst, psst . . . that’s what it’s for. I never needed a flashlight. I knew all of them from the neighborhood. I knew who they were. I still remember the telephone numbers that some of them gave me when they wanted to mess around. But I never called them. They were easy targets because girls were off limits, and there were people who were watching, spies, you didn’t even think about going out at night. That was back when I worked in the sugar fields. I would take them to the outskirts of town, out to the country, me in front, or course, and them walking behind me and across the street, until we got to the mountain. I know all the mountain’s nooks and crannies, where the gullies were, where the grass was good, where there wasn’t any bird shit or deer weed, where nobody could see us. Those were my adventures. . . . I passed myself around to the whole town, discretely of course because, Mary Mother of God, whoever talked had hell to pay.

Later I’d get in the river, take a long, relaxing bath, and once my head was clear, I’d take stock. I had them all in my secret file, under my absolute control. The next day they’d be in the park with their girlfriends and stupid me, camp director, would say to myself: “That one has a big one, that one has a small one, that one has a mole, that one’s turtleneck is too tight, that one has a pearl. . . .” That’s when a guy cuts his foreskin open and puts a pebble inside so the foreskin will grow around it. . . . I can’t complain, I’ve enjoyed myself.

Sometimes I wish I were Madonna so I could leave the house in a limousine through the back door, and have pastries for breakfast and pancakes like the ones in the movies and a lot of money, a lot, a lot, a lot of money, so I wouldn’t have to look anyone in the face and could walk around with a light-skinned mulatto with rubber legs, like a cyclist, like her husband, a really rich Cuban papi who they say met her on the street and picked her up just so he could fuck her, a quick fuck, and become a millionaire. Unfortunately, I’m not Madonna and even though I like my neighborhood, it beats having to go out and bring home the bacon every morning in broad daylight stinking and in makeup, but I have to do it because if I don’t eat breakfast, I can’t see, I go blind and walk around in a daze. That’s the only part of me that’s even remotely American: I like to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, with toast and coffee. I usually eat breakfast when everybody else has already had lunch and is worn out from a hectic morning.

I wake up at noon or one o’clock still wearing the same dress from the night before, and since I don’t have a phone and there’s not a buzzer downstairs nobody bothers me. Besides, they know better, they know that I work until sunrise and I get home exhausted and they don’t say shit to me because they’re afraid of me. And if some asshole does bother me, I rip him a new one.

 •

This room used to belong to a bongo player from the Sensación Orchestra. When he died I put in for it. I filled out all the paperwork because I was living on the street or in the park or sleeping in the train station, sitting on a bench like a statue, yawning and falling over. Only the person who’s had to suffer this in their bones knows what I’m talking about. I’m not going to say how I got it because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but they gave me this room, and even though the bathroom is outside in the hall, this is my kingdom and nobody comes here. This is my kingdom, and the Virgin of Fátima and Our Lady of Charity are my ladies in waiting, because the conch says I’m the daughter of the goddess Ochún Panchágara. I have her buried in a planter just in case. In my hometown I was taught to keep saints in soup bowls or casserole dishes. Ochún grows in a corncob and comes out in little green leaves that stand up. They’re beautiful. I’m a priestess of Palo Monte, but I also worship Fátima and Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. They are my guides; they are in my head and in my heart.

My clients never come to my room. That’s what El Reguero is for. That’s the name we gave to a warehouse on Campanario Street where we rule, the queens of the night. El Reguero is where we keep our props: sulfur-colored feathers, Aseptil red, methylene blue, recycled dresses, things we came up with during the Special Period. Versailles is tiny by comparison. If Campanario could talk, no one would come out looking good or be able to throw the first stone. Everybody bent down in front of us, the wise old owls of the park, or as the police used to call us, the flashlights, because we were always lighting up like fireflies. Of course, we don’t always go there. If the guy is a Spaniard with cash, he takes us to a hotel or to the Hemingway Marina, but that’s dangerous because if we get caught, there can be trouble. Everybody knows everything in this country but they act like they don’t. Nobody’s going to rock the boat, live and let live, and in the meantime we keep doing what we do because it’s what we have to do to eat and buy dresses.

I dress well. I don’t like hand-me-downs or clothes off the sale rack. Once in a blue moon I’ll go in a secondhand clothing store and if I find something that suits me I’ll buy it, but just going to one makes me want to throw up, the smell of clothes that haven’t been washed is enough to make anyone sick. I have three really good dresses and three really good pairs of shoes, the kind that don’t squeak or chirp like crickets, real leather with silk lining—silk on my foot. I’ve learned a lot from magazines. Right now I’m in mourning because Princess Diana was my idol and, well, you know the story: she was killed in Paris in a black Mercedes with that Egyptian millionaire. They were right to name a park after her in Old Havana because she was truly a living saint. I was at the opening: the diplomatic corps, the high-society ladies, the important men, the big shots, thank God, it was a success. I saw it from a distance because I didn’t have an invitation, but I saw the ceremony and heard the speech by that historian and by the English ambassador. It was very chic. When the high-society people left in their black cars I went to the park facing the bay, and I told her, Diana, you left without asking for permission from your fans. I admired you because you were so beautiful and so good, and you dressed better than anyone, and you bent Prince Charles over and gave it to him and his entire family up the ass. Think about it, you made the Queen of England drink beer in a pub with the working-class stiffs. You did it all by yourself, girlfriend. That’s why I brought you this flower. And I threw her a Black Prince rose. I cried for Princess Diana and for Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Nobody can ever accuse those of us in this business of being heartless thieves. People can be mean. They don’t recognize the good in other people. All they do is pass judgment.

I read a lot, especially magazines from Spain because one of my clients is a pilot for Iberia, he’s spent more time in the cockpit than I have on the street. He adores me, but there’s just one little problem: he likes for us to wear each other’s clothes. That really bothers me; in fact, it drives me crazy. I mean, here’s a six-foot-tall hot, hunky, Latin lover from Valencia who likes to put on my dresses and high heels and lipstick and look in the mirror and say how pretty he is then says come let me fuck you so you’ll know how good I am. And then there’s me, dressed like a pilot with the hat and everything. And I have to let him screw me because the way he says it is so cute with those funny S’s that are so adorable and, oh my God, his cologne. The amount of magazines he brings me could fill up the National Library. Yes, I let people borrow them, and if they’re new I trade them. I have my own magazine library or whatever you call it. I like to share what I have. I’m not like those clueless queens you talk to who don’t know who Queen Elizabeth is or don’t know Elizabeth Taylor from Elizabeth Arden. I can at least talk intelligently about things and offer an opinion. That saying about how the brute is wiser than the bishop is a total lie. Some queens are dumb as posts. Not me, I’m smart, I know what’s going on. I do what I do because I like the nightlife and because it’s a living. But I went to school. I took advantage of my youth and prepared myself to make a living. I’m a bilingual stenographer. I worked several years in a computing firm, until I met Andrés. He was my downfall. Andrés Hidalgo. They called him Grease because he used to put Vaseline in his hair to make it shine. He’s the Cuban John Travolta. But he broke my heart because I fell head over heels in love with him. 

Before I met Andrés I was Manolo, Manolito to my friends—the few I had.

That’s when I began to meet people other than Andrés, foreigners. I wanted to teach him a lesson. I was still Manolito, Manolito from Havana. I hadn’t become who I am today: Fátima, Queen of the Night.

I never liked my name because it’s a bullfighter’s name, or a policeman’s, or a butcher’s, hell, it’s a man’s name. I wanted to change it to René because it sounds softer, but Andrés told me that what I needed to do was change my balls, not my name. At first I laughed but then things got out of control and he stopped calling me Manolo and started calling me his queen, his baby. . . . And in bed I was his candy. I may have less hair than a Chinese dog, but I used to be a man, and he turned me into a woman. I certainly didn’t go to Almeijeiras Hospital to fill out the paperwork for the operation or anything like that. I’m scared to death of knives. Little by little, his spoiling and his demands got the better of me. For example, he insisted that I wear light blue and pale yellow clothes, which the women I worked with would give me because they knew I was crazy about him. They helped me; they were my accomplices, but I knew that they liked Andrés too, although they never told me. How could they not like such a tall, muscular man with tiger eyes and hands like marble! Nobody has skin like Andrés. It’s like vinyl, with a beautiful red tone. Manolito, what color is that boy, my girlfriends would ask, and I would tell them they could have Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone because Andrés was mine. I gave him a gold chain with some saint that we never figured out because I stole it from some Italian guy. That’s when I began to meet people other than Andrés, foreigners. I wanted to teach him a lesson. I was still Manolito, Manolito from Havana. I hadn’t become who I am today: Fátima, Queen of the Night.

Andrés and I went out for six years. They were the happiest six years of my life because he was the biggest catch in Havana, and I held on to him in spite of every nasty whore and flaming drag queen that wanted him. Me as a man, with my little balls, no costumes, no lies. When I decided to live as a woman, he was a little disappointed because he didn’t want anybody to know about the stuff we did at night, the drag stuff, but your stomach doesn’t care where the money comes from, and I was starving to death. I spent everything I made on Andrés because he liked nice things. Plus, he drank a little, then started smoking pot. What choice did I have? I gave all of it to him.

Listen, they’d say, Grease is going to leave you like the rooster from Morón, plucked and cackling. But I did what I wanted to do, I didn’t pay attention to anyone, I believed then and I still believe that those bitches in Fraternity Park were jealous of me. Fraternity Park is where I started making friends, on the park benches, after eleven or twelve at night. I fell into it completely by accident. And Andrés benefited from it because it was the only way I could think of to keep him. Nothing else worked, not the supreme priest Babalao, not the card reader, not the spiritualist, nobody. It was the cash—the owó as the Santeros call it—that he wanted. So I gave him money up to his eyeballs. There was money coming out of every hole in his body. He was my saint, my king, my everything. Sometimes, I’d go out with foreigners, even though they made me sick, I wasn’t even turned on by other Cuban men. He was my life. Andrés Hidalgo. And my downfall. When he’d say, baby, you gotta leave this desk and take your cute little face and sweet little ass out on the street so I can keep on lovin’ you, I didn’t think twice.

One afternoon when I got to the office I told my boss, Vega, I was leaving, I needed some time off. But Manolito, you’re the best employee I have, the only one who stays late and doesn’t complain. You know the spot this is going to put me in. I don’t believe you. Tell me what’s going on. It’s true, I kicked ass in that office. Vega was an older man, bald as a cue ball and so ugly that he was a public nuisance. Kids called him Vega the Lizard because he had a long head and a green beard. He was the reincarnation of the Incan Putumayo. I need time off. I have a personal situation. I’ll raise your pay fifty pesos. No, Veguita, that’s not it. I need more, a lot more because I have to take care of my family. It’s Andrés, isn’t it, Manolito. Tell me the truth; I can be your papi.

It made me cry to hear a man like him in a macho city like Havana with macho men everywhere say that to me. But I told him everything my dignity would allow and he understood, or pretended to understand, so he gave me the time off. Vega, wherever you are, I will always be thankful. May the Virgin of El Cobre and the Virgin of Fátima protect you! You understood me. You were the father I never had.

The next day I locked the door to my room and put on the clothes that I bought from my friends at the drag shows in Bejucal and Cojímar, plus the things I had from my romps with Andrés. I hit the street, at night, as Fátima, of course. I decided to do it because I’m not afraid of anything. The neighbors recognized me. And when I started to go out dressed as a woman they started to whisper and insult me. I just looked the other way. The old people didn’t say anything to me. It was the young people. The young people were the ones who yelled “queen, pervert, cocksucker,” and “Come here, I’ve got something for you.” I had to walk through hell and back. I jumped through lots of hoops, but here I am, owner and mistress of my own life. But without Andrés, I’m still alone inside. I don’t have any friends because the only good things this lifestyle provides are food and clothes; everything else is trouble. Nobody cares about anyone else. It’s dog-eat-dog.

Sometimes I want to douse this neighborhood in hydrochloric acid so there’d be nothing left. And other times, when I’m in the bread line, I straighten things out with everyone. Deep down inside they know that what I do is the oldest profession known to man and that with Chinese condoms nobody gets hurt, on the contrary.

People have told me, “Look, girl, with a body like that you should go to Miami. You could work as a model there. You could rule Miami.” But when I saw the rafts on the rocks in Cojímar, with the women holding their children, about to throw themselves to the sharks, I panicked. I was terrified. I told Andrés, “Andrés, my love, I’ve done everything for you. I became a thief. I sold myself, but this is where I draw the line.” He looked me in the eye—it was the first time he ever looked me straight in the eye—and said: “Do what you gotta do.” There’s nothing for me here. It was pouring down rain, and I was dressed normal, I mean as a man, but I had my wigs with me. After all, I had to take them because they were, what am I saying, they are, really, really good. Yanairma, a friend of Andrés’s and mine who married a hotel owner and lives in an Italian villa now, sent them to me from Rome.

Between the rain that wouldn’t let me see Andrés’s face and the butterflies and the fact that it was getting dark, I got so upset I ran out of there. I was lucky enough to catch a bus to East Havana where I got off and waited under a covered bus stop. I fell apart inside but I couldn’t cry. He couldn’t stay in Cuba. He owed a lot of money and the police were after him. He had already gotten warning letters. They said he was a threat to public safety because of drugs and Santería. So I stayed behind, alone, a martyr like Mary Magdalene, and I told myself that it was time to live my own life and find out about the street for myself.

I’m not going to say that they didn’t help me out, they did, but in exchange for giving them clients and doing other things that I wouldn’t confess to even my mother if she got down on her knees and begged me. Some things do embarrass me, things that would embarrass even the most shameless person, but you have to move on, and those of us in this business can’t worry about things like that.

The other girls come to me because when it comes to secrets, I’m like an Egyptian tomb. Oh, Fátima, sister, I can tell you anything because you close your mouth and lock it. And they’re right. You won’t see me on La Rampa or in Coppelia Park or standing in front of hotels. I stay right here, in my lair, or at Fraternity Park, my headquarters. A girl has to have balls in this business. Otherwise on any given night while you’re standing under a tree and when you least expect it someone will cut your guts out. At least there’s peace here, and in heaven. The police never do anything. If you’re a hooker and a drag queen to boot nobody gives a damn if somebody cuts you up in little pieces like that girl they dismembered in Marianao. Or tie you to a ceiba tree in the park that has dirt from every country in Latin America. It’s a clean, respectable park during the day, but at night us night owls shit all over it. If those benches could talk . . .

It’s true what they say about stones being silent. That’s how people should be. A tongue is a person’s worst enemy. Gossip is God’s curse on people’s shamelessness and disrespect. I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve lost because of gossip. Even more because of jealousy; queens don’t shut up, no sir, they don’t shut up, which is the worst part. They start talking shit and then the “I’ll-tell-you-what” group shows up. I’ve even seen some queens pull knives out of their pantyhose and scissors out of their bras. I have to put up with that trash everyday just to have some good perfume and a nice dress to wear.

The other day, Miss Fornés, yes, a queen who thinks she’s the playwright María Fornés, showed up all high-and-mighty to pay tribute to the real one, who won some theater festival. She changed her name like a lot of other girls. They don’t respect anything; they change their names as often as they change their underwear. Anyway, she showed up looking for trouble, and another skinny queen who’s as ugly as an owl took out a knife, yes sir, a knife, and there was a knock-down-drag-out and that was all she wrote. There was blood, cops, you name it. Somebody said, “Fátima, girl, get your ass out of here.” So I caught the bus and holed up in my mansion. I put on some Cheo Feliciano music, took a drink of good rum, aged, that I bought for myself, and I started to think for the first time about what my life would be like if I left this nest of vipers. Even though I’m used to it now, I’m all caught up in it, besides I’m marked. I’d have to find somebody who could take care of me, get me out of this shit hole and give me what I need to look this good. At this point, I’m not going to let myself go, I’ll kill myself first.

 •

When I perform I take care of business. I’m considered one of the best because I don’t lip-synch, and I don’t impersonate anybody. I sing in my own voice and have a really broad repertoire: boleros, rancheras, Italian ballads, “Maravilloso corazón maravilloso.” Maybe you’ve heard it. It’s the number I sing as a finale. I’m not Rosita Fornés, or Donna Summer or Isabel Pantoja. I’m Fátima from Havana.

I’d be miserable if I changed back because I hate my body, my guy face, what little beard I have, and even my voice. I hate my voice the most. If I could borrow one or buy one, I’d buy Daisy Valmas’s, the anchorwoman on the evening news. What a beautiful voice that woman has. God I envy her. But would I go back? Not on your life. The only thing I like about myself is my skin. I have skin like a peach.

As a woman, I like myself. It’s totally different, I see myself as a totally different person. I speak more naturally. I’m as at home in my skin as a fish is in water. Not everybody understands that. You have to be able to get inside somebody in order to understand it. That’s my problem, mine. Besides, who am I to tell anyone what to believe.

Some people live a double life like I used to. Some dress up for work or just for fun. Not me. I do it because it feels natural. It’s a part of me. I don’t feel right as a man. That’s not how I think of myself. I like for people to do things for me, spoil me. I like to put on makeup and wear perfume. Dear God, what’s happened to me? Why was I born this way? Everything’s backward. Nobody is completely happy. Thank God I have my faith, my strength, and lots of positive energy. I concentrate really hard, and nobody can tell me that I’m a man. I’m a mess, granted, but I’m not sorry for anything. I like myself this way, as a woman, even though Manolo comes out sometimes.

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When I kneel in front of my spiritual altar for a long time, I pray for happiness, peace, energy, and mercy for my ancestors. I fill my room with white flowers to purify the air. I’ve even fallen into a trance several times, but I can’t remember anything. People say I start out like a nun, serene, me, the volcano. I don’t even recognize myself. Other times the spirit of the Congo priest Ramón takes over, and a deep voice comes out of me. What I do isn’t theater, what I do is a very old art. Theater is what that worthless bitch who came here did and claimed that the spirit of Rita Montaner had possessed her and came out singing “El Manicero.” She’s not welcome here.

When I’m in my sanctuary I transform myself just like I do on stage. Except I don’t remember anything. Even my spirit comes to the earthly plane as a woman. That’s my thing. That’s why I say the world is messed up and that God forgives me.

The worst experience in my life was when I fell into a trance at Olena Valle’s house, the medium, for the first time. An Apache Indian who was looking for a host possessed me. When he begins to enter me a strange current enters my head, my hands and wrists turn purple, and my neck and veins swell up. He shows up with a lot of energy and I can do a lot of damage, destroy whatever is put in front of me. Olena is an Egyptian tomb like me. She doesn’t let anything slip. Her thing is watching and keeping quiet. But more than anything else she tries to get the spirit out of me before he squeezes every drop of life out of me.

But that time she wasn’t able to, probably because it was his first time in that house and he wanted to show off. I was wearing my brand new French wig, it’s softer and silkier than the ones I get from Italy. Somehow the wig stayed in the house, who knows where, because I left the place wigless late that night. I was a mess.

How embarrassing! Sweet Jesus! Those women and me holding hands in prayer. They didn’t even suspect I was a man. Then all of a sudden that goddamn Indian fucker shows up, strips me naked while I was hosting, and starts howling.

I never went back to Olena’s house. That stuff can hurt you. It shouldn’t have happened. Spiritualism can cure anything; it’s stronger than therapy. A spirit won’t let you get away with anything. They don’t even believe their own mother. They have no respect. When there’s a séance I either go as a man or I don’t wear a wig. I wear the hair God gave me. At least it’s not short. But most importantly, it’s mine, even though nobody is ever happy with what they have. That’s why I say the world’s messed up. My only wish is to be reborn like my spirit, not like my body. A little messed up. The world is backward.

I see everything that’s going to happen. Seeing and feeling are different things. Some people feel electric current, other people’s hair stands on end from their head down to their feet, some become paralyzed, and one even has her feet tugged on in bed. That’s not my thing. I see. More than anything, I see lots of nuns in a convent praying. Sometimes they come down from the clouds or the sky, wrapped in gauze, then they fall and turn into smoke in space. People say I see nuns because I have a guilt complex. Maybe that’s true. When it’s all said and done what I do is wrong. But a girl has to eat. I’ve tried to come to the earthly plane as a nun. I start to pray, I concentrate. I take valeriana, linden leaves, plantago, and lemongrass, but nothing happens. I always attract Ramón the Congo priest or that Indian from American westerns. That’s why I’m cursed. How’s the saying go, the person who doesn’t like soup gets three bowls or something like that?

I let my spiritual guides’ will be done, and so far they haven’t let me down. On the contrary, they’ve made me strong and safe. They’re always with me. Sometimes I see my Spanish grandmother ironing a rich family’s white clothes. It’s beautiful because I see her ironing peacefully and then hanging the clothes on a long clothesline that gets lost in the horizon. I love seeing my grandmother Pilar. I see a lot of angels dancing too. But when I tell anyone about it they laugh at me, even though they say they’re artists. To me they’re a bunch of tasteless hicks who buy used wigs, cheap eyelashes, and fishnet hose.

But when I say I see something in the room, they get scared because they respect me. . . . And what I want, I get.

Olena Valle is one of my best friends. That girl always says what’s on her mind. She’s like my second mother. I say, “Olena, you’re my confessor.” She laughs, but she knows I’m telling the truth. When I’m sad, which isn’t often because I don’t let myself get down, I go to her.

It’s her shoulder I cry on when I need a good cry. “Girl,” she says, forget about that, “we’ll pray and you’ll see how quick you feel better.”

Saint Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless causes and Fátima of my soul! And I get better, it’s as if I’m totally refreshed.

Olena knows me well. When things were bad around here she went out on the streets and even fell in Barrio Colón with the Aspirin sisters. They call themselves that because according to them they cure the headaches of the boys who come from good families. She tells me some unbelievable stories, about things you don’t even see in the circus. The best one was the one about the taxi driver from Cienfuegos who always went to see this little guajirita who worked at a whorehouse that her friend owned. The taxi driver would show up all the time and the madam noticed he was spending too long doing his thing with the guajirita. With clients like him a person could go out of business. So the madam pushed the door open and caught him dressed as a woman. Can you imagine, it was the talk of the town! The guajirita of course was happy as a clam because the guy was paying for the extra hour and the show under the table. It was the same thing with my Spanish pilot friend. Live and learn.

Olena always gave me good advice about Andrés. She couldn’t stand him because she knew what he was up to. Truth be told, I should have listened to her. But that’s my cross to bear.

I enjoy doing shows. I choreograph my own numbers and do my own makeup. Makeup is easy for me. My upper lip gives me the most trouble because if the liner is off just a little your lips end up uneven. If you rush, it turns out ugly. It looks cheap, like you don’t care. Your mouth has to be perfect. I hate little heart-shaped lips, but not as much as fish lips. Naomi Campbell has fish lips. That’s why I think she’s ugly. I draw my lips on even and follow my natural contour. I accentuate the outline a little bit because nobody likes thin lips. They say bad people and gossips have thin lips. We call it mailbox mouth. Then again thick lips have their disadvantage too, I dunno, some people don’t look good with all that skin. I’m lucky; my lips are very nice and naturally pink. A lip that matches the color of your face, that you can’t see, is hideous. It makes you look like you have pantyhose over your face. Good lips and eyebrows are essential. Eyebrows because they accentuate your eyes and establish the conversation, and lips because, well, they speak for themselves. You can conquer the world with carefully painted lips. I’ve never wanted to impersonate anyone but if anyone has say-something lips that can do anything it’s Fornés. She’s the lips champion; I bow down to her because she’s the Queen of Lips. God I wish I were her!

This business is like a drugstore: there’s something for everybody. There’s the stuck-up queen, the old queen who won’t give up, the French queen, the queen with a tiny body, the Creole queen.

If I need to rehearse a number I do it at Olena’s house, I mean, why am I going to give those bitches any ideas? They have no originality; all they do is copy everybody else. They lip-synch and impersonate celebrities. Not me, I’ve created my own character as a performer. Olena, for example, taught me to belly dance. Nobody else even comes close. What I do is part Hawaiian, with a tropical flavor, not like Josephine Baker, sure she was very sophisticated but that was another time. You can do more now; you dance until the audience gets tired or whistles for you to do more. People whistle at me. The girls call me the produce basket because people throw everything from tomatoes to peanuts at me. What do I care! When somebody offers me something, I take it, why the hell not, if they want to have a good time, they have to pay for it. I mean, doing shows costs money. Still, the whole tipping thing hasn’t made it to Havana yet; we’re behind the curve. . . . You’ll understand soon enough. . . . Then again, a few will slip a bill between your breasts. This business is like a drugstore: there’s something for everybody. There’s the stuck-up queen, the old queen who won’t give up, the French queen, the queen with a tiny body, the Creole queen. There aren’t a lot of those because everybody here wants to be foreign. There are the Spanish queens who do Sara Montiel or Isabel Pantoja. You name it, every kind of queen except the kind who does her own thing. That’s why I’m different. I’m me.

None of them will tell you what they do to their bodies. They’ll say that they have a lover or a boyfriend, that they’re in love, that they have a husband or this or that, when in reality most of them work the streets just like me because doing shows doesn’t pay the bills.

Miss Soviet, that’s what everyone calls her, is an open book. She goes out with me sometimes and introduces me to her clients, older men mostly, old farts, really old. She says they pay the most and demand the least. I say, Katiuska, girl, how can you stomach them? You must have an iron stomach.

They’re hopeless cases who can’t find real women because their peckers don’t work anymore. They hook up with her because she’s short and chubby and out of all of us she looks the most like a real woman. Even if she didn’t wear makeup or a wig, with that pancake face and her natural blond hair, she’d still look like a middle-aged woman. But she has to use everything she can to cover up those craters in her face. And when she sweats, girl! Her base starts to come off, and her five o’clock shadow starts to show. . . . It’s not pretty.

Olena and Katiuska are close, except when it comes to spiritualism. Katiuska is an atheist, or so she says. But she goes to sessions and tries to learn. She says she’d like to believe but has never heard or seen anything. The truth is the poor thing isn’t good at anything, not at spiritualism or at performing. She doesn’t let loose, she locks up. But she’s in the country legally and I prefer a friend like her to all the hustlers and con artists out there. When I talk to her about Andrés, she bitches at me. She hates him because she says I let him take advantage of me. She doesn’t beat around the bush; she tells me what she thinks to my face. But honestly it goes in one ear and out the other.

Why don’t I listen to anyone?

Feelings are a powerful thing!

Andrés called me at Ilán the Chinese queen’s house. She’s the hairdresser who lives on San Lázaro Street whom everybody calls the duchess of Cuban drag queens because in the ’40s she was famous in Paris and Hamburg. It was Valentine’s Day. I don’t have a phone at my rat hole. I have cockroaches, leaks, costumes, even French perfumes, but no phone. So I went to the Chinese queen’s house to do maintenance and wait for his call. I could slit my wrists. Some of his friends told him to leave and he left with them. They were all a bunch of con men in Cuba, and none of them has done shit in Miami. I know what’s going on in Miami because I’m unfortunate enough that people come back just so they can tell me.

“Manolo? Manolito, can you hear me?” I couldn’t answer. I just wanted to hear his voice. It melted inside of me, and after the third Manolo, I said, “It’s me sweetheart. What do you want?” He said, “I called to wish you happy Valentine’s Day and to tell you that I miss you. I’m in a bind, and I need you to send me some cash with El Gato’s mother. She’s going to see her daughter, the one who works at the import-export office at Zanja and Galiano. Can you hear me? Manolo, say something, I’m out of money.” I hung up because there were tears on my lips, and I couldn’t talk or swallow, nothing. They were the tears, warm and bitter, that I couldn’t cry the day he left in the raft. I sent him a few dollars, but inside I curse the day I met him because the person who can make my Maybelline run has to pay big time. The truth is I’d pay anything to see him again.

People call me ET because of the way I talk and because I love my country. As José Martí said, our wine may be sour but it’s our wine. Things aren’t easy when the police stop me. . . . They ask for my ID. They take me to the station every once in a while, they even try to get me to snitch, but when we’re alone they’re nice to me. And sometimes they even admit that I’m right. With the gift I have for convincing people, I could be a lawyer or senator. When the police go out to do roundups, I’m always the first to find out, and if they catch me I tell them, look baby, what harm am I doing? I provide a service. Criminals are the ones who hurt people, the pickpockets who go after tourists and steal bags or video cameras—those are society’s cancer, they don’t want to work so they spend hours sitting on street corners, making shit up, with their shirts open, talking trash, pretending to fix the world with a lot of cheap philosophy and a filthy mouth. Those are the ones who sell their soul to the devil. They steal gasoline and meat, whatever they can get their hands on. I have to earn a living. I don’t have time to waste sitting on a corner loitering. I don’t have time to sit around doing nothing. When I hook up with one of the old men who come to Cuba from other countries, hopeless, dirty old men who are willing to pay, I show them affection. I say, “Wow, you’re smart, what soft, white little skin you have, no wrinkles, you must’ve been a real Romeo when you were younger,” and that makes them horny because nobody talks to them like that, not their wives or even their ungrateful children. One of them told me that he hadn’t touched his wife in over twenty years and that he didn’t even know where his children lived and that he rarely saw them. What kind of a life is that? So don’t tell me I’m hurting society. What I do is humanitarian work. I should’ve been a social worker because it isn’t easy conning and humoring these old men at the same time. I don’t have it that bad. I keep up with a lot of things. I even practice languages. I have four guys who are regulars, an Italian named Giovanni, a Swede named Lars, and two Pepes, I mean, Spaniards. They come and see me every year. And to see me perform. They drool when they’re with me. I must be doing something right, right?

They aren’t the usual clientele. No sir, the average John won’t go to shows because he’s afraid of somebody seeing him. They’re idiots and cowards. My shows are tasteful. I don’t do anything nasty. But they’re tourists, and they don’t want any trouble. They prefer to be discreet.

The customers enjoy the show, they joke, they give us a hard time, but they buy drinks and have fun. Sometimes it backfires on them, like the Spanish businessman who went to the opening night of a revue in honor of the Spanish singer Rocío Dúrcal. He hooked up with a guajirito who was still learning the ropes, ah, he was adorable, from Pinar del Río I think, and the Spaniard fell for him really hard, so hard that he got him out of there and tried to reform him, but, you know what they say, you can take the boy out of drag but you can’t take drag out of the boy. So the party ended. The Spaniard’s wife found out and instead of confronting her husband, she went to meet the kid to find out for herself. The kid had just started to live as a drag queen, had electrolysis, was taking hormones, and got silicone injections. Long story short, he had become a member of the sisterhood and had a husband. The poor woman had the nerve to go to the antro, which is what we call the little theater in Bejucal. She ran out of there looking like a plucked chicken. Between the kid and his husband, they did a number on her. I say poor woman because she didn’t go to cause trouble. All she wanted was to see if it was true that her husband was flirting with Miss Salmón, which is what they call the kid because he’s redheaded and has more freckles than any one person should have. Sometimes the antro gets pretty hot, but us girls put out the fires. Otherwise, it’s a pretty tame place. I’m beginning to believe that we’re not just drag queens; we’re also firewomen.  

When the Pope visited I wore my best dress and stood on the corner of Paseo and Twenty-third with two of my best friends. Somebody asked me if I was one of the ladies of the altar guild from some church. When I want, I can look like a lady. I wore a beige silk brocade dress and a huge cross that belonged to my grandmother. I loved the Pope. 

What a doll! And that Popemobile, lined in red velvet with gold lace curtains, and that cardinal sitting behind him looking so regal. Just let them try to un-ring my bell, if you know what I mean, because who knew I’d hook up with a German in the mob of people there to see the pope? He’s still throwing me some cash. I tricked with him because, well, a girl has to go out on the street with her fan sometimes and get some fresh air, like in Piñera’s play Cold Air, and take care of business. Nobody’s going to come looking for you. If I stay at home, I get depressed and start to daydream, although I think less every day. I’ve started to become materialistic.

I have no allegiance. I’ll hook up with a guy from Spain just the same as a guy from my own backyard, with whoever treats me the best, of course, but I don’t fall in love. I don’t have that luxury. But I do save money so I can send a little something to that worthless piece of shit in Miami who can’t get ahead because he can’t even boil water. 

I’m trying to find a job as an entertainer in a theater or in tourism so I can give my poor little ass a rest for a while. I’ve gotten used to a certain way of life. It’s too late to go back now. When I go to visit my mother in Madruga and take her things, she says, “Son, what are you mixed up in?” And I say, “I’m a performer, Mamá, a performer.”

“Don’t get mixed up in anything bad, son. Tell me where you get all this money. You’re not involved in anything weird, are you? Tell me you aren’t.”

“Mamá, I’m a performer.” And I don’t back down. “I do private shows, and they pay me well,” I tell her. “Don’t bring it up anymore, and here, take this because I’ve got enough of my own problems without having to listen to your nagging.” My mother is everything to me, a mother is the most important thing there is, and sometimes I go too far . . .

I’m afraid of drugs more than anything else. The people who start taking drugs never stop. God help me. Actually, I’m lucky. In the park there are more than a few who smoke a little weed and do coke, but not me. Pot makes me laugh, and I’ve never tried coke. I prefer expensive perfumes, shoes with stiletto heels; those are my vices. I don’t even like jewelry. Although I would like to have an emerald ring because it’s my birthstone, from Colombia, with lots of gardens. I’ve asked for one several times but so far nobody has taken the hint.

Oh, Cuba! What will become of me when I’m an old woman? I don’t even want to think about it. Sweet Mother of Charity, take pity on me. I’m a daughter of the night, that’s why I like Havana. I hope they never modernize you because I’ll cry. That’s what the singer Bola de Nieve wrote on a poster on the wall in the Bodeguita del Medio restaurant where I go a lot. They know me there as Madonna. Nobody there knows my professional name is Fátima, much less that my real name is Manuel García, like the nineteenth-century bandit. They called him the King of the Cuban Countryside. Nobody even suspects that I’m forty-six years old and that I’m a veteran of the Sisterhood of Havana Transvestites. I’ve got smooth skin that makes me look about twenty-eight or thirty. Nobody has ever guessed a single year more. And I couldn’t be prouder because considering what I’ve been through I should look like a wreck. I know how to take care of myself. My dream is to debut in an important theater here in Cuba and not waste any more time on rundown stages.

Look: whether I’m optimistic or crazy, who knows? Yesterday I woke up without a pot to piss in, and I went out on the street so happy that I said to myself, Girlfriend, you’re crazy. Why are you so happy when you don’t have a dime to your name?

The pink halo that people see when I go out in the morning is not there by choice. My opportunity will come. I’m patient and I know how to wait. Who would’ve thought I’d have been able to see the Pope up close? I saw him with my own eyes that will be six feet under one day. Nobody has to tell me about him because I saw him, because everything is written in the Book of Life, even the day when we’re going to die. I’m gonna be at the opening of Havana’s metro. If you don’t believe me, just watch. You have to be patient even when everything is passing you by. And I am. When I’m depressed, I sit on the wall at the Malecón in the evening to watch the sun go down. Some days when the sun sets in the ocean, it looks like it’s on fire. Other days it turns white and leaves beautiful violet streaks, which make me really happy, and I think about how big the horizon is. Why should I be sad? If I see somebody I like and it’s convenient, I hook up with him. If not, I let him pass by so he doesn’t think I’m begging for money. The Malecón is my psychiatrist and it doesn’t cost a cent. I sit there alone and daydream: what if I had a grand piano, if I met somebody who took me to a Hollywood premiere in a new green lamé dress, a lot of things. So what! Dreaming doesn’t cost anything. Sometimes I go overboard, but I wake up fast. Don’t worry. I don’t daydream too much. I’m an optimist, sure, but I know some people who get so depressed they end up in bad shape. They either cut their wrists or set themselves on fire. I keep my charms handy. I like to collect stuffed animals, bears, puppies, baby rabbits, Persian cats; I have two porcelain dolls, a Cuban one and a Spanish one. The Spanish one is the cleanest but it has a broken nose, but I like her that way. She’s my amulet. Oh, and I have my collection of French perfume bottles, all empty but very pretty. The ones that have labels I can read are Coty, Lanvin, Lancôme, Nina Ricci, that’s enough! That’s how I stay sane enough to continue the battle. Because this is a battle. You can’t give up for a second because your stomach won’t forgive you. Look: whether I’m optimistic or crazy, who knows? Yesterday I woke up without a pot to piss in, and I went out on the street so happy that I said to myself, Girlfriend, you’re crazy. Why are you so happy when you don’t have a dime to your name? There are days like that and like yesterday when I was happy without even knowing why. And other days I have money in my purse and numbers I can call and everything else, and I’m on the floor. But you can’t fix your head. Your head is like the world: one day everything’s upside-down and the next it’s right-side-up. Who can understand that? Nobody.

When I wake up as Manolo, I’m a bitch. Don’t even think about touching me. It happens sometimes, but not so much anymore. I’ve finally accepted the fact that I am who I am and I love myself this way. I’ve learned to control my episodes. I think I’m finally ready to take things as they come but without forgetting to dream. Right now I’m in a bad place that I haven’t told anybody about. The other day a woman who reads palms told me she saw danger, that there was a shadow following me and that I had the letter of Ochosi, which in Santería means I’m going to end up in jail if I don’t change a few things. She probably saw something that I haven’t been able to see, who knows. Just in case I’m taking baths in white flowers and saying my prayers. Things will be better soon, right?

Where I come from people say that after it rains it always clears up. If the Virgin of Fátima appeared to me when I was a little girl it was for a reason. The night never fails me; it’s there and it’s my kingdom.

 Havana, magical paradise! Fátima doesn’t surrender. Fátima is immortal.

 

Havana

Miguel Barnet (b. Cuba, 1940) is a novelist, poet, and ethnographer whose works have influenced the development of testimonio, or testimonial narrative. He visited the University of Oklahoma in 2002—along with Adelaida de Juan, Pablo Armando Fernández, Ambrosio Fornet, Nancy Morejón, and Elzbieta Sklodowska—to help celebrate the life and work of the 2002 Puterbaugh Fellow, Roberto Fernández Retamar (WLT, 76:3-4, Summer/Autumn 2002).

 

George Henson’s translations have appeared variously in Words Without Borders, The Kenyon Review, Asymptote, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. Most recently, Deep Vellum Publishing released his translation of Sergio Pitol’s The Magician of Vienna. He currently teaches Spanish and translation studies at the University of Oklahoma. 

This piece is one of WLT's 2012 Pushcart Prize nominations.

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