A young woman was crawling up onto the yellow railing. She lifted first one, then the other leg over and sat there gazing down at the cars rushing below. Julio slowed his motorcycle, then stopped and got off. The woman, with rich dark skin, slender arms, and long, Indian-straight hair, seemed oblivious to everyone around her.
“Are you okay?” Julio called out.
The traffic streamed by indifferently. The air was redolent with hot pavement, exhaust, and overripe fruit from a passing garbage truck. Gripping the rail behind her, the woman abruptly rose up.
“Whoa!” Julio cried, waving his arms.
Suddenly she let go of the rail. Julio gasped. With her heels hooked on the lower rung, she straightened up and leaned out, the wind ruffling her hair.
Someone cried, “She’s going to jump!”
“Hey!” Julio shouted, edging closer.
The woman leaned into the sunlight like the figurehead of a ship.
“I need to talk to you,” Julio said.
“Go away,” the woman said.
Then from a distance a siren pierced the air. The woman tensed.
“Why don’t you come with me,” Julio asked, “before the cops get here?”
The siren grew louder. The woman teetered for a moment, then reached back for the rail. As she climbed down, several people cheered.
Julio helped her onto the back of his Yamaha and they sped off. Aware of her hands clutching his sides, he yelled over the roar, “Where should I take you?”
Across the median, two police cars whizzed past, sirens bleating.
Three blocks later, the woman said, “Right here is okay.”
Pulling into the parking lot of the Olímpica supermarket, Julio took off his helmet and the woman hopped down. Then she stepped forward, kissed him quickly, and disappeared into the store.
Several times that afternoon Julio had to go back to the store for supplies he’d forgotten. He felt out of sorts. Everything seemed distant. Memories kept arriving from different points of his life. He felt like he had slipped out of time and come back at a different place.
He should have followed her into the store. He should have taken her home. He could still feel her lips on his cheek.
Darkness was falling when he arrived at the house he shared with his brother. Nacho and his son, Luis, were outside repairing a carburetor. Sweaty and covered with grease, they were laughing and joking. A ballenato played on the radio and their old dog lay at their feet.
“The strangest thing happened today . . .” Julio began, but Nacho kept talking to Luis, making Julio feel even more remote. He tried again, but couldn’t summon the powers to accurately describe what had happened.
“Your uncle’s a hero!” Nacho said, only partly in jest. Then to him: “Why do you think she did it?”
“Don’t know,” Julio said, suddenly losing the desire to discuss it. As he started up the stairs, Nacho said, “Paulina called.”
Julio had the second floor to himself. Before, he had lived there with Paulina and the baby. He showered and fried a pork chop. He opened a beer, then called Paulina. When the guy she lived with answered, he hung up.
It was his fear of heights that led Julio to stop working construction. On one job he’d had to carry heavy buckets over a plank stretching between two three-story buildings. Each time he had to cross it, he would panic. He feared that looking down would make him fall. He wanted to quit the first day but he made it a test of will, a test of his manhood, to finish the week. It was one of the longest of his life.
One day, coming to the bridge, he impulsively took the off-ramp and stopped at the Olímpica. Roaming the aisles, he did a double take each time he passed a dark-skinned woman with long hair. As he was leaving, feeling foolish for imagining he would see her, his eyes fell on a woman examining pineapples. Positioning himself by the melons, he tried to get a good look at her. Finally she turned – long nose, pointed chin – and he saw it wasn’t her.
Often as he went from job to job, Julio would pass the park where he used to take his daughter. He remembered Jessica’s short-legged excitement as she ran around the playground. How she would giggle uncontrollably when he found her in her hiding place. His chest would swell when he watched her taking swimming lessons in her snug yellow bathing cap, clutching the little float board and kicking her legs. His heart would be in his throat as the instructor took her – one, two, three – down under the water to retrieve a plastic toy. He too would hold his breath as he waited for her to surface.
Julio greeted the doorman and held his arms up to be frisked. Then he entered a large, dimly-lit room with a revolving disco light that sent flecks of color around the walls. It featured a bar at the back and naugahyde booths that looked like they’d been there for decades. In one booth two women in halter tops were watching a game show on a wall-mounted TV. A waiter, short and wiry with dark, curly hair and quick movements, was mopping the tile floor. He leaned the mop against the wall and came over to Julio.
“Those are the only two girls so far,” he said. “It’s early. A couple more are upstairs changing.”
Julio worked compulsively to keep his mind distracted. In the evenings he had no desire to talk to anyone. Jessica’s clothes still hung in her closet and her tricycle sat in the corner. Julio knew that Paulina blamed him, just as he blamed her, and they both blamed that no good doctor, who failed to remind them of the vaccinations and then failed to make an accurate diagnosis. By the time they learned that Jessica had meningitis, she was in the hospital with fever and vomiting. Then a rash on her legs developed into gangrene. First three toes had to be amputated, then her leg. And then she died.
Julio was shattered. He didn’t know how he made it through the days. He walked around with a taut, frozen expression and spoke, when he had to, in a monotone. At night he could feel Jessica in the next room: a murmur from a dream, a hand reaching out. Outside, sinister purring from cats in heat, punctuated by primal shrieks. The vibrating bass from the discotheque and people shouting in the street. Sometimes it seemed they were crying and lamenting.
Finally dozing off, he would awake as the light filtered through the blinds, not identifying at first the dread he had woken to, searching his consciousness, and then, with a jolt, remembering. He would have done anything — amputated his own legs, cut his own throat — to save her.
In the dim light amid the rumble of voices, Julio saw a woman sitting alone, staring off pensively. Studying her profile, his pulse quickened at the fear that another man might speak to her first. He asked the wiry waiter to invite her over, and as she started toward him he froze, waiting for the recognition to register in her eyes. But her gaze was inscrutable. He slid over for her to sit down.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
“Baileys,” she said softly.
Her arms, her shoulders, the shape of her face, everything about her was exactly as he had it in his mind. Also there was that troubled, vulnerable look that made him want to protect her. Taking in her smooth skin and full lips, he felt an urgent desire to know all about her. “What’s your name?”
“Lorena,” she said, dropping her eyes.
“Is that your real name?”
“Worked here long?”
She was from Barbacoas, a remote town in the Pacific Coast rain forest near the border with Ecuador. The oldest of six kids, she had helped her mother take care of the others, one of whom was retarded.
“And your father?”
“He died when I was ten.”
Julio flinched. After the waiter brought the Baileys, Lorena asked him if he was married.
Julio shook his head.
When the lights flickered, announcing the two o’clock curfew, Julio pressed a wad of bills into her hand.
“Are we going upstairs?” she asked.
“Not tonight. But I’d like to see you again.”
“I’ll be here.”
For Julio’s birthday, Nacho’s wife made a strawberry cream cake and the family sang and clapped. Though Nacho rarely showed it, Julio felt his brother worried about him, and would be pleased if he found another woman. On an impulse he told Nacho about Lorena, but immediately regretted it. Though Nacho had visited the clubs himself in his day, he was a family man now and an Evangelical.
Lorena was nowhere in sight when Julio returned to the club. The waiter told him she was upstairs. Julio sullenly sipped his rum. A half hour later she came down. She seemed startled to see him but not displeased. Her leg brushed his as she took a seat.
Julio mentioned a news story he’d seen about Barbacoas. To protest the lack of a highway to transport goods, resulting in outrageous prices on staples such as eggs and milk, the women of the town had begun a “strike of crossed legs.” They vowed to withhold sexual privileges until the men solved the problem.
“I heard about that,” Lorena said, smiling.
“Is your mother participating?” Julio asked playfully.
“Well, she’s got her legs crossed but I don’t know how much it has to do with the highway.”
Lorena described Barbacoas as a town where people lived in stilt houses along the banks of the Telembí River, traveling on crude roads or in canoes through a system of tributaries. Although the area was crawling with guerilla and paramilitaries, it was renowned for its great natural beauty, its music, and general festiveness.
Loraine’s father and uncle made a living harvesting chontaduros. The egg-shaped fruit was collected from the tops of immense chontaduro palms, using special belts to climb the trunks. Lorena had learned to do it herself, she said, “but I stopped after my father fell.”
Julio looked at her. “Have I ever met you before?” he asked abruptly.
Lorena frowned. “A lot of men come in here.”
That night Julio went upstairs with her. She was even more lovely without clothes: her tight young body, her graceful movements, and her hands. You could tell a lot about a woman from her hands. Lorena’s were soft and tender. Caressing him, they seemed to communicate in a secret language. She demurred when he tried to kiss her on the mouth but she said she’d take him to Barbacoas.
Paulina erupted. “How can you even think of that?”
Julio should have known she’d disagree. Lately, if he said black, she said white. “Well, you haven’t done anything with them.”
“So? That doesn’t mean I want to give them away!”
“Do the other girls call you Monica?”
“Nobody calls me Monica, except at home.”
“Can I call you Monica?”
She tugged nervously at her hair, then nodded.
When Julio asked about the men in her life, she said she’d had a couple of boyfriends back in Barbacoas and a man at the club had been nice to her. She said she worked every day because it was a requirement for living there and she needed to save as much as possible to send to her folks. In the beginning she had constantly thought of returning home.
“And now?” Julio asked.
She reddened. “Not as much.”
The attraction Julio felt to her was equaled by desire to help her. That’s what the money was all about, he told himself, not the other.
“I feel like I can trust you,” Julio said as they sipped red wine.
That night they slept with their bodies intertwined and when the sun came up they made love again. While Monica showered, Julio cooked arepas and eggs. They were sitting at the table when someone knocked.
Julio opened the door to find Paulina in gym clothes, fresh from working out. Her expression was cheerful until she saw Monica. “I came for Jessica’s things,” she said tightly.
At that moment, coming up behind Paulina and latching onto her leg, appeared a little boy. Though Julio had never seen him, it was obviously her stepson. The youngster hid behind Paulina, peering out occasionally with shy, curious eyes.
“I’ll help you,” Julio said.
Passing the bedroom with the unmade bed and Monica’s bra hanging on the headboard, they wordlessly carried the boxes to Paulina’s car. Monica remained at the kitchen table.
“I’ll take the tricycle, too,” Paulina said.
Julio’s mouth opened but no words came out. “Uh . . . I was going to keep that, if it’s okay.”
Paulina’s voice hardened. “I thought José could use it.”
José, peeking in from the doorway, ducked out of sight. Monica, her neck and shoulders rigid, was absorbing every word.
It had been Julio’s idea to buy the tricycle for Jessica and it was he who had taught her to ride it. At first she needed to be pushed. Though her feet would follow the pedals around, she hadn’t figured out that she could produce a forward movement by turning them herself.
“Take it,” Julio said finally.
When Paulina had left, Monica went to the bedroom and started packing her things. “Why didn’t you tell me about your daughter?”
The next day, hung over, repairing a washing machine, Julio received a text message: Going back to Barbacoas. Leaving this afternoon.
Weaving through traffic, running red lights and riding up on the sidewalk to elude cars, Julio raced to the terminal. How often did buses leave for Barbacoas? He frantically searched the departure board and saw that one left in half an hour. He found Monica sitting on a bench hugging her backpack.
“Why are you leaving?” he asked.
“My mom needs me.” She avoided his eyes.
Julio put a foot up on the bench. His hands were still grimy from work. “Couldn’t you help her more by sending money?”
“I quit my job.”
Julio resisted the urge to ask where she’d been staying. “I’ll help you find something.”
Monica shook her head. People of all descriptions streamed by: heavy black men, tiny Indian women, teenagers with tattoos.
“I’m sorry about what happened.”
Monica remained silent.
“Why don’t you stay with me a while? In a few weeks we can visit your Mom.”
And he knew that Monica, perched behind him, clutching his ribs, could see where he was looking.
“It wasn’t me,” she said, her voice snatched up by the wind.
Julio breathed slowly in and out. “I know,” he said.
And they went flying up over the bridge and crossed to the other side.