A PARTY IN THE PARK
Outside the Hotel Santa Clara it's getting dark, and the night people are beginning to emerge from the shadows near the bandstand in the square. The dusk is heavy with the smell of drains and damp, lush vegetation – banana, coffee tree, locust bean; aloe. Large lazy moths are tasting the bottle brush bushes and the hibiscus flowers.
A dark shape slips from the bandstand onto the main plaza. She has high heeled shoes on long elegant feet and a blue dress caught on the shoulder with a white gardenia. Is the gardenia real, or a cleverly manufactured fake? Her arms are hidden by a lace bolero. Her jaw moves restlessly back and forth on her muscular neck, chewing gum, and just visible below her chin is the bulge of her epiglottis. The three tourists from the party staying in the hotel approach her warily. They just want some air and a chance to talk to the hombres, because they're adventurous people; not afraid to meet the locals. Or so they think.
She clutches her handbag and glances at them, slyly and flirtatiously.
"Bienos tardes. It's a nice night."
"Bienos tardes," the tourists reply. She stops in front of them and smiles coyly:
"Do you have cigarette?"
Emilia, one of the tourists, smokes. Stepping forward away from her companions, Tania and Roberto, she reaches into her bag and pulls out her cigarettes, offers one to the woman and takes one herself. Her bag smells of stale tobacco. She sniffs it as she closes the bag again, and rolls her cigarette between her fingers. They both light up. Emilia holds the lighter. Their eyes meet as they inhale. The others watch, wary.
"Your name?" she enquires.
Veronica has thick makeup, Emilia notices. Her voice is deep, but pleasant. She has a hairpiece fastened with a band on the top of her head. Emilia realises instantly that this person is a man. It's okay.
Of course Veronica is probably also a hooker, Emilia thinks. A hustler. How else does someone like her survive? Emilia has been around. She knows that Veronica will ask her for money, more cigarettes, a bottle of rum, or something else, but she's prepared for that. Her friends, Roberto and Tania, are watching from a short distance away. Although he's a very handsome man, Roberto's heterosexual, and he's not likely to be interested in what Veronica can offer sexually, although she would say it's because he hasn't tried her yet. Gay men have come on to him before; trans-sexuals too, but although he's always interested in their stories and gentle in his manner, he steers clear of any further involvement. Roberto isn't concerned about Emilia. They are still close to the hotel entrance and the doorman is watching them.
Emilia and her friends spend a while talking to Veronica. She's not hiding anything from them.
"Do the police here give you much trouble?" Emilia asks.
"As long as we don't upset anybody they're okay."
"But it's illegal to have gay sex?"
"Sure. But there are gay policemen." She laughs. "It's not too bad. We keep out of reach."
"But it would be nice to feel accepted? For it not to be illegal?"
"We can all dream, senhora. In the meantime we dance and drink rum in the park. The police won't bother us unless a crime occurs."
Veronica stretches out an elegant leg and yawns. Tania is intrigued:
"Do crimes occur often? What happens when they do?"
"The police come and lock us up and tell us to stop being homosexual. They beat us too, of course."
"And if there are tourists involved?"
"They will not get arrested, unless there are drugs."
"So it's only local people who get into trouble?"
Veronica is bored with this conversation. They need to move on.
"Tell me where you come from," she asks Tania. Veronica slips sly glances across to Roberto, hoping he'll join in the conversation. He doesn't. He's waiting to see what will happen.
The doorman is concerned. He knows these hustlers, has had words with Veronica before and banned her friends from the lobby in the past. Veronica is undeterred:
"I will teach you salsa," she promises them, doing some dance moves in the moonlight. "We buy some rum and have a party in the park. I teach you salsa, mambo, rumba; all those."
The other members of the group are listening hard.
"Where is this park?" they ask, sensibly.
Veronica tosses her head in the direction of the bandstand, which is surrounded by wrought iron pillars with a few stunted palm trees spaced between. It's not really a park, but one could dance there, thinks Emilia. It would be an adventure. They exchange looks. A hot tropical night, a slight whiff of danger, invitations by strangers; it's a heady mix.
A thought comes to Emilia:
"What about music?"
"I have a portable."
"Okay. But not tonight. Tomorow?" Veronica is disappointed, but feigns excitement.
"You can bring some rum? I will tell my friends. Yes?" There are issues of trust here.
"Until tomorrow." It's agreed. Veronica slinks off through the bandstand and disappears in the direction of the town.
Roberto asks Emilia and Tania:
"Is this sensible?"
"What are we frightened of?"
Emilia is clear about where she stands. As a woman of colour, she could easily pass for a local, and she's grown up in a tough neighbourhood. She's damned if she's going to be scared of a couple of young trannies. She's a social worker, isn't she?
"Look, we came here because we wanted to meet the local people. I'm sick of not trusting people. Yeah, they want our cigarettes, maybe rum, or other stuff, but they're open about it. These aren't the slimeballs and scumbags you get at home ripping you off all the time. They're hustlers. We'll part with a little money, have a drink, salsa and have a good time. That's it. They can tell us about their lives and we can share our stories with them too. Thats it."
Roberto is less convinced:
"Just don't expect me to bale you out if it gets heavy, Emilia."
"Darling, you're a lovely man, but you couldn't bale out pussy." Roberto looks crestfallen, but he knows it's true; he has the hands of a violinist and a gentle face. They continue their walk and return to the hotel, where the doorman greets them with a sigh:
"Madam, it is not wise to be friendly with these people."
"They're just people like you and me, Ruis. Anyway, they aren't coming into the hotel, so you don't need to worry."
"As you say, Madam."
Upstairs in Roberto's room, which is where they meet, a cockroach scuttles to shelter as they open the door, and Emilia marvels again at the position of the sanitary fittings in the bathroom, where the toilet is below the handbasin and the electric switch for the shower is in the cubicle itself. It's a terrible hotel, built in the Fifties of stressed concrete and ten stories high, with a disco area on the roof. Roberto's room is on the eighth floor and the lift doesn't work.
Roberto sits on his bed and waits for Emilia and the others to leave for their own rooms.
"See you at supper."
"I'm having a shower first."
"Hope it's not that cabbage and pork again."
By the next evening they have almost forgotten the party in the park. They have eaten before coming back, but Tania and Emilia want a shower before they set off again. Roberto is already inside.
Veronica is waiting for them:
"You remembered we have a party tonight?"
"Yes. We need ten minutes to have a shower and we'll be with you." She can see the doorman approaching. She holds up both hands to emphasise the ten. Veronica gestures to the bandstand:
"We are over there."
Shadowy figures flutter into the darkness of the bandstand. Someone is lighting a lantern. Music plays, is turned off, then on again.
The doorman stops Emilia as she passes, with a hand on her shoulder:
"This person; he is no good. The senhora should take care. You are not alone?"
"No. We are going as a group, just over there. We"ll see you later."
Emilia holds the bottle of rum carefully in her bag and slides past the doorman. The others follow her towards the salsa music playing under the canopy of the bandstand.
Veronica's friends are a couple of gay teenaged boys and an older transvestite who is wearing a muu-muu and is in charge of the music.
"My friends, Tito and Enrique. And this is Lily."
The boys' eye make-up reminds Emilia of some Egyptian drawings she's seen. They smile awkwardly but do not shake hands. Roberto begins a conversation with Lily. His Spanish is fluent and Emilia and Tania can't follow the conversation easily.
Lily's short hair is dyed orange-blond and she has a pock-marked face, but a warm smile. Roberto finds it easy to have a conversation, aware of the strangeness of not knowing if he is speaking to a man or a woman. Does it make a difference? It does, but he can't say why.
Lily, sipping her rum and cola, tells him that Veronica wants a total sex change, which the Government will not fund. Lily, on the other hand is content to remain as she is.
Roberto wonders if he is being asked to help fund such an operation. He thinks not. They have all been harassed by the officials, Lily says. But where can they meet? There are no bars that will accept them dressed in drag, nowhere they can meet legitimately. The hotel won't allow them in. Lily is accepted by her family and neighbours as being who she is, but in other situations it's a lot more difficult.
Tito and Enrique are dancing together. Veronica takes Emilia"s hands:
"I teach you salsa?"
The others join in, Roberto dancing stiffly at first with Tania and then Lily, who moves with surprising grace for a large person, holding her muu-muu up with one hand and breaking off now and then to play another track. The music is fast, with an insistant beat, and the dancing sets them free. Roberto has taken his panama hat off, now that it's evening, and his bald head and beautiful cheekbones draw admiring glances from Tito and Enrique. He dances around them all, by himself. He moves well, now, with loose-jointed grace.
Veronica stands in front of them and they follow her instructions to stamp on la cucaracha, twist and turn until, sweaty and slightly dizzy, they sink down onto the seats and rest a while. Of course Tania wants Lily to play Bessame Mucho, on her portable, and she hopes Roberto will dance with her, but he doesn't, though he does sing, slightly off-key, which makes them all smile.
"Do you dance with tourists often?" Emilia asks.
"Most tourists do not dance," Veronica replies. "Maybe they are frightened of us."
"Thank you for this opportunity," says Roberto. "I have enjoyed the evening very much." He is waiting, as they all three are, for the request for money, or rum or more cigarettes.
He'd told them about the work he did with homeless people, about Emilia's work with young addicts, Tania's charity work. They were interested. Why had they come here? It was more than a holiday, wasn't it?
It was an exchange, they told him. Some social work students were changing places with them and doing their jobs for a while.
"And you have learned something here?" asks Lily.
"Not to be afraid of other people," Roberto says with a smile. "Go to the party!"
Enrique and Tito announce that they have to go. They kiss goodbye. Tania and Emilia hand over their cigarettes. The rum has been drunk.
The others are getting ready to walk back.
"We can meet again tomorrow?" Veronica wants to know. "But we need more rum. Some other friends can come."
Emilia knows she has to be cautious:
"Tomorrow we have to be somewhere else. I'm sorry."
Veronica looks resigned:
"Tomorrow perhaps some of the other tourists will be here?"
"Yes. I'll tell them. I'll say: 'Go to the party in the park. You will find out more about life here than you will from the tour guide, and that's a fact.' Can you translate, Roberto?" Roberto obliges.
The hotel doorman is waiting for them, pretending not to be interested.
"You are back for the evening Senhora?"
"Yes, Ruis. All safe and sound. We had a party in the park."
He nodded. It would be the same the next night, and the next.
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