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Lluvia sin Agua

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Tegucigalpa, Honduras // 2019

Lunes

“It doesn’t matter that it rains,” a man on the radio says, “if it’s not raining in the right place.”

His voice is familiar to everyone in the taxi: the older woman with acrylic nails almost as long as her fingers and as red as her lipstick; the man in tight dark jeans pulled down to his crotch, leaving his plaid boxers purposefully exposed; and Evelyn, sitting between them, with a green plastic basin on her lap. Whenever the car breaks, which is every few seconds, the mango seeds and skins inside the basin slide around, hitting the plastic walls around them and the large metal knife used to dismember them, and that now drips with the pulp of their transformation.

Evelyn wants to bury her face inside the tub. She doesn’t care for the smell of mango, no. Not after three years of selling sliced mango verde with salt and pepper at almost every stoplight in Tegucigalpa. But the smell of the man’s cologne is giving her a headache, like there’s a balloon behind her eyes that keeps inflating, its rubber skin turning thin and translucent, but never popping. If her abuela Chayo was here, she’d say he’s wearing 7 Machos, “y el ultimo estaba muerto,” and the last of the machos was dead.

All the windows are already down. It is rare to find a car in Tegucigalpa that drives with its windows closed; except at stoplights, where everyone quickly rolls them up to avoid people like Evelyn trying to sell or ask for something.

“¿Todo bién, flaca?” the driver asks, looking at her through the rearview mirror.

She’s known Dario for a long time. They live in the same barrio, and he has played futbol with her brother for years. Most mornings, Dario gives them a ride to the city and sometimes, he also brings them back. During these rides he mostly talks to Enrique about politics and soccer. Evelyn just listens. Occasionally, she catches him looking at her through the rearview mirror.

He is one of three taxistas she trusts enough to ride with even after sundown, even with other random passengers inside. If they were to get mugged by a marero posing as a passenger, she believes Dario would protect her. He would give them his money without a remark, and ask them firmly to leave them alone. But if he was by himself, he could fight back, Evelyn thinks. He is a strong man with big hands and thick, hairy fingers.

“Todo bién,” she says, locking eyes with him briefly. His reflection is sliced in half by the wooden rosary hanging from mirror, perpetually swaying back and forth.

“Well, if you’re going to vomit, make sure to aim inside that paila. No water to clean that backseat, you know,” he says, winking.

She knows. Everyone in the country knows. She suspects the water shortage is the reason the man next to her decided to bathe in cologne instead of water and the traffic is slower than usual. Everyone in the area is rushing home. There was a rumor that today at five the camion-cisterna— the big truck that sells water to the areas outside of the city that don’t have a water system—would return to their barrio. Ever since the water shortage began, the trucks came to el barrio less and less until eventually it was just once a week. They figured they could sell their water at a higher price to those with more money in the city.

“Dario, the time?” Evelyn says. She hasn’t washed in a week. She stinks like old sweat and dried period blood and mango pulp.

“4:47,” says the older woman, rolling her eyes. Evelyn notices she doesn’t have any eyebrows; instead light-brown eyeliner arches over her eyes. On the middle of the left line, there’s a small hairy mole.

“We won’t make it. Walking would be faster.”

Evelyn agrees. She’s considered it a hundred times. Any other day, she would walk. But outside, the sky roars like a chorus of hungry bellies. Any minute now, it will pour down. She doesn’t mind getting wet, but the lightning terrifies her. In the last few days, she has seen at least three mentions on the front pages of newspapers of someone getting struck. She knew someone from her barrio who died this way, two years ago. A boy, sixteen or seventeen, who used to fix AC units with his father in the city. He was blasted into pieces. His father had to mop bits of his guts and brain from the walls of the rich people’s house. That’s what she heard.

Evelyn thinks of when she gets home, to the room she shares with her brother. Maybe he’s there now, maybe he has been able to buy some water from the truck or get leftovers for free. Sometimes they get lucky like that. But she doubts it. Enrique is also a peddler in Tegus, but instead of mango, he sells plastic electric mosquito zappers. He, too, gets the product from a man in their barrio that lets them keep twenty percent of what they sell. They make a zap-zap sound whenever anything hits the net. If she’s close enough when Enrique plays with them, the hair on her arms stands. She hates them. They remind her of the lighting.

She doubts he’s made it home. They try to hit different stoplights and parks so that if a particular area is slow, the other can make up for it. This has been their survival model for three years now, ever since she turned sixteen. Enrique has been a seller even longer. He used to come with their mom to the city before she passed, since he was maybe nine or ten. He’s months away from turning twenty-seven now.

If she’s not misremembering, he is even farther away from home today than her. If neither makes it home on time, they won’t have water for a week. They’ll stink even more. She already has to hold her breath whenever Enrique walks by, which in a one-room space, is all the time.

“I’m walking,” announces the man next to her. “Tenga,” he says to Dario, handing him a crumpled bill of fifty lempiras.

“Me too,” says the old woman, paying her own fare. “You going anywhere near Los Pinos, mijo?”

They slam their doors and sprint across the street. Evelyn realizes she’s been holding her breath. Slowly, she allows her nostrils to relax and her body to take up more space in the sunbaked leather backseat.

“With them gone I can have you home in five or seven, flaca,” Dario says, holding her gaze through the mirror, “but you’re not gonna make me look like one of those fancy ass drivers all alone in the front. Get over here.”

The smell of the cheap cologne isn’t as strong in the front. Dario’s scent, car grease and deodorant that has been sweated through, overpowers it. The car moves a few meters, putting them right in front of a broken stoplight that blinks all three colors on and off. Looking at it too long, she feels the balloon behind her face expand.

“This one never works,” Dario says, “Nothing works en este país de mierda.”

In its place, a traffic officer in a yellow vest blows his whistle and points to cars, deciding who gets to go when. Cars honk from all sides of the street. Some do in beats, pa-pa, and some hold their note, paaaaa. Cars try to go, then brake, then try to go again and brake again The traffic of Tegucigalpa is a poem about near misses. To Evelyn, it feels like her balloon has grown strings, five thousand of them, and they’re all being pulled from different sides.

“You look sick,” Dario says, “Do you still have any mango?”

“Nothing,” she says. “Besides, you ate two bags already.”

Dario clicks his tongue and puts his arms behind his head. The traffic officer waves them over, and Dario pushes his foot on the pedal, keeping the steering wheel straight with his knee.

“You know I love eating your mango, flaca.”

She blushes and says nothing. He does this from time to time, says things that can mean other things. Gives her free rides. Buys more mango bags than anyone really eats. She likes seeing his big fingers struggle to get the thin mango slices out of the tight plastic bag. The truth is, she has wondered before if he has a woman or any lost children. She imagines he must have some child. Most men do.

The men on the radio keep talking about how it can rain for days, but if it’s not where the dams are, the water shortage will continue. Then they move on to the president, and the water fountain he is inaugurating this Thursday in front of the church in parquet central. A symbol of hope.

Stuck in another long line of cars, she knows they won’t be home anytime soon, but in case she has any doubt, the sky opens and drops all the water the country doesn’t have on them. Dario keeps saying, “ya va pasar, ya va pasar,” as if willing it, but the rain doesn’t pass. The taxi’s windshield wipers haven’t worked in years. In seconds, they can’t see anything, only rain falling on rain. Even the back lights of the car in front of them disappear. Evelyn has never been underwater, but she imagines this is what it must look like. Dario has, once, when his cousins dared him to swim in el Rio Choluteca, the brown, murky, disgusting river that bisects Tegucigalpa, where the poor shit and the poorer bathe. He didn’t open his eyes.

“¡Puta!” he says, pulling over, blindly, leaning over the open window to see. “¡Puta, puta, puta!” His thick black hair is drenched, drops sliding down, holding on to the tips as if terrified to fall. They park next to a gray brick wall with the words FUERA JOH in blue spray paint. It would be hard to find a wall that is not vandalized with demands for the current president to quit.

“We’ll wait it out,” she says, “Let’s just wait.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, rolling up his window, locking all the doors.

“Meh, this is how it is. Just change the station, please,” she says. “If I have to hear about water or Juan Orlando one more time, I swear.”

“I know, I know,” he says, turning the radio dial to the right, and the volume one to the left. He settles on a song she has heard before, the kind of song in which all the people in it say their names and countries at the end. A new Reggeaton bop. It doesn’t help the headache, but she prefers it to the men and their talk.

“You can lean the chair back if you want,” he says. “The lever is on the side. Just pull up.”

She does. They can hear voices and honks and thunder and yelling, but it’s all muffled by the rain and Bad Bunny’s voice. They have never been alone like this, in a small space with nowhere to escape. Now a thick sheet of water conceals them from the rest of the world. He leans back too and turns on his side to face her. She becomes more aware of her stink and tries to hold her arms as close to her body as possible.

“You think your brother made it home?” he asks.

“Maybe, I don’t know. I hope so. I hope he gets us water, if the trucks come.”

“They won’t. They can’t with the rain. All the major streets will be flooded by now. Maybe tomorrow.”

She says nothing, because there’s nothing to say. This is just how it is. She looks at him instead. He has the longest eyelashes she has ever seen. Not that she goes around noticing people’s eyelashes.

“He’s a good man, your brother. Takes care of you. Protective. Probably jealous.”

“We’re not like that,” she says. She wants to add: you don’t know us. But she doesn’t. She’s bothered by his statement, but she can’t tell why.

“What are you like, then?”

“He doesn’t mess with my business and I don’t mess with his.”

“What kind of business do you have?”

“None. Not like that. Not like what you mean. Look, if Enrique wants to get his dick wet, that’s his problem. And my business, is none of yours.”

“Okay, okay, flaca” he says, “Disculpá. No te queria ofender.”

They stay quiet for a while, glancing at each other from time to time. And then, without thinking it, she says, “Do you have a woman?” And he’s surprised, so surprised it takes him a beat to respond, but then he’s firm. “No, I don’t. No woman, no kids.”

She doesn’t say anything, and after a few more beats, marked by the rain on the roof, he puts the tip of his index finger on her knee. He slides it down to her calf and back up to her thigh. And then he puts his whole hand on her, and she’s not surprised by how heavy it is, heavier that any hand should be. And she loves it. His hand travels away from her leg, to her abdomen, to her arms, to her face, back to her abdomen, over her breasts. She knows where this is going, and she wants it.

But she thinks about her stink and her long armpit hair and how she got her blood two days ago and it passed quickly but they haven’t had any water to clean their clothes or themselves and she doesn’t want it anymore, not right now. So she stops him.

“I thought you wanted it.”

“Another time,” she says, “Not in the taxi, on the street, in the middle of a storm.”

He believes her, even if none of those reasons are stuff she cares about.

They wait a few more minutes in silence. By then the rain has slowed enough for them to try to get to el barrio. An hour later, he’s dropping her off, and says he can give her a ride to the city tomorrow if she’s ready at four in the morning.

Enrique isn’t home. For a minute, she thinks about asking Dario in. The thought makes her throb between her legs. But she’s still unclean and hairy, and inside their clothes are spread all around, and the tub they use to shit and pee might still be dirty because she can’t remember cleaning it out and Enrique rarely does.

But she wants this. She has wanted this for some time. Quickly, she makes some calculations in her head: when the water trucks will come; when Enrique will be at the spots farthest from home, staying late in the city; when she will have time to clean and cut her armpit and leg hair.

“Dario,” she calls. He has already started the taxi.

“¿Si?”

“El Jueves. En la plaza”

“What?”

“El Jueves, that’s when. That’s later.”

It takes him a second to understand. Then his eyes open wide and he smiles without showing his teeth and nods.

“Ok, flaca. El Jueves.”

Jueves

The trucks don’t come on Tuesday or Wednesday. They just don’t come at all.

She wakes up at three in the morning to get ready to go to the city, but there’s nothing to get ready with. Enrique brought two bolsas con agua home last night, but it’s drinking water. She feels her dry throat and imagines it a few hours from now when she’s under the sun, her eyes squinting, sweat pooling under her breasts and sliding in individual cold drops from her armpits to her waist. The thought of using her drinking water to clean makes her thirstier.

But then there’s Dario. She pictures him with his elbow resting on the driver’s window and his right hand on the wheel. What kind of woman would she be if she broke her first promise? She hasn’t seen him since Monday. Enrique found them a ride that left earlier for both days. He hasn’t been around her usual spots, which isn’t weird, necessarily, just sad. But today they will meet. The mayor of the capital and the president are inaugurating a fountain at the Iglesia los Dolores, downtown. Hundreds of street sellers will be there. The taxistas will try to give rides to people attending the ceremony. The park will be full. They’ll leave together and come to her house. Enrique will be out until midnight, at least.

The basin where Evelyn cuts her mango is lined with pulp that has hardened into a crust in the past two weeks. Some of it has begun to grow a white and gray sponge-like shell. The knife is sticky. The smell of rotten mango is similar to that of a child’s vomit; it overpowers other odors in the room. Their noses have become accustomed to it though, so she’s only taken aback by it when she’s been away from it for hours. Enrique sleeps. He’ll be up in the next twenty minutes or so, but right now his snores are steady and loud, contrasting with the soft rooster song outside. The room is dark. It’s still at least two hours before the sun rises. Their eyes have also gotten use to this.

Evelyn takes off her shirt. Pained, she rips a corner of the water bag with her teeth, spitting out a bit of plastic that swished into her mouth. The hole is small, as small as she could make it to control the water spring coming out of it. She takes the smallest of gulps and then pours some over her right armpit. She takes the knife, and with her left hand pulls an assemblage of her armpit hair as straight as she can and cuts. They’re long enough to curl and coil. She has used the knife for this before but has always had water to clean it after. She cuts as much of it as she can, and then does her other armpit, and then her legs, and then she finds she can’t stop, and she cuts some of her pubic hair too. By the time she’s done, all the water is gone, and her sticky knife is full of dark, thick, curled body hair.

Evelyn tries to wipe it with her shirt and a rag. It’s not ideal, but she feels ready. She feels like she can be with Dario like this. She knows she still smells, but much less. And she’s not hairy. And she’s a woman, and he is a kind man with long fingers and heavy hands.

She gets dressed. Enrique wakes up, gets fresh mangos and more mosquito zappers from Don Rafael, and finds them a ride. An hour later they’re in the city.

“I’ll be by the stadium until noon, and then I think I’ll move to el Bulevar Morazán,” he says. “Good luck at the park. I heard Juan Robando would be there. Be careful with the police.” That’s what Enrique always calls him, robando instead of Orlando. Stealing. Juan Stealing.

“Si, Kike,” she says, “I’m riding back with Dario.”

He leaves, carrying his T-shaped pole with the hanging zappers that swing with each of his steps.

Evelyn makes her way to the park and finds a spot under a palm tree. As usual, el centro is flooded with people trying to sell or buy something. She likes this area of the city. During the day, it’s alive with peddlers and a few tourists. The streets are narrow, too narrow for three cars to drive next to each other. Every structure is old, but unlike the rest of the city, downtown wasn’t a random buildup of structure upon structure. The churches and museums are all painted the same peach color, and all other buildings sport similar graffiti. Stencils of the faces of people who have disappeared or been murdered, messages against the government, insults against politicians, a random declaration of love. BERTA VIVE. FUERA JOH. POLICIAS ASESINOS. TE AMO LUCIA.

“Cacahuates, cacahuates a diez,” a nearby woman calls. Another one sells bananas and plantains. Men sell futbol t-shirts, zappers, phone cords, pirated movies with pixelated images printed on them. It smells like feet and fried food. A bachata song plays through low-quality speakers. She starts to peel and chop her mango, slithering slices in the small, see-through plastic bags. She keeps the salt and pepper in even smaller plastic bags with holes in the corners, so she can pour a little over the mango before selling it.

The ceremony is about to begin. Hundreds of black and gray pigeons with greenish-purple necks hang around the church eating whatever has been dropped and then flying to the church’s windows and bell towers. Stray dogs sleep under the shadow of trees, scratching and turning, swatting flies away with their tails.

There’s no new fountain. Not the kind she expected, anyway: a ceramic structure with a fish or bird or other small animal spitting water over delicately carved flowers and designs. Instead, there are holes on the ground, twelve of them, with metallic rings over each. Together, the holes form a semi-circle. She knows water will shoot up from them when the president gets there and cuts the gigantic ribbon.

In minutes the plaza floods with TV reporters. Men carry heavy, long cameras on their shoulders and women smile at them, holding microphones to their chest.

A few tents have been set up with long tables inside to sell merchandise. The sellers working them are different from Evelyn and her brother and others that, like her, are selling out of a basin or a bag. Those are government-sponsored sellers. They sell jam in glass bottles and hand-made jewelry. Their products sport stickers with the flag, all five starts. Evelyn’s mango does not.

La plaza gets more and more crowded. Military police walk around. Six of them accompany a man who gets out of a black car. He’s the president. She has seen his face on newspaper stands and graffiti enough times to know it. He walks slowly, shaking people’s hands, smiling to cameras. Evelyn knows many people hate him, but she can’t really say why. He’s a bad person, that’s what Enrique says all the time. He is involved in drug dealing. That’s what they say about everyone, though. He’s a narco. He’s cousins or brothers of a narco. He is friends with narcos. He is married to a narco. All the same.

A girl and a boy approach her. “Cuanto la bolsita?” they say. She sells them for ten lempiras a bag. They take three. She puts the money in the canal between her breasts.

She’s not yelling Mango, mango, mango a diez like she usually does. Today she can’t concentrate on selling. And she doesn’t want to sweat. She keeps scanning the plaza for Dario. She imagines him leaning against his taxi with his hands in his pockets watching all of this. She wants to find him and leave as soon as possible. For one day, she does not want to think about selling. She can do that tomorrow. But she can’t find him. He’s not standing with the other taxistas by the left corner of the park.

Juan Orlando makes his way to the fountain. It’s easy to follow him because of the bulk of people and police around him. A woman stands by him the whole time, holding his hand every so often. Evelyn figures it must be the first lady. He answers questions, holds microphones, points his finger to a camera, punctuates his words with hand gestures, laughs. After a while, people retreat and it’s only the president and his wife in the middle of the fountain. The water jets are turned on. Big, thick springs fly through the air, taller than the president, then curve down in acute angles. He laughs, and his wife laughs, and then they’re out of the semi-circle, drying with towels, talking to more people, answering more questions.

A kid who has been standing by Evelyn asking for money with a McDonalds cup full of coins runs to the water. The coins clink inside as he moves. He lifts his shirt and stretches it over the spray, so that the water goes in from below his shirt and comes out over his neckline. More kids join him. Soon, all the waterjets are taken over by children and a few adults.

Evelyn watches at the scene. She wonders if the water is clean, clean enough to bathe. Maybe she can find a cup or bottle in the trash and fill it up. She’s looking for a trashcan nearby and doesn’t notice as men in military gear and black boots start to surround her. The flash of a camera hurts her eyes, making everything purple and white for a minute. It’s loud, and someone is shoving a gigantic microphone to her face.

“Si, si…el presidente Hernandez loves mango! He’s buying some right now from a woman in la plaza central, ladies and gentleman,” a voice says.

“Presidente Hernandez, a man of the people! Buying some mango verde from a vendora ambulante!” says another. “The president used to have his own mango tree when he lived in Lempira as a child. He spent many afternoons reading under it.”

He’s right there, in front of her, stretching his hand. It strikes her how normal he looks. He’s not wearing a suit or a tie, just a white, button-down shirt tucked into jeans. He smells good, not like the man in the taxi on Monday or Dario. His cologne is strong and clean.

“Señorita,” he says, “How much for a bag of manguito verde with salt and pepper?”

There are so many faces staring at her. They all wait for her to speak.

“Ah… eh…” she mumbles, “es…”

“It’s okay,” he says, “Tenga.”

He hands her a 500 lempiras bill. She has never touched one before. The bill is so crisp that for a moment, she thinks it might be fake.

“I don’t have enough mango or change for this,” she says.

“No, no,” he says, “just one bag. Just one bag of manguito verde, porfavor. Keep the change”

She gets a bag and adds the salt and pepper right there. The light is still blinding her. Her movements feel slow and clumsy. The president has a hand on her shoulder and is smiling so wide, she can see all of his teeth. His hands are cold, but much lighter than Dario’s. Once she’s done prepping it, she hands him his mango.

“Mil gracias, señorita, mil gracias.”

She hopes he walks away right then. He doesn’t. He starts eating the mango in front of her, his delicate fingers fishing into the bag.

“¿Quiere?” he asks her, offering a slice. She declines with a shake of her head.

He licks his fingers after each slice. That’s when Evelyn sees it: two small but thick curled hairs stuck to his lower lip. He licks the area around his mouth, the hairs disappearing with his tongue. And Evelyn can’t stop staring. There’s another by his cheek, and some in his fingers.

The cameras are all on him, and her. She’s sure they can see it too, but no one says anything. She expects someone to slap the bag out of his hand or whisper something in his ear. Nothing happens. Finally, when he’s done, someone hands him a wet towel. He wipes his hands and shakes hers again. They all walk away. Evelyn stares at their backs, convinced one will turn around, arrest her or something. She can’t move.

But then he is there. Dario, emerging through the retrieving crowd, smiling.

“You sold mango to the president?” he says, laughing. “You’re gonna be on TV, flaca!”

“Shut up,” she says, shaking her head and slapping his arm playfully. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Let’s,” he says, reaching for her basin and knife.

Maybe it’s the concoction of smells of downtown Tegucigalpa in that moment, or the raw sensation in her hands of the fresh mango flesh she just cut for the president, a man who couldn’t feel hairs on his tongue, or the echoing of faraway thunder over the children’s laughs and the spring’s splash. It doesn’t matter that it rains, if it’s not raining in the wrong place.

“No, no,” she says, “leave it.”

“¿Que?” he says, still holding on to it, “¿Segura?”

“Leave it.”

He wrinkles his face but does as he’s told. The knife clanks against the concrete floor and the paila topples over.

“Vamonos,” she says, stretching her hand. “¡Apurate!”

And he’s so moved by her rush, by her need of him, that he doesn’t care about the basin or the knife or the stupid mango or an explanation or tomorrow.

“Vamos,” he says, taking her hand. She runs, leading him through the water springs, to their waterless neighborhood, where they’ll make an ocean out of a mattress. Quench a thirst, ache with another.

First appeared in On the Seawall
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