Many Marys are venerated throughout the world. Each has her local legends and miracles. La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in Cuba appears in this week’s chapter. The story goes that two native American men and an African slave boy (all named Juan) were caught in a storm off El Cobre. They prayed to the Virgin for deliverance. When the skies cleared, and they found a wooden statue floating in the water. This image was enshrined in a chapel, from which it stubbornly kept disappearing, until it was moved to its permanent home at El Cobre. The legend addresses the multicultural, multiracial nature of Cuba. The Spanish edict of 1801 ending slavery in El Cobre’s copper mines was read out before the statue of the Virgin, and many images of this Virgin show her with black skin, holding a black baby Jesus.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the “Golden Age” for the founding of Marian traditions in the New World. Sea captains often brought images on their voyages for protection from storms and pirates. The style of ornamental robe worn by the image goes back to the seventeenth century (or earlier). Many of these statues have extensive wardrobes and jewelry presented by devotees.
28. Rum and Rye
“Buenas noches, bonita Elena,” said Hector softly. “You look different tonight.”
“Do you like it?” she asked, looking up into his brown eyes. He wore a cream-colored linen suit, and a baby-blue shirt without a tie. A gold chain with a medal was visible around his neck.
“Oh yes. What man would not like it?” She stood with her back against the wall; the fireplace with its protruding mantel was on her left. He placed a palm flat against the wall on her right, effectively pinning her to the spot, and leaned in closer. “But I think you are changing, spending too much time with these ladies… and perhaps with mis amigos. I’ve seen you looking at El Watusi over there” —he gestured in Hugh’s direction— “with eyes of fire. I liked it better, Elena, when you were so awkward, so innocent, like a sweet madonna.”
“The way we look on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story,” she managed to say.
“No,” he agreed. “We are, all of us, both more and less than we seem. But you told me that you had no other man after your husband, only me. You said you knew very little of love.”
“That’s true,” said Ellen. She raised her martini glass to her lips and drained the rest of it, uncomfortably aware of his physical proximity. He smelled faintly of aftershave tonight, and she found it disturbingly sexy. Hector took the glass from her hand and set it on the mantel.
“I liked that about you. You are special, Elena, like a flower that opens herself for only one kind of bee.”
She was struck by his poetic mode of expression, and flattered. “But… Hector, this group is organized for the exploration of pleasure. I joined precisely because I didn’t know anything, and I wanted to learn.”
“Ah. You want to learn.” He looked pleased at this. “I have a very wide experience of el amor, mi querida. I can teach you anything you want to know. We should start with the simplest things.” He dropped his voice. “Did your husband ever give you a climax just by touching and kissing your pechitos?”
“Do you mean my breasts? I didn’t think that was possible,” she said, diverted by the idea.
“Oh yes. And even if you are not one who is capable, it is very pleasant to try.” He laughed softly and his eyes dropped to her cleavage. “Come home with me tonight, Elena. I want to taste your sweet pezones again.”
His proposition rather abruptly brought Ellen down to earth. She had taken pride in captivating Jaime, but she now realized that she herself had been dangerously drawn in by Hector’s smooth talk. He was so good that a part of her regretted not being able to investigate the orgasmic potential of her pechitos. But how to elude him? Instead of saying no immediately, she pointed to the medal around his neck.
“Hector, what’s that?”
“Eh? That’s La Virgen del Cobre, the mother of Cuba,” he said. “The three Juans found her floating in the sea, and brought her to shore.”
“Really? That’s interesting. Where is she now?” As she had hoped, he warmed to the subject, enthusiastically describing the Virgin’s miraculous and repeated disappearances from the church where she was deposited, until the puzzled people realized that she wished to reside in El Cobre, the most beautiful part of the island. As he was talking, Ellen surreptitiously threw Emily an imploring look.
In less than a minute, Emily and Val appeared at Hector’s side, interrupting his story. “Ellen, you selfish girl,” exclaimed Emily, her eyes sparkling with laughter. “You shouldn’t be monopolizing Hector’s attention this way! Let someone else have a chance. We want to talk to him now.” She ran a caressing hand up the sleeve of Hector’s jacket.
Ellen pretended to be a little annoyed. Seeing her look, Hector said, “Don’t worry, bonita Elena. I will find you later.” She ducked beneath his outstretched arm, which was still planted beside her shoulder, and made her way back to the bar, then changed her mind. It had been hours since her early dinner, and quick consumption of two large martinis on an empty stomach had given her a serious buzz. Two men down, one to go, she thought. Only this isn’t working quite the way I had imagined. Looking around the room, she spotted Hugh, seated not far from where Emily and Val were still flirting with Hector.
She approached and sat on the arm of Hugh’s overstuffed chair. “Mind if I steal some of your peanuts?”
A smile crossed his lips, but it faded immediately, to be replaced by a look of disapproval. “You’re up to no good, Ellen. Why?”
Dismayed, she didn’t answer, but took a handful of peanuts and popped them in her mouth. They were both sweet and salty, with a crisp buttery shell. She closed her eyes, focusing on the flavor.
“If you could only tell me what’s wrong, I might be able to help,” he said in a low, urgent voice.
Ellen’s eyes popped open. No. Hugh couldn’t help, and she couldn’t reveal their plans to him. “I don’t think so,” she told him sadly. Looking at the deep grooves in his face, and his morose expression, she suddenly felt a wave of unidentifiable emotion. She wanted to weep, and tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. She longed to sink into his lap, and feel his arms about her. “I’m confused. And… I’m scared, Hugh.” Please don’t let it be you.
He sighed. “I can see that. And you’ve had too much to drink. Sit here,” —he leaned forward and pulled an unused hassock closer to his chair— “and eat some more.”
Disconsolate now at the realization that she was doing a poor job as a seductress, she took another handful of peanuts. Her eyes fell on his drink, the same amber fluid on the rocks that she had observed at the Triton. “Your usual,” she said, gesturing to the lowball glass. “What is it?”
“Rye,” said Hugh. She must have looked puzzled, because he explained, “It’s similar to bourbon, but the dominant grain is rye, not corn. It’s not as smooth and sweet as bourbon.”
“Can I taste it?”
“No,” he said firmly.
“So it’s on the dry side, and rough around the edges. Sounds a bit like you.”
“I’m no Cuban rum,” he agreed.
“It takes some time to appreciate you. You’re an acquired taste. You’re… different from other men.”
“That could be true,” he conceded.
“What kind of cigarettes do you smoke?”
She nodded to herself; Philip Marlowe smoked Camels too. “You shouldn’t smoke.”
“I know.” He sat there, Hugh the Stolid, shaking his head at her as though she was a puppy who’d tinkled on the floor. Suddenly, she wanted to tempt him. She wanted him to desire her, as Jaime did.
“I can’t go home with you tonight,” she remarked.
“No?” He looked amused at this unexpected announcement.
“But I want to. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about you, no matter how much I try to focus on the industrial uses of whale oil, or W. V. Quine, or phlogiston theory.”
“It comes from phlox, the Greek word for flame. They used to think it was the element responsible for combustion. Anything full of phlogiston is liable to burst into flame.”
“I see.” He picked up his glass of rye and silently examined her over the rim.
It took her a moment to regain her train of thought after his interruption. “…So, I’ve decided that I should take up the clarinet.”
“You have?” He waited for her explanation.
“Yes. You said the player forms a seal around the mouthpiece, with the lips. I could do that.” She gave him a flirtatious smile. “In fact, I’m very anxious to begin. But I’ve never been a person of musical talent, so I know I’d need lots of practice. On the real instrument, that is. Up to now, I’ve only used the Think Method.”
Hugh laughed. “The Think Method? You mean like in The Music Man, where Professor Harold Hill teaches the kids without any instruments?”
She nodded solemnly. “The Think Method isn’t bad. But it would be a lot better if I could put my lips on the actual… instrument.”
“It’s a shame you can’t go home with me tonight,” said Hugh.
“Because you’re so full of phlogiston, I’m afraid that if I don’t ignite you, someone else will.”
“Hey, Ellen and Hugh!” called Tina. “We’ve decided to make it a movie night. It’s a Meg Ryan festival at my place. We’ve got the one where she plays a brain surgeon, the one where she’s Einstein’s genius niece, and the one where she’s a helicopter pilot who wins the Medal of Honor. Want to come along, you two?”
“Are you nuts?” said Hugh, recoiling in disgust.
“Sounds great,” said Ellen, and getting unsteadily to her feet, she fled.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Hector disparagingly refers to Hugh as “El Watusi,” a reference to Ray Barretto’s Cuban-flavored jazz classic. In the background of this song, a man calls out at the arrival of “El Watusi,” who seems to be an ugly, seven-foot-tall mulatto. He’s ironically described as “the handsomest man in Havana,” “seven big and ugly feet running around the world.” It’s a great song. Really, I promise!
When Ellen sees Hugh, she often thinks of Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, probably because Hugh wears a fedora, dresses in old-fashioned suits and smokes Camels. He also has a bit of Humphrey Bogart’s beau-laid vibe. But he’s a lot taller.
Ellen also mentions W. V. Quine in this chapter. Quine was a philosopher of science and logician in the “analytic” tradition. Ellen is a historian of science, so she has read more Quine than I have! Quine has a great many fans. There is even a site called “Quinology.”