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Marta Veneranda, a Latina neoyorkina, finds that she inspires the confessional in people. In fact, when people come to her, they feel the need to reveal their most embarrassing and shameful stories. And through these reluctantly told tales, where characters enter and leave each other's narrations, Rivera-Valdes revisits and questions our most basic behavioral assumptions.
In "Little Poisons," the narrator shares with Marta the minutiae of her self-help book–assisted liberation from her philandering husband, whom she will eventually poison to death, and whose mistress she will befriend: "In the fifteen years of marriage he would tell me everything, even about his sexual escapades-if he couldn't share them with me, who would he share them with? Besides, that way no one could come running to me spreading rumors."
Beneath the humor is a dead-serious scrutiny of the commingling of Anglo and Latino cultures. At heart, the stories are an exposé of the comforts and discomforts of that cohabitation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781583220474
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Publication date: 03/06/2001
Edition description: SEVEN STOR
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.81(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

SONIA RIVERA VALDÉS was born in Cuba and first lived in New York City in 1966. Considered one of the most important writers from Cuba, she has had stories appear in many anthologies in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.

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Chapter One

Five Windows on the Same Side

My name is Mayté. Mayté Perdomo. Actually Perdomo Lavalle. That's how I'm registered in Caibarién and how my name appears on my American passport. I hyphenate my two last names to avoid confusion in this country, but sometimes people get mixed up anyway. I'm a journalist. So many lurid things take place in New York every day that hardly anything seems forbidden. But forbidden is a relative term. Any event that is embarrassing enough for someone to keep it secret is that person's forbidden story.

    You'll judge my story according to your own criteria, but for me this whole matter is very disturbing. Not just that I had a sexual relationship with a woman, but the series of circumstances that surrounded the episode and the impact it had on me. It changed my life.

    What have my religious upbringing and education come to, I constantly ask myself. Because no matter how much one has adapted to this society—let's not mince words—among us, homosexuality is not normal. It's not that I'm homophobic. On he contrary. In my work I've defended the rights of gay people every time a problem has come up for them, but now, experiencing it in the flesh, it turns out to be more problematic than I would have thought, had I ever imagined that something like this could happen to me. I never did, and furthermore it wouldn't have been so unsettling if it had just been sex. The flesh is weak, as the nuns at the school in Caibarién used to say, and anyone can come undone one day.

    The worstof it was ... I'm embarrassed even to say it ... that I fell in love with her. That's right.

    You didn't hear me? I wasn't aware that I had lowered my voice. I'm sorry. I was saying to you that I fell in love with her. That frightened me all right. Can you imagine, me wooing another woman, dancing boleros in a dimly lit room, and buying her flowers? When Alberto found out, he practically died, the poor thing. He said that one day I was going to give him a heart attack.

    Yes, I told him. We have always been very frank with each other and I couldn't keep quiet. As soon as he got back from Chicago, the whole story popped out. Minus the details of course. It all happened so quickly that my concern might seem silly, but I've spent whole weekends unable to focus on anything but ray obsession about whether I may have been a lesbian my whole life and not realized it until now. The idea has screwed me up to the point where I don't even want to see my little girl, even though she is one of the greatest pleasures in my life.

    The girl is the daughter of Rodolfo, a friend who's like a brother to me and is also one of my colleagues at the newspaper. He's the only person who knows this story. I haven't even told Iris, his wife, despite the fact that we're very good friends. In fact I spend even more time with her than I do with Rodolfo. We go out together almost every weekend. We take Raquelita, who is my goddaughter, we stop for lunch somewhere, and we spend hours walking around this place or that or we go to the movies. We're both crazy about sales and the knickknacks in Chinatown, and we've never been able to get either her husband or mine to come with us. I really enjoy these outings. Sometimes I go even though I don't have the time, just to be close to the girl. I want her to remember when she grows up that her godmother was genuinely concerned about her. If I hadn't intended to look after her, I wouldn't have baptized her, and since I don't have children, I adore that sweet little girl. She turned seven in November.

    Rodolfo and I share something special. It's not just that he's Cuban, it's that we arrived in New York under the same circumstances, both of us almost the same age. I was thirteen, he was fourteen, and we both came without our parents and went through things that were so painful I don't care to remember. Since then we've tried to joke about them, but our laughter rings hollow. Deep down these experiences are painful and will always be. My mamá says I hold grudges, but no matter how hard I've tried to accept it, I still find it hard to comprehend how a mother could bundle up a thirteen-year-old child, as pampered as she could possibly be by her parents and grandparents, and send her to a foreign country where they don't even speak the same language, without a single relative awaiting her.

    Years ago, when Iris, Rodolfo, my husband, and I would go out to eat, as soon as we had a few drinks, Rodolfo and I would start to remember the jams we'd get into in the foster homes where we ended up shortly after arriving in this country when we didn't understand a word of English or how those families worked. In fact it was in one of those houses that we met. And there at the bar the humor would fade right out of the story as we told it and we would end up sobbing, his wife and my husband mortified with embarrassment over the fools we were making of ourselves. We placed the topic off-limits when they were around. They have enough on their hands, being Puerto Rican, without having to deal with our stuff. The truth is that even when they're not around, Rodolfo and I try not to talk about those things, but sometimes they slip out and we always end up feeling that same sadness.

    I've been talking for half an hour now and I still haven't started to tell you my story with Laura. I think that your being Cuban makes me remember things I'd thought were forgotten. Let's see how I can organize my thoughts to sum things up.

    I tell you, the human mind is fascinating. Just this second, I realized something so obvious it seems incredible that I hadn't thought of it before. Such agony over the episode with Laura, to the point of blaming it for having changed my life, when in reality my confusion began before she appeared. Am I blind for not having seen that?

    It all began when Alberto told me that the company where he worked was moving to Chicago and had made him an excellent offer to move there too. Obviously things started with that news. I felt my head spin. It was very strange. A chill ran down my spine all the way to my feet, and then it began running up my body again from my big toe. Only once before in my life had I felt anything like that, and the impression it made on me remained forever.

    One night in Cuba. The same thing happened. But that time was even worse. I heard a voice whispering my name so close I felt the heat of the breath on my face. When I turned around, believe it or not, no one was there. It was the night after the telegram authorizing my departure for the United States arrived. My mamá was in the room packing my bag and I had gone onto the porch for a moment. The voice seemed to come from where the jasmine bushes grew. The very same chills ran up and down my body as when Alberto came home with news of the move.

    He was so pleased with his raise and the prospect of a new life. It didn't make me happy at all. On the contrary, the idea of leaving New York panicked me, truly panicked me—it's one of those sensations you don't understand until you've experienced it. I couldn't stand the idea of leaving the apartment where I'd lived for so many years I've lived here since long

I met Alberto I rented it with the money I earned from

    How could I leave the floorboards where the four legs of my desk stand or my habit of drinking my morning coffee seated on my bed, watching through the window as my neighbors get up? How could I leave the little corner where I meditate, or the space where my computer sits? If I go away, who will guarantee that I'll find again that silent companionship, so special which I have living among the elderly and people whose constant nighttime activities require that they rest during the day? The point is not to live in the suburbs without anyone nearby, as Alberto said we would live in Chicago, but rather, to be surrounded by people who don't make a racket. How could I leave my walks through the neighborhood, my neighbor who, without even knowing me, would display his meticulous bachelor's life in plain view of my windows, unaware of my interest in him? This is where, for so many years it seems like forever, I have daydreamed of all the good things I wish would happen to me and dreamed at night of houses with many rooms and airplanes that take off without me aboard. I have that dream a lot. And this is where I have felt joy for the good things that have happened and sadness for the bad. And my job—how could he think that I would resign from a job I like so much?

    All of that came out of my mouth in a single breath, before I could think.

    Obviously he didn't anticipate my reaction and took it as a rejection of his success in the company. He didn't speak to me for a week. That had never happened before. Later, when he'd calmed down, he tried to convince me. Being such a good journalist, I wouldn't have a hard time finding a new job. There are a lot of Latinos in Chicago. I wouldn't have to worry about money if I didn't find a job right away, the two of us could easily live on his salary. It wasn't the end of the world. I would get used to it.

    He didn't understand how I could be attached to such a small place in such a difficult and dirty neighborhood when we had a good house on the outskirts of Chicago waiting for us. It was his dream: land for gardening, a patio for summer barbecues, enough room to have a dog. I knew he had longed for those things since he was a little boy and it made sense. Anyone who'd grown up in the confines of a sixth-floor apartment in the Bronx with four brothers and sisters would have wanted to live in the country for the rest of their life. But since the possibility of transforming those dreams into reality had never presented itself, I didn't realize that he took them so seriously. In part, I think his being so tight-lipped—he hardly says a word—was to blame for the misunderstanding. I told him that, too. I, on the other hand, being the extroverted person that I am, am always praising my daily routine, saying how much I love it. He said he thought I was praising it in an attempt to convince myself, because we had no alternative to living where we did. But he never imagined that my celebration was heartfelt. Can you imagine how out of tune we were with each other for years without even knowing we were out of tune?

    For over ten years Alberto and I seemed to share so many things in common, and in the end our compatibility was based on the absence of circumstances to bring out our differences. That was all. Deep down, he couldn't stand the things that made up our day-to-day life and that are practically second nature to me: our apartment, Gladys and her daily phone calls to tell me the problems she's having with her children, Luisa and her everlasting spat with Atilio, Esperanza and her loneliness, the homeless, the lines at the corner movie theater, the Korean fruit stand open twenty-four hours a day. Rodolfo. How could I go away from Rodolfo and his family? I'd even miss the prostitutes if I left. My block has been home to prostitutes for over eighty years.

    It's not a bad spot. In fact, where I live I'm surrounded by NYU buildings. It just so happens that once there was a brothel nearby, on Third Avenue. They shut it down years ago, but the men still have the habit of picking up women where their fathers and grandfathers used to do You know how strong family traditions are. You may not believe it, but my observation of this phenomenon has helped me to better understand the universality of human behavior. I wrote an article on this topic for the newspaper and people liked it even though it was controversial. They always say that we Latinos are more attached to our families than Americans, but I assure you that the majority of the guys who cruise my block and pick up prostitutes in their car do so because they learned it in the bosom of their family, and the vast majority of them are Americans. Many of them are from New Jersey. I can tell from their license plates.

    Luckily I get to watch the spectacle only as I enter and leave my house. I don't think I could stand to see so much human misery all day long. They look so unhealthy that when there's a new face around, the way I find out whether she's a prostitute or not—because you never know—is that I watch her out of the corner of my eye to see the physical shape she's in. If she appears healthy, then I think she isn't one. They often start work at seven in the morning, some of the time practically in the buff, their tits hanging out though it's only twenty degrees. I've watched them waste away by the day, starting out walking the block all plump and after a few months they're nothing but skin and bones. I watched one woman coughing and spitting on the sidewalk for a year while she held back her very long hair with one hand in order not to spit on it. With the other hand, she'd be waving down customers the way you'd wave down a cab. One day she disappeared. She must be dead.

    I don't know what got me talking about the prostitutes, with how late it's getting and all. It's my journalistic spirit. In any case, I'm lucky because my apartment overlooks a patio that sits between my building and the one facing it, and I have five windows, all on the same side, which the sun shines through in the afternoon. They face the back of the building. I sleep next to the window in the bedroom and hardly ever raise the blinds. That's the reason I was so mortified the night of the episode with Laura.

    She's a second cousin of mine from Cuba I'd never met. She was born two months after I'd left. She's thirty-six years old now, nine years younger than I am, and has two children, a girl of fifteen and a seven-year-old boy. She lived near where I grew up, and her husband, a veteran of the war in Angola, is the father of the boy. The girl's father went to do his doctorate in Russia while they were married, and came back hitched up with a Ukrainian woman. When my cousin found out, he had already had two children with the Russian. They went on for a while longer in that hullabaloo, but finally they got divorced. She was here this time visiting Aunt Rosario, who is quite old and got it into her head that she was going to die without seeing her favorite granddaughter. She made the arrangements all by herself and sent Laura the ticket for the flight to Miami. When I found out that Laura was in the United States, I was so happy, I could have burst. I called her right away and sent her money so that she could come spend a week with me.

    She stayed here for two weeks while Alberto was in Chicago. A month after the announcement was made that the company was moving, he had to travel there for business. I was relieved to take a break for a few days from his repeating that I should go with him.

    It was in October of last year, sixteen months ago. She arrived in the morning, the day after Alberto left. I went to pick her up at the airport and brought her one of my jackets because it was starting to get cold and she didn't have a coat. Her hair was straight and dark, and she had dimples when she laughed, wide hips like alt the women on my mother's side of the family, and tiny feet. That caught my eye. I identified her by sight immediately without us ever having seen each other. She had the very same expression as her mother, my cousin Águeda. We hugged each other tightly and we cried. I don't know why she was crying, but I can say that for me, our meeting meant that standing before me was more than just a relative I was seeing for the first time, but someone with my blood in her veins whose eyes had watched the sun rise and set every day over Caibarién. Someone who had heard the Cuban birds singing when she woke up, who had stepped on Cuban grass when she went out into the yard. I looked at her, unable to think of anything else, and I cried.

    In the taxi we went on like two madwomen, me asking her questions and her telling me all about the family. When we got to my house, I asked her what she wanted to do. I had several plans in mind. "Relax, have some coffee, and tall with you. I want to get to know you," she said. It was Saturday, just like today. It made me happy to think that I had two days to spend with her, and I thanked God for my husband's absence.

    Around eight at night I ordered in Chinese food. We weren't hungry, but we nibbled on a few things. After we ate, first Laura took a shower, then I did. I lent her a pink bathrobe, an anniversary present from Alberto. I felt emotionally wiped out, drained. She continued talking. The stories and nostalgia were more than I could take. I offered her a beer, and, in order to stop her talking and to get some rest more than anything else, suggested that we listen to a record of boleros by Marta Valdés, which she'd brought me as a gift. She liked the idea. I didn't know who Marta Valdés was, but I didn't say so. In fact, until that night I'd hardly ever listened to that kind of Cuban music. A little salsa, the Vanván, Pablo Milanés, Silvio Rodríguez, sure, but not boleros. That was my mother's music.

    I sat at one end of the sofa. Laura lay down and without asking permission rested her head on my lap, as naturally as can be. It bothered me a bit, but it occurred to me that people in Cuba have more physical contact in their day-to-day life than we do here. I leaned back against the sofa to enjoy the moment. Immersed in my memories more than listening to the music, I began to caress her damp, flowing hair. After a few minutes the melodies had transported me to the straight, narrow streets always ending at the sea, where I used to run as a child. I started to feel the gentle touch of those afternoons, and something inside me began to soften up.

    I wasn't paying attention to the song lyrics. My eyes closed, I was thinking of Caibarién. Suddenly, without meaning to, I listened to the words: I knew you were coming, though you I didn't know the day. The birds from all the forest told me you were on your way.

    I realized what I was doing with my hand and pulled it from Laura's hair so abruptly that she sat up and asked what was wrong. "Nothing," I answered, but I was feeling uncomfortable. Maybe it's just my imagination, I thought to myself. And yet her head weighed on my thighs as if she were intentionally pressing against them. I wanted to go to my room, to run away. I leaned back against the sofa again, hiding my confusion. The record would be over soon and this bad spell would then pass.

    The music ended and instead of getting up, opening the bed for Laura in the living room, and then going to my own bedroom, I did something I never would have expected from myself: I asked her if she had ever heard Lucesita Benítez. She said she had. And I—me!—went over and put on the most romantic record on the face of the earth. No sooner had Lucesita begun then I started, realizing what I had done. What do I do now? My alarm was growing by the second. Laura, in contrast, seemed at ease. Sitting by my side, she was humming along with the song. More than anything else, I felt ridiculous, out of control—the thing I hate most in the world. She slowly slid down and lay her head on my lap again, my legs now rigid. My efforts to appear unruffled made every muscle in my body contract. I was nearly trembling. Two days without your love, two days without your touch. Our time is so precious, and we've wasted so much, went the bolero. Do you know it, Marta Veneranda? It's absolutely lovely.

    "I love this bolero," Laura said enthusiastically. "It's been ages since I've heard it. Would you like to dance?"

    We danced. Very close. I had never danced like that with a woman, our cheeks grazing one another. It was very soft. As the bolero played, we danced more and more slowly, closer and closer.

    Can't you see that I'm yours, that you own my heart, that nothing on earth can drive us apart?

    Without letting go of me, she pulled her face away from mine and looked me straight in the eyes. She just looked at me without blinking, that's all. I don't know how to explain it. My legs grew weak like when I feel like going to bed with a man, but there was something different this time: weakness mixed with strength, a yearning to conquer her, to possess her. That's what I felt.

    I held her around the waist, drawing her toward me with a strength I didn't recognize. I felt wet and sensed that she was too. The idea of her body feeling the same as mine was driving me wild.

    By the time the record was over, we had been kissing for the last three songs, our hips swaying in time to the music. The softness of her neck, her arms, her back delighted me. Such a different sensation from that of embracing a man. I couldn't stop thinking of that.

    I took her hand and led her to my bed. I took her. I didn't even bother to take off the floral bedspread I am so careful with because I love it. After Laura left, I took it to the dry cleaners, but it's never been the same. I still put it on the bed because of the memories it evokes.

    I caressed and kissed every piece and fold of that body with an intensity and passion I had never put into my lovemaking before, and she reciprocated with furious splendor. We spent hour after hour fused to one another. Sated at last, exhausted, we lay on our backs pushing aside the panties and brassieres strewn across the flowers of the bedspread. The light of the lamp on the night table illuminated our bodies. Neither of us had remembered to turn it off.

    I closed my eyes for a few minutes. When I opened them, Laura was sleeping where she lay. That's when I realized that I hadn't lowered the blind over the window and the bed was right in view. The neighbor in the apartment facing mine, the bachelor, watched indifferently, standing at ins kitchen sink. As I sat up, he began to wash lettuce for a salad for his late nightly dinner. He does it every night. Obviously he had seen. I lowered the blind and didn't raise it again for the two weeks Laura spent here, most of which we spent in bed and dancing boleros in the living room. I even called in sick to work for three days.

    We got out so little that when she left I felt guilty for not having shown her more of New York. But I console myself by thinking that the few outings we did take were due to my insistence. If it had been up to her, we wouldn't have left the radius of my apartment and the restaurants around it. At least I took her to Chinatown, Rockefeller Center, Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Harlem; we saw the Lower East Side and took a trip on the Circle Line. That was fantastic, a brilliant idea. I will remember it a thousand years from now. I have never felt so romantic in my whole life, except in the movies, especially watching From Here to Eternity. Except that while watching the movie I was sure that I was Deborah Kerr, whereas on the Circle Line, in all honesty, I could never figure out if I was her or Burt Lancaster.

    I was aghast at my own behavior, but Laura seemed at ease. She admitted that this wasn't the first time this had happened, although with me it was something special. I didn't believe the second part. I asked if her husband knew.

    "Are you nuts? How would he know?" she responded, looking at me as if I were kidding.

    "I'm going to tell Alberto," I said. "Otherwise, I couldn't live in peace with myself."

    Her eyes widened. She was flabbergasted.

    "You're crazy in the head," she said, shaking her own from side to side. "Look. My first husband was with the Ukrainian woman for years before I found out. She even bore him a pair of twins behind my back. César, my current man, is very good, but do you think I don't know that he sleeps with any woman that comes along as soon as he has the chance? I'm not going to pass up a good time myself when it appears. I have no interest in affairs with men. I look to women for that. What can you do? To each her own, and besides, there's no risk of getting pregnant."

    We sat down to talk several times, don't think we didn't. But we were speaking different languages whenever we spoke of this matter. In the final analysis, now that I've calmed down, I think this was the most astonishing part of the experience—the different weight we gave to things. Laura didn't understand how I, with the worldliness she attributed to me because of my education, the trips I've taken, the exposure I've had to different cultures, my living in such a cosmopolitan city, could think that not to tell Alberto what had happened would be an act of betrayal. There are things one doesn't tell was her motto. She didn't understand my idea of honesty. The fact that this was the only way I could live in peace with myself seemed to her to be a sign of immaturity. To her mind my confession would, in the best of cases, cause needless suffering for Alberto and in the worst, cause a tragedy for us both. "What you don't know won't hurt you." In short, she was my cousin; it was perfectly normal that she would have stayed with me. Why complicate matters? She didn't live here. God only knew when we would see each other again.

    "You think I'm going to go back to Cuba and tell César about this? What for?"

    We parted without my understanding her need to live a secret life nor her understanding my need to lead an open one.

    I write to her now and then, whenever I find someone who is going to Cuba, and Laura does the same when a friend is coming this way. You know how difficult communication with the island is. Family letters, as if nothing had ever happened. Mine are more laconic, but she writes page after page talking about the children and the aunts and cousins we have in common. A short while ago she asked me for a hair straightener for a friend of hers. Before that she had asked for lipstick and some creams for the same girl. They're neighbors and apparently they get along well. I bought her the straightener and I'll send it to her as soon as I can.

    Laura left for Miami the same day Alberto returned from Chicago. I took her to the airport in the morning and he arrived at six thirty in the evening. Between her departure and his arrival I considered the effects of what had happened. There was no question: I was not about to move to Chicago now. Alberto wouldn't keep asking because he wouldn't want me to go with him. This thought relieved me.


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