[H]ere one expected a kiss, more customary than shaking hands. When Bolivians put their arms around you for hugs, they did it so naturally you didn’t flinch. Here she’d found herself dancing along with a dozen large women of a certain age, drunk on chibcha, they all had beanies on their heads, so did she, each equipped with a phallus, and they danced with penises bobbing from their foreheads, everyone laughing, even she laughed, it was all right, but now she kept seeing them, penises everywhere, they had her surrounded.
She had been in Germany, on Carnival Thursday once, when the wild women grab men and cut off their ties. Snip snip. Not like here, the penis and the penis and the penis.
Aren’t you afraid traveling in those wild places? Erika had asked.
Something bad can happen anywhere.
Now no one was being, how should she say it, forthcoming. Including herself. The Bolivians knew she was coming to audit their program so why did they urge her to come this week, Carnaval, everything closed, no way for her to check their work. We wanted you to enjoy, they said. While she, she was already on the ground in La Paz when she got the word: the ministry in The Hague had decided on austerity: no more aid.
The trip, then, was pointless, except she did need to get away, and the stopover in Miami had meant a chance to see Erika. The friend she could always talk to but this time didn’t. The tooth throbbing, pain in her ear, up and down the whole side of her head so instead of a quiet conversation she was hours in the waiting room till Erika’s dentist could fit her in.
Do you grind your teeth? he asked. I don’t see anything wrong here.
Then one thing and another and a flight to catch and her arrival to hugs and kisses on both cheeks. It’s Día de las comadres, they told her and then the waitress with the strap-on under her apron. The restaurant owner parading with the doll the size of a large dog, fully equipped with pubic hair and balls and a penis dripping with semen and a sign 1 boliviano la tocadita, pay for just a little touch, we’re not talking about penetration, just a touch.
She got pretty drunk, and then a cab and a bus to the mining town. They were taking her, they said, to the greatest Carnaval on earth. Better than Rio de Janeiro (the one we copy in Rotterdam) and she had her doubts, better than Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Come! Come! They led her here, there. Look, Britt! Look!
Hundreds of trombones, hundreds of bass drums. Men whirling inside of what looked like wedding cakes. The stalls lining the streets where women got their makeup and false braids. The devils, some with real flames shooting from their headdresses while the crowd hollered Fuego! Fuego! The white wings and smiling masks–but so few–of the angels.
They danced for the Virgin of Candelaria or was it for Pachamama, the miners and their families honoring her, whichever she was, whether because she protected them underground or to ask her please please not to bury them.
They dance for faith, Britt.
No, Britt. They dance because they like to dance.
She ordered Paceña all around and everyone thanked her, only telling her later that the best beer was Huari.
Would they still hug her, kiss her when they knew? No more money for the miners’ widows, for the children.
You are tired, Britt.
They thought her name was cute. They loved to say it.
No, it’s my head, my throbbing head.
TMJ could inflame the nerve. It’s not your tooth. It’s tension.
It is better you will rest.
No, I’m fine. I’ll stay with you.
No, no. Many men now very drunk. Come.
The night before, had she flinched? All she remembered was dancing. The women laughing. Had she laughed?
They left her in a room reached by a ladder, up to the roof, where she saw, on a neighboring rooftop, a man pissing down on a construction site. Penises and penises. She lay down in the shadows, those things looming, a sewing machine, bolts of cloth, that’s all. Last night, the things bobbing from foreheads, ridiculous. No lock on the door.
Rest, rest, how could she rest?
We’ll come for you later, Britt. Wait here.
Why did she drink that beer?
She climbed down the shaky ladder to the toilet in the dirt courtyard but the dog guarded it, lunging on his rope. She paced and the guinea pigs chirruped and shrieked in their pen each time she paced near. Because the approach of a human meant being fed or because it meant being eaten.
How long had she been here? Where had they gone? When would they come?
Bolivians were warm, hospitable, lovely people who kissed your cheek but they didn’t tell you anything. Of course they had a different conception of time and she was used to waiting, in airports, for the dentist. What she couldn’t get used to was not knowing what she was waiting for.
Such a difference, North and South, the dentist in Miami talking her through the procedure: Now you may feel my finger against your gum. Raise your hand if you want me to stop. The low voice and the anticipation.
Telling people what to expect is a way of asking permission.
Esperar could mean to wait, to expect, or to hope. She had not found the way to tell them the funds they waited for, expected, wouldn’t come and she could not remember whether she had laughed. She hoped so. It would be a good thing if she’d been able to laugh.
Now you will feel vibration The sure steady finger.
No, don’t stop.
The guinea pigs chittered. Cuy, cuy, she said. And how did it happen? she wondered. Probably all quite straightforward. The person didn’t slip up behind them, didn’t sneak, didn’t hide. Two hands forthrightly reaching in to grab one.
Shut up, she told the cuy, shut up. They know, she thought. They can feel what’s coming. If they kept up the shrieking, she would vomit, the altitude, the moon, the image in her mind, fur stripped, naked flesh impaled on a spit.
Had she said something, done something? She was so drunk. Why did they leave her alone?
She was going to burst. The damn dog lunging and she couldn’t wait. She pulled down her pants and squatted by the pen, only the shadows for cover. The cuy suddenly quiet, as if the smell calmed them.
You see, she thought, it’s only me.
What would they say when she told them? You can’t always expect help to come.
The hands would reach in. And why this one and not that? Would it freeze in terror or squirm trying to escape? Would it bite? Surely it would scream and the others would shriek for a moment before going back to their food, to all that mattered to them, to their own little animal lives until the sound of footsteps, the human shadow would remind them it’s coming. It can happen now, or later. It can happen at any time.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent short-story collection, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and published by Sarabande Books. She is also the author of two other collections—Very Much Like Desire and The Circles I Move In, as well as the novel, Radiant Hunger. Her fiction has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the City of Los Angeles, and the Library of Congress. For 23 years she taught in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been a guest artist at colleges, writing conferences and festivals. She has facilitated creative workshops for high school students, adjudicated youth in lockup and on probation, and children in the foster-care system. Diane’s ongoing collaboration with Hector Aristizábal includes work for the stage and for the page, and social-justice action workshops. She is a frequent contributor to LA Progressive.
Photograph by Stephen Schurr, provided courtesy of Corbis Images