PARRANDA by Robert Matlock
EMMETT AND I HAD LOBSTER a la Cartagenera at a little marisquería in Getsemaní. I wanted to eat somewhere in the old city, but Emmett hated tourists.
Emmett finished the tail of his lobster and then cracked open the claws and teased out the last of the meat with a lobster pic. When he was done he wiped his mouth on his napkin and pushed his plate away.
“Not bad for cinco mil pesos,” he said.
I looked around the marisquería. Paint peeled from the pressed tin ceiling and blistered here and there on the walls. Cobwebs clung to the crown molding. The springs in the booth seat were shot and the formica tabletop was worn to a dull luster. The place was a dump, but Emmett seemed at home, so I did too.
“It was good,” I said
“We earned it today,” Emmett said.
Emmett said some friends would join us so we had another round of beers and then another and at some point Emmett called the waiter to bring us some aguardiente, a crude anisette made from sugar cane.
“A glass?” the waiter asked.
The waiter brought us a liter and a couple of plastic cups. I knew I’d regret it in the morning, but the beer opened up the anise in the aguardiente and it went down easy. Emmett set the pace, keeping my glass full. He never seemed to do anything in half measures. Before long, my lips were numb. He went to pour me another and I told him I’d had enough. He poured me one anyway. When I left it on the table he frowned at me.
“Come on,” he said, raising his cup and goading me into a toast. “Partners!”
I was bored then, and I was working up to telling him I was going to go when two girls came in, one voluptuous, in a frilly shift; the other slim, in a tight blue dress, without her friend’s thick, Cartagenera thighs.
“Hola,” the frilly one said, leaning to kiss Emmett’s cheek.
The girl in the blue dress stood aside for a moment and then offered me her hand.
“Valeria,” she said.
She looked maybe twenty-five; beautiful black hair draped her left shoulder. She clasped my hand warmly.
I started to get up to let her in, but Emmett just slid over so the frilly one could scoot in next to him. I did the same and Valeria slid in next to me.
“Rocío,” the other girl said, extending her hand, which, when I took it, was limp and tentative. Rocío looked a little older than Valeria. Crow’s feet creased the corners of her eyes.
Emmett seemed to know them, Rocío anyway. From when he’d lived in Colombia, I guessed. Was this the kind of woman he liked—leggy, carnal, spilling out of her top?
“Ay, Emmett, I’m hungry,” Rocío said.
Emmett lay his hand on her back. “What you in the mood for?”
She smiled up at Emmett and her cheeks dimpled. Then she propped her chin on her fist and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. “¡Ceviche!”
Emmett’s mouth curled in a little smirk.
“Would you like some?” I asked Valeria.
She nodded. “Sí, porfa.”
Emmett waved at the waiter. “Dos ceviches y otra ronda.”
The waiter brought a round of beers for the four of us and a pair of aguardiente cups and the two ceviches for the girls. Emmett poured a shot of aguardiente for each of them.
Rocío took a bite of her ceviche. “¡Rico!” she said. “I’m starving.” She piled more ceviche on a cracker and fit the whole thing into her mouth.
“Roci!” Valeria said with a lighthearted laugh. Her eyes were alert and green.
Rocío laughed too and covered her mouth, swallowing with visible gulps and wiping bits of cracker from her lips. “I’m so hungry!”
Emmett let his arm slide to Rocío’s waist and tugged at her, eyeing me as he did so. I was jealous of his ease with her. I watched Valeria lean forward to take a bite of her ceviche, eyeing the curve of her back.
“So, muchachos,” Rocío said, “what have you been up to?”
Emmett swirled his drink in his cup.
“We went on a banana plantation tour,” I said. Emmett grinned. “Except that we didn’t.”
Rocío leaned towards me. “Ay, what did he do?” She looked at Emmett askance. “What did you do?”
“We went on our own tour,” he said.
“Just like that?” she said, snapping a finger.
Emmett shrugged, disentangling his arm from Rocío’s waist, and poured himself another aguardiente. “Jonathan didn’t want to go. He wanted to stay and listen to a bunch of viejitos natter on about fertilizer.”
“No,” I lied.
“I had to coax him off the trail,” he went on, imitating how he’d beckoned me. “You should have seen yourself.” He opened his eyes wide, laughing now.
Rocío was laughing too, now. Valeria’s eyes darted back and forth between Emmett and me. Emmett leaned back in the booth and smirked.
I took a breath. Emmett’s eyes were red and glassy, the way they were when he drank. That was the first night I saw it.
“And then…” he laughed. “And then he was worried these guys would lose their jobs—these guys who get bathed in this toxic…”
He went on for a while longer and began to get under my skin. Valeria looked uncomfortable now. Her eyes met mine for an instant. Rocío looked at me, too; she’d stopped laughing.
“Ya amor,” she said, laying her hand on Emmett’s neck.
“What?” Emmett said to her.
Rocío ran her fingers through the hair at his nape.
“I’m just fucking with him,” he said to her. Then to me, “I’m just fucking with you.”
“No worries.” I said.
He blinked and then rubbed the back of his head. He glanced at Rocío then looked at me. “We’re good, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re good.”
Valeria glanced at Emmett then looked at me. I let my eyes wander over her face, her hair, her eyes. She eyed me back, noodling at her ceviche.
Emmett poured us yet another round of aguardiente, my cup still half full from the last one. I was pretty drunk now myself. Valeria and I kept sliding into the cavity of the sprung seat. Every so often our knees touched. Finally, I let mine linger, afraid I might offend her but unable to stop myself.
Rocío finished her ceviche and pushed the cup away from her.
“¡Qué rápido!” Valeria said.
Rocío frowned. “I was hungry—I’m still hungry.”
“Me too,” Emmett said, reaching around her waist and pulling her to him roughly.
I glanced at Valeria who was watching them.
“Now I want to smoke,” said Rocío, “¿Tienes?”
“I’m out,” said Valeria.
While the girls talked, Emmett caught my eye. He nodded at Valeria, raising his eyebrows at me and gave Rocío a little squeeze.
I shifted in the seat and our knees touched closer. I should move, I thought, but didn’t. Valeria didn’t seem to mind.
Emmett started telling them about our first adventure, in Ciénaga, but Rocío was bored with stories now and started to fidget. I wasn’t listening to anything he said either. All of my attention focused on the little island of sensation where my leg touched Valeria’s. Her hair brushed my arm. I could smell it. I wanted to rake my fingers through it. Clench my hand in it.
“¿Masacre en Ciénaga?” Rocío said wearily, “I need a cigarette.” She leaned towards me, “¿Tienes cigarrillos?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t smoke.”
“¿Tienen cigarrillos?” she called to the waiter.
The waiter shook his head. “En la esquina,” he called back, pointing towards the corner where there was a little store.
“Vale, venga,” Rocío pleaded.
Rocío got up, but Emmett held onto her, letting his hand slip over her hip. She made a mock frown at him over her shoulder. He shrugged. I looked up. Valeria was watching me watching them.
“Con permiso,” she said and got up to join Rocío.
The two of them walked to the corner store for cigarettes, their heels clicking on the clay tiles on the way out. Emmett polished off his beer and held it up at the waiter to signal for another.
“So…you like Valeria?” he asked.
“Sure.” I said. What wasn’t to like.
The waiter brought Emmett his beer.
“It’s up to you,” he said, taking a swig.
I stared at him perplexed for a minute and then realized what he meant. Up until then I’d thought Emmett was just the kind of cocky, strutting guy that could have pulled it off—have a couple of girls just show up like that. I laughed out loud.
“What?” Emmett asked.
When the girls got back, Rocío lit her cigarette and inhaled deeply. Valeria lit up too. I slid my arm around her waist, tentatively, still not completely certain, but she leaned into me with ease and lay her hand on my knee. Then her fingertips began to strum the seam of my jeans, gradually ticking upwards. I started to get hard. I had to pee and knew I was going to have to get up in a minute, so I clasped her hand. She laced her fingers in mine and squeezed. We drew our fingers apart, inside against inside. Touched fingertip to fingertip. How easily it slipped into something familiar, hands knowing one another for the first time, like with any girl.
Emmett was two sheets by then and had begun to grope Rocío. I watched how he manhandled her. Valeria watched, too.
We drank another round of beers. I didn’t want to get out—to let go of Valeria. I waited as long as I could and then asked her to let me up. The rusty urinal smelled of stale piss. As I peed, I mumbled to myself that I never would have done this on my own. I had never slept with a prostitute before. But I knew then that I was going to go through with it. I thought about lacing my fingers in Valeria’s. It seemed like it should feel different, her being a hooker, but it didn’t. It seemed like we were on a double date. I thought back to when Emmett had said when he finished his lobster, “We earned it,” and I knew that he had meant this too. I found myself thinking maybe he was right.
When I came back, Rocío and Valeria were arguing about something.
“It’s late,” Valeria said, “too late to go to Juancho’s.”
“We can go to—”
“I don’t want to go there, not this time of night.”
Rocío dragged on her cigarette and shrugged.
“What’s up?” I asked.
We’re going back to my place,” Emmett said. “But we need to pick a little something up first.”
“Ready?” he asked.
Rocío glanced at Valeria. “Sí.”
Emmett grabbed the bottle of aguardiente and we left. I think that was about midnight.
Rocío and Emmett piled into the front seat. Rocío gave the taxista directions. We drove away from the Old City and Getsemaní. I put my arm around Valeria, but she didn’t lean into me as she had at the restaurant. She fixed her gaze out the window, glancing at me only occasionally. At some point I heard Rocío say, “Barrio La Maria.” The driver looked at her and shook his head. Rocío frowned. “¿Qué?” she said. The driver held up his hand and ran his thumb over his fingertips. “Cinco mil,” he said. Rocío shook her head. “¿‘Sta loco usted?” The taxista pulled over and stopped; he and Rocío bickered. “Dos mil,” said Rocío. “Cinco,” the taxista insisted. Valeria rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. I caught her eyes in the rearview once; she looked away. The haggling continued until Emmett finally said, “No importa, páguelo.” Pay him. Rocío shrugged and nodded to the taxista, “Okay.” The taxista pulled out again.
We drove a while longer, then turned into a ramshackle neighborhood, driving up a narrow, unpaved street, just wide enough for one car. Tiny tin-roofed houses fronted the street, fortified with gated patios, then bars within bars on the windows. Several houses were under construction or perhaps abandoned; we wove around piles of construction debris in the middle of the road. Almendro trees, like those we had seen that morning in Ciénaga, grew at haphazard intervals, but here they made the street seem more congested. We passed a dilapidated wood fence that leaned out so far the taxista had to veer around it. We crept along until we came to a cinder-block house with peeling, pastel-blue paint.
“Aquí,” Rocío said.
The taxista stopped the car. Two guys were sitting in front of the gate to the patio on white plastic chairs, drinking beer, one in his thirties, burly with a mustache, the other a kid who I doubt was more than seventeen. As we pulled up, the burly one leaned over and slowly picked up a pistol lying beside his chair. What if another car comes behind us, I thought. How will we get out? I looked at Valeria. Her eyes flitted towards me, but she didn’t look my way. She flicked the ash of her cigarette out the window.
I saw the taxista frown at Rocío in the rearview mirror.
“¿Qué?” Rocío said, dismissing him as she and Emmett got out.
“Roci,” Valeria said as they rounded the car, “Be careful.”
As they approached the house the kid said, “¡Hola mamá!” looking Rocío up and down.
“Cochino,” Valeria muttered—pig.
The kid gave Emmett a cursory pat down. Emmett looked as though he’d done this before. Then the one with the pistol nodded for them to go in.
The driver eyed us in the rearview.
“They won’t be long,” Valeria said.
The driver kept staring at Valeria. He seemed to be ogling her.
“¿Qué?” she said to him.
He raised his eyebrows.
“¡Impertinente!” she shouted.
She got out of the car and slammed the door. I went after her, wondering whether leaving the car was such a good idea. Rocío hadn’t paid the taxista yet. I hoped he wouldn’t leave without his fare.
She leaned against the side of the car, crossing her arms. “¡Bestia!” she said, sucking on her cigarette. She looked towards the two goons on the patio. “I hate this place.”
I took up a spot beside her. The taxista turned his radio on; a ballenato played. Okay, I thought, he’s not leaving.
I asked Valeria for a cigarette.
“I thought you didn’t smoke.”
“Once in a while I do,” I said.
She dug one out of her purse for me and then gave me her lighter. I lit it and took a long hit. With all the booze, it went to my head. I got dizzy and felt like I was going to throw up. Then it passed.
“What are Rocío and Emmett going to score?” I asked.
“Malacachafa,” she said blowing smoke, then, “Cosa,” when she saw I didn’t understand, and finally, “¡Marihuana!” when I still didn’t get it.
I was a little relieved.
“Supongo,” she said—I suppose—as if now she wasn’t so sure.
There was a breeze blowing off the bay, just a few blocks distant, and Valeria’s lustrous black hair blew in the wind. Her irritation just made me want her more. I put my arm around her again, but now she just tolerated me. Ever since we began our little excursion, Valeria’s professional demeanor had slipped. I’d been nurturing a little crush on her since the restaurant, thinking how she had touched me, about holding her hand beneath the table. I felt foolish now. I reminded myself that, to Valeria, I was just a trick. But I didn’t subject my desire for her to the same scrutiny. Apart from a couple of dates, I’d been leading a stoic bachelor existence. It wasn’t easy living at the university, way out in the country. And I was working seventy, eighty hours a week. In my little dream, Valeria and I were just an ordinary couple. She would give me respite from my loneliness for a few hours. My fantasy stretched vaguely into the wee hours but dissolved before the break of day.
¡Ay, quiero ir!” Valeria said, nervously flicking her ashes—I want to go! She took a final hit off her cigarette and then ground it into the dust with the toe of her shoe.
I took another hit off my cigarette too, but felt sick again and so threw mine away as well. Hoping to take Valeria’s mind off of things, I asked her how long she had known Rocío.
“Forever. Since I came to Cartagena.”
She paused to think. “Three maybe four years.” Then, almost too quickly, she added, “He’s Roci’s friend but I haven’t seen him for a while.”
“Since he left Colombia?”
She turned to me, surprised. “He left Colombia?”
“About a year ago, I think.”
She laughed, surprised. “So where does he live now, the US?”
“Yes,” she said, “he’ll never go back to the US. And where do you live?”
“I live in Costa Rica too.”
She leaned back against the car. Weariness showed in her face. All this and she wouldn’t even get any repeat business from me.
“How long have you known him?” she asked.
“Couple of weeks.”
She snorted a little, as if she had known. She seemed about to say something.
¿Qué? I said.
“Nada,” she said.
After that, we didn’t talk. I squatted and picked up a handful of pebbles from the street. I squeezed them, feeling their small hardness and tossed them at a cinderblock wall across the street. I was starting to worry about Emmett when he and Rocío finally emerged.
“Vámanos,” Emmett said.
We climbed into the car and left.
“Adiós mamita,” the kid called as we drove away.
On the ride back ,Valeria leaned against me and took my hand once again. I wrapped my arm around her.
We stopped to get some more beers and then the taxista dropped us back in Getsemaní at Emmett’s hotel. Emmett paid him the five thousand with no mention of the quarrel. We went up to Emmett’s room, which was large and laid out like an apartment, with a separate bedroom and a living room of sorts. It lacked other amenities, like air conditioning, but with the ceiling fans and large casement windows, it was pleasant in the night air.
We drank the beers with the aguardiente. Emmett rolled a joint and passed it around. Valeria declined and the three of us smoked. I smoked just three hits, but still got too high. Every few minutes a new rush came over me.
Rocío took a compact out of her purse and began cutting a gram of coke into rails.
“Roci!” Valeria said.
She offered it up to Valeria, “There’s plenty.”
Valeria shot her an angry look.
Then Rocío offered some to me.
“No thanks,” I said.
Emmett didn’t have any either.
Rocío snorted a couple of rails, then she and Emmett started fooling around.
“Vamos,” Valeria whispered.
“OK,” I said. It was time.
When we got up to leave, Emmett disentangled himself from Rocío. “Where are you going?”
“It’s late,” I said, “and I’m too high.”
Emmett frowned. “Come on man, we’re just getting started.”
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I said.
“Roci, buenas noches,” Valeria said.
“Hasta luego,” Roci said, indifferent.
When we got down to the lobby, the staff had locked up and left. There was a guard asleep on a little wooden chair by the front door. I shook his shoulder. He started awake and grabbed me by the shirt. I tried to pry his arms loose, but he was strong. Valeria shrieked. That seemed to finally bring him around and he released me. My heart raced. Blood pounded in my temples.
“Perdón señor,” he said.
We got him to call for a cab. Still groggy, he unlocked the gate to let us out when the taxi arrived.
“Perdón, señor,” he apologized again, really worried, I think, that he’d be sacked for assaulting me, but I was too high to care.
I told the taxista to take us to the Hilton. I wondered if the hotel would make a stink about bringing Valeria up to the room, but no one said a word. My room was on one of the upper floors and had a balcony. When we came into the room, Valeria walked to the window and put her fingertips to the glass.
“We can go outside,” I said.
She smiled. “Sí.”
The balcony looked out over the old city and the Caribbean. It was windy up above but on the warm night it felt good. Lights twinkled on a couple of ships anchored off the coast. Valeria leaned her arms on the railing and looked out over the city.
“Muy bella,” she said, “de estas alturas.”
“Can I get you a drink?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
I shook my head.
She went back in and got her cigarettes from her purse.
“Do you want one?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
I lit the cigarette for her in the wind.
“What do you do?” she asked, “for them to put you way up here.”
“I’m a scientist,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows as if I’d told her I was an astronaut.
She finished her cigarette and we went back inside. She kicked off her shoes, unzipped her dress and reached over to turn off the lamp. I laid my hand atop hers.
“Por favor,” she said.
“Alright,” I said and she clicked it off.
She helped me undress then pulled me to the bed.
Despite what they’d always told me about prostitutes, she let me kiss her. She tasted of tobacco, but I didn’t care. Her breasts were small. Girlish. I cupped them, kissed them, ran my hair over them. She mewled.
Then I kissed her stomach. The arch of her pelvis. The inside of her thigh.
“Permítame,” I said.
She laughed out loud and reached down to run her fingers through my hair.
I convinced myself that I was treating her like I would treat any other woman. I remember thinking at the time that I was paying her a kind of respect. I didn’t know if it was real when she cried out, but she was wet when I entered her.
Afterwards we were hot and sweaty and I was out of breath. I withdrew and lay on my back, panting. Like most hotel rooms in the tropics, the air conditioner wasn’t up to the job.
She lay on her side stroking my chest.
“That was nice,” she said.
I’d barely caught my breath when she started to get up.
“You’re going?” I asked, surprised.
“Well…” she said, “…in a minute, sí.”
“Stay,” I said.
“It will cost more.”
“I don’t care.”
She paused again.
Then she switched on the lamp beside the bed, and dug into her purse for her pack of cigarettes. She propped herself up on her pillow and sat the big glass ashtray in her lap and lit up. I wondered that she no longer needed the light off. Still, though, she covered herself to the waist with the sheets.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. “So did Emmett set this up tonight?” I asked.
“He’s one of Roci’s regulars. She said they needed another girl.”
“Does Roci do a lot of coke?”
Valeria flicked in the ashtray. “She’s been better lately—till this week.”
“But you don’t,” I said.
“I don’t do drugs.”
“I need a reason?”
“No,” I said, “but I think you have one.”
“I’m from Medellín,” she said. “My husband was a bodyguard. He got killed in a hit.”
I looked at her eyes, her small shoulders, at her forearms which seemed so frail compared to mine..
“That’s why you—?”
“Became a prostitute?” She stiffened. Then got up and went to the toilet.
In the close confines of the hotel room, I could hear her peeing, then I heard the toilet flush, intimate sounds I’d only ever heard with girlfriends. It unsettled me. When she came back, she walked into the light from the lamp by the bed and I was able to really look at her for the first time. She was leaner than I’d thought, I don’t mean to say she was too thin, just not as she’d looked wrapped in her tight blue dress—but she was more real. She had a mole beneath one breast and a little scab where she’d scraped her right knee. I hadn’t been able to see it with her stockings on. She lit another cigarette and then climbed back into bed, returning the ashtray to her lap.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” I said.
She sat smoking and inspecting her nails and frowned. The pink polish had begun to chip at the edges.
“I have a daughter,” she said finally, “I grew up poor, but I can’t bear for her to be.”
“She’s…here in Cartagena?”
“She’s in Medellin—with my mother.”
She dug her pocketbook out of her purse and pulled out a snapshot.
“This was at her birthday, last year,” she said.
The photo looked like a polaroid. It had a crease in it, as though it had been taken out and looked at many times. The girl, who looked three or four, had on a white dress cinched by a pink ribbon. Her eyes were tinged red by the flash. She smiled up at a woman standing behind her, who held her tiny outstretched hands. The woman had Valeria’s aquiline nose.
“What’s her name?”
Valeria pointed to the woman and said, “And that’s my mother.”
Now I felt like Valeria was justifying herself to me. I hadn’t meant to to judge. I looked at her hair, slung off her shoulders, now, baring her breasts. She was gorgeous. I looked at the photo again. This was what my fantasy would mean if it really came true and I wasn’t prepared for it. I handed the picture back to her and she put it away.
I touched her mole and then bent to kiss it. Then I reached around her waist and pulled her to me. I wanted her again.
She turned off the light and let me have her, but this time I knew she didn’t want me: I was taking something that hadn’t been offered.
When we went to sleep, I cradled her against my chest, but when I awoke during the night, she’d strayed away from me to the edge of the bed.
The next thing I remembered, it was morning, still early, maybe 6:00. Valeria was already dressed and putting on her little pearl-stud earrings. I sat up in bed.
“I could have them send up breakfast?” I said.
“I need to go,” she said.”
She looked tired, like she hadn’t slept much. I got up to say goodbye. I still had to pay her and we’d never discussed how much it was going to be the night before. It was hard for me to ask.
“A hundred dollars,” she said matter-of-factly.
I gave her a little more.
“Goodbye,” I said at the threshold
She kissed me on the cheek and palmed a card for an answering service into my hand.
“Ask for me,” she said, “they know where to find me.”
BOB MATLOCK is a former ecologist who lived and worked in Costa Rica for many years and has traveled widely in Latin America. While in Costa Rica, he conducted research on the environmental impacts of pesticides in bananas and was Director of the La Selva Biological Station, a major center of rainforest research. Robert has been writing fiction and poetry for about fifteen years and was a Tin House fellow in 2015. Except for a smattering of scientific papers and a few poems he is unpublished.