I lived with Cristina in Duke Dormitory, one of the best addresses of our college campus. The rooms were spacious. We could wake up five minutes before class and rush on the soft grass through the magnolia trees to the Chambers building, where most of the lectures took place. In the spring time the air was humid and the pale flowers seemed to go perfectly with the student’s pressed pastel shirts. Smiling, they would wave from afar in this landscape, which begged for a "Hallmark Special" title panning across the Carolina blue sky.
Living with Cristina entailed many benefits for me: Cuban coffee daily, 30 pairs of shoes in my size, and sharing my days with a florid soul who sprinkled herself copiously with the contents of an enormous crystal bottle sculpted with the silhouettes of bees.
I almost cannot remember her wearing something not starched, her round cheeks without rouge, her retroussé nose, powderless. She never left the room without disentangling a knot of her jewelry, which she kept in a little black leather box with her embossed golden initials, next to her bed.
Come the spring, she would iron her linen dresses religiously on a foldout board, and wear straw hats. During the second semester of our living together she was dedicated to the study of José Martí, and to acting in the Black Box Theater, where the experimental troupe to which she belonged would improvise, guided by a stern teacher of Japanese training. To their shows she contributed a dark version of Martí’s La Niña de Guatemala.
We fixed the room as an open venue, an airy smoking boudoir framed by blue and white flowers printed on contact paper from the "Roses" store, where the international student van would take us on bimonthly trips. In the corner between the beds stood a clandestine single stove from which flowed Cuban coffee and rice and beans. We would eat our "moros y cristianos" on these fat cushions printed with enormous flowers, a gift from her bejeweled and golden haired aunt from Charlotte.
I had lived with Cristina for a few months, however, without even suspecting the prime benefit of being her roommate: the boxes sent by her sister-in-law. Brenda, named as the villain in a certain soap opera, was a most elegant Cuban from Miami’s crème, gifted with boundless generosity. Cristina’s older brother had fallen for her volatile temper, and possibly because she looked like a Latin Snow White. She seemed to walk too fast for her perfume or for fashion itself to catch up with her.
Needless to say, Brenda would quickly bore of her things. When this happened, she would place them all in a box the size of, say, one where an enormous television would be stored. This box would arrive in our room on the backs of several men. We had just received a big one—even by Brenda’s standards—when we started seeing the flyers of this "Tacky Party" all over campus.
Before opening the box, Cristina arranged two baskets side by side. The first one was labeled "Formal" and the second, "Costumes." "Those go in the second," I said, motioning to a white linen ensemble, a vest with Bermuda shorts decorated with golden buttons and a parrot green hem. Cristina looked at me with distrust. Then she agreed to throw them in the "Costumes" basket. The shirt, however, remained in the "will decide later" corner and it seemed to want to crawl out, with its line of shiny buttons, which gave it a certain military air.
Some days, through the light green pastures, the dogwoods and the magnolia trees, which perfumed the air with a sweetness capable of making one forget everything, we would see some of our classmates perform military maneuvers in their camouflage fatigues. They would practice different formations and sometimes they could be seen going from tree to tree, hanging from ropes.
Little by little, we got used to the echoes of their songs under our window, early in the morning. So much, that we almost stopped noticing them. But we never lacked reasons to look out: from herds of naked students galloping in the night, to a Jesus of Nazareth, cross on his shoulders, with a following of Romans in plastic soled sandals, hurling insults in contemporary English.
This university, campus without any noticeable danger, not only had its own student army, but a most benevolent security force, which transported itself in these three-wheeled carts. They were supposed to escort young ladies around town at a moment’s notice. I had never felt such a small risk of being mugged in my life, as I did in the streets of Davidson, but I got used to the free rides, until one day, the driver inhaled, and using his clearest diction, indicated that they were not a taxi service.
Cristina didn’t take advantage of this in-campus transportation except when semesters were coming to an end. Her sleepless cycles of inspiration resulted in plays sometimes written in languages she did not speak, analyses of tango’s political effects, and studies of the edible plants which grew on the university’s fields. During her end of term delirium, she would not go out on the street except in the most absolute discretion in order to avoid undesirable encounters with professors to whom she owed work. For some reason, in this pastoral paradise, time flew at unexpected speeds. We would try to stop it in any way we could to no avail.
Sometimes, during these clandestine outings she would make out the approaching silhouette of a galloping small dog, choking on its collar, trying to reach the runner it was attached to, a professor who once had declared she was "Part of the Class That Was Part of the Problem in Guatemala".
The divisions outlined by this studious athlete were, however, not comparable to a certain corner of Chambers, home to a Latin-style cold war. On one side, Guatemalan work union posters, whose owner considered our scholarships as a dirty trick from the Right. Across the hall, a newspaper clipping: Castro standing by Kadafi with a by-line saying: "Devil creates them and they get together."
This office contained the idiomatic treasures of Spain, the Andes and the Caribbean as well as a Cuban professor who taught without haste, in conversations which none of its parts dared to interrupt. Professor H had dedicated his life to the study of alchemy and he had managed to divide the universe in two: the Baroque and the Neoclassical. He would draw lists on the board, which resulted in our own never ending mental ones. The Baroque: Latin America. The Neoclassic: Developed countries. The Baroque: irony, nostalgia, Catholic guilt, Latin American traffic, the young lady’s shoes, yes, yours, Lorca’s verses, perennial vines, Mambo trumpets, most soap operas, Piaf’s "Rien de Rien" and Celia Cruz’s relationship with her wigs. The Neoclassical: sarcasm, Protestant honesty, Excel sheets, ballet, minimalist art, functional design, Hemingway’s clean and powerful prose, bow and arrow, Pink Floyd and schools of sardines. Every time we went to his office we would secretly swear lifelong loyalty to list number one, while we dusted the books with a yellow plumero of synthetic plumes.
But, if not on these premises, which offered a Latin America for every taste, the continent remained one, represented by the school’s three Latins. If one of us came from Cubans exiled in Guatemala, another lived childhood under the iron clasp of a Southern Cone dictatorship and another, from a city in that time under siege by drug terrorism, in this school we embodied Latin America, the one and only.
One afternoon Cristina returned from classes to find out I had agreed for both of us to speak about our beloved continent at a Charlotte school. The invitation wasn’t so easy to decline, and we knew the Antipodesque speech by heart: near the center of the world leaves never fell, snow never melted, rain didn’t stop and the sun always shone, depending where one stood. And this happened when one was on the world’s navel: Earth could dance on her axel all she wanted without being noticed by the landscape, except of course on the Southern tip, where people sunbathed during Christmas.
When we arrived to "World Day," a full theater and not a classroom awaited us. The program said: "Welcome to World Day: Latin America: Our names." Once we had reached the podium, out of nervousness I presented Cristina as an expert on all Latin American matters, able to answer "any of your questions" to which she replied with a "Whatever" that resonated on the loudspeakers. I don’t think she could ever completely forgive me for that.
For the long awaited party, we prepared with the same tranquility as we had for "World Day". If we weren’t completely in the wrong, "tacky" was a universal concept, and we had so many materials to spare, enough "to throw with an slingshot" as Guatemalans say. "Tacky, lobo, mañé, grasa, cholero." We assembled terms from Cuba to Patagonia and got to work on a Saturday afternoon.
I opted for an outfit that my social studies teacher from elementary school would favor: Myriam was a most Cartesian being, prone to order and classifications of all kinds, but her chromatic freedom was remarkable. A pair of fuchsia wool pants and a purple shirt with puffy sleeves seemed adequate. I did my hair up until it wouldn’t move. Cristina mainly wore golden Mardi Gras beads over a lycra top, in the fashion of a soldier from the Mexican Revolution: rows of beads instead of bullets, crossed over her heart. It took a while before we could leave the room. Cristina’s beads kept falling off of her shoulders as she performed each of her rituals: the cologne, the pearls, the packing of the purse, the blush, as she sucked her cushiony cheeks in, and her minuscule torero ponytail.
Finally Social Studies Teacher and New Orleans Insurrectionist left the room and went off to the party. There, they soon realized what "tacky" meant in the United States. No one had come out in a gigantic sweater embroidered with rabbits and eggs, for example. They all wore clothes from the 1970s. We saw only Barbarellas, Princess Leias and Bee Gees: belly buttons and a lot of fur.
It was as if we had entered the wrong movie. This one seemed like the old American midnight specials invariably dubbed by the same three Mexican voices. Something truly grandiose. (How "great" was always translated).
A drunken Chewbacca came to us. "You look so nice," he said to me, bowing with reverence. "So dressed up," he added, his simian eyes full of the most sincere admiration. "And you, Cristina, you look so sexy. Hot momma!" We stared at him.
"Alma de Dios", said Cristina, as she slipped the beads back on her shoulder: Poor Innocent Soul of God. There were a lot of these types of spirits on campus, according to her.
"Let’s go", I snapped to her, after a nasal lull punctuated by a Bee Gees song. I was indignant, just as Myriam had been when she couldn’t stand our mischief in her class, as she drew her graphs on the board.
"No", my friend said. "Better yet, let’s light up a cigarette." We lit up two Marlboro 120s and drank beers in XXL red glasses better fitted for a giant’s birthday party.
While covered in polyester, our hosts acted very courteous. They were paying their tuition for a reason, to learn about other cultures. By the end of the night, Myriam had smoked a good meter and a half of 120s. She had also updated her disco routines. As for Lycra and Beads, she found herself kissing furiously with a friend of Chewbacca’s, her golden guirlande hanging from her arched back. The next day, as we recovered, feeling introspective and with our hair reeking of cigarette smoke, we tried to get through piles of reading and overdue work. It was a long Sunday night.
The parrot green-lined shirt waited, hanging from the basket, to be reclassified later on.
ContributorConstanza Jaramillo Cathcart
Constanza Jaramillo Cathcart works as a teacher and writer in Brooklyn.