His wife’s young lover, Santas, was not his concern. Antonio’s eyes inspected his heart pill as he remembered what Santas had said during dinner a week before the trip to the nursing home in Florida.
“Miriam, love is a land in famine at a time when there is only enough food for two.”
He smiled at the bathroom mirror, thinking back with satisfaction how well he had played deaf, banging on the table and yelling to his wife, “Miriam, I think Santas wants seconds.”
For a moment, he observed his once Afro-style hair, which had become like rosettes of a dandelion, white and scarce, almost ready to fly in the air. Three wrinkles on his forehead, forming a happy face, confused everyone who could never guess when he was really angry. That combination of fragility and innocence helped him to foresee an attack from an enemy.
Miriam was not going to kill him and Santas’s muscles, strong from weight lifting, could not lift a pocketknife because he was too cowardly to do so, Antonio thought. As he put his vitamins in the bottle in place of the heart pills, he wished that Miriam could have even more sex. Back then fifteen years ago, when he was sixty, her sexual drive made him love her with strange strength. She enjoyed his mouth, the tip of his tongue, his nipples, the blades of his shoulders. As soon as he blinked his eye and bit his lower lip, she would drink his sweat and burrow her mouth inside the foliage of his pubic hair. With lamblike docility, he ignored the visits of the teenagers who had their “initiations” with Miriam, and one time when she feared a pregnancy, he even offered to take a baby as his own. He flushed all his heart pills down the toilet.
“A sexual creature,” he muttered. “Some are good to play the violin, others for math, but Miriam…” A genius in orgasms, he thought, with unique talent for tickles, and her tongue’s movements brought any organ to a high pitch. She is a female vine that needs different male trunks to twine around, but Santas would never understand that. He giggled.
Antonio and Miriam met Santas ten years earlier at Antonio’s retirement party from the drug company. Santas, a thirty-year-old Boricua whose biceps bumped out from his short sleeves, was a sharp salesperson and the kind of lover driven by pleasure, without consideration for his partner’s moans or cries of pain. His willingness to help Miriam in moving the furniture, going shopping, helping her with various errands created a debt that turned to sex and from there to a long-term romance.
Antonio shook the bottle of his heart medicine twice close to his ear and was convinced that missing a few doses would not kill him. He never needed them to begin with. A doctor, friend, and former sales client had prescribed them in response to Antonio’s pleas. They came in handy when Miriam acted like a porcupine, refusing to be hugged or kissed. His right hand on his chest and patting the medicine cabinet with the other were the two magic ingredients to make Miriam’s flesh tender and never overcooked.
He felt lucky that his heart medicine, now completely disposed of, looked similar to the vitamin capsules: blue and white. Nobody was going to notice the replacement.
Outside the bathroom, his luggage sat. Miriam came trotting upstairs, hugged him, and brought his nose right to the middle of her abundant chest. Her sweat smelled bitter, like the juice of chicken blood that he used to drink when he was a child. Something necessary to avoid a lack of thickness of the blood—“a prelude to death,” as his mother described anemia.
Miriam bent over to kiss him on the crown of his head and said, “Santas is waiting for us in a car downstairs. There is a wonderful hotel in Orlando.”
He sighed with no hurt to his pride. It did not matter much that they considered him stupid. He’d known, for a long time, that the famous hotel was a nursing home.
During the trip, Antonio pretended not to enjoy either the ocean view in Savannah or the crab cakes of Baltimore. But he wasn’t quite successful in hiding his joy when he asked for unnecessary stops, causing Santas to protest the delays.
A week after leaving New York, he had already signed the applications without any protest. All those papers had his name, Antonio Belmonte, on them under his cursive handwriting, except for the financial proxy, in which he had written “Anton Bella del Monte,” which would cause any bank to reject a withdrawal. Santas will need my authorization to pay all my bills. He cannot fool me. Almost fifteen days without the medicine made him feel even better. The heartbeat was now a gentle gallop without any rush. He laughed, resting his elbows on the balcony as a teenager, who had been chasing a seagull, now was bleeding after the seagull swooped and bit his scalp.
“‘Santas’—what a stupid name. He is probably inside listening to Miriam and the nurses. He is sticky as peanut butter,” Antonio muttered to himself.
Even with the sound of the waves, the cries of the teenager, and the chorus of a flock of seagulls squawking as if in laughter, the conversations from his room filtered through clearly.
“Are you his—”
“I’m his wife, Doctor,” Miriam said, as it was her custom to avoid the embarrassing situation of having to correct that she was not Antonio’s granddaughter.
The doctor remained quiet for a while, surely admiring Miriam’s slender body. Antonio knew that her nipples would become hard when the doctor stared at her cleavage.
“Any bed—med?” the doctor asked and Antonio giggled, remembering many other men who could not even talk when they first met Miriam.
“Medication,” repeated the doctor in a higher tone. “I am sorry. I cannot pronounce the word well. That’s what happens when I speak a lot of Chinese.”
Ah! The Chinese doctor, Antonio thought, and he imagined Miriam with a breath of soy sauce or green tea after kissing the doctor. What is Santas doing right now? Antonio pictured him standing behind Miriam with his chin pasted to his chest and frowning each time that Miriam gently touched the doctor’s arm with the tip of her finger. She loves when men lose their chain of thought.
“He is pretty healthy, only a small hearing problem. He likes to take his vitamins, and so far he only takes a daily pill for his heart.”
Antonio imagined the doctor looking at the label of the bottle and trying to avoid looking at Miriam’s left tit, where she may as well have been drawing a spiral with her index finger.
“We need to run some tests.” Antonio heard the doctor drop the bottle on the floor. He imagined the doctor’s hands trembling like settling meringue.
“We are going to stay for two weeks, if necessary.”
“Santas is his…nephew.” Miriam’s tone of voice changed and she added, “He was kind enough to drive us from New York.” Antonio could imagine the anger on Santas’s face that he had been completely ignored. His jealousy gives off the odor of curdled milk, Antonio recalled. Why does he have to be so jealous? It would be so easy to share with the Chinese doctor, and Miriam loves to be meat in the sandwich.
The following day, Antonio called Miriam on the phone.
“Are you sure that this is not sadness? You missed me. That’s all,” she said.
“No, Miriam, my chocolatito. They want to kill me. My palpitations went up. I feel it.”
Twice after that, Miriam went and placed her ear on her husband’s chest, and of course his heart raced. The same speed of hunger, Antonio thought.
“Can you feel it my love? I am dying,” he said with a grimace.
“When is he having his electrocardiogram?” Miriam angrily asked the nurse who was serving a glass of water.
“We have not gotten authorization from his insurance in New York. It is—”
“When? Are you going to leave him to die? What kind of medical care is this?”
“His pill…his heart pill,” the nurse said, showing a blue and white capsule between her index finger and thumb.
“THAT’S NOT HIS HEART PILL. THAT’S HIS VITAMIN…STUPID,” Miriam said, putting her hands on her ears. Then she approached the nurse and opened the bottle, pouring the pills in her hand. “You stole the medication,” she said, poking the nurse’s chest several times.
“I heard that this happens. Pills stolen and sold on the black market.”
“No, Mrs. Belmonte—”
“Shut up!” She turned back to the bed and hugged Antonio, saying, “We are going to take you out immediately from this lugar de mierda.”
After a few arguments and threats, she managed to get her husband discharged, and they set off back to New York in the van driven by Santas.
On the way, Miriam whisperingly asked for forgiveness from her viejito, and Santas did not say a single word during the entire trip, but this did not bother Antonio. I know how things will unfold back at home. Everything will return to normal. He chuckled silently as images flashed across his eyes: the sucking of her breast, the licking of her armpits, and her escapades with Santas, Wednesday and Saturday nights, after the afternoon visits of the teenager, from downstairs, who came for some “tutoring.” Precious routine, he thought, imagining Santas’s hard penis. That’s life; they do what I can’t. For him, the young were always hungrier than the old, like that boy from downstairs who was always horny.
* * *
Eight months later, the same teenager, Federico, would be the one who called 911 when Antonio fell in the tub. Silent, terrified, and in pain, Antonio observed how Federico tried unsuccessfully to adjust his underwear to hide the tip of his still-erect penis.
“Hurry up before the paramedics arrive,” said Miriam as she was looking for the boy’s pants and T-shirt.
The pants waistband sagging from Federico’s butt made Antonio aware of the increasing pain in his groin area. His hip needed replacing, a surgeon eventually confirmed.
The doctors replaced Antonio’s hip and recommended rehabilitation for twelve weeks. The tide was not in his favor, and Santas took advantage to recommend a nursing home on an island in Panama.
“No other place is better for him, and it is much cheaper than in the US.”
“Can you speak lower?” asked Miriam.
“He is practically deaf—”
“Come on. Look at the pictures here and read the descriptions. They are very liberal, and the population is mostly female.”
“I do not like those places.”
“Because of the women?”
“No, don’t you remember what happened last time?”
“He is going to have all those ladies taking care of him. He will like that.”
“I don’t want to leave him alone.”
“He won’t be alone,” Santas said in a sweet voice. Antonio imagined Santas putting his strong arm across her back and pulling her waist between his legs. “He can’t be alone. A man who has had five wives, eight girlfriends, and countless lovers cannot be alone. It will be a banquet for him.”
Antonio muttered from his bed, “Banquet? Sancocho de gallina vieja.” He pressed his tongue with his index finger and made a puking sound.
“Besides,” Santas added, “we can take care of all financial matters. He cannot move.”
“But I am not dumb,” Antonio whispered before suffering a spasm and crying.
A week later, when Miriam suggested the place in Panama, he frowned, making the happy face-like lines on his forehead that confused everybody. Miriam took it as an approval and jumped to kiss him. Conceiving a plan, he pretended to act stoically.
“Don’t call me until the last week of my therapy,” Antonio ordered Miriam, promising to call her if something happened. They agreed that Miriam would accompany him to the island in Panama for the first days and return to the United States with all papers signed, including the proxies, in which he included a lawyer, a friend of his who was a lesbian. “A third eye on my money, who cannot be seduced by ‘Mr. Muscleman.’”
His plan to return to New York was simple: torture. He would use a needle to show Miriam how the nurses had unnecessarily poked him in different parts of the body. “Torture,” he would claim.
The nursing home on the island of Contadora looked like a resort composed of apartment buildings and cottages. Inside the greenish color of the sea and the exuberant vegetation, well-built natives with dark muscles cut green coconuts with machetes while tourists swam. Miriam was mesmerized by one of the natives, so she put her arm between her legs.
Even though the cottage with the number 23 on the door had enough space for all three, including Santas, Antonio pleaded to be alone, saying, “It is better for me.” This would easily awaken Miriam’s guilt.
Antonio started with his poking session the same night. He was good at handling pain, but self-inflicted injury caused him to shake his head with some disgust. The piercing around the vein in his left arm would horrify Miriam. “They couldn’t find the vein,” he imagined himself saying to Miriam as she touched gently with some saliva, but he realized that he needed at least six of those pink holes, and maybe some dry blood, to make her think that the nurses there were stupid.
His straw-thatched cabin was fresh with all the amenities of the modern world: blender, microwave, dryer, and the eyes of a Cuna native, Lorenza, who seemed never to sleep to keep watch over him. There was good electricity, good hot water, and a big oven, but he had not seen a phone anywhere.
By the time he could have access to a phone line, two miles away from the cabin, not only would Miriam have already left Panama, but also, Lorenza would have hidden the needles and any other sharp object.
The twelve weeks of therapy passed quickly, and the ladies looked out for him. One of them was a Korean woman, Su-Min, who was recovering from a stroke she’d had two years earlier, when she was sixty-five. The paralysis on the right side of her face made her smile a half smile, which turned into a sonorous laugh when she slid her hands inside Antonio’s shorts. She didn’t go further, not like Willa, whose daughter, a physician, got her weed, and after a few puffs she became wild, sucking Antonio’s hole, but within an hour would be sleeping as if in a coma. Willa came Sunday after Mass with her German shepherd, who actually carried the bag of weed in his muzzle. The smell of marijuana made Su-Min stay away. “It makes me throw up.” She always went to her cabin just next door accompanied by Duffy the dog, who patiently waited until she got inside. “Antonio, those are manners. Duffy is a gentleman,” she yelled from the window as the dog wagged his tail.
His mind continued working on how to bring Miriam to Panama. She would come not for love, but for sex. One day Su-Min, Lorenza, and he were watching a show about dog meat as a delicacy in Korea. “That’s disgusting, isn’t it, Lorenza?” asked Antonio as Su-Min covered her laughing mouth with one hand and tickled him with the other. Lorenza, who was more eyes than mouth, talked.
“The legend said that if a man eats dog meat cooked in ginger, he will love like a dog on Good Friday at 3:00 p.m.”
Antonio found out more about the legend that night. It had to be a big male dog, no more than four years old, that Antonio had to kill.
“A sacrifice as I say my prayers,” said Lorenza, who would get some cash for helping.
Wednesday before Good Friday, Antonio walked the two miles to phone Miriam. As soon as she picked up the phone, he said, “I am horny.” There was no long conversation, only her heavy breathing promising to come anytime before Good Friday. “Just come here. Good Friday around 3:00 p.m.,” he whispered.
After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Willa showed up with a huge bundle of marijuana. They smoked some and Willa fell asleep, but for Antonio everything became short cuts of a bad dream.
Duffy, the dog, tied up in one of the bedrooms.
Antonio’s own tears rolling on his cheeks as memories of the chickens that his mother used to kill haunted him.
Lorenza holding his hands with a dagger that she took out from between her breasts.
Blood, blood, and more blood, with a bitter taste in his mouth.
Antonio woke up with a headache. He was alone on the couch, where Willa had fallen asleep, wearing clean clothes. Lorenza made the meal early morning on Good Friday and sat like an Indian chief, ignoring the car speakers asking the residents if anyone had seen Duffy, the German shepherd. Su-Min came for some of the meat just before noon. She tried to lurk around Antonio with the hope of enjoying some of the legend’s virility, but the odor of marijuana chased her rapidly away. Thinking of the chicken-blood juice of his childhood, Antonio almost could not swallow the first bites of meat, but after two or three, he could admit that it tasted good.
“Like lamb, only on Good Friday,” said Lorenza.
Miriam came around 2:30 wearing a light-brown dress without underwear. As the clock approached 3:00, Antonio felt aroused with a strength he had not felt in more than ten years. His face frowned with the three lines, and his hair stood up like a dandelion. Miriam lifted her skirt and took a table position that she had learned in a yoga class. He laid his small body like a napkin over her stomach. A wind blew his hair, dispersing all the standing tips of his dandelionlike hair. Once inside her, he curved his neck and rolled his eyes as his body became stiff. The frown disappeared and his face was flat and expressionless. Then as his soul saw his inert body from above, Miriam desperately tried to unplug his penis, but Antonio knew that they were locked up like dogs.