William Reese Hamilton
Rafael is a fine host and natural raconteur, charming his guests with stories that have been refined by time and numerous retellings. Tall and slim, with the thin, graying hair of a fifty-year-old, he still exudes a boyish enthusiasm, and late at night in his elegant tropical home by the river, over a bottle of fine Chilean red, I listen and laugh and search for the harder truth behind his tales.
He tells me about the Choroní of his childhood, when the mountain road from Maracay was dirt and the family Volkswagen churned up the slick hills and skidded down around the edge of deep ravines. When drivers always stopped to help fellow travelers out of the mud. Before there was a telephone line or a gas station, when the field at that corner was a forest of cacao and Rafael had to run and climb a tree to escape from a wild boar. Before his parents built their house and they slept in hammocks in someone’s garden, near the malecón, by the sea, where the waves crashed against the rocks at night. When there were no real buildings along the river in Puerto Colombia, only bamboo and palm shacks. Except for a great long building which was the only bar, owned by a man named Pata’e Pluma, feather-foot, because of the way he dragged his misshapen leg.
In that time, when Rafael was fourteen, he had a girlfriend who lived in that great old colonial which fronts the malecón and was once a kind of trading post for the Dutch who came over from Aruba and Curaçao. I try to imagine that building as it must have been, for it has now fallen into ruin.
He and this girlfriend had a quarrel and separated, and he felt low about it. So one night he decided to show her how he felt. He looked around for his friend, who was much older—twenty-something—and who played a cuatro, and he told him, “I would like to serenade this girl.” And his friend said, “Seguro, Rafa, but first we must have a drink.”
So they went to the bar of Pata’e Pluma and drank aguardiente, which his friend ordered inside and brought out to Rafael in the dark, because he was too young. They drank aguardiente and then cerveza until it was quite late and they were quite drunk. And then they went over and stood outside the house at the malecón and sang like tomcats into the night. When the window opened, Rafael expected to see his sweet, young girlfriend smiling, but instead an old woman gave him a sour look and shouted, “Hijo de puta!” and emptied a pan of dirty dishwater over him.
At first there was shock and horror when he realized what she had done, then the impotent rage that only a proud fourteen-year-old in love can feel. He shouted something like, “You mother of an egg-sucking mother,” which is a very bad thing to say in Spanish, since in the vernacular the word huevo means not only egg but also testicle. And then he raised his foot in anger and kicked at the front door of the house. How could he know?
The door, which was wide and tall and very heavy, was rotten with age and gave way with one angry kick, falling slowly as in a nightmare and crashing with a great resounding clatter in the long, echoing hallway. Rafael and his friend, scared momentarily sober by the noise, ran away into the night. Rafael one way, his friend another. And Rafael crawled into his hammock in the garden and hid, hoping it was only a drunken dream and would go away.
But in the morning, shortly after dawn, the policia came, arrested him and hauled him off to the prefectura in Choroní. They put him in handcuffs to make it more official and he rode in the back of the police car, alone behind the wire mesh, so everyone could see the seriousness of his crime. The prefectura was in a colonial house across from the old church on the Plaza Bolivar. It had a fountain and flowers in the patio. His cell, with its thick iron bars, faced out onto this peaceful scene. After a while, they brought in his friend, the cuatro player, and the two sat there together. The door to their cell was not locked—it was more of a symbolic cell—and they could step out when they needed to get a drink of water.
Rafael’s father came and told him that, whatever happened, he and his mother would not leave him there alone and go back to Caracas. They would wait for him. It was customary in that time, if it was a lesser crime, to keep criminals in jail for seventy-two hours. But later in the day, a policeman came back and told Rafael he was free to go.
“And what about my friend?” he asked.
“You. You are free to go.”
“But I am the one who kicked the door. He didn’t do anything.”
“Just you. You are free to go.”
“If he can’t go,” Rafael said stubbornly, “I’m not going.” And so they waited there together.
Later that day, his father came again and spoke to him alone.
“There is a problem,” his father said.
“You see, your friend is a marico.”
“So he’s gay, but that has nothing to do with this.”
“He has been here another time, you see, for being a marico.” After all, Rafael explains, this was also a time when, if a girl took off her top on the beach, they would beat her with sticks.
“But he did nothing this time. I was the one who kicked the door.”
“They won’t let him go yet.”
“Then I will stay also.”
Finally, later that day, the police came again to their cell and told them they were both free to go. Outside, Rafael’s father looked him in the eye and told him quietly, “I am proud of you, Rafa, for what you have done.”
At this moment, I notice a slight catch in Rafael’s voice, a momentary shift in his humor, revealing something particularly important to him. Perhaps I should have left it there.
“But what about the girl?” I ask him. His eyes, which have been brimming with nostalgia, turn to me and then shift away.
“The girl?” He flushes, seemingly out of sorts.
“Your girlfriend?” He appears puzzled by the question.
“I don’t know what happened to her. I think she moved away to Florida. Somewhere in the States.”
“But what did she think of the serenade?” He looks out at the dark river.
“The serenade?” Off stride, he searches for an answer. “I don’t know. We broke up.” He is suddenly consumed by an old hurt. “She said I was a marico, like my friend.”
William Reese Hamilton’s stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The North American Review, The Adirondack Review, Puerto del Sol, Review Americana, Night Train Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, In Posse Review, and a number of other publications.
“In January 1942, we were captured and imprisoned in Santo Tomas University, Japanese Internment Camp #I in Manila, The Philippines. For the first year and a half of our three-year confinement, we were herded each night into the Main Building, where we slept crowded together like sardines on the classroom floors. But with more and more prisoners being shipped into our camp and no place to put them, the Japanese commandant finally allowed prisoners to build shanties across the campus, forming tightly knit little barrios. Our shanty was in a barrio called Glamourville. It was built of bamboo and sawali, with a nipa palm roof and a split-bamboo floor a foot and a half above ground. Because it had to be open on all sides so that the Japanese could look in night or day, it was very much like a porch, front and back. We looked out onto a great athletic field where we watched the Japanese soldiers train and where, after our liberation in February 1945, the U.S. Army set up a line of 105 mm. canons and dueled night and day with the enemy. That was the year I turned nine.
“I now live in Choroní, a fishing village on the coast of Venezuela, backed by a mountainous cloud forest, in a region that produces the finest cacao in the world. We don’t have porches here, but corredors—covered areas that face the garden, where we spend most of our time.”