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When you’re a Miami newcomer and you move in next door to a Santera

We’re super pumped about Sinking City, a Miami-based online literary journal published semi-annually by MFA students at the University of Miami. It’s based in Miami, where rising sea levels threaten the future of a diverse, multicultural community. They’re capturing some of that before it’s washed away. This is one of the pieces featured in their first issue. For more check out sinkingcitylitmag.com  

The Santera in #4209

Nonfiction story by: Beverly Tan Murray

Beverly Tan Murray is the author of The Santera in #4209.
Beverly Tan Murray is the author of The Santera in #4209.

Yossi’s keys clanged as we trudged down the stairs. He said that back in the 60’s, this building was filled with Jews. “You couldn’t take a shit without looking up and seeing a mezuzah,” he said. “Then the Cubans moved in. Nu? So here we are.”

When we got outside, the smells of ropa vieja drifted over from Puerto Sagua. Yossi lit a cigarette. “Look,” he began. “I don’t even want to be a landlord. This is a favor for my sister, understand? $550 a month furnished, on South Beach? This is best deal.” I nodded and took in Washington Avenue at dusk, an adult Legoland burnished in amber brushstrokes. Then, carajo! A man sped past on his bicycle, narrowly missing Yossi by inches. Yossi swore. The man shook his fist, ass muscles flexing as he rode off in his tiny pink thong with a South African parrot on his shoulder. “Ben zonah!” screamed Yossi.

“I’ll take the apartment,” I said.

It was March 16th, 2004. My third day in Miami.

On move-in day, La Gorda came over with a case of Mountain Dew. “For when you thirsty,” she said, and told me that she lived two doors down in #4209, that my hair reminded her of her abuelita who was chinita too, and to please call her La Gorda because you know, and slapped her belly mirthfully. I stuck my hand out, and La Gorda laughed. “Mija, you’re in Miami now, you gotta learn how to kiss hello. Like this, mwah-mwah.”

On that Sunday morning when it rained so hard that the water sloshed up over the sidewalk, I went downstairs to do my laundry. La Gorda called down the stairwell as I staggered back up, still buzzed from the vodka Red Bulls I had swilled the night before. “La Chinita linda!” she yelled. “You busy?” I said no, I had no plans apart from re-hydrating and folding laundry. La Gorda took one look at my bloodshot eyes and laughed. “Come in,” she said. “I give you cafe con leche and psychic reading. I do for you free. Porque your energy – is que amazing.”

La Gorda’s apartment looked as though it was furnished by someone who was rushing to get to her destination, but got lost and set up camp along the way. She had lived in her unit for nine years, yet there was a palpable feeling of impermanence. One fold-up card table, four foldable chairs, a futon in the corner. The walls were completely bare, save for a small picture of San Lázaro taped up above the transistor radio. For some reason, I felt like I was nine again, watching a movie that I was told not to watch. La Gorda shuffled out of the kitchen with a steaming cafe con leche and two slices of Cuban toast. “Sit. Eat,” she said. “You eat, I do reading.”

I sipped my cafe con leche as La Gorda reached into the bookcase behind her. She pulled out a drawstring purse, and emptied out its contents onto the table. They were small, round pebbles, the kind one would find at Home Depot. La Gorda explained that they were from Peru and had special powers, piedras mágicas, some extra strong juju from the old shamans whom you do not want to fuck with. She said that the stones could see everything – past, present, and future. They could foretell your destiny, divine the unique arc of your fate, no matter if you had glittering riches, or were a desamparado on the street. The stones, she wagged her finger. The stones always know.

As she mixed the stones with her hands, a low, guttural noise rose up inside of her. La Gorda rocked back and forth in her chair. Slowly, rhythmically at first. Then, faster and faster, picking up speed, until even the card table was thrumming an accompanying tune. “Convoco a los santos!” she yelled, throwing up her hands each time. “Convoco a los santos!”

I was no stranger to psychic readings. But my past experiences were limited to benign tarot card sessions with Irvine housewives in designer hippie gear. This was intense. When La Gorda’s eyeballs rolled back and she started sputtering in tongues, face flushing bright red as if running from a mob, I panicked. I briefly considered: Clearing my throat (she wouldn’t hear me), asking politely if she was communing with anyone in particular (she’d ignore me), and sitting quietly until she finished.

I chose the latter.

So we sat, La Gorda rocking and moaning and crying and pleading, arms raised to los santos for their ethereal wisdom, me eating Cuban toast in quiet horror. I watched as she invoked all manner of saints, her voice switching between a man’s bassy timbre, and a child’s soft whimper. You’re bugging out, I scolded myself. She’s being nice. Chill.
The rocking slowed to a few quiet creaks, then stopped. I looked up. La Gorda was glaring right at me, breath rising and falling in ragged gasps, beads of sweat dotting her upper lip. Scattered on the floor were the magic pebbles, which La Gorda pointed to with a snort.

“You know what this say?”

“No.”

“You no have fe. You no believe in Jesus. You think you boss, yes?”

“I’m agnostic…” I began to say, but La Gorda cut me off. The stones had spoken, the spirits had rendered their verdict. It was clear that all my woes were caused by a terrible lack of faith. But today was my lucky day, she said. For $40, she, La Gorda, would intercede on my behalf. She alone could plead with los santos to seek forgiveness from Jesus, the better to free my blackened soul, Dios mio.

My cynical side thought her pitch was pretty funny, but my instincts screamed bullshit. “Uh, I think I’m good, La Gorda,” I said. “But thank you for your time. This was fun.” La Gorda pressed on. “$40 es nada. For $40, I make you free.” From certain misery, heartache from men, demonic possession. “San Lázaro talk to Jesus. Pero me, La Gorda – I talk to San Lázaro. Comprende?” I nodded yes, and started toward the door. One thing about living in Miami – you learn quickly when shit’s about to get real.
La Gorda stood up. “You pay me now,” she said. “For all my time.”

“You said it was free!” I protested.

She waved her hands irritably. The reading was free, the bargaining with San Lázaro was extra.

I made it out of the living room, and halfway to the front door when I heard a blood curdling shriek.

“Puta!” she screamed. I turned to see the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen. A Barbie doll, painted black, with her eyes gouged out. “You will die four years from now! Exactly four years! Maldicion hacia tu! Puta!” A spitball flew at me and missed by inches. I sprinted to the front door and flung it open, La Gorda hot on my heels.

Before escaping, I did something completely out of character. I turned to face La Gorda, who was now half-singing a stream of curses with her eyes rolled back, whipping Demon Barbie back and forth in a furious interpretive dance. “Fuck you, La Gorda,” I said. “Those pebbles are bullshit.” Then I shot her the bird, slammed the door, and ran out.
A new case of Mountain Dew appeared on my doorstep three days later. An olive branch. By then, I had made friends with Carolina, the Colombian print model in #4310. Carolina had shrieked with laughter when I told her about my La Gorda episode. She told me that La Gorda had tried to fleece just about every newcomer to the building. That I had nothing to worry about, because La Gorda wasn’t a real santera. Just a hustler from Matanzas, getting by on quips and folksy charm, surviving the only way she knew how.

“But what do I do with this Mountain Dew?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t drink it,” said Carolina. “Just in case.”

The possibly-cursed Mountain Dew stayed unmolested in my pantry for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, La Gorda and I settled into an uneasy truce. I’d wave hello, and she’d give me the what’s up nod. From time to time, we’d make small talk about the carpet stains in the hallway, or the humidity outside. Gone were the offers of cafe con leche and Cuban toast, of prayers to save my mortal soul. On move-out day, La Gorda held the elevator door open as I trundled in a dolly of boxes. She wished me good luck, told me to call home more, and to light a candle to San Lázaro every night.

On April 16th, 2008, I did not die. That night, I went out with my girlfriends and pounded shot after shot of Jägerbombs, not caring that I would upchuck them later in a torrent of vomit. The date had been circled in red ink on my calendar, a ticking psychological time bomb courtesy of La Gorda. Carolina was right. She was just a hustler, nothing more. Still, I stopped by the corner bodega to buy a candle to light for San Lázaro when I got home.

Just in case.