A Quaint Market

(Pintoresco Mercado)
by, Edward H.

During the day the breeze from the sea came in south over the city walls. It passed the rusted canons and over the rooftops of fared taxis. The winter wind, a norte, took the scent of the streets and commerce from the café square through the bronze statue legs of Bolívar and his horse, over the backs of the wooden benches, across Calle de San Agustin and entered through the balcony doors into the hotel where the two foreigners stayed. At night it only brought in the salt.

Daytime in the square was filled with vendors, shuffling their bodies and their wares between carts and cars. Men with black Caribbean skin filled the block. Their arms flexed, holding iced buckets filled with freshly caught fish yelling through the streets, Pescado! Pescado! Merchants shook music out of their brightly packaged Chiclet gum maracas at the tourists while others used the glimmer from the sun to sell dull metal jewellery. Men traded phony pesos to tourists with fantastic rates and retailed cocaine openly at affordable exchanges.

It was now dark and the vibrant colours of the flowers that filled the balconies and the brightly painted walls along the city had dimmed with the settling of the day. In the square across from the hotel, the café doors were boarded up and aside from one cigarette cart with a battery powered radio, the street was quiet.

Each night prostitutes would stand in the square's centre with Bolívar riding above as their Proxeneta de la Libertad. Around the cart there were four different shaped and shaded men in four different coloured and sized chairs. The fattest of the four men called up across the street to the balcony where one of the foreigners leaned with a beer, "Amigo! You looking for some cocaine tonight?"

He turned from the street to the balcony door and asked the girl inside.

"No. But you could get cigarettes," she said.

After returning from the cart, he opened a new bottle of rum from under the bed and went out alone to sit on the balcony. She smoked three cigarettes in front of the bathroom mirror for every drink he had and the family in the apartment above the cart with the radio decorated their tree. "Who flipped the lucky cigarette?" she called out to the balcony.

He tilted the splintered chair back which reclined easily because of the splintering, and leaned around the paint chipped wooden door. She stood topless in her black lace underwear, holding the open pack of cigarettes, all of which were upwards and filed correctly. She had started turning around one cigarette in each pack and calling it, The Lucky Cigarette.

"I did," he told her. "Probably something you picked up from that boy in New York you went away with before coming down here to see me."

"How do you know about that?" she asked, lighting a cigarette to get dressed with.

"It looked like something a boy would teach you. When young people think of smoking as a hobby they need ways to make it look better to the other hobbyists."

In her panties, she posed in front of the nightstand mirror, holding her hand with the lit cigarette to her hip and said, "I do have a great ass, don't I?" She then moved her hands to cup her breasts with the cigarette now pointing towards the ground, "You like my tits, don't you?"

He had come in from the balcony and was now sitting on the edge of the bed by the girl and the nightstand that a week ago was laid with bottles and a box of cigars. Now she was there with her makeup and cigarettes. The foreigner pulled open the bottom drawer and moved his books and took some money from the empty cigar box that was underneath them. He took enough to last the two of them a night of drinking and eating at the café by the sea. Opening a cold Aguila, knowing he would have enough time to drink it and another warm rum on the balcony, he asked her if she was ready.

* * *

The café was on top of one of the western walls that surrounded the old town. Tables were set up next to the many canons that used to defend the city from siege when the Spanish ruled; Then against the crown when the pirates had won. And then back, and then forth. That was a long time ago and now the canons are used to attract tourists to the restaurants and cafés where drinks are steeper than they are in other places.

They would meet with a friend who also found it fine to pay extra for history and culture. The friend had met a girl on the way to the café who joined him in taking several rounds without the two foreigners and he and her were running a successful campaign by the time they had joined.

"What took you so long this time?" the friend asked.

"I made us stop to pick up cigars," the foreigner said.

"For me too?"

"Yes, two of them. The Habano you liked from last night, and this local one I only know by the red band and that the man at the shop likes it when I buy them."

"Then why am I still sitting here while you stand over me? Let's go enjoy them and give these girls a chance with each other. They can order for us and we'll be back before the drinks arrive. The service really is terrible, I don't know why we come here."

"Because it's expensive."

"Then leave them some money to give our server, motivational pesos. These Colombians are always looking for some motivation."

"So the drink speaks already, does it?"

"Aren't you clever? Now hand me that cigar and some matches. You need a whisky to match pace. Tell them to order you a whisky. Beer is too slow and you'll sit there thinking you're better than me all night."

Lighting the cigars, they smoked the first thirds alone at another table along the edge of the wall and stared out at the breaker and the sea beyond it.

When you sit at a café by the sea you think of boats and islands.

Ahead to the horizon you could not see anything but black distance and the bright edges of whitewash in the dark, hearing it break as it came into the rocks. To the left was Boca Grande and its large, bright modern skyline of apartments and office buildings, and if you looked enough to the right you could make it disappear. Behind them at the other table, the drinks had arrived.

They drank the active evening hours away and then all the chairs but theirs had been taken in for closing. The patrons of history had either since gone home, or like the friend and his girl, off to finish their bottles on the rocks.

"Are you going to come back with me?" It was the first thing he could remember her saying to him since arriving at the café. He had spent most of the evening talking through walls of smoke to his friend and she answered questions to the girl she did not know.

"I don’t know. I think so," he said.

"You think so? I came a long way for I think so."

"It will be a nice vacation for you either way. It’s not that far. You just get on a plane and wait patiently like the rest of the passengers for the pilot to take you where you’re going."

"I didn’t come here for a vacation, I came here for you."

"I know. I wanted to be with you too. I almost came back for that, but now you’re here. Wouldn’t you just like to stay? We could stay through the holidays and wait for the weather to warm up back home."

"I can’t stay. I have to go back."

"For what?"

"I could be with whoever I want, but I’m here. I love you and you know that."

"Then why would you leave?"

"We could get married."

"If you’d do that, then why not just stay a few months? We’ll stay the winter."

She took a puff of her cigarette, knowing the dramatic effect of the pause. She looked at the drink in front of her and seeing it was empty she shook the ice loose and said, "I was with someone else before. Last summer."

"Who?" he asked. He thought of times he had been with other women.

"You know who. When I went to see my family. We felt awful about it afterwards, but I used to love him."

"Just the once?" He remembered the older man’s wife from the bistro and how she had taken the money from his pants on the desk chair and then left in the night while he slept.

"The weekend," she said.

"Any others?"

"In New York. Sort of, but we didn’t fuck. He wanted to, and we were drunk. It was such a beautiful party. There were so many celebrities and politicians there for the dinner. Some at our table, even."

"What am I supposed to say?" He was looking away from her, out at the sea. He was not thinking of boats or islands. There was that girl from la Zona Rosa. She was beautiful and had looked innocent laying there in his bed, and he thought, Beautiful girls always look that way when they sleep.

"I couldn’t lie about it anymore, I love you. I love you. Just say that you love me too and that you’ll come back with me. We’ll get married." She looked like she could cry, but he knew she would not. He wished she would.

"I’ve been coming here too often. We should go someplace else tomorrow for drinks. I hear Café Havana has live music, and you do love having proper mojitos," he said.

"So you will?" She looked beautiful, and young, and curious, and naive.

"You know I will. Let’s stop it. For now, we have two more weeks and until then we are just a couple of tourists staying out late and drinking too much."

He put down enough pesos to cover the bill and some extra for staying late. They walked down the ramp and along the wall, away from the café and away from the sea. Around the corner somewhere you could hear a bottle that was dropped as it shattered and the distant sounds of hooves on the cobblestone from one of the late carriages. Soon they would walk through the empty square and cross Calle de San Agustin into the hotel. They were walking arm in arm, partly because they were now drunk and decidedly in love, but mostly because it was the best way to keep from falling over into the street.

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