ZD-004: The Shallow Cittern
A short story by C.E. Alexander
Horror, Literary, Short Story
The travel embargo lifted the year of Susan’s degree. She watched footage of American travelers getting sunburns, eating street food, buying cigars in Havana. Always cigars, and always the same headline no matter the network: “Cuba opens her doors.” Had she considered it she would have thought His door, not hers, and more, that the Cubans were not the ones who kept it shut for so long.
There was talk of robberies and assault. Didactic rumors of leprosy, cannibalism. The unfiltered statistics of sexual assault, kidnappings, and fraud. She heard reports of a new, debilitating virus, not always fatal. Journalists called the illness el sagrado.
Susan forgot about Cuba’s transition while she struggled with her own. She put Hugo out of her apartment; he was beautiful and always seemed to stare off. But he sought out imbalance, cursed too much, shattered her things with walls. In time she let Jeffrey Amherst stay until morning; he was happy but not handsome, with bent, calloused fingers that pressed deeply into her back. He spoke of West Virginia the way Susan did of Rome. Every so often he would slip and call her ma’am, which she hated. Ma’am, madam, the curator of whores.
Once she shot back with John, but he was unmoved. She already knew how that English shielded men from reversed insults, besides: stud, steer, cock.
The diploma earned her a job as a lending officer, which she lost after about seven months. In time she chose one of a page full of telephone sales jobs, which she endured for five weeks. Hugo mentioned a friend with a contact at the United Nations, and by now Jeffrey was talking about giving up his apartment. “I stopped by yesterday and went to 517 by mistake. There was a family of six and they nearly killed me.” Susan laughed and touched his shoulder; his apartment number was 403. Hers, 517.
He worked in freight forwarding and could handle their expenses while she looked for work, or went back to school for her master’s degree. But she was not ready to talk about a single budget. She found a job delivering room service at the Four Seasons on East 57th Street.
Her father had always said corrosive things about her lover’s pale skin.
In a way that was fitting, as Will Amherst was taken with Susan’s dark eyes and Argentine build.
But her family’s uninterrupted gale became too much. Susan betrayed Jeffrey with Oliver, from engineering. He was ugly, nearly pyramid-shaped, with a skinny face and body that was fat toward the ground. He groped her on their first date and his breath stank during their second, but she found herself laughing when he was near, and in time she brought him home. Indeed she had suggested a night at the hotel: room 403, which would devour her with shame, ensuring that she told Jeffrey everything. They could order room service the next morning, and no matter who delivered the food, she could put a bare leg out from the sheets.
Oliver refused, jealous already. Susan told Jeffrey anyway, and turned away when he dropped his key at her feet. Her hand was shaking, besides. A battery in her stomach.
In another five weeks their romance would have passed its one-year mark. He called her on what would have been their anniversary and in time Susan was crying into a dead line. She drew an angry pencil sketch and titled it Bachelor’s/bachelors. She called Hugo within the fortnight.
He had calmed with time and distance, found good work. They discussed the UN job over salmon tartar and quail egg. The DPKO was looking for political science majors fluent in Turkish and Spanish: Susan was all of these, and only Hugo knew. Eleven years before she had flipped over her little brother, concussing herself on the hardwood floors. The child shouted for help as his sister’s eyes filled. Instead of mentioning the blow to her head he told their mother, “Susana is watching something horrible.” The boy was right.
That year she bought a college textbook on the Turkish language and never spoke of the accident. Her father thought it was bizarre and said so, but her mother actively fought it. She did not distinguish between Turkey and Arabic, between Islam and jihad.
Susan says, “Why Turkish? I can’t imagine.”
“It’s the UN. Who knows?”
“As long as the job is in Costa Rica. Maybe Nicaragua.”
“I think it’s in Puerto Rico, I don’t remember.”
The Havana colors are as she expects: reversed between officials and the many walls. When other travelers come they are prepared for airport rifles, military insignia, and drug dogs—for the smell of capitalism and fresh, vibrant paint. But instead the walls are armed, brown on brown, and the people are vibrant. There is only one dog in customs, a tiny Pomeranian on a string that yips at the baggage handlers. Billboards: English, French, Dutch, never Spanish.
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C.E. Alexander lives outside of Plano, Texas with his wife and two children. He works as a sales manager for a metal fabricator in Dallas, and tweets bad jokes with links to physics articles @CAlexanderRun. His fiction debut was the short story anthology The Music and the Spires. In the summer of 2013 he published the short stories Book of Constants and My Wounded Specular.