The Last Kiss of Loba Lamar (“Silk ribbons at my funeral, please…”)
Street smarts and a genius for her own behind—she flaunted both her in name, that triumph of maritime vaudeville that crowned the dance floor the moment it left the announcer’s lips. The opening rumbo of mambo number eight the brasses blaring, the bloody wink of the spotlights, the hands clapping her onstage. Those hands slapping her as it shook to the beat of the tambourine.
Perhaps they called her Loba Lamar, The She-Wolf of the Sea, for the wet grime of her dark skin, for the olive algae of her pelt wrung out by the sailors. But Loba Lamar was more than that: a teardrop of black lamé, the trampled embers of a travesti Africa, a dark glimmer among the harbor lights. She used to trip on the stairs as she retraced her steps up the hill to her seedy rented room, tumbling onto the steps amidst peals of drunken laughter and the sharp smell of belladonna. It was difficult to keep upright at that hour, after having mamboed through the night in those unmistakable stilettos. After withstanding the seasickness of AIDS, clouding it over by mistaking the sea for the sky, which splashed a vertigo of stars against the waves. In those moments, Loba believed that everything had finished oh-so quickly, oh-so painlessly, oh-so suddenly that death by AIDS was just a missed step on the runway, a path of sparks over the Caribbean like a passage to another world. A moon in the water, caught in tropical currents and beyond the reach of the epidemic. But morning always found her there just the same, leaping from star to star. Her missed step was not death, but rather a pale return to the destitute life of an unsung loca.
Lobita luckily never understood what it meant to be a carrier, or AIDS would have taken her straight down on its depressive toboggan. But Loba didn’t have the brains to connect the She thought everything was fine, there was no convincing her that this checkmark was an eviction, a dismissal. And although she turned and turned the report card between her fingers, the of converting plus to minus didn’t enter her head, and her little birdbrain never solved the math problem, never drew those little boxes that help you add and subtract. Loba was always a hopeless loca, rubbish at her studies and bullied at school. A plus could no less subtract than a minus could ever add , and up yours with those numbers and to hell with life. And if I won a prize, she said, this paper isn’t going to convince me.
We never saw Loba sad, but a dark cloud bloomed in her yerba mate that day. She folded the sheet and took a deep breath, inhaling the stale air of the room. She gulped and sighed until the stench overwhelmed the gravity of the news. Then she walked to the window and opened it over the rusting seaside roofs. She took a lock of her hair, faded by cheap dye, and yanked it out with the sound of paper ripping. She watched it flash copper in a ray of sunlight reflected by the glass. Then she opened her hand, letting her hair float into the feathered breeze that cushioned the afternoon.
La Lobita never let emaciation ruin her looks. As she yellowed, she added rogue; the bigger her bags, the bigger she drew her sunflower eyes. She never let herself go, not even in those final months, when she was a string of a body, her cheeks stuck to the bone, her scalp shining through a downy fuzz of hair. Even then she looked bronzed by the sun, “though my heart is in winter,” a line she tirelessly repeated in her variety show, when fatigue no longer let her dance.
For us, the locas who shared her room, Loba had made a pact with the devil. How has she lasted so long? How does she still look pretty with those scabs falling off like petals? How, how, how? No AZT, just spunk and her own pulsing heart, and boy did her stubborn ass resist. [resisted without drugs, just with her own pulsing heart, with pure spunk.] It was the sun, the good weather, the heat. She withstood the whole summer like a cherry, the whole fall which was warm, and only as winter arrived, as the numbing brine of harbor rain began to drizzle, only then did she show symptoms of goodbye. She fell into her cot and never got up again. And so the agonies began.
Lobita never wanted back to the doctor after than first exam. His cousin is the gravedigger, she said. She couldn’t stand those health centers either, which she thought looked like concentration camps for lepers. Like in Ben-Hur, the only movie she’d seen in her whole life. And she remembered perfectly that part when Charlie Heston goes looking for his mother and sister in the leper colony. And they both hide, not wanting the boy to see them like that, stripped of skin, their flesh falling off in chunks. Because they had been so beautiful, gorgeous, real nice-looking, though never nearly as nice as Loba, who spent whole nights delirious recounting the movie. Burning with fever, she cursed the Roman galleys together with Ben-Hur. And she made everyone who was perched on her cot row along with her, threatening to drown herself as the hot waves of her temperature made her shout, “Attention, Whores of the Oar! Forward, Maracas of Mambo!”
We took shifts caring for her, washing her bum like a baby. We were her nannies, her nurses, her cooks, a troop of slaves she bossed around with the air of Cleopatra. We had so much patience for her, we would count to breaths to stop ourselves from wringing her neck. If she’d only shut up and let us sleep a little. At least an hour, during all those insomniac nights on her deathbed. Her demented condition of the moribund queen who refused to kick the bucket, who wanted every little thing, every eccentric whim satisfied. At midnight, in the depths of winter, raining, she wanted to eat fresh peaches. And like idiots we left the house in the downpour, all of us wetter than pelicans, rummaging for change as we went searching through the deserted streets, waking up every shopkeeper in the port, going up and down the hills until we found a can of the damned fruit. And when we returned, shaking ourselves dry like dogs, La Loba threw the can at our heads because that craving had come and gone. Now she wanted tangerine ice cream. Tangerine ice cream? Can’t you want something else, dear? They don’t make tangerine ice cream in Chile, Lobita, understand. But she insisted that it had to be tangerine, threatening to die right then and there if she couldn’t smell the bittersweet perfume of that spring fruit. And in the middle of June, frostbitten with cold, the locas turned around and left again, braving the elements until they found a slick-eyed Argentine who, after hearing their wailing tango of the dying mamacita, agreed to sell them a cone. And not even then could Lobita sleep, now fixated on the pink flesh of a summertime melon. Ay! sighed the faggot over the sweetness of a cantaloupe, as if she feared not living to see January. As if she couldn’t leave this world with that craving still drying her mouth. Because in hell there are no peaches, or tangerines, or melons. And that much heat makes you thirsty.
Ay! Slaves of Egypt, bring me melons, grapes, and papayas, raved the poor darling waking the whole boarding house with her queenly pregnancy. As if the holocaust of the disease had become a gestation of grief, switching death for life, the throes of agony for the pangs of birth. The deranged Loba transformed AIDS into a promise of life, imagining herself the carrier of a child incubated in her anus with the fatal semen of that lost love, that prince of Judea named Ben-Hur, who had planted the fruit one night in the Roman galleys and then left at dawn, leaving her pregnant in a sinking ship.
Night after night we heard her call him, while we tried to placate the cravings of the parturient Loba. She set us all to knitting little sweaters and hats and vests and booties for her baby. She made us sing lullabies, rocking her as we fanned her with feathers, as if we truly were the slaves of an expectant Nefertiti. At some moment or another she had managed to cast us in her movie, so convincingly acted that, drained by exhaustion, we too came to believe in the coming delivery. So all the locas kept getting up in the freezing cold, sneezing, listening to her psych ward fantasies, her final dalliances, her little voice strangled by cough, her shrieking orders each time more muted. Until one day, still haughty, she opened her mouth like a hippopotamus on the Nile and no sound emerged. She was struck dumb in her pharaonic command. And us sitting there, waiting, covering the mirrors so that La Loba wouldn’t look at herself again. Begging, praying, pleading for that airplane from nowhere to arrive soon. Mopping her sweat, saying Ave Marias and reciting rosaries like background music. All of us there, paler and shakier than Lobita herself, awaiting the minute, the second in which this loca would sigh her last breath and our prayers could cease. The whole holy night spent watching her face, which to tell the truth looked more gorgeous than ever. Her silk skin, like a black tiger lily, shook with light in that abyss. Her swan neck of dark pearl drooped like a ribbon. Then a cold breeze blew through the window, as if someone had opened a tomb. La Loba tried to say something, call someone, modulate a scream out of those tensed lips. She opened her rolling eyes, trying to bring one last photo postcard from life with her. We watched her flapping, desperate to not be swallowed by the shadow. We felt that icy touch that left us stiff, unable to do anything, unable to look away from Lobita, whose yawing jaw was stuck fast, unable to get out a scream. We stood there like idiots, shocked by the dark corridor of her mouth, open like a black hole, like a cesspit in which we could just glimpse her prattling tongue. Her bottomless mouth paralyzed in the immense “AH” of a silent opera. Her marvelous mouth, like the unchained opening to a tunnel, like a sewer drain that had carried Lobita into the foul waters of that whirling, sinister eddy. Only then did we react, only then did we run to the edge of that ditch shouting down, Don’t die Lobita darling. Don’t leave us, beautiful. Sobbing, still horrified by her mouth, we stuck our hands into that darkness, trying to grab her by the hair as she fell. All of us struggling to reach her, to drag her back into the living. We grabbed her hands, rubbed her feet, shook her, embraced her, covered her in kisses, all of us queers crying, us queers laughing neurotically, us queers bringing her water, pushing her, not knowing what to do nor what to serve our guest, señora death, who was calling at such an inopportune moment.
And we saw our friend depart on that river of weeping, on that trusty diseased glider carrying her openmouthed to heaven. She can’t go like that, the poor thing, said the locas, already calmer. She can’t get stuck with that trap open like a hungry frog, herself so divine, so careful with every gesture and pose. She should always be remembered as a diva. Something must be done quick. Bring a scarf to close her mouth before it stiffens. One long enough to wrap around her chin and knot on her head. Not yellow stupid, what a depressing color. Not polkadots either, she’d look like a cartoon, and Lobita would never have worn it. Green? Worse, she hated the cops. ? Nuh-uh, she’s not a premature baby. What about that turquoise chiffon with gold thread, yes that same one you’re hiding you faggot piece of shit with your friend here dead. This looks fabulous on her yes and wraps all the way around her jaw and there’s even enough for a bow. Don’t knot it on her forehead, for the love of God, the ends look like rabbit ears and turn her into Bugs Bunny, the poor dear. Don’t put the knot under her chin either, as if she were Heidi of some Russian babushka. Better on the side, near her ear, like how Lola Flores wore it, back when they called her the Pharaohess, Lobita thought the world of her. A nice and tight knot, even if it crushes her cheek, leave her jaw shut for an hour at least, until it sets and hardens. So for an hour the locas busied themselves bathing the corpse in enough milk and starch for a Babylonian queen. They smeared her with boiling wax, leaving her hairless and slicker than a nun’s tit. One gave her a manicure, gluing on little mollusk shells like fake nails, while another sawed off her calluses and bunions, scaling off the calcified grime of her feet. Because you m’child were like Christ, who walked over the sea without touching water. Gordita you were never all that black, you just rollypollied in the dirt, too lazy to wash with soap, always applying rogue and perfume over the filth, said the locas scrubbing Lobita with chlorine. While they were waxing her eyebrows and curling her lashes with a heated spoon, the dead queen began to go stiff. So they untied the knot mooring her face to do her make-up, and discovered with glee that the scarf’s pressure under her chin had closed her mouth as tightly as a crypt. But right as the locas touched her cheek, Loba’s pressed lips drew into the macabre smile of rigor mortis. Ay no, shouted one of the queens, she can’t go looking like that, with a vampire grin. Something must be done! Bring hot towels to soften her up. Make them practically boiling the girl can’t feel a damn thing. But with the heat from the rags, the nerve in her jaw curled like a spring, dropping her lips half-open into a cackle. Looks like our girl is having a laugh at our expense, growled La Tora, the Bull, a burly loca who had been a wrestler in her youth. Leave her to me. And we kept quiet because an angry La Tora is serious business. We meekly reminded her to do it with love. Remember she’s quite feeble, amiga. Don’t worry, said la Tora, snorting, she’s not going to beat me. We watched her disappear and return sheathed in her lucha libre attire, with her scarlet cape and devil mask that had earned her the nickname, “Lucifer, The Un-fallen Angel, The Invincible Flame.” After warming up with a few jumps and a couple of shark attacks, she asked us to applaud. And amidst that hullabaloo worthy of the Andalusian bullring her face turned suddenly serious, she cut off the cheers with a SHH of silence to concentrate. Not even a fly buzzed as she knelt at the foot of the bed and ritually crossed herself, as she would before entering the ring. And with a leap she was on the cadaver, pummeling it with knuckle-bruisers. Paf, paf the sound of punches filled the room until Loba’s face was left looking like mashed potatoes. Then la Tora lifted her hammy fist and, with her thumb and index finger, squeezed Lobita’s cheeks together hard until her lips whistled into a rose. Suck your molars, m’child, suck your molars like Marilyn Monroe, she said, not moving her hand. She kept those cheeks pressed between her pincers for almost an hour, waiting until Loba’s flesh returned to its mournful rigidity. Only then did she let go, and we could see the marvelous result of her necrophiliac handiwork. We stood there, heart in our hands, all of us teary-eyed as we gazed at La Loba, who threw us a kiss with her puckered smacker. We should cover up the bruises, someone said, reaching for her Angel Face powder. But why bother? Pale pink and purple lilac go together.