Saving Venice

Gwen E. Kirby

It had been a dirty day at work and my hair was stiff with the oil and grime I had run through it, thinking too hard with my hands. My body seems to get sore from thinking, though my wife says that it is just my imagination. “It is my imagination,” I argue, but she turns back to her pots on the stove, shaking her head with my name in her lips, “Félix, Félix.”

“Yes, my Yola,” I always say, but I don’t expect her to respond. Her long black hair is up because she is cooking, and I like to watch her upper spine surface on her skin as she moves.

The streets were nearly deserted; a few people and fewer cars passed silently by as I walked home in the semi-dark. All the colors that on a sunny day made my eyes ache were muted. The soccer game playing in the bar cast its blue light out the open door and I guessed from the few groans that Costa Rica was losing. Most people were already home and Yola would be waiting for me, already feeding Ramona. Despite myself, I smiled thinking of my wife and our exchange student, sitting across the table and making conversation as if across an abyss. Yola would keep my food warm until I got home.

Beside the panaderia, its window by now mostly empty of rolls, and only a few blocks from my house, was the internet café. 1500 colones for 15 minutes, it advertised in loud letters, and I went inside, putting my money down on the counter. There was only one other person there, but I still chose the computer in the back. Lately, I preferred the other internet café two blocks from the Church’s Chicken; the computers are separated by cardboard dividers that give at least a little privacy. I opened Internet Explorer and checked my e-mail first. A man whose car was in my auto shop wanted it back by Friday, giving me three days to put in a new transmission. One of the guys would do it tomorrow. With my remaining nine minutes, I went to eBay and typed in my username and password. Welcome, Félix García, the website said, and I scrolled down the page to my recent searches.

There it was. No one had bought it yet. Black, with a prominent front fender and grill, it was one big arc from back to front windshields. Like a humpback whale coming up for air, I had thought, the first time the Cuban who worked for me had shown me a picture of a Chevrolet Fleetwood. He was a mechanic, a very good one considering how young he was. He handled car parts as if the pads of his fingers really experienced every groove and slick surface. Sometimes after work he would share his flask of agua dulce (not as good as what they made in Cuba, he complained) and tell us how much better it was, repairing cars in Cuba.

“Before the Revolution,” he would always begin, “we were the largest importers of American cars. Cars are heirlooms; car knowledge is an heirloom. Americans don’t make those parts anymore and we couldn’t get them if they did. So we have to know our cars.” He would smile, remembering. “My father owned this car,” he pointed to the photo, “until he had to sell it to pay for all the debt. I would not have sold it! That was when we fought and I left, but still, I have the memories, my hands remember. It’s different here.” In Cuba a car mechanic was a craftsman. I liked to hear it. And I liked to sit around with the employees as I did when I was a younger man, before I owned my own place. Then I had just been Félix, but now I was Señor García. I thought about asking my workers to change and call me by my first name, but I did not want too much change. Taking another drink, the Cuban would add, “I treat a car like a woman’s body, ?” and the other men would laugh appreciatively. The conversation always turned to women, and I would head home. One night, my head still a little light from the alcohol, I had stopped at the internet café to pass time. I did not want to come home drunk. I had typed “Chevrolet Fleetwood” into Google and in the sidebar, eBay announced in bold letters that it had Fleetwoods to sell.

When I saw its picture, I felt like I was the right person to know that car. The seller, a man who lived in Texas, listed it as a 1947 model and described the tan leather seats, cherrywood dashboard, the exterior. Anyone could see those things. What I wanted to know were the miles in its engine, the wear on its tires, its weary innards. I would learn how to touch them like the Cuban did. To hold them like I once held a drafting pencil at University in San José, before I had run out of money and gone back to the coast. I still had that pencil in my desk at the office. The last drawing, of a housing complex I had designed, hung above my desk to remind people who came in that I was not simply a business man or a mechanic.

When I opened the shop five years ago, Yola and I had just moved to San José from a town on the Atlantic coast where tourists were always stopping for a weekend, riding bikes, pointing in awe at disinterested monkeys. The jungle met the ocean and left only a thin strip of sand where Yola and I could bring a blanket and make plans. There was more business in the city for a car mechanic. With more business, we could begin making a family. But as the years passed, I realized that I was not like my wife, so eager for the future, so eager to have children. Unlike her, I had lived in San José before. The smog and crime and closeness of the city had deepened my love for art into a love for the art of order. Remembering being so young made my palms sweat and I wiped them on my dark cotton pants.

It was a pleasure, just the picture of that car, and at first I did not feel guilty, although I had never noticed before that our internet café did not have dividers. Like those men who use public computers to watch porn, I thought, disgusted and frustrated at my desire. Here I was, in front of a computer, looking at the picture and imagining me, just Félix, bent over the greasy parts like a canvas taut and ready. I noticed a pain in my neck—I was pressing my middle finger hard into my muscles, worrying a knot that always formed there from craning under the hoods of cars. Closing my eyes, I blocked out the café’s florescent light. Yola’s practical but hopeful smile greeted me there in the flesh-tinged dark.

My time ran out, and I left, quietly thanking the man behind the counter, who was reading his magazine. My colones still lay on the counter.

The walk to my house was short and I only saw one person, a woman standing on the sidewalk outside her house, holding her baby on one hip and holding the gate open for a car, her husband’s probably, with her other hand. She smiled at me as I passed and adjusted the baby in her arms. She held the child like the Cuban held a pan of oil, with enormous awareness. I shook the thought out of my head. Just thinking about children brought Yola’s voice into my head. “Don’t you want a family?” she would ask me in the dark, her eyes resting on the back of my head, her hand on my side.

“Soon,” I would always answer. And sometimes we would make love despite my hope that soon would not come. Children just made everything—my auto shop, my house, my life in San José—seem so permanent. There would be no going back to university then. Of course, there would be no going back anyway. The sound of my steps fell into the back-and-forth rhythm of my thoughts and I remembered that I was tired.

Outside my house, I paused a moment, looking at the two white plants that grew just behind the metal bars that fenced off every house in San José. Ramona’s voice came into my head. During her first week here I had walked Ramona around, showing her where the different shops were if she ever wanted anything my wife and I didn’t have. “I do love the colors. Each house is yellow or pink or blue or…” she made a sweeping gesture with her hand. She seemed to like being expansive, encompassing her surroundings with big movements. “They’ll help me remember which house is yours and which streets I’m supposed to take. When my housing papers came, I mean, when they came to me in Austin, I was like, what? ‘1000 meters from the Autos Bohios, near the carnicera with two white-flowered plants in front.’ What kind of address is that? And what if one of your plants dies and has to be removed and the post office keeps sending letters to the house with the two flowers? Do you need to send in a change of address form if that happens?” She finally lapsed into silence, instead peering into the window of that very carnicera, fascinated by the cuts of meat hanging in the window.

What was there to say? There simply were no names or numbers on the million little winding streets. A Costa Rican would know the central landmarks of his community. Some landmarks had been torn down years ago, but people continued to use them as a starting point for directions. It kept history alive. And it kept us aware of who had been here awhile and who was new. Looking at the white flowers, I was pleased to see them still alive and well, their buds open to the warm, rapidly darkening summer night.

When I came inside, Ramona was curled up into the overly giving springs of the brown couch, a plate on her knee and the evening news playing on Teletica, “el Canal de Costa Rica.” She kept one eye on the television while she poked at her dinner. The maduros my wife had cooked remained untouched, as they had the first time Yola had served them. Ramona had looked at them as if they were shelled snails, and even though Yola explained that they were just sweet, baked plantains, very delicious, a traditional Costa Rican food, Ramona never touched them. Instead she ate the beans and rice and left the meats and mysterious side dishes mostly alone. It had not taken too long, really, for my wife to realize that the “American” she had wanted was not Ramona; not the dark, aggressively talkative girl who stared suspiciously at the cereal served for breakfast, “Are these the same thing as Corn Flakes?” and checked the expiration date of every milk carton. My wife’s imaginary American had been outgoing, eager but not critical, tan with happiness. Someone who would show me how wonderful having a child could be.

Ramona’s jeans cut into her hips and a little bit of pinched flesh mushroomed against her shirt. Girls her age seemed to insist on wearing clothes that were too small. Her black t-shirt said, “Cut the bullshit, Hamlet” on the front and “My biological clock is ticking. I want babies!” on the back. She did theater at her high school, she had told us, “Musical theater, mostly, but depressing stuff too.”

“That’s wonderful,” Yola had said. “I love to go to the movies.”

But Ramona didn’t really go to the movies much. “They’re exploitative.” Her big words, they were like her arm movements, more likely to bump into a lamp than illuminate her meaning. I usually found such displays overconfident, but in Ramona such awkward reaching seemed to be an attempt at sincerity. Perhaps I was wrong, but it made me pause.

On the television, the news showed groups of people milling around in the streets; they seemed to be waiting for something. A fair-skinned woman reporter, her highlighted hair crisp and large, stood among the crowd, telling viewers that Fidel Castro was in the hospital for gastrointestinal bleeding and had handed over power, temporarily, to his brother Raul. It was the first time he had relinquished control of Cuba in over forty years.

“Like Russians to the grave of Lenin,” said Ramona, briefly looking up at me then turning her gaze back to the television.

I wondered if her Spanish was good enough to entirely understand the broadcast. “Not quite yet,” I replied. Not ever. Certainly, Castro would die some day and perhaps when he was finally, truly dead, the government would embalm his body, make it a shrine like Lenin’s once was, but I doubted it. That sort of thing was more suited to the cold of Russia, where people during winter are themselves dried out corpses, waiting for spring to resurrect them. Even the Russians had gotten around to burying their dead, and Cuba was too warm and sticky a climate to leave bodies out where they might start to smell.

“Where’s Señora García?” I sat down in my armchair, old and leather and mine alone, although lately Ramona had begun to perch on the arm, like a hummingbird I saw once in the mountains. She would remain there only for an instant, and I wondered if she had trouble getting comfortable. Or if I made her nervous.

“She told me to tell you that she was going to the… mercado… market I think? She said she would be back in thirty minutes to get you dinner.”

I brushed my hair off my forehead. Time for Yola to give me a haircut. I began thinking about food, and it was then I saw my car. The camera panned out and upward, showing the whole street, and there it was, toothpaste green, but still a Fleetwood. It glowed in the fading evening light. It was probably used as a taxicab to drive tourists around, but what did that matter? It was moving slowly down the street, wending its way through the crowd of Cubans. In a moment of excitement, I tried to point it out to Ramona.

“Where?” she asked.

“There. The one the color of mint toothpaste.” She looked at me, at the TV, wrinkled her nose a little as if to prove the intensity of the search, then back at me. “By the brick building where those two people are holding each other. The woman in the shawl is selling guavas, I think.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. Yeah is a word like a sigh and then a sharp pain at the end, such a wastefully American word.

“That car, the toothpaste car, it is a Chevrolet Fleetwood.” Saying the word out loud to Ramona, I noticed for the first time how Spanish my pronunciation of it was. It made me feel suddenly foolish and annoyed with myself for having pointed it out to her.

“Is that a… good car?” Ramona, sensing that I was not entirely myself, tried to make conversation. “I mean, I can see it is very… antique. Do people still buy those things?”

“You can buy them, but you can’t get them made anymore. Antique car shows, eBay, many places sell them.” The word eBay caused Ramona’s level of interest to rise with momentary surprise. She probably thought a television was all the technology we used, despite her daily trip the internet café. “Yes, we use eBay here too. The addresses are not that confusing,” I snapped. Her face fell a little, the strands of brown hair that had escaped her ponytail swept over her eyes. A little guilty, I said, “That car there, there was one on eBay for a, what is it, a Buy Now price of ten thousand dollars. I wanted it, to have it here to repair and drive to my shop.”

“Your shop is just down the street, though,” she pointed out.

“Yes.” I didn’t say anything more, but I remembered how many times I had been online at the internet café. I did not need a car.

“What would you do with it?”

“Repair it. Fix its parts. You can’t buy new parts for these cars. They are, like you said, they are like antiques.”

“Enough money has been spent saving Venice.”

For a long moment, neither of us said anything. Then Ramona blurted out, “I read that somewhere, once. I am not even sure what the person meant by it actually, but I guess it just sounded so, so right, you know? Like, what’s the point of spending money on stuff that just can’t be fixed?” At my continued silence, Ramona blushed and looked down at her plate as if to find something there she might have overlooked. The same maduros lay lifeless and by now cold. Like Fidel Castro’s immobile body. She poked them with her fork and even cut one in half to see what the inside looked like, a first.

I was taken aback, hearing something like that come out of Ramona, although I shouldn’t have been. It was just another one of her gestures, her big, clumsy words. I watched her bite her lower lip, she face anxious yet stubborn. I knew about such stubbornness. Spending money on what could not be saved, the print above my desk at work—it was insisting on taping a marble ruin back together instead of building in its place. And what was I building? A clumsy love affair with a car I could not own, a self that I had already left behind in a different San José. I was still looking at the television, I realized. The car was almost out of the frame. It seemed duller, but then the sun had set and all the old light was still washing out the electric street lamps.

“I’m going to put my plate in the sink.” Ramona got up and I heard her turn on the water. I picked up the remote control and clicked the TV off. It would show Cubans until the night became too dark for Teletica to get good pictures or its reporters ran out of things to say. By then it might be time for a late night soap opera or an American television show dubbed in Spanish. I felt tired, too tired to move my eyes from my own reflection in the dark, curved glass. I stayed that way for a few moments, feeling my day settle into the soles of my feet. I remembered the woman outside her house, welcoming her husband home with their child on her hip.

At some point, Yola’s reflection joined mine on the blank screen. She held out a plateful of food. The same as Ramona’s dinner, some beans and rice, a thin piece of beef, a generous serving of maduros. She knows that they are my favorite. When she came to stand by me, I put my arm around her waist and pulled her down to sit on the arm of the old chair.

“Bueno, my love,” she smiled. Her brown eyes expressed puzzlement at my silent affection. “You have a good day at work?” Her question was more than that. Are you all right? She waited for an answer and I did not have one to give her. But that night I made cautious love to my wife.


“I am currently a 22-year-old writer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I graduated last spring from Carleton College with a degree in English and a minor in Latin American studies. I am here teaching English, learning about the process of writing, and improving my Spanish. I write fiction, poetry, and some travel articles for an online travel website.” E-mail: gekirby[at]

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