Selma changed her name to Havana when she was 10. Both her parents had drowned off the coast of Cuba, trying to reach Miami and give their baby a decent start at life. Miraculously, she survived the boat’s capsizing by holding onto the only life raft, and with lots of prayers, after a day and a night, was rescued by some Americans out fishing.
She was raised by distant relatives who labored on Long Island, took her in, and loved her dearly. She wasn’t very good in school and had few friends, and mostly daydreamed, of boys, cool clothes, and independence.
At 18, she got a job waitressing through a cousin who worked in Montauk. After the stories she told Havana about the nightlife, the music, the beach, the boys, she needed little convincing to take a train out to the East End. Havana stayed with her cousin and within three months had saved up enough to get her own apartment, and adopted a stray dog she named Siesta.
One day a guy came over to fix a leak in the ceiling, and when Havana saw him, she thought she’d go right through the ceiling. He had shoulder-length blond hair, tattoos of dragons up and down his sculptured arms, a chiseled, rock-hard body, and a hammer hanging from his low-slung belt.
Three hours later, he was her man and by nightfall she began calling him Sweetie. They got along like rice and beans and knew it was instant love when both admitted to liking chili dogs. This only confirmed Havana’s belief in fate, and she was thrilled that she had finally met her soul mate. She wanted to be rich and famous; he wanted a fireplace, her in an apron, nothing else, and baking blueberry muffins. She didn’t know if “muffin” had one f or two, but no matter, she didn’t eat them anyway.
The next morning they awoke to the sun blaring onto the bed and the sound of the distant waves pounding like her heart.
“Sweetie, will you love me any less when you find out I can’t cook an egg?”
“Havana, we’re gonna be so rich some day, you won’t even step in a kitchen.”
“Oh, you are a big, soft Sweetie.”
“Yeah, well, I ain’t working for that no good bastard no more,” he announced, throwing his heavy boot at Siesta.
“Make sure you get paid first,” she added and blew him a kiss.
“I got enough stashed for a couple a months while I figure out what to do. Let’s hang in bed all day, maybe make a baby.”
“Oh, not today, Sweetie, gotta be at the dump. I’m already late,” she said, pulling up her jeans that could barely cover his bulging arms.
Havana got her third ticket for no car insurance; another one for double parking in a crosswalk while she ran inside a Starbucks for a double, double something. It didn’t matter to her, long as it was double double. America to her was double this, double that, so she learned to order doubles of everything.
Her last ticket was when she told the cop she swerved to miss a deer and hit a tree while putting on gloss in the rearview. She would have gladly kissed the ticket guy if he was so inclined, but since he wasn’t, she pursed her lips and shrugged her shoulders, feeling, if anything, rejected. As she drove away, she heard part of her fender scraping the road.
Havana had to work off her community service at the dump, 10 hours a week for the next six months. She dressed for duty like she was going to a club opening. Sashaying around with belly exposed, showing a miniature Tasmanian devil navel ring, she began tossing pieces of crumpled papers into the appropriate place, but wasn’t sure if paper went in the recycle bin or the newspaper bin. This perplexed her. This made her mind spin around just thinking about it. She decided to put paper in the plastic bin, realizing that paper, like plastic, must be recyclable.
She swept up, then, with nothing to do and no one around, looked at a discarded artist’s easel. Not sure what it was, thinking it looked like some sort of S&M device that Sweetie might like, she considered taking it home and strapping him to it, but since they had only been together three days, wasn’t sure if this was his thing. She walked away from the complicated wooden structure, then decided to heave it into the recycle bin, not the plastic bin.
She pushed the easel to the edge of the steel container then forced it up, but it fell back down. She tried again, but it was too heavy. After great thought, she had an idea. She would stand on the edge of the bin and pull it up and over. She climbed up, but in order to get more leverage, she had to lean over backward, and in doing so, fell over into the bin full of trash bags, garbage, and the history of a week’s worth of discards from East Hampton homes.
She fell between two heavily stuffed plastic bags brimming with secrets, then kept sinking lower, like a modern-day Alice, but this was Havana in reverse, and the dump wasn’t a rabbit hole. It was something far more mysterious. She hit her head on a near-full can of tomato purée, and was half unconscious when the truck pulled up and carted the bin away. She tried to scream but inhaled plastic and almost choked to death.
Desperately trying to climb up while the cart was moving, she only fell deeper and deeper into the rubbish-filled abyss. Her spiked heel ripped through a bag and pulled her back down, twisting her between Hefty bags and Citarella wrappings until she collapsed in utter despair, now forever buried inside this strange black hole of yesterday’s delights.
She regained her consciousness and composure about the time the truck reached the landfill, tilted the bin up somewhere near the stars, and her progress knocked her back down whence she started.
Falling through time and space along with all the rubble and garbage, she was face to face with a glass bottle of Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil, with a villa in the background. “I’d like Sweetie to take me to Italy,” she thought and slipped down the side of a green plastic trash bag.
Now one with the spoils of delusion and abundance, she heard the bin door open and she landed onto the pyramid of yet more stinking, gooey, smelly trash and was then immediately covered from her bleached-blond hair to her too-tight stilettos.
Gasping for air, she succumbed to asphyxiation and fell into a sort of dreamy, odoriferous slumber, passing out more from the stink than the weight of excess thrust upon poor Havana.
Inside her burial chamber she tried to climb out, but to no avail. Sinking back down into the soft slime of plastic and coffee grounds, tea bags, half-eaten pasta with pesto, and reeking Neufchatel cheese, she closed her eyes and accepted sleep.
Sweetie kicked Siesta, put on his boots and went to the local pub. He ordered a beer and a pop of illusion and looked at the waitress. She flirted with him, waltzed by and slipped him her phone number on a paper napkin, just below a logo of a sailboat.
On her return to the elbow of the bar, she made a daring pass and whispered, “I want to have your baby.”
Everyone’s talking babies lately? he thought and said, “Sounds like a plan.” He smiled and that night in the back of his jeep they set about to make another addition to their Mercury-in-retrograde bliss.
Sweetie spent the waitress’s two days off in her bed with his boots on, (the only way she liked it), and his tool belt next to the bed, which kept her in a total state of tepid, dream-fulfilled desire.
It was decided that he would move in the next day, and when he got back to Havana’s place, the thought of her never crossed his mind. He did for a moment however hesitate when he saw a pair of Havana’s panties next to the bed, but just shrugged as if they were a prop in a TV cop show he had just watched, and soon forgot.
He packed up his few belongings and left the refrigerator door open for the dog, as a sort of amends, and left.
Six hours after Sweetie and the waitress had done it, he turned to her and said, “What should we name it?”
“Maybe Caroline,” said the waitress.
“Why Caroline?” he asked, with a quizzical look on his face like he was confronting a crooked nail.
“Well, maybe named after me.”
“Oh,” moaned Sweetie, looking at her breasts, “but it might be a man. How about Rex?”
“Why Rex?” she asked.
“Well, that was my dad’s name.”
“Oh, baby, can I call you baby, let’s wait and see.”
“How long does it take, maybe six months, or is it eight?”
“Nine, you dummy. Didn’t you go to school?”
“Oh, well, that would make it ’round Christmas. Yeah, cool, a Christmas baby, like Jesus.”
In the back of Sweetie’s mind, as he listened to Caroline in the shower, he knew this was a mistake. He felt something was missing. Was it his tool belt — no, there it was, on the wobbly night table.
No, something else. Then he had a thought of Havana. He missed how she flirted with him, not like Caroline, who always seemed preoccupied. Havana was like a wailing rock band that kept him turned on.
Caroline was more like a drumbeat; always the same beat. He felt that another few days with Caroline and someone was going to die. Quickly, while she was still in the shower, he thought, get back to Havana. Back to the roaring train, the rockets’ full burst, the explosion of dynamite. The insanity that only comes with impetuousness.
As soon as he opened Havana’s door, the dog bit him on the lower leg. Sweetie screamed and tried to club Siesta with his hammer but found that in his haste he had left his tool belt at Caroline’s.
The dog ran through the screen door and didn’t stop until it was in the next town, never to return. Sweetie grabbed a bottle of rum, took a sip, and poured the rest over his bleeding leg. Then, deep in his coin pocket, he found a couple of Oxy-C’s, swallowed them and quickly passed out. Six hours later he was dead from loss of blood.
Havana awoke from her coma and decorated her new home in the bowels of the landfill with old lace and linens, and nine months later gave birth to a fat little baby boy. A tiny little freckle was on his thigh, so she reasoned that the baby was most definitely Sweetie’s, the Sweetie who was now a vague memory.
Something had happened to her while living in the dump’s labyrinthine passageways. Or maybe it was being alone for so long that changed her. She didn’t know. She only knew she had a beautiful baby; a child to cherish and care for, forever and ever.
She had spent her pregnancy reading labels from various bottles and cans and constructing baby clothes out of the discards that surrounded her. She found a stack of love letters in a greasy manila envelope and began reading them. They were signed with just Love, with no return address on the light beige envelope, and they were addressed to an M. Smith at the Maidstone Club.
The letters were emotional, desperate, of longing and separation. Each word was a heavy heartbeat, a sadness, an unacceptable fate. The penmanship was beautiful, ornate, each letter carefully designed in a state of unbearable love and hopelessness.
Havana spent hours translating them into Spanish, which she found had more of a romantic feel, a deeper feeling, yet still loaded with sadness. When she finished reading them, she held the bundle close to her chest then buried them under the cleanest piece of discarded silk she could find.
Most of the books she read were tacky romances and she translated each one, hoping to make them interesting. When she emerged from her entombment, she was fluent again in her native tongue.
It took her close to a day for her and baby Sweetie to climb out of the debris-layered abyss and, when they emerged on a beautiful sun-soaked summer afternoon, she inhaled with a sense of newness.
The baby, who she had named Enrico, after a cousin in Cuba, was in a shoulder bag she’d found and wiped clean. She ripped out her Tasmanian devil navel ring and tossed it onto the pile of trash. She now wore old T-shirts and jeans and fashioned her jewelry out of discarded scraps of flip-top can rings.
Back to using the name Selma, she hitchhiked immediately to the welfare office, where they took pity on her and put her in a motel for the next week while they found her permanent lodgings. Selma’s hair was now the original jet black she was born with and her desire for stilettos had left her, replaced with sandals from her last home.
With her native language that she had discarded when she was Havana, the one-time “life’s a party” girl now found herself cleaning houses on the fashionable East End, supplying enough money for her and her baby to live modestly.
One day while dusting a lamp on Egypt Lane she stared at a simple landscape painting on the wall. She sat on a sofa and stared at the painting, and soon heard a voice that told her she could paint that good, maybe better.
Then she was sure she heard the fluttering of tiny wings and she slowly turned and looked at the end of the sofa. Outside the window, a tiny sparrow crashed into the window. Selma stood up and walked closer to the painting and the closer she was drawn to it, the more convinced she became that her future lay before her. How ironic, she thought, that the easel in the dump that put her where she was now would eventually turn her life around to a new beginning she never would have dreamed of if she had stayed with Sweetie.
She sold her food stamps and bought paint, went to a yard sale and found a discarded old oil painting inside a wooden frame which she painted over one day on the side of a road. An art dealer was driving by, saw her landscape, and commissioned her for a painting. A week later he saw what she had accomplished and soon supplied her with all the paint and canvas she could use. Six months later he gave her her first solo show and soon, she would become the hottest, most sought-after artist in Paradise.
Richard Lawless, (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a freelancer who lives in East Hampton.