The Comandante

By Karla Fetrow

They called her Comandante. She was from Colombia. I’d never seen her in combat, yet there was a determination about her that filled even my dreams with adrenalin. She pumped me. I was willing to lay down my life for her. Her voice was deep; almost like a man’s; and her eyes, which narrowed when she talked, were somewhere cold. Between slate and black, they reminded me of the wheels of a locomotive; inexpressibly still for the moment, but gathering steam for the ride. She smoked incessantly; or rather, she dangled cigarettes from a cupped wrist raised halfway to her mouth, taking occasional drags to punctuate her sentences.

“I laughed at her. I laughed at the warden,” she said. “She had huevos, you know, but kept them knotted up inside her skirts. She wanted me to remove my clothing so she could inspect it. She licked her lips as I stripped down to my panties and bra, and I thought, what the hell. She wanted a free show. I laughed when her eyes roved over my nakedness, so painful in their longing, and let her see there was nothing up my crotch or under my breasts.” She inhaled, a long, slow minute, in which the cherry of her cigarette turned bright red, then let the smoke escape through the rounded opening of her mouth. The smoke rings drifted upwards, framing the cold, hard ends of her smile. “That’s why I hate them, you know; they are hypocrites.” She wasted the rest of her half-finished cigarette, jabbing it into the ash tray.

I admired her smoke rings. I didn’t even know very many men who could execute them so perfectly, one dreaming, ethereal circle after another drifting upwards, silent statements of self-control and social rebellion. Rebellion, by necessity, must always be silent. To bring it out into the open was to disturb the peace. The peace was flawless. It rippled in waves of what could and should not be said or done, yet here was the Comandante; openly defiant. “Do you think they love you, manita? I can tell you now that they don’t. Lust is what moves them. It isn’t even a lust for power. They already have it. They can make you or break you. They can turn this whole world into ashes. What they want is bodies. Yes. Bodies and bodies to stack up at will. Bodies to pull apart. Bodies to exterminate. Bodies to look at in naked shamelessness. Bodies that will suffer and cry because they can’t. They can’t cry anymore, manita. They can’t suffer. Nothing you say or do will change them.”

Her words were as hollow as the inside boundaries of her smoke rings. Behind us, jammed into a sagging couch, a group of our companions watched the television set. A news caster clipped broadly, skillfully over the day’s headlines. Another wild fire threatening a suburban area. Another flare up in the Mid East. Another energy shortage. Nothing different. Nothing new. They heckled the news team as though the television had ears, jeering at a police investigation into money laundering, cackling at a mayor who had promised no new taxes. “Take another hit from the bong!”

That was the best answer. Everything else was lies. Everything else was meant to crush us deeper, to make us feel smaller; more vulnerable. Nobody understood this better than the Comandante. She’d seen it all; homelessness, riots, brutality. There were no rights if you were poor. There were only legalities, and you could guarantee if you didn’t have legal means, you were legally screwed. That was the meaning of law. That’s what kept us unlawful. We couldn’t afford to be otherwise.

Because we were unlawful, we harbored her. Nobody knew her complete story. It was said that she had once been part of a guerilla movement and that she had eventually made her way up into Mexico and joined the resistance group in Oaxaca, finding an American contact while she was there to smuggle her into the U.S. . A smaller faction maintained she had married a rich American, giving her a passport into the United States, but that when she arrived, she left him. I was inclined to believe either story. She was too free spirited.

“How did you end up in jail?” I asked.

She shrugged. “It was a long time ago.” About the time I’d decided she wasn’t going to elaborate, she spoke again. “A man can want you for many things. Sometimes he just wants a companion. Sometimes, he wants to know; who you are, what you taste like. There are other men, who knowing this, provide women. I knew a man with very powerful connections. He provided me with a passport. I provided him with services.”

“It wasn’t a bad life, chiquita,” she said hastily when I dropped my eyes. “I lived well. Most of the them were gentlemen. There was one, though, who was not. He was a pig. He was some sort of industrial big wig; oil or coal; I don’t know which. He wanted me, but he hated me. He hated my race. He hated what I stood for. Every time he came over was more humiliating and brutal. I should have said something to Luis, I suppose. Luis. He was my man. I didn’t though. I thought I was on my own.” She lit another cigarette, gazing over it, measuring the effects of her story.

“I didn’t know the real names of my clients so I made up names for them. I called this miserable excuse for a human being, Sin Pelos, since he had no hair. I suppose I could have called him far more disgusting things since he knew no Spanish, but I felt like being kind. Sin Pelos, though, was growing crazier and crazier. His visits became more frequent, his needs more intense. I can’t forget that empty look in his washed out blue eyes, or the snarl that curled the side of his mouth when he took me.

He came to my house very drunk one night. He told me he couldn’t stand living in sin anymore; that he wanted to make me an honest woman. He said I should feel lucky as he was offering me the best solution. I would gain respectability and be saved from hell’s damnation. I couldn’t find any worse damnation than as his wife, and more or less told him this. He became enraged. He pulled out a knife. He said the only thing left to do was to remove the source of temptation.”

The Comandante rolled back the sleeve of her sweater, revealing a long, crinkled scar that started at the tender inside of her elbow and curved around to the side of wrist. “He cut me,” she said, as though she still couldn’t believe the audacity. “He cut me, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel a thing. No pain, manita, just sudden, over-powering rage. He was a fairly large man, but middle-aged, paunchy. He had no real strength; only the laziness of sitting behind a desk day after day, pushing nothing heavier than a pencil.

There was a large, heavy flower vase on the table behind me. I swung it at him, giving a good whack to the head. He fell to the floor and I stomped on his knife-wielding hand, pinning it there while he grimaced in pain. I hit him again and again while he whimpered. He began pleading with me. He begged for his life. He wept, please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”

She paused. “Did you kill him?” I asked.

“No. I stopped. I took the knife away, not that he was in any shape to do anything with it, anyway. I grabbed my purse and some of my most essential belongings and I walked away from the house that night.”

“You showed mercy.”

She rolled down her sleeve and laughed; hard and brittle. The metal plated Comandante I knew came back into her eyes. “It wasn’t mercy, manita. It was contempt. The man inside him had died years ago. I didn’t want my hands stained with his blood. It would have been…” For the first time, I saw her hesitate and search for words. “It would have been demeaning.”

She shrugged. “The prick lived. I left him, still slobbering and groaning on the floor and thought I was done with him. Thought I was done with the whole life. I was ready to move on. Moving on is never that simple, however. Your past has a way of looping around and grabbing you by the throat to teach you another lesson. He had a warrant put out on me for attempted murder. They arrested me after a routine identification check of the passengers in a car after the driver had been pulled over for drinking and driving.

“They even had plans to pull my passport and extradite me, but Luis got me a lawyer to replace the idiotic public defender who didn’t even want to hear my testimony. We finally won a self-defense plea and my passport was re-instated, but not before I spent several weeks in their stinking jails.”

“You shouldn’t have had to spend any time at all!” I said forcefully.

The Comandante reached across the table and cupped my face in her hands. “It’s not good to care so much. When you do, it makes others look bad; less human somehow, less kind. It won’t do. They’ll hurt you some day, crush you. I’m going to bed now. Do you want to come with me?”

I loved Comandante. I would follow her into hell. I would lay down my life for her. But to touch her, to know her intimately would be a sacrilege. I allowed my lips to kiss her when hers touched mine, then folded her hands together and kissed them too. “I’m going to hang out with the gang.” I would have told her more. You are my leader, my hero, but my throat closed up so no words came out.

She displayed her bitter smile, then her expression softened. “I understand. You’re my little sister. It’s best to leave it that.”

When you live in the underworld of manual labor dispensed to the lowest bidders, the days of jobs and searching for jobs begin rolling together without any real numbers. Days of the weeks, even the months sort of roll back into equal opportunity for leisure and for scrambling up a few bucks. I hung with the gang, who were mostly looking for work. I looked around a lot myself, always trying to find something better than an on-call waitress or part-time receptionist at a billings office. Jobs were scarce. You took what you could get, even when it was stuffing envelopes.

Stuffing envelopes wasn’t really a bad job. I could carry the heavy boxfuls home and fill the envelopes at the kitchen table. They paid by the hundred lot. When the Comandante helped, we could finish over a thousand in one night. Sometimes the gang tried to pitch in, but we had to fire them when one got too drunk and spilled wine all over some freshly packaged envelopes. I almost lost this little extra income initiative, but my employer decided to give me one last chance. After that, anyone with anything that could spill, crumble or seep was kept strictly away from the table during work project time.

I didn’t notice when the Comandante became more and more withdrawn. She had a fling for awhile with one of the chavos in an apartment complex not far from us. Rumor was, the chavo was a drug dealer, but I tended to try and stay out of other people’s business. She never talked to me about him, so I never asked.

I don’t know how it happened, but we had begun drifting apart. Sometimes, I blame it on the month of June, when music fills the air and you’re surrounded with light and laughter. I began to dance. I began to sparkle at outdoor concerts, sweeping up the festive air, the greening earth, the frolics of nature. I followed the bands, and didn’t come home until the last note had been played.

Deep within the summer of carefree sound, she took her life. Alone, in an abandoned house, she placed the barrel end of a rifle in her mouth and shot herself. The incident wasn’t investigated until the next morning after someone had filed a complaint of a gun going off in the neighborhood. It was two days later before we received the news. It was a friend to a friend, grapevine sort of thing, as her real name in the obituaries had no meaning to us. Leticia Salazar Martinelli. I rolled the words around on my tongue a few times. Each time I pronounced them, she became more of a frightened, lonely young woman, and less of a symbol. I had; we had; all worshiped the symbol.

There weren’t that many people who admitted to being her friend by attending the funeral. Mainly just the gang and a few outsiders dressed in nice suits who I guessed were probably Luis and his buddies. A few people looked like they might be family members, but they stood apart and talked to nobody except each other. Summer stood still in that moment, never to truly fulfill itself, but to lapse finally and inevitably, with miserable disgrace, into winter. The winter brushed over my soul like a cold wind, driving deep into the bones, taking away everything except a dull ache and the haunting regrets of the unforgiven. We had harbored the Comandante. We had sheltered and fed her. We had loved her, but somehow, we had failed her.