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Agustin Martinez
 
The Secret

Miguel hurried out of his white, nondescript single-family home in the Redlands, fingering the pockets of his Levi's for the keys. Between his chest and chin, he balanced the cold Beck's he sneaked out of the garage fridge, a task he had learned to perfect. As he reached the ten-year-old BMW his grandmother gave him when he graduated from Belén Jesuit last year, he heard his mother, Barbara, calling from the half-open kitchen window where she kept her orchids when they needed extra care.

Rápido, he thought to himself, almost losing grip of his beer. He jumped in the black Beamer.

"¿Miguel, a dónde vas?" he heard his mother call out from the kitchen. But before she even had a chance to move the orchids to open the window further, Miguel was half way down the block.

He wondered how much longer he could continue the charade, not being able to tell Barbara and his father, Alfonso, about Cristina, the dancer he fell in love with at the SAT prep class last fall. After a few weeks together, both Cristina and Miguel decided to take a year off from school, hoping their respective families would be resigned to the fact that neither of them really wanted to go to college.

Cristina's mother and aunt acquiesced, saying that college was something Cristina could do in the future, si Dios quiere, once she raised enough money from her tips and once the rest of their family from Cuba reached the shores of the United States.

Barbara and Alfonso, on the other hand, told Miguel he'd be just another Cuban statistic if he didn't go to college. Miguel took that to mean that they were just embarrassed by his not continuing his education. His parents begged him to take just a few courses at Miami-Dade College and take things one step at a time. If Miguel didn't want to leave Miami, he could easily transition into University of Miami after getting a taste for college at Miami-Dade. But Miguel knew that college just wasn't for him. It was fine for his friends, but his friends didn't have someone like Cristina at home.

Like a broken Cuban record, a broken cha cha cha, Barbara and Alfonso reminded Miguel daily that they left their country for him to have a future and this is why they paid for him to attend the Cuban-American prep school in Miami. Miguel knew, however, that his parents left Cuba for political reasons and knew that they sent him to Belén Jesuit because that's where the partners in Alfonso's firm sent their children.

As much as Miguel's parents loathed it, Miguel was happy working for the landscaping company; it kept him outside in the South Florida heat he loved so much.

His knack for advising clients what would grow well in their yards provided the company with a steady clientele, all requesting Miguel when calling. Whether it was swamp sunflowers, cannas, wild sage, or the ubiquitous elephant ears, whatever Miguel planted or advised his South Florida clients to plant thrived in their yards.

Miguel was an artist, he tried to tell his parents, but his parents didn't think working out in the Miami sun was any type of art form. Miguel knew they'd say the same or probably worse of Cristina's job at Lipstick.

Still, there was no doubting that Miguel had a unique intelligence, a certain intuition for what he did. Jorge, the owner of the landscaping company, told Miguel that one day he, too, would have his own company. Jorge counseled Miguel to ease up on his parents and try to understand where they were coming from, but Miguel wished his parents could be more like Cristina's who weren't so hung up on what people should do.

Miguel hoped Jorge was right. One day Miguel would own his own landscaping business and be the success his parents always wanted him to be. He'd advertise on Univisión or Telemundo so his parents could be reminded daily of the success he'd become.

Cristina was just as content with what she did, and she loved working indoors and in the evenings at Lipstick, one of Miami's hottest gentlemen's clubs. It gave her the days free to take care of her grandmother while her mother and aunt were at work. Neither her mother nor her aunt made enough at their jobs sewing at a downtown factory. Moreover, their family in Havana needed medicine and dollars from the U.S. so they could buy or barter what they needed in the black market.

Cristina had an understanding with Miguel about her dancing. She truly just danced to provide for her family in Miami and her family still back in Havana. Cristina never considered the side jobs in which her dancer friends at Lipstick participated to earn real money. There was no dating, no exchanging phone numbers, and no meeting customers in the parking lot for a couple bumps of coke. Cristina just danced, and Miguel believed her with all his heart.

I need a cigarette, Miguel thought. But he had no time to stop at the Circle K for some smokes. Publix, Winn Dixie, and even Sedano's, which never carded before, started carding consistently for cigarettes and beer. The Circle K off Eureka was the only place that didn't bother carding for cigarettes. Driving to this food mart would take him out of his way and make him late for his date with Cristina. She'd be getting ready to go to work soon, and he wanted every minute he could have with her before seeing her all painted up and scantily dressed.

Miguel searched for lost cigarettes under the floor mats of the Beamer, the crack in the seats, the broken glove box that no longer locked just right, but no luck; nothing appeared. Nothing smokeable anyway.

Keeping his eyes on the road, the Beck's safe between his legs, chilling his inner thighs, he rummaged the ashtray and out of the pool of ash came a half-smoked butt. Half-smoked cigs always tasted bitter to him, made his lips taste acidic, and even numbed them momentarily in a most unpleasant manner. But a bad cigarette was better than no cigarette at all.

Miguel swung his head back, chugging the cool beer, and he caught a glimpse of his sunburned face in the rear-view mirror. Just like his parents, Cristina hated how brown Miguel got from working outside, and even with 50 proof sunscreen, Miguel's skin tanned golden brown.

Miguel had even stopped swimming in the sinkhole out by the strawberry fields that still existed by the Krome Detention Center to avoid his skin from tanning unnecessarily. At least that's what he told himself rather than admitting that he was too busy hiding Cristina from his Belén friends who would undoubtedly judge him while they were home from college taking a dip.

Feeling his bottom lip tingle from the recycled nicotine-saturated filter, he took one last toke off the Marlboro. Flicking the twice-smoked butt out the Beamer's tinted window, he saw the construction site that now tyrannized the old pumpkin fields that his father's friend, Manolo, sold for a couple million bucks. Manolo was able to bring his entire family from Havana and they all moved to a compound near Punta Cana. If only Cristina and Miguel could come up with something like that to bring Cristina's relatives over, then maybe she could stop dancing and they could stop hiding.

As he passed one of the many new estate home lots being constructed, Miguel noticed, as usual, that the landscapers were planting Torchwood bushes around the perimeter of these lots. The Torchwood bushes were already emitting their usual citrusy, South Florida scent. Torchwood were usually a great landscaping choice because how showy they were throughout the year and how tolerant they were of the South Florida heat, but Miguel knew that these wouldn't thrive due to how close they were planted to one another, just a foot apart. If they survived through the year, their proximity to one another would either strangle the bushes or they'd look so messy all the time that the owners of the newly constructed estate homes would require their HOA to remove them and replace them with some other type of fast-growing, easy-to-care-for native plants like butterfly bushes or confederate roses.

Due to no traffic this Saturday morning, Miguel quickly made a left on Quail Roost Drive and was only a few minutes away from Cristina's house in Cutler Ridge. He quickly texted her that he was almost there, hoping she wouldn't notice that he was already a few minutes late.

Cristina's house in one of the cul-de-sacs near Cutler Ridge Mall looked its age, etched and peeling. The porch screen waved loosely from its one secure corner, providing refuge to the tornados of gnats and mosquitoes that were always present in this part of Miami-Dade County.

Miguel offered to help Cristina and her mother and aunt by sprucing up the place, but that was seen more of an insult than it was a selfless gesture. He even offered to bring some leather ferns and shell ginger for Cristina's bare front yard, but Cristina's mother just said no. Miguel didn't push it any further.

The Beamer rolled into the driveway, and Cristina quickly jumped out of the porch where she sat with her aunt and grandmother. They were no doubt talking about their family back in Havana who needed medicine and clothes. That's all they ever talked about. Cristina's aunt did a quick wave and helped the grandmother up from her chair.

"Let's go out back," Cristina suggested. "Jessica called me to see if I could take her shift — her daughter's sick — and I agreed to go in earlier. Could use the money, you know? Sorry we can't go for a drive or hang out for long."

"That's OK," Miguel lied, giving her a kiss on her mocha cheek.

"We could sit out back for a bit. I have a few minutes yet. Mom made some tres leches cake! I know that's your favorite."

"Awesome!" he lied again. The rich cake made his stomach hurt.

Cristina's aunt, Maribel, brought them each a piece of the spongy cake, and the lovers ate the cake in silence amongst the sweet acacia, pawpaw, and cocoplum that corralled their back yard.

Miguel couldn't figure out why these plants were planted together decades ago; their flowers and fruit didn't complement the architecture of the back of the house or one another, for that matter. Sometimes, landscapers would just plant flora together just because they were native to Florida, with no regard to intent or aesthetics. Any good landscape architect should have known that the amount of bees attracted to the sweet acacia would make sitting in the small backyard sometimes unbearable. The sweet acacia should have been placed closer to the fence, away from where anyone would be sitting. But Miguel kept this all to himself.

The bees did their work, indiscriminately sipping from all that Cristina's backyard offered. They buzzed with no regard to the juxtaposition of plants, the house that was in disrepair, Cristina's family in Havana, or Cristina and Miguel's secret relationship. They just buzzed and worked diligently.

"What are we gonna do, Miguel?"

"About what?"

"C'mon, it's getting more and more difficult hiding our relationship. I feel like a fugitive. That's not fair to me."

Miguel finished the last scoop of the milky cake and gasped. "You know my parents and friends won't . . . "

"I hate hiding," Cristina said, taking Miguel's plate that was now attracting some straggling bees that found the tres leches syrup more enticing than anything the sweet acacia, pawpaw, or cocoplum could offer.

Miguel tickled his girlfriend in the ribs, "Everything's fine. Stop worrying."

"It's not fair to me," Cristina reiterated. "I'm not ashamed of what I do. It's not who I am, just what I do."

"I know that. You don't need to explain yourself to me. You know, if you ever wanted, I'm sure I can get you a job with Jorge and me."

"Why?"

Not having any good answer to give her, knowing he couldn't compete with the salary and tips she made dancing, Miguel whispered, "Just an idea."

After sitting in silence for what seemed an eternity, Miguel added, "Why can't we just keep things the way they are? It's good, isn't it?"

"You never listen."

"My parents would . . . "

"Forget your parents!" For once, Dios mio, forget what anybody thinks."

Miguel sat stunned that Cristina would say something like that.

"You make me feel ashamed, Miguel. No boyfriend should ever make you feel bad about what you do. It's not right. Maybe it's time to call it quits," Cristina blurted, looking straight into Miguel's green eyes.

"What? How can you say that? I love you. I didn't choose to fall for you, but I did! And that's that, Cristina, por favor." Miguel started raising his voice.

Cristina stayed quiet for a couple seconds, enjoying Miguel's forcefulness. Miguel rubbed Cristina's thighs softly.

"We have to deal with the consequences. That's all," Cristina said, moving Miguel's hands away. "If we're going to stay together, we have to be strong enough to deal with whatever comes our way."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want to live free, Miguel. Stop all this childish hiding."

At a loss for ameliorating words, waving at a bee that strayed from the hive, Miguel just stared into Cristina's hazelnut eyes. He could hear his father in his head, We didn't come to this country so you could date a stripper! Bad enough you work like a beast in the fields! But there was no conveying this to her. How could she understand what he was going through?

All he could do was gently press his lips against hers. Guiding the kiss, he held her face with both hands, her brown lips countering his. Without words, he reminded her why it was impossible for them to live without each other.

"Stop," Cristina protested, wanting to touch him all over. "Not here."

Miguel wondered of the day that they wouldn't have to hide in her backyard or park out far in some field, the day they wouldn't have to have the same conversation over and over.

"Look, I won't let you down. It'll all work out," Miguel whispered in her ear.

"You tell me the same thing . . . "

"Coño, Cristina, what more do you want from me?"

"I gotta go," Cristina said, giving Miguel a kiss on his sunburned cheek.

"When are we gonna see each other again? Can you get me into the club tonight? I like watching you dance." Without a fake ID, it was impossible to get into Cristina's place of work.

"I don't want you going there. Lipstick is not the place for us to be together. Plus I can't concentrate with you there. I can't dance knowing you're watching."

Cristina got up to go inside and paint her face. Miguel stared at her ass as she walked away. He needed a cigarette, so he got up and walked towards his Beamer, frustrated that all they did was have the same conversation day after day. Same broken record, same cha cha cha.

Speeding off to the Circle K for a pack of Marlboro's, he left the bees at their work. Sipping. Buzzing. Warm. Free.




Agustin Martinez's novel, The Mares of Lenin Park, won the Prize Americana for Prose in and was published by Press Americana/Hollywood Books International. His short stories have appeared in Arcadia Literary Journal, The Binnacle, The th Parallel Magazine, The Write Room, Apropos Literary Journal, The Adirondack Review, Press and HinchasdePoesia. He is a former high school principal, English teacher, and translator living in the DC metro area. While a translator and managing editor, he published as work-for-hire The Multicultural Spanish Dictionary, How Everyday Spanish Differs from Country to Country. His one-act play, Blasphemous Rumours, was produced at the Florida International University Theatre (Miami), and his 10-minute play, Ham and Eggs, was produced at the Silver Spring Stage One-Act Festival (Silver Spring, MD). The latter play was also a finalist at the Actors Theatre of Louisville 10-minute play competition and was published in Palooka Journal.


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