Published on January 30th, 2014 | by Sarah Maria Medina0
HIBISCUS: Sarah Maria Medina on Longing
Before I knew I was pregnant with my daughter, I dreamed about her one night while I was still in Havana. In the barrio by the sea. Alone in bed, I slept beneath a single sheet. The next morning, I wrote a poem about my daughter, to remember her words. In the dream, she had told me she knew she was African, because her mother had told her so. Now, I know this to be true. I am the one who tells her she is African, because her father is in Venezuela. I am the one who reads to her at night, and takes her to the river to pick flowers in the morning. I am the one, while at the river, who wonders if I will have a partner again, and if my partner will be a woman. In the mountains of Mexico, my life has become fixated on the stars that each night weave through the dark dome. My life has become woven with different threads: the sounds of the crickets that fill our ears, the perpetual barking of stray dogs, letters that have begun to arrive from Mexico City. And the occasional dreams of Hibiscus, like the one that woke me this morning. She didn’t stay long in this mountain town, but I still remember the way she spoke Spanish.
Hibiscus had come from Guatemala that day, crossed over the border, under the heat of noon sun. Immigration had stamped her passport, and her boots tread through the dust to the other side, past men with handfuls of quetzales, children with sticky candy hands, and old women in the shade of the sun. When she arrived, she carried the essence of tortillas and lake salt. She carried the echo of tepees and laughter, but the kind of laughter that comes after long sobs. She had an edge to her, a stillness. She spoke Spanish with me. I had just woken up with my daughter, from an evening nap. My hair piled high like a bird nest, my mascara smudged, I walked into the living room. She stood by the ladder that led to a loft, by the fireplace. Her Spanish was spoken with a Brooklyn accent, like the streets were right there with her. There was a break in her manner of speaking for every sacrifice she ever made, for every dime she tucked away in her pocket, for every mermaid’s tail she found herself between. Her grip left my hand with the sea shore.
Hibiscus had come to meet her group of travelers. By chance they had arrived at my doorstep the day before. And then she arrived the next day, with her girlfriend. Somewhere in the hours of night, after the fire burned out, and the eight of us walked the streets of the mountain town in Mexico, I began to feel that familiar hum inside my ribcage. That feeling of longing, of the need to be desired. But more than that. In Spanish, it is anhelo. But anhelo doesn’t mean touched. I respected her girlfriend, who had arrived by her side. Her girlfriend could have been called Melon, for the fullness that she carried with her. But with the Spanish pronunciation, melón, where the first syllables are hard, alongside the accented second. Not just for the way she moved so comfortably inside her body, but also for the ripeness that she found around her, like she was making life, like an eight limbed woman.
Each time I saw them, that feeling of anhelo kept rising up inside my chest. I wrote my ex-lover from college, Honor, declaring that I had fallen in love, secretly. At the same time, I promised myself I would not confide in Hibiscus. I had already long ago decided to never have another open relationship, or love triangle again. Besides, she and Melon were obviously in love. Maybe her presence was only meant to remind me of what it feels like to love a woman. To remind me to later be open to letters that would come from Mexico City, from a woman who wears feathered silver earrings, and says she loves the shape of homes made like tepees, a woman whose first language is Spanish. Maybe that is why Hibiscus and her presence made the air thick around me, maybe. If the Universe could talk, would she tell me to listen?
I hadn’t felt that feeling since before I had my daughter, before Cuba, before I had left Seattle, before my lover Levi had left on tour. Her tour bus headed out from Seattle to Los Angeles, then somewhere she became part of the Paris scene, and arrived in European tabloids. We stopped talking, and I stopped talking about her. I moved to another country, where no one has her name. Where her songs don’t come on the radio. Coming to Mexico wasn’t an escape from her. I came because I had fallen in love with a language, and couldn’t bare to be far from the sounds of Spanish for long. It is my grandmother’s native tongue, and speaking it makes me feel closer to home, closer to belonging somewhere. Though I am the palest daughter of my family, all of my siblings were registered by our father with the United Confederation of Taíno People. We are part of the Diaspora, born state side. We have all in one way or another, sought back our (grand)mother tongue.
In Havana, I had the Lila rooftop parties. In Seattle, when I lived not far from Pike Street, there was Levi. We were pressed up against club walls, our lips bruised. We were in bed as the sun rose, a record of Nina Simone still spinning. When she left, Solace would come up the cement stairs of my flat, and seek me back from my sadness with his Southern talk. He brought me pieces of sugar cane stalk. The sweetness burned away the scent of Levi that had still lingered in the back of my throat. And before Levi, I lived in Chinatown with my girlfriend Thunder. We would walk through the streets littered with red firecracker paper. I would stop and stare at the ancient fish in the tank through the window of a Chinese restaurant. I would talk about rescuing her, and Thunder would smile. We spent summers inside the brick apartment, the shades drawn to the heat, sipping fresh Moroccan mint tea that our Spanish neighbor had prepared. Honor lived on the second floor with her girlfriend. Evenings we would find ourselves to the barren rooftop with our other neighbors who had become some of my dearest friends. The gulls had quieted, and our laughter reigned. One friend, Perpetual Beauty, often had insomnia. We would slip notes beneath each other’s door, checking to see if the other was awake. We stayed up until dawn one morning baking, neither of us able to sleep. That was after Thunder had left to Manhattan. I had thought about having a child, but it was far off in the distant future. Like another life. And now that I have my daughter, when I think back to those moments before, it is as though they are separate worlds. The life of the Lila parties, and the quiet life we lead now. Hibiscus came through the mountain town. She found us in our quietness.
Hibiscus, I named her that in my journal, because of the potency of the red flower, because of the edibility, because of the contrast between delicacy and strength. Witnessing this love that was building slowly inside my chest, was like simultaneously visiting a graveyard with flowers. An unkempt grave with a blue cross. Like a miscarried fetus, or something else that never had the chance to grow. A vacant mango tree after the hurricane. Footsteps erased on a seashore by high tide. The echoes of Rumba, after the last tambour has been set down. I was bursting with happiness and filled with despair. I kept my mouth closed, and my eyes cast aside or to the blue heavens. I wanted to ask her if she liked to sleep in tall grass, if she could imagine my daughter’s small fist pressed into her side as we slept on a hillside to the howling wind. I wanted to know if she could handle waking early in the morning to a child’s cries, and if she liked her coffee black.
Hibiscus wore her dreads long, and woven into a crown. She spoke in a hushed voice, dressed in jeans and boots. Her masculine was to my feminine sway, like a moon dipped in gold. She had come from the lake in Guatemala. The same lake I escape to every six months, when I need to cross the border, when my visa expires. They say the lake is magical. They say that there is a temple below the lake where you can go to pray at night while you dream. They say the three volcanoes create mystical powers. They say Hibiscus is a painter of shadows. I began to wonder if she was real when I was at the lake again, when I went to renew my visa. The stars folded back over me, there, with my daughter by my side. The stars were like a blanket that covered us, soothed us back to sleep, made me forget what I had left back across the border in the mountain town.
This was not the first time a woman in my family had fallen in love with a woman, she could not make love with. Back on the ranch in Eastern Washington, in the late sixties, a woman named Laine had packed up her guitar, her four children, and driven away. She left her husband and his wild horses tamed behind a crooked wooden fence. Tall with Native cheekbones, his skin burned brown from the harsh desert-like-sun, her absence left him with her letter in his closed fist. She had gone to the coast of Washington, not far from La Push, where the sea churns her own mysteries. Laine wove her red hair into a braid, and made love with a woman. She knew the heartbreak of loving someone who felt like you. She understood the knowledge of losing your lover, when your lover is a woman. She kept her own secrets.
Back in Mexico, one night, Hibiscus came to me in a dream. She said she couldn’t be with me because of her girlfriend. Her magic juju heart had felt mine asking, and she had come to tell me she couldn’t be with me. I woke, remembering her again. I woke to the rooster’s crows, and the pack of wild dogs howling. I woke to the loneliness that cries out from the corners of this haunted adobe house. A house that sometimes feels like a womb, and other times feels like the corners are weeping. Though the hummingbirds that come in the morning always sing the blues away. And there is a lone bird that sings her last song after dark has descended. She races her call against the night. These sounds call me back to an earthier me, keep from whispering any kind of call to Hibiscus. No chants or love spells beneath pillows planted as seeds in the garden. No questions to her godmother on top of the hill. No chaos when the rains spill from the clouds and create a river. Just a simple goodbye, letting the images from the night fall from the palm of my hand into the dusty prints her boots left behind.