I was warm next to Noah, but shivered anyway. The charcoal clouds did something to the atmosphere of Little Havana. The Domino Park was abandoned, but a few men still huddled in the rain next to the mural at the entrance, under the eaves of one of the small tents. Their eyes followed us as we passed. Smoke curled from the entrance of a cigar shop nearby, mingling with the rain and the incense from the computer repair store in front of us. The neon sign buzzed and hummed in my ear.
“This is it,” Noah said. “1821 Calle Ocho.”
I looked at the sign. “But it says it’s a computer repair store.”
“It does indeed.”
We peered into the shop, pressing our faces to the cloudy glass. Electronics and dissembled computer parts mingled with large terra cotta urns and an army of porcelain statues. I looked at Noah. He shrugged. I went in.
A bell jangled behind us as we entered the narrow store-front. Two young boys peeked out from above a glass counter with no adults in sight.
My eyes wandered inside the store, over the rows of shelves lined with plastic bins. Inside the bins, in no discernible order, there were halved coconut husks, bear-shaped containers of honey, several types of shells, rusty horseshoes, ostrich eggs, absorbent cotton, tiny jingle bells, packages of white plastic flip-flops, beads, and candles. Stacks of candles of every size, shape, and color; candles with Jesus emblazoned on the front, and candles with naked women emblazoned on the front. There were even dozens of varieties of ice cream sundae candles. And … handcuffs. What was this place?
“Can I help you?”
Noah and I turned around. A dark-haired young woman on crutches appeared in a door frame between the main store-front and a back room.
Noah raised his eyebrows. “We’re here for the seminar,” he said. “Is this the right place?”
“Si, yes, come,” she said, beckoning us over. We followed her into another narrow room with plastic patio chairs arranged on the white tile floor. She handed us two pamphlets and Noah handed her money. Then she disappeared.
“Thanks,” I said to him as we sat in the back of the room. “I’m sure this wasn’t how you planned on spending your Saturday.”
“I’ll be honest, I was hoping you’d suggest the beach,” he said and shook out his damp hair, “but I consider live entertainment a close second.”
I grinned. I was starting to feel better, more normal. More sane. My eyes wandered around the white room. Hospital white, and the fluorescent lights made it brighter. It contrasted oddly with the furniture—grandma furniture, really. A brown and yellow armchair, a pea green cabinet, more shelves with candles. Strange.
Someone coughed to my left; I turned my head and a pale, thin man dressed in a white robe, wearing white flip-flops and with a white triangular hat on his head, sat in the row in front of us. Noah and I exchanged a look. The other attendees were more normally attired; a heavyset woman with short, curly blond hair in jean shorts fanned herself with a pamphlet. Two identical middle-aged men with mustaches sat in the far corner of the room, whispering to each other. They wore jeans.
Just then, the speaker walked up to the podium and introduced himself. I was surprised to see him wearing a crisp suit, given that he was supposed to be a priest. A priest of what, I did not know.
Mr. Lukumi arranged his papers before smiling broadly and scanning the few filled seats. Then our eyes met. His went wide with surprise.
I turned around, wondering if someone behind me had caught his attention, but no one was there. Mr. Lukumi cleared his throat, but when he spoke, his voice shook.
I was being paranoid. Paranoid paranoid paranoid. And stupid. I focused on the lecture and on Noah, as he took an exaggerated interest in what was being said. I’m not sure what I expected, but hearing Mr. Lukumi discuss the mystical properties of candles and bead necklaces wasn’t it.
Noah cracked me up as he pretended to actively listen; nodding and murmuring at the most inappropriate moments. We passed the Cuban sandwich he’d bought back and forth during the seminar and at one point, I struggled so hard not to laugh that I almost choked on it. If nothing else, I was having some badly needed, well deserved fun after the hellish week.
When the talk ended, Noah went to the front of the room to chat up Mr. Lukumi as the handful of other attendees filtered out. I went to explore.
There was only one small window in the room, and it was partially hidden by a shelf. An overflow of rain gurgled out of a storm drain, sounding like a muffled plug-in fountain through the glass barrier. My eyes scanned the labels of dozens of tiny bottles and jars of herbs and liquids in front of me; “mystic bath,” “recuperation of love life,” “luck,” “confusion.”
Confusion. I reached out to inspect the bottle just as something squawked behind me. I whipped around and, in the process, dislodged a poured candle from the shelf. It fell in slow motion then smashed against the tile, the glass casing splitting into a thousand little diamond shards. Noah and Mr. Lukumi both turned in my direction, just as a small silver cup with jingle bells on it tipped over.
Mr. Lukumi’s eyes flicked to the cup, then to me. “Get out,” he said, as he approached.
His tone stunned me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Mr. Lukumi crouched and examined the broken glass, then raised his eyes to mine. “Just go,” he said, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was urgent.
“Wait a minute,” Noah said, growing annoyed. “There’s no call to be rude. I’ll pay for it.”
Mr. Lukumi rose from his crouch and reached for my arm. But at the last second, he didn’t take it. His tall figure loomed over mine. Intimidating.
“There is nothing for you here,” he said slowly. “Please leave.”
Noah appeared at my side. “Back up,” he said to Mr. Lukumi, his voice low. Dangerous. The priest did so without pause, but his eyes never left mine.
I was beyond confused, and speechless. The three of us stood still a few feet from the doorway. One of the children giggled in the other room. I tried to orient myself, to figure out what I’d done that was so insulting and examined Mr. Lukumi’s face in the process. His eyes met mine, and something flashed behind them. Something I didn’t expect.
“You know something,” I said to him quietly, not sure how I knew. I registered Noah’s surprise in my peripheral vision as I stared Mr. Lukumi down. “You know what’s happening to me.” The words felt true.