Esperanza hung around long enough to get the official cause of death. Which was a heart attack, just like her stepfather. Upon hearing this, she packed up her two leather bags with money, skirts, blouses, and sandals and headed up to the city of Oaxaca. She’d had enough of the beach and left her bathing suit behind.
On the bus, she couldn’t help but suspect it—two lovers, two heart attacks. Was she the daughter of the devil? Was she cursed? Could she never be able to make love to a man without killing him?
She knew nothing about the city, but found out right away that it was beautiful. She got a room at a boarding house as soon as she arrived and then went out to take in the city on foot. Oaxaca was filled with bright, vibrant colors. The streets were lined with buildings. Every one painted its own combination of loud colors. Each edifice butted up to the next. They were so close together that the only way one could identify the property line was by where the cobalt blue paint ended and the canary yellow began.
As Esperanza took everything in, she kept an eye out for two things in particular: a place where she could get an answer to a crucial question, and a place where she could satisfy her sweet tooth.
The dulcería came first. She could smell the Buen Día Dulcería as soon as she turned the corner. She had been following the breadcrumbs leading her there. Happy children with big smiles or rings of chocolate around their mouths showed her the way.
The candy store had wooden barrels filled with all kinds of different candy. There were the typical cheap, hard candies. Two pesos. Taffy. Three pesos. Candied fruit of all flavors. Four pesos. Caramels and milk-based candies to include some chocolates. Five pesos. But what caught Esperanza’s eye were the ones with the price tag of ten pesos.
These chocolates sat behind a glass case, protected from thieves as if they were diamonds, not chocolate. They were evenly space on polished copper trays. Each different chocolate had its own tray. Today there were three platters: chocolate-covered almond clusters; strawberry chocolates, which were small pieces of soft strawberry candy covered in chocolate; and what looked like just plain pieces of chocolate. It turns out, these had a little chili powder in them.
“Disculpe, Señor. Can you tell me why these chocolates cost so much?”
“Because I make them myself, Señorita. From this,” the chocolatier said, holding up a raw cocoa bean pod.
Esperanza had a look of both shock and happiness, like a child who just woke up on Christmas morning. She turned her gaze back to the chocolates in the glass and said, “I’ll have one of each. No, two!”
She gladly paid the sixty pesos and had one of the almond clusters in her mouth before she made it out the door. Outside, on a bench, Esperanza ate each chocolate one at a time. By the time she finished them, she had concluded that the one she cared for the least was the strawberry. She thought it too sweet. She loved the crunch of the almond clusters, but her favorites that day were the plain chocolate pieces.
Esperanza realized that desserts were one area she had yet to get any experience in. A new city, a new skill, and a new start. Yes, she thought. This man will teach me how to make chocolates.
“Absolutely not,” said Don Miguel Garcia, the chocolate maker and owner of the Buen Día Dulcería. “I don’t have time to teach anyone anything. I’m very busy here.”
“I can help you. I’ll work for you.”
“I cannot afford to hire anyone.”
“I’ll work for free.”
And that is how Esperanza became the apprentice to the chocolatier Don Miguel Garcia.
With her new job, Esperanza decided she would stay in Oaxaca for a while and got herself a little apartment. Down the street from the apartment was a dance club that doubled as a dance studio in the early hours of the evening. Along with learning how to make chocolate, Esperanza decided she would learn to dance as well. The dance teacher was a cocky Spaniard named Antonio Cruz, Esperanza’s third lover.
For the next two years, Esperanza studied chocolate and dance. Eventually, Don Miguel started paying her a little something. The amount didn’t really matter. Working with Don Miguel was a pleasure. The man was a patient teacher and was kind overall. Esperanza would have paid for the experience. She had plenty of money from her years in Puerto Escondido.
Antonio Cruz, however, seemed to be the complete opposite of Don Miguel. He was neither patient nor kind. He would ridicule students who couldn’t stay in step or remember a combination. And at every opportunity he found, he would brag about the country he’d left as a teenager more than fifteen years before. Whenever the words, “In my country” came out, everyone around prepared themselves for a line of bullshit.
Regardless of all this, Antonio Cruz went to bed with whichever of his students he wanted to, whenever he wanted. They couldn’t help themselves. There was something about seeing someone practice the gift God gave him that made him irresistible, no matter how much of an ass he was. There was no denying it, Antonio danced beautifully. This alone was enough to seduce most women, but for good measure, he was also handsome. Esperanza couldn’t believe she was attracted to such a jerk, but she was.
There were two reasons why Esperanza did not go to bed with Antonio Cruz. One, because he told her she would: “It will just be a matter of time before we end up in bed,” he said to her the evening of her first dance class. The other reason was the chance she might kill him.
One day while Esperanza dipped fried banana chips into chocolate and then laid them on wax paper to cool, Don Miguel asked her, “Is there something wrong?”
Esperanza looked down at the chocolate-covered banana chips, not finding anything she could identify as wrong, and then dipped her pinky into warm chocolate and tasted it. “No, I don’t think so.”
“No, not with the chocolate,” Don Miguel hesitated. “With you? I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. It’s just that it’s been nearly two years since you arrived here, and I haven’t seen you in the company of a man. Forgive me for saying so, but you’re a beautiful, young woman who could have anyone you want. I’m just curious as to why you choose to be alone.”
It’s not that Esperanza needed a man to be happy. Her happiness came from doing the things she loved, like dancing and cooking…though she felt the prospects of becoming a mother were very low without a man. The truth was, she did wonder what it would be like to have someone special in her life, but could not move forward without knowing for certain whether or not making love to her was fatal. She kept all these thoughts to herself and instead answered the Don by saying. “I think I’m cursed.”
“What do you mean?” Don Miguel said as he gave a vat of chocolate a stir with a wooden spoon.
Regretting her words, Esperanza said, “Well, it’s rather private, Don Miguel. Let’s just say I’ve been seeking help and haven’t had any luck.”
“Who have you gone to?”
“Every fortune-teller in town. So far, all that I’ve learned is that they are all fakes.”
“Yes, they are merely entertainment for tourists.”
“Well, I wished I checked with you prior to going. I would have saved myself a lot of money.”
“I know of a woman,” the Don said. “She is thought of as an Aztec medicine woman. She predicted my life as a chocolatier. Which may not have been such a magical prediction, being that she’s the one who taught me how to make chocolate. Chocolate is a Nahuatl word, by the way. I will take you to her when we are done here.”
“How do you know of this woman?” Esperanza asked.
“She is my mother.”
With all the chocolates for the next day made, Don Miguel locked up the candy shop and escorted Esperanza to his home. The house looked like all the other buildings in Oaxaca, but when Esperanza walked through the open door that was a cut-out of an even larger door, she could not believe her eyes. The house looked like a two-story hotel with an open-air garden right in the middle, complete with a fountain, though it didn’t work.
Right away Esperanza thought that Don Miguel could afford to pay her a little more, but later she found out that the house had been a gift from his father-in-law. The Don’s wife was the rich man’s only daughter.
Don Miguel walked Esperanza to his mother’s room and yelled out, “Mamá.” He then put two ten-peso coins in Esperanza’s palm. “She will insist on being paid,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get the money back. She thinks I need it.”
The old woman slowly appeared out of the darkness of her room. She wore all black, including a lace veil. She was in mourning, even though she had been a widow for nearly twenty years.
“Mamá, this young lady needs your help,” the Don said to his mother and then gestured to Esperanza to follow her into the room. “I’ll let you have your privacy. If I’m not around when you finish, let yourself out.” Esperanza followed the old woman into the dark room.
A combination of Aztec and Catholic relics decorated the room. From the outside, it appeared dark, but was actually well lit with more than a dozen flickering candles. The old lady took a seat at a table and Esperanza sat in a chair opposite of her. There was an uncomfortable silence for several seconds, until Esperanza remembered the coins in her hand. She laid the pesos on the table, and the medicine woman quickly picked them up and stashed them away.
“Tus manos,” the woman said.
Esperanza put her hands on the table and the woman picked them up and studied her palms. The Señora looked confused. After a while, she gave up and looked up to stare into Esperanza’s green eyes. Esperanza waited patiently until the old woman finally spoke. “I can’t help you,” she said as she took out the coins and put them back on the table. “Your spirit is blocked by a higher power.”
“No,” Esperanza pleaded. “I need your help! I’m desperate. I need to know if I am cursed.”
Having pity on the beautiful, young girl the Don’s mother said, “Tell me your troubles and I can give you my advice, but it will just be from me, not from the Gods themselves.”
Esperanza hesitated for a minute, wondering if she should actually say what was troubling her. No one on earth knew what happened to her the two times she’d made love. At the most, they only knew of one event, but not both. She decided that it was time someone knew.
“Señora, the two times I have made love resulted in the men dying while still inside of me. I need to know if I am cursed, if this is my destiny.”
“Young lady, twice is luck. Good or bad. Three times is destiny.” Satisfied with her own answer, the medicine woman swiped the two coins off the table into her hand, concluding that she had earned the pesos after all.
Esperanza left Don Miguel’s home, dumbfounded. She still had no idea whether she was cursed or not. Though now she knew of a way to find out.
She still needed to work on her mariposa, reverse cross-body lead, and, of course, her hand stylings. Hand styling alone made a woman look like she knew what she was doing on the dance floor, as long as she stayed in step. Esperanza still had too much to learn and couldn’t take the chance of sleeping with Antonio right away. She would wait.
Of course, she could have conducted her little test on some other poor soul. Many men made their desire to have her very clear, but she looked at it two ways: By making love to Antonio, she would be giving herself to someone she had wanted for a long time. If he lived, maybe she would let him have her again. If he died, she would rid the world of a pompous, womanizing ass.
In the meantime, Esperanza spent the next several weeks perfecting her skills, both on the dance floor and in Don Miguel’s candy shop.
The day Esperanza realized she had learned everything she could about dancing from Antonio, she hadn’t had the courage to make her move. She didn’t have the courage for two more weeks’ worth of lessons. Eventually, her desire to finally find out the truth overcame her, and she asked Antonio if he gave private dance lessons. He knew what this meant. It was how all the women made their move. He thought this day would come, but had almost lost faith after the first two years. “Sure,” he said. “Come by my apartment tonight at nine o’clock.”
Esperanza knocked on the door at precisely nine p.m. She could hear the music coming from inside. Her heart was pounding.
Antonio opened the door and greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. He then took her hand and led her into his apartment as if he were escorting her onto the dance floor. He took her right hand in his cupped left hand and put his other on her back. When the two began to dance Antonio asked, “What did you want to work on tonight?”
“I want to make love,” Esperanza answered.
“Of course,” he said, giving out a little giggle.
“What’s so funny,” she asked.
“Nothing. It’s just that in my country you have to make an effort to seduce a woman. Spanish women are not so easy.”
Shut up, pendejo! Esperanza thought but didn’t say.
In the bedroom, Esperanza quickly removed her three articles of clothing. Her blouse, her skirt, and her custom-made sandals. Antonio was shocked at how the woman who had waited over two years now seemed so eager to make love. Regardless, seeing the most beautiful woman he had ever known lying naked in his bed aroused him, and he eagerly undressed and got on the bed with her.
Years of having women throw themselves at him had made Antonio a lazy lover. He entered her right away, not taking any time for foreplay. Despite being a talented dancer, Antonio was a terrible lay. Even a woman as inexperienced as Esperanza was bored with his performance.
She stopped him and slid out from underneath him. Ignorant, Antonio did not pick up that she was dissatisfied, but assumed she just wanted to change positions. He turned over on his back and placed both his hands behind his head.
Not sure what to do, even thinking of just leaving, Esperanza stared at the naked man with his erection pointing toward the ceiling. That’s when it occurred to her that a woman could be on top—could do all the work, so to speak. Something Antonio was more than willing to let her do.
Esperanza decided to stay and crawled on top of him, awkwardly fitting his erection into her. Sitting there, on top of him, Esperanza realized she didn’t know what to do. Antonio was no help, just lying there looking at her. Suddenly, a new song came on, a cumbia. Esperanza loved salsa music, but loved the rhythm of a cumbia more. She instinctively started moving her hips to the beat.
Chuga-cha, chuga-cha, went the rhythm of the song as Esperanza rocked her hips back and forth to the tempo. In time, she found that she was enjoying herself. Never in her life had she felt this much physical pleasure. Chuga-cha, chuga-cha!
Getting lost in the music and the joy of lovemaking, Esperanza looked up in ecstasy, closing her eyes. She continued to move her hips to the music, concentrating on the tension that was building deep in her body. She felt Antonio’s hand cup her bouncing breasts, and this helped build the tension even more. Chuga-cha, Chuga-cha!
Soon, she felt she was losing control of her body. No longer in sync with the music, she was bucking wildly to her own beat. She now understood why people loved sex, and, for a brief second, she envisioned a lifetime of lovemaking. That’s when she felt Antonio’s hands release her breasts and then fall to her side.
She froze, with her head still cocked all the way back. She slowly began to bring her head forward, only opening one eye, afraid of what she was going to see.
Only one word came to mind when she saw her dead lover: Destiny.
The next morning, the death of Antonio Cruz was the talk of the town. Everyone had pity in their heart for the poor girl who was in bed with him when he passed. Some even knew that the poor girl was Esperanza, but most didn’t. She had nothing to hide. No one would ever have guessed that she had actually killed him with her passion. Plus, would a murderer notify the authorities?
With the music still playing, Esperanza sat on top of the dead Antonio Cruz, thinking of what to do. But, before she could come up with anything, she felt the need to vomit.
After emptying the contents of her stomach, Esperanza lay on the bathroom floor, naked and sobbed. She found herself not crying for poor Antonio but for her realization that she was cursed, that she was destined to forever be alone, never to take a lover ever again.
After getting her composure, she got dressed and headed straight to the police station, where she reported that her partner had quit breathing while making love. She feared no repercussions. She was obviously distraught, and there would be no signs of foul play. In the end, his death would be ruled a heart attack.
Esperanza felt bad for having killed a man. Only the fact that she didn’t know the outcome for certain, ahead of time, brought her peace. She thought for a long time of how to handle this curse of hers. In the end, all she could think of was to stay away from men for the rest of her life. Knowing what she now knew, she could never allow herself to make love to another man ever again. To do so would be murder.
The next morning, despite the goings-on of the night before, Esperanza decided to continue on with her life and went to work at the candy store. She walked in to find Don Miguel spreading cocoa beans out to dry. Right away, she knew he was unhappy with her.
“This curse you spoke of,” the Don inquired. “This was it, wasn’t it?”
Obviously, he was aware of what had happened. “Yes, Don Miguel,” she answered as tears welled up in her eyes.
“And this thing, it happened in Puerto Escondido? It’s why you left?”
“Yes, Don Miguel.” The tears were now rolling down her face.
“How could you do this, knowing your history?”
“Twice is luck. Good or bad. Three times…”
“Is Destiny,” Don Miguel finished. He tossed fistfuls of cocoa beans in the air as he brought his hands to his forehead. Nothing more needed to be explained to him with regards to why she had done it.
“Who else knows about this? About what happened in Puerto Escondido and last night!”
“Just you and, possibly, your mother, when she hears the news. If she does.”
“Oh, she’ll hear about it alright. Gossip is her full-time job. But we don’t have to worry about her. Confidentiality is part of the arrangement. Even if she did say anything, no one will believe a crazy, old medicine woman. It’s not her I’m concerned about. Word travels fast in this state.”
Don Miguel continued, “With Puerto Escondido being only a day’s bus ride away, people travel there often to take in the beach and vice versa. It could be weeks or months, but someone will tell the story of what happened there to someone who knows what happened here. And if they don’t know your name, they’ll surely know your description. The authorities are sure to find out. In the least, you will be jailed on suspicion. I’m sorry Esperanza, you must leave Oaxaca.”
Esperanza was now crying into her hands. Don Miguel could see her remorse. Feeling he was partially at fault, he decided to help her. He put a handful of wet cocoa beans in her hands and told her, “Here. Take over for me. I’ve got something to do.” Don Miguel dried his hands on his apron and said, “Don’t worry. I’m going to help you. It’s the least I can do.”
Esperanza dried her eyes and blew her nose, and got to work on spreading out the cocoa beans. When she finished that task, she started the work of grinding up a batch of cacao nibs. Don Miguel returned a couple hours later.
“I sent a letter to a friend of mine who lives far from here. We should hear back from her in a week or so. If it’s good news, I’ll fill you in on the rest. Until then, keep working here in the shop as if everything is normal and go straight home each day when we are done. It will be in your best interest to be a recluse from now until you leave.”
Esperanza did as the Don requested. It wasn’t hard to do as she didn’t feel like doing much more than sleeping and working. About a week later, she came to the Buen Día Dulcería to find Don Miguel with a smile on his face.
“My friend has agreed to take you on as her apprentice. She is a baker and gourmet chef. She has a lot to teach you. As long as you are her apprentice, you can board with her as well.”
“Thank you, Don Miguel! When shall I leave?”
“Right now,” he said. “Go to your apartment and pack your things. Then go straight to the bus station. Draw as little attention to yourself as possible. Here, cover yourself with this.” Don Miguel tossed her a black shawl. “It’s my mother’s. It’s the least she could do. Take the first bus available. It doesn’t matter where. Stay the night there, and the next morning start making your way up north.”
“Where am I going?” Esperanza asked.
“Guanajuato,” Don Miguel answered.