Quantum Love Story
By Joe Menchaca
There is no death…only a change of worlds.
Baltimore Reynolds was about to address his ex-wife Carmelita’s request when three sicarios with tattooed faces slithered into the bar and opened fire.
An hour earlier, Baltimore agreed to meet her at The Silver Bullet Saloon, thinking it an opportunity to exact a megaton of revenge for the humiliating way she dumped him in this reality. They met in a Physics for Non-Science Majors class that Baltimore, a research physicist, taught. Carmelita SpeaksToOwls Ruiz was a graduate Cultural Anthropology major, and to Baltimore, the most beautiful woman in nine dimensions: Straight black hair that fell to her waist and moved like whispers when she tossed her head back and laughed, skin like liquid caramel, and eyes as dark and infinite as a black hole. But an aura of danger emanated from her like radiation from plutonium fuel rods. It should have been a warning.
The Silver Bullet was in a part of Old Twosuns where desperation and hopelessness were the dominant social currencies, and even with Google Maps and GTS, it had taken him the better part of that hour to find the place. Baltimore opened the door, and the stench of stale beer and vomit whooshed passed him like a drunk frat boy’s breath at a pledge party. Already peeved that meeting Carmelita might cause him to miss a consultation with his business partner, he nearly turned around and walked away. Reluctantly, he stepped in, paused to let nausea fade and for his eyes to adjust, and scanned the room.
A dark, dingy blind made of partially rusted metal slats covering the front window sliced thin, horizontal bars of sunlight through clouds of cigarette smoke, which hung in the air like smog over an LA freeway, and a mournful wail rose from a smudged and dusty jukebox slumped against the wall next to the window. Feeble light from several randomly placed fixtures with beer logo shades shined through the thickening haze through which Baltimore discerned vague shapes of tables and booths. Carmelita sat in a booth in a dimly lit corner at the back of the room. She waved him over.
About a dozen early morning patrons slouched on backless stools or leaned on a wooden bar, scarred by initials and obscenities carved into its surface. All of them were smoking. All of them turned to inspect Baltimore. Thin, pale, button-up shirt, slacks, and a backpack—not at all intimidating, which in this place could be a favorable characteristic or a major liability, he thought. Baltimore had grown up in a white middle-class suburb and was, thus, unsure how to comport himself as he walked past the patrons. He decided on a confident but not haughty posture, even though he thought he’d need a tetanus shot after leaving the place.
He stepped up to the booth and was startled by her appearance. Carmelita’s skin had tightened around her face like Saran Wrap on a hambone, and several red angry sores marred her once flawless complexion. The ravages of ’cide. Her appearance sapped most of the energy out of his hunger for revenge, so rather than berate her looks, he said, “Geez, Carmelita, you couldn’t find a more lowlife dive?”
“This is the only place where nobody knows me,” she said.
“And that’s good because…?”
“I got a real problem, Baltimore, and only you can help me.”
“What, Ninja Boy ran off with someone else’s wife?”
“Shit, I dumped that fool a long time ago. No, I got real problems, Baltimore.” Carmelita lowered her head, casting suspicious glances around the room, and whispered, “I crossed El Ojo, and now they’re out to kill me.”
“El who?” Baltimore said a bit too loudly. A few barflies glanced in their direction—their moist, filmy eyes betraying little.
“Shh, keep your voice down, pendejo,” Carmelita said. “El Ojo de Oro. If they find me, they’re gonna cut my fucking head off.” Lips quivering, eyes moistening, she was on the brink of losing her composure. She paused to regain control and said, “Please, Baltimore, you’ve got to get me out of here!”
“Why would I want to do that?” he said.
“You’re not still pissed about Alex, are you?” Carmelita said.
“No, why would I be? I mean, the woman of my dreams—my wife—hooks up with a cretin on a Ninja and says, ‘adios, cabrón’ while the newlywed glow was still luminous and warm—for me, that is. And now, after I’ve finally moved on, she calls and says she needs my help. Why would I be ‘pissed’ about that?”
A slight smile curled her lips.
“You find that humorous?” Baltimore said. He was on the verge of losing his cool.
“No,” she said sweetly, “‘Adios, cabrón?’ Is that the Carmelita effect? ’Cause you know I didn’t say that to you.”
“You didn’t have to. And your diversionary tactics won’t work, Carmelita. Yes, I’m still pissed about Alex.”
“Come on, Baltimore, don’t be like that.” She couldn’t look at him and instead cast her gaze down at the dingy table. “I’m sorry I hurt you, Baltimore—”
“That’s it? ‘I’m sorry I hurt you?’ You shattered my heart like a chem lab beaker. And if that wasn’t enough, you shamed and embarrassed me in front of my friends and colleagues.”
“What else do you want me to say, Baltimore? Besides, it’s not like it’s all on me. You claim the ‘newlywed glow was still luminous and warm,’ but that’s not what it looked like from my perspective. Remember that hateful shit you said to me about believing in spirits?”
They had been talking about the native practice of infusing the natural world with spirit, and when she had tried to explain that natives believe all things, sentient or insentient, possess a spirit force, he had dismissed it as superstition and ignorance.
“Many things scientists dismiss do exist in the natural world,” Carmelita had said.
“Well, like spirits.”
“I’m sorry,” said Baltimore. “But I can’t accept ethereal entities of myths and legends as being real. And I’m finding it difficult to reconcile how you, an otherwise intelligent individual, can believe as real a paganistic, primitive belief with no basis in scientific fact, which offers no substantive proof of its existence.”
“I understand your dilemma, Baltimore, I really do, and I empathize with you because I face a similar dilemma: How can you, an otherwise intelligent individual, believe in a branch of physics that promotes theories like matter exists as probabilities, objective reality may be an illusion, and the universe might be a hologram?”
Baltimore nodded and said, “Great counter-point.” His upper lip curled up on one side, and anger swept across his eyes like light from a passing car’s headlights. “One big difference: Quantum phenomena have been observed in laboratory experiments. Can’t say that about spirits.”
“Have they? Didn’t you once say that scientists haven’t actually seen particles, that proof of their existence occurs when particles collide or pass through film?”
“Please, let me finish. My interpretation of ‘quantum phenomena’ is that a particle reveals itself under specific conditions and chooses the form—particle or wave. Unscientific phrasing, but generally speaking, true, right?”
“Generally speaking, yes.”
“Revealing itself under specific conditions—like rituals—and in what form is what a spirit does.”
He had turned away, his face reddening, and said, “Still superstitious pagan bullshit.”
The Silver Bullet’s gloomy environment hid the shame in Baltimore’s eyes. The self-reproach he’d felt at having once said such degrading and disrespectful things to Carmelita hadn’t diminished; he was about to apologize again, but Carmelita held up a gaunt hand to quiet him.
“Still, leaving you the way I did was a fucked-up thing to do, I know that,” she said, “like I know there’s no way I can ever make it right. But, please, Baltimore, you’ve got to help me; you gotta get me out of here.”
“I don’t understand why you called me. If you need to leave that badly, you could buy a plane ticket, a bus ticket—whatever mode of transportation suits you. Surely there must be many places where you could hide from El Ojo.”
“No.” Carmelita looked at him with an intensity that caught him by surprise. “El Ojo’s tentacles run far and deep. I mean, where’re you going to run from an organization whose motto is, ‘No hay donde esconderse’? And it’s not just a motto; it’s a code of honor members live by and are willing to die for.”
“Well, they can’t be that widespread. I haven’t ever heard or read anything about El Ojo de Oro.”
“Are you so sure?” Carmelita raised an eyebrow and smirked.
What did she mean by that? Baltimore wondered. Carmelita’s smirk, a sort of I-know-something-you-don’t-know sneer, fueled the ominous dread growing in his unconscious mind since he established a business partnership with Mr. LaTrans. “Of course, I’m sure,” he said. “It’s not like I socialize with gangsters.”
“El Ojo’s not a gang, Baltimore; they’re a criminal enterprise. They’re the country’s largest manufacturer and distributor of ’cide, and they prefer to operate in the shadows. But the organization doesn’t concern me as much as the assassins who work for them.” Fear accompanied intensity in her eyes. This troubled Baltimore, for Carmelita did not frighten easily. She was born on the Chalk Mountain Kai-yen-ta Indian Reserve and lived there until middle school when her parents divorced. Her mom then moved them to Phoenix, where Carmelita began running with gangbangers, and smoking and selling ’cide. Baltimore learned from her that showing fear in either environment made you a target or a victim.
“I’m telling you, Baltimore,” Carmelita said, her voice wavering in tone and volume, “those guys are death walking—it’s like they aren’t even human. And they absolutely will not stop until they give their boss my head.” She took a drink of beer and drew a long, slow breath as if preparing to dive into deep water. “No, Baltimore. There’s only one place they won’t find me. I want you to hide me wherever it is you go when you’re in your lab.”
“What?” Baltimore hoped his face didn’t lose color and betray his shock. He focused on assuming a façade of nonchalance and said, “I go to my lab when I’m in my lab.”
“Come on, Baltimore. You know what I’m talking about.” She dialed up the intensity—Baltimore was sure he squirmed. “My father says you can walk between worlds.”
“I have no idea what you or he are talking about.”
Baltimore’s attempted nonchalance was interrupted by the bartender—a large, bald man whose sneer exposed an abstract landscape of rotting and missing teeth—who bellowed, “Hey, college boy. You drink, or you walk.”
Ah, this is what ‘saved by the bell’ feels like, thought Baltimore. He hoped the interruption would divert the conversation. He smiled sweetly and asked, “Would you like another beer?”
“No, I don’t want another fucking beer.”
“Well, Shrek says I need to buy something.” Baltimore hoped the bartender didn’t hear that and considered what to order. Given the less-than-sanitary conditions, he ruled out anything in a glass. He turned, smiled at the bartender, and said, “I’ll have a bottle of India Pale Ale, please.”
“Ain’t got none of that yuppie shit here, dufus. All we got’s Budtz, Koors, and Miller.”
“A Budtzveiser it is, then.” Baltimore turned to speak to Carmelita.
The bartender opened a bottle and plunked it on the bar. “That’ll be three bucks.” Baltimore placed money on the table. “And I ain’t no fucking waitress,” Shrek thundered, causing the jagged, crescent-shaped scar on the left side of his face to flare a demonic reddish glow. Should I be surprised the bartender’s disposition matches his appearance, thought Baltimore; nonetheless, he was thankful for the distraction and the opportunity to regain his composure.
Baltimore put a five-dollar bill on the bar and said, “Keep the change.”
Shrek caught Baltimore’s wrist as he reached for the beer. “That ain’t enough,” he said. Before Baltimore could respond, the bartender added, “‘Cause you said you were buying a round for the bar, didn’t he, fellahs?” Shouts of “Hell, yeah,” and “Fucken A,” along with snickers and guffaws, erupted from the patrons. Baltimore stammered what could have been an objection as Shrek and the ‘fellahs’ laughed.
“No, he didn’t,” Carmelita said. She must have moved like a wraith because no one, including Shrek, noticed her until she was standing a few feet behind Baltimore. Her tone—loud, clear, and unmistakably menacing—had the same effect as pressing a mute button: Shrek froze in mid-ridicule, and the barflies stopped laughing.
“Ha, ha.” Shrek tried and failed at levity. “We was just fuckin’ with him, ya know?”
Carmelita didn’t respond to Shrek but didn’t take her eyes off him. “Grab your beer,” she said to Baltimore.
As they walked to the booth, Baltimore said, “I noticed the bulge under your hoodie.” Ugh, that sounded awkward, he thought. “I mean, given your emaciated condition, it is quite prominent.”
“Gee, thanks, Baltimore. You look like a million fucking bucks yourself.”
“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that as an insult, but the bulge—it’s a gun, isn’t it?”
Carmelita flashed a look a mother gives a kid pestering for another cookie. “Shut up and sit down.”
They sat, and a strange, contradictory impulse swept over Baltimore. Though grateful Carmelita intervened at the bar, he was nearly overpowered by an urge to unleash the total verbal hell on her that he had intended but decided against when he saw her. Perhaps because I’m feeling totally emasculated, thought Baltimore. Nevertheless, the unexpectedly intense desire to inflict emotional pain on an addict seeking help somewhat mystified and shamed him. The retaliatory gesture, however justified, felt like an irresistible biological imperative to kick someone while they’re down—an impulse Baltimore considered himself much too evolved even to entertain. He chose to dial it down.
“So,” he said, “what happened to the young woman who wanted to heal the earth and bring joy and enlightenment to its people through native rituals?” Although he toned down the vehemence, sarcasm twisted his lips into a curvature of cruelty as he spoke.
“So, what happened to the young man who thought quantum physics would rescue humanity from its path of self-destruction?” She didn’t return the cruelty; instead, the icy intensity of her glare frosted him down to the testicles. She answered for him: “The idealistic young man became just another greedy, punk-ass science pimp.”
“Checkmate,” said Baltimore after a few tense moments.
“Right,” said Carmelita. “And now, who’s guilty of diversionary tactics?”
Carmelita broke the silence this time: “Are you done?” she said. Baltimore nodded sheepishly. Her voice and eyes softened as she resumed at the point where the bartender had interrupted. “My father said that the first time he shook your hand, he sensed an energy in your spirit he hadn’t encountered before.”
“Your father was probably high on peyote.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Baltimore. My father holds you in high regard.”
“Sorry. I think highly of him as well.”
“Father said he prayed for months for a vision to help him understand.” She paused and again switched on her probing gaze. “And when a vision finally came to him, he said…he said you came to him in the vision.”
Baltimore was stunned. Holy crap! That was real? He thought he had dreamed it.
“Except it wasn’t a vision,” said Carmelita.
“Then it was probably a dream,” Baltimore said.
“No! It wasn’t. Father said it started as his vision until it began to feel like he was being drawn into someone else’s.” Her eyes locked onto his. “And then he realized it was no vision. He was in another realm, a realm you drew him into. Father asked how you made that possible. He said you tried to explain—stuff about decoherence, non-locality—things he couldn’t understand.” She sipped her beer. “But he didn’t need scientific explanations to understand that you could walk between worlds.”
Knowing you’re about to fall off a cliff doesn’t make the landing any softer. Baltimore had anticipated Carmelita would eventually find out about his multiverse tripping because they’d had conversations about parallel worlds since their first date.
Baltimore chose La Casa Mestizo, a restaurant owned by a renowned Navajo-Mexican gourmet chef, for their first date. About half an hour into their dinner, Carmelita said, “You know, it was obvious you glossed over the topic of parallel worlds in class. It seemed as if there was something you didn’t want us to know.”
Baltimore couldn’t stop fidgeting. “Well, concepts of multiverses and parallel worlds are speculations, unproven theories some consider outlandish.”
“That sounds like modern science denial orthodoxy. I want to know what you think?”
“Do I believe in alternate realities in which we exist as discrete yet somehow connected entities?” Baltimore paused as though pondering an answer, though he was really trying his best to conjure a non-committal response. “Mathematics does say the existence of parallel worlds is possible. If you recall, we studied the Many-Worlds Interpretation.”
“Yeah, I remember. We were completely lost when you tossed around jargon like locality, uncertainty principle, wave function collapse—words and concepts we didn’t understand, and which you didn’t seem too eager to take the time to explain.”
“Those are challenging concepts to explain to a layperson; indeed, one of the greatest theoretical physicists once said, ‘I think that I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’ The most common barrier is the limitation of language. English or any language doesn’t have the linguistic capacity to describe quantum phenomena adequately; thus, terms like the examples you used are simply approximations.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said in class. Still sounds evasive to me—although the ‘limitation of language’ makes sense; it reminds me of Edward Abbey.”
“You’ve read Abbey?”
“Of course. Abbey’s one of the few white men who spoke like an Indian about the land and humanity’s connection to it. He said that language is like fishing for simple facts with a loose net.”
“I remember that line. It’s as apt a metaphor for language’s limitations as I’ve ever read, except ‘simple’ and quantum phenomena don’t belong in the same context. Realistically, developing a functional understanding would take several years of math and physics.”
Carmelita nodded. “That sounds reasonable,” she said. “And what about the math? We studied the quantum wave function, but what do you mean math says a multiverse is possible? In regular English, please, if that’s possible.”
“Mathematically, every single point in the wave function represents a quantum state, which physics currently defines as existing simultaneously as a particle and a wave—a definition of superposition you so eloquently pointed out is our feeble attempt to explain what we don’t fully understand.” She executed a seated curtsy; he bowed and continued, “Some physicists define a quantum state as a sum or superposition of all possible states, states they claim we can’t detect because they exist in parallel worlds. Furthermore, they argue that our world, our reality, and even our universe exist in a quantum state; hence, we exist in superposition with thus far undetectable parallel worlds.”
“Wow. We didn’t study that theory in class.”
“No, we didn’t. It’s the simplified version you requested, and it illustrates the limitation of language, for what words do we have to define states of existence beyond particles and waves, heck, even beyond solids, fluids, and gasses? Can we even conceive of what those states might look like? Moreover, do we assume parallel worlds are three-dimensional and, therefore, the same laws of physics apply, including our concepts of space and time? Should we assume parallel worlds are completely different versions of this one or only slightly different worlds in which we live out choices we didn’t make in this world, as some multiverse theories propose?”
“Indeed. So that’s the dilemma: One can choose the conventionally accepted binary interpretation of quantum states, or one can accept that all states are possible and, therefore, that one exists simultaneously in an infinite number of discrete alternate realities.”
“So, does that mean you believe in the Many-Worlds Interpretation?”
“The math says it’s possible; it doesn’t show us how to make it possible.”
“So, either you do, or you don’t. Which is it?”
“Hmm. You’ve effectively backed me into a metaphorical corner with only two options for escape: Either I believe or don’t believe.” Contemplative pause, and then an aha moment. “However, quantum mechanics offers a third option: Why can’t I believe and disbelieve simultaneously? A superposition of beliefs, as it were.”
Carmelita regarded him with a raised eyebrow and a smile that seemed more inspired by revelation than mirth. She shook an index finger at him and said, “You’re a tricky one, Dr. Reynolds. I’m going to have to keep an eye on you.”
“I’m hoping,” he muttered.
“Oh, you are, are you?” She flashed a radiant smile.
Various shades of red washed over his face. He stammered through an attempted apology before saying, “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”
“More tricks? Are you a trickster?”
“You know, in our folklore, Coyote is a trickster,” Carmelita said. “Are you a Coyote, Dr. Reynolds?”
“No. No, I-I, I don’t indulge in subterfuge,” he replied.
In the dingy Silver Bullet booth, Baltimore avoided Carmelita’s gaze by trying to peel off the beer bottle’s label and said, “Well, ‘walking between worlds’ would be quite a scientific achievement, wouldn’t it?” He laughed weakly, knowing the attempted denial was unconvincing.
“That’s why I finally snuck into your lab—or should I say labs? I wanted to find out exactly what you were up to.”
“You could have asked. I would have shown you my lab.”
“You wouldn’t have shown me what I saw behind the door with the digital lock.”
He shrugged, dismissing her last comment. “There’s no way you could have snuck into either lab; they’re highly secure areas.”
“Please. It was easy. I found a janitor—a horny bastard who undressed me with his eyes. He unlocked the front door.”
Baltimore was beginning to get nervous. He tried not to show it. “And then?”
“I saw the door with the high-tech lock, figured it was another lab, and went in.”
“Not possible. That’s a state-of-the-art, password-secured digital lock.” Baltimore shot her a raised eyebrow look. “There’s no way you or a horny janitor could have unlocked it.”
She smirked and said, “Really? You think you’re that hard to figure out?” She described how she had entered the names of physicists she’d heard him and his friends talk about, but none unlocked the door. She then recalled advice he’d repeatedly told his team: Keep it simple, stupid. She asked herself: What’s the simplest answer?
Baltimore couldn’t keep his leg still and fussed with his shirt’s buttons. He knew where this was going.
“‘He’s a nerd in love,’ I told myself, ‘what else would he use?’ I typed in my name and”—Carmelita snapped her fingers— “open sesame.”
Baltimore shifted in his seat. He could no longer hide his concern. “What’d you do then?”
“I saw you in a round, steel chamber. I waved but thought you didn’t see me, so I got closer. I looked you straight in the eyes and waved. You were looking right at me, but it was like you were looking through me, at something far away. I got scared. I was worried something awful was happening to you.” She scrutinized him with the intensity of a detective who had just found the suspect’s fingerprints on the murder weapon. “I opened the hatch, wiggled into the chamber, and reached out to touch you. My hand went right through yours.”
Crap! Now, what was he going to do? “You must have been smoking ’cide that day.”
“Don’t say that, Baltimore. That’s just mean.” The icy glare returned. “Besides, I wasn’t doing ’cide back then, fucker,” she said in a whisper that sounded like a snake flicking its tongue. She paused, possibly for effect, perhaps to allow the icy glare to thaw before continuing: “Anyway, when my hand passed through yours, these, uh…these images, no, more like scenes from a movie, flashed through my mind. But…” Carmelita shook her head and looked down. “You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but…,” she hesitated, seemingly gathering the courage to say it. She looked up at Baltimore and said, “It was like watching a movie through a kaleidoscope—images of people sliced into irregular shapes and reassembled in unnatural forms.”
Baltimore just nodded, his mind racing through analyses of the implications of what he was hearing and formulating statistical probability models for possible outcomes.
“I freaked out and started to back out of the chamber, and then you…you just…you just disappeared.” Tears highlighted the red in her bloodshot eyes. “I got so scared, Baltimore. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to see my father—I hoped he’d help me understand.”
“What did he say?’
Carmelita regarded Baltimore; awe and suspicion framed her expression. “Father is convinced you and he met on another plane of existence. He believes you somehow found a way to walk in other realms, even realms where only the most devout, experienced seers can go.”
“Many-Worlds,” he said as if thinking aloud.
“The Many-Worlds Interpretation. The Native concept of other planes of existence is similar to the Many-Worlds Interpretation. Their similarity is what I tried to explain to your father the day he took me for a walk in the desert, and when I….” Baltimore let the words drift to silence, relieved he’d caught himself before admitting he had appeared in…in what? He was still shaken by the possibility he and Carmelita’s father had not met in a dream or a vision but had likely met in another realm—a realm Baltimore may have drawn him into.
Carmelita shook her head and stared at Baltimore—wonder and puzzlement seemed to illuminate her gaze. “I didn’t—I couldn’t believe it back then, and I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around it. But I had to know for sure because it’s my last hope.”
Baltimore was beginning to calm down and simultaneously was relieved to finally share the secret he’d kept from her since the day of his breakthrough experiment. Maintaining government-mandated secrecy meant he couldn’t acknowledge to Carmelita and her father that parallels he had drawn between quantum mechanics and their spiritual beliefs had inspired the paradigm shift that resulted in the experiment’s success. Especially influential was their conversation about the Ghost Dance.
That conversation had begun with him insulting her by insinuating that natives ate peyote just to get high.
“I’m—I apologize. I did not intend to offend,” Baltimore had said.
“I know you weren’t being malicious,” Carmelita had said, “but it still pisses me off that white people think natives ingest hallucinogens just to get fucked up. My father and I practice a sacred ritual called the Ghost Dance. I won’t go into specifics, but it’s a ceremony in which peyote plays an important role.”
“Just curious, so please don’t be offended, but what is the purpose of this ritual?”
Carmelita’s eyes bored into Baltimore’s. He felt himself wilting like lettuce under a heat lamp. “The Ghost Dance lifts the veil between this world and the spirit world.” She maintained the uncomfortable gaze. “And don’t give me that, ‘Oh, no wonder they need entheogens,’ look.”
“I, I…,” Baltimore’s cheeks felt like they were on fire. How did she know that’s what I was thinking? he wondered.
“Peyote doesn’t help us see our ancestors in the spirit world; peyote frees the shackles the mind places on the spirit that bind it to this reality.”
Baltimore perked up. “Yeah, I thought that would get your attention,” Carmelita said. “In one of your lectures, you said some physicists speculate that objective reality doesn’t exist and that we live in a hologram. Some natives believe this reality is a dream and real life is lived in the dream world.”
Baltimore’s mind had roiled with the practical implications of what Carmelita had just said. One thought, however, had risen above the analytical din: How this ritual aligned so closely with the theories of alternate realities and those questioning the existence of objective reality.
But a new problem now presented itself: What to do about Carmelita. In her present state, no one would believe what she witnessed in his lab. Still, he didn’t want his discovery to go viral until his business partner completed the market potential research. He scoured his memory for the day Carmelita might have walked in on the experiment.
Baltimore stiffened. Several alarming thoughts poked his brain like thorns piercing eyeballs: Carmelita said, ‘greedy science pimp,’ does that mean she knows about my intent to market my discovery? Does she know my business partner, Mr. La Trans? More pressing, what if she’s told someone in El Ojo about what she’d seen? “Have you told anyone besides your father what you saw in the lab that day?”
“Are you kidding? If I told anyone else what I saw, they’d have me tossed into a padded cell faster than you could say Large Hadron Collider.”
“What else did your dad say?” Baltimore wanted to ask whether her father had shared their conversation with anyone but calculated the probability was high she would intuit his motive if he asked the question directly.
“He said that only someone with great power could pull a man like him out of his vision,” She paused to sip the beer she’d been nursing. “There’s something else I need to tell you. During certain rituals, I’ve walked in other realms with my father. Those realms felt peaceful and benign, and the beings inhabiting them were gentle and welcoming. What I saw and felt in your lab that day was the exact opposite. The beings seemed so full of hatred and anger and fear, but the worst part was the vibe: I felt malevolence so overpowering that it seemed to suck the oxygen out of my lungs. The whole experience felt like…like some evil brujo magic, Baltimore, and it terrified me. That’s when all I wanted was to get the fuck away from you.” She shuddered and said, “That’s some seriously spooky shit you’re messing with, Baltimore.”
“So, you ran off with Alex and his Clockwork Orange scumbag buddies. That’s how you dealt with your fears?”
“I told you I was sorry.”
“Sure, and now you want me to take you to a parallel world and hide you.” Baltimore nodded, and his speech slowed as he spoke the last few words. It was like finding the solution to a frustrating equation. He was about to address her request when the tattoo-faced sicarios opened fire. In the half-dozen heartbeats between the thugs entering, locating them, and aiming their weapons, Carmelita grabbed Baltimore’s wrist and yanked him to the floor with her.
“Stay low, and stay on my ass,” she said as gunfire jack-hammered their eardrums. The shower of particles that seemed to leap in slow motion from the surfaces of tabletops, chairs, and the wall entranced Baltimore. It was as if patches of molecules rebelled against their atomic bonds and burst free in a dance of wood, vinyl, and gypsum debris.
“Hurry up!” The sound of Carmelita’s voice broke the spell. She led them through a nearby doorway and into a hall where the bathrooms were. At the end of the hall was a door leading to an alley. Outside on one side of the door was a dumpster.
“Help me roll this,” Baltimore said.
“That’s not going to stop them.”
“No,” he said, grunting, “but it will slow them down.”
With the dumpster in place, Baltimore began tapping on the screen of what looked like a wristwatch.
“You’re checking the time?” Her facial expression seemed to question his intelligence. “It’s time to get the fuck out of here, Baltimore. Now!”
“I’m working on it.”
Baltimore didn’t answer; he continued tapping on the screen. “There,” he said. He pointed at a metal box about the size of a laundromat dryer some twenty yards away. “Let’s go— and stay on my ass.”
“What is that?” She asked as they ran toward the box.
“An electrical transformer.”
“Not that. The thing on your wrist.”
Baltimore didn’t answer. The thugs trying to shoot through the door tabled any further discussion. They ran faster. One of the thugs screamed, and the shooting stopped. Baltimore deduced that a bullet ricocheted off the dumpster and wounded him. Good, thought Baltimore, that buys us a few more seconds. They were near the transformer when the shooting resumed briefly and then stopped.
At the box, Baltimore once again tapped on the watch’s screen.
“Shut up for a second,” he said, keeping his eyes on the screen. The entire time they’d known one another, Baltimore hadn’t ever spoken to Carmelita so assertively. She was momentarily stunned into silence.
The lull in gunfire exploded into sharp reports of rifle butts striking the door, followed by the crackling and splintering of wood—sounds that echoed down the alley as the thugs broke through the door’s bullet-riddled top half.
“How the hell did they find me so fast?” Carmelita muttered to herself.
Without looking up from the screen, Baltimore said, “The logical conclusion is El Ojo offered a reward and—”
“Oh goddamnit! One of those fucking lowlifes in the bar snitched me out.”
“Exactly.” He looked up from the watch and said, “Okay, hold on to me.” She complied. “With both hands. And get closer.”
Carmelita wrapped her arms around Baltimore’s waist. He tapped the screen, and instantly, waves of nausea washed over them as a field of electromagnetic energy enveloped their bodies and began to rotate. “Damn, Baltimore!” she said. “From a steel shell to a wristwatch in three years?”
The gunmen grunted and cursed in English and Spanish as they pushed the dumpster aside. The air around Carmelita and Baltimore pulsated. In microseconds, the vortex’s rotational velocity reached dizzying speeds, and Carmelita had to close her eyes to keep from falling. A dark cloud formed above the vortex as the two remaining thugs shouldered their weapons and prepared to fire. Bolts of black lightning sizzled from the cloud as an aperture of blackness opened in its center and expanded. Powerful vibrations passed through Baltimore’s and Carmelita’s bodies like fast, amplified shudders. The vortex then shot upward into the blackness, and the aperture slammed shut with a thunderclap that sounded like the end of the world, leaving nothing to indicate Baltimore and Carmelita had ever existed in this reality.
A Cuban Soap Opera Remake
by Matias Travieso-Diaz and Eloy Gonzalez-Argüelles
[I want to speak, I want to speak, tell everyone Albertico Limonta is my grandson,
the child of my oldest daughter Maria Elena.]
Don Rafael del Junco’s silent litany in El Derecho de Nacer by Felix B. Caignet
In mid-2047, the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, or CIRT), received a proposal for a revival of the 1948 radio soap opera El Derecho de Nacer (The Right to be Born) by the Cuban radio writer Félix Benjamín Caignet Salomón. At the time, El Derecho, as it was called, swept Cuba by storm, and then spread to all of Latin America in a run that lasted over fifty years. It was regarded as one of the most influential soap operas of all time, and had been the subject of numerous radio, television and movie adaptations. The revival (in the form of a TV series to be aired in Cubavision) was to start in April 2048 to coincide with the centenary of the original radio broadcast.
José (“Pepe”) Cubero, a brilliant movie and TV producer and director, was the proponent and strongest defender of the project. He acknowledged that the 1948 soap opera would have to be modified a bit to make it consistent with the culture and politics of twenty-first century Cuba, but felt the changes would be small and well within his creative abilities.
The proposal met opposition from some of the most orthodox members of the Communist Party. They claimed that the original story was rife with the type of bourgeois, capitalistic ideology that had been eradicated after almost ninety years of Socialist rule. Other opponents, more practical, pointed to the chronic economic crisis that bedeviled the island with words like these:
“Anything we broadcast must encourage the Cuban people to work harder, make sacrifices, concentrate on rebuilding the economy in the face of the heartless Yankee blockade. El Derecho is a frivolous, escapist diversion that would get us sidetracked from our mission. And it will run for many months, compounding the damage.”
The matter was kicked upward to land on the lap of Miguel Diaz-Canel, who had been President and First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party for almost thirty years. He was in his mid-eighties and getting ready to step down, so he was in no mood to mediate in ideological disputes. He ruled:
“Let Pepe Cubero come up with a proposed screenplay and give it to the President of the CIRT and the Minister of Culture. Let those guys decide what changes to the screenplay are required to render it acceptable, make those changes, and run with it. Don’t bother me with this shit again.”
The Minister of Culture, Haydée Alonso, who had studied in Paris, quoted Sartre, and prided herself on being open-minded and liberal (within the ideological bounds of the Party), was enchanted with the idea of a revival of El Derecho, so she was inclined to give Cubero a relatively free hand. This was good news to Cubero, although no one else liked Haydée. No one forgave her for her unpatriotic preference for smelly Gauloise cigarettes that stunk up the studio, and that she did so “in the land where the best tobacco in the world used to be grown.”
The CIRT President, Danylo López, was an old, dried-up bureaucrat concerned mainly with toeing the Party line and avoiding controversies, and was not amenable to letting Cubero get away with much. Torn between polar extremes, development of the new version of the soap opera proceeded in painful fits and starts.
The first bone of contention was the character of Don Rafael del Junco, the villain of the story. Everyone agreed that Don Rafael, a haughty unscrupulous landowner, was a proper embodiment of the pre-Revolutionary capitalistic class. However, at the end of the original 314 episodes, Don Rafael reconciled with his daughter and grandson, and ended up being presented in a somewhat favorable light. “We have to change the ending” argued Danylo. “There can be no redemption for the enemies of the people.” Cubero reluctantly agreed to modify the end of the series so that Don Rafael got his comeuppance. He was hoping against hope that by the time the last episodes were filmed Danylo would have changed his mind.
Then there was María Elena, the daughter of Don Rafael and mother of the hero of the series. Again, everyone agreed that she showed courage in refusing to have a late term abortion and insisting on giving birth to her illegitimate child. However, in the original series she sought shelter for her grief in a convent, where the nuns and other members of the community treated her with compassion and understanding. Danylo was loath to include any episodes that praised religious people. “Religion is the opium of the masses, and the State must not condone it in any manner.”
Cubero had to change the script to have María Elena become a sort of hermit, seeking solace from the apparent loss of her child on a deserted shore. That in itself was problematic, since Cuba had implemented an internal passport system that was rigidly enforced. In the new Cuba, there was nowhere to hide. At the end, this discrepancy was allowed as poetic license, hoping it would not be noticed by anyone who had the power to object.
In the original El Derecho María Elena leaves her newborn baby boy in the care of her once wet nurse, the black María Dolores, who saves the infant from being slain on orders from Don Rafael, manages to give Don Rafael the false impression that she and the baby are dead, and escapes with the infant to a remote village. There, she raises the boy as her own child, naming him Alberto (“Albertico”) Limonta.
One salient and recurring problem was the relationship between “son” and “mother,” due to the fact that María Dolores claimed he was her son, even after his infancy. Yet, the actor chosen by Cubero to play Albertico, Ontario (“Guapito”) Ledesma, was white. Very white. Blondish. On the other hand, the lady portraying María Dolores was black, as stipulated by Caignet in the original soap opera. Coal black. No one seemed to find the discrepancy odd except for Haydée, who said that the role of María Dolores seemed taken out of Gone with the Wind. Her remark was met with a deadpan silence, for nobody in Cuba remembered or cared about old Yankee movies.
The racial disparity problem did not fully surface at first, because the boy who played Albertico as a child had a darker complexion that made his relationship with María Dolores more credible. But later on in the show, when Ontario assumed the role of 25-year-old Albertico, María Dolores’ claim that he was her son began ringing hollow. Different suggestions were considered: darkening Ontario’s skin with blackface make-up like Laurence Olivier in Othello, other things of that nature. Haydée opposed them all, because, she said, it was not impossible that Albertico could still be María Dolores’ biological son. So, things were left unchanged. There was one scene, however, when the script called for older Albertico to run up to his mother and say, “Mamá, I love you so” as he hugged the black woman. The scene had to be redone many times because the crew in the studio—and later on, even Albertico and María Dolores—could not control their laughter. In the end, the scene was filmed as it was and prompted sarcastic comments among the viewers once aired.
Much was done in the original series to highlight the discrimination and ill treatment that both María Dolores and Albertico endured on account of her race. Danylo liked that and wanted to accentuate the criticism of the racist society that existed in the country before the Revolution, but was opposed by Haydée, who warned not to overdo that aspect of the plot. “Remember, Danylo,” she said, “there are still people left in this country who believe blacks are inferior, although they won’t openly admit to it. There is no point in rubbing their noses on our commitment to equality among the races.” At the end, Danylo carried the day. Albertico, who was white, would be repeatedly abused and discriminated against for having a black mother and being a mulatto.
In one scene intended to bring more “realism” to the story, a classmate of Albertico has a fight with him and calls him an “hijo de puta” (a bastard), not an uncommon insult in Spanish. Danylo objected to the use of such foul language, as it was not in keeping with Socialist morality. Haydée replied that this choice of words was used by ordinary people and prude sentiments to the contrary were a bourgeois atavism. A heated debate ensued and, at the end, Haydée seemed to say that the language in the series should not be controlled by a “partido de hijos de puta,” which many people took to refer to the Communist Party. Haydée, however, swore that she had not said “Partido” but “partida,” meaning “bunch” or “group,” without any political connotation. Since no one could produce a definitive argument, the matter was dropped, along with the entire scene.
Many episodes later, thanks to María Dolores’ innumerable sacrifices, Albertico manages to make it through the university and becomes a famous doctor. In the original version, Albertico gets to be rich and lives in comfort with his aging “mother.” Both Danylo and Haydée objected to this turn of events. Cubero was required to rewrite that part of the story to have Albertico live modestly, see indigent patients for free, and travel to Haiti to help treat the victims of a devastating earthquake. In the rewrite, Albertico returns to Cuba with a newfound social conscience, alert to the inequities of the capitalist society and committed to fighting them.
Later in the series, Albertico is doing night duty at a public hospital’s emergency room when several injured people are brought in after a traffic accident. One of them is an old man who is bleeding to death. The victim’s blood type is AB negative, the rarest type, which is unavailable at the ill-equipped public hospitals of pre-Revolutionary times. Albertico, AB negative himself, gives a transfusion that saves the man’s life. The victim, who is no other than Don Rafael del Junco, recovers and as he convalesces, he invites his savior to come to dinner and meet his family. There Albertico meets Isabel Cristina, daughter of María Elena’s sister Matilde, and a budding romance blooms between the couple, unaware that they are cousins. Danylo was not in favor of retaining potential incest as part of the plot, and Cubero had to add another twist at the end of the story where it is revealed that Isabel Cristina is not the natural daughter of Matilde, but only an adopted one, eliminating another potential offense to Socialist morality.
Don Rafael, now fully recovered, is one day taking a stroll near an outside market, when he spots an old black woman that he immediately recognizes as María Dolores, who he had written off as dead many years before. He follows the woman, overtakes her, and confronts her. María Dolores acknowledges that she and Albertico are alive and well, and rebukes Don Rafael for his cruelty. Cubero is asked to add language to the confrontation scene wherein María Dolores lists once again all the aristocrat’s misdeeds and concludes with a stirring pronouncement: “Beware, for your days are numbered. The people soon will hold you accountable for all the crimes you have committed against your family and against society.”
Staggered by these revelations, Don Rafael returns home, where he promptly suffers a stroke (“derrame cerebral”) (a common mishap in soap operas) and falls into a coma. In the original version, Don Rafael stays in a coma for many months, burning with desire to impart the crucial news of the existence of his missing grandson to his wife and daughter, but is paralyzed and unable to speak. Here, however, science rather than politics interferes with the progress of the story. By 2047, a process had existed for years by which an artificial intelligence (AI) could accurately decode words and sentences from brain activity. Using only a few seconds of brain activity data, the AI can guess what a person is trying to say and translates it into a voice recording. The AI was commonly used throughout the world, including Cuba, to help people unable to communicate their thoughts through speech, typing or gestures.
The existence of the AI technology rendered a crucial portion of the original version of El Derecho vulnerable to ridicule by the viewing public. There was no way Don Rafael could linger, speechless, for several months. Cubero and his creative team struggled with the problem for weeks and finally had to come up with a lame solution: Don Rafael suffers a “derrame cerebral,” but recovers almost immediately and, instead of bringing the existence of his grandson to the attention of everyone, has a change of heart and continues to cover up his earlier nefarious crimes by accusing María Dolores of theft and charging Albertico with complicity in the black woman’s schemes.
Isabel Cristina, whose love for Albertico has not been diminished by Don Rafael’s accusations, alerts her boyfriend before the police can seize him, and Albertico escapes to a bitter exile in Tampa, where his mulatto identity subjects him to additional discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of the American imperialists. Meanwhile, María Dolores lingers in jail and ultimately dies of sorrow.
From that point on, the plot of the revival diverges entirely from the original radio show. Albertico becomes a revolutionary hero and travels back to Cuba to take up arms in the mountains against the corrupt government. He alerts Isabel Cristina of his whereabouts and she joins him to continue, together, their fight for justice. Through one of his comrades, who knew Isabel Cristina’s parents, it is revealed that Isabel Cristina and Albertico are unrelated, whereupon the couple is chastely married in a civil ceremony conducted by a rebel leader. They are enjoying a brief honeymoon when they learn that Don Rafael has been killed in a terrorist attack against the Presidential Palace, where he was attending a reception. Albertico and Isabel Cristina kiss and hug each other, relieved at the evildoer’s death, and the series ends.
As the first six episodes were filmed, José Cubero had increasing misgivings about the product he was going to set before the public. Technically, the series was as good as he was capable of putting together: photography, score (instrumental renderings of Cuban ballads going back to the 1800s), sound effects, customs, editing, were all first class. He had assembled a cast of experienced actors and actresses, with a famous Spanish TV personality in the role of Don Rafael. Much of the series was shot in locations selected for their beauty or historic interest.
Artistically, though, Cubero felt he was doing a disservice to—actually, betraying—Caignet’s original work and regretted all the compromises he had been forced to make to get the project approved. As a way to hide his guilt, he made sure of the destruction of all copies existing in Cuba of the audio, TV and movie versions of the series, be they from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela or Mexico. Cuban censorship saw to it that no written materials describing the 1948 series were available to the public.
Since there was nobody alive who had listened to the original broadcast, Cubero felt confident that he would not be confronted by critics of the savaging he had been forced to perform on the original. Still, he went to bed the night of Tuesday, March 31, 2048 with a heavy heart, in anticipation of the premiere of the series the following evening. He tossed and turned in bed all night and, in the few minutes of actual sleep, was accosted by the image of a dapper slim man sporting a trim moustache and a mane of black pomaded hair, who appeared and disappeared before him making menacing gestures and repeating incessantly a single word: “Why!!?”
The first episode of the new rendering of El Derecho de Nacer was shown on Cubavision at 9 p.m. on April 1, 2048. The show ran, Monday through Saturday, for 310 episodes, the last one playing in the spring of 2049. While initially garnering much public attention, interest in the series wore off quickly, so that the last episodes were seen by almost nobody. Many concluded that much of what was shown and said in the series was predictable and no different, except for its excessive duration, from other political indoctrination efforts by the government.
José Cubero finished producing the last package of ten episodes and sought and was granted permission to take a short vacation abroad to recover from his massive effort. He was last spotted taking an Iberia plane bound for Madrid on April 15, 2049.
He was never seen again.
Matias Travieso-Diaz was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. He retired and turned his attention to creative writing. Seventy of his stories have been published or accepted for publication in paying short story anthologies, magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts. Some of his unpublished stories have also received “honorable mentions” from a number of publications. A collection of some of his short stories, The Satchel and Other Terrors, is scheduled for publication in February 2023.
Eloy González Argüelles was born in La Habana, Cuba, and came to the United States in 1961. His studies culminated in a PhD in Romance Languages at the Ohio State University. He taught at Wheaton College (Norton, Massachusetts) and the University of Massachusetts (Harbour Campus) before moving to Washington State University (WSU), where he taught Spanish literature and literary criticism for 38 years. For ten of his last twelve years before retirement he was Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures at WSU. His output includes a novel, a book on the chivalric novel, and articles in scholarly journals and conference presentations. Upon retirement he became an Emeritus Professor at WSU.
Winner 3rd Place