On her final evening in Cartagena, thirty-two-year-old Margaret Lockwood-Showenwaldt took a laminated invitation offering discount drinks and a free buffet from a man wearing a bandanna over his face like a Wild West bad guy. He stood in front of a crumbling colonial building with a neon sign reading Club de Las Mil Noches. She whispered a question, which he nodded to vigorously, then led her inside.
He offered a grimy stool, though Margaret continued to stand. “Un momento,” he said. “Momencito. Momelito.” Then he rushed through a curtain behind the bar, which no one was tending.
There were no men in the place at all, only a few women slurping stew from paper bowls on the opposite side of the room. They varied in age and dress, from eighteen to fifty, from cutoff jeans and a neon bikini top to a ruffled A-line that might have been worn by a Cape Cod bridesmaid. There was a dance floor behind them with a giant, rotating disco ball missing several of its tiny mirrors—dark, pitted spaces, like missing teeth. A picnic table had been set up in the corner of the dance floor, on which lay Crock-Pots and mismatched serving bowls.
Margaret fidgeted at the now-bare place on her ring finger, wondering how long a momencito might last. Then she took a breath and went to work with her Handi Wipes, cleaning first the sticky bar top, next one of the stools. Along with her disgust and fear, she felt a wild, heart-skipping excitement at how very authentic this place was, and pride at having come so far.
For a little while, all of these emotions stood managed and arranged in a tense equilibrium. Then they collapsed into panic as she was overtaken by an urgent need to pee.
The back room of the Club de las Mil Noches was really more like a shabby vestibule, with a door to the alley standing at one side and a black curtain leading into the bar at the other. Between those two was space only for a filing cabinet, a lamp, and a school desk, at which sat club owner Lucho Alvarez de Moreno.
But the curtain slid open now, and Lucho’s young cousin edged himself in.
“It’s going to rain,” the cousin said.
“It is not going to rain,” returned Lucho from his desk.
“We’re fucked if it rains.”
“It is not going to rain.”
A few months ago, Lucho had made the mistake of telling his cousin that the Mil Noches wasn’t making enough money to stay open much longer, prompting this shy young man—who’d spent his adult life inside, watching telenovelas and American movies because of a sensitivity about his harelip—to emerge from his apartment wearing that black bandanna.
It had taken the young man only a single week to become friends with the street rats, who started calling him Bandito, as though he were some legendary criminal. Through this network, Bandito had learned that Colombia’s president planned to build a beach house as a wedding gift to his daughter and son-in-law in the now-quiet beach town of Taganga. Without telling Lucho, Bandito had negotiated to trade the Mil Noches for a club up there.
The two men had argued then, Lucho calling him a schemer with telenovela ideas, Bandito calling Lucho a bitter old man who’d given up on living. They needed to make the trade as soon as possible, the younger argued, before the gift was announced and everyone knew what property in Taganga was really worth. Bandito did have a point. And in the end, Lucho had given in.
It wasn’t a straight trade, but involved some money, too. They’d been running several promotions, but they were short. Still short. This was their last chance, the biggest promotion of all. They’d printed those laminated cards, included a buffet. Cena de Ensayo, they called it. Rehearsal Dinner.
“We need five hundred U.S.,” said Bandito. “Tonight.”
“I know,” said Lucho. “I know. I know, I know.”
“Cousin, I have a plan. A hundred percent plan. Let me explain—”
Lucho unfolded himself from the school desk and stood. The tiny room nudged the two men close, as if toward confrontation or embrace.
“Please,” said Lucho. “No more plans.”
The toilet was even worse than Margaret had imagined. A hole in a bench, a stall with no door. Once again, she made ample use of her Handi Wipes, trying somehow to sanitize the wood. Meanwhile, a crowd of women putting on makeup in front of the bathroom mirror speculated loudly about her age in Spanish, no doubt assuming she couldn’t understand them. One dipped as low as twenty-seven, bless her, though several put Margaret just south of forty. “American women age differently,” proclaimed an old, burly-shouldered woman in a sequined gown, “because their lives are without effort. Have you lately seen the singer who calls herself Madonna? This gringa here, this flaca, she could be sixty-five years old.”
The others laughed and changed the subject to the upcoming wedding between the president’s daughter and a famous soccer player, while Margaret attempted some acrobatic hover-squat over that horrible hole.
“He has the eyes of a pervert,” one said. “In two weeks, one month, my ass is in his face.”
“I hear the novia is the real dirty,” another said.
“But she looks so innocent.”
“Petra looks innocent, too,” said the older one. “And we all know what she does.”
“I do not,” said Petra, a dazzling young woman who wore neither jewelry nor makeup.
“To be a whore is honest,” the older woman proclaimed. “The real lie is being a wife.”
At this moment, Margaret Lockwood-Showenwaldt—who’d been so distracted with sanitation and needing to pee and whether she looked her age—realized she was in the bathroom of a Colombian whorehouse.