The wind comes in the window, cooing down my neck, cooling me. As we approach the outskirts of Managua, the traffic thickens and our bus slows to a crawl. High noon heat creeps in the windows, syruping to my skin. The bus rolls into Managua’s outdoor terminal, shudders to a stop, and I tumble out of the bus. Clouds of black exhaust and brown dust choke the air. Horns, ancient engines, and whistles whiz and zigzag around me. Drivers waiting for their buses to load up stand at ease in the shade of makeshift aluminum awnings, studying the rest of us. They remind me of cowboys, laconic and excessively cool. Women hoist plastic, colored tubs on their hips, selling chopped mangos, coconut, helados. They sashay royally from bus to bus. It is too hot to rush.
A man in the parking lot tells me he’ll help me. I don’t need help, I tell him. No te preocupes, he says. Don’t worry, I’ll help you. Patches of his hair stick out in exclamation points and his eyes are bloodshot. He’s drunk. He follows me to catch a bus into the center. Donde vas? Where are you going? Metrocentro? Donde? Wherever, I say. He gets on the bus with me, sits behind me, tapping me on the shoulder. I turn around and tell him in my best don’t-fuck-with-me voice not to touch me, not to follow me, and to stop talking to me. He narrows his eyes and growls. Grrrr. An old lady blocks him in his seat. I leap off the bus just as it pulls out of a stop and land in a heap on the side of the road, scuffing my knee. It’s getting dark. Where am I? I limp to a telephone booth and call my friend who lives in a town just outside the capital. Answering machine. He wasn’t expecting me until tomorrow. Shit.
I walk up and down the streets, looking for cheap hotels, but the only hotels I can find cost between 10 and 20 dollars a night. Too expensive. A manager of one hotel tries to bargain with me. Still too much. Look, he says, you’re gonna have to take a taxi to another part of town. They got cheap rooms over there. Pero…cuidate. Watch yourself. He calls a taxi over, tells the driver where to take me, and off we go. Twist, turn, curve, left, right, and we arrive on an empty unpaved street spotted with street lamps and trash. Out of sight, a dog barks at perfectly even intervals, like a metronome, and the delicious scent of smoky roasted meat drifts in from a nearby taco vendor. In the halo of one street lamp a security guard sits on a metal chair beside a green tin gate. He swings it open and waves me in with a smile. Laundry lines with wet sheets scattered across them bisect and trisect and quadrisect the concrete courtyard. The señora is rushing around from one room to the other, sweeping and mopping and changing sheets. There are at least a dozen other people in the courtyard also waiting for rooms, shuffling, not talking. It seems busy for midnight on a Monday. I ask her if there are any rooms. She nods, leads me to one on the left. How much? I ask. She points to a sign on the wall. 50 cordobas for 2 hours, 80 for the night. Un rato? She asks. No, I say, All night. She nods. She’s busy cleaning stained sheets and rotating hookers and customers from room to room. No time for talk. Just nodding. I give her the money. Espera, she says with her finger and bustles off to clean the other rooms first.
One couple sits on cement blocks, waiting. The woman plays with her fingernails and the man looks shamefully at his shoes. The señora moves around them as she works her way from room to room, broom and mop taking turns in her hand. She swipes up soiled sheets, soaking and sponging them in the sink and laying them across the line to dry in the hot, guilty, and humid night air. The woman begins to speak and the man leans in to her, listening. She gestures, points with small bony hands, and he looks at those hands and at her face and looks like he wants to cry. She holds on tighter to her purse. It is hard to believe what they wait for. She does not look anything like a prostitute. It seems more likely she is a mother at the doctor’s office waiting for her kid to come back with a whimper from his shot. The señora gives the floor one last gloss, steps out, and stands to one side of the doorway. Listo, she says. They stand up and walk slowly, he more so than she, more hesitant now that the time has actually come. But into the room they go, closing the door quietly.
Without looking up, one guy on a motorcycle playing games on his cell phone asks me in perfect English where I’m from. New York, I say. “Cool, I did 11 years in Los Angeles,” he tells me. ‘But two years ago I got kicked out for fighting on Hollywood Boulevard, the guy had a gun, I had a gun, pulled it out, shooting. Like a movie man, unreal.” Now he’s on parole forever, can’t go back, and lives here in Managua with an aunt. His whole family, mom, dad, sisters and brother, they’re all still in LA. But they support him because he stays out of trouble and doesn’t do anything bad. Except a little fun on Monday nights, I say. “What? You mean the girls? That’s nothing,’ he says. ‘Right now I’m just waiting for my friend, he’s still with his chick.” A few minutes later the friend and ‘the chick’ come out. The friend takes him aside and speaks to him quietly with his hand on his shoulder, streams of sweat trickling down the sides of his face. The girls wait by the motorcycles (I don’t know where the other came from but now she’s here). He hands his friend some more money and his friend goes back inside the room, this time with both girls.
More men enter with women, nodding to the security guard perched outside. Some women hold the arms of their dates, others stand at a distance, impatient. None of the women look like prostitutes. They don’t wear tight clothes or teased hair or heavy make-up or any of the other things that television hookers wear. Maybe there’s not enough time between tricks to shine themselves up. They look like mothers, some of them, plain and only slightly dressed up. Hair is pulled back or splashed down, nothing fancy. They wear black shoes with flat bottoms, an occasional swipe of red lipstick. Some are young, teenagers. One smiles and laughs and flirts with her date. He grins proudly. They might almost pass for a genuine couple. Almost. I stand on the edge of the courtyard, snatching glances at the women’s faces. It has been nearly seven months since I kissed a woman. I can barely remember the sensation. For a brief moment I imagine myself walking towards one of them, perhaps the woman with a round, pretty face leaning against the far wall in a black knee-length skirt. I approach her slowly, and she smiles at me, and because she knows I am shy she speaks first, asking me if I want her to come and knock on my door when she—
A finger taps me on my shoulder. The señora is pointing to my room and tells me that it’s ready. I feel instantly guilty for having been caught mid-daydream. For some reason I want the señora to think well of me, to think of me as a son, or, at the very least, as a good man. I’m not like these other men who come here and pay for sex, I want to tell her, I wouldn’t do that. But she’s already gone, off to sweep and mop and scrub the next set of sheets. I pick up my backpack and go inside my room. It’s small and dim and L-shaped, with a sink on the right wall of the narrow entranceway, a shower nozzle poking out from above it, and a drain on the ground at my feet. There’s a speaker in the ceiling raining down Radio Romantica 94.3. I put down my backpack beside the tiny wooden nightstand and lay down on the stiff bed, on a blanket made of scratchy wool, beneath a listless fan rotating patches of hot steamed air.
I hear a sound in the next room. I inch closer to the wall, stretch my neck, and press my ear flat against the peeling green wallpaper. At first there is only muffled music from the radio. Then I hear the sound again. Somebody is breathing. A man. Each breath sounds different from the last, as if one man was breathing in and another was breathing out. A fat man with a mustache swallows air, a clean-faced Casanova sends it back. His lungs expand and contract, opening and closing like a door to a room. A preacher, a doctor. A farmer with cracked hands whose exhalations sound like apologies. A drunk gulping oxygen. He grunts and the bed bangs against the wall, rattling my ear. The breathing accelerates. The woman makes no sounds, not even a single obligatory moan. The air slides in and out, rising up inside his throat as if it might fall out onto the floor beside his pants and wallet that holds photos of a wife and kids. He grunts again, an old man with gray stubble, his breath choked and staggered, as if he were struggling to open a jar or scrub out a stain or lift a house.
I roll away from the wall and close my eyes, picturing the face of the woman in the next room, silently bearing the weight of her customer. What does she do while he is on top of her? Does she turn her head to the side and count the flowers running up and down the wallpaper? Does she stare past his shoulder, studying the rotation of the fan, thinking ahead to tomorrow’s errands, of bills, groceries, laundry? Or does she struggle to keep from crying? I feel hollow, carved out. I feel disgusted for having silently considered approaching one of these women, asking her to come into my room, to lie beneath my body. I open my eyes and sit up and rifle through the front pocket of my backpack where I keep my pills. I swallow a small, chalky blue one to help me sleep and lie back on my bed. The room next door is quiet. I wait for sleep to arrive. It doesn’t. The music is bothering me. I can’t sleep with music on. I sit back up and put on a shirt and go outside into the courtyard where the air has cleared and cooled a bit.
The señora is flopped on a chair, one palm resting against the knob of the broom while the other hand wipes away tiny drops of sweat from her forehead. I am glad to see her off her feet. I go to the front desk and ask the man sitting behind the counter if they can turn off the music in my room or at least lower it. He stands, slowly peeling his eyes away from the tiny black and white TV, and disappears into the room behind him. In a moment he returns, shaking his head and saying Lo siento, the music cannot be turned off. Why not? I ask. He tells me that each room is connected.
David Felix Sutcliffe is a teacher, a documentary filmmaker, and an off-duty tramp. He lives in New York City.