For as long as he could remember Ronaldo had imagined himself a woman trapped in a man’s body. Though he admitted it to no one he often dreamed in lipstick and high heels, drifting through midnight fantasies of bubble bath and wifely duties, waking in the morning to a flat chest and hairy legs. He suffered the usual family pressures and Catholic shame for these secret reveries, but lived among people who would have no understanding of such repressed desires and would cast him out, a shunned pariah left to fight for his life in a cruel society of unfortunates and dangerous drug runners. And so he woke each morning, laid aside the marabou dreams and donned the masculine role expected of him.
Like many in his downtrodden neighborhood of Bogota, Ronaldo made his living as a drug mule, moving white powder from supplier to middleman, sometimes riding shotgun on longer trips to bring blocks of the drug from a jungle lab to a city warehouse. He had developed a catalog of gestures and postures to go along with the dangerous work, rough masculine movements and words that left none suspecting Ronaldo to be anything other than a rough customer.
On Friday morning, Ronaldo’s boss, Juan De Carlos “Cheeks” Otero picked him up at home explaining that they were heading up to the factory for a pick up, to bring the gun and tell his wife to expect him late.
Adoracion watched the men drive away. Turning back to the house she caught sight of a dainty woman’s handkerchief in the rutted street and bent to pick it up. She wondered where it had come from, never thinking that it was something that had fallen unnoticed from her husband’s pocket.
The handkerchief was in fact the single thing in Ronaldo’s daytime life that carried the nighttime fragrance of his dreams. It was a stolen touchstone he snatched up one day when he accompanied his wife into a downtown ladies store on the Avenida Jimenez, quickly stuffing the dainty square into his pocket while Adoracion and the store clerk whispered together over blouses. He kept it hidden from his wife, washing and drying it himself every few days, adding a spritz of La Vida. Countless times during the unpredictable and perilous days of hauling cocaine with savage men, Ronaldo slipped a hand in his pocket to grip his handkerchief, a feminine talisman against harm and ultimate arrest.
“Cheeks” was heading the car past the edge of Bogota when Ronaldo realized he didn’t have the handkerchief.
Four hours later the car’s side panels were loaded with cocaine as Ronaldo rounded a curve, “Cheeks” dozing in the seat beside him. The turn opened up to reveal a row of three uniformed officers standing in front of a barrier, rifles across their chests. Ronaldo’s foot slammed against the brakes, the roadbeaten old Mercedes jitterbugging to the verge. The sleeping “Cheeks” slammed forward, splitting an eye on the dashboard. From the rearview Ronaldo saw more officers and another barrier slide into place behind them.
By early evening Ronaldo was in a jail cell wondering about the chances of escape. From a small window high in the opposite wall he could see a grassless lot with other prisoners milling about, smoking cigarettes, throwing dice and playing samba on makeshift instruments. The lot was surrounded by a high fence that looked flimsy enough to push over with a hard rush.
Hearing a guard shout “Visitors!” the next morning, Ronaldo was surprised to see Adoracion walking through the door of his cell. She’d gotten a message late the night before from someone on the street telling her that her husband was being held at La Modelo Prison. Not knowing the reason or circumstances of her husband’s plight, she arrived with spare clothes, toiletries, a basket of food and a wad of cash given to her by the messenger. Asking no questions, she sat beside her husband on the filthy cot, sobbing, her eyes fastened on the ceiling mumbling prayers to heaven through dingy prison walls. When the shout came that time was up, a file of wives, girlfriends and sisters passed down the walkway headed out. As she stepped out of the cell, Ronaldo grabbed his wife’s arm, pulled her close and in a frightened whisper told Adoracion to return the next day with a set of women’s clothes in her bag. She looked at him with new eyes.
That night Ronaldo slowly shaved his legs, chest and arms, then paid careful attention to scraping away the rough beard on his face. With money funneled in by the messenger, he bought a long black wig and painted glue-on fingernails from a transvestite in the next cell. When the shouts and quarrels of 200 incarcerated men faded into troubled sleep, Ronaldo revived his dreams and began prancing the confines of his cell, a nighttime woman practicing the airs, pouts and moues he would employ to get past guards the next morning. At long last his true self would emerge, a woman with reddened lips confounding the men with guns on their hips. He fell asleep to dream of Hermès scarves.
Adoracion arrived with a cache of feminine items the next morning and watched while her smooth-skinned husband crammed himself into a brassiere, a blue dress open to the waist and a pair of white patent leather high heels a size too small. He applied a slash of red across fevered lips, clapping the black wig on his head and asking his wife to straighten and fluff the jailhouse angora into a Salma Hayek look. As she teased out the wig Ronaldo whispered, “Hurry! Hurry! Time is almost up. I never realized the time required to become a beautiful woman.”
As the women passed out of the cells shouting their goodbyes, Ronaldo pushed his wife out first, waiting a few beats before joining the line in a sinuous promenade. By the time he got to the first checkpoint his feet were killing him. It occurred to him that some adjustment in his step would be needed to manage four-inch heels in a size made for petites. He reached the outer gate in agony, trying to pass off a wobbly limp as girlish affectation. But the press of women around him served as camouflage and got him out to the street unnoticed. Tortured toes and scraped heels be damned, he lit out in double time for the bus station at the end of the street hoping to lose himself in the crowded depot.
Feminine wiles forgotten, Ronaldo staggered down the street in a grimace of patent leather pain, sure that his high heels were by then spotted with blood. Unfortunately, in the fear and excitement of escape he failed to remember that bus stations routinely have at least one policeman on station, scanning the crowd for perverts, skells and runaways. Bored with the ordinary assortment of travelers, the policeman this time was quickly drawn to the unshapely would-be maiden staggering along on shiny white shoes, frantic eyes signaling desperation.
In the next moment a motorbike pulled up to the curb at the station entrance. Seeing his chance, Ronaldo made a clumsy dash for the bike, hoping to jump on the back and speed away. In his haste he lost a shoe, and stopping to scoop up the precious footwear, the policeman stepped in to clamp a hand on Ronaldo’s neck. His hand come away holding a frazzled wig and Ronaldo made a last leap for the motorbike. But it was too late. He was caught and dragged away, wigless, his lipstick smeared, limping along in the policeman’s grip, his right pump left behind as a metaphor of freedom. Ronaldo’s brief dream-come-true melted away as the policeman shoved him roughly into the backseat of a patrol car.