Talisman Ch. 7: Patricia Maria RuizbyRisiaSkye©
The conveyor belt stopped, and the break in the steady stream of peaches headed toward them allowed the women a chance to straighten up from their hunched positions. Some even took the opportunity to put down the sturdy paring knives they used to skin and prepare the passing fruit, stretching their backs with juice-stained hands placed at the bases of spines, creaking audibly even over the pervasive sound of machinery.
Before the conveyor problem could be fixed and the belt restarted on its perpetual loop, the lunch whistle sounded, and the women were temporarily given reprieve. The day boss, a fat and unkempt gringo that the women all dreaded, even the white ones, passed through and yelled out to them, “well, are you going or staying? This is no taco stand; get your asses moving.”
Looking at each other, all of the women shared feelings of animosity. This boss, this man didn’t treat them with respect. He looked at them and he saw wetbacks & dirty Hebes. He saw cheap replaceable labor that could be exploited--worked, used up, and discarded like the constantly breaking conveyor belts--relentless but faceless work. To him, that’s all they were. If they had known a little more about what went on in his mind, they might have been grateful to be seen in this limited way, rather than occupying the stage of his equally exploitive erotic imagination. A few of them would learn the value of this difference, and would learn it the hard way--by suffering his uninvited intimate attentions.
The women made their way, en masse, toward the lunchroom. There, they would get the chance to talk to the other crews, the men who worked the canning side of the plant, the family members who worked with other fruits or vegetables, the friends with whom they rode the bus in and out of the canning district outside Los Angeles. The younger women shared stories about their boyfriends, naive and sweet tales of love among the newlyweds and the affianced, romantic stories plucked from the Sunday afternoon nickel shows they spent the week reliving in their minds.
Patricia Ruiz walked to the lunch space with three of her friends, women who worked the line with her, who had been hired on the same day as she and who all lived in her barrio. She tried to brush peach fuzz from her long skirt, smoothing her hair as she took off the hairnet that unified the preparation line. She wanted to look pretty for her Jorge, who would be waiting for her to arrive. Tonight when they twelve hour work shift ended, they would get their pay. She and Jorge would escape the confines of the six room house they shared with his madre y padre, her tía, and an unmarried brother.
For a few hours, they would see the city together, dating as they couldn’t have done while courting, when family members chaperoned their time together, protecting them from their urges like the ever-seeing eyes of God. They had been married only months, and were still hungry for each other in the way that teenagers lust for each other in the times before God smiles on their union. Her friends saw her trying to arrange herself and smiled at her; if they were jealous, they did not mention it. Besides, they had their own points of pride.
The previous week, two of them had been to see Casablanca, and they were afforded the prized spots near the largest fan in order to retell the tale to the women who had missed that week’s show. Telling the love story in all of its tragic beauty, they made Ingrid Bergman a worker like themselves, only different because she was more glamorous, and they loved her. Her sacrifice, her confusion, her difficulty choosing between sexual attraction and the burdens of responsibility, all echoed their own lives in ways they did not mention.
Even more, though, they loved Humphrey Bogart, the leather-skinned actor who always played workers--sometimes louses, but always men they recognized, men whose hearts were tested on the wheel of oppression, and who came out the other side of their trials with swinging fists, full of machismo and oozing masculine power. They didn’t acknowledge that they found him sexy; there was no need for it to be spoken in order for it to be a truth all could recognize. Patricia’s friend Teresa spoke in her slightly broken English to all who cared to hear as the moving mass of women made its way to a half hour of freedom from the drudging machines. The English was a sign of respect for the Anglo women they worked with--even though they were gringas, many of them were also friends to the Mexican women, and some of them even lived in the same barrios.
“So, the man, he loves her, but he knows she can’t stay with him. She has to go and be the wife and the mother, and be a good daughter for her family.” The film, of course, said very little about family, but the women knew it was there, the power of la familia was the ruling force of life--that, and the Church.
Teresa continued. “The woman, she wanted to stay with him. She loves him, she thinks maybe she stay, be good woman for him. But, he good man; he loves her too much to make her putana like that.” The cannery women sighed and groaned in all the right places, punctuating the tale with their own unfulfilled desires, memories of the beautiful men they could not have or who left, died, or were sent back to Mexico, citizenship papers and dreams of a better life in tatters at their feet.
When they finally split up to find their families and their men, Patricia saw her Jorge, exactly as she’d expected, waiting for her by a small door which led to the outside and into the warm California sunshine. She smiled at him when their eyes met, and as always they drank in each other’s faces in their own ways. She hoped she looked pretty; he tried his best to look strong.
As Patricia neared her husband, he reached out for her, his hands still stained with grease down in the creases, despite the obvious attempt he’d made to clean them. The machine oil got down in every pore, it seemed, and never washed from you; none of the women ever mentioned it, knowing full well all the names the men were called by the gringos--”greaser” one of the most common, and most stinging, of them. His arms came around her in a warm embrace before dropping to his sides.
“We should go to talk, yes?” His question was almost whispered, his tender sweetness shown only to her.
“Yes, Jorge.” She followed him through the door to the grandly named “courtyard,” where they could exchange a few words in relative private. The newly-married Mrs. Ruiz assumed he wanted to talk to her about their date for that night, plan for it as they did every payday at lunch.
When the door had closed behind them, he pulled her to him, kissing her firmly. His hands came up to her waist, covering all of her lower back as his firm tongue thrust into her mouth. He was full of heat, and unusually passionate for their place of work. Typically, he was a private man, even at home he always waited until he could be certain that everyone was asleep before making love to her, even though the family had given them their own private room since the wedding, knowing that they’d want to start a family. Satisfied with his conquest of her mouth, her warm and receptive response to his invasion, he pulled back.
“What is it?” she questioned him, slightly confused--if also excited--by his odd behavior. Patricia was careful not to interrogate him; she had been raised well, and she didn’t wish to undermine her husband’s authority over their time together.
“There are rumors about the union people coming here. Manny called me over today and told me they’re looking for a few men to help them make the rounds, get people together. I’m going over there tonight, see what’s going on.” Manny was Jorge’s brother, a hard working but young man, the kind most likely to start fights when he’d been drinking or after a bad day. Patricia loved him as she loved all of Jorge’s family, but she wasn’t sure he was always a good influence.
“Jorge, did you forget?” She was crushed that he would abandon her like this, but she didn’t push hard. From the time she was a young child, her mother had taught her that her role as a woman would often be a painful one, and unfulfilling. She accepted this, and because of it she would accept his breaking of their date. But this was the first time he’d abandoned her like this, left her behind for the concerns of men, and she couldn’t contain her hurt feelings enough to let it pass entirely unnoted.
“No, Patricia, I didn’t forget about us. This is for us, m’hija.” He talked to her as he would to a beloved child, running the diminutive name together like the old-timers did. Usually, it made her feel warm and secure. Today, it irritated her, though she said nothing about it. “I have to do this; you know that things have to change if we’re ever going to make it, if we aren’t going to let the gringos beat us down forever. You want for us to spend our whole lives living with everybody all together, never knowing if our jobs will be there tomorrow? ‘Cause I don’t.”
His eyes had hardened to her; as she had always seen her mother do when her father grew tense, she responded by softening to him. She was the reed, she had to be the one to bend. Men were stronger, but brittle; they would break if asked to bend. Patricia believed this, and it was confirmed for her constantly, in the relationships she saw all around her, in the lessons Padre Rodriguez taught at mass, in the punishment she received in the Confession booth for her rebellious thoughts. Jorge confirmed it for her again by softening his tone immediately, once she acquiesced to him.
“Of course not, Jorge. It’s okay; I understand. We’ll go another time.” She knew the factory was very hard for her husband and all the other men; unlike the women, the barrio men needed to be respected by the other men, were unaccustomed to being treated as less. But, she wasn’t sure that the gringos were the problem. Her heart knew it was a problem of power abused, but she did not possess the words to make her proud and fierce Jorge understand this. Her husband apparently could not hear the ambivalence in her voice, the deep division in her heart between duty and desire, sacrifice and sustenance.
He took her hand again, leading her back inside just as the whistle rang out to sound the end of their break. As usual, the time passed without either of them eating. She hoped he would remember to give her a little money before leaving for the labor meeting; there was little left in the house, and all would need to eat.
When she arrived home, tía Carmen was waiting for her. “The others are already at Confession; I told them you’d be late, so they went without us. Don’t’ worry, Padre will understand that you have to work.” Some of their neighbors called Carmen a witch, because she still held to some of the old peasant ways. Patricia thought of her as a curandera, a folk healer. She wasn’t evil, of that much Patricia was certain. And, since her own parents hadn’t been able to stay near her, Carmen was her adviser and friend, the woman who looked over her as her own mother might have done if she’d been able.
“Now, mi hija, you tell me what’s wrong.” As usual, Carmen knew that she was needed, even before Patricia knew it herself.
“Tía, I don’t know. I’m so confused.” Her mixed feelings about Jorge’s participation in the possible union action, her hurt at his breaking of their date, and even the desire she didn’t know she had--to be with him and take part in the changes the men were trying to create at the plant, all of it came spilling out of her. Carmen listened, nodding and taking it all in, not interrupting. When Patricia started to cry, she held her.
As the tears started to dry up, she touched her niece’s hand and told her to wait for just a moment. Patricia looked after her retreating form in puzzlement, not knowing what could be coming next. When Carmen returned, she held something closed in her tiny fist, which she immediately thrust toward her troubled family member, the daughter of her heart.
“You take this now, and you wait to hear an answer to your prayers. Sometimes, God is not only in the Church. Sometimes, the voices of men drown out the voice of God. You listen, mi hija, you listen until you hear the woman-God speak to you.” It seemed like heresy to Patricia, and was deeply unsettling. But as she opened her hand to see what Carmen had placed in it, she saw an ivory pendant on a long piece of leather, felt warmth flowing from the aged carvings, and the warmth brought her a kind of peace. The warm ivory in her hands seemed to speak directly to her heart, stilling her stubborn fears and assuring her that it was no sin to listen to her old aunt.
“God takes many forms, Patricia.” So entranced was she with the gift, she wasn’t really listening, only staring at its etchings; it seemed to echo with history, as though she could hear its whole past if she only listened closely enough. When she heard her name, she tore her eyes from the pendant and looked at her aunt, who was still speaking. “I would never speak against Padre Rodriguez, and his God is a true one. But, it is not all. God is not man, is not padre, not only. El Dios is all, is man and woman, madre y padre; and the power of God is not just what lies behind a fist, what destroys. It is also the power to bend, to connect, to create. It is balance. What you hold is a talisman, a sacred thing that can teach you of this balance, if you heed what it tells you.”
Patricia was beginning to understand why some called her aunt a witch. Holding the talisman, though, her aunt’s words rang true. She felt the ivory’s warmth infuse her, and she was suddenly very sorry that Jorge wasn’t there in the little house with her. She missed him powerfully, and wanted to be with him, to share her troubled thoughts, to hope that he would share his mysterious heart with her in return.
“Thank you, Carmen. Thank you so much. I think I will go lay down; I have so much to think about and I’m very tired.” Her tía understood, and only nodded silently as Patricia gathered herself to leave the room, still clutching the Talisman tightly.
But when she reached the room she shared with Jorge, she did not rest. She was too warm, edgy and ill at ease. She drew water from the tap down the hall and washed herself in the basin; she changed her clothes, putting on something less formal and more appropriate to the heat she seemed stifled by in her room. Nothing she did seemed to cool her, until she took the Talisman she still clutched in her hand and tied it around her neck. The moment it touched the skin of her throat, she felt calm settle over her.
The heat she previously suffered seemed to turn pleasant and diffuse itself throughout her body, arousing her in an entirely unfamiliar way. Though there was no music playing, she seemed to feel more than hear a pulsing rhythm; her body swayed to it and she wanted to dance. As she started to move her hips to the staccato beat of the music in her head, she felt beautiful and strong. She lost herself in it, dancing carefree in the small, cramped room. Her hands started on her hips as she felt defiant, but they moved across her body slowly. She drank in the perfume of her own sweat and her hands roamed her body, caressing her caramel skin, removing her clothing as her mind cleared of all thought.
The Talisman’s magic seduced her; it seemed she could hear voices chanting in rhythm to the dance she performed alone. As her body moved, the voices grew louder, until she could make out words, words crafted for her. Dance, chica, dance. Vida, amore, vida. The sounds rattled the bars of her heart’s cage, awoke the sleeping lion of her bodily desires. Her skin grew as moist as her sex, the dance and the small quarters drawing everything from her, bringing it to the surface.
Patricia was a proper woman, and chaste. From the time of her First Communion, she’d been her parents’ pride and then become a daughter Jorge’s family was proud to accept. She did not flirt or misbehave, she was not carnal or immodest. Before this day, she’d never let herself be freely sexual. Sex was something that belonged to men and to motherhood; it was not for women to love and to want. This day, however, everything was different. As the sweat rolled down her lovely and unselfconsciously nude skin, her fingers explored the swelling peaks of her breasts, teasing them in tempo with her rolling hips and dancing feet.
The chanting voices melded with the rhythm of her dance and were one, her body longed to meld with her husband’s and be one--to be together as they had never been, with her heart and mind in the moment, there with her body, making her free to enjoy him as he enjoyed her. Thinking of Jorge, she let her fingers wander over the tiny swell of her stomach to the wispy curls of her mound. For the first time in a very long time, she let her finger slide inside the lips, eased by the slickness of her arousal. Her fingertips did not feel the gentle bud of her clit, but the contact buckled her knees with its power.
Voices grew louder, filled her whole awareness as she stroked herself toward orgasm, still crumpled in a heap on the floor, in the spot she fell when her knees weakened and then gave out. There was nothing to hear but the voices, and no room for any other thought than their sounds and her approaching release. Her whole body seemed to swell and her vision slowly tinted red until the room was washed in this color of sex and blood, life and death. Her orgasm was unlike any feeling she’d ever had--if asked, she wouldn’t have known that she’d never experienced a true climax before. But it was more than that; she felt fully alive, and drunk with unexplainable power. For the first time, she touched the face of Shakti; for the first time, she was aware of her own sexual power, even if only partially. She had glimpsed the power of female sex, and it change her.
Patricia’s feelings held all night as she waited impatiently for her husband’s return. The talisman lay between her breasts, continuing to warm her smooth skin as she fanned herself cool and dressed again. When dark came, she lit a candle and sat on the floor to think. Jorge was at the meeting because he loved her and wanted a better life; she knew this in her heart. He was a good man, but stubborn, like all the men she knew--it was part of how they defined the idea of manhood.
Everyone in the cannery wanted to address the unfairness of the labor deal--the way that anti-European sentiment had crushed the worker’s protection groups during the war, the way that Mexicans were refused promotions and fair pay, the fact that women were made to suffer the unsolicited and sometimes violent attentions of their bosses, the injuries that occurred daily due to bad equipment and lack of light. All of it would have to change if anyone was going to survive the company and its demands. But if real change was going to happen, they’d need more than angry men drunk with stubbornness and the desire to win a fair chance. They would need people who knew how to sacrifice and compromise, and who knew how to come together when times grew desperate; they would need their women. All of the men wouldn’t be able to effect real change, not alone. And if they didn’t know this, she would have to start showing them--the women as well as the men.
Jorge entered the house very late, after midnight. He was careful to be quiet, sliding along the wall of the living room and avoiding the squeaking boards of the middle, but she heard him anyway. When he entered his bedroom, Patricia was awake and waiting for him. She looked up as he opened the door, peering at him through candlelight, and he was awestruck by the sight of her. Her face shone beautifully, and he thought she’d never been so beautiful as she was then--sitting on the floor in one of his shirts, back against the wall. She could hear this thought as clearly as if he’d spoken it in her ear, and it made her feel like a queen, a benevolent ruler for his heart and body. The light came from a candle placed between her feet; her legs were bent at the knee and the candle cast entrancing shadows between her parted thighs. Once he’d seen them, he couldn’t look away and she felt flush with power as she saw him grow mesmerized.