A few days ago I went over to see my friend Cuca for my Tarot class and for our usual coffee chat. We sat in the living room enjoying her Cuban brew while we caught up on our lives. Cuca complained because I don’t stop by her house as often as I did and warned that if I kept my distance further she’d be calling my mother to complain to her too. Her threat didn’t face me. I told her my mother was complaining about the same thing and that both would find comfort in their shared neglect. My absence has not been intentional, I told her. I’ve been busy trying to get my life in order after completing acupuncture school—trying to establish a new routine, regaining a semblance of a social life—leaving me with little time to attend to everything I want or have to do.
Towards the end of our third coffee cup, Cuca turned to me and asked, “What’s up with you? You’ve been sitting here all afternoon with a vacant and lost look on your face.”
“Nada,” I told her. “I’m tired and I need a nap.”
“Mentira. Ever since you walked in here your body is in this room while your mind travels all over the galaxy. Tell me. ¿Que te pasa?”
I looked at her and wondered if I could share my secret with her. I’d been thinking about this for several days and it was a question that was bothering me. Cuca waited for me to answer without a word. She took a couple of drags off her cigarette, put it out in the ashtray, and waited for the answer, leaning back in her chair with arms folded.
“Do you believe in dragons?” I asked her.
“Do you believe in dragons?” I asked her again.
“What do you mean, dragons? Those animals with wings that fly around spitting fire out of their mouths? Or do you mean problems so daunting they seem insurmountable?”
“Well, both I think. I don’t know. I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and reading some fantasy books that mention them, and I was thinking that creatures or adventures like that don’t exist anymore. The world has become so boring. What is there for us to go on a quest after? Science, computers, the Internet have rid us of any fantastic creature or threat we can fight against. All the great quests have been resolved. There’s nothing left for us to do in this century. Don’t you long for those simpler days? You know, the once upon a time days when all you had to do to live happily-ever-after and find your prince was slay a dragon and then you’d be happy forever. Whatever happened to all that?”
“Don’t you mean a princess?” Cuca asked, arching her eyebrows in dismay.
“Cuca,” I said, “it’s a fairy-tale for God’s sake. Get with the program.”
She lit another cigarette, as she will whenever she’s going to start on a long and winded tirade—her prop to stake her claim and an oracle from which she draws inspiration.
“I do,” she said. “I do believe in dragons. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not kidding you. You thought I was going to tell you that you lost your mind, or that you’re talking crazy, but I’m not. Dragons exist. They have always been around. But not like you picture them. They don’t take the form of large horned beasts that spit and breathe fire. They’re certainly not like the creatures you see in one of your Hollywood movies. No. Over the years, dragons have become smart animals. Unlike people, they’ve evolved and adapted to modern times. They live around us and still terrify us like they used to in ancient times. Their tactics, however, are more sophisticated.
“Dragons are very clever creatures. Like the boogaboos in your closet, dragons have evolved and become shape shifters. They can now take any shape or form they desire. That’s why they’re so hard to recognize. Dragons come in all shapes and sizes: hunger, war, fear, prejudice, discrimination, terrorism, murder, ignorance, politics, organized religion, supermodels, television, advertising, and worst of all, Kardashians. That’s the worst one of all. The old days, as you call them, were not necessarily easier or better than today. We like to romanticize the past. We like to think that if we go back to the way things were, everything will be better. It’s not; it won’t. As much as I’d like to go back to Cuba and sit in my grandmother’s veranda drinking lemonade and playing with dolls, that’s not going to happen. It might be true that the beaches in Varadero at one time were the most beautiful beaches in the world, pero ahora, no jodas, it’s not worth the sand that washes ashore on them every day. That other dragon has made a big mess out of that. Cabrón!”
I was about to interrupt her and ask her a question, but after ten years and several gallons of coffee between us, I knew better. There was more.
“Adventures are not a thing of the past. They’re still very much with us. Those quests, as you call them, are still there for the taking. Everyone wants to think that life is boring and that all good things are behind them. That’s why they go home every night and watch awful shows that rot their minds and rob them of imagination, thinking this is as exciting as life gets. I feel sorry for those people. There’s so much do to and so many quests you can embark on—even today. You just have to look a little harder.
“Princesses are still in peril. And yes, even your prince needs rescuing. When I think of all the poor dear men and women who have died to AIDS, cancer, accidents, and all of the many dragons that take our lives every day, I get up and go do something. Why do you think Armando has been around for so long? If it was up to him, Dios solo sabe que le pasa. Nevermind all the hate, ignorance, suffering, and hostility in the world. Coño, if I had a dime for every injustice committed in the name of God, I would not have the phone ringing off the kitchen wall every day by collection agency computers searching the world for my whereabouts.
“There are still plenty of quests out there, my dear, for the taking. Which one calls to you? I can’t tell you that. Which one do you want to take up? That’s for you to decide. All I can tell you is that there are plenty of dragons waiting to be slayed. You have to stay on guard and keep your eyes open for them.”
I had gotten more of an answer than I was seeking, and with the coffee gone cold I knew it was time for me to go home. I stood up and gave Cuca a big hug. Cuca pulled me closer to her, wrapped her arms tightly around me, and whispered in my ear, “Whichever quest you choose to embark on, make sure it’s the right one for you. That’s the trick of the trade. Any old Quixote worth his sword will tell you that.”