Strong Like a Woman- Ed Faunce
Ramon took a sip of the noxious smelling concoction in the aperitif glass. It burnt his lips. Absinthe straight, no water, very little sugar, colored green like the eyes of a sea goddess. He could only imagine what it was doing to his digestive tract. He was in Barcelona in the year 1940, and Ramon was not his real name. An American playing a dangerous game in Franco’s Axis country, Ramon looked at ease in his surroundings. Sitting in the cellar of a bistro at the heart of Raval’s district of brothels and underground cafes Ramon in his light brown plaid pants and jacket and open collar shirt looked the part of a rakish Spaniard. But nothing in this medieval city was what is seemed on the surface.
The place was named Las Cuevas Del Sorte, the caves of the south. Upstairs was a regular bar serving light jambon and bread along with watered down beer to the locals. To get to the basement where Ramon sat, one had to have contacts. There was a war going on. This little hole in the wall was literally a hole in the wall behind a book case near the darkest part of the upstairs kitchen. A password, and some pesetas gained entrance to this rock walled, candle lit cellar of sin. A bust of The Virgin, with candles ablaze around her had the place of honor among the liqueurs and various bootleg alcohol like the drink that was in Ramon’s hand.
Ramon waited patiently. That’s what it seemed to the outside world anyway. Inside he was on edge. He shared the room with several people. Fashionable Catalan women eyeing the room, drinking their aperitifs, smoking Vichy cigarettes from France sat with sad eyed middle aged men, with hair dyed black, as if that would keep them young. Three Nazi officers looked up at the singer, a beautiful dark haired beauty, from a café table near the stage. Nobody danced, and not a word was spoken, a rarity with the gauche Germans and their boisterous strudel singing. They were not the conquerors here in Spain, but an Axis ally. The soldiers knew they would be court martialed if caught in such a place. Worse, if the local Guarda Civil busted the joint, they would more than likely have to spend time in the carcel, the Barcelona jail. More than enough anarchists still imprisoned in that place that would love to slit a Nazi throat.
A single bead of sweat rolled down Ramon’s forehead. His impeccably coiffed and slicked back black hair glowed from the candle light off the walls. Checking his wrist watch he mentally noted that his contact was late. Ramon, in his middle thirties, had grown up in Los Angeles. Volunteering for some adventure he joined the Merchant Marine, ending up in New York City just before 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Through some contacts, most of them met in some of the seamier sailor hangouts, he was offered a job by the United States Government. At least that is what he was told. He was a courier of information. Ramon received a packet of intelligence once a week. He would meet a contact, the exchange would be made, then he would post the information to various addresses in Portugal. This information would then find its way to Washington D.C. to be analyzed. There were rumors that America would soon enter the war, but at this point had no real excuse, despite the Blitzkrieg and London’s nightly bombings. It is obvious they wanted to be ready to go.
One of the women nearest the wall got up from her chair and came toward Ramon. A woman alone in an illegal bar in any other place on earth in 1940 would probably be a prostitute, but in Spain women were on equal footing with men and just as dangerous. They went where they pleased. Particularly if they were anarchists. In this country anarchist women were known to come up to male patrons of higher class establishments and stab them, sending another bourgeois pig to hell as they calmly walked away.
Ramon’s pulse quickened. The woman whispered “Siga” and flashed a silver cigarette case. This was his contact. She was never late; she had been here the whole time. After she passed, feigning a trip to the ladies’ room, Ramon counted to ten, then got up to follow her.
The hallway to the lavatories were lit with a single candle in a sconce on the wall. Ramon tapped his foot twice. A deep feminine voice beckoned from the ladies’ lavatory: “Aqui, rapida!”
Ramon shuddered. It flashed through his mind that this might be a set-up. Many couriers had died by following what they thought were contacts and turned out to be fascist agents or anarchists. Those were the chances, and this was how the game was played. However, it was the first time a woman had been Ramon’s contact, and the circumstances surrounding her appearance were changing by the minute. Ramon stepped cautiously through the open lavatory door.
As the door shut a cold metal object was pressed into Ramon’s neck. It was a gun.
“Contra la puerta!” came the command. He leaned up against the wooden door, shaken a bit. He felt her hands run up and down his legs, around his chest and arms. The gun pressed tightly under his jawline. She checked his genital area and around the back. Ramon started to get angry but the weapon pressed tighter against his skin. “Tranquillo” came the reply. She moved the weapon. “Tengo ciudado, no?” I am careful, no? Resisting the urge to grab the woman, Ramon composed himself and readjusted his suit. “No es necessario” he murmured. “I am Delores, I have your packet” came the response in English. Her perfume finally caught his attention. By candle light her porcelain face framed her wide, dark eyes. Delores had red lips that barely moved when she spoke, making her not only seem more dangerous, but mysteriously alluring as well.
“You know English?” Ramon queried. “Well enough” came the terse reply. “Here is your packet. You are to wait for further instructions before mailing.” This was also a new circumstance. The procedure had been set up from the time he came to the city. First the information was passed to him, and as quickly as possible posted to keep the flow going, and to insure if he was caught, Ramon would not have important information in his possession.
“This is unusual” Ramon muttered. “This is unusual intelligence” replied Delores as she pulled up her skirt and retrieved a small, banded envelope from the top of her hosiery. Ramon followed her hand down, noticing her garters and her smooth legs. He could suddenly feel his heart beat in his chest.
“Vas is los innen dort!” Ramon almost jumped as the door to the women’s lavatory slammed against his back. “Jesus, a FUCKING GERMAN SOLDIER!” Ramon thought. Delores and Ramon’s eyes met in fear. Ramon pushed back against the door, thinking of what to do. Delores whispered, “Siga!” then got on her knees. What was this, a prayer before dying? Ramon had no idea what to do next, but as he pushed against the door, he felt Delores unzip his trousers. This was not the place, nor the time for intimacy, but following her lead he let the German open the door.
Light shone from the candle lit hallway and the drunk German at first did not know what was going on. Viciously scowling, Delores, with Ramon’s member well in hand looked up at the soldier and screamed “Hijo-la puta grosero!” You rude son of a bitch!” The German sobered up quickly, looked a Ramon, who managed a weak smile. The German taken aback, started to laugh and shut the door, returning to the men’s lavatory on the other side of the hallway. He would have a story for his tablemates when he got back.
Delores and Ramon held their positions for what seemed like forever. Then she returned him to his sheath, very gingerly, as if to savor every moment. Ramon held out his hand and helped her up. She was so close he could hear her heart beat. Delores was thin, yet muscular. The tumult had knocked down some of her hair and as she drew back to fix it Ramon could see the outlines of her slender breasts. It had been a long time since Ramon had been with a woman. This was no ordinary woman however, and Ramon knew that. Gathering himself, he felt her hand on his shoulder. “Nice acting” Delores whispered. “You made it easy for me” Ramon sighed. She moved close to him at the door, and their lips brushed together slightly. He felt her breath in his mouth. “Vaya” she whispered then moved straight out the door.
Two days later Ramon lay on the bed in his flat near the catredal in Central Barcelona. Wearing summer trousers and an undershirt, he lit a cigarette and scanned the skyline outside of his balcony. He was worried. Nobody had contacted him yet. The information packet lay at the foot of his bed. What was so special inside? Why the wait for instructions? When can I see Delores again? The last question vexed him more than the first two. Curiosity had led to obsessive thoughts about the woman. Who was she? How could he find her? Would it be safe to find her? Ramon had not slept for the entirety of the two days waiting. Drinking some cold coffee, he pondered going out to search for this vexation on his soul. Impulsively he put on his jacket and was out the door.
The old city with its mercados and casas de peliculas were bustling, despite Basque anarchists and soldiers everywhere. Ramon made his way to the seaside, not really knowing what he was looking for. He sat and watched in the distance a pair of lovers kissing on the benches of Las Ramblas, and wondered if at some point in time he would give up the intrigue in his life for a woman. He watched the couple’s passion for a long time, then something caught his eye.
A familiar feminine figure, dressed in a civil military uniform turned a corner at Carrier de Santa Anna. A quick profile yes, but something intuitive drove Ramon to rise and head in that direction. His mind was chastising him for thinking that seeing a strange woman during a five-minute interlude by candlelight would give him any kind of identification in broad daylight from 100 yards away, yet he followed.
The woman stepped into the portico of a hotel then disappeared. Ramon moved rapidly into the building and was confronted by the clerk of the watch in the small lobby. “Perdon senor”, blurted Ramon, “Una mujer cayo esto” he continued holding up a 100 pesata note indicating that the woman had dropped the money. The clerk’s eye widened. “Demelo que lo revolveo” “Give it to me and I will return it” was the clerk’s reply. “No” Ramon answered in Spanish, “but here is your reward if you help me return it myself”. Ramon pressed a fifty peseta note into the clerk’s hands. The man got the message. “Sito ciento” the clerk replied, stuffing the fifty in his shirt pocket and walking away. “Gracias” said Ramon and then scrambled up the marble stairs to room one hundred.
On the way to the room Ramon passed an open workman’s closet in the hallway. His usual, careful demeanor had long since passed. If he were discovered now he would probably be arrested and tried. His cover would be blown and more than likely he would end up hanging from a rope by weeks’ end. He stood at the door of room one hundred with trepidation. It was too late, not only was he committed, but he was in love. He raised his arm to knock, and cold steel fell across his head. All was now black.
His eyes opened to discover he was in her room on the floor looking up. Delores stood over him, weapon pointed at his head. “Perro estupida” muttered Delores as she slapped Ramon with her free hand. “Do you try to get us both arrested, maybe executed?” Delores had switched to English. Ramon’s head was aching. He tried to rise and speak. “No,” ordered Delores, “you sit right there or I will slit your throat.” Delores produced a military knife from a sheath under her uniform leg.
Ramon steadied himself against the bed as he sat on the floor. He visibly started to blush thinking about the danger he had put both of them in. “I was never contacted,” he tried to explain, “I thought something had happened, maybe you were captured and would give me up.” “Puta maldecido” Delores exclaimed as she came over and put the blade of the knife close to his face. “It was you who have given me up, you have led them here.”
Ramon was now puzzled, yet the blade of the knife was still close to his face. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Why did you leave your flat?” Delores asked as she pulled the knife away. Embarrassed, Ramon stammered, “I …. came looking for you.” Delores smiled. She held out her hand to help him up, still reminding him in the other she had a knife by rubbing it near his cheek. “Why look for me?” she asked with a sultry low voice. “Because, because I can’t stop thinking about you” blurted Ramon. Delores moved closer and firmly clasped his genitals all while holding the knife in the other hand. “Because of this?” Delores purred warmly. Ramon was in shock, and in a precarious position, yet knew what his only answer could be. “No, because of this” Ramon leaned in and kissed Delores’ full lips. He felt her melt. Their kiss lasted a long time. It was a release for both of them.
Delores moved back and surveyed Ramon. Sheathing her knife, she started to explain the situation. “The information you were given was a trap to catch the couriers.” She stated as she brushed her hair in the mirror. Ramon was suddenly alarmed. “My God” he thought, my identity has been discovered” Ramon moved toward the door. “No!” Delores pointed her weapon at him. “It is too late. Come here.” Ramon moved slowly. “Did you betray me?” Ramon asked pointedly. Delores laughed. “No mi amor, I am here to protect you.” Delores smiled. “Your identity was already in the books of the guarda. They wanted to see you work, and to get as many contacts from your travels as possible.” Ramon was stunned. “Look out the window, very slowly, don’t be seen” Ramon moved toward the window. Looking down behind the drapes he saw a black Mercedes. Four men in black overcoats with SS insignias were standing, smoking cigarettes and staring at the hotel door.
“Mierda” muttered Ramon. Delores finished with her hair. She was plain looking without makeup. Her face was darker than he remembered, but the full lips and deep eyes still shone. In the civil uniform she looked athletic, with small, but firm breasts and round hips. “Mierda indeed my lover.” She came over to kiss him again, full on the mouth. “Don’t worry mi amante,” she said after pulling away from his embrace, “I will save you now, and later we will consummate our love, if you still are willing”
Ramon whispered, “I will always be willing”. Delores laughed, “I will hold you to that.”
Delores beckoned Ramon to sit in front of a small dressing table. He was somewhat confused but did as he was told. Suddenly, Delores reached up under her hair and pulled the wig off of her head. “We will need this for later.” she mused. Suddenly transformed, Delores revealed a short cropped man’s haircut. She disrobed in front of a shocked Ramon to reveal she was wearing a man’s undershirt underneath a brassiere. Pulling padded inserts from the bra she undid the undergarment and lay it on the bed. She wore a lacy garter belt under her military trousers. A small cloth was wrapped around her waist and extended down between her legs. Looking at Ramon intendedly she pulled a string on the cloth and it fell to the floor to reveal her male endowment.
Ramon felt ill. He started to get up and was faced with Delores’s Walther. “Ah, ah” Delores warned. At this point Ramon felt betrayed, embarrassed, and was unafraid of the gun. He grabbed the weapon and a struggle began. A sharp hand to the throat from Delores knocked the wind out of him and a well-placed knee to Ramon’s groin put him back on the floor, gasping for breath.
“Usted es débil como un hombre” muttered Delores. “You are weak like a man. Your power is all an illusion, “continued Delores. “In Spain women are strong, much stronger than you simpletons with your machismo.” She lit a cigarette. Taking a puff, she offered it to Ramon, who knocked it out of her hand. Shaking her head Delores continued,“You know nothing of strength.” She lit another cigarette. “The bastard Picasso is like you. Big man, fucking lots of French women, standing alone in Paris against the Vichy, so the story goes, “She mused looking out the window at the assembled Germans below. Delores turned suddenly. “Yet at night Picasso the great man sucks Nazi cocks, gives them paintings and stolen pieces of art from the Vichy to keep him out of their torture chambers and prisons.” Ramon looked up unamused. “You will suck many Nazi cocks before they execute you,” Delores said with a smile. Now I have an escape plan for you, but you must get over yourself and do it quickly.” Ramon was unnerved. He had to trust her. She could have killed him by now, or turned him into the waiting Germans. Ramon was still shaken with Delores’s revelation. After a long silence he relented, “What do you want me to do?”
Delores motioned to the chair at the dressing table. She took a drag off of her cigarette. “Undress. All the way,” she replied. “I want to see what I have to work with.”
An hour later, Ramon stood as Delores brushed the wig that was now upon his head. He was clean shaven now, face, legs and all. Ramon’s rouge and lipstick were expertly in place, and he was wearing the same dress that Delores had worn on their meeting at the Cuevas del Sorte. Outwardly, the transformation was complete. Ramon stood awkwardly in low heels as Delores opened up a wardrobe in the corner and pulled out a working man’s suit and shoes. “You look good,” Delores commented as she pulled the suit off the hanger.
Ramon felt the makeup burning the skin of his freshly shaven face.
“It is difficult being a woman eh?” Delores chuckled as she put on her trousers and one-piece shirt. Ramon had sufficiently calmed down, and for the first time since she had revealed herself had started to notice how muscular and coordinated Delores was, even in a man’s suit.
“How long have you been like this?” asked Ramon. “What, you mean, like a woman?” Delores replied. Ramon shifted uncomfortably with his genitals tied back under his thighs. “Here let me help you” Delores reached out, Ramon instinctively moved away. Delores looked him in the eye. “These are the same hands that kept you from getting arrested in the bar, remember? The ones you fell in love with, so it seems.” Ramon stood still and blushed. “No funny business” was all he could think to say. Delores chuckled. “Mi amante, if anyone knows how you feel now, it would be me.”
As Delores adjusted Ramon’s undergarments, she told her story. “I have been a woman since I was born. I just was not issued the desired equipment by the Christian God.” She smiled. “Many years I went back and forth, and just when I thought I was finally myself, Delores Quintana, the war came.” She stood with her man’s suit on and slipped on her shoes. Their eyes met. Ramon had a glimmer of understanding. “This is now my disguise” Delores sadly declared. “And you are my damsel in distress.” Ramon was suddenly ashamed of his behavior. “I am sorry,” he started. Delores put a finger to his lips and stopped him. “Regret will get you killed. You seem like you have your head about you now, so listen. I will show you how to walk, we don’t have much time.” She handed Ramon her gold clutch purse to match his ensemble and tenderly held Ramon’s hand. He squeezed back and they smiled together. “Como esto”.
The trip down the marble stairs took an eternity for Ramon in women’s shoes. Delores suggested that Ramon act drunk to cover for the lack of coordination. Ramon felt very uncomfortable. The only thing that kept him calm was the perfume that was still on the fabric of the dress that he was wearing. Its fragrance reminded Ramon of how he felt the night he met Delores.
At the desk, the same clerk eyed the pair suspiciously. “No mes de ginebra per a tu la meva dolca” announced Delores in a very masculine tone. “No more gin for you my sweet” in the native Catalan. As the doors of the hotel swung open, the German’s eyes were all upon the couple as Ramon lurched out into the street on the arm of Delores. “Just keep walking” whispered Delores, as they made quicker steps down the calle. The couple was less than 10 feet away when one of the SS men Yelled “Halt!”Ramon and Delores stopped. “Be ready to run,” warned Delores, “and don’t look back”. Delores turned around, her hand in her pocket clicked off the safety of the small pistol.
“Mi esposa es enfirma!”, stated Delores. “Estamos yendo en casa!” “Papierie gefallen” came the response in German. Delores turned to Ramon and held his hand. “Today I came to warn you, and you were out searching for me”, she whispered. She slipped her knife and sheath into the back of his skirt. “I too have been a fool for love.” She smiled lovingly. At that moment it all became clear for Ramon. This was real love. He looked deep into her dark eyes, “Mi amante” he murmered. The German footsteps came closer. “Mi amante, pour siempre,” Delores replied.
The Germans were now close enough that Delores couldn’t miss. Ramon slipped off his heels as he stood beside Delores and she turned quickly to fire at point blank range, killing two of the Germans instantly. Ramon leapt forward and stabbed the third in the chest. The fourth had pulled his Luger and before Ramon could act, put two bullets into Delores’ chest.
Throwing the knife to the ground Ramon attacked the shooter from the back, wrapping the chain of Delores’ purse around his fat German neck and pulling with such force that the shooter’s feet were off the ground. The German dangled in front of him, gagging and pulling the trigger of his weapon twice more. The bullets ricocheted across the street. The German finally shuddered and went limp.
As the German’s body dropped to the ground, Ramon ran to where Delores lay, flailing to find her gun on the street. He knelt and held her head in his lap. “Vaya” said Delores. “My gun, I need it”. Ramon looked round. People who had heard the commotion were now coming out into the narrow street to take a look. “I will get you out of here, we will take their car” whispered Ramon. He felt her hand on his face. “No. You must go. Now.” Ramon felt a tear run down his face. Delores smiled. “Be strong, like a woman,” she whispered, gasping for breath. “Give me the gun while I have the strength” Ramon knew what she was going to do. In the war, in Franco’s Barcelona, there were times that living was worse than dying for an anarchist spy against the Axis. “Kiss me” said Ramon. Delores with a weak smile offered her lips. They kissed, and then Ramon smoothed out the smeared lipstick that was now on Delores’s lips shared from his own. “Now you are mi amante, Delores Quintana”. She smiled. “Prisa” she said weakly. He handed her the weapon and with a last look gently lay Delores down, slipping quickly through the crowd. Delores pushed the weapon with all of her strength up under her chin.
Ramon heard the gunshot behind him as Delores pulled the trigger. Clutching Delores’ purse, tears streamed down his face and he disappeared into the shadows of the ancient city, just as he had been taught.
Three weeks later Ramon stood in the lavatory of his room in the bowels of an Algerian steamer off the coast of Ireland. The chief that picked up Ramon from the launch out of Lisbon noted that Ramon carried what looked to be a woman’s clutch purse. He would not give it up to anyone. Ramon would be disembarking soon and was readying himself for the midnight ride into the coast. He would then be sent to London to be debriefed on his missions by the OSS and finally transferred to US intelligence. Looking in the mirror, he could see the lines that now crisscrossed his formerly youthful face. His heart ached, and his head was in a fog.
Sitting in the lavatory, looking down at the purse, Ramon produced a tube of red lipstick from its contents. After applying it to his lips, he smacked them on a tissue. From the purse he pulled out a silver cigarette case. Taking a Vichy cigarette, he lit it and looked in the mirror as he took a drag. “Be strong,” he repeated sadly aloud, “Like a woman.”