Dragons, German models, and Argentine psychoanalysts -- oh my!
Dragons, German models, and Argentine psychoanalysts -- oh my!
Steve Satterwhite

Opium Dream

Helen had a happy thought. Into the bowl in which their wine was mixed, she slipped a drug that had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories. No one who swallowed this dissolved in their wine could shed a single tear that day, even for the death of his mother or father, or if they put his brother or his own son to the sword and he were there to see it done -- Homer, The Odyssey

She arrives at Miami International Airport from Caracas on New Year's Eve with a broken heart and the feeling that nothing will ever be the same. For her, as for Ulysses, it is not the destination that matters but the lessons learned on the journey. After waiting in vain for her friends to pick her up and learning that her luggage would not arrive until the next day, she goes outside to smoke a cigarette.

All she has in her pockets are a $50 bill and her return ticket home. She had packed her purse inside her suitcase. She notices a man standing on the sidewalk beside a pay phone. His anguished expression rivals her own. They strike up a conversation, and he explains that he has just arrived from Colombia to surprise his Swedish girlfriend who is visiting friends in Miami, but the only contact number he has is his girlfriend's friend's beeper. He has been waiting for an hour for the phone to ring. They realize they both are waiting in vain. But this is the Magic City, and, with only five hours left before the year will end, they agree to have the time of their lives. As she introduces herself in the cab to her unexpected mate, the driver tunes the radio to a salsa station playing Ruben Blades's mean-streets epic, "Pedro Navaja" ("Mack the Knife"). Life gives you surprises indeed.



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He suggests Opium, an Asian restaurant-bar that opened six months ago on South Beach, upstairs from Cafe Tabac, at Third and Collins. Two geishas greet them at the door and lead them to a table for the 8:30 p.m. seating. Long sticks of incense line the stairway. An elaborate pipe hangs at the entrance, reminding her of a sacred temple in Thailand.

Nearly 200 people crowd the tables scattered about the floor, all dressed in black, eager to see and be seen in their carefully crafted casual chic. The waitress brings each of them the glass of champagne included in the $150 per person price for the five-course New Year's meal. "Here's to lost luggage, lost friends, and -- why not -- " she says, lifting her glass, "lost love." After the toast he excuses himself to call the beeper again.

Alone, she stares at the hundreds of red paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. There was nothing she could do except wait for the new year to begin and return to the airport. Inside a booth built in the shape of a pagoda, DJ Ivano Bellini plays a track from the new Sade release, a groove as spare and empty as the traveler's soul.

She cannot help eavesdropping on the tables that surround her. A group of publicists and production assistants from MTV's Spanish-language station discuss next year's video awards. Models from Germany speak in equally broken English and Spanish with designers from Venezuela sitting at the table next to them. A plastic surgeon from South Beach warns his companion against the dangers of going under the knife of a fake doctor. A security agent from Israel explains to his friends his experience with terrorist groups. A psychoanalyst from Argentina tries to convert a lesbian couple.

She orders an Emperor's Jay, its minty bite similar to a mojito. He orders the sweet Brazilian caipirinha. The waitress rushes with the menu; with only two hours left before midnight, the food must be served quickly. Soon they are picking their way through a meal worthy of a Mandarin. Over tricolor caviar, they talk about themselves without compromise or shame. The candlelight plays with her features, making her lips look especially sensuous as she samples the shrimp dumplings and crisp snapper. By the time the waitress brings the caramelized banana in coconut milk, she is promising herself that she'll begin the new year with a change of heart. There are five minutes remaining before the countdown.

When the ball finally drops, a dragon weaves across the floor, brilliant in green and red. Even though the official Chinese New Year is in February, Opium celebrates according to the South Beach calendar. The crowd hugs and kisses. The bartender serves drinks in accelerated motion. The DJ jams the air with house music while the geishas dance on top of the bar.

After a heated exchange with the DJ, three of the MTV contingent invade the pagoda, trying to change the house record to trance. The German models pose for pictures with the geishas. The Venezuelan designers laugh at everyone else's outfits but have only praise for the dragon. The surgeon hands his card to beautiful women who he thinks could use an extra tuck or puff. The security agent, after considerable drinking, has resolved the conflict in the Middle East. The Argentine psychoanalyst was last seen guiding the lesbian couple into a dark corner.

The next thing they knew, the sun was rising. He had been a gentleman all evening and offered to accompany her to the airport. In turn she treated him to breakfast with the $50 she still had left. She recovered her luggage and called her friends, who apologized for not picking her up the day before. They had been certain she was arriving New Year's Day. He tried the beeper one last time and finally received a response. The caller told him that his girlfriend had left for Colombia the day before, hoping to surprise him for New Year's Eve.


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