Sunday, 18 March 2012

Exercises on Free Writing


Dusk

Do you really have to go?

It’s the third time that day she’s asked the same question and he’s fed up with it. You know I haven’t got any options, he replies. Or does he? The repetition of that same phrase has probably cancelled out any choices he might have. But deep inside he knows he’s run out of alternatives. He stretches fully on the noisy bed and gives her a curt reply: yes, I have to. Next he knows she’ll ask him why and he’ll have to go over the reasons again. They’ve been through this situation a few times this week. Maybe it was a mistake to let her in on his little “secret”. After all Pepe was clear about the operation: “Don’t tell a soul, jábico. We all want to make it safe to the other side. Imagine when we get there and get rich and send photos back home standing next to our very own motor. Uh? Then, all those naysayers, all those who chickened out, all those who preferred to stay behind and suck up to El Barba; they’ll regret the day they didn’t seize their chance.”

The other side. Funny euphemism for ninety miles. Ninety miles through choppy seas, ninety miles with sharks for company, ninety miles on a makeshift boat made of inner tubes. For some it’s a path to freedom, for others a quicker way to join their Maker. Albeit unconsciously. And for him? He is about to find out that night.

He turns to face her. Her naked body glows in the sunlight streaming through one of the broken slats of the bedroom window. Her short, curly hair is damp. She is still sweating from drawing shapes of Roman numbers with him on the old bed: an illegible, twisted L here, a spread-eagled X there, a bent, capital I here, another all-embracing X there. They both know that they have been exhausting themselves and each other before oblivion eventually does its dirty job. He looks at her plump body, masses of fat rolling to the sides every time she moves. In college they were known as the “number 10” couple due to her huge size in contrast to his skinniness. Whereas she was immediately noticed when entering a room, he would often blend in. He’s never minded her body shape, though. To him, her beauty is of the private view type, to be enjoyed only by the lucky few.

He runs his calloused hand across her face. Don’t worry, he says, I’ll bring you once I’m settled. How do you know I want out, too? She retorts angrily. How do you know I want to be separated from my family, my friends and my country? Her voice grows louder. Shhh, his finger shoots up to her lips, the neighbours might hear you. Let them hear me, she replies, putting his hand away. Anyway, what’s this secrecy about? Everyone’s leaving. Everybody knows. This whole week I’ve seen people walking down to El Malecón hoping to make their escape, too. People are trading their cars, flats, houses, motorbikes for a boat. The business now is not in pizzas and peanut bars but in tractor tyres, ropes and compasses. To cast their dice, as they keep on repeating. Do you think people are stupid? You won’t be the first one or the last one. Her voice lowers to a normal tone now. But it might be your first and last time. She turns her face to the wall. Confronting her watered eyes are stacks of books vying for space in the improvised bookshelf that would have normally accommodated the air conditioner unit: Emilio Salgari’s The Black Corsair and Sandokan: The Pirates of Malaysia; Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe; Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. And many more. Their tattered covers and dog-eared, yellow pages betray longevity and constant reading. Two Russian dolls from an original set of seven book-end this mini-library. He often thinks of them as caricatures of Stalin and Mao, fully bloated and about to burst with their socialist ideals. One could have been a travel agent; so fond he was of sending those he perceived as enemies on “holidays” to Siberia. The other one waged a war against sparrows. God only knows what he would have done to Edith Piaf. Both were united in their hatred of intellectuals and artists whose works they couldn’t understand. And yet, the irony of it, they have both wound up re-imagined as two Matryoshkas by a thirty-three year old Cuban keen on reading.

He feels somewhat uncomfortable with her outburst. I don’t think you understand, he tells the ceiling. Can’t you see that it also hurts me to leave my mum, my brothers, their wives and my four nephews? His voice is breaking. Do you think that I just woke up one day and said to myself “let’s grab a boat and get the hell out of here!”? It ain’t easy for me, either. But it’s this fucking government that doesn’t, won’t let me live! Now it’s his voice that’s rising. Tell, me, how long have I been working? He turns back to face her. He’s poking her with his finger now. How long have I been breaking my back to provide for my mother and those two other fucking lazy bastards whose only fucking contribution in this house is to knock their wives up and carry on sponging off me? I love’em to bits, you know that. That’s my family, god damn it! But they really get on my nerves with their attitude. They didn’t want to study, fine, didn’t have to. Uni’s not for everyone. But they don’t want to work, either. And still they want to have money and opportunities. Sponging off me, that’s what they do. Day in, day out. Where are they now? On the beach. Staying in the house my mum was awarded at work for her holidays. I, too, deserve a chance. A better life. I have worked as a mechanic, run errands for that disabled woman who lives next to the fishmonger’s, done plumbing, driven a clandestine taxi, even fished in that bloody Malecón, for Christ’s sake! And what have I got to show for my efforts? A one-bed flat I share with nine other people. I can’t even be intimate with the person I love whenever I want to because I’ve got no space. I know what I’m capable of and no, I’m not afraid of work. Give me work, but I just need to feel that what I’m doing is worth something.

And do you think it will be worth anything in El Norte? She has dried her eyes and is now facing him, propped up on her right elbow. Do you know how many immigrants enter the US every year? What makes you think you’ll make it?

Well, if you don’t try, you don’t succeed, he says as he gets up. The bed complains a bit more as his weight eases off it. When the going gets tough and push comes to shove even the Devil dresses as a monk and gets down on his knees to pray to the Almighty, he intones philosophically. Paquito left last week and he’s already working at a restaurant in Miami. He’s talking now with his back turned to her. He rummages through the pockets of the torn jeans that sit on the back of the only chair in the room, until he finds what he’s looking for: a cigarette. He heads for the kitchen to light it. As he crosses the lounge-cum-dining room he walks past a huge portrait of Fidel towering over the furniture. I wonder what would happen to this country if it was you leaving on a raft and not us, he thinks to himself. On the kitchen wall a calendar from some European country, where the winter is always so cold that summer’s arrival is celebrated with fireworks and a full-on street carnival, boasts a placid countryside landscape which contrasts sharply with the emotions running through him. The burner is still on but the fire is out. Damn, no gas, he mutters. He opens the cutlery drawer and amidst the rusted forks, spoons and knives he finds the old box of matches. Two of them are damp and he discards them quickly but the third one seems fine, though it still takes him three attempts to light it. As he puffs on his cigarette, his mother’s sure rant when she gets home runs through his head: “There’re three matches missing! Did you…? No, you didn’t… Did you? How many times have I told you to light your cigarettes with the burner? That’s why I leave the burner on during the day when you’re here. So that we don’t use up the matches. They’re precious, you know.” Yes, I know, mum, he tells himself in his head, but the little buggers took the gas off. They take everything away from you, mum. He looks at the old clock on the wall. It’s five minutes past six. His mother won’t be home for another three hours. His eyes drift back to the calendar. 26th August, 1994. The day his life is going to change. It’s a stifling, typical Havana early summer evening, the one that never bothers with a cool breeze. Both balcony doors are wide open and through them the sounds from the street ten floors below crawl up to give him a taste of what he will miss:

- ¿Fefa, ya cogiste el pollo?
- Ay mi’ja, no, ¿Qué grupo llegó?
- El segundo, me parece. Hay tremenda cola.
- Pa’lla voy ahora.
- Esta es Radio Ciudad de la Habana, la emisora joven de la capital. Y ahora, Santiago Feliú con “Metamorfosis”.
- ¡Ladrón, ataja, ladrón!
- ¡Cógelo!
- ¡Ay pero que salación el barrio este, coño! No se puede ni tender la ropa. Tan pronto te viras, te la levantan…!
- Cómo puede ser/que cambie tanto un hombre de parecer/que de repente el delirio se le murió/que de prejuicios y esquemas se intoxicó...
- Vamo’ a echa’ un cuatro e’quina’, caballero’. Yo soy capitán del uno, y tú ere’ capitán del do’…
- ¡Asere, bota la go’da, coño, bota la go’da! ¿Tú ve’? Po’ culpa tuya no’ dieron viajera.
- ¡Estrella! ¡Estreeeeeella! ¡ESTREEEEEELLA!
- ¿Qué?
- Soy yo, Juanita! Ábreme la puerta del edificio, por favour, que se me quedó la llave en la casa.
- Llegó lleno de illusión/pero lo atrapó la mierda y se acostumbró/Un carro, una secretaria y un gran buró/pusieron un candado cerrado en su imaginación…

Oh, yes, he will miss those sounds. Perhaps he will find them in Miami. In Calle Ocho. They say that Little Havana is a replica of the Cuban capital. That will be a nice surprise for him. As Rubén Blades used to sing: “La vida te da sorpresas/ sorpresas te da la vida”. But this trip (another euphemism) is the type of surprise he didn’t expect. In his bed (well, not his, but one of his brothers and his wife’s) lies the woman he’s loved the most in his life. The one who complements him. The one who makes him go wobbly at the knees and write silly poems on the way back from work on board El Camello. And yet, here he is, fewer than six hours away from kissing all that goodbye. He catches sight of his naked reflection on the glass of the painting hanging in the lounge-cum-dining room. Although almost skeletal, his body has a certain muscular definition. Unless, he turns sideways, in which case a big, protruding belly makes him look like a worm that has just swallowed a gigantic bean. Luckily his bald head detracts attention from his pouch. Plus, there’s his moustache. Thick and black. More distraction. Hmmm… he muses, once I get to El Yuma, I’ll join a gym to beef up a bit. The thought of exercising makes him hungry for his girlfriend’s touch and this leads him back to the bedroom. The springs moan again...

Whilst he’s been gone to the kitchen to light his cigarette she looks out of one of the broken windows. In the distance she can see the blue sea, placidly draping its turquoise cape over the rocks ashore. Patches of oil appear intermittently along the coast. How many times has she sat there, on that stretch of wall, staring out at that full and immense ocean? How many times did they both come to rest their tired bones on that concrete, communal place? Where they hatched plans and thought up projects together? I’d like our child to have your eyes and hair, he would tell her. You mean you don’t want him to be a fat whale like me, she would jokingly respond. And he would kiss her. What people call fat, sweetheart, I call curves, and that’s that. His voice always sounded so reassuring. I would like our child to take after you, not me. Look at my hard, woolly hair. What hair? She would ask her. Oh, yes, I forgot, he’d answer, patting his bald head. But you know what I mean, you know the type of hair I have. I wouldn’t like him to take after me in that department. And at that moment they would both look out to the sea and hug each other; each embrace nailing a different dream down and creating a scaffolding for the future life they were planning to live together. She’s just applied to become a member of one of the construction brigades that are building blocks of flats in Altahabana. The response was positive and she was expecting it. After all she’s been awarded the Outstanding Nurse of the Year Award four times and has been nominated twice as many. The future is looking bright. Was, rather. It was looking bright. Like the sea beyond the houses’ rooftops, the hundreds of clotheslines and the dozens of white sheets weaving a flag of surrender around them. Should she opt out of the housing scheme? Should she talk to her boss and tell him that there’s no point in her building her own house because she can’t build the future she’d planned? She dries her eyes and blows her nose. Her heavy bosom rests against the wall. To her left a small painting of Jesus Christ (a third of the size of the portrait of Fidel hanging in the lounge-cum-dining room) towers above her. The frame is semi-hidden on purpose. Away from curious eyes. The property of a mother who never totally shook her Catholic upbringing off. A Communist Party membership card in one pocket and an image of the Lord’s son in the other. It’s almost impossible to see the painting because it’s usually covered by the bedroom door. Except at night-time, when the foldaway beds come out and the house turns into a gigantic dormitory. No space is spared. The lounge-cum-dining room, the kitchen and sometimes even the balcony (if it’s too hot) are taken over by the pimpampues, the Jack-in-the-box beds with their metallic frames. Some of the children sleep next to their parents and some on their own. Should the adults feel the urge to go beyond a good-night kiss, there’s always the discreet rubbing, the slow motion under the covers, the muffled sounds, the post-coitus admonishment (you didn’t wear a rubber again! I don’t want to get pregnant! We have no space!). All that and a lot more is witnessed by the Lord’s son. The one who came to substitute so many a Cuban’s faith when trust in the government collapsed in the early 90s. I don’t believe in you, she tells the painting. But, would you look after him? She can hear him coming back into the bedroom. Now he circles his clammy arms around her. She feels his natural, sweaty scent. She turns around and welcomes his open mouth. The bedsprings moan again…

A honey-gold sunset hides the dark grey veins of the previously overcast sky. Half the sun is down and half is still showing above Pancho’s rooftop in the building across from his flat. Pancho is probably feeding his pigeons now. And he’s probably seen him and his girlfriend in action, too. It’s not a secret that Pancho is a reca, that his so-called pigeons hobby is just a cover for his voyeuristic adventures. Jesus, the guy even has a telescope on the roof of his house! Only to watch the stars, he will proclaim innocently to all those who ask him why he needs a state-of-the-art Russian telescope with a finderscope, diagonal mirror and objective lens. A woman from another building has already complained to the police. Even she, with her open-minded attitude imported from Germany where she lived for five years whilst majoring in engineering, refuses to put up with it. But the police officer who came to file her complaint just shrugged his shoulders and told her to put more clothes on instead of walking around her flat with a tiny top and shorts that barely covered her buttocks. So, Pancho keeps on spying on her and she keeps complaining.

At least, if we’d had a child together. He can hear her voice from the bathroom. He’s just chucked the used condom in the toilet and is now flushing it down with a bucket of water. Why is she being so despondent? He wonders. Damn, he is going to bring her to live in the States with him once he settles down, whether she wants it or not. I will bring you to live in the States with me, so that we can as many children as you want, he shouts from the bathroom. He comes back into the bedroom without realising that the condom didn’t go down the toilet bowl and is still lying on the surface. I just don’t want any child of mine to grow up in a place where there’s hardly any hope any more, he says as he sits on the bed.

Her heavy frame makes the bedsprings scream in agony as she sits up. She sizes him up. You know what? I can’t believe what you’re about to do. Really, I can’t. After all the Revolution’s done for you and for people like you, like us. My parents? Poor, piss poor, both of them, before ’59. My grandmother was a maid and didn’t have the money to pay for my mum’s studies, so my mum had to start working when she was very little straight after learning her ABC. My granddad used to cut sugar cane but as soon as the season was over, he was jobless. Had to fend for himself in whatever way was possible.

No, not this now, no, I don’t need the “little speech”, he thinks to himself. He’s heard the same story so many times before. But she is in full flow. It was for people such as my grandparents and my parents that we had a revolution. Mistakes? Yes, who hasn’t made them, uh? We’ve made mistakes. Plenty of them. But can you also acknowledge the achievements? How about reminding yourself that no child in Cuba is without a school? How about reminding yourself that we, all of us, have access to free healthcare? You think that El Yuma is so perfect and you’ll find everything there at your beck and call. Well, I hope you get a reality check as soon as you get there. That is, if you do get there.

Slogans, just bloody slogans. That, we have plenty of. The words come out slowly out of his mouth. But what we haven’t got is food. You can’t eat slogans, sweetheart. Yes, I agree with you. The Revolution was for people like you and me, and your parents, and mine, and your grandparents, and mine, RIP both of them. But that was at the beginning. Now, the Revolution is only for an élite, for those up there. His forefinger points at the ceiling. You and I have nothing. That’s why, in a way, I’ve always been glad we haven’t had any children.

No, she corrects him. You didn’t’ want to have any children. I was ready the first time. You made me have the first abortion. And the second one. And then, came the two miscarriages. And now the doctor says that I have a fifty-fifty chance of getting pregnant. But what’s the point? I’m thirty-three and the man I love is going away and I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.

You will, he takes both her hands in his. He’s welling up now. You will. I promise you. As soon as I… look… as soon as I get there… I’m telling you now… I swear on my grandmother’s grave. He kisses both his thumb and forefinger. I swear to you, that I’ll come back to get you. Mi china, we’re going to be just fine. I will work in whatever; I’ll do whatever I have to do. I love you, mami, you know I do.

Then, don’t go. It is her last plea. After this, she knows she won’t be able to bring herself to ask him again.

The sun is down. The last vestiges of its orange glow are the password for Havana to enter the realm of darkness. At this precise moment several dozens of people are quietly making their way down to the coast. Guanabo, Boca Ciega, Cabañas, Mariel. Departing points in search of a dream. Springboards to gain the momentum their lives have been denied until now. Some will make it. Some won’t. The lucky survivors will be returned ashore and tell stories of constant vomiting and dehydration, of dorsal fins and children clinging onto buoys crying for help, of ten-feet waves and makeshift rafts that resemble nutshells. The whiff of the grim reaper is the overpowering smell they’ll remember. The unearthly sound of a voice, as deep as a trombone and as ethereal and spectral as the darkness surrounding them will echo in the vast ocean: Tuba mirum spargens sonum/per sepulcra regionum/ coget omnes ante thronum/Mors stupebit et natura/cum resurget creatura/judicanti responsura/Liber scriptus proferetur/in quo totum continetur/unde mundus judicetur. This is their requiem reverberating on the water, creating little ripples of foam that cannot be seen in the lightless night. The survivors will relate these tales and a few days after their ordeal, as the city is shrouded in darkness, they will set off again.

And who can judge them? Who dares to judge them? You, reader? Me, narrator? Me, silent witness? Me, passive agent? You, collaborator? You and me, collaborators? Didn’t we contribute somehow to their ordeal? Shouldn’t we have said something, at some point, to someone? But we didn’t. We played the game. We followed the rules. Any other alternative was either discussed sotto voce or kept secretly in one’s mind. The only place they couldn’t penetrate. So, reader, technically speaking, that makes you and me a pair of cowards. Me, coward narrator. I’m sitting here, relatively comfortable, in my relative London comfort, living my relatively comfortable life while he lies at the bottom of the sea. Because that’s what probably happened. He left that night and no one ever heard from him again. No letters to his mother written whilst a crucifix rests by his side on the table. No missives that read: “Mum, I’m doing well. I found a job as a mechanic in a local garage. Same thing I used to do there just before I left. It turns out that the guy I work for used to live a few blocks away from us. His dad left in 1980 and brought the whole family after. The food’s great, I can’t complain. I’ve also found a lot of support here. It’s not as bad as they tell you over there. People don’t talk about Fidel the whole time. In fact most Cubans just want to work and succeed. They really don’t get involved in politics. I also have another job cleaning in an office at night for a few hours. Don’t worry about what I’m about to say, vieja, but Miami is a bit dangerous. Sometimes, when I leave the office in the early hours of the morning, I can hear shots. But don’t worry because you know me. I’ve never taken any unnecessary risks. Funny that. I did take a chance. But there was a reason and it was then or never, vieja. I’m also saving. I’m saving as much money as I can to... Mum, have you seen her? How’s she? Is she still mad at me? Are you still mad at me, mum? Sorry for just leaving you a note, but, I knew that if I’d spoken to you about my plans, you would have kicked one off. And I had to get out. How’re my nephews? And my brothers?

Chao, vieja, I’m writing this letter in the little time I have before going to clean the office. There’s a guy going to Cuba in a couple of days. I can’t send you any money because I don’t know him that well and I’ve heard some scary stories about money getting lost and parcels never making it to relatives. Please, mum, look after yourself and if you see her... Tell her I still love her.

And her? I’ll tell you about her, reader. Pregnant. Nine months after, she will give birth to a beautiful mixed-raced, Chinese-looking child, yellowish, curly hair. A boy whom the neighbours will call jábico, narra, chino. And what does the boy say when they ask him about his father? He’ll just shrug his shoulders, reader. No father. Never met him in the flesh. Although, would you believe it? He’ll tell those who ask, my mum keeps a photo of him in her purse. And every time there’s a bald actor with a little bit of a belly on telly, she cries.

Ah, and one more thing before I finish: the boy was named after his dad.

So, where were we, reader? Oh, yes. Judgement… judgement… judge-ment. Oh, please, vade retro satana!

You’ll see. I’ll make it, he says. He rises again and is now facing her. His eyes sting a little, the result of his tears mixing with his sweat. I know that you have all these doubts about the journey but Pepe knows a lot about sailing, his voice rises slightly. And we’ve got a proper boat, not some little dinghy, but a proper boat. He is smiling. Cariño, when I get to El Norte and… You know what I’m thinking of doing? Setting up my own car repair business. After all, that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life and I like it. You know I do.

The only business you’re bound to set up is your own death. It is a stern tone the one she uses now to slam down her verdict. Despite the ominous nature of her message, he can’t help enjoying the way the word “death” comes out of her lips. A barely nasal “m” followed by a longer than usual diphthong “ue”, coupled with a strong rolling “r” (a rarity in Havana) and culminating in an imperceptible “te”. God, even when they're having a row, this woman’s voice sounds beautiful, he thinks.

He reaches out to hug her and upon touching her lights go out. Damn, he mutters, a blackout. He goes to the lounge and checks the clock. It’s seven, they’re really punctual. No socialist inefficiency when it comes to scheduled powercuts, he thinks. He walks to the kitchen and switches the refrigerator off. No Brazilian soap opera tonight for his mum, he ponders. After all, this is the seven-to-twelve blackout. Not that he’s going to be here to see his mother switching the fridge back on when the lights return. At that time he’ll be… Where will he be?

From his tenth-floor flat he catches sight of part of Havana. Irregular chevrons of light spread all over Malecón. This forced twilight emphasises the fine line dividing the haves and the have-nots. Around the National Hotel area it’s still bright. From the corner of 25th and O St. down to El Coppelita and on to Maceo’s park, the roads are draped in darkness. The tall Almejeiras Hospital beams out onto the unlit streets below. Another crepuscular patch stretches from Belascoaín to Galiano before reaching the Deauville Hotel. Dusk reigns on Colón St, too. In the distance he can hear people cursing the name of whom they’ll never, ever dare to talk in public, unless sycophantically. Diminutive flickers of light appear here and there: torches, candles, chismosas and quinqués are produced at the dinner table. Improvised oil lamps that travel from room to room. Carried by hands whose owners lack vision. Brought outside once the plates have been washed up, stacked up, dried and put away. Modern campfires around which the dominoes table is assembled, neighbours summoned and bottles of rum opened. In the absence of electric fans, pieces of cardboard are used to fight the stifling heat.

He goes back to the bedroom. She’s getting dressed now but stops for a moment to check the stickiness she feels in between her legs. Could it be…? No, she says to herself, no, it’s never happened before and why should it tonight? Finally she’s ready to go. Meanwhile he pulls on a pair of denim cut-offs in silence and scribbles something on a piece of paper which he then places on the table in the lounge-cum-dining room. Hopefully his mum will understand his message. It’s hard to write in the darkness and his handwriting’s never been very good. After he finishes his note he pauses for a second and raises his head. His eyes take in the city, his flat and his girlfriend. Everything he loves is right there, ready to be reclaimed… or abandoned. He enters the bedroom, puts some clothes in a bag and takes a photo where he is with his brothers, his mum and his (now errant) father. Happier times, he thinks. A yellowed family photo before divorce, wives, babies and economic crises. Is that all you’re taking? She finally breaks the silence. No, but there won’t be much more. Pepe told me to travel light. He looks into her eyes as he answers her question. Here, have this, too. She pulls out a small necklace from her bag. It’s a crucifix. I’ve never worn it, she says. My grandma gave it to me. She said that if I ever lacked strength or if I ever found myself in trouble, a prayer would push those problems away. I’ve never believed in that kind of thing, you know me. But now, since I can’t talk you out of leaving m… your family… at least… if you wear this… Damn, what am I doing? She starts sobbing again. He hugs her. I’ll wear it, he whispers, I will.

They leave his flat and go down the stairs silently. In one hand he holds a small torch, in the other one, her hand. On their way down they come across other neighbours. Hellos, how-are-yous and isn’t-it-awful-now-I-can’t-watch-the-soap-opera are exchanged. Some carry torches as he is; others depend on candles; the rest appeal to their other senses to keep their bearings.

Finally they’re out on the street. To their right the dominoes game is in full swing. Pieces are slammed down hard on the wooden table, supported by the four players on their thighs. Two men, waiting for their turn to play and standing strategically near their compadres, act as lighting technicians, pointing their torches directly on the table. A couple of women gossip. By their chairs, on the floor, two bottles of rum sit. Every now and then, one of the men takes a swig and carries on heckling – only in jest – his partner. Across the building an old ’59 Chevrolet Impala serves as a bench for a gaggle of teenage boys. Although banter seems to be the motivation for their gathering, in reality they’re leering at the dancer practicing in the semi-darkness of the house in front of them. Clad in a skin-colour leotard, she is searching for a language of her own. Almost seventeen years of age, she will be studying contemporary dance and ballet at Havana’s Higher Institute of Art from September. But art for her is not only something that happens in school but also every day, every hour, everywhere, even during a blackout. To the light of an oil lamp, she aligns, breathes and improvises movements. All performed to the rhythm of the silent soundtrack in her head. In the glow of the quinqué this human aurora borealis radiates a magnetic light powerful enough to attract the attention of the male adolescents stealing glances through the rusted iron bars of the front room window.

They reach the end of the block. Their hands are locked in a strong grip. So, this is where we say goodbye, she says. Not goodbye, but see you later, he quickly replies. No, you know very well that this is goodbye. I’m not leaving. This is my country and it might not be perfect, but it’s where I belong. The Revolution might have its problems, but… what’s the solution, to run away? She looks into his eyes as she speaks. In the almost absolute darkness the occasional flashes from the headlights of passing cars provide a theatrical background. A sudden chill creeps up his spine. His eyes water again. Why are you so stubborn? There’s no future here. His voice sounds almost like a whisper. He turns his head. To his right, El Malecón, the sea and his much sought-after freedom. To his left, his girlfriend’s house with her parents, grandparents and siblings, all squashed together in a two-bed flat. But there’s also love in that direction. Plenty of it. He breathes deeply and finally musters the courage to look back into her eyes. So, that’s it, then, he says at last.

And then, they hug. It’s their coda. But with no song signing them off. Only a soft, subtle rap on the dominoes table, started by a player who’s had a drink too many. The beat is picked up by his partner. They’re winning. Their heartfelt laughter contrasts with the tears streaming down the faces of the couple standing on the corner, less than twenty metres away from them. In less than a minute the two players have improvised a rumba. The onlookers join in with the usual call-and-response, their voices hoarse and low, but still clearly audible. The couple are still locked in their embrace. Schiele would have been proud.

He lets go of her, turns right and walks, walks quickly, almost runs. He doesn’t look back. That’s why he can’t hear her calling out his name. He can’t see her tears anymore, but he can feel his own, coursing down his face. Through barely-lit streets he walks until he reaches the main avenue leading to the sea. Behind him he leaves the love of his life, his life in the country of his birth, the birth he won’t see and a broken condom floating on the surface of a toilet.

© 2012

Photo taken from flickr.

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 25th March at 10am (GMT)

20 comments:

  1. I wish I could write freely. I don't quite have my voice anymore. I really like your opening, it's a beautiful question that is a beg to stay..a sign of a beautiful story.

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  2. This was a compelling story which invites one to ask how much is real, how much imagined. That only happens because you have created a very real portrait of characters at risk, grappling with emotions and prospects that telegraph their urgency. You have the ability to place us in their microcosm, both emotional and physical. Thank you for providing this journey into a life I will never know, except through your words.

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  3. Such a poignant story Cubano. It leaves me feeling sad for the characters and angry and the injustice they had to face. It's a moving glimpse into Cuban life, no matter how much or little was based on fact.

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  4. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Oceangirl, our voice is the last thing to go. You still have, but might have mislaid it around the house. I suggest a spring clean.

    Judith and FlyGirl, I saw "her" when I went back to Cuba in the year 2000 for the first time after coming to live in London. By then her son must have been five or almost five. Nobody'd heard from "him" ever again.

    Is this story real or is their reality hard to believe? I like writing where the lines between what's veridical and what's fictitious are so blurred that the plot forces me to ask the question you both asked. I like that question.

    Writing is daunting. Writing is another language, in this case, English, is terrifying. Writing in English about a subject that is as Cuban as our palm trees is close to madness. And that's without factoring in the small matter of the five-thousand-plus words that this short story has.

    Thank you all very much for your compliments. They mean a lot to me. Ultimately it's not so much whether there is or not praise, but whether the reader "felt" the story.

    Greetings from London.

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  5. I was rooting for the narrator, afraid for him, conflicted for the choices he had to make. I know this story, as it is also my story, in a small sense, or the story of every immigrant.

    There is much here; much tenderness and verisimilitude, much tension and revelation.

    I was surprised by the "intermission" you provided, as a narrator, to ask questions, to keep the reader on his/her toes. Surprised and amused. I thought, he's bold here.

    I like the pacing, the characterization, the sense of urgency for the decision our main character finally makes.

    I do hope you share more. YOur writing is very, very good!

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  6. ¿A cuánta gente querida hemos dejado sin mirar atrás...?

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  7. Do you know the line that got to me the most? 'there was love in that direction. Plenty of it'. That the need for freedom is so strong that it supercedes the bonds of love is something extraordinary. It's impossible for me to imagine such a scenario, but reading this made me flinch, as if it threatened my own comfortable existence. It's fascinating to read something like this when you know a little bit about the writer, because of course you wonder what, of all that is described, is personal to the author. But most of all, it made me flinch because I know it's really true, for many people, in many different ways.
    You're very good at pulling the reader in, at painting the scene, turning all senses on - and that middle bit? I had the same reaction as Rosaria.
    I so admire your writing, and doubly so because English isn't (supposedly) your native language. I have my doubts...

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  8. Great stuff, Super Mario...

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  9. True story?? About your homeland obviously. So dramatic. You are such a good writer!!!

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  10. Bizarre. Once finished, it seems it was written in Spanish...
    Excelente!

    Saludos y gracias por la visita!
    Al Godar

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  11. A really gripping story that seemed a lot shorter than it was - an acid test, I always think. I possibly read it too quickly in my haste to find our what comes next. Thoroughly enjoyable all the way through. (I can't vouch for the non-English passage, of course, but I have no doubt that that was of the same high standard.

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  12. Socio, tears clouded my lenses before I could finish it. Beautiful, poignant, gripping, and also so completely true! This is the story of many! Thank you!

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  13. Many thanks to everyone for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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  14. Goodness, you blow me away. In that short span of time, I feel like I know their lives, their past and their sad futures. Beautiful and powerfully written. You know just where to linger on the details, like on her pronunciation of muerte. This was a very provocative read, and I enjoyed it immensely. Thank you!

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  15. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    One of the reasons why the characters seem so real is that I've been under a certain Lucian Freud influence for the past few months, reading about it and the exhibition at Tate (I think?). Freud's paintings have been growing on me over the years, mainly for their vividness.

    Greetings from London.

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  16. Y al mío. Historias como esta nos resumen.

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  17. Really mesmerising piece, Cuban.

    It seems to me that no matter where, people are just trying to make it. For themselves and for the ones they love. Poverty and hopelessness drives them to do things that might not be legal but that doesn't mean that they're intent is wrong. Or that they shouldn't try.

    Danger seems to be everywhere. You can be drowned on a boat going from Cuba to Miami. Or you can be hit by a bus right outside your apartment building. Or you can come to America, get a great job and build and life only to be destroyed by medical payments you can't afford.

    We think it's always better on the other side. But it's not. It's just a different type of bad.

    Jai

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