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Initiation

Aside from its absence of windows, my apartment is a mausoleum which bestows an epic dimension upon the important moments of my existence: the books that have shaped me, a few letters, some photographs and, more than anything, my records, without which life would be colourless and bland. With my headphones on, immersed in an almost perfect silence, I surrender myself to the music of Keith Jarrett and then sometimes a feeling might appear, a subtle, unobtrusive sensation, like when a ray of sunlight filters through to my neatly made bed, radiating heat and light for a few minutes onto the counterpane and the floor. These are fleeting moments, when a part of me, usually buried, awakes as if by enchantment to tenderness, gentleness. My lungs swell, opening and closing with the notes of the piano. I feel fragile, like when I was a child. And then back they come to me, the stinking, pot-holed streets of Old Havana, the sticky heat I never quite managed to get used to, my brothers sticking their dirty hands into the kitchen pot, in the kitchen bubbling away full of malanga, that ever-present tuber whose vile odour wafts throughout the entire house, forcing me to go out into the yard where my neighbours play. Jarrett notwithstanding, I can never bear these memories for very long. That kind of life – rough, miserable – pains me.

 

I first began to hate at the age of five, when Facundo Martínez and his family showed up at our communal house. Up until then, this big old house with its one floor and an inner courtyard had been exclusively ours, that is, it had belonged to my parents, my brothers, and my uncles and aunts and my cousins. We lived on one side of the patio and my uncle and aunts on the other, in a harmonious, balanced existence. I can still remember the morning the moving truck pulled up outside the front door. A militiaman arrived with a piece of paper and a smile, to inform us that the Martínez family had been assigned half the lot. Only then did I realise that my house, the house where I had been born and spent the first few years of my life, was not quite mine, but belonged to the Revolution, and that the Revolution could send to live in it whoever it felt like. We – that is, my uncles and aunts and my parents and their respective families – became a single family, the Ruvalcabas, and as such we were entitled to half the house. It made no difference that there were fifteen of us, and only eight of them. At that moment, the house became a chessboard: they were black, we were white.  I saw all this at the age of five with the timeless gaze of someone watching his world collapse, and yet no one said a thing. My mother received the militiaman wearing her housecoat and apron, and the same resigned smile he was giving her. She waved pleasantly to Facundo’s mother and started showing her around, while my brothers and I helped our cousins to take their things from the front part of the house and move them into our now one, shared room. She showed her the kitchen, and the back yard where she and my aunt would wash our clothes by hand and, ever since, Facundo’s underpants never stopped swaying out on the clothesline, like a flag symbolically defending his territory. Hidden behind a column, I watched without blinking as the Martínezes moved in, and still without blinking, I saw them take possession of my uncle and aunt’s rooms with their brightly coloured furniture and their religious statues. From that moment on, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre and San Lázaro stared down at us with menacing eyes whenever we went out to play on their side of the yard. When they had finished unloading all the boxes and bags, two feet exactly the same length as mine but much wider appeared by the column behind which I had hidden myself. I looked up and saw a boy with frizzy, straw-like hair. We exchanged not a word, but in that long look of recognition it became clear that the column was in his territory, that is, the part of the inner courtyard closest to his domain, and that, by hiding behind it, I had immediately become an intruder. Facundo held out his hand to me, as we’d seen his father greet mine and, with the same sense of humiliation, I took it, knowing that we would grow up together and also that I would detest him for the rest of my life. But it was one of those certainties that later on one ceases to be aware of, in the same way one gets used to the sounds from the street. In time, one no longer hears the garbage truck early in the morning, or the purr of the water pump. I lived alongside Facundo every single day of my childhood. I saw him get home from school at the same time as I did and, at night, turn off the light in his room so many times that in the end I stopped thinking about him and about my hatred, just as one doesn’t think of one’s liver, even though it’s there, working away, until one day it bursts open, letting us savour the unmistakable taste of bile.

 

As I said before, time passes slowly at that age, and in a few months I had forgotten that the other side of the house had been occupied by the invading enemy. The Martínezes ceased inspiring hostility in me and they became simply our neighbours, that is, in one more element of daily life. Facundo and I were the same age but he led an existence that, at least back then, seemed very different to mine. While to me the streets of El Cerro – the neighbourhood where I just happened mistakenly to have been born – were hostile territory, inhabited by unknown beings with a delinquent air about them, to Facundo, they were no more than an extension of the playground. Every afternoon, while I worked hard to stay in school, the Colegio Felipe Poey where I had been enrolled thanks to a distant relative who worked for the Central Committee, he went out to the park to play baseball with the other kids from the block. Despite this, we did occasionally walk home together, and I would sometimes accept an invitation into their dining room, full of candles and little statues of saints, to have an after-school snack: bread with oil and garlic that his mother would prepare for us, or the guava cake which was our favourite. As food grew scarcer, the slices of guava grew so thin and translucent that you could see right through them like a photographic slide. On Saturday mornings, Facundo’s cousin Regla would come to help with the domestic chores. Regla was a sixteen-year-old black girl, whose butt mirrored the shape and hardness of a coconut. Her soft skin and her movements created an electric tension in this house inhabited almost exclusively by males. Facundo, who was not yet ten years old, was the only one who seemed immune to his cousin’s spell. His age, however, didn’t stop him from noticing the perturbation the girl caused in me, and he took pleasure in stirring it up whenever he could. He would find any pretext to invite me to his house whenever Regla was engaged in her domestic tasks. My heart would beat faster just looking at that little dark-skinned girl ironing clothes or bending over to get something from a low shelf in the kitchen. Facundo seemed to enjoy my desire. When the afternoon drew to a close and Regla went to have a wash, he would lead me out towards the back of the house and to a hole that he had made himself in the partition wall, through which it was possible to watch her in exchange for a one-peso coin.

 

‘Does she give you a hard-on?’ he would ask, with the air of someone in the know.

 

And the truth is that – clothed or naked – Regla provoked an inescapable urge in me. As soon as she emerged from the shower wrapped in her immaculate towel, impossible to forget, I ran to that same bathroom where she had been naked to masturbate. I don’t know what would have happened if one day Facundo had for some reason denied me the spectacle of Regla; our story would likely be very different, just as my life would be different if his family hadn’t transformed our home into just another communal house in that deplorable neighbourhood. You might say that this childhood friend played the role of initiator into the pleasures of voyeurism, a shameful activity it took me a long time to shake off. There are some mental deviances that are as easily transmitted as venereal diseases.

 

Mario, of whom I see less and less, appeared during this formative period and it is perhaps for this reason that he continues to be such an important figure in my life. Although he was a year older than I, he and Facundo had met at school and he sometimes played with us in the yard. Mario enjoyed the company of books as much as I did and, since they weren’t plentiful in his house, he would scheme and swindle his way around the cities’ libraries in order to get his hands on them. When he found out that the part of the house belonging to my family was full of novels and volumes of poetry, he began visiting us assiduously, not bothering to say hello to the family living on the other side of the house. I remember him clearly, perched on a chair as he inspected the dusty bookshelves in my house. With him I struck up the very first intellectual friendship I can recall. He liked the plays of Lorca and Ionesco, but would happily read Sophocles if I recommended it. Together we read Hesse, Borges and Cortázar, and when there were no more books by these writers left on my shelves he found a way to borrow other titles from the National Library, using a fake membership card from the UNEAC, the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists. Mario was curiously blond for someone who lived in El Cerro, and looked much older than his fourteen years. He used to go to writers’ parties in apartments in El Vedado as if it were the most normal thing in the world, and hung around with a few of the little posh kids from my school. While I settled for keeping my place at school, studying like a lunatic, he had a close relationship with my classmates I could never even dream of. A few times I saw him go by in a car heading down Calle 23. He wore white most of the time. His shirts were always spotless. Not only was he successful with the girls from El Vedado; they actively pursued him. At my house, a few blocks from his own, Mario would take off his mask; he stopped being the public persona, witty and good at dancing, that people knew and relaxed back into the simple, everyday habits of our own social class. In his whole life I don’t believe anyone came to know him as well as I did. Instead of white suits, in my house he wore the grey trousers he had inherited from his father or his school uniform. The one thing he never let slide was his elegance and cleanliness. Since deodorant was hard to get hold of at the time, he washed at least twice a day, leaving his armpits coated in soap when he did so. He always had a little stalk of parsley in his mouth to prevent bad breath and indigestion. In a climate where everyone sweats, where one’s skin becomes sticky with humidity, where the stench of underarm smell turns the air into a dense, asphyxiating lump, I was grateful to my friend for reminding me that some human beings can be pleasant if they take pains to be.

 

Unfortunately for me, Mario went to live in Cienfuegos for two years, leaving me in a bottomless solitude. I remember that two days before, he showed up at my front door in a car. It must have been around midday on a Sunday. He had on his characteristic white get-up and in his hand he carried an open bottle of Havana Club. At the wheel was a guy wearing dark glasses and a short-sleeved checked shirt.

 

‘Get in!’ he said. ‘I’m taking you to celebrate.’

 

I obeyed without telling anyone. I didn’t ask where we were going. Mario’s friend drove us to the UNEAC, where Alejandro Robles was launching his book Ornithological Fictions. We sat down for a few minutes at one of the tables in the garden. Someone brought us a couple of mojitos. When the event started, Mario asked me to come with him to the library, the biggest I had ever seen in my life, and handed me his membership card:

 

‘This is for you, brother. Take good care of it.’

 

‘Are you sure?’ I asked, surprised.

 

‘Of course I am. You can get more out of this shit than I can in Cienfuegos. Almost every book allowed on the island is here. When you’ve finished those, start looking for the banned ones, if they don’t find you first, that is.’

 

I took his advice. From that evening on, I treated the reading room in the library of the UNEAC like a home away from home. I didn’t even bother taking the books out, I just put a bookmark in and came back the next day to finish them. Those two years were key in my education. The more time I spent in the library, the more devoted I became to Regla’s showers. I would have paid anything to watch her several times a week, but she only came on Saturdays. The rest of the time I had to make do with my memories.

 

‘Don’t wait for her to come out of the bathroom!’ Fecundo insisted. ‘Do it whenever you feel like it. No one knows we’re here.’

 

And so, driven by the urge the girl aroused in me, I would put my hand down my pants until it was covered with the paste of my semen. At first, Facundo remained as impassive as before, but age pardons no one and he too ended up joining in the Saturday afternoon jerking-off session, although far less modestly: rather than put his hand through his fly, like I did, he would take out his cock, a thick, heavy member like one of his feet, and, in the silence of the incipient night, would ejaculate, ostentatiously spattering the patio tiles or the wall through which we watched Regla undress.

 

At times, while the notes of the piano echo around my stone corridor, a protective barrier rises up between these images and me. This barrier has allowed me to survive all these years, in the knowledge that my father is ill and alone in the province of Cienfuegos; that my brothers still live in that same house where we spent our childhood, although now with the families they have formed. The record ends, and everything goes back to normal. God bless the barrier that keeps me dry, impervious to emotions.

 

A few weeks went by without me receiving any sign from Ruth. Not a single phone call, not a single email inviting me to the movies or to have dinner in her Tribeca loft; nothing. For the first couple of weeks I was relieved not to hear her smoker’s voice once. Nothing seemed to betray the fact we had met each other. I didn’t even entertain the impression that she was thinking about me and holding back. She simply vanished. As ever, the only messages on the answering machine were from a work colleague trying to verify some detail or other about proofs, or a family acquaintance, recently arrived from Havana with news of my mother, but from Ruth, not a word.

 

As the years go by, the news from Cuba seems increasingly like one big fiction to me. My mother’s voice on the telephone sounds like an ageing radio announcer reading out an old soap opera, the daily life of characters ever-blurry and lost in oblivion. What the hell do I care that Aunt Carmen has dyed her hair red, or that Robertico, her son, has dumped his fourteen-year-old girlfriend? I don’t even remember many of the friends she attributes to me, and whose news she relates while my money trickles away on the AOL phone card. I can’t describe how badly I want to hang up the phone. If I don’t do it it’s because among all the faded names and faces that flash up in my memory as my mother talks away endlessly, the only clear images are the ones of her, of her dedication and devotion, of the times I was ill as a child and she didn’t leave my side; the countless occasions she made my brothers leave the bedroom – where all six of us slept – so that I could read in peace and quiet. Thanks to her, to her certainty that of all the good-for-nothings she had given birth to, I was the only one who would excel, I managed to read the classics and the Russians, Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, Walter Benjamin and Marcuse. On more than one occasion, with the money she earned taking washing in, my mother even went to La Moderna Poesía bookshop to buy me books – awful ones, usually – such as Nicolás Guillén’s Communist poems, or With These Same Hands by Fernández Retamar, recommended to her by the bookseller. In this unreadable book, I couldn’t help but see the hours by mother had spent washing faded shirts. Every one of the pages bore out the hope that she had placed in me, her one worthy child, her golden boy, her vindication, her lifeboat. Later on, Mario told me that Retamar gave the manuscript of With These Same Hands to José Lezama Lima to get his opinion on the collection. A few weeks later he went to see Lezama and asked him what he thought. Lezama, displaying his characteristic exquisitely refined irony, replied: ‘With These Same Hands that you wrote it with, destroy it.’ I never found out if that story was true or if it was one of my friend’s frequent inventions.

 

By around the third week, Ruth’s absence went from being a relief to an amusing and curious mystery.  What could have happened to the old girl? I found it unthinkable that she would have chosen to distance herself after having had such a good time with me between her peach-coloured sheets. Was she ill? Could she be on holiday? Had she met another man? In time, my initial rejection of her slowly turned into well-intentioned curiosity. If I went into a Starbucks and saw a woman who reminded me of her – even though I knew perfectly well that she would never set foot in a place like that – I would think of her house, of how well I had eaten there, and ask myself: ‘I wonder how the old girl is?’ Before a whole month was up, I called her to find out.

 

‘Where have you been hiding?’ I asked, with genuine interest.

 

‘I haven’t gone anywhere. You said you’d call me, and I was waiting for you.’

 

And then I remembered: before leaving her house I’d fired off the usual phrase, the one I use with all my lovers: ‘I’ve got a lot of work on at the moment – I’ll call you when I’m not so busy.’ Incredibly, a woman – this woman – had understood right away, with no need for any prior rebuke.

 

And so it was that I fell back into Ruth’s claws. That evening, we met for dinner in Les Lucioles, a classic French restaurant, a little conservative for her taste, perfect for mine. I can’t bear the brightly coloured lights and seventies-style décor that’s become all the rage in the bars in her neighbourhood. That period is over and no one hated it more than I did. You couldn’t buy flares in Cuba but people would sew a triangle of fabric into their trousers, almost always in a different colour, to turn them into elephants’ legs.  They would also stick pieces of wood to the soles of their shoes to turn them into heavy, flamboyant platforms. These attempts at slavishly following a fashion that had nothing to do with us seemed quite ridiculous to me, and quite a few people ended up in jail simply for insisting on wearing their hair long. In any case, all that queer paraphernalia came back into fashion a few years ago here, both the clothes and the décor, and Ruth in particular is very fond of it. The restaurant she picked to please me was as austere as a post-war Parisian brasserie might have been, my favourite period from the twentieth century. Although it was a Friday, the place was practically empty, perhaps due to the prohibitive prices. Ruth ordered a salad of fresh vegetables – I remember because the pale colour of the carrots caught my eye and I asked the waiter why they looked like that.

 

‘We import these carrots from France,’ he told me, as if this were an answer, this short, plain little man who looked like he’d lived off vegetables like this his entire life. But this didn’t put the old girl off. My confit de canard, meanwhile, was delicious. Even though I offered, she refused to share it with me, another of the kindly gestures she always displayed with me, such as the discreet way she had of paying the bill. When we left I felt sated, almost overfull, and so I suggested we go back to her house on foot. I like walking the streets of Tribeca. The solitude of the sidewalks contrasts with the faint light issuing from the windows of the buildings. Although there weren’t any cars, we waited for the traffic lights to change. I remember that, despite her usual ways, Ruth was a little tipsy that night. We had drunk two bottles of Nuits-Saint-Georges with dinner but instead of talking loudly or giggling, like most American women – and Cuban ones, for that matter – in similar situations, she maintained her lovely silence. Only occasionally did she stumble a little on her high-heels, with a nonchalant abandon that ended up turning me on. When we reached the corner of the street, my hand went to one of her buttocks. The light had changed to red and she stopped immediately, letting me give it a squeeze. It was absurd to wait for the lights to go green before crossing the road. If we hadn’t done so, perhaps we would have avoided what happened next: before either of us realised, a scruffy individual wrapped in a threadbare coat that I remember as grey and Ruth as green, came up to us brandishing a sharp, pointed object, somewhere between a knife and a screwdriver.

 

‘You just give me the money. Do quick motherfucker!’ He said, in a strong Dominican accent, pointing the curious appliance at me. I immediately put my hand in my pocket to take out my wallet and give it to the man.

 

‘Don’t move!’ Ruth ordered me, preventing me from acting. In her voice there was not an ounce of nervousness.

 

The man came over to us then. His bulging eyes displayed an ancestral rage. It seemed as if Ruth’s reaction had increased his fury and, with a bear-like growl, he fell upon us. But before he could reach us, something made him trip and, before we knew it, he was down on the ground. That something had been Ruth’s foot, purposefully extended close to the ground. The sangfroid I had always considered a part of her beauty now took on an epic dimension. Immediately afterwards, without losing her customary insouciant attitude, the old girl hailed a taxi coming down the street. We climbed into it as two shipwrecked sailors climb aboard a lifeboat.

 

 

 

*

 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the 2017 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

, a Bogotá 39 author and Granta Best Untranslated Writer, has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Gilberto Owen National Literature Prize, the Antonin Artaud Prize, the Ribera del Duero Short Fiction Award, and most recently the 2014 Herralde Novel Prize for After the Winter, the English translation of which is forthcoming from MacLehose Press.

Rosalind Harvey’s translation of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole was shortlisted for the 2011 Guardian First Book Award and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize. Her co-translation of Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas was shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC Award. She is a past committee member of the UK Translators Association and founding member and chair of the Emerging Translators Network.

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