14 "BEST OF DECEMBER 2018" Lists
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A novel of glamour, surveillance, and corruption in contemporary Cuba, from an internationally bestselling author--who has never before been translated into English
Cleo, scion of a once-prominent Cuban family and a promising young writer in her own right, travels to Spain to collect a prestigious award. There, Cuban expats view her with suspicion--assuming she's an informant for the Castro regime. To Cleo's surprise, that suspicion follows her home to Cuba, where she finds herself under constant surveillance by the government. When she meets and falls in love with a Hollywood filmmaker, she discovers her family is not who she thought they were . . . and neither is the filmmaker.
Release date: December 4, 2018
Publisher: Melville House
Print pages: 208
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I must be the only person in Havana who feels lonely today. I live in this promiscuous, intense, reckless, rambling city where privacy and discretion, silence and secrets, are almost a miracle; a place where light finds you no matter where you hide. Maybe that’s why when you feel lonely here, it’s because, really, you’ve been abandoned.
“Don’t study so much, but learn,” my mother used to say from the depths of my dreams.
I’m one of those people who believes things can always get worse, but this time I was convinced the truly terrible parts had already passed, and nothing worse could happen, or at least that’s what I told myself during those months I spent bedridden, delirious, separated from the world and from myself.
One sunny morning, much like all the other mornings of the year I spent in bed, the phone rang. The phone was under a mountain of dirty underwear, fortune cookie boxes, and other leftovers from my confinement. Because the time for condolences was over and there was no one left who cared about me, it didn’t ring too often. But now it rang. The last time had been three weeks ago. It had been my friend Armando calling from New York. The pity in his voice was obvious as he sang the words to a well-known guaguancó, “I have no mother, I have no father, I have no one who loves me.” He laughed nervously and hung up immediately. Yes, Armando knows I hate condolences, and his sense of humor is greater than my sense of drama. Now, the phone was ringing and ringing, insistently. It rang so much that I had time to crawl out of bed and find it under the heap of trash. Who could it be? There was no family left to deliver bad news, and I’d asked Márgara, our lifelong housekeeper, to stop coming around. I didn’t even trust my own shadow anymore, and I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. The phone seemed like it wouldn’t stop ringing, so I took my time answering. I was beyond being bothered by irritating noises or by any fateful news, apart from that of my own death.
An editor from Catalonia was calling to tell me I had won a big literary prize. They were going to give me fifty thousand euros and, in exchange, they would publish I don’t know how many thousands of copies of my book. Did I want to fly to Spain next month to promote the book? Would I have time “before suicide?” the editor quipped, paraphrasing the title of my work. I said yes to everything and then punished myself with a freezing shower to wash away the lingering bitterness inside me. That was the end of the sit-down baths I sometimes took when I bothered to get up. My spine got better on the spot and, even though I had no one to call, lots of people started calling me; journalists and friends of my mother. Cuban authors abroad and plenty of nosy people who simply needed to know what I had done to get something I surely didn’t deserve.
I couldn’t believe it. At the same time, when I really got to thinking about it, it was everything I had hoped for in life. As a thirtysomething, it fit like a glove. The prize was a stroke of luck that would point the way to the future at a time when the only alternative was to fall into bed and lie there with my eyes open and my mind blank.
What had this year been about? Remembering what happened to my parents, and the strong pressure that came after their deaths.
I closed my eyes to remember the torrent of silver and pain, the dilated explosion that turned the only people who had guided my life into ashes. To close my eyes is to open them to death.
On certain days, I would wonder why I had been saved. Would what was to come next be worth it? Why didn’t my parents ever say anything to me? Did they suspect their only daughter? Why did I have to undergo so many police interrogations after their deaths? Who were they, really? There was something more than “Papá” and “Mamá” behind their names.
I rarely got out of bed. The doorbell almost always woke me up. It was them, the secret police. By now I knew it was always them because no one else wanted to get involved in my tragedy. I invited the officers into my room. It smelled bad, yes, but I couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.
The plainclothes officers didn’t even look at me; they were obsessed with the idea that I shouldn’t speak to anyone, express opinions, or give interviews. Interviews? With whom? For what? No one had contacted me, yet they insisted, demanded silence, asked me to trust them. More silence? Is there anything more silent than this profound mutism? What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had? There’s no one here to talk to or with whom to communicate. Sometimes a neighbor knocks on my door to bring me some milk or a plate of food, which I either force myself to swallow or vomit before digesting. But I don’t let anyone else in; I’m out of the game. I don’t exist.
One of the officers asked me if I recognized my father in my father. What? What was he trying to say? I don’t understand. That freaked me out. When you’re depressed, any abstract idea can send you over the edge. I was living a nightmare, and the officer’s light eyes made my head spin. I felt sick and needed to be alone. From that day on I decided I’d never open the door again.
It’s been a long year since it happened, and today I’m able to reconstruct events with eyes wide open. How I saw, from inside the car, the dramatic accident at the entrance to Varadero, my parents’ bodies pulverized in the air. They were gone forever, and that’s all there is to it. How did I survive? I don’t know. Miracles happen, and I’m living proof. Why save me, the most useless of all the people in that Russian vehicle?
I shed no tears; I took care of everything and everyone like a robot.
Did I suffer? Am I suffering? Eventually I succumbed. Did that make me a better person? From behind the bars of my two-fisted and indomitable nature, a human being began to emerge. At last I was lying in bed, nauseous and vomiting, suffering from an instability caused by back pain and the depression inherited from my other self, the person who had really written my book of poetry. It was my only book. The one that had won the award. Before Suicide.
I danced alone in order to collapse. I spun in circles with a glass of wine in my hand until I felt dizzy, falling to the floor then recovering from my blackout and finding it impossible to fall asleep. I swallowed sleeping pills, opening my mouth like a circus bear eagerly awaiting the sugar cube that rewards its efforts. But my reward was my surrender. Was it so much to ask to disconnect for six hours? That wasn’t happening either. I couldn’t even get enough time to escape myself and briefly relieve the few who were still around to endure my presence.
At dawn, I’d wander the same old streets, where my friends who’d left Cuba no longer lived. I darted around in fear, rushing to keep up with my pounding heart. During my walks, I’d often find a public phone and call myself, just to hear my own voice on the answering machine.
To me, Havana is no longer a capital city. It feels small and mediocre, and its beauty won’t keep it from extinction. A city is made of its people, and between the ruins and the diaspora, we are wiping this place out. I don’t know the people who live here anymore; their accents are from the northern coast or the southeast, they act tribally, in ways that have nothing to do with the city I discovered as a child. People eat standing up, plate in hand, or chew and walk on the streets of downtown Havana, La Lisa, or El Cerro. Foul language and violence have become part of the landscape, open sewage flows between the sidewalks, and banging music competes with silence and good manners, always emerging victorious. Back on the streets, patrolling its interior routes in search of food or running unavoidable errands, you end up screaming or mute with rage. Havana starts to become your enemy; its inhabitants, its inconvenience, the inability to feel good, it all works against you. This place, once sublime, now assaults you.
In the midst of all this, I had written some very dramatic poems. Intentionally or not, they were heartrending. I still wasn’t sick; at that point I could write while pretending to be medicated to the gills, but my health was that of someone who’s only playing a fragile role for a brief period of time.
When you pretend to be mad, you end up going crazy, and when I finished my first book of poems, Before Suicide, I really did fall ill. I felt like one of those old, featherless hens, who, after having her neck wrung, still manages to miraculously survive death in the steaming cauldron. Like that, abandoned on the bed, tired and confused, I held out through the nasty tropical winter, postponing bureaucratic tasks like putting my parents’ house in my name or opening a bank account with the Cuban pesos they’d left me. I ate whatever the neighbors brought me when they could and I didn’t bother eating when no one was around to do me the favor. I stopped checking the mail, I even stopped showering. I became addicted to those mentholated lotions I inherited from my mother and decided to suffer long enough for my body to sort itself out.
No, I don’t go to the doctor in Cuba because, ever since I was little, I sensed that my father’s laboratory injected poison into people the system considered suspect or problematic. I was convinced someone had tampered with the brakes on my parents’ car, making them disappear into the air, taking with them all the lethal secrets they had threatened to reveal if the authorities continued to pressure them. After imagining the hell my parents had gone through at the Scientific Pole, I was no longer willing to go along with their infinite plan.
The day before I declared myself ill, a Monday morning, I walked to the post office, located in the arcades on Infanta, with a recycled yellow envelope in my hand. I wrote the recipient’s name on the front, licked the sour gummy edge, and closed it. The sound of the mailbox whispered, “Done.” I had sent my first poetry book to a contest in Spain. I had nothing more to gain or lose. I did it because it was my last chance to get out of the hole I was in.
The vomit in the doorways, the smell of fried food, and the voices of the neighbors arguing distracted me. The drumming of the musicians from the toque de santo sounded like an omen telling me I couldn’t go on much longer. The city I had once loved was gone, along with my friends and everything else.
For a brief moment, after dropping the book in the mailbox, I almost allowed myself to believe I could win the prize. But my neurosis wouldn’t let me keep hold of pleasant thoughts for long. Reality took control, destroying any sign of impending triumph, however small or bright it might have been.
And then, despite all my negative thoughts, I won. I won. My poems were able to fend for themselves, and together we were reborn.
As the song says, “Cuando salí de La Habana, de nadie me despedí”: When I left Havana, I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. At the airport, a man approached me without introducing himself. He was a bureaucrat with the air of a politician. His hands were shaky, he smelled of nicotine, and he had a nervous eye-blinking tic. According to him, the authorities had decided to ignore my book and the award would not be publicized in Cuba. He invited me to consider the possibility of staying out of the country for a while. The comrade, or compañero, in the guayabera shirt was an animated, ignorant man who informed me the imperialists were behind my award—an award I had only earned due to a sympathetic marketing ploy based on the unfortunate deaths of my parents. His words gave me several keys to understanding how censorship has worked in this country all these years. He said he was a civil servant. Civil servant? Someone who fell asleep around the time of the Padilla Affair and woke up today? They say those kinds of things don’t happen anymore. The truth is, I was only scared for a moment, then I went through security and onto the plane. Madrid quickly wiped away the fearful and parochial thoughts they had tried to put in my head. The narrow-mindedness that imagined “imperialism” behind a poetry prize given to a woman of no significance. Besides, what did my parents have to do with this? They had never even liked my poetry; they didn’t understand it. I had nothing to lose. I’ve never worked for the state, I don’t work for any ministry, and it all seems ridiculous. Why would imperialism want to reward my work?
The windows of El Corte Inglés department store and La Casa del Libro were decked out with the cover of Before Suicide, whose design featured a renaissance-like image of a hangman’s noose next to an unfinished scroll. A clue to the content of the poems inside.
Then came some serious and excellent reviews, dinners with the best and brightest in Spanish literature. Translations, signings, literary events. I went to a few museums, and bought some red boots, a green coat, and white gold earrings resembling a pair I had lost when I was a girl. I filled up three suitcases with books, including some old, illustrated dictionaries.
I needed to write another book. I needed to show my editor there was life before and after suicide. So I applied for three grants in Europe, trying to find a place to write that wasn’t Cuba; this seemed like the right thing to do. I was very busy and hardly ever alone. Friends flew in to see me and I traveled to meet them wherever I could find them. So many reunions.
When I returned to Barcelona, I was alone again, and on weekends and holidays I felt like I was dying. I relapsed into insomnia and spent nights walking around my hotel room, surprised by the dawn, planted in a distant bed, a distant life, without knowing which one was mine or where I could find it.
I only returned to Cuba when it became clear I’d have a plane ticket back out in the winter. In Havana, I used part of the prize money to fix up the house. I had enough to restore some old seascapes (oil paintings my mother used to collect), and I sorted out the garden, which had become a total dump. I rearranged the furniture, upholstered the seats, bought sheets and even a water heater so I could shower more often. Was I expecting something to happen? Was I expecting someone to rescue me? No, but my life was beginning to make sense again, just like when I’d had a family and, although now my poetry was the only family I had left, I wanted to make life comfortable again. I wanted comfort in the middle of the heavy solitude nothing could scare away. I wrote at daybreak and, in the afternoons, I tried to walk from Vedado to Quinta Avenida to tire myself out and then be able to fall asleep.
I looked up the numbers of several authors whom I admired and now considered my peers and invited them over for soirées. They would say yes but then stand me up. Who was I to invite them? Just a cheeky stranger whose work many of them hadn’t even bothered to read. There wasn’t much I could do to socialize. I tried inviting people who, like me, had suffered such silence long ago, but everyone who was still here had been rehabilitated and they didn’t want any trouble to intrude on their new and comfortable lives. I tried to find out the times for book launches or readings. When I arrived, no one knew me or wanted to meet me. They didn’t talk to me or even offer me a drink.
What could I do? I was living in a country where apparently everyone had agreed to slam the door in my face, but maybe that was just my paranoia. What would my father have said? Was I being neurotic? Was one successful book in Spain not enough to become part of the chosen circle of authors in this country? What is success? I kept trying, becoming a painful nightmare for the local publishers. I took my award-winning book to three publishers and, although I pressed and insisted, I never received a response. Why?
I ate alone in hotels, sometimes with friends of my parents, who usually didn’t want to be seen with me. I was an outcast and that feeling grew stronger when I started writing for El País whenever I spent time outside Cuba. After that, I was visited several times a month, always by civil servants in guayaberas. They came at lunchtime, just to “shoot the breeze,” and during these chats I began to realize I had been elevated to the category of dissident. Why was I now a dissident? It wasn’t my poetry, it was my status, the one they themselves had created without even realizing it. They had to put me in a category, regardless of whether it was the right one. They needed to classify me somehow and that’s what they did. No one asked if my heart was on the left or the right or what my position was on this long regime. They had already decided it for me. I was a dissident and now they had to “keep an eye on me.”
I started buying the coffee I knew they liked. I cooked traditional food on Tuesdays and Thursdays because I knew they’d be sending one of the compañeros to me while other officers took care of the rest of the dissidents who, like almost everyone else, I didn’t know. In talking with my minders, I found out how much a real dissident made, who brought them their money, and that some of them didn’t accept money sent from abroad. I discovered the officers feared or respected some more than others. I walked the streets looking over my shoulder to see if I was being followed, watching out for official-looking cars or shady people dressed in civilian clothes, but I never saw anyone. I detected a suspicious echo on my phone and every time I needed something, someone would turn up at my door selling what I was looking for. A printer, paper, ink, a fountain pen. My personal space became public.
Late one night I decided to go for a walk. I needed to make a choice: insomnia or incarceration, but I couldn’t stand both. I started to consider the possibility of finding someone with whom I could share my new poems, the house, and my success, and to relieve the loneliness I had been feeling since before the prize. Yes, that morning, as I stood in front of the Malecón, I swore I would find a lover. In Cuba? Only if I married one of the guys in guayaberas; there was no one else left for me. The salt cracked under my feet like glass dust stepped on by mistake. I stomped on it until I felt like I was walking on waves and, when I was nearly home, I realized just how much salt there was in this city, the salt path being the antechamber from the sea to my house. Havana is a bowl of salt surrounded by water.
When I reached my corner, I checked my father’s watch, an old Cuervo y Sobrinos that still worked as well as it did the day it was made. It was too dark to see the time, but from the peace that reigned in the neighborhood, I knew it was well into the wee hours. I looked up and saw shadows at my doorstep. People waiting for me. I couldn’t make them out in the darkness; despite my surprise, I found myself thinking I should get a light for the doorway. A green lamp would look good there, I mused as I crossed the street, taking note that there were three people at my door. What do they want? I wondered as I quickened my step toward them.
“Hello,” I said, unable to disguise my unease.
“Hey, hi,” they said in unison.
“We were looking for you,” said one of the women I didn’t know. I noticed it was a man and two women.
“What do you want?”
“Can we come in?” they pleaded as they pointed at the man. I thought it was a bit late.
“What do you want? Who are you looking for?”
“For you,” said one of the women, “we’re looking for you because—it’s about your poems.”
My poems? My ego took the bait. “Of course,” I said as my key entered the lock and I turned it swiftly, skillfully. Because I couldn’t see anything outside in the dark, I wanted to get inside, into the light, where I could understand things better.
I opened the door and they all exclaimed in awe when I turned on an ochre lamp in the living room. It’s true, we had a very special house. One of those old Vedado mansions, the kind passersby marvel at and wonder, Who owns that? How do they keep it up? There we were, walking by screens, stepping on kaleidoscopic floor tiles, turning on art nouveau lamps and, above all, breaking the rigorous silence that had filled those rooms for almost two years.
We ended up in the dining room. I sat down to listen to them. It was strange because they kept talking about and pointing to the man as if I should know him, but I didn’t. They said he’d read English translations of my poems in the Virgin in-flight magazine, and that he’d fallen in love with three of them, especially the ones from the series Bob Marley Is Alive and Well in Havana. It’s a text written like a song, which, like reggae, repeats the same phrases and words to dizzying effect, but it’s a clearly constructed effect. I don’t speak English and so the thin woman who’d originally asked to come in was translating nonstop, which was the only way we could understand each other. The American or English couple took in each of my words, the in-flight magazine still in their hands. I had no idea these poems had been published there, or even translated. I served each of them a glass of rum, and café con leche for myself and the translator. It was getting light out; it wouldn’t be long until dawn.
As I drank from my old aluminum cup, the first rays of sun—an amber light—reached through the trellises toward us. Rubén González played on the old record player by request of the strangers, who were all dozing off on cushions by then. That’s when, just as I looked at their tangled bodies, I discovered Sting’s face. Yes, there was no question, that was him and his wife, Trudie, spread on the floor of my house, drowsy but still aware of the music. Up until that moment, I hadn’t recognized them. I finally got it. A chill filled my belly and I sneezed three times, as I’m inclined to do when I’m nervous. I tried to hurry the sip of my café con leche as naturally as possible so I could go the bathroom without waking them. I had to wash my face to regain my composure. I didn’t want them to know I’d had no idea who they were or why they’d been so interested in my three sad poems for Bob.
Sting in Cuba. Yes sir, this kind of thing happens: Sting and his wife waking up sluggish on the floor of my home. Anything can happen in Cuba; no need to be surprised. I’d heard many stories about celebrities traveling incognito in Havana, but I’d never imagined Sting could visit my house, where no one wants to keep me company since the death of my parents. I’ve wound up a stinky orphan, a dissident old maid, a misunderstood and crazy woman who writes poems to be read in-flight. I offered my guests a hot chocolate before they went back to their hotel. Sting was affable, easygoing, thin as a reed, so youthful looking that he seemed more my age than his. His wife kept her distance; she was tough and intense, laughed at everything and laughed alone. Her outlandish Louboutin shoes had disappeared under the couch and it took us a while to find them.
Dressed as if for a yoga class, fresh as a daisy in spite of the rough night, Sting took my face in his hands, squeezed me, and kissed my forehead. He thanked me for my poems and said something else in English I didn’t understand. Before kissing me one last time, he mumbled, “Adiós, Cleopatra.” I said goodbye, enchanted, and tried to capture the moment with my eyes because I knew I’d never see him again. That wasn’t important, though: I may not have ever bought one of his records but he was part of the soundtrack of my generation, that soundtrack that had to contend with a music policy that only allowed one American for every six Latin Americans on the air. Luckily, since he was British, they’d fit him in between mariachis and Argentinian pop. Now all that was left was the scent of almond cream and Chanel, and Rubén accompanying Bob Marley on the piano that bright dawn.
I took a long shower, trying to remember the times I’d heard Sting during my adolescence, the men who’d kissed me as I listened. But none of that had ever happened; no man had kissed me while listening to him. No man ever wanted to kiss me like that before he disappeared forever.
What did he want? To use my texts? I’d said yes before I realized who he was. It’s really incredible how literature can soar, travel alone, freely; even when I try to strangle it with my tense and veiny hands, it refuses to condemn me; it flies on its own accord; becomes independent from me; refuses to be silenced; and, if it returns, it’s with a different accent.
Still wet from the shower, I threw myself in bed to see if I could finally sleep. When I was right on the edge of going under, the doorbell rang.
Who could be calling so early? It wasn’t hard to guess. My compañeros would be wanting to know what the lead singer of The Police was doing at my house. I had the same question as I stared at the eyes of the three officers who showed up out of nowhere, thinking I was keeping the best part from them, while, for me, the best part was to remain free to continue writing the texts that brought me surprises like that. My compañeros were getting suspicious and I understood it was time for me to play along or I’d wind up in jail for having exemplary foreigners like Sting at my house.
The Cuban police don’t listen to music and educating them—taking them from his beginnings in The Police through all of his solo projects, and explaining that there’s nothing in it that would do harm to Cuba—would require more time than I had to give.
Since I couldn’t find anyone who would have anything to do with me, and since I felt watched and empty, I decided to try and salvage what had been snatched from us: the ordinariness of falling in love with people our own age, detoured like a stream, or castrated, as we marched in solidarity with that other silent war.
I made a list of the men who should have been mine, who should have been with me step by step, stage by stage, but were taken from us as if they had been sent to war all at once and then disappeared in that other war because of the strange circumstance of the diaspora. No one and nothing can keep us from our fate, I told myself, and I went running toward it, certain I could rescue something of what had been stolen. My next step was to coerce the oracle, or adjust its course.
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