Cuba, 1998: Rafa, an Afro-Cuban orphan, moves to Havana with nothing to his name and falls into a job at a café. He is soon drawn into a web of ever-shifting entanglements with his boss’s son, the charismatic Renato, leader of the counterrevolutionary group “Los Injected Ones,” which is planning a violent overthrow of the Castro government during Pope John Paul II’s upcoming visit.
When Renato goes missing, Rafa’s search for his friend takes him through various haunts in Havana: from an AIDS sanatorium, to the guest rooms of tourist hotels, to the outskirts of the capital, where he enters a phantasmagorical slum cobbled together from the city’s detritus by Los Injected Ones.
A novel of cascading prose that captures a nation in slow collapse, Sacrificio is a visionary work, capturing the fury, passion, fatalism, and grim humor of young lives lived at the margins of a society they desperately wish to change.
Release date: September 6, 2022
Publisher: Soho Press
Print pages: 456
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PARADE OF MONDAYS
In the early weeks of that long summer of 1997, before the bombs started going off in the capital, Cecilia came with me one last time on the Monday road trip to the village of Cojímar to help me mourn her oldest son.
As we strolled on the beach, she took my hand, and some time must have passed before I noticed, for I continued to look out to the sea and at first did not see our bodies merge in front of us as she leaned into me. It’s a sign, she told me, pointing with her other hand to our single bulging shadow. The contorted passing of a one-winged bird, she said. A sign, también, that I did not notice these things, she added.
A useless solitary wing.
Every Monday morning, we drove the two dozen miles from the house on Calle Obispo in Old Havana to this barren fishing village that el pendejo Hemingway had made famous with his little fishing novel, and we sat, or strolled, or looked out to the sea—the place where her son, Nicolás, had picked me up a year and a half before. We ate the lunch that Cecilia had prepared perched on a sea wall outside La Terraza, a restaurant from where dishfaced Yuma—the tourists—stared out at the crystalline sea with etherized gazes.
I thought us as hapless and doomed as the poor old man of that novel. Other times, I wasn’t that dramático. As Cecilia liked to point out: I was bored, dreaming about things that didn’t exist in the Island. They never have. Did I know, she asked, that when the yanquis had made the film of the novel with Meester Spencer Tracy they had to go all the way down to the coast of South America because Cuban marlin rarely jump out of the water? And yanquis need that. Things jumping out. Why? I asked, playing along, not remembering if the marlin in the book jumped out. Why don’t Cuban marlin jump out? Too passive, just like the rest of us, como cualquier cubano.
I snapped my hand free and waded into the sea, the water chattering on the crushed-shells shore so that I couldn’t hear her sighs. She came there with me from the capital to appease me. Because I insisted, she reminded me. So many more productive things she could do with her Mondays. Vegetables and fruit to buy for the paladar. The earlier in the week the fresher the black-market produce, brought into the city on Sunday nights from nearby illicit farms, full crates of okra and plátanos and boniatos hidden under dusty blankets and peddled from darkened parlors—though the State had eased the restrictions on private enterprise, no one really was sure how much. Not even the inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture knew, so they made up the rules as they went along. There were the crazy skeletal chickens to feed and their meager miniscule soft-shelled eggs to gather—flyers to get out to the hotels. Poor Juan couldn’t do it all, Cecilia said. It’s enough that he rents us a car for the day. Though it was, I knew, not rented at all, but one of the many máquinas privadas that comandante Juan owned and rented himself to taxistas in the capital to shuttle tourists around. Cecilia sacrificed her Mondays to come with me, to morbidly memorialize her dead older son, as she put it, and once here, coño, I ignored her.
I let her follow a few silent paces behind me as I trekked from one end of the rocky beach to the other, back and forth, back and forth, patrolling the shore as if not to let the endless parade of Mondays escape from us, mount a rickety balsa, and leave us forever. Soon, I feared, our weeks would be a day shorter—all the Mondays would have made their way out of the Island.
Nicolás had told me that he would leave the Island from this beach. On the day we met he told me, that he was scoping the territory, that he had stolen a formidable dinghy—those were his words, un botecito formidable—from the marina in the city where he worked as a pier scrubber and was in the process of refashioning the motor from a Russian Lada, its fan blades bent and bowed into double propellers. When I finally saw the thing, hidden in the shadows of his mother’s henhouse, it was no more than a leaky rowboat.
Noah building the ark, hidden in the shitdusty shadows of his mother’s henhouse as tourists ate their dinners a few paces away, and the starved chickens pecked at the dirt in his toenails. He was already dying the day I met him. Soon, las viejas of el Comité would notify the thugs from the Ministry of Health, who would grab him and take him in for a test and later deliver his mother a mimeographed letter on the seriousness of her son’s condition and the precautions that she and the rest of her family should take, including sterilizing any silver or plates that he might use and boiling bedsheets after his supervised visits, or better yet, reserving these things for his use only. But on the day we first met, he still thought that he had time.
So I came to this puta beach with his mother on Mondays to commemorate him, to pilfer time back, as if it were being peddled from darkened rooms with okra and plátanos.
Cecilia darted into the waters in front of me, knocked my hands from my hips, caressed my face with a calloused palm, and kissed me on the cheek. Mi mulatico tan lindo, she said and walked back to the spot on the beach where I had dropped my shirt, picked it up, and continued following me. I sat on the shore and she joined me, watching a pair of amateur fishermen on an inner-tube raft returning for the day, at first sight, their balsa not so different from the ones used by the many that had left this beach never to be seen again. They wore nothing but frayed straw hats and threadbare swim trunks that fell from their bony hips. They were young, no older than me, but they moved with the resignation of the elderly, their sleek eel-like brown bodies bent at the middle with obeisance. They had caught nothing. They tossed their empty nets on the shore and sat by them, as if mourning some giant sea monster that had beached itself. The water rose slowly around them and caressed their long still legs and their bottoms, and then it ebbed just as slowly, as if it wanted to linger there.
I kept my eyes on the boys. How does the coast guard know who is leaving and who is just fishing? I asked.
They don’t, Cecilia answered. They guess.
Maybe I’ll become a fisherman.
You’ll die of hunger, she said and added that if I stayed with her, I would never die of hunger. That she could promise. She picked up a handful of sand and smashed it on my belly.
I threw the sand back at her. Gran cosa. I’ll die an old man serving tourists boliche and arroz con pollo.
She stood up. It’s a good life, Rafa. She turned her back to the sea. Good enough.
I kept my eyes on the fishermen, intently enough for her to take it as an affront. After a while, she put the shirt back on my shoulder, careful not to brush my bare skin.
I’ll be in the car when you’re ready.
Later that night, I knew she would watch me sleep, as she had clandestinely watched us in the henhouse when I was with her son. She waited one or two hours till after I had gone to bed, after I had helped her and her Haitian-Dominican cook, Inocente St. Louis, with the prep work for the following day, snipping the dark skinny innards from shrimps, chopping vegetables, baking bread, then she sat in the shadows of the kitchen sipping spicy rum, hoping comandante Juan wouldn’t come by, hoping she could just be by herself for a bit till I fell asleep.
Mondays were the only time she did this, she would admit to me much later that summer, when the bombs forced us to remain alone in the house. Every other night there was too much to do for such boberías, the last diner would often not leave the brick-paved patio until the early hours of the morning. She had heard once from comandante Juan that the best restaurants in Paris often close down on Monday nights, so she had decided to do the same. On those nights, she watched me, watched me as she could not watch me during the day, as she could not watch me after the bustling nights feeding the hungry Yuma, watched me on the tiny bed that had belonged to her younger son, my long body rolled up into it, like a serpent into a basket. When I stirred, stretching so that my legs lengthened off the bed, the toes open like fingers, she moved back, not wanting to get caught, till my body softened again and curled itself back into the tiny bed. I was like some boneless creature in my sleep, she confessed that summer.
On Monday nights, she didn’t sleep. Sometimes on Tuesdays, while she and comandante Juan were readying for the lunch service, I said to her that she had wandered into my dreams. Comandante Juan teased me, told me boys shouldn’t dream about real women, leave that to los hombres, and he reached for her with his fat fingers like a clumsy boy reaching for a plaza pigeon.
On the first Friday of each month, I went to the sidatorio, the new “AIDS sanitarium,” to visit Cecilia’s younger son, Renato.
Ese niño is your adoptive brother now, tu hermanito, Cecilia had told me on the morning we buried Nicolás in the mahogany coffin fashioned from the boards of the writer’s empty bookcases, as if she could not bring herself to verbalize the corollary to this, that she was then my adoptive mother.
By that time, I had been working in the capital for a year and a half, and it was the only day that I ever requested off from waiting tables at Cecilia’s paladar. Comandante Juan took over on those Friday nights, serving the Yuma in his tattered comandante’s uniform, rusty gun in the leather holster that stank like week-old refuse, so that some of the weekend Yuma thought it was some kind of performance but that the more seasoned travelers saw as no more strange than the pediatrician that had bartended for them the night before or the literature professor that had been their cabdriver or the busty-chested chemical engineer that had offered her sexual services in the open-air market at the Plaza de Armas for twenty yanqui dollars.
I always returned with the tight curls in my hair newly colored, mostly in shades of red, because Bertila said it brought out the fever in my tangerine eyes, and comandante Juan made sure to ask me the following day as we prepared for service, why it was, coño, that I worked so hard to endanger our well-being, all of us, he emphasized, patting himself, the martyr, on the green-stained cheap medals of his uniform.
Him, I told nothing of my Friday visits.
How is the putamamá? Renato asked, coming out of the front gate of the sidatorio the first Friday of that summer.
She was fine. Why did he have to call her that?
Does she even ask about me?
No, I lied, because it was the answer he wanted, because any other answer I had found would lead him to latch onto the subject all day and night like a crab on a tightlipped mollusk. Not once this past month, I said. Though Cecilia never stopped asking. But I knew what Renato meant with his question—oye, if she asks so much, why can’t she just come visit? Once. Maybe just once. After his brother died, Renato had also tested positive for the virus and by government decree had to live at the sidatorio, what they called a sanitarium for those that would develop AIDS, set up all over the Island expressly for the purposes of keeping the virus contained. An experimental program that was the only one of its kind in the world, and according to government reports, a phenomenal success.
I didn’t know why Cecilia did not visit. Only later would I learn how much power comandante Juan exerted over Cecilia, how costly the services and contacts he provided, conveniences that kept her paladar thriving. How comandante Juan made it his mission to protect her from her own children. O una barbaridad semejante.
By the time Renato had first tested positive, everyone knew that life inside the sidatorios rose to a much higher standard than most other places in the capital, except a lo mejor for the residences of the Party insiders—though this contained only a smattering of the truth, as I would learn from Renato. Sure, they served three hearty meals a day, and there was a roof over your head, but you also had to consider lack of choice, the inability to control one’s destiny, the eternal nature of the branding as a citizen of the sidatorio, a sidatorioca. Even if things had been changing lately with the furloughs. On Fridays, Renato could walk toward the front gates of the sanitarium near Cerro on the purlieus of the old city, straight down the gravelly path that led past the squat Soviet-built dwellings, and out the arches of the stone wall. This had been established as a new privilege because the government had taken a hit on its international image because of the strict quarantine of HIV positive patients. Before this, any visits had been confined to the sanitarium.
Getting your hair done, niñas? the guard taunted when he saw us leaving that Friday for our appointment with Bertila. He stood in the doorway of his little dark wooden shack—like a gray jutía rat peeking out of its limestone cave, his flinty eyes darting from under the shadows of the thick bougainvillea that covered the rotted roof of his hideout. The place had once been a school, a juvenile detention center before that, and there were small cinderblock houses at every exit, manned now not so much to keep people in but to keep non-patients out.
I shot my finger at the guard. Up yours, viejo. He became giddy, thrilled. He scratched his scruffy beard and giggled as he reached for a rifle that leaned against the shack. He measured our passing through its crosshairs. Gunshots popped in his mouth as he pretended to dropdead us. We broke into a brief sprint until we were out of his rifle’s sight, past the gate, beyond his taunts about our hair, about the peach-shaped smoothness of our asses, the meringue stiffness of our lips.
Renato stopped ahead of me and pulled off his shirt and turned to face me, his arms outspread like the monument in Baracoa of the Indian chief Hatuey at the stake. A large new tattoo covered most his belly up to the tip of the breastbone. It was a dark upside-down creature with wings extended and a body and neck twisted into a 6—its long beaked head buried in the shadows of its bosom, as if wanting to consume itself, and high above at the end of the tail, brushing up against Renato’s prominent sternum, a pair of glowing sleepless eyes, like jewels. The creature, part heron, part reptile, hovered on Renato’s pale skin, plunging below his belly button. A sloppy job, the ink embedded under the skin in jittery dashes—which made it seem fluttery and alive from a distance.
¿Qué cosa es eso? I asked, half-concerned that the thing was going to peel off from his belly.
It’s us, coño, he said sotto voce, holding his arms up, staring at me as intently as the two red jewels stared.
Every new tattoo on his body was a version of his affliction or his apostasy, what we got together to celebrate on Fridays, the chain around his ankles, the winking eye in the webby strip between the base of his thumb and index finger, the skeletal hand rising up his shoulder blade as if to catch him by surprise, the yanqui flag torn at his thighs. You had to be liberal about interpretation. It was all us, our one day. I was still not sure who “us” was. I hardly knew him. Although a year later I could not ever think about him without thinking about us.
The creature on his torso was the largest and most outlandish yet. I reached out to touch it, but the thing flinched. Renato’s skin bristled.
Don’t be getting incestuous on me. Acuérdate, we’re related now. He came closer, taking hold of my shoulders from behind and blow-whispering on my nape. If you want, I can get you some when we get back. There are hundreds of sex-starved maricas inside, hopping from one encounter to the other like mad bunnies. Plenty. But not your brother, not your little brother, por favor. He walked ahead a bit, calmer now, with a purposeful hurried stride. I fell behind and he turned and waited for me to catch up, kissed me softly on the cheek, and disappeared sprinting around a corner.
Our appointment with Bertila wasn’t until late in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time to do nothing, though we would soon have to abandon our spot, make sure we were moving around while doing nothing to avoid getting rounded up under the new laws against vagrancy, which the revolutionary police, la fiana, as we called them, the snitches, had the power to enforce at their own discretion. And like any law, new or old, they summoned them only when they saw fit.
Some in the park always seemed to be doing nothing, and la fiana didn’t bother them. If your skin burned with the fire of the fields and your hands grew horny with callouses from the glory of labor, your shoes encrusted with the mud of production, the handkerchief wrapped around the brim of your hat the colors of the flag, then la fiana passed by close, their steps in unison, letting you know they were there, just in case, por si acasito your conversation wandered, your will weakened, but mostly they left you alone. But if you were young, paleassed like Renato, or dark-skinned but unweathered like me, and there were piercings in your ears and your nose and your eyebrows and your lips and el maldito Dios knows where else, if your hair covered your ears and was bleached blond, or dyed a puta red, if your skin was tattooed like a savage, and your mind dizzy with the incomprehensible lyrics of corruption, then you were some roquero, some imperialized mutant version of a yanqui and prohibited from remaining still, from staying in one place; that was vagrancy, a great crime against production and therefore against la Revolución. Then the State asserted its right through the roving pairs of fiana—which marauded the parks and the streets like hungry stray tomcats—and you were sent off to cut sugarcane somewhere, to learn to behave like an efficient revolucionario. In this, Renato and I were fortunate during our Fridays. Anytime they had tried to grab us before, he pulled out his crumpled pass from the sanitarium. La fiana immediately knew what it was by its sickly yellow color, and they dared not touch it. Renato held it out to them at arm’s length, his wrist overly limp, pinched between his index finger and thumb, a poisoned lace handkerchief.
When it happened on that first Friday of the summer, he actually warbled to the guards, We’re from the sidatorio, señoritos.
That was it, then. Game over. Forfeit. We had been caught doing nothing, but the law didn’t apply, not to us, not anymore.
They then asked for our papers, the carnet all of us were required to carry everywhere. But they would not even touch them, forced us to hold them in front of their faces while they scrutinized them. Maricones, they spit under their breaths as they backed away from us. Renato held his dainty pose until they could not stand to look at him anymore. That was his strength.
I reached out and rested my hands on Renato’s bony hips and he jumped away from me in one motion: ¡Ay ay, por favor, hermanito! Estás de madre. Doesn’t my mother get you laid? Besides, you’re supposed to be in mourning. You’re the raunchiest widow I’ve ever met. He put his hand over his mouth. Oh, I’m sorry, that wasn’t very nice. He got down on one knee, made a sign of the cross, and murmured that he too mourned for Nicolás, the greatest brother a boy could hope for. He then dashed away like a spirit to a nearby wildflower field and waved for me to follow him.
Near the Christ-like statue of Lenin, he unlaced his scruffy black boots and threw them up in the air, pulled off his stained T-shirt and stepped out of his cutoff knee-length jeans, so that all his lower tattoos, the wisteria vines creeping up his calves, the spotted tarantula wedged between the veins of his left foot, the bloody arrow lodged in his right Achilles, and even the torn, fluttering yanqui flag high up on the inside of each of his thighs and the neat Gothic calligraphy on his toes—on one foot S I D A, on the other, S A V E S (in English)—all but one, were visible, as he did his daily regimen of pushups in the noonday sun. I sat down in the field and watched him.
The new combo of experimental medication had taken effect. The year before, a new department at Girón Medical College had been opened for the study of traditional and natural medicine. On the new pills, Renato had gained weight, though it was spread in odd pouches throughout his body, his face, his lower belly, his ass. His limbs were still emaciated and veiny, though on his torso, thin bands of muscle were now visible where there had only been the bare cage of the ribs. He had grown ill so quickly after he seroconverted that it seemed to me at first as if his body had been breaking down and preparing for the visiting virus beforehand, setting the stage for the quickest deterioration. But now the opportunistic illnesses were mostly in remission.
I clapped and egged him on, but he did not even glance my way. After each set, he sat on his knees and measured his breath and then continued. When he was done, he sauntered toward me, the creature on his belly swaying with exertion. His briefs were threadbare, torn at the band, barely a cover. He pushed his crotch in front of my face. I looked up. Renato’s hair, parted in the middle, hung over his face, the shadows veiling his crooked smile. He was his mother’s child. Although I had then seen only a few fuzzy photographs of his father, who seemed to have bequeathed all of his genes to his older son—the achingly elongated figure, the emphatic features, the penetrating dark eyes, the repressed fury that gave their pale skin a grayish cast—Renato had inherited almost no physical features from his father, except for the luxurious long curls that belonged to all of them. He had his mother’s round expressive face, mellow translucent seaweed eyes, a sumptuous lower lip made for whistling or for kissing—the whole countenance a thing made for cheer, so that later when he grew morose and gaunt it was as if he were wearing a mask that he had mistaken for some other occasion.
Bueno, mi Rafa, this is it, he said. If it has come to this, if they are going to let you suck my pinga in the plain light of day, then it’s no fun playing this game anymore. We can play this do-nothing game till kingdom come, till the yanquis litter our dirty little capital with bombs!
He turned half away and paused, then muttered, You came to wrong place with my brother. To that house. Whatever you were looking for. It’s not there. Never was, huevón.
At least I met you, I countered in a weak voice.
Gran cosa, he said and lumbered away, putting pieces of clothing on one by one while still moving. A feat in his condition, I thought. There are a thousand of me, he continued, but none of them will save you, either.
You’re wrong, I said without even thinking about it. I couldn’t have survived on my own. I was on the verge of going back when Nicolás found me. He saved me.
He came toward me so that I could smell his stale medicated breath. No one saves you in this city, huevón. You save yourself . . . if you can.
We left the park, not saying much for a while, walking along its northwestern edge until Renato came upon a man fretting over a large charcoal grill. There were splayed chickens and other meats spread out on the grill. Renato approached the man and asked him how much. The man glanced up briefly, examined him, and waved him off with his two-pronged carving fork.
¿Cuánto? Renato said, pushing his groin close enough to the grill top that it seemed a danger.
A young couple—clear-eyed, European, all stiff and well dressed in that casual manner that only Yuma can pull off, even when they wear rags and sandals—who had been standing near the grill, chattering in hushed tones, took a step toward us. The man put his arm around the woman’s waist. He was tall and sinewy, and the ends of his long dark hair were bright orange, dipped in molten iron. The woman was lean and flat chested, and in her long T-shirt, hair tied high in a bun, and free of makeup, she could have been a comely effeminate boy. I had seen them in the park near us before but thought nothing of it, curious tourists interested in the natives. The tattoo on the man’s right arm was half-covered by the sleeve of his T-shirt, the hindquarters of some feline creature that laggardly climbed up his arm. They had been to the beaches already—their skin as brown gold as the hide of the birds on the grill, and her cropped hair bright honey with the sun. They wore the Yuma uniform—long earth-tone shorts and leather sandals. The man had hair on the line of his chin and jaw that was lighter than the hair on his scalp, the rest of his face clean-shaven. His face angular and his features severe, his bony nose ran long and the shelf of the chin jutted upward at the tip.
They stared at Renato, but Renato did not notice them as he had surely not noticed them before. He scrutinized the birds on the grill, set in rows like schoolchildren, their legs spread open and their breasts flattened. Renato turned again to the man at the grill and pulled out of his pocket a wrinkly ball of crumpled green bills. He waved them under the man’s face and over the grill as if sprinkling fresh spices on the meats.
I can pay, cabrón.
The man pulled his head back. He looked at the crumpled ball of bills, his eyes bleary from the smoke rising from the grill. Sweat gathered from both sides of his face and trickled measuredly off the end of his nose and chin like a pair of leaky faucets.
Any one you want, entonces, he said, dejected at having to make a sale to a local. He sunk his fork into one of the birds and turned it over. Except this one, this one is theirs—he raised his chin once toward the European couple and a dribble of sweat flew off him, did a somersault, and then hissed on the fire. Renato pointed to one of the other chickens, it was fatter than the bird for the Europeans.
¿Ése? the man said. Bien. He tapped it twice with the flat side of the prongs, then he pierced it just under the breast; a clear fluid flowed from the wound and a little fire sizzled beneath it.
It’s almost ready. Son tres.
Renato flattened out three bills, knowing the man meant dollars and not pesos. Now that yanqui dollars had been made legal, it was all anyone took as currency.
Son tres para ustedes, también, the grill man said to the couple, and the woman kissed her man on the cheek. The man smiled and his face rounded out and for a moment lost all its severity. For whatever reason, I thought it was the round face that was his more common demeanor. He kept on glancing at Renato and then at me as he handed the money to the man at the grill, but the man told him that he had no use for European money, so the girl took some yanqui bills from her purse. The man grew upset, but then he did something odd, he asked the girl in three different languages—a combination of Spanish, English, and German—what the problem was with his deutsche marks. The girl waved him off.
The old man over the grill removed both chickens at once, plated them on doubled-up pieces of cardboard. When Renato was taking his chicken, his bare shoulder brushed against the European man. The man muttered something in his language, and Renato turned and looked at him for the first time. He seemed surprised and drawn in by the man’s presence. He paused in mid-motion and acknowledged his presence for the first time, and then, just as whimsically, as if he were again a celestial body, did a half turn and orbited away. Renato looked over his shoulder as he walked toward me and said something in English I did not understand. The man smiled again and shook his head. Renato hunched his shoulders.
We ate the chicken seated on a curb across from the park. The couple wandered into the park and sat on a bench under a chestnut tree. The woman did most of the talking as they ate. Renato now kept his eyes on them. He ate most of the chicken as he scrutinized them. I just had a leg and a bite of a breast.
What did he say to you?
I don’t know, it was German, but I thought he said he wanted us to come to the hotel with him. Where did he come from? I didn’t even see him standing there.
What did you say?
I said fifty dollars.
He could be better with his clothes off.
Not if he’s not paying.
Is this what you do with your weekends when I’m not with you?
Renato took a big bite of a chicken leg, his entire face smeared with grease. He spit out a little bone and swallowed, hunched his shoulders again, finished off the leg, and threw the bone on the cardboard platter. He stood up, wiped his face with the back of his hands. Ahora vengo, he said.
He walked across the street and sat next to the Europeans as if he knew them, his haunches grazing the man’s. Renato did most of the talking, signaling once across the street toward me. The Europeans smiled cordially, the woman resting her head on the man’s shoulder, her opposite arm draped across his belly. Renato stood up and pointed to their empty platter, and they all shook their heads. The man at the grill watched them and he raised his carving fork, toasting them. Renato shook the European’s hand. The woman raised her left hand from the man’s belly, and Renato took it and held it.
Watching him, as he walked back toward the curb, I thought of how much Renato was growing into his older brother’s persona, not in the physical traits, but in the nearly imperceptible currents and movements of the body, the rhythm that the flesh exerted, not just in that gesture—the holding of the woman’s hand, which he took with an open palm, pulling her toward him not with his arm, as some lesser seducer might have done, but with the gravity of his presence, with a look maybe, or a little turn of the hips, or an unnoticed raise of the chin.
That was the family’s art: seduction.
I should have guessed it right away from how Nicolás, the older brother, had sure-footedly seduced me in a single afternoon, should have known that such talents don’t rise from the ashes. Renato bore the ghost of his brother in all his bearing, in the way he walked back toward me now, his shoulders thrown back a little farther than before, his step lighter, a strut, a bouncing on the balls of his feet, the arms swinging from the elbows, the hands loose, his head bent a little lower, but his chin cocked slightly, as if surprised at how easy it all had been.
What? I said.
Nothing, they’re just Yuma.
¿No me digas?
He says his name is Oliver. What the hell kind of name is that for a German?
What’s her name?
Renato spit out a chicken bone—he couldn’t care less. Come on, hermanito. We’re going to be late for Bertila.
Bertila’s place was on the second floor of a tenement house near the commercial wharves in Old Havana. Her job was her raison d’être. She had screwed an antique barber’s chair, a gift from a Swiss lover, into the middle of her tiny living room. Except for a small cabinet for her tools and a floor-toceiling mahogany-framed mirror leaning up against the wall facing the barber’s chair, there was nothing else in the room. Thin muslin curtains hung over the French doors that led to the balcony facing out to Calle Merced. If you leaned out from one corner of the balcony, you could see the bay and the ships coming into the wharves. There were two other rooms in the narrow apartment, a cluttered bedroom in the middle, with a twin-size bed over which hung a leviathan portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a wooden rosary draped on its frame, and a kitchen through which the customers entered and passed though the bedroom to the living room.
Nicolás had first introduced me to her a few weeks after we arrived in the capital from Cojímar. He told me that he had found her in La Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula many years before when he was still a boy. Nicolás had wandered in because he had never been inside a church and because his father had run him out of his house—and because it was dawn when he had reached the bay, and he knew of no other place to go for shelter. Bertila knelt in one of the front pews praying, the only person there. The walls in the church were peeling and its many statues were blackened with dust and smoke. Nicolás grew frightened by the haunted house atmosphere of it all, so he walked up the center aisle and sat beside her, the only living thing there, the only human form among all those statues and reliefs that seemed to be free from suffering. Her hands clasped together and pressed to her lips—her eyes shut with an insomniac’s empty determination. She was a large woman but so gracefully proportioned, even down to the flesh that seemed to wrap in diminishing folds around her wrists and down her thick fingers, that it gave her the appearance of youth, a toddler who had not yet shaken off a formidable case of baby fat—a rosary entwined around her fingers, and she whispered into her clasped hands. Nicolás watched her silently for a long time, and when she got up off her knees and sat back in the pew, she seemed startled to see him there.
Ay, mi niño, what have you done? she said when she saw him. Guessing what lay at the heart of the young man’s troubles, she slid over and passed her hand through his brittle hair. Nicolás nudged his head away, but she continued passing her hand through his hair and digging through it till it felt, Nicolás confessed, as if she were gathering his thoughts and rearranging them. So he told her his story, how he had mixed bleach with a dye he had bought from a school friend, just to make his hair a little lighter, but how it had come to this pale parrot shit.
Shh! Bertila had said, don’t talk like that in here. But she continued to listen, how once the boy’s father had seen what he had done to his hair, he chased him around the house with one of his schoolbooks, screaming that he was going to beat him over the head until the lessons sank in, that no boy of his was going to grow up to be an embarrassment to the pioneros, to Fidel, to la Revolución, and how he had run, run as far as he could away from there.
Shh! Bertila had said again, don’t you worry, niño. Nothing is unfixable in this world. That morning she took him back to her apartment and sat him on the antique barber’s chair till, digging at the roots, she had unearthed the true color of his hair, and with organic dyes and natural conditioners had restored it to its natural hue.
Later, I was sure that Nicolás had invented this whole story. He had probably sought out Bertila, found her through his network of roqueros, who always knew who did the best hair the cheapest. Or that maybe he had found her inside a church, but not because he had been thrown out by the father, but because abandoned churches were the best places for the young to have sex, the only inner spaces in the whole Island always empty. Or maybe Bertila had found him, brought him into her fold because she gathered such malcontents for her own purposes. She had once been a promising chemistry graduate student at the School of Natural Sciences at the Universidad de la Habana. It was there that a boyfriend had lured her away from the proper revolutionary path. When I questioned Bertila once about the truth—Nicolás’s story or the ones I had imagined or the snippets of confessions that she herself offered—she had smiled and put her hands to my cheeks and said: Ay sí, ese Nicolás, sí, así fué, that’s exactly how I met him, not saying which version was right about the meeting or about her life.
Whenever I talked to her about Nicolás these days, she wrapped both her meaty hands around my face, pressing in as if to force some truth out of my pores. She held her look until I looked back. He didn’t abandon you, she asserted. You know that, right? He was always going somewhere else, that boy. She slid her hands up and dug them into my head.
It was in his hair! she said. I knew.
Bertila had built a reputation with the roqueros that made up most of her clientele as a prophet of hair. ...
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