Litro #157: Nightmares: Sweet Marrow

 Real things are often painful. Things with heft can bruise tender meat. I’ve tried so hard not to hurt him, covering my pitted steel core with soft peach flesh so that he can roll his weight onto me in the night and not be cut. I am careful, very, but even so I need a new lover every few years. Human men wear out so quickly; their gold tarnishes grey and their muscles slacken fast beneath their skins, which pucker into wattles spreading out from the scrotum.

This is the fate of every mortal, but it speeds up with us.

In stories, we are always voracious; sharp-toothed, hollow-spined succubi who fuck men to bones, bedding them down, fast and brutal, in a fat drift of leaves. This is only part-true, and we aren’t fuelled by malice. We don’t do it on purpose. We can wear backless dresses, smile openly, and (if we’re careful) we can ensure that our lovers linger for years. We can make them happy. We do make them happy. Their joy, reflected back at us, is the closest we can come to having what humankind thinks of as a soul.

My current lover is so beautiful; all honeygold hair and hard biceps. I like to watch him as he sleeps. He says that we are married, and I let him believe it. How could he know that those vows he made could never apply to me? I take him into me, gently, every night and it is sweet; like sucking marrow from a well-roasted bone. He keeps me fed and alive; I treasure him for it.

Sometimes, the knowledge of what is coming keeps me awake. I slide out of our bed and walk into the bathroom. I lock the door, stand before the long, wall-bound mirror and let my mask drop.

He would not love me, if he saw me like this, and that is what I use the sight of my own naked talons, my blood-edged feathers, to remind myself of. The fact that he can never really know me acts as a balm to sooth my inevitable grief. Without this knowledge I could be mourning for years.




Litro #155 | Movement: The Sum of Our Misfortunes

Mathilde wanted to know us, she thought that she could. She came to Florence with her hats, her ugly boxer dog, her ideas of art that she tried to spoon into our black mouths. At first she liked the best of us, the quiet ones with jobs who had showers in the same place every morning. But she was a thirsty girl and soon we were not enough. Our drugs, our cocks, the wall of our chatter and even what she saw of our majestic womenfolk and on Friday, our prayers. She finished with us. We would be ignored in bars and on wind-whipped street corners. We sat on benches and watched her walking that dog in the Boboli Gardens.

At the beginning of summer Mathilde crossed the park. We saw her coming our way, her eyes hunted us down and we were no longer invisible. One man remarked that all winter he had seen Mathilde driven around in a sports car, kissing an older Italian at the wheel. Another had seen them drunk in the street, his hands all over her. Today, Mathilde wore denim shorts and we saw the twisting muscles in her thighs.

‘Hi guys,’ she said.
She looked at Mamadou who had not yet changed from his courier’s uniform.
‘Hey, you’re a new face. Who are you?’
Je suis Mamadou.’
Her eyes glanced over us.
‘Look guys, I need a model. To sketch. And eventually paint. It’s for my course. How about you, Mamadou?’
Mamadou sat there rolling over his hands.
‘I’ll pay you good money. You just have to stand there. A couple of different positions while I sketch. Naked. Easy-peasy.’
One of us tried to explain to Mathilde that Mamadou was employed and also married. The man who spoke had several times been up to Mathilde’s apartment. He told us there had been sex and, afterwards, she had wanted to wash him. He said he had watched his cock and balls in her pale hands, and never felt more shrunken or embarrassed.
Mathilde ignored this man.
Another of us translated her wishes to Mamadou whose face turned away. Nu? Devant une blanche? Mais t’es fou? Mamadou crossed long hairless arms and Mathilde’s eyes examined him further and some of us already knew this would end with humiliation and crisis.
Mathilde walked away across the park, the dog bounding after her. We watched her drop down in the grass with a group of white friends lazing there.

*

Mamadou’s young wife developed problems in her pregnancy. The doctors found that there was a panel grown across her womb, a membrane entrapping one of the child’s arms. They were perplexed. Mamadou himself was certain that at home, our own doctors would have supplied a reasoning, and given a course to follow, but here the doctors prescribed endless checks and appointments. Mamadou’s wife clung to him and he lost his job. Moneyless, he asked us where Mathilde lived, said he had to work for her, or they would kick him out of the flat he had struggled so long to rent. He looked thwarted and showed us his electricity and water bills.

A few of us advised Mamadou not to approach Mathilde in the street. In the street Mathilde was a queen who moved like a crested wave in the sea. She walked with her head high and her fair hair on her shoulders, or pushing out from some hat. We told Mamadou that he should remove the worry from his face and wear a narrow shirt that showed his shapely chest. Mamadou scorned us. We asked him if his fine cock would thicken and rise before the white woman and he walked off.

*

Now that we were here, we could not go home to our country. Some of us had tried. But over there, inertia struck us down. Here we had not accomplished what it was believed that we had accomplished. Our families believed that we owned cars and our money was hidden in banks. That the Italian women left our beds in the morning, then begged to be admitted back at night. It was not so. In our faces, people saw thieves. Our hands were never touched and our change was fanned on the counter, our cigarette packets thrown there. Some of us, at the clubs, had met ladies who danced in an arousing fashion and made us hard. They gave us their phone numbers which we called. The calls were awkward, and soon they ceased. Some of us had been invited to bedrooms by loud drunken women, who had grown serious and asked us about diseases. We fucked these silly girls, who grew brusque and teary. One of us – Papa – had married a student girl to get his visa. He had given her a child. That child was now a seventeen-year-old beauty who ignored us. Papa had returned home and we had no further news of him.

It was possible to grow used to the winter, to the wet chill of the Arno and the tourists who asked directions. Sometimes a large white man in a checked shirt, waiting for his wife in a jewellery shop on Ponte Vecchio, would ask us where we came from. Why were there black people here in Italy? We would say that we were Senegalese, we were from Senegal.

Is that in Africa?

*

One of us saw Mamadou pushing the buzzer below Mathilde’s apartment behind Santo Spirito. It was four in the afternoon. This man reported that Mamadou wore a neck choker, ironed black trousers, and a striped business shirt whose tail flicked over his round ass. He said that Mamadou was scented, but how could he have known? This man waited at the bar, selling books of African poetry until he was told to leave. Mamadou came down into the street three hours later, looking neither satisfied or outraged. He had walked to the bus stop.

*

The first year that Mamadou was here – before he moved to this neighbourhood – he had been very lucky. An older Italian man drove his car into central Florence and parked. He then walked into the market place where some of us were selling handbags on white sheets spread on the flagstones. This man pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot two of us, one in the chest and the other in the neck. These men dropped silently to the ground, one of them over the handbags he had just arranged according to size, and died. The older man shot at two more of us. One was hit in the arm and ran amongst the covered stalls where people had just begun to halt. The other young man stood there, looking at this angry killer in the face, wanting to charge him and wrestle him to the ground. That man was Mamadou. The two men stood staring as sirens grew nearer.

The carabinieri arrived and people knelt to the two dead men, so that the killer was able to escape. Mamadou’s eyes distinguished him in the crowd, but the police had held him there, trying to enclose the confusion, which they had believed was at an end. The old man drove to another quartiere and parked. He walked past a rowdy group of us in the street, already chanting and heading to the site. He shot another man in the belly. And a tall black youth in the neck although this merely grazed his skin. The man shot in the belly died in a writhing pool and we sensed warfare around us.

In the afternoon the killer was cornered in an underground car park where he put his gun in his mouth and shot through his own skull.

Many of us wanted to leave after these alarming and mournful days. But Mamadou did not. He said he would stay here. He said he had been spared and he would stay here.

*

Mamadou no longer wore his courier uniform that we had grown used to. He no longer drove the red van which we would often see parked on a gutter, lights flashing, while he rang an old woman’s buzzer downstairs. Before, he would race across the park and eat a panino or dribbling piece of pizza, glad of our company after his rude customers who were so often displeased with his accent and the sight of his black hands. Now Mamadou ambled across the park to sit with us. He looked more relaxed in his dark trousers or his unhemmed jeans and collared shirts. His hands dropped between his legs and he sat in silence. We asked him about his young wife. He said that their son would soon be born. We asked him had he been able to pay his bills and he nodded, rubbing the side of his thumb. When we were brave enough we asked him about Mathilde, and whether he had begun to work for her. Mathilde had once again ceased to register us on her walks through the town centre, where we stood on corners selling bracelets and statuettes. She ignored us as she had in the winter. When she strayed our way in the park with her ugly boxer dog, we were invisible.

Mamadou replied that yes, he had begun working for Mathilde.

We asked him had he removed his clothing for her. Had she drawn him as she had wanted?

Mamadou nodded. Some of us who had seen the pale woman naked felt envy and this made us grow large and warm. We remembered the stone floor of her apartment where we had been told to lie with our irresistible hard-ons, or the wooden boards of the platform built above, where the young woman slept surrounded by her paintings, where she had asked us to touch her in exquisite places. We were aroused and asked Mamadou how it had been, where he had fucked her, by which window over the violet street at night, by which window over the dark garden?

Mamadou said that he and Mathilde had never slept together. And never would. Mathilde had asked him and he had refused. He worked for Mathilde, he told us. He modelled for her. Yes, he was without clothing before her but it was cool in her apartment. It was better than driving a van through Florence’s crowded streets. The money was good.

We said that soon enough he would want her, she was small-figured but he would soon want her.

Mamadou’s phone beeped and he said it was time for him to go to his work. He smelt clean but we could sense his underarms wetting as he strode across the grass. We said how different he had been to us when he wore his courier’s uniform. One man added that he had preferred him that way.

*

A few of us moved around the city on bicycles. Many times, even from us, these bicycles were stolen by thieves. We were powerless against these men who came from countries we did not know. They were fewer than us and they were short and furious, raised without fear. They carried knives and there were fights between us at night, fights that we lost. We were made to obey these men.

Far off, on the other side of the river where he was selling housewares, one of us had his bicycle stolen by these men. He had seen the thieves, called out to them, but he had watched them wheel the bicycle off.

This man began to walk back to the city. As he walked he witnessed Mathilde driving down a street in a car it was not known that she possessed. At the end of the road wide gates opened in a stone wall, revealing a tall palazzo in a shadowed garden. An Italian man with crossed arms stood on the steps. Mathilde stepped down from the car and they embraced.

*

Mamadou’s son was born in a suburban hospital outside Florence where his wife caught an infection that gave her fever and made her lose blood. His son was flawless. But the wife wanted her people, more than she wanted the savvy cousin who had caught the train down from Milan. She wanted her mother and her grandmother and her sisters to make her strong again and help her raise this child. Mamadou came to us in a state of panic, saying he had just taken his young wife by train to Fiumicino airport, that she was now on a plane flying back to Dakar, that he had touched his son’s sweet-smelling forehead for the last time, he was certain of it.

The boy and his mother would be back, we told Mamadou, telling him to think of the nights he would go out, the silence in the small apartment where before there had been wails.

Mamadou said that no, he wanted to watch the baby sleeping, watch his wife’s breasts empty fine sprays of milk into his mouth, watch his child’s eyes learn recognition and follow the light. He said that he wanted this son close to him, that as soon as he had money again he would fly over and bring the boy back, with or without the mother.

We listened to Mamadou talk on, until he became silent. We asked him did he not have to go to his work? He replied that today he was not needed.

A few of us sat back thinking of the children we had left at home, long-legged young men or girls we were ashamed to say reminded us of their horny mothers in youth. Sometimes, these children when they were grown travelled over to see us, and remained to learn the language, or work in the factories as we had done in the past. Over here we were not their fathers. They looked at our woollen sweaters over our printed shirts, our unshaven faces and stolen beanies with patterns of snowflakes. They scorned us and selected Italian coats at the market stalls.

*

There was a stubborn man among us who spoke constantly of Mathilde. This man was certain the fair girl had cast a spell over Mamadou. All through the hot summer this man said that Mamadou stayed for many hours at the young woman’s apartment. This occurred night after night, when all of us had left the park and returned to the rooms where our mattresses lay on dusty floors. The man said he often walked in the streets as he suffered from sleeplessness, and though the shutters were closed the main light would be on, there would be distant music, and the smell of hashish.

This man made it his business to question Mamadou the next time he was with us. Had he slept with Mathilde yet? Did he expect us to believe that he had not? What did he do at the woman’s house until dawn each night?
Mamadou answered that he stood there, and Mathilde drew him.
One man asked if the woman had touched him.
Mamadou said yes, she had touched his chest once. He had removed her hand.
Another man asked if he had seen the woman naked. He replied that he had. It was hot in the apartment and she wore her panties alone, and a lilac-coloured brassiere. She said that in the summertime, this was how she worked.
We wanted to know whether he had seen the sketches and he said that he had not. He was not interested in seeing his own body painted by a woman.
And did they smoke hash together, we asked him, saying that the scent had drifted down to the street.
They did, Mamadou said. They often did. It was good hash too.
And the painting Mathilde said she wanted to do, we wondered. Who would buy a painting of a naked black man?
He said a friend of hers – he was a homosexual man – had paid for the painting already.
We were intrigued and disgusted by this thought. We too had been approached by these men in the clubs, even in the streets. Their hands would expand on our forearms, they would tell us their addresses and look down between our legs, they would smile into our eyes and we would see they were ridden with filth.

We thought of Mamadou’s young wife in a compound on the outskirts of Dakar, laughing with her sisters, Mamadou’s son lying on a cloth on the tiles, kicking bare feet in sunlight. We were repulsed by Mamadou then, as though he had slept with the man himself.

*

The summer passed and the weeks of autumn were limpid and short. One man said he saw Mathilde lock her apartment and put her dog in a cage in the back of her car. We heard that she drove to the edge of the city and onto the freeway north. We heard that Mathilde drove to Paris. Her family had travelled across from America and she was staying with them.
Over the weeks we saw that Mathilde’s shutters above the street stayed closed and we wondered what would become of Mamadou, now that he was not needed by the young painter. The rains came and left us, and it was now too cold to sit in the park. Some of us met in the piazza outside Santo Spirito. The bones within our shoulders and legs felt like joints of marble, our feet burnt with cold in our shoes.

Mamadou came to us one day when the sun was a glowing oracle and the low clouds a partition between this heavy world and the lightness above. We asked him what he would do now that Mathilde was gone and Mamadou replied that he did not know, but he no longer cared to model for her. He said he would reapply for his courier job after the Christmas holiday. He’d heard that the driver who had taken his place had caused an accident in the city centre, and came to work without Mamadou’s clean smile and zest. Mamadou was certain his employers would reinstate him.

But after the Christmas holiday Mamadou told us his former employers had refused to give him work. His job had been given to a young Italian man with tattooed arms. We watched Mamadou’s misery as the young Italian courier carelessly drove the red van around the piazza. He told us that he would never see his wife and son again.

We rubbed our hands, waiting for the end of this harsh season that left us feeling more brittle and worn than the sum of our misfortunes. One of us saw Mamadou take a man’s thrown-away sandwich from a rubbish bin, sit down on the church steps, and eat it.

*

The man who suffered from sleeplessness reported that he had seen Mamadou enter Mathilde’s apartment and that he was staying there. We had not known that Mamadou had her keys. Those of us who knew her apartment imagined Mamadou slumbering on the wooden platform where her mattress lay, surrounded by her work which now included sketches of himself. We saw him lying there smoking at night. We supposed he had lost the apartment he had struggled so hard to rent. We wished to tell him that the woman would come back and there would be trouble. But Mamadou never showed among us, never answered his phone, never walked in the street. It was as though he had never lived.

On the edge of piazza Santo Spirito we debated whether or not to ring the buzzer of the flat where we knew Mamadou now lodged. There were those of us who said we should go there at night, and throw stones at the shutters. Others said there would be a time when he would descend to buy food, or that we should simply ring the buzzer in the light of day. The man who suffered from sleeplessness said that at night music could be heard, and sometimes lamps were switched on. This man said that one day Mathilde and her ugly dog would come back from Paris and we would see Mamadou in handcuffs in the street.
So we waited through those cold weeks. We called our wives in Dakar and told them life was good, we watched the careless Italian courier circling the piazza in Mamadou’s old van.

*

At the end of winter Mathilde returned. One of us noticed her parking the car down the road from her apartment. She walked past shop owners who called out her name and she waved. The dog nosed the ground behind her. Mathilde wore a red beanie and pulled a suitcase on wheels.

*

Just one day after this we silently watched Mathilde’s ugly boxer dog in the Boboli Gardens, walked by one of her local friends. For us, the dog possessed powers. The dog had seen what happened when Mathilde pushed open her front door that afternoon. It had heard her angry shouting and seen Mamadou taunted (we were certain) and told he had made her apartment stink. It had seen Mathilde stride through to the kitchen where she showered him with cups and cans and forks.

That dog had seen Mamadou brawl with her as she began to laugh, then crack her head against the stone floor.

One of us, standing outside the bar having been told to leave after staying too long, saw Mathilde’s body wheeled into an ambulance. And then Mamadou shoved onto the footpath with his hands tied. The man who told us this had then retreated, saying that he was a black man and there was strife everywhere.




Litro #154:Cuba | Luca’s Trip to Havana

 The shrill insistence of the hotel phone dragged Luca Sasso from a heavy sleep. He reached out and took a slug from last night’s whiskey, which sat crystallising in a glass beside the bed. The phone fell silent.

This was his third visit here on business and each time he took the same suite at the hotel. He stared up at the ceiling, tracing patterns in the pale blue paint that seemed always to smell toxic, no matter how long ago they had put it on. At night a sulphurous smell invaded from a nearby factory, or you kept the windows shut and froze to the rattling of an ancient air-conditioner that circulated viruses and stale air.

His trousers and new Canali shirt lay where he had dropped them the night before, a mess of twisted clothes in the middle of the floor. Here and there were papers; his crocodile-skin briefcase sat open on a chair beside the desk.

The phone began to ring again. Let it ring, he thought, but he found his hand reaching out, and lifted the receiver to his ear.

“Why is your mobile off?” a voice at the other end said loudly, so that he had to hold the receiver slightly away. It was his wife, Ilene. “I’ve been sick with worry. For all I knew, you could have been dead.”

“My dear, I was only sleeping.”

Luca tried to pay attention to what his wife was saying but her voice faded out as the image rose in his mind of a rounded mulatta arse that he had admired the night before as he sat with his Cuban associate Leosbel in the hotel bar.

“Are you listening to me?” said Ilene.

“Of course, cara.” He brought to mind the owner of the arse, a good-looking Cuban woman—with muchas nalgas, as they said here. He had seen her once before—where was it? That daffodil-yellow top… It was the morning he had arrived: she was in the lobby with a group of tourists—a guide or something like that. She had returned Luca’s gaze for just a second too long, then looked away.

“Luca?” Some moments seemed to have passed without the input required of him, but Ilene was still there. “It’s not too much to ask, is it? A call, a message to let us know you’re all right. If you can’t manage it for me … I may be uninteresting to you now, but … the mother of your child … only…” The words were fading in and out. “Your daughter, at least, for her. Think of Paola.”

Ilene was right. He should talk to his daughter, even from here—especially from here. His Paola. She was 17 now and beginning to spark male attention—men, not boys any more. Luca thought of the jewelled crucifix he had bought for her in the hotel’s specialist gem shop. Yes, he would ask her to wear it always, for him, when he got back home.

He scratched around under his pyjama bottoms and reached for his book, which he propped against the bed covers. Anna Karenina—Luca enjoyed investigating the classics. It fell open at just the right page.

Ilene was still talking … lunch with Trudi … Via Condotti … cocktails at the Tea Rooms because they were “so English”. Then she clicked off.

He looked at his watch. Damn. Breakfast closed in half an hour and he hated doing his toilet in a rush.

A small green lizard darted onto the edge of the bed. It paused when it saw him, head cocked, completely still. Luca looked back. He understood that the creature was watching him from the way it turned its head so that both eyes faced his. He lifted one arm and cast a monster shadow over the animal; it darted for cover under the bed.

*

At breakfast, Luca ate from a buffet of mango and pineapple, and picked at a watery omelette. He rustled his paper, sitting behind it as if waiting for someone, to shield his embarrassment at facing the holidaying couples alone.

Ilene’s voice rang in his head. Maybe you’ll behave better without Fabio, it said. Well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. God, even this far away there was no peace … Poor Fabio. But he brought it on himself.

Fabio had been more than just a business partner: he had been a friend. After Fabio’s death on their last trip to Cuba, Luca had thought for a few months that he would have to call the whole venture off. He just hadn’t the heart to carry on. But then he decided that the best tribute to Fabio would be to pick up the baton and keep running.

And now the Cubanacán Group was almost ready to sign a contract with the firm that he and Fabio had built—to manage the hotel. There was big money to be made from tourists who expected the kind of standards that only European contacts and expertise could deliver.

*

He had a whole morning to kill until it was time to meet Leosbel and run through the contract. Of course there was always diving, but he couldn’t face it. Luca hoisted himself into swimming trunks that almost hid his belly, which was getting too soft for his liking, and combed his hair into what he thought was a reasonably distinguished look. Then he pulled on a robe and made his way down to the lobby, where a sliding glass door led to the pool.

He lay back on a sun-lounger and opened Anna Karenina, but the sun was too strong. White light bounced off the pool, bleaching and glazing everything in sight. He could feel beads of sweat on his upper lip and moisture between his thighs. He put the book down.

Sun-soaked Italian girls browned their skinny legs and smoked while dark Latino boyfriends twisted restlessly beside them. The water flickered like an old TV set in the blaze.

Here and there a Cuban had somehow got into the enclosure. The sounds of a little black girl, and her mother in an electric-blue bikini, speaking Cuba’s taut, half-swallowed Spanish, floated up from beside the water. The mother was probably the “sweetheart” of one of the hotel guests. Luca smiled to himself—he knew the drill. Only tourists were allowed to use the pool; all of the hotel facilities, in fact—especially the bedrooms—were out of bounds to Cubans, apart from hotel staff. It was to stop prostitution, but you could bribe in a Cuban sweetheart with a few dollar bills.

“Viejo! What’s going on?” It was José, Luca’s dive coach, calling from the lifeguard’s hut beside the pool.

Luca waved.

“I have something for you,” said José. “Come.”

Luca went over and the two men shook hands. José disappeared into the hut and came out with a livid snapshot of a baby. “Say hello to Yanelis—one more since you were here last time!”

“Bonita.”

“You got your eye on any baby-makers?” José winked.

Luca didn’t say anything. Married men were so open about their infidelities here but it wasn’t the Italian way.

In truth, there was no one worth looking at today. He glanced over at the pool—the pinkish skin of an Englishwoman with cellulite stained the white tiles at the edge of the water. The problem with European women was that they talked endlessly about sex, yet when you took them to bed they were prissy and wanted romance, like some old maiden aunt.

What he liked about Cuban women was that you didn’t have to play games to get them; they could take a compliment without sneering at you as if you’d offered up your soul. He wondered where the daffodil-yellow girl was now—those nalgas! She liked him, he was sure.

A rhythmic splashing came from the pool. There was a girl in there, swimming alone, long strokes up and down in a black costume. She had done a slight dance to avoid him as she walked to the water, and there was something about the way she looked to the side as she passed, a kind of modesty, that had caught his eye. You’d never get that in a Latin girl, he thought. She must be northern—Dutch, maybe, or English.

The girl came out of the water and wrapped herself in one of the hotel’s huge tangerine towels. She seemed to be hunting for something among the deckchairs.

“Can I help?” he called. “What have you lost?”

“Oh, my hat and sunglasses,” she said. “They were here before and now I can’t find them.”

As he got up, she found them underneath a tangle of towels. Her smile was gone and she had moved towards the exit before Luca could even get near. He took his book and sat back down. He thought he caught the girl’s pitying glance as she left through the sliding glass door to the side.

*

It was just after 11pm. Luca was in the balcony bar, looking down at the pool. He pushed a straw around his glass: sangría, red gluey sangría—why on earth he had chosen this he did not know—with lemon and a cherry in it. He surveyed the line of beautiful Cuban girls at the bar. At home these girls would be with young handsome studs, but it wasn’t like that here—you didn’t get the attitude: Yeah, what do you want from me? Here, it was as if they were waiting—waiting just for you.

But it wasn’t the same without Fabio. They would have had fun together, rating the girls, making a game out of who could pull the best. Just a couple more days and he would fly back to Rome, Ilene and the sweaty office at the Piazza di Pavia. He let out a deep sigh.

Then he saw her—the daffodil-yellow girl. She was sitting at a table nearby, yellow top painted onto polished brown skin, her muscles strong and defined. She was smiling, and leaning into the table, which she shared with another Cuban woman and a tourist. Luca could tell that the man was a tourist because the two women spoke slowly, and repeated Spanish phrases over and over. She didn’t want the man, Luca calculated—her manner was more polite than flirtatious—but she seemed to be enjoying herself anyway. Her smile was one of genuine pleasure; she wasn’t sluttish, just deliciously sexy, like a panther.

The bar would be closing soon—how would he play it? You found three types of girl in a Cuban bar: the prostitute, in and out in an hour; the jinetera—she’d stay for a few days, take a little money, give a little love; and the sweetheart, who would never want to leave. This girl looked like the sweetheart type, probably hoping to snag a foreign husband and a better life abroad.

Luca didn’t want a sweetheart, but maybe she could do with a few dollars or some nice new clothes. What Cuban couldn’t? He’d have to play it down, though: the nicer ones didn’t like to feel bought. But they all liked passion—it was in their blood.

*

She got up and walked towards the bar. The barman brushed her shoulder with his fingers and she laughed.

Luca drew himself up from the chair. He smoothed his hair and moved to the other side of a pillar where she was leaning, her arm casually against it, wrist bared to the night. His bulk dwarfed her—not just her height, but her frame, which he now realised was more fragile than it had first appeared.

She didn’t look at him, but Luca could tell that she was interested, in that way women have of letting you know with a sideways glance, as if caught off-guard. He pressed his forearm against her wrist, crushing it into the pillar. She let him, then pulled away.

He thought that he had mistaken her, but then she turned her face up to his. He looked back hard and made his stare say I want you, as he’d seen the Cubans do. For a moment, he believed it was not interest he saw in her eyes, but surprise, or even fear—then he reminded himself that this wasn’t a cock-tease Italian he was dealing with: sex was what they wanted, these Cuban women. They started around 11, like riding a bike, and hopped on and off whenever necessary after that.

Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Luca realised that she was ogling some young black guy across the room—he looked like one of the kitchen staff, playing table tennis in only his vest. Why did they always have such effortlessly rippling torsos, these Cubans, when there was hardly a gym on the block?

Luca threw a ten-dollar bill down next to the half-finished glass of sangría and went back to his room.

*

The following day he went from Vedado to Miramar and back again, talking with stonemasons, painters, electrical suppliers and telecoms engineers, working out how far the firm could deliver on plans for the hotel refurbishment using local trade. By the time evening came, Luca was glad to shower and lie down in his room. He plugged in his mobile and found there were several messages from the office, and two from Ilene, whom he would call later. The heat here was worse than Rome.

He decided to have a quiet night in the balcony bar. She wasn’t there and he couldn’t work out if he was glad.

The next night he went to a salsa club with Leosbel and some Cubans from the hotel management group.

The night after that he was back in the balcony bar.

She was there with a glass in her hand. She wasn’t alone, though—she was talking to the head porter, Alexei. When Alexei saw Luca, a flash of irritation crossed his face, but Luca couldn’t work out why. Alexei had a wife, who was beautiful, and a kid. He couldn’t be jealous. They sat with him sometimes in the bar during the day.

Luca picked a table and pretended to read the menu; he studied her from behind it.

She saw him and said something to Alexei, who glanced over at Luca and shook his head, then she came and perched on the chair next to his.

“You are alone?” she said.

“No—yes—”

“—here on business.”

Luca nodded.

She touched the cuff of his Canali shirt. “This is the Italian style?”

“This? Yes.” He was glad he’d had it laundered.

“Alexei told me you are from Rome. But I guessed it anyway—because you are so elegante.”

Luca lowered his voice. “Why was he looking at me like that? Is he jealous?”

“He sees many extranjeros here, dipping in and out of our hearts—”

“—but you Cubans are all heart.”

“For someone decente, sí—una relación decente. But… the foreign men, you know, sometimes they take our hearts too soon.”

He wondered if he was the first visitor she’d got caught up with. She didn’t seem the jinetera type.

He found that her name was Ella and she had worked in the hotel for two months. This was her first job after leaving university, where she had studied maths.

“What do you think about Cuba?” she said.

“I like it. Especially the pretty girls.”

“But Italian girls they are beautiful! Like the Vogue magazine.”

“Yes, but”—he reached forward and touched her knee—“they’re not caliente like the Cuban ladies.”

She stayed completely still, neither moving from his touch nor responding to it. “It is true—we are muy intenso. But we are women too. I think not so different? We need also to be loved.” She smoothed a curl at his temple with her fingers, so delicately it was almost not a come-on.

“Your skin is like silk,” he said.

Alexei was eyeing them—he and a bunch of hip young Cubans by the bar.

“They are just boys,” she said, following Luca’s gaze, “with nothing to do. In your country success takes time, because you have where to go in your life. It takes time to grow into something that is strong—like a big rooted tree.”

He found that he could not look at her. You’re worrying again, he heard Fabio’s voice say. Why don’t you have some fun? What harm can it do?

“Here, everything is por interés,” she said. “One day you meet, the next day you are married, and the next one divorced.”

“I’d marry you in a heartbeat.” He enclosed her hand with his. “Sei bellissima.”

She pulled her hand away. “Not here.”

“Why not?” He knew why, but said it anyway.

“We are not supposed to—hotel workers with the guests.”

“But I can’t help myself. You make me want you.” For some reason he thought of his first girlfriend, Alba. He leaned in. “My little Alba.”

“What are you saying?”

“She is the heroine of a very famous story—in fact, the novel I’m reading—a beautiful woman like you, who wanted to be free.”

He did not think of looking away. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
“I can’t, not tonight. My little brother is alone.”

“Call him.” Luca held out his mobile.

“We do not have a telephone in the house—but tomorrow also I am here.”

“Tomorrow I leave for Rome.”

She sighed and touched something at her neck. “Qué pena!” When she moved her hand away, Luca saw that it was a crucifix.

“Till next time, then.” He stood. She seemed to be waiting for something. She held her face up and Luca remembered—the polite way to say goodbye to a woman here was with a peck on the cheek. He turned without kissing her and walked to the door.

*

He made his way down the spiral staircase from the balcony bar and along the path beside the pool. The path led to the hotel lobby, then back to his room. He paused at the lifeguard’s hut and leaned into the open doorway, watching the city and the hustlers at street level below. So that one had got away. Resistance wouldn’t have put Fabio off—he’d just have gone in harder for the kill.

Then he saw her. She was coming along the path, treading carefully on the dark night cobbles. She looked out over the water, and the moon caught her eyes and the tops of her gold sandals.

“Hey,” he said, almost too quietly, from the shadows.

She turned, searching the dark, and before the moon silhouetted her out completely, the half-light held her vivid, open face.

“Come here a minute,” he said.

She hesitated. “What do you want?”

“Nothing—just to talk.”

The tops of her arms had goose bumps, and wind from the sea flapped at the bottom of her damson skirt. He held out his hand. She looked around, as if to check whether anyone was watching, and walked towards the doorway of the hut.

*

As soon as their fingers touched, Luca pulled. They triangled over the threshold. He pivoted her round until her back was against the wall and pushed, a hand on her shoulder, up against the concrete. He put his lips on hers; their teeth clashed and he corkscrewed his tongue down her throat.

She pressed him away. Her black eyes were feral.

No,” she said. “I want to know you first.”

He released her.

“Listen,” he said. “We don’t have to do anything, we can just talk.” Like this it was even more exciting than other nights, with other girls, in the room—but he would have to slow it down. “Don’t spoil your face by frowning. Come on—amore.” He thought he saw a flicker in her eyes, just the beginning of a smile—Alba again. “You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve stayed here, and it won’t be the last. I want to get to know you.”

“Not the last?”

“Yes. We’re taking over the hotel contract, so I’ll be back.”

She let her shoulders drop.

“You see? No need to worry.” Luca caught her wrist. He tried to kiss her again but she twisted her face away. He fixed his arms around her—he could feel how taut her muscles were. These mulattas were like oxen, bred for work.

“Kiss me,” he said.

“No! Déjame.” She tried to pull away. “No lo quiero así!”

“Shhhh.” He put a hand over her mouth. “I know you want me. There’s no more time.”

A footstep came from the path.

She squealed.

Quiet,” he said. “They’ll hear you.”

He kneed her legs apart but she forced them back. Puttana. What did she want? He put both hands on her hips and pressed so that she scissored backwards against a cupboard. The shiny fabric of her skirt rode up beneath his hands, damp in the heat, and her knees buckled. She was making small noises—mewling whines—lust, at last. Funny how their enjoyment often sounded like pain. He pinned her against the cupboard and—she seemed to be getting into it—felt her tongue move against his as he tore through flimsy nylon and lace.

Naked she was no longer tempting, just a mountain of flesh to be screwed. He spread her on the floor beneath him. A bolt of moonlight cut her neck; he caught a glint of something—the crucifix. He pulled it round to her back, closed his eyes and pushed inside hard. She juddered in time, quiet now. Her face was turned to the side but it was better that way; Ilene’s close-up crazy knowing had got to freaking him out. Luca strained his neck, his grunts and eyes far beyond her frozen stare until he came—Alba, Alba in the dark beyond his sight.

Seconds in the stillness then Alba was gone. There was no Alba, just a dead dog beneath him. He shrank into a ball and pressed his sight black with a fist.

There was nothing but the sound of the street.

She put a hand on his arm. It lay there like a dead thing.

“Look at me,” she said.

He placed her hand on the floor.

“Why won’t you look at me?”

He closed his eyes.

“Do you have a wife?”

They never gave you a break. Not Alba, not Ilene—not even this mulatta here. He pushed at her hip. “You like it from the other side?”

She shook him off.

“What? What’s the matter?”

She stood up. “You are a coward … sin vergüenza.” He just lay there. Her voice came from somewhere above him: “You have a black hole for a heart.”

*

Luca slept a restless sleep. The telephone was silent. He woke halfway through the night and saw the lizard, illuminated by a shaft of light from the moon. It ran onto the sideboard, pausing when it saw him, head cocked, completely still. He could have crushed the beast with his fist. It turned its head so that both eyes pointed towards his; he slammed his arm into the air and it darted beneath the bed.

In the morning Luca dressed and ate and turned his thoughts to work. Over coffee he prepared a report of the previous day’s meeting with Cubanacán, talking carefully into his Dictaphone so that Stefania could type it up at the office. He went through the proposals agreed, matching each one to plans made with the partners in Rome, costing out the price differences and justifying extra expense where he thought it necessary to secure the hotel bid.

The plane was due to leave at five. He packed his case, then stood at the window and thought of Fabio—Fabio, who had gone on a night dive without ropes and lost his way in a set of labyrinthine caves beneath the Cuban sea. They had found him with his arms folded across his chest as if he had not fought death—maybe even welcomed it.

*

He saw her as he checked out of the hotel. She was standing in the lobby at the head of a group of new arrivals next to a sign that said: Tours to Habana Vieja Here.

“Hi!” he said. “How are you?”

She fixed him with blank eyes. “Señor?”

Taken from ‘Breathe: Stories from Cuba’ by Leila Segal, copyright © 2016. Reprinted by permission of the author and flipped eye publishing.




Litro #154: Cuba | Someone’s Stolen the Cockatiels

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Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn

To Susana A. Borges,
to her family.

I’d known from the start that it was going to end well and badly at the same time, because there was something about her that reminded me of my mother, though the weird thing is they hardly look alike at all, but that’s something I’m not going to try to explain. Not any more. The whole thing took just a few seconds, while I made my entrance and settled in the armchair. At first there were people coming in and out, there were the children, too, her children, or rather, the boy and the young woman, as the girl’s already big now and she has these caramel-coloured honey eyes that anybody with any taste would gobble up in a single bite. The boy was at just that moment coming back from a swim and, like a little automaton, he went straight over to the TV set and got hold of the wireless remote control, one of those bloody modern technology things that reminds you so rudely that time has already passed. One of the daughter’s friends, a chubby girl with a friendly face, sat down beside the boy and picked up the other control.

Robertico,” she said to him, “pause it and say hello to her.”

The boy gave me a kiss practically without looking at me, as focused as he was, and returned to his game. On the table there was an open packet of sweets and I took one. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I put it in my mouth with some desperation, I started to fold up the wrapper, to scrumple it up, I made an accordion, then a little boat, a ball. I got so caught up in the noise of the wrapper that I almost lost track of where I was. Maybe it’s that I still feel a bit reserved when it comes to the children of psychiatrists. I don’t know. The telephone rang and I, instinctively, took advantage of the distraction to look at her, see how she reacted, what she said with her body and the inflection of her voice. I tried to imagine what they were saying on the other end. She paused briefly to tell the girl to deal with me. To look after me.

“You want water or something?” said the girl, breezy as anything.

“No, I’m good,” I answered, trying to seem as natural as possible. But I didn’t lean back onto the backrest, oh no, I kept sitting on the edge of the armchair, ready to run out if necessary.

It was one of those houses where people wander in and out as they please. There were clothes on the sofa, a flip-flop in one corner of the living room. The least of it was that each of the people was getting on with their own life. That was the least of it. You didn’t need to be too bright to realise that the people there were happy, for fuck’s sake, and that made me nervous. They were too white. Too healthy. They moved about with that privileged kind of freedom of people who know something and aren’t telling.

“No, no tea, thanks, I’m a coffee drinker,” I answered the daughter’s chubby friend.

The game was idiotic. A few little characters that turn happy or sad, or laugh like crazy and who have to get the hanging balloons with enough points to pass through the level and progress to the next. Idiocies of the modern world. One of those.

“Yesterday someone stole the cage with the cockatiels,” she told me when she had hung up the phone. “Today we’re in family mourning.”

The daughter’s friend went off to the kitchen and I was glad to hear that she’d put the coffee pot to strain as I hadn’t had any coffee the whole damn day. But I didn’t sit back in my chair in the dining room, where we’d moved in order to work more comfortably, no, I wanted to look straight at her while she read. Her voice became hoarse and I passed her my little flask of water to refresh her throat, but no, she didn’t need it, that’s just what her voice was like, like the voice of an adolescent who’s just woken up. I never returned to that house but days later, going back over that moment, I came to the conclusion that what she wrote couldn’t be understood in any other voice than hers, hoarse, out of tune, a hangover voice. And even though I didn’t pay much attention to that reading, the thing was, I swear it, there was something that so reminded me of my mother. I heard the daughter who was talking on the phone and telling someone about the birds. Such a nuisance. I don’t like caged birds, I was about to say, but it seemed impolite to interrupt her reading. After all, God only knows what kind of luck the creatures had had. Probably they were eaten, or they were chucked out to sell the cage, or they were sold with the cage and everything.

“I like my coffee with a lot of sugar,” she said when she had finished reading the first story, raising the steaming cup that her caramel-eyed daughter had placed in front of her. “If I’m honest, I really like sweet things.”

I looked away. I no longer had the candy wrapper to scrumple up because the daughter had already taken it to the trash when she brought us the coffee. Now the daughter’s friend went back to playing with the boy at the game with the happy little animals.

“I don’t understand this game,” I heard the daughter’s friend say, and the boy teased her.

“I’m going to beat you,” the kid said to her, then he smiled and I saw a small mole in the middle of his chubby cheek, lovely like his mother’s.

The telephone rang again. At this rate we weren’t going to get anywhere, I thought. She was probably talking to some friend or colleague and the tenderness of her manner seemed to confirm my suspicion. She said she was busy, that she’d call back later, and that someone had stolen the cockatiels. She paused to allow the other woman to express her shock at the news. The animals were evidently much loved in this household. She knew I was watching her, there was no way she could have not known. A short time earlier, while we were leaning over the printed sheet of paper, our hands had brushed against each other and I noticed she had short nails, which were wide and set deep in the flesh, with gnarled fingers and you can always tell, without fail, that’s something that indicates a great sexual appetite, according to Nathaniel Altman in his palmistry guide.

“You’re an inveterate romantic,” I said to her. “It’s clear from your stories.”

She smiled, so lovely. I went on talking to her about the dangers of excessive adjective use, of platitudes and set phrases, of the fake sentimentalism, which didn’t apply to her, but she looked at me and something in her eyes changed. It wasn’t a reproach exactly, rather that she bowed her head just a little, in a movement where she tilted her neck forward as though wanting to put her head into the hollow of my thoughts. Her eyes turned blacker still, round, with a depth that was bordering on madness. I tried to focus on the mole on her cheek, so beautiful, but her eyes did not relent, they looked like a feline waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on the bird, that brief second when the defenceless little creature would have no escape.

“Do you want some guava juice?” said the voice that providence had commanded to speak for the benefit of the unfortunate little animal. It was her mother, a woman with very short, completely white hair, with prominent lips and a happy expression on her face. “Fuck,” I shouted to myself, “is it possible that everyone here is happy or what the hell’s wrong with them?”

I nodded, relieved. I drank the juice as if I were putting on an anti-radiation suit, getting into the Batmobile or giving my hand to the hand of a lifeguard from the Titanic. The outside of the glass was grubby and I sucked slowly on my fingers and talked to her about the difference between writing a diary that you expect nobody else to read and writing a story which is, in that sense, the exact opposite. I also told her she ought to make the most of it, to write one thing as though she were writing the other. She was now listening to me with the utmost attention and making notes on the back of the sheet of paper with that doctor’s handwriting that’s impossible to understand.

“I’m going home,” said the daughter’s friend with her bristly hair gathered into a charming little bun. “I’ll be back later to give Robertico his bath.”

“With hot water?” asked the boy, never stopping his game.

“With hot water,” replied the chubby girl, with that emphasis typical of someone who’s just such a good person that the time comes when they start doing favours without even being asked.

The daughter said goodbye to her friend, came over to us and, her hands on her hips, said that she still hadn’t managed to get hold of Jacques le fataliste et son maître, which her hermeneutics professor had advised her to read in French but you could only get this novel of Diderot’s in Spanish, and that what with her French, and university, and to top it all now without those cockatiel things she really was going to go mad. Something I missed in her speech made her little caramel eyes open up wide and the happiest smile I’d ever seen in my life, I mean, there had to have been something funny because she exploded into an uncommon happiness that caused her to laugh compulsively. Then her mother laughed. Then her grandmother, who had just sat down in the living room armchair and had lit a cigar stub. Then, to my own surprise, I laughed myself. I laughed without knowing what the fuck I was laughing at, I roared with laughter and when I was invaded by that neutral kind of calm of feeling completely at home I knew that everything was already lost. I laughed till the girl closed her bedroom door behind her and it was as though an orchestra conductor had said right we’ll go to the coda now and I was the only idiot who hadn’t heard him.
Fortunately she overlooked the incident. She began to read another text, much more poetic than the previous one and dedicated to her inseparable lifelong companion, the sofa in her house.

“Mum!” yelled Robertico, “bring me some water!”

“Roberto Manuel, mum’s busy, you’re just going to have to get up and fetch it yourself,” she said, pausing in her reading but never losing patience, not getting annoyed, or shouting, or any of those things normal mothers do.

At that moment someone appeared at the door. She got up and went to talk to the person who had arrived. I’m guessing she dispatched them politely on the grounds that we were working, because I took advantage of the moment to try to understand her hysterical scribblings, but they proved undecipherable. I couldn’t have said whether they were notes on her texts, on my humble bits of advice or wishing so much that they were notes about me. When at last I gave up I heard her say:

“They were stolen last night. It’s a sign that we need to put a padlock on the garden railings.”

She walked over, apparently smiling with her whole happy forty-something’s body. Her skirt swayed this way and that. When she sat down she folded one leg under the other, as though she were a little girl, and apologised for so many interruptions.

“Mum!”, yelled Robertico, “bring me some water!”

“Robertico, I’ve already told you mum’s busy. What’s wrong with your own little feet? Go fetch it all by yourself, love.”
It was so very sweet. It was. I told her readers are serious things, that it doesn’t do to underestimate their intelligence, there’s no need to explain everything but nor should you reveal these surprises at the end, I mean come on, the sofa in the house? Are you sure that’s what you want to write about? Seriously, if it’s just something to get a laugh out of your friends that’s one thing, but a story is something else, doctor. And yet I thought this time I’ve gone too far, because she focused all the blackness of her round eyes on me once again, as though she were discovering one of those voices I often have in my head and which tell me which way to take a story and which way not to. If she had been a guard dog surprising me in the doctor’s garden stealing the cockatiels I wouldn’t have been more startled by that look of hers. It wasn’t attentiveness so much as a predatory ambush, who do you think you’re fooling with that story? I’m sure that’s what the eyes of an omniscient, all-powerful narrator would look like.

“Mum!” yells Robertico sweetly, such a cute boy, “bring me water!”

“I’ve already said to fetch it yourself.”

She continued—without looking at me now—with those annotations that were unintelligible to me. She wrote a lot. Each second passed like the dry blow of a mortar and I didn’t know which was worse, her gaze or her silence. I even thought that maybe she was writing a story. Perhaps one in which I was the patient, one of those schizophrenics who needs to be interned as soon as possible to prevent their committing some injury against themselves or against humanity. Her hand moved with the certainty of someone who has signed a lot of admission papers.

“Robertico,” she said with her voice that is hoarse but filled with a sweetness so cloying that it made me shiver, “what happened to the water? Weren’t you thirsty? I didn’t see you go to the kitchen.”

“I’m going, mum,” replied Robertico.

She yawned, went on rifling through her papers then set to reading another story. I looked away but what didn’t come in through my eyes came in through my ears instead, because she was whispering, she wasn’t reading out loud, she was whispering the story into my ear on a cloudy evening, the two of us in the half-light of the room and in an instant the fact that she reminded me of my mother no longer bothered me so much, it was as though my aberration had found a happy place to settle in the plot, not a solution to the conflict, I’d say rather another possible reading, a reading that made my very spine straighten up like anything.

“Well?” she took me by surprise.

I told her she had a gift for poetry. I was delighted at there being two female characters. Delighted. She rested the biro on the corner of her mouth, demonstrating that she was weighing up my words, and that made me feel proud. I had the sensation that even the old woman was listening to me between each suck on her cigar stub and the next. Robertico had paused the game with the happy little animals and he had gone to the kitchen to have some water. The only sound to be heard in the whole house was my voice. Nothing could compete with me except for the cockatiels, but they were no longer there, and so I treated myself to telling her there was nothing wrong with being a bit daring and telling things about some matters of the body, that sometimes you need to tell things as though no one was watching, as though one had allowed oneself to be hypnotised and there was no option but to tell it all.

“Have you ever done that?” I asked her.

She shrugged and that meant of course, but that’s something you can’t do without the other person’s consent, I mean, the other person has to give in to it. I knew this already but I wanted to hear it all the same. At that moment the boy approached the table. Final exams, he said. And my mother leaned over my notebook, so that our faces came so close that when I looked towards her I brushed lightly past her lips. This time she did not move away from me with an expression of horror fixed to her face, instead she smiled sweetly, just as she had done before.

“How lovely!” exclaimed the boy looking at us, and even he seemed surprised at his words, because he tipped his little head to one side, blushing.

I did not say anything, but she did.

She said:

“Thank you… my love.”

And she opened her arms to him. When their faces approached they accidentally stumbled and they exchanged that clumsy little kiss on their lips. Both of them laughed, still hugging. Then the old woman laughed. Then the girl, who had put her head around the door to hear what that noise was. Then I laughed, too, or perhaps I didn’t, I’ll never know if that was laughter, I mean, it seemed as though I was crying at the same time.




Litro #154: Cuba | Losing Twice

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Translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster

I hate losing. And losing twice makes me madder still. So I should have known as soon as I saw you, but no, the rum went right to my head, because you’d come alone, so I left Enrique in mid-sentence and made a beeline for you, almost crashing into you in my eagerness to get started with the blah-blah of “Wow, it’s been so long” and “Man, where have you been hiding?” and planting an innocent kiss close enough to your mouth but far enough away too. It’s funny, because I can hear it now—what I said, I mean, because I don’t even know what you answered, I just know that it only took one second for me get all ga-ga again, so while you were talking all I did was pay attention to your lips, your teeth, and I’d already decided that I was spending the night with you, why not, I’d been holding onto that desire since college, when you dropped me for Gabriela. We were only together three or four times, but you left your imprint and I never could get rid of it. Every time I saw you go by with Gaby at your side, I could feel something eating away at me. You didn’t tell her you wanted to avoid commitments, you didn’t have time for a serious relationship, the way you told me. Not her, no, instead you bought her a ring and even presented it on Valentine’s Day, like how trite could you be? I wasn’t about to slit my wrists—why should I? —but it did hurt, it was like a knife in my heart to see you sitting on a bench with her or to cross paths in the dining hall. And Gaby never took you out, never paid for anything, while I even paid for you to get drunk in El Rancho, and I’m not sorry, because it was one of the best nights, though in the end I practically had to carry you back to the dorm, and shush you when you tried to should insults at the boys in the reform school, and then when we got to the dorm you started putting the moves on me again and if I didn’t go along it was only because you were drunk and it’s no fun that way. That’s why, today, I was very careful not to drink too much and to keep you from drinking either. I monopolized you, I didn’t care who saw it, all that mattered was not to let the opportunity slip. When you told me Gaby was out of town, bells went off in my head. I spent a while considering how to arrange the thing, because a hotel room on Saturday night, no way, and then when you told me you’d been given an apartment, that was too good to be true. Your place was at the far end of the housing project, but still, an apartment plus Gaby being away, problem solved. Right away I could tell it wouldn’t be hard to convince you, because you were as ready as I was, and I have to admit I was moved by that.

The first bucket of cold water came on our way up the stairs, when the noise from the second floor made you nervous, but okay, that was normal, after all this was the home you share with Gaby, where everybody knows you, and so of course this made me think about her again. Then there was the photo on the coffee table, one of those poses I hate, in full bridal gear, as if to announce “I’m married!” to all who enter there. And in this case it was saying that to me, which was still worse. Then you got out the bottle and I thought, okay, we’re going to have our own private celebration, but you were in so much of a hurry. Not that I wasn’t eager myself, but I wanted to enjoy it, I needed it to be the best night of my life, better than the ones I spent with Tony in Varadero, and I even said it was too bad the bathrooms in those project apartments were so small and uncomfortable, and you were shocked by that idea, so that was the third bucket right there. Still, when you pulled me toward the bedroom I didn’t yet know that everything had gone belly up. It was when I saw myself in the mirror on the dressing table, alongside the glass bottles of colored water, the orange plastic powder case — the same one she had in the dorm — and the little curtains ever-so-cute, that I knew, even before you folded back the bedspread, how the pillowcases were going to say Hers and His, and the sheet would be embroidered with your monogram. That’s why I started to laugh, because the anger was rising up to choke me, and then, yes, when you put your arms around me and said “quiet, love, these walls are paper-thin,” I told you to go to hell at the top of my lungs. You still had the guts to follow me and ask what was going on, peppering your speech with swear words to impress me, as if Tony hadn’t had the best repertory of curses that any woman could hope to hear, but I knew how to hit you where it hurt, so I got loose, and you weren’t macho enough to kick me down the stairs the way you threatened. I went down upright under my own steam and walked away as stiffly as I could until I was out of sight of the building, and then the anger was too much for me, I burst out crying, and I even wanted to run into some degenerate who was going to rape me, but no, by luck what came by was the late-night bus, which picked me up even though I wasn’t at the stop. The driver asked me was anything wrong, and the anger answered him, because I wouldn’t normally say out loud that I don’t like being taken for a whore. The old man—because he was an old man—looked shocked and said of course not, and then did his best to ignore me, the poor guy, he probably thought I was nuts, but that’s because he doesn’t know how much I hate to lose. And losing twice makes me madder still.




Litro #154: Cuba | Ravings

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Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn

There’s a place, mother, in the world
that is called Paris
César Vallejo

Each time he scratched his head he asked again whether there was anything to eat. “Idiot,” I thought, looking at him out the corner of my eye, and I went on with my accounts. Eating: baguette, 4.20 F; paté, 7.90 F; beer, 8 F; total: 20.10 francs. With 20 francs and 10 centimes we’d be able to eat. I needed to do the accounts while he just muttered between his teeth. He did it to annoy me, I know that, so I just gripped the pencil stub and went on counting.

“There isn’t another blanket around, is there? This cold’s seeping into my bones, and so hungry like I am, I can’t take it.”

He keeps talking rubbish like this. We ought to count ourselves lucky we still have even these old coats. A coat, 200 F; though you can find them for 100 F at a street market. Total: 120 francs and 10 centimes. The last blanket I managed to get my hands on cost me a bruise on my left eye. We were already living alone by then and I was the one who had to take care of these things. Before then, the girl used to deal with everything, and she never let me help with the accounts. Just as well I taught myself. That day there were four of us rummaging in the same garbage can, and I came across the blanket, but one of them wanted to snatch it from me and the whole row kicked off. The other two took advantage of it to join in the quarrel. When the guy hit me in the face, I fell, but with one hand I managed to reach a bit of broken toilet and I threw it at him. Blood started coming out and the others got scared. I took the blanket back and ran off. The bruise lasted weeks and now this guy starts with his whole There isn’t another blanket around, is there, because I’m cold, well I’m cold too, idiot, we’re all cold here. Winter is tough and with an empty stomach things are harder to bear. I should do a count: how many winters have we been here? I don’t know, a whole life. (Make a note of this as an outstanding account.)

“One day I’ll go up to the top floor of the tower and I’ll build myself an apartment there, the city must be a beautiful thing seen from up there, and not feeling cold, that’d be even better.”

The tower, 57 francs to get up to the top level. Total: 177 francs and 10 centimes. Who ever told him they’d let him live up there? He’s a moron who does nothing but dream, that’s what the girl said before she left, but nobody can live on dreams, that’s why we haven’t got anything. The tower’s for the tourists who come to take photos of the city and the people. We can go up, too, but it doesn’t interest me at all, but what I do like is when they take my photo. I smile and try to put a nice face on for them, unlike him who covers his face and starts insulting them as though these tourists were to blame for the life we lead. One time he got so angry that he snatched some poor girl’s camera off her. The boy was no longer living with us then and we had nothing from the girl but the postcards. He threw the camera on the floor and started jumping up and down on top of it. She tried to apologise in a language I don’t know and ended up taking out a banknote to give us. He yelled hysterically and turned his back on her. I looked down, gathered up the pieces of the camera, in pieces now, and looked at her. I remember the girl. She was pretty, and all she wanted was some souvenir of our city, which everyone likes so much. She watched me smiling as she walked away. With the banknote I bought 2 pains au chocolat, 3.90 F each, a litre of milk, 6.10 F and a cheap cologne, 15.10 F. Total: 29 francs. For a grand total: 206 francs and 10 centimes. The following day we breakfasted like kings and he didn’t dare ask where the money had come from. Of course, he’s only the dreamer, I’m the one who has to keep track of the accounts.

“When the cold lets up a bit, I want to go see the little boat, I’m homesick for the water.”

I throw him a dirty look and he shrinks under his blanket. Homesick for the water, who else could have come up with something like that? He has dozens of paintings of the little boat, when it started operating he used to like going to the river, which looks like a sea, where the little boat goes. It tours all round the city and the tourists show themselves on deck with their flashbulbs and their cool drinks. Bateaux Mouches, 40 francs. Total: 246 francs and 10 centimes. He fell in love with it the moment he saw it. The boy and I had to go with him. He would paint them from the wall while the boy got bored and threw pebbles in the water. One day he wanted to visit it and then we had a problem. Who’d ever imagine that people like us… You only had to look at our faces to know we didn’t have 40 francs. I grabbed his arm for us to leave, but he started insulting everyone, like he always does, and while that man was trying to explain it to him he ran out onto the boat. There was chaos. Everyone was running and he was like a fly always slipping through their fingers, running and jumping over the benches, laughing like a lunatic, and me standing there dying of shame, until they caught him. I thought we’d be sent to the dungeons, but they let us go free. I spent a week not talking to him then, I counted up all the benches that had been left standing and the ones that were knocked over. The boy helped me with the accounts after he had got back from selling the pictures of the little boat. It was a difficult calculation, the whole thing done from memory, a very hard job. Now whenever he wants to annoy me, he recalls that episode.

“Oof, I can’t even move my legs in this cold! I’d be glad to go to the Grand Avenue like we used to, but now it’s all so expensive, it’s all so expensive…”

He turns around curled up in his blanket and manages to shove me with his stocky old backside. It was different before, I was different and so was the city. We used to go up to the Grand Avenue, as he says, the most important one in the city, and we’d walk it top to bottom. But the Champs Elysées is only for tourists now, or kids asking for money, or whores in disguise, and everything so expensive. A coffee, 15 francs. Total: 261 francs and 10 centimes. Last time we were over there, he waited for me sitting on the little wall outside the cinema. We were already living alone by then and I’d wait for the tourists to ask for money. At one point a policeman came up to me and started insulting me, didn’t I think a woman like me was too old to be doing this, and wasn’t I ashamed? I said what I was ashamed of was not having a pair of gloves to protect me from the cold. Then the guy started laughing saying I was crazy, to go home, it wasn’t the time to be wandering around there on my own. Except I wasn’t alone and he got up from the little wall and gave the policeman a big shove from behind. The policeman fell over and I started laughing seeing the way he kicked him to defend me, a girl came over and spat on the one who was on the ground, then another really camp one came over and farted at him. Then some other policemen came. That was the last night we went out to the Grand Avenue. They held us for several hours before letting us go. I don’t want to go back there, I don’t want to.

“God! I can’t get to sleep and you’re making me all nervous now buried with your accounts in that notebook of yours. We’re out of cigarettes, right? If only we had one left, just one to calm my nerves!”

Cretin. The girl didn’t like it when I counted things either, but now if I don’t do it, who’s going to, huh? Who’s going to do it? Cigarettes: 19.60 francs. Total: 280 francs and 70 centimes. Cigarettes were how the boy started, I know that, but it was other people’s cigarettes and then he went on and on and we never noticed. One time his friends brought him back, they said they’d found him under the bridge, his body practically half in the river. His eyes were red and his face all stupefied. I lay him down and he just repeated over and over “I want to go to the Louvre, I want to go to the Louvre”. But the Louvre… 45 francs. Total: 325 francs and 70 centimes. We can’t do it, kiddo. I tried to understand him, but he was a very strange kid and then the other one with all his crazy dreams, grunting and cursing he said culture was universal and that he would take the boy to see the museum. They went the next morning. In the afternoon he came back alone and sat down on the ground without speaking to me. The boy was back at midnight, totally drunk, and that was when he started cursing at us. He said we were just crazies who spent our lives filling his head with things that were beyond his grasp. He wanted to be like his sister and since he wasn’t a kid any more he had decided to leave us. And he left us. Just like the girl so long before. He left us.

“What time is it? Can you tell you how many fucking hours there are still left till morning?”

How many hours? I don’t know, my watch is six hours fast, that’s what the girl says. How many hours left till morning? (Make a note of this as an outstanding account.) How many hours have passed since the boy left home? I don’t know, sometimes the accounts do go a bit wrong. The girl’s years of absence can be counted in postcards, one a month, one year equals twelve months, so that adds up to 72 postcards (this goes in a separate account.) With the boy the account remains outstanding. I remember that when they called me I had to get the bus, 8 francs, total: 333 francs and 70 centimes. No, we paid for two tickets, so 16 francs, total: 341 francs and 70 centimes. I’m sure this one doesn’t remember a thing, now he’s lying with his back against the wall and he’s humming La Marseillaise, real quiet, as usual, to annoy me. But I do remember. The boy was found on a bank of the river. They say he was very drugged up and drunk. When I saw him he was so skinny I wanted to take him to eat things he liked: a nice fish 82 francs, a glass of wine 12 francs and one of those little sweets at 8.40 francs, total: 102 francs and 40 centimes. For a grand total: 444 francs and 10 centimes.

“You think it’s really so cold up the top of the tower? ‘cos if that’s what it’s like I don’t want to live up there.”

Idiot, cretin, this man can only say the stupidest things. It’s him and his dreams that have brought us to ruin. Another 57 francs to go up the tower, total: 501 francs and 10 centimes. Going up and persuading him you can’t live there, you can’t get there, it’s too high up, it’s too far away, but he has no sense of boundaries. The last thing the boy said was “I want to see Paris from the Eiffel Tower,” and he replied quite madly yes, we’ll go up together, and we’d get a photo of the four of us. Then the boy smiled and I knew we were never going to get anywhere. The doctor said it was a suicide, but I didn’t believe him. He simply went, he took the metro 8 francs, total: 509 francs and 10 centimes, and he went someplace else. I just stayed doing the accounts, while this one went on rambling the whole time, talking about his unattainable dreams. When the girl came back, she caught us by surprise. She announced that she’d only come for a short holiday, but she didn’t want to tell us anything about her trip, nor about the places she’d been. She said life was difficult in any city. She cried when she learned her brother had taken the metro, because the metro in Paris is so big that anybody might get lost. The girl did a lot of crying in the first few days and I counted the tears (separate account). Now she’s about to leave again and it makes me happy because the postcards will start arriving again and then I’ll have accounts, many accounts to do and I’ll keep myself busy the whole time.

“Oh! It’s starting to get light already, a nice cup of coffee and the cold will start to let up.”

A coffee 6 francs if you have it standing up, it’s cheaper like that, two coffees 12 francs, total: 521 francs and 10 centimes. He’s got 10 centimes in his pocket, I know he keeps them like an amulet, so now we’re just 521 francs short and then we’re all set. If it weren’t for me doing the accounts I don’t know what would become of us because this one’s scratching his head again and asking if we don’t have anything to eat? Oh!—and then the door opens and there’s the girl holding the coffee.

“What on earth is all this?” The woman stops and looks at her parents huddled on the floor, surrounded by postcards. You didn’t sleep again today? Mamá, please, papá, it’s 35 degrees out there and here you two are bundled up in those rags like you were freezing to death, that’s enough, please, I’m sick of you, in a week’s time I’m going back to Paris and I don’t intend to send you any more postcards, or come back on holiday, I’ve never been able to bear this city or the two of you, so forget about me and open that window as it’s morning already and it’s hot as hell.”

The sun comes into the room and they cover their eyes with their hands. Just beyond her, the outline of the tower of Revolution Square in Havana.




Litro #154: Cuba | HAVANA / HEMICRANIA

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Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel

The light was killing me. The light and a dream that was the same dream every night. A sort of labyrinth, where we ran like mad through the streets of the neighborhood, blind beneath a murderous sun, shouting pinga and cojones, shouting libertad, shouting viva and Down with the Cuban Revolution! while police bullets shattered the skulls of my friends and girlfriends. Reality cutting to the bone.

But I always saved myself. And it is so terrible to remain alive all alone. Outliving is outdying.

I woke full of sadness. With tears, without breath. Unable to even swallow. With a heavy weight breaking my ribs on the side where the heart lies.

That’s all that I have left now of Havana. Light that kills, blindingly. Light and a meaningless dream. Light and lousy words, shitty words. Evil deaths, passed through the dreamlike blender of savagery. Intermittent shouting, neighborhood vulgarity. And a Cuban rage that (one can’t be certain) is either a consequence or a cause of the Revolution.

In any event, a residual rage. Like the echo of a big-bang which now no longer scandalizes anyone.

I woke with my head wanting to crack from the pain, to split in two from the pain. My brains sliding out of my ears on their own. Through osmosis or gravity, or through some quantum effect of the proletariat.

And I leapt from my bed to open the nineteenth-century windows of my apartment. To open a breach. And then the oppression became sea, became clouds, became parades of planes. I saw the smoke from the chimneys, and I saw another year acting brutally toward Cuba. Two thousand something, two thousand nothing. Counting the minutes, can’t-ing the minutes. The silence of suicides. Hemicrania, a migraine of half the skull. Desperation.

Only later, after a while, did peace return at last. A damned exile at home once again. Wearing my own pajamas against social despotism. A floozy who doesn’t belong to anyone or any place, but who can’t ever manage to get far from home. Oh, Havana. My Hava-not…

The breeze from the Malecón is a relief against my thoughts and the plague. There down below it must already be ten something in the morning. From up here the fatherland suddenly looks like a parking lot. One without parking meters, of course, or civilians. In Socialism we are all sovereignly soldiers. Military Paraparadise.

To wake with a jerk of one’s head, headless. Demented, decrepit, delirious. Slam shut the shutters. No more sea, no more clouds, no more parade of planes. No more smoke from the chimneys, no more two thousand something or zero years. No more minutes. Only the migraine is criteria of truth. Only the silence of suicides remains half-inalterable, half past insistence. Eloquent, deafening, until the tam-tam of the totalitarian tribe out there starts to sound again, as the Cuban midday begins to gather up the shadows beneath our feet.

A country without shadows is so loathsome that.

The light in Cuba is so humiliating that.

It slithers in between the window blinds and beneath the doors. It invades the remains of your privacy. It deprives you of any inner space. Dirty light, exposing, vigilant, photons that are accomplices of State Security. That’s why it’s necessary to set out rags, traps. To halt it. The light in Cuba is like the Revolution: immanent, unnecessary. It must be walled in.

At noon on the dot the funereal party of living in a building with a thousand or fifteen hundred neighbors in the Center of Havana began.

“I’ll kill you, marícón,” a woman’s shout.

Running feet, broken glass, children yelling. People fainting, having heart attacks. Loquacious local hysteria.

“I’ll kill you and I won’t pay you: I’m no cuckold of anyone.”

They were the upstairs neighbors. Or the downstairs ones. Or both. Marriages that held together fairly well, but could no longer hold up under the heat of midday. Then they fell to slaps and curses, only rarely a blow with a machete or something more serious. Almost never was anyone wounded. And even less did anyone think to call the police. That, in this neighborhood, would be considered the highest treason. And although they’d never read José Martí, the neighborhood’s cliques, clans, and cabals certainly knew “the ancient penalty for apostasy” was execution.

And sure enough, some five or six minutes later, everything calmed down. Pax cubensis.

“Te quiero, Papi,” I heard the woman’s voice again. “I loviu with all my heart.”

Applause, laughter, reggaeton and ballads at full volume. Bottles uncorked. And that squealing of children that in Cuba is a universal constant. Everyone gets pregnant and gives birth so early here. We’re starving, but screwing and screwing until the island sinks under our collective weight or Fidel’s posthumous fetus dies on us.

Once the matinee is finished, the curtain slowly comes down.

“Te amo, Papi, I want to make you feel so good and for you to squirt that warm milk of yours on my face,” after the show, porno in the dressing rooms. “And as for that girl, well, it would be better if she went back to her motherfuckin’ mama’s house and never showed her face around here again.”

The phone rang. It was you. You and your voice, like liquid, like stainless steel. Like seventeen-year old lichen. You asked if I was awake. You asked if you could stop by. You always asked. Your curiosity was the sole stimulant in the whole length and breadth of the country.

“Please do,” I told you. “I had a bad night yesterday. I dreamed you had been killed. I saw you dead, bleeding to death. I saw you as a hero in the middle of the horror. I think I’m going crazy. I think I need to go to a good hospital.”

There was a knock at the door. I went to open it. It was you. You and your hair like black rain, like asphalt. Like jet-black shampoo. You were so sweaty. There was an unbearable lethargy hanging over everything. You asked if I felt a bit better. You asked if you could come in. You asked if I wondered why you always asked about everything.

“Please do,” I told you. “I had a bad night yesterday. I dreamed that you had been killed. I saw you bleeding to death, dead. I saw you horrified in the middle of the heroes. I need to go to a good hospital, I think. I think I’m going very crazy.”

But, of course, we didn’t go anywhere. There are no real hospitals in Cuba, neither good ones nor bad. Leaving my apartment was beyond my strength. And with you there, it was impossible.

You were lovely. You went to the kitchen and prepared for me one of those herbal infusions you always bring me. This was a red tea, imported from China you assured me. Your silhouette outlined against the rising steam was magnificent. You seemed ethereal yourself. You, your tea. I told you so. You didn’t pay me any attention.

The whole house smelled of gas, because the stove leaked. That propane gas was the smell of my childhood. Of the childhood of all Cubans. We miss that smell of gas, wherever in the world we go to never again return. That propane lost in Havana is the Paradise we’ve lost across the planet.

You started to cough. I realized that you coughed as if you were only seventeen years old. I had never before been aware of your age. You were a child, incredible. But even more incredible was that, being a child, you might love me. I saw you as such a woman. So free. So returning after everything. Suffering so from our inhospitable Havana. So determined to escape from Cuba with me at the first chance. So yourself. So tea.

You straddled me. I groped you. You arched. You said ay, very softly. Like how little girls complain, politely. Demurely. Unsurely.

I had to read your lips to understand your cry. It was an ay without question. A friendly ay, relaxed. An interjection, intimate rather than intense. An ay of feeling at home. Of not wanting to leave without me. Of leaving together and coming and leaving again.

Seated upon my flagpole. What a horrible word. Instead of saying like my neighbors do: seated on my cock and that’s that. Arching back, luminous. Your eyes rolled back until only the whites showed. Your gaze gone, so deep within my eyes. And I feeling stupidly happy that you were you.

I loved the disaster of my inherited apartment, with its scent of childhood gases. Hellflower. Molds from the damp. With the racket of the neighbors, their fights and cheap reconciliations. Cuba still with Castro, or with the walking cadaver of a Castro still with Cuba out there. With the Havana from which we also fled on the other side of the wall, a city blinded like the humiliating light that forced its way around the blinds and the doors, spying on the remains of our pleasure.

I loved that we were now and here, both of us ageless. You, my only woman, after a life with wholesale simulacra of women. I, your first man, before a lifeful of men. We, inhabitants of the future. Memoryless. Disinhabitants of a Havana now without any traces of migraine. Gracias, mi amor. You cured me. Even pain was diluted in the delight of my deliriums thanks to you.

You didn’t cover yourself after you came, like on other times. You stretched against me, as you’d never done. You told me, “Orlando Luis, I’m leaving.”

I understood. You understood that I understood. We understood.

“Orlando Luis, I’m leaving” meant in Cuban “Orlando Luis, I’m leaving the country.” It meant that you didn’t have the luxury of waiting for me and my eternal indecisions. It meant that a chance had fallen before you that you couldn’t share nor waste. And especially not with me.

Even clearer than water: “Orlando Luis, I’m leaving the country” meant in Cuban: “Orlando Luis, I won’t see you again.” But “Orlando Luis, I won’t see you again” has no intelligible translation in Cuban, so the sentence we utter in Cuba is the one you had chosen: “Orlando Luis, I’m leaving.”

And thus everyone understands perfectly what is meant without needing to say it aloud. You, I, us. Speaking it is worse.

I liked to undress myself at night in the city.

I went out to Morro Castle, to the edge of the pits where the firing squads shoot so many. I went to the Alamar’s decrepit buildings, beneath the flame trees and the electric blackout. I went to the statue of a tired Lennon in a little park of El Vedado. I went out to the mouth of the Almendares River. And then to the bridge over the Almendares River, where 23rd street became 41st street without realizing it.

I went every night to a corner of Havana that was more or less public or hidden. I waited for a moment that was a little more desolate in the middle of the general desolation. And then I took off all my clothes. Without thinking twice about it. That wasn’t necessary. I had already thought about it before, perhaps too much.

I breathed. My eyes wild. Buck naked. My skin goosepimpled with excitement, fear, or that Nordic cold that, when you’re alive, pierces you to the bone in the late hours of the night in Havana. And I was suddenly very alive. Very, perhaps too much.
And then I started to shout like a madman. Something that wasn’t human. Nor animal. It had no vowels. A sort of qwndtpfgwbklljchhh.

Only afterwards, peace. Getting dressed again, like a whore hurrying home. Penéloca, crazy cock Penelope of the barbarism belonging to no one and no place, but who can’t manage to get far from their hemicranial, hemicardiac, hemiHavana home.

The time the police stopped me I almost got shot with real bullets, made not from dreams but from a leaden nightmare. They pressed three pistols against my head at the same time. They cocked them some thirty times. I don’t know why they wanted to spill my brains, to shatter the very last bone in my skull, leave me bleeding dry in the middle of the street without even letting me cover myself.

They dragged me to an electricity pole. Still naked. They wanted to see properly who I was. They couldn’t ever verify anything. It was too obvious that I was Orlando Luis.

They spun me around. The lightpost struck my face with fury. As did fists, curses, spittle. The Cuban light and the Cuban police were killing me, but the most agonizing thing was that they never finished killing me. Where to stop? Where to place a period and start a new paragraph?

To forget is a strictly political question.
Whoever had a childhood will always be a child.
Castroism in Cuba is before and after the parenthesis of the Castros.
Light causes cancer.
Thirst is the essence of socialism.
Being Cuban means having no contemporaries.
True Life is not elsewhere either.
I miss you.

I sold the apartment. Clandestinely, I bought a raft. I wanted to leave Cuba, Orlando Luis. But I had no one in Cuba who I could say it to. Hence this dialogue among the deaf held in kicks more than words.

I wanted to stop anyone in the street in order to tell them. I’m leaving, I’m leaving, I’m leaving. It was a vile winter, in the thirties Celsius each afternoon. I was in the area around the Yara Cinema. And not even the breeze from La Rampa, nor the halo of air conditioning from the Habana Libre hotel could alleviate the thermal sensation of oppression.

That’s what totalitarianism is: a consummate conspiracy where even the climate is captive.

I saw her. I threw myself at her, almost without realizing. It seemed she was a university student. She was coming down the hill of L street and I told her by chance, perhaps to avoid her. I told her that I was leaving, that I was leaving, that I was leaving, and that I had no one in Cuba who I could say it to, as we crossed beneath the busiest stoplight of Havana and the Americas.

She had black hair, like asphalt. Jet-black shampoo, sweaty. She coughed, and I realized she coughed like a little girl. Incredible. But more incredible was that being a little girl she was also a university student.

She answered me, right before dissolving into the human herd that disembarked onto the sidewalk in front of the Coppelia ice cream shop. Her voice sounded liquid, like stainless steel. Like lichen forever virgin at her seventeen or who knew how few years. All symmetry is a symptom without sickness.

“The street is truly filled with a bunch of madmen,” she told me, with that instantaneous wisdom of when the Cuban people were the Cuban people, and not an amorphous mass stewed by a greater sustained sun.

It is not a matter of waking up with your head wanting to crack from the pain, to split in two from the pain. Your brains oozing out your ears on their own. From amnesia or capillarity or some optical defect of Paradises lost and found. Instead it’s that the most agonizing is not having even a half-silence in which to finish up waking up completely.

I woke up more or less happy. With luminous tears, my eyeballs popeyed. With too much air, hyperventillation. Burping up foam. And with a liberating weightlessness likewise pushing apart my ribs on the side where my heart lay. But I didn’t leap up from my bed to the nineteenth century shutters of my apartment. It wasn’t necessary. The bed is a breach and it is more than raft enough.

Politics is a question of selective forgetting.
Only he who is born an orphan is an adult.
Cuba is a parenthesis of the Cubans.
All metastasis is illumination.
The essence of socialism is to be insatiable.
Castroism is an exquisite state of timelessness.
True life was everywhere too.
I miss you.




Litro #153: Open | Why I Hate Selkie Stories

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Selkie stories are the worst kind of stories. They’re always so formulaic: man finds dingy seal skin on the seashore, takes it home thinking to make a quick buck, returns to the shore and almost jumps out of his own skin finding a beautiful woman there, naked. Of course, he falls in love, he takes her home, they get married. Happy ending, right? Hah. In all these stories, the man will make some mistake, and the woman finds the skin. Immediately, she jumps back into the sea, already in seal form, and swims away while the man chases after her in vain. It’s far from a fairytale ending– at least, not for the man, or his children, who wake up the next morning finding they have no mother.

***

“Can you tell me about your mother?” The therapist leans forward, smile pasted on her face. We’ve been here for about an hour, and her patience is wearing thin. I lean backwards, studying her face impassively. In the distance, waves crash on jagged rocks, while a lone seagull circles overhead.

“Moira?” my father says evenly, and I am reminded that the therapist is doing me a favour, agreeing to see me on such short notice, that we are struggling to make ends meet and every minute I waste is money down the drain. So I grit my teeth and rattle off a long list of characteristics – brown hair, grey eyes, medium height, willow-tree slender, spoke with an accent no one could quite place, loved swimming, gave birth to me, took care of me, left me. When I finish both her and my father are staring. There’s something in my father’s eyes, an emotion I can’t quite place.

The therapist taps a pen on the table, disappointment evident in her eyes. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow,” she says, in a not-so-cheery voice.

As the therapist leaves our cottage, driving off in her black Jaguar, jarringly out of place in our rural fishing village, I look down at the floor, away from my father.

He clears his throat, and I think he’s going to reprimand me for the unsuccessful session, but instead he says, “Moira. It’s not weakness to tell someone how you feel, you know.”

I nod. He turns, and climbs up the stairs to his room. I watch him go in silence. How can I explain that when I think of her I feel only numbness?

It scares me a little, my lack of feeling. Googling ‘how to cope with loss’ merely produces the clichéd mantra of “Let it out, don’t hold it in” and provides ten-step lists on how to Move On With Your Life. Some bring assurance that the ‘tears will dry up’ in time, even if the sadness never goes away altogether. Other, only slightly more helpful articles say it’s okay if you don’t cry at once, some people cope with loss differently. All say it’s detrimental to bottle up your grief, and encourage me to ‘find things that distract you’. None tell you what to do if you haven’t shed a single tear in all the sixteen months since your ‘loss’.

On the other hand, most people who lose selkies have no problems letting their grief out, or so the tales imply.

One of the most famous tales is about the man who was so afraid to lose his selkie wife that he carried the skin around everywhere he went. Predictably, one day he forgot to take the pelt out from underneath his pillow, and while his wife was changing the sheets, she found it. When he found out, he ran all the way to the sea and bawled like a baby there, even though she was long gone. Then there’s the jealous axe-wielding maniac who hunted down and stabbed the selkie lover his wife made off with once she found her skin, or the husband who swore never to remarry and shut himself off in a cave by the sea.
In all these stories, grief is one-sided. The selkie never shows any hesitance, never stops to consider whether life on land was really that bad, or the consequences of her departure. You have to wonder: did all those selkies end up with terrible husbands, or did those years of marital life just not mean anything to them? Did they forget about their two-legged families the moment their flippers hit the water?

***

The next morning is a Saturday, so Dad doesn’t go to fish. We eat breakfast together, which is unusual for us; ever since Mom left, he goes out even before I wake up for school. Just before he leaves to disappear somewhere – probably to hang out with his buddies or something – he says, “She’s coming at two,” and for a moment my heart leaps. Then I realize he’s referring to the therapist.

She comes promptly on the hour, clad in a smart grey coat that’s warmer than anything the locals wear. I force myself to push the thought of another very different type of coat out of my mind. We sit in the same positions as yesterday, and she peppers me with questions: When did she leave? April 17, more than one year ago. Were you there when she left? Yes. How did she leave? This I am vague about, only mentioning that she whisked her coat on and disappeared out the doorway. Mostly the truth.

“Did you ever think about going after her?”

“No, never,” I lie.

Actually, I did. After she left I almost took my dad’s boat and sailed out into the ocean to find her. Rather stupid, I know, it’s not like one seal looks very different from another, but some part of me thought she might recognize me and feel bad about what she had done. I had envisioned our reunion perfectly: I would be drifting out in the ocean; a seal head would pop out from the water; we would lock eyes, mutual understanding between us; she would change back into a human there and then and clamber onto the boat; we would sail home and live happily ever after.

In the end I didn’t do it. Partly because it was almost impossible to get the boat – Dad uses it in the day and locks it up in the shed at night – but also because I was afraid. Not that I wouldn’t be able to find her or that Dad would give me a huge dressing down, but that she would see me… yet refuse to return.

***

If I could talk to my mother, face-to-face, this is what I would ask:
1. If she has a new family now.
2. Or if she always had a seal family and all the time she was with us, she was pining
after them.
3. If she ever misses life on land.
4. If she ever considers coming back. Maybe not to stay, but just to visit, say hi to her
old friends, tell me what it’s like living in the ocean.

If I could talk to my mother, face-to-face, this is what I would tell her:
1. That the month after she left, I became an expert on seals, and the essay I wrote on the social structure of grey seals received an A+.
2. That in the exams held before the holidays started, I was first in class for biology and second in literature.
3. That I received an offer from a school in London but I turned it down, because I didn’t want to leave.
4. That I haven’t forgotten anything about her, like the way her hair gleams copper when the sun shines on it, or the way her eyes turn darker when she’s sad.

I wouldn’t tell her that I see her all the time; in the flick of a tail on the shoreline, in nature channels on television, in shop windows, hanging on silver hooks. I wouldn’t tell her about the nightmares I had, of her caught bleeding in nets, or torn to shreds in the jaws of a shark. Nor would I mention the time I saw tourists snapping photos of a litter of seal pups gamboling in the sea, and purposely kicked up stones to scare them away, or that I know Dad goes to the shore where he met her every weekend and just stares into the distance. I wouldn’t tell her that I stopped going to the pool where we used to swim, because I couldn’t shake off the memory of her racing me side by side, her sleek frame slicing through the water like a knife.
I wouldn’t tell her, most of all, about the day I went to the zoo for a biology study, and when we passed by the seal enclosure they recognized me, pressing their whiskers to the glass and crying out in a language I could understand. I cut my hair that day, hacked it off clumsily with a scissors. I wouldn’t tell her that for months afterwards, I raced to the door every time someone came knocking and picked up the telephone on the first ring, because each time I hoped it might be her. I wouldn’t tell her that goodbyes are painful, but at least they’re better than nothing.

***

I am sprawled on the couch, thinking about a selkie story while half-heartedly watching television. It’s one of the few tales that involve the selkie’s children; it’s also the only tale that infuriates me. In this story, while the selkie’s husband is out at sea fishing, her child notices her peering out of the window at the ocean, the very picture of melancholy. When he asks what’s making her so sad, she replies that she’s lost something very precious to her. Her son then crawls under the bed and produces an old seal skin. “I saw Father taking it out,” he chirps. The precocious kid then relates how he’s somehow always guessed his mother was a selkie. “Go, mother, be free,” he announces, and the rest of his siblings, who have conveniently been hiding in the cupboard all this while, echo after him.

This drives me so mad. Even ignoring the fact that no five-year old is that perceptive, what kind of child encourages his mother to leave like that with the knowledge that she will never come back? What kind of child is so selfless? And what about her? Did she stop to think about what would happen to them, left with only a grieving father? Did she think about anyone else at all, before she made her move?

These are the thoughts running through my mind when I slam my hand on the sofa and accidentally press the remote control, changing the channel to National Geographic. It’s a documentary on the wildlife in New Zealand. The screen fills with images of shoals of fish, dolphins leaping, and then a beach teeming with seals. “Fur seals are abundant on the beaches of Kaikoura, especially at this time of the year, the breeding season.” Cut to a mother seal nuzzling her pups, who wriggle happily under her affection. “Female seals are highly protective of their young, and will challenge anyone who dares to venture too close…”
I turn the television off. It’s not cold, but I’m trembling. I shrug on a jacket and head out of the door, walking without looking where I’m headed, focusing only on the rhythmic pattern of my footsteps. Without realizing it, I have reached the edge of town. Just a few steps ahead of me is the shoreline. I know this shore; it’s where my father sets off to fish every morning. It’s also where he met my mother.

The selkie story I try not to think about the most is one involving a girl. She finds the skin in the attic and brings it to her mother, thinking it would make a nice winter coat. Needless to say, her mother takes the coat, kisses her on the forehead, and vanishes, without a single word.

You can imagine who that girl was.

I sit down on the formation of rocks and try and imagine them meeting. Was he captivated by those startling grey eyes, that lustrous mane of hair? Was she afraid, or was some part of her also drawn to him, like a moth to a flame? I’ll never know.
Beyond me, the ocean ripples, stretching out into infinity.




Litro #153: Open | Resurrecting Mr Jingles

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After my return from Paris I was about to load up the empty fridge when my eyes snagged on something on the floor. A dead orchid leaf, elongated, browny grey. Only it wasn’t. Slap bang in the centre of the frowsy purple mat by the cooker sat Mr Jingles, tail curled round him, bright eyes looking up at me, not at all afraid. I didn’t scream (I never scream). I let go of my shopping, clenched my eyes tight shut, then opened them again, slowly. The mouse was still there. Hadn’t moved, in fact.
Resurrecting Mr Jingles could only mean trouble, as I well knew. But of course this was the real world: this was Berlin in the twenty-first century, not fiction. And yet, a few steps down the corridor, inside my silver-shell suitcase with the Air France tag, lay a paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile. I’d finished reading the book only yesterday, over a café caramel on Avenue de L’Opéra, crying so hard my tears had formed little puddles on the table. When the waiter brought the bill, he’d dabbed at them with the corner of his white apron, like a nurse cleaning a wound. Now, blinking at the memory, I stood rooted and watched the mouse. His flanks rose and fell in shivers of light; his whiskers trembled ever so slightly – playfully? – and I could see his nose twitch. What to do?

In the end I fetched the cheese dome from the cupboard and placed it over Mr Jingles as if he were a lump of furred roquefort or stilton. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, ‘just so you don’t get squashed by accident.’ He remained quite motionless, even his whiskers had ceased trembling. For a moment I fancied that the very essence of him had fled to an existence elsewhere and I was looking at an effigy, not a real mouse. But then he unfurled his tail, carefully licked one of his front paws and tripped forward to sniff the plastic surface that separated us. As I began to stow away my purchases, he half-turned, perhaps to keep me in his sights. Would he like some milk? A sliver of smoked salmon? Or toast, maybe? Not cheese, though. Months ago I’d set a mousetrap in the larder, baiting it with smelly camembert, and all it had attracted was dust.

I poured a little cream into the lid of a jam jar and crumbled some rye bread. When the doorbell rang, I wasn’t surprised. It would be old Frau Krämer from downstairs, wanting to drop off my keys. I pulled the door wide…

… and came face to face with tousled curls and a blond beard. An orange T-shirt glowed under the man’s jacket like hot coals in a stove. One of his hands was splayed casually on the doorpost.

‘Hi, I’m Jonas,’ he said with a smile. The crooked line of a scar ran through his upper lip. His eyes were large and what in the trade we call cerulean.
‘How did you get in?’ I blurted. ‘The street door’s kept locked.’
’Ah, but I know how to unlock things. Abracadabra!’ He waggled a finger at me, then grinned when he saw me flinch. ‘Joke. I met your neighbour in the street and she invited me in for coffee.’

Shit, Frau Krämer was seriously losing it if she’d started picking up strangers. I made a mental note to speak to her always too-busy doctor son in Potsdam.

‘You won’t get any coffee from me.’ I nudged the door closed.

‘Didn’t expect any,’ he said, with a counter-nudge. ‘I’m collecting for TierHAUS. See?’ He flipped open his jacket to indicate the logo of a black turtle on his day-glo T-shirt, then produced a lanyard from a pocket. ‘Should really be wearing this. Damn cord always gets tangled in my beard.’ He laughed, but I didn’t join in. The turtle’s shell was a stylised house complete with roof and windows from which protruded all sorts of animal heads, flap-eared, bristly, whiskered, scaly, feathered, horned. I pushed at the door again. Harder. Jonas pretended not to notice. Had I heard of the two-year legal wrangle over Immenhof, the old farmhouse near Schlachtensee? No? Well, TierHAUS had recently been made its rightful owner. Meaning the charity was now able to provide shelter for even more strays. ‘Dogs and cats. Donkeys. Parrots, pet rabbits, snakes. And turtles, of course. You’d be surprised at the number of abandoned turtles and miniature hedgehogs the size of your palm.’ He cupped his hand in imitation. ‘So. We need donations for urgent repairs and maintenance, not forgetting food and vet bills.’ Still holding out his hand, doubtless a well-practised trick, he looked at me. Then his gaze suddenly flicked away, towards the kitchen.

‘What in hell is that?’ he exclaimed. ‘You playing a weird game of ouija?’ And yes, I could see it too: the cheese dome was moving. Centimetre by centimetre it came snailing along the tiled floor, following the shimmering path of a sunbeam that slanted through the kitchen, halfway down the corridor.
‘I’d better go.’ I shoved at the door with both hands.
‘It’s a hamster, isn’t it?’ Jonas said, a glitter of threat in his voice. ‘Or a kitten?’ Before I could stop him, he was inside, striding towards the dome. ‘Fuck! A mouse!’
‘Leave him be!’ I rushed after him. ‘The mouse is fine. If you don’t get out of here right now, I’ll phone the police.’ I snatched up my mobile from the kitchen counter and retreated behind the table, fingers poised above the emergency number.
‘One sec … That’s it. Ah…’ Exhaling softly, Jonas backed away, towards the door. Too late I realised he’d grabbed his own mobile and was filming Mr Jingles’s floor show.

‘I’ll be in touch.’ The dreamcatcher by the entrance tinkled gently as the latch clicked shut.

I nearly tripped over the cheese dome. Should I go after Jonas? Chase him down Niklasstrasse in my pink slippers while brandishing a rolling pin, the caricature of a crazy Hausfrau? The street door banged. What was he going to do with that video? Had Frau Krämer bragged about my job at the Nationalgalerie? Easy to imagine the lurid headlines:

‘Nationalgalerie Curator Torments Mouse in Ouija Experiment’ or ‘Mouse Makes off with Curator’s Cheese Dome’.
Leaving Mr Jingles to his slow, patient progress, I went downstairs and knocked.

‘Welcome back, Alice, welcome. Are your babies okay?’ Frau Krämer always called my orchids ‘babies’, with a gleeful relish that seemed to say, At your age, I had two sons at Gymnasium, a high-flying husband and a house of my own. Try matching that!
‘Yes, great. Thanks for watering my plants.’ I gave her the kitschy bonbonnière I’d bought at Charles de Gaulle airport.
‘How very kind,’ she burbled. ‘What a charming –’

‘Right,’ I said, ‘that charity guy just now, what exactly did you tell him about me? Not where I work, I trust?’

‘No, no, Alice. I may have mentioned what a pleasant neighbour you are – oh you are, you are – and how highly regarded in your field. Always travelling abroad with new exhibitions.’ The soft folds of her chin concertinaed as she nodded. ‘Such a nice young fellow. I contributed €30. Better to keep the strays safely kennelled, away from our streets and gardens. Talking of which…’ And she launched into the story of a black and white cat that had begun to make incursions into the small orchard behind our house.
I ached to get away, bone-weary all of a sudden. I’d just spent two hectic weeks at Centre Pompidou, co-curating ‘Impressionism – Expressionism’, the current touring project of Alte Nationalgalerie. As my neighbour’s voice washed over me, I let myself drift off into a universe of blue horses, yellow cows and blue-green deer, of figures shaped like blades of grass, and a world fragmented and rearranged inside a kaleidoscope.

Frau Krämer was shaking her head and gesturing. I caught the words ‘… shiny big leaves in its mouth … brings them to my patio… vegetarian cat… vegetarian… whatever is nature coming…’

My phone began to ring upstairs and I left her stalled in mid-monologue, her hands patting her lilac perm like it was some sort of a pelt.

The moment I lifted the receiver the answering machine kicked in. A hang up. Then I noticed the cheese dome. It had got stuck in the utility-room door, which was standing ajar. But it wasn’t merely stuck, it had been vacated, abandoned like an old shell, thanks to the slight difference in floor levels. By now Mr Jingles, veteran disappearing artist, could be anywhere in the two-storey labyrinth of my flat. Buried in the earth of the plant trough in the living room, say, or in the wood chip and coconut fibre of half a dozen orchid pots upstairs, asleep on a hammock of fat, straggly roots. Or hiding behind a row of books in my study, snacking on crispy paper. As a child before I could read, I used to lick printed pages, absorbing the sweet or tongue-shrinking inks in vague hopes of osmotic revelations. Whatever Mr Jingles’s tastes, I knew I wouldn’t find him, not even if I dismantled the whole flat. Best to wait for the telltale droppings.

But there were no droppings, not that day or the next. No fusty odours. No scuffling or skittering of tiny feet either. Only the insistent cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep from the fledgling sparrows and blackbirds in the nearby trees. The mouse had vanished like he’d never been, and The Green Mile now rested peaceably in my study, sharing shelf space with my art books – if Mr Jingles wanted to frolic with Franz Marc’s imaginary animals, he was welcome. Meanwhile I’d thrown open windows and balcony doors, front and back, turning the house into a living, breathing body whose cavities tingled and thrilled with the warm inrush of spring.
When I got home from work on Friday afternoon, the light on the answering machine was blinking again. A two-word message this time: ‘Mouse online’. And so he was, on the TierHAUS website: Mr Jingles inside my cheese dome, pushing it forward with his snout like a poor, demented slave. Because of the refraction, all you could make out was the grey-brown blur of a creature seemingly desperate to escape. The caption read: This exhausted mouse was discovered in an affluent neighbourhood by one of our volunteers. Please donate via Paypal to help us put an end to such cruelty. Mercifully no other details had been disclosed. I sighed with relief, then stared at the screen. That silver object in the final frame of the clip… I froze the image and, after a bit of fiddling, managed to blow up the suitcase tag and sticker. My name and flight number were unmistakable.

I began to tremble; my hands had gone so clammy they’d left damp patches on the keyboard. Ever since returning from Paris I’d had this queasy, slip-sliding feeling, like I’d become part of an Expressionist painting, was myself a blade of grass, an elongated figure in a tumbled world of psychedelic animals. But that way madness lay and I knew it.

To steady my nerves, for the moment at least, I allowed myself a couple of betablockers from the stockpile I’d accumulated after my breakup with Kurt. No point in accusing TierHAUS of privacy infringement, I’d only draw their attention, and then all manner of nutters would crawl out the woodwork, scuttling on too-many legs, feelers twitching… I needed to hold a war council.

Even at dusk it was still sultry on the balcony. The warm weather had hatched all sorts of bugs and flying insects which helter-skeltered around the scented candle. Bats zig-zagged in sooty- winged silhouette across the lavender sky, rehearsing perhaps for Walpurgis Night. I’d invited my friend Tina for an Italian takeaway. Cooking had never been my forte, despite Kurt’s expectations.

‘Prost!’ Tina and I chinked glasses. But instead of her smiling face, almost as if superimposed on it, I saw the blur of Mr Jingles’s soft nose butting at the cheese dome and I had to look away. Down in the orchard, shadows had gathered and thickened around the trees, weaving a web of darkness.
Afterwards, I interrupted Tina’s account of her latest veterinary conference before she could digress into environmental issues, her hobbyhorse, and started talking about the exhibition at Centre Pompidou, in particular Expressionism. ‘Franz Marc’s artwork is amazing,’ I said, swallowing a mouthful of spaghetti. ‘He sought to paint nature and animals from the inside, through colour and shape.’ And I pointed to the pizza with its slices of tomato, curls of green pepper, onion rings, black olives and artichoke hearts. ‘He wanted to express their anima, bring to life their real selves.’ This was the perfect lead-up to Mr Jingles.

Just then the phone rang. I jumped to my feet and nearly knocked over my wine. Some drops spilled over the garlic bread, ruby-red on its buttery skin.

‘So you’re Dr Alice Lischer, the mouse-trapper… Enjoy Paris?’ The whisper was like the scratch of someone’s fingernail across a canvas.

I hung up without a word and muted the sound, then went into the bathroom to douse my face with cold water. Bloody TierHAUS were in for it now; I’d sue them if necessary.

‘All right?’ Tina asked when I sat down again. She’d taken a cigarette from her pack and was leaning towards the candle flame.

‘Any new animal stories?’ I blurted out.

Tina shot me a glance and, pouting her lips, blew smoke. At last she said, ‘Well, did I ever mention Laila, the camel with the broken leg we operated –’

‘Yep, you did.’ For a while only my fork was audible, nicking the inside of my spoon as I twirled a few forlorn strands of spaghetti.

Then I told Tina about Mr Jingles and Jonas, no details spared. She didn’t believe me, of course not: she was a vet. So I fetched my MacBook.

But the TierHAUS website looked different; no sign anymore of the video clip starring the mouse. Was I going bonkers? Alice in Mouseland, I imagined Tina thinking.

‘It’s getting chilly out here,’ I said. My chair scraped against the balcony floor. ‘We’d better move indoors.’

We were on our second bottle when the buzzer went. I ignored it, but whoever it was refused to be ignored. ‘Don’t be daft, Alice.’ Tina flicked her blonde hair at me. ‘Let’s see who it is. Mr Jingles?’ She giggled.

Frau Krämer’s voice boomed in the stairwell, urgent and wheedling: ‘A nightcap, just a little nightcap?’ Then there were footsteps coming up the stairs.

By now Tina was at the spy-hole. ‘Your neighbour,’ she mouthed and started to open the door. I pushed her aside. ‘Sorry about the noi–’ I began.

Behind Frau Krämer stood Jonas, hair tied back in a ponytail, plain black T-shirt cut off at the shoulders to expose his sleeves of tattoos. ‘May I have a quick word?’ he said. And, with a big-boy smile at Frau Krämer, ‘Afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry. Can I take a rain check?’

‘Anytime.’ Returning his smile, my neighbour glanced at me: Try matching that! then wished him goodnight.

‘Was that who I think it was?’ asked Tina when I finally rejoined her at the kitchen table. ‘Dishy. Nice tattoos, too…’

I shrugged. ‘Came to accuse me of hacking into the TierHAUS website – me, hacking! – because the video clip had vanished off their server. Just sort of evaporated into e-space, he said.’ I sloshed more wine into my glass.

While I’d been out on the landing with Jonas, Tina had done some googling and discovered ‘Contemporary Conundrums’, a forum on which members were currently debating the plausibility of an untrained mouse inside a plastic container manoeuvring said container along a flat surface. Several people had placed virtual bets as to distance and speed.

I couldn’t help a triumphant ‘Huh!’ Wherever Mr Jingles had withdrawn to – back to The Green Mile, most likely – he had indeed left his mark.

I fingered Jonas’s business card in my pocket (a PhD in sociology, no less). He’d passed it to me after our contretemps, with a nonchalant ‘Coffee some time?’ But his sky-eyes had been way too wide for my liking.

‘If you shave off your beard first,’ I’d said. ‘It’ll grow back, you know. Afterwards.’

‘Afterwards?’ he’d echoed, grinning. Loud enough for Frau Krämer to invent her own little fantasy, turning over in her mind possibilities too seedy by far for her well-ironed bedclothes and the tick-tock, tick-tock of her alarm clock.
Sipping my wine, I imagined touching the crooked scar on Jonas’s upper lip – from a cleft palate? An accident? A fight? Yes, I definitely preferred a fight…

‘Alice?’ Tina was waving her cigarette at me. ‘You okay?’

‘Sorry.’ I smiled and offered her a refill, but she said she’d need to make tracks soon to release the babysitter.
I tipped the remainder of the bottle into my glass and lifted it. ‘Well, here’s to Mr Jingles’s vanishing act.’ Then I tapped a farewell cigarette from her pack.

The tap-tap continued for several seconds, coming, it seemed, from the living room.
‘Mr Jingles making a reappearance?’ Tina chuckled.
‘Probably a May bug trying to knock its brains out against the picture window,’ I said and stubbed out my cigarette. But all I found when I went to investigate was a damp scatter of earth near the plant trough, which I’d watered earlier. Plants were funny things, immobile yet moving stealthily this way and that, their roots always poking and probing, disturbing the soil; their stems and leaves too, never completely at rest, always unfurling, stretching, shifting and flicking, even rattling on occasion in the stillness. And yet, the secret activities of my plants surely couldn’t account for that much dislodged earth. Was Mr Jingles at it again, playing hide and seek now? Choosing the very places I’d singled out for him in my imagination?
‘Be right back!’ I felt a scrabbling uneasiness as I ran upstairs to my orchids in the spare bedroom. The tallest of them, which I’d grown from a cutting, was tilting groggily against the wall, roots grasping at nothing, blooms splayed open, delicate lips distended. Shreds of bark lay on the carpet. Next door in my study the rows of books at first sight looked untouched, hardbacks and paperbacks ramrod straight as a line of soldiers on the shiny, polished wood. Except that the far end of the middle shelf was strewn with scraps of white paper. Directly above were my favourite art books and, leaning like a renegade against them, The Green Mile.

‘Feeling a little peculiar,’ I told Tina on my return to the kitchen. She laughed, said to take a couple of Alka Seltzers and go easy on ‘the mousing’.

I could hardly wait for her to leave. Almost shoved her out the flat. Over her shoulder she whispered, ‘Don’t let this guy slip through your fingers, Alice. And not too many BBs, mind.’ She knew about my stash of betablockers.

As soon as I heard the street door close, I dialled the TierHAUS number on Jonas’s card. Only ten past eleven; someone would doubtless be up, tending to the animals. Someone who could advise me. The phone rang and rang. There was a hollowness on the line that seemed to open up vast, heartless spaces, whole continents of neglect and cruelty needing to be overcome before the safe haven of Immenhof could be reached. After two minutes I killed the call.

The message light on the answering machine was in overdrive and I pressed the delete button. Then I went and stood on the balcony, breathing-in the night. I could no longer see the bats, but I sensed their erratic, ancient flirrings in the darkness, tiny vibrations that seemed to continue inside of me, replicating and setting my nerves jangling.

No, Tina truly had no idea what she was talking about, or what I was dealing with. But perhaps not-thinking about Mr Jingles would make him disappear. Because that’s what he thrived on, wasn’t it, the being thought of and talked about? So, the not-being the centre of attention would cut off his existential oxygen supply, drain the life blood right out of him … and zap him for good.

Maybe it had all been coincidence anyway: the scattered earth, the tilting orchid, the scraps of paper. And why not? I now remembered pulling some of the withered leaves off the bottom of the straggly ivy in the plant trough while doing the watering, and having to pull really hard. Some soil, adhering to the undersides of the leaves, could easily have plopped to the floor in the process. The scraps of paper? Well, hadn’t I emptied the hole punch into the wastebasket in my study only yesterday? More likely than not, the fragments had been whirled up into the air by a draught from the open window. As to the orchid – orchids often overbalanced once they grew a mature, top-heavy funnel of leaves, especially if they weren’t anchored inside a ceramic pot. And loose bits of compost had fallen off before, hadn’t they? The mouse itself was just a mouse, nothing to do with The Green Mile and the resurrected Mr Jingles.

Don’t forget, Alice, you were plagued by mice during the winter, hence the trap in your larder. So, until you see the mouse again, if you see it again, don’t worry. Buy a better trap. As for the video clip, any hacker worth his or her salt could have scrubbed that. A sabotage act by an opponent of TierHAUS is a distinct possibility, a reality, in fact. And now, come on, girl, phone the other number on the card. Phone Jonas himself. What are you waiting for?

But of course I know exactly what I’m waiting for. A sign. Then I’ll phone.

Next morning, sitting on the balcony with my second cup of espresso, I notice the black and white cat crouched by the apple tree, staring down at something in the grass. A leaf, it looks like. Elongated, browny-grey. As I watch, the cat suddenly arches its back, its mouth a hissing triangle, its fur as stiff as an old paintbrush. Then it begins to slink away towards the bushes beyond the orchard. The leaf, meanwhile, has disappeared.

A little later Frau Krämer rings my bell. ‘Guess what I’ve found near my patio door,’ she

says with a try-matching-that smile and holds up a sandwich bag. Inside is the limp body of a mouse. ‘Not a vegetarian cat after all.’ She sounds relieved, as if her world is back to normal again. ‘You know, I think I’ll adopt that cat. It seems a shame to send such a lovely creature to the TierHAUS place.’

I make no reply and for an instant close my eyes. When I open them again, Frau Krämer is still there. She’s gazing at me with almost motherly concern, the plastic bag dangling from her hand. Above us the dreamcatcher has started tinkling very faintly, set off by a rogue current of air, perhaps.

Just as I’m about to turn away, I find my glance drawn back to the bag… and that’s when I catch him, catch the mouse giving me the fleetest of winks. I burst out laughing, I can’t help it. ‘I’m sorry, ‘ I splutter, ‘so sorry, Frau Krämer.’ And then I laugh and laugh into my neighbour’s startled face.




Litro #153: Open | Homecoming

Broken+MIrror_Evening+Sky(Agfachrome)

You said you were having a sleepover, you say. Your daughter nods.

You take a step back outside the front door, and then another into the road. There are eggs yolked across the front of the house. On the windows, the door, weeping down the whitewash. You’d been sitting in the carpark by the icecream kiosk for over an hour before driving back and now you’re regretting not giving yourself more time. You had anticipated carnage of a sort coming home but not this.

Nikki balks as you walk through the door, keys spiked between each of your fingers, anxiety spitting like alka-seltzer. Your daughter’s face is pale, eyes red at the rims, bruises on her bare thighs. She smells like male sweat and Malibu. You tell her to put some jeans on but Nikki is trying to use her scrawny form as a shield against the mess, the appalling scale of mess that she hasn’t been able to clean up even though it’s mid-morning now. Cigarette butts in the cut-glass glasses and crisps crisped into the carpet. There is a sickly stain on the skirting board and a slick of bright blue creeping across the arm of the sofa. Nikki says nothing as you survey one small unhappiness after the next. Door handles missing, chips on door frames and picture frames bullied sideways, watermarks on every surface. All your favourite things broken and ready for the bin. Even burglars do better jobs.

You wonder if anything has been nicked. Your husband would tell you not to suspect such bad things of teenagers, that people are good, but look how we are capable. You set your overnight bag down beside the bottom step, its zips all zipped and luggage label falsely declaring a flight you haven’t been on. Nikki is too afraid of being told off to ask you how your work trip was. You’re grateful to not have to lie.

There’s no point in you taking your shoes off as you go upstairs to inspect the state of the bedrooms. Your husband always says why have carpets, it reminds him of people your parents’ age, and you concede that you’ll have to get rid of them once and for all now. Bottle caps in all the corners. Unclaimed coats in the spare room and there in your room, your bedroom, on your bed: a knotted plastic bag of used condoms as if the stork had brought it. You wish your husband were home to help shout at Nikki, tell her what a disgrace she is to your family, but then the thought of him coming home reminds you of what you will have to tell him. What a disgrace to your family: something he would never say, no matter how angry he might get.

You sit on the section of the bed that looks the least used. A broken slat crunches under your weight. You’ve never been one for diets but it strikes you how much your body has changed. Now you look like one of the older aunts who’d been sidelined at your wedding. And the bed that has held your marriage close in the night for seventeen years looks just like any piece of furniture, tired, dated.

When you and your husband first met in those first few weeks, you didn’t understand how anyone could hold down a job or remember where they’d put their travelcard or be bothered to cook dinner because you were so in love with him. You didn’t have anything untrue to say to him because your mind was dishevelled like the sheets you slept in. How your romance has paled into duck egg-coloured curtains and soft furnishings through years of recycling trips, fuse changes, cancer scares.

Nikki comes in as you tug off the damp duvet covers and throw them in a pile with the sogging pillowcases, the eiderdown, the undersheet. You resent housework on a good day but the rough activity hides the shake in your hands.

It got out of hand, your daughter says. There were only meant to be five girls and somehow five girls turned into fifteen and then twenty boys, she couldn’t possibly say who they were. Names weren’t the point. The neighbours came, the police came, more kids from school turned up although she did her best to barricade the door. They had to call an ambulance at half five because Amy had to have her stomach pumped. Someone vomited in the dishwasher but Nikki didn’t know how to turn it on to get rid of it. She doesn’t know where the cat is. The list goes on. She’s really, really sorry.

You should’ve seen the look on her face, you imagine yourself saying to your husband. I wouldn’t know how to smirk at the same time as feel really, really sorry but our daughter has mastered the art of it.

Are you going to call Dad, Nikki asks, her legs still bare as she lets you pick up the laundry. Nikki follows you downstairs to the utility room, watches you put the wash on. You had hoped to have a shower by now but Nikki follows your every step just as she had done as a toddler, waiting for you to make another discovery. Can adults have no privacy from their children, you say with contempt. Next week you will tell her that she will have to start doing her own washing, that you’re sick of her tell-tale knickers. You wonder whether you will still be living in this family next week, what family there will be left. You realise that you’re about to cry then, so you go out to the garden. You stand on the grass. It smells like piss and vodka.

You’re not sure you would ever have got away with it in a neighbourly place like this, even without the guilt. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone must have been laughing at you in the hotel, mimicking the noises you’d made behind the locked door. At breakfast, you saw how old you looked in the smirks of the summer season staff. You told Ian not to order bacon, that it would take longer under the grill and you should have croissants instead, but it wouldn’t have made a difference as you’d already heard one of the cleaning girls say to another, isn’t that Mrs Davis? Who’s she with?

Ian didn’t seem fussed by the evident judgement but then men weren’t. You packed your laptop bag and the other props necessitated by a business trip away into the boot of the car while he settled up with the receptionist. He brought you a Murray Mint from the glass bowl on the front desk but you didn’t kiss again afterwards. You sat in the car for a long while after you’d dropped him at the end of his road. He had a wife. Ian had long talked about love before the sex but there was no mention of it since the hotel. You were always going to tell your husband, you thought as you watched the traffic pool around you, the lie to yourself as clear as the Chablis you’d been drinking in the bar with Ian the night before. People leave each other for other people all the time, Ian had said. It sounded more like an excuse than a reason now.

When you agreed marry your husband all those years ago, you’d said, please never leave me for someone else. Please don’t go to bed with another woman. Please don’t hold someone else’s hand. Please don’t tell the people you work with when we’ve had a fight. Please don’t tell anyone you find me boring. Please don’t leave me stuck with the kids because you’re bored of having a family. Please don’t make me be the bad cop parent who’s the only one who ever tells them off. Please never leave me.

You were so scared to tell your husband every single thing that you were scared in case he found you weak and neurotic and it wore away at the edges of his affection. But you had said please and he said thank you and now you can’t imagine his face when you tell him that you were just curious and tired and you didn’t mean anything by it but yes you did fuck Ian from the private equity team and you still haven’t decided whether to say sorry yet.

You never thought you would be the kind of person to cheat. Now you know that there’s no such thing. Cheaters are abstract concepts, like heroes or like children, at least until you have them.

Nikki asks if you would like a glass of water. No thanks, love, you say. She stands watching you until the front door opens with its heavy whine. You and your husband had used to joke that there was a sad animal trapped in the doorframe, desperate to get out. It surprises you that you used to laugh at this.

Your husband comes through the patio doors, puts a hand on your shoulder. His hand feels heavier than normal, the pressure reminding you of your collarbone beneath. It’s a part of the anatomy no-one notices until it’s kissed or broken. He stands there, you sitting now on one of the white plastic chairs, and he’s smiling.

You’ve got to see the funny side, he says as Nikki absents herself. She’s a teenager. We’ve all lied to our parents, that’s what they’re there for. The house will be alright, we’ll be alright.

Nikki comes back with the glass of water you’d refused and you tell her to fuck off, fuck off, can’t you see I’m trying to talk to your father? You haven’t sworn at Nikki in her whole life and she retreats as if you have killed every pet she has ever owned. Your eyes are stinging at the shame of it. Hey, your husband says, it’s okay. We’ll get the hoover out and a few black bags and it’ll be like it never happened. Except you know full well it won’t be so you decide to tell him then.

It’s easy to cheat on someone really. Texting doesn’t feel like cheating, kissing doesn’t feel like cheating, which means that sex doesn’t really feel like cheating unless you start to have feelings, but then if you feel like you’re in love that excuses everything. It’s difficult to feel guilty when you are unbearably in love. It’s when the doubt creeps in that the remorse crashes across like a wave when you’re not looking.

You say you’re worried that you’re not actually in love with Ian, it’s just that you were bored and looking for something. You wanted to be someone who wasn’t a mother for once. You hadn’t planned to say that but the words uncover themselves like an unlucky scratch card. What if I’ve made a terrible mistake and it will all happen all over again, you plead, but by then I won’t have you?

There is a long while when your husband don’t say anything. A crushed beer can flips on its side in the breeze, fitting and foaming. A slug is ramming itself into the sticky tin’s mouth. It’ll cut itself clearly but neither of you move to help it. You reach for your husband’s hand but it’s already gone, his fists hard in his pockets like boxing gloves as he paces the flowerbed for a fight.

You can ask me anything, you say. I’ll answer anything honestly.

Oh because it’s not like you wouldn’t lie, he says. Tell me, is lying picked up through nature or nurture? She’s your daughter through and through. The pair of you. Women.

You don’t know how to answer so you drink the drink that you told your daughter you didn’t want. I didn’t think this would be me, you say. You sip some more of the cool water, tasting only the morning’s fried breakfast. Flabby bacon and unbranded beans. You wouldn’t have touched it were it not for the hangover from all the wine you’d needed to take your clothes off. You wonder if everything will taste that way for a while. You tell your husband that you don’t know what to do next. What does he want?
He doesn’t laugh exactly. You wait for him to call you a witch, a bitch, a whore. He doesn’t call you anything because he is a kind man and this is why you married him. This is probably why you are bored with him, because he let you be. Kindness is a virtue but as such it is always a fault.

Nikki is watching the pair of you from the kitchen window, trying to decide from your silence whether she’ll still get Sunday’s pocket money or not. You can tell from your husband’s pause that you will be offering her extra pocket money to buy whatever she wants when she grudgingly comes to stay for alternate weekends. Your husband won’t look at you and you know then he isn’t really your husband anymore.

You wonder if you would rather be him, walking back through the French doors, across the lounge, out through the hallway, out the front door and down the path. Rather than you, sitting at the patio table surrounded by beer bottles and bin bags and sick. Perhaps the grass is always greener.

Looking out after him, your line of sight is one that you have never noticed before. You can see straight from the garden through your house and into the road, the daylight spilling on to the tarmac outside. You can see next door’s begonias, the single yellow line. Someone somewhere is mowing their lawn. You could even see the sea from here were it not for the sea wall.




Litro #153: Open | Cassia County Fair, As Caroline Understands It

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Lights flashed. Colours. An arc of colours, splitting open the sky. They blinked. The whole night sky blinked.
No. She blinked. Caroline blinked, and the wave of colors vanished.

She rolled onto her side and vomited, alcohol and stomach bile stinging her throat, enflaming her nostrils. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and kept her face down; her body arced away from Henry. He hadn’t noticed when she’d stumbled to the ground, and looking at him again, she saw that he hadn’t noticed her being sick either.

Caroline pulled herself into a seated position, elbows across her knees, forehead on her arms. The pebbled prairie was hard against her thighs, scraggly grasses that brushed her skin. Her bare arms were warm against the cold sweat on her forehead, the darkness a relief from the carnival lights. The spinning slowed.

“What’s she doing down there? You too drunk to stand?”

It was the big kid, the one who’d given Caroline the liquor.

***

When she arrived at the fair, she met Henry at the ticket booth, but instead of going in, he led her away from the entrance, guiding her through a maze of cars to a truck where half a dozen other boys were waiting for them.

“My friends,” Henry had mumbled by way of an introduction. Friends?

The semi-circle opened, and Caroline saw what the boys were shielding. Perched on the bed of the truck, the biggest of the group was filling dusty soda bottles with alcohol. Nobody said much. They watched the sun cut its light through the splashing amber liquid. As each bottle was filled, it was passed around the circle and shoved deep into jean pockets. Caroline felt a line of sweat break across her hair line, equal parts heat and embarrassment. The boys gave her shifty glances, and she wondered what Henry had told them about her, if they’d expected her. She hadn’t expected them.

The boy in the truck bed tipped the last of the brown liquor back down his throat, then tossed it into an open hatch. He opened a bottle of clear liquid, and filled up one last, gritty Mountain Dew bottle. “Cupcake vodka,” he said, handing it to her. Jumping down from the truck, he laughed that it was “all she could handle.” One of the other boys whispered something about what Caroline could handle, and the joke flashed around the circle. Everyone laughed, even Henry, and Caroline flushed hot, looked away. Pretended the plains wind had drowned out the joke.

Alcohol was new to her, but so was Henry. All night, Caroline matched her pace to his, drinking from her soda bottle every time he did, choking on the vodka as it corroded her throat and burned sweet in her stomach.

Now she felt stupid, foolish. She didn’t know drunk, hadn’t known that this was drunk, that this is what it felt like. Another snicker shuddered around the group as, one by one, each looked down to see if she really was too drunk to stand. Caroline flushed the same hot red, and tried to ignore them, searching for Henry’s face instead. He still wasn’t looking at her, was keeping his face trained away from hers. She stared hard, willing him to notice her.

He didn’t. All Caroline saw was the reflected lights of the Ferris wheel cutting themselves across his averted eyes.

***

The reason Caroline was here, at the Cassia County Fair, two states away from her home, was Henry. It was a plan, months in the making, one that had required a brand of deceit and trickery that she’d never before employed.

Here’s how it had gone: The previous March, her father’s family went camping. While there, her cousin Josie, a college freshman on her first family trip since moving out, slipped her arm around Caroline’s waist, and called over their shoulders that she and Caroline were going fishing.

“There’s a group of boys down there,” Josie whispered, as soon as they were out of their family’s sight. She shimmied out of her smoke stained sweatshirt, a skintight tank top underneath.

Gooseflesh rippled down Josie’s arms, and Caroline stayed quiet.

Josie led Caroline to four boys, all in the latter half of their teenage years. They were fishing too, so Josie took one of the poles, and like a siren, she began to charm the boys. Three of the four fell under her spell. They moved like a many-headed monster trained to follow the same light. Caroline, hung back, as embarrassed by Josie’s boldness as she was her own timidity. When the fourth boy, unimpressed by Josie’s show, detached himself from the crowd and came over to her, she felt like her very organs blushed from the attention.

His name was Henry, and he was even quieter than her. As they tossed leaves into the river’s slipping current, his shyness eased Caroline of hers. She asked him questions, and as he slowly fed her answers, she felt the initial flattery blossom into her own brand of coquette. She learned that they were the same age, both high school seniors. Both smart, both only children. They lived in different states—she in Washington and he in Idaho. They’d both be going to college in the fall. He was the son of a potato farmer, skilled with the animals they kept, particularly apt with horses. He told her that his parents were strict, and he hadn’t had girlfriends before. Just before sunset, Caroline pressed a pen into Henry’s hand, and told him to write his mailing address on her arm.

Caroline wrote Henry the first letter. Whatever she’d felt when he chose her quiet over Josie, Caroline wanted more of that from him. Her friends told her that having a pen-pal boyfriend was the most romantic thing they’d ever heard, like Pride and Prejudice or Nora Roberts, and she believed them. When she described what Henry looked like—hazel eyes, cheekbones that left hollows in his cheeks, tell, muscled, masculine—they told her that she had all the luck.

In private, Caroline wondered if Henry’s letters were short, if she was imagining the subtext. Hers were long and confessional, one-sided versions of the conversations she imagined they’d have if they lived closer to each other. His were never more than two paragraphs, mostly about the animals he cared for. Occasionally he mentioned a friend from school, or a teacher, or how eager he was for college in the fall.

It was Josie’s idea for Caroline to meet up with him during the summer. She came to visit in June, and in between Josie’s non-stop stories about attending parties on frat row or waking up in bed with a member of the swim team, Caroline told Josie about the letter she and Henry had been exchanging. Josie’s eyes flashed wide, and when Caroline finished speaking, Josie leapt from her arm chair onto the couch where she kneeled down at Caroline’s feet.

“Oh my god, that’s soooo romantic. When are you going to see him next?”
Caroline laughed and pushed Josie off her, gratified by Josie’s rabid attention. “He lives on a farm in Idaho.”
“So what? You guys haven’t talk about meeting up?”
Caroline shrugged noncommittally.
“Where’s he going to college?”
“College of Southern Idaho.”
“Ohmygod.” Josie reared up. “That’s only an hour from your college.”
“It’s less than half an hour from where he lives now.”

Two months ago, Caroline had withdrawn her acceptance to the college in Oregon that she’d planned on attending, and accepted admission to the only school in Idaho she’d applied to—a school, she’d learned, an hour north of Henry’s school. Her parents had been confused, and maybe a little disappointed, when she’d changed her mind, but every time they tried to broach the subject with her, Caroline would shrug and repeated a memorized statistic about her new college. Eighty-six percent graduation rate. Classes under capped at 30 students. Ninety-six percent of professors published.

They didn’t know anything about Henry.

“So you guys are, like, boyfriend and girlfriend? Did you choose to go to school closer one another? Or did you already know where you wanted to go? ‘Cuz if you already knew, that would be, like, fate.”

Caroline frowned, rearranging herself on the couch to mask her squirming.

“I don’t really know. I mean—I haven’t seen him since March, and we haven’t, you know, called each other that or anything. At least not in our letters.” Caroline had let it slip a few times at school—her boyfriend in Idaho, Henry, her boyfriend who loved horses.

“You have to find out what you are, Caroline. No. You have to. Because, what if you’re boyfriend-girlfriend, and you don’t know it. Or,” Josie lowered her voice to a bedside whisper, “what if you’re not boyfriend-girlfriend, and you go to college thinking you’re taken, but you’re really not. That would be embarrassing.”

It only took Josie ten minutes to come up with a plan that would put Caroline and Henry back in the same place. All her life, Josie had been a sideshow act for Caroline, entertaining, seductive, but ultimately freakish in comparison to Caroline’s own reticence. But now, Caroline wanted a small part of her cousin’s daring. Maybe it was because every time she thought about what she’d do if she saw Henry again, what they’d do, Caroline found herself burning with the ineptitude of her own innocence.

Josie’s plan went like this: Caroline would apply for early move-in to her dormitory. Her college allowed for that in special circumstances. She’d lie to the college and tell them that her parents would be out of the country during move-in week, then she’d lie to her parents and tell that them that her new roommate was moving in early and didn’t want to be alone in the dorm. It wouldn’t matter that Caroline’s roommate wasn’t there when they arrived, because she’d tell her parents that they’d been given staggered move-in times. After her parents left, a friend of Josie’s would drive Caroline to Henry’s town. All Caroline needed to do was write Henry that she’d be near him that particular weekend, and then go along with whatever he suggested they do.

“But don’t be too eager!” Josie had warned, jabbing a finger at Caroline. “He has to want it more than you do.”
When they finished scheming, Josie asked to see the letters. Before she realized what she was doing, Caroline found herself lying, telling Josie that she hadn’t kept any of them. Later, Caroline decided that it was a good thing she’d lied. Josie was more discerning than her friends; if she read the letters, she might tell Caroline to call off the whole plan.

As soon as her college approved the early move-in request, Caroline wrote Henry. It took two separate letters, two separate references to how she’d be alone, lonely, near him, free for the weekend, before Henry offer a plan. He told her they could meet at the Cassia County Fair, at the entrance gates, and if she got a ride there, he might be able to drive her back later night.

Caroline only received one more letter from Henry that summer. He wrote to her about a horse with bone splints in her shin.

***

A hot wind cut across the prairie, sweeping the smell of fry oil and cow manure out into the night. Dust and sand scraped

Caroline’s skin, and she stood up, her legs lead and jelly all at once. The laughter died away. No one saw the way she swayed. The boys were moving slowly toward the midway. Where was Henry? All night, he’d kept far enough away to make her feel alone.

“Jake don’t mean it.” One of the boys detached from the group, and came back to Caroline. Backlit by the lights from the fair rides, the boy’s face was a shadow. He came so close she smell stale liquor and cigarettes on him.

“What?”

“Jake don’t mean it. He’s thinks he’s being funny.”

Caroline didn’t know who Jake was. Was he the big one? This boy wasn’t Henry either. She looked around him, squinting at the retreating group. There were more boys than she remembered. Their outlines shifting, blurring.

“You never been drunk before?”

Clumsily, she shook her head, sending the lights dancing again. Why hadn’t Josie told her that this was what drunk was? What she’d expected to be sultry and loose, she found to be sweaty and thick.

The stale cigarette boy wrapped his arm around her, and moved her body towards a bench. Caroline felt the burden of his weight bear down on her arms, and through his tee-shirt, worn thin and ragged, his body breathed hot and moist.

“Feel better?”

Seated, Caroline put her elbows on her knees, and leaned over them. The spinning slowed continue to slow. She was starting to feel steady again.. The boy dropped his fingers onto her back. Began to trace rough fingertips along her spine. A soft, searching touch that pushed through the fabric of her shirt.
“Where’s Henry?” she mumbled.

The boy didn’t answer for a moment, but ran his finger down her vertebrae, riding each ridge with a surgical slowness.
“Henry says you two were together this spring.”

Caroline shrugged. Squeezed her eyes hard enough to erupt a rope of pain across the top of her eyelids, a jolt of energy. His hand dropped lower, fingers now dissecting the skin exposed between her shorts and tank top.

“Henry’s never really had a girl before, but he said you two fucked.”

Like a radio tuned to a new station, his words cut through the ocean of ambient noise that the vodka had put in her ears. He said you two fucked. She looked up to find Henry. The group was even farther away. Too far away to differentiate individual bodies from the combined shape they made against the light.

“We didn’t do that.” Her tongue was dry, the words sticking on it.

The boy eased her tank top further up her back, the elastic fabric shimmying past her belly button as well.

“He said you did. He said you were a freak.”

The tears that she’d been fighting off all night came hard and fast, stinging her worse than the vodka vomit.

“We didn’t. We didn’t…fuck.” The word was a rock forced into her mouth, bitter, lingering on her tongue. “Where’s Henry? I don’t want you to touch me. I want Henry.”

Caroline tried to stand up. His hand flattened hard against her back. She ducked underneath him, and his hand swung out for her. She stumbled backwards, just barely holding her balance. The boy on the bench sucked air through his teeth. She thought she heard him laugh.

“Henry!” she tried to run. The wind stole her voice, and scattered it into the vast, black west behind her. “Henry!”
One form in the group silhouette turned around. Detached itself from the huddle, and came towards her.
“Henry.” She was crying hard now, moving blindly towards the silhouette. Henry braced his body for hers, caught her from falling. She draped herself onto his outstretched arms, laundry left out on the line.
“Are you crying?”

The fuzzy noise in her ears was getting louder. She couldn’t get her thoughts to connect with words. The only thing rising up from the fog of vodka and tears was that this wasn’t supposed to be like this. Tonight wasn’t supposed to be like this.
“Yes, I’m—. You told him—,” she coughed on her tears and pointed over her shoulder at the boy from the bench. “You told him that we—.”

“Jake’s right,” the voice from the park bench cut Caroline off, the same lazy drawl. “Bitch too drunk.”
She looked up at Henry, trying to decipher his expression.

“He was touching me.,” she whispered.

He stared down hard at her, then looked over to the other boy. What had she told her friends about his looks—that he had high cheekbones? Hazel eyes? His eyes were brown, flatly brown. Even in the dark. And his cheeks were thick, almost flabby, almost round.
He said nothing to the bench boy; his face didn’t even ripple.
“I’m taking you home.” He pulled his arms out from underneath her armpits, letting her catch herself.

They walked back through the fairgrounds in silence. The thronging crowds from the afternoon had thinned; the park was nearly empty. The wind was picking up speed, howling through the vendor stands, most still lit up, even though they were empty. A grease-stained doughnut wrapper cartwheeled on the wind, and an empty beer bottle shimmied down the pavement. Caroline watched her feet, swallowed phlegm and tears in noisy gulps.

Even after they got into Henry’s car, he remained quiet, manoeuvring quickly through the grass parking lot and onto the road. Once they were outside the radius of fair lights, the highway emptied. Henry’s headlights crowded out the darkness, pitch black gathering heavy along the edges of his dusty beams.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Caroline mumbled, breaking their silence as the dashboard clock rolled over into the new day. “Why did you even invite me here?”
Caroline watched Henry’s silhouette shrug. “It sounded like you wanted me to.”
“Didn’t you want to too?”
“I liked writing to you this year.”
“Why did you tell your friends that we did it?” Caroline wasn’t listening to Henry, these questions were too hard, coming too fast.
“Those guys have always teased me about not having girlfriends.” They passed a sign for her college. “I don’t even know if I like girls.”
“Will we visit each other now that we’re going to college in the same state?”
“I don’t know if I like boys either. I don’t know what I like. I don’t know what I want.”
“We’ll only be an hour away from each other.”
“I told them we had sex, because it was just fucking easy. I didn’t think they’d ever meet you.”
“You led me on.”
“No I didn’t.”

Caroline didn’t answer.

The engine whined, and the wind threw itself hard against the car, clawing hard across the beaten plain. Caroline thought about Henry like he wasn’t there, like she was in her bedroom in Washington. She wondered if she wanted to see him again.
Henry turned onto her campus. Street lamps threw cones of orange light onto the sidewalks. Above their light, dark shadows swallowed the buildings. He parked in front of a plain, brick building, and for a second, Caroline didn’t know why he had stopped here.

It was her dormitory. She’d barely even looked at it when she arrived this afternoon. She put her hand on the door handle, wishing she didn’t have to get out.

“I’m actually going to school in Minnesota. I changed my mind a few months ago.”

Henry gripped the steering wheel, and stared out the windshield. Minnesota? He’d never even mentioned Minnesota.
Caroline stumbled out of the car. As soon as the door slammed shut, he backed out of the parking lot. He didn’t wait for her to get into the building. He didn’t even look back.

Caroline rubbed her fingers against the three new keys on her chain. All but one were bright and polished; that last one dingy with scratches from someone else’s use. The wind had turned cold, and gooseflesh rippled down her arms and legs. Her teeth began to chatter as she tried each key in the door knob. When she got inside, the harsh light from the ever-lit hallways stung her sore, tear-raw eyes.

The dorm hall was eerie, emptied of all its people. Caroline knew that resident advisors had already moved in, but there was no sign of them, nothing that made their presence known.

Her mind wandered to her parents.

Less than ten hours before, they’d said goodbye to her. Her mother kissing the top of her head with shining eyes, and her father holding her tighter, longer than he usually did. Caroline had rushed them back to their car, and as soon as they were inside of it, she’d gone back into the building. She hadn’t even waited to let them wave goodbye to her.

Caroline climbed the stairs slowly. She remembered her parent’s, their furious currents of love, made hot by the grief of goodbye. In her excitement to see Henry, she’d missed the moment; she’d pushed it away. By the time Caroline reached her unfamiliar dorm room, the hollow ache in her stomach had fallen away, collapsed into a sinkhole of pain.

Tomorrow, she’d burn Henry’s letters in a bathroom sink. She’d call her parents, and tell them bright lies about how much she loved her new college.

She’d think of a better story to tell her new roommate about why she’d moved in early. Something she could spin as funny and sexy. Laughably disastrous when Josie or her girlfriends back home asked about how it went with Henry.

Caroline laid down on her bare bed—her sheets were buried in one of the unpacked bags. The clammy plastic chilled her skin, and she began shivering again. She wondered what it would have been like if Henry had stayed. She imagined his body wrapped close into hers. She tried not to think about what he’d said in the car.

What would he tell people in Minnesota about her?

He wouldn’t tell anyone about her, Caroline realized just before she fell into a sleep snarled with blinking lights and leering boys. He wouldn’t have. She wasn’t part of his story. Not in the same way she’d made him part of hers.