Black and white *.
I don't know whether to think you're a saint or a fool, Luisa, although maybe they're the same thing. Did Rebecca's phone call really upset you so much that you had to go hide? The living room smells like death. How long is it since anybody's been here? Even the mailman knows to come to the back door. You've created a boundary, an invisible line that says that the house starts at the dining room. It's probably so you can imagine Rebecca still here and Leon still alive. And if you keep the lights turned off, it must be because darkness allows you to imagine furniture and curtains that haven't been here for years. And it's all a shame, Luisa, because now this house belongs to you. Rebecca's not here to tell you what to do. She's lost her rights--if she ever had any--when she left. And it's pathetic to hear you cry talking to her on the phone. Don't give me that "she was crying too" bit since we both know what her tears are worth. Remember how weepy she got when they came to inventory her things before she left and they seized the wedding photo? "Oh, no, not that," she said with rivers gushing from her eyes. So they gave it back to her but she didn't take it after all because without the elegant frame it wasn't the same. If it wasn't going to take center stage on a coffee table where everyone could admire the pearls, fancy beadwork, and intricate lace of her wedding dress, it didn't have the same appeal. You're the only one who believes she got choked up just talking to you. She didn't call to find out about you, Luisa; she still wants to order you around. For her, you've never been more than a servant.
That's not true. Rebecca and I are more like sisters than cousins. She and I are the only descendents of the Ricardo family because Mama and Aunt Amalia, even though they got married young, didn't have us until they were in their forties--Mama because she would always lose the baby in the third or fourth month and Auntie Amalia because she never got pregnant. At age forty Aunt Amalia had Rebecca and the next year I was born, as if Mama had been waiting for a signal. Rebecca and I were always together. They even dressed us alike, except that on Rebecca the clothes looked beautiful while on me they seemed to be hanging from a hook. I turned out like Papa: tall, thin, and gangly. I don't think Mama ever forgave me. Sometimes she looked at me as if my very existence was punishment for some unknown sin. We never really got along. Mama tried her best to mold me and she used to say: "Even though you're younger than Rebecca, you don't always have to do things her way. Sometimes you should be in charge. Tell her you want to play with dolls instead of playing doctor." I tried that, but it always turned out that when Rebecca wanted to play with dolls, or felt like playing nurses, she made it so interesting that I agreed with her. That's just the way it was. At some point Mama got tired of trying to change me. Perhaps it was after father died and we were in mourning, I for a year and she in perpetuity. Neither her body nor her soul ever really gave up mourning. It even offended her that I got to the point of being able to laugh again. That was the worst period of my life because I discovered I could never fill the emptiness that my father's death had left. Rebecca was my salvation. Every time she went out she came by for me and begged so much that mother ended up letting me go with her. Thanks to Rebecca, I went to parties, saw friends, and took walks. If it had been up to mother, I would never have seen a single movie. And was it Rebecca's fault that she was pretty and cheerful while I was unattractive and withdrawn? Anyway, I never felt ill will or jealousy because people preferred her. On the contrary, I had fun because of her romances and many times I helped her arrange to be alone with a boy. Nothing serious happened until Leon appeared, and then it was clear that he was something different. He was twelve years older than Rebecca and was a respected physician. Even before the engagement she paid him special attention, and wouldn't dance with anybody else. I was the beneficiary of her single-mindedness--when boys asked her to dance and she said no, they turned to me. But none of them interested me, and after Leon asked for Rebecca's hand, no one dared to approach us. I didn't really miss the male companionship. Leon was so kind that he never made me feel like a chaperone, or someone extra. It was marvelous. Something in his way of looking at you made you feel protected, safe from everything. He treated us like little girls and brought presents for both of us. He was crazy about Rebecca: when she spoke he smiled, and you could tell that he was not just listening but also looking, drinking her in with his eyes. With me, it was what I said that mattered. Leon and I always found it easy to talk to each other. One afternoon we were discussing a biography of Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig, a book Leon had given us and that I, as usual, had read and then summarized for Rebecca. The conversation was about more than an aristocrat facing the guillotine. It was about whether the punishment was fair or not. Rebecca saw Marie Antoinette as a young girl who had done nothing more than amuse herself and said it wasn't reasonable to expect more of someone who became a queen at age sixteen. I argued that Marie Antoinette was a grown woman at the time of the French Revolution and that by then she should have gained some degree of maturity. Zweig (for his part) seemed to me to be enamored of the idea of a beautiful queen meeting a tragic end. To all of this, Leon smiled. He praised my intelligence and said I had common sense, which was rare: "We'll have to take care of you, you're the sort of woman who's becoming extinct." Rebecca thought he was making fun of me and scolded him, but I took it all seriously. Their courtship period was a beautiful, harmonious interlude, but it didn't last long. The wedding was a big deal, first the ceremony in the church and then the festivities. Mama didn't want to go but Aunt Amalia interceded for me and we went for about an hour, enough time to see them cut the cake, sip the cider and kiss. On the way back I cried, but mother didn't even pay attention. At the time, she was already sick but didn't know how serious it was. In any event it didn't matter to her. During Rebecca's honeymoon--days when I never left the house--I realized that mother was going to die. One night while we were eating I asked her if I shouldn't study typing. "Don't be ridiculous," she said, "you have your pension and the house." Mother faded little by little without complaining. The last thing she said was, "I'm coming to join you, Antonio." Not a word for me. I, who cry about everything, was dry-eyed, and empty. It hardly seemed that mother had died but rather that she'd left me alone on purpose. At the funeral itself, Aunt Amalia asked me to come live with her. I said no, and it took Leon's help to convince her to let me go home by myself after the burial. I went to sleep and slept like a rock until the next morning. In the morning Aunt Amalia came back to try to convince me, and I told her I would think about it, and when she left I said to myself: "I've got things to do," and I set to cleaning. I washed doors and windows, swept the roof, and scrubbed the floors. People came to give me their condolences and they couldn't even step inside the door because of all the water from my scrubbing. Rebecca came in the afternoon and found me scouring the cement steps that led to the patio. She completely forgot to mention mother. She sat in the kitchen, and I offered to fix her coffee, but she wouldn't let me. "You're coming with us," she said. And it was just like when we played as children: I knew that she was right.
You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, as might be expected of Rebecca's daughter. Pretty as a picture. Your grandmother Amalia used to say: she'll be a fashion model. Rebecca dressed you up in such frilly and beautiful outfits that you looked like a princess, and even people who didn't know you felt like they had to pay compliments. One time they gave you three polished, jet-black azabache pendants out of fear of the evil eye. And in one of the carnivals they dressed you up as a harem girl and painted your face. They had you ride right on the hood of the car. You surely remember that because it was the happiest moment of your childhood. Three years old. And there you were: a precious little doll seated on top of the hood throwing streamers and kisses.
The earliest thing I remember are the bars of my cradle. I played that I was a lion in a cage. I crawled and roared. I also remember that the only one who listened to my stories was Leon. He listened attentively and discussed them with me seriously. Rebecca insisted that if I kept it up I'd end up telling lies. I'll never understand her. The day that I ran away from home, the only thing she did was to laugh at the sight of me with high heels, jewelry, and makeup. They found me three blocks away from home. I hadn't yet started school, so I must have been less than five years old. I suppose that in those days I was happy, but I can't remember that happiness, just a few good moments that fell my way like the aces from a deck of cards. One of my best memories is of an afternoon on the patio when I was alone, seated on the ground with a plate heaped with caramels. Other good memories are when Uncle Pedro taught me to play cards in the middle of hurricane Flora; well, I know it wasn't exactly a hurricane because he never left the farm, but still it was raining really hard that afternoon. He also taught me to ride horseback and drink sugar cane juice. The farm was a paradise, but we didn't get to go very often ... Rebecca always complained about how far it was, how bad the road was, about the mud and the insects--about everything. When she wasn't around Leon, she was disparaging of Uncle Pedro, who was such a macho guy that he and Leon hardly seemed like brothers. But guess who always came to our rescue. The trips to the farm are among my happiest memories. Another time was when Grandma Amalia and Grandpa Enrique went north, their kisses wet with tears as they said goodbye. Of the trip to Havana, the one where they said they took me to the city's Coney Island Amusement Park, I don't remember anything. Oh, and of course there was the beach. Rebecca would lie in the sun wearing her Hawaiian pareu while Leon taught me how to swim. One day we couldn't go in because the sea was so rough and the waves so furious that they could drag down a grown man. While we were sitting on the beach, a bent over old man with white hair walked by. He was all by himself. He didn't dare go in the water but he got close enough to splash a little water on himself when the waves came in. But then he got knocked down by a big wave and the poor old man had to retreat. I felt sad seeing him so unhappy and defenseless. It made me angry that he wanted to bathe in the ocean and the sea wouldn't allow it, just like if someone came to knock on your door to ask you for something and you threw the person out. Alms. Oh yes, the question of charity. That's something for which I'll never forgive Rebecca. I used to save coins to give them to the old people who sat in the doors of the church. I'd go to nine o'clock mass so I could sleep in the morning. After I had my first communion, they let me go to seven o'clock mass and I didn't see any more beggars. But, before, when I used to go with Rebecca, I did see them. There were three old men. I would go up to them and give them my coins, two or three to each one, and they would smile and say thank you and God bless you. Rebecca never gave them anything. I went up to them all by myself, a good little girl giving alms. One morning there was a younger woman there and when she saw the three coins she threw them on the ground. I was shocked because she said "shit," just like that, "shit," and then Rebecca came and rescued me while the woman said, "Money, what I need is money--not these shitty coins." The old men had never protested. Rebecca said they must be millionaires with all the alms they got at every mass. And I was giving them coins. I'll never be able to forgive or forget that incident. I was just a little girl and I didn't understand, and Rebecca in her own way helped me to understand.
If you don't want this letter from Rebecca to end up in the bathroom wastebasket, don't leave it out where it can be seen. After all, you're the one who wants to know how she's doing. And you needn't make an effort to tell us that she still hasn't found work and that she's living with Bonnie and not Carmela. Everything that the letter says we already know; there's never any mystery with Rebecca. It's was obvious that she wasn't going to stay with q after Pedro kicked her out. Carmela is cheap and Rebecca likes luxury. Didn't you say that Bonnie has money? Leon's inconsolable widow won't be looking for work. She's not like you, Luisa, almost going crazy and asking God to help you get ahead. Now, there's nothing left for you to sell. Well, yes, there are the hidden jewels, Rebecca's famous emeralds that matched her eyes. You looked almost comical when you said you'd rather work like a slave than sell them. But you'll have to do something. Yesterday you cried after refusing the chickens that Manuel brought and nobody knew if you cried because there wasn't any meat in the house or because you couldn't believe that Manuel wanted you to pay. And what did you expect, that he's going to just give them to you because Pedro was always kind to him? In any event, Manuel was working for a salary, and if he was Pedro's friend, something no one can prove, you're really nothing more than the cousin of the wife of the brother of his friend. That's a pretty distant relationship, don't you think? And the fact that Pedro's niece is in the middle of it all hardly matters either. You should be thankful that he is bringing you things, because many people would have to go to him to buy them. You also have to remember that if he keeps coming in vain, he's going to stop coming. But don't worry; you have rice and beans and there's meat once a week. Isn't that right? So be happy.
Ever since '59 everything's been falling apart back there. Well, maybe since '60, because in '59 there was all the rejoicing over the triumph of the revolution. Leon laughed because he said that all of a sudden we discovered that everything was linked to the date July 26, and how could you explain that Batista had lasted so long. ** From '59 I just remember one bad thing; that's when Bonnie, Rebecca's best friend, went North. While Bonnie was here, Carmela was nothing more than an acquaintance. Bonnie was nice and spoke a kind of comical Spanish. She used to say: I am (soy) really confused, I am (estoy) clumsy in Spanish, getting our two ways of expressing "to be" completely mixed up. She could never understand the difference between "ser" and "estar." Her family had extensive holdings, and they left sometime between May and June of 1959, while we were still in the period of euphoria. Later everyone said that they had had foresight. First because of the hassles about ownership and then because of military conscription. Rebecca's friends kept leaving until only Carmela Aguirre was left. Aunt Amalia and Uncle Enrique left shortly after the money was changed. They had theirs all hidden away in the house and they were ruined. They tried to convince Leon to go, too, but he had lived in New York before he got married and had no desire to return He did, however, give them a blank check so that they could use money he had left in a bank there. That money ended up being a big help because six months after they got there Uncle Enrique suffered a heart attack and couldn't work anymore. Even now they're still living on welfare, which is why Rebecca couldn't stay with them. Another person who suffered a lot was Pedro. The second agrarian reform law took away almost all of his farm--the best land according to him--and he became bitter and left. When he came to say goodbye and bent down to kiss me, I realized that his hair had turned white. That's how we ended up being alone. Pedro prospered in the U.S. and offered to help us come whenever we wanted. From the very first, Rebecca wanted to go. Every time a letter from Pedro arrived she argued with Leon about it. In May of '67 she insisted for the last time. I can remember it vividly: Leon seated in the rocking chair and she on the footstool to the side, leaning on his knees and begging. His response had always been that he wasn't missing out on anything. This time he said: "Here I have a name and I'm respected." "You can make a name for yourself there as well," she said. But looking at her with sadness he replied: "Not now," and she understood and ran to the bedroom with tears in her eyes. They didn't speak of it again, not even when Carmela herself planned to leave. I'm not sure why it took so long for Rebecca to realize about Leon's health; perhaps she wanted to hide from reality and stick her head in the ground like an ostrich. I understood from the very beginning. When Leon had to work at night I was the one who stayed up to heat his meal and talk to him. One day the hospital called to say he was doing an emergency operation and would get home late. When he arrived it was after midnight and he was not in his own car. They brought him home. When I went out into the hallway, it scared me half to death to see him; he had to lean against the wall to be able to walk and seemed a shadow of himself. I helped him sit down. What's the matter? What happened? I asked. No answer. I asked him if I should bring him some food and he nodded no with his head and just stayed seated, leaning back, with his eyes closed. He was breathing so weakly that I could hardly hear him. I'll call Rebecca, I said, but he took my hand in his. What is it, Leon? What happened? He spoke with long pauses, as if he didn't have sufficient breath for a whole sentence. "There was an accident. In the middle of the operation the man's heart stopped. I couldn't pull him out of it. I couldn't." I tried to console Leon: I'm sure you did everything you could. He closed his eyes again and said simply: "The patient died and I'm alive." And it was then that I realized that Leon had suffered a heart attack at the very time he was fighting to save another man's life. He hadn't been able to go on. No doubt they tended to Leon more than the other man, so he felt guilty for having stolen another man's chance to live. The remorse of that incident devastated him as much as his own illness. He was never the same after that. When he tried to tell a joke, he ended up wanting to bite his tongue with regret for having spoken. It was then that the really bad years began. 1968 was the worst. We lost Leon, which meant losing everything; it was the greatest sorrow of my life. When Papa died I was just a little girl; then when Mama died the sensation was very different. When Leon died my world came apart, and I couldn't even cry because someone had to look after the house and Rebecca had to be sedated three times during the wake and couldn't make it to the burial. The next few days we were like ghosts in the house. Carmela came every day. I left her alone with Rebecca so I could take care of the household chores and could cry alone in the kitchen. If I had money for all the tears I spilled in that kitchen, I'd never be hungry. One month after Leon died, we went to take flowers to the cemetery. There at Leon's tomb Rebecca told me that she was going to seek permission to leave. I looked at her without knowing what to say and she explained: Mother will take care of the legal matters and Pedro will give us the money. You're coming with us aren't you? No, I said. The people I love are buried here and I'm staying here with them.
You must remember about all of that. It wasn't when you were really young. I'm sure you remember because it was the time you began to change. You went from being a sweet, outgoing, talkative little girl to becoming a silent and withdrawn human being. Everyday you hid a bit more of yourself. Rebecca always tried to get you to go out with her, and you always said no until at last she gave up and began to go out by herself. The more you refused to talk, the more she talked. Couldn't you see that she was about to go crazy? The culmination came when it was time for Carmela to leave. I know it must have been hard for you: the day you turned twelve you didn't even smile when Rebecca woke you up with a kiss and congratulations. This year the nightmare will end, she said, and she was right, except that your nightmare and hers were different. Once the unpleasantness of the pre-departure inventory was over, Rebecca seemed to be humming with happiness. You, on the other hand, seemed to be dying inside. The night you and Rebecca were headed for Varadero you had us worried. You'd never before thrown a plate of food on the floor. Then in the station you sat on the floor and acted deaf when they called, and had to be put on the train. Your eyes had a vacant look as if you weren't going toward Matanzas and from there to Varadero, but rather toward hell. What happened next only you know.
Torches and smoke. That's my memory of the station. A very long black train seen as if I were looking at it from outside my body: I saw myself seated at the edge of the platform with my legs dangling. There was a drunk lying on a bench like a bundle of rags. I even thought that I was dead and that my body had been thrown out, but I don't remember much more. Just scenes and sensations. The bathroom of the train wet with puddles and full of paper. The metal door felt cold. I remember how that cold penetrated. The trip made me seasick. The trees ran backwards, and all of a sudden a station would appear: they were always the same: the same fence, the same building, the same benches. The train blew its whistle and lurched forward, and the trees began to run backwards again. I'm not sure how long it took or what Rebecca did. When we got to Matanzas a man in the station was selling Caracas cakes or some kind of bread like that. I asked Rebecca to buy me some but she put me in a rented van where we were all on top of each other and on top of the luggage. The man with Caracas bread remained behind; people were buying, breaking off pieces, and eating. Rebecca tried to give me some of the meat pie she had brought, but I wasn't hungry. In Varadero we stayed in the house of a woman who rented out space to people who were leaving; it was the same place where Carmela had stayed. The woman already knew about Rebecca, greeted her as if they were old friends and even fixed her coffee. They sat in the kitchen and talked for a long time. The woman told Rebecca that they would make her give up her wedding ring because it was gold and suggested that she swallow it. Just pretend it's a pill she said. The house had a wood swing on the porch, and I spent some time there. I suppose that at some point I bathed, we ate, and that they gave us a room to sleep in, but I don't know, I just can't remember. I was on the swing when Rebecca called me to get dressed. I wanted to stay dressed in pants but she made me put on a gingham dress. I closed the suitcase and heard the car honk outside. Hurry up she said. As I left the room I saw her on the sidewalk with the man who was going to take us to the airport, a fat man with a double chin that almost reached his chest. He looked at Rebecca as if he were going to eat her up. They were standing next to each other and their thighs were touching. I didn't think about anything; I didn't know what I was going to do. Instead of walking to the sidewalk I went to the patio. Something snapped inside my head; I saw the zinc fence and jumped over it. Behind the fence was underbrush. I began to run, but at first not very fast. Then I heard shouts and realized that I was escaping, or that I could escape. I ran like crazy through the countryside, falling down and getting up and running again, and when I had to stop I lay down between some rocks and a thorny marabusal bush with my throat dry, scared to death like in hide and seek, where you know they are looking for you and that if they find you, you lose. Nightfall came and I stayed put, paralyzed, not daring to move. Suddenly I heard noises and a flashlight beam was on me. Someone pulled me up by the arms. I saw some very blue eyes, thought it was an American, and began to shout that I didn't want to go, that I wanted to stay in Cuba. Then I saw a dark haired man and realized that they were both dressed in olive green. I tried to walk but I couldn't; the one with the blue eyes carried me to a jeep and they took me to a guard post. I heard them talking on the phone and they mentioned Rebecca. I shouted again and grabbed the arm of the official: Don't let her take me, please, don't let her take me. She can't take you because she's already gone, he said. I looked at him stupefied and began to laugh and cry at the same time. They brought me a glass of milk and then I fell asleep and didn't even dream.
Seeing you place flowers on the tomb, dressed in mourning, anyone would think that you were the widow. Leon was a lucky fool. Instead of choosing you he married Rebecca and got you both. An ideal combination: a beautiful lover to show off and a perfect housewife. How could you stand it? Your mother was right to be irritated with you. You could have married, had children, your own house, your own life, but instead you preferred to be a shadow of Rebecca. If you'd wanted to, who knows. After all Leon was closer to you than to her. The way in which he talked to you, looked at you, smiled at you. If you'd wanted to ...
I've been happy. Very happy. Perhaps I've had more than my share of happiness. Life is never black and white, or rather it is, but the two colors are mixed: nothing is entirely black or entirely white. All those dances, those strolls in the park, so many lovely memories that can't be separated from Rebecca; thanks to her I enjoyed them. Should I have gotten married? I had some suitors before mother died, but not a single one stirred my interest. If I had stayed in my house perhaps others would have shown interest, and probably not because of me, but because of the advantages of my being a single girl with a house. When I lived with Leon and Rebecca I met many men, friends of Leon, and occasionally one would pay me a compliment or drop a hint. But I never encouraged any of them; I didn't need to. I've lived the life I chose and the bad things that have happened were not anybody's fault in particular. The break-up of the family, Leon's heart attack: Rebecca suffered more from them than I did. She always needed things that weren't of interest to me and she kept losing them one by one. For example, she loved candy and Leon would get it for her two boxes at a time; even more when she was pregnant. She always insisted that I eat one as soon as she opened the box because her craving was so strong that she could eat the whole box in minutes and would then feel sorry that there wasn't one left for me. In some ways her weaknesses were not her fault. She was always spoiled, pampered, and treated like a doll, but she was also sweet, cheerful and good-natured. She simply wasn't prepared to face life on her own. She'd always had someone to do things for her: first Aunt Amalia and Uncle Enrique, then Leon, and at the end just me. If she is living with Bonnie now it's not just for economic reasons. Every time we talk on the phone she ends by telling me: I really miss you. She feels my absence much more than I feel hers. It's always been that way. It was always up to her to give and to me to receive.
You were very sentimental as a little girl; you had a special capacity to enjoy love. You don't remember it, but one time you saw Leon and Rebecca kissing on the lips and you ran out to tell everybody you saw: my mother and father are going to get married. It was the same with the gift of La Edad de Oro. *** Do you remember that you decided that you would begin to read it on the very day of your birthday and that you've kept it on the night stand unopened until this very day? Leon was sorry because he understood that you would have wanted such a special gift to arrive--not on just any day--but on some important date. At the same time he was proud that you would organize things that way; he said that it was good that you were capable of wishful thinking. Now, on the other hand you've become hard and practical. You're obsessed with all of Rebecca's supposed failings. And now you don't even call her Mama.
Carmela's house was just like her. From the outside it seemed like a lovely big house, but once you went through the door you found sagging furniture, cobwebs on the lamps, pictures and door-molding and rooms that were empty because she had sold off everything. The first room was full of cardboard boxes, piles of cardboard boxes, who knows for what, and two more rooms that were empty, and then her room which led to the hallway of the patio and the bathroom. Her room did have the bedroom furniture intact. In the patio, grass was growing between the cracks in the cement. The garden wall and the wall of the bathroom were covered with mold and bracken. Apart from the living room, that room and the kitchen, there was no place to sit down. They sent me to the patio and I sat down on the floor of the hallway. I don't know what they were thinking when they told me to amuse myself back there. How did they imagine that an eleven-year old would amuse herself? While Leon was living we never went to that house. He probably didn't allow Rebecca to go. After he died we would go two or three times a week, with me always as a cover. The unhappy widow paying social calls with her daughter. Rebecca never went to the cemetery because it depressed her. She said that Leon wasn't really in the tomb but in her heart. How ridiculous! Leon in Rebecca's heart in Carmela's house while the two of them whispered and laughed and made me leave if I tried to come in. They talked on the telephone very softly. Until that afternoon when Rebecca said she had a terrible headache and Carmela said she should lie down a while and then insisted that I go with her to the park. Like I was some five-year old or an imbecile. They would have given me candy if they'd had some. When we got to the park, Carmela sat down on a bench and said: Run around over there. As incredible as it seems, I sat down and asked God to send a downpour--a great, huge deluge that would soak her completely. It wouldn't matter that I got wet as well. I asked it with all of my heart, but God must be deaf. People walked through the park and went in and out of stores. Why couldn't I become one of those people who were walking all around me? A little girl fell down, scraped her knee, and cried. The mother came running to pick her up, carefully cleaned the knee, blew on the wound to dry it and then carried the little girl away. Was it that afternoon? Was I perhaps the one who fell? The park smelled wet but it never rained. The sun was an orange you could look up at. The air around me was suffocating and I couldn't take it any longer. Why didn't I run home without saying anything to Carmela? She would have looked for me for a while and then would have gone to tell Rebecca: "She got lost in the park." She might not even have been alarmed. I was so well brought up, so obedient: "Let's go look for mother, let's go, let's go." And she: "let's wait a while, would you like to look at the stores?" "I want to go, I want to look for my mother!" I can still remember the warm flush on her face. "Trouble-making, ill-bred little girl." A snake hissing the words. I didn't grab her by the hair and drag her through the park. I didn't rip her dress and leave her naked in front of everyone. And I was capable of walking along with her to the house, crossing the living room and the dining room to the patio, the hall to the room, the room empty, the bed empty, the bedspread and pillows on the bench in front of the dressing table and Rebecca's belt, watch and necklace on the dressing table itself, and Rebecca coming out of the bathroom combing her hair. What happened? Rebecca finishes combing her hair, applies makeup, and then puts on her watch, belt and necklace. And the whole time Carmela is opening and shutting her mouth, talking, getting worked up, becoming hoarse, and her sounds are swallowed up by the bed, empty, white, and sunken in the middle. Carmela's bed.
Rebecca should not have done that to you. She was a widow and free and she didn't need anyone to serve as a cover. I don't know why she was so worried about what people would say when she had already decided to leave the country. Of course the criticism would have been harsh. The husband barely two months dead and she's already out seeking consolation. People judge just by appearances, even you. I don't know if I should tell you this or if I will help destroy the only thing you love and respect, but I feel dirty hearing you talk that way. I hope you can understand. When Leon died, it had been over a year since he and Rebecca had sexual relations; they slept in the bed like brother and sister. She was young and full of desire. She never complained and I'm sure that if he had been living she would never have gone near another man. I could tell you that the cause of all of it was that he had had a heart attack and in one sense that would be true, although not entirely true. You said that Rebecca had been the lover and I the wife. Ever since I came to this house I began to take charge of things and little by little Leon got accustomed to discussing all the daily details with me. Rebecca didn't want to be bothered with that sort of thing. One night, one of the many nights when Leon got home late and found me awake he stroked my hair and told me: "It took me a long time to learn how to see you, Luisa, and now I can't offer you anything. I'm sorry." I answered him: I have everything I want. And that was true. I loved him from the very beginning, from those first days in which he took an interest in Rebecca and I was happy with his affection and kindnesses without hoping for more. I suffered the day of the wedding, for the first time seeing them kiss, realizing that he would not be mine, and that I could not touch and embrace him like she could. When they were on their honeymoon I suffered more. I understood that my life would be worth nothing without seeing him, speaking with him, or touching his hand or arm just casually. Rebecca made that and much more possible. I shared everything with him except his bed. After that late night conversation, he allowed himself to caress me sometimes, always careful to not go too far. Then came the first heart attack, which affected him some, but not totally. Rebecca cried with me in the kitchen all morning. "He just can't any longer," she told me, "he's not well." "Give him time," I advised. She looked at me. "You understand him," she said, "help him." I felt confused and embarrassed. "Ever since I came I've done nothing except try to help both of you." She shook her head. "I know, but he needs you more now." I didn't know how to take her words. I turned them around and around in my head and the night we stayed together very late watching a movie, when he began to caress my hair and kiss me on the neck I decided that Rebecca had wanted to give me a great deal of leeway. I never dared to let her see; neither did he. We kept up appearances because we felt that it would be a big problem if she had to face it, but I've always believed she knew. That day in the cemetery when I told her that I preferred to stay in Cuba where my loved ones were buried, her response was: "They're more yours than mine." And when she called from Varadero, gone crazy, crying, and talking incoherently, until I managed to understand that you had escaped, she said: "I'm going, I can't make her come with me, she, too, has chosen you." It must have been very hard. And don't say that she asked for it. People don't always do what they should, or what they want to do, but they generally do what they are capable of doing. We're all somewhat egotistical and if we make sacrifices for someone it is almost always because we enjoy that sacrifice or because it pleases us or because the sacrifice is not that great. I probably should have said nothing. Who knows if with time you might have come to understand and forgive Rebecca without my needing to explain that there is plenty of blame for everyone. And, who knows if now you'll be able to pardon Leon and me.
Translation by Anne Fountain
* A conversation between Luisa and her cousin Rebecca's daughter; in essence a way to contrast those who left after the 1959 Revolution and those who stayed. The two narrators alternate in telling about Rebecca, and, through her, the story of a Cuban family.
** July 26th--After the 1959 revolution, much was made of the date July 26 to commemorate the July 26, 1953 attack by Fidel Castro and his followers on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. A Cuban song includes the refrain: "For us, it's always the 26th."
*** La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age)--famous book of children's literature written by the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti. It contains stories and poetry and is important for its moral lessons as well as being a source of information and entertainment.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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