Thursday, August 27, 2009

"The Tray of Cocoa" by Mireya Robles

Born in Guantánamo, Cuba, Mireya Robles has published three novels and two books of poetry as well as articles, short stories and poems in literary magazines in about 20 countries. She has received literary awards in the USA, México, France, Italy and Spain. Interviewed on radio and TV in Miami, New York, Buenos Aires, Madrid and Durban, South Africa as well as in the documentary film Conducta Impropia/Improper Conduct directed by Oscar winner Néstor Almendros. This documentary received the Human Rights Award in Grenoble, France and has been televised in France and Spain and presented in movie theaters in New York, Miami, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela.


A small, time-weathered café. Weathered by thousands of beer-drinkers that clinked pitchers of fat crystal with a cheerful spark in their eyes, saying, “Salud! I drink to you, because you’re here, alive and well,” without speaking a word. Small tables, tiny ones, square, with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. All the tables squeezed so close to each other one can barely pass between them. The café petite and perfectly square. Walls of glass look out onto the town that isn’t a town but a beach, or a beach that isn’t for bathing but for fishermen. The sun, the light of the sun, is thick, yellow, dense and enters the café from the beach, ignoring the little densities of mist and leaving in peace the constant humidity. As if it weren’t concerned with heating or drying up, only beating into the café its torrent of heavy, brilliant light.

I come alone, without knowing why, without knowing where I’m coming from or how I got here. Only this moment matters. A moment in which I penetrate the world that talks and laughs. I don’t hear what they say. They’re unintelligible murmurs followed by laughter that seems sincere because it comes from within, as if pushed out by the diaphragm, localized just above the stomach. It’s not laughter produced artificially, with guttural sounds, forced.

I don’t have anyplace to sit. I have no place there, in this cramped, dirty, glittering world of those who laugh. Without finding a place, almost without looking for one, I see myself, in the moment, in the midst of my calm amazement, seated, waiting. I’ll say, because it has to be that way, because it can’t be any other way, that I’m twenty years old. Maybe I was seventeen, maybe sixteen or nineteen. A mature, familiar load of loneliness that I carry with me against my will tells me I’m twenty. I don’t know who, or what, I’m waiting for. I know I do not expect anything from the old, sweaty fishermen, with big cracks on their faces, with gratuitously febrile eyes, with their dirty, blue turtlenecks, with their knit caps, with their spontaneous laughter that responds to nothing. In them I’m not searching for anything. The desire to hear laughter, maybe, keeps me here, though the laughter may be a desultory sound.

Over and over, in front of my table, Ronald passes. He’s tall, sturdy—if he was a truck driver he’d be stocky—his body big and broad, his hair ash-chestnut, somewhat curly, bleached by the sun, in his eyes a brief spark that seems to announce the smile that never manages to appear on his lips. It’s him, he’s who I’m waiting for. He studies Medicine far from here. He’s not the owner of the café or a waiter, but he has for that place, for those people, for that moment, an inexplicable importance. I should say, I have to say, something leads me to believe that if it weren’t for Ronald, that moment wouldn’t exist. And with that moment absent, the café, the beer, and his smile would disappear.

Ronald passes by my side and I feel his presence, but he doesn’t approach. Ronald must know it’s him I’m waiting for. How wouldn’t he know I’m waiting for him, me being seated there by myself, alone among so many elderly men that smell of shellfish? How is it that, with me realizing he couldn’t choose anyone else and that I should wait for him, he could ignore that his predicament is the same as mine? Or maybe it’s not the same. When I leave the café, I’ll go back to my ruined parents, to the filth, to the daily hopes that die before being born, drowned in the absence of possibility.

I’m there, embedded in that chair, for an immeasurable interval of time, for days or minutes, or maybe for a life accumulated in an instant of waiting. It seems an eternity since the last time Ronald passed in front of my table. I have to find out, I have to know. Near me, there’s a stout woman, about fifty years old, her face still young-looking, dressed in all black, with big, shining, blue or greenish eyes. She sobs. She sobs inconsolably, sobs with the despair of someone that knows no one can console them. I speak to her feeling myself close to her, but without moving toward her. I know, without being told, that it’s about Ronald. I know, without being told, that it’s about that mocetón that passed in front of me, who never came to my table and to whom I imagined, so many times, saying my name and hearing his in return.

“It’s Ronald,” she told me. And I knew then it was the same Ronald and that he had been lost. A war, I thought; I kept imagining him dying in a war.
“Another of life’s absurdities,” she continued. “A bullet someone fired for no reason. With his right hand he touched the pain in his left shoulder, in his chest, his hand filled up with blood and he died right there.. I knew that she had to have another son and I asked her about him.
“He’s okay, he’ll be here soon.” I stayed there, waiting for the other without asking his name. I learned Ronald's name after his death. The name of this one was not important. The woman dressed in black disappeared from my vicinity. Because she was a vision or because she couldn’t cry in that café of laughter or because she stopped being important in that instant of my life.

Soon, very soon, the other appeared. Seventeen, eighteen, maybe. Big and powerful, but it never occurred to me to call him stocky. His hair straighter and black, his eyes big and brown, his skin olive-colored with a silky glow. This one seemed to understand, understood immediately, and soon we spotted each other in a living room empty enough where the presence of the other people mattered little. He reclined on the sofa, me at his side, and I wrapped my arms around his waist and lay my head on his chest. That was it. Maybe life wasn’t such a constant, difficult disjointedness, after all. Maybe life could be lived like this, lying on the chest that one must search for, that one has to find, and wait for death. Maybe life isn’t so difficult, maybe it isn’t a constant, painful disjointedness.

I had my eyes closed as if to accommodate myself and wake up at my destiny, but something inexplicable made me open my eyes slowly. I saw you there, in a rocking chair, in front of me, looking at me with resigned amazement and a sadness that, until then, had only been mine. You were calm and wordless, I would say that you were feeling for me a moment of compassion. You had on your face a weariness that you seemed to have literally stolen from me. You were close, with the full immensity of your devotion, but distant and incommunicable. I kept my arms wrapped around that mountain of strong and relaxed muscles and kept saying to myself that like this, with my eyes closed, lying on him, silent, in spite of everything, in spite of your compassion, maybe life wasn’t a painful, constant disjointedness. A sweet, firm movement separated my arms and I saw him, sweet nameless destiny, standing in front of me, ready to go. I didn’t ask for an explanation because it wasn’t necessary. His embrace, his closeness had been momentary. They had nothing to do with my plan to, once and for all, fit myself into life. Nothing to do with my intention to rest that way, hugging him and waiting for death. The hours of the night in which a man embraces a woman ended, the moment of departure, of disappearing without a trace into the night, arrived.

I went back to my place, walking barefoot on damp sand in the falling night. I arrived at my father’s small, ramshackle theater and saw him, with all his strength worn away, always on the verge of collapse, in the poor, overly lit stage, lashing the air as if he were threatening or punishing destiny so it would grant him the production that seemed eternally out of reach. I don’t know if he was waiting for a miracle. He was the owner of that theater, that building, that shell, but he would never have enough money to put on the show. I had grown up hearing his cries and lashes in the air. Without actors, without a script, without a team. His only employee was a flabby, pudgy young girl, her fat, eternally wet lips half-open and showing a few broad, gapped teeth. Wearing a clown dress, white with huge red dots and a straw hat like a schoolgirl, with two ribbons hanging from the back part of the round brim. Eventually, a few people appeared. The idiot collected the ten-cent per-head entrance fee. My father’s fury multiplied. He had managed to get six, ten, twenty people to come see what he had to offer; he had managed to collect a few miserable reales but he had no performance to offer them. Unwilling to admit his failure, he whipped the air and, from the stage, screamed at the girl that collected the reales with a slobbering grin: “Idiot! Idiot! It’s all your fault! Today’s going to be another failure all because of you!” I heard the screams and paid them little attention, knowing the performance would end before it started, when the audience grew bored with the screams and the lashes of the air and commenced to get up and recollect their real from the hands of the smiling idiot. I kept away, heading off to a kiosk and ordering, with an air of triumph, a cup of cocoa. They served me the chocolate in a kind of small, deep carton tray and I didn’t protest. It was already late—nine at night—and to receive service of this type in a town already totally asleep was a privilege. We lived on the second floor, in a blackish, dirty dovecot, dark for lack of electric light, or because my mother simply liked to live that way. She was waiting for me with a recriminatory attitude: “You know that here, in this house, we eat at seven on the dot.” Inexplicably, I felt free of familial ties, independent. It seemed to have been tossed out a nonexistent window, a bag full of blame. Knowing she was watching me, I flashed a cynical smile and, drinking from the chocolate tray, said, “I know.”

- Translated by David Iaconangelo and Mireya Robles. Photo by Tania Spencer.

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