Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Colors" by Aida Bahr

Aida Caridad Bahr Valcárcel ( Holguín, 1958) is a narrator, essayist, and anthologist whose works have been recognized by a large number of honor-bestowing bodies, the 2006 Alejo Carpentier Prize and 2002 Distinction for Cuban Culture being among the most prestigious. She has spoken and served as delegate for literary fairs in over a dozen countries, contributed stories to numerous domestic and international anthologies, edited three compilations of short stories, and published seven books of her own, in addition to having served as a juror for prizes like the Casa de las Américas, Alejo Carpentier, and the National Prize for Literature. After over a decade of positions as linguistic and literary researcher, in 1998 she became director of the publishing house Editorial Oriente and editor of the magazine SiC, both based in Santiago de Cuba, where she lives now.


Through the window she can make out a bit of blue sky. A blue so intense that, looking at it for a while, it begins to turn white, or really, to dissolve wrapped in a halo of mist. She realizes that she’s on the brink of falling and, instinctively, her hands seize the edge of the small table in order to support her body. Hundreds of brilliant points dance madly behind her eyelids. Nausea wraps her; heat overwhelms her. Breathe, slowly, deeply, repeating to herself that it will pass, that a few minutes will bring relief, that when done in the kitchen she will go to the bathroom and take a shower and this exhaustion that oppresses her will dissolve little by little in the water. The same thing had happened other times, but without doubt she knows that this is worse: the vertigo attack had surprised her without a single warning sign, and she had the terrible sensation that her legs were made of rags, only her hands retained strength, only her breathing responded and helped her maintain control of herself. In a few minutes the nausea wanes, her body regains its strength. When she opens her eyes the blue is still there, tender, and nonetheless furious.

She turns on the stream from the faucet and splashes water on her face. It’s a little warm, but it revives her. Looking behind her, it seems as though she sees her mother sitting in the dining room, with that expression of tiredness and bitterness that never erased itself from her face in those final months. If she were still alive everything would be different. Returning from work she would find lunch ready, and the kitchen would be clean, immaculate, instead of the plates, glasses and mugs overflowing the sink, the stains of grease on the tiles.

Shame on you.

The voice has become so real and close that she almost jumps. No, he’s not there, he’d taken a bath and went to sleep; the night before he could hardly sleep because of the girl. She didn’t sleep; her daughter needed her inhaler twice, and then she took her out to the yard, and had to wipe a damp cloth around the whole room.

Mamá, you should move to a house with a concrete roof.

The stupid doctor made stupid suggestions that she knows they can’t follow. Now she can’t even aspire to find a man who has a house and would bring her and her daughter to live with him. She can’t leave her father alone. Oscar isn’t going to return. She looked into his eyes when she sat with him at the funeral, the parlor almost empty, her father dozing on the rocking chair, and Oscar there in the back, alone, so strange in his police uniform, wrapped in a darkness that was almost like fury. When she walked up to him she tried to find the tall, skinny boy with crooked teeth, who would blackmail her into giving up her lunch, or the money mother had given her, with the threat of telling father some silly thing she had done. She was nervous and flustered, while the man in uniform maintained silent composure.

--Are you ok there?

He shrugged without answering. She looked at his chest and his arms under tight fabric. He hadn’t been hungry.

--Do you think you will stay?

Now she realized that her question was really a plea, from fear before the solitude that would follow. He said nothing. She looked into his eyes for a moment and turned her gaze to the floor.

--I may be getting married.

He’d said this later, when an answer was no longer needed, and she hadn’t protested because he left for the train right from the cemetery. He hadn’t brought a suitcase, just a briefcase that he hadn’t opened. Her father hadn’t said anything either. He spent some time sitting in the living room in silence, and came to look for her in the yard where she was playing with her daughter.

--Why don’t you make okra for lunch? I’m craving it.

As though they weren’t about to bury her mother, the woman who shared thirty-five years of her life with him. And then it went on the same, as though nothing had changed, as though she too had retired because of her heart and had all day to make the food that he liked and keep everything clean, impeccable. He wanted to have meatballs, or stuffed peppers, just when her daughter was the most cranky, or she had to stand all day waiting on an indecisive customer. At that moment she remembers the beets. According to the clock on the wall they’d already had 55 minutes, so she turns off the burner and lifts the heavy pot with difficulty into the sink. A jet of water hitting the hot metal lets off a cloud of suffocating steam, and once again she wants to run into the shower to remove the sticky layer that coats her. But she knows that she has to finish cooking first. Her daughter will be home at six-thirty, and at seven her father will come out of his room expecting to see the table ready. The pot has lost pressure and the lid gives way. She puts it to the side and stands looking at the round forms, submerged halfway in a blackish-red liquid, steaming, bloody. Nausea appears as suddenly as the vertigo before. She squeezes her lips and tightens her muscles to contain it. At that moment they start, sharply, the knocks on the door.

At first think she thinks is that it’s Arturo with their daughter. He hardly saw her, and the day that he remembers he has a daughter, instead of bringing her late, he was an hour early in returning her. He must be desperate to go drink with his buddies. The simple idea brings the memory of nights he lay beside her, completely drunk, in a way so vivid that the alcohol-breath returns the nausea she had almost beaten and she has to contract herself again to control the heaves. The knocks repeat, and she realizes they can’t be her ex-husband; he would knock violently, and she would hear the girl babbling, or maybe coughing. Clumsily she takes off her apron and passes it over her face to wipe away a little of the sweat and grease. On her way to the door the knocks come again, soft, restrained, almost timid. She hurries and, even so, when she opens it she sees the back of a man who has begun to leave.

--Yes, what is it…

Her voice shakes and her heart shocks violently as she recognizes the face that has turned towards her. She grips the door and is suspended in a vision that recalls eleven years in one stretch. He smiles and advances the two steps that separate them.

--I thought you weren’t here… I heard about your mother, and, since I’m here for a few days, I wanted to see you. Can I come in?

She moves aside, still stunned by the surprise, unable to react in a definite way before this ghost that had appeared just when she was least prepared for it. He had come in and stood beside the chair, evidently waiting for an invitation to sit, but she can’t find the right words, she can’t even find her voice, and as her legs threaten to fail again, she lets herself fall onto the rocking chair closest to the door. He takes this as permission and sits down without stopping to look at her. Suddenly she remembers her disarray, her disastrous appearance, and this takes her out of her daze. She sits up and becomes self-conscious; her right hand tries to fix the strands of hair falling in her face and the left holds the too-loose neckline of her blouse.

--How did you hear about mamá?

--I ran into Oscar in Havana. He told me that you had gotten divorced and that you have a daughter – there was a brief pause during which he looked at his hands before returning to fix his gaze on her – I come to Holguín every now and then, and sometimes I’ve even walked by the house, but I didn’t want to bother you – another pause in which his gaze circles the room and yard, but then returns, directly this time, to her eyes – How are you?

She doesn’t answer because she’s on the verge of breaking into sobs. From some unknown place in her body, the urgency of tears has sprouted, and her throat floods, her nose gets stuffy and her eyes overflow hopelessly. She sobs a few times before regaining control, breathes deeply and stifles a cough. She doesn’t want to make a scene; doesn’t want to wake her father. He has leaned forward and now takes her hand and moves closer.

--I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to make you feel bad.

She coughs again, clearing her throat. She dries her tears with her free hand and looks at him closely, now that she has him a few centimeters from her face. They are the same features as when he waited for her at the exit of the college, sitting on the garden wall or leaning against his bicycle. Not one line, not one mark to indicate that time had passed since the many times they had danced all night at parties and clubs; many had envied her for monopolizing the best dancer. He didn’t seem fatter or skinnier. He was the same: eyes, nose, full lips, white, brilliant teeth and dark, smooth skin that her father had hated from the first moment.

--I’d kill you before I let you marry a black.

--He’s mulatto.

--A man with any black in him is black, and if I catch you with him no one will recognize you, not even your mother.

The memories frighten her and make her move away from him almost brusquely. She straightens in her seat and prays silently that her father is sleeping deeply.

--You are the same, no, you’re more beautiful, more a woman.

They are words she had hoped for without knowing it, words that threaten to shatter her defenses, because now she should let him hold her, support her, and she knows she can’t. She fights to maintain control, but everything has happened so fast. She had forgotten, but no, sometimes a song on the radio, some comment, reminded her of Maikel, a drop of sweetness evoking how in love with her he was, a drop of bitterness at thinking that she didn’t even try to defend their relationship. Too afraid, her face still burned from her father’s slap which put out the cigarette she’d been smoking, hidden in the doorway of the school. She couldn’t forget any of it: the beating her brother took for sneaking out to a party; her mother holding her tightly and them staying that way, while they listened to the blows and screams.

--He’s going to kill him, mamá, he’s going to kill him.

--No, he’ll calm down, he’ll calm down, if we interfere it’ll be worse.

The fear stopped her from enjoying his compliments, his attempts to caress her, even when he had accomplices watching for her father to appear. They might get distracted, and her mother begged her not to seek out disgrace. In the end she told Maikel that she didn’t want anything to do with him; in the end she married Arturo who was white and became an alcoholic; in the end her brother joined the police to get a gun and get out of the house; in the end her mother died of too much to bear and she was alone with her father and, even worse, with her daughter.

The urge to cry had evaporated and all that remains is a great resentment, almost desperation. Maikel continues leaning toward her, drinking her in with his eyes. Eleven years had passed and he seems as in love as before; maybe he never married, maybe he’s lived hoping for her, dreaming of her, idealizing her and wasting the best years of his life without surrendering himself, without forming a family. She hadn’t had luck either, but at least there was a good reason for her failure, to some extent it’s even her fault. Now she places her free hand over his and presses gently.

--Tell me that you’re happy.

He smiles; his teeth and eyes light up his face.

--At this moment I’m very happy.

She shakes her head; actually she’s so moved that her only wish is that he will continue to talk, to say that his memory of her has never faded, that it has been his reason for living. The feeling of anticipation spills from her chest, and the sudden tingling in her sex scares her, but not enough to make her pull her hands back. She knows that she should say something, but is afraid she won’t find the right words, the words to encourage him without compromising herself; she searches desperately for the words while the pressure of their hands gets strong and stronger, and the heat more and more tangible; what breaks the silence is the sharp voice of her father.

--What the hell is he doing here?

She jumps to her feet, snatching her hands from Maikel’s, and he also stands but slowly, with reluctance. She puts herself between the two men and manages to say forcefully:

--He came to offer me condolences for mamá.

But her father has already pushed her aside and is in front of Maikel, who seems unsure of the right response.

--Get out of here, unless you want me to throw you out.

Maikel is silent, not retreating; her father continues gesturing with violence, moving his arms and swiping at his face, as though he were still a young man, and the other an almost-adolescent in love with his daughter. She wants Maikel to confront him, to do something in order to not repeat the eternal scene of humiliation, of Oscar, of her mother, of Arturo himself, when her father pushed him out onto the yard and he lay there while he poured bucket after bucket of water on him. If Maikel didn’t fight back, afterwards he would beat her, insult her; who knew, the fury might last until her daughter came home and he would scream at her that her mother is a bitch, getting felt up by a black before her own mother was cold in the grave.

Her father holds Maikel by his arms and shakes him, pushes him and lifts his arm to deliver the first blow. She can’t see the victim’s face, her father’s body blocks her from knowing whether he intends to defend himself, and without time to think about it she grabs the bronze frame from the side table that holds a photo from her wedding, and throws it at him with all her strength.

The sounds disappear, she doesn’t hear the crunch of skin and bones beneath the force of metal, there’s no moan; her father’s body collapsing slowly until it rests blocking the floor between the table and the chair. She doesn’t see Maikel, doesn’t see anything that isn’t the liquid red that bit by bit is forming a puddle on the tile. She leans towards him and finds that the nausea has returned, that a suffocating fever is rising to her face and she can’t breathe. Everything dissolves around her and the vomit rises in her throat. By instinct she contracts to slow it down, and when she again opens her eyes she is almost frightened to make out the shapes of the beets in the dark broth, while she hears once again the knocks at the door.

Translated by Erica Mena.