Excerpted from Paradise Travel by Jorge Franco. Copyright © 2001 by Jorge Franco. Translation copyright © 2006 by Katherine Silver. Published January 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
I could easily have died that day at dawn after I got lost, not only because death itself stood in my way, but because I craved death with a passion. I remembered and finally understood all the times Reina had said: Let’s just kill ourselves, but after saying it so many times, nobody paid much attention anymore.
“Let’s just kill ourselves,” she’d say angrily whenever things didn’t go her way.
I wasn’t worried about only Reina’s life but about everybody’s, especially mine that I took such good care of, not for any very good reason, maybe just that pessimistic love I always felt for life, a love that lasted until that night when I was the most desperate human being, when for the first time I thought: Better dead than alive and without Reina. But it was my memory of her strange ideas that made me believe I could take one more step, and then another.
I knew when I started running that I was starting to lose her, and that in the twinkling of an eye I could also lose myself. While I was running away from the policemen, I pictured her, her angry mouth shouting: Marlon, don’t go out!
But you also have to figure in my anger, and when I went out that night I never imagined I was going to get lost in the world’s biggest, most intricate labyrinth, doomed to having as my last memory that angry expression on Reina’s face, her yelling at me like my mother used to when I was little: Marlon Cruz, don’t you go out!
I yelled back at her and left. We yelled at each other all the exhaustion and silence we had been keeping bottled up inside us ever since we’d decided on this madness of coming to New York to find our future.
“New York?” I asked her.
“Yes, New York.”
“Why so far away?”
“Because that’s where it is,” Reina said.
It was her idea. As a rule, all the ideas were hers. I had a few of my own, but only Reina’s got anywhere, and this one was already well on its way. By the time she told me about it, everything had been decided. She didn’t even ask if I agreed.
“We’re both going,” she said.
She went on about all the opportunities, the dollars, the chance to earn a good living, live a better life, get away from this shithole.
“In this place we haven’t done anything, we aren’t doing anything, and we aren’t ever going to do anything.”
To finally have a place for the two of us, where we could get ahead in life and even have children, she continued. While she was saying all this, her eyes shone and she looked so sincere I actually believed her; there was so much determination in those eyes, they even scared me.
“But it’s so far away and we’ve never been there before,” I told her.
Reina squeezed my hands and pressed her mouth up against mine. Instead of eyes, I saw two glassy blotches of different colors darting back and forth, as if they were searching for the fear behind my eyes. She started talking in a different tone of voice and even the rhythm of her breathing changed.
“We’re both going,” she repeated. “Or do you want to stay here, like your mother, like your father, like my father, screwed like all of them?”
She said this quietly, her lips glued against my face, her body pressed against mine as she breathed warm air out through her nose; she wasn’t angry, just determined, and she pushed her breasts into my chest with each breath she took so I could feel exactly what I’d be missing if I stayed.
“We’re both going.”
But she didn’t kiss me like I thought she would; instead she pulled her face away from mine and dug her fingers into my hair. She left them there and stared at me, as if she was waiting for me to tell her something different from the yes she was already counting on, maybe even some new idea that would strengthen her plan, something that would make her different-colored eyes keep shining.
“But I don’t speak English, Reina” was all I said, and she pulled her hand out of my hair.
It was all her stupid idea, and I told her so when we arrived. All our money was gone, the address where we were supposed to go didn’t exist, and things just hadn’t turned out how we’d expected. We had been suffering in silence the whole trip. We were so scared we barely slept at night, and we couldn’t rest during the day, either; I kept wondering if we’d ever get where Reina wanted to go. So I threw it in her face.
“It was your idea,” I said to her angrily.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “Because you never have any of your own.”
I complained that this dump had nothing to do with the place she made me dream about, the one she described to me when we imagined the life we’d lead when we got here. She was the one who told me about it as if she’d already been, as if she’d gone on ahead of me to get everything ready for our arrival: It’s a freshly painted apartment with a view of the river and the Statue of Liberty, on the top floor with a small terrace and a little garden, two chairs where we can sit and watch the sun set over New York City. She told me about the dog we’d have and take for walks after work, who’d look after the apartment while we were out. She told me about the spotless kitchen full of modern appliances, and the white bathroom with a huge white bathtub we could climb into every night and make love in. We’re going to make love every night, she told me, and I felt butterflies in my sex and thought: We’re both going.
But the real-life room was like a jail cell they rented to us for our last few dollars, and we took it because we didn’t have any choice. We didn’t find Gloria, her cousin, the one who had sent the pictures, the one who messed with Reina’s head, the one who told her: Ven prima, come, there’s money here and work for everybody; and she sent a picture of her apartment, and it was pretty great, and another of her standing next to a car, but now I wonder if that was even hers, and another with a dog in the snow next to a snowman with two twigs for arms, a carrot for a nose, two black things for eyes, and everybody in the picture smiling, but looking so strange, distant, like apes in the North Pole.
“We’re going to see snow, Marlon,” Reina said, hugging herself as if she could already feel the cold.
I thought: Yeah, right, you can pass for a gringa because even though your eyes are kind of weird, they’re light colored, and your hair, too; all you need is a little dye to be a real blonde. But I’m so much from here—that’s what I thought, but didn’t tell her—so totally from here that I don’t want to go there.
“Look at these pictures Gloria, my cousin, sent me.” She showed them to me like they were tarot cards and she was dealing out our future.
She showed them to me every day because she kept them in her wallet, and she’d pull them out on the bus and in the street, so she could enjoy the apartment, the car, the dog, her cousin Gloria’s snowman. She showed them to me at the airport, whenever I was afraid, all along the way from there to here, even though we had been forbidden to bring photographs. She carried them around as if they were her documents, the visa they didn’t give us, the money we spent, the passports they made us throw away.
“But your cousin Gloria,” I said to her in that dump, “gave us the wrong address.”
“Maybe we memorized it wrong,” Reina said in her cousin’s defense.
And the phone number, we memorized that wrong, too?”
That’s how we spent the last of our money. They answered in English and Reina said: Gloria, Gloria, pliz, but she got such a barrage of words from the other end that it scared her.
“Take it, see if you can understand,” she ordered me.
The whole thing almost made me laugh. She said: Maybe we got the wrong number, let’s try again; and I warned her: Reina, this is the last of our money. But Reina gave me a dirty look, dialed, and again the same thing: Gloria, pliz, and the same tape in English. Reina finally gave up: I think it must be an answering machine.
“Let’s go up to the room,” she said to me, “and we’ll call again tomorrow.”
I asked her: With what? And she told me, One of our neighbors will let us use their phone; but I didn’t think there’d be more than one in a run-down place like that. And when we got back to the room, I felt like I was drowning.
“It was your idea.”
“What did you think?” she said. “That we were going to stay at the Hilton?”
“No, at your cousin’s.”
Maybe it was because of the size of the room, but when we talked to each other it sounded like we were shouting. Reina said to me: I’ll call Gloria tomorrow; we’d better get some sleep; we haven’t slept in days. I asked her: What are we going to do, Reina? But she didn’t answer, so I asked her again in a louder voice: What are we going to do?! Then she gave me a look that told me to go straight to hell, and since I had one cigarette left, I decided I would go outside to smoke it, get some fresh air, think, take a walk so I could think. I slammed the door behind me and she opened it.
“Marlon, don’t go out!” she shouted.
As I went running down the dark stairway skipping two steps at a time, I could still hear Reina yelling: We don’t know where we are, Marlon; we don’t have any papers. I reached the hallway, gave the telephone that had stolen our quarters a dirty look, then went out. I’d forgotten my jacket and I got a blast of cold wind in the chest, but when I lit the cigarette, I felt a little warmer. I looked up, trying to find Reina at one of the windows, but I wasn’t even sure that our window looked out on the street, or even that we had a window. I looked across the street and saw a brightly lit billboard where I saw the one word I understood in English: Queen. I knew this word because that’s what Reina means in English.
I started walking and the fresh air made me feel better, even though it was so cold. I started to think that Reina might be right: after a good night’s sleep, we’d see things more clearly in the morning. Maybe the next day we’d find Gloria and everything would work out. I had already gone halfway around the block, the cigarette was burned about halfway down, and my upset was about half gone. I decided to walk all the way around the block, then go tell her how stupid I had been. I tossed the butt on the ground and was turning around to go back to Reina when I saw that the butt had landed right at the feet of a policeman and my heart froze.