I’m sitting here, watching the sea.
It’s very early, so everyone in the house is still sleeping, but I got up, opened the door, and came out to the balcony. I brought over a chair from the living room to get comfortable. I’m ten years old and it’s Sunday, so there’s no school, I can spend the morning watching the sea and the morning stretches out to infinity, but then I hear my mother’s voice behind me.
“Oh, Rauli, where have you gone off to?”
I feel like I don’t want to be this Raúl, I want to be Cassandra, not Raúl. I don’t want them to call me Spineless at school, I don’t want my mother to call me Rauli, I want to spend a long time watching the sea, until the sea runs out before my eyes and becomes nothing more than a white line that makes my eyes tear up. I’m in Cienfuegos, I’m not yet a little pretend soldier here in Angola where it never rains, the captain still hasn’t called me over to his tent to tell me, “Take off your clothes, we’re going to play a game you’ll like.”
The captain is from the eastern part of the island, he drops all his s’s when he speaks, and I smile because I’m afraid. I always smile when I’m scared, I can’t help it. I smile when we go through the villages and the people see our caravan of war tanks and trucks go by, with their wide-eyed, muddy faces, they watch us with their bare, red-dirt-covered feet, and it seems like they want to say something to me, specifically. I dream that those feet ask me, “What are you doing here?”
But luckily, I am still in my house now and I watch the sea and I think—because I’m very contemplative at the age of ten—I think that I would like to spread my arms and leap and fall on the flagstones, and then Papá and Mamá would cry a lot and José would stop staring at me with that know-it-all face. “Raúl killed himself,” they would say at school and this time it would be true and I would be happy, I wouldn’t have to steal money again from Mamá to go to the bookstore and buy books and say, “Give me one by Edgar Allan Poe, because they stole mine at school.”
“We’re out of Poe, but we have Robert Louis Stevenson,” the bookseller says. “The book is pretty, with that skull on the cover, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate for your age.”
“It’s for Mamá,” I say and he puts the book in my hands, looking at me suspiciously.
“Okay, but don’t take it to school, because then they’ll take it from you. And if anyone asks, it wasn’t me who sold it to you … Is that clear?”
“Yes,” I say, I who can see ghosts.
I peer into the door of my school and there they are, dressed like sailors. My school is very old and used to be a military barracks. It’s called Dionisio San Román, after a sailor who died in a September 1957 uprising. I walk back home. I spent my bus money on books and I drag my feet to kick up the dust and then I inhale it. I like the smell of the dust. “Just look at your shoes,” my mamá says when I go upstairs and knock on the door to our apartment, which Nancy opens.
“I can see the dead,” I tell them, and they don’t like it. It’s not good to see the dead, it’s madness. Now we’re all Marxist-Leninists, atheists, and if you see dead people, you must be mad.
“Do you want to be mad?”
“Of course not,” I say, and then I hug Nancy and hug my mother. I eat the snack that Nancy puts on the table for me with a smile; I thank her and go to my room to read Stevenson.
I also predict things. My Zeus, I know I will die at nineteen, very far away from Cienfuegos, here in Angola, the captain is going to kill me so that no one finds out about us, I can see it in his eyes, in his mustache, in the way he looks at me.
“Don’t let anyone find out about us, okay, Olivia Newton-John?” he says to me when I crouch down to suck him. “I’ll kill you, you know, don’t you go and ruin my career here, because I’ll kill you like a dog, is that clear?”
“Yes,” I say, taking the captain’s member in my mouth, and then spitting out what he deposits there. I stand up and look out the window, from which the sea is not visible, just the red, hot soil of Angola.
“Why are you up so early?” my mother says behind me. “You’re not tired anymore?”
“No, I’m not tired anymore.”
But what I can see are the bullets tearing through me, and how I fall so far away from her and from my father, who went out and still hasn’t come back. I know where my father is: with the Russian lady, that English teacher we met on the beach at Rancho Luna the day that my mother couldn’t come with us because she had a cold, and then my father took us in the old Chevy, and as soon as we got our swimsuits on, my brother and I ran into the warm water, screaming happily, and when we came out, my father was sitting on the sand, talking to a tall blond woman who made a strange contrast to him, because she was refined and had well-manicured hands, while my father’s hands are always filthy. He introduced her to us and it turned out the woman was Russian and her name was Lyudmila.
“Like that Gurchenko woman,” my father specified.
That Russian woman was very strange, she had almond-shaped eyes, very large, and of a blue so dark they looked black. She gave a kiss to each of us on our wet faces and asked my brother and me what grade we were in and whether we liked to read.
“I want a snack,” was my brother’s response.
“Fifth grade,” I said. “And yes, I like to read.”
“Fifth grade?” The Russian woman was surprised. “You seem younger.”
“Yeah, he’s kind of a midget,” my father said and let out a laugh. “He takes after me, but you don’t measure a man from his head to the skies, but rather from the skies to his head.”
“What about a woman?” the Russian asked, in her pink bikini so tiny that every man walking along the beach turned his head to get a better look, and my father’s eyes were so wide it looked like he could fit the whole world inside.
“I want a snack,” my brother insisted, and my father, who was naked from the waist up to show off his former-gymnast’s muscles, took his wallet from his jeans pocket and held out five pesos to my brother and me.
“Go over to the lunch counter and get whatever you want. Take care of Rauli,” he said to my brother, who was already fourteen, which made him think he was a man, and when we’re sitting at the lunch counter, he tells me that Russian woman is a whore and that our father is a motherfucker. He says it without bitterness, just like someone repeating a fact. We eat croquettes and have a yogurt, and when we get back to the shore, the tall woman and Papá are still talking, so my brother gives him the change and we head back to the water. I dive in. My Zeus, when I’m at the bottom, I open my eyes and see a fish coming up to me and looking at me and I dream that I am that fish and a boy named Raúl is looking at me, and I feel affected by the transmutation of things and beings, although I don’t know that word, I’m just a ten-year-old kid who went to the beach and who finally comes up for air from the deep and sees his father talking to a woman he doesn’t know.
“Don’t go tattling on me to your mother. Be men,” my father says when we get into the Chevy. “If you tell her, I won’t bring you to the beach anymore.”
“No need to threaten us,” my brother says. “Twenty pesos and I won’t say a word.”
“You think you can blackmail me, you piece of trash?” my father says, but then smiles and hands him the twenty pesos. “You’re learning too much.”
If I close my eyes, I see him taking the Russian woman to bed and doing something with her body that my ten-year-old self doesn’t really understand, but I don’t tell my mother because I know she won’t like it and she has problems enough already without having to hear about my father and Lyudmila, who later shows up on a very hot day with a plate of potatoes with butter, saying it was a recipe of her grandmother’s from Ukraine, and there are smiles all around and she pats my head and looks at José from afar, as if she were scared of him. My brother has a bad rap, the Russian woman respects my brother, my father has whispered to her that he’s a difficult kid who’s about to get sent to reform school. She likes me better. I know how the Russian woman will die, of a myocardial infarction following a raging case of diabetes, in 2011, just shy of seventy years old, in a suburban neighborhood of Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. At ten, I can see the Russian woman’s death, can see how she opens her mouth asking for water that Sergei, her teenage grandson, doesn’t bring her. The Russian woman, in addition to the boiled potatoes with butter, brings something for José and something for me, a Pushkin book that she places in my mother’s hand like some kind of great treasure. One thing’s for sure: she gets my mother to smile when she flips through the book, because it’s in Russian.
“They’re not going to understand a word, Svetlana,” she tells her, although she is well aware that the Russian woman’s name is Lyudmila.
That’s how my mother is—there’s no one better at fucking with people.
My mother works as the secretary for a boss who makes her feel important, at least more important than my father, a mere auto body repairman, who almost always gets back late to the apartment, tipsy and in overalls so covered in grease and gasoline that she has to go to great lengths to leave them spotless. My father says not to wash them on his account, to just leave them like that, but my mother spends her Sunday mornings soaping and brushing those rough-hewn work clothes.
Atop the living room console are my father’s medals from when he was a gymnast, and a picture of him up on the podium of a young socialist athletes’ competition.
At lunchtime, the four of us sit at the big dining room table and my mother insists we use all the silverware, but the spoon is all my father needs.
“You’re no example for your children,” my mother tells him.
“No, I’m not,” he admits. “I’m an animal, not like that boss of yours, the mulato.”
My father hates Ricardo, my mother’s boss, who sometimes shows up at the house with a bottle of vodka as a gift of appreciation for his secretary’s immense dedication. My mother’s eyes well up as she takes the bottle, which she never even tastes. My father drinks the bottle without even thanking her. She’s so naïve that she lets herself be introduced to the Russian woman without it even occurring to her that this woman, as refined and distinguished as if she sprang from the pages of a European magazine, would ever notice a brute like my father.
My father is called José Raúl Iriarte Gómez and he was born in Placetas, a small town full of bitter provincial types of Spanish origins who hate themselves for having stayed in town and envy all those who left. My grandfather was called José Ignacio and was a farmworker and an unabashed cockfighter. My grandmother Carmen spoke Galician and grew cabbage and lettuce that she sold all over Placetas. Besides my father, she had four other children, naming each one José, and they all, with the exception of my father, died violently. The oldest two joined the rebel army. José Eduardo was nabbed by a squad of rural guards, en route to the Sierra Maestra, and machine-gunned down on the side of the road. José Roberto was slaughtered in Santa Clara when they took over the armored train. The other two were killed by the same husband who found José Ricardo, the youngest, sleeping with his wife, while the other one, José Felipe, was leaning up against the back wall of the house, playing the guitar, singing a ranchera and keeping watch. He couldn’t have been a very good lookout, since he didn’t hear the approach of the man whom everyone in Placetas knew as Juan the Party Crusher.
“The knife went through José Felipe’s kidney,” the doctor told my grandmother. “If not for that, he would have survived.”
José Ricardo’s jugular was slashed by the jealous man, who then stabbed his wife so many times that, according to what my father says when he’s drunk and missing his brothers, the guy had a fit and nearly died when he saw the woman he’d killed, so soaked in blood it would turn your stomach. Sometimes my grandparents had nothing to eat but some cornmeal with salt and a little bit of tomato sauce if tomatoes were in season. After the Triumph of the Revolution, my father, who was a teenager by then, focused on sports and mechanics, bought a Chevy from one of those petit bourgeois from Punta Gorda who emigrated as soon as they found out lovely little Cuba was plunging headfirst into communism.
My mother is called Mariela Fonseca Linares and she was born in Cruces, which wasn’t yet the grimy town it ended up becoming, but rather a small, prosperous city, with several newspapers and radio stations and an allegedly active cultural life. My mother’s mother, Elena Elisa Linares Argüelles, married a white-passing mulato named Eduardo Fonseca Escobar, a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party and an attorney, a graduate of one of those colleges in the U.S. South that is just for Blacks. My grandmother’s family, sugar plantation owners known throughout the province of Las Villas as the Linares, never forgave her that inappropriate love and disinherited her, so my grandmother became a schoolteacher and, with her husband, built a little wooden house that still stands in Cruces. They had twin daughters. My aunt Nancy came out very blond and with blue eyes like me, while my mother was so olive-skinned that at school they called her the Gypsy. They were very close, and when my mother moved to Cienfuegos, her sister moved, too, and lived with us until she got sick with cancer and died. I was eleven years old when Nancy died and my mother was never the same again. Neither was I.
I resembled Nancy so much that I looked more like her son than my mother’s.
Copyright © 2019 by Marcial Gala
Translation copyright © 2022 by Anna Kushner