“I can’t believe you can’t paint a cow,” Marlen said, and in doing so turned her head sadly and stared at the floor tiles.
Usually, when she asked him to paint something for her, it was because she was hungry. First she hid her head between her shoulders, looked at me, attempted a smile. Then she’d turn her eye toward anything, a tree, if there was one close, or a chair, a book, a door.
We were near the sea, in that apartment that some friends let us use sometimes. We used to spend the weekends there. We’d sit on the balcony and breathe the salty air until our lungs hurt and our eyes began to water, and then Marlen would complain and go to her room. Then I’d hear the sound of water in the shower stall. It was like a sweet, hushed invitation, but I’d stay there until very late, until the boys came back from the beach and asked for something to eat in that relaxes and simple way teenagers do.
The balcony provided a panoramic view of coast, the neighboring buildings, the garbage dumps. In the distance, interrupting the monotony of the horizon, a ship slowly approached on the waves. It was an immense white shell with high railings that was headed for the nearby port.
“A cruise ship,” I said.
It occurred to me to explain that cruise ships had become fashionable. The cruise lines from Amsterdam had opened a line to Havana, and Marlen could see it now: before her eyes: an immense iron shell filled with Dutchmen glided across the blue seawater.
She looked up with interest. She did the math, pursed her lips, and crossed her fingers behind her head.
“Two thousand,” she said.
“Two thousand euros? I don’t think so. It shouldn’t not be so expensive. A promotional package to the Caribbean should be around eight hundred.
“Two thousand passengers,” she explained. Two thousand people come who come to spend a week on the island. Two thousand passports stamped by a smiling official. Two thousand rooms in some hotel. Two thousand employees serving beer and morsels of ham.
“Two thousand umbrellas by the pool,” I ventured.
“Two thousand umbrellas by the pool.”
At that moment we became silent. We watched the cruise ship until our eyes hurt, we sighed a little, hugged. We both tried to smile. Marlen pushed me away.
“I should have picked the papers up at the office this morning,” she said, not without a slight, hidden sadness, as if she were blaming herself for some unforgivable mistake.
I understood that she said it with resignation. I understood her, of course, but I didn’t like her to feel guilty about anything.
In fact, what happened wasn’t Marlen’s fault. Her plan to go by the office early on Saturday before leaving the city didn’t work out because the street was closed. The cops refused to let her walk that last block, and even though she told them she worked there, that she urgently needed to pick some papers up, she wasn’t able to move another step.
That’s what she told me when she came back to the house. The boys and I had everything ready. It was an ordinary Saturday morning, one of those many Saturdays when we’d go to the apartment on the shore to escape the tedium of the city and carry the necessary supplies to be two days away from home. We were wearing very light shirts, toiletries, personal belongings, and paper, any tiny scraps of paper. They could have been used sheets of paper, or pages from a magazine, or light and water bills, or unused prescript pads that belonged to doctor friend who keeps extras at home. We could not do without this paper, whatever its condition or purpose, during our weekend excursions. And at that very moment, after we had gotten everything ready and were waiting for Marlen so we could leave the city, she appeared saying that she wasn’t able to move through that last block, or reach her office, or pick up a dozen loose sheets of Bond paper that she had managed to hide in the drawers of her desk in recent weeks.
“All the streets downtown are closed.” The cops wouldn’t let me in,” she said in the plaintive voice of a damsel in distress, and as she told me she looked me in the eyes, and looked at the boys, then diverted her eyes to the television and stared at the screen, pondering it, trying to penetrate its black glass as if the device hid some vital secret inside. ‘It’s because of the Secretary of State’s visit,”
“Mr. Kerry? Of course. They talked about it on the new last night: Mr. Kerry is arriving this morning.
And then I remembered the newscaster’s official tone, the serious words that announced the arrival of the secretary of state, the airport and the train terminal closings, the city’s lockdown.
The issue of the closed streets can be a real nuisance. At time I thought it was a nuisance, but then I’d tell myself who am I to question such decisions. Surely I’m not capable of understanding such a simple reason: it’s better that someone else decide what’s best to do, what streets to close, what specific routes to use for those truly special occasions when the country receives a high-ranking visitor. Everything related to necessary protection measures that take place anywhere in the world, and what I think won’t change anything or the important visitors that the country receives. Allow me to put it another way: I’m glad that someone decides for me. Yes. That’s right. This simple graphic designer doesn’t need to concern himself with such trivial matters. Alone me to put it yet another way: it’s in the interest of a simple man like me that things happen exactly this way.
And there, in the apartment near the ocean, in that secluded, comfortable place that our friends lent us sometimes, I decided that everything was fine and it was okay that someone decided for me. All this was just fine, even if the closure of the streets downtown was taken as an unnecessary nuisance, or if, as was the case, my wife couldn’t stop by her office to pick up some white sheets of Bond paper, barely a dozen of hard, polished sheets, saved for weeks from the daily allotment, swiped from the common package at the risk of being seen by other employees, by the manager, or by some overly curious customer.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said. You couldn’t get by the police.
She hid her eyes and sobbed. I imagined her arguing with the men in blue, telling them that she worked there, asking them, please, to let her pass. And the negative answer would come in the authoritarian voice of a captain or an major, or perhaps in the not-so bitter tone of a young recruit who was obeying orders and tried to explain the ban to the adult woman who was insisting on continuing along the forbidden route of the city’s center.
The image struck me as sad. I looked at the ocean and the sky and tried to distance Marlen’s sobs from my ears, the low moan that filled the room. I decided to check again the empty drawers of the apartment, the shelves where the owners once collected dozens of books, the corners where one might find paper.
I turned the mattresses over again, searched in the bathroom, lifted the toilet lid, and even stuck my head out the window to look outside, down, into the corridors and trash dumpsters, hoping to find a piece of newspaper, an abandoned envelope, the most insignificant parchment on which I could paint a cow, a chicken, a fish, any dead and silent creature that would soothe the hunger of those days, that awkward sensation of emptiness in the stomach, that annoying sting that demanded we remember better times.
Because there were better times, and I remembered them at that moment.
Twenty years ago, as we walked down San Lazaro every day to the Belascoaín hamburger stand, Marlen could smile even if her stomach ached, even if the midday sun warmed her hair and caused her to sweat profusely, and even if we stood five hours in lie at the hamburger stand, arm in arm like teenagers, watching the line fail to move, laughing at any old joke, breathing in the aroma of bread that floated out the windows and tasting the smell of dough and meat that was frying on the griddle.
Twenty years ago we were very young and made love without worrying about the lack of food.
Twenty years ago the paper was plentiful, and it was possible to find tons of old and new books, thousands of newspapers, and printed publications.
Exactly twenty years ago, one afternoon as the line grew too long, Marlen said to me: Paint me a hamburger.
That request saved our lives. For years we ate painted hamburgers. Then I learned to paint chickens, a bottle of milk, a few pounds of rice, the necessary oil, and the spices, and some vegetables as well. When we had the urge to eat something hot and liquid, I’d paint a pot of soup, and when the heat scorched us in the torrid summers of the city, all I had to do was take a piece of paper from the drawer and paint a tub of ice cream.
Then we got married and we had the boys. Life was easy because paper was plentiful and we didn’t have to spend a cent on food. We taught the boys how to chew the paper in a convenient way, and soon they learned to save their own paper and ask me to paint something for them.
We were very happy in our house in the city, and no one could suspect the cause of that enduring happiness. People complained of privation and hunger, and we listened to everything with the astonishment of something impossible. On weekends we went to the coast, to that apartment our friends lent us, and that allowed us to distance ourselves somewhat from the lamentations of people. We had an ample supply of paper, so we forgot about the world for a while.
Of course, all that stuff about the painted food was kept secret. We told the boys that they couldn’t talk about it with anyone, and they understood the situation and kept quiet. And Marlen herself, even if she was burning up inside to tell her friends in the office everything, she promised not to tell anyone. But in the afternoons I’d come home with a slight shadow of sadness on my face, and I knew that everything was related to the subject of hunger.
“They didn’t give us lunch at the office,” she said once. There were those poor women faint with hunger. They have to drag their body all day through those halls, and climb the stairs, and attend such long meetings. I don’t know how they can go on.
Marlen, however, went on. She carried the necessary drawings in her purse, and she went on. She’d take a jar of yogurt, a loaf of bread with butter, honey and toast, lots of toast from a round, soft loaf of bread that I copied from a magazine. She took great care that no one saw her chewing the paper. She’d lock herself in the bathroom and have her snack there, and at lunchtime she’d find an excuse to get away from everyone, from those poor women who dragged their bodies into the offices, from the possible clients, the service personnel, and the manager, especially the manager.
But Marlen understood that she couldn’t reveal the secret even if it hurt to look at her co-workers and see the hunger on their faces, and even if she had to listen to their conversations about hunger every day, and even if it was so difficult to hear their breathing because it was the breathing of hunger.
In spite of all that Marlen was happy with me. We were both happy watching the boys grow up. Paper was plentiful and things were going well. Everything began to change when she asked me to paint a cow.
“The boys have never tried it,” she said. They don’t know its taste.
It was true that the boys didn’t know the taste. They were born in the lean years and didn’t have that opportunity. And even we, even though we were older, hardly remembered anything.
Painting a cow became an obsession. For years I tried to do it. Something in the animal’s curves made my hand shake. Something in their eyes made my fingers twitch. Something in their skin kept me from delineating clearly the docile figure. I painted one once and it didn’t turn out well. It had too much fat in its abdomen, and the meat was too hard to chew. Another time I painted one that didn’t look like a cow, but rather a sad ruminating quadruped that looked from the paper without understanding who put it in this world, and why he put it there, and if it made sense to exist in the form of an edible drawing.
Painting a cow became a problem. For years that was for Marlen and me an unresolved problem.
It began to affect our lack of sleep. We had failures at the level of the central nervous system, and peripheral failures, and obstructions of every kind that turned into metabolic disorders. I found peace only in the apartment that our friends lent us.
I’d spend hours on the balcony breathing the sea air. I could spend entire nights swallowing mouthfuls of wind, tasting them, holding them in my lungs for periods of time that grew with each new attempt. I’d hold in the air and feel on my palate a faint taste of seafood, of fish light like birds, squid and octopus seasoned with pepper. I concentrated on that for long hours, and managed to forget the obsession of painting a cow, the lack of sleep, the failures of the nervous system.
But Marlen insisted. She begged me to do it for the boys. She forced me to keep trying.
One evening, at last, I was able to draw one well enough.
The firm line of a semi-hard pencil showed clearly the animal’s contours, its tense muscles, its soft, warm flesh that bulged beneath a bright, stretched skin
“It turned out great,” Marlen said, after chewing hungrily on a large piece of paper. This is how I remember everything. Just like this.”
Later she chewed calmly, narrowed her eyes and shook her head no.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s something that doesn’t work. Something’s not right.”
“The flavor?” I asked.
“No. The taste is the same. I feel it there, clearly on the tongue, but I think it escapes my mouth.”
“The taste escapes? That can’t be. The taste can’t escape. It doesn’t make sense.”
We discussed the issue of the escaping taste. For Marlen it seemed a bit elusive, and then, when I had time to chew calmly, it seemed the same to me.
“Maybe I painted a transalpine cow,” I said. “I read somewhere that transalpine cows can’t be eaten at certain times of the year.”
The explanation seemed convincing to Marlen. She was almost certain that it was a transalpine cow, and it was precisely that time of the year when it was recommended not to eat the meat of those animals: it was the end of August, and it hadn’t rained in months.
“Maybe the lack of rain is the cause of that illusive flavor.”
“I didn’t say it was illusive,” she said. I said it was elusive.”
“All right. Maybe the lack of rain is the cause of that elusive flavor.”
Marlen chewed again. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the act. At time she shook her head, and other times she was still. She opened her eyes and stared on some object, then closed them again, then chewed hard again, with all her will, until the muscles in her jaw began to ache.
“No,” she said suddenly. “It’s the type of paper.”
She must’ve been right. I had painted the cow on an old faded cardboard envelope, and surely that took all the force out of the taste of the meat. But I was immensely glad to know that I had not painted a transalpine cow. Something in the transalpine cows always produced an unbearable restlessness in me. I imagined hundreds of sad ruminants grazing in the meadows of the Alps without having an exact idea of the time and place where it was their lot to live. And now I was glad I hadn’t made that mistake: to paint a transalpine cow in the torrid summer of a quiet and anodyne city like Havana was the worst thing a commercial artist could do, and deep down inside it was good to convince myself that the elusive taste of the meat was due entirely to the type of paper.
Because by then the problem was paper. There had disappeared from the stands any hint of printed publications, and I was beginning to long for the time when the wind pushed through the street whole pages of morning editions, torn envelopes, and pages of magazines in color or black and white. The city was beginning to look clean, perhaps too clean, as if a giant vacuum cleaner was forever sucking anything that smelled like cellulose.
“I’m going to bring paper home from the office,” Marlen said. “Bond paper. I think Bond paper can solve that taste issue.”
And I smiled that afternoon when Marlen said it. I couldn’t believe that such a thing were possible. I imagined Marlen hiding the polished, white sheet, crunchy and solid, perfect for painting anything, so bright it would blind you from afar, in her purse
“Bond paper?” I said. “Do they really have Bond paper there? You never mentioned it. In all these years I have drawn chickens on cardboard, eggs on newspapers, bread on magazine pages. And only now you tell me that there’s Bond paper at your office? Mounds of sheets of Bond paper? Tons of sealed packets with that new smell, fluttering around, like this, as if they were little Pandora boxes ready to be opened and looted?”
“I didn’t say there were mounds or tons,” Marlen hurried to explain. “They count out the sheets, numbered, and sometimes they make us sign a document. The manager is very strict when passing it out.”
Marlen said when passing it out and I kept thinking that surely in her office everyone anticipated that crucial moment: a petite and pale woman received from a handsome and demanding manager a dozen white sheets destined to the printing of important documents . The image was reinforced with that same pale woman who handled the sheets with nervous fingers and signed the obligatory document, and then the general scene became extremely cruel when that same woman loaded the printer tray, pressed the corresponding key and stayed to wait for the printed document, squeezing her hands, saying to herself that everything was going to be all right, that she had not made any mistakes and none of the sheets had been wasted.
Now, looking at the distant railing of the Dutch cruise ship that advanced slowly toward the port, he understood Marlen’s sad expression a little, her slumped shoulders, her plaintive voice of a damsel in distress. She must spent terrifying moments as she hid her little treasure in the desk drawers. She would do it for weeks, one sheet at a time, until finally reaching a dozen, and that colossal effort plummeted because the streets were closed and the police wouldn’t allow her to pass. But even so, even if the visit to the country by a foreign official prevented us from spending the weekend, chewing beef on a piece of paper, her excessive sadness didn’t seem normal to me.
“Another time,” I said. “Next week you’ll hide the sheets in your purse and bring them home, and on Saturday we’ll be here again, and we’ll have a good time, and watch the cruise ship pass, calmly chewing that paper of firm taste, neither illusory nor elusive.”
Marlen smiled. Although the situation weighed on her, she smiled. For a moment her eyes lit up, and her entire expression seemed to change in general, as if she had forgotten the incident and it didn’t bother her in the least that the country was welcoming its guests, and that all the streets were closed, and that hundreds of very young and very old policemen were guarding the intersections of the city and were not allowing the pedestrians to pass. But then her shoulders slumped again, and her eyes welled with tears, and her voice trembled.
“And the boys?” she said. “What are we going to tell the boys when they get back from the beach this afternoon? This was supposed to be their first time.”
“Oh, that’s right, the boys,” I said, and extended my hand to brush against her hair. “You know what? The boys will understand. They’re young. They can understand everything. And they can wait. I’ll paint them something on a piece of a shirt, and they’ll be satisfied for sure.”
“On a piece of a shirt?” Marlen raised her eyes sharply. “We have never eaten anything painted on a piece of a shirt.”
“Well, cloth works too,” I said. “A bit hard, perhaps. Difficult to break with the teeth. It will never be like paper, but it’ll work just the same.”
It was true that cloth worked. I had tried it with a piece of a shirt, and it worked. You couldn’t paint any kind of meat on it, or products derived from milk, or anything from the sea. It was only possible to draw the simple outlines of very basic foods, perhaps a carbonated soda without too much sugar, or tiny pieces of nonfat bread, or tablespoons of vegetable protein. But surely the boys would be happy and wouldn’t ask for anything more. They would chew hard on the pieces of shirt and sleep with tight mouths and tense muscles.
Everything that afternoon went well with the boys and us. Everything went very well, and we filled our stomachs with bread painted on cloth, and at bedtime we went to sleep and dreamt of that happy adventure that awaited us after a few days, that feast of the smooth, bright paper that Marlen kept in her office, that taste so firm that it stayed in the throat and at times sped up the pulse and respiration.
And that night, when the promise of a paper feast made the sleeping boys smile, I heard Marlen sobbing. I could hear her quiet moan coming from the bathroom of the apartment.
I walk up to her and took her hands away from her face. I brushed her lips and took her by the waist.
“The cops did let me in,” she said in a broken whisper. “There wasn’t anything in the drawers. Forgive me.”
I walked away from Marlen and went out onto the balcony. The wind was blowing hard from the sea, fast and dense, with a taste of salt so strong that it forced me to close my eyes.
“Forgive me.” Marlen’s voice mingled with the whisper of air. “Those poor women in the office also need to eat. How do you think they’ll survive?”
Yes. Those poor women needed to eat. Why not? Eat. Chew soft paper slowly. Fill themselves once and for all with the firm taste of meat. Did we have the right to keep the secret forever? Were there not people around, simple and quiet people, who tried to keep going on? Yes, those people existed. Those people were always there and deserved for Marlen to reveal the secret we’d kept for years.
“Forgive me,” Marlen repeated, approaching me, and she hugged me.
We stood there, allowing the sea breeze to hit our faces, our eyes open despite the dense, salty air. From inside the apartment came the snoring of the boys. Surely they dreamt of Saturday banquet, and this is how they showed it, snoring carefree, oblivious to the passing of time and happy to be alive. Outside, the darkness of the coast breaking to the West, the lights of the nearby port illuminated a part of the sky.
“You know paper is going to disappear completely,” I said, if only to say something.
“I know,” she said. “And fabric will disappear too. But we’ll do something. The boys and I trust you. You’ll think of something. Perhaps not tonight, but you’ll think of something.”
“I’ll think of something, yes,” I said. “And, if I can’t think of anything, we’ll walk down San Lázaro to Belascoaín.
Marlen yawned. The idea of walking down San Lazaro on a tedious noon in summer didn’t seem to bother her too much. She wanted to say something, but only managed to yawn again.
“Hungry?” I asked softly.
“No,” she said. “Sleepy. I’m very sleepy. Now I can sleep as long as I want.”
It was good to know that she would be able to sleep moving forward. It was good for me, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t tell Marlen that from now on I would be able to sleep too. I thought about telling her not to worry, that paper and cloth were not totally indispensable. And I thought about telling her more and to reveal other secrets and other materials, other ways of doing things and other ways of life. I decided to tell her everything, but she was asleep now.
I got up despite being sleepy.. I went out onto the balcony, took in an immense mouthful of sea air and held it in my lungs for as long as I could. I approached the sleeping boys, opened their mouths one at a time and blew the air into their throats.
Translated by George Henson