I was on time, but the house was dark. I stopped in front of the railings and looked at my watch again. Eight o’clock in the evening. The windows were half open.
I made up my mind to go in. I walked across the garden guided by the light of a streetlamp. A yellowish, dirty light.
I rang the doorbell—I was afraid my journey had been pointless.
I rang again. There was an answer.
First the light went on in the living room, then in the porchway. When she opened the door, Patricia invited me in and asked me to forgive her. Because of the chaos. Because she had fallen asleep. And because she was a mess—her hair barely combed; she was wearing jeans cut off halfway up her thigh and an oversized white pullover with a logo on the front: Poetry unlimited.
I hadn’t simply interrupted her nap. She seemed quite upset.
I went inside.
Too much silence.
After she’d tidied up her hair, she reminded me I could sit down, like I would at home.
“Sorry,” she said, “I forgot to say hello.”
She kissed me on the cheek.
Before we sat down to talk, she tidied up a couple of magazines, a pen, and a marker, some newspapers and two books that had been on an armchair. She plumped the cushions adorning the sofa and stashed a bunch of papers in a folder. She took a cup and a teapot to the kitchen.
Patricia had called me to let me know about an envelope Grethell had given her to pass onto me. According to what she’d been told, the envelope contained a letter and some photos. I asked what the photos were of because I was sure we’d already printed all the rolls of film Grethell and I had ever used in her camera.
Patricia shrugged her shoulders:
“I really don’t know, it’s sealed.”
We found it hard to keep a conversation going, or at least I felt uncomfortable. I’d try with one subject and notice how Patricia’s words slowly dried up until she had nothing to say. And that was strange for her. She was a woman you could spend hours talking to. Without getting bored. And if you were into literature, especially Cuban literature, you’d have at your fingertips the most amazing archive of not just, let’s say, academic information. She seemed upset. Perhaps it was me being there. I felt uncomfortable with so much silence and decided to give our dialogue one more try before asking her for the envelope, but all I came up with was a question about her work. Patricia tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. She shrugged her shoulders. Then she said she couldn’t concentrate.
“Did you see all the papers and books I had on the armchair? It’s been ages since I looked at them. They invited me to write a piece about Guillermo Rosales, I haven’t even thought of a title.”
As we talked, I noticed how she wrang her hands. Or pressed them against her thighs. Or even crossed her arms, hugging herself tightly.
“Your envelope,” she said. “God, I forgot about it completely. Sorry, I’ll just go get it.”
And she went to her room.
I’d arrived at her house at eight in the evening, and she, perhaps, at six. Her routine? Read like crazy. Hang out. She didn’t just give classes at Havana University’s Faculty of Letters. Literature was her passion. Especially Cuban literature. She was always on the lookout for new pieces to complete the jigsaw puzzle that is the work and life of a writer. And in the last few months she’d been obsessed with Guillermo Rosales. Writer and suicide. Miami, July 1993, 47 years old, a loaded pistol. His personal best was destroying the majority of his own work. Hate, madness, self-destruction. One prize and one publication: a short novel laced with a high dose of autobiography entitled Boarding Home after the lodgings and asylums where the US houses its old and insane. But Patricia was not her normal self, wrapped up in her lessons and notes.
I smelled the scent of freshly brewed coffee. From the living room I asked her if I could have a cup.
I loved her coffee. Black, strong. A good aroma. Patricia always bought Serrano coffee. I’d never been the sort to make a pot of coffee to start the day. But it became part of my routine thanks to Patricia, thanks to Grethell.
While I waited for Patricia, the coffee, the letter, and the photos, I decided to switch on the TV. Next to a fake porcelain vase full of artificial flowers, just to one side of the TV, Grethell smiled from a portrait—out of time, the same smile I couldn’t manage to forget, because her face, her mannerisms, in fact, the memory of that woman was cleaved to my brain like a limpet. It was a black and white photograph, a beautiful photograph taken by my friend, Orlando L.
I got up.
I didn’t switch on the TV, I stood in front of the portrait.
Patricia couldn’t see me.
I could, apart from having stood to take a close look at the portrait, I could have said her name, Grethell, out loud. Or I could have spoken to her, taking care to camouflage my words in a quote from Borges—in case Patricia caught me by surprise—saying: “Beatrice, Beatrice Elena Viterbo, Dear Beatrice, Beatrice lost forever, it’s me, it’s Ahmel.”
“Here’s the envelope, and your coffee.”
She had taken me by surprise.
I looked into her eyes. Too red. Sore, I thought. Sore from crying.
“What day is it?” I asked.
She looked at me, puzzled. I insisted. I needed to know the date.
It was Monday, November 13th, 2006.
I opened the envelope and we looked at the photos. I would read the letter when I got back to my apartment.
“If you want, I can stay longer. What do you say to taking a walk, we could get a couple of beers and watch some films at my place?”
Patricia looked at me. She shrugged her shoulders. I noticed a faint smile cross her face. I tried to make a joke of it saying we’d both feel better if we cried together like a pair of idiots, five floors up, where nobody could hear us.
I finished my coffee.
“Thanks, I’d rather be alone.”
Then I knew she was upset, and the reason was me being there.
She was right: going to my place was a really stupid idea. Grethell had redecorated my apartment, she’d made the cushions—a design with patches like the ones she’d given to Patricia as a gift—she’d left me her records, there was even a framed watercolor we’d done together. My apartment was exactly as she left it before we separated. Before she died. If Patricia accepted my invitation, every second would remind her of Grethell and that was what she least needed now.
I took a taxi home. The journey would become less tortuous as soon as we left Calle Infanta. Then the car would get into one of the lanes on Avenida Independencia.
We would travel straight on.
Hardly any traffic lights.
A fast road.
Breaking my usual habit, I didn’t entertain myself watching the city and its people changing along the route from the city center to the suburbs. Nor did I look at the billboards all along the length of the avenue displaying their warnings, advice, messages from the Government—I’d normally take notes on their design and jot down their slogans in my Altahabana Notebook.
Once back in my apartment I turned on the hi-fi and took another look at the photos from Grethell, Grethell Elena, Grethell Elena Viterbo, beloved Grethell.
I needed to seal them in the envelope.
Then I remembered that the black and white picture bedside the TV in Patricia’s house had been taken in my room and I had a copy. I’d always suspected it contained a whole catalogue of images: all the days that Grethell and I had passed together. After seeing it again I knew for certain. I had it in front of me for only a few moments, yet I could remember every single day of our long relationship.
I found the photo. Grethell’s face emerged from the shadows, her eyes half closed, her hair cascading loose and chestnut over her shoulders. Simple details condensed onto an insignificant four by six-inch piece of card, but our whole universe was there. A long chain of memories: images, sounds, smells, moods. That was our own tiny universe. I succeeded in seeing it and grasped my realization without diminishing its size. You could say, and I hope nobody takes this the wrong way, that I have arrived at the precise, ineffable, center of my story, because this is right where my desperation starts.
Monday, November 13th, 2006. I labeled the envelope where I planned to seal the photos Grethell had chosen for me. All of them. Even the one taken by Orlando L. I would also move the blocks of my perpetual calendar to find that new date. I didn’t change the calendar’s blocks as the days moved on. I updated them only when I lived through an extraordinary experience.
I read Grethell’s letter, a long letter dated a month before her death.
After I’d finished, I looked at the photos again. All nine. The photograph printed in black and white, the one with five-year-old Grethell stroking Laika, a German sheepdog—named Laika after the terrier the Russians sent into space on board Sputnik 2. I had a scale model of that very satellite in my studio and one of the Soyuz 38 module: reminders of my distant childhood when I’d wanted to be the second Cuban cosmonaut, a secret I revealed to Grethell. And in my hands, I held two photos of Grethell, one of her posing in front of Casa Batlló and in another next to the lizard that Gaudí had decided to place in the middle of the staircase at the entrance to Parque Güell. I would’ve liked Barcelona to have been the destination of my first trip outside of Cuba, but I hadn’t been able to make that wish come true—as I confessed to Grethell: the first time I crossed the sea was to set foot on Santo Domingo with a visa stipulating that the sole purpose of my stay in the Dominican Republic was to attend the Book Fair. The fourth photo was dreadful, the image had come out blurred. Looking at it you might just about see there are two people, one of them carrying a backpack, a black monolith looms behind them, vegetation almost surrounds them, the sky is a grey block. It’s Grethell and me. Behind us, on a pedestal, stands a bust of Martí. We’d decided to climb to Cuba’s highest point, Turquino. Its height corresponds to the year we were both born: 1974. Grethell naked on my bed—face down, her legs slightly parted—the outline of her body is indistinct, crossed by rays of light from the full moon penetrating the room through the blinds. A hand entering the frame has placed an index finger on one buttock: that hand is mine; the shot had been tricky to set up without a tripod—Grethell had laughed—the moment I got the camera in position, I set the timer and positioned my finger. Another photo of a body on a bed, it’s a man—naked, face down, legs slightly parted—this body is also indistinct, crossed by the rays of the same moon cutting through the blinds, leaving the room in a half-light. A hand entering the frame has placed an index finger on one buttock: it’s Grethell’s hand, it’s me on the bed. Grethell wearing a very tight, sporty onesie, she leans against the wall—I know Patricia took this photo, but Grethell set it all up. Her body merges into the shadows, the play of contrasting dark and light highlights the gold crucifix resting between her breasts. Grethell decided to take that one a few weeks before she was admitted; when she left the hospital, one of her breasts had been amputated. A cold, humid February morning sliced by the shutter of Grethell’s camera—La Habana seen from the walls of San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress. The sky is brooding and low, skimming the city, waves break over the long wall of the pier and sea-spray obscures this tongue of coral and concrete that seems so much part of the sea: La Punta. The last image I saw was the photo of Grethell taken by Orlando L. in my apartment.
I got up and went over to the calendar. That was when I changed the date: Monday, 13th November 2006. I stood still in front of my perpetual calendar. How long? I couldn’t be sure. All I know is, before going to bed, I consigned that detail to my notebook.
Would I ever change the calendar’s blocks again?
After an argument we’d had, Grethell wrote in my Altahabana Notebook: “The Universe will change, but not me.” A short phrase written in black ink in the middle of a blank page. Grethell’s script was easy to read, let’s say, she liked to dot her i’s and cross her t’s. Her handwriting? Tiny. But those words were large, bunched together. Time has passed but I still remember that phrase. It is unforgettable. A quote from Borges.
Grethell wrote those words in my notebook after a long argument. At the time I thought our fight had been about nothing. Grethell was the best thing that had happened to me in years, that was my suspicion, and the words came out exactly as I thought them. Big mistake. Grethell got up from the bed, she wrapped herself in a sheet and went into the bathroom. She was crestfallen. I wanted to do something, but she told me to leave her alone, later she said: “I suppose it’s your suspicion that bothered me, it’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s something.”
I tried to make her understand it was just a manner of speaking. I went over to her and took her hands in mine. To comfort her. I remember her look, also, I haven’t been able to forget the enormity of what she said that day: “You confuse me… I’m confused and I don’t know what to do, and on top of everything else, I have this stupid pain.”
I tried to convince her to go to the hospital, but she responded: “It’s nothing, it’ll pass.”
That night she said she was afraid of the words, that she didn’t know whether she would have preferred to hear something stupid like I love you. And she asked if that struck me as stupid, corny.
How should I answer her?
She would have preferred to hear that phrase. She confessed so to me: “You might think it sounds stupid or corny, I don’t care, I’m really not that modern.”
But Grethell was afraid.
“The Universe will change, but not me.” I read it in my notebook the following day. Perhaps Grethell had gotten up in the middle of the night because I have no idea when she did it.
Was it the pain consuming her?
I can’t figure it out.
One thing is certain, the cancerous cells were doing their work deep in Grethell’s breast, and they played her a very dirty trick.
She was convinced the universe would change. But what would happen to me?
I placed the letter and the nine photos into the envelope.
I would have to wait.