by: Jonathan Marcantoni
Part One: The Revolutionary
The cafe was empty save for Gustavo and Isabela, her soft curves and open face bringing a smile of memory to the old man’s weathered eyes. She poured him a cup of coffee, leaving room for cream and sugar, and asked if he wanted to try the guava flan or his usual pineapple cake.
“I have not had guava in a long time,” he said.
“The flan then?”
“No, the cake will do.”
She fetched the cake and began to set it down when he cupped the back of her hand, stopping it as the plate tapped the counter.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he said, “but I think I will have the flan.”
“It’s okay, señor, I don’t mind.”
“How many times have I told you, call me Gustavo. I’m not worthy of any title.”
She smiled and looked at him with deep sympathy. It pained her to hear him speak of himself in that way, this man who was often her only company. She brought him the flan and leaned on the counter, her chin resting on her palms.
“So,” she said, “have any stories for me tonight?”
He cracked a smile.
“This flan is almost as good as my mother’s.”
“You’ve told me about her food; I wish she were still alive and I could try it.”
“So do I.”
“Did you have a good day?”
“I lived through the day, that is all I can ask for, and yes, I do have a story for you, though it is not one of great sentimentality. I am not feeling sentimental tonight. But, it is passionate. I thought of it while crossing the Parques de San Francisco, the one with the monument to Bolivar.”
“I was there yesterday,” she noted.
“Do you know of Bolivar?”
“What I know, I learned in school.”
“Well, all you need to know of Bolivar is that he was a great man.”
“Yes, and my own land, Puerto Rico, had many Bolivars, though sadly they were neither as successful nor do they have statues in their effigy. Yet, there was a time when we believed differently, when independence seemed possible. Perhaps, our greatest day was when we killed the American general, Miles. There was a great party that night. Hundreds of us were in this large dining hall in San Juan and we had this mock ceremony where we doused the corpse with gasoline while giving speeches with great irony. After the last speech, the pallbearers lifted the coffin and carried it through the hallways, where we broke champagne bottles and cheered its passage. We rushed to the door as it approached, clearing the way. The pallbearers stopped before the first step as twenty of us made two lines down to the street. We all cheered, ‘Long live Betances’—our great leader who had died in exile a few years before.”
“Then, they perched the coffin on the edge of the top step and with a great push threw it down the gallery. We all lit matches and tossed them onto the coffin. Halfway down, it lit up like a cake and we had to step back so as not to catch fire ourselves. The coffin came to a rest in the middle of the street. We left it there and danced and sang until the sun came up.”
Seeing the look of shock on Isabela’s face, he continued for a moment with an apologetic tone, but also wanting to connect, to be understood. “Overdoing it a bit, you might say, but you don’t understand that time. The way the world felt then. No amount of brutality quenched our thirst for, well, this may sound strange, but we could not quench our thirst for change. We not only found everything wrong with the old establishment, but with the new ideas, as well. Nobody could agree on anything, it was ridiculous, but we did know passion. In that, we were all brothers. As long as we felt and the feelings were passionate, we knew we were alive. Looking back: at that time, I guess we were all a little suicidal. Death, what a thing to achieve! Ha, we had gotten too used to breathing; we tried so hard to make it stop,” he laughed. “It’s all so silly now. But, we didn’t know that then.”
Gustavo fell into a deep silence while observing the ripples in the coffee as it spun about the contour of the cup. Isabela straightened herself and looked around the cafe. They were still alone. She listened to the whirring of the two ceiling fans, watched cars pass and the occasional pedestrian. She checked the clock—12:15. Four more hours, she thought, then I have to be at the market to get eggs, milk and rice. Did mamà need sugar? I’ll ask, but I know she won’t remember if I wake her.
She glanced at Gustavo, who was intently eating the flan. She avoided looking directly at him so she wouldn’t have to think about his story. Usually, he told anecdotes from his childhood—some funny thing he did, or something his father used to say, or about a meal his mother made. Once, he told her about the first girl he kissed—this was after she told him about a boy who had laid roses under her window, but was too shy to speak to her. She had told Gustavo how he had started to send her letters through a mutual friend, and she was becoming infatuated with him, but they had never spoken in person, and this put her ill at ease, as though there were something wrong with him. His appearance perhaps, or maybe he had a lisp. But, Mariela had said he was a handsome boy, with no problems she was aware of. Still, one is not shy for no good reason.
“The story troubles you,” Gustavo smiled sadly.
“Yes, I did not know you were a rebel.”
“Like I said, my dear Isabela, in those days, things were different. You speak of a rebel now and you think of the communists, but I was no communist. We just wanted Spain to leave. Then, the United States took their place and I had to leave. Cuba seemed ideal, since they had accomplished what my land could not, and here, I am still close.”
“Do you hate the United States?”
“I hate that they occupy my country.”
“And you killed many men?”
“It was a war.”
“I apologize, señor.”
“Call me Gustavo.”
“I apologize, but I do not like hearing such stories.”
“You do not think well of me now?”
“I did not like the story. That is all,” she said.
“I understand. I don’t like it much myself, but it is a part of who I am, and I suppose, though I have no right to impose that part of myself onto you, that you are the only person I talk to now. I had to tell somebody, forgive me.”
He saw her face light up with empathy, and, feeling the weight of the silence between them, he asked for another flan.
“You will get fat the way you eat,” she teased.
“What does it matter? Soon, I will be dead.”
She had never heard him talk like this, and it bothered her that this man, a regular for over five years now, who was always so jovial and even flirtatious, was in such a morbid mood. She laid the coffee down and thought that she saw streaks of tears, almost dry, running down his cheeks.
“What is wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing my dear. If you do not mind, I would like to be alone now.”
“Whatever you want.”
He left the cafe around two in the morning, enveloped in the silence and the darkness. The streets were lit at odd intervals with gaslights and occasionally an errant shadow intruded on the misty circle before escaping into the darkness once more. Under one of these lamps, he rested, taking out a letter his nephew, Lionel, sent two weeks ago, urging him to reconcile with his brother, saying that Bernardo was ill, and does not have much time left. The letter also said that he no longer tells his father the news about the war because it distresses him to think of so many people dying.
That’s Bernardo, all right, he says to himself, always for peace.
That was why he went to the United States following the Jones Act of 1917. “Things will only get worse,” he had told Gustavo back then, “and I would rather be in America where there is no revolution. Where I don’t have to worry about demonstrations and assassinations. This is no country to raise a child.”
He had almost punched his brother then, wanting to knock his teeth out and break his nose for saying such a thing. Gustavo always believed that a child should be a fighter, should have love for his country and his people and fight for them, and now his brother had taken his new family to a land where they were loathed, where his children would be ashamed of their history, their culture, and want to be white.
Yes, Bernardo, your children grew up in peace, and have no spine because of it, he thought. Lionel could never face a firing squad or stand up to police officials under questioning. He loved his nephew, but felt ill whenever he thought of the man he could have been.
Still, he is a sweet boy for having always written his tio, he thought, who had loved him since the day he was born. He crumpled the letter and went back to the café. Isabela was shocked to see him moving with such energy after the depressed state he had been in all night.
“I have another story for you,” he said, leaning on the bar, a smile barely contained on his face. She approached with hesitancy, unsure whether he was in hysterics or not.
“I was walking up the street and I felt bad about my behavior.”
“You really don’t need to…”
“Isabela, I know you humor me because I am an old man, but I must apologize. A family matter has been troubling me that I will not bother you with. Only let me tell you a story about my sobrino, because he has been on my mind, okay?”
“My sobrino’s name is Lionel, but I wanted him to be named Hernan, after my maternal abuelo. But, my brother had seen a play with Lionel Barrymore when he visited New York, and insisted that he be named after him. That’s not the point, that isn’t why I’m telling you about him. I’m sorry, I get carried away. What I wanted to tell you was about the day Lionel was born: June 6, 1917, probably a few years before you I would think.”
He smiled, his eyes flickering with the fond memory, “We were in San Juan. It was pouring rain like I hadn’t seen in years. I was standing on the steps of the hospital with an umbrella ready to protect the baby and my sister-in-law. But, when she came out holding him, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I had never seen anything so beautiful. I was looking at him so hard that I forgot about the umbrella, and it’s just swinging every-which way because my eyes are on this kid. I was a crazy man. I even stepped on my sister-in-law’s foot. By the time we got in the car, we were so wet; I should’ve just forgotten the umbrella.”
Isabela let out a heavy laugh so infectious that Gustavo began to laugh as well.
“Oye, that’s a great story, it reminds me of when my sobrino was born. My sister let me hold him and I didn’t let him go the whole day.”
“Babies can do that sometimes. They’re like a gift from heaven.”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “Do you still see them?”
“No, that was the last time I saw either one of them, but Lionel keeps in touch.”
Just moments before, Gustavo had been his jovial, bouncing self. But, with one question, Isabela saw the burdened, disheartened mess that had troubled her return, his shoulders slumped, his mouth limp, his eyes full of sadness.
“I must go now,” he said, “I am glad you liked the story.”
“I did Gustavo, please come back again and tell me another one.”
How perceptive children are, he thought, how did she know just then I was ready to jump off a bridge?
Gustavo spent the next few days walking along the streets and parks, sometimes stopping to observe a domino game or a mother walking with her children. He gave compliments and remarks about the weather to those he met along the way. Other times, he observed a flower for several minutes, taking in every petal and the insects buzzing around, looking for a place to rest or eat. On those days, he observed the clouds and the hills and the sea, thinking of nothing but the magnificence of their beauty. Today, he sat on a bench in the park, watching waves crash along the side of a mountain. Seagulls glided over the water, occasionally dipping below the surface for a moment or two before shooting up, beak to the sun.
He caught a boat peeking out from behind the mountain, a magnificent white hulk cutting the sea in half. The foghorn permeated the rushes of wind, sending news of its arrival to those in wait. For all the people not expecting the boat, they carried about their day, as Gustavo was, moving from the place they had been to the place they were expected to be. He leaned on the railing along the edge of the mountain, the foghorn reaching out, calling for him to return to the sea, to make that long trek through the Greater Antilles and spend his final days in the island of his birth.
I’m fifty-seven years old, he thought, I should not be seeing too many more days like this. Days when I am lonely and think only of the friends I knew, of the places I have been. The ruins of Western Europe look more like my tattered soul every day, and I see my face in the Great Continent’s broken people, their eyes reflecting death. Why have I not traveled more in the twenty years I have lived here? Has it really been that long? Can it really be 1942 already? I could swear yesterday it was still the Nineteenth Century, and Spain ruled these shores. I could swear time is not so cruel, that I could stand in such a beautiful spot, and have nothing to speak for it. There is only the view, and I hope that God is the one looking at me now, if I must be looked at, and I hope He understands that I tried, how hard I tried. Being an exile was better than being a traitor, even if the traitor still has friends, and I know I could have made more friends here. This is a kind island, but at my age, you recite obituaries more than phone numbers. God bless the one who dies last, for he is damned.
He left the park in a state of blocked thought. It was not until he reached the city square that he realized he was hungry, and that he could not remember the last thing he had observed. At first, he thought he was in San Juan, not due to senility, but rather, there are times when a man is where he wants to be. He went into a restaurant and ordered the first thing the waiter recommended, and when his food was served he thought, Why did I order this? But, he ate it anyway.
When he returned home, he re-read Lionel’s letter and began to write his own.
I understand your concern, but your father should not ask you to convince me to speak to him. If he wants to speak to me or, God forbid, see me, then he must do it of his own will, sick or not.
He suddenly lost possession of his hand, and instead of continuing the letter; he crumpled it up and threw it away. With a sickness growing in the depths of his stomach, he decided to take a walk. The sound of the bell as the door opened lifted Gustavo’s spirits. Isabela would give him his cake and coffee, would listen to his story, would humor him for the next few hours into believing he still has friends in this world. She smiled as he entered, “Good evening, señor.”
“Good evening, my dear.”
He took his seat at the far end of the bar and watched as she served the other guests. She set down his coffee, but the cake would have to wait until the last of the crowd left, that was his cue, that was when they were the only two people in the world. Throughout the last hour, he had felt good, perhaps happy, if he correctly remembered the touch of such a feeling, and sipped his coffee with patience as he observed Isabela and the other customers.
All types came here, young and old, derelict and wealthy. A young man in a suit carrying a briefcase reading the paper could easily be seen sitting next to a homeless man slapping down muddy coins and calling Isabela sweetheart and baby. He watched the night owls crossing the window, some arm in arm, some alone, hands in pocket. He slid the cup between his index finger and thumb, grinning to himself as he replayed the story he wished to tell Isabela tonight. As with all things in life, time expands and rushes according to the amount of attention paid to anxieties and minor details, and since Gustavo was lost in revelry and therefore unobservant of his own existence, he was amazed to look up at the clock and see two hours had passed.
The cafe empty, Isabela served him his cake and took her position, chin on open palms.
“How brief the night is, I have not even touched my coffee.”
“I can warm it up.”
“Would you, my dear?” She smiled and whisked the cup away, pouring the contents into a pot and lighting the stove. He looked at her, all curves, her rear rounding out at the top—just enough to let you know its weight. Her breasts were full and her neck long and slender. Mira, he said to himself, if you are not the Madonna incarnate. She looked over her shoulder and flashed those big brown eyes, the light turning her irises to honey, her moist lips curving her cheek into a smooth crescent.
“My dear,” he said, “you remind me of my first love; she was the most beautiful girl in Santurce.”
“Stop. I am not beautiful.”
“No one is until they are told, and I am telling you that you may have been born your father’s child, but you are now a woman of the world. Suitors must be banging down your door.”
“Gustavo, please, you make me blush.”
“Finally, you say my name.”
“You did ask.”
“You must have a love. Didn’t you mention a boy to me a while back?”
“Yes, but I have never met him.”
“He left you roses, or am I thinking of another, you must have several?”
“No, just the one.”
“That is a shame.”
“A working girl like me does not have time for lovers.”
“A girl your age should not be calling herself a working girl. You should be ready to settle down.”
“Well, that’s very flattering, Gustavo, but I am afraid I must work, and many boys do not like that.”
“Then, they should marry you so you don’t have to, so you can raise children.”
She poured the coffee back into the cup and held it for a moment. Looking down at the spinning liquid, she allowed a sudden sadness to pass over her before looking up at Gustavo with his mischievous smile. She served him his fresh cup.
“Did you have a story for me tonight?”
“Yes, my dear, a wonderful story that will cheer you up.”
“I don’t need cheering up; I’m doing just fine.”
“Of course you are.”
She leaned on the counter in anticipation, without another word, and put her head on her hands.
“Like I said, you remind me of my first love, Yolanda.”
“You told me a little about her, your first kiss, right?”
“Yes, the very one.”
“She was the daughter of a local merchant my father worked with. I played with her brothers growing up. She was about two or three years younger than me. The first time I really noticed her, I was about six years old. I was playing on the beach with her brothers; I remember coming onto shore and seeing her making a sand castle. And where she dug the moat, there was a shell, black in the middle with purple and blue on the sides. She looked at it for several minutes, studying every crevice and wrinkle. I saw her there, so intense; I was curious and went up to her to look at it. I didn’t have to say a word. She saw me and lifted it to my face, ‘Look,’ she said. And I took her hand in mine and brought the shell up close. She stood right next to me, and I felt this warmth, this comfort that I did not understand at the time. When she held that shell up to the sun, I saw little stars filling its center. It was a perfect moment, an awakening. She made a necklace with the shell and I kept it for several years.”
“Did you tell her you loved her?”
“Yes, we courted for a while when I was a teenager, but then a friend convinced me to go with him to the mountains. A movement was forming, he told me, a movement to get the U.S. out, like the Philippines and Cuba were doing. I was sixteen years old.”
“That was when you killed the General?”
“I didn’t kill him. I only attended the party.”
“Did you see her again?”
“Yes, I returned home a few years later when my father died. She came to the funeral with her fiancé, some guy we went to school with. I don’t remember his name.”
“You didn’t try to get her back?”
“I didn’t think it was important at the time. You will find that a lot in your life. Missed opportunities. Half chances and always saying, ‘What if,’ ‘What if,’ and ‘If only I had’, but it’s meaningless, a waste of time. You get the life you work for.”
“So you lost her, and that was the end of it.”
“No, I saw her one more time, about ten years later. We both happened to be in Utuado. She was visiting her abuela, and I was visiting friends. We spent an evening together. Talked about her kids, her husband—she was miserable, of course, not because she wasn’t with me, though. I am a romantic, but not a fool. No, she knew her husband was sleeping around and he drank like her father, but, luckily, her husband did not also have her father’s temper.”
“She asked me how my travels were. If I was enjoying living like a huerfanito and a vagabond. I said I was no such thing. ‘Then why do you not shave? Why do you have such shabby clothes?’ She asked. ‘I am poor; I work hard, but not enough and I get by with what I have.’ That was when she grabbed my hand and looked at me, like she had when she showed me her shell. She touched my face, like this.”
He brought his open palm to Isabela’s face, the tips of his fingers caressing the edge of her jaw line before gliding over the smooth contours of her cheek down to her chin, tracing the outline of her neck and shoulder before tapping her finger tips, which opened in response. He gently pulled her fingers toward him until the back of her hand rested atop his heart.
“She took my hand,” he continued, “pulled me close, and said, ‘Gustavo, under all that dirt, you are still the most beautiful man I have ever known, but for God’s sake, shave once in a while, what would your mother think?”
Isabela released her hand from his and covered her mouth as she laughed, her eyes dancing.
“I laughed too, then, and she was right. I cleaned up that evening and the next morning saw her off with her kids. She kissed me goodbye…on the cheek, of course. The last I heard of her was before I left the island. Her oldest had just been conscripted into the Navy, and I tried to see her, but…”
He stopped and the two friends shared a deep stare for several moments before he averted his eyes to his cup, finished his coffee and asked for another one.
“But what, Gustavo?”
“But life happened, and there was nothing I could do about it.” She began to brew a fresh pot while trying to ignore the sorrow that consumed her friend. He picked at his cake and fondled the crumbs.
“I liked the story,” she said, all brightness and bounce.
“Good, I am happy then.” A long sigh pervaded the silence, and he told her not to worry about his coffee, that he was calling it an early night and that he would see her tomorrow. She tried to object, but the door closed too soon.
And, so the days passed. He maintained his routine, his long walks along the avenues and parks, trying futilely to write his nephew, and taking his nightly coffee and cake, but something had shifted. When he walked, he did not observe. The streets and parks were all one road now, a blank, barren road with no company, not even birds. When he started a new letter, he found himself addressing death, asking for more time before succumbing to the despair at having to wait another day for its arrival. When he got his coffee, he asked for the cake immediately, and left with the crowd.
Isabela did not know what to make of it. She tried to talk to him, but he went no further than basic pleasantries—”How are you?” “I am fine.” “Nice weather today, no?” These were the silly pleasantries which defined the borders of their interactions. It was a stalemate, an uneasy pause enforced by the old man.
One night, as he looked into his coffee and tried to ignore her, she wished to reveal herself to him, to explain all that resided in her soul. She spoke without words, hoping with clear well-shaped thoughts.
I clean these counters and do all my closing duties, and I sing to myself the little songs my mother sang to me as a child, and I replay your stories over and over, and long for a new one. I have so many questions for you: why did you leave the island when there is now an Nationalist Party and good leaders with a real chance at winning? Why have you not seen your brother and nephew in over twenty years? I have so many things to ask you, and I am afraid you are the closest friend I have. Please, please stop looking away from me. Is it something I said? What can I do to make you talk to me again?
He saw her looking at him with eyes on the edge of tears, trying to pay attention to the other customers, trying to smile as they told a joke or passed a flirt. He wanted to talk to her but what should he say? That he despairs of every waking moment? That he is tired of his body’s weight? That food no longer brings him pleasure? What should I tell you? You are young and still have faith in life. You have no time for an old man’s sadness. When I told you of my revolutionary days you were frightened, how fond would you be of me if you knew the whole truth? You weep for me now child, but if you only knew.
She went to refill his coffee and he finally spoke, “Where is my cake?”
“I will give it to you later.”
“I would like it now, please.”
“So you can avoid talking to me?”
“I am no child. My father is dead and my mother will soon join him.”
“Perhaps, you should not make friends with a dying man then.”
“I have few pleasures in life, Gustavo, please do not take any more away.”
He saw the conviction in her eyes as well as the strength that ran throughout her body. She spoke to him with more directness than any woman he had ever known, as well as with more conviction than most men. He was not even sure he himself had spoken with such conviction as this poor girl, even in his revolutionary days. It was one thing to speak of political virtues, and quite another to speak of human compassion.
“I cannot enjoy my cake with so many people anyway,” he acquiesced.
“Then, we will talk?”
He spent the next few hours watching the other customers sit down, order, eat, talk, and leave. He anticipated their movements, and dreaded when one after the other got up and went on their way into the endless night. Knowing what will come, he could not finish his coffee. Even the aroma twisted his stomach. When the last customer left, Isabela placed the cake before him. He dipped his fork into the moist center, delicately lifting it to his face, saying, “To you,” before placing it upon his tongue, a sweet communion wafer, bringing it to the top of his mouth, absorbing every crumb, his body lifting with new breath as he swallowed. A satisfied sigh escaped his lips and he smiled with surprising ease.
“I have not seen you smile in weeks,” she said.
“My dear, you can go years without smiling.”
“Maybe for you. But, even on my worst days, I find a reason.”
“You are still young.”
“What? You are.”
“You don’t need to remind me.”
“I know; we should be equals.”
She spun and waltzed to the coffee pot, reaching above it to where the cups were, flipped one in a complete circle and poured herself a glass. She then cut herself a piece of cake and set it in front of his. She mimicked his delicate motions as she punctured the cake, set the bite on her tongue, absorbed its flavor, and let out the same relieved sigh.
“Now, we are equals,” she said. And, when he let out a laugh in response to her mimicry, she smiled and said, “You have such a beautiful laugh.”
“I have been told, and you wouldn’t believe it. But, in my day, my face was the most handsome in all of Santurce, if not the entire island.”
“So, it only makes sense that you went after the most beautiful girl. She was in Santurce, but…in Bayamòn, I found a beauty unequaled in all my travels. And Isabela, I have been throughout Europe where I spent nights with French maids and Spanish tempests, all of whom paled in comparison to the holy women of Rome. Still, none of them equaled the beautiful, Cristina Rivera.”
“Where did you meet her?”
“In Bayamòn, I told you.”
“But where in Bayamòn, so I can go there and be crowned the greatest beauty since Cristina Rivera.”
“It is good to see you have grown out of your shyness tonight. I saw her in the Parque Central. She was with some girlfriends.”
“Did you approach her there?”
“I am no child; I am Isabela.”
“Yes, of course. Isabela. It would be silly to approach a girl when she is with company, especially other women. I don’t have to tell you, or maybe I do, how jealous women can be when one of their friend gets all of the attention.”
“You’re right. I don’t know that because I am always the one being talked to.”
“Yes, of course, the greatest beauty since Cristina Rivera.”
“So, when did you actually meet her?”
“She had just started working at El Tropical, a café owned by my good friend Hector Olivera, who just happened to be her cousin. When he told me, I flipped on him—’Hector, why didn’t you tell me you had such a beautiful cousin?’ I said.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Because I know you’.”
They both laughed and Gustavo took the opportunity to ask for more coffee. As she refilled his cup, he began to speak, distantly, as if transfixed in a dream.
“We talked all that night. And, when she had to leave, I walked her to her place. I had never enjoyed talking to a woman that much my whole life. She was funny. There are very few women that are funny. But, it was not all laughs. She hated the occupation, too. Her and some friends were starting a group, the Independentistas, and she asked if I’d like to be involved. I said ‘Yes, of course,’ and when I got her to her door, for some reason, I had not even thought of kissing her. But, as she left, I found myself climbing the steps and, just as she disappeared into the hallway, I grabbed her arm. She turned to me, said, ‘I had a lovely night,’ and leaned out of the door. We kissed…”
He stopped, and Isabela wished she could go where his eyes had gone, to that building, to that door. She wished she could be Cristina, or a woman like her, so alluring and beautiful that a man would remember her kiss forty years later.
“It might have been days before she pulled away from me,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have noticed, but when she did, when that door closed, I felt my life had just begun.”
He wanted to say, ‘…and, now, it is ending’, but kept it to himself, not wanting to harm this gentle creature who indulged him, who needed him, who gave him comfort in these last days. He did not care to tell her what happened next, so that she might keep that image of timeless romance in her heart, so she might remain innocent and young.
It was first thing the next morning when he sat at his desk determined to finish the letter to Lionel. At first, he stared at the blank page and did not care to darken it with his pen, was afraid of his heart, at what those passages might say, whether he should tell his nephew the truth: that he hates the freedom his brother has, that he can lie in a hospital and be surrounded by his family, that he can go to sleep without regret, that he has a woman who is faithful and loving, that he escaped when he did and got to avoid so much pain. The piercing knife savaged his guts every day. The ghosts tormented him. His brother had none of them, save for Gustavo disowning him.
Since he could not bring himself to truly be free of all suffering, he wished for his brother to die calling out his name. Since Gustavo could not take comfort in Bernardo dying alone, instead he would take comfort in Bernardo dying without his forgiveness. He could not tell his nephew this, so he addressed it appropriately.
How fortunate you have been in life. How loved your days are. You were right. The United States has truly made you a king. Your Land of Opportunities has been fruitful and full of pleasure. Even during the Depression you did all right, because it was peaceful, was it not? Even in your ‘poverty’ you and your family were taken care of, given the hospitality of good old Uncle Sam.
But enough of my sarcasm toward your beloved land. Enough of my mocking the life you have led, because you are not in misery as I am. You can still see the island. You can even be buried there. Not me. I am condemned to Cuba, a great land, but not my land. I spend my days mourning the loss of my home. Every time I speak, I am reminded of the difference between these people and me. Whoever I speak to has the stamp of Cuba on their tongue, a song whose tune I cannot hold, regardless of the two decades I have lived here. I run into a Puertorriqueño here and there but they, like you, feed me nothing but contempt, for they meet me on their way back home, and I am reminded once more of my moving cell.
When I eat, a guard with a friendly smile hands me a plate through the bars, maybe even tells me a joke, but never gives me a key. Even if I forgive you, you cannot do me that favor either, and for that you can die without my hand to your heart. I wish I could say we will meet again in Heaven, and perhaps there I could give you the condolence you long for, but God forgot me a long time ago, and you should have done the same.
He stopped his pen as the tears began to cover the page and he was forced to turn away as not to smear the ink. He wanted to write ‘I love you’, but could not bring himself to give Bernardo that much of him, the little that is left, for why give the love that has struggled to remain alive all these years to a dying man? He would only take it with him, and Gustavo would live out his remaining days empty, unable to remember why he woke, or why he should continue breathing. Instead, he wrote ‘Farewell, Your brother’, and put his head down to weep into his pillow so the neighbors would not hear and come knocking or worse: only listen and debate among themselves whether or not to help the man so violently weeping and, in the end, decide to let him be, since he could not be saved.
He put the letter in his pocket the next day when he went for a walk, dropped it at the post office box, and, later, slumped to the cafe. Isabela, disheartened by the anguish on her friend’s face, smiled more brightly and doted on him more tenderly than usual, even though her eyes, too, possessed the unmistakable mark of pain and suffering, a weariness she had never shown before, an age to her unlike the one she carried. This misery, she hid for the sake of her friend, who undoubtedly had more reasons to be sad. He showed some meager signs of appreciation. A forced grin here, a hand wave there.
When they were alone, she bounced over to him with a large, fresh slice of cake, and then got her own, imitating the dance from the night before, but he was not fooled.
“You should be an actress.”
“Because I am beautiful?”
“Because you are miserable, yet still put on a good show.”
She tried to retain her smile, but a sob pounded at the back of her throat and her eyes watered so her smile was now red and broken. She let out a cough and tried to recover, but she knew it was futile.
“I would rather not tell any stories tonight,” he said.
“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”
“Why not? We can still talk, just no stories. I am tired of stories. I am tired of myself.”
“You took the words out my mouth.”
“What do you have to be tired about?”
“You should not speak as if you know me,” she said.
“Do I not know you?”
“No, just as I do not know you.”
“Then tell me, now that we are equals, so we may know everything about one another.”
There was a long silence, which at first built the anxiety within Gustavo to press the issue, but he realized before he could speak that this silence was necessary to distance herself from the words she will say, from the emotions she will feel, and will, God willing, dry the tears she had wanted to cry. They ate their cake and drank their coffee. She went to pour him another cup, and halfway to the pot stopped, her entire body lifting with a sigh before she grabbed it and meekly approached the counter. She put the pot down and looked Gustavo directly in the eye.
“I told you my father was dead, and that is why I must work.” She poured the coffee.
“If you do not care to tell your story now, I understand.”
“No, you asked, and I should respect that.”
She slapped the pot onto the counter. “My mother got sick a few months ago and had to stop working as well. So, now we live very tight, even though I have two jobs. Every day, she is getting worse. All day today, I thought of how it will be when she dies. How when Papà left, I, at least, had her. But, once she is gone, I will have nobody. I will work only for myself, live by myself. I do not know if I have the strength for such a life.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Most people outlive their parents; it’s a hard thing to adjust to, but you survive.”
“Most people have a husband or children when their parents die, what do I have? Myself? I don’t know if I could stand the loneliness.”
“You manage, somehow,” he said.
“Then, I think, maybe I will not be lonely long, but if a man did come into my life it would still not replace what I lost. You can never replace your parents.”
“You wouldn’t have to, there is always room in your heart for more people.”
“I feel my heart is full enough.”
“Yes, I know that feeling. Look at us.”
“We are both bawling like babies. When I was young, I did not care for tears. Yet, in my old age, I find them the greatest comfort. They say everything I cannot.”
“Gustavo, why can’t you return to Puerto Rico?”
“You don’t need to know about that.”
“I want to know.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Gustavo, please, I want to know.”
“I have never spoken about it to anyone; it would feel like I was being given my last confession, and, after such a thing, I will lie down and never wake up.”
“Maybe not, maybe you will be here tomorrow, and we can be happy now that our sorrows have been spoken.”
Reflected in her eyes, he saw himself and was frightened by his lack of recognition, his face nothing but deep, stretched-out holes. He looked away so that he might organize his story before he began.
“Do you know who Jose Celso Barbosa was?”
“He was a senator in Puerto Rico. He was also the man who started the movement toward statehood with the United States. He had a devout following, and therefore was a great threat to the independence movement. Cristina couldn’t stand him. He was all she would talk about, and one day, in December 1921, somebody went into Barbosa’s room, put a pillow over his face, and shot him. The papers said it was natural causes to keep the peace, but the police knew. No one could oppose the colonial government without getting their attention. All of my friends were dragged out of their houses for interrogation; most of them were never seen again. A few popped up later, under different names, and helped lead the movement, but, by then, the police didn’t care. They had their shooter.”
“Cristina, you mean?”
“Yes, she had killed him. I found their bodies outside El Tropical the next night. Most men would have sought revenge, but I knew I would accomplish nothing more than my own death, so I fled. I hopped on a boat to Europe and swore I would never return until the U.S. left.”
Isabella was silent, tears streaming into her coffee. As he said all of this, the actual events played out in his mind, how he himself had railed against Barbosa, had spoken often in public, like a fool, about how Barbosa needed to die, and how he snuck into his room, covered him with a pillow, and broke his face.
That evening, he went to El Tropical where he knew he would find refuge. Hector hid him in the attic and Cristina took his gun, kissed him one last time, and confronted the cops as they approached the café. From the roof, he saw them try to push past her. It was at this point that she took out the gun and shot one of the cops in the back of the head. The retaliation was immediate and brutal; her body was thrown several dozen feet from the gunshots. When Hector tried to bar them from the café, they shot him, as well. It was then that he fled out the back door.
Over the next several days, the friends who could not give him up, for no one truly knew where he was, were jailed or executed, depending on their level of cooperation. After two weeks of running, he hopped on a freighter to England, and after two months the storm died down, but his warrant remained. Of course, he could not tell Isabela this, preferring she believe the half-truth that his exile was due to losing a lover, and the heartbreak he still felt.
“How painful life can be,” was all that Isabela could muster the strength to say. Another customer entered as the bell rang. Isabela wiped her face dry and welcomed them, “Hello, how can I help you?”
Alone, Gustavo watched her treat the customer with courtesy and a smile, but noticed how she walked now, with weights, her face beaten, her eyes tired. He knew she would like to jump off a bridge now, and he knew he had nothing to say to make her reconsider. He searched for something, anything. Hope, maybe? Yes, he thought, there is hope. Because if you can find a friend who will listen to you, in the end it was all worth it. You hope and you wish and have all the faith in the world, but in the twilight of your life all you have is a relative stranger who is the only person left you can call a friend.
But, while they will bring you coffee and cake, will they be by your side when you pass this life? Most likely not, since death is a private journey, and does not always make threats, but rather sneaks into your bed at night, or in the middle of the day while you watch the waves crash along the shore, or play dominos, or are about to order a meal. How can I tell her that? He asked himself, she should not know these things so young. She deserves hope, but what can I give her? I who have no hope, who only has her, and soon she will only have me and I will be dead soon after that. What hope is in all of this? Do we pretend? Do we run away, like my brother, sitting in his lap of luxury not having to think about the struggles of people like Isabela and me? Do we feign ignorance? What is the cure for all this? Tell me, God, if you are still there for the downtrodden and not only the well to do. Tell me what I should tell this girl so she does not become like me.
The customer left and she stepped out from behind the bar; his eyes following her as she approached him, then sat next to him, trying to smile, trying to laugh, but nothing came. So, she threw her arms around him, softening him enough that he allowed himself to hug her back. He felt what remained of his love pour into her, and she accepted this, a smile slicing through the remains of her tears.
“But you made it through, no?” She said.
“Yes, and so will you.”
For a moment, they were interchangeable. Yet, when she pulled back, he saw that they were two very different people: one condemned while the other still had a chance, the most anyone could ask for. And while she could not share his burden she could alleviate it with those eyes which reminded him of better days, even if only for a few hours more, when he would lie in bed for the last time, close his eyes, and never wake up.
Coming soon: A Wake Part 2: Isabela…..