In the story before us, which takes place against the backdrop of the Havana Film Festival, the Maestro Gabriel García Márquez asks the storyteller and the rest of the students in his writing workshop to present him with a “big idea.” And this is precisely what Lucia Puenzo does. From the very first line, the story grabs the reader and doesn’t release its grip until the last word. The events that take place are not pleasant; on the contrary, the encounter between the student and the mysterious man is crude and perverted. Crude and perverted are also the Brazilian’s decision that the secret Cohiba is hiding is less important than the interest she finds in him, and the sense of danger that engulfs the entire story: it doesn’t matter what we will discover in the end of the story, it doesn’t matter how the Brazilian will find an ending to her banal story. The fact that Lucia Puenzo is a screenwriter is not surprising, as she relays information to the reader in a way that he never knows what’s waiting for him around the next corner. The opening scene renders the impression that the storyteller is about to present us with another story about abuse, but she goes even further. The story about Cohiba is the story we would not want to read, the story we would rather believe was not based on reality, and furthermore, it is also the nightmare of so many women. The plot unfolds at a pace of a chase, but at the very beginning, without us noticing, the hunter had already caught his prey.
His hand brushes against mine in the darkness. His skin is hot and rough. Short hair, curls combed flat with some amateur pomade that shines even in the penumbra of the movie theatre. His smell insinuates itself over the rest. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. I look back. Everything he has is new: the white shirt, the watch, the open backpack with a few books on Afro-Cuban art. He is a young professor or a student about to graduate. Thirty years old, no more. I move my hand from the armrest and hide it between my legs. On-screen, the actor speaks directly to the camera, challenging the Empire: junk food is to blame for the world’s obesity. He introduces us to his vegan girlfriend and the doctors who are going to accompany his body as it falls over the precipice, stuffed with trash for an entire month. The man lets his hand fall on to my leg in a smooth move that nobody else sees. It takes but a second – a caress – for everything else to disappear… the people, the movie. He is all that exists now, his slow, deliberate breathing. I lie in wait, hunching closer to the woman on my right. I could ask him to let me go by, tell him that I have to go to the bathroom and wait in the lobby. But I don’t do anything. The woman scoots over a bit so that my arm stops touching hers. All three of us stare ahead in silence. On-screen the American body begins to decompose. Swollen, flaccid, lacking all desire, it vomits in the car park of a McDonald’s and the cinema bursts into laughter. The man on my left laughs along and leans his leg into mine. This time I stay put. He realizes it’s become a battle of wills (he likes that). He settles his backpack down on his left leg so the stranger sitting on his other side can’t watch him. His hand moves over to his pants, he unbuttons them and pulls down the zipper. Without turning my head, I can see him take it out. He strokes it with his right hand, holding on to the backpack with his left. Up and down, faster and faster. He laughs when everyone else laughs (up, down) without taking his eyes off the screen (up, down). A German man lounges in the row just in front of us, oblivious to the fact that he is aiming at his neck (up, down) his breathing gets deeper, falters, nobody notices (up, down) his hand goes crazy, his breathing envelops both of us (I will not…) he finishes himself off with the applause, eyes fixed on the screen, spattering the back of the German’s seat, the tips of his blond hair, painting the wood in spasms, signing it with a last drop of semen.
He keeps still, composing himself while the credits announce that the American has won all the independent cinema awards. When the lights come on, he gets up and asks to be allowed by. He’s the first person up, even though we are seated in the middle of the row. People move their knees to let him go by; someone complains about his haste. He abandons the theatre fleeing like a rat, cowardly, his eyes nailed to the floor. He walks hunched over, uncomfortable with his height. Little by little, the theatre begins to empty, but I can’t tear my eyes from his work of art, the most ephemeral expression of modern art. The German’s girlfriend in the row ahead caresses his hair and pulls her sticky hand away.
The lobby is swarming with people. All the countries of the world simmering in a single broth. He is nowhere to be seen. The shouts of a British group stand out from among the sweaty babel, arguing with a mulatto guard. They demand to be allowed to stay in the cinema to see the next Japanese film, refusing to stand in yet another line. One of them is a member of the jury of the Havana Film Festival. The guard talks to them about equal rights and even about revolution. As I am about to cross the doorway, I feel his breath on the back of my neck. He’s right there, holding his body against mine. In the chaos of people pushing to get out nobody notices anything strange about the way his hands grab my waist. Look at me, at least once. His voice is low, serene, dark as his skin. He doesn’t have a closed, inland accent. Please. Look at me. He slides his left hand downwards. The right hand continues past it and stops in the middle of my stomach. For a moment I am surprised by how natural his hands feel holding my body (as if he knew it by heart). The crowd pushes us forward. I escape his grip and cross the doorway.
Forty degrees wait for us outside. Cubans and foreigners mingle in a line that is three blocks long, credentials hanging from their necks. I look for the Brasileira, the Basque’s red shirt, the Hungarian’s gigantic body. People shove their way down the tiny stairs. Some arrive to the showing late; others get dragged there by the current. I fight the desire to look at him until someone stumbles and pushes me up against the naked back of a mulatto woman with grey eyes. She turns her head around and laughs like a snake charmer. Our skin slides off one another’s; there’s nothing to grab. Black people of all shades are scattered among the Europeans. A hand slips up from beneath the jumble of bodies and grabs mine before the mulatto woman is able to say anything. The Brasileira flashes her string of white teeth. She has a mole just above her lip and a birthmark on her neck, the trace of an eternal kiss. Lightly smudged make-up from the night before gives her a halo of glamour, like a classic film star. Her breath is sweet with alcohol; she has carried a flask of rum in her purse since the first day and takes short pulls from it as if it were filled with Bach Flower Remedies.
She goes down the remaining stairs two by two, cutting across diagonally, barking for them to let us through, it’s an emergency. The Basque waits at the corner, tying the laces of his orthopaedic shoe. One leg is twenty centimetres shorter than the other and he weighs only fifty kilos. He’s warned me five times since we first met (seventy hours ago to be exact) that he’s of no use as anyone’s protection. The Hungarian woman is exactly the opposite, both in size and in spirit. Her stories are as exuberant as her body. She crosses the street in between cars, devouring a melting ice-cream cone. We have one hour before the next movie shows, she says in perfect Spanish. Let’s go to the cemetery. She walks on, not bothering to wait for an answer. She’s a director’s assistant in Budapest, she’s used to giving orders. She was married to a Cuban for a decade, she knows the island by heart, her youngest daughter was born in Varadero and grew up eating fish and oranges. She has been insisting on taking us to the place where her husband proposed matrimony since the day we arrived.
The street is a psychotic migratory wave: people walking in groups, nobody going in the same direction. They walk with the same sluggish gait, crushed by the heat and lack of air. Along the banks a string of large, run-down houses and mansions from the colonial period now converted into human dovecotes, one family per room, are all in the same state: peeling paint, broken glass, tall weeds, holes in the ceilings and walls. The residents sit out in the doorways in plastic chairs, watching the parade of foreigners pass by. A blonde woman with sun-creased skin doesn’t bother to hide an expression of scorn at the swooning state of some of the representatives of the First World. The Brasileira is the only one who stares back, unblinking, until the blonde woman smiles at her and moves on to the next foreigner.
The cemetery is located in the centre of Havana; an entire city block full of dead people. The closer the tombstones are to the centre, the older. Some no longer bear any trace of a name or a date; they’re just blocks of stone sticking out from among the vegetation. We cross the threshold at that magic hour: when everything looks a little nicer than it really is. The setting sun does not alleviate the heat. Instead, the humidity grows denser. When the Basque considers the photos he could have shot in this light, his eyes cloud up. His limp marks the rhythm of the walk and he ponders over how dangerous his Cuban adventure could have been: he arrived a day before the workshop began and decided to spend the day walking around on his own at the Malecón fair. He was about to buy Trilogía sucia de La Habana for fifteen dollars when a black man whispered in his ear that he could get it for him for only ten. In one fell swoop the Basque managed to pick up a book, a guide and the hope of a lover. By noon he had already treated the man to three mojitos, lunch, the book, his sunglasses… He was ecstatic: Havana exceeded his fantasies. He took photos left and right (he wanted to bring it all back with him) until the guide offered to take a photo of him. Further and further away he walked, pursuing a panoramic shot of the Malecón. When he was about fifty metres away, he called out for the Basque to smile, then took off at a run.
The Hungarian comes to a halt at a grave marked by a huge domino tile instead of a regular headstone. A double six is engraved in the stone, weather-worn from decades in the open air. Right here, she says, this is where I said yes. The woman buried before us had been her friend, her love, a compulsive domino player who had followed her from Budapest to Havana. She died in a macumba session (unable to withstand the passage of the Immaculate Conception over her body). The artisan who contrived the domino marker was the Hungarian’s ex-husband. They had met right here: she points to the García Lorca Theatre in front of the cemetery and asks us to accompany her. I continue to watch them over my shoulder. Everything seems unreal, the logic of dreams: faceless men, friend-strangers, the dramas of other people’s lives… Ever since we left the movie theatre, I have felt him still lingering, watching me, swallowed into the Cuban night every time I turn round.
A white marble lobby, chandeliers, Persian rugs… The García Lorca Theatre is one of the few refurbished buildings in Havana. It boasts the grandeur of epochs past that can’t be found anywhere else on the island. La Bohème will begin in ten minutes. The Brasileira sets to seducing one of the guards in a way that is as natural to her as breathing is for the rest of us mortals. She bats her eyelashes until he falls into a trance. The guard lets us stand in the line reserved for Cuban residents. The people coming in are wearing long dresses and summer suits. They are foreigners, although there are also some Cubans who are not a part of the dying socialism found outside, in the streets. The Hungarian shows her old residency card and buys four tickets, while the Brasileira puts on lipstick in front of a mirror. The duo enter the lobby, dragging along their Basque-Argentine millstone. They hold their heads so high that nobody notices the Hungarian’s girl-explorer Bermudas, nor the Paulista’s skin, so damp with perspiration it looks almost bathed in oil. The soprano shrieks as if they were about to tear her to pieces. With a sigh of agony, the Brasileira sneaks off to the bathroom before the intermission.
The hallway is empty and dark (in Cuba they conserve light even in the opera). Old-fashioned armchairs with corduroy upholstery and gold ribbing decorate the vestibule but in the bathroom there is nothing: no paper, no soap. A thread of water trickles from the tap, a tiny light bulb moves in circles, like a pendulum, above the hypnotized stare of the Brasileira, who follows it from below, spread out in one of the easy chairs, arms hanging over the edge, neck stretched backwards. For a second it looks broken – snapped – but she picks her head up when she hears someone come in. She lifts her dress with one hand and pulls her thong down with the other as she walks into one of the stalls. She doesn’t sit down but, barely bending her knees, opens her legs. She does a little wiggle-dance before pulling her thong back up. Tenho um presentinho pra você. She pulls a roach from her bra and holds it in her fingertips as if it were a diamond.
That’s how it was from the first day on: she would finish waking up as the sun went down. I arrived at the school at five in the morning on Sunday. The airport taxi stopped at the entrance gate so the security guard could confirm my name on the list. He assigned me a room in the last apartment module, gave me a set of keys and a warning: my Brazilian room-mate had arrived the day before. The headlights illuminated five Rationalist buildings strewn amid a field as barren as an African savannah. The taxi left me in front of the last apartment module, a cement rectangle with acrylic windows. Something tickling my left foot made me look down: it was a tiny frog; there were two more on my bag. All around me, the ground was littered with frogs.
The Brasileira was singing in the shower when I got in. The bedside lamp in her room was on, a scarf hung over the shade. Her clothes were scattered across the floor: papers, books, speakers, records, incense, oils, creams, make-up, sweets, powdered milk…
The bed was unmade, photos stuck to the wall. An empty milk carton was left on the kitchen table. A pair of panties and a lace bra hung from a rocking chair made of ribbons of blue plastic that sat on the living-room balcony. For someone who had landed less than twenty-four hours earlier, it was a prodigy of chaos. I set her underclothes down on the table. They were still wet, recently washed. Outside there was no sign of dawn. A herd of rickety goats passed in front of the apartment building, harangued by a mulatto every bit as skinny as them. She came out of the bathroom in the nude. After a few steps she stopped, when she saw first my bag and then me, sitting in front of the balcony. She leaned against the wall, hands behind her back. We talked until daybreak. Not once did she ever try to dress or to cover herself up, but let a small puddle of water form at her feet, which the breeze that came in from the balcony slowly but surely dried up. At seven, she said we needed to sleep for a few hours before meeting the maestro.
At five minutes to ten in the morning, a black car with smoked windows appears like a mirage at the end of the palm-lined road. The ten of us attending the workshop wait in front of the rest of the students, the cameras, the journalists at the bottom of the stairs. There is a rumor going around that this will be the last workshop the maestro teaches. Birri – the school’s director – helps him out of the car. García Márquez emerges sheathed in a blue jumpsuit, cleaning a pair of spectacles that get lost for a moment in Birri’s white beard when they separate from their embrace. Smile for the hyenas, he whispers, giving us hugs in front of the journalists’ cameras. We follow him up a floor, to the classroom. He doesn’t let anyone else in except us. Inside, the microphones are already turned on. Every word is recorded and belongs to the Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. So… who has the big idea? García Márquez asks. He’s having fun with us. Or, rather: he’s making fun of us. Your mission is to deliver one good idea, only one, he says, fishing around in his jumpsuit pockets until he finds what he’s looking for: an inhaler. He takes a hit from it and his eyes come back to life. If you don’t have one, go out and find it. Intimidated to the point of going mute; when he leaves ten minutes later not one of us has been able to decide yet whether his voraciousness is of the vampire variety or is merely contempt. One thing has become clear: screenwriters, for the maestro, are no more than a breed of lackeys.
So, from the very first day, García Márquez has turned his students into a pack of hunters. The big one is our prey and it can be found anywhere (past, future, fiction, reality). On the second night, standing in the doorway of the theatre, roach hanging from her lips, the Brasileira looks into the darkness and sighs… I won’t leave until I find it. She walks away, down a narrow, cobbled street that runs between the back of the theatre and the cemetery wall which is covered in captions dedicated to the people at rest on the other side. Car headlights cut out silhouettes of Havana’s nocturnal citizens. At sunset, clandestine taxis come out: clients pile in, sitting on top of each other until there is no room left to breathe. If one prefers to walk, the eyes grow accustomed to the dark and the silhouettes slowly recover their features. The Brasileira’s whistle reaches me from the corner. I see her for a second, waving her arm, illuminated by the headlights of a passing car, then the darkness swallows her up again. The glow coming from one of the theatre signs is the only light along the whole block. I hear a sound – tsss – to my right and turn my head to see a flare of embers suspended in mid-air. As my vision adjusts I can just make out the Brasileira: she’s holding the roach with the tips of her fingers, the back of her head resting against the cemetery wall as she fills her lungs with smoke. Você viu isso? She points to a small door that is barely lit. Two foreigners dressed in pastel colours wait in front of a black man with the body of a boxer and an unctuous, adolescent hooker at his side. Above the door someone has written by hand: WELCOME TO GARCíA LORCA’S HELL.
When the door opens, beams of light tint the European brand-name clothing. The Europeans descend and the black man is about to shut the door when the Brasileira takes the offensive, sweetened by the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and hip hop. A fresh round of eyelash batting ensues and he lets us through. Downstairs, people are dancing, packed into a fifty-square-metre basement decorated with leftover stage props, the waiters dressed in period costumes. To be more precise, the people who are dancing are black; the white people watch them with respect as they move in ways they themselves will never be able to. A few drunken men (white) pluck up the courage to shake their spastic bodies amid such elegance, while a few chosen women (white) are escorted to the floor and led around like rubber dolls. It takes a minute before I register a stab of pain on my forearm. My sudden movement – clumsy – spills the drink of the man standing next to me. He is about to curse at me when he realizes what his cigar has done to my skin: a round burn, as perfect as a birthmark in raw flesh (the same spot where that other man first touched me).
The theatre lobby above is limbo to the hell that’s below. People strike affected poses as they wait for the intermission to end, never realizing that below their feet others are shaking their bodies to the point of trance, or that the waiters doling out drinks below are dressed in outfits very similar to those serving glasses of sherry with plastic smiles above. The Hungarian and the Basque are lounging near the bathroom, nearly prostrate with boredom and having nothing to say to each other. Their eyes light up when they see me (not because of me, but because of their hope that the Brasileira is behind me). It takes all of five strides for her to be nearly on top of me, followed by the Basque (double the number of strides, half the speed). The last guagua from Heladería Copelia to the school leaves in an hour, the Hungarian says. They agree to go down to hell as long as they can catch the bus back.
To go down is always harder than it is to come up: there are more people than just a few minutes earlier, dancing in place wherever they stop, wedging their bodies in alongside foreign bodies. The Hungarian waves a few bills at the bar until she’s able to exchange them for mojitos. My cigar burn is getting worse – a damp red circle stains one napkin after another – and the Brasileira is nowhere to be found, not at the bar, not on the dance floor…
At the last minute I find her in the arms of a black man who is moving her around as if they were of the same race, one of her legs between his, a hand on his back, the other around his neck, spinning as if she were a marionette, she so completely fascinated by he who moves the strings that she is willing to let him do anything he wants with her. They spin and spin and there it is: the white shirt, the hair smoothed back with pomade, the watch on his wrist, the backpack at his shoulder with books on Afro-Cuban art, spinning and spinning, and now he has the Brasileira’s throat in his mouth and his eyes are focused on me. They smile when they see me (both of them). The Brasileira shouts over the music, shouts both my name and his: Cohiba. The man gives me a kiss, his mouth so close to mine the edges of our lips brush against each other. Before we separate, he whispers hola in my ear. His greeting me this way is worse than anything that has come before, his greeting turns us into accomplices.
The Brasileira opens the tap in the bathroom and sticks her head under the water. From the mirror I notice a man’s two feet peeking out from underneath one of the closed doors. Two small, girl’s hands are grabbing his ankles, above high violet heels with worn-out soles. A man’s grunts can be heard coming from inside. The Brasileira ties her wet hair in a knot to get it out of her face. He came from nowhere, she explains. He grabbed her to him as if they knew each other. Their bodies fitted. Later they began to talk and everything just fitted. She spouts clichés and the tacky things of a person infatuated. I tell her what happened in the movie theatre. Não pode ser, she answers. Não pode ser ele. I swear to her that it’s him. One of the stall doors opens. The hooker who had walked down with us comes out. She washes her face and rinses her mouth with water. A grey-haired man in a floral shirt comes out after her, rubs his nose, eyes like slits from an excess of everything. The Brasileira waits for them to leave and looks at me again… Why didn’t you tell me what happened in the movie theatre until now? She looks at me suspiciously, as if I might have reasons for making something like that up. Nem sequer se veste bem. I told her that he had left as soon as the lights came on, that I never saw the front of his face. Ele é professor na universidade, she says (as if that explained everything). Ele pinta, expôs em Amsterdã três vezes, trabalha como curador. Three times she repeats that it can’t be him. The Hungarian enters the bathroom with red cheeks from the heat. If we don’t leave we are going to miss the bus. Eu vou ficar, the Brasileira says (addressing her; she won’t even look at me). Conheci um cara que tem um carro. Ele se ofereceu pra me levar à escola mais tarde. The Hungarian shrugs her shoulders. Okey-dokey, she says, nos vemos mañana. It’s not worth trying to insist; we’ve suddenly become like strangers.
It’s not my job to take care of anyone, I tell myself; she can do what she wants. I walk out of the bathroom and before going back up the stairs, I see Cohiba one last time. He’s standing behind a few heads, a smile in his eyes. The anger lasts until the minibus takes off for the road. Fear creeps up in the middle of two coffee plantations. Everyone around me is asleep. A small group comments on the latest Iranian movie which seems to have changed their lives. The Hungarian snores with her head leaning forward and the Basque with his eyes half open. A couple are kissing in the first row, bathed in the light from the seat where the driver’s companion sits. He moves his tongue around the contour of her lips so slowly it seems as though he were drawing them.
Outside, the plantations accumulate.
I open my eyes at the doorway to the school, when the minibus stops. Nobody says a word. Tens of sleeping bodies drag themselves off to their rooms, mumbling goodnight. Zombies with eyes that fight to open and arms that hang inert on either side of their bodies. The Basque is one of them, his limp more pronounced than ever. The Hungarian is in the middle and I am the last in the line; a metre’s length separates each one of us. The frogs puncture the silence of the night. I squash one of them underfoot and it splatters all the way to my ankle. There’s no way to remove the little body from the sole of my shoe. It’s stuck there with its legs open, as if it were crushed while it was asleep. One frog less in the world won’t change a thing, the Hungarian says, laughing. I carry the cadaver all the way to the bathroom. There’s no water; they turn it off almost every night. There’s no toilet paper (there is no paper on the island, no sheets of paper, no notebooks, schools have gone back to using blackboards but there is no chalk). I peel the pieces of frog off with the edge of a dirty dress, cover the bloody sandal with it and hide the remains in a corner. There are two passport photos stuck to the bathroom mirror (one is mine; the other is of the Brasileira). Outside, the frogs continue their croaking. At one point in the night I can feel him standing over me, watching me sleep. But nobody is there when I open my eyes. I hear moans coming from the other side of the wall.
At dawn I open the window but there is no breeze yet. An oil-blue Chevy with a shattered rear window is parked in front. The Brasileira’s bedroom door is closed. There are ashes from a stick of incense on the edge of a picture frame. The backpack full of books on Afro-Cuban art is on the wood table in the living room. Wifredo Lam’s La jungla decorates a cover. El paraíso ha muerto, the title states. Expensive books, full of photos and ribboned dividers. There is a notebook full of commentaries. On the last page, handwritten: The tour operators sell us with four Ss:
Sand & Sea
Buy us, enjoy us!
The paper is punctured at the end of the last sentence, as if written with such force the pen broke through the surface. The chronicles of the conquistadors say that our island was inhabited by cannibals with dogs’ heads. The line is not straight and, observed carefully, one can see a tremble in the hand. Mestizaje: the best we have to offer. There is a small pouch of tobacco and rolling paper in one of the pockets. A leather wallet. Cuban pesos, convertible, a few dollars (small denominations), and the photo of a girl around five years old, a mulatta with green eyes. She has the same features as the man but softened by a white mother. A rustling sound from inside the room sends me back over my footsteps in a hurry. On my bed, lying face up and breathing hard, I look at the photo of the young girl in my hand, thinking that somehow, by having brought it with me, perhaps I could save her. It’s too late to put it back. I leave it where it is, on the sheet.
When I open my eyes, the sun is shining through the window. A breeze coming in from the countryside rustles the edge of the sheet. The Brasileira is humming contentedly. She walks by my door wrapped in a towel and says good morning in Portuguese. She is holding a glass of milk in her hand. The photo of the young girl is in the same place I left it. But my photo is missing, the one that was stuck to the bathroom mirror. I look for it around the apartment, in the corners of the bathroom. I ask her if she has seen it and she laughs as if it were a joke. What would I want with your photo? She doesn’t wait for me; she’s dying of hunger and doesn’t want to miss breakfast. I watch her walk towards the main building through the balcony’s acrylic window. She sings as she walks, filling her lungs with air (she’s so charming even the school’s dogs follow behind her). The man’s barefoot prints are still visible on the floor, going from the bathroom to the bedroom, slowly drying until they disappear. Outside everything else is silent; nobody is left on the three floors of the building. One apartment near the entrance door functions as a laundry room. Not even the smell of recently washed clothes can relieve my nausea.
García Márquez is already seated at his desk. The Argentine woman who arrived late, he says. I want today’s big idea. I tell him the story of a student who – for lack of ideas – decides to murder her maestro. He interrupts me immediately (asking for another). There is an exchange of glances. The Brasileira breathes in deeply and explains that she has only a beginning. The maestro smiles: all you need for a story is the beginning. He asks her to speak up, and he zips up his jumpsuit. He’s dressed the same way for four days now, always in a jumpsuit. A blue one the first day, orange the second, brown the third. The fourth one is English racing green. The Brasileira brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the story of a woman who falls in love on her third evening in Havana. She knows the man is hiding something, but it doesn’t matter to her. She would leave everything behind not to lose him. She continues on until the maestro’s snoring interrupts her halfway through a sentence. The worker in charge of taping the workshop presses the pause button. Suddenly, García Márquez opens his eyes, as if the weight of the glances focusing on him were enough to wake him up, and he tells the Brasileira that she has a good beginning. Now she needs an ending.
So no big idea that day. He lets us leave at quarter to one. I spend the next half-hour not being able to leave the bathroom: kneeling at the toilet, vomiting until I’m empty. When I come out, the minibus is taking off for the city, more than a hundred metres down the road. I don’t try to run, my legs are too wobbly. The walk back to the apartment seems to be getting longer and longer. The concrete is burning and disfiguring the landscape. By day, the frogs cede their kingdom to the flies. A car advances behind me at walking pace, keeping a few metres back. The Brasileira is waiting in the doorway in front of me, wearing a sky-blue dress and black sunglasses. Her hair is in a long braid and she’s holding her shoes in her hands. Her smile isn’t directed at me, it’s for the Chevy that is coming up behind me. Cohiba smiles back at us from the other side of the windscreen. The Brasileira doesn’t notice that I am queasy and trembling. She hugs me and moves me towards the car: she wants me to meet him. She opens the back door for me to get in. Cohiba looks at me through the rear-view mirror. He is about to say something when the Brasileira climbs into the front seat and greets him with a kiss on the lips. My friend is coming with us. Cohiba doesn’t say a word. He does a U-turn to go back in the direction of the school. All the windows are open. There is no glass in the rear windscreen. When the car pulls out on to the road, the wind zigzags between one window and the other. The Brasileira shouts so that Cohiba can hear her over the wind and the car’s engine. She tells him her story, that García Márquez says it lacks an ending. Cohiba smiles as if the problem were already resolved. He switches on the radio, puts in a cassette and turns up the volume. He has it up so high it’s impossible to talk.
When we get to San Antonio, the car turns off on to a dirt road and he slows down. He doesn’t kill the engine, but neither does he continue advancing. When the Brasileira asks him what he is waiting for, he doesn’t respond, captivated by the image in front of his eyes. Three young girls are playing with a hose on the corner. The drops of water shine against the sun. The girls laugh, they jump and shout, drenched. They practice a dance step, rustle each other’s hair, shake their hips and shoulders. The music playing on the cassette seems as though it were invented just for them. They are hypnotic, and for a while we watch them dance in silence until one of the girls glances over and catches sight of the car parked at the corner. It’s the mulatto girl with the green eyes in the photo, but a few years older. She comes closer to the car but stops at a safe distance, as if she knows better than to continue forward. Cohiba moves the car a few metres closer to her, until the girl is right next to us. She looks at us. She’s the same as he is, but in lighter colours. The man looks for something in his pocket. An envelope. He is about to hand it to her when a black woman leans out of a house. She must be around forty years old but already looks like an old woman. When she sees the car, she calls to the girl using a strange name: Ixé. It takes a while for the girl to pull herself away from the man’s gaze, at first only moving a few steps backwards until a second shout comes, when she finally turns and runs towards the house. The man gets out of the car to meet up with the woman. She speaks quickly, with a closed, nearly incomprehensible accent. With the foreigners whatever you want, but not with your daughter. That’s the only thing I can understand. She repeats it many times (not with your daughter) before taking the envelope. The girl spies on us from the window. If she had the choice, she would go with him. Something in the way the two of them look at each other is reminiscent of two lovers separated by force.
We said goodbye two days later, the last day of the workshop. Without ever finding García Márquez’s big idea. Today I received an email from the Brasileira’s mailbox. It’s written by her older brother; they are gathering information from the last people to see her. She left the school with a man who drove an oil-blue Chevy. She never made it to the airport. They found her body fifty kilometres outside Havana.
*This story was first published in GRANTA 113 (2010), The best of young Spanish language novelists.
*© Lucia Puenzo, 2010. bv arrangement with Literarische Agentur Mertin Inh. Nicole Witt e. K., Frankfurt am Main Germany.