Some books make their own way through the world, powered only by the beauty they have to offer. Originally published in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2010, in an artisanal print run of just 50 copies, Mundo cruel (Cruel World), the first story collection by Luis Negrón, has subsequently been published, translated and won awards all across the world. To say that “The Garden” is about the farewell between a man who is about to die of AIDS and his young partner who loves and takes care of him is to do it little justice. Its emotional power lies not in the subject but the lightness of touch (in tone and plot) that runs throughout, involving the three protagonists – the two men and Sharon, an unforgettable character – in a gilded atmosphere reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood. It’s no surprise that the same author later turned the story into a musical. Line by line, Negrón infuses colour into this charming story with anecdotes, flashes of humour and masterful use of detail and although the action takes place in a single night at the end of the year, the brief time period resounds with stories. In several ways, the garden of the title is an ideal world, a place where reality and fantasy, joy and pain, meet and where everything, even illness, comes to life and flourishes.
Sharon took advantage of the fact that we were washing the dishes to tell me she had been thinking about the day when Willie, my lover, would no longer be with us.
“I can’t stop thinking about him, Nestito. I always see him so down, getting worse and worse, as if he already sensed he’s going to leave us soon.”
It’s true. He felt it ever since that evening he got the results back and put it in his pants pocket, accepting right away his reality. I met him that very night, at a lesbian party in Miramar. When we were introduced I tried to start a conversation with him but after a few minutes he seemed bored; he excused himself and went over to talk to some girls. He ignored me the whole night. He was blond, with muscular arms and a broad chest. A white boy (how I adored and still adore the white boys). I did what I could to attract his attention, laughing loud, talking in a loud voice, and I even passed around the hors d’oeuvres among the guests, and all he did was look at the plate and shake his head no. At one moment I sat alone and put on a sad face to see if he’d take pity on me, but nothing. Until it was time to go and I said I was leaving, as the last bus came at 11:00 pm. He said then:
“Which direction you going in?”
“I’ll take you.”
When we took the elevator down he told me he was positive. He said it as if insinuating that’s why he had ignored me during the party. I thought twice but then said to him that wasn’t a problem.
“I just found out today,” he added, tapping his side pocket and I understood from that gesture that the paper with the results was there.
“What are you going to do?”
“Take you out to dinner,” he said to me.
We’ve been together since that night. Two years, three months, and eleven days. Willie accuses me of being corny for making such a big deal about dates. He says I’m more and more like Sharon, his sister, who lives with us in Santa Rita.
Sharon’s worry had to do with the fact that Willie got it into his head that we should have a New Year’s Eve party to bid farewell to 1989. He wanted a succulent dinner and good wine. He spent days ordering records for me to pick up at Parada 15. It didn’t bother me to go. Before being with Willie I had lived near Sagrado, where I was studying biology I don’t even know why, now. I felt at home in that neighborhood. In Río Piedras I felt afraid. The farmers market that Sharon loved so much terrified me. Too many crazy people on the streets, too many jewelry stores, too many loudspeakers repeating the same thing over and over again. Only in Willie’s house did I feel comfortable.
“I want flowers,” Willie ordered, again: “Calla lilies for him, gardenias for Sharon, and tulips for me. Bring blue candles for Yemayá, as I am her child, like you and Sharon are too . . .”
All three of us were Pisces. Willie said his rising sign was Leo, which was why he was the head of the family. Mine was Taurus, hence I was stubborn, and Sharon’s was also Pisces, and that’s why she was a total disaster. Sharon wrote down the menu, which, of course, Willie dictated from his bed.
Everything was ready for the New Year’s Eve party. There were two nights to go. Willie had sent me to Televideo, where Norma, the girl who always waited on him when he was still able to go, had the movie rentals ready that he had ordered by phone. There were two of them: a Mexican melodrama for Sharon and a musical for me, The Sound of Music, my favorite movie of all time. That and Love Story—which Willie hated because it was so corny.
Which was why Sharon shared her worry with me:
“He’s being very accommodating, Nestito, and you know more than anybody how he likes to do things his way. All this is very strange. Willie is going, Nestito. Don’t you leave me, you stay here, since I’ll die soon too and leave you everything,” she said in full recognition that what she was offering me was a great deal, but it was an honest proposal. “You’re young and can get your life going again when Willie is gone, you know. And if you have a boyfriend, that’s fine too.”
We were in the patio, which Sharon and Willie called the “garden,” as in the movies, attesting to their belonging to a family of academics. Their grandfathers and grandmothers had taught at the university. Their parents had had the opportunity to study in Spain and had returned to teach at the Río Piedras campus. Sharon had never taught but worked for years as an assistant to visiting professors.
She was fluent in four languages, besides Esperanto, that lingua franca dreamed up by some old Pole, which Willie disowned as a senseless invention of words that did not resonate with any lived experience whatsoever. Willie went to Columbia and returned with a PhD in art history, with a specialization in film studies. Their last name was legendary at the university, as significant as the bell tower itself. They lived in Santa Rita ever since it was built, way before it was divided into shacks with the sole purpose of making money.
The residence had high ceilings, three bathrooms, four bedrooms, and a garage where Sharon would hide to see her lover of more than twenty years.
“I don’t know why they keep it a secret,” Willie always wondered. “I don’t know why she didn’t marry him when Papá died, or why she receives him there.”
Twenty years was a long time to someone like me who was barely twenty-three. It was a long time for anyone.
It was easy to know the nights when the date with the lover was about to take place in the garage. Sharon would suddenly transform herself, act nervously, try in vain to hide, with certain self-absorbed gestures, her anxiety over not yet having what she wanted. Around nine o’clock, if we were in the garden or in Willie’s room, she would always excuse herself with the same phrase:
“I’m retiring for the night.”
“She’s going off to sin,” Willie would say with a mocking tone, imitating a movie star’s voice.
From the garage we’d hear the faint sound of a radio station that played only boleros. Later, after the visitor was gone, Sharon would sit in the garden and smoke, wrapped in a white robe that seemed silvery in the nocturnal light seeping into the patio. I went out to join her. She smiled at me.
“It’s just a little sin,” she said looking at the cigarette.
She invited me to stroll around the garden and I, deliberately, made us walk near the garage. Once there, I lied pretending that I had twisted my ankle and leaned against the garage wall.
“I’m hurt,” I said to her as in a movie. “Please, Sharon, could you go into the garage and bring out something I can lean on like a crutch.”
At that point we heard Willie’s voice calling to us from his room in the back of the house. I got scared and pretended to quickly recover also as in a movie. Sharon offered me her arm to lean on and said to me:
“Never ever go into that garage. Your life would be in danger.”
Hers was not a common warning, like my sister saying,
“I’m gonna kill you, you damn brat.” The danger was something else, beyond her.
“Nestito,” she said with her girlish nasal voice, “I’m going to tell you a secret.”
My heart beat faster, anticipating the pleasure of hearing what she was going to say.
“I am the victim of a kidnapping. For the past twenty years a big shot in the underworld has been forcing me to meet with him in that garage. He’s from the mafia,” she admitted, her eyes open wide so that I would see on her face what a big deal it was.
“Kidnapped? For twenty years?” I asked, obviously in disbelief.
“Yes, even though you don’t believe me. One night twenty years ago, without wanting to, I was his. And I say ‘without wanting to’ because I, really, wasn’t myself.
He was handsome, like Sydney Poitier, the black actor in the movies. Identical. At first I confused the two of them. One night he came here and we started talking. I said to him, after a while, let’s go to the garage, and out of pure foolishness I surrendered to him. Obviously I told him that was the last time, but he threatened to tell Papá all about it and to ask for my hand in marriage. I had no choice but to accept when he told me he was in the hampa mafia. Even though he’s not Chinese, he’s from Haiti, but he knows Chinese. He teaches me. I’m going to learn it well so that you and I can talk without Willie finding out what we’re saying. Nesti, don’t say a word of this to anyone. Our lives are in danger.”
I was speechless, but that was her way of explaining her reality. I felt bad for being indiscreet. Perhaps I had taken her too close to being exposed, and being as classy as she is she preferred to step forward on her own and expose herself directly. In her own way, is what I mean.
Willie called again. We went over to where he was.
“Later I’ll tell you more. ‘I love you so much’ in Chinese is ‘chon chuan’ or ‘chon chun.’ Something like that,” she said to me with convincing pronunciation.
The former living room, where there had once been a piano upon which, according to Willie, Sharon used to massacre poor Chopin, we had equipped to avoid climbing stairs ever since he had gotten worse. We placed the bed facing the big window onto the garden, from where he could see the bougainvilleas. The room was lined with books. Willie was a voracious reader. He’d read Hesse the same as he would read Amy Tan. He didn’t let me take them to the bookstores on Ponce de Leon to sell them and with that buy others that he wanted. There he was with his glasses on to read, with a book in his hands.
The face he had when I met him was submerged in a new face that I could only identify as his by his expressions. He still acted like the handsome being that he had been. He shouted to his sister:
“Sharon, go to the salon so that Quique can do your hair for New Year’s Eve.”
Sharon tried to protest, but Willie insisted.
“Let them make you look like Diana.”
Sharon, as if by magic, was excited by the idea and left the room saying:
“Me, like Lady Di? That’s crazy.”
As if crazy were precisely the most brilliant thing in the world.
I lay down next to Willie. He had recently taken a bath. He had changed with me ever since he became bedridden. For months he had ignored me as at the party where we had met. I wasn’t me, I was part of a duo with Sharon. “You two this, you guys that.” I looked closely at his body and passed my hand over his chest. His armpits were tender ground for little flowers. I hugged him gently. His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek. I looked in his eyes and found, finally, after eight months and sixteen days, desire.
I move his body with care to be able to put my arms around his back. His mouth, dry, like sandpaper, began to kiss me in rhythm with my lips craving his. His arms, thin like branches of a feeble shrub, tried to hug me tight. He smelled of recently primed earth. I rubbed my nose against his chest sticky because of the patches. He squeezed my skin as if not to fall, but his yearning sustained him. The disposable diapers, stuck to us, sounded like the rustling of dead leaves. We looked at each other.
We continued in silence, sure of ourselves, safe.
I stayed in the bed with him. I remembered the first time I came to his house, the two of us in the garden. He lit a roach and we smoked. He fascinated me, with his eloquence, speaking about philosophers and writers as if he knew them, with his natural, well deserved arrogance. After, naked in bed, him with a Virgin medallion on a chain around his neck, his breath heavy with marijuana.
He looked at his pants hanging over the chair and with a smile he said:
“I should be crying, and yet, I feel fine. You want to see how fine I feel?” he asked me leading my hand to his erection. It began to rain. I noticed he was getting goosebumps and I covered him with a blanket.
“Sharon says you’re going to die because of the party.”
“I’m going to ask you a favor, Nesti,” he said, serious, in the same way his sister would. “Take care of Sharon. She wants to leave the house to you and she says that she’ll even build an apartment for you,” he was emphatic: “You know? Every single member of my family, absolutely all of them, were born under the sign of Pisces.”
We watched the rain falling on the bougainvilleas. We fell asleep.
When I awoke I went to my bathroom and took a shower. I loved that sense of security I felt after making love with Willie. I wiped myself dry and smoked pot.
I thought of Sharon’s story and I smiled thinking that these people were my true family and that this moment of my life was going away with Willie. Everything was going to change. Afterward, with the high, the thought came to me that Willie had died. That he was lying dead in the bed. I imagined the police asking me the requisite questions and myself rambling, incoherent. I came out of the bathroom in my towel and went straight to the room. Willie was standing. He looked strong, healthy.
He looked at me and said:
“That butt of yours works wonders.”
We received Sharon in the garden. She looked radiant, and made faces coquettishly as she shook her newly done hair, retouched with blond streaks.
“You look absolutely gorgeous,” Willie rejoiced. Suddenly she came out of herself and saw that her brother, prostrate in bed for months, was sitting in the little garden chatting with her.
“Willie, what are you doing up? Nestito, what’s Willie doing outside here?”
I made a sign that she should leave him be and she understood.
She straightened up like a soldier, looked at her brother and said:
“Whatever you say, and if you want, I’ll open a bottle of one of Papá’s wines, since it’s a lovely evening and a little wine doesn’t do any harm.”
She trembled when she served the wine. She was a Pisces: I recognized in her that ability to deal with difficult situations and lost causes. We drank without saying cheers: for them, toasting was to waste a true moment of communion, in which the toast was always a lack of imagination.
We ended up in Willie’s room, the three of us on his adjustable bed, watching The Sound of Music. I heard Willie’s breathing wane again, at peace with his real reality. I felt a tightness inside my chest as if a dog were biting me there. On previous nights, when his body weakened and yet persisted arching its spasms of release, heaving what it no longer had, even so, taking him in my arms, leaning on his frailty, was joyful. A true joy holding in bed, in my arms, this generous being who was so daring, so sensual. So cheeky, as his sister would say. I wanted to take him to movies to see two pictures in a row as we used to do in the beginning. I wanted to take him to my house in Arroyo so that he could understand why I was such a hick. So that my parents would know that he was a professor, from a good family. So that we could go over to Guayama to the house of the poet Palés Matos, havean ice cream at the Chinese ice cream parlor, see a movie at the Calimano Theater.
On the TV, the von Trapp family was saying goodbye with a song.
Willie had left everything prepared for his funeral. He would be cremated and his ashes cast into the garden of his house in Río Piedras, near the bougainvilleas. It was a quiet ceremony: the friends who introduced us that night of the party, a Buddhist monk Willie suggested for his funeral one night high on marijuana and which Sharon took seriously; she, myself, and a gentleman who was introduced to me as an old friend of the family. He was black, tall, and strong and had a smile similar to Sydney Poitier’s, and he gave me his condolences. Willie never got to see him, or to hear the end of the story.
*This story is taken from “Mundo Cruel” by Luis Negrón, Seven Stories Press, 2013.