Cappuccino for Three

By Nancy Alonso
Translated by Anne Fountain

Olga Lidia crossed the Plaza Vieja toward the terrace of The Escorial Café under a light drizzle and sat down at a table to wait for Claribel. The day before, she had peremptorily asked Claribel to meet her there without giving a reason for the urgency. Just a short time later, Claribel arrived and they ordered two cappuccinos. Their exchange of trivial greetings scarcely diminished Olga Lidia’s tension and Claribel’s curiosity, and once the coffee cups were set before them, Olga Lidia said, more for herself than for Claribel:

“There near the fountain is where we met a few months ago.”

Back then Olga Lidia had been walking next to Yolanda in the Plaza Vieja at the peak time for crowds. She’d heard a shout but couldn’t tell where it came from. They stopped and the name was repeated: Yoly! Olga Lidia saw a woman throw herself on Yolanda and hug her repeatedly, saying over and over, Yoly, it’s been ages since I’ve seen you, simply ages! If Olga Lidia felt uncomfortable, it must have been worse for Yolanda, who was trapped by an embrace so strong that she could scarcely breathe. After breaking free and looking at the woman’s face she exclaimed: Claribel, it’s been ages since I’ve seen you, simply ages! How did you recognize me? But Yoly, you look just the same, I would have recognized you from half a block away. And accompanying the hugs was the embrace of words: It’s been ages since I’ve seen you! Simply ages! All the while Olga Lidia observed them fixedly.

At last Olga Lidia was presented as This is my friend Olga Lidia, and then the three of them sat down at a table at The Escorial to order cappuccinos. Olga Lidia took in the realization that this Claribel was the same Claribel that Yolanda had talked about so much. She was the one who stirred a nostalgic memory of adolescence, when naiveté kept Yolanda from giving a name to the desire that she always experienced next to Claribel and to the sadness that she felt after Claribel and her family moved away.

After a rapid recounting of their lives over the last twenty years, Claribel and Yolanda promised each other not to become disconnected again. Let’s get together soon. OK? See you soon.

“I asked you to come because I want to legalize something with you.” Olga Lidia let the words spill out without preamble after taking a sip of cappuccino. And when she saw Claribel’s quizzical look, she explained: “It’s what sociologists call ‘legalizing’ to clarify a confusing situation.” At that point Olga Lidia noted that it had stopped raining. “Look Claribel, you know that we gave you a place in our lives because of the friendship that tied you to Yolanda and because of the tough times you were going through. It is almost like we adopted you, and in my case I did so without any reservation.”

The first time that Claribel went to visit them she asked without beating around the bush and in a completely natural fashion how long they had been a couple. She supposed it had been a decade or so. She confessed that at present she was alone by her own choice, recovering from the latest wounds.

At first the conversations spun around the memories that linked Yolanda and Claribel: the Do you remember…? questions that let them relive the past. Olga Lidia listened to them without feeling herself marginalized and only put forth an occasional question to follow the thread of the conversation. But the affinities of their preferences and points of view allowed the present and the future to become interposed with that distant past so that the six hands wove together a shared history.

It was only natural that they began to go out everywhere together: to the movies, the theatre, to El Escorial; weekends they camped on the beach or in Havana’s Forest, el Bosque de La Habana. They talked and laughed and drank cappuccinos, and they were inseparable. Olga Lidia accepted the company of Claribel without paying heed to the advice of a somewhat paranoid friend who kept alerting her to the possible danger to her relationship with Yolanda. OK, why does she always have to be involved in everything you do? Listen to what I’m telling you: if life gives those two another chance, they won’t let it slip away again. But Olga Lidia understood that Claribel, distanced from the former circle of friends that would remind her of the misfortune of her most recent love affair, might naturally seek companionship with Yolanda and with herself as well. She felt assured. Nothing in Yolanda’s conduct aroused suspicion, and she did not find it strange that Claribel never addressed her girlhood friend as Yolanda but instead used the more endearing and familiar Yoly.

Neither did Yolanda’s behavior show any signs of disloyalty. Olga Lidia knew Yolanda very well and believed she was sincere in playing matchmaker for Claribel by arranging casual meetings with potential partners. The effort seemed genuine even if all the encounters ended in failure.

“To tell the truth, you also adopted us both equally,” remarked Olga Lidia, without lifting her eyes from the cup of cappuccino. As she spoke she twisted the silver ring on her ring finger.

Olga Lidia would often argue with Yolanda, and at times they became ensnared with interminable stubbornness over minor issues, neither one giving an inch. But they had figured out a way to keep those unpleasant encounters from putting a dent in their love for one another. They even made fun of their propensity to argue over things, asserting that it was the best antidote for breaking out of everyday routine and an exorcism against boredom.

With Claribel’s arrival and her almost permanent presence, the tone of those polemics changed because both Olga Lidia and Yolanda saw in her a kind of judge, capable of settling any dispute. She made an effort to mediate between the quarrelers, claiming that each one had a portion of the truth, and trying to establish an equitable balance. And although the adversaries insisted on a categorical verdict, she always managed to escape without taking sides. But the most difficult part turned out to be interceding when Olga Lidia defended her right to independence and her freedom of choice in the face of Yolanda’s eternal reproaches: according to Yolanda, Olga Lidia was gay and bright outside, and gloom and doom at home.

One morning Claribel arrived at the apartment of the muchachitas (she called them muchachitas, “the girls,” to reinforce the idea that they were a team of two and neither one could be imagined without the other), and she immediately noticed that the atmosphere was tense. The sheets and pillow on the sofa were proof that one of them had spent the night there. They were both obviously riled up and only offered monosyllabic responses to Claribel’s questions. And Claribel, realizing that the planned outing was going to be cancelled, told them: I’d better be going. I’ll call you later. But at that moment both Olga Lidia and Yolanda began talking at the same time, both of them agitated, and Claribel found it impossible to understand what their mutual recriminations actually were. All she could get was: This time you really went too far, too far. Claribel for her part kept telling them: I can’t understand you like this, I can’t, while she calmed things down. Finally she found out what the problem was.

Olga Lidia wanted to use her vacation time to care for a colleague at work who was going to be operated on and didn’t have anyone to look after her, but Yolanda considered that choice unacceptable. It’s just a week, Olga Lidia insisted: a week of helping someone who needs assistance. But Yolanda wasn’t convinced: Of course, you, like always, emulating Mother Teresa, would oblige me to give up part of our vacation together.

Claribel proposed a solution, I know a retired nurse who can handle this, which was not well received by either of them. Nonetheless, over the objections of Olga Lidia saying, Somebody unknown? My friend would not feel comfortable, and Yolanda declaring I guess Mother Teresa will be the one who pays, Claribel offered a reasoned response: The woman is an angel, she charges very little, and in any case we’d be helping her out at the same time.Although they accepted the arrangement, a thick malaise remained. Olga Lidia felt her independence was being curtailed once more by Yolanda, who in turn was hurt by the fact that Olga Lidia was capable of sacrificing her for people who were not even close. In separate conversations in which they poured out complaints, each one had taken Claribel as a confidant.

A whole week went by without Olga Lidia and Yolanda managing to overcome the tension. Then one night Claribel went to visit them with a firm resolution: One way or another you two are going to make up. She enumerated the many reasons why they should do so, above all, because yours is an admirable and envied relationship, and the irresponsibility of damaging it is almost a sin. Don’t take away from me the hope that it can still work. After she had finished speaking, Claribel took two silver rings out of a package in her purse and placed them on the right ring finger of each one. I now declare you united forever and ever.

“But now things are different—” Olga Lidia took a sip of what was left in the cup. The misty rain began again and the sky turned grayer.

Shortly after the ring ceremony and the reconciliation, Olga Lidia began to notice a change in Claribel. She almost never looked at Olga Lidia when she spoke, just at Yolanda. She took sides in the discussions and almost always sided with Yolanda. Instead of “Hey muchachitas, listen to this,” many times it was now “Hey Yoly, you gotta hear this.”

Olga Lidia felt more and more left out and began to pay heed to the pronouncements of her paranoid friend, who insisted that Claribel was a slick woman, set on a path of conquest, and willing to tear apart the most important relationship in Olga Lidia’s life. Listen to what I’m telling you: cut out the cappuccino for three or you’ll be sorry.

That’s when she decided to get things straight once and for all with Yolanda. Olga Lidia wanted Yolanda to confess truthfully if she had noticed that Claribel only had eyes and words for her. Everything is with you, for you and about you, and in my own house, as if I were just a picture on the wall. Haven’t you noticed?

Even though Yolanda acknowledged her good communication with Claribel, she swore up and down that she had never sensed in Claribel a sentiment other than friendship. She disavowed any intent to exclude Olga Lidia. It’s just the old chemistry between two people, nothing more, and what happens between you and me is a chemistry of another type, much deeper, as you surely know.

Notwithstanding Yolanda’s apparent sincerity, Olga Lidia felt anguished at the prospect of losing her. She began to feel so uncomfortable that she decided to take the bull by the horns and called Claribel to clear things up.

“There has been something unusual in your attitude toward Yolanda in the last few weeks. To state it plainly: I think you are in love with her, and so I am going to ask you to go away, because I’m not going to permit anybody, not you, not anyone, to come between us.” The severe tone of her voice caused Claribel to grow pale and divert her gaze toward the plaza, where a heavy rain was falling.

“You are absolutely right, Olga Lidia. It’s best that I distance myself from both of you. And don’t worry, I’ll do so immediately. It’s true … I fell in love. However, you’re mistaken about one thing. First, I fell in love with you as a couple and the partnership you’ve both built, and then little by little, and I couldn’t help it”—she gave a pause that seemed too long to Olga Lidia—“I fell in love with you.” Now it was Olga Lidia who grew pale.

“In order to hide those feelings and have a chance to be at your side I acted in the manner that alarmed you. Please don’t say anything about this to Yoly.” Olga Lidia, unable to utter a single word, saw Claribel, leaving her cappuccino untouched, stand up and cross the plaza under the rain without looking back.

Nancy Alonso’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies in English translation: Cubana (Beacon Press, 1998); Making a Scene (Mango UK, 2002); Open Your Eyes and Soar (White Pine Press, 2003); and Cuba on the Edge: Short Stories from the Island (CCC Press UK, 2007). In addition she’s been translated into Italian, Croatian, and Icelandic. Two of her texts are available as complete editions in English: Closed for Repairs (Northwestern University Press, 2007) and Disconnect/Desencuentro, a bilingual edition with original illustrations (Cubanabooks, 2012). Alonso was a guest author in Spain in fall 2015 and in the Bay Area in 2012 and 2014.

Anne (Anita) Fountain was born in Argentina. Her PhD in Spanish and her Graduate Certificate in Latin American Studies are from Columbia University. She is Professor of Spanish at San José State University and teaches Spanish American literature of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her principal research fields are Cuban literature and translation studies. Recent translation work includes: Disconnect/ Desencuentro, an English/Spanish edition of short stories by Nancy Alonso (2012); Nancy Alonso’s Cerrado por reparación [Closed for Repairs] (2007); a co-edited anthology of Cuban short fiction, Cuba on the Edge (2007); and Versos Sencillos: A Dual Language Edition (José Martí, Translation, Introduction and Notes by Anne Fountain, 2005). She has written extensively on José Martí in both English and Spanish. Her books with University Press of Florida José Martí and U.S. Writers (2003) and José Martí, the United States, and Race (2014) both include a focus on translation. She has translated stories by Cuban authors Nancy Alonso, Marilyn Bobes, Senel Paz, Leonardo Padura Fuentes, and Aida Bahr.