Habanaíso, Valparabana

Translated by George Henson

For Nora. Because between the Caribbean and the Pacific not one, not even two mountain ranges are enough to make her feel at home.

What? No, Gilda, you don’t have to roll the window up … The wind isn’t bothering me. And don’t make that pouty little-girl face; it has nothing to do with pride or stupid machismo. Yes, my eyes are watering. But it’s not the saltpeter. It’s … imagination, nostalgia, and the tunnel. No, I haven’t been drinking pisco. And yes I know there’s not a tunnel anywhere along Avenida Brasil. All you have to do is squint your eyes a little and … Remember last year when you said I was crazy because I closed my eyes when we entered the tunnel on Quinta Avenida, coming from Miramar? And allowed the car to shoot out the other side, at 1830, like a bullet in front of the turret at La Chorrera. You so liked going to eat at 1830, then to the Japanese pavilion, made entirely of coral, between the sea and the coast. And going for a walk along the Malecón, playing at trying to keep from getting soaked by the waves, not falling off the slippery wall, constant Pi between Habana and the sea, ignoring the whistles from the boys at the residence hall on Twelfth as we kissed, while other couples, here and there, canoodled in the sun. But we avoided them, happy to discover another elevated walkway, where children feel big five-and-a-half feet above the sidewalk and their parents, but without letting go of their hands

Habana is the Malecón. At noon, when the sun turns the salty asphalt into a trembling mirror, sailing past the Paseo with its two hotels; the elegance of the Riviera’s green tiled cupola and the impersonality of the Meliá Cohíba’s glass tower. The new mall, so nondescript, so horrible. The Fuente de la Juventud, which almost never shoots water. Then Avenida G and its battered monument to Calixto García; the Casa de las Americas’ decapitated turret, its clock stopped centuries ago; and the horrible Girón building, chaotic, shapeless, gray like unrefined oil. But each of them beloved, each like family in an endearing way.

At night: Chinese bicycles circulate without lights, daredevil metal ghosts. Old American cars like fireflies gone mad, many of them with a single headlight, like deceitful motorcycles, so that you said driving at night in Habana would make a Buddhist monk go mad. Scattered lampposts mark the shoreline like a scar of light on the heart of the Caribbean. The cliff’s waterfall beneath the Hotel Nacional, and the two massive guns, the last remains of the Santa Clara Battery, the Ordónez and the Krupp, that fired in the war of 1898 against Yankee battleships and prevented them from entering the harbor.

But history is dead and people live, Gilda. And how they live. At night all of Habana comes out to sit on the wall and kiss the sea, escaping heat and boredom; groups of adolescents with guitars, playing songs by Silvio and Nirvana, mingle with the semi-clandestine hawkers of rum, pizzas, and cigars. The jineteras arrive, those carnivorous flowers of the night, with their plastic smiles, far from the tariffed border of their miniskirts and the height of their platforms, stretching out their hands to the tourists’ cars with a gesture that is at once supplicant and haughty. But always with an alert eye toward the police of the Brigada Especial, lest they one day be returned to the provincial towns they all left: bright-eyed girls with dreams of dollars and paradises beyond the sea; boys who accepted a uniform in exchange for a life in Habana, in La Poma.

Then the long, endless, eclectic façade of Centro Habana, interrupted by the equestrian statue of Maceo in his park, guardian of the Hermanos Amejeiras hospital. The two-story neoclassical buildings, eaten away by saltpeter and forgottenness, still wearing the tattered makeup from the Pope’s visit in 1998, shored up by Eusebio Leal’s plan to restore Habana, but alive and infinitely happy with scampering children and gossiping neighbors, despite collapsing buildings and decaying sidewalks. And seeing the Prado’s bronze lions in the distance, the white baroque of the Spanish embassy, hyper-illuminated, the former Presidential Palace and the modernist glass enclosure of the Granma monument. Skirting the ancient castle of La Punta, without entering the tunnel’s roundabout, but continuing, along the bay entrance, where the Malecón loses its pretense to being a highway and becomes Avenida del Puerto.

Do you remember when we met, in the Plaza de Armas, where I was selling The Bolivian Diary of Che for three dollars? I wrote poems then, even if they were bad. It’s been a year since I’ve written a single verse. Do you remember how we talked about Che, Fidel, and Allende, about the Special Period and globalization and neoliberalism, about Gorbachev, Silvio, and Pablo, and about love? Later I walked you through the narrow streets of the historic quarter; the Castillo de La Fuerza, the Plaza de la Catedral, among the thousand artisan stalls hawking paintings of steatopygic mulatas with maracas and palm trees, of horse-drawn carriages, and ensembles playing the same song by Compay Segundo on an endless loop. Along the tiny Alameda de Paula, where my great-great-grandmothers must have strolled. In a volante with black driver and everything, smart young ladies dressed in lace, with fans. Or in bare feet with a basket of fruit on their shoulder, fiery mulata peddlers. There’s a reason they say that if on this mestizo island you don’t have a bit of the Congo, you have a trace of the Carabalí.

Do you remember the Regla ferry? The asthmatic tacata-tacatá of its engine slowly crossing the rancid and lifeless waters of one of the most polluted bays in the world. So saturated with oil that only the reflection of the ships’ lights and the eternal candle of the burning gases of the Ñico-Lopez refinery are able to beautify them as if by a miracle, coating them with rainbows. And above the hills of Regla, a symbolic marriage: the Meteorological Observatory with its radar cupola, a shadow behind the white silhouette of the Christ of Habana, as if blessing Afro-Cuban syncretism at his feet …

Port cities all have a mysterious magic, of open villages, the smell of salt and freedom. Unlike Santiago, whose bay is surrounded like a ravine by its mountain ranges. Gilda, confess it, you grew up here in Valparaíso, where you stared into the eyes of the Pacific. You’ve never felt at ease in the capital, have you? Those of us born in ports need the distant murmur of the waves so our heart can beat like it’s supposed to. Do you remember Habana, Gilda? Yes … I can see it in your smile: when I talk to you about the Malecón, your eyes shine with the same glow of the sun setting in the Caribbean. Habana … You miss her, don’t you? And you were only there for two weeks. Imagine now how much I miss her, after a year away … and knowing that for now there is no return for me.

No, don’t sulk, Gildita, I don’t blame you. It’s not you, or your country. You brought me here, yes, but I wanted to come from the moment we discussed its remote possibility. I thank you, infinitely, for planning this weekend trip to your native city, a village with a harbor and hills, facing the ocean, like mine and at the same time so different, to try to cure my nostalgia. But …

Oh, Gilda, why did you have to speak, to ask me if the wind was bothering me? For an instant, a single but long instant, the whistle of your car breaking the wind on Avenida Brasil along the Pacific sounded so much like the cars cutting the wind along Quinta Avenida that I closed my eyes and FELT the tunnel. For a second, on the other side of my eyelids the Malecón WAS there, La Chorrera, the Riviera, the Casa de las Américas, Habana.

For an instant, I was nostalgic for a place, distant, yes, but geographically attainable, and not for a place lost in time, to which we’ll never be able to return ….

For an instant. Until you spoke.

Do you understand now why my eyes are watering, Gilda?

But it’s not your fault that when I open my eyes I see the Navy dock, the elevators, the Caleta, the trolleybuses, your Pacific with your Valparaíso and not my Habana in her Caribbean. Reality is the fault of no one, except perhaps of distance, time, nostalgia, the world.

Even so … don’t roll up the window. And don’t hand me a handkerchief either. I don’t want it. Better that the air itself dry my eyes. Because the wind doesn’t have boundaries of time or space, and who knows, one of those drops, whirling around, could end up where my thoughts are.

In Habana and on the Malecón, not those I’m having now that I don’t understand, but those I left behind, those from then, those from the homeland of my memories.

Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Havana, Cuba, in 1969, Yoss assumed his pen name in 1988, when he won the Premio David in the science-fiction category for Timshel. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Cuba’s most iconic literary figures. The author of more than twenty books, he is the first Cuban to be nominated for the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award for Science Fiction. His novels A Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande were published by Restless Books. A third, Condomnaut, is forthcoming.

George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American prose and lecturer of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. His translations have appeared previously in The Kenyon Review, Words Without Borders, The Literary Review, Asymptote, and Your Impossible Voice, and include works by Elena Poniatowska, Miguel Barnet, Andrés Neuman, Alberto Chimal, Claudia Salazar, and Emerio Medina. His translation of Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna were published by Deep Vellum Publishing. In addition to teaching and translation, he is a contributing editor for World Literature Today and translation editor for Latin American Literature Today.