Libiamo, libiamo nei lieti calici
che la bellezza infiora …
FRANCESCO MARIA PIAVE
LA TRAVIATA, GIUSSEPPE VERDI
Violeta chose her outfit carefully—it needed to be sexy but not shameless—and climbed into a pair of heels that elevated her as if she’d ascended the podium after a hard-won victory. She looked in the mirror and smiled at the other Violeta, the one in the blue dress and freshly washed hair. There was no makeup on her face. None was needed, and she was no jinetera who made a practice of living off foreign men. She was a pretty and intelligent young woman who had decided to play her cards in the best place in town. A place where no one else would go, where she’d have all the yumas to herself. The opera.
She tiptoed through the dining room. Her mother, absorbed in the TV movie in the living room just as on any other Sunday, didn’t hear a thing.
She burrowed in her mother’s bag, worn-out from long use. She searched among the slips of paper, bread crumbs, electrical and telephone bills, ration book, and reading glasses. Finally she found the even more ancient change purse with its half-broken clasp. She opened it and spent a few minutes looking at photos of herself as a girl. Her mother insisted on keeping them in there, yellowed and fused to their plastic protective sleeves. She removed the two CUC and transferred them to her own handbag. She needed the hard currency to catch one of the old American cars that ran fixed taxi routes through the city, because that was the only way she could manage to get around in those heels or avoid arriving at the theater drenched in sweat. Once there, she’d use what was left to sit down and have a drink, because she wasn’t going to play the pauper who’s expecting someone else to buy her a Coke. This was a minimal investment, one she thought was fair.
“Mama, if all goes well, I’ll buy you a flat screen, two hundred inches for sure,” she promised in silence while exiting the apartment with shoes in hand so as to avoid making noise.
Violeta was very well dressed for four o’clock on a hot, sunny Sunday. Her upright bearing and undulating hips brought a soundtrack of continuous compliments. She smiled, pretended not to hear, or made faces of annoyance—depending on the tone. Deep inside she appreciated these judgments, whose authors gave her courage without knowing it.
She stepped out of the taxi in front of the theater. She liked this part of the city, where the streets were full of cars, the buildings were tall and the sidewalks broad, buzzing with people from all over.
In the ticket line, she read the prices on the sign: ten pesos for Cubans, twenty-five CUC for foreigners. She wondered whether that was very expensive for a foreigner, and prayed that it was not. The only people in line in front of her were Cubans, two men.
She paid and asked about the location of her seat. There were no assigned seats, she was told. She could sit where she liked. Her ticket said it was not valid for tourists, that no taking of photos or videos was allowed during the performance, and that appropriate clothing was required. She was glad to have chosen her outfit carefully, and she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to take pictures during a show.
Violeta stepped through the imposing entrance of the Gran Teatro de La Habana. She made her way up the marble staircase, handed over her ticket, and received the program for La Traviata.
Not quite as bravely, she stepped through the red curtains that gave access to the auditorium. The hum of the audience blended with the sounds of the orchestra tuning up. Everything in here was red and velvety, lit in a way that reminded her of the royal palaces of vanished kings that she had seen in movies. It was another world, though only a few meters away from the commotion, heat, and sunlight outside.
So far the audience was small, and she noticed that almost everyone was young. These must be the family and friends of the musicians and singers, she thought while studying the aisle in front of her and the angels, somewhat discolored, adorning the ceiling above.
“Excuse me,” said a voice in bad Spanish behind her. She moved aside to make room for a middle-aged couple with Asian features. They smiled gratefully and went on talking to each other in French.
Violeta started to feel better. She was a spectator just like them, with a ticket that allowed her, like them, to sit down and enjoy the performance. She was well-dressed, like them, and like them she was choosing a seat. She had a pleasant sensation here in this dark, cool place with a different kind of people who spoke other languages, removed from the clamor of the Cubans outside.
She sat down in the middle section, in an aisle seat. That seemed a strategic position because it allowed her to see everyone who came by. It made her very visible to new arrivals as well.
Many in the audience knew each other, exchanging greetings. They probably came to the opera often. Seeing that the latest entrants were of the domestic variety, Violeta devoted her attention to the program. She hadn’t the slightest idea what she’d come to see.
Based on The Lady of the Camellias by A. Dumas, fils, Violeta began to read. In 19th century Paris, Violeta Valéry is a courtesan who tries to redeem herself through love.
While she watched a group of foreigners in shorts, sandals, and beach hats go by, a bell rang to announce the show would soon begin. She wondered whether the tickets “valid for tourists” had the same recommendations about appropriate attire.
This group marched down to the front in search of seats, and divided into smaller clusters when they couldn’t all fit in a single row.
Then an usher came toward Violeta, flanked by three men and a woman in almost elegant dress. She asked whether Violeta would mind moving one seat forward or back, so that “these Italian gentlemen and lady can sit together.” She would still be viewing the opera from the same position, the usher said.
The Italians who wanted to sit together were three men in their forties—tall and vigorous—and a short, slim woman with a sharp face, who seemed to be only a good friend. None of them wore glasses, and all had dark eyes. All four looked at her sharply, as if these seats belonged to them by right and the usher’s request was just a troublesome formality.
Violeta was tempted to refuse. To say she was in her country, her city, her theater, and her seat.
She refrained. When she reluctantly agreed, the faces of the group were transformed. They smiled as if sitting together in the theater were the best thing that had ever happened to them. They thanked her individually and collectively, in accented Spanish, several times. They smiled again, tremendously happy, and again offered thanks, this time in their language: Grazie mille.
Once in her new seat, right in front of the old one, Violeta reflected that these people were very strange. They asked for favors as if they were giving orders, and then they turned exaggeratedly polite. No big deal, she concluded with a smile, turning around to assure them with a gesture that everything was okay and she felt fine in her new seat.
One of them, who seemed to be the group spokesman, asked her in reasonably good Spanish whether she could lend him a program. Violeta did so, with the warning that she needed it back quickly because she hadn’t read it yet. The man smiled and said he just wanted to see who was in the cast. He knew the work by heart.
“It’s very beautiful,” he said. “Almost as beautiful as you, madam,” he added respectfully.
Violeta’s tongue froze, and she had no idea what kind of face to offer. She had been told that they were like this, fast and fresh, that they thought every woman here was after the same thing. She was happy not to have smiled in a flirtatious way. She was not looking for any random yuma for the short term. She wanted a prince who would make her feel comfortable and loved.
When the man returned her program, Violeta felt attracted by his good manners. Instead of touching her on the shoulder to make her turn toward him, he got out of his seat to come next to her and, almost kneeling in the aisle, proffered the booklet humbly.
“Vittorio,” he whispered, introducing himself.
“Violeta,” she responded radiantly.
“Come la protagonista,” he said, delicately taking hold of her hand.
The lights went down and the music began. The first act began with a luxurious Parisian party. The women wore long dresses, the men frock coats with dangling watch chains. Both had on ornate wigs.
Then the singing started up. First the chorus, then the soloists, one responding to the other, and then the chorus again. It was a bore. It was in Italian, and Violeta couldn’t understand a word. She identified somewhat with the leading lady who shared her name, and she tried to feel closer to her. If only she were speaking instead of singing. She sounded like a hen in the throes of death.
The one song Violeta liked was the drinking song. She had heard this melody before on television, in one movie or another. It must be the most famous song.
The party ended, leaving Violeta Valéry alone in a big room, wailing for some time about her woes. Luckily, this first act was short. The lights went on and the audience members began standing to stretch their legs.
Violeta decided to take advantage of the intermission to read the plot description, rather than going out into the courtyard. The story, based on a book, seemed very pretty, very sad, and romantic. Too bad it wasn’t a movie, which she really would have enjoyed.
Vittorio interrupted her thoughts by pulling a Coca-Cola from his jacket pocket and offering it to her. She made a gesture of refusal, but he insisted, warning her to drink it after the lights were turned off, because it was against the rules. They both smiled at their transgression, and a new bell signaled that the second act was about to start.
The second act was as long as a meeting, or a line, or the wait for a bus. It was as tragic as a meeting to announce bad news, a line where the products you wanted ran out before your turn came, or standing at the bus stop without any sign of transport on the horizon. Plus, the duets between Violeta and Alberto, and the ones between her and his old father, were all shouting, anger, and desperation. The screaming seemed like it would never end. Violeta looked at her watch so often that she felt it must have stopped, because no time passed. Meanwhile she drank her Coke and thought about many things.
She pondered whether she should get up at the end of this act and go out in the courtyard for another drink, so that Vittorio would not think she was staying inside during the intermission because she couldn’t afford even a soft drink.
She wondered whether he would realize she couldn’t care less about the opera. Whether at some point he would ask for her phone number and what she would do to keep her mother from answering.
She worried that her house had peeling paint and not much furniture, so she would be embarrassed to invite him there. Then she thought, dreamily, how much she’d like to give her mother clothes, shoes, and a new purse, to take her out to eat and buy her good coffee.
When this act ended, Violet was not at all sure she could survive a third. She thought about getting up, heading for the door, and once there doing whatever her legs advised. But Vittorio approached and asked whether he could sit next to her.
The seat next to her was empty, but now Violeta couldn’t leave. Vittorio was an obstacle to getting out of the theater, yet at the same time he offered a good reason to stay.
“Francesca, Fausto, and Lele,” he introduced his friends, who smiled even more happily than when she had given up her seat. All three bid goodbye to Vittorio, as if instead of changing his seat he were setting off on a long journey. Once he was settled into his new seat, the lights went down for the last time.
The third act was quick. Violeta felt sorry for the heroine reduced to a shadow of herself, poor and sick and abandoned by everyone. When Alfredo Germont came to his lover’s deathbed, Violeta wanted to cry. The actors screamed, she in a high, shrill voice and he in a deep hoarse one, both sad as could be, while the doctor and the maid looked on with pity. Finally, Violeta Valéry made a final effort to stand, took two steps while singing more shrilly than ever, and died in the left corner of the stage amidst applause that rained on and on while the curtain came down and the actors stepped out in front of it. The ovation swelled when the lovers, hand in hand, bowed to the audience and stayed that way a good while. A girl came up and presented a bouquet of flowers to the female lead. The music ended, the actors disappeared behind the curtain, and the audience began to depart.
Violeta got up to join the line filing slowly up the aisle toward the exit doors. Vittorio followed behind or at her side, whichever the flow of people around them allowed.
“Tu quiere beber qualcosa con me?” he asked once they were out on the pavement.
Before answering, Violeta cast a glance around the arcaded passageway in front of the Gran Teatro, full of well-dressed people and happy foreigners who discussed the performance while deciding where to eat, drink, and enjoy themselves, and what to do with the next few days of their vacations. So that, once done with their holidays, they could return to their comfortable, cultured lands where they had four seasons, mansions and cars, wireless and cellular phones. Where they had great cities and wide avenues flanked by ten-story department stores full of clothes, shoes, cosmetics, shampoos, creams, jewels, bags, and perfumes. Where they had supermarkets like labyrinths, overflowing with meat, cheese, fruit, ice cream, sweets, candy, caviar, and champagne.
She decided to make the first move, so as to shorten the many kilometers and obstacles lying between her and the high life she had seen pass before her eyes in a few feverish seconds.
“Okay, let’s go,” she said with a smile. A perfect smile, neither flirtatious nor indifferent, surely the same one with which Violeta Valéry had captivated all the gentlemen of Paris.
They bid goodbye to Fausto, Francesca, and Lele, who were leafing through guidebooks, and began walking up the Paseo del Prado. A taxi driver signaled to them, but Vittorio declined. He would rather walk—if Violeta didn’t mind.
Violeta did mind, a lot. Her high heels were not exactly comfortable for long walks. She had been thinking all along of a tourist taxi blessed with air conditioning, romantic music, and soft seats that she could sink into, lazily, while she reclined in comfort behind tinted windows and the city glided by.
Instead, she said that was all right, she liked to walk very much. Discreetly, she tightened the straps of her shoes for the journey, which would traverse the entire length of Calle Obispo, the pedestrian boulevard through Old Havana.
While they walked, Vittorio began to tell her something she only half understood. He was surprised to find such a young and pretty woman interested in opera. In Europe, people her age were always in discotheques.
“I think one should go to all sorts of places,” Violeta said, hoping that declaring herself to be such a special young woman would lead to a fine night of music and dancing.
“And you liked it?”
“Yes, very much, it’s a very pretty story, only it’s too bad the ending had to be so sad.”
When they reached the Plaza de Armas, he said very nicely, in very poor Spanish, that if it was all right with her, he’d like to keep going, to the Plaza Vieja, his favorite.
Violeta had been to the Plaza Vieja, always on her way somewhere else and forming part of the landscape that the tourists admired while seated under the umbrellas of El Escorial café with their drinks, or grouped around the multicolored glass columns of beer in La Factoría brew-pub. Often she had thought how much she’d like to sit there, doing nothing, like all those people thumbing through their tourist guides or reading books brought from home, drinking and chatting without any hurry, leaving tips, and then returning to perfect rooms in their hotels.
The plaza was illuminated by dim lights that allowed the dark blue of the sky to show through. Vittorio pointed toward El Escorial and inquired, silently, whether that suited Violeta. When she agreed, he allowed her to go first. Violeta chose one of the small outside tables facing the plaza, as far as possible from the duo of guitarists who were playing Bésame mucho for an elderly couple in Bermuda shorts.
He followed obediently and, once at the table, slid back a chair for her and invited her to sit.
Violeta enjoyed this act of gallantry, which seemed to belong in La Traviata. She sat down, smiled her gratitude, and—again discreetly—took off her shoes. Her relief was so evident that Vittorio asked about it.
“I’m just a little tired,” she said.
Vittorio smiled very tenderly. He called the waiter and asked for a menu.
Violeta ordered only water. She had seen that foreigners drank a lot of water, toting bottles of it in their backpacks as they toured around the city. Her mother always told her she should drink more herself. Also, she didn’t want to seem like one of those women who took advantage of the first offer, stuffing themselves immediately. He had already bought her a Coca-Cola, though it was true that she hadn’t asked for it.
“Just water? You’re a very strange girl. I’m inviting you, you know.”
“Right now I’m thirsty. It must be from all the walking. Maybe I’ll have something else later,” she said, now more relaxed and considering the pastries and the many sorts of coffee populating the nearby tables.
“Whatever you like. Tell me something about yourself.” He sounded interested, or else amused.
Violeta was ready for this part, having practiced for it many times, alone. No big lies of the sort that are quickly discovered and create problems you can never talk your way out of. Instead, she had recourse to a sort of decorated truth—expanding here, compacting there, bleaching some parts and coloring others—without straying very far from real elements that could easily be confirmed.
Still, she lied as needed, inventing a score of habits she did not have, putting forth opinions that belonged to other people, and declaring herself a lover of the symphony, the theater, and the ballet.
The musical duo made their way over to ask what Violeta and Vittorio would like to hear. As they were detailing their repertoire, Violeta interrupted, with authority.
“Please, could you leave us alone? Can’t you see that the gentleman and I are talking?”
The musicians exchanged surprised glances about her lack of solidarity, as if scolding her for going over to the side of the others, the palefaces.
“Have a good evening, señorita. Anche a lei, signore, le auguriamo una bella serata in compagnia di questa carinissima ragazza,” they excused themselves with exaggerated courtesy.
Vittorio accepted their comment cheerfully and bid them adieu with a wave. What the musicians had said amused him. Violeta found herself at a loss, not knowing Italian and discovering that it wasn’t as easy as her girlfriends claimed, the ones who always said it was so much like Spanish that you could understand everything if it was pronounced slowly.
When the musicians took their songs to another table, Vittorio announced that he would now tell her about his life, about everything he’d been thinking while listening to her, and about this lovely beginning, which could have a future if she so desired.
His story began many years before in a village with a long, strange name. Little by little he ran out of Spanish words, as if the story belonged to his language and could only be told in that way. Violeta tried to perk up her ears, to decipher something, a word or gesture that would straighten out this tangle of lilting phrases with double consonants scattered throughout.
Violeta was getting desperate. She knew that she was listening to something very important that she could not manage to understand. What would Violeta Valéry have done in a situation like this?
Mademoiselle Valéry would have found an interpreter.
She looked around for the musicians. She saw them at the corner table, singing Chan Chan to a group who were clapping, missing the beat, and having a wonderful time.
Violeta signaled to Vittorio to hold on a moment, and she went over to the group.
“Please, excuse me for what happened before. I need you to do me a favor,” she said with some embarrassment.
The musicians smiled and encouraged her to go on.
“Well, I don’t speak much Italian, and the person who is with me is saying something very important, something I need to understand very well. Please, if you could, please …”
It occurred to her that if Violeta Valéry had only pleaded in this way in La Traviata, surely she would still be alive, healthy, and married to Alfredo Germont.
The musicians laughed at her seriousness, they weren’t angry, they didn’t want revenge. One of them went with Violeta while the other asked the group what they wanted to hear next.
Vittorio eyed the improvised interpreter and took his hand in a sign of complicity. The musician, for his part, took hold of Violeta’s to assure her he was on her side, while she, not knowing what La Valéry would have done in this case, rested her other hand in that of the foreigner who, now that the circle was closed in this way, resumed talking.
Vittorio spoke, the musician interpreted, and Violeta listened. In a few minutes, the interpreter opened his eyes very wide and the expression on his face changed. First it grew thoughtful and then it became very serious, almost furious. He let go of Vittorio’s hand, while the Italian went on speaking slowly, in the same tone, volume, and rhythm, pausing for the musician to decipher his words. The musician took tighter hold of Violeta, but Vittorio did not seem to notice anything. He went on talking without raising his voice or changing his expression.
Violeta looked at the musician’s face and paid close attention to his words, words she could understand. At a certain point, she pulled her hand away from the foreigner’s and let go of the interpreter’s too, as if contact with both of them would scorch her fingers. While the musician recited the last part, he looked only at her, as if the important part were not what Vittorio said, but what Violeta heard.
Violeta’s eyes grew wide with shock, grew sad, grew hard, filled with rage, and finally turned to tears. The musician took her hand again and squeezed it affectionately.
“Should I keep going?” he asked. She heard a lot of pity in his question.
“You don’t need to. I’ve heard enough.”
She put on her shoes, which now did not seem to bother her so much, and stood up from the table. Before leaving, she fished the remaining CUC out of her purse and placed it under her empty water bottle.
Mylene Fernández Pintado is the author of two novels and four books of stories, all originally published in Cuba. Her narrative obsessions revolve around the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions: infidelity, promises not kept, or why we live in a country that’s cold and alienating instead of the homeland that we so painfully miss. Her most recent novel, La esquina del mundo, was published in English translation by City Lights Books as A Corner of the World (2014). Her short stories appear in anthologies in Cuba and abroad, and have been translated into English, French, Italian and German. She lives between Havana and Lugano, Switzerland. “Libiamo” is from her most recent story collection, 4 Non Blondes, published in Santiago de Cuba in 2013.
Dick Cluster is the author of the novels Return to Sender, Repulse Monkey, and Obligations of the Bone (recently re-issued as e-books by booksbnimble.com) as well as History of Havana (with Rafael Hernandez), a social history of the Cuban capital, and other nonfiction. He has translated a wide range of contemporary Cuban fiction writers as well as other writing from Mexico, South America, and Spain. He is currently working on an anthology of Latin American baseball fiction in translation. A two-part written conversation on literary translation between Dick Cluster and Mylene Fernández Pintado can be found at http://tinyurl.com/ClusterPintado (Part I) and http://tinyurl.com/ClusterPintado2 (Part II). He was a finalist for the 2015 PEN CENTER USA prize for literary translation and the 2015 Northern California Book Award for fiction translation, both for Mylene Fernández Pintado’s A Corner of the World (City Lights, 2014).