Years after all the things that mattered, I would buy supermarket cherries to eat in front of the television. Huge, juicy, red cherries; real cherries that had nothing in common with the ones I ate as a child, from the cherry tree that, for some unknown reason, stood in the backyard of my grandmother’s house. It was a puny thing; you can’t plant a cherry tree in a town consumed by heat, or subject a cherry tree to the roiling commotion of a city and expect it to produce healthy fruit. But this incongruous, gnarled and twisted tree remains the archetypal cherry tree for me. It was stunted, with a trunk and branches that were emaciated, a trunk and branches that were piteous, but a trunk and branches that I could climb. The cherry tree produced tiny fruits, some yellow, but mostly green and sour, with a minimal layer of acrid flesh and worthless stones that I chewed and instantly spat out again. Cherries that I crammed into my mouth by the fistful, whose intense acidity caused my face to contort, brought me out in a sweat, as if I were transforming into something else, and even brought tears to my eyes. The pleasure of eating backyard cherries masquerading as punishment and torture.
This carried on until the first hurricane ripped the consumptive cherry tree out by the roots – how could it be otherwise, what was a cherry tree doing in that backyard in the first place? The wind carried it away, leaving its seeds planted in the desolate backyard of my memory. A cherry tree unlike any other, whose astringent fruit was nothing like the supermarket cherries that demand to be eaten one by one and that ooze a dark, highly addictive juice. One single word describes two different things, because the cherries from the backyard in Colón were not cherries; I was the only person who had eaten them, so I was the only person who could give them a name. It’s pointless to look for a word to describe something that no longer exists, something non-transferable, that belongs only to an individual language, that is, to silence. No one else would know what the word means, and if I were to persist in this futile exercise, to give it a name, people would imagine a mediocre version of a supermarket cherry, or a cherry from a bad harvest.
So, far from everything but the supermarket, I would eat cherries familiar to more or less everyone, cherries eaten by more or less everyone, and as the intensely satisfying taste filled my mouth, it erased – or I thought it erased – the pugnacious taste of those bitter green cherries.
After the cherry tree had been ripped up by the roots we moved house, and, eventually, my grandmother died. Grandparents should never be forgotten or neglected. Parents, on the other hand, are best forgotten, and the sooner the better. With grandparents, there is no need to engage in acrimonious quarrels, they’re not so relevant, they can be treated like people we know vaguely, people we’ve seen around from time to time and greet politely. The culture of deception begins with relationships like this, where you claim, and believe, that you know more about the other person than you actually do, and have to negotiate a love equal to that absolute. In contrast, the only thing your parents do from the moment you are born is hide truths from you, including present truths. You’re an instrument of their pettiest vices. You’re a testament to their basest passions, their marital squabbles, to all the things from their past they strive to hide. Can anyone honestly say they know about their parents’ childhood? It’s as though they had never existed before we were born, as though we were overwhelmingly wanted, when in fact most children are not wanted, they arrive by mistake. There is no right time to have a child, and parents cannot be blamed for that, a child is a detour on the road to freedom, a road that is always open, as roads not taken invariably are. A child is a tailback on the road that is never going to clear up, a detour to something else, to mistrust, half-truths and insinuations. Meanwhile, children also learn to lie from an early age, and their lying begins with their parents. Later it extends to teachers, but lying is a skill we hone with our parents. We hide bad report cards, we hide offences against our neighbours, we hide our petty thefts and our forays outside the neighbourhood.
As a child, I played marbles; I was probably the best player in three barrios. I’d clean up, then sell the marbles, five for a peso, and start over somewhere else, like a hustler slinking into another neighbourhood in search of new victims. To stray into unfamiliar territory and inveigle myself into a game already under way took some nerve, and I felt a thrill, a shudder of exhilaration whenever I headed out to Pulmón, to Pedrera or Marina, leaving behind Fructuoso or Fundición, the barrios I considered my turf. I have no idea how I was viewed by the other boys, strange interloper that I was, but I remember how remarkable it seemed to me whenever a child from another part of the city showed up in my neighbourhood, a boy no one had ever seen before. They were like magical beings fallen from heaven, they wandered around half dazed and seemed burdened with some ageless loss that left me speechless and my – as yet undamaged – heart crushed. They would ask to join a spur-of-the-moment game. A new boy, a new recruit, was a precious gift, and any initial wariness prompted by the sudden appearance of a stranger would quickly fade. When you’re eight or nine, spending five minutes with someone your own age constitutes a tight friendship. Besides, everything worth knowing about a person can be said in five minutes.
These were the first times my heart ever felt crushed, an ache that now feels as if the years, like hands, have scrubbed it over and over to remove some fresh stain (the stains never go away, perhaps because it’s the heart’s duty to accumulate stains, or perhaps because the heart is the stain), or as if a filthy, insubstantial piece of clothing were being carelessly stuffed into the Friday-night laundry basket. For the most part, these boys were poor. They had to look out for themselves from an early age, they had no schedule, no routine, no mother who’d show up to give them a clip round the ear to remind them of the way home, as my mother did. She would stand on the corner like a sentry, not saying a word. Whenever I saw that electrifying presence framed against the smudged cityscape of late afternoon, I was instantly rooted to the spot.
The primal conspiracy is governed by these rules: parents are enemies, jailers from whom we have to hide all the things about ourselves we consider important, all the things we long to tell other people, all the things we think mark us out as unique or individual. A misdemeanour, a sin, anything unseemly. Parents are the incarnation of discipline, the expression of punishment, and this is a notion we’ll never be able to shake off, however much we grow up and leave our parents behind.
A grandmother, on the other hand, is the opposite: an outpouring of candour, a trusted and inexhaustible repository of sense, someone who divulges secrets to you, someone with whom, when all is said and done, you forge a relationship that is indefinable. It begins before we are consciously able to wield words and, as such, is neither determined by nor dependent upon language. This, in a nutshell, describes my relationship with my grandmother, a bond unlike any other that has come along in life. We begin life anchored by these strong ties, and everything that comes after is a gradual unmooring, a drifting, and eventually a headlong plunge into the bottomless pit of the self. Until the age of six, in this little town called Colón, it was my grandmother who walked me to school and collected me afterwards, who woke me every morning with a little song I hated, a song about how it was important to arrive at school on the dot, always on the dot, although I can’t even bring myself to think about that right now, honestly, I feel like I could cry right now, my grandmother bending over me, shaking me a little, not too much, and, in a voice made hoarse by years of smoking, singing that irritating little song with a gruff tenderness that means I am here today.
To live with your grandmother can be stagnating, kindness breeds stagnation, but it spares you from being uprooted; a grandmother is not going to up sticks and move away, while a parent is still searching, and embroiling you in that search. The option of staying on with my grandmother was not, perhaps, the best start in life, but when I gauge the cost of being uprooted, the heavy price to be paid by those who take their first faltering steps in life and realise that rootlessness is a condition from which there is no return, I’m not sure which is better; I weigh the options, I think about them, and, honestly, I don’t know. Not that it matters, since my parents uprooted me from Colón and took me to live in Cárdenas, and my grandmother didn’t join us until five years later, and it was there, in Cárdenas, between the ages of eight and thirteen, that the saddest things of my life occurred. I mean, my childhood was happy, extremely happy even; my mother let me play and get dirty in the streets of the barrio, and learn the local lingo, but there were also long moments of introspection, nights when I could perceive the weight of the loneliness I felt then, in real time, and the loneliness I would come to feel later, the essence of the future loaded onto me, the mark of the future invisibly tattooed on my skin, a nostalgia for what was destined to happen, a larval awareness that, no matter how much I struggled from now on, there was no way I could become anything other than what I would inevitably become.
This melancholy stems from things I haven’t yet experienced, I thought at the time, since I barely had experiences to draw on, and no memories that could resurface, except perhaps a single moment that encompassed all others, one that, with the years, took on greater relevance and significance. It was a trivial incident, one that happened the afternoon I left Colón. There was a bookshop on the way to the park, near the place where the colectivos stopped, and I paused for a moment next to the shop window and stared at my reflection. I perfectly remember the face of that little boy who is not me, the features half blurred, blanched by the afternoon light, but recognisable nonetheless, as my mother calls to me, urging me to hurry up, tells me we’re not going far, when every journey, every dislocation represents precisely the same inner distance, the same unfathomable distance. The boy reflected in the window of the bookshop in Colón, a block from the park where the colectivos stopped, knows that he is leaving, the penny drops as though until this moment he had not fully realised that he is leaving, that he will no longer be living in the house he has lived in until now, no longer see those people he has seen every day of his life. This is a fact, it will happen, there is nothing that can stop it and nothing to suggest that things should not be this way, and the boy reflected in the window speaks to me, tells me to say goodbye, tells me that, for my own good, I need to learn to say goodbye, but, sadly, in that defining moment, I didn’t listen, though the reflection in the window waved desperately, begged me to do it, I didn’t say goodbye, I didn’t learn how, I simply left, taking everything with me. The gamble I took then was one that would stay with me forever, since few things in life are more important than learning how to say goodbye.
We tend to be what we have been; we don’t like that zone of strangeness, the idea of transforming into something else, of looking at ourselves and no longer recognising what we see. This is the point of abject sadness no one ever wants to reach: the point where you no longer have the faintest idea who you are, or why you are where you are, just as I later felt so many times while eating supermarket cherries. I can’t tell if there was a time when I felt otherwise, not knowing who I was, or why I was where I was. In the long run, staying or leaving both lead to the same absurd condition. Looked at carefully, neither action is innate, neither expresses normality; you settle into running away or you escape by settling down. When you are left with only these two wretched and profoundly melancholic options, it means a rift has opened inside of you, one that will brutally tear you apart in a slow, impassive double-helix motion, like some stately wrecking machine. And this is how my mother, my father and I came to board the colectivo and in the space of forty-five minutes – God, in the blink of an eye – we found ourselves catapulted into the future, settled in another place.
I foresaw my grandmother’s death with utter clarity. We don’t foresee the deaths of those we don’t love, nor do we see death approaching even when it comes to those we do love, so while this is something I will probably never experience again, still I experienced it in this case. I stepped through the front door and without hesitating, without knowing why, walked straight through the house, skirting every obstacle, not stopping anywhere, not in the living room or the bathroom or the kitchen, and when I reached the backyard I shrugged off my school bag and knelt at the feet of my grandmother, who was not expecting to see me and gave a little start of surprise, just as she always started whenever I came back from somewhere and we met again; I took her hands and kissed them, two hands almost disembodied but intact, two hands that had come to the end of their life, my grandmother sitting in the armchair where she always sunned herself, her discreet queen’s throne, and I studied her through the magnifying glass of devotion and reverence, her arms, her skirt, her blouse, and we gazed at each other, her eyes, by now deeply sunken, seemed to have lost something, her smile a sombre farewell rictus, her toothless mouth told me not to cry.
She seemed to understand the significance of my gesture, my unexpected closeness. She took off her glasses, pressed her face to mine and said what’s all this then, but we both knew perfectly well what all this was, and knowing, we both knew that ‘all this’ meant we had to be at peace. In fact, what she was saying was: yes, I am going to die, but it is what it is, and I gave a little sob, little suspecting that later, many years and thousands of kilometres from that moment, in some foreign land, I would be haunted by nightmares in which my grandmother was still alive or half-dead, in which she would run towards me so I could save her from something, and, not knowing how to save the dead, I would stand there, motionless, and still I didn’t know how to save the dead or what they needed to be saved from; but that would come much later, eating the juicy supermarket cherries.
In that moment, I cried my fill and said nothing more, the death of an eighty-year-old woman is not easily shared with others, since people assume it’s just someone who has lived their life, someone no longer young, someone who hasn’t died as the result of a tragedy, and besides, it’s not like we’re talking about a father, a mother or a brother. The death of an elderly grandmother takes place in an emotional void, it’s a non-transferable pain, an inexpressible grief that cannot be quantified, and for which there is no relief; no one will think the loss you’ve suffered is particularly horrible – or, yes, maybe horrible, but bearable, acceptable – and although this seemed wrong, like flawed reasoning to me, I realised it also had its advantages, because it meant that no one asked me about her death, and no one treated me like someone recently bereaved, no one broached the subject, and since no one knew what there was to know, I figured it was high time to make an escape.
Twenty or twenty-five years before those supermarket cherries, my grandmother was the one who looked after me, bathed me and made me breakfast. My grandmother was dead now, yet not long before she had devoted herself to looking after me, perfectly aware that what she was doing for me wouldn’t add more years to her life, that what she was doing would not benefit her at all, yet still she carried on like it was the most important thing in the world. It seemed like an awful lot of responsibility to me; the bath times, the breakfasts and the inexhaustible care lavished on me by my grandmother. In fact, it was a spiritual reserve I brought along with me, I knew not where.
After her death, we drove from Cárdenas to Colón to inter her bones in the family vault, the white limewashed recesses blazing in the pitiless midday sun, the gravedigger dozing at the cemetery gates circled by thirsty flies, the stone crosses and the sarcophagi and the pitiful municipal graves all engulfed in a silence swelled by the mute dialogue between objects, and later, after we drove home, burdened by the weight of these vibrant, devastating images, in the still hours of the evening, someone knocked at the door. That someone was the postman, a pot-bellied mestizo who was always smiling, always chatty. He was wheeling a bicycle with a basket full of letters and magazines; I knew precisely what the postman’s visit meant and, for a second, I felt a wave of terror. I didn’t want the postman to speak, better for him to say nothing, but you don’t tell the local postman to shut up, do you? You don’t tell someone to shut up when they have no reason to know that it’s better to say nothing, and I wondered how I was going to react, how I would respond, whether I would answer solemnly, whether I would make a scene, whether I would be curt, all the while knowing that the greater grief was not mine but that of the poor postman, who, a moment from now, would have to put on a brave face when he discovered what had happened, though he would be devastated, completely devastated, since the postman genuinely loved my grandmother, and whenever he showed up my grandmother would give him a cup of coffee, a glass of water or something, the small gestures that in such towns are priceless and forge friendships.
The postman asked for the lady of the house, the usual question, the genial question, the question he invariably asked when he showed up and which, until now, had always resulted in friendly and affectionate conversation; I said nothing, and the postman asked again, the lady of the house, he repeated, he had brought her pension cheque, the meagre retirement my grandmother received every month, which he seemed to think would be delivered for all eternity, as though my grandmother had worked as many years as God had in his time, and as a result my grandmother was entitled to as many months’ pension as God himself, and I said gently, the lady of the house has died, we’ve just come back from her funeral, and I said it a little self-consciously, as though her death was a moral failing, or as though the postman was my grandmother’s true family, and it was then, from the shocked expression on his face as I relayed the news in the middle of this postal delivery, this trivial event, this hackneyed conversation, that I truly understood that my grandmother was never coming back, the postmen knew this, I had had to tell him, it was not a joke, it was not a phase, the postman reacted as someone reacts to a calamity of serious proportions.
My mother cashed that month’s cheque, of course, since until that month my grandmother had still been alive, and it was mystifying to see bureaucracy carry on in spite of death; meanwhile, having heard the news, the hard-working postman left the house, he slunk away, he did not want to know any more, there was no need to know much more, what he knew was already more than enough, and it was through him that the good news spread far and wide, delivered from every post office to every letter box, conveyed in almost every gesture, not with grief or pain, but rather with discretion and serenity, and even in the days of supermarkets, while I ate ripe, juicy cherries and entertained myself watching television, they still reached me, through the advertisements, the TV shows and the flickering commercials, the subliminal telegrams of death.
Photograph © Arien Chang