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.