So, we used to eat on the floor. We didn’t have a table. I know it sounds unbelievable, because everyone’s got a table, but there was no table in the house, that’s how poor we were. It didn’t bother me. I would have been – what? – four? five years old? Life was a party, nothing mattered. I believed what anyone would have believed at that age, that the world came predesigned without tables in dining rooms, that the world, at its most basic, lacked certain things, and that people in every home in the country ate the same way we did, with a tablecloth spread on the floor – ours was lime green with stains where various things had been spilled – and four cushions that served as chairs.
Later, there was a table, I think we brought it over from my grandmother’s old house, in perfect condition, though over time it began to wobble. I don’t know why, if there was a table in grandmother’s house, we spent months and probably years eating off the floor, but Armando must have wanted it that way, it must have been part of his Spartan plan, his frugal plan, his new man plan.
There were a lot of things we didn’t have. I never had roller skates. I never had a bicycle. I never had a birthday party. I never had a Nintendo. In the grand scheme of things this was no big deal, but in my neighborhood, where other boys, whose fathers also worked in the tourist industry but stole with appropriate abandon, never wanted for anything, it was a big deal. I was the black sheep of the block. That said, bicycles and roller skates and birthday parties aren’t essential. I know that, I accept it. But TV. We never had a TV. How can I explain? How can I explain what it meant to come home from school at the age of eight, or nine, or ten, and have nothing to turn on, when every other house had one? What it was like to stare at the empty space in the middle of the living room where the TV should have been, playing children’s programs?
This is the cornerstone of my personality and I stand up for who I am, a kid who grew up watching cartoons in neighbor’s sitting rooms, a kid who had to peek through the railings of other people’s windows, or stand on a stepladder, or watch through a doorway. I was top of my class, my parents knew it, everyone knew it. And they never rewarded me, they never even thought to. OK, I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I thought that my parents gave me everything they could, but now I realize that’s not true, that they could have done more, especially Armando. I don’t understand why my mother didn’t just get a divorce. What was the point of staying with this ridiculous, old fogey of a husband and, in the process, sacrificing her kids’ childhood?
I was in first grade and the teachers would take me out of the classroom, stand me in front of a class of kids who were two or three years older than me, and have me recite multiplication tables, or the postulates of Euclidean geometry. A line is the shortest distance between two points, I would say, or a circle can be drawn using any center and any radius, or any segment can be extended indefinitely in a straight line, which is the postulate that particularly interests me today, or two lines are parallel if they never intersect, I would say, although I now know this is false because at some moment, at some point, everything intersects, the line, the curve and the void, and my teachers would look at me proudly, unlike the older pupils, obviously, who hated me, but my teachers praised me and applauded me, I was their prize pupil, their blue-eyed boy, and they must have said so to my parents. It goes without saying that my parents never helped me with my homework because they didn’t need to, I worked things out by myself, my ability with numbers was proven, it was well-known, but my parents never rewarded me, they knew, but they did nothing, maybe they felt they deserved a son like me, but looking back now it is perfectly clear that they didn’t deserve me at all.
What would I have asked of them? Some recognition. The only advice I ever got from my atheist father was this: the Three Wise Men, don’t exist (in Cuba, it’s the Three Wise Men who bring children presents at Christmas) It’s a pernicious piece of propaganda, he told me, a lie designed to confuse, alienate and stupefy children. He was right. Educating me to reject the lies that the rabble take for facts was a good thing. But I’d like to draw attention to two things.
The first is that if a father is going to deprive you of the Three Wise Men, it is his responsibility to take their place, not leave you orphaned at the age of six or seven, the way Armando did me. He turned off the light and I found myself alone in the darkened room of my intelligence, with nothing to rebut him, like a straight line fired across the immensity of space that, no matter how far it goes, encounters no one, even when the mysterious laws of the universe suggest it could and should happen, companionship and loneliness contracted to a single point.
And the second is that later, when I was ten or eleven, Armando did try to replace the Three Wise Men with his own ideology and that was worse, because he achieved his goal. I was launched onto the meatgrinding machine that is thinking like your father, taking on the passions and rages of your father. And all this without a TV. The TV never appeared. I began to be more disciplined in my reading, though I still didn’t really enjoy it. I read every night, I read the books Armando gave me, the book of stories about Che Guevara that tells how Che refused the gift of a bicycle for his daughter, because bicycles belong to the State, to the People, not to any particular individual.
I asked Armando why, if bicycles were for everyone and not for individuals, they made bicycles for individuals to ride? Why didn’t they make a gigantic bicycle that we could all get on and pedal together, millions of pedals moving at the same time, all riding in the same direction? That’s what we are doing, Armando said, we are all riding one great bicycle, son, we are pedaling the bicycle of justice. And then I remember my mother – who looked like she wasn’t listening when obviously she was, the way mothers do, never missing a trick – saying: Oh, of course we’re all pedaling, but the chain has fallen off. She laughed at her own joke. Armando did not laugh, far from it – he didn’t take it well. Later Armando, indefatigable, continued inoculating me with his positive energy, his moral code, his inexhaustible optimism, injecting me with a radioactive material that, on contact with the real world, simply exploded like acid in a burst battery and was transformed into frustration. I’m eighteen years old but I feel like an old man. This was what Armando was really injecting me with. And, yes, you endure the contradictions and convictions of your parents. It is this disconnect that gives you life, until you are shaking with rage.
My mother’s illness, in the end, is a fish hook that she has cast to bring me back to them. I realized this from the very beginning. In primary school, I would wait desperately for her at the end of the day. Her slim, sheltering figure would round the corner, rescue me and take me home. A memory that tries to resurface in the early hours of sentry duty, which I quickly brush aside. My mother’s kiss at the school gate. Her hug at four in the afternoon. Her questions about my homework, her delicate conversation, warm and tender as a glove, her innocuous scoldings. When it came to high school, I wanted to attend the school where she taught, and she wanted that too, but Armando wouldn’t allow it.
Thus began my exile at various secondary schools and boarding schools, rarely coming home, barely either a child or an adolescent. After that, I was drafted by the army. I spent several months in the military sector, sleeping in a hostel on days when I had leave, but my sister came to visit and said to me: Mamá is ill. I refused to believe her, but I went home anyway. And I sat at the table. From the start, the tension was palpable. The background hum of the television. My mother was more condescending than ever, despite her pale, gaunt appearance. Armando tried to initiate conversations he couldn’t follow through. I tried to be equally communicative. My sister hardly said a word, but her face maintained a mute rictus of harmony and pleasure intended to let us know how happy she was that we were all together again.
After the meal, I tried to ease the tension, to break the stilted formality, because, at the end of the day, this was my family, so I told my sister a story I’d heard from one of the soldiers in the unit. Then, suddenly, everything seemed pathetic, ridiculous, utterly ridiculous but real, atrociously real, and, unable to believe what was happening, I got up and went to bed and, early next morning, reported back to the military sector and took the 8 a.m. shift at sentry post number two, and as I wandered through a thick tangle of avocado trees, I saw myself as a little boy again: we were heading to the beach in my father’s first Lada, the car he had before the Nissan, before everything, on one of the few occasions that Armando agreed to drive us to the beach, if not the only one.
It was Sunday, the beach and the resort hotels were no more than twenty kilometers from the town, my sister and I were playing in the back seat, joking and singing songs that, despite the difference in our ages, we both enjoyed, maybe because my sister was always a little young for her age and I was a little old for mine, and then, after a while, my sister fell asleep, and I turned around and gazed out the rear windscreen at the road, the way it rolled away from the back seat of the car, the way I stared out, with my chin propped on my hands, the way the wind whipped at my hair.
Somehow, I thought as I manned the sentry post, I am still in that car. Somehow, my parents have parked, got out, put on their swimsuits and gone down to the beach, or to bronze themselves on the sand, and I am still traveling with my sister, in a car, an old-fashioned car, but my sister is asleep, not because she is tired, but because she doesn’t want to and perhaps can’t see what I am seeing. I searched for goodness outside, but found only dissipation.
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