Boarding Home

Introduction: Willie in Miami, Rey in Nueva York

by Norberto Fuentes

Three of us made up that sad brotherhood at the end of the Sixties in Cuba: Guillermo Rosales, Reinaldo Arenas, and their faithful servant. We called Guillermo Willie Van Der Roses, but now I couldn't tell you now why we Germanized his identity. Everyone else called him Guillermito. As far as Reinaldo was concerned, he was Rey. Rey was an add-on to our original duo, that of Willie and me, who had been together since 1961 when we started our careers as journalists at Mella magazine, a Communist Party publication "directed at the young masses." Willie was sixteen years old and had just dropped out of a Foreign Ministry school that was preparing a new batch of Ambassadors of the Revolution; in other words, he could have become an Ambassador, or at the very least, Consul, with his pimply, adolescent face. In 1969, Rey was absorbed into our meager group. Willie had endured an unsuccessful love affair with Rey, unsuccessful because it never went anywhere, according to what he told me. Another problem was that Rey wanted very little to do with communism, which was a very negative thing in that world of barricades and fiery red flags that Willie and I navigated, partially due to the encompassing reality and partially due to the ideals of our youth, in our callings as Bolshevik combatants. It was hard to be a Bolshevik when Rey was undressing in front of us, always with his back turned, to pull on his bathing suit. We used to go to the beach at Santa Fe, to the west of Havana, and before heading out there, we would change at this farmhouse that Willie found out of nowhere and borrowed who knows how, just about a kilometer from the coast. This was where we held our literary gatherings. With any luck, we'd have a dozen guavas and oranges yanked from the path in front of the house on our way back from a dip in the water. That was where Willie and I first heard of Proust. That was where Rey learned about the immeasurable courage of Panfilov's men on the Volokolamsk highway. But at the center of these gatherings, what was discussed with the greatest passion and the greatest details were our own books in progress. All of our books in progress. Thousands of novels running round in our little heads. At that time we were three writers with just two books, Rey with Celestino Before Dawn and myself with Condenados de Condado. Later, twenty years later, the two of them left Cuba and Rey died first. AIDS, of course, and suicide and a letter against the Cuban government. Willie, according to the news that reached me in Cuba, won a literary award in some contest and later, so they say, went to live in a mansion with a widow and never wrote again. He was the most talented of the three. I say was in keeping with the classic line that holds that talent is a machine that gets ruined if it's not used, and while he may not have believed it, he was one of the guys who taught me the most. The news of his own suicide still unsettles me. Just a couple more months and I would have joined him in exile, and with me by his side, I can assure you that Willie wouldn't have turned that Magnum against himself. The problem was that we were always a duo. And when you add a third person, the essence of the duo ceases to be. There was an unobjectionable mimicry to what Rey did. What's certain is that Willie didn't have AIDS nor was there any serious reason for him to blow his brains out. If you don't believe me, consider that he didn't leave a note. But I knew him very well and he must have thought, with that Bolshevik arrogance à la Karkov in Man's Fate: What does this little fag think, that I don't know how to kill myself? Oh, how we enjoyed that scene in Man's Fate, when Chiang Kai-shek's assassins are going to stick Karkov live in the oven of a locomotive. To hell with Proust. Malraux. He was the man to follow. Willie and I were so envious of Malraux.

Translator's Note: The following excerpt is from a 1987 novel originally titled Boarding Home. After being out of print for several years, it was re-released in Spain in 2003 under the title Casa de los náufragos (The House of the Castaways). The novel relays the experiences of a Cuban exile, William Figueras, who finds that a change of country does nothing to change his state of mind. He declares himself "not politically exiled, but completely exiled." Unwilling or unable to deal with William's mental illness, his Miami relatives place him in a boarding home, described as "one of those marginal refuges for life's desperate and hopeless. Crazy for the most part, although sometimes there are old people abandoned by their families so they can die of loneliness without screwing up life for the winners." While Boarding Home is a fictional account, the author spent his exile living in several of these boarding homes between stints in psychiatric hospitals until his suicide in 1993.

I dream that I'm in Havana again, in a funeral parlor on calle 23. I'm surrounded by numerous friends. We're drinking coffee. All of a sudden, a white door opens and in comes a casket on the shoulders of a dozen wailing women. One of my friends elbows me in the ribs and says, "They're bringing in Fidel Castro."

We turn around. The old ladies place the coffin in the middle of the room and leave, weeping hysterically. Then the coffin opens. Fidel sticks a hand out first. Then half his body. Finally all of him emerges. He smoothes his full-dress uniform and approaches us, a smile on his face.

"Isn't there any coffee for me?" he asks.

Somebody gives him a cup.

"Well. We're already dead." Fidel says. "Now you'll see that doesn't solve anything, either."

I wake up. It's morning already. It's the big day. In three hours the social security checks will arrive and Frances and I will leave the boarding home. I jump out of bed. I grab the filthy towel and a sliver of soap and head for the bathroom. I wash up. I urinate. I leave the towel and the soap in the bathroom knowing that I won't need them anymore. I head for the living room. The nuts are having breakfast, but Frances is there, sitting in a corner next to the TV.

"I couldn't sleep," she says. "Let's leave now!"

"We have to wait," I say. "The checks are coming at ten."

"I'm scared," she says. "Let's leave now!"

"Calm down," I say. "Calm down. Did you already get your things together?"

"Yes."

"Then calm down," I say, kissing the top of her head.

I look at her. Just thinking that this afternoon I will be making love to her in a clean, soft bed makes me hard.

"Calm down," I say, sticking my hand down her dress and gently squeezing a breast. "Calm down*Š"

I let go. I stick my hand in my pockets and find that I have two quarters left. Great. I'll drink some coffee. I'll buy a newspaper and I'll spend the next two hours, until the checks arrive, sitting on some bench. I kiss her on the mouth. I head out to the corner diner.

It's a beautiful morning. For the first time in a long time I look at the blue sky, the birds, the clouds. Drinking coffee, lighting up a cigarette, flipping through today's newspaper, all suddenly become delicious things to do. For the first time in a long time I feel the weight on my shoulders disappearing. Like my legs can run. Like my arms could test their strength. I take a rock from the street and throw it a long way, toward a barren field. I remember that once, when I was a kid, I was a good baseball player. I stop. I inhale the morning's fresh air. My eyes fill with tears of happiness. I get to the diner and order coffee.

"Make it good," I tell the woman.

The woman makes it with a smile on her face.

"Special, for you," she says, filling the cup.

I drink it in three sips. It's good. I ask for a newspaper, too. The woman brings it. I pay. I turn around, looking for a clean, quiet spot. My eyes settle on a white wall, by the shade of a tree. I go and sit there. I open the newspaper and start to read, a feeling of peace washes over me.

SPURNED EX-BOYFRIEND KIDNAPS, GAGS AND KILLS HER. DEATH THREATENS DARING HELICOPTER PILOTS IN THE DARK. RUSSIAN LEADER PROPOSES A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

Someone stands over me. I raise my head. It's Frances. She followed me. She sits next to me. She takes me by the arm. She buries her head in my chest and stays still for a few seconds.

"The mailman arrived," she murmurs finally.

"Do you know if he brought the checks?"

"I don't know," she says. "That man . . . Curbelo, he grabbed the envelopes."

"Let's go!" I say.

I leave the newspaper on the wall and stand up. I lift her gently by the arm, she's shaking.

"Oh my God!" she says, looking up at the sky.

"Calm down . . ." I say, dragging her gently.

"Is the house beautiful, my angel?"

"It's perfect," I say, squeezing her shoulders. "It has a living-dining room, a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, a full-sized bed, a sideboard, three chairs . . ."

We walk toward the boarding home.

When we get to the home, we separate. She goes to her room, to pick up the last of her belongings, and I go to my room, to get my suitcase. When I pass Curbelo's desk, I see that, sure enough, he's there opening the envelopes with the Social Security checks. One-eyed Reyes goes up to him and asks for a cigarette.

"Get away!" Curbelo says. "Can't you see that I'm working?"

I smile. I go on to my room. I grab the suitcase and stick two or three shirts in it, my books, a jacket and a pair of shoes. I close it. My books, more than fifty of them, make it pretty heavy. I take out the book of English Romantic poets and stick it in my pocket. I take one last look at the room. The crazy guy who works at the pizzeria is snoring in his bed with his mouth agape. A small cockroach runs across his face. I leave. I let my suitcase drop in front of Mr. Curbelo's desk. He looks at me questioningly.

"Give me my check," I say. "I'm leaving."

"That's not the way things are done around here," he says. "I'll give it to you, but that's not the way things are done. You should have given me fifteen days notice. Now you're leaving me with an empty bed. That's money that I lose."

"I'm sorry," I say. "Give me my check."

He looks for it in the collection of envelopes. He takes it out. He gives it to me.

"Get out of here!" he says, irritated.

I leave. I place the suitcase in one corner of the living room, and go to the women's room. Frances is there, with her bags ready. I show her my check.

"Go and ask for yours." I say.

She goes out in search of Curbelo. I sit on her bed and wait. After an interminably long time, she reappears with her face pale and her hands empty.

"He doesn't want to give it to me," she says.

"Why not?" I ask, furious.

I run to Curbelo's desk.

"Frances's check," I say, standing before him. "She's leaving with me."

"That's not possible," Curbelo says, looking over his glasses at me.

"Why not?"

"Because Frances is a sick woman," he says, "Her mother brought her to this home herself and left her in my care. I am responsible for whatever happens to her."

"Responsible!" I cry scornfully. "Responsible for dirty sheets and filthy towels. For puddles of piss and inedible food."

"That's a lie!" He says. "This is a tightly run operation."

Indignant, I take a step toward him and snatch the stack of checks out of his hands. He stands up. He tries to take them away from me, but I give him a shove that makes him fall on his ass in a wastebasket.

"Arsenio!" he yells from there. "Arsenio!"

I quickly look for Frances's check. I find it. I put it in my pocket and throw the rest of the envelopes on the desk. Frances is waiting for me at the door.

"Go!" I yell.

She walks out with her two enormous bags. I walk out behind her with my heavy suitcase.

"My angel . . ." Frances says.

"Walk!" I say. "Get away from here!"

"But this is so heavy," she says, pointing at the bags.

I pull one of the bags out of her hands and carry it, along with my suitcase.

"Arsenio!" Curbelo yells from inside.

We walk quickly on First Street toward Sixteenth Avenue. But my suitcase is enormous and old, and as we reach Seventh Avenue it pops wide open, scattering books and clothing all over the ground. I bend down quickly to pick up the books. I shove a few in the suitcase. A police siren wails, and then a patrol car stops in front of us, blocking our way. I stand up slowly. Curbelo and a policeman get out of the car.

"All right, paisano . . ." the policeman says, taking me by the arm.

"Stay still, paisano. Is this the paisano?" the policeman asks Curbelo.

"Yes," he says.

"All right, paisano," the policeman says in a even-tempered, almost indifferent voice.

"Give me those checks."

"They're ours!" I say.

Then Curbelo said, "He's crazy. He's out of whack. He doesn't take his pills."

"Give them to me, paisano," the policeman says.

I don't have to give them to him. He notices that I have them in my shirt pocket and grabs them.

"He's a very problematic kid," Curbelo says.

I look at Frances. She's crying. She's bent down on the ground, still picking up my scattered books. She looks at Curbelo with rage and throws a book at his face. The policeman takes me by the arm and leads me to the car. He opens the back door and tells me to get inside. I get in. He closes the door. He goes back to where Curbelo is. They whisper to each other for a few minutes. Then I see Curbelo lift Frances up from the ground and pick up one of her bags. Then he takes her by the arm and starts to drag her back to the boarding home.

The policeman picks my things up from the ground and puts them any which way in the trunk of the patrol car. Then he gets in the car and sits at the wheel.

"I'm sorry, paisano," he says, starting the engine.

The car takes off quickly.

The patrol car crossed all of Miami and entered the northern neighborhoods. Finally it stopped in front of a large gray building. The policeman got out of the car and opened the rear door.

"Get out," he ordered.

I got out. He took me forcefully by the arm and led me to some sort of large, well-lit lobby. We stopped before a small office that said "Admission." The policeman pushed my shoulders and we entered the office.

"Sit," he ordered.

I sat on a bench. Then the policeman went up to a desk and spoke in a low voice to a young woman wearing a long white coat.

"Paisano," the policeman then said, turning toward me, "come here!"

I walk over to him.

"You're in a hospital," he tells me, "You'll stay here until you're cured. Got it?"

"There's nothing wrong with me," I say. "I just want to go live somewhere decent with my girlfriend."

"That," the policeman says, "that is something you have to explain to the doctors later." He slaps his holster. He smiles at the woman behind the desk. He leaves the office slowly. Then the woman gets up, grabs a pile of keys from the drawer and says to me, "Come with me."

I follow her. She opens a huge door with one of the keys and leads me into a dirty, poorly lit room. There's a man with a long, gray beard who is nearly naked. He recites fragments from Nietzsche's Zarathustra in a loud voice. There are also several ragged-looking black men sharing a cigarette in silence. I also see a white guy sobbing softly in a corner and crying, "Mother, where are you?" There's a black woman of decent build, who looks at me with a drugged look; and a white woman, who looks like a prostitute, with huge breasts that fall down to her navel. It's already nighttime. I walk down a long hallway leading to a room full of iron beds. I see a public telephone in the corner. I take a quarter out of my pocket and insert it. I dial the boarding home's number. I wait. Arsenio answers on the third ring.

"Mafia?" he says to me. "Is that you?"

"It's me," I say. "Get Frances on the line."

"She's in her room," Arsenio says. "Curbelo injected her with two doses of chlorpromazine and put her to bed. She was screaming. She didn't want to eat. She tore her dress with her own hands. Mafia . . . What did you do to that woman? She's crazy about you."

"Never mind," I say. "I'll call again tomorrow."

"Your books are here." Arsenio says. "The policeman brought them. Mafia, I'm telling you this man-to-man, you know why you went nuts? From reading."

"Never mind," I say. "Keep aiming for the thirty-eight."

"Sure thing," says Arsenio. "You'll see me around Miami. You'll see me!"

"Talk to you later." I say.

"Later," Arsenio says.

I hang up. As soon as I do, I hear someone yelling my name from the main hall. I go there. A man in a white coat is waiting for me.

"Are you William Figueras?"

"I am."

"Come inside. I want to talk to you. I am Dr. Paredes."

I walk into a small, windowless office. There's a desk and three chairs. The walls are decorated with pictures of the writer Ernest Hemingway.

"Are you a fan of Hemingway?" I ask, taking a seat.

"I've read him," Dr. Paredes says. "A lot."

"Have you read Islands in the Stream?"

"Yes," he says. "Have you read Death in the Afternoon?"

"No," I say, "but I read A Moveable Feast."

"Excellent," the doctor says. "Maybe now we'll understand each other better. All right, William, what happened to you?"

"I wanted to be free again," I say. "I wanted to escape the home where I was living and start a new life."

"You took a girl with you?"

"Yes," I say. "Frances, my future wife. She was coming with me."

"The policeman said you were abducting her."

"The policeman lies," I say. "He's just repeating what he heard from Mr. Curbelo, the owner of the home. That woman and I love each other."

"Love love?" Doctor Paredes asks.

"Love," I say. "Maybe it wasn't a great love yet. But it was blossoming."

"Do you hear voices, William?"

"I used to," I say. "I don't hear them anymore."

"Do you have visions?"

"I used to, I don't see them anymore."

"What cured you?"

"Frances," I say. "Having her by my side has made me a new man."

"If what you're saying is true, I'll help you." Doctor Paredes says. "You'll spend a few days here and I personally will try to fix this problem. I'll talk to Curbelo."

"Do you know him?"

"Yes."

"What do you think of him?"

"He's a businessman. Nothing more than a businessman."

"Exactly," I say. "And a son of a bitch, besides."

"OK," Doctor Paredes says to me, "now you can go. We'll speak again tomorrow."

"Do you have a cigarette?"

"Yes," He says. "Keep the pack."

He hands me a full pack of Winstons. I throw it in my pocket. I leave the office. I go back to the room with the other nuts. I arrive at the exact moment that the man who was reciting Zarathustra has trapped a black woman in a corner and has begun to lift her dress forcefully. The woman tries to slap him away. The Zarathustra guy throws the woman to the floor and starts to touch her thighs and her sex. While he's doing it, he says with a voice from beyond the grave:

I have walked through valleys and mountains. And I have had the world at my feet. O man who atoneth: suffer! O man believeth: have faith! O rebellious man: attack and kill!

I leave and head toward the room with the iron beds. I get to one of these beds and let myself fall on it. I think of Frances. I remember her next to me, in the entryway of that Baptist church, her shoulder pressing into my ribs.

"My angel . . . Were you ever a Communist?"

"Yes."

"Me too. In the beginning. In the beginning. In the beginning . . ."

I fall asleep. I dream that Frances and I run away at full speed through a field of vegetables. All of a sudden, we see headlights in the distance. It's Curbelo's car. We drop to the ground, so he won't see us. Curbelo drives the car through the sown vegetables. He stops next to us. He pretends not to see us. Frances and I are holding hands, almost melting into the earth. Curbelo gets out of the car with his large subaquatic hunting rifle. He stands over me with his frog legs.

"Two sturgeons!" he yells loudly. "Two huge sturgeons! This time I'll definitely win first place! The gold cup will be mine! Mine!"

Frances and I bite the dirt beneath his feet.