It loved to happen. -Marcus Aurelius (Written over the doorway to Seymour and Buddy Glass’s bedroom in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey)
He had always heard that to name disasters was sure to make them happen. And now, once again, the Jornal de Angola was announcing an imminent South African invasion. Every week the same announcement was repeated with absolute certainty along with irrefutable evidence, logistical facts and government statements. Nevertheless, despite the fact that over the last twenty-three months the boers had crossed the Namibian frontier several times with an occasional menacing plane and what were indisputably tanks, the predicted invasion had never actually materialised. Still, reading the news always gave him the same cold shiver. It was a dark, tangible fear which started in his guts, made him weak at the knees and caused him to send up a prayer to who- or whatever might be listening to please let the imminent event wait until after February, when he himself would be far away from it all and his two year mission in Angola would have moved irreversably into the distant past.
The trouble was that his fear tended to have certain more immediate effects. He had barely read the headline and some of the first paragraph when he had to abandon his bed and rush to the bathroom, clutching the newspaper under his arm while he unbuttoned his trousers. After so many months, he already knew the causes and effects of that uncontrollable emotion he had acquired in Angola, and in a way which seemed ambiguous even to himself, he came close to relishing his fear, certain in the knowledge that it was not exactly cowardice.
That was why, seated on the toilet, he devoted himself to neatly tearing out that section of the front page which he blamed for triggering his anxieties. He was bent on taking the most scatological and symbolic revenge he knew: he would wipe his ass on the news item. While he was waiting for his unconditioned reflex to come to an end, he turned the piece of paper over and spotted a small insertion, with a headline in type no bigger than ten point, announcing “THE COMPLETE VELÁZQUEZ.” The announcement went on to say that between the 23rd of January and the 30th of March, the Prado Museum would be hosting the so-called exhibition of the century, bringing together, for the first time since they were painted, seventy-nine of the Sevillean artist’s greatest works brought from around the world to join the great Spanish museum’s permanent collection.
As he wiped himself carefully with the sporting page, he turned his thoughts to another of his favorite obsessions. The world’s a pile of shit, he told himself, here am I shitting myself in Angola while people in Madrid are getting ready to see a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of Diego Velázquez. He hadn’t stopped thinking that the world was a pile of shit for one single moment since he had left Cuba two years before. He thought it twice a week when he wrote those interminable, heartrending letters to his wife in which he voiced his despair; he thought it in the evenings when he leaned out of his bedroom window to study life in the museque occupied by several families in a warehouse abandoned by the Portuguese in 1976. He watched how the men, squatting on their haunches and chewing some herb, in their turn watched the withered women boiling the yuca and fish for finche on a wood fire while they offered the breast to tiny, slow, shriveled children who would perhaps never even know the word happiness existed. He thought it, too, when he walked the streets of Luanda, avoiding the piles of garbage on every corner, turning his face away from the endless maimed victims of a real and interminable war. He asked himself why the hell people were condemned to live like this whereas he, precisely he himself, wandered without hunger or hopes through that sick, alien city which would not give itself up nor let itself be understood and whose final destiny was unimaginable.
From then on, every morning meant a cross on one of the three calendars stuck up over his bed, the last of which came to an abrupt stop: they were just into January 1990 and now he had only eight numbers left to cross off.
“How did you manage to fix it, compadre? Rum, marijuana, and what else? Because this note sure as hell isn’t regulation.” The editor of the newspaper seemed so sure of this that he shook his head as well and smiled. Most things usually seemed to make him laugh, though in this case, Mauricio told himself, he was right in a way; but he still persisted.
“Look, Alcides, you know I’m not stupid. There’s loads of people here flying back via Berlin or Madrid, and if you make the effort, I’ll be able to go via Madrid too.”
“And what am I supposed to say, that you want to look at some pictures in Spain? If I say that, Mauricio, the very least that will happen is that they’ll pack me off home for being a dickhead.”
Outside, a breeze came up suddenly and the editor had to throw his arms out to stop all the papers flying off his desk. It looked as though it was going to rain in Luanda for the second time that summer and Mauricio hoped it would be a devastating downpour.
“Why? Because they’re going to think I plan to stay in Spain, that’s why, isn’t it? That’s a pile of crap, Alcides! You can sweat it out for two years in Angola, blinded by chlorine, your guts totally fucked up by tinned meat, and there’ll still always be some asshole who thinks you’re planning to try and stay! Well, that’s charming!”
The editor stopped arranging papers and lit a cigarette. He stopped laughing and passed a hand over his face as if trying with a gesture to wipe out all the tiredness and worry lines of the last months. In Cuba he’d been no more than sub-editor of a provincial newspaper, but he was also a reliable apparatchik, so they entrusted him with the job of editing the weekly paper for the troops in Angola, and he did his job very conscientiously. Anyway, he was an affable and even an intelligent man.
“Look, Mauricio,” he said, unsmiling at last, “I think I know you. I think you get to know people better here in bloody Africa, but don’t expect other people to think like me. You’ve got a blot on your files and everyone here knows that, down to the crazy guy who wanders naked round Kinanxixi square. And if you did try to stay in Spain you wouldn’t be the first. Plus which there’s the problem of the flights . . .”
“So they’re not going to let that one drop, are they? The bitch is that other people have no problems at all. At least those who do stay out of the country don’t have any!”
The editor reluctantly smiled again and threw his cigarette out of the window.
“Don’t blackmail me, asshole. . . . so it’s a Velázquez exhibition is it . . . OK, I’ll see what I can do, but remember, if you do anything stupid, it’s my balls they’ll have.”
“That’d be a good enough excuse,” said Mauricio. Life wasn’t always a pile of shit.
*** At least for Velázquez, life hadn’t been a pile of shit. Emma Micheletti tried to show this in her booklet about the painter, which Mauricio had found in one of Luanda’s three bookshops during the first months of his mission when he still visited museums and bookshops. The stained, dusty little tome Velázquez sat on a shelf at the end of the shop alongside other incongruous titles: Plato’s Republic in German, selected works of Erasmus in Italian, and some leaflets on football in Portuguese. Although the book was sold as new, it had had a previous owner: Maria Fernanda. She had not only signed and dated the book (9/7/74), but she had underlined various sentences and paragraphs which seemed to have interested her for various reasons . . . or possibly for one and the same reason.
Perhaps because of his inability to look beyond the anecdotal or because of his total lack of artistic skill, Mauricio had never been particularly knowledgeable about painting. But ever since he had discovered Maria Fernanda’s underlinings, that particular volume, number 26 in the “Diamonds of Art” series, published in Barcelona by Toray in 1973, had become full of enchanting mystery to him. The fact that that particular book should have been for sale was the first mystery, and the person of Maria Fernanda herself was the second, most intriguing one. At first he decided that she must have been one of those Portuguese who fled Angola in 1975 and ’76, leaving behind businesses, houses, and even dogs and books. However, when he began to trawl through her clues and obsessions, he knew her better, and he decided that perhaps Maria Fernanda had been an incurable romantic who had never found love.
Two particular underlinings in the book led him to this conclusion: at the top of page 5, the original owner had drawn two parallel lines in blue ballpoint in both margins of this passage:
In 1624 he settled with his family in Madrid in Calle de la Concepción. His relationship with the king would end only with the painter’s death and if, at times, this patronage restricted his freedom, on the other hand it enabled him to lead a quiet life, free from financial worries. Nor did the sovereign overburden him with obligations or conditions.
Three pages further on, at the beginning of the section entitled “The Work,” the woman he presumed to have been unlucky in love had underlined the whole first paragraph, in red this time, and at the end she had added a sad exclamation mark.
Velázquez’s life, wrote Emma Micheletti, either to Maria Fernanda’s pleasure or angst, was decidedly happy, and an observation of some aspects of his life leads one to draw a clear parallel with that of Rubens, who, as we have seen, befriended him. Both were born in June and the fact of having been born in this luminous summer month seems to have augured both of them a comfortable and happy life and a sure, precocious and glorious artistic talent. Both were in the service of understanding and generous monarchs whom they served with fidelity and love. Both died at a vigorous age, at a little over 60 when they had already achieved the peak of their artistic lives and when really they had little to add to their style and perfected technique. They were, perhaps, different when it came to their spirit, their emotional and expressive force, their characters. Rubens was passionately vital, impulsive and extroverted; Velázquez was calm, reflective and a careful observer.
Only a sensitive soul, in love and with certain suicidal tendencies, worries so much about happiness and security, Mauricio told himself. He was definitively convinced of this when he found the strangest of all the clues left by Maria Fernanda in that book she must have loved so much. There was a barely visible mark at the bottom of illustrations numbers 63 and 64 in the catalog of Velázquez’s works, which took up the second half of the book. Mauricio discovered the colon because he too was drawn to those two paintings, less well-known than The Drunkards, Las Meninas, the Rokeby Venus, or Joseph’s Tunic, but unique and magnetic in their theme and conception. The reference to the works read:
63. VILLA MEDICI IN ROME canvas, 48×42 cm, Madrid, Prado. The painting is known as “Evening.” Together with its partner, known as “Midday,” it was probably painted in 1650. Both paintings are truly unusual in the Master’s oeuvre. They are first mentioned in the Alcazar inventory of 1666 and have been in the Prado since 1819.
Ever since then, Mauricio dreamed about Maria Fernanda and of visiting the Prado to see that dazzling diptych in which Velázquez moved away from enclosed spaces, kings, popes, princes and fools and casually announced, two centuries ahead of time, the advent of Corot, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and the whole of nineteenth- century Impressionism. This was especially true of the painting known as “Evening.” The leaves of trees (which Mauricio guessed must be cypresses, though he’d never seen a cypress in his life) cast their shadows on the arches of a Renaissance gallery. The warm light, diffuse and yet resolved, blurred the outline of the two figures poised in conversation in the foreground and of the caped man in the background, his back turned to the viewer, admiring the landscape of pines and willlows receding into the distance. That magnificent evening in the Medici gardens gave one a lust for life. One could feel the sheer joy the artist must have felt as, freely and without constraints from any king, no matter how generous and understanding, he let his best brushstrokes flow: the brushstrokes of a peaceful man.
After a while, Mauricio had absolutely no doubt: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez had been truly happy for at least one afternoon in his lifetime, and Maria Fernanada was an ethereal and enchanting women going about the world with that book which drove her mad with envy because she herself had not known happiness even for half a day. Maria Fernanda had understood that happiness is a privilege too elusive for all but Kings; perhaps she had vanished into the jungle in search of her own kingdom of solitude.
*** Alcides told him: “Go on, buy a bottle of rum, you owe it to me.” And of course he smiled. Mauricio just stared at him, serious, incredulous, and hopeful.
“Don’t fuck around with me, Alcides.”
“You’re leaving for Madrid on the third. You arrive at 4 in the afternoon and fly on to Havana at 10 the next morning. That should give you enough time, shouldn’t it?”
Mauricio went to his room and got the seven thousand kwanzas. The trip was well worth the bottle of rum the editor was demanding, and he went down to the fourth floor. Ortelio, the store’s manager, always looked after him and his friends; that was his motto. For his friends, a bottle of three-year-old Havana Club cost seven thousand kwanzas, and he had a few other tasty items on offer, like cartons of cigarettes, for example.
Sitting together on the balcony of the apartment, they opened the liter bottle and Mauricio couldn’t resist a toast:
“To me, for fuck’s sake,” said Alcides as he clinked glasses with his junior, “because if it wasn’t for me, Velázquez could go fuck himself.”
And they drank. They drank several shots and talked about the heat, about how long Alcides had left to go and about what Mauricio would do when he got to Havana: screw his wife ten times in a row, spend a week on the beach, eat a pizza on the Rampa. How he was never going to jerk off again in his life because his cock had got so it had four ready-made finger grips, like a bicycle’s handlebars. But most of all how he was just going to walk through the streets at night without anyone telling him he couldn’t and without invisible enemies waiting for him in the dark.
“And what job will you do on the newspaper?”
Mauricio finished his fifth drink before answering.
“I don’t know. I hope after this two-year stretch they’ll get off my back and let me write about Culture again.”
Alcides threw his cigarette butt into the street.
“They came down hard on you, didn’t they?”
“Like a ton of bricks. First they set me to rewriting provincial reports, then they sent me out here to prove myself.”
“They put me in charge of you. They told me to watch you and everything.”
“Now you tell me, asshole!”
Alcides lit another cigarette and drank some more rum.
“What do you expect? Would I spill my guts to you without knowing who the hell you are? Don’t be stupid, Mauricio.”
Mauricio smiled and watched the sun disappearing behind the Hotel Tropico.
“But I’m glad to have gotten to know you well. You’re the best journalist I’ve ever worked with.”
“Thanks for the compliment, boss.”
“I hope things work out well for you and I hope you don’t try and stay in Spain. Not for my sake, but because of those who fucked you over. Don’t give them the satisfaction.”
“It looks like I’m going to spend my whole life proving myself, like a Challenger spacecraft.”
“Give me some more rum. Looks like it’s going to rain again.”
“Do you realize, I’m going to see the exhibition of the century, compadre. At last I’m going to see Villa Medici in Rome . . .” Alcides smiled again and took another sip of rum.
“You’ll end up mad or gay. I’ll put money on it.” But this time he wasn’t smiling. He looked into Mauricio’s eyes and said, “Do you think we’ll see each other again in Cuba?”
The rum and the news of his flight to Madrid had produced a certain euphoria in Mauricio, and he thought of making a joke, but held back.
“Do you think we’ll still be friends when we come out of this?”
“I’d like to think so.” Alcides sighed and looked sad. Alcohol usually threw up his closely guarded nostalgia. “Because I think I’m going to miss you. I’ve been staring you in the face every day for fifteen months.”
“I hope we’ll stay friends. No fucking war should leave you without the most important things at the end.”
“I’ll come and visit you one day and then I’ll bring the rum. I’d really like that.”
Mauricio looked out at the street darkening with ever-lowering clouds and regretted the mistrust he’d felt for this man for so many months. Possibly in Cuba Alcides would never have been his friend, they might never even have spoken to each other. But here, in the middle of so much homesickness, fear and loneliness, there was a chance for everything to be quite different. Yes, he’d like to see him again with his three pens in his guayabera, his unbearable smile and his manner of a man with a mission and too many responsibilities.
“I’ll be waiting for that rum,” he said at last.
“I almost want to hug you,” said Alcides.
“You’ll end up mad or gay too,” said Mauricio and he tried to imitate his editor’s perpetual smile.
*** He still couldn’t believe it. The chain of events placing him in Madrid on that 3rd February 1990 seemed too complex to be even a possibility, far less a reality. He thought how much he would have liked to have told it all to Maria Fernanda, from his problems at the paper to the discovery of her book. He would ask her to show him to the Prado so they could see the Sevillean’s seventy-nine pictures together. Then, he could be sure at last that the owner of the book was precisely the woman who had been looking for him all her life, never dreaming that he lived in a dusty, quarrelsome neighborhood of Havana, a place he never could have imagined feeling so homesick for until two years ago. When he was very young and used to read biographies of famous men, Mauricio enjoyed spotting the strange twists of fate which make up people’s lives: a casual meeting, an unexpected decision, a fortuitous act. Why was there nothing like that in his own life? He thought of himself as a mistake, and his whole existence seemed to him to be a series of errors and frustrations which had led him to lose all dreams and ambitions. Since he wasn’t an art lover and had never in his life seen a reproduction of Velázquez, why had he come across just the book and not the woman who had left her revealing marks on it? Lately he had begun to imagine what Maria Fernanda might look like. At first she had been just essence, voice and mystery but now she appeared to him as a pale, gentle woman with large moist eyes who smiled at him through a mirror as he came towards her. That was how he found her in illustration 67 of the book, naked and reclining. But she would never see him come toward her. For the time being he would have to make do with Velázquez’s Venus.
“Can you tell me how long the Prado museum is open until, please?”
The immigration official looked at the passport photo and raised his head.
“I’m sorry, sir . . .” he answered and shrugged, confused and uncertain.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mauricio, and collected his papers. He went through to the baggage hall and couldn’t help being stunned by the shining cleanliness of the airport. Two years walking through streets cleaned only by the wind and the very sporadic showers of Luanda and sharing a flat with three other men who took it in turns not to sweep, were enough for him to be enchanted by a floor free of dust or dog shit.
He looked at his watch and sighed. Four twenty-five. Nobody around him looked the type to know what time the museum closed. He had guessed it would be open until nine and that he would be out of the airport by five, pass by the hotel to leave his luggage and at the latest be at the Prado by six with enough time to get drunk on Velázquez.
He went to the bathroom and consulted his watch again while he urinated. Yes, I’m in Madrid, he told himself, at four thirty in the afternoon, and as he came out he realized he was in luck as his suitcase appeared on the moving luggage belt. He wiped the sweat from his hands and forbade himself to look at his watch again.
The bus left him at the Puerta del Sol. The man who had sat next to him from the hotel Diana explained what he had to do: one of the streets leading onto the Puerta del Sol is Alcalá. Go down the whole of Alcalá and when you reach the Bank of Spain you are already in the Paseo del Prado, turn right at the Cibeles fountain and there’s the museum, macho, he said, and confirmed the most important fact: it’s open until nine.
He crossed the square and resisted all temptations: the cafés, the shops, the African layabouts turned streetsellers of sunglasses, earrings, and other black market trinkets. Then he had a sudden attack of homesickness. Ever since his companion on the bus had talked to him about the Paseo del Prado, two bronze lions from the Havana Prado had installed themselves in his memory and reawakened his desire to be home at last with the wife, the dogs, and the books so necessary to his life.
The cold of Madrid was bearable. A digital display attached to a traffic light showed the time and temperature: 13 degrees and 5:39 pm. Mauricio felt a desire to run. People all around him were walking hurriedly, talking incessantly and smoking like condemned men. They went in and out of the bars adjusting their leather or woollen coats; they looked at the shop displays and calculated whether the seasonal sales were good value; they ran to the mouth of the subway with a frenzy capable of pushing aside any human obstacle. Mauricio enjoyed the thought that none of those people could have the least idea of who he was or what he was doing here in Madrid, with this desire to run and this feeling of euphoria which he hadn’t known for a long time. His hands weren’t sweating any more and he wanted to stop for a coffee but didn’t allow himself the luxury. All he had in the world was sixteen dollars and he’d drunk enough coffee in Angola.
The Paseo del Prado took him by surprise. There it was in front of him, unmistakable even without bronze lions, and he joined a group of people waiting for the traffic lights to change. Without giving himself time to look at the famous Cibeles, he crossed the street and turned right on the central corridor of the avenue full of dark bare trees, cypresses perhaps. Now he was less than two hundred meters from the museum and at last he began to believe that, yes, it was true. For a moment he remembered Alcides and in his memory Alcides was smiling. Then he began to run toward the peaceful evening in the Villa Medici.
When the museum guard told him that they were closed on Mondays and opened at nine on Tuesdays and that he was sorry he had come all the way from Angola, that’s in the Congo isn’t it? That he should come back the next day and that there was nothing he could do, they were closed, sir, closed, Mauricio realized again that life was a pile of shit even in front of the doors of the Prado on a third of February just the width of a wall away from seventy-nine great works by the affable Diego Velázquez. Especially if it was a Monday.
His mother had died on a Monday, he remembered. It was Monday when UNITA attacked the convoy and his friend Marquitos the photographer was the only one killed in the skirmish. He had got married on a Monday, too, and he told himself that he didn’t even have consistency in bad luck.
The Cibeles fountain was throwing its jets of water onto the marble chariot and Mauricio had to smile at one detail: a small notice announced that the red, yellow and purple tulips planted around the monument were a gift from the mayor of Amsterdam to the town council of Madrid. He stopped at the beginning of that Paseo del Prado bereft of lions and felt empty and extenuated. He thought about going back to the hotel, burying his head under the covers, falling asleep and forgetting about everything, but a street sign and a song made him change direction. The sign read Puerta de Alcalá and an arrow pointed right. He started to sing the song he had grown to hate two years before when his brother copied the Ana Belen cassette and everyone in the house was condemned to hearing ten times a day at full volume: “See, see, see / the Puerta de Alcalá,/ See, see, see . . .” Fuck it, he would go and see it.
Looking at it, Mauricio could see that there had been enough Dutch tulips to decorate the Puerta de Alcalá, the monumental entrance to old Madrid commissioned from Sabatini by Charles III to be built in his own honor as illustrious and victorious king. Those five triumphal arches were blocked to pedestrians now by tubs of tulips, but for many years the best fighting bulls destined to die in the ring along with kings and armies, beggars and water-carriers had all passed beneath them. Perhaps his ineffable Maria Fernanda had also admired the austere monument, some time after relaxing in the Prado with Velázquez’s delicate color and light and buying the little booklet in the museum shop which destiny placed years later into the hands of an obscure, disgraced Cuban journalist. What would she have been thinking as she looked at it? Mauricio wanted to think the same thoughts as Maria Fernanda but ended up thinking about himself. Would he ever in his life have another opportunity to go to Madrid and finally cross the portals of the Prado? What was he going to do with his measly sixteen dollars? Should he set out to get drunk and offer his own monument to Bacchus? Should he spend it on a madrileno dinner or should he buy his wife the bras she had asked him for? What would happen to him when he went back to the paper, redeemed and purified at last by his sacrificial time in Angola, re-evaluated as exceptionally positive, hardworking, militarily and politically ideologically correct by Alcides and endorsed by the party nucleus and head of mission? As he was thinking and looking at the Puerta de Alcalá, Mauricio forgot about the song and even about Velázquez. He had just decided on the meal when he saw the man dressed in an elegant gray suit standing on the other side of Alcalá Street just at the point where his eyes rested below the arch and looking intently at the figures on top of the monument. Then the man lowered his eyes and his gaze followed Mauricio’s exactly but in reverse order, over the tulips, through the arch, avoiding the traffic in the street until he caught sight of him too.
“It can’t be!” said Mauricio and the man in the gray suit together, each on his own side of the Puerta de Alcalá.
There were just three months left until they graduated, Mauricio in Philology and Frankie in Architecture, when Frankie’s girlfriend, Charo, called Mauricio and told him: “Frankie’s left the country from Mariel. He went to the office they opened at the Cuatro Caminos and told them he was gay and they let him go. He’s left you two books.”
The books were the two volumes of The History of Modern Architecture by Leonardo Benevolo, which Mauricio had always wanted. Yet since they had belonged to him, he’d never read them.
They’d known each other since they both started tenth grade in a secondary school in the Vibora and they were classmates till they graduated from high school. The five years of university separated them a bit. They only met up on the occasional evening to go to the stadium if los Industriales were on form or on Saturdays sometimes to listen to Chicago or Credence and share a few rums, but still Mauricio always thought of him as a good friend. Besides, they had other tastes in common- Marilyn Monroe (the exception) and brunettes (the rule), the novels of Raymond Chandler, blue jeans, sandals without socks and the Hotel Colina bar with its mural of little drinking dogs. They both felt sorry for the stray street dogs and they both felt a certain contempt for gays. And since Frankie was Catholic and Mauricio a blasphemous atheist, they never discussed religion. They preferred dreaming about what they would become in the future: a great architect and a famous writer, obviously.
Much later on, when he was the most sought-after young journalist on the paper and the editors were assigning him for special features, Mauricio wrote a prize-winning article about Chinese immigration to Cuba and for the first time gained a direct insight into the trauma of rootlessness. He thought, then, of his old classmate and companion in arms and remembered how they had talked about it one evening walking through Chinatown.
“Don’t you feel sorry for them? Those Chinese just tear me apart, they’re eaten up by loneliness and they haven’t got anywhere to go back to any more,” Frankie had said on seeing an ancient, dirty, poor Chinese man remove the sleep from his eyes and then examine it at his fingertips through half closed lashes.
So when Charo called him and told him what Frankie had done-“he told them he was gay”-Mauricio couldn’t believe it. They had never considered such an option, and even though in the last two months they had only spoken over the phone because they were both immersed in their final theses, Mauricio didn’t think anyone could come to such a final, irrevocable decision in such a short time. So he searched fruitlessly for some message in the pages of the Architecture books, he talked to Charo, who swore she hadn’t known either, and he spoke to Frankie’s parents and only managed to make them cry. How could two such similar people as he and Frankie behave so differently? He asked himself. He never found a satisfactory answer, nor did he ever receive any letter attempting to explain. Something had come to an end.
They had circled the roundabout surrounding the Puerta de Alcalá and met with a smile. Frankie looked healthy and complacent: his gray suit was neat and sober and the pullover under his jacket looked warm and protective. Mauricio couldn’t help feeling both at a disadvantage and yet, somehow, more principled. His faded jeans were the symbol of his fidelity to cherished habit and the nylon and padded cotton of his soviet jacket cushioned the embrace of the man appeared out of memory and the past. They looked at each other for some time without speaking until Frankie set the tone:
“Shit, you’ve gone gray, Mauricio!”
“It’s all the quinine and the wanking . . . I’ve just come back from two years in Angola,” and he laughed.
Mauricio had sometimes imagined this meeting. He thought Frankie might come back to Havana for a few days to visit his parents and would call him. The difficult thing to imagine was how the conversation might go. Would Frankie justify himself? Would he be triumphant and offer him money to buy whatever he wanted? Or would he be as ruined and devastated as a Chinaman in Zanja Street?
“So what are you doing here if you’ve been in Angola?”
“You can’t begin to imagine. How about you?”
“I came for an architectural conference and I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Things going well for you?”
“I guess so. . . . And how are you?”
“Fucked up but happy,” said Mauricio, using the phrase Frankie’s father always answered with.
“This is amazing. Who the hell would have thought it? And how’s your family?”
Frankie seemed to be moved and avid with curiosity. He wanted to know everything. He was sorry about the Velázquez exhibition. “Shit, and I went to see it yesterday,” he said as they walked with no apparent destination away from the Puerta de Alcalá.
“Look, Mauricio, what have you got to do now?” he asked when they reached the Cibeles.
Mauricio answered, “Wait till tomorrow comes and then fuck off.”
“Right, well, let me buy you coffee. There’s the Café Gijon, the one the writers go to. Have you written a book yet?”
“What a memory you’ve got!”
“You can say that again. Come on, there it is opposite.”
“Isn’t this going to be get you into trouble talking here with me?”
Mauricio was studying the atmosphere of the old Madrid café, so suitable for literary gatherings, and had to look at Frankie. “Perhaps, but don’t you worry about it. I’m an internationalist and you’re certainly one of the ones who fled, but the truth is I’m happy to see you. It’s been ten years since you left me with a question on the tip of my tongue.”
“Two coffees and two JBs,” Frankie ordered “Do you want yours with ice? Both without ice, please, in brandy glasses.”
“And you’re just the same. More fucked up than happy. I’m pleased to see you too. I never managed to send you a letter, though I must have written at least ten. Especially at the beginning.”
“And what did you say in those letters?”
“Everything. I think I said everything: that I really cared about you, more than I did my own sisters, and that I was always going to want to go to the stadium with you. Hey, man,” he smiled, “compadre, I don’t go to ball games any more.”
The waiter came back with their drinks and placed them on the marble table. Frankie took out a pack of Kaiser cigarettes and a gold lighter. He lit one and sipped his coffee.
“I’m living like God, as the Spaniards say. Living damned well. I started off working in a bank and enrolled in night school and got my degree in three years. I got a good job, a pincha . . . it’s years since I’ve used that word, pincha . . . I earn good money and I can come on vacation to Spain every summer. New Jersey is terrible in July and August.”
“So now you’re going to tell me that even though you’ve got a car, a house, cable TV, and a bank account, you’re missing the most important things. Please don’t give me that story, I know it by heart. Do you remember what Havana’s like in July and August?”
Frankie smiled and finished his whisky in one gulp.
“Cheers,” said Mauricio as he raised his glass and finished it in one gulp, too.
“Two more,” asked Frankie, and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray.
“Life’s a pile of shit,” said Mauricio, and for the first time for many days, he felt like laughing.
“I’ll be in Havana again tomorrow night,” he said, as he drank the second glass of whisky, “and instead of having seen Velázquez, I’ll have seen you. Have you heard anything of Charo?”
“No, and I don’t want you to tell me either. I have to protect myself and I decided to cut myself off from everything.”
“Don’t joke, Mauricio. Listen, about three years ago when I was reading Proust I thought of you. Do you remember you were the only one in high school who’d read Remembrance of Things Past? And there’s one bit, I think it’s in To the Shadows of Girls in Flower, in which the bastard says something more or less like this, that people are more strongly united by consanguinity of spirit than by identical ways of thinking . . .”
“Proust had serious ideological problems. He got into deep shit..”
“Are you going to go on jerking around?”
“I’ve got to protect myself too, haven’t I? Go on, order more whisky. Nostalgia’s going to come expensive for you.”
“Two more, please, and bring us some green olives. The black ones taste like shit. Hey, Mauricio, have you really not written anything?”
Mauricio took his coat off to give himself some time. He threw an olive into his mouth and arranged his glass in front of him.
“Before I went to Angola, I still used to try now and again. I published three stories but they’re crap, they’re not the sort of thing I want to write. They were too obvious. Now I might try and write something about a woman called Maria Fernanda who gets lost in the jungle and a journalist who falls in love with her and tries to work out what happened to her.”
“What are you getting off your chest with this one, man?”
“Nothing, I just like Maria Fernanda. What about you? How many houses have you built?”
“None. I work for a firm that specializes in demolitions. What do you think of that? Demolition man,” he said, and they both laughed. And Mauricio wondered if Proust wasn’t right in the end. He could feel that the urbane man in the gray suit and the Italian shoes handmade of Argentinian leather was still his friend after all. But he told him:
“I don’t know, I feel I don’t know you. Did you know my mother died four years ago?”
The story needed to be very simple but with a touching simplicity. Really it would be the story of missed encounters throughout Europe and Africa between two people who were born to be together. The main character would be called Maria Fernanda, he couldn’t imagine any other name and he must be careful to avoid any Hemingwayan influences.
Some elements of the story were already completely decided: the prose would have the colors of Velázquez and Maria Fernanda would have the body of the Rokeby Venus, that astonishing nude that started a whole Spanish school of daring, human, and tangible painting. This decision was in effect essentially cerebral rather than aesthetic. On one of the days when he was leafing through Maria Fernanda’s book on Velázquez, he lingered longer than usual on figure 66-67 (Rokeby Venus, canvas, 124X130 cm. National Gallery, London.) The mythological goddess’s ass was offered to the viewer right in the foreground and was the focal point of the painting. It gave Mauricio a sudden erection, the result of which was a copious and satisfying masturbation. Ever since then he thought that Maria Fernanda had to look like the Rokeby Venus and that if ever they met, she would be waiting for him, naked and reclining, looking at him through Velázquez’s mirror.
However, he had most trouble with his male character. Mauricio knew he was going to write the story in the first person even though he felt hampered by the closeness between author and narrator-protagonist implied by this perspective and especially of the autobiographical aspects the character would assume. Even though he himself had never launched into the world in search of a woman, his views, desires and disappointments would permeate the character who would inevitably end up resembling him. And that wasn’t right, when it came to a person who didn’t even want to be like himself, he thought, who didn’t want to be what he had been, who had never placed any value on risk-taking and who still thinks that life, his life, is a pile of shit. How was he ever going to make a character like that unite with the romantic and existential vitality which Maria Fernanda would have?
In the end Mauricio knew he was never going to write the story no matter how much he wanted to. It was quite simply beyond him, but he enjoyed thinking about Maria Fernanda’s adventures because it was the only tangible evidence after so many months in Angola that he wasn’t permanently blocked. So he scrutinized the Rokeby Venus again and admired Velázquez’s courage and his sense of artistic freedom which no king could ever rob him of. Who were you, who are you really, Maria Fernanada? he asked himself, trying to snatch her from the shadows of the painted mirror and dreaming.
Mauricio accepted the invitation. Frankie knew an excellent Argentinian restaurant near the Castellana where, even though the wine wasn’t outstanding, they served the best steaks in Madrid. “They bring the meat in from Buenos Aires,” he said, remembering for sure that Mauricio could never resist a good steak. And it was more than just a good steak: Mauricio calculated that his must weigh around a pound and came accompanied by another pound of fries and half a bottle of red Rioja.He rounded off the feast with crepes in syrup and a large piece of Alicante Turron.
“That was a long-standing hunger, man” smiled Frankie as he lit his cigarette.
“I never eat in planes, it makes me feel sick. And I was already starving before we left.”
“How are things over there?”
Mauricio felt like a cigarette. He had given up five years before and managed to survive the trauma of his first months in Angola without starting again. He remembered that it was he who had introduced Frankie to his first cigarette twenty years ago, and he himself was the one who had given up. He lit his cigarette and found it tasted excellent.
“Worse, I think. Things aren’t going well,” he said, with no desire to offer further explanations.
“And you’ve never thought of getting out?”
“I’m not going to leave the country. In spite of everything, I’m never going to leave. You know, three years ago they turned the guns on me and my time in Angola was part of the punishment. But I couldn’t ever leave.”
“That’s what I thought, but I did leave, and look, here I am. I was able to do it.”
“Don’t joke, Mauricio. You have no idea what I’m feeling right now. I haven’t seen you for ten years and I don’t know how long it’ll be before I see my folks. Your mother died four years ago and I didn’t even know about it. To be able to get out, I had to say I was gay and luckily another little pansy in the office said that yes, I was in the closet but that he’d seen me with ‘the girls’ in Coppelia.”
“Well, that was your choice, right?”
“Yes, that was my choice. What about you? How was Angola? I’ve read that it’s hell there.”
Mauricio thought of telling him that he hadn’t had a bad time there, that it wasn’t as terrible as they made out. But he remembered Alcides sitting behind his desk at the newspaper, finishing the letter to his wife: Don’t tell her I’m getting old or that my blood pressure’s up, Alcides asked him as he sealed the envelope.
“The truth is, I was afraid all the time. But I endured and I’m happy to have survived in spite of the fear.”
Frankie smiled and reached out across the table as though to seize the moment just by touching his friend’s hand, but stopped at the packet of cigarettes.
“Fellini says the character he hates most is Achilles because he was never afraid of anything. I remembered that because I remember the day you told me that Amarcord was the best movie in the world. Now I think it’s Amadeus. Some things have to change in ten years.”
Frankie looked around as though he were afraid someone might be listening to them. Mauricio knew he was about to say something important to him.
“Are you going to tell anyone we met?”
“Even if I hadn’t met you I was going to go and see your parents. Of course I’ll tell them. You haven’t told me if you’ve got a woman?”
“Not any more. It’s not as easy as it is in Cuba. Sometimes I feel damned lonely.”
“Like a Chinaman in Zanja Street . . . I feel lonely too at times, don’t worry. Angola wasn’t easy. Honestly, I was afraid from the moment I got there: Afraid to die before I returned, afraid that Graciela was cheating on me, afraid of having writers’ block forever. Everything has its price and everyone pays as best they can. I don’t have a car or a color TV, and my wife needs bras, and we don’t have kids because there’d be nowhere for them to sleep except in our bed, but all that’s my choice. Still, I often ask myself if all that’s right, if our living like that is inevitable. Honestly, I don’t know. The bitch is that life is a one-off project and if you make a mistake, you’ll never have time to put it right.”
“But you could change the project.”
“No, I couldn’t. Don’t tell me fairy tales. Tell me, are you so sure you didn’t make a mistake?”
Frankie sipped his coffee and lit another cigarette.
“No. I think about it every day. And I know it’s going to be very hard for me ever to be happy again.”
“Oh, happiness? Did you see the two paintings in the Velázquez exhibition called View of the Medici Gardens?”
Frankie thought for a moment before answering.
“The ones which look like impressionists?”
“The very ones. That is the most perfect example of happiness I know. I think if one day I could write something like that or feel as if I were really there myself, I think I could be happy.”
“You’re going mad.”
“Better said, I’m mad already. But I know what I’m saying. You can’t go through your whole life demolishing buildings or thinking everything’s a pile of shit. Once in a while you have to create something like that even if you’re not a genius like Velázquez.”
There was a sudden silence at the table. Frankie and Mauricio looked straight at each other. Mauricio saw a tear gathering in his old friend and companion’s eye and lowered his gaze so as not to see him cry.
“Do you realize we might be seeing each other for the last time?” Frankie asked. Mauricio nodded without looking at him.
“Just thank God we saw each other again at all. There were things I had no idea about and now . . .”
“You were always more sentimental than me, that’s why you could never explain what you had done. But I’m happy to have seen you and to have eaten this wonderful steak. Go on, order more wine,” said Mauricio. Without thinking, he took the last cigarette from the packet and calmly lit it. “Everyone has their own cross to bear, right? That’s the truth of it. Did you notice the ass on Velázquez’s Venus?”
Madrid was getting cold now. The street thermometer showed 7 degrees, and even though the meat and the wine cushioned the cold, Mauricio regretted not having drunk the eau-de-vie Frankie ordered with their last coffee. However, he enjoyed walking through this frozen, semi-deserted city at this hour. During his two years in Luanda, it had been forbidden to walk in the city after six in the evening, and to be able to wander the streets again at dawn gave him back one of his most treasured habits. He imagined himself wandering through Madrid with Maria Fernanda, whom he had met in the Prado, standing bewitched by Velázquez’s happiness and by the calm of the View of the Medici Gardens. He recognized her immediately, and he said, you are Maria Fernanda and I’ve come to give your book back, and they both realized at last that they had been looking for each other for many years. . . .
“I don’t want to say good-bye,” said Frankie, lingering on the sidewalk. “I know it’s going to be irreversible. Why don’t we just walk a bit along here . . . ”
“It’s already irreversible, man,” said Mauricio, and smiled. Then he realised it was a poor joke and regretted it. “Let’s go to the Puerta de Alcalá , go on, stop a cab.”
They drove in silence. Some of the thermometers were showing 5 degrees and Mauricio wanted another cigarette. The taxi left them on the corner where they’d met and Frankie paid.
“Hey, compadre,” said Mauricio, “give me your cigarettes.”
Frankie smiled and passed him the pack of Kaiser. There were only two left.
“Are you going to take up smoking again?”
“I think so. Here, take one.”
They lit up and smiled.
“Mauricio, do you need money for anything? Your wife’s bras? Anything?”
“No, I don’t think the bras will cost more than sixteen dollars, and I don’t even think I’ll have time to buy them.”
“Take this money to buy yourself a bottle of whiskey at the airport.”
“Don’t, Frankie. There are some things, as you said, which are irreversible . . . give me your lighter.”
Frankie hastily found the gold lighter in his pocket and gave it to his friend. Mauricio looked at it and said, “Thanks,” and put it in the same pocket from which he took the book. He looked at the jacket for a moment. Under the title and Emma Micheletti’s name was a detail from las Hilanderas. The drawing seemed to glow in the amber of the street lights. Mauricio thumbed through the book and stopped at page 23, looked at Frankie and read:
On his return to Rome, Velázquez visited the Villa Medici again and was intensely moved by the sweet poetry of the time and place. Everything he paints almost seems to be an echo of a distant moment in time, re-encountered and experienced once again with a deeper, more mature sensibility.. . .
“Maria Fernanda marked this passage. For some reason, God knows why, it had seemed important to her. It’s good to think that we will visit the Medici gardens again one day. Take it, I’m giving it to you,” and he held the book out to Frankie. “From me and from Maria Fernanda,” he added, and threw his cigarette butt onto the street.
“Thanks,” said Frankie, after rereading the passage marked in red ink.
“See you later, man,” said Mauricio, and began to walk away. He felt his throat burning and knew it was not from the cold nor the cigarattes but something much deeper and, yes, irreversible. He circled the Puerta de Alcalá and stood at the spot from which he had admired it earlier. There were the Dutch tulips, fresh and gallant, Charles III’s triumphal chariot and the perfect symmetrical arches leading in and out of Madrid. Looking through the central arch he saw, at the other end of the street, an elegant man dressed in gray with a book in his hand, etched against the cloud of golden light spilling from the streetlights. It was like an unreal vision, appearing from a distant moment in time, to be re-encountered and experienced once again with a deeper, more mature sensibility. At last he began to cry.