Whenever he comes to Paris, he calls immediately.
“My friend,'' his voice explodes, “Why don't you come have lunch with me?”
Now he's the owner of a neat, tranquil apartment right in the heart of Montparnasse. Inside, everything's dressed in light colors and seems to be organized with order and taste: English leather chairs, Wifredo Lam's engravings, a magnificent stereo, and always, always, a crystal vase in the library, with recently cut yellow roses.
“They bring luck, my friend.”
As with good wines and elm trees, the years have been good to Gabo. Gray hairs bloom on his head and in his mustache, confirming a maturity that is now in his novels and in his character. Now his gaze is peaceful and doesn't appear to be waiting for destiny to deal him a bad card, or to reflect the uncertainties that nipped at his heels in the past. His thorax fills out the informal but expensive clothes he now wears.
Everything about him now seems beyond chance, written in immutable slabs of stone.
Things have also changed in the house of his zodiac sign. Earth signs dominate, not water. Taurus, the realist, dominates Pisces, the refined, uncertain, evasive sign of his ghosts and those sudden premonitions that left him trembling in other eras.
A bon vivant Taurus, interested in things that he let pass by before.
Tangible things, life's textures and essences previously sacrificed to the task of writing.
Now he seems to appreciate music, good paintings, beautiful women, good hotels, silk shirts, wines, snails in garlic, caviar (yes, caviar) more than before—and all the infinite and sinful variety of cheeses.
His new relationships are harvested in the garden of celebrities: film directors, artists, or simply rich men who offer themselves the luxury of a famous friend the same way they would pay for an astrakhan coat.
But he doesn't lose sight of his old friends, old road buddies who shared the wines of poverty with him. He always sets aside time to see them before anybody else.
Now he picks up the checks.
“Champagne?” he asks, and he doesn't do it to be showy. He simply has a devilish weakness for Clicquot.
(No, not for Clicquot, he would shoot back—for Dom Perignon.)
“I'm from Tunja,” I excuse myself, remembering the remote city of icy winds where I was born. “Champagne gives headaches to people from Tunja.”
If I wanted to find him again, to return with him to the old times, I would have to forget about the Clicquot, the autographs solicited in the middle of the street, the phone calls to Boston or Mexico, the glare of the Nobel Prize, in order to find the cold, ashy light of a typical winter's day in Paris, 1956.
There we are now. The clock in the Sorbonne lets loose bells that vibrate in the glacial street, while I cross from my modest student hotel to his quarters on the other side of the street, on rue Cujas. It's one in the afternoon.
I climb up the stairs to the seventh floor. With the curtains still closed, his room stinks from all the cigarettes he smoked the night before, while writing.
On top of the table, a red portable typewriter I bought in Bolivar Plaza, in Caracas, a year ago. I had sold it to him for $40.
Papers, pages full of words, an ashtray full of butts. The light of a lamp shines on the night table. Lying in bed, in flannel, Gabo tries to speak on the phone with the owner of the hotel.
“Una diuche,” he repeats. “Una diuche, madame.”
She doesn't seem to understand him.
“You're asking her for a Mussolini. That's the only thing they know by that name.”
He breaks out in laughter.
I look at the book he has on the table, The Gold of Naples.
“Marotta's stories are a bitch,” Gabo says.
“Did you finish the chapter?”
“Yes, with the death of the musician. He's in the yard of his house playing the clarinet, when Gerardo Montiel shows up, who's just read the lampoon stuck on the wall of his house. He kills the musician with his double-barreled shotgun, the kind they use to kill tigers.”
The novel with the lampoons. The same one that years later would be called In Evil Hour. He began writing it a few nights ago, but he's been talking to me about it for two months.
I move closer to the wall, in order to look at the picture of his girlfriend that he's stuck up there with a tack: a girl with long, black hair and calm, Asian eyes.
“The sacred cow,'' he says.
The girlfriend lives in Barranquilla, where her father has a pharmacy.
“Gabo, take your `Mussolini' and let's have lunch.”
“You never know how it's gonna be in winter,'' he says, getting out of bed.
“As soon as you get up, it's already getting dark.”
“When did you write until?”
“I tell you, I don't know. When I finished the chapter, I heard the garbage trucks in the street.”
“Shit, you're transparent! You've lost at least a couple of pounds!”
He's just come back from the floor where you can take a shower, dressed in old pants and a wool pullover. The shower seems to have left him pale and a little shaky. He throws on his camel-colored coat, a Montgomery, with leather buttonholes.
You could cut the cold in the streets with a knife.
“Are we going to the Acropole or the Capulade?”
“To the Acropole. In the Capulade we'd have to line up behind three hundred citizens from Senegal or the Ivory Coast. They're eager. And patient.”
“And the food is plastic, like airplane food.”
“How far we've fallen, Gabo. In this cold whatever you have on might as well be made of paper.”
“You know, that's the only serious problem I have with the novel. I can't make it hot enough.”
“In The Leaf Storm, the heat buzzes on every page.”
“Of course—I wrote it in Barranquilla. At night, listening to the newspaper's printing press.”
“Look, there goes Nicolas. He's blue from the cold. Do you know him?”
“The poet, Guillen. Of course, man.”
“He lives in the same hotel as me. If you want, after lunch we can visit him. Let's see what he has to say about Cuba.”
There we go, down boulevard Saint-Michel, toward the Greek restaurant on the rue de l'Ecole de Medicine. One morning in January, many, many years ago.
Those days. The drawn-out, pathetic cry of the artichoke vendor rising in the gray, glacial air from the street where the Sorbonne's located.
The vallenatos of Escalona, the songs of Brassens, the unpunished laziness of the afternoons, and always, always, in those days, the smell of rust and cauliflower, the smell of Paris, the Paris of the poor, following us the length of the rickety stairways that climb to garrets full of smoke; cafés at dawn with mirrors and neon, and the last beer, drunk at closing hour, with sleepy waitresses piling one chair on top of another, while we continue talking about subjects as diverse as Kafka, Barranquilla, Virginia Woolf, or Rojas Pinilla.
In the summertime, life's a party. We return to our rue Cujas with the first light of dawn opening over the rooftops, blue, amid the cooing of doves and a warm aroma of melons and chestnut flowers. You can already feel how hot it will be that day.
We return to our respective hotels, perhaps frustrated because the girl that one or the other has had by his side, made more beautiful by the night's smoke and wine, with fine heels and small, firm breasts hinted at underneath her blouse, the girl who has spoken to us about her life, her depression, her uncles from Dordona, has evaporated—Cinderella of the dawn—with a cutting “Il faut que je rentre chez moi.“
Entire afternoons in the terrace of some café and Le Monde, which always brought us bad news from Latin America. The coffee we drank in the room of the poet, Guillen.
How are things in Cuba?”
“Nothing new,'' says the poet, discouraged, drinking his cup of black coffee. And, suddenly: “Well, there's a small ray of hope. A young guy has appeared on the scene—a lawyer, kind of nuts, named Castro.”