Rogelio arrived in Paris at dawn. He was in a car accompanied by three girls; two were in charge of the wheel. Quite a feat for Sabina and Jenny, they'd never driven so much. They drove a 1990 Volkswagen with great dexterity, and on occasion they went over 150 kilometers per hour.
From Berlin they never stopped harboring a doubt that, upon crossing the border between Germany and France, they wouldn't be detained even though Rogelio was carrying a visa that had expired in Germany. If it hadn't been for a similar suspicion, a less long-drawn-out route would have been chosen; cutting across Belgium: the dilemma of two checkpoints.
Rogelio believed he'd come out unscathed from the affair; the girls radiated very good energy even though they believed that they had to come up with an alibi as soon as possible. At no less than a few miles from the border in Saarbrüken came the first proposal: to hide Rogelio in the trunk of the car. He couldn't stop himself from feeling out of place, an anachronistic object on Troy's horse. Every so often, another idea popped up, but none was viable. Astrid, the third girl, suggested parking. She traveled with Rogelio in the back seat; and if indeed she knew how to drive, she alleged that she didn't have any talent when it came to highway driving.
They pulled over when it was getting dark at a gas station. At the cafeteria while they were eating pizza, an idea occurred to Sabina: “I have it,” she said and signaled to two men at the counter. “Doesn't he look gay to you?” They all nodded their heads “yes” in agreement. “Well, we ought to dress Rogelio up in women's clothes.” Jenny took off her earrings and offered them to him. “Take them!” she said, “I think they're just your size.” “Not the earrings alone,” he said. “A bit of rouge and lipstick wouldn't be bad for the first official that pokes his border snout into the window.” Astrid remembered having witnessed similar scenes in a dozen movies, most of which were somewhat tragic. The best would be to take Rogelio's word, look for clothes and cosmetics in the car, and be done with it.
In the women's bathroom, they tried various combinations out on Rogelio until they found the most appropriate one. They were all happy with the result. When Rogelio looked at himself in the mirror, he said:
“It's ridiculous, simply ridiculous.”
“But you're precious,” Jenny said enthusiastically.
“Precious?” exclaimed Rogelio, somewhat embarrassed.
“Pardon me, you're precious,” Jenny recapitulated, lowering the tone of her voice.
“With us you don't have to be inhibited,” said Sabina. “She's right; you look great.”
“You ought to be grateful,” Astrid insinuated.
“Neither one nor the other,” Rogelio said, looking at himself once again in the mirror. “I'm not going to be able to walk a step in this scarecrow getup.”
“On the contrary,” said Astrid, “I think that you'll have more than enough suitors.”
“We're just talking about crossing the border,” Jenny cautioned.
“Well, okay. You've done a good job. The thing is that I'm not accustomed to changing personalities so radically,” Rogelio said.
“Before you regret it, this at least deserves a photo. I'm going to look for the camera,” Jenny announced and in an instant, she came out of the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Astrid and Sabina encouraged Rogelio to go outside, as a way of breaking the ice.
When Jenny returned, they asked a woman to take a photograph of them at the bathroom door, to frame them with the Dames sign. Since it was a digital camera, they could tell in the screen how it came out. They looked like three simple, but pretty, girls, beside a top model. Two men passed by and even whistled.
When they arrived at the border, they were surprised that people made the control area into a kind of recreation center, camping grounds, or some kind of transportation station. Without guards anywhere, the German and French sentry posts were covered in graffiti in diverse languages, and their doors and windows were totally destroyed. Just in case, Rogelio continued wearing his costume.
Instructions for Emigrants to Switzerland:
There's a point on the map of this (“inaccessible”) country to take into account. In contrast to other zones of Switzerland that border Italy, France, or Austria, the only difficulty lies in the river. Although, for those who don't know how to swim, there's a bridge-one of those medieval kinds. But to arrive, one should take a route across Germany, to the southwest, in the Schwarzwald: the Black Forest.
Okay, there's nothing like crossing the little bridge of “miracles” on a bicycle. And if it's possible, dress up like an Olympic cyclist, especially with a T-shirt from the Swiss team. It turns out that on both sides of the bridge, you find two one-horse towns that practically shake hands. One's in Germany and the other, of course, in Switzerland. But at each point of the element that joins them—¡Cuidado! Caution! Achtung!-there's the reality of two border cabins on active service. On the other hand, a detail, the joke, the very question and the advantage of all of this, rests on the fact that each village carries the same name: Rheinfelden. Meanwhile, whether you look at it from this or that perspective, to go toward this or that side, according to the nationality and the whim of the one that desires it. And watch out: no one detains them nor do they have the arduous task of presenting some passport.
It's like this: if you choose to emigrate using this bridge over the Rin Tin Tin river, go ahead. Remember that ahead there is a before and an after . . . an after, well . . . Good luck, Comrades
The French highway, unlike the German one, had a bunch of automatic tollbooths. They hadn't left one when before their eyes appeared another. Bad moods took over. Reproaches inundated the car. Sabina, who was behind the steering wheel, was the most irritable, and especially so when she was braking. “Shit,” she shouted, “one would have been enough.” Surprisingly, no other tollbooth appeared. But a patrol did stop them. “That's all we needed,” exclaimed Sabina. “This seems more and more like a Hollywood movie.” And without shutting down the motor, she parked the car a few meters from the patrol. Nevertheless, the police took their time getting out.
“Rogelio, whatever happens, your name is Anna Reinffeinstein,” Astrid said.
“Please, could you repeat my last name?” begged Rogelio.
“My pleasure: R-e-i-n-f-f-e-i-n-s-t-e-i-n,” Astrid spelled it out. “Besides, you're mute and you left your documents in Berlin.”
“If I'm mute, I can't talk,” said Rogelio.
“Of course, you sign it,” Astrid said. “One of us will translate for you.”
“Yes,” Jenny said, “but if it gets even worse and the police decide to explore our secrets, what then?”
“Well then-seek asylum,” said Sabina.
“No, no asylum,” said Rogelio. “The theme of immigration totally fucks up the French. They'll deport me. And they'll accuse you of trafficking emigrants.”
“Okay, Rogelio, if they discover you, you're a transvestite and that's that,” said Astrid.
“But remember to stay mute,” Jenny advised him.
“Don't worry. I don't know French.”
“And I can't get past Comment ça va?” said Sabina.
“And me-Paris, je t'aime,” said Jenny.
“And me, there's a verse that I love,” said Astrid. “You want to hear it?”
“I think that it can wait for another time, the police are already coming this way,” Sabina said, catching sight of them in the rearview mirror.
When the guards were just a few steps away, Sabina announced, “Hold tight and put your heads down.” Without comment, each one followed the command. Now we're going to do it like in the movies, Sabina thought. Then, she slammed the accelerator.
For some time, the patrol was in back of the Volkswagen, more than trying to reach it, trying to locate it; Sabina was speeding like crazy and with the lights out. And despite the fact that the lights on the patrol could be seen further and further away, everyone urged Sabina to go over to the opposite side of the highway, but instead, she slowed down and went over to the forest access. There they remained until the patrol car was far passed. When everything got back to normal, Sabina cautiously returned to the highway, turned on the lights, and continued the trip. Astrid stayed asleep. Jenny was almost going crazy, delighting in some chocolate. And Rogelio just stared at the little white lines of asphalt. For the first time, they remained in silence. A little bit later, Jenny turned. Without saying anything, she fixed her gaze on Rogelio's face. He hardly expected her to say anything.
“Is it true that you all are la candela in bed?” Jenny asked.
“La candela?” Rogelio shouted. “It's been a while since I've heard that expression.”
“Yes, la candela…“
“It's been a while since I've heard that expression, and even longer since I've heard a German using it.”
“You know…I toured Havana.”
“Then you've got your answer already.”
“I don't like to be a guinea pig.”
“Well, of hustlers.”
“You, for example.”
“You don't seem Cuban either.”
“'Cause I'm a redhead?”
“It doesn't have anything to do with your race, more with your way of being.”
“In your country, people are very open and expressive. And with foreigners even more. And you're different.”
“Probably because I'm surrounded by foreigners. One catches on. It's like a failed subject.”
“I don't think so. You're unusual here too.”
“Jenny, please, this is sounding like a session at the shrink.”
“Pardon me, that was not my intention. I was just going from la candela in bed to talk to you about my impressions, that I never was lucky enough to . . . Forget about it, if you want to, we can change the subject.”
“Yes, perhaps that would be better.”
“Are you tired?” Jenny asked.
“A little, but now that I'm here, I would not want to miss any of the signs that will get us to Paris,” Rogelio responded, with a certain serenity.
“You know, there's a French movie in which a man and a woman, trying to avoid the clumsiness of their flirtation, focused entirely on the traffic signals: Paris 70, 50, 10 km,” said Jenny. And without waiting for his comment, she returned to her previous position.
Sabina consulted with them about the music, since Astrid wouldn't even hear it because she was in a deep sleep. Jenny got up and stuck her lips to Sabina's ears. The two of them decided to put on a tape full of guarachas. And beginning with a few grimaces that conveyed that they were in some fast and absurd complicity, they started cracking up. From the tape player came the first lines of the song: En la luna se pue etá un me quizá, do me también, pero sin comé no se pue etá. Rogelio knew the lyrics, and in addition to smiling, he couldn't stop himself from being moved. Jenny, as if she had read his mind, extracted him from his memories: “How do you imagine Paris?” she said, offering him a piece of chocolate. He thanked her, but he took his time getting it to his mouth and responding to her. Among the three, she was the only one who'd been to Paris, but only as a child. “Think about it,” said Rogelio, “they've bombarded us with so many images of this city and from different angles that they've hardly left any space for the imagination.”
For one instant there was silence.
“Don't worry,” Rogelio tried to remark. “If we realize that fact, perhaps, an infinite number of possibilities remain to the imagination.”
“I don't understand. What type of possibilities are you referring to?”
Rogelio bit the chocolate and sketched out a response:
“Something like a making of it.”
“Of your imagination or Paris?”
Rogelio was going to answer with both, but in the last instant, changed his mind and said, “Of Lemarque 18.”
“And what's that?”
“The destination of the actors in the movie that you were commenting on a little while ago.”
“You're cheating,” Jenny said, “you know the movie!”
Sabina interrupted, proposing a small break so that Jenny could take the wheel. And Rogelio didn't have any desire to explain that, in any case, it wasn't him, but the story that had created this trap.
Rogelio's Voice in Off:
It was totally lucky to have met up with these girls; they were so warm. During one's tenure at the auto-stop, one can come upon all sorts of setbacks as well as a mosaic of characters that don't have anything to do with you. But in general, undiplomatically, they implant in you whatever skin that at that moment they're carrying. However, the opposite can also occur. There are cases that are practically worthy of assuming, but others . . . What can one do but improvise?
In the outskirts of Berlin, I'd taken off the laces of my boots so that I could hang the consonant “K” around my neck. It was a “K” painted in yellow over a piece of cardboard; a detailed package from a friend who frequents quite often, out of necessity and hobby, the auto-stop. According to him, this meant that they would bring me to the city of Kassel or to Karlsruhe. He advised me to paint on the other side of the box another consonant. Of course, it's like a good luck sign, I chose “H,” the consonant of my birthplace; anyway, there were two cities in front of us that began with this letter: Hanover and Heidelberg. In the instant in which the girls appeared I was already at the point of going with the “H,” or rather, alternating between both letters. That the girls' destination was Paris is already known, and although I had the goal of trying out my luck, perhaps as a dishwasher in the Parisian cafés, for me, in reality, it was all the same. What I did see clearly was that the first satellite that landed and said to Havana, I'd go. Well then, all roads lead to Havana, after all, don't they?
Astrid woke up announcing that she needed a swig of rum, that we should take out the bottle from the glove compartment if we could, that she was freezing. Sabina did her this favor. When Astrid finished this drink that she'd been dying for, without preambles, everyone imitated her. In reality, when Jenny and Sabina opened their respective doors, cold streams of air came in. Jenny looked at her watch and noticed that they'd been on the road for nineteen hours. Sabina said that she was going to try to sleep and that she'd prefer no music, because perhaps an abrupt change in the sound environment would wake her up. Rogelio drank another glass of rum and rested on Astrid's lap. Now she was all curled up and half covered in a bedspread; and with a little gesture, she offered him a part, which he felt was really kind. Rogelio didn't want to sleep, but it was impossible to avoid being tired with the buzzing of the motor that was in such good shape.
My friends (well, in this instant, they weren't yet my friends) braked like in the movies just a little bit ahead, some meters from the subject identified with the letter “K.” The back door of the automobile opened, and from the remaining windows, they stuck out their arms to signal. “Get in, what are you waiting for!” Then, throwing caution to the wind, I simply went running. No way were they passing through one of the cities with a “K,” but thanks to “K,” or maybe just the look of it-it was super funny for them to see me with this sign on my neck-why not go for it? The company of a man who carries a “K” on the road isn't so bad. In contrast to Sabina, Jenny drove more slowly. Nevertheless, she never moved from the fast lane on the highway. Rogelio thought about her when they passed one side of Frankfurt, and no one, well perhaps Jenny, noticed the city. He got worried the same way that a child does and said “Uhf! What is that?” He brought his finger to his forehead, almost making an eight, to add: “It's crazy.” This happened yesterday, when it was getting dark. “It's strange,” he thought. How is it possible a Yesterday, a Today, on the highway? Perhaps there will be a tomorrow? How is a New York in Germany possible? “Like a caricature!” Jenny had said as if it were a condemnation. Probably like this photo that I just took of a soldier, under a downpour, kissing another soldier right at the intersection of 41st and 42nd in Havana; they stopped traffic. It is seldom that you see something so provocative and dear; Jenny supposed they'd arrive at dawn in Paris, she sensed that she was nearing an almost poetic act and increased the speed. Maybe because she didn't want to wake Sabina so that she could take over the wheel. I, in contrast, ought to keep pedaling, insist to Jenny that with a bicycle and a camera, her digital camera, you can encounter another sense to a city, a city in off, like Havana. Now I see it clearly, they don't understand that I am a Cuban from Cuba and not from Florida. At least it wasn't necessary to keep dragging along the “K.” They spoke a superb Spanish. Additionally, I know that I'm close, but still I haven't come upon the house where they lived. I walk three times around this neighborhood and nothing. I want to rent a room in a house, even if it's for a day. But I should not pass for a Cuban, even a Cuban from Florida, if I want to rent an apartment. It would be suspicious and they won't rent to me. It would be better to hide the bike in some place and introduce myself as a German: Guten Tag! Ich bin Otto aus Berlin. Then I show them the photo of the gas station. At first, they won't recognize them, and especially me with my super disguise of top model. But I will change languages, a mix of English and Spanish, something like Spanglish: “Ellas ser my friend Jenny Sabina and Astrid. Ellas estar one day en your home. My friends hablar for me que yo poder rent one room aquí porque is okay y es lindo.” Of course, it's as clear as water. I hope it works. The problem is to come upon the house once and for all. The address that they gave me stayed in the Volkswagen, but they'd told me that it is very easy to find, a house on the corner, bone color, where at each side of the front door, there are two doorways covered with a half wild, half Edenic garden. Nevertheless, the house could be on this side of the river or that side. In all of Havana, Kolhy is one of the most outlandish neighborhoods. The improbable design of its streets, the grandeur of its buildings and the super dense vegetation, make it an enchanting place, with an almost magical and incomparable silence.
Besides, they were coming out of something that they didn't want to confess to me. They only spoke to me about the fact that they changed the car's license plate, and that one of them had to leave the country. All very eloquent and neat. “So, what do you think of me, my friend?” they concluded in a chorus. Kaput, I said to them. But only a few minutes remained to enter the city, when the car, in a moment, was swallowed up by a sudden cloud that came out to meet them. Jenny couldn't do anything with the brakes. Me neither, when it rains, these Chinese bicycles lose their brakes easily, even more if you are going downhill, like this one that's going downhill toward a mountain of stopped cars at a red light. I don't think that I'm going to make it to the Almendares Bridge in time for the change of lights. What a coincidence-a little bit before or perhaps at the same time that the car skidded, zigzagged all over the asphalt, a Jeep rear-ended it. The Volkswagen turned and was hit again by one car, then another, until hitting the fences that announced, “Welcome to the City of Light.”
First published in Spanish as “Making Off Paris” in CubaSí.cu. Copyright © by Ernesto René Rodriguez. Translation copyright © 2006 by Jacqueline Loss. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.