Claustrophobic Me by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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For years I’ve been trying to get out from under all the shit that’s been dumped on me. And it hasn’t been easy. If you follow the rules for the first 40 years of your life, believing everything you’re told, after that it’s almost impossible to learn to say “no,” “go to hell,” or “leave me alone.”

But I always manage … well, I almost always manage to get what I want. As long as it isn’t a million dollars, or a Mercedes. Though who knows. If I wanted either of those things, I could find a way to have them. In fact, wanting a thing is all that really matters. When you want something badly enough, you’re already halfway there. It’s like that story about the Zen archer who shoots his arrow without looking at the target, relying on reverse logic.

Well, when I started to forget about important things—everyone else’s important things—and think and act a little more for myself, I moved into a difficult phase. And it was like that for years: I was on the margins of everything. In the middle of a balancing act. Always on the edge of a precipice. I was moving on to the next stage of the adventure we call life. At the age of 40, there’s still time to abandon routines, fruitless and boring worries, and find another way to live. It’s just that hardly anybody dares. It’s safer to stick to your rut until the bitter end. I was getting tougher. I had three choices: I could either toughen up, go crazy, or commit suicide. So it was easy to decide: I had to be tough.

But back then I still didn’t really know how to get all the shit off my back. I just kept moving, strolling around my little island, meeting people, falling in love, and fucking. I fucked a lot: sex helped me escape from myself. I was in my claustrophobic phase. Even in an ever-so-slightly cramped space, I’d immediately feel I was suffocating and I’d take off, howling like a wolf. It all started when I was trapped in the elevator in my building. It’s an old machine, manufactured in the thirties, which means that it has a grate, and it’s open on the sides. It’s American, and ugly, not like those beautiful old European elevators that still run smoothly in the hotels on the boulevard de la Villette and those other old Parisian neighborhoods. No. This elevator is a cruder, simpler piece of junk. Very dark, because the neighbors steal the lightbulbs, with a permanent stink of urine, filth, and the daily vomit of a drunk who lives on the fourth floor. You go up or down slowly, watching the scenery: cement, a slice of stairway, darkness, another slice of stairway, the doors to each floor, someone waiting who finally decides to take the stairs, because the elevator stops whenever and wherever it wants. Often it decides to stop without lining up with any of the exit doors. There in front of you is the rough cement wall of the shaft, and you can hear the people scream, “Get me out of here, goddamnit, I’m stuck!”

Like an old person with hardening of the arteries, the elevator is forgetful, and it moves up and down very slowly, shivering and snorting, as if it no longer has the strength for so much work. And so, at one of those unexpected stops between two floors, I stuck my hand out between the door grate and the wall of the shaft, knelt down, and felt for the edge of the door on the floor below to line the elevator up properly. That was the only way to get the machinery working again to keep moving up. And I did it: I closed the door tightly, the elevator started again, but there was no time to get my arm out of the way. It was jammed between the wall and the grate, in a three-centimeter gap (in order to write this, I’ve just measured it). It was horrific: my arm and hand scraping along, at the elevator’s leisurely pace, all the way to the seventh floor. I was screaming bloody murder, doubled over in pain, and I was sure my arm and my right hand were a mash of bones and blood and shredded skin. But no. No broken bones. It was a burn, my whole arm and hand raw flesh, bleeding, the nerves scraped into a festering puree of dirt and dog shit. So from that moment on: straight into the pit of hell.

Rampant claustrophobia. When I got out of the elevator—or when I was gotten out—I stayed trapped inside myself. And I was trapped for years, trapped inside myself. Collapsing inside.

The claustrophobia was so awful that sometimes at night would wake with a start and jump out of bed. I felt trapped by the night, by the room, by my own self, on the bed. I couldn’t breathe. I’d have to pee and get a drink of water and go out on the roof and watch the dark immensity of the sea, and breathe the salt air. Then, I’d calm down a little.

Oh, it wasn’t really just the broken-down elevator. The elevator was the last straw. But lots of other things happened before that, which I’ll tell little by little. Later. Not now. I’ll tell them the way a person talks to a dead man through a santera, and dedicates flowers and glasses of water and prayers to him, so that he’ll rest in peace and not fuck with those of us left on the other side.

Well then, that’s where I was, in a state of claustrophobia, overwhelmed. Squashed like a bug. And I walked a lot, all over the place, anywhere. I was always running away. I couldn’t be at home. Home was hell. And one day I went to a seminar for film people. If it turned out to be the right kind of thing, I could write something up for the stupid but pretentious weekly magazine I worked for then.

The seminar, in a film school on the outskirts of Havana, lasted four days. From the very first instant, I noticed Rita Cassia: a golden-skinned Brazilian who wanted to make lots of money writing scripts for soap operas and who had beautiful legs and was eager to get over her recent divorce. Basically, she was looking for a happy Latin lover type to cheer her up.

And that’s how it happened. All of her eroticism was concentrated in the looks she gave me. She had almond-shaped, honey-colored eyes, just like in a bolero. And when we looked at each other, it was like kissing with lots of tongue. From that moment on, things moved fast. We ignored a famous Cuban documentary film-maker who made great films but didn’t know how he did it. The guy was so intuitive he had no idea where his own intuition came from. Luckily, he never tried to explain anything serious. He was a nice guy, and he told stories. We ignored him anyway, and went to walk in a little grove of trees, making silly small talk until the electromagnetic field between us was supercharged and we kissed without exchanging a single word of love or desire. Then she told me that during Carnival in Rio she puts on her skimpiest outfits and goes out dancing samba every night, which I guess might have something to do with her eyes and her electromagnetic field.

It was already evening and the little grove wasn’t very dense, and there were people there, because the students were very promiscuous, as you’d expect. Near us, two boys were kissing madly and in an instant they had their zippers down and their dicks out, and they were on the ground, frantic, sucking each other in a sixty-nine. That made me even hotter, and we left. We went to the small apartment Rita Cassia was renting, and I made her suck me before I was even out of my clothes. On the table she had a bottle of seven-year-old rum. It had been a long time since I saw those sweet bottles of good rum. I made myself a big drink, with ice, and then another, and I was amazed: I was able to give her dick for more than an hour, everywhere, without coming. She undulated her hips and pelvis, getting her kicks, and sprinkling me with rum. She’d take a mouthful and spray it over me and then she’d run her tongue along my skin to collect it. Sometimes rum makes me last longer: my prick stays stiff, but I don’t come. When I finally focused myself on coming—I was getting very tired—I managed to accumulate enough will power to pull my dick out in time to shoot all my come on her belly. And there was lots of it. It had been two or three weeks since I had last fucked, and I had lots of jism. And Rita Cassia was carried away and she kept repeating, “Lovely, lovely, ahhh, lovely.”

From then on it was one long orgy, because after the seminar came the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, and Havana—as far as we were concerned—was paradise: lots of movies, lots of fucking, lots of rum and good food. Cuba was just then at the beginning of the worst famine in its history. I think it was ‘91 . Nobody had any idea of all the hunger and crises still to come. I certainly didn’t. All I cared about was my raging claustrophobia and the urge I had to eat. That same year, in just a few months, I had lost 40 pounds, the cause, it would seem, being lack of food.

We also amused ourselves by eluding Maria Alexandra, a successful writer of Brazilian soap opera scripts. That fine lady was a big dyke, and she besieged Rita Cassia with a splendid display of seduction tactics: morning, noon, and night she would show up at Rita’s room with flowers, she invited her to all the cocktail parties and banquets, and she promised her incessantly that she would help her write a good script—to sell to O’Mundo, no less. Another of her gentlemanly tricks was to play cold war with me, alternately striking one of two poses: either she ignored me majestically, or she treated me with a fatherly yet distant condescension. Maria Alexandra loved Rita Cassia so passionately that she demolished every obstacle in her path, any way she could. She was sure I couldn’t bestow on Rita Cassia even the tiniest iota of the enormous pleasure, sexual and sensual, that she was capable of giving as soon as she got her hands on her. Rita Cassia, in her feminine way, stayed loyal to me, but she would turn kittenish, charming, and witty whenever the dyke with the keys to the golden doors of O’Mundo appeared.

And that’s how the time passed. We had fun. I felt happy and ignored the fact that I was a pathetic sponger. A proud and romantic beggar. Well, as I’ve said, it was the beginning of the crisis and our hunger was getting sharper, but a person always sees the dirt in the other man’s eye and says, “Everybody’s starving and getting thinner every day.” It’s hard to tell it like it is, “We’re all starving, and we’re all getting thinner every day.” Rita Cassia paid for everything, because I didn’t have even a dollar in my pocket, and I calmly accepted that she would always pay. The only other option was for me to stay home, bored, eating rice and beans and missing out on all the fun. That’s how it was, until one day it was over.

I was on the bed, with the last shot of seven-year rum in my hand. Rita Cassia was getting dressed, so we could go walking along the Malecón and say our good-byes by the sea, late at night, as two good lovers in Havana should. It had to be a cinematic ending, under the stars, maybe even under the moon. She had already packed her suitcase. She would be leaving for the airport at three in the morning. Then I noticed that she had left some valuable objects scattered around the room: rubber thongs, worn but still in fine shape, half a bottle of shampoo, some jars of jam, notepads, slivers of soap, a disposable razor.

“Are you leaving all this here?”

“Sure. None of it’s any good.”

“Oh, yes it is. Those rubber thongs, the shampoo, the soap. Everything’s worth something here, even if you think it’s junk.”

“Fine then, let’s put it all in a bag and you can take it with you.”

A little while later, we were strolling along the Malecón, saying our good-byes. We’d never see each other again. She had already told me that it pained her to witness so much poverty and so much political posturing to disguise it. She never wanted to come back. We sat for a long time, listening to the sea. She could smell it, I couldn’t. Maybe my nose was too used to it. I like to listen to the sea from the Malecón, late, in the silence of the night. We kissed and said our good-byes. I went walking off toward home, carrying the bag. Slowly. I felt good. And I kept on slowly, without looking back.

—From Dirty Havana Trilogy,2001

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

Natasha Wimmer is the literary editor of The American Scholar and a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly. Her translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letter’s to a Young Novelist is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 

—Pedro Juan Gutiérrez began his working life at the age of eleven, as an ice-cream vendor and newsboy. The author of several published works of poetry, he lives in Havana, where he is employed as a magazine journalist. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish his novel, Dirty Havana Trilogy, in January of 2001.

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BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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