But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
. . . Castro’s coming down from La Sierra Maestra wasn’t the first time Batista fled the island, señores, no. The daughter of doña Liliana’s father’s business partner had always been known as a notorious flirt; the kind of girl you wouldn’t leave with your aged abuelo if you had one for five minutes, doña Liliana says, for fear that the cuff links that had been in your family since the conquistadores brought the gold back to Spain would have been melted down into settings for diamond studs by the time that you got back. Though every one of doña Liliana’s friends trusted her for translations; Time Magazine to Hollywood Confidential, the latest fashion do’s and don’ts needed words to make sense of the garish pictures that seemed to stare back with vacant drooling maws.
Helen or Ellen was her name, they all seem to remember; Amá recalls that the best bedrooms in doña Liliana’s father’s house were opened, and the linen from Egypt that neither doña Liliana nor her father used was aired. Amá says the cook was given a list of things to shop for and prepare that would be pleasing to doña Liliana’s father’s American guests; they needed to be comfortable, the house needed to be filled with flowers, and sounds, smells and flavors that they would find familiar and pleasing, so they would want to come back, which is how Amá first came to taste caviar, and although she says that she enjoyed it, she also says waiting so long for certain things in life can etch away pleasure, make it nearly tasteless, the same way that debt can turn finding money on the sidewalk into just another day.
Amá says doña Liliana’s father would say that he wanted the whole house to be just like it was when Liliana’s mother was still alive. But because doña Liliana was a mere six days old when her mother—dressed in a peignoir of lavender-colored French lace that had been embroidered in gold thread—reportedly shot upright from the shock of being awakened by the cries of the infant in the bassinet next to her before waving a hand in front of her face and uttering the word suficiente before she fell back into her pillows and died, not even the cook who was the daughter of doña Liliana’s childhood nurse could quite remember what it was like when doña Liliana’s mother demanded that there be freshly cut flowers on nearly every surface in the house, and disallowed slouching, and girls who smoked, limp aprons, and messy hair.
Each year since doña Liliana’s birth, her father would add a new thing, and then a few new things about her mother. A mania of snakes, a fondness for orange rinds and yellow satin ribbon would come up as he took his daughter out for a drive when they were vacationing near Santiago, on a walk through the park, or as he kissed her goodnight. Each new maid was instructed in the way that doña Liliana’s mother inspected underneath carpets and under the jardinières in the conservatory before a party; they all knew that she boiled a cup of water and steeped green tea, ginger, and a bay leaf into the limonada before it was iced; and eventually they all knew the value of the triple-rope set of pearls with the diamond clasp she was wearing in the photograph on top of the piano that was to be dusted and returned to precisely the same spot—because you weren’t really dusting unless you picked things up, were you—and they all knew, even if they only listened to the beginning and the end of the story, that they came into doña Liliana’s mother’s family by way of the sea; and they were to be Liliana’s on the eve of her 16th birthday as her mother’s mother had given them to her, mimicking the ritual of generations of women before. Until, after a while, anything that anyone knew about doña Liliana’s mother came from doña Liliana’s father’s head.
She knew everything there was to know about social graces—the opera, the ballet, art museums—which was a very fine thing to have happen to a man who had spent his life on farms and fincas, in the military and then in offices, he told her in of all things a French restaurant in Rome the summer of her 15th birthday when he finally gave doña Liliana her mother’s pearls.
He couldn’t wait, she says he said, couldn’t wait.
She says that he let her drink as much champagne as she wanted that night, and when she couldn’t decide when the pastry cart was brought around, he ordered it stopped at the table to the horror of the Romans, who had no idea that he was dining with his daughter and who caught glimpses of the two, as if in some fairy tale, frolicking with spoons and allowing drips to fall where they may: on their chins, the tablecloth, the floor, doña Liliana says that she ruined the dress that they had bought just that morning with pastry cream, the two of them were laughing so much.
That night in a carriage ride, doña Liliana learned that her mother became horribly allergic to strawberries during her confinement; head to toe she was covered with hives the entire nine months, her father told her, because it was a luxury that she could not do without; it was what she craved, and she laughed at the ruddy color her skin took on, and she would have him watch as they spread out over her stretched belly. And he spared no expense having strawberries flown in from anywhere he could get them. She wept when she heard Puccini and read the end of Anna Karenina, and on more than one occasion when they were first married he had walked in on her in her dressing room while she was seated at her vanity, listening to Puccini, a copy of Tolstoy’s book at her feet, watching herself weep. She had no shame in my seeing it, he told her, she was a joyous woman who took all of life in her arms and tried to swallow it whole; no, very little about life made her uncomfortable or squeamish, your mother, she looked it all in the eye.
She would ride out on the fincas and set up camp with me and the other men, walk out into the factories in all that heat the same as she could spend an entire afternoon shopping on the Champs Elysées.
When they arrived back at the hotel, doña Liliana says that her father kissed her good night on her forehead before retiring to his room in their suite.
But Liliana couldn’t sleep.
The entirety of Rome was spread out in front of her and there were so many stars that the possibility of a lifetime of wishes seemed hers for the making. She ran a finger over each of the pearls in each of the strands, and circled the diamond clasp over and over: her mother’s throat was long and pale and when she wore her hair piled on top of her head, the most delicate V you have ever seen in your entire life formed at the top of her neck; a woman just as comfortable at the fights or a baseball game as she was at high tea with the wives of his business partners, he had told her, a most extraordinary woman she was.
Doña Liliana was unable to sleep the entire night; even though her body became tortured by little aches and twitches that flapped haphazardly like moths deep in her muscles, her mind ran ahead of the silver speedboat her mother was driving in the picture that her father kept at his bedside table at home; her mother’s hair was tied back with a scarf, she was wearing white cat-eye sunglasses and the perfectly drawn gash of red lipstick parted widely to reveal very well aligned rows of white white teeth as she turned to look at the camera; doña Liliana says were it not for the wild sprays that trail in her wake, she would have thought that her mother had been posing for a magazine cover.
All of Rome was lighting up in front of her as it officially became the next day, but doña Liliana says she still couldn’t sleep, and she remembers remembering were she at home she might drink warm milk or lie on her back jiggling her foot until the muscles of her calf burned up its tight bundle of energy that caught another farther up her leg which and so on until the house was set creaking with footsteps and echo, until her eyelids were so heavy that she couldn’t lift them in response to the flashes of light she could sense around her.
Sleep would push her down as she tried to lift her head and follow the rustle of skirts as they passed back and forth in front of her bed, the click of a heel against the highly polished floors; tried to hear what was planned on menus, or learn how to plan an event, whom to seat next to whom, how tables should be placed so that no one was too close to the music or too far away from the host; what to do with the investments and the savings left to her; whom she should marry. Warm nights in the middle of summer with the windows of her bedroom opened onto the garden, she could feel the mosquitero brush against her skin with any movement of the wet air, but try as she might she could do little to push herself from under the weight of sleep to search the room for the overwhelming smell of gardenia that carried her off and left her in the next morning.
But it was there in Rome the night of her fifteenth birthday. She had secured her mother’s pearls underneath her mattress, dressed for bed, cleaned her teeth, and prayed to La Virgen del Cobre that she would not grow heavy hips with pendulous breasts like the women they had seen in Sicily and that her hair would not get any darker when over her shoulders, curling like billows of smoke, she says, she began to smell the gardenias that grew in the garden back home. Gardenias and something like caramelizing sugar or burnt cinnamon.
She placed the gold crucifix she still wears around her neck into her mouth as she eased her door open and stepped into the sitting room.
It was everywhere, she says, the carpets and the divan, the flocking on the wallpaper like a wrist corsage and a ruined flan. Following it, she kept close to the wall, nearly falling out each of the windows as she pushed herself out into the air nose first.
The closer that she got to the source of the odor, the less she could shake the image of her mother on horseback crossing La Sierra Maestra. Forward in the saddle, bearing down hard the same way any man would, she rode hard, your mother, her father would say, like she and the horse were one pounding through the earth, ay it was something to see, I tell you. Hairs—that pale blond hair doña Liliana had inherited, in the painting above her father’s desk—that had come loose clinging to her mother’s temples, her heart visibly in her throat pounding through her arms and hands in their clutch of withers and reins, through to her legs and into the horse’s belly and its hooves as it pounds the ground; Imponente, her father would say, siempre imponente.
As she turned the handle to her fathers room, her eyes began to water and there was a searing at the back of her throat. And he was naked on the bed, she’ll tell you, it took some time to get used to the light—that weird, refractory, early-morning light, odd with both short and long shadows at the time night begins to break into pieces—and the room swerved in front of her through an outpouring of tears that no longer came from anything around her or inside of her, they just came as if they’d never stop, but she could see well enough to be certain he was naked. She had never imagined it before, or that his body might bear some relation to anything that they had seen riding the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the boys she and her girlfriends would hide to watch dive off of the pier.
Round and hairy, oddly pale in places, slack where once he clearly had been firm, muscular, offering his arm out of a car, onto many dance floors, crossing avenue and boulevard; she was so beautiful, he had always told her, more beautiful than any woman you could imagine, more beautiful the more time you spent with her. He was lying on his back with his mouth open. And she says that at the moment that she had discerned where it was that the overwhelming smell of home was coming from—gardenias and burnt sugar; mango y guayaba; salt drying on the back of her hand as she sunned herself after a swim—it threatened to crush her, nearly causing her to swallow her own tongue, when the breeze in the room shifted, giving her her wind back and suddenly she was unable to tell which one of them, she or her father, had brought it with them.
Sleep came hard and fast. She was scarcely able to make her way back to her room; her legs were so raw and useless underneath her.
She woke in time for the last serving of lunch. Her father was finishing his cigar with newspapers from home, from Argentina, the United States, Guatemala, and London folded neatly in quartered packets on the tablecloth in front of him by the time she reached the dining room. In a light pink silk shirt fitted for him on Savile Row, handmade Italian tie, pressed linen suit, hair trimmed and slicked back with oil he looked nothing like the dove in the last dream that she had had before she woke that had flown from her bedroom window back home to drop a mimosa seed into the center of the garden. And as the tree grew—sometimes the dove, sometimes one of the boys she had watched diving off the pier, hairy and naked, fluttered about the trunk and the branches, made love in holes that were not there before it started, let loose a spray of semen in its leaves that resembled a cloud-burst before starting all over again, at the base up the trunk and through a canopy of intertwining branches that provided a trellis for a hungry wisteria vine to crawl up and over onto the roof; and right before she woke, the dove who was a naked man was flying in and out of the house as the roots of the mimosa moved into the parlor and along the great hall, turning over the piano with a loud thud, and purple and white petals of wisteria and mimosa filled the air as vine and tree together began to pull the house down.
Without looking from the Roman newspaper he was reading he told her about a farm for sale somewhere in the middle of America, in the middle of the United States, she says he said, 623 acres for sale. Six hundred and twenty-three acres for sale, can you imagine, nena, flat land it says. Six hundred and twenty-three acres, no mountains, no sea, just nothing to look at, walk out of your front door every morning to nothing.
And no, she couldn’t imagine it.
It wasn’t until her food came that he looked up. He told her about the papal address the day before, and what the weather prediction was for the rest of the week and what it might be like when they arrived in San Sebastian, in the north of Spain, near France, Basque region where his abuelos were buried. It was the clattering of plates that caused him to pull the paper down from his face, and watch as it took two waiters to bring all of the dishes doña Liliana had ordered. The veal had sounded good, so had the fish, pasta, risotto; she had ordered three kinds of vegetable, and wilted endive with oil and lemon. ¿Qué es todo esto? he asked as the waiters dashed about wildly to get every plate onto the table steaming, amused as if he were watching clowns emerge from a Volkswagen.
Doña Liliana says that it was the first moment that she thought to be embarrassed, or that she had been aware of her own appetite for that matter. She had never awakened hungry before, and the waiter who took her order never flinched or questioned each plate she ordered. Si signorina, he said, which sounded so familiar and inviting, it was the same as if he had told her that she was doing the right thing. Her thoughts danced, she says, she had no idea what she was doing, all she knew was that there was something ravenous inside of her that needed to be fed. Her eyes filled and she began to apologize, but her father waved it away as he folded the paper. Just like your mother, he said, needed the whole world laid out in front of her before she was able to make a decision; she had as many suitors as she had pairs of gloves, and dresses—ay Dios—a whole steamer trunk had to be packed for a weekend in the country; not that she wore everything, it was the choice; she wouldn’t have been able to be able to get dressed without it.
They once had been in Naples and their luggage had yet to arrive, he told her, and your mother went out and about in the same pair of shoes that she was wearing; the very same, he laughed, she needed choice your mother, she did.
He began to eat with her, ignoring the additional empty plates that the waiters brought over, shooing them away as they offered to divide the dishes between them. He began to eat off of her plate, and with each mouthful, he sighed and complimented her on her choices. Never, he said, in his entire life had tomatoes tasted so sweet; garlic, lemon, spinach, olive oil, salt, and pepper that he said caused him for the first time in his life to taste the color green. He paid no attention to the food that ran down his chin and onto his tie; he rubbed oils and sauce into his cheeks, the sides of his face, and continued, to the horror of the waiters and the few patrons left.
He told her that it was in London, days before they were to return to Cuba from their honeymoon, that her mother suggested they abandon their plans and return to Lisbon. Choice, you see, he said gesticulating upward with his fork. Food flew out of his mouth with his excitement when he suggested that they go; to Lisbon, he said; there is a place, a cliff overlooking the sea, he said her mother said, where all of Europe ends, the very tip, where more than 500 years ago it took courage to cross the ocean thinking paradise was just on the other side. Let’s go, he said she said, and pretend we’re them, pretend we’re Portuguese; let’s find Brazil and spend nearly half a millennium envying Cubans. He laughed so hard he choked a little and garnered sour looks from thin waiters in their impeccably white long aprons.
I miss her so, nena, he told her, each and every day I thank God she left me with you and this ache in me that will never let go; it wasn’t until I had her eyes that life began.
He stopped eating and looked at her. Vamos, mija, she says he said, vamos, let’s go be Portuguese.
He ordered champagne when she agreed.
Which is why, she says, she looked on with curiosity five years later at the creature whose visits from Boston were reason enough to have all of the muslin dust covers that doña Liliana’s mother had made each time she brought a new piece into the house taken off of the furniture and put away like an idiot relative.
Helen or Ellen—doña Liliana always says she doesn’t remember, and Ama agrees it was hardly a name worth remembering; messy; loud; got drunk a lot and slept in her clothes—sat translating the article about Batista in Time Magazine that afternoon.
Afraid that she might snap the stem off of her glass, doña Liliana remembers having to set her drink down, she says, though no one ever commented, she was certain that she trembled violently in the presence of the woman. Who was this woman, this Ellen or Helen, and why was she in her father’s house? doña Liliana found herself asking nearly every time she turned a corner or walked down a corridor and heard that hyena-like cackle of hers; y ay the way she spread herself out on a chair or, the later it got, on a table—and not in a pretty way, I might add—you would have thought that she was a stuffed pheasant on display.
She thought nothing of the fact the broad pink, black, and white floral patterned skirt of her dress clashed with the brocade silk of the chaise on which she reclined as she read, doña Liliana says that she was the type of creature, this Ellen Helen, that never would; completely oblivious, this Helen Ellen, to the possibility that anything negative could be said about her, that there was anything unattractive about her, that the men who took her out in their cars also didn’t tell everyone how easily her dresses unzipped or that she frequently went without panties.
Between playing with the crinolines under her dress and scratching her stockings with her fingernails, so that she was assured of the attention of every man in the room, Ellen Helen translated Batista’s victory. When someone asked what did the writer in Time Magazine mean by Batista no se conformó con el proceso democrático, Ellen Helen was no longer looking at the article when she told everyone in the room who stopped what they were doing to listen and answered, It meant nothing. Nothing really, she said, realizing that she had the attention of all of the men in the room. But when it was clear that she did not have the confidence of anyone in the room, she turned red and added, Nothing at all. Her eyes never met the page again, according to doña Liliana, anyone paying attention would have realized she was looking at the hem of her dress and pretending to read when she said, It only means that like this party, you wouldn’t want to invite everyone, not everyone would appreciate it.
It was silly, seemed senseless, frivolous, doña Liliana says, but nobody seemed to want anything more from her. She says she said it said that Batista was essentially in the right by making choices for people who simply didn’t have the ability to make choices on their own—and if someone didn’t choose for them, how would they get by; forgodsakes someone with some sense has got to run the country—he had done all of Cuba a favor; a public service, she called it.
And even though the party seemed to start back up and continue around her—for weeks, breakfasts in the sunroom, shopping in the afternoons, evenings there were soirées to attend, openings and social engagements; the mothers of doña Liliana’s friends asked about Helen Ellen, and when their fathers came to do business with Ellen Helen’s father in doña Liliana’s father’s richly appointed study, in the afternoon or very late in the evening as doña Liliana says was the case, they made it a point to talk to this girl, give her gifts, asked her opinion of the opera, the ballet, politics, this young woman that doña Liliana and Ama both say didn’t have two profound ideas to rub together, a woman of whom doña Liliana says she really wasn’t all that attractive with her close-set beady eyes and complexion that tended to get quite oily well before noon—yet she couldn’t help wondering why the world cut such a great berth around her, around her shortcomings, her legs that nearly always appeared to be stubbly even through opaque hose.
Had she been her father’s mistress, his lover, his fiancée, she says she could understand. But clearly that wasn’t true. She asked, bribed, and threatened maids for their indiscretion: Had that Helen Ellen been seen tiptoeing across the hallway in the middle of the night or early morning; had her father been caught in her room, or ordered breakfast brought into her room? Her father’s secretary, the gardener, his gentleman’s gentleman, and driver—all men—looked at her as if she had gone mad.
And perhaps for a while she had.
She wasn’t sleeping or eating well.
Things that appealed to her in the past no longer held her interest, and she was often distracted and irritable.
And at night, she says, it must have been her mother, couldn’t imagine what else it could have been that would come and guide her about the house and show her where things went.
It’s not as if doña Liliana was hearing voices, she’s careful to caution, but she knew something outside of her own body that pushed her about the house, showed her things she had never really looked at before until she was finally too tired to stand anymore and collapsed in her bed. A guardian of gardenias y azúcar quemada led her out into the garden, hid with her in the foliage that grew on the wall as one of the boys she had seen diving at the pier climbed over it and up the railing to one of the maids’ rooms. It caused the night lizards to scatter across the dew-slicked stones and out onto the road, where they circled the house.
She says there were nights that she walked around the ground floor and saw the shimmers of dust collect silvery on the floorboards in the moonlight and spiders throw castings from corner to corner. Grime crawled up the windows from the street. Moss reclaimed the porticos and pillars and the Spanish wrought iron railings where it found purchase enough to light on the shutters, spread and gnaw into the window frames. Mildew slithered in cracks in the door frames and walls made wider each night as the driver, clearly attempting something that was meant to resemble stealth, buoyed and bobbed the channel of rum inside him on his way to his small room. Moths found the corners where her father’s secretary, thinking the entire house asleep, would edge himself into a shadow and, leaning against the wall, part his robe, reach into the slit in his paisley silk pajamas and make love to his hand with such ardent passion the boy with the lapis lazuli eyes he conjured would give off flashes of plasma-colored light as the secretary whispered his name.
The thorns—twice as many as she had ever seen them produce before—that studded the rosales on all sides of the house pierced the buds, devoured the petals, as they reached skyward toward the eaves. And from the very top of the house, holding on to the lightning rod, she could see the ocean and the bay. She says all of La Habana lay spread out asleep in front of her, and she could see the streets being cleaned and the ships unloaded. As she spun around, she could shut her eyes and wake everyone, set them into bustle. The mountains came into view, until she had cleared the way—farms and buildings gone, monuments struck—to the other side of the island while centuries went about their daily business: babies nursed, grew and seduced each other, plowed fields, painted portraits, opened a perfectly ripe higo with their incisors and plunged their tongues deep inside the hull until it had taken it bright red, seeds and all. And just as easily, by opening her eyes back into the dark, she could strike them all dead again, throw black headaches as if they were confetti, open sores where there had once been firm sallow flesh, she could disembody them and make their shouts the buzz of black flies as she wondered when would her life begin.
In the distance she could hear a nameless dog yelp, yelp, yelping, a very ugly, mean, nameless little dog, but could not locate the direction from which it was coming.
Do I believe it, señor Ostrovski?
No sé, as you would say, I wasn’t there.
—H. G. Carrillo is a PhD candidate and an instructor in the Department of English at Cornell University, where he received his MFA. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, Turnrow, and other publications, and is forthcoming in Iowa Review. Loosing My Espanish, his first novel, will be published by Pantheon Books in October 2004.
Originally published in
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.