He is not wearing his uniform today. He is dressed in black pants and a white shirt, like the banker he is supposed to be. His eyes are tired. In the room, he opens a window. Across the way, a woman leans out her window and looks into our room. Don’t worry, Ernesto says, she’s blind.
I laugh. He takes my dress off, still smiling. I unbutton his shirt. His hands on my skin, his breath, his smell. The bells of the cathedral. The singing of a lonely bird. And suddenly and without warning, I am overcome by an immense sadness. He sees this and stops. He sits me down gently.
He says that the love lives inside the leaving, the knowledge that everything ends. He says to me: When I lie next to you as you sleep, I look at your fluttering eyelids, the down of hair above your lip and I know that nothing lasts, that this very quality sharpens love. Nothing would make life sweeter than knowing the hour of its passing. He kisses me.
Then he lies back. I come to him and let my hair fall over his face as he watches.
* * *
After sleep, I rise alone. I find my clothes and dress slowly. I stand at the window. The sky has clouded over since morning and the light streaming into the courtyard now is muddy. The city is so quiet that for a bare moment I can hear the sea beyond the rooftops.
As a girl, I used to think the trains ran only at night. Then I came to understand that the wail of the train was like the light of stars: present in the day, but trumped, for the moment, by brighter objects.
When I turn, Ernesto is sitting on the edge of the couch, his legs spread out before him, watching me.
What are you afraid of?
I watch him. I have never considered this question. As a child I was afraid of the black nights, the duendes in the walls. But it was more than that. Because I continued to be afraid long after I stopped believing in duendes. I open my eyes and look at the man before me, his beard so close, the rough hair that moments ago had touched against my rawness. I am afraid of his going, of the black space he will leave when he vanishes from my life.
Of death, I say.
A shadow passes over Ernesto’s eyes. A disappointment. And then he smiles. Well, yes. I never thought of this answer. But death to me is more a regret, not a fear. Fear is one of the things that make us value life. But how can you fear the inevitable? It would be like fearing the dawn.
I nod. After a while, I say, Then I suppose I fear the dawn.
He kisses me and when I open my eyes, I smile, to let him know that I was making a small joke.
* * *
The next time I see him is one of the darkest days of the year, a closed, suffocating grayness. Ernesto is so tired. Days ago, I lay with him and thought that truth was something one might experience, like a catch in the throat Now, the shadows; the hidden corners; his heart beyond reach. It is not his wife I imagine when I imagine his leaving. His loving dream holds neither one of us; his first desire is to wear furrows into the earth, uncover mountains and forests until he finds beautiful death waiting faithfully for him.
* * *
We go down into the street together. I follow him through the narrow alleys. From above, the sound of pots and metal spoons, children crying. The sky is trying to brighten at the edges. Maybe we’ll escape the rain, I say. We turn into a little street and cross into the next alley. I follow him as he turns left and we walk a while and turn right again. Another turn and already I am lost.
The heat and the afternoon have left me weak. I stop and lean against the unpainted wall of a building to feel its roughness against my skin. He begins to walk ahead and then turns back to me. He faces me and then presses his body to me, playful first, until something changes in his eyes. He whispers, and his breath is hot in my ear. His hands on my shoulders, pressing me back.
And then, without warning, the growling of dogs, coming fast on us. I press against the wall hard. He covers me with his body. Three ugly yellow dogs, fur matted, gray skin showing through patches in their coats. They snarl and snap at us, showing white shiny teeth. My heart is beating fast against Ernesto’s back. He lunges at the dogs, and they take a small step back and then come at us again. Go, go, he says. Up and down the alley, windows open. A woman leans out. Ernesto bends his face down. He kicks at the ground, lunges again at the dogs. This goes on for a long time. I am sweating and don’t know if I’m shouting or just thinking of shouting. I’m breathing the dust Ernesto has kicked up. I’m pinned against the wall. And then he takes a rock and throws it, hitting one of the dogs in the leg. And another rock, to the snout.
I hurt them, he says after. I was only trying to protect you.
* * *
When I was a boy in Cordoba, he says many days later, we lived near a sad neighborhood of cardboard houses. Here, among the desperate immigrants from the countryside, lived a legless man, the Man of the Dogs. He got around on a cart pulled by a pack of dogs as wild and suffering as he was. Every morning the crying of dogs would announce his waking as he beat them and cursed them to move faster.
The Man of the Dogs was the town attraction, he explains, much like El Caballero de la Habana. Every morning, the cripple on his cart, spitting and raging and beating the dogs with all the anger he had for life. Every morning, the dogs crying and straining beneath the whips. One morning, the other boys began to run after the man. They threw rocks at him, and bottles, shouting, Rise up, Lazarus, rise up and walk! I pleaded with the children, who instead turned their taunts on me. I ran between the children and the Man of the Dogs. Stop! I shouted at the other children. Have compassion!
And you know what happened? Ernesto says. The man looked up from his cart, and his dead eyes were full of loathing for me… .
* * *
Listen, I say, a bird singing in mid-afternoon. He turns his face. His breath is slow. I tell him about summers on the farm in Cárdenas. About how the birds blackened the sky to nest And how I used to climb the mango tree to lick warm sweet meringue from a bowl as the land beyond filled with shadows.
* * *
One afternoon in the summer, when it is so hot that we have to lie far apart on the mattress, not touching, Ernesto asks me why I never talk about my husband.
Out of respect for both of you, I say. And then, because he is waiting for me to continue, I say, You never talk about your wife.
What do you want to know? Exactly what you’ve told me—nothing at all.
Ernesto is quiet I lie in the dark and think that I think of nothing, but after a while I understand that the image that has been forming inside the blankness is of her. I’ve never met her, though I’ve seen her photograph and heard it said that she is very beautiful. I try to think of other things, but my mind wants to linger here with her. I close my eyes and become her. Waking up to her husband arriving late again. She hesitates one minute, imagines she sees something in his walk. But then he is sweeping her up in his arms again, telling her beautiful things, telling her that she is beautiful.
Does he kiss her the same way? Does she wonder, like me, when she sits listening to the water run in the bathroom, how a heart can divide itself so evenly?
After a long silence, I say, I know that you love her very much.
It doesn’t bother you?
On the contrary. I love that you love, and I think better of you for it We have it all wrong about love.
How do we have it wrong? he says.
That it has to be only one way.
He is quiet. When I turn to him, he has drawn his lips together.
Yes, nowhere is it written that a man and a woman must have only each other, he says. And yet …
He leans up on his elbow. And yet, he says, this is a dangerous way of thinking. He pulls me to him. If one might love whenever and wherever, it might follow that orthodoxy is an illusion. What’s to prevent anyone, then, from cuckolding the state with any pretty idea that, on passing as he sits at a café, sets his mind aflame?
No, he says, and his hands are already over my skin. No matter how much we try, we will always love some things more than others. And some things we will love so much that we will honor them until death.
* * *
Years later, I was alone in the studio when I heard footsteps outside the door. I stopped and stood quietly by the window. The knock on the door was rough and hurried, and I died a little to remember the times when he had entered so softly, blurring the edges of his arrival.
A man I didn’t recognize spoke my secret name, the one that only he knew. He handed me a letter. After he left, I held the envelope in my hand for long moments. I wanted to wait. But I couldn’t, and slowly I tore the seal.
Adored one, I am off to my fighting.
I shall scratch the earth to make you a cave
and there your Captain
will wait for you with flowers in the bed.
* * *
I carried the letter with me for months, opening it now and then to feel the ache in my chest again. Ernesto who had covered me with his hands, his touch like wading into a small pool only to find it deep and cool and sweet beneath the reflection.
Because your kisses live in my heart
like red banners.
* * *
I never stopped loving my husband. That I never spoke of him to Ernesto—that I rarely speak of him to you—means little. We are always trying to see beyond the blurred outline of our fist; so we struggle to know the meaning behind what is said and not said. Like palm readers, we think truth is as easy as the lines that betray us. Calixto was a good man. There is no reason I should have gone to another. So I did. This is the only logic worth knowing. Another woman would explain that Calixto began to travel—that he was gone for months to Moscow, Budapest. That he was in Madrid the night you were born. The most vulgar notion of cause and effect that has nothing to do with the way the heart grows in advance of a meeting it has not imagined. I understand now that years before I knew him, Ernesto had already become my waking and my sleeping, my every thought; and there wasn’t a moment that he wasn’t with me, from the nights long ago when I sat listening to the old mulato at the piano, to this moment when I sit at a worn desk to write a blind letter to my daughter. Someday, maybe very near, you may wake one morning and not know whether you have opened your eyes or just begun to dream. Maybe you will ask, as I do, if one can really separate this world from the one written on angels’ wings.
* * *
The last time I saw Ernesto, he was dressed as someone else. He was standing by the old banyan in the square, standing very straight. He was looking away, head slightly raised. A haughty businessman, a relic from the last age. All around him people came and went, no one seeing him. But I recognized him by the turn of his full lower lip, the way his forehead sloped over his eyes. You cannot fool a lover; a lover has mapped every contour, learned every hidden passage. A man cannot hide himself from a lover any more than he can hide from his own face.
He turned to me, and I walked slowly to him. The familiar smell beneath the white shirt, the same skin. He took my hand and held it to his cheek. And this is how he stood saying good-bye again, his voice small within the clatter of the square, too small a voice for the man he’d become. His breath was broken and hot. When he told me it was the last time, I only nodded. Adios, I said, commending him instead to the earth, the wide grass, the arching sky that we could still share. There is nothing final in love’s good-bye.
But death. A Dios. Silence. That is a different forever.
* * *
For all his lusting after a beautiful death, for all his talk of not knowing what land would claim his bones, he clung, in the last moments, to the sweet air of the valley. Fear is one of the few experiences that make you value life, he had said to me. A fine phrase in the swelling chorus of youth. But what of the last hour? Coming out of the ditch, he hesitated. His hair was matted. He was hungry. Without his medicine, his breath came to him in hot spurts, his body surrendering ahead of him. But he hesitated. The beauty of this life yet held him—the bird that passed overhead, the sky and its clouds, the slope of the valley and the trees that clung to the side of the hills and, yes, even the animals that tore at one another beneath the boughs, the violent bleedings: the sorrows and joys. All that night, the radio going, the same news repeated over and over, not even the solace of a bulletin, the announcers grown bored by early morning. And still I sat and still I sat. And the next afternoon and the next, the news was the same.
Oh my Captain, my sweet Ernesto. And where the bed of flowers? Where the red banners? Gone away into silence, never to taste excellent morning again. Gone away to memory’s tomb. Down, down, down into the dumb corridor of the saints.
* * *
Oh, but in the beginning how wide the sky had seemed, how infinite the horizon where we thought to rest our eyes for a season.