Marisol in Cuba

As the breeze rustles the leaves of the trees to and fro, sandals scrape against the concrete as passersby perform their daily routines.  A distant circular saw tears through the humid air, sending debris in plumes up through the trees. A neighbor’s cough, the engine of a speeding motor: Calle 35 has a tempered peace – oscillating between gentle and shattering.

Marisol speaks to this dichotomy in her animated way. “Me gusta mi país,” she says of her fondness for the warm climate, her neighbors, her forty-three years etched onto these streets, the familiarity; “pero es difícil,” she says of the empty supermarkets, the crowded buses, how she has to clutch her purse in crowded places. Someone stole a piece of caramel out of her bag that she had saved for her youngest son. There was nothing else to take.

And she can’t leave even if she were able to save up the money to do so – working her three jobs. She is seated on the plush arm chair in the otherwise sparsely decorated casa particular – what Airbnb units are called in Cuba – as she lights her third cigarette. She gestures toward me with the butt end of her cigarette and I use it to light my own. The empty matchbook lies on the table between us. Marisol was hired as a house cleaner by her neighbor to take care of this casa particular. When we first met she was friendly and charmed by the interracial couple that my friend and I made. She asked if he was my husband, if we had any kids, if our pairing was normal in America. She was as interested about learning about my life as I was in learning about hers, so after she finished her work I invited her to sit with me and enjoy a beer.

She sits on the edge of the chair with her legs crossed and twirls her hand with the cigarette in it making lovely smokey spirals that dissipate at the ceiling and slip out through the open window.

She tells me that America is like a distant dream. Her sister was brave, she says. She left years ago on a dingy boat that sailed out at dawn for the coast across the gulf. She made it and she was now happy, as far as Marisol could tell – a former dancer cleaning homes for a living in the country of opportunity.

Her son, too, has few prospects. After he finishes school at 19, his chances of getting into university are slim. He will likely get a job or join the military and save his pesos as she does, hoping that the next ruler is more merciful. We are talking shortly after Fidel Castro’s death, and she tells me she is pessimistic that any future changes in the government or in relations with the US will alleviate the everyday difficulties her people face. The young and the educated leave for better opportunities – more money, more freedom and those open boarders.

Life in her version of Cuba is a one way street with few forks in the road.  Nothing makes you appreciate opportunities as much as the lack of them. How does one thrive when the sun is blocked out by dark clouds: bureaucracy, international relations and a stifling regime. Without knowing any better, this is the best you’ve got.

I tell Marisol that when we first arrived on a Sunday we had hoped to buy some food at a market to have something in the refrigerator for breakfast. Marisol looked confused. I tell her that’s the look everyone on the street gave me when I asked if there was anywhere to buy food. She tells me the markets are closed on Sundays, and anyway, for certain products you need ration cards. I think of my parents’ stories from the Soviet Union. She seems committed to making me understand. The government issues rations on eggs and sells most of them to hotels. Your necessities pass through a small window by a clerk. You don’t steal TVs and jewelry. You steal tampons and toothpaste. There is no choice – just one of every product portioned off by the government. You accept what is given and you say thank you. At least the thank you is an option.

Marisol made the choice to separate from her husband of twenty-six years. She is happy now that she can make her own decisions: when to go out, how to work, when to drink a beer, she says gesturing to the glass in her hand. We chink glasses and take a swig. The simple ways that independence can bud out of an otherwise restrictive existence. Human nature crowds the impossible and seeks out the simplest pleasures. The sun on your skin, fresh water, fruit grown at your feet.  Even the rations of freedom that we steal from every opportunity. That sliver of pleasure looks the same from all angles.

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Time in James Turrell’s Meeting

I am sitting in a room with forty other strangers. We sit on a hard wooden bench that wraps around the perimeter with the backs that lean at an odd 30 degree angle so that our torsos are tilted toward the gaping rectangular hole cut out of the ceiling. Through that hole is a bright blue sky, clear of any clouds in the middle of the summer. If I didn’t know that I was at one of James Turrell’s installations, I could easily confuse this swatch of pristine blue for a modernist painting. Above the backs of the wooden benches, hidden in the coves are lights that blast the white walls with bright colors. They make an excruciatingly slow, almost indiscernible, transition from soft pinks to a bright magenta, to purple to blue to green and back again. I and these forty other strangers came to MOMA PS1 to experience Turrell’s juxtaposition – artificial illumination under the fading of natural light. Continue reading “Time in James Turrell’s Meeting”

A former love story told in parts #6: I Love You

The words were burning on my tongue.  I thought at any moment they might leap out into the space between our lips and, with nowhere to go, would explode and push us apart.  They were hardly a string – almost exclusively a haptic dance of syllables repeated over millennia – sometimes defiantly, sometimes passionately, sometimes recklessly, sometimes indifferently – in kinship, between lovers, with the eternal or the ephemeral…  I worried that in having to explain their meaning – in this context, in that moment – their depth or breadth would be devalued.
 
Crisis Averted.  I bit my tongue until I laughed in agony and you told me that my wires were crossed – that pain manifested in pleasure when in reality that pain was only physical and could hardly take precedence over the pleasure of our present proximity.

Theirstory: On the Move

Hearing it told, it is like a bad omen spoken in reverse. In the rising voice of a resigned tide, “Everyone died over there. One after the other in ’42. Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt, Brother.” He shakes his head as resignation shifts into disbelief. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”


 

… But in war, nothing among civilians could be certain. Disease spread quickly within the communal flats. Hacking coughs echoed through the apartments at all hours of the day. Children and the elderly were particularly susceptible. Raya’s mother knew she wouldn’t recover and did her best to stay out of the way, holing herself up in the corners of the apartment, shooing the children away. She died after a few weeks, weakened by starvation, coughing up blood, alone, while her daughter and grandchildren were away.

Raya buried her grief along with her mother, hid it deep in her spirit, woven into a tightly wound ball that at first had settled into her throat and then traveled into the abdomen where it would stay rotting her away at her emotions. Dwelling was weakness. She had to stay strong.

Sophie, Raya’s eldest sister, consumed by the grief of her mother’s death succumbed to a similar fate, leaving Alla and Simon to Raya’s care.

In early ‘42, the children fell ill one by one. Oleg’s condition was worst. Being older, he had spent more time out in the cold air with his mother among the strangers and market stalls, hawking matchbooks and yarn to passersby. One night, after a long fit of coughing, he breathed a final deep sigh, rolled over and left the world. A deafening silence set in and stayed there, leaden, in all of the remaining brood. Natan, too young to recall the details of his brother’s death, would carry the lingering feeling of something having been torn away from him for the rest of his remaining years.

In the midst of the ailments and the starvation that befell the refugees, news drifted in from the front sporadically. By late ‘43, news had arrived that Kyiv was liberated and the evacuees were invited back to help rebuild their fallen city. Their task was to breathe new life into the historic birthplace of the Russian Empire. One could forgive these listless people, having been stranded in the rear of the Soviet Union, for being wary of the news.

Raya, for one, had started to acclimate to life in Central Asia. She was among new friends, at least of those that remained. She journeyed out of Kyiv, never expecting to return and now the news of reoccupying the once great capital put her ill at ease. Soon, orders started coming in to relocate people back via the train they came. Raya received the slip under her door midweek while she was out with the kids and set it aside.

Caring for the three children on her own left her little time to work, but she woke up before sunrise every morning to collect the rations doled out by the army, fed her children, and sold the remaining portion of goods at the market stalls that she borrowed from generous and compassionate traders. The days passed like this and often the only thing to do was keep moving forward.

As winter closed in around them, the arid air brought in a new round of ailments. Natan’s persistent cough, first attributed to an allergic response to the dust kicked up by the hordes of people travelling through the markets, now turned out to be something more severe. At first, Raya thought this cold would just pass, having been strengthened by the sickness that had surrounded them for years, but Natan soon developed a fever that she struggled to subdue. 

Doctors were in short supply. They carried their empty medicine bags around like vestiges of a more prosperous time, no longer able to offer any relief, just convey their status.

“Raya,” Doctor Levsky, said gravely on his most recent house call, holding her trembling hands between his, “There is nothing we can do for him here. Please, take him back to Kyiv. They are sending doctors and medicine there to help the people that are rebuilding. It’s the only chance for his survival.”

Raya knew deep in her heart that this was her only option. She had waited too long to be told to take it. She recalled the slip under her door and the ticket that she received. She had stowed it away in a small bundle, but as the days for departure approached she became less and less sure that it was the best choice.

It was true that at first she didn’t think surviving here was an option. But over time, her feet grew steady. She, who had never been alone in the world, had figured out a way to outlive the diseases and infections that claimed a life a week in the small confines of the town. She was raising and nurturing the children she had borne and those left behind by her sister.

Kyiv held few treasured memories for her. It was where her husband disappeared, and it was where poverty choked her with its clenched fist, where the government stepped on her chest and kept her from getting up. She had decided that the best chance for her family to begin anew would be out here, in the East, and she let her return ticket expire.

But now, hearing Dr. Levsky make his pronouncement, as if sealing Natan’s fate to an early grave, her pallid complexion grayed. There was no way she, who struggled to sell enough at the market day after day to keop a roof over her children’s head, could afford to buy a new ticket.

The doctor walked over to his medicine bag, as if having read her mind, and pulled out a ticket.

“Take this, Raya,” he said handing it to her. He hung his head, “I have nothing to go back to. Take your children. Save them. If they give you any trouble, tell them that you are my cousin. They will take anyone willing to go back. The train leaves tomorrow. Please go.”

Raya reached for the ticket. She whimpered and began to sob into her hands. She couldn’t fathom the loss of another son. Having buried her mother, her sister, her eldest son, having learned of her husband’s disappearance on the front, Natan was her last reminder of a life before the war.

“I’ll be all alone with three children. I’ll be returning to nothing ,” she wailed.

The doctor put his palm on her head, as if to soothe her. “You’ll be returning to hope.”

A former love story told in parts: #5 Nothing To Do With You

I wander through my thoughts and my memories come alive like a movie,
Awakened by motionless streets embedded with your passing

I’m in a theater, chewing stale popcorn as the credits roll in
Here they are: strangers in a strange land, passing time well into the night
Turned to strangers lingering among well worn letters and hastily composed e-mails

And I realize this has nothing to do with you

The scene evolves into confessions under a starless sky, dense with cloud goblins
And explodes with unspoken sentiment, taking in every moment
Something like romance, crawling out of distance, mistaken for passion

And I realize this has nothing to do with you

Months crowd into years and the lovers traverse thousands of miles
to elaborate a baseless romance, like watering a dead bonsai tree
that for too long seemed like watering a cactus

And I realize this has nothing to do with you

Fights erupt, tears are shed, resentment settles in like an unwelcome guest
unwilling to announce it’s presence, wearing love’s vestments
and I watch as the first seeds burst open

And I realize this has nothing to do with you

Emotion tears through the reel, burning up its edges
Rewrites soon follow, and editing paints a picture of star-crossed lovers
separated by an insurmountable distance

And I realize this has nothing to do with you

And when ash leaves its residual soot over the swept floor –
a reminder that my hesitation to set myself on fire
stems from mistaking your mirage for a companion in a vast desert –

I realize this has nothing to do with you

 

A former love story told in parts: #4 Mistaking Good for Good Enough

“it is a burgeoning storm under calm skies:
one day as good as it gets won’t be enough and you’ll tire of my asking for more

one day I’ll show up in words neatly typewritten and fiercely edited
like some years’ long undulating story that rendered both our hearts immobile
and i’ll read them from afar with sentimental grief

and one day, like all lovers with our level of cynicism, we will be strangers
and when we meet again, in person or within the margins of comment bars
in one another’s texts, we’ll recount our intermittent passings with nostalgic reverence”

A former love story told in parts: #3 Cold

Time has this habit of cooling off the fire
Throwing blankets over the hungry flames in their last gasp for oxygen

And then there is no matter
Burning over scarred skin takes longer to reach living flesh
Callouses heal deep and long
Carving mountains over ridges –
valleys where new waters can collect

Bruises become part of the landscape
Deep hues of blue and purple and olive
To navigate with tender words and fingers

I glide my hands over you with the efforts that yield no reciprocation
I’ll twist my arms to reach your spine, bend myself into disfigurement
to assign your needs their value

My care is deep, buried beneath glaciers that you deem cold
From the surface I am miles down of hardened tundra gliding over roaring, burning mantles

You can’t see it. Your gaze is fixed on a distant yonder
and I am the occasional dust in your eyes
And I have to learn that not everyone has the means to endure
the frostbite of this terrain