A literary murder mystery set in Havana, One Hundred Bottles is also a survivor’s story of very rough love, intense friendship, and creating family in the chaos that Cuba experienced during the 1990s.
One Hundred Bottles, with its intersecting characters and unresolved whodunits, can be read as a murder mystery. But it's really a survivor's story. In a voice that blends gossip, storytelling, and literature, Z—the vivacious heroine of Portela's award-winning novel—relates her rum-soaked encounters with the lesbian underground, the characters carving up her home, and the terrifying-but-irresistible Moisés. As entertaining as any detective drama, One Hundred Bottles is ultimately made real by very rough love, intense friendship, and something small that decides to live.
If there was anything that greatly irritated him, that predisposed him to violence and murder, it was when somebody tried to make him believe. Ha! His face would turn red, fiery red, a steely red, with vibrant flames and there was Moisés in the middle, crazy with horns and tail, a furious serpent, a basilisk, a dragon, a devil in his inferno. A heck of a scene. It got so you wondered if he'd die, just like that, from spontaneous combustion.
He didn't hide the absurd and even ridiculous side of his anger. He knew that none of those miscreants, wretches, imbeciles, or fucking bastards would ever make him swallow even the tiniest of their tall tales. They lacked shrewdness, spark, street smarts. They had no class. They lacked everything he had in surplus, stuff he didn't even need. What were they thinking, huh? That he was born yesterday? That he was some kid, a brat from the day care center? That they could fool him just like that? Pretty bold of them, those jerks . . . the obvious lies, so stupid, designed for weak minds—they made him even angrier than the more sophisticated efforts. The clumsier the fib, the greater the disrespect to his intelligence.
In any case, controlling himself was a huge effort. He'd already been cited various times for creating a public nuisance, for hitting a transit officer, for beating three black guys from Los Muchos tenement to a bloody pulp, for throwing a bench at a mirror in a bar, for breaking a bottle over the redneck who ran the pharmacy, and for trying to burn down a little hotel. He was subversive to the max, to the point that some folks called him The Anarchist, The Terrorist, The Bomber. Sometimes he'd be held overnight, and since he was always waiting for the next hearing, his police record was frequently indistinguishable from the New York phone directory. The only thing that kept him out of jail was his psychiatric history, which included the prodigious testimony of one Dr. Hermenegildo Frumento, who added that Moisés was not, fundamentally, bad. In other words, that his capacity for trouble was no greater than that of a typical citizen, an average man submitted to many challenges, and to all the malevolence of the tropics: the unnerving and humid heat, a persistent drizzle, mud, stickiness, the smell of rot, mosquitoes, fruit flies, bureaucratic incompetence, etc. On more than one occasion, he'd tried to strangle his therapist, but without much success. Luckily, he'd never thought of carrying firearms. He satisfied himself with dreaming about a rifle, and a National Rifle Association of which he'd be president and number-one lunatic. Those guys—those brazen jerks—wouldn't leave him alone. They insisted, reiterated, persisted ad infinitum with a disgusting cool. And still they dared to give him mocking looks, those smug sonzabitches with their cynical squints.
He knew, since he was so sagacious, that those rotten preachers didn't believe a word of their own lies. How could they possibly believe? People who believe—he asserted this as he shrieked and pounded on the table—people who really believe, never try to convince anybody else. They don't need a consensus. They don't think they're some kind of apostle. They believe they're happy when they direct themselves toward what they believe they love (I love this phrase) and the rest is bullshit. You have to be really insecure, really screwed up, really in a bad way, to climb up on a podium and lecture, beg for someone else's consent, and then go out hunting for proselytes. So when they tried to deceive Moisés, what they were really doing was deceiving themselves, adjusting, rounding out, perfecting the story in the same way somebody might introduce improvements to the comfort of their own apartment. Incapable of living freely, they lived in a greenish and foul bubble of fallacy. They needed his troubled faith to feed their own famished one. But instead of appeasing him, this thought only made him more indignant. So they were trying to use him, eh? Pigs, monsters, loathsome jerks, assholes. How infuriating. Oh, how he hated them!
It was during a pleasant fall evening, the equinox, with little birds chirping and tiny frogs in the ponds, that I dared suggest he shouldn't pay attention to them, that he should just shrug it off.
"Forget about them, boo," I whispered in his ear. "Just go on your way. No more fighting the enemy and getting all worked up and bent out of shape. Isn't your point that they can't and won't ever be able to convince you? So then, sweetie"—I kissed his neck—"why suffer over something that's obviously not worth it? What do you gain from getting like that, my love? If you don't take care of yourself, one of these days you're going to have a mad breakdown, a stroke, some kind of attack. You'll be left all stiff, just like that, a veg. And I haven't the faintest idea how to take care of disabled people." I unbuttoned his shirt very slowly. "You have to get out of that vicious cycle, boo, c'mon . . . You're too tense, too tight"—he really was. "Look at yourself. Why don't you try to relax? Like, yoga. 'Yoga' means tranquility, equanimity, great calm, very little anxiety, spiritual peace or something like that, I don't remember . . ." I rubbed his chest. "The most important thing is your health. Look, when they see that you're indifferent to them, that their opinions don't matter one bit to you, they'll leave you in peace. That's how it always goes. You pay them no mind and they move along, to dick with somebody else who'll pay attention to them. Just play dumb, baby, and you'll see how it goes. You'll see, I swear." I kissed him on the mouth.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't have the vaguest idea who "they" were. It's just that it occurred to me that, in a situation that desperate, it might be best to stay on the sidelines. Pay no mind. Laisser faire, laisser passer.
But, as it turned out, he didn't listen to me. Worse, he looked at me with horror.
"Get off of me!" he screamed, and shook me off as if I were a hairy spider. Next thing I knew he threw a fist in my belly and the other at my eye so I wouldn't be such a wuss. Oh, women! Always with their ignorance, their nonsense, always with their frivolous plots. Women were the very height of retardedness. Who could have come up with them? They were so stupid, women. They couldn't begin to understand the essence of things, the world as a place of will and representation. Did he have to explain everything to me? Was I such a cretin? If he didn't pay attention to them—now at the height of a lycanthropic episode, Moisés bared his teeth and growled like a ferocious wolf while I crawled on the floor and tried to get out of reach, just in case he decided to kick me—them, those ruffians, those charming thugs, would feel it their right to believe that he believed what they wanted him to believe (the nausea and pain didn't really allow me to capture the intricacy of such an interesting idea), because in his silence he'd have given his permission, and they would act accordingly. Yes, he knew them well. So well, like the back of his hand. How could he not? They swarmed every corner. Everywhere he looked, there was always at least one of them . . . (I looked around, just in case, but none had managed to get into the room.) They were mean, vile, meddlers and opportunists. Insatiable and hungry cockroaches, a mess of insects. No wonder he was on the lookout for them, no wonder he had them in his sights so he could stay one step ahead of them . . . Didn't I realize the seriousness of the situation? Everything with them came down to a battle of wills, a war of egos to see who was the bigger macho, who had the bigger balls, who had the most testosterone. He had to be on guard. Because if he let them get their way one time—just once—then they'd most likely try to make him believe even more preposterous lies than before, even stinkier, fouler lies. And then there would be more and more of them. . . . it would be never ending. And they sure weren't going to get him like that! No way. He had his strategies. As the ancient Romans used to say: si vis pacem, para bellum.
In the meantime, I should stop with the crying and drama, get up once and for all before he had to get me up with a good smacking or by dragging me by the hair so I'd go to the den downstairs (there's a clandestine bar on the first floor of Happy Hammer Corners, which is owned by Pancholo Quincatrece, my buddy, where it's possible to buy marijuana; I live upstairs) so I can buy him a liter, oh, and cigarettes (whenever he was really furious, when he was a total beast, the darling liked to smoke two at a time, one in each hand, taking turns inhaling), because there wasn't a more indecent sight in the whole world than a subnormal fat girl splattered on the floor, with her smudged mascara, crying black tears and playing the victim as if she were La dame aux camélias. Man, had I ever turned out tragic! I could have been Greta Garbo. He put the money in my hand and shoved me. Get out! I'm not sure but I think Moisés resented me a little over the deal with the transit cop, because they'd taken away his driver's license—how unfair!—and now he depended on me (only to a certain point, only to a certain point, he made that quite clear to me) to get from place to place looking for new clashes.
At the beginning of our adventure, when he was still married and completely hysterical because his wife and children didn't understand him (I understand them), I thought that if I just kept my trap shut during his long, fiery rants against the cheaters, counterfeiters, perjurers, charlatans, gamblers, and hustlers, that he would, in fair reciprocity, keep from hitting me. But no. How silly of me. Where did I think I was? Whether I was quiet or not, there was always at least one blow. He had to hit me because, in his crazy mind, I was deceiving him too. Of course, it wasn't a matter of sleeping with other men—who was going to notice such a fat stupid girl with a look about her like an eighteenth-century French whore? (Although a bit rococo, I found this description fascinating.) Besides, I don't think he cared much for fidelity: He wasn't the type of guy who dealt in details. The way he saw it, I deceived him when I tried to trick him, cajole him, and make him look like an idiot by pretending to understand him, when I called him boo and baby, when I sang to him: "Oh you're so cute/ so precious you are," or when I undressed him with my teeth, or when I circled him like a satellite of love, purring like a cat in heat, or when I performed a striptease just for him (for years I've dreamed of undressing before a crowd, on a counter or something like it, but I've never had the chance) to a soundtrack of music from the 40s, lit only by a bamboo lamp with a red silk frame; when I touched his anguish, his pain, the terrible desperation he felt living in this cruel and soulless world chock full of enemies.
Boo and baby, him? A serious man like him, nearing fifty, tall and strong and with a certain Hebraic patriarchal air? C'mon, what kind of disrespect was that? What the fuck was I thinking? Did I think he was a faggot or what? Where did I think I was going to get with all that cooing? Didn't I take him seriously? Was there a chance I understood even a smidgen of something as complex and subtle as the theory of authority (the most abominable of all arguments, he said, because it was purely scholastic), Cartesian doubt, Kierkeggardian (what a word) doubt, or Pirron's skepticism, the greatest doubt of all? What did a fat girl with a big butt know about the different stages of doubt, about the precariousness of existence, about the insignificance of being here, about the scandal implied by death itself? Frankly, zilch. I didn't even think that thinking about death was amusing. Because, in the end, there's no escaping it, it's going to get us anyway . . . So why so much morbidity? That's like living in perpetual agony, dying every five minutes.
But, sometimes, these scoldings served to make me question how it had been possible for me to survive surrounded by so much ignorance and so much neglect. How I'd managed to avoid things I never saw coming, how I'd escaped wrapped in such unprecedented, exuberant, and eerie unawareness. I was then hit by a surge of good intentions: the desire to go to the library, to read big fat cryptic philosophical treatises, all swollen with concern over the scandal implied by death, with a lot of quotes in Greek and German (mysterious languages), to ponder them, develop my intellect, and evolve until I became a tormented, somber, and taciturn person . . . But that inspiration never lasted long. It wasn't my fault: generally speaking, things don't last long in the Caribbean. I got lazy, relaxed right away. I was seduced by the sweet satisfaction of doing nothing at all, of vegging out, of languidly fanning myself while resting on the window sill and admiring the shape of the clouds, or the elephantine steps on the ceiling, or the lines drawn in the air by the flight of a botfly. Someone told me that, more or less, that's what Muslim heaven is like.
Frequently, Moisés would forget about me. He'd disappear from the Corners for days, even weeks. Using fuel or a little mechanical work as payment, I'd put the car in the garage of a neighbor who would solemnly swear he wasn't going to steal the tires or the wipers or the rear-view mirror or anything else, and I'd dedicate myself to waiting patiently, to thinking about the complications of staying put in order not to think about the hospital, the police station, or the morgue. If Penelope weaved and undid a tapestry, I, in turn, would retire to Muslim heaven and tra-la-la that song about one hundred bottles, the one that goes: "One hundred bottles on the wall . . . / one hundred bottles on the wall . . . / If one should fall . . . / ninety-nine bottles on the wall . . ." Later, another would fall and there would be ninety-eight, then another and another until the end, when there would be zero. It was quite entertaining and the little sing-song also served as a spell to avoid catastrophe. I liked to think that if I reached zero, nothing awful would happen. I never knew where my baby went or why (although I could imagine) and he'd return bruised, scratched, cut, bearing all kinds of injuries. I never knew when he'd come back, or even if he'd come back. Of course, he never explained. According to his own words, he'd gotten a divorce so he could be free, not so that I could control his every step.
He also had the habit of disappearing inside himself, down into the labyrinths of his deep rage. He'd sit in a corner, hating, alone with his liter, in the same pose as Rodin's "The Thinker." Father Ignacio, a little old man practically heroic in his commitment to dealing with the neighborhood's 83,000 sins (the worst: domestic violence, child abuse), who generally happily, and honestly, accepted any kind of joke about his surname—Loyola, no less—told me once that that statue made him anxious.
"You tell me, child, what kind of position is that to sit in a chair, with his head hanging like that and his spine all twisted up?" Father Ignacio aped the pose with obvious disapproval. "Let's not even talk about the scoliosis that's bound to come from that, but what kinds of ideas can come to a man sitting like that? Nothing that's not dark, atavistic, and destructive. Thinker, my foot. That's no thinker in my book. He's bitter, resentful, envious, frustration personified. An enemy of communal peace. A public nuisance."
In fact, my "Thinker" cursed them all in a low voice. He shit on each and every one of their mothers. He gave them all the stink eye. With gritted teeth, he insulted them all, smacked them with condemnation and contempt, and wished them all dead. A million deaths. If only a cobra would bite them. Or if they could be poisoned with methane gas. Or get AIDS. Or get run over by a truck. Or hit by lightning. Yes, yes! That was it—an avenging ray of lightning! His hands would brutally twist an invisible neck until it emitted its last breath.
"Die already, goddamn it, die, die!" And then he'd laugh. "Heeheehee . . . checkmate . . . heehee." He had that little liquid laugh, Luciferian, which made my hair stand on end.
Later, he'd come to and look at me as if he were lost, as if he was about to ask me where we were and who I was. Then, suddenly—bam!—he'd snap out of his amnesia. Once he recalled that every now and then he shared a bed, a shower, and a cup of coffee with someone else, someone who, no matter how retarded she was, could see him and hear him up close, touch him and know his vulnerabilities and insecurities—then his first and almost always sole response was suspicion. And he'd start in on me, quite naturally, by accusing me of spying on him.
Moisés appreciated darkness not just in the figurative sense. Because of an ophthalmic or cerebral imperfection, I'm not sure which—he didn't like to talk about illness (one time, Dr. Frumento mentioned the word "photophobia" and his favorite patient told him to go to hell)—Moisés's eyes didn't have a good relationship with the sun. They stung, they oozed, they got red and bloody. On the streets, he used dark glasses that made him look like a Mafioso, drug dealer, or contract killer, like a John Dickson Carr character; the lenses were diabolical mirrors that took images apart and then put them back together with a sinister touch. When he was home, our enormous window (the sill goes down to about my knees, maybe a centimeter off more or less; to lean against it and enjoy the view after our battles, I have to sit on the floor), our only window, had to be closed and black curtains strictly drawn (double, triple, dense, impenetrable, a real horror). He had taken it upon himself to patch all the holes so that the most inoffensive ray of light—even those fringes of sun in which tiny multicolor particles float about—could not gain access. We used electric light even at twelve noon. In case of blackouts, we lit candles. The neighbors assumed we were involved in a satanic cult. I wasn't particularly surprised, since all we really needed to complete our healthy vampire life was to sleep in coffins. It was incredible it hadn't occurred to him yet. When it came to the heat, we pretended it didn't exist, which is a lot of pretending in the Torrid Zone, until it reached 35 degrees Celsius in the shade and the room boiled like the ovens in the crematorium at Auschwitz. Then my baby said, Enough, what a country, what a fucking country where you melt and then evaporate, and he installed an air conditioning unit so that we could freeze our asses off the way God intended. In case of blackouts, we went for a stroll or we simply roasted.
Moisés's love—he hated the word "love," which is in and of itself fraudulent, meaningless except for a stupid red paper heart pierced by an even stupider arrow—consisted of screams, insults, and threats so horrible that, had I followed them to the letter of the law, would have meant I wouldn't be here now to tell the tale. He was a supreme master at the art of humiliation and the poetics of mockery; he wasn't missing a single entry in any vocabulary designed to denigrate a human being. In short, I was the most despicable creature he'd ever met in his life. A particle floating in a fringe of sunlight, a microbe not worth taking into account. His love also included hitting, with his fist or the belt buckle, bites and pinches that left bruises, scratches, dry penetration, and other delicate acts. I think he kept waiting for me to suddenly confess my insincerity. He nearly accomplished it that memorable day he grabbed me by the shoulders and started smashing my head against the wall: "Die, just die, goddamn it, die, die . . ."
Oh, that's when I learned how fear can overcome pain, how it eclipses and overrides it in extremely dangerous circumstances, how a person can transmute not just her neurons but, rather, all of her cells into pure fear—really, a beautiful experience. In the end, he let me go so he could smash his own head in the same way (that's when I understood Dr. Frumento's insinuations about getting a room with padded walls), which allowed me to get a bucket of cold water and pour it over him to put out the fire. This incident forever affected the hearing in my left ear.
Of course, my pleasure struck him as fake. Why did I sigh? Why did I moan? Why did I get wet so quickly when all he ever wanted was to torture me? And everything else, why? How could I like a man whom I couldn't understand at all, who was old enough to be my father, and who wiped the floor with me? No, of course I couldn't. He wasn't some idiot standing around on the corner. Go tell somebody else that story! I was just like the others—a liar and a fake, an evil whore. Very evil. The kind who lie with their entire body. Exhausted, he'd look at me skeptically, the way criminals look at their dogs, those strange creatures who adore them no matter what. He'd light a cigarette, just one, and hide behind the smoke.
Now I ask myself if I really did like sleeping with him. Yes or no? He was convinced I didn't, but I did. A lot. In the deepest way, until I got dizzy from it. He was a beautiful man, Moisés, with those big, black, rabble rouser eyes, always hiding from the light, and that aggressively curved Nazarene nose, and his venerable Leonardo da Vinci white beard. His mouth . . . Frankly, there had been many before him, but none like him. I was aroused by his smell, by his deliriously low voice, by the atrocious things he said and forced me to repeat (in truth he didn't have to go to much trouble to get himself an echo, talking gives me the shivers), his body temperature that was almost always feverish. His way of walking, so feline, as if he was lying in wait. Even his red aura of fury. Ah, Moisés . . . There are still days I miss him, especially when it rains or it's cold and the city crumbles outside.
It isn't easy to confess this. Some people are disgusted by it. For example, my friend Linda thinks I'm a degenerate with only half a neuron, and that I'm not worth more than an earthworm crawling up a dirty spout. Poor girl, she's ashamed of me. She's a professional writer, a real writer, a traveler, ambitious and full of energy, feminist in her way and full of very important thoughts. Her tendency to generalize made her consider that when Moisés the Caveman hit me, he was hurting all the women on the planet. Those here now and those still to come. But beyond the politics, she took it all very personally, and very hard. Oh, if only one day that ogre, that Cro-Magnon, that thug, that troglodyte, that Nazi would get confused, get his wires crossed and try to hit her . . . Ha. Then he'd see, yes sir, he'd see what could come out of a little box of guava sweets. She practically wanted him to. Yes, because those who live by the rod . . . —sometimes my friend also suffers from that same impetus that makes people scream and hit the table with their fists—What the hell was that guy thinking? Who did he think he was? So impotent, such a failure, such an insect . . . Because I was a fool and brainless, I'd given him too much leeway, too much license. Too much. And the sonavabitch took advantage and abused me. But one day, he'd come to his Waterloo, because not every woman was as timid, unhappy, or willing. Absolutely not, goddammit.
Without ever having laid eyes on him, Linda hated Moisés with the same intensity with which he hated "them." Deeply, dizzily. Like Hannibal the Carthaginian hated the ancient Romans. His mere existence offended her, drove her out of her mind. Of course, I never went to her with complaints or tears, not only because my situation (to give this thing a name of some sort) didn't exactly cry out to be made public, but also because I didn't want to add fuel to the fire. I've always believed that everyone should take full responsibility for their decisions and shouldn't go crying on other people's shoulders. But a bruised eye or a broken lip can be very hard to hide, even under three tons of make-up; to make things worse, my friend is very observant. She's very keen, quite astute, and always finds a way to get everything out of me, point by point, and then she gets even angrier. As a matter of principle, machos in general only provoke her disdain, but my lover became a question of honor for her. She'd get even with him and put him in his place or her name wasn't Linda Roth. To this day, I still don't know how I managed, in four and a half years, to avoid that dreadful meeting, especially in the summer months, which is when people get most intransigent and bellicose, and thus avoided my little home becoming a battleground. I think if for no other reason, I deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Who would have won in that war of titans? Who knows? Me, I wouldn't have bet on either of them. I would have simply hidden under the bed. Because if Moisés, in the red corner, counted on brute force like an orangutan, then Linda, in the blue corner, counted on a certain cryptic evil, like a serpent. They were both magnificent, whole and spectacular.
She would have loved to castrate him. Wasn't I familiar with the delightful story of Pedro Abelardo, the French rhetorician? A fabulist in the end, she even made plans to do it. First, two sedatives dissolved in one liter. Or better three, considering the complexity of the beast. It was imperative to take advantage of the enemy's weaknesses and she was well aware the animal was a major-league alcoholic. Then, to wait for the magic potion to take effect. No hurrying. Patience, great patience. To watch the slow descent of his lids, the tension, the collapse of the tower. Then, the pruning shears, clip clip, and the transition from bull to bullock would be complete, mission accomplished. Deed done . . . oh, and an artistic detail: we'll put it in his mouth, like a cigar, ha ha. Didn't I think that was an excellent idea?
I don't usually argue with Linda (in general, I don't usually argue), because she's wiser, shrewder, and always struggling to bring light into my dark life, even if sometimes it's by force. Nor do I like to inhibit her initiatives, as she says, or clip the wings of her imagination. But on this issue I gave myself permission to underscore a few tiny problems with the plan. What if he woke up at the precise moment and caught us both red-handed? He'd be pretty mad. And what if he bled to death? A heck of a problem. Could we get away with it? Almost certainly not, because it would be incredibly hard to get rid of the evidence, to clean up the blood and hide the body, the murdered body which weighed 91 kilos. Maybe she wouldn't but I'd get really nervous and would confess everything to the first cop who crossed my path; they'd have to slap me to get me to shut up. And, did she know that in our country the death penalty is still in effect, that the majority of the judges are men, and that, quite probably, not a one of them would be amused with our little prank, especially since we would have played it on one of their former colleagues? Yes, he'd been a judge on the Supreme Court and a full professor at the Law School, a real celebrity. Anyway, the whole idea of castration struck me as unfair, a bit excessive, since Moisés had never mutilated me in any way.
"You can write about those things," I told her, "but you can't act on them. If you're so intent on playing with scissors, don't you think it'd be best to do something more symbolic? Maybe you could cut his beard . . ."
Linda was horrified. She raised one brow and then the other. She looked at me as if I were monstrous. What did her sweet little ears hear? The little man's beard? Wow. There was nothing more repulsive to her than facial hair, so a man's face would never be as caressable to her as that of a girl. When had I lost my taste? Of course the beard was unnecessary. Beards were disgusting. But to be happy about cutting off a beard when you could cut off . . . ? Why the hell was I so passive, conservative, and silly? Did I have the soul of a yam? Or was I completely lacking in self-esteem? What century was I living in? My tongue ached to tell her the eighteenth century, my favorite century, but I controlled myself, in case she thought I was mocking her or something. Instead, I tried to change the subject. I asked her about her latest novel—how was it doing? I lauded the previous two, which were absolutely majestic and had had great impact. I told her she was a genius, that no one admired her like I did, and I even compared her to Virginia Woolf, but no go. Her latest novel, One Hundred Bottles on the Wall, was the story of a double homicide, but she still didn't know who to kill—she pointed at me, as if she wanted to kill me. The previous two had also been bloody and truculent, but they were out in the world on their own now. In the not too distant future, they'd be classics of the thriller genre, noir classics. Her agent was negotiating translations. And there might be a movie version . . . That was a great dream: to write for the movies. That's where the real money was, in the movies, and who was going to deny it, money made the world go round. Anyway, she knew she was a genius, much more so than that hypocritical English lizard I'd dare to mention in her presence. She didn't need to hear praise or bullshit, so I could spare her all my stupid admiration. Did I really think I could manipulate her with such sweet nothings? How pretentious, how arrogant the little fat girl could be. And she turned on me. As they say, in full force.
She got quite sarcastic, poisonous and cruel, as only she can get. She felt really sorry for me. Really sorry. Practically wanted to cry; she gave me a twisted grin. Yes, my story was a real tearjerker, like melting ice cream, a soap opera for retired ladies. I reminded her of women in Islamic countries. (She'd only told me about the beauty of the Aya Sofia when she went to Istanbul, so what could she be referring to now? I didn't dare ask.) The women in Islamic countries didn't have any choice in how they were. But in my case . . . I was pathological. It must be some sort of trauma to the cerebellum, a virus. In all honesty, and to be precise, I reminded her of certain characters from Patricia Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny. I couldn't possibly guess which one. Yes, that very one—she didn't actually wait for me to guess—"The Victim." The cheap provocateur. The imbecile, the nothing, the mentally retarded one. The one who got raped a bunch of times. Wouldn't I like that? Divine, right? Surely I entertained those sorts of fantasies before going to sleep. Why didn't I beg the Caveman (because all my communications with him, of course, were pleas, on my knees and kissing the floor) to invite all his buddies over for a private party between them and me? For an instant, I wanted to tell her that Moisés was very much a solitary man, that he didn't have buddies, but I controlled myself once more. It's important not to torment friends.
With a metallic voice that was at once as screechy and sharp as the blade on a dagger or a carving knife, she was off: all about victimhood. That little whore, more dolled up than a clown, her hair dyed, a masochistic cockteaser to the extreme, always playing with fire . . . until she got burned. Didn't I want to know the end of the story? Well, of course, it's as expected, the victim gets lost in an Islamic country. She's a pitiful thing, despicable, pathetic. A trashy woman. Revolting.
Sometimes Linda would overwhelm me with her readings but, by coincidence, I'd read the aforementioned book in this case. Yes, very original. An exhaustive catalogue of diverse female depravations. All the stereotypes. Strangely, the only one missing was "The Bostonian." That is, the dominant homosexual: caustic, totalitarian, and a busybody. Needless to say, I didn't bother to express my astonishment to Linda. It's important not to offend friends. But she didn't give me any credit for that. In spite of my silence (or perhaps because of it—I imagine that for argumentative people the absence of an adversary of the same caliber must be disconcerting), she slammed the door and stayed away for months. She didn't even say goodbye before she left for the Frankfurt Book Fair. I called her house three, four, a bunch of times, but she just hung up on me. I found this all quite terrible, because this charming girl is the person I love the most in the world.
Now that it's winter and I'm alone again (though not for long, since something small has decided to live), I think about Moisés. I don't mean "think" in a direct way, with rigor, following the logic of the word. I don't think I've ever known how to do that. Which is a shame, considering how important it is. Mostly I muse, I let my memory go free and it takes off, like a wild animal which surges, snakes, curls, and ends up leaping onto Moisés's neck. There are many questions and very few answers. Why did I accept his conditions? How did I let things go so, so far? At what moment did I lose control? What control? Did I ever have it? Was it ever really in my hands to stop what finally happened? I don't know. I don't think Moisés hated me. In fact, I don't think I mattered much to him. I wasn't important at all. His only obsession was with "them," the rascals, the rogues, the bandits. The enemies. His entire existence was based on trying to stop them from deceiving him, to catch them red-handed, to rip off their dirty masks, destroy their Machiavellian plans, confuse them, smash them, annihilate them, pulverize them. He was more misanthrope than misogynist. In his battle against humanity, I was his sparring partner. So that when he hit me, he was really hitting them. In this unfortunate personal intervention, I symbolized the worst of the human condition, the worst side of all earthlings, so repulsive, obnoxious, and sickening. To break one of my fingers meant razing Prague. Strangling me until I couldn't breathe, that was the massacre at Tlatelolco. If someday he'd managed to choke me to death (just a suspicion), well then, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now that I think about it with some calm, it's possible poor Moisés was a little sick.
“A brilliant, scathing Havana fever dream about a lost, overweight girl in love with an abusive, older man—so brilliant that the allegorical aspect of the book doesn’t strike you until after you’ve closed it.”
Esther Allen, New York magazine