Valeria, I’m leaving your house on an unseasonably warm and humid February morning and I think that the sky and the sun should ring out like those ancient dances you’re surely going to practice on your guitar, something like Luis de Narváez’s variations on Guardame las vacas, that piece you love so much. As you practice, you will chain smoke those fake menthol cigarettes. You’re so desperate to ruin that crystal clear voice, which, together with your guitar, made me stay with you again, when I had only wanted to enjoy your lioness allure, golden and frightening, for a night of intense aromas. The scene of trees and houses on the way won’t let me think clearly and lessen the wretched feeling between my heart and my stomach, this handful of pins that at other times would be spite, but in this case is pure anxiety, a simple repetition of the mutual abandonment I’ve experienced with other women. I drive through the mountains and the air hurts me, I turn on the radio and change the channel distractedly. I hear Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, sung by Emma Kirkby and my mood changes.
Lamento della Ninfa is the first record I put on, barefoot in your strange and beautiful house, half empty, still unfinished and lacking a garden, on a mountain in a wide valley, so wide that towards the south you can only see more mountains and few buildings. Your house is like a woman overcome with heartache, who nonetheless sneaks a glance at the solitary bed, new, still not broken in. A ferociously dry season accentuates the barren aspect of the land in which it is nestled, with no bars to protect it or fences to separate it from the road and the other houses. My choice is a lucky one, as you sing the Lamento softly to yourself as you serve me a Malbec reserve, a gift from a relative who went abroad many years ago. You start to talk of a thousand things that enter your mind, as you always do, anywhere and at any time, and I listen, silent and expectant. I observe you with an objectivity that I rarely display towards possible conquests, but with you it’s impossible not to because you are undoubtedly a ferocious, tender, brilliant and unnerving creature, a kind of exotic and unique liquor only for a certain kind of palate. Such allure surely hides a sharpened lioness claw, a touch of witch and sleepless warrior, a brusqueness that must hurt and burn, but as I’m not thinking of anything beyond the next few hours this impression doesn’t faze me. Your defects are no business of a friend who will be only a passing lover, a masked bandit.
Perhaps half an hour later I nock the arrow to aim at you and then I wonder if that’s really what I should do. The delicate red line that links my head, my heart and my womb trembles slightly. You talk alternately of music and medicine, one flowing into the other, mixing scientific terms and musical forms with popular expressions or simple obscenities, such as some resounding motherfuckers which escape through your large white teeth. You sing and you laugh, your tropical green eyes shine, your blossoming twenty-something is briefly forgotten, that twenty-something I fled from for the same reasons that you stayed by her side. You and she both come from the same working-class part of Caracas, Catia, and mix your university education with a brazen, rough and urban language, as do I at times. You accompany me on bass to ‘Baby I Love Your Way’, by Peter Frampton, a singer with a woman’s face and a man’s body, a rock angel from our foolish youth in Caracas high schools. You’re not fully aware of your actions because it doesn’t even enter your head that you’re seducing me unwittingly, as it should be, as one truly seduces. Now I do tense the bow, the arrow shoots without further delay.
You invite me to sing ‘Endless Love’ with you, like Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, an infinitely ironic title, of course. Endless Love, that Brooke Shields film that I wouldn’t watch today if my life depended on it. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, by that grotesque Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones in their heyday. ‘Timbalero’, by Hector Lavoe. Then we listen, unashamed, to the sound of white gold, the ‘Ciaccona di Paradiso e dell'Inferno’, that anonymous Renaissance wonder, sung by Philippe Jaroussky, a beautiful counter-tenor whose voice is as feminine as his body is masculine. We follow this with Aquiles Báez’s ‘La Casa Azul’, Handel’s ‘Hallelujah chorus’, Monteverdi’s ‘Beatus Vir’, Antonio Lauro’s ‘Seis por derecho’… Then Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, a fragment of Mozart’s Requiem, ‘Tu me haces falta’ sung by Claudia de Colombia, Daniel Santos playing ‘Rentame un cuartico’… And all the Goddesses: Celia Cruz, María Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Teresa Salgueiro, Dulce Pontes, Edith Piaf, Susana Rinaldi, María Rivas… No reggaeton, of course.
Port, another gift from a far-flung nephew, after a second bottle of Malbec.
Dile a tu nuevo querer
Que no hay nada que temer
There’s nothing to fear?
It all ends in a kiss that carries you to an impulsiveness that you can’t forgive yourself for the next day, when I tell you that I’ve broken the spell that hung above that bed of yours that still hadn’t been broken in properly.
“Now off you go”, you reply with a smile that I interpret as loneliness but which is also irony.
I’m friendlier and, between passionate and awkward, we repeat the steamy and curious gestures of the previous session. When I leave your side I’m so convinced that it won’t happen again, so convinced that I’m not your type, nor you mine, that when you take me to visit some friends, I’m torn between gratitude and wanting to flee.
Luigi Sciamanna reads fragments of Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and Hamlet. Gustavo Dudamel conducts Tchaikovsky pieces inspired by these plays. I see you for a second time and I’m seized by a fear of hurting you, because you’re a bucare tree blooming red plagued by memories and by fire. I end up with you between rumpled sheets and old worries. I see you for a third time and you feel like I did on the second occasion: caught between desire and shame, you don’t want me to love you because you’re still far from forgetting. Don’t worry, I know this is just an emergency romance, as you’re in intensive therapy for a failed love, the love of a young woman, the kind that harms your brain, your heart and your womb, as woman, lover, friend and daughter all come together in these blossoming bodies, and her absence means being abandoned four times over. I’m going through life scarred, and you know that there’s nothing like a hit of flesh to return you to Earth and remove you from pain, worries and bad luck.
Within a few weeks we’ve started to play girlfriends but we end in a gentle and mutually agreed separation, which puts me in my car and takes me away from your house one unseasonably warm and humid February morning. The anthology of Kavafis poems I gave you stays behind on your bedside table. The next day we have a gruelling phone conversation, an exchange of reservations, pride, and brutal truths, between weaknesses dressed in iron. Other women, more comfortably established in the world, would remark on our intensity.
The six letters of desire, that shining scar, carry me once again to your half-formed house; the six letters of desire challenge your spite. I write this fugue in your presence, and I read it to you while we share a beer and you practice Luis de Narváez’s variations on Guardame las vacas, that piece you play while those fake menthol cigarettes you love so much consume themselves. And I think as I type that the word love doesn’t suit you, but rather the word lover, even though we’re no longer merely a pair of masked bandits, but a faint tattoo linking head, heart and womb.
I’ve never written a story about a woman in her presence before but not even the most fantastic complicity can turn to frivolous love when tyrannical love is in charge. You look so happy while I write this story in front of you. I ask myself how our romance based on music and sex can co-exist with your spite, this kind of unending death which ties you to a rival who I know well enough that I don’t dislike her and she’s not really a rival.
I smile at you as you continue to practice the guitar. I’ve just returned from the University of Pittsburgh. I gave a talk in a room with enormous windows, the William Pitt room, surrounded by heaving magnolias trees. You know, the scene was so beautiful and so unreal, I think that’s why the angst I felt after a sad conversation with you became an impatient fire that sparked an intense political debate in the room. In the midst of the questions an email from you arrived. I had gmail open on my laptop on the table in front of me, and as the situation obliged me to answer difficult questions, I was alert like an animal on the prowl. I skimmed your apologies for the foolish things you said, before continuing with the debate, smiled and relaxed a little. When I could read your email calmly, I saw that you confessed that I had shown you a beauty in life you hadn’t known before. My affronted ego was relieved. I danced that night in a dingy nightclub and dedicated myself to flirting at that sort of festive meeting of the academic Organisation of American States, with people from all over the continent, so different and yet so similar to me. There was a young woman who looked like you, caressing a pale brunette.
The next day was Easter Sunday. The Andy Warhol Museum and the Natural History Museum were closed. I knew with absolute certainty on that Sunday, which I barely remember for how boring it was, that my friendship with my beloved and admired american friend Martina Osorio was over and that we would go to New York together to give it the funeral it deserved. Nonetheless, we were happy in that city which I saw for the first time one Monday afternoon, bursting with colossal monoliths, yet familiar to me as I knew New York well before ever visiting. I felt a vague fear faced with a city of such radical, fascinating and despotic appeal, such as some exceptional men and women possess. Seeing it, I was flooded with that urgent sexual desire which fills my body when I travel alone and think of the skin I left behind in Caracas.
The hotel that Martina had chosen online had the exterior of a beautiful old New York home, and an interior appropriate for the scene of a crime between impoverished prostitutes and ruined drug dealers. The police had even cordoned off one room. It was reasonably clean, but there was only a shared bathroom. Frightful. I missed you. Martina would arrive later as her flight left a few hours after mine. I went to stroll through the city and arrived at Times Square almost without realising. There was enough light in that square surrounded by shimmering screens to illuminate an entire town. I hurt for Venezuela and its electricity shortage. I searched for a telephone to call you because even though everything seemed familiar I was a simple foreigner, oblivious in New York. I struggled to find one, but all the same I couldn’t speak to you. As I rode around in the tourist bus, memories stacked up and a deep nostalgia accompanied me passed Fifth Avenue, the Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, Queens, the Empire State Building, the Village and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. They were fast and fleeting glimpses in which fragments of amorous memories painted my first solo visit with intimacy.
On your recommendation I saw The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. I thought of so many things as I ambled through the Met, struck briefly by a Van Gogh, a Picasso or a Georgia O’Keeffe. I thought about the existence I would be returning to, marked by the surprise and precariousness of life in Venezuela, and only being able to leave for a work trip which luckily was fully funded. A special exhibition on Tim Burton in the MOMA amused me for a while, and I smiled before the frozen expression of Marina Abramovic mid-performance. She would stare into the eyes of any museum-goer who glanced her way. It was an exhausting exercise. In another time, that woman would have been a saint, an expert in the mortification of the flesh for connection with a higher plane of being. I laughed at the scene, thinking of how you tend to mock everything, and I left.
Being a lover means giving yourself over to a continual present, it’s staring, unmoving, until one of the two of you blinks. Neither thinking about you nor not thinking about you. A lover is here and now.
I thought of you most on my very touristy trip to the Empire State Building. Martina and I went at midnight and sped through the wonderfully empty and shining corridors. We almost floated through that scene of marble and light, which impressed me despite myself. I looked at a relief of the building on the wall. The antenna radiated energy, represented by metal plaques. Ayn Rand, that ultraliberal propagandist, sprang to mind, with her monumental novels – so strange, bad, that they’re perversely good – whose characters are motivated by a creative and constructive passion so strong they would kill for it and let the world fall apart. Was it the spring air or the drinks?
We went up in an elevator that took only a minute, and then, after passing through a gift shop, we went out on to the rooftop, where the wind blew so fiercely that the drinks flew from my head, and I nearly went after them. A delicious vertigo hurled me towards Manhattan, a tornado of lights, and I understood that mixture of irritation and jealousy that the North American titanic vocation tends to cause for so many foreigners. That blow of monstrous beauty, that unfurling of vital power, both hated and envied for reasons which I fear are equally forceful, awakened my second wave of urgent desire in New York and I remembered you in that moment in X-rated scenes. Sitting here in your living room I now understand that I deserved that feeling just as you deserved a call from me on my way to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan, my toast to you in the old Stonewall gay bar, or the messages I sent you from Martina’s Blackberry as we drank beer at a game between the Mets and the Miami Marlins. Surrounded by such beauty, Caracas became more and more painful.
We communicated with difficulty due to your inexperience and my frustration.
Martina and I had changed to a better hotel. I wished her goodbye knowing that our friendship had come to an end, and that the Irish breakfasts and Haitian lunch, the accidental trip to Little Italy, the restaurant with Romanian waiters, and the pointless laps through the entrails of the New York Subway with her sister attested to a great affection which was ending for reasons as sad as politics and some old grudges typical of ex-lovers. On the way to the airport, the bus took many turns picking up passengers and I enjoyed the mix of eighties music that the Dominican driver seemed to take great delight in. From Michael Jackson to Culture Club, via Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan and Queen. I hate airports, so I suffered what I had to and was relieved to board the plane that would take me make to my sad disaster of a country.
Always polite, you came to pick me up from Maiquetía. You greeted me affectionately and we went back to your house to honour my X-rated memories of the Empire State Building. You were still feeling offended by that ungrateful ex-girlfriend of yours.
And we stopped being lovers and became friends.
I imagine it’s very difficult to get annoyed with you even though you often deserve it. Who can be seriously upset with a woman who is capable of living in a solitary house in the middle of nowhere? Is it possible not to laugh at your delightful adventures in the extreme left during your student days? How can anyone get mad at your constant distractions when you have such brilliant ideas as giving empty maracas to a friend who’s as deaf as a post so that she wouldn’t go off beat while “playing” in your band? Who has enough willpower to question the owner of two tiny, disfigured and very ugly creatures which out of pure kindness (or delusion) you call “my dogs”? Not to mention your jumbled readings, your devilish intelligence, your passion for science and music, and that bombastic and hyperbolic way you have of speaking.
Réntame un cuartico en el hotel de tu alma, Daniel Santos would say, chopping up the syllables. Rent me a room in the hotel of your soul.
Valeria, do you remember why I left your house that first time? Yes, that same house I would leave again weeks later thinking that the sky and the sun should ring out, not just be seen, and the same house to which I would return to you. It started one Saturday at five in the afternoon, at that place which sounds like a charitable institution: the Centre for Social Action for Music. It’s a beautiful building, a testament to the splendour of concrete, with fantastic acoustics and giant Carlos Cruz Diez mobiles. You got tickets for a live recording of a concert: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar orchestra. Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring begins. I thank you for the concert with sincere friendliness, but as the movements of Silvestre Revueltas’ The Night of the Mayas go by, I ponder the many other forms that gratitude can take. The music is much more like me than like you: perhaps your temperament is similar to this unfurling of brass and percussion, but a curious unawareness of your seductive power hides the similarity. As I applaud the end of the piece, I glance at you objectively and say to myself: tonight I will ring out and only your skin will hear me, so prepare your fingers for the arpeggio you will play and prepare to smell my soul.
“Play the ‘Fugue’ from Bachiana Brasileira n.1, by Villalobos”, I ask you while I finish reading what I have written in your presence, and you embrace me happily.
“That’s the title”, you tell me, “’Fugue’”.
Translated by Katie Brown
Gisela Kozak, PhD, is a Venezuelan writer. She works as a professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. She has published novels (Latidos de Caracas, Todas las lunas); short stories (Pecados de la capital y otras historias, En rojo); essays (Ni tan chéveres ni tan iguales); and academic research (La literatura asediada, among other works). She has also published several articles in specialized journals, collaborations in Venezuelan newspapers and journals, and pieces in Literal Magazine and the Spanish-language edition of The New York Times.
Katie Brown is a Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Exeter. She completed a PhD on "The Contested Values of Literature in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" at King’s College London. With Tim Girven and Montague Kobbe, she co-edited the anthology Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela (Ragpicker Press, 2016), for which she translated stories by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Héctor Concari, Liliana Lara, Carolina Lozada, Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez and Slavko Zupcic.