For Milena, ars brevis magister.
The door-slam sounds like a gunshot. With an empty expression and watery eyes, Julia keeps looking at the sheet of plywood shaking from the blow, for long seconds. Later she gets up, and with her hand still more tremulous than the door, she turns the key and slides the two bolts.
Mother fiddling with the bolts while she screams in her stentorian voice, with the veins of her neck swollen to the point of bursting: “Ungrateful bitch! Don’t you care about all the strings I had to pull so that all they did to you was transfer you to a different school…? How could you even think of something so stupid?! Going to the funeral of that skinhead sow, after all the harm she’s done to you! I’m the one who should go, to spit in her mother’s face… because, say what you will, I swear that bald pig was the one who perverted you, that it was her idea, because you’re too stupid, you always have been. But, that you would go? Not on your life! Over my dead body! You’ll stay here, so long as I have anything to do with it… And I’m warning you right now: if you so much as think of touching that telephone, I swear by all that’s holy that I’ll beat you to death, bitch! God, what a punishment, what a shame… and listen up, little miss delusional, if we have to move to Santiago de Cuba we’ll move, anything, as long as I don’t have to put up with these blabbermouth neighbors telling me to my face that my daughter is one of those… I would die first, you hear me?! And you too; I’ll see you good and dead before…”
Julia walks to the bathroom, with the cold floor caressing her bare feet. She lifts the toilet lid and with the same momentum, without hesitation, she reaches her hands in, though she wrinkles her nose at the penetrating stench of a whole day without water to flush. Controlling her disgust, her fingers rummage patiently through the semiliquid mix of old shit and urine, recovering from its depths something that looks very delicate or very valuable, depending on the care with which each piece is treated… little pieces of paper with irregular edges, as if someone had furiously ripped them up, many times. The dirty water has partially diluted the ink on the fragments, hopelessly smudging the words, and not all of them are even there, but she doesn’t even need to read them; the message is tattooed, syllable by syllable, on her memory.
When you read this I’ll already be gone. Don’t cry for me. Today my mother laid into me as if I were a criminal, thief, a murderer, or a junkie. It hurt me, a lot. I don’t want you to see me like this. I don’t want anyone to see me like this, I don’t want to live in a world like this. Nobody understands anything, and the only thing they know is to condemn. And I’m already tired of everyone pointing at me and murmuring, murmuring, always murmuring. I wish I could scream at them not to do it, become deaf, or invisible, or really small, or go far away, to Kuala Lumpur, to the moon, to Mars or Mercury, you know? Where I wouldn’t have to see or hear anybody. But, travel, ha… here even dreams are limited. The only freedom that we have is to decide when and how we leave for the final journey, the one with no return. Don’t feel guilty. I’m saying goodbye to you… unfortunately, this time it’s not a see you later, like every Saturday when we went home for the weekend, but a goodbye.
Goodbye, Julia. I love you, and I’ll love you forever.
Her hands tremble, but not enough to prevent the little pieces of drenched paper that less than an hour ago were a letter from being raised one by one to her mouth, chewed and swallowed, with slow deliberation. Julia tries to belch like her friend used to, but she can’t do it, and she smiles sadly, half-closing her eyes to caress the memory of how happy they had been that night, before everything was ruined…
Dawn. Two teenagers laughing in the same spot as always, under the dormitories’ foundation. Their secret place, their refuge, where they believe that nobody will find them. And there, free, together, they laugh and whisper about clothes, movie stars, singers, boyfriends, about affairs, and a thousand other female things. Both sitting on an old blanket, their legs entangled, free from the torture of stockings up to the knee and the horrible low-cut school shoes that are lying on a rock, like the tragic abandoned skin that a snake had just finished shedding. Their blouses and the skirt-shorts of their uniforms, in their odious blue, are also neatly folded on a corner of the quilt. One of the girls, with olive-colored skin, is still wearing her underwear, and the blonde teases her from the plumpness of her own nakedness. They happily share a sumptuous feast: bread bought in the nearby town and slices of cheese stolen from the dining room by the boys. The forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest. Amalia burps loudly, several times, making Julia laugh with her lack of manners.
Then they hear footsteps, as the erratic beam of a lantern cuts the darkness. With the reflexes of surprised prey, and no longer time to hide or run, they grow quiet, remain still, and close their eyes, as if by not seeing the danger, it would not see them either. Seconds pass, and the gasp of a breath close by, very close, convinces them that this time it hasn’t worked. And when they lift their eyelids again, in front of them is the fat mustached face of Esteban, the school’s mulatto assistant director of Student Life, who looks at them, his mouth agape, almost more shocked than they are themselves, with lust and disgust and desire and a feeling of duty and pure intolerance doing battle in his pupils… until, the latter triumphant, he brings to his lips the whistle that hangs from his neck blowing with all his strength. And the girls feel as if every tweet amputated a piece of their lives, and their world sinks helplessly while the rest of the universe falls on top of them.
Julia rises and faces the mirror. Her face, purplish from weeping, is like a wound in the reflective glass. She pushes the image aside, opening the door of the medicine cabinet to take out the scissors. The blades aren’t very sharp, but she persists, with all her strength; one lock, then another, and another. The amputated curls fall like the flakes of an impossibly dark snow over the sink, over her bare feet, but she continues to cut regardless, with a vengeance. Until from what once was a splendid curly mane the color of a raven’s wing there are only two or three tufts covering her almost naked skull…
“Don’t turn around yet… I have a surprise for you” “You and your surprises… stop being silly, Marxism class starts in less than half an hour… well, come on, can I look?” “Yeah… what do you think? Tell me it doesn’t suit me.”
Her natural blonde hair, the envy of all the girls in her dorm from the first day, is gone. Her smooth skin, strangely pale, on which veins jut out with a scratch or two, as if inflicted by a sharp razor gripped by a clumsy but determined hand. The effect, however, is tremendously sexy, maybe because of the immense green eyes that stand out now more than ever, free from the competition of the blonde mane
“Have you gone crazy? You shaved your head! Nobody has that haircut, you look like a dude. Esteban is going to say that it’s ideological diversionism, and he’ll…” “He’ll what? They can shave the guys’ heads by force if they want. A mane takes time to grow. But nobody can make me grow it, right?” “Amalia, are you crazy… why?” “Yeah, crazy, crazy for you, and you’re crazy too, and I like you crazy. Come on, don’t you want to do crazy things with your crazy woman?” “Back off, you look like a dude… I’m not used to it.” “A dude? Even better… I want to be your dude. Your crazy dude. Don’t you like it? Hey, c’mere…”
Her tongue, clumsy like after centuries of silence, pronounces syllable by syllable: “Crazy dude” and Julia looking at herself with a serious face in the mirror while she says it. “Crazy dude, crazy dude, crazy dude” repeating it several times, and with each one she releases a button on her plaid shirt, still looking at herself. Her breasts, small but with large, dark nipples, open out toward her sides when she frees them from the oppression of the masculine garment.
Amalia’s hands, clumsy but determined, wrapping around the tiny buttons on the blue blouse of her friend’s uniform. “What if someone comes down here?” Julia still asks, looking around everywhere, trembling with fear, embarrassment and something she doesn’t recognize, but that’s not all together unpleasant. “Nobody has come down here at least since Brezhnev’s last visit, this place only gets cleaned when someone important visits” she tries to appease Amalia, her fingers already struggling with her bra. “No… no, no way” Julia shrinks and steps back, covering herself with her hands “So, little girl, you want this or not? What’ll it be?” the blonde looks at her intently, standing still. The darker one doesn’t respond, but she drops her hands and closes her eyes, allowing her to continue. Her bra falls to the floor, her breasts are free, pale skin framed by the tanned outline of her underwear, in beautiful contrast. “I want to see yours” Julia hears herself say in a voice that isn’t hers, but rather of someone gruffer and more determined, and she knows that if she could look at herself in the mirror at this moment she would see her face red as a tomato, like it always is when she gets excited, upset, sad… or all the above.
“Forget it” Amalia takes a step back and looks at her, hands on hips and legs slightly parted. Julia envies for an instant her short stature; she almost doesn’t have to lean down at all, while her own back is beginning to hurt from being hunched over so much. “What do you mean forget it?” “You heard me. I don’t have the slightest intention of taking off my blouse” the blonde repeats, with a tone that is at once roguish and categorical. “But, I thought that…” Julia starts to say, all bashful. Amalia cuts her off, winking an eye: “Don’t worry, because if what you want is to look, I’m going to let you… look.”
Her buttons must have already been open, because before the brunette can understand what her friend is doing she’s already taking one leg out of her skirt-short. And when she takes out the other Julia realizes that she’s wearing nothing underneath…
“Girl, your eyes are about to pop out” Amalia catches the gaze of the other by surprise and starts to smile, with a shimmy copied from Gilda “You like that? Ever since I was a little girl, I haven’t liked wearing anything underneath because of the heat…” Julia’s pupils, so focused, are transfixed on the darkness of her friend’s intimate thicket. She begins to think how strange it is that, being so blonde, she has such brown hair there…
“Besides” her hand falling as if by accident between her naked thighs “since you were home last week with pinkeye, and I missed you so much” her fingers sliding up and down, almost unconsciously “so many nights sleeping alone, tossing and turning, until I began to think of you and to fall asleep I had to… you know…” her soft, moist, rosy flesh becomes more visible behind her curly little forest, when Amalia opens her legs a bit more “and, you see… I got a scrape” despite the childish tone of her words, there is nothing naïve or innocent in the blonde’s movements; her closeness to Julia has the same deliberate inexorability of a cobra as it slithers toward a little bird.
The brunette begins to tremble as if small electric currents were racing under her skin, while the distance between Amalia’s pubis and face grows smaller “Look, it’s still hurt… I have a big boo-boo” the blonde rests her hands on the trembling shoulders of her friend, who feels her nose dilate and her cheeks burn when the acrid, musky aroma enters her pituitary “Aren’t you going to kiss it and make it better?” Amalia moves forward and Julia, although not rejecting the mature fruit that she is offered, leans backward as if it scares her “Now, now” Amalia mutters, no longer pretending to be a little girl, when her sex and Julia’s lips finally meet “That’s a good little girl” Julia’s thirsty tongue hesitating “a good, obedient, dirty, good slut” Amalia’s hips undulating, and Julia likes what she says, what she does, what they do to her, but they also embarrass her… and for this she likes it even more.
The stopper a solitary black point on the white porcelain. Without flushing the filthy toilet, the naked Julia pours bucket after bucket into the gran bathtub, until it’s full, not caring that to do this she had to empty the deposit that contains everything reserved for the week. And when the water gets almost to the top, she opens the medicine cabinet and searches and searches, with clumsy fingers, knocking over bottle after bottle of nail polish, until she finds...
Amalia and Julia painting each other’s toe nails in the former’s bunk, the best of the first cubicle, the top one next to the window. The blonde, in shorts and a t-shirt, listens dazedly to the brunette who, more conservative and wearing a robe, tells her about the book that she just finished reading: The Satyricon, by Petronius Arbiter. Faced with her friend’s enthusiasm, Amalia, who never has read anything but romance novels, reaches the point of asking her to lend her the book when she finishes it, and Julia looks at her eyes for an instant. Amalia maintains the gaze until both, somewhere between stunned and uncomfortable, turn away in unison.
Her hands so unskilled that they seem alien freeing the object from its paper wrapping. Leningrad. Razor Blades. S(a)tainless Steel. Made in USSR. Julia sinks into the bathtub with one long, sudden step, making the water spill over the tiles of the bathroom. The oblong metallic gleam clutched between her fingers with bitten nails on her right hand like a believer at risk of dying would clutch a crucifix.
The Organic Chemistry midterm exam, the silence in the classroom, and professor Alina walking up and down between the desks, the undisputed and ruthless dictator of the incomprehensible kingdom of alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes. Julia reads the question again. The propane molecule? Just what she didn’t study. Was that the one with one carbon? No, that can’t be it, that one is butane… The one with two or three, then? She looks around, desperate, gnawing her pencil… If she believed in God, she would be reciting an Our Father, a Hail Mary, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand, provided she could remember this damned, insignificant detail that could nevertheless spoil her 100 average. The professor’s eyes, patrolling tirelessly, meet hers and force her to lower her gaze… until her pupils happen on Amalia’s, which seem to smile at her from the next row. Julia clings to the promise of that smile like a shipwreck survivor to a plank, shaken. Amalia doesn’t have a reputation for intelligence or for studiousness, but she doesn’t do so badly on exams either. Besides, after that night, who knows? Perhaps she, grateful… The answer and the relief come together, when the blonde slowly lifts the front pleat of her skirt-short, revealing underneath, written in black pen on her naked right thigh, the names of the hydrocarbons with their number of carbons on the side. Propane, three. And an extremely relieved Julia, when the Cerberus Alina turns around, throws a kiss to Amalia, who winks again. Good girl… grateful, at least. She could be a good friend, and Julia doesn’t have too many good friends.
The coldness of the water giving Julia goosebumps. Some hairs that, although already cut, were still stuck to the skin of her scalp free themselves now, twisting like tiny sea snakes when they touch the liquid. The knife in her right hand, soldered like prey between her thumb and index finger. Julia lets herself slide backwards, until only her nose and eyes remain out of the water, then closes her eyelids with all her strength.
Although she covers and shuts her eyes, she can’t ignore that they’re there. Wednesday night, the only one of the week when the pre-U instructor doesn’t sleep in the seventh-grade dorm, is the one that the eighth and ninth grade boys use to visit their girlfriends who live there. Julia sees them pass like furtive shadows, wrapped up in her quilt, and now she covers her ears as if trying not to hear the laughter and the panting that comes later. She hates and anticipates these nights. And as for the girls who receive the visits, though during the day she’ll be the first one to dedicate to them the whispered four-letter word that so stigmatizes a woman, by night she not only hates and despises them, but also envies them. Nobody has ever come to her bunk at dawn, and no one will ever come… not because she’s ugly, because she isn’t, but because she’s the official bookworm of group 1 and of dorm A-2, and nobody looks at the nerds or trusts them very much… lots, in addition to being studious, are also snitches…
The worst part is that she, who could never betray anyone, is so alone…
Muffled sobs cut off Julia’s sad thoughts, and with that almost bat-like sense of echolocation that is acquired only by living months and months in a dorm and knowing even the tone of each girl’s snoring, she identifies their location: it’s Amalia, the girl with long blonde hair whom she was introduced to on the first day, the one with Lester, that ninth-grade swimmer who’s really fine. She cries louder and louder, and the boy’s voice rises above her moans, leading to a torrent of bad words that only cut the imperative hiss of someone else, worried that the guard making the rounds will hear them.
Lester leaves, giving the wall a thump and still muttering bad words, but the sobbing continues. And without really knowing how or why, Julia finds herself jumping from her bed to Amalia’s, hugging her with a maternalism that confers her greatest stature on her, consoling her weeping. Lester has left her, because she didn’t want to, not yet, she needs time, to be sure, it would be the first time, but he’s still a man, men only want that, they don’t think of anything else, they’re all the same… Julia caresses her, without words, alien to her tragedy but not to the comforting yet strange sensation of her head leaning on her adolescent bosom, of her tears wetting her robe, of that small body that seeks to be confused with her own, like a little animal frightened and needing protection. Yes, she too is so lonely in this school, far from home, forced to share every minute of the day with people who until two months ago she had never seen before, without a single minute of privacy until they turn off the light…
And caressing each other without thinking, they sleep together. Nothing strange, either. In the seventh-grade girls’ dorm, many are still afraid of the dark, and prefer not to sleep alone.
Julia opens her eyes, as if reborn to an irrevocable decision. Slowly, with relentless deliberation, the blade traces its indelible red calligraphy on her left wrist, and the water begins to have a scarlet tint. Later, the same operation, barely changing the hand of the sharp instrument, she repeats it on the opposite wrist. “Like Petronius,” the girl mumbles, while her fingers release the razor blade, which slowly glides as it falls and leaves a reddish trail across the water, before resting on the bottom. Two streams of red liquid smoke emerge from the open veins, further obscuring the water, second by second, minute by minute…
Seconds pass, which turn into minutes and nobody approaches to say hello. How quickly would she make friends? Adults never understand anything…
Julia is alone and isolated, almost hidden behind the two suitcases filled with all the things that an overanxious and overprotective mom thinks her poor sweet daughter, who hasn’t gone alone even to Tarará, at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Vocactional School could need: mosquito net, hotplate and pot to heat water, extra blankets, electric hair dryer… all that and more.
Even though she’s a head taller than all the girls her age, Julia is scared, but she doesn’t dare even to recognize her own fear. Every moment she feels more and more ridiculous, comparing her monstrous load with the light backpacks of the others, whom she looks at out of the corner of her eye trying to guess who they are, from what neighborhood, what school, what it’ll be like to live with them five days a week. A short girl with long blonde hair who also carries a huge suitcase approaches her, shy. “Hello… seems like we both brought too many things, huh? What an awkward way to start off. I’m Amalia, and you?”
Julia feels very calm, less sad, almost happy in her memory, when she closes her eyes again, slowly, definitively. “Amalia,” she whispers, and nothing else.
March 4, 2003
Translated by Adrian Demopulos
Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Havana, Cuba, in 1969, Yoss assumed his pen name in 1988, when he won the Premio David in the science-fiction category for Timshel. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Cuba's most iconic literary figures—as the author of more than twenty acclaimed books, as a champion of science fiction through his workshops in Cuba and around the world, and as the lead singer of the heavy metal band Tenaz. Restless Books has translated two of his novels into English: A Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande. A third, Condomnaut, is forthcoming.
Adrian Demopulos was born in Dallas, Texas. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with BAs in Spanish and communication. In the fall, she will be pursuing an MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. Her translations have appeared in Latin American Literature Today and in the anthology A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins by The Mexicanx Initiative.