Loving Che: A Novelby Ana Menendez
A young Cuban woman has been searching in vain for details of her birth mother. All she knows of her past is that her grandfather fled the turbulent Havana of the 1960s for Miami with her in tow, and that pinned to her sweater-possibly by her mother-were a few treasured lines of a Pablo Neruda poem. These facts remain her only tenuous links to her history, until a… See more details below
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A young Cuban woman has been searching in vain for details of her birth mother. All she knows of her past is that her grandfather fled the turbulent Havana of the 1960s for Miami with her in tow, and that pinned to her sweater-possibly by her mother-were a few treasured lines of a Pablo Neruda poem. These facts remain her only tenuous links to her history, until a mysterious parcel arrives in the mail. Inside the soft, worn box are layers of writings and photographs. Fitting these pieces together with insights she gleans from several trips back to Havana, the daughter reconstructs a life of her mother, her youthful affair with the dashing, charismatic Che Guevara and the child she bore by the enigmatic rebel. Loving Che is a brilliant recapturing of revolutionary Cuba, the changing social mores, the hopes and disappointments, the excitement and terror of the times. It is also an erotic fantasy, a glimpse into the private life of a mythic public figure, and an exquisitely crafted meditation on memory, history, and storytelling. Finally, Loving Che is a triumphant unveiling of how the stories we tell about others ultimately become the story of ourselves.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Loving CheA Novel
By Ana Menendez
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Ana Menendez
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhenever I travel, I like to spend the last day of my journey in the old part of town, lingering for hours in junk stores whose dusty shelves, no matter where in the world they may be, always seem to be piled high with old magazines and books and yellowed photographs. I am a nervous flier, and this excavating into other people's memories never fails to soothe my fears on the eve of departure. The photographs of strangers, especially, have always brought me a gentle peace, and over the years I have amassed a large collection of serious and formal-looking people caught in the camera's moment. Many of the subjects of these old photographs, I've come to notice, carry a grave shadow about their mouths, as if they were already resisting the assertion that these images might represent their true selves. Some nights, when the blue hour is falling, I will take out one of my photographs and imagine that the stranger caught there is a half-forgotten old aunt, or a great-grandmother who smoked cigarettes from a long silver holder. But I know that I'm playing a game with history. For all my imaginings, these images will remain individual mysteries, numbed and forever silenced by the years between us.
* * *
Some years ago, I became interested in thephotographs that exiles had taken out of Cuba. It was common, I found, to frame the photos or place them in albums, to be taken out now and again in the company of friends. I thought I would construct a traveling exhibition of these photographs, and was even able to secure funding for the project. But I ran into delays and other problems. Many families, I was dismayed to learn, would not give up their photographs, not even for a few days. And when, in a purely innocent gesture, I agreed to accept the photographs of exiles who had fled Batista, my political motivations were put in question and the entire project fell apart.
Disillusioned, I abandoned my plans and came to interpret this fetish for the past as another of the destructive traits of the Cuban. Miami seemed to me in those years to be living in reverse. They named even their stores after the ones they had lost; and the rabid radio stations carried the same names as the ones they had listened to in Cuba, as if they were the slightly crazed sons of a once prominent family. This endless pining for the past seemed to me a kind of madness; everyone living in an asylum, exiled from the living, and no one daring to say it plainly.
I wonder now if this backward looking of the exile-the Cuban one in particular, so hysterical and easy to caricature-could be an antidote to a new and more terrible kind of madness. The exile, whatever the circumstances of his leaving, may wake up one night, as a traveler in an unfamiliar room, and wonder where it is he may set down his feet, in what direction lies the door by which he entered. Perhaps this trauma of separation-beginning from our very birth-is the normal sequence of things and to detach oneself, to learn to move freely about the world without longings or inventions, takes years of patient learning; and even then we may turn one day and find the years hollowing a dark canyon beneath us.
Of my own origins, I know little. I was raised by my grandfather in a western suburb of Miami in a small house that was almost indistinguishable from the other houses on the street. Every morning he walked me to school and every afternoon we returned home together. When he spoke it was to point out a particular type of tree that he wanted me to know about, or the name of a flower that was growing in someone's garden. In the evenings, he would sit in his bare yellow chair and read for hours in silence. After, when I had gone to bed, my grandfather would turn on the shortwave radio he kept inside the cupboard. Every night, I drifted to sleep listening to stations coming in and out of tune, the peculiar whine punctuated now and then by a low-hummed bulletin in Spanish or the scratching notes of a danzon played out over distances I could not yet fathom.
In my grandfather's house there was no television set, no magazines, no photographs, only books and the quiet turning of pages. Of my parents, as of most things, he spoke little. I grew up with the understanding that my father had been in prison, and had died there, and that in her grief my mother had sent me away. If I asked my grandfather any questions of her when I was a child, I have little memory of it. Perhaps I sensed already that she had been part of some great disappointment, that she was one of the many things of the past that it was best not to speak about. It is true, also, that for the years of my childhood, my grandfather comprised the whole of the world I knew. Yet somehow, in spite of these buried sorrows, he had managed to give me an uneventful, even pleasant childhood; and what I remember most now are the ordinary markings of growing up: splashing in a plastic pool with the neighborhood kids, my Catholic school uniform and the comfort of being part of a group that agreed on important things. Perhaps my grandfather, with his private memories of turmoil, had set out to give me a bland and ordinary life; or perhaps that is the life that comes to those who have stopped struggling to make sense of things.
The time came, however, when my grandfather's silence about my mother no longer satisfied me. As a girl I had already begun to sense a void behind me, and as I grew older I became more and more preoccupied with the blank space where my mother should have been. As I passed into my adolescence, I spent more and more time thinking about her, and in each imagining she grew more beautiful, more exciting, more different from the woman I myself was becoming. The easy respect, the love, I had shared with my grandfather slowly came to be overlaid with frustration and distrust. The more questions I had for him, the more he seemed to retreat into the quiet of his books. When I asked him once why he didn't have one photograph of my mother that he could show me, he responded, simply, that she had never given him one.
Our disagreements always managed to skirt the edges of our loneliness, however, and I found I could never leave him. Even after I enrolled at the university I would return home every Saturday to sit with him for lunch. Sometimes, when the weather was good, he retreated to the porch after the meal to smoke a cigar. One day, instead of doing the dishes first as was my custom, I decided to join him right away. I sat beside him and after a moment decided to help myself to a cigar as well. My grandfather's eyes widened ever so slightly for a moment, but he remained silent. I sat still, looking out into the yard. After a few minutes, he put out his cigar and I did the same. A bird called and then was gone. Something rustled in the grass. It had rained that morning and the breeze carried now the moist earth smell that reminds us we step on living ground.
I began by telling him about my classes. He asked me a few questions about what I was reading. He listened and then said, For literature there was no one like the Russians, not even Shakespeare. Only the Russians, my grandfather said, understood that a man cannot change his nature. I looked at him, but he didn't turn to me. So one shouldn't even try, I said. My throat burned, and the discomfort of it perhaps lent my voice an annoyance I hadn't meant. My grandfather shrugged. Just accept, I continued. With this he turned to me and said, very softly, You have no right to be angry at me. At who then? I said, trying to keep my voice equally low. My grandfather didn't respond. I don't understand, I said slowly, how you could have gone these years without trying to get in touch with her. I paused. If only for me. My grandfather didn't move and I continued, rushing now to fill up the pauses: I don't understand how you have not one photograph, not one letter, not one document. For all I know I have been raised in a lie-what's to keep me from thinking you didn't kidnap me, or even that you're not really my grandfather? With this last, I knew I had pushed too hard, and fell silent. After a long while, my grandfather said, You want documents, photographs. This is truth to you? I didn't answer. I heard my grandfather shift in his chair, and then we were quiet. When I turned to him, I saw that his hand shook where he had brought it to his cheek.
After a long while, my grandfather said, We had a lemon tree in the courtyard of our house. A small tree-we grew it in a pot. But it gave good fruit. When she was a little girl, your mother used to pick the lemons and eat them one by one in little bites. My grandfather paused. Even then she was so beautiful that she did what she wanted. The effort would twist her little face, but still she would bite into it. My grandfather looked at me. His eyes turned down, but he managed a smile that deepened the lines in his face. Then he leaned back in his chair and let out a sigh. This rain will be good for the ferns, he said. After a minute, I said, Why? I said it so quietly that he might not have heard me. He sat for a little while and then, pressing his hands against the wooden arms of his chair, he lifted himself up. The sliding glass door behind me opened and shut.
The shadows lengthened and then spread. I became aware gradually of music coming from the shortwave, and I recognized the sad voice of Tona la Negra. When the song was over, another came on, and then another, all of them carried on a whisper. I had scarcely moved. For some years, I had been aware in myself of a strange detachment, an aimlessness. I could sit for hours and do nothing, feel nothing. Now I heard every small rustle in the grass, every labored ant-step.
I sat out on the porch until it was almost dark. The sliding door opened again behind me and I turned. In his hands, my grandfather carried a worn piece of yellow paper.
It had been her idea, he said after he had settled into his chair. I didn't want to take you away from her. But she insisted. She said she wanted you out of the country. My grandfather lit the small candle between us. He picked up the note again and when he sat back, his giant shadow materialized behind him. For years, I tried to contact her. Every May, on her birthday, I wrote her a letter. If I have no letters to show you now it's only because she never responded. Some years ago, my grandfather continued after a moment, I asked a friend who was traveling to Havana to take her a package. My grandfather turned to me. Some drawings you had made, and yes, a school photograph of you. But when he got there, he found the house filled with five different families. Teresa had vanished.
My grandfather and I sat. In the silence, a far-off cricket sang, followed by the sound of the breeze rolling like a fire. She herself had arranged things, he continued. In six months, she would join us. My grandfather sighed and fingered one of the edges of the paper in his hands. In the candlelight he seemed older than ever, shadows exaggerating his bony fingers, highlighting the fragile fabric of the skin over his knuckles. When I applied to leave the country, he continued, the government took my house. I still had to wait for our visa. I had no choice but to move in with her, into the house I had given her. At night, I could hear you crying. Some nights, you cried all night long without stopping. I don't know if she left you where you were, or if you cried in her arms; I never left my room. It was December, he said. The day we were to leave, she brought you to me, wrapped in several blankets. She laid you on the bed and you didn't move, wrapped up like a little moth, big eyes looking out over the room, resting now and then on an object; it was almost as if you were taking inventory. She gave me a bag of your things-some clothes, bottles, and the brown bear that you lost one year at the fair. Remember how you'd cried? And I told you it was nothing, that we would get you another one. But you can imagine what I, too, felt.
My grandfather opened the paper in his hands. I had removed your blankets somewhere along the way. But it wasn't until we arrived in Miami that I noticed that your mother had pinned a note to your sweater. I threw it away immediately, without reading it. And then that night, I took it out of the trash. I was never going to show it to you. What is the use of keeping these things? My grandfather smoothed the paper out on his lap and handed it to me with the same shaking hand I had noticed earlier.
I held the note in my hands for a long while. Finally I bent down to read by the yellow light of the candle.
Farewell, but you will be with me, you will go within a drop of blood circulating in my veins
I read the lines several times. And then I refolded the paper and sat looking out into the darkened yard until my grandfather rose, saying that the damp night would do us harm.
A few months later, I dropped out of college and began to travel. One windy December day, I drove up the coast to Sebastian Inlet. I stopped at a small hotel and became its only guest. The first morning, I took a magazine to the beach and sat out all day, wrapped in a blanket, listening to the waves. When the sun began to set, a flock of seagulls rose against the deepening sky like a hundred evening stars and I sat and watched them until night fell.
As the months and then years passed, I traveled farther and wider, my desire to keep moving always outpacing my small terror of planes, my fear of leaving. I was in India when I got word that my grandfather had died. It took me three days to get back to Miami, by which time I had missed the funeral. I stayed with friends for a few days before returning to my grandfather's house to sort through his things. The first night alone in the house, I was unable to fight the feeling that at any minute he would turn a corner and wave in the shy manner he had. The house was filled with a new silence that seemed to muffle even my attempt to mourn. Unable to sleep, I sat up all night in his chair, reading one of his books on the growing and care of ferns.
Shortly after, I made my first trip to Cuba. When I landed and saw the capital by the red light of sunset, I knew I had returned to find my mother. I took a room at the Habana Libre and spent days walking my grandfather's old neighborhood-knocking on doors, waving to women in their balconies, reciting to anyone who might listen the name of my mother and the three lines that were my only connection to where I had come from. I made several more trips, each as unsuccessful as the last. And though I met many people and passed out my address to anyone I thought might have known my parents, I waited in vain for word. Eventually, I stopped traveling to Havana, the trips leaving me more and more exhausted, not only from the uncertainty but from the sadness that I came to understand more clearly with each visit.
Excerpted from Loving Che by Ana Menendez Copyright © 2004 by Ana Menendez. Excerpted by permission.
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