The Writing Disorder



New Fiction


by Eliza Snelling

       I knock on the door of my apartment, and Osmany opens it.
      “Mi amor, ¿Se te olvidaron las llaves?” he asks.
      “No, I didn’t forget the keys. I had them.” I am still clutching the detached strap of my purse, and now I hold it up demonstratively. It wriggles like a friendly, black leather snake. It is only now that I consider how ridiculous I must have looked carrying it with me as I walked home.
      “Qué te…” Osmany starts. We alternate week by week between English and Spanish. It is a Spanish week now, but, when he notices that I have been crying, Osmany switches to English. “What happened, Christina?”
      “I got robbed. There wasn’t much in it. My carnet was in my pocket.”
      “Only eight CUC and some moneda.” Osmany looks at me disapprovingly. He doesn’t like when I treat money lightly. But we are rich—relatively, of course. I am still writing my column.
      “You’re okay?”
      “Yeah. They didn’t touch me. Just the purse.”
      Osmany steps into the apartment and I follow. We stand in the kitchen but don’t sit down at the table.
      “Did you go to the police?”
      “I spent two hours there.” Suddenly, I don’t want to talk about it anymore. At the police station, I imagined coming home and collapsing into Osmany’s arms, telling him everything, letting him massage me until I stopped shaking. Now that I am here, I am just embarrassed. I know that he is trying not to look judgmental; I can see the tension pulling the skin of his face.
      “You have to be more careful, cariño. You think you’re a big city girl because you have lived in New York. But it’s different here. You are more visible. People think certain things when they see you.”
      I hate him for talking to me like a child.
      “It could have happened anywhere,” I say.
      “And where did it happen?”
      “Just on Calle B. I went to the theater. I knew you’d be out late tonight, so I went to the theater.”
      “Why did you not call me from the police station?”
      “I did. You didn’t answer. You must not have been home yet.” I am forcing myself not to express any emotion. I will not give him the satisfaction of comforting me. I will not let him be superior to me.
      Osmany takes some eggs out of the refrigerator. Our refrigerator is the color of “It’s a Girl” baby shower helium balloons. It doesn’t match anything else in the kitchen. None of the appliances match. We are lucky to have a refrigerator. Osmany cracks the eggs on the rim of a frying pan. When they are done he puts the eggs onto a plate and then puts the plate on the table.
      “Eat it. The protein will help you stop shaking,” he says. He puts his hands on my shoulders and gently guides me into the chair. I love his touch. His hands are always hot, and, even here, that heat feels good. The pinky finger of his left hand broke when he was a child and never healed properly. When he lays his hands flat, that finger hovers slightly above the rest.
      I don’t want to eat the eggs. I have no desire to eat anything, but I spear a piece and raise it to my mouth. It feels too large and soggy against my tongue.
      Osmany sits down in the other chair. “So,” he begins, and I wait for another chastisement. “How was the play?”

      When I first told friends that I was going to marry a Cuban man, they adopted concerned expressions and politic tones of voice. “Are you sure you have the same goals?” they asked. “Are you certain you both see the same future for this relationship?” they asked. In short, they wanted to know, wasn’t he probably just doing this to get a green card? They didn’t ask this directly because they had all gone to liberal colleges and they read The Nation. They supported immigrants’ rights and weren’t racist, but, wasn’t I afraid of getting hurt?
      “He wouldn’t come here,” I told them. “I’d go there.”
      This made them far more concerned.
      When I first came to Cuba, I felt like a bride going to an arranged marriage. I had not seen Osmany in a year, and we were to be married in a week. I could have gone illegally before then, but Osmany had argued against it. He didn’t want there to be anything questionable that might come up when we applied for our various permissions and visas. So, for a year, we talked on the phone every two weeks and wrote e-mails every day. He couldn’t send or receive e-mail on a regular basis, so, although we both wrote every day, our communications were erratic and disjointed: a temporal puzzle.
      Osmany didn’t come to meet me at the airport. Always practical, he pointed out that we could have a dramatic reunion equally well at his apartment as we could at the airport, and save the cost of an expensive cab fare. So, I took a cab by myself from the airport, through the city, to his apartment. I arrived at his door with a suitcase in each hand and no return ticket.

      I wake up late. Osmany has already left. There are four newspapers out on the table, including the Juventud Rebelde, for which Osmany writes. For him, each article he writes is a revolutionary act. When he is working on a story, he paces the apartment with his shirt off, muttering to himself. At some point, after half an hour, or even an hour, he suddenly runs to my laptop and writes an entire flawless paragraph without a single pause. I wish that I wrote that way. Instead, I sit staring at my screen, write some terrible sentences, go back and make them better, get distracted and write a grocery list, delete it, continue.
      As soon as I am dressed, I go out. I like to preserve this ritual. It would be entirely possible for me to stay in the apartment, to stay in bed even. I don’t have anywhere to be. But I insist on going out; it makes it easier to believe that I am still an adult, that I will someday have a job again, will have responsibilities, a place to which I am tied, and people who know me as something other than Osmany’s yuma wife. Osmany is trying to get me a job as a translator for the Granma Internacional, but he has been trying for the past three months. I believe that he will succeed, but it no longer seems like something that has any relation to the present; it exists like death, something inevitable, and yet infinitely distant.
      I decide that I will walk to the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón.
      I look for my purse for a few minutes before I remember that it is gone.
      The sidewalk along the Malecón is damp—the waves must have gotten high last night—but now the water is calm. There are two boys who have fishing rods set up but who seem to be more interested in teasing each other than in catching fish. Women sell pastries from their windows. I see a girl I recognize as an American student in a study abroad program. She is headed toward one of the few hotels that have Internet access. The American college students who come here are mainly girls. They laugh loudly and swear poorly in Spanish at boys who catcall them. They drink rum with other boys at the Malecón. I often see them at the market. They buy little things, sweets mainly, while I haggle over my weekly groceries. I never talk to them.
      I walk along the water for a while before turning into the city. I am in Vedado, where Havana’s rich once lived. Those people are all gone, most of them dead by now; the rest, the ones who were children who played in manicured gardens are scattered around the world. The mansions remain, though—at least parts of them do. I pass one house that is missing the entire second story. The façade is still intact, and there is a little circular window that now cuts straight through to the shocking blue of the sky. The husks of ancient cars putter along the streets, the sun gleaming on their ostentatious tailfins. There are tree roots cascading down a wall next to the street, the roots like a wooden waterfall, its liquid flow slowed to the speed of imperceptible arboreal growth. On the other side of the street is a building with the slogan, “Revolución en Cada Barrio,” painted in slanting, childish letters.
      Unlike so many coastal cities that recline languidly on hillsides, Havana is flat, and, as soon as you enter into the city, the ocean vanishes from sight and consciousness, exercising its power only through the heavy humidity of the air.
       Eventually, I arrive at the cemetery gate. It is a giant stone arch, covered in carvings and topped with statues. The gate seems to be part of some other city, buried beneath this one, only now beginning to erupt. In a way, that’s what it is. All the paths of the cemetery have street names, and it is possible to give the addresses of the dead exactly like those of the living.
      I show the woman at the entrance my carnet, and she scowls before giving me the national price. Then I enter the city of the dead.
      I wander around the cemetery. There are sections filled with ornate mausoleums, sad angels perched on the peaks of their arches, lamenting the dead within. In other, poorer sections, there are just rows and rows of identical plain stone caskets, looking like peaceful benches. I remember a boy bragging to me at a café once that he had had sex with fifteen different girls in the cemetery, lying on top of those monuments. He suggested that he, Osmany, and I should have a threesome. I politely declined.
       “Excuse me,” someone says very quietly. A male voice. I am about to assume that he is addressing someone else when it occurs to me that I am probably the only apparently English-speaking person anywhere in the near vicinity.
      “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says.
      “It’s nothing,” I reply.
      “I’m looking for the tomb of the woman who was laid out overnight next to her baby, and then they found the baby in her arms the next morning. It was mentioned in the guidebook.”
      “It’s not that I believe that stuff,” he says
      “No, neither do I.”
      “You’re American?”
      “Yeah,” I reply.
      “How long have you been here?”
      “Four and half months,” I say.
      “Oh, wow. Are you doing something particular then?”
      “I’m here with a study abroad program. I’m the group leader,” I lie. I do not want to admit, yet, to being a wife.
      “That’s cool.”
      I bask in the easy conventionality of this conversation, the shared rhythm. Osmany speaks English very well, but I know that he cannot think in English; he still translates each sentence in his mind before he speaks. I feel a sudden, overwhelming temptation to give in to every oddity of the English language, to speak only in idioms and cultural references, and to see them understood by this tall, pale man. But nothing of the sort comes to mind.
      “What are you doing here?” I ask.
      “I’m a photographer. I came here illegally, though, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to show the pictures I take. It’s more just always been a dream of mine to photograph this stuff.”
      “What have you been photographing?”
      “A lot of cars, mainly, so far. I’m a classic car nut, so I’m pretty happy here.”
       He is a nut. Yes, he can say this, and neither of us thinks of the food. I imagine that we are the last living speakers of an ancient language.
      We talk for a while. We are both from New York. Our paths have probably crossed before. We both interned at the MoMA in college, but not at the same time. No, we do not know any of the same people. We establish these facts.
      “Well, I should let you get back to your walk,” he says.
      I feel a sudden, inexplicable sense of panic. I am tempted to grab him and force him to keep talking to me. I know this is ridiculous, but I cannot allow him to leave. I won’t.
      “Wait, we didn’t find the tomb you were looking for yet. Now you’ve got me curious, too,” I say. He hasn’t said anything about the tomb since he first spoke to me and has done nothing that might understandably arouse any desire on my part to see it.
      “Very true,” he laughs.
      We begin to walk, as if searching for the tomb, but we are not particularly looking at the monuments and have no reason to believe that we would recognize the tomb he read about even if we did pass it. I work harder to keep him engaged in the conversation. I fill gaps. I preemptively segue to new conversation topics whenever the current one seems nearly exhausted. I feel like a spider, trapping him in the web of my voice.
      “This is going to sound really stupid, but do you have anything with you, from the U.S., that I could see?” I ask.
      “I guess. Probably,” he laughs. I wait greedily as he looks through his wallet. He comes up with a Metrocard.
      “Will this do?” he asks, handing it to me. With an almost lustful desire, I take it from him. I finger the edges, the smooth black strip. I am hoping that if I hold it for long enough I will be transported, will hear the rumble of the train while standing in the fog of someone’s too-strong perfume. I close my eyes for a second before I realize how this must make me look. Quickly, I open my eyes and see that he is watching me with a sort of bemused indulgence, the way one watches a child. I want to ask to keep the card, but instead I hand it back to him.
      I am supposed to meet Osmany for lunch. If I leave now, I will be about five minutes late.
       “I have to go check in with the kids on the program,” I say. “What are you up to tomorrow?”
      “Nothing much. Going downtown and taking some pictures, probably.”
      “Have you been to the Museo de Chocolate yet?” I ask. It’s a tourist café, priced in CUC. Osmany wouldn’t approve of my going there.
      I draw him a map. We laugh at its poor quality. We set a time: 2:30. Unlike Cuban men, he wears a watch. He will be on time.

      That night Osmany and I sleep with the window open, and I can hear the sounds from the Malecón floating upwards, filling the air like the salt. There is music and laughter and yelling, and then, later, those things fade away, revealing the sound of the waves that has underpinned them all along.
      I lie awake listening to the music of a guitar until it stops. Then I whisper “Ozzy.” I call him that even though he doesn’t understand the joke. “Ozzy Osbourne,” I tried explaining, “he’s a musician.” Osmany nodded, but I could see that he didn’t understand why that should make it funny.
      “Dime, mi amor,” he replies sleepily. He is generally a sound sleeper, but he always wakes up to the sound of my voice. If the phone rings and I answer it, he sleeps through the ring, but wakes up as soon as I speak.
      “Will you hold me?” I ask him.
      He scoots towards me, twisting the sheet, and tosses an arm over my chest.
      “Not like that. Tight. Like you don’t want me to run away.”
      He pulls me closer, but it is still just an affectionate squeeze. What I want is for him to hold me so tightly that I can barely breathe, so that I am completely cocooned in him. I want his arms to leave thick red bands on my skin. If he did that, if he straight-jacketed me against him, I would feel safe enough to cry.
      “You are comfortable, Teeny?” His voice is so tender. I know that he can’t do what I want.
      “I love you,” he says.
      “Te amo también. Es una semana de español, ¿no?”
      “Sí. Te amo también.”

      Eliza Snelling is a first-year MFA student at Brooklyn College and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2009 from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared twice in the Sarah Lawrence Review and is forthcoming in the Wolf Review and Swamp Magazine.

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