Sometimes you look at the world and you can’t understand it for all you try. They tell you the trick is to adapt, to get used to it, to conform. I know that much already. What other choice is there? Well, sure, there is something else you can do but you don’t do it because, first of all, you’re not that crazy. You have your health, your desires, your ambitions; you are made for living. It’s what you do. And dying, death, going down with the ship might be all that they say it is, but I am not built for it. I will not argue about it, either. I have friends who love talking about it. Not me. You want to die? You go ahead. Leave me out of it. What’s the hurry? It’s not just the dying. It’s all the time they expect you to stay dead.
This is why I will not go out there in an inner tube like those lunatics did. I'd rather wait for the right moment, the right tide. I am tired of arguments, opinions, debates. Talk, talk, talk, a black-market of endless verbalizing. I want work that I can do with my hands, in silence. I want to make things, useful things. I want to go to work, come home, pay the rent, eat, make love and go to bed. At least I’d like to try it for a while. Maybe it’s not for me. Maybe it’s too late for me. But as I sit here covered in dust and sweat, watching the sea turn from emerald to lead, I wish I could float away like a paper boat on a flooded gutter after a downpour. Float out of sight into that liquid desert and wake up in the world, in the real world. The one you see on television, in the movies, the world of those people who look at us and smile those strange smiles. People of the real world. True, sometimes I don’t understand them, but I think that comprehension is overrated anyhow.
I have a friend who says, “Roberto sleeps on the beach on Sundays because he thinks a bunch of mermaids is going to pop out of the water and carry him to Key West.” What he really means is I sit here on these night sands waiting for some benevolent rafter to ask me to join them. “Está loco,” they say. But I don’t argue anymore. Mermaids…I wouldn’t even know how to make love to one.
Who’s not a little loco on this never-never island, anyway? This water-locked madhouse where nobody calls anything by its real name, unless you’re talking to a foreigner, or to your saints. I used to tell my friend, “You’re mistaken. I don’t spend the night on the beach waiting for some imaginary rafter to give me a ride to freedom. Aren’t we supposed to be freer than anyone has ever been?” But I don’t argue anymore. What for? But—just between you and me—it got me thinking. Sometimes I think that is exactly what I come here to do.
Like a child with a wet bottom, playing with a toy shovel night after night, hoping for a ghost rafter to take me away.
Granted, I’ve been accused of being a dreamer. But I have my moments of lucidity too. I’ve been known to wade waist-deep in the heavy waters of reason and see things and faces for what they really are. If not, then why would I be sitting here breathing that dead fish smell and watching the sea stir like boiling crab soup in front of my starving eyes? I do not long for freedom, maybe just a better prison.
I don’t mind confinement. What’s so bad about having a cell of your own? How much space or things does a dreamer need? Look at me. I wouldn’t take too much space in any raft. Hey, brother, just give me a little corner there out of everybody’s way. Nobody will even notice me. Freedom, what is it anyway? I’m not sure I’d recognize it even if it slapped me across the face…Until we hit land, that is.
The real world. The New World. The world of my forefathers. At least half of my genes, the white ones, originated there. Well, maybe in Europe, but by way of El Norte like the charros call it or Yankeelandia as the gallegos say. Call it what you will, half of me belongs there. Still, they keep saying the same things about me. “Leave Roberto alone, the poor man has gone loco. Thinks he’s half-American.” But, as I’ve said, I don’t argue anymore. I have the two things I need to prove them wrong. One is inside me: my indisputable certificate of authenticity. The other is inside the wall of my bedroom—my mother’s bedroom before she died.
When I think of her, the surf, the sound it makes becomes a form of silence. And the moon…Where is it? It’s gone out of sight again, taken the light of the world with it.
Moon-face. That was what my mother used to call me. “God,” she would lament between peals of laughter. “You don’t look a thing like your Papa.” But it doesn’t matter, the looks, I mean. I have the DNA and the manuscript. My DNA will prove what the manuscript cannot and vice versa. You say I don’t look anything like my Papa? Okay, check my DNA. You say, Okay, my DNA confirms the bloodline and such, but it’s of no consequence because I was born out of wedlock, an illegitimate child, a quickie in the shed, an unlucky bastard. Okay. This is when I will swagger forward and pull out the envelope and slip the script out like a gunslinger draws his six-shooter, and say, "Here, feast your eyes." And I will unveil the manuscript—Papa's autobiography, a work no one knew it existed—and they would fall on their asses in absolute awe.
“Could it be the real thing? It looks real enough…”
Sure, they will rush it to the experts. Only to find out the truth. And I’ll become an instant celebrity, rich, privileged. Then, when I get tired of all the attention, I will move to a farm and spend the rest of my days as Papa did in Ketchum, far from the sea, where I can work with my hands and create things. Things that no one needs but maybe some people might find useful, as with Papa’s work.
Why Papa ended it the way he did, I’ll never understand. No one called him loco when he stuck that double barrel in his mouth and blew his head off. That head so loaded with wonder and prose, so ripe for the picking, all the knowledge and insight it contained splattered all over the wall.
The pain, they say, the pain was too much. In his case, it was the sane thing to do. Me, they called loco when I tried it. It wouldn’t be the same with me. Even with his genes swimming within me, it wouldn’t be the same. Those certifiable genes he passed on to me by way of a sixteen-year-old mulatica who became the co-author of me do not make it the same thing. Why? I’m not sure. But as you know by now, I don’t argue anymore. What’s the use?
Sure, you might have his genetic matter and his pen—oh yes, I have his pen. His famed fountain pen, a Parker 61 prototype with stainless steel cap and gold-filled trimming, a beauty. The one he used on who knows how many historic literary documents. Except it has no ink. Can’t get ink for it anywhere. They refuse to give me any because they say I’ll drink it down. I only did it as a joke, a juvenile prank. Twenty years later, I’m still without it. Yes, I do have his pen. But it’s dry, dry like this island.
I would never forget that day mother pulled me aside and said with an air of nostalgia and wonderment but not of love, “This here pen belonged to your Papa. He gave it to me the day he gave me the manila envelope with the papers and said to me with his bad Yankee accent, ‘Mirta, I want you to have this. You may not think it’s much now, but you wait a few years and see.’ He was right. To me, it was just a pen and a pile of papers.” Then she let out one of her African laughs of joy and pain. “How was I to know those papers contained his most secret secrets? One of humanity’s greatest literary treasures. I was only a stupid girl then. You were still in my belly, smaller than a mouse. Then he disappeared forever aboard his Pilar, sailed away into literary martyrdom. All he left me was you and those yellow, dog-eared pages. Better than nothing, no?”
A pale light spreads over the beach like silver dust. It is in that strange moonlit instant that I first see her coming. Her boyish body and Olympian long and lean legs striding toward me out of the foaming surf.
She is gorgeous, a miracle bathed in moonlight. She sits beside me on the sand, her casual, languid movements in rhythm with the breaking waves. I take a good look at her long legs to make sure they are not covered with green scales. No, this one is no mermaid. She’s all caramelized flesh and blood.
“You are Roberto el Loco, no?”
“Roberto, yes. Loco, I’m not so sure—”
“Well, whatever, my cousin Chicho told me to come and ask you—you know Chicho, no?”
I nod yes.
“Anyway, he told to me to tell you that the raft he was building is finished and he’s ready to push it out,” she says, pointing away at the other end of the beach. “So he sent me over to offer you a place on it if you want it.” Her singsong voice is sweet, nothing like her Amazonian physique.
I laugh. “Yes, yes, of course. When are we sailing?”
“Look, cousin Chicho says the raft fits eight people. And he told me to tell you there’s space for one more if you want to come.”
“Is this a joke?”
She snaps her lips in that sassy way only habaneras can. “Coño, chico, do I look like I’m joking?”
No, she didn’t. Still. “Why me?”
“Look, man, I’m just here to give you this message. You can come or you can stay. But you’ve got to decide now. They’re getting the raft ready, ya,” she says, looking away
“Over there.” She extends her arm and points at a single light at the end of the curved shoreline. “Near the fish plant.”
I had to laugh again. “Come on, what’s this all about, really? Your cousin and I don’t even know each other that well.”
“Everybody knows you on this beach. Everyone knows you’ve been wanting to escape for months—”
“For years,” I correct her.
“Whatever.” She starts to get up as if she’s already done her duty and now cares little whether I come or not. “Well?”
I look up at her statuesque silhouette towering over me. Was this my ride to freedom? “Is this for real?”
She gives me a sideways look. “It’s now or never.
I hesitate a few seconds too much. “Mira, chico, so what’s it going to be? You’ve got to tell me now. Plenty of others are dying for that space on the raft.”
The realization shot through me like a heatwave through my veins. I jumped to my feet. “Okay, okay, but first I have to go home and get some things, you know, my documents . . .”
“Wait. There’s no space for bags or anything. You can bring your documents and whatever in a plastic bag and the clothes on your back, but that’s it. Not a thing more: Chicho’s orders.”
What would it all mean without Papa’s manuscript? “Yes, yes, of course,” I said, knowing I wasn’t going anywhere without it. “Just let me run home a moment and be right back. OK?”
“How long will you be?”
“Sing a song and I’ll be here by the time you’re finished. Don’t you move. Wait for me…”
I took off running, her voice behind me like a mermaid’s song telling me to hurry. I couldn’t believe it. I ran as fast as my feet could go over powdery sand, transported by the magical quality of the moment.
A minute later, I’m at my door. My home of a lifetime, a two-story beach house my abuelo had built with his lottery prize in Santa María del Mar before the Revolution, of which I was only allowed to occupy two rooms on the second floor.
I fly up the cold granite stairway. The other three families in the house are asleep. I tiptoe into the kitchen, pick up the crowbar and head to my bedroom—mother’s old bedroom. I stand before the wall that contains the family treasure. I remove the ancient mirror with the baroque gilded frame. My heart is racing. With the crowbar, I start poking into the plaster around the nail where the mirror had been hanging, the X spot.
I try very hard to keep it as quiet as possible. But how do you open a hole in a brick wall quietly in the middle of the night? I had placed a bedspread on the floor but the ancient brick and plaster crumbles down loud anyhow. Sweat is dripping down the side of my dusty face. My hands start to burn and tremble. I can’t believe what is happening or what I’m doing. Some part of me is already looking back at this moment as though it happened long ago.
For the first time in my life I am going to hold the manuscript in my hands, actually see the family treasure, three decades after my mother left it concealed in the hollow of the wall awaiting this moment. The idea of it is even more incredible to me than Chicho’s offer of freedom. Liberty or death, I say mockingly to myself as I pound harder on the wall.
Suddenly, I hear shouting in between swings and hits.
“Hey! What the hell you’re doing up there, Roberto?” The voice feels like iced water down my back. “It’s two o’clock in the damn madrugada. Some of us got to go to work in a few hours, cojones!”
It’s my downstairs neighbor, a paladar owner—the last guy who wants the law coming anywhere near here these days. I keep swinging the crowbar, going as fast as I can.
“Roberto! Loco de mierda.” Now it’s the upstairs neighbor, the Committee Delegate, doing the yelling. “This is insupportable.” I hear his wife joining in. “I’m calling the police. Oh yes, this time I am…I’ve had enough of that lunatic.”
I’m tearing into the wall like a gold miner swinging his pickaxe into a newfound gold streak. I know the manuscript has to be in there. Mother would not lie to me. “The family treasure, son. The master’s last words. Your Papa’s gift to us.” My ticket to paradise.
My arms and my face are covered with plaster dust. I taste it on my lips. Where is the damn manuscript? I can already see through into the next room. Where is it? Mother, you told me it was here. Dig right behind the mirror, it’s what you told me. Start where the nail is.
The shouting starts to multiply throughout the house, louder and angrier, like a gathering lynching mob. “Roberto! You crazy maniac. I’m going up there and kick your ass, I swear. Stop that banging already…Yes, Robertico, por favor…I will call the police this time, I’m warning you.”
Almost half the wall is gone but I can’t stop now. Mother, where is it? My fingers are bleeding. I hear a series of hard blows that shake up the house to its foundations. It isn’t my hammering. I hear it again. It’s my door coming off the hinges.
“Roberto, hijo de puta…the police are here…you son of a bitch.” The doorframe cracks and splinters off the frame.
I keep pounding on the wall with all my might. Then, through the dusty brown light of the ceiling lamp, I notice something wrapped in green canvas. It’s the manuscript rolled up inside a piece of olive green tarpaulin. I reach for it—
It is here when I feel a flash of lightning, like a streak of moonlight rippling on choppy waters; it always comes at this exact moment. It never ceases to take me by surprise despite the countless of times it has happened before, a lightning across a starry night. And again, I savor the blood, the plaster on my lips, and the all-consuming numbness sets in. It starts in my legs and works its slow death up my body until my life ends again.
And again, it is midnight. And I am sitting on the night sands under the same battered moon over the same ocean of ink. The same sweat-soaked Saint Augustine emptying the ocean into a hole in the sand, pretending to grasp the incomprehensible, waiting for the future to let me in.