A Message for Grethel by Ahmel Echevarría Peré
Translated by Zach Tackett
We met at the Cinematheque. We had taken the same bus and watched the city though the small window without trying to talk. In truth, I watched her when she wasn’t looking. At the theatre I noticed her in line behind me. There was a smile, and another ten minutes of waiting to buy a ticket. I realized when it came time to pay that I only had four coins worth 20 cents and a peso in my pockets. I had forgotten my wallet at home.
- Ahmel Echevarría Peré
- Fiction writer, photographer, editor, webmaster of Vercuba and Centronelio.
- He holds a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from ISPJAE University, Havana. He has published the narrative books Inventario (Unión, 2007), Esquirlas (Letras Cubanas, 2006) and Días de Entrenamiento (FRA, Prague, Czech Republic, 2012).
- Read more…
I looked through my pockets again: Keys, a peso, coins, and the bus fare bulletin. Nothing else. The ticket clerk was impatient with my delay. As the line grew longer he got angry.
—Two, please —she said to the ticket clerk and looked back at me. –Today is my turn to pay. Did you forget?
She gave me a wink. I wanted to go along with her game, but I couldn’t find the words.
I thanked her.
The employee muttered again.
We walked into the movie.
From my seat, I saw her choose her own seat a few rows away. She put on her headphones. She was listening to her Walkman until the lights went down. No one sat next to her.
I left for the lobby before the final credits, feeling ridiculous. The entire way to our seats and I had only said a stupid “thank you.” I needed to see her, apologize, make up some story in the hope that I could appear less stupid to her. I was so worried I could barely pay attention to the movie.
I didn’t have time to invent some excuse. She came out to the lobby right away. I walked toward her. –Excuse me, I don’t even know your name, and I’m in debt to you.
I suggested we met up some other time. She smiled. She said that it’d be pointless to meet up again if I forgot my wallet.
—Putting it in my pocket wouldn’t help me much. Do you have a pen?
Then I wrote my number on the back of the bulletin that I always carried in my pocket.
She looked into her purse, ripped a page from her agenda, and wrote something.
—When you call, say that it’s for me and leave a message. I don’t like to bother my neighbor.
In addition to her neighbor’s phone number Grethel also gave me her email address.
She didn’t have a telephone in her house and I was only able to look at my messages two times a week at a computer lab for writers and artists. To top it all off, we were going in opposite directions.
She was in a hurry. She apologized. She was going to visit a “Patricia” and couldn’t change her plans. The night seemed promising. No one was as used to so many setbacks as me. I had a list of such setbacks, an endless list.
I decided to walk her to the bus stop. We ran. The bus was about to leave. In the middle of running, I asked her if we could see each other the following day, and proposed that we meet at the Cinematheque at 8 pm. Grethel, before boarding the bus, searched in her purse, took out a twenty-peso bill and said, “Here. If we’re going to see each other tomorrow, you need to get back to your house first.”
I had met a woman and in less than five hours, I owed her money. I figured that the pieces of my calendar were about to change again. Was this a good sign? I need setbacks to know that something is going well. If not, it’s not worth expending the energy.
We met up again at the Cinematheque the following day. She didn’t accept the money when I tried to pay her back, but she did agree to pay me a visit.
It was not the last time we saw each other.
In a little more than ten months we had seen every corner of the city. Theaters, museums, movies, the seawall, both her and my friends, parties; one time I even went to church with her, and then I promised to go to the doctor with her, but she just didn’t want to talk about it much.
We weren’t doing badly and I wanted to ask her to move into my apartment. If it didn’t work, she could move back to her house.
I knew that I needed time, quiet, and space for my projects. I wanted to write, take photos, and draw. It was too much, but I was euphoric. More than having the desire to go out and conquer women, I preferred to share my euphoria and space with Grethel.
I guess the closest feeling of having met her is winning the lottery.
But we are even no longer.
I wrote her a note. It was a short message, only half a page, but I needed the whole night to write it. Coffee, music, writing, crossing out whole paragraphs, more coffee, standing on my balcony facing a sleeping city.
I repeated the cycle until exhaustion. I managed to finish the note at the break of dawn.
Perhaps her mailbox is the only possible place for a new meeting.
The last time that we saw each other face to face was in my apartment. It was almost noon. She was wearing casual clothing, her hair up in a pigtail, her lovely big eyes brighter than everything, carrying a backpack, and two completely full bags. The day before, she had called me in the afternoon:
–My Saturday’s free, I’d like to stop by your house. Can you set aside your work for a moment?
I was obsessed with the writing of a collection that barely differed from the structure of a diary and with a series of paintings of which I only had the sketches for a pair of works. I felt a sense of grace passing more time than usual in front of my computer, the block of notes, or my sketchbook. But in reality, I was exhausted and I accepted Grethel’s proposal. A Saturday with her could help me relax. No books, no computers, no brushes, no tempera. Maybe just some notes.
I told her yes.
Then, she asked me if I could also give her Sunday.
–I can’t say no; you are the most awful woman in the world. By the way, weren’t we going to go to your consult this week?
–I need to talk to you. It’s very important.
Our relationship was going smoothly and I thought that the conversation would be about us moving in together.
–I’ll bring food and beer. Saturday will be a special day and I want to celebrate.
To Grethel, Saturday would be a special day but her suggestion caught me by surprise. I was faced with another setback; I had forgotten something. I have a poor memory for dates and names, which Grethel knows well. I was convinced that I had not forgotten her birthday. It was still one week away.
For Grethel, my silence was enough.
–Don’t worry. But I don’t know if I should hold you at gunpoint to remember dates or just get used to your poor memory.
–Did I ever tell you that I won the lottery when I met you?
–Hundreds of times, but it’s not enough–I want to hear something more.
I didn’t dare ask what I had forgotten. I went back to apologizing and she said, “It will pass. I’ve become a silly girl, corny, perhaps because of my music collection.”
It could be truly dangerous for Grethel to have her recordings on hand. Her collection of blues, boleros, and “feeling” was a mix more lethal than cancer, according to her. She’d put the CDs in and, most of the time, she’d end up depressed and without the energy to do anything, except listen to them again. One after another. Until pain.
–Give them away or throw them away, please just get rid of them.
–There is no going back. Call it metastasis. Now I am also a dumb girl addicted to those CDs.
I interrupted her.
I told her that she had gone mad.
She paused before responding.
“Pay no attention to me. Certainly, we are going to celebrate this Saturday our 11-month anniversary, and with grandeur; we deserve it. I promise it won’t end like the last time we did it.”
I was right; she had gone mad. It was a dreadful celebration. Grethel arrived at my apartment complaining of stabbing pains in her breast. It didn’t disappear as night fell. I wanted to take her to the hospital, but she said it was nothing. I insisted; she lost control. We argued. We wanted to celebrate, but the day ended with a fight. I left her alone with her music collection. I left for my studio. I turned on the computer and tried to work on my Cuaderno de Altahabana.
I wasn’t able to concentrate. I tried my brushes and tempera. I left it all, and decided to make coffee, hoping that the infusion could calm us down and make peace.
After taking a cup of coffee to her, I sat on the bed. I couldn’t stop looking at Grethel. Lying there, naked, her hair wild, and those eyes red with tears. When we aren’t tumbling, I imagine her as a toy. A tender toy.
I couldn’t stop looking at her. I suspected that Grethel was the best thing that had happened to me in years.
I told her.
Grethel got up, pulled the sheet.
I followed her.
—Get off of me.
—What is it?
—I suppose that I am upset about you “suspecting”… That’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s something. At least it’s something. I’m confused… I’m confused and I don’t know what to do. To make matters worse, I have this damn pain.
I tried to pet her.
—Why don’t we go see a doctor?
—It’s nothing. You know what? I’m afraid. I don’t know what they could tell me.
—But what do you have to fear?
—I guess I’m afraid of the words… Nor do I know if I would have preferred to hear a phrase so silly as ‘I love you.’ Do you think it’s a silly phrase? However, I would have liked to hear it. I can look silly or corny, I don’t care, I’m not at all modern.
—You messed it all up.
I asked her if she had ever tried to tell someone that she loved him.
She wiped her tears and said she needed to rest.
Grethel: A model to assemble. At each meeting I held in my hands a new part. I was looking for the place to put it. I wanted to have all the pieces. I wanted to put them all together.
—Get off of me.
She left the room and went to the bathroom.
In our country, is it impossible to say ‘I love you’? Nobody ever told me. And in that phone conversation I mentioned it to Grethel: –Here, nobody is able to say ‘I love you’, no one says so. Can’t we say it at all…? I have not figured this out.
And in her call, she reminded me that she was not a modern girl and that I owed her a phrase.
–You stayed silent. Don’t mind me… For God’s sake, say something.
–Ever wonder why nobody in this country can say ‘I love you’? We should find the answer. Will you help me?
–I suppose I also need to know why.
We said goodbye.
Before hanging up, she said that it would be good for us to meet:
–I’m such a fool that I always forgive your bad memory.
After the call with Grethel, I went out and spent half of my money for the month. I returned with vegetables, fruits, a bottle of wine, cheese, and ham. Everything for her, except half the cheese and ham.
Now I only had to wait for her.
We would have a small feast.
When I opened the door, she smiled. Asked for help. She was carrying two heavy bags and a backpack. Sweating. I had never seen her hair in those pigtails.
I put the bags and backpack on the floor. I took her hands. I looked at her.
—What are you doing? —she said.
I kissed her. Long, deep. Kissed her chin and breasts. With a gentle gesture she tried to stop me.
—Does it hurt?
—It’s nothing, but I’m dirty.
I kept on kissing.
—Someone could see us —she gently removed from my mouth the small crucifix and part of the gold chain she hung it on.
We entered the apartment.
Grethel went to the bathroom while I went to the kitchen. I unpacked. While she was bathing, I asked if she had gone to the doctor and she said that she had come prepared to spend several days with me: “That’s why I bought food and beer. I also brought some music.”
I opened her bag and crossed my fingers. Inside was the case with her favorite albums.
—Will you forget about your projects at least for this weekend?
We had been together eleven months and what Grethel had bought appeared to be to celebrate a real anniversary. I thought about telling her, but I decided to stay quiet.
I heard the water falling in the shower as I cut the cheese and ham. Grethel was singing. I finished preparing the dish with crackers and olives, and poured two glasses of red wine.
As I opened the bathroom door, Grethel was beginning to lather. I pulled on her pigtails.
—I have a surprise —I kissed her neck and gently bit her ear. By the way, didn’t we have to talk?
—Today, we will celebrate.
I took everything to the living room. On a tablecloth on the floor I set dishes, glasses, the bottle of wine, and two incense sticks.
I turned on the TV. The news had just begun—this was truly a masterful class: Pure action from start to finish, digressions between each scene; two stories told in unison and only one travels on the airwaves. An immense iceberg fired accurately from the cathode ray tube.
Grethel left the bathroom. She smelled of violets and the world promised to be in one of its worst moments. She sat next to me. The newscaster started talking about the national elections and Grethel wanted to let her hair down.
—Stay like this. You look like a teenager; you appear to be fifteen.
And I went to kiss her again.
- The Writer Speaks
- Interview by Leopoldo Luis
- “ What distinguishes us is dispersion, no thematic convergence, the apparent diversity of styles, apathy, fragmentation. I think none of us has the pretension of writing the “great book.”
My heart was about to collapse, and her cheeks were flushed. I put her hand on my chest, she put mine on her chest and then on her lips. She bit my fingers gently, hugged me. Very quietly said, –Then I will be a girl.
She fixed her pigtails and started kissing my cheeks, my neck, my lips.
I took a piece of ham and a piece of cheese. A bite for both.
Grethel stood before me with her back to the TV. I undressed her slowly. First the sweater, very slowly. Then I kissed her navel, her belly, her breasts, and there was a slight sigh when I touched her neck with my lips. I undressed her slowly. I pulled down the legs of her sweatpants to leave her legs bare. All her skin bristled with the touch of my fingers. I looked at her face, her body. Only one piece of lace remained. Black. Minimal. I put my fingers in the elastic, slowly, watching every detail of her body as I pulled, very carefully, much like a rescue team pulling from between the rubble some bodies crushed and some alive. There were images of an earthquake. Indonesia, 8.7 on the Richter Scale. The city was under the rubble. A violent shaking came from Grethel. She removed my sweater, straddled me, and stopped being that teenager like a tender toy. Nothing further from a little girl. Just take all her pieces, change their places, and you will have another Grethel.
I started to drive into her with my penis. Hard, under my jean shorts. And she looked at me. Smiled, slightly. I kissed her lips, her breasts. And reached for the glasses of wine.
—Thank you, gentleman.
She moved her waist gently, said in my ear, “Do you really want to do it with a teenager?”
I smiled. We toasted.
One more piece to continue completing the new model of Grethel.
The incense burned. The glasses clicked and a column of black smoke and flames engulfed a U.S. Army Jeep. It was a tangle of guts, blood, burnt flesh, and fabric within the SUV’s frame. Several soldiers of the occupying army had died. A rocket from the Iraqi Resistance Army or a mine in the middle of the road? Grethel swallowed half the wine and set the glass on the floor. I did not care to know the answer.
She removed my shorts. She stuck her fingers in my glass.
—Where is the TV remote? —she said.
I reached for it. She raised the volume.
—If you want, use it with me.
And again she dipped her fingers in my wine. Grethel drew wet circles on my penis. I tried to touch her, put my fingers inside her. But she dodged my hands. She put her tongue on the tip of my phallus. She looked at me. She smiled. She winked. I let her go ahead.
She gently forced me onto my back. She stood up, and I was between her legs. She pointed to the remote control. I gave it to her and she gently put one end of the remote control in her vagina. She moved it slowly. Again and again. And changed the remote for my penis when she settled on me.
At times I gripped her buttocks with my nails, squeezing her neck, and pinched her, soft, on the tip of her breasts, harder around the waist. Grethel wrapped my arms around both of her wrists, leaned on them, and I was left adrift.
The next thing I knew of Grethel she had let go of my hands and stopped. The newscaster was about to read a press release about the Pope’s death. I had turned on the TV quite late and we had not yet heard the day’s headlines. Until that time we were only aware of John Paul II’s seriously ill health.
I wanted to say something and she put her fingers on my lips. We sat on the couch.
I raised the volume a little. I had been following Karol’s condition for days and at times I thought that he would get better. But no. Irreversible septic shock and heart and respiratory collapse. In May of ‘81, the Pope survived several shots, but this time the germs, heart, and lungs played a bad joke on him.
I watched Grethel and she watched the newscaster.
The voiceover was giving details of the Pope’s death: –Karol Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920, residing in Vatican City, died at 21:37 on April 2, 2005 in his apartment in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.
The cathode ray tube fired images of the faithful crowd in Saint Peter’s Square. Some prayed, some cried, most simply expected. The story ended with archival fragments of the Pope’s visit to our country.
Grethel had crossed her arms. She wasn’t watching the TV anymore. I wanted to do something, but I only managed to hold the TV remote. I could not say anything because I saw her feet up on the sofa, because her arms were wrapped around her legs until she looked like a ball, and because she finally rested her chin on her knees. I tried to hold one of her hands.
—Just let me be, please —she said.
However, she did not resist. I wanted to hug her, but this time she dodged and picked up her sweater.
She got up. She began to dress on her way to the bathroom.
I turned the volume down. I wanted to know how they would choose a new pope and who the candidates were.
While Grethel was showering, I proposed that we sleep together that night. A soothing pill and several hours of sleep would help her recover. But she made a gesture of denial. Then I went to the bathroom. This time I could hold her, but in my arms there was nothing. She wiped her tears, took a long drink and said –Sorry, I am going home.
—Stay. Wasn’t there something you wanted to talk about with me?
—I’d better be going.
She slipped from my embrace. I barely resisted and went to the living room.
The newscaster began to read an official statement about the days of mourning. I got dressed and decided to settle down so that I wouldn’t miss any detail. The Foreign Minister was speaking to the press.
Too much fuss.
And I called to Grethel.
—You must see this.
The Cardinal appeared in the news. They would say a homily.
—What do you think? —I said. —The Cardinal is in the news.
—I do not know what to believe.
From her backpack, she took out the box with the CDs.
—I will come on Monday, we’ll talk more calmly then.
I was about to curse the death of Karol, to throw the remote at the screen and have it explode into pieces at the Cardinal, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the newscaster. It seemed a conspiracy against me. I was exhausted. If I had decided to put aside my projects, it was to rest and be with Grethel. And she decided to leave without any explanation.
With the official note they repeated the footage of the Pope’s visit, during which he requested that Cuba become open to the world and that the world do the same with Cuba. Before me, John Paul II met with thousands of worshipers in the old Civic Square. From a huge print, hanging on the facade of the National Library, an immense Christ blessed the Square, all the devotees, hundreds of spectators, politicians, security agents, and the silhouette of the face of Che —bent steel beams reproducing with simple strokes that famous photo of the guerrillero taken by Korda–embedded in the front wall of the Ministry of the Interior building. All of this came in bursts from the cathode ray tube and I thought that they had hit the bullseye in my Grethel.
They shot and I was not unscathed.
—It’s okay, go. Take your CDs.
I opened the door.
—I’ll leave you these. I will come back on Monday.
We said goodbye.
I closed the door.
I had plenty of food and alcohol for the weekend. I checked my phone book, found the number of a friend, but in the middle of the conversation I made up an excuse to hang up on her. I didn’t have the energy.
I looked for the bottle of wine, the CDs, turned on the computer, and my audio equipment.
I started to drink the music collection bit by bit.
After Grethel left, I became aware of the phone. A long and stressful waiting in which I did not want to dial her neighbor’s number. A terrible wait. I could barely read half a page without returning to the beginning of the paragraph.
I could sit down and open my Cuaderno de Altahabana twenty days later. I was rereading the dates and notes when I got a call. It was Grethel’s friend Patricia. I told her that I was alone and that I had gone more than two weeks without seeing her friend.
–Maybe Grethel is at home with her parents?
–Ahmel, she did not want you to know. She’s been hospitalized.
I wrote down the room number and the hospital bed. They had discovered a tumor in one of her breasts. The pieces of my calendar were to change again.
She was lying in bed. Upon entering the room, I could not help but stare at her breasts. Grethel could neither talk nor look at me. At times, she contorted her face.
—It’s the chemotherapy —Patricia said and stood up to greet me.
I felt ridiculous. I wanted to talk, but I was frozen. I was torn between saying hello to Grethel and saying something that could serve as consolation. Instead I just seemed to become more and more awkward. I took Grethel’s hand, kissed her forehead. After greeting Patricia, I tripped over the rocking chair that she had been sitting on.
I looked at Grethel’s face. And her arms: A purple bruise around the punctures. And her breasts: A single breast under the fabric of the sheet.
Grethel got up.
—Would you excuse me? —She said.— I need to go to the bathroom.
As soon as Grethel closed the bathroom door, I asked Patricia with a gesture to go out to the balcony.
—She has cancer and dysplasia —she said.— She was slow to come to the doctor.
—And after these drugs?
She shrugged.– What can I say to you? I guess wait and see.
I returned to the room.
Grethel turned to me. I wanted to take her hand.
—Don’t say anything. You know I’m afraid of words. Whatever you decide will be fine.
There was still fifteen minutes in the visit, but I said goodbye to Patricia, to Grethel.
During my second visit, Grethel asked me not to return. She preferred Patricia’s company or to be alone. Her friend would keep me aware of her condition, send me a notice as soon she was discharged.
Soon, I got the call.
We agreed to meet at Grethel’s apartment. It was difficult to choose a gift. I dismissed bringing a bouquet of flowers or a cake, and decided on some CDs instead: A selection of Brazilian music, Maria Callas, and Edith Piaf.
She was waiting for me, dressed in the same casual clothes she wore on her last visit to my house. She had covered her shaved head with a bandana. She smiled. I must have smiled too because she hugged me, it was strong, and I squeezed her.
—I told you once that I am not at all modern. You see, I cry like a fool and all because of that damn music.
—It is lethal; now I know.
—Pure metastasis —she smiled.— I can’t do anything but keep listening.
And I showed her my gift.
She read the credits. Each disc made her smile. I never imagined Grethel as a great music lover. She seemed to hear the music of each song, the lyrics, even just by reading the album covers she seemed to be with Callas and Piaf in the room of that house.
—You will end up killing me —she said.
And we laughed. And our hands touched. And we got close. Too close.
I had her face, her breath, the sound of her breathing at no distance at all from me. Breath. Perspiration. A faint scent of violets. The slightly salty taste of my sweat. Grethel pushed the door with her foot and then wrapped me in her hands.
We threw the CDs on the couch.
Her?: Straddling me. Me?: Against the wall.
Lips, neck, saliva, my sweat, scent of violets. Grethel was trying to take off my sweater. I also couldn’t undress her with only one hand. So we got on the couch. Then I tried to take her sweater off —without wanting so, the scarf on her head got caught in the pullover and fell to the ground, exposing her whitest, bare scalp.
We looked at each other. She was tilting. She fixed her scarf and covered her chest with her arms.
She decided to get dressed. She picked up the sweater and stood in front of me. She wasn’t hiding her bust.
I walked to where the CDs were. I picked them up. I knew in detail the credits of the covers, yet I couldn’t understand what I was reading now.
—Do you want me to put one on? —I said.
—Perhaps Piaf. La vie en rose?
I looked at her. She apologized. I took her hands and left the CDs. We said goodbye.
With a few phone calls I managed to book a place in the computer lab. I had written down a message to Grethel on a piece of paper. It was just a short note that took me all night to write. I had to listen to her albums among coffee cups, deletions, and short walks from the desktop to the balcony, to make sense and finish it. Fitzgerald, Piazzolla, Bola, Miles Davis & Charlie Parker, Eric Clapton’s blues. Holiday and Louis Armstrong at dawn.
Grethel : email@example.com
I left. Paid for a taxi. Amused myself with the fragments of a city that passed through the window. It was midmorning and there were only two occupied computers in the computer lab. A girl assisted me. It was not the same one as usual. She asked my name. I got to choose a computer.
The girl was tall, with curly auburn hair. A sweet voice. I could not avoid her eyes. Maybe it was her smile, the way of her lips, her eyes, but her face shared certain features with a cat.
I opened my bag, took out the paper with the message. I turned to the girl. She smiled. She was a rare beauty, a very beautiful woman.
As I opened my mail, I read the words several times. And decided not to send the message to Grethel.
I closed the program, got up, thought about going to the seawall; I was near the coast, the bay just a couple of blocks away.
—Are you done?
—I’m going to sit a while at the seawall. Do you like the sea?
—Yes, especially all of the fish. I would join you, but I can’t close until six.
—How about if we go fishing? I am very good at cooking. I’ll come for you?
—Who will have to make the dishes?
I looked into her eyes, she didn’t look away, her eyes locked on mine.
—We could negotiate it.
I asked her name.
A rare and beautiful name. I said goodbye to the feline girl and went on my way to the sea.
Edited in English by Joshua Barnes
All facts and characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Los hechos y/o personajes de esta historia son ficticios, cualquier semejanza con la realidad es pura coincidencia.