Sept. 2010 WLT
Reinaldo Arenas was born in a small village in Cuba’s Oriente province on July 16, 1943. He was an early supporter of the Cuban Revolution, joining the rebels in the mountains when he was just fifteen years old. By the late 1960s, however, Arenas’s writings and his open homosexuality brought him into increasing conflict with the Cuban authorities, who took a dim view of deviations from established orthodoxies, be they political or sexual. After spending several years in jail, Arenas escaped during the Mariel boatlift (1980). He wore a disguise, as he was forbidden to leave the country. He settled for a time in Miami, but the exuberantly inventive and iconoclastic writer of such stories as Celestino Antes del Alba, could not long endure the orthodoxies of Miami. He moved to New York, where he discovered he was infected by HIV. As he was dying of AIDS, he worked furiously to finish his memoirs. Near the end of 1990, he told his agent, Thomas Colchie, that he did not want to return to the hospital, instead wishing to spend his last days at the beach. Some days later, Colchie tried to reach him to tell him that an admirer of his work had promised to take him to the seaside for his last days. “When I tried to tell him that his wish had been granted, it was too late,” Colchie told the New York Times. Arenas committed suicide on December 7, 1990. His suicide letter began: “Due to my delicate state of health and to the terrible emotional depression it causes me not to be able to continue writing and struggling for the freedom of Cuba, I am ending my life. During the past few years even though I felt very ill, I have been able to finish my literary work, to which I have devoted almost thirty years. You are the heirs of all my terrors, but also of my hope that Cuba will soon be free. . . .”
Many, many years later, at the end of this story, I found myself, somewhat inexplicably, on a railway platform. It was December. Outside it must have been snowing—I had a memory of snow—but inside the station it was very warm. At first I thought I was alone, but then I realized, with a quickening horror, that I had been joined by two men in long coats. They wore identical black hats and looked like brothers, except one was bearded and the other hairless. Each stood in a private puddle of melted ice. They stamped their feet, and every few minutes they moved closer to the rails. The air was humid and menacing.
“He was in a delicate state.”
“Yes, very delicate, that’s true.”
“He couldn’t even work anymore.”
“And yet, the papers formed an archipelago around his bed.”
“But he was drowning on the shore.”
“All the same, it is contrary to our policies.”
I had a sense the men were talking about me. I stood, listening. I hoped they would say my name, which I had forgotten. I struggled to remember how I had arrived here. What was I waiting for? On the other platforms, the trains came and went. Ours alone seemed to be delayed. I thought of searching out a timetable that might give me a clue about my destination, but I was afraid of leaving the platform and missing the train. Around me, the men seemed to grow more impatient. But soon other men joined us and they fell into an easy, though hushed, conversation. Over the speakers, a voice in Spanish called out the names of cities that could not possibly connect to this station. Moa. Gibara. Baracoa. The trains had stopped going there years ago. Perhaps this was the cause of the delay. Someone should tell the station master. But not me; I knew that if I moved from the platform, I would be carried away forever and miss this, my last chance.
Many hours went by. We were joined by still more men. We were crowded on the platform now, standing in each other’s puddles. I had the feeling that I had been followed here. But the bearded one and the hairless one had vanished. I leaned forward to search for them in the growing crowd. I cocked my ear to their accent—Jesuit-educated, from the east—when a gasp went through the crowd and silenced the station. One man pointed and then others turned their heads up. At first I thought it was a bird caught in the rafters. But then I saw that it was a child’s electric-blue balloon, its silver string flashing in the shafts of light. The balloon floated and then swooped down on a draft only to be forced up again higher into the night sky. A train came into the station, and the turbulence scattered the balloon across the heavens so that I temporarily lost sight of it. But I soon found it again where the great dome curved down. The others had already lost interest in the balloon, resuming their whispered conversations. But I kept it in my sights. It seemed to be making a grand tour of the universe, its translucent skin veiling first Aquarius and then Capricorn. At Aries the balloon lingered for a moment, and I thought it would rest there until it ran out of helium and came crashing again to Earth. But to my surprise alone (for the others had long since lost interest in the orphan) the balloon shot from Aries to Pisces, barely missing a prick of the ram, and was sucked up into the void beyond the stars. Never in my life had I seen a balloon penetrate the great skein of heaven. I looked around me to see if someone else had witnessed this extraordinary event. But every man stood with his eyes fixed on the rails. When next I turned my eyes up, I noticed a breach in the sky, a small black hole near Pisces. The stars were very bright that night, and I thought it a trick of the light and the dome’s curvature. Until I noticed the balloon’s silver string spooling away into nothing. As I watched, a light, like a searchlight, shone through the pinhole in the sky. I followed it to its source, staring up into the hole and there—there (it could not be, but it was), there in the pinhole of the sky I met an eye staring back at me. The apparition seized my heart with horror enough, but imagine the cold that overtook me when I realized that the eye staring down from heaven was my own. I looked away quickly and then back. The eye still stared, unblinking. It was not the only thing wrong in that hard heaven. For as I stood beneath the dome fixing my stare upon myself, I saw that the stars and the constellations, the entire firmament was backward, a mirror image, and it was that other eye, the one cooly watching beyond the celestial sphere, that saw things truly as they were.
As the mysteries of this strange railway station multiplied, I was nearly overcome with anxiety. Where were my bags? Where was I going? Why was the train so delayed? I stood at the platform, wiping my cold, wet hands on my trousers. I bowed my head from heaven; there was nothing but confusion there. The important thing was to make the train. I waited for what seemed hours, maybe days, but my legs did not grow tired. The sun never rose—inside it was always night, the platform glowing in the electric light of those perverse stars. Around midnight of the third day, a cry went out on the platform. Then a hush—the rails hummed softly. A train approached! We were now packed elbow to elbow on the platform, and it became clear that there would not be room for all of us on the train. I was carried along in the crush to the platform’s edge. And as I struggled to gain footing, the two men in overcoats reappeared. They were pushing their way through the crowd with ease, pointing at me. The hairless one smiled, as if he were a friend who only wanted to say hello. But the bearded one scowled as he shoved away anyone in his path. I knew I must get away. I must run. The announcer cried out in Spanish an unintelligible destination. So this was it, the last train to Cojímar. I remembered now that it had been my wish, to take in the sun one last time. To cover again the leaves in verse. I knew I must force my legs to move. But the men in overcoats were gaining; they were bigger and faster while I was weak and ill. Worse, the waiting men seemed to be on their side. Soon all were pointing me out for my killers as I ducked and tried to slip through the crowd. In the distance, a train whistle blew. The great eye—my own traitorous eye—regarded me from heaven, with neither pity nor interest. The rails hummed. I felt rough hands on me. The men in overcoats closed in as the others held me fast, an offering. I spun free of my coat and ran, feeling light now, so light that I nearly leapt through the outstretched hands before me, all trace of my lingering illness gone with my soiled coat. I braced for impact. With a great concussion of air, the train swept into the station, bearing with it the smell of the sea.