Stories of My Neighbors (III) / Ángel Santiesteban

THE GIRL WHO LIVES above my apartment is named Pilar and comes from an ancient Catholic family. She’s had a relationship with her boyfriend for three years. In these thirty-six months they’ve been excited many times. Alberto lives with his parents and grandparents. And for her, it’s the same. It has been very difficult to satisfy their erotic instincts.

In the one thousand nine-hundred and five days of their courtship, they have only shared kisses on the stairs of our building. They part all worked up, tense, red in the face.

As the hotels were being converted into housing, with the same speed as “barracks into schools,” Alberto was looking into some place to rent, but when he learned that the price was five CUC for three hours, with no rights to eat or drink, his spirits sagged. At the exchange rate that would be one hundred and twenty Cuban pesos, half his monthly salary, which is far beyond his means. By a ton.

His anticipation grew every time he imagined their honeymoon. Without wanting to, he’d managed to meet the Catholic precepts, respecting the decent family of his fiancee, and he took advantage of the agreement established when they accepted his courtship of the girl. Piously, they laid down the law: they could only marry after he graduated. Now it’s just a few months away. He would have continued to be happy if the newspaper he held in his hands didn’t exist, with the news that starting in the new year the grant of time in a hotel, to newlyweds, will be canceled.

Then he remembered having recently read, in the same paper, that the national birthrate was the lowest in fifty years. He thought that the Revolution would be left without soldiers — the men of the future who would come… later? — and the socialist project would run the risk of having no followers. So, as a Revolutionary task, just like a guerrilla based in an unknown country, or leaving with the army to fight in a distant and alien war, he went to find his girlfriend and, with no explanation, took her by the hand, boarded a bus to the beaches of the east, and there, on the fine sands, they made love.

October 1, 2010

Stories of My Neighbors (II) / Ángel Santiesteban

Photo: Alejandro Azcuy

AFTER THE SPEECH of the new president. After the announcement of the end of all gratuities*, my neighbor, who for several consecutive years had been named the Vanguard Worker of his factory, decided to cease his incessant effort. Which, day-by-day, he brought to his workplace. He would not work more until they paid him a salary that would allow him to afford an annual vacation, even if only in the worst hotel in Cuba, not to be demanding because I am a revolutionary, he declared. He was accustomed to going, every summer, with his wife and daughters to a resort and enjoying a peaceful well-fed week. It was his stimulus. He sat down, as in the Arab proverb, in the doorway of his house, which couldn’t even be called a hut. His roofs sloped, the walls have lost their cladding and their bricks, exposed to the weather, reveal a few cracks that allow the neighbors to know, from the street, in what part of the house its inhabitants are. Thus, to be precise, starting from now, without the “socialist benefits,” we will be talking about a hovel, a shack.   And he sat down, he told them, in the doorway of his home. He would pick at the calluses on his hands, created over so many years, while waiting for death or a more bearable fate. It didn’t take long for the representatives from the House of the Combatants and the Secretary of the Party Nucleus to show up. Every good worker is a Communist, as they told him, but if you cease to honor the working class than you are no longer a member. On leaving they decided to confiscate his purple Party membership card.

Then the directors of the factory visited him and were surprised by the horribly shabby condition of his dwelling. My neighbor, at first, didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, when I explained, he responded with insults. The bosses let him know that since his absence, no one understood the old machinery which is now broken down most of the time. They couldn’t fulfill the orders of foreign clients and there were complaints. The delay in payments for the goods had gotten worse, and it was impossible for the factory to be profitable and, in consequence, goodbye to “socialist emulation.”

Patiently and painfully my neighbor explained to them that he had grown old without accomplishing anything. When I was a boy I started work with the American owners, it seemed unfair to me that the bosses went to New York on vacation, and their children, bad students, didn’t take advantage of having been born with money. But it’s also true that when I started working I soon bought this new house and my life changed.

After nineteen-fifty-nine, when I saw that the children of the owners and their henchmen wouldn’t be going on vacation on my effort, I gave myself to the revolutionary process. I was in the fight against the bandits, at the Bay of Pigs, Argelia, Angola, Nicaraguq, Ethiopia, and I forgot about me and my family. At the factory they gave me enough wages to survive and I never complained. When the Special Period came, then they gave me a little bag of goods. Later they stopped that and gave us ten chavitos — Cuban convertible pesos; after a little time they stopped that, too. Then I concentrated on earning the vacations to apologize to my family and make them shut up.

“Now what can I tell them?… I have no more justifications.”

Translator’s note: The Cuban regime calls the things it “gives” its citizens, in lieu of wages, “gratuities” — they include benefits ranging from lunch at one’s workplace to education. Many of these have been or are being eliminated.

September 25, 2010

Stories of My Neighbors (I) / Ángel Santiesteban

Photo: Alejandro Ascuy

ALL NIGHT I LISTENED to my neighbor’s wife weeping. At intervals she claimed to be tired. Very tired, she insisted. Most of the time her husband wouldn’t respond, but when he did, he agreed: me too. Then she would moan, in a choking way that called to mind the crying of childhood. My anguish grew and dreams escaped me. I got used to it. The lament came to seem like inevitable music.

In the morning the sound of hammers makes me look out the window. My neighbor, the husband, with his two teenage sons, is making a raft from several empty tanks. I looked on the roof and they no longer have anything to store water. The wife spends the whole day shut in the house. She doesn’t open the windows, clearly so as not to watch the preparations for the family’s escape.

By the afternoon they already had the vessel ready. A refrigerated truck came to collect the raft. The three men went into the house to say goodbye, one by one. They came out even more sad, as if it were possible to increase the burden of so much anguish.

Before closing the refrigerator door they looked back at the house, perhaps hoping to see her one last time. But she didn’t look out. They gave the money to the truck driver, who then counted it and they took off. When the neighbors saw the dogs running behind the truck they couldn’t understand their desperation.

Long days passed and she remained shut up inside her house. From time to time worried neighbors called on some pretext, but she didn’t answer.

A sister who came from the countryside broke down the door. The doctors assured them that her family still hadn’t put the raft in the water and that she had been poisoned.

September 20, 2010

Blogging Blind / Ángel Santiesteban

RECENTLY I HAVE BEEN HOPING I might read my blog for the first time. Some friends have seen it and described it to me, and I feel the same pleasure as when they speak to me about my children. They suggested that I buy a card that would let me enter cyberspace from the services in hotels. Two and a half months after starting the site, I still haven’t been able to see it. I’m anxious to read it, feel it, smell it. I imagine its design would give me a feeling of tenderness. Recently an old man asked me if I was sure if civilization existed outside this island.

Shrugging my shoulders, I think so, I told him. And he looked at me a long time, seeking the lost truth. It’s that, he commented, how is it possible that we’ve forgotten?… I got tired of throwing bottles into the sea, he said. I got tired, he repeated and took off, pondering. Recently a lady told me that the scenes of war on the news seem to have been filmed in secret television studios. I told her no: in other places there are also social contradictions, political conflicts, famines, diseases, etc. It’s that they never show happiness, she observed, except on the national news where everything is going well, all the plan targets are met, the people interviewed are happy, they don’t complain, they’re not worried, they don’t have different ideas… Beyond our borders the people are always killing? Sometimes, I answered. Then, she continued, they don’t eat apples, don’t go on cruises, don’t vote peacefully? In some places, I said. The woman kept staring at me.

Surely you are one of them, she declared. Who? I wanted to know. Those who write the national news full of happiness and make us believe we are living in paradise… Do me a favor, she asked, I’m losing my sight, if I try to make conversations with you another time remind me that it’s you, so I won’t waste my time… When I got home I turned on the news, the Afghans were running back and forth. I wasn’t sure if in the background I thought I saw a sugar cane field, and even the smoke from a smokestack. I went to the TV and turned it off.

Recently they have also, “Interrupted the Email Service.” Now, I go to Havana in search of a kind soul who uploads a text to my site; it makes me remember the excitement I used to feel in those early years of writing when I was wandering around the city trying to find a typewriter with a good ribbon and someone who would type, behind their boss’s back, several pages of a story I planned to send off to a literary contest. I have no complaints. From the beginning I knew what would happen if I chose the “status” of a writer within the island; in consequence, some benefits, or managing a space to write the problems that surround and distress me, and by extension, receiving institutional attacks.

Recently in Havana the cost of the written word has gone up. Owners of authorized email charge in convertible pesos (cuc) for a service to communicate with families in other countries, or for the whores to keep in touch with their foreigners. Since the beginning of last year, when they tried to deny access to Cubans to connect from the hotels, the private rentals have gone up to three cuc, and they say that before the end of the month it will increase to five.

Recently I have my doubts: I don’t know if words are going up in price or have lost their value.

September 17, 2010

Prison Diary (5) (Mother) / Ángel Santiesteban

Photo: AP

She enters the room in search of her son; on the previous visit they told her he was in the punishment cell for indiscipline, he would be there for twenty-one days with half rations of food and no sun; so, to see him, she would have to come back the next month.

Now, she searches through the dozens of prisoners with their families without finding her son; it’s impossible not to recognize him, the guards must have been wrong to let her enter the visiting room. She goes to the door to ask the officers; her son isn’t there. They insist he is and show her his photo on the card everyone has for identification.

The mother returns to the room and patiently searches, one by one. Coming to the last one without finding him she starts to cry, but understands that she’s losing time and later the guards won’t take it into account, so she overcomes her nervousness and starts to search again, also fruitlessly.

When she returns anxiously to see them the guards fly into a rage, they tell her son is there, that if she didn’t raise him, find the person who did to show her where he is.

She prefers to keep quiet, without clarifying that she raised her children alone and never had anyone to help her. And she looks again at each face. When she searches and doesn’t find him, she ashamed to bother the sergeants one more time.

In the room, there is only one boy who is sleeping, alone, with his face hidden in his arms, but as much as she looks at him there is nothing to indicate he is her son. The shaved hair, too small head, skinny arms, very white skin and narrow back. Her son is tall and strong. Still, she notes that all the prisoners are with their families and he is not. She approaches him, heartbroken, despite knowing that he needs to sleep.

Fearfully, she touches his shoulder; the boy raises his head and hugs her.

September 1, 2010

Prison Diary (4) (Hunger) / Ángel Santiesteban

Photo: Karen Miranda

The sergeants collect the empty trays, so well cleaned by the tongues of the detainees they don’t need to be washed.

The sound of the last door being shut leaves a silence that makes them feel more trapped, and the air, scarce and hot, suffocates them.

No detainee would even dare to raise their voice to avoid being taken to the punishment cell for indiscipline. The sergeants walk slowly, stopping to spy through the doors and listen to what the prisoners say when the apathy and despair of seclusion provokes a feverish state of anxiety that spills out into idle talk, and later they denounce them to the higher-ups.

When the silence feels eternal, some sadistic mechanism stops the night, making it last longer than usual; and there comes a whisper, a word grinding at the metal doors, sliding on the floor like a glass of water; and the detainees are frightened because they know well the voices of each sergeants, the steps, the way they let their boots fall when they walk, how they clear their throats and even how they snore. So, from their cells, they are all intrigued because they can’t decipher whose voice escapes like a lament. This time it is not someone who dreams and calls out for a loved one or shouts the name of an officer telling him to stay away, now someone shouts from a cell, every word pronounced forcefully; at first you can’t hear what he’s saying, then you understand something like, “I’m hungry.”

The sergeants quickly walk past the cells, searching, like dogs with rabies, for where the voice is coming from; they open the slot, tell him to shut up, but the detainee talks, and through the orifice of the door the words escape with more clarity, forgive me, sergeant, but I don’t know how to bear hunger, I can’t stand it, a thousand pardons, but I have always been a man with a good appetite; the guards continue advising him it is better to remain silent, that if he continues it will go very badly for him; the prisoner begins to plead, and the plea becomes tears. They warn him that later they won’t be able to do anything when he wants to stop, now is the time; but the detainee cries like a baby and asks forgiveness, he was never a man who caused problems, I never have been, please, understand me.

The sound of the padlock is heard, and then of the bolt being violently opened, then the screech of the hinges. The man’s panic grows, his weeping increases while the menacing voices of the sergeants question him; he begs them not to hit him; and the guards tell him then shut up and they’ll leave and there won’t be any problems; they insist that he understand they are giving him more chances than usual, but the detainee claims that they don’t understand him, the problem is that he can’t stand the hunger, it’s something that’s not in me, I don’t know how to control it.

We hear a few blows, and then he cries. The sergeants ask him if he is finally going to shut up, and the prisoner in the midst of his uncontrollable crying explains that even a piece of stale bread is enough, a tiny scrap of leftovers, a piece of sweet potato. The guards realize that not even the blows will shut him up and decide to take him to the punishment cell, what they call “the hammock.” His weeping turns into screams of panic, not the hammock, please, not there. And the sergeants force themselves on him to immobilize him to be able to move him. The detainee twists his body, curls up like spring so he can burst out and escape the hands of jailers, until he can’t move any more and they drag him in front of the other cells. He keeps crying and apologizing, he doesn’t want them to see him as an antisocial, he’s a good man, but with a big appetite, this is his only crime. Not the hammock, I’m afraid, he says. They take off his clothes, as the punishment requires, throw him in the cell and close it; but the soldiers know they haven’t done much, the detainee keeps asking for food because he is a man with a good appetite, he’s convinced that this excuse is enough to make them understand.

The sergeants open the cell, they warn him if he keeps acting up it’s going to make them furious. But nothing shuts him up, he asks for food over and over. One of them enters, desperate, and hits him over and over until he realizes he won’t shut up as long as he’s conscious. Another soldier brings handcuffs for his hands and feet and some bandages to tape his mouth. They struggle with him a while until the voice of the detainee can no longer be heard. Then they slam the door and from the footsteps of the sergeants and the way they let their boots fall, the detainees conclude that they are tired. The silence returns, a silence that had been forgotten for a few minutes.

At dawn, they open the punishment cell. Nobody has been able to sleep thinking of the man in the “hammock,” on the damp floor bathed by the drops of water that inevitably fall from the ceiling and crash against his body; they know it’s unbearable to spend an entire day there.

When they take the bandage off his mouth he’s still crying, now with less strength, but you can still hear his voice: I’m hungry, please, I’m a man with a good appetite.

Translated by Raul G.

August 29, 2010

Prison Diary (3) (La Cabaña Prison) / Ángel Santiesteban

Photo: Alejandro Azcuy

AFTER THE MONTHS IN THE CELL you come to terms with the loneliness. Then things get better. You get used to knowing that a few steps from you there are other miserable beings who weep, pray and beg that their stay in this incredibly quiet place will end some time. Nothing is forever, however much it may seem so.

The best is when you feel like masturbating, stretching out the moment of orgasm, going over each image stored in your mind, time passes and it seems as if you’ve escaped from that place, leaving you with the feeling of having been, for a time, far beyond those four walls; in these moments you believe that in reality you possess your wife, that she screams from pleasure and desperation; unconsciously you smell under your armpits, strangely that smell of sweat reminds you of your wife, you pass your fingers between your buttocks and that also reminds you, you feel you are going to explode, and she holds you back, she goes back over your body with her tongue, afterward you lie down and do the same, from your neck down to your toes, then you return slowly, going back over those contours you have already licked, it is a ritual that requires all your concentration; you go back and stop yourself, wanting the time not to pass, you already know that after the orgasm it’s worse, that the semen makes you nauseated, depresses you and you want to scream at them to take you back to your house.

August 24, 2010

Prison Diary (2) (La Cabaña Prison)

Photo: Alina Sardiñas

At first I thought I was isolated, that there were no other prisoners in the other cells; sometimes I heard some door that would open slowly and quietly, as if trying not to strain its hinges; with time and so much silence my ears became fine-tuned, they began to warn of a certain scraping, then something dragging, later I discovered it was the sad steps of someone carrying the world on his shoulders, trembling legs bent in panic, but I didn’t care, the joy of knowing you’re not alone overcomes you, that you aren’t the only unfortunate, your eyes tear up, you want to beat on the door, to see through the iron and the walls, eager to embrace, to be hugged, to hear a word, a whisper, but just let it be a human being; later I preferred no noise, to say not a word, or I didn’t have the courage, I would just huddle in front of the door, knowing the guards would trace it back to me immediately, and in reprisal they would send me to the hole, the punishment cell, and possibly deny me family visits.

I had a little cry against the cold stone. I would have loved to feel the warmth of another human being; I tried pressing my body to the floor, staying that way a few minutes until I could feel the sweat on my back, and with an agile movement I flipped over and rushed to press my face to the still hot place that had been covered by my skin; I thought I might materialize another person this way, preferably a woman, who would stay beside me; the movement barely took two seconds, I practiced it so many times I could do it in one second, but every time I pressed myself to the floor I was overwhelmed by the coldness, the same as in the eyes of the soldiers when they interrogated me, or as flowed from the walls and the doors, emanated from the food and the air; I also blew my breath into my hands, trying to catch it in my fingers and smell it, seeking the sensation of having someone close, accompanying me.

Finally I came to the conclusion that all this effort was useless, I felt that the place was designed to make us feel like a piece of meat in the slaughterhouse.

August 20, 2010

Prison Diary (1) (La Cabaña Prison)

OUTSIDE OF EVERY imaginable world, is the extreme awareness of reality, you live in cell twelve feet by six feet, usually with four inmates, sometimes sixteen who have to stand up, and when it comes time to sleep they fall slowly, like fainting, like sugar canes thrown on top of one another, creating a deformed mass, you couldn’t guess which extremity belongs to whom.

The air is not enough for two, not even one, and the sound of gasping, of shortness of breath, sounds like an instrument out of tune. But this asphyxia turns into chronic asthma, it’s worse than being alone. Many times, according to the treatment, they leave you alone so the madness will come more quickly. In this case, for some moments, the only thing you can see, other than your own body, are some fingers on a hand that disappears, as if it were the product of your imagination, when they open, three times a day, a small rectangular window in the bottom of the door to put the trays in. Then you have to settle for observing, in those few moments, how one or the other hand pushes the tray into your cell and beans or soup spread across the floor, mixing with the rice that you collect with your spoon, because in these circumstance you can’t waste a single grain.

Sometimes you want to touch the hand, hold it, kiss it, ask forgiveness, mercy and that it would be moved and let you out of there, end the anguish; but it’s not worth the trouble, this hand only knows how to threaten, push and hit.

Let’s call a spade and spade, and a dictatorship a dictatorship

On Tuesday night, June 29, in the city of Pinar del Rio, we delivered as part of the jury, the prizes in the contest of the independent magazine Convivencia (Coexistence).

Upon entering the house of Karina Galvez, one of Dagoberto Valdes’s most fervent collaborators on their publishing project, we were welcomed to what was left of her home, because by providing office and meeting space for citizens she earned a visit one morning from several State officials, escorted by the police, who invaded her property and destroyed the back wall, splitting the house in two.

From the street you can see the double wall now dividing the house: one of concrete and one of metal plates, which serves, of course, as a blackboard to capture the drawings and free thoughts of her visitors.

Ultimately, the officials are not guilty of carrying out their disagreeable role. We know that later, as in the Nuremberg Trials, they will say they were just following orders and if they refused they would have lost their jobs and in the end, others would have replaced them. These murderers have no conscience — and neither does it the country’s police hierarchy, which ordered this action in violation of the several of the most elemental human rights — so their conduct, rather than angering us, causes us pity, as that in our eyes they are so unhappy and miserable. However, as I said publicly to Karina, I feel so proud of her and her family, and even envious. I am afraid I’m not up to her level, as in spite of everything she hasn’t lost her constant smile.

History has shown us that “walls” are demolished. This wall is a symbol that the sacrifices of Dagoberto Valdes, the editorial team of Convivencia, and the participants in the civic education workshops, are necessary.

Ángel Santiesteban – Bio

Ángel Santiesteban Havana 1966. Graduate of Dirección de Cine, resides in Havana, Cuba.

In 1989 he won a mention in the Juan Rulfo contest, held by Radio France International, and the story was published in Le Monde Diplomatique, in Letras Cubanas, and in the Mexican magazine El Cuento.

In 1995, he won the National Award of the Cuban writers guild (UNEAC); but because of his human (or inhuman) vision of the reality of the war in Angola, where Cubans participated for 15 years, the story was not published.

His book, Dreams of a Summer Day, was published in 1998.

In 1999 he won the César Galeano prize, given by the Centro Literario Onelio Jorge Cardoso.

And in 2001, he won the Alejo Carpentier Prize given by the Cuban Book Institute for his book of linked stories, The Children Nobody Wanted.

In 2006, he won the Casa de las Americas prize in the genre of story for the book, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn.

He has published in Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, China, England, Dominican Republic, France, USA, Colombia, Portugal, Martinique, Italy, Canada and other countries.

Please click image for Ángel’s blog in ENGLISH

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