One afternoon, when I was 5 or 6 -- the date has never been as important as the specific moment -- my two brothers and I were sitting on the steps outside our maternal grandmother's bedroom. It was a Cuban house and, as in all Cuban houses, the rooms have at least one entrance that faces the exterior -- to a courtyard, a patio, a balcony or a street -- and the boundaries between outside and inside, between home and a world that is not quite home are not so clearly demarcated.
The room, which was painted a sunny yellow, was central to my childhood. It was where my grandmother, with a rusty alarm clock, taught my brothers how to tell time and, with a battered copy of Juan Ramon Jimenez's Platero y yo, how to read. It was the room where I healed after one of my aunts unwittingly burned my scalp with a scalding showerhead, producing a wound whose scab my mother saved for years in a waxy envelope between the pages of her Bible, as if it were a saint's relic. It was the room where I fought sleep during the siesta hour under the dome of the mosquitero, pretending it was a sheik's tent, perfectly content with my solitude -- the room where one afternoon, after resisting another siesta, I stood before a full-length mirror and furtively stole looks at my naked body, for the first time realizing how separate a thing it was from me, from the me inside, and intuiting, perhaps because of its foreignness, how much pleasure it would bring me one day, how much betrayal.
But that afternoon (no one likes to talk about it in my family, so the date is uncalendared, always referred to as ese dia -- that day -- as if the reference alone will give it substance), my brothers and I knew something was wrong: The adults were speaking to each other in hushed tones and addressing us with exaggerated cheerfulness. From what we were able to overhear, something had happened to our uncle. I was the only one who dared ask our grandmother what it was, and after insisting more than once that nothing, nothing had happened, she finally sat by us on the steps and pulled up my T-shirt and with two fingers poked me on my belly, on my chest, and said, "They shot him here, and here, and here." And so my brothers and I discovered death.
Our uncle, Marcos Antonio Ruiz, was disillusioned with the government, with his life, and, for reasons that were clear only to his troubled heart, left his wife one night and joined some friends as they tried to sneak into the American Naval Base in Guantanamo. After Cuban border guards shot them all down, our uncle was the only one to survive long enough to reach the hospital. When the revolutionary authorities refused to let my aunt see him before he died, my mother took the situation into her hands. She grabbed my aunt and walked her to the hospital. A pimple-faced soldier put a rifle to her face and told her that no one was allowed into my dying uncle's room, but my mother lifted the rifle's barrel and, arm in arm with my aunt, walked past him down the hallway toward my uncle's room, muttering to the boy soldier that he wasn't hombre enough to shoot any one. So it was that my aunt got to see her dying husband one last time.
Ese dia marked the ending of our childhood innocence, and with the discovery of death came a sudden knowledge of the irrefutable magnitude of the past. Looking back now, I see that that afternoon may have been the point at which I began, however rudimentarily, to think as a writer, to record the details of my life and the life of my family as if they existed in a world that was not quite the same as the one we lived in from moment to moment (the eternal present) -- a richer world more crowded with event and circumstance, a fallen world, replete with failure, but also, because each individual moment could be given new life through the process of storytelling, a world perennially on the verge of redemption. For me, then, the present became a sort of dress rehearsal for memory, for its more fecund aspect, accompanied by reflection.
This is probably not the healthiest way to go through life, with an obsession for the already transpired. Whenever our grandmother was in hearing range, our grandfather was likely to reveal to my brothers and me the two secrets to happiness: "good health and a very . . . very short memory." Similar advice appears in every feel-good psychological book I have been forced to read and every inspirational Buddhist tape I have been made to hear, by well-meaning friends. "Be present in your life," a therapist used to intone to me with melodramatic seriousness as if she were a prophet returned from the desert. Well, sorry, I can't. It seems I am always roaming that other world -- the one I discovered when my grandmother poked me in the belly -- searching for a past to pinion to a page.
Many of the events I associate with my uncle's death -- the discoveries in my grandmother's room, her two fingers on my belly, my mother's foolhardy courage -- all made it into my first novel. Sometimes they were altered. It is a wife and not the boy who gets poked in the belly to understand how her husband died, and she is treated as gingerly as if she were an innocent 6-year-old. But sometimes the memories remain just as I remember them.
Whatever the case, I adapt the story I once lived to the one I am telling. It is a pattern I see repeated again and again in my work, this tendency to take the particulars of a life I know well and fold them carefully into the fictional world I am creating. And since Cuban children of our generation were raised almost exclusively by women -- mothers, aunts, grandmothers, great-aunts (I had one I called Mamatia: Mommyaunt) and nursemaids (I had an English one until I was 2, which my mother says is why I became so enamored of the language), my fiction has been largely about Cuban and Cuban-American women.
You could say I am obsessed with these women -- something my Cuban mother would be glad to hear from her gay son, thinking one day I might reform and bring a woman home. Unfortunately (for her), my obsession is confined to the page. But it is so pervasive, that when I try to explore another fictional terrain and other sorts of characters, I grow so bored that I soon jilt them like unwanted lovers. I ignore them for days, and when I do return, I am surly, selfish, aloof, so that eventually I have to forget about them, and they about me. It is wise, I have heard, for a writer to give in to an obsession, indulge in it extravagantly on the page, whether it be chocolate, sardines or toe sex. Mine, gracias a Dios, is Cuban women.
There is an old adage that goes, "In Cuban families, it is always the women who have the cojones," meaning, I suppose, that it is women who teach children and raise families, who comfort the dying and minister to the living, who tend to the daily chores, while men invent nations and revolutions. So it is for me; my women make the most interesting characters.
Thomas Mann once said that no writer should be foolish enough to get up one morning, go to his typewriter and tell himself that he is composing the first sentence of a 400-page novel. The commitment is just too overwhelming (especially for young writers) and may be a long pledge to characters you hardly know. It's like someone asking you to marry them after a first date. So with my fictional Cuban women, I do what I tell students to do with their characters: Spend time with them, get to know them before talking about marriage. The truth is, no matter how well we think we have our characters figured out, they always change when they arrive on the page. If they are drawn well enough, the bodies they inhabit, the inner world they roam and the characters who surround them will soon be emancipated from the writer's mind, and what is written will overwhelm any preconceived notions.
So I start small, following women through words until one captures my full attention. Once that happens, it is a feeling like no other; most writers reaching for a comparison often say it is like falling recklessly and devastatingly in love. Reckless and devastating because the world has no use for this newfound infatuation: the way it forces us to divorce ourselves from all aspects of life -- lovers, children, family, friends, society -- that are considered salubrious (for soon we find that we are unhappy unless we are near our newfound obsession, near enough to watch her, word by word, perform even the most banal acts, exist as if just for us); the way the very precariousness of this state, the terrible anticipation (will we be with her tomorrow?), gives new life to all our vices, so that soon we are up to three packs a day and going on Faulknerian drinking binges; the way it insidiously separates us from the here and now, from the world as it exists, so that we come to know life only through the haze of our longing and so that we must seek out therapists who speak like prophets returned from the desert. No, the world has no use for this.
But it is not for the world that we do it, at least not at first, not in those moments after we realize that this is the character with whom we want to spend months -- years! -- an entity that is an amalgamation of memory, desire and imagination, and that demands more attention than any living thing. In those moments, we do it merely for the intense joy and dread that always accompany love. We do it at the risk of growing close to another being and connecting to a lost part of ourselves. *