How to Be an Actor Sitting in the Audience

Leonid Lopez

HAVANA TIMES — It was December 31, 2009. I imagined a world full of people with great expectations for the upcoming year. Could this have been true? I don’t know. I lost that freight in some port. Now I just do what I have to do every day, like always.

December 31, 2009. An enormous bus, a long trip. My girlfriend and I went to Nagano, where her parents lived. I like long bus rides.

The city stretches until it’s suddenly gone. Miles of small towns and highway. Among those are fields of farmland. It doesn’t sound funny, but my eyes were grateful for succumbing to that caravan of predictable images.

With no surprises, I took a nap.

At first blush, the Japanese countryside seemed large and small fields free of weeds, with spacious and well maintained homes, highways and big stores, a car at every house. To buy whatever they want people have to drive several miles by car. Without guarantees of variety, people don’t see the opportunity to grow what they want.

Internet, although widespread, got here late and it’s used much less than in the cities. The world continues to be what’s within reach. Everything else is of little value.

Old Japan, I thought, was in the countryside. Families continue to be Buddhist or Shinto. They still retain the memories of deceased relatives and come from branches of shogun, samurai, merchants or small farmers. Land owners are still respected and small businesses continue to be passed down to the eldest son.

My wife’s parents aren’t of royal backgrounds. They raised their kids the best they could and sent them all to college. They’re of the generation of Japanese who worked tirelessly and enjoyed a certain level of prosperity that allowed them to buy a big house and retire comfortably.

They are those archetypal Japanese who we imagine parading around any place in the world with cameras, smiling and taking photos like crazy. My girlfriend’s generation didn’t get so many trips. The youth of her time no longer dreamed of traveling. They don’t even try to dream. Instead, being rich entrepreneurs is their ultimate goal.

One day I’ll have to think seriously about writing everything I see that’s similar between Japan and Cuba. But not today, the madness and memories escape me for now. In Nagano I saw snow for the first time. I was late in realizing that there’s beauty in snow. It’s something slippery and lends to the ambience with the sensation of a cold and insurmountable abandon. Later it would mean something else.

This abandonment would bring certain pleasures, but back then only the cold. My girlfriend lived in Osaka for years, where she studied and worked, so she was also visiting. My in-laws were kind. They wanted their daughter to feel at ease and for me to feel comfortable too.

It’s still unusual and awkward for a Japanese to marry a foreigner. Foreigners can’t expect to find employment since we don’t have a place in a society where we’re seen more like rare collectors’ items. Children point at us and run away scared. We generate laughter and blushes on the parts of teens, and on trains people avoid sitting next to us.

But my in-laws want their daughter to be happy above all else, though right now none of that is very evident.

Their New Year’s dinner consisted of a succession of dishes of varying shapes and colors. They followed an order, and you could sense that in that order there was a little that had to do with tradition and some that had to do with health considerations.

I didn’t especially like any of the dishes, and now I prefer less ceremony when it comes to eating. But this was my Japan from the movies, where one lives in some sense and doesn’t experience anything bad.

Later I’ve almost forgot about the meals, the ceremonies and the phrases that express the same thing, varying only by the age or the place one occupies in society. Nonetheless, I still haven’t forgotten that it was the evening of that day when I realized for the first time that this was real, and that I wasn’t in Cuba anymore.

I woke up early in the morning and walked through the house. One by one, I looked at the family photos on the walls. I didn’t understand what their faces were saying. I didn’t understand their poses, their supposed harmony or where they were going in their dizzying economic progress. I was there. Will they ever hang a photo of me? I wondered.

I keep my first coat from the time of that trip, the first possibility of changing more than my clothes. Starting to make sense again, I fleshed out what had been only scattered fragments of ideas.

That day I learned what cold was, that food could be used for more than eating, that families can survive dismemberment. But what was most important was that I decided this would be my future stage.

From that day on I would see lots of characters move, although I suspected that only from the audience. A lot of people could say the same thing.

Well, as long as I’m in the front row, it’s OK.