Of Mangos, Smiles and My Own Shadow

Leonid Lopez

HAVANA TIMES — The spring, which had a late start this year, is hot as summer today. Heading home in the bus, I savor the cool gusts of air that issue from the AC. It is a dry, dense cold.

Suddenly, a soothing stillness seems to take hold of my body and sighs take the place of thoughts. I would like to remain like this forever, I tell my reflection on the window pane.

“Satakedai roku chome,” says the driver, as though replying. He is announcing the name of the next stop.

I look to the front. There, I see streets that I know by heart now. Life takes root even in the strangest and most inhospitable of places. By dint of something that still evades me, it burrows into my consciousness without me knowing. It’s been four years here. The first days become more and more hazy as time passes.

I lean my head against the glass of the window and immediately plummet into a dark abyss, begin to glide down the slick slopes of memory.

The first time I wandered aimlessly through the streets, as though looking to bury myself in the cold, unfolds before my eyes. After 35 years of intense heat, I spontaneously associated the cold with the idea of freedom. I knew this was an arbitrary association, but I let it take hold of me anyways, like someone who forays into a thickly-wooded forest, sure to get lost.

It was my first year in Japan and my second winter there. My senses were re-naming the world around me, caught between the certainty of someone who knows, after a long journey, that he has finally moored in his own body, and the confusion of someone who begins to lose the contours of what he remembers.

I had completed my Japanese language course and begun to rove, to beat my head, trying to think what way I could make ends meet. It was then – I don’t know why this comes to mind now – that, at a small fruit stand, I came upon a stack of enormous mangos.

I felt stung by a sense of familiarity. Surrounded by fruits of more sober tones and odors, the mangos seemed strangely out of place. So I asked the peddler for six in my rusty Japanese.

The man must have been dumbfounded. That might have been the first time he stood so close to a foreigner in that far-from touristy city, and this one, to top things off, could speak his language. He delighted me with a big smile, of a sort I hadn’t yet seen in Japan and, without changing the expression on his face for a second, spoke to me for a few minutes. Mangos and smiles: a good omen indeed.

On a rainy day, not long after I had arrived in Japan, while lying in bed, my wife (then my girlfriend) asked me how I pictured myself as an old man. Without thinking, I told her I imagined myself caught in a quiet daily routine.

I imagined myself walking down the same streets every day, stopping at the same stores, where I was a regular customer, and greeting and talking about my family with the same clerks. The fruit peddler would be my first step towards my future as a family man, a future without surprises.

The next day, I stepped out and walked down the road I knew well. This time, however, I would make a stop to say hello to my newly-acquired, broad-smiling friend. As I approached his stand, I unfurled a generous smile, as though spreading a sail against the wind, and stretched out my hand to greet him, as though steering a ship’s helm, and…stealthily withdrew my salutation and continued on my way.

The fruit peddler, his gaze as empty as on most days, had not appeared to recognize me. I stopped in front of him, looked at the fruits on his stand but, after the customary “iratshai” (“welcome”), there were no other signs of empathy.

“Saidera Kita”, the stop closest to home. “Arigatou gozaimasu (“thank you very much”),” says the driver, politely tilting his head. The sun etches my shadow on the asphalt with stark outlines. As if by instinct, I look back towards the place I had been sitting at. There is no trace of my reflection on the glass.

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