HAVANA TIMES, June 10 — A few days ago I viewed and reviewed the pages of the book Isla y otros poemas (The Island and Other Poems), which is a compilation of the writings of the revolutionary poet Rolando Escardo, who died in an automobile accident at the early age of 36.
Reading his verses, attesting to a deep existential anguish, I couldn’t avoid an association that might seem strange. I recalled a woman who I met years ago through my first boyfriend.
She conserved a worn-out copy of that author’s poems as a sacred manual. “Rolando Escardo,” she told me, “that poet and cave explorer, he was the love of my life.”
Actually she was my boyfriend’s grandmother, but she had raised him from the cradle, so in practice she was my mother-in-law. And yes, she fulfilled the canon of the terrible mother-in-law due to her jealousy and possessiveness, but that didn’t prevent me from seeing her as an exceptional woman, marked by a tacit sadness.
With anecdotes that she would tell me or those that I heard from people who knew her in her youth, I was able to construct a mental image of her “glorious past.”
She had been a showgirl, and though she never had a good voice, according to her own words, she had a certain grace and charisma that made her a favorite with the public and businesspeople. She had bleached her hair to imitate her ideal, Marilyn Monroe.
“I used to stop traffic!” she said with pride, as she drew in the air those voluptuous curves of hers that had disappeared with age, the grief of misery and the tortures of schizophrenia.
“Never pick up anything from off the floor,” she advised me as she washed her hands, which were already rough and pale from the excessive use of soap. The aunt of my former boyfriend talked about her saying: “Chela’s not crazy for nothing; this system destroyed her. You should have seen how she lived, always put up in hotels, in incredible luxury. Or how she wore long dresses, picture hats and gloves that came up to her elbows…”
A US millionaire who saw her photo in a magazine traveled to Cuba specifically to meet her. Seduced by that novel act, she agreed to his marriage proposal. They arranged the wedding and when she only needed to meet with him at the Palace of Marriages, her true white knight appeared.
The poet Rolando Escardo, like a real life hero, showed up but without anything to offer her. Like he said in one of his poems:
… my treasure is a dog
and some stones,
and have nothing but a bone
stuck in my upper ribcage
of the soul,
I never perceived bitterness in her voice when she talked about her fleeing or how that adventure that was repeated and dissolved more than once in the course of her life. She never reassessed those memories from a practical perspective; she never had a tinge of regret. The real death of her spirit occurred when they cut short her vocation, worse than her setbacks in love. It brought with it economic uncertainty and the violence of psychotropic drugs.
After the revolution in 1959, the nascent society imposed the restructuring of the different businesses. Chela therefore found out that to occupy a position as a “singer,” she would have to take a test before a jury that would give her their evaluation.
Knowing the limits of her voice, she never mustered the courage to audition. Her performances on stage as the false mulattress of the comic theater, her dancing and laughter, the applause and the flowers remained frozen in photos, in drawers, under the threat of being eaten by moths, endangered by the subjectivity and ingratitude of history.
The sole thing that I have of her is the memory of one of those sepia images that she collected, smiling at the camera with the candor of the epoch, radiant with her platinum hair and a sculptured body.
I don’t know if she’s still living, because her grandson took her to Miami years ago and I lost all traces of her. But today, reading from her poet, I felt compelled to find her in some of those verses, and though it’s more my own construction, I grant myself the right to imagine her having inspired these lines:
You’re in me, and although you don’t imagine it,
I’m also in you, with my quiet expression;
sometimes one drinks silence, being bitter,
and sometimes in a dream, I can speak to you… and do I speak to you,
and often, always… I can say that I love you.