I used to be an authentic jarli, but ever since November 15, 1971 I am a fading memory. Throughout these years I’ve seen Camila maturing like a tree under sun and rain unsheltered throughout the cold nights and gloomy days. Her body crumples, and not even the shadow of her warm skin smiling at me in the garage or laying in the humid, sandy earth of the mountains we traveled over in my Harley Davidson is left.
For Camila I am scarcely a slight pain in her soul, a faint memory preserved as a fragile pet in the shady corners of the house where I was a tormenting presence to her for a long time.
Twenty years have passed and, without a doubt, she’s enjoying her loneliness. A despondent woman who’s learned to live alone, knowing she’s growing old. She feels it, given the fewer invitations coming from the men she comes across on her long walks home from work. Strange hands frequently detained her. Obscure lips demanded kisses and sex. Camila seldom accepted and, when she did, she was always thinking of me, broadening that recollection. That’s how she lured them here. Not looking at their faces. Not turning the lights on so as not to usher away the agonizing memory of me. Afraid to see the truth in a window’s reflection or a mirror’s glare. Silent, suppressing their moaning, she led them to her bed letting them drive her into emptiness. I know she would later search for my image, something to salvage her from sorrow, and I felt her faint crying, faint as the memory I now am in her life.
Who would have thought twenty years ago that Camila would age! She now walks slowly through the city and stands in that doorway at dusk every day. She walks in and lays down the grocery packs she brings from the market on the first chair of the sitting room. Without turning the lights on, she leaves her shoes at the bathroom door, doesn’t close it while she pees. That’s when she feels the breath of my memory ever more feebly, now fragile, imperceptible say I.
In her everyday routine I’ve seen her caress my photograph, the one where I’m wearing the mirror Ray Ban sunglasses and the long side whiskers in fashion in 1971. Sometimes she stops to look for me in the chemicals that have long resided in that framed paper, creased with the passing of the years, she holds me to her robust breasts and kisses me with closed eyes. No tears flow any longer from those large, ripened ovals.
Camila Cienfuegos, I like to call her. “Cienfuegos”, darling, “just like it sounds”, I told her when she sat down next to us that first time asking, “¿Camila what?” with that bewitching little voice of hers that got me from the start. Cienfuegos, Milfuegos, Todoslosfuegos, I insisted without explaining that my brother Juan used to talk incessantly about that Cuban guerilla man and other arrogant guys he kept on his bed’s head-board. Juan felt identified with them, whereas what interested me was only the name, because I imagined myself on a large motorbike spitting flames out from everywhere and saw myself as a demon with dark glasses. She never came to know the truth about the nickname I gave her from that time on, and my people left it that way, Camila.
That afternoon her arrival was like a blessing at the café where all of us jarlis were listening silently to the lies Octavio was telling. It was already dark outside and Sucre Street looked gloomy from our little table pent up in cigarette smoke. As she walked she tossed her head around nervously as if looking for someone. One by one, she checked the asphyxiated faces of us all who were in the café and, when it came my turn, I whispered “Camila Cienfuegos” to her so softly that only those closest to me barely heard me say it as I smiled at those black eyes of hers. But she heard me, however, and waved back the smoke traveling towards her with a soft movement of her left hand. She walked slowly towards me and bent over to get the name clear.
With time I have asked myself why she stayed with us then at the café. It was perhaps her elemental way of seeing the world that made her wait for an explanation of the Cienfuegos issue, or maybe she too liked the combination in the word. Or, much more probably, she was wanting to be caught up in something to wrest her from sadness, because, not unlike me, nothing on this planet could free her from wanting to cry at the oncoming of the six o’clock evening hour. That’s why I stayed on looking at her till midnight after Octavio had finally finished talking. I slid along that smiling skin, running my eyes over it millimeter by millimeter feeling the warmth of its surface burn my eyelids. I always liked to look at her without speaking to her but she always felt uncomfortable so she would throw her hair over her face. When she finally uncovered herself, she emerged as a completely different person, favorably disposed to letting others look at her, to allowing me to play with her rough draft without touching it. That’s how we got turned on in front of Octavio and the rest of the jarlis who would always talk about something completely unrelated to Camila’s thousand fires.
One must take a close look at her now. Ignore the flabbiness in her face in order to read in her the whole story, because she now looks like a matron with a forgotten past. She’s beginning to be slow in her demeanor and she eats ravenously at night on the solitary table of this house, not caring for the fat romping around her body. Her panties no longer adhere softly to the lines of her skin. Her thighs bulge out together burying her graceful way of walking. But all the fires in her are yet burning and I see them from this place where remembrance lives on still.
It‘s painful to think that I have almost been forgotten and that I will soon cease to be this memory which still allows me to live close to her. When she finally sets into oblivion I don’t know what will become of me. I will perhaps turn into a stray moaning in the wind. In this way, in her evening walks through the city, she will be able to hear me, and will know that I am that weeping that keeps watching her from anywhere, just like before, as when she came to the café table to stay, not letting either the smoke, Octavio’s arrogance, or even the hostility she provoked in the girls from the Marymount School who came later on invited by Octavio, of course, bother her. Camila came to stay and my people, that is to say, the jarlis and I felt that our lives were lost to long afternoons of some inexplicable wanting.
We would all have wanted to love Camila. We were all used to wrenching our loves from each other because we were children eager for kissing and sex. Octavio had become the leader of the jarlis since Enrique’s death. He was made to fit his motorbike’s measure. His demeanor matched his Harley Davidson’s silhouette, prognathous, large nosed, osseous, long arms and legs. He was the perfect jarli, fast and stuck-up. He wore a bracelet with an eagle shield on his left arm. His blondish hair glittered in the five o’clock afternoon sun. He taught me to pet the women on Junín Street and la Playa. “It’s a matter of inner self-confidence,” he used to say while we stood in front of the Continental Book Store’s showcase pretending to be interested in books but alert to neighboring skirts. We had to look sideways towards Junín and be ready with alert hands inside our jacket pockets. We would wait for the crowd to grow, would then fake shoving till we got near our target. It was a must to get up close and feel the perfume they wore behind their ears. Only at that moment we brought out our impatient hands to let them fall where their legs began.
We became assiduous and expert. We became so skilled that we managed to grab the elastic bands through the skirts in the middle of the street without them getting angry. That’s how we gathered memories that we chewed on later at the café and, much later, under the solitude of our bed sheets. We invented stories out loud and drank beer to brush the windings of those fantasies up. They were ephemeral moments we tried to eternalize through remembrance. We were permanently aware of the sound of panties on our fingers, the warmth of breath, the nearness of lips. That’s why when Camila appeared, everyone wanted to touch her, to feel with skilled fingers the texture of her underwear or to breathlessly drink her mouth. However, though she stayed with us from that night on, she didn’t seem willing to give herself in to us.
Camila sings even today. Without speaking English she sang the Beatles and the Rolling Stones by heart. Now she sings romantic ballads, sad, hopeless themes which she listens to all day at work in the flower shop. Songs different to the ones from the old times when she began dressing like Octavio’s girl-friends, with body-tight jeans, half-leg boots and black T-shirts. The girls from Marymount ended up tolerating her because Octavio wanted her to belong to the jarlis. He himself took her on a bike ride and made her hold on to his bony trunk. Camila was always happy. She laughed boldly and transmitted something like an electric shot through our bodies. Little by little Octavio gave up possessing her because, without losing her joy, she was indifferent to him. I kept on looking at her and dreaming of touching her like velvet. My turn would come yet. Meanwhile, I let things go their own way. I tried hard to let the hours pass without feeling that I burned inside and clung hard to my Harley. I spent hours of real relief in the garage of my house, polishing the bike, taking it apart and putting it back together again, looking at it from a distance, seeing how the sun’s rays hit on it, producing fascinating reflections, becoming companions of meditation, caressing like my eyes and hands, eager to go out for a ride on my Harley. But I learned to wait locked up amidst old tires, rusty rings, and the smell of gasoline, oil and polishing wax. I survived in the silence of those neighborhood garages although it took Octavio an eternity to give up on Camila.
I am waiting now, too. The day is near when she’ll open the window and exhale out what is left of my memory. Then I’ll have to leave and dissolve into nothingness, renounce watching her grow old, letting some else one sip the last drops of joy from her.
If I was able to know how to wait twenty years ago, now with no other alternative I know how to do so, too. In the meantime I enjoy reconstructing those happy times when Octavio stopped harassing her every day from early morning and could then say directly to her again, “Camilacien, Camilamil, Camiladetodoslosfuegos”. And since then my Harley and I felt her body utterly close, her hot breath on my neck and her thighs embraced around the saddle. Even the girls from Marymount looked happy because Octavio had been set free at last. But he only felt he had lost his honor.
I know that Camila was sincere because I haven’t seen a single photograph of Octavio in the whole house. Only I appear petrified by the camera of someone who I don’t recall and who perhaps no longer exists. I smile towards an indefinite place, my Harley to one side. I have never heard her say the name Octavio and it doesn’t seem to me that she conjures his name when she touches herself at night. That’s why I think it has been worthwhile till now, and it will be important till the day a little cold wind vanishes my memory from this house forever.
I suspected that things could turn out that afternoon as they finally happened, of course. But it was enough for me to look at Camila’s wind-disheveled hair, the sun surrounding her without touching her to understand that I had to accept Octavio’s challenge. He was blind with rage, showed signs of suffering on his face. His Harley also showed signs of being in pain going in circles on the pavement while snorting furiously when the girls from Marymount gathered about him to calm him down. Things gained momentum this way without anyone being able to avoid it and the duel was sealed among Octavio’s girls looking on.
I don’t know who spoke to Camila of honor. I never did know whether people in the neighborhoods where she was raised knew about codes of honor. The thing is that she did not doubt it for a second when Octavio said that this issue would be settled on the night of the 15th of November on the Harleys. Everyone looked at her as if to ask for her intervention. She was wearing an old pair of blue jeans and a faded T-shirt. The wind had tousled her hair and she had the same forlorn look she had when he had first walked into the café. But there was something on her lips and her eyes and her entire body. It was a new something, a show of happiness and sadness in those faded clothes where she breathed with enough strength to defy loneliness for the rest of his life. She looked at me from that state as if wanting to give me the necessary courage to face what was coming. I sent her a kiss through the hostile looks and accepted the midnight date.
Camila sang by my side all afternoon. I lay on the lawn near the Minor Seminary looking at her, the sky in the background. Clouds moved again as if in a macabre dance over her head. The humid wind inhabiting the mountains on the eastern side of the city began to blow and was playing with Camila’s hair. At night fall she embraced me strongly and asked me in a faltering voice to forgive her. It was much like the same expression that floods her face when she kisses my yellowed photograph. That’s why I keep waiting and will do so till the second there is still a slight memory of my love in her.
Camila was brave. The street was wet that night when we got to the door of the Voz de Medellín. People who had never come near me came to see me close up. I remember shaking hands with men and women who smiled while looking at me. Among those hands I felt the coldness of someone’s hands who looked at me the way Enrique used to, who smiled like Enrique used to and who also got lost in the crowd before I could remember that Enrique had died in a duel such as the one that would happen tonight.
The girls from Marymount asked Camila for the last time to make us desist. She walked in the fog floating in the air and kissed my forehead. This time she didn’t say a word even though she knew that in a few moments Octavio and I would fly on our Harleys in search of death. She knew of the twenty-seven street crossings between the parting in front of the radio station and the door leading to San José School. If neither of us crashed against a car in the intersections, there would be another twenty-seven chances to solve our row on coming back and then again, until there were enough reasons to stop the race with honor.
Camila knew it. I felt it in her lips on my forehead, but I had no fear and I settled into my Harley looking sideways at Octavio who was also settling into his position. He stepped on the gas first, and then my bike jumped on a reflex and sided up to him. The first crossing we passed like lightning and I barely had the chance to see a car’s lights to our left. The following ones were empty and Octavio didn’t stop when he got to the school entrance door at the end of the route. He turned on his heel and roared with all the fury built up inside him against me. He pushed forward to leave me behind as if looking to disappear melting into the night. I felt his courage as never before and thought that was why he had been the leader since Enrique’s death. Octavio was an authentic jarli
When we finished the first round the girls from Marymount shouted as if their team had scored a goal. By then the night had made our faces cold and the street seemed like a dark mirror. In it shined the radio station neon signs and the Harleys’ spotlights in combat. I barely saw Camila who had separated from the rest of the crowd when she lifted her left hand to her face. If I could have brought the bike to a stop, I would have seen the tears falling into her mouth. But there was time for nothing. I drove ahead on instinct and got to the crossing with Ecuador Street before Octavio. Then I felt the world break like an egg shell, under my hands there was no Harley any longer. I think I turned around in the air several times like an astronaut, then fell slowly on a mattress of red, fragrant and humid roses. I remember seeing Camila singing at my side, macabre clouds dancing over her head once again.
After the funeral, even the jarlis forgot me. I only continued to be a kind memory for Camila and strong in her soul. I have accompanied her in her loneliness during these twenty years and I understood that the dead grow old, too. I am now close to the real end, to that end which, sooner or later, everyone will get to, even Octavio, even the Marymount girls, the jarlis, the little girls in the street who let us pet them and Camila, also. I am on the verge of being effaced from this world. I am a receding memory. I only want to close my eyes and lay down in this corner where I can still feel Camila. I know that when I open them again, I will have left her.
· The words Cienfuegos, Milfuegos and Todoslosfuegos mean hundred fires, thousand fires and all fires respectively but being unique words holding great meaning and resonance will be preserved in Spanish.
· The word jarlis is an Anglicism derived from Harley and means Harleyists; is also untranslatable and will be preserved as such.
· Voz de Medellin is the proper name of a radio station: Voice of Medellín [Translator’s Note]