A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale

Cuento de Navidad

Ernesto Hernández Busto

English translation by Tanya Huntington

It had been snowing heavily for several days, but both my friends were adamant that we reach a village lost somewhere in the Alps. Our favorite pastime was making fun of L., whose obsession with snow kept him glued to the window. A. and I huddled together and teased him in between trying to get some sleep. We had been on the train for more than twelve hours, heading towards Tolmezzo in the middle of Carnia, when we hit a half-meter of snow in Gemona. The rails were blocked, so we had to deboard, get on another train and backtrack to a nearby city. Typical twenty-somethings, we were traveling penniless. And then L. came up with an idea: a friend of a friend of his knew someone in Udine. With any luck, we could make some calls and find a roof to stay under while we waited it out.

That “someone” ended up being two people; they bore a certain likeness, although they did not treat one another like sisters. Any resemblance was owed to their hair, which was unusually long and shiny and perhaps the only clean thing about those two ladies, with their long nails and bitter faces. A. tried to be gallant, praising their blonde manes which fell past their waists, and in between smiles one of them shared their secret: birth control pills, pulverized and dissolved in shampoo. “Actually, a Cuban friend taught us.” There was nothing attractive about their disheveled bodies and hawk-like profiles, and even less about the foul-smelling, colorful rags they were swaddled in.

That first night, L. and I offered to go get something to eat: some pizzas. Outside it kept on snowing and as we walked to the trattoria, I had to endure his sexual fantasies: “A threesome, bro, it’s a done deal, you’ll see.” I retorted my concerns about hygiene and some suspicions regarding his pansexual vision; if they weren’t sisters or cousins, those girls were a couple, and we should already be grateful for not having to spend the night at the station. It just wasn’t worth posing as a couple of Don Juans and taking an unnecessary risk.

We stayed for three days as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Each night, we’d feed those off-kilter blondes, who would immediately devour everything, including what was on our own plates. They explained how they barely had enough money to eat, how they usually sustained themselves on whatever they could steal from the insane asylum where they worked on the weekends.

Of what one might call actual conversation, there was almost none. Our Italian didn’t help, either. We felt at ease sharing lodging and meals, but we didn’t dare risk any further information. The curse of politics was everywhere: the struggle of exiles, the thought that those hippie girls sympathized with “all that” we had just left behind. Then there was the poster: under the gigantic semblance and watchful, wall-eyed stare of the Guerrillero, we learned to get by using our sleeping bags to compensate for the lack of warmth. One small misstep, and we might have to sleep out on the street. Our hosts had already displayed tempestuous personalities. In broken English, they had spoken with A. of love; they’d once shared a boyfriend, but later on had grown tired of men. “It’s like a postcard, you know,” one said. “When you still love but you’re not in love. You simply preserve a piece of the past that you cannot change, like a postcard. With affection, as the Americans say. With men, I can no longer get past that point.” A. made several attempts to explore other angles, but the discussion later turned to Cuban matters and we all began to sour. I don’t remember all the details from that evening, but I do recall it ended with far too much vehemence, long faces, and A. drowning in the bottle of cheap rum we carried in our backpack. It seemed as if any sign of virility would be an affront to those filthy women’s quarters, where memories hardened and logic was reduced to four or five clichés from leftist manuals.

On the last day, they kindly escorted us to the station. Service had resumed, even though it continued to snow. I mentioned Jason, the American who supposedly knew L., whose friend in turn had also stayed with the Blondes. Even now, the details were vague; after a few phone calls L. had dropped several names and very eloquently convinced them of our desperate situation. Now, post-urgency, he attempted to tie up loose ends with them. “But Jason has never been in Cuba,” one of them said. “What Jason are you talking about?” And then, right there on the platform, we realized our misunderstanding. It was all a mistake, we had been the guests of total strangers. An eerie discomfort began to spread; it was embarrassing to discover that our mutual friend didn’t even exist, that it had all been a game of chance, a coincidence. The sense of bonding that our farewell had kindled was extinguished instantly. They must have felt betrayed. Without any further ado, we hastily said our goodbyes. As I rearranged my dirty clothes in my backpack, I couldn’t help wondering whether the whole thing had just been wishful thinking. Three travelers in pursuit of a dubious mirage.

Ernesto Hernández Busto (La Habana, Cuba, 1968). Cuban poet, essayist, editor and translator resides in Barcelona. He is the author of Perfiles derechos. Fisonomías del escritor reaccionario (Península, Barcelona, 2004) and Inventario de saldos. Apuntes sobre literatura cubana (Colibrí, Madrid, 2005). He is a collaborator of El País.

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