Oct/Nov 2007 Fiction

The Librarian and Reinaldo Arenas

by David Massengill

Reinaldo let me read one of his sea poems in the late '60s, when we were young co-workers at the National Library. We lay on lawn outside the building, and Reinaldo delicately peeled an orange as I tore through his art. Beneath text, I spotted the water goddess Reinaldo had befriended, impenetrably black and massive enough to fit this whole island in her bellybutton. My own imagination was a pale, shriveled hag who only limped near me when I was sick with rum. Typical maricone, I cursed to myself by poem's end. Reinaldo had used a few ribbons of verse to hook a female the rest of us men could never lure with our cocks.

Climaxes always eluded my writings. I occasionally glimpsed them miles offshore, floating specks that never neared with kelp nor arced into air as dolphins do. And I came to enforce their distance. Unlike Reinaldo, I knew my newly revolutionized mind was unprepared for collisions with the creative unconscious.

Despite my sobriety, I accepted Reinaldo's coaxes to after-work strolls through Old Havana. I would shuffle, and Reinaldo would strut, and I stared dumbly when he prophesized which of Cuba's departments would warp and which officials would topple. The tales of his nights were obscene. He detailed salsa swirls on all-male dance floors and the off-paper athletics of his tongue. His accounts of sweaty typing were what most provoked me, though. I did have a wife who would lie with me, and we were about to produce a baby as normal. Yet Reinaldo was close to birthing multiple books.

So I called the authorities. Not when Reinaldo and I still shared a desk, but when he disappeared from the job, as if amnesia had yanked him from sense of duty. For days, I'd chewed my wife's dry pork sandwiches alone and walked directly home. Solitude brought me images of Reinaldo perpetrating some insane escape to Puerto Rico or even Paris, where he'd scribble feverishly without comrade or country. Desire is a disease, and I knew Reinaldo required treatment. On the phone I stated my name, which seemed to have seized a higher status than my friend's. I reported that Reinaldo hid his manuscripts under roof tiles and confirmed the beaches where he'd committed perversions. Following this display of righteous authority, I could barely convince myself that my own actions were moral.

A neighbor informed me about Reinaldo's course. The slips in and out of prisons, the cowering in park trees, the incontinence in a jail cell the size of a bathtub. And, of course, the boatlift to the U.S. with the rest of Cuba's undesirables. I didn't need to hear from others to know of Reinaldo's books, which I read in my dreams. I would have talked about the fictions with him if he'd ever returned to our room in the library. "What pretty whimsies," I would have acknowledged with a flip through pages. And then I would knock on the worn, pocked wood of our desk and say, "But this—this, Reinaldo, is a life."

Reinaldo never mailed me a postcard from America. The obituary page of some sordid European magazine is where I read that he'd traded Miami's exile community for a New York City rat-nest. What upset me more than his end from AIDS was that he died near a kitchen table that was barely big enough for one.

The water goddess visits my house sometimes. She first showed once Reinaldo left for Florida. Now she manifests frequently, swaying in the corner of the bedroom where my wife used to undress for me after we'd rocked our infant daughter to sleep. Differing from the women in my family, the water goddess remains ageless. She stares with gorgeous and wrathful eyes, unblinking even when I tell her that she doesn't belong in this dry place, that I tore down her alter as soon as I became a man. I can see my reasoning won't keep her from drowning this island.


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