Dramatis Personae of a Previous Life in Havana

I can only imagine how carefully you applied make-up on your bruise. How long it took you to work around the edges of your battered eye. I can only imagine it. For I never saw you doing it. By the time I had come back from school, got changed into plain clothes and sprinted up to the third floor of my bloc of flats, you had mutated. The damage had been done and you had “moved on”. By the time the dominoes table had been set and you, your mother-in-law, one of your brothers-in-law and his wife had perched up together, you had put on the other face. “Nothing to see here. Shit happens. I caused the shit to happen. It was my fault. I’m the shit that makes the shit happen”. He was not there. He had already left for his beat, starched copper’s uniform, duty weapon in holster, probably whistling on his way down the stairs, José José or Emanuel (he was a romantic, after all); feeling like a man.

You, left behind. You, x-months pregnant. You, sitting around the dominoes table, smiling, laughing even, the corners of your mouth rising like the temperature outside in the sultry Havana heat. The others, reassuringly seeing calm after the storm.

I saw rictus.

Even at that young age, I could tell the truth behind the acting. It was a slow process, though. You set the stage for your one-act, one-actress play, but I never believed your silence-enforcing monologue. It was a performance-within-a-performance. I knew you had no choice but join this bruise-concealing farce, this confidence-destroying mise en scène. You were on your own, family-less, home-less, friend-less, a Cuban Easterner, palestina, looked down upon by habaneros. Habaneros like me.

We were the spectators. On the third floor, we were the audience during all the years you stayed in that house. That third floor was the observatory. To the outside world, never to the inside. The inside world was off-limits. It was known what was going on but… well, “shit happens.” That third floor was the balcony, the perfect site for the telescope that was missing but not needed. Around us the houses and apartments whose white-sheet-decked derelict rooftops cried out surrender. Surrender to the inevitability and the inevitable. Did anyone else see him raising his hand? Did anyone guess what was going to happen straight after? Did anyone notice the ever-growing bump, imperceptible still but noticeable once they came close to you? Did anyone care?

Every time you threatened to leave, every time, he laughed. I know, not because I saw him but because I heard him. The sarcasm-filled adverb. Destination? I did not need to see your face to know that in your head you saw a future of endless make-up-applying hours. The barrel of his duty weapon rammed down your throat as your pregnancy bulge kept him at arm’s length was evidence. The twelve-year-old secondary school girl he chased, groomed and started a relationship with was evidence. His own mother’s bruised arms the only time she very mildly dared to defend you were the evidence.

You did not seek help. In fact, you stood up for him. Some people said you had it coming. After all, you came from Oriente. What were you doing here? They asked. Correction: we asked. Also, why did you not leave him? Some others pointed at his outstanding attitude and behaviour in the community. Of course, sometimes he went a bit over the top.

I never asked you. I do not know if I would, were I to run into you now. After all, even you were aware that no matter how carefully you applied your make-up, we could still see your battered eye.

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