Return to the Paradise

I’m now holding a photograph of Julia in my hand. She’s looking directly into my eyes and hiding the blond hair on her crossed arms because she knows I never liked them; her arms were the one part of her body I never mentioned in my poems. She’s standing, as if once again she’s going to come to me wearing pants, those pescadores that were popular at the time, and plead with me to trace the drawing, the head of Manuela Sáenz, which I took to my recently deceased painter friend, whom I was incapable of telling the truth: that it was he who used paint to give life to Manuela’s eyes fixed on her lover, General Simon Bolívar. Julia was interested, so I told her their history. I told her about their impossible love and the battles that separated them, all of which she listened to with emotion, until I finally told her to take the painting, that it hadn’t taken very long. I also told her not to wear white shoes with black pants because it doesn’t look good, and anything else I could think of from here, when I knew my face was being looked at strangely, and she laughed for the same reason she laughed two years ago when, to make her jealous, I told her about the older woman for whom I was a paid escort, the girl from the convent, and all the women from the neighborhood.

That was when her body was already developing and her brothers started to protect her from everyone; they would go to pick her up at the Paradise movie theater, where the movie never mattered as much as the kisses, or those lips I’m looking at now, or sitting in seat #20, close to her, to the inscription on the back of the photograph that says she returned, that she paid again and started looking for me.

I believe you, Julia, so you won’t feel resentment, but that winter I was distant, my face was pale, my hair was very long, and I wandered around unfamiliar streets. Sometimes the police detained me–conspiring right?–and laughing, I would explain that I was just passing through, “love trouble,” I would tell them, thinking of you, and they would release me onto those streets, which received me as if I were falling into a cold and deep well. It was then that I recognized my origin, my destiny looking at the windows of a deserted hotel, from where I was given a signal, a single gesture that I looked at distractedly, thinking the signal wasn’t intended for me but for an invisible being walking next to me. But the signal was repeated, and I continued walking up to the door, where I waited like a robot.

The old man appeared, told the doorman to let me in, and, almost without looking at me, told me he had known me my entire life. I was afraid of his motives, but smoothed out my hair to look presentable. “He’s a fairy,” I thought, when I saw him walking with a limp. But that wasn’t the case, and he asked me to sit down. Then he told me that he had been waiting for me, that he had read my work–“work about life,” he said, smiling–and we started to eat. I ate cautiously, remembering the damage that any food can cause when one hasn’t eaten for a long time, and then we started drinking.

When we started drinking, the injury you inflicted on me, Julia, opened like a flower, and I thought: “What am I, but an injured being walking next to this unknown man.”

He placed his hand on my shoulder paternally, and, looking at him, I thought: “Here it comes.” He was tall and thin, and looked as if he had emerged from the water. And I, who didn’t know how to do anything but write a little, read his work: “Terrible,” I told him one night almost screaming, and stayed with him.

The nights were like a death ritual: the old man coughed blood, but would nevertheless wake up fresh at dawn, as if his illness only attacked him at night. He talked about his hometown, started calling me son, protecting me, supplying food for my empty stomach, reading me secret parts of his dusty books, and advising me about Julia.

Then, everything started to fall apart on the verge of so much disgrace, which was at the core of what I’m talking to you about, Julia.

It was a brutal winter, not the lukewarm winter of Guayaquil, when lovers are happy when it rains in the Centenario Plaza, and men are seen hugging women more, drinking strong liquor, and exchanging kisses and cigarettes from lip to lip.

No, Julia, there were rainfalls over there that caused landslides underneath the houses, and I would think of you. Once again I would leap up the steps to the Paradise, perhaps pay the admission, and without knowing which movie was playing, I would position myself in the darkest and loneliest place in the theater. I remained there by myself and reserved an orchestra seat for you at my side, biting my lip desirous for your kiss on the edge of the truth, and hiding when the others arrived: the ones who talked about you, as if they were referring to a raging animal, large, savage, and powerful, and quite alien to my desires and troubles. Meanwhile, the cold rain was falling in front of the window; it was falling when I heard your voice, your bright laughter, and I saw you arrive, reach me despite the darkness, and take my hand and kiss it, leaving your sweet and intense taste between my fingers.

And then the old man called me. I looked at him speaking to me, saying my name drowned out by his coughing, and in that condition he asked me to read the texts, his stories and mine. And I knew he was joking when he said that he could author my work, and that I could pretend to be some famous author of a popular novel, while he was twisting in the middle of a death rattle. Sometimes I don’t know if he existed. I doubt it, but I remember him offering me lukewarm milk in a silver cup, and studying my eyes, like his father would have studied his.

Now I know that he lived for you, Julia, that he was tranquility, support, the crutch given to invalids, and the shelter offered to the traveler in a foreign country. Afterwards–I’m almost not sure what happened next–ten days in that immense house erased my memory of things; I lived lost between what I knew and didn’t know, between what your friends said was bad and the truth in the face of hoodlums, rice merchants, and those who embezzled and endured prison to later become rich, appear in exclusive nightclubs, and play canasta at parties, those intimate parties you and I detest so much.

The old man was dying little by little. In the meantime, I asked for transfusions to be started and serum to be administered, and screamed in the doctors’ faces. But the aged hand of the old man stopped me, as if to say: “It’s no use, son, I’m dying,” and each night that followed he would sink lower into the sofa and the books, looking at me with a grateful smile, like a father who is going to die and knows his children will be safe.

One night, he woke me up and told me not to be afraid, to be calm, because after all, no one has ever died twice, and he entrusted me with choosing his coffin. He gave me the money, demonstrating his confidence, and said: “Go buy it, I’ll be alive waiting for you,” and with the money in my hand, I traversed the avenues.

The man who sold them saw me arrive trembling and said: “Don’t be afraid, that’s life.” Everyone but him offered complete funeral services, so he showed me only the coffins, shiny and beautiful, mounted on top of one another like bunk beds. “This one,” I said without hesitating, and I had him engrave on a silver plaque the old man’s name, the titles of his works, and that book without covers that he’d ordered me to burn. No one saw me arrive dragging the coffin, only the old man, who, still alive, was smiling from the window.

Later, I helped him get dressed, and although I could sense he was in pain, he didn’t emit a single scream or moan that might give him away. He died that day, and I looked for the finest material to make my overcoat, took possession of his books and blank sheets of paper, and went out into the street.

At dawn, the old man’s relatives should have claimed him as one of their own. “There’s your dead man, undertaker,” I screamed, drunk, when the entourage dispersed.

The rest, Julia, was returning to the park, sitting with the students, not telling them my real name or nationality, and sharing my desire with them; charming the prostitutes on the Calle 24 de Mayo, living with them, off of them, off of those plump bodies that defy the cold and sell naked love and illusions, all because I didn’t want to return, because it was enough for me to look at the streets to know what I would do, and all of that was better than never having ventured out. And I thank you, Julia, just like I also thank myself for having jealously safeguarded the old man’s papers, the words being his only possession: words written in brothels, in hospitals, in those places where the truth is shouted, written, and then written again. Here is the coffin I bought from you, death merchant, the photograph I stole from you, photographer of the park, island, and sad widows. But I decided to return, without anything of my own that I could give you as a memento. So I’m telling all of this to your photograph, not to you. I’m looking at you smiling at me from the photograph, while I move away from the mountains and pass by the Las Palmas and Villa Víctor motels, thinking I’ll visit you as soon as I arrive, show you the proof that will be these very words, and smiling, I’ll slowly and emphatically tell you that time hasn’t been wasted yet, and that in order to see if it still exists, we should return to the Paradise for the last time.


Jorge Velasco Mackenzie

Jorge Velasco Mackenzie was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1949. In 1983, he was awarded First Prize in the José de la Cuadra Concurso Nacional. He is the author of the novels El Rincón de los Justos (1983), Tambores para una Canción Perdida (1986), and El Ladrón de Levita (1990); the fiction collections De Vuelta al Paraíso (1975), Como Gato en Tempestad (1977), Raymundo y la Creación del Mundo (1979), Músicos de Amaneceres (1986), and Clown y Otros Cuentos (1988); the poetry collection Algunos Tambores que Suenan Así (1981); the anthology Palabra de Maromero (1986); and the play En Esta Casa de Enfermos (1983).

Harry Morales

Harry Morales is a Spanish literary translator whose translations include the work of the late Mario Benedetti, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Eugenio María de Hostos, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, Ilan Stavans, and Francisco Proaño Arandi, among many other distinguished Latin American writers. His work has been widely published in numerous anthologies, and has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mānoa, BOMB, WORLDVIEW, Puerto del Sol, The Iowa Review, Michigan Review, World Literature Today, and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others. His English translation of two verse collections by Mario Benedetti, Sólo Mientras Tanto: Poemas: 1948-1950 (Only in the Meantime: Poems: 1948-1950) and Poemas de la Oficina: 1953-1956 (Office Poems: 1953-1956), and a volume of stories, El Resto Es Selva y Otros Cuentos (The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories), are published by Host Publications.

Copyright (c) Jorge Velasco Mackenzie, 1975. English translation copyright (c) Harry Morales, 2002.