Continuing with our series of translations of the winning stories in the nuestra palabra short story competition, this month we present Cuban-born author Yoel Isaac Díaz León, whose story, “Old Fear”, which he submitted under the pseudonym “Old Man”, won the second edition of the contest in 2005. This English translation, by Martin Boyd, was originally published in issue #7 of the Diálogos Online Magazine in 2008.
Yoel Isaac Díaz León
Once again, I’ve been a few blocks from my friends’ house, near the street Calzada de Infanta. Once again, I have not gone to see them. One of them is now 65 years old; the other 68. Every December when I go back to Havana, I feel the impulse to go by and say “hello” to them, but at the last moment I stop short at the bus stop. There I stay while my gaze wanders down the street to San Miguel, right, left, then right again. I stop at the building and look up. I go up the stairs and knock on the door.
One of them answers. The other is sitting on the living room couch and rises when he sees me. They both embrace me. Friends… it is so good to see them looking well. I am moved by the simplicity of their fondness for me. I know of their misfortunes, their hardships and struggles to survive in this hostile world. Somehow it pleases me to find that they still have that reserve of indispensable wickedness, underlying and a little naive, which they wave at me like a trump card. In another time, I too might have been a victim of their malice and their dirty tricks, but I suppose I managed to charm them with my appearance and I won their affection, almost unknown to the world outside the door. My victory made me love them.
They invite me to lunch and I accept, even though their foul soup makes me sick, and I’m suspicious of the glasses in which they serve me water, which itself is suspicious, and I don’t trust the odour wafting from the kitchen sink. But for nothing in the world would I refuse to give them the happiness reflected in their faces when they serve me food and watch me eating at their side. Our conversations are the same as always: the unbearable situation and the inexorable conclusion which I at least did well to flee from; in their case, why bother…
When lunch is over, I lie down on one of the beds. I take off my shirt and shoes first, in gestures that are close to cunning. I close my eyes and I’m not bothered by the feeling of their eyes running over me or the hand sliding down my back while they tell me some triviality that I will probably soon forget. Nor am I bothered, nor have I been for a long time now, by that spark of desire that was palpable from the beginning. Perhaps I am even pleased that they can satisfy it by evoking sensations now weakened, impossible to control with the sight of my body, still young.
Now as I leave, I glimpse the bottles of medication on the nightstand, resting on prescriptions and the results of analyses. I manage to read something about the date of a surgical operation and then once again I feel that cold sensation from which I am saved by the arrival of the bus, which I force myself to board. The tension of the people, their rudeness and roughness, and the unbearable heat of the bus make me forget them on the ride back.
… But only on the ride back; at other moments they seem to be an obsession that has come to haunt me. Then I am grateful for the fact that all the payphones in this city are out of order, and for the absence of the neighbour across the hall, who charges me a dollar a call to use her phone. I excuse myself with the long list of things to get done on this trip before going back, the lack of time, any pretext will do… Then, while staring at the television or lying on the bed, I ask myself why.
I only ask myself, and toy with the idea of not answering. I am unwilling to acknowledge the fear. Fear of arriving at the house, knocking on the door and finding when one answers that the other is not there on the couch. Fear that nobody will answer the door and instead the next-door neighbour will look at me mysteriously and say nothing. Or the worst fear of all. The fear of calling on the phone and when someone picks up the receiver I say, “Hi, guys, it’s Yoel, I’m here again…” And in reply I’m met with silence, as heavy as the centuries, that will cut off my voice and force me to feel that interminable pause that says it all.
Translated by Martin Boyd
Yoel Isaac Díaz León was born in Cuba, and has lived in Toronto since November 2004. In 1998 he received a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Central de Las Villas University, in Santa Clara, Cuba. He was a prize winner in the Villa Clara Provincial Debate Conference of Literary Workshops in Cuba, and finalist in the Reina del Mar Publishers’ Youth Narrative Contest in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 2003. He completed a workshop course in narrative technique at the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Literary Education Centre in Havana in 2004. That same year he received an Honourable Mention in the César Galeano Contest, also in Havana.