The first-prize winner of the nuestra palabra short story competition in 2010, Ihosvany Hernández González, was born in Havana in 1974 and completed studies in history at Universidad de La Habana. Since 2004 he has lived in Montreal and is now a Canadian citizen. In addition to writing short stories he is an award-winning poet, author of the collection Verdades que el tiempo ignora (Linden Lane Press, 2011) and co-author of the anthology of Cuban poetry Bojeo a la isla infinita (Betania, 2013). He maintains the blog La parada de los mangos and his next poetry collection, El equilibrio de las cosas, will be published later this year by Publicaciones Entre Lineas.
The Man with a Mission
“The day he arrived, they took him out for dinner to one of the French restaurants on University Street, right downtown,” said El Niño, taking a big gulp of his beer. There was no sound of music at the back, just the din of conversation at other tables, the laughter and the occasional scratching of chairs dragged along the floor.
“Who was there?” asked El Negro, resting his elbows on the bar, his enormous head a silhouette against the afternoon sun.
“The woman who got him out, the friend of the woman who got him out, and him,” El Niño counted on his fingers. “Now just imagine this Cuban guy who’s just arrived in the First World sitting there at the table. Just imagine him, fresh off the plane.
“Oh, I can imagine,” said El Negro, engulfing the glass with his enormous mouth. The cool beer soothed his throat and seemed to relax him after his tiring day.
“Imagine him sitting there across from his woman, the one who got him out, and the friend of the woman who got him out. And the waitress comes over. She takes out her pen. She takes out her little note pad. And she writes down the regular house special: fries, vegetables, and meat. A nice steak served with an onion sauce. And she asks him in French ‘Comment voulez vous votre viande?’How do you want your meat? His woman translates for him. And this guy just looks at his woman…”
“The woman who got him out,” clarified El Negro.
“…and he looks at the friend of the woman who got him out,” continued El Niño. “And he just wonders – he’s one of these guys who thinks a lot, even just to buy his first steak in the First World – he wonders: how is a Cuban guy going to want his steak? Just imagine him ordering meat he hasn’t eaten in years. Meat that’s forbidden, almost sacred, so coveted on the island. Meat for the tourists, or for the few.”
“And then what?” El Negro starts to get impatient and it seems the mere thought of this steak is making his mouth water. He hasn’t eaten yet because he came to the bar to chat with his colleague, the friend he met when he started working at the call centre, and they were talking about this other guy who had just arrived in Canada. “So what happened?” he repeats as he takes another drink.
“The steak, Negro…They had to serve it. ‘But how?’ asked our recently arrived Cuban friend, the partner of my sister, the one who got him out. My wife, my sister’s friend, said they all just looked at each other, and she also just looked at this indecisive Cuban. How are you going to want your steak in this world? It’s just a piece of grilled meat with sauce and fries, but they need to know how you want it. ‘Medium,’ said my sister, the one who got him out. ‘Medium,’ said my wife, my sister’s friend. And that idiot didn’t really think. He didn’t think twice this time. He just blurted out ‘A big one!’ in English. ‘I want a big one!’ Because he at least knew how to say that in English. And the women laughed. They laughed together as they looked at this guy, fresh off the plane from a country where meat is a metaphor, something other-worldly, a legend from the past. They laughed and laughed. And the guy almost got angry. He was annoyed: why all the laughter? Why the looks and the dumb questions? In the end a steak is just a piece of meat, and that’s it! Yeah, but they had to know how you wanted it. And it’s understandable that a guy who’s lived for thirty years in an underdeveloped country wouldn’t know the difference between rare and well-done. It makes sense. I get it. But just imagine this guy motioning to assure the waitress that what he wanted was not a medium steak, as my sister and my wife had ordered. He did not want a medium-sized steak, but an enormous one, one big enough to fill his stomach and satisfy the appetite of someone who’s just arrived in the developed world. But they didn’t speak Spanish in this restaurant. They spoke French, and a bit of English. And he didn’t know much of either. Just a few words. It was as if he were in a movie, or a dream, with the tasty aromas and the colourful sunset on that day my sister took him to satisfy his hunger. I was working pretty late that day, so I couldn’t go. But my wife, my sister’s friend, told me the story. She described the whole scene. His half-open mouth when my sister, the one who got him out, and my wife, my sister’s friend, said almost in unison, ‘make that a big one for our Caribbean friend.’ In French, obviously. And it wasn’t a joke. Because my sister wouldn’t make fun of her husband who had just arrived. It was natural that he would feel a culture shock, and be confronted by details that would make him realize that he had practically come from the jungle. You could say that. And it’s not his fault. It’s the fault, Negro, of underdevelopment. But my wife, my sister’s friend, said you just had to see the anger, the confusion and the hunger on the guy’s face. The confusion and uncertainty of ordering a steak with fries and a beer. Such simple things. But that day, there in that room, the fact he knew nothing about fries, or steak, or the language, made it all a fucking dilemma. So he blurted out that phrase: ‘a big one.’ And they laughed. And he got angry.”
“So what was the steak like, Niño? What was it like in the end?” El Negro was back to his questions, his enormous head still silhouetted against the evening light while in the background you could hear people prattling on in English, saying “fuck, man” or “fuck you, man.”
“Negro, the steak was medium. It was medium in every way: a medium-sized steak cooked medium – enough to get a taste of the new world. You know how it is. So do I. We know. It’s the taste of a new reality. And you just look like a big idiot when you see that first piece of meat. And just like that, your life changes. We become new people. We learn new languages. And we learn to exercise our rights, like the right to choke on a good piece of medium steak in a French restaurant. You gotta face the world head on, but you gotta take it slow, baby steps, even though you’ve got this animal instinct of a man with a mission to devour a steak with fries and vegetables, the meal that looks like it might jump off the plate right into your hungry mouth, which only remembers limitations and rationing, controls and refusals. But you believe in the possibility of learning another kind of survival.”
Translated by Liam Walke