Regardless of the common wisdom that, as Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen,” writers cannot escape being influenced by their environment, at any age. Just so with the Mexican writer Agustín Cadena, Mexican born, raised and educated, who has been living for years in Hungary, returning to México only for the three months of summer. In his recent collection of stories, Las tentaciones de la dicha, (The Temptations of Happiness) 2010, the permeating influence of Eastern Europe can be felt in at least four of the eleven stories. “Maracuyá” is one of these, set in a Black Sea resort town at the height of the season, in a vast club by that passionflower name, where one drinks Becherovka and meets people of a dozen nationalities, including an old Russian with a mysterious briefcase. What makes the story Mexican is its Spanish, the use of words like “cornudo” which fit smoothly in Spanish but seem so awkward when we write “cuckold” in English, and in this story, there’s a different twist on that characterization.
— Translator Patricia Dubrava
WE WENT TO that Black Sea resort because Dasha wanted so much to go back there. She had been once, six years ago, and said it was incredible: every summer, in August, the little fishing town transformed into the biggest tourist attraction of the Crimea. For a week, clubs, bars and restaurants stayed open 24 hours, hosting hundreds of tourists from all the Slavic countries and more distant places. Dasha fondly remembered dawns dancing on the beach among drunks singing in incomprehensible languages and couples who slept in each other’s arms on the sand after making love.
I agreed to go out of curiosity, but also because I wanted Dasha to have a rest. She was sick of working at the Peep Show, exploiting the beauty of her no longer so adolescent body and performing fellatio on fat tourists for twenty Euros.
So we pooled what money we had and, a day later, were on the train crossing the pine forests of the Carpathians, toward the Ukraine lowlands. To save money, we hadn’t wanted to pay for a sleeper, so made the whole trip in a coach compartment; during the day we talked, read, looked at the countryside, had brief conversations with passengers who accompanied us for an hour or two, on their way to some intermediate town. And at night we took turns: one watched so no one stole our backpacks while the other tried to get some sleep in spite of the cold, with our shoes on and wearing all our clothes. If we wanted something to eat, we had crackers.
We arrived tired and hungry, with barely enough energy to put up the tent in a more or less quiet section of the beach. But there was the sea, at last. The sea: a longing to live intensely and forever, escape to a timeless space where one could be eternally young, where love was imperishable. We sat contemplating it a long time, without talking.
We left stuff in the tent and went to town to look for something to eat. It was much as Dasha had described it: an idyllic place full of light, as if from a book of ancient poems. One high, winding street of old houses and shops full of shadows climbed a hill at whose peak stood a church, its twin towers topped with golden onion domes. The glow of polished metal, the sounds, the smells…it seemed as if we were seeing everything through the glass pane that separates reality from dreams.
We were starving, but didn’t want to go to a restaurant; we’d agreed that alcohol and entertainment were top priorities for our money, and we’d keep the minimum for secondary things. We bought four slices of bread, a quarter pound of bologna, another quarter of cheese, some pickles, and ate on a bench from which, in the distance below, the sea was visible.
We drank sweet wine in a small tavern, then went down to the beach to wade in the surf, watch the sunset and as it was getting dark, bathed in a public bathroom. An hour later, we arrived at the biggest nightclub: Maracuyá. They sold admissions for a day, for three days or for the whole week. Dasha wanted to buy the last even though it would take half our money.
“It’s cheaper that way,” she said. “And besides, I don’t intend to miss even one evening.”
The place was decorated as if it were on the Caribbean instead of the Black Sea: hammocks, fishnets, barrels half buried in the sand and live palm trees growing beneath large crystal domes.
We worked our way through the crowd, found a free table and looked over the menu: there was an incredible quantity of liquors, beers and wines from exotic places.
“What is this?” I asked Dasha, almost shouting because of the loud music. At the end of the wine list there was a question mark with a price; below that, two question marks, also with a price; then three, then four, five…
“Those are drugs,” she responded, also shouting. “One question mark is marijuana, two is hashish, three is cocaine; the others, I don’t know. Do you want something?”
“No,” I told her. “Pretty pricey. And you?”
“Get me a Becherovka.”
I went to the bar for the drinks. The place was a zoo. There were strange people of all ages, races and nationalities: old lechers, nymphs, aging women in search of adventure, young men with bare torsos covered in tattoos, Japanese, Scandinavians, Arabs…In the walk from our table to the bar, I overheard random words in unrecognizable languages; my sense of smell was saturated with a mix of sweaty skin, salt water, expensive perfumes, common deodorants…there was a line at the bar; I had to wait until the bartender took care of a six-foot blond and then a gay guy in a pink suit who didn’t know how to ask for silk stockings.
Finally, I returned to my table.
“Thanks, baby,” Dasha said, dancing in her seat to the music.
She took a sip of her drink, smiled at a guy who was giving her the eye from a nearby table and went to dance with him. I thought dancing a primitive display, so we had an understanding: she was free to dance with whomever. And “dance” meant whatever else also. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary: poor Dasha, it was only right that at least once in a while she could sleep with someone she liked. And in reality, she almost never exercised that option.
She didn’t exercise it with that guy. She danced with him a while, then changed partners, then sat to drank a glass with me, danced some more, sat some more…Near dawn, already a little drunk, I left her enjoying herself and went to walk on the beach. With each stride I took, the music of the various discos faded and mixed with the hiss of the waves that came in to break near my feet. Like weary fireflies, the lights of the little town floated in the distance.
We went to sleep in the tent at seven, woke around noon and after polishing off another package of crackers, swam in the sea. Dasha seemed happy: she smiled and hummed a song. She asked me every little while if this wasn’t a marvelous place, if I wasn’t enchanted, if I wouldn’t remember these days forever when we were no longer together.
In town we ate at McDonald’s, the cheapest alternative after bologna sandwiches, and walked through the streets, visited the Orthodox church. In the souvenir booth at its exit we stole a small fake icon. Then we returned to the tent to sleep at least a few hours before the new round of drinking and dancing in Maracuyá.
That night was very like the previous one, with the difference that a gang of 30 or 40 bikers dressed all in leather arrived, and set about making more noise than there already was. Before dawn I saw them on the beach, doing acrobatics with their motorcycles, the moon casting glints of light on the chrome of those enormous machines.
Leo appeared the third night. Dasha and I were sitting in the disco drinking Becherovka.
“Look at that!” she suddenly exclaimed. Near our table a man in his sixties, dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, danced alone. But what was even more odd was that he was dancing without letting go of his briefcase; he had it hugged to his chest as if he was afraid someone would steal it.
“Perhaps it’s full of money?” I asked Dasha.
“Or drugs?” She speculated, amused.
We continued watching him. He didn’t tire of dancing nor of having his arms in that uncomfortable position, because no matter how little the briefcase weighed, anyone would be tired. But he, on the contrary, seemed to be enjoying himself enormously; he danced clumsily and it didn’t matter to him; nor did it bother him not to have a partner. A smile of satisfaction, of an old man realizing a long cherished dream, illuminated his face.
“What a marvel of a man,” Dasha declared. She downed in one swallow what was left in her glass and got up to dance with him.
After a few minutes she came back to the table. “Either he’s dancing with his eyes closed or he’s blind,” she told me, taking a drink from my glass. “He didn’t even notice me.”
“Why don’t you talk to him?”
And that’s exactly what she did, when she saw that he was going to the bar to get a drink. She approached him in English. The man answered her amiably, and by his accent, Dasha understood that he was Russian. She then changed to that language, which was also her mother tongue, and that’s how everything started: his name was Leonid and he was from Novosibirsk. Dasha brought him over and introduced me. The three of us had a drink together and then they went to dance. All this happened without Leo letting go of his briefcase.
At some point he disappeared. He didn’t say goodbye to us; we simply didn’t see him anymore. Dasha was upset.
“Do you think he thought I was an idiot and got bored?” She had that complex; it surfaced every once in a while.
“No. I think he liked you.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Didn’t you see how he looked at you? He even stopped dancing with his eyes closed.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. Why don’t you have a fling with him? He seems like an interesting person. It would make you feel better.”
Dasha stared at me.
“But he’s gone,” and she twisted her mouth into that bad girl look the Peep Show clients liked so much.
“He’ll be back tomorrow.”
And in fact, the next night, Leo returned to Maracuyá. With his briefcase. Dasha avoided looking at him. If he’d left without saying goodbye, she said, he ought to make the first move now and apologize. “Men always scorn what’s easy,” she explained. That night she was especially seductive, with a black sleeveless dress—the best that she’d put in her backpack—that contrasted in a harmonious way with her tanned skin; a black choker around her long neck and a gold-plated chain on her left ankle.
Confirming the correctness of her theory, Leo came to sit at our table as soon as he saw us and apologized for having left like he did.
“The strange food,” he explained in English out of courtesy to me, without for a moment letting go of his briefcase. “It set off a revolution in my stomach. I was barely able to reach the hotel.”
More relaxed than at our first encounter, he mopped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, bought us a drink and began chatting about how difficult it was to prepare well an apparently simple dish from his country: Shuba, potato salad, carrots and peas with mayonnaise, anchovies and beets.
“Of course, it doesn’t go all mixed together,” he said. “The salad goes inside, like a filling. The beets and the anchovies smother it. That’s why it’s called shuba, which in Russian means “overcoat,” and he continued talking about that and a pasta dish with mushroom sauce that didn’t matter much to us. What we wanted was to ask him about the briefcase, but we didn’t find the right opportunity. Finally he took Dasha out to dance.
It soon became obvious that he wanted to seduce her. And she began plying him with all the tactics learned in her not very long life. “Old men like you to make them believe you’re innocent,” her philosophy went. “Only young men are capable of valuing experience.” But Leonid didn’t look like an idiot: he couldn’t really believe that an inexperienced young woman would be vacationing with her boyfriend at an amoral beach resort, drinking Becherovka in a disco where anything and everything was for sale. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy Dasha’s company.
The night passed, along with her plan and desires. At three a.m. when Leo seemed more lively than ever, the young innocent said goodnight. She wasn’t used to staying up so late, she said, and was already very sleepy.
The next day we spent resting on the beach, walking around town and speculating about the mysterious briefcase.
“I tell you, it has to be money. It has to be the lump sum of his retirement, or pension, or liquidation of his assets or whatever, and he came to spend it here.”
“What if he’s a terrorist? From Chechnya? He doesn’t look like it, but he could be. He could be carrying a bomb, one of those that you make explode with a cell phone.”
Dasha was disposed to uncover the mystery and with that objective, employed the rest of her many charms that evening, with the result that she disappeared with Leo and I didn’t see her until the following morning. About eight, she appeared in the tent. She lay down by me without saying anything and also without saying anything, began to make love to me. It was her custom when she’d had an adventure. She said that was how she rid herself of the other skin.
We woke after eleven.
“O.K.,” I said. “What’s in the briefcase?”
“A book,” she told me, without the slightest sign of disappointment.
“Yes, a manuscript. He wrote it. It took him twenty years to finish it.”
“But, why did he bring it here?”
“Because he came here to throw it into the sea,” Dasha explained with a surprising naturalness, as if she were talking about the most normal thing in the world. “Only before doing it he wants to have a good time. It’s his double farewell.”
“Leo’s saying goodbye to his book and to his literary career.”
Dasha shrugged her shoulders.
“I didn’t understand his reasons at first either. But after he told me the whole story I began to get it. He spent twenty years working on that mountain of papers. And you know what for? For nothing. He’s taken it to more publishers than he can remember and all of them told him to go to hell with his book. Some—the least stupid—simply told him no. The others suggested that he change things, cut this or that. But Leo doesn’t want to change anything and I understand that. Why let a bookseller tell him how he ought to write? He got sick of it. If his book is trash, he told me, well then it will go to the trash.”
I didn’t ask her anything else and didn’t want to keep thinking about Leonid and his story. I was hungry. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“Leo invited us to dine at his hotel. He asked me if you would want to and I told him yes.”
“Good,” I said, “but let’s go. I guess we don’t have to take the backpacks?”
“No, leave them here. Only let me get my wallet and cell.”
The lunch was very pleasant. When he wasn’t talking about food, the old Russian was an excellent conversationalist. And the whole time he comported himself with Dasha in a respectfully paternal manner, as if there’d been nothing between them nor would there be. He told us that the next day he was going home.
“Would you read me something from your book before throwing it into the sea?” Dasha asked.
“Are you really interested?” Leo seemed incredulous.
“Of course I am. And I would love to hear it in your voice. That way I’d remember it forever.”
“Well, if you want…” He responded in the tone of a grandfather resigned to complying with the whim of a favorite granddaughter. “We can read something this afternoon.”
After a few minutes, he clarified, looking at me. “The book is in Russian.”
“No problem,” I told him. “Anyway, I can’t join you. I have a date with a friend at Maracuyá.”
It wasn’t true, but I wanted to leave them alone. The role of complicit cuckold isn’t comfortable. But a cuckold who knows himself cuckolded, accepts it and still makes a nuisance of himself is the most pathetic of all.
I spent the remainder of the day on the beach and when I got bored, went to play soccer with the bikers who had arrived two days ago. I made friends with one of the girls—a platinum blonde, thin as a stick—and that night accompanied her to Maracuyá. After a while we went to walk on the beach. We arrived at the end of the jetty, where the music from the discos could barely be heard and sat to look at the moon. Although it wasn’t full, it still looked enormous and orange, hanging quietly over the sea.
In the morning, Dasha arrived to wake us at the tent. She couldn’t even wait until I introduced my friend. “Come on, “ she said. “I want to show you something.” She looked very happy.
“What?” I asked, opening one eye, groggy with sleep.
“I’m going,” said the blonde, who perhaps didn’t want to be an inconvenient presence. And in fact, she dressed rapidly, gave me a kiss and left.
It was very early and somewhat chilly. The tide was still high and the last stars appeared and disappeared as if winking. From somewhere came a scent of roses and gladiolas.
Seeing that the territory had been vacated, Dasha crawled into the tent. “Look,” she was carrying Leonid’s briefcase. “He gave it to me. He gave me his book!”
I’d never seen her so happy, so satisfied.
“Did you read it? Is it a good book?” I asked.
“What does that matter? It took him twenty years to write it, do you realize that? As long as I’ve been alive he’s spent working on it. Something like this is a treasure regardless of what some critic or editor might say.”
She took out the manuscript, bound together with cardboard covers and put it in my hands with great respect.
“He’s gone,” she sighed. His train has to leaving right now.”
Dasha had never been sentimental, but at that moment she seemed on the point of tears. She turned to put the book back in its briefcase, took off her clothes and squeezed herself into the sleeping bag with me.
“What nasty perfume that woman left here,” was all the comment she made before embracing me and falling asleep.
At noon we went to eat in town. Bologna and pickle sandwiches. We told each other everything we’d done. We hugged. We promised that, come what may, we’d always be together.
We walked along the beach holding hands, talking again about Leo. We were happy—even more—we were deliriously happy. Stupidly happy.
When we reached the tent, our joy vanished: someone had robbed us. The backpacks were there, but the briefcase had disappeared. “Money or drugs,” the thief must have thought, who surely had seen it when it was still in Leo’s hands.
— Agustín Cadena, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava.
Agustín Cadena was born in the desert region of Valle del Mezquital, México, 1963 and currently teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, reviewer, poet and translator, he has published over 20 books. His awards include the University of Veracruz Prize for short fiction and essays, in 1992; the National Prize for Children’s Literature, in 1998; the San Luis Potosi National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2004; and the José Agustín National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2005. His works have been translated into English, Italian, and Hungarian, and adapted for radio and TV broadcasting. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com.
Patricia Dubrava was born in New York and chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts. She has published two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. She is an essayist, poet and translator whose recent translation publications include a dozen Cadena stories, most recently in Fiction Attic, Exchanges and Mexico City Lit. A Cadena story was included in NewBorder: An Anthology, in 2013. Dubrava blogs and has more information on her publications at www.patriciadubrava.com.