TODAY’S GAY WISDOM
An Excerpt from Jaime Manrique’s Eminent Maricones
“A Sadness As Deep As the Sea”
The last days of the Cuban-born Reinaldo Arenas (“Before Night Falls”) Reinaldo lived on 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. He had visited my apartment many times yet had never invited me into his home. So when Thomas Colchie phoned in December 1990 and asked me to check on Reinaldo, I thought I’d better get in touch with him right away. Too many friends had died before we had a chance to say things we wanted to say. I called him, and we made plans for me to stop by late that afternoon. I climbed the steps of Reinaldo’s building and rang his buzzer. The building was a walk-up, and Reinaldo’s apartment was on the top floor, the sixth.
At the top of the steep stairs I knocked on his door. I heard what sounded like a long fumbling with locks and chains, which even in Times Square seemed excessive. The door opened, and I almost gasped. Reinaldo’s attractive features were hideously deformed: half his face looked swollen, purple, almost charred, as if it were about to fall off. He was in pajamas and slippers. I can’t remember whether we shook hands or not or what we said at that moment. All I remember is that, once I was inside the apartment, he started putting on the chains and locks, as if he were afraid someone was going to break down the door.
We went through the kitchen into a small living room. Besides an old-fashioned sound system and a television set, I remember a primitive painting of the Cuban countryside. A table, two chairs, and a worn-out sofa completed the decor. Reinaldo sat on the sofa and I took a chair. I felt that if I sat too close to him, I would not be able to look him in the eye. Stacks of manuscripts lay on the table–thousands and thousands of sheets, and Reinaldo seemed like a shipwreck disappearing in a sea of paper.
When I asked if they were copies of a manuscript he had just finished, he informed me that the three manuscripts on the table were a novel, a book of poems, and his autobiography, Before Night Falls. Reinaldo spoke with enormous difficulty, his voice a frail rasp. “The novel, El color del verano, concludes my Pentagony. It’s an irreverent book that makes fun of everything,” he mused.
“Leprosorio is a volume of poems. And Antes que anochezca,” he pointed to the third pile, “is my autobiography. I dictated it into a tape recorder and an amanuensis transcribed it. It’s going to make a lot of people mad.
It seemed to me absolutely protean the amount of writing he had managed to do, considering what a debilitating disease AIDS is. I said so. “Writing those books kept me alive,” he whispered. “Especially the autobiography. I didn’t want to die until I had put the final touches. It’s my revenge.” He explained, “I have a sarcoma in my throat. It makes it hard for me to swallow solid foods or to speak. It’s very painful.” “Then maybe you shouldn’t talk. I’ll do the talking,” I offered, moving to the sofa.
“But I want to talk,” he said curtly. “I need to talk.” I said, “Reinaldo, if there is anything you need, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Whatever it is…cooking your meals, getting your medicines, going with you to the doctor, anything.” I mentioned the the PEN American Center had a fund for writers and editors with AIDS and offered to contact them. “Thanks so much, cariño,” he said in the plaintive singsong in which he spoke. It was a sweet, caressing tone: melodious like a lazy samba but also mournful, weary, accepting of the hardships of life. This was a typically peasant trait. “There is a woman who comes to help three days a week. She does all my errands. Besides, Lazaro [Lazaro Carriles, his ex-lover who had remained his closest friend] comes by every day.”
Just in case he wasn’t aware, I mentioned other sources where he could go for help. He snapped, “I don’t like those men who serve as volunteer. I can’t stand all that humility.” From where I sat I could see a bleached wintry sunset over the Hudson. “But if you contact the PEN Club that would be good,” he conceded. “I would like to get away from here before winter comes. My dream is to go to Puerto Rico and get a place at the beach so I can die by the sea.” To encourage him, I said, “Perhaps your health will improve. People sometimes…”
“Jaime,” he cut me off, “I want to die. I don’t want my health to improve…and then deteriorate again. I’ve been through too many hospitalizations already. After I was diagnosed with PCP [AIDS pneumonia], I asked Saint Virgilio Piñera,” he said, referring to the deceased homosexual Cuban writer, ” to give me three years to live so that I could complete my body of work.” Reinaldo smiled, and his monstrous face showed some of his former handsomeness.
“Saint Virilio granted me my request. I’m happy. I do wish, though, that I had lived to see Fidel kicked out of Cuba, but I guess it won’t happen during my lifetime. Soon, I hope, his tyranny will end. I feel certain of that.” I knew better than to disagree with him when it came to discussing Fidel Castro. Once, in the mid-eighties, I had tried to tell him to put behind him his years of imprisonment and persecution, to forget Cuba, to accept this county as his new home and to live in the present.
“You just don’t understand, do you?” he had shouted, shaking with anger. “I feel like one of those Jews who were branded with a number by the Nazis; like a concentration camp survivor. There is no way on earth I can forget what I went through. It’s my duty to remember. This,” he roared, hitting his chest, “will not be over until Castro is dead. Or I am dead.” We talked for a while about the collapse of the communist states.
The last thing I wanted was to upset him in any way, yet I had to defend my belief in socialism as the most humanistic form of government. So I spoke to that effect. “On paper socialism is the ideal form of government,” he said, not altogether surprising me. “It’s just that it’s never worked anywhere. Perhaps some day.” Becoming thoughtful, almost as if talking to himself, he added, “Jaime, what a life I’ve had. Even before the revolution, it was bad enough the agony of being an intellectual queen in Cuba. What a sad an hypocritical world that was,” he paused.
“Finally, I leave that hell, and come here full of hopes. And this turns out to be another hell; the worship of money is as bad as the worst in Cuba. All these years, I’ve felt Manhattan was just another island-jail. A bigger jail with more distractions but a jail nonetheless. It just goes to show that there are more than two hells. I left one kind of hell behind and fell into another kind. I never thought I would live to see us plunge again into the dark ages. This plague — AIDS — is but a symptom of the sickness of our age.”
As night fell, the neon of the billboards of midtown Manhattan and the lights of the skyscrapers provided the only illumination. We chatted in hushed tones, more intimately than we ever had before. I was aware of how precious the moment was to me, how I wanted to engrave it forever in my memory. When I got up to leave, Reinaldo had difficulty finding his slippers in the darkness, so I knelt on the floor and put them on his calloused, swollen, plum-colored feet. We went again through the kitchen, where he mentioned he would have broiled fish for dinner. Then he unchained the numerous locks, slowly, one by one.
We didn’t hug or shake hands as we parted — as if neither of those gestures was appropriate. “Call me any time, if you need anything,” I said. “You’re such a dear,” he said. As I was about to take the first step down, I turned around. The door to the apartment was still open. In the rectangular darkness Reinaldo’s shadowy shape was like a ghost who couldn’t make up its mind whether to materialize or to vanish.
The following day Reinaldo called to ask me if I could get him some grass. He said he had heard it helped to control nausea after meals. I told him that I would try to get some. I called a couple of friends and mentioned Reinaldo’s request. Bill Sullivan suggested that I contact the Gay Men’s Health Crisis because he thought Reinaldo sounded suicidal. I dismissed this possibility. Because his wish was to die by the sea, I thought he would try to make it to Puerto Rico if he received the grant from PEN.
The next day, around noon, Tom Colchie called to say the Reinaldo had taken his life the night before; that he had used pills and had washed them down with shots of Chivas Regal; that he had left letters — one of them for the police, clarifying the circumstances of his death — and another one for the Cuban exiles, urging them to continue their fight against Castro’s rule. Reinaldo had died in the early hours of December 7, and his body had been found by the woman who came by to help with his chores. He was forty-seven.