By Zoé Valdés
Published by HarperCollins
September 2002; 0060199725; 304 pages
While she washed the dishes stained and chipped by time and use, Danae created a winter landscape in her mind. Snow, miles and miles of snow, that was what she yearned for. Chunks of ice packed inside her skull, behind her eyes, a bathtub filled with frozen daiquiris she could sink into -- the only thing that came close was one of those frozen cones of caramel-covered peanuts they were making these days, or maybe a snow cone. She dried her hands, and while they were temporarily free she repositioned her tortoiseshell comb and gathered up the two strands of hair that both called attention to her eyes and infected them, filling them with yellowy pus. She liked doing housework, padding around the house while her mind drifted off into absurd daydreams. She caught herself just as she was about to cut off the tip of her finger with the bread knife, the only knife she owned for cutting anything that needed to be cut. The kitchen was tiny, hardly enough space for her to turn around in and stand over the gas stove. She lost herself in watching the milk begin to boil; she loved to watch the cream on top suddenly rise up into a frothy dome. Cream is the housewife's delight. Suddenly there was the smell of scorched milk, and once again she let herself be transported; this time, it was the memory of the contact of her lips with the condensed milk boiled in a double boiler until it turned to "mud," that dessert they had in the Schools in the Country. She looked tired, even slovenly -- it had been weeks since she'd felt like bathing, much less fixing herself up. Her hair kept slipping slowly but inexorably out of the comb, falling over her shoulders in greasy strands; her lips, dry and cracked and pale, resembled those desserts that Arabs made. There were wide brown circles under her eyes. Glassy, uninterested-looking eyes. She didnt eat; she cooked for the others but she had no appetite for any recipe she knew how to make. She went about making dinner the way she would have invested energy in preparing a performance, as though going through an aesthetic act. Her mind worked faster than her hands; all she did was think, and think some more. And that left her exhausted, drained, uninterested. She smoked a great deal, cigarettes or cigars.
But except for her, all the rest, everything around her, was sparkling clean. The apartment was of a size deemed suitable for a couple with a minimal monthly income and two daughters, yet her in-laws lived in it, too. At the moment they were on a trip, to Cincinnati, where her husband's brother lived. A living-dining room, a bathroom the same tiny size as the kitchen, two bedrooms, one for her, her husband, and the girls and the second for the inlaws. The furniture, even with its threadbare cotton upholstery, the flowers faded almost to invisibility, showed not the slightest sign of neglect; the wooden legs gleamed after being given a good dose of elbow grease and kerosene. The floor tiles, their surface pitted from the effects of the salt air and the lack of machine polishing, were nonetheless like mirrors, thanks to her constant work with the mop and the creoline. Creoline is like a secretion of the mother's womb. The mop was Danae's weapon of war. A woman wielding a mop is the heraldic device of any germ-obsessed mother battling to ensure that the floor gleams, to ensure that the smell of clean haunts the depths of her child's memory for the rest of that child's days. Two metal shelving units did duty as bookshelves -- works on architecture, novels in the Huracan and Cocuyo series, plus one or two large-format volumes on the kind of art that hung in distant, unvisited museums, L'Hermitage, for example. At the windows, curtains made of a shimmery muslin fabric. Danae noticed that the hem had come out of one of them and she told herself that night she'd rehem it. In one corner reigned an antique sewing machine, a Singer, with a baby blue knit cover carefully draped over it. With a sense of pride and satisfaction her eyes took in the scene of domestic order, and when she returned to the dented aluminum canteen of milk on the stove she had to hurry, grab a kitchen towel so as not to bum herself when she took it off the fire. She laid a piece of window screen over the top to make sure a fly didn't fall in and set it on the windowsill, telling herself that the breeze would cool it. The doorbell rang, insistently. She went to the bathroom, tore a piece of toilet paper off the porcelain roller, and as she went to the door blew her nose several times.
"I'm coming, I'm coming! Coño, what's the hurry?"
She wadded the now slimy and disintegrating length of toilet paper and tossed it in a pressed-metal ashtray -- how she wished instead of that ugly metal ashtray she had a Murano crystal one! She went to one of the drawers in the sewing machine, took out the house key, and opened the double lock. Before her stood Matilde, looking sweaty and pained, although from her earlobes there hung exotic and eye-catching earrings, fake opal dangling from wire twisted out of the aluminum-foil tops on yogurt cartons. From back when yogurt still came in cartons.
"How are you, how you bearing up in this heat, Danae, everything all right? In your life, I mean. Listen, is this a bad time? Ay, chica, I love the smell of boiled milk!" By now Matilde was standing in the middle of the living-dining room.
"I just took it off the fire. I won't offer you any, it's still scalding hot. Have a drop of coffee with me...
The foregoing is excerpted from Dear First Love by Zoé Valdés. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Zoé Valdés is one of Cuba's most original and imaginative writers. In Dear First Love, her third novel to appear in English, she spins a tale of one woman's spiritual and sexual awakening under the soul-destroying Castro regime.
The numbing rhythm of daily life in poverty-stricken Havana has deadened Danae's mind and spirit. On the verge of a breakdown, she unceremoniously leaves Havana without explanation to her family. In search of her first true love, Danae retreats into the countryside of her adolescence, where the government of Fidel Castro had sent her and other teenagers in the late 1970s to work in the fields under a corrupt and sadistic overseer. It was here, surrounded by a natural world infused with spiritual wonders, that Danae met and fell in love with Tierra Fortuna Munda, a campesino girl her own age. And here the reader falls into the magic of Danae's late childhood, as a wooden suitcase, an ancient ceiba tree, a manatee, even light itself, narrate the gritty, irreverent, erotic, sometimes comic, often tragic life of the young adults in the work camps.
When the adult Danae finds Tierra, their lives are transformed, their love and its mysteries reborn. However, their return to Havana proves to be the ultimate test of love, not only for Danae and Tierra, but also for Danae's desperate family.
Dear First Love is a hymn to Cuba and to the soul and spirit of that beleaguered country. In sensuous language, Zoé Valdés renders daily life in urban Cuba and in its countryside, while at the same time exploring the universal themes of love and loss.(back to top)
Zoé Valdés was born in Havana, Cuba in 1959. She is a celebrated Cuban poet, novelist and cinema scriptwriter; three of six novels have been translated to English. She now lives in Paris with her daughter.