The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     The weeks and months of incarceration passed slowly and uneventfully for Roberto at the Censam Marin Hospital. Even though he made every effort possible to stay busy, the frustration and boredom he felt from having so little to do, though tempered somewhat by the narcotics he was given daily, was at times overwhelming, even for someone as disciplined as Roberto. The monthly visits from his family, and in particular his brother Carlos, always came as an enormous mental relief and comfort.

     In particular, it was the numerous, out-of-print art books his brother somehow managed to locate through elderly friends in Old Havana, and always remembered to bring for Roberto to read during those hospital visits, that inspired him the most and gave him the added strength to endure. The feeling of transcendence he felt while examining closely every painting on every page in every one of the old books became an emotional refuge for Roberto, where he felt completely free, and where no one could control how he thought.

     Exactly one year had passed since Roberto had been transferred from the old Spanish prison where he had been held in solitary confinement to the Censam Marin Hospital prison for the criminally insane on the outskirts of Havana. During his incarceration he had never been given any indication how long he would be held, and so it came as a surprise, early one Saturday morning, when the two military doctors who regularly interviewed Roberto, and who conducted the weekly group therapy, came to his ward and notified him of his immediate release and reassignment to his former special forces unit at the Presidential Palace.

     Roberto was stunned, and at first thought perhaps he must be dreaming. It was true he had always tried to remember the words of Tiburcio, the old man he met the first day he’d been sent to Censam Marin, never to reveal his true thoughts or feelings to the communists if he had any hope of one day getting out, but he’d not been given any indication his release was coming.

     “Ramos, these are your discharge papers. Read them carefully. You have one week to report back to your unit,” said one of the doctors.

     “What about my former commanding officer, Colonel Charon? Will I be serving under him?”

     “No. You’ve been assigned to another unit. Ramos, you should be grateful for the opportunity to return to service.”

     “And my training, will I be able to resume training and competition?” asked Roberto.

     “That is up to your superior officer. Unless you have any further questions you may change into your uniform and leave immediately,” said the doctor, who then handed Roberto his uniform and the shoes he was wearing the day he had been arrested. Surprisingly, Roberto could see the uniform had been cleaned and folded neatly, and the blood stains were now gone.

     After changing into his uniform and saying a few goodbyes to several of the inmates from his ward, Roberto was taken by the doctors to the hospital security headquarters where he was required to sign release papers. After signing the papers Roberto was escorted by several armed security personnel to the main entrance and released.

     Standing for a moment on Calle 236 A, the main road running north and south in front of Censam Marin Hospital, and realizing, at least for the next week until he had to return to military duty, that every decision he made was going to be his own. It should always be this way, he thought to himself.

     The hospital was located very near to Punto one of Fidel’s so-called secret residences, and a place Roberto knew well, having been assigned regular duty there many times before being arrested. Considered now to be somewhat of a security risk, Roberto doubted he would be reassigned to the residence.

     It was still early in the day and even though he knew it would take him most of the day to walk the 15 kilometers to the home of his parents, he was in no particular hurry to get there. Wondering how he would be received by his father, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year, and whom he suspected would not be happy with him, Roberto decided it might be best to arrive late, at a time when the whole family would be home, and when his mother, the only one in the family his father ever really listened to, could prevent him from becoming angry with his son for having caused her so much grief and worry while he’d been in prison.

     Before being released from the hospital he’d had nothing to eat and only a little water to drink. He was feeling hungry, and without any money he realized he would need to ask a friend for some food if he was going to have something to eat.

     He remembered his good friend Maykel lived on the way to his parents, but with the weather conditions being perfect that day for fishing the Gulf Stream, and if the fishing had been good, Maykel would not return home until late.

     It suddenly occurred to him, because it was a Saturday, perhaps Anabela Sobrino would not be working and might be home and would gladly give him something to eat. It was true he didn’t know Anabela very well, but he’d always felt from the first time they met, that she trusted him and that she wouldn’t mind if he stopped by to see her.

     El Barrio de La Rampa, where Anabela lived, was at least a three hour walk from the hospital, and if he went by way of La Quinta Avenida, he would arrive at her house on Calle 15, just before noon.

     It wasn’t a particularly hot day and there was a light ocean breeze coming from the northeast, so he decided to head to a small in-home, unauthorized, and therefore illegal restaurant he knew of nearby, called, La Pescadaria. The restaurant was an informal collection of small buildings piecemealed together, overlooking the Rio Jaimanitas, where it flowed into the sea, and where he would sometimes go alone to relax after an athletic training session with Antonio Castro, to drink fresh coconut water straight from the young coconuts that had been chilled in a small, rusty, upright freezer after they had been picked by the owner’s son from the tall coconut palms that grew along the banks of the river. Even though it had been more than a year since Roberto had been to the restaurant, he knew Luiz, the elderly owner well, and was confident he would happily give him some fresh bread and hot coffee.

     Roberto remembered too, the numerous types of fruit trees that lined the edges of the gravel road leading down to the river to the restaurant that Luiz had planted many years ago in order to have fresh fruit year-round for his customers, who were mostly all family and friends. Among the different types of fruit growing there, and now in season, were sugar apples and small, sweet mangos. Roberto was particularly fond of both and decided he would ask Luiz’s permission to pick a handful of each to take home with him. He could give some to Anabela he thought, as a gift, and save the rest for his family.

     Walking around to the back of the oldest building, which looked more like an organized debris pile left after a hurricane rather than any sort of public establishment, Roberto found Luiz alone in the kitchen, beginning preparations for the daily meal, which he always served at midday.

     said Roberto, surprising the old man who had his back turned toward the door. “How have you been, my friend?”

     Roberto could see that he had startled Luiz and immediately apologized. siento Luiz. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

     “Roberto!” said Luiz loudly. “I heard you were in prison in Havana.”

     “I was, they released me this morning. I was being held for the last year at Censam Marin. You know, the hospital nearby.”

     “Censam Marin? I thought that was for crazy people from the military. You haven’t gone crazy, have you?” said the old man laughing.

     “No, they thought I had an anger management problem, but I was able to convince them it was only temporary.”

     “What did you do?”

     “I sent my superior officer on a little vacation, to the emergency room.”

     “I know you, Roberto, and I’m sure he deserved it.”

     “A little. Luiz, could I ask you for something to eat? I don’t have any money and I have a long walk today to my parents’ house in Santos Suarez. I’ve been reassigned to my old post, and when I get paid, I’ll be sure to pay you back.”

     “Anything you want, you know that. Here, sit down. I have some fried dorado I can fix for you, with some sweet plantains. Have some coffee, I just made it. And I have fresh fruit. How’s that?” asked the old man as he poured the coffee.

     “I would love that, thank you.”

     “So what now Roberto? You need to find a job?”

     “No, I have been reassigned to another unit. I have another three years before I am discharged. What about your son, Barbaro, is he still playing baseball?” asked Roberto.

     “Roberto, I have to tell you something. Barbaro fled Cuba maybe two months ago, by boat. Him and two other guys from the team, in the middle of the night. After that, the authorities came here many times to question me. I thought they were going to shut me down. I told them I didn’t even know he was planning to escape.”

     “How did you know what happened?”

     “One of his teammates came and told me. He said they left from Bacunayagua, a little village to the east. I don’t know it. He couldn’t take it anymore Roberto.”

     “Have you heard anything?”

     “No, we don’t even know if he is alive, or if he made it across the straits to the U.S. Nothing. It’s been really hard on his mother.”

     “I’m sorry Luiz.”

     The old man stopped what he was doing and looked over at Roberto. “He’s my only son Roberto. I was so proud of him. I never expected this to happen,” said Luiz as he turned around and continued to prepare the food for Roberto.

     “Maybe I can help, Luiz,” offered Roberto, intentionally trying to sound positive.

     “How?” asked Luiz. Again, stopping to turn around and face Roberto.

     “You remember my friend, Antonio, the son of Fidel I was training at Punto Cero?

     “Of course, but I don’t want you to get in trouble for my sake, Roberto.”

     “Antonio is a loyal friend. I trust him. He would do it for me, I know he would. Let me ask him.”

     “Only if you feel comfortable doing it. I tell you what, you find out what happened to Barbaro, good or bad, I don’t care, I just need to know, and you eat here for free, for life.”

     Roberto took the last sip of coffee and set the cup back down on its saucer on the table. “It’s a deal then Luiz.”

     “You’re a good man Roberto. I won’t tell his mother until I hear something from you. I don’t want to get her hopes up. Here’s your food. Be careful, the fish is very hot. I just took it out of the fryer. What about some jugo de It’s fresh squeezed.”

     “It’s my favorite. My mother claims the juice is where my passion comes from.”

     Roberto finished the meal Luiz had prepared for him and after a little small talk about each other’s families, he said good-bye, promising again to try and find out something for Luiz about the fate of his son, Barbaro.

     After asking permission, Roberto stopped along the road leading up the hill from La to pick a small bag of fruit, still intending to stop and see Anabela Sobrino. He hoped that she was home and wanted to ask her if she remembered the old man from the hospital prison, Tiburcio, who told Roberto he had known her father and remembered him fondly as a great man and someone who played an important part in the history of Cuban art in the 20th century.

     It was early afternoon by the time Roberto turned the corner onto Calle 15 where Anabela lived. Roberto couldn’t help but notice several people from the neighborhood eyeing him suspiciously as he walked past the half dozen houses from the corner to number 1465. Remembering he was in uniform, Roberto began to feel a bit self-conscious, realizing the neighbors knew there would be no good reason why anyone wearing a special forces uniform would be walking in La Rampa neighborhood, especially on a Saturday afternoon.

     He quickly knocked on the door and waited for what seemed like several minutes for Anabela to come to the door. No one answered. Just as he raised his hand to knock once more he heard Anabela’s voice coming from the room overlooking the street on the second floor.

     “Who is it?” she said, not bothering to step out onto the balcony.

     “Anabela, it is Roberto Ramos. I am sorry to bother you, but I. . . .”

     Anabela had just washed her hair and was drying it with a towel when she stepped out onto the balcony and looked down at Roberto.

     “Roberto!” said Anabela excitedly, and clearly surprised, not letting Roberto finish what he was saying. “Just a minute, I’ll be right down.”

     When Anabela opened the door she was smiling and seemed genuinely excited to see Roberto. Holding the handle to the door with her left hand she motioned for Roberto to come in.

     Roberto, come in,” she said.

     “Thank you, Anabela,” he replied, taking off his military hat and setting the bag of fruit on the floor by the door. “You know, your neighbors are not very friendly.”

     “I know, I know. Believe me, the rumors will be flying tonight. I don’t have any patience for it. Please, sit down,” said Anabela. “What are you doing in La Rampa?”

     “I was just released from the Censam Marin Hospital and I’m on my way to my parents’ home.” Becoming increasingly nervous, he was beginning to second guess his decision to stop and see Anabela. “Sorry for stopping by unannounced.”

     Anabela paused and sat back in her chair. “Well,” she said with a smile, waving her finger at Roberto while she spoke. “I always suspected you were crazy, Roberto, I mean, you love art. What the hell happened?”

     “Oh, I’m so glad you’re not upset with me.”

     “Upset? Listen, you’re always welcome here Roberto. So what happened?”

     “I assaulted my commanding officer who was threatening me. I’d had enough and one day I just exploded. He hit me and, well, let’s just say he didn’t have the skills to match his physical strength or the size of his ego. Anyway, I was arrested and sent to Censam Marin for one year. They told me I had issues with aggression.”

     “I can’t believe they only held you for one year.”

     “Let’s just say, I know a few people. And I was careful not to do or say anything that would prolong my visit.”

     “So what now? I see you still have your uniform so you must be reassigned.”

     “I’ve been reassigned to my old unit, under a different commanding officer of course, and I will continue my martial arts training.”

     “I didn’t know you were an athlete, Roberto.”

     “Yes, national champion in Taekwondo, several times. Anabela, could I trouble you for something to drink?”

     “I’m sorry, what would you like? You must be thirsty. The hospital is a long way from here, no?”

     “I would really love a little coconut water if you have any.”

     “Wait here.”

     While Roberto waited for Anabela to return, he began looking around at the many paintings hanging in the small living room, covering almost every inch of available wall space. One in particular caught his eye. Roberto stood up and walked over to get a better look at the small painting done in the same style as El Saxofonista and thought perhaps it had been painted by Anabela’s father. A close examination of the signature in the lower right-hand corner confirmed his suspicion.

     “You like that one, Roberto? It’s a portrait of my mother as a young woman.”

     “She’s very beautiful.”

     “Yes, she was.”

     “Does she live here in Havana?”

     “No, she died in Spain, not long after my father,” said Anabela.

     “I’m sorry, Anabela,” said Roberto.

     “Here, have some coconut water. In the painting my mother is wearing a scarf to protect her from the sun while she’s picking flowers from her garden. She’s just finished and has the flowers in a vase which she’s holding from underneath with both hands. She loved to garden. Back then, in the 30’s, when my father did the painting, everyone in the neighborhood had a garden.”

     “The colors are fantastic. It reminds me of a stained-glass window. You know, from a church.”

     “You’re welcome to look around if you’d like. Most of the works I have were done by my father, before he left the country. I have many pieces from his collection as you may remember. Unfortunately, he was unable to take much of it with him when he fled Cuba.”

     “I would love to, but only if you have the time,” said Roberto. “When I was in prison, my brother Carlitos—you remember him—when he came to visit, he would bring books for me to study on the works of many old maestros

     “Here, we’ll start with this one,” said Anabela, pointing to another portrait, done by her father. “This is the earliest work I have of my father’s.”

     One by one, Anabela went through each piece in her collection, explaining carefully to Roberto who the artist was for every painting, what the artist was trying to convey in their work, and the historical significance of each piece.

     Nearly three hours had passed by the time they came to the last painting. The work depicted a woman, dancing alone. It had been done by her father and was the last one he completed on Cuban soil before fleeing to Spain. They stood together for a moment in silence, looking at the painting. The late afternoon light was beginning to filter in through the window, at the end of the long hallway where the painting hung, near the back of the house, illuminating the painting as though a spotlight had been shone directly on the painting and nothing else around it.

     “I think this is the most important one, Anabela,” said Roberto, continuing to stare at the painting.

     Anabela turned and looked at Roberto. “The Cuban people have forgotten why these paintings are so important,” said Anabela.

     Roberto understood innately that what Anabela had said was a complex commentary on post-revolutionary, Cuban societal values determined now solely by political priorities. But he couldn’t find the words to respond.

     “The right of the individual to freely express oneself in Cuba and the right of the average person in Cuba to celebrate that expression through the arts, has been taken away forever. I hate them for it,” Anabela continued.

     It was then Roberto remembered the old man Tiburcio, from the prison hospital, whom he wanted to ask Anabela if she remembered.

     “Anabela, I met an old man when I was first sent to the hospital prison, whom I think you may have known. His name was Tiburcio. I never knew his last name. He said he was an artist, a painter, and a friend of your father’s. Do you remember him?” asked Roberto.

     “Tiburcio, of course, Tiburcio Valdez. He was well known in Cuba and Spain. He was an exceptional portrait painter. I remember he painted the portraits of many wealthy Cubans before the revolution. He got into trouble with the communists after Fidel took over. I don’t think he was particularly political in any way. He simply enjoyed portrait painting, and the people with the money, you know, they could afford to hire him. It paid the bills. What he really loved was painting scenes that depicted ordinary people from the countryside. But after the revolution the people with money were leaving or their businesses had been put under government control and so no one could afford to hire him. I believe he’s been in prison a long time, no?”

     “He is no longer in prison.”

     “Really, I can’t believe that he was finally released.”

     “He wasn’t. He died in Censam Marin, right after I met him. From what I could tell he went on a hunger strike and died in his sleep. I was the one that found him.”

     “You’re learning first-hand how unhappy our country is, Roberto. The Cuban people have a great history. I suppose that’s why we’re so unhappy.”

     “I should be going, Anabela.”

     “You are very kind for stopping to see me, Roberto. I enjoy your company. If you have time this week, before you return to service, perhaps we can meet at La Bodeguita for a mojito.”

     “Maybe another time. Remember, I haven’t worked in a year. I have no money,” said Roberto, with a laugh.

     “My treat then. I insist.”

     “I’ll let you know. I still have your number. Oh, I forgot. I brought you some fruit from my friend’s restaurant. Here, take what you like.” Roberto held open the cloth bag full of mangos, sugar apples, and large avocado, or alligator pears as they were known locally.

     “I love sugar apples, thank you. You know, I had an uncle I never knew, who died when he was a young boy, when he choked on a seed from one of these. His mother, my grandmother, would never allow anyone to bring another sugar apple into her home after her son died.”

     cuidado entonces, Anabela,” Roberto remarked affectionately.

     “I’ll be careful,” said Anabela opening the door for Roberto. “Stay out of trouble kid.”

     “I’ll try,” he promised. Stepping back out onto the sidewalk he noticed many of Anabela’s neighbors were still sitting on their stoops and leaning from their balconies, seeming not to have moved since he entered Anabela’s house more than three hours earlier. It was almost as though they had been waiting for him to emerge, and so he couldn’t help himself, and stopped to wave goodbye.

     “Anabela, I will always remember this afternoon,” he said with a smile, thinking he would give the neighbors a little something to talk about.

     “Yes. Me as well,” she shouted. In the fading light of the cool and clear Havana evening, she waved one last time to Roberto from her doorstep, before turning to go back inside the house, ignoring the prying eyes of her neighbors.

     It was just after sunset when Roberto arrived at the home of his parents in Santos Suarez. After entering through the front door he quietly closed the door behind him and stood for a moment inside the entrance at the front of the hallway.