That night I spent a lot of time awake. Beside me, Sara wasn’t sleeping either. I looked at her brown shoulders, her back, still slender at fifty-nine, and found solace in her beauty. From time to time we held hands. In the apartment nobody was sleeping, nobody was talking. Occasionally someone coughed or got up to pee and then went back to bed. Our friends Debrah and James had come to keep us company and had settled down on a mattress in the living room. Venus, Jacobo’s girlfriend, had gone to his room to lie down. My sons Jacobo and Pablo had left two days earlier in a rented van, heading for Chicago. From there, they’d flown to Portland. At one point I thought I heard the faint sound of Arturo, my youngest son, strumming his guitar in his room. In the street I could hear the nighttime shouts of the Lower East Side, the familiar tinkle of breaking bottles. At about three in the morning, two or three Hells Angels thundered by on their motorcycles from their clubhouse two blocks away. I slept almost four hours straight, dreamlessly, until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in New York.
I kissed Sara, got up, made coffee. Unaware I was even doing it, I started looking at the painting I was working on. It was too early to call the boys, who’d spent the night in a motel near the Portland airport. The subject of the painting was the foam churned up by the propeller of the ferry as it leaves the dock, when the motor begins to roar in the seething green water. The emerald color of the painted water was pale, superficial, I thought, like a piece of spearmint-flavored candy. I hadn’t managed to render it so that, subtly, imperceptibly, you could feel the depth of the abyss, feel death. The foam looked beautiful, incomprehensible, chaotic, separate yet inseparable from the water. The foam was good.
I’d begun the painting a year earlier, in the summer of ’98. I used to spend entire days on the ferry while I was working on it, traveling back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island again and again, sometimes drinking beer, always gazing at the water. I even made friends with some of the buskers on the ferries, and with Louis Larrota (whom I teasingly called Luis Bancarrota in reference to his empty wallet, though he spoke neither Spanish nor Italian and didn’t get the joke), the only person who still made a living shining shoes on the ferry. Even now I can hear him calling “Shoeshine! Shoeshine!” along the passageways of the ship. The number of his customers was dwindling, as most people had started wearing sneakers. Once the sunset blazing behind the cranes of New Jersey and crisscrossed by seagulls had burned out, I’d make my way back to the apartment.
I married Sara when we were both twenty-six years old. We lived together for another fifty, until she died of heart trouble a little over two years ago. It’s hard to explain, hard to understand, but the women I desired who were not her, both those I never had and the very few I did end up sleeping with – without Sara’s finding out, of course, as that would have been the end – they were all her. Those affairs took place only during our first two years together, when our relationship, still plagued by substantial gaps and misunderstandings, was not yet solid. After that, I was utterly and effortlessly faithful.
She had affairs of her own, I think, but those, if she had them, occurred many years later. One afternoon, after we’d already moved to New York, I saw her in a café holding hands with a woman from work. I asked her about it that night, and she neither denied nor admitted it; she said only that relationships between women would always be a mystery to men. I didn’t find that particularly reassuring, since there’s holding hands and then there’s holding hands, but as the years passed I gradually forgot about it. The second time was when she was in Jamaica with James and Debrah. For some reason, I couldn’t or hadn’t wanted to go on that trip, and James accidentally let slip an anecdote that implied that Sara had had a fling with a young man on the island. I asked her about that one too, but that time she told me I was crazy, how could I think such a thing. But even today something tells me that affair did happen. Sara wasn’t exactly inhibited, especially after a few drinks. True or not, in any case, I was torn up about it for a long time, but I ended up getting over that too.
In any case, only our advancing age could diminish the desire we always felt for each other. I’ve never been all that good at distinguishing between love and desire, so I can say that we had a lot of love all our lives. And I was always happy to see her again, even if we’d been apart only a few hours. When I came home, back from the ferry, she would also be back from the hospital where she worked, and we would chat a while as we lay in bed; I would tell her about what I’d seen in the ocean, and then we’d go check in on Jacobo and the boys.
We arrived in New York in 1986. In 1983 we’d left Bogotá for Miami, where we’d managed to spend three long years, years I don’t regret at all – they weren’t bad ones. I’d first been to Miami and the Keys on a previous trip and wanted to paint them. You could say I went to Miami looking for water and light. We both enjoyed the sea enormously for those three years, though we hated the city’s spiritual poverty at the time. And eventually we decided to take the three boys to New York.
In Miami I painted a series of oil landscapes, studies of light and water, fifteen canvases two meters square, which I used to put together a solo exhibition on Key West. Some were abstract seascapes as seen from the Overseas Highway; others depicted the turbulent seas of Miami: the lighthouse, Crandon Park, downtown. Soon after we arrived, Sara and the boys bought themselves a dilapidated little catamaran and sailed on the weekends, hugging the shore, almost touching sand, really, but enjoying it as much as if they were traversing the Atlantic.
I turned forty-three in Miami.
Later, our friends there – we made only a few friends, but they were good ones – told me that the city was changing a lot, becoming less provincial, that the rednecks had left and the influx of people from other countries had improved the atmosphere, that even the new generation of Cubans was a little less obtuse and suffocating. Maybe so. And yet neither Sara nor I would have gone back. The boys wouldn’t have wanted to return either. Actually, after two years in New York they weren’t really boys anymore: Jacobo was eighteen and was getting ready to study medicine at NYU; Pablo, sixteen, was in an alternative high school at 23rd and 8th, with kids who had rings in their noses and ears, and was poring over college recruitment materials; and Arturo was fourteen and had pushed to get into La Salle, at Second and Second, for the sole reason that it was half a block from the apartment we lived in after what happened, so he could have more time to sleep. Going to bed late, getting up early, playing guitar, and drawing constantly – that’s what he liked back then. Anyway. It was good while it lasted, the Florida period, but it was also enough. I managed to work a lot – Miami’s crude, unsophisticated atmosphere back then was even helpful, in a way: I was able to immerse myself deeply in the bubble that my work entails (or used to entail, rather, since over the past year and a half, now that I’m seventy-seven, my eyesight has gotten too bad, so I’ve stopped painting and started writing instead, with the aid of a magnifying glass).
Our first apartment in New York was a cramped place on West 101st, a block from Central Park. The park was the only thing good about the place, which was on the edge of a poor Latino neighborhood and was loud at night. Broken bottles, shouted insults in English and Spanish, a dense human fog that kept me awake, especially since I’d just arrived from Miami, a city that seemed to have been built entirely alongside golf courses. If sleep was elusive, painting was impossible. The first months in New York were tough, really tough, not for Sara and the boys but for me, with my need for light, space, silence, and other trivial things a person comes up with at that age to make life more complicated.
Back then, I didn’t want to be in Miami or in Bogotá or in Medellín or there on 101st Street or anywhere else. I’d go out early to wander through the park for hours and remind myself that I had to pull myself together, start working again, put on a cheerful face for Sara and the boys, who were happy in New York, though they were worried about the funk I was in. Sara had found a job as a counselor in a hospital – she’d studied sociology in Colombia – and realized that the neighborhood we lived in was what was bringing me down, maybe its ghetto vibe, and definitely the lack of space in the apartment. In the living room, the leg of my easel practically touched Arturo’s shoulder as he lay on the carpet with his blasted Nintendo; and when all three boys were home, they made so much noise that, in combination with the cacophony of the street, they drove me away from my easel and paints and out into the park to look at the trees.
I liked the trees in Central Park, though they made me nostalgic for the trees of my own country, for the jungles of Urabá, which I knew so well, since one of my brothers had had a farm in that area and ended up living out his last days there. These trees were beautiful, certainly – stately old elms or oaks, for example – but practically toy-sized compared with the kapoks and cashew trees of Urabá, and they made me a little sad. And when I wasn’t in the park, I would go to Coney Island, an hour or so by subway, which I’d discovered early on and which I found amazing, as everyone does. (There’s a photo of Freud – him amazed, too, I think – on the boardwalk.) Afterward, back in the apartment on Second Street, I started my series of seascapes of the New York harbor, including paintings of the ocean at Brighton Beach and at Coney Island.
Sara came home from work one day and said, “Want to take a look at an apartment that’s for rent? It’s downtown, near Houston. At Second Ave. and Second Street. It’s big. Rundown. Expensive. The windows look out over this gorgeous cemetery. Marble Cemetery, it’s called.”
I asked if it had good light and she told me it did, and we went to see it with the boys. It didn’t seem too expensive to me, considering its size, but it was dilapidated. Filthy, even. It needed a good cleaning, some paint, and an exterminator. Large windows, excellent light. A spacious living room where we’d have no trouble fitting the boys and their electronic devices, a sofa, two armchairs, and my studio.
And things worked out really well. We fumigated the cockroaches and some died, but most of them stayed on with us. When you turned on the light at night, there they always were: small, abundant, swift, scurrying for crannies to hide in. We kept things squeaky clean and I fumigated again from time to time, put out borax, crushed them with my shoe, but nothing worked: when you turned on the light, there they all were. In old apartments these insects are as hard to snuff out as life itself. To get rid of them entirely, you’d have to tear down the building and douse the rubble with gasoline . . . or napalm.
I like plants and have a bit of a green thumb, so I got some ferns and palms, and soon the place started to take on a jungly atmosphere. We bought a parrot in a pet shop on Bleecker Street for two hundred dollars, and the boys named her Sparky. She screeched like crazy, never allowed herself to be tamed, and had the run of the apartment. Years later we got Cristóbal, the cat, who scared her one day, and Sparky flew out one of the windows that looked over the cemetery. The parrot stayed there a week, living in the trees and screeching loudly. She never wanted to come back, however much we called to her from the windows. Until one day she was gone.
“She probably went to South America,” I told the boys, hoping to cheer them up. “She’ll be eating chontaduros on the banks of the Chocó.”
“Chonta-who?” asked Arturo, who wasn’t familiar with the fruits of that palm tree and never missed an opportunity to joke around, even in difficult moments.
In the apartment on Second Street, my spirits started to rise again. I walked along the urban and semiurban shores of Brooklyn and New Jersey and took photos and made paintings of them. I painted a motorcycle I found half-buried on a beach and covered with seaweed. I liked the way the things man abandons deteriorate and start to become inhuman and beautiful once more. I like that dividing line. A sort of mangrove swamp. I did an eight-canvas series on horseshoe crabs, which wash up on the beaches of Coney Island, die there, and lie on the sand, becoming empty shells and then, quickly, dust, beside the flip-flops and shards of plastic containers that will last for centuries before they too finally turn to dust. The subject of those paintings, though I never said it, was obvious and magnificent and in any case quite pretentious or ambitious or whatever you want to call it – they were about the shadowy abyss of Time. Horseshoe crabs aren’t beautiful in the least, and they haven’t evolved for millions of years, along with cockroaches and crocodiles. I once read on the Internet that they aren’t even crabs. They look like crustaceans, but they’re actually more closely related to spiders and scorpions. The oldest horseshoe crab fossils are from about 450 million years ago.
The paintings had only enough glimmers of light that you could just make out the shape of the poor crab’s carcass. And though they did sell, it was with great difficulty and for very little. Many years later they began to change hands for astonishing amounts of money. I still have one – the best one, in my view – hanging in my studio. It grows gradually more imprecise and abyssal as my eyesight declines and I, too, advance toward dust.
“Heading deeper and deeper into tenebrism, are you? Pretty soon the canvas will be solid black,” said Sara, teasing me. “Don’t listen to me,” she added hastily. “Of course I like them.”
I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless . . . I was painting better than ever, and at times I became so intensely involved in my work that I forgot to smoke and drink coffee. I painted the seaweed-draped motorcycle – also somewhat tenebrist, though now with some flecks of color. In New Jersey I found a rusted children’s tricycle in an empty lot at the edge of the water, and I also painted that, very large, but this time awash in so much light that you could hardly see the tricycle. (Two years ago I saw the painting in a museum in Rome, where they’d invited me for some sort of ceremony, but I had to look at it out of the corner of my eye, as the disease had started by then and the center of my vision was blurry. I liked it, that tricycle, when I saw it again all those years later, but I would have liked to go over certain parts of it that could have been done much better.) I’d also started taking photos of the abandoned roller coaster at Coney Island – the one they later tore down – overgrown with purple flowers. Morning glories, they’re called in English. I planned to paint a series of large paintings with close-up views of the structure and the flowers from angles that would upend the hierarchies of size and perspective and toss off the yoke of obligatorily looking either outward or inward. I prepared the canvases for the roller coaster. I’d have to paint the flowers real pretty, of course, so the paintings wouldn’t be too hard to sell. A person’s got to make a living.
It’s sad now to be writing the jokes that I was telling up until two years ago, when Sara was still alive. “Something vaguely resembling a joke,” she would have corrected me. And then the taxi carrying my eldest son was hit by a pickup driven by an intoxicated junkie at the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue, less than four blocks from the apartment, and I, and Sara, and all of us, were plunged into the deepest hell.
I didn’t stop painting. I never stopped painting, not until recently. I finished the paintings I’d started, and I even prepped more canvases and started new ones, but for a long time it was a reflexive act, like the way they say some people keep walking after their head’s been cut off.
So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.
Whenever I got deep like that, Sara would look at me with some amusement. Even now I can hear her voice teasing me: “Let me make sure I’ve got it all straight, David. So pain is eternal and life is an illusion? No, wait. Life is . . . ?” That’s why I almost never go back over these lines with my magnifying glass, because it’s pointless to try to see where I’m on target, if I am at all, and where I’m being a moron. It’s best to just keep going. And I don’t have much time to go back over things anyway: I’m old now, and for some time I’ve been rapidly losing my eyesight.
Also, truth does not exist and the world is music.
Today I live by myself in a house in the outskirts of La Mesa, a city of thirty thousand in central Colombia. Sara died here two years ago. The back patio looks out over a deep, wide valley with vultures or buzzards or whatever you want to call them soaring overhead. Sometimes the vultures swoop low in the air, only a few meters from the cliff behind the house, above the abyss, and if my vision were good enough I’d be able to see how they move their flight feathers, changing direction or altitude, how they enjoy the World. (I see them very clearly and yet I can no longer see them. Where, then, is the World? Where does it perch?) Some people find it unsettling that beyond our garden, just beyond the orange and tangerine trees that Sara kept so well pruned and fertilized, there yawns such depth and vastness that it seems as if it might swallow everything up, like a terrifying symphony.
I am relatively healthy. More bothersome than my failing eyesight is the poor circulation in my legs, especially my left one, which causes sharp tingling in my fingers in the wee hours of the night (I don’t know why it prefers those hours). Apart from that, everything is in decent working order. I lost my teeth to gum disease ten years ago and got dentures. I bought the best one available, super pricey, the Porsche of dentures, Sara used to joke, adding reassuringly that they were a major improvement on the teeth I’d had before.
A woman of about forty-five, Ángela, comes every morning and stays all day, looking after the house and preparing food. Ángela likes to tell me that I’m not eating enough and that I’m skinny for my height, which I find amusing, as height-to-weight ratios should no longer be a concern once a man has hit seventy-eight. I’ve still got my memory, I’m lucid, and generally speaking people don’t treat me like an old man. What has happened, though, is I’ve become detached from the affairs of the world of the featherless biped, and I consider few or none of them truly important. Up until the situation with Jacobo, I was deeply invested in what people thought of my work, reading the reviews with an eagerness that now seems absurd, convinced I wasn’t gaining enough recognition in the art world. And it was true: for a long time, my work was not valued. And as it happened, my son’s long torment coincided with an immense, sticky swell of recognition that I did not want and that seemed to have chosen that precise moment to arrive for the sole purpose of exacerbating our affliction, like a drag queen or a monkey or a lunatic at a funeral.
Along with that recognition, though, came the money we so desperately needed.
Jacobo’s intense pain started three years after leaving the hospital. The doctors had warned us: the worst thing might be not that he would never walk again, but the physical discomfort he might begin to experience at any moment. The pain gradually became chronic and increased in intensity, to the point that there were days – not all of them, thankfully – on which we had to tiptoe into his room and speak in whispers so he didn’t moan and tremble at the noise.
My eldest son spent the first three years after the accident wanting to walk again and striving toward that goal. Then he lost hope, and after that, and as the pain became chronic and increasingly unbearable, he started wanting death to come for him. He’d rather it happen in his sleep, he told Sara once, but it would also be okay if it took him when he was awake.
Excerpted from Difficult Light by Tomás González, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg, forthcoming from Archipelago Books on August 11th, 2020.