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from the May 2005 issue

I Am Spartan

To you, my friend

Spartan, Sofia said to Sandra, reminding her of snowbound icy Moscow where she was trained as a StalinistFidelistaSpartan in long lines at thirty below zero with ever-enraged watchmen and the smell of booze but with professors who were scholarly and stifflyaffectionate, with nice fat wives who only ever smiled after knowing you for a long time because they don't trust anyone, and Sandra had come from Cuba so trusting and Spartan to begin with, having spent two years marching in Revolution Square, two years cutting sugar cane, two years as a militia guard in Río Almendares, those two years devoted to guns, bombs and men's underwear,

yes men's underwear, because she got a job like she set out to do and it was in the former Viti factory in Guanabacoa when the whole country was nationalized by the law that enacted Che's dream, only it was a dream, it wasn't real;

before she'd had it easy, now she had to get up at six in the morning to get to calle Infanta and wait for bus number five, which let her off two blocks away from Viti where savoring and pinching high piles of men's underwear that in a Guevarianheartbeat had transformed from capitalist matter into socialist production numbers, she squeezed into a little office feeling like she owned the factoryworld around her,

it never even crossed her mind that some day in the throes of lovemaking she might see this same underwear or some other kind—because in the end it didn't matter—bulging with sexual intent or make love in the snow near the mausoleum where Stalin still lay next to Lenin, or might attend student meetings in which she theweirdone talked too much, calling attention to herself by being seriously Spartan, which the others didn't like because they used a socialismnotsocialism yardstick to measure everything, and in socialism no one should call attention to herself because everyone is born equal, and she didn't get that what socialism talks about is opportunity, not inborn talent;

she sought refuge instead in books and went to the head of the class, Russian and literature and grammar came easy to her since her father instilled at a young age the value of writing, and the underwear in Moscow helped engender five children, two of whom survived, and light years later she was in a rat-filled house in Luyanó where she was happy for a time teaching her young son how to wash his underpants in the shower and for years that child with a tender smile and big eyes was her Spartan consolation, but look at you now: no child, no underwear with or without sexual intent, all worn out at six o'clock at night living in red dust, always sleepy, sleepily following the news from Cuba in the Herald after a long day's work, students' smiles the only thing to make her halfhappy because life itself forced her to be Spartan, and she wonders why this fate, she who declared solidarity with Balzac and Rastignac over Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov, then suddenly the thought occurs she should have described young Rastignac as Spartan, because Spartan were his attempts to enter an aristocratic and newly bourgeois world, but coño Sandra, coño, you can't write again about the psychology of Balzac's characters because now you're one of them, besides which, you're immersed in translations, projects, seas of paper, salt marshes of people, meanwhile time passes while you're standardizing curriculums, caramba, or curricula rather, which sounds better, because Sandra knows Latin, a bourgeois residue/ from a childhood/ of rhymed poetry;

and what good is it now if Spartanly speaking she should be taking it easy in Cuba waiting for handouts from relatives and eating a quarter pound of rice every two days, keeping her mouth shut, peace on earth goodwill toward men happiness for all, but as a Spartan she knew it was more honest for her and the kids if she brought home the family bacon, or as they say here the garbanzos, and since she already lived her life she didn't give a hoot or have a handle on this carousel spinning round and round knocking her down as she Spartaneously resists, and she tells herself she'll make it, she never asked for favors, she's proud like her warrior grandfather and smart-aleck father who didn't take any shit either, and then Sandra is grateful for Changó's Godgiven allotment of neurons, and she thinks a shield might be in order, remembering el Jefe's allusion to the Spartans when he made all Cubans chant "hoisting my shield or recumbent upon it," then she looks to see if what's crushing her chest to the point of suffocation is a shield, not the red dust, or maybe it's a shield she sat on and now it's denting her ass but she concludes she shouldn't call attention to herself here either, not now anyway, because she should have done it two decades ago, and she sees herself, Spartan and ratlike, waiting for events, and tells herself no more underwear, children, curricula, translations or projects, she wants to drop the shield and Sparta too, and now her ass hurts and she wants to ex-isle herself, ex-Spartanize, stop being Spartan and bury her head in the warm rush of a friend's enveloping arms, like Cuban men's arms are, and she imagines her life without Cuba or men friends because Felipe is in Miami, Vasco in Gijón, Toni in Sweden, Israel who knows where in Cuba and René in Havana, and here she is in front of a computer with a Spartan nightmare and memories of Stalin, swamped by people and papers in a society where you bring home the garbanzos Spartanlike,

and then she sees that all the past is gone, she couldn't have lived any other way, because old Marx was right that a man thinks the way he lives, and she sees herself at seventeen surrounded by underwear in the Viti factory, and remembers, too, the air raid bombers of Girón and Andresito, two years younger than her, fighting along the road to Cienfuegos, later to be sentenced in Cuba because after military training he liked his rock 'n' roll, and then she sees the boat that took her to Moscow, with René on deck, he and Valdimiro Roca have been undergroundprisoners for four years, and she remembers Blas's nephews on the boat, too, and Blas himself with Dulce, smiling at the entrance to Lumumba University, the dead in their tombs but everyone else alive and fighting, then scuba diving within, she sees her Spartan self learning the Russian alphabet with uncommon discipline, and the hospitals where she had smallpox, Scarlet fever and rubella, where she gave birth to her first daughter, buried five months later in Novodieviche, conceiving more children and defending her thesis at the same time, struggle on or else die on your shield like they did in Sparta, and she sees herself crossing snowy heaths in the many sadhappy years, remembers how keenly she felt Klebnikov's rhythms, whipping up four poorly constructed poems in Russian that Aliosha and Zhenia enjoyed on vodka-filled nights, and dios, Aliosha in California where I still haven't found him and Zhenia my fierce Moscovite lover where are you, she sees herself Spartanly writing textbooks, leaving Havana without a peso in her pocket, crossing Siberia to get to Mongolia, then on the steppes sharing pot cheese from Ulan Bator with shepherds and flies before the astonished eyes of some socialist translators, weighed down by bags laden with food products that Russians gave her to feed her two sons in the midst of the eternal socialismnotsocialism crisis, and she remembers the reserves of smiles and energy and friends and besides, she always got into some sort of trouble to occupy her mind, and she wonders again if you're born Spartan how to stop being one, not caring that now she's a Spartan out of weariness and convenience; now SpartandaughterofChang, she revises translations, papers and projects and soloSpartanlike gulps down a cup of manzanillandlindenflower tea, sits back down in front of the computer, checks her e-mail—no news from friends or family—and tells herself, Spartanlike, that she can carry the shield and if her ass is sunken she can still jump to heaven, and if the shield crushes her she can meld into the metal frame, knowing that as a Spartan she'll carry on with or without a compass because there's no going backward in this rumbling cart with just one charioteer.

Sandra pats her hair, looking for the misplaced neuron that nearly made her deny her own blood and having looked with renewed Spartan vigor to find the neuron hidden and tense between not-yet-thinning bushy black eyebrows, she sets it back in place, concluding that a course correction is in order now, something must have gone screwy in her thinking program; she rubs her sore backside against the shield and decides to put on the garbanzos because Sofia told her that garbanzos have light rays in them, and cooking she will be thinking about everyone who is presentbutnottherebecausetheyaretryingsoSpartanliketobringhomethefrijolessinCuba.

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