A Hotel Room in Havana
The best symphonies are the ones that you create for yourself, play for yourself, in your own mind. No rules or structure. No audience to elate you or upset you. The symphony that you create for yourself is best and most beautiful because it is your creation, and you have no one else to answer to or please, except yourself and your heart.
I woke up. I was lying down on a soft bed in a hotel room in Havana. I felt no particular emotion for a moment, only pure being. I knew that this moment would soon flee me, like the bird that sits on the sill and leaves just before you’ve really begun to enjoy its company. “Stay little bird, stay,” you say, as it flutters and leaves. “Come back, come back.” It is gone, your solace and brief joy with it. Emotion came to me now as I heard my symphony. The keys of the piano rang gently, vibrating in the air of this simple but warm little room in this romantic and old little Caribbean town. Havana has soul. It is soul, if nothing else and for this it’s more than most places on this planet. I heard her speak right then.
“I can’t seem to do it, I can’t seem to find the right keys” she said as she laid her porcelain fine hands on the old, venerable wood piano. I said nothing. Silence speaks the most.
“I’m trying” she spoke again, “I mean, I sit here in front of this instrument everyday like an obedient pupil, and yet my hands and it do not talk to one another, why, why?”
I rolled my body over to my right side now, placed my right arm under my head, my head cupped by my hand as it rested on the soft foam. I gazed upon her with complete adoration, unable to utter into words what I felt with my heart. The most beautiful things are felt, not spoken, seen, heard or grasped. She was unable to play, each cord rang hollow, and each attempt in vain as a mere 5 or 6 notes in she would stop again and plead with the piano to grace her with melody, as if the piano was the one in control. No, she was in control. At least she should be. And I could only look at her try to dance with it, unable to lock steps, like two lovers who have yet to find their rhythm, a key which has yet to find its door. And all along, still, I heard the symphony in my mind. Calm, gentle strokes in a minor chord that reverberated throughout my soul like the bells of an old church across an ancient town. A town whose cobblestone streets are empty of its patron saint from long ago. I light smile escaped from my face as I continued to look on at her, adore her. I could not see her face. I wanted to, badly, but I could not. I knew what she looked like, but she was long gone. Whenever she visited me now, I could only see her from behind, always whispering something.
“It just won’t sing for me, it just doesn’t want to play with me anymore. Why won’t it play with me anymore?” she asked repeatedly, sad like an outcast child.
I wanted to help her, but I could not, she would never let me, and so I merely observed. All the while I lay still on my side, hearing the symphony in my head undisturbed. I knew I was imagining it all. Her, the piano, the symphony, but I did not care. Perception is reality, and so is imagination. While it lasts at least. Imagination is the saviour of us all. How empty life would be if we could not close our eyes, or sleep, and dream our dreams. Madness would prevail. Yet it also butchers us, for we must eventually open our eyes, day eventually breaks. “But not just now, dear, close your eyes, dream, dream” I heard the voice in my head speak to me.
Dah, na, na na… and on and on it went, the beautiful, calm, symphony of the piano playing in my mind, while she struggled with the real thing, and I lay there staring at her, smiling, stuck in time in this quaint, bright hotel room in Havana. Life is beautiful.
I need her from time to time. Here she was again, sitting there, back facing me, her long, light, wavy hair flowing like the ends of ornate drapery made of silk, her long arms making love to the piano, her feminine shoulders foisting her supple neck, which held her majestic head, which displayed her beautiful face. If mystique was a woman, she would be it. I knew what she looked like, but I could not see her face, she never turned to look at me anymore. I would close my eyes whenever my strength of heart would allow, and for a brief second catch a glimpse of her angelic visage from memory. And whenever I did, I would see her in the same scene. She would be standing with her shoulders out of a nascent moving train, her arms crossed, the wind blowing her hair like the mane of a stallion against the draft left in its pace, her deep, blue eyes always staring up and far off, somewhere, anywhere but down. Always a half smile on her face borne of a spirit that knows all too well just how blessed it is and what a resplendent spread of life lays bare before it; a feast befitting a queen. She would never look at me, she always looked up and away, past me, but seeing her smile induced feelings in me nothing in life ever could, not even the most hallowed moments of my childhood when all was still pristine. I could scant stare at her for long. Although no feeling is as profound as love, none is more painful or heavy either. If love is after all a rose, one has first to cut themselves and bleed picking it up, for roses have thorns. Love, therefore, is pain. The most enduring, sublime and worthwhile pain in the entire world. A thousand cuts and I would not be sated of my thirst for this blood. Even now, with her gone, my conscience would cut me daily, and even now, I could not be sated of my hunger for her. She is my blood sport.
“Why won’t it work, why can’t I just get it right?” she said now as I came back to and snapped out of my thoughts, the symphony quickly dissipating. My face had lost its luster. My brief smile and sense of elation at seeing this apparition had quickly faded. Fantasy never lasts. Neither does love. In fact nothing does. But we have time still. Fret not; there is still time for us all. All is not lost.
“Why can’t I just get the notes right?” she said again.
She was growing slightly more exasperated, though her exasperation was itself the equivalent of a young child’s, still wholly innocent and without any pungency belonging that of a man. It’s no wonder that nature is a woman. Man is not delicate enough to be. I turned over on my back again now, unable to countenance her any longer as it saddened me, and I looked ahead at the white, wood balcony doors directly ahead of me, one of which was just barely open, revealing a snippet of the outside world. The fan above me kept circling round and round without fail, slow enough that I could go round with it using my eyes, but not fast enough to calm the warmth of the heat. The symphony was long gone. A quick panic settled over me, composed of guilt and regret. The melancholy of a lover without its beloved. The sorrow of a killer without its prey. It was the symphony that kept me moving, that kept my heart beating, each one of its lines and rhythms undulating across my soul like the ripples of waves across an ocean. I turned my head and looked back at the piano quickly, hoping for succor, but she was no longer there, and the symphony did not return. My heart sank faster than the anchor of a ship. I felt the opposite of the lightness one feels lying on freshly split grass, under the shade of a tree on a warm summer day. I brought my pillow from under me and placed it over my head, wishing I had the force or resolve to keep it there, pressed until I could no longer breathe. I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth. Shortly afterwards, it started again, the symphony, delighting me in its wake. I peeled the pillow off me and looked over at the piano but she was not there. The keys were moving by themselves now, randomly, composing the siren song that could lift me from my deepest abyss and raise me to the highest summit, just above the clouds. I stared on, wondering why she was no longer in the room if the symphony was playing, when I felt a radiating warmth wash over my body and an intense brightness dawn upon the room. I turned my head again now and looked forward, raising my right arm to shield the intense light that was coming in from the opening of the balcony door which had been swung open now. When my eyes slowly acclimatized themselves again, I noticed the silhouette of my beloved there, standing with her right shoulder resting against the door, her arms still crossed, peering out over the city and the bay, her face hidden from me once more. I slowly sat up, smiling, happy that she had returned.
“Why did you ruin me?” she asked me now. “Why did you forsake our bond?” I wish she would turn around just once so I could see the eyes which bequeathed me these haunting words. And if she turned around, could I brace her sight, even? Can we look at those we’ve hurt, those we’ve killed? And why had I done that? I loved her, did I not? Yes, of course I did. Of many things we can lie to ourselves and be easily fooled, but not of love. Then why had I destroyed it?
“Yes, why did you destroy me?” she said now, almost as if she had heard me. Of course she did, she was a creation of my mind after all. She was me and I was her.
“We hurt those whom we love most, my dear” I responded. “You know that.”
There was silence now as the symphony evaporated yet again. Neither of us moved or said a word, and nothing was heard.
“Why don’t you turn around, and let me see you once more?” I begged her.
She turned her head slightly to her left, and I sat forward a bit, excited that I may yet once again countenance her face, and who knows what that may do. They say that Helen of Troy was a face that launched a thousand ships. And perhaps her face might inspire me too. Inspire me to regain and recapture my soul and spirit so that I may once again be a matador. So that I could once more taunt life to come at me like a bull, and feel the rush of being tied up with it again, endangering life and limb for another taste of that succulent meat of bloody existence that has no comparison. Her hair slipped a bit now, forward, covering what may have been visible of her nose, then she lifted her left arm quickly and pushed open the other, arched balcony door, forcing it to swing open and allow another blast of sunshine and light to enter the room and blind me momentarily as I turned to my side and covered my face reflexively.
A moment later I slowly dropped my arm but did not turn my head back yet, I was afraid to. I was fearful of her when she was out in the open and not in the comfort and security of my room. Then I heard it again, the symphony. Da, na, na na…. It started slowly and was barely audible at first but it picked up in tone and tempo as it rung once more through the hallways and corridors of my soul, permeating every nook and cranny with its divine sound. Only a piano at peace with itself can produce such a sublime tune. Only a person at peace with themselves can truly love. The sound brought a smile to my face, as I turned gently now to face the balcony with both doors open, a view of the ocean ahead of me, faint outlines of some trees and hillsides to my right and left. She was gone again though, and I grew disheartened again. I gently tugged at the white sheet which clothed me and lifted it aside to my left. I finally got off the bed. Eventually you have to wake up. One can only sleep for so long. “How long?” I heard a voice speak now. “So long, so long” it seemed to answer itself next. I placed my feet on the ground. I stood up and walked towards the balcony, stopping right before the ledge that connected it with the room. My eyes were overwhelmed now with light and the scene before me and the melody stopped playing in my mind yet again, replaced with the noise of the city outside now which I could well hear. I closed my eyes and heard the rustle made by the sound of trees brushing against one another as the wind swept through them, breathing life into this old place. I used to walk these very streets with her, those steps before the park there, and sit on the patios of that café down on the boulevard as the locals played guitar and we sipped wine until our balance became suspect, and our vision blurry. Back then, they were splendid moments of pure joy and being. Now, these thoughts haunted me where they once lifted my spirit. Now they were cruel reminders of blessings I never appreciated enough and had now turned into curses. She was a fruit tree from which I had plucked far too much fruit. A man can only consume so much fruit, after all. Love does that. Pride too. And the ego of a man at his height. His rampant individualism finds itself eventually dying from the squalor of its excess. The pride before the fall. I coveted her. I thought I cherished her but I merely coveted her. I consumed her whole. I thought I was merely eating small morsels, but I was tearing off whole pieces of her flesh. I allowed her to become my opium. It’s not that I didn’t love her. It’s that I loved her too much. I had lost sight of the fact that the beloved is still one who must be loved, not consumed. That is why they are called beloved after all, because we all just want to ‘be loved’. All of life is this, and only this, a desire to be truly and wholly loved. My avarice turned me into the guillotine on which she would later be killed, and eventually myself. Yet even now, I was not sure that I would change it if I could. Guilt and regret are the heaviest of things, heavier even than the pure iron weight of grief. At least with grief one can accept that nature has given us a verdict of which we are all equal and subject to, today or tomorrow, death and dissolution. Guilt and regret are of the realm of individual liberty, and they are results of decisions. When the effects of those decisions are adverse and irreversible, no amount of penitence my ever suffice. Guilt and regret, left untreated, are themselves death penalties. It’s just a matter of when the verdict is carried out. Often it is done over an agonizingly long period of time for acceptance of wrongdoing is not something our species comes to do so easily. Deny, deny, deny, the mantra of the day, it seems. I longed for her, and suffered the incision of a thousand knives tinged with the blood of these things which I had done to her and to myself which I could not now undo. Be careful of your actions lest ye come to bear guilt and regret from them. These are enemies of life, and strong ones that are not easily defeated. Be careful of your actions towards her, towards life.
“I’ve forgiven you, you know” I heard now, startling me and pulling me out of a deep state of thought. I had almost forgotten where I was standing now. I turned my head back behind me and to the right and saw her sitting back at the piano, wearing a long, white corsage now, playing my symphony and melody herself, finally.
“You got it right this time, my love!” I said to her. A smile on my face again once more after having turned my heart back on its woe and towards its joy.
“You should forgive yourself” she said to me next.
I continued to watch her as her hands danced gently across the piano, floating like a butterfly, playing the song of my salvation. My heart had begun to palpitate heavily; I could even hear it thumping. Emotions came and went through me like the seasons. Some people experience several sunrises and sunsets in one day. Others seldom experience one or the other for days, weeks, sometimes even months or years. That is a shame. I felt an intensity of emotion now and was about to spring forward towards her as a burst of joy washed across me as if I had forgotten who I was and our history together, as if she was actually there and not a ghost I was conjuring.
“Don’t come near, or I will leave again” she said now, preempting my movement.
I was frozen in place by her words. My smile faded. My toes and fingers wiggled, ready to move, but my muscles were paralyzed from fear that she would act out her words.
“No, don’t leave, please” I begged her, “stay, stay.”
She dropped her hands off the piano, but the symphony kept playing, the keys of the piano kept moving. Both of us were silent for a moment, and completely still.
“I cannot stay here much longer, but you can come with me” she said.
Just then a breeze cut across my back that brought with it a certain chill I had yet to feel on this otherwise warm day. I stared at her, my smile fading, my heart closing on itself at her words. I closed my eyes as I titled my head up slowly and inhaled deeply. I opened them again, and she was gone once more. And I knew she would be. Eventually she would leave as she always did, and I knew when that was. It was always right after she said that very line to me: “you can come with me.” The piano had stopped playing now.
I was now outside, on the balcony, seated on the ledge at the end, my eyes closed, feeling the radiance of the warmth from the sun and the air on my body, my hands clenching the metal rail that held me in place, many storey’s separating me from the ground. By now a small crowd had assembled below, looking on with concern. A bunch of curious and aghast faces. Interested faces, mostly, because it is likely that every one of them had at some point or another pondered doing the same. Haven’t you? What did it matter to me now, I could not be bothered with them any longer, they the living. A thousand pictures, thoughts, memories and experiences of my life were coming and going before me just now. I could barely hold one steady long enough to dissect it and taste its flavor. Even in the most prosaic and normal of lives, so many beautiful things, so many experiences to be grateful for. So then why did I find myself on this ledge just now? Somewhere along the ride of life, often during younger years, we have to make a decision. We must decide whether we wish to be at peace with life, accepting it calmly as it is and hoping for the small morsel allotted to each and every one of us. The 24 acres bestowed upon each man as the Arabs are known to believe. Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In other words, Family, Shelter, Work and Bread. The basic elements of life. One cannot ask for more than this and really, is there anything else? We have convinced ourselves that there is, but that has been the greatest illusion that mankind has created thus far. There is only the latter; the pursuit of anything else is ego driven folly. If however one decides that they would like more, then a pact must be made with life. You must then accept what may come as a result of your decision to burn in a deeper, richer flame than the rest of your fellow man and woman. And though this fire may yet forge something altogether wholly new and of immense greatness, often it will only burn you to a char, and what you are left with then, if you are left on this planet at all, are heavy burn marks and scars that may in time become infected with guilt, regret, pain and sorrow. And these are not light things to live with. How much weight can you bear? Be honest with yourself. You will have to shoulder the weight of all your actions eventually, no one else. What can you live with? Be honest with yourself.
A few of the individuals below had by now made attempts to talk to me directly, but I did not let them steal my concentration. I merely smiled at one or two and returned to my thoughts. What if life is a woman? What if love is a woman? The Princess that each and every man secretly fancies his birth right, and has lodged somewhere in his romantic subconscious towards which all his actions are propelled, the actions of the warrior which he believes, by necessity, deep down he is. The object towards which all our great actions, risks, pursuits, adventures and voyages are launched. And what if you found your woman along the way? What if you found your other being, your counterweight, your soul mate, and that same spirit that lead you thus far to her was not sufficient to make you happy and you destroyed her looking for the next prize or victory? What will befall the warrior then who is shocked to know that the human spirit is such that its greed and appetite knows no limit if its moral training and rectitude is insufficient as is that of so many of us today? What happens then? And what if, life and love is a woman, and you suffocated her in trying to elevate that life, that love, just a bit more so that you could build the best life, and have the most profound love? What if you could not stop in victory and wanted all that much more as so many have before you in vain, do now and will in the future? Could you live with the regret and guilt of your decisions and actions? Could you accept that you probably got ahead of yourself, asked for too much of the world and of existence, and that you probably tread on waters too deep for any man? Could you be a killer of your life and a killer of others and live with yourself still? The greatest of men know one truth about the pursuit of a great life: learn to stop in victory and not aim past the mark you set for yourself. Man’s appetite is great, his greed endless, his lust without bound, and these things are not inherently bad in and of themselves, for they are strength of spirit embodied, but they are not for most, if for anyone at all. Left uncontrolled and untamed, they will often ruin what is otherwise a great thing, a great life, and a great love… a great woman.
A brisk wind came now and swept past me, pushing me a bit in its wake, forcing my hands to clench the railing a bit tighter in reaction. I opened my eyes, my thoughts vaporized quickly and I heard now only the scurry and noise of the growing crowd below, whereas a moment ago it was only my beloved symphony while I thought deep thoughts and reflected on my life, that same life which millions experience, that you experience just as much as I. It is sweet nectar, life, is it not? More people seem to have assembled below now. The many of us are so bored that such things are prize spectacles, the lives and affairs of others, especially tragedies like the one they all probably thought they were going to witness today. “Do something with your lives” I whispered to them, “stop living through others.” I do not think anyone heard me. What does it matter? What do I even matter to them? They shall forget about it all by tomorrow. I, however, would have to retain this decision for eternity. Oh how I longed for my symphony to return to me at just this moment, or for her to appear once more. Just once more. I finally stood up, eliciting a loud gasp from the crowd below. I smiled. I meant it. My hands still clenched the rail and this held me in place as I stood now and looked all over the crowd, scanning all the faces, so many different faces and expressions, until finally I noticed her. And I knew I would finally see her in this moment, for the beloved always reveals itself when the end is nigh, so that a reunion of sorts is possible, if not with them, then with the ether from which both of us once sprang, and to which we must all inevitably return. I smiled now at her with even more warmth, and I knew now that if I closed my eyes, I would hear it also, but I wasn’t quite ready yet to relinquish my gaze. I felt now as though I would have given anything to be able to just be with her again, to love her as I once had, and be content and happy with that, with what we had. It did not matter any longer, I had walked a certain path and that path had led me here, and I was at peace with it finally. If one risks all in the pursuit of their calling, their legend, their dream, then one must also be honourable if it does not come to pass. And always in those rare moments of lucid thought, you must close your eyes, open your soul and hear your own symphony. And you must also recognize then that you are living and can still pursue the great and the impossible if you so choose, but must also accept that you may well lose much in setting out on this path and have to bear a great cost and punishment for it later. It all really comes down to a few simple questions which every person must answer with utmost honesty to themselves: How much can you afford, and how much are you willing to pay?
If life is a woman, if love is a woman, then love her right, and if you do not, you will hurt her and often will even kill her. And her pain and death will one day ultimately kill you. I now closed my eyes on her forever, smiling to the end. The piano behind me burning in flames. The symphony no more. Time is the fire in which we burn. My time was now extinguished. I took my hands off the rail and leaned forward. “She was a beautiful woman, life” was my final thought. It’s a shame I came to appreciate her beauty too late…
Photos: Massoud Abbasi / Ambos Mundos Hotel, Room 511, first Hemingway Residence