Viva is a historical fiction novel I had the pleasure to work on this summer with the help of funding from the Appel Fellowship. I attended two session of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which greatly helped me as I worked to finish this piece. The below excerpt is actually the very end of the novel. It would be more logical to offer up the beginning as an excerpt, but I thought the ending embodied the theme of (e)motion much more fully. Viva tells the story of a fictional woman, Dasha Winterton, who meets Ernesto Guevara when they’re both in medical school in the 1950s in Buenos Aires. They begin an affair that spans a decade, several continents, and three marriages. Viva explores how we tell the stories of cult figures in history, how we rarely consider them fallible, and the sentimentality in relationships and growing up.
Dasha stood at the window and looked out over the soldiers in the square, singing and celebrating and drinking stolen rum. He sat in the chair and looked at her looking out the window. Santa Clara was at their feet, spread out like a rug that curled ever so slightly at its edge where the brown sugarcane was made red by the setting sun. “I’ve gotten it for you,” she said mildly, “right here, it’s the moon on a string.” He did not respond, but she had known he wouldn’t, and she leaned out of the window, resting her sternum on the sill, breathing the first truly cold air of winter.
It was strange how people couldn’t always remember the beginning of things, but the endings were sure to stick around like poorly healed wounds. With the sounds of celebration and the smell of stale cigar smoke in the room, she knew as she lived it that this was the ending, that this was the wound, and it would be an ending and a wound forever.
In the end, it was this. It was her and him. It was a love that was nothing more and nothing less than a love. It was a revolution that was nothing more and nothing less than a revolution. It was a decade of life that could not be absolved, though she wasn’t sure she wanted it to be.
Dasha knew that back in the times when war was made on horses by men with bows and swords, the Mongols had left their dead naked on an open plain to be picked clean by the birds. They thought that it freed the soul. And now in this room, living this wound where she finally felt old, so old her soul was achey, she knew that was what they had been doing for seven years, from Buenos Aires to Cartagena to Santiago de Cuba. They had been lying their bodies down to be picked clean, freed somehow through subsumption. No one had ever told them that people were just people.
Dasha turned to him, looking at the good, familiar face. His hair was too long, and he’d cut the flat of his cheek shaving. It was a scar of red against his skin. “What if I said I’m afraid?” he asked, and for the first time she could remember, he looked small to her. She wondered how he had seemed so large for so long.
“You’ll always lose a bare-knuckle fight against the world, Vara,” she said. He came to her, and sat in the leather chair at her feet, and leaned his face against her stomach, pressing his forehead into the skin below her ribs. She ran a hand down the back of his skull. “But you’re the only one who’s ever thought you have to win.”
“How is it that you always know that to say?” he asked.
“I don’t comfort you,” Dasha responded, voice aimless and small in the drafty room. “I’m just your mirror. When you can’t see clearly, you find your way to me, and I give you back to yourself.”
“I’m not your mirror,” he said softly, the sound muffled against her shirt. “I’ve never been anything for you.”
She laughed, a short, sad sound from her dry lungs that still burned from the smoke. “You’ve loved me through all of my forms with all of yours and you’ve been my greatest friend.”
There was a long silence, and neither of them cared. They were sick of words. Good words and bad words and love words and war words, and now they were here. He was a person in the world with her, a person with two hands and a beating heart, and he was neither a stranger nor a lover any longer. He kissed her skin over the shirt and leaned back, taking a cigar from the box, lighting it with a match longer than her ring finger. Vara exhaled, twin tusks of smoke obscuring his face.
“You and I were happy in a different life,” he said.
“Oh, God, Vara,” she muttered, “of course we weren’t. We were Antony and Cleopatra in a different life.”
“Caesar and Cleopatra,” he amended softly. “Caesar conquered more.”
“Antony lived longer.”
“But they both died young, didn’t they?”
“Querida?” she asked.
“I’m going home.”