“The great sculptor
was someone named
I now see everything through the prism of my own destruction. As I lie here in the hospital room without my recently amputated leg, I realize that my life will also be amputated in a similar macabre manner. The past and the future are forever riven asunder by a simple and irrefutable fact: my body is now incomplete, and my soul is soon to follow. I write because the circumstances require my sincerity even if it pains you. I know it will hurt you, Diego. I know it will upset you, Cristina. I know the world will be surprised by my confession.
I grieved each of my miscarriages, each of my therapeutic abortions as if some part of my body had somehow also died. I felt as if it was one of my own organs which was taken from me. So much like an amputation. And I mourned for your child, Diego, the child I could never give you. Everything was represented in my small desperate piece, Henry Ford Hospital: the naked woman hemorrhaging on a hospital bed, above her an immense fetus and a human pelvic bone beside her. I manifest the same sense of loss in my lithograph titled The Abortion: an image of my nude self, surrounded by fetuses in different stages of gestation, one of them apparent in my pelvic area. But the feeling which assaults me now in this iron bed is worse, much worse than anything I’ve ever suffered before – with the possible exception of the catastrophic accident on the bus when I was just eighteen. Sometimes in the middle of the night I feel an itch and instinctively move my hand to scratch what had once been my right leg. I find nothingness instead.
So, I am looking back, looking back now, at a life which is forever truncated thanks to the efficient cruelty of the surgeon’s knives and scalpels. Not surprisingly, of the two loves I had in my tortured life – only two loves, all the rest, male and female, were mere adventures – I remember León’s brief appearance in my life as keenly as the twenty-five years (and counting) which I have shared with my enormous husband Diego (yes, you, Diego! porcine hijo de la chingada!). It’s not that I loved León more than Diego – I didn’t – but León was taken away from me by death rather than by indifference, and so the scars are different.
I realize that boredom ultimately infected my relationships with all my other male and female lovers, Isamu Noguchi no less than Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Bartoli no less than Alejandro Finisterre. I also realize that lust fatigues the soul, my Diego, and that in some twisted sense you delighted in corrupting and fatiguing mine. But there was never a moment of tedium or fatigue in my relationship with León. Silence, yes. Contemplation too. But never boredom or ennui. And now that I am so close to the end – after all, a part of my body has already been buried– my thoughts irreparably turn to León and to our doomed relationship, the inevitable shipwreck at the end, the amputation which was his death.
Perhaps the reason I was initially attracted to León despite his age – I affectionately called him “el viejo” when we were together – is that, like Diego, León was a giant in his orbit. Diego had achieved greatness as an artist and León as a revolutionary. And yet I always knew that there was something of the revolutionary in Diego and something of the artist in León.
Diego did not believe in art for art’s sake. On the contrary, he always used his works of art – his vast murals – as an instrument of revolutionary propaganda. Even when he was painting at the behest of his capitalist patrons – Nelson Rockefeller, for example – Diego’s works manifested a dissenting message. When Diego painted a huge mural for the Rockefeller Center in 1933, entitled Man at the Crossroads, Diego had the audacity of finishing the mural by including a portrait of Vladimir Lenin at a bottom corner of the work. And so it was with many of Diego’s other murals. Even as he was being feted and celebrated by the wealthy bourgeoisie, he was quite openly spitting in their faces.
But then I’m led to a fundamental question. Was there some hypocrisy in the fact you became a rich man, Diego, painting the indigenous, the poor and the rebel? Or in the fact that you lived a life of comfort in a marvelous home while calling yourself a communist? At least I never pretended that my little depictions of despair were helping the revolution. At least David Alfaro Siqueiros put his own life in danger at the service of the armed struggle.
In like manner, there was something of the artist in León, a man who had been on the verge of controlling the entire Soviet Union, a revolutionary who had been Lenin’s heir apparent until Stalin ripped the prize away from him. León understood the power of art and wrote about the subject often. He knew that the true artist and the true revolutionary have this in common, that each is willing to sacrifice an entire life to the oeuvre. If León had not become a Marxist rebel, I’m sure he would have become un artista comprometido – an artist committed to his cause – because at bottom he had an artistic sensibility. He delighted in Mexico’s art, the ancient as well as the modern, the Aztec Templo Mayor in the capital as well as the National Museum of Archaeology, the Temples of the Sun and Moon in Teotihuacán as well as the murals of David Alfaro Siqueiros, yes, Siqueiros! the man who would become his implacable nemesis. Above all, León admired Mexico’s architecture, for he believed architecture is the summit of all the arts. He thought that the grandest structure in all of Christendom was Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, which despite his atheism, he venerated like a Jesuit seminarian.
Until I went through my final medical “intervention,” I did not understand what León had written about minimalist, confessional works like mine. He called them “amputated paintings,” works that deceitfully purport to tell the truth but fail to show the world in all its complexity, political and otherwise. I know that León objected because I seldom depict the pain caused by the oppression of the masses in my paintings, but only my personal pain, as if I was “an introverted painter,” to use his words, and not a revolutionary artist. But I’m not sure he fully understood my work. I was more of a rebel than he thought.
When I showed him the brutal A Few Small Nips, representing a bloodied woman stabbed multiple times, I don’t think he understood that the naked woman represented not only myself but also all the women of Mexico destroyed by the despair incidental to machismo and the patriarchy. (And if you’re reading this, Cristina, know that it is you who stabbed me with the few small piquetitos fourteen times.) But I shall redouble my efforts, no matter how little time I have, to turn my work into something useful. Until now I have imagined simply a brutal expression of myself but one which is a long way from serving the Mexican peasantry.
I’m writing this missive without a definite destinataire – I’m making several carbon copies, one for Diego, one for my sister Cristina and another for the world at large. Who knows who will read them in the end? My writing – no more and no less than my self-portraits – is a striptease of a soul in anguish.
I’m thinking of preparing a painting titled Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, a work both confessional and communist at once. My martyred body, with the thick corset, which I use to hold myself upright given my tortured back, will be at the center of the piece. I shall also use various elements to show the painting is not a solipsistic but a revolutionary work. I shall depict a bloated eagle with the face of Uncle Sam strangled by Karl Marx. I shall have a Marxist little red book in my hand. A white dove – representing the peace of a communist utopia – shall stand guard over the depiction of the world. There will be two enormous healing Marxist hands about my body and a set of discarded crutches on the ground, signifying at once victory over my disability – talk about an impossibility! – and the people’s triumph over capitalism, which may be similarly impossible. It will be my final tribute to León, for after all these years I cannot stop thinking about him and I want to please him even in death.
I’m sorry, my gordinflón, when you read this, you’ll realize my relationship with León was no fleeting sexual adventure. Surely you ask: Why am I revealing this now and not before? I am telling you this, Dieguito (or whoever deigns to read this), because in some odd way my dignity has also been amputated as a result of my most recent operation. I need to expose myself body and soul, trying to do in writing what I have done with art throughout my life: to show the open wound, which today is deeper than it’s ever been before. For years I have been tyrannized by my body, forced to undergo thirty-three operations, ever since that catastrophic accident – you know all about it, Dieguito – and at this juncture I must accept a permanent defeat with resignation and a muted despair. And I am compelled to write, to broadcast my pain to you and to the world as a form of demented catharsis.
Now that I’m so close to death I must confess everything – or at least everything important – especially to you, Diego. And so, I must describe my secret love for León – although out of respect for you I won’t describe our erotic interludes other than to admit they brought my soul to bliss and that he was a generous lover who cared about the woman’s jouissance more than his own satisfaction. My words might surprise you, for you’ve known about my sexual relationship with León for years and may think there is no longer a secret between us on this matter. But what I must confess is that my feelings for León went far beyond the emotions of a casual sexual affair, that even after León’s death I continue to remember him with a stubborn nostalgia and am visited by him in dreams. It’s not the sex I miss, but his gravelly voice commanding “onward!” in his broken English when I disclosed the abyss of my desolation to him.
I was the one who initially greeted León and his wife Natalia Sedova when they arrived at the port of Tampico. Trotsky was a man without a nation, sure to be assassinated by Stalin if he returned to the Soviet Union and treated as an unwelcome pariah everywhere else. The man, a hero in the 1917 October Uprising, a rebel leader who had been on the cusp of ruling the largest country in the world after Lenin’s death, was now rejected by every country where he sought refuge. But Diego was a Trotskyite at the time, and he convinced President Lázaro Cárdenas to give León political asylum in Mexico. During our nights together, León would often refer to the strangeness of Mexico: its Indians, its art, its pyramids, its religious processions, its obsession with death, the primal, foundational rape of la Malinche.
I’m sure that when I saluted him at the port with the tehuana garb worn by the Zapotec women of Oaxaca and my elaborate braids, he realized how far he was from Mother Russia. Not surprising that on that first day in Tampico he seemed bewildered and at the same time somehow afraid. To use a common expression, he was arriving at a brave new world, as astonishing to him as this land must have been to Hernán Cortes and the conquistadors four hundred years earlier when they first arrived. At the same time, I recognize there was cause to be afraid and that there was a basis for León’s fears. Stalin had already publicly pronounced a death sentence against León after a trial in absentia, and there were plenty of committed Stalinists in Mexico.
I remember his arrival, with a hat in his hand, his hair uncombed by the wind, as he greeted me among dozens of armed guards who protected his safety. He seemed older than his sixty years, an old man with a cane, looking more like a bookish professor than a revolutionary, peering at me through his horn-rimmed glasses as his wife clutched his arm tightly in order not to lose him among the throngs which amassed around him.
I was not initially attracted to León in a sexual way, with his receding hairline, his longish gray beard, his bushy eyebrows and his antiquated whiskers. More than anything, he looked like a lost old man, trying to take in his new surroundings with a trepidation he could not hide. Sure, he was better-looking than Diego, but then again, most men are. Diego – with his bloated paunch, his thick papada, his massive buttocks, his three-hundred-and-twenty pounds – would be considered ugly by most women, but that didn’t mean he was unable to seduce a good share of them. Such is the magnetism of genius, that a hippopotamus can delight a fawn. An ugly man can be successful with women when he has been blessed by celebrity, money or fame. Diego, to my great consternation, you were blessed by all three.
I myself fell for Diego when I was still a virgin twenty years younger than him and he was a married man. I ran into him at the Secretaría de Educación Pública building where he was painting a mural and boldly asked him to visit my house, now known as La Casa Azul, in order to see some of my pieces. Diego was a subtle seducer. As the months passed, he would appear at my house more and more often, always bringing some little gift with him: a small Indian artifact, a book of poems, a rose or a geranium. At first, he spoke only of my paintings, telling me they were exquisite. He made me believe I had a future as an artist. Were you completely honest or was that part of your seduction, Dieguito? At any event, I must thank you for encouraging me to paint, since my art has always been the only palliative for my despair.
Only with time, as I became more and more enthralled by him, did the bullfighter pierce me with his estocada. I found myself in the bedroom he shared with his wife Lupe Marín, the bed suddenly stained in crimson, and that very day decided to share my life with him. I did not care that I was sinning – felt sorry for his wife – but was not impeded in my quest. It was also the first time I ever told a man that I loved him, simple words Diego never reciprocated. Or if you did, I have forgotten them, Dieguito. Little did I know at the time that my experience with Diego was not unique. There were innumerable women before me, there would be innumerable women after me. But despite multiple women, multiple infidelities committed over the years by both sides, I remained steadfastly at his side throughout my life.
We reached a sort of modus vivendi – mere escapades were fine, but we could never love another. We were close to separating after I discovered Diego was having a relationship with María Felix, the famous actress known as la doña, because I feared it was a relationship of love and not mere lust. But Diego soon reassured me. He only visited la doña because he was restlessly selfish. In retrospect, the only relationship I could not entirely forgive was his affair with Cristina, not only because he was shamelessly having sex with my own sister, but because I was convinced they did it out of love and that they did it for years.
And if you’re reading this, my much-loved Cristina, shame on you! I lied when I told you I forgave you. Your betrayal did to my soul what the catastrophic accident did to my body when I was just eighteen, riding on a bus which collided with a trolley. The fact that my own sister would sleep with Diego was no less devastating than the trolley’s metal handrail impaling my lower body on the left side and exiting through my vagina, simultaneously breaking my spinal column and pelvis in three different places and shattering my leg. Don’t think I’ve entirely forgiven you, Cristina. Wounds leave scars. That accident on the bus left me a permanent cripple. Your long affair with Diego permanently corrupted my relationship with him. I learned that it was possible for him to love another woman and not just take her to bed. A monstrous Rubicon had been crossed.
I’m not sure why I am writing all of this. Perhaps I am leaving this as my personal temoignage, knowing that one way or another my life will soon end. There are so many false rumors out there like the popular belief that my relationship with León was platonic and inconsequential. Perhaps I’m finally avenging Diego’s affair with my sister Cristina and delighting in giving him his just deserts even at this late date. Or perhaps I am finally speaking to him about something which has bedeviled me for years, ever since I realized that my betrayal of Diego with León was worse than all my other petty acts of adultery. It was worse – far worse – because it was love rather than lust.
We took a train from Tampico to Mexico City, a distance of approximately five-hundred kilometers. León was mostly silent at first, although we were able to communicate in English. He made it clear his intentions were to return to Moscow and that he knew next to nothing about Mexico. Then he became more animated. He asked about the political conditions of Mexico, whether it could ever be a communist country. One of his biggest rifts with Stalin had been that León believed it was necessary to spread Marxism throughout the world while Stalin felt quite satisfied if the Soviet Union was the only communist nation as long as he was the one that ruled it. I told León Mexico was far from being a communist country, despite the leftist Revolution which ended in 1920, but that President Lázaro Cárdenas – the person who had granted him political asylum – was unabashedly a progressive and a man of the left.
“Stalin is destroying the Revolution,” León confided, knowing that at that point neither Diego nor I were Stalinists. “He has betrayed the peasant classes and usurped all power for himself. Communism isn’t a synonym for totalitarianism.”
His wife Natalia was silent throughout the journey since she spoke neither English nor Spanish. When León and I carried our relationship further, the English language was to be our instrument of choice. Since Natalia couldn’t understand a word of what we were saying, we didn’t have to be careful when we spoke to one another in her presence. We could even arrange the location and timing of our trysts without raising any suspicion on the poor woman’s part.
We arrived at the Casa Azul in Coyoacán by three o’clock in the afternoon on a cloudless Sunday. As soon as León and Natalya arrived in Mexico City, we told them they were welcome to live at the Casa Azul, a house surrounded by thick walls built of tezontle which would protect León from all enemies – and he had many enemies, Russian as well as Mexican. The blue house, so-called because of its cobalt walls, was the place where I was born and where I lived with my family before my marriage. When I get discharged from the hospital, assuming I ever will, I shall return to the Casa Azul, since it is the place where Diego and I have been living for the last thirteen years. It is an ordinary home, like so many in the area, a large house built around a central courtyard, but for a while it was the site of a doomed love affair between an old married Russian man and a married Mexican young woman who had nothing in common other than a shared nostalgia. The Casa Azul is also the place where I would like to die. After having spent so much of my life in hospitals, all because of that catastrophic accident – you know all about it, Dieguito – I don’t want to die in a hospital.
The relationship began innocently enough. The sexual part began later, much later, after many months of almost daily interaction, and truth be told it was never the main part of our convivencia. That is what will hurt you the most when you read this, Dieguito, that I was engaging in a profound spiritual adultery. The sex was only a minute ingredient in our love – or should I write the abyss of our love? – which at some point seemed greater than the ocean and doomed to be shattered like the sky. Far more important were our conversations and, as I’ve already told you, our shared nostalgia. I could confide in him about my distant adolescence, before my catastrophic accident, when I could dance, jump and run, and he would wax poetic about his days as a revolutionary during the October Uprising, when he thought the entire universe could be rescued by the proletariat. We both suffered from the same sense of irrevocable loss, the same amputation of the soul, the same knowledge that our past was something irretrievable and dead. How appropriate that I would end up with an amputated body too! How appropriate that León would die with an ice cleaver in his head like a man’s brain cut open by a surgeon’s knife!
At first, León and I walked through the neighborhood of Coyoacán, arm in arm, walking over cobblestone streets, and I delighted in teaching el viejo about the wonders of Mexico which he took in like a boy going to the fair for the first time. The reason León fell in love with me – and love is what it was – is because I first taught him to love Mexico. That love for la mexicanidad began in Coyoacán, the borough where we resided along with many artists and so-called bohemians. I showed him the magnificent twin plazas in its center, the Plaza Hidalgo and the Plaza del Centenario, both filled with Indian laurel trees, as well as mimes, clowns, organ grinders, clowns, musicians, indigenous dancers and even storytellers. León delighted in the strange customs of Mexico, in the clowns, the dancers, the organ grinders and their monkeys, a culture radically different from the one he had left behind. After traveling through Coyoacán, I also took him to the center of what had once been Tenochtitlán, seat of the Aztec empire, full of ancient temples and massive fortresses. Once I took him to the huge pyramids of Teotihuacán. In León’s eyes, everything Mexican was surprising, wondrous, jarring. In a perverse way, the fact I was married to Diego – a man he so admired – also drew him towards me. At some time during our outings, he told me, “If I had not been born a Russian, Frida, I would have wanted to be born a Mexican.” If the whole of Mexico had not been my ally in the seduction of León, I’m not quite sure I would have succeeded.
You’ll be surprised, Dieguito, to learn that we first made love on your own bed, or that the first time I was with León I was the lioness and León merely its reluctant prey. You and Natalia were both at the hospital – poor Natalia, she was always suffering from one malady or another – and I felt León and I could make love without any fear that we might be caught. I know you Mexican men always assume that when a married woman has illicit relations outside of marriage, the seduction is always initiated by the man. Even our foundational myth, the story of la Malinche and Hernán Cortes, betrays the belief that women are never the instigators when it comes to extramarital affairs. Everyone assumes that Hernán Cortes raped la Malinche, a married woman at the time, and not that la Malinche seduced the conquistador because he was the object of her desires. And yet there is nothing in history to support such a narrow view of the woman’s agency. I for one believe it was la Malinche who sought out the conquistador at night and demanded that he share his bed with her. She did it for the same reason I first had sex with you, and the reason I sought refuge in León’s arms as well – la Malinche did it because Hernán Cortes was a giant of the time.
Do you remember the poem, Foolish Men, Dieguito? Have you read it, Cristina? “Who has embraced the greatest blame in passion? She who, solicited, falls, or he who fallen pleads?” The eighteenth-century poet Sor Juana de la Cruz assumes that it is always the man who is fallen and that he is always the one who pleads. But in my initial encounter with León, I was the fallen woman who pleaded – I had fallen again and again – and León was the one who fell after being relentlessly solicited.
I took him to Diego’s master bedroom – it had a capacious bed – on the pretext that I wanted to show him a self-portrait I had recently completed. It was a work that now is lost, but I painted the scene again in Diego and I, completed five years ago. It is one of my typical self-portraits, except that on my forehead I have painted Diego’s face. Somehow we cheated on you in your presence, under your accusing eyes, Dieguito.
“Why do you always seem so anguished in your paintings?” León asked with his professorial look as he inspected the portrait.
“It is because I have many scars,” I answered.
“I see,” he responded, somewhat discomfited. “Have you suffered much? Is it because of Diego’s other women? I don’t mean to be impertinent.”
“Would you like to see my scars?” I asked.
“I was assuming you meant metaphorical scars. Scars of the spirit so to speak. But you are talking about real scars, aren’t you, Frida?”
I took off my blouse, used it to cover my breasts, and then showed León my naked back. I’m sure I have as many scars as the crucified Christ.
“You can touch them,” I told him. “They won’t bleed again. And I also have scars over my cervical area. That is why I can never have children.”
“Well, I’d rather not,” he stammered. “I think it might be improper.”
Then I let the blouse fall to the ground, revealing my breasts.
“Touch the scars, León, Look at them. I also have them on my chest.”
“Like I said, that would be improper.” He used his hat like a fan to cool his sweating face. “I don’t want to cast any aspersions. But I have the sense that you’re trying to seduce me. I strayed from time to time in my youth, but I have been faithful to Natalia for the last ten years.”
And yet he did not leave.
“You’re imagining things,” I told him while I tousled his hair mischievously. “You are so defensive.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I did not mean to offend you. I’m an old man with a dirty mind. And all you want to do is show me your scars.”
“You don’t have a dirty mind, León. You don’t have to worry about what you’re thinking. It’s what I’m thinking too.”
“I think I better leave,” he said, picking up his hat and his cane. “After all, Diego is a good friend and he’s been such a great host, inviting me into his home.”
And yet he did not leave. He looked at the picture of Diego on my self-portrait and briefly paused to think.
“This is wrong,” León said. “It is so wrong in so many ways. But I think I love you.”
“You’re in love with Mexico,” I said as I loosened his cravat and took off his horn-rimmed glasses. “And don’t worry overmuch about Diego. He has never been and will never be monogamous. Why should he expect something different from me?”
I don’t need to provide you with any salacious details about that first night. Suffice it to say that thereafter León lost all his scruples. He rented a small flat where we would meet for our occasional trysts. I don’t know if part of my motivation was to hurt you, hijo de la chingada, to pay you with the same coin as the people say. But with the passing of the months those secret rendezvous filled me with a heartfelt joy I thought long forgotten at the time. It’s not that I did it because I didn’t love you, Diego. On the contrary, I fell into León’s arms because I couldn’t love you more. I needed to suffocate my love for you because of what happened with Cristina. Yes, it’s always you, Cristina. I hope you don’t read this without crying.
Soon my relationship with León became the stuff of adolescent fantasies. We would escape to our secret nest telling Diego and Natalia we would be visiting various tourist sites in Mexico City. That would change, however, when Natalia, perhaps suspecting something, suddenly announced that she intended to go with us on all our forays into the capital. Weeks passed and we were unable to see each other alone, so León started to send me secret messages in letters. He would often give me a book as a gift, with a love letter and pressed chrysanthemums among its pages. “Dear Frieda,” he would write, never writing Frida. “We haven’t been alone for weeks and my spirit is tormented. At least I have the solace of seeing you every day, though I also have the martyrdom of not being able to touch you or take you into my arms. What a cursed fate! To share my bed with a woman I haven’t desired for years and to be unable even to hold your hand. You are right. It is Mexico I love in you, but I couldn’t love you or Mexico more.”
León became somewhat careless in his interactions with me and once gave me a copy of Anna Karenina in your presence. I am writing this not for you, Diego, since you already know what happened. I am including this to set the record straight for posterity. Everyone assumes that you ousted León because you had become a Stalinist. But you well know you forced him to leave the Casa Azul because you suspected that I loved him. And though I didn’t admit it at the time, I shall admit it now. You were right. I loved him with everything in me.
I don’t really know what León thought about Anna Karenina, whether or not he thought Tolstoy was a writer for the ruling classes, but I suspect he gave me the book because it tells the tale of a married woman who had an extramarital affair against all the conventions of the age and died by suicide. And yes, Dieguito, in case you’re wondering, after León’s departure I thought briefly of suicide. Not surprising that I should feel the same today, that it might be better to end it all instead of continuing to live with my mutilated body.
Diego asked León to see the book, and León shot a look of desperation toward me. It didn’t take too long for Diego to find the love letter or the pressed flowers. And then Diego exploded in anger. That was the only time in our lives when Diego expressed anything approaching jealousy. Au contraire, I think he experienced a morbid satisfaction when he learned about my other lovers, especially the women. I was his pupil when it came to extramarital affairs. He had taught me so many times that infidelity didn’t matter. But for some reason he guessed it was different with León. He had been living at the Casa Azul since January of 1937 and was forced to leave in April of 1939, two years of rain in the desert of my life. And I somehow blame myself for allowing it, even today, knowing that it resulted in the brutal death of my beloved. But you were firm, Dieguito. You wouldn’t allow yourself to be cuckolded in your own home. You announced you were a Stalinist – no longer a Trotskyite – and for that reason threw León out of the Casa Azul and forced him to face his perils alone.
The first assassination attempt was merely a warning, although it almost resulted in León’s death. I know because I was there or, at any event, I should have been there. After all these years of constant nightmares, I now realize that what we experience in dreams is no less real than what we live through in reality. And over the years, I have dreamed of that terrible night in Coyoacán so often that I don’t know where my dreams end and my actual experiences begin. At all events, I remember everything that happened that night in explicit detail, as if it had occurred yesterday.
David Alfaro Siqueiros was also a muralist – some even say he was better than my Diego – and he took his communism seriously. He went to Spain to lead a platoon in the country’s civil war. He was convinced that León was secretly aiding Franco’s forces by decrying Stalin’s regime. Since the Soviets were aiding the Spanish rebels, to criticize Stalin was verboten in the mind of Siqueiros and of the Spanish Republicans. At some point, he insinuated that he wanted to become my lover. I knew that sleeping with another muralist would have demolished Diego and I resisted. This happened before I learned of your relationship with my husband, Cristina. Had I known about it, I would certainly have punished Diego by sharing a bed with Siqueiros.
Siqueiros’ army of twenty men invaded León’s home in Coyoacán in the middle of the night. The guards who protected León’s house were quickly disarmed, and Siqueiros’ men entered the dwelling with their arms drawn. They started shooting pell-mell, indiscriminately firing at the rooms where they believed León and I were staying. So I used my body to protect him, covering his body with mine, as we heard the volley of gunfire aimed at our bolted door. I was terrified but drew some comfort from the fact León had not had to face this latest test alone. Afterward, we discovered that in the door leading to our room sixty bullet holes were left. And all the doors to the other rooms of the house were also riddled with bullets. Where Natalia was, I do not know. All I know is that night I was in León’s bed, where we mutually reassured each other with the words, “Don’t be afraid.”
Perhaps I won’t give this letter to Diego and Cristina, for they will not understand its contents. Perhaps I’m only writing for myself. As far as the world, they’ll have their own myths to create so this letter will count for nothing. And Diego will recognize every little falsehood in this text, every minor error, but will not understand its deeper import. So, what’s the purpose of sharing it with him?
I remember when I first heard the disastrous news that my León had been killed by a Spanish Stalinist wielding an ice pick. I immediately went to their home and Natalia greeted me with kindness, not the rancor I had expected.
“You loved him too,” she said. “Nobody can take that from you.”
“Did he suffer much?” I asked.
“Yes, I think he did. He died as valiantly as he lived, the man who had been exiled to Siberia so many times. Even after having been stabbed in the head, he continued to struggle with his assassin. And he lasted for hours at the hospital, not ready to abandon his dreams of a worldwide revolution as a result of the actions of a single Stalinist assassin.”
“He was killed in his home, right?”
“How could that happen? I mean, you have so much security. You’re surrounded with armed guards. The walls have been fortified to protect you from bombs.”
“It was Frank Jacson. We thought he was one of the young Trotskyites who routinely visited León, and so we granted him access to our home. It now appears that was not his name. The killer was a Spaniard named Ramón Mercader. He must have visited us a dozen times. Apparently, he’s one of those Spanish Communists who claim their cause was negatively affected by León’s repudiation of Stalinism. I’m sure he’s a member of Stalin’s intelligence services. I’m astonished he didn’t have an accent. Or if he did, we were deaf to it.”
How to explain what I felt? I raged against God, even though I had not believed in Him for years. I raged against the communists’ incessant internecine fights, how former allies often become implacable enemies. I raged against the strange hunger of death, which had devoured my beloved León much too early.
I raged and I cried. I raged and I cried until I fell asleep. The universe was suddenly different now that León had been amputated from it. Yes, the death of a lover is just like the amputation of a limb. You wake up in the middle of the night, expecting to find him next to you, and find nothingness instead.
But now, Dieguito, it is my turn to die. I hope you’ll help me achieve this purpose. It is up to you to find the arsenic that I need or press a pillow to my face. It’s not that I no longer love you. It’s that I can love nothing in my condition.
I gave my letter to Diego last week asking that he not read it at the hospital but to take it home so that he could ponder what it says. I am not making carbon copies of this writing. I expect to destroy it after I receive Diego’s response to my prior missive. As expected, he did not understand it, lost the forest for the trees.
“How could you have written such a thing?” he asked. “It is a pack of lies and distortions.”
“Everything I wrote is the absolute truth.”
“I never knew for sure that you were Trotsky’s lover, Frida. The scene with the letter in the book is purely a figment of your imagination. And I didn’t oust him from the Casa Azul because I found out he was your lover. I did it because I realized that Trotskyism was antithetical to establishing worldwide communism.”
“I wrote it to convince myself that at some point in your life you felt jealousy over me,” I replied. “I wasn’t satisfied knowing you couldn’t care less if I slept with another. Your infidelities never ceased to trouble me, but my infidelities never seemed to bother you. You encouraged them, perversely delighted in them. So in my letter I offered you an invented truth. I don’t want posterity to remember that I was never loved by you, that I was merely your companion and your apprentice.”
“I loved you my way, Frida, a ma facon as they say in French. You were the Cathedral, and all the other women were merely chapels. You were the love of my life.”
“What do you mean by ‘love’ when you use the word, my Diego? Love is not sexual infatuation. Neither is it a pleasant companionship. When you love someone, the first thing you think about is the welfare of your beloved. You never cared about my feelings, even joked about them, saying you always persecuted the ones you loved and myself more than all the others. That is not love, Dieguito. That is a singular form of sadism.”
“So now after all these years, it turns out that I’m a sadist. If I was so bad, why didn’t you just leave me? Why did you return to me after our divorce?”
“Because I couldn’t stand the idea of living my life without you.”
“And what about your claim that you were in Trotsky’s compound at the time Siqueiros’ men arrived to kill him? That is a complete fabrication.”
“I’m not sure about that. It’s the way I recall it. Are you sure I wasn’t there? That’s how I remember it in my dreams.”
“Your operation has made you groggy, deluded. By then, Trotsky no longer lived at the Casa Azul. You can’t distinguish fact from fiction.”
“In the details perhaps but not in the main. Is it false to say you threw me into the arms of other lovers? Is it a lie to say that León was your only real rival and that you knew it? And wasn’t I the one who prevented León from being killed by Siqueiros’ men?”
“You’re imagining things. By the time Siqueiros tried to kill Trotsky, he hadn’t lived with us for about a year.”
“Again, you’re engaging in divagations. The important thing is that I loved him, that after fourteen years I still think about him. He’s like the ache in my back which never disappears. My letter is true in its most important elements.”
“What about the contention that you were a virgin when you met me? You are forgetting Alejandro Gomez Arias, the lover who was with you during your accident.”
“I was a virgin when you took me because I had never made love to a man before. That is as true as the fact that the only other man with whom I made love was León.”
“And you’re bringing all this up now because you want to hurt me, aren’t you? Because even if you could tolerate all the other infidelities, you can never forget that I shared a bed with Cristina.”
“That was like my bus accident. My soul was shattered in the same way my body had once been destroyed by the penetrating steel. There are certain transcendental events in a life which can never be forgotten, scars which simply refuse to heal, like that stump I now have instead of a leg.”
“I understand you, Frida. Truly I do. The operation has made you remember many ancient pains. But I’ll always be there for you.”
“If I die, you’ll replace me in a fortnight, Diego. And you may do so now given that I’m already partially dead.”
“That brings me to my final question. And it’s a vexing one. In your letter you mention that you’re contemplating suicide. Is it that bad? Have you lost all will to live? Surely you can keep painting.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for years. My pain is relentless and there is nothing I can do to diminish it. I can go through a hundred more operations, and nothing will change. My leg won’t grow back like that of the Inkarri.”
“I’ll do whatever you ask me.”
“Thank you, Diego. I’ll let you know the time and place. We can do it together.”