In This World of Ultraviolet Light
Enough about me. Palacio! He was a different kind of Cuban all-together. Immigration officers in Havana's José Martí Airport must have been completely befuddled by him. Imagine being a fly on the wall in that interrogation room and seeing those officer's faces when Palacio answered, "Why are you travelling to the US?" with "Amor, man! Love. I'm going to visit mi jeva, hermano."
If I'd said something like that when I got here twenty-five years ago, the officers would have dragged me to a windowless room and beat the shit out of me. Even in 2018, during Palacio's journey, it was a miracle the officers let him leave the island. They must have recognizes something dumb or true in Palacio, but he must have perplexed them nonetheless. Because he could afford airfare. He was a black tour guide and liaison for American tourist companies—a steward for Obama-era policy. He was an anomaly: a Cuban under the Revolution, earning a living wage—an Afro-Cuban with mobility and access and with no desire whatsoever to leave his family or his beloved country for the capitalismo of the United States. I didn't know young people like Palacio existed, who'd opt to stay in Cuba, to build a life there shuttling the wealthy from site to site.
How he must have looked forward to that week in LA. What would he do? I don't know. Some people believed he was going to propose to his girl—sweep her off her feet and bring her back to the island. But Palacio was to suave for that. I thought he was going to spend the entirety of his vacation in his girl's bungalow, lie naked under the AC, feeling the cold upon their sweat. Afterward, they'd walk to McDonald's, share fries, eat a quarter pounder each—consume enough calories to ravage each other again. I could live a lifetime like that. Because when you love someone, you don't need much. You don't even need the person to love you back. Everything in the world is an extension of your lover: the ginormous and lush cosmetic ads affixed to the airport walls, the colorful vending machines, interfaces blinking, beckoning you to reach out and buy something. I know this feeling because that's how I still feel toward Madely today, even if we've long split up, even if she is a criminal, even if I am in some new relationship—some glorified prison cell.
Palacio—when he arrived, he must have been elated. On tape, he seemed a speck of glee fluttering about the arrivals, happy to be in circulation, his only thought: to make his connection. He was anyone, no one, flaunting his mobility and confidence. Then, what can I say? he approached our Delta help desk in Concourse A and met my ex, Madely, and this is where our worlds converged.
I met Madely at Delta. We went through customer service training together in '99. I remember that I instantly disliked her hair—cherry-red, frazzled, curly, and spilling onto her shoulders—it was too loud for me, too much for 8 a.m. in some moldy office building. She wore something o vanilla and musk, and she'd sit next to me so that I'd have to inhale her all day—an invasive scent that made me feel like someone had flayed me entirely and replaced my skin with polyester. We never really touched, except when she'd put her hand on my thigh to get my attention, and I'd put my hand on hers and peel her fingers off, and whisper, "Coño, Madely. ¿Que's eso? I'm trying to pay attention."
While our instructor led class, she'd lean into me and whisper nothings: how bored she was; if she could see my notes; and she'd criticize Delta's customer service approach—always in a Spanish that was reffier and more exaggerated than I felt comfortable with. There I was, studying like my life depended on it, and Madely didn't raise her pencil once. She sat back, acting like the job didn't matter, trying only to set up a date with me. Or she'd see me writing vigorously, and she'd pull the pencil out of my hand and say, "Easy there, compadre." Because that's another thing. This woman, who'd left Cuba and her parents at just seven years old, who hated Cuban and who spoke English very well, who was raised in the US by her late uncle, yes, this woman acted like she was the most Cuban fucking spokesperson on the planet. And you know what? I think she might have been.
When it came time to take our final exam—when we each had to sit up front with the instructor and take turns demonstrating our customer service skills to an actress, a mean old white lady intent on ruining our day—it was Madely who outshone us all. I'll never forget; the actress slapped the table, yelled, "I paid $900! For this ticket! And you're telling me! My flight has been cancelled!" With each pause in her statement, she'd slap the table again. It was brutal to watch.
Madely didn't even attempt the script. She simply sat up and said, "¡Mira, chica! You think it's okay to yell at people? My uncle who raised me, God bless his soul, he never yelled at me, and what gives you the right? What'd I do to you, huh? Calmate, coño, y help me help you, gringa."
"These are new Cubans. Twenty-first-century Marielitos. Balseros, as the bartender had referred to them. I know, because my mom tells me that these are the kinds of Cubans I need to stay away from."
In eight captivating stories, In This World of Ultraviolet Light—winner of the 2021 Don Belton Prize—navigates tensions between Cubans, Cuban Americans, and the larger Latinx community. Though these stories span many locations—from a mulch manufacturing facility on the edge of Big Cypress National Preserve to the borderlands between Georgia and the Carolinas—they are overshadowed by an obsession with Miami as a place that exists in the popular imagination. Beyond beaches and palm trees, Raul Palma goes off the beaten path to portray everyday people clinging to their city and struggling to find cultural grounding. As Anjali Sachdeva writes, "This is fiction to steal the breath of any reader, from any background."
Boldly interrogating identity, the discomfort of connection, and the entanglement of love and cruelty, In This World of Ultraviolet Light is a nuanced collection of stories that won't let you go.
About the Author
"The stories in this wonderful, vibrant collection made me homesick for the Miami so lovingly and hilariously rendered on its pages—a moving portrayal of a place worth mourning and celebrating."—Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites
"The stories collected In This World of Ultraviolet Light by Raul Palma unleash surprises at every turn. The characters and experiences are familiar and yet a newness and strangeness emerges like a bright glow escaping from the other side that make us fascinated. Casting a different light on why we love, I simply couldn't stop reading."—Helena María Viramontes, author of Their Dogs Came with Them
"In This World of Ultraviolet Light establishes Raul Palma as a writer to be watched. He is an important new voice in short fiction with daring stories to tell."—Amina Gautier, author of At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things
"Raul Palma's In This World of Ultraviolet Light is a knockout. Saturated with tenderness and longing, these shimmering stories illuminate the soft, weird underbelly of psyches as brutal and exquisite as real life. For all who care about contemporary fiction, Latinx and Cuban American experiences in the 21st century, or la ciudad magica of Miami, Palma's debut collection is a must-read."—Joy Castro, author of One Brilliant Flame
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