I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
We dreamed of meeting in a European city on her birthday.
When my girlfriend left me, all I wanted to do was to travel. To travel anywhere, and the best way to travel and discover cities is alone, if you’re not in love.
I thought about Rome and about her without even knowing her yet, because her cousin had spoken to me about her. Physically, I imagined her in a way that had nothing to do with the girl whom I met later on.
I thought that I would go to Rome, and then her cousin gave me her number. I called her, and, of course, I imagined what I wanted and I fantasized—I fantasticized, as she herself wrote me in a text message. A month ago? I don’t know, because her silence has seemed to me so very long.
I’ve come to believe that I miss her and that she stopped talking to me or writing to me because she’s insecure, and she’s confused perhaps because someone told her something or other. And insecurity can turn us into victimizers. It can make us become very lonely, per se.
The day I called her for the first time, her laughter was clear. Beautiful. The clarity of a laugh can break me into pieces. I am fragile, perhaps more than I believed.
In the end I never went to Rome; I decided not to after exchanging some emails, not on account of her but because I became distracted by something else. New York is a city that opposes itself to almost everything.
Then I thought about going to Paris, but finally I ended up going to Havana to see my mother. I changed my plans, and unbeknownst to me, she changed hers.
Yes, I arrived in Havana the first week of July, the same day or the same afternoon that she decided to stay an extra week there. She had spent a month in Havana at her parents’ house with her nostalgia and her Italian boyfriend.
I arrived and immediately called her cousin, who thought I was calling her from New York, but I was at my mother’s house in El Cerro, in Havana.
She said, “I can’t believe you’re here, I just left you a message on your cell. My cousin’s right here. Wait, talk to her.”
I spoke with her, but this time it was different. We were closer than New York and Rome, not just because of the real distance in time or the real time of reaching her in the distance, but rather because in Havana neither time nor truth nor our distances exist. We were in our time. We were the time.
Now I think about her and cry, not even for her, but rather for the brevity that we are, for what I need and know I won’t find, neither in her nor in anyone.
I took a shower, ate my mother’s sacred dinner, and left running in search of anything that would take me to my friend’s house, but more than anything, to her. I wanted to see the girl I’d imagined so many times. I wanted to listen to her in front of me.
In the end, after waiting for a while on the Vía Blanca, I grabbed a Touristaxi and went over to my friend’s house. She opened the door.
I looked at her. I kissed her on the cheeks. She smiled, I smiled, and I hardly let her or anyone else speak that night. Between the craziness of knowing that I was in Havana and the excitement of being face-to-face with that girl who wasn’t like I had imagined but was perhaps even more beautiful with her nervous tenderness and her laugh and her coyness and her feet that were almost sculptured to seduce me.
“Come with me to New York,” I told her, without thinking about it.
She was only able to blush and let out an almost inaudible “thank you” with her smile.
That night her cousin, obviously conspiring in my favor, said to her before we left the house, “Why don’t you go out and have a drink with him?”
It was more like an order than a suggestion or a question.
We went to a Spanish hotel right along the coast. My friend lives with her husband in Miramar in a penthouse that belonged to someone who left the country, like I did, perhaps 30 years before.
We went to the bar. She ordered a Rum Collins. When I was her age, I used to order the same. That was 20 years ago. Now, once again, I was having a Rum Collins in Havana, but this time at a five-star Spanish hotel. Made for tourists or for Cubans like us who live in whatever part of the world or for those who live in Cuba but live as if they lived elsewhere, like her cousin.
Her name was Olga—a name almost as beautiful as her laugh and as mysterious as her coyness.
Olga and I talked that night about coyness, about laughter, about seduction, and about dictatorship through sweetness. I then told her about sweetduction. We laughed. Her clear laugh made me feel like a pyromaniac, an illusionist, an obsessed pursuer. Her laugh smacked my face with its audacity. I kissed her with my eyes until finishing our drinks.
Later we went out for a walk. That first night Olga and Havana seemed to me names that I had never heard before, names invented to make me forget about the rest of named things.
After walking around for a while, we got into a Lada taxi that brought us back into the world. We stopped in front of her parents’ house in the neighborhood of Kholy. She gave me a fleeting kiss on the cheek, one of those kisses that is given on the sly in order not to reveal desire, but whose very fear gives it away.
I continued on to my mother’s and slept by her side. It was the beginning of the day after.
The Day After
I wait for Olga’s call that never happens. She doesn’t have my number.
I call her cousin, who shall remain unnamed in this story. She tells me that she’s going to accompany Olga and a friend of hers to the Kholy pizzeria.
I leave my house to go over to my friend’s house. His nickname is El León. I give him and his daughter Mariana a few gifts. El León and I speak about his latest film project. I look at his photos too. I lend him a copy of my poetry manuscript. I speak to him about loss, my ever-morphing desires, about what is constant—the abbreviation that time becomes and converts us into.
I go out with El León to my mother’s house, we all eat together, and then we leave for Kholy.
There’s Olga sitting with her friend and her cousin. They are eating pizzas, and we order beers. We make a toast and joke around. We allow time to get away from us. Then, we decide to go over to her cousin’s house. El León says good-bye.
Before going up to the penthouse, I go over to one of those kiosks where everything is sold in CUC’s, a kind of money that’s only used in Cuba and from which the exchange rate subtracts 20 percent from every dollar. It’s like playing Capitolio, the Cuban knock-off of monopoly. The kiosk is just in front of the building. I buy the two last remaining packs of Bucanero beer.
Once in the penthouse, we sit around the kitchen table. The kitchen’s made of yellow tiles and is adjacent to a terrace that overlooks part of Miramar. The church dome that’s on 5th Avenue and 80th Street stands out from among the roofs. The cousin’s husband’s piano music mixes with our voices, one more element in the atmosphere, like the smell of beers and the tone of our laughs or the yellow color of the tiles.
Time goes by. The sun goes down, and the music stops. The cousin’s husband comes into the kitchen. He greets us kindly but doesn’t join in. He seems busy or worried or both. He opens up a cabinet and takes out a bottle of Scotch. He serves himself a drink and lights a Cohiba cigar. That’s the only thing he smokes and drinks.
The doorbell rings and a singer who’s recording with him arrives. She sits down. She asks for beer and starts talking about herself. She’s a woman about 40 or so, round, and not at all charismatic but with a profound need to be so. She’s with her lover, another woman more or less the same age, who takes on the role of the girlfriend of the star. They have a dog, and they talk about it as if it were a child. It’s obvious that they talk about this subject in order to show how sensible and careful they are with him. How good they are.
All of a sudden I feel like giving the dog a kick in the ass, just to fuck with them. That’s something I would never do. I hate abuse, but I imagine their faces and the shouts.
The cousin’s husband and the singer exchange words about the recording. She asks for more beers. They’re all gone. I explain to her that I bought the last packs in the kiosk and that if she wants, I can go down and get a bottle of rum that would last longer.
“We don’t drink rum.” She answers me snarkily.
I feel like telling her to go fuck herself, but I tell her forcefully and without any sympathy whatsoever that if she knows of a place where there’s beer, I’ll give her money so that she can go get them. She looks at me indignantly.
The cousin’s husband interferes from his position of owner of the house. He’s trying to be impartial, but he makes me think that, maybe, he’s asking us to leave. Olga gets up without saying anything and so do I, almost at the same time.
The cousin plays the diplomat. She suggests that maybe I’ve been rude or harsh, who knows, perhaps it’s true. At times, I can be anything.
Olga, her friend, and I leave the house. Her friend has one of those Cuban backsides that is hard not to look at. We go down 84th Street until reaching 5th Avenue. We walk to 70th Street. At the corner, we grab a taxi up to the Kholy hotel where we’d been that very afternoon before going over to her cousin’s house, and where I’d been to in one of my previous trips with her cousin and other friends. I don’t know what they like about this place. It’s very ugly. The prefabricated construction like the Girón building where Olga’s generation studied on scholarship during their adolescence. Maybe this structure reminds them of their promiscuity from back then.
On scholarships, sex, although prohibited officially, was free and on a regular basis, and the fact of having it in hiding, of transgressing, perhaps made it more intense. Beautiful.
Here, in contrast, there’s nothing free and those who can pay, even if they’re uglier than this hotel, can seem beautiful too. It’s cheap tourism. People whom no one would look at anywhere else.
The bar’s horrible and the music, even worse. If there’s something that has always been good in this country it’s the music … the bartender is listening to some scary reggaetón.
I buy Bucanero beer cans. I heard that they fill up the bottles with what people leave in them and then resell them.
We go over to sit outside by the pool. The heat and one or two mosquitoes are preferable to being enclosed in that den.
It has been a while since I socialized like this, here in Havana. I exposed myself from afar or I was far from exposing myself like now.
People around don’t exist. I don’t want to get depressed. Olga’s friend talks nonstop, but I don’t hear her. I just want to jump on Olga or on her, or on both of them.
A ringtone identical to my cellphone’s goes off right beside me, but I know it can’t be mine, since US cells don’t have coverage on this island. I’ve said it many times—I live with the enemy, but you have to keep the enemy close. It’s Olga’s friend’s phone. It surprises me. To have a cellphone here is an extraordinary luxury. Her mother’s calling to find out where she is and how she’s doing. Her father is in Miami and he’s the one paying for it. Olga has hers off. A number from Italy that works here, but she’s only receiving text messages. It’s very expensive.
They decide to leave. We go to the concierge to request two taxis. They live in opposite directions.
We walk toward the hotel entrance to wait for them. They sit on the steps, and I stand. The friend tells a story about an old man who lives near her and dresses up like a woman and sells peanuts at the entrance to the tunnel of Havana. He’s about 80 years old. What a horror show, I think. Olga gets a fit of laughter and rests her head on my left thigh.
I get an erection, like a teenager. I put my hand in my pocket but I’m embarrassed that she’ll notice. Although what I want to do is take down my zipper and put it in her mouth. But what am I going to do? Everyone always with their fantasies or with their damn dualities.
The first taxi arrives. The friend leaves. Olga and I are almost alone again but not for long. The other taxi arrives, and we take off. I escort her to the door of her house and keep going.
I arrive home. My mother’s not sleeping. She’s waiting for me. She asks me if I want to eat. I tell her that I’m not hungry. We go to bed, but I can barely sleep. It’s always difficult for me to sleep when I’m in Havana, but these days, even more. My way of seeing it and experiencing it has changed. My brother has ceased to be. Nothing substitutes for his extinguished life. His daughter, Claudia, and my mother’s eyes remind me of that all the time.
Another Day After
Olga’s cousin calls me to get together with the two of them in a café inside the Lonja commerce building, the one that has the statue of Mercury on the cupola of its roof. It’s in Old Havana. The café has the same name. It’s one of those places that can define class in any part of the world, but especially here.
I walk from my mother’s house to the corner of Zaragoza and the Calzada del Cerro. Just where the Edison cinema used to be, where, as a child, I dreamed of being Fantômas and the Caballero de Cocody and the Black Tulip and a whole bunch of other characters. Now the theater is one of the many ruins of the city. It doesn’t exist. It’s nostalgia.
I wait for the first car to go by. Whether it’s a Touristaxi or the kind we all pile into and share the ride, the thing is to get there. A pile-in kind passes by first. It’s full. I’m the last to get in. I squeeze in, and I stay glued to the door. We’re eight counting the driver, but a woman has her child on her lap. It’s ten Cuban pesos to the Parque de la Fraternidad.
We go up Monte Street. I sweat July, all the smells that Havana has seeped into my body. Some breeze hits me, along with other smells that I can’t define. Cities are also what we discard.
I get to the park, and I walk down Obispo against the crowd which, like me, sweats and looks at everything that passes in front of, beside them, and everywhere imaginable. Finally I get to the Mercury with its comfy Pullman loveseats and elegant tables.
They’re drinking a bottle of cold Cava. It amazes me. I know the cousin doesn’t drink. We toast and laugh about all of us being together in Havana like this. If we’d planned it, it wouldn’t have happened. Life is beautiful, like a friend of mine always tells me. We finish the bottle. The cousin doesn’t let us pay.
We decide to walk around Old Havana. A bit of time goes by. The cousin gets a call. It’s her husband, who’s in a studio in Miramar, recording with another famous musician whose name isn’t worth mentioning. I feel embarrassed for him.
The musician wants to see Olga, who was very nice with him and his wife when they were in Rome. I join the wagon. I don’t want to stop being with Olga. We get into a taxi and head over to Miramar. We arrive. I pay for the taxi. We go into the studio where we encounter the husband, the musician, the star with her dog, and the musician’s wife, who has a French name and whom I’ve known since we were teenagers.
I remember having had some heavy fantasies about her. I am sure that she was the protagonist of some jerk-off session of mine. She’s still looking good. She was in high school in Vedado, one year ahead of me, in the same class as my first girlfriend, whose name was also Olga, and who wanted to be a writer, but ended up being an engineer and fat.
Olga and her cousin sit down to speak with the musician, who explains something to them that I didn’t hear either. My ears pick up what they please or only what they know may interest me. We are there about 40 minutes. Olga and I say good-bye to them. We go out to walk 5th Avenue once again.
We’re on the set of an improvised story. The set varies in a way that we don’t expect or at least that I don’t expect to see. Anyway, little is visible beside her except that which strengthens her image or multiplies my desire. Olga in Havana is the resonance. She is a harp conceived to give off that sensation.
I return to myself. Havana is more bare and salty on this trip. Fifth Avenue is infinite when I walk through its gardens with Olga. It extends itself through the city. It becomes the main thoroughfare. It crosses the tunnel on Línea and continues and is the Malecón and the sea and it’s Olga’s eyes that look as if they are drawing or reproducing whatever thing they see with their silence.
She has already entered me, but she doesn’t know. I think I’m almost in love, in the way I’d fall in love in my early twenties, before she even existed. Twenty years ago, when I was her age and she must have been in third grade and didn’t know that one day she was going to transform the city through her coyness, was going to convert it at least for a week in a place where time would be measured by her eyes or by my need for it to be that way. Happiness would be grace, thanks to her coy smile.
We are glued to the wall of the Malecón in the direction of Old Havana. I film her with my video camera. She blushes and says almost nothing. It’s the sunset that also reddens the piece of sky before the camera now. It goes from reddish to dark violet while we walk toward Old Havana.
We get to the Hotel Nacional, my favorite in Havana.
I go directly to the concierge to rent a room. The woman looks at me inquisitively. She tells me that this hotel isn’t for Cubans. I show her my North American passport. She opens it. She looks at it and at me disdainfully. I did it on purpose. I am a traitor, a worm, as they call us here for living in the United States. A persona non grata. In this country, I don’t exist. I become what I pay. I pay. I gesture to Olga for her to follow me without saying anything.
They stop us at the elevator. They think she’s a jinetera. She shows them her Italian passport. We go up to the sixth floor. I asked for a room that looks out onto the sea. I open the door. Nothing can be heard. The sea now framed by the window is a moving picture with violet gray and sparks of white foam: Olga’s head enters and leaves the frame.
She leans on the window. She looks out. I stroke her hair. I kiss the nape of her neck. She is salty like the breeze that hit our faces while we were walking and now comes toward us and tousles her hair more softly than I do. Olga has goose bumps. She smiles. She makes nervous gestures.
I touch over her blouse the tips of her nipples, now as hard and erect as I am. I feel like I can go through her. My hands descend to the rhythm of my tongue. I lift her skirt and touch her thighs. She’s dripping …
“Want to have a drink?” Olga’s question interrupts my fantasy. We just came in through the door of the Hotel Nacional.
“That’s fine. We can sit on the benches on the patio,” I respond.
We walk toward the area in back. There are many tourists, and music everywhere. We cross the patio up to where they have a cannon from the past century pointing toward the sea. There are some benches around. They’re all taken. We go to one of the bars on the patio and order two Rum Collins. Olga likes to drink. She resists.
Then we sit down at the far end of the patio, looking at the street, at the Malecón, at the sea. It’s already night. Lights from small fishing boats look like scattered stars in contrast to the far away lights from a bigger ship and the powerful ray of light from the lighthouse of the Morro Castle that passes once and again, fleetingly marking the night.
I give in to a part of myself that forgets. Havana is foreign. It is the name of a place that I have invented for myself. It is a secret place. Nothing that happens around me is real. I am an imposter and this woman at my side is perhaps the announcement of my demise.
“I feel like I have known you for years,” she tells me.
I return to myself. I drink and agree. How tender.
“Me too,” I respond.
After, I remain silent for a bit. I am in a place that seems like happiness.
She talks about what’s happening to her. That she doesn’t want to stay in Rome, that she’s fed up with Italians, but that she doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her life.
“It’s curious. I don’t know why I’m telling you all these things,” she says to me, interrupting herself aloud. “With you I feel free,” she concludes.
“Thank you,” I say.
I go back to myself, at another age. I don’t know almost anything. I don’t know what to think nor where all this is going. Olga is a catalyst, but I don’t know how to place her. Nor does it interest me to do so. I don’t want to define anything. It’s night. There’s a breeze. It smells like the sea, and I am drinking rum next to a woman who’s not a great beauty but who is now the center of my desire.
Olga is a bit short, with curly brown hair and caramel-colored eyes. She has pretty tits, an acceptable behind, and a face that denotes something dear. She is more intelligent than she believes, but she is too insecure. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t realize how smart she is. Her smile and her coy sense of humor are perhaps her most graceful attributes.
I have dedicated more time to her than to anyone else on this trip.
I am thinking about my mother. I came to see her but I have spent little time with her. Time dies invisibly or is marked by banal actions, by my own need to convert it into something that moves me away from banality and death.
After about four Rum Collins each, we went walking down the Malecón in the direction of her house. We went up 17th Street, one of my favorites in Havana. It’s lined by trees and has beautiful houses; anyone would like to live here.
I am nervous. I desire her. Almost at the corner of 17th and J, I stop.
“You have something in your hair,” I say to her.
Olga stops and looks at me. I get closer to her to take out what she thinks has fallen on her hair. I kiss her. Her mouth is as smooth as the kiss that I gave her and the one that she returned to me. I try to make the immediacy eternal.
I move away from her, and she smiles.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
We continue down 17th. There’s a breeze. We get to Paseo and walk down the Malecón. We sit down close to the Hotel Riviera; it’s already past midnight. Desired Havana. We kiss once and again. We kiss. I could go through her with the same violence that water slams and erodes the old wall sustaining the weight of our desire, and keep going.
A bit later we get up. We cross the street toward one of those horrible stands for tourists or for Cubans with CUC’s. There we run into a friend who studied with her. Now he lives in New York. We buy water and talk with him a bit. We say good-bye.
It’s late. She has to go because she has something to do the next day with her parents. I put her in a taxi, catch one myself and go home.
Another Day Ends and Another One Begins
I am a fragment of nothingness extinguishing itself against the heat of this city that dies in me in a way that I do not know yet but that I’ll feel when I say good-bye. My mother is waiting but like always she pretends she’s asleep. I tell her a bit.
I wish my mother were my total accomplice, but there’s not much time. I also know that she is distrustful. In her eyes no one is good enough for me.
I now have Olga’s telephone number. We speak. I try to convince her to see me that night. It doesn’t work. Tomorrow she has to wake up very early. She is going with a friend to Regla to see a Babalawo. We talk about seeing each other later on, at two in the afternoon in Old Havana.
I drink a good café con leche for breakfast. My mother speaks to me about anything reiteratively. She complains. I see myself in her. In her I repeat myself. I must look more like her than I know. Perhaps it serves me to know what I ought to moderate in myself. This infinite inconformity with the rest of the world, with people and things around, this blasphemous tendency. Because I know that she is nobler than her words. She is nobler than her blasphemy. She swears in order to defend herself from her own humanity. To harden her nobility so as not to get hurt. Almost without knowing, I begin to swear under my breath.
I walk down the same street that I grew up on. I see familiar faces that have aged with me. I think about those whom I won’t see again and about some new ones that have appeared.
I arrive at Calzada del Cerro. I get in a shared taxi toward Old Havana. It’s a 1955 Buick that maybe has a motor from a Russian truck or who knows what mix of parts it has … but eppur si muove. I get to the Capitol building in this barge of old iron.
I go down all of Obispo Street. I wear away from all that happens around me. I go to where Olga is having lunch with her friend with the big ass and the one who’s living in New York. I sit down at the table. I order food and a beer. After a bit of time with them, I get the impression that their friend knows things about Olga that maybe I don’t want to know.
We finish and we go for a walk. The others have to meet up with someone, luckily.
Time shrinks, and my desire accelerates.
I go on with Olga to the Plaza of the Cathedral. There we take a photo of ourselves in an embrace, and I have one of those erections in which I disappear. Olga tells me that in Regla the Babalawo gave her “the warriors,” performed a ritual over her head, and then told her that for today “she shouldn’t have a boyfriend.” That makes me even crazier. It’s another day that is going to get away.
We walk around a bit until the afternoon dies. We grab a taxi. It drops me at my house, and Olga continues on to hers.
We decide to see each other the next day. Tomorrow I’ll cut her hair too, just the ends, she says. Tomorrow is Saturday. My second-to-last day in Havana, because it’s never the last one. On Sunday I fly back to New York, and Olga to Rome. She takes a direct flight to Rome in the afternoon. I ought to leave earlier in the morning. I go through Cancún.
That night I visit Regina, my ex-wife, who has turned into an older sister. Yes, I saw other people, of course. Without them, Havana would be invisible. But this story is about Olga, or about a woman whom I decided to name that.
Tomorrow I have to see El León. His new lover is going to cook something typical for my going-away lunch. She’s half French, half African, from Cameroon. I met her the first day or the first night. It was late but El León came to see me with her. She has something hard or very dry, and maybe it’s because of this that she’s ugly.
I didn’t like it at all. Not her or the lunch she made. It had a bitter flavor that maybe was just an extension of her.
I went with Claudia, my niece. El León hadn’t arrived yet and a friend of his opened the door. El León’s girlfriend wasn’t there either. They arrived later.
El León—showering me with love, but I was far away. I was in another place. I wanted to flee, although not from him. I wanted to sink into Olga. I brought a bottle of rum, but I had another bottle of Havana Club, aged for three years, in my bag. A little while later, I called him away and told him that I was going to leave. I explained why to him. He reacted with verbal violence. He insulted Olga. At that moment, I didn’t know why. Then I tried to understand. He was compelled to react that way. Perhaps he felt that I was not appreciative of his banquet, of his good-bye. I ask him what’s up in a very calm manner so that he realizes what’s going on. It seems he does, but maybe against his will. He is my brother. I know him. He is very proud. He never says he’s sorry.
I say good-bye to everyone, and I run out. I leave my niece talking with them. I look for a taxi on 5th Avenue that takes me to the cousin’s house—she has left so that Olga and I can be alone. Ancient complicities of Havana. I knock on the door. Olga opens it like the first night I saw her, only this time she faces me. Although we’ve already kissed each other differently, now, because of her coyness or mine, she kisses me on the cheeks like that first night.
She’s wearing a jean skirt and a little white-cotton T-shirt. I feel like lifting her skirt, without saying anything. I put up with myself. I have come to cut her hair. I ask her where her cousin is, to gain time and calm myself down. She answers me that she’s not there. She doesn’t know that I know.
We sit down in the kitchen, in the same kitchen where we were seated a few days before drinking beer and talking. I take out the bottle of rum from my bag, and I put it on the table. She grabs some glasses, ice, and a bottle of cola that’s in the refrigerator. We prepare some Cuba Libres. We toast.
I take out the camera and she starts with her coy laughter. I record her. After playing a bit, she laughs. I kiss her lightly over her laughter. We hug tenderly. She tells me that she is going to wet her hair.
She goes out to the terrace and washes her hair in the little sink. I help her. My fingertips slip slowly with the shampoo against her scalp. I have another one of these unforgettable erections. I feel like I could go though three palm trees and remain nailed to the forth. She says something to me about Japanese people and photos, that they work a lot and have few vacations. I don’t hear her well. She rinses her head. She picks up her wet head, and I am also a Japanese with a camera in hand.
I’ve only been in Havana for a week, and this is the only day that I have been close like this with her. I take a picture of her against the cupola of the church rising behind. Right now she’s a virgin with her wet hair on her shoulders. An apparition. An illuminated whore. A miracle. And I am sacrilegious. A contained violator.
I take photos of her, besides recording her on video. We enter the kitchen again. I prepare a couple of drinks. I put a seat in the middle to be able to move around. I place the towel on her shoulders and I start cutting her hair. She keeps talking about things that I don’t hear well. I have a fixed idea in my head. Now, I’m a criminal with a specific end. My hands move quickly and independently of my desire and of her voice. Her hair takes on a new form. Each hair that I cut shortens the path to the consummation of my desire.
I finish. Olga gets up cautiously to look at herself in the mirror in the little room beside. Her cousin’s studio. The room she sleeps in when she stays at this house.
She grabs a little mirror that’s in the bathroom, because the room has its own bathroom. She holds the mirror with her right hand, and she looks at herself in the other mirror from different angles, from the front, from the side.
“I like it,” she says to me almost as if she were saying it to herself. “Thank you,” she adds.
“Thank you,” I answer.
She smiles, I grab her hand. I bring her toward me and I kiss her, slowly, with a bound, contained violence. The violence of desire accumulated throughout the week and throughout months of fantasies, since the first time I talked to her on the phone from Rome and I heard her laugh nervously. I kiss the nape of her neck finally. My hands run through her hair to her humid back. I continue. My hands inside her panties. I have her behind in my hands, her behind, warm and sweaty from being seated while I cut her hair. She’s slightly shaking. I lift her skirt.
I get down to my knees. She moves slowly back. She grabs my hands to lift me up and lead me to the small bed. She allows herself to fall down. She pulls me.
I fall slowly against her like the noises distant from this part of Havana entering through the venetian blinds along with the heat and light. Noises that begin mixing with those we are starting to make and disappear with the scents our bodies begin to emanate.
Olga now moves on top of me. Skillful. Desperate at times. She rubs herself against me. Her coyness has become liquid, sonorous. Milk, sweat, screams. Quivering that brings me back to this city where I was or where I felt for the first time at 16, heroic, like now inside her; hard, flexible, profound, in another woman who was also named Olga.
Time becomes what we do. It passes. It’s 8:00 at night already.
I tell her we’re going to have dinner at La Guarida. She doesn’t know that it was her cousin who made us the reservation. Her cousin has conspired. She has almost written the plan for our day.
La Guarida is perhaps the most famous private restaurant (paladar) in Havana, which doesn’t mean it’s the best. For me, the owner’s just nouveau riche.
In 1999, I was making a documentary in Cuba, and I invited my friends who were working with me to eat there. They were all New Yorkers. I was the only Cuban. That time, she treated me worse than anyone else. A complex about race? Perhaps she thought I was a jinetero, a hustler, or who knows what.
Olga and I take a shower together. She asks me to leave her alone for a moment. I get dressed and go up to the living room. Half-an-hour later she appears with a beautiful dress on. One of those simple and youthful dresses. I know it’s her cousin’s, because of the style. She looks stunning. I tell her. I take photos of her against the white walls of the living room.
It has gotten late. We leave for La Guarida at the time we were supposed to be there. It’s 8:30. We walk rapidly down 5th Avenue to look for something that would bring us, whatever appears. A Havanatur taxi passes. They’re more expensive. But it doesn’t matter. In moments like these, money saves time.
Fifth Avenue moves against our window, clean, imperial, as if we were in another European city. The taxi moves along, and as we get close, Havana begins to change its makeup. Dirty, broken streets. The poorly treated Havana begins, the folkloric Havana, the forgotten Havana. The houses of the other castes, the houses peeling off and dirty like the streets. The houses where they pile one on top of the other, trash and the other lives, forgotten the same.
I move around privileged, almost foreign in this taxi, but something in me is moved toward pain, with a woman at my side breathing hunger and desire. From this side of the sea, from this side of the city where some of my most loved ones also live.
The taxi arrives at our destination. We’re in Centro Havana, in Cayo Hueso, at the door of the building where La Guarida is.
Any Touristaxi in Havana, like any tourist car, is a spotlight going around the city. Everyone looks at it, between the curiosity of knowing who’s inside and the possibility of putting into practice the picaresque, of making some money or engaging in some sort of adventure. Who knows how many fantasies a car like this on the island awakens, and in this part of the city, even more.
I pay what I owe, and we get out. Some crowd around to see us. I become more Cuban than ever, in the worst sense. Havana obliges me to vulgarity, verbally and through gestures; I have to demonstrate all the time that I am also Cuban, that I am a type of person who’s street-smart and whom they can’t fuck with. I have to make it obvious to them that I am not a tourist, that I’m a fighter, that I too could be a victimizer.
Olga moves silent beside me, in a white dress with red ovals, with her new haircut and some ballerina-style shoes that give her a childlike flair. I am in a beige linen suit.
We go up the stairs of the house that’s almost in ruins. It’s a giant bunkhouse, a tenement house that’s become touristic after they filmed Fresa y chocolate in it, one of those places in Havana where poverty is hip. What Cuba might be for many, but at a lesser scale. We are at the door of the restaurant. A waitress welcomes us into a small room. Then the owner arrives. Serenely, I say to her that we had a reservation at 8:30 and we’re a bit late. With a smile and an attitude of false humility, she says to us that it’s okay, to wait a few minutes.
We’ve arrived exactly half-an-hour late. I don’t have to look at my watch to know it. Olga and I listened to the cannon shot at nine o’clock when were downstairs, but it doesn’t matter. I imagine that it’s a reasonable time if we think about Cuban punctuality. I imagine that she’s more considerate because Olga’s cousin made the reservation. She and her husband are famous here, “celebrities,” as they would say in El York.
After about 15 minutes there, the same waitress who greeted us tells us to go into the restaurant itself. La Guarida is decorated with mirrors, pictures of saints, little statues, different ancient objects and virgins and almost everything illuminated with well-placed candles that create an atmosphere of pleasant intimacy.
We sit down at a corner, a small table. Olga has a little altar behind her, with a little statue of the Virgen of la Caridad del Cobre. On the wall, an image of Santa Barbara. Over the altar, there’s a candelabra that’s already all covered in wax of the same red of the lit candle. The mobility of the light makes Olga’s profile or her shadow shift. Now we could be in any part of the world, like almost always happens when we feel comfortable in a place.
The menu is good and simple. We both asked for the same thing, black beans, roasted pork chops, an avocado salad, fried plantains, and Bucanero beers. We eat. Olga’s small and meaty mouth seems to move apart from the rest of her face. We’re satiated. They ask us if we want dessert. She says that she’s full. I tell her we can share something. And that’s when the girl with a chocolate cake and a candle comes, and they sing her happy birthday. Olga smiles, surprised. She is about to say something when I interrupt her.
“From now on,” I say to her, “every day like today is going to be your birthday.”
That was also part of the script, of the surprise plan, calculated, prepared fervently by her cousin. She makes a wish. She blows. The candle goes out. I kiss her. We remain silent. We decide to go have a drink in another place. I ask for the check. I pay, and we leave.
It’s past midnight. We go out again to this part of the world. We walk toward the Malecón. We get to San Lázaro and continue toward Vedado. In Maceo Park, it looks as if there’s a political rally but it’s something even worse. There’s a pipe truck selling rum, and the Malecón is full of people who form the Havana that I don’t like, the one that I’m not, the one I’m not interested in. Olga is nervous, and she looks at me:
“As my cousin says to me, why don’t we go to a bit more ‘normal’ neighborhood?”
“It’s preferable,” I say to her. “It’s better if we go to her house.”
We keep walking along San Lázaro toward the university, the two of us with our eyes open to all that moves around us, looking for a car we can hitch a ride in. A few pass by, I try to make a good deal, but almost none of them will go to Miramar for what I offer. In the end a Havanatur passes by. It’s turned off. The guy stops. He says that he’s done with his shift but that he’ll take us. We get in.
In the car, we speak calmly. We leave behind the barbarity. I am normal. I don’t make any effort to sound different until we get to our destination, as the meter is turned off. I ask him how much it is.
“It’s eight dollars.” Then I turn into what Havana demands and I respond calmly and with just enough vulgarity.
“Brother, I live here, I’m going to give you three bucks since that’s what I always pay, okay.”
I stretch out my hand with the money. The guy doesn’t bother responding.
He grabs it and gets lost.
Olga turns toward me: “I don’t know where the key of the house is. I think I left it. I’m going to make a call.”
What shit, I think, but I look at her without saying anything. I know that her cousin goes to sleep early. Contrary to what anyone would think, night is almost a sacred place for her, perhaps more out of fear than anything else. She doesn’t want to find herself alone in the darkness. Night is an uncertain tunnel. A place similar to death.
At that hour, we go out to look for a public telephone that works. We walk down 84th Street, and a bit before getting to 5th Avenue, we find one in a place that looks like a bodega. Fortunately, Olga has some regular Cuban change in her wallet. She calls several times and hangs up, until her cousin—who knows, maybe still asleep—answers her. Olga explains and her cousin says to her that it’s okay to come up.
We return to the building. We go up. The door is cracked open. There’s nothing but silence in the house. I take off my shoes, and we go into her little room.
Havana, dark and silent, comes through the blinds with the air of July. We don’t say anything. We laugh and begin to vanish the night. Tomorrow we’re leaving. I don’t remember what time my flight is but I couldn’t care less. Now I’m flying toward her, with her. Inside her is the true trip. The place where night expires.
The bed is soaking with our body fluids and the water from our intermittent showers. Havana wakes up and begins to mix its morning noises with our panting, which has almost come to a halt.
It’s 7:00 in the morning.
Translated from the Spanish by Jacqueline Loss.
Jacqueline Loss is an associate professor of Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Connecticut. Her book, Cosmopolitanisms and Latin America: Against the Destiny of Place, was published by Palgrave in 2005, and her co-edited New Short Fiction from Cuba, by Northwestern UP in 2007. The volume she co-edited, Caviar with Rum: Cuba-USSR and the Post-Soviet Experience, is forthcoming from Palgrave.
Armando Suárez Cobián was born in Antilla, Cuba. Since his first collection of poems, Corre ve y dile (Ediciones Extramuros), was published in 1986, his poems have been included in anthologies and magazines in Cuba, the US, Italy, Spain, Venezuela, Nicaragua, France, and Luxembourg. His poetry book Nueva York no eres tú, for which he won the Cuban Artists’ Fund Grant in 2004, is forthcoming in Havana by Ediciones Torre de Letras. Trained as a film editor, he has worked on various film projects, primarily as a dialect coach, translator, and actor. “Born on October Fourth” is an excerpt from the novel El libro de los amores breves The Book of Brief Loves, which will be published in 2011 by Linkgua in Miami. He lives in Brooklyn, where he is working on a novel about New York.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee