Havana, nightfall. I piled my bags into the backseat of a green Chevrolet as two strangers sat in the front. One of them was the taxi driver, that I knew, but I didn't know the other man smiling at me over his shoulder. The car was a 1950s Styleline, crowned with a flickering taxi light, and the backseat was a couch. After sixty years of passengers and no repairs, the white leather had torn, spilling its foam viscera. The two men spoke in Spanish and I understood only the name of the street to which I was headed. I realized it was going to be some kind of business transaction whereby they both profited off me, the tourist.
"Where are you from, sir?" the man asked.
I exchanged the usual pleasantries, but I didn't want to indebt myself by encouraging his tourist advice. Regardless, he gave me my first tour of "La Habana Vieja," Old Havana.
It was a dark evening, intensified by the absence of street lamps, and the dimness made Havana unnerving. The buildings were lightless and shadowy, and only faintly could I see their ornate, crumbling balconies and locked French doors. Owing to the European architectural influence, Havana looked like Naples or Barcelona, only obliterated. The once-majestic Cuban mansions had become disemboweled, with vacant ground floors, crumbling walls, and peeling paint the color of tea-water. Families watched old television sets with their front doors open, as though they were waiting for someone. Stray dogs ran through the streets.
"El Capitolio," the guide said, as we turned a corner. "Government house." I didn't ask why it was completely encased in scaffolding. "Parque Central, town square." Having read a travel guide, I knew we were in the heart of Havana, and I opened my window. The Cuban heat filled the car, smelling of rubble and an exotic, musty stench, the way old women do when they wear heavy perfume.
As we pushed deeper into Old Havana, the decrepitude worsened; the roads were in complete ruin, with enormous holes running through them like rivers. The driver often had to reverse down a street and up another because the car was about to fall in. When there was traffic, classic American cars in brilliant, shiny colors heaved their way through the streets. The odd bar had salsa music playing, and the noise lingered down the street. I thought that in 2015, on the brink of the U.S. embargo lift, the streets might be in better shape. There was an obvious void, an absence that made it appear ghostly, but I wasn't sure what was missing. I couldn't decide if it felt more like a ghetto from the 1950s or a dystopian, parallel universe.
When we reached my casa, I paid the fare and tipped both the driver and the stranger. I met my hostess, a young woman whose family rented out their two spare bedrooms to tourists, and she took me to my room. I dropped my bags, took off my sweaty shirt, and lit a cigarette on the balcony, trying to distinguish the sound of the nearest bar from the muffle of old cars.
Ever since I moved to the U.S., I had dreamed of visiting Cuba. I had heard the term "time capsule" thrown around, and I had seen pictures of the old buildings and cars. I knew that in twenty years I could impress people with stories of "Cuba, before the resorts." I adored the idea of its antiquity and exclusivity from Americans. I had read Hemingway novels about brilliant intellectuals and adventurers gathering in bars and being inspired as they stumbled home. It embodied my romantic views of the past, my nostalgia for something I had never experienced.
As an Australian citizen, I knew I was permitted in Cuba, but I didn't know how to get there, nor how to book accommodation outside of the overpriced hotels reserved for European tourists. I eventually found a website where I could communicate with families who ran "casa particulars"—bed and breakfasts operating out of their homes. I booked only my first four nights, planning to travel around Cuba for the remaining five. I decided to fly through Mexico. I took only a backpack, and I didn't know anyone there, nor any Spanish.
Cuba, today, is a country at a crossroad; change is sweeping the nation, with the U.S. having opened its embassy for the first time in over fifty years. It is now easier for Americans to travel there, and many can even use their debit cards whilst visiting. It is only a matter of time until the embargo is officially lifted. Yet the island is still rooted in its past; Cuba is still a communist state, controlled by the Castro family, with Raúl Castro, younger brother of Fidel, holding power. The Communists are the only political party allowed to exist. According to the Cuba's National Statistics and Information Bureau, in 2012, the average Cuban salary was approximately twenty-two U.S. dollars a month. With the embargo lift looming, many Cubans I spoke to expressed an excitement for the near future, as if the embargo was a curse of which they were waiting to be freed. It seemed to be the simplest solution to their problems, but I was undecided about whether it would really help. Some of these people lived in the three casas in which I stayed; I met others at bars and restaurants, where we drank and played cards. Looking back, I remember three Cubans the most vividly, who I believe best personify the country at its current juncture, with all its uniqueness, beauty, and struggle.
My first casa was a block away from the main street in Old Havana, Calle Obispo—"Bishop Street." Obispo bustled during the day and linked the main attractions in Havana—the famous hotels, town squares, and bars. I found most of my food there, through restaurants, street or window vendors, and tiny, single-room "grocery stores." With such stifled importation, the stores made Cuba look like a country stuck in wartime; dry pasta and tinned tomatoes lined one wall, Havana Club rum and cigarettes the other. The window vendors sold plates of pitiful sandwiches—measly pieces of bread garnished with a rubbery strip of meat. The better vendors sold slices of preserved cake and perhaps Tukola, Cuba's Coca-Cola. Finding food was hugely inconvenient and I was always hungry, but in the end I loved it; the excitement of finding an unbruised banana or a nice mango on the street, finding ice cream, or even a bottle of water. Never before had I been so excited to encounter someone pushing a wheelbarrow full of crackers.
At the top of Obispo lay the legendary bar, El Floridita, Hemingway's daiquiri bar. He frequented it with his last two wives, respectively; the hotel he lived in during the 1930s was a short walk down Obispo, and his house was a twenty-minute drive. Most of the Cuban scenes in his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream take place at Floridita, where a classic Hemingway hero gets drunk and talks with Cuban politicians, workers, navy officials, and prostitutes. Like many bars, hotels, and restaurants in Cuba, the Floridita capitalized on its Hemingway legacy; his signature was scrawled across the sign, there were pictures of him sitting at the bar, and there was even a life-size bronze statue of him supposedly ordering a drink. If he ever went somewhere, Cubans will remind you of it.
Like many literary snobs visiting Cuba, I spent most of my nights at Floridita. After all, it wasn't just Hemingway's favorite—Ezra Pound and Graham Greene were known to polish off a few daiquiris there. Victor Hugo's house was a couple blocks away. Perhaps not by choice, the bar's lavish interior hadn't changed since the 1950s, with rich reds, creams, and gold. It was a relic of Havana before the revolution and embargo, when the Cuban bourgeoisie and American jetsetters enjoyed Havana as a "mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights," as Cabaret Quarterly described it in 1956. An enormous oil painting spanned the cherry-wood bar, as did the quote: "la cuna del daiquiri"—the cradle of the daiquiri. The blenders used to make the daiquiris were as central as the bartenders, who all wore handsome red dinner jackets and matching ties. People incorrectly credit Hemingway for inventing the signature daiquiri there, making it a popular tourist spot. It bothered me knowing that the drink they fed the tourists, a sugary cocktail in a martini glass, was actually quite removed from the daiquiris he drank: double rum, no sugar. It reminded me of the Hemingway myth, where people loved the legend—the popular and consumable version—not the unsweetened reality.
On my first night, I took a seat at the bar and ordered Hemingway's recipe.
"A Papa Doble," the bartender said. He looked like he was in his sixties, and he had a friendly, fatherly smile.
"That's what they're called here?"
"Yes. It's on the menu."
I watched him scoop the ice and proudly pour the Havana Club from above his head, a classic spectacle for the customers.
"What do you make when people ask for a Hemingway daiquiri?" I asked.
"If they don't order a Papa Doble, I make a daiquiri." The ice whizzed in the blender. He watched it rattle for a few seconds before pouring the slush in a tall glass, garnished with lime. With essentially just ice and rum, it certainly tasted like something Hemingway would drink.
I reveled in my pretentious beverage and watched the crowd. There was a charm and elegance to Floridita, a personality it had kept for nearly two centuries of catering to an upscale crowd. Even if it was filled with tourists, they weren't insufferable; they weren't "ugly American" tourists. Women wore summer dresses, men wore shirts, buttoned low. At every table and by every barfly was an overflowing ashtray. Smoke thickened the air. A live salsa band played, as they often did in bars and restaurants. The men playing the instruments were older, but they usually had young, vivacious female singers. After a particularly strong number, the singer circled the bar with a "guiro"—the Spanish instrument used to create the zesty percussion sound—collecting pesos in the cavity.
I studied the pictures on the wall. I had read several accounts of the bar by Hemingway's friends and family, and I matched all the photos with the family members I knew: Mary, Mariel, and Hillary. But there was one woman whom I couldn't identify, and her picture intrigued me. I was writing a thesis on Hemingway's son, Gregory, and I had studied the family extensively—I should have been able to identify everyone in a picture at Floridita—especially considering the woman had her own portrait. I turned back to the bartender.
"Sir, who is that woman in the picture over there?"
"I was told they are all Hemingway's granddaughters."
"Not quite," I said, readying myself to lecture. Pointing to a different photo, I said, "That woman is Mariel. She was named after the harbor."
"Yes, yes. I was here for Mariel. She's so beautiful. How do you say...?"
"Yes, she is beautiful. I've also met her."
He shone a flashlight on the photo, illuminating her autograph.
"Is that the woman who committed suicide?" he asked.
"No, that's Mariel's sister, Margaux." I couldn't believe I was teaching the Floridita bartender such things. "And that woman below her is Hilary—she is his niece. And that's of course Mary, his last wife. But you don't know that woman?"
"I can ask someone if you like."
"It's okay," I said. I went to the wall and took a photo of the portrait. The woman was young enough to be a granddaughter, but she didn't have the gaunt, model-esque features of Mariel or Margaux. I later found out it was Joan "Muffet" Hemingway, who was indeed a granddaughter and sister to Mariel and Margaux, just not as prolific.
Around midnight, the same bartender served me another Papa Doble. He took the pesos I left in the silver coin tray and extended his hand.
"Nick. Nice to meet you. How long have you worked here?"
"Twenty-two years," he said, wiping the rings of condensation off the bar. I was amazed that he had worked there for so long and still didn't know the photographs. Had he not had this conversation before?
The band stopped playing and the lights came up, prompting the barflies and dancers to go home for the night. I was surprised Floridita was closing so early, but I had heard Havana shuts down around midnight. I still had my Doble, so as everyone packed up and left, I remained at the bar.
"Do you smoke?" Alé asked, offering me a cigar.
"Sure." He handed it to me before retrieving a lighter from his pocket. It was my first, highly anticipated Cuban cigar; I put it to my lips and puffed as he lighted. Smoke plumed over my lips and Alé's hands. I studied his blowing technique, so I didn't look like a tourist coughing my way through a real cigar. Once I bypassed the initial intensity of tobacco, I found it pleasant, and enjoyed the complex flavor. The leaves seemed clean, unlike a cigarette, and it tasted faintly like dark chocolate and pastries.
With every customer gone except me, the staff cleaned the bar with cigars wedged in their mouths. Even the maids in the restrooms puffed while they mopped. Alé skillfully quaffed his cigar without using his hands, so he could wipe down the bottles and the bar-top. I was honored he invited me to stay after hours; I wondered if it had anything to do with my Hemingway knowledge.
"What brings you to Cuba?" he asked.
"I wanted to get in before the Americans," I said, half-joking.
"That's what everyone says."
"Are you excited for them to come?"
"Yes, of course. I will make more tips." He smiled at me and flicked his cigar.
"I'm not so sure about it all. I mean, yes, Cuba needs help. But I've only been here a day and I've seen your beautiful culture, and I'm worried you'll lose it."
"I don't think so. There's a lot that needs to change. Yes, Americans will come, they are going to build McDonalds. But even our President said, 'We will only allow Americans to build a McDonalds where we want a McDonalds.' They won't put them everywhere. We're going to work together, you see. It will be better."
"I'm not sure you understand Americans," I said, drunk from one too many Papa Dobles. I pointed out the window. "Right there will be a McDonalds. There will be a Starbucks. You'll probably be able to order daiquiris there, to go. This place will be a nightclub."
"No," he laughed. "It will be good. There are already tourists in Cuba."
I couldn't argue with that. I was sitting next to a Hemingway statue, sipping his drink, smoking a cigar in the most famous bar in Cuba. In a thick white-collared shirt, I looked like a typical American on safari. Was I just being cynical? American tourism was already a part of Cuban culture; the 1920s saw a boom in tourism, where Havana became a playground for gambling, music, parties, resorts, and the Mafia. Why did Alé's receptivity bother me? Why did I oppose it?
Alé went to the other end of the bar before another bartender came up to me and asked me to finish my drink. I finished the remnants of the Doble and took my cigar from the ashtray.
"Thank you, Alé. I'll be back tomorrow."
I stumbled down Obispo, drunker than I realized.
I visited Floridita almost every night. I told Alé about my adventures tracking down Hemingway sights—his hotel, his other favorite bar La Bodeguita del Medio, and how I drove up to his home the Finca Vigia, where I unsuccessfully tried to bribe a housekeeper to let me inside. I visited Cojimar, the port that inspired The Old Man and the Sea, where I watched the waves wrap around the old stone fort that once anchored his boat, the Pilar. Alé enjoyed the stories, but I think he was more entertained by my passion.
On my last night at Floridita, I brought along my copy of Islands in the Stream. I ate in the restaurant, noting the Hemingway-themed meals, before I read aloud to him my favorite, most Hemingway-esque parts about Floridita, which I was sure he hadn't heard before:
He was drinking another of the frozen daiquiris with no sugar in it and as he lifted it, heavy and the glass frost-rimmed, he looked at the clear part below the frappéd top and it reminded him of the sea. The frappéd part of the drink was like the wake of a ship and the clear part was the way the water looked when the bow cut it when you were in shallow water over marl bottom. That was almost the exact colour.
"I wish they had a drink the colour of sea water when you have a depth of eight hundred fathoms and there is a dead calm with the sun straight up and down and the sea full of plankton."
Alé laughed. I'm not sure he understood all the words.
"You should probably get that on a poster or something, you know, for the Americans," I said. He went off to serve another customer, before I read him a passage about the bartender:
He ordered a double frozen daiquiri with no sugar from Pedrico, who smiled his smile which was almost like the rictus of a dead man who has died from a suddenly broken back, and yet was a true and legitimate smile.
At the end of the night, I shook Alé's hand goodbye before he gave me a couple of extra cigars. I loved the way he smelled the cigars as he gave them to me, running his nose along the body; I knew they were cherished. I thanked him and stumbled down Obispo for the last time.
The Old Man
I came across my second casa after I tried to take a bus out of Havana but was told at the station that tickets must be booked days in advance. The clerk had also advised against the train, which wasn't safe for tourists. I took a cab back into Old Havana, where I walked past a mint-green mansion with a casa particular sign. It was a charming house on the corner, with an intricate balcony overlooking a small, leafy park. I simply knocked on the door and asked if they had a room. A young woman answered the door and ushered me inside. Like everyone in her casa, she couldn't speak English.
She walked me up the crumbling staircase to her house. The rooms were vast and open, with an indoor atrium system leading to the kitchen, bedrooms, and lower floors, which I presumed weren't part of their property. Like all casas, the house brimmed with antiques and bizarre tchotchkes. I doted on the antiques, knowing they would be worth a fortune in the U.S., but I got the impression they embarrassed her, as she perhaps saw them as emblems of Cuba's anachronism. The walls were painted in bright, pastel colors, and had excessively high ceilings. Using only hand gestures, the woman and I managed to communicate the price and length of my stay. My room was pleasant, and I had access to the balcony that wrapped around the casa.
That afternoon, I sat in the living room, trying to have a conversation with the family. The woman was joined by her father and an older woman, presumably the man's partner or sister, perhaps the daughter's mother. I wasn't sure. We sat on a wicker lounge setting by the enormous, arched doors that led to the balcony. The trees outside swayed in the warm, Caribbean breeze.
"Australia," I said, and they erupted in conversation. "I live in New York."
"New York?" the daughter questioned, confused by my Australian preface. "American?"
"No. Australian." They spoke again. The daughter tried to communicate with me by making gestures related to food—cutlery, drawing her hands to her mouth to eat. "No gracias," I replied. She spoke in Spanish, and I understood very little. She retrieved a translation book and eventually came back with the words:
"Si si. Soy vegetariano, sin carne." As a vegetarian travelling through Mexico and Cuba, I had memorized the valuable phrase: "I am vegetarian, no meat."
"Ah, Bueno. Eh... huevos? Jugo? Pan? Café?"
By now, I had also learned these words: eggs, juice, bread, coffee. "Si si." They started talking in Spanish again, when I heard someone screaming.
It was distinctively an older man's screams—loud, guttural, and frightened—and it was coming from inside the casa. The screams weren't long or wailing, rather repetitive and short. The family completely ignored it, not even adjusting their tone of voice when they continued their conversation. I awkwardly sat still, trying not to show I was disturbed by the family's indifference. After a couple minutes, the screams stopped.
"Gracias. Huevos mañana," the daughter said, smiling.
I walked back to my room and locked the door.
At midnight that night, I came back to the casa after Floridita and Bodeguita. As I lay in bed falling asleep, I heard the screams again. The screaming hadn't changed tenor—male, seemingly horrified, in staccato succession—but this time it was louder. Whoever was screaming, they were near my room. I knew the house had several rooms, and I wondered if it was perhaps a tourist, or maybe from a floor below. Again, it lasted only a couple of minutes. Perhaps owing to the alcohol I had drunk, my sleep wasn't disturbed that night.
I woke the following morning and showered in my en suite. I opened my bedroom doors to the balcony, lifting a massive metal beam that barred it shut. Opening the French doors to a hot, Havana morning was a pleasure I had discovered in Cuba. I would take a chair and sit outside, reading and planning my day; it put me in a good mood, enjoying the sunlight, and the fascinating contrast between the eeriness of nighttime and liveliness of daytime. No matter what time I emerged, someone else was always on the balcony too, smoking their morning cigar. I was shirtless that morning—it was blistering and dry—when I heard a knock on my bedroom door. It was the older woman, who looked deeply serious. She didn't mutter a word to me, only shushing me by putting her finger to her lips. She pointed to the balcony and shook her finger at me, mouthing the word, "No."
I closed the door and sat on my bed, trying to collect myself. I felt like a child who had been told off, and I hadn't even done anything wrong. After all, I was paying for the room, and I wouldn't have taken it if it weren't for the balcony. Was I not allowed to sit outside and read a book? About fifteen minutes later, the woman knocked on the door again with a big smile on her face.
"Bueno," she said. "Desayuno?" Breakfast?
Later that afternoon, I came back to the casa after visiting Batista's Presidential Palace, now a history of the Cuban revolution, complete with bullet holes in the wall where Fidel Castro and his army stormed the palace and opened fire. I dropped my belongings in my room, opened the balcony doors to let in fresh air, and went back on the street to get a bottle of water. When I returned, I realized I had locked my keys in my room. The daughter opened the front door, and I tried to explain that I had no key to my room by going to the door, holding the lock and shrugging. She pointed to the kitchen and hooked her finger, suggesting I enter my room through the balcony in the kitchen. I followed her suggestion.
I walked through the cluttered kitchen, past the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, and found doors leading to rooms with balcony access. Mindlessly I decided to push one open. As I entered the room, I found a very old, deathly ill man, sitting in a wheelchair, staring at me. He wore only a robe and sat next to a bunk bed; his neck seemed perpetually jerked to the right, as if he had suffered a stroke. When he saw me, he started screaming. He was terrified, the screams were louder and longer, and I couldn't bear looking at his face, but I needed to get to the balcony. I rushed to the doors, lifted the metal beam, and ran as fast as I could down the balcony, pushing past shirts and dresses pegged on clotheslines. I assumed they were positioned so as a fence to keep the tourists from stumbling into the wrong room. When I reached my room, I sat on the bed waiting for the screams to stop. They lasted much longer. Now, he actually had reason to scream.
I didn't leave for several hours. The family had to know I went into the room; I left the balcony doors open. I wasn't sure if he would speak to them and tell them what I did. I'm not sure whether he physically could. Naturally, I felt bad for the man—it was probably his house I was staying in after all—and presumably he didn't know the rooms were so frequently rented out. But more so, I felt bad for the family. There aren't enough nursing homes in Cuba, and patients spend years on waiting lists. According to Marti News, only one in 274 senior citizens have access to full-time nursing homes. Likewise, Cuban hospitals are falling apart; the rooms are unsanitary, and patients are forced to bring pillows, sheets, and medicine with them to the hospital. Owing to lack of staff, friends or family are required to push the patients' stretchers themselves, and, on average, there is a three-hour wait for medical attention. If I couldn't find even aspirin on the street, I can't imagine how the family cared for the old man. Renting out their spare bedrooms appeared to be the family's sole source of income. I wondered if they had a choice.
As I lay in bed that night, I thought about whether the old man screamed in pain or fear. I wondered what it meant when the woman quieted me that morning, how they lived with those screams, how they could just go on. I heard more of his screams that night, and this time, they kept me awake. I much preferred them when they were faceless.
Late one night, I was sitting in a bar opposite the flamingo-colored Ambos Mundos Hotel when I decided to walk up Obispo. I headed to Central Parque Hotel, one of the few places upscale enough to have a terrible and expensive Wi-Fi. I was drunk, but I didn't feel like going to Floridita; I just wanted to check my emails and sleep. As I turned off Obispo onto a dimly-lit street, a man walked behind me in the shadows. I looked behind me, hoping to stave him off.
"Don't worry," he said, laughing. "You're safe."
"I'm just checking." He was taller than me—over six feet two inches—with a wiry frame.
"I recognize you," he said. "I work at Central Parque. I've seen you before."
"I'm going there right now." He accompanied me for the remaining short walk. When we got to Central Parque, I started saying goodbye.
"Wait. I want to show you a local bar. Much cooler than the tourist places. It's right here."
"I'm just going to use the internet—"
"Just have a look. I want you to see a real Cuban bar."
I agreed, thinking I could look around for a moment and leave. As we entered, he ordered two mojitos behind my back and sat me down, and I suppose by then I didn't have much of a choice.
Of course, I knew that friendly locals who talk to tourists usually have ulterior motives. But I'm sociable when I'm drunk, and I didn't want to be rude, so I planned on swilling the mojito and making a swift exit. The bar was certainly for locals and couldn't be more removed from Floridita; it was grimy and falling apart, with an ugly aqua paint job. Cockroaches crawled up the walls. Cigarettes were puffed at every table and ashed in ugly clay ashtrays. There wasn't a tourist in sight. As I was halfway through my mojito and polite conversation, the man called over a young Cuban woman who sat in the seat between us.
The girl shook my hand. She wore a pink tank top and had bleached blonde hair, a cute button nose, and metallic eye shadow streaked to her brows.
"I would like you to meet this girl, Nick," he said, proud that he remembered my name. I shook hands with her and she smiled. She didn't speak any English. The man ordered her a mojito, and the barmaid brought it over.
"Do you like the Cuban girls?" he asked me.
"Sure," I said, a little confused. "They're nice."
"Cuban girls are some of the best in the world."
"Yes, I believe you."
The girl started flirting with me, opening pages of my book, pointing to the word Cuba, staring at me deeply. She pinched the tip of her straw and circled the long glass, playing with the mint leaves and gravelly brown sugar.
"The girl..." he said. He only referred to her as the girl. "She is beautiful, with a lovely color, no?" He ran the back of his hand against her arm.
"Yes, she is." I wasn't lying; she was beautiful.
"She is a dancer at La Tropicana. Twenty years old."
Suddenly I knew exactly what was going on. I smiled in her direction, before the man leveled with me.
"You see everything in Cuba costs. You want to fuck, you pay."
"The price is eighty an hour."
"No, thank you."
"I will ask the girl sixty, but I'll go nothing lower."
My genuine shock and disinterest seemed irrelevant, and they spoke together in Spanish.
"Excuse me—sorry, perdon—I'm not interested."
"She will take sixty, for the hour."
"No, I can't. I can't."
"Nothing is wrong. I just don't do this."
"You do not like the girl? She is beautiful! Sexy!"
"No—it's not that. I can't."
"You do not like her? Trust me, she is very good."
Nothing resonated with the man or the girl, who looked confused. I hated that she was anonymous to the point of not even speaking our language, and that this man apparently controlled her sexual agency. I knew telling them I simply wasn't interested wouldn't be enough, so I started lying to get out of it.
"I have a girlfriend. She is waiting for me in my casa."
"It's okay. You go somewhere else, go to hotel."
"No, I can't. I do not want to. I'm loyal to my girlfriend."
"When you're in Cuba, you fuck. They're not like American girls. They are much better. You have to fuck Cuban girl."
I called the barmaid over, ignoring the man's confused and angered face. I gave her cash and pointed at the drinks.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm paying for the drinks. I have to go home."
"What is wrong with you?"
"I don't have any money, either. See?" I showed them my wallet, conveniently low on cash.
The man talked to the girl in Spanish and I positioned myself at a distance from the table, looking at neither of them directly. When my change came, I said goodbye as politely as I could and walked outside. I started off down the street.
I was pacing toward Obispo when the girl ran outside and called at me in Spanish. I felt bad running away from her, so I turned around and walked back. The man stayed inside. I gave her a kiss on the cheek, and for some reason, I felt better touching her. She had soft cheeks.
As I walked home, I told myself she probably loves sex, that she must enjoy pleasing others, that she wasn't forced to work that way. People do go into sex work voluntarily, and my sympathy degrades her job. But I didn't know how true any of it was. I had heard that with the abysmal wages, many Cuban women had to work multiple jobs, and many moonlighted as sex workers, usually catering to tourists. They were known as "jineteras," loosely translated to "horserider," and they were ubiquitous, even though prostitution is illegal in Cuba. I knew Havana was famous for its sex tourism, and I had been approached on the street before by jineteras who came out at night, often on Obispo after Floridita, and called at me: "Hey white boy, where you going?" It bothered me that she needed the pimp and that he was going to profit off her sex work. That the girl who danced at Tropicana—the most popular nightclub in Cuba—also turned tricks, and the man who worked the lobby at the Central Parque Hotel also had a pimp job on the side.
On my last morning in Cuba, I packed my bags and took a pink convertible Cadillac to the airport. I lit a Cohiba cigar, the brand Castro smoked, and sat in the back seat quaffing away, as the driver traveled the same route I had taken my first evening, only now illuminated in day. I already missed Old Havana.
I didn't know why I was so enamored with Cuba. It was in ruins, nothing was convenient, I felt malnourished, everything was unreasonably difficult. It reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates's idea about Marilyn Monroe, that she was more beautiful in her downfall than her perfection, that handling her at her "worst" was more real and special than her "best." It was simply so fascinating to see a place embodying the destructive powers of the U.S., poised for a possible collapse. There was a charm and personality to Havana despite everything.
As we drove down the Malecon, the seawall that ringed Havana, I watched the old fishermen reel in their catches. The men were so small they looked like children, and they were always barefoot, and they always wore hats that shaded their wizened skin. They were relics of what Cuba had been through; in their country alone they had witnessed a dictatorship, a revolution, an embargo, multiple wars, and a Communist regime. They watched the downfall of their country from a corrupt and classist—yet thriving and wealthy—Cuba to a place incarcerated by the country on which it is most dependent. All the while they kept fishing.
I imagined them to be like Hemingway's Santiago, finishing their day, packing up their tackle boxes, and walking a white bucket of fish home. The sun sets over the old town as they carry their day's work through the streets, watched by window vendors lighting cigars and grandmothers pegging wet clothes to their clotheslines. That night the fishermen would sit in a bar, doing nothing in particular, other than drinking straight, clear rum. Or perhaps they would go home to their families, and everyone would enjoy the fish with yellow rice. Outside on the street, young men played backgammon; a woman made a call at a payphone, Chevys drove past, and down the street, couples danced.
Title image "Sister Havana" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.