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Saturday, December 6, 2008

A CUBAN LOVER, a short story by Vicent Meis

I don’t know what made me think it was a good idea to go out for a walk on the Malecón that lazy Sunday afternoon, ill-prepared as I was. I had forgotten to pack a hat, and in the three years since my last visit, it seemed I had lost my ability to tolerate Havana’s particular sort of sweatbox. Yet all around me the city’s people were enjoying the seaside promenade like it was their front porch, a place to breathe, get a glimpse of the Caribbean and a taste of the air from a distant shore. I trudged on, suffering under the merciless sun. My hands were stuffed into the deep pockets of my khaki shorts as if in protest.

On one side of me was a low wall that held back the choppy sea, and on the other a multi-laned drive where old cars bumped over the same pothole with a regular thump and rattle. On the bike path, clunky Chinese bicycles pedaled by with a monotonous clicking sound. The noise and heat had me out of sorts. To make matters worse, I kept veering into the lane of memories probably better left untraveled.

On the edge of my reverie, I heard a chorus of young voices shout, “Vamos.” I looked up to see a pack of unruly, drenched boys weave around groups of sluggish walkers and head directly toward me, a wild intent in their black eyes. I stopped short and braced myself for impact, wondering why they intended to knock me down as if I were a renegade bowling pin. Just as they were upon me, the group split into two wings, flanking either side of me so close that I could sense their dampness. I felt a slight spray from their soaked, threadbare T-shirts plastered to their frail bodies and their soggy sneakers, which squished as they ran by.

I whirled around to watch as they raced for the next spot where waves crashed over the seawall. The older boys stopped and held out their arms as if receiving a shower of baptismal waters. The smaller ones, some only in dripping briefs, scrambled up on the wall and danced a little jig. Then one of them again shouted, “Vamos,” and the wave chasers took off like a flock of birds, landing at a spot a few yards down the wall.

Turning back around, I laughed at my moment of fear, extracted my hands from their hiding places, and shook out my shoulders. I started walking again, this time with my head up, eyes open, aware of lovers embraced as they sat on the drier parts of the wall, other children at play, and teenagers in the tireless ritual of flirting. There were whispers and exaggerated gestures, shouts and laughter, and the faint chords of a guitar mixed with singing down the way. I was lifted out of my doldrums, alive, less bothered by the heat. Picking up my pace, I stubbed my toe on a rock. I glanced down and saw chunks of the wall littering the pavement.

The Malecón was like the ruins of an ancient theater, the crumbling city facades as a backdrop, a stage where comedies and tragedies were played out year after year. I laughed again, thinking of my own drama of love and hope and betrayal that had begun and ended on these very stones. But I was confident that I had left that all behind. I was older and wiser, happily attached and enjoying a modicum of success back home in Los Angeles.

In the distance my eyes settled on an endearing sight, a little girl walking between two men, holding both of their hands. They lifted her up and she swung between them, and then as soon as her feet touched the pavement, she must have begged for more. She went up again. Their game brought them close to the wall just as a large wave pounded the rocks and splashed over in front of them, making the men instinctively huddle around the child. She screamed with joy and the men laughed, one of them with hunched shoulders, a momentary stagger to his step, and bended knees as if his whole body were collapsing under the amusement. It was Leo. I recognized the gesture, the precise way his shoulders curved up and forward, his head down, his free hand cupped to his stomach. His laughter, so fraught with memory, wrapped around me and made flight impossible. Cuba, part temptress and part prankster, was working its dark magic again.

They were just a few yards in front of me, and I stared at the child with her long dark hair in pigtails. She was wearing the pink Gap Kids overalls I had sent her on a whim over a year before. I had never received word if they had gotten there or not.

Leo looked up and saw me, too, his sweet laughter fading and his face turning dark. “Martin,” he said with a mixture of disbelief and what I guessed were painful memories for him, too. His black eyes danced under arched eyebrows.

I approached with palms turned up in question, as if running into him were a marvel beyond comprehension. “Leo, what are you doing here? I…”

“Anabela, dale un beso a tu Tio Martin,” he said, cutting me off. He released her hand and the other man did, too. I went down on my haunches and wrapped my arm around her. She moved into my embrace and pecked me on the cheek. Her skin was creamy smooth and she smelled freshly scrubbed. She reached up, touched the small gold hoop in my ear, and frowned.

“Hola, Anabela. You don’t know me, do you?”
“No,” she answered in a coy, small voice.
“I met you when you were just a baby.”
“She knows you,” said Leo. “From pictures.”
I looked up into his eyes and held on to the girl to steady myself. “You showed her pictures?”
“She loves looking at our old photos.”
Anabela tapped my shoulder with a pudgy finger and announced with glee, “Tio Martin.” Then she rotated her body around to point at Leo. “Papi.”
“Sí, mi amor,” said Leo.

He then turned toward the other man, who had been standing at a distance like a shadow, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Alfredo, this is Martin. Martin, Alfredo. ”

With tightness in my gut, I rose up to shake Alfredo’s hand, detecting a South American accent in his “Mucho gusto.” He had a weak handshake and was much older than Leo, average looking, balding and slightly overweight. In beige slacks and a blue button-down shirt, he looked much too formal for the Malecón. I disliked him instantly.

“Alfredo, why don’t you and Anabela walk on ahead,” Leo said. “I’ll catch up.”
“Where did you meet him?” I muttered when Alfredo and Anabela were out of earshot.
Leo smiled, enjoying my uneasiness. “Don’t worry. He’s Sulyn’s husband. She and I haven’t been together for a couple of years now. Sulyn met Alfredo about a year ago and moved to Argentina. They’re just back for a visit.”
“Anabela lives there, too?”
“Yeah,” he said with downcast eyes. “I’m waiting for my visa. I’ll go in a few months. Alfredo is getting me a work permit.”
“You look good,” I said.
“You weren’t going to call me?”
“I didn’t know how…three years…I… did you get the book?”
“Yeah,” he said in the same bored, unreadable way that used to drive me crazy.
“So?”
“It was nice, the dedication and all. That’s funny, my name in a book. Sometimes I take it out and read that page over and over, wondering why you never came back.” His voice was losing its hardness, faltering the tiniest bit.
“How’s your mom?”
“We’re leaving for Holguín tonight. Why don’t you come with us? She would love to see you.”
“I can’t. I’m just here for a few days, a Martí conference. I’m presenting the book.”
“And you weren’t going to call me,” he said again, shaking his head. Our eyes locked, held for a minute. He was the first to let go, examining his shoes. “My mom said it’s my fault.”
“No fault.”
He nodded his head.
“Do you have time for a beer?” I said.
“We’re supposed to meet Sulyn. We’re already late.”
“Anabela is so… beautiful. She looks just like you.”
“Thanks.” He lifted his chin and our eyes met again.
“When you get to Argentina, let me know where you are. I want to keep in touch.”

“I should go.” He put out his hand, but I pulled him to me. I put my arms around him and held him long enough to let him know that it wasn’t a lack of love that took me away. He hugged me back, tight, and for a moment the three years melted away. Then we separated.

As he ran to catch up to the retreating silhouettes of his daughter and Alfredo, I found a dry place on the low wall and settled myself onto the sun-warmed concrete. The water splashed against the rocks just on the other side, and I gazed up at the Hotel Nacionál on the hill, realizing that I was sitting in our old spot, the place where I met him some five years before. Without warning, a big wave came up and slapped me on the back, the spray falling all around me like a fountain. I coughed and jumped back down to the sidewalk, drenched to the bone. Like a dog I shook myself off and trotted toward my hotel.

In my wet clothes I sat in the Habana Libre lobby bar sipping a glass of Havana Club Añejo Reserva with the air conditioning blasting down on me and sending a chill up my backbone. I shivered twice. For three years I had imagined what it would be like to see Leo again, but I never came close to the gut-wrenching pain, the pure misery of looking into the eyes of a lost love.

In those grim months following the break with Leo, David had come into my life, lifting me out of my despair. He was good for me and I would be the worst kind of fool if I jeopardized my relationship with someone who gave his blessing to this trip, even knowing the story of my life in Cuba. Though ten years younger than me, he was more mature, more solid, a person to grow old with.

I downed the rest of the rum and went up to my room. With my eyes on the phone I peeled off the damp clothes, put on a hotel robe, and picked up the receiver.
“David, it’s me.”
“Well, this is a surprise. I thought you said it was too expensive to call.”
“It is, but I wanted to hear your voice.”
“Are you OK?”
“Fine. Have you thought any more about adoption?”
“Is that what you called about?”
“I just wondered.”
“You sound strange.”
“Just lonely, I guess.”
“It’s only been two days.”
“Two days and a lifetime.”
“Martin, you are being weird. What is going on?”
“It’s probably the heat. You can’t imagine how hot it is here.”
“I had dinner with Jenny and Jack last night. She’s showing, Grandpa.”
“You are cruel. Maybe adoption isn’t such a good idea.”
“Would you stop already with the adoption? We’ll talk about it when you get back. You are coming back, aren’t you?”
“Very funny.”
“I miss you.”
“Miss you, too.”

As soon as I got off the phone with David, I called Cubana Airlines and booked a flight to Holguín.
Anabela and I sat on the cool tile floor painting pictures on large pieces of brown paper. We had one brush with good bristles, but the shaft was broken in half. The other had bristles that stuck out in all directions like a fright wig. I kept moving the glass of muddy water just as she was about to tip it over. Most of the ten watercolors in the metal tray had been sullied by neighboring hues. The picture we were working on had a yellow-green house surrounded by purplish grass and a brownish sun in the sky.

For the third time in the last half-hour she asked, “Donde esta Papi?”
There was a smell of frying chicken coming from the kitchen and Leo’s mother, Lisbeth, poked her head out to smile down on us. “He’s at work, mi amor. He’ll be home soon.”
“Tio, no. I want to do it,” shouted Anabela. I was trying to clean the little square of yellow.
Her great-grandmother, Lola, was at the table playing war with Adita. “Ana, be nice to your Tio, who came so far to see you.”
“No, he’s waiting for Papi.”
“I’m here to see you, too, mi vida. I’m here to see everybody.”
“Mami, too?”

Lisbeth shook her head and went back to the stove. Lola slammed down a card and said, “Oh, the suffering that woman has brought on this house. She was no good when she was here and then she runs off to Argentina with Leo’s daughter.”

“Mother, hush,” said Lisbeth, back at the doorway.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” Lola said to me. “This past year has been hard on Leo.”

Lola had never liked Sulyn, and always seemed to be on my side. She would tell me what a good boy Leo was, and then whisper in my ear disparaging remarks about Sulyn. “She can’t cook. She is a terrible housekeeper. Leo has to bring his laundry over to have Lisbeth do it.” It was as if the fact that I was a man had no bearing on the issue for Lola and Lisbeth, that being small town folks on an island cut off from the rest of the world somehow allowed them a clarity of vision. Love was love, and they could recognize it no matter what form it took.

When Lola had heard Lisbeth yelling my name and carrying on at my arrival a couple of hours before, she had run down from her house two doors up the street. Beaming as if I were the prodigal son, she had kissed me and wouldn’t let go of my hand. Lisbeth had been teary-eyed. She told me she had thought she would never see me again. When Leo said he had run into me in Havana and invited me to Holguín, she had gotten excited, and then disappointed that I wasn’t coming. I had told her that I had changed my mind and that Leo didn’t know.

“Come on, Tio. We have to finish this picture for Papi,” said Anabela.

I put my hand on her dark silky head and bent down to kiss it. I loved her like my own daughter, her almond eyes and the grave contortions of her face so like Leo’s. I wanted her to love me, too, though I knew there was only one man in her life.

We heard the crunching gravel of someone walking up the street and Lisbeth ran to the door. “Come, mijo, quickly.” She was so excited her round body was shaking.

He walked in with dusty jeans and a grease-stained T-shirt, acting as though he was not even surprised to see me. But he grabbed me and squeezed me so hard I thought he was going to break my ribs. “Mi vida,” he whispered in my ear. I looked over his shoulder at what seemed to be water in Lola’s eyes.

There was a crash and we looked down at the tipped over glass with brown water spreading over the floor. Anabela started to wail. We separated and he bent down to pick up his daughter.
“It’s OK, mi tesoro. Don’t worry. Papi is home.” He gave her big smacking kisses and held her tightly.

Leo was able to calm Anabela down, but she clung to him even as he washed his hands for dinner. When we sat down, she insisted on being in his lap and looked at me across the table with a mixture of amusement and suspicion. I made funny faces at her and almost got a smile, which she turned and buried in her father’s chest.

“Come with me and let your daddy eat,” said Lisbeth.
“No,” Anabela shouted with dark burning eyes that silenced Lisbeth.

“She’s no problem,” he said, reaching around her to cut a chunk of pork off the bone. She played with his mouth, pinching his lips closed with her little hands. “Ana, let your Papi eat. Don’t you want me to be strong so I can work and take care of you? Come on, turn around and look at your Tio. He looks just like the pictures, doesn’t he?”

“Papi, are you going on the plane with us?”
Leo gave Lisbeth a worried glance.
“Mi cielo, let’s not talk about leaving,” said Lisbeth. “It makes me sad. You have two more weeks and you are going to be with your daddy every day.”
“Is he going on the plane with us?” she asked louder and more forcefully. Her jaws were reined in tight.
“Si, mi vida, I’m going to come live with you.”
“Is Tio Martin coming, too?”
“No. He has to go back to his home in Los Angeles.”
“I’ll visit you in Argentina,” I said with a nervous smile, not sure if that would make her happy or sad.
After the dinner, Leo, still holding his daughter, told her he was going to take me back to Roberto’s house where I was renting a room.
“No, Papi, no.”
“I’ll be right back, mi vida. Don’t worry. I think abuela has some ice cream for you.”
“I don’t want ice cream.” She tightened her grip on him.
“Come, Ana, come.” Lisbeth tried to take her from Leo’s arms.
“No,” screamed Anabela, smacking Lisbeth’s hand with surprising force. “No, no, no.”
“She was never like this before,” said Lola from the rocker in front of the TV. “Always so happy before they took her away.”
“Mother, hush. You’re not helping.”
Leo managed to pry her hands from his neck and put her down.
“Don’t go, Papi. Don’t go.” She was stomping and her face was beet red.

Lisbeth made a sign for us to go. As we shuffled out the door, her screaming reached a frightening pitch. I felt the criminal as we started down the street with slow anxious steps. Her tortured wailing seemed to get louder with each pace and I stopped. “Leo, go back.”

He looked relieved. “I’ll come over later. Wait for me.” He embraced me under a dim street lamp and rushed back to the house. I stared up into the starry sky until her sobbing was quieted, and then I walked on.

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