Friday, August 23, 2013

5 Days in Cuba: Tuesday Part 3: Lions and the Liceo

So we leave the Archbishop’s house and walk past three doors back to TiaLourdes’ house on the Prado. When we get there we find it full of visitors including Mayulis’ mom, Mila. So much for meeting up at 4pm it isn’t even noon yet.

Olgita tells us lunch is ready, but she doesn’t look too happy because there are two extra people to feed. She can’t turn them away, but I’m sure her kindness to them is out of love for us. Not everyone in house is eating lunch; there is her doctor sister I never met, and an uncle too, who stay put and make no move towards the lunch.

 Two extra chairs are pulled up  for Mayulis and Mila around the table that my great-grandparents ate at and we share the chicken (or maybe it was pork), plantains, and rice.  Nothing tastes good, nothing tastes right, but I eat out of politeness. Olgita tells me to only drink this water from this cup, but I forgot and start drinking other water. Between her bites of food she notices this and takes the cup away. I feel protected and I’m not quite used to this.

Mayulis, seated across from me, keeps tilting her head towards the door, the universal signal for “lets ditch this place” but I can’t go, we can’t go, we just got here.  Our time in Cuba is short and precious; just like we divided our money into envelopes for each day and necessity, we also divided our time into pieces to be given out like candy and dollars.

This time, after lunch, I didn’t insult Olgita by trying to clear the table, trying to help wash or do anything in her precious kitchen. I join everyone back in TiaLourdes’ office and mom whispers to me that I should open the gusano and give out the stuff we brought for Olgita and her family. I completely forgot that we haven’t given anything out yet, and suddenly everyone converging on the house looks a little different to me, like they’re waiting politely but hungrily.

Tita gives TiaLourdes the gifts and treats from us and from her brother, my grandfather while I drag the rest of the bag into the long hallway, the one that still has my great grandmother’s turn of the century Singer sewing machine.

Olgita and her sister Cookie join me. What I have for them are clothes, piles of clothes in a range of sizes from me, from my neighbors and friends.  Here’s a long pink light sweater that flows like a cape when you walk. Here’s a shiny satiny white shirt. Then came more shirts, a dress, shoes and a pair of culottes.

It all looked like so much more when I was packing it and carrying it, filled with hope and generosity and abundance, but here, now, it looks not nothing, like odds and ends, like not enough. Still, they look pleased and start to sort the clothes between them, what to keep, what to give to their other sisters.

I notice Mayulis sitting quietly in the other room and then remember I haven’t given her or her mother the clothes we brought for them.  Maybe that’s why they came here early, or maybe it was to see us. I knew better than to ask.

Now Mom is playing on the floor with Barbarita, the former toddler who was fascinated with my iPad last year. This year we brought her a play tea set, and she was pretending to cook for and feed my Mom.  I watched for a minute, maybe five, but that’s as long as my attention lasts because I have an idea and grab Mayulis by the wrist.

Come see, I tell her, in English then Spanish, and pull her to the dimly lit bathroom, the one with the bidet that terrifies me.  

I’ve brought all my makeup and makeup brushes with me; concealer, foundation, mascara, blush, and and eyeshadow palette. Her eyes light up and she lets me unleash on her face. This is fun; in another life we would have grown up doing this, but here we are, a professor and a doctor, giggling over shiny peaches and glittery coppers.

Then I pull out the eyelash curler. Mayulis winces; apparently no one in Cuba has seen such a majestic piece of engineering.  I teach her to curl first, THEN put on mascara and we practice catching her tiny lashes and then squeezing them until the stand up straight and proud. She is giddy, and so am I. I pull out my iphone and show her crazy effects. In another world, she would be my Facebook friend, and I would know what's really going on in her life.  For now we have to be the kind of cousins who play with makeup and giggle. 

A line presents itself outside the bathroom door; this one wants concealer for her circles, the next one demands long eyelashes. I do my best to represent the very best of our capitalistic free market, and happily dab, swish, squeeze and beautify until everyone is entertained and satified.

It’s now about the time that we planned on leaving TiaLourdes house and going with Mila and Mayulis to walk around and see the things that would be intimately familiar to me if I’d grown up in Cienfuegos.  

I’m ready, they’re ready, and the four of us – me, my mom, Mila and Mayulis – give our kiss kiss hugs and goodbyes. We have saved a slice of Friday for TiaLourdes, and promise to come back with stories.

We leave the huge door and head to the right, the opposite direction of the Obispado. We cross a street and arrive at Casa de los Leones, the huge colonial mansion where my great-great grandmother lived with her brother when she came to Cienfuegos from Spain. I had seen this house before in pictures and last year we drove by it, but I didn’t understand that it was mine, that this house was our house.

 The lions looked scary before, now they are familiar, protective, hungry to be noticed.

The four of us stand in front of an open doorway to the mansion and see there are many people, many strangers lingering there. I don’t want to go in, and no one else seems to want to push this. This is Cuba’s house, now, this is what a revolution does; turns things upside down. The house belongs to everyone so it belongs to no one and seems to be slowing falling apart after two centuries of Caribbean weather.

Above us the roof of the ancient porch is barely held up with long treetrunks shoved here and there.  Mom offers to take a picture of me with a statue lion but I decline and instead take ones of everyone else with the lions.  An old man in long stained green pants stares us. His face is unshaven and haggard, not unkind but not familiar or safe. I tell them I’ve seen enough, and ask what we will see next.

They take me across the traffic of the Prado and back down a block to the Liceo de Cienfuegos, a building our great grandfather helped found. I have heard one hundred times over many years that if there hadn’t been a communist revolution this is where my mother would have had her quincenera.

We are met at the entrance by two women whose job it is to take our purses, put them in boxes, and give us little numbers to keep as receipts. I don’t like this one bit, I know from college bookstores that things disappear from purses, but it’s not the time to bring it up. I take my iPhone out of the purse and leave the rest in the universe’s hands.

Right after the entrance a huge square staircase opens up in two directions.  We take pictures on the stairs, each pretending to be a bride, a princess, someone worthy of descending through this architecture. I’m not sure if our giggling was too much; no one hushed us.

Then we go to the second floor. I see a man copying words from an old newspaper onto yellow lined paper. He looks serious and annoyed. I want desperately to see what newspaper he has, and if it is from before 1960 but I’m a stranger to him and let it go.  At another table two teenage girls in short skirted uniforms appear to be working on a project, surrounded by books and colored pencils.  There are about ten short low aisles of books, all nearly empty. 

Next to that is a spiral staircase to what must be a cupola upstairs. 

We walk through that room and to a room that would havce been the actual party room for mom’s quincenera.  The floor and walls screamed Caribbean Art Noveau; patterned intricacies that came together to proclaim to the world this sugar port city had a robust and cultured genteel class.

Mom shows me the balcony window and I lean out and look up and down the Prado. There is Casa de los Leones; there is TiaLourdes house; there’s the Obispado. I take pictures of us leaning into the wind, the sun on our faces, eyelashes curled and ready for action.

This is the point where I start getting hungry. It hits me like a tidal wave and now I’m realizing all I’ve had in hours is half a glass of water and now I’m so thirsty I can’t even concentrated on anything else. Everyone else seems to feel the same way, so we gather our purses from the front of the building and walk around the block and up one street back to hotel.

As we walk into the building the woman at the front desk calls to my Mom (how does she know my Mom? How does everyone here know us?) that someone is waiting for her, upstairs at the rooftop bar.

I look at her shocked. Who are you meeting Mom?

She shakes her head and says she doesn’t know but I have a feeling there’s more going on than that.