Sunday, August 25, 2013

5 Days in Cuba: Wednesday Part 3: No, Gracias, Comrade!

A silence hit the table. My Mom explained a little, I added a little more and then I promised Charo "I'll write it all up for you."

I look forward to reading it, she said in her crisp and formal English, then patted my hand.

 I will write about it for you in the book 5 Days in Cuba, the second draft of all the stories you are reading now. In the book I'll also explain to you what happened to Mom at the airport. I didn't forget that you don't know; I'm making you wait to find out.

Back at the restaurant, our conversation moved on.

I picked my pen up and asked for this name, for that name.

 I ask if she has birth certificates or papers and she says no, she doesn't know where they would be.

Mom and I look at each other and shrug. Getting the gift from Abuela was enough, any other thing was icing.  It was worth a try. Somewhere out there I just know there is a stack of Spanish and Cuban birth certificates.  I know I will find it.

Meanwhile,  I fish for stories.

Charo isn't married but her ring fingers are punctuated with beautiful diamonds on delicate gold bands. Whose are these?  She points at one, this belonged my mother, Lilia.  She points at the other, the one with two diamonds dancing around each other, and this was my aunt Monina. She was only married for a year and he died and she wore black for the rest of her life. 

I lean back and hold my heart. Every picture I've seen of Monina my whole life has been a woman in black with thick eyebrows.  Now I understand. Even if my Abuela told me this before it didn't register. Now I see Monina differently in every family picture, I see her pain.

 I wonder how a single woman could survive in the Havana of the 1930s and 1940s.

 Charo tells me that her Mother and her Aunt ran a boarding house for singleladies near where Charo lived. I liked that, I like that they became business women in major sea port during pre-Communist era when Havana was more like Ibiza and Vegas. I write down "women's Havana boarding house - brothel? - idea for HBO series" in my notebook.

The conversation went back around in Spanish and and flan was ordered.  didn't order any but I wasn't going to be a flan martyr if a dish of it came my way and someone politely said "oh, oh, this is too rich, please take a bite."

The table next to us was a four-top pushed against the wall. A thin gray haired man sat with his back to us, and his lady friend sat to his right. They leaned in towards each other and whispered while they watched the parade of people funneling past the front of the restaurant. A bottle of red wine was propped up next to their table, and they sip from their glasses slowly as waiter brings out a series of dishes theyshare.  They are in a whole different Cuba than I am.

The entire lunch is right on budget. Mom pays and we retreat back across the cathedral square.

 I want to run my fingers along the rock walls and take in the architecture but that would be weird. Xavier wants a picture of himself by a statue of a dancing man. I take it and then he takes one of me.

We pass a group of teenagers who looked like they were on their Spring Trip from a posh boarding school.  They looked tired and said little, marching along with matching backpacks marking them as members of the same tribe.

I fall behind my group and take their picture. Xavier, Mila, Charo's neighbor, my mom, Charo.

We walk back down the narrow alley, past building after building walled off and "under construction" or "being excavated" (or maybe falling down?).

We make it back to the park where we are to meet Machete, but his minivan isn't there. Maybe he sees us and needs to wind around in traffic to pick us up.   Whatever, we are in no hurry, today is too short anyway.  Charo spots a bench to perch on, and everyone follows her.

 I stand back and decided to take a group picture for you with the new iPhone 5 that I bought the day before I left for Cuba.

They want me in the picture and I say no, that's OK, this camera is too confusing for anyone else to try.

 Xavier offers, OK, he begs to take the picture.

Fine, fine, OK, I need a picture of us here today in Havana. This is a big deal.

I show Xavier what to do, and he nods.

 I walk away unsure of what kind of picture we will end up with and take my seat at the end of the bench.

I look up to where Xavier is standing about 30 feet away, and see he is no longer holding my iPhone 5, the one I just bought Friday, just 5 days ago.

In the millisecond it takes for it to register that he has actually handed my phone to a complete khaki-wearing stranger, I am off the bench and sprint right to where they stand.

No, Gracias, I say as I fiercely try to SNATCH the pink-and-white phone from the scruffy looking stranger's hand hand.

I rise up with every bit of my 5'4 and repeat "No GRACIAS" but the man doesn't walk away and he isn't releasing the phone.

I am normally slow rile up but I have gone from zero to one hundred in two seconds and I am ready to ninja-chop this man  if he doesn't step back and give me my phone.

 I might be making a scene. I don't care.

He puffs up a little and says, I am Cuban! and my eyes go right to the red star on his green hat, the same hat, same sign, I've seen on Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Is he implying that being Cuban means he won't take things from tourists and make his country look bad? Or that Cubans are communist so they live in communism and take nothing?

 That's crazy, communism takes everything.

I twist the phone away and say No GRACIAS, Comrade, and turn on my heels.

My free hand reaches to the top of Xavier's neck, where it stays as I walk him back to the bench, making it clear he has done something wrong and he's in trouble and he better go exactly where I tell him.

As we walk towards the bench I realize how unworldly he his and I need to tell him what just happened. It went something like this. Don't you ever hand my electronic or your electronic to a stranger. Ever. Don't hand your electronic to a friend either. But don't ever ever give it to a stranger. People take things, they break things. The more you have, the more you have to lose. 

I finish as we reach the bench.

 All the women there looked dumbfounded, like "What did you just do?"  but I couldn't give them an easy answer in Spanish so I asked my Mom, "You remember European Vacation right? Where the guy offers to take their picture with Chevy Chase's camera and just as the family poses the guy runs away with the camera? I couldn't take a chance."

Mom laughs.  We explain it briefly to the others, and they seem to have forgiven me for the outburst.

I give Xavier another chance with my phone. He takes this picture. As you can see, I'm ready to jump up again, if need be.

As Xvier walks back towards us to return my iPhone I ask my mom if I had acted like an ugly American and made Americans look mean and untrusting.

 She takes a second to answer, choosing her words carefully. "You certainly were more assertive than I would have expected" and with that, we let it go.

Machete picks us up and we return to Charos.

Charo gives me a gift. It's a mirror she tells me, and what she hands me is anything but a mirror.  Where the glass should be there is only a thin piece of old wood.

You can get a new mirror, she says and then explains, "It's Art Nouvea" as if I wasn't already drooling over the intricate details on the heavily tarnished frame that surrounds the mirror. A toga wearing lady, barefoot with cascading ringlets of hair, leaned on the frame.

It's a MUSE! I proclaim, and Charo smiles. Yes, a Muse. Write more books, I can't wait to read them.

I love it and I love her and I don't think for a minute that bringing this large metal object  through off alarms at the airport or that taking pieces of history or antiquities from Cuba might be illegal.

The trip to Havana is short because we want to make the 4 hour drive back to Cienfuegos while the sun is still up.  We settle back into the minivan, a little giddier from the trip.

On the way home I'm wide awake and make mental notes for you.  The road is two laned and if I didn't know better could imagine I'm in parts of Western Miami-Dade where small pastel houses dot overgrown landscapes.

 Machete weaves us through the 2 lane highway navigating obstacles, crossing between lanes before hitting oncoming traffic more times than I could count.

 To pass the time, I interrogated him.

 Remember in Four Days in Cienfuegos I told you that my dad warned me that  Machete was on his ninth wife and I was supposed to tell him when I met him that I wouldn't be his 10th wife.

I told him how if he had 9 wives in America he'd probably need 9 jobs to pay them all.

 He didn't understand, and I didn't know how he couldn't understand, so I asked him to explain divorce and alimony and how to split up property in Cuba.

He laughs. You like someone, you move in together, you are married.  You don't want to live together, someone moves out.

This sounds too simple, so I push him. People just move out?

 He shakes his head. Well, because of shortages in housing sometimes no one moves out.  She brings in her new man and he brings in his new woman and they raise the kids.   Because everyone pretty much makes the same, the courts don't order him to pay her or her to pay him. No one stays together because it would be too expensive to leave.

I see the revolution different now, and remember it unfolded just at the same time as the sexual revolution.

 Free love, equality of the sexes, universal access to birth control, non-punitive divorce laws and no divorce attorneys.

The car trip continues.

 We pass horse drawn carriages. We pass oversized military vehicles. We pass groves of mangos and fields of sugar cane.  We pass a crew of people cutting someone's yard with a machete.  We pass trucks filled with sad looking potatoes and sacks of rice. We pass patches of people standing by the road, hitchhiking.

Machete turns off the main highway and onto a narrower road that would take us to downtown Cienfuegos.  I see a small shirtless toddler sitting on the pillared porch of an ancient crumbling cement house, smoking a cigarette, or at least pretending so to smoke one perfectly it startled me.

We pull up to the hotel just at dusk.  The cab fare was more than $200, in the range of what Mom had budgeted.  Thank God we made it back safely;  travelling today the scariest part of the trip and none of the horrible things we imagined could go wrong went wrong.

Relieved and happy, we  kiss Xavier and Mila and send them home. Before she goes Mila wants to know what we are doing tomorrow and I answer "we don't know, we just don't know, but don't worry about us."

I do know what we will be doing tomorrow. I just don't want to tell her.