What You’ll Remember

Image from 7 Days in Havana
Image from 7 Days in Havana

You sit in the back of the cab, a white boxy thing you think of as Soviet-made, you don’t know why, and the oily fumes come in through the windows on hot, wet air that barely moves. Your guide stretches forward and speaks a stream of words to the driver, soft, in that voice you like to lean in close to hear, to feel the breath on the skin of your face, your neck. And you wonder how the driver can possibly make anything out over the unmuffled motor. Only he does, and he smiles and glances back in his rearview, looks right at you, into your eyes. His own those particular Cuban eyes, the light ones, green or gray or blue (sometimes gold) and rimmed black around the iris—and you feel your chest tighten a little like it always does when you see those eyes, and you smile back at the driver who says something fast and blurry, a question it sounds like, and you nod even though you don’t understand but it seems like he might have asked “¿Bien viaje?” or something like that, something you suspect means “Good trip?”

And your guide laughs. He pats the man on the shoulder and leans back into the seat beside you, close to you because the vinyl on his side is torn and a spring pushes up and out of it, silver and sharp looking. And his door has no handle. So the two of you press together, sharing your side. You don’t mind; his arm is hard against your sunburned one, the skin cooler than yours. He puts a hand on your thigh in that way you notice Cubans touch, sure and flat-palmed, not like back home in the city where strangers touch one another like it’s an accident, with fingertips or the bony backs of their hands. You remember how just a few days ago you stood in the crowd at the rumba concert in the alley painted bright with murals and scattered with sculptures made from metal and wood and things that once were something else, buckets and bicycle tires and bathtubs, and you felt a hand on your waist. One whole hand pressed against you, and another one low on your shoulder blade. You thought for just a moment that it must be a friend there, only you knew it couldn’t be, not possibly. You’re on your own, your colleagues gone back to the States while you stayed on, alone here in Havana now that the conference is over. You figured what the hell. Your life had gone black and white; you were forty and newly alone and nothing ever changed. And now you wanted something you could carry away with you back to your too big apartment in the city, something that when you opened it up to look at again, your life would fill up with color. Something to remember. You were surprised how easy it all was, changing your return tickets, paying for the room in advance, just like any old trip, even though you ached for something new. And so at the concert in the painted alley, you leaned into the hands, let them touch you: “Permiso,” the man you’d never seen before (small, dark, kind-looking) said, and you said: “Es suyo.” All he wanted was permission to pass, but still, you let him move you, and after, long after, you remember leaning into those hands.

“Give me five dollars,” your guide says, hand still on your knee, and you realize (more than a little disappointed) that he means nothing by the hand, he’s just making contact to get your attention. Hatuey his name is, and you remember how it took almost an hour for you to get it close to right. You loved listening to his voice while he said it, the H barely a breath; you loved watching him repeat it, his lips pursed and opened, his tongue gentle on his teeth to release the T. “Hot-too-way,” you said, and finally he nodded and shrugged like “close enough” and smiled. And you flinched a little at his smile, the teeth dark and ragged in his smooth, twenty-eight-year-old face. But then you found yourself saying the name under your breath, even after he’d left you in the bar where you met, and then while you rode the elevator to your floor, your room, the sewer smell from the basement following you up and up. And when you awoke the next morning and looked out your window to the apartments across the way, heard the rooster crowing somewhere beneath you from the streets of Havana, saw the green and yellow parrot in a cage on an opposite balcony, you remembered the name and whispered it again and again. Hatuey Hatuey Hatuey. And it sounded good.

In the taxi you dig in your pocket and pull out a five, U.S., and you’re amused that the meter reads U.S. dollars, and how most things you’ve bought you’ve paid for in dollars, and how the Cubans have minted coins and printed pesos that are equal to dollars to give tourists change back. And you wonder, not for the first time since you landed at the Havana airport in a crowd of dozens of other Americans (musicologists from Harvard, Baptists from the Carolinas, blond kids from a Midwestern high school), how the embargo can possibly be effective if everywhere you go the place is filled with U.S. money? The taxi turns down another street, and you leave behind the dark residential block, move away from the huge concrete mansions that have been partitioned and divided up into multi-family dwellings. In the dark you could almost imagine what the street must have looked like forty years ago: ornate balconies and stained glass windows and courtyards lined with bright ceramic tiles and planted with palm trees. You’ve seen it in the light though; the sidewalks are cracked and the salt air has worn the walls through in places, and wash hangs on lines stretched from one palm to another. Gray sheets and faded flower-print dresses and shoes hang from the iron bars over the windows, airing out. You’ve seen more than one courtyard strewn with broken concrete, and you’ve seen another with a goat tethered to a post by a rope.

Now you are on a different street. A wide boulevard with billboards painted with story-high faces and slogans underneath. “Patria o Muerte” under black-bearded Fidel. “Recordamos Siempre” under Che in his beret. And under the innocent face of that little boy held hostage by his relatives in Miami, words demanding his return. You’re turned around some now, from the taxi ride and from the rum you started drinking in the patio bar at your hotel while you waited for Hatuey. You know that the ocean is out there somewhere, to your right maybe, a block away, two at the most. Hotels on this boulevard are huge and bright and recently painted, the driveways wide and paved smooth, the parking lots full of new cars from Japan and old, old cars from the States. Your smoking, stinking, grumbling taxi pulls into one of the driveways and follows the curves until you reach a doorway with a concrete awning that boasts Café Havana in big, black script. A valet trots to your door and wrestles it open, and you notice how even though his uniform is clean and pressed (bright red jacket, sleek black pants), a safety pin holds a button to his cuff, and the pants are too short and marked by the lines of hems let down and sewn up over and over again. Hatuey gives the cabbie the five and puts a hand out for the change, but you wave it away and say, “Keep it,” and even though it’s English you’ve spoken, the man understands and turns his beautiful Cuban eyes to you and says, “Gracias.” “Por nada,” you remember to say.

In the foyer the sign reads in English, “$12.50 table” and “$7.00 bar/stand” and “First Drink FREE.” You’re in front of Hatuey and the music from inside the club is so loud you can feel it, the thrum of the bass moves through you so when Hatuey reaches out and draws his knuckle up your spine—starting at the small of your back, moving up between your shoulder blades where your skin is exposed and stinging, to the nape of your neck—you feel yourself lean back into his touch. But then you remember who you are, boss and hired help, and you step forward and out of reach. “Nosotros,” you say to the cashier at the door and hand her fourteen dollars, and then you’re in the club and on your way to an open seat at the bar and the air conditioning is cranked and it’s the first time since you’ve been in Cuba that you’ve felt cold.

When Hatuey catches up, you’re already ordering, but he signals the waiter and orders scotch, Johnny Walker Red, and when you open your mouth to protest, he says, “We pay good money. We take good drink.” You want to tell him that you can get Johnny Walker Red anytime at home, and the truth is it’s not all that good. What you want is a mojito, Havana Club white rum and limes and sugar and mint, you can’t get those at home, not like here, bars make them, but they are not the same. But you let Hatuey have his way this time, and when you lift the drink to your lips the brown liquor burns at first (you’ve gotten used to the fresh, sweet stuff), but then it tastes better than you expected and it goes down easy. So you have another.

By the time you turn around and get a good look at the club, you’re pretty tipsy, and you try not to laugh at how tacky the place is. The worst of the eighties (even though it’s a whole new century), Hard Rock Cuba or something. Old American cars polished up and standing on platforms, twirling disco lights, a flashing dance floor, and a stage show with audience participation and men in white suits and Panama hats making jokes you can’t translate but are pretty sure are silly and old and not at all funny, even though everyone laughs and cheers and pumps their fists in the air. It’s nearly all tourists: middle-agers in good dresses and sharply creased trousers (Brits, you think, or maybe Canadians); young, probably newly-wed Asians who sit close together and look slightly frightened; more Americans than you’d have expected, mostly single women in their thirties, their forties, in little sundresses with spaghetti straps and bare legs and high-heeled sandals (you’re glad you wore jeans and a silk blouse), their hair down and their faces tanned; their escorts (young, handsome Cuban men, men like Hatuey) whisper in their ears and pull them out to dance. And the others. Older white men with dyed hair or fake hair and cigars, big and round and phallic, their meaty hands on the shoulders of the little Cuban girls (teenagers, really) they will be paying for the date.

You can’t help but wonder over the Cubans. Not the escorts and the dates, but those who roam the club: men in tight white pants and shirts open to show flesh and muscle, young women in velour cat suits and short, short dresses. The cover charge is nearly one-fourth of what any single national is allowed to make in a month, so you know they must be out for more than a good time, there must be some payoff here. Trolling for tourists, maybe, like how Hatuey approached you at the hotel bar, bought you a cerveza nacional, offered in his quiet, deep voice to show you around for just ten dollars a day and expenses. Jineteros, they call these guys, a word you don’t know the exact translation of, but suspect falls somewhere between vendor and hooker.

A thick man pushes a girl up to the bar next to you and presses his belly against her back. He waves his hand (fat with U.S. dollars) in the air and makes that tsst tsst sound that everyone does here to get service. The bartender pours from a complicated bottle, one half dark and syrupy, the other creamy and white, and the girl—when you look close you see she must just be fourteen, her small face puttied with makeup, a patch of pimples on her chin—sucks it up through the stir straw until that dry little noise of emptiness comes from the bottom of the glass. The man waves for another, the bartender pours, the girl drinks, the man waves, the bartender pours, the girl drinks. Hatuey is fascinated with the bottle, “¿Que bonita, eh?” he says like he did when you were in the marketplace in Havana Vieja and he saw that contraption made out of bamboo, that thing that looked like a replica of a Chinese junk ship and was supposed to sit on a table and hold two bottles and swing back and forth if you gave it a push. You bought it for him, not wanting to judge, but nevertheless feeling more than a little let down that he chose that instead of the hand-tooled calfskin wallet or the white cotton shirt with fine stitching and shining buttons.

The thick man smells like something going bad in the sun and too much cologne. He looks over at Hatuey when the little girl finishes her third drink and gives him a wink. “Le gusta,” he says, but it sounds somehow German, and he paws the top of the little girl’s head. Hatuey nods and smiles, showing his rotted teeth. “Dulce,” he says. Your stomach hurts and your head swims and you need to get away from the man and the girl, so you say to Hatuey, “Dance?” You don’t realize you’ve spoken English until he looks at you funny. You remember the word for dance. “Bailamos,” you say.

“Sure,” he says, the one American word he has absolutely down (only it comes out “choor”), and he takes your hand and his is warm and solid and soft and you’ll follow him to the dance floor and beyond you think, and you know you’re more than just a little drunk. Bodies are everywhere, moving and shaking, and it’s mostly the American women with the Cubans; a few couples here and there, on honeymoon or anniversary trips; island girls with island girls dancing sexy and perfect, and you’re glad you know how to move. It’s something you’re good at. So when Hatuey steps into your space and dips his shoulders and sways his hips just right, you move with him, and you see in his eyes how it pleases him, the way you dance, and when you get jostled by your neighbors, their high-heeled sandals heavy on their feet, their arms moving as though part of someone else’s body, you don’t even tip. You give in to the music, give up to the dance, and when Hatuey gets close enough to touch you, body to body this time, you let him. And you move together slow and delicious like you were made for it, and you feel the heat rise, and he lifts your hair off the back of your neck, blows cool on your burned skin and still you move and move and move. He turns his back to you, and a woman is there in front of him. He knows her, you think: she’s Cuban and about his age and beautiful with a wide, full-lipped mouth and sheets of dark hair and a tiny waist, and he slides toward her and with her and at the same time reaches back for you, and you hear her say his name, “Hatuey,” and she smiles over his shoulder at you, a warm, friendly, seductive smile, and you think hot-two-way, and it startles you, the thought, but then the girl waves to you both and dances away and it’s just you and him again, and when he leans in and asks, “¿Vamos a dormir ajuntos?” it takes you a minute to answer because you’re stuck on how the euphemism is the same as home, sleep together, and you want to be sure you know exactly what he’s asking. “¿Dormir?” you say, and he says, “You know,” and he pulls your hips against his and you feel him hard against you and so you nod.

In Centro Havana there are posters everywhere for that little boy found at sea, and while you and Hatuey walk through the close, dark streets, you imagine for a moment that you could offer yourself up in trade: your safe return to the States for the boy’s safe return to Cuba. But then you remember there’s no one at home who wants you back badly enough to make the trade. And it’s at just this moment that Hatuey reaches for your hand, and you’re so grateful for that, the way he pulls you to him, you nearly cry right there in the middle of the street. You’d like to believe it’s the booze that’s got you going like this, but the truth is you’ve danced most of it out, and you’ve been walking for blocks, and what you’re feeling is something other than intoxicated. It’s like you’re fine-spun and brittle, which—you understand in this moment—is not entirely a bad thing.

When you come to the doorway that is Hatuey’s, one of a dozen in a line, the whole block is blacked out. The glow of lights elsewhere rises over the low buildings like a fog. You stumble when you step inside and your heart hiccups in your chest and you remind yourself that it’s adventure you are seeking, and so you trust Hatuey’s lead and follow him through a room you can feel is narrow, until you reach a kitchen, and he lights a candle and pours you a rum and himself something blue that he mixes with pineapple soda. It’s a tiny room, tight with furniture and appliances, a low-slung freezer, a clunky refrigerator, a dinette set made from Formica, aluminum, and vinyl. On the table there’s a pile of pictures, like someone left them there in the middle of sorting, and he shows them to you: his little brother in front of a ranch house that could be in any suburb back home but is in Argentina where he lives with relatives; his mother on a park bench, one hand shading her eyes from the sun; his father at about Hatuey’s age, dark and thin with thick curly hair and those Cuban eyes. Hatuey kisses his fingertips and puts them on the face in each of the pictures. “Mi papá ahora,” he says, and he points toward the room you just passed through, “one leg, solamente.” He draws a line with the side of his hand beneath his own kneecap, and you understand that his father, in the other room, has had one leg amputated. You shake your head, make a sympathetic sound with your tongue on the back of your teeth. What else can you do? And you whisper, because you know now that you are not alone in this place, “Lo siento.” You are sorry.

“Come,” Hatuey says then, and he takes your hand again and carries the candle, and you pass through that narrow room, only now in the flickering light you can make out the skinny beds on either side of it, a woman asleep in one, Hatuey’s father in the other. He turns in his sleep as you pass, and you see he is a fat man, his face fleshy on the pillow, his head bald. It’s hard to reconcile this aged and round one-legged person with the other man in the photo. You look at the line of Hatuey in front of you, his broad shoulders and solid ass, his long legs strong under his tight jeans. And you wonder how you will look to him once you are naked, everything forty years old and softer and lower than it once was.

His room is not really that, just a bed and a dresser on the landing at the top of the stairs. Where there might be a window, there’s nothing but slats of wood and open spaces. When you sit on the edge of the bed, you fall backwards, the dilapidated box spring like a trick chair that topples the sitter. Hatuey laughs and rolls back on the bed next to you and then you are kissing, finally, and you try not to think of his brown teeth but how he tastes like scotch and pineapple. And his hair smells like smoke from the club, but his skin smells of soap, it smells powdery and fresh. He unbuttons your blouse and unzips your jeans, and you rise up so he can pull them off. “Que bonita,” he says and you want to believe he means you, even though he is running his finger over your black, lacy lingerie. And then he stands up and takes off his own clothes. You’d like to help, it’s one of your favorite parts, but you are afraid you won’t be able to get up gracefully from the sunken bed, and you figure you look better lying back and stretched out anyway, so you just watch. And his shoulders are broad, like you’d thought, but his chest is thin and boyish and hairless, which surprises you since you can still feel the burn of his stubble on your sun reddened skin. His cock is not entirely hard, and it’s on the small side and uncircumcised, and it looks like a cigar, you think—a Cuban cigar. And you almost laugh but then he’s on top of you and it feels warm and he helps you out of your expensive underwear and then he’s inside of you and you wait for him to move like he did on the dance floor, slow and smooth and sexy. Only it’s not like that. It’s fast and it’s over. Underneath him still, you think how when you get back home, you will remember it as long and satisfying. He rolls off you and kisses you and looks into your eyes, and his are deep and brown and you think, too, how when you get back home you will remember his eyes as Cuban and golden, like you already imagine the dark eyes of that little boy in Miami. Hatuey gathers you up in his arms and holds you and strokes your hair and whispers in that low voice how pretty you are, how he might love you, and you think how when you get back home, that will be easy to remember.

Later, when you sit in the back of the cab that takes you away from the airport to your place in the city, and later still, when your life alone starts to go black and white again, here’s what you’ll remember: you dreamed of floating on a raft shaped like a hand in the middle of the ocean somewhere between there and here, and you woke up alone in the broken-down bed. In the black there was nothing to see, but you heard from the narrow room beneath you Hatuey’s voice, soft as a lover’s, “Esta bien, Papá, esta bien.” And you heard the old man sobbing, still asleep perhaps. You’ll remember how you laid there and listened (“Shh, Papí, shh”) until the old man stopped crying and the rooms went quiet in the dark. And soon after, the sun started its slow rise. You’ll remember how stripes of color, of orange, of red, of gold, came through the slats and covered the walls, the floor, the bed. This moment, the one when dark turns to light, is what you’ll carry away with you back to your too big apartment in the city. This. This is what you’ll remember most of all.


Originally published in River Teeth, Volume 6, Number 2, March 2005