At 10 p.m., Camilla rings the doorbell as I’m touching up the dark on my lashes. We’re bound for a trendy salsa club packed with rich tourist men. I look at myself in the mirror, a strange confidence reflecting back at me. I’ve made up my mind. With my bank account dwindling, and employment here impossible, I’ve reluctantly joined the ranks of the Cuban demimonde. Educated. Professional. Hopeful. And part-time hookers. With Camilla as my mentor, I’m going dancing.
The jockey has an outfit. A whip. Riding boots. Jodhpurs, the breeches with reinforced patches at the knee and thigh where the rider’s legs grip the beast. “Jinetera,” the Spanish word for a female jockey, means much more in Cuba. It’s a fitting metaphor for what many educated and beautiful Cuban women do after hours to feed their families as well as their dreams. I’m American, but I’m also Cuban. And to live on my island home, the place I was born, the land where my family surely resides, I’ve little choice if I want to stay. So I jockey. I ride the beast. I control the beast.
The beast is the tourist man.
At the dollar shoe store in the Havana Libre I’m standing like a stork in front of the foot mirror, wobbling on a new pair of four-inch heels and looking every bit the Cuban equestrian.
My young companion Dayanara is pacing. “Calm down,” I scold as I pull out my new dress and smooth it over my frame. Shoes and heels a perfect match. Skin spills out of every stitch, but I still cover more than your average Cubana behind a mop and broom.
“We have to hurry,” whines Dayanara. “I have to practice.”
I motion for the cashier to box the shoes. She glares at us. For we’re Cuban girls and we have dollars to spend, and that means only one thing: We’re engaged in the oldest profession.
Dayanara is a guajira, a country girl who came to big-city Havana to strike gold. It’s barely noon, yet she wears a minidress and leopard-skin heels that lace up midthigh. Copper glitters on each centimeter of skin.
Classic Chevys and Chryslers, swathed in duct tape, sit in the heated streets. Drivers lean on their horns, a bellow from the very gut of the great American beasts. A soulful honk. A genteel nudge. (One now supplanted back home by the snippy blasts of SUVs.)
I hurry Dayanara past my landlady, Pilar, who is gossiping with the neighbors, and I ignore her furious gaze. My rental is black market, and I’d promised to keep a low profile. This 15-year-old is anything but.
Dayanara lifts the flap off the DHL box that has arrived at my house, a gift from her 53-year-old British boyfriend. For the third time that day, out comes the box of Tampax. She pulls one from the delicate wrapping and follows me around the house, holding it like a tube of arsenic. Richard has sent them in advance, along with clothes, makeup and strict instructions that I’m to oversee their tasteful assembly.
“Teach me, please,” she says, stomping her feet. I can tell she’s scared; tampons are virtually unheard of in Cuba, and aren’t sold anywhere but at tourist hotels. “My period arrived today and — ” she gestures at the box, “he arrives tomorrow.”
I sigh. Once she uses the tampons, the messy alternatives Cuban women employ will seem intolerable. But, at about $2 a tube, regular Tampax usage is a luxury the way Harry Winston baubles are back home.
Dayanara falls listlessly onto my bed and watches every move as I adjust my dress in the mirror. “Do your schoolwork,” I say, plopping down her books. “I’ll be back in two hours.”
My landlady is back in her underwear, sipping bathtub rum and fanning herself in the heat. More than anything, I want to find my father, to meet the Cuban family I’ve never known. I take a deep breath, and head over to the hotel. Wobbling on high heels, I trip in the street and skin my knee. A graceful jockey I am not.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Doughy and soft, Terence is an amateur sculptor of hard bodies. He’s in love with Communism, and is convinced Cuba is a place where it’s practiced. Normally, I’d debate the merits of Marx, and his misapplication in my homeland, but my job is to be sweet and pretty.
I’m standing in Terence’s hotel room naked. A Polaroid hangs from his neck, and a tape measure slides between his thumbs. He jots down the circumference of my thighs, the width of my hips and, as I roll my eyes, the minutiae of my genitalia. He promises to send a photo of the life-size work he’s basing on my body.
It will be without a head.
Terence is my first official boyfriend, and we’ve been “dating” for a week. The Canadian barely lets me out of his sight. “That man needs a sheet of Bounce,” I tell Camilla, but the island’s lack of laundry luxuries makes the joke fall flat.
A plane will take him home in a few hours, and Camilla instructs me to get some goodbye cash. Thus far, I’ve been given $480 for reasons of my own invention: “cab fare,” “medicine” and an “ill grandmother.”
I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m a rubia, a blonde. As a Cuban girl’s skin darkens, her worth on the foreign-man market decreases. But I insist on condoms — most Cuban girls don’t care — so my price plummets.
In actual time with Terence, I’ve earned about $2.85 an hour. Or, conversely, if you add up my sexual tricks (seven blow jobs; 11 tries at intercourse; two hand jobs; and public sex in the Jacuzzi on the rooftop of the Parque Central) it comes to about $22.85 per act.
A biochemist makes $13 per month.
Roach poison is $6 a bottle.
Band-Aids are not sold.
Blood drips from my knee. Terence lies on his back. I’m on top. We’re fucking. His flesh feels like wet bread; our body fluids form a sticky paste. Though the room is eerily silent, I move as though dancing to salsa, in slow rhythmic circles. One-two-three, pause. One-two-three. It took me ages to get the hip movements of the Cuban dance. The feet were easy.
I look between his legs. I’ve straddled him and like a good jockey am riding the beast, clenching myself, just as Camilla taught me. (“It’s like when you hold pee,” she instructed. “Same muscle. Do 10 reps fast, then 10 reps slow. Twice a day.”)
Terence clutches my waist. He’s small and prone to premature shriveling. I make him comfortable. Tell him he’s a real man, my kind of man, baby, and when he’s inside it fills me up like a tank. His eyes shine and he wants to believe, needs to believe, and so he believes. I move faster. He gropes now for my breasts. Gets a fistful, then slaps them, from the side, like the racket on a ball, slow at first, then frantic, screaming that he’s about to come, and he slaps harder and my tits sting red and I’m clenching and he’s pushing his hips up, inside me faster and faster still, a frenzy of slaps and jerks, his head thrashing and then his head burrows under a pillow and when he comes it’s a weeping and gnashing, a holy noise, an expulsion of guilt and shame and pleasure.
I roll off, holding the condom firmly to his stub, so that it doesn’t slip inside me. I lay next to him, unfulfilled, panting slightly under the ceiling fan that chugs above, grinding through rusty gears.
Terence keeps the pillow tightly over his face, and turns on his side, in a fetal position. He cries, and shakes off efforts at consolation. I shrug. I’m not a shrink. I wait, listening to his sobs until my own thoughts drown the noise.
But I am tortured. I refuse the force that wants to reason with me, with what I’m doing. I don’t want to stop. If I go back to America, I’ll have my friends, yes, but my family, my real family, is here, somewhere in Cuba, and considering the love and affection Cubans shower on their children, I won’t risk not finding them, having them die off without ever knowing me, without knowing each other.
So I stay, and so I am Cuban and, like my sisters, live a life of struggle, la lucha as they call it here, a life that would surely have been mine had I not been given lucky passage many years ago across the Straits of Florida.
I lock myself in the bathroom and pull a surefire fantasy from the mental file. I exhale my pleasure quietly, savoring it internally. Quickly, I shower and dress. The hotel room is empty, Terence has fled. The note on the bed sits like frosting on the cake of dollar bills. On it is scrawled one word: “bitch.”
Jiggle. Jiggle. Metal pay phones scorch fingertips under a torrid sun. The stench of rotting fruit permeates the humid air, mixing with petrol leaked from 40-year-old carburetors.
“Camilla?” I say into the receiver.
“Chica. What happened to Bounce?” she says in a chirpy tone. I swear Camilla is enjoying herself at my expense. She’s amused I’ve got an American passport and may, technically, leave at any time.
“He’s got issues,” I say with a sigh, explaining my recent encounter.
Hmmm. She listens. “Insecurities, Oedipus complex, probably molested by his mom. Explains the breast smacking,” she says perfunctorily. “I once had a man who couldn’t orgasm unless he had a nipple in his mouth. All about the matriarch.”
I roll my eyes. The Cubans love Freudian analysis. I’m more fond of Jung, myself, but the populace here think he’s déclassé, so I change the subject whenever Herr Sigmund comes up. I’ve had enough penis as it is.
“Richard comes when, tomorrow?” she asks. “He may be your best client yet. I’m superjealous, mi vida.”
“God, if I did have a sexual relationship with him it would be so much easier,” I say.
“What, baby-sitting his teenage object of affection isn’t glamorous enough for you?”
“Oye, I’ll take a Canadian with mommy issues anyday.” Camilla barely ekes out her generous laughter when I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Gotta go,” I say into the phone as Yeyo flashes white teeth and criss-crosses his brown hands. We air-kiss. In addition to being his street name, “yeyo” is slang for cocaine, and his yo-yo-yo, arm-swingin’, dreads-floppin’ demeanor belies his cool, calculating self. Despite the tightly controlled media in Cuba, he’s picked up the Rasta look surprisingly well, and uses it to hustle young European girls — girls with a clichéd idea of a tropical romance.
The jockey has an outfit.
“It’s hotter than a bank robber’s pistol,” he says, wiping the sweat that drips down his temples.
Yeyo and I have a little deal: He helps me with my search for my Cuban father, and I teach him American slang. Problem is, I don’t know much current slang, so I’ve pulled out expressions I remember my grandfather using. Yeyo won’t know the difference, I figure.
Yeyo pulls me aside, into the shade of a colonial building in Old Havana. “Your momma lived in Miramar,” he whispers. I raise my eyebrows. Yeyo hasn’t delivered much, but what he has told me proves he’s correctly informed.
“Yeyo, that ink ain’t fresh.” All American diplomats live in Miramar. I stare at him closely.
“Yeah, but I’ll bet you don’t know the exact street in Miramar. I’ll come over tomorrow afternoon, we’ll take a peso taxi.” I hug him in sheer happiness. I have no idea if my father is alive, or if he even knew that the toddler my mother nursed was his. I wish now I’d pressed my mother for more details, but the effort of her admission seemed more taxing than she could bear.
Yeyo’s expression goes dark. “Word is you’ve been out night clubbing. That ain’t true of you, is it?” He gingerly knuckles my collarbone. “Nice Yankee girl like you …” Then he whispers, “Careful. There’s a crackdown coming.”
“Crackdown. Us on the street, guys with tourist girls, girls with their extranjeros. It started last week in Santiago, they’ve been arresting. Keep an eye out. You don’t want to be eating rice and beans for 20 years.”
I shake the cloud of dark news, furious that there’s only one real way to make money in Cuba, and now they’re putting people in jail for it. I step over piles of dog shit, as quickly as my flamboyant heels allow, and march home. For there I’ve got a sexually active 15-year-old country girl with a world-class boyfriend, and I must teach her how to insert a tampon, so that she may please him, and in doing so, her family may eat.
The jockey has an outfit.
Tomorrow: London wants a shaved pussy