Boris seemed an odd name for a mulatto tall enough to touch ceilings. It made more sense when he explained his father's infatuation with all things Soviet around the time of his birth in the mid-1960s. Since then he had sprouted a mustache thick enough to cover his upper lip. The growth garbled his speech. One phrase, however, stuck out: "No hay problema."
No problem. In our first half-hour Boris repeated it no less than a dozen times. Every iteration increased my concern that there was, in fact, a significant problem with our deal.
"Are you sure I can rent your apartment?"
"It's not against the law?"
"And the neighbors won't report me?"
Boris's answers probably would have differed little had I asked whether Castro killed Kennedy. The gangly giant had just wrapped his fingers around a wad of my dollars. In a country where monthly wages were averaging less than eight bucks, the prospect of returning several twenty-dollar bills could probably breed tales taller than Everest. "No problem" would be repeated until I was in trouble or out of twenties.
The look of my lodgings did little for my confidence. Years had passed since paint touched the outside of the four-story block. Laundry hung from rusted balconies. Shutters dangled at unnatural angles. Moving to the front door, I found that plywood had replaced glass in the frame. Bulbs intended to light the spiral of stairs either didn't work or didn't exist.
A gate of iron bars guarded the fourth-floor apartment. The front door had two bolts. Both the door and the gate, warned Boris, were to be locked at all times. Before returning to his in-laws' home, where his family of three would bunk until my departure, Boris added a final thought.
"Don't let anybody in the door."
"Who's going to come to the door?"
"Nobody. But don't let him in."
Maybe the bogeymen were imaginary. The dangers inside the dank apartment were real. A trial of the television in the uncarpeted living room produced a blizzard of specks. In the kitchen, a coffin-size refrigerator alternately groaned to life and rattled to a halt. Running the water required twisting a faucet beyond the bars guarding the window.
The stove was no less idiosyncratic. Nothing happened when I turned on the gas. I remembered the taped rod hanging behind the stove. Boris had shown me how scraping the metal tip against a burner created a spark. He hadn't pointed out that the rod was attached to a wire inserted in a socket. Grabbing the exposed end of the homemade lighter shot a disconcerting ZZZTTT up my forearm.
The bathroom was no easier to operate. An attachment the shape of a can took the place of a standard shower head. A sliding lever allowed bathers to select cold, warm, or hot water, which Boris promised would gush. My test of the warm setting produced a dribble. Hopeful that less heat would mean more volume, I reached a wet hand up to the lever. ZZZTTT.
I lay on the bed and retraced the steps that had brought me from the Cuban mission in New York to the apartment in Havana. The backtracking lasted until the voice of a woman wafted in the windows, which opened onto an air shaft. She sounded strong, though not particularly young. I never learned her name or, in the weeks I spent a few feet above her window, saw her face. I did, however, know the name of her lover.
"Lazaro." Twenty or so seconds later she repeated the name. "Lazaro."
The woman reiterated the name in octaves high and low. The decibels also varied. Embarrassed by my sightless voyeurism, I wondered whether an awareness of her audience would alter the woman's course. And what about Lazaro? How would Lazaro feel about my tuning in to his lovemaking?
The woman increased her vocabulary. First came "mi amor." "My love" was joined by other sounds of Cuban passion, some intelligible, others not. Words devolved to grunts. These ended, leaving the three of us in a sweaty, midday silence.
For a time, meeting Fidel Castro took a back seat to another priority. I had found a home. What I hadn't found was a level of comfort. I felt strange in Cuba, like a man sleepwalking through somebody else's dream. To snap out of it, I forced myself out the door and into my new neighborhood.
The grid called Vedado was filled mostly by two-story homes. The original owners had decorated the faces of their homes with moldings, ledges, and other frills. Iron gates separated cramped yards from numbered streets and lettered avenues. Covered verandahs provided a place to unwind. Through doors left open for ventilation, I spied high-ceilinged parlors built in another era.
Remnants of high times contrasted with the streets' torpor. Vedado was dead. The roads were traffic-free. On the edges, parked cars had gathered weeks of dust. The heat kept most Cubans off of narrow sidewalks cracked beyond repair. Those who did venture outdoors moved slowly, their eyes cast down. The alternative was sitting in the shade and staring at the heavy air.
That was the choice of the rash of people who had set up tables at the end of their walkways. Hand-drawn signs advertised homemade sweets and savories. Scraps of cardboard attached to fences announced the availability of sofas, chairs, and kitchenware. A notice tacked to a tree in front of one colonial home said: "I'm selling a crib and children's clothing. Used but in good shape. Ring the bell."
The density of enterprise increased near the Hotel Nacional. A middle-age man spread battered books on wooden racks as well as the sidewalk. Titles included "An Interview with Fidel," "Fidel and Religion," and "On the March with Fidel." Another vendor had stretched secondhand records on his patch of pavement. A family of four took advantage of their location opposite a row of state stores by roping off an area in which they guarded shoppers' bicycles.
The grass-roots capitalism supported Boris's lecture on Cuban economic reform. The shift, said my landlord, dated to the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. Overnight, Moscow cut annual subsidies worth about $5 billion. Trade with the Eastern bloc, which had accounted for nearly all of the island's commerce, evaporated. Cuba stuck to its communist guns -- central planning over private enterprise, rationed goods instead of shopping sprees. Output dropped by a third over the next four years.
Then the Party's line wavered. Its coffers all but empty, the state permitted mechanics, plumbers, and other tradesmen to sell their services. Cubans were allowed to hold dollars for the first time in more than thirty years. Later, the government sanctioned farmers' markets. More liberalization, including the right to rent out apartments, followed as part of a policy known as "the Opening."
"Doesn't sound like communism," I said.
"Cuba is a confusing place," agreed Boris.
Proof came at a shaded food stand whose proprietors, a bony man and a fleshy woman, had nodded off. They awakened as I looked over the two plates on their table. Both featured potatoes that had been mashed, balled, and fried. While I chewed one of the pasty balls, the vendor, a retired librarian, filled me in on the birth of their business. State rations left them hungry. Inflation made their pensions meaningless. The pair had no choice but to set up shop. The results?
"There's a lot of competition," said the man.
"It's not easy," said his wife.
"La Lucha," he sighed.
"The Struggle," mimicked his wife.
I asked the price of the potato ball. "Three pesos."
That's when I realized I had no cash. Rather, no Cuban cash. I held out a dollar bill. Emptying his pocket, the vendor found just a few coins; their sum fell far short of the exchange rate, which I didn't know.
"You can pay me later. Or tomorrow. We are here every day, all day."
"The Struggle," sighed his wife.
I learned more about capitalism, Cuban style, near Old Havana. A cluster of men gathered in a tight circle in the plaza of Central Park. Judging from the boisterous shouts and shaking fists, they were watching a brawl. Closer, I saw that the crowd was focused on two men faced off like cocks in a pit.
A black man in a faded yellow tank top pushed his face to within inches of his opponent's nose. His brown eyes widened. Smooth features contorted. One palm extended outward, as if pleading for reason. The other hand flapped like a bronco. His point made, the aggressor planted his feet and folded his arms.
The adversary, a stocky man in a checked shirt, sprang to life. Arms spread, veins popping, he launched an oral bombardment that looked likely to end in fisticuffs or apoplexy. Communism versus capitalism? Is there a God? The chainsaw buzz of their Spanish made it impossible for me to tell the stakes.
I turned to a sturdy youth who was also watching the debate. Broad shoulders and a square jaw gave him the air of an athlete. A button-down shirt, khaki pants, and tasseled loafers were pure Brooks Brothers.
"What are they arguing about?"
"This is about baseball?"
"Baseball is very serious for Cubans. Do you want to buy cigars?"
"Cuban cigars are very good, very famous."
"I don't smoke."
"Maybe you have friends who smoke."
The dapper hustler, Luis, also told me to watch my step. Matching my slow strides across the park, he warned that the streets of Havana were filled with cigar dealers. Most sold phony stogies. He, on the other hand, insisted that he had the real deal: "My uncle works in a cigar factory. They give cigars to the workers. But my uncle needs money more than he needs cigars. So we sell them to tourists. Good quality."
When not hustling, the twenty-two-year-old worked at the airport. His dismal salary -- the equivalent of six dollars a month -- barely dented the cost of supporting his wife and infant son. So Luis became a "businessman." Cigars were his main line. His sideline was befriending foreigners in the hope of getting cash and clothes. That didn't make him a thief. Nor did he hurt people. Others were less scrupulous.
Luis took my notebook and asked for a pen. The young mulatto opened the back cover and began to scribble. Speaking as he wrote, he said that new words were entering the Cuban vocabulary. To understand the new lexicon was to understand Cuba. Luis finished writing and handed back the notebook, now filled with the local lingo.
Wanikiki meant money. Fula was a more specific way to refer to dollars. These were usually found in the possession of a papirici, a word that combined the words for "papa" and "rich." A jinetero, Spanish for "jockey," was a guy looking to separate a papirici from his wanikiki. The process of doing so was el fuego. "The fire," literally.
"So you're a jinetero," I said.
"These days, all Cubans are jineteros."
Luis asked if I needed a taxi to take me home. I did. The afternoon sun had drained my energy. What I didn't need was to pour more money into a state cab like the one that charged
me twenty dollars -- three times Luis's monthly pay -- for a ride from the airport.
"No problem," said Luis. "I'll get you a taxi for Cubans."
Luis surveyed the vehicles stationed along the rim of Central Park. Cardboard signs hand-printed TAXI rested inside the windscreens of battered American classics and slightly less battered Soviet buckets. Luis approached a Lada idling in the shade. The seated driver listened hard as the hustler spoke. The chat ended with the Cubans shaking hands and beckoning me to board the front seat.
"He will take you home for three dollars," Luis announced.
Cooled by the breeze created by the Lada's movement along the Malecon, I looked at the driver. The sun had burnished an indelible tan as well as dozens of lines on his gaunt face. Scarred arms and rough hands identified the man as a manual laborer. I wondered how he could afford a car.
"I earned it by cutting sugarcane," he said.
"It must take a lot of cane to pay for a car."
"I was one of Cuba's best cane cutters."
The driver explained that the state motivated workers with promises of goods. Televisions were common rewards for top workers. The big prize was a car. The country's best cane cutter got one for free. Lesser standouts won the right to buy a vehicle. Named to his province's all-star team in 1981, he paid for the Lada by pooling his savings with loans from friends.
Havana's fleet of free-lance taxis was rife with similar success stories. The drivers of the Soviet bloc autos were men who had played and won the government's game. In the weeks that followed, crack factory workers drove me to Old Havana. Top-notch bureaucrats brought me back. So did military heroes. In other words, model communists were leading the capitalist charge.
"Three dollars is a lot," I noted at the end of the ride.
"Gas is very expensive in Cuba. Ninety cents, American cents, for one liter."
"How many liters did you just use?"
"So your profit is two dollars."
"Only one. I have to give one dollar to your friend."
My friend? The meeting in the park. The stuff about Cubans surfing the changing economy. Had any of the banter been genuine?
I handed over the fare. The cane cutter passed the notes from his right hand into his left. Raising his index finger on his free hand, he leaned across the seat. Rather than thank me, the driver offered a broader view on dollar-wielding outsiders: "In Cuba, you are Jesus."
"Do you have a light?"
The dark-skinned woman stayed put. Standing flush against the rim of my bar stool, she waited, as if I might remember a matchbook buried in my pocket's lint. Or maybe she expected chivalry. Fidel Castro had promised social, political, and economic equality for women. But did progress excuse a comrade from helping a lady?
Yes or no, this lady was a fire hazard. She nibbled thick lips painted scarlet. The swatch of color floated amid a stretch of chestnut skin that began at her forehead and ended at the neck line of a white leotard that hugged curves normally found in centerfolds. She held my stare for several elongated seconds before moving away, slowly, and casting a last look over her shoulder.
Physically, the second woman to approach my bar stool had little in common with the first. A brown mane spilled past the edges of green eyes and an inviting grin. The hair came to rest on toasted shoulders left bare by a cocktail dress. Silver sequins covered, though just barely, buttocks raised three inches by black spiked heels. She, like her predecessor, wanted a light from an American barfly.
"I don't smoke," I said.
"Do you like to dance?"
"I don't know how."
Dumb answer. The music blasting from linebacker-size speakers wasn't salsa. Born in the USA, the tunes called for nothing trickier than a wiggle and a bounce. What's more, the girl in the cocktail dress probably wasn't looking for Fred Astaire. She may not even have wanted a light. I would never know. Two clipped answers were enough to scare off one feline Cuban.
There were plenty more like her. I struggled not to stare at a mulatta wearing a black evening gown, the bleached blonde whose behind just about burst its Lycra casing, and the rest of the parade of head-turners populating Hotel Comodoro's nightclub. Deconstructed, the women provided a catalogue of undulating hair, painted lips, and unhidable curves. Reassembled, they were a harem.
"Impressive, isn't it," said a voice behind me.
The slightest of accents told me that Peter had returned. Turning, I found his familiar blue eyes and dirty blond hair. The German's doughy face cracked a sinister smile that spread to my mouth.
"Unbelievable," I replied.
A resident of Havana, Peter was teaching me about living large in Cuba. He started by instructing me on eating in paladares, private restaurants in the homes of Cubans willing to let foreigners masticate in their living rooms and on their terraces. He also told me about the wave of European and Latino businessmen streaming into Havana. "Everybody can see this should be a great place to do business. Their education system has produced a big pool of well-educated people." The German's true love, however, was cars.
No newcomer could miss the automobiles cruising the capital. Paint weathered, bodies dented, windshields cracked like spider webs, classic Fords and Chevrolets clattered along the Malecon every few minutes. Engines minted back when Americans liked Ike rumbled like outboard motors. Maneuverability? Sherman tanks sprung to mind. That the beasts from Detroit moved at all was nothing short of a miracle.
Not so the Buick convertible in which Peter had picked me up. A smooth layer of red coated the car's unblemished hide. The chrome grill caught and magnified the lights above the street. The convertible's soft top exposed shiny red seats. White wall tires were the final touch to a flawless flashback. The German revved the engine and hit the car's mighty horn.
The cherubic entrepreneur blasted his klaxon again when the Buick passed a billboard on the Malecon. Painted in full view of the so-called U.S. Interests Section, America's unofficial embassy in Havana, the propaganda showed a hopping mad Uncle Sam reacting to the taunts of another cartoon figure. One hand gripping a rifle, the other cupped beside his mouth, a Cuban soldier was shouting, "Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you."
Resettled on the bar stool beside mine, Peter demonstrated his mastery of things Cuban. Standing halfway around the bar from our spot was a woman who, while not beautiful, dripped sexuality. An eruption of kinked brown hair and swollen painted lips took back seat to a figure that punished the seams of a skimpy sleeveless top cut from black leather. Swaying to the throbbing beat, she scanned the crowd with the concentration of a big-game hunter. Her eyes landed on two of the bar's smaller fry.
"Got a light?" said the slight lift of her unlit cigarette.
"Of course," replied Peter's cool nod.
The vamp swaggered her way around the bar. She placed the cigarette between her lips and waited for Peter, a nonsmoker, to produce a lighter and ignite its end. She closed her eyes to draw in the first breath and took pains to pucker her lips for the extended exhalation that followed. Only then did she introduce herself. And only to Peter.
Just as well. No small-talker in English, I saw no hope of learning the nonstop banter that came naturally to Cubans. Peter chattered like a native, leaving me to wonder what was going on. Had I died and gone to heaven? Or was there something else at work?
"Are these girls prostitutes?" I asked after the woman excused herself with a gentle stroke of Peter's thigh.
"Then why are they all so ... friendly?"
"Cuban women know what they want," was the start of the answer.
The rest took more explaining. Cubans, he said, had just enough money to survive. Extras -- clothing, for example -- were beyond the means of most locals. Foreigners, on the other hand, came to Cuba flush with cash. They were met by small-time hustlers selling cigars or renting rooms. Long on desire but short on cash, the ladies prowled through the night for their slice of the pie. Known as jineteras, they sought sugar daddies to buy a drink tonight, dinner tomorrow, and perhaps new shoes and a dress in between.
Peter insisted that the Cubans in the nightclub were nice girls. Several were known to be the daughters of Party officials. The rest came from good families, the type that read books and said prayers. Virtually all had studied at a university. Breeding didn't mean they weren't (a) young and (b) restless.
"That girl who was just here, the one with the black ..." Peter struggled to define the top, which covered more than a bra but less than a vest. "She has a master's degree in engineering."
I wasn't the only one marveling at the quantity of life in Cuba.
"The name's Karl" was how the man beside me on the inbound flight introduced himself. I had barely turned to register my neighbor's features -- gray and thinning hair, a tummy that heaved with every breath, and a fleshy face given to avuncular grins -- when he began filling me in on his life. British, he directed artsy films whose grit had caught the eye of Cuba's movie makers, who invited him to attend their annual film festival.
I next saw Karl in the polished lobby of the Hotel Nacional. The Brit raved about the cast of characters he had encountered in the bar. There was an Italian trader and a cameraman from a U.S. television network. The former was negotiating an import contract. The latter was spreading a rumor that Washington and Havana were about to normalize relations. Then there was Barnaby, an American who had come to Cuba to write about martinis.
More indigenous delights were on Barnaby's mind when we met that evening. Lean and balding, the fortyish man lifted his elbows from the oak bar and introduced himself. Then he introduced the bow-tied bartender as well as the mojitos, a blend of rum, sugar, seltzer, and a mintlike leaf called hierba buena. "Local specialty," informed the American. "Hemingway loved mojitos."
Entranced by mythical Cuba, Barnaby waxed nostalgic about vintage cars. Plymouths and DeSotos took him back to an era when men were called Mack and gas cost a nickel. He segued to the capital's colonial architecture. From there he moved on to the island's wondrous cigars, one of which he lifted from the pocket of his blazer. Preferring a light from the barman to his own book of matches, the man puffed his long stogie and asked, aloud, whether it was all a dream.
"Dreamy" described 1830, the place Barnaby wanted to dine. Carried by one of the gypsy cabs that hovered outside the Nacional, we arrived at the colonial mansion turned government restaurant. Decorative columns and an oversize doorway preceded an airy, ornate foyer. A broad staircase spiraled up to a second floor. Dead ahead lay the parquet floor of the main room.
A grand piano took center stage. At its keyboard sat a severe, dark-haired woman moonlighting from one of Havana's orchestras. Her soft, classical melodies warmed a room whose walls glowed with fresh white paint. A mammoth mirror framed in gold reflected a room with roughly twenty tables covered by white cloths.
The waiter matched the linen. Dressed in a jacket too broad for his bony shoulders, he couldn't hide his fatigue as he sagged to a stop beside our table. But the place wasn't about service; the waiter needed five minutes to find a corkscrew and another three to grasp its operation. Nor was it about food; high schools served better chicken than 1830. We were paying for ambiance; the room felt like a salon worthy of Gatsby.
After dinner Barnaby steered us to the Cohiba Hotel, a glassy tower overlooking the Caribbean swells. Breezing past a pair of hotel guards, he made a beeline for a lounge raised three steps above the lobby. The place was packed. Only a fraction, maybe a third, of the barflies were men, all foreign, mostly middle-age. Circled around them, like satellites to planets, were dozens and dozens of women. Few looked over twenty-five. None rated less than a double take.
Merciless scrutiny welcomed newcomers. Aggressive eye contact awaited men who made the grade. Heads turned quickly from males with the wrong plumage. The ocular rubdown made me squirm.
Not so Barnaby. Emboldened by a daiquiri ("Hemingway loved daiquiris") and a cigar called Cohiba ("Castro's brand"), the writer sidled up to two women at the bar. Karl joined them. Neither man tried to mask his lack of Spanish. Nor did they hide their interest in the superior view of four breasts, a brownish pair left exposed by the sunken neckline of a yellow sundress and a whiter set framed by the tight, square cut of a black velvet gown.
The women leaned back. They giggled at the men's attempts at communication via gesticulation. Barnaby bought a round of drinks. The girls giggled some more. Barnaby bought more drinks.
I found myself sandwiched by two teenagers. Each grabbed an arm. One asked, "Can we stand near you?" The pair stuck to my ribs as a hotel employee wearing a blazer and carrying a walkie-talkie passed within inches of us. The girls released me only once the coast was clear.
"If we are not with a tourist, he makes us leave," said a stocky girl with alabaster skin. Her svelte friend nodded.
"Is it worth the trouble to be near tourists?"
"Cuban men aren't interesting."
"They have no wanikiki."
Barnaby interrupted. Having reached a linguistic impasse, he needed help. Kati, the girl in the gown, seemed interested in dancing. Could I confirm?
Kati placed her hands around mine. She slid one leg over the other, a motion that pushed her dress to one side and exposed a stretch of black lace. When her face was just inches from mine, the woman moistened her painted lips and said, "Tell your friend seventy-five."
Kati pulled back. She glared. Was I trying to humiliate her by forcing her to spell it out? Or did I really not know what she was proposing? She clarified her wishes by twirling her hair and arching her back. I hesitated to relay the message that dancing wasn't all that Kati had in mind.
Barnaby clearly relished his romantic vision of Cuba. Would the news that Kati admired his wallet, not his charm, shatter the illusion? On the other hand, who was I to interfere with a changing economy? I condoned Cubans selling cars and cigars. Shouldn't Kati get similar approval? Saddened to see flesh for hire, I wouldn't judge her choice.
"Ask your friend if he wants two," said Kati's sidekick.
I felt out of place among the gang of men banging around Havana. Autos didn't interest me. Salsa did, but I couldn't dance.
Try though I did to let the colonial setting carry me back in time, I failed. I wondered whether there were any alternatives to the neoimperialist fun.
Defunct streetlights outside the Cohiba meant that I had to head home in the dark. Frightened by what sounded like a scream, I spotted a lanky youth vomiting on the sidewalk. Doubled over, arms wrapped around his midriff, he moaned steadily until he heard my footsteps. He stood up, said "Rum," and bent over again for another purge.
Alcohol wasn't his only problem. Accompanying me along an avenue called Linea, Jorge said that he was a student. English was his major and, with a big exam coming up, he was worried about passing. Did he want my help? No, he had a tutor, a woman who had completed the course at the University of Havana. But she was part of the problem.
Three times a week Jorge lugged his books to the tutor's home. Three times a week he vowed to buckle down and study. Three times a week he failed to crack a book. The student found the teacher irresistibly sexy. She felt likewise. The pair spent their tutorials making love instead of learning English.
"Cuban men can make love five times in one night," said Jorge. "How about American men?"
"Something like that."
"Have you ever been with a Cuban girl?"
My answer shocked the boozed-up student. A determination to initiate me renewed his energy. Jorge strode down the street until we reached a sign that said Joker. "It's a discotheque," he said. "A Cuban discotheque." Forgetting the imminent exam as well as his rotted gut, he pulled me down a flight of stairs leading to a basement.
The wooden door closed behind us and I found myself in utter darkness. Jorge vanished. Heated by a mass of bodies I could sense but not see, the clammy air fogged my eyeglasses. I could just about make out silhouettes until flashes of strobe light blinded me. A minute passed before I felt safe enough to take a second step.
Left, I saw a corps of twenty Cubans -- men in tank tops, women in halters, everybody in a sweat -- writhing to the thumping conga. Others did their thing against a wall. Three men in their late teens slouched and bumped their pelvises while three girls ground their rears into the thrusts. Moving toward the roomier, right side of the club, I knocked into a couple pressed face-to-face. Two men turned and smiled before resuming their mutual exploration.
The tender of a battered bar was conducting a probe of his own. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, the wiry youth couldn't see his customers. The reason? His eyes were closed. Had they been open, they would have seen no further than the face of the teenage girl whose grip on his neck improved her leverage on his lips. Trying to catch his eye and order two shots of rum, I found myself staring at hips rocking in time to the hands up her skirt.
"What's your name?" demanded a thin mulatta with a tattoo on her bare shoulders. "Why aren't you dancing?"
I said again, stupidly, that I couldn't dance.
"I'm going to Cubanize you."
Would Cubanization hurt? The girl yanked me into the sea of dancers. Faced off, my hands in hers, I was expected to lead. I froze. Stunned by the sight of the truth -- I really couldn't dance -- she reverted to remedial measures. Firm hands grabbed my hips. Pulling me into contact with her pelvis, the teenager began to rock gently, steadily, in time to the music. Self-consciousness doomed my earlier efforts to get in sync; gyrating with a girl I had known less than a minute felt queer.
"Move," she whispered. "Move."
I tried. Then I stopped trying. Then I tried to forget that I was an American in Cuba, that I was a stiff in the land of rhythm, that I was ... I lost track of the reasons that I couldn't enjoy myself. Instead I focused on the rhythm of the teenager. And the sound of the salsa.