It's hard to see anything. It's dark, and the strobe lights intermittently illuminating the inside of the Copacabana aren't much help. The arms flailing with shoulders and torsos following them in the air above the dance floor make it hard to focus on anything at all. In the intermittent swatches of light, I can see the face of the girl I am dancing with. Her lips look inflated, swollen like frozen red waves, as if I could take a pin and pop them. Her dark hair is sashaying behind her back in bouquets of ringlets. She puts her arms around my neck now and I can smell her. And then she moves in closer.
"I don't think you understand," I say in nervous and drunken Spanish, leading her away.
We sit down at one of the small drink tables next to the dance floor. The ice is melting in my Cuba Libre.
"I'm thirsty," she says, pouting. "Buy me a drink."
A waiter comes over and I buy her a cola. It's $4, American. She places her hand on the bottom of my thigh and I can feel the blood shifting beneath the skin.
"What don't I understand?" she says, leaning into me. The waiter comes back with the can and sets it on the table, but she doesn't open it.
"Well -- actually, it's me who doesn't understand."
"Where are you staying?" she asks. "Let's go there."
"Um -- I have a girlfriend."
"I don't mind."
"Yeah, well -- I do," I say. "Look, I just wanted to dance. I didn't know you were a -- I just wanted to dance. Can't we just dance?"
There's a remixed version of the "Titanic" theme song hammering out of the speakers. I wonder where they came from, who bought them. On the dance floor are maybe 10 foreign, older men, barely dancing, each of them surrounded by six or seven women. Or maybe they're girls. It's dark and it's hard to see. They're dressed in spandex the color of popsicles, spinning around on a liquid axis. There's a viscosity in their movement, as if the ratio of blood to bone, fluid to structure, is askew. Celine Dion's voice is weaving through the creases in the miniskirts, floating on the humidity in the room, and I think Susana knows her chances with me are sinking.
"Don't you think I'm beautiful?
"Yes, of course."
"Then why don't you want me?"
I don't answer. I can feel the bass lurching in my lungs.
"Look," she says. "Don't think of it like that. Think of it like -- I'm doing a favor for you and you're doing a favor for me."
I think about it. I think about taking her back to the room I am renting near Vedado, across from the Santeria herbero and the painted alleyway. I think about Lorna and Hortensia, the mother and grandmother who own the apartment, unlocking the door for me and us walking up the stairs together. I think about what favors she could do for me and I decide that I don't want them. Then I ask myself what the best thing I could do for her is and I stroke her face.
"I'd be doing you the biggest favor by not taking you home with me," I say.
That's when she starts to cry. I can't hear her because of the music, but I can see her face turn, like the sky above Havana churning in the onset of a small tropical storm.
"Please," she says. "Buy me a sandwich. I'm starving. My daughter's starving. Would you please give me money for a sandwich?"
I give her $10 and she disappears in the crowd gathered around the bar.
That's when Miguel comes back.
"You gave her $10 to go away?! She would've done anything for that much!"
"I didn't want anything," I say. Then I tell him why.
He laughs. He laughs so loud that I can hear it over the techno music.
"You said that?! Don't you know that your idealism isn't worth anything here!"
Strobe lights flicker mechanically and smoke rises from the scuffed floor to the ceiling. Red lights swivel and deal out patterns to the walls.
"I didn't know they were all -- "
"Prostitutes?" he says. "Por favor, Daniel!"
I had met Miguel on the plane from Merida to Havana. Miguel was Mexican, but lived in Miami. He had started a "business" taking packages down to Cuba from family members who had either escaped to the U.S. or had hit the bombo, the lottery. He would take down clothes, money and toiletries and charge the families for doing it. It was a business of sorts, a business that offered free vacations and sex, and it was on one of these trips that he met Pilar, his Cuban girlfriend.
During the flight, he leaned over and told me about a woman who rented rooms in her apartment, and that it was right around the corner from his girlfriend's place. While the engines were throttling, he whispered in my ear for me to wait outside the terminal after customs. I had just gotten on the plane in Mexico, after booking the ticket with a travel agency in the Yucatan. I didn't have anywhere else to go, so that sounded swell to me.
His friend Egon picked us up at the airport in his '72 Lada and drove us back to the city. It was night but even from the plane Havana couldn't be seen. There were no lights on; the electricity, Miguel said, had been shut off.
The moon was strong and smeared itself across the oxidized hood of the Russian jalopy. Crude shadows of fallen buildings cut across the road to Havana Vieja and a few couples, doubling on their bicycles, pedaled slowly on the shoulder.
They dropped me off on a quiet street. A rusted Bel Air was up on blocks and a few boys were kicking around a piece of cardboard.
"This is Lorna's," said Miguel. "No. 153. Right there. Go up and take a look. She lives with her mother, Hortensia. They're great people. They live very well here. Ring the bell."
I got out of the car and knocked on the door. Dogs barked and a woman came to the balcony and looked down. Miguel said something to her in his quick and hyper Mexican accent and the door opened. I pushed it a little and saw a string attached to the lock that rose up the banister to the top floor.
Lorna and Hortensia showed me the apartment: my room, the bathroom, the TV, the toilet that flushed, the couch, the refrigerator that I could keep food in, the fan to blow away the heat. They said they would wash my clothes; $15 a night. I took it.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Egon picks us up outside the Copacabana along the western end of the Malecon, the seaside drive that winds along the Havana coastline. His Lada rumbles and ticks beneath the brown fronds of a hacked-up palm. Along the Malecon, and then along Fifth Avenue (the street that supposedly passes by one of Fidel Castro's many houses), women stand on the medians in skirts and tops that stick to their skin in the humidity. They wave at us, trying to get us to slow down. Egon keeps driving; they're road signs advertising a product he doesn't care to buy.
"What do they want?" I ask.
"A ride," he says without turning his head. "Anything."
None of the dials in the car works; the needles lie down at zero, like exhausted workers on a permanent siesta. A waist-high cement wall is crumbling next to the road, but the painted propaganda on it is still legible: "Patria o Muerte Venceremos" -- "The fatherland or death, we will win."
"What do you think of that, Egon?" I say, pointing to the wall.
"That," he says. "Patria o muerte moriremos" -- "The fatherland or death, we will die."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
When I wake up in the morning, Lorna and Hortensia have made coffee. I've grown accustomed to not having milk; in Cuba there's only milk for children under 7 and even that is powdered.
I stir the coarse sugar into my glass of coffee until it starts to dissolve while Lorna slices open a mammee on a plate. They're nice women, and I'm feeling like a native already, although I know I'm not. It's easy to enjoy a place when you know you can go back to wherever you're from whenever you want. Comfort rides shotgun with the temporary.
Lorna asks me how my night went and Hortensia settles into a chair. I tell them about the dance club and the music and the movement, and then I tell them about the girl.
"Ay, Daniel, what did you expect?" Lorna says.
"I'm not sure," I say, gnawing at a slice of mammee, and it's the truth.
"It's all set up, fixed. You know, like that drink you bought her. She didn't open it, did she?"
"No, she didn't," I say.
"You buy it for $3. She doesn't open it. After you leave, she sells it back to the bartender for $2."
"Jesus, what a setup," I say.
"Ay, Daniel," she says. Lorna then lays it out for me, that most of the prostitutes come from El Oriente, an eastern province on the island, that they come to Havana for a couple of reasons. One, they want to make money. They're starving out in the country. And two, because everyone wants to go to the big city. The city is where you can spend money, if you have it. So these girls come on the train, or hitch rides on state trucks, come to the clubs or the beaches. They do business only with foreigners because only foreigners have money.
In Cuba, it's not a one-time thing. So far as I know, in the United States, it's pretty much a 20-minute deal. You're in, you're out, thank you very much, help yourself to a mint as you leave. But in Cuba, it's a different story. Women don't want just one "session," they want to milk the experience for all it's worth. They're smart capitalists, these socialists. They want you for the entire week. They want to dine with you, go to the pool with you, eat with you and shop with you. You don't even have to pay them cash, just buy them things. It's a barter system: sex for chicken, sex for three-speed electric fans, sex for canned soup, sex for place mats.
Hortensia, Lorna's mother and a great-grandmother, has been quiet all this time, just nodding her head at everything Lorna says and shaking it at my naiveté. It's quiet for a minute while I'm digesting the mammee and the explanation. Then she speaks. "Did you try one?" she asks.
"No, a Cubana!" she says.
"Absolutely not," I answer and blush the same color as the flesh of the fruit in my palm. "I have a girlfriend. I'm loyal."
"Ay, Daniel -- loyalty?!" says Lorna, and she says it like loyalty is so old-fashioned, like they'd proved it didn't exist years ago and I was the only one in the world who hadn't gotten the newspaper delivered to his conscience that day.
"You really should try one," says Hortensia, spitting out some seeds into her fist. "You know, they're -- we're incredible, the best in the world."
Lorna is laughing and trying to hide behind her glass and a cigarette.
And I can't believe it, because here I am, being told by a great-grandmother that I should sample a prostitute, as if it were akin to trying a regional dish, pig's knuckles or baby eels.
"Say you're a chemist," she begins, "and you read a great chemistry book. You can say it's the best chemistry book in the world, but if you haven't read all the chemistry books in the world, then how do you know?"
"But what about loyalty?" I say.
"Loyalty?" says Hortensia, spitting a chunk of rind into her hand. "But you're a man."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Is it just me? I'm not just talking about what Hortensia says. I'm talking about everything: the way the men and women interact, not only the different roles they hold but also what is expected of them, both by themselves and by others. I have to find out if it's just Hortensia who has these views, or if it's something deeper, ingrained in the culture.
Hortensia's sister, Paloma, lives in Santa Cruz del Norte. I have an open invitation to get out of the city, where morals typically erode, and into the rural, where more often than not there is some preservation. Plus I have been told there is cheap lobster to be had -- all in all, an irresistible travel menu. So I grab a bus to Santa Cruz.
The first thing I notice is that Paloma and her husband, Domingo, have a house. In Havana there are only apartments, and these apartments are about as stable as the set from a high school play produced 50 years ago. It's said that more than 300 buildings crumble every year in Havana. While in most cities the fallen would be quickly rebuilt or replaced, in Cuba this has not been an option. The evidence of a crumbling country cannot be hidden. So it's not only a saying, it's a visual reality.
Santa Cruz is very different from the city. Many of the people, including Paloma and Domingo, are more content with the country and the system than the city people. Or maybe I should say less discontent. They have more space and a small garden filled with various fruit trees: mango, coconut and guava.
Domingo is hacking open the yellowed husk of a coco with a machete while Paloma and I eat eggs on the porch.
"This is a big house," I say. "Is it just for you and Domingo or do you have any kids?"
Paloma breaks the egg yolk with a tine of her fork.
"We don't have any kids," she says, pausing. "But he has one."
"Oh, from a previous marriage?"
"No," she says and mops up some yolk with an edge of toast.
She explains to me how Domingo had gotten another woman pregnant years back, about how the mother couldn't take care of the baby and how she, Paloma, had taken the baby in.
"But what about Domingo? How could you still stay married to him after that?"
"He's a man," she answers. "That's what men do."
The way she says it, the usage of the word "do" instead of "choose," speaks to a nature that is acknowledged here. Domingo comes in with two glasses of agua de coco, sets them down on the end table and lumbers back outside to boil some milk on a makeshift stove.
"You're talking about men like they don't have a choice, like Domingo couldn't help being with that woman."
Paloma just shrugs and brings the glass up to her lips.
"He's here, isn't he?" she says, and takes a sip, straining the liquid through her teeth. "Look, Daniel, here it's different. Maybe we put a different importance on things because we're just struggle to survive. We don't have the energy to focus on everything. Hortensia told me that you have trouble understanding the prostitutes here. Listen, take my niece. She has a degree in electrical engineering and it's worthless, you know, there are no jobs. So she left for Havana to earn some money and she did, she does. Fidel gave us all education and now he wonders why no one will go back to the fields. Do you understand? We have to work with what we have, and that is so very little. Domingo's daughter, I treat her like my own. We even help take care of her mother now. What are we going to do? There is no choice."
I lean back in the rocking chair and watch Domingo stirring the milk in the backyard, stirring it so it wouldn't burn. My mind stirs, too.
Three days later, I walk back up the stairs of Lorna and Hortensia's apartment. It was a long bus ride and the bag of papayas I have brought has been reduced to mush from the heat and the cramming in the back of the bus, where everyone stood for three hours.
I need to use the bathroom. And while I have reevaluated and relinquished many of the things I think I need in my life since the trip began, I in fact do need to use the bathroom. Lorna and Hortensia are on the couch watching Fidel on TV. Fidel's on TV every night, on both of the channels. Without thinking, I push open the bathroom door; after all, nobody else lives here.
There's a girl on the toilet.
In that moment, that one speck of a second in which I see her on the toilet, I know what's going on. She's beautiful, even sitting on the toilet.
I close my eyes, then the door and walk back out to the living room.
The two women are smirking.
"Welcome back, Daniel," says Lorna.
"Who's that?" I say, pointing to the bathroom.
"Jenny," says Hortensia. "She's a nice girl, you be nice to her."
Then I notice a light on in the room I had been renting before my trip.
"Who's in there?"
"Klaus," says Lorna.
Klaus and Jenny and I are going to be housemates.
Lorna can tell that I'm not in the best of moods, and that this isn't because I badly need to urinate, although that doesn't make the party any livelier.
But according to Lorna, this is how it works, how people get by in Cuba: Men come, like me, for a vacation. Only it's not a lie-on-the-beach, drink-daquiris, send-postcards vacation. It's a sex vacation. Klaus comes a couple of times every year, she says. Lorna puts him up, cleans up his girls and feeds them.
"How can you do that?" I ask. "Don't you object to it at all? Don't you think it's bad?" The word "bad" -- malo -- echoes off the linoleum.
"Bad, what's bad?" she says. "Daniel, you have a girlfriend, no?"
"And there are things you like about her, no?"
"Of course. She laughs at my dumb jokes, she's fearless, she makes me want to learn."
"And if she didn't have these things, if she didn't make you feel these ways?"
"Then I guess we wouldn't be a couple," I say.
"You want things from her and she wants things from you. We all want things, certain things. This is all. They are just honest, maybe more honest than you about exactly what they want. You think in terms of good and bad. Things here aren't good or bad, they are what they are. La lucha, the struggle, is everywhere. People do what they need to do to survive. You could have sympathy for that, you know. You are capable of sympathy."
We sit there on the couch. Fidel shouts out from the TV's paper speaker. Outside, I can hear children playing, the sound of hot wind slipping through the streets, a hammer pounding on the hood of a car. I think about sympathy. What if everything I've learned -- the things my parents taught me, my teachers taught me -- what if all these weren't right? Then I think about Paloma and Domingo, about them taking in the girl and then taking in the girl's mother, how an act like that just shines.
The bathroom door opens and the girl sticks her head out.
"Does anyone have any soap? I'm so dirty, I'm embarrassed."
I knew neither Lorna nor Hortensia can afford soap. They have empty soap cases and empty shampoo bottles on the shelves as decorations. I have soap, though, tons of it. Lorna is looking at me and I can feel it.
"I have some in my backpack," I say. "Just give me a minute."
I come back with a travel bottle and push my hand through the gap between the open door and the frame.
"Here," I say. "You can use this."
I feel her hand take the bottle from my fingers. I can't say it's a romantic moment, exactly; it's not. But I do feel something: two people making a connection, making the best in a world where many buildings and many more relationships have fallen.
It's a small gesture, I know. It's just soap, but to me it's something more, a small bottle of understanding maybe.
I can hear the water dropping on the floor of the tub. Lorna and Hortensia are smiling on the couch.
"It smells so good, like peppermint," says the girl in the shower.
"I know," I say. "You can keep it."