Antonio and I have had a row. He has pronounced, by my count, nine Spanish expletives, most of them related to my mother's anatomy; has put his fist through the wall, just below the recently dusted picture of Milagros and her daughter; and has called me, in English, "a horse," by which, of course, he meant "a whore." He has also observed that the word "esposas" means both "wives" and "handcuffs."
It started, not so innocuously, with his complaining that the plátanos a puñetazos I'd nearly bloodied myself smashing flat with my fists (the way Milagros has patiently instructed me) have been insufficiently punched and that my first attempt at fu fú has burned his mouth. Worse, even my frijoles negros dormidos are inedible, owing to the unorthodoxy of my having added the tiniest seeds of a priapic red pepper to them late in their long slumber. He spat them out on to the recently mopped floor.
From there the fight escalated to previously archived disputes of (arguably) more substance, all masking the real issues that neither of us dared articulate for their apparent insolubility. I called him a "boy" and he stormed out, advising me that he was on his way to see "a real woman," by which I gathered he meant his mother or one of the many girlfriends he denies having in more dulcet dialogues.
Now, in retaliation, I have gone off with Abelardo, a chico I met on the malecón a few days earlier. He is telling me how "moosh" he likes my 56-year-old ass, and I am beginning to wonder if I am one.
With Antonio, I often feel as if I'm getting punched in the face, but while it hurts it also makes me laugh. I once sent him photos of me that were perhaps a little flattering (but not that flattering), and he said on the phone, which crackles between Havana and New York with age and, occasionally, eavesdropping agents in the pay of one devil or another: "You look great, baby! Wha' happened?"
"I got hit by a truck," I said. He got it, though it took a while, or I wouldn't love him.
We are not married, but he calls me his wife. I'm North American, and for that and some other reasons, including my age, we make a rather emphatic couple on our palm-shaded block in the Playa district of Havana. Mostly, though, we punctuate the local landscape simply by virtue of being a couple.
I asked Yaumara, a neighbor who is a professor of economics at the University of Havana, why all the shabbily proud houses on our block, some of them mansions abandoned by the prior dictator's myrmidons decades ago, are citadels of women, some inhabited by three or four generations of female fortitude, with seldom a male in sight other than the niños. She said, as if it should be obvious, "No self-respecting, intelligent Cuban woman will stay with one of these self-centered, spoiled, philandering, lying, egotistical little bastards for more than a few years."
She paused and added, only now beginning to look pained, "No matter how good they are in bed." Her gaze narrowed and got swallowed up in the shadows of a giant mango tree.
Another woman on the block, a ranking government official, told me, "You know, the one thing we really have to thank ... [here she tugged at an imaginary beard; those less kindly disposed toward El Jefe of the Long Wind massage imaginary horns but similarly do not speak his name] ... for is that he relieved us of the Catholic curse, and so we have fewer sexual hang-ups than anyone in the Latin world. We use birth control like happy whores and we can divorce with the drop of a jockstrap."
Some 82 percent of married Cuban women 15 to 49 regularly use birth control, compared with 70 percent in the U.S. Abortions are free of stigma and charge, and they are readily available and volubly defended by government officials. Divorce, my neighbor tells me, is so common in Cuba that the joke is that the child who actually lives at home with both biological parents will surely require psychotherapy.
I have come to rely on these resourceful, witty and variously beautiful women who have so readily and remarkably accepted me as one of them; who, absent their male partners, the fathers of their children, carry on alone, frequently transferring their affections, their endless attentions, to their sons -- who, of course, grow up to be spoiled, self-centered, egotistical, philandering little bastards with enormous charm and an enormous sense of entitlement. Grandmothers, sisters and garlands of tias are notorious accessories in this serial social crime.
Antonio's mother, Catalina, has confessed, "I ruined him. I made him the little king." A man she lived with for a while after Antonio's father left tried to intervene but was no match for the women. He would insist that the boy, already 6, drink his milk from a glass (something he seemed incapable of doing, dribbling copiously down his shirt and bursting into angry tears when forced to try) rather than from a baby bottle. And so each morning the grandmother in residence would walk conspicuously down the hallway past the temporary man in residence to Antonio's room with a glass of milk in her hand -- and the bottle concealed between her breasts.
Once inside the room she would give Antonio the bottle and drink the milk from the glass herself. "My God, she became so fat!" Catalina recalled. Catalina herself spoon-fed Antonio until he was 7, urging him to "open wide -- another plane is coming in for a landing." And she was still dressing him to go to school when he was 10.
In his young teen years, Antonio did obligatory duty in a communist youth camp in the countryside, where he was housed in a coed dormitory. After sexually exhausting his female comrades in the fight against capitalism, draping a sheet over a bunk bed to afford his willing conquests (some of whom lined up to wait their turn) some modicum of privacy, he began hiking to neighboring villages at night and on his off days, according to a female friend of his who was there, to add notches to his belt.
My informer told me that it was his habit to bite -- hard enough to bruise -- those whom he particularly favored and planned to visit again -- apparently marking his territory and, possibly, frightening off competitors. (This rang true enough, for he has done the same to me on more than one occasion, just prior, in each instance, to my leaving Cuba.)
In the course of his horny peregrinations, Antonio became so thin that his mother began fortifying his diet with high-fat foods on his visits home, advising that "to be a great lover, you must first be a great eater."
Later, in the army, Antonio took his mother's advice to loin, favoring the elderly company cook with his sexual largesse in return for extra daily rations and special treats. On some of his furloughs, he took the cook home, where she shared his narrow bed and where Catalina, grateful to the woman for attending to her son's nutritional well-being, cooked for both of them.
Antonio's father does not give fatherly advice. He is like a buddy. He and his son joke on the phone. They talk about women. When Antonio was very young, he remembers his father taking him to the beach and pointing out female parts, not only to describe their functions but also to emphasize their relative edibility. When he calls now it is often to ask Antonio to provide cover stories to satisfy his current wife. "Tell her you gave me the condom she found in my pants this morning." "Tell her I was with you last night."
When I ask Antonio if he feels no shame or guilt in lying to his stepmother, he looks at me with alloyed scorn and pity. "Why should I? He is my father. He is a man."
Clearly I too have become complicit in all of this, putting up with behavior from a man in Cuba that, well, I might put up with in a man from New York if he could (to paraphrase Elizabeth Taylor, the late writer), by simply standing close to me, shake me entirely rigid the way Antonio does.
It would also help if this prospective lover exuded Antonio's outrageously confident masculinity that is so simultaneously fragile and necessary that I live in terror of its shattering. And it would matter, I confess, if I thought I could walk away from him as easily as I can from Antonio, who, locked in this prison paradise, can never touch me again -- save by my own desire for him to do so -- if I get on a plane home.
In the realm of desire I am not so sure I am free, but on paper, yes, I can exit anytime with absolute finality, a luxury my Cuban "sisters" do not enjoy. Some of them say that I am slumming, that the novelty of this will wear off and I will flee for good one day. Sometimes I think so, too, but Antonio always draws me back.
Abelardo is 25, an elementary school teacher. When I telephoned him, he said, "What took you so long?" even though he had given me the number only two days earlier during our brief, chance conversation on the malecón. I assumed he had never expected to hear from me, just as I had never expected to call him. I should have known better. Cubans, more than most other people I've encountered, believe passionately what they choose to believe.
"Walk in front of me."
"Because I like so moosh your ass."
We have been dancing around the Vedado District for a couple of hours now, and I am trying to choreograph an artful escape.
"I made a daughter when I was 15. She's 10 now. You and me can have a baby. Do you like that?"
I wonder what Abelardo knows about biology that I don't. As we wait for a taxi particular, the kind the Cubans use, Abelardo takes my hand and briefly presses it against his groin to show me how hard he is. I pull my hand away and he laughs. It's getting dark. "We can go up that street there," he says, "and you can touch it all you want."
A "camel" roars by, an enormous, humpbacked people mover, part truck, part bus, part cattle car. The Cubans refer to them as "Saturday Night at the Movies," featuring "sex, violence and adult language," the mantra they have learned from watching American films on their two TV channels.
Abelardo wants me to go to his aunt's house for dinner. A yellow tourist taxi is about to pass. Sensing that this may be my last chance, I flag it down and jump in. Abelardo hesitates. "I'm sorry," I say through the open window. "I'll call you." He shouts something as we move away. I think he is saying, "I love you."
When another Cuban man told me that, just hours after meeting me, I said, "This is muy rápido." And he answered, "It is muy cubano."
We're on the malecón, just passing the Tribuna Abierta Antimperialista José Martí, a $2 million piece of Elián-inspired agitprop performance art aimed like a lance at the opposing army-brown box that houses the U.S. Interests Section. The driver keeps squinting at me in the rearview mirror. One of those sudden, atmospheric storms featuring a playful wind coming in off the sea has enveloped us. It carries negatively charged ions of distant bolt lightning, the tributaries of which immediately remind me of the veins in Antonio's forearms.
Up ahead, gauzily visible through the developing rain, are two beautiful prostitutes. The blonde is wearing a shimmering white evening dress, the folds of which are luffing elegantly in the breeze. Her hair and makeup are perfect, unaffected by the rain. The other, darker, is tightly sealed in yellow zebra-striped spandex, revealing what the driver is now declaring, in Spanish, to be "pussy for days."
"You want? For you?" the driver asks. He knows I have been looking at them. I don't answer quickly enough and he slows to a stop. The jineteras -- or "jockeys," as they are called here -- drift toward us. The driver tells the chica in spandex what he will do to her, in graphic detail. This would probably get the driver fired in New York City and his company sued, but here it is business as usual.
Women who drift out of the territorial protection of men, as measured even by meters and/or moments, will soon receive unsolicited evaluations of their anatomy, along with colorful propositions from boys as young as 10 or 11 and men as old as 80 or 90.
This rule applies not only to prostitutes but also to schoolgirls, older women with children in tow, even to the silver-haired matrons I saw jogging down Havana's tony, embassy-studded Fifth Avenue one afternoon, their evident gravitas no shield from the teenage boys who hooted along behind them for a couple of blocks.
Cuban women, and acclimated expatriate women, seem to take all of this machismo in stride, possibly because they feel more empowered than the women in many other countries. The revolution's social and economic policies have genuinely benefited them in a number of ways. Some 56 percent of all Cuban college graduates are women, and more than 60 percent of all high-level technical jobs are filled by women. Without the overwhelming economic and political advantages men enjoy relative to women in so many other places, Cuban men, I have concluded, are "allowed" to preen, posture, proposition, vent and verbalize to compensatory excess.
The zebra-striped prostitute adroitly quiets the huffing hackie with a little smile and a hand on his shoulder. Then she turns to me and, in excellent commercial English, explains rates and routines. I'm all awkward excuses again, and the driver, clearly let down, luridly assures the girls once more of their desirability before we steer back into the storm. There are no more glances in the rearview mirror.
Antonio has asked me to shave off my moustache. We have been over this before.
"Why do you keep insisting?"
"A woman doesn't need a moustache."
"I'm a man."
"In bed you're a woman."
"And you're the man."
Antonio genuinely believes he is not gay and will only half-heartedly allow that he might be bisexual. When we first met -- in a disco where he was bartending after giving up his job as a pediatrician -- he immediately told me, by way of responding to my initial show of interest, that he was "completely activo," adding: "All my partners have submitted to me 100 percent."
As in many other cultures -- though in my experience never more so than in Cuba -- it is only the pasivo who is considered gay and by extension female, at least in sexual function. Antonio, however, also immediately made it clear that he favors pasivos who are sin plumas, "without feathers." No screaming queens need apply. He jokes occasionally about buying me a dress but would be horrified if I actually wore one. What he wants is something in between feathers and facial hair.
My politically correct gay friends in New York (when they are not betraying flashes of envy) are aghast, or pretend to be, at what they call "this arrangement." Their horror heightens when I acknowledge the prodigious depth of Antonio's male double standard: He has sex with "other" women, though he goes to some lengths to conceal this from me, yet he sulks and sometimes rages if I look at another man with even casual interest. He throws his dirty clothes hither and yon and never lifts a finger in the kitchen.
He alternately whines, bullies and flatters to get out of any housework. He swears with enormous and sometimes comical talent in four languages (Spanish, Italian, Russian and English) but instantly sobers with genuine disapproval if I utter even the mildest of epithets, especially in Spanish. He can be hours late for a meeting with me and be entirely unapologetic, but he's hurt if I miss an appointment with him by as little as 10 minutes.
He can go out discoing all night by himself or with his friends, but he gives me the third degree and (when we first met) full physical inspections on my return from solo walks or other outings. I can be bleeding to death and he will scarcely notice, but his slightest discomfort requires my immediate ministration and heartfelt sympathy.
"When did you become a masochist?" one of my New York friends demanded, genuinely angry. "He beats you, doesn't he?" another asked, hopefully. A lesbian acquaintance wanted to know how I could "bear to help perpetuate this stereotype."
What stereotype that might be, I do not know. I suppose my lesbian friend was implying that I am assuming a traditional heterosexual role and in the process betraying my tribe. In fact, it seems to both Antonio and me that we fit no type; indeed, our sense that we are so different -- together -- has helped sustain us against all chronological, geographic, socioeconomic, psychosexual odds.
He is only half joking when he calls me his "woman." When I press him on this issue -- why he is with me rather than with a "real" woman -- he says, "because you aren't a woman," by which I know he is talking about those female attributes I don't have, the ones that he perceives as putting unacceptable demands on him, the ones that make complications, put him at a remove from his carnal egotism, strip him of his kingdom, which, as an adult, he is finding more difficult to hold on to.
Antonio, I know, is not "fair" to women -- and that, by a whisker, has given me the edge.
I decide once again, after some hesitation, to keep the moustache. Once Antonio knows I've made up my mind, he drops it -- for now. Far from beating me, Antonio actually defers to me in most things -- outside of matters sexual. He likes the fact that I am older and have experienced more than he has of the world. He acknowledges that my financial security is a plus in our relationship, but, contrary to what some of my acquaintances fear or hope, his interest in me is not primarily material. There are plenty of foreigners who frequent Cuba who would keep him in high style. He doesn't want to be kept. I help him and his family in modest ways; he makes no demands.
Generally, when a Cuban becomes involved with a foreigner, interest is predicated on a literal ticket out. This is so commonplace that it is standard material for local stand-up comedians, dramatists, cartoonists and other commentators. Several of our Cuban friends have gone, after prolonged bureaucratic struggles and some hefty payoffs, to Canada, Spain, Italy and the United States with their foreign partners. In every case, the Cubans have left their benefactors within months of attaining freedom in a new land.
Antonio, on the other hand, has resisted all my efforts to get him to come to the United States, where, under the "wet foot/dry foot" policy promulgated by Jesse Helms and the Miami Cuban diaspora, he could, once he makes contact with U.S. soil, achieve almost instant legality and ultimate citizenship. Those caught at sea are sent back to Cuba. Those who make it to dry land or who simply fly into Miami on scheduled airlines from other Latin American countries (arranged with the right fee) are in.
Antonio does not want to abandon his family -- and so we constantly struggle with other options, places he might go legally, without defecting, places where I could go legally and we could lead more normal lives. Every time I go to Cuba I break U.S. law, and of course as an American I cannot own property or operate any business in Cuba.
We have already unsuccessfully explored an atlas of possibilities. One month it is the Dominican Republic. I talk with the head of a large law firm there. He assures me that no matter what the nature of my business -- "And you can speak confidentially with me; we have seen it all, drug dealers, money laundering, you name it" -- they can help me. But get a Cuban into the Dominican Republic? My "can do" attorney suddenly becomes faint of heart.
I imagine him groping for protective garlic. "We really wouldn't want to be involved in that," he says. " It is very, very difficult. We've been warned about this many times. Our country has very good relations with Mr. Castro and we do not want to jeopardize that."
The next month it's Romania, where we find someone actually willing to go through the maddening red tape needed to provide us with the "invitation" necessary to get the exit visa from Cuba, only to be told by Cuban officials that "we are no longer processing invitations from former Socialist republics."
Perhaps that explains why we were photographed when we entered the embassy of the Czech Republic some weeks earlier, an embassy, we were chagrined to learn, that Cuba's Maximum Leader had just described as "a cave of spies."
Antonio and I call all of this "the Cuban Situation" (or just "the Situation") and often remark on how we have withstood not only the normal stresses of a relationship but also the Cuban Situation. We blame it for many of our fights.
In fairness, however, the Situation has a positive as well as a negative side. It encompasses virtually everything we encounter trying to live in Cuba, particularly as a couple. In general, we feel our relationship is held hostage by it, but on the other hand, Cubans are far more accepting of us as a couple than people would be in many other countries.
In the years I've been going to Cuba, I have never personally experienced any homophobia. While walking past a Havana construction site with a Cuban-American friend from New Jersey who never hides his plumas, we received good-natured catcalls and detailed propositions from the shirtless workers. And when this same friend shamelessly -- and a bit recklessly, I thought -- came on to a group of tough-looking young straight men on the malecón, the worst he received was a playful slap from one of them. When he begged for "more" they all laughed and went on their way, blowing him kisses.
Homophobia, however, certainly exists in Cuba. The police still intermittently raid gay parties and sometimes photograph and arrest gays who frequent various cruising grounds. I have heard reliable accounts of police officers who have given gay men they detain a choice: have sex with them or go to jail.
Gay discos come and go with the life spans of butterflies, though occasionally one will stay open -- with adequate bribes -- for months.
In the early years of the revolution, homosexuality was viewed as a "bourgeois perversion." Young communards were encouraged to rat on their queer siblings, aunts, uncles, classmates, teachers, friends, co-workers. When the Russians moved in, things were grimmer still, and many gays were routinely harassed, discriminated against and sent off to harsh work camps for "rehabilitation." Some were imprisoned.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, laws related to homosexuality were relaxed, and today only "publicly manifested" queer behavior is punishable (with up to one year in jail) under the Cuban penal code. Such lengthy sentences are seldom, if ever, meted out. More commonly, fines are levied on those found guilty of "persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances."
With the 1993 release of the wildly popular Cuban-produced, gay-positive film "Strawberry and Chocolate," which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film in 1995, tolerance of homosexuality perceptibly improved, and shortly thereafter the forcible quarantine of those with AIDS ended.
The flourishing art scene in Cuba is another positive, making our imprisoned relationship more tolerable. Havana is such an international draw these days that on any given night, it is possible to see a world-class performance of one sort or another in dance, music or theater from any of a rainbow of countries.
And, of course, Cuba's own internationally recognized ballet and other performance groups are readily accessible for mere pesos. It's a rare night when you can't see a film such as "The Seven Samurai" or "Bananas." And there is astonishingly little censorship, either by design or oversight or a combination of the two. Paintings and performance pieces are endlessly embellished with "escape" references. Outboard motors humorously crop up on paintings of utterly unrelated objects. Wings make frequent surreal appearances. Inner tubes and boats are common motifs.
Onstage, full nudity is unremarkable and generally warmly received. In one play, two male actors were nude within a minute of the opening. The largely straight audience looked slightly apprehensive, I thought, until the two began simulating vigorous intercourse with each other, at which point the audience began cheering and applauding.
On my first trip to Cuba, during the so-called Special Period just after the Soviets left and before tourism had begun to bail out a revolution on the ropes, I went to an opening of an art exhibit at no less official a venue than the Capitolio. There the works of a Cuban artist who could give the late Robert Mapplethorpe a run for his money were on graphic display, and Cuban art lovers, as well as high school students on a cultural field trip, were respectfully leaning over them, dutifully taking notes: "Penis or dagger?"
Perhaps not so ironically it is in the realm of music, where Cuba particularly shines, that censorship has been most evident (apart from the total censorship of the press). The regime seems to fear the power of music more than that of the other arts, given that music so obviously moves this country.
It is often said that Cubans are born knowing how to move their hips to the salsa beat and that they dance better than anyone else on the planet. Music, not religion, is the opium of the Cuban masses. There is so much excess musical talent here that musicians, along with excess medical doctors, are frequently exported, temporarily, for their public relations value to putatively music- and medical-deficient nations.
When it comes to importing music, however, caution is the rule. Rock music was banned in Cuba beginning in the early 1970s, along with some other forms of "American" music. A few rock bands are allowed in under careful watch.
This policy continues to the present day. Wales' Maniacs recently performed at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, with Fidel himself in attendance, out to show Cuba's young -- and the rest of the world -- how open and with it he really is. The usually extreme band, however, eschewed its trademark wild makeup and transvestite ways and shamelessly pandered to the regime for the right to film its performance in currently hip Havana. The group's ass kissing extended to bassist Nicky Wire gushing that Fidel, who had given the band a private audience, "has an enormous cock!" When an overseas interviewer inquired how he could tell, Wire said, "Oh, you just could. They call him the horse."
He and the Maniacs belted out anti-American anthems with titles such as "Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children." Asked by a reporter from the London Guardian how the band could justify endorsing a dictatorship responsible for thousands of people dying in the course of trying to escape the island, Wire snapped, "Every sad Lonely Planet cunt who travels [here] ... believes that every [Cuban] they see is gazing across the Gulf of Mexico wishing deep down they were on a boat."
Actually, it's the Straits of Florida, and Antonio and I are gazing across it, as we often do. Along with, I'm convinced, at least 50 percent of the Cuban population, I wish we were on a boat.
During the massive bring-Elián-home rallies, a Cuban friend observed that without the free Elián T-shirts (I have three) and work furloughs given to all attendees, almost no one would have shown up, even if most did believe Elián belonged with his father. Further, he said, if boats pulled up alongside the malecón marked "Miami Express," a shocking number of the demonstrators would have jumped on ship immediately, despite there being no great love for the gusanos, or "worms," as the locals call the Cubans in Miami who support the embargo.
And, in fact, during one of my visits to Cuba, a "fast boat" from Miami did abruptly pull up at a crumbling pier at the end of our block. By obvious prearrangement, several people poured out of the neighboring houses and rushed onboard. Since there was still room for more, startled onlookers playing dominoes on the pier were asked if they wanted to go to Miami. Three of them, without the slightest hesitation, leapt at the invitation, and the boat roared off.
Antonio, however, would not have been one of them; he continues to resist my suggestion that we head north, although he wavers, especially when the negative aspects of the Cuban Situation seem unrelenting. There is no doubt that for most Cubans life has been immeasurably better under the dictatorial rule of Fidel Castro than it was -- and no doubt would have continued to be -- under the dictatorial rule of Fulgencio Batista and his fervent U.S. supporters. This distinction is often made by "Friends of Fidel," including many liberals in the U.S., as if the debate should end right there.
The trouble is, after 40 self-sacrificing years of "Patria o Muerte!" the Cubans seem to believe they deserve something better than a choice between Dictator A and Dictator B, and many of them are not thrilled when visiting rock stars clad in Versace declare the revolution to be a rousing success or when Jack Nicholson emerges from a dinner with Fidel to inform them that El Maximo is a genius.
They take even less kindly to tourists from the democratic north who exclaim over how "safe" Havana is, what with two black-bereted, jack-booted, gun-toting police officers, often cynically recruited from the Havana-hating provinces, on virtually every major block, whiling away afternoons stopping already beleaguered Cubans to examine their cards of identity and frequently fine them for one minor infraction or another, many of them manufactured.
Things are getting even harder to take now that "Patria o Muerte!" is segueing into "Turismo o Muerte!" As one of my Cuban friends put it, "At least during the period up until the Russians left, we were all equally poor and most of us had respect for one another: white, black, mulatto, doctor, plumber, street cleaner.
"Men didn't have to work most of the time in the black market, corrupting themselves. And their families, women, let alone women with university degrees, didn't have to become prostitutes. We didn't have much but we had enough. Now many of us don't have enough, and others, sometimes those with the least education, have the most."
When Castro opened the doors to tourism and made the U.S. dollar the dominant currency of Cuba, those who remained rooted in the peso economy, including doctors, teachers and most of the professional classes, suffered enormously, while those with the right connections, irrespective of education and experience, seized jobs in the rapidly expanding and, by Cuban standards, highly lucrative tourist markets.
Nor has it been lost on the nonwhite Cubans that the best tourist jobs seem to be going to their blanco brethren, undermining what had been a remarkable racial détente.
With a salary in pesos that came to about $13 a month, Antonio could no longer afford to work as a doctor. But, given that doctors are virtually state property in a country that controls them like soldiers and uses them for public relations ploys, it was not easy, psychologically or logistically, for him to withdraw from the profession for which he had trained so long and worked so hard.
It took some black market maneuvering and a significant bribe to ensure that the authorities would not soon be on his trail. Another young doctor, a friend of his, who emigrated to Canada with great difficulty, similarly had to have all records of his medical education expunged from official files through a series of bribes before he could get his exit visa.
Now Antonio makes his living drifting from one tourist job to another, all far beneath his talents and education. Often he resorts to mercado negro schemes to raise money for himself and his family, including a seriously ailing grandmother. One month he is selling bootleg CDs, the next he is the apprentice to a corredor de telefono or a corredor de permuta, underground agents who help Cubans with cash jump over long waiting lines to get telephones or exchange apartments or houses.
One day he came home to tell me how he had arranged for an 18-year-old boy to marry an 80-year-old woman so that the boy's family could get the older womans telephone line -- at a cost of $1,200 allocated to the elderly woman's family and half a dozen officials on the take.
Antonio becomes angriest about the Situation when he thinks about the passing years. "I want to work," he says with real pain. "I want to do real work and support my family." And his anger becomes violent at times when we brush up against the social apartheid that is increasingly a fixture of the new Cuban economy.
Fearing that Cubans will be corrupted (or enriched without tithing to the government) by the flood of "necessary tourists," the regime -- steadily in some sectors and in fits and starts in others -- tries to separate Cubans from their foreign visitors. Cubans have sometimes been arrested for even walking with foreigners. And Cubans cannot visit foreigners in their rooms (although female prostitutes are allowed into a few hotels where the fix is in).
Hence the proliferation of the casa particular, wherein a tourist can rent a private room and take Cuban guests there, though here too none is supposed to stay the night, and those who run these establishments are frequently subjected to surprise inspections and police shakedowns.
Cubans cannot stay in dollar hotels, and tourists cannot stay in peso hotels. Cubans are prohibited from visiting almost all of Cuba's best resorts. They cannot rent cars, and few are allowed access to the Internet, not that many could afford it in any case. Travel outside the country is, as noted, impossible for most.
On many occasions, Antonio has had to hide from inspectors and has fought with a couple of them, ending up in jail on one occasion. On visits to provincial cities, we have sometimes had to eat our meals in a garage or barn to allay the fears of our hosts that the police might barge in at any moment and discover them serving food without the required licenses.
Some have refused to rent rooms to us at all, given that Antonio is Cuban and I am foreign. Neighborhood spies -- no doubt they have been given nice titles by the Cuban Communist Party -- snoop around constantly, one reason we move often. On one occasion, having been told by my landlady that I was writing a book about World War II, the local spy became agitated, declaring, "It is absolutely essential that we find out what he is writing about Cuba's role in the war!"
As it happened, I was reading -- not writing -- a book about World War II, and not surprisingly, in that entire massive tome Cuba was mentioned once.
I've spent another afternoon at an embassy, but now I'm where I want to be: in my kitchen. Sometimes it is better to do what the Cubans have learned to do and just forget about the Situation by concentrating on food, sex and salsa, or whatever alternative beat gets you moving. That's what I do while I prepare dinner, imagining Antonio, who should be along any minute now (or maybe not), telling me I'm "pa' comerselo" (good enough to eat) while listening to an "Everything but the Girl" CD.
But before long I feel the Situation becoming fuzzily palpable again, like the confusing coconut I'm weighing (lighter in one hand, heavier in the other) as a possible candidate for tonight's cucurucho, a dessert that usually makes Antonio smile even when he doesn't want to, like the mystifying melanga (I can never remember if this potato is sweeter when it is lighter or darker, smaller or larger, and Antonio likes his melangas very sweet) that I'm about to chop up and commit to la caldosa, the catchall soup that Antonio insists be a part of every dinner.
There are so many ingredients in the Situation, I am thinking, that I may never master this recipe. And sometimes I think it is better if I dont -- because, once mastered, it will become history. And history is what all those couples have become who vanquished the Situation by leaving it behind, only to find, too late, that it was the perverse nourishment, the one thing, that had sustained them.
Now the words are swirling around in the soup with the melanga and a dozen other things I can no longer name, making me giddy as they rise up in a hot vapor. I feel a hint of panic and breathe deep, sucking up the Situational ether, the absence of which -- is this fear or certainty? -- will expose my love for Antonio and his for me as transient and tropic and our gestures of permanence as antic and involuntary.
Antonio comes in to find me with a paper bag over my head, hyperventilating. He has seen this before. He starts to laugh. I laugh, too. I fall to the floor. He takes the bag from my head.
"What's new, baby?" he asks.
"Im working on Lebanon," I respond. "It's looking good."