"Dahling, I want her pussy shaved."
Richard is calling from England. He's to arrive in the evening, and I'm charged with having Dayanara, his va-va-voom teenage Caribbean princess, toned down. No glitter. No Flashdance-inspired slashes in her jeans. He has sent in bags from Harrod's: strappy shoes, Yves St. Laurent makeup, and a tailored gown of red sequins.
His girlfriend lives in a dirt-floored shack with 14 cousins, uncles and aunts.
"They do have such places, for waxing one's privates?" Richard asks. "Certainly, considering the hirsute nature of the Latin female ... "
He roars with laughter. I roll my eyes. Hair sprouts from every follicle, but a Cubana's idea of shaving is stopping the blade midthigh. Most of them, when naked, look like they're wearing biking shorts.
"We'll have it taken care of," I say, anxious to hang up. "See you tonight." I had been in Havana, by the pool at the Hotel Nacional, a few months ago awaiting a Cuban claiming to have information on my father's identity. The guy never showed, but I met Richard, who bought me a cafe con leche after a conversation in grateful English.
Much has changed since that meeting, including the fact that Richard has hired me to oversee the transformation of his betrothed, Dayanara, a girl who'd bedazzled him in a crowded disco.
Now I play Mary Poppins to Richard's Lolita -- a 15-year-old in Jimmy Choo sandals with a fresh bikini wax.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Camilla's body puts a Victoria's Secret model to shame. She's feigning delight with a new pink bikini two sizes too small, and nuzzling the unkempt beard of her latest sugar daddy, a Milanese named Rocco. I've plunked down next to them in a rusted lounge chair, far enough from the pool so my papers don't get splashed.
We're at the top of the Capri, a gangster-built 1950s hotel that was bombed by terrorists a decade before. The Plexiglas fence triggers vertigo, but it's well worth it for the sky-skimming view of Havana.
"Wow. It looks like a war movie," says the Italian, dumping ice cubes on people 25 stories below.
"More like a Fellini," I mutter under my breath.
My mother's journal of her life in 1970s Havana is spread before me. Like any journal, it's sometimes insightful and occasionally scintillating and often dull. It's painful to read of my stepfather's lack of interest in her, and the details of her mundane days as a diplomat's wife. I feel shameful, prying into her innermost thoughts, but it's the price I pay in searching for clues of my father, whom she met in Havana. I console myself with the notion that most journal keepers harbor, on some level, the desire to be read.
"De pinga," whispers Rocco. "The police."
Two men are questioning Camilla. Terror has seized her face. Cubans are not allowed in tourist hotels, and Camilla is carrying a fake Italian passport Rocco gave her to get past the lobby. I motion for her to relax, and push Rocco down in his lounge chair.
"You sit still," I order. Snatching her fake passport, and my real one, I sidle up to the police. One cop wistfully fingers the gold embossment of my U.S. passport. His eyes register awe. "North American," he says. "And she's your cousin?" I nod. They apologize, and sheepishly scuttle off.
Camilla insists we leave. In Cuba, women with foreigners aren't arrested for prostitution. Instead, they're written up for other infractions -- whatever fiction the cops invent. When three letters land in their police file, they're usually sent to prison. Hundreds of Cuban women are jailed for having relations with foreigners, yet technically they're serving time for other crimes.
"Wankers," I say, as the elevator door shuts on the police.
"They work in a bank?" asks Camilla.
I laugh. "No, not bankers. Wankers. It's a British word, means something like comemierda." Camilla says, and cracks a faint smile, "Speaking of Brits, don't you have a plane to meet?"
Halfway up the escalator at Terminal 2 of Jose Martí International, I realize I'm talking up a storm -- to myself. Whirling around, I see Dayanara at the bottom of the escalator. I motion for her to hurry along, but like a donkey before a stream, she refuses another step.
At the bottom of the escalator, Dayanara, the 15-year-old country girl in her Harrod's red sequined dress, is sobbing. My tasteful makeup job has melted into a charcoal stream down her cheeks.
"What is this?" I demand, wondering if she's gotten a last-minute case of the boyfriend jitters.
She points to the moving staircase. "What is that?"
I sigh, and my patience returns. Dayanara is trying to be game, but she's too young and too unsophisticated for her assignment as 53-year-old Richard's love interest, even if it means her family can have a nice round of pork for many dinners to come. I clean her up and explain in detail the mechanisms of an escalator, and when we land on Floor 2, I run into the most stunning man I've ever laid eyes on.
I hate him instantly.
Rafael Lazaro Marín is blond, tall and beefy. It turns out he's a lifeguard, but in Cuba that's a euphemism for hustler. In his late 20s, with startling green eyes, he wears clothes even my friends back home couldn't afford. That means one thing: He's snagged the hearts of many tourist women, usually rich and usually old. Considering my newfound profession, it probably isn't a fair reaction, but I feel irritated nonetheless.
"I'm the driver. Camilla sent me; she says you're from the U.S." I make a mental note to fire Camilla as best friend. I rarely reveal my nationality, as American girls are swarmed by men seeking passage across the Straits of Florida.
"You have one job, OK," I say sternly. "It's to take care of Richard. Make sure he and his girlfriend stay out of the way of the police. Got that?"
Richard bursts out of customs. "Dahlings! I told them in London I'd like to fly to Havana directly, and not via Key West," says the jocular millionaire. We give him a puzzled look. "Haven't you heard? Some Cubans have seized a plane en route to Havana, and taken it to Key West." I grumble. We never hear any news here. "Also the government has found it fit to arrest several dissidents in Havana; it's all the talk in Europe."
A cop with a battered Chinese pistol walks by, eyeing our group of Cubans mixed with foreigners. Rafael, made nervous by the undercurrents, suggests we leave. He wheels out his '57 Chevy, with rearview mirrors mounted above the headlights, and we screech off into the Havana night. An easy $8,000, this car. I wonder how many hopeful tourist hearts have been broken for this ride and, angrier still, I wonder how many years this ridiculous system can continue.
Its humiliations. Its pride-for-dollars economy.
With no signs of abating, the lean times were realized a decade ago, in 1993, when Soviet subsidies were cut, and food disappeared. The resulting "special period" of barren stores and raging fear provided the biggest economic and social upheaval in 30 years. Cuba had gone from supplying sugar to supplying tourism, and the converging of a new poverty with an influx of foreigners gave rise to the endemic hustling and prostitution.
Jineteros became heroes. Jockeys, cowboys, riders of the beast are heralded by their families as saviors. Humiliations -- damning and daily, inflicted by foreigners and police -- are not discussed, just swallowed back with a swill of rum or the ubiquitous "relaxation pills" doled out at clinics like aspirin.
As I get out of the car, Richard motions me to the back window. "One more thing: Did you manage to extract the offending hair?" I smile as I think about Dayanara that afternoon, howling under the hands of the black-market wax lady with a dominatrix streak.
"An affirmative, I presume," he says, handing me 300 Euros. I kiss his cheek, and remind Dayanara to lay off the hairspray and lip liner. As I walk off, I catch Rafael's eyes in the rearview.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Deep in the night, a hand covers my mouth. I wake up with a man on top of me. It's Yeyo, and his eyes are wild. I sit up and hit him hard, on the arm.
"C'mon," he says. "Let's get to the house before dawn."
"What's wrong with you?"
"Look, I've been busier than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest," says Yeyo, coolly reciting one of my grandfather's sayings. He lights up a hand-rolled cigarette.
"How'd you get in here?"
"I get in anywhere."
"Coño. My landlady will kill you first, then me," I say, pulling on jeans, anxious to see the house in Miramar where I lived as a toddler. "What you been busy with anyhow?"
"They arrested my sister," he said.
"For being a librarian," he says, his eyes flashing anger. I stare at him. She runs an independent library, with anti-government books. I'd forgotten.
He exhales out the window, a warm breeze carrying the unmistakable scent of ganja. He hooks my arm. "Let's get, while the night still gives cover."
Tomorrow: I do what I must to survive