Havana honey, Part 4

I'm getting close to finding my father, but first I have to please my "boyfriend" who makes me wear his tightie-whities and act like a man while he wears my lingerie and acts like a woman.

Published May 23, 2003 7:24PM (EDT)

My bags are on the curb.

My landlady, Pilar, won't open the door, but tells me through colonial wood and hinges that I'm no longer welcome, that my friends are scum, diente de perro, that the neighborhood-watch types have been talking.

She'd taken a month's rent the night before.

I sit on the curb and look around. The air is thick, different. More pungent. A discomfiting silence permeates the normally chatty streets. Absent are the hucksters and girls in too-tight Lycra. Discos have been shut. Cubans walking with foreigners are being shackled.

The world may be worried about dissidents, but everyday folks here have more immediate concerns. Namely, the police. And how to fly under radar.

There's a Dutchman at my side, or maybe he's from Belgium, I can't remember, though I'm trying to keep it straight now that European states seem more distilled -- France is good, Germany is OK, Spain is not. Allies of the distant war in Iraq don't get my time or attention. Which is fine, because men who herald from poorer countries have no interest in my skin tone. They want their beauties dark, with pronounced African features.

Frustrated middle-class men in places like France and Italy come to Cuba not just for sex, but for sex with black women, with beguiling negritas, to restore some idea in their minds of the way things should be, that females must be cleaning, doting, sucking, subjugating, and that, had colonialism not gone awry, the darker-skinned would be in their place, as their inferiors, as their toys of pleasure and capitulation.

My skin is light, and so I attract a less audacious man. Or so I thought.

Tonight there's a group, a businessman's delegation of sorts, and my current boyfriend Jaap leads the pack. A hustler has driven us to a formerly luxurious house near a crumbling cabaret, Las Vegas, and within a few moments, dancers from the club parade through the salon. Those with a nod from the delegation settle in. The landlord is orchestrating and the hustler's jowls gleam as he tallies his commission: four bedrooms, six teen girls, and a plate each of pharmaceutical-quality cocaine -- uncut, as aspirin is scarce.

It's the first time in my year in Cuba I've seen anything like it, like a brothel. Sex in Cuba, until the crackdown, has been anything but organized. Women haven't considered themselves prostitutes. They approach strangers on the street firsthand, looking for a boyfriend and a husband. No middle men.

Brothels have been out of fashion for 40 years. In a snap, the crackdown changes this -- maybe for a day, maybe for longer. It's ironic that the policed streets are less safe, subjecting women to brokerage through boyfriends and pimps. In a society desperate for money, and an ingenious population hell-bent on surviving, it's no surprise.

When a car's radiator cracks, a real Cuban knows to pour table pepper down the pipe. Pepper withstands heat. It settles into the fissures, melding the damage together until the next crack appears.

Whatever happens, Cubans find a way.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My bikini is on the hook.

I'm in the bath. It's a luxury, and I linger longer than necessary. I think about my family's house in Miramar, the flowers that wind around columns, the latticed patios and Spanish mosaic tiles. It had failed to elicit memories when Yeyo found it with me in the morning darkness. I'd been just a toddler when I lived there, if it had indeed been my house. What settled it, for me, was the scent. A deep breath, and the notes resonated, convincing me that somewhere in Cuba I belonged. A smell that says home.

I step out of the bath, dry off and grab what I think is my underwear, but there is a surprise new set of lingerie on the hook. It's a ribbed white tank and tightie-whitie briefs. Men's. Puzzled, I stick my head out the door.

"Wear it!" barks Jaap from somewhere in the darkened room. I'm nervous now. Being a jinetera to grateful tourists -- men who wouldn't have access to young flesh or exalted passion back home -- affords a certain inviolability. I may not have the material upper hand, but I have the emotional one.

Until now.

Jaap throws me to the bed, his aggression unusual, and as I'm regaining my wits, he flops next to me. He flicks on a light, grabs for me, strong, and pulls me on top, his muscled legs wrapping around my back. I look down, stunned, a black bra fashioned around his chest, its empty pockets flapping sadly, and then he whispers, "Take me, you bad bad boy," before deftly pulling his erectness from a corner of lace panties and plunging inside me, through the slit in my briefs, ordering me now to move missionary style, my legs straight back, while I pump up and down, awkwardly, painful in my apprehension, my unreadiness, and yet with teenage enthusiasm he howls and squeezes his nipples, and releases himself, clutching greedy handfuls of my ass, groaning with pleasure, making a man out of me. I roll off, feeling dizzy. His breath slows, and he reaches for me, asking me if I liked it like that. I figure if he wants me to act like a man, there's no need hanging around and cuddling.

While he watches, I find his wallet. Facing him, I slowly count 700 in Euros, about $700, and stuff the bills in my new briefs. I pull on a pair of his khaki shorts, and cinch the belt.

"Go ahead and keep my bikini," I say, walking out. "It'll look better on you anyway."

Camilla comes out of the operating room in scrubs, in triumph because of another successful heart bypass. The doctors and nurses are the best in the hemisphere, yet the hospital is squalid like a Harlem crack house. Camilla signals, and goes to change.

A few blocks from the hospital, we perch on the Malecón, Havana's famed seawall, smoking cigarettes and basking in the sun's final rays. Across the street, the light reflects on the seven-story U.S. Interests Section. There, my stepfather went to work every day in the late 1970s. He'd been among the newly installed American diplomatic corps, the first to return since the Revolution took hold.

I imagine my stepfather, obsessively working through sunsets, ignoring my mother, leaving scope and space in her heart for a man like the Cuban who fathered me. I wonder about him -- wonder what he would look like, his laugh, his face, the smile that touched my mother.

"You're thinking about him again!" accuses Camilla, breaking the silence. "Any news?"

None, I say.

"You'll find him, don't worry! Have faith in Radio Bemba," she says, using the colloquial term for the gossip mill. "If your father's alive, you'll find him. And when you do, promise you won't be wearing that nutty men's outfit."

I sigh, and tell her about my afternoon.

"It's dominance, silly!" she exclaims. "Don't you understand? Who has it and who doesn't is crucial in matters of sexual play. Eighty percent of men are dissatisfied with their current lover. They're embarrassed to ask for what they want, too worried about what their wives or girlfriends will think. To be a good lover, you have to let the man believe that you're talking them into what they, themselves, really want to do. Give them what they want, and don't make them feel like a pato for it."

Next to Camilla, I feel like a miserable fraud of a Cuban girl, my romantic instincts unrefined and my sexual tastes sophomoric.

"Suggest that your bra or your high heels might look really good on him," she says. "Or that he needs a spanking. Take your clues from his reaction."

"What, you let a guy wear your panties and he'll be faithful?"

"He'll never stray."

"Camilla, why didn't you become a psychologist instead of a heart surgeon?"

She thinks a moment, then replies, "They're both the same thing, mi vida. You open up the heart and poke around."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Finally, I reach Victor. "Oye. Good news and bad news," he says. "Bad news, things are too dangerous for me to continue helping you. Good news, I've got an address."

"What address?"

"Of the liaison. Where your mother would meet your father. It's in Havana. But if it's not the right address, I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do. Tomorrow at noon, meet me at the la Universidad, in the gardens, near the Marx statue. Bring a book. No jeans. Look local. Five hundred dollars." He clicks off.

Sunrise, and I still can't sleep. Camilla and I have been up all night, playing out the probabilities -- that the address is false, the house has collapsed, or the family there 25 years ago has moved. Or worse, that it's a dead end, and I've lost Victor, my hard-won contact from within.

I sneak out of Camilla's apartment and join the fishermen on the rocks, hoping the morning's first heat will cool my nerves.

Somewhere in the distance, I later learn, shots rang out, and the bodies of three chocolate-skinned men crumpled before a firing squad. Days before, they had been convicted of hijacking a boat, of trying to escape.

The prison is a home, and the home is a prison.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

White slips of paper flutter on the main door of Havana's houses. People look to the sky, waiting for bombs.

Yeyo tells me the white paper means the military is welcome in that house, its owners having agreed to feed and shelter soldiers during an attack. An attack. It's all they talk about now, in these days after May Day, after a speech raising the ire of the island.

There's no way to confirm if it's just hype, if the U.S., a country with powerful Cuban brethren, would attack an ancestral land. When I say I don't think so, that the fear is fed by propaganda, a way to make people forget crackdowns and dissidents, no one seems to listen.

Despite my Cuban blood, the U.S. passport I carry makes me mistrusted now. They say they love the people in the U.S., that it's the government they loathe, but I feel misplaced nonetheless. No matter how local I feel, earning my way like many Cuban women, I'm still an extranjero, a foreigner. My paperwork says I may leave. And that makes all the difference.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Calle K, 707. Calle K, 707.

I keep the paper as a talisman, for luck, but the address Victor gave me several weeks before is burned in my memory.

I don't have the guts to go there. If it's not my father's house, I'm back where I began, nearly one year ago, living like a local, without benefits, but with every stitch of its heartaches.

I want to keep this moment alive, this moment before everything changes. If this isn't the house, if it's another dead end, then I've little choice but to return home defeated. If it's the right house, then the scenarios are too numerous to settle. My father could be irritated. He could be disbelieving. He could be dead.

Richard phones. After a spectacular breakup with Dayanara, the two have reconciled and he'll be flying back to Havana in a few days. Dayanara hails from Morón a dusty way station in central Cuba. She's reunited with Richard under the condition he meet her family there.

"What can one do?" asks Richard. "You can take the girl out of Morón, but you can't take the Morón out of the girl!"

I'm laughing at the thought of the elegant Richard in backwater Morón. He asks, "You will come with us, won't you?"

Grateful for a break from sex work, I agree. "Anything Dayanara needs to do, before you arrive?"

"Tell her to slide down the banister and warm up my dinner."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Camilla comes to Calle K with a bowl of chicken and rice, and plops it down on my lap. She orders me to eat; I beg her to whisper. She shakes her head and gets comfortable in the bushes. We're across from House 707, in the darkness. I've been watching the comings and goings for several days now. I'm driving her crazy.

"How long you going to do this?" she asks. I shrug.

The island is buzzing about an American attack; storing food, boiling water, calling family. The madness affords me solitude, to sit undetected in the foliage across the street. I watch the house, a modest two-story job with no paint in the university section of Vedado. Thus far, I've detected a grandmother, several baseball fiends under age 12, and five or six adults, including one attractive man my age with a sizzling boyfriend.

A mango tree grows like a merry weed on the side of the house. Kids from the neighborhood steal the green fruit, and whack them with sticks to the outfield. Duct tape X's serve as bases. It's a happy, chattering, clamoring brood, and I hope to god they're mine.

"You have to just go," says Camilla, pleading with me. "I can't stand watching you watch them. You're building your expectations too high." I know she's right, but I can't do it. Every older man that walks in the door makes my heart stop cold.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Rafael is at the door. I tell him Camilla's at work, and to come back later. The gorgeous lifeguard bulldozes his way inside.

"Camilla told me what's going on," he says, making an effort to be nice. "I want to thank you for introducing me to Richard. So I'm offering to take you in the car, to see if it's your family. You know a woman shouldn't go alone." I think of the entrance, of my father's face when he see his jinetera daughter with a jinetero boy pull up in a jineterismo Chevy. Well, I figure, he's got to know the truth. And I realize then it's what I'm hiding. There's a fear he won't respect me for what I did to find him, won't understand what I gave up on the off-chance I'd track him down so many years later.

In May 2001, when I began searching for my father in Havana, I ran into Dr. Ruth, the sex guru, in the bar of the Hotel Floridita during a jazz jam. She said hello, but there wasn't much to hear with all the music. Dr. Ruth was surrounded by sexy young men and women drinking mojitos. They had no clue who she was. Yet I'm certain, from the pale tourists on their arms, she knew who they were.

I didn't ask her what she thought of what she saw. But I think she would have understood that there's nothing new about sex as the devise de pays for luxuries, that after the war French girls fucked American G.I.s for pantyhose and canned fruit, that some girls in New York won't date a man unless he charters a Lear.

She might have said that sex isn't just currency. That it's also communication; it reflects the hopes of who we are, or what we yearn to become. In Cuba, jineterismo isn't just for pantyhose, though those would be nice. It's about throwing a penny down the well, and wishing. A middling tourist, defeated at home, is anew in Cuba, virile and potent with a pocketful of cash. A peasant girl, with a little love, transforms into the sophisticated charge of a heady man. Dr. Ruth would say there's nothing new about that.

So I pull up in the Chevy and the kids squeal when I catch the mango -- fly ball! -- and I step onto the porch. The door is open, and voices beckon me inside, into the house filled with liveliness. With Rafael's hand on my back, and my heart in my mouth, I blurt out my story to the first friendly face I see, and I repeat it again, upon request, and then there's more astonishment and rapid fire Spanish and hoots and laughter. Then come the hugs and I realize something is happening, though I'm not sure what, and I keep answering questions, yes I was born here, yes my mother was an American, yes she was the blonde with a quick laugh, and it all starts to make sense, to them at least, to my uncles and aunts and cousins, and when I hear myself ask about my father there is silence.

"He's gone," says the oldest woman, finally speaking.

It figures, I think, putting my hands to my face. I can't cry, because the room is jumbling around me with embraces and smiles and now the neighbors are coming in, and it's hot, the curse of latitude, the Tropic of Cancer.

Rafael tugs at my hair. "Listen," he says.

"My son is gone, mi niña," says the old woman, gathering me in her arms. This must be my grandmother, I think, feeling her loose flesh cover mine.

"But he'll call on Sunday. He always calls on Sunday from Miami."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

When I was little, my father used to watch me play at the house in Miramar. Usually, he'd crouch in the bushes across the street. On Tuesday mornings, my mother would secretly bring me to Calle K. Everyone knew me then. There's even a photograph, but it's too delicate to touch without crumbling.

When my mother and stepfather packed up to return to the U.S., my father didn't argue. He thought it was best I go to the United States, so I wouldn't have to live like a Cuban.

He's on his way to see me now. He says I've gone far enough, and booked a charter flight to Havana. His voice was gentle, and he said he couldn't wait, that he'd been dreaming of his daughter. I've plenty of questions. I'm not afraid anymore of what he'll think. I'm a Cuban girl, a kin of this land, and everyone knows what that means. That I do what I must to survive.

Things will change, I think, watching the breeze jostle the military notices that are tacked to doors. Cubans are waiting for Washington's bombs. I'm waiting for a charter flight to arrive. Looking up at the empty sky, I'm hoping for the best.

By Alysia Vilar

Alysia Vilar is a writer who lives in Havana.

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