Pssst! Amigo! Francia!
Suppose that you are a middle aged American, either unmarried or formerly married or somewhat unhappily married or even contentedly married with a roving eye- still on the prowl. In other words, a pathetic character in much of the world, but, in Havana, a walking ATM, a kind of super-hero who can leap impossibly tall obstacles in a moment of impassioned or bored generosity. And suppose, that like every evening, you decide to stroll down Prado, from the Malecon over to Parque Central, and then over to the Plaza de Armas at the end of Obispo, ground zero for Yuma spotting, but instead of ignoring the many people who want to make a withdrawal, or resolve the impossible obstacles, you will respond to every request to begin a conversation, like a puppet on a string, looking, if not for love, at least for the stirrings of honest friendship. Well, actually, it might be impossible to respond to every request and still finish this little walk, a little less than two miles, in a single evening, but it might be possible to stop briefly and talk to almost everyone for a moment.
First, with the Malecon still in sight, a very muscular negro, intense, chiseled face, with a faint odor of rum.
"My friend! Please sit down!" So, obediently, unquestioningly, you sit down on the marble bench nest to him, all ears
"What country are you from?"
"Over there", pointing to the ocean beyond the sea wall
"Yes, over there, but what country over there?" Well, Cuba is an island, and all the countries of the world are on the other side of the ocean.
"The country that is directly over there"
"Oh, the Estados Unidos! En que parte?"
""El Norte. Mucho frio"
"My friend! I am going to speak to you as a brother!" And emboldened by the importance of brotherhood, and sincerity, the negro stands up, and looks through you, in the manner of people who have been drinking.
"I am a revolutionary" he says at last.
"Yes, I am also a revolutionary-of the soul" And these silly words, in this particular context, come like a revelation. The negro sits down.
"My friend, I am a boxer. Not the champion of the world. But the champion of Cuba, and the champion of Latin America. Millions of people have seen me on the television. And now, I want you to meet my family. I live only 2 blocks from here. Will you come with me?"
"I'm very sorry, but I am walking over to the Capitolio. I sat down to talk only because you asked me, politely. I am ready to talk about any subject that you are interested in."
And since he is a boxer, the conversation begins with Cuban boxers, Kid Chocolate, and the difference between amateur boxing, fighting for pride, and professional boxing, fighting for money. And then, baseball, fencing, the Cuban airplane shot down by terrorists from Miami, US politics, intimate confessions- a natural progression.
"I am a Cuban" says the negro, with pride, even though it is rather obvious. "And, as a Cuban, as your sincere brother, speaking from my heart, I say, I would never leave Cuba to fight for money, because I am loyal to my country"
"That's what Jose Contreras said for years and years! Then one day he woke up and called the agent that had been following him for all those years- and he said- I am going to do it! And now he has signed a contract with the Yankees!"
"For 32 million" says the negro.
'Yes, 32 million. And who can say what he was really thinking, in his heart, all of those years before he decided to leave, when he was telling everyone that he would never go?"
"You are right!" says the boxer. "Well, maybe I too would sign a contract for 32 million. But I would still remain loyal to Cuba!" And he stands again, weaving and ducking a little, because he has something important to say.
"Please, I ask you to meet my family. If not now, some time. I want my family to meet a sincere American. I am not asking for anything else"
"I am sorry, but I am not a person who makes false promises just to please other people. I can not go now, and I can not be sure that I will ever meet your family. But nothing is impossible. Some day, when I see you again, here, on the Prado, I want you to greet me, and maybe on that day I will be able to meet your family. Sin compromiso" which is the poetic Cuban way of saying that as much as one's heart might incline us in a particular direction, there are numerous forces that are always pulling us in different directions. And since you have followed the courteous norms, you can now leave on the best of terms, and walk on.
This first section of the Prado is relatively uncrowded, and you might even walk a full block before being beckoned again, this time by a thin negra with a cigarette, standing in t he middle of the pedestrian walkway, waiting for you.
"Do you have a licght" she says in English, although the word 'light' is pronounced almost as if it were German.
"In English we say, 'Do you have a lite'. I know what is confusing you- the 'g' that appears in this word.
This 'g' is silent. So we say- 'Do you have a lite"
She smiles, and says, in English, "Oh, thank you very much. Yes, licght"
"No, no, try it again! Forget that 'g'! Repeat after me- lite, lite, lite"
"Do you have a lite?"
"Yes, that's it! Now you have it! Unfortunately, I don't smoke, so I don't have a light"
"Where are you going" she adds, reverting to Spanish.
"Just walking, before I go back to my room"
"Take me with you"
"No, but thanks for the invitation!"
And actually, who can explain? If you are invited to sleep with 20 girls every time you go for a walk, it is impossible to sleep with all of them, and there are hundreds of reasons, known and unknown, why, on any given night, you would reject this particular girl. Perhaps she is too dark, or too thin, or her face is just a bit too angular, or she is just a little too serious, or you are not really certain if you want to sleep with any girl, especially a random girl, or because you have just started looking. And there are hundreds of ways of answering her question, including, the capricious and honest, "You are a little too dark. I prefer mulatas". Or, "I prefer white girls, taller girls, younger girls." And she will not be offended. Or, you could be more polite, and lie, just a little bit, "Actually, I am just a little bit romantic. I like to know someone before I sleep with them. I believe in friendship"
"Ok, 15 minutes of friendship, and then sex for the rest of the night" And for the first time, she smiles, and it is kind of funny, and she seems a little more attractive. But, having already said no, something hardens within, and you stick with your polite no, and say goodnight, and walk on.
And maybe walk a few more blocks, until you reach the part of Prado where people are sitting on almost every bench. The going gets slower. "Pssst" A group of 4 girls. Nothing really wrong with any of them, but nothing especially interesting either. Since they have beckoned, you walk over, tell them which country you are from, and since nobody seems to have very much to say, you move on, to the next bench, where 2 other girls are sitting. "Give me one dollar" says the short mulata with the mole on her cheek.
"No, I'm sorry, I won't give you one dollar. Is there anything else you want to talk about?"
"That's all" she says. "You don't want to sleep with me?"
"No I don't"
At the next bench, the last before the next cross street, near the two lions that guard the Prado at every entry point from all trespassers, a small white girl sitting by herself. She has seen you talk to the other girls, so maybe you are trolling. She makes a quick downwards motion with her hand, an invitation to sit next to her.
"Where are you from" she asks, with some desperation. She is a pretty girl, about 20 years old, but she is desperate.
"I am from the United States. Where are you from" And this always seems to be an important, unavoidable question, because, just as the US is different than Italy, Camaguey is very different from Havana.
"How long have you been in Havana?
"3 weeks" she says, and this explains why she is so afraid. She is from the Provinces, living in Havana without permission, desperate to get some money the only way she knows how before the police find her and fine her and send her back to Las Tunas. And although the lions are facing outwards, protecting the people who sit on these benches from attackers, they can not protect anyone from the police who walk down the center of the Prado, who can not be seen by these lions who are always facing away
"Are you staying in a hotel or in a private house"
"In a house"
"Take me there"
"Give me one dollar"
And maybe you give her one dollar, because she is desperate, and her room costs a dollar a day, and the police could come at any time. And since you have decided that you are not going to sleep with her, you tell her, "I wish you lots of luck, but I am going to keep walking, because I don't want to get you in trouble for nothing" And she smiles nicely, and thanks you, and you ask her name, and file her away, as a possibility for the future. And you walk on.
At the next bench, two negros, "cigars" says one.
"No, thank you."
"Are you looking for a chica?"
"No, not really. I am just walking."
"I know a really pretty chica. Not a jinetera. Would you like to converse with her for a little?"
"Well, just to converse, OK, I am happy to converse with anyone" And he goes for a short walk, and returns with a very thin negra, extremely shy, pretty in a National Geographic cover girl sort of way, who can't seem to converse with anyone. Not even to ask what country you are from. She sits, shyly, and when asked where she is from, she says, "Havana". But she has nothing else to say. The conversation falls flat. So, you tell her that you are from the United States, you are in Cuba for this and that particular reason, you have been in Cuba many, many times- you do all the talking, and she still smiles shyly. Until there is nothing more to say, except , good evening. And then you have 5 other conversations, of no particular consequence, on every remaining block of the Prado, until you get to the last set of lions, a little before Parque Central. A very elegant negra is sitting in a bicycle taxi, confident, well dressed, beautiful, and as you walk by, she calls out,
"Can I speak to you for a short moment?" and smiles.
"Even a long moment. Or a minute. Or perhaps for a few minutes!" And the bici-taxi driver smiles, and the beautiful negra also smiles.
"Where are you going?"
"Just for a walk. Over to la Habana Vieja"
"Come with me, in the bici-taxi!"
"Well, this is original! But, for whatever reason, I have decided to walk"
" Why would you want to walk alone, when you can ride up here with me?" And she smiles, elegantly, like a monarch who is extending an exclusive privilege.
"Well, tonight, I am walking. Perhaps I am not as flexible as like to think." Although the idea of riding with this sovereign is appealing.
"Ride with me!" she says, imperiously, and coquetishly.
"If you see me again, some other night, walking down the Prado, and you ask me to ride in your bicitaxi- on that night, I will ride with you!". And because she is so elegant, she smiles again, and says, "next time". Really, you should give her one dollar, for elegance, and originality, and because she did not ask, before she is peddled away.
At the corner of Parque Central, on the way to the core of the old city, there are benches along the walkways of the Park, and at the very corner bench, commanding the Prado, and the tourists coming from t he Hotel Inglaterra, and the wealthier tourists at the Hotel Telegrafo, and the Hotel Parque Central and Hotel Plaza, , and everyone on the way to Obispo, and the Cathedral, sits a very pretty girl, strategically, in a front line position.
"Are you really walking alone" she asks.
So you look around, to the left and to the right, and say, "apparently so!"
"Why?" is her simple question.
"Because I am alone"
"Well, sit here with me"
She is a white girl, tall, nice body, indeterminate age, and something about her face is familiar- like a farm girl from back home, as opposed to all the exotic mulatas. She is not extraordinarily beautiful, at least on first sight, but she is pleasant, with penciled in eyebrows, and small white teeth, and cheeks that are a little lumpy, in an original way. It turns out that she is only 19. Which is really too young for a middle aged man. Although, only from your point of view.
"Can I buy you a coca cola?". Because this particular girl, for the first time this evening, has something intriguing. even though she is a little too young.
"Buy me a mojito" she asks.
"Let's begin with a soft drink- until I know you a little better"
"OK" she smiles pleasantly. A lemon soda. At the bar across the street they don't have change for a twenty, or even change for a five, but luckily, you have two dollar bills, so you bring over a lemon drink for Darlene and a coca cola for yourself.
"Darlene, here is the soda. And look, I a going to give you five dollars, so you don't have to be nervous. No matter what happens, you have the five dollars, so the night has been a success, So now, tell me a little about your life"
She has been studying dancing, she says, for four years in Havana, born in Camaguey. And as she talks, she looks over your shoulder, a little anxiously, over towards the school of dance across the street, because there is a rehearsal tonight, she thinks, although she is not sure, and maybe she should practice, because she is serious about dancing.
"Is the practice open to the public"
"I'm not sure"
"I don't mind waiting for you- you can go to your practice, and I'll still be here when it's over".
But there are no other students around, so maybe there is no practice. Anyway, after a pleasant conversation, in which you tell her a little about yourself, she seems more and more sympathetic, with a winning personality, from the little that she has shown, so why not- this looks like the girl for the evening.
"Darlene, amongst all of the possibilities, is one possibility, that you could come back with me, after the practice, or after we learn that there is no practice"
"Where is your house?"
"Over on the Malecon, near the Deauville."
"We could take a taxi"
"Why- the Malecon is close"
"I don't like to walk" And this is the first bad omen, a sign of a diva, although easy to ignore, because she is a very pretty girl with a nice smile and a dancer's body.
"Ok, here's a deal we could make." And she seems really interested in the deal. "Let's walk back to my room, when you're ready, but not all at once. We can stop once or twice along the way, and each time we stop, I'll buy you a mojito"
But instead of agreeing, she looks a little sad, like she was hoping for a different deal.
"Are you sad about something?"
"I was just thinking of something else- yes, something that makes me sad. Like everybody, I have some problems"
"My mother has been paying my rent since I moved into a nearby apartment four months ago. I used to live in Cerro, but I moved here to be closer to the dance studio. And my mother said that she would be sending me money by telegram for the rent, but it hasn't gotten here yet. And the landlady says that if I don't have the money, I'll be out on the streets. That's what makes me sad"
"Maybe the telegram will come soon"
"I need it by tomorrow"
So now things are getting serious.
"How much is your rent?"
$100 a month. I know it's a lot of money, but it's a very nice apartment, right here, next to the studio. I don't like to walk. "
"Darlene, how can the rent be $100? I've never heard of such a rent for a Cuban here in Havana"
"I know it's a lot, but that's what it is. $100" . And after a while she says, "If you can give me half of the rent, then I think I could find the other half"
But the thing that is really worrisome is not the fifty dollars, even though all the other girls would be happy with $20 or $25. The bothersome part is that this girl appears to by lying. Many people don't care if a girl is lying, because they are not looking for friendship, or sincerity, but there are many other tourists who only want to sleep with girls that are honest, who could potentially offer some kind of friendship.
"Darlene, maybe I could talk to the owner of the apartment. I own an apartment building myself, in my country, so I know how to talk to apartment owners. I know that a good tenant shouldn't be thrown out just because a telegram is late. Your mother has already paid for 4 months, which is a good record, so if we explain to the owner that the money is coming soon, I'm sure she will give you a few more days at least".
But she is startled. "You want to talk to the owner? What for?"
"Just like I said. I think I can help you to resolve this situation, one landlord to another"
"The only way to resolve this is with money. I need $100."
"Well, Darlene, here's an idea. You talked about $50. Let's say that we actually get to like each other a little. You could come over to my room tonight, and tomorrow we could go to the beach, and then maybe to a restaurant or something, and I could give you the $50 spread out over two nights." And this is a generous offer, because, after all, $50 is a lot of money that can resolve a lot of problems, and besides, the restaurant thrown in, plus the sincere friendship.
"$50 for two nights? That's not enough" And then it is suddenly clear that this is not the girl that you have been looking for, because you have been looking for friendship, and she has been looking for money- nothing else. And you are middle aged, and she has smiled her pretty teeth because you have money, which is, as you know, pathetic. And worst of all, she is a liar.
"Darlene, let's start at the beginning. I can be a generous person. I gave you $5, at the beginning, for nothing. But I only want to be generous with the people who are honest. Nobody in Havana pays $100 for a months rent. So tell me why you really need the money-whatever reason, I'm not going to think poorly of you- as long as you are honest"
"It's the truth" she says. "the rent is $100. I know it's a lot, but that's how much I have to pay. And actually, I was thrown out yesterday. I have no place to stay, and I need your help. That's why I've been preoccupied" And then she starts to tear up. And it would be wonderful to be able to believe her, because she is so young and pretty. Perhaps, in all of Havana, there just might be one Cuban who is paying $100 a month rent?
"Please forgive me for asking so many questions" as she sobs a little more. "It's just that I don't want to begin any kind of a relationship with someone who isn't honest. You understand that, don't you? I don't want to say that you have been inventing any stories, but you know yourself that most people pay $20 a month, or maybe $30. I've never heard of such a rent before. So maybe it would be better if you could begin at the beginning, and tell me exactly why you need the money. Everybody needs money, and the only thing I ask is that you tell me the reason"
But Darlene is sticking to her story. In fact, she goes over to talk to a young blonde girl, a friend of hers named Susana, and then Susana comes over to explain that the story is true, that she lives in the same building and Darlene has just been thrown out because she didn't pay the rent.
"How much is the rent?"
"$100" says Susana.
"Do you also pay $100?"
And Susana says that she does.
"What about the telegram with the money? If you need $100, and a telegram is coming- surely you can explain that? Unless, of course, there is no telegram"
And Darlene admits that she made up the telegram. Her mother can't send her any money. And she needs $100.
"So when was the rent due?"
"Yesterday. And I didn't have the money"
"Let's see. Today is the 14th. So yesterday was the 13th. Now, in all my years of being a landlord, I never heard of rent that was due on the 13th of the month. Usually rent is due on the first of the month, although sometimes it is due on the 15th. Or sometimes the rent might be due every week. But I never heard of a case where the rent was due on the 13th
""But that's how it is" says Darlene. "it's always due on the 13th. That's when I have to pay the rent. And Susana agrees- the 13th.
"What if you were to pay one week, and promise to make up the rest next week?"
"No- the landlady said from the beginning- all of the money, one month in advance. She is a mean, cruel old woman. Those are the rules"
"Darlene, it's just a big story. I'm sorry, I would have liked to go out with you. You are very pretty. But you have been telling me stories, even though I gave you a few chances to tell me the truth, but you still don't want to tell me the truth. Maybe you are embarrassed now, but I am going to give you one more chance. Right now, I am going to keep walking. At least you have the five dollars. And the last chance is, some day, after you've had time to think it all over, if you see me again, you can tell me the truth, exactly why you want the money, and then we can start again, and I will listen to you"
And the pretty girl begins to cry again, and it is easy to feel sympathetic to a poor, crying, pretty girl, but you can't do anything to help her, because she is a liar, and for some inexplicable reason, this is important. So you get up and start to walk towards the Floridita on the corner of Obispo, a little confused, because it takes a lot of emotional effort to choose the right girl out of all the girls that are available, and it is always sad to have to give up even embryonic hopes and dreams, even the first zygote of a dream.
"Hello my friend!"
A negro, young, ebullient like all the other people on the street.
"My friend- where are you from?"
"United! States! Really! You are really an American!" Everyone is a little envious of the Americans, whether they admit it or not, or at least the power of the Americans, whether they admit it or not, except, perhaps, the French. But for the Cubans, America is still the goldineh medinah, as the Polish Jews used to say, or Gold mountain, as the Chinese used to say. The Chinese and the Jews think alike about lots of different things.
"Yes, it is really true. I am really an American"
"Let us walk together then! I have many questions for you!"
"OK, we can walk together, wherever you want, and we can talk about whatever you want. Except for two things. I don't want to talk about rum, chicas, cigars, restaurants, or any type of business. And secondly, I don't want to give you a dollar, no matter how many problems you are having, even if your mother is very sick and the medicine costs a dollar. If you agree to these rules, we can talk about anything else"
"Of course" says the man earnestly, super earnestly. It's a privilege to talk to an American. There are many things that I want to know. I understand, no money, no business, just a wonderful opportunity for me to ask you questions"
"Well then, what would you like to talk about?" Still thinking about Darlene. What a pity!
"What is the current unemployment rate in the US?"
A strange first question, but it appears t hat Rolando, this young negro, who is a musician, wants to know everything, and doesn't care exactly where he begins.
"About 6% right now. It's a lot, but not too bad"
"What are the economic prospects of the United States?"
So. There are many different regions of the country. And many different kinds of industries, etc. etc. It is a complicated question, but here is the summary.
And after a few minutes, walking past the Capitolio, Roland asks, "Have you ever seen the monument to Abraham Lincoln? No? Let me show you!" OK. And then he asks, "Tell me- how did the American people react to 9-11?"
Another very general question. Followed by a very general summary. And at the small monument to Lincoln, Roland asks, "Did you know that earth was taken here, to this park, from almost all t he important places in the world? Yes, it is true!" And then he asks," Is racism really a problem in t he United States? And what about guns? Is it true, that anybody can shoot anybody?"
Complicated questions, but Rolando is strangely intense, and this is a warning. Where the hell is he walking to, anyway?
"Rolando, why don't we just sit down, if you want to talk?"
"No, no, I have to go in this direction. I have an appointment. What are the most important industries of the United States? What are your relations with Canada? With the former Soviet Union? Tell me about Saddam Hussein!"
"Rolando, I can answer a few more questions- but let's sit down somewhere. I invite you to a soft drink"
"Fine, we'll sit down up ahead, that's ok, but first, tell me, what do the people in the United States think of all the terrorists? I'll tell you what
This young negro is just to earnest to be believable. Just the other night a tourist was assaulted in this neighborhood, just behind the Capitolio. The tourist was Jordanian, had been staying in the hotel Lido, where some of the low class people stay. I, myself, the writer of this story, have stayed there many times. The Jordanian had been out with two girls, sometime after midnight, and then the girls ran away, and two negros appeared out of the night, and beat him with a stick about the head, and robbed him of $700 US dollars and 200 Jordanian dinars. Only a fool walks around a capital city in the dim streets of a bad neighborhood with so much money, although just a few years ago, Havana was different from all the capitals of the world, and almost nobody was assaulted. But now, it can happen.
"Where are you going"
"Just ahead. We're almost there" It is not so very late, and there are many people on the street. Still.
But soon, Rolando, leading the way, turns a corner, and there is the dragon gate, and the beginning of Chinatown
"We can sit here" says Roland
And he sits down at one of the restaurants, and orders two mojitos.
"Rolando, I invited you to a soft drink. And now you have ordered a mojito. And one for me, too, and I don't want to drink" So Rolando talks to the waiter, who brings over two mojitos, one without alcohol. And then Rolando asks 15 or 20 other questions, intensely. And soon, it is time to continue the interrupted walk towards Obispo, because Rolando is monopolizing the entire evening.
The bill comes to $8. $4 for each mojito, with or without alcohol. Which is a waste of money. And then Rolando asks for a few dollars, and this makes you angry.
"Rolando- do you remember- at the very beginning, I said that we could talk about anything, except business and money. And now we have spent $8 on this foolishness, and you still want me to give you money"
"It's not for me" says Roland. "It is for my daughter. There is no food in the house. She is the only pleasure of my life, and I need the money to buy food for my daughter." And Rolando starts to cry.
"Rolando, I am going to try to explain. Maybe we live in such different worlds that communication is impossible. But I am going to try. With all respect. I was willing to talk to you. Your questions were a little strange, but I was willing to share whatever information I had. My time was yours. And we started off well. I invited you to a soft drink. And if, Rolando, at this moment, you had said to me, my American friend, let me tell you the truth, I don't need a soft drink, I need a few dollars for my daughter, so let us sit down and I will drink water, and give me the money we would have spent on a soft drink-that would have been honorable. I would have been impressed with your honestly and your reasonableness. But instead, you asked me a hundred questions, and then ordered two mojitos when I invited you to a soft drink. This is not correct! And now we have wasted $8- a month's salary! And there is still no food in your house. And it makes me feel that all of your questions were just a prelude to asking me for money. Perhaps I am being too critical. Maybe you need the money, and maybe you know best how to get the money. Maybe the best way to get money is to pretend to be sincere, and then ask for money. But this, my friend, is not worthy".
And Rolando is crestfallen, because it is all true. He has done something that is a little bit shameful. But he still needs the money. So please, one dollar?
"No. But here are 10 pesos Cubanos. You can buy a few pounds of squash, or yuca, or a pound of beans. There will be some food in the house"
And as you are walking away, Rolando asks again, if you could take back the 10 pesos and give him one dollar. He is ashamed, but not too ashamed to ask.
It seems that the evening's experiment is a failure. No matter how many different people you talk to, the people on the streets who are looking for you, it is all the same. It all comes down to desperation, and deception, and the need for money.
There are lots of very pretty girls that hang around Chinatown- in my opinion, the prettiest girls in all of Havana. One of these very pretty girls asks if you are alone. Yes, you are. Would you like to invite her to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant? No, not really. And it is not hard to explain why. It is because there is so much deception. You are looking for friendship. You alone. Everyone else is looking for money. And the girl agrees. She is only looking for money. She has no time for friendship. Friendship is worthless. It resolves nothing. At least, this girl is sincere. She is very pretty, tall, about 25 years old, mulata, nicely dressed, high heel shoes. But she is only looking for money.
At the beginning of Obispo two girls call to you. Are you alone? Yes? Are you looking for a girl?
"No, not exactly. But I do invite each of you to the Floridita for a soft drink. And we can talk there. Just talk. If you like"
"Of course, we are happy t o come"
And they really do seem happy. They are very young girls, just arrived from Holguin less than 10 days ago. Cheerful. The prettier girl is 18 years old. The other girl is 22.
"Look, I invited you to a soft drink, but before we order, I am going to give each of you a dollar. Here it is, and now, the money is yours. Do you want a soft drink? Or do you want to keep the money?"
The cheerful pretty girl, who has bleached her hair blonde, says, without any hesitation, "The money! Thank you! We don't need any soft drink!"
"Good, since you have given the correct answer, you can keep your dollar, and now I am going to order you a soft drink besides. Or even a beer, if you want one. Just to keep me company, because I am going to order a beer for me. What would you like?"
"Can I have a pack of cigarettes?" asks the older girl, a mulata.
"Of course! How about you?"
"Cola. That's all. And thank you! You are very generous!" And since this young girl is so perky, you decide to tell her what you are thinking about. "No, this is nothing, it is a pleasure just to sit here and talk to you. In fact, I want to tell you some of the things that have happened to me, just tonight, walking down Prado" So, the story about Darlene, and then the story about Rolando. And after the stories are told, these two girls remain cheerful, hopeful, perhaps because they are so new to Havana, or perhaps because they are always cheerful. But they agree- the streets are made of deception. The blonde girl is very pleasant, but behind the makeup, and the clipped hair, she is just a child. Still, it has been a pleasant conversation.
A few blocks down Obispo there is a Chinese looking girl, straight black hair, tall. The girl smiles at you, and that is all. The nicest invitation of the evening.
"Where are you from?", you ask.
"Campo de Havana. You know, the countryside of Havana"
"Everyone in Cuba has so many problems. So tell me- what are your particular problems?"
The girl smiles, wanly, intelligently. "Why should I bore you with all that? It's the same as everybody else."
"OK. I understand. But because you have a pretty smile, and you seem like a nice girl- I'm going to give you two dollars. I hope this solves a tiny problem"
"Thank you" she says, smiling again. And then she asks, "Would you like my address"
"Yes. I would! Thank you very much. Maybe I'll visit sometime. We won't have to talk about anybody's problems"
"That would be wonderful" says the Chinese girl.
At the end of Obispo, in the Plaza de Armas, is the most honest girl- white, saucy, lots of make up, very young. "Fucky fucky fuck" she says, in English, and smiles. "You fuck with me"
"It's good that you are learning English. But I think you need to expand your vocabulary"
"I don't want to talk. I want to fuck with you. Are you in a hotel or a private house?"
"First, you're too young for me. Second, I prefer to think of myself as more than just a fruit that falls into the hands of whoever. But I am willing to admit- maybe your way is best. Fucky fucky fuck. Maybe that is the best thing you can say to get the money you are looking for"
"You fuck with me?"
"No. Maybe in a few more years, when you learn some more English"
There are benches in the Plaza de Armas, and an old man is sitting on one of them. He nods politely.
What a scandal, this part of old Havana!"
"Ah yes", says the old man. "If only I were much younger. And, of course, a tourist". And with this man, it is possible to have an honest conversation.
On the way back to Malecon and the room in the private house, there are a whole set of different people, but the conversations would be mostly the same. "Come this way" says a girl walking towards you, although you are walking the other way. And this girl, thin, small, with mascara that makes her look almost Indian, explains that she is working for her daughter. Do you want to see her daughter's picture? The chance to see this picture is probably worth a dollar.
Four girls and a guy are sitting on one of the benches at the Parque central. The guy says, "Amigo" and then asks, "Are you looking for a chica?"
"No, I'm not looking. The chicas are looking for me"
"Well, they found you! Which one do you want?"
"Actually, I decided that I don't want any chica. I wasn't sure, before, but now I've decided that I don't want to have sex with strangers. Not my cup of tea"
One of the girls, tall mulata, nice legs, says, "No sex. Take me to your room, and we can sleep with each other, without sex"
"That's the kinkiest thing I've hears all night! But it is a good answer. So, if you ever see me again, and you remember me, you will have the right to a dollar. Not tonight. Some other night"
"Why not tonight?"
"Because I am capricious. I don't have to give a dollar to anyone. But I am willing to give you a dollar, some other night"
"What a clown" says one of the other girls, disgustedly. "Pathetic. Go away"
"With pleasure" And it really is a pleasure to walk away from this very rude chica, who needs to go back to geisha school.
Susana, the friend of Darlene, is still in the parque Central. Now Darlene, as you now remember her, was really very pretty.
"Darlene asked me to look for you. Here is the telephone number of the owner of the house. Give her a call. You will see that Darlene really is paying $100 a month".
"Susana, I was born stupid, like everybody else, but since then, I've learned a few things. Darlene gave you this number, and whoever is at the other end of the phone will say that the rent is $100, just like you said it was $100. She is sticking to her story. The only hope for Darlene is to admit to me that she was lying. Then, maybe I still would go out with her someday. But she has to want to be honest with me."
"If I take you to the owner of the house, right now, and the owner convinces you that the rent is $100- will you pay her the $100?"
"No, Susana, because it is just one lie on top of another. And then Susana smiles, and says "OK. You tried. Maybe Darlene will learn to be honest."
"Maybe. But maybe it is best not to be honest. I am not Darlene, so I really can't say what is best- lying to the tourists, or being honest to the tourists. What works best?"
"Lying" says Susana. "Lying works best. Tourists are stupid. But they have all the money"
"I'm afraid you're right Susana. Thank you!"
"Calvito" calls out one of the girls on the benches on Prado, which means, "baldy', although more affectionate. "I really like Calvitos!"
"You're a nice girl. See you again some day!"
The shy black girl that couldn't make conversation before is still sitting on her same bench, still smiling shyly. "Buenas noches" she says, and smiles a little more.
At the end of Prado, you turn on Malecon, and just before your room, a mixed race girl with lots of reddish, wavy hair, dark brown at the roots, is sitting on her front steps with a few adults. She has some acne, and a nice smile. The adults begin to talk about Cuba- the policlinicos are falling down, the hospitals in the countryside are barely functioning. Everybody needs dollars. The usual. The girl, who is not the prettiest girl of the evening, but still, pleasant, just smiles, showing a gold tooth. She is not on the street, she is sitting in her own doorway, not looking for anyone. She studies during the day- learning how to type. She is 25 years old.
Back at your private house, up four flights of stairs, there is the double bed. And now, my friend, you have a choice. You can go back to this last girl, not the most beautiful girl in the world, but with a nice, honest smile. Nice tits, from what you were able to ascertain. She is still waiting for you, if you are looking for her. I personally believe that she is probably an honest girl, a good girl, one of the best girls you have met on this particular evening. You could take her to the bar on the corner, buy her a mojito, take her to your room, and give her some money- however much you want. Because she is a good girl, in my opinion, humble, not asking for anything. If you give her money, she will be grateful, and will probably buy a pair of blue jeans, or some other nice piece of clothing, something that she has wanted for a long time. .
However, my friend, or perhaps I should say, Pssst!
Don't look for sincerity on Prado or Obispo.
Sure, you might find it one day, but the odds are against you. You might even find an enduring love someday. Just as these girls might find someone to take them away. But not on an average night. Maybe once in a lifetime. Or once in many lifetimes.
On an average night, Prado and Obispo operate just like any efficient marketplace. Some people are looking for sex, and other people are looking for money, and these people are able to find each other, every night. You can also find plenty of phony cigars. But if you are looking for anything else, well, my friend, you're in the wrong place, no matter what country you are from. Although, who knows, the negra in the bicitaxis really very elegant, a dark queen of the night. And the Chinese girl with the intelligent smile- you have her address. And of course, this was just an average night. On other nights, quite extraordinary things could happen, things that could change your life. The temptation is sweet. And every night, you get another bite out of the apple.
Name: omar laffita
COMMENT: excellent! I live in miami, but i was born in Cuba, coincidentally, in old havana (obispo y san ignacio) and the passage made me go back to those nights in my home town. Good work!