You Are Safe Here
We’re in a basement, walls crumbling naked onto a cracked porcelain floor and a single candle wicks into flame, throwing silent blazes on the pockmarked face of our host, Lazaro. His crooked teeth gleam white in the flickering glow and lingering shadows dance on the faces of the two sidekicks behind him. Me and Hal are crouched on the edge of a filthy mattress, facing off with the three of them, and I know Hal will have one eye on the door but the warm buzz of coke is kicking my head and the invincibility is up to eleven.
Lazaro leans a shaved head to one side, pulls a small golden nugget from his pocket and holds it to the flame. It pulses yellow and amber and in the hypnotic rhythm, I see a precious fragment of raw gold plucked from the mountains of Pinar del Rio or the rivers of Santa Clara, somewhere far beyond the hungry belly of Havana.
“How much for this in your country?” he says.
Hal takes the shimmering treasure and rolls it between his thumb and forefinger.
“I don’t know.”
Lazaro nods at me and Hal puts the nugget into the palm of my hand, his dark eyes wide with a code I can’t decipher. The gold is not gold all over; the underside is jagged white and black with a protruding horn, a root of sorts that’s encased in flecks of red and brown. It’s blood, old and dried. This golden prize from the clear mountain rivers of Cuba is a human tooth, one that has been ripped out of a human mouth.
“Where did you get it?” I say.
Hal digs a finger into my bare thigh. It’s a reminder that I’m not the one who’ll get my head kicked in if this goes tits up. Lazaro looks at the moustachioed man-child to his right, the grinning muscle to his left and I swear Hal’s feet move into a sprint start.
“Relax,” says Lazaro. “Nobody hurt turista in Cuba or…” He puts two fingers to his head and pulls the trigger. “You,” he points at me and then at Hal, “are safe here.”
Hal laughs, an awkward show of gratitude that echoes hollow in the empty space. Hal is a curious mix of immigrant mistrust and English public school entitlement that invites suspicion wherever he goes, as much in his native Turkey as here in the darkest corners of Havana. Appeased, he leans back onto the mattress, pulls a tobacco pouch from his pocket and starts to skin up.
“You want some more?” Lazaro asks me, holding up a wrap of newspaper. I nod, oh yes, yes I do. I hand over hard US currency and chop out five lines on the Boards of Canada CD that’s in my Walkman.
After a while, the early light leaks through the cracks on the shuttered window and I see the room in all its decaying glory. Amid the exposed wires and brick, there are remnants of grandeur – the mosaic tiles that skirt the walls, the wrought iron lattice on the door panelling. A metallic taste coats the roof of my mouth and I think of the gold-toothed king who fought valiantly against these renegades, the evacuation of his precious cargo as inevitable as the extraction of the fireplace and the light fittings from this room. It’s 1998 and Cuba is still in the Special Period, a time of severe hardship and depression following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everyone’s just trying to survive, any way they can.
The Malecon is the spine of this beautiful city, a five mile walled promenade that holds firm against the shifting moods of the Caribbean, from the deep blue calm to the crashing rage of a storm. To the south and east is the old town, ravaged by salt air and neglect; to the west is the fading hope of the new city. Straight ahead, beyond the fishing boats suspended on the horizon, is the perilous lure of the American dream, just over a hundred miles from here to Key West, Florida.
In this golden dusk, I can’t imagine the sickening pitch of a homemade raft on a rolling wave, the roar of the sea in the cold dark of night, the tens of thousands severed from land and self, water thrashing, gasping for air, hallucinating freedom as the world straddles idolatry and indifference. Now, as couples stroll the seafront bathed in the warm glow of a crimson sky, the threat of starvation seems like a distant shadow.
From the sea wall, I watch the sun set with Miguel, our knees touching in anticipation as the waves lap gently below. He takes my hand and, in the distortion of romance, all I want is to follow this beautiful man I’ve only just met. He leads me across the adjacent boulevard, into the hallway of a decomposing colonial house. I think nothing of risk; for me, violence comes with time, a slow-building resentment that festers in the knowing, a performance of possession and control. I’m here to get away from that.
The wide stone staircase is littered with children, half-naked, pointing and chattering. My Spanish isn’t much better than Miguel’s English but I recognise ojos azules, my blue eyes that cause mention wherever I go. I’m not used to it, the attention, but Miguel puts his hand to his heart and I want to believe in the allure of the other. We speak mostly in gestures, formal conversation unnecessary with our bare arms brushing off each other and our fingers interlocked.
Miguel’s home is on the third floor, where open electrics hang over door frames and the last of the evening light filters through rotting wooden beams in the ceiling. And still, a family in every doorway, tens of them in this decrepit building alone. A tall door leads to a smaller one and the familiar smokey-rich aroma of arroz congrí, Cuban rice and beans. A cramped and cluttered kitchen-living room is busy with people cooking and eating to the hum of Fidel Castro on a black and white portable TV. Layers of wallpaper fail to hide the cracks and holes in every wall and mismatched sheets of worn lino do their best to level the floor.
Miguel introduces me to his parents, his sister, her infant daughter and his abuela, who is hunched in concentration on a metal rocking chair beside the TV. She’s wearing the sort of smocked floral dress you might see on a child and her pale legs are covered in the most intricate network of veins I’ve ever seen. I take the wicker chair beside her and she asks me my país.
She’s never heard of it.
“Irlanda del Norte o la Republica?” asks Miguel’s father from the table behind us.
“Republica,” I say and not for the first time, I thank Jack Charlton and Packie Bonner for putting my tiny country on the world map. It affords me a level of goodwill, a plucky underdog status that Hal can only dream of with his Turkish-English heritage.
Abuela returns her attention to Fidel, who is performing to the people of Soweto, South Africa. It’s easy to see his appeal; even with his body bowed and his voice frail, he projects an expert sincerity and the crowd laps it up.
Miguel shakes his head, flicks his wrist at the TV, spits out words I don’t understand. Abuela shushes him and he raises his voice, waves of anger tumbling out of him. His father lets out a roar and he’s on his feet, squaring his rounded shoulders at his son as he points a bony finger at Abuela. Hidden in the deep crevices of his face, I see Miguel’s dimples, an echo from father to son as he reprimands this twenty-four year old man who has no choice but to live with four generations of his own family.
Later, when we come back to his tiny room to fuck, I will see a Stars and Stripes hanging on the wall beside his bed and he’ll tell me he’s going to get to America, any way he can.
In brighter times, Ernesto was a shoemaker. Now, with no raw materials available, his business is repair. He works by lamplight in a narrow, windowless room, glueing the split strap of my Doc Martens sandals. The artificial glow casts highlight and shadow on the dark, mottled skin of his hands as he pushes the leather into the air-cushioned sole and clamps it in place.
Ernesto is a friend of Maria, the lithe and guarded twenty-two year old who’s become a fixture on Hal’s arm. She’s a seamstress who has come to Havana to earn enough money to support the two year old daughter who lives with her grandmother in Guantanamo. Hal is fluent in Spanish, having spent part of his childhood in Madrid, and he and Maria chat to Ernesto while we wait for the glue to dry. I zone out, unable to keep up, and I’m glad when Maria says she wants to go. I want to bond with Ernesto, learn about his life, improve my Spanish. As they leave, Maria says cuidado, careful. I roll my eyes and think, I can take care of myself, before I realise she’s looking at Ernesto.
Payment is a couple of beers at a local cafe – only a few dollars for me but out of reach for a Cuban earning an average of $10 a month. Ernesto slouches along the shady side of the street, keeping well out of the burning path of the midday sun. He’s older, mid-30s maybe, and has none of the fire of the younger Habaneros we’ve met. If you didn’t know any better, you might think they had a great life, hanging out all day on the Malecon or the nearby Bacuranao beach. With basic food, shelter, health and education provided, there is little else for the underemployed to do, but it takes its toll, poverty and neutered ambition. I sense it now in Ernesto, the weariness of defeat in his hunched shoulders, the lack of hope in his gruff voice. Even as we’re sitting outside the cafe, drinks on the table, he’s looking over his shoulder, expecting conflict. Or inviting it maybe.
We settle into the flush of an afternoon beer buzz and Ernesto answers my questions with a bemused patience. Yes, he used to go to bars before. No, he doesn’t go dancing any more. He wants to know only one thing about me: am I American? When I tell him no, he shakes his head, sucking this obvious dilemma through his teeth. He leans forward, elbows on the table.
“I need help.”
The endless potential of the day shrinks to this moment as we eyeball each other in the shade of the overhead canopy.
“My son,” he says. “I need you to find him.”
There’s a desperation in his unblinking eyes and I can’t look away. But even with the bravado of two beers, I’m uneasy with this breach of our transactional relationship.
“I’m not sure what I can do…”
He asks me for a pen and paper and I tear the corner off a street map. He writes out a number, slowly, pausing to remember. I recognise the first three digits, 305 for Miami.
“Please call. Ask for Andres.”
Andres is his eighteen year old son who left Havana for Key West six months ago. Ernesto hasn’t heard from him since and this phone number is his only point of contact. He holds out the paper. I hesitate, just for a moment, and he grabs my wrist, twisting it as he forces the scrap into my hand. It’s a pain that’s too familiar, too tethered to self-doubt and trauma that I can’t even look at him as I pull my hand from his grip and the phone number falls to the table.
“Please,” he says, but he already knows he’s gone too far.
He stands and when I look up, he’s backlit by sun, a halo of yellow and gold knit into his curly black hair. Maybe it’s a trick of the light but he seems shrouded in the glare, both hidden and exposed in his own narrative. I reach for the crumpled paper and put it in my bag.
“Gracias,” he says and turns away.
As he rounds the corner, he’s approached by two polícias and I ask the waiter what’s happening. He waves Ernesto away as if to say, don’t worry about him but I can’t help it. I pay the bill and hurry after him but he is gone.
Maria is not happy. The heat gushes out of her, words that flare like flames in the dying embers of a scorched dusk. Hal explains that Ernesto has probably been arrested for harassing a tourist, how could I be so stupid, I should never have brought him to such a public place. I ask what I can do to help.
“Stay away from Habaneros.”
It’s not me that’s in danger, it never has been. I am the danger.
I ask about Ernesto’s son. Maria has never heard of him, it’s probably a scam.
“Seriously,” says Hal, “forget about it.”
Still, I walk by Ernesto’s workshop several times over the next few days but I never see him again. I want to believe in his lies but I’m more afraid they’ve been eclipsed by his truth.
Hal and I move from our state-mandated hotel into a casa particular, a private home that’s licensed to rent to tourists. It’s a small apartment in an ornate and mostly intact neoclassical building in the old town and our basic, standalone room looks out from the second floor onto a shared inner courtyard. The family Duarte, a middle-aged couple and their three adult children, feed us breakfast of crusty bread and strong coffee and keep to themselves and the Brazilian telenovelas that fill the communal balcony with all the colour and contrast of an unbounded life.
Maria is still around, constantly now, visiting the casa under cover of night while I’m forced to hang back and listen to my Walkman in the stairwell until she leaves. I can hardly complain, I’ve done the same thing many times before, but this onslaught of hushed voices has stifled my own. In all my years travelling with Hal, it’s the first time that dead air has crept into our shared space and I’m numb with it, the silence of a falling glass before it hits the ground.
There’s a storm coming, Señora Duarte tells us, we must take care. I thank her, thinking, we’ve survived Asian monsoons, I’m sure we can handle some Caribbean rain. Along the Malecon, the sky is an aqueous blue, the air hushed with a sultry stillness I can feel against my skin. Dark waves of clouds roll across the horizon and the water swells steadily against the sea wall. By evening, the sky flares green and grey between the clouds and Hal can’t take the murky silence anymore.
“We need to talk.”
We head out to a paladar, a restaurant in a family home, and fat, musky drops of rain splatter onto our anxious faces. Pedro, the man of the house, is surprised to see us on this stormy night, but it’s ok, he’ll look after us. We sit in the corner of a stately room beside a large, arched window and knock back one Cuba Libre after another as thunder grumbles and streaks of light crack the sky. There are no other guests here.
“So what’s going on with you?” asks Hal eventually.
The window trembles with rain that rides the wind upwards and sideways and I grip tight to the seat of my chair.
“What about you? Don’t you realise you’re putting her in danger every time you see her?”
“Don’t you think she knows that more than anyone?”
In the blurred glass, water ripples down my face.
“So what’s the difference between me hanging out with Ernesto and you spending every day with Maria?”
“It’s not the same,” he says. “We speak the same language, we’ve both had to move around a lot, we’ve been separated from our families…”
“Oh, did she board at Stowe too?”
The gusto drains out of him as he looks into the night. When he turns back, he has refuelled.
“Do you think these people like you? Do you think that’s why they hang out with you and fuck you? They are not your friends.”
It’s not that we’ve never argued or lobbed a cruel word across the net, it’s just never felt this targeted before.
“I thought you were my friend.”
I smack twenty dollars onto the table, sling my bag over my shoulder and walk out.
“Ah come on Fiona, wait.”
I apologise to Pedro as I hurry past him and down the steps, Hal following close behind.
The wind howls along the Malecon, inciting waves that swell ten, fifteen feet into the air, clear the wall and shatter onto the road behind it. The furious, untamed power shudders through me and I want to be part of it. Isn’t this what I came for? Not the impotence of immunity, the illusion of control. I want this city to consume me, I want to hear its heart thumping in my ear. With Hal’s voice roaring my name, I run into the boulevard, wade across it and climb onto the sea wall, arms raised up into the waves that rumble clean overhead, showering salt water onto my upturned face. Of all the things I’ve done in my life that should have killed me, this is the most reckless – and the most glorious.
He grabs me tight around the waist and drags me onto the promenade and back into the world. As we stumble across the road, the crest of a wave breaks hard against my shoulder, knocking us flat onto the tarmac. The undertow drags grit and debris across my face and I splutter out the grimy, salty water and with it a deep, nervous laugh that pins me to the ground as the sea gears up for another go.
“Come on,” shouts Hal, hands outstretched. He pulls me to my feet and by the time we’re safe, sheltered in a doorway down a side street, we’re both shaking with laughter.
The rain relents as we stroll through the back streets of the old town, colours glistening in oily puddles, broken power lines crackling and sparking overhead. It’s a hurricane that’s killed six people, caused irreparable damage and we get to walk away from it all unscathed.
When we reach our casa and change out of our sodden clothes, we watch from the rooftop as the city unfurls, as the rhythm of son swells from a balcony below, trumpets leading the call, as couples find each other, embracing in the street, as children emerge from doorways, dancing and splashing, making the most of it as they always do.