Linda

My beard is getting longer. I’m almost 34. In nine days I’ll be 34. It sounds so old. Thirty-four. Thirty. Four. Four plus thirty. Ten three times plus four. Who knows how many days, how many seconds, how many moments lived, and how many moments to be lived. Hopefully the best of my life is in front of me. You always hope this. How could you hope for anything different?

I submitted a piece today about Cuba to a magazine called Odyssa. I think it’s a magazine geared toward women. The piece is OK, it’s about the Danish girl I met in Cuba and traveling around with her. Her name was Linda and we met at the bus station for foreigners in Havana. I think I asked her for a light, or maybe just sat down next to her and started talking to her. We sat on the bus together and talked most of the way. Then when we got to Viñales we stayed in the same place, shared a beautiful room with two beds with a brand-new air conditioning unit that looked like a scud missile.

“Don’t use it during a lightning storm,” the lady told us who rented the place. “It could short out.”

The air conditioning unit cost them something like $1,000 dollars. Her husband, Pedro, kept wanting to show me his tobacco leaves. And for me to smoke cigars. He didn’t want to charge me, he just wanted me to smoke cigars.

On the second day Linda and I went to the pool and got fried to a crisp. I don’t think either of us used sunscreen. I remember Linda’s chest, it looked red before we even left, which of course meant the next day she looked like a cherry tomato. But she didn’t want to get out of the sun. I swam a bit, and then we had sandwiches, and then we lay in the sun some more. I felt comfortable around Linda. She was like a sister. She was also attractive, though, and later that night, or maybe the next day, we went out together, first we watched live music, then we went to a tiny place where we drank tray after tray of mojito. It was hot and we were drunk. There was a French guy next to us and Linda seemed interested in him, but then he floated away with his family. Eventually we went home and opened the door to our apartment, which was like opening the door to an ice cave. And then we lay in bed, not talking, just enjoying the cool air and the murmur of the machine.

The next day we traveled back to Havana and the car smelled like gas — there was a leaky gas tank in the back — and Linda was terrified we were going to hydroplane. We drove right into the heart of a storm. In Havana we shared another apartment, had dinner together at a Persian place, had cocktails at a bar I’d wanted to check out, walked down to the malecón and sat next to each other, watching the waves.

It was dark and the black expanse in front of us felt infinite.

This is the moment when you kiss her, I thought.

I looked over at her and then straight ahead. She was looking into the distance. A car drove by behind us and it’s whir mingled with the sound of the ocean.

This is where you kiss her, you jackass.

The silence became longer. Time felt momentarily slowed, looking out over The Strait of Florida, seeing the black clouds, the spray of the waves dancing at our feet.

This is where you kiss her.

****

The next morning David and Elizabeth, the Air Bnb hosts, picked me up at 4:45am to take me to the airport. I don’t remember if I said bye to Linda or not. If I did it was brief and perfunctory and then I left Cuba.

The Cool in Cuba

The brief minutes after a hard rain are about the only time it ever feels cool in Cuba in the summer. And it’s not that it feels cool, it’s that it feels almost cool. It doesn’t feel oppressively hot. The rains come and tear away the humidity, and for a few brief minutes you can walk down the street in shorts and a t-shirt and think, “It’s perfect outside right now.”

I had this feeling on our last afternoon in Viñales. I met a Danish girl on the bus and we shared lodging, hanging out in the rocking chairs in the mornings and talking about nothing. I had some unique experiences in Cuba. I witnessed a Santeria ritual, two guys standing on a rocky shoreline amidst scraps of trash, holding a dead chicken above a chalice to collect its blood while the other guy rang a bell. Then there was the crowded bus on the way to the Hemingway museum, bodies of all colors and sizes, sweaty, pressing in against me. There was the heat, always the oppressive heat, taking shelter from a rainstorm in Hotel Presidente, eating delicious meals for a dollar, etc etc. And yet, of all these experiences, the only one that truly meant anything was sitting in a rocking chair and having an unhurried conversation with a fellow traveler. Sitting there for two hours at a time, with no place to be. Neither of us on our phones. Neither of us feeling like we had to entertain each other. Neither of us feeling like we had to say anything.

On the way back to the Havana there was another massive thunderstorm. We drove right into the heart of it. Linda kept worrying about hydroplaning, visibly tensing up whenever we approached an area of standing water. But Rafael, our driver, was no amateur. Plus, a car is the safest place to be in Cuba. Cars are scarce. Cars are like gold. People take good care of them, and will do anything to protect them. They might not be worried about the safety of the people in the car, but they are extremely worried about the safety of the car itself.

That same night in Havana we walked down to the seawall to look out on the Straits of Florida and watch the lightning. But mostly we watched the waves. They were mesmerizing. They were like watching fire; we couldn’t look away. It’s hard not to feel isolated in Cuba, cut off from the rest of the world, but this, for a foreigner, is part of Cuba’s appeal. It might be Cuba’s main appeal. That isolation can be oppressive, but only if you have to face it alone. Few Cubans face it alone. Family time in Cuba is prized. And not just family time, but time in general. Cubans have realized something by necessity that many Americans miss completely: Doing more with your day, doing more with your life, doesn’t make you happier. The national slogan for Cuba should be “less is more”; it’s a country where people have so little but enjoy riches most Americans don’t know exist.

I didn’t realize this so much then, at the time, sitting on the seawall in Cuba with Linda. I only realized it afterward, when I was alone again. I sat in the desk chair of my hotel room in Mexico City, looking out at the trees, listening to the sounds of a different thunderstorm rolling in. I didn’t want to be in that chair, in the hotel, though; I wanted to be back in the rocking chair in Viñales, talking to Linda.  Talking about nothing. Waiting for the rain to come. Doing nothing. Feeling everything.

The Rain in Cuba

They don’t pronounce their ‘r’s in Cuba.  Which means the word “puerta” sounds like “pueta,” and the word “cerca,” sounds like “seca.” The first night I got here Elizabeth and David kept saying that things were “seca.” They’re dry! They’re dry! they kept saying. Then I realized they were saying things were close.

Yesterday I went to Hotel Presidente to use the internet. In Cuba you can’t just walk into a cafe and use their internet. People don’t have internet in their homes. If you want to use the internet, you have to go to either a hotel or a kiosk and buy an internet card from the company ETECSA, the national phone company that has a monopoly. One hours costs $2USD. Then, if the hotel has computers, you can use theirs. If you have your own device, you can use that.

While at the Hotel Presidente the skies opened up and the fury of God was unleashed. Lightning bolts crashed down all around us. The streets were immediately a deluge. The people in the hotel sat around, swatting flies, and feeling the kind of comradery that arises when people are trapped by a storm.  It was like being trapped in the cellar waiting for a tornado to pass, passing around rations and holding hands. I made my way to the bar, where I ordered a Cuba Libre. I sat there drinking it next to a tall black man who sounded like he was from somewhere in the south. At one point we all heard a crack! and turned to look behind us, where a man was sprawled on the ground. The leg of his chair had broken. A waiter rushed over to help him while the couple from the South and I watched, impassive.

After my drink I walked outside and talked to a guy from Palestine. Or actually talked is not the right word. I made a comment about the rain and he instantly scuttled away. Then I took off my shoes, put them under my shirt, and walked the six blocks back to my Air Bnb, wading through puddles, feeling the little rivers of rain under my feet on the hot asphalt. Back at my Air Bnb I took off my wet clothes, turned on the AC, and sprawled on the bed. Elizabeth and David were making dinner, and treated me. Avocado and cucumber salad. Arroz con pollo. Water with the two drops.

Outside, the rain had finally stopped.

The Breeze in Cuba

It was hard to buy water in La Habana. I went into a mini market, there were bottles of water everywhere, but when I bent down to pick one up the man said to me, “No, no water. Not yet.”

“Pardon?”

“You can’t buy water yet. We haven’t done inventory.”

I almost laughed. “OK,” I said, “when can I buy it?”

“Two hours.”

So I went back two hours later, but the man shook his head. Still no water.  “I’m going to die of thirst,” I said, cracking a joke, but he either didn’t hear me or didn’t respond.

When I finally went back a third time, I was able to get my mitts on a nice 5-liter bottle of spring water. I wanted to shout with glee. It cost two dollars, which for Cuba is an outrage but I was more than happy to fork over the cash. The day before I had been drinking water purified with what Cubans call “the two drops.” You put two drops of some kind of substance I can’t remember into the water, and then it’s supposedly suitable for drinking. My hostess was worried when I started to drinking it. “I want to see what happens to me,” I said.

Last night I went down to the malecon to catch the end of the sunset.  There was a thunderstorm in the distance, towards Mexico. Great big bolts of lightning knifed their way through cumulous clouds piled on top of eachother like dark pillows. There was a fresh breeze blowing towards Mexico, too. It threatened to push me off the top of the malecon but then sought a path of less resistance and traveled over me. As I left a girl shouted at me, making the motion of lighting a cigarette.  I searched my pockets but didn’t have a lighter or matches. “Thanks,” she mouthed, and I walked off into the night.