The following is excerpted from The Domino Diaries: My Decade with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba, by Brin-Jonathan Butler.
As Castro lay on his deathbed, his brother Raúl was holding his hand. A crowd had gathered outside the window chanting up to their leader, “Fidel! Fidel!”
“What are those people doing outside?” Fidel asked. “Saying farewell,” Raúl replied.
“Where are they going?” Fidel asked.
In the summer of 2006, not long after Fidel suddenly stepped down from power and handed over the reins to his brother Raúl, I went back to Havana to see how much had changed. It doesn’t take long to hear from the people you meet that Havana is the biggest small town on earth. I’d experienced it from almost the first day with tracking down boxing heroes. Finally Cuban kismet brought it home with the Castros.
The plane began its descent over the last handful of haunted miles dividing Cuba from the United States. Out my window the sunset glazed over the surface of the ocean and glinted off the slits and nicks of wave creases like fresh wounds. Up and down the plane I heard the slap of blinders yanked down over the windows while the rest of us eagerly took in the view. It’s this last home-stretch that fleshes out the tourists from the locals on flights to the island
An announcement came over the speakers on the plane that we’d begun our descent into Havana and the bald woman sitting next to me tapped my shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
I shrugged while an advertisement on the screen lauded some company’s corporate responsibility and philanthropy: The future is friendly.
“Do you—,” the woman began, smiling magnanimously and pointing at my heart. “Un-der-stand—English?”
I couldn’t figure out if her over-enunciation implied I might be deaf, a foreigner, or suffering from some severe mental handicap. Maybe she had me pegged for the trifecta.
“I flunked English in ninth grade.”
“I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but I wondered if you’d like to know why the stranger sitting next to you on the plane was returning to Havana.”
“I have a score to settle with Havana.”
I looked around at some of the other passengers on the plane. Healthy mix of agendas on all the faces.
“I’m guessing you’re not alone on that front,” I told her.
“Well, it was exactly one year ago today that I discovered a lump in my breast while I was taking a shower in an Old Havana hotel. I wanted to come back here, to the same hotel, in the same room, for the anniversary as a ‘fuck you...’” She seemed to be trying to cling to the anger but losing traction. “I wanted to come back here as a ‘fuck you’ to what I’ve gone through the last year fighting cancer. Because, well, I may have lost a breast and I may not be able to conceive a child anymore, but guess what?”
I let out the rest of the air in my lungs and shrugged as an American Express ad glared at both of us from above my meal tray. She paused and stared at me. Suddenly she reached down and unzipped her bag, revealing a large box of condoms.
“I can still get laid! I’m going to meet someone over there. I’m going to meet a few people maybe.”
She looked out the window with the island finally in view and smiled. “Did you know that Cubans say life is a joke to be taken very seriously?”
“When Columbus arrived they told him the island was infinite, too.”
“You know, we should have dinner some night...”
We touched down on José Martí Airport’s runway. I’d been following the news since Castro entered the headlines with his illness, which was supposed to be an official state secret. They were throwing a party on Calle Ocho in Miami to celebrate the old man’s impending demise. Many journalists assumed he was already dead
I took a gypsy cab from the airport over to a wedding my friend Ría had invited me to in her home town of San Antonio, a suburb outside Havana. The old Ford that picked me up was doing just fine until she began to overheat halfway back into the city.
“I knew she was angry about me listening to reggaeton at this hour.” The driver shook his head, scrambling around the radio dial until he found the classical composer Ernesto Lecuona. “Even at her age she requires a little seduction at night. Now she will punish us for denying her. Cubaneo.” The driver shrugged and grinned at me in the rearview.
“Only in Cuba” was the translation of the driver’s last remark, tearing at the old scab of daily life. Each new circumstance put its own new slant on the meaning.
And about 30 seconds later, when a father and son pulled over with their horse-drawn carriage to offer a hand, I wondered if Cubans had an expression for the converse: the positive things that happen here that would mostly never happen anywhere else. The closest word I know in Cuban slang is palanca, meaning when someone helps you out of a jam. And nearly every aspect of life here could constitute a jam. Survival itself literally depends on daily palanca.
Other people came by to help. First some cyclists and then a motorcycle pulled over to the side of the road. Every Cuban is a proud mechanic. You wouldn’t last long without being one. Everything that hasn’t broken down soon will. The result of this condition is that while nobody has any money to replace anything, nearly everyone who sees trouble will stop and help.
I’d never been to the town Ría was from before, so I asked one stranger after another for directions to the little courtyard where the wedding was being held, got lost over and over, then saw Ría on the street waving at me before I even spotted her. Right after we sat down, out of nowhere, a sonic boom exploded over our heads as fighter jets broke the sound barrier. I jumped out of my chair until several people came over to laughingly explain that on Tuesdays and Fridays, the same time every night, the Cuban Air Force conducted test flights. “¡Tranquilo, chico! The gringos are not invading our island tonight. Relax, man!”
And then, surprising me even more, I did.
Weddings have always spooked me. I was looking around the room going over my usual refrain: Love is chemicals. Love is junk. Love is being addicted to someone’s brand of junk. I’m surrounded by junkies. I grew up a 20 minutes’ drive from the worst area in North America for drug use, a ghetto that the rest of my town was ashamed to admit existed, but here we were happy to celebrate an institution attempting to reinforce a union of addiction as best we can.
People were sweaty and relaxed at the wedding. Despite the festivities being outdoors, the bathroom stunk out the whole place. The plumbing, as usual, was shot. Maybe it was strategic. It’s hard to concentrate on the past or the future with that kind of stench permeating everything. The whole occasion wasn’t dictated by a wedding photographer capturing the Hallmark version. Nobody was posing for history. Lots of easy and hard tears came down on their own, without the usual cues prompting them. All the attendees had a certain amusement relating to how death and birth embroidered everything, with the different generations brought together. All that stuff just felt very human, with the burden of the joke shared by everybody.
Then a bird shat on the groom while he was reciting his vows. Everyone except me exploded in cheers. I was confused until Ría explained to me that if shit lands on you in Cuba (or you step in it), you’re regarded as lucky. Good fortune and wealth was on the way! When it was clear Ría hadn’t meant this statement ironically, I looked at the faces all around me. Nobody at the wedding had ever dreamed of owning a car. None of my Cuban friends or their parents had ever opened a bank account in their lives. Ría had used a rag after she got her first period and her mother showed her how to rinse it out and use it again for the next month. And there was her boyfriend, the cat fisherman. “Cat cooked in lemon sauce was not that terrible,” she had said.
After the vows everyone got up to dance to Elvis singing “Love Me Tender” while I sat down in an open chair and lit a cigarette.
After the wedding, around three in the morning, I got dropped off at a hotel in Miramar. Half an hour later Raúl Castro’s grandson strolled through the lobby like Hugh Hefner returning to the Playboy mansion. I noticed him enter—along with the entire hotel staff—with two bodyguards and three towering blondes in slip dresses and heels. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but while he was making the rounds shaking hands, the bartender tipped me off about his identity.
“He travels around with three models for girlfriends?” I asked him.
“Two of the models are his girlfriends. The other one—the one you keep staring at—is actually Fidel’s granddaughter. I would stop staring if I was you.”
It took a while for the information to sink in before I regained my senses and turned back around to face the bar and buy a pack of cigarettes from the bartender. I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Yuma,” Fidel’s granddaughter addressed me. Yuma is one of the more derisive terms certain Cubans attach to American tourists behind their backs. But she used it with such unabashed provocation I couldn’t keep a straight face. “I’d like to have one of your cigarettes.
“I’ve never been called a yuma by a girl who looks as much like a gringa as you do.”
I reached over for my pack to give it to her when, in one horribly drawn-out sound, she cleared the phlegm from the back of her throat so forcefully I dropped the cigarettes on the ground. Cubans refer to this common gesture as “scratching your throat,” but Fidel’s granddaughter’s effort sounded like heavy machinery working in a gravel pit. I was about as nauseated by the sound as I was turned on by the rest of her. The look on my face made the bartender blow Diet Coke through his nose. I got out of my chair, knelt down, and picked up the cigarettes as she glared down over me.
“Why are you picking them up, yuma?” she moaned.
The bartender’s face contorted in abject shame and I saw him put his hand to his brow.
“Yuma, I’m not smoking anything you dropped on the ground. Here’s an elegant solution: buy another pack.”
I followed her suggestion while the bartender conveniently hid his laughter by wiping the Diet Coke from his face with a towel. I shook the pack toward her to free up a loose cigarette and she leaned over and pursed her lips over the butt. When I went to light the cigarette with my Zippo, she did the truck driver throat-scratching thing again.
I looked into her eyes while the flame danced over her pupils.
“Thank you for the cigarette, yuma.”
For the rest of her 30 minutes in the hotel bar she completely ignored me until she left with her group. She gave me a quick glance, followed by the shrug of one shoulder as she swung her purse over the other and strolled out the front entrance.
The next time I saw her, at a New Year’s party in Centro Habana, she didn’t have her entourage in tow. A lot of Cuban TV and radio personalities were there. It turned out she worked for Radio Havana as a writer. I didn’t ask anyone at the party to confirm the bit about her being Castro’s granddaughter. We noticed each other while she was dancing with another pretty girl in the cramped apartment.
After midnight of the New Year, I followed her outside to the balcony for a cigarette. She’d just been outside the country to visit Venice and told me she never wanted to travel again after the experience. I asked why.
She asked me if I’d ever read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I shook my head. She told me a story from it about several men around the world who had an identical dream. They all saw the same naked girl from behind, with long hair, running through an unknown city. They chased after her, twisting and turning down the streets, but eventually lost her. After the dream all these men set out in search of that city where they’d seen her. They never found the city, but they found each other. So they decided to build a city like the one from their shared dream. Laying out the streets, each followed the pathways they took in pursuit of the girl. At the spot where they lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream so she would be unable to escape. They all settled in the city waiting for the scene to be repeated one night, but none of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again.
New men who’d had a similar dream arrived to this city. They, too, changed the streets, arcades, and stairways so that at the spot where the woman vanished, there remained no avenue of escape. But they never found her, either.
Then Castro’s granddaughter stopped telling the story.
I asked her to finish, but I also wanted more privacy to take my revenge against her for that night at the hotel. She agreed to go for a walk.
We walked from the party toward my apartment, where I had access to a rooftop overlooking the busiest street at night in Centro Habana, Calle Neptuno, where I could hear rum-soaked dominoes being played deep into the night. When we climbed the stairs several floors to the roof looking out over the other rooftops in all directions and the Juliet girls on their balconies talking down to their Romeos and the chorus line of taxis below us, instead of trying to kiss her I chickened out and went back to fishing for the end of the story.
“Tell me what happened with that city in the end,” I asked her.
“Stop pretending like you brought me back here for the story when I can tell very easily you’re already looking for a place to fuck me on this roof. Have some dignity, yuma.”
She took off her shirt and glared at me. The dogs on the roof next door sounded the alarm and woke up the rooster to join in. “Are you worried about Fidel finding out? You were quite bold when we met at the hotel. I wasn’t sure if you knew my little secret or not.”
It turned out nobody else had the dream of the girl and everyone else who saw the city left immediately because of the ugliness of such a place invented and designed as a trap.
Fidel’s granddaughter asked me the next morning in bed if this was helpful tourist information.
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[Photo Credit: Brin-Jonathan Butler]