Letters from Cuba
Here and there in old Havana
WE had met barely five minutes before, and already, insofar as I could tell, the bright-eyed young woman with whom I was walking through the leafy streets of Vedado in Havana was proposing marriage. This had nothing to do with me, I knew; I’d received several other proposals — propositions for life, in effect — already that week.
Soon (I’d agreed to take this friend of a friend to a dollar store, technically open only to foreigners) this highly eligible woman was telling me how she was going to set sail the next week for Miami; some friends of hers were about to oust Fidel —‘‘You know the CIA?’’ — and things were going to be different, very different, soon. But I shouldn’t tell a soul. I couldn’t, in any case, because a man was approaching us now — we were near the Malecon — and asking if I wanted to buy a turtle.
Fiction was impossible in revolutionary Cuba, I quickly came to feel; even more than in Haiti, or India, or other tumultuous places of everyday chaos that I knew. So much was happening, so loudly, at every minute, both on the streets and in the overheated minds all around, that it stretched credulity in every direction. In part, this was a register of frustration, of course; the island had been condemned to 30 years at that point of strutting in place. In part, it was a function of need. People had to have dramas, rumours and fantasies because they were not allowed much in the way of real lives.
But as much as anything, it was a reflection of a passionate, theatrical, over- the- top culture where strangers on every side were sobbing and shouting and laughing in the streets, at all hours of the day and night, with operatic virtuosity, while also reminding me, under their breath, that my best friend here was probably an informer, and I should be careful of Lourdes, who would report even her sister to the neighbourhood committee, and the proposal I’d just received had come from someone whose motives could not entirely be trusted.
As I began returning to the country, year after year, in the late 1980s, I realised that even a transcript of a typical day’s activities — where a friend in prison came out to greet me with a smile (he had three guaranteed meals a day here, he told me, and security and quiet, everything he couldn’t get at home); where the phone calls I was asked to make to loved ones who’d made it to the US ended in static or stories of gang killings — would beggar a reader’s belief.
One day I was sitting in an apartment on Calle 23. The top 40 countdown was coming in from some radio station in Florida, and copies of Sartre and Dostoevsky were all around us. A rooster called Reagan, in honour of its squawking, was clucking across the rooftop outside. And inside, thanks to our conversation, I might have been in an apartment in the 5th arrondissement of Paris or one of the loftier quarters in Madrid. The students around me seemed to know far more about many aspects of the world than I did.
‘‘Where do you come from?’’ one asked, inevitably. I knew the answer; I’d been to Cuba several times before.
‘‘California,’’ I said (though there were many other places I could have named). California was the place these kids occupied as squatters in their heads; it was everything Cuba was not, as they saw it, and many had sisters, uncles, even wives who’d made it there, so that one part of their lives was now situated in Gardena — or Daly City — though out of reach, it might seem, forever.
‘‘I have a brother in California,’’ one of the worldlywise students said, not unexpectedly. ‘‘He lives in this place called Tamal. You know it?’’ I didn’t.
‘‘In this big house. He’s got swimming pools and tennis courts. Four or five cars, I think.’’
I didn’t need to hear what came next: please, please, please could I take a letter to the brother (the postal service between the neighbouring enemies seldom worked, and email had not really arrived in 1989) so that he could get the stranded prisoner now talking to me out of Havana?
I said yes, of course, though earlier trips to Havana and 10 or 20 letters collected on each one had made me sad about the likely outcome. The letters came back to me unopened, or disappeared into some black hole containing Cubans who, having left Cuba, no longer wanted to think of it or were no longer alive. I had to take the letter, but I was sceptical about the value of committing it to the heavens.
I was wrong. As I was about nearly everything in Cuba. Barely a week passed and a letter was in my mailbox in Santa Barbara from this town, Tamal, I’d never heard of.
He was so happy to hear from his brother, the brother in California wrote; he couldn’t tell me how he missed Cuba. But did his brother know that he was in San Quentin prison now? Ondeath row? Could his brother in Cuba do something — anything at all — to get him out and back to the Cuba he missed so much?
This was a big building, and it had all kinds of facilities, but he would rather live with nothing in Havana, free, than amid all these locked cars and barred recreational facilities.
I conveyed the message to the brother in Havana, though the mail between the two countries was so uncertain, I couldn’t be sure my letter ever reached him; I looked for him the next time I flew down, but he, like so many, seemed to have disappeared into the ever-shifting anarchy that was daily life in Havana. Perhaps he’d even made it to America by then.
I made contact with the brother on death row, too, and then realised I should go no further; I was already out of my depth and any subsequent letter I sent would only excite hopes that could probably never be fulfilled. I came to think, too, how my very trips to Cuba likely did the same, which is maybe one reason why, not long thereafter, I stopped going down there. This is an edited extract from Better Than Fiction, edited by Don George (Lonely Planet, $24.95).
Dramas, rumours and fantasies coloured the streets of old Havana