Leila Se­gal

Siem­pre Luchando

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I went out for the night with Án­gel although I hardly knew him yet.

We caught a shell of a car from Calle 23 down to­wards the Capi­to­lio to meet his French friends, 10 pe­sos the ride. Án­gel sat in front and I crouched in the back next to a filthy rag and a plas­tic bot­tle of gaso­line. The door was held to­gether with string; its in­nards spilled over where the panel had fallen off. To get out you had to re­move part of a wooden plank that wedged the catch shut.

The driver sounded the horn by touch­ing a metal coil to bare wire at the cen­tre of the wheel.

I was on the edge again, but fur­ther out than last time. We were speed­ing round the race­track of Cen­tro Ha­bana with no lights, bit­ten by the night.

Dark cas­tles sprung through the win­dows, catch­ing only the white or gold of Án­gel’s teeth or eyes. Here and there was a fam­ily on a stoop, or a glow­ing yel­low room.

A se­cret city – de­scono­cida – un­charted and un­known.

We spun into the Malecón, dis­gorged from the car to­wards the group. Lady’s squeaky voice an­gled out above the crowd; she wheeled and turned side­ways, laugh­ing with her friend.

The French boy perched next to them on the Malecón wall, kick­ing his feet against the side. They were drink­ing rum from plas­tic cups, with a bot­tle of tuKola bought from the store. Án­gel spoke to them in evening-class French, while I gazed out over the sea. Be­yond the rocks a small boat was fish­ing and an­other coun­try bore down from 90 miles of ocean grave.

*** Some time later we walked to the Bar­rio Chino for our meal.

The restau­rant ta­ble was still wet: it was so hu­mid that noth­ing would dry from the rain. Án­gel and I sat to­gether at one end. He leaned in ur­gently, his voice low so that the oth­ers wouldn’t hear. He wanted to talk about Sabine.

‘Me da pena con­tigo,’ he said – I have let you down. He seemed un­able to halt the flow from head to mouth, and used his whole body to ex­plain. ‘I sorry, Louise. Last week when we went out, you did not know the sit­u­a­tion. Sabine – she called to me and said: I have to see you, I miss you.

‘So I thought, if Louise comes too, it will draw less at­ten­tion. And then we had a kind of dis­cusión – how you say? – a fight. We went to buy the rum and cola – do you re­mem­ber? Her novio, Marc, he told for us to go. For her to go and me to ac­com­pany her. It was a time when we could talk and em­brace, and Sabine she said to me: Who is the English woman? Why are you danc­ing with her?’

I could hardly be­lieve that Sabine was jeal­ous of me. Then I re­mem­bered her cold stare when we were in­tro­duced, how she’d blanked me when I said we were neigh­bours. Sabine’s boyfriend Marc had come to visit from Paris, but he didn’t know Sabine was sleep­ing with Án­gel. She spent her time tor­ment­ing Án­gel, invit­ing him to join her and Marc, call­ing at all hours, even though Án­gel rose at five to reach his of­fice in Mi­ra­mar, say­ing that she needed him. At first he re­fused, but when he fi­nally gave in and went to see her, Sabine made love to Marc right un­der Án­gel’s nose.

Án­gel touched my hand. ‘I tell Sabine I can not see her while he is here. But her novio he wanted to do a lit­tle – you know – busi­ness.’ He held up his fore­fin­ger and thumb and rubbed them to­gether. ‘So I thought, just for to do the busi­ness – he wanted to buy some cigars. And it turned out some­how that we were all sit­ting to­gether in a con­cert – Sabine, her novio and me – and she kept turn­ing to look at me, star­ing into my eyes.

‘At first I looked back – to give her some­thing, you know? But then I got up and left, and after­wards I told her: I can not be to­gether with you in that place. Sabine, what you are do­ing is wrong.’

***

Pros­ti­tutes strolled in twos and threes up and down Calle Cuchillo. One wore an out­fit of sil­ver Ly­cra – bell-bot­toms and a boob-tube that was too small. She seemed to boil over the top of her clothes, her belly flop­ping for­wards above the waist­band of her trousers.

We sat wait­ing for the food, at­tended by Asian Cubans who wore judo shirts tied at the waist over black flares. Lady and her friend were squeezed onto the bench op­po­site me, while I sat hip-to-thigh with the French boy.

‘ Joder is the word for fuck in Span­ish,’ he was say­ing. ‘No, no, no,’ said Lady. ‘Sí, es Joder.’

Lady ex­changed looks with her friend from un­der the eye­lashes but said noth­ing.

‘ Sin­gar,’ I said. ‘Sin­gar is the word for fuck in Cuba.’ ‘Who taught you that?’ asked Lady. ‘My hus­band.’ ‘You have a hus­band here in Cuba?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Where is he?’

‘In Pi­nar del Río, work­ing.’

Snorts of laugh­ter from the French boy. ‘You know what the Cubans say about the Pinareños?’ he said. ‘They make jokes about them the way you do about the Ir­ish.’

The girls were lis­ten­ing, some­where on the verge of hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter, their eyes wide open, mouths hang­ing slack.

‘They built a cinema in Pi­nar del Río,’ he con­tin­ued, beads of sweat on his up­per lip, ‘and when they fin­ished, the work­men couldn’t find the crane. You know where it was?’

His crooked eyes were without colour and strange folds of dou­ble chin hung around his neck.

‘They had left it in­side the build­ing!’ Shrieks of laugh­ter from the girls. ‘What does your hus­band do?’ asked Lady. ‘Does he build cin­e­mas?’ said the French boy, al­most be­side him­self. ‘No he –’ ‘Mira cómo le da pena!’ said Lady de­light­edly. ‘– he works in tourism.’

‘And do you see him from time to time?’ the French boy panned around the ta­ble. ‘When his Cuban wife’s away?’

Lady’s friend stretched her mouth into a grin, but one eye – the right one – closed it­self to me in a wink.

***

Just be­fore mid­night we drove to Club Cóc­tel – Án­gel, take us some­where real, the French boy said, not some tourist shit – where we joined the crowd wait­ing on La Rampa to be let in.

A man in a string vest stood on the cor­ner, curled around his woman, stroking her face. The woman wore bright pink lip­stick and looked up at me, nar­row­ing her crow’s-feet eyes.

Án­gel put his palm out, beg­ging for a dol­lar, so sly I hardly knew he’d done it. His en­gi­neer’s salary didn’t stretch to nights out with for­eign friends. He scuffed his feet and dragged his head as I peeled off the bill and handed it to him.

In­side, we danced, packed into a tiny dark room. At first, all I could make out was a curl of gold, a dread, and white teeth on black. Whites of eyes on pitch faces made Án­gel’s mu­latto seem light and he, some­how, not to be­long. Sweat ran off my face, in a river un­der my dress, and down be­tween the blades of my back. Some­times I was crushed against other bodies, but never pushed. Clean faces, nice clothes, no trou­ble.

I could look be­cause it wasn’t look­ing, it was lis­ten­ing, and we were all lis­ten­ing to­gether – danc­ing, con­duct­ing sym­phonies, rapt.

The Cubans sang in a lan­guage they didn’t un­der­stand, straight from the West Coast – raised their arms, did the hip hop sa­lute, jumped and jacked to the beat. And from above a cor­ner of the bar, The Box de­liv­ered a non-stop stream of rap­pers and babes from the USA.

Big jails to hide nig­gas, their mouths shaped, hands raised in praise; nig­gas scratch­ing for bread, they mimed with 8Ball, dream­ing in time. For a sec­ond I was look­ing down, as if on a bridge watch­ing two trains about to col­lide, un­der­stand­ing alone; then a man was ask­ing over and over if I would dance, and Án­gel was stand­ing next to me, his arm around my waist.

‘Where you from?’ the man said to Án­gel. ‘Soy cubano.’ ‘Sorry, brother. Te oí hablando in­glés.’ He held out his hand.

Án­gel took my el­bow and steered me round the crowd. We danced to­gether for some time, but only once did he look me in the eye. He was lost in thought – of Sabine, per­haps, ly­ing some­where with her novio.

A man who looked like Tu­pac danced next to us, while his girl­friend peered through glasses and tightly braided hair. We smiled. Her hips were swing­ing slightly, and so were mine.

She came to stand in front of me. Her dress had red, pink and white flow­ers on it, and a frill along the edge. Her hips moved, her belly moved, she cupped a hand in front to mea­sure the beat. As she caught me in her time, her eyes leaped and laughed to mir­ror mine.

She told me some­thing I didn’t hear, so I leaned in. ‘You are like my sis­ter,’ she said. ***

The French boy, danc­ing nearby, threw me a lop­sided smile. His can­vas shoul­der-bag was slung di­ag­o­nally across bil­low­ing folds of white cot­ton on his chest. He jogged up and down, slic­ing his arms like scis­sors by his waist, and slapped his feet down duck-like to the beat.

Lady sat bedrag­gled on a bar stool with her friend, hold­ing off the crowd, which squeezed it­self into ev­ery cor­ner of the room. Her eye­liner had run and she looked tired.

The French group, crushed around them, looked bored and marginally afraid. When Los Aldeanos came on, one of them, a stout girl, broke into

a fu­ri­ous ele­phan­tine jig, snap­ping her fin­gers and knock­ing against those around the well of space she’d cleared. Her face was frozen, mouth and eyes turned down, her white vest stained with sweat.

I was held from both sides, sway­ing on my feet. Án­gel looked at me. ‘Shall we go?’ he said. ***

We turned left out­side the club and walked up Calle M to­wards the palms of the Ho­tel Na­cional. Án­gel skulked along be­side me through the pol­ished wood and mar­ble foyer, out to the chairs by the sea. It was very quiet, just one cou­ple sip­ping tea.

I sat on the sofa. Each time I moved, it drew him to me – drew his eye and body as one piece of a puz­zle fits, un­know­ing, to the other.

Án­gel sank his thin frame into the folds of a chair, white shirt slung low over camel pants, his face a sculp­ture of bone and ragged jaw.

‘What do you think about love?’ he said.

I stared into a black patch of sky be­yond the balustrade. Time had short­ened or length­ened to a point, like re­flect­ing mir­rors that trap you in a sin­gle frame, and I was grasp­ing at the past, the fu­ture, liv­ing this mo­ment for him.

‘What are your plans? What are your hopes?’ – he was fid­get­ing now and had al­ready fin­ished his tea, fin­gers danc­ing along the arm­rest – scratchin – as his mouth formed the words. ‘In Cuba we do not have hopes and we can not not make plans. I live for to­day, siem­pre luchando – al­ways I strug­gle. Ev­ery day I move, and I sur­vive. I find a way to dis­tract my­self.

I must al­ways be out­side, find a way to for­get my life. I can not sit in my house, it makes me crazy.’

Án­gel lived with his par­ents. There was a place for him in the spare room but when­ever guests came, or other mem­bers of the fam­ily needed the room, he had to sleep on the sofa. His seven-year-old daugh­ter lived with her mother nearby. And un­til the Spring he had been in love with a French­woman – Juli­ette. She had been his hope and his fu­ture. Some­times Juli­ette would come to visit, mak­ing prom­ises that she for­got upon her re­turn to France.

One day, she wrote to Án­gel and told him that he could come: if he found a way to get to France she would help him start a new life. So he saved for a year on a salary of $15 a month, then Juli­ette be­gan a doc­tor­ate and put aside their plan.

Now, there was a new French girl, Sabine, and a new hope – as long as she wanted to fall in love.

Án­gel looked up at the sky and so did I. His eyes were black hol­lows, inches from mine.

‘Siem­pre luchando.’ He gazed out at the sea then sank back into his chair. ‘Yes, I hope to go to France later in the year. This time I hope to go.’

Taken from ‘Breathe: Sto­ries from Cuba’ by Leila Se­gal, copy­right © 2016. Reprinted by per­mis­sion of the au­thor and flipped eye pub­lish­ing

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