Misadventures in Marriage

Misadventures in Marriage (This chapter was originally the last chapter of Part I. An abbreviated version of it is included in Travelers’ Tales Cuba.)

Alfredo and I set off at the crack of dawn for our four-hour journey to La Isla de la Juventud or, as Cubans referred to this largest island of the Greater Antilles, La Isla.

The first rays of sun spilled into the sky while we boarded a bus to the dingy port town of Surgidero de Batabanó. There we caught an ancient Russian hydrofoil which, two hours later, deposited us next to a weather-beaten dock along the glimmering shoreline of La Isla’s capital, Nueva Gerona.

I stepped off the cruiser anticipating that sort of jittery excitement that always followed my arrivals in a new city, but instead I felt a rush of sadness, a misplaced nostalgia as if remembering somewhere I’d already left.

Over the past several days, I had said all my goodbyes, not wanting to leave them for my return from La Isla, my final day in Havana. To my surprise, saying goodbye even when everyone knew I would be coming back to Cuba felt similarly sad to saying goodbye for good. There was the same sense of something ending and, with Cuban friends, there was the uncertainty of how and if we would be able to communicate during my absence.

Even though I was still in Cuba now, there was something nonetheless poignant and almost frightening about this trip to La Isla, which, for the next three months, would serve as the closing image for the story of Alfredo and me in Cuba. It was the movie I would replay in my mind once our common landscape disappeared and the details of our life together began to fade.

When Alfredo asked what I wanted to do for my final week in Cuba, I had suggested La Isla not because I’d heard so much about it but precisely because, except for a short chapter in my guidebook, I’d heard nothing about it.

I chose La Isla for its anonymity, feeling that, for our first time traveling alone, we should discover somewhere no one we knew had been to.

Following the Revolution up until the difficult economic times of the Special Period, La Isla, whose full name translated to Island of the Youth, had been home to Cuba’s foreign scholarship students. Today, although the name remained, the students had long since left, and the island, like a couple whose children had grown up and moved away, had settled into a simpler, more sedate existence. Or at least that was what my guidebook said.

Yet, within minutes of our arrival, it became apparent that our stay on La Isla would be anything but simple. Rumpled and sticky from the morning’s trip, we were discussing showers and where we should stay when a local informed us that Cuban-foreigner couples needed to be married to share a room.

“But we’re not looking for a hotel,” I said, recalling my nights outside Hotel El Bosque with Alfredo. “We’re going to stay at a casa particular.

“It doesn’t matter,” the man said. “It’s a new rule that the government’s testing out in several cities on the island.”

I looked over at Alfredo who shook his head and sighed in disgust.

“But I have a friend who will rent you a room without asking any questions,” the man continued, handing us a torn piece of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. “Her name’s Celia,” he continued, “and I can walk you over to her house if you’d like.”

“Gracias, mi hermano,” Alfredo said, patting the man on the shoulder. “But I think we might talk it over on our own first.”

“Suit yourself,” the man said, shrugging his shoulders.

He walked off, disappearing around the back of the ferry building.

“He’s a jinetero,” Alfredo said. “And he was hoping to make a commission off us.”

“So you want to look on our own?”

“What do you want?”

“If you don’t mind, as long as the place isn’t outrageously expensive, I’d just as well go check it out,” I said, resting my backpack on the ground. Purchasing tickets to La Isla had been a déjà vu of our frustrated efforts to travel to Santiago, and now I didn’t feel like going through another scavenger hunt for a place to shower and sleep.

We found a pay phone and after Alfredo explained our situation to Celia, I heard him say, “No, no that’s not necessary. She’s my girlfriend.”

“What happened?” I asked when he hung up.

“She said it’s $10 a night,” Alfredo said, “but if I wanted, I could tell you it was $15 and keep the commission.”

I looked at him in disbelief.

“But I told her our relationship’s not like that,” he said.

“I know that,” I said. “It just makes me feel weird that someone would try to rip me off like that, that she would imagine our relationship was like that.”

“Don’t feel bad,” Alfredo said, wrapping his arm around me and pulling me in close so that our cheeks touched, moist with sweat. “She doesn’t know us. In her mind, you’re just another rich foreigner.”

Celia’s house was on the third story of an apartment complex a few blocks from the ferry building. It was small but welcoming and full of the comforts afforded those who earned dollars. There was a medium-sized color T.V., a couch, a little balcony with rocking chairs and a coffee table. The bathroom even had an actual bathtub, not just a drain in the floor.

On the phone, Celia had told Alfredo there was air conditioning, but in the bedroom, we noticed that the wire was severed. When I pulled back the curtains behind our bed, I discovered that there were no windows either, just an extension of the cinder block wall disguised behind flowy pink fabric.

“¡Qué rico!” said Alfredo. “We can sleep in. The sun won’t wake us.”

I laughed at his optimism.

In the living room, Celia’s seven-year-old daughter Leila ran around in a leotard with a pacifier in her mouth.

“She refuses to grow up,” said Celia, a stocky mulata with long wavy brown hair.

Celia offered us some butter and galletas saladas, oval-shaped Saltines minus the salt, and slowly my premature resentment towards her began to fade as I realized that racism swung both ways—against those who had no money and against those who were presumed to have too much.

We spent the afternoon with Celia and her daughter, not heading outside again until just before sunset when, once more, we were told of the marriage law.

This time our informant was a bouncer, a tall man, thick like a wall, who stood at the iron rod gate fronting Cabaret El Patio, demanding marriage papers in exchange for entrance.

And this time, instead of talking over the situation with me, Alfredo invoked an improvisational skill I hadn’t known he’d possessed and declared us husband and wife.

“We’ve been married for four years,” he told the bouncer indignantly. “And in Havana, no one ever asks for our papers.”

“Well, I’m asking,” the bouncer said. He stood firm, his right foot planted on the swinging entrance gate as though he was afraid we might rush the place any minute.

“Forget it,” I told Alfredo, shaking my head at the bouncer who retreated to a circular bar in the back of the patio. “I don’t really feel like seeing a show anyway.”

Alfredo looked down at his feet, a familiar expression of defeat framing his face. I put my arm around his waist and steered him away from the cabaret.

“I’m getting hungry,” I said. “Maybe we could just walk around for a bit and look for somewhere to eat. Is that okay with you?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “Why are you asking?”

“Because don’t you remember how it used to annoy you those times when we were in Santiago and Amy and I just wanted to be mellow and you were bored?”

Alfredo looked up at me. “But that was then, Aschkenas,” he said softly, making me laugh. Recently he had taken a liking to my last name and had told me that if we ever did marry, he would become Alfredo Aschkenas. “It’s different now,” he says. “I understand you better.”

During our search for dinner, the sun set a brilliant red, and we watched it drop behind a deep green, marble-topped mountain. Celia had told us that marble production was one of La Isla’s main industries, and as we walked now I noticed smooth, creamy white marble benches lining the main drag of Nueva Gerona, giving an air of elegance to the pedestrian mall that was the center of town.

Nueva Gerona’s 30,000 residents comprised nearly half of the island’s population, yet the city still had the feel of a quiet country village. There was a three-block long main drag with a median and a few benches shaded by palm trees. There were sidewalks but, just like everywhere else in Cuba, people preferred to walk down the center of the streets. Bicycles and bici-taxis wove to avoid the passersby and potholes.

For dinner we settled on an unnamed restaurant down the street from Cabaret El Patio. It wasn’t our first choice, but the hostess had taken our word that we were married, which seemed a favorable enough start. At the Chinese restaurant we had tried before, the hostess had insisted on marriage papers. And at the pizza parlor next door, which hadn’t questioned us about our relationship, we had waited 40 minutes to be seated before being told that the kitchen had run out of pizza two hours ago and was now only serving bread and drinks.

At the unnamed restaurant, both Alfredo and I ate a plate of under-cooked, over-greased rice and beans. La Isla was Cuba’s grapefruit capital and we both ordered the local drink, a mixture of rum, grapefruit juice, and sugar called a pinero just like the ferry that Fidel and his rebels boarded in 1955 to return to Havana after their prison sentence on La Isla.

Alfredo had to ask twice for a refill of his pinero and three times for a fork for his meal.

“I guess I’m supposed to eat with my hands because I’m Cuban,” he said.

I searched his face for a hint of sarcasm, for the small eye crease that always signaled his laughter. He was looking down into his plate, staring at the glistening black beans as though perhaps they could explain to him the contradictions of his country. But then, sensing my gaze, he looked up at me and smiled sheepishly.

“I’m sorry,” he said, reaching across the table to clasp my hand. “It’s just a joke, Aschkenas.”

After dinner we walked through the streets of Nueva Gerona. There wasn’t much to see and we ended up circling back around the main drag, passing the unnamed restaurant that Alfredo had dubbed la estafa, the rip-off.

On our second loop around town, we bumped into many of the same people whom we had seen during our first loop—young and old couples and groups of teenage boys and girls checking each other out. Unwittingly, we had hit upon the town’s pastime. We even bumped into a couple with their young son who sat next to us on the ferry ride to La Isla. The little boy had kept trying to pull off Alfredo’s khaki green Australian hat, which was too hot and heavy for the Caribbean. Amy had left it behind as a goodbye present and, in tribute, Alfredo wore it everywhere.

Now, as we walked in circles around Nueva Gerona, I thought about what Alfredo had said earlier about things being different between us this trip. I wondered how long our hard fought communion could continue despite the demoralizing external forces that seemed always to hover around us, crowding our calm.

La Isla’s main attraction was the Presidio Modelo where Fidel had been incarcerated in the 1950s after his first failed attempt to overthrow Batista.

We caught a bici-taxi to the transformed prison, now a museum, and as we passed through open fields along the three-mile trip, Alfredo pointed out the crops to me—boniato (sweet potato), kee bon bon (okra), col (cabbage).

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“From grade school. All Cuban children have to volunteer in the countryside,” Alfredo said. He dangled his hand in the field, grabbing onto a golden strand of grass, which, with the forward pull of the bici-taxi, quickly tore in half. Alfredo watched it fall and disappear into the surrounding foliage before opening his hand and said, laughing, “¡Que viva la Revolución!”

To contribute my bit of knowledge to our ride, I told Alfredo that Presidio Modelo had four circular jail complexes that were modeled after a prison in Illinois. There was a guard tower in the center of each one, I said, so that each of the 6,000 prisoners could be monitored at once.

“And how do you know all this?” he asked.

“It’s in my guidebook.” This time, unlike our trip to el oriente, I had brought my guidebook in its entirety so as not to offend Alfredo with more ripped-out pages.

“Oh yes, the magic book,” he said. Alfredo was fascinated by my guidebook, its English words telling me about parts of his country he had never been to.

Oddly, the guard tower at Presidio Modelo had no stairs leading up it.

Yadil, our bici-taxi driver, mused that maybe this was so no inmates could climb up and attack the guards, and I suggested that perhaps the guards had tossed a rope ladder up to each other.

Alfredo remained silent, staring up at the tiny two-person cubicles with their bunk beds and cement sinks and cover-less toilets.

“I can’t believe people lived like this,” he said.

There was even a dungeon, which we climbed partway into, but there were too many cobwebs and it was too dark and still, more than thirty years after its closure, reeked too much of piss.

Fidel and his 25 compatriots resided in one of two long, rectangular dwellings where the museum was now housed. Their beds were still made up, laid out by the windows in tidy rows more reminiscent of a hospital than a prison. Black and white photos of each rebel lined the back wall. Fidel had two beds, one in this room and one in solitary confinement where he was moved after leading the rebels in a battle song during a visit by a Batista official.

Fidel’s private quarters were attractive with a polished marble floor and a spacious bathroom, which was now open for visitor use.

“It’s not so bad for a prison, huh?” the museum guide was saying to Yadil and Alfredo when I returned from the bathroom. “But for a while, Fidel had to write his Revolution plans by candlelight because he wasn’t allowed any electricity and the windows were blocked off.”

“Just like where we’re staying,” I said to Alfredo.

“But nicer,” he said. “It’s nicer than my house.”

He laughed and I did too until I realized the truth of what he was saying, recalling the night I had spent there. Trying to swallow my laugh, I ended up delivering a snort that received an odd response from Yadil and the guard. Alfredo patted my back as if I had choked on something.

Although Celia and Leila were out when we returned to the casa particular, they had left a pitcher of grapefruit juice with our names on it in the refrigerator.

The juice was cold and sweet. I sipped at mine. Alfredo gulped his as we sat in the balcony rocking chairs where we read and translated my guidebook’s five-page description of Presidio Modelo. It took us nearly two hours but still, I was surprised by how many words Alfredo remembered from our English lessons in el oriente. Now, with each new word he learned, he jotted it down in his English notebook. Afterwards, as the sun began to drop, he sat rocking and looked over at me.

“This is the most beautiful relationship I’ve ever had,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about you in the past. I don’t ever want to say, ‘I had this girlfriend.’”

The next morning we headed out to hike up the marble-topped mountain we had seen on our first evening.

The air was humid and heavy, the town still as we walked to the base of the mountain. I stopped along the way to photograph a toppled building, pastel pink columns and only one faded blue wall still standing, grass sprouting up in what perhaps, during the time of Batista, had been a chandelier-studded living room.

“When you send me photos, you don’t need to include that one,” Alfredo said, baffled as always by my choice of photographic subjects.

We stopped once more before the base of the mountain to buy some mangoes from a man selling them in front of his house. We each ate one the Cuban way, taking a small bite and pulling the skin back with our teeth, leaving the flesh to dribble down our faces, mixing with our mid-morning sweat. We continued on past dusty streets and brightly-painted adobes with magenta bougainvillea curling around their edges. At a dead end, we found a dirt trail that led up the mountain.

The hike was short but steep. At one point we had to get down on our hands and knees to climb the raw marble towards the top. It looked more like quartz, rough and almost clear, than the smooth, milky processed marble that decorated much of Nueva Gerona.

Mostly we hiked without talking, stopping only to point out a plant or to take in the view. Once Alfredo stopped abruptly ahead of me, turning and putting his index finger to his lips, motioning towards a fluttering of red, white, and blue feathers. I heard the co-co trill and knew immediately this was the tocororo, the national bird, which I had wanted to see since arriving in Cuba. The tocororo’s defining characteristic is that it cannot live in captivity. It dies if it cannot be free.

At the top of the mountain I sat on a large marble rock and wrote in my journal. I heard construction sounds from people repairing their houses, and I looked out over Nueva Gerona, a tidy, compact landscape of homes nestled in small green valleys. I thought about how everything became subdued and normalized by distance, how a photograph taken from up here could pass for any number of different places, including the U.S.

Alfredo walked around, looking out over the island. He found three Cubans who were doing the same, and I could see them begin a conversation, Alfredo waving his arms over the valley, talking animatedly. I caught a few of his words—Fidel, una carcel como un palacio, a jail like a palace, la estafa.

I was happy to have this moment to sit by myself but also happy that Alfredo was here. I thought about how long it takes to truly understand someone. To begin to understand someone.

After we hiked down from the mountain, we stopped by the ferry station to ask about tickets for our return the following day. I was prepared to pay as if we were both foreigners this time so that we could catch the same ferry, but now it was no longer enough to offer to pay Alfredo’s way. If we couldn’t produce the marriage papers, Alfredo couldn’t have a ticket in dollars, and we were about two weeks late for the peso waiting list.

There were two ferries the next day, one at seven and one at noon. If we came at six, the ticket seller said, and someone didn’t show up for a reserved seat, we could take it. As a foreigner, I of course wouldn’t have any problem buying my ticket last minute.

We set our alarm for 5:00 our final morning, and I pressed snooze the first time it went off. When I pulled myself out of bed ten minutes later, Alfredo was in the kitchen squeezing grapefruit juice on Celia’s fancy juicer. We ate silently, still half asleep. We ate crackers and butter and a mango, now bruised and a little acidic, from yesterday. We left later than planned, and I was relieved when we saw Yanil outside waiting for customers. He drove us to the terminal, but by just 6:00, as the sun was rising, everyone had shown up for their tickets. A line had already formed to board the ferry, and Alfredo walked off to ask what we could do.

I sat on a slab of the marble staircase and read a few pages of a book Alfredo had bought me, a signed biography of the director of the symphony. I talked to some of the other people waiting, and I waited. And waited. 7:00 passed and then 7:30, and a little before 8, Alfredo returned breathless and sweating.

“Do you have $10?” he asked and rushed off again. I waited an hour and then asked an older woman to watch our stuff as I headed off to search for Alfredo, to no avail. At 10:00 he returned looking dejected but with ticket in hand.

“The guy in charge is a pesado,” a jerk, he told me. “There is one ticket in pesos left for the noon ferry and this other guy told me the guy in charge was going on break soon. He said when he left he would sell me a peso ticket for the dollar price. Una estafa,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“So,” I said. “Now we’ve got two hours to kill.”

Alfredo looked around and then reached up to pick a handful of seed pods off a flowering red flamboyán tree.

“A Cuban kids’ game,” he said, offering me a seed pod. The game, called war, basically consisted of us each using our seed pod to try to knock the head off the other. I lost every time.

“No offense,” Alfredo said, “but I think I’m better at this. And tell me, how is it that an American doesn’t know how to play war?”

In retaliation, I pulled a flaky flamboyán petal off the tree and, before Alfredo could figure out what I was doing, crushed it over his head, sprinkling a fine red dust all over his black dreads.

He laughed, and as he tried to shake the pollen from his hair, Yanil biked by.

“You’re still here!” he said, surprised. And then, motioning for us to come over, he added, “Let me take you somewhere while you wait.”

For the next hour and a half, we biked around Nueva Gerona looking for some of La Isla’s enormous grapefruits to take back to Havana. Despite the endless supply we’d seen in Celia’s refrigerator, each market or house-side fruit stand we visited sent us to another. At the third house, I almost called off the search, but I realized that for Yanil and Alfredo it had become a mission they weren’t ready to abandon. Finally, on the outskirts of town, we found a market with the treasured toronjas. Yanil and Alfredo ran in and returned with eight giant grapefruits.

“See, it was worth the wait,” Alfredo said smiling. We divvied up the grapefruits in our backpacks and they bounced around like bowling balls in our laps on the bumpy ride back to the ferry terminal where we arrived just fifteen minutes before departure.

We lined up quickly, but as we neared the front, I heard Alfredo draw in his breath.

El pesado,” he whispered to me, and I saw the head ferry chief approaching.

“Can I see you in my office?” he asked Alfredo in a voice that sounded more like an order.

Alfredo followed him up a series of stairs and disappeared into his office. I wanted to follow, but I restrained myself so that we wouldn’t lose our place in line and miss the ferry altogether.

Yet, by the time I reached the front, Alfredo still had not returned so I had to move to the back again. A few minutes before noon, I saw him walk down the office steps alone, shaking his head in disgust.

“He found out about the other ticket-seller,” he said. “And he wanted me to be there while he yelled at the guy who took the bribe. Of course, I didn’t get the money back, but at least he let me go.”

I put my arm around Alfredo to console him as we boarded El Kometa, the same clunky, old Russian hydrofoil we had taken to La Isla. Now, as I settled into my seat, it reclined so far back that I practically ended up in the lap of the man behind me.

Alfredo offered to switch seats with me. His was a little more upright.

“No, it’s okay,” I said.

Earlier in our relationship I knew that Alfredo would have resented this. He would have asked why I could never accept his help, and he would have equated my innocent refusal with some larger affront against Cuba, against him. I would have, in turn, become defensive and told him he was muy machista for not acknowledging my independence.

Now, though, I could see the kindness in his offer, and he smiled and rested his hand on my leg. He closed his eyes and I tried to relax into my recline as El Kometa lurched forward, sending us into the clear blue Caribbean, tranquil and steady for the moment.