Commonalities

Commonalities (This chapter originally went between chapters 24 and 25.)

On Day of the Blacks, a national holiday in Cuba, I went to the beach with Alfredo and Liudmila. According to my engagement calendar, October 10 was also a holiday in the U.S. this year.

Yet, I knew that had I actually been back home, I would not have noticed the tiny calendar typeset announcing Columbus Day. In the U.S., I always had too many scribbled to-do notes crowded into each day’s allotted square of events to make out anything written on the calendar itself. But here in Cuba, where life was less about planning and more about dealing with whatever unforeseen changes came your way, my calendar remained beautifully blank. It reverted to its original purpose as an uncluttered visual for keeping track of the days, which, I’d discovered in Cuba, had a habit of spilling into each other if not watched closely enough.

Cubans, though, didn’t appear overly disturbed by this detail and most made do without calendars. Alfredo was among one of the few people I knew who actually owned one, and his was two years old and began on January 27. It was a stained pocket calendar, which he’d transformed into an address book and now carried with him everywhere, ripping out unused pages whenever he needed scrap paper.

But the page containing October 10 was still intact, and as our bus bumped its way along the final stretch of road leading to Playa Santa Maria, Alfredo held his calendar up for me, pointing to the unobscured fine print describing the holiday.

“It’s also called, ‘Day of the Freed Slaves,” he said.

“It was the day in 1868 when Carlos Manuel Céspedes let his slaves go and declared war against Spain,” Liudmila added from the seat behind us.

“And in the U.S., today is the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in 1492,” I said, trying to sound as knowledgeable of my country’s history as Alfredo and Liudmila always appeared to be of theirs.

But Alfredo shook his head, unimpressed, and Liudmila raised her eyebrows at him knowingly.

Before I could question this exchange, Alfredo turned to me and asked, “So you mean while we’re celebrating the defeat of Columbus’ legacy, Americans are celebrating his arrival?”

I laughed at the irony.

“We really do come from two different worlds,” Alfredo continued, his voice more thoughtful than irritated. “Even with our celebrations, we’re 180 degrees apart.”

“Well, really, it’s not that much of a celebration in the U.S.,” I said. “Government offices are closed and some schools, but nothing special really happens. If I have the day off and the weather’s nice, I’ll try to get outside, go for a hike or to the beach, that’s all.”

Always the optimist, Liudmila smiled at this comment. “See,” she said excitedly, spreading her arms as the bus came to a stop alongside a honey-colored beach backed by the crash of the Caribbean. “We do have something in common after all.”

 

Despite Liudmila’s enthusiasm, it wasn’t the most promising day for the beach. The night before, a gust of cool air had blown into Havana, swirling tornado style around the house and howling eerily through the holes of the still collapsed farmers’ market roof on Animas. By morning, the winds had died down but the sky remained gray and overcast.

Yet, as we’d planned the afternoon before, Liudmila arrived at our doorstep at 11 a.m. sharp. In place of sandals, she wore a pair of Adidas running shoes that Amy and I had chipped in to buy her. Rather than a beach towel or a water bottle, she held Amy’s travel umbrella, a parting gift, in her hand. On her face, she wore a grin so oversized that I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that Alfredo and I had just been discussing postponing our trip.

On our way to the bus stop, Liudmila tested out her umbrella as a shield against the first drops of a light drizzle. We all walked huddled together under the brown mushroom-shaped shell for a few minutes until a sharp wind whipped by and snapped the little umbrella in half.

When we arrived at Playa Santa María, thunder rumbled in the distance. The sea was pebbly gray, its waves high and rough, and no one, I noticed, joined us in exiting the bus.

At least, I thought, it wasn’t raining anymore, and the air was more balmy than cold.

Behind the sparse shelter of a palm tree, Alfredo and I shook out a sarong of mine to make a beach towel for the three of us while Liudmila looked at the scenery and beamed.

“I haven’t been to the beach for ten years,” she announced, flopping down onto the sarong.

“Why not?” I asked, taken aback. Playa Santa María was less than 15 miles from downtown Havana.

“Well, I used to go a lot before the Special Period,” Liudmila said. “But now money’s so tight.”

When Alfredo and I stripped down to our bathing suits, Liudmila sat silently staring out at the sea as if this was all she had desired when she’d suggested the day before that we go to the beach.

“Come on. Take your clothes off,” Alfredo taunted, wadding up his T-shirt and stepping back as if preparing to snap it at Liudmila.

“I forgot my bathing suit, but you two should go ahead,” Liudmila said, waving us towards the small space of calm where the sea met the shore. “Go have fun. I’m fine here. Really.”

As Alfredo and I poked our toes in the water, waiting for a low wave to ride, I wondered about the true status of Liudmila’s bathing suit, recalling the Hotel El Bosque poolside, peopled as it always was with the tourists’ Cuban partners. I remembered how the cubanas would appear for their first visits wearing faded and wilty, pilled bathing suits, returning the next day with sparkling new sequined bikinis and glitzy gold and black leopard-print one pieces. Their sugar daddies would admire these expensive makeovers, gazing lustfully at their exotic mermaids who basked in the sun like an aquatic troupe of Tropicana nightclub dancers.

Not only was there no sun and not a single gaudily clad cubana at Playa Santa María today, but there was really no need for bathing suits of any sort. Just minutes after Alfredo and I tested out the water, the waves began to swell, cresting well above our heads, and sending a lifeguard scurrying over with an armload of red warning flags, one of which he posted in the sand directly in front of us.

“There’s a storm front coming,” he said, his flags slapping against each other in the wind. “I’d recommend catching the next bus out of here. If you’d like, you can hide out with me in the lifeguard shelter until it comes.”

We shook out my sarong and, along with half a dozen other lifeguards, crowded beneath a tilted plywood lean-to. One of the salvavidas passed around a bottle of rum, just one sip of which burned straight through my throat into my belly, and a stocky, bare-chested lifeguard told jokes with words I couldn’t understand. I concentrated instead on the swirling winds around us, this storm a flashback to the weather on my arrival in Cuba, the deserted quality of Playa Santa María reminiscent of the foggy, desolate beaches of northern California.

Just as Liudmila had done on the bus when I’d told her that I too often went to the beach on this day in the U.S., she now smiled once more as I shared with her this newest commonality, this sliver of atmospheric connection. I smiled back, realizing that, unlike the way Alfredo and I often approached new situations, especially in the early, argumentative days of our relationship, Liudmila didn’t look for points of division. Instead, she sought out unity, a hint of a similarity between our two such disparate worlds. It was an outlook I hadn’t really considered before, and I liked it.

 

We rode back to the city in a downpour and as we walked home through the soggy streets of Old Havana, little waterfalls pouring forth from each deep gray, water-stained balcony we passed, I experienced another commonality. Or, if not exactly a commonality, it was at least a sense of solidarity, a feeling of being closer to the Cuban rather than the foreigner front of things.

It was a feeling that I’d been hoping to experience for quite some time now, and it arose over a search for something as quintessentially un-Cuban as tampons, which were only available, sometimes, in international pharmacies and, even there, cost nearly twice as much as they did in the U.S.

This afternoon, though, in my moment of need, the one international pharmacy in Old Havana was closed. Liudmila suggested that it was because of the holiday, and Alfredo suggested that I simply stop a stranger on the street and ask for a tampon.

Swallowing my embarrassment, I scanned the stream of tourists sprinting between the restaurants and hotels lining Zulueta. I searched the umbrella-clad foreign faces, looking for a woman of the right age and language to approach. I didn’t hear any English speakers in the crowd, so finally I settled on two 30-something women who walked slowly despite the weather, chattering away excitedly in German.

“Maybe you can ask if they have an extra umbrella too,” Liudmila said with a sad chuckle when I shared my selection. I followed her downward glance to the skeleton of Amy’s deflated umbrella.

Although they spoke little English and only a smattering of stunted Spanish, the women were eager to listen to my dilemma. Luckily, the word for tampon appeared to be the same in German as it was in English.

Liudmila, Alfredo, and I accompanied the women to their hotel where we waited in the lobby while they ran up to their room to retrieve the goods. When they returned, under the always-watchful eyes of the hotel guards, they offered me a full, unopened box of tampons.

“Oh, not so many,” I said, shaking my head. “No es necesario. Just one. Uno.” I held one finger up, but the women just stood there smiling.

“Por favor,” the woman with the tampons said, extending her shrink-wrapped present towards me.

A moment of silence ensued as each of us tried to figure out how to better say what we needed to say.

After much thought, the woman holding the tampons finally spoke. “Vamos mañana,” she said, proudly delivering her line like an understudy who runs on stage at the last minute to save the play.

For a moment I considered telling her that I too would be leaving soon, that in my remaining week and a half, I would not need a full box of tampons and that, besides, I already had one back at the house. But then I thought of all the effort it would take to express this and I abandoned the thought.

“Thank you. Gracias,” I said instead and, throwing in one of my few German expressions, added, “Dankeschön.”

The Germans laughed at my pronunciation. They showed me to the bathroom, and when I came out, they were gone. And then, with the subdued slam of the hotel’s tinted glass door as I exited with Alfredo and Liudmila, the whole dry, comfortable lobby disappeared too.

It wasn’t until we were several blocks away, walking down Neptuno in a silent, hurried, storm-driven pace that it occurred to me that the Germans may have thought I was someone else.

“Do you think they mistook me for a Cuban?” I asked, tilting my head to look at Alfredo and Liudmila. To stay dry, we were holding my red and brown African-print sarong above us as taut as a trampoline set up to catch a stray stunt person.

“¿Tú? ¿Una cubana?” Alfredo released such an exaggerated, breathy laugh that his portion of the sarong billowed above us.

Liudmila, while without the dramatic flair, shook her head with equal vigor.

“Well, I just meant because we were all together and they wanted to give me the whole box and….” Intentionally, I let myself trail off, unsure of how to tactfully phrase my reasoning.

Usually with other foreigners, even when we didn’t have a language in common, there was a sense of ease, an invisible wink to us all being strangers on this island, a shared outsider status. But with the Germans I had felt something different, an odd sort of slow motion, in-the-moment-but-seen-from-afar quality to our interaction. It was something that was at once so familiar and also so foreign that it seemed like it could have been any one of a number of unnamable things.

But when I considered that the Germans thought I was Cuban, it all made sense because what I’d felt when they insisted I take the full box of tampons, despite all attempts to find euphemisms for it, could only be called charity.

In Cuba, I had always experienced charity, in its various forms, as a giver rather than a recipient. I had gotten Abuela her medicine at the international pharmacy, and I had sent Alfredo sandals for the summer. I had bought my Spanish teacher a broom to clean her house, and I had brought Dinora a book for the library she’d always dreamed of having. But, from my first several days in Cuba, from the Coppelia sobornar where I’d paid a policeman a dollar to let me and Alfredo into the ice cream parlor, there had never been anything I had had to ask anyone else’s help to acquire in Cuba.

Now, as the tampon box bumped around in my backpack, I felt humbled and somehow closer to Liudmila and Alfredo because of this encounter. Although I had not asked for the tampon hoping for a hand out of something more, I felt like I was now able to understand what it might be like to do so or to not do so and to have the other person assume this was your intention. I felt the mix of humiliation and helplessness and then the soft sense of resignation, of acceptance of a kindness that went beyond what had been asked for.

The rains intensified as we walked, and by the time we reached the large La Época department store, still more than a dozen long blocks from Dinora’s house, each step I took felt heavy, weighted down by my water-logged state. My sandaled feet were slimy from a combination of rainwater and wastewater, the runoff of open dumpsters and other debris I didn’t want to consider.

There were no lines outside La Época today and the few people in the streets ran past us, intent on getting home before the next crack of thunder shook the skies loose of a new deluge. A lone cyclist futilely spun the pedals of his Flying Pigeon as he passed us, spraying sandal slime all over my bare legs.

I was about to ask whether Alfredo and Liudmila thought it would be safe to wait out the storm under a nearby balcony when I realized that the nearest one belonged to someone I knew. Gladys was a friend of Dinora’s whom she’d met in Russia in a Cuban choir composed of other young Revolutionaries. Several months ago, during my first trip, I’d interviewed Gladys about her waning Revolutionary sentiments and her negocio moonlighting as a neighborhood barber, specializing in eyebrow plucks and beard shaves for the elderly.

“That’s where the woman I have the follow-up interview with tonight lives,” I told Alfredo, immediately aware as I spoke the words that if this weather continued into the evening, I would have little desire to venture back outside.

“Do you have your notebook with you now?” Alfredo asked, reading my mind. I nodded, thankful, as the rain soaked through my backpack, that I had written my questions in pencil rather than ink. “So why don’t you just run up and see if she’s in now?” Alfredo asked. “Why wait for the weather to get worse?”

“But what about you and Liudmila? Gladys was so hesitant to let me interview her at first, I think she’d get anxious if I had anyone with me.”

“Don’t worry about us,” Liudmila said, smiling. “I have Alfreda here to protect me.”

“Alfreda,” I repeated, laughing at Liudmila’s feminization of Alfredo’s name. I tugged at the sarong that, once we had abandoned carrying above us, Alfredo had wrapped around his waist like a skirt to keep his legs dry. Now he did a little curtsy dance in the rain to show off.

“Well, maybe you can go back to the house,” I said to Liudmila. “And you can help Alfreda get dinner started.” Water streamed down my face and into my mouth as I laughed uncontrollably now, full of that familiar, giddy mix of hunger and dark-day drowsiness.

Liudmila joined in on my hysterics, adding her gargled giggle to my solo performance. But I noticed that, with the mention of the house, Alfredo had sobered up.

“We can’t go back there without you, Lea,” he said now, his voice humorless and suddenly weary. “Remember what happened before.”

“Oh, Alfredo, I thought we’d resolved that,” I said, but then I cut short the rant I felt bubbling up inside me, not wanting to get into an argument in front of Liudmila.

The Sunday before, I had returned home early in the evening from my friend Pepe’s birthday party expecting to find Alfredo, who’d been working an afternoon concert, waiting for me at Dinora’s so we could go meet a friend for an eight o’clock film.

“I should be home by six at the latest,” I’d told Alfredo when he’d left the house for work that morning. “I’ll make up some English exercises for you to practice or, if you have to go out, just leave me a note about when you’ll be back.”

But when I arrived at Dinora’s, running late at 6:30, there was no Alfredo and no note. I ran back downstairs to ask Dinora if she’d seen him.

“Oh, he came by around 4:30,” she said. “I had some friends over but I left them to go get the door and when I told him you weren’t home yet, he just stood there staring up at me from the bottom of the steps.”

As Dinora described it to me, I could see the whole scene. I could see the small details I was sure she hadn’t noticed such as Alfredo’s shaky hands and the sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, the way that marble tower of steps, compared with the chipped chunks of the staircase at his mother’s house, always intimidated him.

“And then?” I’d asked Dinora.

“Well then I asked if he’d like to come up,” Dinora said, matter-of-factly. “And still, he just stood there. And then finally he said, ‘Well, should I? Or should I just walk around the block and come back later?’ and I said it was his decision, and then Abuela was calling out to me to know who was at the door and I asked Alfredo again what he wanted to do and he said he’d come back later. And I said, ‘Fine, I’ll tell Lea you stopped by.’ Dios mío, he sure can be penoso,” Dinora said.

I nodded, well aware by now how Alfredo, who, from day one, had always been so upfront about his feelings with me, could also easily clam up with others.

“Well, you have to sometimes make a special effort with him,” I’d told Dinora.

“Lea,” she’d said, exasperated. “I had friends over. My mother was calling out to me. I asked if he wanted to come up. What do I have to do? Get down on my knees and beg him to come upstairs?”

I’d found Dinora’s final question to be a bit much, but I understood her annoyance and I’d planned to talk to Alfredo about it when I saw him.

But when I met him around the block where I went searching for him ten minutes later, I found him sullen and angry and with an entirely different take on the scenario.

“She’s a racist,” he told me once more. “She knows I live there. She knows you’re paying rent for me to stay there, and the first thing she said when she opened the door was, ‘Lea’s not here,’ as if I had no right to be there without you.”

“But Alfredo,” I’d protested. “You are hardly ever there without me so probably the first thing Dinora thinks of when she sees you is me. And, besides, she told me she invited you up.”

“Oh,” he’d said sulkily. “But it was such a half-hearted invitation.”

We’d argued about the incident as we walked to the Cine Charles Chaplin, not

reaching a resolution until we arrived at the movie theater. Or at least I’d thought we’d reached a resolution, agreeing that Alfredo should be more assertive about what he wanted the next time. But his refusal now to return to Dinora’s house without me made me think again. I felt irritated to once more be caught between Alfredo and Dinora.

“OK,” I said slowly, trying to suppress my irritation. “So, Alfredo, what do you want to do while I have my interview?”

Alfredo paused, thinking.

“We could just stay outside,” Liudmila suggested. “Walk around in the rain. It’s kind of fun, in its own way.”

I looked at Liudmila doubtfully as the rain continued to pour down in torrents, wondering how her optimism could stretch this far. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an ice cream parlor on the corner of Manrique. There was no one buying ice cream, but it looked open, with a bored young woman standing at the counter and gazing into the distance.

“Maybe you could go get some ice cream and wait for me in there,” I said.

“Oh,” Liudmila said, excitedly. “I’ve passed that place many times and I’ve always wanted to try some. But,” she paused. “It’s for tourists. It’s in dollars.”

I pulled out my wallet and handed it to her, not wanting to have to ration out my money.

“Go ahead. It’s fine,” I said. Alfredo avoided looking me in the eye, uncomfortable with this money transfer or the memory of the Dinora scene or both. Who knew? I turned and walked towards Gladys’ house.

 

When, more than half an hour later, I rushed downstairs from my interview, I felt a wave of sadness as I saw Alfredo and Liudmila once more standing outside in the rain.

“What happened?” I asked as I walked over, but as I got closer, I saw that Alfredo’s face was transformed, and he smiled as he spoke now.

“There was too much air conditioning in there,” he said. “But, oh, Lea, the ice cream was delicious. There’s still some money left,” he said, handing me my wallet back. “You have to come try some.”

As Alfredo took my hand and pulled me towards the parlor, Liudmila added, “It was heavenly. Ten times better than Coppelia.”

“And ten times as many flavors too,” Alfredo added. “Lea, they must have had nearly twenty different flavors—rum raisin and hazelnut and fudge ripple….”

“And mint and coconut,” Liudmila interrupted.

“Wow,” I said. “Sounds like an ice cream place we have in the U.S. It has 31 flavors.”

“So,” Liudmila said, smiling as Alfredo opened the store door for me and I was accosted by the cold. “It’s like a U.S. ice cream parlor. There’s another thing we have in common.”

“Sure,” I said, nodding my head vigorously in an attempt to appear convinced. Not wanting to upset the hopefulness in Liudmila’s eyes or to cloud Alfredo’s contentment, I forced myself to smile as I ordered a dark chocolate ice cream and sank my teeth into its crisp sugar cone, letting the chilly cream fill my mouth with its essence of bittersweet.