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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.
‘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 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