CUBA! Love Story | Kobi Israel (WGAW Registered)
I am about to leave the colonial town of Trinidad, heading east toward Holguin and Camaguey when I notice him. He leans against a rusty metal stand, bag on his shoulder, waiting for the bus.
I remember checking him out last night as he sat atop the circular, sweeping staircase beside the Iglesia Parroquial, off Plaza Mayor. He was watching the Casa de la Musica crowd dance on the floor below. I assumed he was hunting for the right opportunity to seduce a female tourist, to charm someone with sensual salsa moves as many locals seemed to do. To my surprise however, I noticed him leave alone. Although intrigued, I forgot him the moment he wandered out of sight, disappearing into the darkness.
My intention shifts back to the circle.
Now I see him again. Our eyes meet a quick moment. We are both leaving town. I stop the car in traffic and allow him to catch up. He approaches me as other people notice me stop and rush in behind him, surrounding my windows. I notice an old lady carrying bags filled with Che Guevara souvenirs crossing the road without regard for danger. She waves her hand in the air as she chases me down.
“Me voy a Camaguey,” I say. I address him directly, ignoring the other longing faces. “Solo uno sitio.”
I point towards the front seat. He nods and opens the door. The old lady pushes her way in though, yelling at him. He glances back toward me and somehow ashamed, he speaks:
“Yo la conoce. Ella de mi pueblo.”
I am not certain what to do. The old lady speaks directly at me. It appears that I have no other choice but to accommodate her too. I shove my luggage toward the back seat aside to make room for her. He enters first and settles behind me allowing her to sit comfortably in the front seat. He gathers all her bags on his knees.
The old lady speaks throughout our journey, using her hands to amplify meaning. I comprehend her complaints about aches and pains; her children have grown up and abandoned her for big city life; her husband has recently passed away. Our eyes meet few times in the rearview mirror. She keeps talking about her fear of living life out alone; she reminds me of my aunt, she looked so pretty in our family photo album but somehow never got married. There were different versions to her destiny but she died miserable and lonely at less then sixty years. I feel for the old lady.
I glance at the mirror and sense that her loud questions make him uncomfortable. His answers are brief. I turn the music up louder.
Three hours later we arrive. I drop them at the central station of Sancti Spiritus. It is late afternoon and traffic on the main road is heavy. The old lady firmly grabs my hand and kisses it, forcing one of her boxes into my face as a thank you. I manage to pick up that they have another hour on the local bus. She rushes away. He slowly makes his way out from the back seat, apologizing for the old lady. He hesitates for a moment before he shuts the door and starts walking away. I linger a moment, waiting to see if he will look back in my direction; he heads straight for the bus without looking back.
As I start to drive away, I notice a restaurant. I make a U-turn through traffic and stop opposite the station. I choose a seat on the veranda, a small, dirty balcony table. I search him with my eyes and before long, he notices. We both give the thumb up, sign for goodbye.
The bus arrives. He nods and winks, and I do the same. I swallow my drink and signal for another as he helps the old lady with her bags. He takes a window seat toward the back. The bus starts to move; as it passes me, our eyes engage. I jump off my chair and wave for him to join me. I see him rise to his feet.
The bus stops abruptly. Horns blast. Cars screech to a halt and wait as he steps off into traffic. He approaches me anxiously.
He orders a plate of fried chicken and I ask for the same. “Bucannero beer,” I utter, flashing two fingers to the waiter.
The plates arrive, each piled with chicken, rice and lots of fried plannatos. He moves his fork to the side of the plate. He leans in and begins eating with his fingers. His half open shirt reveals a hairy chest. I can smell his musky sweat... I remember the truck noise so clearly, my mother anxiously rushing to look through the narrow kitchen window. She would hastily pull his prepared plate covered with silver foil from the fridge as his heavy, tired steps approached the set of staircases. My father would return from a long day of hard labor at the port, covered with sweat and black grease. Waves of familiar scents: metal, oil and gas from his truck overwhelm the entire flat. After a long shower during which he would shout to her the news of the day, he would drag the heavy metal chair across the floor and sit at the table wearing only his white, military style underwear. His elbows always pressed against the smooth, white veneer table. My mother would stand behind him, waiting on his every demand.
I tried to avoid entering the small kitchen when he was there. I would turn away from his fast eating, mouth full of conversation, ranting while he tore the chicken by hand. He always seemed to be starving. At the end of each meal, to signal satisfaction, there was always a loud burp, followed by strings of repulsive comments to my mother. He dismissed everyone with his laugh. I loathed this sound. I waited for the end so I could return watching TV in the next room.
A lengthy horn blast from a car on the road brings me back. My eyes meet his as they wait for reply.
We don’t talk much. He asks a few simple questions that I understand and reply to. When I tell him I’m from London, he says he has visited Trinidad, the big city, only once before. He has never been to Havana. Cuban people need to obtain special permission from the police in order to travel from one district to another.
“You probably know Cuba better then me,” he laughs.
He is too busy working on his uncle’s farm to travel. To him, city life seems hectic, too loud to truly enjoy. He has a love of nature, the challenge of raw, wild horses. He loves the process of subduing and training the animals before riding them for the first time. His voice is full of excitement, which makes me curious.
After our plates are collected and beer finished, I tell him I would like to see his horses. Surprised, he points towards the dirt road that winds up into the mountains. I pay the bill and we head off towards the car. He throws his bag in the back seat and sits up front.
The road away from town takes impossible bends up through the foothills. I grip the wheel, one eye on the road, the other on him as he speaks fast, filled with excitement. I can barely follow as he rattles off questions. We are immersed in lush green; the smells of rich, tropical soils enter the car through open windows. As we get closer, he tries to describe his village; impatient for the moment we discover it together. After a while, he closes his eyes, leans back and enjoys the ride. I turn on the radio.
Forty minutes into the drive, I finally see a small roundabout. He signals for me to stop and quickly jumps out of the car, running directly onto a busy football field. The game stops as he is greeted with slaps and shouts by a group of young men who briefly check me out. I watch from behind the white line. The steamy early evening reminds me of a not so distant summer, the first day of high school, September 1st, 1984. Computers were the new frontier, green screens, 256K, programming in “Basic” language. The first day was full of excitement, becoming familiar with new corridors, classrooms and staircases. There were new teachers to get acquainted with, strange faces that could turn out to be friends. I wanted to explore every corner, open each door but at the end of a long day, all the boys agreed to gather for a football game. I possessed an irrational fear of the ball; the aggressive shouts, the obsession and establishment of instincts. I was never really sure what the rules were. I preferred reading books, or wandering back streets of my town, pining for new discoveries. While they were busy dividing into groups, I would sneak away knowing that the next day they might mock me. Watching him play from behind the same white line, I feel sheltered from common ridicule. Things are different now though. I slowly get into the game. I enjoy the energy, the passion, the sweat, the cheering and commitment of the players.
He manages to score twice within half an hour. He is totally engaged in the game, his name shouted from all over the pitch: “Rafael aqui, Rafael aqui.” I recognize that I never got his name.
As the game ends and the players engage in a series of tricks, I notice the low position of the sun. It will set in approximately an hour and I am not sure where I will be able to spend the night. Rafael ignores me. There are three girls on the opposite sideline he seems interested in talking to. I continue waving, desperate to get his attention. Confused of the long inattention, I turn away and leave.
I drive out of the village without looking at the rearview mirror. I wonder whether he has noticed that I am gone. Is he chasing the car? Is he calling my name? Was I wrong to leave without goodbye? I struggle with the desire to stop. Turning out toward the main road, my head is filled with echoes.
“Stop…turn back…it is his fault… I changed my plans for him…. how dare he ignore me for so long….” This sense of pride I inherit from my father. “He was always right… He never apologizes…always his last word…it is her fault…she brought it on herself…She made him hit her…” Although my basic instinct and behavior are similar to his, the actions I choose must be different. I do admit my faults, I am not like him, I try to convince myself.
Slowly my emotional storm weakens. What was I hoping would happen? How would it all play out? What was I thinking to myself? Why am I so disappointed? After a few moments, I am relived with my decision of leaving.
I shift my focused back to the drive only to recognize that I am winding through strange scenery. I don’t remember seeing this sign, nor do I recall this group of trees from a distance. Am I lost?
The setting sun fills the sky in front of me. For a moment, I forget my trouble and instead, concentrate on a random photo opportunity. I survey surroundings, attention divided as I continue driving fast, searching for that split of a second when a magical sight emerges, when the right perspective meets the right light. The elusive moment between time, distance and…
The car stops on a 45-degree angle, front wheels up in the air. Intact, I rush outside to assess the damage and find water running out of a big hole in the underbody, disappearing into the dry sand. I try to stop up the hole with my hand but the metal is hot. I flinch. I immediately recognize that it is hopeless.
I close my eyes surrender to the feeling of despair. I am alone, lost in the middle of a mountainous maze of dirt paths without sense of direction. This is a strange land, and my fleeting moment of connection has vanished. I despair, wondering, what have I gotten myself into?
I lean against the car. I take in the deep breath that has escaped me since the crash. I force appreciation of this short, twilight moment. The sun has vanished behind the hill. The sky has gradually darkened, becoming midnight, before eventually turning my favorite color: navy blue emerges for a brief moment.
A full pale moon climbs from the horizon. At least I will not be lost in total darkness. This could be worse, I think, as I roll a few stones beneath the wheels. I tighten up the gaps with pieces of dry wood to give the wheels grip. My first two attempts yield no results, but on the third I manage to kick start the engine and move the car off the big rock, leaving pieces of metal behind.
I try to guess which turns will take me back. The red danger lamp is on; flashes and beeps come from the rental car. The heat pointer reaches its peak. I stop every few minutes to pour from a bottle of mineral water into the damaged radiator, collecting the water that spills out of the hole with another empty bottle. I can only keep this up so long… My father would push me to join him on his journeys out to the port on school holidays. I was his eldest son and named after his father. He used to say that he was trying to make me a man. I remember pretending to be asleep but it never worked. Sometimes as early as first light we would hit the road. He would let me sit on his knees and drive the truck, honking the horn bringing me joy. We would sometimes get off on the side of the road for repairs, sometimes a flat tire, overheated smoky radiator, or a busted gear. He would remove his shirt and crawl underneath the big red Leyland truck, back ground against the asphalt, arms covered with grease and oil, I held his shirt for him handling tools from his metal box pretending we were a team. My father could always improvise a temporary solution. He was adept at forcing the basic instinct of survival. I am not sure when I stopped admiring him for this.
I stop every few minutes to let the engine cool. There are a few remnants of other cars left on the dirt path. I remain hopeful of at least a sign that someone else has driven through here. Hours later I reach the roundabout where Rafael jumps out from behind a tree. “Que pasa, donde fuiste,” he shouts, rushing directly in front of the slow moving car. I switch the high beams down to low and stop.
Rafael seems to be amidst an emotional storm. He speaks fast, using both hands to express his bewilderment. He continues talking although I lose his meaning. Already miles out of my way and abandoned by him, I choose not to take offense. Instead, I point to the red dashboard light.
”Grande, muy grande,” I say, indicating the hole in the underbelly. I hear my voice cracking with fear.
Rafael’s expression switches to a smile: “Loco! Que loco.” He points towards one of the silhouette houses. “Mañana,” he says, laying an arm around my shoulders trying to assure me. “Mañana! Vamos?” Rafael seems to have a plan. I place myself in his hands.
We drive through his small village in silence. There is not a single street lamp on the narrow main street through town, only the moon, endless bright stars and the car’s high beams. The village has the feeling of being empty but I feel strangely at home. Rafael indicates to stop in front of a wooden shack. Without hesitation, he bangs on a tiny wooden windows waking up a young couple.
I am introduced to his friends, Carlos and Maria who generously prepare food. They offer their bed for me to sleep in but I politely refuse. They have already been so kind. The other option is to sleep in the kitchen on the floor, or outside in the barn.
I gather a sheet and a pillow. Although their looks reveal that they are skeptical of a stranger, I feign excitement at the unique opportunity to go camping. The night is warm; the breeze cuts through the trees, into my shirt. Rafael again has disappeared.
Three dogs lay by the fence, sniffing, watching me with keen interest. I notice silhouettes of what seems like two horses, a cow, maybe chickens in the field. I remember watching a television program about how horses fear snakes, and how dogs protect the livestock from wild wolves. Should I trust that TV program? I drift off to sleep, thoughts of Rafael and the curious way he came into my life, vanished, only to return again.
I startle at the touch of a hand on my shoulder. It is Rafael, closer now than ever. I can smell his breath. I hold myself back. I want to kiss his lips so much but cannot allow myself. He hushes me and points to my mouth, indicating for me to follow him.
At the end of the road I notice a horse. He helps me climb onto the saddle and quickly jumps in behind me. He hugs my waist, holding the reins from behind as he navigates to the hills. We ride in silence. I notice he wears leather chaps on top of his jeans and no shirt. I close my eyes, allowing the breeze and the moment to carry me. I feel his hairy chest on my neck. I can smell his skin.
As the sounds of a river emerge from below the trail, Rafael jumps off the horse. Without hesitation, he strips his remaining clothes and dives into the darkness. He howls with bliss at the impact of cool water. I watch, perplexed by his brash behavior. Images of anacondas and crocodiles flash through my mind but in the split of a second, I decide to trust him. I remove my clothes and drop them next to his. Then fully naked, I jump into the water too.
We spend the whole night in the river underneath the bright, starry skies, making our move back to the farm just before dawn. In the light, I recognize how tiny the village is, only a few brick houses and our wooden shack at the edge. I attempt to jump off the horse as he did earlier only to fall on the ground. He laughs quietly, and jumps off his horse to offers his hand for assistance.
“Hasta despues,” he whispers and winks. I wink back. I sneak into my bed made of straw in the barn too exhausted to wonder.
I wake to the sound of dogs barking and chickens flying. Maria stands over me with grin and a glass of milk. The sun beams in straight above me. It is nearly noon. She gives me the glass and leaves me to regain my senses... On weekends, my father’s work mates used to amuse themselves by splashing each other using fireman hoses in the port. As a young boy, I loved their fun games and freely took my cloths off as well but the weekend before my Bar Mitzva I refused. They teased me; someone sprayed me from behind while I was fully clothed. They all laughed, assuming I would take my clothes off with the simple provocation. That was the last time I joined my father at the port. Yesterday, being naked in the river with Rafael was so different. It felt natural. It felt right.
I spend the early afternoon getting acquainted with my hosts, learning about their life and routines. They tell me that Rafael was checking on me when I was asleep before he left to work on his uncle’s farm. He will return later, they comfort me. On Rafael’s request, a villager shows up to check the car, an old man in his 80’s. I manage to understand that he used to be a famous mechanic in the city. I wonder if he’s ever seen a car like this though.
“Muy complicado,” he utters while crawling out from underneath the car, nodding his head in horror. “Solamente en Santci Spiritus.” He points towards the road out of the village. My eyes follow back into the thicket.
Carlos has errands. I follow him on his horse to the small grocery shop where I make a phone call to the rental company in Havana. They explain that I need to file an accident report with the police, and until I am acquitted of wrongdoing, I must remain in the village. Carlos explains that the nearest police station is in a neighboring town, more than twenty kilometers away. He says that the only way to get there is by foot or on horseback through the mountains.
Carlos lends me his horse. I have never ridden horseback before yesterday when it was Rafael who controlled the animal. I pretend that I know what I am doing as we embark on our journey. I am comforted when he suggests that he escort me. A few kilometers into the mountains, we encounter some of his friends who decide to join us on the trail. Before long, the task of reporting an accident to the police becomes opportunity for adventure.
The police station is cool and shaded concrete building. The bright light outside creates contrast with darkness inside. My friends stay outside with their horses while I grit my teeth for a face off with the police inside.
The inquiry room feels like a set from a film noire. Sparse décor, the corners filled with shadows. I am seated in a chair opposite an empty desk and made to wait. When the four policemen and one junior woman finally enter, I am interrogated thoroughly; their demeanor is as though I have committed some heavy crime. My friends are called in from outside and are questioned separate rooms.
“How do you know them?” the gruff cops ask. “Where did you meet?” They grasp for something sinister in our connection. I become nervous as the day grinds. I remind myself that this is a communist government. My Israeli passport, my only way of getting back home to London, is in their hands. Hours pass before I lose control, I rage!
We roll over on the floor in the narrow corridor, the little carpet pushed beneath my back. He is above me pressing my neck against the floor trying to slap my face; I push him with my bare foot against the bathroom door and he falls to the ground. We both jump up and stand against each other. My mother enters between us trying to calm him down. I feel the warm blood streaming through my lips, which only fills me with further anger and pride. I straighten my eyes towards him and whisper “looser!” I lost my fear to him; we are now at the same height. From that day on he never dares to hit me again.
“I had a car accident. I did not commit murder!” I shout at them, conceding that I may see myself behind bars as a result of my temper. My anger has a great effect though. The person watching from the corner without speaking, signals to the others to leave.
Now alone with the policeman that I guess is the commander, I explain my situation. I am scheduled to depart for London. My flight is in ten days. He turns up his lip and says investigations take weeks.
“Weeks?” I am horrified.
He narrows his eyes. I swallow my fear and with as much subtlety as I can gather, I indicate that I can pay for a rush report.
I spend the next three days at Carlos and Juanita’s place. Their friends from nearby villages visit. They want to hear my story. When the first day is through, still more come, family members and neighbors curious about the accident. They wish to be introduced.
I try to blend in. During the mornings, I help with housework. I volunteer to fetch products from the grocery shop showing gratitude by adding a bottle of rum and beers for early evening gatherings.
Rafael finishes work at his uncle farm early each day, goes for a quick noon nap and joins us for the afternoons. Groups of friends gather for horseback rides up the trail to the river, our nocturnal, secret river. We ride out through the fields, up the mountainside. Rafael is filled with a childlike energy. He takes every opportunity to show off. He stands up on horseback on one leg while twirling a lasso, proud to show off his rugged cowboy skills. When we stop for a drink at an old water pump, he climbs the trees and shakes the branches for exotic fruits. One time, he even tries to impress the two girls by teasing a wild bull. We all run away full of joy, laughing in the eye of danger.
In the heat of the afternoon, we stop to bathe in the “chocolate river”. Returning home before sunset, we take a quick shower at a neighbor’s house and eat dinner. Then after everyone has finally gone off to sleep, Rafael wakes me. Together we ride far up onto the mountain on his horse, returning to the farm just before daybreak. We come and go without anyone noticing us.
For a week I walk a thin line. On one side, a strange adventure in a foreign place, colored with glimpses of smells and sounds that recollect familiar gestures; on the other side is the bittersweet knowledge embedded in my from my childhood and adolescence.
Notions of raw masculinity, mixed with homoerotic tensions. The attraction brings me helplessly back, evoking familiar fears. As I grow to understand Cuba, the conflicts it brings forth are similar to Israel. I walk a line here between fear of rejection and acceptance.
On the seventh day, Rafael finally takes me to meet his uncle and cousins. I feel proud that I have managed to win over his trust. We stop at the grocery store to get beer and I throw a bottle of quality rum into the basket, my special present for his uncle.
Upon arrival, seeing the bottle emerge, a few men working on the farm arrange themselves in a half circle on the back of their horses and join in the spontaneous fiesta ... Stuck in a busy petrol station just outside the port, waiting for a rescue vehicle to come help him, my father gathered the few friendly truck drivers who offered assistance. Those who stop for petrol join us for a cigarette break. “Work wont run away,” they roar. Everyone laughs and lights up a smoke. They pull a few tires and sit around in half circle, shirts open, bare chests, sharing military stories, stopping only to admire and whistle any female entering the station.
One of the men looks through my fathers bin of old rags. Slowly, he pulls a little red swimsuit with a golden metal attached. My stomach sinks as he laughs and flashes it around. “What in the hell are you doing with a little girl’s swimsuit?” Everyone laughs in unison. “Any thing you want to share with us?”
My father stands. He puts his thumb in his belt and turns his head toward me. “It is his. My wife’s choice.”
I watched from a distance as my favorite red swimsuit is torn in two. Each half is used to clean a dirty tire before being cast aside.
I express appreciation for their beautiful horses and pretend to have a sip from the bottle of rum that is passed around. I am familiar with these interactions. Their machismo is pleasant and comforting. Their kind warm smile and good spirit assures me.
I am settled in the village, like I have been there for months. The people see me as an equal. I have almost forgotten about my flight to London when the next morning, I hear a strange sound. A tow truck navigates between two narrow columns of trees, trying to fit in behind my car. The little money and four bottles of rum that I handed over at the police station brought results. They rushed my application and cleared me from any responsibility to the accident.
There were no longer obstacles. My flight back to London is scheduled to leave Havana in just three days. I tell my new friends I wish to spend that remaining time with them in the village.
I would only return to Havana the night before my departure.
© Kobi Israel, 2012 | WGAW Registered | U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress