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In Havana, the Line Between Source and Friend is Always Moving

ISSUE:  Spring 2013

Photo by Jason FlorioIf there was one thing Sandra knew well, it was hair. She knew hair from root to split end. In beauty school, she had learned the shape of the human head and how the best thing to do when trimming its hair was to section the skull into eighths. Her long nails shone red as she held her soft hands in front of her to demonstrate on an imaginary client. Her gold rings glinted. When she tired of hair-cutting techniques, she waved her hands quickly and her fingers sparked through the thick night like fireworks. 

Sandra, like other girls who hung out where we sat on Havana’s waist-high seawall malecón where it hit Paseo, wore fashionable clothes of the barely there variety: diminutive shorts with interlocking C’s on back pockets, glittery heels, bras that peeked from tops, halters leaving midriffs bare. She dyed her own long, straight hair blue-black and lined her lips with the same dark pencil that she used around her eyes because shops hadn’t carried red in months. Her plastic nails were thick and whispery along the tips; she grabbed my forearm as we crossed the street on our way to the bathroom at a nearby gas station, dodging the cars that sped around the curve at Paseo. We went the long way to avoid the police who hung in the shadows on the intersection’s traffic island, keeping an eye on the strip. “The cars here, they’ll hit you. And if it’s him”—Sandra flicked her chin and pulled her hand down to mime a beard, the universal gesture for Fidel Castro—“they won’t stop. They’ll run you over and keep on going.”

There were clubs and bars at the hotels that hulked over the crossroads—the mod Riviera, the shimmery Meliá Cohiba, the Jazz Café—but since few locals could afford drinks there, the tourists who wanted to meet real Cubanos hung out by the sea. Everyone, Cuban and foreign, loved the malecón, to sit facing the ocean and Miami and feel the spray on bare shins, or to turn toward the city and watch old cars roar slowly by, or, after a long night at the bars, to see the brightening sky pull itself away from the the sea. On nights when there was no moon, you could nod approvingly at the fish that men in mesh tank tops caught on sheer line stretched from coils on the sidewalk. On hot days, you watched kids who leapt from the wall into high tide, their arms pinwheeling past the rocks that cragged up from the ocean.

So young men toted bongo drums and guitars, imitating the Buena Vista Social Club for a few dollars’ tip. Gentlemen in frayed straw fedoras asked tourists to pick up an extra beer at the gas station kiosk. Tired-looking women in Lycra shorts sang out the names of cones of roasted peanuts, cucuruchos de maní, and popcorn, rositas de maíz. Nonchalant girls cocked hips at the foreign men who walked past. Sandra had been taught the art of artifice to serve the Cuban revolution through its beauty parlors, but she’d given up on hair. By the time she was twenty-one, she’d been working as a prostitute for around five years. The dates changed every time I asked her. Either way, she made about three times in one night what she’d have been paid monthly at any of the government-owned salons.

In November 2011, when Cuban first daughter Mariela Castro Espín was in Amsterdam in her capacity as sexologist and director of Cuba’s Center for Sexual Education, she was interviewed on Radio Netherlands Worldwide. Castro, prim and deliberate in a turtleneck and tweed blazer, sat in a room with draping red curtains and feather boas and effused about Amsterdam’s red-light district. “I’ve enjoyed seeing how they do it,” she said. “What I admire is that they’ve been able to dignify and value the work that they do—because yes, it is a job.” She enunciated her Spanish so translators didn’t miss a word for the televised interview. Castro went on to explain how, as she put it, the principles are the same in Cuba as in Amsterdam, but the circumstances are different. She talked about how the malecón is a place of pride for Havanans, and she smiled broadly until she mentioned the people who sell sex there. “Some people go there to practice prostitution in a way that is bothersome for, above all, the tourist or foreigner,” and her agency is in close contact with the police to decrease the malecón prostitution, she said, without drawing too much attention from said tourist or foreigner.

This is what the Cuban government usually highlights when it talks about women and prostitution: Before Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, women had represented only 13 percent of the workforce, and many were domestic servants. A large number were prostitutes, too—as a port city with a sexually liberal climate and a US-backed puppet government, Havana was where yanquis had gone in search of louche, uninhibited nightlife from Prohibition on. In 1931, after the Volstead Act had tripled the numbers of tourists who visited the country in under fifteen years, 7,400 women officially stated their professions as prostitutes. The city formerly known as “the pearl of the Caribbean” was soon referred to as its brothel. Eradicating prostitution and increasing women’s rights was one of Castro’s stated goals. Forty years after the 1959 revolution, long after literacy drives had enabled the island’s rural residents to read and prostitutes had been trained as seamstresses and given jobs and day care for their children, 51 percent of Cuba’s scientists were women. Fifty percent of attorneys and 52 percent of medical doctors, too. Everyone was paid nearly equally—a doctor, male or female, made marginally more than a seamstress, around $20 a month in Cuban pesos.

Then, twenty years ago, the USSR fell and Soviet subsidies disappeared and with them more than a third of Cuba’s GDP. The value of the peso plummeted, and rations of food, clothing, and other necessities that removed pressure from monthly stipends dwindled. Increasingly, women, and some men, began to trade sexual favors for, say, the fish that a neighbor caught or the bread that only a well-placed state employee got very much of. When the government pushed to increase tourism and Cuba drew closer to the global capitalist marketplace, those activities again had cash value. By 1995, around the same time that studies on gender parity in the workforce came out, the Italian travel magazine Viaggiare had given the island the dubious honor of being the number one global “paradise of sexual tourism.” The government, broke and desperate, did little to contradict this image. And though the economy lifted as Cuba rounded into the twenty-first century, and though the new decade saw police tossing the more obvious prostitutes into jail, sex was something that could be easily bought and sold in Havana.

But one key fact still sets Cuba apart today: There aren’t many pimps or third-party intermediaries in the sex trade. A police state with tightly restricted access to weapons and severe penalties for drugs creates an underworld more seamy than overtly violent. And few romantic liaisons between locals and foreigners are deemed prostitution; rather, most fall under the banner of relationships with amigos. Any non-Cuban is eligible, and what locals want from amigos, foreigners like me, is neither finite nor clear, a mix of money, attention, and the possibility linked to anyone with a non-Cuban passport.

In the way that the language of a city fills in the blanks of what its people want to name, sometime between the early 1990s and today the word jinetero/a became the catch-all to describe Cuba’s hookers and hustlers, or any person who seeks foreign currency or CUC, the valuable tourist cash, rather than the pesos in which government salaries are paid, via foreigners. The word’s provenance isn’t clear. Jinete in Spanish is a horse jockey; whether this means that women hold the reins of the “horses” is unclear. Today, the masculine jinetero refers insultingly to a man who caters to tourists in any questionably legal, hustler-like capacity. Jinetera means “a Cuban woman who trades sex for money.” I’d avoided them whenever I visited Havana, until I met Sandra that night with a mutual acquaintance on the malecón.

The European and American media erupted into a mild frenzy in the weeks after Mariela Castro’s remarks, given that the principles of prostitution in Cuba aren’t at all like those in Amsterdam. But her comments pointed toward something that was still unsaid, something essential about the country that was both hers and Sandra’s: jineteras are indicative of contemporary Havana’s frustrations, opportunities, dreams, history, and ennui. Remittances and tourism are Cuba’s top two sources of income, and the inevitable process of aging has shoved the country, with less fanfare than anticipated, into a post-Fidel era. The inheritance of the Castro revolution is hinted at every day in how Cuba interacts with an ever-encroaching world. Sandra, a small symbolic representative of Communism’s struggle for relevance, is both admired and reviled within her society.

Then again, that might be too much weight to put on her; she’s also just a girl surviving Havana, using what’s put in front of her to get by.

Sometimes it’s hard to discern who’s selling sex and who’s just trying to wear as little fabric as possible in Havana’s oppressive heat. The mainstays of jinetera fashion—miniskirts, transparent fabrics, cleavage- and shoulder-baring tops—appear on most women, including foreigners, who feel freer to be sexy in permissive Cuba than at home. At clubs, I saw foreign women with bikini-strap marks sunburned around their necks look left, right, then pull their necklines down before dancing with slim Cuban men in tight jeans and big silver belt buckles. These women lapped up the sensual aura, as if just breathing would send tiny cells of sexy through their bodies, the infusion pushing and pulling hips back and forth, transforming walks into sashays, planting dry one-liners in mouths.

Sandra had long since mastered these feminine tricks. Everything about her physical appearance was calibrated to entice: the tops that looked almost about to slip off, the hair that twisted around her neck, her long, soft, red nails. I had just five years on Sandra, but I felt large, clumsy, and dusty around her in my flats and loose dresses. I was a tattered stuffed animal next to her as we sat, the second time we met, in the backseat of a cab that took us from the malecón out to her house.

She’d met me downtown because she said I wouldn’t find her place on my own. Sandra had recently moved from la Corea, one of Havana’s few slum-like outlying neighborhoods, into a closer but smaller dwelling in San Miguel del Padrón. Her home was in a cluster of blocks between a fetid stream and the main road that linked downtown Havana with outer boroughs like San Francisco de Paula, where Ernest Hemingway lived. San Miguel was a place of contrasts: a street began with a few freshly painted houses near the road to San Francisco and faded into cinderblock shacks with stretched-out oil barrels for fences closer to the stream. Egg cartons, plastic bags, the rusted skeletons of metal chairs, and fruit rinds bobbed in the water.

The shiny taxi slowed as we pulled onto her street, dodging potholes. A couple on the corner stared at us, and Sandra waved. A few feet away, an old man in overalls, a burlap sack of oranges slung over his right shoulder, stood to attention and saluted. Sandra dissolved into giggles, slapping the vinyl seat. “What a loco, loco loquito,” she gasped. “Viste?” She jumped out as soon as we pulled up to her building and leaned against the car’s trunk, picking at her nails as I paid the fare.

Years ago, Sandra’s mother had kicked her out of the house. She now lived with her grandmother, Aboo, and her half-brother, Gallego, in a two-room apartment in what had once been a yard at the center of a block, down an alley and behind a single-story home with neoclassical columns and a street-side patio. Aboo didn’t approve of Sandra staying out for days on end, but Sandra’s father was in Florida and her mother had a new husband, a nice house in suburban La Lisa, and a set of twin toddlers. And the money Sandra brought home supported the household.

For every woman supported by foreign men, I’d heard it estimated that three more Cuban citizens got by on the money, whether directly or not. Sandra, Aboo, and Gallego, at least. The government didn’t do much beyond tossing a too-blatant hooker into Villa Delicia, the nickname for the women’s jail. Sandra had spent four days there when she was nineteen and had eaten so little she’d come out “like this,” she told me, holding up her pinkie. If men stopped coming to the island, tempted no longer by images of scantily clad mulattas on white-sand beaches and bodies pressed together in crowded bars, hotel rooms would languish unvisited, taxis would have fewer fares, and restaurants more empty tables. So policemen, Sandra said, were eminently bribe-able, for the right price.

Just inside Sandra’s door, a small table and two matching chairs were piled high with folded clothes. The room also held a wooden armoire, a stereo, and a refrigerator near a small kitchenette. Sandra poked around for a box of photos. When she found it, we returned to the central patio, where we sat under the laundry lines that the three families who lived in the middle of the block used on alternating days. Sandra set the box on the ground and sorted through pictures. I pulled out a pack of cheap, unfiltered Criollo cigarettes, which I favored for their clean tobacco and sweet aftertaste. Sandra wrinkled her nose but took one anyway, and used it to point out the Spanish guy who’d asked her to marry him two years ago. He’d walked in on her a few weeks later with someone else. She still had the ring.

Sandra was eleven when she had sex for the first time (the average in Cuba is around thirteen), with a man whose name she’d tattooed across the small of her back, Mumúa, above an image of two doves entwined with scrolls. He was thirty-two then, and even now he was “crazy for me,” she said, waving her cigarette, though he was in jail for selling stolen motorcycle parts. What had begun as nights out slid quickly into prostitution; government salaries paled next to the $50 she could make on a night with a man, nearly always foreign, nearly always Spanish, Cuban-American, or Italian. So she quit, never finished her certificate course.

The gate at the street end of the alley jingled as Gallego walked in. After introductions, I picked up my bag to leave. Sandra asked me where I was going. “To meet some friends downtown,” I said. There weren’t many decent restaurants in Havana then, and I had no kitchen in my rented room, so a generous cast of friends, Cubans and expats, regularly invited me around to eat during my three-week reporting trips. Sandra gave me a once-over and pushed me toward the floor-length mirror in her living room. If I’d just do my hair like this, she told me as she reached into my curls and flipped them into a messy, voluminous updo, I’d look way sexier. A red wash to make the dull brown more interesting would do me good. And my shorts could be shorter, too. I should also line my lips—you know, show off contours, make them inviting. I handed her bobby pins for my hair but liked my shorts the way they were, mid-thigh. She looked skeptical, the pins between her lips as she styled and then hands on her hips once she’d finished. It did look better.

I saw Sandra one last time on that trip to Cuba, a quick visit on the malecón again. She’d come up with a plan: When I went back to Mexico, I should get my company to write her a carta de invitación, an invitation letter that she’d use to get an exit visa. “You work at a newspaper or something, right?” she asked. “They wouldn’t have to offer me a real job, just do the carta oficial, I can take care of myself once I get there.”

I explained that I didn’t really work for anyone, at least not like that, and some of the magazines I wrote for were actually based in Europe. She looked at me coyly. “Whatever,” she said. “Wherever.” I paused, uncomfortable, and then smiled a little and said that I could hardly get them to do favors for me, much less for an amiga in Cuba. Sandra shrugged. She began to gossip about a neighbor of hers who’d come over the day I’d visited her house. There was no change in her demeanor, as if the desire to go to Mexico or anywhere else had dissipated as soon as her shoulders had moved.

The big turquoise Habana Riviera hotel was originally commissioned by Meyer Lansky’s men to be his mob’s Havana gambling hub, an extravagant high-rise with sophistication unrivaled in the Caribbean—Manhattan on the Florida Straits. Architect Philip Johnson did initial designs until he realized he’d be working for the mafia and passed the job along. The building opened in December 1957 with Ginger Rogers and her musical revue in the hotel’s Copa Cabaret. In the end, Lansky’s henchmen and Hollywood hangers-on enjoyed only three years of ocean views before Castro nationalized the hotel and casino in 1960.

Today, the wallpaper in many of the Riviera’s rooms buckles from the humidity. Only half of them have seen renovations after fifty years of use; most floors are partly habitable and some are closed altogether. Viewed from the huge saltwater pool below, to which $10 buys anyone a day pass, the broken curtain rods dangling diagonally across the windows give the hotel the look of a cross-eyed old man. What beds there are have been made up with linens in sizes that don’t fit the mattresses, and cockroaches skitter around the hallways or lie belly-up in corners. But in the lobby, the imagination sketches outlines of the three-piece suits and stiff silk skirts of the past, ghostlike, conjured by the décor. Low-slung, coral velvet couches and surfboard-shaped coffee tables with opalescent mosaic and gold inlay, all well-preserved, invite time-travel fantasies.

Lobbies were where one could forget the hotels and houses that were crumbling for lack of maintenance, ignore the damp bubbles at the corners of walls. Lobbies were also where hotel security could most easily identify the women in spandex and pleather halter tops. The Riviera was Sandra’s beat. Some nights she’d stay out on the malecón and other nights she’d slip one of the hotel workers five or ten CUC to stay from around nine at night until she found a client. The $50 she charged gave her a good profit margin. She’d order a TuKola at the bar and proposition any man whose eyes lingered on her. At the club, now called the Copa Room, she’d shimmy up against a man and make him feel like he was the best dancer in the room. She complained later about how embarrassingly badly they danced, and sometimes even demonstrated for me in the middle of empty streets, but someone usually took her up to his room or whisked her off in a taxi to another hotel.

A tenuous confidence built between Sandra and me. That winter, we sat on her patio and watched the Brazilian telenovela on her neighbor’s TV, which he dragged outside each night. He was supposed to be leaving for Panama soon, where he’d work as a physical therapist, always any day now. I watched Sandra untangle her ten-year-old neighbor’s jump rope and tally scores from the lotería, the numbers racket that all of San Miguel played, on scraps of paper. Other days, we drank cheap coffees or beers in the cafés in San Miguel and ate the Toblerones I bought at Mexican airports and talked about not much and then hitchhiked downtown together. I got out of cars near my room in Centro Habana, and she continued on to the Riviera. I wore Birkenstocks to Sandra’s heels and demurred when she asked me to buy her a cell phone or told me how great her half-brother was in bed. I rarely took cabs anymore.

One afternoon, we went for pizza at one of Habana Vieja’s tourist-trap restaurants. Oil-stained white tablecloths hung limply atop red ones and pink-faced men sat with young women at the other two occupied tables. While I went to the bathroom, she flagged down the waiter and ordered a plate of olives.

Ay, Julia,” she sighed when I returned, stretching out the round vowels of my name in her hoarse voice, “estoy en estado.” She shoveled the canned olives into her mouth, filling her cheeks. She’d been eating like a horse, she said, peeing four times an hour, had what looked like a spare tire though she could rarely buy the food she craved—she thought it was Mumúa’s baby. He’d gotten out of jail recently and was the only man she didn’t use a condom with. If she had any more abortions, she might not be able to have kids in the future, so she’d have a baby in seven months.

Mumúa wanted to make a family of them, but Sandra had a plan, she said as she dipped French fries in the olive brine. She’d tell Bong, the Italian who visited Havana every four months with a millionaire invalid boss, that he was the father. As Sandra told it, theirs was a torrid, Jane Austen-in-the-tropics tale, the hunt for an advantageous match. Bong, who had a wife and kid back in Italy, wanted to move to Cuba to be with her, but his boss, who had promised to leave his fortune to Bong, wouldn’t hear of it, so they snuck around. Since he was crazy about Sandra, and he looked something like Mumúa, she’d tell him the baby was his. Then he’d support her until the old man died and Bong could divorce the wife, marry Sandra, and take her and “their” baby away from Cuba, or at least to a better house on the island. “If he asks for a genetic test, I’ll just say no,” she summed up, bobbing her head between bites of food.

She had never actually seen the invalid boss, though. One day Bong hailed from a town in Italy where everyone looked like they were Asian—Sandra wasn’t sure which town, didn’t care—and another day he was actually Filipino-Italian. When I asked what she’d do for money if she did leave, how she’d pay rent or buy medicine, she was dismissive: “Aiouuuuuulia, I’ll do anything, anything,” she said with a wave of her hand.

Sandra’s plans for the future were like clouds she thought she’d walk into; they’d envelop her and then everything would be different. She’d find a boyfriend who’d marry her and get her the hell out of Cuba, where the life she’d lived for twenty-one years bored her: the same ration food, the same lack of privacy, the same eternal wait for buses to get downtown, the gloom that rolled in when her days were occupied by sleeping and boredom. The languid sense of time—which I soaked up in Havana—suffocated Sandra. Foreigners opened up wormholes of opportunity: Sandra could have money, sleep in hotels, buy $1 H. Upmann cigarettes, eat her favorite dessert, Jell-O, every day. The dreams Sandra imagined were the size of all the rooms she’d ever been in.

A few weeks after we’d had dinner, Sandra stopped talking to Mumúa. She’d seen him zipping toward home on his motorcycle with a pretty little thing clinging to his back. He’d also slapped her once or twice, she told me flippantly. I was relieved that Mumúa was out of Sandra’s life and hoped it stayed that way.

So she’d listed Gallego as the baby’s father on her carnet de embarazada, the ID card with which a pregnant woman can claim state benefits. With her carnet, she was entitled to medical care throughout her pregnancy, including house calls if she couldn’t make it to the clinic and enough sonogram pictures to show off to neighbors, plus, she said: “a cradle that never shows up, a roll of gauze to use as diapers, little bottles of perfume and cream, two baby outfits, and four cloth diapers.” She had already bought an extra roll of gauze off a woman who would use disposables. In stores, disposables retailed for around $12 for a pack of twenty, or, on the black market, $14 for forty. Sandra hoped that, if Bong pulled through and decided to support “his” child, she’d use disposables once the baby came. It wasn’t an exit visa, but it was progress.

I moved to Havana at the end of summer 2009, just a few months after I’d met Sandra. The more time I spent there, the more I understood that, in direct contradiction to the grand and lofty ideas that dominated the city’s public discourse, the very small details of life were all that mattered in Havana. Since no one had any say in what happened anywhere else, or in the government, or in any larger way, the individual dramas of what one saw, heard, did, felt, or needed held weight. I would never understand how these details stitched together if I left after three or four weeks. And there was something of relief in the surrender that the country forced on its visitors: You couldn’t eat what you wanted to eat, porque no hay, or visit a neighborhood with new buildings, because it didn’t exist. Every car, townhouse, staircase, and avenue kept the patina of a city that had given itself to the passage of time and to which you were of no consequence.

By then, and since she was visibly pregnant that summer, Sandra had moved on to her second money-making plan. She and her neighbor Yessica had bought two hundred cups of yogurt of the sort that retailed in the CUC supermarkets for 75 cents each. They paid a middleman 15 cents per cup and then walked the neighborhood to sell the yogurts at three for a dollar. I found them one afternoon near the main avenue, struggling to free a yogurt-filled stroller from one of the potholes that winked across the asphalt. Yessica and I took the stroller, while Sandra waddled along the sidewalk, whispering to people who sat on chairs outside their homes and sticking her head into open doorways and windows to advertise product. Someone emerged from every few doors, handed over cash, lifted the lacy blanket that covered the carriage, and pawed through its contents for the desired flavors.

Sandra was imminently due. Her pink- and gray-striped T-shirt snuck up her belly, which protruded nearly a foot from her slight frame, to reveal thick purplish marks.

We snaked through the area. “Baby’s still cooking, china?” whistled the man who leaned against the counter of the near-bare corner bodega, where rations were dispensed. Sandra rolled her slightly slanty eyes.

“Child’s coming out walking if she stays in much longer,” muttered one woman as she sauntered by.

“When are you due?” asked a girl as she pressed lilliputian hands against Sandra’s swollen belly. “Today? Tomorrow?”

“If it were up to me,” she said, “I’d go straight to the hospital right now and get this baby the hell out of me.” The temperature stretched toward around a hundred degrees of mostly humidity.

When we reached the main avenue, Yessica and I stayed on the sidewalk with the stroller as Sandra advertised in shops—laundromat, cafeteria, Banco Nacional de Cuba. At the bank, the girls stopped to rest in the air-conditioned ATM cabin and sort out who wanted what inside. They ferried upwards of forty cups of pineapple and strawberry while I stayed with the stroller. If a policeman came, Yessica said sternly, I was to invent an excuse or pretend not to speak Spanish and run. Sandra giggled: “The yuma comes to Cuba to sell yogurt. That’s how bad the economy up north is.” When one yogurt spilled open and the bitter smell of synthetic strawberry began to stink, Sandra whisked a towel embroidered with a yellow duckie out of her purse, which had at one point been my purse, a black faux-patent tote I’d given her on the last day of my last trip—she’d noted at our Habana Vieja pizza dinner what a good diaper bag it would make and I’d left it with her. She wiped up the yogurt and stuffed the damp towel in an interior zip compartment.

Once the stroller was empty, Yessica pointed it toward home and Sandra walked me toward the bus stop. The amber afternoon was dusty. As we paused at a corner to let a truck turn, she pivoted toward me. “I’d like to ask you something,” she said. “Will you be the baby’s godmother?”

I felt her at my side, gauging my response as she studied the ends of her long, layered hair for split ends. The truck passed, and we crossed the street. I needed to redraw the lines between us, I knew then, and if that meant she’d toss me aside, foreign and writer and all, I’d do it anyway. I wished that there was a part of me that wanted to say yes, or believe she’d asked me out of genuine sentiment, but there wasn’t.

“The problem,” I explained, “is that I’m still hoping to write something about you someday.” If I was the godmother of her child, I could be seen as being too involved, I said, and my “bosses,” hazy as they were, would find even our formal interviews suspect.

She nodded. We were on the main street among sweaty men in dago tees, old ladies with shopping bags, and girls with hair in netted ballerina buns. We passed under shaded colonnades which had been painted, vandalized, and repainted darker shades, a mottled patchwork of scratched-out signatures, expletives encased in bubbles, and declarations of love, PR+SN and Yoser y Lulu.

Sandra shook her head and pursed her lips. “No,” she said. She laughed, and after a beat, nodded. “Of course I’d rather maybe be famous. You just keep doing your job. Yessica wanted to be godmother anyway.”

The day after Mia Jaqueline was born, yogurts were still stacked three-deep in Sandra’s tepid freezer. All non-essential furniture had moved outside to the shared patio. A crib had been assembled in the windowless bedroom, and the two twin mattresses on which Aboo, Gallego, and Sandra slept were piled one atop another. Fourteen plastic bottles on which Winnie the Pooh licked honey from a jar sat atop the old washing machine that was the kitchen counter between cleaning days. Sandra’s father had sent her a suitcase of baby goods from Florida, and she would sell the overstock.

I sat in a rocking chair next to Sandra. The baby squirmed on her knees. She had stuffed her bra full of tissue paper and stowed a lighter between her swollen breasts, and she waved to gesture that I should light a cigarette for her. I grabbed the packet off the table, lit the cigarette, and handed it over; she kept one hand on the baby’s belly.

The Cuban government almost never granted exit papers for children. The consequences of this fact hadn’t seemed real, I supposed, until Sandra had held Mia. This would be her life, she spat—these two rooms, these neighbors, motherhood. My presence in her home felt suddenly cruel. I sipped my coffee, nodded, and slipped away after fifteen minutes or so.

It was a few weeks before I went to San Miguel again. There always seemed to be a reason to postpone: I was interviewing other people; dealing with the logistics of settling into living in Cuba; she had run out of phone minutes and didn’t call me back when I left messages at her aunt’s. The afternoon I returned, uninvited but assuming she’d be home around two or three, tiny white baby linens hung thick as curtains on the patio’s laundry lines, one after the other. Aboo waved me inside, cheerfully brushing off my offers to help her hang the white gauze squares. She was nearly done anyway. Sandra was out, the baby was asleep in her crib, and I sat to wait. An army of ants carried thumbnail-sized breadcrumbs up the lavender wall. The room smelled tangy. When Sandra arrived a half hour later, she bustled into the apartment with a “Hooooooolia!” She pulled open her black patent purse and asked if I wanted to buy air fresheners. I laughed.

“So that’s what you’re doing for money now,” I said.

She shook her head and busied herself making coffee. “Nah, not for long. An amigo comes out this weekend from Spain—he’s Cuban but he lives in Spain—and I ran into his daughter around here last week. ‘China, he’s crazy to see you,’ she says, and I tell her that I’ve just given birth, so she comes to see the baby. Of course she said Mia was beautiful. Anyway, ‘You call me as soon as the cuarentena is done,’ the girl says, ‘you can see my dad as soon as you’re ready.’ See, he knows no one can do the things I can do.” So, she continued, she was cutting short the forty days of staying sexually chaste. He wasn’t technically a new partner. 

Mia woke with a yowl, and Sandra asked me to grab her while she prepared a bottle of formula. She was trying to stop breastfeeding so she wouldn’t sag too much, she said. The silence that followed was swollen and barbed. I commented on how much Mia had grown. She had huge, chubby cheeks, and milky-blue, barely slanted eyes, like Sandra’s, but shhh, she said—it was what made her look like Bong. 

“Any news from Bong?” I asked. 

“Well, he called the other day,” she said, “first time I’d spoken to him since I told him I was having his baby, months ago, that time when the call dropped. ‘Sandra,’ he says, ‘how’s the baby?’ Identical to you, I say. She’s your carbon copy. ‘Really,’ he says. ‘I can’t wait to meet her.’ Then the call went dead. He said he was coming next month, though.”

State salons aren’t the only ones allowed in Cuba anymore. Among the 178 non-professional jobs that Raul Castro signed into legality last year is hair-cutting. Sandra could open a small business if she wanted. She wouldn’t, though, because a neighbor with a quicker reaction time already had a monopoly on her block. We sat on the malecón again, in nearly the exact spot of our first meeting, a year and some after I’d moved away from Cuba in 2010.

Sandra dabbed her forehead with an orange washcloth so she looked dewy but never damp and introduced me to her new Cuban boyfriend. It had been tough to find clients lately, she said, and he nodded as she spoke. “I’ve been here last night, the night before, all last weekend, and nothing,” she said. Sandra gestured toward the Riviera and the Meliá Cohiba on the opposite corner: “See how few lights are on?” She was brusque and stiff, as if her insides had puddled down and a shell kept her upright. “Not even worth paying to get in.”

Gallego was in jail, seven years on charges Sandra wouldn’t detail. Mia was two and back home with Aboo, same as always, doing fine. I could come over tomorrow. She’d call when she woke up. “That’d be great,” I said. Before I left, she asked me for money. Just $5 or maybe $10 or whatever, just so she could get a cab home.

The second time I’d ever met Sandra, she’d asked to borrow ten kilos, ten cents, to buy cigarettes. I, misunderstanding her, had rustled through my pockets for bills. “Ay, no,” she’d laughed, pushing at my forearm and holding out an incomplete palm full of coins. She wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes.

I understood slang now, sure, but also how Havana forced an acknowledgment of the shades that existed between people. Jinetera or amiga, self-sufficient or dependent, realistic or delusional. There were armies of young people around Havana whose private dramas unfolded in isolation in the vast stretch between the Castro estates in Siboney and San Miguel del Padron, who were something like Sandra. Idlers, academics, Santería initiates, and punk rockers harbored poorly constructed skyscraper fantasies about the lives they’d lead beyond their island home. Some of them actually wound up elsewhere, whether with the help of an amigo or on their own, turning those dreamscapes into realities. The one binary that Havana tried to enforce was Cubano and turista. I would always be some unnamed in-between, neither Cubano nor turista, journalist nor friend. I would always be coming from somewhere else, always leaving, always able to leave.

I didn’t have much cash on me but I handed Sandra a $5 bill and walked away, feeling like there was a fire at my back and I was gliding toward the air that fed it. I never heard from her again. 


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