There are places where you realize that between ecstasy and nostalgia there is less than a single step, that the boundary between fascination and destruction vanishes like a lump of sugar melting in a Ron Collins cocktail.
Cuba is like this-life manifests itself from all sides, without leaving you much choice, hierarchy or whatever order. Cuba is like salsa, which, in turn, is like the heat- it follows you everywhere. Cuba is a young girl with wet eyes and wet hips, and a young man with wet hands; you never realize whether it is from the heat or from something else. Cuba is a country, where everything is authentic- poverty, Castro, the clouds, hospitality, even that La Terrasa restaurant in Kochemar (if you remember the beginning of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea). How you are going to spend your time there depends exclusively on yourself. You can leave Cuba enchanted, or even more furious with socialism, drunk to death with Cuba Libre, or convinced that the wildest party on the planet takes place there; happy, or unhappy; yourself or somebody else.
My first impression of Cuba is La Habana, as the Cubans call it. It is like a fiction-city. The more you think about it, the more you doubt you have ever been there. I was charmed by the art museums, by the salsa-clubs where you start to wonder who was that wretch who coined the word "depression", by the incredible, almost Babylon diversity of languages, spoken by a world that renounces de luxe, fashion and high prices. My eyes moved along La Floridita, where Hemingway's favorite daiquiri is served, along Fidel's tanks and along whole neighborhoods lacking windows and electricity, where old Cubans were sitting on wicker chairs, smoking their cigars in the hot evenings and discussing the weather and all those things, which boredom has turned into necessity.
Raul, a 30-year-old taxi driver, was the first one to show me around La Habana. In Cuba, there are almost no buses because of the great depression in the beginning of the 90s. Taxis, however, are everywhere and are extremely cheap. Raul speaks English just as badly as I speak Spanish. To let him judge the situation I recited the only words I remembered from my Spanish classes:
Me gusta la leche, me gusta el cafu
Pero mas me gustan los ojos de Usted
(I love milk, I love coffee,
but mostly I love your eyes)
Raul laughed, then looked me in the eyes and recited back a long poem.
I looked around the room in Palacio O'Farrill Hotel, holding the typing machine and mused for a while over the best spot to place it. It was nothing much of a room: the ordinary hotel type with a lot of light and no personality; the pastel-green curtains certainly added a shade of melancholy, the queen-sized bed doubled my loneliness and the dark-green marble bath promised relaxing moments, but none of these counted toward the personality of a home. I was already used to the rootless life I had designated for myself and when I finally put the machine in the window niche, I didn't care much if I had made the right choice: it would only be there for a couple of weeks. Just until I looked around in another hotel room, maybe on the other side of the world, searching for where to place the damn typing machine.
I decided that I would unpack later, because my head was slightly aching from the flight and all the hustle about check-in, and I needed my mind cleared with a cup of strong coffee. I thought I would probably meet some interesting people downstairs, and could possibly use them afterwards. I stepped in the bathroom to look in the well-lit mirror. Hm, could have been better, I murmured and ran trembling fingers through my long straight hair, finally deciding on tying it up in a bun. I took a close-up at my face. Undereye shadows, pale skin... well, no sleep explains everything, no one would bother to think about it; a nice stylish suit should perfectly capture the attention off my face. I went back to the room and nervously burrowed into the suitcase to find something decent. As I think over it, I don't believe I have a style of my own: I just travel and comply with the fashions I encounter, without considering them, without slaving to them. Colors and fabrics swirled under my hands until I came across a classic light-gray suit that would be just about what I'd been searching for. With my ashen-blonde hair and almost colorless eyes, light gray would definitely keep me out of attention, which was what I needed at the moment.
I swayed down the stairs to the lobby bar. Accidentally I caught a glimpse of myself in a glass-case and was astounded by the apparent looseness with which the suit hung from my skinny shoulders. I felt myself floating like a ghost of no consistence. I shivered and hurried away from my vision toward a man who opened the massive glass-door of the bar for me. Another man showed me the way across the bar to a solitary table near the terrace. It was 7 p.m. and there weren't many guests at the bar; the staff was anxious to put everything in order for the upcoming evening. My steaming coffee came in an instant, together with a brochure, listing the visiting entertainers and the events that would take place tonight. I skipped through it with a world-weary fatigue and concentrated on the coffee. I picked up the small porcelain cup and stirred the thick cream, then closed my eyes and deeply inhaled the rich aroma. The first sip I kept in my mouth for a moment, being completely absorbed in the familiar, yet always exotic flavor of the hot drink. I love my little coffee ritual. It gives me a sense of security and coziness, no matter whether I'm in Alaska or in Cairo, in a group or all by myself.
In the past seven years I had toured most of Europe, parts of the United States, and several countries in South America. All in search of stories and characters. I had published two books out of my travel notes, and Sunset in Rio was definitely a success. That was all I was doing: travelling and writing about it. When I was nineteen, my mother went into a psychiatric clinic and the family fell apart. I was already quite aware of my choices, and exploring the world somehow won over taking care of my alcohol-addicted daddy and my three sisters in our dreary apartment in the North of Dublin. Without much encouragement I packed my typing machine, emptied my bank account and set off to the New World. I still remember the heavy rain pounding on the cab's roof, as it took me to the airport. That's a good sign, I thought.
I paid for the coffee and went out on the terrace. The heat hit me instantly, as if hot streams of air were shot at me under pressure. The suit uncomfortably stuck to my body and waving my hand to move the air around my face produced no result. I felt dizzy, my head spun, the scenery blurred before my eyes. I was on the verge of a collapse when I noticed a woman, leaning against the railings, slowly smoking and staring at me. She nodded. I pulled myself together and approached her in an unsteady pace, as if I was drunk.
"Good evening," I muttered hesitantly, not being quite sure in what language I should greet. For a moment, there was complete silence. The woman slowly exhaled the thick fragrant smoke of her cigar.
"Good evening," she said after a while in a deep, low voice with a strange, yet charming accent. I felt awkward, standing there, thinking of anything to start a conversation with. The woman wasn't helping me much: she stood still, gazing at the dusky city beneath. The hotel was situated in the old part of La Habana, and the authentic 19th Century neoclassical architectures around whispered about times long past. There was heavy, almost tangible silence hanging in the air. I settled by her side and rested my exhausted body upon the railings. Gravitation overwhelmed me: my sweating palms desperately gripped at the parapet, my eyes rolled into darkness. I was about to lose my balance, when a mighty hand clutched me by the arm and pulled me back out of the fit.
"Are you lonely?" the same low voice, followed by a small, floating cloud of smoke. I glanced at her in surprise, but she wasn't looking at me. In fact, she seemed so aloof that I doubted she had ever even opened her mouth. The silence extended through the heat and I speculated for a moment about my mind playing tricks on me. Just when I was starting to feel giddy again and was giving up any minute, among the interweaving ribbons of white smoke I heard the familiar throaty voice.
"You must be lonely," the woman concluded and mutely offered me a cigar. Cuba can't go without cigars, I thought and took it clumsily. She lit it for me and in the light of the flame, I could finally scan the contours of her face. She was in her twenties, with a profuse dark hair, waving down her back, pinned with jewels to her temples. Her lips were full and sensual, a bit pouted as if with caprice. Her long eyelashes delicately fluttered, covering her eyes from sight. The light went out and the image dimmed in the twilight. She doesn't belong here. No. She's just so, so, hmm... so ethereal? Speaks English, yet with an accent. Alone. Intriguing...
"You haven't smoked before, have you?" she broke my contemplation with a little laugh. I hadn't noticed her observing my amateur smoking skills and felt a bit embarrassed.
"No, not really," I mumbled, "I just... you know, it's Cuba. I'm a tourist and that's what tourists do, you know... taste countries."
"Speaking of that, I'm cloyed with Cuba already," she whispered confidentially, "And you are no tourist, I can see that."
She kept silent. I was about to utter some good-bye, when she said as if in an attempt to keep an ongoing conversation:
"How long are you staying?"
"Till I get cloyed, too, I suppose," I smiled bitterly. "What about you?"
"Till I feel that little tingle that tells me I must go..."
"Away from getting used."
"Getting used to what?"
"To things." She took a drag of her cigar and let out the smoke. "To faces..."
"You mean you are settled nowhere?" I was afraid I was getting too inquisitive.
"Settled nowhere... I've never thought of it this way. Yes, I can't say I'm settled anywhere, and I have no belonging. Does this surprise you?" She paused. "I don't think it does. Few women travel on their own. In case they do, few of them go back to their bonds. I think you know what I mean..."
A waiter with a tray of drinks excused himself for interrupting us and offered some refreshment. In the oppressive heat of the evening, the glasses of icy champagne were moistened on the outside. Each of us took a glass, and the young woman looked at me for a while, then said dramatically:
"To our forgotten origins!"
"To our vague destinations!" I added in the same tone.
We both peered at the tiny, disappearing line of sunlight, each engaged in her own thoughts. She is explicitly a character. Was that all to mean I am not alone in my tireless quests? She just said she fled from all attachment, and that's practically all I do in the last few years. Masking it all in some absurd image of a devoted travelling writer... Exploring the world, yeah? All in seek of some thrill, but they are getting more and more the same: places, cities, people... The thrill is long gone. I am left to my loneliness and the good old typing machine as a good excuse...
"Come to my room after dinner, we can talk more over a drink." She said suddenly, picked her odd-fashioned skirts and floated away into the saloon, her figure moving with the natural grace of a nymph. A nymph...
I shut the door and threw myself upon the bed with one last great strain. I closed my eyes and my brain whirled with exhaustion. There were two options for me: I could sleep through dinner and all the upcoming evening or I could take something to keep me awake and supply me with some energy for a promising character-exploration. My conscience argued. No, no medications, no alcohol, no! You want yourself cleaned, don't you? It's been four days already since you haven't taken ANYTHING! It's not the time to start it over. My body was already struggling hard in abstinence, and the effects were clearly visible, but I was aware I had gone too far in my ways of coping with the world. I had set off from Paris yesterday, leaving my arsenal there, from the fake MD ID to the needle and the few ampoules of morphine I had been left with. Morphine--the last port of my loneliness.
The suitcase laid open next to me. I rolled over to it and rummaged in. My hand soon found what it was searching for, the smooth surface of a bottle of scotch, half-emptied in some past quest for inspiration. I took an anxious swig at it and immediately a burning wave swept my body. Hot streams of blood ran to the tops of my frozen fingers, my mind settled down in some depraved harmony, my aching body finally found consolation for its pains. I took another sip and got up; the world swirled for a second but then everything quickly matched its place.
"I don't care," I said aloud, "and I'm going to drink; I'm going to totally drink, and when I finish this bottle I'm going to buy another one and drink the shit out of that one, too!"
I leaned against the wall.
"Weeell, I... I, what was I saying? I'm sad, sad, sad; taking all the sadness of the world, with ice cubes... I'm sick. What? No, I'm not that easily discouraged, noo..." I danced on my tiptoes.
The alcohol had soon done its job, my headache passed and I was steady on my feet, talking full load of nonsense. It was going to be another psychedelic solitary night, but I soon remembered of my plans to visit the young woman in her room. I took one last sip, and threw the empty bottle on the bed. I realized that she had been dressed quite strangely and that was a good chance to put on something extravagant. Some French lingerie, yay, loovely... and perhaps, what's that... I reeled.
There isn't anything more grotesque than a drunken woman, or perhaps that would be an old, fat and ugly drunk woman. Anyway, I was feeling miserable, and probably looked so, but I didn't dare to look at myself in the mirror.
I knocked irresolutely at the door of room 314. A distant voice instructed me something in a language I hadn't run into by then. I must had sobered up a bit since my mind was clear enough to assume I should wait, but when nothing happened for a minute or so, I smoothly opened the door. Thick cigar smoke lay in layers in the still close air. It was dark.
I almost jumped when I heard a man's voice.
"Make yourself comfortable! Here."
Married? Brother? Friend? Another guest at the hotel? Room Service? Soon my eyes adapted to the murk and I started to discern the silhouettes of pieces of hotel furniture, set in exactly the same way as in my own room. A double room? What the... ? Uh, actually I, myself, stay in a double room. Ok then...
"She'll be back in a minute. Wanna drink?"
I jumped again! A man's voice once more... only, a different one. I stared with my eyes open to their widest and there they were: the contours of two men, sitting on the floor right under the window, smoking something. Cigars, I concluded by the rich scent. The air-conditioner wasn't running and the smoke kept dancing over their heads and all around the room.
"Room 314, right?" I asked awkwardly.
"Sure. The bed is yours, we are comfortable here," said one of them in a foreign accent and reached for the minibar, "what are you drinking? Let's see what we have here... whiskey, half-finished, gin, and... what's that? Andy, go get some glasses!"
The other guy stood up with effort, and panting, went out.
"I'm Willem," he announced with his head buried into the minibus. "And that was Andreas. Swedes, if you wonder. Never saw such heat in my life, we faint almost every two hours! Ah! Good we have some ice here. Something happened to the air conditioner, you see, switched off and never went on again, we haven't reported to the staff, they'll make us pay. Everybody around only bothers 'bout how to make you pay for something... here!"
He handed out a bottle at me. I was still in some kind of stupor and almost dropped it. I could see in the light of the minibar that the guy was very blonde, perhaps even blonder than me and tall, quite tall.
"Uh, do you... d-do you... live here?" I stammered like an idiot.
He flashed his china blue eyes back at me.
"Yeah, me, brother and the Nameless. Are you living with us?"
"In the double room?"
"Yeah, what's wrong with the double room?" He asked, genuinely surprised with my question. At that time, we heard laughs down the corridor, coming closer.
"They are back. Hopefully with something cold, wet and/or refreshing."
The door opened noisily.
"Oh, you are here!" the young woman was unaffectedly pleased. "Just in time. Look what I've got here." She tilted her head towards the two men and smiled. "They will keep us company. Better break barriers fast, than staying lonely down in the bar, right?"
I nodded, not very sure if that was addressed to me, or if it was a question at all.
"Here, we bought some wine, and these are... we need some light here," her voice enthusiastic, her mood heightened. She distributed glasses and candles on the floor. "Mmm, these are nice. We'll need some ice, Will! Andy, sit down, please, and hold these glasses, and you," she turned to me, "you don't look good! We'll take care of you, are you ok?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. I just haven't slept for long. A glass of wine will be perfect!"
In some minutes, the four of us were circled on the floor, candles of all shapes and scents gleamed softly around us, glasses of cooled wine sparkled in our hands, plates of grapes and sour cherries laid in the middle, our minds were sweetly elated and the conversation went on, light and fresh, causing much laughing, sincere astonishment, wild exclaims. There was some sense of mysticism flying around. Maybe it was the candles, maybe it was the closeness of four strangers that happened to cross each other's way...
Willem and Andy were twins, thoroughly identical in their haircuts, faces, gestures and voices. They had arrived that same day and the Nameless, as they called her, had invited them over. They avoided talking about their past, and I avoided asking about that, just as I avoided asking about the Nameless' name. On my travels, I've learned to tolerate people and their differences; actually difference is what provides excitement in meeting new people. We talked as if we knew each other for a long time, words flowed so easily, friendship settled in the atmosphere and I was screaming on the inside: Thanks God you put people who can still communicate on my way!
I sat across the Nameless, watching her, anticipating her every smile, generously displaying her white teeth. She wore a lime green silken robe, almost transparent, that moved along with her, her bare shoulders delicately glowing in the dim light. Her lovely hair, pinned back with emeralds almost touched the ground behind her. She would talk so charmingly in her low voice, that the three of us just sat enchanted and listened, and listened... She would just casually touch any one of us: her little hand would remove some naughty strands of hair from Andy's eyes, or gently caress Willem's hand, or bend forward to me and give me a soft stroke on the cheek, while talking all the time. There was some special allurement about her that made me forget my frustration, that kept time still, that made the four of us the most important thing in the world, the hotel room-a universe of our own.
As time went on, we changed poses, places, topics. We became thoroughly comfortable in each other's company, and the mood was getting more and more intimate with each past minute. Alcohol had already dimmed our senses.
"Two Swedes, an Irish and a Rootless-Nameless - what a picture! All in Cuba!" Andy smiled with his head in the Nameless' lap, her fingers slowly brushing through his golden hair.
"And we could say we were Australian, instead of Swedish and it wouldn't make a difference." Willem added, lost in some fascination for my hand, which he studied closely.
"All we say, true or false, makes no difference. Can't be checked anyway..."
"And all we do won't affect our reputation, 'cause we don't know each other."
"All we do will just be a memento of the time we had in Cuba." The Nameless looked me in the eyes. "We can leave it here happy, or unhappy; ourselves or somebody else." Her words stuck into my memory.
"And it will make no difference." Willem insisted thoughtfully.
"Willem," the Nameless' voice changed, "would it make difference if I kissed you?" Not allowing him to answer she bent over and gave him a light kiss on his upper lip. He was still holding my hand and I could feel his pulse running faster, his fingers tensing.
"You'll go your way tomorrow, and you'll remember a kiss." She whispered into his ear.
Strangely, Andreas blushed and took a nervous sip from his wine.
"We are all responsible for our actions here, and we are responsible for the memories we create. Am I right, Andy?" she turned her attention to the other twin, who was still resting comfortably in her lap. He was rather confused. She took a cherry and sensually put it into his mouth, pouting her lips in a sweet, childish expression.
"Tomorrow..." She didn't let him finish.
"Tomorrow, it will be another world, we don't need to worry about tomorrow now, it's there and waits for us to finish our night. In the way we fashion it." She put another cherry into Andreas' mouth, then bent over him, slipped her tongue into it, and gave him a passionate kiss. The cherry left red marks on her lips, as if she had bitten him to death.
Unsaid words, undone actions, unshared fantasies all at once hankered after expression. I looked at Andy, he looked at me, then quickly at Willem, who looked at The Nameless, who, in turn, looked at Andy, then glanced at me and all we saw in each other's eyes was complete attraction, fervent sensuality, vehement expectation.
"What do you want to remember tomorrow?" She asked quietly.