The Price of Paradise by Susana López Rubio
The first thing I realized when I stepped onto the pier in Havana was that I wasn’t dressed right for Cuban weather. None of us who got off the ship were wearing the right clothes. My wool pants and jacket made my skin itch, and the hat that had so many times protected me from snow in Asturias now threatened to boil my brains under the tropical sun. In contrast to the Cubans—men in linen suits and women in print dresses—we were like a sweaty flock of sheep. I looked with envy at the customs agent. His short-sleeved white shirt was the living image of comfort. As we waited, our documents in hand, a mulata secretary, with bare legs and a dress that showed off her naked shoulders, provoked hoots and whistles from the men in line. That was a considerable achievement, given how exhausted and hungry we were after more than forty days squeezed into tiny bunk beds with mush as our only nourishment.
“If you don’t stop with the wolf whistles, I’m gonna have to smash a piano on your heads!” she said.
A Galician gentleman at my side read my mind. “Ay, carallo! The women here have more temper than God has talent.”
The customs agent waved me over. “Name?”
“Reason for your journey?”
I was tempted to tell him the truth: “See here, sir, the reason is there’s so much misery in Spain that we have to dunk our bread in puddles, there are no cats left in my town because we’ve eaten all the rats, the Republicans killed my mother because she had a cousin who was a nun hiding in our house, and then the Nationalists killed my father because he refused to bend his knee before a portrait of the caudillo. I have no family left, but I don’t wanna spend the rest of my life breaking my back in the mines, devoured by lice, and I sold my grandmother’s wedding ring—may she rest in peace—so I could buy a third-class ticket on a ship and start from zero, with just the clothes on my back, on the other side of the world. The reason is I wanna survive.”
Yes. That’s what I should’ve said. But on the boat, people had been talking about how Cuba had begun to turn away Spanish immigrants and how we shouldn’t give them an excuse to deport us.
“Reason for your trip?” the customs agent repeated, getting impatient.
I swallowed my misery, and with a wide smile, I responded the same way as the rest of the passengers. “Vacation. I’m on vacation.”
I left the customs office and looked around. The seaside esplanade opened before me, jammed with people, cars, noise, and life. Against a brilliant blue sky, the Morro Castle lighthouse seemed to watch over the city and its inhabitants.
I got dizzy from the heat and had to sit down. The trip had been so torturous, and the possibility of reaching Cuba so remote, I hadn’t even stopped to think about what I would do once I got to Havana. The only certain thing was that this wouldn’t be easy. My belongings consisted of five things: a wool suit, a hat, shoes, a photograph of my parents, and a can of pickled sardines a Portuguese couple had given me on the ship.
I could, however, count on five other secret weapons. The first: my self-confidence. Ever since I was a child, I’d been immune to shame, and my motto has always been to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. The second: my blue eyes, inherited from my mother and accompanied by my father’s good looks. The third: my imagination. The same imagination that, instead of helping me memorize a long line of Goth kings, generated excuses so I could play hooky from school. The fourth: my youth. I had just turned nineteen, and this annulled my fears, turning me into a cub eager for adventure. And, lastly, the fifth and most important: hunger. Hunger for life, for a future, for color—a hunger grown not in a matter of months but years. They say faith moves mountains, but hunger is never far behind. Hunger had propelled a boy from a small Asturian village across the ocean all the way to the Pearl of the Antilles.
Feeling a little better, I got up and started walking again. I dedicated my first few hours as an expatriate to just walking, my eyes wide at all the marvels before me. The Paseo del Prado, the cathedral plaza, the Malecón . . . the city was a beehive of families, tourists, quacks, shoe shiners, peddlers selling erotic photos, and even fortune-tellers who’d read your future using seashells.
The city was a feast for the eyes and ears. Music pervaded every corner of Havana. It came streaming out the doors of the cantinas, from the transistors resting on the window ledge of every house, and from the trumpets of the street musicians and bands that used the corners and plazas as their stages.
When I got to Chinatown, at the corner of Zanja and Galiano, I was so awestruck by a poster advertising the Tropicana Club—with its dancers and their ostrich-feather headdresses—that I didn’t notice the streetcar barreling toward me.
“Get out of the way, comemierda!” screamed the conductor.
Even though the streetcar managed to brake just before it crashed into me, I couldn’t keep from falling on my ass. A man in a suit stopped to help me.
“Are you okay?”
I nodded; it was my dignity that hurt.
“Didn’t you see this gentleman was busy drooling over the legs of those beautiful dancers?” the man scolded the conductor. “And you almost sent him straight to Colón Cemetery! Goddamn it, man.”
It was a fact: Cubans were capable of speaking with the utmost refinement and, simultaneously, cursing like poor devils.
“I’m really sorry, my man,” the conductor said. “Next time he can be just a little bit more careful, and everything will be aaall riiight.”
My tour ended at the beach. Sitting on the sand, I devoured the can of pickled sardines as the sea caressed my tired feet. The sun was a crimson marble surrounded by an orange halo in a sky sprinkled with seagulls in flight, like black dots on the horizon. Before the sun had sunk to the sea, I’d fallen asleep, right there on the beach.
The next day, I was awakened by the barking of a peddler.
“Coconut, lemon, and pineapple popsicles, sir! Delicious shaved ice, ladies!”
I opened my eyes, disoriented, and discovered I was surrounded by families enjoying their day at the beach. They gazed at me with embarrassment and curiosity. A little brown girl dropped her ball and came up to me.
“Hi, are you a castaway?”
I didn’t know what to say. I simply smiled, happy to know that in Havana, my life, like that of a castaway washed up by the ocean waves, was about to start again.