Laura Albritton

Jorge moves slowly with his machete across the dusty fields. The thick afternoon air rings with the sound of metal hacking against cane, and the green plain stretches before him like a sea rippling in the wind. The state has called on him to volunteer for the sugar cane harvest, but it lays no claim to his thoughts, the constant calculations.

Twenty thousand a year, for a country of eleven million. Twenty thousand visas and the lucky ones can take a flight from La Habana or Santiago, instead of setting out in rafts and inner tubes. It’s for this Jorge Valdes dropped out of medical school. They hardly ever let doctors go; everyone knows that. It’s better to be of no use to the state; then the government would gladly discard you like driftwood.

His tío Alfredo has written from Hialeah, “We have a house now. Maria Elena planted fruta bomba and guavas in the back yard. Sundays we barbecue on the patio. Pork, chicken, steaks.”

Swinging the machete downward, Jorge imagines his uncle grilling over hot coals. He will lounge on Miami Beach in sunglasses and pick up pretty gringas with blond hair the color of corn. He will use toilet paper as soft as clouds and take hot showers three times a day.

“Compañero,” the pretty soldier with the gun calls, “you can do better for la revolución.” She says this lightly, with eyes on the tanned muscles of his shoulders, his arms.

Jorge pretends his arms are weak. He won’t have them thinking he is indispensable, even for cutting cane. Nothing will stand in his way once his number is called, when the U.S. Interests Section finally notifies him that he has been selected. He is competing against eleven million of his countrymen – perhaps only nine or eight or seven, not including the diehards who, like Fidel, blame their troubles on el bloqueo, who keep Che’s portrait like an icon on the walls of their apartments.

His novia, Esmi, has turned in her application to the Americans as well. She says it would be better to be married; then they will get two visas and not be separated. It is a test. Jorge knows that he fails this exam each time he pushes her words aside, and jokes that marriage is a bourgeois convention that El Líder should have outlawed long ago. He knows that these jokes cause Esmi to cast her soft brown eyes at the forms of other men, men who might get married only for the event, the extra rations for the wedding cake, the new clothes, the five boxes of beer and three boxes of refreshments, that the state makes allowances for. It is something, after all, to break up monotony.

His friend Tomas is also on the list for visas. Tomas counts on supernatural intervention to propel his name to the top. There are yellow flowers to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre’s shrine, candles lit before the statue’s feet, illuminating her mother’s face. Monthly visits to an old santero who cajoles Oshun with honey and gourds, and mutters prayers in ancient Lucumí. Yeiyé kari imbamoro ofi kereme ogwá meri kokuasi agó. If you want to win the lottery, Tomas says, you have to buy a ticket. Jorge saves his dollars for Miami and the sleek gringas who will fall into his arms like rain.

Jorge’s stepmother could find him a place in the department of education, teaching biology to teenagers. Jorge will not take the job, despite his father’s urging. Fidel has said many times, in his four-hour speeches, that teachers are an invaluable resource for their island. The last thing Jorge wants to be is invaluable.

A rich turista español leaves behind a full set of water colors and many Windsor & Newton brushes at the hotel where Tomas works as a porter; Tomas offers them to Jorge as a birthday gift, although his friend has never displayed a single bit of interest in the arts. The human body has been his obsession since the day he saw blood surging like a broken dam from a neighbor’s jugular. Jorge was born to be a doctor, or a medical researcher, but he will wait until Miami to announce those dreams. Jorge plays with the paints and brushes late at night, when he returns to his father’s apartment stinking of rum and cigarette smoke.

It is Esmi who encourages him to paint in the morning hours, when he is sober. “Tourists pay money for any old shit,” she says. The only thing Esmi respects is the sacred American dollar.

His first paintings are slashes of red and blue across faded newsprint pages from Granma, discarded tins of evaporated milk, blocks of wood from abandoned construction sites. Any free surface he can find. But the turistas don’t want abstracts. They want something Cuban. They want “the real thing.” Jorge visits the Museum of Folk Religions to get ideas. Authentic ideas. And then he paints pictures.

Esmi says, “You paint like a three year old,” but that doesn’t stop him. It only maddens him, as if his girlfriend, who works in statistics, knows anything about art. She is the least poetic soul he’s ever encountered. She makes love like a computer program, performing a set of functions: first kisses to his chest, moving down his stomach to su pene, methodically sucking up and down without any awareness of the pain she causes when her sharp teeth brush against his flesh. Then Esmi will lie back expecting her due. She thinks love is a series of equations that should end in orgasm. When it does not, she turns away from him and pouts towards the wall.

Jorge has enough paintings to show to the tourists who overrun La Habana. Tableaux of the gods, although he does not believe in gods. Chango with his double-headed axe, Yemayà of the seas, Babulu Ayé dragging his broken body on crutches. And Oshun, Tomas’ patron orisha, her body hot with love. Primitivo, this is what Jorge calls his style, which is not a style at all but a rambunctious mess of color and form. Tomas knows the perfect place to hawk his works of art: the plaza de la Catedral de La Habana. There are so many tourists that the police leave street vendors alone; they want to preserve the image of a country in harmony with the needs and desires of its citizens.

The other artists and musicians at the market eye Jorge discontentedly when he sets up his paintings on the cobblestones in front of the Catedral’s bell tower. The woman to his right whistles through her teeth, leaning over the pieces of painted paper. “You have some balls,” she says. “Even gringos aren’t stupid enough to pay dollares for this.”

Jorge ignores her. Her sketches aren’t much better, sunsets over the water and wide-eyed mulatas with coconuts clutched to their chests. His paintings do not sell the first day, or the second, but on the third, an English girl with hair like flames bursting from her head, pays him ten dollars for his Oshun. After that, Tomas insists that Jorge leave a dollar for the saint, pinned to her dress on his santero’s altar. Jorge donates the dollar for his friend who gave him the watercolors, not for the orisha of love and rivers. In this one thing, Marx and Ingalls got it right: religion is a salve that numbs the wounds of his countrymen.

Jorge comes to call the plaza de la Catedral his office. Mi oficina. It is a noisy and chaotic office of people with something to sell: beaded necklaces, artwork, t-shirts, even a foreign tarot reader who sells a glimpse into the future. A circle of young men play guitars, the same songs again and again, until Jorge hums the tunes day and night. The skinny one with bad teeth has designated himself the singer, and croaks out the lyrics to Chan Chan.

Esmi brings him lunches of leftover rice, or soggy pizza from the street. We must marry, she tells him, hungrily counting his profits. He pretends not to notice when she slips a few dollars under her bra. Lunchtime has become a ritual: the lukewarm food and the marriage talk. She pulls at her kinky black hair in frustration when he changes the subject. I’m not going to wait forever, she hisses into his ear. Jorge suspects she’s not even waiting for a single day, that she’s already given herself to her friend from statistics, the one with arms as thick as palm trees. If he shows up at her parents’ apartment one day, and finds Esmi and this guapo rolling in the sheets, it would be more relief than anger that he would feel. That is what Jorge tells himself, watching her ass wave like a fan when she walks away from him, navigating the cobblestones in her heels.

The lady tourists are his best customers, old ones, fat ones, pretty ones, ugly ones. It’s not his paintings that bring the dollars from the wallets, that he knows. He’s looked in a mirror.

The gringa who reads tarot cards across the plaza approaches him one day, holding her pregnant belly in her hands. Jorge has never seen such a dirty gringa, her feet black with grime from the street. Even her hair, as yellow as corn, is stringy with oil.

“I like that painting,” she tells him.

He had painted the orisha Yemaya’s stomach as round as the girl’s.

“I’ll read your cards if you give me the picture.”

He doesn’t want her reading, he wants dollars, but Jorge won’t turn away a pregnant woman; he might not be religious but he believes in bad luck. He can paint another picture of the orisha that night, in less than half an hour.

She spreads her straw mat in front of him and has him shuffle the deck of cards. He can smell her body, like a sack of overripe melons. Her breasts sway under her thin dress, her nipples as round as guavas. She gives her name: Ana.

She lays out ten cards in a pattern of crosses. There is a tower bursting into flames; a young man under a tree, looking at the chalice offered to him. Jorge studies another card of an armored figure on horseback, in the process of flight. The Knight of Wands, she says.

“You’ve got something around your neck like a weight. A person. Only when you’ve removed this obstacle will you be free to find what you want.”

She takes his Yemayà across to where she sits everyday, in the shade of the cathedral. He wants to shout after her, what kind of fortune is that? Telling me what I already know?

The gringa who reads cards at the plaza disappears for a week, and Jorge wonders if she’s gone back to the comforts of her American life. He imagines her body rosy from a bath, wrapped in giant white towels, laughing as her lover dries her hair.
Then one day he spies her across the plaza, sitting in the dust. Business is slow for her; she’s not Cuban. She frightens the tourists, with her big belly and her griminess.

The day the gringa returns, Esmi arrives an hour late with his lunch, bread smeared with ketchup. She struts across the plaza in her new red mini-skirt. Jorge’s stomach turns. There’s a thin gold chain lying across her bronzed collarbones.

This is the moment the gringa chooses to pick her way through the busy plaza and inspect his new paintings. Just when Jorge’s fingering the necklace and asking, “Where did you get this?”

Esmi glares at the intruder, appraising her blond hair, eyes the color of slate, and the bulge of her pregnancy. Jorge smiles when he sees the signs of jealousy light Esmi’s face. As if he’d screw a mother-to-be.

“The necklace was a gift,” Esmi says.

The gringa, Ana, pretends not to hear them. She studies his painting of Ogun, and straightens the pictures on the ground.

“It’s not your birthday,” Jorge says. “What’s the occasion?”

“My cousin is visiting from New Jersey.”

Jorge takes Ana by the wrist. “You can tell the future. Is this true?”

Esmi stamps her foot in irritation. “You’re telling strangers our business?”

“She’s not a stranger,” Jorge says.

The side of Esmi’s mouth rises in a sneer. She touches Ana’s belly with her finger. “Not a stranger?”

Ana places her hands protectively over her stomach. “Why do you hold onto Jorge,” she asks, “when you’re engaged to another man?”

Esmi staggers backward and trips over the cobblestones. She tumbles downward. “I should report you to la policía,” she shrieks. “Where’s your permit to work in Cuba?”

Jorge tries to help his girlfriend up, but she pokes the spike of her heel into his calf. He swears like a man struck by a machete.

Esmi pushes herself off the ground, and straightens her clothes. Her face is the red of a ripe mango. “You can have him,” she says. “He fucks like a dog in heat. Thirty seconds, then he runs away.”

As Esmi lopes off, taking small steps in her tight mini-skirt, the gringa gives Jorge a quick squeeze on the shoulder. Then she returns to her territory, her section of the cathedral plaza.

Jorge sees her late one night on the Malecón. The waves hurl themselves like suicides, crashing into the cement of the wall. She’s listening to a man play the harmonica and recite nonsense poetry. The crowd’s passing a bottle of cheap rum, on the lookout for the police. Always la policía.

In the end, it’s just the gringa and himself finishing the last gulps of sweet liquor mixed with spit.

“The only thing I want,” he says, between sips, “is to leave this hell of an island.”
Ana laughs. “My father’s only wish was to return. After Castro, of course.”

“You’re Cuban?” he asks.

“Half.”

He sighs. “You’ve come here, I want to go there. If we could change places.”

He wants to ask her about the baby growing in her. It’s funny, if she weren’t pregnant, he’d reach over to smooth her hair with his fingers, wipe the slight smudge on her cheek. He could win this girl over. He could, in time, propose marriage and finally have his visa. But her stomach makes that impossible. It would be like fucking the Virgin Mary.

“Díme,” he says. “Will I ever get out of here?”

Ana removes her tarot deck from a handkerchief, and hands them over for him to shuffle. He picks his cards and tries to follow the pattern she’s arranging on the wall. The Eight of Wands crossed by the Fool; the Three of Swords hovering over the Knight of Pentacles, inverted; then six more cards.

“There’s something in your way.”

“Que?” he asks.

“Your journey is blocked by a certain mania, like a form of insanity.”

“And what kind of mania is that?”

Ana picks up the Seven of Cups, the last card, which indicates the future outcome. A dark figure stares up at gray clouds where seven golden cups are floating, each filled with a different treasure. “You still believe that you can find a paradise.”

He leaves her there, her feet dangling over the sea wall. I’d never be friends, he thinks, with someone who sees into the future. He wanders along the Malecón, stopping to study the restoration work on the sea front buildings. Havana is being reborn, structure by structure. And with each renovation, the state throws out hosts of families who have survived blackouts and shortages of clothing, petrol, and food, all for la patría. The families are replaced by state offices or foreign enterprises, shops designed to lull tourists into a feeling of familiarity.

Jorge fumbles through his pockets for the butt of a cigarette that he’s been saving. He strikes a match and watches the small ember trace the darkness with the motions of his hand. When he sits on the sea wall, the waves foam against his legs. He stubs out the cigarette. It isn’t so hard to lower his body further and further over the wall.

The water off the Malecón is cool, even in August. His shoes weigh him down, until he kicks them free to float to the sandy bottom. He wishes Tomas were there, to utter some incantation to Oshun. Centuries before, the saint was said to have saved the lives of three fishermen in a storm; maybe she would protect him now. It is ninety miles in the dark. Then Key West. He is not a strong swimmer; he’s never liked the ocean. Since he was a child, Jorge has found it too large, like a dark church abandoned by its priests. Something slaps the surface. A shark, perhaps. Jorge laughs through mouthfuls of sea water at his own sense of melodrama. Lights from the city illuminate the waves until he is out too far. His hands skim through tangles of seaweed in the liquid night. He paddles forward, and the water buoys him like a piece of Styrofoam.

©Laura Albritton



Contact: Lalbrit[AT]aol.com

Image credits:
"Trinidad" ©Ronny Leva
"Sunset" ©Zina Brook Hurd
See Ronny's Cuba feature in the January 2004 issue

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