This is my best possible recollection of something that happened about a year ago. The quotes may be a bit off, but the sentiment is there. Also, some names are changed because I felt weird.
I wander down the broken street, and my steps start to bounce because I can hear Rigoletto floating down to me out of a high Havana window. Bum bum bum bum-ba-da, bum bum bum bum-ba-da, baa daa daa daa-daa, baa daa daa daa-daa. I think briefly of seeing that opera at the Met when I was in high school, and the warmth of the memory has Havana feeling like home. But still, I get slow and cautious as I approach the tiny barrio within itself. It isn’t about safety; I don’t want to be the first one to show up.
There are no women poking their heads out of windows tonight, no children running around and curling themselves around my ankles. One little, bare bright, bulb shines and makes shadows out of Brittan and Fernando. Rather than playing dominoes and crouching on the metal skeletons of chairs, they rest comfortably on a low, cement wall. They drink, but their voices are relaxed and slow and the bottle remains upright and still most of the time.
Brit smirks and stands to hug me, and suddenly Fernando is animated. He immediately busies himself getting me the closest thing to a proper chair and a jam jar for the clear, grainy rum.
“Heh, Have I got a story for you,” Brit quietly laughs to me. So Fernando won’t hear it: “we’ve been talking about you.” He seems pleased at my immediate shock, annoyance and curiosity. But it will have to wait, as Fernando rushes back out.
We talk about what they do when it floods, where the high water marks are. How they take to the roof with dominoes and rum, and laugh the disaster in its face. I feel guilty for complaining about my hunger enforced by the massive flood the other day, because I was safe and dry on the fourteenth floor. They lose everything in the barrio every time there’s a flood, but I only lost my lights and wifi, something they never have in this neighborhood, even on a good day.
“I…I cannot talk about that. It is shit. I cannot talk about it.”
Fernando’s suddenly stoic expression shatters into a million pieces with a high, forced laugh that seems to take up the whole alleyway. The severity is gone as soon as it came. I wonder if the children are sleeping, and where his daughter is. She usually spends this time curled up in my lap, playing with my hair or glasses, or hitting Brit and calling him ugly while she laughs and makes eyes at him. I think she likes his beard.
Instead, a woman I’ve never seen before struts up. In typical Cuban fashion, she is wearing heels, her hair is immaculate, her clothing tight. I’m wearing a dirty t-shirt, flip-flops and shorts that feel like pajamas. I haven’t brushed my hair in a few days. Fernando stops tending to me to greet and chat with the woman, something that extends for hours. He leaves the bottle with Brit and I, and we work our way through it as he tells me what I missed.
“He wants to marry you.”
“What?!” I try to keep my voice quiet, but Brit’s dancing eyes infuriate me even more.
“Yeah, yeah, he says you’re so good with his daughter, you’d be such a good mother. You two talk about politics and you both speak french, and you’re so nice to always be coming over. Get it girl!”
Truthfully, I probably do send all sorts of weird signals to every Cuban I meet. I am usually the only female playing dominó, and I do bring his daughter gum or nail polish to play with. My presence has apparently not gone unnoticed. But I’ve never been anywhere alone with Fernando. I’ve never offered my contact information for when I go home, or been the one to make plans. He gets no more of my attention than any of the other aseres we play dominó with, even when he tries to egg me on.
I look back on all the afternoon baseball games, to find what I must have done or said. Drinking rum with my male friends as well as his, trying not to let his little girl get on my nerves when she won’t stop playing the same game for hours on end. Winning dominó when Britito is my partner, losing atrociously when I’m paired with anyone else. Fighting with Fernando’s friend about politics, and trying not to get myself in a discussion about Castro.
And it makes me miss home. It makes me miss people who believe that a novio means something, no matter how many miles I am from him.
Not long after, on my last day in Havana, I didn’t say goodbye to Fernando, his daughter or the neighborhood. I just up and left.