I observe 2 women talking in the street, giving their undivided attention to each other. No one checks a phone, or a watch, or breaks eye contact. I’m sitting on a small crate under a tree in the front yard of my Airbnb apartment. The women notice me and turn around, smiling, and wave. I’m in Vedado, a local neighborhood in Havana, Cuba, alone.
2:00pm. Not hungry, I grab a beer from the fridge and click the television on. The face of Fidel Castro, waving the Cuban flag, greets me. Adorable children surround him. Everyone is smiling, waving the blue striped and triangular red flag. Fidel picks up a child; someone holds a sign in Spanish that says “Long Live The Revolution…”
I wake up two hours later on my couch, having spilled the beer all over me, but it is still 95 degrees outside and I change my shirt and venture out for food.
For the past three days, I’ve eaten at a couple of places but cannot stay away from the restaurant Plan B in my neighborhood. I’m not sure what it is, maybe it’s the way they cook the plantains on the grill and slightly crisp the edges. I tell myself that six meals in three days at one restaurant is enough.
I take my time walking, taking in the sights around me. A massive light blue house sits on my left; its high ceilings make me stare. This is a house that would be on House Hunters, my friend Allie would tell me. There are yellow rocking chairs on the front porch. I stop and look at the small cafeteria that is located between the light blue house and the bright yellow house next door. What do you have to lose? I ask myself. The entrance of the cafeteria is covered by a collection of small tiles of all different colors, shapes, and sizes. I smile. The tile reminds me of my mother, so colorful and full of joy.
I walk up to the counter and say hello. The waiter, a middle aged Black man with a goatee and his hat on backwards welcomes me. He says something to me and I raise my eyebrows and nose to signal that I do not understand. I tell him my usual order, chicken, rice, and por favor, plantains. He responds with a thick accent. I can’t make out a word.
He tells me, “no entiendes español, mija cubana?”
(You don’t understand Spanish, my Cuban daughter?) which sounds to me like “no iends espaol ija bana?” I sigh deeply and wish I spoke Cuban Spanish or at least some slang.
He asks where I’m from, I tell him North Carolina and that I speak Spanish. He raises his nose, a gesture used in Cuba to display that you do not understand. I duplicate my sentence and then realize that due to his lack of daily Internet Access and his luck (and my luck too), he has not heard of my state or HB2.
He tells me that it’s unbelievable that I’m just as Black as him and not Cuban. We laugh.
He tells me to wait and goes to the window. “Hijo!!!!!” Ven pa ca! Hijo!” He calls his son. “Mi hijo habla inglés,” he says smiling.
I look down at my shoes, a tad bit agitated; I speak Spanish and don’t have the need to have a translator. I then feel ashamed at even having the thought, realizing that maybe this wasn’t even about my Spanish; maybe the man was just proud of his son’s English.
In comes a 6 foot something, young Cuban man. He hovers over the fence separating the cafeteria from the entrance. He is wearing a grey tank top and shorts. I can tell he just came from working out because he has a slight glisten of sweat on his biceps. Suddenly, I feel like a 50 year old woman watching Magic Mike for the first time and I dismiss the thought.
He’s balding on the top of his head. When I see him, something tells me he is half Cuban, half Spanish. He looks similar to a man I used to ride the metro with in the mornings in Madrid.
He stares at me. He looks at my legs for a while and I don’t say anything because I feel tall lately and even though I passed puberty a while ago, I think I’ve grown one or two inches. I imagine he’s complimenting me on my height. In my head I smile and thank him. I tell him everyone in my family is tall. We laugh and ride two horses off into the sunset.
His eyes are the color of emerald. I bet every miner on this blue earth has tried to find a mineral this color. He smiles at me, I smile back. As soon as I reveal my smile, he starts to blush, and turns red. Everyone in the little cafeteria watches our interaction.
His father clears his throat. “Pues, hijo, vas a hablar con ella o no? O vas a poner de pie todo el tiempo?” (Well son, are you going to talk to her or not? Or are you going to stand there the entire time?”)
“Hi, how are you?” He says in English, without a Spanish accent.
“I’m doing good,” I tell him,” how are you?” He tells me he is doing very well, and then stutters and asks me what I would like to eat. When I tell him my order, he translates for his father. I understand his accent.
In a way, this is how I imagined I’d meet my future husband. I’d be ordering plantains and the waiter would not understand me or be on the verge of messing up my order, and a man would swoop in and save the day. What a wonderful story that would be, our children would ask us one day how we met while we ate a delicious family dinner. We would show our children the plantain peelings we kept from our first date. Our children would cheer. What a wonderful story.
He’s still blushing. We stand and talk in English in front of his father, who is beaming with joy, listening to his son speak with a native speaker in a language that he does not understand for himself.
We talk for a while, he tells me of his country, the Revolution, the pay grade, the issues within Cuba. When we discuss the Revolution, we are careful to not switch to Spanish. We do not want anyone to hear. It is illegal and not recommended.
He tells me of things that I have not heard of before, about the Cuban culture, his life, his wildest dreams, his goals, his limitations from being born Cuban, his family’s background. We speak of the currency; the advantages of not having technology/ Internet at any moment that you want it, the music of the country, the people, and the food.
I ask him things that I am not sure if I am allowed to ask and I let my sentences penetrate the air.
He does the same.
I ask him his thoughts on The Bay of Pigs and the embargo.
He speaks of hunger and strife; stories from his grandparents and older cousins.
His knowledge of the United States is based on books and movies. He is delighted when I tell him his English is very good, he actually claps both of his hands together and smiles from ear to ear. I do the same when he tells me the same about my Spanish. We speak of freedom. The government. Of life and the pursuit of happiness.
And just like that, the cafeteria closes and we realize we’ve been talking for 2 hours. He tells me he would like to continue talking to me, and I end up sitting with him on the porch of the light blue house with the colorful chairs. Turns out its his grandmother’s house.
His name is …… He laughs when I tell him that is the name of…….
We share the same age. He shows me his license when I tell him I don’t believe he’s 24. His birthday is a couple of days before mine. I’m shocked when I realize that his mother’s and father’s names and addresses are on the back of his license. He says it’s in case something happens to you. I find poetry in that, the fact that he belongs to someone. I show him my ID and within my American culture, I feel left out.
His dream is to move to Miami. He is half Cuban and half Spanish. I was right.
His grandmother immigrated to Cuba back in 1962, just 3 years after the Revolution started. She bought the light blue house for roughly $3,200.00. I tell him this house is atleast worth $4- 5 million in the United States. He can’t believe it. He tells me the average wage in Cuba is about $20 CUC (or $20.00 U.S. dollars). Monthly. I can’t believe it. 9:00am to 5:00pm.
He explains that education, healthcare, and medicine are free in Cuba.
He asks me about the United States, where I come from, and why I’m so brave to travel alone. We speak of student loans in my country, my family, and my life back home. My desire and reasons behind learning Spanish.
I hear a patio door slam and I look behind me. A small, older woman in a house robe stands there. She looks at me sternly. For a second, I feel that I have done something wrong.
“Quién es ella?” She asks him who I am.
“Se llama Tianna.” He tells her. I assume this is his grandmother. I smile at her, she drops her firm face and smiles back, showing all of her teeth.
I ask her how she is doing, she tells me she is cold but came out to shut the door and then saw my pretty face. “I just had to speak,” she tells me. She asks where I am from and does not know of North Carolina but I hear her Spanish vocabulary that confirms she is from Spain. She calls me “maja” (sweet, kind) and “cariñosa” (sweet heart) and “muy amable/ una maravilla” (very nice, a joy) and I smile and thank her.
She tells ….. in very fast Spanish that I am beautiful and a gem. She bats her eyelashes. She tells me 3 times in Spanish that I am at home in her house and that if I need anything than to let her know. She later brings out a cold bottle of water, which is thoughtful because I am foreign and cannot drink the water out of the tap in Cuba. What a nice lady.
On the front porch I meet 2 of his cousins, his younger brother who says “excuse me” and “nice to meet you” in English, and 2 of his aunts. Everyone kisses me on the cheek, hugs me, and smiles warmly at me.
We realize we’ve been talking for 4 hours and giggle. The sun sets in the background. He asks for my phone number, I give him my house phone number (landline- with a cord) at the apartment I’m renting for the week. We agree to meet up tomorrow. I wonder if I’ll look like Denise from the Cosby Show next to the landline phone, waiting on a boy to call.
He walks with me to the edge of his street and kisses me on the cheek.
That night I dream of life before the Revolution.
This article originally appeared on Dame tu Whatsapp and is republished here with permission.
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