Cuba

At the Edge of the Sea

The Malecón in Havana, Cuba

by Carlos Manuel Álvarez

Translated by Alice Whitmore

At ten to twelve one night, the Italian, scratching his ankle, says, “What happens is that the communists want to live well.” I don’t quite catch why he says this, nor to which of his three companions the statement is addressed, but his tone is authoritative.

Deprivation is a badge the communists let others pin on them, just as they pin it on themselves.

For communists, poverty is synonymous with dignity, and when a communist aspires to prosperity, the anti-communists remind him that prosperity is not an appropriate goal for communists. And then the communist says: “This is true.” And he ends up believing it, perhaps because it is in his best interest.

A young woman—skin the color of burnt sugar, around twenty years of age, cautious in her movements—tries to contradict the Italian, but the Italian quickly cuts her off. He makes a motion of disdain with his hand.

As if to say: bah.

As if to say: you contradicting me, sweetheart? Me, a man who has seen the Piazza di Spagna and the inside of the Sistine Chapel? Who has stood at the foot of the Alps? Who has seen the Opera dei Pupi?

The girl falls silent, and the conversation continues without her. The Italian is the only foreigner among them. The girl, it seems, is on the verge of becoming his lover, but they haven’t reached that point yet. The other two are a couple. The woman wears a soccer jersey in the colors of the Brazilian national team, while the man wears a baseball cap. Both are friends of the Italian’s young suitor. Every so often, they kiss each other on the lips or caress each other’s hands or thighs.

The four of them are sitting on the wall of the Malecón, opposite the Paseo gas station, not far from the Cohiba and Riviera hotels. I am sitting a few meters away, eavesdropping while feigning disinterest. I look at the sea. In the blackness, I see swarms of tiny lights that, when they left the coast, were fully formed fishing boats. Two wandering musicians are playing a Roberto Carlos tune. The moon disfigures itself in the water. The crests of the waves reflect seams of fuzzy silver sequins before they disappear against the rocks.

If I felt that life was being too hard on me, I went to the Malecón. If I felt I hadn’t suffered enough, I went to the Malecón

It is summer, late August, and I have come to the Malecón to contend with an old fantasy: the sentimental treacle that bad poets, news reporters and depressive troubadours have always insisted on spooning over the long stone wall that clasps the flesh of my city.

Over the years, I have spent so much time watching and walking the Malecón that my original reverence has long since soured to contempt. I arrived in La Habana in 2008, and my first place of residence was on the 22nd floor of F and 3rd, where scholarship students from the provinces were lodged. All that lay ahead of me, in those days, were milk substitutes for breakfast, trays of calamari for lunch and an abundance of sea—an abundance of Malecón.

If I felt that life was being too hard on me, I went to the Malecón. If I felt I hadn’t suffered enough, I went to the Malecón. If a pair of breasts or a pretty face turned me down, if a friend emigrated, if I was reading Amado Nervo, or if I was in the mood for conjuring up some fresh existential tragedy, I would go to the Malecón. I would find a place to sit alone, and I would recline with my face to the sky. I would try to convince myself that I wasn’t bored, that actually what I was experiencing was a process of spiritual purification, and that this, my solipsism, was simply the price I had to pay. Until one day, luckily, I snapped out of it and said to myself: “Exactly why, imbécil, are you doing all this?”

Only then did I realize that the problem was not the Malecón; the problem was me. It was I, and not the Malecón, that was so profoundly uninteresting. And it made more sense to watch and observe and record what was happening on the Malecón than it did to watch and observe and record what was happening to me, which was, to put it bluntly, absolutely nothing. Paying attention, watching and observing, I came to the easy conclusion that the Malecón functioned as a kind of Inferno, circles and circles of it, and that the only thing I had to do was pass through them.

Seventeen thousand tons of Portland cement, 22,000 cubic meters of sand, 45,000 of crushed stone, 35,000 of ballast, 4,300 tons of steel bars, 295 tons of beams and a million feet of wood that sustain the frustrations, the leisure, the nostalgia, and whatever else the people of La Habana come to resolve here at the edge of the sea, as if to confirm that no rite or tradition can endure the ravages of time without a solid piece of engineering to support it.

It is midnight, already. I’m growing tired of the Italian and his blather. An older woman approaches and asks if there’s anything I want to buy.

. . .

Her name is Ileana. She looks at least 50 years old—indigenous features, unironed skin, head bowed, long skirt, an extinguished aspect to her eyes. She is one of those women who sell candies, popcorn, chocolate cookies, fried sweet potato chips up and down the Malecón, traipsing who knows how many miles each day.

“I get here at around ten and I leave at four, sometimes five in the morning,” she says.

She doesn’t say much. She lives in Arroyo Naranjo. She lives with her shoulders hunched. She’s been working on the Malecón for four years. When she retired—she didn’t have a choice; she has grandchildren—she accepted the state’s employment proposition.

“The weekend is better,” she says. “I sell more.”

There is nothing extraordinary about what Ileana does, nothing extreme, but something doesn’t quite sit right. The world shouldn’t be a place where women who have fallen on hard times, women on the cusp of old age, are forced to spend six or seven hours a night wandering the Malecón for the sake of a few miserable pesos, go home for a couple of hours’ sleep, then attend to the house, then return the next night and the night after that. Ileana is not my grandmother, but if she were, I would find it all very disquieting. I am in what I have decided to call the “white zone” of the Malecón. To the east—the area comprising Habana Vieja and Centro Habana—the lights are yellow, and the activity is more or less diurnal. Posses of young boys throw themselves off the wall into the sea, taxi drivers desperately wait for a fare, peddlers of sweets and costume jewelry push their wares and a legion of maimed or ragged beggars try to squeeze a dollar or two from the strolling tourists. Here, in the west—that is, all of Vedado, from La Chorrera to Avenida 23—the lights are cold, white LEDs, and the bustle is nocturnal.

I start walking east. Two women take turns swigging from a bottle of rum. One of the women, judging by her booming laughter, already smoked some weed earlier in the evening. The women are also eating chicharritas—fried plantain chips. Five children are sleeping around them. I can’t tell if they are all the children of one or the other or are a mixture of both their children. The children are sleeping like logs, as if they had gotten drunk first and now it was the mothers’ turn. As if all of them, the adjoining families, had decided to up and leave home and abandon their respective fathers/husbands once and for all.

Two other women approach—one dressed in yellow Lycra, the other in denim mini shorts—both fat, the pounds tumbling spectacularly over their tight clothing. They ask me for money and keep walking in search of clientele, knowing in advance that I won’t give them anything.

It’s not a warm night. I can hear the saccharine strains of a mangled José Luis Perales song. As a general rule, behind every bad (and badly sung) song, there is a person trying to earn a living.

Three men are playing dominoes. An older man—white shirt, blue pants; a driver, I presume—walks by in a hurry, and another man catches up with him, carrying a bucket filled with objects.

A group of twenty-somethings are huddled around a videogame—heads crumpled and superimposed over a touch screen—and another group listens to disco music and attempts to break dance around a wireless speaker. A woman, yelling into her phone, says, “Yes, yes, I know her husband; he’s a bastard.”

Someone is talking about Cuban major league baseball players: what José Dariel Abreu is doing with the Chicago White Sox, what Yasiel Puig is doing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and what people are saying about what both of them are doing.

The commentary is weighted with a familiar dose of admiration and mythology. These are Cubans who have learned everything they know about the major leagues second-hand— from someone who gets access to (bad) internet at work, or from someone who works as a waiter or clerk in some hotel and tunes into ESPN or Fox Sports—but whose eloquence makes them sound like convincing first-hand witnesses.

The scene is an exercise in myth making. They repeat what they hear, adding in a few small details here and there, simultaneously making the anecdote more spectacular and transforming themselves into the bearers of new and exciting

information. This is how, even after the disappearance of a dedicated press and daily sports programming, Cuban major league baseball players end up being—in the eyes of their Cuban fans in Cuba—the most incredible, the most infallible, the most spectacular, the most superhuman of all the major league players.

Being number one has nothing to do with statistics. All it takes is tapping into someone’s nostalgia.

. . .

I do not know the fisherman’s name. I have never known how to talk to fishermen. To me, fishing has always seemed like more of a metaphysical labor than a practical one: the pastime of a chosen few, an innocuous activity concealing an exercise of profound philosophical reflection. The fisherman doesn’t come here to catch fish. Two sea bream, the odd sea bass, is hardly justification for spending four or five hours behind a fishing rod. The fisherman pretends he is here to catch fish, but in reality, he is here for something much more important. I’m just not sure what that is yet.

The fisherman wears leather sandals, a blue pullover and checked shorts. Wild curls—wiry weeds—spill from the edges of his yellow cap. He looks about 40. A glass of rum sits within arm’s reach. He is surrounded by other fishermen. One, much older, wears a threadbare T-shirt. Another, younger, is preparing the bait: chopped squirrelfish.

After a while, I ask if they’re biting. “Yes,” he says, “one or two red snappers, occasionally a sea bream.” Then he attempts a half-smile.

“Don’t you get bored?” I ask.
“No. This is my only form of entertainment.”
“Do you come here every day?”
“When I can.”
“And how often is that?”
“When I can.”
“Do you stay here all night?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I leave earlier.”
“What determines how long you stay? Whether or not they’re biting?”
“I don’t know. I might spend the whole night here and not catch a thing. It depends.”
We both fall silent. The fisherman offers me rum and I politely decline. Then he says, “I come here to empty my mind, to disconnect from work. It’s the only way I can bear it all.”

I’m not sure what he means when he says it all, whether he is referring to life in general, or the situation in Cuba, or the passing of the years, or some specific and personal conflict. He doesn’t clarify. At the end of the day, he is a fisherman. Someone who communicates in parables.

“Believe me. If you don’t find some way of emptying your mind, you’ll never be able to bear it.”

. . .

Ten meters from us, four young people are talking. From their appearance and way of speaking, I guess that they are university students. They seem the kind who enjoy unpacking and debating a topic—preferably a political one—for hours at a time, so that afterwards, when they finally head home, they can feel content in the certainty that this, what they are living, what they are suffering, what they are discussing, this and nothing else is what they will later remember as university.

I don’t quite catch everything they say, but, in a notebook that I conceal as best I can, I manage to transcribe most of their conversation.

“The first thing we have to do is start with the needs of human beings,” one girl says. She is talkative, with a Senate-like energy.

(…)

“I wanted to go to the Louvre,” says a stocky white boy, curls falling against his shoulders.

(…)

Later, he adds, “With ten million, you could fix the whole of La Habana, for sure.”

“La Habana inspires and saddens me at the same time,” says the girl.

“Same here,” says the boy. “But inspiration and sadness are the same thing, right?”

“The people here don’t even know their own city,” says the girl. “They don’t know its history. They don’t know anything about the place they live in.”

“This is a lost generation,” says the boy, who looks barely 20. There’s no such thing as a generation at that age.

“You know what you should do? You should read Ciro Bianchi,” says the girl, and at this junction, choking on my own saliva, I let out a guttural noise, a kind of irrepressible hiccup that draws everyone’s eyes towards me. Caught red-handed, I struggle to hold my act together.

I pick up a small stone and throw it into the water. I re-tie my shoelace. I scratch my right earlobe and yawn. I see a fat woman in a patterned blouse crosses the street. I think about how I don’t want them to discover I’ve been listening to them, and because I’m busy thinking this, I lose the train of their conversation.

(…)

“I’m just saying, you have to have an open mind,” says the boy. “I do have an open mind,” says the girl.

“You say that,” intervenes a third student, adjusting his glasses, “but in reality, you can’t know that. Everyone thinks they have an open mind.”

“Here,” says the girl, “prostitutes don’t think of themselves as less than, because they know that later on they can integrate back into society.”

“Here, women work as prostitutes because they need to eat,” says the fourth student, who hadn’t spoken up until this point… or if he had, I hadn’t heard him.

“It’s not exactly like that,” says the girl.
“How is it, then?” says the third student.
“In this matter, in particular, I feel totally defeated,” says the boy with the curls.
“Here, women work as prostitutes, but not full time, and they’re also university students,” says the girl.
“Here, there is human misery,” says the fourth student. “They have human misery over there, too,” says the girl. “Over there, they have material human misery,” says the fourth student, “whereas here we have human misery of the flesh.”

Nobody understands what the fourth student means by this, and for a while, they are all silent. Then they start discussing the possibility of emigrating from Cuba. Then they talk about what would have happened to Cuba if it had been split in half like Korea.

Then someone says, “That doesn’t mean I identify with imperialism.”

Someone adds, “Latinamericanism.”

Then, to simmer down the tension, someone says, “Tonight, we have covered literally every divisive topic possible.”

The others agree, proud of themselves for not ending up in fisticuffs.
“We touched on some thorny issues,” says the girl.
“Uff, yeah,” says the boy with the curls.
We are sitting opposite the Girón building, on the corner of F and Malecón. The building is dirty and intricate. It was built in the 1970s, in the socialist realist style, although there is something excessive about it, which has always caught my attention. As though, all of a sudden, socialist realism had tried to personalize itself, to distance itself from collectivism or become so collective that it somehow combined everything, became One. A socialist realist among socialist realists.

Everyone agrees that the Girón building is an eyesore. Erected smack dab in the middle of Vedado, its ugliness is iconic. It is so very, very ugly, and so obscenely impractical, that it is impossible to imagine that the architects, the civil engineers, the bricklayers, didn’t notice the building’s flaws during its design and construction, which leads me to suspect that the building is not, in fact, categorically ugly, but rather the image of some strange and future beauty, one that we will come to understand in the fullness of time.

The students stand up and stretch their muscles. They cross the avenida, and their receding shapes are swallowed by the dark lines of the building. It would be predictable and pompous of me to turn the Girón building into some kind of allegory, and I would prefer to avoid doing so. Before continuing on, I notice that there are three police officers standing on the sidewalk. I stare at them for a long minute, and the police remain exactly where they are, terrifyingly still. With nothing to do. With nothing to say. Perhaps awaiting some crime that has yet to happen.

. . .

For some reason, all the way from Avenida G to the outskirts of the Tribuna Antimperialista, near Calle Línea, the Malecón is nothing more than a long, charmless wall. Zero bustle. Zero voices. Very few people. The authorities, for some reason, control the transit of this zone more carefully.

It is one in the morning, and one woman I pass says to another: “No, I never went to any parties. He spent his entire life in front of a chessboard.”

Two brothers pass by, agitated, and the older one says to the little one: “Are you retarded? Can’t you see I’m in charge of you, and mom is going to kill me?”

Pasted to the wall is a Paris 1968 poster with an arrow that says: imagination in power.

A heterosexual couple is falling in love. She is holding a silver purse and he is wearing an immense watch on his left wrist.

A homosexual couple is falling in love. He is wearing a pink shirt and he is wearing a beige turtleneck.

A girl is listening to reguetón alone, drinking rum and looking at the sea. The Malecón is, in this moment, the long and solitary highway that leads to a dusty and uninhabited town. Its length is beautiful. Its beauty is visceral. Its beauty lies in the length, the width, the height of it. It is revelatory to look and to confirm that the wall never ends, that it extends even beyond our reach. Normally such a thing would not be beautiful, but in this moment it is.

. . .

Two Afro-Cuban women and one man, salacious, already drunk, are striking crushed beer cans against the wall and singing a rumba: “Y pienso en ti, mi fórmula de amor. Y pienso en ti, cuál es la solución. ¿Por qué tengo que olvidar, si yo te amo?”

“¡Agua!” says one of the women, in a red dress with a bright scarf on her head.

“¡Ahora!” says the other, wearing a yellow blouse and black dress with a white collar.

They pick up the tempo. They move their hips. One hand against the wall, the other spinning in circles, culos thrust toward the street.

“Ay,” says the one in the red dress, and she strikes the can with her foot.

“La soledad se sienta a mi mesa,” the man elaborates.

“Vamos a buscar una botella, que sin gasolina esto no camina,” says the one in the black dress.

The man, no longer singing, keeps going with the can against the wall.

We are opposite the Tángana gas station on Calle Línea. The crowds are growing thicker. People’s attire have changed. They wear shrill, aggressive clothing. There are a few tourists, gazing around dumbly like lost Foghorn Leghorns, as if to say: well, here we are, now where do we find the pretty black girls?

A mulatto wearing a very, very orange pullover and a Pinar del Río cap is break-dancing, mixing in a bit of guaguancó and stopping every so often to mock passersby. A woman walks past selling popcorn, and the mulatto makes a feint. Two policemen walk past and the mulatto positions himself behind them, poking out his tongue and sliding along on his feet like Michael Jackson in “Smooth Criminal.” The policemen turn around and the mulatto starts whistling and strolling away in the other direction. We all laugh.

Further along, there is a parked patrol car with a bunch of police gathered around it. Unless they’re on the trail of some sicario, it seems like too many police for a single operation. There are 12=, in total. I notice a captain, a handsome second lieutenant, and two junior officers who look like they want to slink away in embarrassment—as if trying to tell us with their timidness that they only became policemen by mistake, that life took them down this path against their will, that there was nothing they could do about it. Pinned to one shoulder, I even see the three-starred badge of a colonel.

The police have stopped a couple of young men. The reason: causing a public disturbance.

The second lieutenant says: “You’ve got a cheap swagger, my man. Una guapería barata. You’ve got a damn cheap cocky swagger.”

The colonel says: “They’re a pack of fools is what they are. Instead of sitting down properly and enjoying the fresh air, like normal people.”

Then the second lieutenant tells one of the young men to move over. The kid doesn’t obey. The second lieutenant repeats himself, more forcefully this time. The young man’s friend says: “Hey Piti, man, move over, asere.”

Piti obeys his friend, and says: “You know, the most beautiful thing about all this is that there’s always another day behind this one. Unidad de Zapata y C. Tranquilo, yo soy un feliciano. I’m an artist, asere, that’s what nobody here knows.”

“This is stupid,” says the friend. “We’ll go ahead and pick you up from the station.”

“I was walking, anyway. What do they care how I walk? I can crawl along the ground if I want to.”

“Who are you making fun of now?’ says the second lieutenant, serious.

“Wizard shoes. Professional.”
“Who?” asks the colonel.
‘The frauds, man, they come crawling, asking for money, and you guys do nothing. But here I am having fun, and just because I’m in your books or whatever, look what they do to me.”

“Shut it, Piti.”

“I’m not even talking, actually. Why don’t they take me in then? What does one more stripe matter to a tiger? Yo soy grande.”

“Tú eres grande?” asks the second lieutenant.

“Who, me? Five foot six. How many times have you taken me in before? No dramas. Professional wizard, that’s me. Write that in your books.”

“If you’re a wizard,” says the second lieutenant, “then why don’t you magic your way out of those handcuffs?”

CONTRIBUTOR

Carlos Manuel Álvarez

Carlos Manuel Álvarez is a writer from Cuba. In 2013 he was awarded the Calendario Prize for his collection of short stories La tarde de los sucesos definitivos (2014) and in 2015 he received the Ibero- American Journalism Prize, Nuevas Plumas from the University of Guadalajara. In 2016 he a founded the Cuban magazine El Estornudo. He regularly contributes to The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Internationale, BBC World, El Malpensante and Gatopardo

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