From Habanera, a portrait of a Cuban family

habanera cover

The novel is available in Amazon here

Weddings, las bodas…The name conjured up visions of satin dresses, white flowers, Wagner’s wedding march and monumental cakes. But the “special period” had changed that too, scaling down the celebrations.

Newlyweds were allowed to buy just one meringue cake for their party. They had the right to a ceremony at El Palacio de los Matrimonios, the Wedding Palace where a notary public married couples in fifteen-minute intervals and a photographer took quick snapshots that didn’t always come out right. Sometimes the bride’s eyes looked purple and the groom’s hair had a green hue.

But Esbieta, my friend Sonia’s big sister, was marrying a rich Spaniard and things worked differently for them. The legal ceremony would take place at La Maison, the fashionable Miramar boutique that also served as a wedding parlor for foreigners. Pepe, the groom, planned to invite his friends and the bride’s immediate family to a reception in the La Maison gardens. (The buffet cost thirty dollars per guest so attendance was limited, my friend Sonia explained, embarrassed so I was…well, included out.) Later that evening they would throw a more inclusive party at the apartment. To that, I was invited.

La Maison

The three hundred dollars that Pepe gave to his fiancée for her trousseau vanished as quickly as ice cream in my mouth, drier than stale bread during that summer of 1994. Sonia and I went to the collar shops and bought cans of Spam to make sandwiches for the party, packages of Kool-aid, jars of mayonnaise, plastic dishes, a mixer, toilet paper, and a new curtain for their bathroom.

She invited me to a snack in El Rápido, a dollar-zone cafeteria that sold hot dogs, French fries and fruit juices. Once she even urged me to get a dress. They were on sale for seven dollars in Yumurí.

“I can’t take your sister’s money without her permission!” I protested, though one outfit had already caught my eye. It was blue, long and ruffled. Sort of old fashioned, but cute.

“Come on, Esbieta won’t mind it. She likes you. Buy it if you want. Or get something else.”

For the first time I dared to look at the merchandise as a prospective customer. Chinese sandals, Mexican soaps, Canadian coats and Cuban bonbons winked at me from the store shelves.

Anda, Longina!”

I spotted another dress. It was red, shorter, sexier… I wouldn’t ask for both but couldn’t decide for one either.

“Which one do you like best?”

“The red one.”

When we left the store with our “Easy Shopping” bags, I already knew I had made a mistake. The red dress was too revealing and Ma mère wouldn’t let me wear it.

But I didn’t return to exchange it. Trips to dollar-zone places left me in a painful state of mind: a mix of confusion, resentment and bitterness. Why couldn’t my mother and Orozco afford to buy in the “shoppings,” though they both had university degrees and worked hard? Was it worthwhile to continue studying, to go to college? Should I leave La Lenin and become a jinetera instead? I envied Esbieta but also pitied her. How would it feel to kiss an old fat guy like Pepe? Fu!

I swore not to return with Sonia to the dollar shop. But I couldn’t refuse to accompany her to the Comodoro Hotel, where Pepe was staying. She didn’t want to visit him alone.

“Sorry to ask El Abuelo for more money,” she said, not looking sorry at all. “But we can’t miss this chance. Avelina is selling five pounds of pork for fifteen dollars. A bargain! In the ‘shopping,’ they cost thirty-five.”

Comodoro Hotel

The Comodoro Hotel was in the exclusive Miramar area, so far from Centro Habana that it took us two hours to get there. As we approached the lobby, the security guards stopped us. “Are you Cubans? You can’t come in.”

When Sonia explained that we were looking for Señor José Martínez, they eyed us suspiciously and asked “what our relationship with that comrade—er—gentleman, was.”

“He’s my brother-in-law,” Sonia answered in a dignified tone.

The guards’ eyes opened wide. “And how old is your hermanita?”

The receptionist finally phoned “Señor Martínez.” Up close, El Abuelo didn’t look so ugly. He had blue eyes and a neatly trimmed white beard. But my first thought was that he should be marrying my grandmother, not Esbieta.

Hola, chicas,” he greeted us with a thick Spanish accent.

“We need cash, tío,” Sonia said, quite bossily.

“How much?”

“A Franklin.”

He opened his wallet and handed her a hundred dollar bill. I had never seen so much money before.

“Where is Esbieta?” he asked.

“So sick that she can’t get out of bed,” Sonia answered. “The pobrecita is coming down with something, I’m afraid.”

“Let me know if she needs to see a doctor,” Pepe seemed sincerely concerned. “I’ll take her to Cira García.”

Cira Garcia was a dollar-zone hospital where Pepe bought the PPG pills he used to regulate his cholesterol level, according to Esbieta. But Sonia told me that they served another purpose: cuchi-cuchi helpers for older men.

“Esbieta is at Guanabo beach,” she said after we left the Comodoro grounds. “I didn’t want to bother her now because she went with Pavel. He is young, handsome…and doesn’t need to use PPG! Poor Abuelo. You know, I feel sorry for him. He isn’t a bad guy.”

“But how will Esbieta feel when she has to live with that geezer forever?”

“She’ll get used to it. One gets used to everything, Mamá says.”

That was true. Hadn’t we gotten used to the “special period,” the scarcity, the cerelac?

“What about Pavel?”

Sonia shrugged and began to sing a popular Los Van Van song, Nadie quiere a nadie. Se acabó el querer.”

Listen to the song in YouTube

No one loves anybody. Love is gone.

The book is available in Amazon