HAVANA TIMES — The years go by but my neighborhood doesn’t change: the sidewalks are still in shambles, the streetlamp continues to cast a dim, ghastly light, the framboyan tree across the street has no new leaves or flowers, the peeling walls of the corner market (previously a ration store) are still stained with humidity, smelling of rust and old age. All of these are like the frozen images found in a local newspaper that nobody buys.
What have changed are the people, or, more precisely, people have changed places. Many people are no longer around: the gossipmonger who spent her entire day on the balcony, spying on all the neighbors, the journalist who was always giving political lectures, the fat dentist who liked young men, Diana, the teacher who was shot by someone who snatched her gold necklace, the old man from the building across the street who walked his dog every morning, my friend Carlos, who died of cirrhosis due to his heavy drinking.
Many people have chosen the path of exile: they have gathered their things and left for far-away places. Some have not even returned once.
All of my childhood friends have left Cuba. Giovanni traveled to England for a temporary visit and married an athlete. They have three, teenage sons and live in Manchester. Jorgito is living in Australia. He went to the same school I did, the Hotel and Tourism Institute in Havana. His father got him a job at a restaurant in a cruise ship. He met his current wife during one of his trips. Today, he drives a transport truck. When he came to Cuba four years ago, I asked if his job was strenuous, and he replied, laughing: “the salary they pay me makes me forget the long hours and days on the road.”
Luisito, once the charismatic blonde on our block, now lives in Italy and works as a firefighter in Rome. He has a wife and two kids. Recently, he had his brother and father join him there. Even “El Niche”, the swarthiest of our gang, lives abroad. He went off to a rather weird place: Iceland. In Cuba, he lived with his mother and sister in an overcrowded and poor home – a one bedroom place with a single bathroom for all three. He spent his time meeting foreign friends, always from a Nordic country. He spoke English fluently. At the moment, he has a job at a travel agency. He tells me there’s a high standard of living there. One’s insurance pays for one’s healthcare and medical services are excellent. He has run into singer Bjork at a supermarket or strolling around town on occasion.
Magdalena and Nadia, aka “The Barbies”, got married to foreigners. Even the skinny, bottomless girl who lived at the end of the block lassoed a Swedish man.
There are of course some people still around (not everyone left the same way). My next-door neighbors sold their house and bought two apartments, to give their homosexual son and his partner privacy. The daughter of the journalist is in Brazil, taking a course, though I don’t think she’ll be coming back, for her aunt sold her apartment to a German and bought a smaller one. I went off to live in Miramar, and part of my family is living abroad also. Then, that whole business with my house happened. That’s how the residents of my neighborhood in Vedado have dwindled in numbers, the way people flee from plagues and wars.
The house I was born in no longer exists. Part of it collapsed. Then, they tore it down completely. It was a devastating episode for my whole family. I still like to imagine it is only gone metaphorically. Only its doorway remains, without the faded rose color it once had. That was the site of many adventures and games, memories of my friends I still carry with me.
It isn’t difficult to conjure up those happy days, when we had no idea how different our individual destines would be.
All the while, the neighborhood will remain the same, stagnant for who knows how long.