HAVANA TIMES — It’s kind of an old pedestrian boulevard, except its indoors. Shops are on the sides. It’s a long walkway with several smaller and narrower corridors that branch off.
In that environment are two well-known odors. One is the smell of night, which my bones know from sleeping anywhere in Havana. The other smell is that of mothballs themselves, typical of businesses in the 60’s or beyond. I was walking toward the apartment where my girlfriend and I would be living in the city of Ibaraki, in Osaka.
It was early in the morning. Silence. Nobody was watching our movements. Nobody was waiting, hidden on a corner. Instinctively I touched my passport, looked around me at the places in the shadows.
That was until some magic words made me push to one side that fear in my stomach…the fear imported from Cuba of being accosted by neighborhood snitches. We were nearing the house, she said. Then anxiety. Illusion.
In front of the new home, my girlfriend opened the door. Meanwhile, what hit me again were my 35 years, lots of reading, lots of films and theater, a few trades but few words to form knowledge in which I felt safe. That was my life until then: a long stairway that led me up to nowhere. From there I had to slide back to earth.
The apartment: one long room that included the kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, the bathroom and a small balcony. This was my first home where I lived with a girlfriend. My paradise between walls. I pulled out the two small backpacks that comprised all of my luggage. All my past in two backpacks, no complaints, hitting the tatami floor.
Above the bed, clothes for me. Some (size L) took some time to adjust to my body, others (size S) were too small within in a few months. What did I bring from Cuba in backpacks? What did I choose so as not to forget where I came from? I don’t know. I just remember the presence of those two bags on the floor, where the closet seemed to be questioning them, fearfully.
My first sights of the city were directed to looking at prices. I made rough conversions. One hundred yen for a dollar. I couldn’t believe how expensive everything was. I noted: seven or eight tangerines cost $4; one tomato, $1; five or six bananas, $3; two kilograms of rice, $10; 12 eggs, $2; a cheap pair of pants, $20; a shirt, $30; a pair of shoes, $ 40. That’s what I wrote down.
My salvation came when I discovered some “100-yen shops,” where you could find everyday things as varied as toothpaste, detergent, combs, makeup, notebooks, staplers, glue and lots of other things. There were also second-hand shops and markets as well as cheaper small mom-and-pop stores. These are the places I go to most often in Japan.
My first month flew by there with my girlfriend. I got another month extension on my visa but I had to start thinking about whether to return to Cuba. We decided to get married because it was the best way to give us more time together, and at the time we wanted that very much.
We signed the papers at City Hall, and then we requested my extension based on my marriage with a Japanese citizen. Then we went to Okinawa for our honeymoon.
Okinawa is an island that belongs to Japan and that has a tropical climate almost all year long. I think anyone — without much thought — would see this place as an ideal place, but it made me feel sad.
We only stayed for three days at a pretty luxurious hotel (it was very luxurious for me though). But that isn’t the reality, of course, not mine – only part of the makeup, and makeup doesn’t go good on me. That’s why we traveled down a long stretch of the island stopping at cheap guesthouses.
We visited a number of cities, except those with US naval bases, where we only passed through. In the others we hardly saw other people on the streets, and the few shops in those towns were empty. They seemed like abandoned cities.
For a time, perhaps in the 1960s, many Japanese sold their homes in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka to move to Okinawa. It was the “Promised Land” back then for many Japanese, a more realizable state of perfection than Hawaii or Switzerland. Where are all those people now? Where are their dreams?
In a pension I met a Japanese guy they called “Peru.” He had lived in Japan for many years. I couldn’t understand much of his Spanish but I was grateful to be able to talk to someone from there.
With this man and the owner of the place, we drank “aguamori,” a local aguardiente that made my head feel light (and later my stomach). For a moment — between the shouting, pounding on the table, laughter and lots of alcohol — I almost forgot I wasn’t in Cuba.
For someone visiting it wasn’t bad at all. However I still couldn’t, and can’t, see myself as a tourist. I’ve always grabbed onto things too much, like they’re a part of me forever. That’s why I very quickly see myself as an integral part of any environment, no matter where it is, but I also assume each situation with all it weight.
The next day’s hangover, after vomiting and a headache that felt like I’d been run down by a wild horse, I returned to my body.
The green colors of the countryside were familiar but the shine in people’s eyes seemed far away. One thing that did make me feel connected to these people was their apparently saying: no matter what, come what may, to live is to follow. I think I understood this pretty well.
The clearest recollection of that trip was the day we climbed a small mountain. At the top, deserted, there was a well maintained playground, well-pruned ground for running, a clean public toilet with water and a water fountain. Incredible. Today, in Japan, this no longer surprises me.
I returned. Near the house is a Shinto shrine. Beside this the monks have a building for performing weddings. We were married there.
Beside her family was the bride, she wore a kimono in an ancient Japanese ceremony. On the groom’s side were male friends of my girlfriend. In a banquet, a recently arrived Guatemalan friend read my father’s words, in Spanish, sent by email.
While listening I thought of dead mother, and on my brother so fixed on every step to avoid thinking about the future, about friends’ weddings that I also wouldn’t be able to attend. But again I thought about my mother, who always told me not me not to get so angry, that my horizons were beyond Cuba.
I cried, I cried all my tears (I don’t know where they’d been stored) of all the rage the SOBs had planted in me, all the loneliness in having to be far away and for not having been able to be there for such a long time. I cried over all of the beauty I had reached with so much difficulty and over everything that would escape my desires. Certainly this was because I could be near her, the woman who I still love and who on that day dried my tears with a kiss.