A Cuban Family Portrait

Photo: Katherine Perzant

By Katherine Perzant (El Estornudo)

HAVANA TIMES – Every leaf on every tree glistens under the drizzle. 

It’s cold on the bus, and there’s a devilish show on full max, a Dominican soap opera. The man sitting next to me, in the aisle seat, is a foreigner. A poor foreigner, of course, because nobody with enough money would be traveling on this bus, although the uncertainty on the bus hides this. 

The drivers are wearing blue tailcoats that have been washed, I don’t know, three-hundred times, but are very well ironed. Huh? You can smell the floral softener. Apple, jasmin? Something like that. This kind of aroma was floating around with the smell of air-conditioning, which is a metal smell, like you find in a hospital, a fridge. A different smell to the sleepiness that invades the island on these summer days. 

I get off the bus three times. 

The first time in Matanzas, in one of these square cafes that smell of dust and cheap cigarettes, the kind we call “conejitos”. I go to a dirty bathroom, which ends up being the cleanest bathroom of the entire trip. 

The second time I get off in Jatibonico, in a horrible decorated establishment, and some girls wearing a lot of mascara who tell travelers: “Chops for 300 and loins for 350.” 

In the center of the table, there’s a dented plastic bottle, that has an oily liquid with chilli flakes floating inside. The drivers and owners greet each other and smile. It’s a business that’s been going on for years. Terrific. You give to me and I give to you. 

The third time I get off is in Camaguey to go to a bathroom that I can’t go in because it stinks so bad, and I refuse. No way. 

Then, you can’t see anything else. It’s already nighttime. Going straight into the lion’s den. A den that opened up after twilight. There are no houses. There aren’t any people. There aren’t any green leaves gleaming. The world doesn’t exist. Everything is dark. Extremely dark. Everything. There is no electricity. 

On/Off. 

The bus continues on in the thick, dense night, like a jungle.

How do people live here? Without electricity, every night. People in these rural areas. 

Do they know the way off by heart? The potholes, the speedbumps, by heart? Do they close the latch and light oil lamps? 

My mother used to sing to me when the electricity cut out in the ‘90s. She’d sing Jose Feliciano songs in her beautiful voice: “Pueblo mío/ que estás en la colina/ tendido como un viejo que se muere/ La pena, el abandono, son tu triste compañía/ Pueblo mío: te dejo sin alegría.” (My people/ on the hill/ stretched out like an old man that is dying / Sadness, neglect, are your sad companions/ My people: they took away your happiness.) 

What songs do mothers sing to their children there inside these houses, deep within the lion’s den?

My mother used to sing another song, by Jeanette: “Todas las promesas de mi amor, se irán contigo, me olvidarás, me olvidarás…” (All of my love’s promises, will go with you, you’ll forget me, you’ll forget me).

When I have children, will my voice come out as beautiful? A voice that scares mosquitoes and the darkness, a voice that scares off fear, that brings with it whatever it needs?

The bus travels slower. We don’t seem to make it. It’s already been four hours in the pitch black. Sometimes, you see a light off in the distance, like in a horror story. A house lit up in the middle of nowhere. I bite my nails, afraid. I’m easily frightened. 

When we get there, taking off our suitcases, finally, finally, I ask my mother and aunt if it’s always like this, if they don’t have electricity in the night. They tell me no, that sometimes they have electricity, most of the time. They say it proudly, with such great relief. They explain: “If it cuts out in the day, they put it on at night. And so on.” They still say this to me: “And so on”. Resignation becomes tenderness. Their stamina for patience. 

I spend some peaceful days at my mother’s home. I also go to my grandmother’s house. A week between these two houses, where I promise myself I won’t write a single sentence, not work at all, or take a single photograph. Just to be here, what people say it is to be here, to be hugged and spoiled completely. For me to hug and spoil with affection, completely. 

I close my eyes and drink this Bustelo coffee that nobody makes like my mom, this coffee that my brother brought over from Alabama, or was it Houston? 

God knows! 

I close my eyes and listen to my grandmother’s voice, who is already very old, so old that when she was young and married my grandfather, she sold her gold chain and furnished a house. 

My grandmother’s voice tells me she loves me.

I let myself go to certain places. Coffee with my old friends. I let myself see the town I grew up in, now empty because of the exodus, I let myself walk in front of my childhood friends’ homes, knowing that they live in Miami now, I let myself be happy for them. 

I let myself sit with my aunt Marbe, at a table full of onions and garlic that she’s peeling for lunch. I let myself see her teary-eyed, opening the garlics from the middle, so the skin comes off easier. I even let myself cry a little. God, how my aunt used to look after me when I was a little girl, on her terrace that smelled like bleach, with her soft hands, that stuffed me with mashed chickpeas and fried eggs!

“Aunty,” I ask, “why is there so much hair hanging off the rabbit cage?” I ask her with the same voice I used to ask her questions as a child.  

A honey-colored rabbit watches us from a wire cage. She’s laying down. 

“She’s a female. She just gave birth,” my aunt says. “She had five!” 

I go up to the cage and it’s true. There are five baby rabbits in a cardboard box. They barely have any hair. They are sleeping. 

“Rabbits pull off their hair to make a bed for their children,” she tells me. “They are amazing mothers. Mother rabbits.” 

I’m left gobsmacked. Like when I was a little girl and she’d tell me: the sun is yellow because the sky is blue. Roses have thorns to defend themselves. 

How lucky rabbits are, no? I say going up to the cage. 

I count them, although I know how many there are already. 

One, two, three, four or five. 

—–

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