Ernesto Pérez Chang
HAVANA TIMES – It’s noon on a Monday, chilly and I am drinking a cup of coffee with some writer friends who are passing through Havana. We like the four tables that have been planted in the middle of the street, across from the San Gerónimo school. The almost perpetually suffocating heat in Cuba has made this hour of sun, even at its zenith, exceptional cool.
To converse under a winter sky, drinking something hot while people pass by is something akin to a miracle. Even more so, because I spend every day of the week writing, working under the pressure of time in several projects at once. I’m not accustomed to doing this sort of thing, much less treating myself to the gift of a daily coffee in a tourist establishment on Obispo Street. But I want to be a good host to my friends who aren’t Cubans and that day I am being their guide in a city they know very little about.
I love the city I live in, and there are moments when I get pleasure from talking and writing about her. There are others, though, in which that enthusiasm deserts me, and I refuse to even look out the window of my apartment. As if the state of things could infect me just by sticking out my head.
If I observe and remain silent, I become an accomplice of whatever is going on; if I were to complain in a loud voice, moved by an excess of fury, only a confused noise would come out of my mouth, far removed from actual words.
The exercise of telling stories about the city where one lives can be exhausting. However, the understanding that each unknown person who inhabits our immediate space carries a very personal city inside of them – intimate, secret, sometimes incommunicable – motivates me to become a translator of gestures, appearances, daily routines much more than a simple chronicler of events.
Sitting there in that café on Obispo St., my writer friends want to know about a Havana that no longer exists, but that they’ve read about in a certain novel from the nineteenth century or a piece by Ernest Hemingway.
They leaf through their tourist guides and ask me to take them on a kind of journey in time because they like repeating that absurd idea that on the island the clock has stopped and that it’s only the years like clouds of melted lead that pulverize the cobblestones, that crack open the stone fronts of the buildings or that numb the hands of an old woman who comes up to our table to beg us for a little money.
She’s cold, and she entreats us insistently. My friends don’t look at her: they don’t see her, they don’t hear her. They drink their coffee and pore over the maps spread out on the table. Meanwhile I think about the scarce and tightly budgeted money that I am carrying in my pocket, not about the rags the woman is wearing, her worn-out shoes or the shame she feels at having to beg.
If I give her some coins, other beggars watching us from nearby will arrive in a swarm. I cast about in my mind for some way of extricating myself from the situation. I know that the woman has confused me for a foreigner because of where I’m sitting. If I tell her that I’m Cuban, without a doubt she’ll head somewhere else, because she’ll understand what I’m trying to say: “I’m poor, just like you are”; or she’ll know that I am just pretending to be indifferent.
So I pretend that I’m absorbed in what the others are planning for the afternoon and I turn my back to the old woman. I know that if I don’t give her any attention she’ll go away to some other area. She’ll bother our neighbors at the next table or the groups of passers-by that are constantly coming and going along Obispo St.
I speak loudly to cover up the sound of her demands. I say things just to be talking, to round out that atmosphere of confabulation that excludes her, that makes her completely invisible.
Ignoring her has proven an effective solution because the woman stops asking and moves off with quick steps, later pausing at a corner where a man has called her over to give her some money. She takes it and thanks him with a smile that suddenly renders her face familiar; and that discovery sends a shiver through me.
I leave my friends, walk off and head to where the woman is standing. I observe her closely; trying to associate her extinguished features with those of someone I knew but had not seen for a very long time. Someone very important to me, but whom I had begun to forget because I had left her far behind me, in the long-distant years when I didn’t think of the written word as a basic necessity – or even as a trade – and when the city seemed to be a place that might become anything at all, except the scene of so much tearing apart.
That idyllic era when innocence allowed us to ignore everything; when few of those around me doubted the idea that the future of Cuba had to be ever brighter and brighter. The time of our first school years, when that same hand, not yet numbed by tiredness, traced with a contagious joy and faith my first letters on a blackboard; or wrapped around my own hand to guide it over the pages of a notebook during those classes where I began to be won over by the written word.
I love the place where I live, really I do, and I believe that only because of that love do I feel at times that I could come to hate it. Above all because since that strange Monday in the café on Obispo Street, she who was my teacher has remained there, at my back, as if she were a city with her hand outstretched.