As the breeze rustles the leaves of the trees to and fro, sandals scrape against the concrete as passersby perform their daily routines. A distant circular saw tears through the humid air, sending debris in plumes up through the trees. A neighbor’s cough, the engine of a speeding motor: Calle 35 has a tempered peace – oscillating between gentle and shattering.
Marisol speaks to this dichotomy in her animated way. “Me gusta mi país,” she says of her fondness for the warm climate, her neighbors, her forty-three years etched onto these streets, the familiarity; “pero es difícil,” she says of the empty supermarkets, the crowded buses, how she has to clutch her purse in crowded places. Someone stole a piece of caramel out of her bag that she had saved for her youngest son. There was nothing else to take.
And she can’t leave even if she were able to save up the money to do so – working her three jobs. She is seated on the plush arm chair in the otherwise sparsely decorated casa particular – what Airbnb units are called in Cuba – as she lights her third cigarette. She gestures toward me with the butt end of her cigarette and I use it to light my own. The empty matchbook lies on the table between us. Marisol was hired as a house cleaner by her neighbor to take care of this casa particular. When we first met she was friendly and charmed by the interracial couple that my friend and I made. She asked if he was my husband, if we had any kids, if our pairing was normal in America. She was as interested about learning about my life as I was in learning about hers, so after she finished her work I invited her to sit with me and enjoy a beer.
She sits on the edge of the chair with her legs crossed and twirls her hand with the cigarette in it making lovely smokey spirals that dissipate at the ceiling and slip out through the open window.
She tells me that America is like a distant dream. Her sister was brave, she says. She left years ago on a dingy boat that sailed out at dawn for the coast across the gulf. She made it and she was now happy, as far as Marisol could tell – a former dancer cleaning homes for a living in the country of opportunity.
Her son, too, has few prospects. After he finishes school at 19, his chances of getting into university are slim. He will likely get a job or join the military and save his pesos as she does, hoping that the next ruler is more merciful. We are talking shortly after Fidel Castro’s death, and she tells me she is pessimistic that any future changes in the government or in relations with the US will alleviate the everyday difficulties her people face. The young and the educated leave for better opportunities – more money, more freedom and those open boarders.
Life in her version of Cuba is a one way street with few forks in the road. Nothing makes you appreciate opportunities as much as the lack of them. How does one thrive when the sun is blocked out by dark clouds: bureaucracy, international relations and a stifling regime. Without knowing any better, this is the best you’ve got.
I tell Marisol that when we first arrived on a Sunday we had hoped to buy some food at a market to have something in the refrigerator for breakfast. Marisol looked confused. I tell her that’s the look everyone on the street gave me when I asked if there was anywhere to buy food. She tells me the markets are closed on Sundays, and anyway, for certain products you need ration cards. I think of my parents’ stories from the Soviet Union. She seems committed to making me understand. The government issues rations on eggs and sells most of them to hotels. Your necessities pass through a small window by a clerk. You don’t steal TVs and jewelry. You steal tampons and toothpaste. There is no choice – just one of every product portioned off by the government. You accept what is given and you say thank you. At least the thank you is an option.
Marisol made the choice to separate from her husband of twenty-six years. She is happy now that she can make her own decisions: when to go out, how to work, when to drink a beer, she says gesturing to the glass in her hand. We chink glasses and take a swig. The simple ways that independence can bud out of an otherwise restrictive existence. Human nature crowds the impossible and seeks out the simplest pleasures. The sun on your skin, fresh water, fruit grown at your feet. Even the rations of freedom that we steal from every opportunity. That sliver of pleasure looks the same from all angles.