LootSeptember 15th, 2009
by Brin Friesen
“In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns on the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit… are the highest forms of consciousness.”
I have a lousy sense of direction. Every friend I’ve ever met I met asking for directions.
Even before I’d arrived in Havana, in the back of my mind I was looking for the stranger who’d first really shown me around. I knew he’d still be there. Most of my local friends had left. My whole block of families had fled to Spain and Miami. The seven boys and men named Jesus who lived on that street were gone—poof—homefree.
The first time I left home to travel in another country at eighteen my mother told me to look up all her friends when I arrived.
“You have friends in Spain? You have friends in Pamplona? ”
“Of course I do, Bwinny.”
She shrugged. “I have no idea. I haven’t met any of them yet.”
But I ended up giving her a punchline and meeting a few of them anyway.
I’d tried calling that stranger I was looking for before I flew over: number disconnected. I wrote: no response. I got desperate enough to call in the heavy artillery and use my mother’s psychic mumbo-jumbo apparatus to determine if he was still alive:
She said she wasn’t sure.
“What the hell do you mean you’re not sure?”
“Bwinny, he might be alive and he might not.”
“I see we’ve cornered the market on safe bets this week, huh?”
“I’m not sure.”
The truth was I like it when psychics tell you they aren’t sure.
He was an antique book salesman I’d met on the plane over to Havana once. I’d never seen someone drink so much anywhere, let alone on a plane. It threw me. I spook easy with alcoholics. They get to me. I was reading another boozer named Malcolm Lowery, who writes with glue, when I stumbled over a line about the “shakes of too little and the abyss of too much”.
I looked over at him across the aisle, trying not to think of him as the illustration to this sentence, and he smiled at me.
“You’re not even drunk, are you?” I asked him.
“What does it look like? Of course not. I’m in training.” He pushed the button for the flight attendant again.
The salesman wasn’t kidding. He had cirrhosis. The drinking on the plane was small potatoes compared to when we landed.
I’d read something about how the only addictive substance where going cold turkey could actually kill you was booze. I’d read that and it surprised me a little but I’d never met anyone who brought it home. Liquor was like air for him.
When he got off the plane they held him in immigration for three hours. He’d asked me to wait and I had.
It was midnight and I had no place to stay.
After a few hours he came out and bought a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of 7 year old rum and there was a car waiting for him outside next to the taxis. The driver was a lanky, nervous older guy in a tracksuit who turned out to be a silver medalist in the 100 meter dash from the Pan Am games. His name was Montalvo. He looked like a Cuban Bill Cosby only the closest he got to smiling was shrugging. If he had a sitcom that shrug would trip the wire on his laughtrack. As we drove the salesman drank from the bottle and slapped the side of the car as the tropical air swirled in the backseat against me.
I always like arriving to a new city at night. It feels pleasantly mutually violating. Exploring it before you know what they look and feel like in the day. It feels like touching a woman whose taken before she’s told you she’s taken. They don’t feel like they’re cheating unless they touch you. Every inch of Havana is scratch and sniff.
I had no idea who the two men in the front seat were or where we were going but I felt safe watching the palm trees whisk by.
I knew he was still in Havana this time around. He’d promised I could find him as soon as I got back.
It was late at night again this time. I was trying to see what had changed.
The signs all over the place were still the same: “Vamos Bien!” with Castro beaming.
It was always “going well!” according to him. Whatever horror stories the people told you you could always repeat that back to them for a cheap laugh. “Be like Che!” was the other popular number. I was supposed to meet Che’s son, Camilo, this time around. Celebrities here are a little different then other places. They’re easy to find and generally easy to talk to. Somehow you always end up starting in the middle of something.
At night you think a lot about shipwrecks here. Different kinds of shipwrecks with different people.
The bookseller had told me once the difference between girls from Havana and all the rest: “All the others remember how to break your balls but they forgot how to break your heart. Here they haven’t forgotten. Look at her. And her. Her. I’ll die here, man.”
At night it’s easy to think about people you care about holding bad cards. Sometimes they have their own set and sometimes they’ve invited someone else’s into their lives.
You think about faces you love getting older.
Havana is a heavy place on a lot of people. A lot of people get spent looking for things they can’t find.
I sat on the curb watching the old neighborhood waiting for a familiar face. There was a foxy lady across the street in particular I was keen to see. Her husband had heart trouble and all the kids in the neighborhood knew I had a massive crush on her so they’d always point behind me and shriek, “NANCY!” and watch me break my neck to see her.
There was one man who lived on our street who I knew would only leave in a box but he was 90 years old and I was worried he’d kicked the bucket. After an hour or so coming up empty on seeing anyone I knew, I walked down to the end of the block and knocked on his door. He’d won his house in the lottery and moved 10 members of his family in along with him. Now they all, and their children, along with their children’s children, looked after him. He was the doorman at the Hotel Nacionale in the 40’s until he moved over to the Hilton right up until Castro took it over for his government headquarters after the revolution and renamed it the Habana Libre.
I knocked at his door and his great-grand children answered.
“Where is the old man?”…
I thought the kid was going to cry for a second but when I began to apologize he laughed and asked if the old man was still alive.
“Depends whose at the door…”