“You want a girlfriend?” I look up, and I guess she is about twenty-two, although if I hadn’t already been here two months I would have gone higher. Living in Havana is hard, and it shows on everything: the dilapidated cars, the worn brick buildings, the lines and creases on everyone’s face. She is literally squeezed into a pair of red satin shorts and a pink tank top. The aesthetic here is not the heroin-chic from up in the States. Women are big, and strong, and hefty. The men are lean and emaciated. It is all backwards.
“You like me, be your girlfriend?” she asks again. If I said yes, she would immediately pull up a chair and sit silently with me at the table. In return I would buy her a sandwich – thin flat meat and cheese on white bread. Back home, it would be a Cuban sandwich. Here, it is a girlfriend sandwich, reserved only for tourists who have no idea what they are ordering, and for girlfriends.
It confused me at first, why hookers were called girlfriends. But now I’ve seen enough single, lonely retired US Army officers (you can always tell by the haircut and the tattoos) smoking cigars with a girlfriend half their age to learn the intricacies. A girlfriend is more than just someone you spend the night with. You spend time with a girlfriend, perhaps days or your entire stay here. You treat each other nice – which means you buy her a sandwich (and perhaps food and diapers for her kids), and she gets your rocks off twice a day, no questions asked.
She reaches out and caresses my hand. “So, you need a girlfriend?” I shake my head, say “No thanks.” I look down, staring at the peeling laminated table. I have learned the best way to make girlfriends go away is to avoid making eye contact. Two months and I feel that is all I have to say about this place: keep to yourself.
After she leaves, Miguel comes over and brings me a new beer. I do not even have to ask anymore, he brings them when he sees I have a few sips left in my bottle. Miguel lives in the hotel, in what he describes as a ‘closet behind the kitchen.’ In the morning he works the lobby bar, and in the afternoon he waits the tables at the outdoor café. Every day we chat, and he has become the closest thing I have to a friend. The money he makes he sends to his sister and her family, who live somewhere far from the city, in what I imagine is a picturesque cabana on the beach. When he asks what I do that allows me to sit aimlessly in a hotel bar everyday, I answer that I am a writer. He laughs, saying, “Every American comes thinking he can be the next Hemingway.”
“I forgot he was here,” I say, which is true. When I confess that I haven’t written a word since arriving, Miguel volunteers, “You have to go to Casa Hemingway.” He makes all the arrangements, and two days later I am standing in front of a beautiful, tiny oasis. Everything is as Hemingway left it when Castro’s regime stopped him from coming. Miguel is the ultimate of guides, and recounts stories about Hemingway with pride: His record of drinking sixteen Daiquiris in one evening at the El Floridita hotel; That there are eight thousand books lining the walls of the tiny house. In Miguel’s opinion, it was not depression that caused Hemingway to blow off his own head with a shotgun, but the knowledge that he no longer could come visit this small piece of Paradise. Then he says to me, “My sister lives not too far from here, and she can get us lunch.” Thirty minutes later we are sitting on the beach, as I had imagined, but in a deplorable shanty. Lunch is a sloppy cheeseburger, so rare that the unkempt mustache I have grown is sticky with the juices. It is the best burger I have ever had, but I wonder if later tonight if my intestines will implode.
Miguel plays with his nieces and nephews on the beach, while his sister offers me homemade Mojitos, sickly sweet and slowly getting me drunk. When she asks why I came to Cuba, I pause to think of an answer.
In the States, I had to fight the deforestation of the Amazonian Rainforest, protest oil drilling in nature preserves, and only eat range-free chickens. I had to do all this, and still eke out a living on 300 word assignments and the occasional feature for a cooking magazine. It was too complicated, and I felt guilty, mostly for not caring and simply going through the motions. I figured coming to Cuba I could find some beauty in the Cubans and the nobility of living simply. Despite the fact I had to sell my car to get here, I realize I have more money in my hotel room than most Cubans will make in their lifetime. Now I realize I have seen Miguel’s sister at the hotel bar, looking for boyfriends even while Miguel waited tables. Part of me is sickened by it, and part of me realizes she does it not because she is lonely, but because she needs to buy diapers. This doesn’t free me at all, but makes me feel even guiltier.
Miguel comes up from the beach, sweating and breathless, and sits down beside me. “This is paradise, for you, right man?” I nod. “I hook you up, help you write, see the real Cuba.” He leans over and whispers, “And my sister, she’s beautiful, right?” My stomach churns, not from the hamburger, but from what I know is coming next.
“You need a good girlfriend, keep you happy and help you write. She’s good for you, I know.” I realize now that Miguel was not being my friend, but an opportunist. All three of us sit there, watching the surf, and I look down at my feet. But that won’t make this girlfriend go away.