Journeys
The Answer Was No
Victor wanted to flee Cuba, but the only place he'd been was the battlefields of Angola.


It was around the time I met Victor that he started actively trying to get out of Cuba. He worked in tourism, illegally, and between jobs he fought for the paperwork to move to Spain. We worked together for a summer, then I went back to the States, and he was still where I left him when I came back to Cuba the following summer to work again. I was employed by a program for American high school students that combined educational travel with casual coursework. For me, being in Cuba, though my job occupied me around the clock, was like a holiday.

When I saw Victor again he didn’t look well. His body, as before, was solid: he was shorter than I was, which is to say below the height of the average American woman, and his arms and back were sturdy and masculine and muscled, his trunk square and solid. He was not lacking a slight paunch. A wild head of curly, unruly hair that fell almost to his shoulders gave Victor an animal virility. But his complexion was different from the last time I’d seen him. His sun-darkened, freckled skin was ashen, glossed with a sheen of sweat. He hacked a constant cough. His facial expressions betrayed the status of the invisible aspects of his health: He frequently had the fixed, pinched expression of a man withstanding something.

“It’s my stomach,” he said. “The doctors are saying no more caffeine.”

That was horrible news. When Victor and I had time to relax, it was always over espressos at the hotel bar.

“Or cigarettes, or alcohol, and many kinds of food, especially greasy food.”

But the program we worked for was such that food was available in abundance — though, in Cuba, even wealthy Americans had limited menu choices, and most of the time these foods we ate were greasy, fried chicken and pizza without tomato sauce and spaghetti served in a shallow puddle of oil, and Victor ate what we ate. It was understood that when we weren’t there, Victor, like most Cubans, was not precisely sure where his next meal would come from. You didn’t turn down a month’s worth of free food. You ate what you were served.

“The stress is not helping my situation,” Victor said. Every time he went to Migración to check on his paperwork, the officials smirked at him and told him the man he needed to see wasn’t in. The officials knew who he was, knew that he worked illegally, knew that he lived in an illegal apartment. They had no desire to help him get out of Cuba. Even his relatives were deliberately making things difficult. One aunt in particular had it in for Victor, had ratted on him when the officials stopped by her house to ask if Victor resided in the house where he was registered. Victor felt ganged up on, straitjacketed. He had a quick temper, but exploding in Migración wasn’t going to get him anywhere.

He stood coughing in the office where I was stationed with Sarah, another American, who’d been living in Cuba for three years. Sarah had known Victor longer than I had. She was impatient with his cough.

“Go to the doctor, Victor,” Sarah said, not looking up from the construction paper she was cutting with child-proof scissors.

“I’ll go.”

“Yeah, you keep saying that.”

“I’ll go!” Victor sighed and shifted his backpack from his shoulder to the floor. He leaned over the desk to address me alone. “Are we going to have lunch today, Alden — just you and me?”

I raised an eyebrow. “You know what’s going to happen if we go to lunch, just you and me,” I said.

Victor’s posture was deflated. He was relenting to me. Victor, my now dear friend, was a proud man with a fuck-you countenance that flared up whenever he was challenged. I’d been challenging him on this one thing since I’d met him.

Angola.

“I don’t care. I feel like I could talk about Angola today.” I’d been waiting for this day, the day Victor would talk, for months.

When Victor was a young man, his mother — a fervent Communist — had enrolled him in a military high school. Victor, at 19, had trained at the base in Guantánamo on the eastern coast of Cuba, and, after six months, boarded a plane with his fellow soldiers-in-training to go back to Havana. The flight across the island was supposed to take 45 minutes. After an hour in the air, Victor and the others were told they were not going to Havana after all. They were flying further east, to Angola, to fight in their war.

Victor was in Angola for two years. For months after he boarded that plane, his mother had no idea where he was.

That was what I knew.

I shut down my computer and closed it, leaving Sarah to her construction paper and scissors.

“Let’s go to lunch,” I said to Victor. Slowly, he bent down to the floor and picked up his backpack by a strap.

We first came to Cuba, a year before this, in the middle of the hottest season. We came with cotton T-shirts, with sleeves that we learned to push up onto our shoulders, and we learned to politely ignore the sweat stains that darkened each other’s armpits. We came with a gang of American teenagers and a mission to teach them about this place we knew little about. I was the writing and literature teacher. I left Boston with two guidebooks, a copy of The Old Man and the Sea, and some novels that would have been taken away from me if I’d been searched in Havana customs — Dirty Havana Trilogy, Before Night Falls. I was ignorant of the fact that these books were banned in Cuba, as I was ignorant of many things. Angola, for instance: The only thing I knew about Angola was that it was a country in Africa, below the Congo, heart of darkness.

My body was outraged by the heat and I spent my first day in Cuba in a stupor. I wore a thin cotton skirt, and my thighs chafed as I walked through Old Havana. I watched Victor as he walked ahead of me and flirted with another American teacher, a sour girl named Heather. I was jealous, not because I was attracted to Victor, but because he was the only Cuban I had met in Cuba, and on this day he was everything to me, more than the crumbling façades of the colonial buildings, the hallucinatory parade of mid-century American cars, or the overheard strings of an unfamiliar Cuban-Spanish that I could barely comprehend, despite my near-fluency. I wanted Victor to be talking to me.

In the Museo de la Revolución, Victor found me standing in front of a spacesuit. The spacesuit was a bizarre installation in a museum that contained mainly relics from the Cuban Revolution: bullets that had been shot in 1959, plaques explaining the heroics of Che Guevara, the extent of Che’s asthma, and the fact that he fought through it. The empty spacesuit sat on a chair in the middle of the room. The chair was old and wooden, one I’d expect to see in a grade-school classroom. It did not lend a sense of dignity to the slouching spacesuit.

“The spacesuit worn by the first Cuban to go into space,” Victor said in perfect English. “He went with a Russian team. They say he only got one order the whole time he was up there. You know what it was?”

I turned to face Victor. He wore a tight, tie-dyed T-shirt and khaki pants rolled up to mid-calf, and seemed unfazed by the heat. His eyes were alive and his movements were fluid and easy.

“What?”

“’Don’t touch anything.’” Victor snickered, and something about the way he did this, as a deliberate punctuation to his comment, reminded me that he often worked with American travelers in Cuba. He was a seasoned tour guide, and he knew which jokes would fly. He’d told them before. He had a repertoire.

Ay, Cuba,” Victor said. This was something all Cubans said, a tic of resignation, a what-can-you-do. I would start to say it soon. As I made my way into the next room of the museum, Victor followed. We walked together from room to room and then, together, we walked out the door into the blinding heat of Havana.

The pastels of building fronts and repainted old cars bled into a deceptively cheerful rainbow. Victor walked by my side, between my body and the road, a position of protective masculinity. I didn’t need Victor to protect me; I spoke Spanish and I had no problem deflecting strangers who approached me. But I ceded the position. Perhaps Victor was protecting me from a threat of which I remained ignorant. Or perhaps he just needed to feel that he was.

“The jineteros are everywhere,” Victor warned. “Preying on foreign tourists. Especially here in Old Havana. The best thing to do is ignore them.”

“How did your English get so fluent?” I asked.

“From school. Watching movies. Working with Americans like you.”

“Have you ever left the country?” I asked. I assumed he’d been abroad somewhere where English was the primary language.

“Once. I went to Angola.”

“Why Angola?”

Nothing in Victor’s demeanor changed. He walked on, looking ahead of us, expressionless. His lips were softly closed. Sweat ran down past his ears. I became self-conscious of the flop-flop sound my messenger bag made with each step as Victor briefly halted the conversation. Then he told me about the war.

“I spent two years there in Angola, but when I came back I was 100 years old.”

I changed the subject out of nervousness. “Have you been anywhere else?”

Victor was used to American ignorance. He was asked this question all the time. Americans knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis and they knew about Fidel Castro and they knew they were not supposed to be in Cuba, but you couldn’t count on them to know that Cubans were rarely allowed out of the country. Even Victor was not eligible for a passport, even though he had been abroad before.

The answer was no.

Sarah stayed in the office to man the phones, in case someone called and needed something. This year, instead of teaching, I was Program Director. I spent less time with the American high school students and more time with Victor and the administration team. We spent hours on end in the office, sitting by the phone, waiting for someone to need us.

Victor and I decided on lunch at the Rincón de Criollo restaurant, down the street from the hotel. Our other options in the neighborhood were the Italian restaurant and the Toro steak house, tourist restaurants owned by the same government chain as the Rincón de Criollo. The Italian restaurant listed mozzarella and tomato salads on the menu, though it was understood that mozzarella cheese was one of those things you would never, ever find in Cuba, and we had gotten our fill of the greasy pizza with the mysterious, cheddar-tasting cheese that we almost always resorted to ordering. The Toro served unlimited roast beef, veal, lamb, and thick cuts of chewy steak. The Cuban government controlled the beef industry — in Cuba the jail sentence for killing a cow was longer than that for killing a human being — and the Toro was a mystery of indulgence, and very expensive. I always preferred the Rincón.

Victor ordered the chicken soup and the roasted chicken. I ordered what I always did: arroz a la Cubana, a small dish of rice with two fried, runny eggs, black beans, and lemonade. Victor’s soup came first. There was a fatty piece of goosepimpled chicken skin floating on top of the bowl, which was not uncommon and was the reason I didn’t order chicken soup. I wondered if Victor would eat it or put it on the side of his dish; he seemed to be eating around it. I wouldn’t have eaten it.

I made my utensils dance a few steps of salsa. Knife was more graceful at this than Fork.

“I hope they have flan for dessert,” I said. I didn’t know where to start. Every time I’d asked Victor about Angola, I was greeted with an averted gaze and the feeling that I’d overstepped my bounds. I thought of Victor as a friend I’d have for life. I’d told him things I hadn’t discussed with anyone else on the staff. Victor never judged.

“You are my sister,” he said when I told him secrets.

Victor had told me about his relationship with his Spanish wife, Chus, whom he’d just married; it was understood that he’d married her mainly to get out of Cuba. He’d told me about the times he’d been harassed by the police, when they’d tried to force him to spy on the Americans he worked for — us included. (He did. He spied on us and reported to the government; they made it impossible for him not to. He told me that too.) He’d told me about the time last summer when Heather had come to his Havana apartment and flung herself onto his bed, despite the fact that both of them were engaged at the time and she was supposed to be at the hotel, keeping tabs on the American teenagers who were in our care. (I punched him in the arm. Twice. “Her? I can’t believe you!” Victor cackled hysterically for a good five minutes.) Angola was the one conversation he seemed unwilling to have. On a completely selfish level, I was hurt by this. I wanted to remove the barrier, wanted Victor to feel safe with me. I’ll admit also that my curiosity was colored by morbidity. I was born one year before America withdrew from the war in Vietnam; I’d never known a peer who’d been involved so deeply in war, and I wanted, quite simply, to know what Victor had done.

“Well, it was a war that was going on forever,” Victor said. “It was Fidel’s secret war, the Cuban Vietnam.”

I’d spent the year between my summers in Cuba researching Angola because of Victor. I knew key details now. Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, when Victor was four. Since then there had been nonstop civil war. The MPLA had communist leanings and was supported by Cuba. The U.S., predictably, supported all parties that opposed the commies, and UNITA, an “Africanist” movement with emphasis on ethnic and rural rights, emerged to become the MPLA’s primary opponent. The powers of the world got busy. Machinery and vehicles and weapons rained down on Angola. Soldiers on both sides learned fragments of foreign languages from what was printed on the bodies of planes and boxes of medical supplies. Soldiers were imported like firearms, a gift of support from afar.

America’s war in Vietnam had just ended, and Americans were not about to support involvement in another civil war on the other side of the world. Castro recognized that Cuba could gain an international reputation by getting involved in the war in Angola and the U.S. wouldn’t step in. So Cuba sent troops, and kept sending troops. As in Vietnam, the war in Angola showed no signs of ending, and no one seemed to be winning. In 25 years, more than 500,000 people were killed.

Cuba agreed to withdraw its troops in 1988, after much protest within Cuba, when Victor was 18 years old. 1988: one year before he boarded that plane.

“The war was supposed to be over,” Victor said. “When we were in Guantánamo — there was supposedly no more sending Cubans to Angola. It never occurred to us while we were in training that we’d be sent to fight.”

I didn’t understand. “How could they do that?”

Something also new to me this summer was Victor’s resigned, bitter grin. “Your uncle,” Victor said, pulling at his chin — the silent signal for Fidel — “does whatever he wants.” Victor’s bowl was empty of liquid. He picked up the fatty piece of chicken and began sucking on the skin.

“Your uncle is driving me crazy,” Victor said. He laughed indulgently and I laughed with him. He’d taught me all the ways Cubans talked around the topic of Fidel. He was Your Uncle, he was My Friend, he was Comandante, he was El Caballo, he was Numero Uno. He was the act of tugging at your imaginary beard. Victor loved being the one to teach me these things.

“One guy, he tried to kill himself on the plane,” Victor said. “He tried to cut his wrists with a piece of metal.”

My arroz a la Cubana came and I made a bed for the black beans from my pile of rice. The eggs were viciously salted and after three bites my lips and tongue began to feel numb. Victor’s plate of roasted chicken was placed to the side, to give him time to finish his soup.

“Did you kill anyone?” I asked Victor.

“Of course I did, Alden.” I looked down at his soup bowl and dish and there was nothing left but bones.

When Victor was about three bites into his chicken, the details began to come out in a flood. He put down his fork. My eggs were gone and my tongue was swollen inside my mouth.

“I was on the plane with four of my good friends from home. We were all landmine diffusers. Three of my friends died 14 days after arriving. Twenty of us died that day. In the beginning we were three hundred something; in the end, two years later, we were 175.”

On Guantánamo they learned bush survival. Their two years in Angola were spent entirely in the jungle.

“I was a specialist on defusing, fusing, planting, and mining bombs,” Victor said. “I should have died...many times.”

After 25 years of war, Angola had the most mines on the planet. Angola has more amputees from landmines than any other country in the world. Millions of mines were there still, waiting to be disarmed, driven over, stepped on. In Havana, if you see a man without an arm or missing both his legs, ask him if he’s ever traveled outside of Cuba.

“That was how my three friends died when we were first there. We were driving north in military trucks. One second they were up in the truck ahead of me, the next there was an explosion. They’d driven over a mine.”

“And they were landmine diffusers,” I said, but as soon as I said it, I realized that in the midst of that many landmines, the irony wasn’t that acute.

“But do you know what bothered me more sometimes than people dying from mines? When people died for no reason at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“One time, for fun, someone shot a hyena and killed it. A male. Sixty-five kilometers later, another hyena attacked. She followed us the whole way up the road. A female.”

Let’s say it was a spotted hyena. The females are larger than the males, both have phalluses of the same size; the females dominate. The young try to kill each other literally minutes out of the womb: Two cubs will fight each other until they see the mother licking down the fur of a third, at which point they both attack the third and try to kill it. Hyenas are the only mammals born with their eyes open and their teeth in working order. Top speed for hyenas is 37 miles per hour, and they can bring down a wildebeest three times their weight. They are not the cowering foragers they are reputed to be. Some animals are just born mean.

Female spotted hyenas mate with males outside their clan. They mate once and move on. They do not form attachments. Sorrow over the death of her mate does not explain why that female hyena attacked Victor’s troop that day. Perhaps it was sheer outrage in the face of a frivolous threat.

The hyena killed the man she attacked, shredded flesh with her teeth.

“Why?” Victor said. “For nothing.”

Another time, while crossing a river, someone in Victor’s troop shot an elephant.

“For fun,” Victor said. “Just because. Only, he didn’t kill the elephant. He only shot him in the leg. Elephant charges, attacks one of the trucks. Four people die.”

Victor’s words had picked up speed. There was more anger in them than sorrow.

“Why? Why?” Victor threw up his hands.

I had seen Victor in a rage, red-faced, an elastic band pulled tight and ready for release, and I had seen Victor reel it in and force the color from his face. I understood that much of this rage was probably the result of being in Angola. I’d seen it emerge more than once, often when it was not appropriate.

There were a few things that consistently caused Victor to lose his cool, among them: jineteros who targeted his foreign friends looking for cash; men hitting on his female friends — primarily Cuban men hitting on his foreign female friends; and the sight or subject of Cuban officials — primarily police officers, whom he considered to be the stupidest people on earth.

“They’re dumb kids from the country who don’t know any better,” Victor said of the police officers. “Most of them can’t write. When we pass the military academy, we say, ‘Look, it’s the school where you go in stupid and come out an imbecile!’”

“What about the Ministerio people?” I said, knowing he couldn’t dismiss the highers-up in the same fashion. The Ministerio people had real power over him. They made decisions. Police officers, in Victor’s mind, were the government’s hired thugs.

Victor pulled his headband off his head and then back on, using it to absorb forehead-sweat along the way.

“Sometimes I think they’re never going to let me out of this place,” Victor said.

It was not just pain in his stomach that had turned Victor’s expression sour. It was this new sense of helplessness, of being stuck in Cuba. Victor was used to fighting and surviving. With all the risks involved, he’d learned English, networked, and become a tour guide who made a decent, if not consistent, amount of dollars. He’d married a foreigner. Chus had flown to Cuba from Spain early when the fiancé visa they’d applied for was stalled. They’d wed at Havana’s equivalent of the courthouse, without thrown rice, without a white dress, without family, without ceremony. They’d done what they were supposed to do. Chus flew back to Spain to attend to her pharmacy job and her ailing parents, and Victor was left, waiting for someone to slide his papers out from under their virtual paperweight, where they gathered dust, legal, save the signatures of the officials who didn’t feel they owed this renegade, dollar-earning, illegal tour guide any favors. He was doing fine getting around the system. Why should the system help him?

“I feel like I’m dying here,” Victor said, which made me wonder if he’d ever rephrase that question to read: “I’m afraid I might die here.”

I’d seen Victor tense and then explode with anger when no one saw it coming. He’d once narrowly averted getting into a fight at a dance party with a Cuban whom he suspected was trying to dance too close to our female students — he suspected him of both physical aggression and potential theft. Victor screamed in the face of this Cuban, then instructed the students, along with their teacher, to leave the club, resulting in a loud argument outside of the club with the teacher, who hadn’t wanted to leave.

“We were all fine,” the teacher said later. “The kid was sketchy, but it was under control. Victor just flipped.”

More than any other subject, the officials who prevented him from leaving Cuba — and Fidel was counted among them — were the inspiration for Victor’s fits of anger.

“I hate them,” Victor said. His mouth tightened as if drawn by string. “Sometimes, I swear to you, if I had the resources...”

Victor mimed the act of dropping a bomb. With his mouth, he made it explode.

I tried not to dwell on the fact that Victor’s stress had cost him the pleasure of coffee. I quietly ordered a café Cubano and asked the waitress if there was any flan.

The food in Cuba was uniformly terrible, with few exceptions, and one of these exceptions was flan.

“Sorry, no flan today.” The waitress tilted her head apologetically in reaction to my jaw-drop of complete devastation.

I pathetically asked the waitress, “Are you positive there isn’t any flan?” It wasn’t uncommon, in Cuba, to make an authoritative statement without possessing the proper evidence. The waitress reemerged from the kitchen carrying a small plate with two adorable, delectable little custards quivering under their caramel sauce.

I exclaimed “Gracias” a few more times than necessary to show my gratitude, and the waitress smiled girlishly, immensely pleased that she’d been able to do this for me.

“You have a flan problem,” Victor said.

“We know this,” I said.

“You are addicted to flan.”

“Are you planning to eat yours or what?”

Victor pushed his plate across the table toward me. Decadence was part of both our personalities and it was strange to see him adhere to a regimen that denied him such things. I was floored that he’d been able to give up beer, another of our shared pleasures; he told me, “If I start drinking beer again it will be like giving up after all this sacrifice.”

“Terrible,” I said, pointing my spoon at the flan.

“I blew up a bridge once,” Victor said. “There were trucks on it and I pressed the button and blew it up.” Victor must have seen, and predicted, some of the discomfort I felt about knowing this side of him. He owned it. “Sometimes,” he said, “even still, when somebody makes me mad, I look and them and I think, ‘I could kill you.’ Because I really could. Once I had a gun, and all I had to do was reach in my pocket.” I pictured the officials in Migración.

“Have you done anything violent since you came home?”

“There were some guys who once broke into my friend Andrea’s apartment during the Special Period and stole some food,” Victor said. The Special Period was Fidel’s euphemism for the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when almost everyone in Cuba went hungry. Raft-building reached new levels of creativity during the Special Period.

“Andrea had some malanga. It was all we had to eat and they broke in while we were right there in the kitchen, and took it from us. Alden, we had literally nothing to eat.”

I was on my second flan now. I was barely leaving traces of caramel sauce on the plate. I was obscene. I thought, Someone should stop me.

“Back then they used to make these glass yogurt jars. I took four of those and I made molotov cocktails. I had four of them in my closet. And I was going to use them. They are like little bombs. My friend, one of my friends who was also in Angola, opened my closet and he saw them. He asked me what they were and I lied, but he knew. He said, ‘You have to get rid of these. You can’t use them.’ He saved me.”

Victor’s jaw and shoulder muscles were relaxing. I saw he was nearing the end of his story.

“People save each other,” Victor said. “People who’ve taught me where to put my anger, how to direct it, they’ve saved me.”

Victor and I started back to the hotel, walking close to the buildings where there was shade. The sidewalk between Rincón and the hotel was made of slippery tiles. There was one spot where I’d seen countless people slide and lose their footing, and where I’d almost fallen down more than once. Just after we cleared this slickest spot, Victor caught his shoe on some obstacle on the sidewalk and fell down face first, catching himself by one hand with an audible smack.

It was a hard fall, but it was not a disastrous fall. Victor picked himself up and said, “That was close.” Normally I would have made a joke and moved on, and I knew I should try to make him laugh, but I wasn’t able. I felt it in my stomach, the damage that was undoable. My wait, the wait for Victor to tell me this part of his history, was over, but Victor’s wait would go on for some time.

I thought that if Victor was finally able to get out of Cuba, his stomach might unclench. I saw the connection between the way he was trapped in Angola then and the way he was trapped now. The only time he’d been allowed out of the country, the one thing he wanted now, was the worst thing that had happened to him.

Ay, Cuba.

As long as I had a job I would come back to Cuba. I was stuck in my own way, but my version of stuck was ultimately a choice, and an absurdly luxurious one. One of the things for which I was most grateful to Victor was that he never resented me for the luxuries I’d been gifted at birth; he didn’t want me to feel guilty for the freedoms I enjoyed, but he couldn’t stop me from that.

“Do you think you’ll make it to Spain soon?” I asked.

Victor looked at me wearily and gave no answer.

The next year, I came back to work for a third summer. I exited the Havana airport to the barrage of billboards advertising peace, unity, and socialism. Victor stood in the sun waiting for me, holding a sweating Bucanero beer for me in one hand, a Bucanero for himself in the other.

The worst part was: I was more glad to see his kinky hair, his beer-wet lips, his tie-dyed shirt, and smile — here, under the pounding Cuban summer sun — than I was anything. • 16 October 2007


   


Alden Jones teaches at Emerson College and at the Bay State Correctional Facility in Massachusetts. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Best American Travel Writing, Agni, The Iowa Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is at work on a collection of travel essays. She can be reached at aldenjones@mac.com.




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Photographs by Alden Jones.
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