By Jessie Wright
Piled into a red, battered automobile just outside the airport, I am met again with the intoxicating air that keeps me coming back to Cuba. Salty warmth, the smell of fried fruit and fat, the low rumble of music and the whiff of a different world, captured and blossoming.
I spend a week in Havana before going to Matanzas, my home for the summer. It is a week spent laying in the thick heat of a church attic. A week of writing stilted, halting poetry in Spanish, a week of fried plantains and rice with the church’s housekeeper, Daisy. She chatters about her favorite telenovella characters. I make sure I’m sitting on her couch with the lace throw blanket every night at 9 p.m. to eagerly watch their dramas unfold with her. There is a particularly gruesome night where our favorite character is killed by a member of her own rogue acting troupe. Daisy’s eyes shine with girlish excitement, and she pours me another cup of café con leche.
The week is like the inhalation of a breath. Like a midwife, Daisy gently ushers me into my first Cuban days and nights, wiping me clean of the pace back home and settling me into the warmth and pulse of the island.
On Monday, I load back up into the familiar red car and head toward Matanzas. I’m to work at the university seminary there, specifically in the library, sorting books and translating newsletters. The man driving is a new friend—bald and chatty—named Joe. “Like Joe DiMaggio,” he jokes. He proudly tells me about his children and teaches me the word for lightning as a storm rolls in around us. The smells of the ocean and gasoline slip by me through the car’s rusted windows as we putter east.
I awaken my first morning in the seminary in a small dormitory room with two goats grazing in the grass beside it. I walk towards the library building, with first-day nervousness pooling in my palms. The next minute or so dismantles the plans for my summer quite quickly. The library is closed until the fall, and the woman I find inside assures me they are not in need of any help until then. Somewhere the reason for my stay at the seminary was lost in translation, and I walk back into the sunshine, lost.
With the summer stretching before me, and the library unexpectedly closed, I feel as though I must find a way to justify my presence in this beautiful place. The groundskeepers and live-in professors are the only people here, and they move about maintaining and preparing the buildings and grounds for the school year to come. All around me people are at work— wheeling wheelbarrows, mopping floors. I sit in a gazebo screwing up the courage to ask if I can help.
I walk to a group of men painting each of the campus buildings. Their skin tanned brown from the sun, wearing tattered baseball caps. They quietly focus together, moving in synchronized movements, brushing top to bottom, corner to center. I stumble through the Spanish to offer my help. They graciously assure me I don’t need to be working in the hot sun. I finally beg for a brush, the key to feeling like I should be here.
We paint all morning and afternoon. The dormitory building first, squishing rust-red color into the crevices of the bumpy stucco. Then, hours of window trim and door frames, following the long drips of paint with our brushes into straight edges kissing the cement. I become an arm of the synchronized team, reaching the tall parts on my tip-toes, prompting smiles and friendly warmth between my new group. We stop for lunch, and when we turn back to our brushes, they have turned sludgy in the sun.
The day has a hazy rhythm to it. I count the seconds by the sound of brush strokes. The smell of paint mingles with the smell of our sweat. Ten words are said between us the entire day, but at the end of the last wall, we know one another. We sip guava juice together as the paint dries, the pink pulp clinging to the space between my two front teeth.
The summer becomes a living meditation. I help when I can, but I slowly accept that my job here is simply to live, to be aware of the breath in my lungs and the blood beneath my skin. I spend my afternoons writing in the gazebo overlooking the ocean and my nights listening to summer rains against my wooden window shades. Some days, the most I accomplish is to chase the little green frog who lives in my toilet out of the doorway or to bring pitchers or water to the neighborhood kids who gather to play soccer during the day.
The blustery afterglow of a midday rainstorm one afternoon brings me outside to sit on a concrete slab overlooking the city. I let my thoughts wander in the humidity as a slight little man walks up and gestures to ask if he may join me. I have seen him around the grounds before, and he surprises me when he introduces himself in English.
This is the first time I meet Manuel. We talk for close to two hours under the clouds and fresh breezes that give us brief respite from the sun. He talks in English, I reply in Spanish. “We both need to practice,” he says.
He tells me stories of growing up with eight brothers. His eyes look far away when he recalls his lonely times as the singular seminary student here during Castro’s stringently atheistic 1960’s. I learn of the history of the train that went between the sugar mills of our Matanzas and the Havana I had left weeks earlier. He and his wife have been living on the grounds of the seminary for decades, and Manuel invites me for dinner— breakfast or lunch for that matter—any day I feel like some company.
I join them for dinner the very next night. Ducking under crisscrossed laundry lines, I enter the tiny bungalow tucked behind the library building. Manuel’s wife, Alicia, immediately leaves the stove where something delicious is simmering and wraps me in a motherly hug.
Manuel turns on the radio, and an old, familiar jazz song comes scratching forth. He turns Alicia away from the stove once more, and they slowly dance around the kitchen. It is the picture of young love in old bodies, and I can’t think of a time where I’ve felt more content.
After dinner, I join them on the couch, where we sip café con leche and watch the television series of “Les Miserables” in Spanish. I tell Alicia of the telenovellas with Daisy, and she laughs in excitement when she realizes we have the same favorite characters as she does.
Manuel and Alicia become my mother and father, my coffee companions and one of many oases of friendship during my days of introspective solitude.
I develop a morning routine. After coffee with Manuel and Alicia, I walk the seminary’s labyrinth. Covered in red petals from the Flamboyanes trees stretched above it, the labyrinth looks as though it sprung out from the soil, a natural crop circle stamped into the earth. The days are quiet. Someone pulls weeds from the garden on the hill beside me as I walk the pathway inwards and outwards, never sure of where I am in the circle until I find myself outside of it again.
I wander to the gate house, where the groundskeepers gather around a tiny television set playing the World Cup soccer matches in grainy black and white. They always make room in the huddle for me, and when one of my fellow painters catches my eye, we smile at one another.
I wake up one morning to the sounds of activity and new voices in my sleepy, summertime seminary. I wander out into the hazy sunlight and see dozens of women, young and old, milling about, kissing each other’s cheeks. Husky Spanish and light laughter wash over the now-dried paint on the walls of the meeting hall. The seminary is holding a daylong women’s retreat, and from the looks of the syllabus eagerly put into my hands, I am invited.
We pull up our chairs around a pull-down screen displaying the words “Envejecimiento y Sexualidad.” With the ceiling fans heaving and the screen doors flung wide to let in the breeze, I am swept up for the next several hours in the stories and playful teasing of forty Cuban women. We talk about living in a culture where machismo pervades much of the male-female dynamic, yet how much strength and power a Cuban woman maintains in her household. A woman with a lavender blouse loosely hanging over her sagging breasts gives a gut-achingly funny account of keeping the “fire alive” in a marriage. A younger woman with light mocha skin asks how to feel beautiful as you feel your body aging and changing around you. When one of the men from the cafeteria comes in with a tray of strong coffee and tiny cups, he gets a good-natured ribbing from all of us as the unwitting representative of all the men we’ve ever met.
We finish the day by walking outside, a storm trembling above us. The back of our thighs speckled from the cane mesh of our chairs, we join hands in a circle. We thank the swollen air, the sky above us, the God of somewhere and everything and each other for the gift of being women. I hold a crepey, boney hand in my left, and the smooth, firm fingers of a young university professor in my right. The first drops of rain fall as I look around the circle. I feel housed in my body yet connected by some imperceptible energy to the women around me. My edges blur, and I feel my deepest corners stir and acknowledge the beautiful pieces of me that live within the women standing together on the petal-laden ground.
The group disperses, and the women leave in the battered cars and old school bus they arrived in. My seminary is quiet again, but my heart repeats the words from the day with every beat, sounding a lullaby that sings until I drift to sleep.
I leave the seminary with my borders pushed farther than when I arrived. I am a painter, a daughter, a teacher, a woman, a walker of labyrinths. In the sleepy in-between life of summer, I have become more. In the cracks of bold friendship that exist between a resolute division between my home and Cuba, I have become part of a new family. In the pauses between words, the hesitations of clumsy translations, I hear, or rather, feel, a resounding message. Life is lived in the in-between. In the changes, and the fear of the new, in the cups of coffee with strangers and the loss of the familiar. Youth on one side and age on the other, I am enveloped by the fullness of life.