Lonnie stayed in Varadero until Raul Castro cracked down on prostitution in the area. Arrests were common and some of the jinetras disappeared back to Havana and Matanzas. Lonnie heard things were still good in Guanabo, a coastal town twenty minutes south of the capital. He went there the second week, renting the upper floor of a casa just off the Circulo Washington.
It was a bright room overlooking a small courtyard. From his window, he could see the town and the ocean beyond. The landlord let him entertain in the evening. The landlord’s wife didn’t like the girls Lonnie brought back. She and her husband would often argue about it. They’d reach a truce in the morning when Lonnie came downstairs. Breakfast would be waiting, but the landlord’s wife stayed in the kitchen.
Lonnie found many girls around town. In the evenings, he liked to sit in the little outdoor restaurants, watching the Italians leaning over the railings. Sometimes the more attractive girls would go off with the Italians. They’d come back complaining. They called the Italians gallegros or jamoneros. If the Italians weren’t too drunk, they didn’t want to pay, or they’d call the girls names. The girls liked Lonnie because he was never cruel.
Some of the girls were the same ones Lonnie knew from Varadero. There were all kinds, mostly what they called mulatons, meaning mulata and black They were very poor, but they were clean. Lonnie gave them little bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They were always excited and happy to see him.
The girl Lonnie liked best was Mariana, a light mulata who spoke good English. She said she was a trained pharmacist. There was no work for her in the hospitals, and she was worried she’d get thrown in prison for selling herself. Many of the girls in Guanabo were worried about the same thing. She blamed the Italians. “Girls fight over them,” she said to Lonnie. “They hold out money and the girls fight. It brings too much attention. It is stupid.”
She’d be lying on Lonnie’s bed, a pillow under her chin. Mariana had sharp features for a mulata, a small nose and almond eyes. When she talked, as she was doing now, her eyes wandered around the room. “What happens if I get arrested again, Lonnie?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he’d say.
“It is the old man,” she said, meaning Castro. “He’s stubborn. He makes enemies with everybody. You don’t know how it is, Lonnie. All the girls will get arrested eventually.”
Lonnie had witnessed a few arrests. A girl had been taken away the other day. It happened so quickly. Police took the girl by the arm and led her across the street to a car. Sometimes the girls were charged, sometimes they returned a few hours later with a warning. The ones caught a second time would be sent to prison. There were rumors many more girls would be arrested in the coming months.
“It won’t be better until Castro’s dead,” Mariana told Lonnie. “We wait for him to die, but he won’t. I can’t stand it anymore, Lonnie. I have to get out.”
Many girls talked like Mariana. They all wanted to leave Cuba.
In the morning, Mariana would leave, waving from the dusty courtyard. The landlord and his wife were in the kitchen. They never said anything to Lonnie about the girls. They called him “singao”, meaning money, and the landlord’s wife said it openly. The landlord would take her aside, but she didn’t listen to him. She didn’t like Lonnie. He’d leave and go down the street, coming back later, weaving through the courtyard.
The next morning everything would be back to normal. The landlord would set out fruit and coffee and say “Que bola, senior?” when Lonnie came downstairs. “Sit, sit,” he’d say, pulling out a chair. “You have a good night, huh? She is a lovely girl. Very nice girl.”
It was the start of the Grapefruit Festival on Isla de la Juventud. Lonnie decided to go there with an architect friend from Chicago. This architect was trying to marry a Cuban girl. The government was making it difficult. Over a year had passed and nothing had happened. There was nothing he could do, so he went with Lonnie, and while in Nueva Gerona, he got drunk and slept with a girl.
He disappeared the next day.
Lonnie came back to Guanabo and got in touch with Mariana. She said she wanted to talk to him. She asked if she could come by with her mother.
Lonnie hoped Mariana wasn’t pregnant. They’d been careful. Contraceptives were easy to come by in Cuba. Girls joked that contraceptives were easier to get than food and toothpaste. They also knew it was a gamble getting pregnant by a foreigner. The Castro government didn’t want pregnant girls leaving the country. They held up the process, sometimes for years. Before long, the foreigner would lose interest. The girl and her family would have to raise the child on their own.
When Mariana and her mother arrived, Lonnie was sitting in the courtyard. Mariana’s hair was pulled up. She had on tight white jeans and a halter. Her mother wore a faded floral dress and looked quite old. She fanned herself as Mariana kissed Lonnie on both cheeks.
“Hello,” Mariana said. “Cómo estás?”
She introduced her mother. Her mother didn’t speak English.
“It’s hot, huh?” Mariana said to Lonnie. “Have you eaten already?”
“Just some tachinos,” he said. “Would your mother like one?”
Mariana asked her mother. They talked back and forth.
Her mother kept saying the same thing.
“She wants to lie in your hammock,” Mariana said. “She’s tired.”
The mother took a piece of fried banana over to the hammock. She ate very slowly, fanning herself while Mariana talked.
“I have news,” Mariana said to Lonnie. “One of the Italians wants to marry me.”
“I thought you hated Italians?” he said.
“Why do you want to marry one?”
“He wants me to go to Italy. We’ll have a nice house, Lonnie. He said he’ll send money back to my family.”
“How long have you known this guy?”
“He’s been to Guanabo two or three times.”
“That’s not very long, Mariana.”
“How long should it be?”
“What do you know about this guy?”
“He can afford to come to Cuba twice a year.”
Mariana’s mother was fast asleep in the hammock. Her one arm was stiff in the air with her wrist bent. The fan hung limply.
“What if the marriage doesn’t work out?” Lonnie asked.
“Why won’t it work out?” she asked.
“Anything can happen, Mariana. What if you and this Italian don’t get along? Are you going to pack up and come home?”
“Why would I come home?”
“Where else would you go?”
“You think I’d come back here?” she asked. “I was arrested last month. They kept me for two weeks. Do you know what prison is like here, Lonnie?”
Mariana’s mother was snoring.
“I didn’t know you’d been arrested.”
“They’re cracking down,” she said, picking up a tachino and putting it down again. “Next time they’ll put me away for a month. Things are going to get worse, Lonnie. The girls fight over men all the time now. The police can’t look away anymore. Italy has to be better than this. It’s beautiful there. Aldo showed me pictures.”
“Aldo? Does he have a last name?”
“Of course he has a last name.”
“And you’re serious about marrying him?”
“What else am I going to do? Do you want to marry me?”
“I can’t marry you, Mariana.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Mariana, my friend’s been waiting over a year to get his girlfriend out. They’ll want to know what I do for a living. How will I support you? That sort of thing.”
“So you lie. Everyone lies here. What’s so hard about that?”
“It won’t work.”
“You make so many excuses.”
“They aren’t excuses, Mariana.”
“So you won’t marry me?”
She stared at Lonnie for a minute.
“I thought you cared about me, Lonnie,” she said.
“I do care about you,” he replied.
“No, you don’t.”
Her face hardened. She stood up from the table. She went over and shook her mother awake. They spoke quickly, then Mariana turned back to Lonnie.
“We’re going,” she said.
The mother got up slowly from the hammock.
“Estoy cansado,” her mother said.
“She’s tired,” Mariana told Lonnie. “Come, es todo.”
“Estoy listo,” her mother said.
Her mother shuffled out of the courtyard and down the walk.
“Good-bye, Lonnie,” Mariana said.
She joined her mother out on the street. It was hot and dusty in the sun. They walked off towards the center of town, the mother waving her fan, Mariana holding her arm. The landlord came out in his undershirt. He stood next to Lonnie and watched Mariana and her mother walk away.
“Don’t worry, senior,” he said. “There is no man. She’ll be okay. She’s a survivor. They all are. Would you like fish for dinner?”
“I’m going out,” Lonnie said.
“Will you eat later on?”
He walked out of the courtyard. The landlord was talking to his wife as he left. His wife kept raising her voice. “Singao,” she said.
“Que son imposibles!” her husband said.
Lonnie cut across Tegucigalpa to Quilto, then down Rio de Janeiro to the beach. He wondered if his architect friend would show up at some point. Maybe he went back to his fiancé in Matanzas. Lonnie hoped he wouldn’t mention what happened in Nueva Gerona. It didn’t pay to be honest. Cuba was a country of lies. The government kept saying things would get better, but they never did. Better to avoid the truth. Like Mariana said, “Everyone lies here.”
It was easy once you understood the country.
This story first appeared in Rosebud Magazine, 2013, and will be featured in a collection of short stories called “Would You Mind Not Talking to Me?”
Robert Cormack is a novelist, blogger and freelance copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details (you can also buy the book from them).