I walked across the expansive plaza filled with sunshine, with laughter and a smile; a breeze, its fingers brushing through my long brown hair. I felt carefree, alive. How could I know then that my curiosity, my vanity, my naivety, and my age, which should not have but did, lead me to a hell disguised as paradise? That seven months later, on a dark hot and humid night, I would be sitting on an old stone bench, under a watery-yellow lamp post, in anger and revenge. A black nemesis my new lover. That darkened corner of the square, edged with tall night-green trees, off-street lights picking their way through gaping branches had, in times past, seen streams of people filling this same place, with anger and revolution, hope and despair filling their hearts. Those same old emotions now filling my heart and twisting it to breaking point.
I sat waiting in Parque Central, Havana, as it reverberated to its old vibrant self. A place of brooding sensuality, pulsating to the sound of Latin rhythms. Its old worn cream flagstones, shiny from years of furious and hurried footfall of white-suited bronzed-skinned men, dark-haired, blond-haired, and dressed to kill many hearts and men. Slender, curvy women with shiny ink-black hair, glossy like the feathers of a crow, with high Afro-European cheekbones, eyes of liquid darkness, lazily looking around at all who walked through.
My head was abuzz as the sound of traffic whirled around this historic Spanish-style plaza steeped in antiquity, locked in an almost forgotten time. The low growl of brightly coloured long-tailed American Chevrolets and Buicks swam around the plaza or lay like exotic fish on a seabed of tarmac roads. Their leather upholstery, creased, scratched, repaired, with concave indentations of worn seats, held many stories, many memories of romance or escape. Those old cars left over from the 1950s, their bodies still shining, their inner parts a mix of hundreds of different bits and pieces, held together with another kind of hope and wish, much like the people of Cuba. And now, those low-slung sleek cars of Schiaparelli pink, limoncello yellow, acid turquoise blue, and pimento red, those primary colours of vibrancy and childhood drawings were offering tourists insights into the former glory of Havana for a ride around, $50, one hour, one person.
Sitting, crouched over, waiting, I too felt much like those old cars looked, eyes bright, chrome shiny on the outside, my emotions held together with pins of my determined self to never give way to hurt or remorse of any kind.
Throughout the day I had sat, not wanting to move in case I missed his arrival. Legs crossing and uncrossing, as the sun warmed the old stone bench, looking up and around at the ebb and flow of the plaza.
Parque Central, the heart of Old Havana, sparkled in the sunlight, surrounded by heavily overgrown Jacaranda trees, tall and stately. In each corner of the plaza, groves of white scented Mariposa flowers grew, delicate yet bold, and dried-up baptismal-shaped fountains sat idly, no longer playful. Old men sat closely together, waiting, some wearing discoloured ragged khaki jackets and Che Guevara berets, medals pinned to the brim. Their long knobbly fingers dangling across their crossed bony knees. They limply held or read a newspaper, some pulling on a thin papery roll-up, spittle stuck between yellowing teeth. Eyes, now cataractous and watery-blue peering out from beneath wisps of greying hair, bare-footed, grimy, with broken toenails, but still proud. Arturo (I had taken his photo on a previous happier trip), stood apart, leaning with one bare foot against a lamp post, proud and tall. Those old men held memories and postures of former soldiers, still fighting for their thread of life, as if still in that great revolutionary war, alongside the iconic Che Guevara. They sat hoping for a tiny handout given in exchange for a souvenir photo for some tourist to take home and pin up on a wall, somewhere.
My half-closed eyes took in the young men, redolent in different corners of the plaza, one leg propped up on a bench, the latest cotton canvas Converse on their feet, impeccably dressed. Their eyes roving, darting, looking unobtrusively or purposefully over tourists, all possible opportunities. A scene I saw repeated in every city I travelled to throughout Cuba.
I continued to sit, the waiting becoming a purgatory. How much longer would this continue?
I let time while away.
Following a movement in front of me, my eyes tracked the short flight of a bird as it flew to the top of a tall plinth, settling on the head of the white marble statue of Jose Marti, a young hero of the old Cuban Revolution. His marble memory surrounded by tall slender green Royal Palm trees bending gently from a sea breeze blowing off the Malecon, Havana's famous waterfront. Marti gave his young life for Cuba's independence, a revolution that would change Cuba from a rich sugar-producing country, with its capital Havana, built on borrowed lines of elegant Spanish architecture of cavernous proportions, to a run-down, worn-out city. Across from Marti, a golden-top cathedral, richly carved, a white stucco, and stone edifice, rose like a star. A shining blaze to the lofty offices of Tobacco Companies where one can buy the famous Cohiba cigars. But don't buy from their store, find a pretty boy to take you just round a backstreet where one can buy a box of 20 for $100, $30 for himself and $70 for the seller, always a helping hand around the corner.
I pressed the recall button on my phone endless times, but a long slow buzz told me he would not answer.
Throughout the day, a furious continuous round of vehicles circled the plaza. There were the droning sounds of cars, buses, honking, traffic lights on wires blinking, and pedicabs blaring out reggaeton and salsa music, making hips unconsciously wiggle and sway. From the shade of the old 1896 Hotel Inglaterra, a continuous humdrum of tourists and locals, eager and impatient, hurried in all directions of streets and alleyways, under a sun full of fury and fire but by late afternoon a sudden hush.
The frazzled heat had arrived, still and sticky and somnolence descended.
A passing ice cream vendor stopped near me. I pulled myself up and walked towards him, buying a moment of coolness, anything to bring down the rage inside me.
My senses had begun to drift across waves of the afternoon’s suffocating heat as I tiredly looked at the old men still sitting in the plaza. The mood of the afternoon shifted slightly as elderly greying-haired ladies joined them wearing long faded floral dresses, fabric threadbare and worn, hair pinned back, cloth shopping bags hanging from loose fingers, dragging bodies wearied by an age of living tough, on meagre handouts.
Particles of thought stopped as I held her in my vision. She ambled on bent legs, an old pretty-faced wrinkled woman, her cheeks smooth and high, shining in the heat. A bunch of bright pink Bougainvillea was tucked in her hair, her dress was a brightly coloured assorted bundle of cloth. She found a solitary bench and sat down with the largest cigar one can imagine between pursed lips. She drew heavily on this tourist attraction, its end lighting up, her eyes closed. She let out a ring of smoke, a perfect ‘O’ and slowly opened her hard care-worn eyes to see who was taking a photo of her. Her lips turned upwards, as her deeply creased, worn brown hands extended outwards.
Throughout the relenting heat of the day, as passersby wove in and around and passed me by, I too felt a separation from myself as I crisscrossed shattered memories of times past, called his phone now at least thirty times, remembering promises of him coming.
How much longer will you be before you come to Havana?
I'll be there soon.
The day had begun to leave its shadow behind and slide into the late evening. Too late now to wait any longer. I slowly uncurled my spine, one memory at a time, straightening, allowing my back to ease its anxiety. I felt alone and angry under the streetlights as they suffused the dark night with a dull glow and only the lights from the surrounding buildings added pinpoints of sparkle. A few night-people wandered past. An old man with curiosity in his eyes ambled up to me and spoke a guttural Spanish which I ignored. He stood still in front of me for a few moments, uncertain, then shuffled away. The darkening plaza had begun to encroach upon me, its stickiness sickening. The daytime sounds were now silent, the night heat oppressive.
In the silence of the cicadas, I looked up at the statue of Jose Marti, and a tumble of memories of my first Cuba visit ran riot through my body, flashpoints pricking my skin.
It seemed to me that this story which slowly unfolded had started long before I found myself sitting on that warm stone seat in Jose Marti Plaza. A story of grief and loss which started before the loss and love of my mother and husband and never really knowing when a story begins and ends.
My story, with its beginning and end, creates events that simmer beneath the surface of our lives that mutter and murmur and whisper within our unconscious self, nudging us to behave or make decisions that in our conscious self we may never consider enacting.
We may begin to lead parallel lives, functioning in a conscious state of mind yet subliminal forces posit themselves in our psyche so that our usual decision-making processes are subverted.
I mused on all of this as I sat in my office, five years after the event that took place in Cuba that left me scarred, vulnerable, foolish, embarrassed, disgusted by my vanity, unable to believe that I had allowed myself to do what I had done and unable to control myself from continuing until events occurred and the madness, that had taken hold of me, stopped.
What type of craziness had inflicted my behaviour during my nine visits to Cuba in 2014/2015? It started as a new place to visit and discover, a holiday as a reward for working hard, a way to move forward from the painful and unexpected breakup of my twenty-three-year relationship, which had ended three years earlier.
Twenty-three years of living with someone is a long time, falling in and out of love with him, then loving him again and all the while talking about being with each other well into our eighties, growing old together. We still held hands while walking, sitting in bed on a Saturday morning chatting about books, philosophy, this and that, listening to the same jokes umpteen times and still laughing and he, astounded that I still laughed at his jokes. Lying in bed at night, reading science fantasy books by our favourite authors and giggling over our adult childish loves and passions. So much time spent together. For twenty-three years we shared the same bed until one day another joined us, a youngish woman, and the life we had had together was no longer that same shared life.
After the breakup, Jack took three months off work and travelled to Brazil, Peru, and the Galapagos to “get over his life with me” and “regain a sense of his former self”. He visited a shaman in Peru who helped him reveal his inner struggles and eagerly told me on his return that I had been the cougar (the dangerous wild creature of his darkness) that leapt out of his body during one of his hallucinogenic experiences.
He was free of me!
I felt utterly broken and small, the pain knew no bounds. I never contemplated suicide, that was not a part of my character or soul. I loved life and lived it to the full. I was an adventurer at heart, bold enough and brave enough to withstand most adversaries throughout my life, but there was this vulnerable part that rarely showed itself. Instead, it was the warrior woman, the fighter, my Queen-self, the one who coped and looked after others, but rarely did I look after myself. If I had to look at the events as they unfolded, I would see how my deep, troubled broken and unconscious self steered me towards the decisions which I later made.
He was gone and I continued working, unable to change the way I lived my life, not knowing how, longing to find some answers, blaming myself, forgiving myself, trying to find closure, wracked in grief, burying that grief so deep that all light had been suffocated by the dark.
A year later in 2012, my mother died from the effects of Alzheimer’s. This was too much, so soon after the breakup. I was totally heart broken. My chest ached, and the tears flowed. In the quiet of my home, in the darkness of the night, I curled up in bed and was inconsolable.
I tried various ways and found no solace. I shut myself in my internal room, telling myself innumerable stories, using mental flagellation to get rid of those doubting questions, being kind to myself, continuing to travel to escape. Looking into the hearts of other lives I found no comfort. I dwelt on every detail of our past life, analysing, picking, and poking at the way I had lived my life with Jack and seeing the glaring holes that were covered up with laughter and humour over the span of time we had been together.
How does one mend a broken heart and overcome grief? Family and friends advised me to seek grief counselling, but I resisted this. There was a part of me that knew I had to work through it and come to my own healing. I should have heeded the words of those who loved me.
The grief was unrelenting, but I hid it well, or so I thought, and never could I have imagined how it would unfold in the months ahead. It was a grief that I acknowledged but left unresolved. It was a shapeshifter, and it had no end. Its deepness could bend one in bewitching and dangerous ways. It was a player on a stage where the actors could continue to pretend that “all’s well that ends well”, yet the outcome was not written in that play until the end and, like the beginning of a story, when does that end?
Back in 2010, a South African architect friend of mine suggested we go to Cuba. We each booked our flights, excitement rising at the thought of going to Havana, a place I had seen in old 1950s movies, with those colourful American Cadillacs, the images of a place almost lost in time. But it did not happen and as my friend explained, one week before we were due to leave, that if she took time off work to go on holiday, she would lose her job. I cancelled my flight and I never saw my “friend” again.
In the Autumn of 2014, business had been good, and the idea of Cuba resurrected itself like a phoenix. It arose from a moment in time, a phone call, another person’s deep longing, a forgotten thought and later, whenever that later had begun, the idea of Cuba was re-awakened.
A dear cousin of mine, who had been on her own for over ten years, was grappling with the idea of another unspectacular New Year’s Eve in England. Amid innumerable conversations, glasses of wine and a desire to begin to move on to new chapters in our lives, new plans unveiled. We decided that New Year’s Eve in Havana had to be a better thrill and adventure than sitting in our own backyards.
I already had a strong cinematic image of Cuba, of sugar plantations, rolled tobacco leaves, huge cigars protruding from pouting lips, rum, salsa, the evening warmth, Ernest Hemingway, an island in the sun, and the usual touristic images, but I knew nothing of its heart.
We booked our flights, flew Air France via Paris, and landed in Havana in the early evening of 27th December 2014.
As I stepped out of the plane and stood still on the upper metal platform of the disembarkation portable stairs, feeling the mid-evening warm moist air dampen my face, and walked down its steep rickety stairs, I was already in a story that had been written into another story.
Arriving in Cuba for the first time, with my cousin Ella, it held back its whispers of what would enfold from a chance meeting if I believed in chance meetings. Our girlish excitement and anticipation mounted as we stood side by side in the arrival hall of Havana International Airport. We found our senses open to the unknown of this exotic island and eager to allow ourselves to become receptive to new freedoms and explorations.
We felt at ease under its dimmed lights. It was not a Norman Foster-designed airport but shabby by international standards, but neither of us was surprised by this. It was mid-evening and through the tall glass windows, the sky was pitch black. There was a familiarity all around, as though we had landed in Delhi or Kolkata, which made us both smile. It was a feeling of unadornment and sophistication which we appreciated, having become jaded by the fast-paced vacuity of other countries visited, where so much of what we saw was of glitz and glamour and uniformity. We both already loved that here we would not be assailed by 21st-century commercialism.
I let my tight shoulders drop down to their natural equilibrium, felt my back uncurling and shook my hair loose, remembering back to a time in the 1980s when I first landed at the old Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong, stepping out of the arrival terminal and