I’m sitting atop the Escalinata, eighty-eight steps above the streets of Havana. Between the crumbling pastel high rises I can just make out the blue stripe of the Straits of Florida, one shade darker than the sky. I’m writing a letter in my notebook to my best friend back in Wisconsin. Later, during my 30-minute weekly-alloted internet time at the study abroad program office, I’ll copy it into an email. I lean back against one of the Corinthian columns, which open onto the leafy University quad.

A wind rustles the palms: his cue.

I don’t remember his opening line; he doesn’t need one. He’s more sculpture than man, chocolate skin set against a white guayabera. When he removes his dark sunglasses, I see he has one green eye, one blue.

He says his name is Angel.

I’m proud of how well I understand him. I’ve studied Spanish for years, but Cubans slip over consonants like rocks in a stream, gaining speed and churning foam with every syllable. Because of the way he talks, it makes sense when Angel claims to be the son of the Venezuelan ambassador. He complains about Cubans, how they are always out to take advantage of foreigners. You can never trust them.

I rush to their defense: they do what they must in order to survive. Imagine trying to support a family on $25 a month?

Angel smiles, gold incisors interrupting rows of pearly white. He wishes he could be as compassionate as me, but he’s been burned by Cubans one too many times.

Naturally, Angel is a law student at University of Havana by day, and a dancer at the Tropicana Night Club by night.

He knows a restaurant in the Barrio Chino, where only foreigners eat and each plate of Creole chicken and rice is flavored with more spices–his full mauve lips pucker in anticipation–than are rationed monthly for a Cuban family of four. Would I like to go with him? Afterwards, we can go dancing at the Casa de la Rumba; naturally, the owner is a friend of his.

I agree, although strangely I’m not attracted to him. I know I should be. It’s just that such a perfect specimen should be pinned under glass for future generations to admire, not roaming free among mortals.

It’s the story I want. I can already hear myself telling it to friends over cocktails, to my future husband, to remind him how lucky he is, and to our children, who will roll their eyes at the idea the Mom was ever that young, living on an island without golden arches, where the King dressed in olive drab.

*   *   *

In the corner of my notebook, Angel writes down his phone number at the Venezuelan Embassy. I know the embassy well. It’s not far from Hostal Icemar, the peach and yellow apartment complex where us American students are sequestered, because capitalism is believed to be transmissible via home stay. I pass it every day on my way to school–a cream colored mansion behind razor wire–one of the grandest of the embassies that line Quinta Avenida. For $20, the armed guards who patrol the gate will sell you their olive berets right off their heads.

Angel says he’ll see me tomorrow, then pulls down his shades to hide his incongruous eyes, and disappears between the columns.

*   *   *

That night, back at Hostal Icemar, my roommate and I compare notes.

Angel had also appeared to her on the Escalinata. The story he told her was identical, down to the time and place of their next encounter.

The next day, at the appointed time, we wait for Angel on the Escalinata. Not surprisingly, he never shows. The story is still good for laughs. We forget about Angel; Havana is full of beautiful men, just waiting around for foreign women to cross their paths. We are propositioned on the guagua, at the Museo de Bellas Artes, and in line at the Diplomart. In Cuba, sex is the one thing that isn’t rationed. Every time we turn around, penises poke out of flies, their owners stroking them casually. We look away and keep walking, only faster. Soon our walk evolves into a strut; we sway our hips and stick out our chests. Flaunting feels better than being afraid.

*   *   *

For many of us, Angel is our first encounter with a jinetero. I’ve heard jinetero translated variously as gigolo, player, or hustler. A jinetero may have sex in exchange for money, or gifts, but it’s not themselves they are selling–never would they risk dropping the mask long enough for you to really know them. It’s Cuba they’re selling, or the idea of it, a tropical utopia lost to time. Rum? Cigars? Casa particular? Jineteros know what you want before you do. And if they can’t supply it–for a cut–they have a tío who can.

*   *   *

As the weeks go by, we become adept at brushing off the jineteros. Not in your wildest dream, viejo baboso!, we snap before they can even open their mouths to propose marriage, or a trip to the discotheque. Some take it as a challenge. Block after block, the same hopeful bleat follows us from the shadows:“Pwety Leydi, sucky sucky?” And pity the poor jinetero who tries to sell us a Che Guevara coin for a dollar, when we know perfectly well it is worth 3 Cuban pesos, or about $.25.

The jinetero might have a day job as an engineer or a schoolteacher. Many come from the provinces, if not to seek their fortune, at least to find subsistence. Given the opportunity, almost anyone might be a jinetero. It’s a thought we can never banish entirely from our minds as we begin to make friends with Cubans at school, in our neighborhood, and even when we date. The doubt is always there, between us, in a way the embargo never is.

*   *   *

It’s almost the end of the semester when Angel makes another appearance.

There’s another girl, Eliza, who’s in the same study abroad program as us. We don’t know her very well because she lives in the other residence, La Villa, several blocks from Hostal Icemar.

I don’t remember much about her. I think she was blonde and had acne on the back of her arms. I think she went to Mt. Holyoke, but I’m not sure. I do remember that she was soft-spoken like me, except unlike me, she didn’t overcompensate by being a smart-ass.

It’s Tuesday night when everyone in the program gathers at La Villa for dinner and announcements. There are about forty of us, culled from schools across the country, from Wharton Business School, to UMass to tiny schools in Minnesota I’ve never heard of.

We arrive at the Villa gates just in time to see Eliza get out of a police car with Pepe and Carmita, the Program Directors.

Her friends whisk her up the staircase before we have a chance to ask what happened. She doesn’t come down for dinner. Tuesday dinners at the Villa are highly anticipated, for they often includes chicken picadillo instead of pork, and sweet plantains in place of the usual gray hunks of cassava–as if our chefs had stolen a cadaver, hacked it to pieces and thrown it into a pot (such things were rumored during “Special Period” of economic hardship that followed the fall of the Soviet Union).

After dinner, Pepe and Carmita sit us down in the dark-paneled living room.

They tell us that someone in our program allowed a local friend to use her iBook. She only turned her back for a second. The directors escorted her to the police station to file a report, but there was next to no chance that her property would be recovered.

Carmita goes on to say that the suspect is known to police. He often hangs around the University, posing as a student, and claiming to reside at the Venezuelan Embassy, where the switchboard is tied up with girls asking for him. I imagine Hugo Chavez, apoplectic on the other end, demanding to know who is this Devil, with the cojones to call himself Angel.

The murmur of recognition goes up before Pepe even gets to the part about the green and blue contacts.

If we see this person, we are to inform them immediately.

But we all know Angel is smarter than that. He will not be seen in Havana again, at least not this semester. I imagine him darting down the alleys on his way to the port, in the shadows of the crumbling high rises, lucky laptop tucked under his arm. I hope he got what he wanted for it; enough to afford the government permit for the hair salon his mother’s always dreamed of opening back in Santa Clara or Pinal del Río, or the rivets to complete the raft he’s building out of irrigation pipes. Maybe he kept the laptop, and used it to circumnavigate government censors, launching dissident voices into cyberspace from a bare, concrete, roach-infested room in Central Havana.

Or maybe he blew it on rum, sex, and marijuana, all in one night.


by Anna Laird Barto