There was the usual crowd of pushy working girls already hanging just outside the cafe in the blazing afternoon sun, trying to woo the single male tourists. I felt lucky I had not known any of them though many of them had spotted me before. I downed the rest of the mojito and the ice water in a beat and briskly walked out, turning the corner to avoid any encounters. Soon the mojito and the sun hit me and I began having random thoughts while wandering the already familiar streets and alleys of the decrepit Old Havana. I blamed the absence of machismo in my upbringing for my reluctance to indulge in the oldest profession. On a more mindless note, I wondered if one could actually fry eggs, sunny side up, on the sidewalk.
In the midst of my lightheaded rambling I caught sight of a stunningly beautiful young girl. She wore a loose floral mini dress with shoulder straps and flip-flops. She had a delicate, slim figure with beautiful curves and smooth dark skin. She looked graceful and innocent, not at all like a working girl.
Casually adjusting my pace, I began to keep her in sight. She turned a couple of corners and paused by a storefront where she sensed my gaze from a distance. Her eyes avoided me and for a moment she frowned in pride.
Later she walked into a pharmacy and I sat a distance away on the shady side of the street and lit a cigarillo, concentrating on not inhaling. I wondered if I would ever have the luck to meet her and if my chances would have been better had I been born and raised in her neighborhood, in one of the dilapidated tenement houses of Old Havana. I had not yet met such a beautiful girl in my whole life.
As I blew the second puff of smoke, Euclide showed up, parting company with some other boys and riding his little bike over to me. Euclide was a 12-year-old black kid who worked as a hustler, guide and errand boy. I had met him on the street on my first day in Old Havana. He had politely introduced himself out of the blue and spent a whole day insisting he keep me company and patiently following me around until he finally won me over with his charm. So it was that the handsome and enterprising boy earned himself a lunch and a few bucks for showing me around Old Havanan. He became my occasional sidekick and I began to call him the wonderboy.
That day, as usual, he was offering me a deal, $40 for a box of choice Cuban cigars that he had described to me about before:
"Authentic Romeo and Julieta Coronas. My uncle has the connection to get them. I can bring them for you tonight."
"Do you know the story of Romeo and Julieta?" I asked.
"Some famous love story?"
"Yes. Right now I feel like Romeo when he first saw Julieta."
"Do you want the cigars?"
"Sure, but right now I want to meet that morena." I said, pointing out the exotic young girl just as she left the pharmacy and began walking away. He shadowed his eyes with his palm and said:
"I know her."
"Her name is Yolardis. She's from my neighborhood. Wait here I'll go get her for you." He was about to jump on his bike but I held him back.
"Oh no. Not like this. I don't think she would like to meet me right now. Do you really know her?"
"Yes. She is a friend of my stepsister. I know where she lives."
"Does she have a man?"
"She lives with her mother."
"What's she like? Does she go out?"
"Not like shameless girls. She's decent, but not a virgin."
"And just how would you know that?"
"There are no pretty virgins in Havana."
"How old is she?"
"18 or so. Old enough."
"Do you think she would like to meet me?"
"Sure. If you want I'll invite my stepsister and her to have dinner with us."
"Be my guest. You're a real wonderboy."
Euclide had taken me to Casa de Margarita, the nice guesthouse in Vedado that I was staying in. Margarita and her husband and their two little daughters had all moved to one small room of their beautiful old home and were renting out the three remaining others. I had the nicest room with a private bath, a twin bed, ceiling fan, a small refrigerator and a little boom box.
The wonderboy had also introduced me to Alejandro's restaurant where I would dine and hang out almost every night. The cozy, literally homey restaurant was inside a 5th floor apartment in Vedado. I used to sit on its small balcony overlooking the street and read my book over Chop Suey and beer. The old proprietor, a retired journalist turned restauranteur and waiter, would often keep me company recounting his memoirs on revolution, Angola, and the soviets.
That night Euclide delivered the box of cigars to my room and walked me to Alejandro's where, to my pleasant surprise, his amiable stepsister Maria and her friend, the enchanting Yolardis joined.
So after all it was in my destiny to have dinner with Yolardis. She was wearing the same dress she wore that day. Up close she was even more radiant and captivating than when I had seen her from a distance. Her irises were as pitch-black as her pupils. Her ample, cascading black hair flowed onto her shiny bare shoulders. She wore no makeup and her neat ungroomed eyebrows joined ever so slightly. Her tiny, round lips were full like a tulip bulb. She was shy, pensive and reserved and barely said a word all night but she seemed to know that she was the special person on a special occasion. I had to make conscious attempts to veer my eyes off her from time to time.
That night after Alejandro closed the restaurant, we all walked by the breezy and moonlit oceanfront Malecon drive and I got to have a few words with her.
"Would you like to see me tomorrow?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said shyly with her eyes downcast.
"Can I call you?"
"Please come again for dinner with Maria and Euclide. I want to see you."
"Thank you." That's all she said before they split, heading back home.
When they were a dozen or so steps away, Euclide made a wide turn on his bike towards me.
"I think she likes you." He said.
"How would you know?"
"I heard she said something to my sister."
"You are the wonderboy."
"Look. She's nice but doesn't go out easy. If you want I can send another pretty girl over to your house tonight."
"Thanks. But I don't need you to do me that kind of favor."
"I'm sure. But you can invite Yolardis to come to dinner with us any time."
"I'll invite Maria to bring her along. Enjoy the cigars."
Over the next few nights I held court at Alejandro's where they all came to dinner and I got to see more of Yolardis. She was a woman of many blushes and very few words. I could never guess what she was thinking. She would not eat much and would quietly ask for her dish to be bagged to go. Little by little however, she seemed to get comfortable with the fact that I wanted to be close and intimate with her. The second night she sat next to me. She wore pink stonewashed jeans and a tight black hard rock T-shirt with a wide rip on the back and a large red kiss mark printed on the front. She also wore a hint of red lipstick.
The following Friday, I took Euclide, Maria and Yolardis to a Chinese restaurant. Yolardis loved her fortune cookie but kept her fortune without showing it to anyone. Afterwards I took them to see a Spanish movie. In the theater Yolardis sat next to me and in the middle of the film she put her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. I could not tell if she actually fell asleep but I felt preciously touched and kept still. That night we took a slow walk on the Malecon and when we passed a dark stretch she suddenly stopped, held my hand and whispered into my ear that she could go home with me.
At the guesthouse, we tiptoed to my room so as not to disturb my hosts. When I turned on the lights she disappeared in the bathroom and took her time in the shower. When she reappeared she was naked. She left the bathroom door slightly ajar with its light on and swiftly turned off the other light and came to bed. I looked at her silhouette as she took an eternity to tune the boom box to a station playing soft romantic Son. Then silently she cuddled up next to me and rested her head on my chest for a while. I felt her warm silky touch for the first time. I held her for a bit and slowly began kissing her forehead, shoulder and lips. She had the sweet scent of my lavender soap. I touched her back and thighs and kissed her breasts. She quivered when I entered her and we made love. She was quiet and tender at first but suddenly she became passionate.
Yolardis was full of surprises. After our intense lovemaking she quickly put her panties back on, turned on the light and spent some time quietly examining my naked body and my genitalia with the curiosity of a little girl who had just undressed her doll for the first time. Then she went to the bathroom again for a long time while I waited my turn in discomfort. When I left the bathroom, she had opened a can of beer from the mini refrigerator, lit one of my cigars and, as if I was not there, begun going through my things that were strewn around the room. I thought maybe she was looking for evidence of other women. She found my open backpack in the closet and carefully went through all its pockets and compartments. I did not have much to hide. As I lay in bed watching her she found my passport and stared at my picture and my name for some time. Then she found my wallet and carefully examined my bit of cash, travelers' checks and plastic cards. I told her that I was not rich by any standard outside of Cuba.
"No pictures?" She asked.
"Sorry, I did not bring any."
Then she turned the light off, snuggled next to me in bed and, resting her head on my shoulder, drifted off.
When I woke up, Yolardis was still asleep. Through the small window high above my bed another hot and bright day in Havana poured in. In the daylight I examined her perfect body inch by inch. She only had a couple of vaccination marks on her arm and a tiny scar on her knee. Sweat was forming on her body like dew on an orchid. I took a shower and by the time I was done she was already dressed and anxious to go. Before she left she said:
"I have to stay home tonight. I will come by tomorrow afternoon."
"I'll be waiting."
"Now listen carefully: No woman for you tonight. Understand?"
That day I took a taxi to the beach and stared at the blue sky and the low clouds on the horizon. At night I stayed in and read. When I went to bed the unchanged sheets had her scent.
She came by the house the next day shortly after noon. She was wearing another tight black T-shirt imprinted with the word L o v e in large silver letters. When we went to my room she quickly undressed and, without much hesitation, we made love standing in front of the mirror. Then we lay in bed for a while where she closed her eyes and took a little nap. She was perfectly peaceful and silent in her sleep. Watching her, I pondered doing something uplifting with the rest of the day. Though I truly liked her pure and mysterious wordlessness, I suddenly felt like doing something to make her cheer and smile. I wanted to see her unabashed expression of joy.
When she woke up we got dressed and decided to go shopping. Yolardis took me to a large state subsidized clothing outlet where she had probably bought all of her clothes. The clothes seemed to have come from garment liquidators in China and South America or some international charity organization. There were a few leftover promotional T-shirts and some specialty clothes favored by the poor working girls. Yolardis said that she visited the store often and at best there were slim pickings. That day she did not find anything she liked.
I thought that maybe a stylish dress would make her happy and I took her to a chic clothing boutique in the lobby of a fancy international hotel. The store was air conditioned and played Italian pop music. The pretty storekeeper greeted us with a smile, presented some garments and made some suggestions. Yolardis was in awe from the moment we entered. She bashfully touched the fancy designer clothes. Then she tried a couple of dresses on and began posing by the mirror in a mix of self-consciousness and fascination. She examined the price tags in wonder. In no time, she wanted to try everything on.
Finally she put on a blue dress of beautiful silk that fit her well and she appeared to want the most. Feeling exalted, I thought to myself that I too deserved to see her in that dress. The price tag was a reasonable $135 and I decided to pay cash and buy her the dress as a present. When we left the boutique, she was all smiles, overjoyed with the fancy shopping bag in her hand. Afterwards we strolled hand in hand for a bit. In parting she kissed me and said with a sweet smile:
"Thank you for the beautiful present."
"You're welcome. I hope it's beautiful enough for you."
"Listen. I have to go home now and stay in tonight. But let's do something nice tomorrow. I will wear this dress."
"We can go to a very nice restaurant or a nightclub. Whatever you like."
"I'll come by tomorrow around this time."
"I'll be waiting."
"One more thing. You must stay away from shameless girls. Understand?"
That night I ate early at Alejandro's and went home and joined Margarita and her kids in watching a blurry video, a Hispanic romantic comedy about Dominican immigrants filmed in the Bronx. The following day I went to the beach early and read to the end of my book.
That night Yolardis stood me up. I anxiously stayed in until midnight and drank all the beer in the mini-bar but there was no sign of her. Then I decided to visit the shabby local bar and get drunk on rum.
The next day, just before noon, a knock on my door woke me. The housemaid told me that Yolardis wanted to come in to see me. When she arrived I was badly hungover and she looked somber and sad. She was wearing her kiss print T-shirt again. She sat next to me on my bed, her eyes downcast and said in a sad voice:
"Listen carefully. I am sorry about last night but yesterday I had a big problem at home."
"I could not wear your dress last night. I was very upset and I did not want to see anybody. Understand?" She said as her eyes welled up.
"Because yesterday my mother took the dress back to the shop to got the money for it." A tear ran down her cheek. She paused silently for a while and said:
"My mother said I could not have that dress when in our house we don't have enough food to eat."
I held her as she broke into a silent sob. I did not quite know what to say. I told her that the dress was not a big deal and she had no reason to be upset. I wanted to tell her that I would buy her another dress or that she could depend on me for anything but I held back as it was not going to sound right. Instead I said:
"I'm so sorry. Please don't cry. Whatever I can do ..."
"I have to go. I will see you later."
"Don't know. I'll come by."
She quickly straightened up her back, collected herself together and got up. After a brief and pensive pause wiping her eyes and staring at the floor she said goodbye and left, closing the door behind her. I sat on the bed for a while, silent and confounded.
As it turned out that was the last I saw of her. She did not call on me again. For a few days I wondered what had happened to her. I saw the wonderboy once more when he brought a new batch of working class Italian buddies to Margarita's guesthouse. He seemed busy with his new clientele and when I asked him about Yolardis he said he had not seen her, but in time he would find out.
In the end I decided not to stress myself looking for her. I hardly knew anything about her and having only a week left of my trip, I already sensed the anxiety of returning to my real life. Beginning to feel like a weary foreigner at loose ends I needed to be on the move to change my scenery. The next day I left Havana for Santiago where I spent the remainder of my time in Cuba.
It was not until two years later that I went back to Havana. Leaving the airport, my backpack was next to me on the back seat of the taxi and in my hand I held the address card for Casa de Margarita. This time, thanks to the card, I had managed to prove knowledge of where I was going and was spared the hassle of having to pick and prepay for a state-operated hotel at the airport. I had called Margarita in advance about my arrival. To my delight and surprise, she remembered me well as the guapo Americano and had promised me the same room. I was hoping to get there not too late but it was already half past midnight. It had just rained and the streets were wet. The new taxicab zoomed smoothly through the dark and empty avenues of Havana. The taxi driver, a dashing young mulatto, asked:
"Where are you from? Italiano?"
"No. I live in New York."
"Nova Iorque ... el centro del mundo! ... Not your first time here?"
"No. I was here once over two years ago."
"Welcome back to communismo!"
"How is life in Cuba?"
As we approached the center of town, there was again the familiar scene of curvaceous young prostitutes working the streets and intersections.
"The working girls are still here."
"Putas ... Las putas!" He pronounced emphatically in laughter.
"I heard they cracked down on that business."
"No. It never changes."
The rich scent of rain and wet earth was blowing through the open window. It felt good to be on the ground again, somewhere I had been before. I knew I would find some of the same people and hear their stories again. Above all, I remembered the enigmatic Yolardis.
In a flash I saw a delicate and beautiful girl running across to the other side of the avenue. I thought I saw her wearing high heels, a short red miniskirt and a black T-shirt with a large red kiss print.
"Oh my ... slow down. por favor!" I said to the driver and abruptly turned around on my seat and stuck my head out through the window.
As the cab slowed down and stopped at a red light I focused my eyes again and for a moment I caught a good sight of her from afar as she was illuminated by another pair of approaching headlights. It was Yolardis.
"You like her? ... She was lovely. Do you want me turn the car around?" The driver asked.
"No. It's not necessary." I replied.
"You can probably have her for $60, maybe $40 at this hour. I can negotiate for you."
"No thanks. It's all right."
"Well ... It's true you just arrived here ..."