Sunday, December 26, 2004

Old Lovers, Unseen Islands

La Gamella Restaurant MadridLa Gamella, Alfonso XII 4, near El Retiro

I'm having lunch rather late, even for Spain. The room is empty except for two American women from Chicago sitting behind my table. The waiter and maitre d’ are both Cuban and when they learn I’m Cuban-American, their eyes brighten with familiarity, as they always do, when Cubans find each other around the world.

Soon I’m alone, completely alone in the little, beautifully decorated room. These two well-educated, well-spoken gentleman, who gave up important posts in Cuba, but would rather work here for less money and one hundred percent inviolable freedom, make my afternoon an unexpected pleasure.

While in Spain I caught different glimpses of Cuba from across the Atlantic.

Last week I had dined with a man from northern Spain who loved to dance salsa and had traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times. He told me that conditions in Cuba had deteriorated and that he would never return. Statistically speaking, he informed me, men from Northern Spain formed the greatest percentage of tourists on the island.

And only last night, I caught the end of a hidden camera investigation on television called Infiltrados about prostitution and drug rings in Cuba. A Spanish friend once told me that while in Spain, I should never say I’m Cuban, because Spanish men identify Cuban women with the starving prostitutes of Havana. If only it were so simple to get rid of that other side of hyphen, the other side of American.

I’m so relieved to be a casual observer of words, of gestures, of intentions. Writing in my velvet book about conversations I’ve shared with different men in Spain about Cuba, I am sheltered from the rhetorical storm. There is no need to prove if anything I’m told is true. What’s important here is the fact that someone wants me to see Cuba through their eyes. The living, breathing interpretations of a history so complex that it might as well be part of some fiction.

My waiter’s parents pay the government of Cuba a monthly stipend to stay out of the island, but they are free to return whenever they like. How times have changed. My parents went through a teeth-clenching, bureaucratic hell to leave Cuba legally and can never return.

Enough. I finish my delicious meal. Memories of my family's history taken with broader sweeps on the canvas, with a new flavor.

The waiter treats me to a chupito. I close my book, savor the tart liquor on my tongue and I immediately recall pear schnapps, the Black Forest, the scent of his dark blonde hair. I think I had a dream about him last night. Yes, I definitely did.

In this city that I am only just discovering, in this city of lovers, I dream about men I have loved. They creep into the foggy labyrinth of night, blending into archetypes and architectural structures, surrounded as I am by buildings that I’ve never seen until now. This quiet refuge, this solitary meal at La Gamella, just like my solitary bed, that’s all it is, a sanctuary, a place of respite from the torrent of memories that might accost me around every corner of Madrid. I walk among unfamiliar buildings but there you are: old lovers, unseen islands, what are you doing here?

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