Rachael (pronounced with an emphatic rolling of the beginning R- “Rrrrachael”) was a short, melancholic student who had been a student of English and French at the University of Havana for the past three years. She came up to the door downstairs wearing bronze-tinted knockoff sunglasses and listened quietly to the instructions of our hostess Marta, who spoke to her with the same grandmotherly slowness with which she had originally addressed us. Rachael nodded as she listened to the lecture, though already, you could tell, she was in no mood to follow any sort of itinerary.
Despite the slight rung of body fat that clung against her torso, she was nonetheless a beautiful girl, and managed to hide her depressive nature with a quiet charm and inclination to laugh that suited her perfectly to the task of guiding us around town for the first time.
Eating in a crowded, sweaty, streetside café where a mass of people had conglomerated under the fans of the open-air veranda to escape the oppressive mid-afternoon humidity, we dug into heavily loaded plates of arroz y pollo while Rachael, at our curious requests, regaled us with different aspects of her life.
Her fiancée, who she spoke about with a wispy glow of longing in her eyes, had escaped to Miami in search of better job opportunities (when, or more importantly how he got to Miami, I didn’t bother to ask.) One day, she hoped, she’d be able to join him in south Florida and perhaps create a new life with him there.
Following our meal, we followed her as she walked westward, taking us first through the large square of the Capitolio, the massive, Romanesque, Batista-era government building that was surrounded by a massive palm-lined plaza, and later into the labyrinthine tangle of cobblestoned backstreets, such as the famous Calle Obispo, that made up Old Havana- or Habanavieja.
I made sure to work my weight practicing Spanish with her, asking questions about any buildings or squares that piqued my interested, while she, an English major, reciprocated the same sentiment with me, practicing her English in response to my inquiries in Español.
In the Plaza de Marti, in which stands a large statue of its namesake pointing to the sky, she pointed out a curiosity, native to only Havana, that would’ve been too strange for even the most adept of writers to concoct:
“See that over there?” as we walked along she gestured towards a sprawling amoeba of dirtied old men caught in the midst of a furiously heated debate: shouting desperately above each others voices, their hands upraised as they spit into one another’s faces.
What were they talking about? Politics? Religion?
“Baseball,” she said with a low, amused chuckle. We had slowed down a moment to soak in the sight of the queer spectacle. “They come here to stand and argue about baseball.”
“When do they come?”
She laughed: “Every single day.”
We continued on.
In Habanavieja we walked past dusty bookstores with tomes about Fidel and Che on display in the windows, past appliance stores with such little merchandise that the few products available were spaced out widely on the shelves, past run-down cafeterias with ramshackle signs out front and past small, cavernous gift shops hung heavily with racks of Che T-shirts and revolutionary berets.
At the corner of one plaza, Rachael opted to pay two pesos for each of us to ride an industrial elevator to the top of a seemingly defunct old hotel, the roof of which had, amongst other attractions, a lookout affording an unobstructed view of the city.
On the rooftop, resting forwards with our arms against the wall, we looked out in silence over the hot afternoon panorama: the uneven checkerboard of cracked, stucco buildings, the lush gardens that had been cultivated atop the bald slates of said buildings, and the ant-like fluctuations of tourists in the streets below. Straight ahead of us, the sea beyond the morro castle simmered a hard cobalt blue under the merciless beating of the sun, and to our right an Italian cruise-ship lay moored against the backside of the harbor.
“How did you all manage to come down here?” Rachael had dropped the question randomly as we looked out over the view.
“Very cheap,” we said. “170 dollar plane tickets. Not too much for the Airbnb. We were able to manage it very easily, considering it was a last minute trip.”
“And you,” I asked. “Where have you been around the world?”
“Cuba,” she said.
“Which parts of Cuba?”
“Yes,” she conceded morosely, obviously embittered by having to respond with such an answer. “I’ve never been outside of Havana province. Not once in my life. It gets tiring, you know. I haven’t seen anything in the world.”
“One day you’ll get to see the world,” I told her, slightly shamed by my insensitivity. I had failed to remember the uncanny way poverty can chain one to a limited geographical radius. She was a good sport though, and smilingly agreed with my benediction. I hoped I was right in saying she would eventually get to see the world. We went back into the elevator to descend down to the streets, though I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I had gone through my whole life blindly unaware to the enormous luck I’d borne, in the cosmic scheme of things. I was nineteen and had already been able to travel to Italy, France, Canada, Mexico, Belize, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and countless places in the continental United States. She was twenty-two and had barely gone outside of Havana.
The bar in which we later found ourselves had tall open windows with wooden shutters that let slanting shafts of bronze sunlight fall diagonally across the hall. Elephant ear plants in deep ceramic pots guarded each window, Egyptian style, and the bartenders ambling slowly about the establishment were dressed, as per the colonial theme of the bar, as sacerdotes– priests. Easing back into heavy chairs, sipping our honorary first mojitos in Cuba, we listened quietly as the band of oboes and clarinets next to us lapsed into a slow, poetic rendition of Ave Maria.
A poetic way to end the afternoon in the city: it was our first time drinking in Cuba, our last time with our friend Rachael. I will never forget her subtle, bittersweet face and the way she longingly spoke of joining her boyfriend in Miami. And yet I don’t imagine I will ever see her again.