Buena Vista Social Club
by Tula Singer (Cuba)
Audio: "Buena Vista Social Club," read by Tula Singer
The road was hot like a stove, and it burned me through my flip-flops. I moved to the grass, cool and wet with dew, where our neighbors Disami and Raúl were speculating over when yogurt would be in stock again. Disami always remembered to get us a spot in line at the bodega, especially when they were selling chicken; but since March we’d only had it once, and that was only because my aunt had “resolved” it for us (as they say in Cuba). She lives in Santa Fe, close enough to the ocean that you can smell the seaweed knots stuck in a transience between the sand and the water, but far enough from us that she would have to send the chicken and anything else she ever managed to obtain for us (eggs, rice, casquitos) with the mechanic, who comes regularly to Havana.
At ten, the drunk who managed the importations (or so we suspected, because we were never actually sure of whether or not he really worked there) announced that there was only enough for three more people to buy a full portion of two chickens and one more person to buy a half portion of one chicken; I was fifth, so I went home. The sun leaned on my back.
Disami came by our house a few hours later to bring us her second chicken. She said she owed us one, since Mami had given her a bag of nuts the previous week. That night, Mami cooked it in the oven and made a honey-apricot sauce to drizzle on top—it was rich and sweet and fresh. After dinner, we split the chocolate. It was in the little blue box behind the licor. Mami had brought it from Madrid only a few days before the lockdown and, one night a week, we allowed ourselves two squares each—a calculated occasion. I liked to leave my bit under my tongue before swallowing the smooth gold taste to the heart.
The clapping began at nine, and, just like every other night, Havana stopped to cheer for the nurses and doctors who were risking their lives for the infected patients. Kika came out with a towel, shampoo all over her hair, and Mami banged on metal spatulas. Towards the end, Naima waved from her balcony to catch my attention, saying, “¡Oeeeeeeee!” She’d just collected mangos that morning and was coming up to give us our share. They were in season, and they were falling from the neighborhood tree like orange snow. A few minutes later, we had eleven more mangos, in addition to yesterday’s seven. I thanked her and said I hoped she hadn’t seen any of the scorpions that were always lurking bitterly at the roots.
The following day, Disami called to say that the water tank had broken and it probably wouldn’t be fixed for a while. I bathed with the bucket we had by the bathtub just for these occasions, and, since there was no boiled water to drink, Kika and I drank soda.
The embassy called and approved our request to leave the country. So, we packed our clothes along with a couple of other essentials, leaving the rest behind. My friends threw me a surprise party and I was surprised; we played cards and took photos, and then they played an iMovie dedicated to me. My favorite Telmary song played in the background.
At the airport, Mami, Kika, and I wore our shields over our masks. We cried when the plane took off; I hadn’t seen Havana from such a distance in over seven months, and the city’s perfume got heavier as we flew farther away. I’d never smelled it so strongly before. The green ocean. The tobacco. The Negresco cookies. The dead cockroaches, the wet mangos, the lone cats. The pork, roasting. The sun on everybody’s skin. I realized it was easier to pick out Havana’s scent when I wasn’t in Havana; I smelled it on myself, on Kika, on Mami, and on nobody else. Throughout my first two months back in the U.S., I kept forgetting things. I forgot I could throw paper into the toilet. I forgot I didn’t have to do the dishes by hand or dry my clothes outside. I forgot not to boil water, not to reuse aluminum, not to avoid paper towels. In the morning, I would sit outside and drink café con leche with a pinch of salt, just like my best friend Ana Maritza taught me. It tasted warm and gray in my teeth, in my tongue. It tasted like an old home, before the pandemic made us go.
Quarantine never ended and I’m in a remote academic program that teases my brain. After four, I go out for walks with Rubalcaba, Billie Holiday, and Buena Vista Social Club. I’ve made friends with the dip of the promenade, where the boardwalk meets the edge of Brooklyn, where the sea gets mischievous. But I can’t adapt to a place that has its eyes half closed—I’ve lost sight of myself because I can’t project my thoughts on others.
The city is sad, and I cry for us, the way the moon cried when she made the ocean. My plants regard me like three lovely suns. They are always thirsty and I give them water every morning; they’re green and raw, and I play them Messiaen to help them grow. They listen to my thoughts. About how I’m sad for my stepfather, because his friend Roberto is sick and I can’t do anything to help, powerless like a grain of sand on the beach. About how Mami can’t get a job or a break or a moment for herself. About how Kika is going just as crazy as me, about how it prickles my skin when she asks me how my day went. About how I miss my dad, but can only see him in an old house that smells diluted and gray. About how a pregnant woman asked me for money on the street the other day, about how my aunts haven’t had chicken in months.
One evening, Mami came into my room. She said, “Today was a good day. Today we received good news from Roberto; he has a nurse now, he is taking medication. Today Tía called me to say they’d found eggs. Today the sky is blue and free of clouds.” Then the air took on that white sort of purity that only comes on cool days; it tasted like nothing. The evening rolled on, like rich green waves on the sand.