When we stepped off the ancient bus in 1950s Havana, dozens of them started coming, legless, on creepers, using hand-held blocks of wood to propel themselves across the rough pavement, clicking like crabs closing in on carrion. They peddled a hodgepodge of goods — lottery tickets, stuffed alligators, obscene postcards — all of which they held firmly between their bare leg stumps. I froze while my parents waded through the throng to buy some souvenirs before we continued on the long trip to Marea del Portillo.
Every time the bus bounced, chickens would flutter and cluck in the honey brown arms of village-bound mestizas with black hair and sensuous lips. Only twelve, I longed to be a man, to speak to them, to hold their chickens and make jokes, to be in their kitchens, tasting their lives. Instead all I could do was sit and look bored, a detached tourist staring out of a bus window at royal palms, tall and stately but crowned with vultures. Halfway through the first day, we passed an army caravan. Father said they were going to the Sierra Maestra mountains to kill Fidel Castro, “the enemy of Fulgencio Batista and General Motors.” I knew nothing then about Batista’s dictatorship and Castro’s attempts to overthrow it. I watched the soldiers trudge by beneath us, a long green-and-brown river of men in sweat-marked fatigues, carrying guns casually on their shoulders, disappearing into our dust trail.
We proceeded across the plains, dipping occasionally into shallow valleys but always returning to the endless cane fields that rose to the height of the bus windows. Every once in a while, the flowing green wall would break open and expose machete-wielding farmers toiling beside small, round huts with cone-shaped roofs of palm leaves. These villages were quickly swallowed up in the cane but remembered in the lingering scent of cooking smoke and molasses. The Sierra Maestra rose brown and soft in the distance.
When we headed southwest, the air began to turn moist and alive as swooping gulls replaced the quiescent vultures. Finally we entered Marea del Portillo, a coastal town with glistening white buildings, cool verandas, and red umbrellas set against a turquoise ocean shading to deep blue.
The bus stopped in the town’s plaza, which was empty except for three pink Cadillacs and one tan boy in ragged shorts. As I peered out the bus window, the boy’s eyes held mine, and I suddenly sensed that he, like the beggars back in Havana, would kill me for what I had. We continued to stare at each other as I disembarked from the bus and climbed into the back seat of the chauffeur-driven Cadillac. Through the window, I impulsively gave him the finger as the Cadillac carried us from the square.
The Hotel O’Lawlor, owned by an old Cuban-Irish family, was clean, spacious, subdued, and elegant. Most of its guests were wealthy Europeans, from the red-nosed Brit who continually sipped absinthe to the beautiful German couple who seemed quite comfortable in the aloofness that casual superiority brings. We were the only Americans, yet we fit in seamlessly since Father had worked for many mining companies and was accustomed to moving in cosmopolitan circles. Despite hearing reports of the brutal mutilation of Castro’s supporters, we settled into a wonderful routine: breakfasts of fresh orange juice, fried bananas, cooked prunes, and cream cheese; sojourns on the nearly empty beach, skin diving, sunning, and walking; luxurious lunches on the hotel’s veranda; long siestas; cocktails in the bar with Father rolling dice for his favorite drink, the “Cuba Libre”; late dinners in the plush dining room, looking out over the Caribbean Sea; and finally, dances on the rooftop of the hotel, with Mother always the swirling center, rumba and mambo the vehicles for her dancing passion.
On the fourth night of our stay, I was approached by one of the houseboys, who asked me in hesitant English if I would come out and play with him and his friends. I was excited to be included and asked my father for permission. He said sure, not to stay out too late, and I left the loud ballroom for the dark streets outside.
There I found a circle of about twelve boys. In the center, as my eyes began to adjust, I saw the boy from the plaza, smiling. The circle subtly enveloped me, and I became aware that my parents were three stories up and that I was not ensconced in the back seat of a Cadillac. The boys closed in, pushing me toward my grinning antagonist. No words were spoken, but my role was clear — I was to fight.
Father had always told me to lead with my left, and that was all I could think of as the boy and I boxed each other, ineffectively striking out like the children we were, until my foe suddenly moved inside my worthless jab and kneed me squarely in the groin. I doubled over and collapsed onto the street, feeling the first real rage of my life. I didn’t know where it came from, but I knew it was powerful, and I let it take me. I rose and went blindly for my opponent, straight on, head down, and bowled him over. We gouged and kicked in a tiny scrum of fury; when we got disentangled, we staggered to our feet and engaged again. Once more he knocked me down; this time when I rose, I had only his death in my eyes. We stood motionless for a moment, panting and collecting our strength. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he broke the circle and fled with me in pursuit.
We ran and ran, past bars, churches, and slanting shacks connected by littered paths where furtive dogs lurked, low and hungry. The Cuban boy finally lost me, and I stumbled between makeshift homes until I stood crying under a single light bulb that illuminated a twisted display of enshrouded poverty: half walls, a tilting refrigerator with its door open, jagged chicken wire, a rust-mottled car resting in weeds. Scared and lost, I decided to stay there, hoping that Mother and Father would go to my room, find me gone, and initiate a massive search.
No one came. As soon as the sun rose, I started to find my way back. Roosters crowed as I moved down vague paths that I hoped would lead me to the hotel.
When I finally found the beach, I took off my shoes and began to walk briskly on the cool, wet sand. In the distance sat a small, lone fisherman bent over a pole. As I neared the figure, I noticed he was not holding the fishing pole but sitting on it, his hands busy with something. When I cleared my throat over the crashing of waves, he turned, and I came face to face once again with my night’s antagonist. He was gnawing on a live fish that jerked in his hands, one side already devoured, its flashing scales now flecks of silver on the boy’s chin and lips.
I would never escape that tableau, not even as I stood unnoticed in that morning’s gray light, gazing across the hotel veranda at Mom and Dad quietly sipping coffee and eating cooked prunes and cream cheese.