I’m back home again, ensconced in my condo aerie, looking for mischief to do, exposés to write, anything to shake off the mental inactivity of a week on Varadero Beach. Not that I didn’t enjoy getting lightly toasted (walking the hotel strip beach almost down to the former DuPont estate) and slightly broiled (falling asleep by the pool with only #4 SPF on my face). I did, indeed. But, I underestimated the volume (little, very little, pun) of books I would need for the duration. When we arrived in Cuba late Sunday night, my first selection (The Street Lawyer, John Grisham’s latest piece of legal fluff) was two-thirds finished. By Monday night, I had re-read one of my all-time favourite sci-fi books, The Day of the Triffids, and launched into Jane Urquhart’s lyrical, wonderful The Underpainter. Muttering, “Jeez, wish I could write like that, damn it,” I didn’t put down the book until it was quite done Wednesday night.
What’s a forlorn writer/reader to do when the reading runs out? And there’s still Thursday, Friday, Saturday and a portion of Sunday to kill? Why, she borrows her companion’s scribbler (long-forgotten in his carryon bag) and his Bic pen (so she doesn’t leave her own ancient silver Caran d’Ache on the pool deck, as she is wont to do) and systematically crucif---describes her fellow sun seekers. Remember the saying idle hands are the devil’s playground? Mea culpa. I blame Hemingway. He used to drink moquitos, a delicious rum, mint and sugar water concoction, not far from what is now the lobby bar of my hotel. His ghost probably assists the devil when he has writer idlers. like moi.
Mea culpa. Allow me to introduce a few of the week’s more memorable characters.
On first glance, the two young men across the aisle of the Skyservice Airbus looked like any two young men eager for a week of sun, sand and sex, i.e., any young man. At breakfast the second day, listening to a heated tiff, I learned my fairy, uh, very, nice young men are homosexual, as I suspected from Ted’s serial sibilance, not (as Jerry Seinfeld would say) that there’s anything wrong with that and, given my own checkered family, I would surely be the last one chosen to throw stones. No, the sad reality emerged over toast and espresso: While The Tiffers may be gay, they are definitely not happy.
“I did NOT sleep with someone else last night,” Ken Doll insisted discreetly, but not discreetly enough to escape my eagle ears.
I have made a career out of eavesdropping; I resent interruptions (like roving guitar players and hovering waiters) that break my concentration and impair my ability to catch the whole truth and nothing but. Having seen Ken Doll the night before, camping it up with a mustachioed dandy at the Cactus Bar after Ted, the supposed love of his life, had departed in a sulky snit, I’m siding with Ted. Then, where the hell were you till four in the morning? Hey, Teddy Bear, you darling, gorgeous, little sweetie, where there’s smoke, break the glass, sound the alarm! Mind you, my own multi-hued palette of past and prejudices with Mr. Screwaround You-Know-Who-You-Are may colour my opinions. Don’t listen to me, Ted. I hope Ken Doll is telling the truth, or if he’s fibbing, I hope he doubled up his condoms. Tall and so thin his ribs form a curved ladder beneath his fake-and-bake skin, Ken Doll looks suspiciously like Rock Hudson. Shortly before his final breath.
“There’s no point discussing this any more.” The feud continued at dinner. Don and I just happened to be seated at the next table. Again. “We’ve discussed this for forty minutes.” It’s clear who wears the, uh, pants in this household.
They are obviously incompatible. Clean cut, clean shaven Ted likes to lie by the pool, wearing khaki shorts pressed to a knife edge and a sparkling white, wrinkle-free T-shirt, reading something self-analytical. Ken Doll prefers to range the endless, sugar sand beach, wearing a skimpy brief, stopping at intervals to sit or lie directly in the path of the sun. Ted keeps his #50 SPF suntan lotion handy, ready to ward off any stray ultraviolet ray. Teddy Bear is never Teddy bare. When he was a kid, Ted’s mother told him he had sensitive, very sensitive skin, drummed it into him that his body is a temple, and Teddy still believes everything Mama told him. Ken Doll keeps his suntan oil handy, too, to promote a darker tan under his light beard, and he swigs pre-mixed cocktails from his insulated drink container, he swigs Cristal cerveza bought from an illegal beach vendor, he swigs moquitos in the lobby bar. At ten p.m., he reverts to cerveza. He may drink to forget his troubles with Ted; he may drink this way at home. (Me, I drink this way on vacation in places where rum and beer are cheap.)
They had kissed and made out, uh, up, I thought, but by mid-week, Ken and Ted’s excellent adventure was complicated by the arrival of Trigger, a persistent secretary from Arizona. Americans are barred from visiting Cuba except as part of a study group, so Trigger arrived (illegally) via Calgary. Resourceful, see? Horse-faced, beyond ordinary-looking and bordering on ugly, perhaps realizing she could never aspire to seduce gorgeous Ted, but gravitating to the only two single men, Trigger was instantly attracted to Ted’s gangly companion. Trying to beat back the wispy, frizzy bright red tendrils that escaped her upswept hairdo and attacked her ears, Trigger plopped her bared body next to Ken when he rested on the sand. Her hummingbird hands hovered over his shoulder, around his arms, gauzily brushed his back. She was so in-your-face, I wouldn’t have been taken aback if she had pounced on Ken and thrust her mouth in his ear.
“My God,” said Don as Trigger sidled up behind Ken and grazed her small chest against his bony back. “Look, she’s moving in on him. Surely, she can’t think…. surely she can’t be so dense.”
“Maybe she’s a fruit fly.”
“A what?” Don laughed so hard, he almost spat his swallow of Drambuie (Dram-bew, in the Varadero dialect) out his nose.
He thought I made up this appellation. I explained yes, Don, I’m clever enough to have thought that up, but unfortunately someone else did it first. Damn. “That’s what gays call women who hang around gay guys.”
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you were being snarky, as usual.” Touché.
Trigger didn’t strike me as a fag follower (another gay appellation, not mine, Don, sorry). She wasn’t the type (to me) to believe she’s femme fatale enough to switch him. Then again, maybe she’s Mata Hari in her own mind. A scene the next day helped to confirm my earlier assessment: Trigger had no clue about Ken’s sexual affiliations. We were digging into postres (bad cake, good ice cream) and coffee when Trigger flounced by our table, which, by coincidence again, was next to Ken’s. Ted and Ken still ate dinner together, joined by Ken’s mustachioed buddy. Head high, face redder than even a day of Cuban sun can take credit for, Trigger flounced past Ted, past Ken, past the troisième personne in this ménage. No hello, no excuse me. That day, I fear Trigger had learned one lesson Roy Rogers had never taught anyone.
So, apparently, had Ted. Though the boys had planned to stay two weeks, after five days Ted was never seen again. I desperately wanted to sashay up to Ken and ask him where Ted had gone, but Don’s sense of decorum is more highly developed than mine. He held me back.
Still, he’s the one who first noticed Lonely Boy. Don’s name, not mine. Maybe he’s been around me too long.
Lonely Boy looked as if he’d thought he would come to Cuba and waste away in Margaritaville, but his plane landed before he realized he’d bought a ticket to the wrong country. He ate alone, lay on the beach alone, drank in the bar alone. He looked so sad, so utterly miserable, we were all afraid to speak to him. We feared the winds of woe we might unleash on our separate vacations and some of us--not me, not me-- were already battling crashing waves of our own. We weren’t completely hard-hearted, however. Whenever Lonely Boy, a creature of habit, wasn’t in his customary places at the customary times, we worried he might have gone to his room and hung himself from the shower head. Which was why his laughing with the blonde seemed so incongruous.
The long-legged blonde arrived on a flight from Frankfurt, but from her accent, I venture she was a Hamburger. Let me begin again. A native of Hamburg, Germany. Sleekly streaked, sleekly tall and model thin, she chose to accentuate her dolphin sleekness with short, slinky, vertical striped, Spandex dresses. Tanned legs crossed well above the knee, she sat on the lobby bar’s high stools, bending her sleek head to sip her moquito through a long straw, her polished hand resting on the arm of her companion who was nowhere near as sleek as she. She was everything every woman in the bar envied. She was everything every man in the bar desired. Until she raised her drink to her mouth and exposed her dark, woolly armpit. God is dead. The men looked away in embarrassment or disgust. The women, judging from whispered comments, couldn’t have been more offended had she pulled up her dress an extra inch and pulled down the bikini panty visible under the Spandex.
The Pits, coming from Europe where many women decline to shave their armpits, was unaware of the shock she had caused. She maintained her cool, sleek calm. Until our last day. Waiting for the airport bus, we sat in the lobby bar--only to escape the rain and wind, I swear--for three and a half hours. For the three and a half hours, The Pits--minus her companion, the small whale to her dolphin-- held up one end of the bar with her sleek knee, which was encased in shiny black leather and topped with a jewelled black croptop. Oh, goodness, not trouble in this Paradiso, too. Tut tut. Something in the water, perhaps? Before our eyes, The Pits, lubricated by close to a litre of Cuba’s finest rum, disintegrated. This stiff, model-perfect goddess got pissed. Started chatting up Lonely Boy, playing with his bare back. Started laughing and throwing her arms, hairy armpits and long cigarette included, over her head. Actually scratched--yes, scratched-- deep into the jewelled cleft of her croptop with one perfect fingertip. (It’s true . The devil does find work for idle hands.) And oh, my God, Lonely Boy laughed back and like any man (except Ken & Co.), stared when she scratched. We later saw Lonely Boy, in line for our airport bus, smiling, for the first time since he got here. He was just happy to be going home. Ya think?????
Going home, too, was tiny, willowy Jailbait. When I noticed Jailbait as we were checking into Hotel Arenas Blancas, I kept looking around for her parents. She looked impossibly young to be travelling alone. She looked impossibly young to be travelling with a male companion not related to her by blood. The following day, thanks to a headful of corn rows, she looked even younger. The tall, fair chap who partnered Jailbait at dinner, on the pool terrace and (one can only imagine) other, more intimate places, could have used the age-lowering effects of corn rows, but his hair was short and besides, there wasn’t enough left. Genes had wreaked their havoc.
“Perhaps they’re brother and sister,” Don suggested when I voiced my concerns, as if it were any of my business.
“I guess you didn’t see his tongue down her throat, like I did.” I laid a conciliatory hand on Don’s arm. “Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re not brother and sister.”
Poolside, Jailbait chatted non-stop to her four-month boyfriend (don’t ask how I discovered this) and examined her fair skin for sun damage and her painted toenails for sand and surf injuries and read People magazine.
Beside her, Ted (before he disappeared) started a biography of Mary Tyler Moore, and The Great Divide, who waltzed into the dining room every morning without benefit of a cover-up, the crotch of her high-cut bikini bottom running like a Rockies chasm through the bare white, twin hills of her behind, delved into Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. On other, scattered chairs lay the other Fugitive Pieces, a collection of men whose combined bad artificial hair has enlivened many an equally bad all-inclusive buffet. One man’s hairpiece listed to the left, perhaps the result of a strong wind and no mirror. Another man’s hair sat propped atop his head, almost floating above it, like a prickly bush on a small rock outcropping. A third hairpiece waged a daily fight with the back of its owner’s shirt collar, finally throwing up its polyester hairs in defeat. One tall old man, nearly blind without his glasses, wore a hairpiece so patently, grotesquely, fake with its exaggerated centre part and stiff, lacquered front Betty Boop extension, he almost tripped over my chair one night before I realized his hair was real. Interspersed among the Fugitive Pieces were the Cindy Crawford Rejects, first pointed out (yes, indeedy!) by Mr. MacDonald. Thumbing his hand at a man whose yellow, red and black horizontal stripe T-shirt was tucked neatly into yellow and blue plaid shorts, he asked, “Fashion faux-pas, I think?” As if he needed to ask.
“Colour blind. Or dressed before dawn, no light on.”
“Like something I would do,” he said, looking sideways to see if I agreed. I wisely said nothing, though my head was aching to nod, nod, nod. Then I thought, Remember Dopey, Ev. Remember Dopey.
Grumpy and Dopey shared our preference for eight o’clock breakfast--though they would have had to get up at three a.m. to share Don’s predilection for pre-breakfast five kilometre beach walks. Dopey, a nice enough eighty-three-year-old, stricken with various old-age ailments (not the least of which was a younger wife), doesn’t walk nearly fast enough to suit his sharp-tongued spouse. We began to suspect he doesn’t do anything (if you get my drift) well enough to suit her.
We met Grumpy, though not Dopey, on the airport bus shortly after our arrival. The bus seemed filled, everyone was tired and anxious to get out of their warm clothes and into a cold moquito at our various hotels, yet still we idled at the Number 8 Sunquest bus stop.
“Let’s go!” someone yelled from the back and other voices picked up the refrain. “Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go.”
“Why aren’t we leaving?” someone asked the driver when he ventured unto the bus.
“A lady has lost her husband,” he said in heavily accented English. “Anyone have a spare husband?”
“Would she like mine?” chirped the newly minted bride in front of me. Everyone’s a comedian.
“Not getting mine,” I said and Don instantly squeezed my hand.
“Ohhhhh, how sweet,” he murmured. “How romantic!” I ruined the moment by reminding him all the cold hard American cash, the only currency Cuba deems worthy despite their decades-old Communist vs. Capitalist struggle with the States, was tucked into his passport holder.
A lone woman, short and dumpy, perhaps a real catch in her youth, staggered down the aisle, her carryon bags clipping every aisle passenger’s elbow or shoulder. If the bus had started moving before she reached the only available seats, she would once again have been a catch.
Voices assaulted her at every clip.
“Did you find him?”
“Did you find him?”
“No,” she said. “He must have got tired of waiting for me to get the bags. He must have gone on the first Number 5 bus.”
For someone whose spouse was loose in a foreign country with the clothes on his back, no money and very little mind, she wasn’t overly concerned. Calm. Serene. Pleased????
“Honest, officer,” I could almost envisage her plead. “Honest, I just turned around for a split second and there he was, gone! Now, can we probate the will, please? Can I file for the insurance?”
When I saw Grumpy stumbling down the bus aisle, I thought she was my Aunt Alice. If it had turned out to be Aunt Alice, I would have been mighty surprised. Alice died five years ago. She was short and dumpy and cute and old, too, but she had something Grumpy can’t expect to develop at this late date: personality. Aunt Alice’s pleasant voice never raised in anger (in public, anyway) no matter how irascible or dumb my Uncle Ned acted. And he could act plenty dumb, especially after a few neat shots of Captain Morgan. Grumpy is an elf of another hue. Meal after meal, the inhabitants of neighbouring tables and adjoining sun chaises were subjected to Grumpy’s incessant badgering of her husband. By the end of the first day, every resident knew Grumpy has to remind him six times to remove his watch before he showers off the beach sand, knew he can’t be trusted to put cream in his coffee the first trip to the buffet, were painfully aware how badly he applies sunscreen to her tender back. So, it was a surprise to all of us when, two days after our arrival, we saw Grumpy sitting at their table and Dopey lining up at the omelette grill, a plate in each unsteady hand.
“Look, look!” said Don, nudging me. “He can’t be too dull. See? She sends him to get the breakfast.”
We should always get The Big Picture. Life is never as it appears at first sight. When Dopey ambled back to their table, smiling, pleased with his accomplishment, the entire restaurant heard Grumpy’s heart-felt appreciation. “Why did you bring me that?” she nagged. “I didn’t want eggs. Why in heaven why would you bring me eggs?”
Just being nice, I guess, a concept which is as foreign to Grumpy as Cuba’s food and language. “Eat the eggs!” I wanted to shout, though I knew the omelette was bland, practically tasteless. “Add some salt and pepper, and eat the freaking eggs.” I felt for Dopey, but for all my identification with Dopey’s trials, I suffered for Grumpy’s behaviour. For six days, seven nights, Don ran any reasonable request or editorial comment of mine through the is-she-treating-me-like-Dopey? mill. Loudly. Relentlessly.
He also questioned my skewering of our fellow-travellers. “God, you’re vicious,” he’d say whenever I’d whisper, “Don’t bother throwing the life jacket, Don. Lonely Boy’s sorrows have already drowned” or, “Wow, look at The Pits in that yellow catsuit. A canary on boob-and-ass-specific growth hormones.” Ah, despite his jabs, Don knows I’m not really mean-spirited. I’m a raconteur keeping my pencil sharpened, amusing myself--and him. If I’m vicious, if I’m a mad dog, he is the naughty child who teases me with a pointed stick. He donated the writing paraphernalia I used to record my “vicious” attacks on the good inhabitants of Arenas Blancas. He called me nasty, called me jealous, called me vicious, but he laughed and by laughing, he encouraged me. I should not be encouraged in these things. Even my son knows that.
Don not only encouraged me; on occasion, he skewered while I roasted. Specifically, with the patron I dub The Hippie because of her `60s look--though her hips jutting under her loose garment would, by themselves, justify the name--and Don nicknames The Bag Lady, for reasons which will reveal themselves.
The Hippie’s hair is long, straight and tends to frizz. Outwards. Imagine, if you will, a jagged edge isosceles triangle with a rounded apex approximating the top of The Hippie’s head. Now imagine several heavy, uneven strands of hair dangling from the base of the triangle and you’ve got a rough picture of The Hippie’s hair. Janis Joplin without a hairstylist. She wore the same shapeless black garment--no way you can call it a dress, it’s a Jesus robe without the tie-belt--to breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Same straw sandals. Same `60s bag, from which she produced American one dollar bills to bribe the piano player. She occasionally sweetened her offer by sending him drinks. The Hippie is my age or older with skin that’s seen better years, or maybe not, and she wears not a lick of makeup. She is Trigger with 100,000 more kilometres on her. The piano player is a young, dark, handsome Cuban. I rather doubt he bought anything The Hippie was offering, but I suppose one just never knows. Remember Martha Raye and Mae West.
The piano player was impressed when I hummed along with his Moonlight Sonata; when, after a masterfully executed Nocturne, I complimented him on his Chopin, he was ecstatic. “Canadians,” he informed me, “only know jazz. They know pop. They no know classics.” If he had had a greater comprehension of English, I would have explained that we don’t qualify as Canadian. I’m a Newfoundlander and Don’s a Cape Bretoner. Instead, I asked him if he knew any more Chopin.
“What you like?”
“Tristesse from the Etude in E Major, Opus 10.”
Huh? Maybe it was my accent. He'd never heard it before.
I hummed a few bars.
He smiled. “Si. Si.”
I tucked a dollar bill into his jar and he tucked into Tristesse. He was pleased to discover a fellow Chopin aficionado. Each night when he glimpsed us sipping our post-prandial brandy (me) and Drambuie (Don), Cute Mr. Piano Player launched into the haunting, soulful notes of the Etude. He may be young, but he’s not stupid. Visions of dollar bills floated over his head.
Back to The Hippie. As we waited for the bus to take us to the departures terminal, she pushed through the crowd, carrying a long rolled-up thing with multi-coloured fringes. “The most beautiful throw rug,” she told a curious on-looker. “You can use it as a wall hanging. It’s got big birds.”
Don had seen her earlier, showing off some awful-looking souvenir to someone in the lobby bar. “Can you imagine what her house looks like?” he wondered. Later, in an airport souvenir store, I located a similar “rug.” Oh me, oh my. My decorating runs to the colourful, especially in art, and Don tends to think my taste is much too modern for him. Judging from the Cuban rug, I’d say The Hippie’s house probably boasts more than a few paintings on black velvet and collages made from seashells.
I’m getting ahead of myself again. We lined up at the Skyservice counter and were checking our modest two small pieces of luggage each, when The Hippie approached the next counter with her entourage, two ladies whom she had ordered around, criticized and left in a huff all week. Three loaded carts of luggage for three people, most of it hers, but checked under her companions’ tickets. We had no trouble recognizing The Hippie’s luggage. Every square inch of every black piece--four large, huge suitcases and two smaller bags-- was decorated with hand-painted little fishies and aquatic life in `60s psychedelic colours, accentuated with glued-on mirrors and gold sequins. The Hippie in her shapeless black Jesus robe may have not garnered much attention all week at the hotel, but mama mia, she made up for it at the airport. Hence, The Bag Lady. And the mystery. If she wore the same clothes for a week, what’s in the bags? I tried to arrange things so I could watch her go through Customs, but alas! my two bags came through before hers and since it was already three o’clock in the morning, I opted for my bed. So, take away my NOSY membership card.
Small things occupy small minds, right? I don’t expect my memoir of Cuba will be published by any travel section of any daily newspaper any day soon. Perhaps if I stick to the beach (fantastic sugary sand, no debris, few Americans) and the sea (warm, salty, too clean to pee in) and the Cuban people (friendly, but not afraid to ask for your old T-shirts and Spanish-English dictionaries) and the food (ughhhhh! on the buffet, ‘beef’ is called ‘cow’ as if the chef is ashamed to stick the ‘beef’ label on it) and the service (lacking, sadly lacking, kick-in-the-ass lacking) and the rum (plentiful and Hulk Hogan strong), I’d have a chance. Then again, maybe not.