ANNA LAIRD BARTO: My Havana Nights


 When we leave the bar my mouth is still stinging from the last mojito. But I take the bottle when it’s passed to me. I throw back my head and enjoy the intensity of the alcohol against my insides. My eyes rove upwards, fixed on the pattern of palm leaves, my mind transcending my slow, saturated body. The streets roll under my feet, as if the whole island rocks on the waves. The buildings bow down to meet me, weighed down by latticework balconies and fecund coils of vines. The dark disguises the decay and the revolutionary slogans recede into the shadows. The Malecón spoons along the shore like a woman lying with her lover, the restless waves caressing curves coarsened by time. The cars rattle alongside, big bright grills grinning like teeth. They bear down exhilaratingly upon us as we sprint across the street.  I sit on the sea wall with my legs wrapped around his waist. My Handsome Cuban Law Student, my remedy for forgetting. I feel his fingers after they touch me, pleasurable but remote. The rum justifies my detachment. If I don’t look in his eyes I can ignore that there’s a heart behind his attractive face. I can pretend that it’s Havana caressing me, that his fingers are palm fronds sliding along my thighs. The brown waves murmur menacingly beyond the scope of the streetlights as the storm advances across the Straits of Florida. The sky explodes bright like a camera flash, and for a second the Straits are eerie white like a prairie of windblown snow. I think I see Miami, or it is just Havana’s ghost staring up from the depths? I can’t imagine launching a raft into that watery purgatory, like Cubans attempt every day. Rum seems the superior mode of escape, with its slow seduction of the senses. The bottle is half gone when the first drop hit, blurring everything. We hold up it up like a lightning rod, challenging the sky, before retreating to the wreckage of a collapsed apartment building. It’s full of adolescents, grinding against the cement columns that are still standing and drinking rum from plastic bottles. My Handsome Cuban Law Student presses me against a pillar and tells me how beautiful I am. I’m pinned beneath his earnest eyes and eager torso, so I laugh and my liquid body leaks out from under him. I hold the plastic rum bottle daintily like it was a wine glass as I trip through the rubble. He stalks me by the pulsing light of the storm. I let him catch me, and he lets me escape again. The rain plays frantic percussion, and the thunder crescendos. As if inspired by the storm, some of the kids start to beat on a rusty door still hanging in its frame. They use their hands, salvaged boards and empty beer bottles, softly at first, then gaining power, a frenzied but infectious beat. They bang on the door as if trying to beat it down, but with perfect meter and measure. They begin to sing. Somehow everyone knows the words. My Handsome Cuban Law Student joins in and his hips move to the tempo as if caught in a current. I let myself sink into the rhythm, so I don’t think about the man I left on the other side of the Straits. Around me the beautiful bodies convulse with music, all bones and breasts, straining to escape.

Anna Laird Barto is a writer, English teacher and work abroad advisor living in Oaxaca. In 2004, she was one of the last American students to study at the University of Havana, Cuba, before President Bush tightened travel restrictions. Anna can be reached at Anna, and her blogsite can be read at: and on Facebook at:!/profile.php?id=556542443.

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