Ay, mi’jito, por favor, dame la mano, por Dios. What was a request before has now become a command. I stretch my hand out timidly. She takes it and leaves the palm facing up. Her right hand travels down my right hand, following the lines. Her voice turns into a whisper. This one is love. Will she leave life for the end? The rocking chair on which she sits does not move. Perched on the end of it, she looks at me, looks into my eyes and returns her gaze to my hand. This plump, half-Chinese, mulata chiromancer who has eyes that can read into my adolescent confusion.
This one is love. The words conjure up the magic I felt three years
ago not too far from here, this refuge on Refugio
Street, off Colón Street. A fourteen-year-old
virgin, barely scraping through mid-term assessments but with a second girlfriend
already: Marta. Marta, who went where my first girlfriend (also called Marta)
never went. Marta, who still lives on Trocadero
Street, two blocks away from here. Marta, whose father is a merchant seaman and whose mother is a teacher.
Marta, who spends long hours home alone. Marta, with whom I used to cut classes
in order to be her companion during those hours of solitude. Marta, whose school skirt, yellow like my school trousers, and blouse, white like my shirt, loved getting into an amorous tangle on the floor tiles. En bref, Marta.
¿Oye, mi’jo, tú me ‘tá’ 'cuchando? No, I answer internally. I’m
not listening. Sorry, I should, I know I should. After all, it was my mate, my
best mate, who talked me into coming here to see you. It is all to do with the
university admission exams, the pressure, the future, the draft, the war in
Angola, the confusion – not just of the adolescent type – the “greens”, the exchange
rate (five for one), the “ladies of the night”. It is all this and above all,
it is the uncertainty. Hence the palm-reading session. But we would need to
read the palms of ten million souls on this island.
A shot of rum is
offered. The look of puzzlement on my face makes her laugh. No me digas que tú no tomas. I neither
nod nor shake my head. I have drunk, a little, in the past. At seventeen I have
yet to get really drunk. But this offer comes out of the blue, on a warm winter
afternoon in Centro Habana. OK, she
says, if you won’t have some, I’ll have yours. She lets go of my hand,
retrieves a bottle of rum from the small bookshelf that doubles up as a shrine
to Elegguá, a coconut surrounded by
sweets. Her eyes eye me eyeing the Orisha.
I do not just read hands, you know. Although her voice sounds firm, her words
betray uncertainty. Perhaps she thinks I am judging her. Perhaps she thinks I am
one of those modern kids, all tight jeans and big, wide shirts who turn their backs
on Cuban culture, including the African influence, to embrace the alluring world
of rock’n’roll. How to explain to her that every two or three weeks a babalawo visits my house to see my grandmother,
my auntie and my mum? How to put into words how confused my cousin and I feel
when we see our respective mothers, hardcore believers in the government and
Fidel, desperate to find out what the future has in store for us through the
divination methods of a system born in Nigeria?
I leave the palm-reader’s
house at sunset. The route to the bus stop is enveloped in dust mixed with
the smell of petrol. I walk down Colón Street
until I get to Paseo. People are coming home from work, others are
starting a game of dominoes. In the semi-darkness a game of cuatro esquinas is still going. The ball can hardly be seen but that
does not stop these wannabe baseball players from taking over the four corners
of Consulado and Colón.
A long life, difficult
times I will overcome and my sweetheart around the corner. Predictions for
which no hand is necessary. I see my bus turn right onto Paseo. I get my ten cents out of my pocket and I think of Marta. The
second Marta, the one who went where the first one never did.
Next Post: “Saturday
Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 14th
March at 6pm (GMT)