Once upon a time, there was a girl who believed that if she confessed her love to her best friend, her life would leave her body: she would move on. This would cause her best friend great pain, and to save Artemio from hurting, Esperanza suffered the pain of never telling him how she felt.
In Havana, near the corner of Galiano Street and Café Arcangel, under a setting sun, grime and dirt coated the tan pointe shoes and short black dress of a ballerina standing in first position on the sandstone pavement. Her feet pointing in opposite directions, heels touching, Esperanza lifted onto her blistered toes. Wires drooped overhead like the hanging gardens from nearby balconies; an 80s Moskvitch with faded blue paint sputtered to a stop. En pointe, Esperanza raised one leg straight out, then lowered it, bending her leg up across the other—her toe nearly touching her knee—then kicked into a spin. A toenail broke; the muscles of her golden-brown legs bulged under her white and hole-filled tights. Her grimace hid behind her black hair, which twirled around her like a long gown as she spun back into fifth position: one foot placed in front of the other, the toes of her front foot in line with the heel of her back foot. She performed an entrechat—she leaped into the air and crossed her legs in front and behind her before landing—inside the black pupils of an old man with a beard standing inside the café, who caught glimpses of the dancer through the white window bars. The deaf man rested his fingers flat against his mouth and lowered his shaking hand in her direction, releasing his kiss like a Monarch butterfly, a gift for the miraculous sight of Esperanza’s opal eyes.
Esperanza landed in fifth position and immediately jumped into a brisé, beating her feet and legs together in the air before landing in the same position and repeating the move twice more. From fifth position, she transitioned with an échappé to second position and up onto her toes; en pointe, she stood on one leg while extending her other leg turned out and straight behind her body. Her foot pointed at the parked Moskvitch; as if summoned, the driver climbed out and held his straw fedora to his chest. Esperanza stretched her arm toward the red sky with her other arm straight behind and just above her leg, pointing toward the sidewalk. A kicked soda can clanged to silence when the bored teens saw the first and only arabesque of their lives: they would never learn its name. Esperanza lowered her leg and arms, and with her supporting leg in plié, remaining on her toes, she began the fouetté turn: she whipped her leg to bring it around to touch her supporting leg in retiré and rotated, and when she had nearly come around completely, she whipped her leg again, then again, spinning. Around and around, Cubans gathered to see the girl with the eyes that changed colors. She stopped and with light steps prepared for a full split in the air, a grand jeté. Believing she was fated never to be with the one she loved, Esperanza leaped.
Over teal and yellow rooftops and down cracking streets where children argued the rules of stickball, on the other side of Havana, the young man Esperanza loved sat at a spray-painted piano. The rainbow instrument wasn’t spruced up for tourism, and like the boy with warm beige skin and curly black hair, it hid behind pubs only shadows frequented. Artemio rolled up the white sleeves of his cotton guayabera, which he never tucked into his black pants, and tapped middle C. The key stuck; he tried pressing harder. Even though he was over twenty years old and bled on the streets with the gangs, Artemio felt he couldn’t play. He pressed a G, then B, D, and F-sharp all at once; a D, then A, C-sharp, and F-sharp together. Artemio hoped that by hitting the right keys in the right order, the piano would open like a safe to reveal the name of his mother’s favorite piece.
Artemio spun around and reached for his pistol to find an American with an oversized camera and finger on the button. Artemio clamped shut his jaw, tightening the skin across his face: tourists belonged across town. Artemio knocked the piano bench over when he rose and stormed out of the alley. The American shouted encouragements after Artemio, giving to a Cuban what Americans liked to think Cubans couldn’t give themselves, violating the sacred space where Artemio hoped his mother’s soul was stored and locked. Artemio swore to never return or speak of the piano to anyone, especially not Esperanza.
On the streets of Havana, even after eighteen years practicing, it was still challenging for Esperanza to perform moves with the precision professionals demanded. Her admirers did not mind, but to the experts at the Cuban National Ballet School, dancing on the tips of one’s toes was unremarkable. Esperanza wasn’t bad, but the distance between bad and great was smaller than the gap between great and extraordinary. When Esperanza was eleven, she was thrilled to hear the school was expanding from less than a thousand students to four thousand. She practiced for over a decade, and if she were to apply, she would be one of over fifty-thousand hoping for an invitation into ballet heaven. She snuck into the school once: the stairs aged like fine Cuban wine; the walls displayed pictures of famous ballerinas like Alicia Alonso; piano notes drifted down the halls. She heard an instructor behind a door ask if his students liked pain; if they didn’t, a ballerina’s life would not be for them.
Sitting in an alley, Esperanza unwrapped the tan ribbons of her pointe shoes from around her ankles while a Havana Brown cat watched from the shadows. The city needed streetlights, but the dusk still escaped the night, giving the ballerina time to change before it was dark. Esperanza slipped off a shoe and saw her big toe sticking through a hole in her white tights. She snapped off the broken toenail, studied it between her fingers, and flicked it at the cat, who purred before realizing it wasn’t food. She’d apply to the Cuban National Ballet—someday—ever since she was a little girl, she dreamed of being discovered.
A hand squeezed Esperanza’s arm.
“Guys sneak up on you like that.”
“You’ll protect me.” Esperanza pulled Artemio’s hand off. He plopped down in his usual spot.
“My bag.” Esperanza slipped off her other shoe.
“Ever thought to ask while I was up?”
Artemio rolled his eyes and pushed himself to his feet. He lifted a lid attached to a blue recycling bin, removed the plastic the black gym bag was wrapped in, and tossed the bag over. It landed a foot away. A laugh almost broke through the seal of Esperanza’s face.
“Baseball your specialty?” She put down her dance shoes and lifted the straps of her dress over her head. A black leotard underneath covered her curves. “It shows.”
Artemio slid his hands into his pockets and nudged the bag closer with his foot. “You interrupted guys’ soccer.”
“Cans are soccer balls?”
“They said they saw you.”
“They knew it was me?”
“Said they saw a dancer.”
Esperanza unzipped her damp bag, unfolded jeans and a white t-shirt, and removed her black Air Jordan Xs.
“A driver jumped out and started cursing,” Artemio added.
“I’d use the sidewalks if the tree roots didn’t bulge through.”
“You always dance where you can get run over?”
Esperanza pulled the casual clothes over her leotard and packed away her balled-up dress and pointe shoes. Cubans prided themselves in their elite dancers from the Cuban National Ballet School, yet even though the world’s largest ballet school was in Havana, few ever saw performances to know in what they held so much faith. Dance remained inside. “I figured you’d save me.”
“Wish I’d seen it.”
Esperanza looked up, her foot tucked halfway into a sneaker.
“Would have told you to move.”
Esperanza slapped his leg. “Do you treat everyone like dirt?”
The moon shimmered in the puddle beneath the open recycling bin, a waxing sliver. Esperanza wondered if being called “friend” was good.
“Is there a dance move you can’t do?” Artemio asked.
“I can’t do a pas de deux.”
Esperanza fiddled with her split shoelaces. “I’d have to show you.”
“In the streets?”
“Good a place as any.”
“Hoping Americans will throw you money?” Artemio asked. Canadians, Europeans—all the tourists were “Americans” to him, and Esperanza played along.
“At least they watch.” Esperanza stood up and bent each leg back to tap the toecaps of her shoes on the pavement. Artemio thought he’d lose clout with the gangs if they saw him watching ballet: he’d have to be surprised or be responsible. Artemio loved Cuba and its people, especially those forced by desperation into gangs in one of the world’s most photographed cities. Esperanza thought he resembled Che, though shorter, younger, and not into berets.
“Hevel.” Artemio sighed.
“You love fakes too much,” Artemio warned, using another of his terms. “Hevel.”
Hevel—it was a reference to Ecclesiastes, a book that Artemio liked using to describe Capitalism. Both of their parents forced them to attend mass when they were younger.
“I just don’t treat them like a disease,” Esperanza defended herself.
“You can love too much.”
“What about Cubans?”
“Not Cubans.” Artemio slid a cigarette from his pocket and rested it in his mouth. “Never Cubans.”
No lighter followed. Unlit cigarettes were Artemio’s trademark; without them, he’d be someone else. “Why don’t you smoke them?” Esperanza asked.
“Bad for you.” Artemio shrugged. “Just like the feel.”
Artemio bit his lip whenever he was trying to convince himself of his own words—a useful habit for Esperanza to notice. She reached back and tied her long hair into a bun that she secured with bobby pins from her bag; she only wore it down during performances.
“Were you looking for me around Café Arcangel today?” Artemio asked.
“You said you probably wouldn’t be there.”
“Probably means I might.”
“Probably means probably.”
An American stumbled by the alley entrance in the fading daylight, eyes glued to the refined architecture and street vendors offering rare junk for all to see. Artemio removed his cigarette and spat. “You apply yet?”
“I will if you stop avoiding tourists.” Esperanza reached into her duffle bag and plopped on a navy Industriales baseball cap. One day, someone from the Academy might see her.
“Call them ‘fakes.’ ” Artemio’s face hardened. Esperanza pulled apart her eyelids with her thumb and pointer finger and poked out each opal contact. She placed both in a case that she kept in the front pocket of her bag. She said nothing.
The muscles in Artemio’s cheeks loosened. “You should wear them more.”
“You like them?”
Artemio rarely liked anything.
“People would recognize me.” Esperanza zipped shut her bag. “I want to be gone afterwards.”
“You ashamed of dancing?”
“The eyes are part of the performance,” she tried to clarify. Beauty attracted Esperanza to dance but not to being attractive. She didn’t want people watching her—Havana was full of secret police—just her dance. She also didn’t want Artemio only liking what her eyes wore.
Her eyes were black.
“Anyone ever ask you about them?” Artemio pointed at his pupils.
“No one speaks to me when I dance.”
“You like dancing alone?”
Esperanza removed a plastic bag from her jeans, opened it, and pulled out something hideous. She pressed the fake scar to her cheek and rubbed it on with her hand. A knife-fight or rape leftover, the mauve mark stretched from Esperanza’s ear to her chin.
“Do people know they’re fake?” Artemio dropped the cigarette between his teeth again.
“Opal eyes must be,” she answered. An old man at Havana Harbor searched the cargo ships for random trinkets, and in the old man’s storage room, Esperanza found her scar and eyes. The old man asked for nothing: until arrested for theft, it was his way to help his people.
“No one wants to be sure,” Esperanza admitted. “Lifeless that way.”
“The eyes make the world unfamiliar.”
“Too much uncertainty in Havana,” Artemio said. “Magic, opal eyes—they aren’t helpful.”
“You’ve never seen me dance,” Esperanza fired back. “You don’t know.”
“We’re the same,” he claimed, though Esperanza knew he could confess to the one he loved and live. Artemio reached down and lifted Esperanza’s duffle bag up to her; she snatched it away and threw the strap over her shoulder.
“We’d see the stars if the lights were off.” Esperanza looked away from his vibrant eyes. “I mean, we’d see them better.”
“Not all bad if Capitalists bankrupted Havana.”
“It was just an observation.”
“You also spoke.”
Esperanza rolled her eyes. “I’d like to see them.”
“Stars would kill you close.”
“I’m never close.”
They headed out of the alley onto the sidewalk, mixing in with the tourists and locals, the privileged who could imagine what Havana was like and the unprivileged who had lived there since they were born.
“I got you these.” Esperanza slid a pack of cigarettes from her jeans and threw it at Artemio. He caught it and stuffed the pack into the front pocket of his shirt.
“You want something?” he asked. Esperanza watched her shoes touch pavement that was easier to feel when she danced and landed from a leap.
“Nothing you can give me.”
“It’s a story told to shut up kids.” Artemio turned off Neptuno Street. “Lies are about keeping quiet.”
“And?” Esperanza prodded over the honking motorbikes and hustle of the crowded sidewalk. The two walked under a large red and white sign—“America,” it read—which hung on a roof supported by water-damaged columns. Jineteras wearing shorts and pink bikini tops studied their long nails on Galiano Street, waiting for an event at Casa de la Música, one of Havana’s many party centers, frequented by Americans. With a well-trained smile, air of mystery, recitation of lines, and practiced touch, the young women earned their livings, each having stories to tell but choosing not to voice them. The women worked nightly amidst drunken dancing and gaudy music, snatching more than just the hearts and minds of businesspeople. Because of Capitalism, Artemio understood the tragedy few wanted to see clearly: Cuban women were forced to forfeit their souls.
“That curse story is centuries old,” Artemio said. “Told for fun. Nothing to it.”
“You don’t know.”
“It’s a voodoo story,” Artemio stressed.
“I’m just saying, you don’t know.”
“That zombies don’t exist?” Artemio laughed. “Good thing I pack heat when I think there’s danger.”
“Salvadores,” Esperanza corrected. “ ‘Zombies’ is an American word.”
“Pointless either way.”
“The story teaches children not to lose what matters.”
“You’re trying to make the story sound like it has a point.”
“It helps kids!”
“Even if it’s fake?”
Esperanza looked up at the maya-blue sky and traced her finger down her scar. “What’s false isn’t always a lie.”
“What?” Artemio squinted in his cotton guayabera. Like Esperanza, he never changed outfits: fashion was Capitalistic propaganda, or so he claimed. For Esperanza, it was just one less choice she had to make.
“There could be something to it.” Esperanza pulled her baseball cap down over her face, noticing a teenager who once saw her dance. “Some truth with the false.”
“You sound like a liar.”
“Sweet of you.”
“Stories won’t get you far,” Artemio warned as if he knew what was behind every closed door, that doors were only good for showing off their fronts to tourists. “They’re tricks, empty but locked to make you feel like there’s something. That’s why you tell them to kids at night: gets them quiet thinking and they stay that way.”
“Sounds like you have experience,” Esperanza smiled. Kids never stopped talking.
“Most people are kids.”
“Nice story though.” Esperanza tilted her head. “Something sweet to chew on.”
Artemio scoffed; a boy on the sidewalk extended him a Teatro America brochure, a pamphlet Artemio took and dropped off in a trashcan. El Floridita, La Bodeguita del Medio—numerous bars in Havana were famous because Hemingway blessed them with his presence. While a daydreamer from America had the Midas touch, Americans wanted little to do with the sites associated with Che. Cubans didn’t read Hemingway, but because Americans liked names they recognized, Cubans created soulless attractions, while their own countryman became a face sold on t-shirts and replicated in graffiti Americans photographed for friends back home. An icon, Che stood for nothing.
“Lots of people believe in voodoo curses,” Esperanza spoke up. “You really think there’s nothing to what they all think?”
“You’re acting like you want the story to be true.”
“Is that what you want to think?”
Artemio put his hands in his cotton pockets and glanced to his right down Concordia Street. Pink and green archways enclosed the sandy street, over which ornate balconies supported elders sipping coffee in bright green chairs. Red cotton shirts billowed on hangers from out of windows, and the gray pavement below collected puddles through which Cubans who couldn’t afford gas-pushed scooters. Havana’s architecture rejected the sleek modernism of New York: thankfully, Artemio thought, it was inefficiently beautiful and unnecessarily crafted. A pale and overweight American snapped a picture with his phone of black mold growing on a yellow wall under teal shutters—evidence to him of America’s superior cleanliness—feeling like Bogart in Casablanca, and behind the building, a stage crew of children divided crumbs. The American was the protagonist of his story; Havana, the flat background necessary for that story to be interesting, believable, and particular to the readers he texted images. Once the American flew back home, having collected his pictures, what happened to Havana was no more consequential than the fate of a dream.
“You danced here.” Artemio pointed at a white wood sign of a winged cup. “Guys said you stopped cars.”
Esperanza pretended to cough to cover her face and picked up the pace.
“Esperanza!” Artemio shouted when he noticed her, running to catch up. “Will you dance here again?”
“I never dance in the same place. Keeps the art new.”
Esperanza looked up to see if the coast was clear and sighed. “Like I was saying, you don’t know it’s false.”
“What, the story?”
Artemio slapped his cheek to squash a fly. “You believe it?”
“You saying it’s about something else?”
“It’s like anything.”
“You’ve convinced yourself it’s true.”
“I couldn’t know if I had,” Esperanza admitted. She reached into her t-shirt and under a leotard strap to rub her shoulder. Her legs also felt sore.
“You don’t stretch enough,” Artemio said.
“How would you know?”
“You’re massaging yourself.”
“Like you can tell.” Esperanza whipped out her hand. The boney fingers of two elders wearing white fedoras strummed dark guitars against a teal wall. Lagunas Street was famous for street performances.
“Don’t doubt my eyes,” Artemio said. “I know what I see.”
“I hope so.” Esperanza studied three familiar but distracted teenagers flicking marbles near a lime Plymouth. “If you had to say though, what do you think the voodoo story is about?”
“If you had to say.”
Artemio tilted his chin up to elongate his neck and scratched it. “Capitalism curses a man to have his soul hover over his body forever. The man’s forced to watch his body live on without him, no one realizing anything different. His punishment is to see that he isn’t necessary to his loved ones because his selfishness ate him up.”
Silence. Esperanza slowly lifted her hands and clapped. “For a gang member, that’s pretty good.”
“You’re not the only one who can make stuff up.”
“But it sounds like something you would write,” Esperanza said. “Too bad the story is older than Capitalism.”
“So the story can’t be about that.”
“Sounded like it was to me.”
“The guy wanted to control everything to save the world,” Esperanza explained. “That’s why the politician spent all his time working, and his soul moved on.”
“He was a feudal lord, not a politician.”
“Impressive how much better you lie than me.”
Esperanza shoved him, hoping to reach him with affection she could only show.
“Geez.” Artemio rubbed his arm. “I feel sorry for the guys you want to date.”
The Tropicana Penthouse approached on their left, the luxury suite overlooking the ocean, designed in a 1950’s style for wealthy foreigners. It was a block from the sea with a 360-degree view from the roof terrace, perfect for watching sunrises the Cubans on the streets couldn’t see. The suite also came with air-conditioning, and guests could tour the city in a 1950’s American car for an authentic experience.
“Why do you dance on this side of the city?” Artemio eyed the Penthouse with a curling lip. “Fakes everywhere.”
“It’s better than Old Havana.”
“That’s only a few streets over.”
“Which streets don’t our people walk?” Esperanza countered. They reached the main road and waited for a truck and motorcycle to blur by, then hurried across each lane. Artemio shook a finger at her.
“You like the fakes.”
“I just think they’re human.”
Esperanza didn’t answer. The famous esplanade of Malecón bordered the ocean and stretched from Havana Harbor to Vedado. It sharply dropped off into rocks that the saltwater licked, but teenagers sat on the edge kicking their legs and laughing. The esplanade was a magnificent and popular place, especially for the poor.
“When the embargo ends,” Esperanza said, changing the subject, “the Americans who visited Havana might bring back jobs.”
“If the embargo ends, all of Havana will end up like Old Havana.”
Esperanza watched her feet approach the cliff and stop when her toes peeked over. The waters connected the earth, ancient borders that were now roads for ships. The breeze brushed her face like a mother wiping away tears.
“No places here that only fakes can afford.” Artemio greeted the local fisherman as they prayed and cast their lures. “This is home.”
“Might change if we trade with them.”
Esperanza lifted the cap off her head to feel more of the wind. “Embargos change paths into walls.”
Esperanza held her hat to her heart, smelled the saltwater, and looked out. The wide cruise ships, free from roads, took hours to reach Miami, but Esperanza could watch them for that long, giving her feelings time to form fully. They were art, atmosphere, garnering emotions and rebelling against thoughts that tried to reduce the ships to mere ideas.
“Is the ocean your favorite thing to watch?” Artemio asked. She looked at him.
“Is it?” he asked again.
Esperanza looked back away. “Ending the embargo might rekindle Havana’s glory. Might not have to live on twenty a month.”
She was avoiding the question.
“He must be hot.” Artemio smiled. Fearless eyes, firm yet gentle hands, boyish smile, confident—he meant everything to her.
“You’re ignoring what I said.” Esperanza put her cap back on. Artemio patted her on the back: one day, he would get out of his best friend the name of who stole her heart.
“Ending the embargo will only help the fakes.” Artemio temporarily let Esperanza off the hook. “Che saw himself who their ‘help’ helped.”
“How do you know which help isn’t helpful?” Esperanza asked.
“Everyone knows when it doesn’t look like what they’re looking for.”
“They will make us like them.”
“We’re poor,” Esperanza replied. “They’re not.”
“How do you know you’re right?” Esperanza asked as they walked along the Malecón to the sounds of singing and waves. “What if Castro ruined our rich city to erase proof that America benefited us?”
Artemio’s body stiffened; his eyes widened and locked on her face. “We’re not talking voodoo anymore.”
“I’m just saying,” Esperanza said, “you don’t know.”
“Revolutions don’t happen in Eden.”
“Are people always right?”
Artemio softened his voice, suggesting Esperanza should do the same. “You sound like my parents.”
Esperanza didn’t back down. “Any of us can accidentally fight what’s good for us.”
“You’re not the only person to believe crazy stories.”
“There are Cubans who agree with me, but they’re afraid to say.”
“Imagining what other people think helps convince yourself.”
“Imagining history is what you’re taught,” Esperanza said, “ ‘helps convince yourself.’ ”
Artemio combed his fingers through his hair and looked to his right over the borderless expanse of water. Countless people drowned hoping to escape the horrors Che fought to end. “Next you’ll say Che is in my head.”
“You don’t know if what Castro tells us is true,” Esperanza said, more certain about dance, truth that couldn’t be spoken, only expressed. “Not that Castro is different from anyone.”
“You afraid they’ll take me?”
“Castro must use fear to fence out falsehoods,” Artemio said. “Once people believe lies, they can’t be changed, not if they don’t want to be. It would be easier for Castro to let people ruin themselves.”
“Whose fault will it be if I vanish?”
“It won’t be their fault that you said what you said.”
“You think we’re free?”
“Americans are too free,” Artemio said. “They’re free from consequence, which is death.”
Esperanza stood with the young man she loved along the ocean. A jinetera in a short red dress strutted by with her arm around a European, telling him how all the cares of the world melted away in his presence—that she felt light on her feet.
“There’s truth to that,” Esperanza acknowledged. When she danced, she felt free from her past and future—what her art meant about who she had been and what her art would lead her to experience—she felt present. There was nothing but dance: it was as if dance was all there ever was and all there would ever be, uncaused and uncausing.
“Life is too good there,” Artemio asserted. “Nothing means anything. Life is just what people want.”
“There’s truth to that.” Artemio slipped out a cigarette and stuck it into his mouth, then fiddled with something in his pocket.
“Do you really think I’m wrong about Che?” Artemio asked softly.
Esperanza looked over and glanced an emotion inside a closing safe. “America isn’t as bad as you think.”
“Have you been there?”
“Have you met Che?”
Artemio didn’t look at her. “You think what I believe is grounded in a lie?”
“I don’t know what it’s grounded in.”
Artemio lifted his hand from his pocket and left what was in there behind. “Capitalism has never helped us be a rich city, only exploited us. The embargo protects us.”
“The old architecture found in Havana isn’t found in Calcutta.”
“Capitalism ruined what we had. Our lives.”
“People believe what they want to believe,” Artemio remarked, “then make themselves forget they made themselves believe it in the first place.”
“Are you talking about me?”
Artemio shrugged. “I’m just doing what I think is right.”
She was like him: dancers and gang members were both people. Esperanza reached over and touched his hand. “I know.”
“You want to tell me something?”
Esperanza’s mouth opened; she stepped back.
“I’ve got to go.” Artemio turned his back to her. “Where will you be tomorrow?”
Esperanza was planning to dance around San Lázaro Street.
“I’ll be around San Lázaro,” Artemio added. “Maybe here. We’ll see.”
Artemio waved and strode off along the walkway into the crowd. Esperanza watched, removing her hat and pressing it to her chest, and the blue canvas upon which she envisioned America did nothing but send her a breeze that brushed her cheeks dry.
Esperanza poked out her opal contacts and packed them away into her duffle bag. Unlike her fake eyes, the experience of dancing never aged in her hands. Near Café Arcangel, Esperanza switched clothes in the same alley on Galiano Street that the Havana Brown cat guarded.
Esperanza looked up.
In the dusk light, she pressed her scar onto her cheek and tied up her hair. The ocean was beautiful yesterday; Artemio, a model for the painter of her eyes against it.
Because of Artemio, Esperanza’s life couldn’t be meaningless, for even if her story lacked significance, it contained flawed characters trying to live out what mattered to them. Like life, art didn’t have to make sense, only provide a home to house characters who loved.
Esperanza donned her baseball cap and zipped shut her bag. Artemio was right about tourists: they looked for, if not demanded, significance in foreign places they could idealize, fleeing from places that required settling and enduring. But the tourists were like most, just more honest in putting their desire to run into action.
Esperanza stood up and draped the strap of her bag over her shoulder, disguised for art’s sake, and turned to find a dark figure blocking the exit. She said the name of the one she loved; there was no time to scream.
On the sidewalks of San Lázaro, under colorful buildings with faded paint, Cubans tried surviving under Western Colonialization, a legacy on which America claimed Cuba couldn’t keep blaming all its problems. An unlit cigarette in his mouth, Artemio walked deep in thought about a recent meeting with gang members about convincing Sangre por Dolor to help with the coming revolution against the fakes. New gangs—Angels, Diamonds—popped up regularly, and they needed to work together if Che’s dream was to prevail. Truth was not malleable to theories, but natural law, and Che discovered a formula that would liberate the world from poverty and suffering, and through this discovery would come an end to injustice. The fakes tried to stop the inevitable overthrow of Capitalism, as they’d know if they read Marx, but the fakes were too busy thoughtlessly assuming that Cubans without college degrees couldn’t think.
“You desire a ring for your girl?” an old vendor in white interpreted Artemio’s mind. Marketing was life in Havana; selling, breathing. Capitalism inverted worlds. “Please, Artemio, you never buy.”
In the bald man’s blue eyes, Artemio saw the impoverishment America wished to keep Cubans suffering. When people were poor, they were prone to violence, and if Cubans were busy killing themselves, they couldn’t unify against American control. “How long have you sold rings, amigo?”
The vendor rubbed a ring on his cotton sleeve like a magic lamp. “I have always worked for my family.”
“Americans bought many?”
“I have not starved.”
Artemio nodded. “I work for your family too, yes?”
“I’ve heard voices,” the elder said. “I’ve heard you resist the Colonialists.”
“For you. For Cuba.”
“My family starved when I was young.”
“Americans feed us sweets until our cages are scenery,” Artemio said. “For a long time, the fattened chickens are hopeful.”
Artemio never spoke to Esperanza about America as he spoke to other Cubans: he pushed back against her views only enough so that she felt like she entertained dreams that stood up to doubt. Artemio tried showing Esperanza what America did to Cuba on their walks but couldn’t control if she opened her eyes to see. If he told her everything, her heart would move on.
“I dreamt I would not bury my children,” the old man said. “To sell rings is to pursue that dream.”
“Americans make you fear life without them,” Artemio replied. “You follow your dream but are too anxious to make it come true.”
“Americans will have my children starve?”
“For Cuba, we must leap faithfully.” Artemio felt compelled by his conscience to tell the vendor the truth. Havana was in bondage to the West, and if ultimately all Artemio managed to do was help one person give up that vale of tears of which Capitalism was the halo—what more could he ask?
“Things are better,” the old man assured. “Look around.”
“Cosmetics for photographs. You set eyes on the seen.”
“Fakeness is a fair price for fed children.”
“A false choice.” Artemio rested his hand on the old man’s shoulder, resisting the temptation to tell the elder that he sold Capitalist junk, not wanting the old man to feel that his life’s work was a waste. “There will be birth pangs. There must be to save more people in the future.”
“There must be?”
Artemio nodded and left to continue pursuing his calling, passing the Locos restaurant toward Mazon Street, surrounded by vibrantly colored hostels and hotels for tourists, facades which proved Capitalism hollowed out the soul. Once, every detail of the architecture contributed to a beautiful harmony that sang of Cuba’s splendor: the buildings filled with Cuban light; the rooms balanced shade and air as Cubans needed in their climate; the arcades and columns expressed irreplicable elegance because the arcades and columns were indivisible from the land. Once, to live in Havana was to live in Cuba’s nature; now, it was to live in America’s slum. Roof tiles littered the alleys, balcony doors barely hung on hinges, and elders sat inside breathing in mold, not wanting to displease the tourists, dollars from the ruined government in their hole-filled pockets but nowhere to spend them—most places were priced for tourists—remembering the old days of Cuba’s growing middle class. America wanted escape to be the only hope for Cubans; the only place to escape to, America. That way, no one would dream to blame America for Cuba’s nightmare; instead, they would think of America as the savior.
Artemio thought about Esperanza then.
“They said you danced here,” the figure blocking the exit in the alley said to Esperanza. “I prayed to find you.”
Everyone in Cuba knew about “The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution,’’ the network of local spies no one discussed, yet nearly everyone was a member. Nine million of Cuba’s almost twelve million people registered in the organization that squashed efforts to ‘‘counter the revolution’’ and ‘‘maintain social goods.’’ Members kept files on which local children played together, which books Cubans bought, and how late families stayed up. But like good spies, members denied it: according to them, the CDR existed to fight corruption, organize community events, and to promote medical and educational resources. Only paranoid fools who absorbed American propaganda believed that if a CDR member found a scrap from an American magazine in your trash, police would knock on your door that very night.
“Glad you found me.” Esperanza gripped the shoulder strap of her duffle bag. “And I hope you’re having a great day. How can’t you in Havana?”
The blood drained out of Esperanza’s clenched fingers, and their color suggested Esperanza felt what she shouldn’t feel if she had nothing to hide. It was also odd for a girl to wear a baseball cap.
“Do you know who I am?” the figure in a blue dress asked. The woman was tall, lean, dark-skinned, black-haired, and looked nothing like a spy.
“I love everyone who loves Cuba.” Esperanza considered the thoughts running through her mind that could alter her expression, but if Esperanza worried about her expressional unawareness, her expression could change, costing her.
“I’m from where you belong,” the young woman said. What Esperanza did for art’s sake—wearing a fake scar and eyes—was bound to catch the suspicion of the CDR.
“I recognize you,” Esperanza answered instinctually. “I recognize all fellow Cubans.”
Now Esperanza could be caught in a lie.
“You must come with me.” The young woman bent her fingers to usher Esperanza. “I’ve seen what you do.”
Whether today or next week, once the CDR decided to take you, you could not escape. They would present themselves as friends wanting to buy you dinner, coworkers with something to show you in back, and then you would be gone. If anyone missed you, the CDR would take them too.
“Now?” Esperanza asked softly, wondering if she would ever again see the boy to whom she longed to confess her love. The young woman folded her hands together.
“Come audition,” she begged. “Please, at the Cuban National Ballet School.”
“Can I come later?”
“You must come now!”
“Haven’t you seen me dance?” the young woman asked. Esperanza nodded, knowing to never say ‘‘no’’ to the CDR.
“Then you know I have influence,” the young woman added. “I will speak on your behalf. But we must hurry; a show approaches.”
“I’m not ready.”
“Don’t be ashamed of art. Is that why you wear the scar?”
“I don’t want people to know who I am,” Esperanza said. “I want the dancer to only dance.”
“You rationalize.” The young woman ushered Esperanza forward again. “I know the truth. Don’t hide your light.”
“You know everything?”
“We will accept you. You must come.”
“I’m not ashamed.”
“Then why won’t you come?”
“My art,” Esperanza said, “as a professional—it wouldn’t surprise. People will come to see dance, and they will see it. They will not be talking, heading to work, out for coffee—they will encounter what they expect. Do you see?”
“You believe art is protest?”
“Protest? I–what do you mean? I love Cuba.”
“Against the everyday,” the young woman said. “Against hopelessness. Art protests what the viewer wants to protest. Within.”
“I’m not a protestor.”
“You’re an artist.”
“I want to surprise people.”
“Dancing with us, you will still be a magician.”
“Why are you nervous?”
Esperanza finally took a step, breaking free from mental ice. She brushed shoulders with the young woman.
“Thank you,” Esperanza said and turned around the corner onto the street. The young woman called after her, but once Esperanza was out of sight, to keep her life, she ran.
Billowing between chipping archways painted with gang graffiti, a zephyr ruffled the tips of green dollars between the pale fingers of a tourist. The American stood at a cream and creaking door with an elderly Cuban couple and pointed at a wood shutter lying flat on the dusty road. The elders kissed the hands of the fake and, filled with rage, Artemio reached under his shirt. The fake handed the Cubans the money, took a picture, and waved goodbye.
“Artemio,” Esperanza said as they walked, “what was that?”
Artemio withdrew his hand from his black pants; she wasn’t ready to see what freeing Cuba required. “The guy swears he’ll kill any girl that asks to go out with him.”
“Liar.” Esperanza blew him off.
“No, really,” he said, regaining his focus. “Thinks gangs will use her to get to him. Don’t know if he’ll actually kill anybody, but he makes girls believe he will. They leave him be.”
“That’s a good man,” Artemio said. “Think it’s smart.”
“Knock it off.”
“Good story, at least. Maybe he doesn’t kill the girl and instead says goodbye and shoots himself so gangs can’t use him to get the girl. Thoughtful.”
“You must be great with the ladies.”
“You hitting on me?”
“Is that what you want?”
Artemio reached over with a finger and pressed her cheek. “A lot of people want me.”
Artemio winked and slid his hands into his pockets. “No bag today?”
“I left it where I’ll use it later.” Esperanza didn’t draw attention to Artemio’s touch or risk him blowing it off as a joke. Artemio abruptly split down a different road at a corner.
“Later.” Artemio raised his arm to wave with his back to her, an unlit cigarette between his fingers. Two boys with tattooed arms appeared out of nearby archways and walked alongside him.
And then he was gone.
“He didn’t say goodbye.” Esperanza stood in the middle of a cobblestone square, surrounded by sand-colored buildings, amidst a swarm of people—just another conforming to stories. Esperanza pulled her baseball cap down and began walking, kicking a peddle. At least in a small way, she hoped art broke through all the scripts and everydayness, that it was unreal but not fake. The pebble bounced off a tree root disturbing the walkway and landed out of her foot’s reach. Esperanza thought then that maybe she wouldn’t dance today, that if she performed too often, dance would become too familiar.
“You always look sad when I go?”
Esperanza jerked her head up. Artemio leaned against a wall in an alley, unlit cigarette in his mouth.
“Told the guys I had to run,” Artemio said. “Wanted to see you when I wasn’t there.”
Esperanza stomped up and cocked her arm back.
“Experiment.” Artemio dodged a punch. “Just looking for truth.”
“Can’t get it when people know you’re around?!” Esperanza hissed. “Sounds like you’re the problem!”
“Inspire people to act different when I’m there, like you do dancing.” Artemio put his arm around Esperanza’s shoulders. “We’re brother and sister from different mothers.”
“Calling girls sister isn’t the best way to ask them out.”
“That advice for other women?”
A child on the sidewalk sold pirated Bollywood movies and Riverdance cassettes from an overflowing crate. Still waiting for Esperanza to answer, Artemio tossed the child a few pesos but didn’t take any of the product. The child looked down.
“Say, Artemio.” The warmth of his arm inspired Esperanza to be bold. “You seeing anyone?”
She immediately cursed herself.
“You making fun of me?” he asked.
Esperanza scrubbed her face as if to remove a rash. “What about them?”
Artemio chuckled. “You want to visit the fortress?”
“It’s been a while.”
“Just you and me?”
“Someone else you want to invite?”
The gray-blue dome at the top of the lighthouse was supported by a cylinder of dark bricks that mixed like a patch quilt with white toward the base. Around Faro Castillo del Morro, short walls with embrasure-openings for watchmen divided the ocean from the fortress, and below, jutting out from mossy white rocks, was a concrete platform Esperanza and Artemio enjoyed. They propped themselves up with their hands flat by their sides and dangled their legs over the saltwater, watching a Western cruise ship and not asking what the other felt.
“To avoid being burned alive, when the full moon rose, the wizard gave everyone the power to know everyone’s thoughts,” Artemio said. “Never again did people have to talk.”
The fortress, La Cabaña, stood firm for centuries overlooking Havana Harbor, and in its presence, Artemio liked to recount how many Cubans fought and died to save the country from invasion though never addressed the rumors that the government used the facility to torture prisoners. A historic site, La Cabaña crawled with fakes, and if not for its legacy and view of the city, Artemio wouldn’t stomach the place. The fortress administrators shot off a cannon at night to announce the closing of the gates and to give the fakes something to talk about—an example of the theatre Cubans lowered themselves to perform.
“I never heard that one,” Esperanza lied. They often discussed stories, not only because Artemio secretly loved them, but also because there was always another story to tell.
“Another scary one by voodoo ladies,” Artemio said. “Parents don’t tell it to kids.”
Stories let Artemio and Esperanza speak to one another without talking about one another. They could talk about things that didn’t exist and say things they otherwise couldn’t voice. They could talk about how two friends came to love one another; they could talk about how aspirations ended in disappointment; they could talk about how hard it was to confess feelings. Thanks to fiction, they could discuss real life.
“What happened next?” Esperanza asked.
“Able to know thoughts, free from words, everyone found out if loved ones really loved them, if friends were true friends, if people liked their art, if they were actually appreciated for being who they were—nothing was hidden. People thought if they couldn’t misunderstand one another, there would be no more burning up.”
“Was it perfect?”
Artemio lifted his unlit cigarette from his mouth. “Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“Why you still wearing your scar?” he asked. “No one here you need to fool.”
“Oh.” Esperanza rubbed her cheek. “I forgot. Say, Artemio?”
“Do you remember the orphanage?”
“Try not to. You?”
“I remember you.”
“We go back.”
“Did you ever find out what happened to your parents?”
The government told Artemio that Americans killed them.
“No.” Artemio looked across the ocean. “You?”
“They’ll come back.”
“Went to America, right?”
Esperanza laced her fingers together in her lap. “So I was told.”
“You think they’re still alive?”
“They’ll come get me.”
“My parents were always talking about America,” Artemio said. “Had those magazines I showed the teacher.”
“I told the teacher my parents had the same ones. Were we even ten?”
Silence fell between the pair like the setting sun.
“Still wearing your scar,” Artemio whispered.
“Oh, sorry, I—”
Artemio reached over and touched Esperanza’s cheek. “Take it off.”
“T-Take it off?”
Artemio squinted. “You sick again?”
Esperanza threw up her hands to cover her red cheeks. “I’m fine!”
“Whatever you say.” Artemio scratched the back of his head. With her fingernail, Esperanza picked at the edge of her scar.
“Y-You really want to see it?”
Artemio smiled and extended his open hand. Her finger shaking, Esperanza peeled off the disfigurement like a band-aid and dropped it into Artemio’s palm. He held it up to the light.
“Cool.” Artemio nodded and handed the translucent scar back.
“Cool?!” Esperanza punched Artemio’s arm.
“It’s really cool!”
“ ‘Really cool’?!”
Artemio chuckled. He pushed himself to his feet and stood at the edge of the platform in the golden light with his hands in his pockets. “What do you think of me?”
Esperanza froze in the middle of rubbing her scar back on. “Excuse me?”
“Do you think I’m crazy?”
“If Che couldn’t free Cuba, who do I think I am?”
Gravity pulled the loose scar on Esperanza’s cheek off to plop onto her knee. Through a thin opening in the vault of Artemio’s face, for the second time, Esperanza glimpsed an emotion she never knew he felt.
“Can you leave that off?” He glanced at her. She didn’t say anything and folded the scar away into the plastic bag in her pocket.
“And my eyes?” Esperanza struggled to form the whole question.
“I can imagine those,” he assured her. “But your hair—you’re always tying it up when I find you.”
“You’d like to see it?”
He nodded. Under a red and blue Cuban flag clanging against a metal pole at the top of the fortress wall, Esperanza pinched the rim of her baseball cap to lift it off. She dropped it by her side and patted her hair bun with her fingertips until she grazed and pulled out a bobby pin. One by one, she removed each pin to release strands of black hair that fell against the small of her back.
“Like Mom’s.” Artemio watched. “Could you stand?”
Esperanza tucked the pins into her pocket and pushed herself up, reaching back and using her forearm to fold out her black hair. She crossed her arms to cup her elbows and looked away. “Happy?”
“You?” Artemio smiled, but the weight in his eyes pulled down his lips. He looked back at the ocean. Seagulls explored Havana Harbor, able to circle the world yet remaining in place. “Maybe you’re right about the embargo.”
“Maybe I’m a joke.”
Esperanza saw the crack in Artemio widen and wanted to slam the vault shut and suffocate the emotion inside. “I–I believe you.”
“I believe in you.”
Artemio glanced back at Esperanza, eyebrow raised. “But you believe in ending the embargo.”
“I believe in you too.”
Artemio removed his cigarette. “You mean it?”
A tear landed on Esperanza’s feet. Artemio took a step toward her and colored by the sunset, reached out to gently cup her cheek. He brushed her hair back, rested his hand on her spine, and kissed her. Esperanza closed her eyes. He gently lifted her and laid her down where the platform supported her back, their lips never separating. Inside, Esperanza screamed.
It was what she had always wanted.
Esperanza wrapped her arms around Artemio and held him close. Their lips separated; their eyes met.
“I love you,” he said.
Esperanza’s body trembled; sweat ran down her face.
“I love you,” he said again.
Esperanza swallowed a lump behind her reddening cheeks; her temperature rose.
“Do you love me?” Artemio asked, and Esperanza pulled him in for another kiss. She reached into his shirt and felt his skin on her fingertips; a camera clicked. They looked up; a tourist looked back. Artemio yelled and bolted to his feet; the fake fled. Esperanza sat up and wiped her lips, breathing quickly. The nightly cannon would fire soon; they would have to leave before the gates closed.
Rust-colored lines rose out of a cup with angelic wings on the white wood sign hanging from a pole of twisted metal. On the gray sidewalk below, curled against the green and yellow wall of a café, a brown cat lifted its head and eyed a car with faded blue paint sputtering toward the corner of Galiano Street. The cat lowered its face back onto the pillow of its paws; through window bars overhead, an old man with a beard glanced up and down the street. He held his folded hands against his chest as if to keep his soul from spreading its wings too early; he saw kids kicking a can.
In an alley, a blue recycling bin laid on its side, empty. With his spine forced straight against the concrete wall, Artemio sat picking at the callouses on his hands. Next to him with her hair tied up underneath her baseball cap, Esperanza held her legs against her chest and studied her knees.
“Thanks,” Artemio said.
“More than that, I’m grateful.”
“We’re friends,” Esperanza told the boy to whom she longed to confess, “and that’s dangerous enough. Gangs would use me to get to you.”
“Wouldn’t be safe.” Artemio bit his lip.
“We’re friends.” Esperanza leaned over and kissed Artemio’s cheek to show that she didn’t mean what she said. Artemio reached through the collar of her white t-shirt and touched her shoulder.
“Keeps you safe,” he repeated.
Under a red and white sign that read “America,” an old vendor in white sat on the sidewalk weeping. His face was hidden behind his hands, making the Cuban deserving of sympathy unrecognizable. Artemio walked by studying the jineteras and shops while Esperanza studied where her feet met the pavement.
“Still think the embargo will end?” Artemio asked. Esperanza glanced up; he offered her a weak smile. She rubbed her scar.
“Communism is best,” Artemio said, “but you can’t explain it or put it into words. It fails because people don’t understand.”
“I think like you,” Esperanza said. She thought about how much she loved Artemio, and by the look on his face, he thought the same about her.
“How it should be with friends.” Artemio looked away.
A wave smacked against white rocks beneath a fortress, filled with silver glimmers from a gibbous moon. Hidden in the depths of La Cabaña, having snuck in after the gates closed, Artemio kissed Esperanza’s golden-brown leg. There was a sound, and Esperanza gasped, expecting to see a CDR spy.
Artemio brushed Esperanza’s hair behind her ear and ran his finger along her bare cheek like he traced ivy growing down a tower. Esperanza told herself that consummation was marriage, that in Song of Songs, the wedding feast occurred after consummation, for until the couple united, there was nothing to celebrate.
“I love you,” Artemio burst. The same pressure built within her. “Do you love me?”
Esperanza didn’t answer.
“I love you.” Artemio hoped she hadn’t heard him. “I do.”
Artemio stopped his hand on the center of Esperanza’s chest, feeling a heart he couldn’t touch.
It was too early for anyone but a few fishermen to be standing like soldiers along the esplanade near Vedado, casting their lines with prayers that their hooks didn’t snag on rocks. Esperanza and Artemio sat with their feet hanging over the edge; they weren’t holding hands. Neither could fall asleep on the cold floor of the fortress.
“I’m sorry,” Artemio said. “It just came over me.”
The gold brightened overhead, and Esperanza longed to feel the coming light on her cheek while resting her head in Artemio’s lap. But there were fishermen. Eyes. Her cap and scar felt heavier.
“Thanks for keeping us safe,” he said. Esperanza wished that Artemio wouldn’t apologize for confessing his love. Before God, she believed they were now husband and wife.
“Do you forgive me?” he added. She couldn’t forgive him: he did nothing wrong. For making him feel so alone, she sinned. But if Esperanza confessed, whether by gangs, the secret police, or magic, he would lose his wife. She could not bear to hurt him.
“Please, Esperanza, I’m sorry.”
Esperanza kissed Artemio, ignoring the risk. If he ever came to resent her and something happened, at least he wouldn’t suffer. If distance grew between them, at least he would be alright.
The indentures in the walls of the condemned fruit store in Old Havana were caused by bullets from revolutionists, Artemio told Esperanza, which was why the rooftop was one of his favorites to sleep on. Esperanza and Artemio lay spread out under the stars, looking up rather than at one another. He lay with his head on her bare stomach; she lay on a blanket of her long hair.
“You heard the story about the girl who thinks that if she tells her true love how she feels, life will leave her body?” Esperanza asked her husband, hoping the man she loved would understand what she couldn’t say.
“Why would she believe that?”
“I don’t know,” Esperanza answered. “To live, I guess.”
Artemio closed his eyes. “Dumbest story I ever heard.”
“Can’t be beautiful if it’s stupid,” Artemio said. “She’s just trying to avoid rejection, afraid to live hopeless.”
“She might have a good reason.”
“She might have reasons,” Artemio said. “Might be afraid to find out if love will last with time; might be afraid of commitment; might just have vague feelings, confused.”
“Some people believe it.” Esperanza felt around for his hand to hold. “Some people say there really was a girl that if she confessed her true love, her lover would kill her, like a porcupine killing another porcupine, to save her from the pain of getting close. Other versions of the story go that the boy kills himself to save her from the pain of closeness and that his suicide drives her to suicide.”
“People believe what they want to believe.”
“How people are,” he said. “Protects them.”
Artemio rolled onto his side toward Esperanza. “Hevel.” He breathed.
A three-story hotel with columns and balconies shimmered during sunsets and sunrises. The brilliant light caused the mold spreading over the cream paint to vanish, at least momentarily, like a curtain pulled over a window. Nearby, a row of streetlights on black poles with ornate fixtures lined San Lázaro street—a sign of wealth. Esperanza folded her arms over her chest, wearing her cap but not her duffle bag.
“Been selfish.” Artemio walked by her side. “If I were a real man, I’d kill myself before giving rival gangs reason to take you and do what they wanted. It’s wrong. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say sorry.” Esperanza touched her scar. “Please, don’t.”
“You don’t have to say that just to make me feel better.” Artemio avoided her eyes. “I should be stronger.”
“You are strong.”
“Apart, it’s better.” Artemio bit his lip. “We’re friends.”
Artemio looked down at the cracked sidewalk to find the word he thought his lover wanted him to say. “Friends.”
A couple laughed, dinning on a balcony; a heart replaced the second “o” in the red locos of the hanging restaurant sign. Below the people he couldn’t see, on the sidewalk, Artemio stopped; the color in his face lightened.
“You love them,” Esperanza whispered.
“I love all Cubans.”
“People like us?”
“People. Real people.”
Esperanza nodded. “I’m glad.”
“Americans could be real,” Artemio said, “one day, maybe.”
Esperanza didn’t reply.
“I hope they’re happy.” Artemio looked up. “I hope they still hope. People need hope, don’t they Esperanza? To live?”
Tomorrow, even during the blue day, the moon would be full. The dark waves grazed the skin of Esperanza’s healing toes; grains of twilight sand collected in her draping hair. Artemio lifted Esperanza’s t-shirt over her head, and they laid down beside one another, their bare shoulders touching. If she confessed to her husband, she might have years before her life left her body, maybe many. Artemio kissed her earlobe and neck, and she longed for him to realize that, despite what she said, Esperanza didn’t want them to just be friends who made love. She wanted them to stay together, in sickness and in health. Through darkness. Through fire. Through whatever joys they may gift one another. Artemio ran his hand down her leg and rested his fingers on her thigh. Esperanza pulled her husband closer, trying to break through the divide that was their bodies and be like rivers that merged into an ocean. She wanted to stumble with him, to be weak with him, to hold him close. Esperanza raised the metal prong of his belt to slide it off, hoping that he trusted that the girl who loved him kept her silence because she wanted to protect his heart. She took his hand and guided it over her chest and shoulders, trying to find the outline of a door where Artemio’s fingers could sink in and pull it open; he only found her bra strap. She removed his cotton pants and kept running her fingers over him, praying to find a hole into which her soul could fly and show him the truth. Inside, Esperanza felt an opening in her chest, hidden behind the door of her body, a hole through which her soul could reach him, but if Artemio’s door was closed, released, her soul would hover over his body forever. Through heartache. Through old age. Artemio slid off her jeans, and Esperanza’s golden-brown body lay bare in the moon-white sand. She couldn’t tell him how she felt, only show. And as they united into one flesh, her soul cried out, for Esperanza realized that even if she did show Artemio the words written upon her heart, she could never know if he understood. Outside, her soul cried out. Her soul cried.
The white lighthouse spotted with dark bricks was out of order. Over La Cabaña, a subtle change in the dusk sky’s gradient expanded from one horizon to the next; unlike that morning, there were no majestic red clouds. Silhouetted against the familiar setting, on their usual concrete platform, Artemio stood at the edge with his back to Esperanza. She sat in the middle with her legs pulled up to her chest; she left her scar and baseball cap in a trashcan with her duffle bag.
“Is this how it’s always going to be?” Artemio asked.
Esperanza’s hair straightened down her back when she lifted her head. “What do you mean?”
“How we’re living.”
“How we’re living?”
Artemio removed the unlit cigarette from his mouth. “Together but apart, always keeping one another safe.”
“For now.” Esperanza imagined the embargo ending; she envisioned Artemio finally grasping the meaning of what she showed him. “Things will change. One day.”
“One day.” Artemio shook his head. “Always one day.”
Artemio turned to face Esperanza, and like a street vendor offering what he hoped was valued, Artemio said the words she always longed to hear. “I love you.”
Artemio waited for Esperanza to say more.
“You’re strong.” Artemio covered his face. “But I—we can’t keep living like we’re something we’re not.”
“What are we living like?”
Artemio lifted his hand off his eyes. “Like we’re not just friends.”
“Are we more than friends?”
“Don’t you know?”
Esperanza didn’t answer.
“If you don’t want me,” Artemio said, looking back toward the ocean, “how could Cuba?”
“Artemio,” Esperanza said, wanting him more with each word, “your life honors Che. You’ve helped so many.”
“But what good am I to you?” he asked. “You’re stronger than me.”
Esperanza pushed herself to her feet and approached for a kiss, but Artemio held her back with his arm.
“You just want to make love,” Artemio said. “Because you’re stronger, smarter—but I want you.”
“You have me,” Esperanza said. “All of me.”
“Do you love me back?”
She confessed—in her mind, she told him the truth that she tried to show—and in that moment, what happened in her mind was more real than what happened outside of it.
“Useless.” Artemio reached for something tucked in his pants. Esperanza first saw the handle.
“When did you get that?” There were no fakes around, no cameras.
“Had it,” Artemio said. “Always been in gangs.”
“I’ve never seen it.”
Artemio lifted the gun from his belt and pointed it at Esperanza.
“Artemio!” she yelled, but they were alone.
“I should spare you.” Artemio drew the gun back to touch his ear with the barrel. “Spare Cuba.”
“Please,” Esperanza whispered, light setting down her cheek, “I beg you, don’t talk like that.”
“But it’s true.”
“What then?” Artemio asked. “Tell me, what’s true?”
“You don’t know?”
“I want you to say it,” he said with the gun to his head.
“I can’t live like this.”
“Like we’re married!” Artemio blurted out. “I can’t live like we’re married.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because I’m too weak.” Artemio laughed. “For Cuba. For you.”
“You’re not weak!” Esperanza stepped forward again, but Artemio aimed the gun at her.
“Do you love me?” Artemio asked. “Esperanza, tell me the truth, tell me now.”
The risk was too great. “You don’t know?”
“Don’t you know how I feel?”
“You’ve told me.” Esperanza looked down the gun. “You could have been lying. You could have said what you didn’t mean. But you told me.”
“Can’t you tell me what I told you?”
“Can’t you believe in me?”
“I can’t believe in myself. How can I believe in you?”
“If you’re going to shoot, shoot,” Esperanza said. He might be able to move on without her.
“Say that you don’t love me if it’s true,” Artemio demanded. “Say it.”
“Tell me the truth.”
Artemio turned the gun on himself. “Say it.”
“I can’t live without you,” he said. “I need to know.”
“Please, don’t do this.”
“Don’t you love me?” He pressed the barrel to his ear. “Just tell me if you don’t.”
She couldn’t live without her husband.
“Tell me,” he said. He would kill himself if she died.
“Tell me!” Artemio touched the trigger. Tears fell down Esperanza’s face, showing him the truth.
“I don’t love you.”
A wave lightly brushed a rock beneath the platform, dressed in a gold light that receded away from the fortress toward the emptying horizon. Across Havana rooftops, tattooed orphans lay on their backs waiting for the sun to finish pulling back its curtain and reveal the stars. Near a penthouse, standing at the very edge of a crumbling roof, an old man who sold rings lowered his shaking and tear-wet hand from his lips toward the esplanade of his beloved city. Business boomed below along Galiano Street: people from around the world flooded the cafes El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, and for an evening show, a similar crowd already gathered with the jineteras outside the Great Theatre. In Café Arcangel, an old local with a beard stood at a window; behind pubs only shadows frequented, a spray-painted piano remained silent.
Along the sea, Artemio dropped the pistol against his side. Esperanza stood facing him, a breeze brushing her cheeks. He reached into his pocket and slid out a cigarette, stuck it into his mouth, and fiddled with something in his pocket. He pulled out a lighter.
“Where did you get that?” Esperanza asked.
“Always had it.” He held down the lighter fork and flicked the sparkwheel until there was a flame. He raised the lighter to his cigarette and sat down on the platform with his legs crossed, resting the gun at his side. The gates of La Cabaña would be closing soon.
“Never seen you dance.” Smoke rose from his mouth as if embers died in his chest. Esperanza always thought she would have to surprise him.
“I’m not dressed for it.” Esperanza didn’t have her pointe shoes. Artemio glanced at the sea over his shoulder. No ships. “The gangs could see,” she said.
Artemio didn’t answer, his fingers loosely wrapped around the handle of his gun. Slowly, Esperanza leaned down and untied a sneaker. She bent her leg up and gripped the sole to pull the shoe off, then dropped it. She repeated the process with the other foot, though slower, then straightened her back. The ground was hard on her feet, and in the fading light, the texture was difficult to see. Esperanza closed her eyes; she stood in first position.
Her feet pointing in opposite directions, heels touching, Esperanza lifted to the blistered balls of her feet. Like a good story, she would show him that she lied when she told him that she didn’t love him. On her toes, Esperanza raised one leg straight out, then lowered it, bending her leg up across the other—her toe nearly touching her knee—then kicked into a spin. She fell. Her hands and knees hit the concrete; her long hair hid her grimace. Esperanza pushed up to her feet; she went into relevé and spun into fifth position: one foot placed in front of the other, the toes of her front foot in line with the heel of her back foot. She performed an entrechat—she leaped into the air and crossed her legs in front and behind her—and stumbled and fell when she landed, scraping her legs again. She pushed herself up, fought to fifth position, and immediately jumped into a brisé, beating her feet and legs together in the air before landing in the same position and repeating the move twice more. She landed on small pebbles that cut into her feet, and from fifth position transitioned with an échappé to second position and up onto the balls of her feet again. She had always wanted to tell him—as they talked about the embargo, debated about stories, exchanged laughs—but the truth could only be shown. She loved him; in his presence, she felt light on her feet. Esperanza stumbled and quickly kicked out a leg for support, bleeding under the lighthouse where she and Artemio shared their first kiss. Back to the balls of her feet, she stood on one leg while extending her other leg turned out and straight behind her body, keeping her eyes closed and letting her heart guide. Esperanza stretched her arm toward the dark sky with her other arm straight behind and just above her leg, pointing out; she lowered her leg and arms, her supporting leg in plié. Remaining in relevé, Esperanza began the fouetté turn: she whipped her leg to bring it around to touch her supporting leg in retiré and rotated, and when she had nearly come around completely, she whipped her leg again, then again, spinning. She didn’t mean what she said, only what she showed. She danced that she wanted to protect him and said she didn’t love him because she loved him; her soul cried out. She stopped spinning and with light steps prepared for a full split in the air, a grand jeté. She believed she was fated never to be with the one she loved, but today, she fought against that fate. She leaped, landed, and kept herself from falling by improvising a spin. One day, Artemio would know the truth, and Esperanza hoped that day was now. Then, with him, she would dance a pas de deux: he would lift her into the air. Free. There was a loud shot, and Esperanza finished her revolution back into first position.
Artemio was speechless.
Inspirations and Thanks
- Purinsesu Chuchu, directed by Junichi Sato and Shogo Koumoto.
- Atlanta Ballet: Terms and Positions
- “Gangs in Havana, Crime Gains Ground / Cubanet, Ernesto Perez Chang” by Ernest Perez Chang
- Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson.
- Kino’s Journey (Episode 1), directed by Ryūtarō Nakamura
- Thank you to Sandra Fluck of The Write Launch for her invaluable editing.
References and Allusions
- She snuck into the school...a ballerina’s life would not be for them.
Inspired by “Cuban Ballet School: ‘Welcome to Hell’ by Georgia Schrubbe
- With a well-trained smile...to voice them.
Inspired by “How Does an Editor Think and Feel?”
- The Tropicana Penthouse approached on their left...for an authentic experience.
Description based on tropicanapenthouse.com
- The wide cruise ships…to mere ideas.
Inspired by “Andrei Tarkovsky—Poetic Harmony”
- Truth was ‘not malleable [to] theories[, but natural law,]’ and Che discovered a ‘formula’ that would liberate the world from poverty and suffering, and through this ‘discovery would [come an] end to injustice.’
Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York, NY. Grover Press, 1997: 506.
- Marketing was life in Havana; selling, breathing. Capitalism ‘inverted world[s].’
Allusion to “The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” by Karl Marx.
- Havana was in bondage...was help one person give up ‘that vale of tears of which [Capitalism was] the halo’—what more could he ask?
Allusion to “The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” by Karl Marx.
- “A false choice.” Artemio rested...“There will be birth pangs. There must be ‘to save […] more people in the future.’”
Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York, NY. Grover Press, 1997: 531.
- Artemio nodded and left to continue pursing his calling...of American as the savior
Paragraph inspired by “The Once Great City of Havana” by Michael J. Totten
- Tomorrow, even during the blue day...Her soul cried.
Paragraph inspired by “Your Love Remains,” by The Brilliance.