Cries and Whispers in Obamastan
May 29 2013
“I can’t believe we went for him instead of Hillary,” I told Jack Doroshow. “Wasn’t that a dumb call,” Jack said, “and then feeling like a total chump for having to vote for him again.” “Now that I think of it, ‘the audacity of hope’ always made me cringe. ‘The mendacity of hope’ would be a lot closer to what we ended up with,” I said. “Now, not to sound hopeful, but how the fuck can we stop Christine Quinn?”
I wanted to see friends in Guantanamo Province. Enrique said he would drive us, but his old Lada would never make it. The plan kept changing. Enrique waited for a decent price on an Audi rental that never materialized. Soon it was too close to the holiday drunk driver season to even risk it. We drove to Pinar del Rio as a consolation trip. Enrique dropped his wife at her mother’s in Puerta de Golpe. We stopped at the prehistoric cave. The entrance was swarming with tourists so we didn’t go in. A tout lured us to a putrid lunch in a farmyard paladar where they staged a cockfight while we were eating. Ricardo and I foolishly hoped we might stumble on an edible meal in the countryside. Food is problematic everywhere on the island. Not that it’s scarce. Everyone just forgot how to cook after the Revolution, or else grew up hungry, so anything tastes all right to them. We ate at a tourist joint called Hanoi near the Capitolia the night I left last January, thinking it had to be Vietnamese. But no, same as everywhere: chicken, pork, or fish. Prepared in the national manner of depraved indifference. Luckily I couldn’t get a knife through the rubbery pescado and didn’t eat it. Ricardo’s chicken arrived raw on one side. Afterward he had dysentery for three days, which he described to me in lurid detail over the phone.
“The minute the FBI said they’d been tapping his phone for two years,” I said, “I knew it had to be another Lee Harvey Oswald cut-and-paste job avant un fait accompli. Or some COINTELPRO thing gone haywire. Remember those Muslims in Buffalo? The Buffalo Five? Or Four? The only one who ever talked about blowing anything up was the FBI plant.” “Well, the family did say the older one fell under the spell of some Islamic Svengali—” “Yeah, Clyde Tolson.” “—and then linking them to this triple-murder thing—” “That sounds so credible, doesn’t it? A really must-see CSI Boston episode. A tea head leaves 20 ounces of grass scattered over a crime scene. Why the fuck would he waste good weed on a stiff?”
Reynaldo lives in a crumbly house on San Lazaro Street with his mother and one older brother and two younger ones. One is a new baby. The older younger brother is six. He has a squeaking, faltering deaf-mute voice, though he can speak and hear. Before I had ever seen or heard him, he phoned once for Reynaldo from a pay phone and said things in a Spanish I couldn’t understand. I imagined that an ancient Santeria priestess whose cells were going back had called a wrong number and would cast a bad-luck spell if I hung up.
I was recently told that heterochromia—two different-colored eyes—often accompanies congenital hearing loss. Still I have only seen it in Reynaldo, and in one of the cats I feed on my street. Other people’s dogs in New York, sometimes. Reynaldo’s face is a rubber mask like Buster Keaton’s. He laughs about whatever happens. He really belongs in silent movies. You would never suspect how ridiculous he finds everything, unless somebody leaves the room; he’s a devastating mimic. I have seen him pensive and possibly sad now and then, when he didn’t think I was looking. When people in New York see his picture they say Oh, your boyfriend’s so beautiful, thinking he’s Ricardo, or, for all I know, that I sleep with every attractive man I take a picture of. Reynaldo hears a narrow range of sounds in one ear. The left one I think. When he tries to talk the cry of a porpoise comes out, a deceptive cadence of high-pitched squeals.
“Rami heard that a guy suspected in that triple-murder thing implicated the older brother in an FBI interview.” “I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying it’s incredibly easy for FBI, CIA, all these ultra–high-tech agencies to manufacture evidence of anything. But look, if there’s a live witness—” “Well, there would be, except the FBI shot him during the interview.”
Ricardo drags me to visit Ino, who teaches dance. Ino lives in a bizarre edificio between Capitolia and Plaza de Armas. The entrance is like the mouth of a whale, a pitch-black tunnel between the sidewalk and a courtyard where laundry hangs from sagging balconies overhead and everything visible looks theatrically battered and decrepit, the set of an imaginary Samuel Beckett opera directed by Visconti.
Cement steps on the left go to a mezzanine terrace of apartment doors, balustrades, a restaurant with little tables planted in the walkway, dwarfed by the vaulted underside of the floor above. Across the mezzanine, a staircase of wooden slats grooved with rot bypasses the upper floors to the roof. Ino’s room resembles the shack Monica Vitti’s friends demolish for firewood in Red Desert. It has a water closet, no bath; he washes in the sink. The floor feels stable, but really the whole Piranesian structure could collapse in a second into a pile of debris, as old buildings in Havana often do.
The roof is a sky-shantytown of hovels, like animal burrows, lining an alley of packed earth. Instead of doors they have gauze, with Santeria candles flickering on altars to the Black Virgin of Regla behind them. I’m never convinced that the science-fiction effect of Ino’s roof—the Capitolia dome, copied from the US Capitol Building, looms gigantically and looks about to collide, like the rogue planet in Melancholia—justifies the risk of plunging to a certain skull fracture by setting foot on Ino’s staircase. But I can’t avoid visiting him with Ricardo at least once, even though Ino is a florid, sweaty, histrionic queen, who throws his meaty arms around me and kisses my face unpleasantly whenever he remembers I’m in the room.
Ino always has boys from the country in his cluttered lair, who sit or stand around looking spellbound until Ino sends them bolting down to fetch something from outside. Sometimes it’s another boy, or a melon, or a bottle of Havana Club. He finds these boys nearby, in front of Kid Chocolate Boxing Arena, where they gravitate upon arrival. Ino ensorcels them with eccentricity and bits of food. They expect a little cash from anyone they sleep with—rightly so, especially if it’s a tourist. Even rich Cubans are poor compared with tourists, and any foreigner in Cuba is richer than a poor Cuban. I don’t know if Ino pays them, or just lets them use his bed for business transactions. I can’t imagine where he goes in that event, or if he stays and watches, or joins in.
“Now that’s a connection nobody’s made,” Jack said. “It’s pure Hitchcock,” I said. “'Rope,’ specifically. Lyle convinced Erik their parents were going to kill them—for all we know, Lyle convinced himself once they actually bought the shotguns. What’s different?” “Families are great, aren’t they?” “This... decoupage of a conspiracy is just insulting. That uncle—not the New Jersey uncle, the one the older brother stayed with in Takeacrapistan or wherever—” “I thought it was his father.” “Father, Uncle—said the kid slept the whole time he was there. ‘Go out, have fun, make friends’—he never left his bedroom. Probably jerking off 30 times a day to a picture of Taylor Swift. So this image of him frantically running around begging to join some Islamic cabal is total bullshit.” “People buy it.” “I’d like to think people who buy it all live in North Dakota.”
The boys whisk their customers away from Kid Chocolate Arena and the CCTV cameras and the cops patrolling the Capitolia lickety-split, into a taxi, into the night. Gay is legal, hustling isn’t. Male prostitutes, pingueros, have mixed in with Havana gays in growing numbers, numbers that correlate closely with the spread of private enterprise, income inequality, and foreign-made consumer goods. The sexuality of the pinguero is extremely specific, as per a fascinating study by G. Derrick Hodge, an anthropologist at Rutgers University. Dr. Hodge writes, “Pinguero is not primarily a category of sexual preference: it is first and foremost an economic category.” Pingueros are neither definably gay nor straight. They possess the famously ample Cuban pinga, and that is what they sell. They don’t kiss, don’t allow themselves to be penetrated (except when they do), and will only do it doggie-style, if possible while watching a porn video.
Pingueros have sex with women as well as men. Here is a piquant detail: a pinguero has to know he’ll be paid after gay sex to get an erection before. (Payment in advance is not the custom.) This is true even when he has sex with an equally indigent Cuban he’s attracted to. More thought-provoking still, a pinguero who goes with a woman can’t get it up unless he pays her.
A pinguero fucks a partner of either sex the way a farmer fucks a pig, with less affection: no dreamy postcoital smile, no tender kiss, usually a wheedling insistence on a gift of any spray deodorants, toothpaste, and other toiletries in the trick’s bathroom. A special breed of pinguero specializes in pilfering small valuables, with amazing swiftness and skill, from any room he enters.
I can add a few notes to Dr. Hodge’s study.
Where men go looking for other men—the Capitolia, Bin Bon, Las Vegas nightclub on Infanta Street, gay parties at Escheverria disco in Vedado—a person learns by trial and error how to tell pingueros from gays, and how to identify gays with whom sex is reciprocal (willing to top or bottom, or both), and to distinguish ladies—who aren’t egregiously effeminate, but telegraph willing passivity with signals that might go unnoticed in other settings. This doesn’t mean a lady is unprepared to play the penetrative role in a one-off Japanese rendezvous. Not to puncture anyone’s fantasy, but a lady is a shrewd young person with no interest in sex at all, who sells his body for pin money to low bidders while appraising the season’s ambient johns for an ideally deluded, rich tourist. What happens next is the plot of The Blue Angel. The tourist buys himself a house or apartment using the lady as the signatory cut-out, or sets his one and only up in a business. It often happens. Socially, ladies are all seriously unlikeable, but effusive, in an amusingly vulpine way. A true lady dumps his bedazzled paramour even as the ink dries on the property deed.
“Captain Crud’s third term—keeping Kelly on the police—that was more than enough—” “Well, Jack, I really hope some lesbians will come out against her, otherwise people will say it was only because of St. Vincent’s closing that—” “This is the big problem with identity politics—” “You know what would really be good? An extremely brilliant midget. Sensitive to minority issues, obviously, but more concerned about—” “But do you think a midget would stop those microapartments from going through, or not see a problem with smaller housing—”
Another person easily found in Havana is the type Ino collects, a young man from the provinces just off the bus from Las Tunas or Ciego de Avila planning to find work in construction or waiting tables after a short, bill-paying foray as a rent boy. He may have family or a friend in the city but usually he doesn’t know a soul. When the bus drops him beside the Central Park, his face wears the torpid demeanor of an adorable field hand getting a blowjob in his sleep. For a few days, or weeks, he somnambulates around Havana, staring dreamily into faces he thinks likely to launch him in the trade. They will.
A year ago last January, I met a young mulatto in the French café between the Hotel Ingleterra and the Hotel Telegrafico. I was sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Telegrafico when he began to signal through the fronds of a dwarf sago palm. I had noticed him going into the French café from the street; his stunning physique spoke of forests and farms. I supposed he was one of the newly arrived. Such persons have an untainted aura that activates a futile, usually superfluous protective instinct. Havana is the least dangerous of cities. The only danger such a person faces is a policeman demanding his identity card. If it doesn’t say he’s from Havana province, and he has no other document explaining his presence in the capital, the police escort him to Estación Centrál and force him onto a train going back where he came from.
Mastiu wasn’t that kind of indolent youth, however, but a fisherman working in Cotorro for the season. (Cotorro is a lovely, rustic suburb, full of horse-drawn carts and sleepy roads.) His native place was Santiago. He fished at night from shore, wearing rubber hip boots. His boss sold the fish to restaurants. Mastiu had an insane ex-wife in an asylum, and a small daughter living with his mother, whose whereabouts were never clear to me. It was never clear where Mastiu lived, either. I pictured him in Guanabacoa, in a shared house with a Santeria room and no electricity. He had difficulty printing words on the yellow pad we used when gestures and miming failed. I didn’t learn all this about Mastiu at first, because he was deaf and mute. Like Reynaldo, he had some faint hearing in one ear. His rarely attempted non-voice was deeper, a strangulated baritone, but similarly, bizarrely detached from his physical person. We became lovers for a season, for three or four hours every afternoon, but I didn’t learn his name before we had already done every possible thing two people can do in bed without killing each other.
He carried a cell phone, but I couldn’t text him because my US mobile doesn’t work in Cuba. I couldn’t call him from the apartment phone, because he couldn’t hear. Since neither of us could change a date by telephone, I simply looked down from my balcony at the same time every day, until he showed up on the sidewalk. I quickly saw the impossibility of any abstraction in our wordless conversations. Mastiu became hopelessly confused if I tried to describe anything that had happened in the past, or tried to indicate some future likelihood or intention. He had no interest in teaching me how to sign. I learned precious little sign language, even from the other deaf and mute people I met. There are some universal signs, even the alphabetic ones, but Spanish and English signs are different, so my imperfect Spanish hampered my efforts. As I realized on the only night I ever saw him at Bin Bon, among the crowd of deaf and mute people there, Mastiu had little appetite for using language at all, even a language I saw he could communicate very eloquently, keeping others hanging, so to speak, on his every word.
Everything with Mastiu was direct, concrete, enacted in an unvarying present tense. We broke up the minute we got bored with fucking each other. I think if people did that as the customary thing, the world would be an infinitely healthier place.
The day we met, he had gone into the French café to meet a very skinny deaf and mute girl with desultory urchin prettiness and exophthalmic eyes. Her stringy, brownish hair was cinched behind her head with a red rubber band. I saw her later at Bin Bon, in a red faux-leather jacket, chin bobbing, mouth open in a soundlessly convulsive laugh. She introduced me to other deaf and mute people—many, of both sexes, all different ages. Their numbers grew every week after that. I was startled to find there were not only an unnatural number of them clanning in the same place every night, but peculiarly many people who aren’t deaf and mute all over Havana are fluent in sign language. I asked everywhere in the city why there were so many sordomudos in Cuba, but nobody knew. One night in Bin Bon I claimed one of the coveted seats under the awning, and sat down where some kind person had deposited a wad of chewing gum stuck to an invitation to Las Vegas Club. I was a little drunk, and to save face did a psychic swami pantomime, pretending to glean the words of the invitation I peeled off my ass by holding it up to my forehead. Reynaldo chortled from the next table. We commenced making idiotic faces at each other. He’d never gone to Bin Bon before. I just happened to catch him. That’s how I met Reynaldo. I’m not sure either one of us has ever understood a single thing the other was trying to say, but there has never been a moment when we didn’t understand each other perfectly.
“If somebody made bumper stickers that said ‘Don’t Vote For Quim’ that would be as disgusting as ‘Vote for Cuomo Not The Homo.’ It has to be non-inflammatory, succinct, punchy but inoffensive—” “Exactly! It’s not quim anybody has a problem with. It’s some treacherous Mickey Moneybags epigone becoming mayor just because she has one.”
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