Apr 09, 2018, 05:56AM

They Look Like They Can Fight

A Havana travelogue.

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Photo by Jackson Sugar Appelman

A street vendor pushes his three-wheeled cart, like a garden barrow, through a mostly empty lane marked by dog shit and empty 40s of malt liquor. I buy five homemade doughnuts from him, for the equivalent of 20 cents American. The doughnuts taste like fried bread, not puffed like American doughnuts but denser and chewier, with less sugar—well worth the four cents apiece, maybe even worth the E. coli sickness I develop a few days later than my son’s.

In a vacant building, two blocks from our Casa, I find the roosters hidden in shadow, crowded together against a spray-painted wall, like shooting dice back in Detroit, where I grew up. One of the roosters has a pencil-thin mustache like a 1920s gangster. All of them look like they can fight. I throw a doughnut and it breaks against the wall above their heads, but they’re busy pecking at the remains of a hood pigeon, its wings and head smeared into a blot of feathers, dusty like a moth when you flick it too hard.


You go to Cuba long before you go to Cuba. You remember wanting to look like Colin Farrell on his speedboat heading south of The Keys in the movie version of Miami Vice, your hair pinned-back against the wind under black sky at 50 knots, the U.S. like a dapple of moonlight behind you, somewhere years ago, Havana somewhere ahead.

You remember reading Hemingway when you were 19 and still young enough to be fooled by the lore surrounding his two decades as an ex-patriot in fishing villages, Hemingway as gun runner, rum smuggler, and operative for the CIA—when you were still young enough to believe that Papa was a rolling stone, instead of a fucking tourist, which is what all millionaires are.

You go to Cuba because you grew up in the 1970s, and your friend’s father had a dartboard with a wallet-sized photo of Fidel Castro tacked to the bullseye. You go to Cuba because, in the 1990s, you worked at a cheese shop and you traded a wheel of Valdeon, a Spanish blue wrapped in Sycamore leaves, for three Montecristo cigars, to a customer with a tan like warmed maple syrup and a rolled New York Times under his arm. You go to Cuba because, in your lifetime, you were never allowed to go to Cuba, and Americans, if anything, go where they’re not supposed to. We made a home out of that practice.


At 10 p.m. on the wraparound balcony of the Hotel Presidente, white people access unstable Wi-Fi to video chat with their loved ones on the mainland. The sidewalks out front are crowded with beer cans and the buzz of mosquitoes, humidity breezing like a ghost from corner to corner, taxis honking and flashing their headlights at nobody in particular, then slamming on drum brakes that haven’t seen a factory since 1960.

An American flag snaps up-high on a pole, supposedly a symbol of international hospitality but, given the decades-old tension between our countries, the flag must be ironic in sentiment; it looks like a quirky, Urban Outfitters-style gag gift up there, a sort of “LOL” suddenly saluting hard and fast in an ocean-force wind off the Malecon, two blocks away.

My son and I sit at separate tables, drinking San Pellegrinos and downloading our respective days to our respective girlfriends via our respective iPhones. My son has long hair and, across the veranda, he’s candlelit and relaxed. Shadows from the palm leaves dance against his jawline and I remember when our family lived on 10 wooded acres in Texas together, when we were still whole and I carried him in a cotton-woven sling wrapped to my chest, those months after he was born. Now he’s six feet tall.

When the bill comes, I pay in CUCs, a currency used primarily in tourist destinations to extort the non-Spanish-speaking. The peso is standard currency in most of Cuba, but there’s a complicated formula for exchange that I don’t easily acclimate to, as it seems to involve college-level math, a philosopher’s intuition, and stardust. I pay more, equivalent to the American dollar, in CUCs than in pesos, but in my front pocket is a wad of cash on par with the average Cuban’s yearly income.

This isn’t Hemingway’s Cuba anymore, but white people are still the millionaires in town, and the rich, here or anywhere else, have always deserved a punch in the mouth, even if it comes as a proper price-gouging instead of misdemeanor battery.


We pack our beach towels and take a taxi through multi-colored concrete villages dotting the densely-grassed countryside 45 minutes east of Havana. Our driver explains that the Cuban resale value of his 1983 Lada Riva, a 40-year-old compact car imported during the Soviet era and needing constant repair, is approximately $25,000 American dollars.

The Lada Riva is arguably the most popular citizen-owned vehicle in Havana, and it runs forever—it has to, as Cuba’s Communist-controlled government keeps a tight grip on new vehicle imports, and an American shipping embargo doesn’t help the Cuban people, either; virtually no new cars get in. Supply being low, price is exorbitantly high, so nearly every Cuban with a vehicle is forced to operate that ownership like a business.

Our driver tells me in broken English, “This is like taxi tokens in New York. If you want a car, you owe for the rest of your life.” I tell him, “Si.” He responds, “Assholes.” I tell him “Si” again, and my right arm drags outside the window, a rich, hot air funneling through my fingertips as he drives, a blur of tobacco fields and oddly-placed electricity lines shooting behind us.


The driver drops us beside the ocean south of Playa Santa Maria, in a parking lot where a street vendor actively barbecues quartered-chickens and sells cans of lime-flavored soda stockpiled atop a mound of chopped ice. I ask the driver to come back for us in six hours, then pay him 20 CUCs. The sun is high and hot, the ocean a turquoise blue as we walk barefoot over burning sand. I rent two beach chairs and an umbrella for five CUCs, and then we lay our towels down. I wrap my cash, something like 300 CUCs, in a plastic bag, and then bury it, forgetting to eyeball the spot.

I go swimming for a long time. The saltwater kisses my skin. I can see my son back on the beach, reading a book. When I get out, we decide that we’re hungry although, when I dig into the sand with my fingertips, I can’t find our stash. I snap at my son, “Did somebody come over here?”

Six months later, when I write this story, I’ll feel so foolish for the little moments of anger we express when our guard is down, when we think we have all the time in the world. I’ll feel old, my son turning 18 in a few days, the uninterrupted hours we’ve been given growing less frequent, autumn growing thick and gray in the November sky above our street. But right now, for the next few minutes, I grow frustrated, digging out a grid pattern in the sand, three inches deep, three inches across. Somebody has clearly stolen our cash, I think, without so much as an eyebrow-lift from my son.

I think of all the times I had to hide my money growing up in Detroit, how punked I feel right now, how pissed off I am about all the things I’ve wanted for my son but couldn’t provide for him, how one day, maybe years from now, I’ll be a fucking millionaire like all the people I hate, the memory of 300 CUCs as inconsequential as the memory of sand—and my son will eat chicken whenever he wants to, and never have to worry again, not at the loss of money, or at the passing of opportunity, or at the tension that arises with the fear of those things emanating from his father.

That will be the gift I’ll give my boy, I think, to have as much, and to live his life as plentifully, as those I despise, which is the gift, I believe, that so many Cubans must want for their sons. And right then is when I find our stash, not where I think I’ve buried it but where I suddenly remember actually stuffing it, into a side pocket of my carry bag, having decided spontaneously that burying our money had been a foolish idea. I now remember having deftly removed our baggie of cash from the sand, thinking, My god, What if we can’t find it later? Six months afterward, sitting here with the leaves parachuting down outside, the first drops of rain falling, I think, Where will my boy go when he’s a man? Just having him next to me, even in times that were rough between us, has saved my life.

And I think, the way all parents must think, What if I can’t find him, too?


Many of the buildings in Old Havana look like they’ve taken mortar fire. We hire a taxi and thread the needle through cramped, sodden streets adjacent to a small tourist district. Ahead of us, an elderly woman in a thin gown steps onto the sidewalk in dollar-store-style flip-flops, dumps a stockpot of steaming water into the gutter, then turns back into her home.

As we pass, I see her through a basketball-sized, chest-level window that looks like it’d been crafted with a jackhammer: beneath a lightbulb dangling from an overhead extension cord, she’s scratching one of her breasts the way my grandmother used to scratch after her mastectomy, remembering what used to be.

At the Rafael Trejo boxing gym, we pay grift money of five CUCS to cross a darkened, peeled-paint foyer and step into the open-air arena that has, for decades, been a dominant birthing ground for Olympic boxers.

From the late-1960s to the early-2000s, Cubans produced more Olympiads in the sport than anywhere else in the world, most of them taking to the “sweet science” in scrap lot gyms like this one, hung sidelong with patched-up heavy bags, a regulation ring with only a sheet-tin roof shielding it from the elements, and no free weights to be seen. As a kid, my boxing hero was Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, because my father and I had watched him win the Golden Gloves Championship on a small, black and white television. From a far corner, I hear the snap-snap-snap of a jump rope against concrete while my son takes photographs, a privilege we’ve paid an extra five CUCs in grift for, and I wonder who his own heroes will be.

I think, What will he remember?

We watch a training session unfold: taught, dark-skinned bodies moving forward in unison with a jab-cross-hook combination, over and over, the sun already hot, a sheen of humidity on the exposed, concrete walls, a pair of yard cats lounging in a forgotten corner.

I remember my father moving out of our home, and I wonder why, all these decades later, it still stings.

I wonder, too, if the coming decades of my own son’s adulthood will reveal me in black and white, as I’ve sometimes unfairly remembered my father, or if I’ll be seen by my son in technicolor, the way I see him right now, maneuvering through the gym today, his long hair pulled back in a bun, the snap-snap-snap of his Canon a metronome, like jumping rope, to something greater inside. 


Under a black sky, the street is lamp-lit and roped-off, our small café table crowded with porcelain plates, two San Pellegrinos, tall glasses of ice. The pork chops are garnished with fried plantains. I can see the balcony of our third-floor Casa while we eat, a row of wide-open shutters leading to our host, who watches television inside, smokes cigarettes, called me “friend” that morning before photographing our passports, “for reporting purposes.”

My son and I share a dessert of caramel-topped cheesecake while the café hostess, her straight black hair holding a sheen like new licorice, waves off two small boys who’d been gyrating at her from the sidewalk, each wearing only athletic shorts and flip-flops. They giggle and then kick a soccer ball to each other in the newly-hosed street. One of the boys turns back to the hostess and shouts something which I understand to be sexual, based on her sudden drop in expression and his own, sudden hysteria. The boys high-five each other.

The night is languid. My son remains at the cafe while I stroll 30 feet to a street-level apartment I’d learned would provide illegal Wi-Fi close enough to connect with our phones. A man with a shaved head brings me into his living room and charges me four CUCs, then scribbles his Wi-Fi password onto torn newsprint.

I return to the café and we sip our San Pellegrinos, checking our emails and texts. Soon, the man with the shaved head flies by on a 1980s Honda scooter. I swat at something on my arm, worried about the mosquito-born Zika virus we’d heard so much about, then pour the remains of my San Pellegrino over rapidly-melting ice. I pull deeply from the glass—the cold and the carbonation perfectly matched in my mouth, I think. And then I think, Shit...ice is tap water, too, and we weren’t supposed to drink any of that.

Three days later is when my son develops E. Coli, and a few days afterward is when I develop my own case of “the sickness,” as I’ll learn to call it, but tonight there are stray dogs gleefully trotting through the streets, sex-crazed 10-year-olds chasing after grown women, and bare-chested old men sitting on overturned milk crates, spitting through their teeth, one of them with a silver-dollar-sized tattoo on his chest: a set of boxing gloves, inked years ago. And my son and I have Wi-Fi, after all, dessert to pick at, and girlfriends to video chat with, to say to them what we don’t say to each other.

Hours from now, when the streetlamps dim, starlight will scatter playfully above the tenements. I’ll wake at two a.m. and step onto the balcony. Directly across from our Casa is another building, within which a child will cry although no lights will turn on. A rare, cool breeze will have somehow funneled inland—from the Malecon, it will take the side streets, traveling high, to find the back of my neck.

I’ll turn inward, and the shutters to our bedroom will look like upturned palms when I walk back through them, thinking to myself, jab-cross-hook, jab-cross-hook, the way we move forward into our lives, Havana somewhere behind us at 50 knots, someplace else up ahead. 


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