Nightfall and the Cuban Tango
By Steve Carr The Author's Short Story was originally published within the contents of our 3rd Issue of ILA Magazine, (May/June). We are also posting here, on our blog for readers to enjoy within a clearer view.
In the Casa De La Danza, young women in hues of pink, orange and green slinky satin dresses, sit in a row of chairs along one wall. They look like different flavored shaved ices melting in the heat of the ballroom. The blades of the ceiling fans whirl slowly about, circulating the warm air that is heavily scented with the perfumes, colognes, and sweat of the dancers. The girls fan their rouged faces with bamboo fans. Impassionately, they watch the couples on the dance floor.
Mateo stands near the entrance, his hands in his pockets, a toothpick dangling from his lower lip. Surreptitiously, he eyes Aymee who sits at the far end of the row of girls. While the other girls sit with their knees touching, she has her legs crossed. Her foot wiggles, lazily keeping rhythm to the music, the bright green comb she has inserted into her dark brown hair piled high on her head like a mound of cascading chocolate is slightly askew. He has known her since they were children but hasn't seen her in a long time. At that moment he wants her. he wants any woman. But not to dance with. These girls, the ones in the Casa De La Danza waiting to be asked to dance, do only that. Dance.
His patience with the slowness of the night is frayed. Despite his athletic good looks, he is unable to compete with the men on the dance floor who move their bodies in ways he is unable to do. He turns, spits out the toothpick, and leaves the building. The recent downpour has left the air even more humid than usual. The palm leaves on the tall trees droop as if oppressed by the rain, humidity, and their inconsequential existence. The asphalt that covers the parking lot is coated with rainwater that makes it shine like black gloss. The cars in the lot are all older model Russian-made Ladas, all with excellent paint jobs in colors fit for an upscale whorehouse. His motorbike along with a dozen others, stand side-by-side at a rack, chained there like animals awaiting slaughter. The boys who ride them are of the Cuban middle class, although technically a class system doesn't exist. His only consolation in owning a motorbike is that it gets him where he wants to go. He can't afford anything but what he has. He sweeps the water from the bike seat with his hand and unlocks the chain. He wraps the chain around the handlebars, and gets on. There's a moment of anxiety before he turns the key. Will it start or not? His motorbike is like the women he dates, ill tempered and unpredictable. It sputters momentarily and then he drives off.
The streets of Havana are busy. Old cars, junk-heap pickup trucks and aging buses move slowly along the crowded thoroughfares where pedestrians seem impervious to the headlights that catch them in their beams and the honking of the horns that implores them to get out of the way. The white light that shines from the moon that is peeking out from behind diminishing storm clouds illuminates the brightly painted facades of the buildings. Graffiti is scrawled on every available surface. Little of it is political, which could get the artist arrested. Most of it is intended to be poetic.
Mateo turns onto a side street with the intention of taking the less busy back streets. Only two blocks inside the meandering tangle of streets, his motorbike is stopped, surrounded by four men.
Standing in front of the motorbike, gripping the handlebars is Diego. "Hey man, word has it you know a way that could get an amigo off this goddamn island if he wanted to go to America."
Mateo looks around at the men surrounding him, and then back to Diego. he only knows Diego. He doesn't recognize the others. "Yeah, buy some oars and build a raft," he says. "Now, get outta my way. Abuelita can't soak her feet unless I'm there to help her and you know how cranky old women can get when they have sore feet."
Diego grabs Mateo by his shirtfront. "Listen cabron , I'm gonna be keeping my eye on you and if I see you getting ready to depart Cuba without taking me along, I'm gonna cut your throat." He lets go of Mateo's shirt and shoves him back on the seat.
Mateo puts his foot on the gas pedal and speeds on.
Mateo tears a piece of rind from the orange with his teeth and spits it on the floor. Around his chair there are several pieces of orange rind and a banana peel. He bites into the pulp, slowly swallows it, savoring the taste of juice dribbles down his chin. Doves perched on the wrought iron railing outside the kitchen window fill the air with their coos. In the next room, his grandfather has the television turned up loud. A soap opera is on. The actors speak rapidly, in the heat of discussion about someone's unwanted child. Mateo tears another piece of orange peel from the fruit and spits it on the floor.
"Cerdo," his sister, Adoncia, calls him as she walks into the room and sees the mess on the floor.
"Oink, oink," he replies as he bites into the pulp.
She goes to the refrigerator and takes out a plate on which sits six eggs. "Diego came here last night looking for you while you were out," she says. She places a frying pan on the stove and turns on the flame. "I told him you had gone dancing."
He wraps his hand around the orange, squeezing it. Choking it. "Why would you tell him that?" It's where you said you were going. You go dancing at the dance halls and clubs every Friday and Saturday night."
"I go to meet jevas, not to dance," he says.
She pours fat from a jar into the pan, waits for the fat to begin to sizzle, then cracks two eggs and drops them in the pan. "Anyway, Diego seemed in a rush to see you."
"He saw me. I saw him."
She pushes at the eggs with a spatula. "What did he want?"
"To see me," he says, rising from the chair. With his bare foot he brushes aside the debris he has left on the floor and leaves the kitchen. In the living room his abuela is rocking back and forth in the rocking chair Mateo made for her. Her favorite wool shawl is draped across her frail shoulders, although the room is hot. Potted ferns and cactus are lined up on the windowsill that overlooks a noisy alleyway. He glances out the window to make sure his motorbike is still chained up just as he left it. He goes to his grandmother and kisses her lightly on the forehead.
"You're a good boy, Mateo," she says as she affectionately pats his hand without looking away from the television.
He kneels down by the chair and looks up at her wrinkled face.
"I will be going away soon," he says.
"Where is there to go?" she says. "Where can anyone go?"
The actors in the soap opera are screaming at one another.
"There is a whole world beyond Cuba, Abuelita," he says. "I want to go to America."
"Be sure to wear a raincoat and make sure your sister wears hers," she says.
"Adoncia is such a good girl," she says.
Mateo stands, swats a fly buzzing around his head, and goes into the bathroom. He strips off his boxers, steps into the shower, and turns on the cold water. Just like the water that comes out when the hot water knob is turned, it's tepid. Hot or cold knob, what comes out is always the same. While lost in thought, thinking about Aymee, and fully aroused, there is a sudden banging on the bathroom door. It's Adoncia. "Mateo, something is wrong with Abuelita," she screams.
Mateo's grandmother lays in the hospital bed blankly staring up at the ceiling. Mateo passes his hand in front of her face, but her eyes don't follow the movement. They follow nothing. There is no longer any life in her eyes, although her heart beats and she breathes. Tubes, monitors and IV's are connected to her body.
Adoncia is sitting at the bedside, holding her grandmother's hand, crying softly. "How long will she live?" Mateo asks the doctor who stands at the foot of the bed making notes in a chart.
The doctor looks up, as if startled from a dream. "It's hard to say. She has had a severe stroke. If we keep her on life support, she could remain alive for a long time. There's no way to really predict these things."
"My grandmother won't recover?" Adoncia says, not taking her eyes from her abuelita's face. The doctor hesitates before saying, "At her age, it's unlikely, but miracles do happen."
"And if she's taken off life support?" Mateo says.
The doctor looks first at Mateo, and then at Adoncia who has her lips pressed against the back of her grandmother's hand. "Perhaps it's time you contact your priest."
The wet sand beneath Mateo's feet is cool and soggy. It oozes up between his toes but is washed away by the ebb and flow of the tide. In the early evening sky, seagulls perform a chaotic ballet accompanied by their screeching cries. They have been drawn to crabs scampering beneath the cover of mounds of sea foam that washes in and out with every wave. Mateo has rolled up his pant legs revealing his muscular calf muscles. Whenever he looks at them he is reminded of his lack of coordination when dancing. He once took lessons on how to dance the Cuban tango, but was told by the instructor, "You should just concentrate on walking."
The wind blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico is warm and filled with salt that is invisible but clings to his skin. On the horizon, there are ships carrying large containers, heading for the open sea. Smaller vessels, many with white sails, ply the waters nearer to the coast. The sea craft of the Tropas Guardafronteras skim the waters, on constant lookout for anything that appears illegal. The bells of buoys mix with the blaring of horns from the boats, the crashing waves, and the ruckus of the gulls. Mateo came to the beach to think, but in the noise, he finds that hard to do. He turns to leave when he sees Aymee at a distance, walking up to the beach, accompanied by two other young women. He hastily puts on his shirt and tucks it in. He stares out at the sea as if in deep contemplation, remembering that when they were children, Aymee was very smart. After several minutes of trying to appear intelligent, he turns his head and sees that Aymee and her companions have left the beach.
Returning to where he left his motorbike chained to a bike stand by the boardwalk, he finds the words "no olvides" spray painted on the bike seat in bright red. He wonders, Don't forget what? He looks around for signs of Diego and his crew spying on him, waiting, but the boardwalk is mostly crowded with couples walking hand-in-hand or other loners like himself standing about, aimlessly searching for something. Something real, but elusive.
The drive through the city is slowed by a sudden downpour. The large potholes in the streets quickly fill with rain water, forming small pools. The drainage system has quickly baked up, creating overflow from the sewers that carry garbage and vegetative debris in rapidly flowing streams along each sides of the streets. He is soaked by the time he reaches home. At the front door, he removes his shoes, empties the sand from them, and along with his sopping wet shirt, leaves them on the ground, next to the welcome mat. Inside, it's quiet. he goes into the bathroom, removes his clothes and drys off. In his bedroom, he puts on his best shirt, pants and shoes. He goes into Adoncia's room, steals money she keeps in her jewelry box that she thinks she has hidden from him, and then calls for a taxi. Twenty minutes later, he gets in the back seat. "El Casa De La Danza," he tells the driver. The ride to the dance hall is much faster than when he rides his motorbike. He feels slightly guilty for taking some of his sister's money, but his pay as a public servant mopping the floors of government buildings doesn't allow him the luxury of taking taxis and she'll only be angry for a short while when she discovers the theft. She can be mean, but forgiving. At the Casa De La Danza, he pays the driver, who grumbles about not getting a tip, and dashes to the entrance attempting to keep from getting wet. The rain has diminished, but not by much.
Just inside the doors, he stops at the ticket booth and hands money to Hernando. "You going to dance tonight?" Hernando says. He hands Mateo the ticket to get in. "I never dance," Mateo says, taking the ticket and stuffing it in his pocket. "Why do you come here, then?"
"I dream of being able to dance."
In the ballroom, he stops and looks at posters propped up on easels. "Concurso de tango Cuban esta noche," is written in bold gold lettering accompanied by photos of couples dancing the Cuban tango and one couple holding a large trophy.
He finds his usual place near a wall just inside the ballroom, near where the young women waiting to be asked to dance, sit. He sticks a toothpick in his mouth, leans back, and props one foot against the wall. The moist air from outside has given the ballroom the sensation of being in a hothouse. As he watches the girls fan themselves, he unbuttons his shirt to mid-chest, revealing the beads of sweat on the cleavage of his well-developed pectoral muscles. He has seen them all before, and they have seen him. There is a mutual, unspoken, bond of indifference between him and them.
The mirrored ball that hangs in the middle of the ballroom ceiling turns slowly, casting small squares of reflected light onto the dance floor and the dancers. The circle of fragmented light cast about the room is mesmerizing, hypnotic, despite Mateo's attempt to ignore it. Amidst the dancers caught in the glittering light, Diego is dancing with Aymee. Mateo's rage boils up from the core of his being, rage towards Diego, Aymee and Cuba. He retrieves his ticket from his pocket, crumbles it in his hand, and throws it on the floor. Hastily departing the Casa De La Danza, he runs into his best friend, Jose, who has just bought a ticket.
"Hey man, I just heard the news," Jose says."
"You don't know?" Jose says, surprised. "Your Abuela has died."
"I think it was a sign," Mateo says. "I hadn't seen Aymee in a very long time and then I saw her three times in less than twenty-four hours. Three is a lucky number, no?" Adoncia slowly shakes her head. "When will you return?" Mateo shoves the last shirt into his duffel bag and closes it. "I must first get away," he says. "Diego has made it clear he intends to kill me if I try to leave without him."
"Like it or not, he is our older brother," she says.
"He never came around except to get money from Abuelita and then he doesn't show up at her funeral."
Adoncia presses a small wad of pesos in his hand. "When does the boat leave Havana?"
"At nightfall." He lifts the bag from his bed and places it on his shoulder. he looks at his sister who has tears welling in her eyes. "I will send for you when I'm settled." He leaves the apartment, glances at his motorbike set free of its chains, and waits for a taxi.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 500 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies, since June 2016. he has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel, 'Redbird', was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, twice. His Twitter handle is @carrsteven960 . His website is listed below:
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