fiction by Hannah Siden
I pretend that I am flying as I run. I hold my arms out like airplane wings, and people dodge me as I sprint down La Rampa towards the Malecón. In school they would tell me this is unbecoming behavior for a fourteen year-old young man of the Revolution. Besides, where would I go on an airplane? You are no gusano, they would say. Fidel has given you everything you need right here. So for now I only mimic the dark planes that trace paths across my blue Habana sky, flying in their shadows. But I think one day I might like to go somewhere. Russia, maybe. I hear they are good people, like us.
Tomás would say he wants to go to the United States. Tomás is on my baseball team – we’re enfermos a la pelota. While my skin is tan-colored – plantain, my mother calls it—Tomás’s skin is deep brown, his eyes dark. He has a quick smile, wears colorful t-shirts bought on the black market, and listens to rock and roll on the Miami radio station. The rest of us still wear our school uniforms after classes on school days, and we listen to Radio Havana Cuba broadcasts. We warn him about what we hear on the radio; we say that if he goes to the US he will be hurt, or treated badly. They don’t like Blacks there. But Tomás just shrugs and says at least they have real music, and real baseball. He wants to be part of the big leagues. Equipo Cuba isn’t for everyone, he says. And then he smiles at me, his teeth bright under the harsh sun. Last practice he sang part of a Beatles song. I wanna hold your hand….
My feet are hitting the pavement to the rhythm of Ringo Starr in my head. As I run I grab my school satchel and swing it around in front of me, feeling for the smooth worn leather of my catcher’s mitt. I turn a corner at the Minimax and spot Carlos in the distance, playing infield – primera—near a cement bench by the road. Raúl is pitching, his back to the winter waves breaking into foam against the walls of the Malecón. Juan is segundo, dodging the occasional car. And Tomás, Tomás is center fielder, and I yell his way as I run towards them, waving my glove in the air. “Hey! Espérame!” “Alejandro! Qué bolá?” Carlos waves me towards tercera, a cardboard cutout on the ground near an arching lamppost. Dropping my bag, I run over to join the game.
We fill the remaining afternoon hours playing, our once-crisp uniforms getting dusty from sliding on the concrete, as the sun makes its steady decline towards the ocean behind us. No sign of the police this afternoon – sometimes they make us move off the road, and then we have to wait until they leave to play again—but Tomás makes us stop once, becoming uncharacteristically quiet, to watch a glinting black Alfa Romeo sedan drive past. Government officials, he says later, although none of us understand his tone of voice. Raúl and Carlos begin talking about how they would like jobs in the government when they grow up. Juan wants to volunteer with the literacy campaign. I say that I want to be on Equipo Cuba when I’m older, if only I could become a prospect. Tomás, picking up the aluminum bat left at the cardboard batter’s mound, tosses a ball in the air and hits it into the ocean with a resounding metallic thud and then a soft splash. We turn to look at him, frustrated that he just lost us a good baseball, but he is staring beyond us, across the water.
As the last of the evening’s light fades, we pack away the cardboard bases, the scratched aluminum bat, our well-loved catcher’s mitts, and the few remaining baseballs. Carlos, Raúl, and Juan leave together, arguing about the Serie Nacional. I watch them disappear into the distance along the Malecón, their laughs and shouts echoing back to where I stand. They will be heading back to our school dormitories in Vedado.
I stay longer tonight, watching the few clouds over the water turn from pink to red to dark grey, waiting for Tomás to finish putting together his school satchel. I shift my weight foot to foot and tug at the maroon-colored scarf around my neck, suddenly feeling self-conscious of my dusty school uniform, my tan trousers and white shirt awkward and loose on my skinny frame. Finally Tomás turns around, and he stands for a moment looking at me, his eyes unreadable, before asking “Tienes hambre?” I nod, my stomach rumbling in agreement, and offer “La Coppelia?” We walk side by side on la Rampa, down the wide avenue busy with couples having dinner and groups of teenagers smoking and laughing on the side of the street. They’re the types my mother would tell me to avoid. Some of them have long hair, or wear American-style t-shirts you can’t buy with ration books. Like the ones Tomás wears. Rhumba music from a radio mixes with Tomás’s voice beside me, as he sings under his breath. Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something/ I think you’ll understand….
The line at the Coppelia is around the block, as usual, and Tomás and I find our places at the end. We talk about school, and I show him my math workbook:
A peasant who used to support his wife and child on 75 cents a day before the Revolution now earns 2 pesos and 80 cents. How much more does he earn now?[i]
I’m in the midst of working through the question out loud when Tomás’s low laugh cuts me off. “What good is that going to do you? You think if you work hard they will respect you? Practicing your mathematics, practicing your outfielder skills?” He is close to me, facing me, not angry, but his voice has a sudden intensity. “If they find out who you are, you think they will let you represent Equipo Cuba?” Tomás brushes his hand against mine. My feet feel stuck to the pavement, my breathing shallow. Finally I recover myself enough to glance hurriedly over my shoulder. I am sure that someone saw us. But no one is looking; couples are waiting, intent on one another, and groups of school friends are teasing each other and absorbed in their own circles. I turn my gaze to the front of the line and don’t look at Tomás for the rest of the wait.
When I arrive at the counter I order my usual: vanilla ice cream, two scoops, in a yellow plastic bowl. I leave Tomás behind me and walk to the edge of the open-air entrance, breathing deeply into the cool night. My older brother Alberto’s voice reaches me from my right: “Alejandro! Good to see you, compay!” Relieved at the familiarity and opportunity to turn my mind elsewhere, I jog over to join him. He’s sitting on a bench in front of the Coppelia in his green army fatigues, with his friends around him, also in their army uniforms. They’re calling out to girls who pass by, receiving sometimes a giggle, sometimes a glare. I smile, and tease him, “You shouldn’t do that, you know? Tu mamá estaría enojada.” Alberto scuffs me lightly on the shoulder. “They’re beautiful girls! You’re not a maricón, hey?” He’s using my same teasing tone of voice. “O bateas las dos manos?” His friends are laughing around him. I realize my ice cream has tipped and is melting in cold ribbons down my hand. Feeling unsteady, I turn away for a moment. Then I see Tomás, standing a couple feet behind me, his face blank, sad, and I run. Alberto calls after me: “Es una broma! What’s the matter with you, brother?” I run as fast as my feet will take me, kicking dust around me, blurring the world until I once again arrive back at the Malecón, at the ocean.
As I sit on the Malecón I imagine how it stretches its cement arms all the way along Havana’s coast, like an embrace. On one side the lights from the restaurants, clubs, and streetlamps flicker yellow, warm and inviting. The ocean on the other side of me is cool – deep and dark, almost black, with the occasional bright dance of light along its surface. Tomás, if he were here, would tell me how one day he would sail on this ocean. I reach into my satchel and take out my baseball, its strings coming apart, its white gleam long gone due to many games in Havana’s dusty streets. I can’t bring myself to throw it over the side into the ocean, although I want to. But I toss it into the air, catching it over and over again in the palm of my hand, and I’ve got The Beatles playing in my head. I wanna hold your hand….
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Culture, Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
Jamail, Milton H. Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, Print.
Lewis, Oscar. Neighbors Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba.
Urbana: University of Illinois, 1978. Print.
Nicholson, Joe. Inside Cuba. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1974. Print.
Pérez, Louis A. On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina, 1999. Print.
Wagner, Eric A. “Baseball in Cuba.” The Journal of Popular Culture 18.1 (1984): 113-20. Print.
[i] Chomsky et al., 388