After the dancing it got cold and we were hungry. Charo and the men went to buy oil. I refused to give them $5 for it. They drove off in a truck and I sat on the balcony staring and staring with the others down at other people staring back at us from the street. The only life was in the children. A group of little girls, pretty twisted bows and curls, scattered like hundreds and thousands across the street. Boys played baseball without a bat, big shorts slung low, riding their skinny hips.
A girl whined to her mother. A glass fell and smashed.
The party seemed to have fallen into despair. Music still blared from the black ghetto blaster but the guests had sunk into a torpor, staring listlessly into space. A man, big-boned and toothless, roused himself into a thumping, flailing dance. The others looked away.
‘I went to the Soviet Union in 1993,’ Calidad was saying. We were sitting on the sofa, which had been dragged onto the balcony. ‘They had a wonderful life – I don’t know why they changed. Wonderful. So many opportunities… They had everything.’
‘But… Wasn’t it…?’ – I clasped my hands – ‘I mean, didn’t a lot of Russians come here?’
She brushed a crumb from her skirt. ‘It was very hard here during the Special Period. We had nothing. No soap, no shampoo. Now is a little better, but the tourists are bad for Cuba.’ She pointed at her shoes – they were broken and her feet blistered and swollen. ‘Now all anybody wants is dollars. No one wants pesos any more, and you can only get four dollars for 100 pesos, which is what I earn at the market a month.’
‘… terrible…’ I flushed. ‘So – you’re getting married? That’s nice.’
‘Next month. My third.’ She looked determined.
‘I don’t like to suffer.’
‘How do you know when it’s time to leave?’
‘When they betray me with another woman, or when the arguments begin. My second husband, he left for Miami in a speedboat, but I didn’t want to go with him. This one is getting a Spanish passport because he had a Spanish grandfather and then we’re going to Spain.’
‘When I’m in love, I can’t leave, even if they’re shit.’ I meant to laugh but it came out as a yelp.
‘Cuban women, we give our sex but not ourselves.’ She leaned in. Her eyes were ringed with bright blue kohl, the lashes crushed and knotted. ‘He only wants your money.’
There were three tin pots at the edge of the balcony, next to a cement balustrade that was fenced with rusty barbed wire. A pink, fraying towel flapped from the washing line.
‘Charo’s not like that.’
We sat on the sofa for a bit in the dark with just a small neon light tacked up above the door.