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.
When Charo returned he set to kneading in the kitchen. He friend chunks of ham in garlic and tomato sauce, kneading and kneading the dry white dough on the cracked, blue china tiles.
I stood near and picked at one of the pasties.
‘Yummy?’ he asked.
‘You don’t like dancing with me.’
‘Honey.’ He flicked some oil into the hot pan.
‘You don’t think I’m as good as a Cuban woman. You don’t like it when I dance. Do you prefer black or white women?’
He thought for a minute. ‘Black. They are more amorosas.’ He bared the gold heart welded to his front molar.
I turned away.
‘On the inside you are black. Caliente like a Cubana.’
Mirna came into the kitchen. She lifted the lid off one of the aluminium pots. ‘Anna, don’t eat too much – I want to make sure that you have some of this.’ She nudged me so that my face was over the pot and steam hit my eyes. The pot contained a large bone with a shred of meat clinging to it. Her face glowed with pleasure. I grimaced and took an exaggerated sniff.
‘What happened?’ she said to Charo.
He glanced at me. ‘Take that look off your face.’ He muttered something to her, from the far corner of his mouth.
‘What did you say?’ I wiped my forehead.
He shook his head.
‘What did you say?’
‘I was speaking to Mirna, not to you.’
‘Don’t talk in front of me like that.’
He kissed his teeth. ‘I said, this is what I have to put up with.’
I went into the salon – but there were too many drunk people shouting and speaking Spanish exhausted me so I stood by myself, watching. Jorge’s woman arrived, splendid and dark in a red dress that clung to her voluptuous frame. Her hair was set and curled like a starlet from another time.
I lay down on Ramon’s lumpy bed and, shivering in the chill wind of dusk, covered myself with a ragged candlewick bedspread. I curled into a ball on my side, hands in front of my face, but I could not shut out the fretful, insistent shouting of the guests. It seemed to be inches away – just outside the window and ringing from the walls.
I dozed off and was woken by a rustling sound by my head. A sandwich sat in greaseproof paper on the bedside table, next to a bottle of orange squash.
Charo was just inside the door. ‘Are you hungry?’
I sat up. Maybe it could be like Havana again – the red book, the pound coin, his eyes not hard.
‘Anna, are you hungry?’
I held my hand out. He came and sat on the bed and watched me eat. After a few bites I stopped.
‘More,’ he said. ‘Eat more.’
I finished the sandwich and he pulled a packet of biscuits from his pocket and fed them to me one by one.
‘I’m sorry… Charo, I didn’t mean… before–’
‘Anna – drop it. It’s over.’
‘I didn’t understand. Why are you so impatient?’
‘You are fuerte. Sometimes.’
‘I have to be. I have to make sure–’
‘–you don’t have to understand everything – Anna.’ He scrunched the greasy sandwich paper up into his fist.
The Party is one of 10 stories from Leila Segal's debut collection, Breathe: Stories from Cuba, published by Flipped Eye (London, April 2012).