Untitled Havana Noir
a novel in progress by Hugo Perez
I wish I didn’t have to say it like it was a
The plane touched down. A knife twisted in my gut. Through
the small oval window, I could see fire red dirt on either
side of the tarmac. I was home. Six years ago I had left my
country. Six years ago I had left her too and didn’t
look back. I did not share the sense of nostalgia that
drove my fellow exiles to flock to the homeland as soon as
they had their U.S. residency and enough money to visit. I
left with the intention of never returning. Miami was a
dreary town in comparison to Havana, but it was a great
place to get lost if you were Cuban.
A phone call changed all that. The ringing woke me up,
groggy from a late night of work at the bar.
“Hello… hello…Lazaro.” The
connection was not so good but there was no doubt as to
whose voice it was.
“Hello Isabelita.” I said as I sat up against
the headboard of my bed.
“I don’t have much time. I need your
help… I need you in Havana.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Silence, and
then a crackle.
“Lazaro. I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t
“It may be serious but why should I come back?”
The line began to crackle.
“Christ…” she said. And then,
”…died for our sins…” And then
the line died, and I held the phone up to my ear until it
began to buzz angrily. I waited for her to call back. I
tried calling her back at the old number but only got a
recorded message saying the number was not in service.
for our sins. Not the kind of
talk I expected from an atheist. I was tempted by the
thought of winning her back, but the past was the past, the
present was tolerable, and the thought of going back to
Cuba made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on
I looked at the clock. Four in the afternoon. I had to be
at work in a few hours. I rolled out of bed, shaved the
grizzle of my face, dressed in a white guayabera and black
slacks, my standard uniform behind the bar, and drove over
to La Casita, the open air cafeteria where I breakfasted
every evening before putting in another shift at Los
Marinos lounge where the temperature was always a cool
fifty degrees and the mood was always pre-Castro nostalgia.
Christ dies for our sins. I couldn’t get those words
out of my head. The more I tried to put them out of my
mind, the more I thought of the lips that had spoken the
words into a phone receiver. The more I thought about the
lips, the more I thought about her. I wolfed down my Pan
con Chorizo and washed it down with two cortaditos. Between
the coffee and thoughts of Isabelita, I was pretty buzzed
by the time I started my shift.
“What’s her name?” The gravelly voice
belonged to my fellow bartender Quico, a tall Galician a
few smokes shy of having to breath through a hole in his
“Her name is yesterday as in yesterday’s
“Doesn’t seem so yesterday to me.” He
hacked out a few laughs before going back to slinging
roads led to Cuba. All roads to the one woman I had ever
loved, the one woman I never wanted to see
again. I went home.
I packed my suitcase. Twelve hours later I was undoing my
lapbelt in Havana.
The new airport was all glass and tile. Immigration was
shiny and bright. Low season. No lines. I walked to door
number five, and presented my worn Cuban passport to a
small man in military fatigues with a large clump of hair
on his upper lip that was supposed to approximate a
moustache but looked more like a shoe brush.
“You were born in Cuba.” He asked without
“Is this your first visit back since you left?”
He looked up with eyes which tried to be dead and menacing
but which looked more like glassy marbles.
“The purpose of of your trip?”
“To see friends.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The Nacional.” The Hotel Nacional meant I was
here to spend money. Cuba had an open door policy for
He stared down at my passport for another minute, stamped
it vigorously several times as if it were a live thing that
needed killing. He handed it back to me, and buzzed me
through to the baggage claim. Television monitors
advertised HavanaClub Rum and Mitsubishi televisions. No
signs of Lenin or Marx anywhere. After a short wait, I
grabbed my suitcase off the carousel, and walked out into
The air was still and hot. Cab drivers were clumped like
dust motes along the front of the terminal. I nodded to the
closest cabdriver. He peeled himself from his seat, and led
me to a brand new ‘Turistaxi’ sedan. Nothing
seemed familiar to me yet except for the red dirt and the
heaviness in the air.
Halfway into the city I began to see a familiar grime and
decay shining through the thin layers of watered down paint
that covered the buildings on either side of the state road
into the city. Underneath the coats of peeling color I
could make out the old revolutionary slogans. Venceremos!
We will conquer! Billboards advertised Sony, AirFrance, and
even Coca-Cola along the side of the road. New European
cars surrounded the old American cars like jackals preying
on aging lions. My cabdriver asked if he could turn on the
radio. American pop.
“It’s the tourism station. It’s the only
thing worth listening to.” He said.
“So what’s new in Havana?”
“How long since you left?”
“Nothing. It’s all the same. The same guy is
still in charge as when you left.”
Everything had changed on the surface but underneath it was
all the same. My taxi pulled into the long driveway of the
Hotel Nacional, the neocolonial pile that Winston Churchill
had once stayed in. A doorman in a white suit held the door
open for me. I was a foreigner now in my own country with
all the privileges that that entailed.
The man at the desk asked for name.
“Ah, that is a very Cuban name.” He typed
something into his computer. “Room 512” A clap
of the hands. A bellhop led the way bent over to his left
from the weight of my suitcase.
The room was not as nice as you would expect from the
facade but nice enough. I opened my windows, and looked out
over the harbor. A brown haze hung low over the water. Even
the gulfstream couldn’t blow away all the smog. I
breathed in deeply and felt a familiar burn at the back of
my throat, like pulling on an unfiltered cigarette, the
taste of Havana coating my mouth. I changed into a fresh
short-sleeved linen shirt, walked out the front of the
hotel, and walked East along O street until I left the
relatively well preserved Vedado section of Havana and
plunged into Centro Habana, the human cesspool where I was
born, where I played stickball in the streets, where I fell
in love. The smell of open sewers made me a little
Her building was still smoldering. Cordoned off by the
Havana’s men in blue. Clumps of neighbors stood in
doorways. A withered old man stood in a doorway across the
street chewing on the nub of a cigar. His belly hung over
pants that must have fit around the time el jefe came down
from the mountains.
“Aurelio.” I called to him. He turned.
“Lazaro…” He looked down at his feet.
“It’s… it’s good to see
“What happened? Do you know where I can find
Aurelio walked into his meagerly furnished living room and
motioned for me to follow. I sat in a chair whose box
spring had caved in. Aurelio brought out a bottle of rum
and poured shots into a pair of Spanish coffee cups.
Something tried to tear it’s way out of my stomach,
and I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
“Lazaro, she’s dead. She burned up with the
My coffee cup was suddenly empty. Aurelio poured some more
rum for both of us. “The police. They say she killed
“Where did they take the body?”
“The funeral home at Calzada and K Street. They plan
on holding a wake for her tomorrow.”
“Does Raul still work at the cafeteria in the funeral
“Do you think Raul would ever give up that
I laughed without smiling. Raul was very good at keeping
his inventory sheets balanced, and keeping himself well
fed. Aurelio took a swig from the bottle, and looked at me
hard in the eye.
“Lazaro. Why did you come back?”
“To see my friends. I have such good friends
here.” Aurelio snorted.
“Thanks for the rum. I’ll be by
tomorrow.” I said as I walked out the street.
Isabelita’s building still smoldered as I headed for
Raul’s cafeteria was on the ground level of the
funeral home. Raul was nervous to see me, more so when I
asked him to take me into the morgue.
“Lazaro. I am sorry for your loss but there is
nothing left of her. Nothing. Why would you want to go in
“Raul, I need to see her. I came from the yuma to see
her, and dead or alive I’m going to see her. You have
the keys to the whole building. I’m asking for your
Raul sputtered but he led me to the other side of the
building, through a side door, down a corridor.
“In there.” He gestured with one hand as he
raised a handkerchief up to his nose. “Don’t
take too much time.” I walked into the morgue. Only
one body was laid out, barely making the white sheet rise
off the table. It smelled of smoke, and of something even
worse. I pulled the sheet back and found a piece of
charcoal shaped like a crumpled ragdoll. Parts of it
I remembered Isabelita the way she looked when she was
alive. She looked like one of those women you saw in photos
of Havana before the revolution, slender but well shaped,
elegant, dark-haired dark-eyed, with an olive complexion
and Spanish from the old country features. Somehow anything
she wore seemed fashionable even the green military outfit
that she wore when she was a member of the party. I was
always struck by how small and tight the skirts were that
the government issued to its female officials. The system
preached for a proletarian society, but it always managed
to put the female proletariats in miniskirts.
There were many Isabelitas. There was the pixie Isabelita
that fell in love with me and sang me bits of old songs
until sunrise as we sat on the seawall of the Malecon.
There was the scared Isabelita that I would find on the
verge of suicide sometimes, and spend hours holding her
until the hot tears ran dry and she could smile again.
There was the strange Isabelita who could barely talk to
me. And there was the Isabelita that promised to leave the
country with me and didn’t show up the night that I
left Cuba in a fishing boat with fourteen others. Hansel,
one of the boys in the neighborhood, came running down to
the dock that night with a note from her, “Lazaro, I
can’t see you again. I hope that you can find a
better life without me on the other side.”
I almost stayed behind. Out of stubbornness I left. I held
the crumpled ball of a note in my hand as the fishing boat
was launched. I held the note in my hand for hours looking
back at Havana until I could no longer see the lights of
the city. When I could no longer see Havana, when I could
no longer see the dark lump of Cuba on the horizon, I
opened my fist and the ball rolled out of my hand and into
the breakwater. For a brief while I could make out the ball
of white bobbing up and down in the waves and then it was
That was six years ago. The burnt husk of a human on the
slab in the funeral home’s morgue was all that was
left of her.
Through the handkerchief he held over his mouth, Raul said,
“I think it’s time to go. I’ll get in
trouble of the director comes down and finds us
here.” He spoke to me without looking over to where I
was standing by the corpse.
Time to go. I pulled the white sheet back over what
remained of Isabelita. Raul was out on the sidewalk wiping
the sweat from his brow.
“I’m sorry Lazaro.”
I nodded to him.
“One time the director asked if I could help take
some garbage over to the incinerator and I helped him load
this heavy bag into the back seat of his Lada, and when we
drove off he told me that the bag held all the guts that
had been cleaned out of the bodies for embalming that day,
and I had to have him stop the car so that I could throw up
in the gutter. Doesn’t it make you sick... being that
close to death I mean.”
“Death is close to us at all the times, Raul.”
I said. “A corpse is just a reminder.”
“I feel better without the reminders.” He
replied wiping the sweat off his brow again.
“Thanks for the favor. I owe you one.” I
slapped him on the back and made my way down Calzada to the
Malecon. I bought a cheap bottle of rotgut rum at a stand,
and walked down to the darkest part of the old seawall
taking long swigs from the bottle as I walked. The bottle
was half empty by the time I didn’t feel like walking
anymore. I sat down on the seawall and stared out into the
darkness of the ocean. Fishermen in inner-tubes were
fishing fifty yards out. The rotating light of the
lighthouse across the harbor lit up the sky. The sky spun
in time to the light. The bottle got empty. The sky seemed
to get bigger and bigger.
copyright Hugo Perez 2005
all rights reserved