- Havana Holiday
When I ask the mother superior if I can have Luisito for a day, she stares at me as if I’m asking to borrow the baby Jesus. Luisito is the smallest resident at the Bejucal nursing home—adopted son of the nuns, pet of nurses and old folks alike. By the end of my month-long volunteering stint, I’ve become as unabashed about my favoritism of Luisito as any of the staff. I’ve also become so bored with my own volunteerism—sloppy attempts to wield a Cuban mop, campaigns to enliven the dementia unit—to desire Luisito’s company at all times. He’s both my sidekick and daily salvation. As my month of volunteering winds up, I tell him I’m plotting our escape to Havana. Luisito and I will go on a Cuban vacation the right way—the way the non-Cubans do it.
The mother superior finally grants me permission but warns that Luisito is not to consume beer. He must be back in Bejucal by nightfall—sober and unsunburned. The next step is to negotiate a ride for myself, Luisito, and Luisito’s wheelchair in an ancient Oldsmobile full of commuters. I think I see dollar signs in the taxi driver’s eyes when he catches sight of the three of us. A foreigner, a cripple, and a large metal object: so many reasons to overcharge.
The driver scoops up Luisito’s kid-sized body and delivers him to the front seat—a vast couch with no seams but a few rips. I slide in alongside Luisito, whose head reaches only two-thirds of the way to the seat top, and sling my left arm behind him. Treating my shoulder like a customized headrest, Luisito nestles into its crook and then puts on my sunglasses.
Luisito has a way with women. Though strangers are typically cold to him, at first—while adjusting to his unique proportions—Luisito has methods of speeding up the endearment process. His classic move is to take a lady’s hand, tug it down to wheelchair altitude, press her palm against his stubbly cheek, and then shrug up his shoulder to keep the skins in a close, warm sandwich. He [End Page 99] has so many adopted mothers and pretend girlfriends that he often slips and calls one by another’s name.
Luisito does not bother as much with members of his own sex. His rapport with men has nothing to do with doting or caregiving. In fact, his closest male buddies sound mocking and sometimes rough when they address him—until you catch the bemused lilt in their voices. Today, on the way to the taxi corner, a middle-aged man on a bicycle nearly smashes into Luisito and me, swerving at the last minute, then calling out his name.
“Sooo . . . ,” our taxi driver begins, as the old Oldsmobile floats down a one-lane road toward the highway. “Big day in Havana, eh Luisito?”
I had no idea that Luisito was acquainted with this man. Luisito nods, looking unfazed, his head bopping to the tinny salsa music.
“Where’d you pick up the foreign girl?”
“She’s American,” Luisito replies, speaking loudly for the benefit of the backseat passengers. He doesn’t answer the question, instead voicing what he cares to voice.
The road from Bejucal to Havana is decorated with propaganda. I have the sun-faded billboard slogans nearly memorized:
We Continue in Battle. The Enemy Cannot Imagine Our Unity. Socialism or Death! Conserve Electricity.
Whenever I pass by these words in a cab full of quiet commuters, I try to read them in the Cuban brain. Is the Revolution-speak hackneyed by now—so many decades later—like a plain Jane Coca-Cola sign? Or do the roadside commands penetrate in another way—like Choosey Moms’ Choosing Jiff—squatting on thoughts that shouldn’t belong to billboards?
But Luisito doesn’t read, so I get a break from the Cuban psyche. I’m not even sure that his low line of vision allows him to see anything but bright sky—until Luisito begins inquiring about buildings. Each time we pass a...