- The American President's Visit
The news about the American president's visit had just been broadcast when the balcony across the street fell off the face of the building. The railing dislodged from the wall in spastic increments, slanting to one side, before pieces of cement crumbled onto the sidewalk below. A large portion of the base inexplicably hung on, refusing to surrender to gravity's will. People on the street dispersed in alarm. They looked up and stretched their arms, forming a perimeter the children going to school could not pass. Then the metal screeched. A moment of silence followed as the structure plummeted: it hit the ground in one majestic, scattering blast. Twirling clouds of dust puffed upwards, the debris smattering the asphalt like bullets sprayed from a machine gun. Reyna wondered if, in other parts of the world, this was what urban warfare sounded like.
It had happened the week before. The neighbors had gathered around the rubble, more out of boredom than curiosity. Some of the young street hustlers examined the remnants for anything they could sell—uncracked bricks, iron rods—but seemed to give up quickly. In this part of Havana collapsed buildings were a common occurrence. Just six months prior, one of Reyna's childhood friends had watched her son die when her three-story apartment complex lost nearly half its bulk. The woman survived six hours trapped under a web of rebar and concrete slabs, a few feet away from the boy's corpse. She'd been chasing the twelve-year-old with a broom at the precise instant her apartment toppled. While in the hospital, she recounted to visitors that she was swinging the broom when she felt the floor yield. "I was launched forward," she said, breaking into sobs. "For a second I thought it was me bringing everything down."
The incident unnerved Reyna, herself the mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter. But it wasn't until she witnessed the balcony crash that she began to seriously consider her building might be next. The [End Page 61] signs were there. On her daily trip back from the bodega, she could see dark mold spreading across the bottom of her balcony like tar inside a smoker's lung. Several lightning-shaped fissures extended from the mold to the apartment beneath, and the iron spindles of the railing had corroded so badly that they'd started tapering. At times, when a big truck ventured down Reyna's narrow block, she could feel her balcony shake, the tremors riding up her weak ankle and knees to her broad chest. She sensed all of it as a forewarning—one which, until now, she'd chosen to ignore.
This morning, a dented tin cup filled with café con leche was perched on her lap. She sat, observing the street, one arm delicately anchored on the rusty railing. A blond-haired couple was approaching on the opposite sidewalk, their sun-screened, pale faces sparkling like polished marble. They took measured steps and scrutinized their surroundings with the meticulous care of someone hoping to find a rare bird in copious foliage. They seemed to notice the missing balcony, the door leading to nothing but open air above them. The slender woman, who was the same height as her companion, snapped a photo. She then veered her eyes in Reyna's direction. She tapped the back of her hand on the man's chest. Years ago, Reyna would have smiled—more for them than for herself—and, if cheerful in mood, she might have even lifted her cup in a sort of ceremonial, pantomimed toast. Today, however, she remained stoic. The parched lines at the sides of her mouth warped her features into a frown. She glared at the camera, which the foreign woman had aimed at her, and waited for her to lower it before thinking, Good. Now come help me fix the leaky ceiling in my bathroom.
In the early '90s, with the Soviet Union no longer around, Fidel had finally thrown all integrity out the window: the American dollar became a legal form of currency. The increasing influx of tourists spilled...