As Evelyn entered José Martí International airport at precisely 2 pm on Saturday, February 18th Reynaldo and his wife Annalie were side-swiped by a speeding car in the Havana suburb of Marianao. They died instantly, thrown from their motor bike, together.
Evelyn’s Canadian friends received the news at Ignacio’s house as lunch was served. Leila and Karina had been exclaiming as dish after dish of food was placed on the table – chicken cooked with garlic, onions, herbs and spices, a salad of tomatoes, chopped cabbage and cucumbers, slices of fried plantain sprinkled with coarse salt, a steaming mound of white rice, a dish of beans swimming in rich dark juice . . . the table was covered. Karina looked at Leila and grinned. They were both thinking of Evelyn and how she would have relished this meal. Then, just as the women picked up their forks, Ignacio broke the news in rapid Spanish, his words coming in short bursts, like machine-gun fire. And they began to eat, silenced, unbelieving.
Seven people lived in that house – Ignacio and his wife Marielena, their daughter Yoani, Ignacio’s sister and her two children, and the Grandma they called pie caliente – Hotfoot – because she ran around the street-markets all day looking for whatever was available. There was never enough for the big family. Ignacio poured wine into plastic cups. Leila and Karina knew that the family had sacrificed to serve them that meal. They sat together, hunched over the kitchen table, trying to swallow the news. Yoani and her cousins perched on the patio steps, while Ignacio leaned against the refrigerator, a plate balanced at his hip. There were only five chairs and the tiny kitchen was already crowded.
Leila and Karina had come to Cuba with Evelyn to paint a mural celebrating the triumphs of the Revolution. They’d been stationed under Ignacio’s watchful eye for six weeks in the lobby of Poder Popular, the municipal government building in Marianao, as they painted a large, colorful mural with scenes of doctors vaccinating small children, literacy classes in the countryside, musicians and carnival dancers in the streets, and a gigantic central figure of a mulatta embracing fields of sugar cane and coco palms, her fingers trailing into an underworld river where turtles swam in sun-dappled water, and the Santería goddess – Yemayá – floated, her hair trailing, tangled with seaweed. The head of José Martí hovered like a cloud in the sky with the words of one of his ubiquitous sayings – otro mundo es posible – another world is possible. There were floating portraits of the Cuban Five, alleged terrorists imprisoned in the United States, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. These men had become national heroes in Cuba, their portraits looming on roadside billboards all over the country. They were intelligence agents who had infiltrated the Miami Cuban exile community who worked with the anti-communist CIA.
“Eat, Leila, eat,” Ignacio urged. “Karina, take more chicken.”
He had worked as Reynaldo’s assistant, sharing a cramped office overlooking the Marianao Amphitheatre. After an effusive welcome to Poder Popular and a passionate speech about Canadian-Cuban solidarity Reynaldo had placed the muralists in Ignacio’s care, and he’d fed them as they worked – ham and cheese sandwiches, refrescos, and sometimes tiny cups of thick sweet coffee.
He shovelled in the last forkful of his chicken and dunked his dish in the sink with a brusque, businesslike gesture.
“Papi,” Yoani whispered, her eyebrows askew in an exaggerated wink.
Ignacio sprung to attention, one hand in his pocket feeling for something.
“I must go out for a minute,” he said, splashing more wine into Karina’s glass. “Please, enjoy your meal. I will return.” They watched him disappear down the long corridor.
Evelyn sat in the airport lounge, her eyes shining, her arms full of flowers. Everyone had gathered in the lobby of Poder Popular with fruit, flowers, cards and gifts for her return to Canada. And they had sung to her – Feliz cumpleaños a tí! Happy Birthday to you! Teresita, the receptionist, had written a poem – ï¿½When you’re alone, without a man, lonely in your room in Canada, remember that you have friends in Cuba.’ Evelyn was going home to a breakup. In Cuba everything changes all the time, she thought. It can drive you crazy, but if you surrender to it you will be changed, and then you are part of the madness and it can no longer get to you.
She glanced up at the departures board – Havana/Toronto, on schedule, it said. She gathered her belongings and stood, wondering, who needs these flowers most? She knew she wouldn’t be allowed to take them on the plane. She dabbed her eyes and marched to the washroom. Sure enough, the woman who cleaned the toilets and handed out scraps of toilet paper like sheets of gold leaf was thrilled. She cradled the gladiolas in her arms and flashed Evelyn a rare smile. There was little to smile about in her life. The last time she’d received flowers was when her husband had proposed to her, too long ago to remember.
Evelyn waited a long time. Snow in Toronto. Her flight was delayed four hours in total, in one hour increments, and each time the monitor changed the flight was posted as ï¿½on schedule.’
Annalie was in pain. She’d been operated on, but the pain would not go away and she had no pain-killers. She was lying on the bed trying to breathe into her pain when the door opened and Reynaldo entered. She turned her head slowly, smiling as she saw him – his muscular body, compact and whole, the rounds of his buttocks packed tightly like ripe fruit, the way his trousers fell and clung in the right places, showing what he had.
He saw her watching him, caught her eye shadowed with pain. He was always ready, always wanting her. It was the second marriage for both of them. Annalie had two grown sons living with their father in Miami. Reynaldo didn’t have to share her with anyone.
As he unzipped his trousers his penis sprang free, bouncing with the release. He undressed her slowly, unbuttoning her blouse, raising her skirt, pulling down her panties. She giggled softly as his beard brushed her thighs, then the force of his tongue made her gasp. He worked her with determination, drawing her out, away from her pain. When she cried out finally he was on her like a dog, riding her in thrusting waves. Annalie was a large woman with curves and mounds to cushion him. They travelled well together.
Afterwards they lay together until Reynaldo sensed her pain returning. He rose from their bed and helped her up. “Come, my love, we’ll go out.”
They dressed for the street and Annalie was first at the door. “Don’t forget your helmet, Naldito,” she called as she left her house for the last time.
Karina had managed to eat some chicken and rice, washing it down with the wine, but Leila was struggling, her big green eyes bloodshot with tears. “What about Annalie’s sons?” she asked. “Will they let them come from Miami?”
“The funeral has been postponed while they apply for permission,” Marielena said.
“But what if ……?” Leila was silenced by Marielena’s gesture, an open-handed shrug as she muttered, “Si Dios quiere.” If God wishes. They all knew what that meant.
Reynaldo had treated Leila and Karina to frequent revolutionary discourses, his blue eyes shining with patriotic fervor as he gazed up at them on their scaffold. In the final week before the unveiling of the mural Reynaldo had been excited at the prospect of a posting to Madrid, until he learned that he would have to leave Annalie behind. With her sons living in Miami, even though they were born of a previous marriage, she was considered a risk to national security. Leila was haunted by his eyes which had seemed often on the point of spilling over with emotion, their blue waters flowing into the realm of Yemayá and the turtles. His bald head shone in her memory, his sensuous mouth spouting revolutionary propaganda. “Oh, he loved Annalie so much,” she said. “He was always talking about his beautiful wife who couldn’t ride a bicycle because she was too shapely.”
“Yes, he loved all the ladies,” said Marielena.
Just then the front door opened, sending a shaft of sunlight down the long corridor, blinding them all until Ignacio closed the door and started towards them, an elaborately iced cake balanced in the palm of his left hand.
As Evelyn succumbed to the surge of her plane leaving earth, the bodies were wheeled into the morgue of the Carlos Finlay Hospital, covered in bloody sheets. The impact had been profound. Their bodies were shattered, but Annalie’s arms had clung fiercely to her husband’s broken torso until finally they had managed to separate them. Although she had left her flowers behind, Evelyn had secreted a bag of fruit under her seat. She ate the tiny sweet bananas surreptitiously, then cut into her papaya, shovelling the shiny black seeds into the bottom of a plastic bag. While she ate she rolled a ripe guava under her nose, savoring the aroma – she would eat it later, for breakfast, when she needed something to remind her of her new self.
It was nearly midnight when Evelyn walked out of Vancouver airport. He was waiting for her. She had to tell him that it was over. He refused to accept it. He acted as though she were playing a childish game. “Come on, Evelyn, you can’t do that,” he said, “It’s your birthday. I have cake and champagne at home.” But she was certain, and she was determined. She had a poem in her purse.
Annalie had moulded her body to Reynaldo’s as they’d roared down the street towards the intersection. With the vibration of the bike she’d felt as though they were still making love. She could feel him inside her, the bulk and power of him thrilling her yet. Her arms were clasped around his waist, receiving the heat of his body. Her eyes were closed, her breasts and cheek pressed into his spine.
As they flew through the air, blood streaking Reynaldo’s blue eyes purple, Annalie experienced a moment of exquisite relief. All her pain gathered into a moment of obliteration, and that moment held her through eternity. There was a moment of confusion as she opened her eyes and looked down onto the street. She saw two bodies locked together, their li