Dusk swallows the harbor. No stars or moon yet, making the sky a dull, purplish thing. Behind him, over the sea wall, the city lights are flickering on. He can tell by the glittering patches on the waves, static and unnatural. He can tell by his own shadow bending awkwardly over the shore, submerging into crevices between the rocks, drowning in the gulping darkness. Along Malecon Avenue, barefoot children must be carrying their smiles home. Their bodies, bathed by the streetlamps’ haloes, drip saltwater on the pavement. Their splattering feet are chased away by the sputter of approaching engines. Lovers who have been here all afternoon give up on the view. So do the drunks who have paced aimlessly on the esplanade, gaping at tourists. There’s a welcomed stillness at this hour, as if Havana were gasping before the roar of its nightlife kicks open windows and doors, doing away with privacy.
Mayito was a child once. He was a lover, too, but those days left him faster than a stray dog who’s found better food. He never owned love, anyway. It was never for him or in him. It came and went. It danced around him, lingering just enough for Mayito to put out his hand, try a couple of steps. Soon he was dancing solo. Well, maybe not so soon. There were kids involved. Dinners, arguments, indiscretions. School uniforms and dirty plates in the sink. There were poverty and politics. Lots of politics. Too much for his taste. There were leaky ceilings, buckets lined with moss, stitched-together flip-flops. There were stale bread, white rice and fried eggs for days on end, the occasional breakdown in the sheltering dimness of the kitchen. There was, from time to time — and Mayito remembers this clearest of all — the disheartening scent of slightly burnt coffee.
More importantly, there was another man across the straits. He knew politics, and love was for him, maybe even in him. Mayito learned that the promise of soft drinks and a furnished house supersedes history and loyalty. At least that’s how he saw it. How he had to see it. Otherwise he’d be meandering on the esplanade, clanking bottles together like jarring wind chimes, slurring the lyrics of some song he learned from his mother, who sang like an angel while folding clothes when she thought no one could hear.
But now it doesn’t matter. Mayito is far removed from love, so unlike love. He’s a fossil, no softer than stone. No one has ever seen skin so hardened, he’s sure.
Below him the tide smashes against the rocks. The fishing line in his hand is tense, but no catch. He takes off his t-shirt and drops it on the highest possible spot. He needs something dry for the return trip. He’s not a child. He can’t drip saltwater on the pavement. He’d feel like a sea creature, grotesque and repulsive.
He puts down the line and wedges it underneath what’s left of a wooden crate. Then he takes one big breath and plunges in. His strokes are smooth, smoother than the waves. The water tastes good, as bitter as it should. Any closer to the harbor and he’d be drinking poison. Here, at the mouth of the bay, it’s like an elixir, invigoratingly familiar. Almost sweet.
Not long ago inner tubes and rafts littered this sea.
“Even fools have a right to dream,” he’d heard the drunk men say.
Mayito didn’t reflect on it much. It would have led to politics, and he hates politics. Better simply to observe. Not a foolish thing to do.
After a while he stops, allowing his limbs to float with the current. He spits out the water in a stream, like a decorative fish in a fountain. The Faro del Morro glows like a giant candle in the distance. A gift from the Spanish: a colonial remnant. In all these years, he’s never gone up to the lantern room. He’s never looked at Havana from that vantage point. He prefers to look at the world from here. In his mind, Mayito is a castaway who has discovered land. He’s saved. He will make it. He lets his body sink until his chin is just above the surface, and looks up. A few stars have come out. That’s always a good sign, especially for a man at sea. It means the saints are with you. They want to give you a shot. Mayito turns and stares at the city. The lights, brighter now, no longer reach him. Why should they? he thinks without intending to. Why should anything?
Voices echo from the shore and he can spot them. It’s two children, tugging at his fishing line. They start to pick it up.
“Hurry!” one of them says, or so Mayito hears.
“Hey!” he yells, but his chest can’t expand from the pressure. He tries again: “Thieves!”
The children are skilled in their labor. They work in tandem, one yanking the line as he would a kite, the other hunched down on the rocks, pointing as the line sways in resistance. It’s obvious they’ve done this before.
Mayito refuses to think of these kids as his own. But the effort itself causes him to do just that. Part of him is proud. These are his boys, scraping by the best way they know. They’re sly, courageous, and capable. Mayito himself used to steal quarters from men’s pockets. He’d crouch and slither his way into the corner bar, choosing the bulkiest pants on the most inebriated man. Later, he’d listen to the arguments with the bartender from the balcony of his mother’s rundown apartment. It gave him pleasure, seeing these men with fancy hats and embroidered suspenders turn their pockets inside out, surprised they didn’t have as much as they had believed. It was theater, he the director, admiring his work and the convincing performances. In his young heart it was revenge for his father’s disappearance, justice for his and his mother’s living conditions.
Or was it?
His ex-wife would have said, “You were and still are a bored kid looking for excitement, Mayito. You’ve always been a selfish brat.”
“Stop!” Mayito suddenly screams, propelling himself as high as possible. “You rats!”
The children are startled, but they keep pulling. They know he’s too far to get them. The line reaches its end, and by the way they hold it he can tell they’ve got a fish. Good size. They don’t know that’s his dinner. Or maybe they do and that’s why they rush, shrieking with joy, and disappear beyond the sea wall in an instant.
Mayito swims toward the lights, slower this time. As he reaches shore, a wave dumps him on the rocks. Immediately his leg feels hot. He can’t see the blood, but he knows it’s there. Not a big gash. Not as big as he’s had in the past. A scratch by fisherman standards. He climbs and trips over the tangled line and broken crate. Another wave smashes behind him, and a shower of saltwater engulfs him. What’s worse, it engulfs his t-shirt. For a second, he’s afraid to touch it, afraid to accept the reality of what just happened. He snatches the t-shirt and drapes it over his shoulder. It’s soaking wet. He gathers the fishing line and bundles it inside his fist.
No need to curse the children. Not when he would have done the same thing. He lifts himself to the top of the wall and stands there, like a sea creature, watching the weather-ravaged buildings and streets. He waits for Havana to finally exhale, for the breeze to grow stronger, the music louder. He waits until every inch of his rough skin is completely dry, until the t-shirt on his back no longer drips like a wet towel on a clothesline. He waits until there are no headlights on the avenue and begins heading to what a child would call home.