I spent a week. Gary worked as a critic for a music magazine, so even when he had to work, I tagged along. The music was everywhere. Gary and Pilar, his second wife, lived in Miramar, a wide open, breezy Havana suburb. They ran a paladar, one of the unofficial private restaurants that people operate out of some of the large, multi-story, former private homes of that Embassy area. Pilar was a raven-haired beauty, bursting with sensuality and very gracious to me. She set us up with food and a couple of Mojitos that day I arrived, then left for the afternoon.
“No, stay,” I said.
She said, “Old friends. So many years apart. You need to know each other again. Later we’ll have dinner.”
And that’s what we did. Got to know each other again. When I was done bringing Gary to the present, he said, “You were always so shy. Just take her by the arm and start walking her home. She’ll let you. Don’t ask.”
He was talking about Regina. Gary always cared about his friends. He loved his friendships.
“She’s an alcoholic, Gary.”
“What, you’re afraid she won’t amount to anything in life? You like each other. Keep each other company.”
Gary and Pilar had been married almost fifteen years. She was forty-five. Gary left his first wife for her, after twenty years.
“It was the worst thing I ever did.”
I must have looked shocked.
“I don’t mean I regret it. That’s not it. A woman like Pilar? Pilar and music. The rest doesn’t matter.”
He saw me try to understand.
“It’s the worst thing I ever did to another person.” I could see him remember the pain. “The worst. And the thing is, I’d do it again.”
I was silent. “So things are good with Pilar?” I said after a while.
“They’ve been great.” He emptied his glass. “You remember that Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris?”
He surprised me again. “Yeah?”
“Near the end Brando suddenly decides that he actually does want to know this woman, and he wants her to know him. He starts chasing her out of the tango hall, scaring the shit out of her, telling her everything he can about himself in a rush. He calls out above the music, ‘I got a prostate the size of a potato, but I’m still a pretty good stick man.’ I love that line. I think Brando ad-libbed it.”
Gary chewed on a mint leaf. He raised his eyebrows at me. “I got a prostate the size of a potato.”
I nodded. “These are good,” I said, draining my glass.
“Wait till you try the Havana Club. Siete. It’s like a warm fire in the winter going down.”
I never did bring up the politics of it all. Who was I to, anyway? And what might he have been feeling after all that had happened, or hadn’t.
“You’ve been happy here?” I asked instead.
“I love it,” he said. He glanced out the window toward the sea. “I don’t know. In the summer, when the breeze blows through the palms, or when the hurricanes make you feel like the island’s just a boat on the water, and you’re riding it out for all you can make of it, whatever moments there are. When the rhythm comes up and a woman like Pilar tosses her hips. And the maracas rattle and a man rolls his shoulders.” Now he looked at me. “It’s supposed to be an atheist society, right? After all this, there’s nothing?” He paused. “It’s the opposite of nothing.”
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