009: Ham and Cheese (Part 1)

Thom Selleck is looking for an escape from his present life as an escort, so travels to the past by way of Cuba. Though he soon realizes Cuba is not a place of the past, but of an alternate dimension.

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The plane rolled over a blue purer than a virgin faggot’s asshole. Which is to say very blue, not brown or pink, depending on the faggot and the day of the week. Anyway, not to mix metaphors, but you forget colors like these exist in the world.

I was descending into Havana, where the Gulf’s waters ended and Communism began. It was a week to get away, escape the life I’d left back in New York. Though if I’m being honest, no amount of jet fuel in the world could ever be enough to fully escape what I’ve seen.

Apart from a couple flight attendants and this real nice looking bird sitting across the aisle in the exit row, I was the only white person on the plane. That’s the kinda thing you hear from minorities, about how they have to stick together, how they notice each other when they walk into a room, but it’s really something to experience it yourself. I couldn’t keep straight if I was trying to seek out another white person or just really wanted to give it to that dame in the exit row, but either way, I was seeking her out. She didn’t look my way once though, so eventually I asked if I could borrow her pen to fill out the Customs sheet, but even then, it was nothing doing. Sometimes  you can tell these things, and sometimes you can’t, but this time, I could tell.

About that exit row—she and I were the only ones in the whole thing. In fact, we’d been upgraded for free, on account of them needing someone at those doors in case the whole thing went down. In fact, there were 31 open seats on the plane—I counted. From what I could gather not a lot of people were going to Cuba, and those that were were visiting family, I’m guessing. Plus the ticket was only $298. Who knew riding in a time machine would cost less than my makeup collection?

As we touched down a good 8 rows of Cubanos Americanos started applauding the pilot. I felt compelled to applaud too, but more out of social pressure than anything. I didn’t though, and I felt bad about that. I wondered if perhaps this was some Hispanic custom I was not used too, or if perhaps this was these people’s first plane ride, and I felt bad about that too. 

There’s nothing grandiose about Jose Marti Internacional airport, its diminutive size reminiscent of the ranches sitting humbly off the I-5 en route to Los Angeles,  I was already starting to feel not only worlds apart, but now decades apart from home, and I liked that. I grabbed my suitcase and backpack and headed towards the exit, the plane’s doorway soaked in the blinding brilliance of the sun, as though we preparing to walk out into the void of an unknown Heaven.

I walked down the mobile staircase, the unrelenting heat of Havana beating down against the feeble fortress of my skin. I wanted to pull my phone out out to to record all the goings on, but I didn’t want to appear gauche, to turn the whole way of life of others into spectacle. Besides, this is how people used to live. How they should live. Nothing more to the moment than the experience of it, the memory of it, the words of it.

As I stood in line for Customs, I wondered how intensely I’d be scrutinized as an American visiting Cuba. In November Trump implemented new policies restricting travel to Cuba strictly for tourism, which Obama had only recently relaxed in 2015. Travel to Cuba was only permitted for one of twelve reasons, and when I booked my ticket I was required to sign an affidavit that I was traveling to Cuba for one of these purposes. “Work meetings/Professional research” seemed reasonable enough. After all, it wasn’t out of the question that my path my cross with a prostitute or two, and it’d be well important to take note of how my competitors were plying their trade in other countries. But given that I wasn’t exactly looking to out myself to my own government, I decided I’d pull a page from Chase’s book, as it were, and pretend to be a writer. United Airlines recommended that I create an itinerary of my daily research activities for my forthcoming book Una Semena en la Habana, though they also mentioned it’d be unlikely anyone would even bother to check said itinerary.

 

* Talk with Victor about Cuban culture and life

* Visit Cuban restaurants to have a perspective on food

* Visiting beaches and monuments to gain a historical perspective

* Talk with locals to see how they feel about tourism and Americans

 

It seemed simple enough. I walked up to the woman at the the Customs booth and presented my American passport.

“Hola.” I was already off to a rip-roaring start.

She didn’t respond, but gestured for me to look at the camera affixed to the glass partition. She then stamped my passport, and buzzed me through the door. No one gave a shit if I was a writer or a prostitute or a goddamn senator. The perceived difficulty in traveling to Cuba as a U.S. resident had been just that: optics. In reality, there was nothing complicated about traveling to Cuba beyond clicking a button stating your purpose for being there.

As I left security and stepped out of the airport, a hundred some-odd people were waiting, all holding signs and flowers for their loved ones. Coming off the plane and into Cuba was momentous for these people, as though they were witnessing the return of family members who’d crossed through an inter-dimensional portal and lived to tell their story.

Victor, my airbnb host had arranged for a driver to pick me up for for $30. Various men were holding up signs with prestigious names on them like Sr. Alvarez and Gustavo Conchita III. Then a short man with a salt-and-pepper scraggly beard pushed his way to the front of the crowd, and presented his sign which read “Tom.”

“Hola.”

“Buenas tardes, señor. Joo are Tome?”

“Si, pero I spell my name with an h.”

I didn’t want to hop in the wrong car with the wrong man to the wrong place, but then I considered how many Toms or Thoms or Tomes were coming through José Martí at that time, and figured I was probably safe.

“Joo are Tome Sellig? Like day actore?”

Fuck. There’s some things you can’t avoid even in Cuba.

“But with an h,” I stress.

“Joo are duh berry famoose.”

The guy was acting like this was the first time this joke had ever been made. Though to be fair, perhaps this was the first time this joke had ever been made in Cuba.

We got to his car. I was hoping it’d be one of those 1960’s Chevrolets that appear in all the footage you see touting the magical place that is Cuba. But instead it was a Hyundai Sante Fe. I was already starting to wonder if “the idea” of Cuba was something promoted to Americans far more heavily than the reality of Cuba.

“¿Como te llamas?”

“Me llamo Hector. ¿Halbas español?”

“Ehh…” I always struggled with knowing whether it was uno pequito or un pequito or un pequena. “… No,” I concluded.

 Hector asked if I wanted to sit in the front seat or the back, and I asked if the front was okay, and this made me feel good that he asked and good how I answered. Nowadays in the U.S. with Uber and Lyft and Via and smartphones and social media people just want as much distance from each other as possible, and I certainly didn’t want to see my first glimpses of Havana from the perspective of a backseat or anyone who couldn’t look their own driver in the face.

As we passed through Havana, Hector and I talked about geo-politics, which admittedly I knew little of. Though what little I knew exceeded his own, as Hector explained that the state-run media controlled what messages could be delivered through the nation’s television news.

I tried my best to explain to him that many Americans, including many who voted for him, did not in fact like Trump. But explaining how a man could win a democratic election and not be universally liked by the people seemed like a foreign concept to him, so I decided our efforts might be better spent on small talk.

“Te gustan las chicas?”

Listen, you may be saying I’m getting my Spanish all wrong, but the fact is, I’m just telling you how best I remember this whole thing.

“Si, me gusta chicas.”

“Jeah. Dats good mane. Iss good in Cooba. Tirteen or fourteen. It’s okay. Lower, no. Iss too young.”

I think I might’ve gotten the meaning of chicas all wrong..

“Uh. No. I um, thanks. I’m not looking for that.”

“Relax amigo. In Cooba, we have saying, ‘Joo are whye, joo are tourista, joo are a god.”

Jesus Christ, Hector wasn’t fucking around. I went to roll down the window—fresh air would help clear out the conversation—but the flimsy crank—there were no electric windows here—felt as though it would come right off in my hand, so instead I endured the Havana heat and Hector’s words, swirling around me uncomfortably.

Hector started laughing, and honking his horn along to the Cuban music coming form his car’s tinny speakers.

“Mi amigo, welcome to Habana!”

Eric BarryComment