As he was accustomed to do whenever the Silja Festival set sail from Stockholm, Octavio Medina took refuge in a place far away at the bow and from there, he followed the ship’s passage through the network of islands and keys that made up the archipelago located in front of Sweden’s capital. Luckily, at that time, he was still free, and he could delight in observing the nature, and the landscapes’ soft beauty. In fact, that was the part of the adventure he’d gotten involved in with his brother that most interested him. If his boss or one of his coworkers needed him, they knew very well where to find him. He spent the first hours of the trip in that place, smoking one cigarette after another and contemplating the rough coast of the islands, the green grassy areas that extended from the houses to the pine groves that covered the highlands. And he always said to himself that the archipelago of Stockholm was a garden in the open sea. But what most called his attention were the Swedes’ summerhouses, almost all of them stately and beautiful, with breakwaters in front and areas for bathing and sunbathing along the rocks. That afternoon it was nice out and the sailboats, yachts, and every type of small boat circulated happily along the estuary. Where would they go? Where do they go? Octavio, anguished, asked himself, making a face that had a little bit of envy and a little bit of resignation. And as happened to him often in such cases, he said to himself that the world was very poorly distributed.
After some unspecified amount of time, his brother picked him up to go out to eat together and get ready for work. Then he got back to reality. He was not a tourist, but rather a musician, a poor Cuban musician who was there to entertain the people with the money to pay for it and enjoy that cruise. So he got up and accompanied his brother down the stairs to the service dining room. They walked in silence in the ship’s hallways. He’d already taken many trips on the Festival and he knew the boat by heart; but it didn’t stop impressing him for its comfort and magnificence. It was enormous, with stairways and carpeted hallways and polished wooden handrails. The elevators went up and down continuously, bringing hundreds of happy passengers to fill the bars, the stores, and the restaurants throughout its many decks. The hallways spread out among the rows of cabins, and to him, they looked like those of a luxury hotel. Even the ones where they lived, which were the most economical and located on the lowest level of the boat, were more comfortable and better equipped than the hotel rooms where they used to stay when they were hired for some tour of the island.
At first Octavio was opposed to such an adventure. He was not a man given to long absences from home. He missed his wife and his daughters, and if he accepted the proposal it was more to please his older brother who, in turn, had been dazzled by stories of a friend who’d recently arrived from a similar trip, put together by a Cuban governmental firm along with the promoter of all the artistic shows on the Baltic Sea’s shipping line. Octavio did not regret having gotten involved, but he didn’t think he’d do it again. For that reason he counted the days and nights–especially the nights–that were left before finishing up on the boat so he could return to his land and home.
This was his second week of work on the Stockholm-Riga route, but it was the first time he’d left Cuba to play in a group aboard a ship. And moreover the first time he’d left Cuba. That promotion campaign of the Silja Line, celebrating Latin American music, had been his international baptism. To participate in it, he and his brother had signed a contract with the Cubartistas agency that put them on a plane headed to Stockholm and, in a couple of days, in the hands of a Swedish impresario in the entertainment business. In the capital of Sweden, that man had connected them with other Cubans–Luis among them–some coming from Cuba, like Octavio and his brother, and others, coming from God knows where, with the goal being to form part of the crew that gave life to those “Cuban Nights on the Baltic.” Now that he saw the people dancing and having fun, he missed the Cuban nights on his island. In Cuba everything was distinct. There, he didn’t feel less than anyone. And all things considered, he was above many. When he finished his work and got off the stage, he was a person to be respected. Here, in contrast, he was a second-class citizen, someone who didn’t even have the right to get paid the entire salary he earned. Yes, unfortunately, he knew the rules, and he knew very well that for the thirty-something euros daily that were part of the contract, a good part was going to land in the hands of the Cuban state firm that had sent him to Sweden. With what remained, neither he nor anyone else could dream of taking a cruise to Riga or anywhere else. Luis, nevertheless, affirmed that it was, in fact, a very cheap trip, something that in Stockholm was considered third-class tourism, at the reach of anyone. He himself would work a few weeks in the dance troupe and then, with the money he earned, go enjoy as a passenger some other route better and more interesting than this one. Octavio did not want to think too much about what Luis told him. Luis was an exile; for Octavio, the world of Cuban exile remained far away. He lived in his world, the world of Cubans in Cuba, and he didn’t aspire to another. He only wanted to finish the two months stipulated in the contract and return to his town in Pinar del Río, where his wife and daughters were awaiting him, where he could continue earning a living with his old Plymouth converted into a taxi and playing in the town’s cabaret at night.
Until that moment, Octavio hadn’t fixed his eyes on anyone, neither on the voyagers nor on his comrades in the spectacle. Each night, a little before eight o’clock, he went up onto the little stage in the boat’s party salon, took his guitar out of the case, connected it to the system and settled onto his stool, in the second line of the group of musicians. Then he played and looked at the people dancing as one would look at the waves in the sea going and coming onto the beach or, like they did there, smashing smoothly onto the boat’s keel. That night, nevertheless, something happened that led him astray: among the people on the dance floor he discovered a young lady, short in stature, who moved with a grace that was impossible to find in these parts. Because of this, he sensed without even seeing her face that she was Cuban. Seeing her dance was a gift for the eyes, a breath of tropical air in middle of the dark and sad sea. Surely she had boarded the ship that afternoon in Stockholm, since he did not remember her traveling from Riga. It would have been impossible not to have discovered her among the clumsy multitude that shook and turned about each night on that same dance floor.
Without losing a beat strumming or singing in the chorus when the number demanded it, Octavio Medina followed attentively the girl’s evolutions on the dance floor. And little by little, he became more and more convinced by the idea that she was Cuban. Besides, she moved with the grace of Cubans, tapping her feet to the rhythm, but also with the movements of her body. It was more like she floated along with the surges in the music, as if she herself was music. When she wasn’t dancing alone, she was dancing with Luis. Luis worked in a dance academy in Stockholm and he considered himself an expert in Latin rhythms, especially when it came to salsa. Even so, he was being clearly led by the style of his compatriot. “So, in the end, was she Cuban?” Octavio asked himself again and immediately answered: “But of course, if not, then where could she be from?” Then he proposed to himself that he would go up to her during the break, introduce himself, and speak with her. If she left him with a good feeling, he would chat with her again after the show. Then he’d see. For now, he’d have to be okay with observing her from the stage, being sure not to lose too much sight of her.
So, while the girl was enjoying dancing with Luis (how did he get to meet her, the bastard), Octavio enjoyed observing her steps and turns on the dance floor. He liked the way she was moving, the natural elegance of her shifts, the suggestive twists of her waist. Looking at her intently, he could see she wasn’t so pretty, though she had a contagious smile that she didn’t refrain from showing when she was dancing. That he hadn’t “discovered” her from the start was surely due to her scant visibility among the many tall and blond women who populated the dance floor. Nevertheless, when the music sounded and that young lady, short in stature, with a meridional mark, began to dance, by force of magic, she turned into the indisputable queen of the ball. At a certain point, she was up close to the stage, and he observed her better. She was wearing a little black dress, revealing her shoulder and a pair of boots that almost went up to her knees. Her hair, also black, fell messily down her back. Octavio saw her face, a little Chinese-looking, and her smile full of happiness, and he felt that it was worth playing one after another piece, performing nonstop, if, in exchange, he could have the opportunity to contemplate something so suggestive and harmonious as that unknown Cuban girl dancing. He saw her entering and leaving the dance floor time and again, arriving and going, appearing and disappearing, sometimes alone, other times with a young, tall girl, also with dark hair, who didn’t dance too much or remain for very long there. Surely they were friends, yes, two Cubans living in Stockholm who were going on vacation to Riga. And of course if she was traveling with a friend it was because she didn’t have a boyfriend, because she was alone in the world–a lonely soul in search of someone who could bring her happiness greater than a few turns on the dance floor. Why not him, then? “Would she be as pleasant off the dance floor as she is when dancing?” he asked himself, imagining a conversation with her.
When the master of ceremonies announced the break, Octavio hurried up to leave his spot and look for the stranger. Behind the scenes, nevertheless, the group’s director came up to him to ask his opinion about one of the numbers they’d included in the second set. He wanted to swap it for another, a song from the Swedish group ABBA, more appropriate for the public that had embarked in Stockholm. Unfortunately, when Octavio got to the dance floor the Cuban girl wasn’t there anymore. He couldn’t see Luis either, with whom she’d been dancing almost the whole time. Octavio knew he didn’t have to worry about Luis; but even so, you couldn’t throw out the possibility that Luis might make an exception that night and come up with the idea of taking her to bed. Octavio stayed an instant sadly looking out at the hallway, at the people lined up for the elevators. After a minute of doubt, he left quickly walking in that direction.
I knew perfectly that he would not be able to find her, that the moment hadn’t arrived yet, so I stayed still in my seat, drinking my drink with my pals, and observing attentively the commotion around, the world of a cruise ship. I tried to see and remember all that was happening around me, locating interesting characters, and the emotions spinning after a night of partying in the middle of the sea. But nothing out of the ordinary occurred, nothing worth taking note of. A little later, the orchestra could be heard. Again. Octavio took his place, very upright on his stool, strumming the strings of his guitar and looking with anxious eyes for the Cuban girl among the rest. He finally saw her, standing up on the side of the dance floor, moving alone and taking little steps to the rhythm of the music. Apparently, she was waiting for someone to invite her to dance. In the same place but always moving to the music, the girl didn’t stop looking around, as if she were looking for someone. Finally, Luis appeared, who took her by the arm and led her to the dance floor. There they danced one dance after another until the end.
When the group stopped playing, the lights went on, and the master of ceremonies turned to the public to announce the show’s next act. Octavio knew it would mean a long and tedious lottery, that it was–he couldn’t understand why–the way in which the organizers closed the night of partying. On his end, he hurried to pick up as quickly as possible all the stuff related to his group’s performance. But then right after, and without losing another minute, he went out in search of the unknown dancer. Nevertheless, he wasn’t lucky this time either. When he got on the dance floor, Luis and the girl had already left, surely together again, the guitarist said to himself. This time Octavio didn’t hesitate, and, casting a quick glance around, began to walk in the direction of the ship’s center. I, who couldn’t forget any of the three, got up quickly from my seat, I told my family that I had to go to the restroom, and I left behind the musician. I still didn’t know what was going to happen with them or how all of this would end.
Of course, I didn’t find Luis or the girl. Octavio, whom I left coming down the stairs toward his companion’s cabin, didn’t find them either. I imagined him heartbroken, out of sorts, looking all over. I just imagined, since without anything more concrete, imagining was all that could be done in such moments. Anyway, Octavio was up to prowling around the hallways a while; he went up and down the hallways, he traveled in the elevators, from one to another side, until he suddenly felt like smoking and decided to go outside. The cigarette smoke and the direct breeze of the sea would surely calm his anxiety. It was already twelve midnight when the troubled Octavio Medina appeared on the terrace of the seventh deck and lit a cigarette that he was carrying in his hand and that, he thought, would be the last of his already long day. But it was evident this would not be the case as he heard voices in Spanish coming from somewhere on the terrace and saw to whom they belonged. Octavio recognized them right away, despite the darkness and the distance that measured between him and them. They were standing, leaning on the rail, with their backs toward the sea. They had made themselves comfortable far from the rest of the smokers–all Latvians, Russians, or Swedes. Luis was smoking with the air of a movie’s leading man, while the girl was telling him something and smiling. A trivial, quite logical detail, certainly; but, considering everything, more than enough for Octavio to feel all of a sudden as if he had been struck by a flash of lightning out of spite.
He didn’t think about it too much, and, after expelling the first puff of smoke, he walked toward them. The musician knew that Luis was not looking for the same thing as he was in women, meaning he wouldn’t be too offended by his brusque intrusion. Besides, if he hadn’t been mistaken about the girl’s nationality, all would stay among Cubans.
“Good evening,” he said, while he reached out his hand to Luis and leaned lightly toward the girl. “Am I interrupting?”
“You never interrupt, my man,” Luis responded in a happy tone. “Look, I’ll introduce you to a friend.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Octavio said, reaching out his hand gallantly to the stranger. “Octavio Medina.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she responded and she smiled in the way she was used to smiling when she was dancing. “My name is Manon. Are you Cuban too?”
“Yes, it seems there are several of us on board. Surely you know that the theme of this cruise is our music.”
The girl looked at Luis inquisitively. The musician took advantage of having her so close to him to study her. She seemed very young to him, almost like a little kid, and he felt the desire to ask her how old she was, but luckily he contained himself.
“Octavio is one of the guitarists from the group that played in the show,” Luis explained, gesturing to him with the tip of his chin.
“Ah,” said the girl, looking at the recently arrived. “Congratulations. The orchestra sounds very good.”
“Thank you,” Octavio replied. “It’s a group that we improvised for the occasion. We met each other for the first time in Stockholm, and we raced to put this thing together, but now that we’re on the topic, I’m the one who’d have to congratulate you. You were the queen of the night.”
“You don’t say,” she feigned surprise. “Why, if I may ask?”
“Because you were the best on the dance floor. It’s been a while since I saw anyone dance like you. As pretty. You had to be Cuban.”
She was grateful for the compliment, once again showing that smile of a happy dancer.
“I’ve spent the night saying it,” Luis backed him up, appearing not to leave the terrain entirely free for Octavio. “She’s spectacular. They ought to have hired her for the show.”
Manon could not hide the pride this praise provoked in her.
“By the way,” Octavio asked, changing the tone completely, “do you live in Stockholm?”
“Yes,” the girl responded. “And you?
“In Cuba,” he responded and, suddenly feeling like saying something slightly risqué, he added, “still.”
The girl looked at Luis, and he smiled, pretending to turn his gaze to the darkness of the sea.
“I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “Later, don’t say that it was me who….”
“It was a joke,” Octavio quickly cleared up. “Or is it that here we can’t joke around? I love my country a lot.”
“We love it too,” replied the young lady with a certain tone in her voice. “Right, Luis?”
The person in question kept silent, a silence that for many reasons, seemed significant to Octavio.
“Don’t worry,” he said after a bit, addressing him. “You can do what you want. We Cubans in Stockholm know what this is about. We’ve been through it all and we aren’t used to snitching on anyone. What’s more, if you need help….”
“Listen, you,” Octavio interrupted him, obviously irritated. “I already said it was a joke. I live very well in Cuba.”
“Well in Cuba?” Luis said with a face of incredulity. “Let me see, explain what that means. How can one live well in Cuba?”
“I’m not saying that everyone lives well, but rather that I live well. I know that the majority of people aren’t doing well, but that’s not my situation. At my house, there’s always a meal on the table, and my wife and children are well dressed. And if you open the freezer in the kitchen, well you know….”
That said, Octavio threw the butt overboard and looked, satisfied, at the girl.
“What do you do to live well in a country with so many problems?” she was interested in finding out.
“On weekends, I play in the town cabaret. The rest of the time I dedicate myself to fighting to get by.”
“You live in Pinar del Río,” Luis said. “Surely you sell cigars on the black market, right?”
“I’m not going to share with you the details,” Octavio responded, “but my principal entry is in a 1952 Plymouth that’s always full of people.”
“Yes and no.” Octavio said evasively. “It’s complicated to explain.”
“I understand,” Luis said, and he let escape a smile of complicity.
“No,” replied the musician. “I don’t think you understand much. To understand, you have to live there. Live and fight like me. That’s why those from outside cannot understand the Cubans within. They haven’t an idea of how the country functions. Generally, those that leave Cuba, forget everything about their people and land. That’s why, and pardon my frankness, I always say that Cuba no longer belongs to you. It’s our problem.”
“Cuba belongs to all Cubans,” the girl said out of the blue, “also to those of us on the outside.”
The musician looked at her, surprised. It turned out that besides dancing well she was an intelligent person. She must be studying in university, he ruminated. He thought about rebutting his point of view in order to stir up a discussion and get a little closer to her; but it seemed to him he’d already spoken enough about his life in Cuba. It didn’t make sense to reveal all his secrets to two people whom he barely knew. At that moment, when he was thinking of saying something of no import and changing topics, he heard a voice from behind him saying:
“Excuse me, friends. Are you Cubans?”
A bit startled, Octavio turned and saw by his side a man who was a bit older than he was. He must have been in his sixties, perhaps a little more. He had gray hair and big wrinkles on his forehead. The one who first recovered from surprise was Luis, and he turned to the recently arrived to ask:
“Yes, Cubans. And you?”
“I am as well. Am I interrupting?”
“No, not at all,” said the girl, looking at him with sympathy. “And even less if you’re Cuban.”
Octavio looked at the stranger with an expression of suspicion that he didn’t bother to hide. As you who’ve gotten to this part in the story must be able to understand, the recently arrived was none other than yours truly. So go things, and since I hadn’t liked the musician’s reaction, I decided to call him on it, and I blurted out:
“Yes, Octavio, Cuban, from Melena del Sur. Do you know where that is?”
The person in question appeared to suffer an electric shock.
“Um,” he exclaimed. “How do you know my name?”
“Your first and last name,” I said. “And not only this.”
“I already knew it. He’s State Security. They’re everywhere,” and turning to the others, he added. “And you as well. Surely you’re in cahoots with him. That’s why you set up the provocation, to ruin my life.”
“Don’t say stupid things,” said the girl. And then, looking at me, “Let’s see, if you know so much. What’s my name?”
“Manon, just like the protagonist from the novel by Abbé Prévost.”
The girl looked at me directly in my eyes, as if she was trying to recognize me. And immediately she replied:
“Surely you’ve seen me in Stockholm and asked about me. Tell me, you don’t live there?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I live there. Like you. I arrived in 1994, the same year your father arrived. We coincided at the refugee camp.”
She looked back at the rest.
“Don’t you see it? That’s what it is. My pleasure, sir. And if you’re a friend of my father, it’s a pleasure to speak with you.”
And that said, she stretched out her little hand, that I took in mine as if it were a little pigeon.
Octavio, who for reasons of age didn’t see in me any competition in his quest for Manon, looked extremely nervous and as if he had lost any possibility to seem interesting or worthy of the girl’s affection. And the worst part was that he had understood that. By then, I already knew she had very different interests than the guitarist’s. Among other things, surely the age difference (some twenty years) had something to do with it. With regard to Luis, I already said he wasn’t interested in women. So, as things were going, the only thing left to do in that group was to let my imagination work a little more with them.
“Listen, Manon,” I said, “allow me to ask you a question. Do you write your name with or without an accent?”
“My friend,” she smiled indifferently, “you seem like a cultured person.” I made a gesture of “it could be” with my head and she continued, “Yes, I believe that it is. Well you should know that Manon in French doesn’t have an accent.”
“It’s true,” I said to her. “But the problem is that your mother didn’t take your name from Prévost’s book, but rather from a version that back then they put on Channel 6 on Cuban TV. Since the name sounds like Manón, with the prosodic stress on the “o,” she registered you like that, with the accent on that letter, so that it sounded like what she heard and saw on TV. When you get back to Stockholm, ask her if you want. And send my regards to your father.”
“Oh my god!” exclaimed Manon, turning toward her companions, “Now yes, you’ve left me cold. I’d never have imagined that my father would have spoken so much about my mother or me to you.”
“Listen, sir,” Luis finally jumped in. “Enough with pretending to be mysterious. I’m sure Octavio was right when he accused you of being from State Security.”
“He was mistaken…” I began to say.
“Well I don’t think I was mistaken,” Octavio said.
“Look friend,” Luis continued with a strident voice, “I, myself, am really not interested if you’re security or not. We’re not afraid of you. I live in a free country and I haven’t committed any crime. So you already know….”
I felt desire to tell Luis that of course, I also knew him, that I knew what he did for a living and with whom he lived in Stockholm, that I could get him scared telling him about the last shipment of cigars he’d illegally introduced into Sweden. But I decided to leave it be. I understood that it was getting away from me, something I couldn’t let happen. I had to put in the last point. I looked for an instant at the girl. She was smiling, and I felt nostalgia for something that hadn’t occurred and could never occur, rare nostalgia, on the other hand. No, in reality, what I felt was a certain sadness that I could not keep her a little more with me. I liked her. It was just like that. She was, I confess, the character that most interested me out of the three.
“In conclusion, friends,” I said finally. “I don’t think so. I don’t think it can be.”
Then I turned my back to them, I got close to the railing, and I stayed there for a while observing the darkness of the sea. From afar, you could spot the lights from another ship that was ploughing through the same sea as ours. The sky was as dark as my head, which was no longer lit and without ideas. When I turned around and found myself on the terrace again, I understood I was completely alone in that corner of the boat. At some distance, very close to the door, there were several men smoking. And the rest, where could they be, those compatriots that were about to turn into characters in a story that couldn’t be? Surely the musician would continue from his observation post, smoking one after another cigarette, while ruminating over his frustration and thinking about his people and his family in Pinar del Rio or in who knows where. Luis could be imagining another new little salsa step while he shared a beer with some friend. And the girl? Yes, what could the girl be doing, the sweet little Cuban girl in a short off-the-shoulder black dress? Well, just what a girl that young and full of illusions is supposed to be doing, she would be sleeping sweetly on her cot and dreaming of the purest of angels. Am I wrong? I don’t know, who could say. I wouldn’t dare. In the end, writers aren’t God either, as much as they try to act as if they are in their fiction. The proof is in the fact that their creatures go astray and do whatever they please. Like this.