Thursday, March 05, 2020

Seduced by a Spy (A Short Story inspired by real world events)

The writer's work room
     Grisela Mariposa agreed to join me on a visit to Hemingway’s home, on one condition: that we part immediately afterwards. I had hoped we might have dinner and, maybe, return to my hotel, our last time together before my plane’s departure in the morning back to Los Angeles. You see, on the second day of my trip, one of us had seduced the other. Or, I prefer to think, perhaps naively, we had just made a real connection.
     All that week, after I attended the mandatory lectures and tours to fulfill my promise to the U.S. State Department, Grisela and I had spent much of my free time together. She showed me a Cuba few tourists get to see, like VIP seats to a Buena Vista Social Club concert at the Karl Marx Theater after the band’s triumphant return to Havana from a worldwide tour. That night, we had danced on the top floor of a private disco overlooking the bay.
     Then there was the time we had walked along the Malecon and Old Havana’s streets holding hands like teenagers on a first date. She’d taken me to a restaurant on the beach, reserved for the Cuban elite, no tourists, no foreigners, not even diplomats. Yes, I found, there was a Cuban elite, military men and women, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, politicians, and artists, all committed to the Revolution, and, surprisingly, most spoke English and had visited the States.
     We tried stay clear of politics, but she did tell me that, to a person, they blamed Cuba’s dire situation on the U.S. embargo but claimed they had been through worse, and they were emboldened to hang on. Trying not to sound disrespectful, I responded something about that being convenient. She smiled and said, “In our minds, we are in a state of war. How would your people react if China and the Saudis placed a worldwide embargo on your country?”
     Grisela had walked me through the different levels of the famous Hotel Nacional, in rooms off limits to tourists. She told me about the place’s history, catering to East Coast mobsters, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities, a mini Atlantic City where the only Cubans visible were performing on stage or waiting tables.
     After, we walked across the Nacional’s long manicured lawns, under the palm trees, my arm around her waist, the warm tropical air on our faces. No travel agency could have planned a more perfect week.
     As we waited for the taxi to drive us to Hemingway’s home, I hoped she would change her mind and stay with me for the evening. I couldn’t imagine this being our last time together. At 54, I was a heavily pursued, lifelong bachelor, committed to my work, directing large non-profit mental health services to low-income communities and still fighting my own post-war demons.
     In what seemed like minutes, rare for Havana, a ’57 Chevy pulled up to the curb. We got into the back seat, and the driver sped us up to Hemingway’s home, built on a mountain overlooking Havana and the ocean. When I went to pay the driver, Grisela placed her hand on mine and told me it was taken care of. I thought I recognized the driver as the same man I had seen at the Buena Social Club concert. He offered her a mock salute, smiled, and drove away.
     We followed clumps of tourists who sauntered around the grounds. Though entry into the house was forbidden, visitors could peer inside through large, open windows and French doors. For five-dollars, they could take photos.
     “Would you like to enter?” Grisela asked.
     “I thought it was prohibited.”
     She smiled. “Yes, for everyone else.”
     She took a card from her purse and showed it to the woman in uniform. The woman nodded and stepped aside.
     “Teachers must carry a lot of weight in Cuba,” I said.
     She laughed, “We have our moments.”
The Dining Room
     We explored the great American writer's spacious, airy rooms. Grisela told me Cubans believe Hemingway left the house much as it remains today, even a few books opened to the place he’d left them. She raised an eyebrow, “That’s the rumor, anyway.”
     I ran my hand lightly over the books in his collection. I slid my fingers across his typewriter keys. My feet moved slowly over the cool tiles of his dining room, and I looked into the eyes on the animals’ heads mounted on the walls.
     Back when I was a college student, a young combat veteran, Hemingway’s stories had drawn me in. He helped me understand my own war experiences, especially in his characters, the so-called “Lost Generation” disconnected from the world after returning home from Europe.
     I must admit, there was a lonely feeling to his home, ghosts, maybe. I’d read some place where he’d said he loved this home the best of any place he lived and did his finest writing in this room. When he left for good to the Idaho tundra—he killed himself.
     The idea of self-destruction is a curse to anyone who has experienced extreme violence. Among my veteran friends who meet weekly at the Los Angeles VA, some talk about it cautiously, as if a monster is weighing us down. A friend had once said, “Heroin addicts carry monkeys. We carry monsters.” He hadn't laughed.
     Grisela said, in English, her voice soft, deferential, “He would not have died if had he stayed in Cuba.”
     “And you know this for a fact?”
     She winked and switched to Spanish, “Por supuesto.”
     I looked out a large, open window through the trees and into the tropical vegetation, across the low, verdant hills, beyond the land and far out to the ocean, which lay quietly in the distance.
     “You’re probably right,” I said.
     She switched again to English. “The American government forced him to leave. They called him a Red lover, and accused him of supporting Fidel and the Revolution, which he did. He saw how Cubans suffered under the old dictatorship. All he really wanted was a place to live peacefully and write."
     “Yes,” I answered, “but he was also disappointed when Castro finally admitted he was a communist and would make Cuba communist.”
     “Ah,” she responded, “but you Americans view communism much differently than the rest of the world. Many countries have communist or socialist parties. Few countries have only two political parties. Fifty-fifty isn’t good odds, is it?”
     “Eastern Europe might not agree.”
     She said during the Cold War, any American, like Hemingway, showing sympathy to a socialist nation was a suspected traitor. “I’ve seen letters he’d written, letters no American has seen. He wrote that if he could live the rest of his days in Cuba, he would, even under communism.”
     I said, “So, he left Cuba and ended up in Idaho, a landscape more like Russia than Cuba.”
     She said, “Cuban Socialism is not Russian socialism. We are warm. They are cold. We have a way of getting into people’s blood. We can love simply to love and not to possess. Maybe for Hemingway, the United States had become a foreign country, so he ended it.”
     “True, but so had his father. Maybe clinical depression is in the genes.”
     She led me through a hallway into a room at the back of the house, away from the tourists and staff. She stepped back and said, “Love is a funny thing. We really don’t know what it is. Of course, we talk about it, but no one can put it into words. The poets have, perhaps, come the closest, mmm…but they fall short, even el maestro Neruda.”
     Once outside, we walked towards the overhang that housed Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat, La Pilar. I said, “Cultures where parents arrange their children’s marriages might be on to something.”
     “It is a possibility,” Grisela answered. “Like the great American philosopher, Tina Turner, sang, ‘love is a second-hand emotion.’”
     I stopped walking and turned to her. “Grisela, you said you were once married?”
     She lowered her eyes, briefly, for an instant, then again met mine. “Yes…. He was older. He’d been a young soldier during the revolution. I was a child. Both our families supported our leaders. When I graduated college, we married. We were hopeful and proud socialists, but something happened. After he returned from Angola, he grew despondent, then suspicious of everyone and everything, including me. He lost his zeal then his love for Cuba. We divorced but remained close He escaped secretly one night to make the journey by boat to Miami.”
La Pilar
     As we stood before La Pilar, I could hear the birds. The trees were as thick as the humidity in the air. I waited for Grisela to complete her story. She fell silent.
     “So, your ex-husband is now in Miami?” I asked.
     “No,” she said matter-of-factly. “He is here, in Cuba, in prison.”
     “Someone betrayed him?”
     “No. Someone informed the authorities.”
     “Who would do that?”
     “He should have known better than to confide in me. He knew of my commitment to the people.”
     My mind whirled, images and colors flashing everywhere.
     “Yes, Hemingway loved his boat…and Cuba,” she said, turning away from me and looking up at La Pilar. “He donated it to the Cuban people. The boat is in his novels. I think he loved this boat more than he loved anything. Look how we keep it, as if it was recently purchased. In your country, it would have decayed or become isolated in a rich man’s collection.”
     She took my hand and led me along the path, past the house and back to where our taxi waited. As we walked down the wide stairs from the front porch, past the throng of tourists, I asked, “Grisela, how could you betray someone who trusted you. You loved him?”
     The taxi rolled up in front of us. It was the same driver. She placed her hands on either side of my face. I turned towards her. She looked at me, her eyes warm, soothing, something I hadn’t noticed before. She said, in English, “It is because I loved him, like Ellie loved you and waited for you, but you betrayed her, hmm. Isn’t that the story?”
     “But we were just kids in high school.”
     “And he was a captain in the army. He knew. Yes, it’s because I loved him, I could not allow him to destroy himself, to lose his dignity. How could I let him betray his country and his people? I knew him well. He would have eventually suffered at the immorality of his act. To betray your lover is one thing. To betray a whole people is quite another.”
     “Grisela, maybe he just wanted his freedom, a new life, to make his own choices. How can you be so certain you didn’t deprive him of that?”
     She said, as if from memory, “Freedom...the Yankees jail more people than any other country. In your world even freedom is a commodity—and subjective, Adrian.”
     “Compared to the treatment of prisoners in other countries, our system may be the most humane.”
     “Someone must inform Leonard Peltier.”
     Of course, I knew of Peltier, the Native American activist unjustly accused of murdering two FBI agents. I said, trying to be thoughtful, “Justice doesn’t always get it right.” I waited a moment, then asked, “Do you visit him?”
     “Yes, occasionally. He does not say much, but he does not forbid me from returning.”
     Our taxi sped down the hill from Hemingway’s home, through small, poor communities. Disturbed, I looked out the window. The driver’s eyes were on the road ahead, as if the backseat were a different universe.
     In English, I asked, “Why did you spend the week with me?”
     “You don’t remember? You said you wanted to experience the real Cuba. That’s why I took you to meet my colleagues at the university.”
     “Am I just another commodity?”
     She laughed, put her head down, composed herself, and answered, “Socialists lack goods and services, mmm. Capitalists never learn how to appreciate them.” Her eyes met mine. “Like Laura Masterson, mmm, the teenage girl you got pregnant and whose parents sent her away. Well, like Laura, I am attracted to tall, handsome men with bright smiles.”
     "Like I told you, I was in the army, a long way from home, a lonely kid, waiting for his orders."
     She looked over the driver’s shoulder to the road ahead. Then she turned to me again. “I saw how you looked at me the day of my first lecture. You were obvious. You were just too easy. Also, I admit, I have a place in my heart for those who sacrificed for their country, right or wrong; you are a warrior, willing to die when others were not. Do you remember the poem by Tennyson?”
     From somewhere at the back of my brain, the words emerged, “Theirs is not to…’ ah, ‘reason why. Theirs is but to do and die.’”
     “You and your Chicano veteran friends still suffer, after all these years, for you know, deep down, your country betrayed you.”
     “All governments betray their youth. Besides, how do you know if I suffer?”
     She took my hand. “My love, the pain is still evident, mmm.”
     “I don’t believe that.”
     “I have held you in the most intimate act. You may not believe it, but I know it. Ah, how should I say it, a quiet desperation?”
     “We cope.”
     “As you say.”
     “And, tell me truthfully, Grisela, you feel nothing for me?”
     “I feel much for you, but what does that matter?”
     “Can we remain together, at least for tonight?”
     “Adrian, you are—how do you say, engullido? Ah, soaked, no? So, you have made me in the image of your lost loves. You don’t know me.”
     “Grisela, is this how we are going to end it?”
      Without looking at me, she said, “Not we, amor, but I who am ending it. You haven’t asked me to leave Cuba and go with you, mmm. If I wished, I could go. Your country would be glad to receive me, if only to see what I might be willing to reveal. Or you could remain here, no?”
     Then came the words, “Leave with me, home, tomorrow.”
     “Would it be right to leave an entire people for one man? Why not stay here and liberate yourself?” The taxi pulled into the hotel driveway. She kissed my hand. “Good bye, Dr. Adrian Arias. It has been nice.”
     As I turned, I saw the sun cast a glow about her. She looked luminous, sitting silently, smiling, her eyes forward. She said, “You are in love with an illusion.”
     I stepped away from the cab and closed the door. She said, “You have my telephone number. I will be waiting. There is nothing to keep you from remaining in Cuba, mmm."
     The taxi driver pulled away from the curb, drove away the hotel’s long entrance, and merged into the center lane into traffic.
The Entrance
     My friends meet for dinner at a restaurant, more of a glitzy sports bar, in a hotel owned by a Spanish corporation, nestled between two enormous, modern high-rise hotels, one owned by a Swiss corporation, the other from Canada. A DJ plays disco music. Everyone orders hamburgers, hot dogs, milkshakes, and Cokes. I feign happiness, but my emotions tumble, as if in a washing machine. A heaviness weighs me down. The DJ plays an old 70s song. The others in my tour group can’t wait to get back home. My hand in my pocket, fingering Grisela’s telephone number. More tourists crowd into the bar. Many speak English. A college cycling team arrives from Minneapolis. I order a glass of rum, straight, and I sit there and listen as my friends tell stories about their Cuban adventures and laugh. I force a laugh. Their stories don’t resonate. I hear the voice of a friend, another veteran who once said, “I planned on returning to Vietnam, to Tam Ky. I’d like to walk the Song Ve River Valley, just to pay my respects, to remember, what we did to them, if that is possible.” The next day at the airport, Jose Marti, I spot a familiar face. Yes, it is him, the young, popular, jazz piano player I’d met at the popular club, La Vela. He sits, talking to guys in his band. I move to his side to tell him how much I enjoyed his music. He is on his way to Austria, the Salzburg Jazz Festival and start of his European tour. When I ask about travel restrictions, he says, “There’s no problem. I’ll be back in time for the Havana Jazz Festival, in four months. I’ve toured like this for the last five years, my father for most of his professional career.” I take Grisela’s telephone number from my pocket and turn it over in my fingers. I smell her on the torn slip of paper. I spot a public telephone in the corner of the bar. I recall Grisela had once quoted George Orwell during one of our discussions about how easy it is to manipulate people. She had said, “All art is propaganda,” then added, “So is love.”

No comments: