He sits across from me at my own table.
He likes it when I go there to pick up a quick bite (usually a sandwich) or to eat larger fare like chicken fricasée, vaca frita, ropa vieja or arroz con pollo or carne con papas for lunch. Today though I had not planned this visit nor was I terribly hungry or in the mood for small talk.
He invariably greets me grinning amply with his hands on his narrow hips or inside the stained pockets of his white cotton guayabera shirt. Today I surprised him by entering the back way since I had no quarters to insert in the parking meters alongside the long, congested sidewalk.
He has always reminded me of my father, not so much in physical type, but in the essence of his being, in the way in which he approaches and tells about life and how slowly and deliberately he does everything, whether it's setting the table utensil by utensil or bringing the steaming dishes one by one. My father is not that way, I mean, not so slow in doing things or bringing them to the table when he cooks back at his place. But there is a rough gentleness, a noble and venerable rhythm about them that I can't help but find very similar among these two very different men.
Today the place is completely empty except for the people working in the kitchen and his son behind the bar counter. His son is good looking -I think to myself- in a Lincolnian-Cubanesque kind of way, with his very dark brows, sideburns and thick, quasi geometric goatee. He doesn't look like his father but then I remember his mother and find a familiar, faint and gender-mutated semblance between the two.
He asks me how I am and how things are going and If I have noticed how strange the weather is behaving lately. He worries about some unforetold atmospheric world catastrophe giving us signs that we cannot or are not willing or wanting to perceive. He reminds me once again that he was educated in one of the best Catholic schools back in old Cuba and how the priests and nuns used to scare the pupils witless with the reading and discussion of the Apocalypse and how terrified he went to bed those nights when the sultry Caribbean would propel waterspouts, storms and hurricanes into the defenseless and beautifully dispossessed island.
His son comes to the table and asks what I want to order.
- One media noche sandwich for here and four to go; and one order of palomilla steak with rice, black beans and ripe fried plantains, also to go.
He goes away muttering the order, without writing anything on the pad he holds crumpled in his left hand.
The old man clears his throat and asks me if I want something to drink.
- I'll have a malta, with lots of ice. I haven't had a malta in a very long time and I feel like one.
He nods and gets up slowly, almost wheezing, moving and dragging his slight feet parsimoniously, as if wanting to scrape something very discreetly and softly from the bottom of this worn and unappealing black leather shoes.
- I'll also bring you bread - he said as he disappeared behind the door dividing the kitchen from the rest of the room.
Once again I let my eyes go from wall to wall scrutinizing details or their absence. This place is bigger and is newer, but it lacks that relaxed, unhurried ambiance and feeling of homeyness and tackiness of the previous locale
He returns with the drink and a cup of ice. No straw. No bread.
I say nothing and proceed to open the bottle and pour the dark, foamy, thick liquid which immediately fills the surrounding air with its root beer-like aroma. I take a sip. I don't care for the excessively sweet and burnt taste of this brand, but again, I say nothing and continue to drink, thankful for the rate of at which the flavor looses strength in pitiful struggle with the waning ice.
He sits again and this time he does it in a way as only old men can do it: heavily, hanging onto the rim of the table as if afraid of falling or hurting himself. He takes a deep breath, pulls at his stained guaybera and tells me that his wife is in the island, visiting her old, sick mother.
Then comes the inevitable, dreaded leitmotiv I have been avoiding since visits past:
- La cosa en Cuba está jodida (things in Cuba are fucked up).
I look at him with a big, condescending grin:
- Things in Cuba have been fucked up for a long time now...
He smiles back and responds:
- Not like now. I tell you that something there has to give...
Then, inexplicably and fueling the obsession, I remark in a whisper, as if thinking aloud:
- I wonder how Fidel can live with himself after doing so much evil in Cuba...
His eyes shone and there was childlike glee in his expression:
- I'll tell you all about Fidel and his family if you want, and why he has no conscience or remorse of what he has done to Cuba and to the Cuban people...
I look at him with an expression of surprised resignation.
He gets up with unsuspected agility and walks away leaving me with a curious suspense. Masterful coup d'effect. He knows that at this point I am willing to hear his story.
A big plate with the sandwich and a side of fries announces his presence before I can actually see him coming back from the kitchen. He serves me and then sits down once again.
- Fidel couldn't be any other way because he grew up with Don Ángel, his father, who was himself a pretty evil man and did all sorts of nasty things to his own family and to the neighboring coffee plantations ... But Fidel surpassed everybody's expectations. By the time he was a teenager he had been expelled from the Catholic school he attended and where we shared classes and even his father Don Ángel was afraid of him at that point...
He goes on and on about his childhood, adolescence and youth in Cuba, the son of a well-to do plantation owner, like Castro's father. He mentions names that now are part of Cuba's 'pre-revolutionary' and 'revolutionary' history and I know he is telling the truth. I also know there is pride, relief and happiness in his heart because he is sharing this story that perhaps he hasn't shared with anybody in a long time.
His son looks at me pitifully from afar and makes an imperceptible, apologetic rictus with his twisted bearded mouth. I smile back at him assuringly and he fades somewhere to the back in the growing darkness of the expiring day.
As he tells his story and intertwines it with other related stories, I wonder why it is that I enjoy this moment and the warm feeling of having this old man across from me talking and calling me 'son' and validating every piece of information I give back to him to show that I am not totally ignorant to some of the historical facts spoken about or touched tangentially in his stories. Then I recall my own atypical childhood, brotherless and sisterless, always surrounded by mayores, by people much older than myself... I must be what they call in this country an old soul, perhaps the recurring reincarnation of someone who was very old and had a certain degree of wiseness when he came to take possession of my infant body...
No matter. I enjoy this man and his stories of youth and old glories. I enjoy older people as a general rule.
I think again of my father. He will be turning 80 in just a couple of months. I should sit with him and ask him to tell me his stories. I have never asked that of him before.
I finish my meal and the old man finishes his anecdotes. I look into his eyes. They are tired and glassy with a tint of sadness and a twinkle of bygone mischievousness. Never before did I notice they were blue like the winter ocean.
We exchange a few more sentences and I pay the bill. His son brings me the package with the food to go. He looks at his father, then he looks at me and walks away silently, as if defeated.
The old man accompanies me to the parking lot and walks me to the car evidently pleased:
- Don't be too long to return, son. You've made this afternoon very special to me...
I shake his hand and embrace him. He goes back into the restaurant. I drive away with tears rolling down my face.