At five o’clock I grabbed the stack of 12 CD’s and ran downstairs to wait for Martin. Back in Minneapolis a film producer at River Road Productions had asked me to bring them to the journalist. The year before, he had personally escorted her around the island and explained how to work around government officials here. This year, the producer and her connections helped me raise funds to travel to the Caribbean to bring back a shorts film festival. In this procession of favors and paybacks, I waited my turn.
I sat down at the edge of a wide granite portal between two grand columns and looked out at the park. Unkempt by developing standards, the large square stood proudly to shelter the weary throughout all hours of day and night. Cast iron park benches and crab grass stood stationed together to welcome everyone, even strangers like me, to its shores. After a few minutes it began to rain. Martin had said between five-fifteen and five-thirty. He was riding his bicycle. It rained harder.
A young man on a bike—not Martin—pulled up, got off and dragged his transport up the eight steep steps. At the top he shook himself off. Soon two men appeared behind me, one carrying a boom mic. I hadn’t seen them climb the stairs. I was watching the rain, thinking about Martin. Women and children ran across the park, one with a skeletal umbrella. A white car, an old rusted Russian Lada, pulled up and stopped below me. After some time, two men got out collecting a little girl; they hurried her along, protecting her head from the water with a newspaper. I watched them as they lovingly ushered her up the stairs. Her long ponytail and large round eyes gave away her status, ‘the pampered one’. But it is the way here.
I looked back at the car just as two more men and a woman scrambled out, moving towards the stairs. I saw around me ten people, walking, talking and arranging papers. One man shuffled back and forth with a script, another with a large bag. Each was looking for his spot. Like dogs. The woman stood still for a long time holding something resembling a planner. I saw the eyes. She was the little girl’s mother.
Where had all of these people come from suddenly? I flashed on King of Hearts, a 1966 French movie starring Alan Bates. At the end of World War I, a soldier sent to disconnect a bomb in a small French village stumbles upon an insane asylum where the medical personnel have all fled. After many unsuccessful attempts to lead the colorful frolicking inmates safely out of town, he eventually moves in with them. Just as the French lunatics were casualties of a time warp, these islanders lived in another dimension. They belonged to each other, to the portal. They were confident, expectant, apart. That they paid no attention to the interloper in the corner comforted me.
Except the girl. Her look warned, ‘don’t judge me’. I looked at her young tawny face long and hard. Who did she remind me of? At her feet lay spoils from an alien world. Two scarves. One held three folkloric dolls. Seemingly unremarkable. Toys that any eight or nine-year-old girl would enjoy. Next to the dolls on the second scarf, lay two revolvers. Real, rusted and huge. Too large for her to handle. She picked up one of the 45’s and began to spin the cylinder. I watched the adults. They saw nothing. Except a little girl playing with her trinkets. Who were these people?
I pressed my hands to the floor. It felt smooth, cool, and hard. The mist from the rain settled upon my face and on the CD’s. I could not move. I did not exist. I looked up. The peeling ceiling and the damaged columns were fixtures of implacable beauty. After a while, the man most devoted to the girl offered her a sandwich from the bag that had finally found its place among the ancient columns. He was her father and exquisite. A Spaniard. Or maybe a Russian, with Mick Jagger’s younger face.
The girl favored the larger gun. She picked it up again and began playing at shooting one of the men. He pretended to be shot. She smiled with glee. This was normal. I fought down the terror. The handsome father resumed pacing, reading the script. The men talked among themselves. The mother, holding her planner close to her body, sat down by the girl. She looked at the toys and spoke softly to her. I looked away. The storm had passed. Two men got into a car parked in front of the Lada (when had it arrived?) and pulled away. Someone descended the stairs and began to walk across the street towards the park. The man with the boom mic followed him. No more rain, no more drama.
The girl was still putting away her dolls when I got up to climb to the third floor where I was staying with friends. Martin had not showed. And the movie was over. To stay longer was to risk erasing the footage. The crew and princess had finished. They all lived on earth where guns and violence did not exist. Only in play.
Who would believe that in Cuba, at the turn of the new millennium, I would rediscover the planet of my youth.