As Diane Kurasik neared the rapids of her fortieth birthday, her world seemed to be taking on the bittersweet tones of a life-change comedy from the 1970s, something starring Glenda Jackson or Jill Clayburgh. Although nothing in her own sphere had changed in quite a while, she was surrounded by movement: family, friends and acquaintances were giving birth, obtaining patents, marrying, divorcing, dying, coming out of the closet, traveling to and from exotic Third World dictatorships and going into and out of business with astonishing speed. Her niece was entering the sixth grade; her father was retiring from his second career; her longtime guitar teacher was closing up shop and moving to Brazil.
And Diane was showing Indiscreet again at the Bedford Street Cinema.
On the bulletin board, Ingrid Bergman gazed at Cary Grant with offended longing in a publicity still. With five hundred cable channels, free videos at the library, and DVDs selling for $5.00 on the sidewalk, why would anyone go out in the rain to pay $9.50 to see Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958)? But if it was part of a series called “Heels, Cads, Sadists and Heartbreakers,” there would always be a few who would show up to see Ingrid Bergman explode on the big screen, “How DARE he make loff to me and not be a married man!”
This was the premise of the Bedford Street Cinema, and the place was holding its own, barely, in a time of rampant multiplexia. Ms. Kurasik had not been the first choice for the job, but she hadn’t hesitated to take it three months after she’d originally been rejected. After all, fifteen other, bigger names had turned down M*A*S*H (1970) before Robert Altman agreed to direct it. In almost ten years, she’d perfected a repertory formula that attracted partisans who lined up around the block.
A second screen to present new, independent features would expand the crowd, but until then, Diane confined new releases to a three-week festival during the summer, when she judged the audience to be more adventurous. Under her stewardship, the theater had achieved nonprofit status, landmark status, “best place to see a movie” according to New York magazine status. She was pleased, she was proud, she was bored out of her mind.
The phone rang as Diane squeezed grapefruits in her kitchen on a muggy afternoon in late July. It was her old friend Lara Freed with a new man for her to meet: a newly divorced intellectual-property lawyer, no children, fascinating.
Diane hadn’t heard from Lara in perhaps six months. Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard from her old friend Claire Giancarlo, either.
“Does he like movies?”
“Who doesn’t like movies?”
“You’d be surprised,” Diane said, and because she had nothing going on, agreed to take his call, which came two minutes later, giving him points for decisiveness, and points off for desperation. She would meet him in a week and no doubt find something objectionable about him in person. Why had Lara and Claire stopped calling her? If Diane was noticing only now, did she really care?
She retrieved her mail and walked down Seventh Avenue South toward the theater, sucking grapefruit juice through a straw. The neighborhood had once had a Fellini feeling, and it was still possible to see someone walking down Barrow Street with his head wrapped in tinfoil. But over the past ten years the city had been tweezed, buffed, homogenized; the neighborhood now seemed entirely populated by bland white Banana Republicans driving silver SUVs, who were probably no less insane, but managed to conceal it in the collective uniform of the moment. The Bedford Street Cinema stood in a tiny, irregular curve of the West Village that was much photographed for its aura of old New York. The marquee projected its seedy glamour among the plate glass of a tobacconist’s shop, a boarded-up wall plastered with peeling posters, and a totemic brownstone with fire escape and stoop. On that afternoon, Indiscreetwas playing with The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942).
Diane paid attention to the marquee: it served the public as a light source, a meeting point, a billboard and a shelter from the rain. It could comment on the passing scene, as in the Weegee photo of a crowd gawking at a newspaper-covered corpse beneath a marquee announcing “Irene Dunne in The Joy of Living.” A crank regularly denounced Diane at Bedford Street Block Association meetings for poisoning the neighborhood with cynicism when, for example, the marquee advertised a double bill of Contempt and Repulsion. A marquee could define an era: one Saturday night in a previous decade, Diane had waited at the Loew’s 84th Street beneath a marquee promoting Husbands and Wives and Singles. By the time she realized she’d been stood up,Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992) was sold out. So she saw Singles(Cameron Crowe, 1992).
Floyd was sweeping the carpet and Cindy was adding syrup to the soda machine when Diane got to the theater. The smell of popcorn, which had once excited her, now made Diane a little nauseated. Cindy gave her an update: The third toilet in the ladies’ room was clogged again. There was a new tear in the carpet. A ticket buyer had reported something dripping on his head during the early show. One of the regular patrons had exposed himself during the second feature. There were three messages from Jack Lipsky, her boss. The beginnings of an average day.
Or so she thought, until she sat down at her desk and saw that the stack of mail she’d brought from home included an eviction notice. All New York stories are ultimately about real estate. Even stories that appear to be about something else—lust, love, money, jealousy—ultimately turn on the matter of space. New York is so densely packed with vertical life, so overflowing with noise, opportunity and heartbreak, that in order to survive one needs a lair to crawl into at the end of the day, if only to recover enough strength to face another round. Those whose lairs are too small, too dirty, up too many flights, in the wrong neighborhood, or lacking air, light, a view, or all three, live primed to pounce on something better.
There was a time when Diane chatted up anyone hosing down a sidewalk in hope of finding a better place. Until one wet spring, when an affair with an Italian sound engineer beset by legal troubles resulted in the ultimate Manhattan windfall: her name on the lease of a one-bedroom with a roof deck on a tree-lined street in the West Village. The rent was exactly half of what she’d been paying for a studio with an intractable roach problem and a view of the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. When Paolo went back to Cinecittà, the place was hers to keep. The constant scheming for a better apartment had taken up so much of her time, energy and thought over the years that when she finally moved into this haven, she had no idea what to do with herself.
That was twelve years ago. It had been a good run, and now it was over. The building had changed hands. The new owner had also bought the vacant lot next door. All tenants were required to find a new place to park themselves, in order to make way for a swanky new six-floor condominium with health club and concierge. It was all perfectly legal. The constant had become a variable.
Diane couldn’t remember when she’d reached the Age of No–no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs, no fat, no thank you. No parties, no sex. No blind dates. No double dates with married couples and “the nicest guy you ever met.” An occasional man passed through her life, usually not for long. Was it harder as she aged because there were so few men available, or because she herself was less receptive? This she pondered as she walked over rutted, damaged sidewalks to make the acquaintance of the newly divorced intellectual-property lawyer at a place on Spring Street. There was a feeling of high summer in the air, she was on her way to meet someone new, but she didn’t have an open outlook. She was tired and annoyed to be going through the motions of presentation, the tedium of decoding signifiers embedded in small talk. Thank God this was just a drink: she couldn’t possibly do something as intimate and sustained as eating a whole meal with a male stranger.
A man’s complete attention wasn’t a realistic possibility at this late stage of the game. All the generalists—the easygoing, well-adjusted fellows such as her father, her brother-in-law, the husbands of most of her friends—who were capable of giving their complete attention to a woman, had married before the age of thirty. The remainder tended to be specialists, obsessed with something—often their work, but not always. In twenty-five years of dating, fifteen of them dedicated exclusively to specialists, she’d met Lactose Intolerant Man, Open Up American Trade with Vietnam Man, Blues Man, Bluegrass Man, Second Amendment Man, and Windsurf Man. Some men had one issue they talked about, so that any conversation, no matter where it started, returned to the topic—the imperative of legalizing marijuana, for example—as if to magnetic north. None of these men, no matter how childish or arcane his fixation (seventeenth-century French mortuary instruments included), bothered to ascertain whether she was interested in his interest, or, if not, whether she had an interest of her own.
Being a specialist herself, Diane had a slight contempt for the generalists who, although clearly happier and more pleasant as people, were vague, somewhat passive and easy to push around. On the other hand, who wanted to be lectured incessantly about the Detroit Red Wings? Given the choice, wouldn’t she rather stay at home and read the new Truffaut biography? Or stay at the theater and watch Indiscreet for the nth time? So few people shared her enthusiasm, and when she found one who did, there were problems of competition and scope: she’d had a brief fling with a screenwriter who admired her complete mastery of dialogue from Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), but became impatient when she admitted she hadn’t memorized lines from any of Fred MacMurray’s other monumental pictures.
The fact was, she was bored with her specialty. She could remember seeing Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945) for the first time, at the age of fifteen, alone on a wet Thursday night at the old Regency on the Upper West Side. The trip into the city alone excited her, but the teeming energy of the film blew her head off. She was particularly intrigued by the way the mature yet ageless French actress Arletty received a compliment from a man in the street. The actress—playing an actress—didn’t run, didn’t put herself down, didn’t appear vain by accepting the compliment. And it was clear when she smiled at her admirer that she wasn’t inviting him home with her.
Increasingly, charming French movies put Diane to sleep. Every day, six or so new films seeking distribution arrived in the mail; making headway against this flood of DVDs was at the top of her to-do list every day. Watching anything on a small screen was not conducive to attention or respect. It was somehow less than a séance—the French word for screening, which Diane liked because it conveyed the otherworldly side of the movies, the irrational and perhaps “fixed” channel into the spirit world. She presented Children of Paradise at least once a year, and although she appreciated it, she didn’t feel transported by it, even on the big screen, even in a private séance. Most movies barely aroused her interest now. Was she nostalgic for a time when she was susceptible to nostalgia?
The blind date was waiting inside, reading Outside, as he’d specified. He was a less handsome, twenty-first-century version of Joel McCrae, in his late thirties, on the short side, muscular, with leathery skin and sun-bleached bangs. He was drinking sparkling water, and he began by quizzing her about her athletic pursuits.
“No sports,” she said, signaling the bartender.
“Oh?” Clearly the wrong answer.
“No watching sports on TV,” she declared, “no attending sporting events in person, and certainly no playing sports.”
The blind date blinked disapproval and scanned her body with his eyes. Diane had made whatever kind of peace was possible with her proportions: like a long line of women on her mother’s side of the family, she wore a size 4 top and a size 10 bottom. Her rear end had been the subject of much torment in her adolescence. But most people suffered in some way during adolescence, and no amount of stair climbing changed anything. Diane chose to put it all behind her.
She ordered rum on ice. He looked impatient. Clearly the wrong drink.
“I had a blind date last week with a woman in love with her cat,” he said, violating Diane’s Number One Rule: Never mention any other dates when on a date. No doubt she’d have to hear all about his failed marriage, too.
He must have noticed her face darken. “Oh, you’re a cat person?”
“No cats,” she said, taking a swig of rum. “No cats, no dogs, no ferrets. No rodents of any kind, no thank you.”
He nodded; apparently that was the correct answer. She asked polite questions about his professional life, which he answered politely.
Then, as if opening the curtain to reveal an exciting new spectacle, he leaned forward to say, “Every day, I wake up and wonder: What can I do today to become a better rock climber?”
The bar got very loud. A fanatic even as specialists go. Still, she was intrigued by the focus, the energy and the ambition. He showed her his hands, which were scabbed and scarred. His schedule involved climbing rock formations every weekend. She told him about “Heels, Cads, Sadists and Heartbreakers,” and invited him to a movie. He declined—he was due at the gym at five a.m. for speed drills. He walked her back to the theater and she shook his calloused hand under the marquee, which proclaimed: Carnal Knowledge and An Unmarried Woman.
She took a seat near the back just as the lights were dimming. Two women behind her continued their chitchat. She shone her flashlight in their eyes, and when they didn’t stop yakking, she beeped Floyd, who arrived instantly to escort them out.
This was the best part of her job.
She settled in to watch An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978). She had seen it for the first time as a teenager and felt a profound kinship. All her life, she’d felt forty-two and divorced. Probably when she hit forty-two and got divorced, it would be like coming home. As she watched, she did some math: Jill Clayburgh couldn’t have been forty-two in the film. She had to have been somewhere in her mid-thirties. This made Diane uncomfortable.
She dropped by the concession stand to get some popcorn and soda for dinner. She was thirteen weeks away from eviction. She had to do something. She went back to her seat to await Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971). And she wondered: What, at this late date, was the burning issue around which she structured her life? What did she wake up every morning determined to become better at? Every once in a while she became excited about a film at a festival—most recently, a Venezuelan heist comedy—that she knew no one else would pick up, and then she felt that what she did had value. Of course, the night it played, it was pissing rain, war was being declared, and there were all of five people in the theater. If she reached five people with something wonderful, had she done something of value?
Was it possible that she had outgrown her specialty, and was now just an easygoing generalist, albeit a single one, without a mate and offspring? If Children of Paradise no longer had the power to move her, what did?
Uptown, in an old gray courtyard building on Riverside Drive, a woman was trying to do something with her hair and having little luck getting beyond the pain in her shoulder when she raised the brush to her head. Miss Dorothy Vail had a standing appointment once a week with Laurence, but her daily hair was up to her. She remembered going nearly every morning to the hairdressers’ precincts on the Metro lot, and the conversations that one struck up with all and sundry while waiting for a wash and set. She’d taken it all for granted back then.
Her mail was piling up. Miss Payton came once a month, but that wasn’t nearly enough. All attempts to flatter Miss Payton into coming more often were met with a tight smile: Miss Payton felt she was doing her a favor, out of loyalty to her late boss. How poor Norman had put up with this woman on a daily basis was a mystery, but there had been the office, and work, and she was naturally more deferential to him, a man. Last time, Miss Payton had said, “You know, Miss Vail, you really don’t have to RSVP to every last piece of junk mail, especially if you’re not going.”
“Who says this is junk mail? This is an invitation,” Dorothy Vail said, and moved on to the next one.
Diane Kurasik was due in twenty minutes, there was nothing to serve, no clean ashtrays, no guest towels, and Miss Vail’s head still looked like a bird had flown through it, with a big gaping hole in the upsweep.
Not that Diane expected much ceremony: the last time Dorothy had gone all the way down to Bedford Street to pay her an impromptu visit, the woman barely stood up to greet her. Diane certainly did nothing about her hair, which was long enough for her to sit on—an absurd, unhealthy attachment, and not even such beautiful hair—which was clearly why she was still single, poor thing. Perhaps she could ask Diane to help her with her hair. Of course, after Diane, she didn’t have to look good for anything. But she didn’t want Diane to think this was how she greeted her guests.
Miss Vail called down on the house phone, announced herself, and asked the doorman to send the porter for cookies. “Not the nursery school cookies he got last time,” she instructed. “Something elegant, like shortbread, or pecan sandies.” She tipped all year round, not just at Christmas. Still, it was a problem. She needed a Girl Friday. Miss Payton once a month wasn’t enough.
Her phone was ringing.
It was Estelle. Estelle had a personal assistant, a personal trainer, a full-time maid and a part-time driver. In all three of her homes. Naturally, she had more energy, and her hair was always perfect. Dorothy hung up and went to the mirror, pushing herself, bringing her head halfway down to meet the brush. That’s right! She did have another appointment that afternoon—the Oral History fellow! If Estelle hadn’t called, bringing the Goldwyn Girls into her mind, she would have forgotten the whole thing. So unprofessional.
Diane came in wearing torn jeans and smelling like a breeze in a citrus grove. She presented Dorothy with an envelope full of printed matter that Dorothy already had. Why was Diane always barraging her with paper? Dorothy told her to put it on the piano bench with the rest of the mail.
“You smell divine, Diane. You must tell me the name of your perfume.”
“Trade secret,” Diane said, inspecting photos on the mantel. “How can I help?”
“Sit down, dear. Would you like a sherry?”
“I’m being evicted: what I want is a bottle of vodka and a gun. But okay, I’ll take a sherry.”
Which was easier than boiling water for tea, and made fewer dishes. Dorothy poured two glasses. She settled down on her sofa and beckoned Diane to join her. “The reason I asked you here was that I have a potential candidate for the Board to consider, and I wanted to run her by you first.”
“Who is she?”
“Her name is Estelle DeWinter, and I’ve known her forever. We met on the MGM lot, when I was in Summer Swans, and she was doing something forgettable with Donald O’Connor. She was a Goldwyn Girl. She did lots of stuff with Danny Kaye in the fifties. When she wasn’t a chorus girl, she played cigarette girls, or hatcheck girls. Not a distinguished career in cinema. But that’s not the point.” Diane sipped her sherry.
“I didn’t know her first husband. When I met her, she was see- ing that producer Milton Duff, and I was dating Hal Sterling, you remember, the director, and we got very friendly, going out on the town, the four of us, all the time. We married around the same time. I was her matron of honor. Her third wedding was written up in all the tabloids and magazines.”
Diane put her glass of sherry on the coffee table. “Dorothy, are there any apartments available in this building?”
“What? I don’t know.”
“Are you friendly with your super?”
“What? Well, I give him money all year round, not just at Christmas. But listen, I know you’re busy, so let me tell you about Estelle. Her current husband, her fourth, has a building.”
“Where is it?”
“You’ll never guess—it’s the old carriage house right next to the cinema.”
“That’s too close. It would be like living at the office.”
“What? No, listen. He hasn’t done anything with the property since he bought it. Estelle thinks he may be persuaded to donate the building to our little revival house.”
“Do you mean the wreck next door? That leaking pile of garbage between us and the smoke shop?”
“That’s the one. He gets a tax deduction, we get a second screen, and a bigger lobby, and whatever else you think we need.”
Diane leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and her hands over her eyes.
“It’s too early in the day to ruin your makeup,” Dorothy advised. But of course, Diane didn’t wear makeup. She was a good ten years too old to pull off the come-as-you-are look; Dorothy had tried to talk to her about this once, and Diane had given her a strange smile and hadn’t taken the advice. “We’d have to get an architect to take a look at it.” Diane rubbed her eyes. “We’d probably need to tear it down and start from scratch.”
“Which would be better anyhow. Right?” “Probably. Wow, Dorothy,” Diane smiled. She should smile more often, Dorothy thought, she wouldn’t look so grim. “This isn’t the real estate news I wanted to hear today, but what a nice surprise.”
Dorothy Vail was pleased. “I thought I’d bring up the subject at the Board meeting next Tuesday.”
“I can’t imagine that there would be any objection to Estelle. I’d like to meet her. Shall we have lunch the three of us, sometime after the meeting?”
“I’ll find out when she’s free. I should tell you that she never re- ally got the Bensonhurst out of her voice, and that her grammar is atrocious.”
“Now, now, Miss Vail. Not every girl is classically trained for the stage.”
“You didn’t touch the cookies.”
“See you at the meeting. Don’t get up. Would you ask your super about an apartment? I have three months before a wrecking ball tears through my window.”
Diane left and her perfume remained. Dorothy poured another glass of sherry and checked her hair, which seemed to be holding. She reapplied her lipstick and fiddled with her rings. The house phone would let her know when the next visitor arrived.
Vladimir Hurtado Padrón emerged from the subway on Twenty-third Street and turned to walk west to his office. Two young women were planted in the middle of the sidewalk with clip- boards, accosting passersby. As he passed, one of the women approached him.
“Do you have a minute for Greenpeace?”
“Do you have a minute for democracy in Cuba?” he responded.
She looked surprised, but she agreed to hear him. He motioned her to go first; she gave him her speech, then asked him to sign a petition. He signed the petition. He gave her his speech, then wrote down the address of a website that had a petition to sign. She said she’d visit it. They shook hands. He continued walking west, wondering what it would take, just how bad it would have to get, for an attractive young woman like this to commit her time and energy to the cause of ending repression in Cuba.
In the lobby, Vladimir greeted the janitor and the super, who treated him with a deference that made him uncomfortable. He waited with assorted models, hipsters and gallery hoppers for the most elegant freight elevator in Chelsea. Upstairs, on the terrazzo- paved sixth floor, he headed for the galvanized steel door that had his name on it, along with his new partner’s. The sight aroused mixed emotions—pride, fear and a reflex that said, Don’t stand out, you’re just asking for trouble.
Chris Wiley was talking on the phone. He waved and pointed to a set of documents on Vladimir’s chair. Vladimir nodded: his signature was needed. First he checked in at cubaencuentro.com for news of the demise of the dictator.
Like something out of a bad science fiction movie, the monster lived.
Vladimir Hurtado Padrón fell into and out of jobs, freelance assignments and business partnerships with ease. For an architect under the age of forty, he had an impressive portfolio. But sooner or later he would find himself in an argument that got out of hand, or would ask a question that showed him to be completely ignorant of basic business practices, or someone would take exception to his attitude, which was inflexible, because he was right. It was an irony of his American life that his clients and business partners were only too ready to divorce him, whereas his wife wouldn’t even hear of it.
He had a very good feeling about his new partner. They shared a common approach to design, and Chris was only too happy to handle the clients, the billing and the running of the business, leaving Vladimir to deal with the materials, the construction documents, the details. It might be the perfect partnership: each thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal.
Another irony of his American life: His new partner was gay, and Vladimir liked him much better than any of the so-called normal men and women he’d partnered with previously. If his father had ever heard him say such a thing, he would have given him a fast swipe to the face. Vladimir had been changed by America. He’d been speechless when a woman he was seeing his first year in New York had confessed that she’d assumed that he was gay. She’d told him this jokingly after he’d spent the night in her apartment.
“Why would you assume that?”
“Because you’re good-looking, and you’re an architect.”
“Architects are gay?”
“Design in general is predominantly gay, yes.”
“You hadn’t noticed?”
He was thunderstruck. At a trade show the next day, he scrutinized each person passing by, not knowing what he was looking for. This woman had pointed out men in the street who she said were gay—muscular men with shaved heads, mustaches, heavy key chains, leather jackets. “No, these men are very macho,” he’d insisted, and she had laughed for a good long time. This kind of gay didn’t exist in Cuba.
Vladimir had learned things in America that confounded him. The whole banking system, for example, was a constant source of anxiety and disbelief. He’d been a remedial case: he’d never written a check, he’d never seen a credit card. In Cuba—where there was nothing—if money existed, it was cash, and if you were lucky, it was in dollars. He had handed over his wages to his father. The equivalent of fourteen dollars a month: a good wage for a professional. His sister, a doctor, had made seventeen dollars a month. Americans always reacted strangely to these figures: some argued with him, refusing to believe him. One woman had burst into tears.
He now understood that if he had a question about consumer democracy, it was better to approach a woman. A simple question had ended his first American job. “What is the debit card?” he had asked his then-boss, a man.
“What do you mean, ‘What is the debit card?’ ”
“I’ve been using the credit card and the debit card, but I don’t understand the difference.”
“The company credit card?” the boss said.
“One is blue and one is silver, but tell me the real difference.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Please be patient: I come from the land that time forgot.”
“Vladimir, the answer to everything can’t be that you come from Cuba.”
Cuba was everywhere, if only because, by being Cuban, he started the dialogue. That evening, for example, Vladimir and Chris went to a new restaurant to talk about a possible job, renovating a suite of offices for Jan Mattias, whom Chris had called a “hot-shit young successful movie producer.”
They waited at a table and watched the action at the bar. Such nonsense in New York: the crowd was young and single, the dance music was loud, but there was no dance floor, and the women were dancing in place with each other, while the men stood at the bar talking business. Talk about gay.
A woman with cropped white hair and unnaturally green eyes stopped at their table and introduced herself as Amanda Nash, Jan Mattias’s business partner. She plunked down a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and leaned toward the bartender to order a drink. In Havana, this would mean nothing. Here, Chris gave him the problem client look.
Amanda Nash smiled and said in a smoker’s voice, “Yeah, I smoke and I drink. Hell, I drink and drive.” She added a key chain with a Mercedes-Benz logo to the collection on the table. “It’s amazing I’m alive.”
Chris laughed politely, and Vladimir took note: The women were macho, and the machos were gay. The waitress arrived with the drink, which Amanda eagerly accepted. “Vladimir, where are you from?” Always the first question. “I am from Cuba, the impossible island.”
“Were you named after someone?”
“Many of my generation were burdened with Russian names.”
“Your parents were communists?”
“Do you have ideas about the office suite?” he asked.
“So what’s going to happen after Fidel dies?”
“Because we can open up the space, or we can leave the individual offices as they are.”
“Fidel has to go at some point, right?” Americans were ridiculous sometimes. “What will happen when he goes,” he said. “‘What will happen when he goes?’ This is all anyone wants to know. What about what’s happening now that he’s still there? Any interest in that?”
“Okay,” said Amanda, “what’s happening now that he’s still there?”
“Journalists are sent to prison if they don’t report what he likes. Poets are sent to prison, some of them for twenty years.”
“For poetry? That’s pretty extreme.” She laughed.
In many ways, Vladimir wished he were his interlocutor: he always had something interesting to say. He was always bringing people fresh news that opened their eyes. “Why do you call him Fidel?”
“Isn’t that his name?”
“Are you two close? In Cuba, you could be arrested for calling him anything but Fidel. In the U.S., you can call him Castro. It is a great privilege to live in a country where you are free to call the president what you want.”
She shook her head. “Oh, but are we really free in this country?”
“Please. Don’t give me that bullshit. You can call the president a moron on television! You can join any group, write what you want, say what you want. In Cuba, you can’t even think what you want, without someone coming to take you to prison.”
This restaurant had terrible traffic flow.
“You have free health care, free education,” she said, toying with her straw.
There was a certain kind of American, someone who had fallen in love with Fidel Castro and Bob Dylan at the same time, and who hadn’t really thought about anything since. He felt it his duty to wake these people up, especially the ones driving Mercedes-Benzes.
“I had a friend when I was twelve,” he told her. “He had a seizure. He had to get to a hospital, but his family didn’t have a car. So they went around the neighborhood asking. One of the neighbors had a car, but he didn’t have gas. So my friend’s father took him in the back of his brother’s bicycle. And by the time they arrived to the hospital, my friend was dead. But the health care is free, yes.”
“Why didn’t they call an ambulance?”
“Because they didn’t have a phone. Which isn’t unusual, even now. Even if they did, there are no ambulances.”
“That could have happened in this country.”
“Who in this country doesn’t have a phone? Which capital city in this country does not have an ambulance?”
“True. Your English is amazing,” Amanda Nash said. “Most people don’t see the purpose of it.”
“The purpose of it is communication,” Vladimir said.
Chris cleared his throat.
“Of course I know that. But my maid, Yolanda, pretends not to speak English so she doesn’t have to take my phone messages.”
There was so much wrong with this, he couldn’t even begin to address it. Chris put a hand on his arm, but at this point Jan Mattias arrived in casual but tight clothing. He was blond, slightly dirty, slightly effeminate; he sat next to Amanda and nodded at Chris, who leaned forward to shake hands.
“You are so used to having freedom, you don’t even know a dictatorship when you see one. What do you want done with the space, I am asking you.”
“Don’t be offended, Vladimir.”
“You Americans are full of shit, if you don’t mind my saying.”
She laughed. Jan Mattias ordered a beer.
“You say, ‘Oh, we don’t live in a free society; oh, you Cubans have such a lovely system.’ If it’s so lovely, you should go live there. Really. Go live there. Cut sugarcane for the Revolution. See how fabulous it is. I don’t think you’d last three days.”
“Vladimir, you’re right,” Chris said, hand on his arm. “You can say anything you want in this country. But not to a client.”
“Potential client,” Amanda said, laughing.
“What are we talking about?” Jan Mattias asked.
Vladimir was never short of female company, as it appeared he was the only straight man in New York who wasn’t afraid to approach a woman and talk to her. Sooner or later, these women found out that he was unavailable, being married to the one lunatic in Cuba who took the vows seriously. He hadn’t seen her in twelve years, hadn’t missed her, had no plans to go back, and she had no plans to come here. This stalemate excited a certain kind of woman, and sent the rest of them packing. He never lied about it, although he no longer told a woman about the situation immediately.
The weekend came, and with it the Sunday-evening phone call. These twice-monthly chats structured his life like studio review deadlines. The woman he was seeing now was one of the complication junkies; she wanted to stay.
“No, Ellen, you must go. I have to call Cuba.”
“I’ll sit quietly in the other room and read,” she pleaded. “You won’t know I’m here. I’ll make you dinner afterwards.”
He expressed regret, and she got herself together to leave. At the elevator, she kissed him and told him that friends of her parents were going to Havana—a group tour through some Canadian museum. Should they look anyone up for him, did he have anything he wanted to send? He said he’d let her know. The elevator arrived and he went back into his apartment with determination.
He geared up for the call the rest of the day, eating lightly, and organizing his thoughts as he vacuumed and straightened up. Each time he called Cuba, he was defeated anew. María’s involvement with his family was absolute. His parents had picked up where he had left off; they were married to her now. In New York, he had briefly dated a therapist who had taught him words to describe the situation: “en-meshed,” “triangulation,” “emotional blackmail,” “child abuse.” He was now equipped with new techniques to handle the family. Not that these techniques changed the situation. The situation was the situation.
“Pucho got us an apartment on the beach in Varadero for a week,” María said with excitement when she picked up the phone. “When can you come?”
“For the six-thousandth time: I’m not coming, María.”
“You have an obligation to your family.”
“And do I not send you the maximum amount of money I can send you as often as I’m legally allowed?”
“I’m not talking about money. All sorts of people come back to visit.”
“If I went back, they’d take my passport and refuse to let me leave. Why don’t you move on with your life? Why have you not remarried?”
“Remarried? I never divorced.”
“And why is that?”
“You have no right to talk to me this way.”
“I’m speaking to you honestly. Face reality, María. I’m not going back.”
She let out a scream that seared through his head, shredding any hope that he might get away with a pleasant chat on this Sunday. There was a tumult. She was passing the phone to someone else. He felt a wave of relief.
“She’s crying again,” his mother said.
In spite of all his attempts to deal with each family member individually, it was a collective conversation. Privacy was an Anglo concept.
“That’s her problem.” He wondered why on earth he had thought it would be more pleasant to talk to his mother.
“Your father will not be there, in Varadero,” she said, and she might have been talking about Valhalla. Varadero was restricted to foreigners. It was illegal for Cubans to be there without special dispensation, which Pucho was able to acquire on occasion. “He’ll make sure that there’s no passport issue.”
“And why should I accept a gift from that swine?”
His mother’s voice broke into clattering sobs.
“Mother. I refuse to talk to you if you cry. Mother. This is ridiculous.” Another tumult. His sister came on the phone. “So Vlade, how are you? You’ve made two women cry in less than three minutes.”
“Nadia, what’s new?”
“Vladimir, the passport won’t be a problem.”
He felt another surge of irritation.
“There are new rules,” Nadia continued. “You submit your passport, they investigate you, and they habilitate it with a permanent stamp. So you can come back whenever you want. You don’t need to get an Entry Permit.”
“You’re not listening to me. I’m not coming! Not now, not later. Not ever. Never.”
“Well, you’re very negative.”
“I’ll be glad to see you when you get here. So when are you coming?”
Nadia was a doctor married to a doctor. Doctors weren’t allowed to leave the country (taking all their expensive education with them), not even for a vacation. Not alone and especially not with family members. Perhaps Pucho could work around that one, too, but hadn’t. “Shall we have two members of the family corrupted by greed?”
“Dad says you’re a coward,” she said.
“Tell Pucho to go fuck himself.”
“Tell him yourself.”
Vladimir hung up the phone.
It had been five years since he’d last spoken to his father, but of course he could feel him there in the room, like a malodorous animal. Listening to the conversation, coaching them all, telling them what to say. The only good part about calling Cuba was that they couldn’t call back. Too difficult, too expensive. Even for Pucho.
He went into the kitchen and looked in his empty refrigerator. He wished he hadn’t sent Ellen away. On the other hand, he didn’t really want to talk to Ellen, and had almost called her Janet just that morning. All the women in his quasi-bachelor life put together weighed less than María. Literally and physically—his taste in American women ran to light and thin, and not a Latina among them. He supposed María had gotten heavier. Who knew, and who cared?
He walked out into the summer night, heading to the closest movie theater. He bought a ticket to a film he’d never heard of that had already started. It was a kung fu movie with explosions, car chases and lots of shooting. It hit the spots, as they said around here. Whatever else you could say about America, entertainment wasn’t against the law. As he walked back home through the heat-stricken streets of SoHo, he made a mental note to ask Ellen about her parents’ friends who were going to Cuba. They could take Band-Aids, aspirin and Tampax, which his mother could use herself, or sell or trade.