Yuly and I trekked down to El Malecon to find Don Manuel. The old man spent his days riding his antique three-wheel bicycle up and down the sidewalk adjacent to Havana’s seawall to hawk the used goods his daughter — a housekeeper at Hotel Nacional de Cuba — salvaged from the rooms of checked-out guests. He sold everything from snacks to sanitary pads — goods that weren’t readily available to locals.
Yuly grabbed my hand. At thirteen, we were too old for holding hands. The gesture — like the school uniforms with the trademark red kerchiefs tied around our necks — was simply a way to endear us to the tourists, who paid a dollar to take a picture of us.
“Niñas,” a man — with a blotchy red face — called out to us. “Foto?” he asked.
“Si,” we answered.
The sun set as he snapped pictures of us gazing out at the ocean. But there were things his camera didn’t capture — how we breathed through our mouth to avoid the sewage smell of seaweed and how our eyes stung from the saltwater slamming into them.
“Gracias,” he said when he finished. He walked away.
Yuly looked at me in disbelief. “Señor,” she called out.
The man stopped. “Si?”
Yuly opened her hand. “Un dolar.”
The welts on his face grew redder. He dug his hand into pants and brought out two quarters. He handed one to Yuly. And when he placed the second one in my palm, he rubbed the middle in a way my mom had warned me was inappropriate. But I wasn’t deterred by his viejo verde antics. Busloads of dirty old white men arrived daily in Havana.
“No,” I said, holding out my now soiled palm again. “Un dolar.”
He brought out two more quarters, grabbed my hand, and once again caressed it with his thumb. Like the heroine of an American movie, I wanted to hurl the four quarters in his face. But such luxuries were beyond my one-dollar budget so we just watched him walk away.
We spotted Don Manuel sitting on the low wall that separated the sidewalk from the rocks of the seawall. He was rustling through the items in the rusty basket attached to his bike.
Yuly and I had bought everything from shampoo to circus animal shaped cookies from him. But we were searching for something different.
“Flaca is leaving for Miami tomorrow,” Yuly told him in Spanish after we kissed the kind old man hello. “She needs something to make her outfit cool.”
Don Manuel looked me over. Although I’d been baptized with my nickname — La Flaca (skinny girl) — as a child, it had become a little too apropos since the Soviet Union pulled out of the island five years earlier, which was why Mami and I were moving to Miami.
Don Manuel plunged his arm into the bottom of the basket and brought out a bag with the word “Doritos” emblazoned across it. He passed it to us. “Dulce found this last night. Eat up.”
We dug our hands into the bag. After eating a few chips — and licking the sunset colored dust off our fingers — we returned it to him. We left enough so that he could still sell it. I did some Cuban math and estimated it was worth twenty-five cents.
“I’d like some earrings,” I said, picturing the row of multicolored hoops my Miami cousin, Jennifer, was wearing in the last picture I saw of her.
“I have just the thing,” he said, pulling out a roll of white paper from his basket and unfurling it. It was filled with — what looked like — candy dots. “They’re earrings. You stick them on your ear.”
“Cool,” we said.
“I’m selling them for a quarter a pair. I’ll give you the set of six for a dollar.” We paid and left.
That night, Yuly and I divided up the earrings. We didn’t speak about being separated for the first time since birth. Instead, it was Jennifer we talked about. She was the girl I’d morph into once I escaped this island, gained some weight, and learned English. The earrings were just the first step in the process.
Twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in my aunt’s kitchen table in Miami when my fourteen-year-old cousin appeared. I studied her every move. She poured herself some Coke and grabbed a miniature bag of Doritos from a cabinet. She popped open the bag, ate half of it, and threw it away. She took two sips from the paper cup filled with Coke before disposing of it too.
She sat down across from me. But didn’t make eye contact. I obviously wasn’t cool enough. I pulled my hair back to show her my new earrings. She stared at them. When a compliment wasn’t forthcoming, I asked, “Cool?”
“Super,” Jennifer answered. She jumped out of her seat and rushed out of the kitchen.
She returned seconds later, holding a Barbie. She shoved the doll in my face and pulled back her shiny blond hair. Pasted on the doll’s minute ears were earrings like mine.
“Super cool,” Jennifer said, laughing so hard her face turned red.
I ran away from her and headed to the garbage can to throw-out the earrings. I stopped when I saw the inflated bag of chips and cup filled with Coke. I did Cuban math — Don Manuel would price the chips at a quarter and the soda would fetch at least a few pennies.
Thinking of him reminded me of the viejo verde caressing my palm. I couldn’t afford to defend myself against him, but nothing was stopping me now.
Nicole E. Mestre writes in Miami, Florida.
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