Leila Segal shares a story from her debut collection; Breathe: Stories from Cuba (flipped eye, 2016). Leila also talks to Melanie Jones about her writing, Cuba, and small publishers in this interview. You can buy a copy of Breathe here. Leila will be reading at MIRLive on January 30th and copies of Breathe will be on sale at this event.
The shrill insistence of the hotel phone dragged Luca Sasso from a heavy sleep. He reached out and took a slug from last night’s whiskey, which sat crystallising in a glass beside the bed. The phone fell silent.
This was his third visit here on business and each time he took the same suite at the hotel. He stared up at the ceiling, tracing patterns in the pale blue paint that seemed always to smell toxic, no matter how long ago they had put it on. At night a sulphurous smell invaded from a nearby factory, or you kept the windows shut and froze to the rattling of an ancient air-conditioner that circulated viruses and stale air.
His trousers and new Canali shirt lay where he had dropped them the night before, a mess of twisted clothes in the middle of the floor. Here and there were papers; his crocodile-skin briefcase sat open on a chair beside the desk.
The phone began to ring again. Let it ring, he thought, but he found his hand reaching out, and lifted the receiver to his ear.
“Why is your mobile off?” a voice at the other end said loudly, so that he had to hold the receiver slightly away. It was his wife, Ilene. “I’ve been sick with worry. For all I knew, you could have been dead.”
“My dear, I was only sleeping.”
Luca tried to pay attention to what his wife was saying but her voice faded out as the image rose in his mind of a rounded mulatta arse that he had admired the night before as he sat with his Cuban associate Leosbel in the hotel bar.
“Are you listening to me?” said Ilene.
“Of course, cara.” He brought to mind the owner of the arse, a good-looking Cuban woman—with muchas nalgas, as they said here. He had seen her once before—where was it? That daffodil-yellow top… It was the morning he had arrived: she was in the lobby with a group of tourists—a guide or something like that. She had returned Luca’s gaze for just a second too long, then looked away.
“Luca?” Some moments seemed to have passed without the input required of him, but Ilene was still there. “It’s not too much to ask, is it? A call, a message to let us know you’re all right. If you can’t manage it for me … I may be uninteresting to you now, but … the mother of your child … only…” The words were fading in and out. “Your daughter, at least, for her. Think of Paola.”
Ilene was right. He should talk to his daughter, even from here—especially from here. His Paola. She was 17 now and beginning to spark male attention—men, not boys any more. Luca thought of the jewelled crucifix he had bought for her in the hotel’s specialist gem shop. Yes, he would ask her to wear it always, for him, when he got back home.
He scratched around under his pyjama bottoms and reached for his book, which he propped against the bed covers. Anna Karenina—Luca enjoyed investigating the classics. It fell open at just the right page.
Ilene was still talking … lunch with Trudi … Via Condotti … cocktails at the Tea Rooms because they were “so English”. Then she clicked off.
He looked at his watch. Damn. Breakfast closed in half an hour and he hated doing his toilet in a rush.
A small green lizard darted onto the edge of the bed. It paused when it saw him, head cocked, completely still. Luca looked back. He understood that the creature was watching him from the way it turned its head so that both eyes faced his. He lifted one arm and cast a monster shadow over the animal; it darted for cover under the bed.
At breakfast, Luca ate from a buffet of mango and pineapple, and picked at a watery omelette. He rustled his paper, sitting behind it as if waiting for someone, to shield his embarrassment at facing the holidaying couples alone.
Ilene’s voice rang in his head. Maybe you’ll behave better without Fabio, it said. Well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. God, even this far away there was no peace … Poor Fabio. But he brought it on himself.
Fabio had been more than just a business partner: he had been a friend. After Fabio’s death on their last trip to Cuba, Luca had thought for a few months that he would have to call the whole venture off. He just hadn’t the heart to carry on. But then he decided that the best tribute to Fabio would be to pick up the baton and keep running.
And now the Cubanacán Group was almost ready to sign a contract with the firm that he and Fabio had built—to manage the hotel. There was big money to be made from tourists who expected the kind of standards that only European contacts and expertise could deliver.
He had a whole morning to kill until it was time to meet Leosbel and run through the contract. Of course there was always diving, but he couldn’t face it. Luca hoisted himself into swimming trunks that almost hid his belly, which was getting too soft for his liking, and combed his hair into what he thought was a reasonably distinguished look. Then he pulled on a robe and made his way down to the lobby, where a sliding glass door led to the pool.
He lay back on a sun-lounger and opened Anna Karenina, but the sun was too strong. White light bounced off the pool, bleaching and glazing everything in sight. He could feel beads of sweat on his upper lip and moisture between his thighs. He put the book down.
Sun-soaked Italian girls browned their skinny legs and smoked while dark Latino boyfriends twisted restlessly beside them. The water flickered like an old TV set in the blaze.
Here and there a Cuban had somehow got into the enclosure. The sounds of a little black girl, and her mother in an electric-blue bikini, speaking Cuba’s taut, half-swallowed Spanish, floated up from beside the water. The mother was probably the “sweetheart” of one of the hotel guests. Luca smiled to himself—he knew the drill. Only tourists were allowed to use the pool; all of the hotel facilities, in fact—especially the bedrooms—were out of bounds to Cubans, apart from hotel staff. It was to stop prostitution, but you could bribe in a Cuban sweetheart with a few dollar bills.
“Viejo! What’s going on?” It was José, Luca’s dive coach, calling from the lifeguard’s hut beside the pool.
“I have something for you,” said José. “Come.”
Luca went over and the two men shook hands. José disappeared into the hut and came out with a livid snapshot of a baby. “Say hello to Yanelis—one more since you were here last time!”
“You got your eye on any baby-makers?” José winked.
Luca didn’t say anything. Married men were so open about their infidelities here but it wasn’t the Italian way.
In truth, there was no one worth looking at today. He glanced over at the pool—the pinkish skin of an Englishwoman with cellulite stained the white tiles at the edge of the water. The problem with European women was that they talked endlessly about sex, yet when you took them to bed they were prissy and wanted romance, like some old maiden aunt.
What he liked about Cuban women was that you didn’t have to play games to get them; they could take a compliment without sneering at you as if you’d offered up your soul. He wondered where the daffodil-yellow girl was now—those nalgas! She liked him, he was sure.
A rhythmic splashing came from the pool. There was a girl in there, swimming alone, long strokes up and down in a black costume. She had done a slight dance to avoid him as she walked to the water, and there was something about the way she looked to the side as she passed, a kind of modesty, that had caught his eye. You’d never get that in a Latin girl, he thought. She must be northern—Dutch, maybe, or English.
The girl came out of the water and wrapped herself in one of the hotel’s huge tangerine towels. She seemed to be hunting for something among the deckchairs.
“Can I help?” he called. “What have you lost?”
“Oh, my hat and sunglasses,” she said. “They were here before and now I can’t find them.”
As he got up, she found them underneath a tangle of towels. Her smile was gone and she had moved towards the exit before Luca could even get near. He took his book and sat back down. He thought he caught the girl’s pitying glance as she left through the sliding glass door to the side.
It was just after 11pm. Luca was in the balcony bar, looking down at the pool. He pushed a straw around his glass: sangría, red gluey sangría—why on earth he had chosen this he did not know—with lemon and a cherry in it. He surveyed the line of beautiful Cuban girls at the bar. At home these girls would be with young handsome studs, but it wasn’t like that here—you didn’t get the attitude: Yeah, what do you want from me? Here, it was as if they were waiting—waiting just for you.
But it wasn’t the same without Fabio. They would have had fun together, rating the girls, making a game out of who could pull the best. Just a couple more days and he would fly back to Rome, Ilene and the sweaty office at the Piazza di Pavia. He let out a deep sigh.
Then he saw her—the daffodil-yellow girl. She was sitting at a table nearby, yellow top painted onto polished brown skin, her muscles strong and defined. She was smiling, and leaning into the table, which she shared with another Cuban woman and a tourist. Luca could tell that the man was a tourist because the two women spoke slowly, and repeated Spanish phrases over and over. She didn’t want the man, Luca calculated—her manner was more polite than flirtatious—but she seemed to be enjoying herself anyway. Her smile was one of genuine pleasure; she wasn’t sluttish, just deliciously sexy, like a panther.
The bar would be closing soon—how would he play it? You found three types of girl in a Cuban bar: the prostitute, in and out in an hour; the jinetera—she’d stay for a few days, take a little money, give a little love; and the sweetheart, who would never want to leave. This girl looked like the sweetheart type, probably hoping to snag a foreign husband and a better life abroad.
Luca didn’t want a sweetheart, but maybe she could do with a few dollars or some nice new clothes. What Cuban couldn’t? He’d have to play it down, though: the nicer ones didn’t like to feel bought. But they all liked passion—it was in their blood.
She got up and walked towards the bar. The barman brushed her shoulder with his fingers and she laughed.
Luca drew himself up from the chair. He smoothed his hair and moved to the other side of a pillar where she was leaning, her arm casually against it, wrist bared to the night. His bulk dwarfed her—not just her height, but her frame, which he now realised was more fragile than it had first appeared.
She didn’t look at him, but Luca could tell that she was interested, in that way women have of letting you know with a sideways glance, as if caught off-guard. He pressed his forearm against her wrist, crushing it into the pillar. She let him, then pulled away.
He thought that he had mistaken her, but then she turned her face up to his. He looked back hard and made his stare say I want you, as he’d seen the Cubans do. For a moment, he believed it was not interest he saw in her eyes, but surprise, or even fear—then he reminded himself that this wasn’t a cock-tease Italian he was dealing with: sex was what they wanted, these Cuban women. They started around 11, like riding a bike, and hopped on and off whenever necessary after that.
Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Luca realised that she was ogling some young black guy across the room—he looked like one of the kitchen staff, playing table tennis in only his vest. Why did they always have such effortlessly rippling torsos, these Cubans, when there was hardly a gym on the block?
Luca threw a ten-dollar bill down next to the half-finished glass of sangría and went back to his room.
The following day he went from Vedado to Miramar and back again, talking with stonemasons, painters, electrical suppliers and telecoms engineers, working out how far the firm could deliver on plans for the hotel refurbishment using local trade. By the time evening came, Luca was glad to shower and lie down in his room. He plugged in his mobile and found there were several messages from the office, and two from Ilene, whom he would call later. The heat here was worse than Rome.
He decided to have a quiet night in the balcony bar. She wasn’t there and he couldn’t work out if he was glad.
The next night he went to a salsa club with Leosbel and some Cubans from the hotel management group.
The night after that he was back in the balcony bar.
She was there with a glass in her hand. She wasn’t alone, though—she was talking to the head porter, Alexei. When Alexei saw Luca, a flash of irritation crossed his face, but Luca couldn’t work out why. Alexei had a wife, who was beautiful, and a kid. He couldn’t be jealous. They sat with him sometimes in the bar during the day.
Luca picked a table and pretended to read the menu; he studied her from behind it.
She saw him and said something to Alexei, who glanced over at Luca and shook his head, then she came and perched on the chair next to his.
“You are alone?” she said.
“—here on business.”
She touched the cuff of his Canali shirt. “This is the Italian style?”
“This? Yes.” He was glad he’d had it laundered.
“Alexei told me you are from Rome. But I guessed it anyway—because you are so elegante.”
Luca lowered his voice. “Why was he looking at me like that? Is he jealous?”
“He sees many extranjeros here, dipping in and out of our hearts—”
“—but you Cubans are all heart.”
“For someone decente, sí—una relación decente. But… the foreign men, you know, sometimes they take our hearts too soon.”
He wondered if he was the first visitor she’d got caught up with. She didn’t seem the jinetera type.
He found that her name was Ella and she had worked in the hotel for two months. This was her first job after leaving university, where she had studied maths.
“What do you think about Cuba?” she said.
“I like it. Especially the pretty girls.”
“But Italian girls they are beautiful! Like the Vogue magazine.”
“Yes, but”—he reached forward and touched her knee—“they’re not caliente like the Cuban ladies.”
She stayed completely still, neither moving from his touch nor responding to it. “It is true—we are muy intenso. But we are women too. I think not so different? We need also to be loved.” She smoothed a curl at his temple with her fingers, so delicately it was almost not a come-on.
“Your skin is like silk,” he said.
Alexei was eyeing them—he and a bunch of hip young Cubans by the bar.
“They are just boys,” she said, following Luca’s gaze, “with nothing to do. In your country success takes time, because you have where to go in your life. It takes time to grow into something that is strong—like a big rooted tree.”
He found that he could not look at her. You’re worrying again, he heard Fabio’s voice say. Why don’t you have some fun? What harm can it do?
“Here, everything is por interés,” she said. “One day you meet, the next day you are married, and the next one divorced.”
“I’d marry you in a heartbeat.” He enclosed her hand with his. “Sei bellissima.”
She pulled her hand away. “Not here.”
“Why not?” He knew why, but said it anyway.
“We are not supposed to—hotel workers with the guests.”
“But I can’t help myself. You make me want you.” For some reason he thought of his first girlfriend, Alba. He leaned in. “My little Alba.”
“What are you saying?”
“She is the heroine of a very famous story—in fact, the novel I’m reading—a beautiful woman like you, who wanted to be free.”
He did not think of looking away. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
“I can’t, not tonight. My little brother is alone.”
“Call him.” Luca held out his mobile.
“We do not have a telephone in the house—but tomorrow also I am here.”
“Tomorrow I leave for Rome.”
She sighed and touched something at her neck. “Qué pena!” When she moved her hand away, Luca saw that it was a crucifix.
“Till next time, then.” He stood. She seemed to be waiting for something. She held her face up and Luca remembered—the polite way to say goodbye to a woman here was with a peck on the cheek. He turned without kissing her and walked to the door.
He made his way down the spiral staircase from the balcony bar and along the path beside the pool. The path led to the hotel lobby, then back to his room. He paused at the lifeguard’s hut and leaned into the open doorway, watching the city and the hustlers at street level below. So that one had got away. Resistance wouldn’t have put Fabio off—he’d just have gone in harder for the kill.
Then he saw her. She was coming along the path, treading carefully on the dark night cobbles. She looked out over the water, and the moon caught her eyes and the tops of her gold sandals.
“Hey,” he said, almost too quietly, from the shadows.
She turned, searching the dark, and before the moon silhouetted her out completely, the half-light held her vivid, open face.
“Come here a minute,” he said.
She hesitated. “What do you want?”
“Nothing—just to talk.”
The tops of her arms had goose bumps, and wind from the sea flapped at the bottom of her damson skirt. He held out his hand. She looked around, as if to check whether anyone was watching, and walked towards the doorway of the hut.
As soon as their fingers touched, Luca pulled. They triangled over the threshold. He pivoted her round until her back was against the wall and pushed, a hand on her shoulder, up against the concrete. He put his lips on hers; their teeth clashed and he corkscrewed his tongue down her throat.
She pressed him away. Her black eyes were feral.
“No,” she said. “I want to know you first.”
He released her.
“Listen,” he said. “We don’t have to do anything, we can just talk.” Like this it was even more exciting than other nights, with other girls, in the room—but he would have to slow it down. “Don’t spoil your face by frowning. Come on—amore.” He thought he saw a flicker in her eyes, just the beginning of a smile—Alba again. “You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve stayed here, and it won’t be the last. I want to get to know you.”
“Not the last?”
“Yes. We’re taking over the hotel contract, so I’ll be back.”
She let her shoulders drop.
“You see? No need to worry.” Luca caught her wrist. He tried to kiss her again but she twisted her face away. He fixed his arms around her—he could feel how taut her muscles were. These mulattas were like oxen, bred for work.
“Kiss me,” he said.
“No! Déjame.” She tried to pull away. “No lo quiero así!”
“Shhhh.” He put a hand over her mouth. “I know you want me. There’s no more time.”
A footstep came from the path.
“Quiet,” he said. “They’ll hear you.”
He kneed her legs apart but she forced them back. Puttana. What did she want? He put both hands on her hips and pressed so that she scissored backwards against a cupboard. The shiny fabric of her skirt rode up beneath his hands, damp in the heat, and her knees buckled. She was making small noises—mewling whines—lust, at last. Funny how their enjoyment often sounded like pain. He pinned her against the cupboard and—she seemed to be getting into it—felt her tongue move against his as he tore through flimsy nylon and lace.
Naked she was no longer tempting, just a mountain of flesh to be screwed. He spread her on the floor beneath him. A bolt of moonlight cut her neck; he caught a glint of something—the crucifix. He pulled it round to her back, closed his eyes and pushed inside hard. She juddered in time, quiet now. Her face was turned to the side but it was better that way; Ilene’s close-up crazy knowing had got to freaking him out. Luca strained his neck, his grunts and eyes far beyond her frozen stare until he came—Alba, Alba in the dark beyond his sight.
Seconds in the stillness then Alba was gone. There was no Alba, just a dead dog beneath him. He shrank into a ball and pressed his sight black with a fist.
There was nothing but the sound of the street.
She put a hand on his arm. It lay there like a dead thing.
“Look at me,” she said.
He placed her hand on the floor.
“Why won’t you look at me?”
He closed his eyes.
“Do you have a wife?”
They never gave you a break. Not Alba, not Ilene—not even this mulatta here. He pushed at her hip. “You like it from the other side?”
She shook him off.
“What? What’s the matter?”
She stood up. “You are a coward … sin vergüenza.” He just lay there. Her voice came from somewhere above him: “You have a black hole for a heart.”
Luca slept a restless sleep. The telephone was silent. He woke halfway through the night and saw the lizard, illuminated by a shaft of light from the moon. It ran onto the sideboard, pausing when it saw him, head cocked, completely still. He could have crushed the beast with his fist. It turned its head so that both eyes pointed towards his; he slammed his arm into the air and it darted beneath the bed.
In the morning Luca dressed and ate and turned his thoughts to work. Over coffee he prepared a report of the previous day’s meeting with Cubanacán, talking carefully into his Dictaphone so that Stefania could type it up at the office. He went through the proposals agreed, matching each one to plans made with the partners in Rome, costing out the price differences and justifying extra expense where he thought it necessary to secure the hotel bid.
The plane was due to leave at five. He packed his case, then stood at the window and thought of Fabio—Fabio, who had gone on a night dive without ropes and lost his way in a set of labyrinthine caves beneath the Cuban sea. They had found him with his arms folded across his chest as if he had not fought death—maybe even welcomed it.
He saw her as he checked out of the hotel. She was standing in the lobby at the head of a group of new arrivals next to a sign that said: Tours to Habana Vieja Here. “Hi!” he said. “How are you?”
She fixed him with blank eyes. “Señor?”
Taken from ‘Breathe: Stories from Cuba’ by Leila Segal, copyright © 2016. Reprinted by permission of the author and flipped eye publishing.