Everyone calls him Manteca, which means lard in Spanish. The moniker implies fat and he may be slightly overweight, even a little thick around the waist, but it’s the slippery quality of lard that earns him the nickname. It doesn’t help that his lips retract when he smiles, with the top lip often disappearing behind his thinly trimmed mustache. It makes it appear as if he is hiding something. Looks don’t deceive in his case. He is in fact sly and shifty. It doesn’t make him different. It is how most people survive in Habana. Anytime he offers help, it just means that he has figured out a way to translate his apparent act of goodwill into a profitable transaction. As when he plays chess, he can foresee the outcome ten moves ahead and positions accordingly. Yet, he remains vigilant, aware that the best moves are the ones he may not see coming.
He strolls in the shade along A Street, trying without success to escape the oppressive noontime heat. The rains are late this year. Grime and dust have settled on the street, awakened only by the occasional remnants of the spring winds. He walks tall and wears a tight shirt that only fit men can wear with confidence. Once muscular and well defined, he still moves with the same erect self-assured posture he might have done back then like the turn of the century houses that once stood proudly along A Street: Celia’s with its ornate columns, Ana and Mario’s with its tall windows, the large Linares house with its concrete balustrade. Now, at forty-two his muscles aren’t as taut and the old houses aren’t as proud.
He crosses 16th and watches stray dogs sift through the garbage that litters the corner lot, where Celia’s house once stood. He inhales the putrid smell of decay and is reminded how age and disillusion have slowly eroded his beloved Habana, just as they have the obvious virility that once made him one of the most desirable men in the neighborhood.
He sees Nino Linares sitting in his metal rocking chair, a contraption made of welded reinforcing rods. Nino, nearing his eighties, spends his days looking out to the neighborhood through his thick glasses.
Manteca nods at him and says “Que vola viejo.”
A few months back he lent a lot of money to Nino’s eighteen-year-old son, Yusniel, whom Nino calls “his last bullet”. He didn’t ask what the money was for, nor did he care. He liked the old man and that was enough, but he is nevertheless weary of the kid. He’s known Yusniel a long time. He watched him grow up over the years into a tall, wiry kid, with the type of deceptive strength that these days, gives Manteca pause. He has run into Yusniel several times in the street since and each time he asks about payment, all he hears is, “Next week, Manteca.” Then the next time he hears, “I got the money but you know how it is, I had to use it for oil. I got you next week.” And so it goes, always one excuse or another.
“I’ll pay you whenever, man, don’t worry about it” was the last thing Yusniel told him, as if dismissing the whole thing, as if dismissing him.
Manteca, who at one time was Yusniel, thought about how years ago the situation would not have gone this far. It would have been resolved the only way it could have been, laying down an ultimatum and if not met, meting out the consequences in terms that would make it clear not just to him, but to all who were watching, that a deal was a deal. He rested on that earned reputation. It defined him as a man. But Yusniel isn’t old enough to remember, or to understand.
Especially in Habana, a man needs to be a man, always. He tried to get Nino to intervene, but Nino waved him off, “That’s between you two,” he said. “Entre hombres.”
“But he’s hardly a man, Nino.”
“Well then. It’s time he learned, isn’t it?”
Manteca questions whether he’s willing to revert back to a place he’d just as soon forget. A time when distrust kept him from discerning whether people respected him, or feared him. Either way, he didn’t try to explain himself then, and he won’t do it now.
“Don’t call me Viejo,” says Nino. “I’m not as old as I look.” He laughs and pats his belly.
“Yes, you are,” Manteca says. “It’s why I love you.”
Lourdes leans on the rail of her second floor balcony across the narrow street from Alicia’s shop. She holds a cigarette between her slender fingers, takes a drag, and exhales the smoke through a toothless smile. She waves.
“Que calor,” he says looking up to her.
She fans her face with her open hand and says, “Muchacho, good thing I’m black. This sun doesn’t bother me.”
Manteca laughs. “If this sun keeps up like this, soon we’ll all be black.”
“Careful now, I’m not so sure Alicia would go for a black man.”
“She would if it was me.” He waves at her again and enters Alicia’s shop.
He pushes the door open and the small overhead bell rings.
“Que tal preciosa,” he says.
A dull glass display case runs partway across the shop, but there are few items displayed. A 1950’s cash register with oversized keys and drawer sits at the far end. The faded, sky blue paint on the wall behind the case has peeled off in places, leaving behind dusty white blotches visible between the shelves that hang off it. Under the shelves, a dark green wood cabinet presses against the wall. A still overhead fan hangs from the tall plaster ceiling. The air inside is stagnant and hot. Alicia, her dark eyes fixed on Manteca, stands behind the counter fanning with a folded newspaper.
He knows Alicia is attracted to him, but he also knows that she doesn’t want to be just another one of his conquests. Unlike most men in Habana, she knows he has no desire to leave, and that he will wait faithfully for the resurrection of his dying city. If nothing else they’ll be the last two left and end up together by default.
“Que tal mi amor,” she responds and leans over the counter. They exchange kisses. He feels her full lips press against the perspiration on his face. She seems to savor his taste.
His lips linger on her cheeks and he takes in a deep breath. She smells of violets. “Hmmm, you smell delicious.”
“And I taste even better,” she says. “Too bad you’re still chasing women. Are you ever going to get tired?”
The memory of their one time encounter many years before remains with him. They were trapped in the shop during a summer afternoon storm. They expected it to pass as summer storms tend to do, but it lasted into the night. The power went out and they found themselves alone in the dark talking about their dreams. She talked about adventure, about how she wanted to someday travel the world. They held each other and gazed at the street as the rain pelted the window. Raindrops slid down the glass, making the buildings across the street appear to melt like expiring candles. He talked about Habana. They spoke about how different their lives might have been had they grown up in the Habana they once imagined. A place filled with hope. They were overcome by melancholy. He held her in the dark and caressed her moist face. They kissed. He felt her tears touch him, and he wiped her eyes. That evening passed and remained what it was, the one night their dreams aligned.
“I’ll tire when you give me a chance,” he says. “You let me be with you and I’ll swear off all the other women. You know you’re the love of my life.”
“Too bad I know better, Manteca.”
He thinks of her as a good woman and sometimes doubts that he is good enough for her. That doesn’t stop him from loving her quietly or daydreaming about the two of them being together. He loves her in a way that she would never believe or he would ever admit. For him, love is a sort of weakness—the one thing he’d never allow, to be perceived as weak.
She pulls back from him and slaps him playfully on the shoulder, “And you’re mine.” They both laugh.
“No jodas mas. Tell me, what do you want?”
“Do you have any good colognes? Something classy and expensive?”
“Well, I have this Italian friend, he visits Habana every few months.”
“Wait,” he interrupts, “you mean that lanky hairy guy I’ve seen around here with the striped black and white jersey?”
“Yes, that’s him,” she says. “Are you jealous?”
He crosses his arms over his chest. “Should I be?”
“Me? Jealous? Of that guy? I don’t think so. He’s skinny and with that nose of his he can probably smoke cigars in the shower and keep’m dry.”
She smacks her lips and sucks in her cheeks. “He is actually a really nice guy. He helps me out a lot.”
“How’s he do that?”
“He’s always bringing me stuff to sell.”
“Nothing in life is free, Alicia.”
“I know that, sooner or later we all have to sacrifice something in order to get something,” she says and turns back to look over the sparse shelves.
There are only a few items that her cousin sends her every few months from Miami: a couple of bottles of Old Spice, some cans of shaving cream, tall white tubes of hand moisturizers, and a couple of Chanel perfume bottles. She bends down to slide the green cabinet door open. Her jeans stretch across her round bottom and she throws her hair back. Manteca can’t help but stare. She reaches into the cabinet and pulls out a bottle of Gucci cologne. She lifts it over her head and looks back over her shoulder.
“You like this?” she asks.
He looks up from the back of her jeans and says, “That’s perfect. How much?”
“It’s Gucci and it’s expensive. Who is it for?”
“I need to get my car fixed. The carburetor is shot and you know how I can’t maneuver around Habana without my car.”
“Okay, so what?”
“You know Tony, the mechanic?”
“Yeah, I know him.”
“He’s after this Brazilian woman, and he has a date with her this Friday. He thinks she might be a little too classy for him and figures he needs to at least smell special. No secret. He’s trying to get her to invite him to Brazil.”
“So he wants to leave too?”
“Well I’m not leaving. So you don’t have to worry about it.”
She drops her gaze and turns the perfume bottle in her hands. “So it’s for him.”
“He’s going to need a lot of it,” she says. “I’ve run into him a couple of times and he always reeks of rum.”
“He fixes my car. I pay him with cologne.”
“I don’t know if you should trust him. You should keep an eye on him.”
“I know but what choice do I have? He’s the only game in town.”
“And how do I get paid?” she says.
“Mi amor.” He eyes her with a grin.
“You’re not going to sweet talk me this time. You need to figure out a way to pay me. Words don’t put food on my table.”
“Tell you what, you tell me what products you need for your store and I’ll find a way to get them for you.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“You’re kidding, right? I can get anything I want if I want it bad enough.” His words settle heavily in the still, steamy shop.
Alicia drops her shoulders tiredly and shakes her head. “I don’t need anything.”
“What do you mean? Look at those half empty shelves.”
“It’s the way things are. Emptiness is a familiar feeling around here.”
“So what do you want for it?”
“Dinner,” she says.
He straightens up and tugs at the bottom of his sweaty shirt.
“I want to go somewhere in Habana Vieja,” she says, “Where the tourists go. Just once, I want to feel like you and I live somewhere else, someplace we’ve never been.”
He takes the Gucci perfume from her hand. “A week from Saturday, eight o’clock,” he says. “I’ll pick you up.”
He leans over the counter and kisses her on the cheek. “Chao,” he says and the bell rings as he opens the door.
“Wait.” She comes around the counter and walks to him. She looks at him. She rests her arms over his shoulders, stands up on her tiptoes, and kisses him softly on the lips.
“What was that?” he says.
“I just don’t want you to forget.”
“I haven’t and I won’t. I remember well.” He exits the shop into the inconsiderate wall of heat, still tasting her lips.
Tony, shirtless, with his long reddish hair pulled back in a ponytail, leans over the engine well of an old Chevy, cursing out loud. The large wooden barn door is open as it always is when he’s working. Manteca leans into the garage.
“Que vola Tony,” he says.
“Dime Manteca, que hay?” He hands him the cologne.
Tony’s eyes open wide. “Coño, Gucci?”
“Dime compadre, lo que sea.” It is odd to hear such a deep voice from a man so skinny his skin seems to hang from his collarbone, like wet clothing from a hanger.
“I need the car back by next Saturday morning at the latest.”
“Compadre, I don’t know. It’s not like I can just run out and buy the parts.”
“Stay away from the rum and you might make it.”
“What I do in my time is my business,” Tony says.
Manteca snatches back the cologne and tilts his head as if to say, “Do you really want this?”
“Okay, okay, okay, dame p’aca.” Tony snatches the bottle back and says, “Te quiero hermano.”
“Sure.” Manteca says, aware that love and friendship in Cuba are matters of convenience. True friends there are few, and love is often treated as currency. Tony is not a friend, but they need each other.
“Hey, so what’s the deal with Yusniel and you?”
The question surprises him, “Do you know him?”
“Si, como no. Nino’s kid. He’s going around bragging about how he took money from you.”
Manteca shifts his weight from side to side trying to quell the charge surging inside.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Humberto,” Tony says. “He dropped off his car the other day and we got to talking.”
Humberto is another one of the kids from the neighborhood, a friend of Yusniel’s. “You know these kids, they love to talk shit. He was saying how Yusniel wasn’t going to pay you back and you wouldn’t do shit about it.”
Manteca balls his fists and inches towards Tony.
“Hey, hey,” Tony takes a couple of steps back. “I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“You just better have my fucking car ready when I told you.” He can feel his face flush; he glares at Tony, whose smile vanishes as he averts his eyes and nods. Manteca walks away with an unfamiliar lightness in his legs. He knows Tony is watching so he slows to a firm, more assured gait. He’ll be reduced to un come mierda cualquiera, if he doesn’t nip this soon. Word will get around. A meaningless shit eater, that’s not who he is, or ever will be. When he thinks of Yusniel’s growing reputation as a sneaky hard puncher, his body contracts as if strangled by something large and beyond his reach, attempting to squeeze out what courage he has left.
While going out with women is not new to him, the thought of dinner with Alicia makes him anxious, like a young boy going on his first date. It feels different. He questions whether Yusniel has anything to do with the weakness he feels for her. The Wednesday before, he stops by the shop again just before closing. Alicia is wiping down the counter when she looks up at him, “Oh, was it today? Did I misunderstand?”
“No, no. It’s Saturday. It’s going to be a special night so. I brought you something special to wear.”
Alicia stops, resting both hands on the counter. He reaches into his pocket and hands her a black pearl necklace.
“I hope it fits,” he says.
“What’s this?” she asks.
“Used to be my mother’s. I’ve been holding on to it for years, waiting for the right time. For the right person.”
Her obvious struggle to find words is satisfying to him. He may not be sure he’s ready to settle down, but it reassures him that this gift will help hold her there, until the time comes.
“I can’t accept this,” she says.
He loosens the latch and opens the necklace.
“Turn around,” he says. She turns her back to him and lifts her hair up. He reaches over her head and wraps the necklace around her neck. She lets her hair down and turns back to him.
He smiles. “It was meant for you,” he says.
She touches his face and fixes her eyes on his. It’s as if they’re both standing at the edge of a cliff. He touches for her hand, pulls it to his lips, and kisses it.
“See you Saturday,” he whispers.
The Friday night before the date, Manteca finds himself unable to sleep. He’s arranged a table at one of the best restaurants in Habana Vieja, with a friend that owes him a couple of favors. He turns on the light, a single bulb hanging from the ceiling above. He sits up in bed, lights a cigarette and stares blankly at the wall in front of him. Morning comes. Sunlight washes through the window high above his head and brightens the small room. He spends the early morning pacing and sipping coffee. Nearing noon, he heats up the leftover watery soup from the night before on his one burner stove, and sips it slowly. He presses a pair of slacks and a white guayabera that he saves for special occasions. He smokes more cigarettes, and waits.
At three o’clock he makes his way to Tony’s. He gets there and finds the large garage door closed. He goes around to a side door and knocks an angry knock.
“Tonyyy!” he yells.
A man’s voice comes from next-door, “He’s not there.”
“Where is he?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I just know he’s not there.”
Manteca mumbles, “Este tipo! He better show up.”
He peeks inside through a crack in the door. He can see his car is there, with the hood propped open. But the place is empty and dark, as if abandoned in mid-task.
He has to be at Alicia’s in a few hours. He needs his damn car. He raps on the door again, hard enough to make his knuckles sting, as if his mounting rage would make Tony materialize. He wipes sweat off his steaming brow.
“Nothing is ever simple here,” he fumes. He feels exhausted, and wonders if this is what defeat feels like.
Tony turns the corner, stumbling unsteadily towards him. Manteca runs to him but stops when he sees Yusniel a few steps behind, holding a beer, wearing a loose tank top, revealing tattoos that scramble out from under it onto his round shoulders. A thick gold chain dangles from his neck.
“Que coño Tony. Where is my car?”
Tony straightens up as if at attention.
Yusniel lifts the bottle and downs what’s left of the beer. A large black-faced watch slides along his wrist. He lets out a loud belch, and pushes his chest out. Turning on his back foot, he angles his forward shoulder towards Manteca and tilts his head to the side, eyeing Manteca with a wry smile.
“He was with me. No need for attitude, Mantequita,” he says, using the diminutive female version of his nickname.
Manteca’s ire swells and begins to shake itself lose from his stomach, past his shoulders and into his hands. His fingers quiver like the small ripples that appear at the ocean’s edge just before the wave comes.
“Nobody asked you,” he says.
Tony replies, “Inside.”
“Que te pasa Mantequitaaa?” Yusniel says stretching the last syllable with a wide-open laugh, exposing the gap left by his missing left molar, an obvious dark hole in an otherwise row of white.
“Nothing wrong with me. I told you to stay the fuck outta. And do me a favor, a little respect.”
“What are you doing here anyway?” Manteca says, then turns to Tony. “Tony, open the fucking garage. Is it ready?”
Tony stumbles. Taking quick, hurried steps as he walks to the side door and disappears into the garage.
“I’m here to pick up Humberto’s car. I need it before he’s done with yours, Mantequita.” This time, Yusniel says it slow and deliberate with the buttery intimacy of a man aiming to seduce a woman. He can see Yusniel’s arms bending at the elbow and slyly raising his hands up.
Manteca’s thinking slows and a calm comes over him.
“Your father is going to be disappointed,” Manteca says.
“In you or in me?”
Sensing Manteca’s pause, Yusniel abruptly rushes him. Manteca snaps his left open hand up and across Yusniel’s face, feeling the sting of his sideburns and the soft ear cartilage recede under the weight of his open palm. Yusniel stumbles but manages to remain on his feet. His smile is gone, replaced with a look of madness and disbelief.
Tony slides the door open, grinding across the corroded track from which it hangs. He stops to watch. Yusniel, regaining his balance, again runs at Manteca. He swings a wild overhand right that Manteca tries to duck but catches him just above his forehead. For an instant he’s disoriented, Yusniel’s reputation is earned. Another blow glances the side of his face and lands on Manteca’s neck. He raises both hands and ducks under Yusniel’s quick right hand then unleashes a right hook that strikes Yusniel’s jawbone, near the dark hole where his molar used to be. The punch sends an electric-like shock through his hand bones and he watches Yusniel’s eyes roll back as he falls. Manteca leans down over him and snatches the gold chain from his neck and the watch from his wrist. He looks up to see Tony’s astonished look.
“It’s ready. It’s ready Manteca. It’s ready.”
Yusniel starts a low moan as he’s coming to. Manteca leans over him, balls his fist one more time. Yusniel sees him and crosses his forearms across his face.
Manteca holds the watch and the chain inches from his nose. “Consider your debt paid.”
He drops the watch and the chain heavy into his pockets. He can see the neighbors looking over fences, from behind curtains and standing on the sidewalk, their arms crossed, only a quiet murmur breaks the silence. Opinions reserved for later talk, he’s sure. He pulls his shirt down tight, runs his fingers through his hair, pulling it all back, like he once did, like he’s always done.
Tony stinks of sweat, rum, and a heavy dose of Gucci cologne. “Claro chico, didn’t I tell you it’d be ready. By the way, that cologne really worked. The Brazilian is in the bag.”
“Keys,” he says.
Tony throws him the keys and Manteca ambles to the car, certain he is still the man he’s always been.
Later that evening, he drives to Alicia’s. Tony may be a drunk but he is a good mechanic, the car is running well. It’s dusk and the heat is subsiding, but the mosquitoes are out. A heavy, late afternoon downpour tamped down the dust and pushed most of the garbage to the now clogged drains on the street corners. He maneuvers the rusty old Muskvitch through the maze of holes still filled with rainwater that dot the street like tiny urban lakes. He taps the horn in rhythm like a drum, warning pedestrians that in this side of town prefer to walk on the street, rather than the narrow sidewalks that line either side.
He pulls up to the front of her shop and steps out of the car. The door is closed and it’s dark inside. He knocks. No one answers.
Lourdes calls out to him from the balcony across the street. She is standing guard over the whole block as she does every day, cigarette in hand. “You look nice, Manteca,” she says. “Someone is going to have a good time, who’s the lucky girl?”
“Buenas noches, Lourdes. So what do you think? Do I have to serenade her before she comes out?”
Lourdes pauses, takes a drag from her cigarette, and looks into the distance, “Muchacho, she’s not there.”
“Did she say when she is coming back?”
“Not anytime soon,” she says.
“I’m supposed to pick her up at eight.”
Lourdes walks back inside her house and comes out moments later holding an envelope. “Catch,” she says and drops it over the side.
He catches it.
“She left that for you,” she says, takes a drag of her cigarette, and then taps the tip loosening ashes into the night.
He opens the envelope and glimpses inside. It’s the black pearl necklace with a note inside that reads: Perdoname.
Why would she change her mind? He remembers her last kiss. She felt what he felt, he is sure of that. He stands still and looks back to the shop door. He’ll win her back.
“You really don’t know?” Lourdes says.
“Her papers came through. She didn’t expect them so soon. She’s gone.”
“Gone where? What papers?”
Even in the warm evening air, with the buzz of mosquitoes filling the quiet, he feels a cold chill come over him. He slams his open hand on the roof of the car.
“Oye, oye, calm down. It’s the best thing for her. She was ready. Not like you didn’t have your chance.”
“Why didn’t she just tell me?”
“Some people just can’t handle goodbyes.”
“When did she know?”
“Thursday. She knew it was going to happen, but she didn’t know when. It all happened quickly. The Italiano had already bought her airfare and everything.”
Italy, a place she’s never been. He should feel happy for her, but he doesn’t. He feels duped, empty, and once again reminded that in this god forsaken country you can’t trust anyone. His disappointment should not feel devastating. It was after all, just a date. But it bothers him that he allowed himself to picture a life with her, if only for a few days. He had thought about being somewhere else, just the two of them. A place where he could be a regular man, without a past, without a regrettable reputation. It surprised him how right it felt. But now after waiting all these years for his city to come back to life, he’s been once again deceived. It’s futile to wait for anything in this place. Waiting is how time and lives die.
He gets back in his car and stares ahead for a moment before driving away. He stops at the Cupet and buys a bottle of rum with two plastic cups. He drives to the Malecon. He sits on the seawall, let’s his legs dangle over the water below, and thinks of Alicia. He thinks of her auburn hair, her mysterious eyes, dark like the impenetrable surface of the sea before him, without a hint of its depth, or of what lies beneath.
He imagines seeing her from a distance, sitting on the seawall, her eyes closed, her head leaning back, embraced by the moist ocean’s inimitable evening breeze, still wearing his mother’s necklace. She wears blue jeans, and a green blouse, slightly oversized, rippling with the breeze’s indiscreet caress.
Sensing his approach, she opens her eyes wide and turns to see him near. He speeds to her, she jumps off the wall to the sidewalk below and they embrace. Her scent reminds him of a blooming flower garden, fresh, weightless. Turning their backs to the ocean, they lean back on the wall and see the city before them.
He pours rum into one of the cups and sips. It burns when he swallows. He feels the wall vibrate as the waves crash against it and water sprays all around him. She rests her head on his shoulder and they talk about their life together, somewhere else, someplace they’ve never been, the Havana they once imagined.