Cuba | Vanessa Onwuemezi | Granta

Cuba

Vanessa Onwuemezi

Policeman walks towards her, gun swinging from his hip, cracked stones rolling beneath his feet, head lifted high by some       vapours which only he can sense in cold blue air. Moves as if he’s standing still and it’s the earth that aids him, aids him forward.

His uniform is olive green, gun hovers by her open window, a hand on the roof and all is still, the birds hold their breath while she feels the engine vibrating through her seat.

‘Buenos días, señora,’ he says.

‘That for cracking coconuts?’ she says to the gun.

He laughs, then a gesture with the hand.

Now she stands, leaning against the car warms her thigh, grey smoke as the engine burns a veil to cloak her mouth and nose, while she flirts with tired eyes, body soaked in this morning’s sweat, the dew, gathered as she passed through border after border on this long drive.

He looks at the exhaust, the smoke. ‘Oil,’ he says.

‘Okay,’ she says.

‘Your name?’ He leans himself against the car, clink of the gun.

‘Cuba.’ A lie.

True enough to her, grown up breathing the vapours of a place she’s never been

Cuba        edging round the fields.

Cuba, rubbing its       legs together from the long grass.

Cuba, dripping warm from her eyelashes as she steps out of rain later that morning, into a hotel, in a coastline Spanish town.

The hotel is pink all over, as the bitten inside of her mouth, as her dark father’s radiant bottom lip, as the scar stretching down the back of her mami’s calf        then there’s an oil lamp burning, a blackened ceiling, the baby’s head wet with tears.

‘The hotel was white,’ says the receptionist, ‘but it wanted to be pink.’ He smiles, hands her the key card, ‘Fifth floor.’

Behind him, another receptionist shuffles quiet feet, trying to catch a mosquito in a jar, ‘Coño,’ his mouth not so quiet, ‘I don’t like to kill.’

She loops her bag handles over her arm, slip        down to her elbow along hairs wet with rain. The arm aches under the weight.

 

Smoking on the terrace, she ignores the English man sitting easy with tall glass in hand, legs outstretched, like a grassy bank rolling into sand into a cold sea. The terrace is framed by hotel-room windows set into the flesh of the walls, meekly dressed in greyed netting. The terrace wants a pool or a fountain, something to draw the eye. Any noise echoes from the walls like the click-ripple of a stone into water.

His glass finds its way to her table, the sound of metal dragging over the tiles and he says cigarette? She doesn’t answer, but looks up into his red-stained eyes and hands him the one in her mouth.

‘Can’t get enough of this       sunshine.’ He inhales.

Her ear starts ringing and she’s deafened on one side for a moment. Views his mouth slightly parted, dumbly. Cracked fingernails. Hair falls wiry around his ears and nearly to his shoulders, sips his beer, foam gathers to a drop of milk and hangs from his bottom lip. He’s young, from the way he talks, but looking as if each year has doubled up on his face, his back hunched like stem of yellow flower drooping. He’s been here a while, he says to her, looking out for himself, left the business he started under the care of a friend. He lies, she can taste it. He touches her arm too many times. The cigarette smoke reminds her of the car and the two dogs she saw hanging from a tree by the road.

Excuses, makes her excuses and leaves.

In her room, Mami is sitting on the edge of the bed holding an unlit cigarette, staring at the wall. She was never a smoker. ‘When will you let me go?’ she says. She’s been moving things around. On the table in the corner, white plastic cups of water in a circle, Cuba walks over to look at her own warped face – eye, half-mouth, chin.

She scours online for a job and a new place to stay, 06/05 Agency staff required, and a number to call.

 

The Sixth of May calls her back that afternoon. And a day after that, she’s handed a maid’s uniform and a key card in a room beneath some stairs, open the door and in comes the frantic reflection of light from a swimming pool, chlorine and waft of blossom, while flies, not yet lazied by the stretch of summer, rush in and out again.

He had eyed her figure for her dress size, lingering over her stomach, down to her legs. She pulls at her shirt, tight over her belly. A ball of heat familiar burns down her throat, to work its way through her and lodge itself somewhere. Good. As long as it’s somewhere hidden, it’s all good.

‘You’re staying where?’

‘Manolo Hotel, for now.’

‘You’re looking?’

‘Sí.’

‘There’s a board.’ He points at a large square on the wall across the room, above a worn sofa, paper notices.

She nods.

‘Come from?’

‘UK,’ she says.

‘Where else?’

‘Y soy Cubana.’

He walks over to a locker and taps it with his middle finger, reaches inside his pocket, pulls out a padlock and keys which he throws in her direction. She holds out a hand and watches the metal crash onto floor tiles. A crescent echo lingers in the air, in an arc from his hand to the floor. She sees it. Just as she sometimes observes the moon separated out into image after image, tracking its movement across the sky       frame frame of the moon. At the same time, in her ear, the low croak of frogs mating at night.

‘Be careful!’ He steps into sunlight coming through the door. Two illumined grey hairs in his moustache. ‘I won’t give you another.’ Sucks his teeth.

A knock at the door, weak as the crack of paper. A blonde woman stands in the doorway, dressed for work.

‘Noda,’ he introduces. At Noda’s feet a fly crawls a centimetre along the floor         stops.

‘You ready?’ she says to Cuba, who nods.

Noda leads her up a floor and explains, mouth running quick Spanish, taps her finger on the coloured lids of plastic containers, spray bottles, cloths, towels, plastics, bedding, on a trolley outside of room 166. ‘You’re supposed to use this cloth for the dirty stuff, everywhere a normal person would put their ass. This one for everywhere else in the bathroom.’

Cuba’s mouth searches for words in Spanish, hasn’t spoken it in a long while, strains her mind forehead tightens, later, rubs her temples on the bus home.

In the room, she unmakes the bed while Noda watches, between opening the curtains, emptying bins.

‘Not bad, but you’ll have to speed up. You’ll have all this floor and another to do. We cut corners.’ She takes a sheet between two fingers and laughs, a bottomless laugh, while miming a scissor motion. She shows Cuba how to fold the corners beneath the mattress, pull it taut, tuck it under, pulls it all out and makes her start again, hair now in wisps around her neck as they hold between their fingers the quivering white.

 

A studio apartment, eighth floor, facing a wall on one side. The light dim it feels like she’s half sunk into the ground. On the other side, in the distance she can see a square, the plaza. The kitchen is tidied away in a cubby with a small table, where she puts a little bottle of rum she found in a hotel room, and two chairs. ‘Oye, tú qué haces aquí?’ she hears Mami say, the voice mixing into the smell of plantain and beans, cucumbers long as cold running water, dusted with black pepper, and avocado felt up with a palm and five fingers for it to be hard and soft enough, to be ripe. Mami stands next to the kitchen table, pulling plates filled with food out of her shirt and dropping them heavy, she’s angry, picks up a tea towel and curses, ‘Cabrona, no te metas conmigo.’ Whip-snaps it in the air.

Suitcase unpacked, Cuba stares out of the window towards the plaza, a stone stretched flat under the sun, light pushing away shadow to its edges. Mami stands nearby, calmer, the remembered smells still emanating from her. She’s mouthing words as if in prayer, her lips feeling their way around a song from an old tale, isé kué, ariyénye, isé kué, ariyénye, isé kué, ariyénye, isé kué, ariyénye, droning as she watches people walk past down below, sloughing off the colours of their tanned feet and leaving it all to melt on the pavement slabs       brown, window cracked a little, wafting in the brown of skin.

With a square of burlap and purple cloth, Cuba tries to create from memory something she lost. Stones, shells, herbs, anise, all tied up with string. Mami had been a santera, priestess, a good one, had made her a charm tied with seven knots of string to ward off bad spirit. A charm, a desire, so slow to bend things, powerful and slow like water cutting through stone.

She folds and unfolds her bed sheets, getting better at smoothing out the creases with a slick hand. She knocks a breast and gasps, cups it, breast sore, full engorged, takes off her bra and squeezes.

 

Down in the plaza she lights a cigarette while her ass finds a chair and sits, winces at the heat of metal, a hot egg rolling under her thigh. She goes walking with the cigarette burning between her fingers, finds a museum, looks into a crypt from the top of the stairs, walls the red of clay, graves gaping open like a mouth of pulled teeth. Alone, she goes inside and waits a while in the cool, saying her own name out loud to the bones and clean smiling skulls.

Looping around to the port, she walks through drowsy streets with regular palm trees that droop towards her as she passes, shrubs bursting with pink blossom, lawns, behind them hills like dusty mounds, all a faded rush of grass with no beckoning. No promise.

A dog edges over and sits beside her while she’s stopped to look, scratches its snout and follows in her shadow as she moves on, dipping its nose to the ground every once in a while like a shishi-odoshi, its eyes never meeting hers, never leaving her.

They pass the two policía, this time they’re dressed navy, one policeman’s eyes on the mongrel. He pulls his baton from the loop in his belt, pushes the dog with it, dog carries on after her. ‘Perdón,’ Policeman says, and shows her the underside of his hand.

He shoves the dog hard with his foot and it falls over, feet skitting across the brick with eyes rolling like oranges falling to the ground, or the roll of her father’s fists when he was starting a fight, moustache a lump of charcoal crackling under his nose. ‘It’s Cuba, rotting his bones,’ Mami used to say, but tapping her head. The dog stays on its side, gnashing its pale gums, drooping teats on its underside sunk into a cavern of ribs. Its outline dissolves in a moving network of fleas against sun-bleached brick of the pavement. Takes Cuba’s focus away      brick brick       all the same, as she walks away.

As she moves, she feels her hips roll like her father’s fighting fists, pumping her along until she reaches the port, stares at the yachts, tame sea.

 

As May turns to June to July she edges around the balconies of the hotel, room after room, encircling the large swimming pool, her arms darken as the sun empties its hot lungs into the months.

She swipes the card to room 160, enters and her arm hairs rise up. A dark room confronts her, and then on turns a hanging bulb lit electric bright straight ahead of her, dust idles around it before falling in to kiss the glass. Beneath it, where the dresser should be, is a small round table standing on a straw mat, on that a bowl of oranges, agua de florida, a miniature bottle of rum, seven seashells and a statuette of the Virgin in blue.

‘Mami?’ she says. It isn’t Mami, the room is too cold, the absence of love. She takes off her clothes, she has to, something hot running between her legs, kneels in front of the altar and closes her eyes. She holds out a hand, trying to conjure nothing into something, into the courage of a beating heart, feels an orange squeeze down her throat pushing her lungs apart gulps and swallows, and then starts to cry and out of her mouth comes birdsong, the parakeet, the nightjar, the whistling duck, the flycatcher, the vireo, the cartacuba, the bullfinch, breaking into a wail like a dog to a coarse howling baby’s cry.

Light breaks into the room, soft through her eyelids, Noda has opened the curtains, bustles around, quick vowels barely pausing for breath. She breaks wind and laughs, a brief pause in her cursing and scolding.

‘Sixteen more rooms you’ve got on this floor. Mierda! How are you this slow? Why am I helping you? You’re lucky you look like someone I knew once. Fuck you.’ She hastily pulls the sheets from the bed piling them onto the floor. ‘Why do I find you so often       staring at the wall like that?’

Cuba goes to wipe the tears from her eyes, but they’re dry.

Noda, crossing the room. ‘This is too much for anyone, sore hands, broken knees, my blood pressure, it’s stress. They’ll notice you getting slow, are you sick?’ she says, ‘Ten cuidado. Take it easy, but work hard, Cuba.’

She mentions a meeting, why she came up to find her. Her voice disappears in a din of plastic bottles hollow-knocking from the bathroom.

She emerges, ‘Are you coming?’

‘Yes.’ Without knowing to what.

‘I’ll send a message.’ Noda leaves, fast as she came, her rubber shoes squeaking a loose sole.

 

The tiny courtyard of the bar smells of ash. ‘There’s a movement starting in Barcelona, we should do the same.’ Noda is near shouting. ‘Thirty rooms a shift, these subcontractors are evil.’ Her friend, who works in a hotel near the crypt, nods her head regular in time with music from the bar. A muted television screen high on the wall shows a forest on fire and a rising column of smoke, grey-yellow.

The day of the altar was a warning. Like Mami, the bad spirit had caught up with her, making itself known to her over and over, like the echoes of the objects in front of her eyes       spat out at regular points in space, a padlock, the moon, perpendicular to logic.

She sees the face of her baby in random encounters: a young boy in the street, a teenager she encountered in a corridor, young boys, baby boys encountered on the walk home        encountered         in the little boys running wet by the pool      skin a mass of drips of gold, in the faces she passes in the plaza in the cool hours, the child          encountered as the small brown bird shrieking at her from its perch in a tree, toenails lengthened to gripping claws. Child from the dark of her mind, intent on having her die of shame      ah       had her inflamed.

She feels the charm tight in a pocket, pulls at a coil in her hair and notices, from their table wedged in a corner, the manager from her first day, and another she’s seen in the hotel, decorated with a gold name badge, name beginning with ‘E’, he wears polished shoes long and square, upturned at the tips like rowing boats. She taps Noda’s arm and tells her the news, Noda freezes mid-sentence, turns and smiles them over, on the offensive. Manager, named Oko, has a little muscle pulsing beneath his eye, no smile but nods in her direction. ‘E’ introduces himself, speaks like his tongue is glued down, she doesn’t catch the name. She tries a smile her lips sticky with vodka-lemonade. It gets busy. People edging sideways past tables, holding cigarettes       smoke       tracing the path of the summer’s rising heat. A heavy feeling settles in her stomach. She forces out a cough.

There are more meetings like this. In bars, not so much – in apartments, back rooms of churches, loaned garages, the library, a word or two exchanged by lockers, an arrangement, a touch of the hand: we need sick pay, contracts, managers are nervous, the maids’ faces give nothing away.

Noda comes by whenever their hours overlap, or comes to her home. She runs by Cuba every tentative word of an email, a bulletin, a speech for an audience day by day becoming           less imaginary. Barcelona on her lips, her mouth’s oil, Lanzarote, Las Islas Canarias, Ibiza, sticky over her fingers, combed through her hair. Standing on her imagined podium, belly roll beneath her shirt, her back straight, and calloused hand curled into a fist. The same words are affirmed every time, sisterhood, solidarity, love, freedom, truth         bleed into the daily rhythm of the work: curtains pulled, sheets stretched flat over mattress, spray, brush, cloth on glass, on glass, day by day by day. Cuba’s knuckles crack as she raises a pot from the stove, pours coffee for the two of them. ‘Work and work and work, mija, until you’re dead,’ Mami used to say, and laugh.

And work, the work goes on, it does. Cuba edging around the balconies feeling like she’s being watched. Oko edging around the balconies after her, ever nodding in her direction, nothing better to do.

A Thursday, she dusts each crease of the heavy curtains, smooths down the bedding, scrubs the toilet, shower, wipes a towel over the bathroom marble until it shines enough, goes to leave room 188 and Oko stands in the doorway, holding a finger-width rail of wood which he waves around in a figure of eight in front of her face, looping around her head until his moderate skill loses its nerve. Showing off        a threat? Should she be impressed? She makes a show of being impressed.

‘Silambam,’ he says at last, face and neck wearing a damp sheen, ‘a martial art. Es de la India.’ His shirt stretches tight across his belly as it throbs with quick breath, a glimpse of hair creeping close to the skin, black moss, curled like the dark hair on his head.

 

He continues to show up outside of the rooms she’s working in. She has been keeping up the numbers, thirty rooms a shift, cutting corners, drinking up leftover wine, and swiping forgotten cigarettes, bottles of nail polish, alcohol, cologne and perfume. And he has never come with an accusation.

She’s on the floor cleaning as he walks in, tapping the wall with that stick, then the floor, closer he moves. She’s found a stain behind a dresser, no one has thought to look there, or had the time. Coffee, old stain has etched itself into the wall. She’s been hypnotised by the rubbing, aching arms and shoulders but keeping it up, rubbing off the dark brown, releasing the wall’s memories, the coffee – spilled or thrown – thin layers of paint, green, white beneath.

Oko taps her shoulder with the stick. Then, crouches to tap with a finger on her skirt at the crack of her ass. She doesn’t turn around, yes her blood pressure is raised a little, and she has already decided that if he goes further she will submit. (Alone, rubbing her own breasts, swollen and ripe, and legs opening to welcome her fingers between the tops of her thighs. What she thinks about at times like this, when what is about to happen happens.)

He stands up and leaves, because of her silence, perhaps. Or the charm always grasped in her pocket. Or a noise in the corridor outside. She doesn’t see him on shift again. Whenever a group of them gather, he gives up his seat for her.

 

Another meeting, it’s evening. Women and some children enter the room, sombre as a low-hanging mist. A mass of heads
and clasped hands. They don’t say much to each other, until
Noda begins.

‘We don’t have the right to get sick
because    because
they fire us
immediately
health and skin
on the floors that we clean
god of fury
empower us.’

And people are on their feet, clapping hands together, fanning their faces with folded paper, or waving it above their heads. ‘Fair pay, sisterhood, freedom,’ chanted with the defiance of all the uprisings begun in a small room, the fire in a drop of blood. The spirits, good and bad, are present and alert. Cuba stands and cheers, soaking in the power of the hands beating as tight-skin drums. ‘Sin muerto no hay santo’, ‘There’s no Orisha without the spirits of the dead’, the words in her ear, she’s soon doubled over with a pain in her abdomen and a light head, having avoided water for the past few days, avoiding the toilet because she’s pissing blood. She takes herself to the bathroom, quiet, but there are tiny flies fussing around the room, excited by the cheering, riding on reverberations in the air that will travel outwards indefinitely.

She sits in a cubicle and takes the charm from her pocket – digging into her – and asks for protection, for the bad spirit at her side to forgive. Ever since that day on the steps of the hospital, when she had put down the bag and had started driving, there has been a dense mass in her mind, in her stomach, working its way through her. A seedless fruit lodged in her womb and rotting. Bad spirit        an imbalance that permeates all things, like the smoke from a bush fire thousands of miles away, where sky glows the amber of flame, breaking in new days, new afternoons.

The toilet door opens. ‘Cuba,’ Noda says. The movements of her arm in flickering light as she bats away the flies.

‘Sí, Noda.’ From the cubicle. Gripping her belly.

‘Estás bien?’

‘Estoy enferma. Don’t worry, go back in there.’ A quick in-breath.

‘Have you done a test?’

‘No it’s not that. Not that.’

‘Oh honey, qué mierda.’ Noda’s hand appears in the gap beneath the door, flexing and wriggling her fingers in some kind of solidarity. Her face appears skin drooping to one side. She’s a grown woman, Noda, Cuba finds the space to think of that. Slow tears reach her chin and drip into her hands.

Baby’s cry had pealed out through the bag when she reached ten metres away. Her aching arm remembers the baby boy’s soft weight, her ears, the cry that clung to her as she resisted any urge to look back.

‘Cuba, don’t worry,’ Noda’s disembodied head says from the floor. ‘We’ll take care of it. Sometimes bad things infect us. We’ll sort it out, I’m telling you. Come on, Cuba, it’s just one bad thing        that’s all it is.’

 

Photograph © Clive Frost / Millennium Images

Vanessa Onwuemezi

Vanessa Onwuemezi is a writer and poet living in London. Her work has appeared in Prototype, frieze and Five Dials. Her story ‘At the Heart of Things’ won the White Review Short Story Prize in 2019.

Photograph ©Elizabeth Wicks

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