A Pair of Chancletas
By Elena Schwolsky
The sweet, sticky smell from an overflowing dumpster follows me as I turn the corner onto Calle Amistad—Friendship Street—but I smile to think of my dear friend of many years who I will see in a few short minutes. Threading my way around piles of dog shit and oily puddles from the afternoon rains, I walk in the street like everyone else––moving to the crumbling, narrow sidewalk only when a motorcycle, pedicab or antique car lumbers by. I remember how, years ago, when I first visited Havana in the early 90’s, no matter how hard I tried to fit in, boys would follow me down the block. “Chile! Argentina!” they would call out, trying to match my fair skin to a country they knew. Those were the days when few tourists visited Cuba and even fewer from the U.S. Now, in 2012, no one gives me more than a curious glance.
I am red-faced and sweaty by the time I get to Mari’s building. A group of girls is lounging in front of the beautiful old Art-Deco cigar factory across the street, recently transformed into a high school, their mustard yellow uniform skirts hiked above their knees. A couple of boys watch them from the small broken stoop. They make no move to shift as I approach, but after a minute one stands up to swing open the heavy iron door.
The interior hallway is pitch black—always dark even on the brightest day. This hallway has never had a working light in all the time I have visited I feel my way carefully to the stairs. Somewhere, behind the stairway I think, Mari stores the motorbike she is so proud of. The bike she uses to go to work at the National Center for AIDS Prevention. Then I remember that she doesn’t go to work anymore.
I climb the stairs slowly in the heat, pausing on each landing.
Mari’s greeting of recognition drifts down from the landing above. I laugh to hear her voice and the nickname she gave me when she first learned that my grandparents were from Russia.
“Amiga, que bien.” Mari’s voice trembles as she hugs me and I can feel her shoulder blades beneath her thin cotton nightgown. It has been almost a year since we last saw each other and months since we’ve spoken—when she called to tell me her bad news.
“Do you still have the chancleta?” she asks now with a little smile, brandishing a blue rubber bathroom slipper in her hand. On my trip last year I stayed with her and left this slipper behind in her bedroom. Mari suggested that we each keep one of the pair to remind us of each other when we are apart.
“Si seguro, la tengo. I assure her. “It’s safe in my closet at home.”
Mari is a small woman with light brown skin. Her wavy auburn hair is cut short and frames a face that is often pensive, sometimes even severe. At typically boisterous Cuban social gatherings, she sits quietly. When she does speak she chooses her words carefully and her soft soprano voice demands attention by its intensity. Her warm smile has to be coaxed from beneath her solemn demeanor. Mari is what the Cubans call una persona seria, a serious person.
I look around her apartment to see what’s new. The tile floors shine as always and the walls are bright with color. Small ceramic figurines and photos of her son and granddaughter dot the glass-topped tables in the cozy living room. There! A gleaming microwave oven and electric rice cooker take up the whole counter in the tiny kitchen—gone are the apagones or blackouts of the early 90’s when the electricity would be cut for hours.
Mari has owned this apartment since the 70’s, but when I first met her in 1996 she was living in Los Cocos, the AIDS Sanitarium on the outskirts of Havana. She lived alone in a small cement house in a leafy neighborhood of the Sanitarium—a house surrounded by mango trees whose fruit hung green and unreachable that early spring. I was living in Havana, teaching Cuba’s first group of AIDS peer educators and Mari was in my class.
I remember the immediate bond we felt as young widows whose husbands had been taken from us by the AIDS epidemic. Mari’s husband Reinaldo had returned from the war in Angola in 1985, around the same time that my husband Clarence had finally kicked a 13 year heroin habit that started when he served in Vietnam. Different wars, different countries…two women unknowingly at risk. Every time I visited with Mari I had the same unspoken thought––why her, why not me? I was painfully aware of the different route the virus had taken through each of our lives.
On this visit, Mari has serious news to share and gets right to the point. She hasn’t been feeling well, she tells me. She can’t eat much and has been losing weight again. The last time I saw her, just a year earlier, she was recovering from surgery and chemo for ovarian cancer—beginning to regain her strength, exulting in the wisps of hair that had just started growing in. Now the cancer is back. She has to start chemo again.
“Yo soy fuerte, I’m a strong woman, Elena. I’ve lived so long with this virus, longer than anyone thought. But I’m worried about the cancer. What if my body can’t fight anymore?”
I don’t have an answer …only sadness that my dear friend has yet another challenge to face in a life that has presented so many. And the situation is worse than she knows. Her son Joel, only eleven when I first met him but now a broad-shouldered young father, called me at my hotel this morning. “The chemo’s not helping this time, Elena,” he told me, his deep voice shaking. “But we are not going to tell her. Doctor Jorge agrees. We don’t want her to give up. Maybe a miracle will happen. Please don’t say anything to her. Por favor, amiga.”
So Mari and I sit for hours, chatting and drinking dark sweet cafecitos at the small round lace-covered table in her kitchen and I don’t say anything. We stand at her open doorway together and watch the sun set over the copper dome of the nearby Capitolio. I yearn to tell her…I think it is her right to know what she is facing, I would want to know–but I swallow my words. She waves the slipper as I walk to the stairs.
“Hasta la proxima, amiga.” “Hasta la proxima.”
But all the way back to my hotel, hurrying across Calle Obispo in the gathering darkness, my footsteps echo on the cobblestones in rhythm with my thoughts—why her, why not me?
ELENA SCHWOLSKY is a lifelong writer and social activist who joined NYWC as a workshop leader in 2014. She is currently co-leading, with Maritza Arrastia, “Cosechando Cuentos.” a Spanish language workshop for immigrant women who are members of worker-owned cooperatives in her neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn and she is at work on a memoir exploring the intersection of her personal and professional experience in the AIDS epidemic.