I am sitting with Officer Carlos Jimenez in the Hotel Nacional, telling him the story of the Iguana while plying him with Irish whiskey. His waxed moustache is glowing in the alcoholic light.
The piano player at the hotel bar has friends in the lounge, and wants to visit with them. After every song she takes a little walk, sits down for a quick chat with her girlfriends, and then hurries chip-chip in her heels back to the piano, her fingers starting on the next song before her derrière has even hit the bench. Her musicianship, it goes without saying, is impeccable, but the piano is slightly out of tune.
Here is what I say to Officer Jimenez:
I’d been spending time with Yasmin for three months when she told me she wanted her brother to meet me. This was not a total surprise to me. Three months, in my opinion, is when a dalliance threatens to become something more, and one has to decide whether to pretend one is leaving the country, or else to prepare to meet the family.
These things in Cuba are still fairly traditional, says Officer Jimenez.
As they are in most countries, I say.
But while I was lying back on my hotel bed, naked Yasmin lazily tracing my appendix scar, it occurred to me that I actually wanted to meet this brother of hers. Yasmin spoke of him with the kind of awe that a young woman reserves for the patriarch of her family, but I wasn’t sure that her awe was a sufficient reason for me to want to meet him.
But my assent made Yasmin so happy and so grateful that she proceeded to perform some of her most delectable manoeuvres on me right then and there. She likes me, Yasmin. She does. She likes my money, yes, but I treat her nicely, and I don’t demand too much. I’m not one of those dismissive German or Chinese sex tourists who don’t want to do more than drink and copulate.
You are superior to them in many respects, says Officer Jimenez, raising his glass.
And, as you know, I speak enough Spanish that she can, roughly, feel at home with me. She must have been thinking about this for a few days, had probably been worried about how I would react, if the suggestion would put the whole pleasantness of our relationship at risk. Some of the men she fell in with before me must have vanished in a puff of musk-scented smoke when she brought her brother up. But a girl like that — a good girl, whatever her sexual proclivities or current circumstances — must bring a new beau before the most important member of her family if things are going to get serious. And for Yasmin, the Iguana was it.
Officer Jimenez tensed visibly. I would say that his mustache twitched, if such a thing were possible — that magnificent sculpture has not twitched in years, from what I can tell. Un momento. Amigo, her brother is the Iguana?
Yes, apparently. What do you know about him?
What do I know about the Iguana? No norteamericano can know about him, that’s what I know. He is a menace.
A menace? Why?
Why? Why does man eat bacon? Because it pleases him, no matter what the pig thinks. If there is evil in this city, you can be sure that he is near its source.
Is this Carlos telling me this, or Officer Jimenez?
Officer Jimenez has never heard of anyone who calls himself the Iguana. And your friend Carlos would never mention him.
So then who thinks he is a menace?
Someone in between Officer Jimenez and Carlos. Someone who keeps secrets from both of them.
Well, this story is for that man, then. Now, as you know, I am not a man who is easily intimidated, even as Yasmin’s stories of the Iguana grew more mythological. And this isn’t only because of my size, though it doesn’t hurt.
You are truly a great man, he said, repeating an old joke between us.
Being almost ten feet tall and weighing 1000 pounds has its advantages. The shopkeepers at my favourite market always know when I am coming, for instance, and they have my things prepared for me, so that I don’t need to stoop into their little stalls.
They are protecting their children from your boots!
Yes, but let me tell you something, Carlos. The real reason I am not easily intimidated is because I have seen a bit of the world, and have experienced my share of pain, and have reached an age when even fear and discomfort is a kind of pleasure, for its novelty.
This is why you came to Havana in the first place. Because there is no pain without pleasure here, and no pleasure without pain. How long has it been?
Three years. That’s long enough to know a fair bit of nothing.
Oh, don’t be so modest, my friend. You know quite a lot of nothing!
Yes. My Spanish is passable, and since I am Canadian, I am relatively free to make contacts and develop relationships here with men like you, while laying the groundwork for my backers to hit the ground running, once the inevitable change comes.
What change? There will be no change. The revolution will carry on, he said, grinning.
Waiting for Castro to die is an international sport that everyone pretends not to be playing. In the meantime, I host meetings over imported whiskey with well-placed officials like you, conduct architectural tours for visiting delegations, and quietly burn a trail for those who will follow me with their more ambitious plans. This means I have time and resources for the Cuban sun, the Cuban cigar, and the beautiful Cuban women, who are — it must be said — as worldly now in the ways of love as they ever were.
As any tour book can tell you, there has been no effective boycott of sexual pleasure. So did you meet him?
Let me tell it. Yasmin’s family lives in that part of town near the Barrio Chino that is frequently happened upon accidentally by tourists.
Yes, they miss the turn and find themselves very lost.
It’s been my favourite part of town to troll for bargains and women. The decay is not as picturesque as it is downtown, but you can still see the beauty of Havana underneath. All those front halls that have been segmented with cinderblocks, so they make 10 x 10 rooms with spectacular art deco tile floors in partial patterns. With my freckled arms, and my red hair, I’m sort of an infrequent natural phenomenon in this section. They call me El Gran Melocotón.
The Giant Peach. That’s very good. I should introduce you to Ignacio. He is a useful man in that part of town.
Well, the day came, and Yasmin and I walked down Reina at a leisurely pace, Yasmin holding my three fingers, and a few boys rushing ahead of us to warn the shopkeepers of our approach. Both of us were dressed in Cuban formal — I in American slacks and a pink summer shirt, Yasmin in a sundress cut above her knee that I had bought her from my hotel’s gift shop. It was made in China and boasted flowers that had never been seen in Cuba, or anywhere else — spectacular rainbow explosions.
My affection for Yasmin is twofold. The first is so typical that it hardly needs to be mentioned: she is beautiful, agreeable, and her sexual appetite — or at least her sexual tolerance — is prolific. The second is something else, something less specific. I have known other Cuban women in my time here, some with equal charms, but Yasmin has a tight knot underneath her perfume and smiling that reminds me of the girls I knew in Sudbury, where I grew up. Sudbury is an old mining town, Carlos. The poor girls there are much like the girls in Cuba. They expect nothing, and recognize that even the blessings that occasionally fall down on them are the likely preparations for some larger catastrophe. Yasmin is a poor girl. She is not easily fooled.
But if she is the sister of the Iguana...
If she is his sister, then she is not as poor as she may seem.
Yes, but she probably has all the more reason to be prepared for catastrophe. And so she walked down the street with me, with her gawking neighbours either jealous or dismissive — often both — with the kind of luscious pleasure that you see on a child with a sucker. The joy may be temporary, but it is complete. Everyone knew that Yasmin’s norteamericano was coming to meet the Iguana.
You are a lucky man, señor.
I know. She is wonderful.
No, I mean you are a lucky man to be sitting here, talking to me, if you have met the Iguana.
We arrived at her Aunt Maria’s apartment with a burst of embraces and shouting. She was on the ground floor, in the back of the building, and the sitting room looked out onto a little courtyard. There seemed to be some improvisational architecture here, with a hand-cut doorway leading to another room I couldn’t see. They had even arranged for there to be a couch big enough for my legs, though it took me a good fifteen minutes to be introduced to everyone so that I could sit down and be observed. In the meantime, I had to lean over with my hand on the wall, and my head pressed against the ceiling.
First I was introduced to Grandfather, a large, proud turtle who was propped on a stool in the corner. Yasmin told me that he never spoke, but when I said my pleasantries he seemed to nod at my hands, which were about as high as his neck could reach. I made an effort to crouch down so that we could look at each other, but Yasmin stopped me — in the small room, I would have capsized all of the little plates that had been set up on various tables and trays. I paid my respects in Spanish, and thought I was doing rather well, from all the practice I’ve had with formal greetings. My vocabulary is limited, but my accent is excellent.
It is better to say a few things well than to say a lot like a gringo.
There was a procession of Tías and Tíos, cousins and children. It was clear to me that the order was simply that Grandfather was first, and the Iguana would be last. While I greeted someone’s grandmother, I could see him out in the courtyard, talking to a man in a suit, and a pair of lizards wearing leather collars.
Finally, he slid off the chair he was sitting on outside, and sauntered into the room, trailing his magnificent spiked tail. He paused in the doorway, so that he was half in shadow, as he looked me up and down. He turned his head as a bird does, fixing his gaze on me with one eye, and then the other.
Yasmin’s voice was quiet and almost prayerful. “Calvin, this is my brother. Arturo, este es Calvin, el hombre del que te hable.”
“I am deeply honoured to meet you,” I said, in Spanish, repeating the formalities I had observed with Grandfather and the others.
“No, no,” he said. “In English, so that you will say what you mean.” He wagged his head and the dewlap beneath his chin waved majestically. “People are too careful in other languages. I want you to speak freely.” He moved to a low chair that I hadn’t noticed had been saved for him.
“And you will understand me in English?” I asked.
“Well enough, compañero.” He moved his tongue toward a sliced mango his left claw was bringing to his mouth. “So, you love my sister?”
“Yes, I believe I do.”
“Believe? What is believe?”
“Creo. Believe. What does a man like me — a big man, a norteamericano, a business man — what does a man like me know about love? But from what little I know, your Yasmin is the most perfect creature I have ever spent time with.”
You might guess, Carlos, that I had rehearsed a version of this answer. And it had its desired effect. Yasmin, seated on a low stool to my left, blushed radiantly, and lowered her chin. The Iguana hmm’ed while he thoughtfully chewed on his mango.
We went on like this for a little while. The Iguana asked about my work, and about my family, and I answered simply and without unnecessary elaboration. Things were going well. I enjoyed the treats that the Iguana’s wife and daughters provided on perfect blue plates, and made an appropriate face when I bit into a sour fruit, making the children twitter — the toddlers and geckos who hung from the doorposts, unabashedly staring.
“Well,” he said, stretching his forelegs with an air of completion. “We are interested in getting to know you better, Señor Calvin. Let us—”
Then suddenly Grandfather croaked. Someone was coming — it was the police.
Now, Officer Jimenez, you know that I have no reason to fear the police. I have met with many of you, and have hosted you at public gatherings and private meetings like this one. I believe myself to be on good terms with the authorities in Havana.
You are not wrong to say so.
But the commotion in the little room was so immediate and frantic that I was swept up in it. One aunt unceremoniously lifted the Iguana under her arm like a football. I offered to carry Grandfather, which Yasmin let me know with a worried smile was a nice move. His hard, shellacked belly and my hand were a perfect fit. I patted the back of his shell with my other hand, and said, Te tengo a ti, abuelo.
The women whispered us through the courtyard, and through to another apartment building, while sirens seemed to be coming from all directions. With all of the ducking and squeezing I had to do, it was hard to see which way I was going through the muddy alleys, but at least we didn’t have to go underground. And Yasmin stayed close while Grandfather made open-mouthed mumblings that seemed reassuring. Yasmin was luminous: her dress was soiled now, and her hair — with which she had taken such care that morning at the hotel — was comically disheveled. Her eye makeup was streaked, and she had a nine-year-old girl in one hand, and a hummingbird in the other as we dashed from safety to safety. She seemed exceedingly herself, fleeing with everyone.
At last we came to the side entrance of a cathedral — an old one, I’d guess, from the time of the Spanish. In an alcove as we entered there was a fading crèche on a raised platform. The figures of the Christ baby and his family and admirers had been stored away, but the little stable with its dusty straw had not yet been cleared. We quick-stepped to the front of the altar. I only just now could see how many of us there were. At the house there must have been at least two dozen there to inspect me and witness my presentation to the Iguana. But apparently it was he who was in danger — most of the women had disappeared, probably circling back to their homes. There were just nine of us now who still hurried through to a door at the side of the dais that was usually only used by priests and altar boys: Yasmin, Grandfather and I; Tía Maria, the grand aunt who was leading the escape, holding the Iguana in her burly bare arms; the two smaller lizards with the collars, who were clearly the Iguana’s boys. The dark one might have been his son, the other — a brother or schoolmate — was as long as the Iguana, but without the same power in his stride. I remember that this fellow’s name was Chulo. Yasmin had let the little girl go near a friend’s home, but the hummingbird was still with her, sometimes flitting near the gardenia wilting in her hair, at other times cradled in her perfect little hand.
The last of our group, and the only one behind me, was a flamingo who hadn’t been with us in the house, but seemed to have joined us in our flight. Strapped to his right wing was an automatic rifle that seemed to have been custom made for him. It hung over his narrow feathered shoulder with the relaxed comfort that a good weapon should. I couldn’t see what the trigger mechanism was, but I was willing to live on in ignorance.
An altar boy with a clubbed foot was holding the door open for us, but it was such a tight squeeze for me that I tried to back off and sit in a pew. But the flamingo was having none of it: “Están con nosotros, cabrón,” and he shoved me inside with a vicious poke into the back of my thigh with what could have been the gun, or could have been his beak.
Once the altar boy had closed the door behind us, and gone to fetch a pitcher of water, everyone relaxed a bit. The sirens were still weaving in and out of earshot, but they seemed to be less concentrated, and even Tía Maria sat down heavily in a straight back chair and, lowering the Iguana onto the desktop, started fanning herself with a hymnal.
It was a robing room, where the priests and altar boys would prepare for mass. A few gowns hung on wooden hooks on one wall, and the small but ornate dark wood desk where the Iguana was sitting. There were a few chairs, and, behind the desk, a wardrobe. There was no chair here big enough for me, so I eased down onto the floor, leaning on the plastered wall that flaked onto my neck. In that position, I was roughly eye to eye with the Iguana as he scanned the room. Grandfather released himself from my hand and slowly worked his way over to the floor next to the desk.
The flamingo stood near the door, with his head tipped to hear anything happening outside. It really was a magnificent gun, and I was very impressed at the flamingo for being able to hold it.
“Well, my friend,” said the Iguana, slowly closing his eyes as his Tía continued to fan him and herself intermittently. “Now you know something about the family of your beloved Yasmin. We have lizards and birds, and we do not like the police.”
Then he opened his eyes and turned the full weight of his cold reptilian stare at me. “Now it is time for us to find out about you, Señor Calvin. How is it that twenty minutes after you visit my Tía’s home, we have unwelcome visitors?”
The two smaller lizards were hissing lowly at me, and as I stumbled for an answer, they had climbed up my legs, and we perched on my thighs, gripping the skin through my pants and threatening more serious damage. It turns out they have teeth after all. The flamingo behind me was audibly ruffling.
“I have told you that, through my business, I have had some contact with the police. But you must believe that I have told no one about this meeting.”
The flamingo let out a kind of bark, and the lizards in my lap were slithering their tails along my calves. I put my hand on the one I thought was the Iguana’s son, and was ready to fling him violently from me — his claws would tear, but he would hit the flamingo with a lot of force.
But the Iguana said, “Boys! Boys! ¡Pare! I don’t want to kill him. Think of the mess!” His tail swished back and forth on the desk, scattering some of the priest’s papers. “No, I want to teach him something.”
The lizards let the spines on their backs relax, but kept their mouths poised and their claws flexed. When I stole a glance at the flamingo, he had the gun leveled right at my nose.
The Iguana bobbed his head. He seemed to be waiting for me to say something, to beg for my life or something. But I took a more direct approach, and asked, “What am I supposed to learn?”
“Fuck you, gringo. That’s what you’re supposed to learn.”
I was alarmed to discover that the result of this interview suddenly mattered to me. Carlos, you must understand that during most of the time I have lived here in your wonderful country, much of the attraction has been that nothing is too serious for me: if one officer is not open to negotiations, another will be. If one client loses patience with waiting for progress, another client will develop an interest.
If one woman moves back to her village—
Yes, exactly. If one woman moves back to her village, there will always be another one. But this time, what can I say? I wanted the Iguana to like me. I almost wanted to be part of his band. When he told his boys to release me, I think I would have done anything, if it meant that he would approve of my relationship with Yasmin. She had gotten up to stand next to the Iguana and had an enigmatic grin plastered on her face like a luggage tag. She looked at me, and her eyes gleamed.
Then she started speaking in a low, quiet voice, the kind I had only heard before in the dark of night. At first I couldn’t tell what she was saying, with the distractions on my legs and the adrenaline rushing. But I realized eventually that she was reciting something.
“Observe Ruth’s humility. When Providence had made her poor, she cheerfully stoops to her lot. High spirits will rather starve than stoop; not so Ruth. Nay, it is her own proposal. She speaks humbly in her expectation of leave to glean. We may not demand kindness as a debt, but ask, and take it as a favour, though in a small matter. Ruth also was an example of industry. She loved not to eat the bread of idleness. This is an example to young people.”
Here she laid a delicate hand out to the hummingbird, who perched there with his head cocked, listening.
“Diligence promises well, both for this world and the other. We must not be shy of any honest employment. No labour is a reproach. Sin is a thing below us, but we must not think any thing else so, to which Providence call us. She was an example of regard to her mother, and of trust in Providence. God wisely orders what seem to us small events; and those that appear altogether uncertain, still are directed to serve his own glory, and the good of his people.”
What was it? A story?
I found out later that it was a Spanish translation of an eighteenth century biblical commentary. She’s been studying it on her own for some time, apparently. She turned to her brother, who looked up at her with a mixture of pride and awe, if such an expression can be identified in a reptile. It was like the face you see on them when they are basking.
“The pious and kind language between Boaz and his reapers shows that there were godly persons in Israel. Such language as this is seldom heard in our field; too often, on the contrary, what is immoral and corrupt. A stranger would form a very different opinion of our land, from that which Ruth would form of Israel from the converse and conduct of Boaz and his reapers. But true religion will teach a man to behave aright in all states and conditions; it will form kind masters and faithful servants, and cause harmony in families. True religion will cause mutual love and kindness among persons of different ranks. It had these effects on Boaz and his men. When he came to them he prayed for them. They did not, as soon as he was out of hearing curse him, as some ill-natured servants that hate their master’s eye, but they returned his courtesy. Things are likely to go on well where there is such goodwill as this between masters and servants. They expressed their kindness to each other by praying one for another. Boaz inquired concerning the stranger he saw, and ordered her to be well treated. Masters must take care, not only that they do no hurt themselves, but that they suffer not their servants and those under them to do wrong. Ruth humbly owned herself unworthy of favours, seeing she was born and brought up a heathen. It well becomes us all to think humbly of ourselves, esteeming others better than ourselves. And let us, in the kindness of Boaz to Ruth, note the kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ to poor sinners.”
When Yasmin finished, all of the violence in the room had dissipated. The Iguana’s henchmen had leaned back on their haunches to listen to her, and now they ambled up to her and leaned their bodies into her ankles, the way a cat does. The flamingo put up his rifle and opened the door. Tía Maria walked up to Yasmin, put both hands on her cheeks, and gave her three kisses on her forehead. She was teary, and she picked up the Iguana and led them all out of the robing room, even the altar boy. As Yasmin left the room, she turned back at me with a look I cannot explain. Then the altar boy closed the door behind her, and I was alone in the room.
And that was it? You just went home?
I went back to my hotel. I know nothing about the world, Carlos. I am as confused as a goat on a chessboard.
Yes, but what about the Iguana? Have you seen him again?
I realize now that I have made a mistake telling all of this to Officer Jimenez. Yes, he pretends to be dismissive and nonchalant while he chews the last cube of ice in his whiskey. He is pretending to be amused by my story, rather than shocked and scheming. But I know he will try to use this information somehow, to take the story and manipulate it to his advantage. I have given something away. I should know better. My friends here lie to me with exquisite taste. I have bumbled from the start.