Men Who Use the Night
My name is Pedro Pablo Espumante. I was nineteen and in love with seventeen year old Gloria María de Jesus y Manresa. She was the love of my life and the reason I had visited Cayo Barrido, Cuba for Christmas of '58. Her eyes were green-brown, and she wore her hair in a pageboy hairdo. Her smile was always sweet, a trace of Spanish sadness in her eyes. I was already a college student in Texas, permanently homesick about Cayo Barrido and my glorious princess, Gloria María. She always made it a point to tell me I was handsome. At six feet two inches tall, I was one of the tallest men in our town. At age nineteen, I believed I was handsome. I believed myself important, destined for great things. I believed in the Epiphany. I believed in God and in the Catholic Church. I believed that one day we would all go to heaven. I had faith.
I didn't know then that all humans are but little molecules that move about this earth, and that no one should trust revolutions that promise emancipation. Emancipated men find themselves facing a new set of rules. Sometimes these are incomprehensible, and even crueler rules.
I wanted Christmas, Nochebuena (The Good Night) and Parrandas (The Street Celebrations), Cuban style. I wasn't expecting shootings, hatred, or war. It wasn't the time for me to remember Cubans in the 1850s trying to get Vanderbilt involved in kicking the Spaniards out of the Island. It wasn't the time for me to remember how Marti died in an 1895 battle near Dos Rios. Cuba's had such a long history of fighting of independence!
Still, I was in Cuba to spend Christmas vacation, not to worry about old rifles or machine guns. I was home from college in Texas, impatient for freedom from Batista, but even more impatient to dance with my sweetheart, hold her in my arms and kiss her lips. I was home to be with her, my parents, and my friends. Christmas of 58 was a good time to be alive and hope for the future. Then, the war came my way. Very few had expected it would come so soon.
It exploded like a night version of the afternoon thunderstorms of summer days. Suddenly, our town was a trap and I was in it. The bridges of the highway to Santa Clara — leading to the Carretera Central and Havana — no longer existed, and the rebels had already blown up the railroad tracks that provided the only other escape to the rest of the island. The barbudos and peluos (bearded and long-haired ones) were on their way to save us from Batista's oppression, or so we believed.
The rebels began firing at eleven. Los rurales moved behind their concrete fences and fired back. The gun flashes lit up the night, competed with the stars and the moon, and reminded everyone that, just two days earlier at the parrandas, five hundred thousand sky rockets lighted the sky to celebrate Christmas, Nochebuena, as we knew it. Everyone felt elated: floats, muchachas (girls), drinks, dancing in the streets, and Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass — Mass of the Rooster) to show respect to Jesus. It was about the Spirit of Christmas, Cuban style. It was Christmas with a conga line.
My father said, "We're going to have to get you back to Havana so you can go back to Texas. I want you to be on the first flight we can put you on. I don't want you involved in this chaos. We'll do it even if we have to walk to Santa Clara and find transportation from there."
I wanted to argue, but my father was the absolute power in our household. "Father, I'm worried about Gloria María."
"She'll be fine. For you the important thing is to return to college. Your future depends on it."
My father was a planner, one of those men for whom the future of their sons takes precedence over any other endeavor. He was in this world to protect me, ensure that I had a decent productive life, even if it meant staying in the United States forever.
"He's right, Pedro Pablo," said my mother, kissing my cheek.
By morning, no one was hurt and no one died in the assault on Army headquarters. It was a strange battle. Men fired at each other from around corners without risking their bodies. It wasn't like the landings at The Sands of Iwo Jima. I had seen that movie. That was a real war. John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker, and a bunch of Japanese. The sound track rose to a horrible crescendo. People died in real wars. Dead bodies littered the beaches. That was war. War was horrible, not a celebration of long-haired people who smiled a great deal, some through perfect teeth and others showing gaping black holes. Still, we all felt on the verge of a kind of liberation that only Simon Bolivar or Marti had achieved at a time of glorious wars against a terrible oppressor. Cayo Barrido's marine air became pregnant with the smell of gunpowder, sugar cane, and cigar smoke. Everyone's lungs felt the joy of freedom filtering through. I felt the power of freedom in my chest. Batista was about to get his due. The tyrant had come to power in March 1952, and now the long-awaited dreams of freedom came packaged with Christmas spirit, with the joy of a religious holiday. Some had even compared Fidel to the Christ, as our Savior.
I spent the night of the battle at Gloria María's. Everyone in the household watched us so we wouldn't do anything wrong. It was a time of modesty, chaperones, and much vigilance, even while at war. The virginity of women was sacred, as much so as the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother. The chastity of women was more important than the fight for freedom.
"You sleep here," Gloria María's mother said to me, pointing at the last room on the northern — and farthest away from Gloria María's suite — end of the house. My beloved's sisters giggled. I stared at one, Elsita, the youngest, and she blushed and ran away to her own bedroom.
The Battle of Cayo Barrido raged in the western outskirts of Cayo Barrido, near Army Headquarters — a kind of low-walled fort — where Batista's troops took refuge. How did they hope to hold that fort? The position was indefensible. In a few days, they would have no water or food. Still, no one in town slept that night. We gathered at the front balcony and watched the flashes from firearms and Molotov cocktails, marveling at the whistling noises of supersonic bullets on their way somewhere. We were seven blocks away from the action. We were safe while others fought, but we all felt fear in our hearts. No one in town had ever been to war. Some feared there would be dozens dead, but no one died. One guerrilla suffered a wound. He shot himself through the foot when his rifle went off on him.
After the fighting, Batista's troops — demoralized and secretly happy that the dictator had fled — surrendered and marched under the rebels' custody to the local jail. The citizenry came out in droves to greet the rebels, and everyone roared, wept, shouted, or prayed their approval. They cheered in adulation. They invited the men to cake and coffee, or Cuban toast, or arroz con picadillo (Cuban hash with rice), and even to rum or brandy, the latter always a Spanish brand. The rebels wore rosaries around their necks. Some had the haunted look of zombies from B-rated Hollywood movies. Some wore their hair down to their shoulders, and some wore cowboy hats. They all stank of earth and pig sancocho, the mix of human leftovers used to fatten the animals into near hippos. The men's hair was a matter of honor: the longer the locks, the more time spent in the Sierras and the more honor due them. I wondered where they got the olive green uniforms. One of them, they said, was Camilo Cienfuegos. The other one, assisted by two young men from San, the nearby town of San Juan, was Che Guevara. One of the two men was Lampino, whom I had last seen as a young high school student, two years earlier. Lampino said Che was sick and needed a doctor. Che coughed as if his lungs would fly out of his chest. They took him to El Liceo where my father, Doctor Espumante, attended to his health. Sick or not, Guevara' words struck me for their sheer venom, spouting four-letter words at everyone. He was angry at something, maybe at himself. Camilo arrived one hour later and came to see him. Camilo was a nice man. He smiled at everyone. He wore a rosary around his neck.
"Che, will you be all right?" asked Camilo.
"Of course I will," said the Argentinean, grunting. "Mira Che, soy asmatico. Que boluda suerte que tengo! Que mierda!" His Spanish sounded alien, filled with Italian emphasis, demanding, the way Argentineans always would. "Look guy, I'm asthmatic; my shitty luck to get sick! Shit!" That's what he said.
Camilo turned his eyes to me and said, "We're doing this for the freedom of Cuba, but I'm not sure about the future." I wasn't sure if he was talking to everyone, but all of us stood by and held our breaths as he spoke. Che and Camilo were legendary and here they were, a few feet away from the rest of us. I would have some story to tell my American friends when I returned to Texas.
"What do you mean, Camilo?" asked Lampino, his hair twirling behind his back to his waist. He was chewing on an H.Upman cigar the way Black Pete chewed up his own jaws in the Mickey Mouse comic books. Black Pete was evil in a funny way. Lampino, of pink complexion, long and somewhat bent forward, had the looks of a Cuban buzzard. I knew him to be about seventeen years old. He'd been a champion swimmer for the province, but I had beaten him several times when he tried rising to the eighteen and under championships. He was too young then. I beat him in every freestyle event. Now he was a warrior, he was Che Guevara's mastiff, and never once did he speak to me.
"I've heard things," said Camilo, turning to Guevara. "Che Guevara, you have to smile more. We Cubans are happy people. You Argentineans are always so somber. Lighten up, my friend; we're in the tropics, not in the pampas."
Lampino shrugged. Guevara grunted and coughed, his whole body trembling as he did. The sparse black beard made him look even paler. I noticed he wore no rosary around his neck.
Before the rebels swept from the center of the Island to Cayo Barrido, my father warned me that Che was a communist, even visited the Soviet Union for training. "But, Pedrito," said my father, "nobody wants to believe that. Fidel and Raul are communists too."
On that day of liberation, I whispered to my father, "Is Camilo one of them? Is Camilo a communist?"
He spoke softly so no one would hear him. "Everyone thinks Camilo wants Cuba's freedom, elections, a new beginning," said my father, reaching for a cigar out of his guayabera and lighting it.
"What about, Che?" I asked.
"He has the eyes of a rabid dog," said my father, pulling his Ray Bans out of his shirt's pocket. His voice trembled a little.
Camilo left Cayo Barrido and resumed his fight to take other towns. Che remained in El Liceo, making nasty faces at everyone who came near him. He seemed angry, neurotic, a kind of spoiled child used to having his way, and I didn't like him at all. Throughout his stay in Cayo Barrido, only Lampino remained close to the Argentinean legend. Anyone else had to ask for permission to get close to Guevara, even my father when he came to check him out.
On the third day, my friend Pepito San Roman rushed to my house. "The news is terrible," he said, breathless. "Che Guevara has ordered the entire platoon of army prisoners to be shot to death. They called it Paredón. The people are out there, by the jail, and they're all shouting "Paredón, Paredón!" ("To the Wall!"). They say the firing squad will do its duty tomorrow at four in the morning.
"But those people surrendered, and they were secret rebel sympathizers. I knew some of them, and they too wanted Batista to go away. How can this be?" I protested.
"Son," said Gloria María's father, Don Jose, "communists will justify anything. It happened in Russia, and it's happened everywhere they've led revolutions. The worst is yet to come."
On January 1, 1959, Fidel reached Havana. Che and Camilo were with him. The men they buried in Cayo Barrido after Che left did not die in battle. Perhaps it was all a nightmare. Perhaps no one shot anyone. Perhaps no one shouted "Paredón." Maybe my people never kissed murderer's asses the way they did those days. Maybe they never kissed Fidel's ass for the past forty-six years. Maybe, maybe, but they have.
A few months later, Camilo was dead. Che was very much alive. Rumors spread throughout the Island that Fidel was jealous of Camilo's popularity. An airplane, some said a Sea Fury, had taken off from Camaguey and shot down the light craft in which Camilo was flying to attend a meeting with other commanders. They said that no one found Camilo's plane. They said it went down somewhere near Cayo Coco, or maybe Cayo Romano. The Sabana-Camaguey archipelago has thousands of islands. Who cared which one swallowed him?
On January 4, 1959, right after Castro's takeover, my father managed to drive us to Havana via Placetas. Someone had managed to patch the bridge over the river between Cayo Barrido and Placetas. In the morning, before our departure, Gloria María and I said our tearful good-byes in front of her house. We held our hands until I, already seated in the backseat of our family's Dodge, had to let go of hers as the car began to roll.
"Please come back," she cried, and her eyes looked greener now. I wondered if her eyes reflected the time of the day, the sun's angle, or if maybe, I wanted to remember them that way. I remember wondering why green or brown was so important.
Next morning, as if twenty-four hours were but a fraction of a second, I was on a Braniff DC-6 and on my way back to Houston, Texas where everyone spoke in soft whispers, where in time I grew used to such things as Santa Claus, and Thanksgiving Dinners. Half way there, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the plane's engines quit. I felt my heart stop.
A woman in the aisle seat stared at me with terrified eyes. None of it seemed real. My thoughts were still with Gloria María.
"I don't think we're going to die," I said, convinced by some word from my soul that it wasn't yet the moment. Her eyes relaxed and she smiled. I imagined how Camilo Cienfuego's plane must have stopped flying when riddled with bullets from the powerful Sea Fury. I imagined that if the DC-6 went down, I would end up at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, or perhaps hungry sharks would devour my body before it sank. Did sharks eat human bones? I thought for a moment that Fidel, the new pilot, would extinguish our faulty engines in mid-flight, taking our Island craft to the bottom of the ocean.
No, I couldn't die yet. The plane had to fly me to school, to Texas. I had much living ahead.
The slick flight attendant, hair neat and face perfectly made up, passed in the aisle. "Don't worry, folks," she smiled, convincingly. "These things happen. The captain has assured us the engine's been shut down and we should be fine to make it to Houston." I remember hoping and praying that a similar great outcome would happen in my country, that Castro would see the opportunity for the democratic way, and that he would set aside all rumors of a communist tyranny coming to power.
A few weeks and months after my return to Texas, via letters and notes from friends and relatives, and even from Gloria María, I learned that some minds were all ready changing in Cuba. Many leaders looked at the Castro brothers and Che through different eyes. Some began secret talks about starting a counter-revolution. The intrigue and politics of revolutions, insurgency, spying, and wars was once again beginning, just as they had back in the 1850s when Vanderbilt was contacted by Cubans and when Jose Marti was born.
In July of '61 my father wrote, "Gloria María has gone to Havana to arrange for passage to the United States. She should be arriving in November." Two years had passed since my departure from Cuba. No U.S. airlines flew to Cuba any more. Fidel had declared, "I've always been and always will be a Marxist-Leninist." The Bay of Pigs betrayal, the massive mess, was already part of history. A long history of blaming the United States for all evils under the sun found reinforcement in Castro's words. The Kennedys followed Eisenhower in the involvement.
On September 19, 1961, after a month of not receiving letters
from my parents or from Gloria María, I received a letter
from Pepito San Roman. It was a simple letter:
"I just escaped from Cuba and am living in Madrid for the time being. I want to find my way to Miami. They sentenced your parents to ten years in jail after someone accused them of counter-revolutionary activities. I'm sorry to have to tell you this as well: a firing squad led by Lampino shot Gloria María outside Cayo Barrido, behind the local cemetery, on August 30. If you return, the authorities will force you to work for the government. No one in Cuba has any freedoms any more. Wait it out. Since the charges against your parents are false, fabricated lies, they will get out in a relatively short while. I know someone who can help get them visas to travel to Costa Rica after they release them from jail. We will get rid of Fidel within two years, but he has taken all weapons from the people. It won't be easy. Keep the faith. Un abrazo, Pepito."
Cubans always sent abrazos (hugs) through their letters. Pepito's abrazo didn't sweeten the news in his letter.
I felt the bullets that killed Gloria María in my own gut and doubled over. I had to vomit. I did. I gasped. I cried in pain. Even as I threw up the contents of my stomach, I wondered about the size of the holes that the bullets of those old Garand rifles — old Spanish relics — drilled into Gloria María. I wanted her back. I needed her to be alive. I needed to see the love in her eyes once again. Where were her lips, and her shapely figure, and her melodious voice?
I heard no music, and no one played a soundtrack. This was not a movie. I imagined Gloria María's body in her grave while ugly underground creatures scratched and clawed their way through the wood of her coffin to get to her lovely flesh.
The firing squads went on, shots in the night, even if the later-revised Cuban History of the Revolution twisted all events to show to the naïve of the world, those willing to believe that communist radicals were men of reason and peace, that the firing squads, killings, and political incarcerations never took place.
The people of Cuba continued shouting "Paredón!" even as many more left the Island any way they could. They still do it. To this day, they do it. They have to. They will always do it as long as the communists remain in charge.
My parents left by boat in 1962 — they spent four days at sea, including a stop in Bimini — and now live in New York. They will never see Cuba again. Castro remains in power, strangely protected by some governments in the hemisphere. It's been forty-six years. Famous U.S. personalities have licked Castro's boots, and even today, we see books in large U.S. chain stores, international booksellers, praising Che Guevara's adventures, and blaming Cuban-Americans as members of a deadly Miami Maffia. They're selling seductive balderdash to masses of teenagers and college students who are led to believe Che Guevara was an angel of freedom. Dead balseros's bodies cover the bottom of the Straits. Cuba is a nation of child prostitution for tourists, and jineteras (young sex mates) who marry Italians, Swedes, Mexicans, Spaniards, or Canadians to leave their country of birth. Today, Cuba has the highest suicide rate in the world. Why would the land of sugar cane, tobacco, and rum induce its sons and daughters to kill themselves? I'll never see Cuba again. I don't want to. I'll never set foot in a place where a murdering bastard reigns over a population of slaves.
A jealous Fidel eased Che out of Cuba in the mid-'60s. The Bolivian Army and the CIA killed him, in 1967, after he transferred to that country his asthmatic cough and his haunting terrorist sickness. Before he left, they even named him President of the National Bank and he signed Cuban bills with his nickname, Che. He continued to work by night, but when caught he begged for his life while on his knees. He was a coward after all. He had no rosary around his neck when they shot him. He was a coughing coward.
Fidel, to this day, continues to be up all night, granting interviews to famous U.S. personalities who appear seduced by the bearded man's words. He has bought some U.S. politicians and celebrities. He's either bought them or caught them in compromising situations with government-provided jineteras or child prostitutes. The Cuban government videotapes everything. I wonder why lies are so seductive, and why intelligent people fall prey to them. Perhaps there is truth about Satan being a seducer. Perhaps there is truth to the rumors that the world will soon end.
More recently, Fidel took time to steal Elian Gonzalez away in the night. The U.S. Government turned to a woman who pretended to be friendly toward Cuban-Americans to make things right, to return a child to his father. The child's mother drowned in vain. U.S. businessmen and politicians seeking to trade with a murderer threw a party for Elian in Washington, after his violent abduction in Miami. U.S. network anchormen continue to visit the bearded parrot and call him, "Mister President."
Lampino is still in Cuba, a minister of something-or-other, a big shot. He killed Gloria María. One day I'll have to kill him. I think of him day and night.
Now I'm old, past sixty. I sense how I received the seeds of hatred that stir in my chest. It was back then, when the world ended in betrayals and murders, and the liars, demagogues and bullies flowed over the land like lava running down the slopes of a volcano. Cuba, under Castro, has grown from a Second to a Third World Country, its once prospering economy — back in the '40s and '50s easily among the top three in Latin America — ruined by an unworkable system, fanatic ideology, and the ego of a man who has once again proven that the great social experiment of communism doesn't work. It didn't work in the Soviet Union, and it will never work anywhere.
We Cubans searched for beneficent angels in the likes of Fidel, Che, and Raul. We found disaster. Much worse tyrants and murderers found their way into government, and turned our Island home into their own personal plantation.
More than thirty-five years ago, I married an American woman, Connie Arthurs, from Chicago. I live in Georgia now. The views of hills and trees are beautiful. I live inland, not by Cayo Barrido's sea. Each night I see Gloria María's green eyes in my dreams, like emeralds freshly arrived from Colombian mines. We kiss, and then she says she must leave. I ask, "Where are you going." She says, "I've got to fight for freedom." And she leaves me, a trace of gardenias floating in the breeze of her parting. I hope I'll dream of her again and again.
Sometimes I wake up crying and wanting to die, but I can't leave the world yet. A few things are still unresolved. I know Lampino is still alive, and I still wonder where Camilo Cienfuegos is, and what he might have done had he lived. Che Guevara? Sometimes I imagine him in hell. I imagine Satan hammering his testicles several times a day.
I still hear no sound track. I'm not in a movie. Gloria María is dead. It all happened. The words happily ever after are nowhere in sight. Awful men still use the night.
by Raul E. Jimenez
... who is a meteorologist, counselor, and freelance writer, with three short stories anthologized by The Writers' Association (2004). His "Story of a Kiss" was a finalist in Glimmertrain's Fall '04 Contest for New Writers.