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La Jinetera
Barbara Torresi in Cuba

February is the coldest month of the year in Havana, with strong gales that ruffle the ocean and hurl its foamy tentacles across the seawall. On the other side of the waterfront, barely shielded from the silvery sprinkle by the sparse evening traffic, a bespectacled man is listening intently to a girl, concentration splitting his forehead into a canyon of leathery skin.


In the face of a two year relationship, if long distance and hiccupy, Tommaso still finds Lisy’s accent a hindrance for communication. He frowns, he furrows, he shakes his head in frustration, but the girl's language skills are even poorer than his own. Of course, she has learnt to blurt out the odd merci to please him, but then she can thank men in most EU languages. And Russian too, given that affluent visitors from beyond the former iron curtain are amongst the most generous customers of Cuba's budding industry of pleasure.

In spite of her tender age (she has just turned twenty) Lisy plays skilfully all parts in the playbook, even if the only one she puts her heart in is that of the adoring fiancée of a handsome entrepreneur speeding around in a Class L rental. Alas, Javier stopped visiting, and her current suitor doesn’t cut it as a dashing heartbreaker: with thinning grey hair and heavy bags under eyes framed by rimless spectacles, the history teacher from Toulouse looks at best like a stylish uncle. He belongs to the category of occasional boyfriends, someone whose main attraction lies within the folds of his wallet. Sometimes Lisy feels sorry for Tommaso and his seemingly genuine and on the whole unrequited affection for her. On other occasions pity is replaced by contempt, and expensive shopping sprees are the only activity she deems him fit for.

While most jineteras would never dream of throwing icy water on Tommaso’s romantic overtures, Lisy’s plans for the future do not contemplate a geriatric husband. And as a beautiful child-woman with honey coloured skin, a mouth like a rosebud, and almond shaped eyes, she knows her bargaining chips are plenty. Her needs are also manyfold, and while waiting for Mr Right to rescue her from a life of hardship she rarely passes up an opportunity to make a few bucks.

Lisy is the eldest of four siblings and the household's prime breadwinner. Her mother works as a nurse for 275 pesos (12 USD) a month and her stepfather is, in her own words, as useful as a sole-less shoe. At age seventeen she was grassed up by an envious neighbour for making out with a blond yuma (foreigner) in one of Havana’s swankiest bars.

The blessing of the family followed suit.

All considered, they thought, better a man who can help with household expenses than a good for nothing who sits on his doorstep drinking cheap rum all day.

The Gutierrez family’s financial woes keep cropping up in the conversation between the unlikely couple sipping cocktails in the haze of a furious Caribbean: ‘Tomi, mi vida, do you remember that hotel job Pablito was offered the last time you came to visit? Well, it never materialised because they said his English was rubbish! Mother didn’t stop crying for a week. Lisy, she said, if only we had enough money for private classes… so I gave Pablito the 20 dollars you gave me for my French books, but he came home with a pair of new trainers! He said the money wasn’t enough for the lessons anyway. But what can I do? The boys eat like lions and all my money I spend at the market. Buying groceries. Do you know how much a bottle of oil costs? Two dollars and twenty cents! That's one fifth of my mum’s salary’. Tommaso’s heart never fails to soften and promises of financial aid are promptly made. Lisy smiles and pecks him on the neck. Then, with the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of the couple holding hands at a nearby table.

The girl, a pretty negrita about her age, is smiling adoringly at a handsome Spanish boy while he whispers in her ear something that makes both of them burst into laughter. When their giggles subside and his voice becomes audible, Lisy’s heart is stabbed by pangs of envy: ‘I can’t wait to take you to Europe! We can go see concerts, we can go to, to the beach with my friends. The Canaries. I’ve never been to the Canaries, can you believe it? They say the sea is as blue as Varadero's’... and the evening with old, boring Tommaso turns into an unbearable torture.

Two hours later Lisy is sitting at another plastic table with chipped edges, in another of Havana’s all-night drinking dens, talking to yet another foreigner: me. After shaking off Tommaso with an excuse she moved to the next hunting ground down the road, joining our common friend Roberto and me for drinks after it became clear that the evening would bring no fruitful encounter. It is rare for Lisy to fail an approach, and her disappointment translates into a long moaning session centred on Tommaso's timid marriage talk: ‘But he is forty-nine!’ she shouts into Roberto’s left ear, ‘In fact, I think he’s been lying to me. Have you seen his hands? He must be at least a decade older... he told me he dyes his hair. Mi madre, I think he dyes his eyebrows too!’

‘So what?’ says Roberto only half jokingly ‘You should be happy. You’ll have your inheritance before you are too old to enjoy life. If you can’t wait, just divorce him as soon as you get your passport’. Lisy mocks disgust. She is not that type, she insists - as soon as she remembers my presence. One thing is hanging out with someone occasionally, another committing to being the mother of his children: ‘You must not get me wrong’, she says breathlessly turning to me ‘I am not like the others. I have no pimp and only do quickies when I am really strapped for cash. What I really want is to meet someone nice I can fall in love with, a man who’ll take me to a place where I can do something with my life’, she darts a scornful look at Roberto, ‘something that doesn’t involve changing incontinence pads to a senile husband’.

And she continues, ‘Here I have no opportunity to study or get a decent job because I have to feed my family. And food is so expensive! I have no money for clothes or transport. Do you know how much two pounds of pork cost? Three dollars, which is one fourth of what my mum earns in a month’. For a split second I can’t suppress a motion of sympathy for poor, old, creepy but royally duped Tommaso, then a glance at my squalid surroundings reminds me that Cubans have excellent reasons to complain about their predicament, and the undisputable right to pursue a genuine love life.

But what can I do, after all? Lisy will have to decide for herself whether economic security is worth sentimental captivity. My help will have to be limited at another round of drinks, worth one fourth of her mother’s salary.
Cuban girl

© Barbara Torresi April 2006 (2018 update)
Barbara's link:

El Jinetero
Barbara Torresi
The sky was hurtful to watch, a flat distension of grey steel threatening to hang over his head like a divine chastisement throughout the northern winter ...

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