A stubborn drizzle drove the President of the United States to first open his umbrella; only then, was he able to waive at those who were waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. Accompanied by Michelle, his mother in law and his two daughters, he descended from Air Force One as if someone else, not the first President from that country to visit Havana in eighty-eight years; such images had not been seen since the end of the 1920s, during Gerardo Machado’s regime, when Calvin Coolidge partook in an international summit aboard a warship.
Millions of television viewers could have thought the person descending those stairs was primarily a father eager to please his daughters, a good husband or a son in law who loves his mother in law, any and all these things much more so than the first US President to step on Cuban soil during the Castros’ revolutionary government, and that could be the first memorable image of the visit.
That’s what the Mexican commentator told his colleague, half jokingly, an attempt at a serious reflection, from the television set clinging to a wall, and that’s how customers at El Kardi, a small cafe somewhere in Chihuahua, saw and heard it, people who did not want to lose sight of the tiniest details and did not think too much before complaining when a waiters or waitress got in between the television set and themselves; the costumers by the glass front complained the most.
—Think you can get out of the way, girl?, is what Ferrán said, smiling at one of the waitresses. It does nothing for me to see you in that spot.
—And how can I be of use to you, sir?
The waitress placed three shot glasses and a bottle of tequila on the table, barely making eye contact, but leaving with a faint smile on her face. Ferrán noticed her ass as she walked away, towards the bar, sighed a brief instant and shook his head side to side as if thinking, She’s not my type. Demetrio also noticed, but his bodily response was much more complacent, as if thinking, I’ve seen worse, and worse have I been with, then reached for the bottle, served a shot to Ferrán, then to a third glass and finally poured on his own.
—A historic day, Ferrán; he arrives in Cuba and I go to the United States.
—We go, said Demetrio. Don’t forget that.
—Can't forget that, brother, and I will wait for you.
—A few hours after you get there, you’ll see me arrive.
—And we’ll meet at Bar López.
—Right! We’ll see each other at Bar López, said Demetrio. Don’t throw the address away.
—Have it in my pocket, bro, impossible to lose.
—We’ll get a job there, said Demetrio.
A job and a future. Ferrán looked at the street on the other side of the glass, a scorching sun threatening to melt a line of cars parked by the pickup truck that would carry them to the border; he then raised his glass and both toasted. Just then, Billy appeared—their American friend, originally from California—back from the bathroom.
—And, why are you toasting, guys?
—Why else, Billy, we’re off the United States today; need more reason than that?
—Bah, that’s what I thought.
Billy pointed to the television set, the President, umbrella in hand, protecting his wife from a light drizzle as the Mexican commentator continued to highlight the expressive power of that image.
—No room for improvement, he continued.
—We do it for our own visit, Billy, said Demetrio.
—Well, then, I’ll toast with you.
—Why?, Demetrio asked.
—I wouldn’t like to return to the US; I prefer Havana, like the President.
—But you’re going to help us out with your pickup truck, Billy, and then you’ll have to return, said Ferrán.
—Yes, that’s what we said, and I’ll keep my word.
—Well, then?, said Ferrán.
—I will take up to El Paso, but then I have to turn back and head to México City and from there, you know where to, boys.
Billy, laughing, grabbed a seat, looked at the television as the President with umbrella, on that humid runway at José Martí Airport in Havana, greeted people with firm eyes, a light smile, handshakes and introduced his mother in law, First Lady Michelle and her daughters to an attentive delegation of Cuban and US diplomats, all comparably protected under umbrellas.
—We’ve always said you’re a crazy yankee, Billy, and that idea of yours confirms it; don’t you think?, said Demetrio.
—Bah, don't call me yankee; you know I don’t like it.
—Ok, I’ll call you yuma, then, like Ferrán.
—You see? Yuma, I do like; it’s less negative and has a stronger Cuban flavor.
—And, how many times have you been to Cuba, Billy?
—Six times, counting this one, but always having to go through some third country; otherwise, my own government gives me a fine.
—It’s not easy, said Ferrán.
—No, it’s not easy, as you all say.
—And why is that, said Demetrio.
—We, people from the US, can travel to communist China but are unable to go to Havana; that’s our own readjustment law, don't you think, guys?
—And why the obsession with Havana, Billy? A forbidden fruit?
—Nothing of the sort, Demetrio; Havana is the best little place in the world. You guys are nuts if you think otherwise.
—Easy to see you’ve never lived in Havana as a Cuban, Billy, said Ferrán, half way to furious.
—You don't think so?
—You go there as a yuma, even if you don’t have a lot of money…
—And you want more than that, Ferrán?
—…you have a Cuban girlfriend, go to the beach, dance, enjoy yourself…
—Of course, I enjoy myself in Cuba.
—But you’ve never lived as a simple Cuban; you’d never be able to put up with it.
—Not even the President of my country was able to resists the temptation; haven’t you seen him on television, mother in law and everything? I don't have the slightest doubt Cuba is a beautiful country, Ferrán.
—Me neither, Billy; don't put words into my mouth. My problem is not with Cuba; it’s that I do not see a future for me in Cuba. Understand?
—Well, do you think there’s a future for you in the US?
—Yes. In any part of the world that’s not Cuba.
—Why don't you look for that future here in Chihuahua or in another part of México?
—México is worse than Cuba, Billy.
—How is it worse?
—Security; when it comes to security, this country is full of narcos. You know that.
—If one works hard, it’s possible to find a future in the US, Billy, said Demetrio.
—A future, you say? But you are Guatemalan, brother; it won’t be easy for you over there.
—One doesn’t lose much in trying, Billy.
—My dream is to work, save, get married, US citizenship, said Demetrio.
—Until you bump into a police officer and get deported again, said Billy.
—Don’t be such a spoiler, Billy, said Ferrán, all laughter. The guy wants to fulfill a dream and here you are blocking the way with absurd thoughts.
—Absurd, Ferrán?, Billy got up, upset. Don’t you think Demetrio could easily get killed crossing the border? Don’t you think it unfair that he’s unable to enter into the US with greater ease, while you, shielded under the Cuban Adjustment Act, don't have to worry about that?
—Not my fault, brother; I simply take advantage of opportunities available to me, said Ferrán.
—Right, Billy, none of us is guilty of anything.
—All of Central America, said Billy, is full of wandering Cubans protected under that law, which is useless to Demetrio and I. Is it normal for the three us to be so screwed, guys?
Billy kept on, upset, pacing, watched from neighboring tables where customers wanted, in part, to pay more attention to that conversation and, in part, to satisfy the need to see how the presidential vehicle, the Beast, made an apparition at the Havana airport.
—Have a seat, Billy, please! People are looking at us, said Ferrán. You now look like a radical congressman and not a yuma who’s in love with a Cuban woman.
—Just saying the truth, guys. Not fair that, because of a stupid law, you have more rights than him to enter my country.
—Cuban Readjustment Act? Wet feet, dry feet policy? Who ever came up with that?, said Demetrio, pouring himself another shot of tequila.
—Not my fault, gentlemen, said Ferrán as he got up, on his way to the bathroom.
—Demetrio and Billy, through the glass, noticed that a car stopping, right behind the pickup truck, and that a pair of rough-looking men got off.
—Bad. Very bad, said Billy. Hope they don’t walk in here.
On the television the President greeted journalists in the distance, right before closing the umbrella and entering into the Beast. The group of cars then left as a caravan while the Cuban minister of international relations, according to the Mexican commentator, waved goodbye under the light rain. That’s life, he said, a rainy day for the arrival of the US President, in a country so well known for its sun. Is this an omen from mother nature?, he asked a colleague. We will never know.
—You have everything in order?
—Yes, Billy; everything is in order, said Demetrio.
—Water, money, something to eat? Remember that it’s never easy to cross the desert.
—Yes, Billy; everything’s good to go.
—Those smugglers are dangerous; don’t you ever forget that, brother.
—It’s my second time, Billy; I think I know how to move around in the desert.
—I’ve heard many sad stories, brother. Hope everything turns out well.
—Everything will be fine. Time will come when we’ll find you in Havana with your brownie.
—Ah, and how I miss her, Demetrio; if it hadn't been because I’ve already agreed to help you guys, I’d be there right now.
—Thank you, Billy.
—Thank you! It’s you guys who helped out when my pickup truck broke down, and now it’s my turn to help out. That’s how friendship works.
—It wasn’t going to be easy for you, stranded there with a pickup truck in the middle of the desert.
—And it was pure luck, you guys appearing out of nowhere; and Ferrán, who knows everything there’s to know about cars.
—A good guy, that Ferrán, and a hell of a mechanic.
—A bit crazy, like all Cubans, but yes, a good guy.
—Think we can be on our way as soon as he returns from the bathroom?
—You’re right. You should be at the meeting point before the smuggler.
—And before the entire group that’s going to cross.
They were about to get up but chose not to at the sight of the two rough looking men entering the establishment. They were young, twenty years old, maybe, wearing cowboy hats, dark glasses, thick chains around the neck, jackets so as to cover the pistols around the waist, each holding with two small machine guns and a face that spoke of few or no friends at all as they scanned the place before sitting at the bar.
—They’re narcos; don’t even think of looking at them, said Billy.
One of them placed a small machine gun on the bar, signaled the waitress for two beers and then she, visibly nervous, served them, the other one, elbows on bar, as if in his own room, machine gun still in hand, raised his sunglasses and rescanned the place, one table at a time, a single customer at a time. No one looked at them; no one dared move a single finger; one could only hear the voice of commentator talking about a persistent light rain falling on Havana, a Caribbean island so well known for excellent climate.
—They’re looking for someone, for sure, said Demetrio.
—No, I don't think so.
—Well, then, why all the drama?
—Verification is a matter of life or death for them.
—People are shitting their pants; can’t you see it?, said Demetrio.
—Me too, but no so much because of these guys; rather, because of the ones that might follow.
—Fuck, Billy. Can you speak clearly?
—Narcos tend to shoot at each other freely, not giving a shit about collateral damage.
—And, collateral damage… would that be us?
—Of course! We could end up right here, right now, fucked by crossfire.
—And Ferrán is in the bathroom, said Demetrio, best for him to stay there.
—Right, best for him not to come out.
But they saw, emerging from the bathroom, a Ferrán suddenly stopping, surprised at what he least expected to see; and, seemingly, about to soil his pants, without any other choice but to proceed to the bar, stop next to the two narcos staring at him, pay the bill to a waitress who was nearly scared to death, tip her enough so as to bring a smile to her face in the middle of that tense environment as she contemplated him, in disbelief, calmly returning to his friends at the table.
Billy and Demetrio got up, quickly, wanting to disappear as soon as possible, needing to hit the road, get on the pickup truck, reach the border, leave. But Ferrán did not seem to want the same thing, looked at the television clinging high on the wall, where the same images once again came on, of the President descending from Air Force One, opened umbrella in hand, under a light drizzle, and then smiled at his colleagues as he reached the table, slowly, as if there weren’t two rough looking narcos there, and said:
—What’s up, guys, ready to go?
But the narcos left the beers at the bar and walked over to the table, machine guns in hand. One had the jacket raised just high enough so as to show pistol resting at the waist; both placed hands on the table, smiled, bearing golden teeth, silently scanned each of them, until the shortest of the two said:
—Which one of you is Ferrán, the mechanic?
—It’s me, how can I help?
—Boss wants to see you, said one; needs you to look at his car.
—He’s looking for a good mechanic, said the other.
On the television, the Beast left with the President of the United States, part of a caravan that would tour the streets of Havana while waiters and waitresses at El Kardi, nerves on edge, commented loudly, about how, at last, by chance, those narcos had left, with those three poor devils on the back of a pickup truck.