Ay, mi’jito, por favor, dame la mano, por Dios. What was a request before has now become a command. I stretch my hand out timidly. She takes it and leaves the palm facing up. Her right hand travels down my right hand, following the lines. Her voice turns into a whisper. This one is love. Will she leave life for the end? The rocking chair on which she sits does not move. Perched on the end of it, she looks at me, looks into my eyes and returns her gaze to my hand. This plump, half-Chinese, mulata chiromancer who has eyes that can read into my adolescent confusion.
This one is love. The words conjure up the magic I felt three years ago not too far from here, this refuge on Refugio Street, off Colón Street. A fourteen-year-old virgin, barely scraping through mid-term assessments but with a second girlfriend already: Marta. Marta, who went where my first girlfriend (also called Marta) never went. Marta, who still lives on Trocadero Street, two blocks away from here. Marta, whose father is a merchant seaman and whose mother is a teacher. Marta, who spends long hours home alone. Marta, with whom I used to cut classes in order to be her companion during those hours of solitude. Marta, whose school skirt, yellow like my school trousers, and blouse, white like my shirt, loved getting into an amorous tangle on the floor tiles. En bref, Marta.
¿Oye, mi’jo, tú me ‘tá’ ‘cuchando? No, I answer internally. I’m not listening. Sorry, I should, I know I should. After all, it was my mate, my best mate, who talked me into coming here to see you. It is all to do with the university admission exams, the pressure, the future, the draft, the war in Angola, the confusion — not just of the adolescent type — the “greens”, the exchange rate (five for one), the “ladies of the night”. It is all this and above all, it is the uncertainty. Hence the palm-reading session. But we would need to read the palms of ten million souls on this island.
A shot of rum is offered. The look of puzzlement on my face makes her laugh. No me digas que tú no tomas. I neither nod nor shake my head. I have drunk, a little, in the past. At seventeen I have yet to get really drunk. But this offer comes out of the blue, on a warm winter afternoon in Centro Habana. OK, she says, if you won’t have some, I’ll have yours. She lets go of my hand, retrieves a bottle of rum from the small bookshelf that doubles up as a shrine to Elegguá, a coconut surrounded by sweets. Her eyes eye me eyeing the Orisha. I do not just read hands, you know. Although her voice sounds firm, her words betray uncertainty. Perhaps she thinks I am judging her. Perhaps she thinks I am one of those modern kids, all tight jeans and big, wide shirts who turn their backs on Cuban culture, including the African influence, to embrace the alluring world of rock’n’roll. How to explain to her that every two or three weeks a babalawo visits my house to see my grandmother, my auntie and my mum? How to put into words how confused my cousin and I feel when we see our respective mothers, hardcore believers in the government and Fidel, desperate to find out what the future has in store for us through the divination methods of a system born in Nigeria?
I leave the palm-reader’s house at sunset. The route to the bus stop is enveloped in dust mixed with the smell of petrol. I walk down Colón Street until I get to Paseo. People are coming home from work, others are starting a game of dominoes. In the semi-darkness a game of cuatro esquinas is still going. The ball can hardly be seen but that does not stop these wannabe baseball players from taking over the four corners of Consulado and Colón.
A long life, difficult times I will overcome and my sweetheart around the corner. Predictions for which no hand is necessary. I see my bus turn right onto Paseo. I get my ten cents out of my pocket and I think of Marta. The second Marta, the one who went where the first one never did.