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Dreams of Revolution : Bill Valentine

My feelings for Alex first stirred at the Rigoberto Colon Agricultural Cooperative. The director, whose name I have long since forgotten, stood before us in a rigid, almost military posture, his eyes focused on the back of the room as if he were seeking guidance from the portrait of Che Guevara that hung over the door. He ran a hand over his balding head and elevated a large strand of hair, which quickly fell back to the middle of his forehead. I stifled a sense of disappointment, ashamed again of my bourgeois instincts, of my desire for the revolution to be pretty, or at least tasteful.

We were greeted with the obligatory "Compañeros y Compañeras," terms which had no English equivalent. Their meaning fell somewhere between "comrades" and "companions." One of our guides translated his opening sentences as follows: "It gives me great pleasure to welcome a fraternal delegation from North America, which has come, no doubt, in a spirit of cooperation and solidarity to share in, and we hope, learn from the lessons of this cooperative, and indeed the lessons of this beautiful revolution which, thanks to our maximum leader, Fidel Castro, has survived against great odds."

He took a breath and began again.

"The welcome I extend to you is not just a personal welcome. Indeed it is a welcome extended on behalf of all of the workers of this cooperative and their families. It is also a welcome extended on behalf of the revolutionary organizations into which our workers have organized themselves." Cubans spoke like that in 1978. Perhaps some still do.

t was during the translation of this second sentence that I first made body contact with Alex. He had taken the chair next to mine just as the presentation began. Now he stirred; his leg swung out and bumped against mine. This was the same Alex who had appeared magically at my breakfast table that morning just as my cup of café con leche arrived, prompting me to notice the similarity between the color of my coffee and the color of his skin. He was freshly showered, but his eyes, dark and somber, still had the look of sleep about them.

Alex looked sleepy again. After a morning visit to a housing project outside of Havana we had been driven to a tourist hotel and stuffed with tomato salad, empenadas, rice, beans and plantains. A demitasse of espresso, strong as it was, had little effect. Alex raised his eyebrows. I smiled and we both returned our attention to the front of the room, where the director looked like he had settled in for a long discourse. It was only our second day in Cuba, but our sixth speech. Spanish is said to be the language of bureaucracy, and it seemed that the Cubans, for all their revolutionary impulses, had vigorously embraced this part of their heritage. But, el director clapped his hands together and announced that he would talk no more. We would, instead, hear from the workers themselves.

In the courtyard we were met by a middle-aged black man wearing a freshly pressed, blue guayabera shirt. The gray around his temples gave him a distinguished, professorial look. Only his hands gave him away. They were deeply lined and his fingers and nails stained.

"I was born not more than fifteen kilometers from here," he began, speaking with the rapid-fire delivery of ordinary Cubans that rendered my basic Spanish useless. "The fifth of twelve children of parents who worked on a sugar plantation. They did not own the land they worked and, consequently, we were very poor. We had no doctors to assist in childbirth. My mother brought each of us into the world with the help only of the local midwife. Sometimes, the midwife lacked the proper supplies, so she would bring a cigar. When the infant was delivered, she lit the cigar and used it to sever the umbilical cord."

He placed a hand across his abdomen.

"Despite the best efforts of the midwife and my mother, two brothers, and one sister never took a breath of our sweet Cuban air."

He lowered his head and clasped his hands together as if he were praying. No one in the group moved. The sun beat down and I felt the empenadas stirring in my stomach. I hoped we would not dwell on Cuba's long-suffering past. As if reading my mind, perhaps our collective mind, he raised his head and spread his arms. "So now you understand why tobacco is so important to Cubans," he said with a broad grin. Magali, our guide, smiled as she translated. Smiles spread across the faces of our group. We shared a hearty, cleansing laugh.

My roommate for the trip, a professor of economics at a small Midwestern college, stood at the head of the group, furiously taking notes and nodding eagerly as Magali translated. Next to him was Rachel in a red Che T-shirt. Her hair was pulled back under a gold bandana. Along the strap of her shoulder bag ran a dozen buttons supporting various left-wing causes. During our get-acquainted session she had let us know she was fluent in Spanish, and not just high school Spanish, but real life Cuban Spanish. She took notes during the original, not the translation. She scribbled and nodded, and then, like they were teammates in a nod-a-thon, passed off to the professor to nod and scribble during the translation. She had not yet given me cause to hate her, but already I disliked her.

Across the way, Alex had moved beneath the shade of a palm tree and appeared to be fighting off a yawn. A wind stirred the fronds above him, sending flecks of sunlight across his hair and face. For the first time the thought formed in my mind that he was really quite beautiful. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me sooner, why when I had first met him at the breakfast table, I hadn't formed the same impression. Perhaps I had been too enamored of Cuba, still too in love with the idea of her revolution to notice anyone else. I had come in search of big things—ennobling ideas, the grand sweep of history—not personal affairs. But as we followed our guides through the fields I couldn't help but cast an eye towards Alex. Once, when we stopped and talked briefly with workers tending to a tractor, I stood behind him, noticing the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed, and watched a bead of sweat make its way down the back of his neck and disappear between his shoulder blades. I turned a small piece of my heart over to him.

The larger part of my heart, that part still pledged to Cuba and her struggling people, was fortified by the visit to the Rigoberto Colon Cooperative. Of late, there had been too many pictures in the news of starving babies. You didn't see any of that in Cuba. Nor did you see its opposite—the overabundance of material wealth that plagued my homeland. I boarded the bus and took a window seat. Outside, Ricardo, the owner of the travel agency under whose auspices we traveled, cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "People. People. We have got to get a move on." He glared out at the stragglers still making their way to the bus. Rachel filed in and took the row in front of me, straddling both seats. One by one the others boarded—two professors, a trade unionist, two journalists, a nurse, and a retired couple from Long Island whose interest in the Cuban revolution had yet to be discerned.

Ricardo was the last to board, stopping at the front to look out over his charges. Fists to hips, he admonished us, "People, please. We have got to keep moving if we are going to stay on schedule. Remember what Mao said—'Revolution is no tea party.'" He moved quickly down the aisle, practically skipping, slapping the tops of the seats as he went, and fell in next to me. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. The driver closed the door, released the brake and began to pull away.

"Wait," Rachel called out, rising up from her seat. "Esperate." The driver stopped, re-opened the door and Alex popped in. He came down the aisle, and as he did, Rachel moved to the window. Alex slipped into the seat next to her. Ricardo grabbed the back of the seat and lifted himself up, talking to the back of Alex's head. "Next time we leave you behind," he said.

Alex rose and looked back at us. He of the smooth skin, the mound of dark, wiry hair, and the long, silky eyelashes, which he batted a few times as if to say, "I would never be left behind. Someone would always come for me." Alex the lovely. He said nothing to Ricardo, but glanced at me and smiled.

That evening I joined Ricardo in the hotel bar, a dark, deserted room watched over by an indifferent bartender. I took a table while Ricardo went to fetch two Cuba libres, a brew of rum, cola, and lime.

"Ay, my people," he sighed as he sat down, running a hand over his beard and through his thinning hair.

"Which people?" I asked.

"Yes, which people, indeed. I am of two peoples." His parents had fled Cuba in the early days of the Revolution, when he was twelve, and settled outside of Washington, D.C. It seemed somehow fitting that he had gone into the travel business.

"Two mothers," I said.

"Oh no, thank God no, just one mother. That is enough for any one man. But two countries. Two peoples, two languages, two identities."

"Which one were you sighing about?"

"Cubans," he said. "Look at this place." He swept his hand to indicate the empty bar. "This hotel should be full of people, dancing and having a good time. But it is frozen in time, dying. This is not Cuba. This is not the Cuban way."

"It was that way in the fifties," I said, regretting my comment as soon as I said it.

"I am a supporter of the Revolution," he said. "I detest the gusanos." I want to bring Americans here to show them that Cuba is not as the exiles say it is. But?"

He did not finish the sentence. Instead he concentrated on his drink.

"Are you afraid?" I asked.

"Of the gusanos? No." "They will do what they will do."

We sat in silence until Ricardo called out for a second round of drinks. When they arrived, he started in on his. I took a big swallow to finish off my first.

"And what about people like"

"People like us." Ricardo finished the sentence for me.

"Yes, people like us."

"They hate us, that is for certain. This is a very macho revolution. Do you know what they call us?"



"It has a nice ring to it."

"Yes. It is better than faggots. Sometimes we are called pajaritos."

"What does it mean?"

"Little birds. You could take it as a compliment, although it is not meant that way. It is meant to convey that we are light, insubstantial."

Across the empty room, the bartender stood watching us. I wondered if he longed for the days when this room would have been filled with gamblers and gangsters. Now all he had was two maricones from the North trying to love a revolution that hated them.

"What do you know about Alex?" I asked to change the subject.

"Alex is a child; there is nothing to know about him." Ricardo waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "I spent half of yesterday waiting for him at the airport because he missed his connecting flight."

"So that's why I didn't see him before today."


"Is he Cuban?"

"No. I think Mexican and something else. He told me, but I do not remember."

"How old is he?"

"I believe he told me he will be a senior at Berkeley in the fall."

Twenty, I calculated. Four years younger than I. "He's very pretty."

"Yes, and he knows it." Ricardo looked at me, and I detected a hint of reproach.

"If you are interested in him, you be careful, let me tell you. The young ones, they will take your heart, wring it out like a sponge, and hand it back to you with a smile."

Something told me that he spoke from experience. He drained his drink and stood. "I must go find the manager and make sure he remembers that we are here and will have breakfast for us."

"Isn't that Cubatur's job?"

"Yes. Yes, it is. And that is exactly why I am going to make sure that we have breakfast tomorrow."

On the way out Ricardo stopped and signed something at the bar. The thought occurs to me now that he was really a citizen of three countries, each at war with each other. Homosexuality constituted a form of citizenship, complete with its own customs and identity.

I tried to pay him for my drinks, but he waved me away. As we left the bar, he stopped and turned toward me.

"One more thing you should know about Alex. You have competition."

"What do you mean?"

"I saw him leaving the hotel tonight with Rachel."

"Just the two of them?"

"No. There was another. But Rachel was in charge."

We both laughed.

"I'm sure she was," I said.

While Ricardo went to arrange for breakfast, I left the hotel and walked to the Malecon, the broad avenue that formed Havana's border with the sea. It was as devoid of life as the bar. I crossed and stood by the seawall. A wave crashed on the rocks below and I felt the spray across my face. A feeling of elation swept over me. I was here at last! I took a deep breath. A hint of diesel fuel hung in the air. A solitary 1950's-style American sedan sped down the Malecon, and the driver tooted his horn as he passed.

After a few days in Havana we flew east. Roused from our beds in the middle of the night, we sat for an hour at Jose Marti Airport and waited for our plane. Ricardo cursed under his breath and, at one point, when a large cockroach skittered across the floor, he leapt up and pointed. "Here it is," he cried gleefully. "Cubana is here at last." Finally an old prop plane materialized and we filed on. On each window, a heavy fabric curtain hung from a nylon cord. The plane waddled down the runway and somehow lifted off. As I peered sleepily into the darkness, a sliver of sky above the mountains turned the color of blood. We arrived in Santiago de Cuba with the day.

Alex had, by now, staked a larger claim to my heart. Despite Ricardo's warning, I let myself be drawn in by him. He had a brooding, almost childlike quality which I found refreshing in our group of intellectuals and ideologues. I felt no contradiction between my affections for Alex and my affections for Cuba. If we were to be lovers, we would be compa?eros as well. If anything, being in Santiago gave me the courage to pursue him more boldly. It was the cradle of the revolution; from the remote mountains of eastern Cuba—Oriente Province—Fidel had launched the campaign that toppled the Batista government. The place called out for action, so when Ricardo rounded us up following lunch I stayed behind Alex as we boarded the bus and when he chose a seat I dropped quickly into the one beside him. It was a long ride to our hotel and the bumpy, twisting road provided many opportunities for our knees and arms to collide. Alex soon nodded off and a sharp turn sent his upper body in my direction. His eyes remained closed, but his head came to rest on my shoulder. I found that if I tilted my head slightly toward him, I could detect the sweet, earthy smell of his hair.

Our hotel was an old seaside resort and after we settled in Alex and I walked to the beach. We went first to the water's edge where we removed our shoes and let the undertow bury us up to our ankles. Then Alex began walking away from the hotel. I followed him and silence set in. Alone at last with him, I could think of nothing to say. He broke the ice with a question about my job, and I immediately wished I had steered the discussion in another direction. I did not want to talk about work, not in Cuba. Compared to a revolution, what was a job in a little group, in a depressing office in Washington? The nameplate on the door was impressive enough: The Center for International Development. But my life was routine meetings, fundraising, and policy papers. Alex's response took me by surprise. "Sounds great!" he said. I stole a glance and found him sincere.

"And you?" I asked. "What will you do after college?"

"I don't know. I might go to graduate school."

I turned to him. He shrugged and looked suddenly vulnerable. The moment cried out for an embrace, a gentle pressing of the lips to his brow as a gesture of reassurance, but I could not marshal the courage to do it.

We kept walking, weaving in and out of the frothy water, until we had left behind a broken trail of footprints that stretched for several hundred yards. I was about to suggest that we sit beneath a large palm tree that stood off to the right, its fronds swaying gently, when a shout came from behind us. We both turned. Moving rapidly, if awkwardly, toward us was my roommate. There was something odd—a black shape bobbing about at chest level as he propelled himself forward. As he got closer I saw that he had removed his wingtips and tied them around his neck.

"The professor," I said.

That night Alex came to my hotel room. He was not expected, yet his appearance at my door was not a complete surprise. The next few minutes unfolded as if in a dream.

"Are you alone?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, motioning for him to come in.

He sat on the corner of my bed, fumbling with his fingers. I sat down beside him.

"I wanted to ask you," he started.

"It's that," he tried again and blushed.

With each stumble he became lovelier in my eyes. I moved a little closer.

"I might like men," he said, speaking quickly like a child rushing through a confession. "But only just partly. Maybe just from here up." He held his hand at his neck. "I don't think I'm ready for anything below here." He took a breath.

I said nothing. He moved closer. "Would you like to give me my first gay kiss?" he asked.

I kept my eyes open, wanting to imprint forever on my mind the features that were closing in on me. His eyes suggested a look of mild puzzlement. Only when he was close enough that I could feel the warmth of his breath, did I close mine. Our lips touched and lingered briefly in contact with each other. He pulled back and looked to the door.

"It's locked."

Alex stood and checked his watch. "We better be going," he said. "The bus will be waiting."

I wanted to pull him back onto the bed and see if he would cede a few inches below where he had held his hand. My mind raced ahead. Perhaps Ricardo could be prevailed upon to arrange a hotel room for us on our return to Havana. Alex might be ready by then. I knew how quickly, once entered, this road could be traveled. He left the room. I lingered on the bed, running the scene over and over again in my mind.

The bus discharged us in a poor neighborhood in Santiago. Cubans lined both sides of the street. They whistled and shouted, applauding us like we were Olympians returning in triumph. Looking into their open faces and lively eyes, I had no doubt that the fraternal spirit with which they welcomed us was genuine. We may have been the only Norteamericanos that many of them had seen. When we clapped back, they clapped and cheered harder. The din, as much as our legs, propelled us down the street. In the Town Square there were speeches, and then the guitars came out. After a few Cuban songs, Larry, a ponytailed food co-op worker from Oakland, led us in "Which Side Are You On?" and "We Shall Overcome." Even after it was over, we kept singing. On the bus, Magali led us in a song in which she sang the verses and we answered back: Cuba! Que linda es Cuba! Quien la defiende la quiere mas. Cuba! How pretty is Cuba! Those who defend her love her more.

At the hotel we gathered at an outdoor bar and drank and danced in large, happy groups. As we floated about attachments seemed trivial. We had been imbued with the spirit of solidarity. (Long after I abandoned my dreams of revolution, I retained a vivid memory of our night visit to Santiago.) For an hour or so, this was good enough. Then our happy collective began to disperse, breaking into ones and twos, and I was suddenly determined not to wander off alone. Alex sat across from me, chatting with Larry, the guitarist. Larry stood and stretched and as soon as he vacated his seat I slipped into it. After a reasonable interval, I proposed a walk on the beach. Alex's response was not as immediate as I hoped it would be. Some kind of calculation was involved.

"I would have to go back to my room for a while," he said.

"That's okay."

More calculations.

"So, I'll see you there?"

He stood. He did not say anything. His only gesture was to raise his eyebrows.

I took this for a yes—how could I not? As he disappeared in the direction of the hotel, I went and asked for a final drink. I downed it quickly—I could no longer taste the rum, just the lime and cola—and returned to my hotel room. The professor snored gently in his pajamas as I removed two towels and quietly shut the door. At the beach, I spread out the towels and sat. I lay back and shut my eyes, but the world started spinning violently, forcing me to sit up again. I removed my shoes, rolled up my pants, and walked to the water's edge. The warm water lapped at my feet and I saw how the evening would unfold. We would swim. We would walk until we were out of range of the hotel lights, shed our clothes, and frolic in the surf.

It had been at least twenty minutes since Alex and I had parted. Enough time—except this was Alex. I smiled, thinking of the time he had been late for the bus and Ricardo had reprimanded him. Still, I could not sit and wait. I walked back to where we had danced. It was empty. At the hotel, Alex's room was dark. Then, back to the beach—we could have easily missed each other—moving as quickly as I could in my bare feet.

The towels lay undisturbed and Alex was nowhere in sight. The beach seemed vast now. I started out in the direction we had taken earlier in the day, walking, then slowly running. I had gone only a hundred yards or so when I realized that I had outrun the lights and the night was pitch black. Something moved beside me in the sand. I turned and ran back to the towels, falling to my knees and fighting back a wave of nausea.

He would not come. I could see that now. I wrapped a towel around my shoulders and sat, watching the waves pound the shore. Then, suddenly, I was aware of a presence. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a shape. I turned quickly. My heart went through a terrible spasm, leaping and crashing within the span of a second. There was a young man standing behind me, but it was not Alex. It was a Cuban who had been hanging around the hotel. We had made eye contact earlier in the day. He pointed to my pants.

"Jeans," he said. "Blue jeans."

I shook my head.

He persisted. "Blue jeans." He took a step closer and lifted his shirt, making clear what he was willing to offer in return.

I grabbed a handful of sand and threw it at him.

n the morning the shower produced only a trickle and I cursed the professor, Cuba, and its revolution. When I left the room, Alex was waiting nearby. He stood framed in an archway, the morning sun glistening off a fountain in the courtyard behind him. For a brief moment hope returned. Then I saw that he would not look at me.

"I guess I liked Rachel more than I thought," he said. There it was. Perhaps the most truthful statement I had heard since landing in Cuba. It was charming in its economy. But what of us? What of our walk on the beach? Our precious moment together in my room? Your first gay kiss? How could anything you had with her compare to these? I thought these things, but I did not say them.

We drove on, our East German tour bus lurching and sputtering along country roads. The solitary campesinos we passed barely looked up to acknowledge us. We drove through Camaguey, Santa Clara, and Cienfuegos, toward a final rendezvous with Havana. Each day was the same, even as the location and the topic changed. I tried to pay attention to whatever it was—sugar production, women's rights, labor federations—but in the wake of Alex's rejection, I was rudderless and unprepared for the feelings that beset me. Trapped with the happy couple on the same island, in the same hotel and bus, I had no choice but to watch their amor blossom. As we stood in a warehouse beside a towering mountain of raw sugar cane, I saw their shoulders and hips brush together. One night at dinner, I witnessed Rachel scrape a piece of flan from Alex's plate and slowly put it in her mouth. She whispered to him, "Gracias, Alejandro." No doubt they thought they were being subtle, but I saw it all. All, that is, except the consummation. I don't know how they managed their lovemaking. Each still had the roommate assigned at the beginning of the trip. This need to be clandestine—like Fidel in the mountains—must have fed the fires of their passion. Thoughts of them in the throes of lovemaking visited me often, and each image of Rachel nibbling at Alex's ears or running her fingers along the bumpy architecture of his spine was a dagger to my heart.

We spent our last day and night in Havana. Late in the evening I met up with Ricardo in our hotel's lonely bar.

"You've been, how shall we say—remote—these last few days," he said over our second drink.

I had been determined not to talk about Alex, but with the rum loosening my tongue, it began to pour out. When I was finished Ricardo shook his head.

"Did I not warn you of this very thing?"

"You did."

"And you did not listen."

"I guess not."

"You see, this is what Cuba does to people. You come here a rational, levelheaded person. A bit of a Boy Scout even."

"I am not a Boy Scout."

"Were you not at one time in your life? I am quite certain you were."

"Yes. At one point I was. But I quit."

"I thought so. You come here a Marxist-Leninist Boy Scout, a believer in the high ideals of the revolution, and you lose yourself to the passions of the flesh." Ricardo threw back his head and laughed. He was enjoying himself. "In one sense you are not so different from those who came to Cuba before the revolution to exploit our women and children." He laughed again.

"Oh, come on," I said. We drained our drinks.

"Listen," Ricardo said. "Alex is nothing. He is insubstantial. In this sense he is more of a pajarito than either you or I. Before you know it, you will have forgotten him."

I hoped Ricardo was right, but I feared that Alex would linger in my bloodstream. He was the first great—what? From the safety of more than twenty years, I see that he could not have been the first great love of my life. Nor was he just the first great lust of my life. There was more to it than that; I was at least in love with the idea of him. He was the first great heartache of my life. The first time I surrendered completely and totally to another human being in the belief that my happiness was dependent on his reflecting back to me the feelings I had for him. I would suffer through two more such obsessions before I reached thirty. Alex was the first, and mercifully, the briefest. It would only be two months, one week and three days after the night at the beach when a moment passed in which I realized I had not been thinking of him. After that, he slipped away quickly. Whole minutes would pass without my being conscious of him, then hours, then days. Soon he was relegated to the dustbin of history, a faded relic in the museum of my desires.

Our glasses were empty. I grabbed both and stood.

"No, wait." Ricardo said. "Come to my room. I will order a bottle of rum and we will drink."

From his room, harbor lights glistened in the distance. Ricardo moved two chairs together in front of the window.

"I was only joking before," Ricardo said after mixing two drinks. "What I said about you not being different from those who came before the revolution."

"Maybe you are right," I said. "Maybe at heart I am an imperialist."

"And don't forget male chauvinist pig."

"Yes, that too."

"A running-dog lackey of the imperialist oppressors."

"I like dogs," I said. We clinked glasses.

After two drinks, I stood to leave, steadying myself on the arm of my chair. Ricardo also stood. He grabbed my left arm and, with surprising swiftness, swiped the glasses from his face. He moved in closer to me. "Don't leave," he said. His dark eyes pleaded. "I need you tonight. Even if nothing happens, I need you to stay." He told me to wait. He retreated to the bathroom and closed the door. I started to laugh. I was very tired. Tired of Cuba and of Cubans. When Ricardo emerged from the bathroom he was wearing only his underwear. He practically tackled me, pushing me back onto the bed, and began to work at removing my clothes. His body was covered with hair, something I found repulsive. I don't know why I stayed. In the face of such desperate desire it seemed easier to surrender than to resist. In my defense, I was still fairly inexperienced in these matters.

I was quickly naked. Ricardo ran his mouth over the length of my body, then flipped me over and settled down on top of me. He fidgeted for a moment, then I felt his body release, like a deflating balloon. He pressed a hot, wet mouth to my ear. I could smell his rum-soaked breath.

"Too tired," he mumbled. "I will save you for breakfast."

He crawled off me to the other side of the bed and fell forward into the pillow, his hairy backside pitched slightly in the air.

"Duerme con los angelitos," he whispered. In a moment he was snoring.

After a brief interval, I dressed and left. As tired as I was, I knew that sleep would elude me. I left the hotel and wandered the streets. At the Malecon, the sea beat against the rocks. It was the same sea that Alex and I had waded into. The one in which I had hoped we would frolic. I longed for a crashing of the surf, a great wave of drenching, salty spray. The wall seemed a fragile barrier. I thought of jumping it and walking onto the slippery rocks. I knew I never would, but I thought of throwing myself into the dark waters and swimming toward Florida.