In the half-second between the explosion and his awareness of it, Federico Vasquez wasn’t sure it was real. The flash of white light slicing through the tropical noontime sun could have been an illusion, something he might have missed if he’d blinked. The ear-splitting boom, oddly crunchy, was followed by a deep rumble and could have been a dream. Likewise the wave of hot noise that expanded until a deafening silence took its place. Even the shaky ground, rattling windows, and trembling leaves seemed unearthly and strange.
But the smells confirmed it. The chalky smell of overheated Havana pavement gave way to a gunpowder-y, flinty odor. With it came the scent of char, all of it tinged with a slight alcohol --- or was it gasoline? --- aroma.
This was no dream.
A scream pierced the silence. Then another. Flames erupted from the bank on the corner. Plumes of orange and yellow climbed the sides of the building, then rose as black smoke. Traffic on both sides of La Rampa skidded to a stop. Horrified pedestrians bolted in a frantic rush. Vasquez was safe, a hundred yards away in the jewelry store he owned, but the terror was contagious, and he started to shake uncontrollably. A sickly sweet odor, like fat sizzling on a grill, filtered through the air.
“Aaayy Dios Mio!” he cried out to the only customer in the store. “What is to come of us? It is one thing when the rebels are in the mountains, but when they come to Havana… on La Rampa...” He wrung his hands. “This will not end well.”
The customer, Señorita Pacelli, joined him at the front of the store, and together they watched the scene unfold. Vasquez sensed she wasn’t fearful, as most women would be. Just quiet.
Within minutes, La Rampa was blocked by police cars, sirens wailing. A platoon of fire trucks, ambulances, and military jeeps followed. The police set up barricades on both ends of the block. A cadre of soldiers tried to manage the crowd, which now that the initial horror had subsided, was huge.
Vasquez glanced over at the young woman. Her composure in the midst of mayhem was unsettling. Then again, she wasn’t Cuban. She was an American. Of Italian descent. From a family that would as soon cut off your hand as shake it. But she and her ilk were his best customers these days. He ran his hands up the lapels of his jacket and cleared his throat.
“My apologies, Señorita.” He made an effort to bring himself under control. “For my outburst. It was --- inappropriate. Are you all right? May I bring you a glass of water to settle your nerves?”
The girl didn’t appear as if she needed anything, and she shook her head. With her long black hair, high cheekbones, and slim but curvy figure, she was the kind of girl men stopped to look at. And when they saw her eyes, large and dark and luminous, they usually took a second look. Why, he could --- Vasquez stopped himself. He was old enough to be her grandfather. “I will get your watch. It is ready.”
“Oh, Señor Vasquez, I don’t care about the watch.” She looked through the shop’s window. The blinding mid-day light offered no respite, and the scene at the bank looked bleak. “Do you think perhaps it was merely an accident? A gas explosion? Something overheated, maybe? That kind of thing has been known—”
“Not possible.” He cut her off. “Banco Pacifico is a government bank. Favored by Batista…” he paused, “… and Americans.”
The girl looked down. Vasquez couldn’t tell if she was angry or ashamed. Señorita Pacelli’s father was manager and part owner of La Perla, one of the newest and most luxurious resort casinos in Havana. Before that the man had managed the casino at the Oriental Park Racetrack for Meyer Lansky. Vasquez didn’t particularly like Pacelli, but he depended on him. At Pacelli’s recommendation, tourists flocked to his store, eager to buy a bracelet, ring, or bauble to remind them of their Havana vacation. Pacelli never asked for anything in return: no kickback, discount, nothing. Still, this girl and her family would always be outsiders. Tolerated, perhaps, because of their money, power, and connections, but like all colonialists, never truly accepted.
The girl craned her neck toward the bank. A sad look swept across her face. “When I was a little girl, my father used to take me with him when he went to the bank. I remember how cool the marble floor was, especially on hot days; how the ceiling fan blades made slow, lazy circles. How I could tell how much taller I’d grown since the last trip by measuring myself against those tall black counters.” Her voice trailed off. Vasquez almost felt sorry for her. Then her face took on a determined expression, as if she’d made a decision.
“Señor Vasquez, I will come back for the watch. I want to go down to the bank.”
He wagged a stern finger. “No, Señorita. It is not a good idea. Too dangerous. Stay here until the street reopens. I will call your father and tell him you are safe.”
“But what if there are people who need help? I could—”
A long black Cadillac with enormous tail fins suddenly slid to the curb, and a man in black pants, white shirt, and black cap jumped out.
The chauffeur. How had he made it onto La Rampa? Vasquez opened the door of the shop. The chauffeur had driven the car onto the sidewalk, that’s how. A few nearby shopkeepers and pedestrians who’d gathered to watch the carnage stared. They probably didn’t know who the car belonged to, but their subtle hostility indicated they knew it was someone rich. And therefore not to be trusted.
“Too late.” The girl squared her shoulders, and went through the door. “Enrico!”
The chauffeurspun around. When he spotted her, a relieved look swept over him. He hurried over. “Señorita Pacelli, you must come with me. Your father is crazy with worry.”
“Tell him I’m fine. I want to stay.”
“No, Miss Francesca.” He gripped her arm. “Your father says you must come home. Now.”
Her body seemed to deflate, and she allowed him to lead her to the car. Vasquez knew the chauffeurwas, in fact, a bodyguard. Hired to protect her, especially in a situation such as this. Vasquez saw her take one last glance at the bank.
Water poured out of hoses and helped smother the flames. Several people on gurneys were wheeled toward ambulances. The crowd was still growing, and there didn’t seem to be any order to it, but the screams and sirens had stopped, replaced by occasional shouts and commands. Two police officials emerged from the bank, carrying what looked to be a dead body. Vasquez turned away.
The chauffeur led the girl to the Cadillac. The engine was still running; Vasquez could see tiny puffs of white coming from the tail pipe. The chauffeur opened the back door, and the girl climbed in.
La Perla: The Night Before
The ostrich feathers didn’t line up. Frankie could tell; she’d seen the show at La Perla at least a dozen times. The showgirls’ headdresses were supposed to form a precise, level wave of pink and white that swayed as one when they danced.
“Is that too much to ask?” Marco the choreographer would have pouted in his high-pitched, nasal voice. “After all, you’re not wearing much else.”
But Marco was on vacation back in the States, and the feathers were a jagged, uneven line. Frankie sipped her daiquiri and tried to figure where the problem was. She peered at the stage.
There. The fourth girl on the left was at least two inches shorter than the others. The girls were supposed to be the same height, five-six, give or take an inch. One of them probably got sick --- no surprise in this heat --- and arranged for an understudy. The understudy knew the steps, but she wasn’t in the right spot. She should have been on an end.
If her father knew, Frankie thought, he would be furious. Everything at La Perla was supposed to be perfect. Elegant. Classy. How often had he berated the staff for a slip that Frankie herself hadn’t noticed? She gazed at the girls, mulling it over. Maybe he wouldn’t have to know. His eye wasn’t as discerning as hers --- as far as the shows went --- and he had other things on his mind, especially these days. She could drop backstage after this show, alert the stage manager, and everything would be fixed before the midnight show.
Then again, it might not matter. The audience probably hadn’t noticed. They weren’t watching the girls’ headdresses anyway; they were ogling the girls’ skimpy bikinis, adorned with glittering sequins. Staring at breasts and legs as the girls sashayed across the stage in the series of sultry poses Marco called a number.
Frankie decided not to do anything. It wasn’t that important. She sat back and tried to let the music sweep over her. Like the girls, the music was meant to be seductive --- to bolster the sensual, anything-goes atmosphere of Havana. Tease the tourists enough, ply them with liquor, and they’d loosen their wallets at the casinos. That was the theory.
At the same time everyone knew that tourists, especially Americans, weren’t ready for real Cuban music. They wouldn’t understand. Wouldn’t appreciate its “foreignness.” The band played with energy, adding a Latin riff here and there, but it was controlled. Familiar. The conga drums of the cha-cha—or a more exotic rumba --- were tempered by a cheerful sax or trumpet. Benny Goodman meets Santería. Even Frank Sinatra came to Havana to perform. She imagined him trying to perform a tribute to the Santería gods and grinned.
“What’s so funny?” A male voice whispered in her ear.
She turned to Nicky and squeezed his hand. Nick Antonetti was in love with Frankie. Everyone knew it; her parents, the maitre d’ who gave them the number one table, even the housekeeping staff, who, when they saw them together, were more obsequious than usual. Nick had come down from Chicago to see her during the hottest part of the year.
“No one does that unless they have a reason,” her mother had said, smiling, as she fanned herself that afternoon.
“You’re saying that because you know his family,” Frankie said.
“What’s wrong with that? They’re good stock. Smart. Not showy.” She peered at Frankie. “And you’re not getting any younger, Francesca.”
“Mama, I’m only eighteen.”
“Like I said…” Her mother looked down her nose at her. “I don’t know why you don’t want to settle down. Nicky is crazy about you.” When Frankie didn’t reply, her mother added, “The world don’t owe you any favors, you know.”
Frankie sighed. How many times had she heard her parents say that? That and the “What grocery store does his father own?” refrain her father lobbed every time she dated someone he didn’t know.
With Nick, though, her parents didn’t have to make annoying comments. The Antonettis and the Pacellis had known each other forever, maybe as far back as the Old Country. Nick was two years older than Frankie; they used to play in the sandbox together when they were babies. Now he was going into his senior year at Penn, the first Antonetti to go to an Ivy League school, his father crowed. He was handsome, with thick blond hair --- some Northern Italian in his lineage --- green eyes fringed with thick lashes, and a tight, athletic build honed by three years of crew. After college Nick would be going to business school. She was a lucky girl, her mother never failed to remind her, to have hooked such a prize.
Now he draped an arm around her back. “You going to let me in on the joke?” he asked.
She swiveled and flashed him a smile. “It wasn’t important.”
He kissed her cheek. “As long as you’re happy.”
Frankie scanned the room. La Perla occupied a full block off the Malecón in Vedado, the up and coming neighborhood of Havana. The resort dripped luxury: a three-story lobby, mirrored walls and ceiling, plush upholstery, and elaborate chandeliers, which were never turned on full, but if they were, would scorch every shadow within a square mile. The casino was large and hired more dealers in Havana than any other place. In fact, La Perla was more lavish than the Riviera or the newly opened Hilton. Plus, it was fully air-conditioned, which helped profits during the off-season. Everyone knew gamblers spent more when they were cool.
“Look at this crowd,” Frankie said. “It’s the middle of August. Low tourist season. At least it’s supposed to be. But the place is packed. Of course, it’s not the same crowd you see in the winter --- you know, the women who throw on their mink stoles at night after tanning by the pool all day.”
Nick cocked his head, as if he was trying to figure out what she meant.
“These tourists are on the budget plan. They couldn’t afford to be here otherwise. Still, here they are, in their fancy clothes, dropping all their hard-earned cash at the casino, convincing themselves they’re having the time of their lives.”
“No one forced them to come,” Nick said.
“That’s true.” She waved her hand. “But then you go outside and see the boys diving off the cliffs over in Miramar --- sometimes the Malecón to scrounge a few pennies or nickels. Or the girls in the streets selling themselves for a bowl of rice and beans. It doesn’t seem fair that some have so much, and others so little.”
Nick pulled her close. “That’s what I love about you, Francesca. You have a big heart.”
“Mine isn’t so big. It’s that others’ are too small.”
A waiter in a tuxedo approached with another round of drinks.
“Gracias, Ramon, but I think we’re fine.” She peered at Nick. “Unless you want another?”
Nick shook his head.
“May I bring you something else?” Ramon asked. “A sweet? Some helado?”
Ramon nodded and gave them his back. Frankie watched him retreat.
“Take Ramon, for instance. I overheard him talking to the maitre d’ the other day. His mother is sick, and he had to take her to the hospital. He asked for extra shifts, so he can pay for her medicine. It’s being flown in from New York, he says.”
“That’s a shame.” Nick paused. “Look, I don’t want to be insensitive, but there will always be the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Class structure depends on it.”
“Is that what they teach you in Philadelphia? I doubt the rebels in the Sierra Maestra would agree.”
“Ah, the rebels.” His expression turned serious. “It always comes back to them.” He dropped his arm. “You know what I think, Frankie? Fidel and Che can spend a century trying to change society, but in the final analysis, they will fail.”
“How do you know?”
He smiled, but there was a slightly patronizing air to it. As if he was teaching a slow child. “The rebels want to topple the Batista regime, correct?”
“Let’s say they succeed.”
She crossed herself.
“Yes, I know. But imagine for a moment they do. What do you think will happen?”
She furrowed her brow. “They will create a new democratic state.”
“Exactly. But who exactly will run that new state? Fidel, Che, Cienfuegos, Fidel’s brother, and the others who’ve been hiding in the mountains. They will become the new ruling class. The privileged ones. And a new class of underlings will take their place. Probably those who profited under Batista but whose fortunes will have been confiscated by the rebels. And doled out to the new ruling class. So you see? It’s simply a re-ordering of class structure. Not a new model.”
Frankie thought about it. “I hope I’m not here when it happens.”
“If it does. But I hope you’re not, too. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Or your family.” Nicky leaned over and kissed her.
His lips were soft and accommodating. Frankie let her own linger on his. Then she pulled back. The walls felt like they were closing in. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Nick pulled back. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Your parents told me not to take you out alone. The streets… they are --- ”
Frankie waved a dismissive hand. “Just along the Malecón. Nothing will happen to us.”
“I don’t know, Frankie.” Nick’s voice was uncertain.
“With you protecting me,” she said with a smile, “No mala gente will come within twenty yards of us. Please.”
He gazed at her for a long moment. Then he nodded, as she knew he would, got up from his chair, and guided her out.
They linked arms as they strolled east on Havana’s boardwalk. A rocky seawall fortified by concrete separated the street from the bay, but in stormy weather, waves often crashed over the top, flooding the street. Tonight, though, the waves were puny. The trade winds, which usually cradled Havana with a gentle breeze, were dead calm, and the heavy air held a salty tang.
The Malecón was mostly a fishing spot by day but a gathering place at night. Frankie and Nick passed a couple locked in a passionate embrace; a young beggar who stared at them blankly; another with shifty eyes that indicated he had a plan. Still others congregated in small groups, singing and strumming guitars.
Beyond the seawall, the bay was inky black. They’d missed the sunset with its pink and orange streaks that dipped so low they seemed to touch the turquoise water. Cuba was the most beautiful place on earth, Cubans would tell you. “Christopher Columbus said there was no prettier place seen by human eyes,” Frankie explained to Nick. “That’s why they call it the ‘Pearl of the Antilles.’”
“Which is why there was no other name for the resort,” Nick replied.
She smiled. “Exactly.”
They walked on. Frankie loved Cuba. She hadn’t really known any other home. Now, though, her parents were pressuring her to go back to the States. If she was going to college, she wouldn’t have minded. But she’d been entertaining thoughts of getting a job. Starting her own restaurant, perhaps. Unfortunately, her parents would never permit that. Not that they’d say no, but they’d make something else sound so much more attractive she couldn’t afford to turn it down. Like marrying Nick. Becoming a wife and mother.
“You wanna own a restaurant?” she imagined her father saying in his flat Midwest accent with the Italian twist. “Fine, I’ll buy you one. But I don’t want you working long shifts where you come into contact with all dat --- dat…”
“Cooking?” she imagined herself replying. “Kitchen work? Employees?”
Her father would shake his head. “Nah. You got it wrong. You wanna be a success, you gotta be the boss from the get go. You set up a company, get investors, become one of those --- whadda they call ‘em --- entrepreneurs. You get other people to do the hiring, cooking, and all. But you get the profits.”
“Once your children are in school,” her mother would add coyly.
Frankie’s thoughts were cut short by Nick. “Frankie…” He slowed as they rounded a curve on the Malecón. “Frankie…” his voice was soft and husky. “I think you know why I came down here.”
She squeezed her eyes shut for an instant. She hoped he didn’t see.
“I love you. I have from the first time I met you.”
She giggled. “In the sandbox?”
“Well, you know…”
She tried to keep it light. “And when you tried to put a frog down my dress?”
He cracked a smile. “Puppy love.”
She giggled again. “And now, I can expect what? Maybe since we’re in the tropics, a lizard or scorpion?”
He placed both hands on her shoulders. “You can expect my love, trust and loyalty. Forever. Francesca, will you marry me?”
An uneasy feeling fluttered her stomach. “Oh, Nicky.”
“Is that a yes?”
She gently ran her fingers down his cheeks to his jaw. Nick had a pointy chin. It jutted out too far, giving him an aggressive look, but it had a deep cleft in the center, which she loved. He covered her hands with his own.
“If I wanted to marry anyone, it would be you.”
He let go of her hands. “But?”
She swallowed. “I’m not ready. There’s so much I want to do. You know. Before.”
She looked around the Malecón as if it might hold the answer. “I’m not sure. But I --- I’ve lived here since I was a little girl. It’s paradise. But it’s not real. I need a taste of the real world before I --- I get married. I want to do something. Be someone.”
“You are already. To me.”
“Oh Nicky, you always say the right thing. You know what I mean. I want to be something besides Tony Pacelli’s daughter. I want to travel. Contribute. Participate.”
He didn’t reply for a moment. Then, “Okay. Let’s do it together. I don’t have to go to business school.”
“Of course you do. Your father --- he’s so proud of you.”
“What about you, Frankie? Are you? Proud of me?”
She smiled up at him. “Oh, yes.”
“And you love me?”
She took his cheeks in her hands again and nodded.
“But you don’t want to marry me.”
“That’s not true. I do. But not yet.”
He bit his lip, as if he wasn’t sure what to say. Then he brightened. “I have an idea. They have this new --- arrangement --- in the States. They call it being pinned. I give you my fraternity pin. You wear it. It’s like --- a commitment. More than going steady, but not quite engaged.”
“Engaged to be engaged,” she said.
He nodded. “Exactly.”
“I read about it in a magazine. Didn’t Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds do that?”
“I have no idea,” Nick said. “But I want us to.”
Frankie hesitated. Then she rose on her toes and kissed him. “Oh, amore… I think --- ”
The syncopated thumps of drums cut her off. Frankie pulled back. The drumbeats were coming from a spot nearby that Cubans called the Balcony of the Malecón because of the view. Across from the Hotel Nacional, the Balcony was filled with people. She turned toward the drums. By their sound, they could have been bongos, a congas or a batá --- Cubans played a profusion of percussion instruments. The beats were overlaid with a sweet but mournful guitar. She gazed at the rocks. A muted glow threw irregular, flickering shadows their way. Candles. Someone was dancing in front of them. She took Nick’s hand and urged him forward, but he resisted. She moved closer anyway, as if pushed by an unseen force.
A group of young, dark-skinned Cubans sat in a circle. Two men had the drums, another a shaker, yet another a guitar. All of them dipped their heads to the beat, watching a young woman in the middle of the circle. She was tall, with red lips, cinnamon skin, and dark hair. She wore a sleeveless top and a pair of shorts that showed off her legs. She swayed to the beat, arms over her head, sweeping them from side to side. At the same time she fluttered her hands at right angles to her wrists, as if pantomiming a story.
Her eyes were narrowed to slits, and she looked like she was in a trance. But her dreamy expression told Frankie it was a trance of joy, of sexuality, of knowing the men wanted her, but that she wanted the gods of Orisha, the most important god of the Santería religion. Santería, a mix of West African, Catholic, and Native American rites, was full of magic, trances, drums, and dance, and was practiced by many Cubans.
“Look, Nicky,” she whispered. “Isn’t she amazing?”
His expression was uncertain.
Frankie turned back. The persistent beat, the flicker of the candles, and the sheen of sweat on the woman’s face were hypnotic. As the dancer whirled and turned, a primal urge surfaced in Frankie. She felt as if the trance was claiming her too, forcing her hips to move, pushing her forward. Then the dancer’s eyes opened, and she looked straight at Frankie. Frankie felt a spark pass between them. The dancer stretched out her arms and beckoned. Frankie stole a glance at Nick. He was frozen.
Frankie crept to the edge of the circle. The men on the ground parted to make room for her. The candles threw shafts of orange and yellow across the group. The dancer continued to beckon and twist and sway. Frankie felt an overpowering urge to give herself up to the music, the glow of the candles, the beat. To fly with the Santería dancer. Pay homage to the god Orisha. All it would take was one step. One tiny step.