Spring 2000, Portland, Oregon and Havana, Cuba
My friend Arthur was married for twenty years in Portland, the last 17 of which were celibate. When his wife asked for a divorce, he was crushed and went into a fit of depression, starting to drink again after 15 years of sobriety. In the midst of his rise to the depths of the gutter, his great Aunt, a benefactor and philanthropist and friend of Oregon National Parks, bestowed One Million Dollars to Arthur in her will. The party had just begun.
I had just got back from one year in Costa Rica and everyone supposed my Spanish was pretty good. My friend Derek knew Arthur and told me he was looking for someone to accompany him on a trip to Cuba, all expenses paid, to act as interpreter and caregiver. I had never done either, but decided to meet Arthur anyway and see if there was a good rapport between us.
I didn’t realize how severe his Cerebral Palsy was. Some people have only a dignified gait, or you can see it in their hands and mouth, the signal from the brain to the muscles choked off, like there was a short in the line somewhere. For Arthur, this little glitch in his brain messages caused him to stutter and at first he was unintelligible, I couldn’t understand a word and Derek had to interpret for me. My first thought when seeing him was as long as I don’t have to wipe his butt, I’ll do it. Talking to my friends and mulling it over, I came to call it Doing the Deed.
Arthur had a big jug of Carlo Rossi red wine on the table at all times and three glasses, water, coffee and wine, each with a flexi straw popping out. He sidled up to the edge of the table and miraculously wound his Gene Simmons tongue around the straws, alternating between the drinks as we talked. I had also stopped drinking in Costa Rica during the last few months, but it was becoming apparent to me that if I was going to go to Cuba with Arthur, I was probably going to have to start drinking again, just to be on the same wavelength and have the same excuses. I was hoping the drink would make me into some pickled Buddha, able to withstand the many difficult situations that surely were to come on our adventure. Besides, he was going to pay for all of it, so drink up snakes, as I always say.
A few days after our first meeting I decided to go, even if I had to Do the Deed. I still didn’t know, it just didn’t seem respectful or discreet to ask. Derek said he didn’t know, he had only seen Vicky, the morning caregiver, going into the bathroom with him, but he never saw or asked specifically about it.
We began planning. He needed everything arranged, plane tickets, how to deal with money down there, documents to present at the US Special Interests Section on behalf of his new bride, Sady. I went to his lawyers, the bank, Cuban friends of his wife, made hundreds of phone calls, and in the end if I hadn’t figured out all of this, he wouldn’t have had anyone to help him. He thought he could use his credit cards there and he wanted to buy some property as well, so the family could move out of Old Havana and for him to use when he visited. He of course knew of the US embargo, but some things just didn’t cross his mind.
At one point in all of the configurations I did indeed have to wheel him into the bathroom, he only had caregivers in the morning and at night. Once I got him on the toilet, he asked me to peel him off a few slabs of toilet paper and put them folded in his lap, then I could go out until he called me. I even heard the flush just before he grunted out OKAY behind the door. I didn’t have to Do the Deed after all, and my conscience was clear for not asking such a trite question.
Things went smoothly despite the fact that now I was full blown back into the whisky. I even got both hands on that Carlo Rossi when times got lean and slugged back a few bloody drinks to keep me blind. We hit all the bars, people knew Arthur from way back, and he paid for all my drinks. The waitresses took a liking to me as well, just for being his friend, but the whole thing was too twisted for them, I ‘m sure they thought I was taking advantage of this poor man.
We went through Cancun Mexico to change flights to Havana, and stayed a couple days there. In the Cancun airport, I forgot my wallet in the checkpoint, with $750 in cash, and almost had a heart attack before the trip had begun. I had to leave Arthur in the terminal minutes before the flight was to take off, run back and ask the girl about the wallet. She seemed disinterested and disappointed, going to a little desk, bottom drawer way in the back and fishing out my fat bankroll. She handed it over with a limp gesture and a kind of scolding look, but I didn’t count it until I was out of her view.
Horrible place, Cancun. It was like a strip mall on the beach. We tried to meet people but they just stared, and the waiters copped a bad attitude. I told everyone he was my Uncle and that worked pretty well, after all we both had blue eyes and they understood the bonds of family down there.
We finally arrive into open arms in Cuba, and after a few days in Sady’s house next to the garbage dump, we rented a nice family place on the outskirts and settled in for the month. Sady knew some musicians from the old vaudeville type variety show she used to promote and act in. They worked around this little touristy beach town, I don’t remember the name, and we heard great Cuban and Mexican music all the time from this great quintet, all singers and multi instrumentalists.
One twilight evening we were sitting and enjoying a concert on a thatched terrazza along main street. Jesus was improvising like crazy, making up verses about me and Arthur, making fun of us. I understood about half, but it was really funny and everyone was laughing. The people in the restaurant looked at Arthur in wonder and amazement, but I think most people thought he was mentally retarded, like a child. When he leaned back his head and opened his mouth so I could pour him another shot of whatever was at hand, Jameson’s or White Rum like moonshine, there was a mixture of laughter and disdain from the people.
During a break, I was talking with Miguel, the band leader and cousin from Mexico. He was really wasted and we were laughing about everything. I told him the joke about how do you make a Cuba Libre. He cringed and looked around as I gestured the punch line, stroking an invisible beard with Cuba and cutting my throat with an imaginary knife with Libre. He said when you joke I sleep. He was afraid some country bumpkin police might give him some trouble, or some overzealous patriot would put the finger on him for being anti revolutionary.
Arthur came over and laid a $20 bill on Miguel for the music. This is for the whole band he said, and Jesus and Antoine the percussionist saw what was happening. The next thing I know the other band members were having a huge shouting match with Miguel glaring silently at all of them, taking the leader stance. Jesus told me the next day that they didn’t get any of the money, but Miguel took what would be basically a month’s worth of tips and pocketed it.