He waits tables at Havana’s Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway stayed.
I ate lunch alone and Alexander came to my table, worrying aloud that I was lonely.
“No,” I assured him in English, because all of our conversations were in English. “I’m just taking a brain break.” I realized I was using an expression that meant nothing to him, but he had already zipped off to attend to other tables.
I was the only person seated alone at the tables for four at the rooftop restaurant of Ambos Mundos. It’s a cupcake of a hotel, ornate and a cheery rose-petal pink, and so different from the other more tired, yellowing buildings that surrounded it in downtown Havana. Ambos Mundos is famous because Hemingway ate, slept, drank, and wrote there. Lunches are crowded affairs at the hotel. Midday in spring is hot in Cuba, and tourists—from Europe, Canada, and, more recently, the United States—are eager to get out of the beating sun and sticky streets and under any strip of shade, ready for a long, slow meal, plates of ham and cheese sandwiches, or fish, rice, beans, and, yes, mojitos. The bar was lined with more than a dozen glasses already filled with melting ice and mint leaves, awaiting the bartender’s hand.
Alexander wore a uniform of a crisp, pale yellow shirt and a dark brown apron and matching pants. He navigated the restaurant deliberately, zigzagging the floor he likely had memorized like an obstacle course. Not once did I see him sweat. He was either bald by choice or genetics, and wore dark-rimmed, rectangular glasses. He reminded me of geeky guys I saw in Brooklyn selling vintage records at flea markets or making craft beer, those guys who love to talk to strangers about their passion projects.
The restaurant smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, and mint. Every table was occupied, yet throughout my lunch (fish prepared “Hemingway style”—I’m not sure what that meant, other than that it had ham and cheese on it), Alexander kept coming over to my table to check on me, to ask if everything was okay. He asked me if women from the United States liked to dine and travel alone. I told him yes. We’d had a similar conversation earlier in the day, at breakfast. I had been sitting with a few other women from the Cuba Writers Program I was traveling with; Alexander made sure our coffee cups were filled. We got on the subject of our husbands staying back home, taking care of the kids and the households while their wives explored Cuba. His eyebrows had shot up above his eyeglasses.
“My wife can barely leave the house for an hour!” he replied, but didn’t elaborate. He had told me she had an office job somewhere, and that they had two sons; still, the idea of her traveling overseas alone had him shaking his head.
His reaction made me think of a statue I had seen the day before at Plaza Vieja, a short walk from Ambos Mundos. Near a series of brightly painted Chihuahuas sat a life-sized, bald, naked woman riding a giant, defiant-looking rooster, a five-foot fork held aloft in one hand like some beacon, her downward gaze a mix of stoicism and acceptance. She wore high heels. The statue was by the contemporary Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo, who designed a similar statue for Miami. Our guide said that the woman was naked because women always think of feeding their families first before clothing or taking care of themselves (though apparently they still think about shoes). To me, the figurine looked tired, ready to throw down her oversized kitchen utensil, kick off those heels, and put her feet up. I imagined Alexander’s wife in their kitchen, forks and spoons and knives in hand, fussing over her family. I thought of my husband cooking in our kitchen, how he always made a perfect cup of coffee, usually while I burrowed into our sofa, nose-deep in a book.
Alexander cleared my lunch plate, and said, “With your permission, I would like to bring you a small dessert on the house.”
“On the house?” I asked, surprised. I have traveled to fifteen countries, including three on my own, in the past six months. I have dined alone at many restaurants. No waiter at any restaurant anywhere had ever offered me free dessert or free anything.
“Yes,” he said, smiling, but he always smiled. I never saw him look tired or annoyed.
I said of course, and decided immediately that if he brought me a slice of cake, I would eat the entire piece with gusto even though gluten gives me diarrhea. A few minutes later, he returned with a plate consisting of a small square of flan with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream, the ice cream already melting and pooling, as ice cream always does in Cuba. I was relieved. I thanked him profusely. I ate every bite.
Later in the day, when I went back upstairs to the restaurant, he was still there. He had been on his feet for ten hours or more.
“You work breakfast, lunch, AND dinner?” I asked.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I only run out when you are here.”
Meals began this way, with quips that turned into conversations. He showed me pictures of his two boys, perky-looking preteen or teenage kids with dark hair. He showed me drawings of the house he was having built—amateur sketches in blue ink on a small notepad he kept in his pocket. The paperwork granting permission to build was stuck in bureaucratic inertia, though he expected approval any day now. He was eager to finally meet with an architect, though he expected a waiting list for that, too. Havana, I was learning, had many, many waiting lists.
He mentioned having some knowledge of engineering, but didn’t give me any more details than that. He’d been at the restaurant for years. He showed me the calluses on his hands, and when I said, “You work all the time!” he shrugged.
Our group left Havana for a few days to go to Trinidad and Cienfuegos, where I caught a stomach bug. I vomited violently on the bus ride back to Havana, and could barely tolerate food the rest of the day. I dragged my suitcase from the bus across Plaza de Armas and all those uneven stones, checked back into Ambos Mundos for my last night—we were scheduled to fly home the next morning—and made my way upstairs to the rooftop to find something that my stomach could handle for the night.
I was happy to see Alexander standing by the bar. I told him my stomach was sick and could I please have a bowl of cornflakes to go, because that was likely the only food I could handle at the moment.
“Did you eat crap?” he said. “Is that how you Americans say it? Crap?” He told a waitress to prepare a bowl of cereal for me. She lugged out a bag of powdered milk, placed it on the bar, and started to mix it in a pitcher with water. I watched from a barstool, not too far from the arsenal of mojitos. “The milk here is powdered,” Alexander said, as if he had to clarify expectations. “That’s how it is in Cuba. Always powdered. Do you need me to carry this for you? What floor are you on?” The waitress passed over a bowl of powdered milk and cornflakes.
“Cinco piso.” I was trying to impress him that I knew the word for “floor.” “I can carry this,” I said, taking hold of the cereal bowl. Alexander reached for my elbow and helped me off the barstool.
He shook his head. “Quinto piso,” he said. “You don’t say you’re ‘on five floor.’ You say ‘fifth floor.’ Quinto.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I studied French in school.”
“You like the French?” he said, eyebrows shooting above his glasses again.
“I do. The language. The culture. The food. Everything.”
Disbelief and genuine disgust crossed his face. It was most the perturbed I had ever seen him all week. “They think we are Indians!” he said, waving his hands toward the sea that was always in view from the rooftop. “They think they are better than everyone!”
Around us were people from all corners of the globe, enjoying a meal. They were flipping through guidebooks, going limp in the humidity. I looked past them toward other rooftops with their strings of laundry drying, toward the ribbon of blue that leads out to the Atlantic, the bay where a ship from Spain had arrived during breakfast, the cannons that had fired to welcome the ship. Cuba and its complicated history, its seductive alchemy of resilience and longing. Cuba and its discarded internet cards on centuries-old cobblestone streets. Cuba and its chronic shortage of toilet paper, its little bathroom garbage bins brimming with used toilet paper because the country’s antiquated plumbing can’t handle heavy flushing. Cuba and its candy-colored vintage cars cruising down streets free of the corporate signage we’ve all become too used to everywhere else. Cuba, always in a state of revolucion, the word written on cracked walls everywhere, its neighborhoods a daily friction of what is and what ought to be. When he had a moment to catch his breath, to not refill coffee cups or get a tourist some cornflakes, what did Alexander see from this perch? After all these years working at this historic hotel, while Cuba was busy changing and not changing, what caught his eye now? The American cruise ships? Or maybe the sounds of construction work a few blocks away? I wanted to ask him. I wanted to invite him to sit down, buy him a cafe con leche. But he had other tables to serve.
I turned to face him. “Where would you go if you could take a vacation?” I asked.
He smiled at the suggestion. “Oh, the United States!” he said, and then his eyes roamed, as if he were recalling the contours of a map. “Miami,” he added, perhaps picturing it, for he had heard a lot about it. “They have weather like us. They would take care of me there.”
Katrina Woznicki is a freelance writer in the New York City area. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Guernica, The Los Angeles Times and Lonely Planet.