Cuba Libre

She fled to Cuba to get away from her troubles, but her troubles followed her.


Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


You must leave all your belongings behind.

I jolt, my heart racing. I feel as if I’ve been unexpectedly called to speak in front of an audience or take an exam I hadn’t prepared for. Wait, I’m not ready, I want to cry out. I need to think about this. I need to be sure.

For an agonizing, panicked moment, I’m all regrets. I wish I was back in London, back in our apartment, back home, with my kitchen and books and things. It was fine that Chris was there. I’d tolerate being married to Satan himself, I think wildly, as long as I can curl up on the worn velvet couch in the evenings with a cup of tea and a plate of digestives in front of EastEnders, these quaint British things that I have learned to love as my own.

Then I look around the flight cabin, now fully awake, and recollect where I am. A flight attendant nearby, oblivious to my silent panic, is demonstrating how to inflate a life vest. Oh. I don’t have to leave all my belongings behind now; it must’ve been instructions in case of an emergency.

It’s only a small comfort. The reality is that the divorce is almost final and that I’ll be leaving my safe little London apartment behind and facing life, with all its council tax payments and night-time loneliness and water leaks, alone. Had I still been inside the airport, I think I would’ve abandoned my checked luggage, taken the train back to Maeda Vale, and asked Chris if we couldn’t start again.

For better or worse, though, I was on a plane speeding down a runway, headed for Cuba.

* * *

I was supposed to have been here with my friend Gemma, but her daughter got strep throat and her husband broke his leg in the same week. “Go on your own,” she insisted when I suggested we try to postpone. I could hear her stationary husband trying to calm the whining Chloe in the background. “You need it. It’ll be amazing. Just read trashy novels and tan and drink mojitos all day long.”

The first day at the all-inclusive, I lie on the deck chair on my balcony and look out over the ocean, a near-unreal shade of cyan, and closer by, the hotel pool, a pale aqua. It’s quiet save for the sound of waves crashing against the beach. I sip a piña colada. Gemma’s right; this is amazing. In London, it’s sure to be either snowing or raining at this time of the year, and it’s terribly dark. Here, it’s baking sunshine, and a small rivulet of sweat is already forming between the triangles of my bikini. And yet there are only a handful of people visible, faraway specks on the beach; the Americans can’t go here, and the Europeans still mostly go to Thailand or Spain for cheap boozy beach vacations.

I tan and read an old Judith Krantz novel, alternating between my balcony, the beach, and the poolside. I get dressed only when it’s time for lunch, when I throw on a sundress over my bikini to go to the hotel restaurant. Afterward, I get a mojito and carry it back to my room. I shed the dress and return to the balcony. Light and heat and sugary cocktails heal my bruised heart.

But as the sun begins to set, anxiety rises to the surface. I eat dinner in the hotel restaurant, overcooked and oily spaghetti with a glass of white wine that tastes like gasoline. I’m the only person sitting alone, and I feel exposed and ridiculous. There are a couple of families — Canadians, like me — and a few groups of friends who seem to be Russian. The families bicker and laugh and load up their plates at the dessert buffets. The Russians either eat like it’s their job, silently and methodically, or they’re ordering more drinks loudly and guffawing. I pretend to read my book and finish my unappetizing dinner quickly so I can flee back to my room.

I curl up on the bed and resume reading. Soon, I hear muffled shouts and laughing, set to an untz-untz-untz that vibrates through my bed; it must come from the hotel bar downstairs. Then cheerful samba music starts from another direction. I go up to the window just as a heavily made-up woman at a scene by the pool begins to sing. The deck chairs where I had read earlier in the day are gone, replaced with small tables where groups of Russians drink and bray and watch the singing woman. I return to the bed, feeling like a hunted animal in hiding when I decide against going down to get a drink at the bar. I can’t face being observed taking a drink back to my room, like a bullied school child bringing their lunch tray to a toilet stall.

I listen to the untz-untz-untz, feeling like the loneliest person in the world. Then I think about Chris and begin to cry. I’m not even sure why — if it’s from the anger and humiliation at all the little lies and disappointments and horrible things said during the heat of our arguments, or if it’s because I miss him and am scared and want to go home, or both.

The Russians by the pool get drunker, the salsa music gets louder, and I cry harder.

* * *

There is no internet. The first day I thought this relaxing, but soon, I feel horribly isolated. I might’ve enjoyed the evenings more if I could’ve chatted with Gemma, written witty or mean comments about the drunken Russians and vulgar Canadian families in the restaurant. After breakfast on the fourth day, I find out from the man at the front desk that there is Wi-Fi in the lobby, and that I can buy a card that gives me 15 minutes of access. He points to an office where I wait in line after three other guests, fill out a form, and receive a government-issued card. I’m not able to get any signal in the lobby, however. I go back to the front desk.

“Try the spot behind the piano,” he says, nodding toward a grand piano in a corner.

A woman is already standing behind the piano, cradling a laptop and typing with one hand. She looks up when I approach her and begins to smile. I avoid eye contact, however. I suspect she’s also Canadian, and I don’t want to make small talk about where we’re from or why I’m there.

I succeed at connecting to the internet on my phone and open my e-mail and social networks expectantly, but there is only a message from Gemma and some activity in group chats. Nothing from Chris … as expected.

I type a message back to Gemma and try to share a photo of the view from my balcony in a group chat, but the upload takes forever, and finally I get an error message. I give up, turn off the Wi-Fi to save the last few minutes on the card, stop by a hotel bar, and order a piña colada. It’s only 9:30, but whatever. The plastic band around my wrist grants me access to unlimited amounts of booze and food in the hotel restaurants and bars, and as the food is uniformly depressing — always some combination of overcooked, cold, and tasteless — I try to get most of my calories from cocktails.

I spend my mornings reading and tanning and drinking in a pleasurable monotony. During those hours before lunch, I feel like I’m healing, and I’m a little proud of myself. I moved from Canada to the U.K., all on my own in a strange new country, and I made a life for myself there. And now I’ve gotten on a plane to go visit Cuba, all on my own, and this lovely balcony with a view and these cocktails are paid for with my own hard-earned money, and when I get back to the U.K., I’ll give myself a makeover and have a ball living the life of a glamorous London singleton.

But my mood and self-confidence follow the movements of the sun, dipping each afternoon and reaching pitch blackness by the time the untz-untz-untz from the hotel bar starts. So I moved from Calgary to London; as Chris never failed to point out, I didn’t even have to learn a new language, and it’s not like I was some scrappy immigrant turning up with empty pockets and working my way up to owning a restaurant chain and sending my kids to Eton. I was a software engineer with a healthy savings account when I moved. As for the life I made for myself, well, it is falling apart, isn’t it? The divorce proceedings are being finalized; in a month I’ll have to leave the apartment, and I haven’t found a new place. And then I start thinking about the divorce itself, and Chris. I remember every hurtful thing he ever said to me, every accusation, but rather than be angry about them, I believe them. I’m spoiled and mean and selfish and petty and paranoid, and if Chris had been unfaithful, I have only myself to blame. I hug myself tighter as I cry, telling myself I’ll feel better in the morning, but in the moment, I’m never able to believe it.

* * *

After breakfast at the beginning of the second week, I take my government Wi-Fi card and my phone and go to the spot in the lobby behind the grand piano. I try once more to upload the view from my balcony to the group chat, then I check my e-mail and see my solicitor’s name.

I stare at the PDF he has sent me, knowing what it is but unable to process it. Finally, I try to write a message to Gemma, saying it’s done, but I’ve wasted my last four minutes of Wi-Fi access transfixed by my solicitor’s message. I vaguely consider buying another card, but I can’t be bothered. I want to talk to a flesh-and-blood person. Not about anything in particular — the weather, sports, anything will do — I just want to have a normal, friendly conversation. Aside from ordering drinks, I realize I could count the number of times I’ve opened my mouth to speak in the past week on one hand.

I look around, hoping to see the laptop-bearing Canadian again, but to no avail; the lobby is empty. Instead, I go back to my room, exchange my flip-flops for proper sandals, grab my purse, and head out. It’s the first time since arriving that I venture outside of the hotel and its private beach strip. I walk along the boiling pavement, in the direction of the only shops nearby, hoping to meet someone with whom I can strike up a conversation.

I recall vaguely the travel advice we had read online the evening Gemma and I planned the trip. Travel bloggers were in perfect agreement that Cubans were the friendliest and warmest people in the world. I could use friendly and warm right now. Women bloggers, however, had also been in perfect agreement that catcalling was all-pervasive and ingrained; any female walking alone, they warned, children and octogenarians excluded, will be beset by constant wolf-whistling, compliments, and invitations.

A small cluster of shops come into view. A woman is sweeping the sidewalk in front of one, and nearby, three young, tanned, dark-haired men lean against the wall of a building and smoke. I remember the travel bloggers’ warnings and steel myself.

I come closer to the men, my eyes downcast, but they say nothing. The only sound is that of a car starting somewhere far away and the whisking sound of the woman sweeping. Surprised, I look up and briefly catch the eye of one of the men. He immediately looks away.

I keep walking until I reach the shop where the woman was sweeping. She has just finished and gone inside. I follow her. It’s a small, dark bodega. A few vegetables are lined up in a wood box on a chair, and a newspaper rack holds a few recipe books in Spanish and a handful of booklets with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on the covers. They look like they’ve been sitting there for decades, warped and heavily bleached by the sun.

The woman is sitting on a stool in a corner, working on a piece of clothing with a needle and thread. She smiles at me.

Encouraged, I say, “Hello. What a lovely shop you have.”

It’s an inane remark to make about this depressing excuse for a shop, but it doesn’t matter. She shakes her head in incomprehension and smiles apologetically, saying something in Spanish. I nod, smiling back equally apologetically, then excuse myself and leave. I don’t know a word of Spanish.

I find a supermarket, or what I guess is the nearest equivalent for Cuba. I walk down aisles filled with identical products. Hundreds of identical tubs of detergent, hundreds of identical bottles of sunflower oil, hundreds of identical boxes of pasta. It’s like a shop made from Lego has been made life-sized.

A tall, heavy man in a baseball hat, shorts, and a short-sleeved button-up shirt stands in front of a shelf lined with hundreds of bottles of TucaCola, shaking his head slowly. “Linda, just look at this,” he calls out. The Linda in question is a woman inspecting the shampoo bottles a few aisles away, I suspect. She doesn’t respond.

“Communism,” he mutters, still shaking his head.

“It’s bizarre, isn’t it,” I venture.

He glances at me, then back at the TucaCola. “Communism,” he says again. “It’s crazy. But at least the weather’s nice,” he adds thoughtfully. “And we’ve got the place to ourselves without any Americans.”

He is talking to himself more so than to me, and I find his laying claim to Cuba as if it were just a playground for Canadians to be distasteful. I’m so glad to talk to someone, though, that I ignore this. “There are Russians, though,” I say by way of conversation.

He looks at me again, now as if I’ve reminded him of something gross while he was eating. “Tschuh,” he says, packing all his disgust into the exclamation. “The Russians.” Without another word, he turns his back to me and walks away toward his Linda.

I stand in the aisle for another moment, then leave the store and walk back to the hotel. I see another handful of men by the roadside, a little older than those near the bodega. I pass them, and there is complete silence. I feel eerily invisible.

Back at the hotel room, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m pale and doughy. My face and eyelids are puffy, my blonde eyelashes barely visible. My hair is dull and looks unkempt; part of it is naturally wavy and part of it straight, so if I don’t style it, it looks like I went to bed with wet hair and it dried unevenly. My fear of getting cat-called seems laughable.

I suddenly remember the email from the barrister. I feel too much sorrow at that to be bothered that I’ve apparently lost all womanly charms. I flop onto the deck chair on the balcony and lie there gracelessly, like a bloated fish in a sundress.

* * *

The days pass as if in a dream, oscillating between the merely incomprehensible, as I lie sweaty and tipsy from sugary cocktails in the blazing heat or eat pizza like tomato paste spread on crackers to the background hum of Russian and Spanish, and the nightmarish, as I curl up on my bed, drunk and crying, hugging myself in defense against the encroaching, merciless untz-untz-untz from the world outside my hotel room.

I think of my now ex-husband a lot. Not as Chris the cheerful, funny Brit I met at the pub when I had just moved to the U.K.; not as Chris the enemy to whom I was bound, with whom I had shouting matches where we competed in inflicting wounds on each other; but as my ex-husband, the symbol of a life I failed at, the other half of a household that, until not so very long ago, had been safe and comfortable and often happy. And I think of all the things I could have done differently, from insisting on talking things out much earlier, when things had just started going wrong, to turning him down at the pub five years ago in favor of his friend, the less-funny but kinder-looking Daniel. I cry from the afternoons through the evenings and until I fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, until the 13th day of my trip, when I’m too tired to cry any more. I lie on my back on the hotel bed, looking at the ceiling. Then I think, what if I just give up and go back to Calgary, and tears come into my eyes, almost painfully, like stomach acid coming up when you’ve already vomited out the contents of your stomach.

In the evening of my final day, I decide to go downstairs when the partying starts. I cannot bear being alone in my hotel room another night, and I’m too tired and beyond caring about my pride; if I sit alone and drink alone in a crowd all night, pitied and ridiculed, so be it. I grope for any makeup in my vanity bag and put on mascara, a thick layer of concealer under my eyes, and red lipstick. My eyelids are so swollen from all the crying that the mascara looks like a drizzle of chocolate on souffle, and the lines under my lower eyelids are so deep that applying concealer is like trying to fill up ditches with dirt. But my lips are untouched by tears and misery, and I’m surprised that they can still look pretty. I dig deeper in the vanity bag and find a handful of cheap jewelry. None of it goes with the sundress I’m wearing, but it’s better than nothing. I put on dangly earrings and a few chunky rings.

The bar is already lively when I arrive, though the music hasn’t been turned up yet. Most of the people in the bar are Russians, plus a few Canadian men who look like dads that have negotiated an escape from their families for a few hours. I lean my elbows against the bar and order a rum and cola that I drink, too fast, through a straw. It nauseates me a little, but calms me. I order a second one and now lean my back against the bar, facing out toward the room. I notice a table with four men — definitely Russian — stealing glances at me. They do so not with the usual leering confidence of men in groups, but with a certain confusion. I guess it’s the mixed signals — and attractions — of my carefully painted, pretty red mouth and cheap jewelry versus my swollen eyelids and the despair that no concealer in the world could hide.

I fix my eyes on one of the men. He looks away when we make eye contact, but then looks back. I hold his gaze calmly, trying to send a telepathic message. Please. I cannot bear my own company any longer. Talk to me. Distract me. Anything.

It works. The man gets up from the table and comes up to me, his friends watching him. He looks a little taken aback as he sees my eyes more closely, but I smile entreatingly, and he either takes pity on me or decides it’s too late to go back.

“Hello. I am Dmitry. Do you want to drink with us?”

“Yes,” I say, glad it is no more complicated.

He turns to the bartender. “Five vodka shots.”

* * *

They move to let me take the innermost seat, so that on each side, I have a Russian man in a tight T-shirt and short brown hair: one solid-looking, muscular one — that’s Dmitry — and one skinny, younger-looking one, Viktor. They ask my name, hand me a vodka shot, then keep going as before, occasionally talking to each other in Russian but mostly drinking and watching the crowd. They don’t ask me any more questions, and I’m absurdly grateful to get to sit with them.

The place gets louder and they get more drunk. I decline more vodka shots in favor of a mojito. I’m bored but don’t want to leave; my drunken Russians are my dam against sadness and fear.

Finally, Dmitry turns to me. Raising his voice so I’ll hear him over the untz-untz-untz of the bar and the loud conversation of his friends, he asks, “So what happened with you — boyfriend leave?”

I don’t know if the reason he asked me only now was that he had been too shy before and was now drunk, or if he hadn’t really cared but had gotten bored. It doesn’t matter. “I got divorced,” I say.

He makes a face. “Divorce, ah. Why you get divorced?”

I shrug. “He cheated on me. And we fought all the time.”

“You miss him?”

I think about it anew. “Not really,” I say.

“Then why you are so sad?” He constructs the English sentence laboriously, stacking the words on each other like building blocks.

I smile, and it feels strange, my face unaccustomed to it. I look down at the table, then talk, more to myself than to Dmitry, whom I’m not sure is fluent enough in English, or sober enough, to follow. “I guess I’m sad that part of my life ended, and that it ended so badly. I just keep wondering if I could’ve done something different. And I do miss the way things were when we had just gotten married … and now I’ve lost all of that and I’ve no idea what comes next and I’m terrified of it. I’m going home tomorrow, and I’m just not ready. I have to find a place to live and get used to sleeping alone and …” I stop, feeling panic rising. I take a deep breath. “And then I wonder if I made a big mistake. That maybe I shouldn’t have made such a big deal of him hooking up with that woman a few times, that we could’ve fixed things after all.”

After I finish talking, there’s a long silence. I’m staring down dully at a ring of condensation on the table, lost in thought, when Dmitry says, “Burn letters.”

I had almost forgotten he was there, and the words make no sense. “What?” I say.

“Burn letters,” he repeats. “You already make decision, now you just stick with it. These …” he makes a circular motion in the air with his hand as he looks for the word, “… these regrets, they make no sense. Decision already made, yes?”

“Yes,” I say, still wondering if I had misheard what distinctly sounded like “burn letters.”

“Do something …” He trails off as he searches for a word again, then lights up as he finds it. “Do something symbolic. Women love symbolic. You have letters from husband, yes? Go home and burn letters. Or throw wedding ring into sea.”

Comprehension dawns. “I don’t have any physical letters from him,” I say, thinking about all the text messages and emails; deleting them wouldn’t quite feel the same. I look down at my fingers, which are adorned with the mismatched finds from my makeup bag: a chunky silver ring with a large turquoise and a delicate golden ring shaped like a strand of leaves. “And I left the wedding band at home.”

He follows my gaze to my hands. “Waste to throw away wedding ring anyway. You should sell it, get money for the gold,” he says, practical. “But we can pretend.” He points to the chunky silver ring with the turquoise. “Let’s say this is wedding ring. We go down to beach, throw into ocean. Marriage over. Yes?”

It’s too absurd, and I burst into laughter. It feels good. Dmitry smiles and me. I smile back and nod. “Let’s do it.”

* * *

At night, the beach is empty save for a couple strolling along the water, the man’s arm around the woman’s waist. We walk down to just where the sand is damp, the foamy tongues of the waves reaching to just in front of my feet.

“Now you take of ring, and you throw it,” Dmitry says.

I slide the turquoise ring off my finger and look at it solemnly. Dmitry is right. The divorce is done and even if starting over is terrifying, I simply don’t have any other choice, so it’s pointless to beat myself up or wallow over what could’ve been. I clutch the ring in my fist, take a step back, and lob it into the ocean.

But it was a weak throw, and the ring hits the crest of an incoming wave, so instead of sinking to the bottom far out as I had imagined, it’s brought right back in, swept up on the beach by the helpful wave. I look down at the ugly ethnic-chic ring and tears well into my eyes. God, I’m such an utter failure.

“Wait,” Dmitry says firmly, holding up his palm. He takes off his sneakers and socks, then picks up the ring from the wet sand and wades out. The water is shallow and he walks out at least 20 meters before bending down, reaching both hands into the water. Then he wades back. “Ring is under rock now. Definitely won’t come back; I promise.”

I look at him, my eyes still a little damp. “Thank you, Dmitry.”

He nods, then looks toward the hotel. “Let’s go back and sleep.”

We walk back to the hotel. He invites me to his room, but there’s nothing about his manner that suggests he has the slightest interest in having sex with me; it’s almost as if he’s doing it out of courtesy, and when I demur, saying I have to get up early and pack for my flight, he seems almost relieved. I hug him, and he looks a little embarrassed as we separate.

Exhausted, half still drunk and half already hungover, I fall asleep immediately, and I sleep deeply until it is bright sunshine outside.

After breakfast, I wait in the lobby for the minibus that is to take me to the airport. I spot Dmitry coming downstairs with his friends, all looking rather worse for wear. I smile at him. He gives me a barely perceptible nod in return but doesn’t smile. I wonder if he feels embarrassed; perhaps his friends made fun of him when he returned to their table last night, as if by not sleeping with me, he failed to live up to some macho expectations. Or perhaps he just has a terrible hangover, or he just doesn’t smile much. I decide it doesn’t matter. The minibus arrives and I go outside, silently wishing Dmitry well in life as I hand my luggage to a tanned, sweaty man and climb inside.

* * *

The airplane is surprisingly cold. I ask for a blanket and wrap myself in it, closing the seatbelt on its outside, then lean against the window and watch the luggage being thrown onto a conveyor belt into the innards of the plane. I’m half terror, half excitement at the thought of going back to London. On the one hand, there’s the need to find a new home, there’s lying alone in bed unable to sleep, there’s coming home after work and being met only by silence rather than a “Hey, how was your day?” and a hug, there’s that pinch in my heart when I want to text Chris to tell him about something before remembering it’s over. On the other, there’s the promise of a home that’s all mine, there’s all of London to explore whenever I’m brave enough to do so again, and there’s eating chocolate digestives and drinking tea in front of EastEnders without a single snide, condescending comment to mar the experience. Just the thought of chocolatey biscuits and tea and the telly is like a second, warmer blanket. I doze off before the aircraft has started moving.

The safety instructions, jarringly loud, drag me halfway out of sleep. My mind is still in the borderland of sleep, but I hear the words. You must leave all your belongings behind.

Don’t tell me what to do, I think angrily, then I sink into a deep sleep.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


  1. This IS quite a story, Alice! We have a woman at a crossroads in her life (after a divorce) that needed a break; to get away from it all. I like what you say, and how you say it. The fact much of it is gritty and awkward makes it all the better and relatable. Let’s face it, being a person is often a drag (major or minor) even when we’re in a fairly good place in life.

    This lady just couldn’t catch a break, overall. She kind of did in some unexpected ways. Dmitry was one; probably the best one. I couldn’t picture my ex throwing her cubic zirconia ring into the ocean. It was too beautiful. A “faux diamond ring” is a far nicer description than fake, right? But this was different. She needed to, and did. Yes.

    Hopefully she gets her life back on track in London, once again. Just stay out of Canada. Their PM has ruined it.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *