Monday, May 18, 2009

"The Language Problem" by Philip Levine

Cuban Spanish is incomprehensible even to Cubans. "If you spit in his face he'll tell you it's raining," the cab driver said. In Cuban it means, "Your cigar is from Tampa." Single, desperate, almost forty, my ex-wife told the Cuban doctor she'd give a million dollars for a perfect pair of tits. "God hates a coward," he said & directed her to an orthopedic shoe store where everything smelled like iodine. A full-page ad on the back of Nueva Prensa Cubanaclearly read "Free rum 24 hours a day & more on weekends." ("Free rum" was in italics.) When I showed up that evening at the right address, Calle Obispo, 28, the little merchant I spoke to said, "Rum? This is not a distillery." They were flogging Venetian blue umbrellas for $4 American. Mine was made in Taiwan and when it rained refused to open. Before sunset the streets filled with music. In the great Plaza de la Revolución the dark came slowly, filled with the perfume of automobile exhaust and wisteria. I danced with a girl from Santiago de Cuba. Gabriela Mistral García was her name; she was taller than I & wore her black hair in a wiry tangle. She was a year from her doctorate in Critical Theory. After our dance she grabbed me powerfully by the shoulders as a commandante in a movie might, leaned down as though to kiss me on the cheek, & whispered in my good ear, "I dream of tenure." It was the Fifties all over again.

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