Habana Libre, Chapter One

Havana, 2002

As soon as Pablo Ortiz Llanes cleared the spit of land that angled away from the beach, he realized that the ocean swells were much larger than they appeared from shore. He let out the sheets, letting the sails flap in the wind, just as the old man had taught him not so long ago, but his efforts failed to significantly slow the Hobie Cat down.

It’s OK, the boy thought to himself. Such strong winds will carry me that much faster across the Straits.

But Pablo could feel the panic rising up from his belly, making it more difficult to breath, to concentrate. The weather forecast back at Cayo Coco hadn’t called for this much wind. He tacked into the worst of it and for a moment he feared that the rigging, the aluminum mast and the metal shrouds that held it in place would tumble down upon him. The boat stalled atop another towering wave. “In irons” -- that’s what the old man had called it. By the time Pablo remembered the term, the waves had broken hard across the bows and driven the rear of the Hobie down into the water. A sheet of water raced across the canvas deck that stretched between the craft’s two hulls.

Desperate to get the Hobie moving again, moving in any direction, Pablo pulled in on the jib sheet as the mainsail continued to flap crazily in the wind. Head down, so he wouldn’t be struck by the metal boom, Pablo felt the boat finally lurch forward. He sailed over the next wave and was borne aloft for enough precious seconds that he had time to fear the fall to earth. And here it came, the twin bows’ turn to be buried in the churning waters. As the boat struggled to remain afloat, Pablo saw that he had only one choice: To try and return to land. The storm was still building, just playing with him. It was only a matter of time until a wave became too big for the Hobie. Perhaps it would crack one of the hulls below the waterline, that or really bring down the rigging. In any case, it would be a blow from which he couldn’t recover.

First, Pablo had to get the big sail down. With one hand on the tiller, Pablo sprawled face-first across the canvas and lifted the main halyard from its jam cleat. The big sail fell in protest, and the boom gave Pablo a nasty knock on the back of his left knee. For a moment, he lost hold of the tiller and the Hobie spun off from the wind. He reached back for the sliver of wood that connected to the rudder beneath the waves. Without somebody at the helm, the small craft became like a crazed beast, ready to run away into the darkness. There, he had the tiller now and pulled it toward him. Down below the waterline, the rudder felt as if it could snap off at any moment. With his other arm, Pablo pulled the rest of the mainsail down and tried to still the fabric by shoving it under his wet legs.

In front of him appeared the wide golden beach, the pride of Cayo Coco. Everything was happening too fast. He needed to bring the Hobie safely through the ragged surf line. If a wave took him sidewise, the boat would roll and break apart on the shore. Needing more speed to maneuver, Pablo pulled in the jib and steered a course across the next bank of fast-moving waves. When those broke past him, he let out the jib sheet and turned directly toward the shore. The next set of waves rose up underneath him and drove the front end of the Hobie down into the water. If it became too shallow too quickly, the bows could catch and send him pinwheeling into the shore. But on this night God was good, and he slid like a tourist on a boogie board safely onto beach.

Only then did he see that someone had been watching. She was in the water alongside him. Amazingly, she was helping him guide the Hobie back into the quiet lagoon with the rest of the rental fleet from Cayo Coco. It was Pilar Silva, one of the lead dancers in the nightly floor show.

“I tried,” Pablo said and immediately regretted such words.

For this Pilar was a beauty. The showgirl who was front and center with her group – the better to show off her eloquent carriage, full breasts and knowing smile. In fact, she was smiling at him now. She had seen the three plastic jugs of water and the cooler of food that were tied down to the canvas deck.

“I’m impressed,” Pilar said, “with your ingenuity.”

“What are you doing down here?” Pablo demanded.

But she only smiled and turned her attention back to the boat.

Beyond them the two main structures of the Cayo Coco resort – the casino and the main ballroom, where Pilar danced – glowed in a soft yellow light.

“Come, we must hurry,” Pilar said, glancing back at the grand ballroom where the joke had happened. But nobody would care about such times if they were found in this way tonight on the beach. Nobody was alone, or at least unobserved, for long in Cayo Coco.

Together, he and the showgirl waded into the lagoon and slid the Hobie Cat into its berth. Pilar came alongside him and helped him begin to tie down the lines. That’s when it struck Pablo how close he’d come to dying. The old man had warned him that the sea could take a man at any it wanted. Weather reports weren’t worth damn. Sometimes, like on a night like tonight, the sea hid malice in its heart.
With shaking hands, Pablo tried to finish tying the half-hitch around the mooring post. But it was no good. Here he was breaking down right in from of this woman. But instead of being embarrassed by his outburst, Pilar brought him to her chest, like a big sister, and Pablo rested there, for a moment, upon that glorious bosom.

“Next time you try,” she said, “may be I’ll go with you.”

“I’m not trying again,” Pablo said, pulling away. “You have my promise about that.”

“No, you’ll try again,” Pilar replied. “I can see it in your eyes. You nearly slipped away from here and you won’t forget that. I know I couldn’t forget that.”

They had almost stowed away the last of the gear when Asafa came down the boardwalk. He wore a poncho and it was as if the skies have been waiting for his arrival, for the heavens opened up, and soon Pablo and the showgirl were drenched to the bone.

“What are you two doing?” Asafa said in a voice as angry as the stormy weather.

Pablo kept his head down, finishing the work. Pilar stared up defiantly at the boss man and then back to Pablo. She waited for him to say something to the boss man. Act like a man. But the situation had made Pablo mute.

“We almost lost it,” Pilar began to tell Asafa.

Pablo realized that whatever Pilar said now had to become the truth and he silently prayed that she sold it as hard she did anything on stage. He had seen how she could focus on one gentleman, look him in the eye, and make him believe that she was something dropped to earth by God almighty himself. A beauty that only spoke the truth.

“If it wasn’t for Pablo, you would have lost your new toy,” Pilar said. The rainwater glistened on her defiant face.

“He should have called for security,” Asafa said. “That’s the correct procedure.”

“He cried out and I was the only one to hear him,” Pilar said. God, she was so beautiful, refusing to be bullied. “Now stop making him shit in his pants and start helping us. I don’t know how new this stupid boat is, I don’t care how much it costs, but it would have been lost in this storm. It was pulled free from the dock and floating out into the surf. You need better rope to harness this one.”

“Is that true?” Asafa bellowed, still looking down on them, not raising a finger to help.

The boss man tried to keep them frightened, but Pablo sensed that his voice had softened, just a touch. He was like any man with a problem. He wanted to believe the lie. He wanted to believe the beautiful woman.

“Is that true?” Asafa repeated.

Reluctantly, Pablo peered up at him, still knee-deep in the sloshing water. The boy of fifteen nodded and left the next move to Asafa. The boss man was like a big cat: Dangerous, with sharp claws, but he didn’t like to be out in the rain.

“All right,” Asafa said. “Tie it down -- tight this time.”

With that he turned and walked away, his steps echoed up the boardwalk.

“Thank you,” Pablo whispered.

His head sank down at his chest, and Pilar reached over and raised it back to the land of the living with a single finger under the chin.

“We’ll talk more about this,” she smiled. “Much more.”