MIAMI — My friend texts me while sitting at her table, sipping wine, not listening to the two children who, nearby, play with an arsenal of toy planes.
It is a long text, with ellipses, italics and words in UPPERCASE, written from that place 90 miles away where my soul still resides. From afar, the image of her message resembles a post-modern etching.
But her words arrive like a plea, more than anything else. She has written to ask me not to phone her today, because she might cry. She says no more.
We are tough women, fighters, activists, the kind who can shoulder the weight of a household, a family, a cause, a love, an entire nation. We don’t like to weep for others or worry our loved ones with easy sentimentality.
On occasion, pulling the taut cord of life can rub our hands raw. As we know, shared tears can soothe those wounds. So, we’re forever lending each other our palms.
Before coming to Miami, I did not obsess by phoning her every day. I preferred to save the daily news over a period of time and then deliver them in long chats, along with the minor complaints about work. Sometimes I chose the phone; others, I simply showed up at her house and stayed to eat or sleep, according to how we felt.
Her home was a safe place to share illusions, unrequited love, boredom, with an interminable flow of rum, which we drank while laughing, or when we needed to cut loose. But it’s been months since we last talked like that, because I am far away and I feel that I can’t stand it anymore.
Living outside Cuba — moreover, in the United States — implies that you strongly repress that intense desire to pick up the phone every time that you desire to hear the voice of a dear one. It’s not a whim or simple selfishness, it’s discipline.
The prices of telephony between the two countries render unaffordable a communication that resembles the spontaneous course of love. Circumstances impose that you seek other ways, turn your love inward, conform.
Although the news of the restart of diplomatic relations between the two countries almost a year ago placed telecommunications among the top issues in the agenda of dialogue, the minuscule steps taken by the politicians don’t even scratch those ancient walls that separate individuals. From the United States, a one-minute call to Cuba costs between 50 cents and 1 dollar, with transmission qualities to match.
The few minutes an average émigré can afford are not long enough to overcome the stuttering dialogue. Visualizing the second hand, we barely mask our emotion with ordinary phrases such as “How are you?” and “Are you eating right?”, trying always not to waste time with unimportant anecdotes.
And once the shock of the re-encounter dies down, we invariably hear an annoying whistle and the robot-like, cloyingly sweet voice that says, “You have one minute left.” Seldom have we time to say goodbye. As we put together a sentence, a sudden silence fills the earpiece.
I, who grew up in the Havana of crises and separations, don’t lack experience to overcome the ellipses inherent in “the call.” Whoever had a relative or distant friend on the island was foretold the announced conversation.
One used to sit like a sentinel, next to the phone that never EVER could be busy. One reviewed in one’s mind the likely topics so as not to dawdle when the bell rang; one tried to sound unruffled, to complain little and be upbeat.
Any hesitation caused anxiety and if an imprudent topic caused the conversation to run over, one’s conscience would suffer over the bill, which would roughly exceed half the monthly expenses of the family in Havana.
From the other shore, the call ends with the usual litany: we must observe the priorities, the family worries but the pockets are sort of empty and it’s best to keep an eye (and our affection) on the clock. We learn to soothe the nostalgia without sound effects. We try to adapt to a contact with an agenda, to unadorned phrases, to think a lot more than what we manage to say.
We hope that the Nauta e-mail works every day without slowing down because of an excess of photos; we hope that the relative or friend assiduously joins the chat on Facebook, or that he connects with WiFi on the street and surprises us by calling us over Imo, even if the image looks frozen.
In California, another friend with whom I communicate daily is studying on a scholarship at a place where almost everyone is a foreigner. He says he’s the only whose voice chokes with nostalgia. The others see their loved ones whenever they want and send them jokes, voice messages and photographs. If they wish, they can open an app that lets them watch their parents having dinner. And everything is free, or almost.
We both wonder if the time will ever come when talking from the U.S. to Cuba (or vice versa) will cost the same as phoning Switzerland, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Colombia or one of the hundreds of countries included in the $10 international-call plans offered by almost all the telephone companies in the U.S.
If my grandmother had WhatsApp in her phone, so I could ask her what’s her special touch for chicken with rice; if my sister showed me on Skype an excerpt from the theater play that moves her, would we experience the distance as strongly?
I wish to talk with my soul friend this time because there’s a promo that offers one minute for 29 cents if one turns into a night person and waits, romantically, to dial between midnight and 7 a.m.
I don’t know if — 10 years ago, when we spent bohemian nights in Havana with our faces full of discovery — we ever expected to someday wait for midnight only because of a phone call.
Life is eventful, indeed. And I reluctantly try to bring this indiscreet note to an end. I am calling my girlfriend because sometimes listening to each other is enough to dry our tears.