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Notes on writing in Cuba

My mother wants to visit an antique store.

“All of Havana’s an antique store,” I tell her, which isn’t exactly true. There were at least six brand new flat screen TVs on our flight from Miami, destined for living rooms around Cuba’s capital. “Ridiculous, right?” Brayan says, when we tell him. “Your roof is falling in on your head, but you’ve got a flat screen TV.”

This–visiting an antique store–is the only thing my mother has said she wants to do in Havana. Coupled with the fact that she has gamely put up with Havana’s traffic, its grime, its heat, its noise, its unpackaged chicken, and my in-laws, the very least I can do is make sure she gets to one.

Brayan charges himself with the task and one afternoon we sneak away from the family to go antique hunting. I’m not sure what my mother or I was expecting, but I’m certain it wasn’t what we walked into–a generous-sized home that could reasonably be called a mansion, where the matriarch of an entrepreneurial family (some might have other choice adjectives) guards the door with a fan, a begrudging cordiality, and one hell of an evil eye.

“People call her five-dollar-Dora,*” Brayan whispers, referring to the daughter of the matriarch. Dora is watching my mother finger through a tangle of rosaries draped on the hand of a Virgin statue, chain-smoking Populares and tugging on her Lycra shorts. She’s nervous, Dora, circulating from one room to another, keeping an eye on her stock.

At first, I think “This is it,” just this little chaotic warren of religious ephemera, which, my mother points out, is terribly suspect. “I don’t know if the rosaries are real,” she says, counting the beads on the ones she likes and wondering why some of the strands come up short. When I turn around, though, I realize there is a maze of rooms left to explore. A corner of the living room is the display area for a towering collection of humidors. The hallway between the living room and the dining room–neither of which is truly habitable–holds several cabinets so bloated with china that their doors won’t close. A collection of clocks hangs on one wall. Above the hallway, a staircase, which is itself backdropped by a 3/4 length stained-glass window, which, in turn, is surrounded by dozens of small, framed, black and white portraits.

The dining room, though, is what leaves me in complete wonder. Five-dollar-Dora’s tableware is stacked higgledy piggledy on a solid wood table that is almost the length of the room. Several buffet tables and more china cabinets do what they can to contain the rest: Bacardi cocktail glasses, china services from China, France, the Netherlands, vases and sugar bowls and creamers and salt and pepper shakers and….

I’m floored by all of it–the sheer volume, which (disturbingly) evokes scenes from “Schindler’s List.” The lack of organization and care with which it’s being kept. The Cubans circulating through the rooms, one couple looking for an affordable wedding gift. Five-dollar-Dora and her nervous smoking. The fact that the mansion hasn’t been claimed by the government and sectioned off into housing for multiple families, because it’s certainly large enough. The profit five-dollar-Dora must be making (though she seems to be either unaware or unconcerned about each item’s respective value), and what she does with it. How she acquired all this stuff in the first place… though I have a couple hypotheses.

I’m dying to ask Dora about it all, but I don’t. I’m also dying to snap a photo, but I’m conflicted–I know that what’s going on here is part of the underground economy; Dora’s neighbors let her get away with it, but none of them exactly want this story shouted from the rafters. Not to mention I’m terrified of Dora’s mother and the men who wander in and out of the scene, making phone calls. They all seem taut with a nervous energy that I sense could be venomous. I manage to get one photo by coughing and simultaneously clicking from the hip.

We leave the house, my mother with two rosaries and me with loads of questions.

*name has been changed