In the beginning was the fascination.
The area around La Rampa, with its movie theaters, clubs, and restaurants, had become the heart of Havana's throbbing night life. I was a shabbily dressed country boy—innocent, Catholic, revolutionary—recently arrived in the capital to go to college, who began to spend lonely Saturday nights parading in awe up and down the dazzling avenue, between the infinite sea and the just-opened Coppelia ice cream parlor. I strolled in a permanent state of ecstasy among miniskirts and hippies—our own peculiar brand, a tropical and undereveloped variety—determined to fill my eyes and lungs with the magnetic world of glittering neon signs and still-gleaming American cars, the final vestiges of glamour left over from the shimmering 50s, already retreating before the onslaught of socialist propaganda with its exalted red-tinged slogans, persistent and strident, calling to combat and victory.
I want to remember that it was precisely during one of my first walks on La Rampa, mesmerized by the pull and promise of a life unknown to me, that by the steps leading down to the shadowy club called the Grotto I glimpsed the glass-covered poster from which Amada Luna—"The Sorrowful Lady of the Bolero"—first wickedly stared at me. I was stopped in my tracks by an overpowering sensation: an invasive attraction radiating from my belly and pulsating in every cell of my body. I gazed at the honey-colored face of a woman of around thirty, where traces of many races had merged to concoct a miracle: proud, almond-shaped eyes, fleshy red lips from which a burning cigarette dangled casually, and hair—perhaps a tad too yellow—cascading in untamed curls down to smooth and sensual shoulders. The poster announced that Amada Luna was appearing there nightly, from Tuesday to Sunday, always at eleven. As I stared spellbound at the uniquely lascivious features, the possibility of actually entering such a place—sinful, sophisticated, and beyond the reach of the naïve kid I was back then, Catholic, revolutionary and very poor as I already said—never once crossed my mind.
I would also like to think that even before that fateful night in 1967 when I first saw the picture—or the picture saw me—it was predestined that we would meet, and that Amada Luna's face would become one of my life-long obsessions. Even now, so many years and disasters later, when I listen to Bola de Nieve sing an old bolero and think of her—my skin distinctly tingling—I can still see the photo clearly, I'm still unable to find any hint of the crushing sadness to which she owed her stage name, and I'm still convinced that a tragic force brought us together, that our story was fated to end in the devastating way it did.
From that moment on my meanderings around La Rampa on Saturdays, or on any other day of the week, alone or in a throng of classmates, always included a few minutes before The Sorrowful Lady of the Bolero to try to fathom the mysteries of the face captive in the photo, and to dream of the moment when I would finally see that alluring woman in the flesh, live and in color from head to toe. Meanwhile back in my dorm room I half-heartedly began to listen to boleros as part of my sentimental education. The cloying music, filled with lovelorn laments, neither persuaded me of its worth nor moved me to deep melancholy, since I still did not know that appreciation of a bolero depends entirely on one's own bitter lived experiences.
So the stage was set for that December 13th, 1967, the day I turned eighteen. Instead of asking my family for practical gifts like aftershave or a sorely needed new shirt, I requested cash. After extensive mulling over I had devised a very simple plan: that night I would celebrate by going to the Grotto to finally see Amada Luna.
As expected, I was carded before being allowed into the club, before entering the welcoming scented darkness—a mixture of rum, black tobacco, and desire—suggested by the club's name. And, as I would later learn, a darkness also contaminated by its links to a past that the Cuban Revolution—like any revolution worthy of the name—violently rejected and was determined to eradicate from the island.
Peering into the shadows I noticed a small stage near the bar and found the stool closest to it. Clueless when the barman approached me, I hesitantly ordered a rum collins—only because I thought it sounded cool—and timidly ogled the moves of couples playing out erotic games on the club's cushy sofas.
Suddenly the few lights went down and a prolonged silence floated in the dense darkness. A languid melody rose from a piano to finally fill the club and, still in the dark and for the first time, I heard the voice of Amada Luna:
You will think of me as the sun is setting.
You will call out to me in your most intimate most secret moments.
You will regret
Your disdain for my love,
You will be sorry
But it will be too late
To get back together. You will be haunted
By yesterday's memories
You will be tormented
By your guilty conscience….
There was something strikingly different about that voice—small, warm, thick, ever so carefully calibrated—that more than singing seemed to be whispering in your ear. Just as she warned You will regret a faint light glowed on stage, carving out Amada Luna's figure leaning on a stool, murmuring her love songs with head tilted as if to convey deep sorrow. Her hair obscured most of her face and, only when her hand pushed back the burnished cascade, did I realize that her eyes were closed and that she was holding the microphone—and everyone knows what a microphone looks like—almost inside her mouth. I was enthralled by the strange magic emanating from the combination of music, lighting, scents, feelings, voice and woman, a magic that had little to do with the fascination—as you already know—of a young country boy's first encounter with the forbidden pleasures of the city. What was happening there was something real and tangible, but it was taking place in another dimension where the songs attained a logic of their own by the grace of that woman—smaller than I had imagined her, less voluptuous than I had dreamed her—who barely moved or gestured, but whose all-encompassing presence seduced an audience of drunks and junkies, creatures of the night and couples in love, brittle old loners and innocent youths, all brought under the tyrannical spell of those boleros being performed by Amada Luna.The magic held unwavering through eight more songs, even beyond the moment when she whispered Thank you, almost reluctantly, as if her voice had given way, and no one moved, or spoke, or drank, still trapped in the net of Amada Luna's magnetism, in her fervent and visceral way of delivering those lines, until she took the lit cigarette the pianist handed her and said Good evening… and I started to clap the moment the eerie light went out as Amada Luna vanished into the darkness, like a shared mirage.
I would not have believed that a syrupy, tear-stained bolero could have such impact. Never until that moment had I felt the kind of physical yearning that Amada Luna aroused in me. Not even in dreams had I imagined that the fusion of rum, shadows, cigarettes, sleepless nights, and suppressed lust could add up to the haunting feeling of belonging that blessed me at that moment. No doubt I had been patiently anticipating something as yet unnamable, something that came into being the day I entered the golden age of eighteen. So the following evening, sitting on the same stool, I ordered another rum collins, and listened—through an almost impenetrable cloud of smoke—to the boleros that Amada Luna began to sing for me alone.
Someone who has not sensed that, however decadent and predictable its aesthetic, the bolero is one of the foremost expressions of life, will not be able to understand its prodigious power to conjure the rawest of emotions. Although the lyrics—unabashedly intent on exploiting basic feelings—often insult poetry, and the melodies shamelessly dwell on the sugariest scales of the pentagram, the unchallenged merit of a good bolero stems from its ability to seduce, from its power to move, ever tied to a voice and a way of singing, more than to any words or any tune. For someone who never witnessed the spectacle of Amada Luna singing during those lost Havana nights, it would seem incomprehensible that, whenever I could afford it, I'd cut classes and skip political rallies to spend my time and my money indulging my fancy at the Grotto, watching her sing and smoke, hearing her whisper Thank you and good evening, and just staring at her—more ardently by the day—as she sipped her Carta Blanca, always just one, served in a tall glass, with only one ice cube and a little ginger ale…
At the end of her performance Amada Luna moved to the bar, to silently drink the single shot of rum. It seemed a kind of atavistic ritual: cigarette dangling from her lips, she got off the stool, the barman poured the Carta Blanca, and she sipped it slowly between drags, not speaking to anyone, barely observing through her hair the ice cube melting into the rum until, at around the two o'clock closing time, she downed what was left of her drink and left without saying a word, all by herself, with no one waiting, while I, filled with questions and brimming with desire yet not daring to approach her, merely stared helplessly as she walked away.
Countless were the nights I spent watching her show, her drinking ceremony, and her solitary leaving. Finally, I mustered the courage to quit that routine that was weighing me down, robbing me of all my concentration. If I was too shy to do anything other than look and listen from my corner—imagining outcomes that I never dared act on—I should try to channel my energies otherwise and forget about that unattainable woman who did not even seem to notice my existence, who had turned me into an avid cigarette smoker, and who could no doubt make me flunk out of college. So I decided never to go back to the Grotto, to avoid La Rampa and its plentiful temptations altogether, to stop listening to boleros, and to stay away from any paths that might bring me near an apparition named Amada Luna.
In September of 1968 I started my second year of college. After a summer at home, away from Havana and all its lurid offerings, I felt I had overcome my addiction to Amada Luna and her songs, and regained my peace of mind. It was comforting to once again meet my friends at Coppelia for long evenings of ice cream and shots of rum—from bottles disguised in discreet wrappers—for extended discussions of serious topics far removed from the decadent world of the bolero. It seemed possible to resist the urge to amble down La Rampa toward the Grotto, and I suspect that Amada Luna would be nothing but a nebulous memory if one night my friends had not insisted on stopping in for a drink at the nightclub. Several had seen her act and spoke enthusiastically about her unique way with boleros. My defenses, weaker than I expected, melted like wax under a flame.
Walking into the club and ordering a rum collins felt like coming home. Although it was still fifteen minutes to show time my heart was pounding and my hands sweating from anticipation. I was stunned to realize the will power it had taken to stay away for two whole months. But now, utterly out of control, I also realized that I should never have come back. This was confirmed as soon as the lights went down and, from the heart of darkness, Amada Luna's husky voice began to whisper one of her boleros.
Listen to me
I want to tell you something
Hear me out
For though it hurts my soul
I need to speak to you
And so I will.
The two of us
Who were so open
That we fell in love
As soon as we met.
The two of us who made of love
A shining sun
A divine romance.
The two of us
Though we are so in love
We must part ways
Don't ask me any questions.
It's not for lack of feelings
I love you with all my heart
I swear I adore you
But in the name of love
And for your own good
I'll say good-bye.
Then something inconceivable and utterly breathtaking happened. Amada Luna, who had performed the entire song with her usual concentrated power—not even bothering to touch the hair that covered her face—pushed the fiery curtain behind her ear and I saw her eyes staring straight at me, and the slightest hint of a smile curling at the corners of her lips. Could that be true? Was she really looking at me? Was she, Amada Luna herself, smiling at me? I managed to sit through the performance without coming unglued but as she started the final bolero—"Life is a Dream," how to forget it—I said that I was feeling sick and going home. Not even waiting for a reply I made a hasty exit, crossed La Rampa, and slumped down behind a 1958 Plymouth to wait for my friends to leave the club. Then I walked back to the Grotto—already minus a bouncer at that late hour—pushed open the door, and watched The Sorrowful Lady of the Bolero raise her glass and take a sip of Carta Blanca.
With unusual determination and overwhelming eagerness I sat down at the bar, almost touching Amada's arm, ordered a Carta Blanca on the rocks, lit a cigarette, and turned to look at the woman whose voice and songs had such a hold on me.
"You finally came…" she murmured with the same intensity with which she sang while pushing back the hair that insisted on hiding her face. "I thought you'd left. So many people are leaving the country."
"No, it's just that…" I strained to think of something to say but no words came. So I downed my burning añejo. "Had you noticed me?"
Amada did not answer. She never answered questions. Through the haze of cigarette smoke that enveloped us, she glanced at her glass. The ice was almost gone and she downed the rest.
"Shall we?" she asked, or rather commanded. As if I had been waiting for that very phrase, I placed a bill under my drink and helped her off the stool.
The first woman with whom I had sex was an ex-hooker, officially rehabilitated by the Revolution, who called herself "María the Fighter." For two pesos she would relieve the barrio's young men of their virginity with almost surgical precision. Then there was Irina, "the Russian who taught us to fuck," a nymphomaniac who was actually from the Ukraine. As soon as her husband left on maneuvers—he was this gigantic black guy, an officer in the army, a graduate of the first artillery training program that Cubans attended in the Soviet Union—she would throw open her windows to parade around the house naked in plain view of feverish adolescent boys, and give expression to her lust by offering them her sexual tricks, free of all charge in keeping with socialist mores. After Irina's death, at the hands of the cuckolded soldier, I had several girlfriends, but only one of them—the sweet and chubby Isabel María—allowed me to go all the way. Still, none of those women with whom I experienced desire—even passion—rendered me helpless, totally bewitched, the way Amada Luna had.
The delights of that night with Amada Luna, and the eight nights that followed, are a whole other story. The dive near the campus where we ended up must have been as sordid as any of Havana's sex lairs. But, crazed with desire as I was, I barely noticed anything other than the sex feast served to me by a woman as gifted in the erotic arts as she was in singing boleros. I've already mentioned that her body was not particularly voluptuous. She was rather thin, small-breasted, and her ass, though tight, was nowhere near the volume usual in Cuban women. But the casual wisdom with which she deployed her weapons, and the seductive talent she brought to her task, were devastating. If, until then, I had been in love with a fantasy woman who scorched me with her voice, now I was head over heels for a very real person who refused to sing boleros offstage, who resisted all attempts to talk about herself, who rejected my company outside the four walls of the bedroom. The same being who, in the hours that she devoted to me, hypnotized me with her amatory savvy, learned and refined in who knows how many other beds.
For Amada Luna everything was acceptable, everything fair in the intimacy of the love ritual. Her whole body engaged in the act, and she knew how to bring my own fully alive: every protuberance, each cavity, each and every fold. Strangely enough Amada Luna never uttered a word during sex. Rather like an orchestra conductor, she directed with her hands, signaled with her eyes, made her intentions clear with a twitch of her lips. Guided by a profound wisdom—probably the same that made her so dominant on stage—she first cast a spell and then seduced with an endless array of erotic resources that, during those nine unforgettable nights, were mine to relish.
What if there had been more than nine nights? What would have happened then? Still today I cannot begin to imagine, since each time seemed like the first. In each of our encounters Amada introduced infinite variations—languid or violent, fiery or mesmerizing, in any and all stages of undress—into our frolicking, boasting endless creativity and an intensity that I have yet to find in any other woman. Already crazed with love and desire, I had turned into unthinking mush merely able to experience the pleasures that she initiated. If only we had had more than those nine nights, if only . . .
I can also never forget that my tenth night with Amada Luna should have been on October 2, 1968. Around that time a radical revolutionary offensive to give the state control over people's minds, as well as the island's entire economy, had been set in motion. A gigantic harvest was being planned for 1970 to produce sixteen million tons of sugar which would, in one fell swoop, pull the country out of economic underdevelopment and bring it into a state of communist perfection. But caught in a vortex of love and lust, with all my neurons living and breathing solely for Amada Luna's sake, I had turned my back on the storm that was ominously gathering.
Just like the previous evenings, I left my dorm at exactly ten and headed for La Rampa in search of its glittering neon lights, its expectations and its promises, now fulfilled to levels I had never before even fathomed. Shortly before eleven I crossed the street and plunged into the abyss. The Grotto was dark and, for a second, I wondered if it could be Monday, although I was positive that the date was Thursday, October 2. The streetlamps lit the steps leading down to the club and, as I approached with growing agitation, I glimpsed the tightly shut doors and the sign that read: CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. The jolt of anguish almost choked me as I tried to figure out what had happened. Then, by the club's entrance, I spotted the poster where I had first laid eyes on Amada Luna. I went down the steps and turned over the frame. The glass was shattered but on the cardboard—announcing the performances that would never again take place—the image of The Sorrowful Lady of the Bolero was still intact. With all the care my trembling hands could manage I slipped the poster out of the frame and, in possession of that treasure, fled as if I had just robbed a bank.
I desperately searched all the nearby clubs and discovered that they had met the same fate. I asked anyone I met if they knew what was going on and, from bits of information, put together an answer: the whole country had been called to participate in a huge undertaking—the Great Sugar Harvest—and all Havana nightclubs had been declared decadent bourgeois places of nocturnal debauchery that interfered with people's ability to fully devote themselves to the national project. All were shut down until a better use could be found for them, as workers' lunchrooms or meeting places perhaps, or democratic restaurants for citizens who distinguished themselves in the service of their country, whether in the factories or on the fields.
I spent a sleepless night and the following day began a frantic search for Amada Luna. The deck was stacked against me, beginning with the fact that I didn't even know who I was looking for, since Amada Luna was obviously a stage name. In my favor I had only a fleeting glimpse of her catching a Number 68 bus after one of our lovefests. My plan was simple: I followed the bus route the length of El Vedado to the town of Mantilla on the outskirts of Havana showing her picture and questioning anyone I met, from shop owners and bakers to every driver of bus Number 68. Increasingly despondent, racked with hunger and thirst, I combed the city from north to south under the scorching sun. Nothing yielded any clues regarding the whereabouts of Amada Luna, the woman without whom I felt I could no longer live.
After eighteen days of searching and the premature death of my shoes, my hopes of finding her fading, I arrived at the terminal of bus Number 68. Suddenly a little spark flickered when I ran into the driver who did the night shift. The man, a mulatto in his fifties who had been relegated to the station courtyard for some minor infraction, instantly recognized the woman in the picture and explained that Amada Luna always rode with him as far as Dolores Avenue, where she transferred to the Number 54 bus that went to Lawton. But he had an even more useful tidbit for me: all nightclub performers had been sent to plant coffee in the so-called Havana Belt. Several days earlier, while testing a recently serviced bus, he had seen the group near the town of El Calvario, on the city's southern edge.
Without pausing to wait for any of the public transportation vehicles that made the trip to El Calvario—its name appropriately alluding to my agony—I continued my search for Amada Luna. That area of greater Havana that I had never seen before took on a beautiful glow in my despairing eyes since it offered a trail to the woman I so needed, by whom I had been seduced and abandoned. Before reaching El Calvario proper, I ran into some kids who pointed the way to a barren lot where "the artists," as they called them, were working. I crossed an arid field where a few tiny and already withering coffee shoots were sprouting. There, slouched under a tree enjoying the breeze, I met an old singer frequently seen on TV and known as "The Bolero's Golden Voice." My heart pounding at having found the thread that would lead me to Amada Luna, I blurted out a hasty "Buenas tardes" and asked if he knew her.
"Sure. In fact she was here two days last week. But if you want to see her you're going to have to go to Miami. I heard she left Monday on a boat."
I will grudgingly admit that this story abounds with twists of fate and premonitions. Just as the Bolero's Golden Voice predicted—he died shortly after without ever again setting foot inside the clubs where he had made his name—I did have to go to Miami to see Amada Luna again.
It was exactly thirty years after our last encounter, in May of 1998, the first time I traveled to the United States to participate in an academic conference. Before going back to Cuba I spent several days in Miami where a lot of my old friends now lived, along with my only sister, almost all my cousins, plus all the aunts and uncles that were still of this world.
Those were emotional days filled with joyful encounters or distressing misencounters with friends I had thought lost or dead. So many memories of shared moments, episodes rescued from oblivion, reestablished complicity with people I had really loved but had not seen in decades—ten, twenty, even thirty years. It was a much-needed recovery of parts of my life and my past that political realities had severed.
The night before my departure my sister declared her special time with me and, after savoring the Cuban dishes concocted at La Carreta Restaurant, she and her husband suggested we go to a Miami Beach bolero club that, according to them, was intimate and cozy. It was eleven o'clock on the evening of May 16th when we arrived at the Cave, one of the many "in" places on Ocean Drive. As soon as we entered something about the light, the atmosphere, the smell, stirred sensations that I thought permanently exiled from my soul and, instinctively, I ordered a rum collins. My sister and brother-in-law chattered on about how much fun this was, perhaps afraid that I would find it boring, until the lights went down. Then, out of the darkness and from the most lacerating wound of my past, came a voice, warm and caressing, a voice that began singing only for me:
After you have survived
So many disappointments
One more matters not.
After you have learned
The ways of the world
You should never cry.
You must realize it's all make-believe
That nothing is true.
You have to live the moment
Enjoy what happiness there is
Because life is a dream
And everything ends. Birth and death is all
So why fret and weep
There is only endless pain
No joy in this world.
One of the most wrenching things I have ever had to do was forget Amada Luna. That afternoon in 1968, under a tree in El Calvario, when I heard that she had left Cuba and contemplated the abyss into which I had fallen, I decided the only way not to go insane was to erase her from my mind. So, without asking any more—even her real name, or if she had left anyone behind, or how she had managed to take over my life—I walked back through the barren field with the withering coffee shoots and burst into tears while trying to distance myself from that overwhelming need that Amada Luna had created in me. Easy it was not. For years I could not bear to listen to boleros, and for years it was impossible for me to love any other woman. Sex seemed repetitive and empty. Nothing matched the bliss that I had known with Amada Luna. But the passing of time, the effort I put into my career, the long periods spent away from Havana cutting sugar cane—the Great Harvest turned out not to be so great after all and did not free us from underdevelopment—and, particularly, another woman, my wife, helped dilute a memory that remained tucked away among my most tender longings.The lady who now imitated the studied self-absorbed style of The Sorrowful Lady of the Bolero—the star of the Grotto—was around sixty, with a few pounds too many; the throaty voice had thinned, and her hair—even yellower—fell limply over her face. Still mistress of her craft, however, the specter of the woman who had driven me to madness maintained a beguiling hold on her songs, always whispered as if into your ear with unequalled intimacy. The man now listening to her was nearing fifty, with little left of the Catholic and provincial youth of old. Despite his basically skeptical nature, he was convinced the past was safely locked away, and thought himself immune to her enduring seductiveness. It did not take long to realize just how wrong he was. With palms as damp as thirty years earlier, I ordered rum on the rocks and emptied the glass as Amada Luna finished her last song. I got up and stumbled out gasping for air, as if there was not enough oxygen on earth to fill my lungs.
Bewildered by my behavior, my sister and brother-in-law asked if I wanted to go elsewhere. I answered the only way I could:
"Let's just go."
Later that night, smoking on my sister's back porch, I came to the conclusion that there are memories and experiences that are simply untouchable, and that neither time, nor distance, nor circumstances can destroy. But I also realized that thirty years is much too long and that going back is not only impossible but can be downright perverse. Memories should remain memories, and any attempt at changing their status is usually a destructive exercise in frustration. Now, when I listen to Bola de Nieve singing a bolero and glance at Amada Luna's photo, both her unparalleled allure and her inexhaustible power to captivate come alive in my mind. I find consolation in the thought that perhaps fate, so crucial a factor in this story, was not so cruel to me as I always believed. At least I had the privilege of enjoying nine nights of pleasure with Amada Luna, and of feeling both in my soul and on my skin that I was inside a scorching bolero of love. And nothing can ever take that away from me.
The boleros reproduced in part or whole in the story are "Me recordarás" (You Will Remember Me) by Frank Domínguez, "Nosotros" (The Two of Us) by Pedro Junco, and "La vida es un sueño" (Life Is a Dream) by Arsenio Rodríguez. © Leonardo Padura. Translation © 2008 by Cristina de la Torre. All rights reserved.