Saddled

Trinidad, Cuba; August 1997

“I want to steal my saddle,” he said, as they left the town behind and cycled out onto the deserted coast road. She ignored him and pretended to focus on the scenery.

“Look at it. It’s fucking mad,” he said, despite having just decided to drop the topic.

He wondered if it was something specific that had made her cool to him in the last few days. But he kept coming back to the same reason: she was no longer into him and coming on this trip together had made her realize it. The first trip they had taken alone together since they started going out two years before. Probably the last as well, he thought.

The surest sign of it was that she stopped drinking, saying she was not in the mood. Not in the mood? She finally gets away from the office and to a place where the rum is dirt cheap and she’s not in the mood. Not in the mood for him, more like it, he thought. One week alone together in Cuba and everything was changing. Not in the mood for him. He felt cold inside. He looked at the cracked road, the palm trees and felt strangely detached from his surroundings.

“Maybe I could put it on my own bike at home.” He was getting furious at himself for continuing with the topic. But he really did like the saddle. It was black leather with two side flaps, each with a red star. He could imagine Glenn and Emmett and a few others at college admiring it.

“Don’t steal their saddle. They’re nice people,” she said wearily, referring to the couple in the guesthouse who rented them the bikes.

“I was joking.”

“Oh right,” she replied, as if she was speaking to someone she barely knew.

Half an hour into the journey and they still hadn’t seen a single car for the deep potholes on the road to damage. On one side were fields of sugar cane; on the other, the Caribbean washing against a rocky shoreline. Above them, the sky was darkening.

He let her take the lead. He looked at the back of her head and imagined shouting “I think we should end it.” He decided to give up trying to get her to speak her mind until they got back home. He just kept looking at the back of her head and her ponytail swaying. For the rest of the trip he would just say whatever he had to. Another three weeks. He’d tough it out.

Then he heard the thunder.

“Shit. Look at that,” she said, nodding in the direction of the dark clouds that were now crowding the horizon. “It’s going to lash”. She picked up her pace and he pedalled harder to keep up. The first drops to fall were big but sparse. One splatted on his nose and exploded into his eyes.

Up ahead the road started to turn inland and there was a clump of palm trees on the side of the bend. He could make out a building with a thatched roof.

“It looks like a bar or something,” he said.

The rain started to pelt down and they both leant over the handlebars of their bikes and pedalled as fast as they could. It was a bar — a beach bar. The thatched roof extended just far enough to shelter four high stools at the counter.

“Hola,” said the barman. “Where are you from?”

“Ireland,” he said. He stood at the bar, leaning on it with his elbow.

“Hola,” she said, sitting onto a stool.

The barman was fiddling with a cassette player. He turned up the volume — it blared out some guy crooning in Spanish.

“Can we get …”

“You know who this is?” the barman asked, pointing at the stereo.

They both looked at the stereo, then back at the barman.

“This is a wonderful Cuban singer.” Then pointing to his heart with his index finger, the barman continued: “When he was a young man, he fell in love with a beautiful woman. But she broke his heart. She broke it so bad, he had to go to Mexico to get surgery.” He paused to jab his chest with his finger. “Surgery on the heart. This is why he can sing about love in such a perfect way.”

The barman put both his hands on the counter and, leaning forward slightly, smiled with satisfaction. He seemed to have been waiting a long time to unburden himself of this information. The crooner crooned and the barman shook his head in amazement. The rain was pounding down now. It splattered off the palm fronds and thumped a rich, earthy smell up out of the red soil. It was warm rain. Not like the rain they knew in Ireland.

She was the first to speak: “Two Cuba libras, por favor.”

He pulled a cigarette out of his packet and searched his pocket for a lighter.

“Maybe I could ask them to sell me that saddle for a few dollars.”

Then he eased himself onto the stool beside her and wondered how they were going to cycle back drunk.

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