February is the coldest month of the year in Havana, with strong gales that ruffle the ocean and hurl its tentacles across the seawall. Across the road, barely shielded from the sprinkle by the sparse evening traffic, a man is listening to a young woman. He is quite, concentration etching a canyon of leathery skin into his forehead.

The musical lament of Cuban Spanish carries through the wet air. The man frowns trying to keep up with her companion’s chatter. Then he nods and says something in his own language. The girl looks at him questioningly.

In the face of a two year relationship, Lisy’s French is appallingly poor. She is a bright girl, but she is just not… interested. While she has learnt to blurt out the odd merci to please her lover, she can thank men in most EU languages. And Russian too, given that affluent visitors from behind the former iron curtain are the most generous customers of Cuba’s budding industry of pleasure.

In spite of her tender age (she has just turned twenty) Lisy is a skilled actress. Abused child from a broken family; dancer who lost her dream due to an injury; young woman looking for love. You name it. The only part she plays sincerely though, is that of the adoring fiancée of a handsome entrepreneur speeding around in a Class L rental.

Alas, Javier stopped visiting, and her current suitor isn’t exactly what you would call a dashing heartbreaker. With thinning grey hair and baggy eyes framed by rimless spectacles, the history teacher from Toulouse looks at best like a stylish uncle. He belongs to the category of occasional boyfriends, someone whose main attraction lies within the folds of his wallet.

Sometimes Lisy feels sorry for Tommaso and his seemingly genuine and on the whole unrequited affection for her. On other occasions pity is replaced by contempt, and expensive shopping sprees are the sole activity she deems him fit for.

While most jineteras would never dream of throwing icy water on Tommaso’s romantic overtures, Lisy’s plans for the future do not contemplate a geriatric husband. As a beautiful child-woman with honey coloured skin, a mouth like a rosebud, and almond shaped eyes, her bargaining chips are plenty.

Her needs are also manyfold, and while waiting for Mr Right to rescue her from a life of hardship she rarely passes an opportunity to make a buck.

Lisy is the eldest of four siblings as well as the household’s breadwinner. Her mother works as a nurse for 400 pesos (17 USD) a month. Her stepfather is a washed-up drunkard. At age seventeen she was grassed up by a neighbour for making out with a blond yuma (foreigner) in one of Havana’s swankiest bars.

The blessing of the family followed suit.

All considered, they thought, better a man who can help with household expenses than a good for nothing who sits on his doorstep guzzling cheap rum all day.

The Gutierrez family’s financial woes keep cropping up in the conversation between the unlikely couple.

“Tomi, mi vida, do you remember that hotel job Pablito was offered last time you came to visit? Well, it never materialised because they said his English was rubbish! Mother didn’t stop crying for a week. ‘Lisy!’ she said, ‘if only we had enough money for private classes!’ So I gave Pablito the 20 dollars that you gave me for my French books, but he came home with a pair of trainers. He said the money wasn’t enough for the lessons. I was sooooo mad! But what can I do? I spend all I have at the market. Do you know how much a bottle of oil costs? Two dollars and twenty cents! That’s one fifth of my mum’s salary.”

Tommaso’s heart never fails to soften and promises of financial aid are promptly made. Lisy smiles and pecks him on the neck. Then, with the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of the couple holding hands at a nearby table.

The girl, a pretty mulatica about her age, is smiling adoringly at a handsome Spanish boy while he whispers in her ear something that makes them both burst into laughter. When their giggles subside and his voice becomes audible, Lisy’s eyes fill with hateful envy: that one lucky jinetera!

“I can’t wait to be in Europe with you! I will take you to concerts. We can go to… to the beach with my friends. The Canaries. I’ve never been to the Canaries, can you believe it? They say the sea is as blue as Varadero’s.”

And the evening with old, boring Tommaso turns into an unbearable torture.

Two hours later Lisy is sitting at another plastic table with chipped edges, in another of Havana’s all-night drinking dens, talking to yet another foreigner: me. After shaking off Tommaso with an excuse she moved to the next hunting ground down the road, joining our common friend Roberto for drinks when it became clear that the evening would bring no fruitful encounter. It is rare for Lisy to fail an approach, and her disappointment translates into a long moaning session centred on Tommaso’s marriage talk.

“But he is forty-nine!” she shouts into Roberto’s left ear, “In fact, I am sure he’s been lying to me. Have you seen his hands? He must be at least ten years older… he told me he dyes his hair. Mi madre, I think he dyes his eyebrows too!”

“So what?” says Roberto only half jokingly “You should be glad. You’ll have your inheritance before you are too old to enjoy it. If you can’t wait, just divorce him the minute you get your passport.”

Lisy mocks disgust. She is not that type, she insists as soon as she remembers my presence. One thing is hanging out with an unsuitable person, another being the mother of his children.

“You mustn’t get me wrong”, she says turning to me, “people call me jinetera but I am not like the others. I have no pimp and only do quickies when I am really strapped for cash. What I want is to meet someone I can fall in love with, a man who’ll take me to a place where I can do something with my life”, she darts a scornful look at Roberto, “something that doesn’t require changing incontinence pads to a senile husband”.

And she continues.

“Here I have no opportunity to study or get a real job because I have to feed my family. And food is so expensive! I have no money for clothes. Do you know how much two pounds of chicken cost? Three dollars, which is one fourth of what my mum earns in a month.”

For a split second I can’t suppress a motion of sympathy for poor, old, creepy but royally duped Tommaso. Then a glance at my squalid surroundings reminds me that Cubans have excellent reasons to complain about their predicament, and the indisputable right to pursue a genuine love life.

But what can I do, after all? Lisy will have to decide for herself whether economic security is worth sentimental captivity. My help will have to be limited to another round of drinks — worth one fourth of her mother’s salary.

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