La Vida Dura

Her husband is in exile. Her daughter is handicapped. Her country is in ruin. And the pope? He barely registered. Welcome to Sonia Gonzalez's life.

Nor will the Holy Father hold a screaming, struggling Sonia Maria on his lap while the therapist rubs a white cream over thick scars on her tiny feet and ankles and administers ultrasound waves via a silver disc at the end of a cord plugged into a battered machine. The ultrasound is applied for several minutes to each foot, after which the girl quiets, and the therapist massages and manipulates her feet to improve flexibility. When it's over, back on go lacy white socks and tennies that flash red lights when she walks. "It's been worse," Sonia says as she steers the stroller out the clinic door.

Outside they pass an old man seated against a faded brick building selling Granma, the official party daily newspaper, for a peso per copy (22 or 23 pesos equals one U.S. dollar). A decapitated fish leaking bright red guts lies incongruously on the sidewalk. There's a long line as usual outside the booth on Calle 42, guarded by a policeman, where dollars are changed into pesos. Just down the street the produce market is open, already crowded with customers picking through wood bins piled with yuca, malanga, boniato, tomatoes, oranges.

Sonia lives with her great-aunt Argelia Prado in a three-story, six-apartment building on the corner of Calle 60 and Avenida 17, a Fifties-era concrete structure called Edificio Elena. In the manner of most of Havana's once graceful residences, and like other apartment buildings and modest homes in this working-class area, Edificio Elena long ago deteriorated into disrepair, its beige paint faded and blighted by soot, the decaying front door now kept locked to keep passersby from urinating in the foyer.

When mother and daughter arrive home, they find Argelia seated at the long dining room table sorting chicharros, tiny tan peas. In Sonia's bedroom, where a small color television sits on a dresser at the foot of the double bed, the pope's mass in CamagYey is in full swing. Sonia rests for a few moments in a rocking chair by the bed, then catches Sonia Maria to dress her in the corrective device the child is supposed to wear more or less 24 hours a day. Elastic straps stretch from a belt to wind down from the outside to the inside of each leg and snap onto black orthopedic shoes, leaving Sonia Maria free to walk but with her legs and feet trained straight ahead instead of inward. A co-worker stops by to pick Sonia up for work, and she bustles down the stairs.

Argelia has been teaching Sonia Maria the Catholic liturgy, partly because the pope's visit has stirred everyone's interest and partly because she used to go to church regularly -- despite her absolute allegiance to Cuba's communist government and the fact that religious activity was frowned upon and often persecuted in Cuba for decades. Now, at 74, her round cap of hair all gray and white, Argelia has put on weight and doesn't get around well enough to be a churchgoer; still, she's convinced she has outlived all her closest relatives because, she says, she was the only one who went to church every Sunday.

"How do you say Padre Nuestro?" Argelia prompts Sonia Maria, who fidgets beside her on the bed. The girl's speech is not fully intelligible, but she has memorized many of the words: "... en la tierra como en el cielo...." "Then what do you do?" She leads Sonia Maria in making the sign of the cross: "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," with an exaggerated kiss of the fingertips at the end. "You ask San Lazaro for what?" Argelia continues, giving the child a smothering hug. "For your feet. 'Make my feet well.' What do you do with the holy water?" Sonia Maria pretends to smooth her hair. "Oye," Argelia remonstrates, shaking her head in amusement as she rises to go back to sorting chicharros. "No es facil." It's not easy.

Later in the afternoon Argelia will sink into the rocking chair in the bedroom and take Sonia Maria onto her wide, pillowy lap. She'll sing the girl to sleep in a clear voice that doesn't seem to issue from the aged, bulky body dressed in a washed-out cotton housedress: "... and Jesus was crying. Don't cry now, Jesus.... Praise be to the Lord. Praise to Jesus.... O, Jesus."

In the evening, after Sonia has returned from work at the relatively early hour of seven, visitors arrive: her in-laws, Manuel Elizondo and Nilda Castillo. She doesn't see them often, since they live in Santa Clara, 300 kilometers to the southeast. They have taken the train to Havana to visit Nilda's sister and mother, who live not far from Edificio Elena. Sonia and her family are also from Santa Clara, and both families knew each other long before Sonia and Manuel Elizondo (son and father have the same name) met. Sonia was 13 at the time; 24-year-old Manuel had graduated from the University of Havana and was working in the capital as a trainer with the national junior boxing team. Ten years later, as Sonia was completing her bachelor's degree at the University of Havana, they met again and soon married in Havana. Manuel moved into Argelia's apartment, where Sonia had been living.

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