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.

"Manuel supports us -- I don't know what we'd do without his help. But there's a lot more to life than material things." Sonia's eyes well with tears each time she struggles with the contradictions that now shape her thoughts: She's married but she isn't; she still loves him but can't keep loving him; maybe they'll end up back together with their child but they probably won't. "I don't know what to think any more; I don't know any more whether he sends us so much out of love or out of obligation. But after a while, you have to stop wondering. You just have to get on with your life as best as you can." So to get on with her life and head off any damage to her career, she filed for divorce in November.

Sonia isn't one of those Cubans with fe. (A saying circulating for the past few years goes: If you're Cuban, you've got to have fe, which is the Spanish word for faith, but also an acronym for familia extranjera -- relatives on the outside). Other than Manuel, that is, soon to be her ex-husband. Her job is going well, but other young professionals, also with good jobs, say it's almost an exercise in futility to work hard because they can't advance, either financially or professionally. She works hard anyway, leaving her with little time to think about anything but caring for Sonia Maria. Sometimes she'll go to a restaurant with co-workers, and she always attends the ferias, or international business expositions, that come to Havana. People suggest that she begin to date, but she gets an indecipherable look on her face, shrugs her shoulders. Sometimes she cries.

Even at three in the morning the day of the mass in Havana, the sounds of shuffling sandals and sporadic conversations drift through the predawn quiet outside Edificio Elena. As the next hours pass and the sky fades from black to gray, scattered groups of walkers grow into two thin streams flowing south on either side of Calle 60. The customary street noises begin a gradual crescendo, the tinny ringing of bicycle bells occasionally sounding through the roar of unmuffled, smoke-spewing engines. Buses are waiting nearby to take early risers the five miles to the plaza. They will be among the first arrivals at the site of the 9:30 mass, the ones who will crowd closest to the stage overarched by a white canopy shaped like the wings of a dove.

Few of the residents of Edificio Elena, though, will go to the plaza this chilly, overcast morning to hear John Paul talk about justice, faith, and reconciliation among Cubans and unification with the rest of the world. Most will elect to watch the event on television, as they did the pope's previous masses. They'll never see or read about the sporadic anti-government chants and yells from a small number of protesters, or the subsequent removal of a few of them, which U.S. media outlets will make much of. Sonia and Argelia have more immediate concerns.

They've had a rough night, kept up by Sonia Maria, who was suffering from asthma and crying for hours. She'd also wet the double bed she shares with her mother, and all the bedclothes had to be washed by hand in the deep utility sink that stands in an open-air passageway outside the kitchen door.

Then one of the water tanks springs a leak, leaving the apartment without running water. Yolanda and her husband Daniel rush downstairs to help Sonia fix the tank. But in the kitchen, thick black water begins to bubble up through the drain in the middle of the linoleum floor. The sewage spreads across the kitchen and into a hallway leading to the bathroom and bedrooms. It's coming up through the kitchen sink, too. Yolanda finds a plunger and works on the sink drain, while Argelia gets down on her hands and knees and digs up globs of food and muck from inside the drain.

Everyone is working silently as if they're a hospital emergency room team, and even Sonia Maria resists the temptation to step in the sewage. But the black water keeps bubbling, and finally Sonia calls a plumber. She can't afford the several dollars he is sure to charge, but there's no other remedy. Soon he arrives on a bicycle, a toolbox strapped behind the seat. He shouts up from the street, and Yolanda runs down to let him in.

That evening Argelia -- her tattered canvas shoes still damp -- stands in front of the television to watch the ceremonies at Jose Marti International Airport. The pope is leaving Cuba, saying a long goodbye to Fidel and other government and church officials. He shambles along a red carpet to the plane, surrounded by his entourage. After several minutes the aircraft begins to taxi away, and from his window, John Paul waves slowly. Fidel waves back. He looks almost wistful.

"When Fidel goes to bed tonight," Argelia muses, "he's going to feel so proud! I never imagined this could happen." Sonia is drying off Sonia Maria after a quick bath, which the child hates. Her hair dripping in the cold, damp air, she tries to slip free and grabs for her new Barbie doll, a present from her father. Sonia glances up at the TV screen. Argelia still stands gazing as the plane takes off and the camera zooms back to show Fidel, the ministers and priests standing on the red carpet watching the lights of the jet fade into the thick dark clouds. Sonia rolls her eyes, smiles slightly, and sighs. "No es facil," she says.

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