It takes about an hour to walk to Carmen's apartment from Havana's Vedado neighborhood, where I'd been searching for secondhand books about the idealized, revolutionary Cuba. As usual I had lingered longer than anticipated and would probably be late for dinner.
The darkness began to catch up to me somewhere between the U.S. Interests Section and the Hotel Nacional. But as I approached a long, sweeping curve along the Malec centsn, I could still see all the way to the far end of the boulevard, to Havana Vieja. This is my favorite part of the city's famed oceanfront, where the crashing waves on a warm and breezy night can evoke something almost mystical, the cooling mist and the sea's soothing rhythms releasing deep emotions.
Carmen and I had spent many nights looking out across the ocean from this point, talking about choice and control, the ability to make decisions for oneself versus choices constrained by political systems. We had spoken of love and how it could work, or not work. How the future could be or not be. She would say she didn't have much of a future in this country of her birth, and would speak of engaging in a form of suicide by marrying, having a child, and giving up all hope for her own desires and dreams. Those could only be passed on to the next generation.
But I had hope -- for her, for us, and that the immigration bureaucracies of Cuba and the United States would be capable of exhibiting something like compassion, an understanding of our love. I also knew, though I didn't say it aloud, that the efforts of a Cuban and a foreigner to marry and live abroad would be protracted and difficult, and also that bureaucracies by nature lack heart.
Cars in varying degrees of disrepair cruised along the Malec centsn as I continued to Carmen's apartment. Some struggled along, suffering from years of deprivation, beyond salvation even at the hands of Havana's inventive car doctors. Two distinct tempos of bicycle speeds were audible: The spokes either sang with the wind or moaned against it. Cyclists appeared hazily in the weak light cast by street lamps coated with sea salt.
This particular part of the city was relatively well-lit; at least it didn't suffer from the constant blackouts that regularly dropped the rest of Havana into the black void of the Cuban night. The presence of the huge Hermanos Ameijeira hospital prevented that. Castro really couldn't claim hospitals and medical care as one his revolution's successes and then let the sick simply die because of "special period" electrical policies. It would push the issue of abuse too far, even for Castro. But yes, turn out the lights everywhere else.
Near the hospital is a small park named after the Cuban martyr Antonio Maceo, and off to the side is one of my favorite propaganda billboards. Over the years it has served as a sort of barometer of the Cuban condition. In the 1980s, when the island was fertilized by an endless stream of Russian rubles, the billboard's lights shone proudly, proclaiming, "Esta Tierra es 100% Cubana" (This land is 100% Cuban). I used to stand in front of it admiring the red and blue colors and have long, energetic discussions with the Cubans. We would laugh and denounce the self-righteous American embargo.
When I saw the sign during a visit in 1992, the situation had changed dramatically. The rubles had disappeared and the stream had virtually dried up. Cuba was no longer center ring in the Soviet circus, as the sign revealed. It was only partially lit, and somewhat abstractly stated, "Esta Tierra 1 Cub." As I approached the billboard this past March, I could see that all the lights had burned out and none had been replaced, a fitting symbol for a collapsed economy and Castro's wobbling commitment to 100 percent Cuban anything. Any new message would have to read, "This Land of No Electricity Is 51% Cuban (and 49% Foreign)."
Carmen's place, where I was staying, was still 30 minutes away. The darkness became progressively thicker as I headed inland, away from the Malec centsn and up Belascoain. By the time I crossed Carlos III, the night had completely embraced the crumbling buildings and masked their neglected facades.
The blackness, though, was not so kind to me; for several blocks I couldn't see a thing. But then I fell in behind an elderly woman who carried an old kerosene lantern at her side. She walked with the ease and confidence of a long-time neighborhood resident, even though the swinging lantern cast only a pale twenty-watt glow on the uncertain future before her.
I was nearly home, past the cigar factory, the police station lying ahead. That was the final landmark guiding me back to Carmen's. I knew there would be a policeman sitting on a chair, tilting on two legs against the wall. He would look at me and I would look at him. Never a word was said.
Nearly the entire neighborhood was submerged in blackness, but Carmen's apartment had the luck of light shining behind the window. Several years ago, in the early days of Havana's blackouts, a single overhead wire had been strung across the street and into a different zone of the city's electrical grid. Today a canopy of wires crisscrosses the street, a testament to the spirit of resolviendo (making do) Cubans have developed so well. During the day, wires would cast shadows on the street below, but at night they did just the opposite; they became the source of illumination.
I had missed dinner. Carmen's mother, however, had saved me a portion, sarcastically noting that it was my favorite dish, picadillo (minced meat) of soybeans. Creation of this particular recipe is commonly attributed to Fidel -- also sarcastically. Before the "special period" (or as Carmen is fond of saying, "when this was a country"), food was food, and not merely an impression of it. Picadillo was used to describe hamburgers and the like. Then Castro, already doing stand-up comedy in the political world, decided to impose his sense of humor on the gastronomic world as well. He added soy to the picadillo because of meat shortages. The beef content diminished but the bulk remained the same, but before long picadillo no longer even tasted of meat. Officially it was supposed to be at least twenty percent beef, but Carmen's mother, who picks up the premixed concoction using the family's ration book, swears it's well below ten percent.
My problem was that I thought it was delicious, an opinion I once offered at the dinner table after finishing my plate but without noticing that the rest of the family had simply been picking at their food. "That was tasty," I said with a smile as I pushed my empty plate toward the picadillo pot in the center of the table. Conversation halted. Forks stopped scraping against plates, and Carmen's eyes shot daggers at me as she muttered, "Dios mio."
Her mother then let out a yowl of horror. The pot was placed directly in front of me to finish.
I tried to explain tofu in an effort to defend my comment, but my cherished status as a compassionate, sympathetic foreigner instantly had been revoked and replaced by that of a quasicommunist. Naturally, I never again said anything positive about picadillo.
Meals with Carmen's family were always an enlightening experience, even if the discussion inevitably turned to food, which would then initiate a series of complaints about how hard life had become and how much time each day was devoted to simply finding enough to eat. More recently that would often lead to mention of the "free markets" instituted late last year, which offer nearly everything, but at ludicrously high prices for the average Cuban. (A pound of meat costs forty pesos; the average daily wage is four pesos.) I never saw Carmen's family buy anything from these markets except three cloves of garlic (three pesos apiece), which went into the picadillo to mask the taste of soybeans. The standing joke: What are the three biggest failures of the revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But still the Cubans are not starving. Losing weight for the most part, yes. But starving? No. Theft and fortuitous employment are the keys to survival today, and it is no coincidence that some of the most sought-after jobs deal with gastronomy. Since my visit last year, everyone in the family had undergone some weight change. Carmen's mother, in her late forties and thin by Cuban standards, had actually gained some pounds after she found work in a kitchen. Yaelis, Carmen's 23-year-old sister, had lost her chubbiness and now constantly complained about how thin she was. Twenty-four-year-old Luis, Yaelis's husband, so thin last year, had put on some weight. He, too, had become involved in the world of food. But Carmen, at age 29, was as skinny this past March as she had been some months before. The only person I knew outside the food business who had gained weight was a drug dealer friend who plied his trade near the Habana Libre Hotel. "Business is good," he said. "Everybody wants cocaine." He had dollars to spare.
Dinner was done. I complimented Carmen's mother on her ability to make even picadillo edible and joined the family and neighbors in an evening ritual: gathering around the television to watch Te Odio, Mi Amor, the immensely popular Brazilian telenovela dubbed into Spanish. Carmen's mother sat in an armchair. Luis and Yaelis sat intertwined in another chair. Carmen and the neighbors with no electricity sat across the room on the sofa. I pulled a chair from the dining table, discreetly sat away from everyone, and desperately began to itch.
I would make sure nobody was watching me instead of the TV and then launch a pre-emptive strike upon a carefully targeted region of my body, scratching as hard and fast as I could in hopes of killing as many of the little bastards as possible. Two weeks earlier I had been traveling through the country, part of my work as a professional photographer, and returned with a most Cuban souvenir: scabies. I know exactly where I was given this gift, too A Hotel Central, room seventeen, in Bayamo, northwest of Santiago. A decrepit hostel, a filthy room, and an unwashed bed that turned out to be infested with bugs.
Carmen noticed my rather awkward writhing and understood all too well. After all, she had been the first to enjoy this welcome-home present, which only added to the misery she was already suffering from a severe pelvic inflammation caused by another parasite, monilia, found in her bath water. She was in constant pain and definitely not happy.
We retired to her room, where she opened a small cabinet that stood alone along one wall. I had long wondered about this knee-high wooden object; the family regarded it with something akin to reverence. Now I learned why. It was a haven for various medicines, all of which were on the health-care endangered list, if not already extinct in Cuba. Carmen drew out a precious lotion to help kill the beasties. Owing to the limited amount remaining, we dabbed it on carefully and then lay on top of the lumpy bed. I held her tightly and asked her to tell me a story. She knew the kind I liked to hear -- tales of everyday existence spiced with the surrealism of contemporary Cuban life.
One of her best friends, Lillian, whom I knew from a few social gatherings, detested her job. A month earlier, in February, she had asked a doctor friend to provide her with a certificado (medical excuse) because she was feeling lousy with the flu and also because she simply did not want to go to work. It was one of the many "vacations" Cubans award themselves when they want to get away from the boredom of useless employment that provides no financial rewards, frustrates any attempt to measure progress, and offers no hope for promotion.
For nearly two weeks Lillian hung out, tried to enjoy herself, and did not file reports of the weekly meetings of the Union of Young Communists (UJC), an offshoot of the Communist Party. Lillian's role as general secretary was to record the contents of these meetings at her workplace.
To have any decent job in Cuba, it's advantageous to be a member of this organization in order to prove loyalty to the government, and practically every workplace in the country convenes these meetings to discuss government policies and their effect on people. Literally thousands of such meetings take place weekly A and nobody complains. To deviate from the party line is to invite trouble of one sort or another.
This is where Carmen's story got interesting. Some time ago Lillian had colluded with her colleagues at work to fabricate their discussions of government policies. Then they decided to fabricate the entire contents of her reports. Finally they stopped meeting altogether. Lillian simply made up weekly reports professing the support of workplace XYZ for Castro and the government's policies.
But because Lillian had not filed a report for two weeks, she was visited at her job by a UJC supervisor who inquired about her performance -- and indirectly about her loyalty to the party itself. It was an ugly scene.
Imperious by virtue of her association with the Communist Party, the 23-year-old woman condescendingly questioned Lillian: "Why did you not file the reports? Why did you not find a substitute to file the reports? Did you not consider your responsibilities? When is the next meeting?" The haughty inquisitor then gave Lillian a chance to put down in writing any complaints she might have, and offered her a UJC document that allowed exactly two lines for such heresy. Lillian scoffed. "I'd need a thousand pages to tell you what is wrong with this country!" she retorted. And she wrote nothing.
In the end, Lillian retained her job, and she continues to produce a weekly piece of fiction for the benefit of Castro, who uses these reports and thousands of others like them as evidence of continued support for him and his policies.
"Fantastic!" I exclaimed when Carmen finished her tale. As usual I was impressed. I asked if that sort of thing also happened at her job. "Everybody does it," she replied. She shook her head in anger and I could feel the tension rising in her body. More than ever I could sense how much she hated the system, the lies, the dismal realities of her life. I hugged her a little more tightly and slowly stroked her face and her thick, long hair, black as the Cuban night.
rom the very beginning, my relationship with Carmen had been defined by this system: bureaucrats, visitor's visas, travel restrictions, and other constraints that shaped our time together. Every day by her side meant one fewer in the days or weeks ahead. It was difficult to enjoy the present when the future was so clearly limited.
We had met in a museum, both waiting for other people. I asked her questions regarding her country, her thoughts, her life. I also asked for her number so we could continue the conversation. She consented, and we began seeing each other as best we could in contemporary Havana.
For weeks we went out and talked, ate, saw music shows, and bought bottles of Guayabita del Pinar, a regional rum, from the black-market vendors along the Malec centsn. Honesty and communication were critical. I never wanted her to think I was interested in a quick Cuban affair. She never asked me for anything because she didn't want me to think of her as a jinetera (a jockey literally, a prostitute figuratively, both riding foreigners for all they're worth). Neither happened, though others came to their own conclusions.
I had been staying at a friend's house, she lived at home with her family, and we had nowhere to go. So we spent our nights roaming the streets of Havana, spending time on broken park benches and salt-pitted sea walls. To get away -- and get together -- we took a trip to Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Varadero. In Cienfuegos the hotel did not want to give us a room because we were not married, but the desk clerk finally relented and said to Carmen, "You don't have the face of one of those," as she nodded toward the spandexed, dyed-blonde hookers sitting in the lobby. In Trinidad a twelve-year-old girl ran up to us as we walked on the cobblestones late at night and told Carmen, "I want to be just like you when I grow up." We were uncertain of her meaning until she turned to me and added, "This one you have is the best." In Varadero Carmen couldn't even get past a hotel doorman so we could eat in the restaurant. She was in tears with rage.
As we traveled back to Havana, she said sadly, "You have shown me what my country is." She had seen the discrimination against Cuban nationals, witnessed the perverted ambitions of little girls, and experienced what remained of Cuban dignity. It had been depressing in that way, but we had fallen in love.
I met her family and began to come around during my long walks through the city. Although they never spoke to me about my relationship with Carmen -- too complex with too many issues -- they never questioned our growing affection for each other. (Carmen's name and those of her family members have been changed to protect their identities.)
When I left, no conditions were imposed, no judgments made. Carmen handed me a note at the airport: "I do not want to ask you for a star or a phrase such as 'I will love you forever.' Instead a truth that will not separate us." I knew I would return.
The months back in the U.S. were fraught with phone calls to Cuba, desperate letters sent via third parties, and the investigation of exit options. Marriage seemed to hold the best hope for getting her out, but that approach was complicated by the fact that I am a resident alien in the United States, and my country of citizenship imposes restrictions I find unacceptable. With a foreign bride, for example, I would have to reside in my native country and guarantee my own employment for at least one year. American citizenship, for which I am eligible, seemed the only answer, and so I began the bureaucratic ballet of applications and interviews. Later would come the Cuban documents, the U.S. documents. And the waiting. It could be two years or more.
I smelled the cigarette smoke just as the dawn was creeping toward the city of darkness. It would be the first of many Carmen's mother would light up each day, even though her husband had died years ago from throat cancer. Then she would mix a little powdered milk with water and leave it on the stove for the rest of us to heat, assuming there was gas.
I could hear the mop being used on the floor. It consisted of an old sweatshirt with an image of Che Guevara. "Che has served me well," Carmen's mother once told me as she dragged the rag over the buckled tile. She would be gone for work before it was light outside.
Luis was already pedaling his crooked bike down the Cuban streets toward his daily destination. Carmen would be up in a while, feeling the best she would all day. The longer she stayed on her feet, the more painful became her inflammation. She would walk to the intersection and use her beauty to hitch a ride to work. "At least I'm lucky with that," she'd say. Yaelis would stay in bed till the last moment, wake up grumpy, curse Fidel, and then run off to her classes.
During this most recent visit, I spent my days exploring the further reaches of Havana, far from the well-traveled paths frequented by most tourists, who generally are well cloistered. The foreigner arrives, is picked up at the airport in an air-conditioned van, and taken to a newly restored hotel with a pool and entertainment. The result is that most tourists hardly ever see Cuba beyond the dollar-developed sites. They hang out in the dollar nightclubs, drink the Cuban rum, smoke the Cuban cigars, and sleep with the Cuban girls. They go home and say the rum, sex, and music were good.
To find a tourist deep in the city is confusing for some Cubans. One memorable example occurred last year, when a man called out to me from a doorway and said, "You must be a poor tourist." He noted that I didn't have any jewelry, sunglasses, nice clothes, or expensive shoes. Then he asked me how much my camera cost.
This day, after meandering through Havana's back streets for the better part of an afternoon (Luis had requisitioned an old bicycle for me), I returned to the apartment and decided to pick up the daily bread ration for the family. I knew the location of the distribution center, having been there with Carmen. Despite a sign warning that "unknown people" would not be issued bread, the woman behind the counter never looked up. She merely saw how many rolls the ration book allowed, collected the five Cuban cents per roll, and recorded the transaction.
Looking through the ration book on my way back, I saw many empty spaces, foodstuffs that were never received. No lard for two and a half months. One bar of soap in the last month for the entire household. One piece of fish per person in the last three weeks. Four people were allotted food at Carmen's house: Carmen, her sister, her mother, and her grandmother. Luis obtained his rations at his mother's house in the Luyano neighborhood. Carmen's grandmother, a victim of Alzheimer's, had lived until last year, but she has not been removed from the ration book and she still receives her daily ration of bread. Just another little way to steal from the government.
That night dinner consisted of the ever-present rice and beans, and a tin of sardines that had been stolen by Carmen's mother from her job. Last week she had come home with a little bit of lard. "What I would like," said Yaelis, cynically looking at her stolen sardine in a puddle of its own oils, "is a big sandwich with ham and cheese, pickles, mustard, and full of mayonnaise."
More than the rest of the family, Yaelis was not afraid of showing her contempt for the regime under which she lived, and she had a history of periodic public protest. Last year, for example, we all went to a concert at the Teatro Carlos Marx, given by Gerardo Alfonso. The crowd was practically all roqueros (long-haired rocker types), and obviously the police expected the show to be boisterous because they were there in massive numbers.
At one point the police decided to levy fines against Yaelis and Luis for not sitting properly in their seats. (They had been propped on the seat backs for more height because nearly everyone in front was standing and jumping to the music.) Luis complained but accepted the fine. Yaelis, though, create a scene that threatened to turn nasty. She yelled at and insulted the cop while Carmen tried to mediate. Soon a police supervisor was summoned, and Yaelis launched at him her years of pent-up fury. It was quite a sight. But he was overwhelmed by the good-Cuban, bad-Cuban combination of Carmen and Yaelis, and eventually he left without issuing the fine. Carmen had grabbed her sister and pulled her outside before the cops changed their minds.
"Maybe a chicken stuffed with ham and cheese," suggested Luis.
"And for dessert, a sundae dripping with chocolate sauce," added Carmen. And so unfolded another dinner-table conversation -- a communal obsession with food they can only dream about.
Of course, food is not the only thing relegated to the dream world. Carmen and her friends can no longer vacation on the island because nearly all of the hotels accept only dollars. They can no longer eat in restaurants because they, too, demand dollars. They can no longer go anywhere because the transportation system is a mess. They can't live anywhere but with family members because housing is so scarce. There is no possibility for upward, or even lateral, mobility. So marginalized, so limited, and so frustrated, average Cubans resort to drinking, dancing, and having sex; and they really don't care about much of anything else. The result is a tacit governmental policy of sex, drugs, and rock and roll: Keep them drunk, dizzy, and in bed.
There were two concerts I wanted to see that Saturday night. Carmen felt awful and couldn't walk because of the pelvic pain, and Luis was taking Yaelis to the movies on borrowed money, so I went alone. The first was given by Pedro Luis Ferrer, the country's most politically outspoken musician. I had tried to see him sing last year but his shows had been canceled without reason. He had just traveled to the U.S., including Miami, where the Cuban government had hoped he would stay. Much to their horror he returned, and he continues to sing and scathe.
The bold and brainy Ferrer is part of the Cuban intellectual tradition that has represented the principal fountain of dissidence. In recent years, however, many such people have been effectively shut up because it is they, as opposed to the rest of Cuba, who are granted the opportunity to travel abroad and see the world. Say what you please when you are out of the country, but remember those travel privileges when you are back in Cuba. The few like Ferrer who do cause problems are often harassed and simply stay abroad the next time out. This is acceptable to the government because an exiled dissident is an impotent dissident.
Even though Ferrer has a solid following in Havana, his shows are never extensively promoted by the government-controlled media. The majority of people hear of his concerts through the grapevine. In this case, I had confirmed the time and place by visiting the venue to check the accuracy of the Havana rumor mill. Indeed the show had been scheduled.
The sophisticated crowd, primarily white, had arrived early to ensure entry to the patio of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where tickets were sold for an affordable five pesos each. Fifty seats in front of the stage had long ago been reserved, but behind and around them a standing crowd grew to about 700 people. The stage was a homage to minimalism: one chair, two microphones, two speakers, and a single orange spotlight.
Ferrer sang brilliantly about the Cuban condition, frustrations, and lack of possibilities, interspersing his songs with jokes and commentary. He alluded to a "space" that was opening in Cuba, a space of controlled artistic dissidence, and that it should be carefully cultivated and nurtured. The crowd went wild thinking of the possibilities of what this implied. But in broaching that subject, Ferrer had set up the crowd for the most important moment of the concert. "You demand too much from the artist in Cuba," he admonished. "You should do more yourselves." It was the only time the audience applauded uncertainly. But the moment passed and the show concluded to thunderous ovations.
I went on to the next event, just a few blocks away at the open-air amphitheater on the Malec centsn, where a huge throng of people had gathered -- masses of them, mostly young and almost entirely black. Carmen, even in perfect health, would not have wanted to come to this concert. Yaelis and Luis also would have avoided the scene. "Why would I go to a show that I know is going to be one big fight?" Carmen had said earlier that evening. Yaelis had added, "I know these people and I have no interest in them." Luis had simply pointed to his eye and rubbed the skin on his forearm, his often-used hand signal that translated as: "Look out for the blacks."
I had been warned by dozens of friends, dozens of times, to watch my back when I entered marginal Havana neighborhoods, which are heavily black, and discussions about racism were common among all my friends in Cuba. Yes, it exists, but on a level that is more cultural in orientation. Everyone has the same education. Most everyone lives in crowded conditions. And the society is more intermixed than nearly any other on Earth. But a segregation does persist. I, however, made it a point to cross over that cultural frontier on a regular basis. Carmen would tell me that my trusting naivete would get me hurt. It also tended to get me in the door of the places I wanted to see, both personally and professionally.
In contrast to the Pedro Luis Ferrer show, uniformed police were everywhere at this concert. Young officers whose accents revealed their origins as country peasants -- not yet old enough or cynical enough to have developed disdain for the system -- were stationed at the amphitheater entrance and frisked each and every individual, checking IDs, as well.
Anything that looked remotely odd on ID papers was cause for the person to be thrown into a nearby police van. One boy of about fifteen was nabbed because his carnet looked too tattered to be considered decent. Another because he had moved too many times recently and the sheets of paper identifying his residence were covered with abstract scribble. At the time I arrived, the van contained about seven young black men, and it was still early. All of them knew the routine: The neighborhood police station would allow for further review and temporary detention. And the reason cited would be la ley de peligrosidad (the danger law), an all-encompassing and deliberately vague regulation that makes it easy to arrest people for nearly any reason.
Filled to capacity and beyond, the amphitheater was a sea of gyrating hips and bouncing breasts set in motion by a salsa beat that blared nonstop from 9:00 p.m. to midnight. Tecate beer was being sold, in dollars only, to a crowd of about 3000 that collectively must have had no more than $100 to spend. But that didn't matter. Everybody was getting seriously drunk. Rum bought on the street did the job.
The fights began randomly, a volatile mix of undifferentiated anger exacerbated by alcohol. Crowds would part here and there to allow the fighters room, and the fists would fly for a few seconds before the ubiquitous police barged in and viciously broke it up. The leader of the security pack was a huge black man who simply trounced on the culprits and ripped them apart with such force that even aggressive combatants were caught off guard by the scary strength of the monster in front of them. Dragged off by the hair or in a head lock, the offenders wound up in the police van. Women fought each other as often as men. One girl spent the entire night shuffling about on the prowl for girlfriends of one of her boyfriends. When she spotted a target, she would let out a whoop and barge through the crowd until arms, legs, and hair became a blur.
The music was wonderful.
I woke up the next morning before Carmen, Yaelis, and Luis, but after Carmen's mother, who asked, "Still alive?"
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"It was a great night," I replied. She smiled knowingly, confirmed in her belief that I was truly odd, beyond understanding.
Carmen, on the other hand, did understand my strange, rather esoteric perceptions of the world around me, even though she had only shared a few of the experiences that had formulated them. She had once written me, "I think that in the future I will see you, stripped bare, walking freely through these streets of Havana that we rediscovered together, or I will simply imagine you running your best path through the world."
I had to leave a few days later. In the early morning the day of my departure, we held each other closely. I knew Carmen could not allow herself to indulge the illusion of a future that included me. To live with such hope only fosters an even greater abhorrence of the bleak Cuban reality, and a profound resentment at being victimized by a game over which few have control -- a game of love, money, and political borders. I wanted her to believe there was a possible future together. I wanted her to have just a measured bit of hope. "I love you," I said. The phrase seemed to float in the darkness in front of me.
Carmen squeezed me closer to her heart."Think of me," she whispered.
The tears were absorbed by the tattered pillows beneath our heads.
The author of this article has used a pseudonym.