Thursday, April 25, 2013
What happened in Cuba in 1959
The man at customs was in an army uniform and carrying what I thought was a submachine gun. What? I’d never seen anything like this (it was, after all, 1959) and I found it, oh just a trifle off-putting. I was already a bit on edge, having flown from Miami with a woman friend--Cappy, Crappy, what was her name?--to have a legal abortion in Havana. Roe v. Wade was in the future; Castro was in the immediate present. He and I entered Havana on the same day. There was still gunfire in the streets. Not a lot, but even a little was more than a little unnerving. Had I ever even left the US before? Never. I was kind of just out of college (this was pretty much before Junior Year Abroad started happening) and into being a career girl (as they used to say) in New York, where I had grown up. But I happened to be in Miami on business and that was when they still had what I remember as 40-minute $40 flights to Havana. Oh and did I mention I was inconveniently if only slightly pregnant? And furthermore I didn’t know which of the two men I’d recently been sleeping with was the, uh, father. That was why I was with a girlfriend, who said she spoke Spanish, which turned out to be a slight exaggeration--although hers was of course much better than mine, which was non-existent. Most of my friends had had abortions in one way or another. It was just something smart, well-brought-up girls did when they found themselves in a, uh, jam. One friend of ours who was consistently a tiny bit pathetic, was unable to get her boyfriend to pay for it and waited too long. She had to go to another state and have the baby, which we felt pretty much ruined her life forever after. And I think we were right. But New York abortions were usually back-alley abortions unless you could somehow get the requisite three doctors to swear on a stethoscope… something. I never quite got how to do it, and like most girls I didn’t tell my parents and without their help I just couldn’t bring it off. There was a doctor in Pennsylvania, however, who was well known to us all, but he was, I was told, “on the lam” (in those precise words) at that particular time. I knew, because everyone knew, that in Cuba you could have it done in a clinica (not what we thought of as a clinic, which was for charity patients; but a private small hospital, I was assured), by a real doctor, and spend the night afterwards. And all for $250 as I recall (or could it have been $350?). Until I saw the machine gun, I wasn’t that scared. In fact, even afterwards, none of it was that scary until I finally found myself in this relentlessly clean, all white place where no one seemed to speak a word of English and I was all alone because my friend had gone back to our room at the Havana Hilton, which we had learned earlier was now not only a big, modern tourist hotel but also Castro’s headquarters. So about abortions (in those days at least), I will say this: they’re scarier than revolutions. Everything went well. They gave me sodium pentothal and took me to the operating room (or was it the other way around; I don’t really remember) and did a d&c and told me something afterward that I couldn’t at all understand but always secretly thought meant, “Well you really weren’t pregnant after all.” Or maybe “you weren’t very pregnant…”. I’ll never know. And the doctor in New York was quite sure I had been. But maybe that’s the beauty of having the procedure done in a country where you don’t speak (or understand) the language. With or without anesthetic, it’s all like a dream and you’re never sure what did happen after all. The nurses were very professional and took care of me well but…. Well, there was blood. That was real. So I guess it all did happen. I didn’t sleep a lot that night, as I recall, but the next day my friend came and picked me up and we went back to the hotel and walked along the seafront and saw the beautiful blue water and sky and had a coffee at a coffee bar. The mood was festive in Havana, despite the unsmiling, machine gun-equipped soldiers that seemed to be along on every elevator ride in our hotel. And we had to get back; we had one more night in our funny little room with a view of the sea and plaid bedspreads on dormitory-type studio beds set at right angles. Cappy was very nice and gentle to me and she was a sharp-tongued, no-nonsense girl so I guess I was looking (and acting) a little peaked. The putative dads never found out what had happened, which was a comfort. I kind of think I never slept with either of them again, actually, although such details do grow dim over time.