...Late on a warm night in 1987, I left Miami for Havana to report on contemporary Cuban writing and see Arenas's environment firsthand. I'd met Arenas in 1983, when I interviewed him for my comparative literature thesis one fall afternoon at Princeton. The thesis included my translations of some of his work, one of which, a novella entitled Old Rosa, was later published in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories.
As the Challenger Airlines plane churned through the predawn darkness, I recalled Arenas's dedication in his novella The Brightest Star—"To Nelson, in the air"—in memory of Nelson Rodriguez Leyva, a friend and fellow writer who was executed in 1971, at the age of eighteen, after he'd tried to hijack a Cubana domestic flight to the U.S. And I remembered the horrifying story told by poet Armando Valladares in Against All Hope, the memoir of the twenty-two years he was imprisoned by the Castro regime. According to a recent New York Times report, Cuba had the greatest number of political prisoners of any country in the world. Some were journalists—not foreign ones as far as I knew, but I'd heard that foreign reporters were sometimes denied entry, expelled, or detained on arrival.
In about half an hour, the lights of the island came into view and we began our descent.
What I'd forgotten—or been unable to imagine—on the way to Havana was that somewhere among the horror stories would lie another story. It was the melancholy beauty of the city that surprised me most. The pastel, salt-worn buildings with iron gratings over the windows and enclosed leafy patios; the restless, encircling sea. Men with slicked-back hair cruised the streets in vintage Dodges and Cadillacs. Women in sleeveless tops, cotton skirts, and sandals stood waiting for the bus. At the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, lovers strolled along stone arcades, a pharmacy sold medicines in white ceramic bottles painted with blue flowers, and for five centavos, mineral water poured from a creamy porcelain jar. I bought a Granma newspaper from a vendor outside my hotel and noticed it was the previous day's edition. "Da lo mismo," the man said, his leathery face unsmiling. It doesn't make any difference...