I’m in Key West on the pier, off Higgs Beach. I came to that beach nearly every day in November 1977. I didn’t know anyone; for over a week I stayed alone in the Southern Cross Hotel on Duval, Key West’s main street. It was run by two men from the Midwest. On my birthday, a professor at a university in South Carolina, whom I met on this beach, took me out to dinner at La Concha Hotel. He told me I had a religious nature and that he continually heard voices from creatures from outerspace.
Today, two Hell’s Angels, or maybe just bikers, are swimming in their clothes off this pier. So much water everywhere is soothing. On South Street, a few streets away, is a big sign saying ‘Cuba – 90 miles’. ‘Hey, Sky gets her food stamps tomorrow,’ says one of the bikers.
I sit on the pier for some time, writing in my notebook and watching a spectacular sunset. Two men talk to me. The first is a jovial family man who’s retired and enjoying being on holiday with his wife; the second has white hair, a white beard and a slim tanned body. He invites me to a poetry evening at a restaurant called the Apple-Something, where he’s going to be reading tonight. He says he’s ‘a bohemian with a very conservative daughter’ who won’t let him see his own grandchildren. Castro’s a dictator, he adds, and it’s healthy to oppose one’s government, whatever it may be. Jews and Mormons, he goes on to say, have taken over America and a lot of people will have to be exterminated for the planet to survive. He’s planning to make a speech tonight praising Hitler for stopping the growth of Communism. He recites a short poem he’s written about Oscar Wilde. Just before sunset a small aeroplane flies over, dragging an advertising banner. It says: ‘Havana/Madrid. Lobster Dinner. $15.99’.
The conversation in Key West is still about the two US civilian aircraft shot down by Cuban MiGs, the dead Cuban-American pilots and the organisation – Brothers to the Rescue – to which they belonged. Until last year they were flying small planes as part of a rescue operation for Cuban boat people trying to reach the US and shipwrecked in the Florida Straits – a stretch of water which is full of sharks.
Shortly before the incident, Juan Pablo Roque, a member of Brothers to the Rescue, who was supposed to fly out from Miami with the other pilots, made a mysterious disappearance. Two nights later, an American TV news report showed him in Havana. Then his wife, Ana, was on the morning show trying to account for this curious turn of events. She said her husband had had dealings with the FBI but she didn’t think he was a double agent: maybe he had been forced to make pro-Cuba statements in Havana. She was standing by her man.
In the early morning I swim off the pier again. There’s one other person swimming, a woman in a bathing-cap. All around us are flocks of sea-birds of different sizes, including pelicans. The sun came up two hours ago; we are swimming in light, reflected on the sea.
Just off the beach are three camper vans. Two young men come out, smoking cigarettes, looking as though they slept in their clothes. Further along, in a little park, I see two policemen talking to a small group who look as though they slept in the park. This reminds me again of my stay here in 1977, when the town was full of young people and hippies escaping from the cold in the north. One of these was the Raw Food Eater, whom I also met on the beach. I put him in a short story. It was the first story I had published.
It’s Leap Year’s Day and Judith and Irving are taking me to a party. Irving said as it was Leap Year I could propose to a member of the opposite sex. Propose what, I wonder? At the party I meet Dan Gerber, who took a boat from Key West to Havana a couple of years ago. The main hold-up was not with the Cubans, he says, but with the US coastguards. He and his friends had spent a night in Havana. They’d docked at the Marina Hemingway, where I’d been taken two years ago, on my own visit to Cuba, by an economist in his fifties who’d worked six years in Russia for Castro but gradually become disillusioned. As he looked yearningly at the foreign yachts, I realised he was fed up. He’s now in Spain with his wife and two sons. I don’t know under what circumstances they left.
Harry Mathews, the first American member of the French writers’ group OuLiPo, is at the party. Harry confirms that a mutual friend of ours, an American writer, was wounded at being described in my book The Diary of a Breast as having ‘stubby legs’. Harry says my ‘attack’ (which was completely unintentional) was ‘broadside on’. He suggests that I tell her I wrote the book during an illness – and imply that I wasn’t myself. I say: ‘I’m certainly not going to do that.’ I point out that I had also written of the writer in question that she had a heart-shaped, intelligent face, that she’d cooked me corn-fed chicken when I’d come out of hospital and had bought me a lovely grey shirt. Harry says don’t I know that she’s very masochistic and has also had frightful problems with her mother? Her mother recently had half her brain removed and then put back. I refrain from saying what I could about my own mother. I don’t want to sound too competitive.
The next afternoon I go swimming with Arthur, Judith’s son. He asks what Key West was like in 1977. Wasn’t that its gay heyday? I say I didn’t notice that many gay people; I was so busy being picked up on the beach. (I was rather unbalanced and very self-destructive.) I tell Arthur about Pirate Bill, whom I’d met in a bar; he’d invited me out on his boat, boasting that he’d been in prison for smuggling mercury. (Arthur points out that mercury is legal, so how could Pirate Bill have been smuggling it?) The sea was dark green and choppy; I had immediately felt sea-sick. Pirate Bill had given me a pill which had made me drowsy. He had told me to take off my clothes and had then taken off his. (In telling the story, I couldn’t remember whether I removed my clothes after taking the pill or before.)
Arthur comments that nowadays I would be able to prosecute Pirate Bill for date-rape. Perhaps we will spot him in a bar later tonight and I can enact a Fatal Attraction type of revenge.
The Miami Herald carries a sad article about the mother and sister (in Cuba) of one of the dead Brothers to the Rescue pilots, Pablo Morales. His sister, Nancy Morales, says she would have liked to toss flowers from the Malecón, the Havana seafront, in honour of her brother, but her family has already received ‘indirect threats’ about the consequences of anything too conspicuous. She describes her brother as ‘just another Cuban who sought a better life in the United States’. In August 1992, he floated off on a makeshift raft towards Florida. He was saved from drowning by Brothers to the Rescue. He started to work with them out of gratitude, she says. There’s also a piece about the mysterious defector, Juan Pablo Roque, and his wife Ana, in which it turns out that he already has two children in Cuba by another marriage. The theme of double-agency takes an interesting twist as Ana gazes at their nine wedding pictures and remembers almost the last words her husband spoke before walking out of the house: ‘While my brother is here, please don’t wear any short nightgowns.’ Did that sound like a man who is preparing to leave his wife? asks the second Mrs Roque.
Irving and Judith have invited me to supper again tonight. I walk round there at seven. An old lady is already in their sitting-room, looking very composed. She is called Helen Rosen – she knew Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett and stood out against McCarthy. She is the widow of a doctor who made a break-through with an operation for the deaf. She assisted her husband in his lab for thirty years, she told us, as she wasn’t allowed by the medical school to which she applied as a young married woman to fulfil her ambition of becoming a female doctor. (She was allowed only to audit the classes without doing the exams.)
Mrs Rosen is nearly blind, which makes me feel sorry for her. She went to Cuba in the Seventies on an official visit connected with her husband’s medical work and says, quite rightly, how good the Cuban health service was. There was some discussion about Cuban ice-cream. Castro (she quotes admiringly) replied: ‘Yes, but my people have so little; let them at least have ice-cream.’ Mrs Rosen has a very sentimental attitude towards Castro.
Later she tells us how she went round Europe with her two children during the Second World War eating at railway station buffets ‘on a tight budget’. At one such place in Italy she was approached by an Italian mayor who told her that he had sent a boatload of Jews to safety. She was very impressed by this man, as, indeed, anyone would have been.
Judith asks: ‘Why did he approach you? Did your daughter look Jewish?’
Mrs Rosen does not seem too keen on this.
When Judith is in the kitchen a few minutes later Mrs Rosen says she does not believe there is a Jewish ‘look’. She herself looks Northern Italian, she’s been told, as she has blonde hair and blue eyes. She also tells us that a Jewish physicist helped Churchill plan the Normandy landings by demonstrating the manoeuvres with paper boats in a bath.
We go into the sitting-room and eat some Chinese cookies that Mrs Rosen has brought. They are delicious. She looks rather Chinese despite her blonde hair.
While Irving drives her home, Arthur and Judith talk about Francine du Plessix Gray, whom they met last night. She is writing a ‘domestic biography’ of the Marquis de Sade. Apparently she did not seem interested in ‘post-sexual women’, a subject about which she wrote in the recent New Yorker Women’s Issue (Judith borrowed my copy in order to ask her about it) but preferred to talk with Arthur about dildoes, whips and so on.
Judith did have a discussion with her about the last section of Colette’s novel. La Fin de Chéri. At the end, still young and handsome, Chéri meets his former, much older mistress, after a gap of five years. She’s got very fat. Judith says that Francine seemed to be claiming that this was the correct way to be for ‘post-sexual’ women, although she herself is very chic and slim. Judith says to me that a middle-aged friend of hers got very fat after her last lover deserted her, as though in defiance of any more sexual encounters.
‘Oh my God, how long have I got?’ I ask desperately.
Judith replies: ‘I don’t know, Elisa.’ She points out that I’m not very fat.
Irving returns and walks me home. He’s a very kind man. When I get back I burst into tears at the thought of myself as a very fat post-sexual woman. I don’t sleep till after one. The next morning, I phone a journalist friend in Paris and tell him about Mrs Rosen and Cuban ice-cream.
I am on the Hotel Casa Marina beach with Arthur, sipping a drink called Strawberry Shortcake. (Unfortunately I drop the strawberry and have to wash it in the sea.) An extremely elegant blonde older woman approaches us and says: ‘Why, hello Arthur!’ It is Francine du Plessix Gray with a male companion, possibly a husband. She does not introduce this man and Arthur doesn’t introduce me. Francine asks if we have been on the long pier to our right, where, she says, there is a wooden structure ‘like a guillotine’. She has made enquiries and discovered that the guillotine-like structure was originally used for weighing fish. Arthur asks if she has been to ‘Dick Dock Pier’ (the local nickname for Reynolds Pier). She asks, ‘Is that the place where gentlemen meet other gentlemen?’ and walks off in her long black crepe skirt, still without introducing her companion.
On the flight to Gatwick, I am rereading Before Night Falls, the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas – it is full of accounts of humiliation at the hands of the Cuban Government. It describes the public ‘confession’ of the poet Heberto Padilla, who after thirty days in detention denounced friends, fellow writers and even his wife for holding ‘counter-revolutionary attitudes’. It was about this time, the early Seventies, that I and several of my friends had a high opinion of Cuba. Some even went out there to cut sugar cane.
The woman in the next seat has given me a trendy new American sleeping pill. It hasn’t worked.