“To the warm shelter of 214…” began a song by Silvio Rodriguez which — in my adolescent naivete — I listened to as if it were a riddle. So it was until a friend, who’d lived a little more than I had, unblushingly clarified the phrase. It was simply the address of a well-known Havana motel, where couples could find a place for quick love in a country already gripped by housing limitations. Waiting outside those places were women who covered their faces with scarves and sunglasses, while the men paid the desk clerk and got the key to the room. An insistent knock on the door would warn them that their time was over and others were waiting to enter.
Havana’s inns, scenes of so many infidelities, sudden passions, and even innumerable passions that led to formal matrimony with several children. These places, once flourishing, faced a long period of stigma and then a precipitous decline. They passed from sites of ardor to become cramped housing for victims of building collapses. Put like that, it sounds fair: substituting necessity for pleasure, the rapture of the flesh for the pressing needs of a family. One after the other, the city’s motels were closed to the public and their small rooms were taken up by people who lost their homes to the winds of a hurricane or the ravages of a fire. Informal love began to move to the bushes, dark corners, or, quietly, to the same room where Grandma was sleeping. Those with hard currency could, in turn, seek out private homes that rented rooms for 5 convertible pesos for several hours.
Now, passing through Fraternity Park late at night, it’s not uncommon to hear to a groan in the shadows, the muffled sound of clothes rubbing against each other. The majority of people my age and younger have never had their own roof under which to caress their partner, or a private bed where they can lie wrapped in each other’s arms. People who haven’t known what it is to live in a city where there are motels with neon signs and tiny rooms where you can make love for at least an hour. Nor do they understand the song — outdated now — of that singer-songwriter, and names such as Hotel Venus, 11th and 24th, The Countryside, or Ayestaran Cottages do not awaken any pleasant memories.