a Cuba Libre and the Sweetest Caprice
©2013, Aden Leirer
Novel complete, 110k words
Sana’a, Yemen. Post 9/11.
Austin and Fitz are Arabic translators working with a CIA team hunting Abu Ali, the master-mind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. It is days before the operation heads into tribal lands and nothing is working out—no weapons, no body armor, and no straight answers. When they are not with the team, the two contractors spend their time confined within the grounds of the Capital Hotel.
Abdallah is the moderate front desk clerk with plans to move his family abroad, but his fundamentalist cousin, Sahim, forces him on a path that will have him risk everything. Sahim has been captured by the CIA team and is being interrogated for information about Abu Ali and members of al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Nevinovnost is a Russian dancer who performs with her troupe in the hotel nightclub. She is desperate to escape from Zhadnost, her brutal pimp and the local arms dealer for a Russian crime syndicate. She becomes Austin’s muse.
Time is running out. Each of these lives unfolds around Austin and Fitz as they confront their doubts and pay a price for their beliefs.
Chapter 1: Pickled Ruminations
There are points in life when you listen to common sense and there are times when you simply follow instinct; sometimes you ignore both and just act on belief. I’ve been repeating this phrase to myself as a way of explaining how we got here. The afternoon adhan echoes across the city as I slip a pen out of my pocket and hold it, staring down at the cocktail napkin waiting for other words to form. But I write nothing. I just move the pen, tracing black lines over the empty space, slowly connecting one doubt to another until the paper is covered by a thin, Gordian knot. What if Fitz is right?
Songbirds streak from the tops of the garden trees. My body snaps tight, ready to bolt for cover as I scan the sidewalk. A thin layer of sweat coats my skin as adrenaline burns the booze from my senses.
But I see no one. Kopf’s voice rings in my head with the four sentences from the only security briefing he gave us.
You don’t blend in. The hajis would love to turn you into a trophy. Better watch your ass or we’ll see you on the news getting your fuckin’ head chopped off or strung up by your balls with your brains blown out. If anyone asks, you’re here on a light camping trip.
The hair on the back of my neck rises. Shit. I look behind me. A waiter has crouched down in the side doorway of the Indian café. He lights a cigarette as he watches me.
We are the only people outside in the courtyard. His skin is taut over the points of his skeleton. There is not an ounce of fat in his body to round out his features. He doesn’t shift his eyes from me as he continues to smoke.
I tip my drink up and finish the melted remains of my cocktail, not taking my attention from him as an ice cube spills out on the table. He doesn’t blink after several drags from his cigarette.
What? I ask with a hard twist of my face, mopping my beard with my palm and setting the glass down on the scribbled napkin. The knotted black ink bleeds into an embossed ring of condensation.
The waiter waves me back into my chair when I get up and walk towards the bar, rushing one last drag before crushing out his unfinished cigarette. His polished shoes click with a sharp cadence on the concrete as he hurries to my table. The creases in his shirt are sharp and crisp.
“Hello, Sir,” he greets with an empty hospitality smile, pulling a notepad from his pocket. “May I bring you a drink?”
“Wadih is in the nightclub.”
I hold up my empty glass with a crushed wedge of lime. “I ordered this Cuba Libre from Wadih a little while ago. I’m hoping for another.”
He continues to smile, shifting his weight and flicking the pen like a twitching tail. But he doesn’t touch the paper.
I repeat my order, listing the ingredients of my cocktail in Arabic.
The waiter stops smiling. His face drops into a slack-jaw look of surprise. He leans down close to me. “Are you a Muslim?” he asks, stepping even closer and tilting his head to match mine. A thick, black mustache makes his upper lip disappear beneath his nostrils, hiding the point where it joins the base of his nose.
“No,” I answer politely, controlling my instinct to shove him a step back.
His eyes narrow. The jaundice yellow around his dark roasted pupils makes them seem hard and ancient. He straightens. “How did you learn to speak Fus-ha?”
I lie and tell him that I majored in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. “I enjoy speaking Arabic—to me it is the most beautiful language.”
The corners of his mouth turn up with the hint of a smile. “You are an American?”
“I was born in Denver, Colorado,” I lie again. “There are many mountains where I live. Your country reminds me of my home. Sana’a is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” he nods and points behind me. “You are not watching at this beauty.”
I turn my chair sideways, looking past the flowers along the hedge through a low section in the retaining wall. The squat city spills across the valley floor to bistre ridgelines that pulse and breathe against the sinking, cool darkness.
“Ajmal,” I reply, gently tapping my fingernail on the cocktail glass.
“Rum?” he says, remembering my order. He takes a slight step back. “We do not have rum in the hotel.”
“I know. I buy the bottle from Wadih and he keeps it behind the bar for me,” I explain. “It’s the tall one with the blue label.”
“I’m sorry sir, that bottle is empty,” he replies with a curt shake of his head. “I do not know where Wadih finds rum. I can bring a different drink,” he offers. “We have vodka, gin, and whiskey.”
“No, thank you.”
Any of those liquors would deliver the numbness I want, but I choose this drink for other reasons. It reminds me of places far from here. Key West. Cuban food. Bare, bronze-skinned women. Fishing.
I chew on my dry bottom lip, peeling a name from a conversation I had with Wadih yesterday. Abdallah. I look up. “Wadih called Abdallah at the front desk and he finds the rum.”
“Abdallah?” he repeats, leaning in closer like we’re sharing a secret. “Wadih says Abdallah finds rum?”
“Abdallah knows where to get the rum,” I confirm, catching the waiter’s attention as I place several US bills beneath my glass.
A confident grin stretches wide across his face. “If Abdallah has located rum for you before, he can do it again.” His long, fibrous fingers close around the bills and tuck them in his pocket.
I offer the waiter a cigarette before he walks away. He stares at me, searching my face.
“Please take one,” I insist again, holding the cigarette box outstretched. “If the rum is a problem, I can drink a beer.”
He takes a cigarette.
I hold my lighter out. “Ismi Austin.” It’s a small gesture, but in a culture where context defines everything, the smallest extensions can have the most lasting impressions.
He bends down when I strike the lighter, inhaling as he straightens. The wrinkles creasing his cheekbones are pulled smooth as he draws on the cigarette.
The smile is genuine. “Shoukran,” he says. His shoulders drop as he tells me his name. Hani.
“Bi kool suror, Hani. Tesharefni,” I reply, shaking another cigarette from the pack and lighting it.
“You speak good,” he exhales with a short laugh, showing every yellowed tooth in his grin. “It is strange I hear Fus-ha from you. You are the first American I meet who speaks Fus-ha.”
“I’m learning your dialect,” I smile. “But I speak Fus-ha better.”
Hani nods as he pulls the cigarette from his lips like a cork and blows a thin, blue-gray cloud over his shoulder. “They understand Fus-ha, but people do not speak it,” he explains, shifting his weight. “You will be hard to understand how they speak at you.”
“I’m good with languages.”
“Are you here on business?”
I look up. “Yes, I’m a writer. I’m writing a travel book. I’m here on a light camping trip.”
His face snaps into the hospitality smile again. I am not a tourist and he knows it. My skin flushes hot across my scalp and down my neck.
“Aiwa, a writer?” he chuckles, arching his eyebrows. “Do you know places?” He taps his pocket with the cash I just gave him. “I know places.”
A chime sounds from the back entrance of the hotel. A couple walks down the path towards the bar. They look over at my table.
Hani stiffens. “I am not to smoke here,” he says, palming his cigarette with a furtive tuck of his hand. “I call Abdallah for the rum. I bring your beer for your wait.”
He maneuvers through the chairs before I have a chance to say anything. I have a lot of questions. Satellite imagery and State Department profiles can be useless compared to a good conversation with a local. I want to learn from someone who grew from this soil, beneath this sun. Maybe he’d see that I am not like the others.
I doubt that it would matter. Here my skin betrays me. I am just another foreigner in a line of strange faces stretching back through time. Persians. Romans. Turks. British. Soviets. Few have ever come here for the culture or the people, including me.
I draw hard on my cigarette and replay Fitz’s words. Either they don’t need us or they don’t care—and if either of those is true, then what the fuck are we doing here?
Hani sets a beer on my table and hurries back behind the bar. The couple speaks to him for several minutes before they walk over to the Indian café. He picks up the phone and I can see him dial zero for the front desk.
I’d like to go over and continue the conversation, but I don’t. Instead, I just watch him stock beer in the cooler as he talks. I know that somewhere, at some point, we are consanguineous. Seeping down through rock and time, his blood and mine pool beneath history, where all blood flows together.
Hani holds the phone with his shoulder and picks up a knife. He cuts a lime with several quick strokes as he talks. His eyes pass over me several times, like he is giving an assessment to the person on the other end of the line.
What is it they say here? First, it is me, my brother, and my cousin against our enemies. Then, it is me and my brother against our cousin. Finally, it is just me against my brother.
Hani sets the phone down. He points the large chef knife at me and makes an awkward thumbs-up gesture. It makes his smile look a lot less amiable. Under the right conditions he’d gut me without a thought and I’d have no problems putting a bullet in his head.
Hani returns to my table carrying a loaded tray. “I have your rum.”
The tray has an assortment of glassware, a mini-bottle of cola, and some lime wedges. He arranges everything on the table. His hands are well-worked and scarred—dark skin wraps tight over his flexing tendons, fading to thick, pale calluses on his palms.
“Ashkorakum, anta akrim min kool al nas,” I say, thanking him.
“Afwan,” he replies with a broad grin, sliding the tray under his arm. “You chew Qat?”
I shake my head, “La.”
“Would you like to try it? Qat gives strength and you become smarter—you like it. I have fresh leaves, just picked today. It is excellent, the top leaves. And they’re from Wadi Darr—the best Qat, you see the insects. My uncle grows it. He is well known in the Qat market.” Hani leans down and smiles like he is about to deliver a punch line. “Maybe you write about it.”
I would like to experience Qat. It is has been woven into the social fabric of their culture for over 800 years. The locals chew on large wads of the leaves for hours and enjoy its mild, narcotic effects. During the late afternoon when Qat usage is highest, TV stations broadcast special programs designed to enhance the cerebral trip.
“Thank you, but no. It’s not that kind of travel book.”
Hani is silent and stands like he’s tempting me with a tray of desserts. A waiter walks out from the Indian restaurant and rings the small bell on the bar.“If you want Qat, you tell me,” Hani says. “The Qat market is at the base of Mount Nuqum. I tell you where my uncle sells.”
He points across the city towards the base of Mount Nuqum. Multi-storied buildings and pisé apartments seem to grow from the hard earth. They stand as tired testaments to the arch. The Roman Empire stretched this far. A thermal haze softens their rooflines as shadows steadily fill the streets below.
The ochre buildings are exotic and strange. Gypsum curves and geometric mosaics float bright and surreal like white icing on gingerbread. Thin towers rise above the apartments and prick the skyline like thorns on a long-dead rose.
I miss Denver. I wish I was looking at the Cash Register Building instead of these minarets. Having a drink in the bier garten of Brothers Bar. Seeing women in summer dresses walking down 16th Street. Passing through a Western crowd, hearing pieces of English conversation. I miss live music—I’d love to listen to Chad Aman play at El Chapultepec.
Movement pulls my attention inside the back entrance of the hotel. A group of young women and one enormous man step out from the elevators. The Russian dancers. They turn and walk down the hallway in single file like they’re all chained together.
An ice cube cracks when I pour in the cola. The lime wedge is waxy and only squeezes out a few drops. My nose twitches when I bring the glass to my lips. They probably use this shit as engine degreaser.
The first swill is always the worst—burning its way down, coating the walls of my delicate innards and mapping my guts. Each drink is eating me away until I’ll be nothing more than an Arabic-speaking husk.
The cocktail glass sticks to the fresh napkin as I spin it and stare absently at the ice cubes. I hate the nagging doubts floating around me. No amount of rum seems to sink them, and when they do disappear, it’s only because they have dissolved into the delusional cocktail of my ego.
The hotel courtyard is below street level. Crowds of locals pass along the sidewalk above me. They are walking to the mosque for Isha’a, the evening prayer. There are more people than I can watch closely. The ornamental steel fence bordering the courtyard provides little protection. I’m swimming in a barrel.
The ethereal wail of muezzins rubs my nerves raw, serving as a continual reminder of my foreignness in this place. Quick movements on the sidewalk snag my attention—children running, the breeze catching an abaya. A slow shiver traces down my back from the faceless eyes studying me, each with an enigmatic expression that offers no curious warmth or welcome. My heart beats like a fist pounding on a door. Knock. Knock. Time to get the fuck out.
I sign the tab over to my room, slide my tip in American dollars under the saltshaker and leave two more cigarettes on the table. The path up to the hotel is paved and out of sight of the sidewalk. I pause to watch the sunset.
Beyond the city, the arid landscape unfolds in varying shades of red and brown. Distant mountain peaks rise up behind them and extend to the horizon. This country is beautiful. In another life I could imagine living here for a while.
I take a deep breath to clear my head, becoming still, almost calm, as the dull flush of booze floods the surface of my skin. I allow myself to drink in the scenery and let it soak through me—lush greens and bright yellows of the courtyard lending to the incandescent cityscape, burning into red umber and finally doused in the soothing blue wash of evening. I stretch my senses to smell some evening sweetness, something to mark the simple beauty of the moment. Nothing. I only taste the timeless urban dust and the heavy redolence of thirsty, tropical flowers.
A hollow boom echoes from the city. Several disjointed spurts of gunfire follow. I step inside the stoop of the back entrance and stand in the shadows, holding my breath as I listen for the exchanges of a fire-fight.
The people on the sidewalk do not react. Sickly sirens wail from different corners of the city. Muezzins are still calling from the minarets. A small, black plume rises from the area where the foreign embassies are a short distance away. My buzz evaporates with the trailing column of smoke as I slip inside the back door.