It’s already been a pretty wonderful day.
In the morning I’d met Maria Theresa, a local woman who invited me and my fellow photographers, four complete strangers, into her home. She was kind and sweet and had made a huge impact on us all.
Hours later, I am sightseeing on my own, walking at my leisure through the streets of Havana letting a mental coin toss direct my exploration.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and the city is far from sleepy. Families gather in the narrow cobblestone streets to chat, children run around, men play dominoes, street vendors sell their wares. Everywhere I look there are people and old vintage cars.
Veiled in the shadow of a doorway, a tiny figure sits, small and shrunken in a rocking chair. She’s wearing a bright, threadbare fuscia robe and white socks tucked into torn pink shoes. Her thin legs are bare.
She’s looking out at the street with a tired, forlorn expression. From what I can see, she sits at the front of a narrow hallway that runs parallel to the street with a tiny sitting area containing her chair, a small bedside table and a fan. Above her hangs a child’s painting (her grandson’s) of a seaside view.
Our eyes connect as I approach and I raise my camera and point in her direction. Her face takes on a dubious expression; she’s obviously baffled by my interest, but she nods affirmatively. As I draw near I see that she’s not alone.
Inside the door, his back to me against the wall, is an old man, her husband, sitting on a low bench with a battered guitar in his hand. He’s wearing thick glasses but from behind the glass he flashes a squinty-eyed grin a la Bette Midler revealing more than one tooth missing. His worn tweed coat gives him a surprisingly stately air though it’s challenged by the neon orange baseball cap on his head.
They motion for me to come in and I take a seat between them on the pavement just inside the door. They don’t speak a lick of English and my Spanish is used up after Hola, but we’re able to exchange names—hers is Sophia, his Paolo. Her voice is soft and meek and it makes me wonder if she’s ill. He’s more spirited. Pointing at his guitar, I ask if he would play.
His voice is hoarse at times and his guitar betrays him with a string horribly out of tune, but he sings as if he were on the world’s grandest stage. I photograph his performance, loving the shafts of light that fall on him from the street as he sings. His eyes crinkle behind his glasses and I became fascinated by the way his skin, freckled and crepey, stretch over his fingers as he brushes the strings.
Three songs in he takes a break, the nail on his thumb is too long and he wants to cut it – I figure this out by the way he thrusts his thumb in my face and makes a scissor gesture with two fingers. He disappears behind a cloth that separates the hallway from what lays beyond.
Sophia looks at me with sad eyes and I am instantly unsure if I should remain. I sit in a limbo of indecision. She looks at the back of my camera and I guess that she wants to see the pictures I took of Paolo. I show her a few, some moody with low light and deliberate motion blur (she isn’t particularly enamored of those), and then a few that I overexposed for the darkness illuminating Paolo as if he were in broad daylight. Those she likes.
For the first time since we met, a faint smile crosses her face and her eyes came to life. I ask her if I can take her photo and she sits back in her chair. Paolo returns, picking up his guitar. Before he can play again, Sophia places her hand on my wrist urging me to pay attention.
I wait, worried that she is going to say something important to me and I won’t understand, but instead she begins to sing. Paolo sits dumbfounded. At first her voice is cracked and rough and she has to swallow against a dry throat, but quickly she rallies. Paolo accompanies her on the guitar, gently rocking back and forth as he plays.
From around the corner I hear footsteps running down the hallway. Two teenage girls suddenly appear out of the darkness. When they see me they squeak in shock then jump out of sight so that only their noses can be seen peeking around the corner. They stare at Sophia in wonder, chattering back and forth in earnest. It doesn’t take a translator to figure out that they are gobsmacked to hear her sing. When Sophia finishes, she stops and looks at me.
Reflexively, I start to clap. I feel as if something monumental has just happened and she smiles, a big broad smile that lights up the dark and I swear she’s grown six inches in her chair.
We sit in silence for a moment then, together, they treat me to a duet.
*The images above were taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.
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