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        by C. Jeanette Tyson


Even if you hated Seinfeld, I bet you know about Elaine’s quest to find a boyfriend who was sponge-worthy. And even if you lived without electricity during that sitcom’s run, but are a woman of a certain age, I bet you still know what I’m talking about.
     Things change, don’t they?
     Now we have children we love but nevertheless need to leave, sometimes, under paid supervision so we can get out of the house and breathe. These nights are precious and not cheap. These nights, therefore, must be sitter-worthy.

     One Thursday, I went with three girlfriends to Cuba Libre, a Cuban-themed tapas place downtown. Although a few tables offer open air and a street view, the interior is cool, dark and swank. The bar is deep and long. We bellied up and ordered mojitos. This simple blend of sugar, rum, crushed mint, soda water and lime was born on the island. I won’t say the first one didn’t go down smoothly—it was unreasonably hot that day, but it should have had less sugar and a lot more mint, a handful, half-glassful of mint.

     For tapas I’d recommend the crabcakes, and not just because Cathy said they looked like Sponge Bob Square Pants’ volleyball court. The grilled chicken was moist and flavorful. But the spinach dip was stringy and the pistachio flatbread we were meant to eat it on didn’t arrive until the end of the meal. I don’t even want to talk about the calamari and the thin buttermilk dressing that arrived in lieu of aeoli. Even the beans were boring.
     But you know you’re getting old when you forget a restaurant’s hot reputation is not always built on the food. I was contemplating feigning illness so I could save an hour on the sitter. Then I had another mojito.

     A few years ago, I traveled to Cuba with a British production company to film a commercial. We stayed in Havana’s Hotel Nacional, a 5-star beauty built in 1930. Once Sir Winston Churchill took his smokes in the wide, brown and yellow-tiled lobby. Now fat foreign men, modern barons of a sort, saunter through with girls hard and thin like rails. Posters of Hollywood stars ring the bar. A pool overlooks the sea. In my room there was a round toilet seat on the oval bowl and a rotary phone.
     We blocked off a section of Old Havana for the last scene of our commercial and hired a band. A crowd gathered in the cramp and heat of the narrow street. We were waiting for magic hour, sunset, when the crumbling houses would turn back into palaces of gold. Some kids practiced a splendid choreography of their own invention, Gregory Hines on hip hop and salsa. Mothers and daughters, old men and young lined the rooftops, crushed the balconies.
     At the right moment, we rushed our actor to his mark. His dancing partners arrived: two young women with walks like open invitations and eyes cool as shut doors. Someone struck up the band and we began to shoot.
     When music plays in Cuba, nobody stands still, camera or no camera. One diva drove the crowd wild. Every part of her moved in every direction though she gave the illusion of standing still. She became a professional actress that day.
     Twenty minutes or so and it was a wrap, as they really do say, and because we weren’t allowed to pay for the disruption of their neighborhood, as we would have in Brentwood, Nottinghill or Old Enfield, we threw a party instead. Or more accurately we moved the party to an abandoned house. An interior balcony circled the room. You could almost see the people laughing over the banisters, feel the damp pressure of a man’s hand against the small of your back, hear the sax sawing through the dense, stale air. But no one ventured up there now. We waited in the middle of a cracked marble floor littered with debris.
     Cubans dance like everyone feels when they’re dancing and nearly no one looks.
     We knew we were outclassed yet we were past ridicule. I flung myself around with one of the crew, dancing but mostly just laughing. Later, our Beckham-beautiful cameraman said he thought by having a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he’d be safe. He wasn’t. His new wife, who’d been there herself, had said to him, yes they’re beautiful, but remember, they don’t love you.
     When someone else tapped me on the shoulder, I thought the boy was part of our crew. He taught me a few steps, talked about sending letters across the vast oceans.
     On closer inspection he was far too young to be working with us, but I kept dancing anyway. I wanted to let it all go, to work myself into a lather in a falling-down building in a Communist country. I couldn’t have been farther from my life, or more in it. Only the music was real.
     Then it stopped. Bodies shuddered into stillness as if the coins had run out. We made our way to the van, sweat-drenched and panting, euphoric, wasted.
     The boy knocked at my window. I smiled and opened it, ready for a friendly buen viaje.
     "Give me a dollar,"
he said. Meanwhile, there was a commotion and our driver was shouting move, move.
The boy punched me in the elbow. "A dollar," he said.
Someone shouted at me to close the window. What the boy said then didn’t need translating. Eventually the crowd parted and we left. We dropped off the actresses and they sauntered into the night.
     There were other things about Cuba: homes converted for that meal and that moment into restaurants, women begging for soap, empty stores, the sweet ocean spray across the Malecon. The mojito at Cuba Libre brought that house and that boy, everything, back to me.
     The girls and I left Cuba Libre and ventured into the hot Austin night. I wondered who would ask us to dance. And why.
     Sitter-worthy? You betcha.
C. Jeanette Tyson is a freelance writer who used to get around a bit more than she does now that Maddy and Jackson are here. She’d encourage you to get to Cuba now, except that President Bush is making it nearly impossible. Got a tip, suggestion, idea or feedback for A Little More on Your Plate? Send it to Jeanette at: foodie@austinmama.com

Cuba Libre is at 409-A Colorado Street and open from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. daily. 512. 472.2822.


I I I I I I I  

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