Read an excerpt from “The Cat King of Havana”

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CHAPTER ONE

I Meet Ana Cabrera

 

In a few pages, I meet Ana Cabrera.

That’s called fulfilling your promise to the audience. Say I upload this video called “OMG cutest kitty evah can haz backflipz meow.” A title like that will get me clicks—it’s a hook. I don’t just want to catch a fish, though. I want it to go tell its friends how awesome it is, getting an inch of steel through your lip. If I want retweets and shares, my clip had better feature Fluffsters getting his circus on.

I can go a step further. You open my clip expecting catrobatics. You see a kitten on a trampoline. Fluffsters jumps, Fluffsters bounces, here comes the backflip—look at him go! So far so good.

Then Eye of the Tiger plays, the vid goes into slow motion, and you realize there’s something on the kitten’s back. Yes . . . yes, it’s a water cannon!

Kitten paws pull levers. Water bursts from the cannon. Fluffsters shoots into the sky atop a pillar of glory.

The vid cuts to black. Samuel L. Jackson growls, “I can haz backflipz meow.” And then, quickly: “No kittens were hurt in the making of this film.”

That’s what I call a cat video. A million clicks guaranteed.

Take this book. I call it The Cat King of Havana. Between felines and Cuba, that’s two different tags to maximize eyeballs.

I’ll deliver what I’m promising— an edge-of-your-seat tale of the mean streets of Havana, full of adventurous salsa dancing, dangerous romance, and cats. Lolcats, specifically. But that’s an appetizer. That’s Fluffsters doing backflips. You want a jetpack kitten blazing across the sky? Read the book.

But hey, what do I know about it? I’m only Rick Gutierrez, The Last Catbender. That’s the name I go by on my website, CatoTrope.com. We get 30 percent of all non-YouTube cat video traffic. Among my fellow students at Manhattan Secondary, I’m known as That Cat Guy.

Which brings us back to Ana Cabrera.

***

Two people contributed to my meeting Ana.

The first was Rachel Snow, this punk rocker girl, my first and only girlfriend.

“There’s something profoundly existential about waiting for the L train at three in the morning,” were the first words Rachel spoke to me.

“Uhh . . . umm . . . yeah,” were the first words I spoke to Rachel.

She didn’t let that stop her. We never took that L train. A few hours later we kissed on the Williamsburg Bridge.

Rachel was a redheaded, Pabst-chugging, Ginsberg-quoting whirlwind. With her, nerdy shut-in me became the kind of guy who sang along to the Ramones and walked barefoot down Broadway at three a.m., and licked clean the lid of a bucket of plain yogurt. Kissing was about as hot as our romance got over the next few months—but I didn’t try to rush things. I could imagine spending a lifetime with her.

Rachel dumped me on the twentieth of January, my sixteenth birthday.

She had come over to my place with a surprise present—two tickets to The Amazeballs Groove, playing at Birdland that night. “They’re the new wave in punk jazz,” she explained, perched on the edge of my desk, long legs swinging, small bare feet poking from torn jeans. “They’re amazing and they’ve got balls and they know how to groove. Show starts in an hour. Let’s go.”

“That sounds awesome,” I said, though I would have preferred to stay in and snuggle. I clicked away at my website. “I just need to upload a CATastrophe of the month.”

“Look,” Rachel said fifteen minutes later while practicing a handstand against the wall. “I know this website is like a tribute to your mother and everything. But can we—”

“The video’s processing,” I said.

Maybe I shouldn’t have cut Rachel off, but I didn’t want to discuss Mom with her. Sure, the inspiration for my site had come from the folder full of cat videos I’d discovered on Mom’s desktop after she died. She’d spent hours looking at the things, and it turned out she’d saved the best ones. I posted one on Facebook and got like a thousand shares—and so a business idea was born. But CatoTrope was a site full of cats pushing little carts across the floor. It didn’t feel right to call it a tribute to my mother.

Even if she would have loved it.

“I’ll go get us seats,” Rachel said after another while.

“Would you?” I pecked her on the cheek. “I’m almost done here.”

Five minutes after Rachel left the apartment, I received a Facebook message from her. I reproduce her missive here, because without it I may never have met Ana Cabrera:

Dearest Rick,

I’m dumping you.

I wanted to see what it felt like, dating a geek. It’s not for me. I mean, Ewoks, Dr. Manhattan, Arya Stark, those guys are fun. I like a good lolcat as much as the next girl. But that’s, like, all your life. Every time I tried to drag you to do something fun, that’s what it felt like—dragging you, kicking and yelling.

Fix your own life. Read less! Turn off your computer! Get off your ass! I haven’t got the energy to be your gung-ho manic girlfriend.

Wishing you the very best in all your future endeavors,

Rachel

And that was that for Rick Gutierrez and Rachel Snow.

You might figure her final message sent me on a voyage of self-discovery, culminating in the realization that Geeks are Good and Everyone’s a Special Flower and You Shouldn’t Let Other People Tell You How to Live Your Life. If so, you’ve been watching too many indie films with quirky teenage protagonists.

I read Rachel’s message and decided she had a point.           

It took me a few days to accept it. A few days holed up in my room, binging on Battlestar Galactica and stuffing myself with schnitzel, my Dad’s special recipe.

“Schnitzel makes everything better,” was all that Dad said to me, which was about as much paternal advice as he ever gave me, now that Mom was gone. (Dad’s from Leipzig, where they take their schnitzel seriously).

But things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and nothing lasts, not even Battlestar Galactica. Soon enough I had to confront reality. Rachel had dumped me on my birthday. She hadn’t been nice about it. No, really, she’d been a little mean. But she wasn’t wrong.

I was a geeky loner. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t even know why I’d resisted Rachel’s outings. They’d been some of the best fun I’d ever had.

It was time for a change.

Why should I be that quiet guy in the corner, always last to be picked for the game? I’d rather be the guy who started the game. The guy who had adventures instead of reading about them. And yeah, the guy who dumped instead of getting dumped.

This is what I resolved:

I would become that guy.

***

Funny thing about resolutions. You make one, and it feels great and decisive and liberating. Then you look in the mirror and see the same old you staring back. And you realize you need a plan.

Which brings us to the second person who contributed to my meeting Ana. The man with the plan. My pal Lettuceleaf Igorov.

His real name is Vladislav, but our resident bully Rob Kenna can’t pronounce that, and Lettuceleaf is so much funnier—because he’s fat, you see, haha, hilarious. Lettuce is into anime and video games. And he plays classical guitar.

I’m not talking elevator classical. I’m talking Joaquin Rodrigo and Francisco Tarrega and Isaac Albéniz (look them up on YouTube). This intricate, beautiful, haunting stuff. He played a school concert once, did Rodrigo’s “Invocacion y Danza.” I shivered listening to him. But in the back row, Kenna’s catcall brigade worked overtime.

“Oh, man,” I told Lettuce afterward. “That was awesome.”

“I know,” he said. “If only those imbeciles appreciated quality.”

That’s the other thing about Lettuce. He’s modest.

We’d been buddies for years. Both of us nerdy, both of us outcasts, and hey, getting picked on isn’t as bad when you’ve got company. Then, a few weeks before Rachel dumped me, Lettuce discovered rock.

It took one show. One gig with the BlueNuts, our school band, where he went wild on a metal-ish version of the Pink Panther theme, fingers ripping through violent chord progressions and complex riffs, his massive frame shaking, eyes rolled up in ecstasy. The rest of the band looked like kindergartners by comparison.

From that day on, Lettuce could do no wrong in the eyes of the school. His size gave him a rock star’s gravity. His arrogance became a stage persona to be admired. Kenna quipped that the school band should be called Lettuce’s RainbowNuts (Lettuce is gay), but no one laughed.

After my dumpage, I turned to Lettuce for advice. I told him my tale of woe after school on the subway. “I need a plan,” I told him. “How do I turn my life around?”

Lettuce considered the issue, then nodded decisively. “You have to find your own thing.”

“What do you mean, my own thing?”

“I mean, something social. Something that lets you meet people. Like, maybe start a cat video appreciation society that actually meets in real life.”

“Umm.” Running my website was fun, but I didn’t really want to find out what kind of people hid behind usernames like FurryMasterXY and BroomstickRiderTexas. “Maybe something a bit cooler?”

“What else are you good at?” Lettuce asked. “Like, in my case, I’m good at guitar. Except you know, playing Bach and stuff is great, but that was me in a room, alone all day, practicing. Playing rock—a whole ’nother game.”

“I can play the conga drums a bit,” I said dubiously.

“That’s not what I meant,” he said. Then he got thoughtful. “Can you join a salsa band or something?”

“I’m not very good,” I said.

Mom had made me take lessons. “When Fidel is dead we’ll go back to Havana,” she’d told me. “My old friends will hear you play and they’ll say—Agua! That’s María’s son, all right.”

That had been Mom’s dream, not mine. She might have claimed that she had given up on Cuba—“We’re Americans now, and don’t you forget it.” But a photo of Havana’s Malecón always sat on her desk, and a volume of poetry by José Martí on her bedside table, and she never tired of making plans for a future after Fidel.

A future she hadn’t lived to see.

To me, Cuba was a distant dream, almost mythical. A fascinating fantasy, not quite real. I enjoyed listening to salsa music because the clave beat spurred my imagination. It let me picture what it might have been like to grow up on the streets my mother once walked. But I didn’t love it enough to practice the congas every day.

After Mom died, I stopped playing altogether. I had tried not to even think about anything Cuban these past two years. Whenever someone mentioned Fidel or Buena Vista Social Club or the bloqueo or what have you, visions of Mom flashed before my eyes and I heard her voice ranting against “those communist pigs” again. And, well, that was not how I wanted to remember her.

Maybe it was time I got over it.

“You don’t need to play the congas well,” Lettuce said now. “You just need to find others as bad as you.”

I stared at Lettuce for a long while. Then cried out in sudden epiphany. “Craigslist!”

Lettuce grinned. “That wonderful flea market of the internet.”

***

A few days later, I found what I needed.

We play salsa covers, nothing too complicated, wrote Patrick, the bandleader. We’ve got our own congas, but our guy broke his hand. Come by on Wednesday, we’ll try you out.

“I’ll be home late,” I told Dad early Wednesday evening. “I’m trying out for a salsa band.”

“Good job,” Dad told me, as he clicked morosely at his remote—cooking show to reality TV to soap opera and back.

I’d hoped the mention of salsa, Mom’s favorite music, might stir his attention. But perhaps that had been wishful thinking. If I’d been avoiding thoughts of Cuba these past two years since Mom’s death, Dad had been avoiding thoughts of anything. Or so it seemed to me sometimes.

The address Patrick had given me was for a community center in Gramercy. We were in a meeting room on the third floor. Low-ceilinged, carpeted in severe gray, lit by cold fluorescents. There were a couple of older drummers on bongos and timbales, white-bearded both. Two women who looked like sisters handled maracas and trumpet. A lanky black kid my age had a bass guitar. Patrick himself, a tall pasty twenty-something with blond dreadlocks, waved about clave sticks as he talked.

“This is Rick,” he introduced me. “Our new conga player.”

People nodded, said hi. No one was eager to make friends and improve my social life.

“Get ready,” Patrick told me. “They’ll be here soon.”

“Wait, what?” I floundered. “Who?”

“We’re accompanying a dance class,” Patrick said. “It’s their last practice together so they decided to pay for a band.”

Blood rushed to my face, with all those eyes on me. “I haven’t played in a while—”

“It’s a beginners’ class,” Patrick said. “We’ll play basic salsa. Do the tumbao, nothing more.”

That’s the problem with leaving your apartment. You end up having to do things.

The dancers trickled in. Fifty-something women in black slacks and pale blouses. Gray-haired men with silver belt buckles and summery polo shirts. They looked around uneasily, as if they didn’t know what they were doing here anymore than I did.

Then Ana walked in.

***

She was poised and slim, with inky black hair down to her shoulders. It framed a heart-shaped brown face, smooth and soft, naive, almost childlike—except for her eyes, set unusually deep in her face. Those eyes seemed amused, like this girl knew things you didn’t and found it funny.

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t love at first sight. You see lots of cute girls in Manhattan, and you know they won’t ever feature in your life except as passers-by. Besides, I was too nervous to pay her much attention.

The girl had entered together with a stringy thirty-something white guy who looked like he spent too much time at a tanning salon.

“Hey, Gregoire,” Patrick greeted him, but he was looking at the girl. “How’s it going, Ana?”

“Hey,” she said easily.

The tanned guy, Gregoire, turned to the class. “All right, everyone. Let’s warm up.”

“One, two, one two three four,” Patrick counted. He started on the claves—clack clack clack, clack-clack. On the next bar, the maracas came in, and the bongos.

I realized I was still staring at Ana. Hurriedly, I attacked the congas. My first strokes went wobbly, off-time, but then—face burning—I fell into the beat.

Not that anyone noticed. We played a basic percussive pattern, steady and even. The trumpet came in with a simple, cheerful melody.

The class rolled their shoulders and circled their hips, stepped forward and back and sideways, and turned around in place. Ana and Gregoire moved with a light, casual elegance at the front of the room. Everyone else plodded like a bunch of rusty Transformers in bad weather conditions. Jerky steps, now slower, now faster, and tripping over their own feet.

Not that I had a right to judge anyone’s dancing. A few years ago at a school party, Flavia Martinez took one look at my dance interpretation of Poker Face and laughed. “You really Cuban, dude?” she had asked me, in front of everyone. I hadn’t danced a step since.

The dancers paired up and shuffled back and forth, left and right in unison, like a roomful of badly made marionettes. It was painful to watch. So I watched Ana instead. The languid way she rolled her shoulders, a mesmerizing figure eight. The elegant shift of her torso from side to side in time to the beat. The way her hips rocked—

My fingers tripped, and I missed a beat.

“Focus,” Patrick hissed.

In my defense, Ana’s hips.

By the end of the class, I arrived at two conclusions. One, salsa was a shuffling dance for old people. Two, my plan was a failure. I wasn’t good enough to play with this band. I wasn’t good enough to play with any band.

We’d finished the last piece and I was already getting up when one of the students spoke to Ana and Gregoire. “Would you dance for us?”

They looked at each other. Ana shrugged. Gregoire turned to Patrick. “Can you give us something interesting?”

Patrick considered for a moment. “Mi Cama Huele a Ti?”

We played. It was a relaxed piece with a sweet melody on the trumpet, a salsa cover of a Tito El Bambino reggaeton piece that I had heard on Spotify. A dozen bars in, the guitar kid started singing in flawless Spanish, his voice smooth, adult.

I barely noticed. I barely had the presence of mind to keep time.

In the beginning, Ana and Gregoire hardly moved, shifting from to side, their torsos swaying in graceful small undulations. They fell into the basic step, forward and back, just like the class had done except there was a charge to their every moment, a supple tension, so that theirs was not a dull lack of motion—it was fire held in check.

Gregoire raised Ana’s arm in the air, and she spun once elegantly. He guided her from side to side in a graceful walk. He hooked his elbows over hers and drew her close, and they circled each other in an intimate embrace.

How I wished to be him.

The bongo player switched to cowbell, ringing loud and clear. The singer launched into the refrain, a sonorous complaint of how his bed smelled of the girl who’d left him. The music surged.

So did Ana and Gregoire.

They swung apart, arms outstretched, not touching. They spun in place, once, twice, thrice, perfectly poised. They circled each other in taut, stalking steps, watching each other. They rushed forward, except they never collided, but came together and spun, spun, spun around the floor, Beauty and the Beast in their ballroom.

It was not a thing for words, their dance. I won’t give you the blow-by-blow. The best I can do is tell you how I felt, watching it. My heart raced ahead of the salsa beat, and my breath came fast, and shivers shot up and down my body. I no longer saw Ana, only the dance itself. Lost in it, drunk on it, at once ecstatic to behold it—and frustrated that I couldn’t be part of it.

When they finished, it took me a while to realize that my fingers no longer moved. That the class had been applauding.

In a daze, I rose from the congas. If I had let myself think, I would have stopped. Quickly, I walked to where Ana drank from her water bottle.

“You were awesome,” I said to her.

She looked me over nonchalantly. “You weren’t.”

“Er . . .” I said. “I’m not really a drummer.”

“You’re that cat guy,” she said then.

I blinked. “You’ve heard of me?”

She pointed at my chest, the corner of her lip twitching.

I looked down and saw my T-shirt. It featured a fat gray tomcat squished upside down into a glass preserve jar. Except the cat’s got my face Photoshopped on. Above the picture, red letters spell out THAT CAT GUY in Comic Sans.

Rob Kenna gave me that shirt on my birthday, in front of the whole class. I put it on right there, out of principle. To show that bastard he couldn’t get to me. I told everyone I liked the thing—and managed to convince even myself.

Now, with Ana’s eyes on me, I was acutely aware how I must look in it. Skinny brown arms sticking out of baggy sleeves.

No choice but to go all in.

“That’s right,” I told her. “I’m New York’s first cat video tycoon. My site, catotrope.com, is the go-to destination for feline footage connoisseurs.”

“Cato-trope?”

“Like zoetrope,” I said. “Or like catastrophe.”

“So you’re like a cat lady except younger?”

“I don’t even have a cat,” I said. “I just make money off them. It’s sort of a family business.”

Which was almost true, if you considered Mom’s folder of cat videos my startup capital.

“Fascinating,” Ana said. “I need to set up a website. Could you help me?”

I flinched.

A website. So that’s why she was still talking to me.

I wanted to tell her to build her own damn website.

What I said instead was, “Sure! Just tell me what you need. Let me give you my e-mail. Oh, and here’s my cell. Call me anytime!”

Yeah. I’m smooth.

“The thing is,” Ana said, “I don’t have much of a budget.”

“Well . . .” I began. “Maybe you could . . .”

I stopped. Remembering all the times I’d been called a klutz. Remembering what Flavia Martinez said about my Poker Face dance. Knowing I had no chance in hell at getting as good as Ana.

But I remembered also what it had felt like to watch her dance.

“Maybe you could teach me salsa,” I forced out.

And the world kept right on spinning.

“What kind of salsa do you want to learn?” Ana asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The stuff you were dancing.”

“Cuban, then. Salsa casino.”

“My mom was Cuban,” I said. “I don’t think she was much of a dancer, though.” For all the salsa we listened to at home, I’d never seen her dance.

“Just because you’re Spanish doesn’t mean you can do the pasodoble. I’m Puerto Rican. Boricua, ya tu sabes. But I learned to dance from this French guy.” Ana tossed her head at Gregoire. “You’ve danced before?”

“No,” I said.

“I don’t teach,” Ana said. “But come dance with us. At our school. I’ll get you a discount.”

So maybe I should have bargained, should have said a discount wasn’t enough to pay for a new website. But I didn’t care about that in the least.

Ana hadn’t laughed at my request. She hadn’t called me crazy. She’d said “come dance with us.”

Funny thing about failed plans. They get you places all the same.

 

Thank you for reading! To find out what happens next, get “The Cat King of Havana” from your favorite bookstore:

Author’s Note

Two passions inspired “The Cat King of Havana”.

The first was my passion for Cuba in all its complexity. An island that seems a utopia one day, a dystopia the next, and somewhere in the middle on your average Tuesday.

Between various trips I’ve spent close to a year in Havana, riding packed buses, standing in long lines for mundane errands, and enjoying leisurely strolls along the Malecón. Even so, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Where this book succeeds it is thanks to the many Cuban friends and colleagues who advised me. Where it falls short, it is due to my limited outsider’s perspective. 

And yet, limited or not, I hope my vision of Cuba awakens in my readers a desire to go see for themselves — with respect and appreciation.

The second passion that inspired this book was dance.

I’m allergic to the words “you haven’t got what it takes”. Utter them in my direction and you might send me into an obsession lasting days, months or even years — until I’ve proved you wrong.

This is how I learned English well enough to write fiction in it (my classmates, fellow Latvians, laughed at the idea). This is how I became a physics major in college (physics was the one black mark on my high school transcript). This is also how I learned to dance.

I didn’t always have this allergy, though.

Back in elementary school, when I was on the verge of failing gym class, my family told me, “That’s okay. You’ve got other talents. You’re not made for sports.”

I believed them. Years of clumsiness, bullying, and gym periods from hell followed. In high school, I finally decided enough was enough and joined a martial arts school. For three months of aikido classes, I couldn’t do a simple back roll — something even the clumsiest of my classmates did with ease. But I kept at it, hour after hour, day after day, month after month.

Six arduous years later, I earned my black belt. By that time, I’d realized I didn’t need talent to become competent at something. Sheer stubbornness would do the trick.

This insight came in handy when, on a chance trip to Cuba, I took my first salsa class. I loved it — and I was atrocious. A block of wood on two left feet, with a tendency to collide with any furniture foolishly left nearby. My Cuban teacher was too polite to say such a thing, but I could tell my dance potential wasn’t exactly overwhelming.

It didn’t matter. I was in love. I wouldn’t let a lack of talent stop me.

Salsa took over my life. For the next few years, I danced twenty to thirty hours a week, took classes from all the best teachers I could find, and returned to Cuba to learn more.

Now, four years later, I teach salsa myself — even as I continue my own studies. I’m not the best dancer in the world, or even close, but I’m doing what I love and having a blast.

With “The Cat King of Havana”, I wanted to share my love of dance — but also to share my allergy, if such a thing is possible.

If you love something enough, it doesn’t matter whether people think you’ve got what it takes. You may never become the best in the world. With endless hours of work, though, you can get pretty good at just about anything.

Tom Crosshill

Spring 2016