She didn’t want to come down the stairs for the first few moments. Perched on a shaky bannister, she peered down on a pack of photographers focusing on the graceful curve of a staircase leading to rundown apartments on a backstreet in Cuba.
I could feel her watching and then saw her duck into the shadow. She was curious about us, these Americans who were now coming to her neighborhood nearly every few weeks. When I waved a pink ink pen, she scrambled down the staircase as if time could hold her no more.
This coltish girl with a big smile and shy eyes changed the landscape as she made her way down the stairs. I fell back from my friends and leaned against a crusty stone wall. She looked outside to the hot Havana street where peddlers were pushing half-empty fruit carts toward the next neighborhood. It was something new for Cuba, this chance to legally sell goods right out in the open.
She popped outside for a second then ran to my side and stood close with her hip pressed against my thigh and her hand cupped softly at my elbow. We stood there watching the photographers bend low, reach high, zoom in and angle wide for the perfect shot.
I gave her a piece of gum. She gave me a pink barrette. I gave her an ink pen. She gave a rock. I gave her another smile. She gave me a bigger one.
When it was time to leave, she walked to the staircase and played to the cameras. She struck a few model poses and shot a few faraway looks before squatting on the step and placing her delicate chin into her rough hands. She smiled the kind of smile that makes photographers happy. And then, the show was over.
I hadn’t taken many photographs by then. Often, my Pied Piper ways with kids make for some wonderful work by my fellow travelers, but I end up watching instead of focusing. I kinda like it that way, really. Some of my favorite work comes from the seconds before you have to say goodbye.
Above us, I saw her mother watching so I reached into my bag and pulled out some lip gloss. The girl ran to me, hugged my knees, tucked the lip gloss into her shorts and turned back toward the stairs.
Then she stopped, covered her face with her hands and stood motionless for close to a minute. At first, I mistook her sadness for shyness. Finally, I lifted the camera and took one photograph.
The story of the girl on the staircase has no happy ending. It has no ending at all. Tonight, I am thinking about this girl because Hurricane Isaac is projected to slam Cuba tomorrow.
Will torrential rains pour through the holes in her roof? Will floodwaters rush through the streets, gather fruit vendor carts and swirl them into a debris river that rises up the crooked staircase? Will the girl and her mother climb higher and higher until they reach the roof and then–
What I love about travel is the people you meet. What I don’t love about travel is the people you leave behind.