“Everything Elisa told me about him made it sound like he was a lovely man.” Ana smiles at me. “Your grandmother wrote to me when she could throughout the years. She asked me to hold something for you. Let me get it from my room.”
She shuffles out of the kitchen, leaving me alone. I sit back down at the table, anticipation filling me. This is what I came for—to let a piece of my grandmother go and to perhaps find new pieces of her that I could clutch to my breast once I did.
The two women from earlier reenter the kitchen, neither one glancing in my direction, as though I’ve become part of the table and chairs.
I stand and introduce myself.
They both stare back at me; the elder woman speaks first.
“I’m Caridad. You met my son, Luis, earlier.”
So I was right; this is Ana’s daughter-in-law. She possesses her son’s height and his angular face, his graceful manner of moving.
“Yes. He was kind enough to meet me at the airport.”
“We needed him here at the restaurant. It was busy today.”
She delivers the words with dart-like precision, the remainder unspoken—and we needed Ana’s help today while you were busy chatting with her during the dinner service.
My cheeks heat at the subtle rebuke as she passes by me without another glance.
The younger woman meets my gaze with a flinty stare.
“I’m Cristina. Luis’s wife.”
Disappointment shoots through me with a particularly lethal and effective stab. Silence fills the kitchen as we stare at each other. Here I feel the resentment I feared when I first planned my trip to Cuba, the unspoken censure that I’m not a real Cuban, that I’m a traitor to my people because my family left this country behind.
The exiles in Miami and around the world hate Castro because he took their country from them, because he took everything, really. But I see a different kind of anger here, simmering below the surface, contained in Luis’s mother and his wife. For the most part, Cubans who left prospered whereas those who stayed behind still appear to be struggling despite the promises they received from the government.
Cristina walks past me, leaving me alone in the kitchen that’s stuck in a time warp, a product of the fifties modernized by makeshift repairs and a make-do attitude.
How would my grandmother have fared in this version of Cuba? Somehow I can’t imagine her making black beans and rice on an old stove. My grandmother was a study in contradictions depending on her relationship with you—the affectionate constant of my childhood juxtaposed against the woman who ran Miami’s exiled society with a jewel-covered hand.
Her family had struggled after the revolution, of course. She told me stories about adjusting to an entirely new way of life in the United States, mourning the one she’d left behind in Cuba. Still—
It took my great-grandfather years to build back all he lost from the revolution, the tangible things at least, but once he did he bought one of the grandest estates in Palm Beach to show the world that not even communism could take down the Perez family.
“Did my grandmother go to bed?” Luis asks as he walks over the threshold to the kitchen carrying a pile of dirty dishes.
“No, she went to her room for a moment.”
He sets the plates down on the tiny counter, his mouth in a firm line, his eyes tired. “She needs to rest. Try telling her that, though. She lets us help to a point, but she still works harder than she should at her age.”
Luis washes the dishes, his back to me, and I walk over to the sink, picking up one of the rags and drying the ones he’s already cleaned. He shoots me a curious look but doesn’t say anything. My hands tremble as I wipe the cloth over a plate.
The dishes are a hodgepodge. Some are clearly the remnants of expensive sets with elegant stamps on the back. Others are plain and cheap. Luis treats them all the same, his soapy fingers methodically scrubbing them with a worn cloth. His nails are neatly trimmed, his fingers lean, devoid of a ring.
How long have they been married?
The need to fill the silence tugs at me.
“You play beautifully.”
He doesn’t respond.
“I heard you earlier on the saxophone,” I add.
“Have you been playing long?”
The side of his mouth quirks up. While the women in the house—Ana excluded, of course—appear to view me through a filter of mistrust and disdain, he seems indulgently amused, as though I am some bizarre creature taken out of her habitat and dropped in the middle of an environment where I clearly don’t belong.
“Since I was a child. My father taught me.”
The father who died in Angola. I feel a pang of sadness for his mother who was left to raise a child in Cuba as a widow—surely no easy feat.
“How old were you?”
“When he died?”
I swallow. “I’m sorry.”
Luis rinses one of the plates, handing it to me, his fingers ghosting over mine for a moment before he turns to the next one, repeating the motions as though he’s producing parts on an assembly line.
I search for something else to contribute to the conversation only to come up short, silence filling the kitchen save for the rush of water and the clunk of plates being set on the tiny countertop.
Ana returns a moment later, a box in her hands.
I finish drying the last dish and join her at the table while Luis excuses himself.
The box is a dark wood with a small gold clasp, a little bigger than a shoe box. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to reside in a gentleman’s study holding cigars or cash or jewels with mysterious provenances.
“It was your great-grandfather’s.” She smiles, handing it to me. “Elisa borrowed it.”
My great-grandfather Emilio Perez. Sugar baron. Batista supporter.
He died before I was born, but I’ve seen old family photos of him. He was handsome, tall, and distinguished. The stories I’ve heard from my grandmother and great-aunts give the impression of a man more concerned with business than family, but a man they loved just the same.
“When families left Cuba, they didn’t know how long they would be gone,” Ana explains. “Most thought Fidel’s regime would be temporary. They weren’t able to take items out of the country, but they also weren’t comfortable leaving them in their homes for fear the government would seize them or others would steal them. So they buried them in their backyards and hid them in the walls of their homes for when they returned.”
My heart pounds.
“Your great-grandfather buried a large box of items in the backyard.” She hesitates. “Beatriz has it now.”
This is the first I’ve heard of Beatriz having some secret box of family possessions.
“How did Beatriz end up with it?”
“That’s Beatriz’s story to tell. Let’s just say your great-aunt has led an interesting life. More so than you probably realized.”
Considering the myth-like quality surrounding Beatriz, I’m not entirely shocked.
“The contents of this box, though, were your grandmother’s. We buried the box together under a banana tree the night before she left Cuba. When the Russians moved into your family’s home, I snuck back over there and dug it up before they could find it.”
I gape at her.
She chuckles. “Beatriz isn’t the only one willing to take risks.” Her hands stroke the wood. “It was the right thing to do. Elisa wouldn’t have wanted it to fall into someone else’s hands. Especially the people who took her home. I told her years later that I had the box, and she asked me to keep it for her. To keep it for you.”
She slides the box toward me.
“I don’t know what’s in it. She never told me and I never looked. Go through it. If you have questions, find me.”
Ana reaches out, her hand covering mine.
“She loved you very much. Adored your father. Your family was her entire world. Her letters were filled with stories of all of you, so much so that I feel as though you’re a part of my family, too.
“She was trying to make the best of a difficult situation. You can’t understand what those times were like, how our world was shattered in the span of a few months. Whatever you find, don’t judge her too harshly.”
* * *
• • •
Later, I sit on the edge of the bed in the guest room, staring at the wooden box, running my fingers over the edges. My grandmother was nineteen when she left Cuba, and I try to imagine her as a young girl, caught in the midst of such political turmoil. If I had a box—not much larger than a shoe box—in which to place my most important possessions for safekeeping, what would I choose to guard? What did she save?
The hinges creak as I open the box.
Yellowed pages stare back at me, covered in ink, tied together with a red silk ribbon. Letters by the look of them. I set them aside. Next is a ring.
My heart pounds.
The center stone is a diamond, set in an art deco style, smaller diamonds cut in emerald and round shapes surrounding it. The ring itself isn’t large, but it’s elegant and clearly antique, the craftsmanship superb.
We never grew up with family jewelry whose origins extended past my grandmother’s time. Everything remained in Cuba after they left and eventually our valuables disappeared. In some ways, it’s as though the Perez family was invented in 1959. So this piece of family history is everything.
I slide the ring over my finger, delighted it fits.
There are other items in the box—concert programs, a white silk rose, the petals still soft, a faded map, a matchbook from a Chinese restaurant in Havana—treasures that clearly possess more sentimental value than monetary.
I go for the letters first, starting with the top one, expecting to be greeted by my grandmother’s familiar, loopy handwriting. Instead it’s slanted, all hard lines and black ink. Masculine.
I begin to read.
I barely recognize myself anymore—last night I snuck out to a party with my sisters, today I am walking along the Malecón, on my way to meet a man whose last name I do not know, whose family I do not know, who my family would likely never accept.