“When I am in the country, I see my fellow Cubans without electricity, running water, unable to read, their children unable to go to school,” Pablo says, his gaze once again on those looming buildings. “When I am in Havana the lights are on, people walking down the Paseo del Prado as though they do not have a care in the world. There are other parts of the city—far too many—where people are suffering tremendously, yet it still feels as though Havana exists in its own self-contained bubble. I was a boy in ’33 when we overthrew Machado. I understand that people are tired of violence, tired of conflict, tired of Cuban blood spilling. But—”
“I have a brother—” The words tumble out without thought, the secret that isn’t really a secret at all. “He shared those thoughts once.”
Beside me, Pablo stills as though he is adept at reading the pauses in a conversation, the tense, unfinished sentences and words uttered in a whisper.
“Families can be hard,” he says after a moment.
“Is he safe?” he asks, as though he, too, knows a thing or two about the precariousness of going against one’s family, defying one’s president.
“I hope so.”
I wish I possessed more optimism to inject in those words.
“In any event, I have not read Montesquieu, but I will search for his work in our library.” I flinch as the word leaves my mouth, but really, what’s the point in pretending? He’s seen the newspaper, knows my last name now. As much as I envy Alejandro his freedom, I lack the ability to cast off my family, to repudiate them and all they stand for. They—we—are flawed, yes. But the legacy and blood that binds us is inescapable.
“Yes—my father has a library in his home, the walls brimming with books,” I continue, my tone dry. “I’m sure you think us decadent. We are decadent. My family’s fortunes were cast a long time ago, and those of us born under the Perez name have enjoyed the benefits of that wealth.”
“And would you apologize for it?” His tone is idle, but there’s real interest behind his words.
“For my family’s fortune? For the grand house and the rest of it? You could strip away the paintings—except for the corsair, I am indeed quite fond of him—and I do not think I would mind.” I cast a sidelong glance his way, attempting to take his measure. “Or perhaps I would be better served by exclaiming my disgust with our wealth and the shame that it brings me? Or tell you of our charitable endeavors, the men who served in the military and died for Cuba’s independence, my father’s efforts to work with Batista drafting the 1940 Constitution, the ancestors who have served in the national legislature?”
“Perhaps our legacy will always be that we have more than we ever need in a country where many do not have enough. And even so, I see the limitations my father faces—the whims of the sugar crop that was once booming and now keeps him up working late in his office. I overhear his strained conversations—the broken promises, the fears over the direction in which the country is headed. Even the wealthy are not immune—we have friends who have been thrown in Batista’s prisons; we fear the firing squad as much as the poor. My own brother is evidence of that. Money buys us the proximity to power, but in this current climate that proximity is a target on all our backs.”
My little speech leaves me a bit breathless, the ferocity of it catching me off guard. When was the last time anyone asked me what I thought? How I felt about the world swirling around me? When was the last time I was able to utter Alejandro’s name? I sneak a peek at Pablo, wondering if I’ve scared him off—the girl who is too free with her opinions.
Instead, a gleam of admiration enters his gaze.
“You’re brave, Elisa Perez.”
In a family such as mine, there are varying degrees of bravery, but I’ll take the compliment all the same, even as I wonder just how brave I really am.
“Why me?” I ask, pushing the limits of my alleged bravery a bit further, indulging the curiosity turning over in my mind.
A moment passes before he answers me. “Because you’re comfortable in your own skin. Because you appear content to show yourself to the world exactly as you are without deception or artifice. That’s a novel quality these days, and I suspect, in Miramar, even more so.”
It’s the sort of compliment whose very nature makes testing the veracity of it exceedingly difficult, and the pleasure of it seems best savored with acceptance rather than dissection. I smile, though, holding his gaze for a moment and lingering there before ducking my head and looking out to the sea.
We both seem content to let the silence swallow us up, for the wind, and the waves, and the car horns to do the talking for us—a trumpet interjecting every so often, our bodies moving in tandem as we stroll along the promenade.
“You’re not what I expected,” he says finally, breaking the silence between us, his words little more than a whisper, an aside to himself that I’m privy to.
Does he feel it—this thing between us—too?
“What did you expect?” I can’t resist asking.
“I don’t know. Not this. I didn’t expect to meet someone—”
His words disappear with the wind.
They seem safer there.
I turn and face him, the sun bright in my eyes, casting a glow around him. I fear he can see every single emotion—the worry, the confusion, the desire—in my gaze, stamped across my face.
Deep down, I know what he is. How can I not? It couldn’t be clearer if it was written in the sky before me. Deep down, a part of me gravitates toward what he is, even as I am horrified by it.
“Elisa—” he repeats.
A tremor trails down my spine at the sound of my name falling from his lips, at the husky timbre of his voice.
One of us moves. Both of us move. I don’t even know anymore. Only that his lips meet mine and it is both everything and nothing that I expected.
For all that I anticipated, imagined, my first kiss, the reality of it comes to me in pieces, fractured moments unfurling themselves.
His hand on my waist. The brush of his fingers against the fabric of my dress. His lips on mine. His breath becoming my breath. His heart thudding against my chest.
He strokes my hair, fisting the strands as the kiss changes, deepening, leading me into treacherous waters until I’m left gasping for air.
Pablo pulls back first, staring down at me with those dark, solemn eyes. I should take a step back. And another. And another, until I’m safely ensconced in the mansion in Miramar.
I step forward, laying my palm on his cheek, my fingers sweeping across the dark shadows just beneath his eyes.
In one step, I know power, the drugging effect of it coursing through my veins. With one step I am removed from the fringes and thrust in the middle of my life. In that space of the step, my world shifts. Everything is different now, and nothing will ever be the same again.
I stay up late into the night reading and rereading the letter Pablo wrote me. He pressed it into my palm after he walked me home, the paper still warm from its place in his pocket, the intimacy of it sending a flutter through my chest. We said good-bye yesterday on the fringes of Miramar so no one would see us together, our parting paltry compared to the kiss on the Malecón. I regret the circumstances between us, the need to keep him a secret, tucked away in the fringes of my life. His words speak of the same frustration within him, the same yearning for more.
I am at a disadvantage. When I went to Guillermo’s, I never imagined I’d meet you. And then you were there, so beautiful it hurt. You looked so earnest watching everyone, as though you attempted to commit every moment to memory. As though you feel the same restlessness inside you, the same desire for more than that which life has given you.
I know this is foolish. You have everything in front of you, and I have nothing to offer, no place in your life. It is likely premature to think about these things, to worry about them, when I’ve only known you a moment. How can time feel both unending and entirely too finite?
Pablo’s letter tugs at something inside me like a loose thread, unfurling the tightly wound knot in my chest as I clutch the pages in my hand. Time is a luxury I don’t have. Seeing him in person brings its share of risks, and I spend far too much time grasping for words when we’re together. Here, in the comfort of my room, reading the words he has written, I learn about him—his family, his passion for the law, his favorite books.
His words linger, long after I’ve finished reading them, the remnants of our conversation on the Malecón imprinted in my mind. Despite having traveled abroad with my parents, I’ve seen very little of Cuba outside of Havana, have limited knowledge of the struggles those outside the city face. He’s right—we do live in an insular society. But what will change? How can it change?
Hours before dawn I begin crafting my own letter. I’ll give it to him when I see him again.
My hand shakes as I put the words on the page, my normally neat penmanship devolving into an unpleasant scrawl. Still, this is easier for me. It’s clear Pablo attended university, studied law—he speaks with a confidence and quick-wittedness I both admire and envy. The words I write have only ever existed for me in the pages of the books I read, shoved tightly into the recesses of my mind, uttered in the confines of my home. Women in my circle do not speak of these things in public, and in this house we no longer speak of them in private, either.
In the early morning, I pluck Montesquieu from a shelf in my father’s library. I curl up in one of the oversize chairs that has been in our family since before he or I were born, flipping through the pages until the lack of sleep becomes too much for me and my eyes shutter.
When I wake, it’s to the sound of the door opening and closing with a gentle thud, followed by light footfalls on the carpet. The smell of perfume announces her presence before I open my eyes—Beatriz’s signature scent.