Beatriz and I stood on the other side of the door, our ears pressed to the wood, listening as Alejandro and our father fought that fateful day in his study after the attack on the palace. I know my brother has killed in his private war for Cuba’s future—does he dream of the faces of the lives he took? Does he wonder if they had families—wives, children?
Beatriz and I have never spoken about what we overheard that day. Speaking words gives them an unimaginable power, and we’re full up on horrible things at the moment.
Alejandro curses beneath his breath.
“What are you doing here?” I ask again, my tone gentler.
“I need to speak to Beatriz.”
“Beatriz needs to be more careful. I caught her in Father’s study. If it had been someone else who saw her rifling through his desk . . .”
Alejandro lets out another oath. “I’ll talk to her. Tell her to be more careful.”
He’s the only one she listens to, and even that isn’t saying much.
“How much longer is this going to continue?” I ask, sagging against the wall.
“What do you mean?”
“Aren’t you tired? Don’t you want to come home?” I reach out, grabbing his arm, searching his eyes for the brother I’ve known for nineteen years.
Pain stares back at me.
“How can I? What am I supposed to do?”
“We’re your family. We love you.”
“Do they love me? Perhaps you do. And Beatriz, and Isabel, and Maria. But our parents? He threw me out.”
“You tried to kill the president,” I whisper. “What was he supposed to do?”
“He doesn’t. They don’t. What you’re trying to do—this system you want to destroy—is everything to them. It’s our heritage.”
“That’s not something to be proud of.”
“Not to you, but it is to them. The things you revile are the things they seek to maintain.”
He sighs, his expression haggard. “You think I don’t know that? That I don’t see that there is little chance for us to be anything other than natural enemies?”
“It’s just politics,” I argue.
“No, it’s not. Not anymore. It’s a part of me now. I can’t bury it and I can’t destroy it. I can’t go back to being the pampered prince who was set to inherit a sugar empire forged in other people’s blood and sweat. I can’t.” He pushes off the wall, frustration etched all over his face. “Tell Beatriz I’ll meet her here tomorrow at noon.”
“I can’t wait any longer. I meant what I said earlier—that guy is no good for you. Stay away from him.” He leans forward, embracing me in a quick hug. His body is much slighter than I remember. What has he been eating? Where has he been living? How is he surviving on his own?
He releases me abruptly, turning away, his strides lengthening with each step away from me. It hurts more than I thought it would to watch my own brother nearly run away from me, and minutes pass before I’m able to move again, standing on the pavement between the mansion that feels a bit like a mausoleum and the brother who seeks to tear it down piece by piece.
Weeks pass, my brother absent once more, my life a cycle of ordinary events interspersed with life-changing moments with Pablo. Whatever Pablo does for the revolutionaries, he steals into the city like a thief in the night, providing us with hours together before he’s gone again. There’s no rhythm to his schedule, at least none I can see, and while I could likely search for a pattern in the news of the day, there are some things I am unwilling to examine too closely. Sometimes he is in Havana for a few days at a time and we are able to see each other once or twice; other times I can get away for a few moments and that is all.
The letters have become a method of keeping him with me when we are forced to part. They exist between dates on the Malecón, two times when he took me to the cinema, the occasional furtive meal.
There’s a tension in our interactions together that is stripped away when we write each other, an intimacy to the act of passing our most private thoughts to each other, creating pages and pages of familiarity. I turn his words over in my head when we are apart, inventing imaginary conversations between us, carrying him with me throughout the day, including him in parts of my life the flesh-and-blood man would never be allowed to experience. Our romance plays out as much in our letters as the few times we are able to see each other, so much so that at times the two blend together—the man who clasps my hand and walks beside me along the shore and the version I’ve conjured in my mind from ink and paper. As greedy as I am for his words, though, there are some worries they can’t soothe.
It seems fair that my joy would be tempered by the reality of the situation, as though fate has stepped in and ordered this in a more equitable fashion. My family will never accept him. His friends will likely never accept me. Unless Batista falls, Pablo has no place in Havana. If Batista falls and the rebels succeed, what then? They have declared war on our way of life, on the wealthy, decried the position of families like mine, have urged the Cuban people to rise up against those in power. They have caused a rift in my family I now worry will never heal.
“You’re quiet today,” my best friend, Ana, says, sipping a soda across from me. We’re having lunch outside at a restaurant off the Plaza Vieja. We’ve been next-door neighbors my entire life; only nine months separate us. Our parents are cordial with one another, social contemporaries, but our friendship has developed organically, two dark-haired girls playing beside each other in the backyard, plotting adventures within the confines of the high walls that contain us. My siblings are my friends because we are joined by birth, the bond strong and unbreakable, but there is freedom in having a friend with whom I can be myself, without the expectations and strings of family dynamics and drama.
“Sorry,” I reply. “I hope I’m not poor company.” We have the sort of friendship where there’s no need to fill the silence; we’re content just being in each other’s company, but I fear today I am stretching the limits of that. “I have a lot on my mind.”
Alejandro came by the kitchen the other day and met with Beatriz. He was always a favorite with the staff; do they suspect his real motives for staying away? Do they support his cause? Their lives would likely be better under Fidel.
“You’re not poor company. Is it your brother?” Ana asks, sympathy in her voice.
My brother and Pablo.
With each day, each moment, I find myself falling for Pablo more and more. I’m in awe of him, I think. His convictions, his passion, his intelligence. He’s so determined, so driven, his dedication admirable even if we disagree on the best direction for Cuba’s future.
I’ve always told Ana everything, but I can’t tell her the whole truth—not about my brother and certainly not about Pablo. I want to protect her, yes, but I’m also afraid she’ll condemn me for getting involved with one of them. Her family isn’t as close to the president as mine is, but still. Imaginary walls are forming in Cuba, running through families, marriages, friendships.
“My brother came by the house the other day,” I answer. “He doesn’t look good.”
I’ve told Ana a different version of the story my parents have floated around, a bit closer to the truth—that Alejandro and my father had a falling-out, prompting him to leave the house. Perhaps she suspects the rest of it and is merely too good of a friend to say anything. Who knows? I have far too many secrets these days to unravel them all.
Her eyes widen. “Were your parents home?”
“No, they’re in the country. My father’s dealing with a strike in one of his factories. My mother’s playing lady of the manor, sipping coffee and sitting on the veranda.”
“I wish my parents would go to the country,” she comments. “They invited Arturo Acosta over for dinner tonight, and I’m fairly certain they have nefarious intentions.”
“Still trying to get you engaged?”
Her lip curls. “With fervor. I envy you the older sisters. It would be nice to have some pressure taken away.”
“I don’t think Isabel is far from getting engaged,” I comment.
“Things seem pretty serious between her and Alberto.”
“Your mother is going to have a fit.”
My mother has all sorts of problems with her daughters—one is in love with a rebel, the other is dating someone who doesn’t have the right last name, and Beatriz is, well, Beatriz. At this rate, Maria’s the only one who won’t turn out to be a massive disappointment, although she still has a few years in which to change that.
I make a face. “Probably. Although, if one of us—”
The square explodes into a fury of noise.
I freeze, my fingers closed tightly around my fork, my hand in midair. It takes a moment for my brain to reconcile those noises—firecrackers, cars backfiring, gunshots . . .
“Get down,” Ana shouts, pushing me out of my stupor. Around us people yell and scream, the sound of crying filling the square.
I huddle under the table, my arms around Ana, praying one of the stray bullets won’t hit us, that they won’t come over here and shoot us.
What has happened to our city?
As quickly as it begins, it stops, a deathly silence descending over the block. My body quaking, I look out from under the table. My stomach clenches. People are on the floor, hiding behind cars. Food has spilled from the tables, a stray piece of crusty bread lying on the ground near my face, wine staining the pavement in a deep red. The busy city has stilled; there is no sign of the gunmen. I fight the impulse to run, my gaze still searching.
Will the police come and tell us it’s all clear?