Was he killed? Were they separated by the revolution? Did he leave Cuba as well? If they were divided by something trivial, why did she never mention him?
I haven’t forgotten Luis’s warning last night, but I can’t ignore the desire to attempt to track down my grandmother’s mysterious revolutionary. It feels like this, too, was a charge she gave me—a puzzle surrounding our family’s past, and now that the temptation is here, I can’t shake the desire to learn who he was and to find him.
I choose my favorite maxi dress from my suitcase, pairing it with comfortable sandals and oversize sunglasses. I pretend I don’t spend more time on my hair and makeup than normal, that I’m not preening, but I do and I am.
The ring on my hand weighs heavily, and I stare down at it, envisioning it on my grandmother’s finger, as though I’m carrying a piece of her past along with me on my journey through Cuba. I hesitate but slip the container with my grandmother’s ashes into my bag as well. Perhaps it’s a bit macabre to carry her bones with me, but who knows when inspiration will strike.
I leave the room and walk down the stairs, my steps faltering when I spot Luis at the base waiting for me. He’s wearing a white linen shirt and another pair of khaki pants. His eyelid is a spectacularly awful coloration of yellow and green, his cheekbone slightly swollen. He looks tired; maybe I wasn’t the only one who passed a sleepless night.
“Are you sure you don’t want someone to take a look at that?” I say in lieu of a greeting, gesturing toward his injured face.
His lips quirk. “I’m sure.”
“How are you feeling?” I ask, my tone gentling.
“My eye’s fine; my head, on the other hand . . .”
His expression is sheepish, so out of character with the glimpses of his personality I’ve seen so far—intense and serious—that I can’t help but grin in spite of my earlier resolve to be oh-so-stoic and proper.
“It was strong rum,” I concede. My own head is fuzzy, the daylight shining through the windows in the entryway a little too bright.
“Yes, it was.” His gaze drifts over my appearance. “Are you ready?”
“I am.” I glance around the room. “Is your grandmother here?”
“No. She usually goes to the market in the mornings to buy food. My mother went with her.”
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“A couple hours, maybe?” A faint smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “She likes to visit with everyone while she’s buying groceries. They all love her.” His smile disappears. “Let me guess, you want to ask her about the letters you found.”
“So despite what I told you, you’re still determined to find this man.”
“I’m not going to do anything to put your grandmother at risk, but if she knows something, surely answering my questions wouldn’t be dangerous.”
“Are you always this curious?”
He says it like it’s not a compliment.
“I don’t know. I guess. Besides, this isn’t some stranger we’re talking about. This is my grandmother, the woman who raised me. How can I not take this opportunity to learn more about her? Who knows when I’ll have the opportunity to come to Cuba again; if I’ll have the opportunity to come to Cuba again.”
These are uncertain times for both of our governments, and decades of Cuban-American relations are changing on a dime.
Luis shakes his head in resignation. “If you’d like, we can hit up the major sites today and see where we end up. My grandmother will be here when we return. This article you’re writing—what kind of tips are you looking for?”
The article has been the last thing on my mind since Ana handed me that box.
“A mix, really. Tourist spots. Things that are off the beaten path.”
I can see him turning over the expression in his mind. There’s that look again, as though I’ve amused him. I can’t tell if Luis Rodriguez likes me or is vaguely appalled.
“We could start with the Malecón,” he says. “It’s better at night if you want the full effect, though. That’s when everyone comes out. By day, it’s not much to see.”
The Malecón—five miles of seawall and promenade separating Havana from the Caribbean Sea—has been on the top of my must-see list after hearing about it from my grandmother. It was one of her favorite places in Havana.
I used to stand at the edge of the water and look out at the ocean. You could see all manner of things when you stared into that wide expanse of blue, Marisol. The world felt limitless, as though it was ours for the taking.
After reading the letters and learning what the Malecón meant to her and her lover, about their first date there, I now understand a bit more why the spot was so dear to her.
“Do you have a list of places where you’re considering spreading your grandmother’s ashes?” Luis asks. “We could tackle those first if you’d like, then do more tourist sites.”
“I’m still working on that. I hoped I’d get a feel for the city. I thought something might speak to me.”
I expect amusement in his gaze, but he simply nods as though he understands, as if family means as much to him as it does to me.
“Well, why don’t you let me play tour guide, and if there’s anything you want to see along the way, we can take a detour?” Luis suggests.
He holds his hand out to me, and I know he’s only being polite, but my nerves reappear, the tension in my body returning with a vengeance. I give him my hand, our palms connecting, our fingers threading together, and a new kind of energy—excitement and anticipation—enters my body as he leads me down the cracked steps and onto the sidewalk, into the vintage Buick, and out into Havana.
We leave Miramar and drive to Old Havana, the part of the city that’s most frequently seen in tourist photographs and iconic images. Here the buildings have retained much of their original state, the architecture harkening back to a time when Spanish influence played a defining role in the island’s development, when Cuba was the jewel in Spain’s imperial crown. Many of the buildings are in a state of disrepair, but others have been lovingly, painstakingly restored, and it’s clear why tourists name this as one of the top sights to see in Havana.
“In the eighties, this neighborhood was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” Luis explains. “There’s a movement in place to preserve many of the buildings, but it hasn’t been easy. Most Cubans aren’t necessarily historians by nature.”
It strikes me as surprising, considering exiled Cubans are intrinsic historians. They collect faded photographs, draw maps of Havana neighborhoods from memory, pass down family recipes and traditions as though they’re sacrosanct. So much of our history is oral, a by-product of Castro’s unwillingness to allow families to take anything but their memories with them when they left Cuba.
“Why?” I pull out my notebook and pen from my bag, and a soft chuckle escapes his lips.
“Practicality, I suppose. There’s a luxury in historiography most Cubans lack. They’re too occupied with surviving in the present to spend their time living in the past. Plus, there’s the added difficulty of how much the narrative of the past has been shaped for them and how difficult it is to get honest information out of the regime.
“It’s a real problem because documents that have been around for centuries—marriage records, birth records—are disappearing. We don’t have the resources, or enough national interest, to properly preserve historical documents. Our history disappears a bit more each day, and I fear people won’t realize how much we’ve lost until it’s too late.”
“Are there efforts to restore these documents?”
“There are several programs in place within the academic community, but it’s a massive undertaking. Hell, getting bread in Cuba can be a massive undertaking.”
We pass by a bright yellow scooter as Luis navigates into a parking spot.
I turn my attention away from Luis to my notebook, jotting down my impression of Old Havana, of the ease with which tourists can get around, for the article I’ll eventually write. When all is said and done, my weeklong trip to Havana will be condensed into a two-thousand-word article to be read on flights and in airports by bleary-eyed travelers.
I’m surprised by how busy the streets are, full of tourists and locals alike. The tourists stick out—their shoes new compared to the ones the Cubans wear, cameras in hand, their heads tilted up to take in their surroundings, the beautiful buildings looming around them.
At the moment, most of them are speaking languages other than English, but no doubt that will change as more Americans take advantage of the available visa exceptions and if those exceptions eventually disappear altogether, allowing free American tourist travel.
“Have you noticed more tourists now that travel restrictions with the United States have eased?”
With each question, the tension inside me lessens. I can get through a day with him as long as I focus on the sites before us and not his tanned forearms, the pride in his voice, the sharp intelligence in his words. He’s an impressive man, his competence and confidence undeniably seductive.
Luis Rodriguez belongs to my grandmother’s time rather than mine, and for someone whose life has been steeped in nostalgia, his manner calls to me. He’s a throwback to an era when men were gentlemen, and that alone is a powerful lure.
Married. He’s married, Marisol.
“We used to get a steady stream of tourism from the rest of the world, but now there’s definitely an increase,” he answers. “The demographics are changing, too. There were Americans before, of course, but more of a trickle. And many were Cuban Americans.”
“It’s going to change things when relations open up even more.”
“Yes. It will.” He tilts his head, leaning toward me, his voice lowering. The scent of his soap—clean and strong—fills my nostrils. “Once again, Cuba is on the precipice of another change, and we’re all holding our breaths to see what, if anything, will come of it.”