Married, Marisol. He’s married.
We drive down a street in Vedado, the old buildings surrounding us capped in the sky’s golden rays.
“Why don’t we make one more stop?” Luis suggests. “You can’t miss the sunset over the Malecón.”
That sounds . . . romantic.
“It’s getting late,” I answer.
And I’m enjoying myself far more than I should. I’m ashamed of my reaction to him, the ease with which I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from my purpose here—finding my grandmother’s final resting place. I want to talk to Ana, to learn more about my grandmother’s mysterious love. And at the same time—
I don’t want this day to end.
I’ve avoided the topic of his wife all afternoon, and he hasn’t brought her up, either, but she exists between us regardless, her body taking up space on the car’s bench seat—the disappearing inches between his hand and my leg, his shoulder and mine, the gap between the whisper of my dress floating in the breeze and the clothes that drape his tanned limbs.
I slide my palms down the fabric of my dress, attempting to release some of the nervous energy that runs from my wrist to fingertip. The water peeks out between buildings, the sky already in transition, and I want to sit on the mighty seawall and get the full effect.
“Are you sure?” he asks. “We could swing by for a minute. It’s not something you want to miss.”
I hesitate, torn between the need to play it safe and the desire to indulge. Just for a moment. There’s a boundary between us I absolutely will not cross, no matter what. So what’s the harm?
“Maybe just a minute.”
Luis nods as though either answer I could have given him would have been satisfactory, but I don’t miss the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, or the warmth that enters his eyes. My stomach clenches.
He finds a spot to park the car, coming around the side and opening the door for me.
The city vibrates with energy now that the temperature has cooled, people hanging out their windows, lounging on balconies and stoops, calling to one another with good-natured teasing. It’s raucous and beautiful, and more than anything, I want to belong here, want this city to become a part of me.
It takes us a while to cross the street. Luis gestures at drivers, tugging me along as we maneuver through the lanes. He stops when a car comes too close, his body between me and the vehicle, shielding me from the oncoming traffic. The vintage cars drive past, the smell of diesel pungent, the roar of their engines in my ears. In this snapshot of Cuba, I see it through my grandmother’s eyes, as she remembered it.
At night, the Malecón comes alive.
But there are cracks in the image, and not just the ones on the path beneath our feet, the gaps freckling the surface. It’s easy to spot the tourists; the locals approach them selling cigars, scantily clad women offering something more. It’s a stark reminder that this isn’t the country my grandmother remembered, that underneath the historic beauty there’s a sense of desperation.
No one approaches us; perhaps they identify Luis as one of their own. This piece of Havana isn’t for the tourists; rather, we’re allowed to share their part of the city however briefly.
This is the beating heart of Havana.
Teenagers congregate, laughing and joking around; young couples stroll hand in hand, their walk punctuated by the occasional kiss. Ice cream vendors pepper the landscape. Farther afield, people fish off the seawall. One day will they tear down the beautiful old buildings and replace them with high-rise condos that sell for hundreds of dollars a square foot, touting this unparalleled view of the Caribbean?
We walk down the promenade, our shoulders almost touching. Luis adjusts his stride for the difference in our height. I barely reach his chin.
“Do you think it will change in the future?” I ask him. “If money begins pouring in and the tourists come?”
“Perhaps? We’ve learned not to look toward the future too much. It’s hard to get excited about building things when someone comes behind you and knocks them down again.”
“That sounds frustrating,” I say, knowing my words aren’t enough.
He laughs, the sound devoid of humor. “To say the least.”
“How long has the Malecón been part of Havana?” I ask, changing tack.
“They began construction in 1901.”
I can easily see Luis standing before a classroom of students as he gives me a rundown on the site’s history, can equally imagine his students hanging on his every word. I pull out my notebook and write down a few of the facts he shares with me. Once he’s finished speaking, he gestures toward an open space. “Do you want to sit for a moment?”
I nod, following him to the edge. He offers me his hand and I take it, my fingers curling around his as I sit down on the seawall, my legs hanging over the ocean.
He releases me and lowers himself next to me.
“During the day, it’s hot,” Luis says. “You still see people here, but it changes at night. The temperature cools, the sun recedes. It becomes—”
“Magic,” I finish for him, embarrassed by the emotion in my voice. This is the Cuba my grandmother described to me.
A man strums a guitar in the background. Luis’s hand is on the stone inches away, his naked fingers long and tapered, his nails neatly trimmed, his skin a few shades darker than mine.
Those inches feel like a mile—or ninety.
His head is bent, his gaze not on the sunset, on those beautiful colors, but on our hands and the distance between them.
My fingers itch to move forward; my palm is rooted to the stone.
“Is there anyone waiting for you back in the United States?” he asks, his voice low.
My heart skips and sputters in my chest.
It takes a moment for me to speak, and when I do, the word is little more than a whisper, drowned out by the crash of sea against rock, a group of musicians playing several yards away, cars whizzing past us.
But I know he hears me.
His hand moves.
An inch. Two.
His pinkie rests against mine, his finger grazing mine. It stays there, his response to my answer—
* * *
• • •
We don’t speak the rest of the evening, from the time we depart the Malecón to the moment Luis leaves me in the entryway of his family’s house with a nod, taking the stairs two at a time before he disappears entirely.
I stare after him—is he going to see his wife?—more than a little ashamed by my behavior this afternoon. Nothing happened, but the desire was there, simmering below the surface. There will be no more tours of Havana with Luis.
I walk up the stairs and into the guest room, setting my bag on the bed and removing the container with my grandmother’s ashes. I place the makeshift urn on the desk before heading off in search of Ana. I find her in a tiny room off the kitchen area, seated on a couch in what was once probably a small salon in their grand home and now serves as their only living area. The silk furnishing is faded and worn, the fabric sagging and stretched thin in places, but it’s obvious it used to be a beautiful piece.
Ana smiles as I walk into the room, gesturing to the empty chair across from her.
“You’ve returned. Did Luis show you Havana? Did you have a good time? I’m sorry I wasn’t able to go with you, but today is my day for the market, and honestly, the girls never get the good vegetables,” she says with a smile.
I assume “the girls” are Luis’s mother and his wife.
“Tonight we have ropa vieja,” she adds.
The mention of the dish reminds me of Luis’s discussion earlier about the rationing system in Cuba and the challenges most Cubans face. The meal, which translates to “old clothes,” is one of my favorites—shredded beef seasoned with peppers and garlic in a stew-like creation that’s served over rice.
“It was wonderful to see the city,” I say, rattling off the list of places we went, wondering if my face is as flushed as I feel.
Ana pours me a cafecito from a set on the tray in front of us. She takes a sip of the coffee, and I follow her lead.
“I’m so glad you enjoyed yourself. Now, you aren’t here to talk about Havana, are you? You opened the box.”
“You have questions.”
“Yes. Did you know my grandmother was involved with a man here in Cuba? His letters to her were in the box she buried in her backyard. I think he was a revolutionary. Did you know about him?”
“I didn’t know him. Elisa and I were best friends. We told each other everything. But with him, it was different; she talked about him a bit—not by name, but the occasional allusion.” She sighs. “Those were dangerous times. Batista’s punishments were merciless. She likely kept her young man a secret to protect both him and the people she loved. I knew she was in trouble, though. And I knew she was in pain.” Ana takes another sip of her coffee. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything. What was his name? What happened between them? Was he really involved with Castro? Is he still here in Cuba?”
“I’ll tell you what I know, because she wanted you to have the box, the letters. She wanted you to know this part of her life.”
“Then why didn’t she just tell me? I don’t understand why she never mentioned him in all of the stories she told me about Cuba.”
“Perhaps it hurt her to talk about him. And there was probably shame, too. Those were polarizing times for the Cuban people; families were torn apart by political disagreements—including Elisa’s.”
“My great-uncle was disowned for opposing Batista, wasn’t he?”
Even now, my great-uncle is a sore spot for my family.
“He was. Your great-grandfather was one of Batista’s biggest backers—whether out of expediency or true fervor, I do not know. I was too young to worry about those things. But much of the country did not share those views. There were real problems in Cuba before the revolution. There was no justice, no chance of democracy. Those of us who lived behind the gates of the grand estates in Miramar knew little of suffering. We were surrounded by people who looked like us, who had access to education, who possessed wealth. Our lives were parties and decadence, the violence somewhere in the background. But for many Cubans, those were horrible times.