Let him think this is a whim, nothing more. Don’t let him see my heart is breaking.
“Elisa, what can I do for you?”
“I have a favor to ask,” I answer, nausea rolling around in my stomach.
A brief look of annoyance crosses his face, but he waves me in. “Come in.”
I close the door behind me, crossing the Persian rug, and take a seat in one of the antique chairs opposite his desk. The corsair, captured in yet another painting, stares down at me from his place of prominence behind my father. This iteration of him is more dour than the one in the upstairs hallway. They say the corsair was once threatened with the gallows; perhaps this portrait was captured around that time. I now have an uncomfortable familiarity with men who look as though they are on the precipice of hanging by one means or another.
My father leans back in his chair, studying me over his black-rimmed reading glasses. “What do you need?”
My father is an imposing man in both his public and private life. He’s never been cruel, but he’s not the sort of man who invites confidences. Still, I’ve always believed him to be fair. He must know Batista’s actions are wrong. I’ve never viewed him as a blind supporter, but rather as a man willing to do anything to survive, a father and husband willing to sacrifice his integrity to protect his family. I take a deep breath. “I have a friend. He’s in La Cabaña. Can you secure his release?”
I have the novel experience of seeing true shock on my father’s face. He gapes at me, his mouth hanging open like a fish. If I could have avoided this, if there were anyone else I could ask, I would have, but my brother is right, in this I need someone with the kind of power our father wields.
“What did you just say?” he asks, a knifelike edge to his voice.
There is a delicate balance to this, the art of giving away enough to convince him to intervene, but not so much that he will lock me away in a convent somewhere. “My friend is being held in the city. No trial, no charges.” It’s a struggle, but I fight to keep any emotion from my voice, to stick to a dry recitation of the facts. My father will not be swayed by sentiment, and in this case, I fear any affection I show for Pablo will condemn him rather than save him. “He’s innocent,” I add hastily.
The lie slips out with far too much ease.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
“He’s a lawyer, a good man. From a good family.” I swallow. “Please.”
My father blinks, momentarily in a stupor. “You want me to do what?”
“They will kill him. They’re probably already torturing him. I thought perhaps—” A tremor racks my body. “I thought you could use some of your connections to see if he could be released.”
“How can you ask me this?” my father sputters.
I reach now for some thread of courage I didn’t know I possessed, the same courage I admire in those around me—my brother, Pablo, Beatriz.
“Because it’s the right thing to do. Because he’s a good man who has been put in an untenable position. He hasn’t done anything wrong. You know what’s happening in Cuba, how paranoid Batista is. You raised us to know right from wrong. What Batista is doing is wrong.”
“Not you, too.” A wealth of sorrow fills my father’s voice.
My breath hitches.
He’s silent for far too long. When he does finally speak, I am surprised by the fear flickering in his eyes, stamped all over his face. We never talk of Alejandro, but now I see a glimpse of the weight of my father’s loss.
My parents have always loomed larger than life—my mother so glamorous and elegant, my father exuding power and authority. He looks smaller sitting behind his desk, as though recent events have overwhelmed and diminished him. It is a terrifying thing to see fear in your parents’ eyes.
“What is your role in this, Elisa? Are you involved with the rebels? Is this your brother’s doing?” He whispers the question as though the walls have ears. Perhaps they do these days in Havana.
“No. Not at all.” I force a smile, praying he believes me. “He’s just a friend. Really more of a friend of a friend. Nothing more. I have nothing to do with the rebels.”
“Is this some boyfriend of yours?” His face reddens, his expression turning thunderous.
“No, r-really, just a friend. Someone who was caught up in something.” My voice shakes as I tell my father his name, as I shatter the secret I’ve kept for so long. “He has friends from the university, and their activities have drawn Batista’s notice. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
My father studies me quietly, and when I think all hope is lost, he sighs. “You need to be careful. I am not oblivious to the goings-on in this house—your sister’s relationship with that boy Alberto, or Beatriz—” His voice trails off. “Batista is under a great deal of pressure right now. He had hoped the election would satisfy the people, but it has not.”
“Because the people know it was little more than a sham,” I mutter.
My father’s gaze sharpens, his hand hitting the desk with a loud rap. “Do not think that because we live like this, you are exempt from Batista’s gaze. You are correct. He is afraid, and a man who fears his people is a dangerous one indeed.”
“How can you—”
“Support him? Please. Spare me the youthful condemnation. How do you think I keep this family safe? Do not come for my help and then cast stones at me for the manner in which I am able to deliver it. The rebels abhor abuses of power, but do not presume that they wouldn’t do the exact same thing as Batista if given the chance.”
He removes his glasses, rubbing his face, his shoulders hunched over, as though he is tired of this conversation, tired of Batista and Cuban politics.
“I will make a few calls,” he says after a pause, “but I cannot offer any promises. If I do this, though, you will make me one—whatever exists between you and this boy, you will stop it. Immediately. I have a duty to protect your mother, your sisters, and I will not shield you if your actions endanger this family. You will not see this boy again. You will not do anything to bring us shame, to attract Batista’s ire—am I understood? If you do, you will no longer be my daughter.”
I clear my throat, pushing past the unshed tears, the fear, the panic, the shame.
I’m dismissed with a curt nod and a clipped, “You may go now.”
My legs shake, a prayer running through my mind as I walk to the door.
Please save him.
Ana pours us each another cup of coffee once she’s finished her story; between the espresso and the secrets, I doubt I’ll sleep much tonight. I had hoped Ana would have the answers I sought, but it seems like my grandmother kept her lover a secret even from her closest friend. All I know is that my grandmother loved a revolutionary, that they were separated when Batista threw him in prison. Was he ever released?
“I’m sorry I don’t know what happened to him,” Ana says. “Elisa told me he was a friend who had gotten into trouble, nothing more. When I asked her about it weeks later, she changed the subject. Your great-aunts may be able to fill in the rest of it.”
If they do know more about my grandmother’s past, I’m surprised they haven’t shared it by now.
“There is someone else who might be able to help,” Ana adds.
“Your grandmother’s nanny.”
My grandmother and great-aunts spoke of her fondly, but given the age difference between them I never considered the possibility that she would still be alive and in Havana.
“Yes. She’s ninety-four now, but her memory is still quite good. She lives in Santa Clara with her niece.”
Excitement fills me. “How far is that?”
“By car? A few hours or so depending on the conditions. Luis could take you on one of his days off, if you’d like.”
“Are you able to reach her?” I ask, momentarily sidestepping the issue of spending even more time alone with her grandson. Her married grandson.
“It’s still early—I can call her tonight. We haven’t spoken lately, but I make a point of checking in with her every so often. I can see if she’ll meet with you before you leave; I’m sure she will. Your grandmother and great-aunts were like daughters to her. Especially Elisa.”
The impression Beatriz and Maria gave me when I discussed this trip with them was that they’d lost touch over time, but hopefully Magda can fill in some of the blanks of what my grandmother was like as a child.
“Thank you. I really appreciate all you’ve done to help me.”
“Of course. Elisa would have done the same for me. Any of your great-aunts would have.”
The loyalty in her voice is so absolute, so indelible, that I’m taken aback by its intensity, surprised their friendship withstood a separation of nearly sixty years. Does she ever feel as though they left her behind? Does she envy the freedom they found on the other side of the sea?
Ana Rodriguez operates in both spheres—the before and the after—and while I struggle to understand this new iteration of Cuba, there are similarities between it and the one that developed ninety miles away. The same inherent sense of pride, the determination to be successful, the hard work, the entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, the pragmatism.
“Has it been hard?” I ask. “Seeing the changes in Cuba?”
I’m eager for this piece of Cuba she gives me. I grew up on the stories of those who left, of exile, of loss, and yet, I never understood it from the other perspective—those who were left behind, who chose to remain, whose lives were shaped by the whims and policies of governments, by ideology.
“Yes.” She sighs, taking a sip of her cafecito. “The story of Cuba is one of struggles and strife. When we were girls, we were kept from most of it, but the edges seeped through, crawling over the gates. Batista was a harsh president. He loved sugar, loved the money that flowed into the country from overseas, but he didn’t love the Cuban people. He wanted to be king over a people who didn’t want to be ruled.”