She gives me a sad smile. “Ah yes. But we didn’t know then, you see. We had hope. So much hope. Remember, Fidel did not start out as a communist, merely an agent for change, one we desperately needed. He was going to bring freedom to Cuba. Democracy. Elections. He was going to be our future. He promised us a revolution, and he delivered it.”
“But at what cost?” I ask.
“Terrible things rarely happen all at once,” she answers. “They’re incremental, so people don’t realize how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. He swore up and down that he wasn’t a communist. That he wanted democracy. Some believed him. Others didn’t.”
“Believe? Support Fidel then?”
“No. But what did I know or care about politics? I lived in a world of balls and parties, days at the club, lounging by the pool with friends, shopping for hats and dresses. Batista, Fidel, it was all the same to me. Or so I thought.
“When Batista fled the country, I began to care. Before then, the revolution was contained to whispers between my parents. And then the whispers spread to our dining room table.”
“Did your parents consider leaving?”
“They did and dismissed it. They were convinced Cubans would come to their senses and Fidel would fall. ‘It’s only a matter of time,’ my father would say.”
Ana’s gaze drifts to the room that has clearly fallen on hard times, the lingering trace of its former grandeur a stark reminder of all her family has lost.
“No one realized how far this would go. We thought Batista was the worst we would experience, but when Fidel nationalized our rum business, things began to change.” She takes another sip of her coffee, her gaze on some memory I cannot see. “They came to our home one day with a letter saying the company was now the property of the Cuban government. Just like that. A hundred years of labor, of dreams, our legacy erased with one piece of paper.”
“I’m so sorry.”
I’m not even sure why I’m apologizing or what I’m apologizing for other than the fact that the Perezes have managed to keep their family legacy mostly intact—or at least create a new one—whereas she has lost hers.
“It’s been a long time now,” Ana replies. “There was nothing we could do. My parents left Cuba six months later. I never saw them again. We kept in touch over the years as best we could, but it wasn’t the same.”
Even though it was a common occurrence following the revolution, it’s difficult to imagine a family being ripped apart in such a manner. There are no Perezes remaining in Cuba; we all made the crossing to the United States, claiming Miami and Palm Beach as our own as we embraced polo and dresses with colorful prints.
“If you don’t mind me asking—”
“Why did I stay?”
“Life, I suppose. In the beginning, the plan was for us to reunite in the United States. But my husband didn’t want to leave. He was a photographer, and he took many pictures of Fidel and others. It was an opportunity for him to see the revolution up close, to glimpse the men who loomed so large above all of us in their natural habitat. As an artist, it was a powerful lure.”
She takes another sip of her coffee.
“I was young. I didn’t understand the urgency, the consequences of my decision to stay. I didn’t want to leave him. I became pregnant with Luis’s father, and we had a baby and started building a life here, putting down roots in a fragile earth.
“The thing with loss is that at first, you don’t notice. You lose your favorite pair of shoes, but there is still another, and the baby needs to be fed, and your husband had a long day at work, so why worry? And when you lose the next pair of shoes, well, you’ve already lost one pair so the novelty has worn off. You’re upset for a moment because now you’ve lost two pairs, but dinner needs to be made, and when you took your ration card to get food, they were out of milk and chicken again, and who has time to worry about shoes? And this goes on for a time until you realize you’re down to your last pair and they have holes in them, the dirt from the streets covering your skin, the soles falling apart, your toes pinched, and when you’re finally able to replace them, there’s an overwhelming sense of relief, and you forget you once had twenty pairs, that once you lived like kings, and now you serve on bended knee, fighting for every inch.
“It’s poetic justice, of course. We had everything when much of Cuba had nothing. Fidel took everything away so now we all have nothing. We are all equal, you see.”
“Except for Fidel, who lived like a king,” Luis interjects, sliding into the empty seat next to me without acknowledging my presence. “And so many of his top officials who continue to do so.”
How long has he been standing there?
Luis lights a cigar, the flame a bright torch that crackles the paper. A familiar scent fills the air; my father’s abhorrence of Castro never extended to the expensive cigars he smuggled into the United States.
“All are equal, but some are more equal than others,” I muse.
Luis inclines his head toward me. “Was that an Animal Farm reference?”
A hint of what might be admiration lingers in his gaze, coupled with that same indulgent amusement I’ve come to associate with his reactions to me.
I force a smile, attempting to keep my voice light, to not draw notice to how rattled I am by his presence, how my body shifts once he’s around, my attention gravitating toward him. It seems supremely unfair that these pings of energy, these sparks flying around me, have found a target they cannot—and should not—have.
“If the hoof fits, I guess,” I joke.
A voice calls out from the kitchen for Ana. She excuses herself, leaving us alone, silence filling the room, its presence fairly screaming with discomfort.
“So you read Orwell?” Luis asks after a pregnant pause.
I shrug. “I have. I’m surprised you’ve read Orwell.”
“Why? Because I live in a communist paradise?” A smile plays on his lips.
Playful Luis is perhaps the most lethal version of all. I take a deep breath. “Partly. Everything we hear in the United States is centered on the scarcity of resources in Cuba, the banning of ones the government disagrees with on principle. Things are painted as austere.”
“I’m sure that helps with the political rhetoric on both sides,” he acknowledges. “The evils of communism and all that. And when it comes to the scarcity of resources, well, it helps the regime sell the idea that we’re all equal, that your neighbor has exactly what you have even when your neighbor is a high-ranking government official driving a luxury import.”
His voice builds with each word, growing from a murmur to something louder, stronger.
The confidence in his tone, the conviction, is as seductive as it is surprising.
My heart pounds. “You’re angry.”
There were hints of his discontent earlier, but now something has changed between us, and it feels as though the mask has fallen and he’s sharing a part of himself he normally keeps hidden away.
“‘Angry’ is the easiest emotion,” Luis replies. “You’d be surprised what people do when they’re desperate, when the dream of a society that provides for its citizens isn’t the reality.”
“People thrive regardless of their circumstances?”
“Something like that. The irony of the revolution is that it sought to eradicate capitalism, entrepreneurship, but the revolution’s greatest legacy has been the rise of a new breed of Cuban entrepreneurs. The black market thrives.”
“So where does Orwell in Cuba fit in?” I ask, returning to our original point.
He smiles faintly, his previous rancor erased. “You forget, I am a history professor.”
“A Cuban history professor. I thought Castro discouraged such activity—examining the why behind things.”
“How can we study history if we only examine the events in a vacuum? Orwell’s stocked in the National Library and others. Knowledge is not discouraged in Cuba, only acting upon that knowledge.”
“Reading is encouraged.” His lips twist, that tinge of disdain back again. “Few can afford to buy books, however, so we borrow them. My students attend the university for free, which is a great thing, but they still must pay for books, supplies, transportation, food, on limited incomes. How can we afford those things when we’re barely surviving as it is? When our ability to support ourselves is limited by the government? The legacy of modern Cuba is that we can enjoy things for a moment, but we cannot truly possess them. The country is not ours; it is merely on loan from Fidel.”
If I thought him attractive before, this conversation, the passion that animates him now, is my undoing.
“Do all Cubans think like this, speak like this?” It surprises me to hear the same thoughts fall from his lips echoed by the exiles hanging around Versailles in Miami, sipping espresso and eating pastelitos while calling for change in Cuba.
“Some do. Not enough.” His voice lowers. “Those of us who want more speak in whispers.”
Luis takes a deep breath, leaning forward. His scent fills my nostrils, and once again, we’re sharing confidences. A line of goose bumps rises over my skin. I glance away from his dark flashing eyes, his full mouth, simultaneously craving his words and wishing I could build an impenetrable wall between us.
“Existing in a constant state of uncertainty is hell,” Luis says. “This restaurant is the difference between putting meals on the table and the days when we went hungry. But how long will it last? The government controls everything.”
A curse falls from his beautiful mouth.
“This country. It has so much potential. So much possibility. But it breaks your heart every single time you dare hope for more. Fidel’s great revolution was supposed to bring us equality. Yet so many of the problems that existed before him still do.”