One at a time students filter into the classroom, discussing their evening plans, the lesson they read. Two girls sit in the row in front of me—one of the girls is convinced her boyfriend is cheating on her, and by the details she provides, I’m inclined to agree.
Luis looks up from his desk, his gaze scanning the room—
It settles on me.
That spark is there again, the inevitability of it flaming before my eyes.
Luis glances away, the smile still on his lips and in his eyes as he calls the class to order. Today’s lesson deals with a French blockade of Cuba in the sixteenth century, and through the passion in Luis’s voice, the French corsair and the struggle of the Cuban people come to life.
The time flies as he lectures, the passion he’s expressed discussing Cuba in its modern form evident in his appreciation for its earlier history as well. It’s even more interesting for me considering I don’t know much about Cuban history before and after the narrow window of the revolution.
There’s sadness in the picture he paints of Cuba’s origins—the abuse the Taíno suffered at the hands of the Europeans who took their lands, the Spaniards’ cruelties. He speaks of Cuba’s economy, how sugar has been both savior and damnation—bringing slaves into the country to work the plantations until Cuba followed suit with the United States and abolished slavery in the late nineteenth century.
Luis doesn’t use aids when he lectures; rather, he fires questions at his students with an energy that seemingly comes more from excitement than a desire to intimidate. He isn’t still when he teaches, his hands in constant motion, his body darting back and forth in front of the green chalkboard. No one watching him teach could doubt how much he loves it, or fail to appreciate his sincerity and passion for the subject. His students are rapt before him, an impressive feat if I remember my college days correctly.
The class flies by with surprising speed, and I don’t realize it’s over until the students begin pushing back their seats, gathering their books and bags, heading for the door. I linger in the rear of the classroom while a few students approach Luis with questions, his focus intense even in this. That’s the most attractive thing about him—not the long, lean build or the mop of dark hair, the close-trimmed beard, the dark, intense eyes. It’s his passion, his intellect, his conviction.
And then the students are gone, and it’s just the two of us, a classroom of abandoned desks between us.
“So what did you think?” he asks once we’re alone.
“You were good. Really good. Knowledgeable. Engaging. I wish I’d had more professors like you when I was in college.”
There’s that smile again. “They weren’t ‘engaging’?”
“Not really. A few were, I guess. I went to a huge public university, so my courses were really full—hundreds of students in a class. It made it tough to connect. Plus, I wasn’t necessarily the most dedicated student. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up,” I joke.
I majored in communications because I enjoyed most of my classes and it seemed versatile considering I had no concrete plans for when I graduated. My father suggested I work for Perez Sugar handling public relations, but no matter how lucrative the offer was, I couldn’t convince myself to join the family fold. I love my family, but all too often these “opportunities” come with strings I’m not ready to commit to.
Our family history includes a sense of obligation. Being a Perez in Cuba meant something once—a legacy and reputation to uphold, a responsibility to never dishonor the family name. When we lost so much in the revolution and my great-grandparents and their children came to America, that obligation continued, growing into a need to establish ourselves in a society where we weren’t entirely wanted, where we had to work harder to get ahead, where we had to start over in so many ways. It’s a weighty responsibility to carry your family’s legacy in every step you take, every decision you make, and one I fear I haven’t quite measured up to.
As a Cuban woman my family expects me to cook paella with aplomb, to dress well, marry well, entertain as though everything is effortless. As someone whose family fought to immigrate to the United States, I am supposed to succeed professionally as well, to be both successful businesswoman and elegant housewife.
My grandmother understood, at least, her sense of pride and obligation measured with a healthy dose of pragmatism and love. Was this why? Because she once dared to go against her family’s wishes and follow her heart?
“And now you know?” Luis asks, his expression earnest.
I try to smile. “I wish. I’m afraid I’m still figuring it out.”
I want my life to mean something, want a job that makes me feel the way he looks when he’s teaching, something I’m passionate about that, when I die, leaves the world better than I found it. It’s a surprisingly tall order.
“There’s no shame in that,” he says.
“You’ve found it.”
Luis shrugs. “Don’t let appearances fool you. I still have my doubts, still wonder if I am doing enough, if I am on the right path. My family relies on me. I don’t want to disappoint them.”
“I know a thing or two about family expectations.” I offer a wry smile. “It’s hard being the future, everyone’s expectations riding on you, isn’t it?”
He reaches out, his fingers grazing my cheek, tucking a stray strand of hair behind my ear, before dropping his hand back to his side.
“So tell me the history of this place,” I say, my voice shaking slightly as a tingle slides beneath my skin.
Luis crosses his arms and leans against his desk, his gaze speculative. “You want the history lesson?”
“Isn’t that what I came for?”
The history lesson seems safer than anything else. I’ve felt the attraction between us building since I arrived, but I’m leaving soon, and as drawn to him as I am, getting involved in something that has no future is a terrible idea. And yet here I am.
“Is that what you came for?” Luis asks, his voice soft. He shakes his head at my silence, hiding the smile I hear in his voice with a duck of his head. “The university was founded in the early eighteenth century, was one of the first in the Americas. It was originally located in Old Havana before moving here in the early twentieth century. Batista closed the university in ’56 because he was afraid of the radicalization coming out of it. When Fidel reopened it, the university shifted focus and underwent a reformation to be more in line with revolutionary ideology.”
He almost delivers the line as though he believes in the merit of such action.
“Speaking of revolutionaries—” I take a deep breath. “Your grandmother got in touch with this woman who lives in Santa Clara. Her name is Magda, and she used to work for my family as a nanny to my grandmother and great-aunts. She might know something about my grandmother’s past. Could you drive me to Santa Clara to see her? If it’s too much, I completely understand. I can rent a car or something.”
The expression on his face gives me pause.
“Really, it’s no trouble for me to see her on my own. I know it’s a long trek.”
“It’s not the distance.” Luis is silent for a moment. “You need to be careful, Marisol.”
“Do you think it’s too dangerous to visit her?”
My great-aunts’ concerns come back to me, all those emails with information from the State Department filling my mind coupled with Luis’s earlier warnings. Are they right? Am I underestimating the political reality in Cuba? Am I causing problems for him, for Ana? Will I draw trouble to Magda’s doorstep?
“I don’t know,” Luis answers. “On the one hand, you’re visiting an old family friend. Of course, if this man is a sensitive subject for the regime, merely searching for him could be dangerous. That’s the challenge here. Sometimes you know you’re agitating the regime; other times you don’t realize they viewed your actions as a threat until it’s too late.”
“I don’t want to bring trouble to any of you.”
“I have a feeling taking you to visit your grandmother’s former nanny is the least of my problems,” he comments. “I’m more concerned about you. You’re as much at risk as any of us. Your American citizenship isn’t going to protect you here. The regime doesn’t look kindly toward journalists.”
“Even ones who write about the benefits of color-coordinating your closet?” I ask, my voice filled with exasperation.
“You have a voice and a platform. That’s all it takes to terrify them.”
“Would you let it all lie?” I ask.
“Me? Probably not. But that’s not exactly a vote of confidence.” He rubs his cheekbone, over the bruise there. “How much does this matter to you?”
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me, and I don’t want to end up in a Cuban prison somewhere. But it’s important to me.”
Luis sighs. “Then we’ll go see her. I was going to take you to Varadero. Santa Clara isn’t that much farther. We can go there after we go to the beach.” He hesitates. “We could stay overnight somewhere to make the trip more manageable. If that’s okay with you.”
I take a deep breath. “That sounds perfect.”
Luis takes my hand and squeezes it, our fingers threading together. He looks as conflicted as I feel even as he brings our joined hands to his lips, pressing a kiss to my knuckles.
Is this to be a fling? A few stolen moments I’ll remember fondly in a month or two—a vacation romance and nothing more? I’ve always been more of a relationship person, and as I try to picture myself sitting at a table with my friends in Miami, sipping cocktails and telling them about Luis, the image feels wrong somehow. There is nothing in his manner, either, that suggests he’s a man prone to flings, his nature more serious than careless.