“You’re smart, and you’re kind, and you’re loyal. You have faith and courage, and you push me to be better, to believe in those things, too. I want to be a man you’re proud of. A man you could love.”
I want the same things, to be someone he admires, to fight for what I believe in just as he does. He makes me want to be brave.
“I love you,” I whisper. “Always.”
Pablo takes my hand, his lips running over my naked ring finger.
“I wish you could wear my ring on your hand for everyone to see,” he says against my skin.
My heart thunders at the promise contained there. “Me, too.”
The keeping of this secret becomes progressively more difficult, a little more painful, and with each day he fights against Batista, protecting him becomes even more important.
Pablo’s fingers move to my brow, stroking there, tracing the line, sweeping down to caress my face.
“You’re worried,” he says.
There’s hardly a point in lying to him.
“I am. What happens next? Is this it?”
“This will never be it.”
“What else can there be?” I ask, my tone bleak.
“Us growing old together. Raising a family together. Watching our children have children of their own. Falling asleep beside each other at night and waking next to each other every morning.”
“Do you really think we can have that?”
“I hope so. If not, what are we fighting for?”
“How bad is it in the mountains? We hear things, but it’s impossible to know what’s real and what’s false with Batista. They say he’s censoring more and more.”
“That’s because we’re advancing. We captured one of Batista’s garrisons. At some point, morale will play a factor. His military is fighting their own countrymen, have been doing so for years now, and most of them know Batista’s not worth dying for. We’ll wear them down. And if we don’t, another group will. He has too many enemies to survive this.”
“How bad is it?” I repeat.
“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want it touching you. I get through the nights in the mountains by imagining you here, safe in the city. Imagining our future together.” Pablo grimaces. “War is never anything other than bad, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.”
“I worry about you,” I confess. “All the time. Wonder where you are, what you’re doing, if you’re alive. It’s so strange to go about my day as though everything is normal, to not be able to tell anyone about you, while I feel like half my heart has been torn from my chest.” I take a deep breath. “I worry something will happen to you and I won’t know considering we’re little more than secrets in each other’s lives.”
My brother is a conduit of sorts between us, my ears within Cuba’s rebellion, but his whereabouts are equally difficult to predict.
Pablo squeezes my hand. “If anything happens to me while I’m gone, Guillermo will find you. It won’t come to that, though, because I’m coming home to you, Elisa. Batista himself couldn’t keep me away.”
“Where will you go?”
“Che is marching toward Santa Clara. He and his men plan to make a stand against Batista’s forces.”
“And you will join them.”
“Are you ever afraid?” I can’t imagine the risks he takes, the dangers he faces.
“I was with Latour in the Sierra Maestra at the end of July.” He pushes up on his elbow, the sheet falling to his waist, my gaze dropping to his lean chest before returning to his eyes. “We fought the Cuban army. Men died beside me, their bodies crumpling to the ground as their blood spilled over the mountains. Latour was killed. Fidel came to bolster our forces, but we were already surrounded by Batista’s army. Fidel had to negotiate a cease-fire—try to, at least—in order to give us a chance to escape. We were a breath away from being wiped out, the revolution, everything we’ve fought for over. I was afraid then.”
“Would that be such a bad thing? If the cease-fire had held? We’ve been fighting for what? Over five years? What has the rebellion accomplished other than chipping away at us? Batista’s still in power.”
“He won’t be forever. What else is there to do but fight? There is nothing I wouldn’t do for Cuba, nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice.”
Pablo climbs out of bed, walking to where his clothes lie in a pile on the floor, where I stripped them from his body, a sliver of light from the open window highlighting his nakedness. My body is suddenly cold without his warmth.
I never considered that the war would make monsters out of all of them, but I fear it now. There’s a danger in the way we live, in blithely continuing on as though nothing is wrong with the society we’ve created, but there’s also danger in the fervor that fills him, the emotion driving all of the bearded ones.
And suddenly, I am very afraid.
“I love you,” Pablo says, his voice fierce.
I close my eyes.
“I love you, too.”
I’ve never told a man I wasn’t related to that I loved him before today, never had a man say those words to me. It should feel like the beginning of everything, but it sounds unmistakably like good-bye.
Pablo reaches into his trouser pocket, pulling out a tiny box.
He flips open the box.
His voice is hoarse. “It was my grandmother’s.”
The ring is beautiful and delicate, the diamonds arranged in a vintage shape.
I swallow, my mouth going dry at the sight of that ring, my heart thundering in my chest.
It’s fast. Much too fast.
He’s leaving. Revolution is here, knocking on the door.
Pablo swallows, a tremor in his voice. “I don’t know what kind of life we’ll have when this is over. I probably won’t be able to give you the life you’re used to. But I love you. Always. I can promise you that.”
Tears slide down my face. He slides the ring on my finger.
“Come back to me,” I say.
I check us into a resort on the beach, Luis beside me as I speak to the woman behind the desk, curiosity in her gaze.
We lack the familiarity of longtime couples, and it’s impossible to miss the tension between us. Luis shifts from side to side, his hands sunk deep in the pockets of his trousers, his eyes trained to a spot on the wall, near—but not quite meeting—the receptionist’s gaze.
I glance around us—we’re surrounded by couples, families, all clearly tourists. A man stands off to the side, a folded copy of Granma in his hand. While obviously a local, he definitely doesn’t look like a guest.
In the research I did before coming to Cuba, I read about the more tragic parts of life here—the flourishing sex trade, tourists preying on the sheer desperation of Cuban men and women who can earn more in a night selling themselves than they will in a year working for the state. Does she think that’s what this is? That my expensive clothes and bags, the fat wad of CUCs in my hand, mean I’m here taking advantage of Luis?
I finish the transaction quickly, my gaze now resting on the same invisible point that draws Luis’s attention, my heart pounding.
We are an unlikely match, and I have no clue how to bridge the differences between us. I know a thing or two about Cuban pride—is he ashamed that I’m the one paying for the room, that the differences between us are so vast? Will his friends judge him for taking up with a rich American, view him as a sellout or me as his winning lottery ticket?
And how could I explain this to my family? Would they consider Luis a communist because he stayed behind, because his family has served the regime in different capacities? I can’t imagine him in my world, and I certainly don’t belong in his. Where does that leave us?
Luis carries my bag and his own, following my lead as we walk through the lobby, heading toward the room the woman assigned us. We step into the elevator—blissfully empty—and I stare down at my feet, doubts running through my mind.
I should have gotten us two rooms. This has “bad idea” written all over it. We barely know each other. I came here to lay my grandmother to rest, not to have a fling, however much I gravitate toward him. This is happening too quickly, gaining speed with each moment we spend together, with each kiss—
“Marisol.” Luis takes my hand, his fingers stroking my wrist. “For most of my life, it was against the law for Cubans to stay in hotels like this. Now we can, but only the smallest percentage of Cubans can actually afford them. I’m sorry if I’m a bit”—he pauses as though he’s searching for the right word—“uncomfortable,” he finishes. “It’s not you; it’s simply the way of things.”
I can’t imagine the lack of freedom he describes, not to mention the feeling that Cubans are treated as though their country isn’t even theirs, as though their wants, their needs, their lives are subservient to the foreigners who come and go at will, when they themselves have little to no control over their own movements.
“I’ve never done this before,” he adds.
“No American tourists?” I ask, my heart thundering in my chest as I struggle to keep my tone light.
“No tourists at all.” He leans into me, his lips brushing my cheekbone. “This means something to me.”
“This means something to me, too,” I reply.
The elevator pings, and the door slides open. Luis holds his arm out while I walk into the hall, following the sign to our room.
There it is.
I fumble with the key, my fingers shaking as I try to turn it in the lock. Once. Twice. The key scrapes against the metal, my palms damp.
Luis steps up, his chest against my back, his hand covering mine. He takes the key from me, slipping it into the lock, turning it in one fluid motion.
Goose bumps rise over my skin.