His silence is all the confirmation I need.
“Oh my God.”
I’m going to be sick.
“It’s not your fault,” he adds quickly. “But you’re here as a journalist—tourism article or not—and no doubt they checked up on us when they learned you would be staying with the family. Perhaps the closer inspection was all it took.” Luis rubs his jaw. “It was only a matter of time before they found out. I knew when my grandmother mentioned you would be staying with us that it might draw the regime’s attention. It was my decision to make, my risk to take. I don’t regret it for a moment.”
“I am so sorry. I never wanted to bring trouble to your family, never wanted to be a burden. I could have stayed at a hotel or—”
“No. I am tired of worrying. Tired of hiding. I don’t want to endanger my family, but at the same time I knew the risk I was taking when I began blogging a few years ago. This was my choice, and I’ll deal with the consequences.”
Yet now that he’s told me the dangers he’s faced, I am filled with worry.
“How did you get started?” I ask.
“In the beginning, the blog was more for myself than anything else. It was an outlet, a way to express myself when the walls felt like they were closing in on me, when I choked on all the things I wanted to lecture about in the classroom and couldn’t speak of. I had friends who helped me. I would email my thoughts, and they would arrange for others to post them, often from overseas. It’s dangerous, but one of my friends—”
His voice breaks off before the name slips from his lips. I’ve no doubt he’s the sort of man who would die before spilling someone else’s secrets.
“He’s good with computers and feels the same way I do. I couldn’t do it without him. And still—” Worry enters his gaze. “He has a wife. Children. We’re all at risk here. My audience was small enough that I was probably able to operate below their notice for a long time, but it has grown each year. Who knows? With Fidel’s death the government seems to be cracking down even more.”
“What will you do? Are you going to stop? That’s what they want, isn’t it?”
Luis won’t meet my gaze, and once again his silence is answer enough.
“Is it worth it? Truly?”
“It depends on how you measure that, I suppose. Have my words connected with some? Made them think about our government? Our way of life? I hope so.”
He gives a self-deprecating laugh.
“On good days, I am hopeful. On bad days, I wonder why I bother. But isn’t that the point? They’ve created a system to wear you down so you’re so tired from the weight of it, fighting lines and bureaucracy and the things you need to make it through each day, you don’t have any fight left.” He takes a deep breath. “It’s difficult spreading your message when the government censors certain words in communications. I don’t know how many Cubans read what I write. I’m speaking in the hopes someone will hear me, that those outside Cuba will understand what life is like for us. I speak to remind myself I exist.
“I don’t know how to give up. How to not fight for Cuba, to not challenge myself and others to be better, do more, speak out against injustice.” He pauses. “Yes. It is worth it.”
“Does your family know?”
“We don’t speak of it, but I imagine my grandmother and mother suspect. Cristina, too. I’ve held these opinions for a long time even if blogging has become a fairly recent development. Cristina worried about my beliefs. She wanted me to keep my head down when we were married, to not agitate the regime. She’d already lost far too much.
“I feel like a coward blogging under a secret identity when others are so brave—like the Ladies in White taking to the streets to protest—but I love my family and I wanted to protect them. Besides, when the odds are as stacked against you as they are here in Cuba, you don’t play by the rules. The government certainly doesn’t.”
Was this what my grandmother felt? This fear? Did her wealth and privilege keep her removed from the revolution until it was in front of her and she couldn’t look away anymore?
“What happens now?” I ask, watching the fan turn, the blades going around and around again. Regardless of what he says, I hate that my presence here put him in the regime’s crosshairs, that he’s now under increased scrutiny because of me.
“I don’t know,” Luis answers.
For the first time in my life, I know true, bone-chilling fear. For the first time in my life, I understand the precarious frailty of freedom.
Pablo is gone with a kiss and a good-bye, gone to fight, and I am once again alone, the engagement ring on my finger when I am in private, on a chain under my clothes when I am not.
We hear bits and pieces about the fighting, but there are no letters, no surprise visits to Havana. He has gone to war, and I am left at home to wait for his return. They’re fighting in Santa Clara now, and without his letters, I’m greedy for any news I can glean. I attempt to overhear my father’s conversations, scanning the newspaper for any mentions of the battle. My brother is absent as well, and I shudder to think of the trouble he could be in, of the danger that faces them both. Should I have left with Pablo? I can’t imagine myself in the countryside, and at the same time, I miss him terribly. I am torn between my heart and my head, between love and loyalty.
We celebrate Noche Buena with our usual feast—a whole roasted pig, yucca, black beans and rice, flan for dessert—the champagne flowing freely, conversation veering from politics, from anything too controversial. The extended family gathers—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—a house full of Perezes. We line up on the giant marble staircase in the entryway, the four of us in the front row in our best dresses, our parents beaming with pride despite the gap in the photo, the missing sibling who should be photographed beside us. The next morning my sisters and I crowd in front of the Christmas tree and open presents while our parents sip coffee and smile indulgently.
I’ve always loved Christmas; no matter how old I am, Christmas feels like magic, a cleansing of sorts that wipes away the slate for the year, heralding the beginning of good things to come. This year—
They are fighting again. While I feast on roast pork and my family sips French champagne, Pablo and Alejandro are—I don’t even know where. Santa Clara? Somewhere out there, in the mountains, on the coast, in the countryside.
When we attend Mass for Christmas, I sit in the pews of the Cathedral of Havana, my head bent in prayer, my fingers steepled together. I’m not even sure what I’m praying for anymore—for the rebels to succeed? For Batista to fall? For the rebels to lose and for things to remain as they are? The only constant in my prayers, the only words that fill my head, are for them to be safe. I think I could bear anything else, if God or whoever is up there keeps Pablo and Alejandro safe.
* * *
• • •
It begins with a murmur after midnight, spreading throughout the New Year’s party. We’re at a family friend’s house in Miramar, the ballroom crammed with Havana society save for a few missing this evening.
“They’re saying on the radio that Guevara’s forces have taken Santa Clara.”
I jerk, the untouched champagne sloshing in my glass. Beside me, Beatriz stills.
We’re dressed in designer gowns our mother ordered us from New York months ago, our organza skirts gliding across the dance floor, the light from the sparkling chandelier above our heads making our jewels glimmer and shine. Isabel dances with Alberto; Maria is off in the corner with some of her friends; Ana stands next to Beatriz.
The murmur grows. “Someone saw cars loaded with suitcases on the road to the airport.”
Beatriz grabs my arm, her nails biting into my skin. My gaze darts to my parents, standing at the opposite end of the room, some intrinsic need to search for reassurance driving me, as though I am a young girl once more and they will tell me all will be right in the world.
My mother’s face has gone white; my father’s expression is grim.
“Batista announced his plans to leave the country,” another person proclaims. “He’s taking over a hundred of his advisors and friends with him.”
And suddenly, the absences make sense, the men and women who should be here, the children I’ve played with who are not. And more than anything, there’s a sharp stab of panic, the realization that if what they’re saying is true, we have been left behind.
The murmur transforms into a shout.
“President Batista has fled the country! Long live a free Cuba!”
The evidence of how divided we are as a country could not be more terrifyingly obvious than at this moment. For some the news that Batista has fled, abandoning us to Fidel and his men, is met with the kind of exuberance that suggests they’ve been pretending all along, their bodies bowed in obeisance as hatred filled their hearts. For the rest of us, a deathly calm has settled over the crowd; it is fear. Bone-deep fear.
My mother is the first to move, organizing us until we stand in a huddle of Perez girls, our pastel gowns crushed together.
“We need to go home. Now.”
It’s the first time I can ever remember my mother commanding my father to do anything, but there’s no question now that she’s in charge.
None of us speak as the band begins playing, people cheering and dancing, champagne flutes rising in the air. I follow behind Isabel, Maria’s hand in my free one, my stomach pitching and swaying with each step. It takes a few minutes for us to push our way through the throng, the alcohol and news loosening everyone’s limbs. It’s as if they’ve decided that for a few hours—the space between Batista leaving and Fidel reaching the city—Cuba is without a ruler and they are determined to make the most of it.
With every step, though, my gaze connects with someone else in the crowd wearing an expression I fear mirrors my own.