He is not Batista.
They hated Batista.
But it is clear that Fidel is no savior, either.
There are no saints in Havana.
* * *
• • •
I wake the next morning, and the sky is duller, the air thick and cloying, last night’s spectacle casting a pall over the entire city.
I join my sisters in the dining room for breakfast; our parents have disappeared somewhere in the house. The more Fidel inserts himself into Havana, the more my parents retreat.
What would the corsair have done? Would he have taken up arms and fought? Or would he have taken his pretty French wife and their child and hied off in his great big ship for better lands?
More people are leaving each day—friends of my fathers, friends of Batista’s. Fidel and his cohorts are obsessed with purging the country of anyone tied to the old regime, but what happens when they’ve spilled all the Batista loyalist blood there is to spill? Who will they come for next?
The food tastes like sludge in my mouth, my stomach and the babe rebelling, but I force myself to swallow, shoveling the rich breakfast down my throat.
It is entirely too quiet in the house. Our silverware scrapes across bone china. Only Maria seems content to sit in silence, stifling yawns between bites of her food. The rest of us look shell-shocked. On the streets people celebrate, the mood of the country jubilant.
In our house and so many others like it, we’re afraid to venture out, fear the knock on the door, worry they’ll eventually get to our family’s name on a list somewhere. Afraid to leave, afraid to stay.
Our maid Charo stands in the doorway to the dining room, her eyes wide. “There’s a man here to see you,” she whispers, her gaze darting around, no doubt looking for my mother.
I hear the word “man,” and everything else disappears. My sisters ask me questions somewhere in the background, but I don’t hear them. I don’t even hear the rest of what Charo says before I’m pushing back from the table, walking—nearly running—through the house.
He’s home. Everything will be fine now. He’s safe. He’s alive. My hand falls to my stomach, caressing our child, my other hand opening the front door, eager to see Pablo, to collapse into his arms.
The sunlight hits me first, so bright it’s nearly blinding, deigning to break through the clouds and show its face. The sound of people cheering somewhere off in the distance is a dull roar, but that, too, fades away.
A man stands near the front gates, his head ducked, wearing olive green fatigues and a matching cap, a beard covering the lower half of his face.
My heart pounds.
I walk toward him, my feet moving more quickly now, kicking up stones in the front drive.
He’s home. We will be married now. He will be so happy about the baby. We’ll sort out the rest of it.
He’s home and that’s all that matters.
He looks up as I approach, his dark gaze solemn, and I stop in my tracks, confusion filling me. The eyes that stare back at me aren’t Pablo’s. It takes a moment for me to recognize the face, another moment still for the words to come to me, bursting through the recesses of my memory.
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.
I stop a foot away from the gates, tears filling my eyes, my knees buckling beneath me.
“I’m so sorry,” Guillermo says, and then I can no longer hear the rest of his words for the white noise rushing through my ears, my body collapsing against the earth.
Pablo is dead, and Havana is dead, and I am dead.
I sit in the passenger seat, staring at the palm trees waving in the breeze. I don’t speak. Magda has taken everything I thought I knew about my family, about my grandmother, about myself, and turned it upside down. The man I knew as my grandfather, who my father believes is his father, isn’t really at all. Instead, my biological grandfather is—was—one of Fidel’s men, a man who died fighting in the Cuban Revolution, who gave his life for everything my family stands against. The sheer fact that my grandmother loved a revolutionary was difficult to wrap my mind around, but this—
“Do you think your grandfather knew?” Luis asks. “About the baby?”
I try to remember the times I saw them together, how he treated me and my father, my sisters, the love he showed all of us.
My grandfather was one of the first people my grandmother met when she arrived in the United States; his family was involved in the early days of the Cuban exile movement, assisting new arrivals to acclimate to life in the United States after Castro took power. His parents—my great-grandparents—left during the Cuban Revolution of 1933, which ousted then President Machado, a general who’d fought against Spain in the War for Cuban Independence.
My grandfather was born in the United States, and his stories weren’t of Cuba, but rather watching Florida grow and change throughout the years. When Great-Grandfather Perez died he left his sugar empire—resuscitated from its near demise at the hands of Fidel Castro and his compatriots—to my grandfather to run. And so Perez Sugar was for the first time since its inception in the late 1800s run by a Ferrera and not a Perez.
According to my grandmother, theirs was a whirlwind courtship. He fell in love with her the first moment he saw her sitting in the living room of a family friend’s house in Miami. It took him a month to wear her down, and once he did they eloped in a simple ceremony in City Hall. I asked her once if she regretted missing out on the big, splashy wedding.
Those were difficult times, Marisol. We weren’t thinking of gowns or parties anymore. We were mourning—the loss of our country, our family, our friends.
And now I understand my grandmother’s urgency a bit more. She was pregnant and unmarried in a time when she would have caused a huge scandal and likely added to her family’s grief.
“He had to have known,” I answer. “She wouldn’t have kept it from him. Not something like that. Besides, my father was born months after they came to the United States. My grandfather would have suspected based on when the baby was conceived.”
Magda told me how much my grandmother grieved when she discovered her lover died in Santa Clara. I can only imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother—nineteen, pregnant, caught in the midst of a revolution, learning the man she loved, the father of her child, was dead. Who could my grandmother have trusted with her secrets after something like that? She’d been forced to leave her best friend and the woman who’d practically raised her in Cuba. My great-grandparents no doubt would have been angry and ashamed, especially given the identity of the baby’s father. No wonder she’d ended up with my grandfather. Did he ask her to keep the secret of my father’s paternity or did she choose to do so on her own?
My voice breaks off, and I can’t finish the thought, the emotions pummeling me.
I wish I’d known the truth. I wish I’d had a chance to know my biological grandfather, to hear how my grandmother felt about him in her own words.
I loved my grandfather, and while I don’t remember him well, my memories are of a good man, my memories of my grandparents’ marriage a loving one. But this need to know, to understand where I came from, is a powerful urge.
Luis starts the car’s engine and pulls out onto the road. I glance back at Magda’s building; we exchanged information and plan on keeping in touch.
“Your grandmother must have been very brave to survive so many losses,” Luis says, his voice gentle.
And at such a young age, too.
“You should be proud of that. And of him. For better or worse, strong blood runs through your veins. You read his letters to her. What sort of man was he?”
Can you take the measure of a person based on ten or twenty letters? I don’t know. As a writer, I know better than anyone how easily words and emotions can be manipulated. But I do know my grandmother, and I cannot believe she would love a man who wasn’t worthy of it.
“He was a good man.” I recall the words he wrote her, the passionate strokes of his pen across the page. “A dreamer. A fighter.”
“Then he is an ancestor you can proudly claim.”
Is it that easy? Was his legacy saved by death? Had he lived through the events of the revolution and everything that came after, would he have spoken out against Fidel’s abuses or would he have turned into a monster himself?
The line between hero and villain is a precariously fragile one.
“I’m sorry he died,” Luis says. “That you weren’t able to find him like you wanted.”
This is it. There are no more answers to be found, only questions. I will never have a chance to know the man whose blood runs through my veins. This part of my family is gone now, too, just like my grandmother.
When I was searching for her lover, there was still hope, a sense of purpose to my trip here beyond finding her final resting place. Now there’s just the unknown, and of course, the uncertainty of my relationship with Luis.
He brings our joined fingers to his lips, kissing my knuckles. “Everything is going to be okay,” he says, as though he can read the thoughts going through my mind.
I smile, the spirit behind the word something so quintessentially Cuban, something incrementally beyond hope that exists entirely out of our hands.
“This means something to me, Marisol,” Luis says, echoing his earlier words in the hotel elevator.
A little crack forms over my heart. “This means something to me, too.”
I spend the rest of the drive back to Havana with Luis’s arm wrapped around my shoulders, his lips occasionally brushing my temple, our legs pressed against each other, studying his profile.
“Let’s go out tonight,” he suggests as we near the city. “Let’s do something to take your mind off all of this.”