“Like a date?”
He laughs. “Yes, a proper date. Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten things turned around a bit. I’ll pick you up and take you to dinner—nothing fancy, but I promise the food will be perfection.” He winks at me. “I happen to know a few good paladares. Afterward, we can go dancing.”
I grin. “You dance?”
Somehow I can’t quite imagine formal, slightly serious Luis dancing. Then again—
“Occasionally,” he says with a small smile. “Don’t tell anyone, but my grandmother taught me when I was a very little boy.”
“Mine, too. She used to play old records in her living room, and we’d dance together. I was terrible at first,” I confess.
“And now?” he teases.
“I have a few moves.”
“I’m even more intrigued. I need to help my grandmother get ready for the dinner service since I missed yesterday, but perhaps we can go out afterward?”
“I would love that.”
* * *
• • •
When we arrive back at the house, we part ways, and I set my bag down in my bedroom and head to the heart of the house—the kitchen—where Ana is preparing dinner for the paladar’s guests.
She smiles when she sees me.
“How was your trip?” she asks, greeting me with a kiss on the cheek.
“Beautiful,” I answer. I’m not ready to tell her what we learned from Magda, am still processing the news myself. “Can I help you prepare dinner?”
Ana waves me off with a cluck of her tongue. “No, no. I have it. It’s almost done. We have paella today.”
I can smell it, the aroma of yellow rice and seafood filling the tiny space. She has the same style of enormous pan my grandmother used to cook her paella sitting on top of the stove.
“How do you decide the menu each day?” I ask.
“It depends on what I can get at the market. If I can find chicken that day, we eat arroz con pollo. If they have seafood, I make a paella. We’re limited by the shortages, of course, but we make do.”
“That has to be challenging.”
She smiles. “I like a bit of a challenge. It helps me to be creative with the menu, and it keeps the guests happy because there’s always variety. It’s not an easy business; when the government opened the paladar system, many tried and many failed. The taxes and license fees can bankrupt you. Not to mention, you can create a menu only to have it fail miserably when you can’t find the ingredients. You can spend days searching for something as simple as eggs or milk.
“Many of our guests, the tourists who come, don’t understand the challenges we face. They judge our restaurants by the standards they are used to in their home countries, but we make do with Cuban ingenuity.”
She winks at me.
“It doesn’t hurt that we have Luis playing ‘La Bayamesa’ on the saxophone. We hang the photos my husband took in the revolution’s early days on the wall, serve our guests on what’s left of my grandmother’s finest china. They come here for the romantic Cuban experience, and we give it to them.”
Was that what I came here for? The “romantic Cuban experience”? I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’d had an image in my mind of what it would be like here. I’d told myself I’d be open-minded, that I wouldn’t let the stories I’d heard, my family’s perspective of exile, cloud my impressions of the real Cuba. I’d been convinced I’d find two narratives here—ours and theirs, and that the truth would lie somewhere in between. But I didn’t realize how bad it would be. In all the discussions of opening relations with Cuba, of eradicating the embargo, the focus has always been on the island as a tourist paradise, perpetually frozen in time. I didn’t realize how much people still suffered, didn’t understand the depth and breadth of the problems facing everyday Cubans.
Ana gives me a sidelong glance.
“Speaking of Luis—” Her voice trails off for a moment. “Elisa and I used to talk about our lives when we grew older. We imagined being bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, raising our children together, becoming grandmothers together. We used to imagine our children playing as best friends, perhaps even falling in love. It’s good to see the two of you together.”
I’m not even sure how to finish the sentence. Not together? Not in love?
“I don’t know how we can be together,” I say instead.
“Have faith, Marisol. You could be good for each other. It might seem impossible now, but trust me, you never know what the future can bring.”
Luis walks into the kitchen at the tail end of her speech, greeting his grandmother with a hug and kiss. I busy myself with the paella, mindlessly stirring to occupy my hands, my cheeks burning. There are some things we’ve yet to speak of, conversations I’m not ready to have. I leave soon—what will happen when I do? Will we keep in touch or will this connection between us peter out once we return to our normal lives?
Ana leaves to visit the guests, and we’re alone once again.
Luis closes the distance between us, kissing my forehead. He smiles at me as I pause mid-stir.
His fingers stroke my nape. I flush again.
“You’re nervous,” he says, sounding amused by the notion.
“Why? You weren’t nervous before.”
“I was always a bit nervous, but it feels strange in this house, with your grandmother here, Cristina, your mother. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. And then there’s everything else. I don’t want to start something I can’t finish; I don’t know what I’m doing here,” I confess. “I came to bury my grandmother, and now everything is mixed up. I have a grandfather I never knew I had. And you—”
I came here to write an article about tourist locales, and now my mind is full of policy and injustice; I came here single and carefree, and now I risk leaving my heart behind. It’s as though Cuba has awoken something in me, and I can’t—don’t want to—shut it off.
“I know.” Luis steps back with a sigh. “Things are complicated.”
I turn, looking into his dark eyes, searching—
“You’re good at that,” I murmur.
“Good at what?”
“Hiding what you’re feeling, thinking. About some things, you’re an open book, but with others . . .” My voice trails off. “You’re difficult to read.”
“Is it really a mystery, Marisol?”
I close my eyes at the sound of my name falling from his lips, as my pulse accelerates, at the flutter in my stomach.
When I open my eyes, he’s still there, his gaze boring into me, his expression as inscrutable as ever.
Luis steps forward, closing the distance between us, his lips caressing my forehead, his fingers running through my hair.
He takes a step back and gestures toward the stove. “Dinner is almost finished. Can you be ready in an hour?”
I open my mouth to answer him—
Luis’s mom, Caridad, walks into the kitchen, setting a stack of plates down on the tiny counter space with a thud.
Luis’s hand drops to his side. My cheeks flame as I take a deep breath, the air whooshing through my lungs.
“Do you want to leave in an hour or so?” he asks again, his voice low.
Caridad’s gaze follows me from the room.
He died in Santa Clara. He fought valiantly. There’s little else I have to remember him by besides the memories I cling to now, the letters, and the few tangible signs I have that he was real and that he loved me.
And then there’s the baby.
I spend two days in bed. My sisters cover for me; they don’t ask any questions, but their worry is a palpable thing. Only Magda knows the truth; only Magda knows the full extent of my fears, and my heartache. She sits beside my bed, stroking my hair, attempting to convince me to eat and drink.
“For the baby,” she whispers.
I exist in shadows, the sunlight flitting and disappearing, the noise of the household around me, the sounds of the street I’ve come to loathe.
Several days after my world is ripped apart, I’m forced out of bed. We have a new crisis to contend with—revolutions don’t care much for broken hearts and shattered dreams.
They’ve finally reached my father’s name on the list.
My mother is sobbing on the couch when I come downstairs, Isabel and Beatriz sitting beside her. Maria is in her room with Magda. It’s becoming more and more difficult to shield her from all of this.
“What happened?” I ask. I always feared it would be Alejandro who drew their notice, Alejandro who wasn’t afraid to denounce Fidel, who danced far too close to the flames. But our father—
Beatriz answers me. “Che went by his offices.”
Oh, how I hate the Argentinian. It’s bad enough to see Fidel behaving as though the country is his for the taking, but Che isn’t even Cuban, adding insult to injury.
“He took him to La Cabaña,” Isabel says, her expression grim.
Batista’s prison has been converted to Fidel’s prison. Some revolution.
“This morning,” Beatriz answers, her face pale. “That’s all we know.”
Under the new freedom and democracy Fidel is bringing to Cuba, they can hold him for however long they like, do whatever they’d like to him.
I fear the anger inside me will simply erupt one day, no longer contained by silk gowns and gloves.
“They will kill him,” my mother whispers.
“They won’t,” Isabel says, her words lacking conviction.
They might kill him.
A tear trickles down my cheek, then another, piercing the haze that surrounds me. My grief over Pablo’s death is suddenly a luxury I cannot afford.