“Who lives there now?” I ask as Luis comes to stand next to me, silent, his hands shoved into the pockets of his khakis. The sleeve of his guayabera brushes my bare shoulder, a hint of the weight of his body beside mine.
“A Russian diplomat moved in decades ago.” His breath catches as our arms graze. “When I was a teenager.”
My grandmother’s bedroom was in the back of the house, a view of the ocean from her window, and I yearn to sneak back there and explore.
“Are they in residence?”
Perhaps I can convince them to let me look around? Of all the places I’ve considered spreading my grandmother’s ashes, her childhood home seems like the best option.
“Not at the moment, no.”
The sun shines down on the building, encasing it in the same glow that bathes everything here. The sky is an explosion of color, every shade of blue you can imagine; white cotton clouds spread throughout.
I’ve never seen a more beautiful place in all my life.
“It’s gorgeous,” I whisper more to myself than him, taking a step forward, my hands curving around the wrought iron gate in front of the property.
Everything fades into the background, and it’s just the house and me.
A minute passes by. Two.
I pull back reluctantly, loath to leave. When I turn to face Luis, he isn’t looking at the house, but at me.
“Are you ready to drop your bags off and settle into your room?” he asks, his gaze speculative.
I nod, words momentarily eluding me.
Luis holds out his hand, indicating for me to proceed. I offer to carry the bags again, but he refuses, following me as I walk along the sidewalk to the house next door to my grandmother’s.
The Rodriguez house is three stories tall and painted a pale yellow. Compared to the other residences, the mansion is relatively well-kept, wearing its age with dignity and grace. A restaurant awning hangs over one side of the building, indicating the house’s changed stature in life, people milling outside on one of the patios where tables have been set out for diners. Large, nearly floor-to-ceiling glass-paneled doors open to the outside, exposing an indoor dining area.
We walk up a gravel driveway, Luis leading me toward the front doors. He opens them with a creak, and we step over the threshold. The entryway is cavernous, the marble floor cracked and scuffed, but still impressive. Judging by the empty spaces on the walls and in the room, much of the furniture is long gone, the remaining pieces in surprisingly good condition despite their age.
My grandmother told me Ana’s family was in the rum business before Castro nationalized it, and even fifty years of communism haven’t fully erased the vestiges of their wealth.
The walls are a pastel green color. A heavy gold mirror with a delicate fleur-de-lis covers one wall, the gilt tarnished in places. Another wall is covered in a hodgepodge of artwork and aged photographs. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling, a double staircase leading up to the house’s second floor.
“Your home is beautiful.”
Luis removes his sunglasses and smiles. “Thank you.”
She walks toward me from a doorway off the entryway. Even with the addition of over fifty years, I recognize her instantly from my grandmother’s old photos.
Ana Rodriguez is a petite woman—an inch or two shorter than me—with a compact build. Her dark hair curls beneath her ears, her cheeks are pink, a broad smile on her face.
In three steps she crosses the entryway, holding out her hands and clasping mine.
My name is said with a rush of affection, and any lingering nerves I possessed about staying with a stranger disappear completely. She treats me as one would a granddaughter she hasn’t seen in weeks rather than a guest, engulfing me in a hug. Tears prick my eyes. There’s something in her manner, in the way she carries herself that reminds me of my grandmother. She smells as though she’s come from the kitchen, an apron tied around her waist, mouthwatering scents I recognize instantly—mojo and black beans—greeting me.
I’m not normally a crier, but between my grief and the nostalgia of the moment, it’s difficult to keep my emotions in check. These are the stories of my childhood come to life, the spirit of my grandmother, my family, our legacy, everywhere I turn.
Ana smiles, tears swimming in her brown eyes.
“You look like Elisa.”
I do. I inherited my grandmother’s nearly black hair and I wear it long like she did when she was younger. Our faces are similar—heart shaped—and I have her mouth. I inherited her petite stature, too.
A twinkle enters Ana’s eyes. “Perhaps a bit of Beatriz as well.”
In terms of compliments, there is no higher praise. Aunt Beatriz is the beauty of the family, and the broken hearts that have trailed behind her are legendary.
“How is she? Beatriz?”
“She’s good. She sent gifts for you.”
“Is she still—”
She doesn’t need to finish the question.
I grin. “Of course.”
My great-aunt has caused scandals that span countries and continents.
“She’s doing well. She stays busy with her grandchildren, my cousins.”
“I was sorry to hear about Isabel. And your grandmother.”
I nod, the emotions still too raw for words. It’s being in this place, feeling as though I’m inhabiting a corner of my grandmother’s life while she’s gone that tugs at my heart. That’s the thing with grief—you never know when it will sneak up on you.
Ana squeezes my hand, gesturing toward her grandson.
“Come. Let us take you to your room. You must be tired after the trip. Rest and then we’ll talk.”
I allow her to shepherd me up the immense staircase, leading me toward the guest room she has prepared for me. Ana explains in a matter-of-fact tone that the house has been divided up into apartments where other families live.
Luis trails behind us, bags in hand.
We stop in front of a heavy wooden door that looks as though it belongs in a Spanish monastery.
“I hope this room will be comfortable,” Ana says as she pushes it open.
The bedroom is small and clean, the windows open, white linen curtains fluttering in the breeze. There’s a bed pushed up against the wall, an aged wood table beside it. A chipped glass vase filled with colorful flowers sits atop it. A matching wardrobe is stuffed in the corner, a gilded mirror on the wall, the edges cracked and tarnished, adorned with fat carnelian stones.
And it is.
Luis sets my bags down near the wardrobe and excuses himself, leaving me alone with Ana.
She hugs me again, her scent engulfing me.
“Rest. We’ll talk later.”
She leaves me, the door shutting behind her, and I browse around the little room, unpacking my things and changing into a pair of pajama pants and a tank top. I set aside the gifts I brought Ana as a thank-you for hosting me—after hours spent scouring the Internet for travel tips, I hope I’ve found items she will use and enjoy.
I climb under the covers, a faint breeze coming in from the open windows. I stare up at the ceiling, the plaster cracking, chunks of white paint missing, my eyelids growing heavier with each moment that passes. The events of the day hit me in waves, the adrenaline crash coming on strong.
I roll over to my side, pulling the worn sheets up to my face, my eyes drifting shut. I smell the gardenias my grandmother described to me, and the jasmine, the scent of roast pork wafting up from the paladar below. The faint sound of a saxophone drifts up to my room, and I recognize the familiar strands of “La Bayamesa.”
This is family, home, the most fundamental part of me. I could be sitting in my grandparents’ elegant residence in Coral Gables, or off in Europe, and all it takes is the scent of mojo, the sound of my people, to ground me.
The breeze blows my hair across the pillow, and the smell of jasmine calls to mind a memory of me as a little girl—my grandmother’s perfume and the feel of her hand stroking my hair when she put me to sleep at night.
Tell me a story.
When I was a girl in Cuba . . .
I fall asleep.
HAVANA, SEPTEMBER 1958
It’s the perfect dress for a night like tonight—elegant without the obvious sophistication of the gowns our mother orders us from abroad, a neckline a touch more daring than I usually wear, a hem exposing the calves I’ve sunned by the pool at the Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club.
I pull the white dress designed by Manet from my closet, my fingers skimming the lace. The bodice is fitted with pale pink flowers, the waist tucked in, the skirt full. I bought it on a shopping trip with Beatriz last month after we saw it in El Encanto, and I’ve been waiting for the perfect occasion to wear it. This seems better than any. I snuck a pair of my mother’s shoes from her closet—the palest pink to match the flowers—after she and our father left for their trip to Varadero.
I dress quickly, struggling a bit with the tiny buttons in the back. Once the dress is on, I choose a pair of earrings from the wooden vanity in the corner of my bedroom, staring at my reflection in the three-way mirror perched on top of it. I select one of the glass bottles sitting atop the surface, spritzing the perfume on my wrists, rubbing it behind my ears, the scent one I save for special occasions.
“Are you ready?” my sister Isabel hisses from the doorway, her gaze drifting toward the hallway. None of the servants are likely to tell on us, but Magda’s the unknown; our nanny is more family than anything else, nearly as concerned with the reputation of the Perez family as our mother is. This isn’t the type of party we normally attend, like all the ones where we stand in full-skirted ball gowns and long white gloves wearing heavy diamond necklaces around our necks.
My brow rises as I take stock of Isabel’s outfit; clearly I’m not the only one who raided our mother’s closet. The dress is one our mother has worn to parties before—black, fitted, and far more daring than anything she’s ever allowed any of us to wear. If this is Isabel’s choice for the evening, I can only imagine what Beatriz has come up with.