“You never know what’s to come. That’s the beauty of life. If everything happened the way we wished, the way we planned, we’d miss out on the best parts, the unexpected pleasures.” He shrugs, gesturing around him. “We all had a vision; we had a plan. Fate, God, Fidel, they all laughed at that plan. I thought I was on one path, and it turned out to be something else entirely. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, though.”
He smiles, wrapping his arm around me, bringing me against his side.
“I’m glad we found each other,” I say.
He stares up at the sky, a gleam entering his gaze. “I like to think Elisa’s up there smiling down at us, that she brought us together because she wanted us to meet, wanted you to be part of my life.”
He begins speaking as if his words are the continuation of a conversation he is having with himself, a memory.
“She was wearing this dress.” He smiles. “White. It had this full skirt, and it swayed when she walked. I couldn’t stop watching her hips,” he confesses with a look in his eyes that makes him appear decades younger.
“I brought her a white silk rose. I’ll never forget her smile when I gave it to her. We were both so nervous. I kept shoving my hands in my pockets because I didn’t know what to do with them, because there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to take her hand in mine and never let go. The night kept growing later, and I knew we’d have to part soon, and I didn’t want to leave her. Didn’t want to ever let her go.”
“Did you fall in love with her here on the Malecón?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I fell in love with her that first moment I saw her standing on the fringes of Guillermo’s party, her expression so earnest. Once Elisa burst into my life, there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t love her. She was a bright spot in years that were filled with violence and bloodshed. She gave me hope.”
“What was she like when you knew her?” I ask him.
“Fierce. Passionate. Loyal. Brave. Smart. She cared about people, and she cared about her country. There was a kindness to her; she always wanted to see the best in everyone around her.”
So little changed between the girl he knew and the woman who raised me.
I reach into my bag, removing the container of ashes, my fingers leaving shadowy prints on the cool metal.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this feels a bit unsettling, the act of holding my deceased grandmother in my hands a bit macabre. And at the same time, a weight rolls off my shoulders, as I cast off the mantle of grief that has lain there for so long.
I will always miss her, but I’ve been given a new chance to know her, and through her, a whole new family. A pause in what felt like an ending.
And this, too, is right—her reunion with the man she loved and the country that forever held her heart.
I pass the container to my grandfather.
A tear slips down his weathered face as he strokes the metal, a tremor in his fingers.
“Are you sure you don’t want to do this?” he asks.
I shake my head, understanding what was missing before, why I couldn’t come up with a final resting place that felt right. It wasn’t a place; it was a person. I brought her back to Cuba. The final steps should be his.
Pablo’s hands shake as he unscrews the lid, as he tips the container out over the sea, into the wind. It’s not as romantic as I imagined it; bits of bone fragments sail through the air. But then again, what is?
It’s the after, though, that means the most. We stand side by side, staring out at the ocean, at some point we can no longer see.
Ninety miles. Ninety miles separate Cuba from Key West, the southernmost tip of the United States. Ninety miles that might as well be infinite.
How many souls have been lost in these waters by people risking everything to find a better life? People like Cristina’s parents—filled with desperation, stretching out for hope? How many people on both sides of the water have stared across the ocean, yearning for something they can’t have—a family member, a lost love, the country where they were born, the soil where they took their first steps, the air they first breathed?
“Will you come back?” my grandfather asks. “Will you bring them? My son, my granddaughters? Will you meet your cousins?”
“Then I will wait.” He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a packet of letters tied together with a faded string. I recognize the handwriting on them instantly.
He smiles. “I think she would have wanted you to have these.”
The days, weeks, after Alejandro—I cannot finish the thought—run together as February passes on until it is nearly March. The wave of grief hits all of us, even our parents—our father who once declared him “no son of mine” for attempting to assassinate Batista so long ago. Alejandro’s funeral is a somber affair—only family. I cannot bear to think of his mangled body lying in that casket.
Did God heap all of our losses together in one fell swoop so we could bear them more easily, drifting from one death to another, vacillating between heartbreak and despair? Would it be crueler if they were stretched out over years, or is the sheer avalanche of loss our punishment for our sins?
I no longer know.
I am sick, mostly in the mornings, but every once in a while my body likes to surprise me with an afternoon malaise. I possess a newfound respect for my mother; she did this five times—four healthy pregnancies and a baby who went to live with the angels.
Magda clucks over me, my sisters sneak suspicious glances my way, and my belly swells with each day, but the dawn of new life is shrouded in the death that shakes us all. Still—how long before I can no longer hide the changes beneath my gowns? I hold my breath, waiting for my parents to say something, for my mother to notice the differences in my appetite, but she does not, her grief consuming her, her whispered conversations with our father becoming more frantic. And then our parents usher us into our father’s study and the reason for their distraction becomes clear.
I sit next to Beatriz and Isabel on the couch in the corner of my father’s study, praying my stomach can make it through this family meeting without giving away my condition. Maria and my mother sit in the chairs opposite his desk, my mother in the very chair where I once sat and begged for my father to intervene and save Pablo’s life.
I thought I was saving him by sending him to the mountains, but it was all for naught.
A lump forms in my throat. Beatriz tenses beside me when our father begins speaking.
“The situation in Cuba is changing. There are rumors that they’re going to pass an act to reform the amount of land an individual or company can own. Small farmers will be fine, but for those with more than a thousand acres, the plantations . . .” My father swallows. “They say Fidel wishes to take those away.”
Fidel’s initial desire to abstain from government has been obliterated. José Miró Cardona is out, and Fidel is prime minister now. Manuel Urrutia Lleó is Fidel’s creature. We are all Fidel’s creatures.
Fidel killed my brother—or gave the order, at least. I am certain of it.
“It’s hard enough with the labor problems,” our father continues. “But if Fidel gets everything he wants? They treat him as though he is a god; there is no stopping a god, no reasoning or negotiating with one. He will destroy everything in his path.” His voice breaks over the words. We do not speak of it, but we all know. “The people will let him, they will cheer him on, fueled by their anger and their thirst for blood, and they will tear those of us who prospered all this time from limb to limb.”
My mother pales—
The French Revolution has come to Cuba.
His voice lowers; in Havana now, the walls have ears.
“We will go.”
My mother falls silent.
“We will go,” he continues, “because it is no longer safe for us to stay. We will go until it is safe for us to return.”
We will go because they are killing Perezes in Havana.
“Where will we go?” Beatriz asks, a defiant gleam in her eyes.
I close mine, offering a prayer that she will accept this, that we can get through this with minimal discord. I have nothing else left inside me. Whereas Alejandro’s death has drained me, it has filled her with a righteous fury the likes of which I have never before seen.
“To the United States,” he answers. “I have some friends in Florida who will help us. There’s sugar in South Florida. I have some land there.”
I’m not entirely surprised. My father is the sort of man who always has a card up his sleeve, who has a contingency plan in place.
In contrast, my mother looks like she might faint.
“Who will watch the house while we are gone? Our things?” she asks.
I feel a pang of sympathy for my mother; my father isn’t interested in her opinion, her concerns, her fears. He has decided we will go to America, and he will brook no argument over the matter.
“The servants will,” he answers. “Your aunt can come stay for a bit. It will be no different than when we’ve left the country for a trip. This one will simply be longer, give some time for the country to sort itself out. This insanity cannot continue forever; at some point, the people will come to their senses.
“Fidel does not offer any real solutions for Cuba. He has no experience governing, doesn’t have what it takes to lead this country. They flock to him now because he removed Batista, but mark my words, there will be another leader whose name they’re chanting sooner rather than later. Perezes have shaped Cuba’s future for centuries. Sugar is this country’s foundation. We will always have a home in Cuba.”
I want to believe his words. I want to believe in something when I fear I no longer believe in anything at all.
Tears spill over Isabel’s cheeks. Beatriz looks like she wants to slap someone. My mother and father appear slightly shell-shocked as they run through his plans, their voices hushed to prevent any of the staff from overhearing.