For when we return.

Chapter thirty


I search for your face in the men pouring into Havana. I dream of lying in your arms, of your lips against mine.

I miss you and I love you.

Where are you? When will you return?

You were right, you know. I understand that now. We weren’t paying attention. We lived in our little bubble, and now the bubble has burst, and I do not recognize my country. Do not recognize my place in this world.

I read my grandmother’s letters to Pablo—ones she gave to Guillermo before she thought Pablo was dead, after Fidel had taken Cuba, ones she sent my grandfather throughout their relationship. I started from the beginning of their romance, from that first letter she sent him, and now that I’m at the end, it’s like she’s sitting here beside me in bed, her words giving me the final push I need.

I wish I had done more. I wish I had fought.

* * *

• • •

I wake early the next day—my final day—the morning sun breaking through the clouds, the space beside me cold. After I came back from spreading my grandmother’s ashes, after I read each of her letters, I found Luis. We fell asleep together on the tiny bed in my guest room at the Rodriguez house, our clothes still on, Luis’s arm draped around my waist. But now he’s gone.

I make my way through the house, trying not to break into a run, telling myself he’s just gone for a walk, that nothing will stop us from leaving Havana today. With my grandfather’s help I got access to a phone and called Lucia yesterday and begged her to help get us out, to get the plane, buy us tickets to Antigua, asked her to talk to our father about getting Luis into the United States. I didn’t tell her the whole story, just the parts she needed for now. I’ll tell her the rest on the back porch of the house in Coral Gables, mimosas in hand. A different life.

I find Luis on the balcony, staring out at the water. He doesn’t turn when I open the door and walk outside, but he wraps his arm around me, bringing me against his side.

I exhale.

Neither one of us speaks.

The hand around my waist finds my hand, linking our fingers, his thumb running over my grandmother’s ring.

I don’t know what to say, don’t know what he wants to hear.

If he stays, he will likely die. If he goes, I’m asking him to leave everything he’s ever known, fought for, behind. Is Cristina right? Will he always feel like he abandoned Cuba? Will he resent me for the choice? Will he regret having left?

I don’t know.

I think about the decisions I used to obsess over before I came here, the ones I likely will worry about in the years to come—am I too invested in my job? Am I not invested enough? Am I being challenged? Am I happy?

Those worries feel like luxuries now.

The decision in front of him is one of the most fundamental ones anyone can ever make, and he’s forced to make it in the span of a day, forced to walk away from his family, his country, his life. But my grandfather made it clear; Luis only has a day or two before the government will realize what he’s done, before they’ll come looking for him.

We have to leave today.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

Luis shakes his head.

“I’m angry, but not at you. I’m sorry if I’ve made you think that. I knew the cost to what I was doing. Knew the risk I was taking. This is my fault.”


“I love you,” he whispers against my mouth.

The words sound like good-bye.

A tear trickles down my cheek.

“If you stay, what will it buy you? A few days? A week? What difference can you make in that time? Think of all the good you can do with more time. With more resources. Think of all the good you can do when your words aren’t censored, when the government doesn’t block your site, when you don’t have to fear you’ll be hit by a car when you cross the street simply because you don’t think what they want you to think. You said I should write about my experiences here in Cuba. Help me. Think of all the good we could do together, think of the people we could help.

“What about your family? How long until they start coming after your grandmother? Your mother? Cristina? Because they can and will in order to stop you. My grandfather can only protect them so much, but if you continue agitating the regime, that will change.”

He releases me. “You don’t think I know that? That I haven’t always weighed the cost of my actions against the threat to them? There’s no winning here. Every path in front of me is problematic.”

“You could leave Cuba.”

“But I wouldn’t be Cuban anymore, would I? I would be living with you in a mansion in Miami while my people are struggling. While my elderly grandmother works to provide for her family. What kind of man would I be?”

“You would be alive,” someone says behind us.

We both turn at the sound of his mother’s voice. She stands in the doorway, her expression tired, her gaze on her son.

“What about you? Abuela? Cristina? Who will take care of you when I’m gone?” Luis asks.

She crosses the distance between them, placing her palm against her son’s cheek.

“We don’t need you to take care of us. We’ve made it this far, and we will continue to do what we’ve always done. We grow where we are planted. This is our home, and we will die here. That’s our choice. I could have tried to leave when you were younger, could have taken my chances with the raft and the sea.

“I didn’t because I was scared to leave, scared to get caught and sent back, scared to die in the water. I watched people speak out and die for it, watched them disappear, and I told you to keep your head down, to go along with what they wanted, to accept your lot in life as a given.

“But now I know. Nothing changes no matter how much we work, how much we pray for change, and the pieces they give us aren’t enough. I’m tired and I’m old. It’s not my fight anymore. It’s yours. Don’t throw this opportunity away. Go. Go to the United States.”


She takes a deep breath. “Your father would agree with me. He believed you should live your life dedicated to a cause greater than yourself. I can think of no greater way to honor his memory than the life you are living. He would be so proud of you. Always.”

A tear slips down Luis’s cheek.

“Times are changing. Perhaps there’s more you can do from outside Cuba than within.” Her eyes swim with tears. “You will always be my son. I will always love you, and I’m sorry if I haven’t said it enough. I’m proud of you. So proud. There are many ways you can serve, Luis. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is decide to leave when it is no longer wise to stay.”

“My students—”

“Will survive without you. We will all survive without you. And one day, things will change and we will see each other again.”

Her words chip at the resolve, the fear, the doubts, until I see acceptance in his gaze, and at once, the man who has struck me as so confident, so self-assured from the first moment I stepped out of José Martí airport, now looks lost and unsure.

“I’ll send money,” Luis vows. “And I’ll write.”

“I know you will.” She wraps her arms around her son for a moment before releasing him. “I need to go to the market. Don’t forget to say good-bye to your grandmother.” She glances in my direction, and I brace for whatever words she will throw my way. “I know what you did, the strings you pulled. Thank you.”

I nod through the tears clouding my vision.

“Take care of each other,” she says.

“We will,” I promise.

She stands in the doorway for a moment, staring at Luis, and then she’s gone.

* * *

• • •

I finish packing my bags while Luis says good-bye to Cristina. I put the letters my grandfather gave me on the Malecón in my carry-on along with the white rose and the letters my grandmother saved in the wooden box for when I explain the story to my family. I also carry the letter my grandfather has written to his son and asked me to deliver to my father. I leave the gifts I brought for Ana and her family as well as the leftover cash I brought with me, keeping just enough to cover our journey out of the country. Hopefully, it will help them.

Someone knocks on the door.

“Come in,” I call out.

Luis opens the door. “Are you ready?”

“I am. How did it go with Cristina?”

“I said good-bye.”

“Will she be okay?”

“I hope so. She has distant relatives in the Oriente. She may go stay with them; she hasn’t decided yet. My grandmother and mother consider her family; I hope she’ll stay here with them.”

“Will you be okay?” I ask.

“I hope so.” Luis holds out his hand to me. “My grandmother wants to see us off. My friend Oscar should be here soon to pick us up.”

He takes my bags in one hand, holding on to me with his free one. A lone suitcase waits at the base of the stairs.

Pablo advised him not to take too much, that it would raise red flags if Luis looked like he was leaving for longer than a short trip—a romantic jaunt to Antigua with his American girlfriend. I hope they don’t dig too deeply at the airport, that my grandfather was successful in shielding Luis for a day or two. It’s a lot to hope for, but right now hope is all we have.

We make our way to Ana’s sitting room, where she’s seated on the worn silk couch, a smile on her face, her best china set out in front of us.

“It was my mother’s,” she answers when I comment on how beautiful the pieces are. “And her mother’s before her. And her mother’s before that. They came on a ship from Spain.”

We sit on chairs opposite her while she pours us coffee, offering us a plate of snacks she’s set out. There’s an elegance to her motions, a ceremony to the whole process that speaks to a civility long since forgotten.