Maybe they want to make a connection in this crowded airport of travelers venturing from a lost land, maybe they think Luis and I look like a nice couple, perhaps they don’t see the open wound in both of us. Whatever it is, they can’t seem to resist.
“Was this your first trip to Cuba?” the wife asks me.
I nod, suddenly exhausted by all of this—the fear, the sense of loss, the weight of hope.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” she asks, and I give another polite nod, ready to just get on the plane. “It’s so nice to see it like this. In its natural state. Before the tourists come in and ruin it.”
She says it as though we share a secret, as if we’ve stumbled upon a lost city.
Luis stiffens beside me, and I give her another clipped nod.
Disappointed, she leans back, turning her attention to her husband, to their children.
What is there to even say anymore?
The idea that this ruined beauty is Cuba’s destiny is as depressing as the idea that its future is to be cruise ships and casinos. That the very things that stoked the fires of revolution will be reborn again—if they ever died at all. That there’s something quaint and charming about the struggles I saw everywhere I looked. Everyone talks about Cuba being “open” and “free,” but that means very different things to very different people. To some it is the hope for fast-food chains and retail giants; to others it is the freedom to live in a country they can call their own, to maintain some semblance of autonomy over their lives.
And now I know the anger that burns inside Luis, the inability to accept this as Cuba’s natural condition. The hope for more.
Our flight begins boarding, saving us from more conversation.
We shuffle forward in the line, shoved between jubilant tourists, sunburned and chattering about the exotic adventure they had. We board the plane furtively, looking over our shoulders for a soldier’s uniform. Luis tells me to take the aisle seat, and his hands grip the armrests, his knuckles white; I realize he’s never flown on an airplane before.
How much is his life about to change?
The minutes in our seat become an eternity as we wait for the wheels to begin rolling down the runway, as we wait for the plane to soar into the sky.
It feels as though I’ve been traveling for a decade, and I no longer recognize myself. The plane rolls back from the gate, and my heartbeat steadies, my limbs relaxing, my breaths growing slower and deeper.
And then we’re in the air, Cuba behind us, Miami in front of us, far off in the distance, an ocean away.
* * *
• • •
We land in Antigua, where my father’s corporate jet is waiting for us. I’ve called in every family favor I can think of to get us to this point, and I offer a silent prayer of thanks to Lucia for coming through. I owe her big-time for this one, even as I know how much she likely enjoyed the adventure of helping to smuggle someone out of Cuba. This will turn into one of those stories that become lore, shared at Noche Buena dinners and at family brunches. My family has its flaws, but if a drop of Perez—or Ferrera—blood runs in your veins, then there is nothing they would not do for you.
We arrive in Miami hours later, and I go through the arrival motions in a daze. Luis is silent, taking in all of the sights and sounds. I feel a bit embarrassed about the private plane, the opulence of our surroundings, but that eventually dissipates in the face of what we’ve accomplished.
Our family’s attorney is waiting for us along with the immigration attorney Lucia contacted for me. When my great-grandfather arrived in the United States in 1959, he made it his mission to rebuild his fortune, to insert himself and his daughters in Palm Beach society, to win the ear of politicians. Perhaps it was the image of his son’s dead body lying on the dirt in front of his home that motivated him, or the need to protect his daughters and wife, the understanding that everything he built could be stolen from him in an instant with a change in government. Over the years, our family has given to Republican and Democratic candidates alike, and in this instance, I am grateful for the Cuban pragmatism.
My father has called in favors at the highest levels in the government to get Luis into the country on a visa. It’s temporary and uncertain, but it’s enough for now. Enough to keep him safe. Enough to buy us a little time before we can figure out what we will do next.
It would have been an easy feat not too long ago, but as with all things, Cuban-American relations are shifting, promises broken, agreements changing, our countries on the precipice of something new and uncertain. And still, in this we are lucky to be Cuban, where so many others face far greater hurdles to set foot on American soil.
Once we’ve dealt with the preliminary immigration matters, we’re free to go. There’s so much to be done in the coming weeks—getting Luis settled in, meetings with his attorney to find out the next steps, finding him a job, a place to live—will he want to stay with me? So many obstacles in front of us, and yet there’s a natural rhythm to this; it is quintessentially Cuban to help another find a new life in the United States, just as those before me did for my family.
We get to my car in the parking garage and slide into the seats, and at once I begin to cry, the tears streaming down my face until I don’t know what I’m crying for anymore—a mix of sadness and relief.
My grandmother. Luis’s grandmother that we left behind. My grandfather that I didn’t get a chance to know as well as I would have liked. The people who share my blood in Havana who I never got a chance to meet. The home I fear I’ll never see again. The pain I fear Luis will carry with him from here on out.
He holds me, his face pressed against mine, his lips on my lips.
There is so much he will have to learn now—
We carry our home with us in our hearts, laden with hope. So much hope.
When Fidel dies, we’ll return. You’ll see.
We spend the next three days holed up in my house in Coral Gables, our bodies tucked under the big duvet, lounging on the patio, as I dodge family calls. We’re still adjusting to this change, growing used to our new life, mourning in our own way. And then I’m ready and it’s time to go out in search of the last piece of the puzzle.
Throughout my childhood, there was always one person who would give me the unvarnished truth. She gave me the sex talk when I was curious about boys, filled in the blanks when I had questions about the Great Divorce and the rubber heiress.
My great-aunt Beatriz is the family secret-keeper.
She lives in an estate in Palm Beach rumored to have been given to her by a former lover. An heiress in her own right, she easily could have purchased the seven-thousand-square-foot mansion on her own, but I imagine she likes the romance of drifting through the rooms and feeling that connection to her younger years.
If the walls could talk.
I leave Luis settling into my house, getting acquainted with all of the changes in his new life, and make the drive to Palm Beach alone.
Beatriz answers the door in a cloud of Chanel, dressed in a floral shift I own in a different color—she looks better in it. Her face is that of a woman ten years younger. Her dark hair is pulled back in a dramatic bun, fat diamond studs on her earlobes.
She wore those same studs in the spread Vanity Fair did on her years ago. In certain circles, she is a legend.
Beatriz greets me with a kiss on each cheek before stepping back. “Come in, come in.”
Her hands flutter in the breeze as she speaks, a canary diamond on her ring finger, another gift, another lover.
“Is Diana off today?” I ask.
Her longtime housekeeper is as much a member of the family as any of us. Now that my great-aunt is nearing eighty, she and Diana have become companions in their older years.
“She is. She went to visit her sister in Punta Gorda for the weekend.”
I step over the threshold and follow her lead into the floral sitting room she’s constantly redecorating. This time it’s done in pinks and yellows, a new chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Palm Beach chic.
We sit on opposite couches, and she offers me a drink. Midway through the sentence she stops, her eyes gleaming.
“Something’s different about you.” Her smile deepens. “You met a man.”
I grin. Beatriz is also remarkably perceptive. “I did.”
She leans forward, the drinks temporarily forgotten. “Tell me everything.”
“I met someone. He came back with me.”
Her eyes widen. “Darling, you bring a questionable hat back with you, one you’ll probably never wear but can’t resist because you’re on vacation. Maybe even a bottle of rum. But a man?” Her gaze narrows as she takes in my appearance. “You’re in love.”
She says the word cautiously, as though there’s a world of danger contained there, as though it’s a word that could topple governments, conquer kingdoms, lay siege to everything in its path. She says it as if she knows a thing or two about bargaining with love and isn’t a satisfied customer.
“I am.” A little laugh escapes my lips, the cocktail of nerves, excitement, and happiness too great to be contained.
Her smile widens. She stands, smoothing the shift with her pink-manicured fingers. “Well, that settles it, this calls for something festive. Champagne. You’ll tell me about your man and your trip.” Her expression turns somber. “Did you find the right spot for her?”
“I think I did.”
“Where?” she asks.
She’s silent for a moment, her eyes closing, opening again with the faintest shimmer of unshed tears.
“Elisa was happy there. She’ll be happy there again.”
I blink back tears of my own. “I hope so.”
She walks over to the bar cart, a bottle of Bollinger chilling in a silver bucket. Most occasions call for champagne in Aunt Beatriz’s world; no doubt she was prepared to toast my return, or the settlement of my grandmother’s ashes, or whatever reason she invented to pop the cork.