“I’m ready.” I pick up my clutch from the dresser, my fingers stroking the beads.
“Where’s Beatriz?” I ask, careful to keep my voice low. Magda has the uncanny ability to sneak up on us at the most inopportune moments, a lesson Maria has learned more than anyone else; being the youngest has its drawbacks.
“Waiting in the car.”
The car was another battle with our mother, one Beatriz ultimately won.
Isabel’s gaze darts toward the hallway and back again.
“And Maria?” I ask.
Keeping our outing a secret from our little sister is as crucial as hiding it from Magda. Maria has bribery down to an art form President Batista would envy, and the price for ensuring her silence for not telling our parents we’re attending a party would likely be steeper than we would want to pay. The last time Maria caught Isabel sneaking back into the house after a date, she made out with Isabel’s favorite pearl earrings and a dress from Paris.
I follow Isabel down the hallway, our heels drumming against the marble floors. Our house was built in the mid-eighteenth century by the first Perez ancestor of note, a French corsair who amassed a fortune through ill-gotten gains and won himself a wife of impeccable lineage. He built her one of the largest and most ostentatious mansions in Havana, one that’s been renovated and updated throughout the years by various Perez heirs. The end result is a cavernous mansion brimming with gold leaf and marble. I’ve always thought the corsair had more money than taste, but considering he won himself a title from a Bourbon king along with his bride, he possessed enough cachet for our mother to proudly claim him as an ancestor.
In the beginning, our legacy came from smuggling and the corsair’s more nefarious activities. Soon his children and grandchildren began diversifying the family’s fortune, and through an advantageous marriage in the late nineteenth century, the Perezes became sugar barons.
For better, worse, and the truly horrific, sugar has molded Cuba’s fortunes.
The corsair stares us down as we tiptoe through the hall, and while the rest of our ancestors seem to disapprove of this act of rebellion from atop their oil-and-canvas perches, I fancy that our pirate ancestor with his dark hair and even darker eyes twinkling with mischief would have wholeheartedly approved.
We slip our shoes off at the top of the staircase in an act of choreographed sisterly precision. The marble is cool against my toes despite the warm air tonight, the moon casting a sliver of light across the steps. We freeze as noises coming from the general direction of the kitchen filter throughout the house.
Is the risk we’re taking really worth the reward of a night of freedom?
The punishment? Temporary removal to the country. Forced attendance at teas and luncheons, parties where we’re jettisoned from one eligible son of one of our father’s business associates to another. Life as usual.
They’re fighting in Cuba’s eastern provinces, in the Oriente, boys not much older than me, boys who should be at university—who would be at university if Batista hadn’t closed the University of Havana out of fear years ago. The revolutionaries are fighting throughout the country, storming the Presidential Palace, seeking to overthrow the government, to end Batista’s corruption, and yet, behind the high walls of our Miramar home, the ancien régime reigns supreme. My mother has no time for revolutions; they wreak havoc with her balls and teas.
It is a strange time to be Cuban, to feel the stirrings beneath your feet, hear the rumblings in the sky, and to continue on as though nothing is happening at all. Stranger still to be a woman in Cuba—we vote, but what does a vote mean when election outcomes are a foregone conclusion? The women in our family attended the best schools, grew up with a slew of tutors, each one more harried and harassed by all of us—Beatriz, in particular—but Perez women do not work no matter how much we might wish to do so. We are useless birds in a gilded cage while our countrywomen serve in the government, while some plot revolution. Times have changed in our little island, a tinder lit, spreading like wildfire throughout Cuba, meanwhile our estates are a bulwark against modernization, change, freedom.
And so occasionally, we do exceedingly foolish things like sneaking out of the house in the dead of night, because it’s impossible to stand near the flame consuming everything around you and not have some of that fire catch the hem of your skirt, too.
We make it to the front door, pausing once for a maid completing her duties for the night, a song under her breath. Once the maid has finished dusting the entryway table, Isabel exits first, leaving me to close the heavy front door behind me with a wince. I slip my mother’s sandals back onto my feet, freezing at the sight of Beatriz lounging against her convertible.
Her dress looks as though it was painted onto her voluptuous body, and I don’t know where she bought it or where she’s been hiding it, but you wear a dress like that when you want to create a scandal. She flaunts it beautifully.
Of all of Emilio Perez’s daughters, Beatriz is the most apt to court scandal, to push at the edges of the cage, occasionally breaking free. She fights with our parents about attending university, wants to study law, quotes philosophers and radicals. And she insisted we sneak out tonight.
“Are you ready?” Beatriz asks. Her gaze runs over me, and when she doesn’t say anything, I relax slightly. Beatriz’s sartorial elegance is undisputed in Havana.
“I thought we talked about discretion,” Isabel grouses beside me. “Parking your car in front of the house where anyone can see is not discreet.”
“No one will say anything,” Beatriz scoffs. “They’re too terrified of our mother to broach the subject.”
Our father runs his businesses, but our mother rules our home with a jewel-covered fist.
“You’re too careless,” Isabel retorts.
I tune them out, their bickering a common refrain in our household. My gaze drifts across the high stone walls to my best friend Ana’s house. I count the windows as I’ve done for years until I reach the second floor, settling on the third one down. The light is on in her bedroom—
Isabel gets into the car’s back seat, waving me on while Beatriz somehow slides into the driver seat despite her constricting dress.
I follow my sisters out into the night.
* * *
• • •
The party is at a house in Vedado, a few blocks away from the University of Havana. The host is a friend of a friend of a friend of Isabel’s boyfriend, Alberto. Beatriz navigates a parking spot, and once she’s parked we exit the car, and I trail behind her and Isabel. Guests spill out of the entrance, the house brimming with noise and music, vibrating with laughter.
It’s a pretty enough structure—two stories tall and painted in a clean white color. A balcony juts off the second floor, more guests filling the space. At first glance, it’s obvious we’re overdressed. Significantly so. We might as well announce to the entire room that we aren’t from here, that we belong to a different part of the city. Our aim tonight is anonymity; our names and faces are relatively well-known, but I doubt this crowd spends much time poring over the society pages of Diario de la Marina.
Beatriz charges through the crowd, her hips swaying, a woman on a mission. She was so intent on coming here tonight that I can’t help but wonder if Isabel isn’t the only one dating a man our parents don’t wholly approve of. At the same time, if Beatriz were dating someone inappropriate, she would be the last to hide it. No, she’d proudly parade him in front of all, seating him at the grand dining room table our mother had shipped from Paris to compete with her rival and best friend whose own dining room table sailed from England.
Benny Moré is on the record player, couples dancing anywhere and everywhere, their bodies a little closer than you typically see at my mother’s formal parties, hands drifting a little lower, fingers clutching fabric, their cheeks pressed against each other. The women dance with a freedom I covet, their hips sinuous, their movements leaving no doubt that they embrace every ounce of femininity God gave them. There’s passion of varying degrees and inspirations throbbing in the air, occupying the cracks and crevices of the party, tucked away behind clasped hands, soaring above bent heads. A sort of frenzy that seeps into your bones.
The crowd swallows Isabel and Beatriz up until I’m left alone, standing on the fringes of the party in my too-formal dress, searching for a familiar face, someone else who’s somewhere they shouldn’t be, torn between discomfort at the raw emotions lingering under the surface and a faint prick of envy.
I accept one of the drinks they’re generously passing around, the rum sweeter than any I’m used to—stronger, too—finding a comfortable place against the wall where I can observe everyone. In a family like mine, you grow accustomed to watching from the shadows. I’ve never been like Beatriz, happiest taking risks. Nor am I Isabel—truculently in love, or Maria, prone to outbursts. This—watching couples dance, listening to music, taking the occasional sip of rum—is more than enough for me. At least, it was.
And then I see him.
Strangely, I notice the suit before I notice the man. Cuban society is not quiet society; we flaunt our wealth and status like peacocks. He is no peacock. His suit isn’t impeccably tailored to fit his frame, and it isn’t designed to impress. It’s functional—a no-nonsense black that drapes a tall, lean body. I like him better for the simplicity; I’m more than a little tired of peacocks.
He’s speaking with two other men, his hands shoved in his pockets, his gaze cast downward. He has a strong jaw, sharp cheekbones, and a surprisingly full, lush mouth on a hard face. His skin is a shade or two darker than mine, his dark hair an unruly mess curling at the ends.
He doesn’t smile.
I sip the rum, watching him, attempting to guess his age. Most of the party appears to be a little older than me—in their early twenties, perhaps—and while there’s a severity about him, he doesn’t look that much older.