“This is perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever been to this part of the city before,” I reply.
“We used to come here when we were younger. My father would bring me and my sisters to buy fireworks. You’ve never seen fireworks such as these.” He smiles, and I suspect he’s caught in a memory. “We used to fight over who would light them.”
I grin. “That sounds like something my siblings and I would do.”
“Are you hungry?” he asks after a moment.
“There’s a good place right around the corner; they have the best Chinese food in the city.”
Pablo takes my hand, and I link my fingers with his. I’m grateful I removed my gloves before I came, that I’m able to touch him like this, our bare skin clasped together. His thumb strokes the inside of my palm.
He walks with purpose, navigating the crowds with ease.
We walk past a business Pablo identifies as the famous Pacifico and stop outside a tiny restaurant shoved in between several other businesses on the narrow street. The sounds of the restaurant spill out onto the street, the inauspicious front incongruous with the lively interior.
It’s not La Zaragozana, or the Tropicana, but I like it more for the fact that it, too, like Pablo, doesn’t stand on ceremony. Other men might have taken me to the finest restaurant in the city in an effort to impress, but I appreciate this more—his desire to show me somewhere special, to share this secret with me.
“I promise the food is some of the best you’ll ever eat,” he says.
I smile. “It’s wonderful.”
We walk inside, and an elderly Chinese man leads us to a small table in the back of the space. The restaurant is narrow and long; the tables around us are empty, the front filled with groups of men eating and playing dominoes. I’m happy to have Pablo order for me, content to watch him laugh with the waiter as they converse in Spanish. When he’s finished ordering our meal, the man leaves us and we’re alone once again.
Neither one of us speaks for a moment that stretches on and on, until I can no longer take the silence. There’s too much at stake here for me to be demure, too much that hangs in the balance for me to be my mother’s daughter, eyes cast downward and only speaking when spoken to in polite society. Before the kiss on the Malecón, I was content to keep things casual. Now I know that possibility is behind us.
“What do I need to know about you?” I ask, keeping my voice low. We’re far away from the rest of the diners, but you never know when the wrong person will overhear a dangerous conversation.
I shake my head, cutting off any protest. Perhaps this is fast, maybe it’s too much for me to ask these things, but in this climate I’m not sure the rules for polite behavior apply anymore. We are entangling ourselves, and I need to know how risky it is.
“I read your letter. You’ve given me pieces of it, and I think I know, but I need to hear the rest, need to know what I am getting myself into, what I need to protect.”
Our hands rest inches from each other on the table, and even as I attempt to keep my feelings for him at bay, I want him to take my hand again, to feel those calluses against my skin.
Pablo sighs. “You have to be careful. You can’t trust anyone. The things I tell you, you can’t tell anyone. Lives depend on it.”
He searches my gaze, and I can feel him assessing, deciding whether he’s going to trust me. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Does he merely view me as a silly debutante, pretty to look at but good for little else? Or does he see me as more? As an equal, someone he can confide in, someone he can trust.
“I was in the Sierra Maestra before I came here.”
I take a deep breath, steadying myself, even as I’m not completely surprised by his announcement. He is one of the bearded ones—the men who are fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains, broadcasting revolution on Radio Rebelde, the men my father decries each day.
“How did you become involved with them?” I stare down at my knuckles, offering a prayer to the heavens that I have not just opened Pandora’s box.
“At the University of Havana. I told you I studied law—one of my classmates was involved in the revolutionary movement; I went to a few meetings with him. In the beginning, we marched in protest. There wasn’t much organization in place, but we believed we had an opportunity to speak out against the injustices around us.”
His voice hardens.
“Batista promised to uphold the 1940 Constitution, to give us the rights we were promised, and then he reneged on that promise. Where is our freedom? Our liberty? How much of this country’s wealth goes to the city, to Havana? The capital is littered with American casinos and hotels, populated by movie stars and gangsters treating the country as though it is their own personal playground while Cuban citizens in the provinces can’t read, don’t have access to basic necessities to meet their needs.”
I heard the same sentiments from Alejandro not so long ago.
An oath falls from Pablo’s lips, his voice lowering.
“The protests turned violent. It was inevitable, really. Anytime we made progress, anytime we attempted to reach the Cuban people, to spread our message in newspaper articles or on the radio, our words and actions were censored, our supporters hunted. Batista controls everything—the military, the media, the economy. We never stood a chance. And we aren’t just fighting Batista; we’re fighting the United States, who supports him year after year, who gives him weapons he uses to kill his own people, to maintain his hold on our island. How do a group of students chanting and marching create meaningful change if they aren’t willing to embrace violence? How do you gain any power in a world where a few control all of it if you aren’t willing to wrest that power from them?”
A chill seeps into my bones as his words hit home. Men like my father. How far is Pablo willing to go in his fight against Batista? Has he killed? Will he kill? Can we ever find common ground between us—our love of Cuba, perhaps—or are we destined to be on opposite sides?
He cuts off his speech abruptly. “You’re upset.”
I am, but this hardly seems the time for delicate sensibilities. “Tell me the rest of it.”
“I was at the Moncada Barracks with Fidel. The soldiers opened fire on us. We thought we would catch them off guard, that everyone would be distracted by Santiago’s carnival festivities, drunk and careless, but we missed something in the planning, and once we lost the element of surprise, it was all over. We shot at them until we had no bullets left—men I’d laughed with, drank with, died beside me—and then we ran. Fidel wasn’t so lucky. I escaped, helped him while he was in prison.”
That was five years ago. I was a young girl when armed men attacked the Moncada Barracks—the second-largest military garrison in Cuba—in Santiago de Cuba on July 26th in Fidel Castro’s failed attempt to seize control of the government away from Batista. The news said that the rebels boarded buses in Havana and followed Fidel to the country, not realizing the details of their mission, failing to understand how suicidal it was—how they were outmanned and outgunned, armed with recklessness, idealism, and weapons that paled in comparison to those of the military. Men were killed that day on both sides, the trials that followed somewhere in the background of my childhood. I played with dolls while he went to war.
“So you have lived a dangerous life.”
He shrugs as though he takes no pride in the matter, as though such actions are merely a by-product of doing what he believes to be right.
“I have. It is dangerous to fight for what you believe in. It is also dangerous to speak of the corruption in Batista’s government, of our dependence on the United States, to complain about unemployment, the failing economy, how sugar controls all of our fortunes.” He breaks off with a curse as I blanch.
I’ve listened to the same words hurled at my father by my brother, except the difference between Pablo and Alejandro is that I’m familiar with Alejandro’s disdain for Fidel and the 26th of July, his belief that they are not willing to go far enough in the change they wish to bring to Cuba, that the “revolution” they call for will not do enough to upend the economic disparities that have plagued our island since the Spaniards came.
“You hate my family,” I say, my voice dull.
Another oath falls from Pablo’s lips, and in a flash, I see the conflict in his eyes, the truth and the lie contained in his words.
“If only it were that simple. I should hate your family. Men like your father have stolen this country from the rest of us. I should hate your family, but—”
His voice trails off as though he cannot explain the vagaries of the human heart.
“I’m not my family,” I protest even as I recognize the falsehood for what it is as the words fall from my lips.
It is a remarkably painful thing to have someone you care about and admire judge your existence, your very identity, the world you inhabit, and deem it rotten to the core. My brother hates everything about being a Perez, and the more he professes his desire to distance himself from our family, the more it seems impossible for him to love those of us who were born into this lifestyle. I am my parents’ daughter. How can you love something you denounce with such fervor?
“Of course you are,” Pablo says. “It’s in your bones, the tilt of your head, the sound of your voice, every step of your stride. You’re a Perez, through and through.”
And that’s the problem. I don’t know how to undo a lifetime of behavior, of rules, of manners that have been drilled into me. How to repudiate those I love the most—Beatriz, Isabel, Maria, my parents, Alejandro. We are not Batista, nor do we agree with many of his policies. But where is the difference between sin and survival? Does the benefit we receive from his position of power automatically damn us?
“I wish things were simpler,” Pablo adds. “I wish you could live in my world and I could live in yours. I wish there wasn’t such a sharp divide between those who have everything and those who simply yearn for a chance at more.”