“What would you wish it to be?” I ask, meeting his gaze, unable to look away. Have I ever met a man like him?
“Free. Democratic.” He lifts the cigar to his mouth, inhaling in one deep breath. He exhales a cloud of smoke. “I would like to shout. The freedom to protest when I do not agree with what my government is doing without fear of retribution. The freedom to listen to music without the fear that the regime will accuse me of being too ‘Western’ and throw me in jail. I don’t want to spend my days looking over my shoulder, wondering if my neighbor is really a member of the secret police, that one of the students in my classroom isn’t there solely for the purpose of spying on me for the government, that I won’t accidentally say something that could result in me being thrown in jail or worse.”
A chill slides down my spine. This is the Cuba my great-aunts warned me about.
“I want to own something of my own,” Luis continues. “Something the government can’t take from me, something that is mine. If we left, the government would come into our house and inventory every single possession to make sure we didn’t take any of it with us. We don’t own the furniture, the pieces that have been in our family for generations. The framed photographs on the wall taken by my grandfather. None of it is ours.”
The urge to take his hand, to offer comfort, is so strong I reach out before I catch myself. I snatch my hand back, my fingers curling into a fist in my lap. This connection between us—I can’t be imagining it—he must feel it, too.
Married. He’s married, Marisol.
“I want to be my own person.” His words wrap around my heart. “Not another number in the eyes of the government. Another food ration, another worker, another Cuban who isn’t free in his own country.”
My heart breaks for him even as I reach for hope in a place where that particular emotion seems perversely futile.
“We survive by not calling attention to ourselves, by being good little soldiers. I am tired of putting on the uniform, pretending I’m someone I’m not, unable to think for myself, burying these thoughts so they don’t get me or my family killed. I’m thirty-six years old, and each day the fight filters from my body, the effort to exert myself, to get through a day and meet my basic needs, to care for my grandmother, for my family, to put food on the table, robbing me of much else. They ensure we’re so preoccupied with the daily struggle that there’s little left over for the most important one, for taking control of our future.”
“Do you think things will improve now that diplomatic relations have increased?”
“I hope so. But what change? Will we go from this to serving even more tourists and courting cruise ships? That was the Cuba of Batista’s time, when the American mob ran Havana with their hotels and casinos. When Hollywood used this as their playground. Is there no chance for Cuba to be something more? Something greater?”
The light casts a shadow across his face, the bruise there. Luis rubs his jaw, his gaze downcast.
“There are restaurants in Havana my grandmother frequented with her family when she was a little girl. Now only tourists can afford to eat there. We’re guests in our own country. Second-rate citizens because we had the misfortune to be born Cuban.”
He raises his head to meet my gaze, his eyes defiant. We do not wear humility well.
“Would increased tourism be better, though? Than this?”
“I don’t know,” he answers, his voice weary. “It’s a cruel twist of fate that we’ve suffered through all we have to merely end up where we started, and in my family’s case with far less.
“It’s hard to hope,” he continues. “We’ve known worse times, of course. It was hell when we lost the support of the Soviet Union.”
The not-so-Special Period.
“Would you ever leave?”
“This is my home; it’s all I’ve ever known. And at the same time, it’s hard. There comes a point when you have to decide if it’s worth it, if the abuses are enough to make you want to leave, if they outweigh those few moments when you know true pleasure.”
It’s the word “pleasure” that does it—
It’s late and I should go to bed. I shouldn’t have hushed conversations with a married man in the near-darkness.
I set my glass on the table, rising—
“Cristina never understood why I couldn’t be happy here. Why it wasn’t enough. It was what ended our marriage.”
I sit back down. “You’re separated?”
“It depends on your definition of ‘recent,’ I suppose. It’s been two years.”
“But she said she was your wife,” I sputter.
A short laugh escapes his beautiful mouth. “That sounds like Cristina.” There’s affection contained in those words, too. He takes another puff of his cigar. “She doesn’t like you.”
He doesn’t speak, but then again he doesn’t have to. His eyes say it all—that and the memory of his finger brushing mine earlier on the Malecón.
You know why.
“You thought I was the sort of man who would—”
He doesn’t finish the thought, but then again he doesn’t need to. We exist in a state of half-finished sentences, the pauses in our conversation filling the inadequacies of words.
“I didn’t know.”
“Now you do. I’m not.”
The sort of man who would hit on women when he’s married.
“I should go up to my room,” I say.
I don’t move.
Neither does he.
“I want to show you something. Will you come with me?” he asks. “I teach a morning class at the university tomorrow; you could attend if you’d like and see the Cuban educational experience in person. And after, I can give you a tour of the island.”
A day passes, then two, without any news from my father. It takes every ounce of strength to keep from asking him about Pablo, to wipe the fear from my face, to maintain the facade that all is well. I pass the days writing Pablo letters, letters I might never have the opportunity to send, letters in which I finally admit the feelings that have been building for so long.
Surely I would know if something has happened to him, if he has passed on?
I think I loved you from the first moment you told me about your passion for Cuba, your dreams for her future. I loved your conviction, your strength, the confidence with which you approached the problem, as though it was your right as a Cuban citizen to demand more, to fight for it.
I wish I had your courage, your convictions. I wish there was more of a fight inside me. I’ve been raised from birth to continue on, to survive in this dangerous political climate. My grandfather was killed by Machado’s men—did I ever tell you that? I think it changed something in my father, in all of us.
And then there’s the rest of it. As much as I am loath to admit that my gender limits me somewhat, it does. I’ve been thinking about what you said to me that night we met at Guillermo’s party—about the changes we should demand in Cuba. Perhaps my gender shouldn’t limit me.
I read the books you told me about, the ones that inspired you, immersed myself in the words of great men, and I want to believe there is more we can do, more we can expect for our future, but I am also scared. Afraid for you, afraid my family—my siblings—will be targeted by the regime because of my actions.
I wish I weren’t so afraid.
Four days after I asked my father for help, he summons me to his study.
“I called in a favor. He’ll be released.”
My heart pounds.
“You won’t see him again.”
It is not a question.
* * *
• • •
Another day passes before Pablo is released from jail, before I can see him, my promise to my father buried somewhere beneath layers of guilt. I borrow Beatriz’s gleaming Mercedes and drive to Guillermo’s house, to the place where we first met, and wait for Pablo, looking over my shoulder the entire time. It was my brother who told me they would be here. I’m not entirely surprised Alejandro knows Guillermo, especially considering Beatriz’s interest in attending the party at his house that fateful night. When I received the sealed note from Alejandro telling me Pablo would be released this morning, there was never a question of whether or not I would come. For better or worse, I have taken a stand, not with the rebels, but with my heart. I pray it doesn’t fail me now.
I wait as the car pulls into the driveway of Guillermo’s house. He’s in the driver’s seat of the Buick, Pablo beside him, sunglasses covering his eyes, his shoulders hunched over, his face partially obscured.
My heart pounds.
Pablo steps out of the car and stops in his tracks, his hand lingering on the door. He walks toward me, a limp in his gait, a mixture of surprise and what looks to be relief in his eyes. I step into his embrace, holding him gingerly, trying to avoid the bruises, the cuts.
Dried blood mars his shirt.
What did they do to him?
A sob rises in my throat, but I push it down, wanting more than anything to be strong for Pablo.
He breathes into the curve of my neck, his lips caressing my skin, his body sagging against me. In this moment, our roles have reversed, and I am the one to provide comfort, strength. My name falls from his lips like a prayer.
I want to speak, but no words come.
Our bodies shift, our mouths finding each other. I don’t even realize I’m crying until tears wet my lips.
“It’s okay,” Pablo whispers as he strokes my hair. I’m not sure if he says the words for me or for himself. His heart beats against mine, his body shuddering with each breath he takes. “You shouldn’t have come,” he says, even though he doesn’t sound the least bit sorry I did.
“How could I not?”