We’re both too old to blindly rush into things, to not know the risks involved, how ill-suited we are on paper. Despite all the things we have in common, the reality is that unless relations between the United States and Cuba drastically change, we’re starting down an untenable road. A long-distance relationship takes on a whole new meaning in a country like Cuba where the Internet is so heavily regulated, communication thwarted, tourist travel banned by the United States, Cubans’ freedom to travel subject to the whims of the government bureaucracy and economic realities. In a country where the government is a terrifying specter towering over its citizens.
How can it be more than just a fling?
“Are you sure it’s okay to go see Magda?” I ask again, pushing the niggling doubts about our future from my mind.
“It probably will be fine,” he answers, staring down at our linked hands. “If anyone is keeping an eye on you, it’ll merely look like you’re visiting an old family friend. It’s not like they know you’re looking for someone.”
I still. “What do you mean ‘if anyone is keeping an eye on you’? Are you saying the regime is spying on me?”
Did it occur to me that they likely monitored Cuban agitators, foreign officials in their country? Sure. But me?
The look Luis gives me is exceedingly patient and a little sad. “They like to keep tabs on things.”
“But me? I’m writing a tourism article, not a political piece.”
“Yes, and you’re also a descendant of one of Cuba’s wealthiest and most notorious families. What would you expect? Plus, you’re staying here with us . . .” He shrugs. “Like I said, they like to keep track of people.”
“Do you think they’re following me the whole time I’m here?”
“Probably not. They have limited resources, after all. That said, who knows?”
The notion that someone has been watching me since I arrived in Havana, however innocuously, is terrifying. Were they there when we sat beside each other on the Malecón? Sitting in a pew somewhere in the Cathedral of Havana pretending to pray while actually logging my movements to report back to some government official?
“How do you live like this?” I ask. “Aren’t you afraid all the time?”
“You tread carefully,” he answers. “And then eventually you become inured to their threats and they lose their teeth. You’re still careful, but you test the boundaries and limits a bit more each day, because otherwise you would go mad living in a constant state of fear. And that’s what terrifies the regime. If the people don’t fear them, they lose their power.”
Luis pushes off from the desk abruptly, tugging me forward and closing the gap between us. I tip my head to stare into his eyes. “Ready?” he asks.
* * *
• • •
It takes a little over three hours to get from Havana to the beach in Varadero. Luis stops a few times so I can take pictures of the scenery, as I bask in this side of Cuban life. The space between Havana and Varadero feels off the beaten path, giving me a glimpse of the country that isn’t reserved for tourists. It will be different when we arrive at our destination, of course. Varadero is one of the country’s most famous seaside resort cities. Of all the places I’ve wanted to visit in Cuba, this is another that’s special to me—a place that meant something to my grandmother.
The water, Marisol. The most beautiful water you’ve ever seen. The color of that necklace I bought you. You know the one?
Luis’s arm drapes around the back of my seat, his other hand tapping the steering wheel, keeping time with the beat of the music on the car’s radio. The sun shines down on us, the breeze from the convertible’s open top alleviating the heat a bit, but my thighs still stick to the white leather upholstery.
When we finally arrive at the beach, I’m hardly disappointed. Varadero is everything my grandmother said it would be; white sand is cut in fine granules, towering palms loom overhead, the most beautiful clear water my eyes have ever seen lies before me.
It’s relatively quiet in this section of beach, and we find a spot off to the side under a palm tree. The nearest sunbather is hundreds of yards away, providing the illusion that we’ve found our own corner of the world.
Luis sets up a blanket for us in the sand, taking out the hamper he brought from home.
He pulls out tamales and empanadas wrapped in paper and bottled sodas, handing the food to me. I polish off a tamale and an empanada, washing them down with the familiar taste of Materva.
“Do you want to go swimming?” Luis asks once we’ve finished eating.
The water’s impossible to resist.
I pull the dress over my head, wearing the bikini I changed into earlier during one of our stops along the journey, and turn my back to Luis as I stare at the waves lapping at the shore. A fishing boat hovers in the distance, bobbing up and down in the water. Far to the right of me, tiny straw umbrellas pepper the landscape.
This truly is paradise.
I imagine scattering my grandmother’s ashes here, making her final resting place in the sand and the sea. And yet—
I’m not ready to part with her; there’s an unfamiliar distance between us, the secret of her mysterious romance lingering between us.
You think you know someone, imagine you know them better than anyone, and then little by little, the fabric of their life unravels before your eyes and you realize how little you knew. She was always the constant in my life, and now—
It feels a bit like I’ve lost her all over again.
I walk toward the water, not waiting for Luis, taking a moment to get my bearings, to calm the racing beat of my heart, to clear my head.
The blue water is like crystal; fish skimming the surface in flashes of colors dart in and out of the waves. The temperature is more a tepid bath than a bracing dip.
The sand slips through my toes.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Luis asks from his place beside me, his shoulder a hairbreadth from mine.
“It is.” I wade farther into the sea, the water undulating against my calves, a fish swimming by. Then another. I go deeper, the water up to my knees, then my thighs, Luis trailing somewhere behind me, giving me space.
The water grows darker and darker before me, until it breaks off, some point beyond the horizon I can no longer see—a home in the United States that suddenly feels very far away.
My fingertips trail against the sea as it caresses my navel. I dive under the waves, and when I pop up again, Luis is there, his back to the sun, watching me.
It feels like a line of dominoes falling into place, like somehow I was meant to end up here, with the grandson of beloved family friends, my feet on Cuban soil, history catching up to me.
I take a step forward. Then another. I stop an inch away from Luis, and our lips meet, the salt from the sea between us, the smell of the ocean filling my nostrils, the sun warming his skin beneath my hands, his beard scratchy against my cheek.
Ages pass before we come up for air.
* * *
• • •
“Tell me about your family,” Luis says.
We’ve migrated from the sea to the sand, lounging on a worn blanket he brought with him. My lips are swollen from his kisses. I pass the drink we’ve been sharing back to him and stare out at the water. It’s an innocent enough question on the surface, but so very complicated beneath it.
He smiles, his mouth brushing against my temple, his beard tickling my skin. The sight of his injuries makes my stomach clench.
“So I can know you,” he replies. “You’ve met my family—my mother, my grandmother, Cristina. I can’t help but be curious about yours. I grew up on stories about your grandmother, your great-aunts. They were like family to my grandmother.”
“My family’s complicated.”
His lips curve. “Aren’t they all?”
“True. Perhaps mine seems a bit more so than most because so many of our foibles have played out in gossip columns.”
I explain about the rubber heiress, the fact that my grandmother raised me. I’ve gotten so good at telling this story to people who’ve asked about my unorthodox family structure throughout the years—why my grandmother sat in the audience at school plays rather than my parents—that I can nearly get through it without a hitch.
“Do you miss your mother? Are you close now?” Luis asks.
I shrug, raising the bottle to my lips once more, the cool drink sliding down my throat. “I suppose I miss the idea of her—what society says the relationship should be—rather than the reality. I never knew her enough to miss her; even now we’re more polite strangers than anything else. I’ve seen her a handful of times in the last decade, usually when we both happen to be in the same place. We get along just fine.”
“I had my sisters, my father, my great-aunts. Everyone lived close to one another in Florida, so I didn’t lack for family. My father was busy with work a lot, but he still made an effort, was around as much as he could be. Besides, I had my grandmother; that was all I ever needed.”
“What was your grandmother like?” Luis asks, his hand drifting lazily across my hip.
Despite the heat, goose bumps rise over my skin.
“Fierce. Unapologetic. Proud. Loyal—to her country and to her family.” I pause. “I didn’t understand it until now, but there was a sadness in her. A longing. I always thought it was for Cuba, but now I wonder if those times when she grew silent, when she was with us, and wasn’t, if those were the times when she thought of him.”
“How is the search going? Have you learned anything else about him since last night? Did my grandmother have anything else to add when you spoke with her this morning?”
“No. I’m hoping Magda will have some answers.”
He’s quiet a moment. “Your grandmother—you said she was all you had. Is that why it’s so important to you to find him?”