No one objects when I join them in the kitchen, helping to make the picadillo for the evening meal. The paladar is full tonight, the tables packed with tourists—Canadians, two Australian couples, and a French family. Cristina and Caridad serve the guests with somber expressions and trays laden with food.
I worry most about Ana.
When the other two women are out serving guests, she allows the facade to slip a bit, murmuring prayers and rubbing the bracelet on her wrist as though it’s a rosary.
“Would you like to lie down?” I ask.
My cooking skills aren’t on par with Ana’s, but picadillo is a staple in the Cuban diet. I’ve helped my grandmother make it hundreds of times, and it’s one of my few culinary achievements.
“Thank you, but no. It helps me to stay busy—to keep my mind from wandering.”
She reaches over and squeezes my hand. “He’ll be okay,” she proclaims, her hand drifting to her chest, a beat above her heart. “I feel it here.”
We cook in silence, working in tandem to create the picadillo. When I press Ana to eat some herself, she waves me off and says I should eat instead. My stomach is too full of nerves and worry for me to bother with food, and we continue on in the tiny space.
Cristina and Caridad drift in and out of the kitchen, returning to serve the guests.
Someone pounds at the front door.
We both still. Ana’s gaze darts toward the kitchen entrance and back to me.
Her hands drift to the bracelet again, her fingers flying over the beads. “Will you come with me?”
I nod, the words stuck in my throat.
I take her hand, and we walk toward the door together. When we reach the front door, I pause. “Do you think we should—”
Wait? Get help? A litany of objections runs through my mind before I remember this is Cuba, and the rules here work differently. There is no media to highlight these abuses, no government to complain to, no friend or neighbor to call upon to aid us. We are really and truly alone with only ourselves to rely on.
Ana straightens, pushing her shoulders back, her fingers fumbling with the lock on the door. She swings it open.
Luis and my grandfather stand on the other side.
The sight of Luis is a shock, even more so because of the condition he’s in. His lip is swollen, a fresh bruise on his cheekbone, a cut near his jaw, his beard matted with blood. His arm hangs at his side, his torso hunched over as though damage has been done there, too.
They cross the threshold and Ana closes the door behind them.
I step forward, wrapping my arms around Luis, careful to keep my touch gentle, to avoid doing further injury to him. I pull back, searching his expression, my gaze running over his face for more injuries I might have missed.
“Are you okay?” I ask. “What happened?”
“I’m okay,” he answers, his voice weak.
I step back while Ana hugs him, her voice full of worry and love.
“Did you get him out?” I ask my grandfather. When I went to him for help, I didn’t expect such quick results.
“For now. Is there somewhere we can talk? Somewhere private?”
Ana nods and takes us to the small sitting room off the entryway.
When the door shuts, my grandfather fills us in on the rest of it.
“Officially, it’ll look like he was accidentally released. It happens—clerical errors, overcrowded jails and prisons, people get lost in the shuffle. It’s not going to buy much time, though.”
He turns his attention to Luis. “You have a passport, yes?”
Luis gives a clipped nod in return. “I thought it was a prudent move when they removed the ban on foreign travel.”
I don’t miss the way he says “they” or the look he gives my grandfather when he says it. At the same time, there’s a wary trust in Luis’s eyes and I’ve no doubt my grandfather told Luis about his relationship to me.
“Good,” Pablo answers. “Then you can go from Havana to Antigua. Buy a return ticket—Marisol can help you. The fare will be high, but they won’t require you to have a visa to get into the country. There’s no time to get you a visa to fly to a country that will require one. Hopefully, at the airport they will think you are going on vacation.”
“Won’t they flag his passport at the airport, though?” I interject.
“At the moment, there’s nothing to flag. You’ve disappeared from their records. It won’t last long, though.
“Once you’re in Antigua, you’ll want to get a plane to the United States,” Pablo continues. “That will be difficult, but with enough money, not impossible.”
He turns to me. “Marisol will need to help you with the rest of it. You’ll need to charter a plane to take you from Antigua to Miami and to sort out his entry into the United States. Can you do that?”
Honestly? I have no clue. But at the moment, we seem to have few options available to us.
“I think so. My father’s company has a plane he uses for business. My family will help.”
Once, it was enough that if we could get Luis to the United States, he would be offered refuge. Under the decades-old wet foot, dry foot policy, Cubans who were captured in the water were sent back to Cuba by the Coast Guard; Cubans who reached American soil could stay.
Now, thanks to recent politics, things are more complicated.
My grandfather’s expression turns grim. “You need to understand something, Marisol. They can arrest you on suspicion of even helping Luis leave the country. They know you’re here as a journalist. That you’re staying with the Rodriguez family. You could be in just as much trouble as Luis. And if you aren’t successful and they catch you, they can throw you in prison for a very long time. There are few offenses the government takes more seriously than helping a Cuban leave the country illegally.”
I don’t take lightly my grandfather’s warning or the risk he’s taking himself by helping us, but at the same time, how can I not help get Luis out of Cuba?
“We’re not doing this. She’s not doing it,” Luis interjects. “She’s risking her freedom and her life. No.”
“You don’t get to make that decision for me,” I protest.
“If we’re caught—”
“Then we won’t get caught.” My heart pounds. “There’s no way I’m leaving you here to die. Part of why you’re in this trouble is because I helped bring your work to their attention.”
“Bullshit,” Luis snaps.
“You need to think about this, Marisol,” my grandfather cautions. “Luis is right; it’s a risk. A dangerous one.”
“Aren’t you putting yourself at risk as well?” I ask my grandfather.
“I’m an old man. How many years do I have left? I’ve served the regime well for a long time, and I’ve accumulated enough influence.” His smile is wry. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Then don’t expect me not to do the same.”
I came here searching for my family’s legacy, and now I know what it is.
I grew up on their stories, but it was different hearing my grandmother and her sisters recount their experiences. They spoke of their own bravery in a matter-of-fact tone as though it was something they did that anyone would have done in their position. But now I’ve seen a sliver of what they lived through up close, the grace with which they bore their suffering, the strength with which they carried our family and our future on their backs. They sacrificed and risked their lives for those they loved, for their country. They were brave when it mattered most.
How can I not honor their legacy?
“Marisol—” Luis interjects.
“We’ll talk about it later,” I answer. I turn toward my grandfather. “You think this could be successful?”
“There’s no guarantee it will work, but it’s the best chance you have,” my grandfather answers. “But we need to move quickly. Luis will be back on their radar soon. These things can only be covered up for so long. They’ve had people keeping an eye on you since you arrived in the country, Marisol. I had them momentarily reassigned, but it will only buy you a day or two at the most.”
“And my family? What about them?” Luis asks, his mouth in a tense line.
Our earlier conversations come to mind, his reluctance to leave, his fear that his actions will put his family at risk.
“These are difficult times for the regime,” my grandfather answers. “There is international scrutiny that wasn’t there before and also an element of unpredictability in their relations with the United States. They need to have a better relationship with the United States; you know this as well as I do. Things will not change overnight; human rights will not change overnight. But Raúl is not stupid. Cuba needs to make some semblance of overture to the United States. The government needs to be careful about which battles they choose to fight, and given Luis’s grandfather’s prior relationship with the regime, his father’s heroism in Angola, and Marisol’s connections in the United States, they can’t afford for this situation to become exacerbated.
“I’ve spoken to some friends in the government and impressed the gravity of the situation upon them. Your family will not be harmed, Luis. I give you my word. I’ve called in all the favors I can to assure it. But you have to leave. The more you push, the harder they’ll push back. If you disappear, they will move on and forget you. But if you stay—”
“How can you stay?” I ask Pablo. “How can you support what they’re doing?” I’m grateful for his help, but I can’t reconcile the man who seems to have such a good heart with a government official involved in such corruption. “You have to know this is wrong.”
“Is it better to stay and become part of the system or leave and be considered a traitor?” my grandfather replies. “A worm? I do not know. If I leave, what will change? If I stay, what will change? I have tried to be a counterbalance to some of the more extreme notions that have arisen over the years. Tried to preserve the rule of law. This is my home, imperfect though it is. I have to believe—hope—there is still some good I may do, some change I may effect to help Cubans. That has to be enough now. I do not begrudge those who live abroad now, who found the situation such that they could not stay. Please do not judge me for the fact that I cannot leave.”