“Ahh, but love is not logical. It is my weakness, perhaps, but it is my country. How do I not love it?”
“But at what cost?”
“When you love something you don’t count the cost.”
Luis smiles sadly. “You know I love you, Marisol. Do not ask me to choose between who I love and who I am. I fear it would not reflect well on either one of us.”
“I’m not asking you to choose. There is no choice. They’ve made the choice for you. You cannot stay here and live; and death is not a continuation, it is not a way of fighting them; your death will mean nothing. You can do more good alive in Miami than dead in Havana.”
“The exile’s refrain.”
“So what if it is? At least we’ve preserved a version of Cuba that does not exist in this place. We’re the only ones who’ve preserved it.”
“You cannot live in a museum, Marisol. The problem with your ‘preservation’ is that it fails to account for the fact that there is a real Cuba. A living, breathing Cuba. You’re all so busy fighting imaginary ghosts in Miami while we’re here, bleeding on the ground, dealing with real problems. Your exile community isn’t concerned with the black market, or the housing shortage, or the very real flaws in the much-touted education system, or the fact that racial discrimination occurs on a daily basis. You’re still pissed because your grand mansions were taken away and are now occupied by the very men you hate the most. The rest of us are caught in the middle, worrying about how to survive.”
“So teach us. Come to Miami. Get involved with the movement there. Change the narrative. The discourse is changing. Fidel is dead. The enmity toward the regime is turning to a very practical approach on Cuba. We’re on the cusp of a new era in Cuban-American relations; perhaps there is an opportunity for something better. That article I’m writing? What if it wasn’t about travel? What if it was about contemporary Cuba? What if you told your story? Help us. Teach us about the problems facing Cuba now.”
“It still feels like I’m abandoning my country.”
“It’s already abandoned you. This isn’t your country. Or your grandmother’s. It’s Castro’s. And now, his ghost’s. It was supposed to be yours. That was the promise of ’59. But they broke that promise almost from the beginning. This version of Cuba belongs to the regime, but that doesn’t mean the future has to.
“Retreat is a victory of sorts. You can’t win this battle, not like this. You’re not giving up, just giving yourself a better chance to change the system in a world where you don’t have to play by their rules.”
He shakes his head. “Marisol.” His tone is resigned, but there’s a gleam in his eyes that wasn’t there a few minutes ago.
“You know I’m right.”
“Perhaps,” he acknowledges.
“We have to make do with the opportunities that present themselves. We have a chance to get you out. We need to take it.”
He’s quiet for a long beat, the only noise in the room the sound of our breathing, the whirl of the ceiling fan overhead. And then—
* * *
• • •
I run into Cristina on my way out. She’s sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, staring out at the rusted metal gate at the entryway.
“You want him to leave with you,” she says, her tone flat, not bothering to glance at me.
I guess Ana filled Cristina and Caridad in on the conversation with my grandfather. I’m exhausted from my talk with Luis, with the events of the last few days, my grandmother’s ashes a weight in my bag, and more than anything, I don’t have much fight left in me.
She takes another drag of her cigarette, the smoke billowing in the air.
“Why? Because you love him?”
There’s no anger in her voice; the words are delivered in a flat, unemotional tone.
“Yes. I’m sorry,” I add, knowing as soon as the apology leaves my lips that it rings hollow and inadequate, even as it’s all I have.
Love feels like a luxury here in this world where divorced couples are forced to live together because there is no housing, because the government makes it so. Love feels like a luxury in a world where so many struggle for the basic things I take for granted.
“Do you?” I ask.
“What? Love him?”
“He is a good man. Kind. Hardworking,” she answers.
“What alternative do I have?” I ask, the doubts creeping in. Am I being selfish? Or is leaving truly the only answer available to him? “They’ll kill him if he stays. I love him, yes. But this isn’t about me. It’s about his future.”
She scoffs. “It must be so nice for him to have a wealthy American woman who’s willing to make his life easier.” Her gaze pins me. The condemnation in her eyes strips me bare. “Do you think this is the first time I’ve heard this story? Do you know how many of my friends have dreamed of a man who would take them away from this? Have ended up pregnant and abandoned or worse? Perhaps the roles are reversed, but you’re just another rich foreigner making promises. What will he know of your world? What will your rich American friends think of him?”
“It’s not like that,” I protest.
Are the differences between us simply insurmountable?
“Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it exactly like that? You come here, and you spend a few days in Cuba, and tell yourself you’ve fallen in love, that you’re ‘saving’ Luis. And then you return to your nice, safe life in America, far away from all this. You say you want to be Cuban.” Her hands wave in the air, the cigarette dangling between her fingertips, ash falling to the ground. “This is what it means to be Cuban. To be a woman in Cuba is to suffer. What do you know of suffering?”
I don’t. Not like this.
“What would you have me do?” I ask.
“Nothing. I wouldn’t have you do anything. But you’re all complaining about how you lost your country, and the reality is you didn’t lose your country; you left. You left the rest of us in hell. And now he’s leaving right alongside you.”
“Would you rather him stay here and die?”
My frustration isn’t with Cristina, it’s with this whole situation, but at the moment she’s voicing the things I fear the most.
She takes a drag of her cigarette. “No.”
“Then what would you have me do?” I ask again. “You don’t want him to leave, but he cannot stay. So what solution is there?”
Her smile mocks me. “Is that what it’s like in your world? Do things get wrapped up in pretty little bows and happy endings? You go back to America with Luis. You get married and have children, and have your perfect little life together. But deep down, you have to know you won’t have all of him. I tried to make him choose between me and Cuba, and he chose Cuba every single time. No matter how much you love him, how much you think he loves you, a part of him will always be here. And a part of him will always resent you for taking him away.”
Maybe. Maybe the parts of him are enough; maybe things will change and it won’t have to be a choice anymore—
I stand there, looking down at her sitting on the steps, the straps of her sandals worn, her expression hardened to steel.
This island will break your heart if you let it.
“You could leave, too, you know.”
She laughs, the sound unvarnished and raw.
“Find some nice man who tells me he wants to take me away from this place and leaves me with a swollen belly and a disease or two? No, thanks.”
“We could try to get you out. All of you.”
Scorn fills her gaze. “I tried once. Did Luis ever tell you that?”
“I was six. There were twenty of us in a raft. My parents and fifteen others died. We spent a week floating in the water, starving, exhausted before the Coast Guard picked us up and brought us back to Fidel. The adults were thrown in prison. I was sent to live with my grandmother. I’ll take my chances, thank you very much.”
I’m rooted to this spot, some part of me wanting to stay and convince her, another part of me already gone.
“I have to go.”
My grandfather is waiting for me at the Malecón.
When I reach the gate, I turn around, watching as she snuffs out the cigarette on the steps of the house, her gaze trained somewhere out to the sea.
What does it say about a place that people will risk certain death to leave it?
* * *
• • •
I walk from the Rodriguez house to the Malecón, my conversation with Cristina running through my head on repeat. Luis is with his mother and grandmother, discussing the logistics of him leaving. And I’m here, finally fulfilling my grandmother’s last wishes, the reason I came to Cuba. Waves crash against the rocks at El Morro, the sun setting on another Havana day.
My grandfather stands next to me, staring out at the sea, and I wonder how many times he did this and whether he searched for her, somewhere beyond the horizon, when he did.
I don’t realize I’ve asked the question aloud until he speaks.
“I imagined her there. America. As a wife. A mother. With the life we always dreamed about—a house full of kids somewhere with a palm tree in the backyard. I imagined her aging as I have. Each year that passed, I thought of her.” He sighs. “It was enough to hope that she was happy.”
I hate that their story doesn’t have a happy ending, that ultimately, this is yet another thing Fidel took from them.
“It feels incomplete,” I murmur.
“Life so often is. It’s messy, too. This isn’t the ending, Marisol. When you’re young, life’s punctuation so often seems final when it’s nothing more than a pause. When I learned Elisa had married, I thought our story had ended. Accepted it. And now, almost sixty years later, you’re here. I have a granddaughter. A son, a new family. A piece of Elisa.