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It’s knife-wielding season in Little Havana. Last week a tremoring, teenage ladrón stripped Manny of his gold link bracelet outside the Pollo Tropical. Today, in the midst of our meeting, this black oak of a man stands with a silver blade at his own neck. “Get my wife out,” he yells. His midnight eyes are moist. Then his elbow twitches and I know he is scared.
Lovely Magdalena stands behind the podium. The thirty of us twist our necks to look from the knife-wielding man to Magdalena and back like watching the Williams sisters play singles. I sit near the front of the meeting with the other men slow in movement and hard of hearing. The only noises are the metal chair legs scratching against the terrazzo as people position themselves for viewing.
Magdalena has not moved. She and the man are the only ones standing, heads above us like cocks in a pen. Her gaze is steady. Her hair is stiff and posture tight. She has led this meeting of exiled and refugee Cubans for thirteen years and every other year I have contemplated marrying her.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“Get her out!” The knife pushes at his jugular, causing a sheen on his skin where the blade divots his flesh. “Please,” he adds.
We had just concluded the first few phases of the meeting when this man stood up and began his self hostage taking. Magdalena was finished with the minutes and had started the night’s agenda. Same things every week in this small room at the local college: the paratroopers and the rescues.
The paratroopers have been going on for years and we have to bring it up every once in a while to appease Ernesto, who is fifty-two and still jumping out of avocado trees in hopes of attacking Castro and possibly smothering him with his chute. I shouldn’t jest, he and the others really have a more detailed plan, but they have been doing this for twenty years and haven’t left American airspace yet.
The rescues are somewhat satisfying. I have met two of the people we have helped. One was a man who was smuggled out with a passport that was given to him by a black-haired Australian. He landed at Miami airport and hid in a bathroom stall until Marcus could coax him out. The other was a female flute player who was touring with a band in Canada. She’s a member’s niece and we had been in contact with her for months. She declared asylum, then we set up a place for her to live and get her family enough money back in Miramar to make her defection palatable.
We were discussing another rescue, a teenage boy who was going to raft it with a man who takes mail and gifts back and forth monthly. Everyone in Miami knows about this mailman, but no one says his name. He gets paid well for what he does and he will get paid in the five digits for bringing this package back.
That is when the tall black man towards the back of the room stood up and pulled a knife on himself.
“What is your name?” Magdalena asks again.
He looks at us, the whole group. Not each person. And I know his eyes see one large glob of seaweed that is in his way. “My name is Rico. Rico Mendez.”
“And your wife’s name?” She is not looking him in the eye, but down at the podium as if he is a minor interruption.
“Rebeca.” Saying her name saps the strength out of his tone.
“Is Rebeca in danger?”
They are all in danger in our opinion or we wouldn’t be meeting and raising money to get these people out. That is the hardest thing; putting aside the reason you joined — to get your family out. I used to sit in this chair, butt tight and eager to jump into action. Now I lean back, let my body conform to the metal.
I see the group like a totem pole, heads stacked on top of each other, trying to scare someone or something, but wooden all the same. There is the information group. They are the ones who have their ham radios picking up Havana, telling us every mundane rumor of Fidel’s Parkinson’s or lung cancer. Then there are the attackers who bring up, “Why don’t we just put together a force and go in there and kill him?” The politicians who save their energy for affirmative action or new Elians. And those who are just angry.
“Is she in immediate danger?” Magdalena asks and I realize what she is doing. She is a smart one. Smart like my Marta.
“Yes she is in danger. I was in danger,” he lifts up his arm showing a police-whip scar that is nothing new to this group.
“Is she in prison?”
“No, but she needs out and I want you to get her out.” I try to picture this man’s wife, but only see the face of my baby sister.
Magdalena steadily pulls out a piece of paper from her minutes notebook and looks him straight in the eye and asks for his family’s name and address. The man looks around the room, now noticing the other thirty or so people, and he puts the knife to his side and tells her the information. She smiles, a deal-making smile, and tucks the paper into her notebook so that the end of it peeks over the podium in a show of priority. “OK, Mr. Mendez. She is put on the list.” The man looks around again and then sits back in his folding chair.
Manny elbows me and I catch his eye, the wrinkles in the corners from many shared jokes, too much sun and a forgotten life.
The meeting ends without another incident and our group, the old guys who have been through this all before, head down the street to Sol y Mar restaurant where we go after every meeting.
These people are like kids to us. Young and naïve, but also precious for their fortitude of anger and action. I look at Manny. Manolo in Santiago de Cuba, Manny in Miami. His hair is not receding like mine, but creeping more towards his face. Manny is fat and loud. His presence is always calming to me. Franco is the youngest, fifty-seven. We call him El Niño.
“You could have taken him, José,” Manny jokes.
“I could have,” I say, “but I didn’t want to hurt the young man.” Manny laughs and takes a wine from the waitress’s tray. I am the shortest, only five foot five.
“I knew a guy named Rico in school,” Franco says.
“We all knew someone named Rico,” replies Manny.
“This Rico was so quiet. Rico Sanchez. Yes, Sanchez. So quiet. I haven’t thought about him for years, if I ever thought about him. He was always so close to the desk, like he was trying to hide himself. We would joke with him and try to get him to go to Varadero Beach with us or to ice cream at Coppelia’s, but he could only shake his head.”
“Scared to death,” I say.
“Yeah, I guess that is it.” Franco stares at the fabric orchid in the center of the table. “He wouldn’t go with us anywhere. Wouldn’t go to the meetings after school, wouldn’t join the Movement to Recover the Revolution.”
“Shyness can be a good thing.” Manny looks me in the eye and nods slowly.
“I wish I didn’t remember him.”
We don’t really like to think of anyone back there. They are either doing well and serving El Jefe or not doing well and we don’t like the idea of either.
Franco still has a scar on his forehead from April seventeenth. I was on the other beach and didn’t even know them yet. We met here, a sea away from where it happened, where we were together, but strangers. Manny was on the Río Escondido and had to jump in the water when it was bombed. We called him water rat for years until his wife told us that she found him swatting at the air in his sleep yelling about rats drowning.
A bullet had grazed Franco’s forehead, the first ones that came from the planes above. Franco, like the rest of us, had his gun over his head in some ridiculous victory stance. We thought the planes were our men, trained by the CIA. But they were his and by the end of the week I was eating raw frog and tree bark, hiding from militia in the Cienfuegos swamp. Manny got captured the first day, Franco by the close of the week. I made it in hiding the longest, eleven days, but that amounts to nothing.
Franco rubs his scar subconsciously and closes his eyes. We go silent like this often. Franco takes in a sharp breath and leans over into his thinning, hairy arms, too fragile to hold a rifle now. I look away this time. Not to ignore, but you can only have one man break down at a time.
A streak of light comes on the table and it is the sunshine from the open door of the restaurant. Manny is caught mid-act putting his hand on Franco’s shoulder. The Miami light pulls Franco out of his regret and we all look up to see the young, black, knife-wielding Rico. He sees us and takes his arm from around a young blonde woman, waves and gives us a compañero’s smile and walks her to a table. Franco holds up his wine to the man in a toast. Manny and I follow suit. I tilt my head back and the wine travels easily down my throat like a southbound current.
“I’d like to go back,” Franco says. Manny and I look at each other. Franco is looking at the black Cuban sitting with his Miami girlfriend and fingers the edge of his wineglass. Then he stares at me. “I’m ready,” he says.
Manny wipes his mouth and sits back. His eyebrows go up telling me that I will have to handle this because he doesn’t know what to say for once.
Go for the obvious I think. I tell him how I sure would like to see my old cousin Lillian and put my feet in Veradero beach one more time. I tell a joke about Fidel choking on a chicken bone and all of us vacationing there a few summers from now. “This is not what I mean,” he says.
Manny leans forward. “Franco, we fought for that place. It denied us. This is home. Stop this talk.” He is doing his own interpretation of whispering, but it is only a hushed yell. I pat both hands on the table to tell him to hold it down. We see Rico and his girl looking our way. A few others turn toward the commotion, then turn back to their platanos and yucca.
Franco puts his hand to his scar and rubs it back and forth, letting it help him reason or to bring the memory. I never told Manny that Franco has talked like this once before. Once when we were sitting at the park watching our old friends pass the fichas around the table and feeling the breeze coming across our faces. Breezes everyone knew were blowing right across our homeland, mixing with the breath of the ones we loved and hated and lifting them and pushing them across the sea to us. I’d inhale deeply through my nose, breathing in as many sorrows as I could bear.
Everyone is allowed one. One cry, one fit, one scratch at their own eyes. But then they must be done with it.
He looks at me. Manny too. “No comment,” I say, as if I have been interrogated. But they wait.
I lean into them. My body is soft now. I watch my finger point at Franco and wonder how long these small bones will stay together. “There is no room for this talk. Not here.” I sip my wine. “Thousands of voices calling for our help. We cannot get them. Powerless. And you open your mouth to let out blasphemies. Blasphemies on those people. Our people.”
The wine is burning in my stomach and Manny looks at me with a face that tries to be the smothering blanket for my fire.
I’m not a big man. But two stints in Dade Correctional shadow me wherever I go. Prison makes a fiend of me, makes people back away when I lose my temper. If only they knew how far from reality that vision of me is. I was the only guy on my line with a degree, the only guy with a family intact, the only guy that didn’t steal just for the thrill of it. Many mornings I wake and with my eyes only slits, mistake my eyelashes for bars and sit up straight. I look around the room for my wife and find the bars and her are both gone.
Rico leaves his blonde novia and comes to our table. “Hermanos,” he says and shakes each hand. His face is shiny, his teeth white against the dark lips that are the same color as his skin. He kneels down beside us. We give him the speech, the welcome and that it takes a while to get used to this all and use the group as a resource, Magdalena knows everything about legal papers and where the jobs are. He nods, smiles. I picture him taking the old job I retired from, moving old Jewish people around in a van. Driving them to Mike’s Seafood on the beach, then to the bingo at the Heartland community Center. Doctor’s appointments, eyeglass fixings, clothing outlets.
“Thanks, thanks. I will do that,” he says quickly. “But hombres, I got to get her out,” he whispers. He bounces on his haunches. His body is full of that young action that had Manny, Franco and I boarding planes to Nicaragua, training in the hills and riding boats up to Playa Girón to make everything better. Guns in hand, crabs scuttling on the beach. I take another sip of my sour wine.
Franco is fishing in the pocket of his guayabera. He takes out a card and a pen and writes his number for the boy. He nods at him and sends him away. I look at Manny who raises his thick eyebrows again. We go back to talking about how much we hate the Yankees baseball team.
At home I have my hand resting on the phone. I am thinking of calling Magdalena. I have thought of four excuses to use to get her into conversation. Frankly, I don’t know if I am in love with her. But she is stable and smart and well groomed. I would like to sit with her on Saturdays down on the benches at the beach and talk about books and politics. I have been alone for seven years now and it is time. Franco’s wife died of the same lung cancer as my wife, but five years before. Manny was never married, thinking his thick chest and jokes would always keep a woman at his side.
The phone rings and I assume it is her as I have been putting all my thoughts toward her. I pick it up and hear the croaky voice of my old friend, Franco. “Well, we are going my friend.” I sit up.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Not you. Me and Rico. We are going to head back. His wife will be at the bay in Mantanzas. I will get off, she will get on.”
I do not even need to ask how and on what. It happens weekly, the mailman and others, taking supplies for families, antibiotics for sick nephews, underwear for girlfriends, National Geographics and Cristina video tapes.
“I have known you how long?” I ask. “This is our home. We’re needed here. You have it all and you want to trade it for nothing? For memories that are dried up and peeling like the plaster from our old homes. And our homes are gone, gone, Franco. Given to others.” I take a breath and let it go deep down into my diaphragm. “We are more than needed here, we’re wanted,” I say.
“I wouldn’t say we are wanted, José.” I can picture him curling the phone cord in his arthritic fingers. “And Lena gone, what do I have here? Tell me, what do I have? A small apartment? A social security check?”
I could say friends, I could say safety, I could even say freedom. I could say all those facile things that are heard in the movies, but those people are not Cuban. Those words do not make sense to us.
At our age it is not about Fidel anymore. The hatred that was there for him has bored holes in most of us. We are like those leaves that get eaten away by aphids and beetles, holes all around.
“How many are going with you?” I ask.
“Just us. A small outboard. A few supplies. Rico has been making arrangements for weeks. Our group meeting was his last resort before he decided just to go himself.”
Rico. I saw the way he bounced with energy, the way the knife almost got away from him and went into his jugular. He is young, muscle-filled and emotional.
Twenty-seven years I have known this guy. Quiet, calm. Even if I had the words what could I tell him about home? What did I know? Is this home just because I lay on a bed that my wife picked out all the bedding for? Are the pictures of my two daughters and their families that litter the walls any assurance that it is a home? How can I tell Franco, a widower with no children, what to do with these last years? I will have to find contentment to sit at the park with Manny, listen to his same jokes over and over and laugh at them like I have for years until just one of us shows up and then none.
I call Magdalena on the phone. I need to talk. She is on her way to meet her sister, but says she can stop by. It is only Thursday and she is surprised. Magdalena comes to my apartment every Monday. She brings flan. Her face is calmer and less businesslike than when we are at meetings. We have been seeing each other in this way, little gifts, short chats, small wishes, for a few months now.
She lived seven blocks away from me in Santiago de Cuba, but we never knew each other there. This is a good thing. I like that I met her here when the sun sets a few minutes later and no one watches our comings and goings.
She enters my little house wearing a flowered dress. Hibiscus, I think. Her cheeks are rosy and her lips are the color of the center of the flowers.
“You want to talk?” she asks and I realize she thinks it is about us, the topic we have avoided because life does not need to be in any hurry at our age.
I tell her it has nothing to do with us. But then I question those words. I move my hand to direct her to have a seat. She chooses the green velvet one. I sit on the white loveseat and gather my thoughts and stare past her at the shelves of knick knacks, the oil painting of boats in an unknown harbor.
She crosses her legs, then moves over and places them underneath. Her body is too bulky for the delicate chair. I look at her legs instead of her face; watch the dark freckles that dot her shins. She maneuvers her body again and I realize she doesn’t fit.
On the way down to the Keys, Rico politely looks out the window while Manny and I talk to Franco about our lives together, what we shared, who will miss him, what we will tell them all. He hands Manny the key to his apartment on 11th and a list of who can have what of his few belongings.
We reach Islamadora and pull into a deserted strip of shore, hidden by tangled mangroves. Rico and I push the boat into the water. I have brought them bottles of water with electrolyte powder to mix in to stave off dehydration. A Cuban doctor has supplied a medical emergency kit and extra meds for the people on the island.
Manny helps load the boat, making sure weight is distributed evenly, throwing his knowledge around and feeling a comfort from being in charge of something, his way of assuring himself this boat will make it.
Everyone looks at their watches and Rico says it’s time. He worries me. Franco looks tired and I wonder how he is going to make this journey. The cool will lull them tonight, but the heat will try and kill them tomorrow.
“OK. OK. Enough,” Franco says and throws his arms around Manny and pats his back with loud slaps. “Time. Time to go home,” he says.
Manny begins to shake and I finger my mustache, pulling at the hairs to make more pain outside than I feel inside.
Rico shakes my hand. I slap him on his high, muscled shoulder. I like what I see in his eyes, something old, something I had on the beach in 1961. Defiance, rage, desperation, all tangled together until it resembles something just shy of beautiful.
Franco releases Manny and comes to me. The bones in my knees crackle and my spine feels weighted down. These lives I have led, there, here, prison, fighting. All fighting and going backwards and sideways and losing. My mind is not the young mind I once had. It does not move ahead anymore, but like my life, backwards and sideways.
I step back and hold up my hands. Franco stands still with his brows furrowed. “I can’t let you do this by yourself,” I say.
“What is this?” Manny asks. His deep voice has raised high like the chirping of the birds in the palms above. Franco shakes his head and looks at the sand. I am waiting for Manny to ask me about the Committee, Magdelena, my daughters. I am waiting for him to berate me and give me my own speech about freedom and oppression, exile and betrayal. But it is a lifetime too late. The three of us know that.
Manny throws his hands in the air and turns around to pace back and forth. I stop him and look him in the eye. I tell him to use his spare key to water my orchids.
We launch close to midnight. The sea is calm and clear. The forecast is excellent for the next few days and we are relaxed about that. We row for about an hour until we are far enough not to raise suspicion with our engine sounds, then turn it on and head in the direction that Rico has written on a piece of laminated paper.
About six hours later the sun begins to rise. The sea is beautiful and I think about my days as a youngster paddling in the water off the Malecón. I was a little street boy then, up to no good, diving off the rocks and using every curse word I knew. Life was surmountable.
We are quiet now. There was a good three hours of discussion in the dark. What was I going to do? Return with Rico and his wife? Stay with Franco? I said some good lines in that conversation. Profound ones, insightful ones. Ones about life and how it swallows up ideals. But I can’t remember them now. I can’t even remember what I have decided.
We turn off the motor again. A cruise ship goes by, far off out of hearing range. Silly to give ourselves and this boat the ego to think it will be heard by that giant. But we don’t take chances. We get out the paddles again and it feels good to use my arms.
The ship dwarfs us. I can hear no sound from it; I just see the tiny pin holes in the side and the light of the moon gallop toward us on its wakes. I have read that waves can travel from Cuba all the way to America in one fold, like the wrinkle in a bed sheet.
I breathe in the air from a breeze that moves over us. Then the power of the cruise ship insists on slowly pushing us back to the Keys. We stroke together and make some headway before someone gets out of sync and we turn around and have to straighten out again. We will not turn on the motor. We’ll use only our hands. The boat gets turned back toward America again and Rico has to take up the slack to get us back in the right direction. The moonlight shows off the sheen on his neck where the sweat lays. Franco’s eyes are wide and air goes in and out of his nose in gusts. In those short minutes, in the time we take to decide if we will turn the engine on, it comes together for me.
This, this is where my home is. Right here on this wake that pushes me back and then releases me forward.
We get turned around with the current, stick in our paddles and row, get straight, then get turned around again, fighting back each time with the bottomless strength of boys.