We are the source of my mother’s greatest pride and also the instrument of all her ambitions. That Isabel at twenty-three is not yet married is a travesty my mother is unable to reconcile, compounded by the sheer volume of marriage proposals received and summarily rejected by Beatriz—who at twenty-one should already be presiding over a home of her own, a child tucked away in a nanny’s safekeeping. My unmarried state is hardly a priority with two older sisters, but it is no small thing, either. Love is for the poor. In our world, you marry for status, for wealth, for family.
And yet here I am.
The Malecón is one of my favorite parts of the city—five miles of seawall that showcase Havana at her most beautiful, especially during the moments when the sun sets, the sky exploding into a series of golds, pinks, and blues like the colors that adorn the heavy paintings that hang on our walls.
I pass a fruit vendor selling pineapples, mangos, and bananas. He offers me a toothy grin before returning to his customers.
I’ve chosen another white dress to wear to see Pablo—one of my favorites, another purchase from El Encanto. It was harder than I anticipated to sneak out of the house today. Maria wanted to come with me, and Magda kept glancing at me suspiciously as though she could tell something had changed.
This is to be a onetime indulgence.
I will see him, and I will let myself have this hour or so to enjoy, and then I will return to Miramar and the dinner party my mother has planned for a judge—one of my father’s cronies—whose son she hopes to foist onto Isabel. I will see Pablo, and then I will forget him, save for the very late hours of the night when I am alone and cannot sleep, or when I walk along the promenade, the waves licking at my skin.
When I arrive at the point where we agreed to meet, Pablo is standing at the edge of the seawall, looking out over the water. It’s surprising that I can already recognize him merely by the slope of his back, the dark hair, the manner in which he carries himself—but I can.
My pulse quickens.
I duck my head from prying eyes as my strides lengthen. It’s risky being seen in public with him, in the daylight, but in this, too, I can’t refuse.
Pablo turns as I walk toward him, almost as though the same string that yanks me toward him binds him, too.
A white rose dangles from his fingers.
My mouth goes dry.
We meet in the middle of the sidewalk, and by the look in his eyes, I’m immeasurably glad I wore the white dress.
“I wondered if you would come,” he says, his voice low.
“I questioned it myself a time or two,” I admit.
Pablo holds the flower out to me, and I take it from his hands, the silk soft against my palm, the simple beauty of it tugging at my heart. I’m grateful for its resilience, that I won’t have to watch it age and turn to dust, that I may tuck the rose into a drawer somewhere and pull it out, stroking its petals when I feel the need to remember.
“Thank you.” My words are both far too little and all I can afford to give.
“Would you like to walk?” he asks.
I nod, not quite trusting my emotions enough to speak.
Pablo positions himself between the street and me, although really, both sides possess equal treachery. On the one side there are the lanes of traffic, cars whizzing by, the opportunity for recognition high. On the other there is the water, the ocean crashing over the seawall, splashing pedestrians, the sea invading the street with Poseidon’s angry wrath. Today, though, the waters are relatively calm, and there is little chance of the salt water marring my dress, merely the walk sullying my reputation.
We walk in silence, Pablo measuring his stride against mine, seemingly content to follow my lead and opt for silence rather than meaningless conversation. I clutch the rose in my hand, every so often stroking the soft silk; each time I do there’s a hitch in his stride, as though he is aware of every twitch of my fingers, the rise and fall of my chest, the sound of my heart thudding in my chest. The wind blows a strand of my hair, and I tuck it behind my ear, only to be rewarded by his sharp intake of breath.
The air around us crackles with energy.
I avert my gaze from him, needing the moment to collect myself. As I survey the landscape around us, the others walking along the promenade, it’s impossible to miss that there’s a tension emanating all around us.
There are fewer tourists than you typically encounter on the Malecón. The attacks at the Montmartre cabaret and the Tropicana have rattled nerves and people are on edge. Then there are the bombs exploding around the city at random intervals, interspersed between parties, elegant dinners and lunches, and trips to the beach.
And Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Some of these explosions make the newspaper the next day; other times they don’t and we’re left wondering if the loud booms, the screaming, were figments of our imagination, the product of a city poised for the next burst of violence. It’s hard when a country descends into such turmoil, harder still when there are so many groups vying for power, attempting to feast on the carcass of a dying island.
There are—were—the Organización Auténtica, an ill-fated group of guerrilla fighters; the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil, a group of students from the University of Havana; the mostly defunct Federación Estudiantil Universitaria, another group of students from the University of Havana who together with the DRE fought their way into the Presidential Palace and attempted to assassinate Batista last year; members of the Communist Party whose uneasy alliance with Batista wanes; the 26th of July Movement fighting Batista’s army in the Sierra Maestra mountains; and any number of other enemies Batista has garnered over the years.
The waves crash over the seawall ahead, spilling onto the road, their white foamy caps full of such energy that they appear alive. We pause and wait for the sea to cease its angry assault, and I take the opportunity to do what I’ve wanted to do since we began walking. I stop and look at Pablo, my gaze hungry, lingering over his features, the faint lines around his eyes, the hint of darkness beneath them, as though he did not sleep well last night.
“I saw you in the paper this morning,” he says, standing just a bit closer to me than is necessary to be heard over the sound of the waves, the noise from the street.
I flush. “I didn’t take you for someone who reads the society pages.”
I’d counted on that, actually.
This time it’s his cheeks that look a bit ruddy. “I’m not. At least, I wasn’t until today.” He swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing. The words hover in the air between us, unspoken—
Until I met you.
“You know who I am, then.”
I look out to the sea, my heart pounding. “Then you know this afternoon is all I have to give.”
There is a difference between small rebellions like sneaking out at night with my sisters and big ones like falling in love with a man and going against my family’s wishes. I stand on the precipice of one, and I need the reminder, perhaps more so than he does, that I must not under any circumstances allow myself to give in to the temptation. It’s not just my reputation, or my mother’s and father’s, but it’s Beatriz’s reputation, and Isabel’s, and Maria’s. I’ve seen firsthand what can come of going against our parents’ wishes. Moreover, it’s not lost on me that at nineteen, I have limited skills, that if I was cast out of the family I would have a very hard time supporting myself, especially with the employment challenges facing Cuba.
“Yes,” Pablo responds.
My gaze sweeps across the seawall, at the people around us. There are so many different versions of Cuba before me—tourists, locals—all of us inhabiting different realities within Havana. Which one is his?
“Tell me about yourself.”
So I will have something to hold on to when I must forget you.
“What would you like to know?” he asks.
I start with the little I do know about him. “You mentioned you grew up in Vedado. Does your family still live there?”
“They do. My parents and two sisters.” His voice cracks. “I haven’t seen them in a while, though. I’ve been away.”
There’s a hint there, a thread of family discord I’m uncomfortably familiar with lingering behind his words. There are natural pauses in conversations when one speaks of family estrangement—the inadequacy of words to convey the unnatural state of breaking from those to whom you are bound in blood, the pauses physically manifesting themselves in an empty chair at an ostentatious dining room table that hailed from Paris. I know all about those pauses—a relationship severed at the knees, a sibling lost to ideology, a family forever fractured.
I fight to keep the tremor from my voice.
“Are you back for good now?”
I’m not quite sure which answer I wish to hear. This will be easier if he is to go—a clean break.
“No. Only for a short time. I have business in the city.”
I wait for him to elaborate, and when he doesn’t, I press on.
“Do you like your job? Practicing law?”
I know enough about topics I’ve studied in heavy books given to me by tutors, but I know little of the practical applications of things. Lawyers dine at our table occasionally; however, the conversation rarely turns to their work or anything of substance.
“I like it well enough, I suppose,” he answers. “I enjoy helping people—trying to, at least. Justice in Cuba—” His voice trails off, but I’m not so oblivious to the reality around me to not fill in the blanks.
Most of my education on Cuba’s political condition was given to me through the walls of my father’s study in the form of the angry shouts and recriminations I’ve overheard.
How can you justify the way we live? People are starving, suffering. You built your fortune on the backs of others. We all have.
Up ahead, a group of boys dive for coins left by American tourists, the children’s bodies bobbing against the waves before disappearing beneath the surface in waters likely overrun by sharks. All for a few coins.