Next Year in Havana

Chapter 3

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The sidewalk outside the airport is cheerfully chaotic, friends and families hugging one another, loud voices yelling in exuberant Spanish, people placing luggage into the enormous trunks of brightly colored cars. Most of the cars are nearly sixty years old, some even older, but their age is reflected more in the style than in their condition, as paint shines, chrome gleams, pride of ownership evident in many of the vehicles.

I scan the sea of people, some holding small signs with names scrawled upon them, looking for Ana Rodriguez. I’m eager to meet the woman my grandmother told me about, her words filled with nostalgia and affection.

We were inseparable from the time we were little girls. Her family lived next door to ours, and we used to play together in the garden. Did I tell you about the time I tried to climb the wall separating our houses, Marisol?

I always envisioned the friendship between my grandmother and Ana as a Cuban version of Lucy and Ethel—with my grandmother in the role of Lucy given the stories she told me.

“Marisol Ferrera?”

I turn at the sound of my name and come face-to-face with a man leaning against a bright blue convertible with a massive chrome grill and white accents running down the sides.

“Yes?”

He pushes off the car, the hem of his white guayabera fluttering in the breeze as he walks toward me, all long-limbed grace.

He greets me in smooth English, holding his hand out to me. “I’m Luis Rodriguez. My grandmother asked me to pick you up. She’s sorry she couldn’t meet you, but she wasn’t feeling well.”

I take his hand, his calloused fingers rubbing against mine, his handshake firm, his skin warm. His thumb grazes the inside of my wrist as his hand releases mine, and a tremor slides through me.

I blink, my gaze narrowing slightly as I study him, wishing I’d paid more attention to what Beatriz told me about Ana’s family.

He looks to be about my age or a couple years older—mid-thirties, perhaps. His hair is full, a few shades lighter than mine—more brown than black—his skin a deep tan, his eyes a dark brown. Crinkly lines surround his eyes, adding character to his face. A close-trimmed beard covers his jaw.

He’s handsome in that way some men are—as though the sum of their parts while individually nondescript creates a charisma about them that makes you stand up and pay attention.

“Is she okay?” I ask, responding in Spanish, ignoring the flutter of nerves taking residence in my stomach.

His full lips curve into a smile, the punch of which I’m not altogether prepared for, and I get the impression I’ve amused him.

“She’s fine,” he replies back in Spanish. “She tires as the day wears on.”

My grandmother was seventy-seven when she died. Ana is nearly a year older.

“She’s excited to meet you, though. She’s spoken of little else these past few weeks.”

He leans forward, lifting my large suitcase in one hand, grabbing my carry-on with his other.

“Are you ready? Is this everything?”

I nod. He ignores my protests that I can carry my own bags, and I follow him to the car, unable to resist the urge to slide my hand over one of the sleek curves.

“First time in Cuba?” he asks as he sets the smaller bag down and opens the passenger door for me.

“Yes.”

I sit on the giant bench seat, my gaze running over the car’s interior. The seats are covered in leather that looks like once, long ago, it was white and has now turned to cream. I imagine my grandmother sitting in a car like this, wearing one of the dresses I’ve seen in the few photographs that remain from her life in Cuba. For a moment, I time-travel.

I wait while Luis loads the bags into the trunk and makes his way to the front seat, firing up the old engine. I reach instinctively for the seat belt, freezing mid-motion when I come up empty.

Right.

I truly have time-traveled.

“This is amazing. Did you restore the car on your own?”

“I have a cousin. He’s good with his hands.” He gives the dashboard an affectionate pat. “She’s temperamental, but if I treat her right, she doesn’t let me down.”

I grin. “Your car is female?”

“Of course.”

He navigates back onto the road with a honk and a wave out the window for the car behind us.

A mix of classic cars and boxy, more modern-looking vehicles pass by us on the road. Some are in near-pristine condition like Luis’s; others appear to be held together by ingenuity and prayer. The car accelerates, and I grip the doorframe as palm trees pass us by, the vehicle surprisingly fast for its age. The wind blows my hair around my face, the breeze somewhat alleviating the heat.

We hit a few bumps in the road, the terrain rough, my body tossed around without the security of a seat belt. The landscape changes to giant signs proclaiming the greatness of the Cuban Revolution, the supremacy of communism. Fidel Castro’s face stares back at me, followed by images of Che Guevara, his hair billowing in the imaginary wind. These are the monsters of my childhood, and it’s strange to see them in this context, venerated rather than vilified.

“So you’re a writer?” Luis shouts over the sounds of the wind and the cars rushing past us.

“I am,” I shout back. “Freelance, mostly.”

It’s taken approximately a decade of writing magazine articles and blog posts for me to consider myself a writer, and part of me still waits for someone to call me out when I use the moniker. Writing is not a profession anyone in my family respects or understands—my salary has too few zeros, my schedule is too erratic, the prestige of my career choices not nearly enough. They view it as an eccentric hobby, an anecdote trotted out at parties, a source of bemusement rather than something that—mostly—pays the bills. They would have been much happier to see me working at Perez Sugar—well, besides my grandmother.

Life is too short to be unhappy, Marisol. To play it safe. To do what is expected of you rather than follow your heart. Look at us. One day we had everything, the next it was knocked over like a castle in the sand. You never know what life will throw at you.

She bought forty copies of my first magazine article, handing the periodical out with a smile to anyone and everyone that crossed her path, proclaiming that her granddaughter had written an excellent piece about organizing your closet that had inspired her to transform her own spacious dressing room.

“What do you write?”

I’m surprised by the genuine interest in the question rather than the disinterested politeness I’m used to or the quips about when I’m going to get a “real” job.

“Lifestyle pieces,” I answer. “Travel, fashion, food, that sort of thing. I’m working on an article on Cuban tourism now that relations are opening up.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

It’s funny, because I think he’s the first person to lead with that question. Typically people want to know where I’ve been published, if I’ve written for a “big” entity, if I’m successful by whatever metric they’ve decided matters—money, fame, notoriety. I like him better for getting to the heart of it—the reason behind why I write.

“Most of the time. It’s fun. I like traveling and seeing new places, enjoy meeting new people. It’s usually a puzzle—I know where I’ll end up, the words I’ll use to get there, but the magic comes when I sit at my computer and string sentences together to reach the heart of what I’m trying to say. There’s always a new challenge, a new surprise waiting for me when I begin researching.”

And I like the freedom it brings, but I don’t say that. I grow restless if I’m in one place too long, and while I always return to Miami, the familiar itch springs up after a month or so. An itch that has infected other areas of my life since my grandmother died, her loss and the memories she left behind making me examine my own legacy—thirty-one, unmarried, childless, driven by a career I like, but don’t love.

“So it’s the quest you enjoy?”

I never really thought about it that way, but—

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

We pass by a wall decorated in a mural of Cuban flags, and I sneak a sidelong glance at Luis. His arm rests on the seat next to mine, inches between us.

Has he ever left Cuba? Do the Cubans who remained resent those who left? Are they worried we will attempt to retake the things we lost when the revolution came? Would he leave if he could? Does he wonder about the world beyond Cuba’s shores? It’s strange to be in a place that is so cut off from the rest of the world, to realize we likely view life through such different lenses.

“You can just ask me.” A smile plays on his lips as his gaze flicks to the rearview mirror. “I can practically feel all the questions in your mind pushing to get out.”

I open my mouth to object, but he shakes his head, his gaze back on the road.

“Journalists.”

There’s a sort of indulgent affection in that word.

“What do you do?” I ask instead of responding to his statement.

“I’m a history professor at the University of Havana. I teach courses on Cuban history. If you have questions about the city for your article, I’m happy to answer them.”

“That would be great, thanks. I have a list of places I want to see—the Malecón, the Hotel Nacional, the Tropicana—but I’d love to visit sites locals frequent as well.”

“I’m happy to show you around, then.”

I didn’t expect a built-in tour guide when I accepted Ana’s invitation to stay with her, but I’m grateful for his help. Besides, it’s not exactly a hardship to be shown around Cuba by a handsome, intelligent man.

“How much do you know about Cuba?” he asks.

“I was raised on it,” I answer proudly. “My grandmother’s favorite pastime was to tell me stories about Cuba, the house where she grew up, trips to Varadero, attending dances in the squares. Cuba was part of my everyday life. In the food we ate, the music we listened to. It still is, but now that my grandmother is gone it feels more removed.”


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