Next Year in Havana

Chapter 55

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I sip my coffee while she and Luis make small talk about the dinner that evening, about the neighborhood, about anything and everything but the day ahead of us.

A knock sounds at the door, the noise ominous, intruding on the peace we’ve created in this little room.

It’s either the police or Luis’s friend come to take us to the airport.

Luis reaches out and takes my hand, squeezing reassuringly. My heart pounds as he excuses himself and greets whoever’s on the other side, and when I finally hear the sound of his voice mixed with Oscar’s, the tension subsides a bit.

Ana and I stare at each other across the sea of her family’s china.

“You’re doing the right thing. Both of you,” she says.

“I hope so.”

“You are. It was time for him to go, even if he wasn’t ready to leave.”

“We could—”

“—Get me out?”

I nod.

“It’s fifty-eight years too late for that. Cuba is my home. I will die here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Luis, though, is young. He deserves to have children, to be able to raise them in a world where they can have a bright future. Where they can dream. You’ll bring them back one day and show them where we lived. You’ll tell them our stories so they can know where they come from. So they can know their roots.”

“Yes.”

“I’m glad you found each other,” she says. “Glad you returned. Elisa would be so proud of you. I pray she will watch over you and guide you on your journey ahead.”

The sound of Oscar’s and Luis’s footsteps grows louder as they get closer, and we rise from our seats. Her arms wrap around me, holding me tight, her hands stroking my hair.

“Never forget where you come from. You come from a long line of survivors. Trust in that when things get hard. And in each other.”

That trust feels tenuous when Luis and I have only known each other a week, but then again, what is certain in this world? Governments change, regimes fall, alliances shift—with so much that lies out of our hands, it seems like love is the easiest and only thing worth trusting.

Ana pulls away from me, smiling at Luis standing in the doorway.

“Come here.” She motions to her grandson.

He walks toward her; he looks as though he’s barely holding it all together.

She whispers something to him, and he nods, his arms around her. She pulls back, tears swimming in her eyes, her gaze beaming with love and pride.

We move to where Oscar waits in the entryway, Ana behind us, our bags already loaded in the trunk of Luis’s convertible. We exchange kisses on the cheek, and then we’re climbing into the car, Luis and I in the back seat, Oscar in the front, Ana watching over all of us, her presence both reassuring and a reminder of all he leaves behind.

Luis keeps my hand clutched in his as we turn back to glance at Ana standing in the doorway, at the only house he’s ever known.

The big car rolls away from the driveway, kicking up gravel, drifting farther and farther away from the Rodriguez family, from Ana, until the house is little more than a speck behind us.

We turn and look forward, soaking in our last view of Havana. The city doesn’t disappoint, and perhaps it’s my imagination, but the sky seems more beautiful than before, the sounds of the street—the people laughing, music spilling out of open windows—a melody all her own.

Oscar keeps up a steady stream of chatter as we drive through Miramar, his good-natured banter adding much-needed levity to a somber day. Cuba passes us by in flashes of color and an elegy of sounds from the street. I try to memorize the scenery, take a mental photograph I can carry with me until we return.

Does Luis do the same?

We reach the airport in what feels like a matter of moments.

I’m eager to leave, to return to the safety and security of my home in Miami, my family, the world I know. I’m loath to leave, to abandon the people who’ve become a part of my heart.

I’m scared they won’t let him leave. I’m terrified they’ll throw us both in jail.

Oscar and Luis exchange a half hug and slap on the back at the same airport where we first met. A look passes between them; how much has Luis shared with Oscar? Has he been involved in Luis’s efforts all along? Is he one of the men whose names Luis guards? Does he realize what is really happening? Is Oscar also willing to risk his freedom to help us? Does he understand that this good-bye might be forever rather than for a few weeks?

He must, and once again, I am awed by the kindness and bravery of my countrymen.

“Good luck, man,” Oscar says.

I exchange a quick good-bye with Oscar, doing everything I can to make it appear that everything is normal, that my insides aren’t quaking with nerves and fear. Luis is stoic beside me, save for a twitch of his fingers against mine, a tensing in his hand as we walk through the airport.

The gun-toting soldiers standing around the airport are ominous specters now, and it takes everything inside me not to pay them more than a passing glance, to continue on with our business as though we have nothing to fear, as though we are ordinary travelers.

We check in to our flight and receive our boarding passes. I paste a smile on my face, exchanging words with the smiling woman behind the desk. My heartbeat thrums. Through the whole process I wait for her to say there’s something wrong with our tickets, that our flight is delayed.

Instead, we go through the traveling process I’ve done countless times. After a few minutes of standing at the desk, we’re waved on with a smile.

My legs begin to shake as we walk toward the customs area. We’re just two more people in the departure hall, and yet it feels as though all eyes are trained on us, as if there is a spotlight shining down upon us.

Are these our last moments of freedom?

The story of exile has different origins. There are those, like my family, who were lucky enough to leave when it was possible to hop a flight to the United States, even if that avenue was fraught with government red tape and denials. Then there are those—the Peter Pan kids—whose parents were so desperate to get their children out of the country that they put them on a plane alone and sent them to the United States with the hope that one day they would be reunited, the dream of giving their children a better life than they would otherwise have in Cuba powerful enough to warrant such a sacrifice. There are those who came in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Castro let more than a hundred thousand Cubans leave for the United States. And then there are the rafters, the people whose ingenuity and courage drove them to brave the seas in makeshift rafts to forge the ninety-mile journey to freedom, facing death or—if they were captured before they reached U.S. shores—a life of imprisonment.

Cubans exist in a constant state of hope.

On the surface, ojalá translates to “hopefully” in English. But that’s just on paper, merely the dictionary definition. The reality is that there are some words that defy translation; their meaning contains a whole host of things simmering beneath the surface.

There’s beauty contained in the word, more than the flippancy of an idle hope. It speaks to the tenor of life, the low points and the high, the sheer unpredictability of it all. And at the heart of it, the word takes everything and puts it into the hands of a higher power, acknowledging the limits of those here on earth, and the hope, the sheer hope, the kind you hitch your life to, that your deepest wish, your deepest yearning will eventually be yours.

That same hope is in me now as we make our way through the airport. The hope that they won’t stop us, that we won’t spend the remainder of our days in a Cuban prison, that we’ll make it to the other side.

The nerves running through Luis’s body touch my limbs. There’s a tremor in his hands, his jaw clenched, his gaze darting around the airport, looking at the uniformed soldiers, the guns in their hands, waiting to see if one of them will walk over to him and take him away, if he’ll simply disappear like the others who have dared to speak out against the government. If I’ll follow him.

I’ve never been more afraid than I am now or more apt to prayer.

I’m forever caught between two languages. I learned Spanish before anything else, grew up speaking both languages at home and at school. In my most vulnerable moments, the ones when I feel things most deeply, when I hope, when I fear, when I love, it’s the Spanish that comes to me first.

The prayer runs through me now.

I go first, approaching the customs booth with a wary smile. I hand the official my passport and boarding pass along with the other half of the tourist card I received when I entered the country. We exchange a few pleasantries about my trip to Cuba, and out of the corner of my eye I watch as Luis walks up to one of the booths.

For the span of a few minutes white noise rushes through my ears, my entire body suspended as I wait. As I leave the customs booth and walk to the security checkpoint where my bag will be scanned and wait. Wait for Luis to join me.

I twist the ring on my finger, around and around again, while he talks to the immigration official, a smile on his face, one I now recognize as feigned. I strain to overhear their conversation, to read the words falling from the immigration official’s mouth. And then it’s all over—

Luis walks forward, past the customs booth, out the other side, toward me.

My knees sag.

Luis wraps his arm around my waist, tugging me forward, toward the security line where I place my bag on the belt, adrenaline pouring through my limbs.

His lips brush my temple.

“Almost there,” he whispers in my ear, his hand stroking my back.

Minutes. Minutes pass as we go through security, as we take those final steps, sinking into our seats near the gate.

I imagine my family sitting here, waiting for a plane to take them to the United States, not knowing when—if—they would return. I understand a bit more the uncertainty they faced, the kind of pervasive uncertainty that invades your bones, that comes from not having a country to call your own, a land upon which you can lay your head.

A family of tourists sits next to us blissfully unaware of the tension emanating from Luis and me. I try desperately not to make eye contact, staring out the airport window, at the drab floor, up at the ceiling, but it is as though they will me to look at them, the sheer eagerness to speak to me pushing and shoving its way into my space.


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