To my Aunt Alicia
The plaza below swarmed with people trying to find a place to watch the parade. From the balconies I could clearly see the sinuous rumba line that moved like a multicolored serpent to the beat of the drums. It was difficult to distinguish whether people were dancing or hugging. One body covered another producing a phantasmagorical figure with four legs, one head and two arms. Once in a while a rumba dancer would break from the line and swirl like a top allowing us to see the broad wheel of a skirt, with blue and white designs billowing like the waves of the sea. The dancer’s bare outstretched arms would glisten from the heat of the night. Men carried tall, multicolored lanterns, twisting them so that the fringe on top opened and closed as the men switched directions. It was hard not to want to jump down from the balcony and sing and dance along with the crowd:
Canta mi arpa Sing, my harp
canta en la loma sing on the hills
así se me asoma so as to uncover
la luna de enero. January’s moon.
Yo soy framboyán. I am Poinciana.
Lluvia de flores Rain of flowers
lluvia del cielo rain from the sky
para regar to water
y perfumar el cielo and perfume the sky
para que escuches to hear
los clarines de Bayamo. the call from Bayamo.
Yo soy framboyán. I am Poinciana.
My Aunt Luz María’s house, the Mandri family house, was in the Plaza de las Mercedes at the very center of Camagüey in the shadow of the Church of Las Mercedes. That privileged location meant we occupied the best-situated balconies during carnival season. My last viewing of the carnival from those balconies took place during the sixth year of my schooling just before we moved to Havana in the early sixties, not long after Fidel Castro took over after the fall of Batista’s dictatorship. Although year after year the carnival took place on the 24th of June, at age eleven I was keenly aware that this would be my last in Camagüey. In fact, it would be my last carnival anywhere in Cuba for many, many years.
At the other end, toward the Plaza de la Soledad, the street looked like a funnel, swallowing people as they turned the diagonal corner. I stopped looking at the crowd because my Uncle Adolfo pointed out a “matchstick.” I didn’t understand. I looked for a telephone post painted white with a dark top. But I didn’t find any. With my usual lack of embarrassment for not knowing the meaning of things, I turned and asked what he meant by a matchstick. He didn’t skip a beat and explained that matchsticks were the blacks dressed all in white, white-starched pants topped by impeccably ironed long sleeved guayaberas during carnival time. Instead of saying the word negros, he moved his index finger back and forth on his arm to signify the dark color of the skin. I found a group of black men standing by the main entrance of the church and verified that they were all dressed in white, and that their skin and hair were dark. I was puzzled by the comparison. The men by the church door looked quite elegant and did not at all represent the rigidity of matchsticks all lined up and static in a box. I looked back to my uncle who had made the joke and shook my head no. My father, an anthropologist, had taught me to respect difference. Adolfo let out a loud guffaw.
From our balcony I could watch the spectacle and avoid the crush of the sweaty crowd and ruining my new dress. My cousins standing on other balconies attracted my attention with noisemakers and confetti they showered down to adorn the heads of the passersby. But I had a problem with the balcony-my fear of heights. The wrought-iron balconies seemed to be precariously hanging on to the building. They were so narrow that even at a young age I had to stand sideways for my feet to fit comfortably. I would grab onto the railing trying to hide any fears. If I moved, someone would take my spot. I liked standing at one end of the balcony so that part of my back could lean on the wall.
A greater fear, however, was being below with the crowd. In spite of my fears, I went to join the dancers with my cousin Raúl. There, bold men would come up behind me and pretend they were just pushing to get ahead; body against body, the man touching tentatively, then brazenly, and my not being able to escape. It was hard for a slight girl like me to push between two other bodies, and much harder yet just to turn around and slap the guy behind me. Seeing my predicament from not too far off, my older cousin Raúl put his arm out and literally pulled me back toward the door of his house where I began to breathe easier.
“Those guys are just degenerate,” said Abuela. ”Look at the way they touch themselves, ignoring any sense of decency and respect for the women present.”
My persistent fears and fondest memories inhabit the spaces of the house on the Plaza de las Mercedes. Because as a child our nuclear family moved from apartment to apartment as my father’s financial situation improved, the house on the Plaza became my point of reference for family stability. Since my Aunt Luz María was a seamstress and worked at home, whenever Mami had to work late, my sister and I would walk to this centrally located spot until she took us home. At Luz María’s, Ali and I might play cat’s cradle or do our homework.
Luz María’s house was actually an apartment occupying an entire floor of the building, but we called it a house because in Spanish casa can mean both “house” and “home.” Anyway, my aunt’s house was quite large, on the second floor directly across from the Church of Las Mercedes. The entire building went around the corner and faced the large post office with its myriad intricately carved mailboxes. It seemed to be always open, perennially populated by lottery ticket sellers. One day I noticed a very small man, with perfect proportions for his size. He was older and I thought it odd that someone so small should show signs of aging, particularly on his face. As a young girl I figured children were of small stature, adults were taller. Mostly through artistic reproductions, I knew of the existence of dwarfs whose bodies were child-size, but who had an adult proportioned head. I had never seen a midget, a tiny replica of a human being, perfectly formed. As I walked past him, my eyes were level with his, mine open and alert, trying to engrave his image in my mind’s eye; his appeared resigned, encircled by wrinkles and baggy, discolored skin. The lottery ticket sellers incessantly yelled out Chinese lottery phrases which represented each number: any goat who breaks a drum pays with his hide (number 28), a rooster who sings at dawn (11), a homing pigeon (24), a sleeping shrimp gets carried by the current (30), and a dancing turtle (6). The “charada” as it is called in Cuba, interprets images in people’s dreams as yielding winning lottery numbers.
To go upstairs to Aunt Luz María’s house, I had to bang on a huge thick door that led to a dark alley and then to the stairs that had been painted white surely a long time ago, because there were many gray and even black spots throughout the white of it. Upstairs the very large living area was tiled in black and white. Four floor-to-ceiling windows let in light, sun and rain when Luz María didn’t bother to close them. I loved to sit on the rocking chairs facing the windows and look toward the neighbor’s terraced roof. Raúl, my sister, and I bet how long the white sheets set out to dry would stand suspended in the air. When the wind would catch them they would levitate for a few seconds, then fall to the monotony of gravity. Often, after school, Raúl made a trip to the kitchen at the end of the hall and came back with floats made with condensed milk and Coca Cola. Beginning with the foam, we’d savor them and laugh at the brown mustaches they left above our lips.
Beyond the large living area, past several rooms that the family rented for some extra income, you could reach Luz María’s bedroom to the right, facing the church, where she worked as a seamstress. I remember her bed was always covered with patterns, material and spools of thread. In one corner of her bedroom stood a large armoire with two large mirrors that were perfect for fittings.
It was before those mirrors that I was fitted with my First Communion dress, all white organza, veils, and Swiss lace. Getting the materials had been an all day affair. Mami and Alicia, who although fourteen years apart were inseparable sisters, dragged my sister and me to several stores. Though the dress was being made for me, in just two years my sister would wear it as well.
Our mother and aunt knew that when selecting fabric the most important thing is to touch it. It has to feel good on the skin. Mami showed us the merit of always wearing cotton and seersucker during hot summer days. I loved touching the wrinkly surface of seersucker and feeling the lightness of it. At the fabric store, she held up the bolt of fabric so I could see how the cloth draped and whether it needed to be cut straight or on the bias. Skirts cut on the bias have a wonderful flair about them; when you turn in circles they fly out and then fall down in rich folds. I remember having a skirt cut on the bias made out of a printed fabric with lots of tiny red carnations. As we went through the store full of bolts of fabric Mami pointed to good quality materials, woven with multicolored threads rather than printed. She taught me to flip the material to see its underside. Prints usually fade easily when hung out to dry in the Caribbean sun, she reminded me. But on that day we didn’t have to worry about fading because a communion dress is all white, like a bride’s.
Alicia had seen some beautiful Swiss lace on Maceo Street, and we headed there to see if they had enough for a full bell-like skirt. Once Mami saw the material, she began to imagine the design for the dress. The cloth was quite wide so that its width could be used as the skirt’s length. Most of it was beautifully transparent with small daisies embroidered throughout. Then, what would become the bottom of the skirt exploded in a multitude of flowers and leaves in a pattern that repeated itself all around. That intricate pattern could also be used in the blouse, this time inverted, with a cascade of flowers close to the neck and bodice. The sleeves had to be transparent, with a little puff at the shoulder and straight down to the wrists. The sleeves could hug the wrist with a bit of satin and four diminutive buttons going up the side of the arm closest to the pinkie. The lady at the store helped with the calculation for the amount of material needed. Then my sister and I were sent to get plenty of white thread and the long zipper that would go down the back. Ali insisted on picking out the thread herself and sent me to look for the fifteen-inch zipper. I stood in front of what seemed like a million zippers in all colors and sizes. Then there were zippers made out of metal and those of plastic. I had no idea what would be best, so I brought two to Mami.
“Mami,” I said, “the metal one is cheaper, but don’t you think it’s kind of bulky for this dress?’
“Yes, I agree,” she said. “Please go back and return the metal one to the shelf. And why is Ali taking so much time with the thread? Go see what she’s doing. We’re going to look elsewhere for the tulle and the taffeta for the lining and the petticoat. It’s too expensive here.”
After having chosen the thread, Ali had gone to sit on a high stool and was leafing through a book of patterns.
“How did you get up on that stool? Come on, Mami is ready to pay,” I said.
Even though Ali was only five, she had an uncanny ability to continually get into trouble. From early on in our lives, she’d reach out for adventure, and I’d be the one to bring her back into the fold.
After having walked half of Maceo Street to get all the materials for the dress, we were rewarded by going to El Ten Cent, as we called Woolworth’s back then, a department store with a soda fountain where we could get ice cream and sit high on stools. I pushed against the side of the counter with my feet and as I spun I could see myself in a blur in the mirror behind the pie server before turning toward the panorama of the store.
Then, after I had completely forgotten about the dress, we went to Luz María’s house for the fitting. At first I had to wear the material inside out in case my aunt had to pin it tighter or looser around my waist. While she fussed around me, I had to hold my arms up, and I soon got very tired of that. At this stage the dress didn’t have sleeves. Once Luz María finished with the bodice, she carefully slid each sleeve on my arm, adjusting the pins. She made a mistake a couple of times and stuck me with a pin and, “Ay!” I had enough. The worst part was standing still. Moving meant more pinpricks. Even though the balcony shutters were open to let the breezes in, I began to sweat.
“I’m almost done, Flori,” Luz María said, sensing I was beginning to lose patience. What had kept my interest was looking at myself in the mirror, all dressed in white, exquisite organza contrasting with my smooth dark long hair.
Beyond the fitting room and the kitchen was the terraced roof that faced the Church of Las Mercedes. I loved to play there because it gave me a sense of independence and power. Since the roof was large and partly covered by red tiles rising to the top of the house, I had no sense of an edge to fall from, unlike my experience of vertigo when standing on the balconies above the carnival parades. From the roof I could look out on the colonial tower of the church with its sonorous bell at practically eye level. When it rained I could watch rainwater being channeled from the roof toward a cistern that was just outside the kitchen door. During heavy downpours, the water would carry along small leaves that tried to stay afloat fighting against the whirlpool that would finally swallow them. I loved to glide my hands on the surface of the still water after a rain, feel its coolness and see my face reflected, my features sometimes broken by the ripples, sometimes perfectly still.
As I record this moment of play, I recognize that I found my reflection pleasing, both in the secure context of a supportive group of women who fussed about my appearance, and my increasing awareness of the simple pleasures found in nature. Perhaps I have such a clear image of the moment precisely because the peace found in that instance of self-awareness would soon be shattered. Once, while I was on the terraced roof after a rain, Raúl’s father, my Uncle Olivero, a cook by profession, snuck behind me and slipped his greasy hands inside my blouse to where I was just beginning to develop breasts. He left me paralyzed. The play of hands on the water surface stopped, and, in that sudden stillness I could see my eyes reflected up from against the rusted bottom of the water tank. Just then my Aunt Alicia, my favorite aunt, called from the sewing room and I ran without looking back.
“Nothing has happened here,” I said to myself.
I tried to listen to the conversation between my two aunts but felt excluded from the safe haven that the sewing room provided. I felt split, frozen to the bone, not knowing how to react, yet acting as if nothing at all had happened. It was as if I could not break the spell of an evil witch who had frozen the princess’s life by the prick of her finger. I felt responsible for ensuring the peace of a large family that would surely explode in anger if they learned what had happened to me. But what if no one believed me? What if Oliverio denied it all? How would I survive the shame? What if I just told Abuela? She’d surely take him and put him through the meat grinder! But then, what about Luz María and Raúl? Why wasn’t Mami in the sewing room? It was much easier to pretend that nothing had happened. Instead of telling anyone, I decided to forget. I sat next to my Aunt Alicia, who was puzzled by my sudden desire to be so close. She gave me a tight squeeze and prattled on. Physical contact with the women in my family would forge a tightly woven shawl to protect me against secrets better forgotten. Unfortunately, that tightly woven shawl would eventually become an emotional straight jacket, with my arms both protecting me from future intrusions into my privacy, and impeding the flowering of my emotional sensibility–until the work of remembrance undid the ties that bound me.
At night, the Santiago de Cuba colonial fortress was lit up with torches situated on the highest towers. Crosses marked entrances, tunnels, and window openings. Candles accentuated the shape of each cross, however large or small. The wind picked up and carried smoke from the torches. We got off the bus and headed for the gate that came down to create a drawbridge above the deep and dark moat surrounding the fortress. Our group had come as cultural tourists at a time in the early eighties when Cuba’s economy flourished thanks to a massive Soviet subsidy of the sugarcane crop. President Carter eased travel restrictions, and I returned to the island intent on verifying whether Castro’s regime was as repressive as the Cuban-American community in Miami claimed. I was also curiously drawn to reestablish ties with my Aunt Luz María, the only one of my mother’s siblings who had not left during the revolution’s attack on the middle class. Traveling to Santiago de Cuba and its famous Carifesta also brought me closer to the carnival I had left behind as a child. Because of the gathering crowds, Tania and I were pushed close to the edge of the moat. She had come to visit her mother in Havana, and being a composer and one of the directors of the Brooklyn Symphony in New York, was also keen on participating in Santiago’s musical fest. While trying to cross the moat, she lost her footing and someone grabbed her before she fell into the water. Tania and I held each other’s hands, screeching like two scared girls, pretending to be afraid of falling, looking forward to the adventure that surely awaited us inside. Almost running, we crossed the large wooden planks of the drawbridge. Once inside, we didn’t know which way to turn, then opted to follow the sounds of an a cappella choir coming from the right corner tower. The torch-lit environment placed us in the sixteenth century. To get there, we went down steep, slippery steps holding on to each side of the stairway walls. From time to time someone lit the way with a minuscule flashlight. By then, however, our eyes had become accustomed to the darkness and the sudden flashes felt more disorienting than helpful. After descending the stairs, we found we had to ascend another stairway whose steps were constructed of round smooth stones that made us lose our balance. Tania and I held on to each other, finding an intimate companionship. The wind filled our skirts like sails as we went up and up then through a tunnel that opened onto a large platform, well lit by the beacon that guided ships into the harbor, turning its eye from one direction to the other, flooding the platform with its light, then abandoning us to the darkness. On the other side of the harbor, small flickers of light from the city reflected on the water.
The choir filed out in silence and we tried to find standing room for ourselves against the fortress walls alongside the performance area. As drums played, a troupe of dancers filled the center of the platform stage. Eight couples from the Afro-Cuba Dance Troupe fanned out before us; we were so close we were able to observe the sweat on their brows. They danced to increasingly fast tempos, the women waving their full skirts to resemble the waves of the ocean, the men wielding their machetes as if cutting sugarcane, their eyes brown and almond-shaped, their skin tones that our founding father José Martí called “Cuban color”–ruddy, brown, black–a racial mix of the European, the Asian, the African. At the end of the dance, lights went out, and fireworks surprised us as they filled the sky with reds, blues, and greens. Several comets fell apart into cascades of yellow. Someone standing high on one of the towers began to play the Chinese coronet. Everyone seemed to know that the show had ended and like children after a pied piper, we filed out of the fortress dancing. We followed the sound of drums playing the conga up and down the stairs, this time a little more knowledgeable about the ways of the fortress. Inside the enclosure of the thick walls, my chest resounded with the rhythms of the drums. The musician had achieved his purpose of enchanting the audience to follow him unquestioningly. I let my body be led by the drums, I pushed my way left and right to get closer to the musicians, to feel the echoes of the conga rhythm resonate in my chest cavity. Was I now ready to go knocking on Luz María’s door?
When I arrived in Camagüey, I took a communal taxi that would bring us to our specific destinations. I had tried to call my Aunt Luz María from Santiago repeatedly, but there was no connection. The telephone system was unreliable, particularly outside of Havana. Sitting in the cab, I realized I was the only woman. All the men were curious why I was traveling alone. I told them I came from the US to see my aunt. They were still surprised. Traveling alone, or with my daughter Rachel, had become a habit with me in the US. The revolution had endeavored to incorporate women into the public sphere by creating a Women’s Federation. But so far, it hadn’t radically changed the role of women so that they could function on their own as equals. I was so excited about seeing Luz María and my favorite cousin Raúl after two decades that I paid the men no mind with their old-fashioned ways regarding women. As we got to the center of town, I gave Luz María’s new address to the taxi driver: Lope Recio 47.
Before long we arrived at the colonial house. The door was twelve feet tall and almost as wide, with a small window at eye level for greeting visitors. Since it was well into the evening, I asked the driver to please wait until I was sure my aunt was home. I was afraid that Luz María might have gone out and I’d be left alone on the street. The driver courteously got out and knocked hard on the massive door. Luz María opened the little window and I knew her right away. She had not changed a bit in my mind’s eye, the same face, now framed by silver rather than brown hair, the same quiet, slow manner of speaking.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“Luz María,” I said with the anticipation of someone who hopes to be recognized, “It’s me, Florita.”
“Florita who?” still not knowing who I was. She had not seen me since I had left Camagüey in 1960.
“Florita,” I said quietly, “your sister Flora’s daughter.”
“Oh, my God,” she exclaimed, “Come in, come in.”
She opened the door and the taxi left. The shock of my arrival softened as she began to recognize the remnants of the twelve-year old girl she had known many years before.
Luz María didn’t know what to do. When I arrived, she had been cleaning out the icebox in the dining room. She kept repeating that she had to finish cleaning the icebox; otherwise, the ice would melt and spill on the floor. I offered to help her, but she insisted on doing it alone. She went to the kitchen in the back of the house, carrying the ice in a large basin. I heard the ice cubes hitting the hard surface of the kitchen sink, then her steps as she hurried back. While I observed her nervous actions, I thought how I myself resorted to busy housework when trying to manage bursts of emotion. Standing in the living room alone, I noticed four wicker rocking chairs around a large mahogany table and realized that every piece of furniture was exactly in the same place it was twenty years before when my mother’s paternal aunts lived there. When Luz María returned and we sat down, finally, questions began to pour out of her.
“Did you bring photos?” she asked.
Her question reflected a lack of family ties Luz María must have felt since each one of her sisters left the country. Fortunately I had a few small pictures of my immediate family with me. I had brought along clothes and fancy soaps to Cuba, but forgot what was clearly more important to relatives cut off from their extended family. Luz María looked at each photo carefully, commenting on my husband’s very blue eyes and my daughter Rachel’s curly brown hair. A tear rolled down her cheek, the reality of the chasm between those who left and those who stayed became real in her lack of knowledge about the new generations. Although my mother wrote Luz María from time to time, photos never made it through the mail. With a swift gesture, she removed her tears and looked up at me saying, “Your Spanish is so peculiar sounding.” My heart fell. With her words, my aunt confirmed that I was not from the island anymore. After years of teaching students Spanish, my native language no longer sounded Cuban. I spoke at a slower pace than most Cubans, pronounced the letter S at the ends of words, and clearly articulated every syllable. I reached out to clear the tears from her face, only guessing at what my arrival meant to her. As I touched her, she embraced me. Her motherly gesture allowed me to shed the tears I had been holding back since my arrival.
The house on Lope Recio Street where Luz María was now living belonged to the unmarried Mandri great-aunts. During my childhood, their living room had been the site for the most elaborate nativity scenes I had ever seen. A very large table displayed the papier-mâché hilly geography of the Holy Land covered with sheep, shepherds, and olive groves. Very centrally located, the nativity scene included several farms animals, the holy family and adoring magi. As children, Ali and I waited with anticipation to see what new piece had been added to the menagerie. Our visit also promised a bag full of fancy candies. The house now belonged to Luis, Luz María’s and Mami’s cousin, the only one from that family who had not left. These days, Luis slept at the house of a distant cousin on Avellaneda Street, only a few blocks away. He only came to Lope Recio during the day.
Luz María took me back to the bathroom where I could wash and change. We walked down the long corridor parallel to the interior patio and the row of four bedrooms one after the other. I could see my Uncle Oliverio asleep on a bed covered by a mosquito net. After using the bathroom, I went up to where Luz María and I would sleep together. She had brought a nicely embroidered white sheet that was clearly only used for special occasions. The mattress was quite firm, as if made of hay. Next to the bed was a crib with Jaquelinne, my cousin Raúl’s baby who was being raised by her grandmother. Her cheeks were fat and she had long eyelashes. She slept peacefully. I wanted to pick her up and hug her, but instead, lay down and covered myself while Luz María went back to the bathroom. I closed my eyes and never felt Luz María next to me. Somehow, I had reestablished lost family ties in that small bed. When I awakened, I was lying with my back turned to the wall with my arms protectively wrapped around myself.
All was quiet around me. Neither Luz María nor the baby was there. I examined the room. A huge window with an iron railing faced the street. In front of it was Luz María’s Singer sewing machine piled with materials and spools of thread. Could it be that she was still sewing for a living? She must be in her seventies, I thought. Two large armoires stood against the wall opposite the bed. I got up and dressed quickly.
All the bedrooms on the right side of the house communicated with double doors. I walked toward the back, exploring armoires filled with embroidered tablecloths and bed linens. Along walls, suitcases were piled on top of each other and books spilled out of boxes. The walls had not been painted in years adding to the sense of abandonment. High in the corners, spiders had woven their fine webs, safe from human touch. I imagined that as family members left the country, they stored their belongings in this, the last remaining Mandri outpost. After all, they had hoped to return to a Castro-free Cuba. Did my parents, uncles and aunts refuse to return to Cuba so as not to face a past neatly stored in overflowing containers, a past that would bring irrecoverable sorrow? I wondered how Luz María could sleep without proper sheets with such abundance in storage? In her mind, I supposed, those objects did not belong to her. She would not touch them.
When I reached the kitchen I noticed two small buckets filled with eggs and tomatoes. I picked one of each and had breakfast. The tomato was intensely sweet, so I had another. Several field mice ran for cover as they heard me. In the backyard two old hunchbacked women were clearing the ground of leaves. They wore black dresses and gray aprons. Their legs were thin, but strong; their heads each covered with a colorful scarf. One appeared older than the other. She came closer to me and I could see she had no teeth; her lips were wrinkled and closed into a rounded letter O. I greeted them with a “Good morning,” and they continued with their chores as a rooster insisted on welcoming the not so new day. I felt like an intruder in the house. The women must have served the family for years and still lived in the back quarters.
I went in to the living room where I found Luz María cleaning the floors. The baby wore no diapers and had peed. I felt infinite pity for a grandmother who took on the care of her granddaughter without the conveniences I had enjoyed when my daughter Rachel was a baby. In Santiago we had been told that children went to fully staffed day-care centers so that their mothers could work. Why didn’t my cousin Raúl place his daughter in one? He was a working father. Luz María told me that the baby’s mother had remarried and left Jaquelinne to her care.
I figured it would take months even for someone like me, with lots of energy and organizational skills, to rejuvenate this household so that Luz María wouldn’t feel so alone. Unconsciously, I had absorbed the American hubris that believes we have the necessary means to fix all the world’s problems. Since Luz María’s sisters had abandoned her, in a fit of self-possession, I wished I could rescue her. But I knew I would be leaving the next day, also abandoning her. I viewed her house as a huge storage trunk of a formerly united family, now dispersed throughout the continent. I looked to the inner patio full of birdcages with busily singing canaries, backed by the coo, coo of the pigeons. Flowerpots held multicolored geraniums, but the weeds were threatening to choke them. I imagined the way the house had been when I left, with someone playing the piano, children running around, and women serving coffee as guests came in and out.
Ready for the midday meal that his father always prepared, my cousin Raúl came from work as a mechanical engineer. We hugged for a while and I commented, “What a handsome cousin I have!” I saw before me a tall, ruddy-faced man with sweet brown eyes, a welcoming smile, and a good sense of humor. His presence brought me back to lazy summer afternoons when all of us cousins wandered the streets of Camagüey, visiting friends and stopping to buy ice cream. We sat in the front bedroom and I opened the bag I had brought for them. Raúl was impressed by the attractive packaging for plain bathroom soap and clothes-washing detergent that he contrasted with the simple labeling of Cuban products. I had brought some baby shampoo that his daughter Jaquelinne immediately put to good use by washing her doll’s hair. Since I hadn’t thought of bringing clothes for each of them, I kept an outfit for myself and gave Luz María all my clothes since we wore the same size.
“Mami made most of these,” I said to her. She inspected everything and admired the materials and the styles.
I felt guilty that soon I would have to leave. A bag full of clothes, soaps, and perfumes would not help them with their daily shortcomings. I figured that Luz María might keep an outfit and sell the rest. Raúl’s overalls had patches everywhere. He worked in an industrial complex fixing motors for the sugar cane industry. I had packed socks, shirts, and underwear for him, but had not thought of work pants. Raúl’s daughter Jaquelinne looked cute in the outfit I had brought for her, but already it was a bit tight.
“She’s a butterball,” Raúl said. “She drinks bottles and bottles of milk a day. There’s no shortage of that here. Children and the elderly get plenty of milk.”
As Jaquelinne crawled on the spotless floor, Oliverio entered, ready to prepare lunch. He had left the house before I had awakened so I saw him for the first time in many years. I saw an aging man, his teeth all gone, his shoulders bent over as he walked.
After a lunch that Oliverio prepared of lentils, plantains and fried eggs, he took me to the backyard where earlier I had seen the women sweeping. He showed me all the fruit trees they had; mangos, custard apple, and honey berry. That year they had started a vegetable garden with squash and potatoes. Those crops provided most of their meals. He told me that the corn was a little small because Camagüey was in the middle of an awful drought. It hadn’t rained for a month. I had read about the drought in Santiago. The government was seeding the clouds in the hope that it would induce rain. In the meantime, Oliverio had to water the plants with buckets. He showed me the well, how it functioned, and I drank the fresh water.
Being alone with Oliverio made me look at him with the distance of someone who, through the hard work of memory writing, had been able to recall that awful afternoon when he had shattered my innocence. After a while of talking to Raúl and Luz María, I realized my bus back to Santiago would be leaving in about an hour. As we went outside, I saw Oliverio sitting on a chair in the front porch deeply asleep, his head hanging down on his chest, his clothes dirty with the red dust of the backyard. I reached for my camera and snapped a photo of him. He was exactly where I wanted him, frozen in a small frame where he could never touch me again.
As it was time to go, Luz María became quite sad. We had just barely spent a day and a half together and the emotions had been intense. Raúl, who had a small motorcycle, said he would drive me to the station. I hugged everyone, trying to leave them with the sense that they would not be alone anymore.
“I’ll return,” I said, “I don’t know when, but I’ll return.”
I sat behind Raúl on his bike with my almost empty bag hanging on my shoulder. He rode me past the Agramonte Plaza where we had played as children and I recognized the cathedral on the other side of the park. But most of the streets were unknown to me, outside the perimeter of a twelve-year old who moved to Havana in 1961.
We arrived with time to spare at the station, but when it was finally time to leave, I began to cry. Good-byes were always sad for me, but the intensity of the short visit made my eyes feel like a well overflowing its boundaries. Raúl tried to console me, but I couldn’t stop.
“Here,” I said, “take my purse and give it to Luz María for me.”
“She won’t use it, Florita,” he said. “She hardly goes out.”
He waited with me until boarding time. From my window I watched him get on the bike and take off as the bus closed its door. Tears poured out of me and I sobbed like a child. People who returned to see family before me had told me about this moment of inconsolable grief. A young woman sitting beside me put her arm around me and asked, “Why so sad?”
“I just saw my family after twenty years,” I said swallowing my tears.
On one bus stop about an hour after we had set out, my neighbor went to get some ice cream and brought me a vanilla cone. I was very touched by her gesture. I wondered whether the same would happen in the US under similar circumstances. As I calmed down, I enjoyed the scenery outside the window. The fields were planted with vegetables and orange trees. They looked like beautifully manicured English gardens, with mountains on the horizon. On the radio, songs alternated with advice about how to teach children table manners and educate them about literary figures such as the poets Heredia and Gómez de Avellaneda. I soon learned to recognize the station’s identification: “Radio Reloj, Cuba’s Official Clock Radio, transmitting from the only free territory in the Americas.”