In the fall of 1982, when my father was nineteen years old, two military guards came to his home in the middle of the night and told him he was under arrest. They read his name from a creased document, assuring him there had been no mistake. My father told my pregnant mother not to worry, to just call her parents, before he was hauled into an olive green jeep. He caught a glimpse of her holding onto the doorframe and vomiting as the car sped away.
The men took my father nearly twenty kilometers toward the fringes of Havana. On the way, they informed him he’d been accused of desertion. When he asked them why, they said their job was to take him in, nothing more. They drove up a winding hill bordered by dark trees and bushes, past a large metal gate, dragged him out of the vehicle and into a small building, and dropped him in a cell.
My father spent the next five hours sitting on an uneven, urine-coated floor. His back and legs started to cramp up. The fluorescent lighting kept him from dozing off. They’d told him an interview with a state-appointed attorney was the next step, but they wouldn’t tell him exactly when. Bothered by the throbbing pressure in his bladder, he stood and walked to the cell door. Years later he still remembered his palms feeling clammy against the corroded metal of the bars. The desk in front of the cell was empty, except for a typewriter and stacks of documents bursting out of brown folders. At the far end of the room, a short, muscular guard was leaning against the door enjoying a cigarette.
My father asked if he could use the bathroom.
The guard took a long drag and sauntered toward the desk. He discarded the cigarette butt and sat facing the cell with his legs spread. “What do you want?”
My father lowered his hand to his crotch. “I told you. I need to use the bathroom.”
“You’re standing on it,” the guard said. “Anyway, I think they’re about to call you.” The man looked at his watch and suddenly left the room. He returned moments later and said, “Let’s go.”
They walked down a narrow hall whose walls were painted dark green up to the waist, a lighter shade from there to the ceiling. The pattern reminded my father of his middle school, the place where he had lost his virginity (not to my mother) and where he had been suspended twice for stealing wooden desks to use as soccer goals. He then wondered about the guard’s background. His accent, more musical in tone, made it obvious he wasn’t from the city. He had to be from Oriente, one of the many people from Santiago, Holguín, Granma, or Guantánamo who had migrated to Havana in search of jobs. A lot of them had ended up in the military or the police force.
At a door on the left, the guard motioned my father in. The attorney was sitting on the other side of a metal desk. He was wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a neatly pressed uniform. The insignia on his left shoulder revealed his rank of First Lieutenant. He was hunched forward, exposing a bald spot and thinning hair. The guard shut the door and placed his arms behind his back. My father sat across from the attorney. The man removed his gaze from an open file and smiled politely. He took off his glasses in an almost ritualistic manner, letting them fall gently into his right pocket.
“Rafael Alvarez, correct?”
My father nodded.
“All right, why are you here?”
“When I got picked up they said I was accused of desertion, but that has to be wrong.”
“I was never drafted. I volunteered to join the Naval School, but I’m not officially in the military. I didn’t even complete the program.”
“Why didn’t you finish?”
My father explained that the school’s director, Colonel Báez, had notified him that he was required to serve in the Navy for five years to conclude the program. “I figured it wouldn’t be too bad,” my father said, “so I decided to specialize in communications. About three months into it, I was told the mandatory service would be for twenty-five years. The colonel never mentioned any of that before. I went to his office and said I’d changed my mind and wanted to quit.”
“What’s wrong with military service?” the attorney asked. “Weren’t you going to do it anyway?”
“Yeah, but twenty-five years…” My father stopped. He wished he hadn’t said anything. He now expected the attorney to remind him that it was his duty as a young revolutionary to serve his country, that declining the opportunity could be deemed questionable.
The attorney said, “What happened next?”
“The colonel told me the resignation papers were going to be mailed to my address. He said everything was fine. That was three weeks ago. Now I’m here.”
The attorney flipped through the file. “Well, the problem is you were the only one to leave the school. And you did enlist.”
“I signed up for the school, not the military.”
“When you signed up for the school, you signed up for the military.”
“But the colonel said—”
“It doesn’t matter what you think he said. He’s the one who filed the charges.”
“Then he’s lying.”
“Listen,” the attorney said, “you don’t want to fight this. You can get in a lot of trouble.”
My father wanted to say that all along he’d had a hunch Colonel Báez didn’t like him. There was this look he would give him, a deliberate smirk, as if the fact that my father was the son of a retired diplomat was reason enough to take pleasure in being his superior. He then hoped his old man, my grandfather, would hurry over as soon as he learned where they were holding him. He had connections in the government and should be able to work something out.
My father told himself he just had to be patient.
“Why did you sign up in the first place?” the attorney asked.
My father answered that when he finished high school he wanted to study journalism. In his graduation year only three spots were available, and he wasn’t near the top of his class. “I had other options, but ended up not choosing anything.”
The attorney closed the file. “You should have been more responsible. Maybe you wouldn’t be here.” He picked up a briefcase from the floor and chucked the papers into a pile of scattered documents inside. “Rafael, I’m going to be honest with you. I think it’s best if you admit you’re guilty and take what they give you. Do your time, go home, and forget about all this.”
“But I’m not guilty of anything.”
“You try to argue and it’ll be a lot worse.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll get screwed in sentencing.”
“What’s the sentence for my charge?”
“A year. The trial should take place about a month from now. Maybe sooner.”
My father dropped his elbows on the desk and buried his fingers in his hair. “A year? My wife’s almost nine months pregnant!”
“I’ve seen this kind of thing happen. It’s your word against a colonel’s. As for your wife, how old is she? Are you sure the kid’s even yours?”
“What?” The question was genuine. My father wanted the attorney to repeat himself.
“The kid, are you sure he’s yours?”
My father jumped up, clutched the backrest of his chair, and hurled it at the attorney. It missed his ducking head by a few inches. Before my father could lunge toward the officer, the guard pounced on him. It only took a moment for the man to pin him down. The guard jammed his knee between my father’s legs. His husky forearm crammed my father’s temple against the table.
“Move and I’ll break your neck!”
The attorney scurried to the door. “Come mierda!”
Another guard dashed in. Between the two men they carried my father to the adjacent building. They laid him face down on an examination table and asked a male nurse to put him to sleep. My father used all his strength to kick, punch, and twist his body, but he couldn’t shake the guards’ grip. He saw the syringe, and his phobia of needles kicked in. He shut his eyes, and felt the nurse pull down the top of his pants and deliver the injection. He bit his bottom lip, groaning through his teeth. The guards restrained him a while longer. My father was stiff, a pulsating sting creeping up the muscles of his back. Then he was out.
* * *
When he awoke, the objects in the infirmary were moving in erratic waves. He slid off the exam table and ventured out on wobbly legs. He was dragging his body along the outside wall when he recognized the second guard who had lugged him from the interrogation room. My father asked the young man to let him go.
“Just tell them you never saw me,” he pleaded. “Tell them I was already gone.”
The guard grabbed my father by the waist and began carrying him. “You’re going to have to get used to this place.” There was such kindhearted honesty in his voice that my father desisted and almost broke down sobbing.
The guard left him in a pitch-black cell with another prisoner. The room was small and had no windows. A pungent smell oozed from a latrine at the back. The stench tightened my father’s stomach; his breathing became labored. He was on the verge of convulsion, and remained this way until, moments later, he heard jostling above him.
“It’s the food,” the other prisoner said.
My father tried to recall what the man looked like but failed. He heard him scuffling closer.
“Need a hand?” the man said.
My father reached out, bumped his hand against the prisoner’s shoulder, and clasped his shirt. Using it as leverage, he got up. They both waited for their plates and glasses, which were passed through a narrow opening in the door. My father sat with his back against the wall. He couldn’t discern the food in front of him, but he tasted rice, sticky and unsalted, mixed with fish soup. He ate it all in a frenzy, then drank the water in big gulps. He tossed the empty glass and plate to the side and stayed silent, too exhausted to move.
In retrospect, my father said that sitting there in the darkness, battling the debilitating effect of the tranquilizer, all he could think about was his foolish decision to quit the naval school. He was willing to recant his statements, sign any official documents, and apologize to the colonel in person if it meant he could go home.
That night he slept with his face wedged against the doorsill so he could breathe easier. When he came to again, he told himself not to fret. He was sure his old man would obtain his release that day. He stretched his arms and legs and tried to relax the aching muscles in his body.
“How did you end up in here?” the other prisoner asked him.
My father tried to gauge from the guy’s tone whether he was just making small talk. “I quit a naval school.”
“I mean in this cell. How did you end up here? I beat a guy up in the mess hall and got five days for it. This is like my fourth offense. I think I might be transferred.”
Suddenly, my father wanted to be anywhere but this room. “I threw a chair at an attorney.”
The man laughed. “An attorney?”
“A First Lieutenant.”
“He offended my wife.”
The man laughed louder. “You’re never getting out!”
* * *
Some hours later, the cell door opened. My father heard someone calling his name. It was a guard. He was wearing his army short bill hat, a clipboard wedged under his arm. He stared at my father with a listless expression and said, “Follow me.”
As he trailed the man, my father had a hunch he was going to be led to the front of the prison. His old man would surely be there. There would be papers to fill out, maybe a speech from an officer reprimanding him for what he’d done. Then he and his old man would stroll out together, mocking the absurdity of the situation: the vengeful Colonel Báez, the gutless attorney, the entire country. He would return to my pregnant mother, tell her about the lesson he’d learned, about his responsibilities as a father going beyond taking care of her and the baby. He might feel a certain pride in it, in the swift self-realization that he would be an improved version of himself at such a young age. He, a cultured, pampered city boy, son of an ambassador, could now speak of the day he’d spent in a military prison unfairly detained, interrogated, and locked in a pitch-dark room. He could talk about how he’d fought back, never wavering. He’d made a First Lieutenant run like a coward. They’d been forced to sedate him, put him out. There was a statement, a defiant one, in all of it.
But the guard wasn’t leading him to freedom. Instead he took him to the side of the building, where a line of faucets hung from a pipe above the grimy sink. He was permitted to wash his head, hands, and armpits in a weak stream of cold water. Then he had to follow the guard past a chain link fence crowned by bulging barbwire, toward a yellow building—one of four identical ones—at the rear of the complex. Once they entered, my father noticed he was in the sleeping quarters. The space was fairly ample, four rows of bunk beds running from wall to wall. He was assigned a bottom bed halfway down.
My father sat on the foam mattress, which felt surprisingly rigid, as if it’d been repeatedly wetted and dried. The guard explained that my father was to stay in this section of the prison, designated for detainees awaiting trial. He was not allowed to have visitors, make phone calls, or send letters until after the proceedings, which were scheduled to take place in approximately two weeks. In the meantime, he was to join the prisoners in their daily activities. His family would be contacted subsequent to the verdict. He could see them the Sunday of that week, visiting day.
“Stay here,” the guard said. “I’ll be back with your things.” Upon his return, he gave my father a bed sheet, a grey uniform, a pair of ragged boots, and two pairs of white underwear and socks. “Put this on. You’ll get a clean uniform every two weeks. I’ll take your clothes and log them in. You can pick them up when you’re released.”
My father donned the matching outfit. The fabric was worn out, and the black stripes on the side of the pant legs were faded. There was no belt, only a cord tied at the waist. The boots were a size too big, but judging by his experience at the youth labor camps, it was better to have extra space for the toes.
“Use your shirt as a pillow,” the guard said. “I suggest you keep the extra underwear and socks with you. People here are like rats.”
My father stuffed his underwear and socks into his baggy pockets.
The guard informed him the latrines were just behind the building, and that shower days were Tuesdays and Saturdays. “Okay, let’s move. You’re not allowed in here until lights out.”
The man left my father sitting on a wooden bench in the prison’s recreational area. He was supposed to wait for the detainees to finish their drills. My father could see them working their way through an obstacle course in the distance. The spacious yard of spotty grass and brown dirt around him reminded him of a baseball field where he’d played as a child. Two pavilions with multiple benches stood to his right. A double chain link fence topped by spiraling barbwire stretched all around the complex, which was flanked by watchtowers, their armed sentries cradling rifles close to their chests. Beyond the prison, abundant foliage sloped down until all that was visible were a few power line posts.
My father felt distant from everything, as if he were on an island within the island. Here he was at the absolute mercy of strangers and thus felt like a stranger. His mind was sinking into a kind of permanently baffled state. The notion that he might remain imprisoned indefinitely tugged at his body like spasms. He kept staring through the fences, past detainees and guards, and in-between buildings, hoping to recognize his old man, a familiar sight that could snap him back to reality, to a more natural, recognizable version of himself—a version in which he again could be a devout son, a grateful husband, and a soon-to-be father.
He stared anxiously until a whistle blew and the prisoners began heading his way.
* * *
No one spoke to him that afternoon or night. A handful of detainees glanced at him, their expressions as indifferent as the attorney’s. The next morning, he followed the inmates to the latrines. Having learned that running water was usually shut off during the day, he washed his face with dew from shrubs whose leaves poked through the outer fence. For breakfast, he was given a glass of powdered milk and a piece of crumbling bread. Lunch consisted of flavorless rice, soft scrambled eggs, and watery marmalade. The prisoners took their plastic trays in orderly fashion, lined up at the grubby mess hall tables, and sat simultaneously when commanded. They had exactly three minutes to eat. Looking at the others, my father realized it was best to mix everything and swallow as fast as possible. When time was up they were instructed to throw away any leftovers in barrels by the entrance.
During the drills, my father banged his leg against a metal bar that jutted from the ground. The bruise looked like a splotch of paint on his skin and hurt more than he let on. The guard in charge told him to leave the group and sit on the grass. My father worried, thinking this was not the image he wanted to portray. He watched the men hop, climb, and weave their way through the obstacles, and fretted he wouldn’t get accustomed to his new daily routine.
Later in the afternoon, at the mandatory Marxism-Leninism class, he recognized Lieutenant Jorge Ávila. The tall, broad-shouldered black man with protruding cheekbones was bent over his desk, rummaging through a couple of hefty books. The lieutenant had been my father’s favorite professor in the brief period he’d spent at the Naval School. Sitting at the back of the room, my father felt a slight sense of relief.
At the conclusion of the lecture, Ávila remained in his seat while the detainees cleared the room. My father approached him.
“Rafael!” the lieutenant said, shaking my father’s hand. “What are you doing here?”
My father recounted his ordeal.
“I can’t believe Báez accused you.”
“It probably gives him pleasure.”
“Sometimes these people…” Ávila placed his hand on my father’s shoulder and led him to the recreational area.
As they sat in one of the pavilions, the lieutenant began to inquire about my father’s interests. My father knew Ávila was trying to make him feel better. They talked about film and literature: subjects that, my father quickly discovered, both of them enjoyed. Ávila claimed to have a collection of foreign films, including American classics, along with a considerable assortment of books. My father said he liked the French poets. The lieutenant replied he loved the English, too, but that, if pressed, he’d say his true preference was Russian prose: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky.
“A lot of their work rings true in this country,” he said. “The sadness, the tragic lives, the violence.”
I am living a Russian story, my father thought but didn’t say it. In the end, the conversation was a much-needed distraction, almost reenergizing. This he did tell the lieutenant.
Ávila confessed that my father reminded him of his estranged son. “He loves movies and books, just like you. Too bad his mother won’t let me see him.”
When he didn’t say anything more, my father refrained from prying. The lieutenant told him he would stay after every class for a chat. “It might do us both good.”
My father eagerly agreed. For the next few days, Ávila stuck to his word.
* * *
The night before the trial, as my father tossed on his foam mattress unable to sleep, two guards stormed the sleeping quarters. They ordered the prisoners to stand by their bunk beds. Everyone accounted for, they instructed the men to trot out onto the recreational yard.
The weather was stuffy and humid. The detainees were barefooted, wearing just their underwear. As they waited in silence, my father heard a voice coming from the edge of the complex: “I want everyone to march toward me, then march all the way back to the other side. Stay close to the quarters’ walls. If anyone gets out of line or starts talking, you’ll stay out here twice as long as it takes me to finish my rum. Let’s go!”
A series of sighs and grunts pervaded the group as they began moving. My father figured the man sitting on the narrow ledge at the base of the water tank, legs dangling, was Major Espinosa, the prison director. He was known among the prisoners as Masca Hierro: Iron Chewer. Once my father was near the base of the tank he took a peek upwards and saw Mascar Hierro staring out at the darkness, a bottle of Havana Club in one hand, a pack of cigarettes in the other. Masca Hierro had been first pointed out to him one morning while running drills. Ernesto, a detainee who had already been in the prison for ten months, had enlightened a few others as to how Major Espinosa got his popular nickname.
“Someone told me there was this new prisoner,” Ernesto had said while lying in his bed, “who a few months ago was told how Espinosa had been a ruthless coronel, a real son of a bitch, and how he’d gotten into a fight with a Brigade General, taking out his gun and everything, and how they had demoted him to Major and sent him here early last year to run things. People were telling this new guy to watch out, since he was planning to break out. The genius, I guess to show off, said that he was not afraid of anyone, not even Espinosa, and that he ‘chewed glass,’ whatever the hell that means. Espinosa gets wind of what this new prisoner said and the very next day makes the entire prison march for four straight hours. Rumor has it he drank an entire bottle of rum and smoked a whole pack of cigarettes in that time, watching from the water tower. Then he gets up, orders them to stop, and yells, ‘I know some of you claim you can chew on glass. Well, I chew iron, so just try and fuck with me!’ A week later the guy gets transferred to the Eastern Combine, where I’m sure he’s a having a good time.”
My father heard a number of the prisoners talk about Masca Hierro as if he were a mythological figure. Some alleged he was a muscle man for the revolutionary army during the sixties, torturing and killing civilians under Ché Guevara’s command at La Cabaña. Others said Espinosa had moved up to colonel in record time, but then progressed no further on account of his angry tirades and alcoholism. Now that his rank had been downgraded, no one knew how long it’d be before he did something extreme.
This night, however, the detainees were spared Iron Chewer’s wrath. The major decided to come down and send everyone back to sleep after just an hour. The brawny man of Napoleon-esque stature walked away quietly and vanished into his quarters at the front of the prison.
“He must be in a great mood,” Ernesto said as the detainees returned to their beds, their bodies drenched in sweat.
* * *
In the morning, the men scheduled for trial were told to skip breakfast and form two lines starting inside one of the pavilions. A long table had been set across from them, creating an improvised courtroom. A military judge and his male secretary took a seat. They both wore impeccable uniforms, and each carried a stack of files. Another official stood between the lines of detainees. He introduced himself to the prisoners as their attorney.
The assistant gave a brief preamble: prisoners would be called by name and read their sentence, followed by a succinct explanation of their crime. They could then acknowledge or dispute it.
“An unconditional acceptance of your sentence,” the aide read from a piece of paper, “will be construed by the army as an honest repentance for the offense committed and hence a willingness to genuinely uphold your duty in the defense of our revolution. A respectful and compliant attitude may be rewarded with a reduction of your sentence, a transfer to a more lenient facility, or an adjustment of your record to show your readiness to serve our revolutionary cause.”
The initial sentences went uncontested. The prisoners simply nodded and walked to the side, gradually forming a group. Their punishment ranged from one to two years, either for insubordination or numerous minor offences. The difference between twelve months and two years appeared colossal to my father.
When his turn came, the judge, without lifting his gaze, said, “One year for desertion.” He pondered over the written sentence a second time, squinting at the transcript. Finally he gestured for my father to stand with the other men. “Yes, one year for desertion.”
* * *
The less severe verdict gave him no solace. My father couldn’t bring himself to be an optimist, to count himself lucky, to do his time, as the cowardly attorney had so eloquently put it, and forget about everything. That afternoon he headed toward the shower area, which contained no showers at all. Instead it was a muddy patch of terrain behind the sleeping quarters. A filthy mass of semi-nude detainees gathered to be rinsed down with a high-pressure hose twice a week.
My father lingered at the back of the cluster, as he’d done on previous occasions, to avoid the guanos, a group of heavily built men who liked to harass the smaller guys. There had been reports of assault and rape, but my father hadn’t witnessed any of it personally. What he had seen was guanos fondling a prisoner during shower time, removing his underwear and shoving him back and forth in a collective bout of hideous laughter. Their soaked bodies slapped and squished against each other like pigs. This went on until the guard with the hose drowned their faces with a stream of water and, smiling, yelled at them to stop.
Where my father stood the water barely reached him. Much of the grime covering him remained on his body. Then a man emerged from the bunch, glanced at him as he passed by, and turned around. My father was momentarily paralyzed. The man drew near and attempted to grab his ass. My father tried to push off the guano, but his hands slipped on the man’s slimy skin. They ended up chest to chest, and the guano locked his arms around him, shaking his body as if they were dancing. My father shoved his face and kneed him in the groin. The man stepped back, grinning, saying my father had missed. Water began to drop on my father’s head, and he realized the hose was aimed at him. He looked toward the guard, the water pelting his eyes, and stretched out his arms to let him know it was enough. The guano scurried into the throng of prisoners as some of them threw kicks and yelled at him to stay away.
* * *
When the sun rose again, it was Sunday. My father had found out through other prisoners that each detainee was allowed one visit a month, thus only a certain number of detainees received visitors each Sunday. My father watched a flood of people rushing in, holding tote bags and baskets. The color of their clothes captured his attention. He’d gotten so used to the monotony of the grey and green worn by prisoners and guards, that a red blouse or black pants appeared out of place to him. He surveyed the crowd, searching desperately for his wife, his parents, his in-laws.
The prisoners and their loved ones scattered in the recreational areas, forming a series of picnics. My father looked at them, consumed with envy. He would have to endure one or two more weeks of uncertainty. A thought he had purposely kept at bay now overtook him: he might miss the birth of his child. He and my mother had discussed many times their being together in the hospital when it happened. She’d made him promise that he wouldn’t leave her alone. She wouldn’t fault him if he did, he knew, but he suspected that he would never forgive himself.
* * *
On Tuesday, before entering the Marxism-Leninism lecture, my father gazed at a row of unattended uniforms behind the obstacle course. It was laundry day, which meant a number of guards washed their own uniforms and draped them over a clothesline, picking them up before it got dark. The uniforms were then dried again and pressed inside one of the buildings, or so my father had been told. It’d be easy to take one, he considered, as long as no one saw him, especially the tower sentries. He could get past the guards at the gate, who rarely had any interactions with the detainees. They wouldn’t recognize him. If he did a good acting job, he could stroll right out.
“Of course,” my father said to me once, while remembering this moment, “what kept everyone from escaping wasn’t the fear of getting shot or beaten up. The point was you couldn’t hide anywhere, and leaving the country wasn’t an option. Two guys had cut a hole through the back fences some years before, and they had basically turned themselves in weeks later. They couldn’t get enough food and water while hiding on some nearby hills, so they went to one of their houses and got picked up within ten minutes after a neighbor called the authorities. They couldn’t even pass off as homeless because a police cruiser would pick them up sooner or later. In this country, if they’re looking for you, they find you.”
After class, Lieutenant Ávila approached my father. “I have something for you,” he said, knocking on his briefcase. “I heard about the one-year sentence and wanted to help you pass the time.”
“My folks didn’t come this Sunday,” my father said.
“They’re probably down in the list. You’re considered a new prisoner.”
“Sandra will be giving birth any day now.”
“Rafael, these things take time. If you want I can give your dad a message. I can find out what he’s been up to.”
“I’m breaking out,” my father said. “I can’t wait any longer.”
“You’ll get at least an extra year for trying. Two or three if you make it out of here. You can’t keep making rash decisions without thinking of the consequences.”
“What do you mean?”
“You quit the Naval School, throw a chair at a First Lieutenant, and now this.”
“I need to see my wife.”
“Wait until your father contacts you.”
“How long is that going to be? My old man will figure something out. I’ll knock on Fidel’s door myself if I have to.”
The lieutenant opened his mouth but refrained from speaking. He took a deep breath and asked, “When are you planning to do it?”
Ávila scoffed. “Stealing a uniform won’t work.”
“I shouldn’t be in this shithole.” My father got up.
“I don’t want your gift.”
“Come back here,” the lieutenant said with clenched teeth.
My father waited for a moment, then sat down.
“Are you serious about this? Are you really willing to risk it?”
“I shouldn’t be in here.”
“Fine, but we’re doing it my way.” Ávila told him to wait in the classroom. “If a guard comes, tell them you’re meeting with me to talk about the class.”
About ten minutes later, the lieutenant came back. “Pretend that your stomach is hurting and follow my lead.”
As they emerged into the open, my father gripped his abdomen, coughed, and bent forward. The lieutenant settled a hand on his shoulder and urged him to straighten up. My father said he couldn’t. The lieutenant clinched him by the waist, and they staggered past two recruits.
“Gotta take him to the infirmary,” Ávila said.
Once they arrived, Ávila asked the nurse if he’d gotten what he had requested. The nurse retrieved a military uniform and a pair of boots from a bottom shelf, and gave them to my father.
My father changed quickly. “What now?” he said to Ávila.
“Go see your wife.” Ávila went to his bag, which he’d left on the exam table. He showed my father an old translated copy of Les Fleurs du Mal. “This will be waiting for you if they bring you back, but I’d rather just drop it off at your house, so don’t disappoint me.” He then gave my father a half-empty pack of cigarettes and one Cuban peso in change. “The guards are at the end of their shift. They’re probably tired and cranky. Tell them you’re going to town to get some smokes. Use the change to catch a bus.”
My father thrust the cigarette pack and money into his breast pocket, shook the lieutenant’s hand, and rushed out. Thankfully, the infirmary was near the entrance. He kept his eyes aimed at the gravel and walked in the direction of the gate.
“On my way to town,” my father said, flashing the cigarette pack. “I’m going get me another. You want some?”
“My shift’s done in ten minutes,” the guard said. “I won’t be here when you get back.”
“All right.” My father offered him two cigarettes. “Here you go.”
“Thanks!” The guard opened the gate. “I’ll pay you back.”
My father ambled down to the first bend in the road. Then he broke into a sprint. He ran as fast as his legs allowed him. The thump of his boots smacking asphalt resonated downhill. He remained by the edge of the street, overgrown grass slapping against his legs. If he heard a car or someone chasing him, he could dive into the adjacent woods.
* * *
It took him well over an hour on a couple of buses to get to his parents’ neighborhood in El Vedado. He stopped at the street corner of his parents’ building and watched for any military vehicles. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle was the only car on the block. He mulled over whether he should continue on to see his wife. She was another half-hour away by bus. He decided his old man must have something to tell him, even if it was bad news.
When he reached his parents’ apartment, my grandfather opened the door. My grandmother hurried forward, hugged my father tightly, and kissed his neck. My grandfather wrangled them in and locked the door. He told my father they had gotten a call from the prison. Espinosa himself had phoned. “I don’t know how your son did it,” the major had said, “but he’s either crazy or got some big cojones. If he turns himself in by tomorrow, we’ll take it easy on him, blame it on youth. If we have to find him, he’s going to become my best friend.”
My grandfather said he’d gotten in touch with Nora Garrido, Raúl Castro’s secretary. “She owes me a favor,” he said. “She’s on her way. Get in our room and don’t come out.”
“I need to see Sandra,” my father said.
“If you leave now and they catch you, it’ll be harder to help you.”
“Sandra is doing fine,” my grandmother said. “A little worried, as you can imagine, but she’s fine. We spoke with her a couple of days ago.”
“I’m sorry,” my father said. “I couldn’t stay in that place any longer.”
“Nora has been trying to get you a pardon letter,” my grandfather said, “stamped by her office and signed by Raúl. I just didn’t have a way to let you know. I’ve been to the prison three times and they wouldn’t let me in. They put us on a visiting list for next Sunday. Now, get in the room. Nora should be here soon.”
My father lay in his parents’ bed. Through the window he could hear the painful roar of busses and trucks slogging down Paseo Street. Inside the room, except for the tick-tock of the bedside clock, everything was quiet.
Twenty minutes later he was startled by voices in the living room. My grandfather knocked on the bedroom door. “Rafe, Ms. Garrido is here.”
Ms. Garrido, a middle-aged woman with the demeanor of an assertive but warm school teacher, told my father that they needed to return to the prison. “Your file is there,” she said, “and I can’t help you unless I get a hold of it. They might not let me in if they don’t see you’re with me. If you stay here I guarantee they’ll pick you up.”
My father stared stonily at the woman. All he heard was “return to the prison.”
Before he could speak, Ms. Garrido added, “When we get there, you stay in the car, doors locked. I already have to lie to get my hands on your file, so if I can use you as leverage, I have a better chance. Otherwise you have to deal with them until I can get the pardon letter next week.”
“What if they don’t let you touch my file?” my father said.
“Then I’ll say I’m keeping you on house arrest until Raúl is back. I just need to show them you’re under supervision. If I show up without you and no written authorization, I have practically no shot at even stepping in their records office.”
“Rafe, you can trust her,” my grandfather said.
My father stared at Ms. Garrido. “You give me your word we’ll be back today?
She looked at the whole family. “I do.”
* * *
My father rode in the backseat of a red Lada. Ms. Garrido sat in the passenger seat, the top of her hair hardly visible above the backrest. Her driver was dressed in military attire.
When they reached the complex, they stopped at the gate. Ms. Garrido flapped open her identification, and one of the guards tramped to the side of the car. He inspected her credentials with a flashlight. Satisfied, he waved them in. The driver guided the Lada over the gravel and parked it by the main offices.
“Keep the doors locked,” Ms. Garrido said. She got out and headed for the building.
My father surveyed his surroundings, making sure no guards tried to open the door and yank him out. The prison seemed slightly different from this vantage point, especially at night. The sleeping quarters were cloaked in the distance behind faint lighting. The whole area was dark. The infirmary was immediately to his right. He saw why he’d been able to escape so effortlessly. To the watchmen in the adjoining towers, anyone dressed in an olive green uniform would have look practically the same. Nonetheless, they’d noticed his escape rather quickly. My father hoped that Lieutenant Ávila hadn’t been caught.
Eventually, Ms. Garrido came out of the offices and into the car. She ordered the driver to go. “Good news,” she said to my father. “You’re a dead man.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told Major Espinosa I had direct instructions to release you. I said we found out you were innocent and everything had been a misunderstanding. Espinosa wants to die a colonel. He knows the best way to get a promotion is by complying, so he told a guard to show me your file. I read it, asked them to stamp and sign it, and write you off as deceased. I’ll drop it off at the central offices tomorrow. You won’t be harassed by these people again.”
My father was silent for a moment. It was as if he hadn’t breathed in weeks, as if sand had been poured into his lungs and now his windpipe had been cleared. “Thank you,” he said.
Ms. Garrido said, “I called your parents from the office telephone. I wanted them to know you were okay so they wouldn’t worry. They asked me to tell you that your wife is in the hospital. She had a girl. Weighs six pounds. Your in-laws called your parents and said she went into labor as soon as they arrived at the hospital a few hours ago. They were trying to get ahold of your family but got through just now. We’re taking you there.” Ms. Garrido looked back at him and smiled. “Congratulations, Dad.”
“Which hospital?” the driver said.
As Ms. Garrido answered, her voice became distant, almost remote.
“What’s the girl’s name?” my father finally heard her say.
As he lay in a hospital bed a few days before passing, when I begged him to retell me this story, my father still remembered staring past the windshield upon hearing Ms. Garrido’s question. He remembered lights flickering by, the sound of the tires on the bumpy road, stretches of pavement being swallowed by the moving car. He remembered tripping on the hospital stairs some time later, desperate to see my mother. But he admitted to me, with the saddest kind of sincerity, that he couldn’t recall exactly what he felt in that precise instant Ms. Garrido asked him and he uttered my name.