Wine's Warm Embrace: The One Where I Mention Hemmingway

I call my Mom while driving home from campus.  She is at a restaurant with friends but answers the phone anyway.

She tells me they've read every chapter I've written and they're trying to go through her phone to find pictures from our trip and guess what comes next in the story.

I laugh. Like the pictures have anything to do with this story! You were THERE and this is new to you!

She laughs and tells me she's given up eating rice until I finish writing this book.

This is her solidarity with me because I've given up drinking wine (and tequila and anything else, but wine most of all) until I finish writing the entire first draft of this book.

One glass of wine (zinfandel, pinot noir, cabernet - something robust, peppery, full bodied) and I feel relieved, like I've been hugged, like I can *finally* exhale and relax.

Two glasses of wine and I can sit down and write and write and keep writing through laughing and through tears that I shake off like a dog flapping water off his head.

Wine sits next to me, quietly, supportively.  Every time I need to take a break I lean back, breathe,  take a warm helpful sip and keep writing.

So a few weeks ago I decided to give up writing in the sanctuary of wine's warm embrace and show myself (and you, and anyone who wants to compare me to Hemmingway, because that's cool) that I don't need wine or diet coke or anything else outside of me to write this story.

No thanks at all to wine I knocked out three chapters yesterday alone, I tell myself, and wonder if I'm only writing this fast --   I'm hoping to finish writing the whole book by next Saturday -- so I can return to the familiarity of wine's warm embrace.

 I soberly defer judgement until after finishing the first draft. Maybe I'll think of something else, something better, to do. I'm open to that.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 10: A Deadly, Dangerous, Huge Desert

Waiting for us at the hotel is another cousin and a teenage cousin. We all go to the area by the pool and sit down under shelter as the black sky wrings itself out.

In googleland, in iPhone and Weather Channel World, I would know how big this storm is, I'd know where it came from and where it is going.

Since I can't know, I find that I don't care, and settle myself here, entirely at the table.

Mom orders white wine, I order red wine, someone orders Bucanero Beer and I wonder if there Budweiser or Coors in Cuba. Of course not. I'm not even sure where my wine is from. It is a light red, served cold in glasses about 1/4 the size they'd use at Olive Garden. The other two order cola that is trying so hard to NOT look like Coke that it looks like Coke's confused friend.

We make small talk and soon order another round.

My teenage cousin sits back and plays with his belt buckle, listening to my Mom and I speak English when I ask her questions or ask her to say things for me.

 I know he's taking English at school and is trying to understand us. I try to catch him and teach him. Repeatly. He refuses to say "scissors" or "sour" or chant anything about Peter Piper picking anything- I think he thinks I'm tricking him. Good instincts.

His belt buckle is a faux-diamond studded $ dollar sign set in gold, and the dollar sign spins. Very flashy, very Flava-flav, but I don't tell him this.  I'm delighted he has a dollar spinning on his buckle; not a Euro, not a Swiss Franc, but a good honest American Dollar Bill. I wonder if this buckle is an overt sign of capitalist rebellion against Marxist Cuba, but I don't ask.

Even though it is pouring outside two preteen girls continue swimming in the pool, climbing out, jumping in, running gleefully on concrete, doing every single thing that would make a lifeguard cringe.

One of my new cousins had mentioned he wanted to study Law. I point at the swimmers and ask my Mom to tell him that we don't have crazy outdoor dangerous swimmers in America because of the lawyers. Hotel lawyers would have rules preventing this, because hurt guests could sue the hotel. 

His eyebrows go up, so I continue and try to explain personal liability, insurance, and then we order another round of drinks and I don't try to explain the American legal system any more that night. He looks pleased and I hand him my iPad and show him Spider Solitaire. He disappears into the screen while the conversation turns more serious.

My cousin tells me he has a friend who thinks he can go to Mexico and then just come to the US from there.

I thought I would rise up with him and say "Send me your huddled friends, yearning to be free, pay car insurance and buy Disney Annual Passes." 

I thought I would have an answer, like, "Tell your friend if he wants to come to the US, the process is XYZ, and your start at X, and then...."

But I didn't.

Instead I looked at my phone and tried to pull up a map on the internet, maybe even Google Earth, but of course that didn't work on this side of the Iron Curtain.  Instead I describe the border between the US and Mexico in terrorizing detail.

There are guards, and there are dogs, the border is patrolled, no joke, I tell him.

He nods. I think this is news to him, I want to make an impression, so  I continue.

And between the US and Mexico is a huge desert. The Mojave Desert, you ever hear of it?

I wait while he listens to my Mom translate this, he shakes his head.

People die in that desert. They run out of water. They are murdered. They die of heat. They get lost. It's hell and  I wouldn't send anyone there, it's not the way to improve life, tell your friend. Tell him not to do anything like that.

He nods and I feel a little bit sad.  I have a chance to brag about the US and invite everyone to drop everything and join us, and I'm not doing it. I could be telling them that I will meet with immigration attorneys, that I will email law professors, that I will lobby Congress, that I will do anything in my power to help get them out of here.

No, instead, I'm telling people to tell other people to stay in Cuba, to make Cuba better rather than risking everything for a life they imagine lies outside of Cuba.

 I just came here to learn some stories, and in between the tiny glasses of wine and thundering rain, I learned a lot that night. 

My cousins left and Mom and I went back to our room.

My iPhone became a white noise machine again and I fell into a dreamless sleep.

Before dawn I woke up because the room was too cold. I found a blanket and before going back to bed I decided to pull it over my sleeping Mom so she could rest for the day ahead. After that I sleep just a little bit longer before our Really Big Day.

(Last Chapter of Part 1)

No Island is an Island: Chapter 9: Down the Hill

Mom's cousin, the one with my Abuela's eyes, arrives at Tia Lourdes house just as we were saying our goodbyes. She is there to escort us to the hotel and guide me through my first "walking the streets of Cienfuegos" experience.

 I felt very chaperoned and I enjoy this.

We stepped out the huge door and onto a wide covered sidewalk, crossed the street and walked down a French Quarter replica of a street lined with tired tall dignified store and door fronts.

There are places where the sidewalk narrows and I walk within hairs of quiet stooped people stationed on their own front steps.  We are too close to say anything but buenos dias while looking down and away.

 I missed a hundred chances to take pictures for you of the faces, the streetcar path, the architecture. My favorite picture that I didn't take for you on the street  that day was three shirtless boys playing improvised baseball in the middle of the street with a stick and a rock.  But I couldn't whip out a camera, that felt rude and invasive.

Bad enough that I was sporting a swinging blonde bob, a huge red faux leather purse that only cost $22 at Marshall's but looks divine. What I'm trying to say is that the people were staring at ME, the stranger passing through, so I kept moving.

We came to a spot where the old road turns steeply down a hill and disappears. It looks and feels like turn of the century San Francisco. At least, I imagine it does; if I ever make it to California, I'll let you know.

Then my Mom points out the Mercado on one side of the street, a semi-enclosed old market which was which was quiet and closed because it was Sunday.

And there, she says, there it is. Your grandfather's store, your Great Grandfather's Almacen. Mom's cousin pats my hand and nods. She remembers it, too.

There it is, two tall stories high, dignified. There is what they built, what was taken away.

There it is. I don't know whether to be sad or proud.

My Mom crosses the street so she can take a good picture of me in front of the building.  She takes several of them so we get one that will please Abuelo, as if seeing a picture of his granddaughter in front of his building would bring some closure, some help.

 Later that night and again when I get home I look at those pictures and think I don't look proud or sad standing there.

I just look very very American.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 8: A Young Bride and a Magic American Mirror

Our sacred lunch ends with a knock on the door.

Olgita leaves us and comes back with a young man and a little girl with pigtails and a contagious giggle.    Don't ask me her name, I just know it ended with "ita" like so many loving Cuban nicknames do.

I think she is Olgita's great niece, but I'm not sure about that, and again I still don't know if we are related, but even if we aren't related by blood, we are related under this roof and by these walls.

The conversation among them switches to Spanish in an excited cadence that races too quickly for my brain to keep up. 

Out of duty and courtesy I pile a few dishes on my arms and carry them to the sink. Olgita fusses at me with such a fierce tone I give up immediately and slip away to the find my purse and fetch my iPad.


I took pictures of the front rooms of the house for Abuelo.

I took pictures of the delicate wrought iron.

I took pictures of the bronze statue. I took pictures of the long hall.

I took pictures of the first garden, the one where the laundry hands. 

Then I went out to the back garden where Ita was playing and took pictures of the roses, the bananas, the rainbow-colored spinning yard decoration from the $1 store.


She wanted to look at my iPad so I sat on the cool shady steps in the garden and played back video clips for Ita. I let her touch the screen and take pictures of herself and she loved it.


"What is it?" she asked in Spanish. "iPad" I tell her, and she frowns, frustrated. My answer makes no sense.



My Mom has now joined us and strolls down the garden steps that are a little further over and down lower. This is where I pretended to be a bride at my grandparent's house, she tells us, and holds imaginary flowers as she steps down the stairs.  Ita joins her.

 Hold your flowers like this, look up, look pretty, and walk down the stairs like a bride.


Mom smiles at me and I see her better than I ever saw her before.

She's told me stories about these steps, but now, seeing them, this is different.


Until now, I until I sat on this cold hard old stone step and smelled these roses and felt this silent heavy air I didn't understand that my Mom and so many refugees didn't just lose the future they thought they would have (a quinceaƱera at the Liceo de Cienfuegos, stuff like that).

They also lost having a past they could touch.


Refugees bring pieces of their history however they can - stories, clothes, pictures, pins, candlesticks. Not a backyard in a Spanish colonial house with gorgeous steps leading into a grand hallway where you can lead your children and say this the desk that, this is the sofa where, this is the room that, this is exactly the spot that holds a piece of me that I want to give to you.


So as I'm having these deep thoughts, Ita rejoins me and wants to see the video and pictures.

I let her tap and swipe and pinch and zoom and she asks me again, "What is it?" in Spanish and again I answer in Spanglish, "An iPad" and she frowns at the useless American.


Her father who was watching quietly next to us tells her in Spanish, "It's a mirror" (espejo) and she looks at me and tells me "It's a MIRROR" like I needed to know the word.

I repeat the word and thank her. She nods and we continue for a few minutes until she finds a pair of bunny ears and goes off to play, elsewhere.


Meanwhile, I wonder what her life will be like as she tries to pinch and swipe and zoom on plain old Cuban mirrors.

Perhaps one day she will make a huge decision to leave this island and this garden because she got an idea in her head at an early early age that everything -- even the mirrors -- are magically better in the United States.

Teaching the Cold War

*from Marvin's Book: The Story of a Professor and a Promise*


Point Your Guns at Carol


One way – just one, of course – to teach the Cold War concept of “containment” is to pretend your translator is the Soviet Union.

Now, move the classroom furniture around and surround the translator, shouting “Don’t expand!!! NOOO!!” while pointing overhead projectors and finger guns at him or her.

Then, while you are acting all crazy, shoutout, “who wants some money?” to your wide-eyed class. 

If they say yes (and believe me, they’ll say yes, especially the ones who are never in class and are so lost they aren’t even taking notes)  tell them to point their “finger guns” at your translator if they are your real allies. \

Believe it or not, a few students will make guns.  
 
Usually a guy in the back stands up, finally ready to be called to action.

While they are laughing at the translator translating the entire scenario, race around the room all panicked[1] saying something like
“Contain her! Contain her! POINT YOUR GUNS AT CAROL SHE’S COMMUNISM AND SHE’S SPREADING LIKE SMALLPOX!! We will go to WAR to STOP WAR There will BE  NO MORE WAR now KEEP POINTING YOUR GUNS AT CAROL”


Usually, at this point, your students will decide they might like the Cold War.  

Your translator will probably a little traumatized, though.


[1] While I was in grad school I worked for Professor Ralph Mann at the University of Colorado, Boulder,  and noticed he always paused before lecture to tie his shoe laces. He never ever tripped during his lectures.  A wise man, in many ways.  Also, practice first if you don’t normally run in cute high heels.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 7: The Rest is Icing

Tia Lourdes listens to Mom's question then her eyebrows dart up and she looks me right in the face, since it was my question she was answering.

No.

I want her to know, I have to tell her this. Crazy, huh? People are very much the result of the stories they tell about themselves to other people and out of every story from my whole life I ask her about one of my moment's of bad behavior.

Still, here at our sacred lunch table, I need to know, and now I do. 

I need tell her  how much I loved my cousin who was a 24 year old wife and mother of two young boys when she and her husband were murdered in Miami in 1984.

Miriam's husband Heriberto was killed -- gunned down -- in the doorway to their house.

Her body was found in the doorway to the nursery where their younger son was sleeping in his crib. 

Their bodies were discovered by her brother, my cousin Eduardo, who got a call from the older son's daycare to come pick him up.  I can't bear to imagine what Eduardo saw, what the boys saw that day.  I was 15 and could only feel my own loss.

I loved Miriam, my glamorous Miami cousin with long loud red nails and an even louder laugh.  She gave me makeup. She gave me my first bra. It was light blue and padded. I worshipped her. So being at Tiafi's house for a gathering after the funeral I was outside of any emotions I'd ever felt. I didn't know what to do, how to behave so I fell back on humor.

My brother and father and I sat quietly with Eduardo, Miriam's younger brother at a table with neat casseroles and desserts.

Abuelo and his two sisters received visitors and consolation at a sofa across the small apartment from where we sat.

Of course they couldn't see us. I feel better.

Now Tia Lourdes wants to know what happened so I give her the details which my Mom relates even though she knows it doesn't shine the best light on her daughter.

"My brother had a merengue right by his face, so I pushed it onto his face, like a pie... then Eduardo hit Dad with a handful of lasagne and we were laughing so hard because we couldn't laugh..."

She shakes her head, no, she hadn't seen anything. That's because Mom came over fast and made us clean up, I say to my aunt and my Mom translates.

Tia Lourdes says nothing.

Then she looks at me, and at Mom and says, "It was mistaken identity."

I look at Mom, I shake my head in shock, Tia Lourdes continues, relating the story she got from a friend in Miami.  Meanwhile, Olgita heaps more rice, more chicken and a banana on my plate.

I eat, I listen. Tia Lourdes continues and my Mom translates.

 Where Miriam and her husband had moved to had been a narcotrafficking house. But those people left. And then someone came to kill the former tenants and found these new people and killed them instead. It wasn't a robbery. They didn't take anything; no rings, no money, no valuables. Then they disappeared, no clues at all. 


Ten thousand pounds of sadness flies off my shoulders as I ask, again, "They didn't do it on purpose? No one hated her that much?"

Tia Lourdes shook her head, "No, no it was a mistake."

A horrible, horrible mistake, I know, but this piece of the story gives me so much unexpected peace I can only think that anything else that would happen in the next three days in Cuba would only be icing.



No Island is an Island: Chapter 5 - Day #2: 3 Doctors and a Crazy American

I wake up Sunday morning to the phone ringing. We are both dead asleep, and in the US I would answer the phone, but we are in Cuba and if the phone is ringing it's probably for her. 

She says a few short things in Spanish then gets up.

It's your cousin, she's downstairs, waiting. Let’s go.

I didn’t know I would be meeting a new cousin;  I would have set an alarm and blow-dried.

I get dressed pretty quickly and go down to meet my cousin who earns $25 a month as a psychiatrist with a caseload of 30-40 patients a day. Also, she doesn't have a car and there's no easy reliable way to get to work everyday.  Despite all that, and sporting a broken foot, my cousin keeps her chin up and her fashion face forward by wearing signature cute shoes - happy black platform sandal wedges. 

I had on flat sandals (thank, Mom) and pulled up pictures of my rows of strappy platformy wedge shoes I left in the US.  She gasped with delight. At that point I'm sure we have bonded, forever.

She leaves and Mom and I go upstairs to get what we needed for our visit Tia Lourdes' house. Her house was only around the corner and a block away but we decided to call a taxi to help us with the 65 pound black bag of consumer capitalism comforts we were delivering.  

The doorman hailed a cab and our 80-something driver looked incredibly familiar.  He could have been any man his age standing outside Versailles, talking longingly of Cuba, white caterpillars of eyebrows peeking over square blackframed glasses, a cigar in one hand, the other hand over a slightly protruding guayabera’d stomach.

Mom told him this was my first visit to Cuba and I was here to see my Abuelo's sister and his face lit up.

His eyes met mine in the rear view mirror and he gave me the thumbs up. Bueno, he said, then listened to Mom tell him which of the doorways was the one to pull up in front of.  He unloaded our huge bag from the trunk and left us in front of a huge set of red doors. 

When I say huge I mean French Quarter huge.  Which is not a surprise because Cienfuegos was founded (or rather, for fun, let's use a more modern word, "developed") by an immigrant from New Orleans in 1819, which makes me think he stayed a few years after the Louisiana Purchase, rode out the War of 1812, and then made his move to Cuba while other frontiersmen and opportunity seekers on the mainland pushed westward.  

Looking on a map, later that day I saw that the French Quarter and Cienfuegos overlay almost perfectly over each other. The main church in Cienfuegos was where St. Louis cathedral would be. Across from it was the founder's house (no beignets, sigh). My Tia Lourdes lives a street down from the Pontalba apartments, only in another country.  Same tall facades, same twirling ironwork, same mucky gutters. I knew exactly where I was, only that isn't where I was, at all.

Mom knocks, we giggle. I step back. A man opens the door and greets and hugs and kiss kiss kisses my Mom. I slide by him carrying the big bag and follow them down a room too grand in scale and bones to be called anything short of a "reception hall."  

I recognize the man from a picture on Mom's iphone - he is a physician who visits Tia Lourdes, takes her blood pressure, makes sure she is OK.  I meet him officially, then his wife, and don't mention to anyone I've met three Cuban physicians in the span of 2 hours and now believe it's true that doctor's are Cuba's #1 crop because everyone is chatting loudly in Spanish and anyway I need to greet my great aunt, the reason I am really, really here.  

Tia Lourdes is occupied with still greeting my Mom. I meet Olgita who has lived in the house forever with the family and took care of both of my great grandmothers and I wonder if she isn't part of our family even if our skin looks different.

I don't ask her if we are related, I let that be (for now) and step into moment to meet Tia Lourdes.  

Re-meet, actually. The first time I met her was in 1984 when she came on her only visit to the US to see her brother and sister.  The day I met Tia Lourdes I was 15 and it was at my cousin's -- her niece's -- funeral.  The whole thing was traumatic and overwhelming and I stayed on the periphery with nothing to say to my aunt from Cuba and whispered in English and Spanglish with family I knew better.

Into the now open spot in front of Tia Lourdes' chair I present myself with a gesture that says, "Ta-da! Melissa! In Cuba!" and lean over to hug her.

She smiles up at me to receive my kisses and then stops me, looks at me harder, really looks at me and realizes it’s ME and  a huge warmth fills her eyes and we really connect. 
She's loved me my whole life, across the Cold War, from here.   She’s loved me in letters, in phone calls, in post cards in her prayers. This, I know more now than ever, and I kiss kiss kiss and hug her and we observe each other giddily.

She has Abuelo's eyes, his hands, his gestures, his skin. He is a 92 year old man who she hasn’t seen since 1984, so I don’t tell her she looks like her brother, the Viejo.

Our attention goes back to the room and I take a good look at the 2 pictures on the wall.

One is my Abuelo as an older teenager. I'm guessing it was when he was 17, before he left Cuba to go to school in New Orleans.  

The other is a portrait of two beautiful women, laughing. One is Tia Lourdes and the other is Tia Josefina, Tiafifi. The styles look around 1940 and they look radiant.   

Tiafifi  jumped into the sky a few years ago and that's it. Something about seeing HER, seeing her LAUGHING,  seeing her laughing HERE in Cuba hits me like a wrecking ball and I start crying big fat salty quiet tears. 

Everyone is occupied chattery and happy and Mom is pulling  surprise and not-so-surprise things out of the Big Black Bag so I am able to slip away and pretend to tour the house while I cry.

I don't want any of them to think the Americana is loca. 





The Unbearable Itch

Almost three weeks after getting back from Cuba and I'm miserable with this awful unrelenting invisible itch that is making a bear to be around.

The shape and texture and pacing of next book "No Island is an Island" is bothering me like an unbeatable itch in my mind.

I try to watch Dance Moms in peace and feel guilty so I write a chapter and sketch out two more.

I try to watch all three Army Wives on On Demand but I can't bear sitting still that long and falling into other stories.  I pull out the nearest pen and a scrap piece of paper and outline another chapter but that isn't enough. I can't just sit on the sofa or make small talk or even read a book.

The itch won't let me.


So I'm scratching this nasty itch one chapter at a time, one story at a time, until someone finds a better cure for this writing disease.

More History, Less Garlic

More History, Less Garlic

ALl the talk around here is about pending Legislation that would bring sweeping changes to GenEd curriculum in Florida colleges. 

The "new core" would be 5 classes: one each in Humanities, Science, Math, Communications and Social Science. 

Right now, TCC students need 2 Communications, 2 Math, 2 Science, 2 History,  1 Social Science of their choice and a Constitution class plus electives and any prerequisites for their 4 year major.

While Lisa and I were eating buttery bread in the faculty room looking over a copy of the legislation I suddenly considered that these changes -- going from 2 required History classes to ZERO- would affect our staffing now and in the immediate future. 

I don't want to be voted off this happy college island. I like it here. 

l ask a Dept Chair who wanders into the room to make some copies if he foresaw massive layoffs in the near future and he waves off my crazy thought of impending doom and pink slips and a world without History.

Lisa and I leave the room satisfied and she adds, "This worrying is not like you, Ms. Positive"

I agree, and offer to worry about something more relevant, like skin cancer. 

Lisa shakes that off and then I'm quiet enough to notice the wonderful taste still lingering from the bread and butter in the faculty room.

"Was that garlic butter?" I ask Lisa and she says no, it was the wonderful bread that had garlic cloves baked in.

I go back for another piece and ony worry for a second if I wil smell like Olive Garden during today's lecture. 

Then I don't care, and get back to looking for interesting things to write about.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 3: Machete and No Spaghetti

As we prepared ourselves to leave the small airport I was prepared for the worst.  I was ready to shove down my claustrophobia and endure a tiny tight tincan car crammed with people racing on bumpy roads.

The Universe laughed at my fears and instead sent me a safe ride in an airconditioned KIA minivan, escorted by a driver named Machete.

My Dad met Machete last year when Mom brought him with her to Cienfuegos. On the drive to the airport, back in America this morning, my Dad warned me to tell Machete that I was NOT going to be his wife #8.

I didn't say that to this nice man of course, and not even because my Spanish is Spanglish and it could have come out like a blustering proposal instead, but because I was far too busy  gawking out the window into the strange dark city that looked like Miami's quieter darker sister who never recovered from some devastating tragedy.

Machete slowed the KIA on the smooth narrow road to show me we were going  around a horse drawn carriage in the nearly-empty dark road.  This carriage was not like the ones you'd see tourists on in the French Quarter. This was like 1850. The back of the carriage was lit with a little pot of fire, like sterno. I was delighted. On the short drive to the airport we passed a total of eleven horse drawn carriages before pulling up to the hotel.

The first thing I noticed about the hotel wasn't the hotel but the humongous tourist tourbus we pulled up behind. It was a tall high new airconditioned bus that looked decidedly European to me, which again, was odd since there were no bridges between Cuba and France or Norway (yet).  I guess that bus sailed over on a ship and was exiled in Cuba and the driver was king of these streets, playing chicken with horses and winning.

Seeing bus shook me out of my insultingly low expectations for Cuba.

It's not my fault I expected Cuba to be a hungry, sad, uncomfortable place.

My Dad prepared me for not-great food, warning me that all I'd eat was pizza.

He told me there was no spaghetti in Cuba and the chicken tasted funny to him.

 I passed this by my Cuban friend at the airport and she agreed, adding that Cuba exports all her chicken breasts, so the people only eat dark meat. If they can get meat. And keep it cold. Which is another story entirely.

Before we go further in this story, let me remind you I know my Cuban History and have transcripts and degrees to prove it.  I know the History of the Cuban Revolution and I know (ok, I "believe") that in the fury of her nationalistic revolution that unfolded during the bigger context of Cold War, Cuba made an awful mistake and married the wrong partner, the one that would leave her poor and lonely when he pulled out in the early 1990s.

I knew there would be shortages so I packed peanut butter crackers and a good disposition.

 I was ready for fleabag hotel that had a dripping roof and apoplectic electricity and I'm sure I didn't even hide my shock when we walked into a delightful, open and clean lobby that had computers and happy people.

After checking in, we brought our huge bags upstairs and came down to have dinner with my new family who I was still meeting.   A tuxedoed waiter leads us to a round linen covered table in a high ceilinged dining room. Around the table sat my Abuela's niece, her husband, her grandson and a guy I decide must be her daughter's husband.

None of them speak English so I do my best smalltalk in Spanish and let my Mom help me through the more complicated thoughts. The waiter brings menus that are in Spanish and English, as though they'd been expecting me.


There is paella, seafood dinners, steak dinners and pasta dishes.

My Cuban family each ordered paella, and when it was my turn, I asked for a bowl of pasta.

The tuxedoed waiter shrugs helplessly. No spaghetti today.

My dad warned me about this, so I look for pizza on the menu.

Nope.  Mom and I order a  tuna sandwich to split between us. We nibble at the fries and drink cold wine and let our guests feast.

After that, when I thought it was time to go to bed, to finally think about all that I saw and maybe write it down, my Mom announced she was taking us all to the 4th floor to the roof so I could finally see Cienfuegos.

Spring Break

 Within a week of my return from Cuba the kids are sick of me speaking Spanish, sick of my inability to talk without using my hands, and above all, they are sick and tired and tired and sick of hearing about how good they have it here in the land of Target, Chikfila, tampons and car insurance.

I went to Cuba during *my* Spring Break (yes, Mommy has Spring Break, and my kids think this is normal) and now that my kids are on their Spring Break, I have to teach all week.

This is not awful work but it means no extended visit to the beach or to wherever.

No big deal, right?

Instead of paying $250 in hotel, $100 in gas, $300 in food (

No Island is An Island* Chapter 2: Miss Cienfuegos

Thanks to years of practicing our line-maneuvering skills at Walt Disney World, my Mom and I are among the first to leave the airport.

We open a small, opaque door and on the other side find ourselves facing a large, restrained, tame mob.

 I follow my Mom into the crowd keeping my eyes down a little because I didn't exactly know who to look for. The faces look familiar, not because I know them, but because they could be anywhere I've been.

A woman with warm brown eyes hugs me.

She feels like my Abuela, and I realize this is Abuela's niece. 

I hug and kiss her and the men she brings me to meet and I say the right things, the same things I would say if introduced in the US, except I have to speak Spanish and I'm wearing flat shoes.

Hola! (hug, turn to kiss, kiss other cheek) Mucho gusto! Encantada!

A beautiful woman presses wrapped flowers into my arms and I can't help myself but laugh with delight over being so welcomed and proclaim that Abuelo always wanted me to be "Miss Cienfuegos" and here I am. We laugh and quickly I  feel at home.

Except at home I wouldn't get flowers and of course at home there aren't names with all these "Y's" everywhere.

 When the Soviet influence arrived in Cuba in 1960, the Soviets spelled Cuba "KYBA," introducing the awesome letter "y" to Cuba, where it then popped up in a generation of names including but not limited to Yamila, Yaisy, Ygor, Yvan, Yasser, Yoana, Joelvys, Yesidria, Mayulis and Mariselysis.

In the quiet that comes as we join the crowd to wait patiently for the gifts and people coming off the plane from Miami, I take a deep breath.

The heavy wet Caribbean air feels the same in Cuba as it does in South Florida.

I look up at the inky night. Same stars, same clouds.

Maybe Cuba isn't that different, not anymore, I wonder for a second and that thought stays with me until I turn and look around me some more and see a fat roll of sharp shiny barbed wire lines menacingly tangled on and around the roof of the airport.  

Chapter #1: Welcome to Cienfuegos, Cuba. Now LEAVE.

I thought I would write and write while I was in Cuba, but instead I took a thousand pictures and found answers to questions I would never have thought to ask. In those pictures  I found a clue and a hint to a piece of history that tracked down mercilessly like the Da Vinci code, and until  found the answer -- or  rather, the answer found me.
Now that I know the answer and can promise you this story makes a perfect circle (which maybe translates to “round trip” - “ida y vuelta”) I can tuck your arm under mine and pull you close so I can escort you Cuban style down through my recollection of three short days there. 
*****
On the day that my Mom and I leave for Cienfuegos, the flight is delayed enough that we make long tales of small talk with other travellers.
The conversation started at Cafe Versailles, where I shamelessly told on my father for trying to order the dessert “cascas (shells) de guayaba” and instead ordering “cacas (yes, that’s right, turds) de guayaba.” 
My new friend offers that when she first came the US from Spain she tried to order something at a drive-thru, and when they asked what she’d like to drink, my friend answered, “Please give me a Coke.”  
They asked her to repeat herself, so she did.
And they laughed at her, and she didn’t know why, but she was hungry and thirsty and she wanted her freaking drink so she said it again and again, “GIVE ME A COKE. I WANT A COKE!
Only, the way she was saying “Coke” didn’t sound very American because the word coming from her mouth rhymed perfectly with “rock” and “dock.” 
 I have no story about myself to offer, but still we fill the time with stories in and about Spanglish, waiting for our flight to Cienfuegos. 
The flight itself on a chartered 737 was unremarkable. 
Finally when we arrived in Cienfuegos my Mom guarded me closely, making sure I had my papers out and ready.  The nice man stamped my papers and buzzer went off and I pushed a door and it was official. I was in Cuba. 

 I stand mute and still transfixed by the site of the staff at the Cienfuegos airport. The female wand-waving security attendants wore khaki uniforms that included short skirts and rose-patterned black fishnet stockings and heels. 

I can’t stop staring, I think I might be in a bad movie. 

My mom nudges me and without my asking she says, “That’s their uniforms, now put your bag here....”

 I follow my mom through the metal-detector thing and am pulled to the side by an authoritative figure despite her rose-patterned-fishnet-stocking. 
She runs the wand over me and tells me something about a “vuelta” which brings tears to my eyes as words race through my less-than-bilingual mind. 
“Ida y Vuelta” means round-trip.

“Vuelta” means return.  
She’s telling me to get back on my plane and leave for America.

I'm sure I've been rejected by the Cubans in record time and a little bit if me wonders if I shouldn't have worn a cute dress and strappy heels instead of the plain jeans and flats my mom encouraged me to wear.
I step back and look for where to exit Cuba, the country I hardly got to see. 
Three sets of hands seize me and now I’m scared.
I realize I’m not leaving Cuba, I’m going to jail in Cuba.
 My great-uncle spent 17 years in Cuban jails. 

He told me they beat him all the time and all they had to eat was egg shells. 
Egg shells and beatings and wearing flat shoes. This sucks. 
I hear a thousand political voices in my head popping  saying, “I told you so! I told you not to go to Cuba! I knew something would happen! You're not in the US so you're not safe!
Then my Mom says loudly and in plain English, “Turn around so the lady can wand you and we can get out of of this airport!
Oh. I guess “vuelta” means “turn around.”   

Yes, yes of course it does. 
And if I hadn’t been listening and had just done what I do in the US -- and what everyone else was doing in Cuba -- my mascara wouldn’t be running. 
Nevermind,  I act all cool and let her wand me and then off I go, into Cuba, a little turned around, and with the first of a hundred new stories to tell.