No Island is an Island: Chapter 29: Mission Accomplished

The man in uniform takes his hat off before entering the van. He is introduced quickly and thanks Machete, thanks us, he is going to the airport, so thank you thank you for the ride.

We pass a small dog, skeletal and shivering by the side of the road.

We pass a goat chewing grass on the lawn just yards in front of the airport sign.

Machete parks the van right in front of the small box of an airport building, the one lined with rows of barbed wire to keep people out (in?).

Machete lets us out of the van. One last check for visa, passport, tickets, all that good stuff. It's where it should be. I follow Mom to the back of the van where there is hugging and greeting going on.

A woman hugging Machete is introduced shyly as one of his earlier wives. She smiles and looks down.  He seems like a nice enough ex, but I get the feeling its harder for her to look at him than it is for him to look at her.  She scoots away fast, getting to her job inside the airport.

We have so little to unload. A duffel bag each. A purse each.  That's it, hugs to Machete.

Mom's cousin, the one with Abuela's eyes, the one who is who is Mom's goddaughter, and therefore my responsibility too,  stays with us and plans to be there until she sees our plane hit the sky.

Three steps towards the building and we are turned around by the couple whose house we visited yesterday, the one so wonderfully restored.  They wanted to send us off.

He is wearing his tie with the cars again, and I'm starting to think it's his uniform and not some awesome fashion statement. She is wearing a cute outfit. They give me two book on Cuba, hugs, good wishes.

As I hug her she whispers in my ear, in Spanish, My house is your house.

I lean back and look her right in the eye. Your house is your house, it's a beautiful house. This is how things are, wonderful, yes?

We hug again, then the couple has to go back to work, back to their lives.

Mom and I walk the concrete sidewalk into the square airport. As soon as we pull the heavy door open, a blast of airconditioning greets us.

First we have to go to this side and pay $25 cuc (Cuban convertible money, not the Cuban money that Cubans are paid in) each for an airport fee, just to be in the airport.  Mom didn't know about this fee the first time she came here alone and almost had a crisis. But thats for a later story, the part where I go through the journal she kept on her first visit to Cuba, and let her story dance with mine.

We pay our money to a very straight faced and stern woman, then turn and head to the other wall to get our boarding passes. The woman behind that desk was cheerful and bouncy almost, like she could barely contain her energy into this box of a job. She gives us our documents.

Now customs. This time I have to go alone. Me, my Visa, my passport, trying to get out of Cuba without my Mom's help.

This was the Final Exam all my Spanish teachers and my Abuelo were preparing me for. No time for Pancha Plancha con Cuatro Planchas or cuteness like that.

Two uniformed agents are in the opaque booth I see through the window that divides us. A woman is practically sitting on a man's lap and moves herself slowly off him. He gets a straight face on and takes my documents.

Where did you stay? he asks in English while going through my documents.

Hotel L'Union, I answer, and in the silence add, it was beautiful.

Her eyebrows shoot up, she leans over the man that she is already leaning over and whispers what did that lady say? She said she liked it here, he mumbled, not looking up at her.

He stamped my documents with a very stern face. Then handed them back. A buzzing doorknob, my cue to exit, told me I passed the exam.

Two steps across the threshold and I was practically in Miami.

My Mom is standing there, waiting for me. This is the part where we have our bags screened.  I toss my practically empty bag and purse and go through the metal detector. This time the woman wanding me smiled warmly. I think she was Machete's ex-wife, I'm not sure. She tried to speak English to me and said "Turn around" so I did.

As my bag came across the conveyor belt, a uniformed man who looked barely older than a teenager asked in English "How was your trip?" I loved it, I tell him and make some hugging gesture because I'm still  speaking Spanish with my hands. He turns to the men next to him, who seem to have been waiting for the answer and tell them, "She loved it," and they say good, good, and I turn around enough to smile at all of them and they have a look on their faces like Mission Accomplished.

The airport is a cube. One side of the cube is a wall of glass facing the stage where the plane lands and people come and go. On the other side is customs.

 Two other walls in this emerging capitalist city have things to buy; one side is a small lunch bar with a shop full of handmade wooden toys outside. The other side is a gift shop with an additional cart of gifting things outside.



I go to the gift shop to find something for my kids, for my coworkers. T-shirts of Che. Pictures of Che. Totebags. Towels. Too beachy.  Cigars felt too illegal. I didn't want anything there, I left empty handed and went back to the quiet of the table and had a thimble glass of wine with Mom.

She leaves me and goes shopping. I pull out my iPad and start to play solitaire. My fingernail polish is chipping and I pause for a second to slip it off. It falls to the floor, a spot of pink, like blood. I feel guilty but then I notice another nail is peeling. I can't help myself, I chip that polish off easily with my thumb. Another piece of pink on the white floor.  I don't bite my nails, I don't chew my cuticles, I don't twist my hair or anything compulsive like that, but now, here, I can't stop, I can't stop until all my nails are plain, stripped of polish. I can't figure whether to clean the floor around me or push the pieces under and try to hide them.

A lady brings forms to my table. Mom comes back with gifts and we concentrate hard on keeping the forms and gifts separate so we don't lose them and get in trouble.

My Mom looks at me in mock fear, "What if we are stuck in Cuba?"

I shake my head, "That would the worst thing ever. Lose the forms."

She pretends to rip them up, much to the alarm of a matronly uniformed woman who handed them to us and has been watching us and probably saw me chip my nail polish off.

I go back to the gift shop. I just can't buy a woven owl, an ash tray, bottles of alcohol, none of it, and return to our table.

The airport is filling up, slowly.  Young mothers with fat babies.  Older couples, helping each other, sitting quietly.  Young men, travelling alone. We could be anywhere, I think. All these  regular looking people are going to Miami, like it's just a normal thing to go from Cuba to Miami. Have things changed so much that they will be in the checkout land at Publix and mention "Yesterday, in Cuba, I....." or will they keep it a secret, worried about being marked as somehow supporting Castro by bringing medicine to loved ones.

  I don't take pictures there, I just watch and sip with my Mom. She gets up again and buys things at the gift shop. Then it's time for us to board. Our seats are in the last row, we board the plane first and will be the last to leave Cuba.  We're ready.

As the plane takes off my Mom points out a window.

There, on a knee, is a lone young soldier, making sure no one raced out to the plane, no one tried to leave.  In my head, from my safe place invisible on the plane, I dare him to stop me from going home.

Happy Mother's Day

Zack just gave me my first duct tape purse, tastefully done in black.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 28: The Part Where I am Compared to Hugo Chavez

For lunch we have sopa de platanos, heaven in a bowl.  There is yellow rice, chicken. Sliced vegetables.  I have an overwhelming desire for spray cheese on saltine crackers but there's no one to tell so I let it pass and take another sip, then another of the precious ice water.

Tia Lourdes asks me to recount where I'd been, what I'd seen.

She seems surprised by my passionate enthusiasm, and I remember she doesn't know me, not really, she only knows me through gentle stories passed up through letters and delicate photes sent my Mom and Abuelo or through Tia Fifi. She's just getting to know me, just like I'm only beginning to really know Cuba.

She asks about which Mass we had gone to on Sunday and Mom explains to her that we missed Mass. Tia Lourdes didn't like that, and I made myself a promise to go into the churches next time, when we come back, when we have more time. For now, this was enough, the company the food, the explorations, all of it has been so delicious, like tapas, just wonderfully savory enough.

The idea of visiting churches was like pouring wonderful chocolate mocha ice cream over equally wonderful abundant American spaghetti and ruining them both.

Olgita begins clearing the table, and this time I let her, without protest.  I hate people poking around in my kitchen. I get it.

Tia Lourdes and I walk back to her office, where Catholic calendars and posters the desk. In a pause, as one story ended and another seemed to not start, she asks me why I wear my watch on my right arm.

I put a hand instinctively over my watch. She gives me two seconds to answer, and when I can't give her a quick and easy answer she tells me quite directly, "Hugo Chavez wears his watch on his right arm."

Is she implying that I should move my watch? Am three steps down the road to  becoming a communist caudillo? Is she warning me that by wearing my watch on that arm I am giving out a sign to the world that I somehow belong to the hoarde of admiring Chavezitos?  I don't ask, I just cover my watch with my hand, and hold it there, protectively awhile.

We are going through our things to make sure we are packed up right and really ready to go.

Mom gives me something to bring for our cousins at home. A tin cup, a tin bowl, our uncle's sole possessions all the years he was in jail here. I stuff them quickly into the empty space in my Mom's duffel bag.

It isn't quite time to go and more people arrive.  My cousin the accountant. His mother, my cousin with Abuela's eyes. A old woman missing several teeth stopped by, as was her usual visiting routine.

She told me she had been an English teacher, a long time ago. I sat next to her and listened to her slowly and awkwardly explain how it wasn't her fault that she loved English, she was born loving it. Her tone told me that speaking English made her seem to be in love with America, with el Norte.

A knock on the door. Machete is here, parked around the corner. Time to come and meet him there. I hug Tia Lourdes and Olgita and already have decided I will be back, I will bring more of their relatives,  I will play my part in keeping this separated family strong. Kiss, kiss, hug, picture, another picture.

I walk out onto the street in front of the house - our house - with my accountant cousin. Ten steps later I feel the quiet behind me and turn around.  Mom isn't following anymore, she's talking. Someone has pulled up next to her, stopped by the house right now to say one last thank you thank you thank you.

My cousin doesn't speak English but at this point I've decided that my Spanish and commanding gestures were enough to communicate.  I have to tell him something. He is my younger cousin, he wants to learn, I want to tell him something.

When someone gives you something, say thank you. Then enjoy it.  Thank you is enough.

He nods.

But if you say thank you thank you thank you thank you and you don't even seem to enjoy it, it seems like you are really actually asking for more.

He is much taller than I am (only here, in Cuba, where I'm unnaturally disadvantaged in flat sandals) and looks easily over my shoulder to view the scene of thanking going on behind me.

 From the way he nods, from the change on his face, I know he understood.

Mom and her cousin join us minutes later. I say goodbye to my accountant cousin and he runs off to who knows where he spends his life, remind me to ask next time.

We settle into Machete's van, and I can't help myself, maybe it was all the cafecitos for breakfast, but I have to ask. Are we going to make it to the airport in time for their crazy bureaucracy of disentangled steps? Are we running late? Will we miss our flight?

My Mom laughs at me, no, no, we aren't running late, not at all. She has to show me just a few more things before we go.

On our way to where I didn't know we were going we pass an accident that clearly had happened minutes earlier. A crowd stood protectively around two cars still steaming and hissing at each other in the intersection, glaring at each other through cracked windshields. There were  no people were in the cars.  I made the sign of the cross, then listened.  No sirens. No paramedics. No fire rescue. No life flights.

 I made the sign of the cross again and then gasped loudly as a car nearly slammed into the side of the van.

We pass a glorious building, a tall block of an abandoned looking building with wonderful stone staircases carved along the sides.

This was Abuelo's school. The Jesuit school.  I think to take a picture but the van speeds around the corner and the only shot would be of the bottom of the building, spraypainted with revolutionary logos.

From there we go to his sister's house, TiaFifi's house. She was a gorgeous happy woman married to a successful surgeon in the 1950s, but I only knew her in Miami, in her small apartment, alone with three children, then four, then three again.  I met her husband, Tio Julio, when he was released in 1980.

A happy bald-headed round stomached man, he told me stories of being fed egg shells in prison, of being beaten for no other reason than its your turn in prison.  He told me they exercised to stay strong.  Strong here, he said in English, and pointed at his head. I understood.  Now we are bringing his tin bowl to his children, now he is still giving us presents from wherever he is, reminding us all to be strong.

There it is. A delicious piece of post-WW2 architecture that reminded me of the Jetsons-meets-Cuba. We take a picture.

Then we drive further to another point where the street meets a dock. Mom admires a house on the corner. We turn around and pass a very modern very glass and air conditioned looking apartment building.

That's for the foreign workers, Machete tells me, and I don't take a picture of that either.

Now we are on our way to the airport.  We pass packs and packs of people at intersections looking a little sad and lost.

They are hitchhiking, Mom tells me, and just then a man in a uniform standing at the side of the road points a bent finger at Machete.

Machete exhales pulls over. My stomach goes up to my throat.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 27: Roots

While Mom checks out I say my polite goodbyes and stand back and off to the side a little bit.

A large bus has pulled up.  A round loud man is greeting people, gesturing welcome to them, patting them on the back, carrying bags a little bit and dropping them, all with a cigar in his mouth.  The people he is speaking to with look tired and are wearing warm clothes - long sleeves, long shirts, winter browns.  A blonde woman speaks sharply back to him and everyone laughs. He takes his cigar out and gives her a hug.

They're speaking Russian. I wonder if they're here to find cousins, to visit great-aunts. I wonder if they're here on business, to stimulate tourism or bring more spaghetti. I wish them well as we walk by them, my Mom's arm hooked protectively in and around mine as we walk onto the street.

Ten steps onto the sidewalk and we meet people we know already, workers from the hotel, all wearing royal blue jumpsuits, doing some sort of maintenance.  They wish us goodbye in Spanish and then a man with blue eyes and very very short hair follows me a few steps.

I speak English, he says to me, directly.

That's great, wonderful, I tell him.

How was your visit, really, he asks, and I tell him it was amazing, the most important and wonderful trip of my life. I feel like a wall has been torn down, one that I thought was there isn't there at all. Anyway, it was amazing.

He doesn't answer, the same way I sometimes don't answer when people speak to me in Spanish, but stands there a minute and watches my Mom and I navigate across the busy street and onto a narrower old French Quartereque sidewalk.

It's well into a busy Tuesday morning and people pass by and around us on their way here and there. Men of all ages and sizes lean in tall doorways and sit on stairs practically exhaling onto the passersby.  There is nowhere to move but past them, which we do. I hear mutterings that are quite flattering, things that make my Mom decide to walk behind me. They like you, she tells me, and I tell her they like her too, and we laugh and keep going up the block that brings us Tia Lourdes' house.

Today a man opens the door.  He introduces himself, Mom recognizes him, speaks to him briefly then sees another woman standing there and races to hug her. They were former schoolmates who haven't seen each other since 1960.  I pull out my iPad and take a picture, then another, but they don't look quite right, so I say in English "Pretty Feet!" and the two of them compose themselves like stars on Toddlers and Tiaras, giving me a beautiful picture.

She leaves and Mom continues to talk to the man while I stand there in the long tall entry hall.  I notice that there is a picture on the wall, a painting of a basket of roses.  I was a basket of roses that should be growing up, just it was laying on its side. I itched to fix it, to point the roses toward the sky so they could grow straight and bring magic to this island. Of course I didn't touch it. but I did show Mom and she agreed. Definitely sideways, she agrees to me, then explains the man had gone to school with my uncle. He looked like a priest, was he a priest, I asked, but no, close, a Deacon, she tells me.

Which reminds me that the Pope was coming to Cuba in two weeks. My 1998 dissertation ends with amazement that changes are coming to Cuba because the Pope was coming to visit back then. Now, another Pope, almost a generation later.

 Things have changed, a little. Just a little.

A tall warm woman presents herself to us with warm hugs and thanks for her new shoes.  I have almost no idea what Mom packed in our big bags, the huge ones full of things to give away.  Brita filters. Stomach medicines. Pillows.  Beyond that, I didn't know until now that Mom had brought size 11 shoes for Olgita's sister, Cookie, who had tickets to see the Pope but she had no nice shoes because size 11 shoes don't exist in Cuba.

We all walk to Tia Lourdes' office and receiving room where people are there to see her, to see us. This house sees more traffic, more life, in a day than my house has seen in a year. Everyone talks loudly and happily in Spanish and I slip away for a minute to take another slow delicious look at my great-grandfather's home.

There, tall windows were tied back with wire and braced with wood as though preparing for attacks from the streets.  The darkness from these semi-permanently rigged shut windows keeps the place cooler, safer, like a time capsule.  I can't quite imagine a Cienfuegos with these windows in this old house might be restored and enjoyed, thrown wide open to the street, glass paned, proud, but maybe someone else can. Maybe someone else can find a way to bring an easy prosperity and peace.

I lean through a gap in the window and realize no one can really see me.  I savor a minute of people watching. There goes a group of schoolkids in uniforms. They walk by the window and sit on the stairs to our house.

Fascinated to finally see what Cienfuegos looks like from this little window, I notice every single thing.
There goes a Hyundai.  There go three old cars, two American and one Soviet. There goes a horse drawn carriage, being passed by a woman on a bike wearing a skirt.

Now here comes a happy looking teen, the first I've seen wearing white headphones. His ear is pierced and he has a large tattoo on his forearm. The collar on his solid black shirt is turned up, preppy style, like he gave it great thought and fixed it repeatedly. I notice all of this as he walks by inches away from me, smoking a cigarette and probably listening to Lady Gaga.

The teens perched on the stairs of our house grow silent as he walks by our house.  He pauses, then joins them. They talk quietly and I think I see him share his cigarette with them.  

I hear myself call this "our house" and little shoot of roots goes down from my foot and into the floor, fiercely joining a tangle of roots planted there already.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 26: A Capitalist Dance (A Little One)

Back in the chilly sparsely decorated hotel room we slipped back into our low thin beds.

This, I hadn't expected. The beds were about knee height. The mattresses thinner than some of my less dramatic Candie's platform shoes. Every night I thanked Mom for packing pillows for this trip.  Every night she told me we were going to give the pillows away, that they were treasures here.  I understood.

Sleep didn't come easily although every part of me was tired and almost satisfied.  I felt like I'd put a puzzle together but couldn't recognize what I was seeing in the picture. I think about flowers, about pirates, about colonial governements and Jose Marti speeches and somehow in that long walk back through history I fell asleep.

The next morning we woke up without alarms, completely awake, and thirsty and overly aware of having no water bottles, no diet coke, no mini-coffee maker.  Mom and I get dressed quickly and go downstairs for breakfast.  By this time I know and recognize all the waiters, they all know I want spaghetti, they all know I prefer cafecito to this industrial boiled coffee.  

This is the waiter with the newborn daughter, he brings me my coffee. And water with ice. I finish it quickly and he brings me another one. 

The breakfast buffet is the same as it has been every morning. Boiled meats. Cracked boiled eggs. Some mixture of vegetables that looked quite violent and aggressive.  Pitchers of strawberry yogurt drink, orange juice, pineapple juice, vanilla yogurt, cereals.  

There is a white robed cook standing ready to make eggs.  I order two of them, fried, on toast. Mom orders hers with ham.  We are almost alone in the formal, high ceilinged white table clothed dining room. I ask Mom where we are going today.  Back to Tia Lourdes' house, then to the airport she tells me. Then Miami.  

From that viewpoint, the day looks like it will be very short. 

After breakfast, someone wants to meet with Mom.  This is happening a lot, I'm very used to sharing my Mom when she's around; people need to ask her things, tell her things, see if she can solve things.  

Anyway, while she meets and talks I excuse myself to go up and finish packing. 

I fold my three shirts into a duffel bag.  I pack my sandals on top. My makeup bag is emptier and lays on top of that.  That's it, I'm done after five minutes. So I decide to straighten my hair.

 I hadn't seen many women in Cuba who look like they'd seen the better side of a Chi or good blowdry, so I'd been letting my hair dry curly and fall in the wind. 

Today I lingered in front of the mirror, deciding that no matter what I did - what I wore, how I spoke - the people here know I'm an American. I might as well go native and act like myself.  I wished very hard for my long peach dress, the one I can wear with heels or flats, that rubs against my skin in the wind like soft pajamas.

Then I remember that if I brought it, I might have someone admire it and ask where I got it with a longing look in their eye. And then I'd have to give it away, and as much as I love Cuba, I really really love my peach dress. 

At the point where I realized I was having longing romantic feelings for my inanimate clothing I decided to leave the room and find my Mom.

There, downstairs, at  a different table. Still talking. Still serious. I decide its time to buy something for the kids, something for my office, something from Cuba. 

In the Lobby there is a rack of postcards.  Three racks of postcards of Che.  Racks of boldly painted old American cars parked in front of aging neoclassical architecture.  There is art but no, I don't want to buy art.  I walk back across the patio area to the giftshop. There is a t-shirt that says in Spanish "someone went to Cuba and only bought me this t-shirt" and there are towels and tote bags and I don't want any of it.  

None of these things for sale really captures how close and how beautiful Cuba is. If I didn't know better and only looked at this gift shop I'd think that Cuba feels like old tired hotels on South Beach in the 1970s. Unairconditioned, stale, but hopeful.

Back at the table, Mom is standing up, hugging, shaking hands. I walk back with her to the room and we finish packing quickly. She tells me she likes my hair, and I tell her I appreciate it. She tells me I'm easy to travel with and I agree. 

We have time to walk for a little while before checking out, before going to Tia Lourdes's house.  I'm excited and follow her down the stairs and out the door to join the people on the streets. 

None of this was here the first time I came, she points out as we weave around small merchants opening their wares and setting them out for the day.

A lady sets up several vases of flowers to sell; a set of women who look like cousins lay out necklaces on their street cart.  Here is a cart full of carved wooden things. There is one with carved coconuts. After that is the one people are already standing around, the one with brightly colored jewelry and hair accessories.  I notice that no vendor is selling postcards of Che, but I don't dare blurt that out.  

I couldn't stop and take pictures for you, that would have been awkward, but I saw it and I can testify to it and even quietly did a little capitalism dance inside my head. 

Mom leads me into a huge old house that has  been converted to a restaurant in the front with rooms and rooms to spare still. This was her uncle's house, this big beautiful palace of a place. 

A waitress looks up from where she is seated and Mom tells her, no, we don't need anything. This used to be my uncle's place, we are just looking around, showing my daughter from America.

 The waitress looks a little alarmed, I think, like maybe the Americans are coming back to take over, take back their stuff.  She was wrong.  I take nothing -- not even a picture of the gorgeous tiles, the fountain, or the magical courtyard that I could have stayed in all day.  

That is theirs now, that belongs to Cuba, to these people here and now. 

I touch the walls as we walk out, silently promising to come back and stay longer next time. 

No Island is an Island: Chapter 24: Served on a Gold Tablet

So my Mom was gone saying goodbyes and stopping by the room for something, I was there, at the small bar at the tiny Cuban hotel, waiting for the invisible waiter to return.

To my left were two women who spoke loudly and wore tight bright clothes.  I  decided must be Cuban because their cellphones seemed to worked here.

Between them and where I stood was an older man with a very large mustache, also waiting for the waiter.

I look up at the TV. It's something in English, some generic neutral animal nature program. Not the alligator hunting kind of show. No capitalistic winning or getting voted off shows. Just a calm, boring animals eating animals show.

Next to the TV was a bar shelf with brands I'd never seen in the US.

No Jose Cuervo. No Bacardi. No Jack Daniels. No Jameson.

Besides that was a smaller shelf full of brightly colored cigarettes ironically post-imperially labelled with the "Hollywood"brand.

A newlywed looking couple is next to me on the other side. She is young and very shapely and I'm jealous because she a dress on. She keeps looking down at her shoes and pulling her shoulders back into her man like she looks unhappily shy, like she feels overdressed, like she expected there to be a party here and it hasn't happened but she probably shouldn't say anything because it isn't his fault. Or is it?

Directly in front of me is the opening where the waiter will appear when he appears.

 I stare through there  and exhale, wishing for my iPhone, my iPad, for someone to text, for email to check.

The man next to me mumbles something about the lad disappearing.

I light up.  "English?"

He nods.  I'm introduce myself, say why I'm here.

He says that he and his group had a spectacular 55 mile bikeride through the mountains.

 I said, oh, yes, I think I saw the pack of you and your big old bus go by.

No, no he says. That's the Norwegians.  There's only three of us he clarifies, pointing to his table where another man and woman wait and wave.  The woman was also wearing a skirt, I notice, and plan for sure to wear dresses next time I come to Cuba, but I don't tell the mustache that.

Norwegians?!  I repeat.  I do hope they wore sunscreen, a lot of sunscreen, I add, and just then, finally then, the waiter came back.

Without me even saying a thing he says "One white wine, one tinto (red)" then takes the other orders. The mustached man orders a margarita, a beer, something else.  

The woman of the couple mumbles something about a Cuba Libre, and then the man she was entangled around shakes his head and orders two mojitos instead.

While I stood there watching the bartending waiter pull all this together, I looked up again, up at the shelves right in front of me.

On one side, liquor. On the other, other liquors.  In the middle, a sign.

A sign with a picture, the same sort of picture - not exactly the same, but just the right one to get my attention -- and, finally, the missing piece.

A word, a name, a vortex to the story.

Bar Marilope.

Marilope? What is a Marilope?

Better yet,  WHO is Marilope?

I want my iPhone to work. I want to google, to investigate, to find out now, now, now, what the story is and why this is calling to me so loudly.

The waiter hands me both wines just as my Mom walks back to join me.

We move to a smaller table, and I point up right above where I was standing, right in front of my face. "Look! The flower, the clue, and a name! Marilope! What do you know about Marilope?"

We brainstorm. It's a yellow flower. It's the official flower of Cienfuegos.

 But it has to come from something, from somewhere. There has to be a story. I want to find it out, more than I've wanted the answer to anything ever in my life. I want to figure this out, puzzle it together, take it apart and tell the world.

Mom and I take more sips of the teeny wine glasses and I stomp my feet with happiness and we toast my fortune. Marilope! I feel like I won the lottery! I'm looking this up as soon as we get back to Miami!

The wind blows hard and harder.

 We talk about things I haven't written about, about other things that don't fit delicately here.

Then we want one more tiny glass, and maybe a pizza to split. I'm ridiculously awake and I want to savor every minute of my last night under the Cuban stars.

I go back up to order the last wine and close out the tab.

On a whim, I ask the tired waiter what he knew about Marilope.

He points at a plaque on the wall where the entire story - her entire story - was inscribed on a gold tablet, waiting patiently for me.

No Island is an Island: Chapter 23: A Tale of Two Cousins

Machete left us at the hotel, thankful, I'm sure, to slip away from our chatter and back into his normal peace.

Waiting for us at the hotel are both of my cousin's children - the petite psychiatrist, the much taller accountant, and her son.  Although I'd seen all of them yesterday, somehow everything today changed things, changed me. I felt like I was climbing down from Mount Everest and they were there, waiting, asking how was it, what did you see.

We go to the pool area and find a table. It's a little windy and chilly, not what I would have expected in Cuba. Mom goes off to find the only waiter and bartender working the whole area and we order our tiny glasses of Cuban wine -- white for her, red for me. Our Cuban family orders cokes. Mom asks the waiter for a plate of ham and cheese.

Minutes later we relax into ourselves and into the night. I tell them about the cemeteries, about the castle, about wanting to put a piece of architecture down my bra, sneak it home and plant it in my backyard.

I decide not to tell them the real reason I'm  here, the bigger answer I was looking for, but I do tell them about the other question, the one that found me.

My young cousin - the Dr's son - spins his bling-bling spinning dollar sign belt tells us about his day at school, and I piece together that he is in the same class as Machete's son.  A light crosses his face. He tells me, through my Mom (because he refuses to say or even try a single word of English although I know he is listening like a hawk) that he had asked his teacher what the difference was between a "hero" and a "martyr" but his teacher basically gave him the sit-down-shut-up answer. Did I have a better answer?

Yes, I did. Part of it depends on who is telling the story.  In one story, told one way, a person can kill 1,000 people and be a hero. But told another way, he could be the opposite. So that's subjective.  Oh, and all martyrs are dead. Jose Marti, martyr. Castro, not a martyr. Got it? 

Why couldn't my teacher have told me that, he asks and everyone looks at me like I would know why teachers do things like that.

 I took a wild guess and told him what I think he suspected and wanted an adult to confirm - that probably his  teacher dismissed his question because she didn't know the answer.

He liked that and spun his dollar beltbuckle again and again, savoring the precipice of pending adulthood and all its wisdom.


The drinks come before the food. We finish them, order more and work on those as the food arrives. 

The wind seems to be picking up, laughing almost, like it's pushing us toward something.

And I learned something else, I tell them, mostly telling my Dr. cousin, the one who talks fast like me, laughs quickly like me, I notice this even in the way she puts her chin up into the wind and smiles at it like I do.  The more we talk, the more we love each other. My whole life I didn't know she existed and now here she is, here they all are, and here is all this love that we didn't know and couldn't experience because of the Cold War.  


Through my Mom I tell her the story about Miriam, my cousin murdered in Miami. Tears well around the table but I shake those off with a sprinkle of gratitude for Miriam's generosity.  Over thirty years later I remember the little treasures she gave me - a ballerina doll; a makeup palette; a blue padded bra. The wind picks up again and my Dr. cousin shivers and rubs her arms.

I wish I had known Miriam she tells me through my Mom, and I shake my head at both of them.  Oh no, I can only imagine the trouble we didn't get into, you me and her on this tiny island.  The universe knows best, this is how it's supposed to be.

Dr. cousin winces a little at my zenism and says to my Mom, "Where does your daughter come from? Who made her with thoughts like these?"

My Cuban wine helps my Spanish immensely so I answer without needing translation, "God was in a particularly imaginative mood when She created me."

The entire table leans over for Mom's translation. Mom shakes her head. I give her my Translate THAT nod and she does. They laugh.

The waiter comes back and we order more, then as he walks away I excuse myself and go up to our room.  Mom had repeatedly admonished  me to pack lightly for this trip so I have only have my most favorite clothes and makeup, the pieces I would grab from the closet in a fire.

 I didn't imagine I would meet my cousin, a new wonderful delightful cousin, who would need a jacket, or lipgloss or mascara. Now that I know that, now that I know that I have another cousin, a new living breathing cousin, I have to take care of her just like Miriam would have taken care of me.

There, I pull down my navy swingy sweater from the Gap and decide to give it to her.

Then I look around for more. She is tiny, I can't give her my shoes, and even if I could, she and I both agree that the wedges and heels I left at home are far cuter than the flats I'm wearing.

In the bathroom I lay out my makeup. There, I can give her this brush, the one with a fluffy side and a liner on the end. I can give her this gold eyeshadow duo, this mascara, this brick of shimmer that makes skin glow.  Satisfied, I pack it all into my black clutch purse and dash back downstairs to present it to my Dr. cousin.

She accepts it thankfully,  pulls on the sweater and relaxes a little against the wind.


"I have a deal for you," my Dr. cousin offers me, through my Mom. "You teach me English and I'll teach you Spanish. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Deal?"

Before my Mom can translate, I throw my hands up and answer her in Spanish, "What mierda is your deal? I'm speaking Spanish already! IN CUBA! I win, I win, I win."

The wind died down, just a little, and yawns crossed all our faces. 

They had work the next day, school the next day, it was time to hug, time to let go for a little while. 

Mom walked our cousins to the hotel door while I moved us to a smaller table inside the building where other people sat patiently waiting on the sole waiter and bartender.

Good thing the waiter was so slow, because if I hadn't stood there so long in the quiet by myself right in that exact spot I would never had noticed the huge answer - a sign, quite literally - that was right in front of me, waiting boldy and patiently to tell itself to me.

Chapter 22: A Bittersweet Catch

The next place we go is La Punta. We leave Machete in the taxi and walk down the thin strip of island.

The wind is whipping my hair and my clothes and no matter which direction I face I can't look dignified, which for once is just fine with me.

 Over there are people sitting, some walking. Here someone is taking a picture of the most spectacularly alien flower I've ever seen.

I notice right away there is thin tinkle of music coming from somewhere; this is the first I've heard in Cuba and it seems just right. I swing my arms around my Mom's cousin, the one with Abuela's eyes, and make her dance with me, here, where I know for certain Abuela had to have danced, she had to have laughed.

Of all places I've been in Cienfuegos, I feel her here the most, in the wind and in the music.

Mom points at steps that lead down into the water.

Here, here is where it was, she tells me and I give her my blonde head shaking response of What?

The shark. The wedding ring. Remember?

Of course I did. I do.

Don't you? It's from an old movie, one of my favorite movies. I can see it unfolding black and white and grainy.  

I can't remember the name of it, but it goes something like this.

A horrific accident sets a trade ship on fire off the coast of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Shocked and heartbroken widows and orphans receive insurance money from the ship as the remains of their husbands and breadwinners were found, identified, buried.

I'm sure whatever amount they received was a paltry sum, never enough to replace the security of family, but it was something to keep them going, just for awhile.

But one woman was desperate.  Her husband's remains had not been found, so she could not prove he had been on the boat.

 She could not prove he had died, she could not even prove he had been on that boat, and every person who had seen him on the boat had perished.

A whisper went around this town went that he left her, went off to another town, that she was just lying to get money. Someone said, after rum and over a cigar, that he probably was hiding and would meet her in San Juan to split the insurance money.

None of this gossip put food on her table, none gave her dignity in this small city on a small island.

Angry and desperate the woman turned to every person she could and said please please my family is hungry, we need help. Help me find my husband, dead or alive, please.

One man did.

I remember he wore a linen suit and hat. He was athletic, warm and kind. And he loved to solve things, to help people, to add this to that and get something much much bigger.

He got together a crew and went out and found sharks trolling around the shipwreck.

So they did what every warmblooded man who has read Hemmingway (or drank rum, or held a fishing pole) would do.

They decided, while they were out there looking for a survivor, looking for evidence, they would also maybe enjoy the day and catch a big shark.

They tried one, and lost it.

They tried another and the line broke.

The third almost took the pole with him.

The rum was running low and the sun was fading when another shark presented himself.

This time the crew hooked and pulled and landed the trophy.

After hanging the shark upside down-- was it 12 feet? 14 feet? bigger? I forget -- right here, right at La Punta, they slit the beast's stomach open.

People gasped and fell backwards as the innards spilled onto the rocky ground.

 The man in the linen suit found it, pointed it out, had it pulled from the mess.

An arm, an arm with a hand and fingers.

And on a finger, a wedding ring.

The wedding ring that proved the woman was a widow. A bittersweet catch indeed.

I love that movie! I say to Mom and she gives me that look like maybe I haven't been listening too well, which happens when I watch bittersweet black and white Hemmingway-esque movies in my head.

What movie? That was MY Abuelo. She shakes her head at me and stands up to join my little dance.

That's right! I knew that, I tell her, and hide my bluff as long as I can.

I can't tell you how long we were out there standing, dancing, pointing, walking, sitting, staring.

  I can only remember that we stayed there until the sun got a little dimmer and the wind blew harder, hard enough to push us back into the taxi and head to the hotel.

Chapter 21: The Rumors Were Wrong


My first memory of the Cienfuegos Yacht Club, the one that actually meets, not this building, is a mildy happy one.  I was a bored tween and my Mom let me wear cream eyeshadow. This was a Big Deal, and so I took myself very seriously, trying hard to act old, to act dignified, to act Yacht Club-ish.

The problem was that the Cienfuegos Yacht Club wasn’t in Cienfuegos, it was in Miami. 

And instead of meeting in a sunbleached building surrounded by boats, it met a wide boxes of hotel convention room, filled with brightly dressed people speaking Spanish one or two notches louder they normally would.

Compared to that, the building in Cuba – our next stop through Cienfuegos -- seems strangely quiet.

The steps to climb in front of the entrance seem more ceremonial than functional. I imagine in another life I might have posed here next to a starched white-tuxedoed date on a Very Formal occasion.

My Mom, our cousin and I walk through the entry. 
There they are, the trophies. 
There are the pictures. 
There is the history.
 I thought it would be gone.
 It’s still here. 
The rumors were wrong. 
If I go back to the US, back to Abuelo, with nothing more than this news and this alone I know he will be pleased.

We walk through the main room and out to the back, where the boats would be. I admire the brave white architecture, I take in the view.

We walk to what once was a bar area which is now a tourist buffet.  The staff has just arrived and are arranging themselves for a meeting, but they let us in to look around. 

Then we walk along the buffet, where bilingual signs explain the food. The translation for shrimp became shrimps; one of the signs says “meat bowls” instead of “meatballs.” A tiny bit of me wants to tell them, correct them, fix this place that is so important to us, but then again, its just a building. 

I don’t feel the pull to find stories here,  not today, like I did in the other places, and besides that, I’m getting thirsty again.