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.