Saturday, May 12, 2012

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.