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.