My uncle and I were stuck in traffic on Vibora Street because in one bus’s attempt to avoid colliding with another, it crashed into the concrete pillar of a corner home. With the windows lowered, we overheard a few spectators chatting about the accident. We were on our way to the Banco Metropolitano to exchange money since I’d run out of convertible pesos (CUC), different from the moneda nacional (Cuban pesos or CUP) by that of a 24 to 1 ratio. Sweating in the Moskovich, a thirty-year-old Russian with no mirrors and a wonky alignment that made you think it ran on Havana Club rum, Tio pointed to a building on our left. “Do you know what this building is?” he asked. “Or rather, excuse me, what it was once?” To me the place was nothing more than another slice of squalor where two, three, perhaps four generations called home, and which often put a bad taste in my mouth. I shrugged and said, “Was it someplace important or something?” “Yes, of course,” he said, “It was once the Academia Donate—your great grandfather’s academic institution.” “You don’t say,” I said. “I do say,” he said.
With the traffic at a crawl and the bus emptied of its passengers, I snapped a few photos of the squat. What I know of the school, which served as what we today would regard as a post-high-school/college preparatory, was that my great grandfather, Felipe Donate, was founder, head dean, and English instructor. My grandfather, Alfredo Donate, taught physical education and geography. My grandmother, Gladys Donate, and her four brothers, were at one time students. In the late forties, shortly after the end of his first marriage, Felipe met his second wife, Maida, a woman nearly twenty years his junior, who now, at ninety-something, suffers from dementia and lives with her son in Virginia. My grandfather eventually resigned from his position to take up a more pressing cause during the fifties: politics and the imminent overthrow of Batista, which nearly cost him his life and racked Gladys’s nerves. “I remember when I was boy,” Tio said, “and your grandmother would bring me here with your father, and we would race up and down the stairs and through the well-lit hallways and classroom salons, and everything was—it was nothing like this—it was habitable and functional. And from one day to the next it was shutdown, just like that, without any discussion. It’s a shame—that’s what it is.” I would have offered him a cigarette but he isn’t a smoker. Without closing my eyes I tried to imagine something stately: white stone colonnades, a golden haze of light behind gauzy window curtains, and the lively sounds of discourse spilling onto the open veranda. The car behind us honked and we puttered through the intersection where a policeman blew his whistle and dodged cars like a matador. The large front windshield of the bus lay in spider-cracked in the road. Tons of people gathered to get a glimpse of the incident. The side of the guagua was wedged against the pillar that had not buckled. “I bet it’ll take them ten hours, at the least, to haul that bus out of there,” Tio said. We took another route on our way back from the bank.
What I know of my great grandfather is that a number of years after the closing of the Academia Donate in 1961, he spent a seven year stint in a prison labor camp for “ideological differences” with the Party doctrine. In the early eighties he reunited with his family in Miami, where he attended night classes at the local high school. He earned his GED within six months. He died in 1986. On multiple occasions during my stay, we drove past the academy. I once saw shadows moving inside the courtyard. Other times the front door was shut. A week before leaving Cuba, a family friend handed me a photo of Felipe Donate taken in 1959. He had a full nest of chalk-white hair and wore a beige blazer, his mouth open before a standing microphone in a home in Guanabaco. In the right foreground, a small audience is listening. I’d never known how he looked until then, but it felt good to finally see him after so many years.
(photo taken from the porch of my aunt and uncle’s home in Havana)
Some years ago, after a failed burglary that left their front door splintered, Tia Maria Antoinette’s sister sent money for the iron-wrought gates. Tio, or as most refer to him as Doctor, had asked a patient to install the railings, and the man did the work for practically nothing, a favor for the countless times the doctor had given consultation to his boy at late hours of the night on the porch of the house. Now every window of the home is fortified with the grillwork and a dense, frosted glass. Tia says she lives in a big birdcage, her life is like that of the canaries she has locked away in the backyard; before bedtime she brings them inside the kitchen, for fear that the barrio’s stray cats might get to them and put an end to their tweeting.
Every morning while Tio and Tia are at work, I unlocked the two deadbolts of the front door to retrieve the three daily breads (one for each member of the household) and newspaper lying on the porch. I read Granma in the metal rocking chair, frequently looking above the page at the unpainted cement homes of Dolores Street, the palomeros on their rooftops watching their pigeons in flight, the traffic pumping black clouds of smoke to the sky, and the Cubans boxed inside buses coated in soot, staring at me with miserable faces until I return to skimming the reports on the disorder around the world. During my first week on the Island, a man stopped to ask if I wanted to buy cigars. I don’t want anything, I told him, no thank you. He said he couldn’t hear me, come closer, and stretched an arm through the railing to wave me over to him. I lowered the paper this time and told him again, omitting the thank you. He said he couldn’t hear me. I bit off a piece of bread that had no taste whatsoever and chewed ferociously, nearly bringing myself to growl.
After dinner the three of us often sat on the porch for a nightcap. I’d brought a bottle of Crown Royal from Miami. The doctor, who with the gratitude of his patients had amassed a small bar of his own, found the whiskey to be so good he felt it wrong to brush his teeth afterwards. Tia asked me if I thought her little home was nice. I said it sure was. She said she had done everything within her power to construct a better world for her daughter, helping to add a second floor after the girl married. I’d been staying in her room, where her scent remained in the bed sheets. “I didn’t want my home to be destroyed by what’s out there,” Tia said. “It’s a different Cuba inside here, and I’m proud of my little home. Except for a few trusted people, we don’t let anybody inside.” The doctor said, “Nobody,” and I said, “Behind bars is no way to live, though,” and they said that’s why their hija left and have nobody except me until I leave. We drank quietly with the chirping of the birds out back, and Tia began to whistle a tune with her eyes closed. I asked if they thought they’d ever get the hell out of here, and the doctor said, “Oh, Charlie, if only you knew that’s all I desire now,” and Tia, her eyes glossy, said, “I don’t want to leave this home to Fidel. I worked too hard to keep this family together. I’ll break every tile with a hammer if I have to leave it to that man,” and the doctor said, “He can keep the house, I’ll leave right now if I can,” and Tia said, “Oh, Arnaldo, but you’re a doctor, they won’t let you out like that,” and the doctor said, “I should’ve never been a doctor, it’s the sad truth,” and Tia said, “We gave her everything we could, and I’m happy she’s free, I really am,” and she stood and walked inside to put the canaries away.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
On my arrival at Jose Marti International, I was pulled out of the security line by a stumpy woman in heels, fishnet stockings, and an olive-green uniform bursting at the seams. We’d met eyes and that’s all it took. I might have smiled at her. I’d flown in from Miami on a delayed charter flight full of Cuban-Americans. The lady politely requested to know who I am. I told her, showing her my passport and visa and, for her viewing pleasure, a catalog of family photos that sprang like a slack tongue from my wallet. “And what brings you here?” she asked. I filled her in and handed her a laminated copy of my general license issued by Boston University. “Once you finish getting your luggage,” she said, “I’d like to ask you a few questions, okay, no need to worry, I’ll be over there, bring your luggage, it’ll be quick, okay,” and she clopped off under the arch of a metal detector, fanning herself with my documents.
I stepped back to my spot in the aisle and tried to keep cool. The man ahead of me was helping his mother out of her wheelchair.
“Oye, they want to ask me a few questions,” I whispered. It was one of those I-need-to-tell-somebody-to-feel-better moments.
He gave me a sympathetic look. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Just answer their questions honestly.”
“You’ll be fine. Don’t be nervous.”
“I’m not,” I assured him. His mother was waiting for him to guide her towards the man who frisked bodies with an instrument for scanning.
I tried thinking of other things: the high-breasted woman behind me wearing spandex and sunshades; a little girl bawling her eyes out on the floor, her mother gliding her like a mop by the arm; finally, I imagined myself in a small room, sweating under a hot and naked bulb, then on the next returning flight to Miami. My parents would have welcomed me back with open arms, saying, “You see, you see, I told you, those hijo-de-putas are nothing but hijo-de-putas.”
At baggage claim I spent a considerable amount of time waiting for my luggage to show up on the conveyor belt. The same belongings kept circulating. Most passengers carried between three-to-six gusanos (duffel bags resembling the length of a worm). We’d departed from Miami International later than anticipated because of an issue with the weight on the plane. Just as I was about to throw my hands up and speculate that a Cuban worker had run off with my gear, I found it standing upright among a cluster of suitcases that had ditched the revolving train.
“Will you be staying with family?” We stood in a hallway behind a door with a frosted window.
“No,” I lied. I didn’t want to give up my uncle and aunt’s address. For whatever reason, I felt I might compromise their wellbeing by doing so. I was thinking the worst. “I have family outside waiting for me.”
“Okay. This won’t take long. At what university will you be studying?”
I didn’t plan on studying anywhere, but since I’d shown the general license I had to say an institution. “University of Havana,” sounded fine to me.
“You have three days to change the status of your tourist visa to that of a student visa.”
“Where do I do that?”
“Go to the university, as I assume they are expecting you.”
“I would hope so.”
She led me into a narrow office (let the slapping begin, I thought!) where two young men stood behind a chairless desk examining my general license as though it were a cryptic text. One of them was making annotations on a separate sheet of bond paper.
“What does this mean here?” the one jotting information asked me, laying a finger down on a sentence. I rolled my luggage closer to the table.
“It means that after I complete my studies here I have to hand in a report about my experience.”
“What studies will you be doing?”
“The country’s literary history is what intrigues me most. And the geography fascinates me as well. I don’t know, I want to see it all, really.”
“I enjoy geography myself,” he said and scribbled something.
“And what exactly is this?”
“What? Creative writing?”
“Yes, what is that?”
“Fiction. You know—stories.”
“And why did this university in—in Boston, is it?—why did they give you a scholarship to come to Cuba?”
“It’s because my parents are Cuban, that’s why. And I’ve never seen Cuba before.”
The young man next to the note-taker made a slight tsk. “They give out scholarships like nothing over there. I can’t believe it.”
I wanted to chime in, “Well, I can,” but I felt bad for the kid, who seemed reasonably upset about not having his own general license to study abroad; at least that’s the way I would like to interpret it.
“And how long do you plan on staying?”
“Until mid November.”
“Do you have specific date?”
He marked that down, too. The dossier on me wrapped around the bottom of the page. I felt like such a bad boy.
“Bueno,” he said, handing me back my documents. “Enjoy your stay. Change your visa as soon as possible. And don’t worry, you are free to study whatever it is you want here.” He smiled. The kid didn’t. As the lady in stockings led me out to the main lobby, she asked me if I had anything inside my luggage for her. I thought I’d misheard and said, “Excuse me.”
“Do you have anything—anything at all you don’t need?” She was facing the glazed window of the hallway door. I reached in my pocket and produced an unopened pack of Orbitz gum. I struggled with breaking the wrapper before realizing the more dignified thing to do would be to simply give her the whole pack.
I went through another level of passport security before being greeted by an impassioned mob of Cubans held back by barricades set up ten yards from the exit. I felt a weight form in my chest and sink to my stomach. As a foreigner I was a goddamn celebrity walking the red carpet. I couldn’t hear myself think, there was such an uproar. Even within all the cheering, a somber feeling swept over me, locking my knees. I didn’t want to enter the crowd before scanning for a familiar face—one I’d seen in emailed photos. I was blocking the exit and a woman shoved past me hauling a cart of duffel bags tagged with names on them. Nobody seemed to know her. She might have been a mule. Lost in the mayhem, like a hand reaching out to me, somebody called my name and, turning in that direction, I saw the faces of my uncle and aunt appearing and disappearing, dying to be noticed behind a fat man. I went out and hugged them as though I’d hadn’t seen them in a very long time, as if I’d broken a promise.
June 6, 2011
This September I will be traveling to my parents’ homeland. This will be my first voyage to the Island. Raised within the Spanish-speaking enclave in Miami, I have cultivated a greater understanding of myself, and the culture that has influenced me to become a writer. At some length, the voices of my family haunt me – though in a wholeheartedly productive and meaningful way; these voices, I have come to learn, are so personal they become inescapable, and demand to be heard, founding the roots of my work. In Cuba, I plan to continue with a novel-in-progress, as well as polishing a collection of stories. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit family members I have never personally met, which brings me great joy. A front-line experience of the Island and its people will certainly prove to be a time full of affect.