“I remember porque era el mismo, the same amount of time as a woman carries her child.”
Three raps of his raisin knuckles on the glass coffee table in front of us, louder than expected, leaves a fleshy smudge mark that my grandmother would have been horrified by. I immediately wipe the transgression away.
“’You have one hour to leave Cuba,’” Abo booms, deepening the bass in his already baritone voice in an attempt to impersonate the authoritative officers of Fidel Castro’s regime.
In their army green caps and matching work-boots with soles thicker than the skull of a human head, the two men had stood in the doorway of my Ernesto’s cramped Havana apartment. Nine months after he had applied for four spots on the Freedom Flights and consequently been forced to quit his job, they had finally come to announce the approval for the Frades family’s departure from Cuba, reading off the names one by one: Ernesto, Lourdes, Alejandro, Mercedes. Lourdes had listened anxiously from behind the kitchen wall, coddling her ten-day old baby as a pot of rice boiled over on the stove.
Thirty years and one American man later, and that baby would become my mom. She sits beside me now, two children and no mother, passively listening to the story of her exodus from the country in which she was born. She has not been back since.
“Nueve meses, and finally they allowed us to leave. Of course, Ayi had to pack para tu tio y tu madre all their things, and we put everything inside solo dos maletas. Two suitcases, no more, because there was not room they told us.” Abo’s English, unlike my deceased grandmother’s, has only gotten better with age, but he still slips into the familiarity of his native tongue every now and then. He knows I understand; he taught my sister and I to understand Spanish better than any high school teacher ever could. “And so, we had to say goodbye to everyone we knew, Ayi to her family, y yo a mi hermano y mis padres.”
They had all stood out on the street lined with brightly colored apartments identical to Ernesto’s own pale yellow one, crying and hugging each other, unsure when they might meet again. Only Ernesto’s brother was dry-eyed, believing himself to be next on the list for asylum in Los Estados Unidos. In a month’s time, he would be forced onto a truck full of other Castro dissenters heading for a sugar farm, where he would labor under the sweltering island sun cutting cane for no pay until he was finally given a spot on one of the promised flights to Miami International Airport.
“Asi que, we had to leave. They took us away from Havana to a sort of processing place, lleno de gente. So many people, como un can of sardines!” Abo laughs the way he always does when he expects that he’s told a good joke. My mother smiles softly, her unengaged eyes focused on the wall just behind my grandfather. A portrait of Ayi hangs there, her eyes almost identical to her daughter’s, her face youthful and pretty.
The Frades family stayed in the processing facility for 24 hours, the baby girl crying at Lourdes’s breast through most of the night, her seven-year old brother begging to be taken back home for dinner, breakfast, lunch. Members of the government had been at work throughout the night and day, digging through Ernesto and Lourdes’s histories to ensure they would not be a “hazard” to America. They needed a reason, any reason, to keep the four on the island, to try and put one tiny dent in the mass emigration of Cubans fleeing from communism. Success came in the form of Lourdes’s father, a reserved local judge who had made one-too-many subtle comments about Fidel Castro.
“They sent an order a la oficina where he worked, to the court. He was to be arrested, or perhaps matado, porque sometimes they did that.” Abo’s thick gray eyebrows raise and his mouth mouth droops into a frown, shrugging his shoulders, desensitized to the notion of his father-in-law being murdered as a political dissident.
“Papi!” My mother’s voice rings out with surprise. She has given up her trance and now eyes my grandfather sharply. “Yo no sabia eso, nunca me dijiste.”
“Bueno, si, mi amor.” He evades the accusation prevalent in his daughter’s tone. I wonder if perhaps he avoided telling her until my grandmother had gone because Ayi did not like to relive this part. He clears his throat loudly and continues. “Pero, someone inside of the court saw the order and stopped it beforehand, because they knew that we were leaving.”
I try to imagine how different my reality might be if that order had been carried through. My grandparents most likely would’ve been forced to stay behind, maybe would have been accused of dissidence, my grandfather perhaps facing jail or a labor camp. My mother would have grown up on the island and married a nice Cuban man, instead of a nice American one. I would be singing along to Celia Cruz and Pitbull instead of Stevie Nicks and Drake, eating lechon asado con arroz at every meal instead of macaroni and cheese, driving a 1954 Toyota Land Cruiser instead of a 2002 Nissan Altima. I would speak Spanish all the time, drink mojitos on the beach, and dance bachata with my father.
I wonder what she’s doing right now, that version of me. I wonder if she’s happy.