Daisy Hernández Dogwood 2015 Grand Prize Winner
It is winter, and the women pack for days. Batteries, toilet paper, diapers, flashlights, Extra Strength Tylenol—the list coils around their heads and in their ears. The men puff on cigars and worry in silence. They live in the Bronx, Manhattan, Union City, Queens. When the day finally arrives, they drag their suitcases to John F. Kennedy Airport and board an airplane, which is no longer just a flying machine but an animal that leaps into gray-tinged clouds, tucks its wheels like hind legs, and hovers over New York City. The windows fill with the familiar tableau of streetlights and miniature taxicabs and skyscrapers.
It is the winter of 1999, and the first flight leaves New York for Havana in almost forty years.
In our family kitchen in New Jersey, I shake my head at the news on Telemundo. “Only locos would take that flight,” I declare, and then without a pause: “They’re going to bomb it.”
My mother, a Colombian, turns to me, confused, her thin brown eyebrows lifted. “Los Cubanos aquí,” I explain. “The Republicans. They’ll bomb it and blame Fidel or Bill Clinton.” My voice is sharp and bitter and sure of itself, as if I were not twenty-four but seventy-five, as if my own father was not a Cuban and a Republican. But this is how my father raised me: trust no one, suspect everyone. He also taught me to make grandiose statements, declarations that when written down require italics and em-dashes, like, “I would never get on that plane—but then again I’m not a crazy Cuban.”
Five months later, I am standing at JFK, holding a ticket in my hand, bound for Havana, and I would still be happy to tell anyone who bothered to ask that I am not tostada. I am not even plain crazy. This is the fastest way for me to get to Cuba, and I have a very good reason to risk taking a flight that could be bombed by Republican Cubans: I need to find out why my father became an alcoholic.
At the age of three or four, I try to open a beer can by myself. The task is not easy. Beer cans don’t have edges like boxes, no tiny holes where a girl can start poking her fingers and use brute force to pry it open. No, beer cans are for clever people. They are sealed tight with mysterious metallic tongues and more than once, I rock that tongue back and forth until it snaps off, leaving the can with a shut mouth. But I insist on opening the beer can by myself, because I want to be strong and brave and tall like my father.
When I finally succeed, I slip my thumb along the edges of the can’s open mouth, cutting myself just enough to be in awe of my father, of how fuerte he is. He can drink from a cup made of knives.
Growing up, I watch my father every evening, as well as the vodka bottles sitting under the kitchen sink and the beers in the refrigerator. It always starts slowly: one cup, then two, then my mother’s voice, “You’ve had enough,” but my father motions for her to move, to get out of the way, to not get in the way. It is never enough.
To be fair, the beginning is always good, at least for my father. He laughs more. He tickles me. He insists we all sit at the kitchen table and watch Iris Chacon on television. He’s skinny, my father, but his hands are thick and calloused, and his curly hair has grown thin over the years. He works nights at the fábrica, leaving the house in heavy boots and black jeans, and on Saturday nights he comes home, opens a beer, and insists that my mother stop washing dishes and join us. His eyes are like mine: large, wide, almost black. Sometimes he’s so happy that he winks at me. He drinks another beer or another glass of brandy. The hours pass and a glaze falls ever so gently over his eyes. It is a thin veil, and Papi begins withdrawing into another room in his mind, a place where his voice slurs, where his body swings from side to side, where he can’t stand up.
In that other place, the room behind the veil, he curses because now the sound of the television bothers him. He yells at me to shut up. He screams at my mother, at my auntie, at the television set. In that room behind the veil where he travels nightly, I imagine there to be a profound silence, and that this is why any noise in this world pains him, enrages him, sends him stumbling through the house unplugging phones from the jacks in the wall, sometimes just ripping the cords and leaving holes behind. The veil settles over his eyes and cheeks and thin, dry lips like a second skin, otra cara, and I imagine that any sound, including that of a ringing telephone, scrapes this tender new face.
Around the time I start high school, the Berlin Wall collapses on the thirteen-inch television set in my room and my mother’s sister, Tía Chuchi, informs me that my father began drinking when I was born. “That’s when Ygnacio started mixing drinks,” she says, her lips pursing, remembering the summer of 1975. “He drank harder stuff, vodka and brandy.” When my auntie tells me this, I imagine I did something to send my father to that other place, to make him grow another cara. I don’t think of it as a specific action, not that I cried too much, but rather that there was something in me like the marrow in my bones which drove him behind the veil.
In the fall of 1999 Washington approves the first flight to Havana from New York in four decades, and I enter graduate school to study journalism and Latin American politics. I start meeting people my own age—Cubans, Puerto Ricans, gringas—who have gone to Cuba and seen for themselves the malecón and talked with scholars trained under the Revolution. It begins to occur to me that I can go as well, that the only reason I think I can’t go is that my father has always said, “You can’t go. Cuba’s a miseria. Why would you want to see poverty?”
Now I begin to think I can defy my father. I can see Cuba for myself. I can travel to his homeland and learn more about him and how I made him turn into an alcoholic. I can even take him with me and have, as the gringos say, a “bonding experience.”
There is another reason to visit Cuba: A letter has come from the island. My grandfather is alive.
To be fair, no one ever said my grandfather was dead. He was just spoken of that way. “Your father was orphaned,” my mother tells me as a child, and then, more to herself than to me, she adds, “Sometimes I think that maybe not having a big family, not having that kind of ambiente, made him this way.” Over and over again my mother describes my father as a huérfano, an orphan, because it is the image he has of himself, the one he hands to her when they are alone together. His mother died during childbirth or shortly thereafter. His father left in such a way that he is not worth talking about: a death by absence.
But in 1999 a letter arrives from a woman named Maritza, the daughter of my father’s half-brother. Maritza has found Christ with the Pentecostals or the Episcopalians, and she wants to reunite the family. She writes that my father’s not-dead father is sick and wants forgiveness.
In the unfinished basement of our house I read the letter aloud. The letter is here because my father has fashioned a man cave for himself next to the washing machine and my mother’s Singer Sewing Machine. Papi has a folding chair and a tall plastic cup for his beer, and the radio is tuned to Radio WADO. He wears his brown chanclas here, even though the floor is cold cement, and he keeps his black workman boots near the door.
I read about my grandfather needing forgiveness, and I ask: “What did he do?” My father shrugs his shoulders. “For the way I was with you girls. He was the same way.” A pause. “Duro.”
The word startles me. Duro, hard. I had always assumed that the veil which fell over my father when he drank made it impossible for him to see what he was doing, how he was treating us, but now here it is: duro, a word so short and heavy and true, an admission however small that my father knows himself.
When my auntie and I tell him we’re writing a letter to his father, we ask what we should say about the forgiveness. “There’s nothing to forgive,” Papi snaps and turns back to the television set in the kitchen.
But there is, because when I announce that I am applying for a family visa to visit Cuba, my father tells me four times not to visit his father and to definitely not stay with him. “He was never concerned with me,” he says, his eyes flashing, his shoulders raised as if he’s ready to hit me.
In my room I plead with my father. “Please make the trip with me. We have to go to Cuba together. Por favor.” It’s late in the afternoon and he glances at my desk, covered in books about Cuba’s special period and my bed, where at the age of twenty-four, my pillowcase is still the one with the Smurfs that I’ve had since I was ten. My brown-black hair is streaked with pink dye that I’ll need to color over before I leave for Cuba, and my father is balding and wearing his usual white Hanes T-shirt tucked into his black jeans. Since leaving Cuba in 1961, he has only returned once to the island, and that was in 1979.
“You have to come with me,” I insist now, equally panicked at both the thought of traveling alone and of not bonding with him. I shift from one foot to another. “How can you let me go by myself?”
He waves at me with his left hand like I’m a mosquito nipping at his arm. “You want to go; I don’t want to go.”
“Fine,” I snap, my arms akimbo now, frustrated that he is choosing this particular moment to not be a codependent Latino. “I’ll be like a huérfana showing up in Cuba without a father.”
He chuckles and reaches for the door. “Wait till you have to use a newspaper to wipe yourself in the bathroom,” he says, laughing so much his shoulders shake. “We’ll see how much you like Cuba then.”
I roll my eyes and shift into my compassionate parental voice. “I’m taking toilet paper, Papi,” I say softly. “We can take a whole bag of toilet paper.” I hold my breath here, expecting that the promise of Charmin Ultra Soft will win him over.
He shakes his head. “It’s miseria. Why do I want to go see miseria?”
But more letters come from Cuba, and they suggest a different reason: my father is prone to anxiety.
A woman named Haydee is taking care of Tío Lucas, the maternal uncle who raised my father. Haydee is married to one of my father’s cousins, and she writes that the hundred and fifty dollars my father sent has helped them to buy chicken and cheese. She writes line after line about how difficult it is to find food in Cuba now, to afford it when it is available, but then she urges my father not to suffer over this news. “Lucas tells me you’re nervioso,” she notes.
I read the letter more than once, pausing at the word nervioso, confused by the idea that my father, my beer-and-brandy-drinking father, my prone-to-cursing-at-us father, has ever been afraid, let alone nervous or anxious.
After another round of my urging him to travel with me, my father tells me for the last time that no, he will not go to Cuba. “You go first,” he says. “You go see how Tío Lucas is.” He rubs the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin. “If things are good, then I’ll go. But you go first.”
It’s almost as if my father and I are standing at the door to a fun house. Inside the mirrors distort reality, and the doors take you into unwanted rooms, and the hallways refuse your exit. My father is not a grown man but a little boy pleading, “You go first,” and we both know that I will, because all my life I have been trying to protect someone.
My mother’s dresser is the color of maple syrup. It has a large mirror and heavy drawers. Regal and feminine, the wood has been carved for perfumes and blouses, for a woman to take care of herself, to admire herself, to love herself. But one day, when I am around ten or maybe older, my father is home alone and he empties the drawers and drags the dresser out of the house and onto the front lawn. There he lifts his machete and hurls it at the dresser. The blade cracks the wood, digging into the dresser, thrashing that dark beauty.
Hours later, my mother and I arrive home with my little sister to find the grass, thin and green that summer, holding the horror of my father’s rage. He destroyed the dresser but didn’t touch my mother.
My mother. Her pale face folds into itself, finds the hardness of her own bones, and she walks us into the house, into pajamas, into bed. We all understand. My mother had made a significant purchase without telling my father, and this is duro, but it is the consequence. She had bought a bookcase and a full set of Britannica encyclopedias, which cost hundreds of dollars. The books had come in perfectly square boxes: book after book with thick black covers, gold lettering on their spines, tissue paper, and detailed explanations for all that has ever happened in the world, including the wars and geographic shifts and even the human body with its internal organs in shiny reds and blues. Heavy books that do not or will not or cannot explain my father to me.
That night perhaps, or maybe another treacherous evening, I lay in bed with my sister in the dark, my ten-year-old arms wrapped around her skinny five-year-old frame. My hands cupped her ears, pressing against them as if the palms of my hands could transform into sea shells and tell her a different story about our lives. Below us, on the first floor of the house, Papi screamed at my mother, his cursing flicking between Spanish and English, relentless and terrifying, while outside, the front lawn still held the dark carcass of my mother’s dresser.
My father is a man in pedazos. He’s a photograph that has been cut up, and I am collecting the pieces. There’s my father with the machete blade cutting the dresser into splinters, my father whose father is not dead, my father shuffling his workman boots like a little boy afraid that the uncle who raised him is now old and sick in Cuba. And there’s my father rummaging through a garbage can in New York City. Before the dresser, before my mother, before my sister and me, my father was new to this country and did not have enough to eat. In this photograph that I will never find, he has a head full of black curls and his eyes are large and ravenous, and the garbage can reeks of leftover burger meat and stale Italian bread and my father’s fingers move quickly through the trash, desperate to survive.
When he sees me packing for my trip to Cuba, my father turns into a den mother. In my bedroom, he peers into my open suitcase on the floor. It’s already stuffed with Tylenol and batteries, as well as the light blouses that I’ll need to survive three weeks of tropical weather in May. My father spots my slippers in the suitcase and barks, “Are you taking those?”
“Leave them in Cuba. Leave everything. Don’t bring back anything you take.” He jabs his index finger in the direction of my suitcase, as if it were evidence in a murder trial.
“Por qué?” I ask.
“Leave everything,” he snaps.
But he doesn’t have to explain. I understand that he feels guilty for having so much here when his family has so little there. I agree to leave Cuba in the summer of 2000 the way he did in the winter of 1961: empty-handed.
My parents and I wait at the bus stop at the corner of Anderson and Fairview Avenues, my large suitcase bulging beside us. It’s late afternoon and we have a two-hour bus ride to JFK. On the bus my father lists the sights I should see when I reach Fomento, his hometown: El Rincón, la Loma de Piedra Gorda. “If you see Luisito Guevara,” he adds, “tell him I send his mother a big hug.”
I’m taking notes as if I were on an assignment for one of my journalism classes. My pen skips along, relying on my own shorthand, questions building up for the next pause in the interview. Luisito Guevara. Mother. Big hug. I want to pause and point out to my father that he does not hug people—he doesn’t even hug my mother—but there’s no time. He wants to make sure I have the list of gifts he’s added to my suitcase: the watches for Carlos and Teresa, eyeglasses and medicine for Carmen, shirts and a white cowboy hat for Tío Lucas. I pull out the tape recorder. “Send Tío Lucas a message,” I order, pressing the red button.
My father eyes the recorder with suspicion, then moves his thin lips close to the built-in microphone. “I’m sending you my daughter but don’t worry about her. She doesn’t eat carne .”
As we near the airport, my father—who as far as I know has always paid his taxes on time and never been arrested—shows me how to fold a five dollar bill and press it into a person’s hand as a bribe. “If you have a problem, you do this,” my father says, shaking my right hand as if he has met me for the first time, the bill’s folded edges poking my skin.
At the airport, waiting in line to check my bags, my parents and I are surrounded by viejitas, women in their sixties with large bosoms. They’re dressed with matching skirts and blazers, their hair neatly colored and curled, their lipsticks probably bearing names like mauve and coral. Their wrists are laden with gold bracelets, and from their shoulders swing heavy pocketbooks, the kind with thick zippers and several compartments.
There are men too, in suits, in jeans and ironed T-shirts, but it’s the women who notice me, who ask about me, who open their eyes in shock. “Your first visit?” they say, as if traveling to Cuba were like taking a bus to Miami.
It’s the women who packed their suitcases and now tend to them as if they were children, patting the tops and grinning in satisfaction at the girth of what they have produced. They boast about what they were able to pack, how they weighed the suitcases at home, how they better not run into any problems because on their last trip those awful men at the Havana airport took everything away: the shampoo, the soaps, even the snacks. Todo.
“Diapers,” one woman brags to me. She is taking adult diapers to her mother in Cuba who is very ill. In her carry-on luggage, she’s hidden sausage. “It’s the expensive kind, but it’s good,” she tells my mother and me in Spanish, then adds that it’s from a Manhattan deli.
Standing in line, my mother assesses the woman, her strong shoulders, the firmness of her pale jaw, her absolute determination to move a dead animal past American security and Cuban immigration officials. My mother requests that the woman look after me. “Of course,” the woman answers, nodding and fastening her eyes on me, as if I now belong to her.
I hug my mother goodbye and my father as well. He’s tall, my father, and flaco, and his chest is bony and bears the familiar smells of stale cigar smoke with a trace of cerveza.
The flights for Havana leave New York once a week on Friday evenings. About thirty of us are traveling tonight, and I get a window seat and even a whole aisle to myself. After takeoff, we leave the city behind, and the window pane grows so dark that it only throws back my own image: my eyes, large and dark, afraid and curious, my eyebrows thick like my father’s, my arms thin and pale.
Finally, about three hours later, Cuba comes into view: a black bone in the sea. From the airplane’s window, the island has no lights, no movement, no surface to grab in the dark. Only as our plane draws closer to the José Martí International Airport do the lights begin to appear in spots. Then the tops of palm trees come quickly into view, thousands of them, their wide leaves waving like black arms in the night.
Stepping off the plane and walking down the stairs into the Caribbean air for the first time, I find that the night is warm like in Miami or Hialeah or Key West, but it is also different. It’s warmer, fresher, more alive, and for the first time I sense why someone would miss this place like crazy.
In the airport the woman who was supposed to watch out for me has forgotten that I exist, but I spot her arguing with a Cuban immigration agent about the sausage in her bag. I’m carrying a banana and leftover Chinese food from JFK in my book bag, but the man glances at my passport—born in the United States—and waves me through immigration.
I arrive in Havana in May of 2000, right when Cuba is steadying itself, having emerged from what the government called the “Special Period in a Time of Peace.” This was the formal way to say that the Soviet Union subsidies had ended in the early nineties, leaving Cuba without enough oil or food. Everything that was already rationed had been reduced even further. The days mimicked those from a time of war, but it was a time of peace and so it was special.
My father didn’t grow up in Havana, but I spend my first week there because his cousin’s daughter lives in the city. A woman in her thirties with a bright smile and a short bob of blond hair, Zaida is disappointed that I speak Spanish (she had wanted to practice her English), and she’s too young to have known my father, but she is the ideal host. She takes me to museums and the malecón, past billboards that boast not Calvin Klein underwear but slogans announcing that in Cuba people don’t want slave drivers. One day Zaida leads me down a series of narrow streets. At an apartment building she props a door open, marches up a flight of stairs, and knocks at the door. A middle-aged woman opens the door. Zaida is polite but blunt: “We’re here for the ice cream.” The woman nods, closes the door and returns with ice cream sandwiches. Zaida pays her, and we run back out onto the hot streets. Now, in Cuba, people have all sorts of illegal businesses in their homes. They cut hair and do nails, and out of necesidad, they traffic in ice cream. The real food— the rice, the bread, the malanga—is distributed from centers. When people hear that the rations have arrived, they race down the street screaming “¡Huevos!” so their neighbors know the eggs have made it to Havana.
Despite all this, Havana reminds me of New Jersey. People wait on line for buses that never come on time, and they maneuver their bikes around cars stalled in traffic. They wipe the sweat from the back of their necks at midday and crack jokes about their vecinos. In that sense, Havana is a pobre version of Jersey during the summer or Miami year-round. After a week I’m ready to see what I came for: the uncle who raised my father and the father who turned out to not be dead.
Fomento is a speck of a town several hours east of Havana. My father’s cousin Carlos comes for me in a pick up truck. He has a studious oval face and the thoughtful speech pattern of someone who in another life would be wearing a tweed jacket and loafers. In this life his blue button-down shirt matches his jeans. If the family chisme is true, Carlos was a teacher until he got fired for telling a Communist Party informant how to leave the island illegally.
When Carlos steers us out of Havana, the road empties itself of people, buses, and tenement-like buildings. Palm trees line the highway, and the paved road and the blue of the sky fill up the truck’s front window. As we head further east it feels like the sky is rushing at us, pressing her azure face to the earth and the hood of the truck and into our hands, as if the road itself does not end in the distance but rather flings herself off the edge of the earth and into that cloudless cielo, all of it so silent and absolute. I turn to Carlos and stammer, “You can see the sky here.”
“That’s what your father said,” he says quietly, his sunglasses covering his light eyes. “He said you can’t see the sky up North.”
As we near Fomento, houses begin to sprout up along the roadside. They have front porches and windows with wood shutters, and they are so predictably constructed about ten feet apart that they look like carefully planted rows of cabbage. Across the road fields of sugar cane unfurl, and men move among the lush green land with hats on their heads and light blouses buttoned only in two or three spots.
Tío Lucas, the uncle who raised my father, lives in one of these houses. When Carlos veers the truck off the road and stops short in front of a house, a group of women sweep me up in awkward hugs and hellos and rush me forward to the porch. Tío Lucas has been waiting there in a rocking chair since morning. He is a skinny old man, and despite the heat he’s dressed in dark pants and a long-sleeved button-down shirt. Underneath his blue baseball cap his face is bony and his cheeks are almost hollowed out, like a man whose body is pulling back from the world. When I reach the porch steps he takes off his hat to reveal a head of thick white hair.
Tío Lucas doesn’t say anything, just stares at me and smiles. I kiss him on his right cheek. He’s lost all his teeth save one yellow tooth, and he hasn’t seen my father in more than twenty years. I pull out the tape recorder and a photograph of my father, and I play the message for him. My father’s voice: “She doesn’t eat meat.”
The old man wipes tears from his eyes. He examines the photograph. “He’s old,” he says. “I don’t even recognize him.” And then he seems to if not recognize him then at least remember his nephew-son, and he asks if my father is still stubborn and short-tempered. Surprised, I say that he certainly is, and the old man chuckles. “I want to meet your mother,” he says, laughing. “She must be a saint.”
In the days that follow I sit on the porch with Tío Lucas. Every once in awhile a truck rumbles by on the main road, picking up people who live in the area and dropping off others. The bus stop is a simple post on the side of the road, and we watch people come and go and listen to the neighbor next door who plays salsa music in the mornings. Tío Lucas has an easy smile, and a friend of his, a broad-shouldered man, stops by on his horse every day. The animal is patient while Tío Lucas and his friend talk about fulano–y–tal and the crops and whatever is happening down the road in town. The rest of the day Tío Lucas and I sit in the quiet of this place—him in his rocking chair, me in the other chair—my notebook in hand.
It turns out Tío Lucas has plenty to tell me, though it’s not exactly what I expected. “Your father was spoiled,” he explains.
“Consentido?” I ask, convinced I’ve misunderstood.
“His cat ate with him right on the table,” Tío Lucas laughs, his mouth a black cavern save for that one yellow tooth. “I got him a horse one time, but he didn’t want it. He turned around and said, ‘I want your horse.’” A pause, a warm and wistful smile, and then a chuckle, the kind parents have when they’re amused by the antics of their young children or by a boy thinking he could ride a grown man’s horse.
Tío Lucas turns serious, even rueful. “I told him to go to school, to study. I hadn’t had a chance.” But then Lucas would show up at the one-room schoolhouse only to learn that my father had cut classes to play baseball in the fields.
One day my father—who in this story is not my father but a boy in Cuba—spotted a military man in Fomento. The uniform dazzled him, perhaps because it was so different from the stained jeans and thin shirts of the farmers around him. He enlisted, and then the war came and he found himself fighting Fidel Castro’s men. “When they captured him,” Tío Lucas says, “they made him sign a paper and give up his gun.” They didn’t keep my father, though. It was still early in the Revolution. Then the visa came from the States through a relative, and my father had to leave, because if he had stayed, Castro’s government would have killed him. Traitors were only tolerated for a time. “I made him visit his father before he went North,” Tío Lucas says. “But he would say, ‘He’s not my father—you are.’” Tío Lucas smiles here. He didn’t marry or have his own children, and he clearly relishes the memory of being called Papá. “But I made him visit his father. That was his father.”
Tío Lucas is so flaco he probably doesn’t even weigh a hundred pounds, so I try to imagine this pedacito of a man telling my machete-carrying father what to do. Instead I see that this is price of migration, that we don’t only lose the homeland, the memories and the people, but also the relationships among them. We receive the past in photographs, lonely and unattached, rather than as a collection of images that contradict each other.
In the States the only picture I had of my father was the one he took himself: the boy abandoned, the boy unwanted. He arrives in Miami, then the Bronx. The snow grips at his thin jacket. He’s a farm boy in the white man’s biggest city. He’s alone and feels, perhaps, that he always was that way.
The days in Fomento have a steadiness to them. There is no Internet, no cell phone, no cable TV. Tío Lucas tells me that the Revolution should have made sense for a man like himself. He was a farmer. He was often poor. But Castro’s government knocked at his front door and instructed him about the seeds he should favor and the crops he should sow. Decades later the memory still irritates him. “I know what to do with the land,” he insists.
One night after dark we move inside the house. The living room has a few seats and a window that looks out on the road. The floors have been scrubbed, and the overhead light bulb gives off a honey-yellow glow. I tell Tío Lucas about hip hop, and he stands to show me a dance from when he was a young man in the first half of the twentieth century. I put my hands on his bony shoulders, and he leads me a few steps forward, then back. He’s in his seventies and has a straight back, but when we’re done, he giggles like a teenager who has cut curfew.
My father grew up with him and also with his grandmother, La Mamá Tomasa, a heavy-set woman who in photographs has a sour face and a single thick braid of gray hair. Sometimes Tío Lucas tells me with a smile at his lips that Mamá Tomasa would say to my father, “You’re ugly,” even though he was only a boy. Tío Lucas chuckles. “And he would answer ‘los ojos, los ojos,’” because my father had been told his dark bright eyes were beautiful.
It’s several days into my time in Fomento when Tío Lucas shares the information I came for about my father: “He’d cut school and go drink and smoke, too.” He shakes his head, as if he’s disappointed in my father all over again. I ask if he’s sure, if my father was drinking back then, before the war, before the exile, before me. He’s sure.
The images: My father orphaned, my father loved, my father with his own horse and booze, my father shipped North, and now this. My father was an ordinary teenage boy, one who liked the taste of beer.
On the way to meet my not-dead grandfather, Haydee sits with me in the truck on the makeshift bench along with twelve other people on their way to visits and work. It’s early in the day, before nine, and the sun is beginning its slow ascent. The men have already begun working in the fields, their machetes biting into the stalk of the sugar cane. Haydee has high, strong cheekbones and short black hair that looks purposefully disheveled, intentionally beautiful. In her forties, with two grown children, she’s married to my father’s cousin and takes care of Tío Lucas. Now she wants me to know that my grandfather was good with my father. “He brought a calf one time so he’d have milk,” she says, and I nod in approval as if I can understand a place and a time where giving milk to a child was a sign of love and not a necessary impulse. “But yes,” Haydee continues. “He went and remarried and started a new life.”
Off the bus and down a dirt road we come to the return address carefully penned on the envelope my father received from Cuba. My cousin Maritza, the one who wrote to us, isn’t expecting us. She comes running, her reddish brown hair in ponytails. Around her legs and behind the doorframe, a group of little girls watch us. “I can’t believe it!” she screams, clasping her hands and then hugging me. “¡Es un milagro!”
Inside another house my not-dead grandfather Francisco sits by the window in the living room. He is a shorter and stockier version of my father with enormous dark eyes. In his nineties El Abuelo Francisco also has thick muscled arms and an inquisitive silence. He doesn’t speak or smile. He’s had a stroke. His granddaughter Maritza and her father talk at him and for him. My grandfather’s wife is blind, skin loose and hanging from her cheeks and her eyes glassy and unfocused. She smiles when I take hold of her hand. My step-abuela.
The longer I look at my grandfather, the more he resembles my father in absence, a man lost behind the veil of a stroke and vejez. But I find, too, that I am silent. I don’t know what to say to the man who was dead to me before he was alive, and I’m not sure if I am more disappointed that he can’t speak or that I won’t. My father didn’t send him anything: no voice-recorded message, no letter, no money. All I have are my own words, and they have vanished.
Outside the house my grandfather, Maritza, and the other adults line up for photographs. When we’re done, two girls smile shyly at me. They’re about five or seven years old, and they’re Maritza’s daughters or her nieces. I ask to take their picture, and they nod at me. Finding them through the camera’s lens, I zoom in on their faces and stop immediately. Somehow I had missed it before, but the younger one is a carbon copy of my sister, the same carita with the long eyelashes, button nose and pursed lips. She is my sister when she was a child, when I held her in my arms while in the kitchen my father screamed in his drunken rages, those awful moments after the veil had dropped over him. Through the camera lens I can see for the first time how young we were. Because I was five years older than my sister, I had carried across the years an image of myself as tall and strong, powerful enough to cover my sister’s ears, to turn my palms into seashells, to keep the bad memories from seeping into her. And yet here in the camera lens the truth is unveiled—how vulnerable my sister was, how fragile we both were, how there was nothing bad about us.
Haydee says it’s time to leave because the truck-buses only run at certain times. I kiss everyone goodbye: Maritza who wrote the letters, my step-grandmother who can’t see me, my grandfather who is not dead but not quite alive either. Weeks later back in Jersey I’ll have the photographs developed, printed, placed into the plastic slips of a photo album. The photograph of the young girl will stay with me, because I had wanted my father’s drinking to be about me. I had wanted an explanation for him that was cause and effect, before and after, because then it could be fixed. Then I could fix it. Instead I had found in Cuba a mute grandfather, a doting uncle, the gift of milk, and a girl staring at my camera, her glorious dark eyes insisting on her beauty as my father once did.