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There is a shaking, a nervous vibration at my core.
I close my eyes in the taxi as it zips down Interstate 95 toward Miami International Airport. I try to rest after a night of endless shifting. But this involuntary shiver, this jumbling of my insides, shakes me into an uncomfortable wakened state. So I lean back and turn to watch traffic go by, the sky still in twilight, the road illuminated by red taillights and the orange glow of streetlamps. Most mornings, the interstate is a snarled mess, four lanes inching so terribly slowly as people make the commute toward downtown Miami. Today, we glide through and past traffic Miami is a late-rising town and I feel more and more like I am sitting in the cart of a roller coaster as it clack, clack, clacks its way up the steep incline toward an inevitable plunge. There are no brakes. No turning back. I close my eyes and breathe.
What exactly does a Cuban jail cell look like? When I shut my eyes, the image insists on forming. I have a cartoon image in my head. Dank walls, covered in a film of cold humidity, made of large stone blocks, as if part of a castle dungeon. There is a small window, about the width of a cinder block, high on the wall, so you can see only the cloudy gray sky outside between rusting iron bars. Inside, I'm dressed in khaki pants and a brown striped pullover, sitting on the cold, hard floor. For how long, there is no telling. I force my eyes open to keep the thoughts at bay. It's nonsense. I am a journalist and an American-born U.S. citizen at that. The Cuban government won't want to start an international incident Elián in reverse by holding a reporteragainst his will. I tell myself this, over and over. It is little comfort. There is no way to know how I will be received. Whether I will be discovered. Whether I will truly step on Cuban soil at all.
I try to ignore the shaking and focus on the doing. Walk up the concourse, check in at the ticket counter, head for the international gates. I do it all over again, but not as I did a week ago. I do it robotically, trying to detach myself from the conversation my mind is having with itself: You are never going to get in. Not last time. Not this time.
There is time to kill at the gate. I look around the rows of blue chairs with chrome arms as other passengers squirm to get comfortable enough to close their eyes and feign sleep, and I try to join them. But the lights and the chairs and the cold, cold air prod me to stay awake. To keep my mind busy, I examine the other passengers, these travelers who are not the regular, early-rising business crowd, commuting on a shuttle to work, carrying leather briefcases and wheeled computer bags. Most here are adults, dressed the way you might expect to see recently arrived refugees on the streets of Little Havana. Few children are on this flight, and the room is as quiet as a library. Two men and a woman traveling together catch my attention as I twist myself into a comfortable position.
From under half-closed eyes I peek at one of the men, who looks to be in his early forties. He is wearing a new pair of dark blue jeans, white sneakers, and a FUBU T-shirt tucked into his pants. He exudes the air of a relatively young man, but his complexion seems aged beyond his years. Wrinkles crisscross his forehead, and his skin appears weathered and tan. He is stocky, with wide shoulders and a round belly pushing up against his shirt. He is traveling with another man, who looks younger. He is wearing black Tommy Hilfiger jeans, also with crisp, white shoes and a black T-shirt. He has a gold bracelet and a gold chain with a medallion of the Virgin of Charity, la Virgen de la Caridad, hanging on the outside of his shirt. This apparition of Mary is the patron saint for Cubans, who still have a shrine to her in Santiago, on the island's southeastern coast. Cubans in Miami have re-created this grotto to her, also near the water, in Coral Gables. The woman traveling with these men wears a low-cut beige blouse with tight black pants. The many gold bangles on her arm jingle as she transfers items from a white plastic shopping bag to a Bloomingdale's Big Brown Bag. And I know why they are on this flight.
These are Cubans, most likely recent immigrants, going home to visit family. The concourse is full of them, and I wonder if their insides are shaking, too. Do they care that what they're doing is illegal, that the U.S. government could crack down on them for trying to get around the embargo by entering Cuba through a third country? I try to imagine my cousin Jorge on this flight, desperate because he is legally allowed to return to see his mother, my Tía Sofía, only once every three years. Should that be sufficient, that arbitrary determination of how much contact is needed to satisfy a mother's love? That this gate is packed at such an early hour screams that it is not.
A gate agent calls out in Spanish that our flight is boarding, and I grunt as I extricate myself from my seat to grab my bags and get in line. All around me, others are picking up their bags, some of them large suitcases with their contents pushing against the nylon sides at odd angles. A crash and a tumbling sound make several of us turn around to see the woman I had been watching, whose shopping bag has torn open, its contents scattering out onto the carpet. A plastic, chrome-colored robot. Board games. A baseball glove. Several children's shirts folded over but still on hangers. The man with the weathered face drops the Big Brown Bag stuffed with T-shirts and jeans and helps her repack. The unofficial Flight of Charity from Miami to Havana, via Cancún, Mexico is now boarding, and my fellow passengers are loaded with relief packages. Inside the plane, they push and tuck and force their carry-ons into the overhead compartments.
As I stow my neatly packed belongings, I wonder if they will make me stand out too much. These other visitors, who come loaded with dollars and supplies, are exactly what the Cuban government wants. But what would it make of me, an unregistered foreign journalist floating unescorted throughout the island, especially at a time like this, with Cuba on high alert after its leader of forty-seven years has given up control for the first time? A passenger heading to his seat finally forces me to move, and I realize I have been frozen in the aisle, lost again in the conversation my mind can't stop having with itself.
I settle in and stare out the window to a risen sun that is casting a warm red-orange glow. The flight attendant is reading her safety statement in Spanish, and then in heavily accented English, but I barely pay attention. I close my eyes and pray as we rumble down the runway, as I always do on takeoff. Pray that I have made at least one positive contribution to the world. Pray that my children will remember that I love them. Pray until the plane levels off and my mind stops spinning with crash scenarios. I start to pray, too, that God will let me set foot on Cuban soil, but I stop myself. The Almighty doesn't take requests, I know, because prayer didn't help the last time I was on this flight. A ding in the cabin says we've reached our cruising altitude, and I notice that the quivering inside of me has been replaced by a machinelike impassiveness.
I am not going to get my hopes up, not again.
As my mind tries to scold itself, louder and louder, I cannot help but hear it recount my last disappointment.
Less than a week ago, the day after Castro's announcement, I was on my way to Cuba, via Cancún, with three other journalists from The Palm Beach Post.
The same day I was told I was going to Cuba, I raced from Pembroke Pines to Palm Beach and back to make a 4:00 p.m. flight out of Miami International, a turnaround of about 150 miles. My wife started packing for me, knowing I was cutting things close, and when my parents called, I told them quickly what I needed: I asked my father to write down the names of all the people he still knew in Cuba and might have telephone numbers or addresses for. I also asked him to write the names and locations of the seven businesses he and my uncles had owned, because I planned to visit them. And I told my mother to write down the phone number for her sister, my Tía Sofía, my closest living relative in Cuba.
By the time I got home from the paper, two hours before my flight, my parents' blue Ford Escort was already parked in front of my home, a small, pale yellow ranch-style house with a brick front. The aroma of Cuban coffee filled the air, and my parents, sitting on the couch, started to stand as I came through the door. But I barely made eye contact as I rushed to finish packing.
"Did you guys write down the information I asked you for?" I yelled from the bedroom.
"We have it right here, Papo," my mother answered.
There was not much time to let this moment soak in. I tossed whatever clothing I thought I might need into my luggage. I know the people in Cuba go without all of the finer things, so I took mostly T-shirts and shorts and a pair of pullovers. I came wheeling out of the hall with my bags to find my parents and my wife standing next to one another, and for the first time, I allowed myself to feel my heart pound, pound as we looked at one another with knowing smiles.
My father and mother handed me three scraps of paper. On one piece, my father had written me instructions: Ask for Felipe's old girlfriend, Alina, who lives near La Plaza in Marianao, where three of the main businesses were. Tell her to take you to see our cousin Mario, my friend Miguel, and Rosita, who used to work for us.
Felipe's old girlfriend? 'Papi,' are you sure about that?
"She's like family," he said, "and she knows all the old names and places." There was no time to argue, no time to let insecurity set in. As I hugged my mother, I could feel her seizing up as she tried to hold back tears.
Don't worry, 'Mami,' I can take care of myself.
She nodded without speaking at first, then swallowed hard. She said she had already called my cousin Jorge, who, coincidentally, was visiting his mother, my Tía Sofía, in Cuba. She had already told him that I am his responsibility. And I could tell she would not rest until I returned.
"Enough, Iris, he knows how to take care of himself," my father told her in an effort to break the tension. We clapped a strong hug, kissed on the cheek, and shook hands, he continuing to hold my hand and look at me.
"Coño, Papo, you're going to visit my Patria," he said.
The look in his eyes, it was the same one he gave me the day he saw me off to college, like he knew something I didn't, that my life was about to change in a way I could not yet grasp.
I'll bring you back a bottle of rum, 'Viejo.'
I turned to Christy and held her close for a second, like it was just the two of us in the room.
That afternoon, I landed in Cancún, bought a ticket to Havana, and spent the night in a hotel waiting for my morning flight. From the room, I managed to make a long-distance call to Cuba to speak with my Tía Sofía. She sounded just as I had remembered: her voice high and a little squeaky, like a sonorous instrument slightly out of tune. And from her tone, I could tell she was smiling.
"Your mother already called here, and she is so nervous. But I told her not to worry. We're going to take great care of you," she said, and I hugged her with my voice.
I can't wait to see you, Tía. By tomorrow, we'll be that much closer.
In the morning, word came that Cuba had shut the door to incoming journalists. A team of our reporters was detained overnight before being sent back along with reporters from several other news organizations. We never saw them. Our bosses decided that two would try to go on, two would return to South Florida. Including me.
I called my Tía Sofía to break the news.
"God knows why He does things," she told me, and I am not at all sure of God's plans.
Soon, we were back at the Cancún airport, my colleagues going on to Havana, and I to Miami. I could have sworn, as the plane flew back over the Caribbean, that I saw the outline of an island in the distance. It might not have been Cuba, but it didn't matter. I pressed my hand to the window and rested my forehead against the glass, wondering if this really was as close as I would ever come.
Three dings release me from my mind's grip and bring me back to the cabin, where the hour-and-a-half flight is almost over as the plane approaches Mexican soil. Shortly, we will be landing in Cancún.
As I follow the signs toward Immigration, I make a wrong turn in the concourse and hear a voice call to me: "Oye, mi sangre my brother it's this way!"
I turn to see the man with the weathered face, smiling and waving me back the right way. He and his companions clearly have made this trip before. I follow them through the airport and to the ticket station, along a row of glass windows, where I buy my second ticket in a week bound for Havana. I pay for the nonrefundable twenty-five-dollar visa in cash that goes to the Cuban government.
I have about two hours to kill before I wait for the flight giving me time to contemplate all the scenarios that might be. But I can barely focus, for of all my luggage, what weighs the most is the thin money belt strapped tight, tight to my waist. I lock myself in a bathroom stall so I can unclip the beige nylon belt, which has left red imprints on my hips and just below my belly button. I am carrying US$9,990 in tens, twenties, and fifties. American credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. Neither are traveler's checks, and hundred-dollar bills are looked at with suspicion. The only way to pay for things is in cold, hard cash. I wonder if this is what it feels like to drive an armored car. I break up the amount, keeping some in my backpack, some in my pocket, some in my wallet, and the rest in the money belt. No one else might notice the slightest bulge that to me feels as if it is radioactive, like everyone can see it glowing from beneath my pants. I have to get it out, out of my mind before I arrive in Cuba.
Several people told me it's good to have trinkets to give out to those I meet in Cuba; it's a kind gesture. But I am confused about what I should buy. A box of toy cars in the duty-free store catches my eye, and I can imagine giving it to a little boy. I grab a handful of souvenir pens with the word "Cancún" written on them, because they serve two purposes. Since I am not supposed to be a journalist, I haven't brought any pens or paper.
When the flight to Havana is called, my insides squirm back to life. I try to listen for voices within me, for the conversation looping endlessly in my head, but find that it has gone silent. This, this is new. Instead, it is replaced by the sound of pounding, a gushing that I realize is the quickening of my heart. I don't want to let it break again. I might, after all, be stopped at Immigration in Havana. I might be turned right around, never having stood on Cuban soil. That may be the hardest frustration to bear. But it is too late. A sting tells me I have bitten one of my nails to the quick, and my hands are cold and clammy.
The forty-five-minute flight is a blur, and the plane climbs and descends before I have a chance to prepare myself.
I look out the window and I see it.
The deep blue ocean has become turquoise, a sea green blue. White sand quickly turns to lush vegetation as we fly east over the island. It looks like vast, empty farmland, and the earth is red, like the infield of a baseball diamond; it reminds me of hilly Georgia clay.
The landscape begins to change. The ground is now covered in houses and concrete. It looks like when I've flown into San José, Costa Rica, where the buildings are laid out with the natural flow of the land, not in a planned, organized grid. This is an old country, a colonial city. A place of history. And I know we have crossed into Havana.
The vegetation below opens up into a clearing, José Martí International Airport. The engines whine, the ground closes in, and I pray again as I anticipate the rumble of wheels touching down. We bounce, bounce onto the runway. We are in Cuba, I know, but the air in the cabin is still Mexican, and I wait to fill my lungs with their first breath of Cuba. The plane taxis toward a terminal, and the ground crew comes to meet us. They are dressed in olive drab fatigues. Cuban military. Immediately, I feel a stab in my stomach as the plane squeaks to a halt. We are led out of a Jetway toward Immigration, and I try to ignore the weakness in my legs, willing them forward. There are posters on a wall welcoming us to Cuba: a black-skinned girl with her hair in long pigtails jumping, a caramel-skinned young man with blue-green eyes playing the bongos. Most of the Cubans I have known in the United States are European-looking, and I wonder what my countrymen will look like, an island full of Cubans, all of us sharing the same dialect of Spanish. It is then that I see the lines and the guards. Between me and Cuban soil are immigration agents in uniform.
The rest of the airport is walled off, and two agents stand in each of about ten cubicles. A soldier in a dress uniform waves me toward one of the posts, and I can feel my roll-aboard slip in my hands from the perspiration.
I come to a counter, which separates me from a man and a woman, who look to be in their late twenties, dressed in military attire. The woman is seated at a computer terminal, and a video camera is watching me from above. A constant red light says it's alive, examining me. I can feel my heart go from beating to pounding. I wipe my hand on my khaki pants to offer the man my passport, and I smile. Try to smile, I tell myself.
He is not smiling.
Nor is she.
When he sees the blue American passport, his eyes immediately flash up at me, and I can see him going over and over my name and place of birth: Miami, Florida.
"Carlos Frías," he says, rolling the rs exaggeratedly, enunciating every syllable. "¿Hablas español?"
His distrustful eyes jump from the passport to me. Passport to me. I have debated what to say at this moment for days, and even now I am not sure how to answer. My cousin Jorge said I should just feign being American. Talk to them in English the whole time. Separate myself as much as I can from being a Miami Cuban-American.
'Sí, hablo español,' I say finally, unable to play it any way but straight.
"Why have you come to Cuba?" he asks.
I've come to get to know the country.
"To know the country?" he says, screwing up his face as if I've just told him that two plus two equals five. He looks from the passport to me. Passport to me. I scramble to fill the silence.
Well, I, um, have some distant relatives here I'd like to meet. They're in Havana, I ad-lib.
"Well, then, you're not here to know the country. You're here to know Havana," he says tersely.
Um, right, 'claro,' well then, I guess I'm here to know Havana.
He looks from the passport to me. Passport to me. He whispers something to the blond woman seated next to him. She is punching information into her computer, her café-colored eyes going over a screen I cannot see, and I wonder if they can see the blood throbbing in my neck. Is my shirt visibly moving? My God, if they search me and find all this cash, what will they say? A Cuban-American, born in the United States, coming to Cuba after the recent illness of Fidel Castro, with ten grand on him? Oh God, they'll think I'm a spy! I look at the locked door to my left and wonder if I will make it to the other side. Or whether I even want to. A part of me just wants to get back on the plane.
"And what is your occupation in the United States?" he says, looking from the passport to me. Passport to me.
Busted, my mind comes to life to tell me.
I...comment on sports.
This is it. Rubber meets the road. If he thinks I'm here as a journalist, it all falls down. I decided I would say specifically that I opine on sports, not that I'm part of a newspaper or anything that would identify me as a reporter. But if they ask pointedly, I will not lie.
"Huh," he says, staring at the passport photo and squinting at me.
"For television?" he says. Passport to me. Passport to me.
No, not for television.
"Radio?" Passport to me. Passport to me.
No, not radio.
"Then what?" He's sounding impatient.
I write...for different publications about baseball, basketball, football. All sports, really.
It takes a moment for a smile to form on his lips.
"Sounds like a pretty fun job," he says.
He grabs a stamp and Bam-bam! Bam-bam! Bam-bam! marks the visa. He knows the drill: stamp the visa, not the passport. This way, there is no evidence that I have ever visited Cuba. The pounding startles me, and the door to my left begins to buzz.
"Proceed," he says, and the door unlocks.
I made it. Have I made it? I can't think, and I try not to rush, but my mind is spinning, spinning, spinning. And now, I have to wait at a stupid luggage carousel for my bag. I feel like, at any moment, someone will call to me from the other room and say there has been...a mistake. And instead of getting out of here, I am just waiting here, waiting for a bag that won't come, and there are agents dressed in drab all around me and I can't think straight and I try to stare only at the floor. Come on, come on. My bag is among the first ones out. I grab it quickly, too quickly. Stay cool, stay cool, I tell myself, as I slow my pace and head for the exit with my mind still jumbled.
It is warm in the lobby. If there is air-conditioning, it is not running. Lines of people are waiting along a chute at Immigration, and I hear excited cheers as family members receive their relatives. They are all smiling. And I find that I, too, am smiling, despite a still-exploding heart.
But I am still too close to the many Cubans dressed in military attire moving through the terminal. I hurry to find a booth to exchange $500, and I get back 410 Cuban Convertibles after Cuba's tax. At the airport curbside, a man in a blue uniform hails a cab for me. From a row of cars, a yellow-and-black, square-looking taxi pulls up. This Russian Lada looks like the kind of car a ten-year-old would draw in art class, a generic "car" as it were. I ask the driver to take me to the Hotel Plaza in Old Havana, one suggested by a colleague because it is both a historic, renovated building and central to the city.
The Lada winds up with a nasally hum and is off. Its windows are down, and I rest my right arm on the sill as the wind musses my hair. The driver and I are both quiet as the Lada stirs a gray-beige dust down a craggy, narrow road, and I find myself trying to recognize a land I feel I should know. Yet every detail is new, and I let them paint the image. The smell of diesel fumes in the air mixes with the metallic, rich country earth. An impossibly bright sun immediately heats my bare arm, reflects off a vastness of greenery that stretches in every direction. Air thick with humidity veils me in a thin layer of perspiration as the breeze envelopes me. I close my eyes and let it blow over and through me. And then I hear the driver pop in a cassette tape. I recognize the sappy soft rock: "How can we be lovers if we can't be friends? How can we start over when the fighting never ends?..."
Is this...Michael Bolton?
Yes, he says, turning around for a second to show me his excitement through arched eyebrows. Oh, how he loves American music, he says. This stuff is nice and soft, for long drives, he says. We have a twenty- to thirty-minute haul into the city. At home, though, he prefers the Police or Van Halen or Black Sabbath he absolutely loves Ozzy Osbourne something with a little more bite.
"You should see my collection of tapes at home," he says.
But recently his tapes are getting mixed in with his teenage son's pirated recordings of hip-hop, rap, and reggaeton. He just can't get into that stuff.
"He doesn't like Ozzy, can you believe that? I don't know what's wrong with that boy," he says, glancing back through his rearview mirror, shaking his head.
As we drive east and get closer to the city of Havana, we leave the lushness of the countryside behind.
Who lives here? I ask every few minutes, trying to get a sense of the neighborhoods as we drive through, whether these are working-class or upper-class.
"Just regular folks," he says every time. "Working folks."
We drive down tight streets, dust kicking into the air, between high-rises with rusting fire escapes hanging off their walls like twisted metal fingers. The walls of the buildings are cracked, chunks of concrete missing in parts. Fissures span the height of some buildings. There are stains, black like mold and others the color of rust, weeping down the sides. Laundered clothing waves in the breeze from the fire escapes and balconies. And I realize they are all working classes here.
Traffic builds, and more and more, I'm overwhelmed by the smell of diesel. As we reach the center of Old Havana, there is an anthill of activity. Buses and Ladas and American cars from the fifties. People filling the sidewalks, crossing the streets in the midafternoon sun. We circle a park where people are gathered, sitting on concrete benches and filing past a large, white statue of the father of Cuban independence, José Martí, el poeta, "the Poet," as Cubans call him. His right arm rises into the sun, huddled masses sculpted at the base of the monument beneath him. There are a pair of hotels facing this central park, and we stop at the Plaza at one corner.
The hotel where I am staying has been painted recently. It is not like one of those back-street buildings. New speckled peach tiles have been laid around the entrance. And inside, it reminds me of an ornate home of the Old South. Tiny, pastel, octagonal tiles form intricate patterns on the floor. Fluted columns lead to an array of plaster moldings on the ceiling. It is the kind of intense, detailed work you expect to see in the Old World.
I check in at the front, and they request my passport. They want to know how long I will be staying, because each day must be paid for up front, in cash, and I start with four nights. I ride up two floors on a squeaky elevator, and the doors clank and shimmy when they open to my floor. At the end of the hall is my simple room, about ten by ten, with a bed and a pair of black painted nightstands and a television on a table across from the bed. A floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window that has cracked in places and been repaired lets in a flood of natural light. The door slams shut behind me, and it is what's missing that finally lets me exhale: noise. I flop onto the bed, rustling the well-worn pink sheets, and stare up at the fifteen-foot ceiling. I feel a buzzing in my legs, as if they are still moving, and the sound of my only thought seems to echo in the cozy room:
I made it.
I pick up the phone on the nightstand, and it immediately begins to ring. An operator answers and says I must make all my calls from the lobby. Eventually I have to call the office, my wife, my parents, and my family here in Cuba, and I know I have to be on guard. We have all heard stories about lines being tapped, and even in my calls home, I can't let slip why I am really here.
Before it all starts, before I have to refer to Castro as the "Birthday Boy" with my bosses at the office, since he will be turning eighty in four days, I just want to rest here a few more moments and breathe. Breathe the air that is cool from the air conditioner in the window. Breathe, slowly, deeply, and I can't help but smile to be breathing the air in Cuba.
By the time I step outside, the sun is a sliver on the horizon.
Yet the streets are just as full as streetlamps begin to flicker their orange sodium lights. This city moves on, unhindered by nightfall. My stomach rumbles with hunger, and I decide to walk the streets to soak up the atmosphere and find a place to eat. I walk through the park with the Martí statue. Couples sit close on the benches in the near darkness. A pair of young men whistle at a pair of girls, who don't look to be older than sixteen, walking past me on the sidewalk in tight shorts, flip-flops, and mismatched, skimpy tops. The world is as alive at night as it is by day, its scenes illuminated by pockets where people are concentrated, like pointing a flashlight in the dark. I pass a line of people, a mass really, easily five hundred bodies waiting outside a movie theater. Some are sitting on the sidewalk, some leaning up against the theater, chatting in the dark. It is a locally produced movie about the life of the Cuban singer Beny Moré, and "it's terrible," one person I ask tells me, "but it's better than sitting at home."
I follow the lights, since there are few, and they lead me to Obispo Street, a corridor beautified for tourists. The cobblestone street and buildings on either side have been repaired, repainted, and stores reopened as magnets for dollars and euros. The long corridor leads to the famous seawall of El Malecón, and I am tempted to walk its length as salsa pours from the open windows and doors of a jazz club. But I am too tired, too dizzy from hunger and the infatuating swirl of Cuban Spanish being spoken from every corner. It is like a siren's song, and I feel drunk with my new surroundings, like a million beautiful voices are speaking at once, and I am powerless to make out the words.
When I find myself back at the mouth of Obispo, in front of a restaurant called El Floridita, I know this is where I must stay. A Cuban co-worker of mine at The Post who was stationed in a bureau in Havana asked me to do one thing for her, said that she could live Cuba through me if I would just have a daiquiri at El Floridita. This is where the drink was invented, and it was also a favorite haunt of the novelist Ernest Hemingway. I cannot resist the pull of a promise and prose.
Just inside the doors, a Cuban band is playing a jazzy, Afro-Cuban riff: "Así me gusta que bailes, Marieta..." the band sings as one plays the congas, one an upright bass, and another a trumpet. The lead vocalist, a thin but curvaceous Cuban woman of burnt coffee skin, sways with the beat, singing in a smoky, melodic voice. I sit at a table across from the bar so I can bathe in the music as I eat.
Tourists fill the restaurant, and I hear Argentine Spanish spoken at one end of the bar. A table of Europeans clink cocktails to my left, and the only Cubans in here are performing or serving drinks. Rich, velvety red drapes and tapestries cover the windows and walls, and a newly upholstered bench, where I sit, stretches along the back. A life-size bronze statue of Hemingway leans up against the bar in the corner, and I snap a photo for a pair of young Argentines.
My grumbling stomach directs me to the menu expectantly, but when I open it, there are none of the dishes I expect. There are, strangely, many different kinds of pizza. No Cuban food at all. None of the typical dishes, like ropa vieja, stewed shredded beef, or arroz con pollo, the dishes Mami made for me when I was a boy, food that defines a culture.
One item, though, stands out: a Cuban sandwich. My stomach seems to sigh with relief. As a boy, when I would go to my parents' jewelry store every day in the summer, I would always order a Cuban sandwich from the corner bakery. It is the quintessential Cuban meal: a delicious blend of sweet ham, roasted pork loin, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard and mayo on soft, sweet bread, toasted in a press. But it stands out for another reason.
When a cousin of my wife's emigrated from Cuba eight years ago, they all went out that very night to a Cuban dive in Miami called Rio Crystal that makes great steak sandwiches. My brother-in-law joked that she should order a Cuban sandwich, figuring she would be sick of them. She looked at him quizzically.
"Cuban sandwich? ¿Qué es eso? What's that?" she asked.
Her whole life in Cuba, she had never eaten one. Never heard of one. This part of Cuba doesn't exist here for a regular Cuban. Ham and roasted pork are luxuries, and having them put together in this way, unimaginable. Our food and our culture, I always thought them inextricable. It was the one thing I expected to be familiar. But I am learning that the culture I know may exist only on the other side of the Florida Straits.
I order the Cuban sandwich in defiance, and I sip my daiquiri slowly as the band plays into the night on this, my first night in the land of my parents.
Copyright © 2008 by Carlos Frías