What I love most is the warmth, how it reaches in and spreads out to the tips of my fingers and toes until it feels like I'm part of the sun, like it's growing inside me. Have you ever seen the ocean turn smooth as a sheet of glass or curl upon the shore with a sigh? If you knew my country then you'd know that the sea can be many things; faithful and blue as the sky one moment and the next a shimmering turquoise so brilliant, you'd swear the sun was shinning from beneath the waves.
I often stand at the water's edge, digging my toes into the moist sand and gaze out at the ghostly gray line of the horizon that separates sea and sky. I close my eyes just a little so I can no longer be sure which is which, and I'm floating in a blue green universe. I'm a fish and then a bird. I'm a golden mermaid with long flowing hair that gets lost in the wind. With a flick of my tail I can return to the sea and explore the shores of other lands, but how can I leave this place that quiets my soul to a prayer?
Better to stay and lay on a blanket of fine white sand, gazing up at the royal palms for hours as we do. They sway in the ocean breeze, and I almost fall asleep if not for the constant chatter of my cousin, Alicia. She's hardly a year older than me, in fact for thirteen days out of the year we're exactly the same age, but for some reason she seems older and wiser. Perhaps it's because she's so sure of what she likes. She has no doubt that she prefers mango ice cream to coconut and that her favorite number is nine because nine is the age we were then and if nine were a person it would be a glamorous lady, a showgirl with long legs and swinging hips. I, on the other hand, have a hard time choosing between mango and coconut and if you throw in papaya, I'm completely overwhelmed.
Alicia squints up at the sun with eyes that are sometimes gold, sometimes green, and tells me what she sees. "Look how the palms move in the wind."
"I see them," I respond.
"They're sweeping the clouds away with their big leaves so we can look straight up to heaven and see God."
"Can you see God?" I ask.
"If I look at it just right, I can. And when I do, I ask Him for whatever I want and He'll give it to me."
I turn away from the swaying palms to study Alicia's face. Sometimes she likes to joke around and doesn't tell me the truth until she's certain she's tricked me. But I know her dimples show when she's hiding a smile. They're almost showing now.
"Tell the truth," I prod.
"I am." Then she opens her eyes as wide as she can and stares straight up at the sun and shuts them tight until tiny tears slip down her cheeks. She turns to face me, eyes sparkling and lips curled in a triumphant smile. "I just saw Him."
"What did you ask for?"
"I can't tell you or else He won't give it to me."
I too turn my face toward the sun and try to open my eyes as wide as Alicia, but I can't keep them open for even half a second, and I certainly don't see God or even the wisp of an angel's wing. I conclude that brown eyes are not as receptive to heavenly wonders as her magnificent golden eyes.
Alicia sits up suddenly and looks down at me, blocking the sun. "What did you ask for?"
"I thought you said we couldn't tell." I object, not wanting to admit I'd failed to see anything at all.
She settles back down onto the sand, while a full sun stretches over us once again. Soon we'll have to head back for our afternoon meal. These morning hours at the beach slip away so fast.
I was hoping we'd get a chance to go swimming, but we aren't allowed in past our knees without a trusted adult nearby to keep watch. Ever since a little boy drowned at Varadero beach three years ago that's been the rule, and there's no use trying to change it.
"I want to go swimming," I say.
Alicia turns to survey the ocean. We see the waves lapping the white curve of the beach and know the sea is a warm bath. We'd float easily in the calm waters and maybe even learn how to swim more like the grown-ups, moving our arms like steady and reliable windmills. And maybe our grandfather, Abuelo Antonio, undoubtedly the best swimmer in all of Cuba, will come out with us and we'll take turns venturing into deeper water while riding safely on his shoulders.
"Let's go!" Alicia cries and we spring to our feet and run as fast as we can, leaving a wake of powdery white sand floating behind us.
All of the rooms in my grandparents' large house at Varadero overlooked the sea, and the dinning room was no exception. Abuela kept the windows open most of the time as she believed fresh air to be the best defense against the many diseases she worried about. Lace curtains fluttered on the incoming ocean breeze as Abuelo said the blessing over our meal. It wasn't until he lifted his head and took up his fork that we were allowed to do the same.
I was lucky to be sitting closest to the fried bananas, my favorite, and to have Alicia right next to me. At home, our parents knew better and always separated us so we wouldn't talk and giggle when we should be learning proper table manners. It seemed that Mami was more concerned with what fork I used for the salad than with my school work.
Most of the time, Abuelo and Abuela were amused by our antics and laughed at what our parents called foolishness.
"Look at how dark you're getting," Abuela said as she handed me a large bowl of fluffy yellow rice. "People will think you're a mulatica and not the white, full-blooded Spaniard that you are." Being a full-blooded Spaniard was also a very important thing, even more important than proper manners.
I helped myself to a generous serving of rice. "Look at Alicia. She's almost as dark as me," I shot back.
"Alicia's a Spaniard through and through," Abuela said. "With those light eyes and hair, there's no mistaking her heritage. She can get as black as a ripened date, and she'll still look like a Spaniard."
At these moments, the only thing that kept me from envying Alicia for her superior coloring, was that she always came to my rescue. "I think Nora looks beautiful, like a tropical princess," she said.
"That's right, Abuela. I look like a tropical princess."
Abuelo laughed. Having been born in Spain, he was more Spanish than anyone, but he didn't care as much as Abuela about where people came from or who their parents were. And even though he never bragged, everyone knew he was a real Spaniard because of his accent and eloquent speech, so different from the brusque Cuban style. "Would the princess mind passing the plátanos before she eats them all herself?" he asked with a slight bow of his head.
Later that afternoon, after we'd had our mandatory naps, Abuelo was easily persuaded to go out to the beach and continue his swimming lessons. I promised Papi I'd learn to be a good swimmer during this week's vacation, but I hadn't progressed nearly enough to impress him.
"Too much time playing around and not enough time practicing," Abuelo declared as he stood with us on the shore wearing dark blue swim trunks and a white guayabera shirt, perfectly pressed by Abuela that morning and every morning.
Alicia and I stood on either side of him, each clasping onto one of his big hands as we gazed out at the peaceful sea. Together, we stepped into the water and felt the waves caress our feet. We ventured in further and the silky blanket swirled up to our knees and then up to our waists, but we could easily see our toes wiggling in the sand.
We stood silent and nervous, waiting for Abuelo's instructions to begin. Perhaps he'd have us float on our backs as he usually did. Maybe we'd practice kicking our feet with our heads under water while he taxied us around by our hands that grasped at him for dear life when he dared to let go. Or he'd dive into deeper water while we clung to his neck, laughing and sputtering when he came up for air. "Not so deep, Abuelo!" we'd cry, hoping he'd go a little deeper still.
Instead, he pointed to the platform that floated a hundred yards from the shore. "You see that out there?"
We were quite familiar with the platform. This was the famous place to which both of our fathers had to swim as children in order to be declared real swimmers and allowed into the ocean without adult supervision. We'd heard the stories a million times and when our parents dropped us off we bragged that by the end of the week we would've conquered the platform.
On most days older kids were on and around it, diving into the water, lifting themselves easily on to the wooden planks, and jumping off again like loud happy seals, but on this afternoon the platform bobbed about without a soul upon it. In fact, except for a couple very far off holding hands, the beach was empty. Everyone still seemed to be resting after lunch.
"Well, do you see it?" Abuelo asked again, still pointing.
I felt the butterflies begin to stir. "Yes, I see it."
I detected a slight tremor in Alicia's voice as well.
He squeezed our hands. "Today you're going to swim out there all by yourselves. Who wants to go first?"
Neither of us spoke. "What? Nobody wants to go first?" Abuelo smiled down at us and then with an exaggerated expression of concern and surprise said, "You're not afraid, are you?"
"I think I'm a little bit afraid," I said.
Alicia thrust out her chin. "I'm not. I'll go first."
"That's my girl!" Abuelo dropped my hand and held Alicia's up in the air as if she'd won a prizefight.
"Now follow me and try to move your arms like this when you kick." Abuelo circled his arms over his head and Alicia imitated him as best she could while I stood with my arms glued to my side, aware that this lesson wasn't meant for me. Abuelo pulled his guayabera up over his head and threw it onto the sand before diving smoothly into the sea with hardly a splash. Three or four strokes of his powerful arms and in no time at all he was pulling himself up on to the platform and waving for Alicia to follow.
She began with more of a belly flop than a dive, but it roused a cheer from Abuelo just the same. Her head dipped in and out of the water with jerky motions as she swam slowly, but steadily toward the platform. She tried to swing her arms over her head like Abuelo instructed, but she floundered a bit and resumed her less than graceful, but reliable dog paddle. She'd never swum this far without stopping ever in her life, but she kept going well past the point where the water turned from a light green to an ominous deeper blue. And Abuelo kept cheering her on, standing on the very edge of the platform and reaching for her even when she was too far away. Her neck craned with the strain of her effort as she neared the platform and she was barely inching forward when Abuelo reached down and pulled her up easily by both arms. She collapsed on to the platform with a thud, panting and laughing and holding her sides. Once she'd caught her breath she stood up next to Abuelo, triumphant and glistening a real swimmer.
She called out to me. "Come on, Nora. You can do it."
Abuelo turned his attention to me now that Alicia had proved herself. He wanted to be doubly proud. "Don't think about it any more. Just dive in like your cousin."
They looked so far away on that platform of champions, but I could see their smiles bursting out at me even from there. They believed in me. They knew I could do it too.
I dove in and felt the warmth that, for the first time, failed to calm my heart. My feet kicked and my cupped hands shoveled in a valiant dog paddle. Suddenly the water felt thick like jelly and it filled my ears, my nostrils, my mouth dulling my senses in an alien way. I filled my lungs with dry air in pockets and spurts between gulps of salty water as encouraging screams broke through the monotony of my labored breathing. I looked toward my goal and caught their smiles, their arms waving wildly against the bright blue sky. Momentarily blind and deaf, I tried desperately to find a rhythm for my arms and legs that would propel me forward. I had to make it. I had to prove I could do it too.
Listening for their calls, reaching for Abuelo's big hands that should be only inches away, I looked up again, but they were still waving, no closer than before. Could it be that I was actually farther away?
I pointed my toes toward the sandy bottom. If I reached it, I might push myself up and catch my breath, but the bottom was much further down than I'd thought. I knew suddenly there was no need to go forward any more, just up. Up to the sun that's a splash of watery light, up toward the birds watching me as they flew in gentle circles above my thrashing attempts to stay afloat, for even a bird would know that whatever I was doing, it wasn't swimming.
Somehow I managed to force my nose and mouth above water one last time, but the silky blanket covered my head and there was no sound, no sky, no wind, just the rush of water inside my head as I sunk deeper in the quiet blue. It was cool and dark, only bubbles, clear white bubbles spinning me around.
I awoke lying on the sand with the afternoon sun full upon me. I felt my chest rise and fall in shallow spasms, but when I tried to breathe deep I coughed up enough seawater to fill a good-sized pitcher. Abuelo's face was very close and I detected the sweet fragrance of cigar on his breath. Alicia was crouched next to him, but he held her away from me with a protective arm. Their mouths moved, but there was only silence. Finally the faint hum of their familiar voices grew into clear and understandable words.
"Nora, can you hear me?" Abuelo asked smiling, though his voice was firm as if directing me more than asking me. "Oh yes, you can hear me. She's OK now," he said to Alicia and then he chuckled nervously as he did when caught by Abuela in a white lie of some sort.
He allowed Alicia to peer in closer with instructions that she should give me room to breathe. I wanted to turn and smile and say I was fine, like I did when I fell off my skates, but I could hardly move.
"You almost drowned, Nora," Alicia said in wonderment.
Abuelo came in close again and they both dripped on me, forcing me to blink.
"Now, now, Alicia, that isn't true," he said. "I was watching her every minute. There's no way she could've drowned."
"But her hand went up like this, Abuelo," Alicia said, thrusting her hand up in the air like a claw grasping at nothing. "And she had that horrible look on her face."
"You were always safe, Norita. I would never let anything happen to you."
I tried to nod and felt my head shift in the sand, but this small movement caused their faces to start spinning, and I had to close my eyes just to settle my stomach which felt as if it was still sinking to the bottom of the sea.
In a few minutes, I felt much better and was able to sit up and look around. The world was still the same as I'd left it except that Abuelo and Alicia watched me as if I'd just hatched out of an egg or grown horns on my head.
Abuelo directed Alicia to bring me an ice-cold Coke from the house, and when she returned I drank it down. Soon I was able to stand and we sauntered back toward the house hand in hand. Just as we arrived, Abuelo reminded us that Abuela promised to welcome us back from our swim with a piece of her delicious rum cake.
"By the way, there's no reason to tell your grandmother what happened here today," he told us, "She'll only get very upset and worry for no reason."
We needed no convincing of the need for secrecy. We could well predict our grandmother's reaction, and we were quite familiar with her particular brand of worry. It was the kind that made the world stop until the worry was finished. And it usually involved complicated promises to various saints who made her cut off all her fingernails and eyelashes, or never wear lipstick again. Perhaps this time our eyelashes would be cut, and we couldn't risk the possibility of never wearing lipstick. We'd already chosen our colors for when we were old enough. At the very least, we'd never be allowed to go swimming with Abuelo again, of that much we were sure.
Copyright © 2004 by Cecilia Samartin