The Adjustment Act (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: FICTION)
In fiction, our winner is Lydia Martín for her story “The Adjustment Act.”
The fiction judge, Anthony Marra, writes, “‘The Adjustment Act’ is a flat-out triumph: richly characterized, gorgeously rendered, deeply humane. Aside from the author’s obvious talents, I was moved and impressed by the story’s focus on the humanitarian price of ideological conviction. Politics, here, is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of human suffering and hope. In the end, ‘The Adjustment Act’ is more than a work of fiction—it’s a powerful act of reality.”
Lydia Martín is an award-winning journalist and fiction writer who spent more than twenty-five years covering Miami’s growth and cultural evolution for The Miami Herald. Her column, Lunch with Lydia, debuted in 2001 and remains a fixture in the Herald’s Sunday features section. Her writing has appeared in books such as Presenting Celia Cruz (Clarkson Potter, 2004) and Louis Vuitton City Guide, Miami; in literary journals such as Fifth Wednesday Journal and Origins Literary Journal; and in magazines such as Billboard, Esquire, InStyle, Oprah, Latina (for which she also served as a contributing editor), Hispanic and Out. She has a BA in English and journalism from the University of Miami and an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College.
“Some time ago, I took a relative who was a new arrival from Cuba to a Miami clinic that handled medical exams and immunizations for immigration proceedings,” Martin says. “The man who helped us took care of all the pertinent stuff, filled out all the forms, and then gave us a little talking to, a speech he had obviously repeated many times before. The man intuited exactly what we were going through at home, dealing with a relative who had spent a lifetime in Cuba subjected to government repression, scarcity, and hunger. In Miami, our relative whispered for fear the walls had ears and would not let us throw anything away, not a scrap of leftover food, and no object that could possibly be repurposed. ‘There’s no reason to hoard empty milk jugs here. Or the plastic tubs the margarine comes in,’ the man began, as if he actually had listened in on us. I never forgot this man, the fact that he understood so well the guilt and trauma of leaving a place where people make do with so little for a place where there’s too much of everything.”
Leo Paniagua couldn’t help ogling the pork shoulders that had just come out of the oven at the food-by-the-pound place. Their skins were so expertly toasted they seemed sheathed in crunchy caramel shells. He had eaten pork for lunch. Pulled, which had sounded intriguing but turned out to mean nothing but shredded, and soggy with an anemic sauce. Leo was trying to talk himself out of pork a second time today, even this pork, slow-roasted and stabbed with garlic, oregano, cumin—when his cell phone buzzed against his thigh.
He usually knew when it was Cuba calling. The desperation managed to bounce its signal across the Florida Straits.
“Papito, nos poncharon.” It was Leo’s stepmother, Chelo, in a voice so thin she seemed to be calling from some dim forgotten reach of the planet. Not Havana, shamelessly loud and fifty-two minutes away by plane. Sometimes he could forget Havana. For pockets of stolen time, guilty little voids he created to allow himself to be in his new life, breathe his new air. Reentry always made his stomach drop.
“What do you mean you struck out?” Leo inched forward in line. “You mean you had your interview already?”
Blue Sky, Leo’s favorite place for takeout, suddenly seemed too bright. He fixed his gaze on the faux-travertine floor. But the sight of his Italian loafers, the ones he had been so thrilled to find on sale, now embarrassed him. They had too high a shine for Flagler Street, for this sticky tile littered with pastry flakes and dropped pennies and the paper worms shed from drinking straws. How could Chelo and his two sisters have been denied travel permits by the Cuban government already when their appointment at the visa office was supposed to be weeks away?
“Give me a second,” Leo said. It was his turn. He looked behind him. If he stepped away from the counter now, he’d have to wait out half a dozen orders.
He hit the mute button, though he never quite trusted it and he couldn’t have Chelo hearing what he was about to do. So he went mute himself, pointing to the cheery arroz imperial behind the sneeze guard, chicken and yellow rice layered with cheese and mayonnaise, topped with more cheese and mayonnaise. He held up two fingers for two portions, though that much arroz imperial could feed four. Then he pointed to the platanos maduros. One finger. The mariquitas. One finger. The teeny corrugated aluminum cups the flan came in were a joke. Leo could swallow a serving in three distracted spoonfuls. Two fingers.
“Sorry, mima,” he finally said, swallowing against his mouthwatering shame. “I was just leaving work. I had to lock up.” Back home, his family scammed to get enough to eat. And here was Leo, already one of those bloated Miami Cubans, dressed head to toe from the men’s department at Burdines. About to stuff himself again.
“How could they have turned you down?” he said. “It’s only the middle of June.”
“Didn’t you get the message I left the other day? We got a notice saying to appear this morning.”
“Hijos de puta,” Leo said. He grabbed a jug of orange soda and a king-size Snickers before stepping to the register. “Did they say why they wouldn’t give you the permits this time?”
“You know they don’t give reasons,” Chelo said.
“Please don’t worry, mima.” Leo tried to sound brave for the woman who raised him after his mother died. “Remember, all roads lead to Rome.”
In the four years Leo had lived in Miami, working as office manager for a private clinic that churned out medical reports for immigration proceedings, tutoring spoiled college kids in Spanish on the side, he had managed to put away almost $15,000. Enough to pay for plane tickets out of Cuba, all the legal fees and processing fees associated with getting Chelo and his sisters their green cards, plus some decent clothing, bras, panties. If they were careful on the shopping spree he had already planned out—Marshall’s, Ross, the clearance racks at Burdines followed by lunch in the Dadeland Mall food court, supposing the three could handle such a blow—there would be enough money left over to rent a bigger place for them all to live in.
Chelo and the girls would not be using the return portion of their round-trip tickets. Once they set foot in Miami they’d be golden thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gave only people from their desecrated little island the right to enter the US and stay on—whether Cuba had let them out legally or they’d had to find a way to escape.
Leo knew all the ins and outs. He earned a living processing Cubans who reached Miami by plane, boat, inner tubes tied together with clothesline. There were the two guys who had windsurfed all the way to Key West. And the couple who claimed they took their front door off its hinges and floated out to sea on top of it. They wouldn’t have been the first. However you got here, if you were Cuban, one year and one day later you were eligible for residency.
All roads lead to Rome—that was the code Leo and Chelo had agreed on, to be used when it came time to switch plans. Not that all phone lines on the island were really tapped, as Fidel had convinced generations to believe. No way could Cuba afford the wiring or the manpower to do all that listening. Leo got that, now that he was on the other side. Although sometimes, even here, even now, he found himself lowering his voice in an elevator or a car or at a friend’s dinner table.
Leo swallowed the giant Snickers on his five-minute drive home. He meant to stick it in the freezer for another day. One of his students had insisted there was nothing better than the slow melt of a rock-hard candy bar, but so far, he hadn’t been able to wait out the experiment.
All roads lead to Rome meant he would have to pay smugglers to pluck Chelo and the girls off a clump of Cuban mangroves and deliver them to Florida aboard one of those go-fast boats. The smugglers charged as much as ten grand per person. He’d have to tighten his belt and take on more tutoring right away and it would still take at least a year, likely longer, to come up with the extra money. Worse than that, too many smugglers were known to cram twenty-five or thirty people onto boats that could safely carry maybe a dozen. Plenty who made it to the US under those conditions told tales of captains forcing people at gunpoint to jump into thrashing seas, as soon as their vessels started taking on too much water.
Leo pulled up to the tiny cottage he rented in West Miami, behind a minimalist white-on-white ranch house with five or six bedrooms and a fastidiously maintained swimming pool no one ever used. He rarely saw the husband-and-wife lawyers who were his landlords, or their twin teenaged daughters. He never heard them either. Or the people next door. Or the ones across the street. It was as if all the houses in the neighborhood were nothing but props. Havana, compact and boisterous, kept nobody’s secrets. The closeness of all those colonial buildings, coupled with the fact that windows remained open day and night to let in the breeze, meant that lives rubbed up against one another. You heard people fighting. You heard them fucking. Here in West Miami, there was sepulchral silence.
Leo sat in the driveway, watching a fat lizard puffing out its red neck while clinging to the side of a tall fence dressed in bougainvillea. Miami Pink, the next-door neighbor said this variety was called. It was the one time they had exchanged any words at all. It was good here inside his climate-controlled cocoon. When he’d driven this Jeep Cherokee, Gunpowder Gray, off the used-car lot some months back, all he could think about was Chelo and his sisters and how they’d delight in the power windows, the black leather seats that still gave off the smell of a new baseball glove. Leo couldn’t budge from behind the wheel. Couldn’t escape the insipid Enrique Iglesias ballad the salsa station was blasting. Couldn’t stop picturing his cousin Carlitos, pieces of Carlitos, suspended in the briny darkness that separated Cuba from the southernmost stretch of la Yuma.
Carlitos and two buddies had died trying to cross the Florida Straits not so long ago, flung from a raft by a wave and sucked under, according to the one guy who’d managed to land on an empty beach somewhere in the Keys. Did Carlitos fight to resurface? Or did he go limp, opening his mouth and swallowing the ocean before it could swallow him, before the sharks could tear him apart?
Leo lunged for the mariquitas in the takeout sack buckled into the passenger seat. At least there were no neighbors around to watch him like this, a flabby marica scarfing fistfuls of mariquitas. The crumbs snowed down on his shirt, his tie, his pants, the gearshift console, the carpeting he had just gotten shampooed. Now he’d have to get up extra early to vacuum the Jeep in the daylight.
By morning he had forgotten about cleaning up his mess. He was too busy kicking himself for eating all the arroz imperial and passing out in front of the TV instead of meeting los muchachos at the leather bar on South Beach. Leather wasn’t his thing, but it was still a good laugh. The gay boys in America had to put on costumes before they could pair off to fuck.
Leo had met a couple of regular guys at parties thrown by members of his old Havana crew. But they hadn’t been worth more than a few lost nights, and it was just as well. Relationships that could potentially exist out of bed cost money. There were expensive dinners to buy, good wines to bring over, weekend getaways to put on the MasterCard. He had to think of Chelo and his sisters first.
He was still regretting the arroz imperial when he pulled up to his office fifteen minutes late, wearing Casual Friday khakis and too much cologne, a box of warm pastelitos under his arm. He found two women waiting at his desk. They had an air of Saks Fifth Avenue about them and the neutral speaking voices of Cubans who had lived more of their lives here than there.
“Who are you ladies here for?”
“It’s my uncle,” the younger woman said in the irked tone Leo was used to hearing all day at work. “He’s out in the parking lot. Working up a nice sweat. No matter where we take him, he says the air-conditioning is too cold.”
“Pobrecito,” Leo said.
“There must be a dozen empty soda jugs in his bedroom right now,” said the older woman. “He says in Cuba people tied them to homemade motorbikes for gas tanks. Does he think he’s going to build one of those here? He saves banana peels, chicken bones, egg shells. He says he’s composting. I live in a condo, just so you understand. He keeps plastic bags of rotting garbage on the kitchen counter.”
Leo opened the box of pastelitos and pushed it toward the women. He asked one of the secretaries to brew espresso and call the man outside. Once they got Tio Panchín settled in his seat, Leo explained about the medical exams required before he could get his residency—blood work, chest X-ray, TB skin test, immunology report—and he filled out all the forms. Then he came out from behind his desk and pulled up a folding chair. It wasn’t in his job description, but Leo considered it a moral duty to help new arrivals deal with the shock of capitalism and, worse, having an American family.
He kept a yellow pad with talking points, and every now and then, he’d add one more piece of advice to his list. Just the day before, he had added, Let Your Family Throw Away Old Disposable Lighters. In Cuba, if you could get your hands on one, you figured out a way to refill it.
Leo went down his list. “There’s no reason to hoard empty milk jugs here. Or the plastic tubs the butter comes in. Or newspapers—toilet paper is easy to come by. Also, you might see appliances in garbage piles. Don’t pick them up.”
In Cuba, necessity bred generations of super tinkerers. But just because you knew how to take apart an old toaster and use some of the innards to revive a dead blender didn’t mean you should keep a morgue of broken appliances here.
“You have to let your family throw out even the washing machine when it breaks down,” Leo told Panchín. “Here, things like that can cost more to fix than to replace.”
Panchín wore a flannel shirt though it was 90 degrees outside, and he stared back with dull eyes, his hands tucked in his armpits for warmth. Leo knew that dazed look. It was the look he’d worn his first few months in America.
“You know the biggest difference between Cuba and Miami?” This was Leo’s favorite part. “Here, you can stand on any street corner and shout, ‘Me cago en el maricón de Bill Clinton!’ Nothing happens. In Cuba, you’d go to jail—after a good beating. Ahora, it’s also true that here you can stand on that same street corner and scream for help. ‘Socorro! Socorro!’ Still nothing happens. Everybody is deaf. In Cuba, the whole block would come to your rescue, at least pa’ estar en el chisme. We Cubans love to gossip. No es verdad?”
Leo leaned in and put a hand on Panchín’s knee. “Pero papo, you’re here now. You have to let your sister throw out whatever she wants to throw out. Even perfectly good leftovers. There’s always something new to eat tomorrow. And you can’t send to the people you left behind that little bit of garbanzos.”
Leo tugged at the polo shirt that strained across his gut. He had put on forty pounds since leaving Cuba in 1994, during the so-called Special Period. Food rationing under Fidel had always been crushing, but by the start of 1992, when the Soviet Union disbanded and stopped playing daddy, the whole island teetered toward famine. There were severe shortages of all kinds, which prompted the government to issue an absurd manual filled with instructions on how to turn grapefruit rinds into “beefsteaks,” how to make brake fluid from the higuereta plant. A razor could be made by rubbing a rock against the edge of a metal nail file. Hospital workers could make ultrasound gel out of aloe leaves they clipped themselves. A baseball could be fashioned out of a hunk of old rubber. You just heated it enough to make it malleable, then shaped it by hand until it was as round as you could make it, wrapped it in string, covered it in any scrap of leather or cloth, and stitched it shut.
Leo wished he still had a copy. He’d sell it on Ebay one day for real money. But Con Nuestros Propios Esfuerzos only institutionalized the resourcefulness of the Cubans under Castro. Long before the Special Period, Leo had already helped his parents make soap out of lard and coconut meat, toothpaste out of ground green plantains and baking soda. He watched his grandfather, skeletal and sucking for air, build his grandmother a stove out of scrap metal and brick. The old man died of emphysema a week after he finished it.
There were a few things the 300-page manual didn’t teach. But Cubans had always been self-starters. Suddenly, cats disappeared from the streets. It turned out they tasted like rabbit. And while killing a cow could get you hard time, what few scraggy specimens survived suddenly were missing their tails — Cubans loved their rabo encendido. To be kept alive and not be able to swat the goddamn flies off your own ass seemed to Leo like a particularly barbaric byproduct of the revolution.
Leo wouldn’t eat the grapefruit rinds, much less the feline fricassees. But he did choke down his share of stringy old horse, pilfered from the hyenas at the Havana zoo by an uncle who worked there as a groundskeeper. He and the guy who fed them were in cahoots to smuggle out that tantalizingly dark meat with the lawn clippings. The hyenas knew. They’d start their nervous cackling the minute they saw either man pass their enclosure.
At home, Chelo made horse picadillo, horse croquetas, horse con papas—when she could find the papas. Soon, Leo and the other men in the family started walking funny: always hunched over, their hands in their pockets, their shirts untucked, whatever it took to hide random erections. A biochemist at the University of Havana—where Leo taught Spanish Modernist literature and worked on finishing his dissertation — explained the problem, in a whisper in case his classroom was bugged.
“Mira chico, it’s always the work horses and the race horses that go to slaughter. They were pumped full of steroids their whole lives and you’re ingesting all of that. Anyway, horse meat has twice as much iron as beef. And do you know what they give people with erectile dysfunction? Iron, mi socio. You need to cut down on the caballo, and send a little my way. My wife is always hungry.”
A few weeks after this lecture, Leo was asked to represent Cuba at a Pablo Neruda conference in Mexico. Neruda was hardly his specialty, but the guy who should have gone was in jail for buying black-market ethanol stolen out of the pharmacology lab. It made the safest moonshine — a ludicrous necessity in the land of rum, but Cuba’s rum was not for Cubans.
“Of course you’re going,” Chelo insisted when Leo tried to back out of the conference. “And don’t you dare come back.”
Leo’s mother, Amparo, died when he was 10. She had strolled to the bodega one clear morning in winter praying there would be a broom to buy, although she doubted there were any left. Just a couple of years into the revolution, there was already no toilet paper, no milk, no meat, no antibiotics. Someone had swiped her broom from her front porch, where she left it to dry every morning after scrubbing down the house’s rowdy floral tiles. Not even an old wet broom was safe in Havana anymore, Amparo said to Leo’s father as she walked out the door, tucking her coin purse inside her bra.
But she was in luck: there was one broom left at the store. While she waited to pay, she angled it to rest her chin on the wooden handle. Then someone shoved someone else over the honor of a fifteen-year-old girl whose ass had just been pinched. In the scuffle, an old woman cradling a few skinny malangas fell hard into Amparo from behind. The broomstick ripped through her throat, shredding her esophagus, and blood spouted from her mouth like water from a fountain.
Two years later, Ramón married Chelo, and by 1969, seeing that the shortages were escalating and more and more civilians were disappearing from their neighborhood and resurfacing in front of firing squads, he convinced her it was time for them and Leo and their two little girls to leave the country. They didn’t get permission until a year later, as Leo was turning eighteen. No male was allowed to leave Communist Cuba once he reached military age, and as desperate as Chelo was to get out, she wasn’t going to leave without him, no matter how much Ramón begged her to think about their girls.
“The whole family goes or nobody goes,” Chelo kept repeating as if it was one more revolutionary slogan.
Ramón died a couple of years before Leo got the invitation to Mexico, his liver eaten through by homemade aguardiente. With him gone, Leo couldn’t abandon Chelo and his sisters, not after everything they had given up for him.
“You have to go. You can help us more from the outside,” Chelo said until he agreed to get on the plane.
Leo felt as if he was dreaming for the five days he spent in Mexico City with all those scholars speaking Spanish in all those different accents. More surreal were the hotel’s unlimited buffets, the unblinking electrical power, the water that rushed out the bathroom faucet every time he turned the handle.
His old boyfriend Osvaldo wired him money from Miami. After the conference, he hopped a series of buses north to Matamoros. Then he calmly walked over the bridge into Brownsville, wearing a sweat-soaked dress shirt, the conference credentials still clipped to his breast pocket. On the American side he flashed his Cuban passport and asked for asylum.
Someday, somewhere-anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life. That line from Neruda stuck in Leo’s head while he sat in a chilly holding room at the border patrol station, waiting for transport to a detention center from which he knew, being Cuban, he’d quickly be released. But the Chilean master hadn’t gotten it entirely right: sometimes, the happiest hour could be the most bitter. Leo spent three nights in detention and his fourth in a freezing motel room with a damp bed and a view of the Golden Arches. He counted the cash he had left: forty-eight dollars and change. In the morning, Osvaldo would be wiring more money for the bus ride to Miami.
“You’re finally free, papito,” he had told Leo over the phone. “Go somewhere tonight and eat a steak.’’
But there was no resisting the pull of a first real hamburger. Leo crossed the highway to McDonalds and his first sight of the giant glowing menu board: Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, Double Quarter Pounders. Something called a Happy Meal. He hung back to study the people who streamed in and out, all of them in a terrible hurry. He watched baskets of fries plunging into clean bubbling oil, coming back up moments later to be salted and bagged. He watched naked buns getting slapped with perfect brown circles of meat, then squares of something that was probably cheese, then the ketchup, mustard, onions, pickles. He stood there so long, not approaching the counter and not leaving, mesmerized by this most American of assembly lines, that a teenager walked up and handed him a crisp white bag.
“In case you’re hungry,” the Mexican-looking boy said in Spanish, and walked off without waiting for a thank you.
Leo could barely get that first Big Mac down for the lump in his throat. To enjoy it while his family went without would be a crime. To toss even a morsel of it in the garbage, even worse. He chewed slowly, watery eyes watching through clean glass as kids climbed over the statue of a clown at the edge of a playground filled with slides and swings.
He had been in Miami a couple of months before he got in touch with his hunger again, a hunger that was worse than anything he had endured in Cuba. There, he had experienced the true gnawing of an empty stomach, but that sort of pain could be calmed by a bowl of rice flavored with a black-market bouillon cube. He could swallow a glass of water muddy with brown sugar and forget about food for hours at a time. Here, he supersized every meal and still he was famished.
Osvaldo’s cousin Alejo was gutting grouper when Leo arrived at the Key Largo marina where he kept three ratty shrimping boats.
“I was never a drug runner, but in the old days, the occasional bale of something else got tangled up in my nets,” he said to Leo, and the diamond in his left ear glinted. “Now I’m risking real jail time. But I got my wife’s sister out of Cuba on a fast boat. Hadn’t seen her in twenty-seven years. And she was 90 miles away the whole time. Fucking Castro.”
For a perilous few hours at sea, Alejo and his partner could make $100,000, and sometimes twice that—depending on how many bodies they crammed onto their speedboat and how much money they could get Miami relatives to pay.
Top Gun, their sleek white 36-footer, was supposed to be just a weekend toy. But with its quad outboard motors, black behemoths so glossy Leo could have used them as shaving mirrors, the thing looked more like it was outfitted for war. In between smuggling trips, Alejo took a little poling skiff to hunt around the upper Keys for shallow-water grouper. Today he had brought in half a dozen of them.
“Mangos bajitos,” Alejo said as he filleted the last of them. Low-hanging fruit.
Leo had wanted to see for himself if the Top Gun and its captain seemed seaworthy enough to get his family out of Cuban waters and deliver them safely to Florida. But now that he was standing here, hands in the back pockets of his pressed linen shorts, he realized he was clueless about such things.
“Zero to plane in three or four seconds,” Alejo said. He pulled his blood-soaked T-shirt over his head and used the slow trickle from a hose to wash off his arms, his chest, his gut. He pulled a dry T-shirt out of a dock box, and two bottles of Miller from the cooler beside it. “You know how many times I’ve outrun the Coast Guard with that beast?”
“Don’t they recognize it by now?” Leo rinsed his bottle of beer with the hose to get some of the fish smell off of it.
“Right now she’s the Top Gun and she runs on four Mercuries. Sometimes she goes by Wet Nurse or Lickety Split or some other gringo name, maybe she’s a different color, and she’s on triple Yamahas. I have a guy who fixes the papers.”
Alejo had already agreed to charge Leo only $8,500 per head, since Leo was almost family, one of his cousin’s closest friends from Havana.
“I keep a little place nearby. And a woman who’ll be happy to make us some grouper steaks and tostones. Just don’t tell my wife in Miami about her.” Alejo slapped Leo on the back. “You like fried fish roe?”
Osvaldo had agreed to meet Leo at the marina and leave one car parked there overnight while they drove down to Key West to check out the legendary gay club they had heard about when they were just kids. But first there was an impromptu comelata at Alejo’s.
“Bring better beer,” Leo said to Osvaldo as he followed Alejo’s BMW to a shabby little cottage on stilts.
Leo’s mouth was burning from the hot sauce he’d sprinkled over too many flour-dredged roe sacs, but the texture of those membranous things when they exploded on the tongue—like the tiniest candy sprinkles, only briny—was addictive. Only when he heard the crunching of Osvaldo’s tires on the gravel below, did he remember why he was here.
“Mira, what I need to know is—have you lost anybody out there?” The fatty taste of the fish eggs suddenly came back up. He swallowed the last of his beer, warm and metallic.
“I watched a guy throw himself into the sea and instantly get torn up by sharks,” Alejo said. “Sometimes you get to a raft that’s in trouble and somebody on it is already hallucinating. You approach to help, but they think your boat’s some kind of animal bearing down, or who knows what, and they jump.”
Osvaldo passed around stubby bottles of Negra Modelo. He handed Alejo’s mistress the Key lime pie he had picked up at a diner somewhere around mile marker 99. She stuck a thumb in the whipped cream and made a show of licking it off.
Chelo would take one look at her and call her a guaricandilla, worse than a puta. Her bleached hair was black at the roots, and she wore Spandex shorts and a baja y chupa, which is what tube tops were called in Cuba, because they allow an interested party to easily yank and suck. When she set the platter of grouper steaks on the table, she pressed balloon tits Alejo must have paid for against Leo’s arm. She was barefoot and wore a gold anklet with a pearl dangling off of it, and in her right ear, a big diamond that matched Alejo’s.
Leo was overcome by the richness of the fish eggs, by all the beers, by the heat coming off the stove. He felt his cheeks burn. What were Chelo and the girls eating for dinner tonight?
“I was asking if anybody on your own fucking boat ever died at sea,” he said to Alejo. “If you ever fucking tossed anybody overboard to save your own skin.”
“The weather can turn on you in no time.” Alejo got up from the table. “I was chased by the Coast Guard for five hours once, en un oleaje de pinga. They got close enough to try shooting at my motors. But here I am.”
“You’re not answering my question,” Leo said, his face getting redder.
“Coño, Leo,” Osvaldo said.
“There was a little boy. Slipped out of his father’s arms like a wet beach ball. It was one of the worst storms I’d ever seen. The sky turned solid black and it was noon.” Alejo poured himself a shot of Pinch, then brought the bottle to the table and put it down in front of Leo.
“Another time, the Coast Guard was after us and we were slapping water. One of the women onboard got banged around. Split her head open on something. Her own sister helped toss her body into the sea. If we had been intercepted, the twenty-six people onboard would have been repatriated. All those lives would have been over. Mine too.”
Leo and Osvaldo didn’t say a word to each other on the two-hour drive to Key West. Now they were pulling into the Hibiscus Inn, the guesthouse where they were going to spend the night, in separate beds.
“I’m starving,” Osvaldo said. “If you hadn’t made us run out of there, at least we would have eaten dinner.”
“Your cousin’s a scumbag.”
“He’s a smuggler,” Osvaldo said “Of course he’s a scumbag. But he’s the scumbag we know. And his boat has to be safer than the thing I came on.”
Was it already eight years ago that Osvaldo stole the one inflatable boat with an outboard motor that the whole marine biology department shared for research projects?
They ate raw oysters and fried conch sandwiches at the first tourist trap they found and then walked up and down Duval Street, melted rum runners in hand, searching for the famous Copa.
“There was a fire about three years ago,” a cop said.
The place was called Epoch now, and it was full of straight sunburned tourists. Where were the drag queens, the TVs in the upstairs bar that used to play gay porn, the foam cannons shooting thick suds onto the dance floor, until hundreds of gay boys in tiny shorts, or less, were waist-deep in the stuff, everybody groping to the beat of house music?
When they returned to the Hibiscus, they found the pool brimming with naked men. Some floated face-up on pink inflatable rafts while others stood in chest-deep water, pushing the rafts around. Osvaldo and Leo poured themselves vodkas at the tiki bar. From their tall stools, they had a good view of the proceedings.
“Should we go in the water?” Osvaldo said as he unbuttoned his shirt.
“You’re crazy.” Leo was working on a mouthful of bar peanuts. “Look at those guys. They must spend all day in the gym.”
“I’m going in,” Osvaldo said. In his late forties, he remained as trim and strong as he was when he used to scuba-dive to study his coral. He was such a vision in a wetsuit, his blue eyes still shimmering behind his mask and his bushy black mustache dripping water when he surfaced. But Leo had figured out, long ago, that the spark between them would never translate into hot sex, let alone anything more.
“I think I’ll go for a walk,” Leo said. It was nippy for fall in the tropics, and a silvery moon lit up all the night-blooming ylang-ylang that grew on this block. Their too sweet perfume was making Leo queasy, so he jumped into his Jeep.
He cruised past historic wood-frame houses with tin roofs and white gingerbread scrollwork that made them all look like frosted cakes. Just eighty-one nautical miles to the south, Chelo would be asleep now, in the carved mahogany bed that used to be his mother’s, and before that, his grandmother’s. The girls were probably just coming home from dates. “Don’t get attached to anybody. Y por dios, don’t get pregnant,” Leo had warned them both awhile back.
Leo imagined the Overseas Highway that connected the Keys suddenly stretching all the way to Havana. He’d be pulling up to his old house in about ninety minutes. He wouldn’t even need to stop for gas, that’s how close his other life was. Leo switched the radio to AM. Cuba was supposed to come in clearly here, especially late at night.
Tick, tick, tick, tick. Radio Reloj. La hora exacta en la Habana, Cuba: Una y veintiséis minutos. For decades, Radio Reloj had been delivering the news in sixty-second increments, stopping every minute to give the time and station identification. Leo used to tune in whenever he couldn’t sleep. There was no believing the government-controlled news that droned twenty-four hours a day, but the station’s ticking metronome, always in the background, had worked on him like a drug from the time he was a kid.
Now that ticking followed him through the quiet streets of Key West. Maybe Chelo and his sisters needed to stay put for a while longer. He could come up with excuses, tell them he hadn’t been able to save enough money yet to get them on a boat. He could keep sending a little cash every month to ensure they got enough to eat and could occasionally buy a needed pair of shoes, or Lord knows what, on the ludicrously overpriced black market. At least they wouldn’t risk drowning, or getting repatriated and thrown in prison for attempting to escape the bigger prison that was Cuba.
But Chelo and his sisters understood all the risks. “Del cobarde nunca se ha escrito nada,” Chelo had said by phone the other day. Nothing has ever been written of cowards. It was Leo who lacked the necessary cojones.
La hora en la Habana, Cuba. Una y treinta y siete minutos.
The sea was littered with the remains of countless Cubans. But truth was, countless others had gotten to Florida aboard the flimsiest homemade vessels. If Chelo and his sisters got lucky, they’d fly here across a glassy sea, the skies above them as benevolent as they could be. Leo could eat a leisurely lunch somewhere in Key West, and by the time he was finishing dessert and coffee, they’d be close to shore. If you touched land and you were Cuban, you were home free.
He could study weather patterns, help Alejo predict the best possible day to shove off. The man wasn’t so smart. What kind of idiot volunteers all those details about changing the boat’s appearance? Worse, he had admitted to what amounted to murder. Why would Alejo trust Leo, who in the end was nothing but a stranger? What if Leo decided to turn him in? But he had pressed for details, and Alejo had enough balls to tell the story straight.
La hora en la Habana, Cuba. Una y cincuenta y dos minutos.
Leo spotted an all-night pizza joint. He stopped to order a large pie, with sausage and green pepper. It wasn’t his favorite, but it was Osvaldo’s, who’d be ravenous soon. While he waited for the pizza, he went next door to the liquor store that was still open too, and he bought a bottle of Pinch in a shiny holiday box. He’d drop it off at Alejo’s tomorrow on the way back to Miami.