"Worms like Us,"
is it? I yelled, reluctantly dragging myself up the steps that led to our
do you want? I demanded as I yanked
the door open. I had been playing at my best friend’s house across
when my mother’s voice, calling from our balcony, had shot through
forcing me to abandon our game and race home.
My little sister looked at me expectantly but didn’t say a word. A feeling of dread overcame me, and I began to search my mother’s face for clues. Years of studying her face had made me an expert at deciphering her moods. With a quick glance at her mouth or her brow, I could tell what kind of day awaited us. A frown by itself was a sign of boredom or tiredness; a frown accompanied by squinting eyes spelled anger and warned of consequences for misbehaving. An unlined brow, and sometimes even sparkling eyes, meant a respite from her relentless pessimism or her sadness. On the days of the sparkling eyes,
I could expect any surprise from my mother: a dead mouse floating in a pail of water, a warm rice pudding, a new blouse stitched together from the remnants she had saved from her work as a seamstress, or the promise that, come 7:00 P.M., I would be allowed to watch my favorite television show at a neighbor’s house.
Today was different, though. Today, she seemed happy. Her round face, framed by shiny black hair, was open and warm, soft and glowing with the luminosity of an antique white satin wedding gown. Her slightly slanted dark brown eyes sparkled. She didn’t even seem to have registered my alarmed tone. Oh, no! I thought, we got our exit papers. And my heart sank, because in the summer of 1974, when I was ten, nothing would have lifted my parents’ heart—and broken mine—more than receiving authorization to emigrate to the United States.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that my family’s most cherished aspiration was to someday, somehow leave Cuba, as most of the people we knew had already done. My earliest memories are not of making friends but of losing them to the United States. All my parents’ friends and many of our relatives had left by the time I was six. We would take a walk in the neighborhood, and suddenly my mother would notice the telltale official yellow piece of paper sealing shut someone’s main door, and just like that she would know she’d lost another friend—and, by extension, so had I. Marcelo and Mery and their two girls, the family downstairs, left first. Mery used to cut my mother’s hair; Marcelo, my father’s.
Then it was Gladys and Ñico from around the corner. Gladys was my mother’s second cousin; her oldest daughter was my friend and classmate. Later it was Alicia and Miguel’s turn. They lived just a block away and were my parents’ best friends. Their sprawling, book-filled house was a magnet of interesting, fun people who on many evenings had made my mother laugh and my father forget his life for a while.
Eventually my parents, my sister, and I would sit to plan our weekend and realize that we had no one to visit anymore. My mother started listening to radio soap operas to fill the silence of her days. My father preferred to stay home, spending an entire Sunday afternoon shining our shoes. I began to befriend the elderly people in the neighborhood, the ones I thought were too old ever to leave. I spent hours at the dark Colonial-style home of five sisters, old maids, who were fond of saying they wanted to be buried in Cuba. I figured that unless they got sick and suddenly died, their burial plans granted a certain longevity to our relationship.
After a while wanting to leave became a way of life. It meant that my father scanned the paper for news of conflicts with other countries, calculating which enemy nation would be most likely to welcome fleeing Cuban refugees. My sister and I rarely got to wear our nicest outfits, because my mother saved them, pressed and covered in plastic, so we could look elegant upon landing in Madrid, which was the plan for a while, or New York, which was always the dream. As we got older, she stopped doing that and instead saved the thickest fabrics she could