1. “Where is your husband?” That’s the third question the immigration officer asks me during a secondary inspection upon our arrival.
I imagine he has our story–mine, Francisco’s, and Mariel’s–all spun out in his head. “En Nueva York,” I say, keeping it simple. What does Francisco do and why isn’t he traveling with us, and why would I come to Cuba without him, and…. “It’s a long story,” I tell him, “but if you have the time, I’m happy to tell it.”
“Have a good day.”
2. The door swings open and we are pushing through a swarm of people who’ve barely left a footpath for those of us arriving. At the end of them all is Brayan. Later, Mom tells me that he was squatting down, level with Mariel’s face, and that he had the most incredible look of wonder. I don’t remember this; I just remember people, pressing in on all sides. That and the screams- Mariel’s guttural, primal, undulating screams that lasted the entire taxi ride to Centro Habana. He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t cough, he couldn’t look at her. Later, he told me it made his heart hurt. And much later, he would forget the hurt because she would say “Brayan” so clearly that everyone in the house snapped their heads to attention and said “Se lo dijo clarito!” She said it so clearly.
3. It’s not easy, I think, to be a mother in Havana. It is dirty and it is hot and the streets and sidewalks are shitty, especially for strollers, even the ones that look like a hybrid of a Soviet style pram and a sport utility vehicle, the ones with wheels the size of salad plates. “I wish we could trade,” Brayan hears one woman say under her breath as our strollers pass one another. Formula, if you need it, is expensive. So are diapers. Karla is amazed that I just throw Mariel’s culeros away. “Mothers here,” she tells me, “wash the diaper, dry it out, and use it again.” I’m embarrassed that a diaper is a luxury.
4. Mariel warms to Brayan, and quickly. I take dozens of photos of her on his shoulders, of her as she falls asleep with her head tucked into his neck. I know other people will look at the photos and think “They’re all the same. Why so many of these?”, but they document a relationship that is in the process of becoming. And I don’t really care what anyone thinks.
5. People stop in the street to look at her. Men throw her kisses. Women say “Que Dios la bendiga”- May God bless her. People ask “hembra o varon?” because she doesn’t have her ears pierced. People say “Es una bolita!” She’s a little ball. They say “Que piernazas!” What legs!
6. I get lots of advice. “She should cut back on the milk and be eating solid food. My Carlitos was five months and had no teeth and he was eating meat!” says Maribel. Without asking, she pulls tender chicken off the bone, putting strips in Mariel’s mouth.
7. A conversation with female in-laws: “Will you have another baby?” “When?” “No, one is enough. With two, things get complicated.” “She should have another one. No baby should grow up alone.” They all have an answer and they don’t care what mine is.
8. There are firsts. The meat eating, the toddling, the words. But when Francisco calls, I don’t know what to say. I want to tell him and I don’t. I want him to be here, but he can’t.
9. Brayan takes us to the airport and stays a while, even though it will cost more money than he probably has to get back to Havana. I put all the bills we’ve got left in a tight wad, and press it into his hand. We drink shots of espresso and he plays with Mariel while my mom wonders aloud whether we should get in the line to check-in already. When Brayan says “You should go,” we do. He stands on the other side of the line and waves good-bye and smiles. I put Mariel on my shoulders so she can see him, and when I turn around, he is gone. It’s useless, my attempt to hold back the tears. I am crying for many reasons: the imagined memory of Francisco leaving him behind when he was the age Mariel is now. His incredible tenderness, his ability to be open and to love, to be free of envy, to be present. My memories of past trips- the first time we met, when I was so blown away by his and Francisco’s similarities. The time we sat on the roof and talked for hours. My anxiety and excitement about his future. My penas for the hard times he’s lived through. And then, that Mariel may never see him in Havana again.
10. On the plane, I have a middle seat. The woman to my right doesn’t like kids. I can tell. I’m settling in, trying to get Mariel adjusted, to stuff my carry-on under the seat and she tugs on her seatbelt. “Excuse me, but that’s mine,” she says, as if an airplane seatbelt is something worth possessing. She is not Cuban. She sits there importantly, editing an agenda for an academic conference, making notes with facile exasperation, which is emphasized when Mariel fidgets or makes noise. When the woman to my left says something, she touches my arm and calls me “Hijita.” “I don’t know how someone couldn’t like her,” she says, referring to Mariel and cocking her head toward our other seatmate. “That’s not the way things are in Cuba.”