Tree of Life Review



AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Questioning The Maitreya Project by Jessica Falcone

COLUMN: Storiedmusic — The Night I Walked Out by DJ T’challah

NOVEL EXCERPT: In a State of Partition by Aneesha Capur

UP THE CREEK: Editor’s Notes — Art, Yoga, and Abu Ghraib

Orlando’s House

My sister Alicia takes out a small stack of old photographs. They are glossy enlargements and Havana’s humidity has curled their edges. Alicia has been waiting twenty-four years for me to come visit this island and identify the people her mother, my father’s ex-wife, never talks about.

“Do you know whose faces these are?” Alicia asks. “Are they related to us?” They are; I recognize them immediately.

“ÁSí! These are pictures of Yolanda and Nibardo’s wedding.” I begin to point everyone out, starting with the bride in her fifties style balloon-sleeved, white dress. Yolanda married my paternal grandmother’s youngest brother and emigrated to the United States with him. A widow in her seventies now, she is the closest relative I regularly had contact with on my father’s side until I came to Cuba. I have seen her wedding pictures dozens of times at her house in Union City, New Jersey, always relishing every detail she could provide about the family she married into.

“Look, this is Maga, Yolanda’s sister, and these are her daughters...” We have no blood in common, but I claim Maga and her extended clan as aunts and cousins. Oddly, I know them so much better than I know my own sister, who was raised in Cuba and doesn’t have any connection to them at all.

“And here’s Papi, all the way in the back.” He is no older than twenty in this picture, well before the Revolution and his own marriages to Margarita, Alicia’s mother, then Maria Luisa, my mother.

“Oh, you’re right, he looks so much like Jaime!” Alicia exclaims. I smile; he looks a little bit like Alex, too. Is that strong resemblance between my father and my brothers why I thought that I would look more like Alicia, too? I look up from the picture and at Alicia’s eyes. They are my father’s eyes, but not mine, smaller and one shade lighter than what I see stare back at me in the mirror every day. Our eyes are brown, but where mine are like liquid chocolate, hers are like stirred dark tea. She meets my stare and says,

“¿Sabes? We should go see Orlando while you are here. I’m sure he would want to meet you.”

“I’m the one who wants to meet him.” Orlando is our great uncle, our grandmother’s last remaining sibling, and perhaps the only person still around who witnessed all the family history I have come to Cuba in search of. He calls my father regularly, but I have never spoken with him directly. I came close just once, during the summer of 1994 when balseros were arriving on Miami’s shores en masse. I was eighteen and picked up the phone when my father was not home to hear the operator announce,

“De Cuba, el Señor Orlando Barrios.”

“¿Quién es?” I mouthed “Cuba” to my mother and she told me not to accept the charges, but I wanted to take it anyway, steal some piece of the country my parents left behind through the phone waves. I wanted to ask Orlando about all the secrets that seemed to hang on the walls in our home, things that could never be mentioned or understood. Even Orlando himself was shrouded in mystery. All I knew was his name.

My mother saw my hesitation and yanked the phone out of my hand.

“No está,” she said and hung up. The disappointment hit me in the middle of my chest.

“¿Tú estás loca? Do you know what a call from Cuba costs? Don’t you ever think of taking one when your father isn’t home.”

“But what if it was important?” I asked. In the back of my mind was a fear, the fear that this call could have been the one to announce that someone in the family had thrown him or herself on a balsa raft and was rocking somewhere in the Florida straits. That summer, El Nuevo Herald listed the names of people picked up by the Coast Guard every day and for weeks during a visit to my cousins in Miami, we pored over them at my aunt’s kitchen table.

“Olvídalo.” She commanded me to forget it, but I couldn’t. Here I am five years later, and I have the same questions stuck in my throat that I did then.

“Let’s go as soon as possible,” I say to Alicia.

Alicia’s friend Diego brings his car over early. Orlando’s house is in the distant neighborhood of El Sevillano. We’ve barely pulled away from the curb when a woman runs towards us, waving her arms wildly. Something about her face tells me she is different than the people who approach us in Diego’s car regularly for a free ride here or there.

“ Señor, señor, por favor... He has to get to the policlínica right away.” She grabs on to Diego’s window with one hand and points with the other behind her. We all look and see a man having an epileptic seizure. He is foaming at the mouth, there on the sidewalk, dependent on someone with an ounce of pity or compassion to help.

“Okay, okay.” Diego waves her back so that he can open the door. Another car pulls up closer to the man and takes him away before we can.

“Menos mal,” Diego mutters, relieved. He sticks a Presidente cigarette in his mouth and the sickly smell of black tobacco fills the car. Though gone now, I still see the man with the foaming mouth. What happens to a man like that if the right person doesn’t come along in time?

El Sevillano is a random collection of run-down houses, sagging flamboyán trees, cracked roads, and overgrown fields. I don’t know it until I see it, but this is what I used to think Cuba would look like.

Orlando’s house has a patch of brown grass leading up to a small, whitewashed front porch. The outside walls have cloud-shaped blue patterns on them. I can’t tell if it is peeling paint or mold. We pull back the rusted chain-link gate and walk up through the porch into the house itself. My eyes adjust slowly from the brightness outside.

“Orlando?” Alicia calls. I look around and am struck by the huge Frigidaire among the otherwise ordinary living room furniture. It is mint green and has the kind of icebox handle that you pull down to reveal the contents. It hums loudly.

A small, slightly bent over old man in a white undershirt appears from the doorway just next to the Frigidaire. The undershirt sags and I can see his bony, turned-in chest beneath. Before anyone speaks, I look at him, studying his face. His broad forehead is deeply tanned, but smooth. It is the rest of his face that makes him appear much older than his seventy-six years. The large pouches under his eyes meet the deep creases of his cheeks and his mouth looks like one more line on his wrinkled face. His ears are almost comically large for his head, like pictures of me when I was a baby. The nose also reminds me of my own, long and pronounced with a round, fleshy end, like somebody took two different noses and put them together. “You have the Barrios nose!” My father used to tease me when I complained about my proboscis, but I have never seen it on anyone else until now.

“Orlando!” Alicia says, walking towards him with her arms stretched out. They are about the same height, which means I have to stoop down slightly to hug him hello.

“I brought you my hermanita,” she says, smiling at me, her “little sister.” He doesn’t say anything, so I explain.

“Soy la otra hija de Jaime.” The words sound strange coming out of my mouth, identifying myself as Jaime’s “other” daughter.

“Ahh...” His voice croaks, as if he is making a great effort to get words out. “¿Y cómo tu te llamas?” He asks my name.

“Anita,” I respond, using the diminutive instinctively. Will he recognize my name, nod and say, “Of course you are little Anna, I know all about you?”

“She was born over there,” Alicia adds. Orlando’s eyes flicker for a moment. He motions to us and we sit down on a worn, brown sofa with embroidered throw pillows.

“I brought you a letter from my father.” I pull out an envelope with my father’s neat script on it. Money is stuffed into the envelope as well. I counted it out carefully this morning according to my father’s instructions and added another fifty dollars of my own. I’m glad I added it now that I see the worn undershirt and the small holes in his shoes where his toes stick out.

“And these.” I give him a box of white linen handkerchiefs.

“From Jaime?” Orlando asks. I nod. His lip quivers a little, as if he is not used to being remembered by anyone. On the way over here, Alicia told me that Orlando never married. He lived with my grandmother until she died. He stayed alone in the apartment she left behind until a distant cousin suggested he move into this house in El Sevillano, where she had an extra bedroom.

“Gracias,” he says, then asks how my father is doing. We talk about my father and his various career paths over the years.

“From veterinarian to lawyer... what was it now? I don’t even know. Jaime has always been espabilado — wound up. I remember he was just a kid when Nibardo and I opened the bar. He would bother us all the time, wanting some kind of job to do. Ay, Jaime...” He chuckles weakly.

“You and Nibardo had a bar?” I ask, leaning in.

“A long time ago, on Calle Obispo. Tu papá never mentioned it?”

“I don’t even know the names of all of your brothers.” My grandmother was the only girl among many boys. I haven’t quite pinned down the exact number of boys, either.

“Well, that’s easy. The oldest was Manolo, then Homero, Oreste, Yiya — tu abuela whose real name was Alicia, me and then Nibardo. And now it’s just me.” He shakes his head, then stands up.

“Wait here, I’ll show you something.” He leaves the room and returns with a square wooden box which he places on the coffee table in front of me. I lift the cover and find it full of pictures and letters.

“This is your grandfather,” Orlando says, lifting one of the pictures out of the box. The man in the picture is at the wheel of a ship, looking at something ahead of him that is not the camera. His lips are pursed together and his brows are wrinkled in deep concentration. His cap carries an insignia I can’t make out, probably the Merchant Marines, which I know he sailed with.

“When is this from?” I ask, knowing that my grandfather died in an accident on his ship. That’s all I know about him.

“No sé,” Orlando says. He rummages through the box to bring out another picture of my grandfather.

“Here he is with your father, on the steps of the Capitol building. I can bet you it was no less than ninety degrees that day, and there he was in a long-sleeved guayabera buttoned up to his neck as usual. Tu abuelo era un hombre muy formal.” I take the photo and look at my father, age eight or nine. He is slouched forward in a t-shirt and shorts with a curl on his forehead from the Caribbean humidity that day. And there is his father, sitting straight and tall with his starched guayabera, long pants, shined shoes, and dark glasses, just as proper as Orlando says. I can’t decide if the thin shape of his lips is from anger or heat exhaustion. The fact that his eyes are hidden makes him seem slightly otherworldly. The week before coming to Cuba, I had several nightmares about him. No wonder.

“He never smiled?” I am trying to remember Yolanda’s wedding pictures. Surely he smiled in one of those?

“He wasn’t the smiling type,” Orlando says. “You can keep those. I bet your father hasn’t seen them in years.”

I don’t want to take anything from Orlando, but I think of my father and how happy he will be to see pictures like these again, to have something other than the tattered studio portrait of his parents that he left Cuba with. I nod in gratitude and set the pictures aside.

The box tempts me. Gently, I pick up the piles inside. Black and white photographs of my father and his siblings at birthday parties mix with late 1960s grainy color photographs of my brother Alex in America. I flip one of the pictures of Alex over and find a dedication in my mother’s handwriting, “ Para mi abuela.” For my grandmother, love Alexito, three years. There are more — Alex on a rocking horse, Alex walking his dog, Alex playing with my Dad on the floor of a house I never lived in. All have tender dedications on the back. I get teary-eyed even though my parents have these same pictures at home in old albums.

“Let’s see if we can find any of me,” Alicia says, after looking at the ones of Alex. She pulls out a few of herself and our brother Jaime as toddlers, laughing at their chubby little arms.

“Oh, look, and here’s Tony!” I recognize my aunt Hilde holding a baby. The sadness that started creeping up in my throat with the Alex pictures is still there. Is it because I know that the man standing next to Hilde will die before he sees his little boy grow up? Or because everyone — from my father and his siblings to Alex and Alicia and Jaime — look so happy as children and I know that they all grow up and lose that innocence?

Then the answer for my sadness dawns on me — I am the only one missing from this box of pictures. Didn’t my parents write to tell someone on the island that I was part of the family, too? Or did I give up some right when I was born in a foreign land?

“¿Y de mí no hay ninguna?” I ask. I feel as if I don’t really exist unless there’s a picture of me in that box.

Orlando shakes his head. “I don’t think so, those were all Yiya’s.”

“She died before you were born,” Alicia says.

“Oh.” But she kissed me in a dream, I want to say. It was the nightmare in which my grandfather stared me down in a cemetery, but my grandmother’s presence was peaceful. Her kiss felt nice and warm and real. The fat rolls of Yiya’s cheek where it met her neck pressed vividly against me and it made me feel like I’d been cheated all these years without her.

Orlando leaves the room again and returns with a small black notebook.

“This book is mine. Aquí yo tengo escrito todos los eventos de la familia.” He has all the family’s weddings, births, and deaths recorded. He reads to me the name of the church where my parents were married and the date on which my brother Alex was baptized. He reads Alicia’s own entry to her, “Alicia Margarita” and her date of birth. Then he turns and asks me for my full name.

Just after “Alexis Luis” he writes in the book, “Anna Sylvia.”

Anna Kushner

Anna Kushner

Anna Kushner was born in Philadelphia and first traveled to Cuba in 1999. Her current projects include the writing of a memoir about a family divided by divorce, exile, death, and politics and a translation of The Autobiography of Fidel Castro. Her work has appeared in The Bucks County Writer and her translations have appeared in Words Without Borders. She lives in Queens, New York.

ESSAY: Orlando’s House