(Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, a novel. From Mountain Road to Easy Street is the working title. This is a first draft so I hope you can excuse any typos or imperfections. The action being described by the narrator corresponds in the calendar to events that happened on a day like today thirty one-years ago. I will post each day — if I can find the fortitude — the corresponding chapter. Thanks for reading).
“A fucking car accident happened. We were visiting Cuba, year before last. Someone came back and told him to hurry if he wanted to see his Mom alive. He jumped at the opportunity when the government opened up travel. If you didn’t have any problem with the law there when you left, then they would allow you to visit. Castro called it the Family Reunification something or other but this wasn’t about the family, it was about dollars. Cubans bringing dollars to prop up the economy after the Russians couldn’t help anymore. We had to pay for the hotel in Havana as part of the deal, even if you were staying with relatives. We were registered at the Habana Libre which used to be the Hilton back in the day, before the Revolution.
“So we made the arrangements through a family friend and off we went. I was floundering at work, jumping from job to job, unhappy as a motherfucker and my Dad asked me to go with him. He said it could clear my head, you know, help with the process and besides I wanted to see the family and my friends from when I was a kid. Hadn’t seen them in almost ten years. My childhood sweetheart, Rosie. I said yes. It didn’t take much to convince me. I gave notice at work when they wouldn’t give me time off –- I had just started there, so I kind of understood — no lost love between us, anyway.
“My Mom owns a sewing factory, right around the corner, on Mountain Road and Cliff. We all pitched in, my sister and me and my Dad would also help before he went to work everyday and after work and weekends. Dad was very concerned about leaving my Mom alone for a whole week, so as soon as he found a friend of the family to come by and help Mom, he made the plans to travel. He was worried leaving her alone for a week, ten days, can you believe it? It’s been almost two years since she’s been alone. She got her driving license at the end of the first. I guess she realized that she was going to have to drive herself places, ‘cause he wasn’t going to no more.
“It was in February when we left for Cuba. There was snow on the ground, I remember. I have this photo of my Dad from the day we left to go to Cuba coming back from the store and there was snow. Sometimes I look at that photo and I say: ‘You just never fucking know when your last day is going to be, never.’ He had mentioned to my Mom that as soon as he returned form the trip he was going to quit his job — he was selling shoes at a store in West New York — and he was going to come work exclusively with my Mom in the family business, and then maybe move out of New Jersey to a warmer climate. He had visited Puerto Rico a couple of years before this whole mess for a funeral for an old friend from our hometown and he fell in love with the place. It reminded him of Cuba and he fell in love with the people. That was his plan for when he returned.
“We had to fly to Cuba from Mexico, Merida, actually in the Yucatan, pretty little city, whatever little I saw of it. First we had to travel to Miami and my father was happy that that was the route because his uncle Martino lived in Miami, the only member of the older generation that had immigrated. Martino was my Grandfather Lino’s older brother, the family patriarch in a lot of ways, older, wiser, and kinder. My father adored my uncle and he had last seen him in seventy six when he had first arrived from Cuba. He visited us in Union City and I remembered my father never left his side for the entire week he visited. I thought that they really loved each other, but more than that Dad missed his father. I know how he felt.
“You hear that song…Bruce, right?…Now all them things that seemed so important, Well mister they vanished right into the air…one of the saddest songs I ever heard. Makes you want to move out of New Jersey, it’s so fucking sad here. So we fly out of Newark and as soon as the plane takes off, and the no smoking sign goes off, my father offers me a cigarette. I never smoked in front of him, out of respect, I guess. I heard from him that he never smoked in front of my Grandfather Lino either, so I never did, you know, out of respect for the man. But he sees am a little nervous about flying and traveling back to Cuba, like traveling back in time, you know, and he pulls his Marlboro box and says to me, without putting me on the spot: “Hey, it’s ok, you look like you could use a smoke, it’s ok,” and I take him up on it and he’s not my Dad for the rest of the flight, but a friend and we talk about baseball and boxing and about his feelings about having left his family behind and how they stopped talking to him after he went and got a visa to get the hell out of Cuba, right after the Missile Crisis, and how heart broken he felt because he had been for the Revolution when the Revolution was about bringing democracy back to Cuba, re-establishing the Constitution and how it was stolen by a group of thugs and how his older brother became the head of a ministry and his sister was now a lieutenant or a coronel in the army, high up, close to the top in the government and my grandparents in the middle, apolitical, neutral like the Swiss, torn by the sight of their children taking sides, and their oldest grandson, that would be me, being relocated to a whole other country where no visitation or vacation was even possible for a decade and his siblings not answering the phone when he called the funeral home in Havana where his father was laid and he was crying here, a grown man crying because he could not be there to see his father being laid to rest or hold his mother at that time or console his communist brother and sister and you know what he said, he said he didn’t want to look backwards anymore, regretting what could have been. He held no resentment. He was happy to be going back, giddy almost and so was I, I guess…
“Hey, I hope I’m not boring you with all this family drama. You tell me if you want me to shut the fuck up, alright? I don’t like to talk about this stuff, but nothing like a couple of stiff drinks to loosen the tongue and start reminiscing. You tell me if you want me to shut the fuck up, alright?
“Alright, so we stayed in Miami one night. My Dad and Uncle Martino inseparable the whole time and they’re listing all the members of the family and what it used to be like growing up together. They’re smoking cigars together and drinking espresso and I’m looking at them and I’m thinking: ‘this is how I am going to look twenty and forty years from now,’ and I go to bed and they’re still talking, and you could tell that these two enjoyed each other’s company.
“The whole trip to Cuba business is very new. There had been no more than three or four trips to Cuba only and the Miami exiles, who can be a crazy fucking bunch, are not to happy about the flights and they’re making all kinds of threads and calling us traitors, appeasers, you name it, so the gate and the flight are top secret and we meet at a place in the airport and then we’re moved to the other end and security is super high and they go through your bags like you’re flying into Tel Aviv, and everyone is bring these huge bags full of stuff for their relatives there, who haven’t seen any of the very basic items that we take for granted here, you know, jeans and sneakers and shaving things and women are wearing three pairs of hats and two watches, like we’re going to make up, in one trip, what our families over there haven’t had for twenty. And the Cubans, they don’t care, because as long as you pay for your weight, they don’t care, they’re making money. It’s a fucking carnival, and I am thinking this is worse than a Fellini movie.
“When the airplane finally is taking off down the runway and it lifts its nose I get the sense there’s so much weight on this baby, it can’t lift off. I don’t know, it felt like we traveled a pretty long time with the nose up and it couldn’t get up. Finally it does, but you could tell it’s straining to get all those care packages off the ground, and I’m wondering what piece of clothing or which trinket is the one that tipped the balance and causes the plane to crash and kill us. Which item is going to be the proverbial straw?
“Landing in Merida was an even more surreal scene because, here, for the first time, we came in touch with the processing group from Cuba that was there to review our paperwork. The next leg of the journey was scheduled to be flown on the Cuban national carrier. As we arrived at the Merida airport, taxing up the main terminal, I spotted the antiquated, four-propeller, Cubana de Aviacion plane, sitting off the runway, close to the main terminal, a clear representation that we were going back in time in more ways than one.
“The Cuban government representatives reviewing our papers were very courteous and professional about their tasks and it seemed to me that they were going to great length not to connect with us in an emotional or friendly way. You have to understand, these were the same people that ten years prior were looking down their noses at us for leaving the country –- maybe some of them were a little jealous that they had to stay behind defending the revolution — thinking that we were traitors and scum. Now the Revolution had changed their tune about us and we were being welcomed back with open arms because of our pockets full of dollars. I’m sure it was tough for these people, respectfully treating the enemies of the past, to have to work against their long held-government reinforced views.
“Let me buy the next round, John. I paid my therapist more and he wasn’t that good of a listener. You know I told the creep that I was thinking about suicide all the time and he told me to postpone taking my life until I had a life insurance policy? I never saved enough for a policy. Any money I had I smoked or drank. I would be homeless if my mother hadn’t taken me in after my marriage fell apart. Order a bite to eat if you want to, I personally don’t eat when I’m drinking which is almost every day. It affects my drinking, or better, the effects of my drinking.
“So we’re in this hotel in Merida, dealing with these very serious Cubans and the charter organizers had prepared a buffet for the passengers and we’re all drinking margaritas and eating Mexican food and it feels like homecoming celebration of sorts but the Cubans from Cuba and the Cubans from the States are not mixing, pretty much the way its been through our history. Two sides. I guess that’s the way it is everywhere, republicans and democrats, poor and rich, drinkers and teetotalers.