Everything Changed Then

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(Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, From Mountain Road to Easy Street, a fictionalized memoir. This is the final scene in this chapter. These are the most difficult words I’ve ever written. The action being described by the narrator corresponds to events that happened on a day like today thirty one-years ago. The 1,800 + paragraph without a break is no accident. It felt as if I wrote it without breathing. The previous installments can be found HERE, HERE and HERE. Thanks for reading).

“The drive west to San Juan y Martinez would normally take a little over two hours. It lasted a lot longer. At times I feel that I am still driving the Carretera Central, the distances measured in inches not kilometers, its stretches and turns, holding, but refusing to release, the answers to the central questions of my life, the original destination continuing to elude me. As we drove past the last Havana neighborhood, and the last of tightly built rows of buildings disappeared in the rear view mirror and the abundance of fields overflowing with tropical vegetation confirmed the beginning of our journey toward our original home in the heart of the countryside, my father began talking of his many memories of this road. He had traveled the Carretera Central often, bringing raw material from the local tobacco growing farms to the processing plants near Havana, a job he held for a while, after his gas station was nationalized and his friend Mario gave him a job as a driver. I took photos of the landscape passing by my window as I sat behind the passenger seat, next to my Aunt Eloisa. The way Danilo kept both hands on the steering wheel, the unlit pipe on his lips and his fixed stare forward through his heavy glasses gave a robotic quality to his driving. Dad asked Danilo to stop when we reached the town of Artemisa, about mid-point in our trip, because he wanted to be photographed under the road sign that announced the city limits. He had no connection to this town other than a joke he used to tell, or more than a joke, it was like a refrain that Dad thought was funny: whenever anyone of us asked where he was going, he would answer Artemisa, always followed by a goofy smile. He had used this silly joke ad nauseam on David, the teenager son of the guy that owned the store where Dad had worked selling shoes for the last five years. David didn’t even know that Artemisa was a real town somewhere, in another country and Dad wanted the photo to show David that Artemisa existed. So we drive into this town, late in the morning and Danilo stops the car and Dad gets under the sign and I take the photo and there are a few people standing around, looking at us, not knowing what the hell to make of it, and they probably sense that we’re foreigners because of the way we’re dressed and also because I had this great camera with the telephoto lens, but they probably figured we’re not locals because locals don’t take photos of themselves under the sign announcing their boring town. When we get back in the car, the small group is looking at the car and talking amongst themselves about us and I can tell Dad is getting very uncomfortable and when he saw me point the camera at the group, he freaked out a little. Danilo intervened, telling Dad to calm down, after all he was a member of the government and, if he said that we could take a picture, then we could. Danilo started the Lada, told my Dad not to worry and before pulling the car back into traffic, he waved to the group, they waved back, and then he told me to keep documenting the trip. He gently stepped on the gas and we were out of Artemisa in no time. The next photo I took was a view of the road ahead through the windshield, taken between Danilo and my father, an image of a tractor going in the opposite direction, framed by their shoulders and the edges of their faces, looking forward to the unfolding of the road ahead. Our next stop would be Pinar del Rio, the provincial capital. I wanted to surprise my friend Francisco Beltran, who was doing his last year of medical residency at Leon Cuervo Rubio Hospital. Paco was like a brother I didn’t know I had and that I suddenly discovered when I was thirteen years old – at the time we were both starting High School — and loved from that day on. My mother told me the story of spending time in the maternity ward with Paco’s mother, Berta, sharing the same doctor, going through the contractions together, and supporting and encouraging each other through their ordeals. We were born on the same day in December, about an hour apart. It’s odd but, we even have a very strong physical resemblance. After spending a little over a year together, starting after the first day of school when we met, doing the things that brothers that enjoy each other’s company do, you know, horsing around, playing baseball, going fishing, staying over at each other’s house and feeling at home there and falling in love with the same girl — her name was Dulce — fighting about it and making up after Dulce left us both for another guy and then being split apart when I left for the States and the time apart turned into months and years and before we knew it, ten years had gone by. In the ensuing decade we wrote to each other three times tops and never spoke on the phone, but I just knew that he thought of me as often as I remembered him and that the distance and the time that had separated us would not in any way diminished the affection we felt for each other. He knew I was traveling to Cuba and I knew he was an intern at this hospital from communications with my relatives, but he didn’t know the exact day I was arriving. I couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when I showed up at his workplace, asking to see Dr. Beltran, he was going to shit in his pants, I was certain. When I reminded Danilo that I wanted to stop at the hospital, he asked me who this friend was and my father joked that it was an illegitimate son he had fathered when he was young, my half brother, raised by the Beltran family back home. “When you meet Paco,” Dad said, “you’ll see what I mean, the way they resemble each other and both of them resemble me.” They all laughed and I joined them. A few seconds later Danilo spoke, a calm disbelief in his voice: “Would you look at this guy?” I raised my eyes, looking up at the road between their shoulders. I saw the truck on our side of the road, coming towards us, maneuvering to pass another vehicle that was traveling in front of it. The truck never made back into the opposite traffic lane, but kept coming towards us, suddenly in slow motion. I don’t remember the collision. In the thousand times that I’ve replayed that scene in my mind, the one component that sticks out is the absence of fear in that split second before the truck crashed into us at full speed. I didn’t recoil. I didn’t scream. I saw death coming at me and I wasn’t shaken. Instead of waking after the darkness that followed the impact — and I’ve never known how long that period lasted — if I had died on that day, I would have moved on to the other side and the transition would have been as easy as going from one room to the next and on that other room I’ve thought I would have been met by my Grandfather and his brother and the rest of the family that had died and also my friend Miguel Angel who had been also killed by a truck when he was out roller skating on the road that went out to Santa Maria Lake, when we were both nine years old. They would meet me, easing my transition, assuming, of course that there was another side to go to. Enough time had elapsed after the truck hit us head on, before I came to, for strangers to have pulled me from the wreck and deposit me in the back of a station wagon. My Aunt was there already, I can still hear her wails coming from my right side, like a subsurface lamentation. But I don’t remember looking in her direction once. At that time my attention was only focused on my father. He was deposited in my arms by the same hands that had rescued me. I didn’t look up at their faces. I only remember their hurried, precise voices, ordering each other to move faster. “Go, go, go,” they were saying as they closed the rear door and the car took off. I cradled Dad in my arms and I screamed his name over and over at the top of my lungs but he didn’t answer. His face was a portrait of peace, as if he was listening to a Benny More ballad in his head, and enraptured by the melody, Dad had briefly closed his eyes to enjoy the moment. Then I saw the small cut at the edge of his eyebrow, about an inch in length and I covered it with my fingers, even if no blood was flowing from it anymore, in a futile attempt to prevent his forty seven year old spirit from escaping. Again I screamed his name, but his eyes remained closed. Aunt Eloisa was crying, complaining about her leg. The car stopped and the rear door opened instantly and someone pulled the body of my father off of me and I followed them into the large room of clinic and there were nurses and doctors and they placed my father on a table and I saw a doctor bend over him briefly and then the doctor looked up at me but I couldn’t tell anything from his expression and he signaled to the others in the room to help me and they pushed me out of the room and in my way out I glanced over at Dad and he was lying very still, conveying the same easy expression, and they were going to take me to the nearby hospital, they told me, because I needed immediate attention and outside was a car with the rear door open and they guided me in and from the other side a nurse came in and sat next to me and the doctor approached the window to tell me that the nurse was going to accompany me and when I asked about my father he didn’t answer and instead he told the driver to step on it and he turned around and the car took off and I turned to the nurse and I asked her to please tell me if my Dad was dead and she looked away and I asked her again and I said please tell me, is he dead, I need to know, and she slowly turned her face towards me and this time I saw kindness and empathy and when she closed her eyes, as she nodded yes, tears rolled down her face and I turned away from her and I cried myself, looking out into the landscape that was running past the window and away from me.

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