Babes

By Natalia Cortes Chaffin


A young woman is racing down the pier of Cuba’s Port of Mariel in blue flip-flops that go clack clack. She is clutching a red-headed baby. The baby’s mouth is open wide. Lying on the pier is a yellow pacifier.

Soldiers stomp their boots after the woman, point machine guns at her back. The port is littered with every kind of floating vessel known to man: expensive yachts, smelly fishing boats, sleek cruisers, rickety sailboats. The passengers are all there for the Boatlift, waiting to retrieve loved ones and bring them to their grand homes in the U.S of A. One largish yacht is already on its way back to Miami. On board, Cuban-Americans and their defector families reach out to the young woman with extended arms. The woman is yelling wait. The guards are yelling stop.

On orders, the yacht pulls away from the dock. The woman leaps into the water. A soldier catches the collar of her navy polka dot dress. Her body slams into the pier. She drops her red-headed baby. The soldier pulls her up. The baby splashes into the dark water below.

Camilia is watching this from the roof of her catamaran, wrapped ham sandwich thrust between her teeth. For two weeks she’s been living the life of a pirate, unshaven legs and all. She doesn’t mind. She’s returned to Cuba to claim the cousin she once left standing on the Malecón.

The baby is bouncing in the waves. The woman is screaming. The soldiers are dragging her away. Camilia is mesmerized by the bobbing baby. She wants to jump in the water, pull it to her bosom. She’s at least a hundred yards away. She is not a good swimmer.

The mother won’t stop screaming. The soldiers argue about the baby. They point and flail their khaki-colored arms.

Camilia sees the Argentine dive off his mansion yacht. He cuts through the waves. The baby has vanished underwater. The Argentine looks left and right. People on nearby boats yell there, there. The Argentine sinks. Camilia’s sandwich drops from her mouth. She is gripping the ends of her lemonade skirt.

The Argentine’s head appears. He takes a deep breath. He sinks again. Camilia thinks she might throw up. She covers her mouth with nail-bitten fingers.

The Argentine pops up. He is grasping the baby. A soldier jumps into the water. He says the infant belongs to Cuba. The Argentine swims to a nearby boat. He hands the baby to a mustached man leaning over the edge. The mustached man then hands it to a woman in a purple blouse. She passes the infant to a young, bald boy on a sailboat. The guards are shouting, but they can’t snatch the prize.

Camilia tosses her ham sandwich to the circling seagulls.  She jumps down from the roof and joins Jorge and Virgil on the front deck. They’re wearing matching blue gingham aprons and speaking their own personal Spanglish patois. They’re from New York, though not the city exactly, some Long Island suburb with an Indian name that ends in “koma”.

“Where’s the baby?” Camilia says. “I lost track.”

“I couldn’t even move,” Virgil says. “I was frozen.” Jorge puts his arm around Virgil.

“I think the baby is safe for now,” Jorge says. He turns to Camilia. “Thanks to your Argentine.”

“He’s not my Argentine,” Camilia says.

“Whatever you say,” Jorge says.

Camilia stares at the pier. The mother is smiling through tears. She is being handcuffed. The silver cuffs flash in the sunlight.

“She’s going to prison,” Camilia says.

“But her child will go to America,” Jorge says.

“Without a mother.”

“The guards will find him,” Virgil says.

“Don’t underestimate the resourcefulness of desperate people,” Jorge says. He salutes the guards with his middle finger.

Camilia cannot watch anymore. She ducks inside the cabin and lies down on a bench with orange foam pads. Thirteen years ago, Cuban guards had escorted her and her family out of Cuba, marched her all the way to the plane offering vulgarities like tea and crumpets. She can still recall how their boots beat against the runway pavement, drums at a funeral march commemorating the death of her Cuban citizenship. She hadn’t expected to gaze again upon her native island’s white sand shores.


Jorge is shaking her arm. She must have fallen asleep. Her cheek is wet from being smashed up against the bench’s vinyl pads. She dries her face with her shirtsleeve.

“The Argentine wants to see you,” Jorge says. She looks about the dim cabin. The sun’s gone down. She’s been asleep for a long time.

“He’s waiting,” Jorge says.

“It’s not like he has any place to go,” Camilia says. She stands up and straightens her skirt and yellow blouse. Mention of the Argentine immediately evoked images of the drowning baby, its little open mouth taking in water like a guppy. She wonders if he’s already on his way to Miami, cradled in the plump arms of his temporary mother while she fumbles the words to an old lullaby.

The Argentine is on his boat, leaning against his yacht’s teak rail. Their boats are anchored just a few feet apart. When she first arrived in Mariel, the Argentine would stand on his yacht, portside, flicking cigarette ashes into the bay. They’d fall like flakes of fish food. She would linger on her boat, starboard, noshing on dry bread. She wore the long skirts she normally kept hidden in the back of her South Beach apartment closet, but dragged out whenever she knew she’d be in the company of strangers with none of her hip friends about to offer pity copies of Cosmo. He would nod. She would nod. For a week, this was their morning ritual.

Then Camilia broke the silence. After seven days of polite glances, she was out of breakfast breads. She tucked a stray strand of brown hair behind her ear and asked him how long he’d been anchored in the Cuban port of Mariel.

“Forty days,” he said. He stretched out a hairy-knuckled hand. “Call me Ishmael.”

“Where’s your whale?”

“No whale.” He puffed on his cigarette. “I am simply an Argentine on a Cuban pilgrimage.” His words floated to her, telling of weekends in Mar de Plata.

“My wife is Cuban,” he said. Then pulled out his leather wallet and withdrew a dog-eared picture of a pretty brunette woman. He followed it up with a photo of his kids. “I’m here to deliver her people.”

“Then I should call you Moses.” He released a laugh. She got the feeling that in another time, in some other place, his laughter might escape more easily. He tossed his cigarette butt into the water and ducked into his yacht. Camilia lingered, stretching out the moment like pink chewing gum.

She looks at the Argentine now. He has black locks that give way to a silver patch that sets off his crown like a skunk. He sports a not-quite Roman nose, probably genetically diluted through the generations, and a perfectly ordinary medium build he hides underneath a perfectly ordinary navy T-shirt.  As usual, he’s taking quick puffs of his cigarette. It’s almost down to the filter.

“I have the baby.  Need you to look after it,” he says.

“I can’t risk getting caught.”

“Just for a night or two.”

“Why can’t you?”

“Baby wants a mother. We’re all men on this boat.” He motions for her to wait. She doesn’t know how long.

The sun has completely dived under the sea. She passes the time looking for constellations. She starts with the North Star, or what she thinks is the North Star, and traces Ursa Major, though she thought the handle tilted to the left. Then she scans the sky for the three bright stars of Orion’s belt. The hunter and his dogs are right above her, probably tracking down Cuban stowaways.

She’s sure the soldiers are still sniffing out the baby. Someone will talk. Someone always does. She thinks of her cousin Tonito and his son. She’s already committed to one crusade. Tonito is counting on her ancient promise to give him and his family safe passage to America. She may be all hear-me-roar on the outside, but she’s no CIA operative. She’s never harbored anything before, unless you count the mouse Tonito once captured to feed his vicious pet snake.

She checks her watch. Even if she waits an hour, it won’t be enough time to muster the gumption to tell the Argentine no. She ducks into her cabin. She can’t save every Cuban, even infant ones.

Jorge and Virgil are in the tiny kitchen preparing arroz con pollo. They only have a couple of chicken breasts to feed half a dozen. They butterfly and pound so the chicken will fill more bellies. Camilia offers to help. Nosey Virgil inquires about her intentions with the baby. 

“We overheard. You can’t put all of us at risk,” Jorge says.  He rips open a red pepper. “You need to think of the rest of us. Why we are here. We share the same fate on this boat.”

“Everything will be fine.”

 “Missy, where do you think you are, Club Med?” Virgil laughs at Jorge's joke, but Jorge does not. He hands her a butcher knife. “You know how to use it?” She wants to point out that his hair is receding faster than high tide, but instead rolls her eyes. She takes the knife and an onion and heads to the far deck for more air. Despite the heavy breeze, she cries.


It’s Captain Charlie who approaches her at dawn, pulling at his scraggly beard.  She has not slept. Her eyelids feel like they’re holding up anvils, and the little angel on her shoulder keeps tapping her awake.

“Baby kind of looks like me,” he says. There’s a deep pink stain—lipstick, ketchup, blood—on his blue linen shirt.  “Got’em in my quarters. Keeps crying.  The Argentine said to give the babe to you.”

“I can’t take him.”

“I ain’t no mother.” He smiles at this.

“Nor am I,” she says. Yet she follows him below deck to his crawlspace behind the kitchen.

The baby is swaddled in a Hawaiian shirt. He’s playing with a sweat sock. He shakes and shakes it. Camilia wishes she had a rattle. She picks him up. The baby coos. “You can keep the shirt,” Charlie says. “But the baby’s gotta go. I don’t want any trouble.”

“Who does?” She says. She rests the baby’s head on her shoulder and withdraws to the kitchen.

There is no way to keep the baby from the eyes and ears of the rest of the passengers other than hiding it in the storage truck with the peanut butter and granola bars, but she imagines such action would be cause to revoke her ovaries.  Instead she sits on the orange bench wondering if and when and what she should feed it. The boy is clutching at her breast despite her telling him: “Kid, there’s no milk there.”

She finds some apple juice instead and fills a paper cup. The baby looks too young to drink from a cup, but she has no bottle. She wonders how people ever cared for babies without baby supplies.  The boy gets frustrated trying to drink. He fusses and makes little fists. Apple juice dribbles down his chin onto the Hawaiian shirt.

“I have an eye dropper,” Jorge says. He’s standing at the top of the short stairs that lead down into the kitchen.

“He’s not a kitten.” She holds the cup to the baby’s lips, pours a little juice into his mouth. He starts to get the idea, begins to slurp.

“I thought you weren’t going to take him.”

“Somebody has to.”

“That somebody didn’t have to be you.” Jorge dabs the sweat on his forehead. “We need to disguise him. You can see that red hair for miles.”

Jorge rummages for a clean razor. Camilia sits the baby on the counter and soaps his head. Jorge runs the razor across the baby’s scalp. Strands of red hair float to the floor. The baby’s eyes widen into saucers.

“It’s okay,” Camilia says. She turns to Jorge. “I don’t know what to call him.”

“Mario,” Jorge says. “From Mariel. This is in a way his rebirth.”

“I like Mario.” She kisses Mario’s soapy head. He tastes like shampoo.

“You’ll have to find his family in Florida. That may be difficult.”

“I’m not keeping him that long.”

“Who’s going to take him?”

Camilia looks up from the child. She had assumed the Argentine would reclaim the boy. He did say it was only for one night.

“Until you decide what to do, stay off the deck. There are too many boats with too many snitches. And we all have an agenda here,” Jorge says. He heads back into the sun.

Camilia cleans up the little pile of red hairs. She lays a blanket on the floor, puts little Mario on his back. He wiggles his feet in the air, groans and grunts, manages to push himself into a sitting position.

“Very good,” Camilia says. She claps her hands. He claps back. She soon discovers he can also roll to the left. He cannot crawl, though he gets on his hands and knees and rocks back and forth. With his shaved head, he reminds her of Mr. Clean, and how dirty her floors must be back home. No place for a baby. She’d have to get a new apartment, one with a second bedroom she could stuff with toy dinosaurs.

Mario tries to eat the blanket. She doesn’t know the last time he’s had food. She steals a banana from Captain Charlie’s stash and smashes it up with a fork. Mario only has three teeth. She feeds it to him from a plastic spoon.

Other passengers soon come down into the kitchen bearing gifts. Manny collected rags she might use as diapers. Pablo brings a blanket he fashioned from a sweater. They all cradle little Mario and promise to keep his location mum, as long as she gets rid of him before the soldiers catch his baby powder scent.

“I need to rescue my wife,” Pablo tells her while letting Mario grip his gray-haired finger.

“Don’t worry,” Camilia said. “No one knows he’s here.” She stands up, realizes Mario has peed on her favorite blue blouse.


In the morning, she leaves Mario swaddled in Jorge’s arms and hops a bum boat to shore. She hopes to find some supplies that might double for diapers. She is met by a young soldier with long legs and a short torso. She wonders how long he’s been trying to grow his mustache.

“Where might I buy some towels?” she asks.

“You’ve been gone from Cuba too long,” he mutters. He straightens his beret. “Try the Hotel Triton. There’s a bus leaving soon.” 

Camilia looks at the line of expatriates waiting to board the shuttle into Havana. She had not wanted to travel so far, but the Hotel Triton is the only place the Americans are allowed to go.

“Do you have any pictures?” the soldier says. “Of America.”

Camilia raises an eyebrow.

“I’ll swap you some towels for some pictures.”

“I have a picture of my parents on Miami Beach.”

“That’ll do.”   

“It looks just like the beaches here.”

 “I wouldn’t know.” He adjusts the gun weighing on his back. Camilia opens her purse, pulls out the photo and hands it to the young man. He smiles, tells her to wait, returns with a stack of military-issue towels. “I’ve got a box of cigars for anyone who has a picture of New York City.”

“What others have you collected?”

“Mostly Florida and Key West. My favorite is of a little girl with Minnie Mouse.”

“This is an odd hobby for a soldier.”

“Only if one is a soldier by choice.” He looks at his dusty boots. Camilia thanks him, returns to the catamaran.

The Argentine soon summons her again. Jorge and Virgil offer to babysit below deck while she talks. There’s dried spit-up on her blouse, but she doesn’t have time to change. She dabs at the amoeba-shaped stain with a wet tissue. She sniffs the shirt. It doesn’t smell too bad. She can count on the sea breeze and the four feet between their boats to disseminate the odor.

The Argentine is wearing an old fishing hat with tears where bait once hung. He pulls out a cigarette when he sees her and holds it out though he knows she doesn’t smoke. Camilia declines.

“How’s the kid doing?” he says.

“Good.”

“The soldiers know he’s still in the harbor. Searched three boats this morning.”

She nods. She figured as much, but has tried not to think about the situation. It’s the Argentine’s fault she’s in this predicament, falling in love with a baby that’s sure to get her thrown in a cockroach-infested prison.

“We should be leaving in a couple of days. If you can keep him, I’ll take him back on our way out. Bring him to Florida,” he says.

“You’re going to take him back?”

“You’re not the one who dove into the water.” He tosses his butt to the fish and shuffles off.

Camilia returns to the kitchen, tells Jorge and Virgil the plan. They are relieved. She wants to be. She takes the baby from Jorge’s arms. He is asleep, breathing in quick spurts. She squeezes him tight, almost as if trying to absorb his round body into her own so she can keep him safe in her womb.


Camilia wakes to the sound of boots on board. Mario does not. They are still surrounded by night. She searches for the storage trunk, tosses aside the jars of peanut butter and places the baby inside. She hears a soldier on deck say he knows the baby is on the catamaran. Jorge and Virgil claim they know nothing about an infant.

The soldiers descend into the kitchen. Jorge and Virgil follow. Captain Charlie pokes his head out of his nook, his eyes are crusted over.

“This is my boat,” Charlie says.

“These are our waters,” the older soldier says. He stands in front of a younger soldier with long legs and a short torso. Camilia recognizes him. He is the one who sold her the towels. She tries to make eye contact. He stares at the air in front of him.

“Señorita, you have to hand him over.” The older soldier has one hand on his gun.

Camilia takes a few steps back. She trips on a bucket. The sound wakes the baby. Mario lets out a yelp.

“Please get him,” the soldier says. “Your cousin is expecting you, but we could send him back home.”

Camilia thinks of her Tonito. He’s waited thirteen years for her to rescue him. She can only imagine the struggles he’s endured, the hope that’s sustained him more than water.

“Señora?”

Mario is crying. Jorge and Virgil have blended themselves into the wall. Captain Charlie will not risk his neck. The young soldier continues to stand at attention and wait for orders. She must do something. She knows she can’t leave Mario in the trunk, but she’s not sure she can leave him in Cuba either. Tonito may be on the beach, but Mario is already hers.

“His grandmother would like him back.”

She thinks of a little old lady crying in her front window, waiting for her grandson to be plopped into her veiny arms. She thinks of the boy’s mother racing down the pier, willing to let her son go with strangers rather than have him live through the only life she has to offer. Camilia wonders if he were her son, could she love him enough to give him up.


She doesn’t have that kind of love.

 
Camilia opens the storage trunk and lifts Mario. He smiles at her. He’s already wrapped in a Cuban military towel.

“You won’t know what you missed,” she says. Tonito will. She can't go back on her promise.

“He’s cute,” the younger soldier says breaking form. Camilia notes his uniform is hanging off his shoulders. She nods.

“He’ll have a good life,” the older soldier says.

“Who has a good life in Cuba?” Camilia says. She takes a step back. The older soldier takes a step forward. Camilia holds Mario tighter. She wishes she had stronger hands, stronger arms, a stronger heart.

“I’ll take him,” the young soldier says. Life has returned to his eyes. He smiles at Camilia through his freckles.

“Camilia, we all have family here counting on us,” Jorge says.

She knows. She doesn’t have to be reminded of Jorge’s own son, of Pablo’s ailing wife. She lets the young soldier approach her. She hands him the baby, removing his tiny arms from around her neck.

“Thank you,” the older soldier says. The soldiers ascend to the deck. Camilia and the others follow their creaky footsteps. There’s a fishing boat passing by on its way out of the harbor. It blows its horn in celebration.

“That’ll be you soon,” the older soldier says. “Don’t know why you’re all so anxious to leave our beautiful country. Your families are ungrateful. Fidel’s been good to us.”

“I can see that by the worn soles of your shoes,” Jorge says.

The soldiers walk towards the back of the catamaran where their little speedboat is anchored. The older soldier climbs down the catamaran’s ladder, hops into the speedboat, lands with a thud.
“Hand me the baby,” he says. The younger soldier doesn’t respond. He’s watching the fishing boat leaving the harbor. People on board are hugging and cheering, waving goodbye.

“Got a picture of San Francisco last night,” he says.

“I’ve never been,” Camilia says.

“Let's go,” the older soldier says.

“You should go. What are you waiting for?” the young soldier says to Camilia.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

The young soldier steps away from the ladder. “You’re right,” he says.

“Roberto.” The older soldier puts his hands on his hips.

“Adios, señorita,” the young soldier says. He starts to run. Camilia’s heart stops. He leaps over the side of the catamaran. The formerly red headed baby is tucked in his arm. They splash into the dark water. Camilia rushes to the rail. The older soldier scrambles to start his boat. The engine is dead.

The young soldier pops up a few feet from the catamaran. He’s still clutching Mario. Camilia lets out her breath.

“Wait, wait,” the young soldier says. He waves to people on the fishing boat. The families and defectors on board reach out to him. The boat slows.

"Stop, stop," the older soldier says.

The young soldier swims with one arm. He spits water. People cheer. Moonlight dances on Mario’s bald head.


Natalia Cortes Chaffin grew up on Long Island, the daughter of Cuban and Argentine immigrants. She writes advertising by day and fiction by night. Her work has appeared in the Bryant Literary Review and achieved Finalist status in several Glimmertrain competitions. “Babes” is part of a linked short story collection she recently completed. Natalia is currently doing the suburban thing in Las Vegas with her devoted fan club: husband, three daughters and a neurotic mutt.

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