By Leslie Blanco
Alejandro Bravo was twelve when he first saw her from the window of a bus. She was underneath the canopy of laurels on the Paseo del Prado, no cameras or reporters around her, as if she was a normal person like everyone else. White dress. Platform heels. Chin-length, platinum-blonde hair curled back and reflecting the sun. He pressed himself against the window and craned his neck. The bus was stuck behind truck after truck of farm workers being brought in for a rally at the Plaza de la Revolución. CUBA SÍ, YANQUI NO! That’s what the workers were already yelling, and he felt ashamed that she was hearing it too. She must have been sitting there the whole time he and his family had been in traffic, but he only caught the flash of the white dress, like the sparkle of a jewel, when the bus started to turn onto a side street.
How was this possible? On Friday he’d seen her in Let’s Make Love and he’d thought it might be the last time. He’d been to see the film seven times already, because Hollywood wouldn’t send any more after the first of the year. Not now that Eisenhower had cut the sugar quota. Not now that Fidel had nationalized American properties. Even if I wanted their movies, the owner of the cinema had told him, even if they weren’t Imperialistas and come mierdas, they won’t send them to me anymore. So there would only be Czech films from now on. Or Italian ones. Or the worst, Soviet ones: Lenin in October.
But here she was. Oddly penitent. Scanning the crowds as if for someone she’d had a fight with that morning, for someone she wanted desperately to know still loved her: Marilyn Monroe sitting on a park bench in Havana.
“We have to send him away,” Mama said the next day.
“I don’t want to talk about this again,” Papa said. “Over there he’ll forget his traditions, his family. His only ambition will be to own a car.”
Alejandro’s parents were in their room, the walls of which were so thin Alejandro didn’t have to try and eavesdrop. Mama had been crying in there all morning, ever since they’d come out of church to find themselves the targets of another demonstration. Now Papa had gone in to see if he could comfort her.
“They’re going to take him away from us,” Mama said. “They’re saying it on Radio Swann. They’re going to close down the Catholic schools and put him some place to indoctrinate him, or send him to Russia, and when he finally comes home, he’ll turn us in for buying milk on the black market.”
They. A confusion of emotions swirled in Alejandro’s chest.
“Lower your voice,” Papa hissed.
“And don’t you think for a moment that they won’t take Gisela too,” Mama said. “They won’t hesitate.”
“For God’s sake, Carmen.”
Gisela turned to him with a wide-eyed expression of alarm. She was barely five years old.
“Don’t worry about it, hermana,” Alejandro said, “you know how Mami is.” Exaggerada, he wanted add to with an eye roll, but that wasn’t exactly it, not any more. So many people had left. The Ochoas in the big house on the corner, where now only the former cook and maid lived. Half the families at school. People were putting unaccompanied children on planes – chubby toddlers, babies with names and addresses pinned to their sweaters, lanky, awkward teenagers – and sending them to Miami by the planeload.
When Papa spoke again, his voice was calmer, imploring. “Carmen, mi amor, you’ve got to stop listening to that station.”
Because it was dangerous, Alejandro assumed. Radio Swann operated off-shore and was run by the CIA, everyone knew that. Just turning the knob to the radio frequency put you in a certain indefensible category.
Mama didn’t answer him.
“Radio Swann isn’t reliable!” Papa said.
Still she didn’t respond.
“No one’s going to take Alejandro and Gisela away from us. Not even Communists. If they start taking children from their parents they won’t last another week.”
“You saw those people’s faces this morning,” Mama said finally. “They’ve all gone mad.”
Alejandro had seen their faces too, a solid band of Fidelistas congregated on the sidewalk across the narrow street from the church: neighbors he hadn’t wanted to believe were capable of this, people he ran into every day on the street, even his piano teacher. Counterrevolutionaries! they’d yelled. Enemies of the State!
“Armando, listen to me. I don’t want to fight any more,” Mama said. “I won’t do it.” He heard her voice crack. “I won’t do it. Not with Alejandro and Gisela here. Not unless I know they’re safe.”
A pause, vast and unbearable.
“Anything could happen to them over there,” Papa said.
“I’m telling you the Patría Potestad is real.”
“The Patría Potestad. The Patría Potestad is a vicious rumor! You’ve got to stop this. You’ve got to keep your head straight.”
Alejandro had heard the phrase so many times—whispered by Mama’s friends when they thought their children weren’t listening—that he’d asked his Latin teacher what it meant. The term derived from the Patría Potestas, the ancient Roman law that codified a father’s power over his children. His teacher wouldn’t say anything more, don’t worry your head about that, he’d said, but later in the schoolyard Juanito Perez told him it was a law being drafted by Fidelistas to empower the government to take legal guardianship of all Cuban children.
In her church dress, pink with a fluffy, lacy skirt, Gisela looked scared. They were sitting on the floor, the drawing paper that was supposed to have occupied her spread out on the coffee table.
“You want me to draw you a frog?” Alejandro asked.
“I’ll do the body,” he said, “you do the tongue. The tongue’s easy. And the flies.”
“Alright,” she said as he took a green pencil from her satchel.
“There,” he said when he’d finished the outline. “Now you.”
On the marble bench where Alejandro had seen Marilyn the day before, a mother was feeding her child peanuts from a paper funnel she’d bought from a street vendor. He sat down on a bench opposite them and watched people pass. Couples. Old women with grandchildren. Two young, pretty women on security patrol, members of The People’s Militia. These last two were the kind of overzealous revolucionarias who flitted from one meeting to another and never seemed to sleep. This was happening now. Even young girls were joining the armed forces, taking guard duty, spending their nights cleaning their weapons and not seeming to give any thought at all to boyfriends or marriage. Against one of the empty benches, someone had abandoned a hand-made sign: WITHOUT QUOTA, BUT WITHOUT MASTERS.
I don’t want to fight any more, Mama had said. Not with Alejandro and Gisela here.
Carajo. Marilyn Monroe movies or no, he didn’t want to go to Miami. He wanted to stay in the only place he’d ever known and he wanted his parents to do what was necessary to avoid the attention of the secret police. But a few weeks ago, in his father’s desk drawer, he’d found one of those leaflets that fell from the low-flying planes the gusanería kept sending:
Invisible Soldier, Fidel Castro tells the world he has the support of all Cubans. Show the world this is not so. Invisible Soldier, the car that does not run… the machine that does not work… the telephone wire that does not transmit… you can do all this with courage and for victory. From the churches, from the workplace, from the schools, CUBANO! THROW OFF THE INFAMOUS CLOTHING OF DELUSION AND PUT ON THE CLOTHING OF HONOR AND DIGNITY! DOWN WITH THE DICTATOR! OUT WITH THE COMMUNISTS!
For years before Fidel, his parents had been in one of the resistance groups working to overthrow Batista, and before that, when they were barely older than he was now, they’d worked to overthrow the dictator Machado. Alejandro had almost no specific memories of what that meant: a false floor in the courtyard, a night of people coming and going, emptying the courtyard of guns. Mostly, he remembered the anxiety that had pressed on the house and made him a child terrified that any little object strewn on the floor might blow up in his face. Panic. Panic pushed down by a terrible mixture of need and revulsion, that was the feeling that for him was inseparable from every thought of his childhood, and what he wanted more than anything was for it to stop, for Gisela to never have to feel what he had.
Something tender and perilous began to rise up in him. Then anger, veering left and right like a flock of birds unable to find a safe landing place. He was angry at this morning’s demonstrators. And he was angry at the Church too. What business did it have involving itself in politics? But when he thought of his parents, his anger flared violently, like a criminal leaping out from behind the door. They were conspiring against Fidel. Conniving. Colluding. They were doing all of it again. I don’t want you to go to prison, Papi, he’d said to his father once, as a young child. I don’t want you to die. This in hot tears after Luisito Montoya’s father had been dumped on the sidewalk in front of the Montoyas’ house.
He took a breath. He looked around.
Across the Avenida Jose Martí, narrowed to one lane here, dirty street children sat against the wall of a building and begged for money. The mother and child on the bench across from him finished their peanuts and got up.
It started to get dark, and a thin, shriveled man in a gray suit came out from under the arcade of the nearest building, crossed the street and spoke to a tourist. “You want to meet a lady?” he said in terrible English. “Or two? I got virgins, boys, whatever you want.” He took something that looked like those books of tourist postcards they sold near the Catedrál and unfurled it a little. “I got feeeeelthy pictures,” he said.
The tourist didn’t speak English. He smiled in ignorance and held up a hand as he walked away, his eyes meeting Alejandro’s for a fleeting second.
The man in the gray suit turned toward Alejandro and glared. “What are you looking at?”
Alejandro stood up and walked quickly through the Paseo, all the way to the bus stop on the next block. All his life his parents had warned him of the disreputable characters to be avoided in Havana. Only recently had they let him take the bus by himself to school and walk himself to his friends’ houses. Before that they’d only taken him down certain streets, and he’d been protected, it seemed to him, by Mama’s gold cross, bigger and somehow more radiant than the one around his own neck.
Juanito had told him too. All about Barrio Colón and the Shanghai theater in Chinatown. Juanito said they had live sex shows at the Shanghai. On a stage. With a man called Superman who had an eighteen-inch penis. All of which seemed somewhat plausible until Juanito said Marlon Brando came all the way from the United States to visit the Shanghai, and that he and Superman hit if off so well they made off for the Tropicana after Superman’s show. But come on, Marlon Brando wouldn’t have been caught dead in a low-class place like the Shanghai. So Alejandro had thrown out the whole story, even Barrio Colón and its eight square blocks of whorehouses, as fabrication.
Looking nervously up the street for the bus, he felt he’d already done something his parents would disapprove of. That man lurking under the arcade. The glimpse of Marilyn Monroe, secretly held, and showing up to the paseo to find her. All of these had the flavor of infraction against parental authority: unsafe, exhilarating, punishable. But he thought of that leaflet in Papa’s desk. What was this, compared to the fire his parents were playing with?
Every day that week, he rode his bicycle to the Paseo and waited for her, reliving scenes from her movies, rehearsing the story he would tell her about his devotion, rehearsing, too, his apology for the sound trucks, and the rallies, and ready to use one of Fidel’s own lines: We have nothing against the people of the United States, it’s only your government we don’t like. He didn’t see her again until Thursday, rushed, night already falling because he’d had to stay after school for Latin club. His heart was raw and despairing, he was out of breath, and he knew Mama would want to know where he’d been. Ay por Dios. He’d stopped believing he’d actually seen her. He’d told himself she’d gone back to the United States, or only strolled through the park on Saturdays. But in the half light, the sky to the west flamboyant with purples, pinks and the elaborate, stacked clouds that mocked the hurricane the newspapers said was waiting off-shore, he saw her get up from the same bench, pick up her pocket book and go purposely on her way.
She was wearing exactly the same clothes. The halter top dress, the white platform shoes, the famous outfit from The Seven Year Itch, and wasn’t that strange, given all the outfits she must have had? He pushed the thought away. His heart caught in his throat as if he might cry. Marilyn. Marilyn Monroe. His foot came down to the sidewalk and for a moment he watched her before picking his foot back up and moving so slowly on his bicycle it was difficult to keep his balance.
He’d been seven years old when Papa had first taken him to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Dios mio. A woman so unlike Cuba’s brunettes and mulatas, an angel floating in Technicolor champagne. Her airy flute of a voice had been like the pure embodiment of hope. And despite the way she moved her hourglass shape, there was an innocence to her, a sly childishness.
That first year, Papa took him to see Niagara, How to Marry a Millionaire and There’s No Business Like Show Business. Then Batista’s dictatorship worsened, and Marilyn put out fewer pictures. Only one per year. Bus Stop in 1956. The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957. In 1958, the most violent year of the revolution, she produced no pictures at all. And finally, in the euphoria of Fidel’s triumph, she re-emerged as luminous as ever in Some Like It Hot, as if she too had been waiting for Fidel.
But all of this would end on January first. History. Tradition. Marilyn. It would end.
If she went to the bus stop on the corner, what should he do? Ask for her autograph? Tell her it made him a bad revolutionary but he didn’t think he’d be able to survive a month without her pictures?
She didn’t go to the bus stop. She walked for twenty minutes, the streets becoming less commercial, less clean, and his heart competing with every conga drum in the city. She would turn, she would see him and it would be unbearable, he thought, to be caught following her like a man with bad intentions. That’s what preoccupied him, so it didn’t occur to him until they were almost upon it: Barrio Colón. He stopped cold, his foot coming down to the sidewalk. Barrio Colón?
When she started to turn down a side street, he hesitated. What if she was lost? What if she didn’t know what she was getting herself into? She had a penchant for trouble, according to the tattle magazines. She’d posed nude for a calendar before she was a star, when she had nothing to eat, and Joe DiMaggio, mad with jealousy for the way other men looked at her, had beaten her.
Alejandro rounded the corner.
The sky behind the little houses was a deep, imperial purple. Squares of garish light fell on the sidewalk, and in the street three women talked loudly in house dresses and curlers. He’d lost her. And then, in a doorway just two houses away from him, he saw her.
He pushed his bicycle forward. “Excuse me,” he said in his schoolroom English, bringing his foot to rest on the high curb.
She turned. She looked him up and down with an expression of irritation. “Qué?” she said, her accent and her mannerisms irremediably Cuban.
In the electric light, the truth washed over him. Her face was pudgy, eyebrows black as street tar, triceps dimpled, dress made of dime-store fabric. An imitation. A cheap, bleached, conflagration of lies.
“Are you…” he said uncertainly, “an impersonator?”
Surprise for a second, and then she laughed as if it was the best joke she’d heard all year. “That’s it. I have my own television show and everything.”
His hands were shaking. Half of him wanted to take off and pedal as fast as he could. “Are you a prostitute?”
A tsk of her tongue. “What do you think?” she said and closed the door in his face.
From Juanito’s stories, he’d imagined only the whorehouses in mansions set back from the street, the ones Juanito said all the presidents of Cuba had gone to, not a shabby row house flush with the sidewalk like his own.
“Wait!” he yelled. “Wait!” He went to the window. The window had no glass in it, so he pounded on one of the open shutters. Inside, he could see her sitting on a bed, taking off her shoes. The room was small and unkempt and she hadn’t bothered to close the doors to her armoire. “You’re dressed like Marilyn Monroe,” he said.
She stopped what she was doing and looked at him as if he’d insulted her mother. “Any scene, comrade, any movie, and it can end any way you like,” she said, her voice an exaggerated, seething seduction. She went to the armoire and swept her hand through the hangers, showing him the dresses. She pushed her breasts out in front of her, tilted one hip coquettishly to the side and made her voice high-pitched and stupid. “You know,” she said, “I’ve never been completely alone with a man before, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean.”
Of course he recognized the dialogue. From Some Like It Hot, the scene where Tony Curtis has lured Marilyn out onto some millionaire’s yacht.
Her disgust. Her platinum hair, so mismatched with a face that was not Marilyn’s. She glared, and then she rushed at him so quickly and with so much disdain he took a step back. “Get out of here before my chulo sees you. Nice boy like you,” she said and leaned out the window, “he’ll blackmail your father and you’ll deserve every minute of it.”
A long, breathless pause. Her face was a foot from his.
He thought of Cristina Sanchez and the uncertainty of the notes she slipped him in Math class. I think I like you. He thought of that leaflet in Papa’s desk. “What’s your name?” he said.
She huffed warm air against his cheek. “Marta.”
“Marta Fernandez, you little shit. Now get out of here!”
In a motion so quick she must have executed it while he was blinking, she withdrew into the room, reached down and threw her shoe at him through the window. She missed and reached for something else. He recognized it mid-air, just before it hit him in the center of his forehead: an empty pint bottle of rum.
He reeled backwards, more surprised than hurt. By then she was screaming obscenities.
He mounted his bicycle and took off like a scared child. His thoughts rose like ghosts before him: a disapproving Marilyn, then Marlon Brando, his mother, even Fidel. He nearly ran over someone and that person started yelling too. He looked back to see Marta Fernandez in the potholes retrieving her shoe, a moth-eaten brown cardigan thrown across her shoulders. When he looked forward again, three thin, willowy women had appeared in the street, dressed in the kinds of embroidered red and gold robes he’d seen for sale in Chinatown. Showgirls? Strippers? They catcalled when they saw him fleeing. One reached out and tried to catch his arm as he passed. “Looking for a good time, sailor?”
It was then he realized they weren’t women at all.
He pedaled and pedaled. Panic seized his chest, as if he might have gotten killed in there. Then shame like the molten wax that sometimes fell on his hands while carrying candles across the altar during Mass: burning, molding to his eccentricities, difficult even once cool to wash off or hide.
By the time he reached Avenida Jose Martí, his heart had resumed its measured vigilance. The sky above had turned stormy, and Havana was an entirely different city seen alone in the dark: romantic, eerie, the wrought-iron street lights shrouded in mist and the neon signs giving off a terrifying aura of permissiveness.
Tirano, barbarian, liar, Comunista. That’s what his parents called Fidel. Were they right? About a world full of tyrants and degenerates?
He thought of Luisito Montoya’s father stretched across the front stoop of Luisito’s house, his eye sockets empty, his tortured corpse so mutilated it was almost unrecognizable. He thought of Mama. He didn’t need to go home to see the exact posture of fear she would have taken by now—pained face peering out the lit window, hand alternating between heart and forehead—but for the first time it didn’t move him.
He pedaled back to the Paseo del Prado and went not to the bench where all this had started, but to the arcade from which the man had stepped out and offered whatever illicit pleasures a tourist might want. There, behind the columns and under the cave-like dome where night had collected like water in a pool, he peered out and tried to recreate the first moment he’d seen her: Marilyn Monroe, banned, embargoed, sitting in full defiance and solidarity with the Cuban people.
The magic was gone.
He got back on his bike and headed down Avenida Jose Martí toward the sea. When he hit the Malecón, the hurricane had begun to come in. The waves were exploding against the seawall, rising like fumes from the rocks, then splattering vindictively onto the street where traffic had already been deviated. The streetlights were reflected in everything, and in the quiet moment between surges, a smooth sheet of sea water made a perfect mirror of the pavement. The boys who were making a ritual of running in and then running away before the next wave—lost boys, runaways, orphans—might have looked down to see alternate selves at their feet.
He knew what would happen. Now, or when the next betrayal came in the form of a government announcement, his parents would send him and Gisela away. Because of the depravity of adults everywhere, because of their folly and their delusions, he and Gisela would be like the thousands of children who had already been banished: orphaned overnight, their names a curse on the lips of neighbors who’d once swaddled them in baby blankets and brought them sweets.
It started to sprinkle, and then to rain, and then to come down in torrents.
When Alejandro got home, Mama was not at the window. Drenched, shivering, defiant, he went inside. Papa put down his book and looked him over. For wounds. For secrets. His face was pale. It couldn’t seem to mold itself into any expression. From Mama’s absence, and from the silence that emanated from behind the closed bedroom door, he knew Papa had prevailed upon her to take one of her little blue pills, and he knew that in her stupor her anger had turned to despair, as it always did, and finally, to despondency.
Papa dropped his eyes. He got up and went to the bathroom to run Alejandro a bath.
Later, in Gisela’s room, Alejandro read her The Lion and the Mouse.
“Mama cried all night,” Gisela said when he was done.
“She called all your friends looking for you. She called Juanito. She thought milicianos had shot you.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Here, touch my arm.”
She refused, so he tickled her, two fingers prodding her fleshy belly. She shrieked and giggled, a sound so cleansing, so uplifting, that he wanted to bottle it and keep it on the shelf with the photo albums. Appeased, she placed a stuffed dog against him like a pillow and snuggled in, ready for sleep. Silence fell on the house, domestic and tame. Warmth and lamplight pressed against the rattling shutters, as if all of them were safe.
Leslie Blanco’s short stories have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Confrontation Magazine, and Oblong. “Cuba Si, Yanqui No” won an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers earlier this year. Before a long hiatus taken when her triplet girls were born almost five years ago, her essays and short stories appeared in The Vanderbilt Review, Versus Magazine, failbetter, Maisonneuve and The Huffington Post. She has an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a novel in the closet.