Jun 6, 2015
In the spirit of all we hope this blog means and represents, we have bridged together two of our poems into one. A symbolic gesture of the bridge of our friendship, the bridge of our writing into the Cuba of the past, the bridge of our imagination stretching into the Cuba of the future, the bridge spanning our memories and fears, the bridge we hope reaches and connects all readers who have been living, grieving, and dreaming in Cuban. Abrazos, Ruth and Richard
The Island Within, for Ruth Behar (by Richard Blanco)
The Island We Share, for Richard Blanco (by Ruth Behar)
Ruth, I’m still thinking about your porch light
like a full moon casting a foggy halo
in the frigid air last night, the bare oaks
branching into the sky like nerve endings
inches away from the frozen stars,
the pink gables of your Victorian home
protesting yet another winter for you
captive in Ann Arbor as you practice
mambo by the fireplace. I’m following
your red dance shoes to conga beats
and bongo taps taking your body, but
not your life, from the snow mantling
your windows outside, 1,600 miles
away from Cuba. I’m tasting the cafecito
you made, the slice of homemade flan
floating in burnt sugar like the stories
you told me you can’t finish writing,
no matter how many times you travel
through time back to Havana to steal
every memory ever stolen from you.
* * *
Dear Richard, those red shoes have survived walks in soft warm rain and late-night dancing in Cuba. Not that I walk in the rain or dance that much in Cuba these days. I hate to say it: the years are starting to weigh on me a little. You are right, I dread the snow, I am terrified of winter, yet my house is in the frosty North. I wish I had a fireplace. I am glad you gave me a fireplace in your poem to keep me warm.
I rarely make flan or cafecitos anymore. I’ve given up sugar and caffeine. ¿Qué pena, right? That poor Victorian house of mine is more cluttered than when you came to visit long ago. I live in fear of dying suddenly and all the mourners gawking at the rubble I inhabit. Scattered everywhere are unread books, the stories I still haven’t finished writing. Blame it on the fact I lost a country too young. I live with a suitcase by my bed. I am ready to leave at a moment’s notice. No place is home. Every place is home.
* * *
Indeed, you’re a thief anyone would forgive,
wanting only to imagine faces for names
chiseled on the graves of your family
at Guanabacoa, walk on Calle Aguacate
and pretend to meet the grandfather
you never met at his lace shop for lunch,
or pray the Kaddish like your mother
at the synagogue in El Vedado, stand
on the steps there like you once did
in a photo you can’t remember taking.
I confess I pitied you, still trying to reach
that unreachable island within the island
you still call home.
* * *
You are right, for years I traveled to Havana to steal every memory ever stolen from me. I searched for the little girl born in the daytime who wanted to be taken to the candy store, like in the lullaby my mother sang to me… Esta niña linda que nació de día quiere que la lleven a la dulcería… That little girl I once was, she posed for the camera so willingly. She must have known she would lose her childhood. She could already see the woman who would come back one day, eyes too sad as she smiles.
Countless visits to Calle Aguacate where Mami lived, but the avocados were long gone, and to Calle Oficios where Papi lived, looking out at ships coming and going, dreaming of escaping poverty one day, not knowing he would so soon. Countless visits to my grandfather’s tiny shop, of which not a trace remains, but I swear I could see Zeide cutting yards of lace for a virgin’s wedding gown. Countless visits to the Patronato synagogue, though I am so bad at praying. Countless visits to our old apartment in Vedado, half a block away, wanting to see again and again the sofa and table and chairs and humble bed Mami and Papi left behind, the new owner proudly saying, “Tell your parents we’ve taken good care of everything.” Countless visits to the banyan trees that even a little girl in a puffy party dress could climb. Countless visits to bring stones to the Jewish souls resting in the palm shade of Guanabacoa for the rest of eternity.
Countless visits to a mirage. I was so dreamy-eyed. I was pitiful, as you say, dear Richard.
* * *
Mi Ruti, I thought I was done
with Cuba, tired of filling in the blanks,
but now I’m not sure. Maybe if I return
just once more, walk the sugarcane fields
my father once cut, drive down the road
where my mother once peddled guavas
to pay for textbooks, sit on the porch
of my grandmother’s house, imagine her
still in the kitchen making arroz-con-leche—
maybe then I’ll have an answer for you
last night when you asked me: Would you
move to Cuba? Would you die there?
* * *
Now the scramble for Cuba has begun. They want to fix our country. Fix the roads. Fix the plumbing. Fix the phone wires. Gather up the broken pieces of our memories. Gather up the broken pieces of our hearts. Turn it all into art for sale at Sotheby’s. Your grandmother can’t make arroz con leche in her Cienfuegos kitchen. It’s a Starbucks. Those tall sugarcane fields your father once cut have given way to yet more Trump Towers. The road where your mother peddled her sweet guavas is a four-lane super highway. The Havanatur buses are rushing past to deliver bored tourists to the Hilton resorts.
I tell myself I am being silly and nostalgic. Cuba has to become a country like any other. Cuba has to become an ordinary country. Cuba can’t go on being an urn of memories forever. And yet I want to believe that the island we share feels our absence. Misses us. I want to believe that the island is still anxious to know our reply: Would you move to Cuba? Would you die there? What do you think, Richard? Will one more return visit help us to decide?
I’ll take you to the Havana that was mine. You’ll take me to the Cienfuegos that was yours. We’ll lower our ears to the red earth of our island. Listen if she still calls for us.