Gustavo PÉrez Firmat

From: NEXT YEAR IN CUBA (1995)

I have replayed our departure from Cuba in my mind hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. I have dreamed about it, fantasized about it, and matched memories with my parents and with my brother Pepe, who was old enough to remember. In my night and day dreams, I visualize the departure exactly as I have described it, with one difference. As the ferry lurches away from the pier, I look back and see a small boy waving good-bye to me. He’s my age, or perhaps a year or two younger, dressed as I would have been dressed -- a pullover with horizontal stripes and short pants almost down to his knees. You can’t see his socks because he’s wearing cowboy boots. His hair is cut in malanga fashion, with the whole head clipped very short except for a tuft of hair in the front, kept stiffly in place by a generous helping of gomina, a gooey hair grease (American Vaseline is to Cuban gomina as Johnson’s baby oil is to Slick 50). The boy is what in Spanish you’d call un niño de su casa, which doesn’t quite translate as a homeboy, since this kid is more homebody than homeboy.

I realize that this boy on the dock is me. Somehow, in my dream, I’m in two places at once. I’m on the dock and I’m waving; I’m on the ferry and I’m waving. From the dock, I can see myself on the ferry, getting smaller and smaller, until what is left is no bigger than a swallow’s flutter. From the ferry, I can see myself on the dock, getting smaller and smaller, until what is left is no bigger than a swallow’s flutter. The last image in my dream is of me on the ferry, with my hands gripping the deck railing and my head barely above it, looking toward the shore and seeing the Cuban boy I was, the Cuban boy I am no longer, fade to a point and then to nothing. Finally, the only kid is the one on the ferry, which has sailed out into the open sea.

More than three decades later, the distance between the boy on the dock and the man I am today seems incalculable. I look at myself now: a man in his forties, a professor at a prestigious American university, writing in English from his home in Chapel Hill. I’m an American citizen. I have not been back to Cuba since that day, and perhaps I never will. My wife is American and my two children understand Spanish but do not speak it fluently. When I was a kid in Cuba, I wanted to go to Annapolis and become a sailor. But my real future was the almacén, my family’s food wholesaling business, as it had been my father’s and his father’s before him. To anybody in my Spanish-immigrant family the idea of making a living as a university professor was altogether incomprehensible. To this day Nena and Gustavo, my mother and father, aren’t quite sure how I spend my time.

Do I still have anything in common with the boy who wanted to go to Annapolis? I’d like to think that I grew out of that boy, although it may be truer to say that I grew away from him. English, unlike Spanish, is a language of growing. In Spanish there’s only one kind of growth, crecer, to grow pure and simple; but English affords other possibilities: you grow up and you grow old, you grow fond and you grow distant. You can grow things and they can grow on you. You outgrow clothes, you ingrow toenails, and you grow back hair. Yes, in English you can even grow back. Imagine that. The past as prologue, yesterday as tomorrow, what was as what will be.

The paradox of growing back, of a growth that’s also a recovery, best describes the connection I’d like to have to the Cuban boy I left behind. Having outgrown him, I want now to grow him back, to let him grow in and on me until we’re the same person again. Refugees are amputees. Someone who goes into exile abandons not just possessions but a part of himself. This is true especially of children, who leave before achieving a fixed, portable identity. Just as people who lose limbs sometimes continue to ache or tingle in the missing calf or hand, the exile suffers the absence of the self he left behind. I feel the loss of that Cuban boy inside me. He’s my phantom limb, at times dogging me like a guilty thought, at other times accompanying me like a guardian angel.

I left Cuba on the brink of adolescence, when my hormones were beginning to churn and my fantasies were swerving away from cowboys and toys. I grew up and I grew away and now I’m growing old. What happened to the kid I left behind? Would his growth have been accelerated or stunted by the Revolution? Compare the imaginary adult version of him and me and perhaps it would be like those longitudinal studies of twins. A lifetime of separation, perhaps to find out that both siblings use the same brand of toothpaste and sleep on the same side of the bed. But ours would have to be a latitudinal study: what happens to twins who are cleft by geography.