The morning I moved into my grandfather’s was the first time in my life that we spent a day together. We were always a full coast apart. I was un niño from the Southwest Miami bubble, a homogenous suburbia I had to ditch after graduating film school. And once I was here in the greater New York, I felt that everything was fresh. The fresh chill of the air. The fresh height of monumental hope. Fresh skies of liberty. Fresh energy. A fresh future. Even the fresh look on Abuelo Renolo’s face hidden in his hood as he stood in the strewing snow half asleep. His face wasn’t quite shriveled to shambles, and I wasn’t expecting that. I thought his cheeks would’ve completely bellied and drooped by now. But it was when he pulled back his hood that his baldness warned me of my imminence. He was there waiting for me in Washington Heights as la Cubana omnibus rolled in its terminal. When the tires halted, it seemed like Abuelo woke up. He welcomed me like un patito puffed up in his coat. His rough bony hands grabbed my bags. A dark man. Texture like alligator. He noticed the lightness on my skin.
—No sé de dónde sacaste your white skin. That’s your father for sure. It’s funny, mis padres fueron real mezclado, he said.
Cubans of difficult shades. I couldn’t tell if their blessing was a cure for good life fifty years ago when the motherland spit him out of his family tree of char and olives… And into the bottom pit of America. I followed in exile, coming from the South and into Renolo’s old Cuban Jersey. A taxi pulled up.
—Don’t worry, I got it. Open the trunk, he said.
—Are you kidding me? There’s like four heavy ones here. All books, too.
—No, it’s OK. Venga, vamos ya.
—Alright, I’m in. So how much did the last roommate pay?
—OK, hey, Señor… Drop us off hay en Boulevard East y 75th, he said to the driver.
—Shit, how many books you have back there? What are you reading?
—I just got into Reinaldo Arenas and some other diasporas. Our roots.
—Yeah. So how much did the last roommate pay?
—What are you talking about? No te preocupe.
—You don’t have to. We can throw in a couple ciento dólares, I said.
—Listen, your mother treats me like a king and you’re her son.
—Okay, well at least groceries.
My grandfather pointed to the window and asked me if I’ve ever seen snow. I had, but not like that day. The sleet wasn’t clouding the city. It wasn’t settling particularly onto car roofs or sidewalk garbage heaps or the parking meters, but seemed like it was walking along the streets. I couldn’t forget the faces outside the window as our cab navigated the falling white towards the George Washington Bridge. For those seconds, I managed to see the whole world floating in the snow… moving with it. It was a blur of wet down jackets and coats that barely fit, some in hijabs, ushankas and kippahs, and those with layers opened displayed tunics, suits, dresses and flannels. The blur was a shroud of wrapped Jata, blonde whisks, thin and afro jet or brown, bobs, buns, combed cuts, and strawberry curls that hid freckles and oil and facial fur. The shroud was a spectrum of butterscotch and apricot tones, papaya, almonds, cocoa and cacao, dark aubergine to bisque and blanched floral, too, and others that covered everyone else. They were people who saw the day in squints, and some with full sea blue, others dark beads, some spaced apart by bulbed noses, or hooked ones. They were people who breathed and kissed the snow with pale lips, full cherubs, and dusky mouths. The people of the city taught me two things: That I was in the right place, and that I was ashamed.
I waited until mi abuelo dozed off so I could cry. The tears froze halfway down my face, and I didn’t even bother checking out the rest of Broadway before we merged onto the bridge. It felt like I wasn’t any one of those peoples. I was being tested. I didn’t know who I was outside of where I came from. I felt bad about not knowing anything else.
I felt bad about my corner in Miami, too. All I knew was that everyone there was Latino, and everyone spoke South Florida Spanish, South Florida English, or didn’t care to strengthen either. I was one of them. And, then again, I wasn’t either whenever the neon redheads who used to serve me lukewarm ham croquetas in the panaderías would chastise me for not speaking a word of Spanish. I wasn’t one of them when I rarely risked the hour traffic to the beach… never challenging the tall belts of palm trees, branches knocking down in the middle of US 1 and splitting windshields… never burying myself in South Beach under barbed seaweed-sand made of crushed shell and empty Heinekens. The only thing I was ever excited about was a can of Cuban soda. At least I could say that.
—Renolo… Abuelo Renolo… Oye.
—Where’s there Ironbeer around here?
—Ironbeer? What is that?
—Ironbeer, una lata de soda. Cubano. The red and yellow can, you know?
—You mean, EE-rohn bear? Está ahí a la vuelta in a Venezuelan bodega. I’ll take you when we get home.
And then, there we were by his North Bergen bus stop, a pole without a plaque of times and destinations—it standing, and we, too, under a kind shower of sunlight that made the height of the winter chill feel like spring. We thought to take advantage when the snow had finally rested to score that can of Ironbeer. EE-rohn bear. Its marooned spice was rare anywhere outside Miami and North Bergen and hasn’t existed in the motherland since Castro’s revolution. Renolo knew where to find it—the taste of acquired Caribbean treasure, something like sweet red Ironport, bubble gum and pineapple club. Maybe a hint of cool Colombian champagne… not so sure about the caramel of Dr. Pepper… not quite the salt and lemon verbena of Peruvian cream. Not Puerto Rican, not Jamaican, not Ecuadorian strawberry, not even American root beer. Something soft, subtle and easy on the suds, but not flat like Dominican raspberry either. It was something Cuba had long lost, and so now that I was back in territory, with familia, today had to be the day we drank to the reunion.
Mi abuelo and I didn’t really say anything until ten minutes passed without the 84 coming by. I brought up conversation about my latest interest in Martí’s modernismo literature—how love is lost in the Americas and how the only way to find it sometimes is to live in tragedy, at least tasting the sting of it, and hope that it will serve you. But then, he went off on welfare.
—I have never lived a day on government dime, he said.
—But some people can’t afford not to.
—No, no, no. Bullshit. If I can do it, if I can sail El Mariel with nothing but one hundred fifty in my pocket, solo de Cuba, con nadie, and hustle por un candy store hay en Harlem, anyone can. That was in 1960. I will never forget that.
—Well, I was on unemployment for over a year.
—No, he gasped.
—What’s wrong with that?
—Yeah, well, I was collecting y después me yancó everything. Todo. El sequestration, I said.
—Este fucking government… Y este fucking bus, shit. I don’t think it’s coming. You still want that EE-rohn bear?
—OK, let’s walk. It’s only a block away.
The air was still but we fought a foot of snow, almost breaking ourselves uphill. The Jersey ground was black and rock from tire mud and neglected shoveling. It was rink, too, and as we pegged and planted, steel-toes plowing, it churned to slush. The rime that bit the leather on my grandfather’s soles reminded him of how copper clay once stained his heels on the way to a Havana prison on December the 15th, 1959. I will never forget that, he said. Post-la revolucíon, Renolo gambling—not yet knowing towards America—and muddling words during a Dominoes game outside a cafe. He started high with double nines, and the cafe, he said, was along the jetty, which lead to La Cabaña. La caja de muertos. One hundred soldiers for every guerilla, my ass. Locked wrists.
I watched my grandfather pushing way past eighty years, trudging like a mud-glopped gator cursing the sinking swamp bank. He held onto me so he wouldn’t fall over. But he went on busting each step out the gray earth that liked to overcome him sometimes. I wondered how time in my Miami moved. If it unfroze. If it geared up from the stall of leisure. If it caught a missing bolt from its clock that now secured a second in the snow. Did Miami ask anyone how I was doing? If I was seeing the outside for a change, if I was in the bedroom still sinking within the pages, turning and turning them, learning my histories without really understanding them… if I was understanding how to make the American dream, how to live like a Cuban exile, an expatriate, an emigrant, a refugee, como un balseiro or an honest man trying to stay alive like Abuelo Renolo.
I still couldn’t believe it, but he told me Castro’s green men steered him into the military fort and jail by the Havana esplanade circling the bay, zigging and zagging around in corridors, which were more like tunnels or galeras. Mi abuelo made it very clear to me that he stayed in galera #10, he and a hundred other quasi-political prisoners sharing a shower and a super cell for two months. La caja de muertos.
—But the food was great… And we got to play Dominoes, he said.
—You don’t stop, don’t you?
—Yeah, man—no, I was someone there on the street and said something. Algo, no se. I don’t know what I said. It’s just how it goes. OK, mira, we’re here.
The bodega ran on all kinds of everything. There was a clerk behind the counter ranting over his Bluetooth headset. There was the hum of the freezers that wrapped around the shop. There was a distorted sound system blaring música merengue. Renolo was already gone as I shook the mush off my boots on the door rug. I watched the babbling clerk hang up as steam glided against the deli station walls behind him. He waved a rag around the air above the grill to relieve the fumes. He then scraped the grill grate clean. But the less I heard commotion behind the counter and the fading drone of the refrigerators, the more I understood the merengue to be a little more complicated than a perico ripiao rhythm. Perhaps it was another Latino lilt… it wasn’t the popular típico, nor the folk reverberation of Colombian vallenato, nor the orchestration of pambiche that made you feel like you were in the motherland dancing on the clay. No, it was something crazy like the 5/8 swing of Venezuelan merengue which was tough to catch, but I gave up. The speakers were broken anyway. My grandfather returned with the six-pack of Ironbeer…
—Oye, Abuelo, you said this place was Dominican, right?
—No way, he choked. Venezuelan.
—What’s that supposed to mean? Something wrong with Dominicans?
—They all sell drugs.
—How do you know that?
—Oh, I know.
The trip down the hill flashed. It wasn’t because we flattened the path earlier. It wasn’t because the sun had made peace with it. I had tumbled over in my thoughts… And my grandfather’s. Was this something I’d have to get used to? Another test? I did wonder as I spun down the block to his apartment about how he ended up here, about how he thought and lived, how he never quit the Greater New York and retired to Magic City. Maybe he was tired of running around—tired of seeing or hearing sufferance, too… denying them.
I slipped on the ice, but caught myself on mi abuelo’s shoulder. A pocket book that I had forgotten inside my loose coat fell out. He handed it to me, it was a collection of selected writings from José Martí. I wondered if I felt the same things the dead poet felt. I wondered if he’d feel what I was feeling now.
—How do you know all Dominicans sell drugs? I asked.
—When I used to work in the candy store hay en 161st y Broadway—it was the Seventies, I will never forget that—they would all come into my store to sell me cocaine that I didn’t want. And the Puerto Ricans, too. The four corners… All Cuban businesses, now no more. And it’s because of them.
—You know, all kinds of people sell drugs. And you can’t blame anyone for the things they do. People have reasons… sometimes not so good ones, and other times they’re the only things left to do. It’s not any one’s fault, either, who or what they’re born into. The circumstances are the problem. Una montaña de otras cosas that you don’t know… that I don’t know. I don’t judge. I mean, look, if it wasn’t for America feeling bad about Cubans being thrown out like trash and onto the curb, then things would’ve probably turn out differently for you.
—Hey, let me tell you, he muddled. I don’t judge, though.
—I don’t know, just try and listen. It’s the best way, at least I feel, someone can learn something. No one gave a shit about DR, definitely not Puerto Rico. Definitely still not today, man.
Sometimes it’s the silence that keeps us really listening… something like the walk home, or Abuelo Renolo back in his kitchen staring out the window, curtains flying and surrounding him, saying nothing and only watching the view of the Hudson river. I found myself there sitting at the table finishing my grandfather’s can of Cubano as I imagined him back on the Mariel Harbor eyeing the sea to opportunity. He was a twenty-year-old kid once reaping from the privilege he thought he had. Like Manuel Rabanal and his well-constructed beverage, mi abuelo rebuilt a new life in the free world… learning knew things about his peoples on the island, about his peoples with him in America, how the Americas peoples can sometimes be all these peoples. Renolo realized that his grandson had a mind and a mouth, too, then.
—So whatever happened after las ofensivas released you from prison?
—I called my mother back in Santiago de Cuba. I say, sálvame that ticket out of here… tenian personas lined up in galera #14.
—La casa de muertos.
—Yeah, I left that place the year after in February—that was February in 1960. I will never forget that, he said.
—You’re crazy. You and that old and golden strength. That fuerza de iron, right Abuelo? Como EE-rohn bear.
He came to the table.
—¿Sabes qué? I can handle the groceries, he said. I don’t want you to worry about them, OK? You just tell me what you need and I’ll take care of it.