I arrive at the airport, sweaty, dazed by drugs, my sweater hiding the chemo port. I haven’t been to where I’m going since Fidel died. Now it is my last wish.
Dizzy, I smell my favorite coffee, espresso with condensed milk: a “Havana cappuccino.” I’d drunk this at dawn after a party soaked in rum. Bitterness softened by thick milk poured from a tiny can. There’s the priest waving a smoking cigar, opening a new day.
In the distance, I see a man in jeans and a camo shirt rushing down the airport corridor to the gate. He’s a glimpse, a shadow, a ghost. He resembles Augusto. Another memory haunting me in this strange time. And then he is gone.
We had gone by ship, several hundred from each coast, breaking the embargo and triggering a lifetime of surveillance. Arriving in Havana, bursting with energy, we dropped onto the water in smaller boats, welcomed by the brigadistas in orange t-shirts. For weeks, we cut sugarcane. It was a thing we did “for change.” What difference does any of it make now?
I wasn’t sure who was left. Hercule, who was older than the rest of us, had died a few years back. Hercule, the leader who would take us to new places. Me, the woman warrior. We, fighting the war machine. Equal equal, I’d macheted cane as well as a man. I’d wanted sex. I’d wanted adventure.
We were workers, not tourists. Cutting cane, blisters and callouses, singing around campfires, soaked with sweat all day, every day. Augusto, teaching us how to move our quota ever upward, ten percent a week.
I had hair then, long and shining, not this buzz on my scalp I keep hidden under a knitted cap. My hair, long, auburn, curling at the ends. Humidity had wound it into ringlets.
We had belonged together, Hercule and me, fighting for the rights of all.
And then came the thief.
Ada had an “A” tattooed on her neck, gold hoops falling from her ears, jeans, batik tunic, sandals. She’d kept pulling her long hair behind her ears, out of her face, as she bent to pick up bags. Ada, our sightseeing guide, had taken Hercule away. And he’d never returned.
Back in the States, I’d stood on the shores of the inlet near my house, the sun above, the Atlantic lapping at low tide. “This sun is the Havana sun,” I told myself. “This water reaches as far as the shores of the Malecón. My friends in Cuba are back in their bubble. I can talk to them, in dreamtime. I can send love to them and they can tell me what I need to know. I have opened a pathway. I can return.”
And then I’d forgotten, for so many years.
I stop, shocked into silence by a sharp white light, a bridge of light. Through the wide glass window onto the runway, I see a horizon of pale blue sky laced with clouds.
My veins reverberate with poison. Dark shadows descend, an enveloping black fog.
The hardest part is not the metallic taste, the constant seasickness, the dullness, the lack of energy. It’s the dousing of that charge I recognize as my self when I wake, when I sit quietly, when I try to sleep but lie instead wondering about the end, the pain, the nothing. I wish I were a believer. I do trust in the arrival of day and night, the steady pattern shifting throughout the year, the seeding and birthing and growing, the harvest, the ending and fallow time, the rebirth. Seasons. Days. Minutes. Nanoseconds. And the awareness we seem to share. Sometimes enough to speak to each other, make love, fight, build.
Memories of another flight: Flimsy oxygen bags hanging from the ceiling over only a few seats. “Hard to believe this model is still in the air,” a retired American pilot had said. “I’m going to go get drunk with the crew.” I drank a lukewarm mojito in a plastic cup. Why not, if we were fated to fall from the air?
In a dream, I open my mouth to scream but I’m paralyzed and can’t make a sound. I’m in a cell, waiting. I can hear a thing outside, coming for me. I push past the terror and yell. That breaks the spell.
Then there is Antoine. A musician, artist, a healer who created medicines from ancient Aramaic formulas, Chinese herbs. Antoine, teasing me about my archaic revolutionary zeal. I knew him before his diagnosis. I was there the night he took his first handful of pills, with a double martini. There is the sterling silver tray, the Baccarat crystal stemware, and La Traviata playing softly in the background. He hadn’t known if the poison was going to kill him or save him, but if he didn’t take it, he’d die.
“You are with me,” he’d said, “so nothing bad can happen.”
“To life!” we shouted.
I’d carried a sample of Antoine’s blood in a tiny insulated glass vacuum vial. My mission was to share it with a boundary-breaking virologist who had agreed to test the sample and assess the effectiveness of a new interferon-based medication, maybe even offer me a sample.
After that crazy flight, we’d deplaned on the side of the runway, the crew rowdy with rum.
I hear music at the airport gate. A black baby grand rolls in, resembling the one stolen from the Tropicana shortly after nightlife evaporated in Castro’s Cuba. And then it disappears.
I’d met the virologist for chicken and rice at a paladar in the Vedado. I brought a bottle of rum, and five hundred-dollar bills, U.S., packaged with Antoine’s blood sample. I told the man what I expected in return: a recommendation, a protocol, a course of medication, something to help keep my friend alive.
How would I bring the meds back? In bottles from the minibar? But I hadn’t heard from him, despite my follow-up calls. It had seemed the trip was for nothing.
Months later, I’d received a message from the Cuban embassy in New York to pick up a letter sent by diplomatic pouch. “Re: Interferon,” the message from the virologist read. “None of the patients showed any clinical response to the therapy. The mean survival was fourteen weeks.”
A steward in a blue uniform helps me into a wheelchair and guides me to my window seat in the first row.
I love watching out the window when the plane takes off, the rumble, the pressure under the wings, the lift into the blue.
A voice as I fade: “Do you remember the waiting place, where everyone is just waiting? That’s where we are. Waiting.”
I’m awakened by a roar. Everything cloud-white. Somewhere down there is the water. My face heats up. A huge white cloud engulfs me, shining, filled with light.
I may never reach Havana.
Antoine had been the first person I’d called after my diagnosis.
“You can make it through this,” he’d said, “but you’ll never be the same.”
“You mean the surgery,” I’d said, “the chemo?”
“Death is always with you now. Always. Your companion.”
“Dancing with death,” I’d said it lightly. “You’ve been doing it a long time.” He gave me a hug.
“Some things you cannot control,” he said. “You’re walking the borders of life now.”
Everything is blue. The lights inside the airplane. Blue along the window edges, blue along the central aisle. Royal blue ovoid inserts above the exit sign.
The light grows stronger, silvery around the doorway of the cockpit. It’s not a real place. I’m floating.
The pilot speaks. I feel a jolt. A thunderstorm. The pilot says something. Inaudito. I understand him. Lightning flashes around us.
The ocean speaks. The storm breaks along the seawall below. I’m shaken out of my skin. How beautiful the waning light. I don’t want it to end.
I imagine another ending, another beginning. Another day, another night. Another lifetime. Another dissolving.
Clouds billow around me, everything appears solid—silver, white, gray, all shades in between. The fiery light grows ever brighter, shifting from silver to golden. It hurts. Yet I can’t look away. The light pulls me forward. Into what comes next.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of Stealing the Fire. Her short stories have been published in Nothing Short of 100, A Book on the Table, New Flash Fiction Review, Long Island Noir, The Literarian, Literary Mama, Ms. Magazine, The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Hampton Shorts, The East Hampton Star, and Redbook. Ciabattari writes the "Between the Lines" for BBC Culture and a weekly column for The Literary Hub, and is a regular contributor to NPR. Her book reviews and cultural criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, and Poets & Writers. She served as National Book Critics Circle president from 2008-2011, and as NBCC vice president/online from 2013 to 2019. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and Sonoma County, CA.