Adela M. Brito
Pedro Luis Olivares stood by the outside counter of La Flor luncheonette sipping espresso and getting crumbs from his guava caramelized pastry on his white guayabera. On any other day, he’d brush those crumbs off immediately, but today, the twenty-four-year-old wanted to savor it all as he bid a final farewell.
He’d taken a walk around el Parque Central before coming to his favorite lunch spot for a snack. While he felt nostalgic and excited, he couldn’t shake the anxiety that had become a constant in his life for the last several months. As he walked around the perimeter of the park, Pedro tried his best not to look at anyone directly for fear that they’d somehow know of his plans. He stood at the foot of the statue of José Martí and asked the national hero for courage and strength. The gesture calmed him a bit, and he continued walking until he reached La Flor.
As he took the final sip of his cafecito, he looked at the rusty light blue Chevy Bel Air that was perpetually parked on the corner of San Rafael and tried to recall how long it’d been there. About ten years was his guess. One of its front tires had been flat for almost as long.
Conga-infused music seeped through the large to-go window and the pair of wide-open wooden slats that exposed the dining area. Pedro moved a few steps to his right to take a last look at this place where he and his friends had spent countless hours eating, chatting, or just listening to music.
The mustard walls had long faded and so had the fake flowers attached to macramé snakes dangling from the walls, though the black-and-white checkered floor had gracefully survived the times. Seated at small wooden tables, women used fans to stay cool and a large man with a gray rounded mustache fanned himself with a worn-down Panama straw hat, all the while sipping piping hot espresso from tiny cups of all colors. Chipped plates of white rice and fried sweet plantains – the only meal available that day – were being served by Dulce, the solitary waitress.
In the center of the room, a dark-skinned gentleman, wearing a beige four-pocket shirt like Pedro’s, twirled a much younger woman. His greased hair, mostly gray, still had streaks of black. The woman’s brown hair reached the waist of her knee-high skirt and swayed along with her. Their faces glistened with sweat.
Pedro remained transfixed by the music and the swirling hues of the young woman’s skirt, or rather, her perfectly shaped bottom and her strong mocha-colored legs. A tap on his shoulder made him jump, bringing him back to the moment and to the anxiety he had been feeling earlier.
“Que pasa?” Pedro said to his friend.
Marco told him to lower his voice and to switch to English, and they moved toward the old car to get more privacy.
“Me and Lazaro been looking for you for an hour,” Marco said. “We have problema.”
“Coño, did somebody find out?”
“No, no, thanks to God. We have problem with the…the…”
“Que? What do you mean?”
“You know, the…” Marco gestured, starting with his two fists together, then bringing them out a couple times to indicate something long.
Pedro’s eyes opened in recognition. “I think the name is…soap?”
Marco laughed at the mistake.
“Why do you laugh? You don’t know the name.” Pedro jabbed his friend’s shoulder.
“Sorry. Soap is the name for jabón.”
Then Pedro chuckled, too. Soap was the farthest thing from what they were speaking of. “Okay, okay, I know what you mean.” Still, he whispered to confirm, “La soga?”
Marco nodded. “How you say? Some big… Mickey Mouse bite them.”
“And they made a hole in one tire. I think we can fix that easy. Don’t know if we can get those things today, you know, good ones, stronger ones.”
Pedro was relieved that at least the inner tube could be easily repaired.
They had learned their choppy English from watching VHS tapes of American action and gangster films. Their favorite movie was Scarface, and their favorite actor was Sylvester Stallone.
Aside from their close bond of friendship, Pedro and Marco could pass as brothers. They’d been born a week apart, had dark thick hair, were about the same height, and lived one block from each other. As young classmates, they were practically attached at the hip until they began chasing girls as teens. Their friend Lazaro had nicknamed them Rambo and Rocky because they looked like Stallone without the cleft lip. They were both on the skinny side, but Pedro had earned the moniker Rambo because he was slightly stronger. Lazaro, twenty-six, was Marco’s cousin but looked nothing like him, with straight light brown hair and green eyes.
Pedro and Marco walked toward their neighborhood and reviewed their plan step-by-step for the hundredth time. For more than six months, they had been planning, observing, calculating, doing thousands of push-ups to build arm strength, and, mostly, hoping all their efforts would pay off. Lazaro had been the mastermind behind their current escape plan.
There would be a fourth young man joining them – Freddy. They sensed a chance of cold feet on his part, so they gave him information after the fact to keep him calm. Freddy was a little younger, twenty-two, and had only become a close confidant within the last few years.
As Pedro opened the door to his home, he had the impulse to call out to Marco who was almost at the corner, but he refrained. He had suddenly recalled the English word neither of them had known earlier – the item that needed to be strong, needed to hold wooden planks together and keep the oars in place, the crucial item that meant the difference between floating to freedom or drowning somewhere between Cuba and the Florida coast. Rope.
All the issues were resolved, and the tide was ideal for an escape ten days later, as Pedro, Marco, Lazaro, and Freddy, with their pants rolled up, pushed their raft into the water at about one in the morning. Freddy, who’d been a bottle of nerves on the ride there, was mumbling a prayer of some sort, and the others kept signaling him to be quiet.
Cojímar, the fishing village east of Havana, Cuba, was where they were departing from, and it was near a secluded and dilapidated barn where their raft had been put together and had been stored. Their vessel to freedom was comprised of old inner tubes below and wooden planks to create a floor and side panels to somewhat protect them from strong waves. Attached to the back was a circular contraction with a rudder that would push water, much like old steamboat’s paddle wheel, but they’d have to turn it by hand.
Their first goal was to reach international waters about thirteen miles out. The first twelve miles out are owned by Cuba and patrolled by officers. Two would row, then they’d switch. Then three would rest for one hour, while the other kept an eye on the compass, and pedaled. Then more rowing and pedaling, though not strenuously. They had to preserve their strength for the mid-point, about fifty miles out, when they would be swept into the Gulf and had to fight like madmen against the current to reach somewhat tamer, though still rough, waters. The trek could take about three days if a great amount of luck was on their side and they got picked up, or longer if it wasn’t. Either way, they would be at the mercy of the unpredictable sea.
Pedro and Freddy sat in the middle and synced up their rowing quickly, as the others reclined sideways, Marco in the front and Lazaro in their rear.
Marco shot up. “Mira,” he whispered as he pointed. He was the only one facing the shore.
The rowers turned to look, and Lazaro rose and turned, too. Flickers of light came from the road, but they faded within seconds. They hadn’t even traveled the length of a block, it seemed, so they were able to see through the trees on the shore. They stopped rowing so there wouldn’t be any noise, though they couldn’t do much about their pounding hearts. They lowered their heads and stayed in that uncomfortable position for about a minute.
Pedro turned his head, lifted it quickly, and saw no sign of light or a moving vehicle. “Vamos,” he whispered, and he and Freddy rowed much faster to gain more distance.
It seemed as if they had been rowing for less than a minute when they heard it. Pedro didn’t turn around; everyone knew the sound of a military jeep, and in the dead of night, it instilled even more fear. It seemed to be coming from the left, not the right where they had seen the lights. He didn’t know what to do. Row faster to get farther away or stop and remain motionless once again?
They didn’t have a chance to make the decision. There was a shot fired in their direction, and it hit the water a few feet behind them. Pedro gently placed his oar in a way that it would hang diagonally from the raft but not bang against anything, and signaled Freddy to do the same. They got down in the fetal position; there was no way for all four of them to fit longwise. Again, there was silence, and to Pedro, this lull seemed to last much longer.
It was decision time once again. Wait for whomever had shot at them to wade into the water to get closer aim, either at them or the inner tubes, which, if deflated, would capsize them, or go? One thing was certain: These military men never traveled alone. That meant there were two guns that would be aimed at them momentarily.
“¿Vamos?” Marco whispered.
“Un minuto,” responded Lazaro.
They remained in their positions for another eternal minute.
Lazaro held up three fingers, made sure the others saw them, and slowly brought each one down. At zero, Pedro and Freddy shot up, grabbed their oars, and rowed as fast as they could. Marco and Lazaro returned to their sideways positions.
Pedro ducked his head between his knees, pulled Freddy down with him, and saw Marco slide down. He hadn’t felt the vibration of the shots hitting the water like last time, though the raft did shake because of their quick moves. He heard a gurgling sound behind him, and then it stopped.
Had their water keg been hit? No, no, flowing water was constant. He heard the sound again and felt a tug at his shirt. Lazaro!
Pedro spun from the waist up and, even in the dark, he knew. His friend had been shot and was trying to speak. Pedro turned around completely and leaned over his friend.
“Laza…” Pedro couldn’t get the word out.
“Ay Dios mío,” Freddy said as his hands trembled.
Marco sat up. “Que?”
“La…” Pedro tried again.
Marco didn’t need to hear another sound and nearly climbed over Freddy to get closer.
Lazaro reached out, found Pedro’s hand, and held it tightly. Then he managed to speak. “Prométeme, que van a llegar a tierra libre.” He made Pedro promise they’d reach the land of the free.
“Sí, sí, te lo prometo,” Pedro vowed.
Pedro had no time to apply any pressure to his friend’s chest, he couldn’t say goodbye, couldn’t thank him for having been such a good friend to him or for being the one who had put forth the most effort to plan their escape. Lazaro was gone within seconds.
Freddy and Marco grabbed the oars and began to row for their lives.
The morning sun was already blazing as Pedro opened his eyes and rose with a start. “Lazaro!” he called out.
“Tranquilo, tranquilo. ¿No te acuerdas?” Freddy told Pedro to calm down and asked if he remembered what had happened.
Of course, he remembered, but was hoping it had simply been a nightmare.
Pedro had placed his extra T-shirt over Lazaro’s motionless face and had held the crucifix of the rosary tightly. He hadn’t remembered the exact words to the prayers his grandmother had taught him as a small boy, so he and the others had simply asked God to bless their companion. However, Pedro could not recall how he ended up passed out on the other side of the raft at some point in the night.
Marco leaned his head back to indicate Lazaro’s body was still there. Pedro saw they’d covered the body with a small tarp they’d brought to use as a flag to signal the Coast Guard. There was an odor, due to the hot sun, but not quite a stench. The wooden planks under Lazaro might be soaked with blood, and they all knew what animal that would attract.
It was time to follow through with the difficult oath the young men had made months ago. If it came to any of them not making it the whole way, they would bury him at sea and not risk sharks following the scent of blood and attacking the raft.
Pedro was relieved that, despite the distress, his friends had carried on, though now their plan was completely off balance. They were not sure how many miles they had rowed but were confident they could make it into international waters in the afternoon based on their initial calculations. According to the compass, they were still heading northeast toward Florida, which was the most vital factor.
“Marco, Freddy, tengo esperanza que vamos a llegar bien.” Pedro said he was hopeful they’d make it okay. Deep down, though, Pedro was anxious about the next obstacle. He sensed his friends felt the same, but nobody said so.
After losing Lazaro – the one who was the ultimate motivator and the strongest of them all – would they be able to fight the powerful currents of the Florida Straits and win?
What if they didn’t make it at all? No, no, he couldn’t think that. They would make it. They could not break their promise to their friend.
Pedro had been told a long time ago that when the Europeans arrived in America on giant ships, they were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. She would not be expecting them, no, but he made a promise to go see her one day.
Would they be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard halfway or would they have to make it to dry land on their own? Pedro desperately wished for the first scenario since the Gulf Stream did not provide a direct route in a northeastern direction to Florida. This powerful and possibly destructive stream was made of various currents and countercurrents, sending small boats and rafts near the Florida Keys – the desired destination – or toward the Gulf of Mexico that would most likely be fatal.
As he pedaled, Pedro heard the reverberation of conga drums in his head and visualized the majestic palm trees of his Cubita linda. He hoped there would be hundreds of the tall beauties to welcome them on the other side.
Night fell. This meant it had been almost twenty-four hours in the water. There was no way they could tell how far they had travelled, and the disbelief over Lazaro’s death weighed heavily in the small space between the three friends. But they were determined to not crack under the pressures still awaiting them.
“The air feels humid,” Pedro noted.
“I’m cold,” Freddy said.
“Coño, I’m just hungry,” Marco said.
They laughed and agreed that they all craved a homecooked meal. They ate some of the fruit they packed and drank water. They took turns relieving themselves into the water, then steered away as fast as they could. Their minds were consumed by how any action that might emit an odor– eating or peeing – would attract a shark. They hadn’t dealt with other human waste just yet, as they were rationing their food, but that, too, would have to be done in the water.
After a couple of hours of darkness, they felt some raindrops, but were relieved that it didn’t turn to rain. But their luck did not last long. Sometime in the middle of the night, there was a hard rainfall that lasted only about ten minutes, the longest ten minutes, it seemed, as they huddled under their tarp but still felt chilled to the bone.
As daylight arrived, their spirits were lifted as the warm sun soothed them. They ate some more and were able to make gains because it was less hot than it had been the day before. As Freddy was at the paddlewheel, and Pedro and Marco rowed in unison, they heard a clunk under the craft. It wasn’t loud, really, and didn’t shake them, so they paid it no mind. Soon enough, they realized what the sound had been a detached shark-bitten arm appeared next to them.
Before he could look way, Freddy gagged and could not hold in his vomit; thankfully, his face made it to over the edge in time to pollute the water and not the vessel. He still felt cold since the evening’s rain and felt feverish but did not want to complain to the others. The other two gagged but did not react in any other way. They did notice that Freddy seemed pale and made him keep an extra shirt on, for fear of hypothermia.
As the day drew on, the sun was no longer soothing; it was fierce and the young men’s lips were getting chapped, their eyes were dry and stinging from the salty sea air. They wanted to preserve the drinking water, but they each rinsed their eyes with some of it.
At dusk, Freddy awake from resting. “Where’s Lazaro?” he asked. “He was just here. We were talking and laughing. His sister was here, too. She’s so beautiful.”
Pedro and Marco looked at one another, and, realizing Freddy was hallucinating, Pedro simply said, “No, he isn’t here.” Then he lied, and instead of reminding him that Lazaro was dead, he said, “Remember, he decided not to come?”
Marco added, “We saw them both the other night. But they aren’t here now.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right, I forgot,” said Freddy shyly. Then he smiled and took a deep breath, as if he was simply lounging on a beach.
“Freddy, here, drink some water,” Pedro suggested.
Pedro and Marco, now very concerned for Freddy, ate fruit and peanuts, drank a shot of rum each to gain strength and keep warm in the night, and tried their best to gain more distance. They kept their eyes on the compass, glaring at it in the dim moonlight.
“Are we almost home? I’m hungry. Where are we going anyway?” Freddy started rising, as if he was simply stepping out of a car.
Both of his friends grabbed him and set him back down. “No, no, no, we’re not there yet. Remember, we’re going on vacation to Miami? All the pretty chicas are waiting for us at the beach,” Pedro said.
“Coño, why didn’t we just take a plane?” Freddy asked.
Pedro and Marco couldn’t hold in their laughter. “You’re right. That would’ve been so much better,” said Marco.
“For now, just relax, okay? We’ll be there soon,” Pedro said.
“Okay. I’m tired. Will you wake me up when we get there?” Freddy asked.
“We will,” Pedro promised.
By morning, neither Pedro or Marco knew what day it was. Day three or day four? Pedro had vomited twice already as the sun was rising. He rinsed his face with sea water, except for his eyes, but the salt stung his already-chapped and bloody lips. Marco complained that his vision was blurry.
Pedro pulled out his rosary and, again not recalling any prayers properly, just repeated, “Ay Dios mio, sálvanos” and other variations of “Oh my God, save us.”
Marco soon did the same, and as the two mumbled in desperation, Freddy awoke. He was himself again; he knew exactly where they were and what was happening.
Instead of joining in the prayers, he simply started sobbing.
Blowhorns in the afternoon startled the three young men who were passed out, though, to them, it wasn’t clear what afternoon they were waking up to. “United States Coast Guard, coming aboard!” was the last thing they remembered. They awoke in beds in a clinic at a detention center in South Florida; all three were connected to IVs and being treated for dehydration, severe sunburn, and bacterial infections.
About ten days later, they were released from the detention and processing center. They finally met their relatives, who exchanged phone numbers with one another. The three friends embraced as they said goodbye and went off with the strangers who they would now call family.
Adela M. Brito is completing an MFA in Fiction at the University of Memphis and working on a novel about the Cuban exile experience. She is a professional editor of fiction and memoir.