by Taylor Lovullo

HAVANA, 1994

It was exactly 2:30am, and Joaquin left his small house located in Vedado, a small neighborhood outside of the city. He shut the door quietly behind him, and continued to walk across his front yard until he reached the mango tree. It was the high point of summer, and the fruits were growing in abundance— Joaquin looked at its long, green leaves and the little bright mangos hanging from the branches. He thought of how he and his mother used to sit underneath its shade on blazing, humid, summer days because it was unbearably hot in their home and they needed to get some fresh air. She would read to him pages from El Canto General, a poetry book by Pablo Neruda, a Chilean, while he would pick mangos off the ground and stuff them into his shirt, sweating and listening to the chaos of street vendors and old cars honking outside.                                    

A light breeze rustled the leaves and some palms overhead began to sway. It was still warm out, and Joaquin stood underneath the old mango tree and put his hand on the trunk. His eyes filled with tears as he thought about the memories and Neruda’s poems that always made him smile as a child. He took a few steps away and stood on the sidewalk, observed its cracked, uneven surface with unruly weeds growing through it, and thought of how he always used to look for insects in those little crevices with the other kids in the neighborhood and poke them with sticks. Those were the days, he thought. Before everything went to shit in this country.   

He closed his eyes and could see himself as a child running around careless and barefoot under the hot Caribbean sun with his two best friends, Yunel and Camilo. They were his next-door neighbors and Joaquin had known them for as long as he could remember—they were both a year older, and he looked up to them. He didn’t have siblings of his own, but he considered those two his brothers, even though they were all from different families. Yunel taught him how to hit a baseball right here on the patchy grass of this front lawn when they were little, and how to do front flips off the Malecon, or the sea wall, into the ocean.                                                              

Camilo was less athletic and free-spirited than Yunel, but Joaquin always secretly favored him. Like Joaquin, Camilo grew up without a father, and the two had a sort of unspoken bond because of it. Plus, he admired Camilo because he was always one of the smartest kids in school growing up—Everyone said that he was gifted in math and science, and that he would probably grow up to be an excellent doctor one day. He would always help Joaquin and Yunel with their homework, and was always so patient to explain everything.                                   

Joaquin turned around and looked at his house for what would most likely be the last time. He blinked back some more tears and smiled at the tiny, one-story building with a cement exterior and the chipping blue paint on the door. As he was turning away, the door cracked open. He could see his mother’s gaunt face and petite frame hiding behind it.                                         

“Come here, my love, I want to hug you one more time,” she said softly, but still loud enough for him to hear.

Joaquin crossed the lawn one more time, and embraced his mother on the patio.

“I love you so much, Mama,” he said. “I am so sorry.”

“I love you too, more than you will ever know. And don’t be sorry. You are doing the right thing— I will be fine here. I will be happy knowing that you are going to have a much better life somewhere else,” she responded.                                                                                        

He nodded, thinking about the hardships that the island had been facing for years now—the shortages, the oppression, the food rations—and then they broke from their embrace. “Goodbye, Mama.”                                                                                                                  

“Goodbye, Joaquin. But it’s not goodbye forever. I know it,” she whispered, while taking his hands in hers.                                                                                                                         

He nodded again.

“I have one more thing for you,” she said, choking up.

She disappeared inside for a moment and returned with an old, tattered book. It was El Canto General. A smile broke through Joaquin’s somber expression as he flipped through its pages, underlined and annotated with his mother’s fragile handwriting in blue ink. The pages with the poems that she read to him under the mango tree were dog-eared, with stars next to their titles. He flipped to the back cover, where there was an address printed. His mother had already given him the information of his cousins who had left the island many years ago and had settled in Miami, but she wanted him to have it somewhere else “just in case” he forgot. His cousins had been there since 1980, when Castro still let people emigrate from the country.

“Thank you,” he said, tucking it into his backpack and hugging her once more.

“Of course, my love. Now go, but please, just be careful.”

It was a full moon that night. The sea was illuminated by its reflection and looked almost silver, and its gentle waves lapped against the shore. Joaquin walked through the dense brush from the forest and stepped out into the opening. Once he was on the sand, he took off his sandals, closed his eyes, and exhaled deeply.                                                                           

He turned to the left and walked along the shore for about five minutes. He knew exactly where to go—he had already been to this spot with Yunel and Camilo three times while they were searching for the ideal place to depart.                                                                                        

They had agreed to leave Tuesday morning at 3:30am, which would allow them to escape the island in the dark, but the full moon would still permit them to see what they were doing. The light of dawn would guide them from that point on. They would be able to navigate their way across the ocean in the daylight.

“Joaquin!” He heard Yunel’s voice, calling him in a loud whisper.

“Hey, how’s it coming along?” Joaquin responded, approaching them. His heart fluttered as he looked at the makeshift raft that would be their transportation across the sea. It was made from tires, pipes, and wooden planks. They had constructed a few oars just in case, and it was just barely big enough to fit the three men, who were now all between 19 and 21 years-old. Camilo was hunched over, tinkering with an old outboard motor that he had acquired from his uncle, who seemed to have everything for the boys just when they needed it.                       

Camilo looked up at him and grinned. “We should be good to go. I just put in the fuel and am looking over it one more time. It’s old, you know.”                                                         

Joaquin and Yunel grinned back.

“But at least we have a motor,” Yunel said. He was trying to sound like his usual cheerful, confident self, but Joaquin could detect the fear in his voice.                  

Camilo stood up and sighed. “Alright, we’re ready,” he said.

The three looked at each other.  Joaquin unzipped his backpack, his hands shaking. He handed them each a bottle of water. They took a few sips and looked at each other’s now-solemn faces in the moonlight before stepping on board the raft and pushing themselves out to sea.

It was about 3pm now, and the young men were sitting in the raft, baking under the hot tropical sun. All three were sunburned and dehydrated, but they hadn’t encountered any life-threatening obstacles so far, so Joaquin considered his party lucky. They weren’t going too fast, but Camilo, who was steering and checking his compass, told them they were making good time and would probably hit land by sunrise the next morning.                                                                       

Yunel kept his eye on the fuel gauge, and Joaquin was assigned to watch the horizon for any boats in the distance. They had seen two so far, and both times, Joaquin felt his stomach drop and a rush of blood to go to his head, only to come a little bit closer and realize they were only fishing boats.

“Coast Guard?” Camilo would ask, turning around. His eyes flashed with panic.

“No, no. I think we’re all right,” Joaquin responded, peering through his binoculars.

Then they would fall silent, and the main concern would once again become the sharks that were abundant in this part of the strait between Florida and Cuba. Joaquin felt bad for the Cubans who couldn’t find engines for their rafts, because that meant they would have to sail or paddle, slaves to the winds and currents. He had heard about some people who took nearly an entire week to make it to Florida, after being blown off course and losing members to heatstroke or shark attacks. They would make it there in just over one full day.

Yunel broke a long silence. “‘Pies Mojados, Pies Secos.’”

“Wet Feet, Dry Feet,” Camilo replied in English.

Joaqui put down his binoculars and bit his tongue. “It kind of sounds like a children’s game,” he remarked.

“Yeah, it does,” Camilo said, with a tiny smile. “But it’s no game.”

Joaquin knew this. If they were intercepted at sea by the US Coast Guard, they would be sent back to Cuba, and most likely put in jail. But if they hit land, they would be granted asylum in the United States, and would be able to stay there.                                                             

Yunel changed the subject, and soon the three were talking about lighter matters, like baseball and fishing. A few more hours went by, and they knew that the worst heat of the afternoon had passed. There were a few dark clouds lingering in the sky from the east, but they did not panic: the weather forecast that they’d seen on the state-run channel on Camilo’s uncle’s television had said that there wouldn’t be any major storms near the island for the next few days.

Mierda,” Yunel cursed as the first raindrops fell. He had just mentioned that they were low on fuel a few moments before.

The sky was darkening, and the winds were picking up.

“The current’s getting stronger,” Camilo said, looking over his shoulder. “I’m going to keep steering… I think we have enough fuel to make it there. But can you guys still grab some oars and help out?”                                                                                                                       
They nodded, and Yunel took a seat behind Camilo while Joaquin sat more towards the rear. They began to row in silence as the rain fell heavier and more steadily. The water was black and growing choppier by the second. Joaquin felt nauseated and he had a very uneasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. This was a pretty sturdy raft, but he wasn’t sure if it would be able to withstand a tropical storm at sea.                                                                                             

One moment, he was blinking the water out of his eyes, rowing stoically and thinking about how his backpack must be getting soaked. He thought of his mother’s Pablo Neruda book, with its pages soggy and the blue ink smudged and running. Then, the next moment, he was suddenly airborne somehow and launched into the dark sea.                                                                  

He was flung far and deep and was submerged underwater for a moment, unable to process what had just happened. When he resurfaced, he found that it was difficult to tread water with the growing waves, and was overcome with anxiety when he saw that the raft was already dozens of feet away from him. He saw Camilo and Yunel hanging over the edge, looking and calling for him amidst the angry waters.                                                                                                     

“Camilo! Yunel! I’m over here!” Joaquin shouted, as thunder boomed in the distance. They didn’t seem to hear him. He felt that rush of blood to his head once again, and heard his heart pounding in his ears. Don’t lose me, he thought. PleaseI’m too young to die.                     

He took a deep breath, and began to swim towards them, trying not to think about any sharks that might have been nearby. After a few strokes, he paused and called again. Thankfully, this time they heard him. “Keep swimming!” Camilo screamed over the wind. They were paddling toward him now, but struggling to gain control of the steering. Joaquin kept swimming even though he could barely see and was fighting for breath.                             

A large, black wave emerged and engulfed him entirely. He panicked as he was pulled under, saltwater filling his mouth and nose. After a few seconds, he felt his all his thoughts beginning to fade.                                                                                                                    

Joaquin made one final effort to save himself—he wasn’t sure how long he’d been under or how far he was from the surface—but he extended his arm, hoping to get it out of the water. His eyes were closing.                                                                                                                                            

Almost immediately after reaching out, Joaquin felt someone grab onto his hand. He could hear Camilo shouting at Yunel as he was pulled up from the sea. The two men on the raft each grasped one of his shoulders and pulled him back on board. The raft rocked wildly for a moment, but they did not capsize. Yunel patted Joaquin’s back as he coughed profusely for a few moments and regained consciousness.                                                                                                         

Then, the three sat back down and did not say a word. They each picked up an oar, and had no choice but to hunker down and try to hold on, keep moving forward, and stay on course.

It was morning again, and the horizon to the east began to glow as the sun rose. The storm was over, and Camilo had declared about an hour before that they were almost to the Florida coast. Joaquin looked at his friends: Yunel was sleeping, sitting straight up. Camilo was still up front, rowing and pausing every now and then to check his compass. His face looked gray and grim in this lighting, and there were dark circles underneath his eyes. Joaquin knew he probably looked similar—they were all exhausted, famished, and shaken from the night before. When Yunel woke up, Joaquin knew it was his turn to nap, and he settled into an uneasy, dreamless sleep right after scanning the sea for any boats nearby.

“Wake up!” Yunel shouted, shaking Joaquin by the shoulders. Startled, he opened his eyes. Camilo and Yunel were standing up in the raft, looking alarmed.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

“That’s the US,” Yunel said quickly, pointing ahead. Joaquin couldn’t believe his eyes—it was only about 500 feet away.  “But look,” he gestured. A medium-sized white boat was rushing toward them from behind, coming so close that he could read the words “U.S. COAST GUARD” written on the hull. They heard a siren go off, and could make someone out shouting at them in rapid English through a megaphone.

Jump off and swim!!!” Camilo yelled, and all three jumped overboard, diving headfirst.

Underwater for that brief second, Joaquin could still hear the sirens. He went numb just thinking about being captured and repatriated back to Cuba, after everything they had gone through to get this far.                                                                                                                 

When he came up, he was facing the land. He started swimming, flailing his arms, and kicking his legs. He imagined himself as a machine— he picked up his speed and did not even look back to see where his friends where, nor to see that the Coast Guard was beginning to close in on them.                                                                                                                                            

He could hear the man with the megaphone still barking at them, and realized how close they were coming. He finally turned for a split second, and saw that Camilo and Yunel were only a few strokes behind him, and that the Coast Guards were now on a bright orange raft only trailing by a few yards, rushing towards them.                                                             

Joaquin kept kicking and stroking until he was sure he was close enough for his feet to reach the ocean’s floor. He started wading through the water, with the waves sloshing around his shoulders.

Soon, his torso was out of the water, then his knees, and then he was sprinting up the sand. Camilo and Yunel followed, and the three of them ran as fast as they could up the beach and did not stop running for several more minutes.                                                                      

The Cubans entered a neighborhood just as the sun was rising, illuminating everything in sight with its golden rays. The sky was vivid blue and clear, and before collapsing on the front lawn of a random house, Joaquin noticed that the green mass dancing above them in the breeze was a mango tree. He was wheezing and staring up at the sky, adrenaline still rushing through his body. Once he could collect his thoughts, he thought of his mother and how she was probably outside the little cement house in Vedado at this time, sitting under that mango tree like she did before work every morning. His eyes welled with tears, and a smile spread on his face.                      

He looked at his friends, who felt like his family more than ever now. They were still lying flat on the perfectly manicured, green grass. After a few seconds, Yunel got up on his knees and began praying.

Camilo caught his breath and sat up, too.

“We made it.”

About the Author:

taylor lovullo

Taylor Lovullo is a sophomore at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. with a major in Spanish & Latin American Languages, Literature, & Cultures. Taylor has always been interested in learning about the Spanish-speaking world, especially Cuba. She grew up in Southern California and also enjoys reading, studying other languages, and traveling.