Earlier today, I read a post from my dear friend Jennifer Echols on the wisdom on never, ever, don’t-even-consider-it, throwing away any bit of writing. Go. Read. I’ll still be here. Promise.
So. You see what good can come from never, ever, don’t-even-consider-it, throwing away any bit of your writing? I mean, you just never know. As for myself, I’ve long been a proponent of the school of There’s No Such Thing As Wasted Writing. Because again, you just never know. So in that vein, I decided to go digging into my own vaults and pull out a piece of writing I love (of which I have many) that fits nowhere in particular (much like Jenn’s) but that I absolutely love and that I can’t seem to let go. I completed this entire manuscript but as Lovely Agent kindly put it, it read like two different books—the first half vastly different from the second.
She’s… not wrong. So it lives on my hard drive, waiting for me to decide how best to revise, but in the meantime, I still think the first chapter, which I dashed off in literally a couple hours when the idea hit, still remains one of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve ever committed to (virtual) paper. So I decided to share it.
And I hope you like it.
Chapter One of my 1960s-set story, Between Here & Gone
© 2012 Barbara Ferrer
CROWD HAILS CASTRO AS HE REACHES U.S. FOR AN 11-DAY VISIT
The New York Times
“Talia, I’m going to be sick.”
“Oh, no. Otra vez? How can you even have anything left?”
But Carlito was already leaning against me, the harsh, dry rattle of his heaves contrasting with the cold wet sounds of the waves slapping against the sides of the boat. While he gagged and jackknifed into my lap, I desperately groped for the bowl we’d tried to keep handy ever since we ran out of the Coca-Colas that we’d saved for him and his delicate stomach.
I was too late. He was losing what little remained, nothing but bile at this point, soaking through my skirt, hot and smelling acidic and faintly, ridiculously, of maduros. Probably nothing more than a product of exhausted and overwrought imagination. Wistful memory of the meal served at home before we left, colluding with the future.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Everything out of the ordinary.
None of the servants any the wiser that it would be the last time they’d be cooking for us, serving us, cleaning up after us.
Or maybe they’d known. No one could trust anyone else any longer. I wonder how many of them at least suspected? Might have been watching, waiting… Papi must have sensed it was close.
We should have just flown. We should have left—long before this. I tried telling them. I had desperately wanted to leave. Almost as much as I wanted to stay. Wanted things to be the way they’d been, childish pipe dream that it was. Wanted to curl up and die.
But Papi insisted that not only could we bring more with us on the boat, but that it would also serve us well in bringing extra money since we’d be leaving almost everything behind. What we still possessed was tied to the country in ways that would all too easily rouse suspicion if we tried to make substantial changes. Another reason we’d taken so long to leave. Gathering money and items in small increments, all very cloak and dagger in a way that might have been thrilling and exciting if not for the sheer terror overlaying every step or word.
So not only was La Damisela a beautiful cruiser, meticulously maintained, but for los americanos—they would appreciate not only the beauty and craftsmanship, but also find the notoriety of what it represented entirely too delicious to resist. All certain to add up to a nice sum. Not that he directly said so. At least, not to me. Just la niña—la princessa—no need to worry my precious little head with such trivialities.
What a joke. Everything was already different.
Yet so typical that he’d still think of me in such a way. Attempting to keep me locked away and preserved in some airtight box. Even after all that had already happened. So willfully blind to the fact that I’d left innocence behind in one shattering moment weeks ago. Although how could he be so callous? Who knew? Perhaps it was for his own benefit. Protecting himself.
Mami and Abuela had always said it wasn’t that the men in our lives didn’t care or weren’t aware. Just simply that they couldn’t handle our pain. It overwhelmed them. So instead they focused on pretending we were delicate flowers requiring protection. That we were the ones who didn’t understand. Even when they knew better.
Cause for more wisdom from Mami and Abuela—that, of all things, we were the ones who had to be strong. For them.
I wasn’t sure I could do it. I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to howl and scratch and spit and rip flesh from bones and rail at the inhumane unfairness of it all. Perhaps I was better at this pretending than even I had imagined. Because they—Papi, Mami, Abuela, Carlito—every one of them thought I was strong enough to cope.
Using a clean section of my skirt, I wiped Carlito’s mouth, dabbed the perspiration off his sweet face, trapped in that shimmering moment somewhere between boy and man. Pobrecito—there was so much he’d be missing. So much he should be experiencing that wasn’t this hell.
“Let me get you some water, hermanito.”
“Don’t go.” His voice cracked. Definitely more boy there, as his arms tightened around my waist—afraid I’d leave.
“But it’ll make you feel better.”
“It’ll make me throw up again.” Shades of a deeper tone. A surety. Almost against my will I smiled. So stubborn, my little brother. Since the cradle no one had known him as well as he knew himself—as he took every opportunity to remind us.
But I not only wanted to get him water, I wanted to change my clothes. Get out of this dress with its soaked, filthy skirt. Never mind that in sacrificing clothes in order to leave room for other items and the fact that this wasn’t the first time that I’d held Carlito through a bout of nausea, I didn’t have much left. At the very least, I could always borrow a pair of Carlito’s pants and a shirt. Anything would be better than sitting around in sodden, smelly cotton, clinging to my thighs, bare, since I’d discarded my girdle the first hour out. It was just too damp to be wearing the close-fitting torture device. Besides, clinging to social niceties was a waste of time.
“Carlito, m’ijo, I have to change my clothes.”
“Stay.” A command, coming easily from the young prince accustomed to getting his way, easy for me to ignore until his gaze fixed itself on my face, eyes enormous dark smudges in the pale oval of his face. So deceptive, since those eyes, in the light of day, were the same pale, brilliant green as Papi’s. The “eyes of the San Martín men” as Abuelita proclaimed time and again from her spot of honor at the foot of the French mahogany table. But in the dark, the color was inconsequential—overwhelmed by fear. Ignoring the wet and the stink and my own terror and fury, I gathered him close, my little brother, taller than me now, the future man of the family, forever the baby, holding him as the yacht bobbed quietly along the waves. We were saving our last bit of gas, I knew. For when we got close.
I closed my eyes and turned my face into the breeze drifting through the cabin’s open door, breathing deep—sea air always helped. Even under these circumstances.
I blinked, not sure if I’d drifted or not. But I must have, because where before there had been nothing but endless dark—
Through the window—tiny pinpricks of light in the distance, piercing the dark, gracias a Dios.
Lights that appeared to be standing still, only their reflections bobbing and weaving the slightest bit on the dark water. Looking like fireflies. Difficult, but not impossible to catch.
Beneath the smooth leather soles of my shoes, I felt the engines rumble to life, the distant lights continuing to beckon, reaching out, guiding us in.
“We’re here,” Carlito whispered, struggling to sit straighter. “Natalia, we’re here.”
“Yo se,” I whispered absently. But where?
My stare never strayed from the lights that drew closer, closer… so close I could practically touch them, then—gone, my hip stinging, fingers digging into the padded cushions of the bench as I struggled to regain my balance, to sit up, shaking my head to clear it of the buzzing whine.
That came through loud and clear. I hadn’t hit my head. But it felt like it as I stared at Abuelita who was tugging at my arm with one hand, pushing Carlito towards the cabin door with the other. “¡Ahora!”
“But Abuelita—where?” Carlito was already on his feet, one hand blindly reaching out to help me up as he stared through the door at the lights.
“Tirate—into the water!” she ordered, pushing past us and onto the deck, unfolding the hinged wood ladder bolted to the back of the boat. No. Just… no. That ladder—the center of each step worn several shades lighter—it was meant for sunny days and jumping into clear turquoise waters. Not desperate, nighttime tumbles into an inky, terrifying mystery.
“Your father hit something. He doesn’t know what. It was too dark.”
“Where is Papi—Mami? Why can’t we use the life raft?” I tried to charge past my grandmother, trying to get to the cockpit, but she grabbed my shoulders, shaking me.
“!Bastante! We can’t fit everything we need into the life raft if we are all in there. Do not worry, they are coming and we are getting everything important, but you must go over the side and get to shore. Now.”
“Wait! I need to get—”
She held my arm in a death grip. “You can’t.”
“No!” I wrenched away from her, lurching back towards the cabin and finding myself unceremoniously yanked back, the seams of my dress digging painfully into the soft flesh beneath my arms as my grandmother’s hold on the back of my dress tightened.
“Natalia, we do not have time.” Spinning me around she grasped my shoulders, her features softening for an instant. “He will get your things. Te lo juro, I’ll make sure he gets everything.”
“M’ijita, when have I ever let you down?”
It was futile. If she had to push me over the side herself she would. I would just have to trust her. I nodded, my hand going to the front of my dress, feeling for my gold chain, tracing the outline of the small cross I’d worn since my Confirmation and the other, weightier pendant that had only recently joined it. Turning, I headed for the opening where Carlito waited, pale, but eyes wide and sparkling and clearer than they’d been in hours.
But before I could take more than a step or two, my grandmother captured my arm, holding me back once again. “Natalia, your shoes—dejalos.”
“What?” I glanced down, almost shocked to find them still on my feet. And all of a sudden, it seemed vital—the most important thing—to win one battle. Keep just one thing. “No—they’re from Paris.” Papi had bought them for me on our last trip—when we visited the Sorbonne and he’d told me I could go and I entertained visions of myself as Audrey Hepburn or Leslie Caron. Seeing myself cavorting along the wide avenues and rues in my soft, black flats and capris and the slightly scratchy wool beret I’d bought from a street vendor on my final afternoon. I’d had such dreams—sharing coffees and quiet talks in sidewalk cafés. Taking long, romantic walks along the Seine Making plans. There had been so many plans. All so bright and beautiful.
“No importan. Who cares where they came from? Leave them. ”
I could feel the fast, heavy throb of my pulse, right in the crook of my elbow, just below where her fingers curled, tight and cold. “We need to move quickly. Your father’s not certain what damage the boat may have sustained. Tienes que irte.”
My mouth opened on a wordless scream at my grandmother’s harsh shove, the rage that drove the urge to fight and scratch breaking free of the iron shackles with which I’d restrained it, bubbling to the surface. My fists clenched—
“¡Ay!” Her breath rushed out in one explosive huff. “Fine. Suit yourself. I have no time for this nonsense.”
“But you’re coming? All of you?” Carlito asked, grabbing my shoulders and turning me toward the opening in the rail.
“Yes, yes—I am going to help your parents. We’ll be right behind you. You—” she pointed at Carlito, “take care of your sister.”
My laugh came out so bitter and full of rage, it was a shock the gleaming brass railing didn’t corrode in that instant.
“You’re kidding.” I laughed again. “He’s a baby.”
“I’m thirteen,” he retorted from where he waited, poised to jump, no second thought about it, the little idiot. Further proof that he had no business taking care of anyone.
Be careful, hermanito. Don’t swim too far out.
Why don’t we play with the dominoes, Carlito? We’ll make a design and I’ll let you knock them down.
No… no llores, m’ijito—don’t cry. It’s just an ice cream cone. Here, I’ll share mine with you. I’ll always share.
I took care of him.
“Bueno, m’ija, you’re the one acting like a baby and wasting valuable time.” Abuelita pointed a long elegant white finger at the rail. “He’s not.”
Because now he thought this was some big adventure. That it was exciting, like those stupid movies he’d spent his Saturdays watching in the dark, butter-scented confines of El Capitan. He was practically bouncing up and down, waiting for me. Waiting to begin. My eyes stinging, I pushed past him and started down the steps.
“Your shoes, Talia,” Carlito whispered as he started down after me, his feet slender and bare and white above my head.
I paused on the final rung before the ladder descended into the water and reached down, slipping off one shoe, then the other. Holding the pair in one hand high above my head, I lowered myself the rest of the way, gasping as I began treading water. It wasn’t cold—not really. I’d simply never gone swimming at night. Not in the ocean. Not fully clothed. Not like this—with this queer dread and its accompanying chill lapping at me, even more insistently than the waves.
It would be so easy to go limp—sink to the bottom.
But the lights… they were there, getting closer, bit by bit. Even faster if I would truly swim. I knew it. I was a strong swimmer. I could be there in no time. I could forget the shoes—it was stupid really. They were just shoes. My breath hitched in my chest, sharp like a knife, the serrated edge slicing from the base of my neck all the way down to my belly, cramping in hard knots. Who cared what they meant? Nothing really.
“What do you think lives in the water here? Do you think there might be sharks?”
“Shut up, Carlito.”
“Maybe jellyfish. I bet there are jellyfish.”
I didn’t even know where we were and he was asking about sharks. Or jellyfish. Or—
I screamed as something brushed my leg, long and slow—a few feet in front of me, a dark form surfaced and I screamed again, one shoe dropping from nerveless fingers to land beside me with a quiet splash.
“Don’t scare the sharks, hermana.”
“Carlito—it’s not funny. It’s not a joke. Don’t you understand? Don’t you? Don’t you?”
I kept saying it over and over, my shoulders burning from the strain, my lungs, my eyes, my legs, kicking and kicking—everything burning, water filling my nose, my ears, muffling the noises outside my head even as it made the sounds inside grow louder and louder—
Just let go… It would be so easy… Just let go… You know you want to…
“Stop—it’s okay. You’re here. You’re safe.”
I kicked some more, feeling a new pressure under my arms, shaking my head, long strands of hair whipping across my face and catching in my lashes and mouth.
“Stop, honey, you can stop, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
I shook my head again, rubbed my face against my shoulder—felt the gritty rasp of wet sand scratching my skin as the disembodied voice floated above me.
“Do you understand me?”
Slowly, I blinked, eyes stinging as fresh saline from tears cleared away the salt from the ocean water.
“Si—” I shook my head again. “Yes. I understand,” I said, my voice thin and brittle and rising as I looked around, frantic, trying to focus. “My little brother—”
“He’s fine, sweetheart.” Hands, warm and secure, like Tata Sucre, my long-ago nanny, draped a blanket over my shoulders, then turned them gently, focusing the beam from her flashlight on Carlito, hunched over on his hands and knees, gasping as a man draped a blanket over his body, back to looking slender and delicate—the terrified glance he shot my way returning him to the boy I had always looked out for.
“Ay, gracias a Dios—gracias madre santisima—gracias.” I scrabbled across the short distance separating us until I reached him, hauling him into my arms, fresh tears flooding my eyes as I felt his arms go around my neck, the heaving of his thin chest as he sobbed, our stealthy flight, the terrifying journey, this final race towards our future finally catching up to him. Reflexively, I crossed myself once, then twice, feeling again for my chain, making certain it was still there, before stroking the seal smooth curve of his head, murmuring reassurances that everything was all right. We were all right. I would take care of him. Like always.
The voice beside me quietly said, “You were right, John.” Then softer— “What’s your name, honey?”
I went to clutch the edges of the blanket, pull it tighter around Carlito, startled at what I found in my hand.
“Natalia San Martín,” I said softly, staring at the single black shoe, the leather soaked and dripping and ruined. “My name is Natalia San Martín. I’m… from Havana.”
It would be the last time I said that.