Flight   (excerpt)

Jorge trains his gaze on the broad seat back in front of him, balance his breath to match its seams avoids looking at the fatigues and muzzles patrolling the aisle. They will not stay long on the plane only the officials in polished shoes and ironed khaki will remain strategically among the rows. They watch the passengers with suspicion, a pen in hand, sights eager. Jorge is sweating in the only coat he has ever owned. Feels the blanket lining he paid a tailor to sew inside chafing at his nerves. It’s the heat. It’s his first time ever on a plane. It’s the quiet word hidden behind each passenger’s teeth.

The woman next to Jorge could easily be his younger sister. Her dark hair pulled back against the swelling in her eyes. She bites the inside corner of her lip. Her slender fingertips draw across the worn edge of her linen skirt. Jorge turns away, adjusts his feet, stares until intimately familiar with the curtain track above the rounded window. Six metal clasps hang a tweed curtain. “Seis,” Jorge repeats. Counting like when he was a boy behind his desk at La Salem. “Seis, doce, diez y ocho, viente y cuatro,” he counts higher as the plane lifts farther from the ground.

No one speaks on the flight. The woman next to him whimpers softly beneath the propeller’s droning. Jorge scans the adjacent seats, glances at her face only briefly then takes her hand in reassurance. “Listen,” he whispers, “get a hold of yourself sister. They can still send us back.” She looks up from her lap finally drawn out of herself to notice Jorge for the first time. His pleading expression sobers her into the present moment. She expands her ribs and draws her wet lashes together. The shuddering mutes and it is back to silence, each rigid body an island against the tide.

In the oval Jorge watches storm clouds gathering, their bright cumulous doting the expanse of blue. He escapes into the unfolding sky, back to the rocking tip of oars. That first solo row past the swampy edges of the tíbets. Where it was just him in a wooden boat with the taraya at his ankles. Propelled only by his senses and the repetitive pull of his shoulders in unison. What called him to a place was just the feel of the water the insistence in his legs to stand. The fishing net familiar in his grasp. Jorge learned how and where to twist the fibers into knots. He recalled the mangrove-dyed strands boiled in a pot over driftwood flames. Then after how the ochre net cast into turquoise. How he centered himself, draped the cordage over wrist, propelled the waited ends, trusting the middle pull to bring back all the edges.

***

When Jorge was a boy in Cueto his world was six blocks wide. In the mornings he dressed for school in slacks and a white t-shirt, Jorge climbed the ladder for the zinc rainwater tank in the backyard. He pumped the metal handle to start the flow of water into the house. Jorge flip-flopped in a hurry through the verdant patch flanked by banana trees, ferns, and a dry stack rock wall. Removing his shoes at the cement step, he traveled through the living room to watch his mother light the charcoal stove, bring water to boil in a pot, make coffee through a tapered sock. He watched from the doorway. The kitchen being one room in the house he was not allowed to enter after letting a pan of maduros flame with inattention.

For breakfast, his mother alternated between oatmeal and hard-boiled eggs. Eggs are Jorge’s favorite, oatmeal his sister’s, and his mother will not be moved to cook additional preparations. She was also indifferent to the objections of her children, who rotated between elation and disappointment every weekday morning. Afterwards, Jorge and his sister walked together to the Baptist elementary school. Jorge memorized lines of Martí and added fractions. He was quick to study but easily meandered to inattention. At noon, his sandaled feet competed for a faster time to the house. At the dining room table he was chastised for swinging his legs under the chair and picking at his food until he was released to sit by the radio with the volume low.

Jorge waited out the midday torrents by occupying himself near the back glass door. He watched the continuous drops rhythm into broad green leaves dampening the red soil underneath. Awaiting a pause of rain he played marbles by himself, sharpened the tip of his painted top, or collected rubber band ammunition. On car rides through the rural sketch of Eastern lands, Jorge hung his skinny arms from the back window of his Father’s yellow Lincoln sedan. Any horse near the roadway was met with Jorge’s latched thumb and index. He launched attacks that cause animals to buck and guajiro riders to rear and scramble.

There was also the incident with a thin linear saw one humid afternoon. Once a week it was Jorge’s job to fetch and kill a chicken for dinner. He entered the wire coop and zigzag chased a panic of feathers, finally grabbing a bird to swing dead by the neck. Handing his mother the fowl, he then resumed a test of strength with a young banana tree. Finding the rusty saw on the driveway, he could not image the minuscule teeth drawing so much as a scratch. So to test his theory he inched an arm through the chain link separating his yard from the neighbors. After four days of diligent labor, Jorge downed the entire tree, nearly clipping the neighboring roof. And while Jorge laid flat against the prickly grass he heard the flapping of livid hands and sharpness of raised voices in puzzlement at how the tree could topple with no wind at all.

On such occasions, his mother took her pink house slipper to his backside, hiding behind the front door until he entered the house. He was often misbehaving and forcing his mother into more creative means of punishment. The worst of which meant skipping a Friday night at the Arab Club with Pedro. It was the one location in town with a TV and Jorge received entrance on account of Pedro’s friendship and Lebanese heritage. On Friday nights, the boys scooted across the road to watch Lucha Libre or boxing. They took empanadas filled with ground beef and homemade yogurt. They took a dozen stuffed grape leaves bursting with tender rice and raisins. The two boys were the club’s youngest fixtures, hunching close to the picture glass while elders passed bets and cigars and Arabic.

On punishment Jorge must run additional errands for his mother. He walked slowly to the dry good store, not Casa Rodrigo with the hitching post out front where they scooped beans from a sack, instead Sucrusal with a red painted sign where Jorge once knocked over the suitcase display. Jorge brought the groceries home in a paper bag and sulk, forgetting the coins in his pocket to pay the tab. And though the grocer just added the items to the family credit, Jorge’s mother will not have her reputation tarnished. So Jorge was sent back with the urgency of slipper whacks and absent-mindedness added to the expanding list of grievances.

Nights when Jorge is not in trouble, his mother Zoila sets aside her strictness. She entertains the children with monopoly or picture books, trivia or radio dramas. Often chess was scattered across the floor until it was time to brush teeth and his mother nested in a chair with a novel and espresso.

By contrast, Jorge’s father, Amador, was rarely home. He traveled often for work and his arrival marks a shift in temperature, a deference, and seriousness not otherwise present. There was never yelling. Never open hostility in front of the children, but rather a sullen polarity. An oppositional under toe pulling at the house until it finally became unbearable and Zoila gathered both children to head for San Luís.

Jorge packed his suitcase, a pouch of shooters, and his wooden top. He played final matches crouched in front of the house. He sent the prized top spinning from the coiled thread and into the opponent’s piece. After he stuffed the last army figurines into his pockets and grabbed his handball, he shuffled behind his mother and sister on the walk to the train depot. His mother wore a straight lined cotton dress, one hand around a suitcase, the other grasping his sister, Rosamaría. Jorge managed with both hands to waggle the brass-latched suitcase all the way to the railway platform. Then they wait on the wooden boardwalk under the corrugated tin roof in the gathering heat.

Jorge liked the train, looked forward to the thrill of passing scenery, the palms and damp rusty hills, elbowing his sister from the view. The conductor knew Jorge liked chicken sandwiches and called out the order as soon as he punches the ticket.

Eating out was a treat reserved only for haircut Sundays in the summer when Amador brought Jorge back into Cueto from the beach. On those days Jorge waited at the barbershop where the guajiros spat tobacco from a porch and leaned against the stucco like bulls with an itch. They never said much and Jorge preferred to scurry in to the tiled room to the metal chair that pumped upwards and faced a mirrored counter with jars of combs. He watched the ceiling fans whisk in futility and stiffened in his seat. There was something about the emission of cigar smoke, the decaying teeth, the firmness of the guajiros baked grip that Jorge recognized as both intimate and unsettling.

When his father collected him they went across the street. It was the only occasion Jorge set foot in the cafe for an orange juice and a biscochito. He always promised himself to chew slowly, savor the bright pulp in his mouth, but the flavors refused patience and Jorge left trying to hold the memory of butter, anise, and citrus.

Then he walked with his father to the double matinee. Amador’s gait was lanky, unattached, shoulders drawn outward with indifference. There was a formality to the ritual. As though he knew only how to be with his son in the darkness and flicker of a back-to-back thriller. Jorge’s father was often a distant source of severity, an outlying star in the familial constellation. His mother was the center. His sister a survivable annoyance and the moves between his father and grandparent’s house just another seasonal rhythm, predictable as afternoon rains.  

The single indignity of his grandparents in San Luís was the one room schoolhouse. How could Jorge be expected to concentrate looking at the back of his sister’s ribboned hair? The teacher fumbled around the chalkboard and Jorge grew restless. He threw paper, did homework as the lecture meandered on, and tried without success to tame his impatience. And when the teacher kicked him out on a Monday afternoon, and because Jorge had bitten his friend Pedro once when he was very angry, his mother sends him to boxing class in a neighbor’s garage.

It was more a shed than a garage with a pull up front door. It was a box of sweat and decaying attachments from the tropical downpours and reused gloves. The canvas bag hung at an angle and looked as worn out around the seams as the teacher did around the face. The teacher had been an amateur fighter with failed ambition. His cheeks are all angles, his pitch a gripping hustle. He barked, prodded then demanded attention. So when Jorge tugged at the gloves and squared off to the bag he lets loose a fury, punishing the rocking lump for all he could not answer.

***

After take off, Jorge closes his eyes then opens them just as suddenly. He fights the muscles in his stomach lurching to heave. He levels sights on the waters below, submerges himself into curvatures of indigo reef and emerald motion. He lets the mechanical engine whir envelope his head. The flight to Bermuda takes an hour and every minute is ticking in his pulse.

He starts with the hours rolling into each other just before the string of planes, the final checkpoint and the guards opening his flimsy cardboard suitcase. Their uncareful hands rummaging his allowable three shirts, three pants, three pairs of socks, and three underwear.

In the Santiago airport Jorge watches his parent’s expressions and commits them to memory. His mother’s horned rimmed glasses and increasing streak of white hair, her elegant silver dress with a thin red belt at her center. His father’s painted smirk, the purposeful crease in his straight navy tie. The rounded watch on his sister’s left wrist. Her cropped hair and the content ease now absent from her face. His fidgety twin Godsons in their matching guyaberas both eager for what the three kings will bring them in the coming days.

Jorge moves between sides, two clusters of family. When Amador’s newest mistress and several children were known there was nothing left for his parents to say. Amador moved to Palma Soriano. Left his municipal judgeship to take over the family legal practice. Zoila and Rosamaría came to live with the maternal grandparents in Santiago. This moment in the airport is the first encounter between Jorge’s parents in years. Without a mountain range between them there is awkward stalemate.

Jorge’s oversized leather shoes crease with each step back and forth. His father shakes his hand and pats his shoulder. Only embracing Jorge a single time before he must leave. His mother cups his cheeks holding him close, embraces for several minutes before watching him go. The family looks then away. They goodbye hidden in the open, grieve the people standing before them, silently graveyard their hearts.

***

The post office in San Luís was always peeling. The white wash on the exterior siding buckled and yielded to the daily sticky torrents. As a child, Jorge liked to run his fingers alongside the rough patches sometimes tearing at a loose contour. His maternal grandparents ran the post office for as long as he could remember. After breakfast his grandfather walked from the back house around to the sunken patio, then alongside the fence to unlock the office door. The single room had three service windows that opened to an elevated sidewalk protected by an overhanging. At lunchtime his grandfather sent the postal staff home, clacking shut the side door and again retreating to the back residence.

As a toddler Jorge was often placed on the tile floor below the front counter. Even then he was observant and easily fervored to compulsion. So when the opportunity of scissors landed on the floor and the women employees in skirts and heels graced past, Jorge sat in waiting. With both hands around an implement loop, he paused until the gray skirts lingered, he lifted the sharps up to slice into the fabric, so by the end of the day every postal matron had vertical shreds.

Jorge’s curiosity and energy became experiments in the physics of temptation and escape, a chronicle of the workings of possibility. So years later when packages to be sorted were left in a pile near the office door, Jorge had only to be quick. Since there was a single office door that opened to the side walkway along the fence, Jorge paused for the clerks to be occupied in their round window cubbies. Once engrossed in helping customers with shipping questions or confirming local rumors, Jorge crept to the office door. From the walkway there were two steps up into the post office, an easy reach for Jorge who went unnoticed hiding below the threshold.

With a parcel in hand, Jorge crossed the open patio to hide in the shed reserved for garden tools. The ease of his take did not diminish the pleasure of tearing at the cardboard folds and unstuffing the newspaper. The first box contained a thinly pressed shirt wrapped in tissue paper. But Jorge was keen to the odds of probability. So the next day he took two little packages, one of which offers him chocolate for persistence. And sitting in the dim shed he unwrapped his glorious finds with a twinge of satisfaction widening across his face.

A week on and the shed door can no longer close fully. The number of residents with complaints was also on the rise. His grandfather knew that in the equation of mischief, Jorge was the most likely variable. Being a watchful man, he took up residence in a corner of the post. Jorge did not disappoint and inched an arm across the doorway and floor to curl around a box. Jorge tucked the box by his side, took note of a warped section of paint to pick later then dashed towards the shed. He turned sharply, hugging the building as if it would offer protection. Jorge then wiggled the horizontal lock open with a click. He pulled the slatted door in short bursts so as not to dislodge any cardboard remnants. Because he could no longer fit completely inside, he tore the prize crouching at the entry, rustling newspaper and box parts with every movement.

It is his grandfather’s yell that pierces his determination. There were words spoken amidst the dragging of his ear but Jorge concentrated mostly on his mother’s slipper to follow. It was far worse, however, and he was made to spend the entire day in his pajamas in bed. His feet were not to touch the floor. So Jorge slept as long as his eyes will let him, and then took to doing headstands propped from the bed. For amusement he tried to contort his body into various shapes, then pretended to be a whispering radio announcer. Later he draped his arms and torso off the side to feel an upside down swell in his face. And in a moment of imaginative immersion, he started a cheery whistle. His mother’s silhouette cut immediately into the doorway. “Absolutely no whistling or singing!” she bellowed and it was only then that Jorge realized the gravity of misdeeds.

To stay out of trouble after, Jorge took his siestas amid the citrus grove on the leaning slope behind the post office residence. With a stack of National Geographic borrowed from a neighbor, Jorge eased into the hammock of an outlying terrace. He marveled at the impossibilities of planets, snow capped peaks, and elongated skyscrapers framed in bright colors across every spread.

Occasionally his grandfather emerged from the porch with a netting mask and smoking can. The wooden stacks and colonies became Jorge’s new fixation. He watched the hoard cloud and fury, engage in unpredictable lines of accumulating flight. But merely watching did not satiate his desire to interact. So Jorge built a small pile of half rotting oranges from the grove surrounding the hive. Then he crouched next to his citrus ammunition. With anticipation building he hurled two right-handed blows before taking off toward the house. The colony zips quickly forward from the circular opening but only a single bee inspected behind the hive. By then Jorge is already in motion up the stairs. With nose inches from the windowpane he watched the furious stinger knock and buzz and swell.

It is an image that comes to Jorge years later in High School when the city itself feels like a simmering hive and Jorge must decide for himself whether to provoke or run.

***

In Santiago any young man on the street after dark became suspect. Batista’s microhondas drove unmarked dusty cars. They scoured the avenues in units of three: one army, one navy, and one air force. If Jorge spotted a uniform during his high school commute he crossed the street looking down. On the rare occasions Jorge drove his father’s car, he never passed a microhonda. Instead he drove excessively slow or pulled completely off the road. At night the uniforms grabbed three random men from the street, the offenders were blindfolded, driven beyond the city and then shot in the head.

Occasionally mid lesson the La Salle high school bells rang. The urgent discord, their metallic echo became the sounds for nearby uniforms on the hunt. Desk legs scraped against the ceramic tile. Feet scuffled to the second level open hallway to look down on the broad courtyard below. The headmaster gesturing wildly from the middle of the ground floor. Like a heron among the weeds he prodded the boys to run faster. They became a tide of narrow shoulders bleeding out into the city. Their blue shirts and ties tore through opposite blocks, commingling and spreading apart through the avenues and bus lines.

For safety Jorge was sent on summer vacation to live with a cousin’s family outside the city. He borrowed their car at four am to fish before his cousin left to a refinery accounting job. In the early drive to Siboney Beach, Jorge listened to the wheels rut against the final unpaved stretch. He greeted the marigold horizon standing on the cement half wall where stream and ocean touched. With a hand line at the convergence of waters Jorge baited the hook. He knew the glistening Jiguaguas crossed every morning from the mouth of the creek toward the waves. Jorge stilled on the concrete ledge, waited for the blushing light to crown the sky, for the glassy scales to dart past. With a cotton hand line, Jorge hooked three or four fish daily, kept the floppy catch in an empty coffee can on the passenger seat floor. Rolled the windows down for his drive back. Later he brushed the scales raw, cuts below the gills and cleaned the interior. Left the tender papaya cuts to be fried by the maid at dinner.  

In the afternoons Jorge rode his bike back and forth along the dirt road between the front porch and the first chain link gate. Jorge lost himself in the peddling, watched the bell humped cows graze in the distance. Jorge circled back and rode again marking time in rubber tracks. He pedaled another turn only then noticing an unfamiliar line approaching.

The uniforms patrolled the highway between Santiago and Siboney Beach but never this close to the farm. Jorge’s first impulse was to abandon the bike, to sprint until exhausted and then push on further. But he knew running would only bring suspicion. Jorge wobbled the spokes forward toward the tank, armored car, and pair of military trucks. The two seaters brimmed with uniforms perched in every opening. Their automatics saluted the overhead glare, their trigger fingers poised. Jorge felt them at his back when he turned around, knew every barrel was trained on him. With ten feet to the porch steps, the uniforms open fired. Jorge leapt off the bike. He scrambled on all fours into a dirt hole next to the Framboyan tree. The shots riddled the canopy, tattered branches, and dropped orange blossoms until debris scattered onto Jorge’s huddled body.

Jorge stayed curled in the ground. His chest pounding for breath, his ankles tucked and frozen. He waited the uniforms out. He remained hidden until the voices stop, the engines grinding and both machinery and men steered back to the road.

For two days Jorge refused to leave the house. He alternated between reading on the narrow metal cot and kneeling on a wooden chair by the window to look out. The tree and his cousin’s nerves were the only markers of incident. He studied the blushing spread of leaves, the tree’s umbrella curvature reaching far from the trunk.

He thought of his tío Luís. How the man spent four days in a tree to escape Machado’s arms. Luís never shied away from speaking his mind, a man who loved the land, read plants like unfolding libraries, and rubbed soil through his fingers. For those days in the tree tío Luís fell in love with tía Carmen. He longed for her voice singing at the base of the trunk. Imagined reaching for her midnight curls while they sat together on the sand at dusk. Instead their exchange was hushed daily glimpses, Carmen’s songs leaping upwards from the roots. Luís pausing with the bucket partly to watch Carmen and partly to ensure no one followed her. He slid the rope down slowly. She removed soiled dishes from the pale and his now empty tin. From her basket she offered a bowl of rice with chicken, fried plantains, a canteen of water. Luís lifted the nourishment one hand over the other. And without exchanging a word Carmen’s singing lingered in the distance as her frame disappeared from view. Luis strained to hear every last resonant syllable and thought of her delicate fingers as he tied his chest to the tree before falling asleep.

It was tío Luís who always saw a political shift coming. Like an approaching hurricane he could call the threatening path. On his solo excursions into the mountains and jungles he met men with beards and ideas. He spoke of their intrusion “I have seen many,” he’d said “but it’s not tranquility that they are after.”

***