by Remy Dou
I feel like every love story should start somewhere romantic, like on the coast of Amalfi in Italy where the turquoise sea crashes against a city carved into a mountain, or maybe beneath the Egyptian moon where the Great Pyramids glow with the footprints of beautiful, ancient women. My story isn’t quite as exotic. It started in a cave. Well, not an actual cave.
He stood in front of me, trembling in the semi-darkness. Our friends waited outside of the synthetic structure that had been built nearly thirty years prior as part of the roller coaster attraction of Cuba’s National Zoo. I suppose Americans wouldn’t consider it an actual roller coaster, maybe more of a children’s train ride, but my friends and I never tired of riding it. The mini train sat broken at the station for the past six months, so we decided to hang out in the tunnel its tracks ran through.
My arms rested by my sides as I looked up at the glint in Mauricio’s eyes. The same bright white glistened off his cheekbones, moist with perspiration. He had selected “dare” only a minute before, so of course Ines would dare him to kiss me in the cave. Ines was my best friend. She knew I would have no issues kissing Mauricio, but I tried not to look so eager.
“Are you ready?” he said, but I think he meant to ask himself the question.
“Yes,” I said with a slight nod.
He bent down, bringing his perfect features closer to mine. His lips felt soft and rubbery. They tasted like salt water. I felt his breathing against my upper lip. Stiff legged, we pressed our lips together. My heart beat like the wings of a zun-zun feeding from the core of a wildflower.
“Ooh!” teased the group standing outside of the cave.
Awkwardly, Mauricio and I separated, half-smiling, half-blushing.
“I dared you to kiss her once Mauricio, not twenty times,” said Ines, walking toward us.
A sheepish smile popped onto Mauricio’s face. “I only kissed her once,” he said, defending himself.
“I’m pretty sure Sam didn’t mind,” said Eduardo.
“Very funny, Porky,” I shot back.
“You call me Porky now, but that’s not what you called me last night,” he retorted, wrapping his hands around his torso and pretending to kiss someone.
I ran up to slap him but he ran away, his laughter echoing against the synthetic walls.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough,” said Simon. “Whose turn is it now?”
We spent the rest of the day playing games all over the zoo. Porky dared Simon to walk into the rhinoceros’ pen, which he did, strutting inside like he and the massive beast had a special bond. In reality, we all knew the rhino had gone totally blind and was too old to chase anyone. Ines had her fair share of fun, too. She liked Simon, but her eyes really belonged to Anthony. Anthony was an older boy who had gotten placed at the zoo as part of his mandatory military service.
I don’t remember much more from that year other than my birthday the following week. I turned fourteen. The memories that remain are those of happy, laughing faces, my friends dancing, chasing, and cavorting, and the feeling that life was exactly what it should be. Mauricio and I kissed on a few other occasions that year. He even kissed Ines one time, but we wouldn’t start dating until we both turned seventeen.
The summer after I turned seventeen, Mauricio asked me to accompany him to the Malecon. The Malecon consisted of a broad esplanade built literally next to the ocean. The only thing that separated pedestrians from the Straits of Florida was a short, thick, stocky wall. I often sat on that wall, my feet swinging above the frothy water, staring at the horizon, imagining an American girl doing the same thing on the other side. At night, the nine o’clock cannon from Morro Castle at the end of the Malecon dispelled my reveries.
Mauricio and I walked the winding esplanade. We passed homeless people begging for money, a jazz trio playing on rickety instruments, a variety of male, female, and transvestite prostitutes, and of course, dozens of lovers. The music of the jazz trio blended with the sound of the ocean lapping against the coast. The stars lit the places where the streetlights had gone out. I couldn’t imagine a more romantic setting.
“Thank you for coming out here with me, Samantha,” he said as he walked by my side. I noticed when he picked me up from my house that he had worn his nicest slacks and his best shirt. He smelled like an old man’s perfume.
“Of course! And what’s with the Samantha? You never call me by my full name.”
He smiled and I’m pretty sure he was blushing, too.
“Oh, nothing, I mean, Sammy.”
“That’s better,” I said, adding, “isn’t it a beautiful night?”
“Yes,” he said.
We kept walking, lost in our own minds. I could sense his anxiety. He had brought me there to ask me to be his girlfriend, but he was very shy. He needed time to build up the courage to say anything. Even from the way he acted the previous week, Ines and I could tell something was about to happen. When he finally invited me here without the rest group, I knew this would be the day. I couldn’t wait to be his, but I did, patiently.
“Samantha, I mean, Sammy, um, I wanted to ask you a question,” he blurted.
We stopped walking and turned to face each other. My agitated heart flapped its little life away.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, this might sound stupid, and if it does, please ignore it. I don’t want you to feel like you have to say yes or anything. It might be a dumb idea,” he said. His eyes avoided mine.
“What are you talking about?” I said, hoping he didn’t actually think dating me was a dumb idea.
“Um,” he mumbled and then took a deep breath. Every part of me wanted him to ask already.
I bit my lip, subduing the suspense that caused my legs to tremble.
“I wanted to ask you,” he began, “would you be my girlfriend?”
His eyes met mind but immediately ran away. I waited for them to come back to me and greeted them with a big smile.
“Yes!” I said, a little more enthusiastically than I meant.
He bent down to kiss me and I wrapped my arms around his neck. Finally, the boy I thought about almost every moment of my life belonged to me.
After that night we spent everyday together. He greeted my mom through the kitchen window in the mornings when he came to pick me up. My mom liked him and had known him since he was born, so he was like family. Our friends called us “lovebirds” and made fun of us, but they knew this was bound to happen. We went everywhere hand-in-hand.
Mauricio and I built a connection that year. We learned to communicate with our eyes. We learned to talk with our hands. We learned to speak with our smiles. Even after I kissed him goodnight and watched him walk up the hill toward his home, I could hear him telling me how much he cared for me. I began worrying about getting permanent creases from all the smiling I did.
Like all good love stories, the unwarranted day finally arrived when our bond would face its greatest test. Mauricio’s father had upset the government. He ran a “black bag” operation out of their home, flying in goods from all over South America. For weeks now, their phone had been tapped. When Mauricio turned eighteen he enlisted in military service, as all young men had to do, but a family friend had tipped him off about his duties. The government was going to require him to spy on his father, reporting back once a month, or face jail time. Mauricio was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They planned for Mauricio to stow away on a small yacht heading to Nassau. From there he would fly to Spain and wait for his father. They had family in Spain that would take care of Mauricio. I cried like a baby when Mauricio told me all of this. I argued with him, suggesting other options, hoping for another way out. He had no choice. Within days he would depart.
We made love every night until he left, and every night I fell asleep in his arms while he stroked my hair. On the night before he left neither of us could keep from crying. Our tears coated every word and every gesture. They mixed in with the taste of our kisses and the warmth of our embrace. Just before he walked away from my house that morning I handed him a sealed plastic bag. The bag contained carefully folded letters, declaring my loyalty and faithfulness to him for the rest of my life. I held him tight when he hugged me for the last time. I did not want to ever let go. Finally, the dreaded moment came. He walked away holding the plastic bag close to his heart, his eyes darting back every few steps. I knew he wanted to imprint the memory of this morning. I stared back the entire time, communicating my love through my eyes. When I couldn’t see him any longer, my heart exploded and my entire world collapsed.
For months I couldn’t eat or sleep. At one point I thought I would die. At one point I wanted to die. Mauricio was gone. What was the point of anything? I visited his father everyday, hoping to hear news about Mauricio, but shortly afterward, the government imprisoned him. He was not allowed any visitors. I lay in bed every night, recommitting myself to Mauricio, imagining the day I would see him again. I didn’t know it then, but that day wouldn’t come for nearly ten more years.