June 1942. I grew up next to the river. Every day, I woke up before the sun could appear behind the clouds. I ran, ran as my feet melted into the mud below. I ran to be close to my river, where I grew up. It never mattered that I was only 8 years old. I knew with my whole soul that I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. I was convinced the blue water was full of hidden crystals. I could lose myself in those waters, fishing in the early morning hours.
February, 1955. I’m going to see my cousin Ramón and my Uncle Domingo today. Walking down Avocado Street, I cross to the corner and see a policeman interrogating a woman. These days, my little town is so unfamiliar. The streets are quiet, and nobody dares to go out alone. We’re afraid.
When I stood there at the river, I knew I was in the safest place. When I stood there at the river, my feet only a small distance from those of my best friend Benito’s, it was like time lost itself, the hours hiding in the river and its sweet song.
We’re afraid. Batista’s cronies have completely overtaken my little town. They said that they were men of honor and men of uniform but it was all a painful lie. They use their guns every day and their consciences are never clean. I see the policeman and I want to run down another block, before I have to see his face. I hear him yelling. The sweet face of the young boy I once knew disappears into the sticky air.
“My brother! Come check out this fish!” His voice was light as it floated along the riverbed, where he stood high and mighty, barefoot on a flat gray stone. I went fishing every day with Benito. He taught me all that I needed to know. He never bragged about anything without backing it up. He was impulsive and never wore shoes and almost always invited himself over for dinner, but I loved him anyway. I loved him for his brotherhood, for his spontaneity and for threatening to beat the crap out of those kids who teased me at school.
I only fished with Benito. My father was always busy, my mother could care less, and Ramón was more into cars like his father Domingo. So in my love of fish I was alone, except with my best friend.
“¡Mira, mujerota! ¿Qué te pasa?”
He is screaming at an innocent woman who hasn’t done anything wrong. Sensing trouble, I hide behind a parked red car on the other side of the street, occasionally peering with a pounding heart. The paint of the car feels smooth against my palm, and I can feel one single drop of sweat cross my brow. I squint in the burning heat of the sun and see a boy of about 16 years run out from behind his mother, shoving the police officer back a few steps.
One always has to stand up straight, arms without any movement. There is no speaking allowed, mouths silent in honor. My father always told me and Benito: “You are not a part of their world. You’re only visiting.”
I stared at the fish Benito had caught, its skin glimmering before my eyes, its eyes dark brown. I ran my finger along its scales, mesmerized. The silver colors bounced off of one another, and occasionally a reflection of reds and purples would stream in and I couldn’t tell whether or not it was my imagination. I’d never seen a fish that big before. I tried to imagine all the things it had seen along its journey. “Let’s throw it back,” I suggested before I could stop myself.
“No way,” Benito sneered. “How are we going to eat tonight?” He stared down at the fish and his lips curled into a sly smile. “Here, gather the line. I’ll take care of this guy.”
I watch as the policeman stumbles back slightly. His hands curl into fists almost instantly. “Don’t talk to my mother that way!” the boy screams, his dark eyes full of rage. “Watch your mouth!”
“You watch your step boy.”
I find myself praying for the boy to quiet down.
“I watch you everyday, abusing and tormenting my neighbors!” The boy shouts louder. “I will not let you do it now. Get off my block! ¡Largate!” The boy’s sun kissed skin is dark with grime and dirt. He reaches and the policeman harder, but the man acts twice as fast and forces the boy onto the concrete.
Thump. Thump. All I can see is the boy’s lifeless body being thumped into the ground, a puppet whose strings have been cut loose.
Thump. Thump. My little feet were damp and I ran to Benito’s side. He removed the bait and line from the fish’s mouth with his deft fingers, and the fish hopped lifelessly gasping for air on my friend’s grimy palm. I realized that at any moment he was going to reach into his brown slacks for his trusted pocketknife.
I don’t even feel the tears falling down my cheeks but they are there. The policeman is Benito, the boy that used to be my best friend. My fingers are shaking furiously, and I am sure my heart has dropped too far down my chest. I gasp for air, but there is none. Almost like I am not a part of this world torn apart. Almost like I am just a visitor. I watch Benito stalk down the block, blood on his baton, walking in the same direction as the flow of the river. He fades into the hot sun and I see the boy and the man fade together and disappear right before my eyes.
When I look at the river and see the fish swimming to other worlds, I know that each of them has a different story. Where did you come from? What have your eyes seen? And then, I can’t help but think: What is there of the world outside my Cuba?
Age 17, Grade 12
Girls Write Now