Gorilla Heart

Gorilla Heart

Status: In Progress

Genre: Romance

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Details

Status: In Progress

Genre: Romance

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Summary

An essay about childhood in South Florida's Cuban-American community, and the growing pains of independent thought.
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Summary

An essay about childhood in South Florida's Cuban-American community, and the growing pains of independent thought.

Content

Submitted: February 14, 2017

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Content

Submitted: February 14, 2017

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I had a backward vision of heaven.

Everyone else aspired: lived righteously, prayed nightly, confessed monthly, flossed weekly. They toiled towards a future rise to a celestial kingdom of happiness, populated by all their loved ones who’d passed. But our heaven was gone; we’d started there and could never return.

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were wealthy young parents living in the upscale Havana suburb of Varadero when Fidel Castro's guerilla troops overthrew the right wing Batista government in 1959. Believing Cuba to be unsafe for citizens of their social class in the wake of the revolution, the two families fled to the United States in 1960 with very few of their personal assets. Neither set thought the state of affairs would last more than a year, and planned to return to Havana once things settled. My maternal great grandparents spent six months and most of their savings at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan before they realized that it would be wise to seek more reasonable and permanent accommodations.

I begged to hear about the old days almost every night, when my father tucked me into bed.

Tell me about Cuba, about when you were a boy…


The bedtime stories were plotless and repetitive. Everyone lived together on an island: my father and uncles, our cousins, my grandparents, Nana and Lito, and my great-grandparents Tuto and Bici. They all lived within walking distance, in mansions, and there were docks close by where my great-grandfather had a boat, a big one. And all these dear relatives, now cruelly separated by space and time and death, used to gather almost daily at the dock to embark on terrific voyages together on Tuto’s big boat, to sit atop the deck and share mouthfuls of pan con lechon and lemonade, to fish and swim and surf the boat’s generous wake.

And then this paradise, my inheritance, burned and crumbled without warning, the yachts and mansions looted by a cruel dictator, his name synonymous with pure evil. Castro: the devil incarnate, Hitler with a full beard. This Devil’s particular brand of Satanism was communism, a cruel plot to take everybody’s everything and give it to the government. My family barely escaped this heaven to hell transformation, handing over the houses and boats and jewelry in exchange for a ticket on the last flight to purgatory.

I was a product of this purgatory, an American. I knew no warmer reality. Gone were the days of the big boat. My beloved Bici and Tuto buried, and the rest of the family flung outward, diluted into the American landscape as if no city had the pork producing capacity to handle more than a couple Cubans at a time. Family became something that happened a few times a year, at holidays, or when someone died. My big boat was a station wagon that patiently navigated the Eisenhower Highway system to the coast on special occasions, my food the tasteless, processed white bread yankee sandwiches. Even my Spanish flirted dangerously with the flat unaccented speech of the gringos, the efficient but soulless rulers of purgatory.

To this end, I switched schools in the third grade. My parents pulled me from my regular elementary school and sent me to a special bilingual program. At the time, we lived at the little mustard colored house in Key Biscayne, only a few blocks from the regular elementary school. In a confusing turn, I started third grade not by walking the four blocks to school with my older brother, but to waiting at the bus stop down the street for a big yellow boat on wheels to take me into the city. At this new school, we took half our instruction in Spanish, and worked from textbooks shipped from Spain.

The transition proved traumatic. Although I’d been gung-ho about the idea at first, I quickly lost my nerve. For the first year or two, I purposely fumbled around in the morning, hoping to miss the bus and spend an extra hour in the car with mom or dad, the time valuable even if they were angry. In class, I feigned stomachaches to earn reprieves to the boy’s room, where I’d take up residence in a toilet stall and sob, pining for the good old days with all my friends at the old school. I made few new friends. Afternoons I would come home angry and demand to know why I needed to be sent off to some special school. At night I would mellow from emotional exhaustion and beg my father to put me to sleep with stories of the good old days, when everyone was together and happy.

But after a while something within me began to change. The long bus rides and longer school days caused me to miss meals and time with the family. In time, my homesickness grew into a sort of lonely independence, a feeling of separateness from the family. I engaged with the city around me and the world of academics as a private citizen, instead of someone’s kid. Suddenly school engrossed me, especially the words found within my Spanish textbooks, in them I found knowledge suddenly necessary for my new independent life.

A sixth grade social studies lesson proved crucial. We’d been studying European history, first medieval, then Renaissance, finally Enlightenment, the French Revolution. I’d been disgusted reading though dark ages, of cruel kings who ordered others around through the arbitrary power of their lineage. Perhaps anti-monarchism was the product of my growing Americanism, or my anger at having been bused off to a strange school. But the French Revolution hit me on a deeper level. Synapses began firing, concrete historical facts and political ideas connecting to deeply buried emotions and still developing preferences. The pages of Boveda, my Spanish Social Studies book, grew heavy under the weight of certain terms. Equality, Fraternity, Revolution. I felt swollen with revolutionary zeal, brimming with ideas that finally resounded with the longings of a long unsatisfied inner self. I wanted to storm the Bastille.

And then I flipped forward and saw the subheading, a page or two ahead of current lesson. Communism. I wondered what the great evil was doing on the page. Communism: Fidel’s National Socialism that ruined our Isle of Eden, the evil fueling the ever-present threat of an annihilating Russian attack, that sinister force which my G.I. Joe action figures fought tirelessly against. What did it have to do with my beloved Jacobins? I got worried. I skipped forward to the explanatory text box, double checked my findings in the glossary, waited for the bell and bombarded my teacher with questions.

I mulled it over on the long ride home, looking out of the rectangular bus window at the city streets of Miami. We dropped the poorest kids off first, the black kids who lived in concrete projects with the beige paint peeling and the laundry flapping in the front lawn. I wondered what was so wrong about striving towards the elimination of social classes, about common ownership and everyone being in it together. I thought class and color and money seemed as arbitrary a source of power as being born a Hapsburg or Bourbon. Why had my family fled from this? Wasn’t that togetherness, that collective experience what had made our heaven heaven?

Over the next few weeks, I exhausted my reference resources. I quickly burned through our Brittanica, gobbling up the volumes that included Lenin or Marx, Socialism, Anarchy, etc, always keeping a finger bookmarking a benign entry on Luxembourg or Marsupials in case a family member inquired about my research. I read books in the school library about Bolshevism and the Spanish Civil War. I learned Hemingway had written about the Republican effort in Spain, but a brief survey of The Old Man and the Sea proved fruitless.

I assembled a list of good guys and bad guys. The good guys labored, sweat, and bled on land owned by some rich dandies who didn’t care what came up from the soil as long as it was worth money. The good guys rounded up all the other factory workers to bargain collectively for their share; the bad guys hired goons to come in with clubs and rocks and break it up. As my list grew, I suddenly realized that I’d been lied to all these years. Sure, some of the bad guys were the ones I’d been taught about: Adolph, Benito, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible. And some of the old good ones could stay: Ghandi, Lincoln, Dr. King. But some other names started to come up bad; suddenly Christopher Columbus didn’t seem like such a prince, along with the rest of the conquistodores. And two names, etched on my evil list so firmly for so long, begged for a second look.

Fidel y Che.

I outed myself on a family Sunday dinner. Tradition dictated that Nana and Lito came over around five every Sunday and stayed through the end my grandfather’s post meal cigar. It started innocently enough, with a perfunctory question about what I was studying. The conversation moved from France to Spain. Generalissimo Franco’s name came up. Lito called him a hero. I pushed back. I asked about all the people he’d killed. I said he’d betrayed the people’s right to govern themselves. My father said that those people were a bunch of communists. And I blurted it out:

“I don’t think communism is so bad. Rich people were just exploiting peasants in Spain like in Cuba. Something had to be done.”

Forks fell on the floor. My brother looked amazed. Nana cried. Lito leaned over and slapped me, the first time I’d ever been hit by anyone besides my older brother. I felt a surge of some previously unknown mix of neurotransmitters run through my nervous system. My blood tingled.

I was sent to my room, the rest of my pork and potatoes confiscated. Not that I could have eaten. I tried to listen to their conversation through my closed door. Now they seemed to be arguing with each other, mostly my mother and Lito. I paced around the room, fuming.

I thought I was hearty enough for round two. I was a glutton for punishment. When the glass door slid shut behind the kitchen and the matches struck after the meal was over, it usually meant keep out. Father and grandfather would sit in the dark, silent behind the glass, bright orange circles waving slowly in the air as if they talked with their cigars instead of their voices. Usually, I studied in my room or helped with dishes and on their way out Nana and Lito crept into my room for a quick despedida. This time, I started towards my door twice and caught myself. I sat agitated on the bed, kicked at the shaggy blue carpet. This was my Bastille, my Moncada Barracks.

I stormed, out of my room and through the sliding glass door to the patio. I yelled something about free speech, about my right to my own views. Lito lunged out of his chair towards me, but he tripped and knocked over the table with the ashtray. My dad stood up and grabbed me by the collar, silent. The air was thick with ash; I felt it collecting in my eyes and hoped it would catch the tears before they ran down. My grandmother stepped into the open door space, called me every word for ungrateful in Spanish and English. I wrestled myself out from my father’s grip and ran back into my room.

I was alone now but still refused to cry. I ground the ash into my eyes with dusty fingers. I was right. I was brave. They didn’t respect me enough to listen. I was alone, but proud. My heart threatened to bounce clear out of my chest. I pounded my chest with both fists to better contain it. My gorilla heart, my guerilla heart. I was alone and proud and right and brave. History would absolve me, too. Me, Moses. Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses Moses


© Copyright 2017 ME Pesant. All rights reserved.

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