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Flight 603
A different perspective on exile

By Siamak Kiarostami
April 21, 2000
The Iranian

Miami International Airport, 1978. I have only two hours left. The girl next to me, she is wearing too much perfume and I don't like her cigarette smoke much either. I tried to make polite conversation with her earlier, but this one didn't want to talk. Her attention was on the Farah Fawcett article in this month's Vogue. I have already read my newspaper twice, and I am restless. What the hell am I doing? All the excitement I've had for weeks now, all the anticipation as been replaced by a knot of steel in my stomach, and I think I might actually cry. This is the most important moment of my life, and I'm scared shitless. No one knows I'm here, they all think I went back to New York late last night. Papá would have a heart attack if he know what I was doing. That's how I know I'm right though; I told no one and have made it this far.

Cono que la vida es tan extrana. Of course it doesn't surprise me, my whole life has been unexpected, like a balloon bursting. The thing is, you don't realize how your life is until you stand on top of it and look down at it. It is then that some things will jump out of your memories and bite you. When I was little, every Sunday we would go to my grandparents' house in Southwest for dinner, after the Mass. Papí would be the last one to finish eating, without fail. I was five years old, and I remember he would put me on his lap while he ate, and tell me about the years past, when he was young and a man and the world was his to take. After he finished eating, Abuelita would bring him his rum and his cigars, and the tales would continue, as the rum gave Papí his story telling tongue, and the cigar smoke framed the words that he spoke with their blue tendrils: "Ay, Tony, how I anticipate the day I can drive you around and show you your homeland. These Americans call Florida their paradise, and their old come here to spend their last days. But Tony, it's different here. Not like Cuba, m'ijo. Let me tell you, in Cuba we have the whitest sand, the bluest water, and all four winds kiss you as you walk. Every where you go, music is in the air, and the laughter of women is around you, in my paradise."

After a while, Papí would get excited, caught in the mystic powers of his memories. His passion was contagious! He knew how to keep my attention for hours. It was with my grandfather, in those early days, that I knew I wanted more than the stories, I wanted to have it for myself. I would ask him when we were going back, back home to Cuba and smiling, he would start to speak in a rhythmic tone, clutching his glass of rum and rattling the ice in it for effect when he was talking. "Soon, Tony, soon. You will be enchanted, it will be the greatest time of your life. We will go to the beach, and you can play. Cuban air is the best in the world for the lungs. And the sun, M'ijo, the sun does not tire a man like it does here. Your Florida sun makes me weary, and keeps my air conditioning bill very high, cono! No m'ijo, the sun in Cuba embraces a man the same way his wife does, with love and a gentle touch. And chico, aunque eres joven, te voy a decir sobre las yeguas, cuando no esta aqui tu mama." My grandfather had quite the belly, and he would roar with laughter when my mother scolded him for telling me stories that "corrupted my innocence."

Ever the poet, Papí would speak for as long as I would listen, but as the years passed on, those memories enclosed him in their prison. He got older, and with age came his resignation. He wouldn't finish his food anymore, he'd stop talking and send me inside, and would sit on the porch at dusk alone rattling his ice cubes. Sometimes, tears would roll down his weathered cheeks as he looked on the sunset, my Papí crying his anger.

Oh what a difference those ninety miles have made in my life. Those ninety miles define me, explain everything and nothing to me all at once. That distance broke my grandfather's heart, and I think it was what really killed him, not the cancer the doctors said he had. I know though, that on this trip, the two of us are going. It was he who made me promise to go, and I think it has been him who has helped me go ahead with this plan. Papí always knew me better than anyone else, he always told me things I knew but had not yet thought.

Although I have lived in Miami almost all my life, my body also knows that this weather is not what it is used to, it isn't right here. Here it rains too much, the humidity makes walking feel like showering, and the sun beats you down. New York is another planet, one I enjoy, but I definitely know my time there is temporary. Papí used to tell me I was ninety miles away from my destiny, but those ninety miles may as well be 90,000 miles. And I'm not sure that my destiny is over there at all. In truth, I don't know what I am, who I am, and where I am from. It seems like everyone else has an idea or an answer for me though.

The guy at the ticket counter looks almost exactly like Lalín, whom I still wonder about. My uncle Lalín is a real artsy fartsy type, a sociology professor in Gainesville, him and my tía Rita raising some strange kids. Every time they would come over to visit us for a weekend or we went there, him and my father would drink late at night, and would talk Castro and America, Cuba and Florida, and "us" and "the kids." Lalín, my mother's younger brother, had been in America for 18 years, but sees himself as the utmost authority on American culture, actually, the authority on everything. Me parece un actor en la otra vida, ese payaso. He spoke his every word like he was addressing the damn U.N. General Assemly, with dramatic ceremony.

He would lean in close to my dad, and exhale his J & B tinged knowledge into his ear. "Cono, 'mano ... The problems facing these kids, the ABC's, are going to be ones we cannot understand. Nuestros hijos, they will grow up lost to both fronts, with disdain for the people here, and ignorance of their world in Cuba. I grieve for their predicament, me duele la corazon que no pudieron sufrir y tener nuestra Cubawe must do that for them. We must instill in them what they cannot experience for themselves. But 'mano, they give me strength. For I can imagine that they will be our bridge to this world, to understanding it, and to embracing it."

Bullshit. Lalín talks more with his ass than with his head. He's very smart, but I never understood him, my uncle, who believes in his articles and theories more than his life and the examples it gives him. He can talk about the trials of coming of age in another land, and give you a detailed dissertation on when Castro will fall, but has no words for his daughter's actions, and fears to get to know her. Mi prima, Angela, is 17-years old, was born here, and is the American girl of the family. Her delightfully choppy Spanish is the subject of great pain to my uncle, but not more so than her boyfriend Tom the football player. Growing up, that is why it is best to be a guy, for not only is it okay to date, but it is expected. It's a big source of pride to my pop when I bring over a date to dinner, or just to meet my parents. I think he gets fired up to see his seed continue "the Alvarez tradition", as he calls it, smiling. It isn't the same for girls, that's for sure. With Angie, it is quite the scandal among the older family members, but to me, Angela acts more "Cuban" than all of them, she has "los ganas de joder", experimentar y vivir su vida. I think it is good for Lalín that she is his daughter. She's his reality check, and won't be defined by anyone's terms but her own.

Sometimes I'm very fascinated by this family, our group tied together by blood and ritual. I think I have a "normal" Cuban family, whatever that means. I have no idea what it means to be Cuban, really. I just see that my family is the similar to the over 150,000 Cuban families in Dade County, so that's what makes them normal. Myself, I'm not so sure about. I have always been the odd one, the one that my uncle says caused my father's wrinkles to grow deeper and helped gray my mother's hair. The fights we had when I told them I was moving to New York, I thought that they would disown me. I am not like them, and it is very difficult for me to live the way they want me to. It is not out of spite, like what I think my devil cousin Angela does to Lalin, it is something I cannot help. Papá, who leaves Radio Cuba Libre blaring in the kitchen whenever he is home, reading his newspapers and attending his meetings, his passion is politics. There is never a benefit concert that he is not attending, a weekly discussion he is not leading, or a check for an anti-Castro group he is not writing. When I was younger, he would take me to all his events, and would go on and on telling me why I should hate Castro and do my part in restoring freedom to Cuba. Yet from the time I was aware of politics and the situation back home (as I used to think of Cuba when I was younger), I couldn't find his level of interest in it. Maybe it is because he never asked me what I thought, just talked at me.

Mamá, well, she is very different than me, and has been for a while. Mamá is very involved with Church things, helping the Cuban community to find jobs and housing. She does a lot of community work. My mother is very religious, and I'm not. There are too many unanswered questions and too many contradictions for me to believe. I do like going to Mass though, cause it's always a lot of fun to run into people that you don't get to see that often, and being in Church has a very calming effect on me; it's truly the best place in the world to just Think.

For as close to my parents are to me, there are definitely things we cannot talk about, just because everyone in the family is very strong willed and has different opinions. It's not that I don't care about their wishes and dreams for me, it's not that at all. It is more that I know that my battle in life is understanding my own reality, not my parents'. Cuba for me is borrowed memories, music, food, and my true language; it is a mythical place that does not exist, yet defines me. My passion is bridging the chasm that separates my worlds, is finding my missing piece and peace. Inspired by my dear tio Lalin's way with words, I would say when I am around Americans, I am intensely aware of my "otherness", mi otradad. Yet when I'm with my family, I don't laugh at the jokes a "Cuban" is supposed to; I don't like to play dominoes (I prefer card games), and to top it off, at parties I don't dance right.

That is probably my biggest fault, where I am clearly not Cuban. My mother makes fun of me, but I don't care. Angela, however, is more direct. At weddings when we dance the guaracha, she tells me I need to stop dancing with my head and start dancing with my ass. The girl has the subtlety of a baseball bat. For me, it is the best when my mother finally chases my father out of his chair, him muttering excuses but with smiling eyes, and my mother with the ambition of 19-year-old girl teasing him about being too old to move. Watching my parents dance is like a time warp, I cannot describe it as any other way as being in Cuba. It thrills me. They dance like they are young and free, and nothing pleases me more than the fact that my parents still have their passion for each other in their autumn.

I wonder what they were like, before they came here, when they were in Cuba and the four winds kissed you as you walked, the water was the bluest in the world, and the sand so blindingly white it hurt your eyes to look at it. That is the Cuba I was raised with, and the one that holds me captive. I know that place no longer exists, sometimes I wonder if it ever did. I now know that I was raised with the idealized Cuba by my diaspora, who fitted me with a mental silicon implant. I need more than that now. The pieces aren't fitting for me anymore; the shape is changing, and the gap growing. I have only been in New York for nine months, and though I love it, I was seized by a desire to come home. Here in Miami, my little Havana, it is very easy to pretend that Cuba does not exist outside the city.

Cuba is all my favorite greasy sandwich shops, the clubs, my parents' neighborhood, Calle Ocho mamí y papí groceries. That has been my experience with it. Is this not Cuba? I wonder if I can even think of Cuba as one place, for we try our damnedest to live and continue it here. Which one is real, I do not know. Ninety miles away, there are millions more, who stayed, for whatever reason. Unlike my father, I am not angry at them. I long to reconcile something I had no part in creating. What do they do? Who are they? Are they happy? I'm scared that the only thing I have in common with the Cubans back home is our language, of which I speak a time-capsule version of, with none of the embellishments of the past twenty years. What music do they listen to? I cannot explain it, but I don't feel I'll be hated there, I won't be looked at accusingly. I cannot be lumped into the same group as my parents, who continue here; I was born here in the States, I began here. Where we will go from here, is also a battle of the generations. My family and relatives do not think of themselves as immigrants, but as exiles. To be born in exile then, is the most difficult thing in the world to understand.

I make myself crazy with my thoughts; they consume me. I'm exhausted, for the more I think, the bigger all of this gets. I need some coffee, the snack bar is at the other end of the terminal, and I don't want to give up my seat. Still forty-five minutes left until my flight and the terminal is already crowded. I have my Cuban detector on, and I see that there are many of us here today. Cono, where are all of you going? How many of you dare to do what I am doing today? I think all of you should come with me. The girl sitting next to me, I saw that she is also on my flight to Mexico. Big, thick, black hair, tight pants, a tank top, and six bracelets on each arm. She has my lips, dark and full, and arresting dark eyes. Despite her cigarettes, perfume, and her attitude, I see her as a silent co-conspirator.

I've been here since 7:30 in the morning, and I haven't said more than 10 words since I was at the ticket counter. It is better this way, I don't want to say anything to anyone right now, because I am scared and do not want anything to change my mind. I'm going out of my mind, my thoughts travel in circles, and I think I will die soon if I don't eat. I should have grabbed a donut from the motel lobby, but they looked pretty old, and I really didn't want to eat at the time. Last night I had the best dinner I have had in a long time: platanos, moros y cristianos, y un poco carne asada. It was quite the last supper, mamá made everything I like, including her famous flán con caramel. She says I am too skinny, and it's true that I didn't eat much, but right now I wish I had.

Mamá used to cook almost everyday, but ever since I left. I think my parents eat out more. "I don't have the time or the energy, m'ijo. These days, it is much easier to go out, you don't have to worry about washing the dishes, if you don't like your food they take it back, it is so much less trouble. Besides, with you gone, there is no one left who likes my cooking. Your father thinks I use too much salt, but I think he is just worried about his blood pressure." She has a great sense of humor, mi madre. Although we don't talk about art and music and anything political, she is a very good mother. A very good person, she cares and loves almost everyone. For all our differences, I very much enjoy being her son; she and Lalín always say there are unmistakable signs that I am more García que Alvarez. I don't know if that's true, I am definitely the child of both. I have my father's body, his Spaniard nose and small teeth. We both talk too loudly, and laugh easily. From my mother, I have her curly black hair, big lips, and dark skin. The rest I think is mine though, and that pleases me.

I'm debating whether or not to send them a postcard when I get there, should I send it the last day when I will leave, or should I send one at all? I don't think that I will. This trip is for me, and I just feel better if it was something I kept for myself.

They just announced boarding for senior citizens and children traveling alone. I feel less nervous, but I'm still hungry. The girl sitting next to me has gotten up and left, she looks determined to get on the plane before the general boarding line starts. "TWA flight 603 to Cancún now boarding at Gate 35, flight 603 now boarding rows 8-18." I have my ticket out, I am in row 21, seat A. The window seat. When we arrive in Cancún, I have a half hour layover before I have to board my flight to Havana. I know of two cousins there. They live with my mother's sister Marta, whom my mother has not spoken to in six years. I still do not know if I will stop to meet them, or if I will avoid doing that as well. I don't have any money or gift's to bring them. I have only packed for a week. Other than my one maleta, I have my camera, and eight rolls of film. I have Papí's old address in Santa Teresa del Mar in my back pocket, and his ring on my finger.

It's time to go now, and I stand. Am I a tourist? Am I going home? I am going to Cuba to find my destiny, and all I might find is that I'm ninety miles from home, for the second time in my life. What a great laugh that would be, what a horrible curse too. I don't know what to expect, certainly not a sudden and complete understanding of my existence. No, I feel that life is now just starting, today.

This long line is impatient. My partner in crime, the one with too much perfume, keeps pushing me forward towards the entrance of the plane. I am almost certain she will be in the seat next to me, she dislikes me too muchfor it to be any other way. One more time I scan the terminal before I step in. Vogue waiting just a bit longer; I have to say goodbye to Miami. I don't know why everybody is in such a hurry. All of a sudden I feel I have all the time in the world.

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