In Cuba, in the winter of 1976 – somewhere in November I think – we were sitting in a dilapidated taxi cab headed to the Havana airport. That day the sun shining over the tropical island seemed to light up the people and the palm trees especially bright. The car had no air conditioning so all the windows were open. I remember looking out of the window trying to soak up everything I could. These were the last moments before departure. Here I had had a childhood that now seems like a dream. I think that day I felt that I was about to wake up.
So I looked at the streets, at the people. I remember a dark man wearing an unbuttoned shirt walking down the street smiling. The palms on the avenues were very, very tall and slightly curved as if they had butted up against the baby blue sky. Their leaves where rustling in the hot wind.
I have no recollection of boarding the plane, eating the food, nothing.
It feels like I closed my eyes after I saw the tops of those palm trees moving in the wind. And I opened them when a taxi cab driver in the other side of the world reached and opened the door of his boxy mouse gray communist era car. The interior was also grey. The wet pavement under my feet was grey. The driver’s clothes where grey. His face was grey and he said “Come on in!”. A heavy smell of cigarettes and gasoline rolled out of the open car. We sat inside and he accelerated. He immediately had to stop because a few people dressed in black and grey winter coats were crossing the road. No words, no sound. Just the snow and the fog wrapping the pedestrians like a blanket. And the dizzying smell of cigarettes and gasoline. To this day I get sick when a car smells of cigarettes.
The driver asked “Where are you coming from?”. “Cuba”. My mother gave the driver some cigarettes. He said “Oh! That’s what Fidel smokes, ah?”
I thought “This is supposed to feel like home. This is my first day home. I will never see the palms again.”
The story could end on this sad note. But I also remember thinking “I’m looking forward to seeing grandma.”
When I climbed up the last few steps to the fourth floor she was already outside of the apartment with her hands wide open. She wore purplish-red pajama pants straight out of some Arabic fairy tale. She embraced me and the warmth of the small apartment is the only thing I remember next.