After Fidel Ch. 01bystrickland83©
Note: This story is the second half of the novel The Cuba Stories. It is a sequel to the first part, "Havana Club".
Chapter 1 – Going Back
I leaned back in my chair, took a deep breath, and looked around at the eager faces watching me. I love telling stories as well as listening to them, but tonight the faces were especially eager. It was obvious from their posture that they were enjoying this story. I reached for the short glass on the table. As I lifted it to my mouth, the ice tinkled. Hearing the ice made me acutely aware of how the room had emptied. Our table seemed to be the only one still occupied. I smelled the aroma of the rum as I took a sip, the sweet taste of the molasses lingering on my tongue as I swallowed the Havana Club. I heard a soft gasp and turned to my left. My lovely wife of three days was looking excitedly past the couples seated across from us to the window behind them. Outside, in the dark, a streetlight was illuminating a flutter of white particles. It was starting – the first snowfall of the season. It was the first week of December and the weather was overdue. I knew we'd be walking back up the hill tonight instead of calling for a van. She came here for this. Well, that was one of the reasons at least.
Her hand was on my leg. I put my hand on hers and her face turned to me. Her pretty face was aglow, excited and happy. "Do you want to go?" I asked her quietly.
"No. Stay and finish the story. I can wait," she answered. She was nothing if not patient.
"Yes, finish," urged the blonde from New Jersey. Patience was not one of her virtues. We had all learned that quickly, two days ago.
I nodded, tasted the rum again, and put the glass down. I opened my mouth to continue, but stopped when I saw George, our waiter, walking up. George was patient. You had to be to work in a place like this. The bad waiters didn't stay long. The good ones stayed as long as they wanted.
"George, I assume you are coming to ask us, exceedingly politely, if we wouldn't mind continuing this conversation in the bar so you can finish with our table and be done for the night?"
"Actually, sir, I was going to ask," George answered me in a quiet voice, just above a whisper, "if you would let me listen in. I'm done everywhere else, and I'd really like to hear how the story ends. That is, if none of you mind."
His request was unusual. The staff was forbidden from mixing with the guests. They were here to serve. The staff was one of the many things that made the resort so special.
I looked around. The dining room was just about deserted, except for us. Dessert dishes were almost empty, the coffee cups and after dinner drinks still present. I looked around the table. We all liked George. I knew no one would mind.
"Sure, George, pull up a chair. I would have thought a story like this would be something you hear all the time," I offered.
"I hear stories like this a lot, but none as intriguing as yours. I'd love to hear how it ends," he said, speaking to me but loud enough now to address the entire table.
"Then get yourself a drink from the bar, on me, and join us. I'll wait."
"It's an all-inclusive resort," Harold, from New York, said with a grin. "The drinks are free."
I nodded. "In that case, get everyone another round on me." That brought a ripple of laughter as George left for the bar. While we waited for him, a few of the ladies took the opportunity to visit the restroom. George returned a few minutes later with a tray and passed out fresh glasses all around. I noticed that he also had a glass for himself, and he took a chair at the next table. He was sitting outside our circle, but close enough not to miss a word.
"Now, where was I?" I asked, rhetorically.
"The lonely sands of Key West," the curly redhead from Georgia reminded me.
I smiled. "Yes, the lonely sands of Key West."
I stayed there for two days before returning home. Each day, I spent most of my time looking out over the water. Finally, though, I headed for home. Alone.
After that trip, I concentrated on my work. Oh, everyone tried to draw me out, to distract me. There were football games in the fall, concerts, even dinners with Ellen. I slept with her again a few times, but it was not the same. Before Cuba, I'd had sex with her. After Cuba, I knew – really knew – what it meant to make love. Sex wasn't like that with anyone else – it couldn't be like that with anyone else. Felicita had taught me how to love and how to be loved. She had taught me that making love with someone you were in love with was the best thing in the world. Mere sex with a friend couldn't begin to compare. I made an effort, but my heart was still in Havana. I drifted away from Ellen, and even a little from my friends. Work was the only thing that kept me going.
Nothing much happened otherwise for about nine months after I returned from Cuba. The travel restrictions had been increased, pretty much eliminating the chance for me to return, even for a visit. I spent a lot of time listening to those CD's I had bought in Pan.Com. I listened to them and remembered how we had danced the night away, our sweaty bodies grinding together to the beat. I looked at the pictures and remembered what we did after. I don't mean just the naked ones. I looked at all the pictures of her, of us. My sex life at that time mostly consisted of thinking about Felicita and masturbating.
I slept particularly well one night, so well that I overslept the next morning. I usually checked the news in the morning, but that morning I didn't have time. I rushed to get ready and dashed out to my car. I wasn't late because I had gotten ready really quickly. On the drive, I was listening again to one of the CD's from Havana. When it got repetitive I was too lazy to change the disc, so I hit the button for the radio.
The announcer's voice burst forth in mid sentence. "-eating our top story, there are unconfirmed reports coming out of Cuba this morning that Fidel Castro, the longest serving non-monarch head of state in the world, has died." The announcer now had my full attention. Unfortunately, the rest of the story didn't contain much more information. The story must have just broken because details were still very sketchy. I frantically searched for any other station that had news. There wasn't much. One station, in an attempt at being profound, was playing The Scorpions' Wind of Change. Finally, I got to the all news AM station in town. They were talking about what the news (if it was true) would mean. I already knew that. I had thought it through thousands of times in my head. When I remembered that Ross had a television in his office I pushed the speed limit. Arriving in the garage, I parked and ran upstairs. I didn't even head to my office first; I ran straight to Ross's office. It was still a little early. Agnes wasn't there yet, but the light was on in Ross's office. I could hear a reporter speaking.
I burst in. Ross was standing in front of the small television, watching. He heard the sound of me entering. He never turned around. "You heard," he said without expression.
I didn't want to miss anything the announcer was saying so I nodded. Then I realized that Ross couldn't see me so I added, "Uh-huh." He moved aside so I could join him in front of the screen.
Very little was coming out of Cuba. The city was strangely quiet this morning. A rumor had leaked that Fidel had died during the night and the government wasn't confirming or denying it. I wondered who was in control. The military? Raul? The Communist Party? Dissidents? I thought of Felicita. I wondered if she was scared – or excited. It had been nine months since I had left. Was she thinking of me? I couldn't get her out of my mind, but nine months was a long time. Had she met someone else? I knew I'd have to be prepared for that, even if it hurt. It did hurt.
CNN paused for a commercial. The wait was agonizing. Ross finally spoke. "If it's over, if it's really over, you know what this means." It was a statement more than a question.
"Damn right. I'm going in."
"Not so fast. We don't know if it has really happened yet. Even if it has, we don't know which way the government is going to go. It might turn out worse. It might –"
"It might turn out for the best," I interrupted. I was interrupted, in turn, by the return of the announcer. In spite of the confusion, there was a phone connection with a reporter in Havana. It was one of those bad ones with the webcam quality picture coming in over a satellite phone. Apparently there was a power failure in Havana and a shortage of gasoline for the truck's generator so the regular satellite uplink wasn't working. I leaned forward, trying to get every bit of information.
The reporter was repeating what I had already heard. There was a rumor running through Havana that Fidel had died during the night. The people were reacting with disbelief. Some workers were not going in to work, just wandering the streets. As a result, some services (like electricity) were faltering. When I had gotten all the new information and it became repetitious, I started speaking again. Through it all, we faced the television instead of each other, in case something new came on.
"I'm going in."
"Chris, let's not jump the gun. We'll do it when it's safe."
"I'll take the chance. I've done it before."
"When Bill gets in, I'll have him talk to his contact at the State Department. I want you to go back, but legally this time."
I wanted to continue the argument, but I realized it was pointless.
"You'll go back and find her, Chris. Just try to be patient."
I nodded in response.
I heard the voice of Agnes behind us. She had popped her head in when she heard the TV. "I'm here if you need anything, Ross." Then, to me, "It looks like you'll be seeing her again soon."
I turned around at that. "How did you know?" I asked, shocked. I glanced at Ross. He looked surprised as well and shook his head.
Agnes continued with, "Well, I knew about your trip from taking notes. Don't you think I noticed how you have been moping around since you got back? I'm a woman - and a mother of teenagers. I know when someone is lovesick." I grinned sheepishly and she smiled back. "Coffee?" Ross nodded but I shook my head. Agnes left and I turned back to the TV.
The station was filling time with "experts" discussing the possible transfer of power. Where did they come up with experts at this time of the morning?
Agnes returned with coffee for Ross and orange juice for me.
"Where did you find this?" I asked about the juice. Agnes just smiled as she turned and left.
Ross motioned to the sofa and we sat. It was going to be a long morning and we weren't going to get any work done until the big question was resolved. We were still sitting there, watching CNN repeat what little they knew when Bill arrived, cell phone in hand.
"I heard. I already called my friend at State. They're in a panic, trying to figure out what is going on. He was called in to the office early this morning. They don't know anything more than CNN, he said."
"Then they know nothing," I answered. I sounded rather morose. Ross nodded in agreement.
Bill looked directly at me and, before I could ask, said, "I already asked. He said they aren't giving out any licenses for travel until they know more. It has to come from the White House." I deflated. "I'm not done yet, Christopher. I'll keep at it."
"Thanks." I wanted to sound more grateful but couldn't. Bill's expression told me he understood.
It was another two hours before confirmation of Fidel's death came in. When the announcement came, I spoke up. "I'm going to pull the folder."
"Aren't you jumping the gun? It's a little early for the crash file." Ross was just saying that to stall. We all knew this was our chance, what we had waited for.
I walked down the hall to my office and opened the wall safe. I removed the file that I had prepared months before. I don't think a week had gone by when I hadn't looked it over. I had wasted a lot of time daydreaming of this day. I put the thick file under my arm and headed back to the TV.
On the way, I saw my friend, Brian.
"Chris, did you hear the news about Castro?"
"Yeah, I saw it on the news." I didn't stick around to chat.
Minutes later, I was back on the sofa in Ross's office. The scene was still the same. The ringing of Bill's phone startled me. He answered it and began talking excitedly. He turned to me. "If you could go, how many people do you want to take?" I knew what he was referring to. "Two," I answered. "No, three – one from the Cancun office."
Ross turned around to face me. "Cancun?" he asked.
"I need a native Spanish speaker, for subtleties like reading contracts and cultural issues." Ross nodded at my explanation. "Three American citizens, including me, and one Mexican," I clarified for Bill. He nodded and repeated my sentence into his phone.
CNN was forgotten for the moment. All our attention was focused on Bill; he was on to something. I strained to make out what the person on the other end of the phone was saying, but I couldn't quite hear it. I could hear a voice but it was just too low to make out the words. Waiting for Bill to finish the conversation and explain was torture.
At last, Bill hung up. The look on his face filled me with hope. I held my breath as he spoke.
"OK, they've gotten confirmation. He's dead. They are giving our request for travel consideration." He held up his hand to stop the outburst I was prepared to make. "It still has to be approved, and no one knows where the government's going to go next. I think you're first in line, though."
"Thanks." I only spoke one word, but the emotion behind it conveyed volumes. Bill nodded.
We watched the news some more and waited. I passed time by reviewing the file. I knew the contents by heart. I wrote it. After maybe half an hour, Ross turned to me.
"Who do you want to bring?" he asked.
"Brian. Stacy, too. They can handle this, and don't have family ties so they might be willing to relocate for a few months. They work well together, too."
Ross nodded in agreement. "I like the idea of a native Spanish speaker. Good idea."
"I just hope I can find someone willing to go in with me."
"It won't be that hard. A Mexican can blend into the crowd a lot easier if things go bad." He thought for a moment. "This time, we'll be able to give you even more support. You'll be legal. If things turn sour, we can call in the troops."
The reports coming out of Cuba were talking about Raul trying to seize power. It wasn't clear yet if the military was still backing him, or deserting. Raul was the head of the Cuban military, but only if the military stayed loyal. A lot could happen in the next few hours or days. I wasn't sure I wanted to wait that long.
"How about if I go in now and the others follow when it's safe?" I knew Ross wasn't going to buy that, but I tried anyway.
He shook his head, but softened the inevitable blow with, "You'll get to see her soon, Chris. Be patient a little longer." His tone was soft, his voice a soothing salve on my aching heart.
We watched the repetitive reports, hoping for new information. The reporter in Havana said military units were seen moving around the city. Bill's cell phone rang, making us all jump. Bill answered it. After a few words were exchanged, he looked at me and smiled, really big. Bill hardly ever smiled at me. Something was up. Something big. My heart leapt. My stomach lurched. Bill talked excitedly for a few minutes, then thanked the person on the line and hung up.
"He says the White House is interested in a show of good faith towards any new free government that might be trying to form. They made inquiries about a sign that trade restrictions would be relaxed if a democratic government came to power. Your case came up."
"Yes!" I exclaimed. I was exuberant, and everyone nearby knew it.
Bill continued, looking a little more serious now. "I had to admit to him that you had been there before." My stomach churned. "It's OK. They were concerned about sending in someone who couldn't take care of himself on the street. They are very interested in letting you go back." I took a deep breath, but my stomach was still clenched. This might be the day I had been waiting for. "He's going to need to know who we're sending in. Get your team together and see if they are willing to go. I need to be able to give him names when he calls back."
I nodded, too emotional to answer out loud yet. My eyes were tearing. I was nervous, excited and joyful. As anxious as I was, I still managed to give thought to the people I would be asking to accompany me. I was willing to take any risk, but it wasn't right to subject them to risk. I was going there to find Felicita. To them, it would be a job. I picked up the phone on the table next to the sofa and called Brian. My heart thudded as the phone rang. Once. Twice. He answered. I struggled to maintain calm in my voice.
"Brian, I need to see you right away. Drop whatever you're doing and meet me in my office in five minutes. Find Stacy and bring her along."
"I think she's in the middle of a proposal, Chris," Brian told me.
"I don't care. Tell her to drop it. My authority. This is important. I need to see both of you now."
"OK, man. Is everything OK?"
"I'll explain in my office. Oh, this is confidential. Don't talk about it to anyone else, alright?"
"Sure. We'll be there." The sound of his voice indicated he was confused by my behavior.
I hung up the phone and picked up the crash file on Havana. "I'll be in my office," I told the others. "I'll have your answer shortly. Call me there if you need me sooner." Ross and Bill both nodded.
I walked out of the office and started towards my own. Realization hit me as I went down the hall. I was going back. Soon. Maybe even today. My knees felt weak as the thought crossed my mind that I would find out if she had waited for me. I had pined away for nine months for this moment. Now, I would soon face the reality of it. What if she hadn't waited? I knew I needed to push that thought out of my mind. I had work to do so that I could get there.
When I got to my office, Brian and Stacy were already waiting, sitting on the sofa. They were talking, wondering what was up. I closed the door. I reached over my desk, pressed the Do Not Disturb button on my phone and made sure the microphone button was off, in case someone tried to buzz in. I sat down in the chair next to the sofa.
"Chris, what's up? You look – I don't know, scared or something." Stacy's face showed her concern for me. "You're sweating, aren't you?"
I held up my hand to silence her. "I have a story to tell you. It's kind of long. It's very confidential. What I'm about to say must not leave this office. If this gets out, the company can be in for trouble. I could be in for trouble. I could be prosecuted." Their faces showed the shock my words induced. To their credit, they listened quietly.
"Almost a year ago, I went on a trip to Cancun. Well, that was the cover story anyway. I went to investigate a new location for the company. It wasn't legal for me to do it. I took a big chance, at Ross' request. That's how I earned my partnership." It was as if their faces had big question marks painted on them. I could feel their curiosity and their concern at what I was telling them. "I really went into Cuba. Covertly." Stacy made a light gasp. Brian whistled. They both leaned towards me a little closer. If it wasn't so serious, it might have been comical. I obviously had their full attention. "I spent a week there, looking into the business prospects of opening an office in Havana. I even scouted out personnel and locations. All this in case trade with Cuba opened up."