Yuca and Dominoes
By José Iriarte
4 November 2013
Carmencita sways into Ana Teresa as they stagger down the sidewalk, shooting pain up and down Ana Teresa's bad leg and nearly knocking her over. The sour stench of vomit wafts off of Carmencita. She says, a little too loudly, "You're a good friend. I'm glad I'm stuck here with you."
Ana Teresa is in no mood to listen. It's Carmencita's fault they're walking through Miami's Little Havana at two o'clock in the morning, drunk and underage.
"Thanks," she says anyway. "We're not stuck, though. Keep walking; we'll make it. If we're lucky, your parents and my grandparents won't even find out."
Carmencita shakes her head. "I don't mean here. I mean, yes, here, but not here on Eighth Street. I mean all of it. We're all stuck here. ¿Entiendes?"
"No, but that's okay." She doesn't expect Carmencita to make sense right now anyway.
"We're stuck at Casa Varadero. Nobody . . ." she trails off. Ana Teresa puts a hand on her friend's arm to steady her. "Nobody ever leaves," she finishes at last.
"I'll leave." Damn right she will leave. She has too many awful memories tied up with the ancient apartment building for her to stay. Two more years of high school and then she is done with Casa Varadero, done with Little Havana, done with Miami, even.
"No you won't," Carmencita says, her head shaking. "It's a curse. Or something."
Ana Teresa frowns. "Don't be stupid. It's an apartment building, not a jail. People leave all the time."
"Yeah? Like who?"
Several darkened shops and businesses fall behind them while Ana Teresa tries to think of an example. She stares in the windows while she focuses. A bakery with a giant hand-lettered sign that says, "Pasteles de todos tipos." A Spanish bookstore. A Domino's Pizza.
"Hector," she says at last.
Carmencita snorts. "Weekend neighbor. Doesn't count."
"Osvaldo and Cristina."
"What are you talking about? They're up on the third floor, right over you guys."
"Now. But they used to live on the first floor, and then they moved away when Osvaldo got a job in Vermont."
"Right, but they moved back when Cristina's asthma flared up. Which means I'm right. You can leave, but you always end up back here."
She shrugs. "Whatever."
Carmencita drapes an arm around her. "Like I said, we're stuck."
Ana Teresa wrinkles her nose at another wave coming off of her companion. Tequila, garlic, and ropa vieja.
"I will leave," she mutters. "Count on it."
Little Ana Teresita's first day living at Casa Varadero is a mess of familiar things in unfamiliar places. The room she slept in a dozen weekends a year before her parents moved up north now sports an assortment of toys and knickknacks taken from her bedroom in East Aurora.
Her grandparents must have gone in there while she was in the hospital and picked through her things. She doesn't bother to see if they got her favorites. She wishes they had let her visit her old house before they packed her into the back of their avocado-colored Impala and headed south on the interstate.
Even if her parents would never be there again.
She half-hops-half-limps over to the bed and sits, easing her crutches down next to her. She tries to think of this as her room.
Abuela pops into the doorway after a minute, her eyes sad. She crosses the room and pulls Ana Teresita close, pressing her lips against the top of her head. After a long kiss, she says, "I need to start dinner, mi vida. You should go outside while it's light."
Ana Teresita twirls her crutch meaningfully.
"Abuelo is playing dominó down en el patio. Why don't you go keep him company? For luck."
She wrinkles her nose at the thought of riding down in the tiny elevator that smells like cat pee. She doesn't feel lucky, but she goes anyway.
The U-shaped apartment building encloses the patio on three sides. An ancient banyan tree dominates the courtyard, providing shade for a half dozen permanent tables with built-in chairs, where the retired men who live in the building play dominó most days.
Ana Teresita steps around the banyan to visit the shield—a plaster disk five feet across, embedded into the dirt separating the tree from Seventeenth Avenue. The monument has always drawn her, with its blue and red tile chips in the shape of the Cuban flag, flying over a sandy beach made of yellow and lighter blue chips. Just inside the top edge, black tiles spell out "Pueblo en exilio, unido para siempre," while the name "Casa Varadero" adorns the bottom. She longs to run her fingers across the smooth mosaic, but it would be too much trouble to get back up. She scans the dominó tables for Abuelo instead.
When she sidles up to him, he scootches over on the molded mesh chair to make room. Three of the tables are full, while another has two players killing time with a one-on-one game. Most are old men, and most smoke cigars, but one of Abuelo's opponents is a woman, who manages her tiles and keeps up her end of the conversation without ever taking the cigarette from her mouth. The smoke mingles with the fragrances of yuca and platanitos from the apartments. Ana Teresita never smelled anything like that when she lived in Chicago.
It smells like home.
"It's good to see you again, Ana Teresita," says Abuelo's partner, a man she does not remember. An empty styrofoam cup sits on the table in front of him, stained brown from his afternoon cafecito.
Ana Teresita grunts noncommittally. She hasn't really learned who all her new neighbors are. When she came to Casa Varadero before she always joined the other grandkids in the playground across the street.
She glances at the playground, wondering if anybody there remembers her. A group of Big Kids sit the wrong way on a pair of aluminum picnic tables inside a graffiti-covered shelter; she recognizes one girl's dark skin and wild curly hair. Her name is Paola. A couple familiar-looking boys make high arcs on the swing set. Eddie and Hector, she thinks. Weekend neighbors, like she used to be—kids who live elsewhere, but stay with their grandparents a couple days a week.
Then she sees who's swaying lazily in the swing between them. Carmencita. One of the few kids who actually lives with her parents at Casa Varadero. The girl who once stuck chewing gum in her hair.
And now they are neighbors.
Ana Teresita looks up from the book when her stomach rumbles. How much time has passed? She's nearly halfway through the novel.
The library is a twenty-minute walk from Casa Varadero. She's not supposed to go this far on her own. Her grandparents still see only that lost eight-year-old they brought back from Chicago after her parents died, not the nearly twelve-year-old she's become.
She hurries out into the late afternoon sun, past unisex salons and botánicas, stepping around the loud men at a grocery store's walk-up espresso window. Her bad leg throbs but she pushes on.
She gets a half dozen blocks before a car horn startles her. Some combination of pitch and duration is as familiar as a voice: that honk is for her. Sure enough, a glance across the street reveals her grandfather's monstrous green Impala.
Horns blare as he U-turns across the busy avenue, waving a hand through his open window like it's somehow an answer. He stops in the right lane, blocking only half the traffic now. Ana Teresita climbs in, and he takes off before she has a chance to fasten her seatbelt.
"What are you doing out here?" he demands. "Your abuela has been going crazy!"
"I went to the library." Maybe it will go better if they know she was reading.
"You should have asked Abuela to take you. I've been searching all afternoon, and she's been calling everybody she can think of. You don't know it, Ana Teresita, but bad things happen to kids out here."
How could he imagine she doesn't know this? All he ever talks about is what a horrifying country this is, and how much worse everything is than in Cuba.
"I even missed my afternoon game," he goes on.
"I said I was sorry!" She stares out the window. "It's just a stupid game."
They ride the rest of the way in silence. When he pulls into the parking lot he shoves the gearshift up into park and turns to her, holding up a single finger.
"Listen to me, young lady," he says. He's never called her "young lady" before, and it sounds silly in his accented English, like he heard it on a sitcom and is trying it on for size. She doesn't care for it.
"It is not just a stupid game," he continues. "It's a part of our culture we've brought to this country with us. The dominoes, the cafecito, all of Casa Varadero. It's a little bit of Havana right here in Miami."
"I was born in America, Abuelo. I've never stepped foot in Havana."
He smiles. "Actually you have, mi vida. When we pooled our money to buy Casa Varadero, we had that stone en el patio made using sand from the beach at Varadero. When we dedicated it, we prayed to la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre that she would keep our home connected to Cuba. We promised in exchange never to forget who we are, and never to let our children forget. When we play our 'stupid game,' when we cook our food following the old recipes, when we share a cafecito, we're keeping our promise. And she keeps hers, because we're still together."
He taps her chest with a gnarled finger. "You're connected to the island, whether you like it or not."
"What do I get if I win?" Eddie asks.
Ana Teresa glances across the third-floor laundry room. "You won't, so it doesn't matter."
The wispy edges of his peach-fuzz mustache arc upward. "You're better than me," he admits. "But two-player games come down to luck."
She arranges her fichas on the floor and brushes the hair from her face. Even with the machines off it's hot, and redolent with the detergent of generations. She sips her Materva and then rolls the can across her bare arms.
She meets his eyes. "So what do you want then?"
Eddie blushes and picks at a scab on his knee. "Winner picks next game," he mumbles.
He leads with the double nine, and for several turns neither says anything. The dominoes seem to play themselves, the right piece calling to her each turn. She catches herself before attaching a double five to the pattern snaking its way between them. She played that five, three turns ago, and here it still sits. She holds the tile and instead caps off the other side with a seven-five. Sure enough, Eddie passes. Now the double five. Another pass.
He never recovers. By the time neither can play, she's got twenty-two pips left to his thirty-four. "You win," he says. "Now what?"
Ana Teresa slides over to him, knocking her remaining pieces flat. Her bad leg throbs, but she keeps the discomfort out of her face.
His eyes widen as she leans her face toward his, close enough that she feels his breath on her lips.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asks.
"You're the one who decided to play up here, instead of en el patio or my apartment or anywhere else. Isn't this what you wanted?"
Eddie answers by closing the gap between their lips. He tastes like peppermint and Sunny Delight. When he rests a hand on her leg, she relocates it to her side, under her shirt. He takes the hint and goes the rest of the way up, cupping her bra-covered breast as the kiss continues.
They break apart, kicking a half dozen dominoes under the washer. Eddie's grandmother stands open-mouthed in the entrance, a laundry basket against her hip. Ana Teresa tugs her shirt down, wondering how much she saw.
"Abuela!" Eddie stammers.
She plops her laundry on the washer. "I left my detergent in the apartment," she says, though a bottle of Tide sits in the basket. "I'm going to get it. If you're here when I return, you will have trouble."
Eddie rushes to gather up dominoes as his grandmother turns to leave, but Ana Teresa swears there is a twinkle in her eye.
"Sorry," he says.
She kisses him lightly. "I'm not."
The going-away party is Carmencita's idea. Two months have passed since Eddie's grandmother moved into a nursing home, and now his parents are moving to West Palm. They've had enough of the traffic, the tension, the crime. Miami's full, Eddie says, though it's clear he wants no part of the move.
Seven of them sprawl on the picnic tables in the playground. It's night, so they have the park to themselves. An orange cooler on the ground still has a few Budweisers peeking out from an avalanche of ice.
Ana Teresa takes a sip from her can. She doesn't like beer, but it's what everybody's drinking.
From across the street, her grandmother's voice rings out. "Ana Teresita!"
Several kids snicker.
"Abuelita's calling," Carmencita says in a mocking sing-song. "She wants you to come back now."
"What else is new," mutters Ana Teresa. She gives away the rest of her beer and crosses to where Eddie sits.
"I'll miss you," she says.
"Yeah. Me too."
"You were my favorite weekend neighbor." She kisses him on the cheek.
"I'll keep in touch," he says.
She crosses the street. Now that she's up, she notices the dizziness from the beer. Under Abuela's gaze, she plants a foot in the shield stone's center as she crosses el patio.
"What?" she demands when she's face to face with her grandmother.
"Why can't you let me say goodbye to my friend?"
Abuela sighs. "You said goodbye to him months ago, the last time he came to visit Cecilia. You haven't seen him since, so what else is there to say?"
She crosses her arms. "You're just mad they put his grandmother in a home."
"Claro que sí," Abuela agrees, shuffling to the elevator and pushing the call button. "It's a filthy place. She's surrounded by strangers. Now her family is moving further away. They put her there to forget about her. They can't even wait for her to die."
"What should they have done? Leave her here so she can burn the whole place down next time she decides to cook a tortilla and forgets halfway through? She needs someone to take care of her."
The elevator arrives and Abuela steps inside. "She had someone: Eddie's parents. But they don't want to take care of her like she took care of them. Like she took care of Eddie when he was little. Instead they threw her away so they could get on with their lives."
Ana Teresa follows her grandmother into the catpiss elevator.
"Like my parents wanted to get on with their lives?"
Abuela sucks in her breath. Too late Ana Teresa remembers that when she lost her parents, Abuela lost a daughter.
"It's not our fault your parents died," she says as the elevator opens.
Fault? When did Ana Teresa say anything about fault?
"But no, they shouldn't have left."
At the apartment, she says, "Let me make you un cafecito. You don't look well."
Ana Teresa follows her into the kitchen. Sábado Gigante blares from the living room television. Her grandfather has fallen asleep in front of it again. Abuela packs Bustelo into the filter basket of the espresso maker and puts it on the stove.
"Abuela, people should be able to move, shouldn't they? To find the place where they're happy or find good jobs? You moved here from Cuba."
"We moved here to get away from el tirante Fidel," she says. "It ripped our family in half." She spoons sugar liberally into a demitasse cup. "Neither Eddie's parents nor yours were fleeing a dictator."
"So they should be stuck where their parents are, even if they're grown-up."
"Mija, growing up doesn't mean having no responsibilities. When you're little, you do what your parents tell you. When you're old, you help your children raise their children. In between, you take care of your kids and your parents." The sound from the coffee pot tapers off. Abuela pours her a cup and stirs briskly. Aggressively. "We're all responsible for each other. To be free of that is to have no anchor. Americans think like that. En Cuba we knew better."
Ana Teresa blows on her steaming cup. "I've never been to Cuba," she says. "I don't want to, either. I want my own life."
Abuela follows her to the door of her room. "Nobody gets one, mi vida. Everybody's life is tied to everyone else's. To be otherwise is to be the saddest kind of castaway."
Ana struggles under her backpack's weight, still panting from the stairs, while Paola unlocks the deadbolts. Her leg aches from the climb as well as the walk. She should have chosen a university in a flatter town.
"Here you go," Paola says, leading her past a tiny kitchen. She gestures to a futon by the window and says, "Mi casa es su casa. Sorry I can't offer you nicer digs while you're visiting."
"It's perfect," Ana says, setting her bags down. "After what I paid for the bus ticket, I'm just glad not to spend more on a motel."
She stares hungrily through the window. The Atlanta skyline is so wonderfully alien. Not a palm tree or barrel tile to be seen. Even the smells on the walk were different from Miami. "I love it," she adds. "I can't wait to start school here."
In the window, Paola's reflection shakes her head. "Chica, you got issues."
She doesn't reply.
"If you don't gotta be there early tomorrow, I can show you around town."
"I can go in whenever," Ana replies. "I just want to see the place. I'm gonna spend four years here and I've never even visited."
"Emory's nice. Don't know how your abuelos are paying for it, but you'll like it."
"They're not paying," Ana says, turning from the window. "If it were up to them, I'd go to Miami-Dade. But I got a scholarship, so it's not up to them."
"Damn girl, you got a free ride?"
She shakes her head. "Not a free ride. But the rest I'll make up in loans. I'm just ready to get out of Miami. To get away from Casa Varadero. Like you."
Paola gestures around the cramped apartment. "If you call this getting away."
Ana takes in the fake flowers, the colorized black-and-white photos, and the pitted wall unit housing a television and a stereo. "This is nice."
Her only reply is a snort.
"I mean it! You don't have a lot, but it's yours. It's your life."
"It's my life all right," Paola agrees with a sigh. "You know what you're gonna miss? The food. There's Cuban places around here, but nothing like my grandparents used to make before they passed. Nothing like your abuela."
"She doesn't cook much anymore. Arthritis. She's talking about having surgery for it, but I don't know if it'll happen." Ana shrugs. "They're slowing down. My grandfather hardly even makes it down for his afternoon dominó game anymore. He just sits in front of Univision all day. Why do you think I was able to come this far?"
Paola frowns, as if that were a total non sequitur, and Ana sighs. Her grandparents passed away; she made it out of Casa Varadero by luck. She doesn't know.
Doesn't know they were prisoners, their bars made of afternoon dominó games, of cafecitos, of yuca and lechón. Of sand from Playa Varadero and a pact with La Virgen—or with somebody or something else.
A pact that cost Ana more than anybody.
Ana Teresita clutches the snowcone maker to her chest as she searches for her parents. When she finds them, they are arguing. Again.
Mami holds a package of padded containers. "I'm not giving the china to Goodwill."
"We never use it," Papi says, gripping the shopping cart's handle. "Anything we don't need to take fifteen hundred miles we should leave."
Ana Teresita brandishes the toy. "Mami, can I have this?"
Papi answers without a glance. "No, mi vida."
"My parents brought that china from Cuba," Mami says.
"Which was ridiculous, frankly. I came with just the shirt on my back."
Ana Teresita nudges her mother.
"I didn't ask to move to Chicago," Mami says. "The least you can do is not fight me over every little thing."
"You didn't want me to get promoted?"
Mami sighs. "Couldn't you wait for a promotion in Miami?"
Papi speaks slowly, like the teacher when Ana Teresita is confused. "Being willing to relocate is how you show management you're serious."
Mami shakes her head. "No, it's how you show them they own you."
Sensing a pause, Ana Teresita holds the box up. "Mami, yo quiero—"
Papi leans over, his eyes inches away. She shrinks back as he speaks. "Mija, your mother and I are talking. Deja de interrupir."
"No," says Mami. "I'm talking, but nobody's listening." She takes the snowcone maker and drops it into the shopping cart, along with the china packaging.
Ana reaches to shut the computer off when its disembodied voice announces she's got mail. More bored than tired, she clicks the icon.
Carmen Rivera. She doesn't recognize the name, but the text asks if she's the Ana Teresa who lived at Casa Varadero in Little Havana.
Then it hits her: Carmencita Peña.
Soon they're chatting online. Carmencita tells of her husband and two-year-old. Ana writes about her nursing job in Decatur and her boyfriend Chuck. As they talk, memories flood back, things forgotten or blocked. Moonlight filtering through banyan trees. The clink of dominó pieces. The smell of platanitos frying from a dozen apartments.
Chuck comes out from the bedroom. "Who you chatting with?"
"An old friend from Miami," Ana answers without turning.
He humphs and returns to bed.
Ana props her leg up and resumes chatting. Before she notices, two hours pass.
"You coming to bed soon?" Chuck calls.
"In a few minutes."
"Got to go," she types. "Chuck gets cranky whenever anything to do with Miami or Cuba comes up."
After a few seconds, the reply comes. "Chuck. I can't get over you and your gringo boyfriend."
Ana frowns. "Yeah . . . ?"
"Hey, I'm glad you're happy! I could never leave Miami!"
Chuck calls again.
She hollers over her shoulder. "I said in a minute!"
Turning back, she types, "What are you talking about? You wanted to leave too."
"No, chica. That was always you."
She stays with her grandmother when she goes down for Abuelo's viewing. Afterward, what's left of the old gang drifts back to the playground across from Casa Varadero. A couple teenagers give them funny looks, but somehow grasp that tonight the shelter and its picnic tables are theirs.
There is no cooler, and instead of cans of Bud it's bottles of Presidente and Becks. One by one her childhood acquaintances say their pleasantries and drift off. Finally Carmen heads up to bed, leaving Ana alone with Eddie.
"I should turn in too," she says.
Eddie drains his beer. "Let me walk you up. This neighborhood hasn't gotten any nicer."
Ana has a can of pepper spray in her purse, but she lets him accompany her across the street.
"How's your grandmother holding up?" he asks.
"Like always," she says. "She just keeps plugging away. She's even started cooking again. Made a huge dinner last night when I got in. Lechón, yuca, mojo, the works."
Eddie grins. "Your grandmother's yuca con mojo is legendary."
They cross on either side of the shield in the middle of el patio. Their grandparents' little piece of Cuba.
"So you're back in Miami now?" she asks.
"Yup. Came back after college. Would've never left if it'd been up to me."
Trailing a finger across one of the old dominó tables, she says, "I can't believe Carmen, with her kid in school already."
They pass the catpiss elevator and make their way up the stairs. Ana's leg has been mercifully pain-free since she came down.
"What about you?" she asks. "You got a wife wondering why you're out so late?"
Crap! What made her ask that?
"No. I was married, but it didn't take."
"Sorry," she says.
She thinks about Chuck, who moved out last month. "It's just me."
They walk companionably up to her grandmother's door. "It was good to see you again," Eddie says. "I wish it were under happier circumstances."
Ana grips the railing, looking out over the courtyard. Why does every conversation with Eddie end too soon?
"I should've visited more," she admits. "It's funny, me being so desperate to leave, and you being so desperate to come back."
She barely makes out his nod in the amber reflection of the streetlights. "I never got that," he says. "Why were you so desperate to get out?"
"I wanted—" She trails off.
"I don't know what I wanted," she finally says. "I think I needed to feel free."
"I get that."
She turns to him. "Now I'm not sure why it mattered so much."
They stand in silence, and finally he says, "Well I'm glad you came back to visit." He leans over and kisses her cheek. "Let's keep in touch this time."
"Let's," Ana Teresa agrees, and somehow she knows she will.
As he makes his way back toward the stairs, she slips into her grandmother's apartment. Abuela is nowhere to be seen, but the kitchen light is on, and a demitasse sits on the otherwise pristine counter.
The cafecito inside is still hot.