The Second Time We Tried to Escape Cuba – Fawzy Zablah

The second time we tried to escape the island we came up with a plan to obtain a skiff with an old, rusty engine in exchange for our extortion services. Extortion was something I had never done, but I understood the basic premise of it. The man who hired us, an Ernesto Iglesias from Camaguey, wanted us to extort his ex-wife by kidnapping her cockatoo, Lolo, who had been a gift from her French lover.
The plan was to snatch the pink bird with orange Mohawk in the middle of the night, and then Ernesto would instruct his cousin in Miami to call his ex-wife telling her that if she didn’t give him a very specific amount of money, which she would have to get from her rich, French boyfriend, the bird would be eliminated. My best friend Henry knew all the players involved except for the Frenchie who apparently traveled to Cuba three times a year.
The only problem I could foresee was that this cockatoo liked to talk and it slept in the same room with the owner. The house was situated two towns away, closer to Havana, which meant our escape would have to be quick for the closer we were to the capital the closer we were to Fidel. After that, we would have to get to the designated safe house (an old deserted ranch in the mountains) and the rest was basically lying low and waiting for instructions from Ernesto who had hired someone else to pick up the money for him.
I ended up telling my mother I was going on a little fishing excursion with Henry. So when I was home that day, I walked around the house pretending to be getting ready for the trip, gathering fishing poles and looking for my cooler. She was in the kitchen boiling some yucca our neighbor Rosita had brought us the day before. It had been an okay week for her. My sister was planning on visiting while I was away and she was bringing my nephew, the little half Jew.
“I’ll probably be back Sunday night Ma.”
“What am I going to eat?”
“Just eat the entire yucca dear mother.”
“And what if I get sick of the yucca?”
“I’ll bring fish for us when I get back. Don’t worry.”
And there I was sitting on our old, orange couch packing my father’s old duffle bag, while watching her in the kitchen feeling a little bit sad like I always feel every time I leave my mother. I really didn’t care about anyone or anything back then. I’m still not sure how I became so selfish or if I was just born that way. Sometimes I felt like I was pretending to be the good guy that stayed home to take care of his mother, but other times I felt just a huge weight of undefined guilt on my back everywhere I went where people knew me to live with my mother. As I watched her move about her little kitchen, that she used to rule so masterfully in her better days I remember thinking that we had somehow switched places like in those American movies where the parent and child switch bodies. I was sitting there afraid for my mother like if she were a little kid I was leaving. How did this happen? And is it fair? I was obviously a bad parent.
I collected my bag and my rods and kissed her goodbye.
“Don’t do too much work. Try to take it easy and relax some. Why don’t you go visit Rosita?”
“There’s is too much to do around the house. Rosita is too busy for me to be bothering her.”
“Rosita said that you are welcome anytime. I just don’t want you to sit around the house by yourself. Go out. Go to Rosita’s house. Go see Don Selsio.”
“I’ll be fine. If I want to leave the house, I will do it. But I like being home. I enjoy doing chores. Why should I go out, if I don’t like being out there?”
“Oh come on ma. Don’t be like that. Everybody likes to go out for a little bit. You can’t stay cooped up here all the time.”
“Please tell Henry to give my regards to his mother.”
“Okay, I will, but please promise me that you’ll go out somewhere for a little bit.”
“Maybe I will go out. Maybe I’ll surprise you.”
I gave her another kiss on the cheek and looked down at my lovely mother, with her white, silky hair, and the pale, dry skin from avoiding sunlight. She was my mother who had turned into my daughter and then suddenly, I remembered that I wasn’t really going fishing, and I felt like a goddamn traitor.
I made sure to grab my dog eared copy of La Conjura de los Necios right before leaving the house. It’s an American novel about a fat guy who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He thinks he’s smarter than everyone, and looks down on everyone from the top of his intellectual perch. I didn’t understand any of the philosophical references, but for a whole year, I went to the José Martí library every other month to read all the books that are mentioned by the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, and things started making sense. On a surface level, like the main character, I hated and loved my mother with equal passion. I wanted something just like what happens to Ignatius’ mother to happen to my mother – that by some ridiculous incident of life – she begins to live for herself again and I become magically released from this heavy burden. When friends saw me with the book, I never bothered to explain it to them. There was one time, I was high and drunk with Henry, and I told him the story in the book and he understood it all but we never talked about it again. How did this book find me? It happened right at the end of a long, toxic affair with a married woman. She had just kicked me out of her house and as I was walking in the light rain with my head hanging low and both hands in my pockets like a homosexual, I saw it on the sidewalk in front of el Malecon. It was a bright maroon soft cover published by Anagrama in Spain with a cartoon of a fat guy in winter clothes holding a hot dog in his left hand and when I opened it, I read the first words: “Una gorra de caza verde apretó la parte superior del globo carnoso de una cabeza.”
Nobody really goes too far from their house in Cuba. The doors are always open because it is too hot, but no one really goes anywhere. There was always the thought of too much work for so little pay, so people rather just drink and fuck their lives away hoping and waiting for something to happen like a lonely European yuma falling from the sky or family member making it out so they could get money every month from Europe or the U.S.A. and then continue drinking and fucking and maybe someday, if Our Lady of El Cobre was benevolent enough, they would escape the island too and have complete freedom to succeed or fail miserably on their own terms. Being away from Cuba was like being away from your ruthless, yet personable father.
This was most certainly the case with Ernesto Iglesias for his wife had met this unnamed French tourist at the hotel restaurant where she worked. Ernesto had given us way too much information regarding the situation, but kept the names from us thinking that if anyone was caught, he didn’t want it to get back to him in anyway. So Henry and I decided to refer to this French guy as Jean. His wife would just be the wife.
Jean was rich or his mother had been rich before him and left him everything when she died two years earlier. According to the way Ernesto told the story, which he got from eavesdropping on his adulterous wife, Jean’s mother was overbearing and never let him wander too far from her because she was one of those mothers that never cut the umbilical cord. And this particular umbilical cord was partly made of money.
So when she died he was like a child that had just been released from prison. He just went crazy with all this new freedom. He was forty-four, unmarried, and had never even really been with a woman according to the tale Ernesto was telling. Long story short he went down to Cuba after a friend mentioned the abundance of beautiful girls, which happens to be our second best export after cigars. So Jean came down on vacation and fell in love with Ernesto’s wife and promised her everything. They met at the hotel where he was staying and where she worked as a cleaning lady. According to the rumors, she noticed Jean watching her during one lonely night and she decided right then and there to seduce him. Others said that it was Jean – naked – who jumped on her, forcing himself on her one night and she even might have been genuinely upset about it until a coworker told her about how much the guest was worth.
So the clumsy affair began behind Ernesto’s back despite or because he was never a good husband to begin with. He had two other women on the side and a pen pal from Canada on whom he was placing all his bets to get him out of the island. But since he was a Latin man, and had to be loyal to the tradition or else he wouldn’t really be a Latin man but a sad imitation of one, in our presence as he retold the story, he turned angry, then somewhat sullen, inspiring a collection of twisted, erratic thoughts upon discovering his wife’s infidelity. Yep, Enesto was a real singao.
When the so-called betrayal was uncovered, he went to his wife and beat her until he was detained by the police. The wife fled to her aunt’s apartment outside Havana. Jean immediately wired her 5000 Euros so she could start the exit visa process. He then flew in from Paris, begging her to marry him and bought her the talking cockatoo from a street vendor in the outskirts of Havana so she wouldn’t feel too lonely when he had to fly back to France. The cockatoo was a sentimental gift, for she had owned a bird exactly like it that her father had given her when she was very little. He bought her the bird before leaving to NYC for cancer treatment as a kind of compensation for leaving her with a mean, unloving aunt. The aunt was annoyed by the cockatoo, which somehow had learned to say ‘puta sucia’ from the neighborhood kids who always teased her whenever she went to the market or ran any errands. The insult, as the cockatoo spewed it without understanding it, was partly true for the aunt was indeed a prostitute and thief in Havana hunting for yumas and her state at that time was that of a plump, old woman shaped somewhat like a rotund building. So one day the puta sucia came home drunk from a very long night of working the streets, making a commotion, turning over chairs and tables while Ernesto’s wife, who was maybe eight at the time, tried to sleep. When the cockatoo heard the racket, it began its rant against the aunt, saying the words ‘puta sucia’ repeatedly. The aunt was so angry and intoxicated she knocked the cage down to the floor with a baseball bat and started stomping on it as the cockatoo screamed ‘puta.’ Ernesto’s wife jumped out of bed and tried to stop her aunt, but she was shoved out of the way. Her crazy aunt continued jumping on the cage until the cockatoo yelled its last ‘puta sucia’ before its tragic demise: “pu-ta….su…su…” So no surprise, the girl was traumatized and the tale, as she told it to Ernesto and any man she would open her heart to became a kind of myth in her life. And those lovers that did not care to listen and pay attention to the story would lose her. Ernesto did tell us that if all she ever really wanted was a cockatoo, then she should have just told him and then he started crying and yelling about how husbands and wives don’t really know how to communicate and how he loves her despite being with all these other women and that it no longer matters because he would still try to get a little money from that come pinga Jean with our help before he steals her away from him forever, and then maybe he would marry his Canadian pen pal and leave this God forsaken island like me and Henry were planning to. I remember his face being pale when he told us the story as though the shock of discovering that his wife loved another man was like witnessing a ghost and he put his head down on his hands for a moment and then raised it like if me and Henry were priests, and he said something like oh how I hate this country, how I hate it so much. And me and Henry felt the same way but didn’t say anything.
Ernesto was released from jail shortly after Jean went back to Europe but he refused to let his woman go due to pride so when he found out she was staying back with the same aunt that had so marked her life, he came up with the seed of the plan to kidnap the bird but he needed someone else to do it. The only thing of value he had was the skiff, so when he heard from some fool with a big mouth about Henry being in the market for one, he sought us out, talking about the ‘fair’ trade and the quid pro quo like they say.
Did we feel bad about helping a come pinga like Ernesto Iglesias with such a bad reputation against women? Just a little bit. We cared more about getting out of the island than about how other people lived their lives. It wasn’t really our fault if he wanted to take as much money from his wife and her lover before she high tailed it out of Cuba. It’s not like we were giving him the gun. We were just kidnapping a fucking bird.
The cockatoo and Ernesto’s estranged wife slept in the living room. La tia puta sucia, now somewhat of an invalid, slept in the bedroom. And if that wouldn’t prove hard enough, the house was two doors down from the local neighborhood CDR office.
This new cockatoo was named Lola Dos and she had a white head, red neck with a green coat and the only words she could mimic was “mi amor” which Jean had taught her to say.
When Henry and I began to think too much about a plan, I told him that we needed to stop complicating things and just act. What we wanted was the cockatoo, so we would just barge in, unarmed of course and with ski masks and take the bird with cage and all. The only thing we needed to really plan was the escape route.
“What if the door is locked? How are we going to get into the house?”
“Doors are never locked in this island Henry. Give me a break man. If it’s locked we break it down. She’s sleeping in the living room!”
“Okay, okay, but what if she has a weapon?”
“Please man, she ain’t going to have no weapon. We go in, take the cockatoo and run. That’s it.”
We stole a couple ski masks that were the colors of the Iraq flag. We figured they would suspect Al Qaeda terrorists or something and not two aspiring balseros.
The night of the kidnapping attempt we waited until one in the morning to make sure the neighbors were asleep and there would not be many people in the streets. I remember the night sky being cloudy, and the light of the moon illuminating the crime scene. I would have preferred to do it when the moon wasn’t out, but we didn’t have the luxury for Ernesto wanted his money as soon as possible and we wanted the skiff to leave this shit of a country.
We put on our masks and went into the alley that was next to the house.
“Are we going to check to see if the door is unlocked first?”
“Well, yes, that would make sense.”
“Who’s going first?”
“I’ll go first.”
I remember not being scared but thinking how ridiculous I felt with that mask on just to get our hands on a skiff to leave the island. This wasn’t about the cockatoo or the French or even the rusty skiff.
This was about leaving, it was about freedom to fuck who you want to, eat all the food you want, work and make money wherever you want to and to live totally free. The cockatoo was the least of my worries. All this was about leaving.
I stood in front of the door with Henry behind me. I turned the knob and it was unlocked and when I opened it I could hear faint snoring. The living room was almost pitch-black, and a fan was humming. Despite the fan, the place still smelled like pee. I noticed a bulky figure under a bed sheet on the sofa that I positively identified as Ernesto’s wife. She was out like a light and she didn’t look anything like I pictured her. I pictured a tall woman with big breasts. But she was rather small, very petite with a slim body with nice curves that took me by surprise. She had blond hair, and she was pretty.
When Henry tapped me on the back, he pointed at an egg shaped cage covered with a communist youth t-shirt hanging from a chain by the foot of the couch. I could hear the cockatoo clicking its beak; it would not go quietly. I looked at Henry and then looked at the cage. Henry pointed at me, and I nodded. I gave him a look that said, ‘si mongo, I’ll be the one to grab the bird.’
I held my breath and went over to the cage. I watched Ernesto’s wife’s calm face and then I looked at the cage. Henry looked at me with the universal head movement of ‘hurry up.’ When I put both my hands on the cage and began to lift it to remove it from the chain, the cockatoo said, “Mi amor, mi amor, mi amor!”
The sleeping estranged wife opened her eyes. Then we heard a noise coming down the hall, and it was puta sucia and she was on crutches.
“What are you doing? Police! Police!”
I yanked the cage and took it off the hook as the cockatoo continued yelling mi amor.
“You better shut up or we’ll kill you,” yelled Henry at the old hag.
The estranged wife screamed. I had the cage so I looked at Henry and ran for the door. But right before I could reach the door I tripped and fell right before the doorway; Ernesto’s wife had got a hold of my right leg. The cage rolled down in front of me and right out of the house.
“Noooo,” she screamed, getting up before me, stepping over me to go after the cage. Henry froze. I yelled at Henry to grab the cage. As he went out the door, la puta sucia threw one of her crutches and it flew by his head. I got up and shoved puta sucia to the ground.
When I got outside Henry was wrestling with Ernesto’s wife trying to get the cage away from her but she wouldn’t let go of it like if she was fighting for her baby. I went and grabbed her from the back and Henry finally got a hold of the cage pulling it away from her but it flung up in the air, and then it went crashing down in the middle of the street, breaking into two pieces. At this time, the neighbor’s lights came on and the bitch wife bit my hand and I let go.
The bird, quite ruffled, was out crawling right in front of the cage saying ‘mi amor, mi amor.’ Henry and I looked at each other. I rubbed my hand and I think it was bleeding. Then Henry, without hesitating, and I guess trying to make up for his lack of quick action in the living room, dove in the most non athletic manner towards the cockatoo. In that short disastrous dive an onlooker without knowing the context to this sad and funny scene would have no option but to march alongside Henry and his desire for freedom because he was really diving towards Miami. Yes, he was diving to Miami and freedom and I was proud of him.
But I guess you really have to fight for freedom, for when he landed with an empty thud the cockatoo was already airborne and halfway to the tallest palm tree in the neighborhood. Forget the bird I said, and we both ran away in opposite directions amidst a forming neighborhood crowd, the puta sucia and the estranged wife.
Ernesto disappeared once he found out about the sad outcome of our mission. He was afraid the kidnapping attempt would be traced back to him so he went to stay with a relative on the southernmost part of the Island in a little town called Baracoa. The skiff was confiscated by a fisherman brother of his and that was that. His estranged wife married Jean and left the country. Before leaving, she hired some neighborhood boys to find the cockatoo which didn’t really stray too far. The puta sucia died broke and alone. We never heard from Ernesto again, but there was a rumor that was told to me by my good friend Sebastian that he did eventually get to Canada where he died in some kind of freak work accident at a construction site.
And as far as Henry and me, we made sure to really go fishing before heading back to town, and I brought my mother back the numerous fish I had promised her. She was happy but I could tell she sensed disappointment in my face.