The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     There were few cab drivers working on Sunday in and by the time Roberto walked the half a kilometer into the village from the docks at the river, hailed a cab and traveled the short distance to his parents’ home in Santos Suarez, the family had gathered along with Maura, and had not waited for Roberto to arrive to begin the meal.

     “Sorry I’m so late, he said, surprising the family who was seated around the table on the terrace.

     “There is a place for you next to Maura,” said Rosa. “What do you want to drink? I’ll get it for you,” she said, going into the kitchen.

     “If you still have some coconut water from the coconuts I brought from the beach the other day, I’ll have some of that. Thank you,” he replied.

     “I don’t know how you ever made it in the military, always being late,” said Maura.

     “Actually, if you remember, I didn’t,” said Roberto, smiling.

     “That’s right, you had the anger management issue. Very happy that phase ended before I met you,” Maura said with wry smile.

     Rosa returned from the kitchen with a glass of coconut water and a small glass of rum for Roberto and sat down again at the table next to Guillermo, to finish her meal.

     “It is not very often the entire family has time for their parents,” said Rosa, not looking up from her meal. “Is there something I need to know?”

     Maura looked at Roberto for a moment, out of the corner of her eye, then looked away but didn’t look at Rosa and said nothing. Rosa knew that Maura had family in Miami and Maura had talked openly about trying to join them one day and didn’t want Roberto’s mother to think she was responsible for Roberto’s decision to leave Cuba.

     “You are always worrying, said Roberto.

     “That’s because you can’t seem to stay out of trouble,” said Rosa. “At my age it’s not as though I have the ability to replace you if something were to happen.” Rosa looked at her husband who was unamused by her comment.

     “So I’m a little stubborn. That’s not a bad quality to have sometimes. I like to think of myself more as ambitious,” said Roberto.

     “And what are your intentions now?” she asked. “I know you. You’re always wanting something more.”

     “Look, I’m tired of being denied the opportunity to pursue my ambitions. I want the same thing every Cuban with ambition wants,” he said.

     “And what do Cubans with ambition want?” she asked.

     “To make a life of freedom for themselves in America,” said Roberto.

     Like all Cuban women, Rosa was strong in the places where she needed to be strong and like all Cuban women, when forced to, could face unafraid, the inevitable, with dignity and grace. The unknown was different however, and always the more difficult.

     “That is your immediate intention?” she asked.

     “Yes,” he replied.

     “When do you plan to leave?” she asked.

     “Tomorrow night,” said Roberto.

     “The Feast of The Epiphany,” said Rosa.

     “The weather is right and there is no moon and we’re ready to go,” said Roberto calmly.

     “It seems the only ones who are surprised to hear about this are your parents and your sister. Can I assume anything from this?” asked Rosa.

     Lazaro began to speak but was stopped by Roberto. “I am the one responsible, said Roberto. “No one else.”

     “That’s not what I asked,” she said sternly. Rosa leaned back in her chair and looked around the table. “How many of my family can I expect to see next weekend for dinner?”

     Lazaro, Pedro, and Maura are coming with me tomorrow. When we are settled. . . .”

     Rosa didn’t let Roberto finish before interrupting him. “Yes, and what if you don’t make it?” she asked. “Do you have any idea how many have been lost between here and Florida?”

     “We’ll make it. We have a strong boat. Ten or twelve hours and we’ll be in the Keys,” he said.

     “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” asked Rosa.

     “We didn’t want you to worry,” replied Roberto.

     “Very considerate. Do you realize how difficult you made the last eight years?” she asked.

     “I do realize how hard it’s been for you. That’s why once we are established in Florida, we’ll make arrangements for everyone else to come,” said Roberto.

     “How many people are going with you?” asked Guillermo.

     “Fourteen all together including me,” answered Roberto.

     “Who is the owner of the boat?” asked Guillermo.

     “It’s mine. I bought it from my friend Pedrito in Cojimar. He is an experienced captain and fisherman, and he knows the boat well,” said Roberto.

     “He’s also going?” asked Rosa.

     “Yes. He and his wife and two children. He’ll run the boat,” replied Roberto.

     “What if you are stopped by the Coast Guard?” asked Guillermo.

     “The last patrol each day is at sunset. You remember last month, I was fishing every day until after dark at Alamar Beach?” asked Roberto. “I wanted to know when the last patrol would pass so we would know when it was safe to leave. We plan on leaving in the night.”

     “Where do you plan on living in Florida?” asked Rosa.

     “With my family,” said Maura. “They are well established.”

     “Do they know you’re coming?” asked Rosa.

     “No, there was no way to tell them,” replied Maura.

     “I’m sure they will be very happy to see you,” said Rosa. She looked down at her food and picked up her fork and pushed the half-eaten meal to one side of the plate, then put the fork down.

     “This is not the end, Madre, it is the beginning. You’ll see. I will make you very proud,” said Roberto.

     Rosa looked at Guillermo who was sitting next to her, then placed her arm inside his and held his hand tightly with hers. There was nothing else to say and she knew it.

     Roberto, although uncomfortable, was relieved the conversation had ended quickly and had not been more difficult and his mother had not blamed Maura for his decision to leave Cuba. But there was no use trying to pretend the rest of the evening or the conversation was going to be normal, so Roberto, thinking his parents needed time alone to process the news, offered to walk Maura to her grandmother’s, where she planned to spend her last night in Cuba.

     It was late when he returned to his parents’ house and found only his brothers, Lazaro and Pedro, still sitting on the terrace, drinking rum. The kerosene lamp was almost out of oil and Lazaro had turned down the wick to extend the life of the flame. Overhead the Big Dipper, inverted and clearly visible, appeared large and bright in the clear moonless January sky.

     In the low light of the lamp, Roberto could see the worry in the faces of his brothers and wanted to choose the right words before speaking.

     “I hope there are no clouds tomorrow night,” said Roberto, sitting down at the table.

     “Why do you say that?” asked his brother Pedro.

     “You see the Big Dipper, to the northeast?” said Roberto, pointing up at the sky. “It’s rotated ninety degrees, with the handle pointing down.”

     “I can see it. What about it?” asked Lazaro.

     “Well, the compass on the boat isn’t working. If it’s clear tomorrow night we can stay on a northerly course by heading toward Polaris, the North Star,” he answered.

     “What does that have to do with the Big Dipper and how do you know where the North Star is?” asked Pedro.

     “You see the two stars that form the front of the dipper part? Well if you draw an imaginary line from right to left between the two, it always points directly at the North Star, which is always in the same position in the sky. Tomorrow it is supposed to be clear, like tonight,” said Roberto.

     “And if it’s not?” asked Lazaro. “Then what?”

     “Pedrito says when you are far out in the Gulf Stream, where the current is strong, and you can no longer see the land, you can tell which way is north because of the current, which always flows from west to east. Of course it would be better if it is clear.” said Roberto. He paused for a moment and continued looking up at the night sky. “Pedrito will get us there. Anyway it’s going to be clear.”

     “What do you plan to do, Roberto, when we get to Florida?” asked Lazaro.

     “I plan to sell my paintings. Well, all except for the one from Juilo, El Saxofonista. I have them safely hidden in the boat inside the ceiling of the wheelhouse,” replied Roberto.

     “We’ve been talking, Roberto, and I’m worried. We have nothing, no money, and nowhere to live when we arrive. We don’t know anybody, and we don’t speak English,” said Pedro.

     “Maura said her family will help us and not to worry about any of that. She told me many people speak Spanish there,” said Roberto. “You’re both young, and Lazaro, you know the restaurant business and you can cook, and Pedro, you are an experienced auto mechanic. I don’t think either of you will have trouble to find a job. It’s not like here.

     You can do whatever you want, go wherever you like, and there is no one from the CDR watching you.”

     “You don’t understand Roberto. You’ve never been someone who worries. Besides, no matter what happens, you always come out on top. It’s different for us,” said Pedro.

     “No, I do understand, that’s why I don’t waste my time worrying about inconveniences,” he said. It was growing late and Roberto was losing patience with his brothers. “I would advise against the two of you staying up all night and worrying about tomorrow. We have a long swim tomorrow night to meet Pedrito in the boat, and you need to be ready. I’ll see you boys tomorrow evening in Cojimar harbor, by the cabana. I plan to leave the house with Maura, early If we are here all day at the house it will only make it worse for Madre. Okay?”

     He went upstairs to the bedroom he had always shared with his brother Carlos, where he would spend his last night in Cuba. It was dark and Carlos was asleep lying on his side with a light sheet pulled up over his shoulders, and he could see that he was sleeping, breathing slowly and deeply. The only window in the bedroom was open fully, letting in the cool, damp, late night winter air. Roberto didn’t want Carlos to wake from the cold and picked up the blanket that was folded at the foot of his bed to lay over his brother.

     After lightly covering Carlos with the blanket he turned around and began to undress, and saw, lying on the bed where the blanket had been, the empty frame that had held the painting of El Saxofonista. He sat down again on the bed and picked up the frame and held it in front of him with both hands.

     He thought about the day, ten years earlier, when Julio wanted to give them the painting for helping him move, and how disappointed he felt when Julio told them he didn’t have the money to pay them, and the painting was all he had and would they please accept it as payment. He remembered too, how excited Carlos was about the painting and how he didn’t want to sell it and how he, Roberto, had doubted Julio’s story about the painting, only to discover what a great and important painting it was.

     Now he was preparing to leave his brother and didn’t want to think about it anymore and leaned the frame against the outer leg at the foot of the bed and finished getting undressed.

     He laid down on the bed and fell asleep quickly and began to dream about the Rosita and the dark blue water of the Gulf Stream, heading north with everyone onboard.

     When he awoke it was light and Carlos was gone. The blanket Roberto had placed over his brother when he had come to bed was now covering him and the painting frame was laying on Carlos’s bed, against his pillow.

     Roberto slept later than he had wanted and dressed quickly and went downstairs to the kitchen. The house was empty but there was a coffee pot on the stove with the flame turned down low. He saw the door to the terrace was open and then heard the sound made by someone placing a coffee cup on a saucer.

     “Maura!” he said, surprised to see her. “How long have you been here?”

     “I came early to see your mother,” she said. “The coffee is hot. I just made it.”

     “Where is everyone?” he asked nervously.

     “Carlitos and your parents went to wait in line for bread and they needed a new Libreta de Abastecimiento. It was nearly empty,” she replied. “What did you tell Lazaro and Pedro?”

     “I told them I wanted to wait in and that we would meet them at the at sunset. We should be going,” he said.

     “You’re not going to wait to see your mother?” she asked.

     “She’s upset enough. If we wait it will only make it worse, and I don’t need the extra pressure,” he replied.

     “I packed some bread and fruit,” said Maura. “We’re leaving now?”

     “Yes, let’s go. I have enough money to hire a cab and buy something to eat in before we leave,” he said. “I hope you didn’t pack a lot of food. Pedrito said we don’t want too much food or water on board. He said if the Coast Guard stops him and they see extra food they become suspicious.”

     “Okay, okay, she said.

     When they arrived in Cojimar it was midday and sunset was not for another five hours. Roberto had not eaten anything and suggested they walk into the village by way of the Marti which ran along the edge of the village by the waterfront, to look for a place to eat their last meal in Cuba.

     He remembered Senor Fuentes, mentioning in one of his stories about his many years as mate aboard the that Papa, after a successful day of fishing, would always insist they end the day at the bar, in La Terazza de overlooking the water at the south end of the river mouth, where the river narrowed and flowed toward the sea from the east.

     “That’s the place. Ahead on the right,” he said, pointing to a large blue sign hanging from the balcony above the entrance to the building. “El Capitan told me about this place. He said he and Senor Hemingway came here often after a good day of fishing, to celebrate a big fish.”

     “It looks fancy. You have enough money?” she asked.

     “You’ve forgotten already? I am a high-class art collector,” he said with a straight face. “Come on, we’ll sit by a window so we can look out at the water.”

     “Happy to see you are so relaxed.”

     “I’m not really. I’m trying to keep you calm.”

     “You’re talking about the swim.”

     “Yes. I know you’re nervous.”

     “I am, but I’ve thought a lot about it and I’m ready now. You don’t need to worry about me. Besides, you know I’m a strong swimmer.”

     “I’d rather sit in the bar if you don’t mind Roberto,” said Maura, when they walked in.

     The restaurant was crowded so they walked through the dining room to the bar in the back of the building and sat at one of the wooden tables by the window that had a clear view out to the sea.

     Above the polished mahogany bar and to the right, hung a large painting of a lone straw hatted fisherman in a wooden dinghy, surrounded by a flock of terns diving on a school of pilchard that had surfaced in front of the Torreon Passing the dinghy with the fisherman was a larger vessel with two fishermen returning from the ocean, with the day’s catch of billfish proudly displayed across the bow of the boat.

     “I like the painting,” said Maura.

     “It’s not really a true work of art. It’s more of an illustration,” said Roberto, glancing up at the painting and then looking toward the water.

     “No need to be condescending,” she said. “Here’s the waiter. I’ll have a mojito and some water.”

     senor. May we have two waters, a mojito, and a Havana Club, Siete Roberto.

     “What would you like to eat,” asked the waiter.

     “You have Pargo Frito asked Maura.

     said the waiter.

     “Two of them please. Thank you,” said Roberto.

     Maura waited until the waiter was out of earshot before asking Roberto the question. “You think by this time tomorrow we’ll be in Florida?”

     “The weather is good and the boat is running well, according to Pedrito. Everything is right. I don’t see why not.”

     “I haven’t seen my family in four years. It will be so strange.”

     “It may be strange for a moment and then you will feel wonderful, and you will only think about how happy you are.”

     “You’re probably right. My younger brother must be very tall by now. Four years is a long time when you are a teenager. I can’t wait to see him.”

     “The waiter is coming. Gracias, said Roberto when the waiter reached the table. The waiter set the two waters on the edge of the table and then placed the mojito in front of Maura, followed by the Havana Club for Roberto.

     “Your food is almost ready,” he said before turning to walk away.

     Maura and Roberto sat looking out the window at the sea without speaking until the waiter came back with their food. The incoming tide flowing in the same direction as the breeze, which was very light from the north, caused a slick to form on the surface of the water in the middle of the channel where the flow was strongest, attracting a handful of least terns, which worked back and forth along the edge of the slick, sometimes stopping mid-flight to dive into the water whenever they spotted a small school of glass minnows.

     “Pretty day,” said the waiter when he returned to the table with the food. “Nice day to be on the ocean. You ever go on the ocean?”

     “A few times with friends. Fishing mostly,” said Roberto. He thought it somewhat strange the waiter would ask the question but paid little attention to it and did not react.

     “We have a friend who is a fisherman and keeps a boat in the Rio Almendares.”

     Neither Roberto or Maura said anything about knowing Pedrito, or the or ever having gone out to sea from It was always best not to invite too many questions from anyone in Cuba who isn’t family, especially strangers.

     “Here’s your check. Let me know when you’re ready to pay. No hurry,” he said.

     “If you don’t mind, we would like to sit here for a little while,” said Roberto.

     “You’re more than welcome,” the waiter replied.

     The view to the north from the corner table in the bar where they were sitting, was unobstructed all the way to the horizon. On the eastern edge of the harbor sat the old solar-powered light house on the rock by the cut on the outermost point of land directly across from the Alamar Beach was a short distance to the east, where they would begin their swim.

     “You see the light on the point? The beach is just around the corner,” said Roberto, pointing. “When we start swimming the tide will be ebbing.”

     “You said Lazaro and Pedro will be at the cabana. What about the others?” asked Maura.

     “The plan is to meet them at the beach. Just after dark,” he said.

     “I hate the waiting,” said Maura. “I’d prefer to wait at the cabana if you don’t mind.”

     he replied.

     After Roberto thanked the waiter and payed the bill, they walked up the road together to the first intersection and turned left onto the road that lead to the dock where Pedro kept the boat.

     When they arrived at the cabana where they were to meet Roberto’s two brothers, they saw Pedro, hunched over in the boat, his torso halfway inside the wheelhouse. Because it was a religious holiday none of the other boats were out fishing and they saw no one else but Pedro in the harbor.

     Pedrito,” said Roberto when he got to the end of the pier beside the boat.

     “You startled me,” he said.

     “A little nervous, I’m sure,” said Roberto.

     “I guess. I’m making sure we have everything. I’m taking one five-liter container of water. If the Coast Guard would see a lot of water on board, they would know what’s going on,” he said. “That should be plenty for everyone.”

     “You taking a couple of rods so it looks like you’re out fishing?” asked Roberto.

     “Yes. I don’t expect to see the Coast Guard after dark, but you never know,” he said. “I’m almost finished. You can wait under the cabana if you’d like.”

     When Pedro was finished stowing the water and food, he checked the engine oil and fuel levels one last time and walked up the dock to the cabana and sat down with Roberto and Maura.

     “You know, there’s not much I’m going to miss about Cuba, Roberto. The least of which is knowing I could go to prison at any moment for no God damn reason. But I am going to miss the fishermen of Cojimar, El especially. I learned so much from him. He was always so willing to help. Always humble. Just a simple, honest, decent man. Never arrogant. I guess that’s why Papa loved him,” said Pedro.

     “You’re fortunate to have him as a friend,” said Roberto. “You realize you may never see him again.”

     “I’ve thought about, but I don’t like to,” replied Pedro. “When are your brothers coming?”

     “I told them they should arrive by sunset. I was thinking they should carry some hand lines with them when they walk to the beach. That way if someone stops them it looks like they’re going fishing,” said Roberto.

     “That’s a good idea. I have a couple hand lines I can give them,” said Pedro.

     “You have the lights so you can find us in the ocean?” asked Roberto.

     “Yes, but you need to remember they are not waterproof,” replied Pedro.

     “I’m going to give one to Pedro and one to Lazaro. I thought we would swim out maybe two kilometers. Far enough that when you stop, if someone is watching from shore it would be impossible to tell that you had stopped. Then we’ll spread out with my brothers maybe sixty meters apart on the outside and the rest of us swimming in between. All you need to do is find one of the lights then you should be able to locate the other, either right or left. What do you think?” asked Roberto.

     “That’s a good plan. I’ll have my masthead light on and my bow lights. Remember the green will be on your left as I am coming toward you. With no wind for a couple days the ocean is a dead calm, so I don’t think I’ll have any trouble to find you. Without the moon it’s difficult to keep your bearings in the ocean at night. The tide will be coming from the west so you need to be swimming into it slightly so when we meet you will be directly north of the inlet. Once you get beyond the drop, the current will increase a little as the near shore water mixes with the Gulf Stream. But it’s not as strong this time of year. We’ll meet in that area. I’ll head a bit to the west and then come northeast along the edge and begin looking when I know I’m in the current,” he said.

     “Pedrito, I mean, what if you can’t find us?” asked Maura.

     “I’ll find you, Maura, don’t worry. It’s not that big an area. With the ocean as flat as it is tonight, you’ll probably see me first. When Pedro and Lazaro see me they’ll shine their lights,” replied Pedro.

     “She’s a bit of a worrier, Pedrito. That’s why she’s so motivated,” said Roberto.

     “Roberto, there are Pedro and Lazaro,” said Maura.

     “Pedrito, como tu said Lazaro when they reached the cabana. “We ready to go?”

     “Everything is ready. The others will meet you out at the beach. Roberto thought you should carry a couple hand-lines with you so it looks like you’re going night fishing. Here, I have a couple in the shed,” said Pedro.

     “Grab one for me, Pedrito. Maura, we should leave now,” said Roberto. “Lazaro, wait a little while before you and Pedro walk out to the beach. We’ll be waiting down the beach a couple hundred meters from the point. I guess this is it, Pedrito.”

     “Listen, if you start swimming a little after six thirty and it takes you two hours to get out where you need to be, I’ll leave the dock at eight. I’ll need to go slow so I don’t attract attention,” he said.

     When Roberto and Maura arrived at the beach the sun had set fully, and it was very dark. The others were already waiting by the patch of coppice where Pedro had hidden the inner tubes the week before. Roberto knew everyone but the two fishermen who were friends of Pedro’s and lived in Armando and Frank. After brief introductions and confirmation that everyone knew how to swim and was ready to go, Roberto explained the plan and told them as soon as his brothers arrived, they would begin their swim and asked if anyone had any questions.

     “How long does Pedrito think it will take to cross?” asked Armando.

     “Depending on how the seas are when we are in the middle of the Gulf Stream, he said maybe ten or eleven hours,” answered Roberto.

     “Roberto, God forbid if someone is bitten by a shark, what should they do?” asked Ernesto, who as an emergency room doctor and had treated shark bite victims several times while working at the Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital in Habana Vieja.

     “Everyone has to decide for themselves,” he replied.

     “There are few sharks in the waters close to Havana any longer, Roberto,” said Armando. “The shark fisherman have all but wiped them out. That’s why they closed the factory in Cojimar.”

     “Roberto,” said Maura, touching his arm. “Your brothers are here.”

     Roberto walked into the bush where the inner tubes were hidden and began to pass them out one by one until there was one left, then walked out to the edge of the water where the others were waiting.

     “Look, we need to stay close to one another. We can only swim as fast as the slowest swimmer,” said Roberto, as they began to enter the water. “Maura, stay close.”

     With the falling tide and a calm sea there was little surf to contend with as they made their way into deeper water toward the outer reef still able to feel bottom. The water felt warmer than the air, which had cooled quickly in the dry January night and made the water feel comfortable.

     When they reached the outer edge of the last line of reef, the water was over their heads and everyone was swimming now on their sides and spread out enough so not to break the rhythm of any of the others as they swam. With their legs doing most of the work and one arm in front pulling, the other was free to hold the inner tube above their bodies and to the side.

     Pedrito had made sure the tubes were filled with enough air that they would float high in the water, requiring less effort to pull across the water’s surface.

     Maura was close to Roberto, swimming in front of the others and having little trouble keeping up with him and felt stronger as her body warmed and the muscles began to loosen. Concentrating on maintaining a good rhythm as she swam kept her mind off what she knew lived in the water and what she didn’t want to think about.

     No one spoke as they swam and once they were beyond the last of the small swells that rose continuously where the ocean water pushed against the deepest part of the reef, they began to make better and steady progress.

     Swimming on his left side, Roberto could see the Big Dipper over his shoulder and worked to keep the constellation at the same oblique angle relative to his body position in the water in an effort to maintain a northerly direction.

     He remembered what Pedrito had told him about the area where he wanted to rendezvous, and would occasionally slide the tube out of his line of sight as he swam, and look back toward the land, to make sure they were maintaining a northerly course away from the lighthouse. The light from the point was becoming faint but was still visible and he estimated they had covered close to one kilometer when he heard Maura scream.

     “Roberto!” yelled Maura, swimming faster and pulling even with him before they both stopped swimming.

     “What’s the matter?” he yelled.

     “I just saw a big fin. There it is again! See it there!” she said loudly.

     Roberto didn’t see it and Maura was becoming increasingly upset. The others had gathered close to Roberto and Maura and were trying to pull themselves up into their inner tubes.

     “There’s another one!” she said a little louder.

     “I see them now. It’s a pod of bottlenose dolphin. That’s actually a good sign. They’re probably wondering what these crazy humans are doing out in the ocean in the middle of the night. As long as they’re around we’re safe. They’ll kill sharks,” he said.

     “He’s right, Maura,” said Armando. “I’ve seen them follow bull sharks in the shallows by the inlet. Somehow, they know we’re vulnerable. You don’t have to worry unless you see two fins, one behind the other. The dolphins arch as they swim and their fin has a slight hook to it.”

     “Everybody okay?” asked Roberto. “We’re almost half-way. Lazaro, you keeping the lights dry?”

     “Yes. I just checked them. I can turn them on and off inside the plastic. Don’t worry,” he said.

     “We need to keep going. Pedrito is probably leaving about now,” said Roberto.

     They spread out again and continued swimming to the north. The sea was oil calm and reflected the light from the great silver river, the Milky Way, which gradually increased the farther out they were. Roberto didn’t remember having been on the ocean at night when there wasn’t a moon and was surprised by how much light there was once his eyes became accustomed to the conditions.

     They swam in a loose line with Roberto in the middle, and Lazaro and Pedro on either end. At times someone would see a fin when one of the dolphins that had stayed with them as they swam would surface, and they would tell the others. Knowing the dolphins had stayed with the group was a comfort to everyone and they could relax which helped with endurance.

     From time to time when they swam into a warm Gulf Stream eddy, before reaching the edge of the main current, they would see the phosphorescent flashes from marine plankton on the surface, caused by the small splashes from the motion of their swimming. It was unexpected and new.

     After another hour or so of steady swimming—with only an occasional break when Roberto would stop to check their position against the lights from and the position of the North Star, and to make sure no one was cramping—Roberto felt a slight warming of the water and knew he had hit the edge of the Gulf Stream.

     “This is it,” he said, as he stopped swimming. “We’re right where Pedrito said he will meet us. I can see a current swirl to the east. We have to be above the drop.”

     “I can’t believe we made it,” said Maura.

     “I don’t see Pedrito, Roberto,” said Pedro. “I don’t see any boats.”

     “I’m sure he’ll be here soon. Everyone keep looking. Lazaro, I told Pedrito we would spread out in a long semi-circle, with you on one end and Pedro on the other. Check your lights to make sure they’re working,” said Roberto.

     The brothers flashed their light a couple times through the plastic to make sure they were working.

     “I think we should spread out now. Lazaro, you swim thirty or forty meters to the southeast and Pedro to the northwest. We’ll stay in the middle. Wait until you see the lights from the boat before you turn your light on, and make sure the light doesn’t get wet,” he said. “Is everyone okay?”

     “Yamilet is getting tired, Roberto,” said her husband Omar. “I don’t think she can go much farther.”

     “It’s okay. This is as far as we need to swim,” said Roberto. “Just don’t lose your tube. Try and pull yourself into the tube, Yamilet, if you can manage. You can use your arms to paddle if you need to.”

     “What time do you think it is?” asked Maura.

     “It must be at least nine by now. Pedrito should have been here. Unless for some reason he left late,” replied Roberto.

     Another hour or more went by when Lazaro swam back to where Roberto and the rest of the group were waiting.

     “I’m worried, Roberto,” he said. “What do you think happened?”

     “I don’t know. I can’t imagine what went wrong. Maybe he was stopped by the Coast Guard,” said Roberto.

     “What do you want to do?” asked Lazaro.

     “What do you mean what do I want to do?” Roberto said.

     “I mean what if he doesn’t come?” he asked.

     “We wait. I’m sure as hell not swimming back to if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m telling you, he’ll come,” he said. Roberto knew his brother was a doubter and a worrier, but still found it difficult not to be annoyed.

     “Okay, okay,” said Lazaro. He swam back again to the southeast and continued looking in the direction of

     Sometime shortly after eleven o’clock, Pedro, who was farthest to the west, and had remained vigilant and continued looking for the lights of Pedrito’s boat, let out a yell.

     “I see him, I see him!” he yelled to the others. “I see the light from the masthead!”

     “Turn your lights on!” yelled Roberto. “Shit, it looks like he’s heading too much in a northerly direction. If he stays on that course, he’s going to miss us. Lazaro, come around more to the south so the lights are farther apart. Quickly!”

     “Roberto, you need to calm down. He’s going to see us,” said Maura.

     “Come on, Pedrito, turn,” said Roberto under his breath.

     “Pedrito is a fisherman, Roberto. He’ll see us. Not much gets past his eyes,” said Armando.

     “Roberto!” yelled Pedro, who had swum toward the boat away from the group, in an effort to make it easier for Pedrito to see his light. “He’s turning, he’s turning. He’s coming!”

     “Are you sure?” yelled Roberto.

     “Yes! The bow light is now in line with the masthead. He’s heading straight for us!” he replied.

     “Lazaro, keep your light on just in case,” said Roberto, loudly, making sure his brother heard him.

     Pedro was within one hundred and fifty meters when he flashed a hand light over the bow in the direction of the swimmers, signaling he had seen them. Reaching Pedro first, he gradually slowed to a stop and picked him up, leaving his inner tube behind in the ocean.

     Lazaro had already started swimming back to the group, keeping his light on, before Pedrito put the boat back in gear, and with Pedro using his flashlight to guide him, slowly headed toward the others who were now close together.

     Nearing the others, Pedrito turned the Rosita to the starboard, backed off the throttle, bumped her a couple times in reverse, then slowly let the boat drift to a position where everyone was on the port side, and put her in neutral.

     “Pedrito! Man, what happened?” asked Roberto excitedly.

     “The Coast Guard was coming from the west just as I made it to the mouth of the inlet. They kept heading east and by the time they passed back to the west and were out of sight it was already ten o’clock,” he said. “There was nothing I could do. If they saw me heading offshore, they would have stopped me for sure.”

     “Ileana, Yamilet, you get on board first,” said Roberto.

     “Roberto, I need help. My legs are cramping,” said Yamilet.

     “Pedro, grab her arms. I’ll try and lift at her waist. All right, Pedro, go,” said Omar.

     On the second try, Yamilet was able to get her torso on top of the washboard and balance long enough for Pedro and Pedrito’s wife, Magalis to pull her safely into the boat.

     Ileana and Maura were lighter and more powerful swimmers and had no trouble propelling themselves high enough with minimal help from Pedro to make it onto the washboard on the first try. Then one by one, the remaining seven men pulled themselves into the boat, with Roberto waiting until everyone was on board. After brief celebration, they checked to make sure everyone was okay, then watched in silence as the last inner tube drifted east with the current into the darkness.

     Pedro wasted no time putting the Rosita II in gear and turning around to the north, but with so many people on board and most of the weight aft, he was having trouble getting her on a plane. When she finally got on a plane, they could manage only ten knots. Pedrito had been hoping for more.

     Pedrito had the boat going well and making good time in the flat sea. The low ocean swells were coming side to from the west and with a distance of fifty meters or more between them, the ride was smooth and dry. Each of the swimmers had taken some water and despite being tired from the long swim, only Yamilet had trouble with leg cramps and everyone’s spirits were high.

     The yellow glow from the lights of Havana in the southwest were growing dimmer and they could no longer see the lights in Cojimar, except when one of the larger swells would slide under the boat and the Rosita II would rise high enough to bring the coastline back into view.

     They had been traveling for less than half an hour when they saw the lights off the port side.

     “Pedrito!” yelled Roberto above the noise of the engine. “Look!”

     “I can’t believe it! Bastards!” yelled Pedrito.

     “You think it’s the Coast Guard?” asked Roberto.

     “I know it is. I can tell by the lights on the tower. That’s a big boat. It’s the same one I saw pass the inlet,” he said.

     “We’re screwed, Pedrito,” said Roberto. “No way we can out-run them?”

     “No. They’re probably at least three kilometers away and I’m sure they’ve seen us. Look, there’s enough room below deck for everybody if you go all the way forward to the bow. The smaller people first. It’s tight in the bow, but there’s room. I’ll keep my kids on deck and put out baits on the outriggers. It will look like we’re fishing. I can go ahead at trolling speed and head straight for them. We need to get everyone in the bilge, quickly. It’ going to be hot next to the engine but it’s our only option,” said Pedrito.

     Pedrito slowly brought the boat down to trolling speed and eased around to a more westerly course and headed straight for the Coast Guard boat which was moving into position to intercept the smaller vessel.

     Roberto and Lazaro removed the engine cover in the middle of the deck, and one at a time they lowered themselves into the hold beside the engine, alternating between the port and starboard sides, until Roberto, who was last to go below deck, packed himself, mostly on top of Ernesto. Pedrito slipped the engine cover back over the opening, then slid the large fishing cooler out from under the wheelhouse onto the deck, placing it over the engine cover.

     Pedrito quickly rigged the two rods, each with a clear plastic headed rubber skirted trolling lure, which he always had onboard, attached the lines to the outrigger clips, swung the outriggers to a position ninety degrees from either side of the boat, and let the lines play out past the engine wake, then set the drag.

     sientense he said, pointing to the cooler where he wanted the children to sit. “Are you okay? When I talk to the men in this boat, I want you to keep quiet. I’m going to tell them we’re out fishing. You understand? I need you to be strong now.”

     The heat was building in the hold from the engine, and it was difficult breathing, especially for the women who were in the smallest part of the space underneath the bow.

     The Coast Guard boat had closed to within fifty meters when one of the men onboard instructed Pedrito, through a megaphone to take his boat out of gear and cut the engine.

     As the larger boat pulled alongside, one of the crew members threw a dock line to Pedrito and told him to tie it off to the starboard stern cleat in order to keep the two boats from drifting apart.

     Pedrito had already pulled in both fishing lines, swung the outriggers back to a position out of the way parallel to either side, left the lines in the clips, and had each of his children hold one of the trolling lures, now clearly visible to the men on board the government vessel.

     In addition to the bridge lights above the pilothouse one of the other crewmen had turned on a large search light and pointed it down into the cockpit of the Rosita Because of the brightness and direction of the light it was difficult to see and Pedrito could only make out the silhouettes of the men onboard.

     A man came out of the pilothouse and stepped up to the rail at the stern of the Coast Guard boat.

     “Captain, I am Commander Lieutenant Hernandez,” he said, addressing Pedrito. “It’s a bit late at night for you to be this far offshore. Do you have an explanation?”

     “Yes Lieutenant. I’ve been doing a little night fishing with my children,” he replied. “Trying to catch a tuna.”

     Down below with the engine off, Roberto and the others could clearly hear Pedrito’s response but were having trouble hearing the man on board the other boat. The heat in the bilge was building and because of the tight positions they had been holding, unable to stretch their legs, they were beginning to cramp from having had so little water. If any of them were to make the slightest noise, it would be over.

     “And how has the fishing been, Captain?” the man asked.

     “Not what I would have hoped for, Lieutenant. We’re on our way in,” said Pedrito.

     “Where do you fish out of?” he asked.

     “Out of sir.” he replied.

     “I assume you have all your paperwork on board?” asked the lieutenant.

     “Yes sir. Would you like to see it?” he asked.

     “It’s not necessary. I would appreciate it if you would head back to he said.

     “Not a problem sir. Like I said we were just about to head in. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go slow. I burn less fuel that way,” said Pedrito.

     “I don’t care how fast you go, just head straight in,” instructed the lieutenant.

     “Thank you, sir. Can I untie the line?” asked Pedrito.

     “Go ahead, Captain. Ensign, take the line. We don’t need the light anymore,” said the lieutenant, motioning for the crewman to turn off the search light.

     Before starting the engine, Pedrito unclipped the trolling lures from the lines and then the lines from the outriggers and stowed the rods underneath the washboards on either side. Still visible to the men on the Coast Guard vessel, he casually waved, started the engine, and put her in gear.

     Pedrito waited until the government vessel, which had continued on an easterly course, was well away from the Rosita before moving the cooler out of the way and removing the engine cover and helping the others back on deck.

     “You’re pretty slick, Pedrito,” said Roberto, who was the first one back on deck.

     “I kept my hands in my pockets so they wouldn’t see them shaking. I couldn’t believe they didn’t want to come on board,” he said.

     “Are you okay?” Roberto asked Maura, who was the last to come back on deck.

     “I’m fine, just a little greasy,” she said. “Fortunately I don’t have any dinner plans for tonight.”

     “Tomorrow night. I promise,” said Roberto, as he helped her out of the bilge.

     “What are you thinking, Pedrito?” asked Roberto.

     “We need to keep heading toward shore until they’re out of sight or at least far enough away they can’t see our lights. Maybe another two or three kilometers. When it’s safe I’ll kill the lights and we’ll go as hard as we can go to the north. I don’t think anyone is ready to give up,” he said. He looked around at the others who were sitting spread out around the edge of the cockpit and waited for a response.

     “The thought of spending the rest of my life in Cuba with Fidel is all the motivation I need,” said Ernesto. “We may never have this opportunity again.”

     The others all nodded in agreement. Pedrito looked at Roberto and smiled. tu barco, Roberto. What do you want to do?” he asked.

     “Yes, it’s my boat but you are the captain,” he replied, smiling.

     Pedrito looked in the direction of the Coast Guard vessel, which was continuing to head to the easter, paralleling the shoreline and nearly out of sight just off Punta de He looked over again at Roberto, who was standing next to him holding on to the aft edge of the wheelhouse window, then reached down and killed the masthead and bow lights and swung the Rosita II to starboard and slowly brought her up on a plane, taking a northwesterly course away from the Coast Guard boat.

     With the two boats traveling almost in opposite directions it was no more than fifteen minutes before they could see only the lights on the highest part of the masthead of other boat, and only then, when a larger swell would lift them for a moment above the rest.

     No longer having to worry about the Coast Guard, Pedrito could now focus his attention on steering the Rosita It was more difficult to steer a boat at night on the open ocean when there was no moon and you couldn’t see what was coming, but the sky was bright with stars and clear almost to the horizon and with the North Star to guide him, Pedrito was having little trouble maintaining a steady course on the still oil calm sea.

     The rhythmic motion from the boat rising over the low swells and then easily and softly down again into the following trough together with the low hum of the engine, made it possible and easy for the others, tired from the long swim, to sleep when they wanted.

     Because they were able to run parallel to the westerly swells there was no resistance from the sea, and the Rosita II ran smoothly and evenly. Even though it was well past two in the morning, Roberto had felt obligated to stay with Pedrito, who never seemed to tire while steering, or lose concentration.

     They were now far out to sea beyond the reach of any light from land and making steady progress when Roberto thought he saw the first faint flash of light on the horizon to the northwest.

     “Did you see that, Pedrito?” he asked.

     “No, what?” he asked in reply.

     “I’m pretty sure I saw a flash of lightning. That way, a little to port,” he said pointing.

     “The last forecast I heard yesterday right before we left said it would be clear into the afternoon. I heard nothing about a front,” he said, pausing. “If the weather holds, we’ll be to the Keys in another seven hours.”

     “There’s another one. Right over the bow,” said Roberto. “Did you see it?”

     “I saw it. It has to be a front. We don’t have thunderstorms this time of year unless a front is coming. If it is it could get rough for a bit, Roberto. The weather in a norther doesn’t usually last long though and the back side is always clear,” he said.

     When a norther would sweep out of the Gulf of Mexico in the winter it was usually strong, with a sudden and heavy wind on the leading edge. Pedrito had been caught offshore in many northers and was confident the Rosita II could handle the wind and the waves that would build from the wind, but he had never been this far into the Gulf Stream where the current was strongest and the only option was to try and ride it out.

     The first line of wind was light and barely noticeable. It was difficult to feel the breeze because they already had the feeling of the wind from going ahead and only knew something had changed when they saw the surface of the ocean begin to lightly ripple and took the appearance of diamonds.

     It was with the second line of wind, when they met the bigger waves, and their direction became more northwesterly, that they felt the sudden drop in temperature along the leading edge of the front.

     Wanting to maintain course, Pedrito kept the Rosita II heading into the quartering sea, which made steering more difficult and forced him to slow the boat in order to ease the pounding and prevent her from rolling when she came off the backside of the steepening waves.

     As the wind grew heavier the increasing spray thrown up each time the bow met another and bigger wave, would soak the port side of the cockpit and anyone not shielded by the small windshield on top of the wheelhouse.

     Pedrito’s wife, Magalis, had the children sitting now under the cabin in the bow, wanting to protect them from the ocean spray, which was constant and heavy. But in a position under the bow they were having to endure a greater pounding from the rise and fall of the boat each time it hit another wave, than if they were all the way to the stern.

     Only yards before the rain wall hit, the Rosita II was hit by a massive three-meter wave that spun her sideways nearly sending her bottom up. Before Pedrito could bring her bow to, a second wave, bigger than the first, hit her broadside to port with enough force to snap both rudder cables, rendering her steering useless.

     Pedrito quickly looked around the cockpit, making sure no one had fallen overboard, before pushing down on the throttle, hoping the rudder was frozen slightly to port, making it possible to bring the Rosita II back around enough that they could take the next wave bow to, lessening the risk of a rollover. It worked but only just, and then the rain hit.

     The wind was now howling at a steady forty-five making it impossible to hear one another even when someone would yell something. The sea had built to four meters and visibility was little more than the length of the boat. There was nothing Pedrito could do, and he knew it.

     Wave after wave poured into the cockpit threatening to swamp the boat, sending everyone into the ocean. Pedrito had never encountered conditions anywhere near this extreme and there was no way of knowing if the bilge pump would keep up. He knew it would continue to pump as long as there was enough fuel to keep her running and the batteries charged, but what he couldn’t know was how long the conditions would last.

     When the steering went out, Roberto, wanting to make additional room forward, underneath the wheelhouse, slid the large wooden cooler up against the stern, giving Maura, Yamilet, and Ileana some protection from the direct force of the waves as they broke over the bow and into the cockpit. It was then, when he moved the cooler, that he noticed the water jug was gone and must have been washed out of the boat by one of the larger waves.

     The worst of the storm lasted no more than fifteen minutes, but the damage was done. Unable to they were now at the mercy of the easterly flowing Gulf Stream current, and without knowing exactly how far they had come it was impossible to know what land lay to the east and how far.

     As the sky cleared the wind began to fall out and the sky began to fill once more with stars. The relentless pounding from the waves breaking across the bow had blown out the window on the port side of the windshield, letting even more water into the cockpit, helping to overwhelm the deck scuppers and filling the cockpit to a depth of twenty centimeters. Pedrito had kept the engine running at idle speed to maintain a charge in the batteries keeping the bilge pump running, which somehow managed to stay ahead of the water below deck.

     As the sea began to flatten Maura was the first to emerge from under the wheelhouse. A large welt had formed on the right side of her face from having been thrown against one of the uprights supporting the bow deck, and it had not yet begun to darken. She sat down next to Roberto who was sitting in the starboard corner of the cockpit along the stern, rested her headed against Roberto’s shoulder and held his arm tight against her body.

     Although no one seemed to be seriously injured, the experience had left everyone, even Pedrito, the most experienced seaman, in a mild state of shock. There was no need to speak, and everyone knew they were in serious trouble.

     “Magalis, how are the children?” Pedrito asked, looking under the bow deck for the first time since the storm began.

     “We’re okay, Pedrito. Just a little beat up,” she said.

     “Pedrito, we lost the drinking water overboard in the storm,” was all Roberto said.

     “You’re sure? It’s not under the bow?” he asked.

     “I’m sure,” he replied.

     “Ernesto, how long can we make it without water?” asked Pedrito.

     “Three days perhaps. Maybe a little longer if you stay out of the sun. It depends on the individual. Everyone is different,” he replied. “If we’re lucky maybe we’ll see some more rain.”

     “The front was too strong to see any rain the next few days,” said Armando. “It will be clear for at least three days, maybe longer.” Pedrito knew Armando well and that he had spent many years on the ocean and knew the patterns of the weather in the north of Cuba in winter as well as any fisherman from and didn’t question him.

     “What direction you think we’re drifting, Armando?” asked Pedrito.

     “You have something I can throw overboard? A small piece of wood, anything,” he said.

     “Here, you can use this cutting board, Armando. It will float. Magalis, hand me the light. It’s in the box behind the steering wall,” said Pedrito.

     “You see the North Star, Pedrito?” asked Armando.

     “Yes, it’s almost directly off the port side. Here’s the light,” he said. Pedrito turned the light on and handed it to Armando. Pedrito then took the pine bait board from Armando, and using the sharp edge of the apron on top of the wash board, split a narrow piece off along the grain line that paralleled the edge of the board. “I don’t want to throw the whole thing in. I’m sure we’ll need to check our drift again,” he said when he was finished.

     Armando threw the small piece of wood off the port side and followed it with the light as it drifted away from the boat off the stern until he could no longer see it with the light.

     “Looks like we’re drifting a little bit to the northeast,” said Armando. “For now.”

     “Better that than southeast I suppose,” said Pedrito. “If we’re half-way across and continue drifting in this direction we have at least two hundred kilometers until we hit the Great Bahama Bank. I don’t think we’re drifting more than a knot or two, even in this current. Which means we wouldn’t make it to the bank for almost three days.”

     “Isn’t this a shipping lane, Pedrito?” asked Roberto.

     “Yes, but unless a ship is within four or five kilometers of us they’ll never see us. Especially in the dark. That’s when it is most dangerous,” he said.

     “Still, we should have someone watching all the time,” said Roberto.

     “For sure, it’s our best hope,” said Pedrito.

     “How much food do we have, Pedrito?” asked Ernesto.

     “Only what is in the cooler, and it isn’t much,” he answered. “If we’re lucky the boat will attract some fish. We have the two fishing rods and I have a couple hand lines.”

     Pedrito had not heard the bilge pump cut on for some time and decided to check the water level below deck. Sliding the engine cover off enough to shine the light into the bilge, he saw that the water had gone down to a level below the stringers and the keel and decided to turn the engine off to conserve fuel.

     “Pedrito, I’ll watch until sunrise. You should rest,” said Roberto. “You were at the helm for many hours.”

     “We need two people watching,” said Pedrito.

     “I’ll keep watch with you,” said Maura, as she stood up.

     The pulsing drone coming from the diesel engine as it idled helplessly in the open ocean, was replaced now by the sound of the swells—that continued to diminish in size as the wind lessened—when they would break weakly against the stern then quickly die out as they washed under the Rosita II, then roll down sea beyond the bow without a sound.

     Roberto looked up at the night sky which had cleared completely except for the clouds on the backside of the front—still visible in the southeast—and saw the lights from a jet heading north, probably to an airport in Florida, backlit by the brilliant light of the Milky Way, and wondered what it must be like to fly. From that altitude, he thought, the passengers could see the lights both from Havana and Miami. Two cities separated by a formidable but negotiable physical boundary was easy for Roberto to understand. It was the unnecessarily cruel and absurdly artificial nature of the political boundary that was not.

     Container ships and oil tankers must travel the Florida Straits on their way to and from the Panama Canal, he thought. Surely it was only a matter of time before they would be spotted. He knew the American Coast Guard regularly patrolled these waters and had rescued thousands of people who had fled Cuba, many of whom for whatever reason never made it all the way across.

     He looked at Maura who was standing next to him with her hands on top of the windshield of the wheelhouse for balance. “Are you frightened?” he asked.

     “No. I mean not really. I was kind of expecting something to go wrong,” she said. “It’s the story of my life. At least up to this point.”

     “You and ten million other Cubans. I like that you’re still optimistic, though,” he said.

     “When things are this bad, I don’t think you have the option not to be. Things will change when we get to Florida,” she said.

     “Why do you think that?” he asked.

     “Because I’m with you, and every time you fall over backwards into a pile of horse shit, you come up smelling like a flor de she said smiling. “It hurts when I smile.”

     “It’s starting to turn blue,” he said.

     “Do I look as bad as I feel?” she asked.

     “I’ll let you know when I can’t stand to look at you anymore. If it gets too bad I may have to throw you overboard,” he said smiling.

     “You’re hysterical, Roberto. I can tell you this, Alexis Valdes has nothing to worry about,” she said confidently.

     “Look,” he said pointing to the east. “It’s beautiful.

     The predawn light was faint and faded quickly up into the bank of eastern stars which still dominated the sky. In winter the sunrise came slowly. Because the angle of the sunrise was lower in winter, even in the northern tropics, it took more time for the sun to show itself. The fishermen in Cojimar always said when you had a clear view of the sunrise in winter from the ocean, it was always more beautiful than in summer.

     “I’ve never seen the sunrise from a boat,” said Maura.

     “This one will be memorable,” said Roberto, not taking his eyes off the horizon.

     “You have a profound grasp of the obvious, Roberto.”

     “Is that a good thing?”

     “Let’s just say it’s endearing,” said Maura. She looked again toward the horizon, and watched in silence until the sun broke free of the ocean’s surface, then looked away when the glare was fully on the water.