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The terrified mouse scurried down the sides of the earthen pit and two-year-old Alejandro crowed happily, glad to have something to play with. His mama had put him there for safekeeping, so he could not wander into the woods or the fields while she worked. He reached for the fuzzy, moving toy. An instant later a scrawny cat dove into the pit and pounced on the mouse, chasing, biting, hitting the shrieking creature. Little Alejandro shrieked too, screaming for his mama. She did not come. The cat stared savagely at him, the mouse struggling in her jaws, and then leapt away, up the sides of the pit.
Alejandro shivered and wondered, How can this be? How can I be cold?
The Cuban sun poured its heat upon the warehouse in the port of Mariel, where he milled with hundreds of other “undesirables”- whores and homosexuals, for the most part. He and the rest of the desperate, sweating men and women had one goal: stay alive long enough to get out of Cuba.
He had not thought of the pit, the mouse, and the cat for many years; now he saw it as clearly as if he were at a cinema. The warehouse was the dark pit. He and the others were the mice. Castro was the cat, toying with them, promising they could leave. Alejandro was certain it was only a game, that they would be machine-gunned before they could escape, or the warehouse would be burned with them in it. He had heard that several warehouses in Mariel housed others Castro wanted to rid himself of. Madmen. Criminals and drug dealers. Murderers and thieves. Political dissidents. But they, the homosexuals, had the dubious honor of being the most hated, the ones he wanted most to be rid of. One way or another.
Alejandro shivered again in his space, scarcely larger than the childhood pit. The man nearest him grinned, and Alejandro thought, He’s in the wrong place. He should be with the crazies.
“Don’t I know you, pretty boy?” the grinning man asked.
Terror stopped Alejandro’s heart in mid-beat. He thought he recognized the man - one of dozens he had picked up on the beach for a few minutes of dangerous fun. He didn’t remember names; often names were not exchanged. He could be one of the government’s secret agents. They were everywhere, like cockroaches.
The man whispered, “Imagine - in here with all these other maricones and no room to do anything!” He snickered, and Alejandro felt like a wild animal caught in a trap.
“Leave me alone,” Alejandro said. The man pressed himself against Alejandro and squeezed his ass with both hands. Alejandro drove his heel down upon the other man’s instep. “I said leave me alone!”
The man cursed and sidled away. Frantically, Alejandro wondered where he went - to denounce him to the guards? Several minutes passed and nothing happened. He breathed a little easier, then wondered if feeling icy inside when he should be sweltering meant he was sick and would die before he could get to freedom.
If only he had something to eat! Perhaps he was cold because he was so weak. He had not eaten for ... how long? Days. Perhaps a week. He no longer knew. And worse than the hunger was the thirst. And worse than both was the fear.
Constantly he looked over his shoulder. His eyes encountered those of a thin man with the pallor of prison. Most of the men there had the same sickly pallor beneath the dirt. Alejandro was one of the few who were still brown from the sun. The man he saw would have been handsome if he had not been so gaunt.
Dark eyes held dark eyes. Informer! Alejandro’s mind warned him, but something in the fine-boned face said otherwise. In the slight, constant shifting of position in the warehouse, Alejandro lost sight of him and was sorry. Those sympathetic eyes had been a brief focal point of sanity.
Hour after hour the restless movement continued. The deafening sound of so many human voices was always there, hovering like the stale air itself. From time to time the interior would lighten up, and a breath of fresh air would waft in. With the fresh air, which the people gulped audibly, came a wash of both fear and hope: hope that at last they were leaving and fear that the machine guns would open up. Then the door would close again.
Alejandro found that he had somehow, without realizing it, moved nearer to the sympathetic-looking man. They smiled at each other and worked their way closer. When they were face to face, Alejandro thought the man was much older than himself, perhaps in his thirties or forties. And then he recognized him.
“You’re Reinaldo Arenas!” he said. “The writer. I heard you read once.”
“I knew someone had,” Arenas said wryly.
“I didn’t understand a word of it. I’m sorry.”
Arenas snorted and then he laughed, openly. “Don’t apologize. Sometimes I don’t understand it myself.”
It was difficult to hear over the other voices, but they were standing very close. Alejandro suddenly decided that even if he were killed for it, he was not moving an inch. He had regained his small sanctuary of sanity and was not going to yield.
“Are you afraid?” Alejandro asked and immediately thought what a stupid question that was. They were all afraid. Reinaldo would think him a fool.
“They might shoot us.”
“I would rather be shot than sent back to prison. I should not even be here. I falsified a letter in my name.”
Alejandro was overcome at the trust Reinaldo was showing. “How do you know I won’t denounce you?”
Reinaldo’s fine dark eyes roamed the crowd around them. “I wonder every moment if someone will recognize me and turn me in. I watch for familiar faces. A soldier I fucked in the shadows. An old friend or former lover. A fellow writer. A family member turned informer. There’s no end to the parade of potential betrayers. None of us are safe, not even from those who truly loved us. Torture can turn any Jesus into a Judas.” He touched Alejandro’s cheek. “But you, for some reason, I don’t fear. How old are you?”
“A mere boy. When I was younger than you, we had a different monster in control. I was foolish enough, long ago, to think it mattered. It doesn’t. Batista. Castro. The Russian Czar. Stalin. The Romans. The Christians. It simply doesn’t matter. Monsters are monsters, and the ones in control destroy those who oppose them.”
Alejandro shivered. Reinaldo gazed curiously at him. “Are you cold?”
“I don’t know why, but I am. I - I think it’s because I’m afraid they’ll shoot us.”
“Castro is a vicious devil, but he’s not a fool. He couldn’t keep word from getting out if he murdered so many in one place.”
“It doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.”
“When did you last eat?”
Not having an answer, Alejandro looked away. Reinaldo put something into his hand, and he looked up, startled.
“It isn’t much,” Reinaldo said. “A piece of very stale bread. And it’s dirty. It’s been in my pocket. It probably has bugs.”
“So do I,” Alejandro said, managing a laugh.
“So do we all. Eat it quickly before anyone notices.”
“Do you have any left for yourself?”
Reinaldo shrugged. Alejandro ducked his head and wolfed down the scrap of bread. His stomach was so empty the crumbs threatened for a moment to come back up. No meal had ever been as good. “Thank you,” he said. “No one has ever been that kind to me. Why are you?”
“What’s your name?”
“And I am Reinaldo.” He made a small, comical bow. “Well, Alejandro, I was kind, if that’s what you want to call it, because there’s no reason not to be. I’ve been in prison. There is no kindness there. Sometimes we were barely human. I said if I ever got out, I’d be human no matter what the conditions.”
“Why - why were you in prison? What did they charge you with?”
“I was never charged. Fidel just doesn’t like writers or people who think.”
Alejandro sighed. “I’m so tired. If only I could go to sleep.”
“Sleep on your feet. Here.” Reinaldo put his arms around Alejandro and drew his head down to his shoulder. “I’ll hold you. Close your eyes for a minute or so. It will refresh you.”
“I can’t…” Alejandro started to say. Before he finished the sentence he was asleep, leaning against the kind-hearted stranger. A few minutes later he wakened with a start, disoriented, thinking for a moment that he was home with his brother, sister-in-law, and eleven nieces and nephews. He had to blink twice before he remembered where he was and who held him. Reinaldo had been right; the brief, deep sleep had cleared his head.
To Alejandro’s surprise, Reinaldo started talking in a low voice which he could barely hear, his lips near Alejandro’s ear.
“I’m not afraid to die,” Reinaldo said. “Dying is nothing. I’m afraid the soldiers or policemen will drag me away again. It’s inconceivable that they won’t. It’s also inconceivable that I’ll go quietly.
“I was in prison for three years. Sometimes I was with hundreds of other prisoners in a dungeon below sea level where it was never warm and never dry. Sometimes I was isolated in a tiny cell where I couldn’t stand upright. I don’t know which was worse, but I think it was being alone. The silence was as much a torture as the constant noise. They’re so clever in their torture! Physical pain, mental pain, the threat of pain. I had my own special torture, though: the words in my head. Suppose I should die with them still locked in there? My words are all there is to prove Reinaldo Arenas ever lived. Even before I was imprisoned, time after time they destroyed my manuscripts. But I had the last laugh. I simply kept writing them over. I smuggled some of my writing out, even from prison. But it was harder and harder to find the means to write the words and remember the ideas.”
“I’ve never read a book. I don’t know how to read.”
“Perhaps we’ll find our way to America together,” Reinaldo said with a smile. “I’ll teach you to read.”
“You truly believe we’ll leave here?”
“I must. It’s said that our people in America have sent everything that will float to rescue us. Yes. I dare hope for the first time in years.”
“Do you pray?” Alejandro asked. “I do because my mama taught me to.”
“God abandoned me when I was in my mother’s womb. I see no reason He should suddenly decide to help. To hell with God. My only prayer is ‘Just let me get to America.’ And I’ll pray that to the captain of whatever boat I sail on.”
“I hope we’re together,” Alejandro said. “I - I’m scared of so much. The soldiers and policemen here. The prisons. I’ve never been on a boat, and I can’t swim. And how far away is America? How do we even know it’s there? And the sea . . . it’s so . . . big. I had a friend who went on a boat once, and he said when they got out so far there was nothing but water everywhere.”
“We won’t fall off the edge, I promise. America is there. We’ll find it. I’ll look after you. We’ll all have to look after each other when we get there.”
Alejandro trembled again, and wondered anew if he was sick. Over his new friend’s shoulder he saw a guard watching them. At least he seemed to be watching them; it was impossible to tell for certain because his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses.
“I wish I could run,” Alejandro blurted.
“Where would you go? They’d find you. They always do. Better to stay here, keep your head down, and don’t draw attention. Wait for the boat.”
After a few moments Reinaldo laughed. “Life is absurd. If I should die here, only a few yards away from freedom, Castro would light a cigar and celebrate. Not just another dead queer, but a dead queer who would have raised a stink about what’s happening here.”
Terror rushed over Alejando. So many listening ears nearby! Reinaldo was his friend . . . but was he also crazy? Perhaps he should try to get away before one of the policemen at the door came and dragged Reinaldo off and him, too, for being with him. But he couldn’t bring himself to move. This man’s presence and his arms were his safe harbor. He rested his weary head once more on Reinaldo’s shoulder. “What will you do if - if the boats don’t come? Or if there aren’t enough?” he asked.
“Swim. Why not? In the sea there are sharks with razor sharp teeth. Here, there is Fidel. I prefer the sharks. They’re kinder.” Reinaldo laughed softly. “I tried escaping alone once, on an inner tube. I didn’t get far.” His arms tightened a little, but it was a comforting embrace rather than sexual.
“I have a dream,” he said, his lips once more close to Alejandro’s ear. “A fantasy. I’ll tell it to you if you like.” Alejandro nodded.
In a hypnotic whisper no one else could hear, Reinaldo said, “In my fantasy I climb, higher and higher. I don’t know where I am; I know only that it’s very high. So high Castro can see me. So high God can’t ignore me any longer. At the summit, I spread my arms like Jesus on the Mount and shout so everyone in the world can hear, ‘Fuck you, Fidel, you monster! You lying, greedy, vicious bastard, you coward! You shit on your own country, on your own people. You destroy men and women for using their brains, and you wipe your ass with their dreams. You murder men guilty of nothing but loving other men. Well, do your worst, you bag of pus! This is one faggot you will not kill!’ And then I see his hate-filled eyes and I see his beard part in shock as I, Reinaldo Arenas, rush upward like an eagle, into the air to freedom—”
A harsh voice blasted over a bullhorn. “Move along! Move along! Line up. Keep in order if you don’t want to get shot. We’d as soon shoot you as look at you.” The policeman with the bullhorn fingered the pistol at his belt.
As the line formed, Alejandro and his friend were separated. Frantically he looked about and saw that Reinaldo had been pushed further back. The line was moving slowly, toward the outside. The icy panic in Alejandro’s gut tightened. Castro has changed his mind; they’re taking us out to kill us! He tried to hang back but was forced to move with the mass of bodies around him or risk being trampled. He listened sharply but, to his relief, did not hear the stutter of machine guns.
Over the voices of the men around him the bullhorn continuously ordered them to “Move along! Move along! Move along!”
They were funneled from the sticky darkness inside to cooler midnight darkness outside. Alejandro felt something akin to joy. They were not being mowed down! He willed himself not to give in too completely to excitement as he sucked in great gulps of fresh sea air.
“Move along! Move along!”
Gradually the sound of the voices grew louder, sharper, shriller, as the crowd swelled with women and children and additional “undesirables” from the other warehouses. Rumors flew from mouth to mouth. “There aren’t enough boats!” “Only the rich will be taken aboard!” “The children are thrown into the sea and drowned!” A few frightened mothers tried to fight their way back from the docks, small children in their arms. Only with great effort did Alejandro keep from being caught up in the madness. He needed the reassuring presence of his new friend, but no matter how he twisted about he saw no sign of him.
Despite the cursing and orders of the police and soldiers, the line now barely crawled. Alejandro’s shivering intensified, and his fear of being left behind increased steadily. There can’t be enough boats for all of us. And then the police will come with their clubs and bayonets, and no one will ever know or care what happened to me.
He heard a policeman ask another if he knew the time. The second policeman answered it was nearly one o’clock. The line shuffled forward little by little.
Ahead of Alejandro people were crying, but whether from fear or happiness he couldn’t tell. And then – then he was near enough to the front of the line that he could see the boats! Some of them were very small, and already packed with freedom seekers. “Anything that floats,” Reinaldo had told him. He was seized with a mad desire to shove people out of the way, push them to the ground and trample their bodies if necessary to reach the boats. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, driving his nails into his palms to maintain control.
Then, like a vision of Heaven, Alejandro saw an uninhabited space in front of him as the man ahead boarded a boat. Alejandro closed his eyes for an instant and crossed himself. Someone shoved him from behind and with a shout of elation he leapt to the already crowded, slick deck of a stinking small fishing vessel, the Esperanza. He lost his footing and slipped, and would have fallen into the harbor if a burly man had not seized his arms and hauled him to safety.
Within minutes the Esperanza chugged out to sea. He stood at the rail, watching for Reinaldo, but the docks were lost to sight and he didn’t know if Reinaldo had made it. He prayed fervently to La Virgen de la Caridad to see them both safely to America.
The air was cold and clean; the sea spray was salty. Dangerously full, the boat yawed perilously as it sailed. After a few hours, there was no land anywhere to be seen. Cuba had been swallowed up by the rising sun. America had not yet appeared on the horizon. Just as he had been told: there was nothing but the choppy water.
It was then Alejandro realized that the chill had left him. Freedom in a new world waited, and he was no longer afraid of the sea.
Postscript: Though the character of Alejandro is fictional, the circumstances were real and should not be forgotten. Between April 15 and October 31, 1980 approximately 125,000 Cubans on 1,700 boats of all kinds, sizes, and conditions left Mariel. Several refugees died on the journey, including fourteen on an overloaded fishing boat that capsized. The San Lázaro, bearing Reinaldo Arenas, went far off course, ran out of gas, and drifted for several days without food or water. Many on that boat had already been without food for five days. Of the thousands of Cubans who left Mariel, only 2 % were denied asylum because they were found to be actual criminals under United States law.
Sadly, Reinaldo Arenas found freedom but never peace. The remaining ten years of his life were filled with frustration, rage, poverty, and tragedy. He contracted HIV and then AIDS, and took his own life in New York City, at the age of 47. I urge you to read his autobiography, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS: A Memoir. It was made into a motion picture by Julian Schnabel. Neither the book nor the film is for the squeamish or faint of heart.