By the Sea by Cristina Garcia (EXCERPT from King of Cuba)



        El Comandante gazed out the window at the stale light of another tropical morning, at the long curve of crumbling seaside buildings. Spindly, sun-sick palms splintered the skies with their spiky fronds. The sea was a rumpled bed of blues. The usual lovebirds tangled on the malecón, verging on public fornication. He’d passed laws against such displays but it hadn’t deterred the couples. The seawall remained theirs, as it had for generations of lovers before them. It was bad enough that Cuba had a reputation as the brothel of the Caribbean—in a desperate bid for foreign currency, he’d once pronounced his country’s prostitutes as the healthiest and best educated on the planet—but this was hardly a laudable distinction.

       The tyrant was accustomed to being exceptional and so he didn’t expect that rules governing ordinary human mortality should apply to him. Nothing in his life had followed anyone else’s rules so why must he go the way of every mediocre nobody on the planet? Dying, he’d decided, was a fate for lesser men. He didn’t believe in death, at least not for him. From the corner of his eye, he checked the expression on the nurse’s face as she cleaned him up. Not a trace of derision or disgust. He’d read her dossier. Twelve years in the secret service, here and abroad. A regular Mata Hari. Certainly she’d had to execute more disagreeable tasks than this.

       El Comandante struggled to open the window nearest him. “Carajo, somebody help me with this goddamn thing!” he thundered, prompting the assistant his wife had dubbed El Huele Huele, the ass sniffer, to scurry in and prop it open with a wedge of plywood. Turbulent southeast winds blew straight for his enemies in Miami. The distaste of their collective name—gusanos—was an old poison on his tongue. Those worms were a wiped out class here, their legacy extinct, and he’d made sure it would stay that way. He elbowed aside a goose down pillow. He’d left his mark on history with ink, and action, and blood. Not even the most bitter, pathetic, exile shopkeeper could deny him that. The tyrant shifted onto his left hip, aiming his scrawny buttocks at the Straits of Florida, and released a sputtering, malodorous stream of flatus. 

       “Take that, you fat-livered idiots,” he muttered, slumping against his padded headboard. Satisfied, he smoothed the top sheet over his withered knees then coughed until he felt his ribs would snap. 

       Another minion appeared with a pitcher of water, his pills, and the day’s newspapers stacked high on a portable desk. El Comandante reached for his bifocals. He didn’t trust anyone’s editing of world events. Nobody saw opportunity like he did; the plots and betrayals bubbling below the surface of politics-as-usual. His grandchildren had taught him how to navigate the Internet but its distractions were pernicious: pornography websites and chat rooms on penile implants that wasted precious hours of what remained of his life. These days sex seemed to him a muscle memory in the loins—a waxy heat that had telegraphed pleasure to the very root of his spine, rendering him pure animal. Those sensations had vanished in the end and only the many lives he’d engendered remained, trapping him in nooses of competing demands until he regretted that celibacy hadn’t come sooner. 

       There was no mention of him in the foreign press though it was the official anniversary of the Revolution. Instead other world leaders populated the front pages like so many party crashers. Hijos de puta. His government’s rag had published a ten-page spread of him that included the same old photographs, recycled interviews, and a picture of his brother, Fernando, that was a quarter-inch larger around than his. Somebody would pay dearly for that mistake. Nowadays El Comandante was usually featured, when he was featured at all, in conjunction with his junior bad boy counterpart in Venezuela, a megalomaniac to whom it was difficult to keep a civil public face, his advancing cancer notwithstanding. If it weren’t for his vast reserves of oil—sugar and oil, the island would grind to a halt without either—their alliance would’ve ended like the infamous party at Guatao.


Contributor Notes

Cristina García is the author of six novels, including the National Book Award finalist Dreaming in Cuban; children’s books; anthologies; and poetry. Her work has been translated into fourteen languages, and she is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, among other honors. She has taught literature and writing at numerous universities, and is currently University Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University-San Marcos. Visit her website at