The Lost Ones by Aracelis González Asendorf
Efraín hadn’t been out all day. He didn’t truly need anything from la bodeguita, but the house smelled like dirty, wet socks, and it would for the next couple of hours, until the dust burned off the coils. It happened every year the first time the central heat was turned on for the winter. Now the sour, musty smell combined with Emelina’s cigarette smoke. And Efraín had to leave.
“Emelina, I’m driving to la bodeguita,” he said to his wife, who sat in a flannel robe watching television, her once-blue slippers propped on the coffee table. “Did you hear me, Eme?” Emelina tilted her chin up and exhaled without looking away from the set, and the details of her face were lost in a haze of gray. Even though he knew he was wasting his words on the woman he’d met smoking behind a stand of palmettos forty-five years ago, he added, “You shouldn’t smoke inside the house. You shouldn’t smoke at all.”
Emelina looked at him and blew two perfect smoke rings his way.
Efraín shook his head and shifted his weight from his weak foot to his strong one. Housebound after the roofing accident, he now knew Eme’s afternoon routine. This was one of the four Newport cigarettes his wife allowed herself each day. She changed out of her work clothes after coming home from St. Anthony’s Elementary school, where she worked as a kindergarten aide. Then she sat in front of the TV, placing her cigarettes single file on the coffee table, yellow filter tips uniformly aligned. She smoked two while she watched Ellen, and two during that idiot Dr. Phil. Then, she showered and made dinner. Before his accident, he would come home from work and Eme had dinner ready. He hadn’t known that she even had a routine until three months ago when he’d fallen and shattered his ankle. He was inspecting work completed by the crew of the small company he owned when the edge of his foot caught an upraised shingle sending him, shocked and spiraling, down the length of the steep-pitched roof.
Fell off a goddamn roof after spending the better part of my life roofing.
That’s what he said to people who asked, people more curious than concerned, at la bodeguita. Of course, it wasn’t really a bodeguita at all; not like the little stores in West Tampa stocked with Cuban products, smelling of root vegetables, cumin, and dry-salted cod. This one, barely a mile from his house, was just a regular mini-mart: gas pumps, beer, bad coffee, pre-fab sandwiches, and lottery tickets. Still, it offered a break from the house and Eme’s smoking.
Efraín had always disliked Emelina’s cigarettes, but her smoke, blended with the smell from the air system, made the house even more unbearable that afternoon than it had been during the last three months. Emelina tended to him dutifully following the accident, just as he had cared for her years ago during her pérdidas. That’s what they came to call her repeated miscarriages over the years. Her pérdidas. But while he had given his attention generously during her losses, he felt Emelina was miserly with hers. She was impatient as she helped him out of bed and to the bathroom. She was brusque in manner as she settled him on the couch in front of the television or helped him bathe; the ordinary necessities of the day. It humiliated him to need help.
“You can leave,” he said to her a week after the accident, more out of disappointment and weariness than anger. “Go back to work. I don’t need you to stay.”
Emelina was visibly relieved to return to her job and the children, and he made do alone. Efraín had to admit he envied her the distraction of work. Without it, he felt lost. Without it, he felt the way he did as a boy standing on the tarmac of the Miami airport, with nothing but a small suitcase and a name tag.
Outside, the chilly dampness of the afternoon startled his body as if he’d been dunked in icy water, and it wasn’t even all that cold yet. Not really. Not Nebraska cold. It was the first day the Florida temperatures had significantly dropped for the season, and they’d continue to fall as day turned into night. Efraín hated winter; he hated the way the cold seemed to find him once it started, creeping up his sleeves and down his collar, pinching his ears and smarting his eyes no matter what he did to guard himself against it. And this winter brought with it a previously unknown discomfort, a constant ache from the pins that now held his ankle together.
Efraín started his truck and waited for the engine to heat up. He waited for warm air to blow from the vents, and when it did, he rubbed his hands in front of them as if in front of a fire. He figured he’d go get his weekly Lotto and get away from Emelina and her afternoon cigarettes as the house warmed up.
Emelina had been smoking the first time Efraín met her, back in 1966. It had been at a get-together at his friend Rafaelito’s house, and he’d only been in Tampa a few weeks. He’d gone to the backyard, away from the noisy chatter of the house, to the end of the property where a stand of palmettos grew. He found Emelina behind them. She wore a short navy-blue dress with a white sailor collar and stood there in white high-heeled sandals with perfectly polished coral toenails, holding a cigarette with the tips of her outstretched fingers.
“You caught me,” she said, adding quickly, “Papi doesn’t approve.”
He mumbled something apologetic and turned to leave, but she stopped him.
“When did you get here?”
He knew by the way she said “here,” that she didn’t mean here as in the backyard, or even here as in Tampa, but here as in the United States.
“Over three years ago,” he said, “Pedro Pan. You?”
“Just this past year. Camarioca Boat Lift. ¿Directo a Tampa?”
He shook his head, “Nebraska.”
“Nebraska? Where is that?” Emelina asked.
The truck warmed up during the brief drive to the mini-mart, but the steering wheel felt thick and cold in Efraín’s hands, and the chill of the vinyl seats made its way through his clothes. As he pulled into the mini-mart, feeling his pockets for his cell phone, his attention was drawn to an ordinary woman by the notice of two unremarkable things. She’d gotten out of a taxi, an unusual sight in this suburban part of town where everyone drove themselves, and, even though he couldn’t hear her, he knew by her body language that she was speaking Spanish. She touched her heart with one palm and held up the other flat, patting the air before her, shaking her head and scrunching her shoulders all in one simultaneous motion.
Efraín parked. Then, he rummaged in the glove compartment for his penciled Lotto play slip. He finally found it beneath some paper napkins he’d carelessly tossed in a few days before. The slip was worn and dog-eared; he needed to fill out a new one.
“Why don’t you buy Advance Play?” Emelina asked him once. “You play the same numbers every week; just buy the same ticket weeks ahead without the bother.”
“Because,” Efraín said, “it would be like spitting in the face of fate.”
“Do you believe in fate?” Eme asked.
Efraín still wasn’t sure. If he hadn’t met Rafaelito he wouldn’t have come to Tampa, and he wouldn’t have met Eme. He wouldn’t have started roofing and broken his ankle. Was that fate?
In the parking lot of the mini-mart, Efraín kept the truck motor running and enjoyed the blast of warm air. He used the center of the steering wheel as a tabletop, carefully penciling in his numbers on a crisp play slip. The knock on his door window startled him. It was the woman from the taxi.
He rolled down the glass and cold air invaded his truck.
“¿Habla español?” the woman asked him.
“Mire,” the woman started. She said el chofer, el taxista had brought her there from the bus terminal, but she didn’t think this was the address, and she didn’t understand anything he’d said. He’d driven her back and forth, she said, pointing to the road that fronted the mini-mart, and then made her get out of the cab.
Efraín looked at the woman, trying hard to follow what she said. He had no trouble with Spanish, even though his conversations with Emelina usually fell into English, and he’d stopped thinking in his native language God knew how many years ago. He still spoke rapidly his Cuban Spanish with swallowed final syllables and non-existent plural S’s. He spoke effortlessly with Puerto Ricans who couldn’t roll R’s, and emphasized everything with bendito this and bendito that. But this woman’s Spanish was clipped, yet lilting, rising and falling in a cadence that left him wondering if she was asking a question or making a statement.
She stood there, pushing stray strands of hair away from her weathered face, clutching a piece of paper, telling him she was lost.
“Tell me what your paper says,” Efraín said.
“No puedo,” she responded.
“Why can’t you?”
“Because I can’t.”
Efraín looked at the woman, realizing she didn’t know how to read, and said softly, “Por favor, señora, let me see.”
He looked at the scribbled address on the wrinkled paper, a Fletcher Avenue address; the road behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, the east-west artery already filling with rush hour traffic, and saw the taxi pull away. He looked down from the truck at the woman. She was squat and round, wearing gray sweat pants and an oversized men’s jacket. Efraín sighed, half in pity, half in resignation, and asked her to get in the truck.
She climbed in with a knapsack and a small brown duffle. He began to say she could put them in the flatbed, but she put them on the floor in front of her and placed her feet carefully on top of them. Efraín noticed the side of her black sneaker was patched with a silver strip of frayed duct tape. A doughy smell of corn tamales emanated from her knapsack.
Efraín studied the address as she explained she was trying to find her brother.
“Where are you coming from?” Efraín asked.
“Carolina del Norte,” she said. “I came for the strawberries.” The strawberries were ripening and picking season would begin soon on the east side of the county. Harvesting work would be plentiful.
“It is very early for them,” she sang, “but, well, usted sabe, la Migra.”
Efraín stuck his play slip over the visor and backed towards Fletcher Avenue. He believed from the numbers on the address that it shouldn’t be far, just slightly west of the mini- mart. He waited for a break in traffic, as the afternoon crawl began.
“Gracias, señor,” she said.
Efraín shrugged a de nada as they waited for a red light to change.
She rubbed her hands in front of the air vent as he had done earlier, and asked politely, “What is your country?”
“Cuba,” he said.
“How long have you been here?” she asked. “¿Hace mucho tiempo?”
“Sí,” Efraín nodded, “it has been a very long time.”
“¿Desde cuándo, señor?”
Efraín was fourteen. Fidel had closed private schools and formed youth patrols; young teenagers were being sent into the interior to work on agricultural farms and teach illiterate campesinos to read. They can’t get their hands on him, he heard his mother tell his father one night.
Efraín inched his truck along with traffic, west towards the sinking sun. The woman rearranged her feet around her belongings. She lowered the top of her jacket zipper just slightly where it had been pressing against her chin. He realized it made it more comfortable for her to breathe and speak as she repeated his words back to him.
“It has been a very long time,” she said. “You came with your family, no?”
Efraín darted his eyes back and forth repeatedly from the wrinkled paper in his hand to the red brake lights of the car in front of him, as if that would wipe away the images of the day he left Havana and his family.
“Señora, I believe the address is not far from here,” he said, his voice tight and strained, although there was no zipper pressing against his chin.
Pedro Pan. Efraín remembered standing on the tarmac of the Miami airport, wearing a name tag and feeling lost. Many children, some so young they clutched a stuffed animal or doll, were met by relatives. Others, like him, were placed on a bus and driven to Camp Matecumbe, a processing center.
That’s where he first met Rafaelito; he too, was alone. Two weeks later, with no word from his parents, he boarded another bus, together with Rafaelito. This time they were escorted by a young nun from Catholic Family Services, who rode with them to a boys’ home in Nebraska.
The longer Efraín rode on the bus, the colder the weather became. The monjita spoke to him cheerfully. He knew it was cheerfully because she smiled and patted his hand, but he couldn’t understand a word she said. She even said his name wrong, Efren, as if it had no a or i.
Efraín felt a sudden chill as he drove cautiously in the stop-and-go traffic looking for the address on the worn sheet of paper. Suddenly, the numbers were too low, and he cursed silently, assuming he’d missed it and doubling back. It happened again; a ten-number jump. There was an entrance to a condo complex where the number he searched for should be, and Efraín knew it wasn’t the place, but he turned in anyway. It was a gated complex that didn’t allow passage past the main driveway without an entry code. He turned the truck around, pulling along the length of a white-painted curb.
Did she have a phone number? he asked. Was she certain of the address, was her brother waiting? Bueno, she said and explained. Her brother expected her for the strawberries, he’d given the address over a pay phone to someone she knew. When word spread through North Carolina that la Migra was tightening down, she decided to leave early. She presented the address at the bus terminal and bought a ticket. She couldn’t read, she said apologetically. But, she added proudly, she could count.
Efraín leaned towards the steering wheel and back again, shifting around in his seat; God, how he hated buses.
At the boys’ home in Nebraska, he bunked with Rafaelito. They were the same age. After lights out, they traded stories about their families and homes as they boasted of baseball feats, carefully avoiding with false bravado how scared and lonely they were. They started to crunch English words out of their mouths as they awaited letters from home.
They hoped to be reunited soon, the letters said, although the ones from Efraín’s mother contained no specifics. Ten months later, as if a present for his fifteenth birthday, Rafaelito received a telegram saying his family was in Florida. Efraín began writing home every day. When are you coming? he asked in every letter.
Things were uncertain, his mother wrote back. His father wasn’t sure when they could leave. The letters became repetitious as Efraín turned sixteen, seventeen, and then could see eighteen. The sprawling house of his boyhood, in the elegant Vedado neighborhood of Havana, had been in his father’s family for three generations. His father was reluctant to leave; Castro would certainly fall. Efraín wrote one last letter before he turned eighteen.
Understand, niño, we cannot leave what is ours.
Now, decades later, he remembers the veranda that wrapped around his house in Havana. He has hazy memories of Soledad, the maid who prepared his noonday lunches while his mother played Canasta with her manicured friends. And while he can no longer conjure his mother’s face, he remembers her voice in that letter.
When he turned eighteen, the orphanage provided a one-way bus ticket to any place he wanted to go. He’d received letters from Rafaelito, frequently at first when he left to join his family in Florida, more sporadically as the years went on. Rafaelito wrote that he and his family lived in Tampa, much further north than Miami, but warm nevertheless. He told Efraín that Tampa had a boulevard called Bayshore, which hugged the bay the way the Malecón did in Havana, and although waves didn’t come crashing over the seawall as they did on the Malecón, it was still quite a sight to see.
Efraín now wondered if the address was missing a number or had an extra one. It couldn’t be any further west. The avenue changed names shortly past the condo complex as it crossed a large intersection and became a curving tree-lined road leading into well-established neighborhoods.
He decided to turn around and head east.
Traffic moved slowly as they passed the mini-mart from where they’d started, continuing east, under the interstate overpass. The area changed abruptly on the other side of the interstate. He drove through Suitcase City, a low-rent area of town where worn hookers, homeless people pushing shopping carts, and scab-skinned meth heads roamed the streets.
Efraín drove on diligently on the lookout for an address he was now starting to believe didn’t exist. The dimming winter sun cast a yellow shadow, and he felt his ankle begin to throb. He asked the woman about her family, making conversation to keep the pain in his foot at bay.
“Tengo cinco hijos,” the woman said, telling Efraín of the five children she’d left in Mexico with her mother, and how she sent money every month to keep them fed. She’d followed the crops alone for almost two years, and now her brother was here. It would be easier, verdad, with someone?
“It must be so hard,” Efraín said mindlessly, and the obviousness of his statement actually shamed him.
“I do whatever destiny asks,” she said. She smoothed her gray sweatpants, and delicately placed her crossed palms on top of one knee. “¿Y usted, señor? What is your work?”
He’d come from Nebraska to the house of Rafaelito’s parents where, for a short time, he was allowed to stay. Construction work was readily available, and even though he had no skills, he could hit a nail with a hammer. A friend of Rafaelito’s family found him work framing roofs. Efraín swung himself across the trusses under a hot Florida sky, vengefully pounding nails. He peeled off his shirt and let the sun blister his skin. Sweat poured out his body. He finished each day with aching muscles and a profound exhaustion that gratefully brought him sleep.
Two weeks after meeting Emelina behind the palmettos, he saw her again at a birthday party for one of Rafaelito’s cousins. From a distance, he watched Emelina dance in the living room, then watched as she headed for the back door and followed her to the corner of the yard where rose bushes surrounded a thigh-high, plaster San Lazaro. “Caught me again,” she said.
“What?” he asked, “no cigarettes?”
Emelina giggled, “No cigarettes, but too much cidra. Do you dance?”
Efraín shook his head.
Before he realized what was happening, Emelina leaned his way and kissed him, softly and fully. At eighteen, he had never been kissed before.
“Seems there are two things I’m going to have to teach you,” Emelina said.
Efraín stood there breathing hard, his face burning, and said nothing.
“I had a boyfriend,” she motioned with her head, “back there. An official boyfriend. Comprometida. My father said we could get married when I turned twenty.”
“What,” Efraín started and cleared his throat, finding his voice, “happened?”
“He didn’t want to come with us when we had the chance to leave,” she said. “There was room in the boat, but I guess he loved the Revolution more than me. He sent a picture a few months ago. He’s standing by a truck, holding a large transistor radio. He wrote he’d won it cutting sugar cane – he was the first to meet the required quota. I sent him back a picture of me with a radio. I told him I’d won mine by eating ham.” Emelina turned around quickly and went back into the house, leaving Efraín alone in the yard.
In her sing-song voice, the woman recounted the names and ages of her children, adding some detail about each, telling him Roberto, her eldest, ate whole tomatoes the way americano children ate apples, and Luisita, her youngest, was afraid of thunder. Then she told him her husband was gone. Se nos fue, she said, and Efraín chose not to ask if she meant he’d died or had abandoned them. And when he said nothing, because he didn’t know what to say, she asked if he was married.
“Sí,” Efraín nodded, “sí, señora, sí.”
In the same way Efraín found roofing work, knowing someone, or someone who knew someone, he found a small room to rent. And to his happy surprise, two years later, as they both turned twenty, he married lovely Emelina.
One night in bed, while on their brief honeymoon, Emelina held her arm towards him, her wrist pulse side up. “Bite me,” she said.
Efraín let out a snicker, shook his head, puzzled, and pushed her arm away.
“Do it,” she said. “Bite me!”
When he said no, Emelina grabbed his arm and sunk her teeth into his flesh. Efraín yelped and yanked his arm away.
Emelina looked directly into his eyes. “Remember this,” she said. “You couldn’t, but I could.” She took his arm again and gently licked the red crescents her teeth had left, then she trailed her tongue up his arm, across his chest, and down his body.
“¿Y usted y su esposa?” the woman asked. “Do you have children?”
Efraín shook his head. They were stopped. The truck idled as they waited for traffic to move, but Efraín did not look her way.
“¡Qué lástima!” the woman said, and having expressed her pity, fell silent.
Emelina had lost six. The first one they conceived and lost before their first anniversary. Ten years later, the last one, the one she carried the longest, bled out of her before she’d reached the third trimester, even though she’d diligently stayed in bed for weeks.
“You can leave too,” Emelina had said to him. “I don’t need you to stay.”
They continued along, leaving behind Suitcase City and entering the part of Fletcher Avenue that housed medical offices and backed the research area of the university.
“It is not here, is it?” the woman asked.
It was time to turn around. Efraín looked at her, “Do you know anyone else?”
They drove in silence through the early dusk, back the way they came. Efraín felt a weight deep within him as he considered options. He could drive her to a shelter, rent her a motel room, take her home; what would Emelina say?
They were now reentering Suitcase City again, when she said loudly, “There. Stop there.”
“Where?” He looked where she pointed.
In a strip shopping center, housed between an Amscot and an Asian nail parlor, was a small storefront; the sign above it was a replica of the Mexican flag labeled Productos Mexicanos. The storefront window read: Tomatillos, Masa Harina, Envios Directos.
“That’s not the address,” Efraín said.
“It does not matter.”
Efraín parked in front. He grimaced as he stepped down from the truck, and walked to the passenger side. He intended to help her with her bags, but she was already out of the truck, possessions in hand, holding tightly to what was hers.
“Señora, are you sure?” Efraín asked uncomfortably.
She nodded, reached in her pocket, and pulled a crumbled five-dollar bill. Before she could offer it to him, Efraín held up his hands, palms flat, firmly saying no, hoping it wouldn’t be an insult if he offered her some money.
She draped her knapsack over her shoulder, touched his arm and said in her melodic Spanish, “God will pay you in his glory.”
Efraín sat in the truck and watched her enter the market. The heat from the vents suddenly felt stifling and he turned it off, noticing that the floury corn scent lingered even though she’d gone. Finally, with an oppressive sense of loss, he drove away.
When Efraín entered his house it was filled with the pungent smell of sofrito. He closed the door quickly against the cold.
“Efraín!” Emelina said loudly. She walked towards him, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “You left your cell here.”
Efraín opened his mouth to speak, but Emelina didn’t give him a chance. “Where have you been?” she asked, and he saw genuine worry in her eyes. “You’re gone forever, it’s dark, and you’re out there with that damn foot of yours, all descojonado. You hear all the time about people having strokes, forgetting where they live.”
Emelina reached out and took his hands in hers. “What happened, viejo, did you get lost?”
“No Eme,” Efraín said. “It just took longer to return home than I thought.”
When I was four, my parents had papers in hand to send me to the United States as a Pedro Pan child, but ultimately they decided they couldn’t send me away not knowing when we would reunite. Naturally, I’ve wondered what my life would have been like had I been separated from them.
I had wanted to write about an adult Pedro Pan character for a long time, but I didn’t have the whole story figured out. A couple of years ago, while waiting for my children outside a Subway store, a migrant woman randomly knocked on my car window and asked for help because she was lost. I realized she belonged in this story.
My extended family and I left Cuba together as part of the Camarioca Boat Lift in 1965. During the six weeks that it lasted, approximately four thousand Cubans left the island. Overshadowed in history by the scale of the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980, most people, including some Cuban-Americans, aren’t aware that it ever occurred. Emelina’s character leaves Cuba during Camarioca for two reasons: it fits the story’s time line, and it calls attention to the boat lift. In Cuban Waters, the novel I’m currently writing, begins with Camarioca.
Aracelis González Asendorf has a degree in English and Spanish from the University of Central Florida. She has taught Bilingual Education in Massachusetts, and both English and Spanish in public and private schools in Florida. She spent two years working as a bilingual counselor at a women’s clinic in Dallas, Texas. She has been a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference participant twice. Her stories have appeared in the publications Puerto del Sol, Sunscripts, The Weekly Planet (Creative Loafing) and the anthology 100% Pure Florida Fiction.