I wake up at 6 am and begin to travel the small and crowded space between my bed and the closet until I make it out of my room without waking up my siblings. Once I’m in the dining room, I notice Mami has left my ironed uniform hanging on a chair. Since it’s December, the faucet water is so cold I wait for Mami to finish boiling some water for me to shower. I take a quick shower and once I’m dressed, my stomach growls and I remember the Asian tigers I saw in a documentary last week. After I put on my uniform, I sit in the dining table next to Papi having his café. I eat my bread and aguazuca, a week ago we’d had soy yogurt for breakfast, but I push the memory away. Sometimes Mami complains to Papi and Abuela Rosa, when I’m not supposed to be listening, that our lives are full of absence. She also says that on days we have eggs there isn’t any milk and if we have milk there isn’t bread. In my opinion, today is the worst combination, water with sugar, and hard bread.
My school is only four blocks away, and now that I’m in the fourth grade my parents let me walk to school by myself. I live in the city of Cienfuegos close to the ocean in a four-story apartment building dating back to 1960 with seven other families, two on each floor. I’ve lived here my whole life with Abuela Rosa, Abuelo Mario, Mami, Papi, and my two younger siblings: Luis and Carlos. Papi told me that Abuelo Mario had the opportunity to buy the apartment, when Mami was a baby, for his excellent work at the telephone company. Abuelo loves this building and he often tells me stories about the neighborhood and how beautiful the building looked freshly painted in a peach color. Apparently the stairs were also painted a deep red and they didn’t have any missing steps. To my surprise, there were also lights illuminating the staircase and the outside at night. But it wasn’t just our building. Abuelo says the buildings around us were also painted in the same color. In those days the neighborhood was alive, covered in vivid colors and light. I told some of my friends the stories and many of them thought I was lying, but I understood their reaction. It’s hard for anyone seeing the neighborhood now to believe the dirty walls covered in black moss were once the color of peaches, a fruit we’ve only seen in books.
These stories get Abuelo Mario excited and Abuela Rosa joins in too. For her, the biggest loss has been the flowers; she says there were Mar pacífico and Vicaria blanca flowerbeds bordering the cement fence and each neighbor would take turns watering them. I never knew flowers could be so important and powerful. When I picture the red and white blossoms creating a protective barrier, turning the building into a place of safety and beauty, I miss them too. Each time they tell these stories my mind wonders and I imagine our building in its past splendor. I picture myself standing in the balcony and looking down at the flowers or going down and picking some to make Mami a small bouquet for her birthday.
Still, not all is lost, when I’m playing hide-and-seek I run around the building, I find places where the paint isn’t completely gone and a faint trace of peach remains. Something so simple, but it reminds me that things weren’t always like this, which makes me hope they’ll change again.
Since we are on the southern coast, I see tourists walking through the city with their cameras and many times I imagine their lives are like the movies I see on TV. I always wonder what children do in those countries for fun. What surprises me the most is that they come here to vacation. If I had big breakfasts waiting for me at home I wouldn’t travel to another country.
I get to school on time and my morning classes are going fine, but at around 11:00 AM, during my history class, I begin to feel hungry, I usually manage to hold my hunger ‘til lunchtime, which starts at 12:30 p.m., but today I think the stress of the test is making me hungrier than usual. I begin to think of the food that the cafeteria will be serving and the emptiness in my stomach sinks deeper. Will it be the usual harina or the watered down bean soup? — Either one sounds great. My stomach growls and I look around to see if anyone notices, but my classmates are concentrated on Señorita González’s review of the test material. I, on the other hand, can’t think of anything besides food. My schoolbag is on the floor, next to my desk, and I grab it slowly and begin looking through it, hoping to find something to eat while knowing that it’s impossible. Then, I remember a month ago Mami packed brown sugar in a little paper envelope and put it inside my bag in case I felt faint or hungry. I go through my bag searching ‘til I find the small blue envelope. I place it in the right front pocket of my skirt and raise my hand to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. Señorita González gives me permission and I walk very fast to the nearest water fountain and begin drinking water and eating the sugar. Once I’m satisfied, I go to the bathroom to wait for the tingling sensation in my hands to go away. Mami and Abuela Rosa are home, but I can’t call them to come pick me up before the test. And the truth is that there won’t be any food at home, so I go back to the classroom. After a while, Señorita González notices I’m distracted, looking down at my notebook instead of at the board, and she calls out my name.
“Maira!” She calls my name once more.
“Si, Señorita. Could you repeat the question?” I ask, afraid she’s going to send me to the principal’s office and make me late for lunch.
“What are three of the most important things The Revolution has given our people?” She asks with a smile on her face.
“Uh, um,” today is not my day; she wants to humiliate me, but I know the answer to her question by heart, so I say: “more jobs, free education, and free healthcare.” When I finish I notice Señorita González’s smile has disappeared.
“Very well,” she consents.
Finally, the lunch bell rings, but we remain seated. When she reaches her desk, she raises her hand and makes a dismissive gesture.
Some students are lucky and they go home for lunch because their families can afford to make food for them, or have better food than what is given at school. The moment I step inside the cafeteria I’m immediately hit by the intense smell of food. I make the short lunch line and discover that lunch is red beans, rice, and fufu de platano. I sit with my classmates and eat my food as fast as I can. It is the best fufu I’ve ever had. After I’m done eating my small stomach is swollen and I’m pleased. When most of us are done, we talk about Señorita González and how she always tries to embarrass her students with random questions, which she hopes we’ll get wrong. Last week she sent Rafael to the Principle’s office for forgetting the President’s birthday. After we get tired of gossiping we go to the yard to play boleibol and at 1:30 pm the lunch bell rings indicating it’s time to take my test.
I get home jumping with joy telling Mami and Abuelo Mario I did very well on the test. They are very happy and as a result they let me ride my bicycle around the neighborhood. When I get back Mami complains because I’m covered in dirt: “Maira! Where did you get so dirty?” I tell her I fell off my bike in the dirt a couple of times. What I don’t tell her is that some of the kids and I went inside the Abandoned House. It’s rumored that the spirits of disobedient children haunt it. Papi told me the rumors weren’t true, he said the family who lived there moved to a relative’s home in Santa Clara because a hurricane had made the house unsafe. After going there today, I’m not so sure, and think Papi told me that story because he didn’t want to scare me. Once Mami is convinced by my explanation, she sends me straight to the bathroom. Before I’m done she comes in the shower to check that I cleaned myself properly. When I step out of my room, dressed in my usual faded shorts and red t-shirt, I see Abuela Rosa struggling to get Luis and Carlos into the shower, yelling because the water was going to get cold. Tomorrow is Saturday, but on Monday I have a Math exam and I need to study before dinner.