Many years ago, I watched a father and son at the beach doing what fathers and sons do at the beach and from those moments was inspired following short piece of fiction:
Valentin J. Prieto
Carlitos asked me about Cuba while at the beach the Saturday after I’d taken him to the rally at the Orange Bowl for the downed Brothers to the Rescue pilots. It took me by surprise at first, my four-year old gringito, Cuban only really by name and potaje, asking me where Cuba was. He must have been overwhelmed that day at the rally with all those people waving flags, chanting and crying. But it’s funny how things stick to the mind of a child.
I knelt down beside him, dug my knees into the moist sand, and put my hand on his little shoulder. The cool Atlantic softly lapping my toes, each little wave culminating a voyage started who knows where, perhaps even on the island itself, maybe even at the toes of a Cuban father struggling to find answers for his own son. Carlitos threw his arm over mine, placed his hand on the back of my neck and looked me in the eyes with the look that children get when they want to know something. That wide-eyed anticipation they have for your response which they will take as gospel. As if we had all the answers.
“Where is it, Papi? Is it far away?”
I forced a smile, “No Carlitos. Not too far.” In a way I felt I’d just betrayed his trust in me, lied to him by giving him the easy answer. Geographically Cuba isn’t far away. But how do you tell a child that even though a place is physically close it can be intrinsically out of reach? “Do you remember our trip to Disney World?” I asked him; he nodded. “That’s how far Cuba is. Más o menos.”
“Can we go, Papi?”
“Ay, Carlitos,” I sighed, brushing imaginary sand off his arms because I couldn’t look him in the eyes, afraid he’d notice the insecurity in his father, my inability to give him a concrete answer. “Algún dia. Maybe some day you’ll see where Papi was born. Where Tata and Abuelo come from.”
He took my staring out onto the horizon as a cue and followed it. “Is it that way, Papi?” He raised his arm and pointed his little red plastic shovel out over the vastness before us.
“Si, Carlitos. It’s somewhere out there.” I tried to change the conversation. “Tienes hambre, mi hijo?”
He shook his head without turning away from the ocean. “I think I can see it, Papi.” He peered out over the horizon, his free hand on his forehead like a little sailor, and stood there, tip-toed, looking for Cuba.
The picture before me saddened me. Had I just handed my son the same baton my father had handed me? Had I just made my son an exile in his own country? This is not how I’d wanted my son to grow up, yearning for Cuba.
I picked up a flat, rounded stone, blew the sand off and stood next to my boy. “Ven Carlitos, I’m going to show you how to skip stones.” He eyed the stone I held in my hand. “First you need to find a good stone,” I told him. “Like this one. Flat and round. No un caracol.”
He picked one up, rubbed the sand off on his shorts and asked me if it was a good one. I nodded, took a few steps closer to the blue mirror before us. “The trick to skipping stones is to throw side arm,” I said, motioning my arm. “What you want to try to do is make the stone bounce as many times as possible.” I flung the stone and it bounced a few times in the direction my son had been staring at moments earlier. “You gotta count how many times it hits the water.”
“But Papi, I can only count to ten. What if it does it more?”
“Then you have to learn to count higher. Vamos Carlitos, it’s your turn.”
His first try plopped and sank. I could see the disappointment in his face. “Don’t worry,” I picked up another stone and plopped it just like his. “It doesn’t always work. It takes practice.”
We stood there for a while, father and son, skipping and plopping stones into the Atlantic. I was glad that I’d taken his mind off of Cuba because I wasn’t sure that if by telling him about the country I would be giving him something or taking something away. Would he carry around his Cubanidad like a badge of honor or would he carry it around like some kind of cancer, causing him the same pain I have? The same pain my father had. Carlitos is Gerber’s and Nickelodeon. Osh Kosh and Guess for Kids. Raised with Pampers, not pañales. I’d heard his first words, seen him wobble his first steps, knowing he’d grow up American. Tucked in the security blanket of his freedom. By opening his eyes to Cuba, had I given him his first steps into the same uncertainty of generations before him?
One of his stones finally took a slight bounce on the shiny blue. He jumped and hopped and skipped, cleansed me with his I did its! We high fived.
“Come on, Papi, help me find some more good ones.” He began combing the shore for stones with enthusiasm. Some stones he picked up and discarded, the good ones he put in his pockets. When his pockets were full he made a little pile of stones at my feet. Carlitos went up and down the beach as far as I let him and when he figured he had enough stones, his pockets bulging, the pile at my feet now an arsenal and stones falling from his tiny hands, he went into the water ankle deep and started throwing.
“You’ll see, Papi. I’m gonna keep trying ’til I skip one all the way to Cuba.”
Lucidity from a four year old. Just a stone’s throw away.