21 October 1960: La Habana airport 21 OCTOBER 1960 La Habana airport
Victoria shifted uneasily.
As inconspicuously as possible, she grabbed a handful of fabric to try to fix the problem. Of course Mami had insisted she wear a crinoline and slip under her skirt. Traveling required a person to wear one’s best clothes. And considering the government only allowed them to take two changes of clothes, they had to make them count. At least the Cuban humidity had prevented tights from being added to the ensemble, though not gloves. A lady needed her gloves. Especially in an airport full of germs.
“Stop fidgeting, niña,” Mami muttered under her breath, her fingers digging into Victoria’s shoulders like claws. “They’re going to think you’re up to something.”
She wasn’t up to anything. But she couldn’t say the same about her garments.
It was no use. If only she could excuse herself to use the restroom. Except Mami would never allow it. Her children, in a public restroom? ¡No, qué va!
Nor did she think Papi would allow it. They had to stay together and hold their place in the mob of evacuating Cubans, where they had been waiting for over two hours. Papi already feared they would be separated permanently. If that happened, it would be up to Victoria to step up as the head of the house. Mami, in her chronic delicate condition, wouldn’t be able to manage the responsibility. Wardrobe discomfort would then be the least of Victoria’s problems.
“What’s going on?” Jackie whispered in her ear.
Victoria removed her white silk gloves. “My panties are riding up. With all the layers, I can’t grab the edges.”
Jackie snickered. Then she shifted Victoria so her back faced minimal exposure, checked to make sure no soldiers or strangers were watching, and held out the layers of tulle for Victoria to reach under and rectify the invading undergarment.
Gloves still clutched in her hands, Victoria draped her arms around Jackie, resting her dark head on top of Jackie’s blond. “¿Qué haré sin ti?”
“Cry yourself to sleep?” Jackie joked. Except it wasn’t a joke. Victoria’s eyes were still red from saying goodbye to Tía Larita and Mamalara earlier. Jackie might act tough, but Victoria knew she’d cry too before the day was out. Only Victoria; her parents; and her two siblings, Inés and Nestico, had passports and tickets to leave; Jackie and her father would only stay with them through the plane’s departure.
Other than the first month of Victoria’s life, before Jackie was born, they’d never been apart for more than a few days. Their city house in La Habana consisted of two residences—Victoria’s family with Mamalara on the bottom floor, Jackie’s on the top. When not at the rural finca, Papalfonso liked having his family close by and had built his empire to achieve that.
And then, of course, everyone, whether related or not, always gathered in Victoria’s house. Or, rather, in their kitchen, run by Mamalara despite the two cooks.
A couple of weeks ago, when things had really started to look bad for Cuba, the cooks, Dorothea and Manuela, had both returned to their native Spain. The small fortune they’d saved after fifteen years of service had already been sent to their families months before. Back when such things had still been allowed.
Since then, Victoria’s stomach had been in a twist. Nothing tasted good anymore.
The line moved one step closer.
Victoria’s family had flown a couple of times before, to Florida and New York, but never had Victoria known the airport to be jammed to capacity. Entire families, complete with grandparents and tíos y primos, argued above wailing infants; businessmen talked in English to their associates in booming voices; and a superfluity of nuns led a train of hand-clasped children. Guards marched through the crowds with their rifles propped on their shoulders.
Victoria leaned against Jackie. Solid and sturdy Jackie with a personality to match. The most unladylike person Victoria had ever met and her best friend. Victoria, with her almost-black hair, pale skin, and gangly body, looked nothing like Jackie, who had blond hair, dark skin, and a stocky, muscular build. Once, when they were little, Tía Larita had taken them to the park together, Victoria dressed like a proper young lady in a lilac dress with a white sash and Jackie in mud-stained green shorts that revealed scabby knees. Then some busybody atravesada had the nerve to point to Jackie and ask Tía Larita why she was taking care of the servant’s child. All because of Jackie’s darker skin, even though she and Tía shared similar facial features and the same blond hair.
By being Tía’s daughter, Jackie got to wear a sleeveless polo shirt, comfortable linen shorts, and canvas tennis shoes to the airport. The lucky duck.
The line shifted again.
“What do you think Mamalara is doing right now?” Victoria asked.
“Cleaning the house up and down with Pancha,” Jackie said. “You know what she’s like. Idle hands and all.”
Yes, Mamalara had to keep busy. Even when they’d had six household servants and two cooks, their grandmother had never dawdled. With Victoria’s family and most of the servants gone now, Mamalara would have more reason to want a distraction.
“And your mom is probably putting Clark down for his nap. Next time I see him, he won’t remember his godmother,” Victoria sighed. From the moment Jackie’s brother, Clark, had been born three months ago, Victoria had been in love with the infant. And not just because he’d been named after the handsome actor Clark Gable. Every night, she insisted on feeding him and putting him to bed. Becoming his godmother was the only good thing that had happened these last few weeks.
If only Mamalara, Tía Larita, and Clark were here. But the crowded airport wasn’t the right place for an infant. Besides, with Victoria’s family plus Jackie and Tío Rodrigo, the car couldn’t have fit anyone else.
More than that, Victoria wished Jackie and the rest of her familia were coming with them.
Papi kept insisting their exile would only last a few weeks, until the U.S. presidential election, but that was still longer than she’d ever been without her whole family.