The letter that secured her space on a flight to the United States came sooner than was expected. Mimi got to it first and hid it in her bra for a week before showing it to her mother. By then, it was wrinkled and torn, and barely legible. But her mother knew what it was, knew it in the sudden largeness of Mimi’s hazel eyes and in the chill she felt when she touched the thin paper, though it was still warm from Mimi’s body.
In the Acosta house there would be no shouting, no cries, no hurried panic, but a desire to tidy and organize and mend things. Mimi began by giving away all of her furniture and leaving only the mattress. “Space,” she had said when her father asked, “I need some.” And he understood because he spent his days painting trim molding, replacing still new stove burners, taking apart electric fans and cleaning the blades.
“Order,” he had said, when asked.
Mimi’s mother was, in the end, the most productive those days. She had heard about a girl whose parents had had to blindfold her and tie her slim hands together to put her on the plane to Miami. The story had gone around the market so often, each telling more horrible than the first. The girl had screamed on the plane, attacked the flight attendant, spit on her mother’s face. Mimi’s mother didn’t know which version to believe, and she was glad that Mimi understood the need to leave. She understood that the separation would temporary.
“Castro will be gone before you know it,” her father told her every day, and Mimi imagined the bearded man disappearing in a cloud of smoke, like Odysseus being whisked away by a goddess.
“If you don’t leave, you’ll be sent to a school in the fields. You’ll have to cut sugarcane all day. Alone in the fields, without chaperones. You’ll be made into a woman too soon. We’ll never see you again,” her mother warned.
Instead of cleaning, or making space, or mending things, Mimi’s mother spent those short days sewing photographs, jewelry, letters, and money into the lining of Mimi’s bags, so that the soldiers at the airport might look through the neatly folded sweaters and underwear, and see nothing they might want to take.
As for what Mimi did, she pondered herself in the mirror of her bedroom. She saw a woman, despite the fact that she wasn’t going to live on a sugarcane field, but instead, was heading to a place named Pittsburgh, to live in a kind stranger’s house and wait out Fidel Castro, her tongue tied in a language she did not know. For a week before she left Cuba, Mimi met boys from her class outside each night, in her father’s rusty tool shed. She fashioned a lock on the door by threading a red ribbon through the handles, slipping the ends through the seam of the doors, and tying it in a bow inside the shed. She had sent the boys notes, one by one, to meet her and say goodbye; all twenty-two of them, minus Santiago Almeida, whose father worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and who, on the day that San Benito’s School closed for good to make way for a secular high school, had stood in the middle of the schoolyard and called those who chose exile “lice-infested dogs.” He had dragged his foot on the ground and made a cross, then spat into the center of it. Mimi recalled Santiago’s face as he stared at the milky glob of spit on the ground, seeping into the dirt. She did not want to see that face again.
The first night was stormy, and inside the tool shed, the lightning lit all the tools—hammers, and sharp machetes—in gruesome flashes of light. It made René Castillo nervous and when Mimi undid her blouse, the boy, who had grown a fuzzy dark layer of hair on his lip, shot backwards, nicking the back of his head with a trowel that dangled from a hook on the wall. René scrambled out of the tool shed, in the storm, and ran down the street. Of course, by morning, René had told a different story, and having heard it, Mimi’s next visitor, Fausto Garcia, swaggered into the tool shed with his thumbs tucked into the loops of his pants. Every night until she boarded a plane for Miami, the boys visited Mimi’s tool shed for a final goodbye. And though they only touched here and there, kissed an ear, a covered breast, a hand, they felt like men and would remember for years the girl with the hazel eyes, those unbelievable Spanish eyes that loved them, if only for a moment. Then they would wonder, Whatever happened to Mimi Acosta?
The day before her departure, Mimi found she could not eat, though her stomach gurgled and she felt weak. That night, a rumble in her stomach, Mimi said goodbye to her last and best school friend. She and Ignacio Pla, a blond boy from school, crept into the shed in her backyard at night, and, because he was the last one, and for other reasons she didn’t understand, she offered herself up to him in the darkness, broken up by shafts of moonlight through the uneven walls. They lied down on a carpet of bolts and palm fronds; dry ones that had been carried by the wind into the shelter.
Later that night, with her bundle of things at her feet, Mimi held a hand mirror and caught the reflection of her back in the dresser glass. And in this position, her smooth brown body replicated on the silvery surface, she watched the imprint of a palm frond slowly disappear from her skin.