Anna Kushner



Anna Kushner was born in Philadelphia to Cuban exiles. Her poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Crab Orchard ReviewCuba CounterpointsEp;phanyNewtown LiteraryWorld Literature Today, and elsewhere. The “Queens Writes” podcast featured her poetry in 2018. She has also published several translations from Spanish, French, and Portuguese, including Marcial Gala's novel The Black Cathedral, recently out in paperback, and Leonardo Padura’s novel The Transparency of Time, available June 15. Her website is

My grandfather was waiting for me at the La Cubana bus stop in Miami. It was the first time I’d taken the long-distance bus by myself, all the way down I-95 in the dead heat of summer to visit my grandparents and get out of my parents’ hair.  The little old ladies on the bus took care of me, offering me white bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off and deviled eggs and other things so chock full of mayonnaise that my stomach felt off by the time we’d reached the Carolinas on our journey south. It wasn’t just my first time on the bus without my older brother, it was also my first time traveling without any doll or other comfort item. I was twelve, about to turn thirteen that fall, and I had only a Walkman with some warped cassette tapes that didn’t drown out the sound of the Marisela Verena playing on a boom box somewhere else on the bus. Verena had just released a song that was all the rage that summer among Cuban exiles, the people on the bus sang along, “son 360 meses de nostalgia…”

My maternal grandparents had lived near us for the first few years of my life, before they retired to Miami and gave up on snow and grocery clerks who didn’t understand them and speaking English forever. I remember fragments from then. My grandmother folding freshly laundered clothes into piles while I organized them by color and my grandfather shining his shoes as he sat on the edge of the bathtub and whistling as he did so. I remember the shelf, specifically, in that blue-tiled bathroom, where they kept the tin of baking soda for cleaning their dentures and how I would climb onto the toilet to bring it down and secretly eat it, the taste pleasurable to me. Or was it the texture that I liked so much?  For years I did not realize that bicarbonato and baking soda were the same thing, or else I might have tried eating it at home as well, out of the red and yellow box in which it came.

My arms, reaching, reaching upwards always, my grandmother usually frowning slightly. She was, most likely, thinking about what she had to do next, I now surmise as an adult. The lunch on the stove? More clothes to wash? Something to do with me, who was almost entirely in her care while my parents were at work and my brother was at school? 

I remember the chipped linoleum in the kitchen, the hefty presence of the sofa from which we watched “Fantasy Island” on Saturday nights while my brother and I translated some of the dialogue for our grandparents.  I don’t remember any open sky or whether I ever played outside at that house. Was it actually a house or just a first-floor apartment? I’ve confused the outlines of kitchens and bedrooms and hallways with later dwellings, both theirs and the ones I’ve lived in myself in other cities, and with the house in Miami’s La Sagüesera where my grandparents moved toward the end of their lives, with all their hopes and regrets on their backs, but very few actual things. The name that Cuban Miamese had assigned to the area evoked my grandmother’s native city of Sagua la Grande, and for years I thought she was ending her days among compatriots from the same region, but it was really just a corruption of the English word “Southwest.”

It is that last house I remember the most, the room that was devoted to a large sewing machine—and nothing else—while I slept on the pull-out sofa when I visited, the mango and avocado trees in the small yard, the sound of my grandparents’ old, blind dog shuffling around on the tile floor until he finally passed, the smell of bananas slightly past their prime that were always on the kitchen table. And then there was the way the light fell everywhere, bright and startling and making the shadows somehow darker than they were anywhere else in the world. That seemed to be the place my grandparents belonged most, assuming they couldn’t be in Cuba, of course. Which, in the 1980’s, they couldn’t.  

It was to that house with its solid walls that I was being delivered shortly after the school year ended.  It wasn’t just that my parents and brother had to work all summer and didn’t trust me to entertain myself responsibly, it was also that my mother needed the time off from mothering, and that my grandparents needed me, my mother said both of these things to me. To hear my mother describe her parents, they were more lost in this country after 20-odd years of trying to adjust than she was as a full-time working mother to a niña majadera—a mischievous, poorly-behaved child. A mother who was trying to complete her associate’s degree at night school, besides.

To me, back then, my grandparents were not yet the collection of every loss they’d ever suffered. I never wondered that they didn’t seem to have many friends, or extended family with whom to share Sunday meals. My grandfather seemed happy enough to putter around fixing things- the light bulb that flickered here, the doorknob that was too loose there. There was always cooking, and laundering, and the fixing of things, as regular as the way some old Cuban women go to church daily.

Their little rituals seemed a comfort to me whenever I visited them. My grandfather in his white undershirt, as he walked around the yard with clipping shears. My grandmother in her flowy blouses as she stood on the tips of her toes in their sensible shoes, reaching for things on the kitchen shelves above her as she cooked the tamal en cazuela she always made on the day of my arrival. Her waist indistinguishable from her hips. Her arms two solid masses. Her stew thick with love and a desire to see me grow big and strong despite the fact that she never said as much. It always seemed that any indications of my growth irritated my mother, not just because of the expense of new clothing, but because it seemed to signal something else- a brutal departure from whatever she expected I would become in the next phase. By as early as my turning nine or ten, there was a constant bickering between us that made me grateful for the quiet space I enjoyed with my grandparents. I never felt banished to Miami so much as saved.

I would arrive in Florida and know that what would follow at my grandparents’ house would be a life of sameness and stillness with them, each moment predictable and therefore, perfect. So I was surprised when my grandfather met me at the bus stop, took my hand and said, “hija,” (he always called me “daughter”), “we’re going to the beach.”

“The beach?” I asked, dimly aware that it was not far, but that we knew no one there. Was my grandfather taking me there on an errand?

“Where’s abuela?”

“At home, packing some last things and preparing everything for lunch. We can’t check into the hotel until the afternoon.”

Hotel? My grandparents never spent money on anything, much less something resembling a vacation. I wasn’t sure if they had stayed at any hotel at all since their honeymoon in Varadero, several decades prior. But to Miami Beach we went. It turned out that we did not stay in a seafront grand hotel as I had imagined, but rather, in a modest pensión with six or seven rooms run by a couple approximately my grandparents’ age and located on a side street where one got only a whiff of ocean air from time to time. My grandmother meticulously packed food that she could make in the tiny kitchen the owners of the pensión made available to us. The whole week we stayed, we ate only one meal out that had me nervous over the cost of the breaded pork chops I ordered, though my grandfather watched with approval as I picked my plate clean. I have never again tasted pork chops like those, laced with a fatty substance that signaled prosperity and prohibition.

Our days started early, because my grandparents thought the heat would ruin me. And so, swimming happened strictly between 7:30 am and 10. Before that, we had to have our coffee and toasted Cuban bread, better if the bread was dunked in the coffee, and hard boil the eggs we would eat as mid-morning snacks. My grandmother would also prepare any food we planned to have for lunch, because she hated to be in the kitchen at the same time as the owners of the pensión, who made their own lunch there every day.

After ten in the morning, we would wander around Collins Avenue, to the little stores offering cheap souvenirs and into the pharmacies that were air-conditioned. We never bought anything and had the same trivial conversations over and over again with store clerks about the weather and how long my grandparents had been living in Miami and how long I was visiting them and whether we were all having a good time together. Occasionally, my grandfather would ask a question about the craftsmanship of something or other and once even went so far as to encourage me to try on a pair of leather sandals, so that he could more thoroughly investigate them. I would have liked to have had those sandals, but didn’t dare ask my grandfather for them. 

In the quiet shade of a tiny, empty park near the pensión, always within their view, my grandparents let me sit in the afternoons to read, as long as what I was reading was in Spanish and not English. I had some classics my father had insisted I pack, translations of Jules Verne and other tomes like Lazarillo de Tormes that were deathly to my pre-teen self.  What I usually pulled out was a copy of “” magazine—widely available in Miami but not at home—whose pages full of make-up tips and boy bands were wrinkly from the humidity and from being thumbed through so much. There, my grandparents would sit apart and talk, or read the Diario de las Américas newspaper, or simply watch people walk by. I think my grandfather missed having things to tinker with, even if just for a few days, while my grandmother repeated that a vacation was precisely about this: sitting and doing nothing. In the evenings, we would walk, “taking in the fresh air” that my grandparents insisted was so good for both young and old, and the three of us were usually in a good mood then, happy that another day was nearly over and that we would be back to familiar La Sagüesera soon.

On the morning of the fourth day, my grandfather found a leak in the shower and a door that wouldn’t shut properly, its hinges askew. Over breakfast, he bartered with the pensión’s owner for a reduction on our bill if my grandfather spent the day going from room to room of the compact building with a toolbox in hand. My grandfather was ecstatic at this development. My grandmother was slightly exasperated at his inability to stay still, even as she fussed over the preparations of the day’s food and packed the towels and bathing suits she had just washed herself the previous day. But my grandmother and I left him and went to our usual spot on the beach.

On this day, for some reason, my grandmother sent me into the ocean by myself, preferring to luxuriate in the ability to sit alone on the beach for once with no need to implore my grandfather to relax. She had a magazine with her this time, a Spanish “Hola” replete with glossy pictures of European royalty and Julio Iglesias and all other kinds of people famous for singing and bullfighting and just being rich. Certainly no one I’d ever seen at home up north on TV, but whose faces were familiar to me after years of staring at them on Miami news stands and on some of my mother’s vinyl album covers. This magazine was my practical grandmother’s guilty pleasure. Her nose buried deep in it allowed me to swim out further than she normally allowed when we were in the water together. I swam and swam until the slight waves had carried me not out as far as I’d thought, but rather, very far to the right of my grandmother, so that she was just a little dot on the beach, recognizable only by the striped umbrella under which she sat.

I felt gloriously free as I flipped and did handstands and did all the things my grandmother would normally say would cause a “bad digestion” of my breakfast. I was just a couple of months shy of thirteen, but felt far younger in this freedom of movement. I forgot where I was and who I was and when I came up for air, was entirely surprised by the presence of another person in the water with me. It was a young man in his late teens or early twenties. He was standing there smiling and complimented me in Spanish on my flips.

Gracias,” I said quietly, self-consciously, and he interpreted that one word alone as an invitation to keep talking to me. I kept diving back down under the water, mostly to not have to listen to him, but also to see if I could gain some distance between us. But no, every time I thought I would rise up and find myself alone again, he’d be right there, almost as if he himself swam closer to my moving figure every time I went underwater. My grandmother, meanwhile, was a mere dot in the distance, an unconcerned little dot as far as I could tell. There I was, trapped in the vastness of the ocean as this man told me what smooth shoulders I had, how my hair reminded him of a mermaid’s, asked whether I wasn’t getting salt water in my eyes and wouldn’t it be better to just lie on my back and float instead of twirling about so much like a fish?

Me gusta jugar a ser pez,” was all I could think to say, that I liked playing at being a fish. I was being earnest, young and naïve and truthful, but he took it as flirting, as a command to linger, to get closer, to ask me for more.

“Oh you do? Then let’s be fish together.” He lowered his voice to a tone I’d never been addressed with before. He started making little fish-kiss faces that I found completely unnerving. Here is where my brain scrambled and my Spanish failed me after so many years of my English becoming more dominant. I unwittingly translated the phrase, “no, that’s okay,” literally, although this polite rejection does not exist as such in Spanish. I was basically saying it was okay, when what I should have said was a firm and unequivocal “leave me alone.” But I was working too hard to move my legs beneath me without this man noticing that I couldn’t think straight at the same time. He was faster than I was, more skilled at studying the current and understanding how he had to move his body in order to come closer to me. His hand was on my shoulder before I could say anything else.

Preciosa,” he called me, never asking my name or telling me his own.

Vamos,” he said, but where? Where was he trying to take me? We were in the ocean, for God’s sake, where was there to go? And why did his hand on my shoulder paralyze me so? It was tanned, like someone who had been at the beach all summer, I noticed, my head turning down to my shoulder as if I could stare his grip off of it. Did he live at the beach? Work there? Silly thoughts such as these rushed through my head as I stood there, avoiding making further eye contact with him, avoiding saying anything else that could be misinterpreted. I scanned the beach again for my grandmother, not seeing her this time. Panic rose up in me.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “Por favor,” I said, not knowing what else I would say after pleading him to… stop? Go away? Evaporate into the salty air?

I felt his hand move from my shoulder to my left breast, his fingers gliding over the light fabric of my bathing suit. At that, I pulled my body back. In my adult mind now, I yell, “how dare you?” and I claw at the man’s eyes, spitting and kicking and making sure that he will never touch anyone else again in his life.  But at the moment, what happened was that I stumbled backwards in the water, before diving down deep and trying to swim in the direction that most seemed like it would take me away from him.

He didn’t know what I was asking, of course he didn’t. I’ve replayed the moment a thousand times since then, wondering what kind of permission I gave with that weak and non-committal “please.” Does a teenager plead to be touched like that by a stranger? Was that this man’s experience?  

I was not getting any closer to my grandmother by attempting to move sideways in the water. I realized I would have to rush forward instead, pushing, pushing my arms and legs as quickly as they could go, until the water started getting shallower. Then I stood up and ran the rest of the way out, not looking back for a second. I ran sideways on the beach back to my grandmother, where she still sat, completely unaware of anything but her magazine and the umbrella hanging over her to shield her from the sun’s direct rays.

She looked up. I must have looked scared or maybe it was that I was out of breath.

“What is it?” I remembered all the times, as a child, that my grandparents had kept me from leaning too far out the window, or from going too far across a public park without an adult by my side. The times my grandmother had gripped my wrist, not even my hand, to cross a street, even when there was no car in sight. How could I tell her now that she was right, that I needed protecting at every moment, that I had no right to any kind of freedom?

I gave myself a moment to calm down before I spoke. I looked around behind me and didn’t see any trace of the man who had been in the water. Did I imagine it? Could I just pretend nothing had happened? My grandmother continued to look up at me with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I said, more to myself than to my grandmother.

“There was…”

No, I started again.


“Well, in the water…”

She stood up and began to inspect my body.

“¿Una aguamala?” She asked if it was a jellyfish, squinting in the sun at my legs and arms.

I shook my head no.

“There was this man…” She stopped her inspection and stood back.

And then I told my grandmother what had happened. I was afraid that she would tell me I shouldn’t have gone out that far in the water or that she would ask why I didn’t scream or call the man a degenerate. Instead, she listened to me and after a thoughtful pause, said,

“Oh, querida. These things happen. Men… well, they try to take advantage. You’re okay. Just a bit scared, right?”

I nodded yes. She was being her practical, no-nonsense self, as she always was, and I was helping her pack up the beach chair, the towels, and the umbrella as she spoke. She told me she was sorry I had to learn about this dark side of people on a beautiful day like that, but there was no use dwelling on it. And certainly, no use telling my grandfather or my parents about it. What could they do? They would only worry. There were no admonitions or warnings about swimming by myself again, just the insistence that I was okay and that we didn’t need to tell anyone else. I listened quietly and accepted the silence as my punishment for not acting more decisively in the moment.

My grandmother and I went back to the pensión and found my grandfather absolutely revived by a morning working with his hands. We feigned cheerfulness and eventually took our lunch together. For our few remaining days in Miami Beach, I read on the beach in the mornings, dipping my toes in the sea only if one of my grandparents insisted I accompany them to do so. I was relieved when it was finally time to load our bags back into my grandfather’s car and depart.

I resolved to forget, but less than a decade after our vacation to Miami Beach, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had cancer everywhere, actually, that may have started in her breasts or may have spread to them after, like the aguamala whose sting releases venom into its host’s body. It was hard to tell by my grandfather’s confusing descriptions, so overwhelmed was he with grief and with being old and alone so far from us. I wondered if the stranger who touched my breast that day on the beach infected us with something? Did my grandmother absorb it because I shared the shame of it all with her? I thought this when I first heard my grandmother was sick and I thought it again when I went for my first mammogram, years after, as I filled out the form that asked for family history of breast cancer and as I undressed in the tiny dressing room that forced me to stare at my own naked breasts before putting on a thin dressing gown. My breasts were no longer what they were at almost-thirteen, but somehow, they had retained the sensation of unwanted touch. They physically ached at the thought of the procedure to come, at the idea of being stretched and pulled by a force I could not control.

My grandmother had made me swear not to tell anyone else, ever. But I told the radiology technician. I told her why I reacted as I did to the machine, that it wasn’t just that I was afraid because of my family history. I told her everything I wish I’d said before.



© The Acentos Review 2021