Madari Pendas

De Luto


Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer, painter, and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal aspects that accompany the exile experience and the ways Latinidad intersects with other salient parts of her identity, like being woman, queer, and working-class. She has received literary awards from Florida International University, in the categories of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Pank Magazine, The New Tropic, Lambda Literary, Jai-Alai Books, Politicsay, The Beacon, The Flagler Review, Sinister Wisdom, Junto Magazine, The Reporter, Saudade County Press, MOKO Magazine, WLRN (Miami's NPR affiliate), and The Miami New Times. She is currently a graduate student at Florida International University.

The Herrero family tradition of staunch inner silence and stoicism can be said to have really begun back in Havana. Like many families their allegiances were divided; some celebrated July 2nd, volunteered for the CDR, and never uttered the former national anthem. While others waited years for exit permits, considered broaching the Peruvian embassy's perimeter, or attempted to leave illegally on makeshift rafts. These fissions and ideological polarities manifested into silent dinners, where nothing substantive was ever discussed. Instead they talked about sports, the weather, or petty gossip—Fulano cheating on Fulana. The silence, at first, was strategic, a safeguard against an overly zealous chivato, a snitch. It wasn't uncommon for a 'friend' or relative or even spouse to be an informer. They lied to survive, so much so that mendacity no longer felt difficult or strenuous. Then the silence became an impenetrable and fixed tradition where confessions were met with grimaces and eventually avoided all together. 

For Miguel this meant his coming out was not to be an event in the proper sense, but rather a long process of elision. His father ran out on them when he was eleven and his mother picked up a weekend job at Berdines; and so Miguel promised he'd be as little of a burden as possible. He swore he'd make things as easy as he could for her.

At sixteen, his mother, Leila asked interrogative questions about his dating life, until she whispered, 'eres...pajaro?' He shook his head, thinking of his promise. 'Of course not' he said, wishing he really was a bird, a condor like the one in the famous Inca hymn--free, floating high above and away from the problems of Earth.


Connor and Miguel's anniversary dinner was marred with frustration, as Connor had not yet been introduced to the Herrero family. Miguel had begun the evening with a ravenous appetite and bubbled with excitement as he smelled the curry, sizzling onions, notes of garlic, the sweet aroma of the mango chutney, and fragrant spice mixes of turmeric, cumin, and chili. Once Connor began unloading his complaints, Miguel's appetite, along with his glee, evaporated like water on a hot pan.

"You're either ashamed of me or worse ashamed of yourself," Connor said. The mood of the evening never fully recovered from that barb.

Miguel, in fact, did intend to take the relationship to that next level, he wanted to propose to Connor before Christmas. But that required finally coming out to his mother--not simply avoiding the topic. He wanted to do so with his grandparents' wedding bands. The rings were divided amongst Leila and her brother, Eulogio. They were one of the few possessions they were able to get out of the country during their exile. It represented something more than marriage: endurance, survival, hope.


"Are you ready?" Miguel shouted across the driveway at the open door of the duplex. "You bringing the whole house?"

Eulogio had passed away from complications with diabetes and Miguel and Leila were driving to Charlotte, North Carolina from Miami. It was a twelve-hour drive, depending on stops and interstate closures. Leila had insisted on taking A1A up--it's more scenic, she clamored.

"Shh, los vecinos will hear you," she said, dragging two valises onto the porch. "Help a lady with her luggage. Pa' que vas al gym if you're not going to use those muscles?"

Miguel ignored her, he knew debate would always end with his mother asserting her right to have opinions on whatever 'goddamn thing' she chose, reminding him she didn't leave Cuba to be censored again. It was a reminder that while he was Cuban in lineage, he was American in experience.

She pulled a parasol from under her arm and trailed behind Miguel as he loaded the car. Once she had turned forty-two, the sun and Leila had become perpetual enemies.

Miguel had plenty of time, he thought, to ask for the rings and come out. Now that he wanted to wed, he could no longer hide. The thought of an empty half section in the wedding venue filled him with so much anxiety and embarrassment, he considered a private ceremony or even hiring actors to fill the seats--he imagined the wording on a Craigslist's Ad: Temporary family wanted. Must cry, excessive outpourings of emotion encouraged. Food available. Extra compensation for small-talk with in-laws.

"I prepared some snacks for the ride up," Leila opened her purse and began pulling out aluminum wrapped bundles of flaky guava pastries, codfish croquettes, thick fingers of tequeños, and crustless tuna miga sandwiches.


All he knew was that he couldn’t lose Connor, who had given him two of the best years of his life, and while domineering, had an incredible capacity for tenderness. When they laid in bed, and Miguel felt the impulse to weep, Connor held him, never demanding explanations. He was aware that being alive sometimes just hurt.

The car had the musty odor of mildew, emanating from the floor mats. It had rained the day before and the water had soaked into the carpeted fabric. They drove with the windows down to diffuse the smell and because the AC only produced hot air. The bluster of intense wind as they cruised on the highway sounded like the flapping of wings in flight. Miguel rose his window five inches, leaving a thin sliver of air, so he could better hear his mother.       

Miguel promised himself he'd start the conversation in Clearwater; then he said he'd really begin it in Orlando but then couldn't interrupt the nostalgia laden memories his mother shared as they drove through Osceola County. She reminded him of their first visit to Disney World and Epcot Center. By Jacksonville all they had spoken about was Eulogio; he didn’t want to interrupt his mother through her mourning process, her brother was the last living family member she had. He was the only other connection to her life in Cuba, a reminder that there was a before.

By Savannah, the only thing he had managed to tell her was he wanted to discuss something important. When she pressed him, he told her the car had an engine problem. They pulled off at a gas station and Miguel popped the hood, pretending he understood car repair. He stared intently at the engine block, the heat unfurling on his face like a damp tongue.

Miguel wanted to call Connor but didn't want to reveal his proposal or intentions. He knew Connor would be aghast that they had driven over six hours and not talked about anything substantive.

A message flashed on his phone from Connor, 'luv ya bae.'

After seeing these words of encouragement, Miguel took a deep, yogic breath in, the kind he had been learning in Connor's mindfulness meditation course. He put his hand over his diaphragm and felt his breath rise and sink. Rise and Sink.  He was going to tell his mother upon her return.

Leila returned to the car hurriedly, her petite moccasins scraping against the pavement as she rushed across the gas station.

"Let's go," Leila demanded.

"What happened?"

Back on the highway, the sunrise casted a soft radiant glow over the rows of bald cypresses. There were small stretches of farmland where cows and horses grazed and roamed. They listened to the static hiss and clarity as one radio station fizzled out and another came into focus. On this stretch of highway Christian and gospel music prevailed. Snippets of sermons and pipe organ squeals filtered in and out. One revival after another. Right as he turned off the radio, a quick "hallelujah!" slipped through like a strangled yelp.

Leila hadn't spoken, she was collecting herself and any interruption to her meditation would be met with a swift 'cállate'. Miguel wondered why she couldn't be like mothers on television, like June Beaver or Lorelai Gilmore.

Finally, near Garden City, Georgia, she released her tightly held secret. Leila had always been a lover of theatrics and knowing the anticipation had reached its zenith, she began. "Well...When I went into the Kwik Mart to get the key to the bathroom, I saw something. I politely waited in line when behind these two pajaros came out holding hands, leaning into one another, laughing loudly. They waited behind me the whole time. I pretended I couldn't hear them, but then they had the audacity to kiss. It was so loud, the pop, like firecrackers. I had to leave, it was too much, flaunting it."

Miguel wondered what the men thought when they saw his mother running away from them like they were lepers; if she had, in fact, robbed them of their joy.


They arrived in Charlotte at nine-thirty at night and slept at a motel near the funeral home. The next day they attended the wake.  

"I'm sorry for your loss, Tía," Miguel said, holding Remedios' hands, inspecting the delicate fingers. He was whipped by the mélange of fragrances coming from his aunt--coconut butter, agua de violeta perfume, and a sweet shampoo that reminded him of the flamboyant trees.

She nodded and waved over the next person in line. His thoughts drifted towards Connor, who wanted a large Miami Beach wedding. Would any of these people here come? He wondered as he scanned the room. A funeral is easier, in some ways. You can pop in and leave, or say, 'it's too painful' and have a justified absence.

As Miguel settled in, he suddenly heard a loud racket and screeching coming from the entrance.

Eulogio's second family had arrived--they had planned a separate wake and were now demanding to be reimbursed by Remedios. They discovered the truth when they saw a second obituary in The Charlotte Observer. Eulogio had a family in Charlotte and Raleigh. He was a commercial pilot and used the profession's erratic and demanding schedule for his philandering benefit.

Eulogio's wives were kept separate, although they scowled at one another across the room. The second family was permitted to stay as everyone felt all Eulogio's children should get to say 'goodbye.' The half siblings seemed to get on well, both had Eulogio's textured hair and large foreheads. They even exchanged cell phone numbers.

Miguel left Leila chatting with some relatives to search for the ring. Maybe Remedios pawned it, he considered.

Before he could speak, Remedios asked, "Did you know?"

"Of course not."

"I'm sorry. It's been a day."

"My family is here for you."

"It's not cheating so much, eso es otra cosa. It's that he lied. He sat across us at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays, and pretended. My son will never know if anything his father ever said was the truth. That's what lies do, they cast doubt over everything. Did he love us? Did he love us only fifty-percent? Did he give our things to them? That other woman, she's wearing a cowl that looks just like the one Eulogio gave--," her voice broke off, as if pulled into the memory or picturing him stealing it from her closet. "You think after so many years, you'd really know a person..."

 Miguel, with his own secret double life, embraced Remedios, telling her it would all be alright, unsure if it really would.

"By the way," he began, "whatever happened to his parents' wedding bands?"

Silently she raised her long, thin index finger and pointed at the casket.


Leila had avoided the casket all day. She was afraid of seeing her older brother like that, of looking at his face and having to accept the reality that he was gone. She thought if she didn't look at it, it was somehow less real, less true. Something that could be denied. She could tell herself he was somewhere in the clouds, sliding his aviators up the bridge of his nose.

"I'll go with you," Miguel said, patting his mother's back.

She marched towards the casket, remembering how he was always able to get her cream cheese, a rare item in Cuba, something that was almost never in the ration books; the way he defiantly laughed whenever he was accused by State workers of being "antisocial;" how often he would recite lines from Cecilia Valdes to make her laugh. At the sight of his face, her body was overwhelmed with a sweltering coldness, shooting up and down her arms. She gripped the side of the casket for support. She looked again, the tears falling without command or prompting. He was made up, the color on his face restored with a warm honey foundation, his black tight curls slicked back.

Miguel hovered beside her. His search for the ring was paused when he saw Leila crying. He had never seen his mother cry before. Never. It felt vulgar and bizarre, unnatural, that's the word that kept returning to his mind. Unnatural. He never thought of his parents as feeling every emotion available to every other human being. They were supposed to be invincible. Seeing her like this made him uncomfortable. Like some sad truth of life was revealing itself. Knowing she could cry, made it harder for him to think of asking her for her ring. Will she cry when I tell her? He wondered.



"Two families, Gordo? That's a lot even for you."

Leila touched his face; the skin was hard and waxy. Confronted with this image, this undeniable proof, she still could not accept that her brother was dead. She couldn't even picture him dying, he was so aggressively obsessed with life, especially after arriving in the U.S. When they arrived in Miami in '87 he swore he was going to do everything that had been denied him. "Ahora sí," he repeated.

She ran her hand through his hair-- that still felt the same. The tight coils bent under her fingers and then sprung back up.

"Don't get into too much trouble in Heaven," she touched his cheek and said goodbye.




Miguel moved swiftly towards the casket. Everyone had already paid their respects. No one comes back to the casket a second time, he learned. The ring was on the thumb of his left hand.

He reached in and froze. His hands were trembling. What if someone sees? He considered. He thought of Connor, of wearing the matching rings together, the story they'd someday tell their children about how the rings were snuck out of the country and then later out of a funeral. More than an actual piece of jewelry, Miguel wanted to give Connor a story he'd have fun telling.

He tugged at the ring. The finger was turgid and stiff, and the pudge of the nub held it tightly in place. Finally he tried once more, and the gold band came off. With his fist clenched around it, he backed away. Afraid it'd slip from any pocket or in the case he'd be searched, he tucked it into his loafer. It reaffirmed its existence with each step Miguel trod.


Miguel and Leila sat in a corner of the room, waiting alongside Remedios. They had the room for one more hour. Noticing the time, Remedios walked to the casket. She noticed some relatives were also giving their condolences to the second family and huffed along. She continued and stared at her husband. Miguel’s theory was wrong, some do visit the casket a second time.

"Oh my god!" Remedios shouted.

Miguel, Leila, and everyone perked up.

"Someone stole the ring on Eulogio's hand," she announced.

Miguel's heart sank. I was so close, he thought. He prepared to admit to what he had done, hoping everything would be rectified with a swift confession. But as he made his way towards Remedios, the ring pressing into the palm of his foot, he noticed that his aunt was screaming at Eulogio's other woman.

"Give it back," Remedios demanded of the woman. "You thief."

"I didn't take anything," she said.

Remedios tugged at the cowl, "what about this? This was mine."

They continued arguing, going back-and-forth, until Remedios had ripped a hole in the cowl. "Thief!" She continued.

Miguel realized she wasn't talking about the ring any longer. But of the husband, attention, fealty, and peaceful mourning, she believed this woman had stolen from her.

The women were separated and Eulogio's second family was escorted out of the funeral home.

"But the ring!" Remedios repeated as she struggled to free herself from a relative's grip. "I know she took it."

Miguel saw an out and rushed to his mother.

"Are you ready to leave?" Miguel asked.

"One moment."

Leila twisted her ring and walked towards Remedios, who was checking the crevices and folds of the casket.

"Here, you can bury him with this one," Leila said, holding out the band.

Miguel's throat tightened and he wanted to stop the transaction. If he's buried with it, I'll never be able to get it, Miguel thought.

Remedios held Leila's ring for a moment, letting it sit in her spread palm like a seed on a dirt plain. 

"No. This one's yours," Remedios closed a tight fist around it and then opened it again. Her palm was left with the gossamer trace of where it had once been. Slowly the mark faded, and the crease was gone.


Their departure from Charlotte went unprotested. No one encouraged them to stay longer or to continue grieving alongside them. It had devolved into legal incertidumbre, uncertainty, amongst the warring families, who were preparing to take anything Eulogio had ever possessed. They turned in to Castro, dispossessing him of his belongings, dividing up his estate and redistributing it.

On the road, Leila read her pocket KJV Bible, impervious to carsickness. The crinkling scritta pages reminded Miguel of a low crackling fire. This produced in him a relaxing tingle in his scalp and spine.

"I don't know if I would have been able to…" Leila mumbled.


"Forgive my siblings if they sold me off."

"I don't think Tío Eulogio would have done you dirty like Joseph's brothers."

She smiled at the mention of his name.

Leila lightly squeezed his shoulder. She was rarely physically affectionate. Her only goal as a parent was to make sure her children could defend themselves well against the cruelty of life.

'Forgive' ricocheted in Miguel's mind. He wondered if she would ever forgive him.

"He helped me a lot when I first arrived here. He was the only one that would practice speaking English with me. No one else had the patience," she said.

"I didn't know that."

"He got me my job at the factory in Hialeah. Never let any landlord swindle me. When one comemierda wouldn't return my security deposit because there were too many holes in the wall from the pictures I hung, Eulogio threw a hammer through his window every week. Then he'd wait for him to fix the glass, and then break it again."

"Ñoo," Miguel said.

Miguel knew so little of his mother's past. He also felt a tinge of guilt for knowing she had had a hard life; it was the guilt of comfortable existence, perhaps. But he wanted to reciprocate this kindness. He didn't want his mother to be without family. Connor and I, he thought, will be the window-smashers in your life.

"Mami, I do have something to tell you," Miguel said, while pulling on to the shoulder of i-95.

She was still relaxed, heart attuned to him. Leila nodded for him to continue.

"I'm in a relationship with a wonderful, funny, silly man that I love very dearly. My life has a steady peace in it when I'm with him, and I'm going to ask him to marry me. I would like to propose with the rings from Abuela Mirta."

He had done it. Finally, he repeated in his head. His heart was fluttering, and he still couldn't believe he had at long last said the words. Miguel didn't want to be like Eulogio. He didn't want the truth of his life to be discovered at his funeral.

Leila was silent. She didn't gesticulate, express any emotions, or move at all. Instead she delicately ear marked her page and closed the Bible gently. It sat there on her lap, while she stared out ahead.

"Say something," Miguel pleaded. "Please."

After a beat, she looked at him, her gaze above her glasses and said, "drive."

They drove down to Miami, this time going down A1A. To any questions, whether about the temperature, the beaches, or food, Leila gave terse, laconic responses or simple nods. Miguel studied her face, trying to see if there was some non-verbal response, he could gather from it.

She perked up, as if stricken with a realization. "Were you the one who stole Eulogio's ring?"

Miguel hated that his first instinct was to lie. He detested how quickly the 'no' had budded up out of him, how natural the deceit felt.

"Yes," he admitted.


"I want to propose with it. I want to give Connor--his name is Connor--a special ring. It's been in our family for a long time and it's something from Cuba."

"Mijo, you are a lot of things, but you are not Cuban. The ring doesn't belong to you."

He had had this argument many times in Miami, so much that over time his answer had changed from "Cuban" to "Cuban-American" to "American with Cuban ancestry." Even with this answer, however, he still felt the kernel in his identity and wanted to honor that with these rings. Miguel had even prepared a little spiel to tell Connor that Cubans wear their wedding rings on the right hand.

"Mama, don't you even want to meet him?"

"We don't talk about things like that. You can do whatever you want with your little friend."

It wasn't acceptance. It would never be acceptance the way Miguel wanted, the way he saw it in Connor's family.

"When we get back, you have to give me the ring," Leila said.

They drove in a heavy brume of silence through Broward, until they finally Dade county.

Before merging on to the 836-expressway to connect to Hialeah, he locked the doors, and took the wrong exit.

"No, you have to take Okeechobee," she said, startled by the error.

"Will you come to my wedding?" Miguel asked.

She didn't answer, instead her gaze shifted out the window towards the sky and she fidgeted with the pocket Bible, the pages crinkling like dried October leaves. Miguel wondered if she was searching for Eulogio, somewhere above the clouds.

"He's wanted to meet you for so long, Mami." His voice cracked as he begged.

He continued driving, inattentive to the directions he took, now on Perimeter Road watching the planes taxi and take off. The noisome stench of the diesel fuel gave Miguel a headache.

 "This is something that's important to me."

"It's just a phase, you just haven't met the right girl."

 "I'm thirty-two, I think I know myself."

"Okay, so what do you want me to say? Congratulations? ¿Qué lindo? No, Miguel, that's disgusting."


"Dos hombres. How can you even kiss another man?"

 "The same way you can," he riposted, his hands shaking on the steering wheel.

"Take me home," she demanded, scanning the area.

"Not until we finish talking," he was summoning whatever bravery he could find to continue. He spent his life making small deposits of courage, and today he would make a large withdrawal.

"What else is there to say? I hope you don't get AIDS."

At this Miguel stopped the car. They were on 82nd Avenue, near the Doral golf course. He thought about these words, they shot right through him. He felt a burning coldness on his forearms and pit in his stomach, his face also burned like it had been pressed to an iron. He tried his breathing again, letting the air fill his lungs, focusing on the pause between inhalation and exhalation. He put his attention on the weight of his body, the plastic foam cover on the wheel, the sounds of cars rushing by. At this moment, he knew he had lost his mother. Not gone the way Eulogio was, returned to the oblivion that precedes and awaits all of us. With his mother, it was a living death. A chosen, deliberate death.

"You're going to keep stopping?" She asked.

 He continued his breathing, while listening to the specter in his car.

 "I know some tipos, young men who have been cured," she said.

Miguel drove to the corner of northwest 36th street and 82nd. "Get out of the car. You can take the bus."

She hesitantly got out of the car and sat on the bus bench, protecting her valise from the others waiting for the #87 city bus. Miguel drove, his body still tense and wounded and trembling. Miguel thought about his mother's face, an amalgamation of fear and anger, the flared nostrils and wide-eyed leer frightened him. He drove around the block, wondering if his mother even knew she had to switch to the 92 bus and walk three blocks to get home.  He waited ten minutes, he felt guilt and grief, even in his anger he couldn’t end things like this. I've already come this far, he thought, tanto nadar para morir en la orilla.

He returned to the bus stop. His mother was still there, gripping her luggage and giving those around her menacing stares.

"Get in," Miguel said.

 Leila quickly shuffled back into the sedan, forcing her luggage into the backseat, and quickly locking her door-- the click offensively audible.

"That wasn't funny, Miguelito."

 "It doesn't feel good to be abandoned, verdad?"

She waved him off and he drove, taking the i-95 northbound towards Miami Beach.

 "De nuevo? Where are we going now?"

"You're going to meet Connor. We celebrated our anniversary last week and he is important to me."

"No, no, no. I don't want to meet your friend."

Friend, the word echoed in his mind. To his mother, he couldn't have a husband, that linguistic parity wouldn't be granted; it felt as if he needed to be reminded that his choices were not legitimate. Miguel accelerated, getting into the farthest right lane to take Exit 7 towards 71st street.

"Miguel, stop the car," she said.

"We're on the highway. You want me to leave you on the shoulder?"

She grimaced and folded her arms like a petulant child denied something. She dabbed the sweat on her forehead and upper lip with her handkerchief.

"I'll give the ring back. You don't even have to go to the wedding, but I'd like for you to know the man that's made your son feel complete."

They were on 73rd and Collins, fifteen minutes away from their shared apartment. Miguel texted Connor with his left hand, letting him know of the impromptu visit.

He sped down Harding Ave, hoping there'd be street parking close to the building, but he was also ready to double park if he needed to. He messaged Connor to come downstairs to meet his mother. The car was now zipping and weaving through Miami Beach traffic where tourists stopped to gawk at everything, even in the middle of the road. There was a spot between an Accord and SUV, a tight fit, but he threw on his hazards and began the tragedy of parallel parking.

"We're already here, come on," he said, the car's side mirror jutted out.

He saw Connor descending the stairs, he was wearing his favorite blue pullover. It was over ninety degrees and the shirt was 80% wool. This brought a tender smile to Miguel's face; he imagined the stained pits already forming and the swath of sweat accumulating on the small of his hairy back.

"Why are you making your life harder?" Leila asked.

Connor was now in front of him. His strawberry-blond curls glowed in the twilight of the setting sun. He approached them with his boyish smile.

"Hola, esto muy happy to meet you," Connor said with a stilted, nervous accent.

 Leila took in the young man, he was undeniably beautiful, soft faced as if he’d never known pain or suffering, and with a gentle handshake. He reminded her of Eulogio, the way he looked back home, before time had ravaged his visage, in their one-bedroom home in Old Havana, never afraid, the only boy on the block who proudly claimed he'd find his way to the skies.

She began weeping and fell to the ground. Miguel lifted her up and held her tightly.

"Please don't hate me," Miguel repeated into her ear, pained to have wrought her grief. "Please don't…"

He wondered if he'd done the right thing, if her heart had had too much, if it was all too soon, if it was selfish of him, if the rules Connor lived by weren't applicable in his own life. He didn't want her to feel alone in the world, without family, Miguel reasoned.

Instead of giving Connor the ring, he placed it into Leila's hand, hoping it'd make her feel better.

"Please don't hate me."

Leila slid her ring off and gave Miguel both. They clinked as they bounced and rolled in his palm. She composed herself, took her luggage and walked towards the bus stop across the apartment complex. Miguel called to her, shouting for her to return, promising her a ride back, still repeating the refrain of 'don't hate me.' She crossed the road and sat under the awning, stout and austere like a gravestone, wiping her eyes with her wrist.

 Miguel knew if he chased, she'd run, but still he extended his hand out towards her. He had the rings and the promise of a happy future, but his mother was gone. The past couldn't meet his gaze and now the rings would be all that linked their histories together--two circles that once overlapped. The silver bands glinted in the sunshine, radiating as if they were a source of light. 





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