Celine Aenlle-Rocha




Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a writer based in New York City, where she is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing, and a Teaching Fellow in the Undergraduate Writing Program, at Columbia University. Her work is published or forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Tahoma Literary Review, Fatal Flaw, Pen+Brush, The Suburban Review, and more. You can find her @celineaenlle on Instagram and Twitter, or at celineaenllerocha@gmail.com

Cristina was finally hungry, hadn’t eaten since the airport pretzels twenty hours ago. She could tell it had been even longer for her father, probably the entire three days he’d been in Miami, and she was afraid to ask him to drive her to Gilbert’s Bakery. But she did.

“Of course,” Alejandro said, rubbing his forehead, “I just wasn’t even thinking about that.”

He lingered for a few minutes, afraid to be gone for long. But when they finally did leave, he drove as calmly as ever, and they decided to order cubanos, plantain chips, croquetas de jamón.

Gilbert’s was as informal as always. The walls were still painted a deep charcoal, and signed photos of Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan, Tito Puente and Andy García covered the wall to the left. “Que tenga buen día,” Cristina said, trying to smile at the hairnetted woman who handed her the paper bag. She just nodded back.

“Don’t eat in the car, it’s a rental,” Alejandro said. Cristina sighed, but waited. It was only a ten minute drive. She heard her father’s breath whistle out as he turned the ignition.

When they arrived at the hospital, Cristina’s abuela was dead. Her abuelo, Alvaro, who had been sleeping in the corner chair when they left, was saying over and over, “¿Amor? Amor? Adónde fuiste?” Alejandro dropped the paper bag on the chair, looking like he might fall down.

The nurse began apologizing in soft Spanish, saying they’d just missed her, Pilar had just passed. Four minutes with God.

For a moment, Cristina refused to believe it. Shouldn’t they have felt the death, like a car slamming into them, as they pulled into the parking lot, as they shut the doors?

Cristina couldn’t cry, or at least not for her abuela, whom she’d loved—who’d taught her how to speak Spanish with poise, how to read the city of Miami like a grid so she’d never get lost—but for her stomach which was rumbling and which was the reason her father had missed his mother’s death.

“It’s not your fault,” Alejandro said, as Cristina began to shake, telling him she was sorry. “Her husband was the one who needed to be here.”

Cristina was a grown woman, twenty-five and coming up and into live media in Boston. She knew it was childish to feel guilty about something that had been a coincidence. She knew her father wouldn’t blame her, at least not after a while. But she couldn’t bring herself to  believe him. She wanted him to be angry with her. Cristina knew she’d killed her abuela by removing her father, Pilar’s only son, and the pork sandwiches sat uneaten in their paper bag until Cristina’s mother got off a plane and arrived at the apartment on SW 38th Street.

“My father has dementia. What am I going to do with him?” her father sobbed, while Cristina’s mother rubbed his back. “My mother was the one who knew how to take care of him.”

Marion was the one whose consulting job relocated the family to San Francisco, Cristina five years old and knowing hardly any English. She had never needed to, living in Little Havana where everyone spoke Spanish, white and black and brown people too.

Except for Marion, who refused to get fluent. Once, waiting in line for a Thanksgiving turkey, she’d told Cristina it was because she didn’t like the way Cubans looked at her in Sedano’s Supermarket—or, rather, that they hardly seemed to look at her at all. They didn’t like that she didn’t speak Spanish, that she wasn’t even Afro-Cuban but just African American. Just American.

“But my in-laws were always good to me,” Marion had said. “They always included me in everything. They called it Cuban Christmas.” Cristina knew her mother was relieved to leave Miami but for Alejandro’s parents, who would never have left Miami except to go back to Cuba, and they would never go back to Cuba.

“He can’t stay here on his own,” Marion said now, to Alejandro. She began to tear up as the old man shuffled around the apartment, looking for his wife. Her hair was misted by the heat.

“Yes. We’ll have to pack up the apartment, get him into a retirement home,” said Alejandro.

Cristina knew this meant that she and her mother would be the ones packing it up. Her father had disintegrated. Even before, two days ago when he’d called to tell her about Pilar’s stroke and Cristina said, “I’m going to Logan Airport now,” Alejandro barely protested, though he reminded her she’d have to take off work at the news station, he had this handled, he was fine. “You might not even get here in time. She’s dying. The doctors say she’ll die. There—there will be a funeral. Come then,” Alejandro said.

Cristina went anyway, because she knew that this was what it would be. Her father was hopeless, and Cristina was so worried about him that she forgot to let the horror of it all sink in herself. Her healthy grandmother of seventy years was dying.

The evening before, they’d gone to the funeral home. Pilar was still alive then, but tubed up and fading. The heart attack was taking too long to kill and Cristina thought it unfair.

She’d signed the papers because Alejandro was sobbing into his hands, his black hair growing oily. The mortician smiled and handed him tissues.

Cristina watched, almost amazed. But her father had always managed to evade the machismo of his parents’ generation, never scared to cry. He was handsome, too, and when he cried in public, which was not infrequent, people always smiled at him, gently, like this funeral director, and if they were in Miami and Cuban too they would chatter on about el que algo quiere, algo le cuesta, things would work out.

She wished she could cry like that, without having to worry that she’d add awkwardness to the air, elicit false sympathy.

Pilar paid for Alvaro’s and her own funeral twenty years before, back in the nineties. It had taken her that long to save up for them. She wanted a nice Catholic ceremony, a simple coffin, all her friends from the island—whichever were left.

So Cristina and her father left with full wallets, and Cristina still with an empty stomach and her anxiety driving away any desire to eat. Back to the hospital, because Alejandro hated staying away. At least, until the next afternoon, when Cristina was finally too tired to be too stressed. And she’d asked him for lunch.


Cristina surveyed the room where she’d been sleeping, wondering where to start packing. Or, really, unearthing. Alejandro’s bedroom had been dusty since he left for Stanford in 1980, never to look back. Over the next thirty-five years Alvaro and Pilar had slowly taken the space back, filling the closets with work clothes and the desk with weak routers. Cristina found an oversized denim jacket in the back of the closet with a huge embroidered decal on it, in celebration of a Prince concert in 1989. That was the year her parents had married, the year before she was born.

She liked finding these relics, hidden artifacts of a simpler time. Two people with nothing to worry about except empty bank accounts and different languages, different skin colors. Cristina wanted to take something for herself, to prove that she could connect to a time she couldn’t remember. In the pocket of the denim jacket she found a note from Pilar, to Alejandro:

No olvides parar al centro de correo, mi amor

She folded it carefully and put it into her own pocket, close to her body’s heat.

There was a vintage Winne the Pooh bear on the bookshelf, wearing a high school graduation cap. Every summer when Cristina visited her abuelos she would think about how sad and old he looked.

The dresser was stacked with Abuelo’s home videotapes. He had fallen in love with film as he did with America, setting out to record as much of it as possible. He never made money off it, aside from the occasional quinceañera or wedding, always still working full time, a line cook, a lobby greeter. Never learning English, always proud to be an American.

The apartment was a two-bedroom on the second story of a coral-colored, stucco twenty-apartment building with a small car lot in the back. From the window in her father's childhood bedroom, Cristina could see the mango trees in the backyard, the red-orange fruit dangling above Alvaro’s 1982 Toyota. He used to pick them in the morning and bring her one and she would eat it whole while they watched telenovelas. Normally she’d be so concerned about a mess but not in Miami, in Miami she let the sunny juice drip down her cheeks, held the seed in her hand at the end in triumph.

In Miami, her life revolved around two things: humidity, and the next meal. Cristina could drive, of course, but not the Toyota, Alejandro didn’t want her to, it was too old and could break down anytime, and until her recent birthday renting a car was too much of a hassle.

So she’d had no way to make the daily trips to Versailles except to walk. In June, she could make it twenty minutes without feeling she would faint; in August, five.

If she went to Gilbert’s in the mornings she would order the usual, pastelitos de guayaba, and also the cheese ones which Abuela liked, and medianoches, and papas rellenas. She would nod cheerfully to the photos of Gloria Estefan and Paulina Rubio. The hair-netted ladies speaking so quick, Cristina wondered if they didn’t like her accent. Sometimes she worried her Spanish had become too Californian, or worse, too Bostonian.

Even after she graduated college in Worcester and had no more summers off, Cristina couldn’t stay away from Miami, from the picadillo, the beaches, the gardens at Vizcaya. Three years in Boston, two of them reporting on immigration policy, and she was always the first to take the assignment that would bring her closer to the palm trees.

She would stay in her dad’s old room, sweating even with the A/C, watching telenovelas with Álvaro. Boston was cold. It was too white. Then why didn’t she just move to Miami? Her friends would ask. She would, she said. Someday.

That night, Cristina bathed Álvaro in the tiny, pink-tiled bathroom. He was crying again, saying things she didn’t understand. When he’d turned ninety-five his voice turned so gravelly that sometimes only the island-born, like Alejandro, could understand him.

But then he pointed to the scar on his wrinkled knuckle, the one that looked like a small, brown slash, and she knew what he was saying.

“Aquí,” he’d told her some ten years ago, when she interviewed him for a school project, “me dispararon.”

He was reliving it now, that huddling beneath a park bench while his friend died next to him. Bullets from the sky. A revolution spread through the streets like a pandemic. But, beneath the steps of the capital, when El Líder sang the rally cry, Álvaro had seen a vision of the future, the new Cuba.


Unlike his father, Alejandro couldn’t be put to bed until two in the morning, and even then, Cristina could hear him pulling out his hair. Her mother was snoring. Cristina was sleeping on the couch at the foot of the bed.

Alejandro finally quieted down at four, snoring softly, but Cristina still couldn’t sleep because she could see her dead grandmother was standing over her bed, reciting her rosaries, before moving over to Alejandro. Cristina thought Pilar would say another Ave María, but she simply bent down to kiss his torn head. In the morning, Alejandro’s hair had grown back.


They packed for most of the next day, nearly all the apartment ending up in trash bags. Alejandro still wasn’t eating and Cristina couldn’t bear to think about food anymore either. Marion said it would do Álvaro good to have a real meal. She’d be back soon, she said.

Cristina was surprised at this. Marion had lived in Miami for seven years, but it was like the years had been erased from her mind. Anytime she was there, she was lost. But she knew Cristina and Alejandro wouldn’t have the energy to go out themselves. And the servers spoke English at Versailles.

It was quiet after she left. “I won’t have anyone to visit in Miami anymore,” Cristina said to her father as he sat in the worn armchair by the window fan, staring at the wall. Her abuelo slept quietly on the small, polyester-blue couch in the living room. He mostly slept these days, like a cat.

“Oh, you could always come for vacation sometime.”

“It’s not the same,” Cristina said. “Don’t you want to move back here for retirement?” she asked hopefully.

He looked at her, confused. “No. I’ve lived in San Francisco for twenty years now. I hardly know anyone here anymore.”

“What if we visited Cuba?” she tried. “Went to the house where Abuela lived as a little girl? We could bring Abuelo with us. I know he’s old, but—”

“No,” Alejandro said firmly. “We’re not doing that.”

“Listen,” Cristina said. Hunger was beginning to rub up against the sides of her stomach, and she felt ill. “You have to get over this. The Revolution was fifty years ago.”

“Some of those Communists he knew are still alive,” Alejandro said. He began to rub his temples.

Cristina’s cheeks began to burn. “I’m just a boring American, now that Abuela is dead. You don’t have to be—”

“You were always American,” Alejandro cried. “I came here so you could be, so you could be born here. And now I’m an American too.”

Cristina knew he was trying to rankle her, that she’d pressed on a sore spot. “Can’t we go back? Back to Cuba? Don’t you want to take Abuelo back before he . . .”

“No. Why would I? He was run out of his home.”

“But they do that to people like us here too,” Cristina said.

“Mija.” Alejandro shook his head. “You just don’t remember. That government took our food away, our home. We are so lucky to have made it here. We would’ve starved to death.”

Cristina knew what Alejandro thought of her. That she was a snowflake, a millenial. She read Gloria Anzaldua and wanted, more than anything, to go to Cuba.

“There’s no Cuba to go back to,” her father finished.


The funeral home was so cold, it wasn’t long before Cristina’s relief from the Miami air trembled into discomfort. Soon it was settling into her bones. Álvaro was already wheeling into the viewing room and Cristina followed him. He tottered towards the coffin, said, “Pilar? Amor, qué estás haciendo aquí?” It sounded like one word when he said it: questaciendoqui. It was Cristina’s favorite, and least favorite, thing about Caribbean accents. They blended words together because they loved Spanish so much. No matter how good her own Spanish was, though, sometimes the words jumbled when she heard them.

Cristina looked down, and was surprised the coffin was already open. She stared at her grandmother’s perfected face, her thin arms, and again noticed how hungry she was.

The Cubans, most of them bent over on canes, began to file in while Alvaro continued wheeling back and forth across the room. Cristina followed him in case he fell. Each time he passed the coffin he stopped, putting his hand on his wife’s, telling her, “Espérame, amor, okay. Te veo pronto.”

Papi always said Abuelo would go first, Cristina thought. He was ninety-five. He had starved as a child, been shot by one government and tortured by another. He was developing dementia. Pilar had told him once she would leave the apartment when he died, get a little yellow house near Coral Gables. And here she was, beyond, and Abuelo telling her he was the one who’d have to catch up.

The wake was over very quickly. Cristina noticed her black dress was beginning to hang loose on her, just a little bit.


When Cristina went to wake her Abuelo up the next morning, he was cold in his bed, smiling, hands wrapped in a plastic rosary.


Cristina didn’t remember the rest of the day. She knew she had wailed so loudly when she found him that her father, finally sleeping, had sprung from the bed, her mother had begun saying prayers over her because she wouldn’t stop screaming, and Abuela had appeared to put a hand on her forehead, and close her eyes—

She knew these things like they’d been a dream, because here she was, face swollen, and Abuelo was gone from his bed.

Her mother came in at sunset with a glass of mango juice.

“You were addicted to this stuff when you were a baby,” Marion said. “You refused to speak any English, just ‘quiero jugo, Papi!’ I had to learn enough just so I could talk to you.”

Cristina drank the glass whole.

“Your grandparents were married for almost sixty years,” Marion said. “You knew they couldn’t be apart.”

“Will we have the funerals together?”


“Now I really don’t have any reason to come back here,” Cristina said.


It was winter and so Cristina could walk outside without sweating. It was nearly temperate that night. She walked to Versailles and it was busy, but they sat her right away, next to one of the windows in the main room.

Cristina ordered an Ironbeer and sipped the syrupy soda, alternating with the crisp Cuban bread the waiter brought her. She ordered arroz con frijoles and plátanos maduros and they came hot. She ordered bistec, and vaca frita, and moros con cristianos.

Cristina had never had a meal at Versailles without coconut flan for dessert, but she was so full, bursting with rice and grief. When the waiter returned she asked for mango slices. Fresh, not dried. They weren’t on the menu but she asked for them anyway. They would heal her.

Cristina was still eating when the salsa band came on at nine, and when the birthday party across the room wrapped up at eleven, and when the waiter came by at one in the morning, saying, “Señorita, cerramos ahora.”

© The Acentos Review 2021