Madari Pendas

Exile Love

"Es tan corto el amor y es tan largo el olvido."


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, as well as the inherited identity crisis of being a first-generation American. 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 a graduate student in Florida International University's Master's of Fine Arts program

When Sylvia was six years-old the Cuban government nationalized all private and foreign-owned property. After this she’d regularly catch her abuelo weeping on the second floor balcony of the house he had constructed in San Miguel del Padrón. Her abuelo and his father spent two years building the house. They had never constructed a home before and they learned together. It was the reason the steps on the stairs were uneven, why the roof in her mother's room was slanted and gradually descended down to the frame of the entrance, and why all the doors were of different heights and widths. All the strange engineering flaws made the house even more special and always elicited an anecdote from her abuelo. He cried, unashamed of emotion, and sat the girl on a wicker stool overlooking the main avenue one evening. The distant lights from the city hovered in the background like fireflies, and the sounds of the city (the horns, fights, salsa, and laughter) drifted in as if it were also part of the conversation.

"This house is not mine anymore," he said

"But you made it," she said.

He was tired; the repeated conversation fatigued him. He had had to explain this to his family in Salamanca over and over. The more often he said it the more it lost emotion. It became rote.  An assemblage of surreal words to explain a surreal experience: What's yours is no longer yours.

"Nothing is yours anymore." He said and returned to looking over the wrought iron bars of the railing.


Sylvia follows Armando into his trailer the way a spirit haunts a home, her presence barely perceptible. They were the last two from their original neighborhood to leave Cuba. They both had relatives who supported the Castrista government and brazenly called anyone who left "a gusano", a habit they had picked up from Fidel. As all their friends left, they continued meeting in the abandoned Spanish restaurant near the primary school. To let one another know it was safe to enter they'd place an old cat bone in front of the window lattice. For weeks after he'd left she returned to the spot to see if the bone had moved. He was her first love, he was the only thing she felt she could truly have. After being dispossessed of their business and home, it was the first time she ever felt a sense of ownership.

In the dining room is a black upright piano. The light filtering in from the window gives it an ethereal glow, and dust motes dance above the keys with a soft radiance. Sylvia sits on the piano bench. The piano a symbol of decadence and wealth juxtaposes the poverty of the small trailer with its thrift store furniture and second-hand gifts. In this way it resembles Cuba. The regal Spanish architecture next to the condemned buildings and starving citizens; a tropical island paradise in the clutches of a cruel dictatorship. 

Sylvia looks at Armando, who studies her from the sofa, his miradad the same longing stare of their former lives. The stare she'd memorized for years in the dilapidated restaurant. She wondered how so many years later and in a new country, he was still able to make her feel nervous and excited with just the tilt of his head and a winsome smirk.

"I bought it with the first paychecks I earned here. My tio thought I was crazy to buy a piano before I bought a car, but the bus isn't so bad. I didn't think it would take you so long to get out," Armando says. "When the days were bad, just having it in the house made me feel better, como un rico haciendo el papel de un pobretón.

"Qué bello. It looks just like the one my family owned."

Sylvia picks up a book of sheet music. A decayed book, beautiful in the way things from the past always are. It contained the works of Bartok. Some of the loose sheets fall out and one catches Sylvia's eyes, and for a moment makes her believe in destiny, makes her feel comfortable with the exodus and exile of her life. This is music she has played, dedicated hours to, sounds she repeated until the melodies played in her dreams. She reviews the measures.

She murmurs, "I don’t know if I can still play it. Tía Cayetana sold the piano to pay for my quinces. No sé si puedo."

"Try," he says. He rises from the sofa and places the sheet music on the stand, "Mikrokosmos Vol.1"

The keys are heavy and loose, the piano untuned. The first phrases are clumsy, her hands trip over one another. As she progresses she remembers, the fingers matching the keys with the notes on the page; the arpeggios remind her of the cadence of the rain against her tin roof in Havana. Her abuelo would whine and curse Fidel, while she counted the rests in between the drops, trying to hear a melody.  She falls into a spell of memories. They can feel Bartok's yearning for a home, an exile himself from his beloved Hungary.

"Has a lot changed?" Armando asks interrupting the music. He blanches after asking, it had been so many years, how could anything have remained the same.

"Yes, but also no." She stops playing and faces him. "The boy is fine."

"I sent him the same clothes the chamacos wear here, the acid washed jeans and polos with the little horse. Does he like them?"

"Por supuesto. He brags to the kids about his rich American uncle. He's still too young to be unhappy. No le falta nada."

"Besides a father," he says.

Armando retrieves two Coronas from the kitchen and stands arms akimbo and Sylvia resumes playing.

"Do you remember what you said to me the first time we spoke?" Sylvia says.


"You were drunk and said, 'eres tan linda, desde el pie, hasta el alma.’"

Armando chuckles. "Ay Neurda. Ese tipo lived for heartbreak."

Sylvia resumes the piece, extending the final phrases and playing the last notes languidly, drowning each one. They turn to each other. Sylvia notices the freckles on Armando’s nose and brow, his receding hairline, the way his face carries more weight. Even his smile is stilted and exhausted under the years of a difficult and laborious life. She joked that communism aged every one faster than normal—even your youth belongs to the government.

"I’m sorry." Armando says, picking the label off the beer bottle.

"I wasn’t going to make you stay, everyone was dying for a chance to leave."

"But I would have."

Sylvia wonders if he really would have, and if the burden of her misery falls on her--what if I had asked, she thinks. But that wouldn't have been love. Love is not having to beg for the things you need.

"Armando, you were given the opportunity that people were risking their lives at sea to have. I’m happy you were able to leave. I didn't want you to die en la miseria."

Sylvia looks at one of the walls and sees Armando’s wedding photo. She ignores Armando and focuses on the woman in the photo. The bride has a blonde bob with wispy bangs, a small waist that Armando is holding, and a tender smile that for moment Sylvia winces at.

 Before El Mariel, Armando took Sylvia to el Malecòn and described their future together as the waves crashed against the wall. During the Caribbean nights, Armando whispered the stories of the lives they would lead, describing the color of their house, the guayaba tree they'd plant, the abundance that their child would know. She needed to believe those promises would be fulfilled. She always thought, If not in Cuba, then in America.

"Her name is Cristina."

"How long have you been married?" Sylvia asks.

"Seven and a half years."


"¿Y tú?" Armando asks.

"Nine years."

"I waited longer." He produced a wry smile.

"Does she know about Javi?" Sylvia asks.

Armando drags his hands across his face and returns to the kitchen for more beer. In the distance he answers.

"No. I never told her. She wouldn't have understood."

"No, you knew she wouldn't have said 'yes' if she knew."

"I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again, some people never get out. ¿Qué querías? Wait longer than I already did to move on? How long was I supposed to wait before it was okay to start my life here?"

Sylvia wipes the tears from her eyes, and remembers the nights at the Malecón, the promises that she repeated to herself on her journey to America. She opens her mouth, but the words do not come. Armando slides down the sofa and places his hand on Sylvia’s knee.

"I feel guilty. I probably always will." Armando says.

Suddenly the words rush back up and unfurl like a whip in the air, "Do you still love me?"

Armando looks at his wedding photo. He remains silent.

She laughs, "In America heartbreak feels the same."

Sylvia pivots away from Armando and replays the solemn song. The house swells with the music and the former lovers grow somber. She returns to the world the exile fled from and now flees to. She thinks If not in America, then in the Cuba of my memory.




© The Acentos Review 2020