Susannah Rodriguez Drissi

SRDrissi-Author's Photo


Susannah Rodriguez Drissi is a Cuban poet, writer, translator and scholar. She is Visiting Assistant Professor in Hemispheric Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Saw Palm, Literal Magazine, Diario de Cuba (Madrid), SX Salon, Raising Mothers, and Cuba Counterpoints, among other journals. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA and is contributing and review editor at Cuba Counterpoints, a new journal dedicated to dynamic analysis and commentary on Cuban affairs.

She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. Currently, she is finishing her first novel.

To read more of her work, visit her at or follow her on Twitter at @rsdrissi.


The Man Who Loved Fish

“Elio, you’re destroying the house . . . the only house we have, Elio.”

“Silence María,” he said, “I’m envisioning a different world.”

Santa María Purísima, Elio, look at this mess!”

María looked around the crowded living room. Her small blue eyes moved around the room and, not finding empty space on which to settle, opened and closed in agitation. The room was filled with old bicycle tires heaped in piles, two open bags of cement, pieces of glass, green plastic tubes, fishnets, and pails of seawater and algae. “This place looks like a junkyard . . . look at all this water!” She said. A thin trail of water and sand had settled all along the narrow corridor that connected the living room with the kitchen. María wiggled her toes—they were full of sand. “Look at my feet . . . they’re all wet!”

“Your feet are beautiful, María . . . wet or dry.”

Elio laughed, shuffling his feet towards the woman and pulling up his wet trousers as far as he could to cover an exposed brown belly. “Let me see those feet,” he said, reaching for María’s legs.

“Hands off,” she said, and flicked his hands away. “Look at yourself, aren’t you embarrassed, showing your belly and your breasts like that. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“Pure muscle,” Elio said, hands cupping bags of flesh. “And this,” he said, rubbing his belly in circular motions, “all your loving, María . . . all your loving.”

María laughed, showing the brown stains on her teeth. She grabbed a few strands of hair that stuck to Elio’s forehead, placed them in the middle of his bald head. Made a little circle with them. “There. All better now.”

Elio took María by the hand and led her toward a blue bucket filled to the rim with water; inside, an oversized red goldfish opened and closed his mouth near the surface. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he asked, while releasing María’s hand and crouching next to the bucket. “Isn’t she perfect?”

“How do you know it’s a she, Elio? Maybe it’s a he and now you’re confusing it.”

“Ay, María, you’ll never understand.”

“I understand. I understand this house is not a house, but a sanctuary for fish.”

Jesús!” Elio chuckled. “I’ve read . . . we come from fish. You had flippers once. Like it or not.”

“I’ve read too, and we come from Adam and Eve. Maybe you had flippers . . . look at yourself,” she said, pointing at Elio’s breasts. “I had two arms and two legs from the beginning. See?” She flapped her arms and kicked her legs until she felt tired. Then moseyed toward the kitchen, doing what she could to avoid the puddles. She’d been married to the man for thirty years. She knew when to leave him alone. Elio had been sucked into another world the way people get sucked into their television in science fiction movies, and María couldn’t tell where the cut in the film had taken place. Where it had all gone wrong. What he did in the living room all those hours, she called praying. “It’s a prayer, she’d tell Josefina, her next-door neighbor. “You know how Elio is . . . some have God, Elio’s got fish.” “All the same, dear,” Josefina would say.

Left to himself, Elio sunk an index finger into the water. “Just right,” he said. The red fish dashed back and forth. Its long forked tail behind him. “There, there,” Elio whispered. “You’re not just any goldfish, are you? You are a comet-tail goldfish. I know, I know. You’re a big fish in a little pond. A trail blazer. You’re meant for bigger things.”

Elio stood up. Reveled in the sight. All around him, fish tanks of all shapes and sizes filled the otherwise modest living room. The old green sofa, the two wooden chairs, one of which had a short leg and was leveled by a phone book, had been moved to a corner of the room to make space for the fish. It was here that Elio spent his days, staring into the big, dumb eyes of his fish. Waiting for something extraordinary to happen. The way a Christian waits for divine vision: with an open heart. And the eyes shut with faith and expectations.

“Well,” he said, making sure María could hear him from the kitchen, “Prepare yourself for the worst: the flood is coming.”

María heard the warning many times over the years—so many that all the fingers in her hands and all the fingers in Elio’s hands were not enough to keep track. But this time, there was something that made the little hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Elio had been partial to many things: smoking, gambling, Communism. But they let him down. María could stand the constant gray cloud of smoke, the quarreling over money, the Mao Zedong hairstyle, and the propaganda; but there was something about the way those fish came in and took over the house; it was the way in which Elio gazed into their eyes; something in the way he stood at the center of all those fish tanks for hours that she resented, loathed. Cigarettes had left them both breathless, gambling had ruined them, Communism had betrayed them; but the fish, the fish were undoing the threads of their lives.

Sometime after 1992, Elio took to walking to the beach. At first, he’d just stand close to the shore, staring out toward the lights in the distance. Then, as if spellbound by the singing of some castaway siren, he’d strip off his tank top, his pants and underpants, and dive into the clear-blue waters of the Caribbean, naked as daylight, swimming as far into the ocean as his lungs could take him. It was all those colorful silhouettes moving freely in the water that caught his attention. He was transfixed: the effortless meandering of the creatures just above the ocean floor was the very expression of divine release. And so, like everyone before him who’s ever found himself in the presence of the divine, Elio sought to make it his. He traded two cigarette cartons and an old Times magazine for a net and primitive scuba gear, and began showing up at home with pails full of live fish.

“You look like Captain Nemo,” María scolded him when she saw him dressed in full gear. “What are you planning on doing with that?”

“I’m gonna catch me some fish.”

“Oh, good. I love fish!”

“Not to eat, woman. To watch. They know what’s coming.”

It was about this time that Elio started talking about a great flood that would sink the whole island underwater and release them all, all except the fish—they were naturally free.

At first, María didn’t mind; what’s more, she was happy that Elio had found something harmless to do. But he began disappearing mysteriously and without a trace enough times that he was eventually asked to resign his post as Head of the Popular Defense Committee. “Something in your eyes,” Mayra Sandoval, Head of the Women’s Socialist Party, told him, “betrays the thoughts of a deserter.” He gave up his post and his party member card without so much as a grunt. Then turned all of his attention toward the fish and the flood. 

One afternoon, Mario Fernández, Head of Production at the Textilera de Ariguanabo, and Elio’s closest childhood friend, brought up the fish during a quality-control meeting.  “Ven acá, chico, what’s going on with all those fish? Have you gone crazy or what?”

“We are a little concerned about your present state of mind . . . ,” Ramón Gómez, Chief Machine Operator, added. He had taken out a stubby red pencil and clipboard, and started to scribble something on a piece of paper.

“Look, compañeros,” Elio said, “this is not a state matter. I still got my 10x12 picture of the maximum leader in the dining room, don’t I? I still show up at pep rallies, right? And you never hear me complain about the 3.5 meters of polyester we get each month, along with the rest of the population, do you? I gotta tell you, if anyone is worried that’s me. The big one’s coming and no one seems to care.”

“The big one? What the hell is that?” asked Fernández. He padded Elio on the back. Elio stared at him. Fernández meant for him to shut up. But how could he? —this was too important to let go.

“Go ahead,” he said, “call me crazy. Throw me out of the Committee, take away my party card. Hell, fire me, for all I care.” And that’s just what they did.


At home, Elio attempted to make peace with María. “It’s not a big deal. You got the telephone company and there’s the government aid. We’ll be fine.”

“Look, Elio, you better start making some money around here. You know what, if you like your fish so much, why don’t you earn your keep and start selling fish tanks.”

A week later, when María walked in from work, she could do no more than plop into a chair. In addition to the fish, the fish tanks, the pipes, tires, and everything else that had already taken over her home, there was now a small crowd of people scampering around her living room. The fish tank business had taken off. “I sold two 6x4s to a restaurant near Bejucal, and 3 1x3s to Mayra Fernández. Only minutes before she closed me down,” he whispered to María.

“What a hypocrite!” María told him. “First, she takes you off the Defense Committee. Then she’s buying fish tanks from you. Then she closes you down. You. Gotta. Have. Some. Balls.”

“Don’t get agitated,” Elio responded. “When you get excited about something, your arm lobes start to flutter. It’s not attractive, María. You’ll scare off my last customers!” He chuckled. He enjoyed María’s arm lobes just as much as he enjoyed his own humor.

You are not attractive, Elio. And now you stink like fish.”

“I only wish that were true,” was Elio’s response.


In the following months, Elio continued to sell his fish tanks, but kept under the radar. He found a cousin nearby willing to stash his materials and let Elio assemble on his roof.  One night, as Elio dove his head into an empty tank to install a couple of water pumps, the sky lit up. Seconds later, he heard what he thought was thunder. He looked around.  The roof was a minefield of electricity cables, clandestine satellite dishes, and pigeons. Elio packed up. He took the stairs and, when he reached the sidewalk, he scuttled off.

 “This is it,” Elio said, as he opened the front door to his house and ran through the living room to check on the fish. “This is it!” he shouted. “Prepare yourself!”

María was sitting at the kitchen table picking insects out of black beans. “Go to sleep, Elio.” María told him. “Have you secured the windows?”

“O, María, faithless woman . . . “Elio said, and walked towards her. He brushed a few strands of gray hair away from his wife’s face, pulled a small bench up to the table, and sat down next to her. The light of the moon trickled in through the blinds. For a moment, the couple seemed almost sacred. Trapped in a chiaroscuro of divine light.

But, although the rain came crushing down on the roofs of their neighbors with the strength and persistence of a deluge, the lagoon behind Elio and María’s house overflowed only a few feet above normal level.

Elio was crushed. “This is not what I envisioned,” he said, staring at the muddy water that María vigorously swept with the frayed ends of a broom.

“Forget about it,” María told him, dancing from one corner of the living room to the next, happy to be forcing the water out. “Out! Out!” She cried.

“The big one’s coming. I know it,” was Elio’s only response. The flood he had in mind, the one that kept him at night in puddles of sweat and anticipation, would be a great one. He was sure.

Elio waited for the flood without giving a thought to its consequences. He forgot to board up the windows and raise the mattress away from the reach of the water. He seemed purposely careless and left everything in the hands of some otherworldly force that María struggled to understand.

He was right, though. A big one was coming. On March 13, 1994, approximately a year and one month since the last sorry excuse for a flood, at approximately 6PM, Elio looked into his tanks. The fish were restless; they swam back and forth, hitting the glass and knocking each other out of the way like bumper cars.

“Poor bastards,” Elio thought. They’re jammed into the tank like sardines.”

At María’s request, Elio had sold one of his last two tanks to Adelaida Murillo, María’s old piano teacher and now Elio’s replacement at the textile factory.

“So,” Elio protested, “not only did she not teach you to play the piano, I have to also give her one of my tanks?”

“You are not giving it to her, Elio. You are selling it to her.”

“Those fish are going to kill each other in there. Fish are not meant to live that.”

The only tank left was a beauty. 5x3 and 3 feet high, with thick black rubber for seams and a green mossy bottom crushed here and there by the weight of a giant conch shell. Elio got closer. His gold fish floated on its side at the far end of the tank. The other fish had moved on quickly. Pushed their way from one side of the tank and back. Never making it past the glass. He leaned in. “Hi, little buddy,” he said. “I let you down, didn’t I? You had dreams, didn’t you? I know, it’s not easy to carry the weight of the world on your back, is it?” It crushes you, he thought.

He sighed and stepped back enough from the tank to turn his attention elsewhere. The sky in the windows had turned a dark gray, as if God had drawn a curtain to separate the island from the rest of the universe: it was a hurricane with winds in the 200 KMS. The windows and doors shook. Elio felt the house itself slipping off its hinges. For the first time, he was afraid. And in spite of María’s objections, he sent her away to a government evacuation center. “You’ll be safe there,” he told her.

“Have you lost your mind? I’m not leaving you behind.”

“You have to trust me.”

María smiled. She knew she had no choice—she had to trust him or she’d hear about it for the rest of her life. She kissed his greasy forehead and climbed into the government jeep.

Within twenty-four hours, the lagoon behind their house promised to overflow. Elio climbed on top of his refrigerator to watch the water rise and his walls turn green with frogs.

“Amazing,” he said to himself, “so little and look how they stick to the walls. Look how they know that something big is coming.” Outside, the wind growled like a rabid dog, throwing itself against windows and doors until, all at once, windows and doors opened and rain and wind were upon him. The fish tanks toppled over. Elio watched as his fish scurried away from their collapsing glass houses and struggled to join the current. How different they were from each other. There were the blue and orange Angels and the Clownfaces; the Gobies; the gray and white Hamlets; the Butterfly fish; the blue Tangs with the lighter blue underbelly; the multicolored Basslets—he had plenty of those; and the Tank-Breds, striped in orange and white, and outlined in black. There were others that he couldn’t identify by name, but whose colors seemed to multiply, making streamers and rainbows in the water as they swam away.

The old refrigerator shook beneath him and Elio struggled to hold on. He took off his shirt and threw it into the water. He tried to stand up, but his head struck the ceiling and forced him back down. He watched his life float past him: old, discolored toothbrushes, foreign magazines he’d once hidden under the mattress, María’s old broom, and his golden fish floating on its side, on his way to a place Elio now forced himself to imagine.

The lights went out. Elio sat in the dark, high above the water. He breathed deeply. His chest rose and fell with every breath. He felt the island buckle beneath him. “This is it,” he said one more time, and then suddenly, just as he was about to dive into the water, he heard a voice: “Compañero, this is it. You either come out or we take you by force.”

It took Elio only a few seconds to respond. “By force,” he said. “Take me by force.”

The men lumbered heavy legs and naked torsos through the water. Elio coiled into a shell, but they grabbed him by the ankles. He dropped into the water with a splash.

“Stand up and swim,coño. Or this could take hours. What’s with all the goddamn drama?”

Elio didn’t respond.

“Grab him, Manolito. He wants to play stiff. Coño, viejo. Don’t you think you’re getting too old for this?”

“You know this guy, Mario?” the man said, muscling Elio out of the water.

“Yeah, he used to work at La Ariguanabo. Pull him up, dale. He’s, you know, a strange bird. But harmless.”

Elio let the two men hook him under each arm and pull him through the water until they reached the sidewalk. His bare feet scraping against the raised cracks in the tile. The world had gone in reverse, Elio thought. The ocean was here and the island out there. Somewhere else. Nothing looked or was the same. The whole neighborhood floating in the water. Above it, dull gray.

He remembered the first time he saw Mario. It was January 6, 1959. Three Kings’ Day and Fidel’s victory march into Havana. He wasn’t Mario then. He was Momo, a skinny kid with a heart as big as his nose. He was a strong swimmer, too. He’d heard him say once that he’d swum across the Gulf of Batabanó to Isla de Pinos and back in one afternoon. “Muchacho,” he’d say, “I went at it like a tiger. Leaping up to each wave. I call it the ambush method.” Elio knew he was lying, but he found his stories amusing.  They’d met in El Salado Beach, near the bend, by El Pillo’s old shack. It was back when Elio was Elio and María was a blistered blond girl on a beach towel who learned English from a Sears catalogue.

It had been no hotter that day than any other day that January. They were all used to record-breaking heat in the winter by now. It was just more humid than usual. Elio’s new pit hairs swashed whenever his arms moved. And his boxers stuck to his ass like Chiclet. He’d hitchhiked all the way to the beach. Midway, to Rosa Marina on the grill of someone’s old Schwinn, hairy brown legs dangling on the sides. A colander and an old pantyhose swinging from a belt loop in his shorts. Then in the back of a green ‘57 Chevy on its way to Baracoa. A tear on the leather cutting into his right calf. He fidgeted so much, the other passengers complained, and he was left to walk the rest of the way. Some quarter of a mile to the sand. Stupid tourists. Soon they’d be all gone. They’d know what was good for them and they’d take off in their fancy yachts with their leather-bound interiors and names like “The Bubble Gum” and “Kittyland.” They loved their island. Came in droves. Filled casinos and brothels with clouds of Yankee cigarettes. Sauntered up and down the malecón and framed it all in black and white Polaroids. Gave them Gin rumy, bridge, bingo and those goddamn crossword puzzles María bent over for hours. Pencil poised and cross-legged on her front porch.

He trudged passed pairs of lovers. Tangled limbs like vines under the uvas caletas. Bodies pressed against the sand in some Creole version of From Here to Eternity. Naked pot-bellied children flying kites or digging tunnels in the sand. Carrying water in blue buckets to and from the shore. Filling the tunnels with water. Crying. Starting anew. “What did you expect?” He heard somebody ask, “to reach China?” Elio looked ahead. Adjusted the panty hose on the loop. Turned the opening for the panty leg outward and pulled on the little bag for the foot. It was a makeshift Goby catcher. But it would do. He dug his shoes in the hot sand and lifted up and forward, leaving uneven tracks behind him. He walked toward the pier, wrestling with the mangroves. Snarled roots like unkempt hair blocking his way. It was a Tuesday, and at least half of Bauta was there. But only Mario saw the shark coming for him.

Elio hid his shoes among the dientes de perro surrounding the pier. Ran back to the sand until he reached the shore. Had he been looking for signs, he would have noticed one or two. But he’d been too busy thinking about other things to notice.

He was looking for Gobies that day. He found Blennies instead, but he couldn’t tell the difference then. They’re both one-centimeter long or less. Small bastards, so they make great bates. Divers always miss them. Blennies have one single continuous dorsal fin. Gobies have two. They’re a little high-strung, too. They like to rest in a stretched position as if flattened onto an ironing board. Blennies seem to take it as it comes. They’re cooler that way. They’re like the James Dean of Cuban fish under one centimeter. Now, decades later, Elio thought he’d learned the wrong lesson that day. But he wasn’t really sure what the right lesson should have been.

“Swim,coño.” Mario repeated. “I’m leaving you behind, if you don’t start swimming.”

Elio couldn’t speak. He was too busy gasping for air. Mouth sinking below blue water. Reappearing long enough to exhale-inhale only to sink again. His arms flailing pushing water down, fighting for his life. Fuck, I’m gonna die, he thought. And all for some dumbass Gobies. He was so scared his pito sprung up as if yanked by an invisible string. If it could have, it, too, would have treaded water. Some afternoon that was. He went in looking for Gobies and found a shark. It came out of nowhere. They always do. It’s only in the movies they gambol for hours, fin cutting water in two. Metallic soundtrack building up the tension. Yeap, only in the movies.

He could only hear the rapid thuds of his heart muscle against his rib cage. The splashing of water. And that muffled sound fear makes in dreams, broken by Mario’s voice:

“Swim, coño!”

He had wanted to scream, “Tiburón!” but couldn’t keep his mouth above the water long enough to make a sound, let alone a word. The sun a mass of blinking yellow against his eyes, each time he managed to pull up for air. The shark had him by his right leg. No pain, just heat that went up from his thigh to his ass and up into his spine.

Some kid near the shore some twenty feet away dropped a bucket of jaivas on the sand and waded through the water fully dressed.

Tiburón!” Someone shouted, prompting a small crowd of shorts and yellow string bikinis to gather near the abandoned bucket and look out to the water.

Snap, and just like that, pain rushed into his hip and up his spine. Something was broken. Then everything went black.


“Listen, comemierda,” Mario said, slapping a wet hand on Mario’s cheek. “If you don’t start swimming, I’m gonna leave you in this puddle until your balls shrivel up and drop into the water like some goddamn raisinets.”

Elio blinked. He felt alone. The feeling slowly widening in the pit of his stomach. His belly sunk in. Something like a cold void was sucking the air out of him. Had no one noticed that all had gone in reverse? He couldn’t bare the weight of his own body. María was right. She’d been right all along. Fish were abominable. Fish, thrashing in the sand. Their spastic gills reaching for the water. Fish. With big, glossy eyes. Absent eyes. Open mouths. Impractical, like all dreamers. Stupid bastards, he thought. The island was a fouled fish tank, and they were all drowning in it.





© The Acentos Review 2015