“The National Ballet”

Fiction by Michelle Fiordaliso

It’s 1961. Castro has taken over Cuba. My parents have a lot of discussions about the Communist Party. I hear what they’re saying, but the truth is I don’t think about it much. When they’re talking and talking, I think about ballet. I hear music in my head and the sound of my feet landing on the wooden planks of the dance studio floor.

It’s a Friday. I wake up, but I have barely slept all night. My mind is busy with my routine. Pas de Basque. Jeté. Jeté. Today is my audition for the National Ballet School. They have one spot they’ll give to a young dancer. One spot only. Other girls on the island have woken up with dance routines in their heads today, too. I’m not the only one. Girls from Santa Clara and Bayamo and Pinar del Rio. I’ve waited my whole life for this day and I’m ready.

“Good morning, ballerina,” my mother says when I come to breakfast. I don’t know why my little brother finds this funny but he does. Samuel chuckles with his whole body, and it makes the jelly from his knife spill onto the table. He bends down and uses his tongue to clean it up. My mother doesn’t like this. She doesn’t like most things that Samuel does. In our house he is the rebel. I laugh at him and my mother takes her hand and gives him a smack on the head. Hard. He pretends it doesn’t hurt, but I see him flinch as the big ruby ring she wears on her right hand makes contact with his skull. I stop laughing and consider the food on my plate.

“Aren’t you going to eat, querida?” my mother asks.

“I’m not hungry.”

“How could you be?” she says. taking my hand and leading me out of the kitchen.

My father has already gone to work. My brother leaves the table. My mother has taken the day off — something I never remember her doing — and now we’re walking into her bathroom, instead of the one that Samuel and I use. There she winds my long hair into a bun on top of my head and fastens it tight with bobby pins. While she does this I look at her perfume bottles and face creams in glass jars on her vanity. I open one to smell it and she lets me. The one I pick smells like gardenia.

My hair is done. My leotard is perfect. I wrap myself in a cotton coat to cover myself. Yolanda arrives to take Samuel to school. Samuel loves the maid and the maid loves Samuel.

“Good luck,” Samuel says and I know he means it. Our mother favors me but my brother doesn’t hold that against me the way some siblings would. My mother appears in the marbled entrance foyer of our house. She is ready to go. I am ready to go, too.

“Behave yourself,” my mother says to Samuel. She takes my hand and we’re on the streets of Havana. It’s early but the sun is already hot on my face. As we walk along El Prado the trees form a canopy over the walkway. I notice the men in uniform holding guns but the shade feels good.

We turn onto Trocadéro and I see the sign that reads “La Escuela Nacional de Ballet.” The day is here. I walk in with my mother. I see the other girls. Some are bigger than me. Others are smaller. Some have come from great distances. Others are practicing their pliés. On the outside I seem still but inside my head I see the steps. I hear the music. A woman in a skirt suit comes out and calls my name, “Matilde Stekelman.” From listening to the names that have already been called I’m certain I’m the only Jew here.

Inside the room there is a long table with men and women seated behind it. They are holding pads of paper and pens. I do my routine. Pas de Basque. Jeté. Jeté. Their faces are serious. I can’t tell what they think of me or my dancing.

I walk out of the audition and Mami winks at me: “The saints told me good things are coming.” Living in Cuba for most of her life has influenced her and she has incorporated the saints into her Jewish practices. I like that she had been praying for me the whole time regardless of which god she chose. We leave the building.

“Do you want a shake?” my mother asks. I’m surprised because usually these are things she says we can make at home. “Yes, please.”

I’m not the only one dancing today. It seems like Havana is dancing, too. The palm trees sway and the vendors swing their hips. The smell of orange blossoms does a tango with the smell of cortaditos and cigars. My heart feels like it’s beating to the rhythm of a guaguancó or a mambo.

We cross the street to the Hotel Sevilla. It’s grand. My mother orders me un batido de trigo — a creamy blend of milk and puffed wheat cereal — and one made from mamey for herself.

“Good things are coming, Mami.” I agree with her.  
On tall chairs at the bar each of us holds our shakes. We take long sips from straws. I put my hand in hers. My mother, who usually looks worried, holds my hand. We look in each other’s eyes and smile. It feels like we’re on a date. When every drop is gone we walk home. She even skips a little. It’s almost siesta. My mother will have a lot to do to prepare for Shabbat dinner, but these moments are ours.

She lets me keep my ballet clothes on all night. Papi brings roses for me and calls me his prima ballerina. He sets out the candles and then my mother lights them. She covers her eyes as she says the prayer. I know this is the time when Jewish mothers pray for their children. Then we say the prayer over the bread and wine. We eat roast chicken and potatoes and yuca.

When our meal is finished but the plates are still on the table, I grab for Papi’s glasses. He has the kind that make your eyes look like they’re under a magnifying glass. Every time I put them on, Samuel laughs like crazy, but tonight when I put them on we all laugh, even my mother. Wearing the glasses I do a bit of my audition dance. Pas de Basque. Jeté. Jeté.

Then there is a knock on the door. In the middle of our meal. In the middle of my bow. In the middle of a perfect night. Knock, knock, knock. My mother goes to the door. I hear her voice. A lot of “yeses” and “of courses.” I peek around the wall. I’m accustomed to seeing Castro’s men on the street and near my school but never at my house.

When my mother closes the door, something is different. She tries to smile. But the night has snuck in, or the spirit of the day has snuck out, and I don’t know how to get it back — the bow, the dinner, the roses, the shake. I want to rewind the way I do when I get a routine wrong and I put the record back at the beginning of the song to start again, but I can’t.

Soon it’s time for bed. My mother comes and pulls the light blanket up and kisses me. She kisses Samuel, too. Even though they don’t agree she always kisses him before he goes to sleep. When I close my eyes my feet still feel like they are pirouetting even though my heart is too heavy to leap off the ground.

The next thing I know my mother is waking me up. It isn’t even light out. She is waking up Samuel, too. There’s a small bag packed and she says there’s no time for words. There are only three things I must do — have faith, pray, and hold Samuel’s hand the whole time. I am good at following directions.

We walk the same path we walked the day before. El Prado is empty. I see the National Ballet School. The building is dark. We don’t pause long enough for me to tell Samuel I was there, even though he knows the building because I’ve pointed it out to him a thousand times.

My feet are good little girls and they follow to the water’s edge. When we get there a boat is waiting. There are black men on it. The sun peeks out from the horizon.

“The boat will take you to the Bahamas and then a plane will take you to Miami. Tío Luis will meet you there and you’ll stay with him till Papi and I can come.” That’s the only thing my mother says.

The man she turns us over to has leather skin and missing teeth. The boat is already pulling away from the dock and I want to scream, to reach out, but my hands stay put and my tongue, too. I’m not ready. I don’t understand and I have so many questions but by the time I realize how confused I am the boat is so far that I can’t make out my mother anymore in the distance. I must be dreaming, I think. I will wake up soon.

As we move away from our island the water turns blue and then clear and then green and then blue again. I’ve never seen it from here. It’s like looking in a kaleidoscope and even though the swirling colors are beautiful, they make me queasy. I throw up our dinner on the deck. A man takes a bucket of water and washes the mess overboard and now the last meal my mother has cooked for me is gone, too.

We get to the other shore. It’s crowded and I can’t understand anyone. They’re all speaking English. A handsome man in a seersucker suit says something to the man tying up our boat.

“That man has our plane tickets,” Samuel says. “How do you know?” I ask in a mean voice. These are the first words I’ve said since leaving our house.

“Yolanda taught me English,” he replies. I wonder how I never knew Yolanda spoke English or that she taught my brother. Even though I’m feeling jealous of Samuel, I honor my promise and hold his hand. He keeps trying to pull away. For me this is exile; for him, freedom.

The man in the suit accompanies us to the airport. When we board the plane Samuel walks in front of me. I see the scab on the back of his head where my mother’s ring hit him the day before and I know this isn’t a dream.

We land in Miami and meet our uncle. Only then do we understand. The soldier at the door had told our mother that come Monday morning my brother and I would be picked up and taken to a Communist school in the country.

“If I have to let my children go, they will be with my blood. Familia,” our mother told our uncle. When our mother was a child she was taken out of Poland in the night — separated from her parents. She traveled on trains with her brother until she boarded a boat for Cuba.

Samuel teaches me my first English word and I realize that two different words can mean the same thing. Arbol and tree both mean a tall thing with a trunk and leaves. Our mother didn’t understand that there might’ve been another way besides sending us off that could’ve also meant survival.

Soon after we arrive in Miami, Tío Luis gets work in Queens, New York, and we move. Unlike Miami there is nothing to remind me of Cuba here — no palm trees and very little Spanish spoken.

It takes two years but finally my mother is coming to meet us. By now I speak English. By now Samuel has become an artist because he hasn’t had my mother to criticize what he does or makes. From memory, he draws the buildings in Havana. He draws Yolanda. He draws the boat ride. By now I have traded dancing for studying. Other girls still dance. I know they do because I walk past them dressed in leotards with their hair in buns on Utopia Parkway. They carry their ballet shoes in pink plastic boxes with straps they hold on their shoulders.

By now Papi has died in Havana. He had a heart attack in the shirt factory he owned. When he fell onto the ground his glasses shattered. When I imagine him lying there, his eyes still look huge underneath those broken lenses.

At Idlewild Airport I see my mother walking toward us but I barely recognize her. She looks old and it’s impossible to imagine the mother I drank a shake with that day is somewhere inside that wrinkled skin. When she sees me she doesn’t hug me. She is holding a letter in her hand. It’s something important she has waited to give me in person.

“You got in Matilde, the ballet. They gave the one open spot to you.”

Michelle Fiordaliso began her writing life on the East End. She has gone on to publication in The New York Times, and is a recipient of a PEN Center USA award for literary fiction.