Big Uncle In Havana
In Mandarin, the word for your father’s
oldest brother is Big-Uncle-on-Father’s-
Side. When I was eleven and Alaina was
nine, we went to Havana with Big Uncle
during his Chinese New Year vacation. Cuba
was Dad’s idea even though no one but me
spoke Spanish and, besides visiting family in
China, we never ventured further than Nashville.
Big Uncle could have stayed with us—he
had hosted us twice—but maybe Dad didn’t
want to give him the chance to compare
Shanghai and Indiana, or didn’t want him in
our home, even with so little time left. Maybe
he was only trying to display some American
Time has warped and confused some
moments from that trip: the church turrets
forlornly elegant above decaying rooftops,
the chipped sidewalks bristly with dirt and
paper scraps, the ear-feel of Cuban Spanish,
the landmark-to-landmark passage of days.
Others feel preserved and clarified by minute,
We aligned layovers to meet Big Uncle
in Miami. For Big Uncle, there would be no
break between 14- and two-hour flights to
countries he did not know, the first reuniting
him with Mom after five years, but he
looked easy as always: duffel bag by his feet,
one hand on his hip, other hand loosely at his
side. He grabbed Dad’s forearm—“Nice to see
you, Sun,” Dad said—lightly hugged Mom on
one side, squatted to hug Alaina, and picked
me up against the hard bump of his stomach
to spin me. I smelled cigarettes and felt stubble
against my neck.
“My favorite niece,” he said. “You’re
so tall now.” I planted a kiss on his cheek,
something Mom usually had to bug me to
do. Big Uncle’s face was a broader version of
Dad’s, and I thought he looked like a Chinese
Leonardo DiCaprio. Though I had only seen
Big Uncle a few times, I had always liked him,
or at least the idea of him.
“Why am I not your favorite?” Alaina
“Heidi is smarter,” Big Uncle said. Mom
laughed a little, and Dad smiled without
showing his teeth.
“I’m glad I made it,” Big Uncle said.
“I’m scared of those long flights. You could
get a blood clot in your leg and die of an
aneurysm. Well, you could get a blood clot in
your leg and die of an aneurysm anytime.”
Big Uncle worked from home as an oil
salesman. A lifetime of smoking had left Big
Uncle stranded in the desert of his own body,
and sitting all day only made it worse. Last
time we visited his bachelor’s apartment—he
was divorced, and his daughter, my cousin
Miaomiao, was at “an expensive and mediocre
college” across town, according to Dad—
Big Uncle told us, after Dad tried to get me
to talk about my little league sports, that he
never exercised intentionally. That must have
had everything to do with the sickness, which
Mom and Dad later said they did not know
how to talk about with Alaina and me.
“Those blood clots are pretty scary,”
Mom said, looking from Big Uncle to Dad,
who had a bad leg, its limping rhythm tapped
deep into my memories of piggyback rides
“Is that why you visit so infrequently?”
Big Uncle asked. Three years passed between
every time we saw Big Uncle, and Mom had
not come with us to Shanghai last time. Mom
lifted a hand, as if to stroke Big Uncle’s shoulder,
but suspended it midair as Big Uncle
began to cough. The skin on Big Uncle’s face
turned a ragged red. Mom redirected her
hand to the new camera around her neck, a
present from Dad.
“You four stand together,” she said quietly
when Big Uncle stopped shaking. Alaina
“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” I told
“Why not?” Big Uncle agreed scratchily,
pulling us close. “Come here, Little Brother.”
Dad stepped behind us. Mom crouched,
her walking shoes squeaking on the linoleum,
her fingers eager but a bit uncertain around
the buttons. When I went through the photos
later, I saw that that one had turned out beautiful,
Big Uncle and I sat together on the
plane, Dad and Mom and Alaina one row
behind. Dad kept getting up and walking the
“What are you reading?” Big Uncle
asked. The school librarian, accustomed to
my precocious requests, had recommended
The Motorcycle Diaries. I showed Big Uncle
the cover, from which Che Guevara glowered
into middle distance. Big Uncle loved history,
one reason I liked him. In Shanghai, he
would tell me each neighborhood’s past as we
“Che Guevara’s diary. He rode a motorcycle
around South America.” When I
explained the book’s premise to Dad, he had
seemed appalled; I didn’t fully understand
yet about Communism’s history in China
and Cuba. As I read, I had been torn between
the recklessness and the adventure of it. Big
Uncle only smiled approvingly.
“He also helped Fidel Castro win the
Cuban Revolution,” I said. “Did it make the
news in China when Fidel died?”
“Oh, of course,” Big Uncle said. “China’s
not on a different planet. Did you know, Heidi,
that Raúl loved Communism before Fidel
did? People forget that about him.”
At José Martí Airport, Big Uncle lit a
cigarette as we waited for our luggage.
“Sun,” Mom said.
“Let him do it,” Dad said.
“Smoking is gross,” Alaina complained
in her awkward Mandarin, tugging on Big
Uncle’s shirt. Big Uncle dropped the cigarette.
“Stomp it out for me,” he said.
“It’s going to burn my foot!” The ember
pulsed lazily; Alaina ducked behind Mom
as smoke began to thread around her face.
“Uncle! Put it out!”
I crushed the cigarette with my tennis
shoe. Big Uncle smiled and spat a mass of
red-flecked phlegm onto the floor. An airport
attendant said something derisive in Spanish
that ended with los chinos.
“Lo siento,” I told her.
Big Uncle said, “All right. No more
“You never change,” Mom said.
The hostel Dad booked was in Central
Havana, beyond the old city’s government-
funded polish. Pastel facades overlaid
by rusted balconies, delicately concealing
empty interiors, reflected the soft Caribbean
sun. Reggaeton thumped through the evenings.
Cubans talked on stoops and crowded
in the market. Mangy dogs and cats sprawled
on the street and pawed overflowing curbside
dumpsters. Rickshaws, Soviet-era sedans, and
round “coconut taxis” jolted recklessly by,
Big Uncle In Havana
flattening littered cans and cardboard.
Mom insisted we not take taxis unless
absolutely necessary. She loved walking, and
in Havana loved seeing men and women
dressed in all white for Santería, the parks
overflowing with Wi-fi users, laundry billowing
overhead, even the thick gray exhaust
from the vintage cars. She pretended not to
hear Dad’s remarks that it was all a bit backward.
She kept touching the brim of her big
straw hat and the zippers on her purse, and
wore too much perfume. On the first morning,
when she left the bathroom with a swathe
of unblended sunscreen above her eyebrow,
Big Uncle reached over to wipe it off with his
Alaina had not packed walking shoes
and made Dad carry her in his uneven piggyback
when the street looked too dirty for her
sandals. He never would have tolerated that
at home, but did not protest as he hurried us
between destinations with Alaina clinging to
his neck. He did not, I think, want to seem
too anxious in front of Big Uncle.
Big Uncle’s swagger absorbed Havana:
his white shirts and egregious floral button-
downs attracted disproportionate light;
his diminutive, distended frame seemed
to take up the whole street. He walked pigeon-
toed with his shoulders loose, and never
in a straight line. On the broad paved boulevard
of the Paseo de Prado, he orbited us in
big loop, only staying still when Mom wanted
to take a photograph. He bought a box of
cigarillos and kept one in his pocket to occasionally
place, unlit, between his teeth. (“I
like the taste of tobacco,” he told me. “It keeps
me from coughing.”) He feinted at the street
animals as if to grab them, shouted greetings
to local men, and even tossed a few words toward
idling girls. They scoffed, but Big Uncle
just grinned and patted my back.
Big Uncle’s gutsiness was another
reason I liked him. I grew up around Dad’s
stories of their rural childhood, when Big
Uncle slingshotted birds out of nests, fished in
the river with his bare hands, and tossed firecrackers
into his neighbors’ pig pens. I always
thought I was more like Dad, but I admired
how Big Uncle was loud and impulsive and
In the Museum of the Revolution, Big
Uncle let me read him the exhibit panels, listening
patiently as I translated propagandized
histories into broken Mandarin. I had given
up on carrying The Motorcycle Diaries, and
lugged a Spanish-English dictionary instead.
“Did they ever fight among themselves?”
Big Uncle asked, moving his face very
close to the glass between us and the blurrily
enlarged photographs. The guerrillas all
looked the same in their beards. “Well, you
probably wouldn’t know.” He half-ruffled my
head before walking on to the next display
case. “And what does this say?”
Alaina sped-walk past us. “Hurry up,”
she hissed. She had stopped making the effort
to speak Mandarin, only talking to Big Uncle
via translation when absolutely necessary. “I
want to go.”
Dad usually would have stuck with me
to listen to my garbled tour, but he did not
stray from Mom. I could track their slower
progress by the snaps of Mom’s camera shutter.
“Why don’t you just read them?” I heard
Dad ask. Mom muttered something at him
and he laughed. At home they always walked
side by side, hands swinging close but not
touching; that day, he kept his hand on the
small of her back.
On the ramparts of the Castillo de Tres
Reyes, an old Spanish fort overlooking Havana,
Big Uncle pointed out fishermen crouched
at the fortress’s base. They fished with lines
fed through their bare palms, their toes nearly
in the Caribbean water.
“How did they get down there?” I asked.
“Doesn’t that cut their hands?”
“I’m sure they’re tough by now. Let’s go
take a look.”
We went to the fortress’s lowest tier,
where man-smoothed stones gave way to wild
rock. The only visible path to the fishermen
was a concrete strip along the fortress’ base,
barely wide enough to stand on.
I stood beside Big Uncle as he sat down
at the edge of the walkway. He swung his
calves, flip-flops dangling from his big toes.
“Did you know, Heidi,” Big Uncle said,
“Che executed a lot of people in these forts.”
“I haven’t gotten to that part of the book
“It’s probably not in your books.”
He spat toward the water, and then,
turning to face the fortress, lowered himself
to stand on the rock crags below the walkway.
“Let’s go talk to those fishermen.” He
grinned and wrapped a hand around my
ankle. His palm felt surprisingly taut and
“Get up,” I said, “that’s really dangerous.”
Dad stepped on the walkway. “There
you are,” he said. “Alaina’s hungry. Let’s go.”
Big Uncle let go of me. “Heidi and I
were going to climb these rocks.”
“No, we weren’t,” I said. “It’s okay, Dad.
“I’d ask you to join, but I don’t want to
strain your leg,” Big Uncle said.
“You get up now,” Dad said.
Big Uncle stared at Dad, and then back
at me, before heaving himself up to safety.
We ate dinner at a restaurant in Havana’s
quiet one-street Chinatown. Feral cats
slunk around the patio, padding beneath our
feet, flashing their marble eyes to solicit food.
“Do you think they’d let us pet them?”
“They’re wild cats,” I said—in Mandarin,
for Big Uncle’s benefit. “They’ll probably
“Alaina wants a cat?” Big Uncle asked
“No,” Dad said. Big Uncle smiled at us,
slid out of his seat at the head of the table
and, with an astonishing downward lunge,
grabbed a ginger kitten around the middle.
The animal screeched; the tourists at the
next table—German, by the sound of their
talking—stared, laughing, and turned back to
their meals. Big Uncle held the cat away from
him as it flailed.
“Put it down, put it down!” Alaina
“You’re being an idiot,” Dad said. “Let it
“I’m just having some fun.” He took a
step toward Mom and Alaina. “Anyone want
to touch it?”
“Please don’t,” Mom said. Still grinning,
Big Uncle took another step; Alaina, sitting
on the outside of the table, wildly swung her
The cat screeched and swiped. Alaina
screamed. The Germans turned again. The
animal landed on its feet and bounded away.
Big Uncle twisted Alaina’s palm up toward
the paper lanterns overhead, clumsy
of the ones that must have festooned
Shanghai’s streets to welcome the New Year.
The thin red line looked purple under their
“Why did you scream like that?” I asked
Alaina. She wagged her head angrily and
banged her good fist on the table.
“It hurt,” she said in English.
“It’s just a scratch,” I said in Mandarin.
Our waiter shuffled over. “Everything
okay?” “Everything is great,” Big Uncle said.
Está bien, I translated.
“Why don’t you go back to the apartment,
Sun?” Dad said.
“No,” Mom said tiredly, “It’s okay.”
“It was an accident,” Big Uncle said.
“It doesn’t matter. Just go back.”
“What? Don’t believe me?”
“Can we please just eat,” Mom said, but
Big Uncle let go of Alaina’s hand and reached
into his pocket for his knife. He scored his
palm with a welt that bled quickly from a cut
much deeper than Alaina’s, held it out for us
to see, and sat back down. Alaina away from
him and slammed her fist again. Plates clattered.
There was murmuring from the next
table, pale eyes’ gazes darting back and forth
like agitated minnows.
Mom pressed her fingertips to her eyelids.
“Let’s just eat.”
Big Uncle ate more than the rest of us
combined, though he maneuvered his chopsticks
awkwardly with his left hand. His right
hand curled on a red-specked napkin, a small
On the walk back, I lagged behind with
Big Uncle. Alaina slouched between Mom
and Dad, clutching Mom with her good hand,
the other cradled at her chest. “Stop dragging
me,” I heard Mom whisper. Big Uncle fished
the cut cigarillo from his pocket and stuck it
between his lips.
“Did you know there used to be a lot of
Chinese people in Cuba? They fought against
Spain for Cuba’s independence. We should go
see their memorial before we leave.”
“Promise,” I said, as serious as I had
We went to the beach at Santa María
del Mar, and Big Uncle and Dad swam, really
swam. As they moved farther and farther into
the gulf, the lines of their bodies wavered,
cut by the water’s peaks and troughs and the
knifing white slivers of sun. There must have
been a grim and gasping understanding as
they chased each other forward, steep and
“When are they going to turn back?”
Mom said. “They’ll drown themselves.”
Alaina sat as far from the water as possible,
scraping sand into a pyramid with her
left hand. “Help me get carry wet sand,” she
told me. I rooted at the surf line for muddy
fistfuls to sprint back to her. They escaped
between my fingers and down my legs as soon
as I moved, splattering darkly against the dry
sand. Alaina wasted my precious cargo on the
pyramid’s top, its weight dispersing the powdery
flanks. The harder I worked, the closer
the pyramid sank toward nonexistence, but
still, for five minutes I ran back and forth.
“It’s not working!” Alaina complained.
“Your dad and uncle are finally coming
back,” Mom said. She had stood and watched
the entire time, fingers tight around her shuttered
camera, book unopened on her towel.
Big Uncle walked out of the water first.
His ribs were moving visibly in the exertions
of a landed fish. Seafoam slid down his pale
chest and stomach to the heaves of his breath.
Dad returned more slowly, a dozen meters
behind, fighting the inertia of the shallows.
Big Uncle and Mom met eyes, and Gatsby
and Daisy would remind me of them, that
sentence when they lock gazes and everyone
And then Mom looked beyond Big
Uncle to Dad. “You shouldn’t do things like
that,” Mom said to him. “Your leg.”
“Not a problem,” Dad replied thinly.
“Two sick old men who can’t even go
for a swim,” Big Uncle said. “What would you
have done if we hadn’t come back, Lu?” He
turned to Dad. “What about if I started sinking
back there? I have bad lungs, you know.”
“Sun, don’t,” Mom said.
“What would you have done if only I
came back? Or if only my Little Brother came
“The girls are here,” Dad said. Alaina
kept shunting sand, eyes intent on the listless
pile, humming something thoughtless.
“I’m just asking you some questions.
Heidi—isn’t that how you say the American
education system works? You ask questions.”
“Don’t bring her into this.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be sad at all, you son of a
bitch,” Big Uncle said.
Dad punched him in the stomach.
Thwack, the sound of a dropped melon.
Alaina screamed, and Big Uncle slid to one
knee in the sand.
“Stop screaming!” was the only thing I
could think to say. There were other people
on the beach, who I could feel staring, and
the screaming—I grabbed her shoulders and
“Ow! Ow, stop!” Alaina swung her
arms, but I had her firmly from behind. I had
begun my growth spurt and in the beach’s
oppressively bright light she seemed even
smaller between my hands. Big Uncle bent
over, forearms cradling his paunch, silent.
“Stop, Heidi,” Dad said. I viciously
kicked the sand pyramid before I let Alaina
go. She lunged and dug her nails into my arm.
“Stop it, I built that! You hurt me!”
“Shut up.” Mom yanked Alaina away.
Her long eyelashes, clumped by tears, stuck to
the whites of her eyes. “Please. Everyone. Shut
“No problem, Little Brother,” Big Uncle
wheezed. He groaned and coughed. Blood
flecks. “Help me up, Heidi.”
“This doesn’t have to do with you, Heidi,”
“I want to go home,” Alaina whimpered.
“This place is the worst.”
Big Uncle grinned up at me, squinting
against the sun, and held his hand out. The
cut was puckered white with salt water; it
must have burned when he walked into the
gulf. I felt a burning on my own wrist—a ragged
pink crescent of skin where Alaina had
torn at me. Never had I sensed my family’s
presence so acutely. I placed my palm in Big
Uncle’s and pulled him to his feet.
Dad came into our room that night
after we had turned the lights off and sat on
the edge of my bed.
“We’ve all been very tired,” he said. “Me
and your mom and uncle. It’s stressful to be
in a place you don’t know. I’m sorry if we
worried you.” I wasn’t sure that Alaina was
awake to hear him, or that Dad needed her to
be. I nodded, which he might not have been
able to see either. He set his hand on mine for
second over the thin sheets and left.
The last place we saw was the Necrópolis
Cristobal Colón, the famous cemetery in
Vedado. Alaina, who had already packed her
suitcase, said she did not want to go.
“I’ll stay with her,” Dad said. “I’m a little
tired. My leg.”
“You don’t have to go, Sun,” Mom said.
“Of course I’ll go,” Big Uncle said. “I’m
not afraid of a graveyard.”
Mom, Big Uncle and I walked half an
hour along freeways and overgrown sidewalks,
tour buses and dilapidated pick-ups
roaring by, passersby staring. The Necrópolis
radiated outward from a Central Chapel—
140,000 acres and 800,000 graves, I read
off the guide map Big Uncle bought me.
Sunlight diffused among granite and marble,
sank richly into the chapel’s canary yellow
“You go find everything you want to
see,” Big Uncle said. “We’ll only slow you
They spoke as they walked in and out of
my view. I saw Big Uncle take Mom’s hand;
she let him hold it, but then he leaned in close
to her face—he might have said something,
or maybe she did—and she pulled away. Big
Uncle kept her hand captive in his and slid
to the ground as if to hug her knees. Later,
when I read about Odysseus, I would recognize
his supplication. Mom made a frantic
gesture, flipping her fingers to the sky again
and again—Get up, get up—and eventually
he did, slowly. I heard the echoes of his laugh
from across the cemetery.
Mom would never tell me what Big
Uncle had said, only that of course none of it
had been my fault. Before we left, I told Mom
and Big Uncle to stand in front of the chapel
for a photograph, the only one of them from
“Otherwise you won’t be in any pictures,”
I told Mom, and she hugged me, my
chin already clearing her shoulder.
For our last dinner in Cuba, Dad made
eggs from the hostel’s stocked refrigerator. He
made eggs every Sunday, and would do so until
Alaina left for college. His face still looked
razed by sun and ocean water, or maybe just
fatigue, but even on the unfamiliar gas stove
he cooked our eggs perfectly: Mom’s runny,
Alaina’s fried all the way through, mine
somewhere in between. For himself and Big
Uncle, they were scrambled.
Alaina forked half of her egg onto my
plate. “I’m sorry I scratched you, Heidi,” she
“Where’s mine?” Big Uncle asked.
Alaina huffed but gave him the other half,
which, after admiring for a second, he gave
back with a wink. We ate quietly. Big Uncle
announced that he and I were going to look at
“Which one? Isn’t it late?” Mom said.
“It’s still light outside, and we made a
promise. Didn’t we, Heidi?” I nodded. “Besides—
I don’t know when I’ll see her again.”
Dad shook his head slightly. Mom’s arm
shifted to rest two cool fingers in the crook of
We walked toward the Malecón, the
sea front, only a chest-high barrier and a few
yards of rock between ocean and sidewalk.
Waves broke in suicidal collisions against the
rocks, splashing over the wall, clear water
sliding around our feet toward the curb. The
green-pink dusk cooled to granular, bluegray
night, the glow of streetlights filtering
through like oily scales. There were still
people out, Cubans and tourists, but their
numbers dwindled as we walked toward the
Big Uncle stopped and lit a cigarette. I
paced a tiny, uneasy square on the sidewalk.
I could see two older teenagers a dozen yards
away, probably Cuban: the girl sat on the
seawall, feet dangling toward the city, and the
boy stood between her legs with his hands on
her kneecaps. They talked intently, too quickly
for me to make out words.
“You know where this memorial is?”
“Let me tell you another story,” Big Uncle
said. “There were once two brothers. Let’s
call them Little and Big. When Little was 16
and Big was 19, one of Little’s friends bought
a motorcycle and let Little borrow it for a
day. Big, who was home for the New Year,
wanted to ride the motorcycle, too. No one
else in town had one. After dinner that night,
when their Ma wasn’t looking, Big got on
the motorcycle behind Little and they went
off. Nothing exciting, just to the edge of the
town. It was getting dark, and Little wasn’t
very good at operating the motorcycle. Big
couldn’t see well, either, because Little’s head
was blocking his view.”
I had read enough books to guess: “Did
Little crash the motorcycle?”
Big Uncle smiled, teeth striated and
asymmetrical. “Little crashed into a man
who was walking along the road. When they
hit him, Big was thrown off the motorcycle,
but not injured. Little’s leg was broken. The
motorcycle was in bad shape.”
“And the man?”
“Probably dead before the two brothers
picked themselves up.”
The wind tugged an ember from the tip
of the cigarette onto Big Uncle’s sleeve; the
cotton singed and he did not move. “People
would find out what Little had done. They
liked that man, and Little had two more years
to live in that godforsaken town. So what
should they do next?”
“Bury the man?”
“They would find the body, and then the
brothers would be guilty of something worse
than the accident.”
“Tell them someone else killed him.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why are you
telling me this story?
Big Uncle took another drag. “Big
loved a girl. He promised he would get a
high-paying job and marry her. She was the
most beautiful girl in his town, or maybe
anywhere. After Big told the town he killed
the man—to protect his brother, you know,
because you can’t imagine what it could have
been like in those villages—she could never
see him the same. She eventually married
Little, who had always wanted her, and maybe
you can’t blame her. Their family was the
most prosperous there, and they were the
two smartest boys. If she was going to have
a comfortable life with anyone, it would be
them. Big went back into the world. He married
another woman and had a daughter with
Another drag. “Or maybe,” he said,
“Big and Little were play-fighting on the farm
one day, a little shoving, and there was an
accident with the equipment. Little’s leg was
never the same.”
And another drag. “Or maybe,” he said,
“Big and Little got into a plain fight. Because
Little said something mean to Big, or over the
girl, or because they’re brothers. That simple.
Maybe Big kicked Little in the knee harder
than he meant to. Once something starts,
how mean it gets has nothing to do with the
reason for fighting.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“You don’t have to. They’re just stories.”
“You’re trying to tell me why Dad’s leg
is like that.”
“I didn’t say anything about your Dad,”
I crossed my arms, angry. “You’re lying.”
“I’ll tell you the truth if you’ll believe
it,” Big Uncle said. He let the breeze take the
remnants of his cigarette, slid the knife from
his pocket, and pointed the tip at my hand. I
heard the Cuban couple’s sudden silence. The
night shifted—sharpened, particularized.
“When you cut your hand and shake,
you can’t go back on the promise,” Big Uncle
I didn’t want to look scared, so I said
“Fine.” Louder, for the Cubans, I said, “Está
“This won’t hurt,” Big Uncle said. The
knife had no temperature in my skin. Big
Uncle traced an inch along my fate line just
deep enough for it to flush darkly, and he
was right, it did not hurt, but when it came
to himself he slashed carelessly. Red droplets
trailed to his fingertips. We shook. The
Cuban girl murmured to her boyfriend, still
“Was that motorcycle story true? What
actually happened to Dad’s leg?”
Big Uncle pointed at the horizon. Blood
wound its way toward the crook of his elbow.
“A fisherman fell into the ocean,” he said.
“No, he didn’t. Answer my question.”
“Did the wind push him? Or his
“No one fell in.” The more times I denied
what he said, the less convinced I felt. “If
there’s really someone in the water, we should
“Help? You are American, huh? No one
would get here in time.”
“We should go back,” I said. The light
had hardened into diamond chips, and I was
afraid now—afraid of the foreign dark, afraid
of him. “You cut yourself really deep. Why
did you do that? Let’s go back, we’ll bandage
it.” He did not seem to hear me. “I don’t mind
about the story,” I said. He lifted himself onto
the seawall, its concrete gleaming slick and
treacherous as causality, and stood facing the
water. The Cuban girl slid from the barrier
and took two steps toward us.
“¿Qué pasa acá?” she said loudly. Her
boyfriend muttered something behind her.
“Big Uncle, please.”
His silhouette, arm trembling, felt
around its pocket. The girl waited. The ocean
threw itself against the Malecón. Line cut into
“That was my last cigarette,” Big Uncle
said. He made a sound, a horrendous cough
or a broken laugh, and tossed the empty carton
onto the rocks. “Help me get rid of this—
” he jumped down and handed me his pocket
cigarillo “—and we’ll go.” I threw it hard as I
could into the black waters.
“Está bien,” I told the Cubans. “Nos
vamos.” The girl still looked concerned, but
when the boy pulled her close she relented
and turned her face into his chest.
Big Uncle killed himself a couple weeks
after returning to Shanghai—a plunge from
the balcony of his apartment. Dad would tell
me that much, at least.
Eventually, I came to perceive the
burdens, fears, and histories with which we
try to marshal the past. Before that, though,
there was Big Uncle and I walking back to the
apartment with his arm around my shoulders.
I do not know what his prognosis was
then, but it could not have been very long. He
was a glutton at heart—for stories, for life.
Maybe I would also say he wanted revenge
or justice if it had been anything so rational
as that, anything less desperate than the fish
who tears its organs to escape the hook.
“I don’t know what your Dad tells you
about me,” he said, “but I think I really am
a family man.” He spat on the ground. We
stopped in a bar to clean the blood from our