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,

involuntary revisions.

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

and walks.

“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

walked through.

“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

almost surreal.


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.

He’s joking.”

“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?”

Alaina asked.

“They’re wild cats,” I said—in Mandarin,

for Big Uncle’s benefit. “They’ll probably

scratch you.”

“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

dim light.

“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

wounded animal.

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.”


“Really? Promise?”

“Promise,” I said, as serious as I had

ever sounded.


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

intimate stakes.

“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.

“Thank God.”

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

pinched hard.

“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,”

Dad said.

“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

the trip.

“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

said softly.

“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

a memorial.

“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

his elbow.

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.

“Which part?”

“Any part.”

“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,”

he said.

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

watching us.

“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

get help.”

“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

fishermen’s hands.

“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