My Wish for You in the Land of the Dead: a Cuban Sandwich
by Leslie Blanco

Winner, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction

See what things have come to? See? Yesterday, I very nearly fell asleep in the grocery line while waiting to buy you a ham.*

You don’t like ham.

Neither do I.

But it’s the tradition.

Every year, the ham “provokes” you. “Como me provoca!” Every year you say: “It’s just not right without the ham.” Pink. Shiny. Glazed. You like to add pineapples to it, affixed helter-skelter with the kind of tooth picks that have red plastic fringes on the ends. “There. Now it looks like Chiquita Banana.” You say that every time. Also: “Poor Carmen Miranda. Dead of heart attack at forty-seven. She wore herself out.”

Without the ham, you tell me, the side dishes don’t look right. “A flower with no center,” you say. “The petals are pretty, but …” Shrug.

There are doilies, of course. To make the home-made food look prettier, and the store-bought food look home-made. A little trickery of yours. A little brujeria, your every-day sorcery.

And the easy-to-wash polyester tablecloth, that’s there too, off-white with a border of embroidered flowers in every neon color of the rainbow. More Chiquita Banana.

None of this ever varies. The pineapple slices must be Dole. No other brand. “No se te ocura!” Don’t let it occur to you! As if the pineapples will be second rate. Imported from the wrong place. Unreliable. Niña! There’s enough insecurity in the world without having to go and try new brands,” you say. “Not that they aren’t capable of changing what goes in the can without so much as changing the label.” They. You say that a lot. Who’s they? “The scoundrels. The sinverguenzas. You know they mess with the sugar in this country, don’t you? In Cuba, I can tell you for a fact, the sugar was sweeter.”

I never believed you, about the sugar, until that year I visited a friend in Mexico. My standard two spoonfuls in my coffee, and I had to pour it down the drain. Too sweet. And a few years back I met a lobbyist, or a regulator, some politically inclined person who worked for the sugar industry. You are right. You are right! They mess with the sugar. They alter the volume chemically. “So we’ll have to use more and pay again,” you say, “for what should have been enough for the recipe the first time.” 

You are absolutely right.

No wonder I am so tired. It’s exhausting, not knowing which of your ridiculous theories to believe. Also, the boxing matches keep me up late. The ones I see on your tiny, black and white television with the antenna that has to be manipulated every two minutes. You watch those matches at night, from your bed, because boxing is the proper thing to watch last thing, for a peaceful sleep. “Hit him in the face!” you yell at the television. “Right hook! Left! That’s how it’s done! That’s how you do it!”

In the side by side twin beds, me in the one that used to be your sister’s, I fall into a shallow sleep and wake to your cheers, your angry ravings. The bed is soft as sponge cake, with some sort of second market, bargain warehouse foam, unevenly cut, stuffed beneath the sheets to extend the life of the mattress.

Under your bed, right where your hand would fall if you reached straight down from the shoulder, you keep a heavy flashlight and a toy gun. You’ve shown me. “In the dark, people will believe anything,” you say. “When they’re scared, not expecting it, that’s when you have the advantage.”

I tell you it could backfire. Excuse the pun. Anyway, you ignore me.

“The flashlight is for whacking them in the head,” you say, “but you make sure you aim well. One try, that’s all you’ll get at those thieving descarados.”

“Descarado” is your third favorite word, right after “they” and shameless “sinverguenza,” and though you are not political, though you alone of the many like you never speak of politics, of Democrats or Republicans or secretly infiltrating Communists in disguise, it’s plain who you think is the biggest descarado on the face of the earth, the Descarado Último, Generalissimo Son of a Filthy Whore, at the very tippy top of the pyramid of the world hierarchy of descarados. You don’t say his name. Not even once. Not his famous first name nor his slightly less famous last name. You pretend he does not even exist.

Every year, at the large dining room table with the leaves put in, in the house you never had, for the clan you never met, in a country that never really became yours, you place the ham in the center. You are a great aficionada of tin foil and so tin foil is draped over the top and pressed to the sides, covering the ham ineffectually, but nevertheless, the pineapples need to be protected. You’ve spent your life in the kitchen. You know these things. At the kitchen, and also at the clearance rack at Hecht Company, and also at the fabric store. You had to do everything. Your sister couldn’t even thread a needle. Your sister couldn’t even press the button to start the deep fryer.

You surround the ham with white rice and frijoles negros, white rice and what Americans call black bean soup, in separate bowls, because that’s one thing, everyone likes to mix them their own way. On the other side of the table, like another religion, at least another denomination, are the Cristianos y Moros. The Christians and the Moors: history and gallows humor and unwitting admission of the desirableness of culture clash. I am talking about black beans and white rice, yes, but the kind that get baked together. Not just mixed, but forged with heat and the harmonizing effects of bacon. 

Avocado, chopped and covered in olive oil, is the only vegetable you will provide, though someone else will bring sliced tomatoes, that other food that “provokes” you so much, but that you can never bring yourself to like. There is a plate of boiled yucca with the garlic mojo already on top. “What kind of an idiot would eat it without the mojo?” you say. Plantains are required, platanos, both the over-ripe kind, maduros, and the starchy, green tostones, fried, separately, in the frying pan that always fills the house with greasy smoke. 

There is not so much as a piece of iceberg. Not even next to the pre-sliced rolls and the mayonnaise and mustard spooned into cut glass bowls and reserved for the ham sandwiches. This is how a table should look. This is how a holiday should look, young people and their obsession with lettuce and quinoa be damned.

The desserts, of course, wait in the kitchen. Prohibited until after dinner by the wrath of ancestors. Not even to be glimpsed. Under more tin foil. Gaining power. Stoking desire. A little deprivation is good for everyone. Patience is a virtue.

Every year, when everyone has come, eaten like barn animals, like refugees, like people who haven’t seen a buñuelo soaked in anise syrup for a hundred years, you sit down among the dirty serving platters, among the crumbs and the smears of frying grease, and you cut off a little sliver of the poor, demolished ham, on which one or two Chiquita Bananas still stand. You put the slice on a fancy plate, but a small one. You taste it. You nibble, wanting to like it.

“The first bite is always good,” you say, savoring. “The second less good.” A waggle of the head. “The third too salty. Naah,” you say suddenly, as if the ham has insulted you. “I’ll stick with puerco. Chichironcitas. Masitas. Lomo. Pierna.” Pork. Pork rinds. Pork loin. Whole leg of pork thoroughly encased in a paste of raw garlic, onion, oregano and lemon juice. I’ve seen you. You coat the leg as with a spa treatment before inserting it, pot holders to your elbows, into the sauna. “Perfect on the third day,” you say, “thinly sliced with pickles in a nice, thick Sanweech Cubano.”

Well.

An empty dining room here, Tía. The same mess to clean up. The same guests gone. 

But you’re still here, like the fading photos of your father and your mother that you kept by your bed, next to the votive candles, the fresh carnations and the prayer card of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. 

And Tía, I’ll never forget what you said to me during my first divorce. Your shoulders shrugged up to your ears, your palms extended toward me with that gesture of what-a-great-shame: “Ay hija, can’t it be fixed?”

I shook my head.

That’s all the time it took for defiance to rock your face and boom your voice. “Mejor! Better. That’s why I never married. I can’t forgive.” You shook your head. “No. I don’t forgive.”

You told the story. The one and only boyfriend of your life. Severed, as with a sword, upon the mere rumor that he’d gone to Havana and been seen holding hands with another. He came to the house and pleaded — to you, your sisters, your father. “She was my cousin,”he said. “It wasn’t anything.” His mother came, the cousin herself. No matter. You were a statue made of marble. He was dead to you.

And now Tía, the second divorce is done and over and I vow today, on your grave and on this ham, to shed not one more tear, to be a spinster like you until the day I die. The family needs one. Someone needs to be here to hold the opposite opinion, the unpopular one, for the young people who come in tears and desperation after the priest has filled them with all that drivel about forgiveness and the true nature of love. Because Tía, I had the opposite problem as you. 

I forgave too much.

I forgave too much. A fatal flaw.

Bueno. Mejor. They are dead to me. I have no qualms about either of them. 

But guilt is a sticky nectar that clings to the fingers and against which napkins are useless and now that it’s too late, like you told me it would be one day, I am trying to take care of you. I am haunted by the broken hip, your screams of pain, the way one day you folded up and didn’t want to talk any more. Not interested. Done. Your indomitable spirit, always so angry at the world, so fiercely protective, so certain, so right, merely succumbed. 

I am a cliché, I know. Too busy tending to that first idiot. Crying. Buying self-help books. What did I do for you, your final years? Come stay with you for a weekend when your sister died, take you to the grocery store once or twice? 

At the grocery, all the checkers knew exactly how you wanted your items bagged for the walk home. You roamed the aisles slowly, meandering, the meat aisle, the produce, checking the sales, identifying things you’d never cooked, whispering — too much — and raising your eyebrows at me while cocking your head toward the registers, as if you didn’t want your friend the manager to hear. The first time — going up and down the frozen food aisles, looking at the corn, comparing all the varieties of three-color, three-flavor ice creams, Giant brand, Breyer’s brand, going round to the juices, coming back to the ice cream — it took me thirty minutes to realize you didn’t actually need anything. You already had enough toilet paper to last until the Apocalypse, still had a full gallon of the “good,” whole-fat milk. But even after thirty-some years it just never got old for you, to go to the grocery store and see that the shelves were not empty, that you would not have to stand in line three hours for one item, that they would not run out or tell you how much of a ration you were allowed. You liked to see the new packaging, the items stocked neatly one in front of the other on a shelf as deep as the length of your arm. Colorful things. Things that were not expired. Novelties. Cake mixes! Cans that shot out whipped cream! A kid in a candy shop. A ritual of reassurance that everything would be taken away from you only once in your life. 

And every year, every year: the luxurious indulgence of the spiral cut, pre-salted, syrup coated ham you did not have to cook, but only to decorate. The little thrill of giving the ham a second chance, of seeing if your taste buds had finally decided to agree with your eyes.

I admit that once or twice I’ve considered that you might have been a lesbian. The way you wielded a hammer. The way you hid your money rolled up inside of the hollow clothes rod in your closet. I don’t know why that should lean things one way or the other, or why what should convince me that you were straight was how much you loved to sew. I just can’t see a lesbian sewing. A lesbian, somehow, should claim all the macho rights of the opposite sex. The swagger. The facility for household projects and tool organization. Really, you were more like a nun than a lesbian. A fierce, grumpy nun. And as far as I know, it was that grumpiness that protected you from temptation and trickery.

To my great misfortune, I have a cheerful disposition. I try to be wary, I practice that up and down, suspicious to my bones look you used to give people, but at the first smile I am already offering a jar of home-made raspberry preserves or a cutting from my garden. 

To my even greater detriment, I like men. I like their hairy arms, their gracelessness, even the smell of bear and sweat and truly scandalous lack of hygiene that most women recoil from. 

Not that any of that will change my mind now.

Oh. How I loved you, as a child. And how I resented you. During my spinsterhood-is-a-fate-worse-than-death phase. You were right, Tía. You were right. Forgiveness is for the birds.

And I want you to know. Oyeme lo que to voy a decir, once and for all.You don’t need to worry about me any more. No. Not one bit. Because I’m settling into my new role. The new anti-matriarch. The anti-sacrificial lamb. 

Please Lord, I pray now before bed. Actually, no. Who am I kidding? Please Lord Buddha, Divine Mother, Great Spirit. No, no, still not right. Tía, who watches over me from above, please, when I am old, let me be difficult and furious and endearing and always right. Let me say I told you so. Let me call my philandering nephew-in-law a mosquita muerta, a little, dead fly, and let me assert that it’s precisely the ones who look like little dead flies, seemingly innocent, seemingly incapable of hurting anyone, who you’ve got to watch like the criminals they are. 

Please Tía, when I give the twenty dollar bill as a birthday gift to the children of the family, let me say: “enjoy it, sinverguenza, I might not be here to give you another one next year.” Let me tell everyone to stay single, let me lord my experience over them, my nonconformity, my disdain for the bland and obvious stupidity of those who blindly choose the societal norm. 

Yes. Let me give everyone Hell 24/7 and go collecting their smiles, their indulgence, their respect. Let me hoard my famous flan de coco recipe until I am on my death bed, and even so, when the great-niece I have chosen for this extravagant inheritance reminds me that I promised, that I promised to give her the recipe before I died, let me rise like your favorite San Lázaro. Let me scold her, and tell her she is not doing it right, all the while eyeing her suspiciously, as if I am not giving this recipe to her of my own free will, but as if she is stealing it from me, as if all her life she has been waiting for me to die, all her life she has been plotting, biding her time, for this, to take from me, shamelessly, my last remaining vestige of earthly power. 

But above all, Tía, let me broadcast — silently, in code, with jokes and the ferocious and sometimes shy imposition of my will — that all I do — my criticism, my eye rolls, my scowls —  I do out of obstinate, unflinching, unforgiving love.

*With modification, from “Difficulties,” in Mouth, Poems by Tracey Knapp (42 Miles Press, 2015).  

Leslie Blanco’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Calyx, TransAtlanticPanorama, Southern Humanities Review, and The Coachella Review, among others. Her story “I Haven’t Forgotten You” won Big Muddy’s 2019 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Prize. In 2020, “A Ravishing Sun” was selected for publication from among the finalists of the New Letters Robert Day Award for Fiction. Leslie is the recent recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a Hedgebrook fellowship, and a Rona Jaffe fellowship. She has an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a novel in the closet. She loves travel, the diverse and universal feast of spiritual possibility, and speaking to children through invented characters born when said children press her belly button.