"The yanquis, rumors go, have ringed the island with nuclear poison, hoping to starve the people and incite a counterrevolution. They will drop germ bombs to wither the sugarcane fields, blacken the rivers, blind horses and pigs. Celia studies the coconut palms lining the beach. Could they be blinking signals to an invisible enemy?" ("Ocean Blue" 3-4)
The opening of this book may have you questioning just how reliable Celia's point of view will be in the coming pages. Is she delusional? Or has she just accepted the conditioning of the State? Perhaps the complicit coconut trees is just one step too far...
"The muscles in her right eye have been weak since she was a child, and every so often the eye drifts to one side, giving her a vaguely cyclopean air. It doesn't diminish her 20/20 vision, only skews it a bit." ("Going South" 17)
Lourdes prefers to think of her lazy eye as a super power, giving her the ability to take in more than the average Cuban mother. Pilar sees it as a weakness, the portal for every crazy political theory and prejudice to walk through.
"He took pride in never walking barefoot, even in his own home, and shuffled around in highly polished leather slippers to protect himself from microbios. The very word lit a fire in his eyes. 'They are the enemy!' he used to bellow. 'Culprits of tropical squalor!'" ("Going South," 21)
Much like Lourdes, Jorge sees Cuba as a dangerous place full of molecular predators and unsympathetic people. For Jorge, the danger gets down to the cellular level. After reading about the state of their refrigerator ("a bulk of rust") and seeing all the animal sacrifice, we can't help but side with Jorge on the microbios.
"In the final dialogue with her husband, before he took her to the asylum, Celia talked about how the baby had no shadow, how the earth in its hunger had consumed it. She held their child by one leg, handed her to Jorge, and said, 'I will not remember her name.'" ("Palmas Street," 42-43)
Celia's mental state is fragile at this point (thanks to Jorge's program to "break her"), as she has been living in an isolating and hostile family environment. This is also the kind of sentiment we are to hear from Felicia as she descends into delusions.
"Felicia del Pino doesn't know what brings on her delusions...She can hear everything in this world and others, every sneeze and creak and breath in the heavens or the harbor or the gardenia tree down the block. They call to her all at once, grasping here and there for parts of her, hatching blue flames in her brain." ("Fire ," 75)
Planes of existence collide for Felicia and really drag her down. The source of her madness is unclear: lingering syphilis? Emotional hardship? Domestic abuse? General failure to thrive? We can't say for sure. Her heightened perceptions and poetic language, however, make her movements away from general reality breathtaking.
"'Let's speak in green,' his mother says, and they talk about everything that makes them feel green. They do the same with blues and reds and yellows. Ivanito asks her, 'If the grass were black, would the world be different?' But Felicia doesn't answer." ("Fire," 84)
This moment of synesthesia happens after Felicia's world begins to contract down to just herself and Ivanito. The two develop new ways of interacting and communicating with each other—not all of them healthy. This particular brand of banter is the closest thing that comes to normal play for the mother-son pair, even though the scrambling of senses denotes something disordered and dire in their interaction.
"Her son would have been different. He wouldn't have talked back to her or taken drugs or drunk beer from bags like the other teenagers. Her son would have helped her in the bakery without complaint. He would have come to her for guidance, pressed her hand to his cheek, told her he loved her." ("Enough Attitude," 129)
There probably isn't a mother in the world who hasn't thought "What if..." Lourdes takes this normal maternal exercise all the way to eleven, claiming impossible feats for the boy who never was. She is inspired to think this because of the Navarro boy and her unsatisfactory relationship with Pilar. She clearly needs comforting, and she reaches out for the only person who could not be affected by the concerns of her family or the outside world.
"Rufino has taken to raising pigeons in wire-mesh cages in their backyard the way he saw Marlon Brando do in On the Waterfront. He prints messages on bits of paper, slips them through metal rings on the pigeons' legs, then kisses each bird on the head for good luck and lets it loose with a whoop." ("Attitude," 131)
Once Pilar catches him out with the "blonde bombshell" and promptly discards him from her mind, we don't hear much about Rufino. We can tell from this passage, however, that the alienation he feels from his family and the inability to assimilate to American society has started to take its toll on him.
"During the following week, Felicia begins to assemble bits and pieces of her past. They stack up in her mind, soggily, arbitrarily, and she sorts through them like cherished belongings after a flood. She charts sequences and events with colored pencils, shuffling her diagrams until they start to make sense, a possible narrative. But the people remain faceless, nameless." ("Baskets," 154).
Once again, Felicia can't locate herself in the world around her. She literally wakes up married to yet another man, completely unaware of how she got there—or who her husband really is. Interestingly, in her attempts to trace her past, Felicia is actually constructing her own life and identity. We never do get to see those diagrams and tables so we don't know how close she came to reality in this exercise.
"Sometimes I ask myself if my adventures, such as they are, equal experience. I think of Flaubert, who spent most of his life in the same French village, or Emily Dickinson, whose poems echoed the cadence of the local church bells. I wonder if the farthest distance I have to travel isn't inside my own head." ("Matrix," 178)
Pilar tries to formulate a universal concept of what it takes to have something important to say to the world. Her conclusion, as you can see, is mixed. She wants to live in the world so that she can have the authority of universal reality on her side, but she still understands that constructing her own personal narrative has value, too.
"I aim my radio at the farthest point in the sky and click it on. It pops and sputters like my mother's old car. I turn and turn the dial, half expecting to hear Mom singing in her deep-throated way, singing the sad words of her Beny Moré song." ("God's Will, 191)
Ivanito's desire and belief that he can contact his dead mother by using a pair of rabbit ears meshes well with the elements of magical realism in the work. But this incident also shows the level of desperation experienced by some of the characters who are confined against their will and can't find a way to fit in and thrive.
"I left her in an asylum. I told the doctors to make her forget. They used electricity. They fed her pills. I used to visit her every Sunday. She told me to turn on my electric brooms and then laughed in my face. She told me that geometry would strangle nature. She made a friend who had murdered her husband..." ("Changó," 195)
Lourdes gets schooled by her deceased father concerning the reality of Celia's life. She doesn't like what she's hearing because it doesn't mesh with her version of reality. If Celia really did love her and her beloved father was to blame for her alienation, that would really rock her world. In the end, she's really not willing to go there.
"In the library, nothing makes sense. The fluorescent lights transmit conversations from passing cars on Broadway. Someone's ordering a bucket of chicken wings on 103rd Street...Gandhi was a carnivore. He came of age in Samoa. He traversed a subcontinent in blue suede shoes. Maybe this is the truth." ("Changó," 202)
Pilar has just been violently attacked by a gang of 11-year-old boys and she's experiencing the kind of psychological break we would normally associate with Felicia. In this moment of parting from reality, Pilar picks up some interesting bits of trivia, which move her even further away from life as she knows it.
"A pair of frayed trousers stick out from beneath a '55 Plymouth. Magnificent finned automobiles cruise grandly down the street like parade floats. I feel like we're back in time, in a kind of Cuban version of an earlier America." ("Six Days," 220)
We've all had that "Twilight Zone" moment in our lives, when things look familiar but weirdly off-kilter. Pilar's first experience with Cuba is both charming and unsettling, a theme that will continue for the duration of her visit.