The man in white stood on the front porch of Mara’s uncle’s house in a neatly pressed suit, pale as a ghost in the darkness right down to his shoes. When he removed his white hat to come inside, even his hair was without color. He saw her staring and winked at her, baring his uneven yellow teeth in a grin that made the skin prickle at the back of her neck. The smell of night-blooming jasmine followed him, sweet and heavy.
Mara and her brothers were shooed off to their room while the man was escorted to the kitchen, but they stayed in the hallway, watching and listening. Her father shook the man’s hand and sat with him at the table. Her mother bustled about preparing food and offered him a glass of milk, which he accepted. When he spoke, his voice was like the thunder that rumbled in from the ocean and beat against the mountains beyond the city.
“Doctor,” he said. “They come for you tomorrow. You must take your family and leave.”
Mara’s mother paused, her knife raised over the onions she had been dicing.
“You know we cannot,” Mara’s father replied. “They’ve stopped giving papers to doctors. The rest of my family have their papers in order, and we have our passports. But I would be turned away at the airport. If they didn’t arrest me there.”
“I promise you, Obatala will provide.” The man took another sip of milk.
“He will, or you will?”
“I am only the messenger, and I have given you the message. What you do with it is your business.”
Her father’s hand curled into a fist. “Thank you for the warning, then. Will you stay for food?”
The man shook his head. “There are other gusanos destined for the plow. I must see them all before the moon begins to fall.” He stood, gave Mara’s mother a small bow, and walked to the front door followed by her father. They shook hands and the man in white replaced his hat, then returned to the night.
Mara watched her mother finish chopping the onion while her father sat again at the table and lit a cigarette. His black hair was slicked back, his dark eyes squinting at nothing. He unbuttoned hisguayabera to just above his growing gut, exposing his white undershirt.
Her mother spoke first. “We should pack before–”
“No. We’re not going anywhere.”
“But he said you–”
He slammed his hand on the table. “Olvídalo, coño! He’s been throwing coconuts. Or maybe he had a bad dream. He doesn’t know anyone in the army, or in the committees.”
“We’ve been trying to leave anyway,” she said. “Our house has been sealed for weeks; everything has already been confiscated. Why not go tonight? We could maybe bribe someone at the airport. Get on a plane, fly to Miami. Start over.”
“No. It’s ridiculous.”
“Josue is almost old enough for the army. If we don’t get him out soon–”
“Yes, soon!” He jabbed the cigarette at her. “Soon, but not tonight.” His expression softened when he saw her eyes fill with tears. “We’ll go back downtown tomorrow and try to get my release papers again. No llores, por favor.” He noticed Mara and her brothers finally. “You three, get to bed. Andalé. Salpica.”
Mara curled up under her light linen sheets and watched the stars through the open window. She and her brothers were crammed together in their uncle’s spare room, as they had been since the first time they’d tried to leave the country. Victoria was tucked under her arm, brown eyes staring up at her through thick eyelashes. She had been Mara’s most special present on her seventh birthday, with clothes made by Mara’s mother on the big Singer sewing machine in the spare bedroom. She was la novia, the bride; her dress was fitted at the top and flared at the bottom with frilly underskirts, all white like the clothes of the strange man who had made her father angry.
Before she had begun to dream, Mara awoke to the sound of rustling in the closet. Her mother pulled shirts and skirts and dresses out and folded them neatly, placing them in the small red suitcase Mara carried on trips to Tia Celia’s house on the beach.
“Shh.” Her mother helped her out of her nightclothes and into a dark blue dress. “Tio Pepe is taking us on a trip, but you have to be very quiet.”
“Because I said so. Don’t argue. Vámonos.”
Mara wanted to cry but she didn’t dare. She wasn’t even allowed to wear her shoes until she was seated in the back of her uncle’s old Dodge. Her mother had never let her outside barefoot before. Clutching her suitcase, she sat between her silent older brothers as the car roared to life and took off down the dark street. The headlights cast everything around them into shadow, leaving only the path ahead illuminated. Homes she’d often ridden past on her bicycle were indistinguishable, featureless shapes like toys piled in a corner in the dark. Toys…
“Mami!” she cried. “I left Victoria!”
Her mother turned to look back at her, smiling sadly. “I’m sorry, hija,” she said. “We’ll get you another doll as soon as we can.”
Now Mara was sobbing, her face red and scrunched up. “I don’t want another one! I want her!” Her mother said nothing. She cried until the car’s movement lulled her to sleep.
Later, when she opened her bleary eyes, they were parking in an unfamiliar place. Tio Pepe carried her and her suitcase through rooms that she could hardly remember from one moment to the next. She wondered if this was what ghosts felt like, the world changing around them as they stood still. There were people everywhere, pressed close together, moving in packs, sweating even in the relative cool of the early morning.
Finally they were outside on gray asphalt, in a crowd of people in front of an airplane that read “American Bread” on the side. Most wore their nicest clothes, as if on their way to church. Some were chatting amiably, others eating or reading or playing dominoes as best they could on the rough ground. Tio Pepe gently put her down. Her brother Miguel dropped his big duffel bag and stretched out on it, to get some sleep. Josue stayed next to their mother and Tio Pepe, who spoke in hushed voices.
“Look at that poor man,” someone murmured, pointing at her dozing brother. Mara giggled. In his best suit, Miguel almost did look like a man, even if he wasn’t old enough to shave. He looked a lot like their father.
“Mami,” Mara said, her skin suddenly cold. “Mami, where’s Papi?”
Her mother and uncle exchanged a look. “He’ll be here soon, hija,” her mother said with a smile.
But he didn’t come. The sun rose and the summer heat shimmered on the tarmac like a promise of rain waiting to be broken. People in uniforms started checking papers at the front of the line and the crowd surged forward, families and couples and lonely single travelers all vying for seats on the flight. Everyone was on their feet, hugging and crying, some peeling away from the group and walking back toward the terminal wiping their eyes. A man took her passport and stamped “VOID” on the inside and before she knew it, Mara was climbing the stairs up to the airplane clutching her little red suitcase and trembling. She’d never flown before.
“Tio Pepe is waving at you, Marita,” her mother said.
Mara turned and waved back at him, smiling. Maybe he could watch Victoria for her while they were gone. They stepped through the mouth of the plane and walked down into its belly.
There were three seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other. It felt much smaller inside than Mara had expected, cooler than outside but still humid, and so full of people that the air felt thick and stale. Her mother pulled her past row after already filled row until they found room just behind the wings.
“I wanted the window seat,” Miguel said.
“You can have it on the way back,” Josue replied, already fastening his seat belt.
Mara sat with her mother while an old man took the empty spot next to Miguel. More people filed past them until the plane was full. It smelled of tobacco and sweat and Mara thought of her father again. He was always washing his hands with the bar of white soap on the ceramic dish in the bathroom. She could almost smell it, that soap mixed with sweet cigar smoke, the grease he combed through his straight black hair, the cologne slapped on his face and neck after he shaved.
“Mami,” Josue said, pale as if he’d seen a ghost, “Papi is outside.”
Their mother fumbled to unlatch her seat belt and look, over the protesting old man beside Miguel. Mara couldn’t see past her or figure out how to undo her own restraint. Frowning, she looked out her own window and there, where the grass met the asphalt of the runway, was the man in white.
“Mami,” she whispered, but her mother was shouting, and there was a commotion at the front of the plane. Police had come on board and were fighting with a young man who screamed at them to let him go.
“I don’t want to join the army!” he shrieked. “My family is already in Miami, please!” The officers beat him with their batons until he stopped fighting back, then cuffed him and dragged him away while the stewardesses averted their eyes.
The man in white tipped his hat at Mara and walked forward until his figure was obscured by the broad metal wing. She realized she had been holding her breath and when she inhaled, her mouth was filled with the scent of jasmine. He did not emerge on the other side.
And then her father was there, crying and kissing Mara’s face as if he hadn’t seen it in years. Cradled in his arms like a child was Victoria.
He handed the doll to Mara, who hugged it tightly as her parents embraced. Other passengers grumbled and the crew began preparations for takeoff. Mara would always remember that moment – not the sweet painted face of her doll, its pristine dress that now smelled like soap and smoke, but the sight of her mother slowly releasing her father’s hand as he walked to the last empty seat at the front of the plane with nothing but the clothes he wore.