"I'm going to Cuba next week," I said. "Two friends are in a film festival there. That's why I'm going." I quickly threw in the part about the film festival to make it seem like a worthwhile and acceptable jaunt. To be going there for a reason, for something important-sounding like a film festival would confuse her, perhaps even thwart the usual frightened response. It worked.
"That's exciting. A film festival in Cuba! When do you leave?""December 2. I've been wanting to go there ever since seeing The Buena Vista Social Club. And that band is going to play one of the nights of the festival." My mother and I had both seen and loved the Wim Wenders film.
"It sounds like a great trip... Why are they having a film festival?"
"Supposedly Castro is a big film buff."There was some noise in the background. I heard her say, "Jonathan's going to Cuba." Then she said to me, "Your father wants to talk to you."
I sensed the phone being passed like a walkie-talkie in a bunker, passed from a lieutenant to a captain, and I was the lowly sergeant on the other end of the transmission, up near the front lines, about to be chewed out for insubordination.
"What's this about Cuba?" my father growled.
"I'm going there next week," I said, feigning nonchalance. I'm 35 years old, but with my parents, my father in particular, I'm still 16 and don't have a driver's license. Also, because of my recent my boxing match, my father thinks my judgment is faulty and that my instinct for self-preservation has reached a new all-time low.
"Why go to Cuba?" he demanded angrily, though he was unaware, I think, of his harsh tone.
"Because I want to," I said, trying to sound like an adult, but feeling like it was 20 years ago and I was asking permission to go to the Jersey Shore. And I didn't mention the film festival part to him because I wanted to assert my manhood with him; I didn't want to need a film festival to justify my desire for adventure. That was a good excuse to use with my mother, but with my father I have to continually prove that I can't be pushed around. It's the old Oedipal drama being revived again and again and again. It has to be the most popular play of all time.
"But why are you going?"
"Because I want to."
We were at a standstill. But my simple desire to go should have been reason enough. After all, I'm a man! A man with rights! A man who does what he wants! A man who can make plans without asking his parents' permission! Jonathan Libre! And I've earned this status?I haven't had to live at home for reasons of financial destitution for four years now, and I haven't asked for a significant loan in at least a year and a half! I've even paid for the last few outrageous phone bills I've run up during my visits home. I've been showing great maturity, though in some ways I can't help but feel that my recent good behavior is simply money in the bank with my parents (to use an apt metaphor) for when I fall on my face again. I can hear myself already: "I haven't asked for a loan for quite some time!"
But let me return to the present, to the Cuba conversation, rather than dwell on the dreary future. "There has to be a reason why!" said my father. "You can't just go!"
I could have said, 'I can just go!' But I decided to placate him, to not escalate this unnecessarily. I was going to have to use the film festival. "Well, some friends," I said, in a soothing tone, "are in a film festival. So it's perfect?I get to be with friends and not travel alone and also there will be plenty of other Americans there."
I mentioned the other Americans, thinking that this would calm down his overprotectiveness. It worked in two ways: There is safety in numbers and also it would make me seem more like a conformist?if lots of other Americans are going to Cuba, then suddenly I'm not such a risk-taker. But his gut was still not liking this trip. So he switched tactics.
"Who's paying for you to go?" he demanded. "The festival?" If I was going for free and if this was somehow related to my career, like my free trip to Germany nine months ago to perform my one-man show Oedipussy, then he could understand and maybe accept this Cuba adventure. But if I was paying for myself, then the trip was still not good.
"No one's paying for me," I said defiantly, proudly. "It's coming out of my own pocket." There was silence. The reality of my not backing down?my independence?was getting to him. He asked about the money because he still hasn't gotten over the trauma of bailing me out for years, and it's hard for him to imagine that I can do something extravagant like take a trip.
Also, his joking mantra has always been: "What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine." So he still feels pain when I spend money as if it was his own money. And spending money is not easy for my father. But this is understandable. He grew up in pretty rough circumstances during the Depression in Brooklyn; it shaped his worldview. His bedroom for all of his childhood was in the kitchen, next to the stove. My grandfather was a cabbie, first with horse-driven carriages, and then with cars, and he didn't pull in a lot of money. Things were always exceedingly tight.
So it was particularly difficult for my father?not something to make him proud?when the only work I could find from 1990 to 1992 was driving a taxi. Rather than each generation improving on the last, I had slid back. But nowadays, I'm doing better. For the time being anyway, I'm making it as a writer and my father is proud of me, but he senses the precarious nature of my profession and worries about me. And his worry comes out in anger and overprotectiveness, but also generosity. Just a few days ago, he called me up and told me I should get a VCR, that he would pay for it. This was very sweet of him. Being broke for so many years, I've never owned a VCR.
(My tv, an ancient little thing, was given to me by a friend. I never watch it; it just sits in the corner, its screen like the dead glassy eye of some stuffed animal head, but unlike a stuffed animal I could turn it on and the thing would come to life; but I never turn it on. But I keep it around. Must give me a sense of normalcy, of fitting in: Everyone owns a tv. Sort of like a rich person from another era thinking they needed a deer head in the library.)
So I thanked my father for this offer of a VCR and said I would try to shop for one. But this probably won't happen. I've inherited from my father some of his worldview, some of his problems with money. It's nearly impossible for me to spend anything on objects for myself. On travel yes, but on objects, no. I always feel like I can do without. That's why there's never any food in my refrigerator and I starve all day long, and that's why every time I buy an article of clothing, it's a small triumph.
Anyway, my father started softening on the Cuba expedition. He said, "My friend's daughter and her husband are going to Cuba. I'll find out when they'll be there. Maybe you can meet up with them."
Once my father gives in to the idea of me traveling?and there's always initial resistance; he's scared that something will happen to me?he then begins to provide me with the names and phone numbers of distant relatives and obscure friends whom I should see. And I feel bad, but I never look these people up. It's yet another way that I let my father down.
But I played along. "Well, find out when they'll be there and maybe I can rendezvous with them," I said.
"You better look into what you do about money there. I hear you have to carry American dollars. No traveler's checks. No credit cards. No bank cards. You better figure all that out. It's probably dangerous to walk around with cash, but that's probably what you have to do."
He was trying to scare me now, but I played it cool. "Don't worry. I'll get all the information... It's going to be a fascinating trip. Didn't you go to Cuba, Dad?" I was vaguely recalling a family legend about my father: Before marrying my mom he left Brooklyn to seek his fortune as a salesman in Miami and during this period took a trip to Cuba.
"Yes, I went to Cuba. Twice."
Now the advantage was all mine. How could he protest me doing something that he had done? "When did you go?"
"Both times in 1952... Maybe you'll run into my old girlfriend Dolores."
I had often heard of Dolores when I was growing up. She was my father's last girlfriend before my mother and my mother would exorcise her jealousy by teasing my father about her. And the way she teased him was to compare me to Dolores because Dolores didn't like the way my father ate, thought he made too many sounds, which was an early complaint of mine, an early sign of the Oedipal struggle. I still have a hard time watching my father eat, and supposedly Dolores broke it off with him because of the way he conducts himself when in front of a plate of food.
"Dolores was Cuban?" I asked.
"Maybe I'll meet a nice Jewish-Cuban girl."
My father didn't say anything. Over the years my parents have lowered and lowered their expectations as to my living out the Jewish-American dream of a respectable career and marriage to someone within the faith. I have provided them with a grandchild, whom they cherish, and so I've brought them some happiness, but at this point in my life they're really just glad if I'm alive and not undergoing a sex change or some other identity crisis. Thus, in some ways, it's very easy for me to please them; I just have to keep breathing.
My father spoke. "I don't think there are any Jews or nice Jewish girls left in Havana... But you better pack condoms. Make a list of things to bring with you. Write down condoms. You might not be able to buy them there because of the embargo. And take Imodium with you. It's probably like Mexico."
"All right, Dad."
"Just come back in one piece. And take condoms and Imodium and find out about the money."
"All right, Dad... I gotta go. I love you."
"Love you," he said, and then we hung up.