Chapter 1 1
Call it whatever you like. A vacation. A high school graduation present. Maybe even an escape. All I know is I’m as far from Miami as I’ve ever been.
I’m here because the Cuban Remedy failed. It’s forever ancient and reads like a recipe. Though the ingredients may vary from family to family, the goal is always the same: suffer heartbreak and your family will fix you. Except no amount of food and family could heal my heartbreak, so like a plotline from one of Mami’s telenovelas, they tricked me instead.
“Next, please.” The London Heathrow customs officer waves me forward. “The purpose of your visit, miss?” he asks after I hand over my passport.
Two seconds pass, then four, then my blatant lie. “Vacation.”
I keep quiet because one of my summer hosts, Spencer, is waiting, and me getting hauled into secondary screening sits right up there with teeth pulling and gyno exams. But Dios, how I want to go full force on this officer and this entire day. I barely resist leaning close to his dapper blue customs uniform and snarling, “I. Am. Here. Because not only did my most beloved abuelita die, but within two months of her death, my best friend abandoned me, and my boyfriend of three years dumped me right before prom. I call it the trifecta. Apparently, I wasn’t getting over it all fast enough so my family sent me here to ‘cool down.’ I didn’t want to come to your England, but my mami pulled out her greatest trick of all, even more powerful than guava pastries and other common Cuban heartbreak remedies. She pulled out Abuela. So to answer your question, I have no purpose for being here.”
Thwack. The officer stamps my passport and slides it toward me. “Enjoy your stay.”
Not bloody likely.
Two hours later, after a near-silent bus ride followed by a totally silent cab ride, the driver drops us off at a place I’ve only seen in pictures. Unfortunately, they forgot to add sunshine. I’m shivering under a bland sky as Spencer wrestles my two large suitcases from the trunk.
So this is Winchester, Hampshire, England.
I cross the narrow street and approach the Owl and Crow Inn. Like many of the buildings we passed in town, the Owl and Crow looks like something straight out of a Jane Austen novel. The massive wedding cake of orangey-red brick towers over the neighborhood. Climbing ivy twists from the portico, traveling around the three-story inn with avenues of green veins. History—this place bleeds it.
Nothing in Miami is this old. Not even Señora Cabral, who still hobbles into my family’s bakery every Monday and was tan vieja before my parents were even born, is this old.
Spencer Wallace rolls my bags under a rose-draped arbor. Seeing Spence here, instead of in Miami when he’s visited with his wife and son, makes me realize how much his entire look blends into his brick-and-mortar inn. Newly graying red hair. Tight goatee and moustache combo. He even wears a heavy tweed blazer. And it was this, the first glimpse of my distant family member at the airport, that made my journey even more surreal than when I boarded my flight. Mami and Papi have sent me to a foreign country where men wear tweed blazers. In June.
“Come along then, Lila,” Spencer says from the doorway.
“Cate should be back from the physio by now. Nice and toasty inside.” He bumps into my shoulder when he shuts the door behind us. “Sorry,” he says, and casts another concerned glance at my traveling outfit, the same one he’s been side-eyeing since I exited customs. As I discovered all throughout Heathrow Terminal Five, my white jeans, gold sandals, and flimsy hot pink tank aren’t typical choices for England vacations, even in early summer. But it’s perfectly normal for my Miami. Whether I’m cold or not makes no difference.
Inside the inn, the air is warm but not stuffy, and scented with butter and sugar. I breathe in the elements and try to keep them there. The familiar smells are as much home as I can have right now.
Tía Cate appears at the bottom of a polished wood staircase. “Ah, here she is.” She approaches, looping her arms around me. “Sorry I couldn’t come with Spencer to meet your plane, and I had to hijack the car, too.”
“The shuttle bus was fine,” I say into her itchy wool shoulder. Her blond low bun is the same as I remember, but her accent sounds flatter than ever. Is this what twenty-five years in England does to a Venezuelan woman, born Catalina Raquel Mendoza? Here, in this Hampshire medieval town, with this husband, she is Cate Wallace.
“Look at you. Almost eighteen.” Cate steps back, furrowing her brows. “Let’s get you into the parlor for tea while Spence takes up your bags. There’s a fire going and I can get you a sweater before you unpack. That thin blouse—we don’t want you to catch cold.”
My chest tightens around my heart and then… it happens. Here in the cozy Owl and Crow foyer with weathered wood planks beneath my sandals and tall canisters filled with pointy umbrellas at the door. It didn’t happen at Miami International when I wore an unbreakable scowl, even as I gave obligatory kisses to mis padres and my sister, Pilar. It didn’t happen as I watched the stardust lights of my city disappear behind the jumbo jet wing. I didn’t cry then. Wouldn’t. But Catalina-Cate Wallace gets me good right here and I can’t stop it. My eyes well, and my throat closes over a memory that won’t ever let me go.
¡Ponte un suéter, que te vas a resfriar!
Put on a sweater or you’ll catch a cold! The Cuban mantra of all mantras. Tattoo it on our foreheads. Write it in indelible ink on our violet-scented stationery. Yell it at impressive volumes from windows to children eating Popsicles on Little Havana streets. My abuela threw out stacks of virtual sweaters left and right. Until that cold March morning she couldn’t. The coldest day of all.
My hand flies up to the golden dove charm hanging around my neck, Abuela’s gift from four years ago. Cate notices, her refined features wilting. “Oh, your sweet abuelita. She was such a wonderful woman, love.”
Love. Not mija. Not for English Cate.
“Abuela practically raised me, too.” Cate meets my swollen eyes. “I hated that I couldn’t come for the funeral.”
“Mami understood. It’s a long way.” Four thousand, three hundred and eighty miles.
Cate webs both of her hands over my cheeks. It is a gesture so like Abuela’s that tears want to flow again. “Tell me the truth,” she says. “Even though I’d just had neck surgery, your mother still found a way to blame me, right?”
I laugh. England hasn’t stolen everything. Her pursed lips, cocked hip, and challenging eyes hail straight from the Cate I remember from the Wallaces’ last Miami trip. “How did you guess?”
“I love your mother dearly. But telenovela mujeres could take lessons from that one.”
Soap opera drama. Mami never went to college, but she majored in drama, anyway, with a minor in extra. She also majored in doing the opposite of what’s best for me.
“Find a seat in the parlor while I fetch the tea Polly made for us,” Cate says and gestures to the archway before scooting off.
I remove my black cross body purse; the customs form peeks out from the front pocket. Enjoy your stay. I crumple the slip into the smallest ball I can manage. No so-called vacation is going to fix me.