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.
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.
sounds like a great trip… Why are they having a film festival?"
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."
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.
this about Cuba?" my father growled.
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.
go to Cuba?" he demanded angrily, though he was unaware, I think, of his
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.
why are you going?"
I want to."
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!"
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!"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
I went to Cuba. Twice."
advantage was all mine. How could he protest me doing something that he had
done? "When did you go?"
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
was Cuban?" I asked.
I’ll meet a nice Jewish-Cuban girl."
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.
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."
come back in one piece. And take condoms and Imodium and find out about the
right, Dad… I gotta go. I love you."
you," he said, and then we hung up.