After a summer in the Miami sun, my skin had turned dark brown and the peeling had long given way to little splotches spread across my shoulders. Even the morning summer sun was punishing to the skin.
We’d gotten up early that morning. Abuelo had prepared café con leche con una tostada. He told us to grab a few towels and pack some toys while he filled his Styrofoam cooler with food and drinks. We packed it all in the trunk of his ’86 Cutlass Ciera and off we went to the pine-strewn strip of seaweed off the Rickenbacker Causeway. We parked under a palm tree and staked out our spot. Abuelo organized himself on whatever clearing was available and placed our things down on the towels he’d laid out.
I noticed a few gulls ambling above hoping to spot a crab or fish left exposed along the sodden shoreline. At the beginning of the summer when we first began this daily beach ritual, I desperately tried to avoid the muck of seaweed. It felt like walking on hardened oatmeal and I was unsure what my bare feet would step on. But as the summer moved on, so did my care of what lay beneath the sludge. My brother and I happily bolted across the seaweed and into the shallow water.
We examined the sea floor while we waded further away from the shore. We spotted silver fish zipping past us, and several crabs scurrying into makeshift holes in the sand as we thundered towards them. I looked up and saw the Miami skyline. A few buildings stood in the distance across the bay. It was nothing compared to the city but I would never put my feet in the East River. I figured there was a plus and a minus to every view.
We continued wading further until we reached a dark expanse leading further out into the water. I knew by then it was only a large patch of sea grass but I still preferred not to step on it. I may have braved the shoreline seaweed but in the water sea life moved quicker than my feet could move. A crab was in a better defensive position hiding in the sea grass. I could step wrong and get pinched. Plus, I had a tremendous fear of fire coral.
A few summers prior, Abuelo had taken us to the Keys to go fishing with our cousins. We went out on my cousin’s boat and anchored at a playita similar to the one on Hobie beach. I walked around the sea grass looking for fish and other interesting sea life. I found a bright yellow-green fan and decided to examine it. My ankle grazed it as I went down to touch it. I felt an intense pain wrap around my entire leg and I could barely breathe. I called out for help and Abuelo rushed over and took me to shore. Everyone gathered around as I lay on the floor writhing in pain. Then, I felt a drizzle of warm liquid pouring onto my ankle. When I opened my eyes I saw my cousin peeing on my ankle. The pain lasted for two days. I made it a point not to walk on sea grass ever again.
My brother and I got to the edge of the sea grass and swam over it, toward a clearing. The water became more and more shallow as we swam further out. Soon, we’d reached a sandbar and our bellies grazed along the sand. We pretended we were serpents, gliding further and further away from the shore. I rose up with my voice screeching and body-slammed my younger sibling. He face-planted in the seaweed, then stood and faced me. Kaiju ready to smash each other in an epic sea battle, rebolcandonos en la agua, fish steering clear of our sand clouds, sand and seaweed dangling like ornaments off our trusas.
Abuelo waved us over to him, telling us it was time for lunch. My brother and I returned to shore eager to eat the sanwichitos he’d prepared for us. Jamón con queso, mayonesa, y mostasa on Cuban bread. But only mayonesa for my brother. Mustard tickled his tongue.
We ate, sitting on the pine needle-strewn shore, the mesh lining of our bathing suits caked in sand. We watched Abuelo dig into his Styrofoam cooler, wondering what drink he was going to pull out. Sometimes he had Malta Hatuey for us. Sometimes Jupiña. Occasionally, if the mango from his tree was ripe enough, we’d get a sugary, ice cream-lathered batido de mango. That day, we waited patiently as he drew a mischievous grin before pulling out the container filled with frothy orange liquid. My brother and I high-fived.
After lunch, we ran around the beach again. Abuelo had ventured further away from the shore than we had. We swam after him and he extended his arms for each one of us to grab on. We took turns climbing on his knees pretending we were riding jetskis. He twirled us around before sending us flying into the water. We must have made him do that a thousand times. He never seemed to tire.
We then went in search of conch. Combing theclear water for the bulbous shells that tourists buy once they’ve been cleaned and the sea snail living inside has been carved out. More silver fish swam between our legs, occasionally whooshing to the surface then splashing back into the water. My brother became bored. He wanted to play Godzilla again.
“¡Mira!” Abuelo pointed to a rope he pulled, covered in algae. We splashed over to him and examined it. Abuelo ducked his head underwater and pulled himself along the length of the rope. I followed, hoping we would discover an abandoned anchor or somehow an old cannon ball from a Spanish galleon. I read in a magazine that someone found a cannon from a sixteenth century ship in Biscayne Bay a few years back. I wondered how many ancient treasures the ocean still kept. I opened my eyes and the salt water punished me. I rubbed them while my brother dragged me back under with him.
Back in New York, my parents worked hard to make ends meet. Consulting jobs took my father all over the world. My mother worked with him and took three jobs at our school so we could attend an elite private school in Manhattan while my dad coached the JV basketball team. We had rushed lives. Practices and rehearsals. Competitions and braving the cold city streets and often-dangerous side- walks. But with Abuelo, time stood still. The world slowed as if we were the last three people on earth. Even the nearby beachgoers seemed to be mirages.
We walked along the shore towards the little bridge leading to Key Biscayne. There was a little step that led to a rock formation along the side of the bridge. The cars occasionally whizzed by but for the most part it was quiet. We watched as Abuelo climbed a few rocks and reached a point where the concrete from the bridge met the rock formation. Abuelo looked back at us and offered a mischievous smile. He raised his hands high above his head, bent his knees, and leapt into the water.
My brother and I stared at each other wide-eyed as we heard the splash from below. We rushed around the rocks to see if he was okay. Around the rocks we found a little patch of sand where two girls about my age were lying out. My brother and I froze watching Abuelo swim to the patch of sand and walk towards us. The girls turned around and clapped as Abuelo passed by. My brother ran to him and jumped around excitedly saying he wanted to jump too.
I was stuck watching one of the girls as she looked back at me. I awkwardly scanned the little patch of beach for anything to focus on. I checked back and saw she was still looking. And smiling.
“¿Es tu abuelo?” she asked.
“Si,” I said.
My brother had already started the climb up the rocks. I was stuck at the edge of the patch of sand making peculiar circles with my toes. I noticed there was an older lady sitting in a beach chair nearby.
“Mi abuela,” the girl said.
I smiled and was interrupted by another splash in the water. I looked up and saw Abuelo cheering my brother on. Then, Abuelo jumped in again and made an even bigger splash. Together, my brother and Abuelo swam around the edge of the rocks and popped back onto the little beach.
“¿Vas a brincar?” the girl asked.
I shrugged. I didn’t want to jump like my brotherand Abuelo had. Heights kind of terrified me. But higher forces suddenly compelled me—the sudden and immediate power of the adolescent crush. My brother had already appeared at my side, taken my hand and dragged me toward the rocks. My grandfather stayed below watching us. He walked to the edge of the sand and looked up at us. The rocks were uneven and some were slippery. I used my hands and feet like some kind of clumsy mountain animal gripping for dear life.
Finally, after some urging from my brother and Abuelo, I leapt feet first into the water. I kicked and made my way to the surface. The vibration of my brother hit- ting the water tickled my ears. I popped my head above the surface and rubbed my eyes. Abuelo was smiling. My brother swam with me to shore where the girl still watched, smiling. I smiled back. We said goodbye. Her Abuela looked up from her magazine and waved.
We walked back to our spot on the beach and Abuelo started packing things up. It was noon and he didn’t like for us to stay out in the afternoon sun. We gathered our things while Abuelo spread beach towels across the back seat of his car and waited for the air conditioning to cool down. We popped into the backseat. The seatbelts only covered our laps and the metal buckle burned my thighs when I fastened.
We drove under the bridge and onto the causeway to head back to Little Havana, air conditioning on and the win- dows lowered. The sea air mixed with the cold a/c is forever linked to my Abuelo’s summer days. We drove down the Roads onto Coral Way. We turned on Seventeenth Ave and drove down to Sixteenth Street to the little bodega on the corner where everyone knew Abuelo by name.
He ordered pernil y moros and grabbed a six-pack of Malta Hatuey. The lady at the counter gave my brother and me a chocolate chip cookie and then handed Abuelo two medium-sized aluminum pans that smelled liked garlic. We hopped back in the car and drove to the Winn Dixie on Coral Way to do some grocery shopping. After grabbing some Maria cookies, galleticas, pastel de guava, jamón, queso, leche, and some other things, we returned to Abuelo’s house in his neighborhood by Shenandoah Park.
My grandmother had passed away years ago and Abuelo had lived alone in the house for years until my aunt, uncle, and baby cousin moved in with him. Abuelo gave up his mas- ter bedroom so my aunt and uncle could have space, and he moved to the little area behind the Florida room in the rear of the house. This area was darker than the rest of the house and it also had the best air conditioning. In the entrance of his little apartment-like living quarters he had a tiny living room that only fit two recliners, a bookcase, and a little table that was always stacked with papers. He had a refrigerator and a kitchenette in the back corner with a microwave just above the tiny sink. Inside Abuelo’s bedroom the a/c was always cranked to sixty and he had the most comfortable down comforter the world has ever known.
We helped pack away the groceries and went outside to hose the sand off our bodies. We stripped down to our birthday suits and Abuelo sprayed us up and down as we played and jumped in the backyard. Abuelo hung up our bathing suits on a clothesline and ordered us inside. We ran in, towels around our waists, and went to Abuelo’s room, and my skin instantly chilled sending goose bumps across my forearms. My brother bounced up and down from the cold while we waited for Abuelo to warm up the bath for us. When it was ready my brother and I sprinted in and soaked in the warmth of the bath water.
The afternoon crept by, and I settled into one of Abuelo’s recliners to read. My brother played with his He-Man action figures on the floor while Abuelo sat on the other recliner in his white tank top and wrote quietly in his little notebook. Sometimes he wrote letters to relatives in Cuba. Abuelo emigrated with his wife from Cuba in the sixties when Fidel Castro took control of the country. He never set foot in his birth country again but maintained contact with relatives. I suppose it was his way of staying linked to his birth country in spite of his exile.
My mom called and said she was excited to see us when she and my father would fly down to meet us in a few days. We told her we loved her. I settled back in one of his recliners and watched Abuelo quietly writing in his notebook again.
My brother and I went to the other part of the house to play while my grandfather napped. Later on, we heard the ice crushing in his back room. The blender swirling and stopping until finally we’d hear, “¡Niños!”
Without hesitation, we ran to Abuelo’s room where the quiet melodies of Miami summers filled our stomachs again with batidos de mango.
Pablo Cartaya is the author of the forthcoming middle grade novel The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017). He is on the writing faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s Low Residency MFA in Lake Tahoe. He calls the 305 home. Visit him at www.pablocartaya.com