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  • The Maldives
  • Achy Obejas (bio)

As soon as I was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I knew I wanted to be here, in the Maldives. My tumor is benign, at least technically, just a little drop of fat, not cancerous. It's growing about one centimeter a year, which is about the same as the rising sea level in the Maldives. But this coincidence isn't what drew me to these islands.

For me, everything started just before I left Cuba. I'd just scored an American visa because my father, who'd escaped years before on a raft, had filed for me under a family reunification provision of US asylum laws. Not that my father had much interest in being reunited with me: When he lived in Cuba, he never hesitated to tell me I was a punishment from God.

I'd ask him, For what? What did you do to deserve me? It must have been pretty bad.

But he'd just shake his head and walk away. I'm not going to confess to you, he'd spit over his shoulder.

Years later, all settled in San Francisco with a new Mexican wife and a revved-up religious calling that involved marching up and down Market Street passing out pamphlets urging homosexuals to repent, he decided maybe God would be more convinced of his commitment and sacrifice if he saved his own daughter first.

And I was ready to be saved. Not from homosexuality but from the boredom of Havana. Oh, I know, most Americans hear Havana and think Tropicana and classic cars, parties and salsa, even though salsa is Puerto Rican. But for a Cuban like me, Havana means living with several generations in a crowded three-room apartment (in my case, my mother, her boyfriend, my grandmother and her boyfriend, my sister and her boyfriend, my nineteen-year-old nephew and his boyfriend, and his boyfriend's two-year-old son), a job during the day earning worthless pesos (I was a security guard at the Museum of Fine Arts), and a job at night earning hard currency (I washed dishes at a fancy family-run restaurant, [End Page 31] a position I got by marrying—that's right, marrying—the owner because Cuban law demands that family businesses only hire family). My Havana was dirty and teeming, and so loud it sometimes felt like a piercing in my ears. I honestly could not remember the last time I'd been alone for more than it takes to relieve myself, and even then I wasn't immune to the soundtrack of screaming and clattering.

Given my age—thirty-four—and my situation, I'd already been with pretty much everybody I was going to be with in Havana. And given how overcrowded we were at home (I slept in the same sweat-drenched bed with my nephew, his boyfriend, and their two-year-old, or, weather permitting, on a hammock I'd strung up that ran parallel with the clothesline on the tenement's back patio), I knew nobody was going to move in with me, even if she loved me, and I wasn't sure I brought enough to the table, in spite of my dollar-earning dishwashing job, to be wanted enough to take home. In the few instances when the possibility arose, it was only because the other girl's overcrowded home mirrored mine, but with an additional half dozen cousins from the provinces. That only left tourists as romantic possibilities and, though my English is fine, nothing calmed my ardor quicker than some American telling me all about the wonders of the revolution as she paid my way into a dollars-only club I would otherwise not be able to afford.

In fact, I was celebrating the visa my father had gotten me at precisely one of those clubs, listening to a pretty terrible reggaeton band whose terribleness was underscored by a terrible sound system, when I experienced the tumor's first overt symptom. In an instant, the bass just dropped out of the music. It became tinny and thin. Because the sound quality at all Havana venues—even the very...

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