A young Dorothy once said, “There’s no place like home.”
Truer words have never been spoken. The average American moves 11.7 times in a lifetime. In the past three years I’ve moved three times. That’s an average of once a year. That’s a lot of boxes. It seems that we are all in search of the same elusive thing: a sense of home. At the end of November, Vicky, Maury, and I decided to move together into a three bedroom in Harlem. The best part? A large living room and two bathroom sinks. The worst part? Leasing an apartment in NYC. All the required paperwork was enough to convince me otherwise. We put down a deposit that same day and so began the two week waiting period to be approved. I was also set to fly home for the holidays in exactly two weeks. The waiting felt like an eternity. As the snow settled so did my panic. What if this was a horrible decision? What if we didn’t get it and I’d be stranded in Miami? To deal with the anxiety of possible homelessness I began to pack. It took 3 days, 11 boxes, and the entire season two of Will & Grace. One snowy night I sat on the bed, the lone piece of furniture in the empty apartment, and looked at the bare walls. I thought I’d be nothing short of ecstatic to leave it all behind but a lot had gone down inside those four walls. Two years’ worth of some great highs and some deep lows. Two years’ worth of stories. It was the first place I’d made my own. Truth be told, it was bittersweet. It was the end of an era.
To keep my mind from obsessing over the move I focused on everything but. With 3tO5 we planned last minute details for Hard-Bitten. I performed in a friend’s scene for her directing class with Anne Bogart who in spite of being such a respected figure in the theater community is really down to earth. I have to brag here, being complimented by her and subsequently sharing a 25 minute train ride was, I must say, one of 2013’s highlights. Sunday night watching La Soiree with the boys. Wednesday evening window gazing on Fifth Avenue with the girls. Nothing says Christmas in New York like the opulent window displays of Bergdorf Goodman. Of course, we also paid the giant Rockerfeller tree a visit. It was freezing cold but it was a magical night. The next day I went shopping for my Secret Santa. I lucked out with the perfect gift for him and a perfect pair of black cowboy boots for me. A girl’s got to indulge once in a while. I assuaged the guilt that usually accompanies a lavish purchase with the image of how cute those five and a halves would look, paired up with a summer dress, walking to a first date in a honky-tonk bar. A girl’s also got to dream. I had to vacate my apartment on the 15th so I crashed on Ryan’s couch as we waited to hear back from the broker. Jian made us chocolate chips cookies and as the snow fell we watched The Family Stone. I couldn’t wait to be with my own dysfunctional family. On December 17th, a frigid Tuesday morning, we signed our lease and on December 18th I slipped on my made-for-walking boots and set out for LaGuardia. Destination: a 70-degree-weather paradise.
I was greeted with the kind of welcome home party only my Tia Olga can throw (disclaimer: I may be biased because of her homemade flans) and by the sloppy kisses from the bandit who’d stolen my heart, our puppy Pulguita. Christmas was just around the corner and I yet had to do my holiday shopping. After raiding my sister’s closet for an outfit, I went out with Beli and Mami for brunch and store hopping. Cuban pizza, leche malteada, and hearing my mother’s laugh. It was good to be home. The day before Christmas Eve I volunteered at Miami Rescue Mission helping my cousin as she planned the toy drive. Not only did I get to feel like Santa, I was also taken on a tour of Wynwood in the process. I couldn’t believe all the fantastic art of that tiny sub-district. I’d been selling Miami short. After sorting through all the donation bags of toys and saving a Madeline tick tock clock from the discarded pile I knew a certain new roomie would love for her dresser, Lian treated us to an al fresco lunch with a view of original Britto sculptures. Definitely selling it too short. Leaving the Mission Luisita played The Last Five Years on the radio right as we were driving past my alma mater, Florida International University. “Remember this?” she asked. Did I ever! It was crazy how a song I hadn’t heard in years was a capsule for all my college memories. Hearing that album again felt like revisiting a previous life. I was such a different person then. We zoomed down US-1 singing along at the top of our lungs. She, of course, sounding much better than me. The night before I’d been to her high school’s talent show and had stared slack-jawed in complete awe of her talent. The little girl who I once taunted with ghost stories, whose hair I brushed and plaited, who looked up to me when I showed off at family gatherings, whose first taste of Broadway was a VHS copy of CATS I’d given her. The little girl was now a young woman in her own right, filling an entire auditorium with a voice that belied her years. My Luisita made me prouder than a mother hen.
Christmas Eve at my sister’s house. I was just waking up when I get a call from my mom’s husband. His voice was somber, “Hi, Kika. Did I wake you?” My stomach went into freak out mode because something bad must have happened for him to call. Please don’t let it be my mom. I don’t answer right away because I don’t want to know. To avoid the question is to prolong those precious seconds right before reality catches up and caves your world in. At the same time I want him to just spit it out and put me out of my misery. What’s with the stupid, cryptic questions? “Get dressed, I’m going to pick you up. Your mom’s-” the adrenaline spiked to a pitch in my ears. “My what?” I almost screamed. “Your mom’s brother, your uncle, died this morning. Your mom can’t drive so I’ll come pick you up in five.” My body collapsed. There it was. My world caving in. We knew Tio Juan had been battling cancer so his death wasn’t unexpected but it was no less devastating. Seeing mom and my tias in so much pain was debilitating. Our only comfort now was the refuge of our family unit. The traditional fiesta de Noche Buena was out of the question. There was no need for frivolous music or sparkly dresses. I washed my puffy face and managed to throw on a cardigan as the family began arriving at Beli’s home; the festive red and green decorations we’d put up the night before so at odds with our sad faces. We told stories of Tio’s rascal days, of lighter times, and his daughter even managed a smile. We put on a brave face for the little ones and our only joy came from seeing them excitedly unwrap their presents. Amidst a grief so palpable, my fondest memory of the night was gathering the children around me for a puppet story. Their smiles were my comfort. One day I will be their Tio Juan because such is the circle of life. I hoped they’d remember my rascal days too.
Since the older generation doesn’t celebrate Christmas night the younger cousins usually end up at the neighborhood Regal Cinema. As we left the theater, everyone talking excitedly about The Wolf of Wall Street, I got a text from The Body, a guy I’d met through my cousin at the welcome home party. I accepted his dinner invitation and set a date for 7PM. The day of the date arrived, the clock stroke 10PM, and he still hadn’t called. At 10:30 I pronounced myself officially stood up. I text him “I bet you have a great excuse. I’m going to bed. Don’t bother calling.” There was an immediate reply. It wasn’t him. It was my past asking to rush back in. “Heard you were in town. Would like to see you.” I had one of two choices: repeat the same self-destructive habits or leave the past right where it belonged. “That’s not a good idea”, I responded, “Hope you understand.” Although I actually considered his offer to soothe my bruised ego, the second I said No I felt something click into place. My decision had single-handedly redefined our relationship and exorcised some inner demons. Times like that it’s hard not to believe in karma. The Body did finally call me back. I ignored both calls.
We shot Hard-Bitten at Ryan’s house over the span of two nights. We couldn’t thank the Rodriguez family enough and also our friends and family who showed up to help on and off camera. It was a challenging shoot because the uncooperative weather made for longer hours than expected. But on that last day of shooting, way past 3 AM, replaying the last take of the final scene, it really dawned on us. We’d created something special. We’d made a movie! I left the set feeling invigorated as an actor and validated as a writer/producer. The next day Beli lured me out of bed early with the promise of Knaus Berry Farm baked goodies. We picked up mom and headed south, Homestead-bound, in pursuit of the most delicious cinnamon rolls in the country. At least to this Miami girl. We drove past the church where Beli got married. We talked about her wedding day, an overcast sky not unlike today's, and the relentless rain. How beautiful it all was regardless. Before we headed home Beli took us to the house she and Eric were considering once their own home was sold by the end of January. Our best friend Lizandra also had an upcoming moving date and I thought it was so ironic how the three of us found ourselves in the same situation yet with very different definitions of home. For Beli that meant a house close to Mami’s, spacious enough for her husband, their dog, and her extensive shoe collection. For Lizy it meant a cozy, safe-haven that she and her little one could grow into. And for me I guess it meant finding the halfway point between New York and Miami and being comfortable in the proverbial middle way.
On New Year’s Eve we were running late to prima Mumi’s party. Mom had claimed to know the way so she drove. After four wrong turns we were lost. I busted out the GPS and Jesus, her husband, and I acted as co-pilots. Unsurprisingly we were early because Cuban parties run on Cuban time. At the stroke of midnight I sought out my mom for my first kiss. I barely remember the last time I was able to do that. We ate 12 grapes while making 12 wishes for the new year. We looked up at the fireworks. We stuffed our faces with yuca and lechón. We drained the last champagne bottle. We danced way past a decent hour. We walked back to our cars, shoes in hand. It was getting late and we’d better be getting home. I still wasn’t sure where that was but we had each other and a GPS. We’d find our way.