Those comforting words hung in the air, much like a thought bubble, as I made a 243-mile reconnective journey that took me through the monotonous stretch along Florida’s Turnpike. Heading southbound, I took a few bathroom breaks along the way, pausing long enough to wonder why anyone would want to buy perfume or cologne at a turnpike service plaza.
I had other scents in mind anyway.
Café Cubano. Pastelitos. Empanadas.
I hadn’t been back since November of 2018. Most of that time had been spent in the COVID-19 bubble that had kept so many of us away from our family, friends and loved ones.
That vice grip has been dissipating each and every day, as millions are getting vaccinated. Once I was doubled-dosed on Pfizer in late March, it unlocked the keys to travel home.
My sister’s birthday in April was the perfect time to reconnect. My home is in Orlando, but my heart yearns for the warmth of South Florida, and the memories that bind us forevermore.
I saw my best friend Maurice the first night there. We ate sushi, but it wouldn’t have mattered if we had saltines and a cup of water. Maurice, whom I have known since grade school, had been involved in a horrific hit-and-run accident in early February.
Hit by a driver who left him for dead as he was bicycling just a hundred yards away from home, Maurice had a broken clavicle, several broken ribs, a femur broken in three places, and bleeding in the brain.
Now on a vigorous rehab schedule, he walks with the aid of a cane. He is lucky to be alive, and only furthered my resolve to chase experience and memories as I enter the proverbial “fourth quarter” of life.
So why not start the next day surrounded by my family. I met up with my two sisters, niece and brother-in-law at the Latin American Café off LeJune Road. The potent café con leche went down smoothly, even more so as I dipped hot Cuban bread into the cup (Cuban pro tip).
My sisters and I had talked often during the time I was away, but seeing their faces warmed my soul. With our parents both gone, we cling to each other more tightly these days. We spoke of those chaotic times in Cuba after Castro’s revolution, and the struggles and sacrifices our parents made along the way.
I would have dinner at one of my parents’ favorite spots, the veritable Versailles, where the Cuban gentlemen gather daily to discuss politics and sports in the outdoor café.
My focus was on the good food, however. I was about to select my “go-to” favorite — picadillo with white rice — when a friend pointed out a lobster plate. Four lobster tails on top of white rice with a tomato-based sauce, complete with a side of plantains. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds.
Tummies full, we went to scope out a bit of the night scene along Little Havana. Much has changed since I grew up close to that neighborhood. It’s gone a bit ritzier, with cruise ships and other enterprises taking advantage of the “Cuban experience.” Pre-COVID, cruises would drop off busloads of tourists to take in the sights and sounds — at jacked up prices.
Those are still in play.
A host beckoned us inside a little dive bar along Southwest Eighth Street, with a salsa band doing its thing. “It’s $250 for a table and $20 per person if you want to stand,” he said. We took a pass. Later on, we regretted the missed opportunity at the perfect comeback. “No thanks I already have a table at home and don’t need another one.”
We settled on a cheaper option — Azucar Ice Cream Company, home of many eclectic flavors including a chocolate and cayenne pepper concoction called “Burn in Hell, Fidel!” I opted for the dulce de leche (caramel) gelato.
The morning pit stop involved picking up Cuban pastries and coffee at a bakery in a strip mall off LeJune and 37th Avenue, a place I have been frequenting since I was a kid.
I am much older now. With the age comes the wisdom to appreciate what you have, and how much you appreciate things lost along the way.
Family. Friends. Home.
Goodbye Miami. Te quiero. I’ll be back soon.
George Diaz has worked as major newspaper dailies across the country, such as “The Miami Herald,” “The Cincinnati Post,” and the “Orlando Sentinel,” where he spent nearly 30 years in a variety of roles, including columnist and a member of the editorial board. He is now a frequent contributor to Growing Bolder.