"It wasn't bad like this before, y'know," Papi says, excusing the petrol taste contorting my face – at this point, a tradition. As always, I chase the first sip of Havana Club with a heartier swallow, hoping to deaden the sting. It invariably swells my tongue something awful.
"Some bite," I spit out at last.
"You're over the worst of it," he says, also from habit, and repours until the bottle is exhausted.
You'd think by this time I'd have grown accustomed to the bitter elixir; Havana Club was once "the pride of our Cuban heritage," today co-opted by revolutionaries who once pledged to sweep Cuba clean of bourgeois debaucheries such as this. Doctor cousins bring it each time they pretend not to return to the island; their biannual mercy trips "only serve to fill Castro's coffers," bark the radio talk show hosts. But who listens to that banter anyway? I mean, who could be dull enough to nurse half-century-old betrayals?
Well, Papi, for one. Although, judging from the pain-etched faces of subsequent refugees, I'd have to admit Ramiro "Ram" Arce is not a strong contender for the title of Grudgemeister.
Another "Before. . ." speech starts. I'm tempted to high-tail it home. However, this is my father, who "trod every snow-covered hill and valley in New England bent on selling Tasty-Freeze and cans of ready-to-serve frijoles Goya, all that I might enjoy and benefit from "the finest education American money can buy." If I could tolerate far more taxing dissertations at Stanford on Groucho's dimwitted predecessor, Karl, surely. . . surely. . . I can indulge this man, who shares my name and face, both so easily dismissed by my so-called fellow Americans.
I keep drinking the nasty stuff. The more Havana Club I let flood my teeth and gums, the less of Papi's moaning, then sobbing, enters my rum-flushed eardrums. I mean, after all, you don't need a degree in Engels' flawed rhetoric to spout back Papi's litany verbatim: 'Before the revolution. . . ,' 'Before Communism. . . ,' 'Before Castro. . . ,' 'Before the fall. . . ,'
No matter how many times you've lip-read the message, you're still wondering/hoping/wishing even a smidgen of it could be true: No snakes or scorpions? Hummingbirds the size of a human thumbnail? Turtles as big as ovens? Stingerless bees harvesting non-toxic pain killers year-round? Then, your brain tires of conjuring the paradise Papi promises – and scientists independently confirm – once truly existed, but is forever lost, and your heart goes numb as well.
After these frequent reunions, sleep is rare, despite the fact that I'm spent. Papi offers me a little linden tea, which steadies my nerves some, but fails to knock me out completely. Instead, I watch David Letterman, catch a movie, then as I hum along with the national anthem, I rest his nodding head on my shoulder, so it won't fall and smack the dining room table.