An Intimate History of Exile

An Intimate History of Exile by Adrián Rodríguez

In his trilogy about a Cuban-American family, playwright Adrián Rodríguez casts an unsparing light on the contemporary immigrant experience. The first play, Cuban Operator, Please, presents the Fernández family through the eyes of twenty-something Abel, who has grown up in New Jersey under the shadow of his parents’ longing for all they left behind in Cuba decades earlier. La Fábrica shifts the spotlight to Abel’s father, Ramón, who, having fled to the United States, now finds himself trapped in an alien culture and a dead-end factory job. Finally, Floating Home returns to Abel’s point of view—the younger generation’s fantasy of recapturing what his family has lost.

  • ISBN: 1-932727-01-9
  • Price: $15.95 (paper)

Read an Excerpt

Scene 1

Union City, New Jersey, 2000. A small, modest apartment. Dark. Upstage right is a small dining room table with four chairs. An old rotary telephone is mounted on the wall. Downstage center is an old sofa and a rocking chair. In front of the sofa is a coffee table covered with books and newspapers. In fact, there are books in piles all around the room. An end table that doesn’t match is found to the right of the sofa. On it are a gaudy glass ashtray, a cheap modern telephone, and an answering machine. Upstage center is an old television set with a rug lying in front. The front door of the apartment is stage left. Next to the entrance is a coat rack.

The action begins with the sound of keys jiggling. Lights on stage go from dark to dim. A young man, ABEL, enters stage left. He is approximately thirty years of age and is wearing a wool overcoat that is clearly too big for him, a scarf, a pair of gloves, and boots. He is unshaven and a bright orange sticker on his coat reads “VISITOR.” He is obviously coming in from the cold. He stomps his feet as if to remove snow, nonchalantly drops the keys on the floor, takes off his gloves and also drops them on the floor, walks to the sofa and lies down without undressing. After a few seconds, ABEL sits up and takes out a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. He takes out a cigarette but his hand trembles too much to light one. He tosses the pack on the coffee table, takes a deep breath, and puts his head in his hands. Pause.
ABEL: I can’t do this. I can’t do this. Ten years being the strong one. Ten years ignoring the fact that he was getting older. Ten years making jokes and philosophizing about death. "The only democratic thing in the world is death." Ha, ha. (Long pause) I’m really not afraid of death . . . at least not my own. Others? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that other people’s deaths are far more problematic than one’s own, especially when mourning is required. I never met my grandfathers because they both died in Cuba before I was born. I’ve seen pictures, heard stories but I’ve never been able to get emotional about them. I’ve conjured up images of what they must have looked like laughing, eating, talking, but nothing. No smiles come to me. No tears. Nothing. Sometimes I think that I’d like to see pictures of the corpses. Not toe-tag, autopsy corpses like on television—those look anonymous— but in a coffin serene-looking corpses. Perhaps this would help me deal adequately with never having known them or what seems even worse—not being able to mourn them.
Telephone rings. ABEL looks over at the telephone, tries to light cigarette again while waiting for the answering machine to answer.
ANSWERING MACHINE: (ABEL’s nonchalant voice) Leave a message. Thanks.
BROTHER: (voice heard through answering machine) Abel, pick up. Pick up the phone. Why did you leave? (Pause) You always leave . . . Well, anyway, Dad’s not doing good. It could be soon. Do you hear me? I know you hear me. It’s going to be soon. (Long pause) God, I hate it when you don’t answer the fucking phone.
Phone is slammed.
ABEL: (Under his breath) Fuck you too. (Pause) (Pointing at answering machine) My brother, he cries. People die, he gets sad, he cries. (Disgusted) He must be well adjusted. It’s surprising considering how much I tortured him when we were children. If you’re a boy and you cry, well, you’re a pussy. However, when you’re a man and you cry then . . . then you’re sensitive . . . you’re in touch with your inner child . . . shit like that. I . . . I never cry. A person needs to feel a certain “nearness" to the events around them in order to respond with tears. I feel only distance. My whole family has died far away. Far away in time and space. Every death I’ve had to deal with has always been at a distance.
ABEL walks over to the coat rack and removes his scarf and his coat and places them on the coat rack. While he is doing this, from stage right, enters FATHER wearing dark pants and a white dress shirt and completely unacknowledged he sits on the rocking chair next to the sofa. ABEL sits down again and unties his boots.
ABEL: I never chose to be distant. I inherited distance. I was born into distance. My father left behind his entire family in 1968. First wife. Three children. Mother. Father. Brothers. Sisters. All of them. He boarded a plane in Havana and arrived in Miami forty-five minutes later. His wife and children didn’t want to leave. He had to. Cuba was . . . is hell. He was leaving hell behind. Romantic leftists would like to think otherwise, but they’re wrong. There was nowhere to hide. At work, in the bus, in the street where you lived, in the bathroom, in your soup. Nowhere to hide. So he left. He applied for a visa to leave the country and after suffering physical intimidation, public humiliation, and forced labor in the sugar fields, he was permitted to leave the country. So he hopped on a plane in Havana, scared out of his fucking mind, not letting go of the armrests or opening his eyes until he was in Miami. He got off the plane and retrieved his bag. He was then given a winter coat at least four sizes too large by Goodwill, got on a bus and headed north putting even more time and space between Cuba and himself. He didn’t sleep for the twenty-hour ride and finally got off the bus in Union City, New Jersey, wearing his enormous winter coat, stepping into a humid ninety-eight-degree July morning.
ABEL tries to sleep.
FATHER: Abel siempre lo veía todo, analizaba todo. Siempre supo que yo era medio cobardón. Desde chiquito lo sabía. Sus ojitos me reclamaban, me retaban. Yo trataba de nunca verle los ojos. Al final no sé a que le tenía miedo si yo me quería ir. Mejor dicho, me tenía que ir.
FATHER stands up and walks right down to edge of stage.
FATHER: Pero lo que nunca entendió, Abel, es que en Cuba si no tenías miedo estabas jodido. Eso es lo que quería el gobierno, que todos vivieran asustados. Por el miedo fue que pude dejarlos a todos. El miedo fue el que me llevó a pedir la salida. El miedo me subió al avión. (Pause) Gracias a esa cobardía que siempre me sacó a cara, Abel, pude llegar a los Estados Unidos. Abel, veía muchas cosas pero no entendía todo. Aun no lo entiende. El miedo me permitió sobrevivir. Esa emoción bochornosa, regalo de un gobierno asesino, me salvó, aunque fuera aquí a tres mil millas de todo lo que era mío.
FATHER walks back and sits in the chair once again. After unsuccessfully trying to get to sleep, ABEL grabs his pack of cigarettes off the coffee table and successfully lights one. He takes three strong drags of the cigarette and then places it in the ashtray. He gazes up at the ceiling and takes a deep breath. ABEL then walks over to several piles of books upstage right. He searches through several stacks and finally pulls out a photo album. He sits on the floor, places the album in front of him and opens the album.
ABEL: We always laughed when my father told us this story. He told us that all he could think about was how enormous the American who donated the coat must have been. “Ese abrigo tiene que haber sido del americano mas grande del mundo.” He wasn’t funny very often so I could never forget his face when he told this story. Most of the time he was serious. Not sad or even angry, just serious. Even in pictures. My mother told me that it was the winter that made him so serious. He really hated the cold. I can remember him leaving at five o’clock in the morning, while it was still dark out. He would wear long underwear under his slacks. He would put on a raggedy thermal sweatshirt with a zipper in front because he hated having to put a shirt on over his head arguing that it was oppressive. Then, finally, his enormous coat and a pair of snow gloves. He would grab a bag that looked like a doctor’s bag, put on his hat tight over his head and go out into the cold. He never talked in the mornings. The wind and snow outside were a brutal reminder of how much distance he had put between his past and his present. Many people have told me that my father was a different man in Cuba. He drank beer and ate out. He’d hit on women and laugh all the time. But the snow. . . the snow erased those feelings in my father. It really used to snow back then. From October to March, there was snow all the time. This must have been particularly offensive to a Cuban. In Cuba the weather was great all the time. Here it snowed all the time. It killed him slowly. (Pause) I loved it. The snow made everything clean and white. It made the streets look quiet. It made me feel at home. I couldn’t understand how far away home really was. Every adult I knew would constantly remind me that we were all exiles. Exiled in a cold, foreign place. Far away from Cuba, from palm trees, from the sun, from the beaches, from our families. I thought my whole family was here. (Pause) I’d watch the snow fall at the window, watch it turn dark outside, and wait for my father to come trudging home through the snow after work. I wanted to see him laugh and smile as he approached the house, make a snowball and throw it at the window where I was waiting so we could laugh together. But that never happened. He walked slowly with his head down, protecting it from the wind. The door would open, he’d put his bag down, take off his hat, sit down, I’d sit on his lap, and we’d be quiet. He never talked in the evenings either. It was dark and cold and distant. We were in exile.
ABEL sits and looks through photo album slowly. FATHER stands up and walks behind ABEL, looking over his shoulder at the photo album.
FATHER: Todos los días que salía a trabajar en esa oscuridad y en ese frío lo que quería era pegarme un tiro. No hay nada mas triste, mas duro, que dejar la seguridad y el calor de tu casa para pasar frío y trabajo. En Cuba uno trabajaba tranquilamente. Uno saludaba a todo el mundo en el camino. ¿Cómo estás, Fulano? ¿Cómo estás, Fulana? Tomaba café seis ó siete veces antes de llegar al trabajo. Pero aquí no. Aquí uno tranca la puerta cuando se va, baja la cabeza y no piensa en nada hasta que llegue a la casa otra vez. Eso sí nunca me quejé. Uno nunca puede quejarse del trabajo porque el trabajo es lo que deja uno comer. Pero ese frío, coño, ese frío no me dejaba vivir. Las nevadas tapaban todo, hacían desaparecer todo. Luego se ensuciaba y era como si un volcan hubiera botado toda su mierda sobre el pueblo. La nieve solo es bonita en fotografías porque a las fotos no les importan las consecuencias . . . el peso de esa nieve en mis hombros. ¡Qué va! Pero para Abel todo era fotografías. Un mundo de fotografías que él inventaba, dibujaba en su mente. Y cuando uno no se comportaba como los personajes que él había imaginado en su fotografía nos juzgaba con esos ojos y despues se iba lejos de aquí en sus pensamientos. Se sentaba en mis piernas pero yo sé que él no estaba cerca.
FATHER returns to the rocking chair. ABEL stands and walks downstage.
ABEL: (frustrated) I only wanted him to tell me that it was cold, that he hated it. That he wanted to see, to feel, the sun near him again. That he missed his family. That we were all an accident. That this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. That he had another life, a better life. (Pause) But he never talked. (Slowly) He never fucking complained. I know he hated it all, but he’d never say it. He was too far away from it all.
ABEL looks down and flips through the pages of the photo album. Lights fade to black.

Praise for An Intimate History of Exile

The playwright does an exceptional job of balancing this extremely personal story with the universal elements of family, identity, and mourning.

Arian Blanco

[A]n exquisite work of theatre…contains riches in its honest and unsentimental depiction of immigrant life.

Martin Denton — The New York Theatre Experience

Paula Shulak — Community News of Delaware

…a charming, poignant story.… It is beautifully conceived and written....

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