She’s the One!

One more look in the mirror. Shirt looks ok. Beard trimmed just right. No lint visible. Those pesky nose hairs are gone. Looks like I am ready. A quick look at the clock and I realize I am still really early. It doesn’t really matter. I know I am going to be there at least a half hour early. My obsession about time is ever present. I can’t be late to anything, even if it means I have to feel the embarrassment of getting to an event early.

I have been on other dates, but this one feels different. I don’t know why, but this one seems like I really should spend a little more time getting ready. It is January 2nd, and it is cold outside, rare for South Florida, but I am loving it. I am anxious, excited, and scared all at once. Even though I have spoken to my date on the phone, we have not actually met. Did I pick the right place for dinner? She said she is watching her weight and I didn’t want to pick an expensive place. It is supposed to be a casual meet, to see if we like each other. So it’s not a romantic place. Lots of salad and healthy stuff will be available. Yes I think I got it right.

I am driving to the place now. Directions are printed out even though I know exactly where it is. Deodorant is in glove compartment, along with cologne. Of course I applied both on the way out, but I am in my 40’s and I am not an expert at this dating thing. As that thought crosses my mind, I am a little saddened. As a widower, sadness is always there, in the back of my mind. It has been 3 years since she passed, and every day gets easier. But it is moments like these that trigger that little bit of sadness. Is she looking down on me? Does she approve? Would she like the person I am about to meet? Shortly after her death, it seemed like sadness consumed me. It led to depression, and a relationship started too soon, a relationship that should never have been. But now, I am confident, committed to going on with my life, learning to love again, learning to live again. The memories of my late wife are happy memories now, not the ones of her when she was sick.

I arrive at the restaurant. Wow – 30 minutes early, which is right on time for me. I park in front of the restaurant.

Wait.

Problem.

I realize that if I stay here, she might come early too, see me already here, and now I am the creepy middle aged desperate guy sitting in a parking lot waiting for her. Not good. I pull out of the parking lot, and I park in the mall next to the restaurant. I listen to music and try to relax. It is not working. What is wrong with me? My palms are actually sweating. My heart is jumping out of my chest. Why didn’t I act this way the last time I went out? What is different about this one?

Ok it is now about 10 minutes till our meeting time, so it is safe to park at the restaurant. I get out, but hesitate. Do I wear my jacket? No jacket? I decide on no jacket. I stand in front of the restaurant so she can see me when she walks up. Will I know it is her? Will she knows it is me? Boy it is really cold. But if I go back to the car, she may not see me, decide I am a no show, and I will never see her again. Yes I am a little insane now, acting like a 12 year old.

I finally decide to go get my jacket. As I walk to my car, in between cars, there she is. She surprises me, calling me by name.

She is beautiful!

We hug. I tell her I am going to get my jacket, then we go in. After ordering and sitting down, we begin to talk. Time stands still. We talk about absolutely everything. It seems like everything we talk about we are in sync. What is going on here? Why is this happening? There is something about her so familiar, like we already know each other. We seem to have led such different lives, but at the same time so much alike. As the night passes in the restaurant, my brain is confused. I must be in a dream. The restaurant is closing. We have been there about three hours, and neither one of us want to go home. We find a Starbucks. The conversation continues. Starbucks closes and it is time to say good night. A warm hug and kisses on the cheek and she is gone again.

I am driving home on a cloud. My tires are floating over the road as I try to take in what has just happened. One thought keeps popping into me head.

“She’s the one.”

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Playoffs!

baseballIt was a Saturday like any other. No school, so I got up a little later. Of course, for a 13 year old, that meant 9 AM instead of 6 AM. After dressing and the obligatory brushing of teeth, I stroll into the kitchen. Mami has cafe con leche ready, along with some toasted Cuban bread. Yeah, Cubans in Miami feed their kids coffee. I am not sure if that contributed to our hyper activity. This is 1980, so ADHD has not become the popular diagnosis for hyper active kids yet. We are just considered annoying young boys. Nothing a day of playing outside won’t fix. As I go to my room to grab my baseball and glove, the realization that today is not a regular Saturday starts to reach my brain.

Playoffs!

I was a baseball fanatic as a kid, and as such, was on a Koury League team, our version of Little League in Miami. Our team was in the playoffs that year. I can’t tell you I was the star on the team. I was small for my age, and I was struggling to learn to hit a fastball. I was a decent fielder, and I was progressing as a hitter though. Papi apparently had aspirations of having a Major League baseball player for a son, so he was very involved. I fondly remember seeing him at practice and at games, cheering me on. He had coached little league back in New Jersey, and even helped out with my current team as well. Of course Mami never missed a game. Those years were instrumental in cementing my relationship with both of them.

So in his attempt to help me reach my dream of baseball stardom, Papi had heard of the Charlie Lau batting method. Baseball fans will surely remember George Brett, the star third baseman for the Kansas City Royals. Many will remember his chase of Ted Williams .400 batting average that one year, and the many thrills he gave us during his career. Well, he made the Charlie Lau method famous. It was a method that used the body’s own momentum, and a transfer of weight between the batter’s back and front feet to propel him through the ball. Papi took me to a local batting instructor who taught this method.

The change was pretty significant, not so much because I was suddenly transformed into a superstar, but because of the confidence it gave me. I had a new weapon at my disposal, one that none of the other kids on the team had, and the encouragement I received from Papi and the instructor went a long way. Suddenly I was connecting bat with ball in practice much more frequently, and best of all, the ball was flying off the bat. Where most of my hits had been harmless ground balls, I was now consistently hitting line drives into the outfield.

Game time!

The game was pretty exciting, going back and forth, no team having the lead for very long. It was the second to last inning and we were behind 4-2. We quickly get two hits, putting men on first and second. Suddenly a quiet ballpark comes alive. We are all standing in the dugout now, unable to contain our excitement. You can feel the energy in the ball park, as the chatter in the bleachers begins to build, parents and fans cheering on their family and friends. We have a chance to win this one now if we keep it going, but we are up against arguably the best pitcher in the league. This kid looks 2 or 3 years older than the rest of us, and I can swear he throws illegal pitches, since every ball seems to have a break in it, which is not allowed in this league. The next batter strikes out, and our hearts deflate. I am now on deck, as the next batter goes to the plate, hoping to be the one to get us back in this game.

“Strike one!”

“Strike two.”

“You’re out!”

Wonderful. This is not the way I had planned it. With two outs and the game on the line, we will have to see what Charlie Lau can do for me. Everyone is cheering me on. I am shaking like a leaf, and I am sure it shows as I move to the plate. The pitcher looks huge. Images of David and Goliath permeate my brain. The coach, probably noticing I am white as a ghost, calls time and calls me to over to talk.

“Ok kid, relax! You can do this. Remember this.. Keep your eye on the ball, and wait for for your pitch. No need to swing at everything. Just meet the ball with the bat ok?”

Henry – he was a great coach. He never yelled, and was never negative. He always had a way of putting me at ease and instilling confidence in me. I step in to the batters box, curling into my new batting position, confident I can make this happen. I am repeating in my head, “Wait for your pitch. Wait for your pitch…” The pitch is thrown, and it is right down the middle, no break in sight. A fastball. I can hear it sizzle as it flies towards the plate. It all slows down now as I unwind my swing. Back foot transfers to front foot, bat follows body, eye follows ball and then…

Crack!

The ball flies off the bat, directly over the pitcher’s head. The ball reaches the outfield before I even get a chance to run. The runners on first and second were moving with the pitch, and take advantage. Two runners score, and I stop on second.

We are tied 4-4!

I can see Mami screaming, Papi with a huge smile on his face, applauding. My teammates are jumping up and down in the dugout, some of them jumping on the runners as they cross the plate. I am of course serious as a heart attack. I can’t let anyone know that I think this is the absolute best moment of my short life.

“Stay serious John.” I tell myself “ It’s no big deal. Just a normal day at the park for George Brett, No different for you.”

We later scored again, winning the game.

We lost the playoffs that year. But that night – I went home a superstar.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

5:45 AM

The alarm is pounding in my head. The sound is like a freight train running through my cerebral cortex. I reach over to hit the snooze button. I miss. One more try. There, silence once again. I hug my pillow even tighter, and all is well again, except I try to jump back into that dream that had me so enthralled just a moment ago. All I can see in my mind is a tunnel, with a train slowly covering the light at the end, until it is now coming right for me.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

6 AM

Oh alright. I quickly get up, wiping sleep from my eyes as I stumble into the shower and wash the sleep from me body. I am often annoyed by the tasks I need to complete every morning. Such a waste of my time to have to shower exactly the same way every morning. Then dry off exactly the same way, brush my teeth exactly the same way. How boring! Yet here I am doing it again. The realization that this morning has something different in store gets me through my boredom. I quickly dress, make some coffee, prepare my lunch, and head for the garage. My trusty old Chevy Trailblazer rumbles to attention, the 270 horse power six cylinder engine fires up and propels me out of the driveway, ready to meet any challenges.

As I get closer to my destination, I can see the fresh grass along the road to my left, a fine mist of dew floating on top. It is still dark as the sun has not made its usual appearance. I love this time of day. Except for the occasional early riser, it is quiet. I have the windows down, and the fall breeze hits my face as I smell the beginning of a new day in the air. It is mornings like these when I remember getting up early with my dad to go play Golf, the golf course having that same still, peaceful feeling, inviting you to experience the smells and sounds of nature rising from its nightly slumber.

As I pull closer to the parking lot of the school, I start to see activity. Oh no, not people, at least not yet. The first activity is in the form of signs. At first it is just a couple. The are brightly colored. Many have the American flag on them, smartly covered in shades of red, white and blue. Some of them are pretty small, which makes you wonder why even put them out, when you can hardly read them. Some are quite large, and obviously needed more than one person to erect. As I get closer, I see more and more signs, until I pull into the parking lot and see rows and rows of them. They greet me energetically. As I pull into the parking lot, it seems as if they are all jumping up and down, hands up in the air exclaiming “Pick me! Pick me!”

As I pull into my chosen parking space, it is still dark. There are hints that the sun is on its way, but she is taking her sweet time, perhaps hitting the snooze button on her alarm clock as well. There are only a few other cars, but I can see more behind me. It is quite beautiful to see them, their headlights leading the way. I am reminded of the movie Field of Dreams and the famous line “Build it, and they will come!”. I can see people now. As I walk up to the school, and take out my identification, I can see them handing out posters and business cards. Yes this is the place.

I walk quickly through the hallways on to my destination. More than one person tries to hand me a business card or poster. They are telling me to punch this or punch that. I resist their attempts, even though I am listening. I tend to not vote for anyone who approaches me at the polling location, and today is no different. They have had long enough to influence my vote. Not today. My decision has been made. A short line, a couple of questions later, and I am there. It is just me, the ballot, and a pen. Decisions will be made today.

Today I am an American, and today I voted.

What Am I Exactly?

January 1st, 1959.

Fidel Castro and his scruffy band of soldiers march into Havana, Cuba.  Without that event, I could not be here writing this to you today, even though that day is a very sad one for many Cubans, especially in my family.  That was the day a ruthless Communist took control of my family’s homeland.  Many in my family fought side by side with these scruffy, bearded Communists, not realizing at the time their real plans.

Within the next 5 years or so, most of my family would flee their homes.  Their homes in Cuba would be ransacked looking for contraband and their lands would be confiscated.  Some would be jailed for speaking against the government.  Some of their best friends would be executed.  The executions and confiscations would not come as a result of due process, or court proceedings. There would be no attorneys fighting on their behalf, the judges and juries being the same scruffy bearded men, coming down from the Sierra Maestra mountains to exact their brand of justice on the people of Cuba.

Fast forward about 7 or 8 years.  Struggling to make ends meet, a young married couple live in a small apartment in New Jersey.  He works in a gas station while trying to finish law school.  She does her best to take care of two children.  Life is difficult. They work hard to deal with a new culture, a different society.  All the while, they long for their paradise island.  They vow to go back, to right the wrongs of the bearded Communist.  Yet every year as an exile, they know it becomes harder to realize that dream.  It will become much harder in a few more years, when she will give birth to two more babies.  She wonders if these children will have to go to war, as she watches the events unfold in Vietnam.  Both father and mother have seen enough senseless violence in their lives.

1985.

He is a senior in high school.  Following in the footsteps of his father, he is very much interested in politics, and world events. He can’t wait everyday to sit in Mr. Stienberg’s Government class.  This is the class where they talk about the differences between Communism and Capitalism.  This is the class where he is learning how this great country works.  He can’t help but wonder about the place his parents came from.  He is a loner in school.  It is hard for other kids in this school – a small school in a rural location – to relate to this half-Cuban half-American kid.  Many find him strange – a “Latino” that doesn’t talk like a Latino. Many don’t know he is Cuban, and he often has to deal with derogatory language by kids that don’t know he is Cuban. He struggles to establish his identity.  “What am I exactly?” he asks himself?

Then one day, Jeb Bush and Dante Fascell come to the school for a debate.  It was set up by his favorite Government teacher who is a long time friend of Dante Fascell.  It is a great day. The two politicians respectfully debate a number of subjects, including Cuba.  There is no clear cut winner between the two politicians, but one thing is very clear. The little half-Cuban half-American kid was changed that day. He saw first hand what makes this country so great. The free exchange of ideas. There were no government officials in the room ready to execute or jail anyone. There were no threats of revolution. There was no fear of retribution for saying the wrong thing.  This was Democracy in action, and the impressionable kid in the back would never be the same.

Soon after high school, he voted for the first time.  Since then he has voted in many elections. With each election, his identity has become stronger and stronger.  He is an American.  He is not a Cuban-American.  He is an American.  The Cuban Revolution was a sad day.  But it got me here.  I am a part of the greatest country in the world.  My parents and my family came to this country as a result of that violent revolution, and struggled to achieve the American dream.  I just thank God every day that in this country, we get to express ourselves and change the system through our votes.  Let’s not forget that.

Now go and vote!