Creative Nonfiction: Scheming Abuelas: The Long Con that Made My Marriage
Scheming Abuelas: The Long Con that Made My Marriage
by Alisha Miranda
We held hands as we ambled through the stunning grounds of the Jama Masjid, barefoot. Delhi was stop 3 on our round-the-world honeymoon and even though we were as loved up as a honeymoon couple should be, we restrained ourselves from more obvious PDA, having read in the guidebook that this was frowned upon.
After maybe 15 minutes of aimless wandering, we noticed that we were being followed by a young Indian couple. We were a young couple ourselves – only 25 at the time – but they were younger, maybe in their late teens. From their shy smiles and tentative clasping of each other’s hands, they looked like locals sneaking around behind their parents’ backs. In a city of 18 million, sometimes hiding out in plain sight is your best option.
We smiled back at them and they approached. “English?” they asked. “American,” we said, the easiest answer when travelling abroad where the complexities of our multifaceted cultural identities were beyond comprehension.
“Are you love match or arranged match?” This was clearly the question they had approached us to ask. We looked at each other and laughed. “I guess…both?”
There was no hired matchmaker involved in our courtship, no profiles exchanged that detailed height, weight, professional interests and astrological signs. But there was a guiding hand that brought us together so young. Or rather, four hands.
Our grandmothers met in Cuba in the ‘50s, young brides who shared a penchant for partying and stiff drinks. I have on the wall of my house a framed 8×10 photograph of them in 1955, just before they would both emigrate to the United States. They’re sitting around a table at an outdoor bar, surrounded by two dozen empty bottles and two handsome men. The last time I saw her, I asked my grandmother who the men were. “Who knows?” she replied. “There were always men around us in those days.”
Our grandmothers were among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who immigrated to the US in the ‘60s, escaping Castro’s iron fist, and they settled in Miami where they spent Easters and Christmases and first communions together, celebrating every big occasion with music and laughter, as if they were back on El Malecon. They had 8 children between them, who eventually spread out all over the world. I had lived my whole life in Miami, but was bitten by the travel bug in college and, in the summer of 2004, was packing for London to attend graduate school. The email that hit my inbox was from the woman I had always known as my own grandmother’s BFF, addressed to us both:
From: Abuela Martha
To: Alisha and Carlos
Date: Monday, August 16th 2004
Carli and Alisha, I am sending you both your addresses. Alisha, my grandson’s name is Carlos Miranda, and Carli, her name is as it shows on her address. I really hope you can get to be friends, your respective fathers are also the same age and have been friends forever. Love you both, Martha.
Out of sheer politeness, I replied-all the same day, offering Carlos any help if he needed settling in, since I had lived in London as a study abroad student the previous year. I was nothing if not a dutiful granddaughter.
There are few things that are less of an aphrodisiac than family guilt, but eventually he responded. His reply was charming and witty, and I was pleasantly surprised: Since we are both going to be in London (my grandmother swears that it’s divine providence), we obviously need to meet up in Hyde Park or some needlessly posh London hot spot, he said. I’m sure, like our fathers, we’ll become the best of friends.
We ended up meeting for dinner on the first night I arrived. At the Wagamama in Leicester Square, we talked about which members of our respective families we knew, eye rolling about our grandmothers’ insistence that we meet. We moved on to a pleasant enough conversation where we realized we had very little in common. Carlos had grown up abroad and was obsessed with Star Trek. I hadn’t left the US until college, and told him a story about how I spent my layover in New York hopping between four different shoe stores to find this pair of light green snakeskin flats in my size.
We parted ways smugly, both considering our family duties discharged. I wasn’t looking for a Cuban boy from a Miami family anyway. I had come to the UK with my sights set on the prize: a titled heir or even perhaps a minor royal.
Fate stepped in though as we ran into each other at orientation. I casually mentioned I was working at a pub and he should drop by with a few friends; I’d sneak them a round of drinks. I had him at “free alcohol.”
He came with a big group on a busy night, but I was happy to be the purveyor of drinks, like I know my grandmother would have done for his. “Thank you so much,” he told me as he left the bar that night, kissing my cheek. “Let me take you to lunch to thank you properly.”
That one lunch turned into weekly lunches and a few weeks later our friendship had turned into something decidedly more romantic. We were immediately smitten, but determined we wouldn’t tell our families under any circumstances. The pressure would be too great. That lasted a total of three days when he slipped and told his sister who told his mother who told his grandmother who told mine. The call from her came a few days later. “Tell me about Carlos, mija” she said. She wanted to know everything.
Already deeply in love but fiercely independent, we said goodbye for the month-long Christmas break, going resolutely to our own respective homes but promising to text. Two days after he arrived back in Houston, he called to tell me that he had just received another email from his grandmother. This one had a plane ticket to Miami attached and a message that he read aloud: Come for New Years’ it said. And maybe you should see Alisha while you’re here.
That was how it transpired that he met my entire family within the first two months of us dating, even though it turned out that he had met most of them before anyway, as a cherubic child whose cheeks they had pinched.
The grandmothers insisted we take them out to dinner so we piled them in the car, along with his grandfather Neno – and took them to El Chalan, the Peruvian restaurant where they were all regulars. Martha’s face lit up as she pulled me into one soft arm and wrapped the other around Carlos – “these are our grandchildren,” she told the hostess, waitstaff and at least three groups of diners as we slowly made our way to their usual table.
Over that dinner, and countless others in the years that followed while we were still lucky to have them all together, they spun the yarns of their friendship. Their stories for us were never about the hard times, of which there were many. My grandmother always glossed over her tale of leaving Cuba with five kids and her own parents in tow, waiting in Mexico, penniless, for the US to grant them entry. Carlos’ grandparents’ story was even more dramatic. His grandfather was a member of La Brigada, the Cuban soldiers who were trained to fight during the Bay of Pigs invasion and left behind. He was imprisoned for three years while Carlos’ grandmother, with two boys under the age of five, waited in Miami, not knowing if he was dead or alive. When they did eventually release him, his return was negotiated in exchange for diapers and baby food.
But those aren’t the stories they wanted to tell us, the budding couple. They wanted us to know about the drinks and the parties, the singing and the falling asleep on each other’s couches. At least twice that night we heard the classic family tale of the one break they took in their long friendship, when my grandmother’s second husband Luis became jealous of their relationship and forbade her from seeing them. At Luis’ funeral, my grandmother screamed across the parking lot: “Martona! Now we can see each other every day.”
“Our families have always been so close,” Martha told us in the car on the way home. “Your dads grew up together. We always used to call each other cousins, because we were closer than friends.”
“But we’re not cousins, right?” I asked. “I mean, in the genetic sense.”
A long pause followed while they climbed up and down their respective family trees, just to be sure. “No, definitely not,” they replied.
It was the longest 4 seconds of my life.
Now Martha and her husband are both gone, and my grandmother died this year. Although the pandemic made it difficult to see her in person, we FaceTimed often through 2020. She never hung up without ensuring I showed her Carlos first. His beard is full of grey hair now, and she always made a point to tell him how old he looked. “Your granddaughter has aged me,” he would tell her, before kissing me on the cheek as we hung up the call.
With 13 years of marriage and two children under our belts, there are plenty of moments when I look at a sink full of dirty dishes or pile of discarded laundry and think “ahh yes – my soulmate.” But more often than not I look over at him and thank my lucky stars for whatever brought us together. Destiny? The gods? A sacrificial goat? More likely, the meddling of two conniving grandmothers, best friends who couldn’t have been happier to see their family trees entwined, growing on together for good.