By Marlene Olin
Home of the Brave
Today I live in a gated community. A man with a gun and a holster greets you at our guardhouse. Crime is rampant. If you haven't been pistol-whipped in your driveway for a ring or a watch, you know someone who has.
Privilege and poverty live side by side. While BMWs and Porsches vroom through the streets, panhandlers loiter on every corner. Luxury stores sell Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Cartier. Little old ladies with mud-colored skin hawk fruit on the sidewalks, sell flowers in plastic tubs.
It's easy to avert your eyes. We all do it. But the disparity is always there. Some neighborhoods are so poor that people can't afford cars. Middle-aged men on kid-sized bicycles dart in and out of traffic. At night, they bleed into the darkness. My foot stays on the brake staring and not staring, straining and not straining to see them.
For many, the ladder to success is missing the rungs. There is no toehold up, no helping hand, no pathway to promise. Yet people are literally dying to come here every day. What's Paradise Lost for some is still heaven on earth for others.
"I've been in Miami for six years," says my Uber driver. He looks around thirty. Clean-cut. Good-looking. A slight Hispanic accent softens the words.
"Where are you from?" I ask. Each refugee, I have learned, has a story.
When he says he's from Cuba, I'm surprised. There's thousands of Venezuelans, Brazilians, Peruvians. But young men from Cuba? Not so much. A saga unfolds that leaves me speechless.
"You see first I went to Jamaica. A lot of Cubans vacation in Jamaica. From there, getting to Miami is not that hard."
He peeks into the rear view mirror. I sit straight up, listening.
"The key is an illegal passport," he says. "Ten thousand dollars. They don't come cheap."
Cubans, even professionals, generally earn less than $100 a month. I can't imagine how he raised the money.
"Thousands are trying to leave," he says. "They're lining up at the Mexican border trying to make it across."
“Why the sudden exodus,” I ask him, “when things are finally getting better?”
He sweeps his hand over the dashboard and smiles. "No place is like this."
A few days later, I'm in bed trying to sleep. It's after midnight when the phone rings. It's the security guard who's on duty. He's never called our home before. He's breathless, rushing the words.
"Stay in your house, don't take out the trash, don't go anywhere." A group of intruders, he tells me, has somehow jumped the walls and climbed over the gates. "The police are chasing them," he says. "They're using dogs."
I flick on a lamp and look outside the window. I see lights flashing, a glint of metal in someone's hand. My first thought is a home invasion or professionally planned siege. Machine guns. Tear gas. Explosions of shrapnel come to mind.
Then I see the pig.
He's scurrying through my schefflera bushes, burrowing his little feet. Even through the hurricane proof glass, I can hear his cries. A goat wanders alongside him. There's a petting zoo eating my begonias on one side of my home and a full scale military assault on the other.
I call a neighbor who lives in one of the bayside homes. The houses are more expensive there. The views go straight to Key Biscayne.
"It's like a war zone," says my friend.
A few feet from her dock a large wooden boat has run aground, it's hull listing on a pile of shallow rocks. Three ships from the Marine Patrol have surrounded it.
"I think they're Haitians," she says. "Half of them are in the boat, but the other half made a run for it. "
I peek between the curtains, looking and not looking. Bodies are thrown on the asphalt, black against black. Handcuffs glow in the streetlight. A Cuban who makes it to dry land gets sanctuary and assistance. But there's no welcome mat for these folks. They'll be trucked to detention centers and sent back home within weeks.
Eventually the guard calls to assure me that all is well. The streets are safe, the coast is clear. I turn off the lights and head back to bed, exhausted yet wide awake, secure yet shaken, relieved and not relieved.
Marlene Olin's stories have been published in over thirty-five online and print journals. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she attended the University of Michigan. Marlene presently lives in Coconut Grove, Florida with her husband. She has two children and two grandchildren. She recently compiled a collection of her stories and finished her first novel. Her Twitter handle is @writestuffmiami