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  • Kai Straw

Miami: Two Worlds, Braided

I’m writing this at 9:33PM in Miami.


On my first morning here I woke up at 5:00AM and saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in my life while an orange sun lifted into a clear sky.  I walked down Miami Beach until my fingers got swollen.  I tried a Cubano (a Cuban sandwich), Rabo Encendido (Cuban oxtail stew), a deconstructed cake (which is an inside-out cake in a bowl), all for the first time – along with rib so tender the waitress slid the bone out from the middle before pulling it apart with just a pair of forks.  I visited a beekeeper and learned how the hive becomes aggressive; it’s because of their queen – the queen tells them all, tens of thousands in her hive, how to behave.  I asked, “ – how do you calm them down?”  Her accent was Cuban.  “You must kill her,” she said.


I’ve thought a lot about fear.  When confronted with something I’m afraid of, or makes me nervous, or gives me anxiety, I imagine the fear being a manifestation of my younger self, like it’s the voice of me at six years old.  In the theater of my heart, I take the hand of my younger self and I lead him to what he is afraid of.  United, as the father and son, we approach it together.  It’s like with this metaphor I can allow the fear to exist without judgment, and allow encouragement to exist, too.  Instead of just, “ – I don’t want to do this.”  There’s a rebuttal, “ – everyone is afraid; you get to decide whether that feeling is a prison or a calling.”  In this way – being afraid isn’t an impediment, it’s a test from my proud father.  In what makes me afraid I also see a loving hand.


When I stepped out of the airport I was greeted by a man with a black car and a thick Cuban accent; he sounded exactly like Al Pacino from Scarface.  “Where you going?”  No introduction.  No explanation.  Just the question and thick humidity.  The palm trees aligning the airport were screaming with birds that rushed from one tree to the next every few minutes.  “Miami Beach,” I said.  “Miyami-beesh, 70 doller,” he replied.  I took an uber instead.  My new driver said, with wide eyes looking at me through the rearview, “ – the Russians tried to kill my son.”  He was Columbian; I could hardly understand him, but I understood that.  I repeated the entire question.  “The Russians tried to kill your son?”  He replied, “ – jes-jes-jes-jes, I tell you.”  He talked fast and with his hands and he accidentally smacked the rosary beads hanging from his mirror.  Though I didn’t understand most of the story, he ended with, “ – Cubans are powerful.”  He said it with the type of pride and awe you reserve for a great grandfather you never met.


With the beekeeper, I used her tools and lifted a hive’s lid to expose the honeycomb panels.  On the underside of one of the lids, hundreds of large ants about the size of my pinky-nail were exposed swarming around the hive.  “Agh!”  She shouted.  She left briefly and returned with a blowtorch.  I threw the lid on the grass and she chased the ants with the burning blue spearhead; it roared and the ants glowed and popped as they were burned.  “Popcorn!”  She shouted.  She then explained how the ants don’t actually go inside the hive and they don’t hurt the bees; “ – they have an agreement,” she said, but not with her.


There are two worlds here, braided.  Everyone speaks Spanish and no one speaks Spanish – at the same time, brushing shoulders.  “I don’t speak big English,” said an older woman; her voice sounded like burnt leather, “ – I live here for ten year, everyone speak Spanish.”  Old Cuban men with their cigars and big thick-rimmed black glasses sit at street-side tables in Little Havana; they talk fast back and forth, ignoring the herds of tourists who are ignoring them, too, as they wear tropical shirts or polos or business casual suits or designer this or designer that or white shorts and flip-flops that clap funny when they walk.  The kid who cut my hair, 3-months new from Columbia, used shining golden combs; we could hardly understand each other, but the cut was perfect.


The cultures here haven’t combined as much as they’ve decided to dance together – separate bodies to the same rhythm.  Miami feels like a handshake between two people who are pretending to understand each other but don’t – but both do understand the sun, music, money, beauty, and good food – so those things are the common tongue, and I don’t say that cynically.  It’s like seeing oil and water separate and swirl, uncombined but beautiful in its disparate cohesion.  It’s sports cars and tourists and Cubans and Columbians and cigars and tight outfits and rich dads and poor dads and old European money and thunderstorms and graffiti and sunshine and art deco architecture and cockroaches and too much traffic and bright pink nails on old women and laughing as the waves hit you on a beach so warm it doesn’t matter if it’s grey out.  Miami is a sun-kissed twenty-dollar bill twisting through the wind, caught midair and slammed onto a beach-side bar.


Kai Straw

Miami, 2024


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