Miami Riverfront Hotel New Year's Eve, 2004

Miami is a city of unruly passions and transplanted ghosts. I have only to look through the panoramic windows of Room 1701 at the Miami Riverfront Hotel, and in the freeze-frame of a vista I find my place among the city's rhythms. The broken seas usher in the mouth of the Miami River, a coveted stretch of water and land that was sacred ground to the Tequestas of Florida until a chain of usurpers — Spanish conquistadores and missionaries, shipwrecked adventurers and invading Creeks from the North loyal to the English — drove the few hundred who survived disease and warfare into deadly exile in Cuba. I also have made this city mine, and the Riverfront Hotel a place of veneration, the altar where José Antonio and I come to love every Friday afternoon. We are a perfect fit, this cauldron of a city and I, one of its denizens, a woman named after the sea and the sun.

“Marisol,” I hear José Antonio call as he wakes up, startled to find emptiness where he remembers a blissful embrace.

“At the window,” I answer and he quickly turns around. “There's a beautiful sunset in the making. The orange sun is turning the river purple.”

“Come back to bed, my poet, and tell me all about it here”

I obey and his kiss tastes of the tart albariño on the night table where three coconut-scented candles flicker as they did the afternoon José Antonio brought them in amber crystal holders to our first encounter. For three months, we have never made love in our hideout without the light and aroma of these candles and a respectable bottle of wine to toast our union. For three months, our lovemaking has been followed by our narration of enchanting stories of conquest and heartbreak, his and mine. For three months, except for our memorable weekend in the Mexican Riviera among Mayan ruins and deserted beaches, we have not missed a Friday at the Riverfront. The comfort José Antonio finds in our routine and our fledgling rituals is still foreign to me. I prefer the unscripted text of adventure, the illusion of discovery, but for now my free spirit has surrendered to José Antonio's deftly choreographed dance.

A little after three o'clock on Fridays, José Antonio calls me when he has finished checking on his moribund patients at Our Sisters of Charity Hospital. I can hear him through the cellular phone in the hospital parking lot straining to shed his white doctor's coat and talk to me at the same time.

“Mariposa, see you in fifteen minutes,” he says, toying with my name, calling me “butterfly” as he opens the door to his silver Mercedes. “Twenty if there's traffic. God, I hate the traffic in this city when it stands between you and me.”

I laugh.

“Here comes the cubanazo sweet talk.”

“Let yourself be loved, woman.”

I laugh again.

“That's exactly what I'm doing. Hurry.”

I hang up and sprint to the bathroom to touch up the only makeup I ever wear, smoky eyeliner and mascara to enhance the almond shape of my black eyes, and I spray a subtle dose of Pleasures in strategic places. With the finesse of a diplomat, I leave my day job collecting Cuban-exile history for the Miami Museum of History using another inauspicious excuse, and I drive, darting from one lane to another, through the clogged downtown streets to the Riverfront, beating the approaching yacht or freighter du jour across the bridge in worse traffic than José Antonio will have on his drive north for a handful of miles along the skyscrapers of Brickell Avenue's financial district. I pass by a bearded homeless man holding up a cardboard sign that says, “Why lie? I need a beer,” and I roll down my window to drop the change in my ashtray into his paper cup. He thanks and blesses me. No need, he has earned his pay with his wit.

José Antonio chose the Riverfront for its accessible location between our jobs and the privacy rendered by its architecture and landscape. The rectangular, nondescript ivory building with covered parking, the thick tropical foliage wrapped around the entrance, the river and the waters of Biscayne Bay behind it, camouflage the sin of our encounters. I like the setting for its history and the hotel for its impeccable white linens and Art Deco posters on the walls. After the Riverfront became our refuge, I entertained myself for days researching how the Tequestas weathered the humid subtropical environment, fished seacows with their rudimentary spears, and struggled to survive the interlopers on the same riverbank where I now intend to bury whatever is left in my heart of Gabriel, that fraud of an habanero I once loved.

When I arrive at the Riverfront, I head for the garage to park my puny red Echo, which I bought from a repossessed car lot, and call José Antonio's cell. He gives me a room number. I write all the room numbers down in my calendar, as if chronicling this mattered: 1215, 1440, 1136, 1536, 1406, 1439, 1634, 1415, 1032. Today, it is 1701. I sprint inside through the back door, just as José Antonio instructed me to do the afternoon he plotted our first rendezvous. I suspect the cloak-and-dagger is artifice, as electronic surveillance cameras must be taping my every move, and the thought makes my heart race with fear. José Antonio is a respected cardiologist, a fixture on the social circuit of the bohemian and wealthy alike, a patron of the fine arts and of the recently arrived, which he once was. I am a free woman, but he is not a free man. I know that José Antonio has arrived at the Riverfront minutes before me, checked in, paid in cash, received the frequent customer discount and a wink of complicity from the front desk manager. Why am I doing this? I question myself all the time, during the frenzy of my drives to meet him whenever he has a moment, during the wanting nights in my own bed, on days like today when the what-ifs of history haunt me and I confuse the residual scent of losses with the fragrance of new desire.

Excerpted with permission from Reclaiming Paris by Fabiola Santiago.
Published by Atria Books.