Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea—at least, that's what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you're a boy with a boat. But Rosa feels more caught than cursed—caught between cultures and choices, between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. She's constantly caught between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about. As her college decision looms, Rosa collides—literally—with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?
Release date: May 14, 2019
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 304
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Don't Date Rosa Santos
Once upon a lifetime ago a pregnant woman escaped Cuba with her husband by climbing into a boat he had built in secret with nothing but scrap and desperate hope. They left an entire life in the dead of night. They were still too late. The storm was sudden and violent, and the baby could not wait. As he fought a raging sea, she screamed into the angry winds and pulled her wailing daughter from her body.
When Milagro Santos reached the other side, it was only with her newborn baby.
My mom grew up in a new land and despite warnings, dared to love a boy who loved the sea. But the day before her eighteenth birthday, a spring storm formed out in open waters and shattered another dream. My father’s boat was found but never his body. Mom waited at the dock, her screams etched into the town’s memories as she clutched her middle, me growing inside.
That was the sea for us. And I am the bridge meant to grow big enough to span their tragedies. The lullaby of my life is that to know the sea is to know love, but to love us is to lose everything. We’re cursed, they still whisper, but whether it’s by an island, the sea, or our own stubborn hearts, I don’t know.
“It’s now or never.” Ana-Maria sat on top of my desk as I paced the floor in front of her. She held up her phone and started the timer. I already wanted to quit this entire exercise in favor of verbally throwing up everything I’d been keeping to myself for months.
“So I think I’ve picked my college—”
Ana was already shaking her head. “Don’t say ‘I think.’ You picked it. Be assertive or she won’t take you seriously.”
I bounced my shoulders in an effort to loosen up. My abuela wasn’t even in the room, but my pulse was already hammering wildly. “Okay. Here it is, Mimi. I picked my college.”
“¡Qué bueno!” Ana trilled in a thick Cuban accent that sounded frighteningly similar to my abuela.
“But it’s out of state.”
Ana let out a wail of despair. She was really getting into this. “Ay, mi amor, why do you want to leave me?”
I rolled my eyes at her. “It’s only two states away. But I picked it because it has a study-abroad program—”
Ana sat up in a dramatic huff. “¿Cómo? A different country? ¡Eso no es college!”
I pinched the top corners of my blouse and pulled the fabric away from my already sweat-dampened skin. “It is college. They’re actual classes with real credits that count toward my degree. And the program I’ve applied to…” I paused and Ana nodded. I squared my shoulders. “The program is in Cuba.”
The College of Charleston accepted my transfer application last week. Right after I got that e-mail I celebrated by silently screaming in my bedroom before applying to their study-abroad program. A whole semester at the University of Havana. I would sit in on lectures taught by Cuban professors. There would be excursions and cultural visits. Old Havana, Viñales, Santiago. My Spanish would get better. I would have my own stories from the island that, for so long, had been an heirloom I couldn’t touch.
Of course the program was expensive, but there wasn’t time to hesitate. I was running against a clock ruled by politicians. I had financial aid, scholarships, and a shoe box of savings from working at the bodega. An education visa was one of the only ways to legally travel there now, and I didn’t have family waiting for me in Cuba, so school was the answer.
At my declaration, Ana gasped and pushed herself off the desk, knocking me aside. She clutched her chest and crashed backward onto the bed, my throw pillows falling over the side. The performance was worthy of a telenovela. I sighed and dropped my hands to my hips. “And I suppose this is where my long-lost sister bursts into the room and tells me she’s stealing my inheritance.”
“Or better yet, your long-lost mother.” It was just a joke, but it hit a nerve like always. If Mom still lived here full-time, maybe I wouldn’t be so freaked out about telling Mimi I wanted to live and learn in the country she’d fled. I’d have a buffer for once, since Mom usually made Mimi mad enough to forget everything else.
Ana stood and grabbed me by the shoulders. Ana-Maria was Afro-Latina, and her parents were also from Cuba. Mrs. Peña left the island as a young child, when family in the States had the money and ability to claim her, but Mr. Peña escaped as a teen. Now they were here, together. My best friend was surrounded by cousins and siblings and didn’t yearn to understand our island like I did. At least not outwardly. “You’re as ready as your anxiety and many family issues will allow you to be,” Ana offered with a loving squeeze as she pushed me out the door. “Go get ’em, tiger.”
It was Friday evening at the Santos house, so I knew exactly where my abuela would be: sitting at our tiny laundry room window on the east side of our house, between two lemon trees, where neighbors came in search of answers, guidance, and a little bit of magic. The neighborhood curandera oversaw concerns about struggling gardens, bad dreams, career changes, and terrible luck, and she brewed hope from her window that smelled like herbs and dryer sheets.
I found her there now, corking a bottle. On the other side of the window stood our neighbor Dan carrying a baby in his arms. Dan and his husband, Malcolm—my college advisor and dual-enrollment guiding wizard—had recently finalized the adoption of their daughter, Penny. Mimi shook the bottle and studied the liquid against candlelight.
“What’s the matter?” I asked Dan, momentarily distracted by the dark circles beneath his eyes. A paramedic currently on paternity leave, Dan handled his sleepless shifts pretty well, but he looked ready to fall over.
“Penny is teething,” he said around a yawn. “And Malcolm’s still at work, neck deep in appointments and paperwork right now.” Malcolm was the most sought-after advisor at Port Coral Community College. He had a calm, thoughtful way about him and looked strikingly like Idris Elba. “But ’tis the season of college app deadlines.”
“Why don’t you just come inside?” I asked. Dan’s family regularly came over for dinner.
“Because Mimi is working, and I won’t make her play favorites like Malcolm does with you. Speaking of, didn’t you—”
“See him earlier today? Why, yes. Yes, I did.” Behind Mimi’s back, I shot Dan a wide-eyed look. I’d met with Malcolm to see if we could find any last-minute scholarships for my study-abroad program. Dan was too tired to catch on immediately. I cocked my head toward Mimi meaningfully until his drowsy gaze was finally replaced by a look of surprise. Everyone was shocked I hadn’t told Mimi yet. But they didn’t understand what it meant to talk to Mimi about Cuba.
“For you,” Mimi said, ignoring us, as she handed Dan a tall, skinny blue bottle. “Drink it with tea one hour before bedtime.”
“Bedtime?” Dan asked. “We’ve never heard of her.” Penny laughed and kicked her feet.
Mimi grabbed a smaller bottle, its contents a golden-buttery color. She popped the top, and I caught the scent of apple pie. “For Penny and her gums. Pero un momento, I have something else for her, too.” Mimi shuffled past me.
Dan held Penny as they waited on the other side of the window. His eyes fluttered closed. Penny grabbed his cheeks with a happy smack.
“I’ll be right back,” I told them and hurried after Mimi.
“Stir the sopa for me,” she called over her shoulder as she moved through the warmly lit kitchen. It was usually only ever the two of us, but the house always made it feel like it was filled with more. More light, more people, more love. I lifted the lid of the pot on the stove and inhaled deeply. The stories about Mimi’s soup ranged from bringing people back from the brink of death to healing broken hearts. The secret was in the caldo, which was carefully nurtured with herbs, vegetables, and bones. I stirred the simmering liquid and took another fortifying breath. “Mimi?”
“Aquí,” she called from farther in the house.
I replaced the lid and went to stand at the threshold of her garden room on the far side of the kitchen. It was a terrible idea to try to talk to her while she was working, but I wanted to get this over with.
“Where are you?”
“Here!” she called again, but I still didn’t see her. The space was technically called a Florida room and was meant for lounging with a cold glass of sweet tea. Mimi turned it into a greenhouse. Breezy and warm even when the windows were closed, it was the beating heart of our home. Lush green plants stretched and swayed in their pots. Well-read books and bottles filled with medicines and potions lined the shelves. There was a wood-and-steel wind chime that was steady when the day was nice, a little wilder with the rain, and as agitated as a scared kid when bad luck was coming. It was our safe, protected garden that sometimes growled like a tropical jungle. We lived in Port Coral, Florida, but this was Mimi’s island now.
She popped out from between palm fronds, smiling. In her hands she carried a blue blanket—the color of a cloudless summer sky—that shimmered in the light. I slid my palm across the downy-soft fabric, a feeling of contentment stirring in me. Just like her soups. She headed past me, back to her window. I shook off the sunny feelings and followed.
“Mimi, I picked my college,” I confessed as she handed the baby blanket to Dan. They both looked at me. Dan was grinning.
“Pero you are already in college?”
“Well, yes, but that’s dual enrollment.” I was starting to sweat again. For the past two years I’d bussed my way between high school, community college, and summer classes. It hadn’t been easy, especially with my part-time job at the bodega, but now I was only weeks away from graduating with a high-school diploma and a two-year degree. This fall I was transferring from our local community college to a university to finish my bachelor’s in Latin American Studies.
“Ah, sí, I know. Okay, tell me.” She crossed her arms, the jangle of her many bracelets as familiar as a song. It was how I learned to find her when she disappeared among her plants. My mouth opened, but silence stretched.
Mimi waited. And I couldn’t do it.
“If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I threw the question out with panicked hands. Dan shook his head.
The candles beside Mimi flickered. “Hawaii,” she decided.
“Wait, what?” I hadn’t expected that. “Anywhere in the world, Mimi.”
“I heard you.” She smirked. “I like the Rock. He is very handsome.”
Dan laughed. “Can’t argue with that.”
“But what if you could go to Cuba?”
Her smile disappeared.
Everything I knew about Cuba came from this coastal town, hundreds of miles from the island that was so unknown to me. I met my culture in the food I ate at our table, the songs that played on my abuela’s record player, and the stories that flowed through the bodega and Ana-Maria’s lively home. But I couldn’t find my family in those stories. I couldn’t find me.
“I would not go to Cuba,” Mimi said simply, like it was enough. My abuela was patient and kind, but at the mention of her island, she became shuttered. So many people came to her asking for so much, and she gave them all answers and hope. But never me about this.
“Thank you for this,” Dan said to Mimi. He paid her for the sleepy tea and teething balm. Penny buried her tiny fists in the blanket. He gave me a reassuring smile before heading home.
Mimi began to clean her table. I could smell the soup and hear the hum of music coming from my room.
“But things have changed,” I said. Mimi’s face jerked back to me. This was my first time pushing this. My racing heart stubbornly knocked at her closed window. “They’ve been changing for years.”
My freshman year I watched my president step off a plane in Havana. Everyone at the bodega had frozen, watching in disbelief. Even at fourteen, I’d never expected to see the waters between us become crossable again. Soon after that I discovered study-abroad programs in Cuba and threw myself into dual enrollment.
Mimi exhaled sharply. “Ay, things change for you, but never for Cuba’s people.”
The gulf between Cuba and me deepened. “So even if you could go, you’d never return?”
“My spirit will, mi amor.” The regret in her voice haunted me like an old ghost. “They care more about tourists than the Cuban people who still suffer. That is the only thing that never changes.” Mimi snapped her window closed. She stepped up to me and raised a gentle hand to my cheek. “Where is your college, niña? Somewhere fancy?”
And that was that. I’d expected this. There was no reason to be surprised or disappointed. No reason to cry. “Never mind. I’m actually still deciding,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral.
“Ay, Rosa.” Mimi sighed. “You will make a smart decision soon.”
Soup simmered, wind chimes sang softly, and candles lit the way back to my room. I was home, and talking about Cuba had no place here. Mimi was never returning, my mother was always leaving, and I was a flightless bird left at her harbor, searching for answers that were buried at the bottom of a sea I could not know.
I opened my bedroom door, and Ana looked up from her phone. Her hopeful smile fell away at my expression. “How’d it go, champ?”
I fell into my desk chair, defeated.
“You gotta tell her soon. You might lose your spot if you don’t secure it by May first.”
I needed to do a lot of things. I clicked my pen and flipped through my journal. My goals were nicely packaged here. Sketched vines grew between calendar dates and bloomed into flowers. This notebook of doodles and tasks held all my plans that now felt like secrets.
My laptop whistled with a new e-mail. It was just two words—Love you—and a link to a photo album. I glanced over my mother’s pictures this week. A cactus in the desert. A sketch of a daydreaming waitress on a diner napkin. A half-finished painting leaning against a brick wall. Next week, I’d likely get pictures showing the progress of that painting and glimpses of wherever my mom went next. I wondered if she would make it back to Port Coral before summer.
Ana’s phone rang. “What’s up, Mom?” She listened to whatever Mrs. Peña said before sitting up in a huff. “But why do I have to go?…Okay, okay, fine…I’ll tell them….Mom, I said okay!…I did not raise my voice….I love you, too.” She clicked off and rolled her eyes at me. “Emergency town meeting tonight.”
We had meetings once a month, and the last one was only two weeks ago. “What happened?”
“She didn’t say, but knowing this town, Simon changed the music at his diner without asking the viejitos. And my mom calls me dramatic.”
I got to my feet and checked my reflection in the mirror above my side table and tiny altar. A couple of pastel candles and fresh flowers sat beside a faded sepia picture of my grandfather and the single Polaroid I had of my father. I reapplied my lipstick and popped a strawberry candy in my mouth.
Ana rolled off my bed and followed me out of my room. “Tell Mimi about college in Havana now. She won’t yell at you in front of people.”
I stopped in the hallway, and Ana stumbled into my back. “What? No way. That’s not the plan.” Mimi wasn’t a yeller anyway. She grew quiet and closed off when she was upset. Her silence was lethal, and I was desperately trying to avoid it.
“Ah, sweet baby Rosa.” It was a lifelong nickname. I hated it.
In the kitchen, we told Mimi about the emergency meeting and helped her pack up the soup, which she insisted on bringing. She hauled the pot from the stove to the table, then rubbed her back where it always seemed to bother her as we grabbed the containers and began filling them. Mimi was always healing others, but it was impossible to get her to visit her own doctor regularly. I didn’t know if this was an old-folks thing or just a Cuban one, because the viejitos also acted like a person could live forever on coffee, rum, and cigars.
When all the containers were packed, Mimi slid a quick, disapproving glance over my outfit. “Nos vamos. But first, get out of your pajamas.”
I grabbed a bag of soups. “These are not my pajamas. It’s a romper.” I headed past her and out the door, knowing she would follow, bearing potions and opinions like always.
“¿Qué es un romper?” Mimi asked Ana, who laughed.
The town square was only two blocks away, and the April evening was a warm gold as the sun dipped low in the sky. Flowering trees lined sidewalks, and shop doors sang greetings with friendly bells. We headed toward the library’s meeting room.
Mimi handed out her soups inside while Ana and I took our seats beside her mother. Mrs. Peña was on break, her apron across her lap and pens still stuck in her curls. We all still called it the bodega, but el Mercado, once a neighborhood quick stop for lotto, snacks, and coffee, had expanded into the bigger grocery and deli restaurant it was now, thanks to Mr. Peña’s food. He was an amazing cook but hated talking to people, so it was always his wife at these meetings and deli counter.
“Don’t forget to put your drums in the van. You have jazz band tomorrow,” Mrs. Peña told her daughter as she handed us a bag of chips to share.
Ana sank into her seat. “God, don’t say that so loud.”
“What’s the matter with jazz band?” I asked as I did jazz hands.
Ana nearly growled. “I’m tired of wearing sequins and playing congas.” What Ana was tired of was school band. Her father was an amazing trumpet player—from what I’d heard—who never played anymore, but her family gave her a hard time whenever her drumming took her off their idea of an established path. To them, band equaled scholarships, which equaled college, which equaled a degree that wasn’t in music.
A bigger crowd than usual milled into the room for the meeting. A row over, Malcolm and Dan grabbed two seats. Penny was bouncing happily on Malcolm’s lap, looking nowhere near interested in a bedtime. Dan’s head dropped onto his husband’s shoulder. I knew a power nap when I saw one. Ana and I shared the chips while everyone said quick hellos and got settled. The four viejitos sat in the front row like always. They were the old Latinos of the neighborhood who mostly hung outside of the bodega drinking coffee, playing dominos, and gossiping. They considered it their duty to be at every meeting for their blog and had recently started an Instagram account, which meant their new response to everything was, Check our story. I recognized every face as the room filled—until I didn’t. My next chip stopped halfway to my mouth.
“Who is that?” I whispered to Ana. She sat up a little and checked out the boy who had just sat down ahead of us. I stared at the backs of his two very tattooed arms. “I don’t know,” she admitted. We knew most everyone by their name or relative, so it was a surprise that neither of us recognized him. He ducked his head to listen to the woman beside him. “He’s sitting beside Mrs. Aquino, though, so maybe he works for her.” The Aquino family ran the marina. I had never been there, of course, but I knew her from these meetings. I wondered if Tattoo Guy was new to town as I studied the blue, nearly luminescent waves that swelled from his wrists and up his forearms, before disappearing beneath the short sleeve of his shirt that pulled tight around his bicep. I leaned forward to get a better look.
And jerked right back when Mimi stepped into my line of sight.
She slid into the seat beside me and reached over to brush my hair out of my face. I gently batted her hand away, but she just switched to fussing with my clothes. “Look at how short these are. I can see everything.” She tsked with disapproval and whispered in Spanish, “I don’t understand this romper business.”
I tugged at my shorts. “You’re making me all tiki-tiki.” It was the sound of frazzled nerves and Cuban for You’re s. . .
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