Luis Abreu savors a shrimp cocktail and sips an American beer from a chilled glass. It's a sunny fall afternoon, and he's enjoying a day off from his job driving a big-rig produce truck.
"If I like," he says eight months after making a remarkable journey from Cuba to Southern California, "I can enjoy what presidents enjoy: a steak, good wine, shrimp."
It was friendship found in a sea-drifting bottle that brought Abreu and his wife the 3,000 miles from their coastal hometown of Caibarien to Santa Ana--and helped them fulfill the immigrant's dream of building an American way of life.
The bayside eatery where he sits is on Balboa Peninsula, a place he recognizes from a postcard sent to him by his grade-school pen pals in Corona del Mar. It was one year ago that the students and their imaginative teacher, Judy d'Albert, pooled their resources to enable the Abreus to make their journey.
It was one of many acts of kindness and improbable circumstances that have touched their lives, an odyssey that unfolds daily.
Like the seemingly random currents that put the bottle with a message in it in his hands six years ago, the lives of Luis Abreu, 52, and Miriam Abreu, 47, have shifted drastically over the past year.
"People say I'm the luckiest man alive," Luis Abreu said when he arrived in the United States. So lucky, he said recently, that he knows he will one day win the California lottery. "Ya veras," he says. You'll see.
"Against astronomical odds . . ." began television newscasts the night of March 6 as pictures were beamed around the world of the Abreus listening to the Harbor Day School fifth-graders' welcome song, "This Land Is Your Land."
The Corona del Mar children crowned Luis Abreu with an Angels baseball cap. They had known through correspondence he once played semiprofessional baseball. The family of one of the students provided the plane tickets from Miami to Orange County.
"You are my family," he said after pulling from his pocket the original message he found in the oceangoing bottle to show reporters and new friends.
The couple was given a hero's welcome earlier that day at John Wayne Airport by many who had seen a Times article about the lucky couple.
On that very first day, the Abreus met with people who have become anchors in their lives--helping them land jobs, find a home, even give them a bed to sleep in that night.
Cuban natives Jose and Nora Cueto offered to host the Abreus at their five-bedroom Santa Ana home. The Abreus, who came from the same city as their hosts, stayed with the Cuetos for five months until they were able to get out on their own in August.
The Cuetos helped them cut through red tape, shuttled them to the immigration office and the DMV. (Luis passed the driving test on his third try.)
Others also stepped in to help.
Francisco F. Firmat, an Orange County Superior Court judge and Cuban immigrant, helped the Abreus through the immigration process and made sure there was clear communication with the couple as they prepared to leave Cuba.
Oscar Nunez, 46, who emigrated from Cuba at age 11, was there at the airport to tell the Abreus he would try to help them find work through a friend who is a supermarket executive. The parents of one of the Harbor Day students offered job contacts too.
Nunez and the Cuetos helped form what became known as El Club del 200. The dozen families in the "club" donated $200 or more each to finance Luis' truck-driving schooling, which cost $2,400.
"We have to be grateful to be able to help," says Jose Cueto, 72, a physician who emigrated from Cuba in 1952, seven years before the Cuban Revolution. "It was easy for us to come here. . . . I believe the more you have, the more you owe to society."
Besides sharing their home, the Cuetos helped the newly arrived couple cope with what most people here take for granted.
"It was shocking to go into a market for the first time," Miriam Abreu says, recalling seeing America's abundance: She wept upon seeing the variety of fresh produce and meat in stores--things absent in shops back home.
Miriam had worked in a bodega, a neighborhood grocery about the size of a small garage, where she would check customers' ration cards and parcel out the limited stock available that day. Families were allowed a monthly ration of 5 pounds of rice and 10 ounces of beans per person. When she arrived, Miriam had been suffering from malnutrition. But now, bare food shelves and empty stomachs come only in letters from Cuba. Miriam and Luis have each gained weight--the gauntness is gone from their faces.
In the past few months, Luis has spent nearly $50 sending letters home. He has the addresses of 50 people to whom he writes. "It's so difficult to compare six months of this to 36 years of Cuba" since the revolution, his letters say.
For the past 25 years in Cuba, Luis and Miriam lived in a drafty house the size of a two-car garage.
Today, they live in a $500-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in a Santa Ana complex called Villa Clara--the namesake of the Cuban province where they lived. Most of the couple's furniture is secondhand--gifts from well-wishers. A sewing machine in the bedroom is on loan until Miriam can afford her own. She's hoping that when her English improves, she can become a seamstress for a department store.
Although their walls are bare, the rooms are furnished with the things found in most American homes: a TV, a radio, a kitchen table.
On Luis Abreu's desk is a portrait of Jose Marti, a poet and hero of Cuba's independence from Spain. Next to the painting is a photograph of Luis and Miriam's two adult sons standing with their half-sister, a daughter from Luis' first marriage. A son from that marriage has been missing for a decade--ever since he made the dangerous trip to Miami in hopes of immigrating to the U.S.
While Luis' daughter is content to remain in Cuba, his and Miriam's sons--Luis Jr., 24, and Ricardo, 23--wanted to come to the United States with their parents but could not. Because they are no longer minors, they were not covered by the Abreus' visa. It is the fervent hope of Luis and Miriam that their sons will eventually be able to join them.
"No hay nada que puede hacer aqui para nosotros, papa." There is nothing you can do for us here, Dad, the eldest son had said to Luis Sr. "At least in the United States you have a better chance to live, and you can send us money to survive."
The couple have sent their sons $800 in the last eight months.
"Sometimes I can't enjoy anything because my sons aren't here," Miriam says. "The little bottle has brought us far, but it has also separated our family. Sometimes nothing impresses me no matter how beautiful it can be."
Luis, who believes he has several guardian angels looking over him, is optimistic.
"I know they'll join us some day," he says.
The couple revel in the joy of preparing hearty dinners with fresh ingredients on modern appliances.
They each have jobs--both evolved from contacts made the day they landed at John Wayne Airport.
Last month, they finished making their final payment on a 1984 red Pontiac Firebird, a new friend's old car.
Miriam is learning how to drive, becoming independent and more and more of a yanqui. Driving will save her two hours bus time if she can drop off and pick up her husband from work instead of the other way around.
Luis Abreu delivers enough produce each day in his job as a truck driver to feed a third of the 40,000 people in Caibarien.
Miriam Abreu works behind a deli counter at a Northgate Supermarket in Anaheim, where she deals with the kinds of foods that back home might only be found on the black market. Together they earn five times more in one day than what they earned in a month back home.
"No matter how hard work is, it is my therapy," Miriam says. "It keeps my mind off of Cuba."
Luis agrees: "I feel good with my work. I really enjoy it."
He says that when he drives, he listens to an oldies radio station because it reminds him of his youth and his earliest yearnings to come to America. At age 19, he tried to escape Cuba during the revolution to come to the United States. He spent three years in prison for making the attempt.
The tradition of displaced Cubans in the United States helping each other has given the Abreus good friends to talk to.
"We can speak our minds here," says Miriam, who is always quick to serve a Cuban espresso to visitors.
"There is a great satisfaction to be able to express one's opinions," Luis interjects. "Before the elections, I heard someone call President Clinton a liar . . . chico, that startled me."
At social gatherings, it's difficult to escape talk of politics, of immigrant experiences linked to the Cuban exodus of the 1960s, the Mariel boat lift of the 1970s or the Cuban balseros--rafters--of the '80s and '90s.
"When Fidel falls, everything will improve," Luis says at a dinner party where Miriam has cooked a rich stew called ajiaco.
Jose Cueto takes the conversation in another direction: "No one's to blame, and everyone is to blame. We are all responsible for what is going on in Cuba."
Someone knocks on the door, and Luis opens it without hesitation. He welcomes the unexpected visit by the apartment complex manager, Ramon Casate, a Cuban who immigrated two years ago. Casate, 43, who was a philosophy and history teacher in Cuba, is filled in on the conversation and adds his perspective.
"Many people benefited from the revolution. The black Cuban and the peasants, primarily. And many believed in what was going on." He has everyone's attention. "I believed what was happening."
A former Communist, he says to the Abreus' guests: "Now I have gone through so much suffering that I don't know what the politics are, and I don't want to know."
They all agree they'd rather be here than there.
"Hello stranger! Congratulations for finding this message," said the note in the bottle that Luis found floating in the seaweed while he was walking along the shore of his hometown. He tucked the bottle inside his shirt and took it home to open it in private.
Corona del Mar schoolteacher Judy D'Albert, 56, wrote the message on behalf of her fifth-grade students in the summer of 1990 while vacationing with her husband, Pierre, on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, British West Indies.
She had asked a local fisherman to drop the bottle in the Atlantic, anticipating it would catch the Gulf Stream to Europe.
Since 1985, D'Albert, a British immigrant of 22 years, had been using drift bottles to teach students how early explorers used currents to navigate the sea. Nearly 300 bottles have gone out, and over the years her classes have made contact with people as far as the Philippines and as close as Catalina Island.
"I didn't know what to expect, really," D'Albert said recently at Harbor Day School, the private school where she now teaches science instead of fifth grade. "There's a lot of serendipity in science. But if you look back, it seems like there was a lot of pre-destiny."
Destiny or not, D'Albert's miscalculation was the Abreus' good fortune. The island of Anguilla isn't far enough out into the Atlantic to catch the stream. The bottle drifted west rather than east. It washed up on the north-central Cuban coast.
Luis was one of few in the village who spoke English--townspeople called him "Johnny" because of that--and could read the message. For five years, using his rudimentary English skills, he developed a pen-pal relationship with D'Albert and her students.
Then, in the summer of 1995, the Abreus won visas issued by the U.S. State Department through an annual lottery for legal immigration.
They did not have enough money to pay for transportation to the United States, so Luis decided to ask his pen-pals for help. D'Albert's fifth-graders came through, asking their schoolmates to look in their hearts and piggy banks to help raise $1,800. By Christmas, the children sent the money to the Abreus.
The couple's lucky streak continued: They were on the last charter flight out of Cuba to Miami.
Their flight left the morning of Feb. 24, the same day that two Cessnas being flown by Cuban Americans were shot down off Cuba; the Abreus saw the wreckage from the air. The planes' downing caused the Clinton administration to cease the charter flights.
Sitting on the patio atop the Balboa Peninsula restaurant overlooking Newport Bay, Luis Abreu laughs at how a few sea gulls taunt a man trying to clean a boat. "In Cuba, if children see a flock of sea gulls, they would try to catch them."
Not as part of child's play, though.
"Pelicans, gannets, any birds . . . they'd catch them and have their mothers cook them to eat," he says.
It is one of many contrasts he sees each day between his old life and his new one.
He pauses often to soak it all in. "I can't believe I'm here. I have so much to give thanks for. I have the opportunity to build a better life for my sons.
"While people my age are thinking about retiring, I'm just now beginning the American Dream," Luis Abreu continues, raising an American beer to his lips.