Elizabeth Turnbull and Roberto Copa Matos met in an open air market in Old Havana, Cuba, where he was selling his watercolor paintings. Elizabeth bought two; he asked her out for a mango juice. Their relationship continued as Elizabeth attended college in the U.S. and Roberto sought political asylum in Spain and then in the U.S. Now they run Old Havana Sandwich Shop in downtown Durham. Here, they talk about their love story that was never meant to be.
Elizabeth: There is no good reason on this earth that we should be together. When we met I was 19; he was 29. I was from a Baptist missionary family and had grown up in Haiti; he had recently been baptized Catholic after being raised atheist in Cuba. I have a brother in the U.S. military; he was raised in a communist country. Nothing on paper made this look like a good idea. But it worked. So we hold onto that. We’ve been married 12 and a half years. I’m looking forward to my 38th birthday because it will mean I have known him half my life.
Roberto: When I first noticed Elizabeth walking by my stall at the market, I remember thinking that I liked how she looked. But I left it there. Noticing people was part of my trade. I had to pay attention to how buildings and people looked so that I could put that into my work. My second impression of Elizabeth was that she was trying to bargain with me for my paintings. She was bargaining too low, and I was pushing the price up, and it was a struggle between two wills. She won. Very often we have a struggle of wills. I am very slow to think; I take a lot of time and I ponder a lot of arguments to find a solution. Elizabeth is quicker, but she ponders less. That’s one of the biggest differences that we have. Usually we agree on the final end or goal for a process or a project, but we disagree on the path to get there.
When I decided to migrate out of Cuba, I went to Spain for six months. I couldn’t get political asylum or any stable social status, I was undocumented. When you live like that, you’re like a ghost in society. You feel desperate. You’re making it, you’re in a better situation than in your homeland, but still it’s hard to feel like a complete human being because society doesn’t accept you.
While I was there, Elizabeth came and visited me for two days. I was very much in the first steps of being in love. We went to el Prado in Madrid to sit and drink coffee. I saw a lady selling flowers by the street and I said to myself, I need to buy those roses.
I went to the lady and asked, “How much for a dozen roses?” They were beautiful, deep crimson and a very fresh green. I can see them now.
The lady said, “It’s 72 euros.”
I said, “Excuse me?”
She said, “72 euros.”
I said to myself, I cannot say I’m not going to buy them now, Elizabeth just came from the U.S. to here. So I paid the lady the 72 euros for the dozen roses at el Prado in Madrid, which was more than what I made in two days of work and was at least 25% of the money I had saved for the whole weekend. That’s a story about the excitement of being with someone you’re in love with, and not being able to think and not being able to plan.
Elizabeth: We did break up for a short time after he got to the U.S., ironically, when things should have been easy. I just kind of panicked. In two and a half years, we’d had about three weeks in the same place together. It seemed like a lot. But I was still writing him—probably an abnormal amount of letters. One of his friends said to me, “Wait a minute, if you’re sending him letters, you know his address. Your relationship started with a grand gesture. So why aren’t you on an airplane?” I booked a ticket and flew to Miami and surprised him.
His reaction was very lukewarm; he was not thrilled to see me. But he listened to me, and at the end of the conversation said no, the idea of starting something up again just didn’t feel like the right time. At that point he was having a really, really hard time. He had early rheumatoid arthritis, he was working jobs that paid him $2.50 an hour and having to share rooms with friends. He said that we should talk on each other’s birthdays and keep in touch. As I got on the plane back to North Carolina, I realized I couldn’t do that. I cared too much about him and would never be able to move on.
Well, his friends got on the phone and gave him an earful: “Are you insane? Are you going to meet any other woman who would love you this much?” A few weeks passed. I’ve since learned this is how he works, that he needs time. He called me up and said if I would still have him, he wanted to be together, but we would need to be in the same city and he wasn’t in a position to move. I hung up and told my father that I was moving to Miami.
Those early years – everyone tells me I should write a book about it. But all of that was very superficial. It’s the daily living that really makes you love somebody. That’s where love is. It’s in the getting up in the middle of the night because your partner is sick and sitting with them even though you really don’t want to. Or climbing into bed next to them after an argument, even though you really wish they were living outside. That’s what it means to love somebody. We are true partners in many ways—we run a business together, we’re starting a farm together. Going through those challenges together has made us stronger.
Roberto: One of the reasons we were able allow our love to grow, was that from the beginning we said God goes first, then we go second, then family goes after that. We realized that if we don’t protect our relationship, then we cannot help our family. So my question to others is, what is the foundation upon which you are building your relationship? How is that going to allow you to go through life with all the situations that life is going to present? Because there will always be a problem, there will always be a struggle.
Elizabeth: Saying “thank you” and saying “yes” as often as you can in a relationship is really important. Roberto and I ask extra of each other all the time. We’re totally within our rights to say no, but saying yes is such a gift. Saying yes to sitting down and having coffee together, to running an extra errand.
My parents have a pretty amazing marriage. My father says that every morning we need to wake up and think how we can put our spouse first. It looks great on paper but it is so hard at 6 in the morning when you’re exhausted and everything seems to be going wrong. The way we put that into practice is by saying “yes” and “thank you.” Just waking up and asking, “How can I serve you? What will make you feel cared for?” If we’re both saying that, then we’re both having our needs met.
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