I am looking at a dogeared photo of my mother and me standing on the tarmac at the Key West airport. In the faded photo my mother is wearing one of those '50s pleated skirts and a sleeveless blouse. Her hair has just been blown over her shoulder by a gust of wind. I'm wearing a pair of rubber zoris and a terry cloth shirt and shorts. There are no bewildered lines of refugees as would come later on the freedom flights. No grateful immigrants are kissing runways in the background.

"We are tourists," my mother tells the immigration officer on this sunny South Florida day, just after the new year in 1960.

As I look at the snapshot now--40 years later--I ask myself what it meant to stand there on the tarmac in Key West in a pair of rubber thongs, a turista on the first day of my exile.

Fidel Castro had marched into Havana on the shoulders of his bearded rebels. Ours was a military family in the service of Batista. Most of the adult men in the family had been among the first arrested for crimes against the revolution. The first of many. To certain people in Washington, Fidel's position on democracy was still unclear. Was he a freedom fighter, or a Marxist?

It was not unclear to me, though I was only 7. I could hear what Castro was all about in the hushed adult conversations I strained to catch behind closed doors that New Year's Eve, and I saw it for myself in the dawns to come. My mother woke me early and led me by the hand into what had been military headquarters but overnight had become a prison called La Cabana. My father and uncles were all there, stripped to their underwear. The longhaired rebels made sure to lead us over a footbridge above a courtyard, where we could see the execution pole in the ground, the bullet holes in the wall, the chickens pecking all around in the aftermath of slaughter.

In those panicked, chaotic days, my mother had gone to the trials, had visited the prisons, had begged the old-friends-turned-rebels for the release of her brothers and her husband. Even then my mother's sister was being interrogated and soon would be charged with conspiracy against the revolution. It was only a matter of time before there was a midnight knock on my mother's door, too.

She and I were helped to flee the island by a family friend, a civilian airline pilot who arranged for our flight and our tourist visas under assumed names. All I knew was that one dawn, instead of going again to the prison, my mother loaded me and a single bag into the back of a 1958 Roadmaster and drove to the airport. Half asleep, I watched the black silhouettes of palm trees slip by against the rose-colored sky. We're just going for a little trip, my mother told me. We'll be right back. But I knew the truth in her voice.

At the airport, the pilot friend of ours wrapped his arm around my mother's trembling shoulders, stuffed a forged ticket in her purse and whispered: Los turistas no lloran, tourists don't cry. More bearded rebels with their lank hair and huge Garand rifles, milicianos, scanned the lines of people leaving the island for counterrevolutionaries. If they cried, they were escaping. If they cried, they would be arrested.

They picked through us as if we were cattle to be herded. One of them grabbed my hand from my mother's, and another escorted her into a room. When she emerged, she was buttoning her blouse. Her eyes were red, her rings and bracelets gone, even the silver hair clip that held her thick hair had been taken.

On board Aerolineas Cubanas DC-3, I listened to the tense, almost breathless silence of everyone praying for the door to close and the plane to move. Then the milicianos boarded and pulled a middle-aged man in a starched white guayabera from his seat. I remember the nervous pleading in the man's eyes as he was marched away. My mother stared ahead, but she could not stop trembling.

I know now what torture it must have been for my mother to board that plane. I realize now she would have stayed behind, to visit the prisons, to beg friends-turned-rebels for the release of her brothers and her husband, had it not been for me. I can only imagine what she must have felt as the plane's nose tilted, and the wheels left Cuban soil.

Barely more than a half-hour later, the pilot, our friend, came back to escort me to the cockpit for landing. As the rumbling DC-3 lowered through a thunderstorm, past the blur of windshield wipers I saw the coastline of Key West. I was just a boy, after all, and I remember feeling disappointed that the stormy weather meant we probably wouldn't be going to the beach.

Alone in the back of the plane, my mother could finally cry.

The flight took 50 minutes. And then we were standing in the wind, and our friend the pilot snapped a photo.

I look at that little boy, squinting up from the tarmac, and I see the outlines of a life that never happened. A Cuban life. In 50 minutes, the boy in the faded photograph had gone from being a child growing up on a tropical island, the son of an air force captain, to a baffled refugee, standing on an airfield in Key West, fatherless, familyless, countryless--banished.

Rafael Lima, author of the play "Salvador," teaches creative writing at the University of Miami.