Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
One night, around Christmas, a year after their arrival, her father came home drunk with some of his friends from the seltzer plant: a couple of Italians, a Jewish fellow, a Puerto Rican, men feeling good after a Christmas party and happy to be free for a few days’ holiday. They came to the apartment with big boxes of pizza and cheese
Her father never used to drink, but that night she saw him and the others drinking a lot of whiskey. Faces twisted, they were clapping hands to the dulcet strains of the Guy Lombardo Orchestra on the radio. Delores sat quietly, hands folded on her lap, watching them. Her father kept asking her, “What’s wrong, darling? What is it, tell your
What could she tell him? That she felt a strange, nearly unbearable desire to release him from his pain by lying naked beside him on his bed? That she would never do it in a million years, but felt that she should? That she felt like an exile in her own apartment?
As the Italian turned up the music, her father said, “Come on, Delorita, have some fun with us, it’s Christmas.”
And the Italian joined in, “Yes, yes, sugar, don’t be a stiff!”
Then her father took her by the hand and swung her around in circles, bouncing on her, then off her, he was so drunk. Then, sweaty, panting, he leaned up against the wall, patting his forehead dry with a kerchief. He stared at her and saw that she looked like her mother; certainly he was surprised that she was so pretty a woman. And he made her nervous, and she shut her eyes.
Perhaps her father had misread her expression, but what he said would buzz through her bones for years afterwards. “Don’t be ashamed of your father or be worried that I embarrass you,
because one day you’ll be free of me for good.”
Here her desire to remember faltered. What had he meant by that? Had she somehow added to his woes? Was it something about the way she was treating him? She only knew that, with time, her father’s unhappiness seemed to increase, and she passed these first years in the States trying to take care of him. She went to a Catholic school and, to help pay the bills, managed to find a job in the Woolworth’s on Fordham Road. That was one occasion when her good looks were of help to her. The manager hired her because he liked pretty girls. She was grateful to get the job, worked there part-time and then came home to take care of her father. She cooked his meals, made his bed, washed his clothes, packed his lunches, and in the evenings listened to him talking about the solitude of his days.
“A man is nothing without his family, Delorita. Absolutely nothing. Nothing without family, nothing without love.”
He would come home from the seltzer plant now with bottles of cheap, homemade Italian wine for which he’d paid ten cents apiece. He’d sit in the living room drinking until the pains in his back and in his heart left and his lips started to turn blue.
Usually the evenings found him at home, but one night, when she was sixteen, the wine so heightened his spirits that he got all dressed up and said to Delores, “I’m too young to stay in all the time. I’m going out.”
He had been looking through the newspapers and came up with the addresses of a few dance halls that his friends had told him about.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said, touching her face with his warm hands. She studied an English grammar book until one in the morning, lingering by the living-room windows and watching the street. Hours later, she was asleep and dreaming about playing with her older sister, Ana María, in Havana, the sun shining and the day radiant with hope for the future, when she heard her father in the hallway. She found him there, leaning against the wall, drunk and exhausted. It took him a while to focus on her, but when he finally did, he said, “I’ve just been having myself a good time. And you?”
She helped him to his bed, took off his shoes. When she looked over at the table clock, the time was 4:45 and the poor man would have to get up in exactly forty-five minutes for work. She remained with him, sitting by the bed and watching her
snore away, his breathing troubled, head turning from side to side. She watched his powerful body, virile and frightening, and felt confused by her tender feelings toward him. Occasionally, he would say a few words, and her memory of those words, “Please,
release me,” would come back to her years later when she would have her own family and her own troubles. “Release me,” when the alarm went off and she watched the man open his eyes. Like a corpse coming back to life, he popped up, yawned, stretched his arms, and then made his way down the hall to the bathroom, where he washed and put on his gray seltzer-plant deliveryman uniform.
The following week, the same thing happened. Then, after a while, it became his habit to go out two or three nights a week, just as he used to down in Havana.
“A man’s got to do as he likes, or else he’s not a man,” he’d tell her. And: “You know it’s not easy for me to be alone all the time.”
And what about me? she used to ask herself. She passed those nights worrying about him and fighting feelings of loneliness. Her main refuge? Listening to the radio and studying her books. Sometimes she would visit with neighbors, with whom she would talk. Between her job at Woolworth’s, her high-school classes, and her friendships in the building, she became quite good at speaking English. But what good was her English when she was so alone? She liked people, but always felt so bashful. She was beautiful and her body used to make men stare hungrily at her. But even so, she thought herself unattractive, that some kind of mistake was constantly being made about her looks. If only she was not so lonely on those nights when her father went out, if she didn’t feel as if some part of her might burst.
And her father, why was he always going out when he looked so exhausted?
” she asked him one night,
“I’m going dancing.”
“With a friend.”
Her father was going out in New York in the same way he used to back in Havana. Suddenly Delores found herself feeling what her mother must have felt. All those nights of shouting in the house hadn’t turned into air. She had the shouts inside her, and when she saw her father slicked up to see his woman, Delores found herself saying,
I don’t think you should go, you’ll be tired.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
And he’d give her a kiss and make his way down the stairs. He was usually drunk by the time he’d leave the apartment. She’d follow him out into the stairwell, watching him fading into the shadows. At first thinking, Don’t fall. Then: Fall and don’t get up.
He’s going to a dance hall with a tramp is what she would think, watching him head down the steep hill of 169th Street toward the El, from their window. She’d imagine the woman: wearing a hat crowned with flowers, a too-tight dress, the top bursting. And she’d have thick lipstick-gummy lips, and thick-thick hips.
Alone in that apartment in the Bronx at night, she’d try to calm herself. She loved her father, who worked to take care of them. Wasn’t it fair that he go out? Yes, poor Papi, and she would sit by the window listening to a neighbor’s radio in the courtyard, or try, as usual, with a dictionary in hand, to read a newspaper or one of the books that her neighbor, a schoolteacher who was touched by her efforts to improve her reading, would leave for her by the door.
Some nights she’d write her mother sympathetic letters, saying things like
as I get older I understand more about how
must have hurt you.”
Because her mother had refused to accompany him to the States, Delores had judged her harshly. Thought her cruel. There were things you don’t understand about us, she used to tell Delorita—but now she was starting to understand. Hadn’t he spent many nights away from their home, back when?
Weeks would go by in which she would await an answer, never receiving one. She’d think that her mother was right in hating her for siding with her father. On those nights alone, Delores would ask herself, “And now what do I have? Neither my mother nor my father.”
She’d remember how her mother would sit, her arms crossed tight over her lap, the posture of anger that her mother adopted in the days when her
used to do as he pleased. Delores would also sit with her arms crossed tight over her lap, waiting to hear her father’s footsteps in the hall, and wanting to shout at him.
But she always softened and took care of him instead.
In her own way, Delores became something of a stoic. Life would have its limited pleasures. There was sunlight, there were boys and men to give her the up-and-down on the street; there were funny letters from her older sister, Ana María, in Cuba; there were the Hollywood films at the big movie house on Fordham Road; there were romantic novels; there were little boxes of bonbons; there were diaper-dragging two-year-olds toddling on the sidewalk outside her building; there were flowers in the park and pretty dresses in store windows. But there was nothing to overcome her feeling that the world was veiled by a melancholia which emanated from her poor father’s sadness. She was stoic enough that few things bothered her, and although she was at an age when young girls fall in love, she never dreamed about it, until one night, when she decided to follow her father to a dance hall.
That night, while her father was out, Delores went searching the apartment for some paper and found a flier for the Dumont Ballroom on East Kingsbridge Road. She felt an overwhelming desire to see him. Dressed up, she walked down that steep hill, caught a Jerome Avenue subway north, and arrived at the ballroom. There she found herself in a zoot-suit haven of slick young men. Many of them were tough, lean veterans of the war who whistled at her and called out to her. Lines like “Enchantment, where are you going?”
“Enchantment” found her father at the bar drinking, his shirt covered in sweat. He was talking to a woman who looked just the way Delores had imagined her. She was in her late thirties, quite plump, a little overripe in a cheap dress. She has the face of a whore, Delores had first thought, but when her father, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, introduced Delores to this woman, the woman’s face brightened with friendliness.
“My, but you’re pretty,” the woman said to Delores.
Delores blushed at the compliment. What could she be angry about? Her father had his arm wrapped around the woman’s fleshy hips. He was smiling in a way that she hadn’t often seen before, happily. And exhaustion had left his expression. What could she be angry about, at these two lonely people trying to comfort one another at a bar in a dance hall? Onstage, the orchestra was playing
.” Her father leaned close to Delores and asked, “Delorita, what is it that you want?”
“Papi, I want you to come home.”
He didn’t even answer that, just made a looping motion with his cigarette and said to the woman, “Now, can you see that? My own daughter’s giving me orders. Me, the man.”
Then he smiled.
“Come on, don’t be like your mother.”
Then the orchestra started to play a tango and the three of them stepped out into the crowd of shadows. Right then and there she saw that her father was a fabulous and graceful dancer, and that this dancing seemed to offer him release from his pain. He took hold of her by the hand and began showing her the three-strided slides of the tango. With her cheek pressed against his warm face, with the lights swirling about, and the perfume-scented shadows swarming around them, she had a daydream about dancing with him in that same way forever . . . Then the song ended and the woman came out to join them. Delores moved off to the side and watched as her father went back out onto the dance floor. Delores watched them spinning in circles. He was a good dancer. He did the lindy hop and the rumba and he jitterbugged with the best of them. Up on the bandstand, an outfit called the Art Shanky Orchestra, a troupe of pinstripe-suited musicians, were playing their hearts out. Their golden trumpets seemed magical because of the way they rejuvenated her father. He danced right into a spotlight and threw a silhouette that crept up the curtained walls of the dance hall a hundred feet high. A crooner got up and started to sing “Moonlight Becomes You.” That’s when her father and this woman went back to the bar. Exhausted by the fast dances, her father then said to his daughter, “This place isn’t so bad, now, is it?”
He leaned with his back against the bar, and as the woman wiped off his forehead with a handkerchief and dabbed sweat from his lips, it seemed as if she was wiping years of strain and unhappiness off his face. For one moment, a moment when he seemed spellbound by the spotlight and the music, he lifted out of himself, floating upwards to a place of eternal relief and comfort. He lit a cigarette and said, “Delorita, over there, that American fellow’s looking at you.”
At the end of the bar was a tall man, looked Irish or German, with a head of wavy blond hair. He was dressed in a sports jacket and bow tie and seemed quite clean. He was in his mid-twenties. Delores was now seventeen.
The man smiled. A little later, he came over and respectfully asked Delores to dance. She’d already turned down a number of other requests, and she turned him down, too.
“I just wanted to talk to you anyway. My name’s—And I know this seems a little unlikely, but you have to believe me . . . See, I work for the Pepsodent toothpaste company and we’re holding a beauty contest down in Coney Island in a couple of weeks, and so, I just thought that you might like to enter. I mean, if you give me your name and all that, I can take care of everything . . . There’s a first prize of one hundred dollars.” Then, looking away, he added, “And you’re certainly pretty enough to win . . .”
“What do I have to do?”
“You just put on a bathing suit—do you have a bathing suit?—and you get up in front of the people. It’s on a Saturday morning . . . Why don’t you give me ya address, huh? It would be a nice thing for you.”