Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
In the cane suitcases they’d brought with them from Cuba were bundles of paper on which they’d written down many of their ideas for songs. These mostly had to do with little bits out of their lives. Finding romance and country-bumpkin living funny, Cesar wrote unrestrained lyrics that tended toward obscenities, the change of a word for a laugh
Hangovers often inspired him: in the days when he and Nestor slept on cots in Pablo’s living room, he would wake up after an epic night out in dance halls and supper clubs, with his skin and hair smelling of tobacco, perfume, and booze, inspiration would strike him, and the Mambo King would drag himself out of bed, take hold of his orangewood Brazilian guitar, strum chords, and with one slippered foot atop the radiator, and head pounding with ironies and pain, write a song.
He wrote the 1950 ballad “Alcohol” on a morning when he woke on the living-room couch with a balled-up pair of nylons in his jacket pocket and a bitten-up lip, feeling as if he had a large heavy-winged blackbird inside his head. Inspired, he strummed his guitar, whistled a melody, made up some lyrics, putting together a rudimentary version of the song that the Mambo Kings would record in 1952, the lyric asking, “
why have you wrested away my soul?”
Other compositions came to him in the same effortless manner, songs written to take the listeners back to the plazas of small towns in Cuba, to Havana, to past moments of courtship and love, passion, and a way of life that was fading from existence.
His (and Nestor’s) songs were more or less typical of the songwriting of that day: ballads, boleros, and an infinite variety of fast dance numbers (
son montunos, guarachas, merengues, guaracha mambos, son pregones).
The compositions capturing moments of youthful cockiness (“A thousand women have I continually satisfied, because I am an amorous man!”). Songs about flirtation, magic, blushing brides, cheating husbands, cuckolds and the cuckolded, flirtatious beauties, humiliation. Happy, sad, fast, and slow.
And there were songs about torment beyond all sorrow.
That was Nestor’s specialty. While Cesar knocked his songs out, Nestor worked and reworked the same compositions over and over again. Loving the torture of composition, he would spend hours hunched over a notebook with a guitar or his trumpet, trying to compose a ballad, one beautiful song. Rafael Hernández had done it with
” Moisés Simón with “The Peanut Vendor,” Eliseo Grenet with
“La Última Rumba.
” And in those days, his heart filled with an unbearable pain, he was writing the song they would perform on television, that mournful tune that would bring them closest to fame,
“Bella María de Mi Alma,
” “Beautiful María of My Soul,” a song which in its early stages consisted of only a few pitiful utterances: “María . . . my love . . . María . . . my soul”—words contained in a thorny cage built around three chords, A minor, D minor, and E7th, a song that he would strum so often and sing with such a melancholic tone in his voice that even the bemused Cesar Castillo would say, incredulously, “What a horror! If I hear about María one more time, I’m going to throw your guitar out the window.”
Then: “Why don’t you forget about the song and come out with me? Come on, bro’, I’m nearly ten years older than you . . . and I don’t want to stay home . . .”
“No, leave without me.”
Slick and godlike, Cesar Castillo would shake his head and go out the door, disappear up the kiosked stairway with the pagoda roof and smoked-glass windows, to catch the subway downtown. Late on those nights, when he had no diversions, Nestor would think about the past from which there was no escape. His insides twisted into shit, the weight of his skull crushing the pillow, sheets entangled around him, a thick blue wormy vein boring across the brow of his melancholic head. Some nights he heard every sound in the alley: the cats skulking around in the dark basement doorways, the wind dashing television antenna wires against the walls, coffee cups, plates, and utensils being washed, low voices murmuring in the kitchen, bed noises, someone belching, the Jack Benny show on the neighbors’ television, and, mocking him, the frantic breathing of a neighbor across the way, the immense, floppy-breasted, freckle-bottomed Irish girl, Fiona, whom he’d often see through her window, making love and screaming at the top of her lungs in ecstasy.
On those nights, Nestor went to bed hoping for beautiful dreams about gardens and the early-morning sunlight which he associated with love, but walked instead down a long dark hallway of misfortune into a room of tortures where Beautiful María of His Soul, naked and desirable, placed him on a rack and turned a great wheel whose ropes began to tear out his limbs and debone his member. He would wake with his heart beating as if it would burst and with shadows swirling against the walls. Worked up in this way, he would sit by the side of the bed, his body sweaty, and light a cigarette, wishing he had gone out with his older brother.
And what would happen then?
The phone would ring and he’d answer it, hearing something like this:
“Hey, brother, know we have to go to work tomorrow, but why don’t you get dressed and come down here right away. I’m down at the El Morocco and my friend Eddie here is going to be throwing a little party soon, with lots of nice little girls”—and in the background the delighted squeals of women and the music of a twenty-piece orchestra tearing up the joint.
Nestor, answering in his quiet manner said: “Yes, give me an hour,” and, despite his practical and introspective nature, got dressed and went to the club.
Always the more somber and silent of the brothers, he was the big-eared fellow who would have to throw down five drinks before loosening up and showing the world a toothy grin. A woman pressing against him, in a crowd of happy partyers around a champagne-glass-covered table, her breast soft through the silk of her dress, didn’t have a chance with him. It didn’t matter if she was sweet, affectionate, sexually voracious, and pretty; he always seemed somewhere else. A few drinks would fill his face with shadows; in the men’s-room mirror, those shadows would ebb and flow over his features like caressing female hands. When he had first arrived in the States, every woman he looked at had seemed as lifeless as a doll. He could not look at another woman, and the only way he overcame this unbearable pain was by daydreaming about María: Would she suddenly write him the most adoring letter? Would she turn up on the next airplane, a little bag packed with her frilly underthings? Would she weep unabashedly over the telephone, begging his forgiveness?
Cesar, despite his shortcomings, always thought this: Don’t be an idiot, forget about her! But Nestor couldn’t. He relived their life over again so often that he sometimes had the sensation of being buried by the past, as if the details of this shattered love (and the other sadnesses of his life) had been turned into stone, weeds, and dirt and thrown over him.
He even took his dreams about María to the meat factory where Pablo had gotten him a job, working over a vat in which the bones and viscera of certain animals were crushed and ground up for making hot dogs and sausage fillers. As the blades churned he would pass the time staring at the whipping entrails—intestines, stomachs, backbones, brains—as if at a sunny garden. The crush of bones, the whirring of machines, memories, music, and his dreams of María. The plant was in a long, flat warehouse alongside the river, with huge metal doors that opened for deliveries and pickups by freezer trucks. He’d work there from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, spending those hours at the vat whistling to himself and trying to improvise a song about María. What did he seek to accomplish? To write a song communicating such pure love and desire that María, far away, would magically reinstate him into the center of her heart. He thought that she would “hear” these melodies in her dreams and that something would possess her: she would sit down and write him a letter begging his forgiveness, a letter admitting to confusion and foolishness, that one day she would leave her husband—if he was her husband—and he would hear a knocking at the door, make his way down the hall, the panting hound behind him, and find María of his soul standing there, this woman who had somehow become the lost key to happiness.
But as many letters as he wrote her, she never answered him. As many gifts as he sent her, he never received as much as a thank-you. For more than two years, not a day went by that he did not think about flying down to Havana to see her. It was hopeless, he felt his heart drawing in, constricting. He didn’t talk about María of Havana, but he passed most of his days thinking about her.
He’d carry around a little photograph of her in a cinch-waisted bathing suit, his María rising out of the foamy tides of a Havana sea, take it out, speak to the picture as if she would hear him. After work he’d go on a solitary walk up to Grant’s Tomb to check out the dead President and his wife, then head down a path into Riverside Park, where he would lean up against a stone wall and watch the sparkling ice floes on the river, imagining himself inside. Constriction in his dreams. Under the ground, in tunnels, in blocks of ice. He went over his feelings about María so often they became as mashed up as the innards in the crushing machines at the plant. The more he thought about her, the more mythic she became. Every ounce of love he’d received in his short life was captured and swallowed up by the image of María. (
I wanted María the way I wanted you when I was a baby feeling helpless in that bed, with welts covering my chest, and lungs stuffed with thick cotton. I couldn’t breathe,
remember how I used to call you?)
That was Nestor the young man in the sleeveless T-shirt whose body was like a letter K in the window of the apartment on La Salle Street, one leg bent at the knee on the sill, arm up against the windowframe, smoking a cigarette like a languishing movie star waiting for a call from a studio, and humming a melody line. That was Nestor on the living-room couch, strumming a chord on the guitar, looking up, and writing in a notebook. That was Nestor’s voice heard on the street at night, on La Salle, on Tiemann Place, on 124th Street and Broadway. That was Nestor down on his knees playing with the children, pushing a toy truck into a city of alphabet blocks, the children climbing on his back and riding him like a horse, while in his head there bloomed a thousand images of María: María naked, María in a sun hat, María’s brown nipple filling his mouth, María with a cigarette, María commenting on the beauty of the moon, María dancing long-legged, her body wobbling in perfect rhythm in a chorus of women in feathered turbans, María counting the doves in a plaza, María sucking a pineapple
through a straw, María writhing, lips damp and face red from kisses, in ecstasy, María growling like a cat, María dabbing her mouth with lipstick, María pulling up a flower . . .
That was Nestor, eyebrows arched with the scholarly concentration of a physics student, reading science-fiction comic books at the kitchen table. That was Nestor up on the rooftop stretched out on a blanket and sipping whiskey, waking up screaming at night, decked out in a white silk suit, blowing a trumpet on the stage of some dance hall, quietly attending to the drinks, filling a punch bowl during a party in the apartment, dreaming about some of those nights spent with María in Havana, her presence so strong in his memory that around three o’clock in the morning the door to the apartment would open and María would walk like a spirit into the living room and pull off her slip, sliding one knee onto the cot and then the other, lowering herself so that the first thing Nestor felt moving slowly upward over his shinbone and then his knee was María’s vagina. And then she would take hold of his thing and say, “
He was the man plagued with memory, the way his brother Cesar Castillo would be twenty-five years later, the man with the delusion that the composition of a song about María would bring her back. He was the man who wrote twenty-two different versions of
“Bella María de Mi Alma,
” first as “The Sadness of Love,” then “María of My Life,” before arriving, with the help of his older brother, Cesar, upon the version they would be singing one night in 1955 in the Mambo Nine Club, “Beautiful María of My Soul,” a song of love, that night when they drew the attention and interest of their fellow Cuban Desi Arnaz.
SPENDING LATE NIGHTS OUT,
they’d find themselves climbing the stairs to their cousin Pablo’s fourth-floor apartment on La Salle Street at five in the morning. Rooftops burning red, and black birds circling the water towers. Cesar was thirty-one years old then and out to have a good time, preferring to look forward and never back into his past: he’d left a kid, a daughter, behind in Cuba. Sometimes he had pangs for his daughter, sometimes felt bad that things didn’t work out with his former wife, but he remained determined to have a good time, chase women, drink, eat, and make friends. He wasn’t cold-hearted: he had moments of tenderness that surprised him toward the women he went out with, as if he wanted truly to fall in love, and even tender thoughts about his former wife. He had other moments when he didn’t care. Marriage? Never again, he’d tell himself, even though he’d lie through his teeth about wanting to get married to women he was trying to seduce. Marriage? What for?
He heard a lot about “a family and love” from Pablo’s plump little wife. “That’s what makes a man happy, not just playing the mambo,” she’d say.
He had moments when he thought about his wife, a hole of sadness through his heart, but it was nothing that a drink, a woman, a cha-cha-cha wouldn’t fix. He had hooked up with her a long time ago because of Julián García, a well-known bandleader in Oriente Province. He was just a young upstart from Las Piñas then, a singer and trumpet player with a wandering troupe of
musicians who would play in the small-town plazas and dance halls of Camagüey and Oriente Provinces. Sixteen years old, he fled to the dance halls, had a good time meeting and entertaining the people of small towns and bedding down poor country girls where he could find them. He was a handsome and exuberant singer, with an unpolished style and a tendency toward operatic flourishes that would take him off-key.