Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
He moved out of their
and stayed with Nestor, who had gotten his own little place, seeing his wife only once a week, when he would faithfully give her half his pay from the Explorers’ Club and the band in which they played. It wasn’t that he didn’t care: when he saw her, he was polite and almost conciliatory. It was she who told him, “Never again.” He would bounce his daughter on his knees, carry her around the room, planting kisses on her face. For a time, he would meet other women and speak sadly of the loss of his little daughter. They divorced, through her family’s connections, and she ended up marrying someone else, from Havana.
Now as he sat in the Hotel Splendour his life with Luisa fluttered like a black moth through his heart. He felt a great sadness, recalling how in his youth he had never believed that love really existed—for him. But back then, while living in Havana and later strumming a guitar in Pablo’s living room in New York, he just told himself, “That’s life,” dismissing his sadness and bringing down a macho wall between himself and his feelings.
Snap of the fingers, just like that.
Toward the end, she had told him, “For someone who sings so many songs of love, you are cruel.”
“My little daughter, my precious loving daughter . . . Mariela.”
Sip of whiskey.
“Mariela . . . Luisa . . .”
At least he got a song out of it, he thought now—“Solitude of My Heart,” a bolero from 1949.
NE DAY IN 1950, A YOUNG,
pretty Latin woman was standing by a bus stop on 62nd Street and Madison Avenue. She was about twenty-one and wearing a raincoat and white tennis shoes. By her side, a shopping bag filled with soap, rags, a work dress, scarf, and duster. She was carefully reading a book, her lips barely moving, but moving just the same. She had been waiting for about fifteen minutes when she looked over and noticed the young, well-dressed man with a black instrument case by his side. He was watching the street for a bus and whistling to himself. He had quite a pensive manner, and even though he looked at her, and nodded politely, he seemed to be concentrating on the whistling of the tune, his brows creasing in creative fervor. She liked that, and even though she knew where the bus went, she said to him in Spanish, “Excuse me, does this bus go up to 125th Street?”
“Yes, this is the stop for that bus. It goes all the way up.”
They stood for a few minutes in silence, and then he asked her, “Are you Cuban?
¿Tú eres cubana?”
“Oh, yes, I am.”
“I knew it.” He looked her over, gave her a nice up-and-down.
“What do you do? Working?”
“Yes, I clean house for a rich man. He’s so rich he’s unhappy. You?”
“I’m a musician.”
“Ahhhh, I can tell just by looking at you that you’re a good musician. Have you had much luck?”
“Well, I have a little
with my brother, my older brother. He’s the real singer in the family, but sometimes I do a few songs myself. We’re trying to get along, but it’s difficult. I mean, I have to work days in a warehouse.”
“I can tell that you’ll succeed at whatever you want.”
“Everybody says that, but who knows. What’s your name?”
“Delores Fuentes. And yours?”
She was so used to being around men who were happy and aggressive, and here was this musician, quiet, polite, and a little gloomy.
They rode up Madison Avenue together, sitting next to each other. He was jotting down the lyrics of a song on a piece of paper, and from time to time he’d whistle part of a melody, look out the window at the gray buildings, whistle again.
“Is that something you’re making up?”
“Yes, a bolero.”
“A love song, yes?”
“Something like that. Been working on it for a long time.”
“What are you going to call it?”
“‘Beautiful María of My Soul.’ Something like that.”
“And this María?”
He was somewhere else, though he looked her straight in the eyes.
“Just a name. Maybe I’ll write it using your name.”
They both got off at 125th Street. He was going to walk west toward Broadway and up the hill to La Salle Street, where, he’d explained, he lived with his brother. And she was going to catch the number 29 bus for the Bronx. Before he left her, he’d said, “Do you like to dance?”
, we’re playing this coming Friday night in Brooklyn. At a place called the Imperial Ballroom, have you heard of it? That’s on East 18th Street, off Utica Avenue, Brooklyn, one of the last stops on the number 4 line. I’ll write it down for you, okay?”
It took her another hour to get home. When she made the long trips to and from the Bronx, she preferred buses over subways. She didn’t mind the long trip because she always carried a few books to read. That day she was halfway through a James M. Cain novel,
The Postman Always Rings Twice,
and she was also reading something called
A Simpler English Grammar
by a Hubert Orville which she studied diligently for her night-school English classes. She liked to read because it took her mind off her loneliness, gave her feelings of both solitude and companionship. She’d gone to work cleaning houses because she’d gotten tired of her job at the five-and-ten, a Woolworth’s up on Fordham Road, mainly because the manager was giving her a hard time with pinches and casual caresses. But that was her story with just about every man on the street. It seemed they were always trying to pick her up. She had an elegant face with large, pretty, and intelligent eyes, black hair that fell over her shoulders, and a curious and introspective expression which men read as lonely. Men chased her everywhere, tried to get hold of her. GIs, businessmen, young kids, college students, professorial types who would come into that Woolworth’s to buy pencils. Men trying to look down her cleavage whenever she bent over, men looking at her out of the corner of their eye while examining the quality of a fountain pen, looking into the slit of her blouse where the meat of her breasts met with the white cloth of her brassiere. Some men said, “Maybe we can go out tonight,” meaning, “Maybe I can fuck you tonight.”
She lived with her older sister, Ana María, who had come up from Cuba to keep her company after their father, with whom Delores lived, had died. Ana María was a live wire. She liked to go out dancing and on dates and was always trying to get Delores to go with her.
“Come on, let’s go dancing, have some fun!”
But she preferred to stay home and read. One of the nice things about her job cleaning houses for the rich people was that they always gave her books. The rich man who lived on 61st Street and Park always gave her some time off during the day to do as she pleased, saying that she could help herself to any of his books, and he had hundreds in massive shelves that rose up to his Florentine molded ceilings. She would sit happily by a window overlooking Park Avenue, eating rare-roast-beef sandwiches and salad for lunch, with a book open on her lap. She didn’t particularly care what she read, as long as the language was not too difficult, and she prided herself on reading at least two books a week. Not bad for the daughter of a barely literate man. And in English, too! Besides, the books took her mind off the terrors of the world and the sadnesses that ran madly through her heart. It was funny, she felt that same kind of sadness from the musician at the bus stop.
She read so much that Ana María, who liked to go to the dance halls, said to her one night, “You’re going to be an old woman all alone in a house without children or grandchildren, without a husband or love, you’ll have nothing but books coming out your ears unless you get serious about finding yourself a man.”
So, at her sister’s urging, she’d go out on dates. Some of them were Americans and some of them were Romeos just up from Cuba or Puerto Rico, friendly, garrulous fellows who seemed more like children than like men. She liked a few of the American boys, but would have nothing to do with them romantically. She always had the feeling that she was “saving” herself, for what or for whom she did not know. She’d sometimes feel saddened by her increasing indifference to romance but would tell herself, “I’ll know a good man when I see him.”
She went out, petted, necked a little, allowed these men the chance to feel her body. But she didn’t take it too seriously, finding the whole business of love and courtship disorienting. A man would take her to see
Pecos Bill Meets the Apaches,
and while she would sit absorbed in the excitement of stampeding horses and whooping Indians, the man would whisper, “You’re just so beautiful . . . Please,
a kiss.” And sometimes she’d kiss the man for the sake of being left alone. She’d double-date with Ana María but disliked it when the evenings lasted until three or four in the morning. She went out because she didn’t want to be a wallflower, but she was always happy to get home to the privacy of her room, where she could turn on the radio and read her books. She read books in Spanish and studiously read books in English. Having completed only two years of high school, she went to night classes twice a week.
When she came into the apartment, Ana María was ironing clothes in the kitchen, listening to some happy music on the radio and humming along. As usual, Delores got undressed and ready for a bath. It was always “Should I cook up some dinner tonight?” from Ana María, and “Maybe we should go to a movie? Huh?” But that night, as Delores made her way down the hall to the bathroom, it was Delores who said, “Why don’t we go dancing this weekend?”
“What made you think of that? My God, did someone ask you out?”
“Oh, musicians are exciting!”
“This one’s like me, a quiet type of person.”
“Well, if you want to go, then I’ll go.”
That evening she took a nice long, leisurely bath. She sometimes took books with her, reading ten or twelve pages at a time, the book held out of the water, her breasts and thick pubic hair floating on the surface. She read a few pages, the scene where the man and woman kill the Greek in the Cain novel, and then she just decided to float and enjoy the water and the flight of her thoughts, speculation about that nice
young musician in whom she saw certain similarities to her father.
In the same way that the Mambo King’s mind kept circling certain events as he sat in the summer’s heat in the room in the Hotel Splendour years later, just as others in the family daydreamed about that past, Delores Fuentes heard her own kind of music and closed her eyes.
It was 1942 when Delores Fuentes, thirteen years old, and her father, Daniel, arrived in the Bronx from Havana. Her older sister, Ana María, had stayed behind in Cuba with their mother, who had refused to join him. He had come from the countryside and had found nothing but bad luck in the city, misfortunes that Delores was too young to understand. Why would his luck change in New York, her mother used to argue, where things were more difficult? She had refused to be thrown to the wolves and told him to go alone. Reluctantly, he got a visa and left Havana, taking his daughter with him.
Daniel was forty and did not speak English, and that made finding a job difficult, manpower shortage or not. Each evening she waited for him by the window, listened for his footsteps in the hall. For three months he looked for work without success. No English, no work, until he finally found a delivery job with a seltzer company, carrying heavy wooden boxes of metal-topped seltzer bottles up and down the stairs of one building after the next. His shift began at six-thirty in the morning and lasted until six at night. Their one bit of luck was finding an apartment through a friendly Cuban he’d met on the street. He’d come home to their walk-through apartment on 169th Street and Third Avenue with his back bent and muscles aching so much he’d just barely have the strength to eat his dinner in silence. Then he’d take a bath and retire to his big empty bed, undraping his bath towel and lying in the summer heat naked.
In imitation of her mother in Havana, Delores would cook for her father, making do with what she could find at the market in those days of war rationing. One night she wanted to surprise him. After he had taken to his bed, she made some caramel-glazed
cooked up a pot of good coffee, and happily made her way down the narrow hallway with a tray of the quivering
Pushing open the door, she found her father asleep, naked, and in a state of extreme sexual arousal. Terrified and unable to move, she pretended that he was a statue, though his chest heaved and his lips stirred, as if conversing in a dream . . . He with his suffering face, it, his penis, enormous . . . The funny thing was that, despite her fear, Delores wanted to pick up his thing and pull it like a lever; she wanted to lie down beside him and put her hand down there, releasing him from pain. She wanted him to wake up; she didn’t want him to wake up. In that moment, which she would always remember, she felt her soul blacken as if she had just committed a terrible sin and condemned herself to the darkest room in hell. She expected to turn around and find the devil himself standing beside her, a smile on his sooty face, saying, “Welcome to America.”
Around that time, she started to gush thick black pubic hair, which curled like flames and weaved out from her body; a single strand that she plucked out of curiosity was nearly a foot long, and there were so many she had to trim this shock of hair back with scissors. Her breasts ached with their weight, and she started to wake up bleeding on those sheets which she’d always kept meticulously clean. Then other things started to happen: boys on the street began to invite her to play games of tag and hide-and-seek down in the basement and tried to touch her breasts and get their fingers down under the rim of her brassiere. She would look in the full-length mirror tacked to the door in her room, asking herself, “Do I want this?” Did she want men giving her these looks on the street? She tried to dress like a boy, in trousers, but in the end her feminine vanity brought her back to the few dresses she owned, items that were getting tighter and more alluring each day.