AGUSTIN D. MARTINEZ
Excerpt from The Mares of Lenin Park
I walked my mother down the unlit aisle between the porch and the living room of Cecilia’s and Francisco’s home in El Vedado. My mother, Graciela, was still complaining of the spring torrents that plagued the island on her wedding day. Her limp curls were hidden under my grandmother’s white lace mantilla, and her face still appeared wet and porous from the dampness in the air, regardless of how much powder coated her face.
There were borrowed metal chairs on both sides of the makeshift aisle, each unique in its deteriorated state. I noticed a few pots on the floor to catch the storm dripping in through the dilapidated roof. No doubt Aunt Cecilia had already reminded Uncle Francisco five times to fix it the next day when the rains cleared.
“¿Qué quieres que haga, mujer?” is all he ever said when she nagged him.
“Bueno, no quiero que te hagas el bobo mañana. Yo sé que se te olvidan las cosas,” my aunt would snap back.
“¡Vete por ahí, anda, y déjame en paz!” and that was the end of the argument. That was the end of all their arguments.
My grandmother’s Lady of Charity, about a foot high, carrying the Niño Jesús on her right arm and a gold crucifix in her left hand, rested over the table set up at the end of the aisle. When I looked at the glowing icon, the look on her visage spread a little peace to me. Our Lady understood what I was going through, and that provided me a little solace.
I figured there wasn’t much I could do now. There wasn’t anything I could do to stop Graciela from marrying the respected Dr. Antonio Trujillo. No matter how much I tried to prove to her what a worm this man was, we continued walking down the aisle. “He’ll provide,” is all she’d say. In a country where those were ameliorating words, there wasn’t much I could do but keep my father alive in the murkiness of my memories.
Everyone at the wedding was elated. It wasn’t every day a widow with a teenage son married a working doctor in Havana. I wiped my forehead with the handkerchief my mother starched for me with the water used to boil the yucca; I tried to remain presentable as everybody’s eyes were on me. But the handkerchief felt like sandpaper on my skin, causing hives to blister across my forehead, making me itch all night.
I knew the guests were trying to second-guess me, trying to predict my doomsday plan before I executed it upon the unsuspecting wedding guests. Some thought I was going to light the doctor’s suit on fire. Really, how immature. Or they thought that I would spike the punch with a tad of lye to make everyone sick. That wasn’t such a bad idea, actually pretty ingenious. But I wouldn’t have done that to my mother – use the little lye she had to make soap, I mean. God knows when we would have been able to smuggle some more.
I wished that my father appeared to her as he did to me sometimes. I wished her to feel shame for what she was doing, having her son walk her down the aisle into the arms of another man. But no such luck. As much as I prayed to Cachita glowing peacefully on the table, my father did not appear. I think the impermeable wall of rain prohibited him from crossing to the other side that day.
I bet you the doctor knew this and asked one of his brujero friends to conjure up this deluge just to keep my father’s apparition from materializing. Just like the doctor to play dirty. I wondered what he offered Changó to ensure this downpour kept the only person my mother may have listened to from making it to the wedding; the one person I knew could have convinced her that this doctor was not the cure to her – to our – ills. Maybe he promised the ancient Yoruba god some offerings such as apples or yams, or simply a machete or piece of wood since these were easier to come by than the apples or yams.
Nestor flashed the camera he just received from some relatives in the United States, blinding my mother and me. He got on one knee, looked around the room for proper lighting, and did everything he thought a great photographer should do. All I could see were spots that moved and disappeared on their own accord, saturating the clammy air. But I continued walking down the aisle allowing the spots to guide me.
“Slow down, Uli,” my mother whispered still smiling at the guests who were standing, patting their cheeks and foreheads dry.
“Sí Señora,” I mumbled without much fretting, trying to ignore my uncle’s interpretation of what I once thought was a beautiful song. I tried to walk as fast as I could to get the whole thing over with.
Uncle Francisco continued the interlude on his guitar, closing his eyes as he sang part of the chorus cuánto te quiero.
I handed Graciela’s trembling arm to the honorable doctor, but I couldn’t look into his fiery eyes. He knew he had won. Standing there in his timeworn and yellowing white suit. Craving the beautiful bride on my arm and thinking awful thoughts. I could see this through the black beard, although it hid a major portion of his face, some say to hide the remnants of a cleft palate.
He wasn’t wearing his glasses and looked unnatural. You know, like when you see somebody without his or her glasses for the first time. It’s eerie! He looked like a blind man who could see. But not just what we could see. He looked like a preternatural creature with the ability to look right past your soul. His eyes were onyx stones that pierced my mother’s blank stare; it filled her every desire. Exposing his razor-sharp, crooked teeth, Dr. Antonio Trujillo gave us both an inviting gaze like that of a beast enticing its prey to enter its lair.
My father was only a myth to him. In fact, I knew he was the one who made my mother take down my father’s portrait given to her at one-of-many memorials five years after his death. It was made right before my father left for Angola, and Nestor told me that Castro himself had it in one of his eighty homes before giving it to the bereaved widow. It was the only way I could remember him, and now it was put away in our dusty attic.
Ignacio, the good doctor’s second cousin on his mother’s side, acted as the justice of the peace. He got a handful of cigars and a few extra grams of coffee as an expression of gratitude. It wasn’t much, but the doctor wouldn’t hear of having his second cousin do it for free. Although Ignacio said it would have been an honor to do the nuptials for free, the doctor wasn’t going to chance his reputation as an unselfish caballero.
Ignacio sat smiling at the table with the statue of Cachita holding the Baby Jesus, waiting for Francisco’s wedding ballad to end. The ecru tablecloth, a gift from my father to my mother, covered the rusty aluminum worktable Uncle Francisco kept in the back shed. The nerve of them to use this gift smuggled from a training mission in Panama.
With his sports jacket unbuttoned, revealing his white guayabera shirt sticking to his moist belly, Ignacio sat patiently, secretly exploring for his once-gold-plated Russian buckle that disappeared under his gut.
How he maintained this weight on a Cuban diet no one knew. In fact, some people talked about Ignacio stealing food from Hotel La Habana Libre where he offered his calligraphy services to whatever tourists were suckered into buying “Cuban” calligraphy. Who had ever heard of Cuban calligraphy?
There didn’t seem to be a need for this type of work, but tourists were eager to spend money on anything rendered as authentically Cuban. They’d have their names done or their addresses on note cards so they could mail back home. Word had it that Ignacio did pretty well with tourists. In fact, Hotel Inglaterra had agreed that for only fifty percent of Ignacio’s total gross sales they would set him up near their gift shop.
Nestor said that it wasn’t so simple. Nothing could be simple for Nestor and me. He had to exaggerate everything so it sounded better. He claimed that when Ignacio’s second wife, Mirurgia, died of complications due to a bad case of pneumonia, Ignacio stuffed her in a tub full of dry ice at his home in Regla. Some said my stepfather helped Ignacio kill Mirurgia by injecting her with the Ebola virus, but most people didn’t buy it.
The story went that Ignacio was so crazed by guilt that he actually ate Mirurgia – bit by little bit. Nestor said that he heard from a very good source that Ignacio munched on his salted wife everyday for years, saving fine cuts of meat for special occasions such as this one. Shaving paper-thin slices of meat like that of a good Serrano ham.
That was ridiculous, of course. For one thing, no one could get that much dry ice and salt in Cuba without the proper purchase orders!
The incessant rain drowned Ignacio’s words while he wiped his forehead. It was like watching one of those old movies at El Cine Yara when the projectors broke. All we could do was watch the lips moving to unfulfilled promises on a tattered screen.
We were used to creating our own dialogue to a picture without sound, so it didn’t seem to bother the guests who sat still while droplets of sweat scurried down their faces. They read the bride’s and groom’s lips when it came time to say each other’s vows.
After Graciela and Antonio signed the necessary documents, the rain now dripping through Aunt Cecilia’s kitchen, the bride and groom kissed. I was glad my father missed this. I promised myself to tell him about it later when he appeared to me. I’d lie and say it was a horrible wedding, and that Mami was thinking of him all throughout the ceremony. I’d protect him from this unnatural act and tell him the story the way it should’ve been.
The guitar harmonized with the drumming of the filling rain buckets that seemed to be multiplying every time I looked. People danced around the obstacle course of cauldrons that collected the never-ending rain, congratulating the bride and groom. Although the guests were drenched, they continued kissing each other and dancing as if life was sweet and equitable and all of it only a dream.
“You must be so happy!” raved Mariana, one of my mother’s distant relatives whom we only saw once or twice a year – whenever there was food around or we received a care package from Miami.
“Thrilled,” I answered.
“What?” Mariana asked, my voice muffled in the festivities and the clapping thunder.
“Thrilled! I just couldn’t be happier!” I shouted. The music paused. Even the rain ceased for a second until everyone realized it was just I. The guaguancó continued.
“You’re probably hungry. Go. You and Nestor serve yourselves. It’s not every day we have a feast like this. Your mother married a fine man. A provider!” The words echoed in my ears.
Nestor grabbed my arm as he saw my ears begin to turn red as they always do when I get mad or embarrassed. He didn’t want me to make a scene, not that a scene would have been a bad idea. A provider? Wasn’t my father a provider? Didn’t my father die for his country just like other generations of Aguileras had done since the war against the Spanish?
Whether he agreed with the politics involved or not, my father died for Cuba, for posterity. My father didn’t sell out his beliefs just to get an extra gram of rice or to be called a provider. He wasn’t interested in feigning an illness or anything of the sort so as not to have to fight for his country. He knew his duty to his family, to his ancestors, to everything that was Cuban.
“Ulises!” called Ignacio, stuffing his face.
“Try some of this roasted pork. Enjoy it while you can!” Ignacio said spitting pieces of lacerated pig flesh on my faded tie. “Here, try the fufú,” he mumbled, handing me a plate of the garlicky plantain mash. “Needs, more chicharrón,” he confessed.
I pictured him eating chunks of his dead wife, Mirurgia. Nestor and I looked at each other and laughed aloud. Could it be? Then, I pictured Mirurgia’s torturous countenance while being roasted limb by limb and being dressed with garlic and olive oil, porting a halo of raw onion rings while freckles of culantro, comino, and garlic paste filled her every sinew.
“No, gracias, Ignacio,” I managed to whisper through my nausea, my mouth becoming drier. “I’m kind of full. I ate a lot of cake.”
“Nonsense,” he insisted, slapping my back. “A growing Cuban boy saying no to masitas de puerco? ¡Come, come! Buen provecho.”
He plopped pieces of sallow pork flesh on a plate, and I felt an even stronger wave of nausea engulf me. I mimed excuse me and ran to the bathroom to hurl my life away.
The banqueters didn’t seem to mind Ignacio or his salted dead wife, though. It seemed that if this really was Mirurgia she was scrumptious. They ate so much that half the people were sick to their stomachs, asking for the Alka-Seltzer that the neighbor’s relatives had sent from Miami. But they continued stuffing their faces anyway, as they didn’t know when they would have a hearty meal like this again.
Making her way through those congratulating her, Graciela made it to where Nestor and I were standing, tacitly signaling to Nestor to leave us alone for a minute. She looked so relieved, so happy. I knew it was my duty not to let her know how I was feeling. I wanted her to think that I, too, was consoled by Our Lady’s grace and pretended to glow as she was.
“How do I look?” Nestor asked my mother before daring to speak to Gisela, chest out and shoulders back. “I think I’m going to ask Gisela to dance,” he whispered to us both, pointing to Gisela who sat in one of the metal chairs swinging her white patent leather shoes.
“You look so handsome,” Graciela reassured Nestor.
Nestor had developed much faster than I had, and it incensed me how he had recently started to notice girls, sometimes talking of nothing else. His shoulders had broadened much more than mine, so we no longer traded t-shirts. His dark peach fuzz was clearly metamorphosing into a fine Cuban moustache that the girls were starting to find handsome. Even though we were the same age, people often thought Nestor was my older brother, as he looked like a much older version of me.
Comforted and smelling his breath on his hand, Nestor strutted towards Gisela who sat there pretending not to notice my cousin prancing like a wild peacock for her attention.
“¿Cómo estás, Uli?” my mother asked, draping me with her arms now that we were alone.
“Fine,” I lied. What else was I to say? I looked into her eyes that were filled with so much hope. I had never seen such a serene look on her face.
Graciela took a deep breath and closed her eyes, smelling the rain. “We’re going to Marina Hemingway tomorrow.”
“Isn’t that only for turistas?” I asked accusingly, knowing quite well that the only people who were allowed to vacation there were tourists with foreign currency and jineteras who helped the visitors pass the time. No Cubans; no pesos.
“Antonio knows somebody who got us two cottages. One for Antonio and me, and the other for you and Nestor. Are you surprised?” she giggled like a little girl on the morning of Three Kings Day. “Antonio wants you and Nestor to come with us!”
“Yes, I do,” confirmed the doctor who materialized from behind my mother out of nowhere. His eyes glistened as he talked and held my mother from behind. His breath smelled like he had stuffed himself with mint and limes and chugged it all back with some Havana Club. It was unnatural, positively aberrant to see him hold her from behind like this. My mother laughed even louder as he surprised her.
“That’ll be great! Wait until I tell Nestor,” I forced myself to say and cracked a smile.
I kept fighting the urge to tell her how dispirited I was that she swapped my father’s memory for this suitor’s company. But I had already said enough, and she didn’t seem to care how I felt. Reconciling the fact that she had completed with her duty of rearing me, there was no need for her to continue playing the role of the proud and lonely widow of a Cuban hero. As my aunt reminded me on several occasions before tonight, “Now it was time for her to move on and embrace life” – whatever that meant.
I didn’t like change. Aside from all our hardships, that’s one reassuring thing about Cuba; there wasn’t much change in the last three or four decades. It spoiled me into believing that I would never have to adapt to new circumstances. As hungry and desperate as my comrades and I often were, it spoiled me into believing that life would remain the same for the rest of my life. There’s something comforting in that. Nevertheless, new things had just begun to happen, and I suppose it was my obligation to adapt.
The satiated banqueters began to leave my aunt and uncle’s house carrying plates of leftover cake, roasted pork, lentil stew (with chunks of mystery meat everyone devoured), and whatever else Ignacio and the doctor managed to get their paws on. The banqueters looked like wet dogs wagging their tails, roaming the streets of Havana futilely trying to find a safe place to bury their bones.
Many of them were talking about volunteering at the Pan-American Games. The doctor even promised those who volunteered would receive a brand new Adidas track suit just like the one Castro had been wearing for weeks while promoting these games.
Ana-Belkys even admitted that she hoped this would bring the change our country needed. As ridiculous as I thought of us Cuban socialists in Adidas sportswear, I was sort of grateful that my compatriots still exhibited the courage to hope for a better future.
My father had not died in vain.
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