|Jan/Feb 2011 spotlight|
Most weekends I spent with my mother. There wasn't much difference between her rectitude and that of the nuns at St. Mark's, where I boarded during the week. Saturday mornings after breakfast she would confine me to the dining room to do homework. Then she'd quiz me on the Baltimore Catechism in preparation for my First Communion, followed by pitiless drills of the multiplication tables, which I still did not master, though I was seven-and-a-half years old.
Weekends when it was my father's turn were very different. My father would pull up to the school on a Friday evening in his two-seater Lotus Élan, with the top down if the weather was good. It was a white roadster with a black racing stripe down the middle and a well-stocked Executaire travel bar in the trunk. My father would leap out of the leather seat lithely. He worked for Bendix, The Tomorrow People, and made an ample salary.
Sister Magdalene, who had acne red as a third-degree burn, would hand me my little Scotch-plaid suitcase, and Sister Anne-Sophie would remind me to do my homework and to take suppositories if I got a fever. "I've packed some in his bag," she'd point out to my father. My dad would scoop me up with a "Hey, buddy!" and I'd suck in his invigorating scent of Bay Rum and Vitalis. We'd rush out to his car; he'd loosen his tie and rev up the engine. The other boys peered through the barred dormitory windows in awe and envy. And away we tore.
My father lived in a modern high-rise near the airport, with an endless supply of airline stewardesses and jet-setting women as his house-guests. In those days airports were cathedrals of aviation, sleek and spacious with sloping walls of glass. My father's building was airport-like, international style, with contrapuntal cantilevers and pristine white walls. From his bachelor's suite you could watch the planes coming and going, so close you could read the logos on the tail rudders. I could identify them all—Eastern, Piedmont, Pan Am, TWA.
His efficiency had a galley kitchen and a bar, bottles and shakers arranged to suggest the Manhattan skyline. He owned a Clairtone stereo system with futuristic round speakers and an Ampex reel-to-reel tape machine. But his most unusual toy was the Wurlitzer Elektrika Music Lounger, a white, horizontal bed made of fiberglass that looked like a coffin with the ends rounded. You could connect it with a cable to the record-player or the reel-to-reel component and listen through internal speakers. A small, red bulb on its outer side lit up like an angry eye. Inside it was lined with wadded white satin. It had just enough space for two to make love to "The Girl from Ipanema." I was afraid to lie in it, but my father often chose it over his actual bed when fucking his girlfriends.
Regarding music, my father rejected the rhythms of his Cuban homeland. Loud, wild Cuban music wasn't my father's style of seduction. His was Brazil, the subtle strains of Tom Jobim and Astrud Gilberto. He particularly loved Brazil 66 doing "So Many Stars," the understated rhythm fading wistfully at the end, like a plane disappearing in the twilit distance, by which time the woman had melted in his arms and would be eased into the Wurlitzer Elektrika. It worked like a charm.
My dad's girlfriends were my girlfriends. The stewardesses were trim, wholesome, clean, all-American women with healthy complexions, flip hairdos, and an impeccable work-ethic. They had names like Beth, Mary Ann, and Linda. When they spoke, they sounded like the telephone lady, Jane Barbe, with vibrato-less, crystal-clear enunciation. I loved their crisp, simple uniforms, their satin scarves, their pillbox hats emblazoned with silver wings, their conch-shaped vanity cases, the efficient, economical grace of their every movement. They were like the planes themselves, cool and brave and thrilling. After nights of vigorous lovemaking, they would rush off conscientiously, in fine stiletto heels, to work early-morning flights to Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Rio de Janeiro.
The other women were foreign and less meticulous about hygiene. Their bodies gave off earthier smells. There was Lupe, the bronze Brazilian, who suffered temper tantrums; she had killed her husband in Bahia, we later learned, breaking his skull with an iron skillet. There was Anna, the melancholy Italian, who had thick, pouting lips like Monica Vitti; there was Amanda, the English swinger, who wore black leather jumpsuits with multiple, tantalizing zippers; and there was Huan-Hui, the delicate Vietnamese with black hair hanging straight down to her tight little butt. While the American stewardesses liked to ply me with candy, the Italian held me close as she read Being and Nothingness, and Amanda tried to teach me judo. For a time it was the doll-like Huan-Hui that I loved most of all. I remember the day my dad, Huan-Hui, and I went on a cruise along the Potomac and got off at an abandoned islet. I went down on my knees before her, as if practicing for First Communion, and declared: "I hereby name this island Huan-Hui."
There wasn't a bedroom in my father's apartment, just a big walk-in closet. My father kept his Brooks Brothers suits there, his several pairs of Allen Edmund shoes, his dozens of ties and monogrammed shirts. His actual bed was placed outside, facing the window; you could count planes instead of sheep. Above the bed hung crossed medieval swords. When a woman spent the night and it was time for cognac in snifters, I was told to go into the closet, where my father would roll in the TV to distract me. But it was impossible to pay attention to anything on the screen. I could hear the rustling of garments as they fell to the floor, the escalating sighs and moans. I always knew if he was using the Wurlitzer Elektrika because it creaked when bucking movements began, or if Lupe was reaching climax, because she'd scream hysterically. (My father once showed me the pink lacerations on his back from her fingernails, boasting how he had wrestled her down like a tiger.) And there I was, sitting in the closet, fuming, because, after all, they were my women, too. I hated being left out. I hated being a child. Sometimes, though, one of the women would take pity on me and knock on the closet door to offer me candy or a hug, not minding if I saw her in a slip or panties.
Every time I returned to St. Mark's from weekends with my father, I would compare the nuns to his lovers. The nuns were hulking horrors in black habits; they smelled of dirty feet, Oleum Infirmorum, and the sad, buttered toast that was served in the convent for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sister Aubel, the Mother Superior, had stubble on her upper lip—the light would rake it when she glared down at me at report card time. Sister Anne-Sophie would box me on the ear for the slightest infraction. Sometimes she threatened to lock me in the school basement with a Negro. He'd beat me and make me his slave, she'd warn with a chilling smile.
My mother also compared negatively to my father's women. I hated the peasant scarf she wrapped over her huge hair rollers at night. Though educated by American nuns in Havana, she could not get rid of her embarrassing accent—she'd say oh-ven for oven, and "beach" always came out as bitch. She wore big-buttoned, woolen blouses in red plaid that were scratchy and smelled like a dog in the rain. Her face was gaunt, joyless; she was flat-chested, with thin, ungenerous lips; she had a mannish aggression when it came to arguing a bill, defending the Republican Party, or competing for a parking space. Although I sensed my mother's deep loneliness, I sided with my father.
One Saturday night I was dispatched to the closet as usual, but this time I peeked out. Instead of sex I saw Mary Ann in her TWA uniform, powder blue with a round, white, Catholic schoolgirl collar. She stood very still and quiet, looking at my father, who also said nothing. He held a martini glass, empty save for the eyeball of an olive pierced by a little plastic sword. The single sound was the white hum of the central air-conditioning.
There was so much space between, around them. My father smiled fatuously, his tie a crooked noose. He made a gesture toward the Wurlitzer Elektrika, but Mary Ann just stood there, unblinking, firm, self-possessed, her fine features and perfect brunette flip sculptural in the stillness. "I feel sorry for you," she said finally in her clear, even voice. "I mean, living this way..." She picked up her handbag and pivoted toward the door as I receded into the closet. Don't let her go, Dad! American happiness was leaving us forever. I heard the door of the apartment click shut.
Another weekend, no women appeared. My father was vague when I asked about them, especially about Mary Ann. I went back to St. Mark's sullen, kicking against everything that the nuns asked of me.
I didn't see my dad again for over a month, what with First Communion practice and my mother tightening her discipline as report card time approached. I spent my classes dreaming of Mary Ann, of flying away with her to Rio on a Boeing 707, leaving all of these ugly nuns and my insipid mother behind.
I couldn't wait for Dad's next visit. On his appointed day he called, but to cancel. I started crying right there in the office and developed a fever. In the infirmary Sister Anne-Sophie shoved a suppository up my ass.
Dad canceled for my First Communion, too. I went through the motions in my white shirt, white jacket, knee-length white pants, white socks, and white shoes. The Host tasted like cardboard. I was careful not to bite down on it; the nuns said I'd be biting Jesus.
Finally, one Friday afternoon, my father reappeared. Sister Anne-Sophie handed me my suitcase packed with two days' worth of clothes, my arithmetic book, a Jane's Guide to Passenger Aircraft, and three suppositories wrapped in tinfoil. Dad took me in his arms. I hugged him especially tight. As we went down the front steps, I looked for the Lotus Élan. Instead a pus-yellow Ford Falcon awaited us. It was a used '63 model; the grille and headlamps reminded me of a depressed dog.
"Where's the Lotus?" I asked with alarm. I knew the boys were watching expectantly from the windows. My father ignored me and kept walking. I repeated my question. "Hey, Dad—what about the Lotus?"
He turned on me with sudden ferocity: "Were you waiting for me or for the Lotus?" I looked down, withered.
At his apartment we started talking again. I asked him to make me a Roy Rogers on the rocks ("And don't be stingy with the grenadine!"). He replied with unusual firmness: "No drinking today." He didn't mix himself a martini, and I noticed that the Manhattan skyline was broken up, missing several bottles. In fact the whole apartment was a mess, clothes lying everywhere, dirty ashtrays, newspapers, and ties like dead snakes hanging over the rim of the Wurlitzer Elektrika. He didn't cook that evening, either. I'd been hoping for steak tartare or herring soup with strawberry jam and champagne. Instead we had a drab fried chicken dinner at the Howard Johnson's.
Surely after dinner we'd drive to the airport. We usually did, if none of our women were with us. Maybe we'd meet Mary Ann just back from Rome or Tallahassee. Then I remembered a pencil case I'd seen months ago at the airport shop. I don't know why, but suddenly I just had to have it. It had a map of the world on the plastic lid and two narrow windows at either side, one for the names of countries, another for the capitals. By turning two dials below, you matched up each country to its capital. Not all the countries were on it, just the big, important ones. Cuba didn't qualify.
"Are we going to the airport, Dad?"
"Not tonight, buddy."
"But... Dad? Ya see... There's this pencil case that Sister Anne-Sophie said I have to use in class. She told us all to have one by Monday. I really need it and the only place they sell it is at the air—"
"I said no. Now finish your milk and let's go home."
My father had never denied me anything. This was a different person from the sunny, generous man who'd been my father. Perhaps this wasn't my father at all but Sister Anne-Sophie's Negro wearing a mask of my father. I wanted my mother. The Ford Falcon smelled like linoleum and old vomit.
When we got home, he poured himself a tumbler of Seagram's VO, forgetting his earlier injunction against drinking. I hoped we'd settle on the couch and watch the star-like planes and listen to Brazil 66 on the Clairtone or the Ampex, but instead he turned on the TV. We lay in the unkempt bed, fully clothed, squinting in the flickering TV light. He didn't say a word. His right arm was locked around my neck, the cuff-button branding my cheek. He drank VO and smoked a chain of Winstons with his free hand. I peered up at the crossed swords directly over my head, worried they might fall and impale me. To the right the Wurlitzer Elektrika's evil eye stared at me. I tried to remember some of Amanda's judo to loosen my father's hold.
Bonanza came on, an episode in which Lorne Greene punches one of his sons, Little Joe. Suddenly Dad spoke, his voice lit with VO. He said Lorne Greene reminded him of his own father back in Cuba, and that his father, too, had punched him once.
"I got the crazy idea," he said, "of starting my own conga band."
I did not know what a conga was. It sounded like King Kong. He took another gulp of VO.
"I invited all the niggers in the neighborhood. My dad came home earlier than expected and found us all there, beating the shit outta those drums. He pulled out his revolver, a goddamn revolver, yeah, like a cowboy, and the niggers ran for their lives. Then he knocked me out with a single punch, right in the kisser. How 'bout that, buddy, huh?"
I knew little about my father's Cuban life. I thought of him as American, cool as Stu Bailey from 77 Sunset Strip. He wasn't like those Cuban men who ran the Hispanic grocery—puny, brownish men with pencil-thin moustaches, reeking of goat-cheese. No, my father was tall, clean-shaven, sandy-haired, fair of skin. Unlike my mother, he spoke General English without a Spanish accent. When he said "back home," people thought he meant Peoria. He worked for Bendix, The Tomorrow People, not in some bodega. He was at the cutting edge of the future; thanks to him, someday there would be cities beneath the sea and passenger flights to the moon. He lived in a world of beautiful women, slide-rules, Microtomic pencils, electronic music loungers, transcontinental jets, and—except for the inexplicable Ford Falcon—fast cars.
His lock relaxed. I rubbed my cheek to erase the button branded on it. I twisted my neck this way and that, grateful to be free.
"What do you think, buddy?" my dad asked, pouring himself another VO. "How 'bout we call your grandfather? Wouldn't you like to talk to him, all the way in Cuba?" He lit another Winston and squinted at me through the brown, acrid smoke. He seemed far away. There were bags under his eyes and a big, damp stain on his shirt under his arm, where my head had been trapped. He did not look like the fresh, well-groomed man I loved.
"But how? Does he speak English?"
He put the drink down angrily and pulled the Winston out of his mouth. I held my breath.
"Does he speak English? Come on, buddy! He used to go around Havana in a fucking Stetson hat. Why do you think he made me spend seven years at that military school in Ohio, not even letting me go home at Christmas? So I'd forget Spanish, that's why. Jeez, I don't even remember how to say cunt in Spanish. Well, at least I don't talk like a spic like your mother."
He took another mouthful of VO and looked at me, daring me to contradict him. I felt a new allegiance to my mother, but I was too scared to stand up to this transfigured father. He might make me lie in the Wurlitzer Elektrika.
Dad walked over to the Wurlitzer—my heart stopped—and mashed his Winston into its side, leaving a permanent black burn in the white fiberglass. He wiped his lips on the sleeve of his sweaty shirt and went into the walk-in closet. He came back with a dog-eared, leather address book. It held the precious numbers of the world's most beautiful women, but also, in fading ink, of people left behind in Cuba. In those days it took a long time to connect to Havana. You had to go through the operator. I waited patiently for the first hour, intrigued but also frightened to speak to the man who had punched my father. By midnight my eyes burned with sleep. My father just stood there, the receiver at his ear lodged in place by his right shoulder. He smoked, guzzled VO, and gazed at something on the horizon of his memory.
Struggling to keep my eyes open, I said, "Can I hear, Dad?"
He extended the receiver toward me. I heard the blackness of oceanic depths, waves of muffled static, wires or cables shifting under water... The murky sound was like an impenetrable wall of rain, soot, and smoke.
"I can't hear anything, Dad."
I fell asleep, dreaming that crucifixes were departing every three minutes for Rio, Rome, and Oklahoma City. Sister Anne-Sophie was forcing me to eat a dish called Cuba that consisted of suppositories mashed on buttered toast, and she was crying because I refused to eat it and there was no money for other food, or for pencil cases, and I was, she said, the most selfish little boy in the world. I saw my mother dead in the Wurlitzer Elektrika Music Lounger, and I knew I was now completely alone. Crucifixes took off from runways, landed, roared through the skies...
I woke up in tears and saw my father with the phone still at his ear. All he kept saying was "Hello?" in a different voice each time, as if he were searching for the one voice that would impress his father most. Some of the hello's were swaggering, others clipped like a hardboiled detective's, another cheerful, expansive, even forgiving. It was frightening to hear his multiple voices. I went under again, heavy with sleep.
I awoke with the telephone cable stretched tight across my throat. I wriggled out from under it; it descended, a tensed umbilical cord, into the Wurlitzer Elektrika.
My father's voice came from inside the berth, hollowed out, as if in a cavern. "You bastard," I heard. "You fucking bastard."
My father's voice buckled with a sob, then went on.
"I lost my job at Bendix. Ever hear of them, Bendix, The Tomorrow People? The Tomorrow People—isn't that what you called Cubans? Mañana, siempre mañana, you'd scream at the niggers in your lumber yard... Can you hear me, Dad? You wouldn't even let me go home for Christmas. Not even for a lousy Christmas..."
Then his voice sprung like a panther.
"I hope that Castro hangs you from piano-wire. I hope that Castro castrates you. Do you hear me? I hope you shit in your pants! I hope you—!"
"Dad!" I shrieked. "Is it your dad? Is it him?"
There was a long silence. I feared he'd died, like my mother in the dream.
"Dad, where are you? Dad, I love you... Dad? Please!"
Slowly my father sat up in the Wurlitzer Elektrika and looked at me with a sad smile. His hair was disheveled, his shirt crumpled as if he had been in a fight. He climbed out of the berth shakily and came toward me, cradling the telephone receiver in both hands.
He held the receiver before my face—it smelled of liquor, cigarette breath, and the dried-out spittle of rage. I took it, careful as an altar boy handling a ciborium. I raised it to my ear, but holding it just a little away, as if the invisible grandfather might hit me from faraway Cuba.
"Hello?" I asked in a trembling voice. "Hello?"
Muffled static. Blackness. An oceanic moan.