Friday, April 18, 2008

A Winter Night: A Love Story

(This short story -now published here for the first time in its 3 parts- will be in the new version of my book Recuerdos Compartidos)

A Winter Night
by Mari Rodríguez Ichaso

As a teenager, my world was much complex than most people imagined.

I lived in some sort of suspended animation, an existence totally based (and fed) on dreams for the future I had planned so carefully..

I had always wanted to pursue a career after graduating from the University of Havana’s Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. Like my father and mother -I would eventually become a writer or- better still- a History professor, and then -and only then- I would probably fall in love, get married and have 2 or 3 children.

These had been my life plans since I could remember. A blueprint drawn early on, when I was barely 6 or 7, growing up quite independently (and curiously without much supervision) in the family home in Miramar.

Becoming a college teacher would effectively ’resolve’ the ’social belonging’ matter that troubled me. A famous writer or a college professor with a Ph.D. degree held such a badge of respect! And I would not be ’required’ to have silly friends, lie to unwanted suitors, nor attend senseless parties. A woman of independent means could have such freedom that just thinking about it I could taste the delicious feeling of lassitude and abandonment! I would travel, see the world, rent a farm in Tuscany, spend a sabbatical year in Paris, meet interesting men, drive them crazy with witticisms and intelligent comments, smoke Salems and Parliaments ---and drink Brandy Alexanders, all dressed in black Givenchy skinny cocktails gowns.

Françoise Sagan’s novels had been such a daring challenge! The scandalous young French novelist had recently shocked Europe; and from day one I had taken to her books like I had written them myself-- as they forever affected the way I viewed life. My own sense of defiance and natural curiosity and questioning of life was textbook Sagan and the core of her tormented heroines. Reading Bonjour Tristesse, I knew that whenever I fell in love it would be a ’difficult’ love for a ’difficult’ man.

Only the ’protagonistes’ French cynicism had nothing to do with my almost ’poetical’ feelings about life. Characteristically of the times, I was filled with too many romantic dreams! Never a minute of despair entered my mind and even in my moodier moments - when Cuba’s sun seemed too exuberant and I wished I lived in a grayer and more ’European’ city, far away from the Tropics- I had felt the presence of something ’grand’ looming in my future.

There is a specific Havana evening that stands in my memory as something very special. A magic evening which left a memory of Cuba burnt in my mind.

It happened when I was 14. At the time my oldest cousin Marylin was about to get married and every week there were a few parties celebrating the upcoming wedding. She was the daughter of my Uncle Paco --my mother’s only brother and the ‘king’ of the family-- and I was happy to have been considered ’old enough’ to attend that evening´s dinner party.

Dressed in a blue low cut silk dress with matching shoes, covered by the shoemaker with the same material of the dress (a fashion refinement very common in exquisite Cuba) I remember felling ’chic’ and looking very much 'an adult'. My mother was there. As most of my relatives, including my cousin Purita, her fiancée and what seemed like hundreds of uncles, aunts, etc., etc... We were all very close and loved being together, but -whenever possible- I would try to get away from the group and establish my own territory.

I remember leaning against the rails of the apartment´s terrace, 15 floors above the city, and feeling ‘untouchable’ by the harshness of life. The sight under me was magical. I just loved the silver thread of Havana’s Malecón, like a serpent of twinkling lights sensously undulating along the seawall... The 'Bacardi' neon sign seemed to float above the street. The 'Jantzen' lady-swimmer jumped and dipped into an imaginary ocean of lights. The waters of the bay were so still that night, it had felt almost eerie.

“So un-Cuban”- I had thought- while the sky was a deep blue-black, the exact color of the tiny bottles of the perfume “Evening in Paris” my mother collected.

I remember pulling a Parliament from an pistachio green and silver Art Deco cigarette case that had belonged to my grandmother (’sequestered’ during my last raid of the treasure-filled drawers of ‘mami’s armoire) and almost immediately -like it happens in so many movies and romantic ’novelas’- a mysterious older man was lighting it for me.

“You are Antonia’s and Justo’s daughter...Aren’t you?”

The man was so attractive it was difficult to believe he was real.

Like watching an 'illusion', I got lost in his commanding presence and noticed every detail about him. His skin was tanned and polished to a golden glow; hair and eyes the color of steel; the jaw strong and square. He was well dressed and around 39 or 40 years old. His eyes exuded intelligence and an absolutely mesmerizing irreverence.


“I am told you are as intelligent as you are beautiful... Is it true?”-he had inquired with a humorous tone, leaning over the terrace rails, very close to me. I simply could not keep my eyes away from his square strong fingers.

“Who are you --and why are you telling me these things?”- I could barely whisper as I nervously held on to his hand, while lighting the suddenly ridiculously fragile cigarette

“You are different from all the other women here tonight... I saw you come out to the terrace and was intrigued by your desire to be away from everybody else...You are so young to want to be alone...”

“I want to be alone precisely because I am so young... And ’alone’ means alone...Away from them and probably from you too...”-I remember saying, smiling more at ease now, flirtatiously blowing out the cigarette smoke towards the ocean - “You have interrupted my solitude...”

At that point Raul X laughed and I almost fainted. Why was God sending this dream-man into my life when I was still so very young? This encounter was not in the plans. Completely out of the blueprint!

The mystery man had a great smile, certain "insouciance" about him and a cleft in his chin --- just like Kirk Douglas’s and Rossano Brazzi’s. He looked intelligent, ominous, audacious, and totally disrespectful. I felt like an older Cuban version of “Lolita”, impudently turned on by a man who seemed to embody the most brazen sexiness.

I found him irresistible.

“Let’s dance”

And dance we did in the small terrace to the sounds of a passionate Olga Guillot bolero. I was terrified, tasting the sensuality of the Cuban nights for the first time in my life. It was a heady moment and the whole world seemed to have stopped.

“Miénteme más.. Miénteme al decir te quiero..¡Miénteme más!”.

Olga Guillot’s love song talked of love and lies. In fact she was begging her lover to lie to her over and over again! Her voice was so beautiful as she sang about betrayals and the ecstatic pain she felt! The lights were dimmed, the party had taken a life of its own and my family was far away, very far away. I could not even see them.

The man had held my waist with a huge possessive hand. He moved slowly, almost gently, and I barely dared to follow the rhythm because he followed it for me, taking over, guiding every step, softly, but in total control of my body. The dance lasted just a few minutes, but soon after he leaned and kissed me. First softly, almost hesitantly, later on hungrily, taking my lips into his with a fiery passion that startled me to no end, while huddling me in the terrace’s corner, away from everybody’s eyes, robbing me from my world, obliterating me. It was my first kiss, the very first time-- and he noticed it.

“I am the first man who has kissed you!..’El primer beso’...This means I will be the first man to make love to you...Don’t look at me that way!...It will be true...Now I must go, but I will see you again!”

And he was gone. The same way he showed up, suddenly and without making any noise. No sound of footsteps, no ice cubes rattling in a tired highball glass. Like a shadow, he disappeared back into the party. I stayed outside for a few minutes, my body and mind flying over the city. Like riding a rocket, completely elated, I was a Chagall bride flying towards paradise.

When I went back into the apartment I saw him next to a woman, laughing and smoking --his arm around her shoulders. It was his wife, of course. As some form of validation -or public declaration of love- all Cuban husbands -especially the unfaithful ones- always had their arms around their wives shoulders.

I instantly recognized the elegant big boned woman with the stunning face and red lips. She was an acquaintance of my parents. A very rich woman from a very well known family. And he was her loving husband and the father of her two daughters. He looked at me as I slowly walked into the salon, pretending to be perfectly calmed, very cool, very at ease... He stared at me boldly, without any discretion, as I walked towards ‘mami’, looking instinctively for some protection and maternal shelter. He smiled at me above his wife’s head and shoulders. Complicity and humor --a heady combination that seems to be characteristic of Cuban men. And suddenly, unexpectedly, he blew me a kiss. A kiss that got confused with the smoke of his cigarette and the fast movements of his fingers, as he kept smoking the night away.

Just like Françoise Sagan’s heroines, at age 14 I had fallen madly in love.
Lost and Found in New York -2nd part-

I saw many more times the man who kissed me in that terrace. It felt so daring and so risqué to escape and talk with him -but I was too scared to go beyond having long, drawn out, conversations with him when we saw each other at more dinner parties celebrating the wedding -- and dream about his kisses for years to come.

Raúl X was known as Lin. Nobody really knew the reason, but a whole generation of Cuban men of ‘good’ families, were always known by their sometimes silly nicknames: Dindu, Churi, Pelu, Paquete, Pegajoso, Rojito, Toti, Titi, Luni, Chopo, Dumbo, Poqui, etc, etc. And Lin was one of them. (The generation before was known by their diminutives, all ending in ‘ito’: Alvarito, Rafaelito, Jorgito, Pedrito, Andresito, Luisito, etc, etc.)
And many years later --when destiny put us on the same path, already in exile-- he told me of the curiosity he had felt when we met -and the great anxiety it caused him when he later learned how young I was. "You looked much older, -he said- 18 or 20 at least". It was a bewildering feeling, he said, since this was not the usual sexual attraction and anticipation that always accompanied ‘the hunt and the mating’ with a new woman. This was “a totally different feeling” -he repeated many times and curiously, I felt deliriously happy while listening to all these confessions, almost 20 years later.

You see, I have no other choice but to believe in what we call “destiny” --and its many fortuitous twists. After all these years, and all the revolutionary turmoil that rocked Cuba and our lives -which took place after my cousin’s weddings celebrations, where we saw each other on several occasions-- I coincided with him three decades later, --on an airplane!

Flying First Class from Paris to New York, sitting next to each other, I immediately recognized him. He was still a striking man, even though he was already in his late 50’s´. He says my voice was an immediate clue! He heard me speaking as I boarded the plane and “he had known” -and when I reached my seat he was already smiling at me. It was just amazing! We both had been in Paris on a business trip. We were staying in hotels a block apart -and we both had spent five evenings thoroughly bored in the most romantic of places.

The encounter -again -had happened at the wrong time, in the most unimaginable place.

I was married at the time and so was he --although to a new woman! For over 20 years we had lived in the same city and our lives had never crossed paths. I had been single in New York and longing to fall in love when he had divorced his first wife -and was suddenly single and longing to fall in love. I then fell in love and married for the first time. So did he. For the second time.

Of course, after flying for 8 hours on that plane I fell as close to him as I have ever felt to a man. A wave of purely cerebral sensuality filled our space --and champagne and caviar have never tasted so good, so warm, so bubbly --and so gut-tugging. We talked, we giggled, we exchanged ideas and stories, we reminisced, we touched our fingers casually, but we never dared to kiss. It probably would have been dangerous. Not because we were afraid of unleashing some kind of ‘uncontrollable passion’, but because we were afraid of breaking the bubble.

Thus, those hungry kisses in erotic Havana were meant to be our last!

When we arrived at Kennedy Airport --as we looked for our luggage in the confusing “mêlée” of the baggage carrousel-- we were possessed by that awkward feeling that follows unchecked “from the heart” airplane confidences. It was obvious than on firm territory the giddy and unperturbed mood was not a good path to follow --and we both avoided each other’s eyes. Purposely --and embarrassingly sad. The exciting spell was shaken up by reality -and it was obvious that we emotionally disengaged and almost did not look at each other as we loaded our bags in the rolling carts. Before going through Customs I looked back, smiled and said a shy good-bye. He only smiled.

Maybe he was worried that our respective spouses could be just outside, waiting for us (Cubans are big at greeting relatives at airports). And after a clumsy good bye and a wave of our hands, we parted ways.

Speaking for both of us it had been clear that after that day we were not going to continue our renewed connection. Both older and wiser, we were now married people. Married people, maybe even a little tired, a little jaded --and not so eager for romance and eroticism as when we were up in the French clouds.

Miami: The Third Time Around - last part

Twenty years later, my naive way of looking at life and romance less sparkling, and by then the mother of a young woman (whose turn to be happy seemed to be more important than mine) - I bought an apartment in Key Biscayne, Florida.

After separating from my husband, crying about the break-up of my marriage for what seemed to be endless years, selling my Long Island beach house and cutting as many ties as I could with what had been my life as a wife --I had taken the step most Cubans living the USA dream of, and bought myself ‘a place in Miami’.

An apartment, that was more an emotional symbol of permanence and hope, than a simple second home. A place where (maybe) one day I would retire to and live (like a mini-slice of Cuba) surrounded by my good friends, old schoolmates and tons of relatives. Lucky me, I was able to snatch a bargain, and not buy any average apartment, but my ‘dream apartment’: large, airy, filled with light and sunshine, with a kidney shaped pool -and located in a luxurious condominium on the beach at Key Biscayne.

A ‘place at the beach’ like the one I always had dreamt of when I was planning my life-in-Cuba-blueprint at age 14! Just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean, barely ninety miles from my beloved city of Havana, if not right on its shores. A place with similar palm trees and days filled with sunshine --and that sometimes excessive humidity, which when you are born in the Tropics you learn to accept like a family member you don’t like, but somehow accept --and sometimes even love.

After I furnished the beautiful apartment –buying furniture I really liked for the first time in my life, since my husband had always selected the decoration he liked and imposed it on me, always in shades of cobalt blue and white- I was ecstatic. Something as simple as the sole ownership of the apartment gave me a great sense of independence and achievement. It might sound idiotic, but I felt larger than life -and immensely happy- that I finally was able to decide so many things in my life in a harmonious way.

A place at the beach that I started flying to whenever I could leave New York. A new home that became ‘a key’ to a warm and friendly solitude. And -strangely- a place in which I loved being alone, spending sometimes days without visiting my relatives, or calling the tons of friends that I had expected to socialize with.

Then one day I saw him. Yes. Him!

Well, I must be honest and tell you that months after I bought the place, my cousin (most of my family live in Key Biscayne) had told me that I had many Cuban neighbors and some of them had been ‘family friends’. She went on to mention some familiar names (including many nicknames and diminutive ‘ito’s’)…and suddenly she said

“And also Raul X….He moved from New York with his second wife. We had never met her before, and she is really very nice…Actually, they live in your building”.

So, I ‘knew’ he was there! And living very close to me. Raul X and the second wife! Could things be more bizarre?

So from day one, every time I visited Miami I was a bit on the ‘lookout’. And not necessarily in a ‘I-am-dying-to-see him mood’, because mostly-wealthy Key Biscayne Cubans are always dressed to the nines (just in case you suddenly see an old Cuban friend who has not seen you since 1958!) – but this was not my case at all. As soon as I land in Miami I feel 100% a free soul and dress very informally, zero make-up and totally forget about my hair. My cousins dress very sporty, but always look polished and trendy with lots of Polo and Lacoste, and linen shorts and great little bags –plus perfect hair & make-up. Thus my fear was to encounter Raul during my many ‘au naturel’ moments: coming from the pool or the beach, barely hidden by an old pareo, and my hair wet and flat --or going to the local supermarket (where one finds ‘le tout’ Key Biscayne) dressed in old khakis, flip flops and a big cotton shirt. Thus my Miami ‘sejours’ started to become a bit of a worry --and I was suddenly a slave of my appearance whenever I left the apartment and practically ran to my car!

But life is what it is -and we cannot hide from it.

So one day I briefly saw him as our cars crossed their paths in the parking area, where both our parking spaces seemed to be assigned. So close, again! --And as he maneuvered to get into his space and I was coming out of mine, I saw the hair (now snow white) and the still square jaw. Oh my God, it was definitely him.

Another time I saw him from afar, leaving the building, carefully stepping down the front steps (maybe he has a bad knee?- I thought). He was wearing a blue checked shirt, white Bermuda shorts and trendy sockless loafers. Not bad, frivolous me thought. He still likes to look good. He also seemed to have a deeper suntan than years before, I noticed as I turned my head --and hiding behind huge sunglasses drove away.

But the unavoidable moment came when one night –as I was coming from a late dinner party (luckily well dressed and looking cute) he was talking to the doorman, while a jolly looking, older Cuban woman, stood next to him. When I saw them I practically ran into the elevator, did not open my mouth (so my voice would not give me away, I thought, hoping that my voice would still be in his mental computer) --and barely smiled to the doorman as Raul looked at me a little longer than necessary, like trying to remember ‘who’ and ‘where’…Yes… He had recognized me all right! The next morning as I approached my parked car –he was near his car, pretending to be unloading some packages. But he actually was waiting for me.

And this time the encounter was in a dark and humid parking garage in South Florida. No more romantic dances and kisses in sultry Havana evenings. No middle-of-the ocean heart to heart conversations on a Paris to New York champagne fueled flight. This was a reality-check encounter for sure.

But no -I am not going to bore you with endless pages and pages of more details and adolescent chit chat. This platonic romance had been going on for 40 years and –sadly- all this time had left its brutal and inescapable mark in the main characters. A physical mark -and the emotional coat/tails that come with age.

When I had met him he was a brazen and gorgeous man of 35, secure of himself, an arrogant and sexy Master of the Universe -- and I was a sassy and pretty woman of 14 who also had her own vision of being Mistress of the Universe. Forty years later I was a youthful looking 54 and he was a youthful looking 75.

But this time the age difference between us was quite obvious -and the entire setting was all wrong.

I still had an unlined face (family genes) -albeit a few more pounds than years before. He was still tall and nicely built, but his teeth were different and his smile had lost its charm! I should have expected and accepted ‘change’ with the passing of time, but in my memory he had always remained the man I met --and the attractive man I had found 20 years earlier on that airplane. But suddenly he was very old in my eyes. And he walked old. And he spoke old. It was such a painful moment. Especially because it pained me that he was not acting old --and pretended time had stopped, and we were still the two beautiful creatures that had danced and kissed in that Havana balcony in 1958.

They way he talked, the not so subtle way he grabbed my arm as he talked to me, to make a point maybe, or to tell me he still wanted me (who knows what he wanted to convey with that so Hispanic-men gesture to touch and hold your arm?). In his mind he still was that gorgeous man, that irresistible Cuban Casanova. They way he smiled, or tried to smile, the old roguish smile. It was clear that inside he was the same man. But outside he was a fading attempt of that man -and both men did not go well together.

I felt so sorry for him. And for me. It would have been better not to see him ever again.

So the encounter did not become an affair -nor a late blooming romance, like in some romantic movies. We just talked in a friendly way, down there in the garage, where the gray shadows made the Florida sun more forgiving and reality less harsh. We smiled and laughed in the darkness of the musty garage -and talked about Cuba, about Fidel Castro, about what had happened to this friend or that friend. The usual banter among Cubans whose lives were turned upside down in 1959 and have not stopped remembering the past ever since. He held my hand briefly, more a gesture of affection than of passion. There was no sexual tension -nor emotional tension. In fact, it was a bit awkward.

Then we talked about the coincidences of life. “What a coincidence finding each other here, after so many years, living in the same building” -we both said and it really was a curious moment of fate. As he spoke I noticed the cleft on his chin, deeper and darker from the sun, the eyes smaller, albeit still attractive --and the flesh in his arms softer, not as taut, with lots of sun spots. He seemed to be skinnier and bonier, and his fingers not strong and square anymore, but more tapered, like the hands of a gentle pianist instead of an audacious seducer.

Age should respect beauty. And beautiful men and women should remain the same, at least to give visual pleasures to others -I thought. This handsome and sexy man -the epitome of masculinity and seduction- should have remained untouched by the passing of time.

And in the midst of our mindless conversation, my mind wondered to a time I had met once gorgeous Italian actor from the 50’s Rossano Brazzi in the Miami Film Festival --and almost fainted when I saw him looking ghastly, with a fake tan, reddish tinted hair within the confines of a hairpiece, a bad case of plastic surgery and an obvious full set of false teeth. It had been quite upsetting to see his complete physical crumble.

Of course, I should not exaggerate -and in this specific case Raul was much more his old self, but something was definitely missing. It went beyond the physical --and had more to do with his attitude and emotional stance. In fact, in spite of the possessive-hand-gesture he seemed a bit scared! Ready and not ready at the same time. He was lacking confidence and I could not put my finger in exactly where and why. Was he impotent now? Although in Miami it is well known that many Cuban men were fitted with an embarrassing penile implant called “la bombita” --or took Viagra. Was he scared of rocking the boat with his second wife? Probably. Especially now that he was in his late 70’s and needed more tender loving care and a wife-cum-nurse and companion. Did he really think we could finally consummate our relationship? I wondered what he was thinking. The whole thing was so strange! And all these thoughts threw me, filled my mind (and probably his) with distraction -and dissipated any possible erotic images.

In fact I was so nervous and disappointed --that I even thought of impulsively jumping him and kissing him, to somehow try our luck and maybe wake up the old feeling! But I could not even move a step and remained uptight and nervous and fidgety. My smile hurt and the garage was such a depressing place. Maybe we could walk towards the back door that led to the beach? So I moved in that direction, subtly, guiding us towards the white sand and green palms trees just a few feet away. But he stayed put by the parked cars. I could see that he did not want to leave the clandestine setting of the garage and come out in the open beach with me. He was still the husband ‘hiding’ from the wife!....Oh my God, no! -I thought. This is all I needed! So we talked a bit more about Miami and the great things Key Biscayne offered, etc, etc.

“I should finally meet your husband and you should finally meet my wife. Maybe we could go to dinner together…” he said after a while

“Oh, I don’t have a husband anymore”- I interrupted him and blurted out my married status like thrusting him a weapon. (Lately I love telling people that I am divorced, which took me years to admit) - “I am divorced now”

My phrase almost sounded like a ‘come on’. It resonated in the garage. I did not mean to, at all, but it did sound like “Hey, I am free again.”… I felt embarrassed -but also waited curiously for his reaction.

And then his eyes betrayed him. For a second they had had the same gleam of his youth. But suddenly they became dark. His eyes were suddenly old and immensely tired.

“You are divorced then? Since when? If I had known I..” – his voice barely a whisper

He must have realized at that moment that we had missed our paths -once again. And this time for good.

It was just too late. It felt bittersweet and at the same time so very final. I suddenly felt very sad and very tired. What a shame! What a waste of great feelings and possible happiness! Ours could have been such a passionate and intense affair. When we met, we were so attracted to each other -and felt so good with each other. Today the word would be ‘organic’, because it had felt so right. It was beyond a physical hunger for each other, which our kisses previewed, because there was some sort of ‘magic’, like in a good love song, that pulled us to each other. But -against the grain of hope and romantic love- our paths had first crossed at the wrong moment and in the wrong place. Especially in the wrong city and in the wrong country, -the Cuban Revolution just a few weeks away.

And now, the coincidences were over. No more twists of fate were necessary. The tale was in its last page. It is well known that our physical life does not extend itself, nor gives us those much needed years to start again.

Thus, after many twists and turns, the circle had ended and Raul and I quietly -and without any fanfare- concluded our almost perfect love story.