Saturday, September 27, 2008

New York in the 60's: First encounter with my city

When we left Cuba I was sort of 'engaged' to a nice young man I hardly knew and who definitely did not know me. Imagine being engaged at 17! One more crazy thing developed during the Revolutionary years, but that was my 'status'. So when we finally left behind our long stay in Mexico, we travelled to Miami on a Greyhound bus, where after 2 weeks we made arrangements to travel to New York City -on a train- where my 'wedding' would take place.

We sat all the way to New York. It was depressing and -once again -I started feeling very sad and frightened. We sat for over twenty four hours on a stiff train chair, surrounded by the packages and bundles we were carrying. No roast-chicken this time though! Just a tremendous uncertainty about our future.

My ‘fiancée’ B would be waiting for us at Penn Station. Even the thought of it was so weird...Was I in love with him?...Did I really want to marry him or anyone else for that matter?..The whole idea of being ‘engaged’ and the two years of romantic correspondence seemed fine in the bleak Havana days. It had given me hope then. It had represented ‘a future’, ‘a goal’ to look forward to after our departure. But now I felt trapped every time the thought of marriage crossed my mind. And just the thought of telling Mami how I really felt about the whole thing was frightening too.

I felt responsible for the predicament we were all in, and the fact that we were traveling under the Hudson River, through a tunnel, minutes away from my destiny!

The moment I saw B again my worst fears were confirmed. In just a few seconds of ackward conversation I knew I did not love him, nor wanted to marry him. It was a terrible realization, which became much worse when he made us walk -with all our stuff, including the huge wedding dress box we had brough with us - to a fleebag-style small hotel a couple of blocks from the station, where he had ‘reserved’ a room for us to live in!

The place still stands and everytime I drive by it I shudder because then -as it is now- was a hotel for prostitutes and derelicts. My mother was both dismayed and mad when she saw the hovel B had ‘booked’ for us. “How in the world did it ever occur to you that we could stay here ?”-she asked him

“It was the cheapest place I could find”-he said sheepishly- “Since you dont have any money...”

“We are leaving this place right now!”- Mami said forcefully -”We will call the Hotel San Rafael and stay there, even if we spend all the little money we have. We cannot stay in this hellhole full of delinquents!”

We left the hotel -and once again I loved my mother’s resolute strenght and brave behaviour. She always made us feel so protected. The typical Cuban mother. The Spanish mother that García Lorca wrote about! I still cannot figure out how -and where from- she got her strength and straightforwardness in life. A gorgeous woman, with the most beautiful smile and enthusiasm for life, she could become the Rock of Gibraltar when needed -- and always defended her family like a lioness. After leaving in Cuba everything she had ever worked for, I never heard her complain or whine about it, and to the last day of her 93 years she was still beautiful, witty...and very feisty!

A few minutes later, we rented a room in the residential Hotel San Rafael on 45th St between 5th and 6th Avenues, where many Cubans families lived at the time, including an old friend of my mother’s family- Guillermo Martínez Márquez, a very distinguished journalist who had been President of the Interamerican Press Society-. It cost us $80 for one week- which made quite a ‘dent in our fortune’ (since by this time we only had about $350) but the room had a huge window facing 45 St and was large, very clean and comfortable.

I remember going to sleep as soon as we got there. It was a deep and lethargic sleep that in the following days would become my constant way of escaping from everything. The moment had arrived to start a new life. To look for a job. Start working. Being a woman of courage! But New York loomed so menacing. So huge and ugly in the opressive Summer heat. I felt exhausted and drained of any emotion. And very overwhelmed by the thought of the approaching marriage (B and his parents had been very kind to the three of us and we had visited their home in Jackson Heights, in the suburb of Queens, where they had looked for a small ‘attic’ for us to live in after ‘the wedding’) . And everyday -while my mother and brother went out to look for work- I stayed at the hotel sleeping for hours and hours, whole days at the time, not even answering the phone. When they came back, late in the afternoon, Mami and Leon thought I had also gone out to look for a job. I even lied to them and invented places and people I had met in my search!

After 5 or 6 days of this, Mami would take no more nonsense from me and confronted Sleeping Beauty!...What was going on?.. . I had never liked to sleep during the day ( to this day I get up at 7am) so my behaviour was very strange. I had to get up and go out to look for a job!....She really jolted me out of my fear!. And poor B also came to my rescue with a job offer from Bloomingdale’s. Through friends he had found me the job and even took me to the store to fill out the aplication. A few days latter I had started my first job: as a salesgirl at the “Better Blouses Dept”.

But the following weekend something happened that changed my life. One of those ‘coincidences’ that are not.

It was Sunday night -and the three of us were coming back to Manhattan in the subway -we had spent the day at B’s parents, where I had felt terrible, since by this time I almost “hated” him and his childish sense of humor- when suddenly the door of our subway car opens in a Forest Hills stop ---and into the train walks Rolo Sainz de la Peña, one of my childhood neighbors in Cuba, the boy I had grown next to since I was 3, and the young man who had been my ‘first love’ from the time I had been 7 years old! Together with his older sister Heldy - whom I had worshipped as a child-- and his parents Helda and Saínz, they constituted for me “the perfect family” I had always longed to be part of.

Of all the people in the world who could have stepped into that specific train car, at that time, that day, at that very moment, on a hot Sunday night --finding Rolo was definitely God’s answer to my dilemma And this providential encounter was absolutely wonderful!...We had not seen him in 5 years, since they had left Cuba, and although Mami had their phone number in New York, she had not found time to call them yet.

Rolo was as happy to see us as we were to see him! It felt so wonderful to see such a familiar face in New York. We exchanged phone numbers before he got off the train and the next day he called me at Bloomingdale’s and we had lunch at a nearby Irish restaurant called “Moriarty’s”, where -for the first time since I had left Cuba- I felt like ‘a normal young woman on a date’. He was working as an executive for McAnn Erickson Advertising, was dressed like a prince and seemed so suave and sophisticated that again- over corned beef and boiled potatoes- I felt madly in love with him!

His enthusiasm and evident good fortune were infectous. He lifted the veil of sadness that I had been wearing and immediately started planning the things ‘we’ were going to do together, the way we would show me New York, etc, etc. I had to tell him about my engagement and the wedding and his spontaneous words brought me back to life:

“You cannot marry that man!...You cannot marry at all!”-he blurted out -”Are you crazy?...You dont know that guy and is evident you dont love him”

Rolo’s words was all I needed to unload my worries and it was a big relieve to tell him all: The truth about my feelings about B and marriage. My fears. And also the thousands of dreams I had bottled up inside; and how terrified I was they would never take place. He assured me everything would be allright and when he held my hand and caressed it -while playing footsie under the table, as we used to do when I was 13- it felt sensual and
absolutely wonderful!

That same day after work, I stopped in St. Patrick’s Cathedral as I walked back to the hotel and prayed in one of the small chapels to the old statue of St. Anthony of Padua (later on changed for an ugly modern one –before they put the old one back !) to give me strenght to tell my mother that I was not going to marry at all. And to tell poor sweet B that our engagement was over!
He did!

I broke up with B over the phone.

I could not face him in person because he had been a real gentleman -and a very nice person to all of us- and I felt really rotten and frivolous about the whole thing. A few days later he showed up in Bloomingdale’s with a huge shopping bag filled with hundreds of my ‘love letters’ and all our pictures together ‘mutilated’, since he had cut himself out of them! It felt really bad.

Mami took my news as if she expected them and I was very relieved by her reaction. She had found a job wrapping Christmas merchandise at the factory of “Myrurgia Perfumes” and was very busy earning enough so we could stay at the hotel. Leon was selling Good Humour Ice Cream in the Coney Island boardwalk together with his childhood friend Camilo Vila, so things were much better for us. As I ‘disengaged’ myself, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders and suddenly New York seemed different --even romantic!

Rolo had kept his promises and we were going out everyday. He took me to the Village, to the Metropolitan Museum, to the ‘flea markets’ I loved, to the top of the Empire State Building, and one special day he showed up for a date with a gift: an exquisite silk scarf by a then young designer called Yves Saint Laurent.

In a matter of days my life had changed 100% and the tears were gone.

But the best date we ever had was dinner at a very plush Cuban supper-club called “Liborio” --and afterwards seeing the Broadway play “Tovarich” with Vivien Leigh and Jean-Pierre Aumont. It was a magical evening and I remember feeling so exhilarated after the play was over -and Rolo and I hummed all the tunes on the way back to the hotel- that I felt like a movie heroine. Like Jane Powell or Doris Day singing and dancing through the streets of New York!

The joy of this evening was pivotal in my life. It revealed what I wanted my life to be and how happy I wanted it to be. ‘Goodbye sadness’! Go to Hell Fidel Castro!- I thought- I am going to be the person I always was, the woman I always dreamed of being. I was 18. Rolo was 23. I was a dreamer. He was a dreamer and a doer. He would help me to reach them all .

Our friendship of many years -and our relationship in general- had always been very subjective, very ‘spiritual’ and regardless of our mutual physical attraction, nothing more happened between us that night, or the others that came afterwards. Sex was a ‘no-no’. In that respect we were still ‘in the Cuban mode’, where girls lived at home -and were virgins- until the day they married. Even though we were in New York we were still ‘at home’ when it came to sex and many other customs. We were more respectful of the things we were taught. And much more romantic and sensual, than plain sexual.

But this new state of Nirvana did not last. One day in late summer my mother burst the ‘bubble’: “We are all going back to Miami”- she said and before I could even utter a word, she continued- “We dont have any relatives here, I am told public schools for Leon are very bad and dangerous in Manhattan, Winter is coming soon and since you are not going to get married...There is no reason for us to stay here one more day”

“Mami...but Rolo and I are dating and he says that he...”

“Your volatile love life at age 18 is not going to determine this family’s destiny anymore”- she interjected- “And there is nothing more to say”

I was going to protest but I understood what she said and -strangely- somehow I wanted to go back to more ‘familiar territory’. Rolo was talking of a posible engagement and the word marriage had been mentioned once. I was definitely not ready for any kind of commitment, although I loved his company and we had very happy times together. I also felt that I ‘owed’ my mother and brother ---and they should not ‘pay’ for my sentimental mistakes anymore. Mami was truly worried about my brother finishing High School and the public schools that were assigned to our neighborhood -the infamous Hell’s Kitchen area schools featured in “West Side Story”- were really awful and infested with drugs and all kinds of hoodlums. So, once again -and still homeless- we packed our stuff and in early September we boarded -another Greyhound Bus- to the city of Miami.

In the months since our departure from Cuba we had lived in 5 cities (Cuernavaca, Mexico City, Miami, New York and back to Miami) and we felt like roaming gypsies. But somehow this time I felt much happier. Rolo promised to write, call and visit me for Christmas. And when we arrived back at my aunt Tafela’s home we had about $400 and our Social Security Cards. New York had been profitable in many respects!
Of course, a few months after I arrived in Miami my fickle heart acted up again. And it was then that E, the elusive and amazing green eyed soldier, arrived in my life.