The Open Door

The Open Door

The door was always open. Locked, for sure, but open in spirit.  A security screen door, then a regular front door—a double entrance for those trickling in on Friday evenings.

We were young couples in Miami, my husband and I, and his extended family:  his sister and two cousins he grew up with.  Carlos’ parents, Mercedes and Jesus, lived practically all of their lives under the same roof with another couple, Mercedes’ sister and her husband.  Each couple had two children, so the four grew up pretty much as siblings.

Mercedes and Jesus, my in-laws, could not be more different from aunt and uncle, as couples and as individuals. Mercedes and Jesus were down to earth homebodies; aunt and uncle loved the limelight of social events and were always impeccably dressed in the latest trends. Mercedes read the newspaper and loved word puzzles; her sister had her nose in fashion and celebrity magazines. Uncle had a university degree was a professional.  Jesus, my sweet suegro (father-in-law) was a chicken farmer, and then a bartender for most of his life.

And he was a gem of a character.  The story was that when the family—the two couples with their children—reported to the Havana airport on their assigned day of departure—their belongings, their language, their culture, all folded neatly in suitcases—one was not allowed to board the plane. And that was Jesus.

This was not unheard of in that tumultuous time as Castro’s regime took power.  Sometimes there reasons—was there a connection to counter-revolutionaries?—or no reason at all.

“We’re in charge,” the militia men in green grab told him, “and you’re staying.”

And stay he did, for another two years when he was finally granted a visa through Spain, that would eventually lead him to the U.S. to reunite with his family.  A double door of sorts that had allowed him entry to America.

There had been terrible stress, especially on Mercedes, and now there was great joy.  But there had been a shift, too, in his absence, and now there was a resettling, a readjusting in a new land—new for Jesus, that is. There was a routine in place: the kids went to school, the adults went to work.  They had jobs, he did not. They all knew English, he did not. They had their place in this new world—he was just figuring it all out.

And with love of family and love of learning, persistence, and resourcefulness, he did. He got a job as a bartender at a golf resort, and absorbed the English vocabulary he needed; a fluent conversationalist he was not, but he communicated.  He got a used car, previously owned by a priest, and it was immaculate. A white Plymouth Valiant that ran beautifully, though it had no air-conditioning.  One day the cover on the interior light broke, and Jesus immediately fixed it with an empty Mazola margarine container.  Cubans recycle everything.  The Plymouth letters on the back of vehicle broke off, and he fixed that, too. He glued the letters back on. Now they read P-l-u-m-o-y-t-h.

With little formal schooling, Jesus was quite the literary man and a regular library patron.  He read constantly, and was the only one in the family I, a nerdy English major, could sit down with and discuss Don Quixote, which he had read several times.

As a bartender, Jesus worked night hours, so during the day, when everyone else was at work, he took charge of the kitchen.  He loved doing los mandados—the groceries—and was the family chef.  I learned a lot from him—not from instructions, because he couldn’t tell you how much of what went into anything—but by watching.

“Hand me a can of tomato sauce,” he asked me once. I opened the pantry to find a bunch of cans without labels. I smiled.

“How can you tell what’s what?” I asked.

“They were on sale,” he explained.  “Here, try this one.” He handed me a can, and directed me to shake it.

We listened. “That’s it! Open it,” he said.

It was a can of peaches. We burst into laughter. We hit the jackpot on the third try.  Finally, tomato sauce.

One evening after work, we all staggered in more or less at the same time, our weekly family reunion. We rang the doorbell, and walked through the ornate living room (para la visita—for company), past the dining room, and into the kitchen where the table was set and pots simmered.  This is where the real gatherings happened. There was wine and beer, familial chaos with multiple conversations going on at once. Uncle was telling a work story, aunt was interjecting unwelcome editorial comments, serving dish in hand. Mercedes giggled and munched, wiping the counter. Cousin washed his hands at the sink, and yelled hello to the neighbor out the window. Eyes widened, eyes rolled, eyebrows were raised. We enjoyed the noise of one another, the laughter and updates, all the while taking in the delicious aroma of Jesus’s culinary masterpiece, arroz con pollo (rice and chicken).

We were ready to begin the meal, but where was the cook?

“Go get him,” Mercedes said. “He’s watching his novela (soap opera) in our room.”

Off I went past the fancy dining room, through the ornate living room, to their bedroom.  I heard the TV full blast, and the door was slightly open.  I knocked and called out, “Jesus, la comida (dinner). Come eat!” But he didn’t hear, so I knocked again and pushed the door fully open.  As expected, Jesus sat regally on his big brown recliner, watching his novela. He still hadn’t heard me.

Then, turning slightly toward me, and shifting his weight—he let out a full-throttled ffffffff-arrrrrrrr-t.

Our eyes met. He jumped, startled and embarrassed. I convulsed in laughter, and could barely talk back at the kitchen table, tears streaming down my face.

After that, Jesus would cook, and hang out more at the kitchen table.

And he would lock his bedroom door.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Where It All Started

Where It All Started

His glowing peach fuzz skin and perfect teeth were more than she could take.  She’d had to wear braces and spent a small fortune on acne products.  Anything to conceal, cover, dry up the constant pimply eruptions.  But none of them worked.  Uggghhh

Just wait, Martha told herself, till puberty hits.  This gunk will be all gone on this face, and his pores will erupt like volcanoes. Martha watched and waited for her baby brother to stop being the darling little boy, her dad’s tag-along, her mom’s baby.

 

Canela, Cinnamon.  That’s where it all started.

With his adoring gaze her father had christened her with a nickname that stuck: Canela, alluding to the cinnamon glow of her skin that won her compliments from perfect strangers.  Canela—the word brought aromas to mind:  the delicious spice sprinkled on Abuela’s/Grandma’s rice pudding, the stick to stir chocolate caliente—the real hot chocolate at Christmas.  Plus it was better than “Martha,” and served as a reminder for relatives to gift her with lovely silver jewelry that contrasted stunningly with her canela skin tone.

Sweet Canela, beautiful and brown.  Mom doted on her, and she was daddy’s little girl always.

Then gradually the blemishes came.  First on her chin, then on the forehead, and most dreadful of all—on her cheeks.  The dermatologist assured her it was temporary—“you’ll grow out of it, Canela”—but that was little consolation in the prime of adolescent socializing.  Make-up designed for coverage only exacerbated the red greasiness.

You could say her baby brother’s appearance on the scene was gradual, too.  Nine whole months from the big surprise announcement—first a private special moment revealing the news to big sister, then a huge family celebration—rented tables even! She had worn her silver choker with a strapless silk top, and no one had said a word to her.

This was followed by endless shopping and preparations for baby. It was all a blur to Canela. Nine-month gestation aside, there was nothing gradual about her baby brother’s intrusion in her world.

It was an explosion, as unwelcome as the oozing pus on her face.

That’s where it all started—again.

Canela remembered the day Abel came home, the pain of it like an infected cyst she wanted to be rid of.

She watched through the window, her father opening the door for her mom as if she were a delicate vase.  Her mom headed straight to the rocking chair in baby Abel’s room, her dad following holding his treasured boy cozily wrapped in blue.

And a few months later when Canela caught a peek of her dad, her papi, just staring at the sleeping boy in the crib.

“Caramelo,” she heard him say. Another christening alluding to the radiance of Abel’s skin, a creamy café au lait.

Caramelo—caramel. The word brought enticing flavors to mind.  The rich concoction poured over French vanilla ice cream, the honey-like spread mom used to put on Canela’s toast, the sweet topping on Abuela’s custard.

And like Canela, it stuck.  Caramelo—Melo for short.

Martha/Canela waited for Abel/Melo to stop being the family darling.  She waited for his teeth to come in crooked and impacted, for his face to erupt in pimply scabs.

But she waited in vain.

And as years passed, she could barely conceal the festering feeling that next to her brother she was merely silver next to gold.

 

 

“Eat your breakfast, Martica. You’ll be late for kindergarten, and I’ll be late for PTA.”  Canela poured syrup on her daughter’s pancakes, a cup of decaf for herself.

“Honey,” the girl’s father announced, kissing his daughter’s head.

“My Martica shimmers like honey,  so sweet.  My Honey.”

Canela felt her expanding waist, sipping her coffee-not-coffee.  She thought of the baby, here in six months.  And she thought of Melo.

“No,” she said. “Her name is Martica. I hate nicknames.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Terminal Case

A Terminal Case

 

“You won’t believe what he said today.”

His wife’s reflections after her doctor’s appointments were understandably anxiety-ridden, and she needed his support.

“We don’t have much time left.  I don’t have much time left. That’s what he said.  You don’t seem to care. “

“Of course I care.  It breaks my heart to see you like this.  It’s just not the same for me.  Let’s make the best of it.”

“He always says it won’t be painful . . .”

“That’s a huge point.”

“Most people have mild or no side effects.”

“Another plus.”

“And it’s pretty quick, right?”

“Of course. Faster is better, right?”

“I suppose.”

“Did he give you the anti-nausea medication?”

“Yep, right here. Well, he’s right. We—I—don’t have much time.  The decision has been made.”

 

They kissed and he squeezed her hands.

He gave his terrified wife a thumbs up as he watched her walk down the terminal to board her first flight ever.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Invitation

blank invitationInvites can be a funny thing in the age of technology and social media.  Invitations are supposed to be welcoming, celebratory, but given the nature of Facebook, they can be a signal to those who are invited, as well as to those who are not invited—and that can be hurtful. FB is a cool tool, to be sure, connecting people anywhere any time; the down side is that, well, it connects people anywhere any time.  That is, your “friends” on FB are often a wide array of people that would seldom meet in real life, but on FB they’re in your living room, so to speak, all at once.

You see photos you might never see in real life, because they’re posted, and you hear of events you would only hear of if you bumped into that person by chance in the flesh. I’ve been in touch, for example, with several former students, and it is a joy to see them adulting—pursuing careers, traveling, marrying and having families.  I like their posts all the time, they like mine—all is well.  Within the last year, one such student posted details of her upcoming wedding; we attended her graduation party, and have stayed in touch with her and her family over the years.  The wedding was out of state, and I planned ahead, marking it on my calendar as well as my husband’s.  “It’ll be such fun!” I told him last year.

But then . . . the weeks before the wedding rolled around, and I knew. There would be no invitation.

Ouch.

I’ve known Heidi (that’s what I’ll call her here) since she was nine, and my heart was broken.

What are the social conventions in a world where everyone seems to know everything about everyone else? With FB, guests and non-guests alike know all about any given event. So I didn’t get to go to Heidi’s wedding—should I like all her wedding posts? Awkward.  I would love to send a gift—more awkward.

Do my invitations or announcements invite some while “disinviting” others? If I am not including everyone and don’t want to cast a wide net, do I really need to post it on social media?

In the end this is an invitation to me to think about my own posts.

Posted in Blogs & Brief Thoughts | Leave a comment

10 NY Minutes

ebWhiteNYquoteI was little when I first landed in NY, a pre-kindergartner dressed in a yellow pique dress hardly suited for November winds. My aunt greeted me with saltine crackers and a cozy jacket from the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store; it had a furry collar, sleeves that covered my hands, and was way too big. My family, newly-arrived Cuban immigrants, left JFK for my aunt‘s home in Astoria, Queens, where we would live for several months until we got settled. New York was bleak and gray, not to mention freezing, but my first moments there were welcoming and nurturing.
It all came back to me when I stopped fighting the urge to do a very New Yorker kind of thing: write a listicle. Ten things I learned on my NYC summer vacation (dedicated to Mrs. Corby, my fourth grade teacher, who told us about hers, then wanted the whole scoop on ours):

1. Falafels, Kosher hot dogs, Popsicles, lamb curry over rice, tacos, donuts–you can get all of these from the same street vendor! Don’t try them all at once, of course—but if you do, no worries. There’s help available at a Duane Reade drugstore, and chances are that no matter where you are, there’s one ten yards away. At latest count, there are 257 DRs in Manhattan (to put this in perspective, there are 83 McDonald’s and 171 Subway restaurants)—so pass the Pepto Bismol. (Need a restroom?  See #2.)
2. McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks–are all annoyingly ubiquitous and side by side with exotic fare from Peru, India, or Greece. There are 172 Starbucks in Manhattan, and there are intersections with one on each corner. Starbucks is overpriced and overrated. I hate Starbucks.
But NY has a way of altering your perceptions. It also has a way of concealing all public restrooms. Which is why I love Starbucks.
3. Keep walking. NYC is great for strolling and exploring on foot. Most of the city is on a grid, making it difficult to lose your way, unless you go off the grid on some great walks through the Village and Soho.
Or keep pedaling.  Hop on a Citi Bike for a fun ride or quick errand. Find a station–there are hundreds operated by NYC Bike Share–unlock a bike, ride for forty-five minutes, and return the bike to any station. What a great idea! Reasonable, too, at $9.95 for a 24-hour pass for tourists; bikes are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Grab your map, scan your card, and let the adventure begin.
4. Ride the train. Subway stations are dingy, dark places with scurrying rats where you can enjoy great jazz musicians and brass sculptures. Subways are generally efficient and reliable transportation–Mondays through Fridays, that is. Weekends are for repairs, and therefore detours, so that F train that you were counting on stopping at 2nd Avenue–well, you are effed and it just isn’t. Pay attention–conductors announce changes to help you along, only sometimes conductors have thick foreign accents that leave passengers bewildered.  Check online for changes before embarking on your Saturday adventure, and keep #3 in mind.  Otherwise you may end up in New Jersey when all you wanted was to visit the Guggenheim, which by the way, closes on Thursdays.
5. Although Macy’s is huge (9 floors and at least 2 city blocks), NYC hotel rooms are significantly smaller than a single cosmetic counter. Enter single file; walk two steps to the bed. A couple of steps to the left of the bed is a closet with plenty of room to hang your pair of jeans and two shirts. Another couple of feet ahead of the closet is the bathroom–recalling the airplane wc might brighten your mood. Water pressure? If you have hot water, who cares, right? When sitting on the edge of the bed, watch out for the dresser (my knee is still bruised). That’s a NY hotel room.
The laundry order form in the closet says $4.50 for a pair of socks, and $17.00 for a jogging suit. That, too, is a NY hotel. The good news is you’re having way too much fun in the city to spend much time in your Expedia-special hotel room.
6. Not surprisingly for a city so densely populated, NYC is dirty. Filthy, really. There is a lingering aroma, a stench, wafting through all of existence. Walk by a trash can, and it is overflowing. Alas, there are no alleys, so trash bags pile up on some sidewalks, awaiting removal. The city never sleeps, but the sanitation department apparently does nap.
Then there are the trash cans that read, “for litter only.” I found this befuddling, and began to ask myself whether my empty fro-yo cup was indeed litter. I needed the assistance of a kind native New Yorker for this one. (The reminder is for those who live above the fro-yo place, so that residents don’t put out their week’s trash in the litter-only bins.)
7. NY offers irresistible paradoxes.  E. B. White wrote brilliantly in his famous essay, “Here is New York”:  “No air moves in and out of the room, yet I am curiously affected by emanations from the immediate surroundings.” Alone in a stifling hotel room, he is in the midst of historic events and people such as Rudolph Valentino, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, and Willa Cather. White refers to it as “both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.”
This holds true for big names, but also for everyday people like you and me. Consider the experience of eating at a great little find (thanks Yelp!), the Peruvian restaurant Pio Pio Riko. In appearance, it is like any other city restaurant:  just one of several shops on the block, long and narrow with tables extending to the back along brick walls. As you sip your chicha morada (beverage made from purple corn and spices) and enjoy the best rotisserie chicken ever with a side of yuquita frita (fried cassava), you are aware of the vibrations from below—the subway.  As you relish your culinary experience, commuters are traveling down under, and if only for a moment, you may be at the same longitude and latitude coordinates—though strangers you will remain. Tomorrow roles will reverse as you travel subterraneously to Museum Row, fantasizing about life above,the cronuts at Dominique Ansel’s or eggs benedict at the Stage Door deli.

We are connected and separated, and NY reminds us of this at every turn.
8. Enjoy life in a sitcom. One afternoon a craving for soup and great Yelp reviews drew me to The Soup Spot. I almost passed it but for the line out the door, as it is quite literally a spot. The guy offers dozens of soups–jambalaya, pasta fagioli, Caribbean style jerk chicken, loaded potato, Santa Fe tortilla, autumn pumpkin, to name a few—though only 18 are available on any given day.
Reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, this grump likes his structure, so don’t ask questions and keep the line moving. As Kramer says, “he happens to be a little eccentric.”  The natives standing in line are your best source of info when you really want to know if you will survive Mohegan Soup Hunter stew (surely you want to know what’s in it:  chicken and pork, barbecue and Worcestershire sauces,  tomatoes, creole seasoning, garlic, tabasco sauce, roasted corn, carrots, red peppers, pearl onions and lima beans—see #1). Savor your soup, roll, and fruit on the steps by Madison Square Garden with great jazz coming from the corner. Yes, soup for you!

9.  Look both ways, as everyone obeys traffic rules.  Except if the light is about to change, and you have five seconds to dash across the street. And except if you’re one of those food-delivery guys on a bike–c’mon, cut them some slack. Or if you’re a cabbie, in which case the law entitles you to create your own lanes.  Or if you’re a tour bus, in which case you’re just like a cab, only bigger.   And unless it’s a one-way street anyway, and no one is coming. And don’t get offended if someone in the crowd holds your hand, mistaking you for their loved one. (Haven’t you ever done this?)
Expect the best from people, but be assertive. New Yorkers are generous and helpful, but their favorite line is “Get out of my way!” I had a woman cut in line because her “friends” in front of me were saving her place, but the truth is I let her; the next time that happened, I laughed and reminded the person we were in NY, and the fun part was the support I got from everyone else patiently waiting.  At an improv theater with a packed house and open seating, a guy was saving a row of six seats–not a seat for his girlfriend, but a row of seats still empty three minutes before show time! I learned from that one, too.  At the next show just as we were sitting, a young woman ever so gently pushed me aside with, “We need three seats.” I ever so gently sat right down, cheerfully explaining we four were sitting there and wished her luck. Get out of my way!
       Whether crossing or waiting to cross, pay attention to the interesting characters around you:   spinning dancers who perfect their art as they cross; the six-foot-five guy with dreadlocks who’s being pulled along by a spotted dachshund on a hot pink sparkly leash; professional men and women dressed to the nines in fancy suits and comfy Nikes, their Jansports secured on their backs. You may not pass their way again.
10.  Carpe diem and prioritize. NYC offers so much, you probably won’t hit every restaurant, museum, store, show, concert, historic site, or architectural wonder on your wish list. But you probably will get to riveting exhibits, favorite dishes, phenomenal performances, and memorable experiences with unexpected surprises along the way. You can certainly spend a lot, but you can also do a lot for very little.  I stood in line for a Broadway show matinee–the hot show–and got an awesome seat (center mezzanine) for a bargain price. Check out professional street performers, off and off off Broadway, and comedy clubs.  We went to several improv shows for as little as $5 per person; my favorite exhibit was the New York City Public Library’s “The ABC of It–Why Children’s Books Matter”–and it was free.
I was a vacationing adult when I last visited NY.  With my jacket tied around my waist, water bottle and trail mix in my backpack, I explored a city, “Manhattan . . . The greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

And in that city, I found an embrace both welcoming and nurturing.

 

Works Cited

MooWooCartoons.  “Seinfeld SOUP NAZI best bits.” Online video clip.  YouTube. YouTube, 27 Mar. 2011, Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

White, E. B. Here is New York.  New York:  The Little Bookroom, 1976.

 

Posted in Blogs & Brief Thoughts | Leave a comment

Tita

Today is my great aunt’s 90th birthday.  She makes 90 look like the new 70, may be even the new 62-ish.  Of course, she’s never married or had children ha!  She stopped coloring her hair some years ago; if she still did that, she’d look 60-ish, hands down.

Tita is cute.  We have called her Tita Marta since forever, and when I was little I thought Tita was her first name.  She cooks a mean guiso de maiz, a delicious corn stew a lo cubano. She’s funny about food, though.  She hates leftovers, and for some unknown reason cannot bear containers full of these in her fridge; whether the covered Tupperware contains mac and cheese from a box, or the red snapper special from Islas (the best!), she wants it out. If you’re coming over tomorrow and plan on having it, put your name on it; otherwise, she will toss it when you’re not looking. Or she’ll push it on any neighbor that wanders by.  You may be thinking that’s some bad shit she’s trying to get rid of, but you could not be more wrong.  Honestly, I have seen her do it.  Delicacies from La Panera Bakery that were absolutely scrumptious but  one more bite of which we simply could not handle–out they go.  She’s the anti-hoarder on the block.

This pisses my sister off no end.

The other thing that pisses my sister off no end is Tita’s approach to cooking in general.  Perhaps driven by the anti-hoarding mentality (there mustn’t be any leftovers!), she skimps on stuff.  So my sister shows up for a planned dinner: Tita, my sister, and my sister’s daughter.  They sit down for salad and spaghetti, and there are exactly–exactly–three carefully measured portions.  Want more salad?  Sorry.  More spaghetti?  There’s one long lone noodle in the pan.

Tita wears socks, even in the summer.  She goes to daily Mass.  She can’t answer your texts, but gets a kick out of them nonetheless.  She pretends she’s the French lady and talks up a storm that sounds really good, although it is pure gibberish.

Tita sang in la choral de Cuba, and she’s very proud of that.  She enjoys her music, but mostly listens to classical–I can’t get her to into our homegrown salsa to save her life.

Tita’s leaving-Cuba story is interesting, too.  We left first, and went to NY.  Later, she  left along with my Abuela and Titita (my grandmother’s sister), but their visas were for Jamaica, where they remained for several months before leaving for Miami.  Interesting huh?  I wonder what that was like.  Even more interesting is that I found out over the years that a “friend”  paid their way and made the connections for them to stay with a family.  The friend was a married man, Tita’s amigo.  She told me herself like it didn’t mean anything.  Bullshit, I say. Of course it means something. But whatever it means, it is either hermetically sealed in a Tupperware container somewhere, or long ago tossed in the trash bin. The stories we carry . . .

In later years when we were all reunited in Florida, Tita lived next door to us with Abuela and Titita.  I love those memories.  Cousins would come from Chicago in the summer and we’d all sleep in Tita’s living room before heading out to a Miami Beach hotel.  We were crowded and cramped on the sofa and those little metallic cots, and we had a ball.  We’d turn out the lights, tell spooky stories, making eerie sounds.  We’d laugh till our stomachs hurt, until we were so sure Fern had made the last ghoulish cry, only he hadn’t, and then it wasn’t so funny.

Then came the ghoulish cry again–from behind a mask right at Tita’s bedroom door.

Love you, Tita.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment