Read an Excerpt
By Johnny Diaz
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Johnny Diaz
All right reserved.
Even in death, my mother tells me what to do.
"Carlos, you look just like your father when he was your age. He was heavier though. You need to eat more, mi amor. You are looking thin again," Mami tells me in her Spanish-accented English. We're sitting at a corner table at Versailles restaurant, where the large glass windows face the whooshing cars on Miami's infamous Calle Ocho.
"I don't look like Papi. You always say that. Don't people have to say that a son looks like the father and that a daughter looks like the mother? I always thought I looked like you, Mami."
"Bueno, you have my eyes, my sense of humor. You have your Papi's short, dark brown, wavy hair, eyebrows, nose, and body. You have my quiet sense of humor, but more importantly, you have a good heart, and that comes from both your Papi and me. I think that's why you became a teacher, to help others. You always had a special gift to help people, Carlito," she says, extending her hand, softly tapping mine, and calling me by my nickname.
"Thanks, Mami. I just want to help other students adapt and learn. It was so hard for me the first few years after we came here from Cuba. The guys at school teased me because of my accent and because we camethrough the port of Mariel. I felt out of place and stupid."
"Ay, Carlos. You are better than those estupidos. Look at what you have become, a good-looking, hard-working professional. You took a negative from your childhood and became an honorable, respectable hombresito. Hijo, I am very proud of you. You need to be proud of yourself, too. Don't ever settle for less. Don't ever let anyone disrespect you. Don't ever let someone tell you you are not good enough. You are not just good enough, mijo. You are the best! Te quiero, Carlito. Whether you are in Miami or in Boston, I am always here for you."
Mami always had a way of making me feel good about myself. If I felt deflated, she knew what to say to lift my spirits. If I felt sick, like the times I had my asthma attacks, she knew how to keep me calm with her words so that I could slow down my breathing until I found my inhaler.
"Now let's eat. You need more meat on your bones. Get la ropa vieja and a plate of white rice and beans. This is better than the Cuban food in Boston, so eat up!" she says.
That's as much as I remember from the dream as I wait outside another Cuban restaurant, but this one is in Boston, my new home. Dreams have a way of being so short yet feeling so long. Time is of no consequence in my dreams. When Mami appears in them, I feel so loved and appreciated just as I did when she was alive. I feel at home and like I have a place in this world. I look forward to these dreams because they make me feel that Mami is still with me.
But right now, Tomas Perez should be with me at the restaurant. I dial my friend who is running late again.
"Loco, where are you?" I leave a message on his voicemail. I'm standing under Cuba. Well, a map of it. This Cuba is on a yellow and green sign outside our meeting place this afternoon, El Oriental de Cuba restaurant in Jamaica Plain. Tomas says it's the most Cuban neighborhood in Boston, and I believe him, since he seems to know about everything Cuban in Boston. I had no idea any Cubans existed in this lily-white town until I met Tomas, excuse me, Tommy. He likes the American nickname. He even uses it on his byline at The Boston Daily. If I were him, I would proudly call myself Tomas Perez, but then again, my name is Carlos Martin, which doesn't scream loud and Latin as much as I wish it would. Like Tommy, I'm proud of my Cuban roots and I don't hold back on letting people know. (I'm wearing a T-shirt that reads HAVANA.) As I continue leaving Tommy a message, my finger traces the map of Cuba emblazoned on the restaurant's front glass door. Underneath the map, it reads "Un pedacito de Cuba en Jamaica Plain." My finger lands on a little red dot-Havana-where I was born.
"Chico, hurry up! My stomach is about to eat itself. I can already taste the media noche sandwich, the mamey batido ... Ay mi tierra!" I finish the message, my mouth salivating over the mental images of the Cuban food. I whip out a cigarette and pace back and forth on Centre Street, which reminds me of Miami's Little Havana. From the front window of the eatery I can see a small plastic statue of San Lazaro watching over me and the street scene outside. Just like Miami, Spanish peppers the air inside the barbershops, beauty salons, and bakeries with their seductive rows of golden flans and crispy pastelitos. Yum! Bumper stickers with Puerto Rican and Dominican flags bedeck the humping and rolling Honda and Toyota low-riders, which blast Daddy Yankee and Celia Cruz. Wearing tank tops, Latinas with curlers in their hair saunter by in loud flip-flops on their way to play the Mass Lotto. Men puffing cigars with rolled up newspapers tucked under their arms pass me on their way home or to play dominoes on someone's sagging porch. Women with their children in tow emerge from the brick-faced library and the mural-splashed super mercado named Hi-Lo across the street. This sounds and looks like Little Havana, but it's not, which is one of the reasons why I moved here. I glance at the classic silver watch Mami gave me two years ago for my twenty-sixth birthday, and I smile. The inscription reads: Carlos, feliz cumpleaños. Te quiero mucho. Siempre, tu mama! I trace the outline of the watch's head with my finger, and my thoughts drift to Mami and Miami.
While I wait for my loco fellow Cubano to arrive, I light a cigarette and consider my new life and goal to be the caballero that my beautiful, late mother raised me to be. I am Carlos Martin, the new Cuban on the Boston block. I moved here last summer from Miami, the capital of Cuban exiles. Crazy, huh? Why would a Cubano-make that two-flock to a city known more for Pilgrims, Paul Revere, institutional racism, a disaster of a public transportation project called The Big Dig, preppy Ivy League schools, and skies that spew ice for half the year?
My reason may sound simple, but it's as complicated and layered as the history of my people who abandoned our alligator-shaped Caribbean island to chart new lives, whether we wanted to or not. I was one of those refugees. My parents, Aldo and Maria, left Cuba with my sister, Lourdes, who was seven years old, and me when I was three. We were Marielitos, although many of us do not like that label because it came to have a negative connotation. We fled the country when he who shall not be named opened his jails and the port to flush out the bad Cuban seeds. (That's why Marielitos get the bad rap. If you don't believe me, rent Scarface.) But many hardworking families left too, including the Martin clan. So unlike Tommy who is an ABC (American-bred Cuban) born in the 33140 zip code, I am truly Cubano, of Havana, born at twenty-one degrees latitude and seventy-eight degrees longitude where the Gulf and the Caribbean winds breathe collectively. My family boarded a rickety fishing boat named A New Day packed with two hundred other Cubans. Like sardines soaked in our mojo, we journeyed to Key West. I don't remember much about the trip. I do remember chaos at the port and my Mami holding me tight against her bosom as we boarded the boat. I remember her whispering, singing to me in Spanish and comforting me as she always did. Ay, Cuba!
Just as my family did all those years ago in 1980, I recently embarked on a journey of my own to Boston for a new beginning. But this time, my mom isn't with me to share the adventure. She passed away a year ago from colon cancer, something I still can't seem to accept as true. I can still smell her Estée Lauder perfume and hear her in my thoughts because she seems to enjoy popping into my dreams and reminding me to eat right, fill up my gas tank before it reaches empty, and order my prescription for my asthma inhaler. (Yes, I smoke, and I have asthma.) Sometimes, I expect Mami to call me on my cell phone and advise me to change the sheets on my queen bed each week or ask me if I have taken my calcium supplement for the day. As I think about her, I pull out my cell phone again from my pocket and gaze at the photo I snapped of her as my screen saver. It's one of the last images of her smiling that I have, before the cancer raided, destroyed her body, and stole her from us. In the photo, she plants her verdant hibiscus flowers in the front garden of our Coral Gables home. She radiates the same brightness and light as the flowers and the sunlight did. The photo makes me smile. I miss her so much. I kiss the screen of my cell phone and flip it close. Te quiero, Mami.
The loss of my mother brought me to Boston. I had to escape my life in Miami because everything there reminded me of Mami, such as our weekly Sunday brunches at Versailles restaurant which was our place, our time together. There were the monthly shopping excursions to Costco, where we arrived with empty stomachs and left with bulging ones after sampling all the foods at the various tasting stations. I remember the cafécito and waffles she would whip up every morning for breakfast before I drove to work at Braddock High where I taught ninth-grade English literature.
Mami and I were a team, the same way Papi and my sister are. Without Mami in Miami, I didn't feel as moored to the city. I felt alone, an outsider in my own family and hometown. Even though Miami was where I lived, it wasn't home anymore. I didn't feel I belonged there with Papi and Lourdes, and I wanted to belong, somewhere, anywhere-again.
So here I am, in Boston, hoping for a chance at a second act. I am trying to learn to live without my mom, and God, it's hard. Her presence weighs heavily in my heart and memory. She seems to be with me everywhere I go, thanks to her cameo appearances in my dreams. I am doing my best to move forward as Mami would want me to. Slowly, Boston helps me heal. I enjoy the newness of "The Hub" as some natives like to call it. I have a new job at Dorchester High where I teach ninth graders the wonders of literature. Well, I'm trying, but they seem distracted by the Red Sox and the Patriots. In my one-bedroom rental apartment in Cambridge on the Somerville-Cambridge line, I enjoy decorating the walls and bathroom with help from nearby Pier 1 and IKEA. And I've made a new friend, Tommy. He is helping me feel at home with his infectious Cubanity. I didn't have many gay Hispanic friends in Miami, and Tommy is just like me in a lot of ways because of our upbringing and values.
For the past few months, Tommy has been my Cuban comfort. He brings a little of Miami to my lonely urban corner of Boston. We both grew up in Miami with super-macho fathers cut from the same cloth. We have overprotective older sisters. Tommy and I found ourselves in Boston pursuing our careers and cultivating new journeys, his as a journalist and mine as a teacher. I know if we had met in high school, we would have been instant best friends, a cortadito-he the cream to my Cuban coffee, a good mix. I would have been the freshman or sophomore to his senior. He is my first friend in this new city, and I like the sound of that.
Too bad we didn't know each other in Miami. With his warmth, confidence, and humor, he could have helped me a lot during my high school years at Christopher Columbus High, an all-boys private school. Tommy would have been a good guy friend to turn to when I told Papi that I was gay and infatuated with Rick on the track team. Tommy would have been great in Miami when I found out that my boyfriend Daniel cheated on me while my mother was sick. I don't want to think about those details right now. Mami always said, "It's important to listen to other people and not talk too much about ourselves."
I glance at my watch again: It's 6:30 p.m. Where is Tommy? Speak of the diablo and he finally shows up. Ay, dios mio! Tommy is driving with the top down on his new white Jeep Wrangler. He beeps twice and waves at me, his short, dark brown, curly hair quivering in all directions in the fall breeze. He's showing off again, but it's funny to watch because he's proud of his new wheels. A few minutes later after parking the Jeep and leaving half of it sticking out on the street (he's not a great parker), Tommy hoists his Boston Daily messenger bag over his shoulder and crosses the street. He flashes his big happy-go-lucky smile and walks up to the restaurant with a certain bounce in his step. His black bag bounces against his thin frame the entire way.
"Loco, where have you been?" I ask. Tommy greets me with a big, warm strong hug. I catch a whiff of his Cool Water cologne, which is very 90s to me, but that's Tommy. He's a creature of habit who sticks to what he knows, and that includes food. He has a penchant for Boston Market turkey sandwiches, Diet Cokes with vodka, and Jeeps. (He just traded in his twelve-year-old black Jeep Wrangler for the new white one.) If I hadn't talked him into accompanying me to this restaurant, it would have been another meal of turkey carver sandwiches, corn, and sweet potatoes, and I couldn't have that again! There are only so many times I can go to Boston Market with him.
"Sorry, Carlos. I got stuck in traffic coming from the Daily. I had to answer some questions from my editor about my story about this famous Dominican author who just published his second book. You hungry?"
"Um, yes! Let's eat," I say, seduced by the succulent aroma of breaded steaks and fresh Cuban bread and frying tostones from the kitchen. The hostess with the tight ponytail and perfectly formed curlycues glued with gel to the sides of her head, greets us in Spanish. She gingerly escorts us to a corner table by the window near other customers who nibble on croquettes, beans, and rice. Tommy and I follow our noses and the hostess deeper into this small eatery. It is decorated with bright colorful photographs of Cuba's streetscapes, including a lime green 1950s' Chevrolet and a cheery group of black smiling dancers dressed in white. No matter where they are located, Latin restaurants tend to have a familiar feel. Slow-moving ceiling fans whir above customers. Infectious laughter from the waitresses echoes as they gossip about their previous night out. And, of course, the rich aroma of garlic dances through the dining room, imbuing the scene with a palpable "sabor" in everyone's mouth.
Tommy and I settle into our cushioned seats, and we immediately study the menus. It's been months since I've had Cuban food in Miami, so this place will have to do.
"So what's going on with you, chico? How was school today?" Tommy asks, putting down his menu, which features yet another image of my country on the cover. Ay, Havana! As we talk, Tommy begins to rip and twirl small pieces of his napkin over and over again into little balls, something he does often at restaurants.
"I'm still getting to know the students. They're a mix of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, and I have to wait about fifteen minutes at the beginning of class to get them to settle down. All they want to do is talk about their online profiles and who did who over the weekend. But when I sit in front and stare at them without saying a word, they finally start to settle down and let me talk. It's all psychology, Mr. T, but sometimes I just want to start the day without them interrupting me."
"I can't imagine being a teacher here, especially in Dorchester or Dotchestah as the native Bostonians say. It's one of the rougher schools. It's where all those shootings take place and close to where they filmed that 2007 Ben Affleck movie, Gone Baby Gone, which showed the grittier side of Beantown. You get SHOT in DOT!" Tommy jokes. He tends to preface his conversations with pop culture references.
"But don't you live in Dorchester?" I break some of the warm bread the waitress brought us.
"Um yeah, that's why I know what I'm talking about. Don't leave home without your bulletproof vest! But I'm in the nice part of Dorchester, near Milton by the old Walter Baker Chocolate Factories, so I don't have to strap on my bazooka. Actually, I'm teasing. I do like living there. It's like a cute little urban hamlet. Speaking of cute, are there any cute teachers at your school?" As usual, Tommy plays reporter after hours. He flashes his big smile again. A chronic smiler, Tommy makes people wonder what he's thinking about.
Excerpted from BEANTOWN CUBANS by Johnny Diaz Copyright © 2009 by Johnny Diaz. Excerpted by permission.
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