Miami Riverfront Hotel New Year's Eve, 2004
Miami is a city of unruly passions and transplanted ghosts. I have only to look through the panoramic windows of Room 1701 at the Miami Riverfront Hotel, and in the freeze-frame of a vista I find my place among the city's rhythms. The broken seas usher in the mouth of the Miami River, a coveted stretch of water and land that was sacred ground to the Tequestas of Florida until a chain of usurpers Spanish conquistadores and missionaries, shipwrecked adventurers, and invading Creeks from the north loyal to the English drove the few hundred who survived disease and warfare into deadly exile in Cuba. I also have made this city mine, and the Riverfront Hotel a place of veneration, the altar where José Antonio and I come to love every Friday afternoon. We are a perfect fit, this cauldron of a city and I, one of its denizens, a woman named after the sea and the sun.
"Marisol," I hear José Antonio call as he wakes up, startled to find emptiness where he remembers a blissful embrace.
"At the window," I answer, and he quickly turns around. "There's a beautiful sunset in the making. The orange sun is turning the river purple."
"Come back to bed, my poet, and tell me all about it here."
I obey and his kiss tastes of the tart albariño on the night table where three coconut-scented candles flicker as they did the afternoon José Antonio brought them in amber crystal holders to our first encounter. For three months, we have never made love in our hideout without the light and aroma of these candles and a respectable bottle of wine to toast our union. For three months, our lovemaking has been followed by our narration of enchanting stories of conquest and heartbreak, his and mine. For three months, except for our memorable weekend in the Mexican Riviera among Mayan ruins and deserted beaches, we have not missed a Friday at the Riverfront. The comfort José Antonio finds in our routine and our fledgling rituals is still foreign to me. I prefer the unscripted text of adventure, the illusion of discovery, but for now my free spirit has surrendered to José Antonio's deftly choreographed dance.
A little after three o'clock on Fridays, José Antonio calls me when he has finished checking on his moribund patients at Our Sisters of Charity Hospital. I can hear him through the cellular phone in the hospital parking lot straining to shed his white doctor's coat and talk to me at the same time.
"Mariposa, see you in fifteen minutes," he says, toying with my name, calling me "butterfly" as he opens the door to his silver Mercedes. "Twenty if there's traffic. God, I hate the traffic in this city when it stands between you and me."
"Here comes the cubanazo sweet talk."
"Let yourself be loved, woman."
I laugh again.
"That's exactly what I'm doing. Hurry."
I hang up and sprint to the bathroom to touch up the only makeup I ever wear, smoky eyeliner and mascara to enhance the almond shape of my black eyes, and I spray a subtle dose of Pleasures in strategic places. With the finesse of a diplomat, I leave my day job collecting Cuban-exile history for the Miami Museum of History using another inauspicious excuse, and I drive, darting from one lane to another, through the clogged downtown streets to the Riverfront, beating the approaching yacht or freigher du jour across the bridge in worse traffic than José Antonio will have on his drive north for a handful of miles along the skyscrapers of Brickell Avenue's financial district. I pass by a bearded homeless man holding up a cardboard sign that says, "Why lie? I need a beer," and I roll down my window to drop the change in my ashtray into his paper cup. He thanks and blesses me. No need, he has earned his pay with his wit.
José Antonio chose the Riverfront for its accessible location between our jobs and the privacy rendered by its architecture and landscape. The rectangular, nondescript ivory building with covered parking, the thick tropical foliage wrapped around the entrance, the river and the waters of Biscayne Bay behind it, camouflage the sin of our encounters. I like the setting for its history and the hotel for its impeccable white linens and Art Deco posters on the walls. After the Riverfront became our refuge, I entertained myself for days researching how the Tequestas weathered the humid subtropical environment, fished sea cows with their rudimentary spears, and struggled to survive the interlopers on the same riverbank where I now intend to bury whatever is left in my heart of Gabriel, that fraud of an habanero I once loved.
When I arrive at the Riverfront, I head for the garage to park my puny red Echo, which I bought from a repossessed car lot, and call José Antonio's cell. He gives me a room number. I write all the room numbers down in my calendar, as if chronicling this mattered: 1215, 1440, 1136, 1536, 1406, 1439, 1634, 1415, 1032. Today, it is 1701. I sprint inside through the back door, just as José Antonio instructed me to do the afternoon he plotted our first rendezvous. I suspect the cloak-and-dagger is artifice, as electronic surveillance cameras must be taping my every move, and the thought makes my heart race with fear. José Antonio is a respected cardiologist, a fixture on the social circuit of the bohemian and wealthy alike, a patron of the fine arts and of the recently arrived, which he once was. I am a free woman, but he is not a free man. I know that José Antonio has arrived at the Riverfront minutes before me, checked in, paid in cash, received the frequent customer discount and a wink of complicity from the front desk manager. Why am I doing this? I question myself all the time, during the frenzy of my drives to meet him whenever he has a moment, during the wanting nights in my own bed, on days like today when the what-ifs of history haunt me and I confuse the residual scent of losses with the fragrance of new desire.
I ride up to our suite in an elevator full of airline pilots and flight attendants who spend their off-hours here too. During those brief moments that we remain hostage to the bright brass accents of the enclosed space, I feel as if everyone knows what I'm up to. Why am I doing this? I'm choked by the guilt and for a moment, as the elevator stops on the third floor, I consider getting off, running down the stairs, and disappearing from José Antonio's life. But I can't. I won't. It is too late to let go. I inhale the trace of Pleasures on my wrist and the perfume becomes an amulet that turns fear into appetite.
The elevator doors close again and I think about the night José Antonio and I met. If only I had dismissed his attentions like I have those of so many others, I wouldn't be in a hotel elevator riding up to a rented suite to meet a married man. Swatting the undesirable men around me is part of living in this city, and the price I pay for letting my soul soar at the nightclub Dos Gardenias, the closest thing in Miami to the legendary watering holes in the Cuban capital, when that sad gray lady called Havana was in its heyday and nicknamed the Paris of the Caribbean.
Early into the night at Dos Gardenias, before the latest Cuban musician to defect takes the stage, commanding a hefty cover charge at the door, I perform my poetry in a duo with Alejo, who belts out boleros with the gut-stripping pain of one who has loved and lost. We sit close to each other on stools, and as a circle of soft white light envelops us, my poetry serves as an introduction to his songs.
He sings boleros. He pierces my heart.
No one escapes from love, the crooner mourns.
But that's only a song.
I will save myself.
Oh, yes, I will. Yo sí. Yo sí.
On cue, accompanied by a pianist in the background, Alejo croons a sultry version of "Lágrimas negras," stopping midsong to smoothly chat up the crowd, getting them to agree that we've all shed those dark tears the lyrics speak of. As he does this, Alejo holds my hand, kisses my knuckles with flair, and returns to his song. At the end of "Lágrimas," I plunge into another poem as if it were an extension of the melody.
only once more,
do I want to see The Island.
And then I will come Home.
Because the sea is the sea is the sea.
As my last word fades, Alejo begins to serenade the crowd with "Volver," the Argentine cult tango that has become the international anthem to the nostalgia of those who dream of a return to one's birthplace. And so it goes for the forty-five-minute set, poetry and song, song and poetry, and by the end there is not a dry eye in the house. Everyone is remembering lost loves, lost homelands, lost souls, and the dark, cavernous nightclub bursts into a cacophony of whistles and shouts of "Bravo!" and at least one "¡Viva Cuba libre!"
If only I weren't one of the scarred, if only mine were not a city forever nursing a sentiment that keeps us foolishly searching for an island forfeited so long ago, a mythical place that exists only in our yearning, then maybe I would have been able to overlook the gallantries of Dr. José Antonio Castellón the first night he saw me perform. But José Antonio is a heart doctor, with the manners of a gentleman from the golden era of Spanish letters and the history of a jaded hero, a healer who couldn't mend his own fatal wounds but instantly soothed mine.
That night in November when we first meet, a total eclipse of the moon is forecast, and after Alejo and I bask in applause and thank our audience, we rush outside to the dim parking lot we call backstage to see if we can catch the moon's passing through the darkest part of Earth's shadow.
The second we step out, I look up, catch a sliver of the reddish moon, and without thinking twice, I pray, "Send me true love."
"Send me money," Alejo says.
The celestial show lasts but an instant. We are only able to see the last seconds of the moon's exit. Alejo lights a Marlboro, and just as I'm about to chastise him for it, José Antonio strolls up to us in a crisp white linen guayabera, the uniform of Cuban nights in Miami. He extends his hand, first to Alejo and then to me.
"I want to thank you both for making us all relive the most wonderful years of our youth," he says, after introducing himself, without any medical references, as José Antonio Castellón. "Your performance was like a vision of what we once were, and we cannot help but mourn what we lost on our dear island, those endless Havana nights."
Then José Antonio looks at me with a warmth I was not expecting.
"Blessed is your pen, sensitive and melancholy," he says.
He keeps holding my hand.
"You are a poem yourself."
I am caught off guard by the over-the-top elegance of his praise, and I am left without anything to say but obligatory pleasantries.
"I will come again soon," he promises.
"Please do," I say. "We may not have Havana, but we have Miami and the night."
He smiles and disappears back into the club.
"You flirt!" Alejo punches me in the arm the minute we are alone. "Do you know who that is?"
"Who cares?" I tell him. "One more melancholic Cuban."
The owner of the club comes out with a couple of beers and the conversation turns to the mysterious power of lunar eclipses. He too lights up and when the smoke between those two gets unbearable, I go back inside the club. José Antonio and his table of guests are gone. I do not see him again for many months, until one day I am at the museum working on an exhibit of antique prints depicting the flora and fauna of Cuba, when an e-mail flashes onto my computer screen.
I hope you remember me from Dos Gardenias. Your number one fan. Common friends gave me your address. I want to hire you and Alejo to perform at an event in my home. I would be honored if you would send me your phone number so that we may discuss details.
I give him my number and he calls that evening to invite me to lunch to discuss what he calls "a sensitive issue." He wants us to participate in a tertulia in his home with Cuban musicians visiting from the island, the kind of underground get-together where booze and rhythms flow, and before night's end, so does truth on both sides of the political divide. I have to consult Alejo, I say, but José Antonio insists that he prefers a one-on-one with me first so that we can discuss the preliminaries, and then we can bring in Alejo. I agree because the gig he's offering requires strategic finesse, and Alejo can be, as he likes to remind me, "more gusano than a worm." The musical exchange never happens, but I end up with a new man, a complicated man drowning in his own history, a man who doesn't belong to me.
Why am I doing this? The seconds in the elevator seem endless. I am being smothered by my thoughts. I will ruin the afternoon. I stop myself by reading the name tags of the flight crew on this ride: Desiree, Giovani, Donna, Marc. Why am I doing this?
Maldito Gabriel. That's why.
I want to erase his cursed name from my life, his narcissistic caresses from my face. I want to forget the things he made me yearn for, the fury he planted in my heart with his betrayal, the door to the past he opened like a blinding spray of sunlight. I should have never, ever loved an habanero. The men from Havana are arrogant conspirators and schemers, not naïve, like most of us who hail from the parts of Cuba where nature softens the soul. Guajiros, they call us, hicks, as if it were a stain to be born in the womb of a country. We may be peasants, but we have hearts humble, vulnerable hearts.
I am almost in tears when the elevator opens. The seventeenth floor. I am safe. Just a few steps to 1701 and I am safe.
I knock on the door, and I don't have to wait long before José Antonio greets me in his black Gucci underwear and eyes the color of sweet dulce de leche. He embraces me, oblivious to the mess that I am at this moment, and I lose myself in the familiar scent of his Bulgari and my sobs. He kisses my tears. "I love you, I love you," he whispers. "We are together now, my butterfly."
"I want you," I say, and he leads the way to bed. Copyright © 2008 by Fabiola Santiago