The Second Death of Unica Aveyano

The Second Death of Unica Aveyano

by Ernesto Mestre-Reed

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From the author of The Lazarus Rumba (“His symphonic imagination proves mesmerizing.” —New York Times Book Review; “Wonderful.” —Los Angeles Times), an inventive, poignant new novel.

One night in April, Única Aveyano sneaks out of her Miami nursing home and wanders toward the sea. Whether she


From the author of The Lazarus Rumba (“His symphonic imagination proves mesmerizing.” —New York Times Book Review; “Wonderful.” —Los Angeles Times), an inventive, poignant new novel.

One night in April, Única Aveyano sneaks out of her Miami nursing home and wanders toward the sea. Whether she intends to end her life or simply look at the ocean depends on whom you believe. She leaves behind her husband, a devoted nurse, the solicitude of her family—and the images of a little boy named Elián Gonzalez that are all over the news.

Her rash decision sets in motion a gorgeously told tale that is at once comedy and elegy. Every lived moment evokes for Única a story from her past, and we live that past with her: from the ghosts of her mother and stepfather in 1930s Guantánamo, and her beloved but wayward son, who refused to leave Cuba with the rest of the family, to her exile in Miami and New York City.

A chronicle of the familiar and the strange, of madness and clarity, of the ambivalence of home and family, The Second Death of Única Aveyano reveals unforgettably an indomitable woman whose entire life now seems a dress rehearsal for the heady days before her death.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A powerful, funny, resonant tale of one extraordinary woman and the many lives she graces and ruins. Única Aveyano is as poignant and compelling and concentratedly Cubana as they come. She is mother to us all.”—Cristina Garcia, author of Monkey Hunting and Dreaming in Cuban

“Poetic and daring. . . . Mestre-Reed is a masterful observer.” —Francisco Goldman, author of The Ordinary Seaman

“Beneath the surface of Mestre-Reed’s prose there is a turbulent exchange between flesh and spirit, between free will and the caprice of fate. The Second Death of Única Aveyano unfolds like a dream, charged by lust and by sorrow, and fraught with the perils of an ulterior logic.” —David Hollander, author of L.I.E.

Carlos M.N. Eire
Ernesto Mestre-Reed's new novel is a marvelously poetic meditation on time and memory, and on the ways in which past, present and future relate to one another in any person's life. In this case, the novel's main character happens to be a Cuban exile.
The Washington Post
Maggie Galehouse
Mestre-Reed's writing is often vivid, his dissection of relationships tight and knowing, yet this book isn't an easy read. Única's family history is complicated, and a romantic side story involving her gay grandson and a male nurse drains energy from the main narrative. But Mestre-Reed's depiction of illness in old age, with all its indignities and comic moments, is masterly.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A compassionate portrait of a stalwart, aging, ailing Cuban woman unwilling to relinquish her identity. In the hallucinatory opening chapters, elderly Unica wanders away from the Miami nursing home where she's been placed by her overbearing daughter-in-law Miriam, and resides with her husband Modesto. "Rescued" from a nearby beach where she danced, naked and distracted, Unica broods over newspaper stories about young Elian Gonzalez, like herself a refugee between two countries, and writes letters to her grandson Patricio in which memories of her earlier years emerge, collide, and gradually clarify. We learn of the "madness" of her mother Marcia, abandoned by her handsome lover then wed to an unimaginative doctor she doesn't love; young lawyer Modesto Duarte's courtship of teenaged Unica, while he fought for oppressed workers in the years preceding the Castro Revolution; and of their son Candido, a charismatic boy who built a bomb shelter, became a decidedly unconventional "healer," then became a bisexual husband and father who perished on a raft fleeing Cuba years after his loved ones had safely preceded him. Mestre-Reed (The Lazarus Rumba, 1999) skillfully employs dreams and fantasies to create a rich narrative fabric, but stumbles late in the book, when Unica's stoical acceptance of her "second death" from cancer (the first having been her uprooting from her homeland) is juxtaposed with her gay grandson's loving (though, as she knows, impermanent) relationship with a young male nurse. The fluidity of sexual attraction and identity is indeed an integral theme; but the story is, properly, Unica's, and the young lovers who in effect receive her blessing are simply far less interesting thanshe. Overall, inferior to Mestre-Reed's dazzling debut, but very much worth reading nevertheless. Agent: Thomas Colchie

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Original Series
Product dimensions:
5.15(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.55(d)

Read an Excerpt


Song of the Streets


There is Cranberry and Orange and Pineapple, she says.

And she climbs their steep slopes to the wrought-iron benches on the promenade.

Maybe someday she can hold her grandson's head in her lap again, brush his lambswool hair as he falls asleep in the afternoon, like she did in the courtyard of their house in Cuba, and years later, in the little concrete patio outside their cramped apartment on Meridian Street.

There is Poplar and Willow and Vine, she says.

And in the park under the overpass some whispery aspens and leafy cottonwoods that she will not see bloom.

He used to let his hair grow long just for that-so that she could untangle it with her brush and with the ends of her fingers. He hid under her long skirts when his mother chased him, snipping her giant metallic shears in the air like a mad sheepwoman.

There is Love and Grace, she says.

And she follows each to its end, crumbling brick walls meshed in ivy. El culo del saco, se lo comió Paco.

She picked living things out of her grandson's hair as if she were digging memories out of his skull. A brown beetle to forget his father. A wingless moth to forget his homeland.

There is Pearl and Water, she says.

And a desolate beach that hides under the Brooklyn Bridge, which will not fall down, will not fall down.

He fell from the boat, from the overcrowded boat. His long hair floated on the olive sea like a clump of sargasso weed. He fell from the boat and her husband fell over after him.

There is Montague, she says.

But no Capulet.

Dance of the Wild Boys

ÚNICA AVEYANO HAD LEARNED to go almost without sleep. Sometimes she slipped the painkillers that she had hidden under her tongue into her husband Modesto's daily dosage of pills so that he would not worry about her wandering the halls at night, pressed to the walls like a mouse. The other pills she took. Especially the little egg-shaped Marinols, which were supposed to combat nausea and make her hungry, but which made her jittery too, and daring. Later, they were to blame it on them, on the little egg-shaped pills, as if it had been the first time.

The nursing home was a six-story building, two blocks away from the fashionable beach. Storm shutters hung halfway down over the windows at all times like droopy eyelids, so very little light ever managed to get in. When the windows were left open, Única could hear the music from the oceanfront cafés late into the night. Sometimes she asked a night nurse to bring her a chair, and she sat in the hallway, crouched by an open window, and listened to the sounds of life outside. She hadn't been to the beach in ages.

One night, a week before Elián had been taken away, in the middle of April of the year 2000, she made up her mind to see the ocean as it is when the moon flirts with its restless surface. When Modesto fell asleep, she took her cane (which she rarely used) and made her way to the end of the hallway. She stood by a window, pretending to listen, and waited for the night nurse to forget her presence, and then she lumbered into the stairwell. The two flights did not prove as painful as she'd imagined. She planted both feet firmly on each step before proceeding to the next one, one hand on the railing, the other firmly on her cane, each step as precise and deliberate as a musical note. If this were all, she thought, her arthritic knee, her brittle bones. Before the chemo, her cane had always stood in one corner of the bedroom she had used in their daughter-in-law Miriam's house, what had once been her grandson Patricio's room. When she made it up to the top floor, she was surprised to see the door to the roof ajar, a breeze passing through it. She had not been outside in weeks, since the last time she was in Jackson Hospital and the treatments had been temporarily stopped. The night air sneaking into the stairwell felt as precious and as dangerous as something stolen. She wished she had woken Modesto and brought him up. He missed his long afternoon walks to the bodega, strolling patiently on the edge of the roads near Miriam's house. Única had accompanied him once and was surprised to see that most of the way to the bodega had no sidewalks. Nobody walks in this part of town, Modesto explained proudly, as if he were the last practitioner of an art long forgotten. Sometimes Miriam came on weekends and took him out for a stroll on Ocean Drive, but the nurses forbade Única to go unless she used a wheelchair. They said she was still too weak from the treatments. A wheelchair! As if she were an invalid. ¿Y qué? He always came back from his walks more depressed than when he left. He told her in two words that he didn't like to be apart from her. Miriam had wanted him to stay in her house, and that's how he had responded, with the same two words, "No puedo." As a parting gift, she had given him a Walkman to listen to his classical music tapes. It's true what they said about old age. He was turning into a boy again and he needed Única as simply as a child needs its mother. Just to be there. Única gave a good push to the roof door and then climbed the last step and stood in the doorway, loving the way the gentle breeze teased the new nap-like growth on her skull. She had not looked at herself in weeks, had hung a hand towel on the mirror over the bathroom sink (which her nurse Lucas kindly rehung every morning after Modesto was finished shaving), and now she wondered how much grayer her hair was. The doctors had said that it would probably grow in that way, thicker but grayer, maybe even a little curlier. It was more difficult once she was out on the roof, having only the use of her cane. She wished she had worn something other than her slippers and her ratty night robe (but she wasn't sure if she still owned any shoes, and whatever old dresses hung in her closet always went unused). She had refused also, after the first phase of the chemo, when they were still living with their daughter-in-law, the use of those monstrous contraptions that they called walkers. She'd rather stay in bed all day, she told Miriam, rather have her bones in a sack.

"You don't listen to anyone," her daughter-in-law had told her the night after Thanksgiving, the day after Elián had been found, floating on an inner tube. They had just eaten turkey sandwiches for dinner. "You never have. That's why it's better that you have daylong professional care. Them you'll have to listen to, coño. It is for your own good, mamá."

What use living in a country where family can say such things? How dare she call her mamá?

There were a couple of lawn chairs on the roof, a beach towel draped over one of them. Maybe the nurses came up here to sunbathe on their breaks. For a moment, looking at the chairs, Única lost her direction. Which way was the ocean? She hobbled on the sticky tar, leaning on the cane with both arms, to one edge of the roof and grabbed tight to the low concrete parapet. Below, there was only an alleyway, and across, an abandoned building, its windows shuttered with flimsy plywood. She found it odd that there were any buildings so near the ocean left to sit useless. In one of his few talkative moments since they'd arrived here, Modesto had told her what a great job they had done with all the hotels on Ocean Drive, how they had restored them to their original splendor. Twenty years before, when they had first moved to their little apartment on Meridian Street and Miami Beach wasn't as fashionable, clusters of the old lounged on the hotel porches, waiting for a guagua to oblivion, the buildings' ratty structures crumbling, the wood perforated with termite damage. Única was very eager to see how much the buildings had changed, but she did not let Modesto know. The breeze picked up and she heard the irascible rumbling of the ocean. She stayed close to the parapet and moved towards the sound. When she saw the tall palms that lined Ocean Drive, their fronds swaying lazily as if they heard nothing of the troubled ocean but only the music from the open-air cafés, she dropped her cane and grasped the edge of the parapet with both hands. She moved along faster, her back foot skittering up to the front one and then the front one sliding forward. The sea continued its rumbling and its constant perturbation inspired Única-this will to never let anything stay as it is. She dismissed the blood pulsing like an alarum on her swollen knee, the hundred needles of fire pricking at her bones, the suspicious feeling that her tongue could easily reach up and lick the seat of her brain. She made it to the corner and felt the sea's presence before she could cast her eyes on it, its brackish breath assaulting her. She raised her chin.

"Sí, sí," she said, as if she were welcoming Modesto (as she never could anymore) in his still too-frequent attempted incursions into her ruined body, where he would end up doing everything himself, spilling his tepid seed on her thighs, on her belly, on the fleshy hollow between her collarbones. (No child then.) She could not remember when she had stopped loving him. She felt she no longer had access to all that had been joyful and worthwhile in their life together, and though the moments themselves had not vanished, though she could summon the images in her mind, one by one-all the way to that evening in Varadero, the second night of their honeymoon, and the manner with which Modesto had held her naked body at first, his arms wrapped around her waist, just held her, whispering his praises, till her skittishness fluttered away and a wave of fluid heat passed from her chest to the caverns of her lower parts and she felt she could not stand it anymore with just him holding her, as if she were a lifeless muñeca, so her hips shifted, thrust obscenely, she thought, and an ocean breeze made the hair on her inner thighs stand on end, so that she wanted all of him, part by part, hour by hour-they existed now only as shadows beyond the impenetrable haze of her present days.

But again, surprisingly, she wished Modesto had come with her, though he would have certainly refused had she offered, called her una loca, as he often did these days. At seventy-eight, and though on plenty of medication (twelve pills a day), he had never spent a night in a hospital, and now he was confined to a nursing home because of her. Yet, he had never had the strength to stand up to their daughter-in-law (she bought him off with a Walkman!). He had lost all vigor on the morning Única was given her diagnosis, had suffered all the doldrums and depression that the doctors had told her were her due. Única was glad, very glad that God hadn't made her a man. If it had been her, her the healthy one: Ay, the fight she would have put up!

She moved along the front parapet, keeping an eye on the sea. No moon tonight, but from the glow of the streetlamps she could make out the white of the foam crashing on the sands like spilt sugar. A pair of men wearing only sandals and shorts strolled by holding hands. They too were listening to the embroiled sea. The bounty of that day's sun still stuck like sap to their burnt shoulders. Then a pack of pale wild boys ran by them, screaming obscenities, and for a moment the friends lost hold of each other, and for such virile young men seemed too easily parted, cowering till the wild boys had passed quickly and clamorously as an afternoon thunderstorm-and the friends found each other again and made their way towards the darkness of the shore. Única thought about her grandson. She wondered if he ever held hands with his friends. Maybe that's why he had moved to Key West. It was safer there; they were less outnumbered.

If she leaned forward enough she would just stumble off the roof to the pavement below. Maybe the two friends would find her on the way back. Maybe the pack of wild boys. She let go of the parapet and found her body surprisingly light, as if she were floating in the warm sea. With her bent fingers she undid her robe, pulling it up to reach the lower buttons. She let it fall off her shoulders, and the sea air draped in around her, it whistled on the catheter above her breast. In the moonlight, the wan cast of her skin took on a ghostly appearance. She had forgotten what a great joy it was to go without clothes. She could not unclasp her bra (the nurses always did that), so she pulled the straps over her arms and slid it down to her waist, twisting it around her till she found the clasp, but still she was not able to undo it, so she left it there and slid her hand under the band of her bloomers and let them drop, and she stepped out of her slippers and slid over, leaving the bundle of clothes aside like a shed skin. She felt feverish. As dangerous and as daring as the young friends holding hands. She laughed as if she were being tickled. She raised her hands in the air and called out to the friends, "Aquí, aquí, mis vidas!" But no one heard her, so she moved farther away from her pile of clothes. She wished she could get rid of her bra but it would not go down below her belly button, even though she was, as Miriam said, thin as a lizard. It hung above her waist like garters, like a dancing girl, so she lifted her feet off the ground, one at a time, trying to keep rhythm to the song rising like a prayer from the street below. How she wished Modesto had come with her! She would relent. She would pretend to love him again. She would reach back and grab their old joy by its tail. They would do it right here, coño, on the roof of the maldita nursing home. Why not? She would give in. He would hold her on the ledge of the parapet and fuck her and fuck her until both their bodies crumbled at last. He would fuck her till they tumbled over together and they were no more.

Meet the Author

Ernesto Mestre-Reed was born in Guantánamo, Cuba, in 1964. His family emigrated to Madrid, Spain, in 1972 and later that year to Miami, Florida. He is the author of the novel The Lazarus Rumba, teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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