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Telenovelas can be cruel with that first kiss. I sat in front of my television set and waited for the protagonists to finally find true love, the way farmers waited for the first rains of spring.
"Don't worry, Graciela. Tomorrow they will kiss," I sighed to myself with complete certainty as the night's episode ended. I always watched as the names of the actors rolled across the screen while the romantic theme song played. This was my time. This was when, inspired by the music and the drama I had just watched, I allowed my mind and my heart to merge, just for a blissful moment, just until a screeching commercial message shook me out of my daydream. Used Cars! Used Appliances! Easy Credit! It was 1966 and everything offered to Latinos on the Spanish- language channel was just as used.
I turned off the set and went into the bedroom to check on my two boys. Ernestico, who was nine years old, slept curled up in a ball, his long legs tucked under like a cricket. Manolito, one year younger, slept on his back, his chubby self open to the ceiling, fearless.
I returned to the living room, unfolded the sofa into the uncomfortable bed it became every night, and lay down.
Alone, as usual.
But as always,with a little prayer to every saint and virgin I had ever heard about. Even the ones I didn't believe in.
"Send me the right man," I prayed, "or take away my desire to find true love."
* * *
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, I waited downstairs in the cold, narrow lobby and that strange loneliness came over me again. I thought how warm and comforting it would be to have a man's arms around me. My breath made a cloud on the glass door and I drew a heart in it with my finger. For a second, I imagined the face of Mr. O'Reilly, the foreman at the factory, in the middle of the heart.
Estas loca, I said to myself. You're crazy. And using the same finger, I quickly drew an arrow through it.
A familiar car horn cut through the frozen darkness. I tightened my overcoat and rushed out into the wintry New Jersey wind, across the stretch of icy sidewalk to the idling van.
Five of us rode with Leticia to the toy factory every morning. Imperio and Caridad were already there, as usual. They were always the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off.
Caridad was sitting in the front passenger seat and Imperio sat in the back, behind Leticia. When I slid open the door, a gust of cold blew into the overheated van, which always smelled like raw pork. Particularly in winter, when the windows had to be shut tight against the cold.
"Por Dios, Graciela, close the door," Imperio said before I had a chance to sit down. It was as if she expected me to get in without disturbing the temperature.
Imperio had a sharp tongue that she tried to soften by constantly referring to God. "Por Dios," she'd say, or "Dios mio," or "Santa Madre de Dios." But there was venom behind her benedictions. She was a short and skinny person and had always had, as long as I could remember, a nasty disposition, a tendency to complain and to order people around. Which was odd coming from such a tiny person. Even after she reached maturity she was built like a ten- year- old boy. Her dark skin had a reddish tint to it that became even more noticeable whenever her anger flared, which was frequently. She did not have any children of her own. Maybe this was because of her impossibly narrow hips and flat chest, or her sour spirit, or because she once saw a dog take his last breath. Or maybe because sometimes the saints really were paying attention.
"Santa Madre de Dios, I can't stand this cold wind one more minute," Imperio said. "I'll never get used to waking up while it's still dark out and spending the rest of the day in dusk until nightfall. It's inhuman."
"Imaginate," Caridad said with a delicate shiver. "They say it's going to drop below zero again tonight."
Caridad was thick of build, but not fat. She looked luxuriously stuffed and upholstered, like an expensive sofa. Her skin was very pale, and she carried herself with an elegance that, as a girl, I had admired from a distance. Her big brown eyes were always in a state of surprise or discovery. She wasn't stupid. She just wanted everyone to believe that she was as innocent and sheltered as a society debutante. That she was the type of person who had never been touched by the cruelties of the real world. That at the slightest provocation she could swoon.
"Imaginate!" she'd gasp whenever something offended her fragile sensibilities. More often than not during such exclamations, a pale hand clutched at the invisible pearls around her neck.
Every morning Caridad came to work in a starched blouse, freshly powdered, creamed, and perfumed as if she was sitting on a breezy veranda. She loved powders and creams, and she did without essentials in order to purchase expensive products from Spain. They had all but vanished from Cuba, but she could now find them at any Puerto Rican bodega. They were kept behind the counter, inside a locked glass case, and had to be asked for.
She bought and used them carefully, applying the rose- scented Maja de Myrurgia, the delicate lavender of Lavanda Puig, and particularly the cream from Heno de Pravia in tiny dabs to her plump, aristocratic hands. She would never offer any to the rest of us, even in winter, when all our hands were red and chapped. Caridad only had one daughter, the unfortunate Celeste, who was born with the wizened, crinkly eyes of an old man. Celeste, I'd noticed, wasn't developing like a normal child; she was slow to reason, had trouble speaking, and never smelled as sweet as her mother.
A few blocks later, we stopped for Berta, who was in her sixties and came from Formento, a town in central Cuba that none of us had heard of before. Berta had been in the United States since she was a young girl, long before the Revolution. She came to Union City to work in the lace factories, and even though the lace business had long since dried up, she never went back.
"I always meant to return," Berta said, "and now it's too late."
Berta's legs swelled up like hams from standing at the assembly line all day long. As soon as she got in the van, she took off her shoes and massaged her legs, which were blue and knotted with varicose veins. All the way to the factory, she moaned as she squeezed. "Ay, ay, ay."
The last woman to be picked up, and always the first one we dropped off, was Raquel, who was younger than Berta but often looked much older. And her legs didn't swell up.
Raquel could try anyone's patience, even of those, like me, who liked her. All she ever talked about was what she, in Union City, had too much of, and what her husband and the others back in Cuba had to do without. Her husband was serving fifteen years in one of Castro's jails. She would never say why, which drove Imperio and Caridad wild with curiosity.
"Cha," Raquel said whenever they brought it up. Not a word, but a sound, hard and final. Her husband was not a character in a telenovela. He was not up for discussion.
Raquel had arrived in the States with just her three daughters. Most days she wore her dark hair in a dirty ponytail that sat on top of her head like a little fountain. The only vanity she allowed herself was the orange lipstick that she carelessly ran over her thick lips.
Some mornings it was painfully obvious to me that Raquel had been up all night crying, and I knew that it wasn't because the telenovela had taken a tragic turn. I imagined her in her cold little apartment with her little girls huddled around her, all staring at a picture of the missing husband, the missing father. Their sad faces lit by a votive candle-their hearts sick with fear. I imagined her waking up with a pillowcase covered with orange kisses. I knew only too well what it was like to be that lonely.
"They don't even have toilet paper in that country," Raquel said as soon as she took her seat. "They have to use newspapers to wipe."
"Por Dios," Imperio said. "Those newspapers are just filled with pictures of Fidel and his useless promises. Even if there was plenty of toilet paper, I'd still wipe my ass with it."
"Cha," Raquel said.
I could almost feel Raquel's relief when the van pulled into the factory's parking lot. As soon as it had stopped, she jumped out and rushed in ahead of the others, steam trailing from her nostrils.
"She's wasting her time waiting for that man," Imperio said as we hurried across the freezing stretch of concrete. "He's not coming back. I'll bet you any amount of money that he's been executed. Por Dios, who knows what he did to those men in the beards."
"You know how it is back there," Leticia said. "All you have to do is look at them wrong and they shoot you."
"Is that true?" Berta asked. "Has it gotten to that point?"
"And worse," Caridad said.
"What could be worse?" Berta asked.
Imperio and Caridad exchanged looks and moved on ahead with Leticia. I fell behind with Berta. It was much too cold for simple answers.
* * *
RAQUEL COULD GO day after day in silence, but then, when least expected, a lament inevitably popped out of her orange mouth. It was almost like a nervous tic. As unpredictable, uncontrollable, and annoying as that.
"They have apagones every night," she said as we drove home one night. Blackouts. "They live in darkness."
It was a dark blue night in Union City too; the streetlights hadn't gone on yet.
"Raquel," Imperio said, "why don't you get a really long extension cord and run it from your house to Cuba? Por Dios, mujer, you could bite it between your teeth and dog- paddle back. It's only ninety miles from Key West."
"Imaginate!" Caridad said, moving a hand delicately to her neck.
Raquel smiled too. But embarrassment turned the orange smile crooked. I only half listened. I kept my eyes on the dark road, waiting for the magic moment when the streetlights would go on.
"Niiiinas, let's talk about something else," Leticia sang out. She always used the word ninas to get our attention, extending the first syllable like a telephone ringing. She called us ninas, the girls, as if she were the benevolent headmistress of a private school.
"Ninas," she said, "did you watch Cadenas de Amargura last night? It's getting good! La solterona, the spinster, is not as innocent as you think. I suspect she's been secretly married before and that Jorge Alberto is really her son, and that he's the one who paid for her operation."
Leticia wasn't just fanatical about the telenovelas. She was obsessed. She talked as if she was a part of them and delighted in figuring out what was going to happen next, what dramatic new turn or twist the plot would take. She was the first to start watching them. Now we were all addicted. All except Raquel, who daily endured our frivolous chatter.
"How can I enjoy a telenovela when the people back in Cuba are living in despair?"
I felt terrible for poor Raquel. I knew that her husband never wrote to her. I knew that all the information she got was through his family, that their letters painted as bleak a picture of life in Cuba as possible. I knew those letters always included requests for money-but never a word or mention about her husband's situation. Was he dead? Ill? Had he been transferred to another prison? Why didn't he write? Raquel knew nothing. But she held on to the memory of her husband with both hands. She told me that she was sure that one day they would be reunited, and that she didn't care how long she waited or what sacrifices she had to make.
"But why doesn't he write to you?" Imperio asked one day.
"Cha," said Raquel. "Do you think they let prisoners anywhere near a pencil? Or a stamp? He's a prisoner, and back there that means you don't exist."
Imperio and Caridad liked to pretend that they were concerned for Raquel. I knew they just enjoyed taunting her, getting the kind of pleasure children get out of picking at a scabby knee. But with those two it was better to just ignore them, as I had been trying to do for most of my life. Unlike the other three who rode in the van, Imperio, Caridad, and I came from the same small town in Cuba: Palmagria. And if you want to know the truth, it was a stinky little town just like Union City, except the weather in New Jersey was worse. It was a place I thought I would never get away from. Then everything changed. Caridad and Imperio left, and then three years later I did. I truly believed I would never see them again. Which would have been just fine. After the way Caridad and Imperio had treated me. After the things they said behind my back. After what Imperio's husband, Mario, had done to me. But in those days, if you were Cuban, you went to Miami or Union City. There were times when I wished I'd stayed in Miami, but I've come to understand why I had to leave.
As the van traveled through the New Jersey gloom, I looked out the window and watched the streetlights turn on, as if a joyful fairy was rushing ahead of me, unfolding the longest diamond necklace in the world. I tried to think of my life that way, as if something beautiful was flying ahead of me, lighting the way, illuminating the darkness. My future was bright. I just had to figure out a way to get there.
* * *
WE ALL LIVED in the same neighborhood in Union City, just blocks from one another, except Raquel, who lived out toward Newark, where apartments were even cheaper. Imperio and Caridad lived in the same building but on different floors, so they were always together, just like in Cuba. None of us had learned to drive except for Leticia, who charged us each seven dollars a week, which was how she made the monthly payments on her van.
Riding with Leticia was more expensive than the bus, but to me it was worth every cent. She picked us up at our front doors every morning and brought us back every night. Although Leticia was a recent exile just like rest of us, she had managed to get some money out of Cuba, and with that money she bought a used, bright yellow Ford Econoline, tropical yellow, the color of the noontime sun. Imperio and Caridad said Leticia had dollar signs in her eyes, like a cartoon character.
The van had two purposes. Leticia's husband, Chano, used it early in the mornings to deliver pork to butcher shops. He started his rounds at three a.m. and was done by seven. Then he went home and slept all day. Leticia insisted that he clean it up before he handed it over to her. We could always tell when he was running late, because the van smelled like a raw pig. Sometimes the floor was still sticky with bloody water from the packing ice. It could be disgusting. But after a while I didn't even smell it anymore. It's amazing what people can get used to.
"It wasn't money she smuggled out," Imperio often said, "it was jewelry, and who knows where she had it hidden." Caridad always laughed at this, one of her little embarrassed laughs, like a geisha's.
Imperio swallowed her curiosity for as long as she could, and one day she just couldn't hold it any longer. We were all in the van when she finally dared to ask what she had long wanted to know. First she looked at Caridad with an evil grin. She knew very well that what she was about to ask could put both of them on a bus.
"Oye, Leti," Imperio said in her chummiest voice. "Is it true that you took jewelry out of Cuba in your chocha?"
Leticia didn't bother to answer. She ignored the question the way she ignored the honking drivers who regularly lined up behind her. Leticia's hands, big as a man's, held the steering wheel so tight I feared she would snap it in two. From where I sat I could only see the right side of her face, her thick, square jaw set firm. Leticia had an impressively strong face. Caridad once said it was mannish. Imperio, behind her back, called her cara macha, man face, and once even suggested that Leticia had hair on her chest.
Excerpted from Tomorrow They Will Kiss by Eduardo Santiago Copyright © 2006 by Eduardo Santiago. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 16, 2007
EDUARDO SANTIAGO, in my opinion, eventually will win the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction by an American author, and he may be the next writer of Cuban descent to do so. Graciela, Caridad, and Imperio--Cuban women in exile--work in a doll factory in New Jersey. Santiago segues back to Cuba throughout the novel, so we can see the life they left during the Cuban Revolution and understand what they¿re up against in the U.S. Graciela deals with her frustrations just like American women do--by losing herself in TV soap operas. Graciela's coping skills, in Cuba, were superb. When she decided to marry the scholarly and recently widowed Ernesto de la Cruz, she wasted no time: 'It's sort of like a shotgun wedding,' Imperio said, 'except in this case it's the bride who is holding the shotgun.' Then we learn that: Ernesto didn't make a lot of money, and Graciela wanted things. But things were scarce and the black market was expensive. So she set herself up as a manicurist and was very successful at it, because she rendered the best Cuban half-moons in town. The Cuban half-moon was a pearly- colored crescent painted with precision exactly where the nail met the cuticle. Graciela was masterful at it, an artist. When she did our nails it looked as if all our fingers were smiling. But few were smiling inside Castro's Cuba. Imperio tells us: There were those who were desperate to leave the country, those who hated the people who were leaving the country, and the rest of us, who were caught in the middle. People like me were frozen with fear and indecision. We were not the sort of people who dreamed of a life in other parts of the country, let alone the world. We were born in Palmagria and, in spite of its problems and defects, we expected to die there, be buried there, and spend the rest of eternity there. That's the way it had always been. Occasionally someone ventured out, driven by some strange desire that no one could understand. But for the most part, we stayed. It was easier for the wealthy to get out, they had always kept one foot in Cuba and another abroad. . . . For the very poor, there was no decision to be made at all. Very few had the education or even the mentality to consider going to another country and learning another language. They could could barely get along where they were born. Besides, the new administration was all about them. There were slogans on walls now offering them a brighter future. . . . You couldn't leave the house without running into some sort of demonstration. Banners and flags appeared everywhere. Uniformed men and women became so common that after a while we hardly took notice of them. They walked around rigidly, their faces set hard with responsibility. They always saluted us as we walked by. They demanded respect. They were not friendly people, these rebel soldiers. They didn't smile, they didn't dance it was as if, suddenly, they had stopped being Cubans. As if something hard and harsh had invaded their souls. Tomorrow They Will Kiss is a great read, and I can almost guarantee you will love it. In this novel you will find not only yourself, but also your parents, your cousins, and the friends you grew up with. One of the things I admire about this writer is his ability to make people from an entirely different culture 'from mine' seem just like people I have always known. And ladies, you are in for a treat, because this is a novel by that rarity in the male-dominated world of great literature: a male writer who truly understands women and appreciates us, in spite of the faults--if any--we may havWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2007
Posted June 21, 2006
The three women grew up in Palamagria, Cuba, but by 1967 they live in New Jersey. Everyday they ride the bus together to work at a Union City toy factory. Graciela is a single mother of two separated from her spouse she dreams of true love just like she sees at night on telenovelas. Her mates egotistical Caridad and acerbic Imperio tell Graciela that telenovelas are fantasies and what she once had in Cuba with the town hunk is long gone even as they hide the fact that they share her dream of the telenovelas coming true for them.----------------- However, to everyone¿s amazement, the factory foreman, Mr. Barry O'Reilly seems to desire Graciela as he always looks at her and makes excuses to see her. Her bitter bus mates cannot believe the worst nightmare since Castro is about to happen to them. Graciela apparently will become Mrs. O¿Reilly, which in capitalist America and communist Cuba denotes she is their boss.------------- This is a terrific timely with the immigration issue historical look at three Cuban expatriates struggling to survive in an alien land. Much of the tale is related by Graciela though the audience also obtains some first person accounts from her two amigas and other doll factory workers. The working conditions will stun readers while the additional insight into new Cuban-American community that located in the northeast provides a humorous at times poignant but also somewhat slow paced character study.-------------- Harriet Klausner
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Posted October 29, 2008
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