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|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The Chin Kiss King
By Ana Veciana-Suarez
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2015 Veciana-Suarez
All rights reserved.
On the morning before the night Cuca's great-grandson came into this hard world, a mist thickened with the scent of honeysuckle seeped beneath her carved-oak front door, invaded the living room, saturated the kitchen, and impregnated her bedroom with a melancholy so deep and so impenetrable she awoke with a start.
"Llegó," she said aloud, though there was no one else in the tiny, low-ceiling bedroom — no one, that is, of this life.
(She did not believe in ghosts, not really; but she accepted the hovering presence of the spirits of her lost loved ones as a blessing. They followed her everywhere, even to the bathroom, for guidance and protection, for reminders of duty, and they spoke to her in her sleep, or in church during the homily, or at the bus stop on Seventh Street, their soft, clarion voices sounding sometimes like young pupils vying for a teacher's attention.)
"Llegó," she repeated, this time much louder, conviction smoothing the early-morning hoarseness from her throat.
She sat up in bed, straightened the Print of Paradise comforter she had bought at Kmart in the last white sale, and sniffed the heavy air for clues. They were there, the hints, the evidence, the telltale traces of what was to come; she felt them prick her skin, taunting, teasing, like the cool fingertips of a warm man. And yet ... yet, honeysuckle ... honeysuckle. What did that mean? Honeysuckle ... honeysuckle. Melancholy. No, please no. Maybe peace? Great joy? Deep sadness? Revolution? Who knows? She sighed, an inhalation so total in its resignation that she could see the hole it sucked from the mist suspended in front of her, a perfect circle, complete and without end, beautiful.
Ay, she was losing her faculties. No doubt about it. Like smooth skin, like shiny hair and clear eyes, like desire itself, her abilities were following the call of age much too obediently. Time pardoned nobody. But she would not dwell on it, no. She had never taken well to melancholy; it did not suit her, never had, not even in the tuberculosis-infested era of her youth, when melancholy among demure young ladies was all the rage. It made her skin sallow, which was worse than age spots; it made her breasts sag and her belly bloat and her hair kink. Yes, melancholy did.
"Go!" she ordered the mist, but it went nowhere. In fact, it became so sweet that she gasped for air and so dense she could not see the green and purple and pink and indigo of her bedspread.
"Go!" she shouted. "Go! Go! Go!"
It refused to recede. It settled over her in a candied, cloying blanket.
Very well, she thought, and lay back in bed. Give in, give in. Become what it is, what you are not. Accept that which is unacceptable, what is inexplicable, what no one can find. She pulled the covers over her head and closed her eyes. She glimpsed the blinking essences that were the faithful spirits of her lost loved ones in the vast darkness of infinity, so many of them, so many. (She realized suddenly that she knew more dead people than living.) A smile escaped her lips in recognition: her father, a man with a straight back and a crooked heart. Her mother, a queen without throne or vassals. Her youngest sister, drowned in Varadero Beach, tight curls still wet. Her brothers, both the hairy one and the bald, as sternly serious in the afterlife as ever. Her maternal grandmother, Cleofe, faint, growing fainter, too long dead. And the blinking star of her bullnecked husband, hotter and closer than all the others. She giggled: the bastard. He called to her in the silent voice she always answered; it was replete with longing and recriminations. How long had she survived him? How long had they been separated by the diaphanous sheet of death and six feet of soil? Too long, he said, too long. Come.
She was tempted, she was. She missed him, the bad and the good, the long days and the short nights, the feel of his callused hands and the muscles on his chest and the bristle of his beard and the thrusts of his lust and the song in his voice and the rhythm of his step and the smell of sweat on his skin. They had battled like fighting cocks, as elegantly and as fiercely, and made love with the same intensity, heaving, biting, clawing, screaming, singing. A man was for that, after all, for those base, earthy, wanton feelings, that sensation of control and disorder. Ay, to have a man, her man, and his instrument in her bed, under this Print of Paradise comforter, naked and hard. How many times she had tried to explain that to her granddaughter, who lived without a man, on the other side of the duplex, in a place that was as antiseptic as hers was teeming with unclassified organisms? Many times, too many. And for imparting this wisdom, what did she get in return? She shut her eyes tight, tighter, closing dry skin into her sockets like a drawstring purse. She knew, without being told, that this flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, one generation removed, thought her ignorant, backward, foolishly romantic. Her granddaughter had never put it in so many words, of course. She was polite to a fault and correct beyond expectations, but there was no need to imprison intuition in the frame of words, no need whatsoever. And now, with the baby to be born today, this very day, a being the flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, two generations removed, where was the father, the man and his instrument? Where, where? The girl had driven him away.
Come, Cuca, her husband called.
What is it? she asked, grateful to forget about her rejected ministrations.
Do you see it? he asked. The star near me.
Where? I don't see it.
Look with your heart, mi cielo, my sky.
And she did, and she saw it, a star smaller than a hummingbird's pupil but as brilliant, as steady, as needed as a lone votive candle in a dark cave.
Llegó, her husband announced.
Then she fell asleep suddenly, with the air still redolent of honeysuckle, and dreamed of the mosquito netting her mother-in-law had made for her eldest son's crib fifty-nine years ago. It was a good dream, so pleasant that she did not remember the baby had died at three weeks from a malady no country doctor could diagnose.
It occurred to her, when she awoke again with the mist gone and the midmorning light dappling her bed, that she had erred in reading the heady sweetness around her. It was not melancholy she felt, but a comfortable joy, one without peaks or valleys, steady, constant — the type she rarely experienced. This realization boosted her energy, and she threw back the Print of Paradise comforter and shuffled to the bathroom humming a song she could not name. She splashed her face with tepid water — no soap, of course, never — and brushed her teeth cautiously with baking soda and a white washcloth. Toothbrush bristles hurt her gums. (She still had all her teeth, a miracle she attributed to her weekly consumption of the marrow from chicken bones.)
At seventy-seven, Cuca still took a great interest in her appearance, and she was methodical in the way she cared for her body and her clothing. In anything else, she despised routine. Today, from her closet, she chose a blue-and-purple-print housedress with three-quarter cuffed sleeves because it was February and, even in Miami, one could feel a slight chill in arthritic bones. She looked closely at the dress: was the print of flowers or was it paisley? She blinked, squinted, sighed. Yes, her daughter was right; she needed to wear her glasses everywhere. But paisley or flower, who cared? She liked the colors, and the style, and the way it felt, soft cotton on old skin. She stood across from the mirror on her white wicker dresser — wasn't white wicker absolutely gorgeous and youthful? — and stared at her image. Not bad. Disheveled, old, but not altogether bad. The colors heightened the doughy whiteness of her skin and paid homage to her luxuriant hair. She had not ever been a beautiful woman, but in her youth she possessed an attractive feminine roundness, like a Botticelli model, and a compassionate face that belied a stubborn will. She had always worn her hair long, waist-length, first when it was the blue-black color of a raven, and now when it was like an undergarment washed too many times, a mother-of-pearl tone with filaments of steel gray. Her hair was her treasure, and though it was much work, washing it weekly in a tin basin outside, then sitting for hours in indirect sun to let it dry, she fiercely opposed her granddaughter's insistence that she cut it. Of course it was not practical at her age. Of course it pained her back to bend over the basin to rinse it. Of course she looked like a wild woman when she loosened the single braid every evening. But her hair was a mantilla, a work of art and effort, a promise kept. When her third baby had died, a boy born too soon and too weak, and after she had cried so many tears that her face and the tips of her fingers and toes had begun to crinkle prune-like, she vowed to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre that she would keep her hair long forever and ever, or at least until she died, if she was able to see a child, just one child, grow into adulthood. The Virgin kept her end of the bargain; she would, too.
Thoughts of the Virgin reminded her of the impending arrival, and she knew she must hurry, there was little time to waste, if she was going to prepare for her great-grandchild. With long, hard strokes she untangled her hair and then braided it, dabbed Agustín Reyes's Royal Violet cologne water behind each ear and between her breasts (just in case; you never know), powdered her face lightly, and applied her new Cape Coral to her lips. Then, she began the comforting ritual of slipping on her forty-six gold bracelets, twenty-three onto each arm, one for each year her marriage had endured. This took more time than it should because she liked to put the bracelets on one by one, remembering the occasion on which she had received each gift, but also because her agility was not what it used to be. Once finished, she jangled them, the noise filling the room in a merry way, like Christmas bells. (Try it, she often told her friends, the few who were still left. Sour moods and bad thoughts and migraine headaches surely will dissipate.) Then she shod her delicate size-six feet in white Reeboks, a concession to her granddaughter.
Ready. What to do first? She wasn't good at planning; her schedule was whatever pleased her, always had been, which used to infuriate her husband, particularly when she didn't starch his white shirts in time for Sunday Mass or didn't have dinner ready at seven. But his screams, his veins bulging in his thick neck, the crimson of his face — they had done little to change her. She was a mother herself, ostensibly responsible for her family, and still running to the market, over the rough cobblestones or dirt roads of her beautiful, beautiful Cuban town, dust collecting after her like a veil of hope, praying she would catch the old woman in the chicken stall before she closed shop for the day.
"Ay, mamita," she screamed between her labored breaths and the jabs of pain in her side. "Rápido, rápido, un pollito."
Then she would pay an exorbitant price for the old woman to swing the puny chicken into lifelessness, then pluck it, before she ran back home to cook it. Dinner was always late.
She had a microwave now. It was her daughter's, but Adela did not allow her to cook. She used the microwave to warm the cantina they purchased five days a week from the son of a man who had lived down the street from her in the beautiful, beautiful pueblo. The son of this former neighbor had grown rich in Miami because no one wanted to cook anymore and no one ran breathless down cobblestone streets to plead with old women for the last of their chickens as the sun slipped like an egg yolk into the black skillet that is earth. Just as well. She had better things to do. She had herbs to plant, medicines to mix, potions to label, leaves to simmer, ideas to test. She was busy without the burden of survival, and she was becoming very good at it.
She shuffled into the living room, expecting to see Adela engrossed in the newspaper's religious reporting of the previous day's lottery numbers, but she realized that she had awakened too late this morning and surely her daughter was in the market playing the Cash 3 for the day. Ay. She had the house to herself. Good. She had lived on this side of the duplex for twenty-nine years, first with her husband and daughter, then with her husband alone (when her daughter married), then with her daughter and granddaughter, then alone, and now only with her daughter. Was that right? She wasn't sure. The chronology of events often befuddled her, so the past tricked her into the present and the future hurled her back into the years of youth. It was confusing, the comings and goings of this family. In any event, she had lived here long enough to be confused: when she remembered her houses in Cuba, the one of her childhood and the one of her marriage, the layout she recalled was that of the duplex. She had never been good at spatial relationships.
About a year ago, when Adela had moved back in with her from the other side of the duplex, she had allowed her granddaughter to donate her old furniture, everything except her bedroom set and four black velvet paintings, to a charity for old people. A big yellow truck had come to pick everything up — the Formica coffee table, the matching Oriental lamps, the plaid sofa with the bad springs, the five-piece dinette set — and she had watched solemnly as two stocky, hairy men in sleeveless T-shirts carted off her belongings. She noticed the name of the organization painted in large red letters on the side ("The Useful Aged"), and she laughed at the irony because she knew she could no longer cry. She should have been overwhelmed with an unbearable sadness, for each piece of furniture served as marker and guidepost of her life in exile, but that morning, as a precaution, she had put a little rum in her breakfast tilo and two extra spoonfuls of brown sugar. It had done her good. Besides, Adela had gotten some nice modern furniture as replacement, a teal Boltaflex sofa and a flower-print upholstered chair, a glass-and-wrought-iron center table with a matching end piece, and a dinette set made of real wood. The furniture was nearly identical to the set her granddaughter had on her side of the duplex, except that Maribel's sofa was leather, the real thing. No one had made any suggestions about changing anything in the kitchen, and her collection of herbs and spices and ointments and liniments and potions and other mysterious brews remained untouched in their labeled boxes and jars. God had kept an eye out for her.
It was not difficult to live with Adela, although she was a little sloppy, and when Cuca spied (without meaning to) the mess in her daughter's room — stacks of newspapers in one corner, clothes that needed to be washed, hemmed, given away, or thrown out, unopened bills, torn-out magazine recipes, crumpled paper, and piles of books (Interpreting Your Dreams, Numbers and Visions, Unlock the Power of the Mind, Playing on Hope and a Dollar, One Hundred and Three Ways to Riches) — she understood why her daughter's daughter had turned out to be such an uptight know-it-all. Clutter demanded order; complications prescribed simplicity. Life was an ordeal of balancing opposing forces, or a travesty, some would say, and neither daughter nor granddaughter apparently had learned that.
Excerpted from The Chin Kiss King by Ana Veciana-Suarez. Copyright © 2015 Veciana-Suarez. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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