A bestseller in Europe, this exuberant novel from one of Cuba’s most important contemporary writers is as outrageously funny as it is erotically charged.
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|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Nadia Benabid is an author and translator from the French and Spanish.
Date of Birth:May 2, 1959
Place of Birth:Havana, Cuba
Education:Attended the Instituto Superior Pedagogico Enrique Jose Varona
Read an Excerpt
Be Careful, My Heart
Be careful, it's my heart.
It's not my watch
it's my heart.
By Irving Berlin,
as sung by Bola de Nieve
I am not the author of this novel. I am the corpse. But never mind that now. Telling, that's what matters now, with the yapper full of worms if need be, like the dead narrator making his way from A to Z in my favorite movie, Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder. In due time, I'll produce official evidence of my death, but not just yet. Just prick up your ears and listen up now, or better yet, plunge into these pages where my spirit has managed, with more than its fair share of love and pain, to survive:
It was in 1934 that Cuca Martinez was born in Santa Clara, a city in the province that used to be known as Las Villas and is now Villa Clara. Her father, a Chinese cook, had journeyed from Canton to Mexico. There he changed his name and traveled on to Cuba to strike it rich. Her mother was a Dubliner by birth but left that city behind when she was two. Cuca's grandparents on her mother's side had come to Cuba with three fledgling girls in tow and high hopes of making a killing in the horse meat trade. Cuca's grandfather was a butcher; they called him the King of Beef Jerky. In no time, the wee ones blossomed into blue-eyed redheads. The youngest, who had taken to reciting French poetry at the local playhouse and who went in more for exotica than for Eastern Asia, fell in love with thekitchen cook, the Chinaman adrift from kith and kin. Five children would spring from the union of mulberry and Irish rose: one died an infant, the other was stricken by polio at fifteen, the third laid low by asthma and chronic Catholicism, the fourth laid up with a nervous condition, and the fifth Cuca Martinez was the healthiest of the lot and wasn't always toothless and ugly and old. Believe me, Cuca Martinez was once fifteen, which is how you say it in Havana when you mean she sure was pretty, a real dish, stopped cars and buses everywhere on streets and avenues.
When Cuca Martinez, known simply as the Girl, turned ten, she was sent to live with Maria Andrea, her godmother, because her lady mother she of the stormy red hair and the sea blue eyes felt compelled to resume her forgettable career as an actress or a soliloquist. She ditched her Chinese husband, the Girl's father, took up with an eighteen-year-old, and bade them all a good out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Unable to take on all four children, the Chinaman kept two and loaned out the other two to Maria Andrea, the black woman who had taken a godmother's vow and was beset by unrelenting and tenacious toothache. From her, the Girl would learn to scrub and launder, to cook and iron, and all manner of chore befitting her sex (I could gag for sinking to such malarkey!). In her free time, which was negligible, Cuca got permission to play with a beer bottle fixed up in doll's clothing. Because to tell the truth, though the Girl never went hungry, toys were something else again she couldn't have had too many, maybe none. But she didn't have time to get bored; she was either working like a mule, or whiling away an hour with her bottle-doll, or warming alcohol in her mouth to spurt it up later in tepid mouthfuls into Maria Andrea's decaying mouth so as to dull the pain of cavities. The Girl Cuca's brother, laid low by asthma and chronic Catholicism, also lived with them, as did the godmother's twenty-three-year-old son.
On a night of stifling backwater heat and boredom, the godmother left the house to attend a spirit gathering, leaving the Girl forsaken and forlorn. Done with the pots and pans, the Girl sat down to sew a new dress for her bottle-doll. She was intent on threading a needle when the damn-near-white mulatto son of the godmother Maria Andrea appeared before her. His cock was stiff before he even entered the room, a cudgel going before him toward the Girl. With one smack he knocked her onto the divination board, where she lay dazed amidst the cowries. He hurriedly ripped off her panties and spread her skinny rash-covered thighs and was about to force his meaty rod into her dry little bald pussy, when the godmother Maria Andrea reeled in, still heaving with spirits and in full rapture, and picked up a plank with a nail poking out its end and slammed it on the back of her son, the rapist, who lit out of there, gashed and gushing blood like an open tap. Along the way and on the wing, he jammed his prick into a calf, came, and considered hanging himself. But as it was stolen rope that would have done the trick, and as the shopkeeper from whom he filched it had spotted him, he didn't get too far before the police picked him up right in front of the tree that could've been his gallows.
With a swirl of blood burbling about her tongue, the Girl Cuca came out of her swoon. Maria Andrea called in the midwife to verify that her goddaughter was still a virgin and shed a very puny crocodile tear or two on learning that her son was in custody. She'd never liked that boy, and he returned the feeling. She was vinegar to his oil. In fact, she even breathed a sigh of relief. Why, who's to say? Prison might rehabilitate him. She hastened to quash the thought, amending it with that chestnut about once crooked never straight, and arming herself with lighter fluid, she buckled down, like one without a care in the world, and polished the cement floors to a shine.
The damn-near-white mulatto spent the subsequent six years in and out of the slammer, no sooner out and in he'd go again for the usual infractions violent assault, attempted rape, car theft ... Even so, he regularly wangled day passes and eventually even managed to get out for good. He'd often stop by his mother's house, never staying beyond the fifteen to twenty minutes it takes to make coffee and drink it, without talk or anything, just there, just drinking, present and brooding and fuming up the place with his criminal sweat and his breath.
The Girl Cuca's brother, laid low by asthma and chronic Catholicism, was now settled in the damn-near-white mulatto's hole of a room, walled off by a wooden partition from the pigeonhole where his little sister slept. Not that she was so little anymore, now that she had reached adolescence. It was a morning of pouring rain when the Girl (she'd only shake the name as a full-grown woman) heard something like the parched panting of a horse, the rustling of bedsheets, and the rip of yielding cloth. Twas not curiosity, but fear, the kind that chills and convulses the belly with a simultaneous urge to shit and vomit, that sent her spying through a crack. The scream she stifled dangled in her open mouth. There was her brother, forcibly pinned down by his hair, all naked, all wet, slobbering, tied and scratched up, weeping and mumbling an "oh my God! oh my God? beneath his breath. Buttocks glistened like tallow in the grid of moonlight sifting through the slats, the damn-near-white mulatto's peninsular penis pumped away, in and out, plunging with the ease of a Turkish saber into a heart. The Girl Cuca saw her brother's ass, chafed and raw, and that other one's cock smeared in shit and blood. She wanted to scream, call for help, rescue her brother, the Catholic laid low by chronic asthma. But the damn-near-white mulatto chose that very minute to come, to pull off the finale of the century, sealing his moans with a bite to the other one's back. Laughing and crying in one breath, the other one whimpered away "oh, my sugar angel, my mulattokin, my honey cock." And then, he too was coming in some intergalactic orbit, and his lungs opened up and he breathed deep like a frogman, like an amphibian creature. The Girl Cuca looked on in pain and terror and saw only too well what pleasure her brother, the Catholic laid low by chronic asthma, had felt. From that moment on she began to learn about silent suffering; she'd never play again. That rank spectacle with its asshole vapors would traumatize the Girl Cuca, and from then on and for the rest of her life, sex would fascinate and disgust her.
At sixteen, she called at her stepmother's house seeking permission (readily granted out of economic necessity) and a small sum of money off her father with a promise of speedy reimbursement. She returned and with innumerable snotty and teary kisses said her good-byes to the godmother she was certain she'd never see again. Taking a terse and maternal tone, she parted from her brother with a word of warning about his asthma. He had already found his remedy, settled on his optimal spray, the intestinal inhaler.
She set off for Havana on the freight train, the one that makes every blessed stop along the entire wretched breadth of the island. Cuca Martinez does not recall her first impressions of that once most beautiful of Latin American capitals. She arrived, dying of hunger and exhaustion and heat, directly at the public house that's how tenements, now called solars, were known in those days in Old Havana, commended by Maria Andrea to a friend, the Asturiana, Concha, who lived on the Calle Conde. The fleshy lady at the door wanted to know Cuca's age posthaste and was staggered by the girl's extraordinary claim:
"I just turned twenty, it's just that I'm kinda slight."
Six years had elapsed between the averted rape and the triumphant attempt on her brother, and she was now sixteen.
"Kine off thlight!" In addition to having retained her native lisp, the Asturiana also swallowed her word endings the way they do in Havana. From between her breasts she produced a man-size handkerchief, weighted at the corners by the knots where she kept her money, and proceeded to redistribute the sweat that slicked her neck and forehead before refastening it to her bra strap. She shoved a broom handle into the Girl Cuca's hands and said: "Leth go! Hop thoo ith! There's everythin thoo be done here. I'll give you a cot in the room with La Methunguita and La Puthunguita. Lataah, I might thee about a job with Pepe in the cafeteria, but for thtarterth you'll get room and boarh in exthange for cleanin the bildin with theal and dedicathion: every thingle room, all the bathroomth, the thinkth and thtairwayth from landin to rooftop, and you'll leave them thwinkling like crythtal or I'll math you to minthe, and look tharp! my thlippers! (and she signaled for a pair of wooden flip-flops with black rubber straps). You will altho cook, run errandth, do the wath, iron, and carry out any human or divine tathk that thrikth my mind or holier regionth. And be well-advithed, I warn you! I will not thuffer dillydallyin, no fun and gameth with Methunga and her little frien La Puthunga. One hath to work here and mighty lon and har too!"
It goes without saying that Cuca Martinez was no exception. Just one more girl among the countless village girls who flocked to Havana in those years, without a stitch of experience or a penny to their name and in full adolescent bloom with the surefire prospect of becoming housemaids and not much of a crack at fame. In any case, Cuca Martinez sang so badly that even under the shower she didn't chance it. And then there was the problem of her feet, huge beyond compare, although later she'd learn how to roll her hips in step to the chachacha and to any other rhythm that became all the rage. Still, she'd never really cut it as rhumba royalty. Cuca Martinez only knew how to serve, how to submit and love. Yet while the Girl loved everybody, no one loved her, and she was lavishly hungry for affection. A mother's love most of all.
She whizzed off to her dusting and sweeping, her scouring and cooking. To wash up the dishes, wash out the clothes, and starch and iron last week's bundle. Her chores done, she collapsed on the cot, without bathing or eating, quaking with a fever of 102. She'd felt too poorly earlier to take much notice of the room, but now, with hot and watery eyes, she took a hectic spin of the place. The walls were painted yellow and the door frames pale blue. A droopy lamp hung from the ceiling shedding crystal tears and bathing the walls in a phantasmagoric lament of shuffling shadows. The room was outfitted in the Spanish Mortification style. Somewhere, a bed was thumping away to the beat of female groans. In her feverish state, she thought those oohs and aahs were rising from her chest. But no way, no, she wasn't the one blissfully plastering her naked body up against the cinnamon skin of an equally devastating body that could have belonged to a dancer from the Tropicana Nightclub. Just in case she was dreaming, Cuca dug her fists into her eyes and gave them a good rub. No, they were real. Those two heedless creatures could only be her roommates La Mechunguita and La Puchunguita. And the pair of them were whooping up some kind of omelette. You could practically smell the yolk. Tit to tit and clit to clit, they mashed so hard they gave off sparks. In a flash of cheap rings, fingers were strumming clits at the speed of light. Jumbo lips sucked on any protuberance that came their way. They also spanked each other's asses to a lurid pink and tweaked and pinched each others nipples until they set off a delirium of screeches. Cuquita thought she would die of shame. Why did life always place her before scenes intended for much more mature audiences? At a loss, she tried to call attention to herself by vigorously clearing her throat, but those two seemed not to notice. So she coughed and her anus went slack and honked. La Puchunguita's mahogany mane floated up in the air, her flail tits stood at the ready and quaked like canons about to fire off balls of fire:
"Hey! Who farted? You?
"Me! No way! Hey? La Mechunguita protested, her reddish cap of wooly quadroon ironed hair bobbing on her head like an overturned basket.
Finally, they saw the Girl Cuca. Her back glued to the door, she looked on and trembled. La Mechunguita and La Puchunguita reached for their slips, which slid over them with the ease of nylon in one long stroke that stopped at the knee. As neither wore panties, their pubes pushed up against the sheer fabric and showed. Together, they turned on the weepy Cuca:
"Where did this ugly-ass face come from?"
"You asking me! You the one who farted?"
Cuquita nodded, her fear growing more and more as she imagined herself being raped by these hefty sirens. And as though the pair could read her mind, they immediately reassured her:
"Don't flatter yourself, we don't go in for the diaper set," said La Mechunguita. "We like our women and our men all grown up ... so, you're the new one, so you're Cuquita Martinez. But child! you're much too young for this! ... for how good the bad life can be!'
She breathed a little easier when she saw the pair of them flop on either side of the bed and light up Camel cigarettes in unison, and she explained that she was only there to cook and clean, to wash and help around the house ... and to well, make a long story short, she was only there to make an honest living as the new maid.
"I don't know if the landlady mentioned that I'd be sharing your room ... I'm a very polite person, I don't bother anyone, I respect others so as to be respected "
At which point La Mechunguita cut her off with a sarcastic:
"Nobody's gonna do anything to you that you don't want done ... am I right, Puchunguita?"
"No way! Hey!"
And the words were barely spoken, when Cuquita, with an upward bolt of the eyes, fell to the floor in a dead faint, inert as a throttled chicken, sapped by fever and too many emotions. The queen-size ladies hoisted up the frail girl and helped her on to the bed. Flat out on her back, she looked even more skinny and feeble and sick. La Puchunga rushed off for a basin of ice water, and both women gave her a good rubdown with cotton soaked first in alcohol then dipped in water. Some time later, Cuca's fever broke and she fell into a deep sleep. At ten o'clock that evening, she woke up refreshed and ready to sally forth and clean the whole building again if need be. La Mechunga handed her a bowl of chicken soup. She devoured it instantly, in slurpy spoonfuls, making a racket like a kitchen drain.
"Don't make this getting sick a habit. We're not the maids here you are ... and learn how to eat soup ...
"I'm so sorry ... it'll never happen again ...," Cuquita Martinez promised, red with shame.
Meanwhile, La Puchunguita was cramming her statuesque body into a dress of scarlet lamé. She had already slipped into a pair of very high red patent leather heels and slathered her lips in a shade of Rioja Red. La Mechunga was also in full swing, adorning the body she had sheathed in gold lamé. Her sandals were steeples of gold; she applied yet another coat of vermilion to her harmonica of a mouth. Cleavages and napes and shoulders were dabbed with talcum powder -- an absolute must in Havana, where women wouldn't think of leaving the house in the evening without a dusting of fat powdery flakes encircling their necks. Perfumed at last, they lit up more Camel cigarettes. Standing before the mirror, they studied and pawed their bellies, adjusted fabric around rear ends and propped up their tits. For a finish, they used an eyebrow pencil to set off the beauty mark hovering above La Mechunga's lip and the one riding high on La Puchunguita's left breast, cresting just above the heart. Cuquita watched them in foolish wonder.
"Hey kiddo, maybe you should get up off your ass and come with us!' La Mechunguita teased.
Cuca swung her head in neat refusal, but she was wild with envy.
"Yes! come and have a little fun at the Momatter!" (She meant the Montmartre.) "Come on," La Puchunguita urged on between peals of laughter. "I'll find you an old dress from the days before these tits and ass took over."
In no time they had Cuca decked out in a black velvet number festooned with blue spangles. Her little tits were lost in the décolletté and danced about in a valley of whalebone. But her hips filled out the bottom part of the dress very nicely. La Mechunga stuffed the bra with padding, resolving the boob problem. She also produced a pair of black patent leather sandals.
"Hey girl! you got feet like nobody's business! You practically need a size ten, like me. Tractor tracks like that on a little girl like you!"
It was true: with feet like those, Cuquita could nap standing up, and she looked a ridiculous sight in that dress with her skinny hairy legs and feet enormous as a frogman's flippers. La Puchunga made up the adolescent's face as outrageously as possible. When Cuquita saw herself in the mirror, she thought herself beautiful. When a girl starts messing with makeup, you can just forget about it her world will never be the same again, her days of feminine trauma and compromised freedom are here to stay. Too soon they came and took her by the arm, wresting her from her image in the mercurial glass and into the fresh Havana night in the direction of the Alameda de Paula, where their friend Ivo awaited them at the wheel of a Chevrolet to escort them to the Montmartre. At the sight of Cuquita, Ivo could not contain a Creole and unusual urge to poke a little fun and said: "And what hospital did the consumptive little floozy have in mind?"
With a mighty swing of her patent leather purse, La Puchunguita clobbered him one, chipping one of his teeth with the clasp. They waited at least an hour in all that darkness for Ivo to find his tiny piece of tooth for a dentist to glue back on the following day. At long last, he plucked something off the pavement and carefully laid it inside the folds of a linen handkerchief, then they all piled in the car and started driving in the direction of the cabaret. Cuquita's nerves were in a total state, because of Ivo's jab and of the purse-whacking La Puchunguita repaid him with, and her chin began to tremble and wobble and she gritted her teeth until she could hold back no more. "Ladies and gentlemen ..." she began in a thick voice.
"Now what? Does she think she's a radio announcer!" La Mechunguita cut her off, and they all laughed hysterically, but Cuquita persisted:
"Ladies and gentlemen ... I want to make it absolutely clear, here and now, and before all present that I am not a floozy or a whore or anything, and what's more, I'm a virgin ... I can read and write, my godmother taught me, and when the opportunity presents itself, I intend to continue my studies ..."
So thunderous was their laughter, passengers in adjacent cars strained their necks to see what was going on in the Chevrolet. Cuquita drew her mouth into a tight little pout and felt the urge to push the rear door open and hurl herself out of the moving car. In fact, she did, and had it not been for La Puchunga, who pulled her back with a hell of a yank, ripping the velvet dress in the process, Cuquita, today, would have been fossilized pussy in the asphalt of Malec¢n Avenue.
"Say! Girl! Don't you go crazy on us now! What the fuck is wrong with you? Nobody is a whore around here, and don't you go getting wild ideas about us. Mechunga and I are salesladies at El Encanto, the famous department store.... Hick that you are, you can't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about. We like a little fun in the evening ... that's all. And we'll see how long all this virgin business lasts. And for your information, we, too, can read and write ... because over here, where there's a will there's a way."
Apologies were made by one and all. A deadly silence fell over them, broken only by the immense blasts of waves crashing over the walls of the Malecón, sending water streaming well past the middle of the avenue to where the buildings stood. A saline mist draped the night in mystery. Only the yellow lights shining from the majestic and imposing lamps extending down the center of the avenue lit up the darkness. The wind funneled in the side window and dried Cuquita's tears as she sat lost in thought. She was thinking of her family and the desolate darkness of the countryside where they lived, which suddenly seemed so dark compared to the luminosity of Havana, so beautiful and new and radiant to her eyes. Ivo turned on the radio and the unparalleled voice of Ignacio Villa, Bola de Nieve, the Snowball, a voice leaning to hoarseness, came on singing a sad song in English. And even though she didn't know squat when it came to English, Cuquita immediately felt a tingling, as if some sainted or fetish-tainted thing was telling her that this was her song. At any rate, it was a tune singularly attuned to her mood at that time. "Remember, it's my heart, my heart filled with old desires.... Be careful, it's my heart ..."
"What's he saying?" she asked in an anxious voice, her little twat already dewy, and she not knowing what to make of the vaginal affluence.
"Nothing, some foolishness about the heart." And La Mechunga started singing a poor Spanish rendition in her screechy voice: "Recuerda, es mi coraz¢n, mi coraz¢n lleno de viejos deseos ... Ten cuidado, es mi coraz¢n, la, la, la ... I forgot the words."
Cuquita breathed out a deep and loud sigh, already in love with the proprietor of that diabolically melodic voice. It only took La Puchunguita, who had guessed her sentiments, a couple of pokes to bring her sand castle crashing down.
"That Bola de Nieve sure can sing. Plenty of tiger under that hood. Pity he's black and a swish to boot? Seeing Cuquita's disconcerted expression she exclaimed, "I hope you're not going to go asking me what a swish is, are you? You'll find out soon enough. If you want to see him in the flesh, you can go to the El Monse¤or Restaurant, or" and her voice took a sarcastic turn "hop the next plane to Paris. They say he's very famous over there."
The sea air mingled with the smell of grass and of two-for-a-penny colognes that filled the night. Cuquita hummed the song over and over again in the deepest reaches of her heart. Inside the very heart that she, even as a little girl, had wished someone would care for as they would for a bibelot or a bonbon. She was in dire need of a kindhearted, substantial type substantial, as in man of substance, moneyed who would spoil her with his attentions. Ivo put down the roof of the convertible. (My little eight-cylinder tribute to the gliding beauties in the novels of Cabrera Infante.) A gusting sea wind matted manes and vandalized makeup, licked the Ponds vanishing cream clean. Cuquita was thinking that maybe a man with hair on his chest, an everlasting highlander kind of lover, could give her just a little of the tenderness she'd never known in her turbulent childhood.