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.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Song of the Streets
SHE RECITES THE NAMES OF 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.
Reading Group Guide
"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 García, author of Monkey Hunting and Dreaming in Cuban
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Ernesto Mestre-Reed’s marvelously imaginative novel, The Second Death of Única Aveyano.
1. The Second Death of Única Aveyano frequently refers to the story of Elián González, the five-year-old boy who was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, brought to Miami and, after much legal wrangling, sent back to Cuba. Why has Mestre-Reed included Elián’s story within his narrative? How is it relevant to the story of Única and her own family?
2. Why has Mestre-Reed given his novel the title of The Second Death of Única Aveyano? What is her first death? What are the implications of suggesting that a person might have more than one death?
3. Mestre-Reed begins his book with two epigraphs, from Homer and Sappho, about voyaging to strange lands and the longing to die. How do these passages illuminate the story that follows? Why has Mestre-Reed chosen to place his narrative within the context of Classical Greek literature? In what sense is The Second Death of Única Aveyano both a contemporary and a timeless story?
4. The Second Death of Única Aveyano does not unfold along the lines of a linear plot, choosing instead to circle around its main characters and events, and to move between past and present. Why has Mestre-Reed chosen this structure as a way to tell his story? What effects does he achieve by doing so?
5. Mestre-Reed’s prose is vividly descriptive and highly metaphoric. Modesto’s silence is “menacing and oversized as a butcher’s knife” [p. 25]; Única’s palate feels “like the soft rotted roof of a rain-soaked bohío, at any time ready to collapse from its own weight” [p. 26]. What other metaphors are especially striking in the novel? What does such figurative language add to the pleasure of the text?
6. Única writes to her grandson Patricio about the constancy of affliction, which “occurs as naturally as the bubbling of thick coffee in the morning,” and asks “What use pretending that we are living in an unparalleled nightmare, when whatever woe has befallen us has befallen others hundreds, thousands, millions of times?” [p. 43]. In what ways are the afflictions that befall Única like those suffered by others? What is the significance of her recognition of this shared suffering?
7. When Miriam comes to Cándido’s underground lair, he tells her “The problem with most lovers was that although they knew perfectly well how to be happy together and successfully, they knew very little about how to suffer propitiously, how to suffer with each other” [p. 107]. In what sense does this turn out to be true (or untrue) for Única and Modesto, and for Cándido and Miriam themselves? Why is the ability to suffer together so important?
8. What does The Second Death of Única Aveyano as a whole say about the complex and shifting nature of family relationships? What are the main sources of tension in Única’s family? What are its strongest bonds of affection?
9. When Única is rescued from the ocean, Miriam tells her, “you know what this has cost me—financially and emotionally. And we’re almost there, casi casi, Soon you’ll be as healthy as you have ever been. You’re coming out of it. Why this, then?” [p. 77]. Why does Única wander into the sea? Is Miriam in denial about her mother-in-law’s health? Why is there so much resentment between them?
10. What picture of life under Castro emerges from The Second Death of Única Aveyano? How do the characters in the novel feel about Communist Cuba? How does Modesto, in particular, view Castro?
11. Why does Única write letters to her grandson Patricio? How does she feel about him and the life he is living? What does she want him to know about his family?
12. At the very end of the novel, Única decides that she “will bathe. She will remove the hand towel and look at herself in the mirror for the first time in ages. Then. Then she will look, she thinks, rapturous” [p. 259]. Why does she decide not to have any more treatments for her cancer? Why does she feel she will look rapturous?
13. Mestre-Reed writes in a style that reflects the magical-realism of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers. In what ways do magical and realistic elements commingle in his prose?
14. What kind of woman is Única, finally? How does Mestre-Reed reveal her consciousness? In what ways is she unique? In what ways representative? What are the forces that have shaped her life and given it its specific trajectory?
An Interview with Ernesto Mestre-Reed, author of THE SECOND DEATH OF ÚNICA AVEYANO
Q: THE SECOND DEATH OF ÚNICA AVEYANO deals with an older woman's encounters with her mortality and with the torrent of memories dealing with her family and with her homeland. How did you begin the story? Was it rooted in personal experience?
A: No. Not wholly in personal experience. The germ of the story was planted a while back, when I was still bartending on weekends to make ends meet, one of my customers told me a story about an older couple, I think from Long Island, who had committed suicide together by simply walking into the Atlantic Ocean. She was ill with cancer and he had decided he couldn't live without her. Who knows if the story was true or not, but it stayed with me for a couple of years, till I woke up one morning and started writing about Única's walk to the ocean. She was Cuban, of course, so in that way is was personal for me, and she was alone, so already I knew that she was different than the old woman in the story I had heard.
Thomas Mann once said that no writer should be stupid enough to get up one morning and go to the keyboard and decide that they are embarking on a 400 page novel. The concept is just too overwhelming, especially for young writers. So with Única I did what I always tell my students to do with their characters, I started following her around, hanging out with her, just to see if there was enough there, to write a novel or if not a short story.
Q: And apparently there was enough?
A: Eventually, yeah, after about six months of stalking her! I got lucky with Única; butafter finishing my first novel I had done the same thing with five or six other characters, lived with them for a few months and then just got bored with them, not enough there for even a ten page story. But Única kept my interest (as I kept hers, I hope) for a nice three year relationship. Which is the one thing that I think best compares to writing novels, the relationships we have with our loved ones.
Q: On that note, how is this second novel different than your first novel, THE LAZARUS RUMBA? On the surface, they appear to be radically different works. Was the experience of writing each very different?
A: There is nothing like the experience of writing a first novel. Going back to the relationship analogy, it's like your first love. And no one ever forgets their first love! There is a certain freedom, abandon, a sense of optimism about the world any time you experience a thing for a first time. There is an excess, an exuberance, to the way that I wrote my first novel that I don't think I will ever be able to match again, or at least not till I am very old man and let myself write like a first novelist again. In a more scholarly light, Saul Bellow once said that his first novel was like his dissertation, a place where he was learning and experimenting with the craft that he would perfect in his later works, and I think that that rings true as well. Everything is allowed in first novels and in first loves, that's the beauty of it. That being said, in writing my second novel I felt much more "grown up", much more of a craftsman, much more aware of the details of the process.
Are they radically different works? On some levels, Única is much more intimate, much more focused on one specific character, whereas Rumba seems to want the want to swallow the world whole at once, and spit it back out remade. But on another level, they deal with very similar topics, specifically with the main characters Alicia Lucientes and Única Aveyano, both unbelievably stubborn Cuban women, at war with their memories and with the uncertainty of their futures.
Q: Before we get back to Única, a question about that, about how in both these works it is women who struggle to keep families together, who come out as the great heroines. What are you saying?
A: There is an old Cuban adage that probably answers that question better than I ever could. "In Cuban families," it goes, "it is always women who have the most cojones." I was raised by women, my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, men kept their distance from children, as they do in most Latin American families, so I know women better, and I think that my work, and much of Latin American literature, reflects that.
Q: OK, back to Única. You said that right away she was different than the woman in the story you had heard? That she was alone in her walk to the sea. Was it her relationship to her husband Modesto that was different? Can you talk about that?
A: One of the early reviews of the novel described Modesto as the "mournful husband, who is sick at the thought of being left behind," and I found that very perceptive, encapsulated perfectly. I think that from the very first moment that he meets her and falls drastically in love with her, he has always been running a little behind her, so it is no wonder that at this time of her greatest crisis he should feel this more fully. With this marriage, I wanted to explore something that I have seen very often, both in life and in literature, where there is love flowing both ways, but where the lover (Modesto in this case) always feel that the beloved is a little bit out of hand's reach, both physically and emotionally. But to me Modesto is the most noble character in the novel, the one that most lives by his convictions, the foremost one being his adoration for his wife, and in turn for his son, and grandson and daughter-in-law.
Q: The daughter-in-law Miriam is crucial here, she falls in love with the son Cándido, they have a turbulent marriage and eventually she takes her son away from him to go live in the States. Can you talk about Miriam and Cándido and how they shed light on other aspects of the novel?
A: I gotta say, it wasn't till I started to be asked questions about this novel that I realized what a bleak portrait of marriage I may have drawn. But on thinking it over, I have to say rather than bleak I now think of them as marriages that were never let to die, that were still alive in whatever tormented way. And this is definitely true of Candido and Miriam. He is a wild soul, she a pragmatist. It could never have worked, yet they fell in love, and it influenced the course of their lives. It might have been different had they not borne a son, but once she takes him away from him to go to the United States, much of the drama, about familial responsibility, about the ambivalence of freedom, that is central to the novel comes to a head.
Q: And the son Patricio and his relationship to Única's male nurse Lucas becomes the third part of the triptych of "marriages" that make up this novel, right?
A: Right. As a gay writer, I felt it was important for me to explore this type of marriage as well. There is one crucial moment where Única asks Lucas if he knows that Patricio will never be able to love him outright, which in a sense is a moment of great self-revelation, a confession of sorts of what she has not been able to do with her doting, and most loving husband. But in the end, she watches Lucas and Patricio as if there is some mystery in their relationship, some strength, which she has never been able to find in her own to her husband, and that if she can equate it to anything, it is to the obsessive and tormented feelings that she felt for her son Cándido, Cándido, who in many ways represents the sort of dangerous liberation that ties much of the personal drama in the novel to the political landscape where it takes place.
Q: Can you elaborate on that for a moment; much of the present day action takes place during the Elián Gonzalez affair. How is that important?
A: The Elián Gonzalez affair was a watershed moment in that it exposed some of the nastiest characteristics on both sides of the Florida Straits, the thought of this child being used as a pawn by both the Miami exiles and the government in Havana I found abhorrent. It was a lose-lose situation on both sides, but it made real for Americans, at least, what this extended cold war with Cuba was really about, not a duel between two governments, but a war between and about families. I tried to play out some of the consequences of that war in my novel, trying as much as possible not to take sides, to stay true to the characters above all. Trying just to be the best kind of writer, he who observes without judgment.
Q: On that note, do you think yourself a Cuban writer, an American writer, a gay writer?
A: I have said in previous interviews that I consider myself a Cuban writer who writes in English, but I think that I am beginning to change my mind about that a little bit. There will always be Cuba and Cubans in my novels, there will always be homosexuality and gay characters, there will always be the United States also, both as it is imagined by outsiders and as it is lived in by its citizens. One of the things that I was most proud of with Única was that I was able to set a lot of it in my home, Brooklyn, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So I am also a Brooklyn writer, please don't forget to list that!