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One of the challenge points on the Better World Books 2017 Reading […]
Jose Raul Bernardo
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Sixth Chamber, Inc
The Book Cellar
Even though it is the middle of February, when a thick, white shroud of snow covers vast areas of North America, and winter days are at their coldest, their grayest, and their most desolate, the weather in the city of Havana is simply as spectacular as it can ever be on this incredibly beautiful morning of 1938.
This magnificent weather of Cuba may be the only thing on the island that the Great Depression of the 1930s has not been able to wreck. Even as hundreds of thousands of Cubans starve'for unemployment has reached more than alarming proportions and almost nobody can get a job'the brilliant turquoise sky suspended above Marguita and Lorenzo as they begin to get off an old, clanking streetcar remains limpid and free of clouds, while gentle breezes insist on cooling the very hot midday Cuban sun, which is finding its way into the narrow and serpentine cobblestoned streets of the aged city.
For the last half hour or so, Marguita and Lorenzo have been riding on this badly battered streetcar that years ago must have been painted a gaudy yellow but that by now the ardent tropical sun has turned a chalky ivory, its wood-clad walls heavily pitted by the salty sea air and its well-worn cane seats way past showing their age. This ancient streetcar has taken the newlyweds from their brand-new home -- a tiny two-room apartment located in BelascoaI n, on the outskirts of the city -- to the very center of Havana: La Habana Vieja -- Old Havana -- the sixteenth-century part of the city that still stands, fairly worn but mighty proud, by Havana Bay. And yet, though the trip has taken a lot longer than they had anticipated, neither Marguita nor Lorenzo, still honeymooners, thoroughly enjoying each other's company, has minded it in the very least. On the contrary, once she and Lorenzo get off the streetcar and breathe the heavenly scented ocean air coming from the bay, Marguita looks at her handsome young husband and they smile at each other in utter contentment.
It doesn't take but a few minutes for Lorenzo and his pretty wife to walk the few short city blocks that lead them from the streetcar stop into what in the late eighteenth century was the most fashionable neighborhood in all Havana -- but which has long ago gone to seed and is now in an almost dilapidated condition. Elegantly dressed, the newlyweds are both wearing their Sunday best, which is exactly what they wore to their wedding two months ago. She, a bias-cut silver-gray dress -- made by herself -- that has a calf-length hemline, long sleeves, and high neckline, and that gently accentuates her well-rounded, womanly figure; and he, the better of his two suits, made of unbleached linen, and freshly ironed by Marguita herself.
Once they get to their destination in the middle of the block, Lorenzo knocks at a tall, narrow paneled wood door once painted a dark turquoise blue, now severely faded and peeling.
As they wait, Marguita turns to her husband, Lorenzo, he with the thin mustache, the unruly dark hair, and the deeply set dark-brown eyes she loves so much.
" How do I look?" she asks, her voice suddenly slightly on edge.
Lorenzo looks at her and admires what he sees: a bewitching young woman with short, light-golden hair, an oval face that is deeply tanned, a tiny nose, full, sensual lips, and pencil-thin plucked eyebrows that delicately frame her sparkling pale-blueeyes.
" As beautiful as ever, " he answers gallantly, meaning every word.
" Oh, Lorenzo, please, " a nervous Marguita replies. " I'm really serious. Do I look all right?"
This is the first time Marguita has been invited to Lorenzo's parents' house for a meal, and she is very tense about it, for she does not want to make a fool of herself.
Marguita has seldom seen Lorenzo's family.
During their three-year engagement it was always Lorenzo who would trek all the way across Havana to keep company with Marguita at her family's home. In fact, Lorenzo's and Marguita's families have seen each other only three times -- and each of those times just for a few brief minutes. The first time, at the engagement party at Marguita's family's house, where the two families met; the second time, when Marguita and her parents went to Lorenzo's house for a very short and very formal early evening visit, as required by Cuban custom; and the third time at the actual wedding. So Marguita is extremely uneasy about this invitation to Sunday-noon dinner -- her first ever at her in-laws'.
Lorenzo is about to say something to his apprehensive young wife when the door opens and Lorenzo's mother, Carmela, welcomes them warmly.
" Perfect timing, " the petite, toothless old lady says as she adjusts a few loose strands of her completely white hair, which is tied in a tight bun at the back of her neck and worn in the severe Continental style of her Spanish homeland.Thirty-six years ago, in 1902, the very same year Cuba achieved its independence from colonizing Spain, Lorenzo's parents, PadrO n and Carmela -- who were peasants back in Spain, where they had to worksomebody else's land -- came to Havana looking for a better life. Here, through a lot of hard work, PadrO n eventually became a prosperous wine merchant until a few years ago, when his business totally collapsed due to the Great Depression -- but not before they had five children, of whom only four survive, Lorenzo being Carmela's baby. However, though thirty-six long years have gone by since Lorenzo's parents came to Cuba, their way of life has not changed in the least, remaining as solidly and as rigidly Continental Spanish now as if they still lived back in Spain.
Smiling broadly, the thin and stooping sixty-two-year-old...
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