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No time like the holidays to give you a peek into Christmas Cuban Style from the novel Bienvendio a Miami, my first…
The sense of taste surrounding the Cuban home my family and I were about to enter —the flow of white angel hair and angel ornaments on the Christmas tree through a picture window and the subtle white lights outlining the vertical and horizontal lines of the entry gate and portico—invited one to the best of meticulous Caribbean culture, a Castro antithesis and heaven of Catholicism.
The laughter picked up as the Christmas dinner was being prepared: a roast, yucca, black beans and rice, a Cuban tradition. Soothing shades of brown inundated the house from imported wood furniture. There was the presence of greatness in the high-end art that decorated the walls.
Dominique’s grandfather had been a Cuban master. His lithographs–black and white–swirled on the walls, women and equine figures encased in eerie shadows, Spanish emotion that titillated the senses.
Our families–the Hammersteins and Sevillas sat in white couches facing each other, filled with camaraderie that began years before. Norma had been in New York City working in a gallery and rarely made it home anymore. My mother and Rita, a new sister, and a girl with whom I felt I couldn’t do without were raising Dominique.
In the bathroom, I noticed two toilets. Upon taking a closer look, one of them seemed quite peculiar. I bent down to see what shiny metal surface with holes at the bottom was in the toilet-like concoction. Turning the handle above the porcelain cover all the way around, water sprayed upward and into my face before I realized that I had turned it on. As the water shot up into my open mouth, a watery drool dribbled down my paisley solid disco shirt and on to my polyester bellbottoms.
Far out. The polys repelled the water. I studied the perfect ubiquitous drops attached to my clothing. Polyester’s groovy. I peered upward at my Afro. Wet, filled with the same drops hidden between every pubic-hair-like opening. I looked in the mirror, turned around, grabbed a towel from the rack and mopped up a bit before I walked to our Christmas Eve event. I took a last look in the mirror to check out my presentation. “Looking good, Marvin,” I rasped, strutting out of the bathroom.
Just as I entered a spooky hallway where images of luscious lesbian Mulattos—the paintings of Jesus Benitiz—flowed into an obscure darkness, I was startled by a cocky voice.
“SAM you are,” it said.
Huge hairy arms wrapped around my neck.
“Such a man, the voice rattled. “You’re such a man, Marv.”
A fist mashed its knuckles though my hair and into my scalp, brushing strokes at the speed of light. Gawd, I hated that. It was my oldest brother, Jerry, a brute that caused me to shrivel up like a rotten potato as every ounce of self-esteem left my body.
Among the chatter of adults and teens was, Mario, Dominique’s older brother and my older brother, Logan, four eyes darting around the meticulous high brow room—lookout towers on the watch for an easy target to rip to shreds with their young mind’s sharp wits. The clatter of Norma—the grand Cuban matron of the flock—busy preparing dinner rang like a steel drum band as the silver of the steel banged from pots constantly moving and savory sauces sizzled inside pans. Blonde hair wrapped in a net and set neatly on top of her head and blue eyes, she gazed the room in between cooking tasks and hollered out occasionally when a guest’s conversation caught her ear.
“It was two years ago we were here when astronauts were walking on the moon on Christmas Eve,” recalled Mario teeth glistening, contrasting his olive skin. Mario, slight with shoulders that spread out like an eagle was a high school wrestler, his motions in conversation were quick and forthright, his manners meticulous, except, that is, the secret sweeping of his hand downward to his crotch, for a moment of a satisfying scratch.
“I remember,” Norma said, carefully basting the roast with its own liquid from the bottom of the pan.
“I want to go to the moon,” Dominique interrupted. “When they going to send up a woman?”
“I’m going with you,” Eleanor added.
Eleanor, a golden woman in the golden age of South Florida, a housewife and mother on the moon,” I saw printed on in my mind, the lead story on the Miami Times.
“I thought about getting you two tickets for Christmas,” Mario joked.
Isabella’s stopped flipping the plantains, lifted her head and shook the spatula.
“Mario, I’ll send you to the moon, one-way-no-return.”
As he let me go the phone rang, I thought since I was near it, that I would answer it.
“Is it normal there?” a voice said in a thick Spanish accent.
I held the receiver up in the air and looked around.
“Is it normal here? I think not.”
The voice repeated, “It is normal there?”
I said not really, and again the voice repeated “Is-it-norma-there?” Jerry grabbed the phone from me and looked me in the eye, and stated very concisely, “Norma!”
“Oh!” I snatched the phone back and said “Is Norma here? I get it. Yes, she’s here!” I cried, just as the whole room broke into a heckle that hit my ribs and shot up to my face in embarrassment.
Dinner was served when Norma began bringing bowls and platters to the dining room table. I touched the smooth surface of the polished table. Oh! How I loved smooth things. While members of our families served themselves, I looked over at the Scotch Pine Christmas tree, twinkling lights and white angels, under which dozens of gifts were wrapped, colorful and every-which-way, from the B that decorated the Burdines’ packages to the red and green of traditional wrapping paper. They reminded me that after dinner—just before midnight— both families would open all of them, a Sevilla Cuban tradition.
Just under my nose came a steaming spoonful of rice, done just right, perfectly moistened, each grain slightly attached to one another. Turning my head to smile at my mother’s rants and raves about each specific flavor, Logan, sitting next to me, passed another bowl. In this one—creamy black beans. I poured them over the rice where they flowed like a river of cooled volcanic lava. Bits of onion and garlic scented smoke drifted up to my nose.
I couldn’t eat it. I was too excited. In between the Spanglish chatter among the dinner guests: “Paseme el beans, por favor,” one voice uttered as the rest of the beans were passed around for seconds, “y la yucca.”
Ah, yucca. That took me a couple of Christmas Eve’s to get used to. When I tore though it, thinking it was a potato, I was surprised to find that this type of potato (which it wasn’t) had a disease, fibers intertwined between the starchy inside, and lots of them. Stick-in-between-your-teeth fibers. No wonder toothpicks were served after desert.
The gift opening ceremony after stuffing ourselves was guided by only the most intimate teasing of our personality’s most giving tales. Take the critters the boys had caught, for instance, on a trip to the University of Florida to check out the medical school there. I’m not talking about fleas; I’m talking about the ones that munch down below and make you itch and are often shared only during the very most intimate moments.
“ I don’t want to kill them,” Christian, a friend of Mario and my brother, said adhering to his vegetarian philosophy, leaning his six-foot-two-inch slim body forward as he opened his gift.
“Bet it’s a bottle of Quell,” Logan blurted while scratching first his crotch, then reaching behind, seemingly without an iota of concern as to mimic an infestation of the beasts.
Eleanor eyes revealed her approval, as she seemed to respect the virility of men with the tiny friends who occasionally hitched a ride on their body’s private areas.
The well-read woman pushed herself up in the chair, and with a two-by-four perfect posture stated: “What more subtle, humorous way can a young man show that he’s come of age?”
Mario looked up at his mother then at Eleanor. “I have them now,” he said.
“I do too,” Logan quipped, still scratching with more vigor than before.
“You two been sleeping together?” said Jerry.
Both boy-men rolled their eyes. Uneasy laughs circled the room.
“They both had the same girl friend,” Dominique tattled.
Mario and Logan looked at Jerry. “Jerry’s dating her now.”
Jerry shifted, silent, as he squirmed on the white couch with an irresistible urge to scratch.
“I have nothing to worry about,” he retorted.
I got up and walked to the Christmas tree, turned around and shouted, “I’ll date her.”
Dominique flew out of her chair by the tree and put her hand over my mouth, twisting my body in front of the crowd. She had used a wrestler’s hold her brother had taught her.
“Over my dead body,” she exclaimed.
The room, inundated with a blanket of silence, felt cozy; I in the grasp of a young woman’s arm gave in immediately–a Jewish-boy Christmas angel in the heart of a Cuban woman’s soul.by