May 1999


"How was it?" I asked, imagining the dark spot. "It was fine, and there were lots of people." I didn't ask why he had not told me the night before.

It was not the first lie Mike had told me. The first time he spoke about his group, he said that it was a trio with two guitars and his cuatro, and in an afterthought he had added a conga drum, as if he thought that it would make me like him better. The second time, a few days after I had said that I liked the trumpet, he had said that there was a trumpet in his band. Never mind that there are no trumpets in Puerto Rican folk music. Then he said that he did not play only folk music but also salsa. Then that the night club where he was playing on the East Side was closed at the moment to fix some building-code violations. When he saw that I didn't buy it, he added hurriedly that he did not play only in one club but in several. This begged the ques- tion: "So why aren't you playing in any night spot?" but I didn't ask and he did not explain further.

After we had played the first time, I had suggested that we practice together because I wanted to learn his tunes, and I had asked him if he had charts of the tunes he played with his band, to which he had replied in the negative. But another day he had casually said that he had charts for all the numbers he played with his band. Now his band did not look like a trio but a big band with a five-horn section.

But back to our conversation. To change the subject from the late night session and maybe put me in a better disposition toward him, Mike offered to go to the park to practice and I accepted gladly. I was not fully aware of what was going on at the time, I was still hoping to play with Mike. We sat at the en- trance and after he had tuned I attempted to tune my guitar to his cuatro. But either he gave me false information or his cuatro was tuned much higher than normal because my treble E string broke. We spent a good half hour trying to re-string it because it had broken at the head. So it was shorter but still it might hold, even with fewer turns wound on the tuning head... but no. So we gave up and I played with only five strings, what the hell.

But for a few interruptins by passing friends of Mike to whom he introduced me as "una Americana", the practice went pretty well. Mike played the melody of different dance tunes: mazurka, paso doble, waltz, montuno, and I caught the chord changes fast enough. I even remembered suddenly how the bass line should sound on the montuno and when I did it Mike agreed that that was it and the tune at last took shape. As for the paso doble, I didn't get the right hand correctly until after the practice session had ended. I remembered my young days back in France when my mother and us girls pooh-poohed the paso doble and the people who danced it. We toed the party line, which dictated that only classical and church music were worth anything, and popular dancing was fit only for blue collars. But still the solemn trumpets and the nervous guitars echo in my memory to this day, and as we were leaving the park I asked Mike if the rhythm did not sound like this, and I sang the rhythm. He said that it was correct. So all I had to do was play that rhythm with my right hand!

That evening the music in the bodega was so loud it was almost impossible to hear the instruments. Mike started a tune that he said we had rehearsed in the afternoon but we had not rehearsed that one. In fact he didn't play any of those! No matter, when he played a paso doble, I let my right hand fly with pinkie-to-index finger "rasgueados" more instinctively than deliberately and this way I could play fast and the rhythm was just right. Besides my fingernails had grown and the sound was much louder. I was delighted. Mohammed passed but did not stop to listen, never had.

That evening Pepin did not appear but two of Mike's friends joined us. One started singing, the other played maracas sitting on the floor. At one point the first one said he enjoyed himself so much that he wanted to give us money, and he took some small change out of his pocket and held it out. I thought it was a bait and ignored him. He put it back in his pocket. Then the other started singing a montuno at a fast tempo and it lasted ten to fifteen minutes. I played the bass line and the three chords and after a while it was getting boring but I was not going to give up before the end. When it was over the first one laughed and said that the lyrics were very funny and asked me if I had understood them. I said I hadn't. I was too busy with the music. He said it was a guy telling the story of a woman who was in love with him for ten years and he never knew about it. The second one, who was so thin he seemed to have AIDS smiled constantly, showing perfect teeth. Then the first one told me he felt like going to a restaurant and eat fish. I didn't reply. We talked about other things then he told me again that he wanted to go to a restaurant and again I made no reply. What could I say? "So what?" was what I had in mind. Maybe he expected me to ask him to invite me?

It was getting impossible to fight against the music in the bodega and I gave up. The two men got up and started dancing and playing maracas and guiro to the bodega music and later I joined them in dancing. Mike was unsmiling and looked worried. He kept sitting on his plastic crate. Then I wanted to go home but Manuel, that old decrepit skinny man, who had held me his hand out to slap every ten minutes all evening now asked me to come close. I leaned toward him and rested a hand on his shoulder and listened. He spoke so low that I had to bring my head down to his level. He asked me to accompany him to his room. "Sure!" I said, thinking that he was drunk and needed help to get to his first floor room. Before the bodega closed I brought my guitar to my room and returned outside to help Manuel. In fact he didn't need my help to climb the stoop but I opened the doors for him. After I had opened his room he invited me in. I declined politely. "Why?" he asked. And he insisted. I said I was tired and I went home across the lobby. The nerve.

Sunday the 30th:

When I saw Mike I told him I had liked his friends of the night before. It was nice to have them sing. "Yes," he said, "but the one who sang the montuno, I don't like him very much. He has a double personality, he imitates other singers." And he repeated to me almost word for word what I had said to Pepin about musical imitation, without of course saying that he was quoting me. And this thing about a double personality. Bad news. Then he proposed again that we go to Riverside Park around 6PM to play and make money and go to the river's edge by taking the Westside Highway underpass at 96th street to see the fleet show and watch the fireworks. I made a vague response. There were a few reasons it didn't appeal to me that had nothing to do with Mike. But fire- works, this would have to be at night, by the river's edge, alone with this man I don't know from Adam who has been lying to me through his ugly teeth. And taking the unlit underpass at night on the way back. No way.

Felix tells me he'll come to have sex with me in the evening, then at 3PM he's knocking at my door. He explains that he came early so I would be free in the evening. When I take off my shorts he notices that I'm not wearing panties. "You go out without panties!" he accuses. "I'm inside my apartment right now, I'm not outside" I reply and show him several pairs of panties drying. "I didn't have any clean underwear left," I say. He can't get it up. "You seem preoccupied," I say tenderly. "Something is bothering you, there's something on your mind." He gives up after about fifteen minutes. He says that money is not important to him, that he doesn't care about it, that people have helped him a lot in his life and that he gives me money because he feels it his duty to help people in need. "Me too, when I had money I gave a lot to the poor." I say. He doesn't seem to like this answer. He says that I should get a cot so Mike could sleep in my room. "Are you serious?" I ask. "Who is this guy anyway? How long has he been around? A month? I don't know him, I don't know where he comes from, he's a bum, maybe he's a criminal."

About one hour later I go out and exchange a few words with Mike. He makes no mention of Riverside Park.

Monday the 31st:

I had been listening to a tape of "musica jibara" the past few days and picked my favorite tune, entitled "mi mala estrella" (my bad star) and wrote down the lyrics. Before going out that morning I learned by heart a passage that says:

Yo tengo que fallecer
El dia que no tenga suerte
Para pagar con la muerte
Si algun pecado es nacer.

Which means:

I'll have to die
The day I'm out of luck
To pay with my death
If it's a sin to have been born.

And I put the cassette in my pocket. I didn't know I was going to see Mike so early, but as I went to the park to dry my hair around 9AM I saw him sitting near the entrance to the park and he called me. I went and sat down next to him. I showed him the cassette. He said he knew the three Morales Brothers. He named the three of them (their names were written on the front) and said that two of them had died. I told him I was learning to play and sing that tune and I recited to him the passage I had learned by heart. He made no comment about the meaning although I was definitely giving him a message. He said "So, you can sing that kind of music."

He said that his father had taught him to play the cuatro and took him to musical gatherings. I asked him to describe a musical gathering. He said that they played outdoors in the mountains and that, hearing the music from a distance, the people would let the sound guide them and join the gathering. He said that his father was a very poor peasant and that he beat him.

I said that my parents were middle-class, that my mother had had classical voice training but that she gave up a career when she married, but still blamed us children for the loss of her career. He asked me if I liked the piano. I said that I loved the piano, that there always had been a piano at home, and that my mother let my elder sisters take piano lessons but not me, although I picked up by ear everything that they played and played better than they did, when my sisters did not seem to enjoy the piano nor have a musical ear, and that my mother had done this deliberately to negate my talent and exacerbate my frustration. I said that my situation had been worse than his because my frustration was not due to poverty but to my mother's ill will toward me. I added that she was a very bad woman and that she seemed to have sold her soul to the devil.

Then a car double-parked near us and out came a woman with two little dogs and a man who walked a few steps behind her. The woman ignored us when she passed in front of us but when the man was near, Mike said that he knew him, that he was a theater producer. The man stopped by and started to speak with Mike. He looked in his late fifties, red head, pink faced, and his cheeks were so smooth he looked like he had ironed them just before going out. Mike introduced me as an American who liked Latin music. The man nodded to me and kept talking with Mike. He was trying to name a friend they had in common way back and Mike didn't know whom he was talking about. Finally he got it. "He's dead," he said. "He died five years ago." Then I didn't pay attention except I heard the man say that the Latin theatre was dead. I wanted to ask about the Puerto Rican Poets' Cafe but I felt it was not part of the script. Then the woman with the dogs returned to the car and the man left us and drove off. After he left us, Mike said that people called the man "el something" because he had become famous for a part he played, of a bum in rags. Oh, I thought he was a producer, not an actor.

I had intended to stay only fifteen minutes out drying my hair and I needed breakfast. I said I was hungry. Mike said that he was too, and would I like a ham and cheese sandwich? I said yes. He asked me to keep his stuff and he would be right back. He left behind a pack of cigarettes and two "Watchtower" magazines. He said that some ladies had talked to him about Jeovah Witnesses. I said I never allowed these people to talk to me. After he left I entered the park and waited for Mike at the entrance. He remained in the bodega for about a half hour. I was starving and at some point considered going to buy myself what I had intended in the first place: a banana and a brownie, but when I was halfway up the street I saw Mike come out so I returned to the park. It took him another ten minutes to return, by which time I was a little pissed off but incapable of blaming him since he was bringing me something to eat. He gave me half of his sandwich and asked me if I wanted the beer or the coffee. While we were eating two teenage girls in thighs passed us. Mike said that his father was a woman chaser and made some appreciative noises about the girl with the high round butt, as if his father's behavior was a justification of his own. He asked me if I didn't think the girl had a nice body and I said that indeed she had.

Then a couple with a baby in a pram sat two benches away from us. Mike turned to them and hailed the man. Apparently they knew each other from a long time. Abruptly the man started speaking about Martial, the former owner of the bodega, and the horrible way he had died in the Dominican Republic. (I had heard he had been beaten to death over a property and woman dispute). Why he was bringing this up, which happened six years ago, was not apparent. But at first I mistook Martial for Rodriguez, the owner of the other bodega, who had been shot and killed in a robbery two years ago, and I interjected: "He was not beaten to death! He was shot in a robbery." Then I realized my mistake, both men had died indeed. My! I caught my breath when I realized that so many dead people had been evoked since I had joined Mike an hour ago: Two of the three Morales Brothers, the common friend of Mike and the theatre producer, Latin theatre was dead too, and Martial and Rodriguez. Who was next?

After a beat the man explained that he was aware of these goings-on because he was the super at the little seven-story building at the corner of 105th and Manhattan avenue. But all the buildings at that corner are two-story brownstones. I left Mike and went home.

I practiced the guitar in the afternoon, glad to see that all the tunes I had learnt in 1988 and 89 were coming back to me, most of them without a hitch. I was even amazed that my fingers had such a good memory of the chords. Except for my tender fingertips which had caught blisters on Saturday night, the return to the guitar was painless. I knew there was a lot I didn't know in jazz. My next step would be to learn chord voicing and chord substitution. But if I played Latin music it would be a breeze.

But then my growing mistrust of Mike reined in my enthusiasm and I felt torn. Was it worth it to get all fired up and plunge ahead with guitar practice if there was to be no future with Mike? Since the beginning of our relationship I had felt that it was building up to a big letdown. I couldn't help but envisage that at a crucial moment Mike would disappear and leave me twisting in the wind. I was reluctant to face it but the possi- bility could no longer be excluded: maybe the music was only a bait for Mike to lead me on and betray me. After all, had not everybody betrayed me? Why should he be different? Why would he stick his neck out for me against so many powerful enemies? Who had ever turned down money for the sake of principle?

Still I resumed playing. There was a knock on the door. It was Mario, one of the tenants who is a teacher by day and a drunk the rest of the time. He liked Carlos Gardel and thinking of Mario I had taken out a cassette of him. I let Mario in. He said that Mike was asking for me to come down to play. My hope and enthusi- asm renewed, I said that I would be down in two minutes. I showed Mario the cassette of Gardel. He asked me to loan it to him, he swore that he would answer for it and I let him have it. I changed into a skirt and went down with my guitar.

The sun was shining in Mike's face and I was shocked at the total lack of joy in him. He was eating a sandwich and his cuatro in its case and his small case containing maracas and guiro were at his feet. His face did not register any pleasure at my appear- ance. I had changed into a long grey crinkled silk skirt, a tomato-red T-shirt and red summer booties that showed my red toenails and had "Roman coins" on a chain all around the ankle. The coins made a tiny jingle at each step. "Let's go." Mike said. "Where?" I asked, surprised. Mario had not told me that Mike wanted to go anywhere so I had assumed that he wanted to play in front of the bodega. Plus, that morning he had made no mention of going anywhere. "To Riverside Park. There's the fleet show and the fireworks, there's going to be a lot of people and we'll make some money." "I'm not going to Riverside Park," I said. "Why?" he asked. "I can't play loud and fast the way you want because I ruined my fingers Saturday night. Look!" and I showed him the blisters on two of my fingers. "I have to take it easy today. I was practicing when Mario came. I can practice but I can't play outside." "If you want to be a professional musician you have to be dedicated!" The guilt trip. "You need to have feelings and play with your heart!" he adds irrelevantly, paraphrasing what I said to Pepin a few days ago and even putting his hand on his heart the way I had done. Bastard. I had never told him I wanted to be a professional musician. "You'll never become a profession- al if you are not dedicated." "But I told you that I'm practicing at home! Why do you think I'm practicing?" I showed my fingers to a man who was sitting near us and listening. "You see that I can't play outside don't you?" I asked. He nodded. I turned to Mario and picked the cassette out of his shirt pocket. I showed it to Mike. "Carlos Gardel, but he's Argentinian!" he said. "Yes." I said. "Give it back to me!" Mario protested. "Don't give it to him. You'll never see it back." Mike said. "Por favor! Yo soy responsable!" Mario said. I hesitated. "Listen, I'll make you a copy tomorrow and give it to you so you'll keep it." "Yo soy responsable!" Mario implored in a muddy voice. I did not have the heart to take back what I had just given him so I put the cas- sette back in his pocket. "You'll never see it again," Mike said. I decided to take the chance. I picked up my guitar and turned to leave. "Where are you going?" Mike asked. "Home." I said. "So you're not going to Riverside Park?" Mike asked, angry and defeated. "No." I said and went home.

I went out again around 7PM. The heat was intense. Mike was sitting on the stoop. I wondered if he was going to give it another try. Two men started fighting at the corner of Manhattan Avenue and a crowd gathered at a safe distance to watch. "The fireworks are not today, they're on the 4th of July," Mike said. "Saturday you said it was Saturday, yesterday you said it was yesterday, today you said it was today... Look," I said, knowing that I could not keep the pretense for so long, "I hate national holidays. People get drunk and stupid and aggressive. If somebody attacks you nobody is going to help, they're just going to watch like it's a TV show." Of course when I said 'you' I meant 'me'. "You see here?" One of the fighting men broke away and ran across the avenue. "They're quitting," Mike said.

That night I understood what it was about Pepin's playing that left to be desired:
- He played tunes that nobody knew, not even Mike, except on rare occasions;
- not only this but what he played and sang were the high part of three-part songs so nobody knew the middle melody.
No wonder every time he played I was racking my brains trying to find the middle part! So was everybody else, judging from their uneasy expressions! And it left us all mentally tired and emo- tionally unsatisfied.

But then why did Mike ask Pepin to come and play?

Do you want to know the answer?