from the novel of the same name
Leonardo Delfino had made many friends in the past three years, he had even started to think of staying in Madrid forever. But Madrid wasnt home any more. A broken heart can make any place feel wrong and Madrid, once so warm and welcoming, now felt hopelessly cold and stale.
Havana called out to him, and as he boarded the airplane that would carry him home, he was sad beyond reason and filled with regret. He had loved Federico with all the power of his young heart, and it had been a difficult love.
Delfino had arrived in Madrid in early October 1954, sent by his parents presumably to study law. But he had never once set foot near the Universidad de Madrid nor opened a single textbook. The European capital had immediately dazzled him with its ancient red rooftops, its clouded, cerulean sky, the endless ringing of church bells chortles from heaven.
He was eighteen years old and elated to be away from the hot, humid, salty air of Havana. His first days hed spent outdoors, bundled in a gray overcoat and scarf. Hed walked the full length of La Gran Via, a majestic avenue lined with edificios so lavished with arches, medallions, and statues that they seemed to twist themselves into seductive poses as he passed.
In the weeks that followed he walked to all the great Plazas - Neptuno, Cibelles, Cascorro - each one more beautiful than the next. He went to the Museo del Prado and Parque del Buen Retiro.
As winter deepened, the streets filled with people who spoke in loud voices, their lisping accent delighted him. He learned to pronounce Madrid as Madriz, the way the locals did. All around him they rushed from one corner to the next, the city, in winter, displayed a life he had not seen during his summer visit when everything had been empty and dry. Their exuberance was contagious, it inspired him to contact friends he had met on previous trips with his parents. Soon he was invited to join groups of people his own age at restaurants, excursions, and recitals. They wanted to know all about Cuba, about life on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, a place that had been discovered and populated by the ancestors of the very people asking the questions. Some questions he found quite silly.
Is it true that there is a Santera priestess on almost every block? a woman named Nuria asked him.
Is it true that a mans right to adultery is written into the marriage certificate? a man whose name he couldnt remember asked with a hopeful tone of voice.
Yes, Delfino said each time. Its all true.
And they oohed! and they aahed! as if he was the most sophisticated savage on the face of the earth.
In Madrid, the social season started early and ended late. The round of parties seemed endless. It was at one of these festejos that he first met Federico.
Federico Bocanegra y Alcalá was a man who filled a room the moment he walked into it. He kissed every woman on the cheek and greeted all the men with a bear hug. People were delighted to see him. Although hed just recently turned thirty, he was elegant and imposing beyond his years, with dark brown eyes, a deep cigarette voice, his square masculine face softened by a luxurious mole to the right of a sensuous mouth.
Yes, Ive heard much about you, he said to Delfino when they were introduced. You are the mysterious Cuban student all of Madrid is talking about.
Mysterious? Delfino didnt know what to say. Federico noticed and laughed, then leaned in and in a voice as intimate as the rustling of bed sheets, he said, Before you leave, there is something I must tell you. He wandered off to join a group of people who were calling for him to make them laugh.
Delfino spent the rest of the night watching him from a distance. Wherever Federico stood was the center of the party. It was where women shrieked in shocked delight, and where the most raucous laughter of men erupted.
How does he do it? Delfino wondered. All that confidence. How do I become like that, are some men just born with the ability to enchant or is it acquired?
A new acquaintance, Lilia Lugo, moved closer to him and in a discreet whisper informed him that Federico was actually Baron Federico Bocanegra y Alcalá.
But the title was purchased, Lilia Lugo said, and taking him by the elbow led him to the other end of the salon. "The family history is fascinating, money and madness, more than most royals. I should know."
Delfino didn't offer a reply. He was too busy wondering how she knew that he found Federico interesting. Had he been that obvious?
"In this crowd," she continued with a scathing sweep of judicious eyes that took in the entire room, "you must possess beauty or a title. I once had both. Not until I was thirty-two years old was I addressed by my given name, nor did I need a speck of makeup.
Yes, but that hat! Delfino thought. All the ladies wore them. Hats covered with so many silk flowers, curled ribbons, and sparkling trinkets that they looked almost too heavy for their heads. As if reading his thoughts, her gloved hand floated up and tickled an errant ribbon back into place.
Federico's laughter from across the room startled them as if they'd both been slapped by the same hand.
But fun, she said. Yes, he is a lot of fun.
The way she spoke implied, maybe deliberately, maybe as a warning, that Lilia Lugo was well-acquainted with the Barons bedroom. She looked up to the chandelier but her eyes did not reflect their shimmer.
By midnight, the few guests Delfino knew had already said goodbye and drifted into the night. He knew he should leave, but couldnt. He desperately wanted to know what Baron Federico had to tell him, but couldnt think of a subtle way to approach him. Perhaps hed forgotten. Perhaps itd been a joke. Reluctantly, he found his hostess and thanked her, kissed her goodbye on one well-rouged cheek as was the custom both in Cuba and in Spain, and went to the entrance hallway to retrieve his coat.
You thought you could get away?
Delfino stopped and turned around slowly.
Federico was standing at the end of an archway that led away from the house.
I thought youd forgotten, Delfino said.
I could never forget you, Federico said and moved towards him. Delfino looked around to see if anyone was watching. Is this what I think it is? Maybe this is the way it happens, maybe this is the way two men who know each others secret meet. He wondered what Spanish society thought about this sort of behavior. Certainly in Cuba or anywhere else in the world, two men could have a conversation, alone, in a dimly lit antechamber, after a civilized party without arousing suspicions.
Dark clouds moved across his mind. What if Federico was not like him? What if this titled and sophisticated man was just like those back home? Maybe he was vicious and evil and looking to humiliate him. He felt as provincial as the day he had arrived in Spain.
Delfino took a step back. The thought occurred to him that Federico Bocanegra y Alcalá could easily grab him by the collar of his overcoat and drag him back into the salon where there were still enough people to make an embarrassing scene. He could expose him, accuse him of sinful suggestions, cast him out of Madrid like Adam from the garden. News would travel quickly from Madrid to Havana. His parents would be mortified. He could never return to Havana and he certainly couldnt stay in Madrid. Where would he go?
Delfino took another nervous step back. Federico took two steps forward, still smiling. Was this a game? The man was now standing so close that Delfino could smell his cologne.
Do you want to hear what I have to tell you?" Federico whispered, his wine-sweet breath brushing Delfinos eyelashes.
He couldnt answer but he couldnt walk away, either.
Promise me you will not be offended, Federico said, arching a menacing eyebrow.
What? Delfino asked, hating the sound of his own voice. So pallid.
Federico lowered his face, and raised his eyes to meet Delfinos.
Tonight, Baron Federico Bocanegra y Alcalá said without a trace of mockery, I want you to spend it in my bed.
And suddenly all of Delfinos fears and doubts vanished and he couldnt say 'yes' fast enough.
They walked in silence to Federicos house but it felt as if they'd flown there, over the red rooftops he so loved, their backs brushing the clouds.
They entered an old, three-story townhouse near Puerta Del Sol. Delfino later learned it had been granted to Federico by his family, on his twentieth birthday. The living room wasnt so much decorated as crammed with lovely, old leather furniture. Above the mahogany wainscoting, the walls were deep, dark, green, and hung with enormous oil paintings of frowning ancestors. Thick velvet drapes, Rioja red, covered every window.
That night had been magical,just two men under the full moon of Spain. Their time together had been like time stolen from heaven. Delfino had never been touched by a man before, in fact, he'd never been touched by anyone so intimately and tenderly. He fell under the Barons spell from the first caress.
Few words passed between them. They trembled at each others touch. Moans, groans and sighs echoed in the large bedroom. Delfino was surprised that he knew what to do, that it all came so naturally to him. But he kept these thoughts to himself. And if Federico noticed that he was in the arms of a novice, he never said. For Delfino, it had been like falling into a deep, dark well of sweet, gentle water; water in which he would gladly have drowned.
They dozed in each others arms, face to face, the moist, hair-covered chests pressed against one another. The heat emanating from their groins a soothing comfort in the cool of the dawn. Later, as if tapped by an invisible hand, without entering complete consciousness, they started again. At times, Delfino felt like a big rag doll as Federico lifted, bent, and twisted him. But he didnt care. Federico knew exactly what to do to him, and Delfinos surrender had been complete.
The months that followed were like living in a dream. Delfino had kept his room at the pensión, but at Federico's insistence now spent almost all of his time at the house on Puerta Del Sol.
There were servants, and therefore adjoining bedrooms, separated by a large, drafty washroom. The servants, always women, came and went, their faces changing with the days, the weeks, the months, their names hardly registering, Amparo, Lupe, Clotilde.
They belong to my parents, Federico said with a shrug. They send them to me.
Delfino was no stranger to a serving staff. He knew that when they gossiped they did so only to each other, that unless a maid was particularly stupid, she never reported indiscretions, not if she wanted to keep her position. Most of them felt protective towards the family they attended as if it was their responsibility to keep them free of scandal. And so they moved along the house like shadows, blind and noiseless, except for the one who sang while she worked, the one with the annoying vibrato.
Who am I to them? Delfino asked one afternoon, when her booming voice threatened to knock pictures off their hooks.
They do not need to know, he said pounding on the wall until she stopped. Shadows or not, Federico insisted that the two of them limit their intimacies to the bedrooms.
When there were no servants around, Federico could be warm and open. But, there was another side to him. A side that emerged the moment they stepped outside. Here he tended to be distant and short-tempered. He often walked steps ahead of Delfino, who at first trotted to keep pace, but ultimately gave up and was content just to follow.
He understood that a relationship like theirs could not be shouted from the red rooftops, but that was just exactly what he wanted to do. He was in Europe, after all, away from the stifling confines of Havana. But he quickly learned that, although Spain lacked the inquisitive atmosphere of his native country, it could be just as ruinous to two men in love.
In time, the house that on that first night had felt like a haven, a refuge, began to feel more and more uncomfortable. But like a bird born in a cage, Delfino didnt know that he could fly someday. He only knew that something wasnt quite right. After every social event, he came home feeling bruised, disappointed, and insulted by his lovers behavior. Federico explained the situation to him time and time again.
We have to be careful what face we show the world, Federico said, his voice dark with impatience.
But theyre our friends, they like us. They know we are together.
Yes, and they will look the other way as long as we play by the rules.
And what exactly are the rules? Delfino asked, his red-rimmed eyes wanting desperately to understand.
They are not written down, exactly. But a man in my position could lose everything if he flaunts. I have seen it happen to men more powerful and respected than me. I have watched them crawl to Marueco and Tailandia, to wallow in degeneracy. Here, there is only so much people will tolerate.
Im not talking about flaunting, I just dont want you to be so cruel to me.
I am sorry if you think that my behavior is cruel. This is not my intention. Federico took him in his arms with a deep sigh of frustration. "Just to arrive with you could be considered an insult. They have chosen to look the other way, for the moment, but it could change just as easily," he said.
But you attempt to seduce everyone.
Yes, but if you had paid close attention you would have seen that I do it with everyone equally, to the men and the women. The young as well as the old. It is a way of letting everyone know that I am still deciding. The moment they believe that I have come to a conclusion, that I am in love with a man, that I have decided that I will live my life as a-
He stopped momentarily, incapable of speaking the forbidden word.
You understand, mi corazón? Everything will change. Doors will close forever. This is the Spain of Franco, it is not like the little colony you come from where everyday it is a revolution, an assassination, or a scandal, while the people dance blindly in the streets.
He stopped to make sure the subtle insult had struck its target.
And then, he continued, there is the question of my family. Let us say that I do not care what those people think, that I am willing to give up the trips, and the parties. If my family should discover what I am, everything will vanish, my money and my title. This house was not meant for you and for me, it was meant for my wife and my children.
So everything's accepted as long as you behave disgracefully at every party?
"Do you find it humiliating, mi corazón?" he asked gently. "What about this," he said drawing him closer, "do you find this humiliating as well?"
Delfino felt the hardness against him and his heart turned liquid. He allowed himself to be taken, there, in the downstairs parlor, protected by velvet curtains, watched only by the unseeing eyes of Federico's ancestors. And while Federico made love to him, he felt the older mans fear like cold hands at his throat. He knew that just moments before Federico had recited his fate, that he was destined to end his days in a foreign land, drowning in degeneracy. And when Delfino ejaculated, he did so with choking sobs, and nothing Federico said, neither apologies nor promises, could stop his tears.
The conversation had marked the beginning of a slow and inevitable end. He remained a guest in Federicos house, but a strange loneliness engulfed him. Delfino was used to loneliness, but now it seemed more pronounced, more specific because in his heart he felt he had found the answer.
Once again, he found comfort in the cobblestone streets of Madrid. He walked endlessly. But bored with the great avenues and plazas, he took to the winding side streets, where he could get lost. Hoping to get lost.
On a summer afternoon so hot that the entire city was asleep, and breathing the air was like breathing dust, his attention was captured by a small shop window.
In the window was a stunningly beautiful ladys hat. It was the lightest shade of lavender, with a satin ribbon just a whisper darker woven through it. The hat was simple enough as to seem naked, vulnerable. Such was its delicacy. Years later Delfino would be unable to say why he had stopped and lingered in front of that window. Why the single, solitary hat had moved him so. He had never given hats much thought, anymore than a glove or a shoe. In Havana, only men, and the more eccentric women, wore hats. In Madrid, all the society women wore ornate hats, and he had accepted this as part of their ethos, like their accent and late hours. But none of the countless hats hed seen had been quite so beautiful. This hat looked like a sculpture. A simple, exquisite sculpture.
Simplicity is either a dying art, or one just about to be born, a mans voice said.
Delfino looked up. Although only in his sixties, Manolo Rejas Beato looked ancient to the young man. He was unusually tall and slender for a Spaniard, (who appeared to get shorter and wider with age). His long, bony fingers pinched a hand-rolled cigarette.
You make these? Delfino asked, his eyes back to the shop window.
Yes, these and many others, Manolo answered and motioned him inside. A long stream of cigarette smoke made a white, evanescent arch in the air.
The small shop was filled with hats of every shape and size, hats so light that they seemed to be floating on mannequin heads. Small, graceful hats in the softest of tones. As he moved from hat to hat, Manolo whispered their colors, like an incantation.
Ashes of Roses, Blue Waltz, Cuban Sand
Delfino immediately fell in love with the smell of the shop: glue and fabric, cigarettes and dust. He loved that in the little room, a man could bend and shape material, finesse and adorn it, create something that when it was finally set upon a human head, gave the wearer unforeseen dignity and importance. Manolo moved closer to Delfino.
"Go ahead, touch," he said. I can see youre fascinated, just as I was many, many years ago.
Delfino couldnt deny it, he was fascinated and excited, as if a wide door had opened. Suddenly his future made complete sense and he saw no point in fighting it. And just like a deeply troubled man who had finally discovered just the right narcotic, the hats became his passion.
At Manolos side, he learned the milliners trade. Delfino was there early every morning and reluctantly left late at night. His days were spent measuring and blocking, inserting wire into brims and lining into crowns. He learned about trimming with tiny pearls and slender ribbons, and how to create minute artificial flowers out of silk, felt, and crepe. As Delfinos hands became more agile, Manolo was happy to just sit in a red leather armchair, smoke, and watch his protègè.
One morning, Delfino noticed Manolo staring intently at him.
"You wonder why you're here, why it feels so natural. Do not question it. There is a reason why this has happened, in time you will find out."
Customers seemed at ease with Delfino. They came in for fittings for new hats or to have him clean an older hat. This meant to remove some of the decorations, which sometimes discolored either from lack of use, from too much use, or from careless storage. As more customers brought in their hats to be cleaned, it became clear to Delfino that time and styles were changing.
At the beginning of his apprenticeship, he noticed that young, married girls wanted to dress just like their mothers. They filed in after lunch, arms linked, their dresses so similar that only the slimmer figure of the daughters set them apart. This look made the girls appear more mature. Mother and daughter duos often came into the shop to order exactly the same hat. But during the year that he spent working with Manolo, Delfino noticed that the younger women were requesting less trim, less decoration and no longer wanted to look exactly like their mothers. They wanted to create an independent identity.
At first, Federico thought Delfinos all-consuming dedication to hats was just a passing phase, a capricious hobby, and he was relieved that the younger man had found something to keep him occupied.
One night, shortly before closing, Delfino stepped out of the workroom just long enough to catch a glimpse of Federico looking through the store-front window. Delfino, still in his apron, had smiled and waved him in, but Federico moved on as if he hadnt seen him. Delfino had no idea how long hed been standing there, and he made no attempt to follow him.
"I think it's outrageous that you're spending all of your time in a dusty hat shop with that disgusting old man. What if somebody should see you?" Federico said that night.
Whos going to see me? I work in the back room.
As time passed, Federico started to show his displeasure. No one he knew worked. Since he couldnt prevent Delfino from going to work, he chose to humiliate him.
Delfino has a job, he announced to a group of dinner companions. Delfino remained quiet even though all eyes had turned to him.
A real job? Lilia Lugo asked incredulously. What sort of job?
When Delfino didnt respond, Federico answered for him. Oh, it is a big mystery.
Lilia Lugo continued looking at him, eyebrows arched with bored curiosity, her wine glass floating somewhere between the tabletop and her lips.
Its something Im learning, Delfino finally said. I dont want to talk about it until I find out if Ill be good at it or not.
The topic was dropped. They didnt really care. He wasnt one of them, not really. He was an oddity, a young man from a little island somewhere in the Caribbean. Exotic, but not nearly exotic enough to matter for long. Boys like him were constantly dropping into their circle, from Morocco, Mexico or, on occasion, a good family from Manila. The new boys were a novelty at first but eventually became commonplace.
Delfino was glad to be drifting away from the crowd. The only thing tying him to them was Federico, and that was quickly losing its allure. There was no denying it. Sex, once essential, was now rare and routine. The large house on Plaza del Sol felt overcrowded whenever the two of them were in it. He felt like he needed to get away, to think. He had no guidelines, no previous experience, and no one to talk to about it. If sex was the currency of their relationship and that currency was losing its value, what was left? Bankruptcy? He wished he could ask his father. His father would know. But approaching him with such problems would be equal to pressing a gun to his temple and squeezing the trigger.
The ideal opportunity to put some distance between himself and this unsettling situation came that Spring.
Encouraged by Manolo, he boarded a train to Paris.
Go see what real hats are like, the old man had said. Think of it as an adventure.
Delfino looked into the old man's eyes and saw something there that he would not understand until he returned. At the moment he was too nervous and excited.
The trip transformed him completely. Delfino suspected that Manolo had known it would.
Paris was undoubtedly different from Madrid. In fact, Parisian ladies made the women of Madrid, who had seemed so sophisticated compared to the women of Havana, look absolutely dowdy.
He hardly thought about Federico during his trip, concentrating solely on discovery. He visited all the famous fashion houses, entering those venerable couture establishments was a voluptuous experience, like floating in a cloud of L'air du Temps. Impossibly thin shop girls watched him from behind glass counters. But they said nothing.
With no one to talk to, he wrote long letters to Manolo every day detailing his adventures, telling him of the shops he visited: Chanel, Dior, Valentino, Givenchy, Balenciaga and even the minute atelier of a young designer who was just starting to make a name for himself, Yves Saint Laurent. He got close enough to touch the cafè hats of Jean Barthel, the structured simplicity of a Reboux turban, Lily Dachès draped silk toques.
Three short weeks later, feeling quite cosmopolitan and armed with more information than he had ever imagined, an arsenal of elegance, he returned to Madrid only to find that while he was away, Manolo had died quietly in his sleep. He had been discovered peacefully resting in his red leather armchair, the artificial heads that wore his hats keeping silent vigil over him. Delfino found the shop boarded up. He peeked through the cracks and saw that all the hats and mannequins had been removed.
"Cousins from Malaga," the woman next door said. "They sold everything and what they couldn't sell they stole. They were quick like cucarachas in the night."
He looked at her as if she was speaking a language foreign to him.
Here, she said sadly, handing him a pack of unopened letters, I think these are from you. El pobre hombre, he never got to read them.
The letters remained in her outstretched hand. Delfino didnt take them. He turned and ran to Federico, pausing outside the house on Plaza del Sol just long enough to dry his tears and catch his breath. He hungered for the comfort of his lovers arms, but the reception he received couldnt have been further from what he expected.
Federico was sympathetic, in his own way. The death of a child, or of a young person is something to be grieved, he said with a sigh, the death of an old man is just part of life. With that, he lifted his eyes to the sky as if to say the rest is in the hands of God.
But Delfino wanted more. How could he make Federico understand what Manolo had meant to him? What the older man had given him. The patience, generosity, and guidance he had offered him from the moment they met. How could he express to someone to whom nothing truly mattered, that in Manolos shop he had, for the first time in his life, felt useful, gifted, and truly loved?
Its just that Im going to miss him, he managed to say, choked by shameful sobs.
He felt like a dog who so loves his master that he wants to throw his arms around him, except a dogs front legs dont bend in that manner. Just the same, Delfino tried, but Federico moved away.
Whats the matter? Delfino asked. Why are you looking at me with such cold eyes? Why tonight when I need you the most?
It may seem cruel, but I am trying to help you, Federico said, walking to the opposite side of the room.
He stood next to the fireplace, the flames dancing in his eyes. The world must look so much better through such beautiful eyes, Delfino thought, but couldnt find the strength to say.
You are still very young, Federico continued. What are you, eighteen?
Yes, twenty. Well, I am almost thirty-three. It is time I changed.
Changed what? Delfino asked, not knowing where this was going, but sure he was not going to like it.
Love between men, it is a game. A game played while you are young. Then it becomes a dream and eventually, like all dreams, it is forgotten.
What are you saying?
I am saying it is time for me to grow up. In Spain all young men have these types of love affairs, like ours.
All young men?
Well, the ones with our proclivity. But eventually we mature and marry. It will someday happen to you.
Delfino started shaking his head no before Federico was through.
No, not me, he managed to say, willing himself to believe it.
Federico arched a cynical eyebrow, his lips, those lips that had once been Delfinos to kiss, to drink from, to get lost in, offered him an ugly smile.
Then you will be very sad, very lonely, for a very long time and eventually die like your friend, on an armchair, in some hat shop, alone. Without a wife and children, you are destined to die in your own embrace.
Delfino started to back out of the room, slowly at first, then faster as he saw that Federico was moving towards him.
I never meant to hurt you, he was saying, we can still be friends. You can come visit with your wife. Our children will play together...
But Delfino couldnt really hear what Federico was saying. All he could hear was a horrible droning in his ears, like the motor of an airplane, but much louder. His back eventually hit against the front door. His hand found its way to the doorknob, twisted it, and opened it. A hard blast of cold air met him on the other side. He was on the sidewalk. Federico had not followed him. Part of him wanted to be followed, to be begged, and another part hated the very thought of one more word from Federico's lips. Part of him wanted to die and another was afraid of that very thought.
He looked around at the ornate buildings that had once charmed him, the wide avenues, the bare trees. This isnt home at all, he said to himself.
A week later, he was on an airplane to Havana, convinced that he would never, ever love again. But armed with the comforting thought that when his time came to leave this world, it would happen on a comfortable armchair, and he would not be alone, he would be surrounded by his beautiful hats.
When the wheels of the airplane touched Cuban ground, Delfino felt it in the pit of his stomach, a sickening lurch, but from the moment he set foot on the scalding soil, he knew he was finally home. Nothing in Europe had moved him like the chorus line of palm trees that edged the highway.
He noticed that the driver of the auto de alquiler, mistaking him for a European tourist, was driving a route that would add many miles and several pesos to the trip.
Youre going the wrong way, Delfino said.
"The center of town is closed again, the driver said with a sigh of resignation, and turned the radio up louder. And suddenly Havana didnt seem so welcoming anymore, but he was too tired to argue. He settled back, closed his eyes, and prepared to face his parents.
A milliner? asked his mother, a delicate teacup tittered in her hand. A nervous smile danced on her lips, which were thick and pillowy. She was in the habit of covering them with the same pale make-up she applied to the rest of her face, and then carefully painting them back on thinner with a ruby-red pencil in a daily effort to make herself appear less Cuban, more white.
Ladies hats? his father said using the same inflection others would reserve for words such as dog shit or baby killer. The cigar in his hand burned in a perfect, orange circle, the way a very good, very expensive cigar should. He occasionally brought it to his dark, purplish lips, which were framed by a narrow mustache kept perfectly trimmed with a straight razor. His fathers mustache, Delfino noticed, was now speckled with white whiskers.
They had received him in the wide veranda of the Miramar house. The veranda overlooked a long green lawn that stretched perfectly to the sea, but somehow Delfino felt as confined as if they were gathered in the one of servant's rooms behind the kitchen.
I have already thrown away enough money on you, his father said with the palpable traces of the anger and contempt that had always marked communications with his only son. This, in spite of his mothers efforts to keep the visit civilized.
His father went on to recount every cent spent in Spain, as if money was ever the issue. Money was never the issue, and the three people involved in the conversation knew what the resolution would be. It was just important for his father to let his feelings be known so that, later on, he could say, I told you it was a bad idea.
Delfino knew it was just a matter of waiting for his father to excuse himself on some pretext. Which he did.
"No le hagas caso," his mother said, following her husbands back with flat eyes. Don't pay any attention to him. He's been upset about the attack on the Presidential Palace."
She noticed that Delfino knew nothing of this.
"Just two weeks ago, she went on. It was a student revolt, forty were killed. Young men, younger than you, on both sides. The so-called soldiers were not much older than the students.
She sighed with disgust while she searched for a checkbook in an embroidered handbag. "Una trajèdia. It's all better now, but there will be more blood, I just know it. Your father is sick about it, he hasn't slept since it happened."
Is that why the center of town is closed off?
Yes, she said, nothing but tanks and guards and too much noise, too much fear."
With a quick hand she wrote him a check for twice the amount he had requested.
Shortly after Delfino had opened his shop, his mothers friends started to arrive as if blown there by the balmy afternoon breeze.
They placed lavish orders.
The first time they came as a social obligation, a favor to the family, but they returned because of his talent, and the lovely way he made them feel. They were his clients. He was the hat maker. He knew his place.
The shop bore his name, an elegant swirl of gold letters on a beveled glass door: Delfino. One name only, like the designers of Paris.
Professionally, he felt happy and fulfilled. Even his father had stopped in one morning and expressed the closest he could to approval.
Your mother says youre working too hard, he said, I think thats good. At any rate, you seem to be getting results.
It was true. He was working hard because he couldnt yet afford an assistant. He spent almost every waking hour in his shop, designing, measuring, blocking, and trimming his simple-yet-elegant confections just as he had learned from Manolo.
Although he kept himself busy all day long, there were the nights; the long, lonely, Cuban nights when his mind drifted back to Madrid, to Federico. Federicos last words to him had been right. The time they spent together did seem like a dream now, but not one Delfino felt he would soon forget.
He was invited to parties by all his clients, all of them eager to claim him as their discovery, but after attending a few, he stopped because they left him feeling even more lonely and isolated than he already felt. There were other men like him in Havana. Hundreds of them, it seemed.
He had seen them at the few parties he attended, among white tuxedos and crisp, pastel satin evening gowns; laughing to draw attention, hands aflutter. Delfino felt their eyes scrutinize him from head to toe before they brazenly introduced themselves. He could tell who they were, one diamond too many on their tie clips set them apart from all other men. Recognizing him as one of their own, they praised his designs and offered him instant entree into la sociedad. Delfino accepted politely, and promised to call, but never did. He had learned his lesson in Spain. Society ladies will tolerate effeminacy in a man, and in Cuba it seemed to be encouraged. But he knew a serious liaison with someone of his own class could only lead to scandal, and scandal to ruin. It was better to keep them guessing.
The daytime streets were just as treacherous. Men who walked alone, men who carried themselves in a particular way, were mocked and taunted with whistles and catcalls. He saw it happen time and time again, so he adjusted his walk to seem more masculine, almost threatening. No one whistled at him, no one dared to mock him, ever.
The nights were somewhat safer. He went for walks, always lying to himself about the reason, but deep down inside he knew what he was after. He wore dark clothing to better merge with the Cuban night. He found what he was looking for behind the arched columns in the Plaza de la Catedral, the center of Old Havana. There was no denying who they were and why they were there.
They, he soon discovered, would do anything to a man for a few pesos. He employed a few of them, quite a few times, for quick, furtive trysts inside one of the cathedrals confessionals. But the more he did it, the more these young men appeared to him dirty and indiscreet. They began to call out to him as soon as he stepped into the Plaza. He had made up a name for himself, Guillermo, and thats the name they called out.
Guillermo, the voices were hard and thick as if they spoke with their cocks; and so familiar as to be frightening. Later, they started demanding more money than was agreed upon. Always an unpleasant experience that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to violence. They were used to American tourists, the ones who grew tired of blackjack and roulette and sought another diversion, or those whose trip to Havana had been for the sole purpose of buying a cheap pound of flesh. Just as Federico had said, "Cuba was the little colony where everyday was a revolution, an assassination, or a scandal, while people danced blindly in the streets."
Delfino preferred to walk further, through Parque Central, which was always filled with pretty girls in the same line of business as the men at Plaza de la Catedral, and were slightly more discreet than their masculine counterparts. They wore the latest fashion: colorful, ruffled blouses that bared creamy brown shoulders and tight skirts. They didn't call out but fixed their eyes on men as if they could paralyze them with a mirada. A look.
And when they did speak, they called him, Señor.
The older, less attractive women could be found at the other end of the park - they were more aggressive. They grabbed at mens crotches and yelled out to them to make their intentions clear. They were noisy, desperate, and competed with one another. They pulled each other back, ran each other down to get the business. They said terrible things about each other.
"You don't want her, she's crazy."
"She'll rob you."
He walked past them quickly, swatting them away like gnats.
He walked on to Plaza de Armas, and beyond, past the docks, behind the entrance of the tunnel to La Punta. Men gathered there late at night. These men were not after money, just pleasure. As much pleasure as they could pack into a few heart-pounding moments. The place was so isolated and so thick with ceiba and framboyan trees, that couples could enjoy themselves without fear. And not just couples, groups often formed, men of all shapes, sizes and ages, quietly vying for position, elbowing their way in, eager to get their turn at the best looking morsel in the crowd. The group would grow, looking to Delfino like something feral, as if a fly had accidentally wandered into a beehive.
It happened there, with the full moon shining through the branches of the framboyan trees and casting shadows that made him feel as if he was walking on an enormous lace mantilla.
One mans face stood out, as if the moonlight favored him above all the others, and Delfino felt his hand being taken, firmly, and then an irresistible tug. He let himself be led away, deeper into the thicket. They tore into each other, a dazzling mass of fingers and tongues.
They were not alone. There were crickets and frogs, footsteps on dry twigs, wind through branches, waves lapping against a pier, and the horn of a distant ocean liner.
As he turned towards the sea, and gave himself to the stranger, he looked up through a clearing of branches, to the moon, the same moon that shined on Madrid.