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Eduardo Santiago's novel, Tomorrow They Will Kiss, is both titled and packaged in such a way that you might think that it's all about the fascination of telenovelas, Latin-American soap operas, for exiles living bleak lives in wintry New Jersey way back in 1966. It is true that the telenovelas constitute the lone subject that Mr Santiago's small group of women can enjoy and talk about freely. But anyone expecting the fevers of Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman or even of Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is going to be disappointed. Unlike those South American writers, Mr Santiago, who was born in Cuba, writes with his feet on the ground. Even the telenovelas are presented as more interesting for their formulas than for the sensational developments that, causing both delight and agony, they postpone almost indefinitely. Notwithstanding a great many hardships, and the unlikelihood of fairy-tale resolution, the three women at the center of Tomorrow They Will Kiss are far more fascinating than anything on television, in any language.
Two of these women, Imperio and Caridad, would insist that their lives are (thank God!) anything but fascinating. The word "respectable" never comes up, but respectability is the altar at which these women worship. Friends from childhood, Imperio and Caridad are similar only in their belief in a special kind of good conduct - the kind that keeps a woman from being "talked about." This belief is tested daily by the third woman, Graciela, who is both their friend and not their friend. As Graciela herself understands, Imperio and Caridad treat her like a friend - or try to do so - simply because they think it's expected of them. She can remember a time in Cuba when they would have nothing to do with her. Graciela, in their view, was much too interested, precisely, in being fascinating.
Graciela, whom we will gradually learn is built, shall we say, to please men, describes her "friends" thus.
Imperio had a sharp tongue that she tried to soften by constantly referring to God. "Por Dios," she'd say, or "Dios mio," or "Santa Madre de Dios." But there was venom behind her benedictions. She was a short and skinny person and had always had, as long as I could remember, a nasty disposition, a tendency to complain and to order people around. Which was odd coming from such a tiny person. Even after she reached maturity she was built like a ten-year-old boy. Her dark skin had a reddish tint to it that became even more noticeable whenever her anger flared, which was frequently. She did not have any children of her own. Maybe this was because of her impossibly narrow hips and flat chest, or her sour spirit, or because she once saw a dog take his last breath. Or maybe because sometimes the saints really were paying attention.
Tacitus himself could not have speculated more tacitly. Where Imperio is off-putting, Caridad resembles a scrumptious dessert:
Caridad was thick of build, but not fat. She looked luxuriously stuffed and upholstered, like an expensive sofa. Her skin was very pale, and she carried herself with an elegance that, as a girl, I had admired from a distance. Her big brown eyes were always in a state of surprise or discovery. She wasn't stupid. She just wanted everyone to believe that she was as innocent and sheltered as a society debutante. That she was the type of person who had never been touched by the cruelties of the real world. That at the slightest provocation she could swoon.
"Imagínate!" she'd gasp whenever something offended her fragile sensibilities. More often than not during such exclamations, a pale hand clutched at the invisible pearls around her neck.
(You've got to love those pearls.)
Mr Santiago's novel is narrated by his three ladies in rough rotation. Butter wouldn't melt in Caridad's mouth, and Imperio is forthright about her prickliness, but both women sound the same complaints about Graciela, who amazes them with her poor choices. We are soon wondering if Graciela can really be the tramp that they believe her to be, a curiosity that Graciela herself does not relieve until well into the novel. When she does, we see that the answer is both "yes" and "no." No, Graciela is not a tramp. But she is driven to live a life as impassioned as that of any telenovela heroine. And like those heroines, she is condemned to play the part of Cinderella.
Imperio and Caridad, as one can imagine, are only too happy to play Cinderella's spiteful step-sisters, and their pious self-justifications are almost laugh-out-loud funny. Despite the background of revolution, exile, poverty and struggle - all three women, blissfully unaware that their jobs will altogether cease to exist in the coming decades, work together at a factory that produces plastic dolls - Tomorrow They Will Kiss is a comedy, albeit a somewhat buttoned-down one. One day, Imperio recalls, some time after Castro took power, her sister, Clarita, came crying to her that the government was going to ship all Cuban children off to Russia for indoctrination. Imperio's Schadenfreude peeks out from every sentence of her recollection, like a giggle that can't be stifled.
Maybe I am too practical, too sensible, and too realistic. Maybe what they say about ice water in my veins is true. Por Dios, I see things for what they are. Of course, this wasn't what Clarita wanted to hear, but I can only tell the truth. I felt that if she was going to make the right decision, she needed to have all the information. To just console her with lies would have been criminal.
In a panic, parents started to send their children to the United States to stay with relatives or with church groups, just temporarily, to keep them safe. We could not imagine what would happen to a child in the hands a the Russians or how they would endure those harsh winters without the comfort of their family. Twelve-year-olds are still very young. My friends tended to pity me because I never had any children. Never to my face, of course, but I could see it in their eyes. Well, I pitied them! And now I felt, not quite superior, but certainly blessed.
When it came to children, my sister Clarita won the lotería, vulgarly delivering five kids in about as many years, each more annoying than the next. Unlike me, Clarita was voluptuously endowed with wide hips and large, soft breasts. And our natures were at opposites, too. Clarita did not possess one ounce of suspicion and could never hold a grudge. Whenever there was something about a neighbor or a friend that I wanted to discuss, she always pushed me away and told me that she was too busy taking care of her family to think about such things. She's too kind, too softhearted, my sister. Her kids ran circles around her, and her house always looked like a tornado had hit it. Sometimes I thought it would serve her right if they took away some of her damn kids and sent them to Siberia. Maybe an experience like that would pull her head out of the sand. She was trapped. She couldn't suddenly pick up everything and move with five kids to the United States.
At the time, though, most of us were sure Castro couldn't last, and we were determined to continue our lives just as we always had. A lot of people had already left everything behind, thinking that when they returned a few months later, it would be there waiting for them. But I knew that was not true.
I knew that once one of those guajiros got into your house, you'd have to set fire to it to get them out.
It was in this time of rancor, suspicion and regret that Graciela made her biggest mistake. Por Dios, whatever she got, she had it coming. If you tied a rope around your neck, there were plenty of people in Palmagria who were more than happy to lead you toward the gallows.
Note especially how Clarita's alleged "need for information" is mooted to death by Imperio's observation that there wasn't a thing that Clarita could do with it. And note, too, how the story swings round to Graciela - as does almost every story that Imperio and Caridad have to tell.
Like most disapproving women, Imperio and Caridad manage to sound much older than they are. It is hard sometimes to remember that they are not much over thirty. They are more like the mean girls of high school than village crones, and it shows in their vacillation about Graciela, whom truly older women would probably not rehabilitate. But Imperio and Caridad are not really mean; they're just enslaved to the reigning ideal of respectability. It is essential to understand that, in Cuban as in other Latin American societies, respectability is the only possession that guarantees a middle-class woman the respect of the men in her world. A man who trifles with a hussy is a man; a man who trifles with a respectable woman, married or not, is an outlaw. That is because a respectable woman is always married to her sexual partner if she has one. She does not have sex with a man who is not her husband. And of course there can be no suggestion that she does.
Guilt by association is the rule here. It is captured by the phrase, "Dime con quíen andas." Tell me who you've been out with, and I'll tell you whether you are respectable. It is Imperio whose lament about Graciela's conduct finally breaks through the scrim of petty jealousies and resentments that inspire her bad-natured gossip with Caridad. We finally see, if we had not guessed it earlier, that Imperio's place in the world (as well as Caridad's) is determined to some extent by the social credit that she is willing to extend to a woman like Graciela. When Graciela starts hanging out with the factory boss, Imperio feels genuinely degraded.
Graciela and Mr O'Reilly were seen together at the drive-in movies. I heard that they steamed up the windows and drank so much beer that she had to go to the ladies' room several times. What could she possibly have been thinking? Who behaved that way with a man she hardly knew? With a man she worked for? What respect could he possibly have for her when he saw her at the factory the next day? He must have thought we were all like Graciela. Didn't she realize that her behavior affected us all? That she was bringing all of us down with her? Again, I shuddered to think what Mr O'Reilly thought of us. All American men tended to think Cuban women were whores. Before the Revolution they flocked to Cuba for cheap sex. It took a lot of effort to maintain our dignity in this country. Why Graciela found that hard to understand was a mystery to me. And not only because she was behaving inappropriately, but because she flaunted it. There was never a speck of modesty about her. Not even at work. Never at work. There was a very serious policy about employees having romantic entanglements. Prohibido. And it was Mr O'Reilly who was supposed to enforce it! So at first they were discreet - or so they thought. Sitting together at lunch was not enough. Sometimes they would go off in his car. They would be gone the whole hour. What did Graciela do with a man, in a car, in daylight? She always returned to work, not a hair out of place, and looked us right in the eye, as if daring us to comment. What she didn't realize was that all the comments happened while she was gone. People talked.
Mr Santiago has pitched his novel so that we're inclined to give Graciela the benefit of the doubt. Can she really be the "loose" woman that her "friends" say that she is? In a Victorian novel, of course, Graciela would be miserably virtuous, stuck for some reason all innocently in a compromising position. But Tomorrow They Will Kiss is not a Victorian novel; nor is it comparable to a telenovela. Graciela is a healthy adult, not an angel. Nor is she really concerned about her social status, even though she has suffered badly for her lapses in Palmagria. But what is really telling about Imperio's lament, above, is that it never occurs to her that what Graciela and Mr O'Reilly are doing in the car, in daylight, is talking. They have achieved an intimacy that neither Imperio, Caridad, nor the viewers of telenovelas can imagine: the intimacy beyond sex.
In the final chapter, Graciela turns the tables a bit and summarizes the serious problems in her friends' lives. Imperio is married to an unemployable drunk, while Caridad, whose daughter is developmentally impaired, is in over her head with credit-card debt.
You would think that women with those enormous problems wouldn't be so concerned with me. But they watch me like a telenovela.
There is one thing I have in common with all those long-suffering telenovela women that continue capture my imagination: I never give up hope, and I am always willing to take a chance. For a while I felt as blind as Rosalinda or as crippled as Inés in Let No Man Put Asunder. But I never gave up. Maybe I'll get somewhere as a fashion designer someday, and maybe I won't. I know I'm going to continue taking classes. I'm getting better... And who knows what's in my future? Maybe great success, maybe more mistakes. As the priest said in A Long Walk to Love, "The book of life is already written, all we do is turn the pages." I have to agree with him.
Fatalists like Graciela can afford to take chances. Moralists like Imperio and Caridad cannot. That is why they find themselves glued to every shocking new episode in Graciela's life. By making light - a light chiffonade, really - of their hypocrisy and small-mindedness, Eduardo Santiago has given us a human comedy that's a lot bigger than its modest packaging might suggest. (December 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press