To protect their family, Mark and Mania left Cuba in 1959 with their two young children and no possessions.
My parents gave them one of the small bedrooms in our small house, but there was no privacy for anyone. I was three; my sisters were five and two.
None of the children remember this, but for my parents and my cousins it was the seminal moment of their friendship. My grandfather and Moshe’s (Mark in English) father were brothers. He and my mother were cousins, but he and my Dad were friends.
The families that my father and Mark grew up in didn’t have time for men to have friendships. They were consumed with making a living. But Mark and my father loved each other. They met when my parent’s honeymooned in Havana in 1953, and when the safety of Mark’s family was called into question, there was no question at all, they came and stayed for as long as they needed to.
My father and Mark journeyed together through young fatherhood, change of careers, homes, health, and wealth, all the while offering support, respect, devotion and love to each other at a time when men didn’t talk about their feelings.
Every morning for as many years as I can remember living at home Mark arrived shortly before 8:00a.m. in whatever late-model behemoth he happened to be driving that year to pick up my father for their commute to Manhattan. Mark loved to drive. He drove American only. His cars were immaculate, inside and out. He was stylish. He loved clothes, and he smelled good. He looked like a person that had been dressed by someone who dressed people for a living. He paid attention to detail. He instinctively knew just how much hair tonic to apply to his wavy hair to make it glisten without looking greasy. His shoes were always polished, his suits well-tailored and his nails manicured.
Only people on television looked like Mark. I appreciated his sartorial sensibility even though I had no idea what to call it. But what my cousin wore best was his smile. His warm, genuine, inviting smile, his ever-present smile that was not reserved for just people he knew and/or liked. He smiled at everyone. He assumed the best about you, and offered you kindness and respect even if he didn’t know you.
Almost nightly friends came to have coffee after dinner at my parent’s house. Squirreled away at the top of the stairs I strained to hear what they were saying and sometimes squinted between the banister rails to watch my parents and their friends. “Good night folks.” When I heard those words and the sound of the heavy wooden chair slide across the floor, I knew my dad would be heading up the stairs momentarily, with that I scurried back into my room. After the company left my mom cleared the table, put everything away and went to bed herself. All quiet except for the muffled sound of the television coming from my parent’s bedroom, I would slink out of my room and cocoon in the unlit carpeted hallway, listening to the late movie they were watching, hoping they wouldn’t see me.
Dressed and ready to leave for school, I often sat at the bottom of the stairs, watching and listening to the cacophony that frequently accompanied our household’s morning routine. On rare occasions my cousin Mark would come inside to wait for my father. His effervescence was in stark contrast to my more somber demeanor.
Standing just inside the front door he noticed my expressionless face which prompted the question, “why aren’t you smiling.” Even at eleven or twelve, I knew I wasn’t perky, or playful, or animated. “There’s nothing to smile about” was my consistent reply. Mark didn’t need a reason to smile. I didn’t need a reason not to.
I am inherently and scrupulously observant, although I don’t always pay attention to the obvious. Much like the scene in Risky Business when Tom Cruise slides into view wearing his underwear, and populates the screen with magnetic presence, my blind date rearranged the molecules of my DNA when he sauntered into the restaurant and changed my life.
My immediate reaction was, not my type. He was too short, I didn’t like the way he dressed, or the way he wore his hair, and I wasn’t attracted to him physically, but incontrovertibly, and instantaneously I was drawn to him. My green cashmere cardigan draped over my shoulders, clinging to me because of the sweat left on my still moist skin after an hour and a half yoga class. The vegan restaurant was a doorway or two down from the studio, where I suggested we meet for lunch. He stuck out as if he were an actual bovine, and ordered the menu item which most closely approximated an actual hamburger. My heart so a flutter, and unable to ingest a thing, the waitress boxed my uneaten salad, which I later tossed in the trash.
That first date lasted nine hours.
I arrived first and sat facing the door. Apparently that was the “power seat” and should have been reserved for him. “The rules” had also been broken when I chose the restaurant. Without my knowing it, he was angry at me from the first moment we met. The next two and half years were spent with me trying to avoid his anger from erupting. Unsuccessfully so.
Admissions of how he treated people and pets went unheeded as warnings. In love, I was unable to see what was evident. There were periods of time just long enough for me to believe that his anger wouldn’t resurface. Enough time would lapse for me to trust him, over and over again. Gifts and trips made it appear as if he cared about how I felt. Tender moments of forgiveness and apologies made me believe him.
It seemed reasonable to me that as his girlfriend he would be willing to take care of me after a scheduled surgery would leave me temporarily unable to care for myself. We made that plan. He was aware that I would be medicated, unable to move, and probably sleep for days. That is what happened, exactly. On the third day I woke up and asked for something to eat.
With a pump attached to my body to allay the pain I shuffled into the living room and sat on the couch. There was a bowl of soup in front of me which I didn’t finish. I heard him say that I didn’t smile enough as I felt the impact of crashing into a bank of cabinets.
I got up slowly. It was two o’clock in the morning, and impossible for me to drive. I waited until about six and called the woman who first introduced us, and asked her to come get me. My car remained parked in front of his house for days after I left.
Loving him shackled me to my own disbelief, shame, and stupidity, but time and again hollow forgiveness reunited us. It was only when I felt humiliated enough that I ended my relationship with him. There has been no contact between us for four years.
My front teeth are chipped as a result of being hit by a truck when I was a kid. That cosmetic imperfection seemed like a bona fide reason not to smile. And while I don’t smile a lot, still, it’s not for any particular reason. It’s just not my nature. Not being perky is not something to be punished for. Some of us are, others aren’t.
I marvel at people who smile effortlessly, I am not ever going to be that sort of person. I’m not unfriendly, dismissive, disinterested, or aloof. I am simply someone who doesn’t smile readily. While speaking about his recovery from substance abuse, New York Times reporter David Carr told NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross that the New York Times is a place that accommodates all of mankind’s frailties. My frailty has been my fear of openly showing, or talking about my emotions without thinking that I may be judged or punished.
Trying to abandon these repetitive thoughts has become my way of accommodating my frailty. Politely telling my cousin Mark (may he rest in peace) so many decades ago that “there isn’t anything to smile about,” echoes in heart. While not always the case now, efforts to express emotion honestly, without being contingent on how someone feels about me, or doesn’t continue to be a challenge.
“nothing is as powerful as an i – whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo
Help a child smile. http://www.jackandjillcenter.org/about.htm
Photograph of Jill’s childhood home – Julio Mitchel www.juliomitchel.com
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