Janice R. Torres is a full-time fiction writer, storyteller, and former music maker. She has contributed to several online publications and blogs, written a variety of short stories, completed a children’s book, and is currently working on her first novel. She currently resides in Florida with her partner Ron and their furbaby Robbie.
On the night the police came to arrest her, Julieta sat calmly in front of the piano. She took a moment to look at all the keys, each one in relief from the brightness and shadows of the night; the white keys bright, as though moonbeams were lighting them from within, and the black so deep, she felt that if she touched any of those onyx keys, her fingers would sink into their depths and never return. She’d always loved the piano, wanting to take lessons when she was young. She’d begged and pleaded with her father and mother but was often told that having a piano (or lessons, for that matter) in the sweltering heat of Luyanó, Cuba was not only impractical but a ridiculous waste of money. “Where is this money for a piano or lessons gonna come from, eh? I didn’t raise you to be a lazy good-for-nothing musician,” snapped her mother, handing Julieta a heavy bundle of clothes needing to be washed. “You need to work hard and find a wealthy American husband, so you don’t have to wash clothes all day, like me.” Ileana Santiago was a laundress for one of the bigger hotels in Havana and would often bring home large sacks of clothing to wash and hang dry overnight. She would stay up for hours, emptying and refilling the washing basin, scrubbing all the clothes expertly by hand, her thick black hair pulled back from her face, her house dress sticking to her sweaty mocha skin. The hotel used her services because she was fast, knew how to speak good English, and always returned each item neatly folded, delicately scented with a mixture of cinnamon and jasmine. Most of the clothing washed consisted of men’s socks and shirts, having been soaked through with sweat from the sultry night’s dancing, but occasionally Julieta was able to see glittering dresses, silk ties, and lacy lingerie that would slip coolly through her fingers when they were being folded, as she imagined the glamorous women who wore them. “And whatever you do, don’t marry for love, especially a musician,” Her mother’s voice loud enough to carry from the kitchen to her father in the next room, while plopping mofongo onto a plate of rice and black beans. “because when that fades, all you’re left with is a life of what-ifs, a couple of kids and no money.” Her father was a musician. Ernesto “Mejillas” Santiago had been working at the Nacional as a trumpet player since he was sixteen, where he’d met her mother. She’d been a hat check girl back then, but since she was working as a laundress with her mother part-time, her skin continued to deepen to a darker hue, and she was removed from there and made into part of housekeeping. Ernesto said always said it was love at first sight, but her mother said it wasn’t for her and that his so-called love didn’t stop him from screwing every rich socialite wanting to have ‘la verdadera experiencia cubana’. With Ernesto’s light complexion and seafoam green eyes, he was a very much desired Cuban experience. He was clever and funny, often charming men and women with his more than slight accent. It didn’t hurt that was always flush with money, mostly from the gifts he was given from his rich lovers, but he’d pursued Ileana for two years before convincing her to go out on a date with him. That night, they’d drunk too much and danced too close, the music seeping into their skin, igniting their hearts and their bodies. They’d ended up having sex in the back alley of the Cabana Club, against one of the crumbling walls. Two months later, they were married. Seven months after that, Julieta was born. But despite her mother’s warnings, music was in her veins. She’d sweated it out through her pores as she danced, asking her father to play the same recordings again and again. She would tap her fingers on ledges, pretending to play the piano parts. Finally, at the age of eight, her father had secretly begun teaching her how to play, sneaking her in to the club in the early mornings to use the piano before the crew would come in to set up for rehearsal and before she had to go to school. “You need music to stoke the flames of life, querida,” he would murmur in her ear, an unfiltered cigarette with a long burn of ash hanging from the tip dangling between his lips. “It’s the passion found in the music that will help you discover who you are.” Sitting at this piano now, she could picture his strong hands under hers, letting her feel the rhythms he was playing before being able to put her own smaller delicate fingers to the keys. They’d felt cool to the touch when she’d first pressed her fingers to them and they still did. Julieta began to play lightly, barely pushing on the keys as she imagined playing the rhythms her father had once taught her, her sapphire blue robe slipping silently off her left shoulder. She had been too warm in the heat and humidity of the evening, where even a light breeze was nonexistent, so she’d been sleeping in the nude, only draping her body in her silk robe to go and sit at the piano in the music parlor. Even now, the beat pulsing from her heart to her fingertips was heating her belly, sending passion and desire rippling through her. It’s how it always was…and how it always would be. In the distance she could hear the faintest wail of a siren, but she played a bit louder. She knew they were coming for her, but she didn’t care. She was lost in memory and didn’t want to climb her way out. Julieta recalled hearing her parents’ love story since the age of ten, putting together the whole through bits and pieces from her parents’ arguments, so she’d decided early on that love was no way to start a marriage. She would find a rich American, get married and be one of those women in a glittering dress and sexy lingerie. Maybe love would come, she thought. And it did. Just not in the way she’d expected. On her twentieth birthday, she took the train from Luyanó to Havana for the Cabaret Tropicana. She didn’t have a lot of money and had saved her pesos to go for the first time. Julieta had grown up with the confidence of her mother and the looks of her father, so she didn’t have to convince the maître d’ to give her a table with some of the best views of the show. She looked around at the women in glittering dresses and jewels laughing as they headed to the slot machines and card tables, the men wearing tuxedos and tails smoking cigars and shaking hands. It was unlike the underground clubs she’d always gone to, where all races and colors mixed. But, with her long deep brown hair, creamy lightly tanned skin, and hazel blue eyes, she was accepted. She sent up a quick thanks to her father. A waiter came by and offered her a drink. She thanked him and took a sip, the bubbles tickling her nose, as she stared up at the big trees that were everywhere, growing in the building. “It must be your first time here,” A male voice said in English. She looked up to see a man with dark-rimmed glasses and sharp blue eyes staring down at her. “And believe you me, I would remember if I’d seen you here before.” Julieta looked at him appraisingly as she sipped her drink. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked as he pulled out a chair and slid in next to her, his confidence emanating from him in waves. She noticed the silver looking pinky ring with a sparkling diamond in the center as he signaled a waiter to come over. “Si, Señor?” “I’ll have a mojito, and the lady will have…” He looked expectantly at her. She sat there, quietly studying him. “another champagne. Just bring the bottle.” The man shooed the waiter away. He pulled out a shiny cigarette case, placing a cigarette between his lips while offering one to her. She shook her head. “So, is this your first time in Cuba, Miss…” “My name is Julieta…and, no. It’s not.” He blew out the blue smoke, eyes narrowing slightly at her not-so-light accent. “A pleasure to meet you, Julieta. So, you’re Cubana?” He whistled low between his teeth. “Wow, I’ve seen a lot of mulattas, but never one that could pass as good as you.” She bristled slightly at this remark but was not unfamiliar with its sentiment. Mulatto was a common term and was accepted as the norm. Maybe this could change in the future, but with so many high class whites with political and financial pull, she supposed not. After all, he who has the money and power makes the rules. Before she’d had a chance to reply, the waiter had come back with the drinks. She allowed him to refill her glass and took a larger sip, not sure she was up to defending who she was or her family’s past. “I’m Victor Santucci,” he said with a charming smile. “and I work here at the Trop for Santo Trafficante. Would you like to dance?” As the music swelled from the orchestra, Julieta found her body swaying to the rhythm. He held his hand out to her and they made their way to the dance floor. As the bolero swelled, he’d lain his hand around her waist, and she felt the strength of his hand and the sensuality of the music go into her bones. They’d danced closely that night, barely saying anything else to each other, too wrapped up in the music and its magic to speak. The next night he sent a car to her house to pick her up. Her mother was thrilled. After a month, Victor moved Julieta to a large airy apartment in Havana, to be closer to him and her work. When she told her mother she was leaving, Ileana had spit in her face, calling her a disgrace and she’d wanted her to marry a wealthy American, not become some man’s whore. She never spoke to Julieta again. Julieta took a job as an assistant to the costume designer at the Tropicana and Victor introduced her to many celebrities, including her favorite singer Nat King Cole. Her father would’ve been thrilled. Victor came over two or three nights a week, bringing a large dark leather briefcase with him, but never stayed the night. Another man wearing the same diamond pinky ring would come by the next morning to pick up the case. Julieta didn’t ask any questions. On her 21st birthday, he surprised her with a brand-new piano, its beautiful chestnut body gleaming in the sunlight. She played often and refused any lessons when Victor offered to pay for them, working only on the tunes and rhythms learned from her clandestine lessons with her father. Little by little, she began to strip away her old life. She took English lessons to hide her accent, began to go by the name ‘Juliet’ and was often mistaken for French, which she never disputed. Eventually, she stopped playing and hadn’t touched the piano in four years. She had finally become one of those women with the glittering dresses and expensive jewelry. She was a member of the elite. High-class. Somebody. Then came the Revolution. Julieta was playing louder now, her mind swirling with remembrance as she filled the empty night with sound and rhythm and life, sweat trickling down the cleft between her breasts. That night, Victor burst into the apartment saying the police were coming for him. He had to leave Cuba, he’d said as he pried up loose tiles and pulled out large stacks of cash. They were hunting them all down to get to Santo Trafficante and his Casa Nostra. “But what about me? What do I say? What do I do?” she asked him, desperately clinging to his arm. “Take me with you, mi amor.” “Are you fucking nuts?” He’d stuffed the money into a few bags, then zipped them up. “I can’t bring my colored island girlfriend to the US, no matter how white you pretend to be. Besides, I have a wife and kid in Tampa. Stay here, where you belong.” Julieta abruptly stopped playing the piano, laying her hands silently on the keys, the last sounds of mambo echoing through the room and the memory ringing in her ears. He’d been at the top of the stairs when she’d pushed him. With bags in each hand and over his shoulder, he couldn’t brace his fall, his head hitting the tile at the bottom with a definitive crack. Stay here, where you belong. She did belong here. She belonged to the swaying of the palm trees. She belonged to the mambo, the cha-cha, and the bolero, each one deep in her veins, connecting her to this island , the spirit of her people. It didn’t matter what color her skin was or whether she could ‘pass’ for white. Julieta Santiago was Cubana in every fiber of her being. And she would remain so. As she heard the policemen running up the steps, Julieta remained calmly seated at the piano, looking down at the keys, her hair in soft curls down her back and the silk robe still hanging off her shoulder. As they burst through the door, guns drawn, she realized that the keys of the piano she’d once thought were a brilliant white, were the color of old bones from years of sitting in the hot Cuban sun.