I received a gold-embossed invitation from the president of the University and the Director of the Athletic Association to Homecoming weekend. Alumni cheerleaders would be recognized at a 30-year reunion. Although I didn’t really feel like going after all I’d been through there, the invitation flattered me. Besides, the opportunity to see how the campus had changed was enough to motivate me to book my Greyhound tickets. I was a different person now, and I thought I could handle it.
I don’t drive anymore, because in Miami I don’t need to fight the traffic and I don’t want to get my car stolen like the night some junked-up hijo de puta me robó my rusty ‘89 Nissan from South Beach. Me and Jorge now rent a small 2 bedroom upstairs from La Cruz Dry Cleaning and Tintoreria Cubana, and between my pension, book royalties, and a sale here and there of Jorge’s paintings, we make do. The benches and the beach are free, and we just take the bus or walk anywhere. We live comfortably among the palms, balmy breezes and street domino games of Little Havana.
1) Nature or nurture
I was once a cheerleader. There was a time when male cheerleaders were assumed to be, you know, of the “pargo persuasion”. Most millennials probably don’t even know this, but back in 1960s people began to see cheerleading as a mostly-for-girls thing. That’s the way it was at Memorial High School. I loved the cheerleaders. But I became a gymnast by default, because Papi said I was too short for basketball and he wouldn’t let me play football. Mami said we couldn’t afford the baseball outfits. But in gymnastics, we wore gym shorts and sleeveless tees back in the sixties, and I liked that the scant clothing let me show my muslos. Besides, I liked the finesse of the landings, the smoothness of it all, with the twirls and twists on the pommel horse. It was a sport where I could mask my inclinations and still hide behind bulging pecs, lats and deltoids to make up for scant facial hair and puny pubic growth. With muscles like I had, Papi would not be disappointed that his first-born hijo’s cojones were not sufficiently testicular to represent our macho branch of the family tree.
2) What’s in a name?
“Antonio César Casals Maduro” was the name on my birth certificate. Mami always called me little “Tonio” (pronounced “tonyo”), which annoyed my father to no end, because he had insisted I be named (and called) “Antonio” in honor of his father, a famous Cuban general under Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, the next-to-last most recent ill-loved Cuban dictator. I am told that General Antonio Jesús Casals was as much a murderous chickenshit as was old Fulgencio, and that both bolted from the Pearl of the Antilles on or around New Years’ eve 1959 when things got hot in Cuba. They must have gotten word that Fidel and his barbudos were ready to knock the dictator and his military’s cojones off with baseball bats and machetes and hang them on flagpoles for the pleasure of the proletariat. Fulgencio settled in Portugal and made a killing investing in Costa del Sol until he keeled over from a myocardial infarction, General Antonio, long estranged from abuela, languished in obscurity as a security guard for Jonathan Logan’s Women’s clothing warehouse in Union City, New Jersey until premature dementia praecox came on him with a fury.
After falling and breaking his leg, my father’s father hung from pulleys at Palisades Hospital on River Road as he gasped his last breaths overlooking the Manhattan skyline. According to abuela, the day before he exited, he kept saying Batista would visit him soon. Maybe he was right. As I got older I would shed “Tonyo” and insist on being called “Tony.”
3) Everyone needs a ticket
My guidance counselor told me my grades were good enough for a scholarship so I applied to eight universities, thinking that with my smarts, my bilingualism and my athleticism, I might even snag a scholarship or two. It was my only way out of Union City. I applied to colleges that had gymnastics teams. I got accepted to five, including the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, and one Ivy League School in a state with lots of “s”’s in its name. I also got into a few colleges in the Southeast. But gauging from their reaction to my college acceptances I realized that Mami and Papi did not want to be buried in cold New Jersey or north thereof, so I took the scholarship they offered me at a state university in the Sunchine’ State, hoping my parents would follow me to warmer climes some day. Some day never came.
4) Getting “Orientated”
Thirty years ago those red-bricked buildings and large oaks with the eerie flossy stuff hanging from the branches seemed pretty different from what I was used to when I got off the bus downtown and walked 18 blocks to campus. My camisa was so wet from the humidity by the time I saw the sign “University of the Sunchine’ State” at the edge of campus that I considered that for all my complaining about freezing at the bus stop on Bergenline avenue in West New York all those years, the Jersey winters might not have been so bad after all.
Orientation doesn’t start till next week, the lady in the Admissions Office said.
My heart sank. The dorms wouldn’t be open for another four days. But this was no Union City. Everybody smiled and talked “reeal slowww” like they had honey on their tongues, but nice, like they really meant it. The lady at the Admissions said I could try the University Inn downtown until the dorms opened. So there I was in my wet camisa, dragging Papi’s old suitcase from when we left Cuba in one hand, and a bag with bread pudding that Mami had wrapped in aluminum foil in the other. These were all my belongings, plus a hundred dollars in fives in a manila envelope in the back pocket of my wet pantalones. We didn’t have a phone at home in NJ, and there was no way I was going to call our neighbor, Mrs. Dottino “collect” and ask her to hobble across traffic on 48th street to tell Mami I was wet, homeless and hungry. So I didn’t.
5) The kindness of strangers
I asked the motel clerk at the University Inn downtown how much the rooms cost and gauging from my ragged state, he must have really felt sorry for me. He scribbled something on a piece of paper, and gave me directions and the name of a lady at the Catholic Student Center. I slept on a cot in the back of the sacristy for the next three nights. I was so thankful Mami had made me the bread pudding, and that I wasn’t a diabetic, because sugar, bread mush and raisins was all I ate for three days.
6) Cheers and queers
I would try out for the gymnastic team. A hippie guy in my dorm thought it was hilarious. The coach and assistant coach thought I did well in tryouts, but they apologized: “Mr. Antonio Casals Maduro, you have potential but we have no room for you on the squad for this year.”
Tony. My name is Tony Casals, I insisted.
Yes, Tony, said one of the assistant coaches. Have you considered trying out for the cheerleading squad?
Ay Coἣo! I couldn’t believe this guy had me pegged for a maricón from the get-go and was suggesting I should join a bunch of leaping girls and sing ”Sis Boom Bah” during football games! It was like he possessed that pargo-sixth-sense that is not obvious to straight people, but that us in the know, just know. I let the suggestion simmer for a couple of days, and after watching the girls practice on the field next to the Gymnasium, I figured that absent the tits and ass, and the bouncy pony tails I was better at cartwheeling, tumbling and twisting than any in the whole bunch. So I tried out, and made the squad! The only guy. They loved me! I could palm their tight little butts and toss them up in the air effortlessly. They loved it. I loved the attention. Tony Casals, University of the Sunchine’ cheerleader!
I was a big hit on the squad. Long, baggy white pants, blue and white saddle shoes with a navy blue belt to match, ivory V-neck sweater with bold college initials, and a megaphone with school colors and the mascot painted on its sides. I was important. It was me at the center of the cheer line, I was both piston and axle, pushing up all the big-haired, long-legged girls in my harem and flipping, hoisting and directing them during fight songs.
The football team was pathetic, with a 3-5 win/lose season and no bowl offer that year. The coach would be asked to leave at the end of the season. The quarterback transferred to University of Miami and the star tailback had a career-ending injury. As for the cheering squad, not only was I the only guy, but of our nine members, all were “Blonde Barbies”, with Alicia being the only other brunette besides me. We would win the Southeastern Conference Cheering Championship that year, without a peep in local or campus news.
7) Beauty and grace
Alicia had eyes like raw almonds, wavy chestnut hair and succulent lips. Her smile was overwhelmingly seductive. Even without trying, she could make a puto like me want to butter my bread on the other side. Guys all over campus swarmed her like flies on honey. She was shy at that, the kind of shy that she didn’t realize how just jarringly beautiful she was, even without makeup. This made her life that much more difficult, because she actually came to the university to study. It was her mother, a former Chi-O beauty queen and Miss-U head cheer leader who insisted she try out for the squad. Beauty and grace can be even more splendorous when they come effortlessly. That was Alicia, beauty and grace. We became soulmates. Her mother was happy. She did splits, shook her pom poms, and studied.
8) Ides of March.
I couldn’t figure out why I hardly saw Alicia much anymore. Maybe because football season was over and basketball was through. We’d talk briefly at practice, then she would usually scuttle away before we could hang together. She sometimes sat on the bus next to me going to and from away-games but she always reduced the dialogue to small talk.
I’ve got a sorority social or some such pretense, as pretense was what it was, and thus she seemed to deflect me politely. She hardly ever confided in me like in the fall semester, so I didn’t make much of it and I didn’t press on. Trying to pull up my GPA from the fall disaster C+ in Calculus, eating canned ravioli and ramen in my room so I would have enough money till the end of each month without begging my parents, who had none to give, consumed me as it was. Then the noose of losing the scholarshit’ if I didn’t keep above B+ was always looming.
Enter Robbie, spring semester freshman year. He reminded me of Johnnie Weissmuller, the guy who played Tarzan in the old black and white Tarzan movies, only Robbie had gorgeous auburn hair and emerald eyes. Star backup quarterback while still a freshman, shitty team and great looks notwithstanding, he had some things to offer to the human race besides brawn and concussions.
Robbie lived in the athletic building next to my dorm and was a great contrast to my dorm roommate, Barry, thepoliticalsciencemajordaddy’sboyfromrichwestpalmbeachneedIsaymore. I don’t know why Barry gave me the creeps, but from day one he oozed Lacoste and made it clear he didn’t like rooming with the likes of a brownie like me. I never undressed when Barry was in the room and beyond polite salutations, we hardly spoke. Barry listened to his Joni Mitchell records constantly and chained-smoked pot. I had never met anyone who wore penny loafers with shiny copper pennies in them! Barry and I had as much in common as motor oil in Perrier.
But Robbie was down-to-earth. I think he knew I was a little delicado with my being a boy cheerleader and all, but this didn’t seem to fluster him. I got the sense he was straight as an arrow, self-assured and impenetrable, so I didn’t push my hornies on him. We were just friends. I helped him with Chemistry. He gave me respect and companionship. Other than Robbie, Alicia and my right hand, I had no other friends on campus.
The closet back in the 60’s was something one didn’t usually come out of as nowadays so I was extremely prudent about my persona in day-to-day interactions. I was probably the only one in the Sunchine” State Yewniversity who didn’t wear Bermuda shorts, madras shirts or Sperry loafers, not because I didn’t like them, but because I couldn’t afford them. Robbie didn’t seem to mind my relative state of impoverishment or lack of fashion. He would sometimes treat me to lunch on campus, which may not seem like a big deal, but which made me feel like I belonged. I tutored him about hydroxyl radicals in kind. I kept things as a mutually beneficial chemical-only bond of sorts between us, which was at times hard for me, because it was a constant struggle keeping my sexual feelings for him at bay.
After basketball season I heard from one of the Barbies on the squad that Alicia had dropped out of school. How could I have been so stupid! It all made sense now, because I had kept trying to call her and stopped by her dorm repeatedly but she never seemed to answer. I got her home address from one of her sorority sisters and wrote her three letters, all of which boomeranged to my mailbox. No home phone listed in Pensacola, Florida, the little shit town she said she was from in the panhandle. What the hell is a panhandle? I never heard of Pensacola…Meanwhile, Robbie about disappeared as well at around the same time. Spring practice? I guessed. Or maybe he became so confident in chemistry he just didn’t need me anymore. I missed them both.
11) Back to Joisy.
The wisteria and azaleas were done blooming on campus and I got through finals’ week. So came the end of freshman year. A-minus, I made it. It was early summer and time to go back to Union City. As I got to the apartment at Astor Arms on Kennedy Boulevard, the first thing abuela said was, “Jew look so skeenny, and look at the rings around jewr ice, are jew getting some enough slip?” I stooped to hug her. She was hunched over, a wrinkly 90 years old, and bird-skinny. She prided herself that she spoke “Englich”.
Si, abuela, estoy bién. Just a bit fatigado from taking the exámenes finales. I hugged her and dragged papi’s old suitcase behind me into the apartment and onto my mattress in the back bedroom.
12) Reality Checks
On the mattress was a stack of envelopes with a rubber band around them.
“Your mail.” said mami. It seemed she still hadn’t forgiven me for going away from New Y’ersy. Good thing I never told her I became a cheerleader…
As I sat and read, there was the end-of-the-year transcript to brag about and a second official-looking envelope with the renewal of my scholarship for next year. There was a crumpled letter from my cousin Carli telling me she had to get married in a hurry because Alberto got drafted and would go to Vietnam soon. In the bundle of mail was also a scented pink envelope with marvelous handwriting in purple ink:
To: Mr Tony Casals. It was postmarked Pensacola Florida. Alicia! She missed me. She was sorry about avoiding me. She was home with her family. Would have invited me to the wedding but it would be a small affair-just family. Pregnant. Would not go back to college in the fall. Baby due around Christmas. Would I call her collect?
Sonofabitch! Son of Tarzan, babydaddy! Friend my ass, Chemistry my ass! I felt so doubly betrayed…So this is how it must have gone: Robbie met Alicia from the sidelines at the gridiron in the fall. He must have fallen for her pom-poms. Alicia was aloof at first. She then became a Chi-O and He of course, was an Alpha Delt. She wanted nothing to do with an “Alpha Douche” but…He seemed different. She learned from Him, that He and I were friends. She let him get near. She trusted me, which I think is why He was being nice to me. But she was Baptist and from Mississippi-Southern blood. Them Dixie’ folk were honorable and wouldn’ suffer no bastard child, especially since daddy was a prominent attorney and a pillar of the community and mommy was a Junior Leaguer mover-and-shaker and Great-great-great grand Daughter of the American Revolution. Go to hell in the Panhandle!
I lay down and wept and slept for 20 hours. All memories of the Sunchine’ State soured on me. I felt terminally betrayed, sentenced to another summer in Union City, NJ.
13) The wise fool year and beyond
In the fall of 1970 the Greyhound from Jersey City back to campus took almost 18 hours. I got accepted into the “honors” dorm, became a resident advisor, changed my major to Anthropology, studied my ass off and worked as a waiter for one of the campus fraternities on weekends. I never saw Alicia again. Occasionally I thought I saw someone who looked like Robbie on campus. I never returned to the Cheerleading squad. I got a job writing articles for the campus newspaper.
Three days before Thanksgiving break, they found my old roommate, Barry dead. He’d left a note. Rumor had it he’d been caught in a bathroom stall in the library doing another guy.
Six years later I finished my PhD in Latin American History. My thesis was entitled: “The Anatomy of Ché Guevara: from patriot-revolutionary to sainthood.” What started as a fact-finding journey about my Cuban raίces became a roundabout investigation into the Batista- Maduro legacy and the rise of the likes of El Ché. Academia aside, I arrived at the conclusion that both the General and Ché were just criminal pricks at opposite ends of a totalitarian spectrum.
Getting neither traction nor satisfaction in academia, I got a job writing copy for the St.Petersburg Times. Abuela and papi died, mami moved in with my brother and his wife. My brother became a highly successful attorney in Upstate NY. I began teaching creative writing at nights at a community college. I did the bar scene for years. Worked my way through some magazine articles, then submitted some fiction pieces to several literary journals. But I didn’t make enough to make ends meet with my writing, so I got a job with the Department of Environmental Protection. I would retire after 20 years with a government pension and moved to South Beach, where I met Jorge while volunteering at Dade Hospice.
Jorge and I moved in together. Carnal pleasures no longer a centerpiece of our respective relationships, ours was a situation of convenience, not love. We lived with “the virus”, hung onto memories of mutually past-loved ones long gone. I had submitted my second exposé of environmental exploitation and fraud in the state of Florida to the publisher on the day I received the invitation for the Homecoming. Jorge was getting traction on his acrylics in trendy art galleries in the Southeast. We were all about drifting through life with deliberate gratitude.
14) Game Day, Homecoming.
What had been a stadium of 30,000 with metal bleachers during the 1960’s was now a state-of-art athletic facility for 105,000 capacity, with an air-conditioned, elevator-accessed penthouse and high definition jumbotron screens surrounding the bowl. After the F-16s did the flyby’s and the lady with the high-pitched voice belted the spangled flag song, the crowd ignited. We were introduced and lauded at midfield. Got plaques and posed for group photos.
I wore long, baggy white pants, blue and white saddle shoes with a navy blue belt to match, ivory V-neck sweater with bold college initials. The old Tony Casals in me hadn’t changed much physically, and except for the hair loss I stayed fairly fit. I didn’t recognize any of the Barbies on the squad. Several came up to me and introduced themselves.
Boy, you look great, Tony. Yeah Tony, just great. Did you bring your family?
I looked around. They were all bleach blonde, overweight and over the top in Botox and perfume, except for the slim one, silver-grey wavy hair and almond eyes, who stood in the background. She stepped forward, holding the hand of a handsome young man, dressed in a blue v-neck, white pants and saddle shoes. He had dark brown eyes and olive skin. I could have sworn he was latino.
Tony? she said softly. This is my son, Tony. Tony, meet an old friend cheerleader, Mr. Tony Casals. She kissed me on the cheek and took a step back.
I gasped and swallowed hard, shook hands with him, and I hugged her. Still jarringly beautiful, she was all beauty and grace. It was time for the third quarter. We were escorted to the sidelines. I slowed my step and blended into the crowd of sideline photographers, dignitaries and band members. It was a deliberate fade-back on my part. It would be fateful, because I never intended to see her again.
I didn’t stay for the game to end, made it back to South Beach late that night. Took an Uber home from the Greyhound station. Jorge was up painting when I came back. We said our hellos and I poured us each a glass of Malbec.
How was your trip?
There’s some mail for you on the couch. Several envelopes were bound with a rubber band. As I went through them, a pink envelope with purple handwriting appeared. Return address: Pensacola.
I hope this letter gets to you in time before Homecoming. I got your address from the alumni association and am writing in the hopes you will come to the university. I must see you. In case you don’t come: 1) I’m sorry. 2) Robbie and I married and we had the baby. 3)Robbie Jr. died at six months from birth defects. 4) It was too much for Robbie to handle. 5) He now lives somewhere in the Panhandle with a partner. 6) I adopted a baby five years after little Robbie died. 7) I hope you will get to meet him soon. 8) I will always love you. XOXO.
An academic physician and scientific writer, Ricardo has had his fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry featured in the U.S. and in the U.K., in Acentos Review, Hispanic Culture Review, Biostories, Foliate Oak, Lunch Ticket, The Bellingham Review, Molotov Cocktail, Star 82 Review, Wingless Dreamer and others. Born and raised in Cuba, he came to the United States as a refugee in his teens and now resides in North Florida.