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Excerpt From "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"

A novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

They'd come to another gas station, then a fritter place, with donkeys and horses tied up to a railing (sighing, she was already a little homesick.) She saw her first fire engine that day, a crew of bomberos hosing down a smoldering shed, made of crates and thatch, near a causeway to a beach; a cement mixing truck turned over on its side in a sugar cane field, a coiling flow of concrete spewing like mierda from its bottom; then more billboards, advertising soap and toothpaste, radio shows and, among others, a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose faces were well known to even the guajiros of Cuba ! (Another featured the enchanting visage of the buxom Mexican actress Sarita Montiel; another of the comedian Catinflas.) Along the way, she just had to ask her new friend Sixto, the ugly, to stop again—a few miles or so west of Maríanao, where they had come across a roadside market, just like the sort one might find in a town plaza, with stalls and long tables boasting of everything from pots and pans to used clothes and shoes: half suffocating from the swinish gases wafting into his cab, Sixto didn't mind at all. What most caught her eye were the racks of dresses over which hung a sign.  

"What's that say, Señor?" she asked, and Sixto, rubbing his eyes, and pulling up on the break, told her: "It says, 'venta',"—which meant there was a sale going on. A group of women, negritas all, were perusing the racks, and so María, needing a new dress to wear in Havana,  stepped from the truck and pulled her life savings, some few dollars, which she kept in a sock, out from where she had stuffed it down her dress, or to put it more precisely, from between her breasts.

Most happily and with the innocence of a farm girl, María examined the fabric and stitching of dress after dress, pleased to find that the vendors were very kind and not at all, what she had expected. For a half an hour she had looked around,  the women working those stalls and tables complimenting her on the pristine nature of her mulatta skin, nary a pimple or blemish to mar her face ( the kind of skin which had its own inner glow, like in the cosmetic ads, except she didn't use any, not back then, a glow that inspired in the male species the desire to kiss and touch her), the men giving her the up and down, the children, running like scamps tugging at her skirt—

You see, my daughter; if I was incredibly good looking in my twenties, you can't imagine what I looked like in my prime, as a girl of sixteen and seventeen—I was something out of a man's dream, with honey skin so glowing and a face so pure and perfect that men couldn't help wanting to possess me…. but being so young and innocent, I was hardly aware of such things, only that—Well, how can I put it my love –that I was somehow different from your typical cubanita.

That afternoon, she bought, at quite reasonable prices, certain dainty undergarments, they were so inexpensive, as well as a blouse, a pair of polka dotted high heels, which she would have to grow accustomed to, and finally after haggling with the vendor, she decided upon a pink dress of a florid design, said to have been styled after the Parísian fashion, with ruffles cascading over the shoulders and hips; a dress which she, being frugal, would keep for some ten years. With such items in hand and after she and her benefactor, the half toothless Sixto had eaten a little something from a stand, they proceeded east into Havana, the city of both torments and love.

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