IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE by Howard Feigenbaum
Three tall, muscular men blocked the door to the club as I approached with my lady. We looked forward to an evening of Latin dancing and pleasant conversation. I found this club by searching the internet. The website said the band kept the crowd jumping like water drops on a hot griddle. I liked the sound of that. I wanted to see for myself.
At UCLA, I had taken a dance class to meet the physical education requirement. With my sense of rhythm and timing, the Latin dances appealed to me. I learned that the willingness to unabashedly shake one’s hips was an important prerequisite for the rumba, the mambo, the cha-cha and the samba. Although I lacked any Latin heritage, I possessed an uncanny ability to rotate my hips like a Kitchen-Aid mixer.
Rosa managed the Westside Carwash. She had a radiant smile that could light a dark room and soft, brown eyes that would persuade any man to upgrade from the basic wash to the Silver Spray and Wax or maybe even to the Gold.
I brought my car there when I could write my initials in the dust on the fender.
My better-than-average command of her native tongue impressed her. I started with Me llamo Benny. I knew my efforts in language lab during my freshman year in college would pay off some day. “¿Dònde está la parada de autobus?― Where is the bus stop?―was a snap for me. After a year of two-hour weekly stints in the lab, I could roll my r’s like a Castilian cavalier. I knew I didn’t sound like a native speaker to Rosa, but she appreciated the effort. There’s something about sharing the common bond of language that draws people closer. I loved the moments when she spoke to me in her rapid Spanish staccato, as though I would understand everything she said.
Rosa seemed surprised when I asked her for a date. After all, my carwash appearances had no regular schedule. When I joked with her at the cash register, she encouraged my attention. I mentioned that I liked to rumba.
“Do you like to dance?” I asked.
“Of course. What lady doesn’t?”
So here we were, on La Cienega Boulevard, walking toward the club, anticipating an evening of syncopated Latin music. The enjoyment of dancing didn’t depend on the existence of a romantic relationship. A date with Rosa probably wouldn’t develop into anything more. But if two people like to dance, that is pleasure enough.
The moment of truth arrived. I stared at one of the muscle-bound pillars guarding the entrance to the club and smiled my most engaging smile.
“We’re here to dance.”
“You’re not on the list,” he said with a dismissive growl. He stared at Rosa’s red dress.
How could you not notice? The hem passed across the middle of her shapely thigh. The slope of her lovely breasts rose above the halter top decorated with rhinestones.
“Do you know who this lady is, my good man?” I asked in my most baritone voice, re-engaging with the Hulk.
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, I’ll tell you if you can give me your attention for a minute. Do you know who Tito Puente and Celia Cruz are?”
“Sure. What about it?’
“This gorgeous woman is their adopted granddaughter.”
“Celia and Tito, on tour in Barcelona, strolled to a restaurant for lunch. A gypsy woman holding a baby in her arms approached them. She asked if Celia would hold the infant while she went to a nearby grocery store for milk. Tito gave her ten pesos to help out. The gypsy never returned.”
Now, all three doormen leaned in, attentive to the tale.
The second doorman, stepping closer, asked, “What happened next?”
“Celia and Tito took the baby to lunch with them. She asked the waiter to bring a glass of warm milk and a rubber glove. When the waiter brought her the items, Celia reached up to her hat and pulled out a hat pin with a big pearl on top. She poured the milk into the glove, tied off the opening, and made a small prick in the end of the bulging index finger. While singing a rumba tune, Celia gently fed the infant. The baby started moving her feet to the beat of the song. Tito watched with a wide grin.”
“This is an amazing story! I’m a big fan of both of them,” he said, focusing his unwavering attention on me.
“Celia and Tito teamed up occasionally for performances,” I said, “They had families of their own. Their children were grown and married but hadn’t yet given either of them grandchildren. They decided, since they both enjoyed the baby so much and since they met the child at the same time, they would jointly adopt her as their granddaughter.”
The doormen’s eyes widened.
“Celia and Tito took their turn with her, bringing the baby on the road to concerts and dance halls. The girl loved the music and the dancing. She developed into a marvelous dancer. That child is the fine lady, who you see standing before you today.”
Rosa stared at me, her brow furrowed and her mouth agape. She reached behind me and pinched the back of my arm.
“Wouldn’t it be a shame if this wonderful dancer, the granddaughter of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, couldn’t dance the rumba on the floor of your club? As a tribute to them, I think you should escort us to the finest table in the house, order a bottle of champagne, and join us in a toast to the memories of Celia and Tito.”
The leader, breaking into a knowing smile, stood in front of me. “You all right, man. I like your style.” His raised, beefy hand descended, slapping my upturned palm.
The doors opened wide, and in we went. We sat at our table drinking a champagne toast with the head doorman before he returned to his post.
Rosa grabbed my shoulder and put her face in front of mine. “Benny, why did you tell those guys I am the granddaughter of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz?
I like to dance, but maybe I’m not too good.”
“Listen, if those guys are watching us dance, it would be a good idea for you to put on the best show you can and smile a lot.”
She leaned back and shook her head. “I do not believe this.”
“If I had to fight them, who knows, they might have been injured and embarrassed in front of their boss. My story saved them the pain. Besides, they enjoyed themselves enough to show their kindness and generosity. Everyone’s happy.”
Rosa grinned. “I only know your first name. We know each other from the carwash, but I really don’t know who you are. Tell me.”
“I’ll be happy to tell you, mi querida, my dear, but first, let’s dance.” I escorted her to the floor.
The band started their version of Tequila, with conga drum and maracas accenting the beat.
Rosa’s curvaceous body undulated.
I activated my Kitchen-Aid hips. We were off and running.