I have stretched out on the couch — a plumpish well-lit haven upholstered with rough, nubby cotton, ivory in color. In the kitchen the man I love shuts and opens and shuts the oven door. He's baking brownies. I can smell the chocolate. I hold the bottom edge of a thick paperback between the thumb and fingers of my left hand. The book rests in the crotch (one of English's ugliest words) formed by the thumb and fingers. The thumb and index finger of my right hand lightly grasp the upper corner of the right-hand page. Page 31. That thumb and finger rub the paper between them, fret the "31," worry the paper, warm the corner, causing that delicate chafing so provocative to arousal.
Cesar had one foot lifted behind him, the bottom of his sporty cordovan shoe pressed to the wall, and was lighting a cigarette and listening to all the sirens when a white camera flash went off Foof. Aside from becoming friends that night, he and Frankie ended up on page 3 of the next morning's Daily News, part of the photograph whose caption read: BALLROOM ROBBER DIES IN POOL OF BLOOD.
The man I love stands over me. His big shadow wobbles. He says we will soon have these brownies he made, he says they'll be hot, he will unload great scoops of vanilla ice cream on top them, he will....
A spectacular evening among so many spectacular evenings. How the rum flowed then, Jesus, how the bottles of booze multiplied along with the thick latex prophylactics and quivering female thighs like the miracle offish and bread.
Closer to the heaped pillows my head's hollowed, he's standing now. I hear him breathing, his belly rumble, his fingers scrape his jeans. His flannel shirt's folds unfold the brownies baking smell. "Give me a kiss," he says.
Visas in hand and sponsored by their cousin Pablo, they had turned up in New York as part of the wave of musicians who had been pouring out of Havana since the 1920s, when the tango and rumba crazes swept the United States and Europe. The boom had started because so many musicians lost their jobs in pit orchestras when talkies...
His hand is warm. "Mmmm," I say.... came in and silent movies went out....
I hate to put the book down.
It was stay in Cuba and starve to death or head north to find a place for a rumba band. Even in Havana....
I sit up, clasp book between thumb and forefinger. The man I love scoots in next to me. Mixed in our kissing and on my tongue that tastes him, along the edges of top and bottom teeth, words and names from the book hiss and pop. Vanna Vane. Her name roars in my mouth. Vanna Vane. A character is the sound of her name: Vanna Vane, Miss Mambo for the month of June 1954, who had a mole just below the nipple of her right breast.
The book falls to the floor. Back cover facing up. My place lost. Giving up Vanna, ditching Cesar who suffers in the terrible heat of a summer's night and pours himself another drink, I feel I desert a cause I promised to follow. This world breathed out in words by Oscar Hijuelos to make what he came to call The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, after only 31 pages, has commandeered my loyalty. From a photograph on his book's back cover, balding, bespectacled Hijuelos looks up at my ceiling, and no matter what I'm offered that's visible, palpable, smell-able, I regret leaving Hi-juelos's print and paper, soft-jacketed world.
How is it possible that Hijuelos creates out of words a pre-World War II Havana and 1940s Manhattan so convincing that I am reluctant to leave it for kisses, for brownies, ice cream? "That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really," writes William Gass. "It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears... from sponge."
Whatever I'm reading is what I like best. I'm embarrassed. Not about what I read, but how hungrily I read, how happy I am, reading. Reading is a pleasure that never wears itself out: the more I read the more I want to read.
It's for more than plot and characters I'm reading. I'm reading for the pleasure of hearing the writer's voice. Reading is listening. I re-read some writers and look forward to their new books in the same way that as a teenager I looked forward to new Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis or Jackie Wilson tunes. Of living writers best known for the novel or short story, these are my favorite: Paul Auster, Fred Buechner, James Lee Burke, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Stanley Elkin, James Ellroy, Richard Ford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Thomas McGuane, Lorrie Moore, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Stone, Paul Theroux, John Updike, Andrew Vachss, Tobias Wolff. Recently dead: Raymond Carver, John Cheever.
I always hope while reading that a word, a sentence, a paragraph will stop me on the road, turn me around, change me, heal me, save me. As a teenager and in my 20s and 30s, with this hope (and terrible need), I struggled to read theology and philosophy and listened to Robert Johnson's two posthumously issued albums and Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and post-Motown Marvin Gaye and Bach's B Minor Mass and Handel's Messiah. Now I read poets. Of living poets, I turn most regularly to Robert Hass, James Schuyler, Charles Simic. Of recently dead: Richard Hugo (my six-year-old copy of Making Certain It Goes On, The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo I hold together with rubber bands) and Robert Penn Warren. Poetry raises the ante on every word. Poets tell me what I don't have words for. Poetry comes in words but acts like weather, acts like love when love for a person strikes you, bulls-eye, right in the beating heart and raises you to your feet, cheering, and knocks you to your knees, awed. Poetry, to quote Hugo, "brings us to us."