Friday, April 19, 2013

Marcelina and the Banana Split

It was in the early fall of 1945 and we had been in the Caracas apartment we had rented for three months.  The apartment had no phone so I kept in touch sporadically with the girls I had met during the summer by using the phone at the little bodega across the street.  Now only three or four girls were left as some had gone back to school in the States.

One of the remaining girls had a job and two were taking courses at home.  I was at loose ends having finished high school and just barely was thinking about writing to colleges back home.  I could get a job but doing what?  Besides that would mean that I couldn't sleep in late.

Our apartment came with a maid, a pretty mulatto girl named Marcelina, who was only a year older than I.  When she wasn't keeping the house clean, shopping for groceries or cooking supper for my mother and me, she could be found sitting in her tiny bedroom off of the kitchen reading a newspaper or sewing something. On weekends, she would go home to her family.

I tried to get to know her, not sure of the master-servant protocol and not really caring.  Using my father's small Spanish-English dictionary and relying on high school Latin and French, I started to learn Spanish.

There was a problem in that Marcelina's Spanish was not beautiful Castilian spoken trippingly on the tongue nor even high-class Venezuelan, but something fairly rapid-fire with a lot of dropped "esses" in the middle and ends of words. The word for fish, for example, was pescado and this ended up being "peh-cah-oh."  We lived in a section of town called Los Caobos and this became Lo Cah-o-bo.  Added to this was a changing of V to B and we thus lived in Benezuela.  I found I had to pay strict attention to pick up anything, but little by little I did.

When I tired of reading or plunking on the rented piano (which had been hauled up three floors), I would hang around Marcelina trying to carry on conversations in my halting Spanglish.  I would go out with her on the back balcony and try to join in as she chatted with the other maids on balconies facing ours, three rows of kitchens with girls of all ages and hues hanging out dish cloths, shaking mops or just leaning on the railings smoking and exchanging gossip.

Once, when I was out of my accustomed Camels, I bummed a cigarette from Amalia, directly across from  us.  I inhaled and came to attention, lungs filled with dark, strong, weedy, exotic  flavored smoke.  I coughed and called my thank yous, managed to finish it and, at the same time, vowed never to buy Caporales. 
Marcelina was a sweet natured, unassuming, but shy girl.  She was as interested in me as I was in her and we worked hard to bridge the language gap. Once, after going to a bull fight the previous day, I slept in especially late.  Marcelina came to the bedroom door, put her fingers up to her forehead like horns, grinned and shyly called "moo."  We both thought that was funny and after that I became Moo.

One afternoon, after discovering a local ice cream parlor close to us, I decided I had to have a banana split, a delight thus far unknown to me.  On top of that, I told Marcelina she had to come with me.  Housework had been done and it was too early for her to start thinking about supper so she came, smiling, but a bit reluctant.  "No se hace, Moo", "It isn't done," she said as we went down our three flights of stairs.  I pooh-poohed her worries. 

We crossed the street in front of our local grocery or bodega, then further on past the oyster seller with his little cart filled with shaved ice and fresh oysters.  People would wait while he shucked the oysters and, squeezing pieces of lime offered for the occasion, would eat them on the spot.  I had no interest in oysters having just learned to appreciate longosta cocktail made with the local crayfish.

We reached outdoor tables at the heladeria and sat down.  The waiter glanced a little oddly at Marcelina but took my order and soon returned with the banana, ice cream, strawberry, chocolate, whipped cream, nuts and cherry concoction that stunned the eye.

We started slowly at first and then, with enthusiasm, ate our way through it all.  Marcelina seemed to enjoy hers as much as I did, but gave darting little glances from time to time around at the waiters and at people passing on the street as though she expected to be taken away for breaking the unspoken rule. I paid our bill and we walked slowly home.

"Moo," she said thoughtfully in fairly slow Spanish, "is it true that Americans don't like Negroes?"  I was a little uncomfortable because I really didn't know, hadn't cared and, as she asked, realized that by and large  we probably didn't.

"Oh, no, Marcelina," I managed to answer, "that's not true." Our limited communication kept us from continuing the subject and we talked haltingly of more familiar things.

A week or so later, Marcelina, my mother and I weathered the revolution together.  My father came for the weekend after the worst was over.

Shortly after that, we moved to a house a few blocks away because the Legate family planned to return to the apartment sooner than we had thought.  We were lucky to find something.

Marcelina, it seemed, was part and parcel with the apartment and we said goodbye.  I didn't see her again although she did supply an older cousin, Ligia, who came twice a week and cleaned and also called me "Moo."  She was very pleasant but not as sweet and pretty as Marcelina.  I never made the mistake of trying to make friends with her.  And looking back, I find that I never had another banana split as delicious as that first one with Marcelina.

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