Writer Maria de los Angeles read her story Helen and Her Three Husbands at a live event produced by Under the Sun and Lip Service at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. The next Lip Service storytelling event is October 1. Tickets are on sale.
Helen is a 93-year-old Hungarian who lost her family in the holocaust. I’m a 37-year-old Cuban who never met my grandparents.
Exile makes for a strange familiarity.
By 1953 Helen made it to Miami Beach.
Fifty years later, I rented an apartment next to Helen’s, just off of 41st Street.
Most days, I see Helen by the mailbox and we talk about her three husbands. Helen doesn’t talk much about husbands one and three. But number two was the love of her life.
“You only love once, Maria,” she says. “I told you I had three husbands, yes?”
“Yes,” I say.
“The second one, the father of my children, the one I met at a dance—we were lovebirds. He held my hand until he died.”
Helen speaks as if everyone were familiar with that kind of love.
One day, I knock on her door and show off my Yiddish. “I’ve run out of change for the laundry. I’m a meshugenah shiksah wearing a schmatteh!” For this, I get a pinch on the cheek.
“How do you know Jewish?” she asks. “Let me teach you how to say I love you in Hungarian. Hungarians are so romantic! Did you know I had three husbands?”
“Oh Helen, I haven’t even managed to have one husband,” I say. “But I’ve avoided three divorces.”
Although Helen’s religious enough to observe Shabbat, she asks, “Does your boyfriend make you feel good? Does he fulfill you like a woman?”
I look down at the floor. What if she hears him through the concrete that separates our bedrooms? But then I remember, Helen’s a little deaf.
When she cleans her house, she blasts Hungarian czardas on an old tape player.
I often bump into Helen running errands on 41st Street. Every evening she picks up supper at Kastner’s Market. She does this walking at a speedy clip, dressed in a polyester blazer and a skirt from the 70s. She always wears a matching crochet beret, the work of her own spotty hands.
Months later, I catch her on the sidewalk walking home. I tell her I broke up with my boyfriend. Helen worries.
“Maria,” she says, “You are so pretty.”
Helen, just five feet tall, sways her flat chest side to side. She grabs all two hundred pounds of me. “Here, let me show you how to dance czardas!”
She twirls me around.
When our dance is over, she asks: “Why don’t you go to a dance and meet a boy?”
I smile but I don’t respond. I don’t want to spoil her memories with the truth. People don’t meet at dances anymore. When I go to Latin clubs hoping to see people dancing to old Cuban boleros, I see people humping to Reggaton.
Courtship is dead. Nobody holds hands until they die.
The day I hear a knock at my door, I know we are becoming family. I look through the peephole and see a few strands of wispy gray hair. Helen is standing at my door in an over-sized pink satin robe and matching slippers.
“Maria, are you not scared?” she asks. “The storm is coming. If you need anything, let me know.”
Clouds roll in from Biscayne Bay and I can’t resist. I say, “Thank you, bubbeleh.”
Helen smiles. She says, “Oh, you are an adorable child!”
One day, a quieter storm comes. Helen tells me she’s moving to Chicago. Her children don’t want her to live alone. She seems unhappy.
“Helen,” I say, “maybe you’ll meet a nice fella in Chicago.”
“Oh, I don’t like old men,” she says. “They’re not worth the trouble. Did I tell you, I had three husbands?”
Even though we saw each other nearly every day for three years, when Helen moves away, we miss saying goodbye.
Two months later, I find out from another neighbor that she passed away.
I’m sure Helen missed her home in Miami Beach. Now, I imagine her in heaven, dancing the czarda with husband number two.