The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral



Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral:

A girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise — the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.


She lived in those days in Baní. Not the frenzied Baní of right now, supported by an endless supply of DoYos who’ve laid claim to most of Boston, Providence, New Hampshire. This was the lovely Baní of times past, beautiful and respectful. A city famed for its resistance to blackness, and it was here, alas, that the darkest character in our story resided. On one of the main streets near the central plaza. In a house that no longer stands. It was here that Beli lived with her mother-aunt, if not exactly content, then certainly in a state of relative tranquility. From 1951 on, ‘hija’ and ‘madre’ running their famous bakery near the Plaza Central and keeping their fading, airless house in tip-top shape. (Before 1951, our orphaned girl had lived with another foster family, monstrous people if the rumors are to be believed, a dark period of her life neither she nor her madre ever referenced. Their very own página en blanco.)

These were the Beautiful Days. When La Inca would recount for Beli her family’s illustrious history while they pounded and wrung dough with bare hands (Your father! Your mother! Your sisters! Your house!) or when the only talk between them was the voices on Carlos Moya’s radio and the sound of the butter being applied to Beli’s ruined back. Days of mangoes, days of bread. There are not many surviving photos from that period but it’s not hard to imagine them — arrayed in front of their immaculate house in Los Pescadores. Not touching, because it was not their way. Respectability so dense in la grande that you’d need a blowtorch to cut it, and a guardedness so Minas Tirith in la pequeña that you’d need the whole of Mordor to overcome it. Theirs was the life of the Good People of Sur. Church twice a week, and on Fridays a stroll through Baní’s parque central, where in those nostalgic Trujillo days stickup kids were nowhere to be seen and the beautiful bands did play. They shared the same sagging bed, and in the morning, while La Inca fished around blindly for her chancletas, Beli would shiver out to the front of the house, and while La Inca brewed her coffee, Beli would lean against the fence and stare. At what? The neighbors? The rising dust? At the world?

Hija, La Inca would call. Hija, come here!

Four, five times until finally La Inca walked over to fetch her, and only then did Beli come. Why are you shouting? Beli wanted to know, annoyed. La Inca pushing her back toward the house: Will you listen to this girl! Thinks herself a person when she’s not!

Beli, clearly: one of those Oya-souls, always turning, allergic to tranquilidad. Almost any other Third World girl would have thanked Dios Santísimo for the blessed life she led: after all, she had a madre who didn’t beat her, who (out of guilt or inclination) spoiled her rotten, bought her flash clothes and paid her bakery wages, peanuts, I’ll admit, but that’s more than what ninety-nine percent of other kids in similar situations earned, which was nathan. Our girl had it made, and yet it did not feel so in her heart. For reasons she only dimly understood, by the time of our narrative, Beli could no longer abide working at the bakery or being the ‘daughter’ of one of the ‘most upstanding women in Baní’. She could not abide, period. Everything about her present life irked her; she wanted, with all her heart, something else. When this dissatisfaction entered her heart she could not recall, would later tell her daughter that it had been with her all her life, but who knows if this is true? What exactly it was she wanted was never clear either: her own incredible life, yes, a handsome, wealthy husband, yes, beautiful children, yes, a woman’s body, without question. If I had to put it to words I’d say what she wanted, more than anything, was what she’d always wanted throughout her Lost Childhood: to escape. From what was easy to enumerate: the bakery, her school, dull-ass Baní, sharing a bed with her madre, the inability to buy the dresses she wanted, having to wait until fifteen to straighten her hair, the impossible expectations of La Inca, the fact that her long-gone parents had died when she was one, the whispers that Trujillo had done it, those first years of her life when she’d been an orphan, the horrible scars from that time, her own despised black skin. But where she wanted to escape to she could not tell you. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d been a princess in a high castle or if her dead parents’ former estate, the glorious Casa Hatüey, had been miraculously restored from Trujillo’s Omega Effect. She would have wanted out.

Every morning the same routine: Hypatia Belicia Cabral, ven acá!

You ven acá, Beli muttered under her breath. You.

Beli had the inchoate longings of nearly every adolescent escapist, of an entire generation, but I ask you: So fucking what? No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated. This was a country, a society, that had been designed to be virtually escape-proof. Alcatraz of the Antilles. There weren’t any Houdini holes in that Platano Curtain. Options as rare as Tainos and for irascible dark-skinned flacas of modest means they were rarer still. (If you want to cast her restlessness in a broader light: she was suffering the same suffocation that was asphyxiating a whole generation of young Dominicans. Twenty-odd years of the Trujillato had guaranteed that. Hers was the generation that would launch the Revolution’ but which for the moment was turning blue for want of air. The generation reaching consciousness in a society that lacked any. The generation that despite the consensus that declared change impossible hankered for change all the same. At the end of her life, when she was being eaten alive by cancer, Beli would talk about how trapped they all felt. It was like being at the bottom fan ocean, she said. There was no light and a whole ocean crushing down on you. But most people had gotten so used to it they thought it normal, they forgot even that there was a world above.)

But what could she do? Beli was a girl, for fuck’s sake; she had no power or beauty (yet) or talent or family that could help her transcend, only La Inca, and La Inca wasn’t about to help our girl escape anything. On the contrary, mon frère, La Inca, with her stiff skirts and imperious airs, had as her central goal the planting of Belicia in the provincial soil of Baní and in the inescapable fact of her Family’s Glorious Golden Past. The family Beli had never known, whom she had lost early. (Remember, your father was a doctor, a doctor, and your mother was a nurse, a nurse.) La Inca expected Beli to be the last best hope of her decimated family, expected her to play the key role in a historical rescue mission, but what did she know about her family except the stories she was told ad nauseam? And, ultimately, what did she care? She wasn’t a maldita ciguapa, with her feet pointing backward in the past. Her feet pointed forward, she reminded La Inca over and over. Pointed to the future.

Your father was a doctor, La Inca repeated, unperturbed. Your mother was a nurse. They owned the biggest house in La Vega.

Beli did not listen, but at night, when the alizé winds blew in, our girl would groan in her sleep.


When Beli was thirteen, La Inca landed her a scholarship at El Redentor, one of the best schools in Baní. On paper it was a pretty solid move. Orphan or not, Beli was the Third and Final Daughter of one of the Cibao’s finest families, and a proper education was not only her due, it was her birthright. La Inca also hoped to take some of the heat off Beli’s restlessness. A new school with the best people in the valley, she thought, what couldn’t this cure? But despite the girl’s admirable lineage, Beli herself had not grown up in her parents’ upper-class milieu. Had had no kind of breeding until La Inca — her father’s favorite cousin — had finally managed to track her down (rescue her, really) and brought her out of the Darkness of those days and into the light of Baní. In these last seven years, meticulous punctilious La Inca had undone a lot of the damage that life in Outer Azua had inflicted, but the girl was still crazy rough around the edges. Had all the upper-class arrogance you could want, but she also had the mouth of a colmado superstar. Would chew anybody out for anything. (Her years in Outer Azua to blame.) Putting her darkskinned media-campesina ass in a tony school where the majority of the pupils were the whiteskinned children of the regime’s top ladronazos turned out to be a better idea in theory than in practice. Brilliant doctor father or not, Beli stood out in EI Redentor. Given the delicacy of the situation, another girl might have adjusted the polarity of her persona to better fit in, would have kept her head down and survived by ignoring the 10,001 barbs directed at her each day by students and staff alike. Not Beli. She never would admit it (even to herself), but she felt utterly exposed at EI Redentor, all those pale eyes gnawing at her duskiness like locusts — and she didn’t know how to handle such vulnerability. Did what had always saved her in the past. Was defensive and aggressive and mad over-reactive. You said something slightly off-color about her shoes and she brought up the fact that you had a slow eye and danced like a goat with a rock stuck in its ass. Ouch. You would just be playing and homegirl would be coming down on you off the top rope.

Let’s just say, by the end of her second quarter Beli could walk down the hall without fear that anyone would crack on her. The downside of this of course was that she was completely alone. (It wasn’t like In the Time of the Butterflies, where a kindly Mirabal Sister↓ steps up and befriends the poor scholarship student. ≡ The Mirabal Sisters were the Great Martyrs of that period. Patria Mercedes, Minerva Argentina, and Antonia Maria — three beautiful sisters from Salcedo who resisted Trujillo and were murdered for it. (One of the main reasons why the women from Salcedo have reputations for being so incredibly fierce, don’t take shit from nobody, not even a Trujillo.) Their murders and the subsequent public outcry are believed by many to have signaled the official beginning of the end of the Trujillato, the ‘tipping point,’ when folks finally decided enough was enough.

No Miranda here: everybody shunned her.) Despite the outsized expectations Beli had had on her first days to be Number One in her class and to be crowned prom queen opposite handsome Jack Pujols, Beli quickly found herself exiled beyond the bonewalls of the macroverse itself flung there by the Ritual of Child. She wasn’t even lucky enough to be demoted into that lamentable subset — those mega-losers that even the losers pick on. She was beyond that, in Sycorax territory. Her fellow ultra-dalits included: the Boy in the Iron Lung whose servants would wheel him into the corner of the class every morning and who always seemed to be smiling, the idiot, and the Chinese girl whose father owned the largest pulperia in the country and was known, dubiously, as Trujillo’s Chino. In her two years at El Redentor, Wei never managed to learn more than a gloss of Spanish, yet despite this obvious impediment she reported dutifully to class every day. In the beginning the other students had scourged her with all the usual anti-Asian nonsense. They cracked on her hair (It’s so greasy!), on her eyes (Can you really see through those?), on chopsticks (I got some twigs for you!), on language (variations on ching chong-ese.) The boys especially loved to tug their faces back into bucked-tooth, chinky-eyed rictuses. Charming. Ha-ha. Jokes aplenty.

But once the novelty wore off (she didn’t ever respond), the students exiled Wei to the Phantom Zone, and even the cries of China, China, China died down eventually.

This was who Beli sat next to her first two years of high school. But even Wei had some choice words for Beli.

You black, she said, fingering Beli’s thin forearm. Black-black.

Beli tried her hardest but she couldn’t spin bomb-grade plutonium from the light-grade uranium of her days. During her Lost Years there had been no education of any kind, and that gap had taken a toll on her neural pathways, such that she could never fully concentrate on the material at hand. It was stubbornness and the expectations of La Inca that kept Belicia lashed to the mast, even though she was miserably alone and her grades were even worse than Wei’s. (You would think, La Inca complained, that you could score higher than a china.) The other students bent furiously over their exams while Beli stared at the hurricane whorl at the back of Jack Pools’ crew cut.

Senorita Cabral, are you finished? No, maestra. And then a forced return to the problem sets, as though she were submerging herself in water against her will.

No one in her barrio could have imagined how much she hated school. La Inca certainly didn’t have a clue. Colegio el Redentor was about a million miles removed from the modest working-class neighborhood where she and La Inca lived. And Beli did everything possible to represent her school as a paradise where she cavorted with the other Immortals, a four-year interval before the final Apotheosis. Took on even more airs: where before, La Inca had to correct her on grammar and against using slang, she now had the best diction and locution in Lower Baní. (She’s starting to talk like Cervantes, La Inca bragged to the neighbors. I told you that school would be worth the trouble.) Beli didn’t have much in the way of friends — only Dorca, the daughter of the woman who cleaned for La Inca, who owned exactly no pair of shoes and worshipped the ground Beli walked on. For Dorca she put on a show to end all shows. She wore her uniform straight through the day until La Inca forced her to take it off (What do you think, these things were free?), and talked unceasingly about her schoolmates, painting each one as her deepest friend and confidante; even the girls who made it their mission to ignore and exclude her from everything, four girls we will call the Squadron Supreme, found themselves rehabilitated in her tales as benevolent older spirits that dropped in on Belicia every now and then to give her invaluable advice on the school and life in general. The Squadron, it turned out, were all very jealous of her relationship with Jack Pujols (who, she reminded Dorea, is my boyfriend) and invariably one member or another of the Squadron fell to weakness and attempted to steal her novio but of course he always rebuked their treacherous advances. I am appalled, Jack would say, casting the hussy aside. Especially considering how well Belicia Cabral, daughter of the world-famous surgeon, has treated you. In every version, after a prolonged period of iciness the offending Squadron member would throw herself at Beli’s feet and beg forgiveness, which, after tense deliberation, Beli invariably granted. They can’t help it that they’re weak, she explained to Dorea. Or that Jack is so guapo. What a world she spun! Beli talked of parties and pools and polo games and dinners where bloody steak was heaped onto plates and grapes were as common as tangerines. She in fact, without knowing, was talking about the life she never knew: the life of Casa Hatüey. So astonishing were her descriptions that Dorea often said, I would like to go to school with you one day.

Beli snorted. You must be crazy! You’re too stupid! And Dorea would lower her head. Stare at her own broad feet. Dusty in their chancletas. La Inca talked about Beli becoming a female doctor (You wouldn’t be the first, but you’d be the best!), imagined her hija raising test tubes up to the light, but Beli usually passed her school days dreaming about the various boys around her (she had stopped staring at them openly after one of her teachers had written a letter home to La Inca and La Inca had chastised her, Where do you think you are? A brothel? This is the best school in Baní, muchacha, you’re ruining your reputation!), and if not about the boys then about the house she was convinced she would one day own, furnishing it in her mind, room by room by room. Her madre wanted her to bring back Casa Hatüey, a history house, but Beli’s house was new and crisp, had no history at all attached to it. In her favorite María Montez daydream, a dashing European of the Jeans Pierre Aumont variety (who happened to look exactly like Jack Pujols) would catch sight of her in the bakery and fall madly in love with her and sweep her off to his chateau in France.↓ ≡ María Montez, celebrated Dominican actress, moved to the U.S. and made more than twenty-five films between 1940 and 1951, including Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Cobra Woman, and my personal favorite, Siren of Atlantis. Crowned the ‘Qyeen of Technicolor’ by fans and historians alike. Born María Africa Gracia Vidal on June 6, 1912, in Barahona, bit her screen name from the famous nineteenth-century courtesan Lola Montez (herself famous for fucking, among others, the part-Haitian Alexandre Dumas). María Montez was the original J. Lo (or whatever smoking caribeña is the number-one eye-crack of your time), the first real international star the DR had. Ended up marrying a Frenchie (sorry, Anacaona) and moving to Paris after World War II. Drowned alone in her bathtub, at the age of thirty-nine. No sign of struggle, no evidence of foul play. Did some photo ops for the Trujillato every now and then, but nothing serious. It should be pointed out that while in France, María proved to be quite the nerd. Wrote three books. Two were published. The third manuscript was lost after her death.

(Wake up, girl! You’re going to burn the pan de agua!)

She wasn’t the only girl dreaming like this. This jiringonza was in the air, it was the dreamshit that they fed girls day and night. It’s surprising Beli could think of anything else, what with that heavy rotation of boleros, canciones, and versos spinning in her head, with the Listin Diario’s society pages spread before her. Beli at thirteen believed in love like a seventy-year-old widow who’s been abandoned by family, husband, children, and fortune believes in God. Belicia was, if it was possible, even more susceptible to the Casanova Wave than many of her peers. Our girl was straight boy-crazy. (To be called boy-crazy in a country like Santo Domingo is a singular distinction; it means that you can sustain infatuations that would reduce your average northamericana to cinders.) She stared at the young bravos on the bus, secretly kissed the bread of the buenmosos who frequented the bakery, sang to herself all those beautiful Cuban love songs.

(God save your soul, La Inca grumbled, if you think boys are an answer to anything.)

But even the boy situation left a lot to be desired. If she’d been interested in the niggers in the barrio our Beli would have had no problems, these cats would have obliged her romantic spirit by jumping her lickety-split. But alas, La Inca’s hope that the rarified private airs of Colegio El Redentor would have a salutary effect on the girl’s character (like a dozen wet-belt beatings or three months in an unheated convent) had at least in this one aspect borne fruit, for Beli at thirteen only had eyes for the Jack Pujolses of the world. As is usually the case in these situations, the high-class boys she so desired didn’t reciprocate her interest — Beli didn’t have quite enough of anything to snap these Rubirosas out of their rich-girl reveries.

What a life! Each day turning on its axis slower than a year. She endured school, the bakery, La Inca’s suffocating solicitude with a furious jaw. She watched hungrily for visitors from out of town, threw open her arms at the slightest hint of a wind and at night she struggled Jacob-like against the ocean pressing down on her.

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