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Depending on who you talk to, the conception of Franky Benítez occurred on the night of Columbus Day (if you are Italian) or on the Day of the Race (if you are Puerto Rican). Franky entered this universe at exactly 7:32 pm inside Suite 1805 of the Caribe Hotel, just hours after Francisco Antonio Benítez met Linda Marino for the first time.
It was a chance occurrence, one that never would have happened if Francisco Antonio had never gone to the Caribe Hilton that afternoon with his best friend from engineering school, Charles Wilson. Carlitos, as he was called by his classmates, was a redheaded Puerto Rican whose American parents moved from Missouri to San Juan in 1936 to supervise the modernization of several sugar fields. Carlitos spoke English like Harry Truman and Spanish like the great Muñoz Marín. Every summer, his gringo freckles and pale skin would turn as red as raw meat, and he spent most of his time sipping local beer under the shadow of palm trees. Francisco Antonio, with his darker, caramel skin and black curly hair slicked slightly and parted to the right, met Carlitos one night in a pool hall outside of school. They played until dawn and then found a breakfast shack that served fried eggs and rum. Ever since that day, they forged a girl-chasing partnership that spanned the Condado section of San Juan. With Carlitos’ impeccable English, their partnership flourished, and the outdoor pool bar of the Caribe Hilton was their prime afternoon hunting area.
When Francisco Antonio and Carlitos reached their usual corner seats, Manuel, the hotel’s bartender, had already shaken two wet vodka martinis on the rocks and placed them in front of the two young men. They clinked their glasses before raising their drinks to their lips. The icy vodka mix cooled their throats from the October sun. Carlitos and Francisco Antonio perked up and turned their attention to the lounging tourists sprawled around the hotel’s glimmering pool.
At that very same moment (proving that chance had indeed brought Franky Benítez into this universe), Linda Marino was strolling towards a pool cabana directly in front of the bar with Eva Santiago, Linda’s best friend from nursing school in Manhattan. The girls had just completed their degrees in June of that year, and before moving on to hospital work back at home, Giovanni Marino had decided that they visit Puerto Rico for a weekend before the New York winter arrived. He had arranged for the entire itinerary, and even though Eva’s family was from Puerto Rico, it would her first time visiting the island and the first time both the girls flew in an airplane.
The Santiagos moved from the island to New York in 1942 to find jobs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Eva was born in the South Bronx three years later. She lived a Newyorican life: relatives speaking broken English, oily marinated foods frying up in cramped city kitchens, crucifixes hanging over every bed, and scratchy mambo songs playing on hi-fis. Her scarlet black hairdo was short and almost masculine, yet her curves suggested that she was truly an island girl with a backside that could shimmer to a pulsating beat all through the night.
When compared to Eva’s fuller body, Linda Marino was as skinny as a pencil. Her most prominent features were her light hazel eyes. Her chestnut hair came down to the top of her neck and her emerald green two-piece bathing suit complimented her fragile yet athletic frame. Just like the partnership of Francisco Antonio and Carlitos, Linda and Eva spent their last year in nursing school frequenting every Irish pub in Hell’s Kitchen. Linda would lead them into the pubs, no cash in their purses, and they would spend hours drinking with any boy or man who would pay for their drinks.
One night it got so rowdy and joyous with two Fordham Law students that Linda tore a STOP sign from West 52nd Street and wore it around her neck, using a wire hanger she found near a sewer gutter as a necklace. They laughed so hard and made so much noise that a cranky Jewish hermit from a nearby brownstone called the police, and a patrol car came within minutes. Once Linda mentioned Giovanni’s name, the cops drove the girls back to the nursing school and did nothing, leaving the two Fordham Law students drunk, lonely, and ten city blocks away from their apartment.
While Francisco Antonio gulped the last of his drink, he nudged Carlitos on his arm and pointed his chin towards the girls, as they placed their towels on two blue and white plastic lounge chairs and pulled out two packs of Virginia Slims from their beach bags.
“Say something,” Francisco Antonio said to Carlitos. “Say something in English.” Although Francisco Antonio was educated in private schools all his life, when compared to Carlitos’ English, Francisco Antonio still sounded like a peasant.
Carlitos held his hand up, ignoring Francisco Antonio. He turned to Manuel: “Send two piña coladas over to those two right there.”
Manuel nodded and went to work. The first piña colada ever served in the world was on August 16, 1954 at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar. Manuel’s former boss, Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, had spent three months blending, shaking, and mixing tropical ingredients like a mad surgeon until he finally perfected the recipe: light rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and crushed ice, all blended together to produce the island’s favorite tourist drink. After Monchito passed, Manuel took over the Beachcomber and was said to be the best piña coladaist in San Juan. Within minutes, he was serving Linda and Eva two colossal glasses, garnished with fresh pineapples and maraschino cherries.
“From the gentlemen over there, señoritas,” Manuel said as he placed the drinks on the table next to the lounge chairs. Carlitos started to head over with Francisco Antonio right behind him, Eva and Linda looking through Manuel to see if this visit would be worth a free piña colada.
“Ladies, welcome to the El Caribe,” Carlitos said. “I am Charles and this my good friend, Francisco Antonio.”
“Wow… your English is good,” Eva said. “You Puerto Rican?”
Carlitos laughed, along with Francisco Antonio, who was also noticing the crevice in Linda’s bathing suit that ran around her thigh. “I am, born and raised by two wonderful American parents from Missouri. The red hair is just part of the disguise. And this is my good friend, Francisco Antonio. Now this is a real Puerto Rican.”
Francisco Antonio, distracted, looked up from the crevice of Linda’s suit. “A pleasure to have you here, ladies. Your names?”
“I’m Eva, and this is Linda,” Eva said, while Linda smiled and sipped from her piña colada.
“Linda? You know that means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish?” Francisco Antonio blurted.
Eva rolled her eyes, while Linda sneered.
“No? Really? Where do you think we come from? Indiana?” Linda said. “We’ve heard Spanish before. We’re from Manhattan, West Side. I get that all the time.”
“Sorry,” said Francisco Antonio. The Prince was wounded.
“Hey, forget about it. Come on, sit with us. Grab a drink,” Eva said. “You guys smoke? We only have these, but we can probably get some real cigarettes.”
Carlitos nudged over next to Eva, while Francisco Antonio pulled up a chair to the left of Linda. Manuel had already brought another round of drinks, some Marlboros, and an ashtray. Carlitos took a CH matchbox from the glass table and lit the cigarettes for Eva and Linda. He then took one for himself. For all that liquor that Antonio drank in his young life, he had never had a cigarette and he never would.
“You don’t smoke?” Linda asked. “I don’t know many guys who don’t smoke. Hey, whatever. Here’s to ya.”
Francisco Antonio shrugged, took a sip from his second martini, and for some strange reason, stayed quiet and silent. Even though he had met American girls like Linda before, this time his stomach curled with excitement. This skinny little woman from New York with the playful sneer had made the Prince of Puerto Rico suddenly shy and nervous. He knew the only way to shake off this feeling and find himself again was to keep drinking. Liquor always hid his fear.
“Manuel, another round!”
Linda curled her lip in pleasure and smiled at Eva. This guy with the caramel skin and his redheaded friend were going to get them drunk, and Linda had no problems with it. Just like Hell’s Kitchen.
By the fifth martini and sixth piña colada, the conversation among the four flowed comfortably. They shared their histories, their passions, their dreams and their futures. They talked about the Beatles, the Stones, Hector Lavoe, and RFK. There was no talk of fear or doubt or worry or frustration. These were kids in their early twenties drinking and feeling the power of never finding failure. At one point, Francisco Antonio got so wired up from his drinks and their talks that he ordered Manuel to get the hotel’s guitarist immediately. When he did arrive, Francisco Antonio stood up and belted “Guantanamera” in a tenor voice that had the girls shrieking with delight.
As the sun set to the west of the Condado lagoon, Manuel’s blender kept whirling at a constant pace. The new friends slurred their words more and more, yet they laughed nonetheless. After the another round, Carlitos hinted that they take the party back to their hotel suite and order room service, and the girls, blushing a bit from this rather obvious suggestion, agreed.
“We’ll go,” Linda said, “but at least let us change out of these bathing suits before we eat. Do you guys have a change of clothes?”
“No,” Francisco Antonio said, “but we know the bellman here. Chuchi can get us the clothes. Hey, Manuel, put that on it the tab and give us two more Bacardis to bring with us?”
So they packed up, took the rum from Manuel and weaved their way through the hotel lobby’s dinner crowd and into the elevators. Right then, Eva, her mind soaked in frozen pineapples and coconuts, grabbed Carlitos by the waist and slobbered all over his mouth. Linda let out a belly laugh and Francisco Antonio joined her.
Then, it happened, another chance occurrence caused from all the liquor, the nicotine and conversation: both Linda and Francisco Antonio reached out for each other’s hands at the very same time.
“Want to have some fun?” Francisco Antonio said.
“Sure, yeah, let’s have some fun,” Linda said as the elevator’s ding signaled the end of their journey.
An hour later, the arrival of Franky Benítez into this universe was official.